age

Why we laugh

From Gene Weingarten’s “The Peekaboo Paradox: The strange secrets of humor, fear and a guy who makes big money making little people laugh” (The Washington Post: 22 January 2006):

Even before they respond to a tickle, most babies will laugh at peekaboo. It’s their first “joke.” They are reacting to a sequence of events that begins with the presence of a familiar, comforting face. Then, suddenly, the face disappears, and you can read in the baby’s expression momentary puzzlement and alarm. When the face suddenly reappears, everything is orderly in the baby’s world again. Anxiety is banished, and the baby reacts with her very first laugh.

At its heart, laughter is a tool to triumph over fear. As we grow older, our senses of humor become more demanding and refined, but that basic, hard-wired reflex remains. We need it, because life is scary. Nature is heartless, people can be cruel, and death and suffering are inevitable and arbitrary. We learn to tame our terror by laughing at the absurdity of it all.

This point has been made by experts ranging from Richard Pryor to doctoral candidates writing tedious theses on the ontol-ogical basis of humor. Any joke, any amusing observation, can be deconstructed to fit. The seemingly benign Henny Youngman one-liner, “Take my wife . . . please!” relies in its heart on an understanding that love can become a straitjacket. By laughing at that recognition, you are rising above it, and blunting its power to disturb.

After the peekaboo age, but before the age of such sophisticated understanding, dwells the preschooler. His sense of humor is more than infantile but less than truly perceptive. He comprehends irony but not sarcasm. He lacks knowledge but not feeling. The central fact of his world — and the central terror to be overcome — is his own powerlessness.

Huck Finn caged

From Nicholas Carr’s “Sivilized” (Rough Type: 27 June 2009):

Michael Chabon, in an elegiac essay in the new edition of the New York Review of Books, rues the loss of the “Wilderness of Childhood” – the unparented, unfenced, only partially mapped territory that was once the scene of youth.

Huck Finn, now fully under the thumb of Miss Watson and the Widow Douglas, spends his unscheduled time wandering the fabricated landscapes of World of Warcraft, seeking adventure.

David Foster Wallace on postmodernism & waiting for the parents to come home

From Larry McCaffery’s “Conversation with David Foster Wallace” (Dalkey Archive Press at the University of Illinois: Summer 1993):

For me, the last few years of the postmodern era have seemed a bit like the way you feel when you’re in high school and your parents go on a trip, and you throw a party. You get all your friends over and throw this wild disgusting fabulous party. For a while it’s great, free and freeing, parental authority gone and overthrown, a cat’s-away-let’s-play Dionysian revel. But then time passes and the party gets louder and louder, and you run out of drugs, and nobody’s got any money for more drugs, and things get broken and spilled, and there’s a cigarette burn on the couch, and you’re the host and it’s your house too, and you gradually start wishing your parents would come back and restore some fucking order in your house. It’s not a perfect analogy, but the sense I get of my generation of writers and intellectuals or whatever is that it’s 3:00 A.M. and the couch has several burn-holes and somebody’s thrown up in the umbrella stand and we’re wishing the revel would end. The postmodern founders’ patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years. We’re kind of wishing some parents would come back. And of course we’re uneasy about the fact that we wish they’d come back—I mean, what’s wrong with us? Are we total pussies? Is there something about authority and limits we actually need? And then the uneasiest feeling of all, as we start gradually to realize that parents in fact aren’t ever coming back—which means we’re going to have to be the parents.

David Foster Wallace on rock, the rise of mass media, & the generation gap

From Larry McCaffery’s “Conversation with David Foster Wallace” (Dalkey Archive Press at the University of Illinois: Summer 1993):

Rock music itself bores me, usually. The phenomenon of rock interests me, though, because its birth was part of the rise of popular media, which completely changed the ways the U.S. was unified and split. The mass media unified the country geographically for pretty much the first time. Rock helped change the fundamental splits in the U.S. from geographical splits to generational ones. Very few people I talk to understand what “generation gap” ‘s implications really were. Kids loved rock partly because their parents didn’t, and obversely. In a mass mediated nation, it’s no longer North vs. South. It’s under-thirty vs. over thirty. I don’t think you can understand the sixties and Vietnam and love ins and LSD and the whole era of patricidal rebellion that helped inspire early postmodern fiction’s whole “We’re-going-to-trash-your-Beaver Cleaver-plasticized-G.O.P.-image-of-life-in-America” attitude without understanding rock ‘n roll. Because rock was and is all about busting loose, exceeding limits, and limits are usually set by parents, ancestors, older authorities.

Van Gogh on death

From Roger Ebert’s “Go gentle into that good night” (Roger Ebert’s Journal: 2 May 2009):

Van Gogh in Arles wrote this about death:

Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why? I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means. To die quietly of old age, would be to go there on foot.

Social software: 5 properties & 3 dynamics

From danah boyd’s “Social Media is Here to Stay… Now What?” at the Microsoft Research Tech Fest, Redmond, Washington (danah: 26 February 2009):

Certain properties are core to social media in a combination that alters how people engage with one another. I want to discuss five properties of social media and three dynamics. These are the crux of what makes the phenomena we’re seeing so different from unmediated phenomena.

A great deal of sociality is about engaging with publics, but we take for granted certain structural aspects of those publics. Certain properties are core to social media in a combination that alters how people engage with one another. I want to discuss five properties of social media and three dynamics. These are the crux of what makes the phenomena we’re seeing so different from unmediated phenomena.

1. Persistence. What you say sticks around. This is great for asynchronicity, not so great when everything you’ve ever said has gone down on your permanent record. …

2. Replicability. You can copy and paste a conversation from one medium to another, adding to the persistent nature of it. This is great for being able to share information, but it is also at the crux of rumor-spreading. Worse: while you can replicate a conversation, it’s much easier to alter what’s been said than to confirm that it’s an accurate portrayal of the original conversation.

3. Searchability. My mother would’ve loved to scream search into the air and figure out where I’d run off with friends. She couldn’t; I’m quite thankful. But with social media, it’s quite easy to track someone down or to find someone as a result of searching for content. Search changes the landscape, making information available at our fingertips. This is great in some circumstances, but when trying to avoid those who hold power over you, it may be less than ideal.

4. Scalability. Social media scales things in new ways. Conversations that were intended for just a friend or two might spiral out of control and scale to the entire school or, if it is especially embarrassing, the whole world. …

5. (de)locatability. With the mobile, you are dislocated from any particular point in space, but at the same time, location-based technologies make location much more relevant. This paradox means that we are simultaneously more and less connected to physical space.

Those five properties are intertwined, but their implications have to do with the ways in which they alter social dynamics. Let’s look at three different dynamics that have been reconfigured as a result of social media.

1. Invisible Audiences. We are used to being able to assess the people around us when we’re speaking. We adjust what we’re saying to account for the audience. Social media introduces all sorts of invisible audiences. There are lurkers who are present at the moment but whom we cannot see, but there are also visitors who access our content at a later date or in a different environment than where we first produced them. As a result, we are having to present ourselves and communicate without fully understanding the potential or actual audience. The potential invisible audiences can be stifling. Of course, there’s plenty of room to put your head in the sand and pretend like those people don’t really exist.

2. Collapsed Contexts. Connected to this is the collapsing of contexts. In choosing what to say when, we account for both the audience and the context more generally. Some behaviors are appropriate in one context but not another, in front of one audience but not others. Social media brings all of these contexts crashing into one another and it’s often difficult to figure out what’s appropriate, let alone what can be understood.

3. Blurring of Public and Private. Finally, there’s the blurring of public and private. These distinctions are normally structured around audience and context with certain places or conversations being “public” or “private.” These distinctions are much harder to manage when you have to contend with the shifts in how the environment is organized.

All of this means that we’re forced to contend with a society in which things are being truly reconfigured. So what does this mean? As we are already starting to see, this creates all new questions about context and privacy, about our relationship to space and to the people around us.

Kids & adults use social networking sites differently

From danah boyd’s “Social Media is Here to Stay… Now What?” at the Microsoft Research Tech Fest, Redmond, Washington (danah: 26 February 2009):

For American teenagers, social network sites became a social hangout space, not unlike the malls in which I grew up or the dance halls of yesteryears. This was a place to gather with friends from school and church when in-person encounters were not viable. Unlike many adults, teenagers were never really networking. They were socializing in pre-exiting groups.

Social network sites became critically important to them because this was where they sat and gossiped, jockeyed for status, and functioned as digital flaneurs. They used these tools to see and be seen. …

Teen conversations may appear completely irrational, or pointless at best. “Yo, wazzup?” “Not much, how you?” may not seem like much to an outsider, but this is a form of social grooming. It’s a way of checking in, confirming friendships, and negotiating social waters.

Adults have approached Facebook in very different ways. Adults are not hanging out on Facebook. They are more likely to respond to status messages than start a conversation on someone’s wall (unless it’s their birthday of course). Adults aren’t really decorating their profiles or making sure that their About Me’s are up-to-date. Adults, far more than teens, are using Facebook for its intended purpose as a social utility. For example, it is a tool for communicating with the past.

Adults may giggle about having run-ins with mates from high school, but underneath it all, many of them are curious. This isn’t that different than the school reunion. … Teenagers craft quizzes for themselves and their friends. Adults are crafting them to show-off to people from the past and connect the dots between different audiences as a way of coping with the awkwardness of collapsed contexts.

The importance of network effects to social software

From danah boyd’s “Social Media is Here to Stay… Now What?” at the Microsoft Research Tech Fest, Redmond, Washington (danah: 26 February 2009):

Many who build technology think that a technology’s feature set is the key to its adoption and popularity. With social media, this is often not the case. There are triggers that drive early adopters to a site, but the single most important factor in determining whether or not a person will adopt one of these sites is whether or not it is the place where their friends hangout. In each of these cases, network effects played a significant role in the spread and adoption of the site.

The uptake of social media is quite different than the uptake of non-social technologies. For the most part, you don’t need your friends to use Word to find the tool useful. You do need your friends to use email for it to be useful, but, thanks to properties of that medium, you don’t need them to be using Outlook or Hotmail to write to them. Many of the new genres of social media are walled gardens, requiring your friends to use that exact site to be valuable. This has its advantages for the companies who build it – that’s the whole attitude behind lock-in. But it also has its costs. Consider for example the fact that working class and upper class kids can’t talk to one another if they are on different SNSs.

Friendster didn’t understand network effects. In kicking off users who weren’t conforming to their standards, they pissed off more than those users; they pissed off those users’ friends who were left with little purpose to use the site. The popularity of Friendster unraveled as fast as it picked up, but the company never realized what hit them. All of their metrics were based on number of users. While only a few users deleted their accounts, the impact of those lost accounts was huge. The friends of those who departed slowly stopped using the site. At first, they went from logging in every hour to logging in every day, never affecting the metrics. But as nothing new came in and as the collective interest waned, their attention went elsewhere. Today, Friendster is succeeding because of its popularity in other countries, but in the US, it’s a graveyard of hipsters stuck in 2003.

Why everyone wants a computer: socializing

From Paul Graham’s “Why TV Lost” (Paul Graham: March 2009):

The somewhat more surprising force was one specific type of innovation: social applications. The average teenage kid has a pretty much infinite capacity for talking to their friends. But they can’t physically be with them all the time. When I was in high school the solution was the telephone. Now it’s social networks, multiplayer games, and various messaging applications. The way you reach them all is through a computer. Which means every teenage kid (a) wants a computer with an Internet connection, (b) has an incentive to figure out how to use it, and (c) spends countless hours in front of it.

This was the most powerful force of all. This was what made everyone want computers. Nerds got computers because they liked them. Then gamers got them to play games on. But it was connecting to other people that got everyone else: that’s what made even grandmas and 14 year old girls want computers.

Socioeconomic analysis of MySpace & Facebook

From danah boyd’s “Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace” (danah boyd: 24 June 2007):

When MySpace launched in 2003, it was primarily used by 20/30-somethings (just like Friendster before it). The bands began populating the site by early 2004 and throughout 2004, the average age slowly declined. It wasn’t until late 2004 that teens really started appearing en masse on MySpace and 2005 was the year that MySpace became the “in thing” for teens.

Facebook launched in 2004 as a Harvard-only site. It slowly expanded to welcome people with .edu accounts from a variety of different universities. In mid-2005, Facebook opened its doors to high school students, but it wasn’t that easy to get an account because you needed to be invited. As a result, those who were in college tended to invite those high school students that they liked. Facebook was strongly framed as the “cool” thing that college students did.

In addition to the college framing, the press coverage of MySpace as dangerous and sketchy alienated “good” kids. Facebook seemed to provide an ideal alternative. Parents weren’t nearly as terrified of Facebook because it seemed “safe” thanks to the network-driven structure.

She argues that class divisions in the United States have more to do with lifestyle and social stratification than with income. In other words, all of my anti-capitalist college friends who work in cafes and read Engels are not working class just because they make $14K a year and have no benefits. Class divisions in the United States have more to do with social networks (the real ones, not FB/MS), social capital, cultural capital, and attitudes than income. Not surprisingly, other demographics typically discussed in class terms are also a part of this lifestyle division. Social networks are strongly connected to geography, race, and religion; these are also huge factors in lifestyle divisions and thus “class.”

The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other “good” kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. They are part of what we’d call hegemonic society. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.

MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, “burnouts,” “alternative kids,” “art fags,” punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn’t play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn’t go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school. These are the teens who plan to go into the military immediately after schools. Teens who are really into music or in a band are also on MySpace. MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers.

In order to demarcate these two groups, let’s call the first group of teens “hegemonic teens” and the second group “subaltern teens.”

Most teens who exclusively use Facebook are familiar with and have an opinion about MySpace. These teens are very aware of MySpace and they often have a negative opinion about it. They see it as gaudy, immature, and “so middle school.” They prefer the “clean” look of Facebook, noting that it is more mature and that MySpace is “so lame.” What hegemonic teens call gaudy can also be labeled as “glitzy” or “bling” or “fly” (or what my generation would call “phat”) by subaltern teens. Terms like “bling” come out of hip-hop culture where showy, sparkly, brash visual displays are acceptable and valued. The look and feel of MySpace resonates far better with subaltern communities than it does with the upwardly mobile hegemonic teens. … That “clean” or “modern” look of Facebook is akin to West Elm or Pottery Barn or any poshy Scandinavian design house (that I admit I’m drawn to) while the more flashy look of MySpace resembles the Las Vegas imagery that attracts millions every year. I suspect that lifestyles have aesthetic values and that these are being reproduced on MySpace and Facebook.

I should note here that aesthetics do divide MySpace users. The look and feel that is acceptable amongst average Latino users is quite different from what you see the subculturally-identified outcasts using. Amongst the emo teens, there’s a push for simple black/white/grey backgrounds and simplistic layouts. While I’m using the term “subaltern teens” to lump together non-hegemonic teens, the lifestyle divisions amongst the subalterns are quite visible on MySpace through the aesthetic choices of the backgrounds. The aesthetics issue is also one of the forces that drives some longer-term users away from MySpace.

Teens from poorer backgrounds who are on MySpace are less likely to know people who go to universities. They are more likely to know people who are older than them, but most of their older friends, cousins, and co-workers are on MySpace. It’s the cool working class thing and it’s the dominant SNS at community colleges. These teens are more likely to be interested in activities like shows and clubs and they find out about them through MySpace. The subaltern teens who are better identified as “outsiders” in a hegemonic community tend to be very aware of Facebook. Their choice to use MySpace instead of Facebook is a rejection of the hegemonic values (and a lack of desire to hang out with the preps and jocks even online).

Class divisions in military use

A month ago, the military banned MySpace but not Facebook. This was a very interesting move because the division in the military reflects the division in high schools. Soldiers are on MySpace; officers are on Facebook. Facebook is extremely popular in the military, but it’s not the SNS of choice for 18-year old soldiers, a group that is primarily from poorer, less educated communities. They are using MySpace. The officers, many of whom have already received college training, are using Facebook. The military ban appears to replicate the class divisions that exist throughout the military. …

MySpace is the primary way that young soldiers communicate with their peers. When I first started tracking soldiers’ MySpace profiles, I had to take a long deep breath. Many of them were extremely pro-war, pro-guns, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, pro-killing, and xenophobic as hell. Over the last year, I’ve watched more and more profiles emerge from soldiers who aren’t quite sure what they are doing in Iraq. I don’t have the data to confirm whether or not a significant shift has occurred but it was one of those observations that just made me think. And then the ban happened. I can’t help but wonder if part of the goal is to cut off communication between current soldiers and the group that the military hopes to recruit.

Thoughts and meta thoughts

People often ask me if I’m worried about teens today. The answer is yes, but it’s not because of social network sites. With the hegemonic teens, I’m very worried about the stress that they’re under, the lack of mobility and healthy opportunities for play and socialization, and the hyper-scheduling and surveillance. I’m worried about their unrealistic expectations for becoming rich and famous, their lack of work ethic after being pampered for so long, and the lack of opportunities that many of them have to even be economically stable let alone better off than their parents. I’m worried about how locking teens indoors coupled with a fast food/junk food advertising machine has resulted in a decrease in health levels across the board which will just get messy as they are increasingly unable to afford health insurance. When it comes to ostracized teens, I’m worried about the reasons why society has ostracized them and how they will react to ongoing criticism from hegemonic peers. I cringe every time I hear of another Columbine, another Virgina Tech, another site of horror when an outcast teen lashes back at the hegemonic values of society.

I worry about the lack of opportunities available to poor teens from uneducated backgrounds. I’m worried about how Wal-Mart Nation has destroyed many of the opportunities for meaningful working class labor as these youth enter the workforce. I’m worried about what a prolonged war will mean for them. I’m worried about how they’ve been told that to succeed, they must be a famous musician or sports player. I’m worried about how gangs provide the only meaningful sense of community that many of these teens will ever know.

Given the state of what I see in all sorts of neighborhoods, I’m amazed at how well teens are coping and I think that technology has a lot to do with that. Teens are using social network sites to build community and connect with their peers. They are creating publics for socialization. And through it, they are showcasing all of the good, bad, and ugly of today’s teen life.

In the 70s, Paul Willis analyzed British working class youth and he wrote a book called Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. He argued that working class teens will reject hegemonic values because it’s the only way to continue to be a part of the community that they live in. In other words, if you don’t know that you will succeed if you make a run at jumping class, don’t bother – you’ll lose all of your friends and community in the process. His analysis has such strong resonance in American society today. I just wish I knew how to fix it.

Social networking and “friendship”

From danah boyd’s “Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8: Writing Community Into Being on Social Network Sites” (First Monday: December 2006)

John’s reference to “gateway Friends” concerns a specific technological affordance unique to Friendster. Because the company felt it would make the site more intimate, Friendster limits users from surfing to Profiles beyond four degrees (Friends of Friends of Friends of Friends). When people login, they can see how many Profiles are “in their network” where the network is defined by the four degrees. For users seeking to meet new people, growing this number matters. For those who wanted it to be intimate, keeping the number smaller was more important. In either case, the number of people in one’s network was perceived as directly related to the number of friends one had.

“I am happy with the number of friends I have. I can access over 26,000 profiles, which is enough for me!” — Abby

The number of Friends one has definitely affects the size of one’s network but connecting to Collectors plays a much more significant role. Because these “gateway friends” (a.k.a. social network hubs) have lots of Friends who are not connected to each other, they expand the network pretty rapidly. Thus, connecting to Collectors or connecting to people who connect to Collectors opens you up to a large network rather quickly.

While Collectors could be anyone interested in amassing many Friends, fake Profiles were developed to aid in this process. These Fakesters included characters, celebrities, objects, icons, institutions, and ideas. For example, Homer Simpson had a Profile alongside Jesus and Brown University. By connecting people with shared interests or affiliations, Fakesters supported networking between like-minded individuals. Because play and connecting were primary incentives for many Fakesters, they welcomed any and all Friends. Likewise, people who wanted access to more people connected to Fakesters. Fakesters helped centralize the network and two Fakesters — Burning Man and Ali G — reached mass popularity with over 10,000 Friends each before the Web site’s creators put an end to their collecting and deleted both accounts. This began the deletion of all Fakesters in what was eventually termed the Fakester Genocide [8].

While Friendster was irritated by fake Profiles, MySpace embraced this practice. One of MySpace’s early strategies was to provide a place for everyone who was rejected from Friendster or who didn’t want to be on a dating site [9]. Bands who had been kicked off of Friendster were some of the earliest MySpace users. Over time, movie stars, politicians, porn divas, comedians, and other celebrities joined the fray. Often, the person behind these Profiles was not the celebrity but a manager. Corporations began creating Profiles for their products and brands. While Friendster eventually began allowing such fake Profiles for a fee, MySpace never charged people for their commercial uses.

Investigating Friendship in LiveJournal, Kate Raynes-Goldie and Fono (2005) found that there was tremendous inconsistency in why people Friended others. They primarily found that Friendship stood for: content, offline facilitator, online community, trust, courtesy, declaration, or nothing. When I asked participants about their practices on Friendster and MySpace, I found very similar incentives. The most common reasons for Friendship that I heard from users [11] were:

1. Actual friends
2. Acquaintances, family members, colleagues
3. It would be socially inappropriate to say no because you know them
4. Having lots of Friends makes you look popular
5. It’s a way of indicating that you are a fan (of that person, band, product, etc.)
6. Your list of Friends reveals who you are
7. Their Profile is cool so being Friends makes you look cool
8. Collecting Friends lets you see more people (Friendster)
9. It’s the only way to see a private Profile (MySpace)
10. Being Friends lets you see someone’s bulletins and their Friends-only blog posts (MySpace)
11. You want them to see your bulletins, private Profile, private blog (MySpace)
12. You can use your Friends list to find someone later
13. It’s easier to say yes than no

These incentives account for a variety of different connections. While the first three reasons all concern people that you know, the rest can explain why people connect to a lot of people that they do not know. Most reveal how technical affordances affect people’s incentives to connect.

Raynes-Goldie and Fono (2005) also found that there is a great deal of social anxiety and drama provoked by Friending in LiveJournal (LJ). In LJ, Friendship does not require reciprocity. Anyone can list anyone else as a Friend; this articulation is public but there is no notification. The value of Friendship on LJ is deeply connected to the privacy settings and subscription processes. The norm on LJ is to read others’ entries through a “Friends page.” This page is an aggregation of all of an individual’s Friends’ posts. When someone posts an LJ entry, they have a choice as to whether the post should be public, private, Friends-only, or available to subgroups of Friends. In this way, it is necessary to be someone’s Friend to have access to Friends-only posts. To locate how the multiple and conflicting views of Friendship cause tremendous conflict and misunderstanding on LJ, Raynes-Goldie and Fono speak of “hyperfriending.” This process is quite similar to what takes place on other social network sites, but there are some differences. Because Friends-only posts are commonplace, not being someone’s Friend is a huge limitation to information access. Furthermore, because reciprocity is not structurally required, there’s a much greater social weight to recognizing someone’s Friendship and reciprocating intentionally. On MySpace and Friendster, there is little to lose by being loose with Friendship and more to gain; the perception is that there is much more to lose on LJ.

While users can scroll through their list of Friends, not all Friends are displayed on the participant’s Profile. Most social network sites display Friends in the order in which their account was created or their last login date. By implementing a “Top 8” feature, MySpace changed the social dynamics around the ordering of Friends. Initially, “Top 8” allowed users to select eight Friends to display on their Profile. More recently, that feature was changed to “Top Friends” as users have more options in how many people they could list [12]. Many users will only list people that they know and celebrities that they admire in their Top Friends, often as a way to both demarcate their identity and signal meaningful relationships with others.

There are many advantages to the Top Friends feature. It allows people to show connections that really say something about who they are. It also serves as a bookmark to the people that matter. By choosing to list the people who one visits the most frequently, simply going to one’s Profile provides a set of valuable links.

“As a kid, you used your birthday party guest list as leverage on the playground. ‘If you let me play I’ll invite you to my birthday party.’ Then, as you grew up and got your own phone, it was all about someone being on your speed dial. Well today it’s the MySpace Top 8. It’s the new dangling carrot for gaining superficial acceptance. Taking someone off your Top 8 is your new passive aggressive power play when someone pisses you off.” — Nadine

There are a handful of social norms that pervade Top 8 culture. Often, the person in the upper left (“1st” position) is a significant other, dear friend, or close family member. Reciprocity is another salient component of Top Friends dynamics. If Susan lists Mary on her Top 8, she expects Mary to reciprocate. To acknowledge this, Mary adds a Comment to Susan’s page saying, “Thanx for puttin me on ur Top 8! I put you on mine 2.” By publicly acknowledging this addition, Mary is making certain Susan’s viewers recognize Mary’s status on Susan’s list. Of course, just being in someone’s list is not always enough. As Samantha explains, “Friends get into fights because they’re not 1st on someone’s Top 8, or somebody else is before them.” While some people are ecstatic to be added, there are many more that are frustrated because they are removed or simply not listed.

The Top Friends feature requires participants to actively signal their relationship with others. Such a system makes it difficult to be vague about who matters the most, although some tried by explaining on their bulletins what theme they are using to choose their Top 8 this week: “my Sagittarius friends,” “my basketball team,” and “people whose initials are BR.” Still others relied on fake Profiles for their Top 8.

The networked nature of impressions does not only affect the viewer — this is how newcomers decided what to present in the first place. When people first joined Friendster, they took cues from the people who invited them. Three specific subcultures dominated the early adopters — bloggers, attendees of the Burning Man [14] festival, and gay men mostly living in New York. If the invitee was a Burner, their Profile would probably be filled with references to the event with images full of half-naked, costumed people running around the desert. As such, newcomers would get the impression that it was a site for Burners and they would create a Profile that displayed that facet of their identity. In decided who to invite, newcomers would perpetuate the framing by only inviting people who are part of the Burning Man subculture.

Interestingly, because of this process, Burners believed that the site was for Burners, gay men thought it was a gay dating site, and bloggers were ecstatic to have a geek socializing tool. The reason each group got this impression had to do with the way in which context was created on these systems. Rather than having the context dictated by the environment itself, context emerged through Friends networks. As a result, being socialized into Friendster meant connected to Friends that reinforced the contextual information of early adopters.

The growth of MySpace followed a similar curve. One of the key early adopter groups were hipsters living in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. They were passionate about indie rock music and many were musicians, promoters, club goers, etc. As MySpace took hold, long before any press was covering the site, MySpace took off amongst 20/30-something urban socializers, musicians, and teenagers. The latter group may not appear obvious, but teenagers are some of the most active music consumers — they follow music culture avidly, even when they are unable to see the bands play live due to age restrictions. As the site grew, the teenagers and 20/30-somethings pretty much left each other alone, although bands bridged these groups. It was not until the site was sold to News Corp. for US$580 million in the summer of 2005 that the press began covering the phenomenon. The massive press helped it grow larger, penetrating those three demographics more deeply but also attracting new populations, namely adults who are interested in teenagers (parents, teachers, pedophiles, marketers).

When context is defined by whom one Friends, and addressing multiple audiences simultaneously complicates all relationships, people must make hard choices. Joshua Meyrowitz (1985) highlights this problem in reference to television. In the early 1960s, Stokely Carmichael regularly addressed segregated black and white audiences about the values of Black Power. Depending on his audience, he used very different rhetorical styles. As his popularity grew, he began to attract media attention and was invited to speak on TV and radio. Unfortunately, this was more of a curse than a blessing because the audiences he would reach through these mediums included both black and white communities. With no way to reconcile the two different rhetorical styles, he had to choose. In choosing to maintain his roots in front of white listeners, Carmichael permanently alienated white society from the messages of Black Power.

Notes

10. Friendster originally limited users to 150 Friends. It is no accident that they chose 150, as this is the “Dunbar number.” In his research on gossip and grooming, Robin Dunbar argues that there is a cognitive limit to the number of relations that one can maintain. People can only keep gossip with 150 people at any given time (Dunbar, 1998). By capping Friends at 150, Friendster either misunderstood Dunbar or did not realize that their users were actually connecting to friends from the past with whom they are not currently engaging.

12. Eight was the maximum number of Friends that the system initially let people have. Some users figured out how to hack the system to display more Friends; there are entire bulletin boards dedicated to teaching others how to hack this. Consistently, upping the limit was the number one request that the company received. In the spring of 2006, MySpace launched an ad campaign for X-Men. In return for Friending X-Men, users were given the option to have 12, 16, 20, or 24 Friends in their Top Friends section. Millions of users did exactly that. In late June, this feature was introduced to everyone, regardless of Friending X-Men. While eight is no longer the limit, people move between calling it Top 8 or Top Friends. I will use both terms interchangeably, even when the number of Friends might be greater than eight.

How it feels to drown, get decapitated, get electrocuted, and more

From Anna Gosline’s “Death special: How does it feel to die?” (New Scientist: 13 October 2007):

Death comes in many guises, but one way or another it is usually a lack of oxygen to the brain that delivers the coup de grâce. Whether as a result of a heart attack, drowning or suffocation, for example, people ultimately die because their neurons are deprived of oxygen, leading to cessation of electrical activity in the brain – the modern definition of biological death.

If the flow of freshly oxygenated blood to the brain is stopped, through whatever mechanism, people tend to have about 10 seconds before losing consciousness. They may take many more minutes to die, though, with the exact mode of death affecting the subtleties of the final experience.

Drowning

Typically, when a victim realises that they cannot keep their head above water they tend to panic, leading to the classic “surface struggle”. They gasp for air at the surface and hold their breath as they bob beneath, says Tipton. Struggling to breathe, they can’t call for help. Their bodies are upright, arms weakly grasping, as if trying to climb a non-existent ladder from the sea. Studies with New York lifeguards in the 1950s and 1960s found that this stage lasts just 20 to 60 seconds.

When victims eventually submerge, they hold their breath for as long as possible, typically 30 to 90 seconds. After that, they inhale some water, splutter, cough and inhale more. Water in the lungs blocks gas exchange in delicate tissues, while inhaling water also triggers the airway to seal shut – a reflex called a laryngospasm. “There is a feeling of tearing and a burning sensation in the chest as water goes down into the airway. Then that sort of slips into a feeling of calmness and tranquility,” says Tipton, describing reports from survivors.

That calmness represents the beginnings of the loss of consciousness from oxygen deprivation, which eventually results in the heart stopping and brain death.

Heart attack

The most common symptom is, of course, chest pain: a tightness, pressure or squeezing, often described as an “elephant on my chest”, which may be lasting or come and go. This is the heart muscle struggling and dying from oxygen deprivation. Pain can radiate to the jaw, throat, back, belly and arms. Other signs and symptoms include shortness of breath, nausea and cold sweats.

Most victims delay before seeking assistance, waiting an average of 2 to 6 hours. Women are the worst, probably because they are more likely to experience less well-known symptoms, such as breathlessness, back or jaw pain, or nausea, says JoAnn Manson, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School.

Even small heart attacks can play havoc with the electrical impulses that control heart muscle contraction, effectively stopping it. In about 10 seconds the person loses consciousness, and minutes later they are dead.

Bleeding to death

People can bleed to death in seconds if the aorta, the major blood vessel leading from the heart, is completely severed, for example, after a severe fall or car accident.

Death could creep up much more slowly if a smaller vein or artery is nicked – even taking hours. Such victims would experience several stages of haemorrhagic shock. The average adult has 5 litres of blood. Losses of around 750 millilitres generally cause few symptoms. Anyone losing 1.5 litres – either through an external wound or internal bleeding – feels weak, thirsty and anxious, and would be breathing fast. By 2 litres, people experience dizziness, confusion and then eventual unconsciousness.

Fire

Long the fate of witches and heretics, burning to death is torture. Hot smoke and flames singe eyebrows and hair and burn the throat and airways, making it hard to breathe. Burns inflict immediate and intense pain through stimulation of the nociceptors – the pain nerves in the skin. To make matters worse, burns also trigger a rapid inflammatory response, which boosts sensitivity to pain in the injured tissues and surrounding areas.

Most people who die in fires do not in fact die from burns. The most common cause of death is inhaling toxic gases – carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and even hydrogen cyanide – together with the suffocating lack of oxygen. One study of fire deaths in Norway from 1996 found that almost 75 per cent of the 286 people autopsied had died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Depending on the size of the fire and how close you are to it, concentrations of carbon monoxide could start to cause headache and drowsiness in minutes, eventually leading to unconsciousness. According to the US National Fire Protection Association, 40 per cent of the victims of fatal home fires are knocked out by fumes before they can even wake up.

Decaptitation

Beheading, if somewhat gruesome, can be one of the quickest and least painful ways to die – so long as the executioner is skilled, his blade sharp, and the condemned sits still.

Quick it may be, but consciousness is nevertheless believed to continue after the spinal chord is severed. A study in rats in 1991 found that it takes 2.7 seconds for the brain to consume the oxygen from the blood in the head; the equivalent figure for humans has been calculated at 7 seconds.

It took the axeman three attempts to sever the head of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587. He had to finish the job with a knife.

Decades earlier in 1541, Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury, was executed at the Tower of London. She was dragged to the block, but refused to lay her head down. The inexperienced axe man made a gash in her shoulder rather than her neck. According to some reports, she leapt from the block and was chased by the executioner, who struck 11 times before she died.

Electrocution

In accidental electrocutions, usually involving low, household current, the most common cause of death is arrhythmia, stopping the heart dead. Unconsciousness ensues after the standard 10 seconds, says Richard Trohman, a cardiologist at Rush University in Chicago. One study of electrocution deaths in Montreal, Canada found that 92 per cent had probably died from arrhythmia.

Higher currents can produce nearly immediate unconsciousness.

Fall from a height

A high fall is certainly among the speediest ways to die: terminal velocity (no pun intended) is about 200 kilometres per hour, achieved from a height of about 145 metres or more. A study of deadly falls in Hamburg, Germany, found that 75 per cent of victims died in the first few seconds or minutes after landing.

The exact cause of death varies, depending on the landing surface and the person’s posture. People are especially unlikely to arrive at the hospital alive if they land on their head – more common for shorter (under 10 metres) and higher (over 25 metres) falls. A 1981 analysis of 100 suicidal jumps from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco – height: 75 metres, velocity on impact with the water: 120 kilometres per hour – found numerous causes of instantaneous death including massive lung bruising, collapsed lungs, exploded hearts or damage to major blood vessels and lungs through broken ribs.

Survivors of great falls often report the sensation of time slowing down. The natural reaction is to struggle to maintain a feet-first landing, resulting in fractures to the leg bones, lower spinal column and life-threatening broken pelvises. The impact travelling up through the body can also burst the aorta and heart chambers. Yet this is probably still the safest way to land, despite the force being concentrated in a small area: the feet and legs form a “crumple zone” which provides some protection to the major internal organs.

Some experienced climbers or skydivers who have survived a fall report feeling focused, alert and driven to ensure they landed in the best way possible: relaxed, legs bent and, where possible, ready to roll.

Hanging

Suicides and old-fashioned “short drop” executions cause death by strangulation; the rope puts pressure on the windpipe and the arteries to the brain. This can cause unconsciousness in 10 seconds, but it takes longer if the noose is incorrectly sited. Witnesses of public hangings often reported victims “dancing” in pain at the end of the rope, struggling violently as they asphyxiated. Death only ensues after many minutes, as shown by the numerous people being resuscitated after being cut down – even after 15 minutes.

When public executions were outlawed in Britain in 1868, hangmen looked for a less performance-oriented approach. They eventually adopted the “long-drop” method, using a lengthier rope so the victim reached a speed that broke their necks. It had to be tailored to the victim’s weight, however, as too great a force could rip the head clean off, a professionally embarrassing outcome for the hangman.

Despite the public boasting of several prominent executioners in late 19th-century Britain, a 1992 analysis of the remains of 34 prisoners found that in only about half of cases was the cause of death wholly or partly due to spinal trauma. Just one-fifth showed the classic “hangman’s fracture” between the second and third cervical vertebrae. The others died in part from asphyxiation.

Lethal injection

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Michael Spence, an anthropologist at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, has found similar results in US victims. He concluded, however, that even if asphyxiation played a role, the trauma of the drop would have rapidly rendered all of them unconscious. “What the hangmen were looking for was quick cessation of activity,” he says. “And they knew enough about their craft to ensure that happened. The thing they feared most was decapitation.”
Lethal injection

US-government approved, but is it really painless?

Lethal injection was designed in Oklahoma in 1977 as a humane alternative to the electric chair. The state medical examiner and chair of anaesthesiology settled on a series of three drug injections. First comes the anaesthetic thiopental to speed away any feelings of pain, followed by a paralytic agent called pancuronium to stop breathing. Finally potassium chloride is injected, which stops the heart almost instantly.

Each drug is supposed to be administered in a lethal dose, a redundancy to ensure speedy and humane death. However, eyewitnesses have reported inmates convulsing, heaving and attempting to sit up during the procedure, suggesting the cocktail is not always completely effective.

Explosive decompression

In real life there has been just one fatal space depressurisation accident. This occurred on the Russian Soyuz-11 mission in 1971, when a seal leaked upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere; upon landing all three flight crew were found dead from asphyxiation.

Most of our knowledge of depressurisation comes from animal experiments and the experiences of pilots in accidents at very high altitudes. When the external air pressure suddenly drops, the air in the lungs expands, tearing the fragile gas exchange tissues. This is especially damaging if the victim neglects to exhale prior to decompression or tries to hold their breath. Oxygen begins to escape from the blood and lungs.

Experiments on dogs in the 1950s showed that 30 to 40 seconds after the pressure drops, their bodies began to swell as the water in tissues vaporised, though the tight seal of their skin prevented them from “bursting”. The heart rate rises initially, then plummets. Bubbles of water vapour form in the blood and travel through the circulatory system, obstructing blood flow. After about a minute, blood effectively stops circulating.

Human survivors of rapid decompression accidents include pilots whose planes lost pressure, or in one case a NASA technician who accidentally depressurised his flight suit inside a vacuum chamber. They often report an initial pain, like being hit in the chest, and may remember feeling air escape from their lungs and the inability to inhale. Time to the loss of consciousness was generally less than 15 seconds.

A woman who never forgets anything

From Samiha Shafy’s “An Infinite Loop in the Brain” (Der Spiegel: 21 November 2008):

Price can rattle off, without hesitation, what she saw and heard on almost any given date. She remembers many early childhood experiences and most of the days between the ages of 9 and 15. After that, there are virtually no gaps in her memory. “Starting on Feb. 5, 1980, I remember everything. That was a Tuesday.”

“People say to me: Oh, how fascinating, it must be a treat to have a perfect memory,” she says. Her lips twist into a thin smile. “But it’s also agonizing.”

In addition to good memories, every angry word, every mistake, every disappointment, every shock and every moment of pain goes unforgotten. Time heals no wounds for Price. “I don’t look back at the past with any distance. It’s more like experiencing everything over and over again, and those memories trigger exactly the same emotions in me. It’s like an endless, chaotic film that can completely overpower me. And there’s no stop button.”

She’s constantly bombarded with fragments of memories, exposed to an automatic and uncontrollable process that behaves like an infinite loop in a computer. Sometimes there are external triggers, like a certain smell, song or word. But often her memories return by themselves. Beautiful, horrific, important or banal scenes rush across her wildly chaotic “internal monitor,” sometimes displacing the present. “All of this is incredibly exhausting,” says Price.

The scientists were able to verify her autobiographical data because she has meticulously kept a diary since the age of 10. She has filled more than 50,000 pages with tiny writing, documenting every occurrence, no matter how insignificant. Writing things down helps Price organize the thoughts and images shimmering in her head.

In fact, she feels a strong need to document her life. This includes hoarding every possible memento from childhood, including dolls, stuffed animals, cassette tapes, books, a drawer from dresser she had when she was five. “I have to be able to touch my memories,” Price explains.

[James McGaugh, founder of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California in Irvine,] and his colleagues concluded that Price’s episodic memory, her recollection of personal experiences and the emotions associated with them, is virtually perfect. A case like this has never been described in the history of memory research, according to McGaugh. He explains that Price differs substantially from other people with special powers of recall, such as autistic savants, because she uses no strategies to help her remember and even does a surprisingly poor job on some memory tests.

It’s difficult for her to memorize poems or series of numbers — which helps explain why she never stood out in school. Her semantic memory, the ability to remember facts not directly related to everyday life, is only average.

Two years ago, the scientists published their first conclusions in a professional journal without revealing the identity of their subject. Since then, more than 200 people have contacted McGaugh, all claiming to have an equally perfect episodic memory. Most of them were exposed as fakes. Three did appear to have similarly astonishing abilities. “Their personalities are very different. The others are not as anxious as Jill. But they achieve comparable results in the tests,” McGaugh reports.

The subjects do have certain compulsive traits in common, says McGaugh, especially compulsive hoarding. The three others are left-handed, and Price also showed a tendency toward left-handedness in tests.

In neurobiological terms, a memory is a stored pattern of links between nerve cells in the brain. It is created when synapses in a network of neurons are activated for a short time. The more often the memory is recalled afterwards, the more likely it is that permanent links develop between the nerve cells — and the pattern will be stored as a long-term memory. In theory there are so many possible links that an almost unlimited number of memories can be permanently stored.

So why don’t all people have the same powers of recollection as Jill Price? “If we could remember everything equally well, the brain would be hopelessly overburdened and would operate more slowly,” says McGaugh. He says forgetting is a necessary condition of having a viable memory — except in the case of Price and the other three memory superstars.

Matthew, the blind phone phreaker

From Kevin Poulsen’s “Teenage Hacker Is Blind, Brash and in the Crosshairs of the FBI” (Wired: 29 February 2008):

At 4 in the morning of May 1, 2005, deputies from the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office converged on the suburban Colorado Springs home of Richard Gasper, a TSA screener at the local Colorado Springs Municipal Airport. They were expecting to find a desperate, suicidal gunman holding Gasper and his daughter hostage.

“I will shoot,” the gravely voice had warned, in a phone call to police minutes earlier. “I’m not afraid. I will shoot, and then I will kill myself, because I don’t care.”

But instead of a gunman, it was Gasper himself who stepped into the glare of police floodlights. Deputies ordered Gasper’s hands up and held him for 90 minutes while searching the house. They found no armed intruder, no hostages bound in duct tape. Just Gasper’s 18-year-old daughter and his baffled parents.

A federal Joint Terrorism Task Force would later conclude that Gasper had been the victim of a new type of nasty hoax, called “swatting,” that was spreading across the United States. Pranksters were phoning police with fake murders and hostage crises, spoofing their caller IDs so the calls appear to be coming from inside the target’s home. The result: police SWAT teams rolling to the scene, sometimes bursting into homes, guns drawn.

Now the FBI thinks it has identified the culprit in the Colorado swatting as a 17-year-old East Boston phone phreak known as “Li’l Hacker.” Because he’s underage, Wired.com is not reporting Li’l Hacker’s last name. His first name is Matthew, and he poses a unique challenge to the federal justice system, because he is blind from birth.

Interviews by Wired.com with Matt and his associates, and a review of court documents, FBI reports and audio recordings, paints a picture of a young man with an uncanny talent for quick telephone con jobs. Able to commit vast amounts of information to memory instantly, Matt has mastered the intricacies of telephone switching systems, while developing an innate understanding of human psychology and organization culture — knowledge that he uses to manipulate his patsies and torment his foes.

Matt says he ordered phone company switch manuals off the internet and paid to have them translated into Braille. He became a regular caller to internal telephone company lines, where he’d masquerade as an employee to perform tricks like tracing telephone calls, getting free phone features, obtaining confidential customer information and disconnecting his rivals’ phones.

It was, relatively speaking, mild stuff. The teen though, soon fell in with a bad crowd. The party lines were dominated by a gang of half-a-dozen miscreants who informally called themselves the “Wrecking Crew” and “The Cavalry.”

By then, Matt’s reputation had taken on a life of its own, and tales of some of his hacks — perhaps apocryphal — are now legends. According to Daniels, he hacked his school’s PBX so that every phone would ring at once. Another time, he took control of a hotel elevator, sending it up and down over and over again. One story has it that Matt phoned a telephone company frame room worker at home in the middle of the night, and persuaded him to get out of bed and return to work to disconnect someone’s phone.

The Aztecs and their New Year’s Festival

From Sam Anderson’s “A History of Hooch“, a review of Iain Gately’s Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol (6 July 2008):

Aztecs liked fermented sap, but had a legal drinking age (52) higher than their average life expectancy – although every four years they’d hold a New Year’s festival called “Drunkenness of Children,” at which all citizens, including toddlers, were required to drink.

More on Slab City

From Evelyn Nieves’s “Slab City Journal; For Thousands, a Town of Concrete Slabs Is a Winter Retreat” (The New York Times: 18 February 2001):

Every winter, when the Winnebagos and pickups shake the desert off Beal Road like a small earthquake, Ben Morofsky gets wistful for the 120-degree days of summer, and the peace of living with just a few hearty slabbers like himself. …

The 640 or so state-owned acres of tumbleweed and barren sand deep in the desert of Southern California, by the Arizona and Mexico borders, is not really a city, or town, or much of anything else. Year-round, it houses fewer than a hundred people, parked on concrete slabs in the sand, in campers or buses or the shells of whatever vehicle they could scrounge. But come the pale sun of winter, it becomes a bona fide attraction for a couple of thousand people fleeing the snow of the Midwest, Northwest and Canada.

The migrants, or snowbirds, come to Slab City in all manner of vehicle. They bring trailers that look like ranch houses on wheels, pickup trucks with tents and tarps on them, and every kind of camper in between. (There is even a snowbird reverend, who brings in his own nondenominational Christian church.) They start arriving in late October, reach critical mass by Thanksgiving and will drive away around April, returning Slab City to its other, loner self.

Winter can make for a sometimes uneasy mix. Snowbirds are retirees mostly, who stay about five months, merry as scouts on a camping trip. The slabbers, of all ages, eke out an existence from small retirement or other government checks, or just plain grit and charity. …

But Mr. Morofsky, 38, a self-taught mechanic who lives in a bus on a slab he shares with his girlfriend, three dogs, half a dozen chubby puppies and three friends with three more dogs and three more puppies, sees the bright side of sharing the desert half the year. He earns his bread fixing engines, generators, or just about anything the snowbirds need fixed.

“Snowbirds and slabbers are a different class of people. But we can all get along,” said Mr. Morofsky, playing catch with six dogs in the Coachella Branch of the All-American Canal that runs through Slab City like a vein. …

Everyone in Slab City, snowbird and slabber alike, is a squatter. They stay here for nothing (and get nothing in return, they like to say). They can pick up their mail at the post office in Niland, the down-and-out farm town four miles away. The Imperial County Sheriff’s Department, and the Niland Fire Department, keep watch to protect them. The dozen or so children in Slab City get picked up by the school bus. That is it as far as services. …

Yet chances are, if you ask someone who lives in Slab City full time what it is like, you will hear that it is like a lot of places, only hotter.

Not true. Slab City is a community of sorts for people who have not found community elsewhere, or else have not wanted it. The slab part of its name comes from its origins as a military base half a century ago. When the Army pulled up stakes, it left concrete slabs used as foundations for portable buildings. People began using the slabs to set up camps.

The most famous resident of Slab City is Leonard Knight, who has been building a mountain to God out of homemade clay for 16 years. His Salvation Mountain, painted in the colors of Froot Loops from donated paint, is three stories high, says “God Is Love” for at least two stories, and can be seen for miles around. It also marks the official entrance to Slab City. Mr. Knight, who is 69, is used to getting photographed for art books and magazines, but remains down to earth. “I try to spread God’s love everywhere,” he said.

Other longtime slabbers include Linda Barnett, who has lived here 12 years. She lives in a camper with a camouflage net as a canopy and a large antenna on the roof. The official Slab City hostess, she makes nightly announcements on a CB radio for all residents. “The announcements are about services provided, food programs, things for barter and trade,” she said wearily from a picnic bench. “The announcements can take 45 minutes.”

Then there is Mel Martin, known as Pops. An elderly eccentric millionaire, or so it is rumored, he lives in a truck in a compound with Mr. Morofsky, in protest, he said, of bourgeois society.

“What I want to know of the outside world,” he said, “is, are people ever going to rise from their complacency? We need a little protest in this country.”

The end of days in Slab City

From Charlie LeDuff’s “Parked in a Desert, Waiting Out the Winter of Life” (The New York Times: 17 December 2004):

Directions to purgatory are as follows: from Los Angeles drive east past Palm Springs into the bowels of the Mojave Desert. Turn south at the stench of the Salton Sea. Proceed down Highway 111 to the town of Niland, a broken-down place of limited possibilities.

Turn left on Main Street and head down the road to the railroad tracks where the law sometimes waits, as though the tracks were an international boundary.

“Where you going?” asked the deputy, Frank Lopez, on a recent night, even though the road leads to just one place. The Slabs.

Bored stiff, the deputy spun a ghost story about drugged-out crazies, a cult in a blue bus, a child molester, a man who sleeps with rattlesnakes, a mobster on the lam, and old people, flocks of old people who have traded in their picket fences for a mobile home and a life on the drift. …

Five miles down is the sign, “Welcome to Slab City,” marking the entrance of this former World War II military base. The only suggestion of life this night was the flickering of campfires. …

Pastor Hyatt, at 69, has inherited the burden of living. His wife, Audrey, died this year after suffering a stroke here in the desert wasteland. The memory of her scent is everywhere.

“Ah, he’s lonely, and it’s tough to see it,” said Rusty, 73, who sat at the pastor’s fire, warming himself. Rusty looked and smelled like a bum — the price paid, he said, for freedom. “Nobody particularly wants to die out here in the desert, but the living’s free.”

Slab City is not so sinister as it is a strange, forlorn quarter of America. It is a town that is not really a town, a former training grounds with nothing left but the concrete slabs where the barracks stood. Gen. George S. Patton trained troops here. Pilots of the Enola Gay practiced their atomic mission, dropping dummy bombs into the sea.

The land belongs to the state, but the state, like the law, does not bother, and so the Slabs have become a place to park free. More than 3,000 elderly people settle in for the winter, in a pattern that dates back at least 20 years. They are mostly single, divorced or widowed — a whole generation on the road, independent, alone. In this place, to be 55 years old is to be young.

There are no amenities; no potable water, no electricity, no sewerage. Groceries can be picked up in town at the grubby market whose managers do not seem to mind that hundreds of people fill their jugs from the water tap. Mail is routed to a post office box — Niland, CA 92257. Gasoline is bought in distant towns like Brawley; prescriptions and liquor are bought in Mexico. Sewage is held in storage tanks or holes in the ground.

The north side of Main Street is Poverty Flats. The south side, the suburbs, where the relatively well-to-do motorhomies have their dinner dances and clubhouse trailers.

Cole Robertson lives in the Flats with his wife, Mabel. Mr. Robertson, 72, is a retired construction worker from East Texas who cuts an intimidating figure, sitting shirtless, with one rheumy eye, a watermelon physique and a cotton fields vocabulary. An argument with a neighbor last year ended with one of the Robertsons’ trailers in flames. That is how law is dispensed in the Flats, vigilante style. One man was dragged to death a few years ago, another shot in the kneecap last year. Occasionally, the deputies do come around, usually in the day to exercise a warrant or to remove children who have not been seen in school for months. But normally, justice comes at the end of a matchstick in the Flats.

“There ain’t no rules,” Mr. Robertson said. He told of his neighbors, an aging man who lives with his voices in the rundown bus, a geriatric transvestite, a no-good who strapped his kid to a tree and left him in the sun.

A few years ago, a man tried making scrap metal from an unexploded aluminum shell he found at the bombing range in the nearby Chocolate Mountains. He succeeded but at the cost of his own life. His legs had to be picked from a tree.

It was in this anarchy, eight years ago, that Pastor Hyatt stumbled upon his life’s purpose. He discovered the Slabs quite by accident. He and Audrey had packed up their whole life, sold the house in Lebanon, Ore., left their jobs at the titanium plant where he was a shift foreman, said goodbye to their children and to their obligations and struck out on the road.

He was not always a good man, he admits that. He had a temper and hard fists. But he came across a band of rolling revivalists that first year on the road, and followed them to Minnesota. He was ordained by the World Wide Ministries without ever studying at seminary and seems a little embarrassed by this.

Stuck near Niland, the pastor inquired about a place to camp in an R.V. for the evening. A stranger told him about the Slabs, five miles down the road.

Upon seeing the privation and sadness and isolation, the preacher and his wife believed that the Creator had given them a second life. They built the Slab City Christian Center out of modular housing and began to preach and feed October through April, when the weather is clement and the Slabs come to life.

When people were found dead in their trailers, the pastor and his wife were there with a Psalm. They gave children rides to the hospital. The Hyatts paid for the work from their life savings. But Audrey was felled by a stroke in February and passed in May.

When she died, the pastor’s self-assurance faltered and he found that he had become one of the lost, emotionally stranded with one foot in hell and the other on an ice cube. …

Rusty, the doubter who cleans his shirt once a week in a bucket. Rusty, who tells about a prepubescent military career. Rusty, whose smell and language come from the stables. Rusty, who came in on a bus and says he ran a militia out of this camp for 12 years in case the Mexicans invaded from the south or the F.B.I. from the east.

“Everybody can’t fit in to the middle-class life,” said Rusty, who wore a military shirt and cap, military boots and long fingernails as thick as seashells. Suffice it to say, Rusty does not want people to know him and does not disclose his last name.

The evening was cold and dark, the air thick with the smells of burning salt oak as Slab City went to sleep. A Frank Sinatra record played somewhere across the salt flats. The thunder of bombs clapped on the far side of the Chocolate Mountains. Rusty smoked by himself in his broken-down camper with the flat wheels and camouflage netting. A lamp burned in the pastor’s trailer.

Rusty talked about a daughter who did not want anything to do with him; a wife he reckoned was working a truck stop somewhere between California and Texas. But Rusty is human. He dreams of a rich woman from the south side of the Slabs. They wear makeup, those girls over there in the R.V.’s. They use toilets instead of buckets. They have class. It’s never going to happen, he says. “I’d love to have company, but I can’t dance anymore,” he said. “I got old legs, but I’m a good conversationalist. But those women over there, they’re stuck up. Middle-class stuck up.”

The senior citizens on the south side of town travel in a sort of lonely-hearts club tailgate. They are alone, having suffered a late-life divorce or the death of a longtime partner. Their vehicles are big, expensive Coachmen and Fleetwoods and Ramblers and the like. They work as a sort of neighborhood watch, and the denizens of the Flats do not cross the imaginary line.

The majority of the society is women. They come to the Slabs because it is free and close to Mexico, where liquor and prescription medicine can be bought cheap. They are educated, savvy about life and competent mechanics.

Donna Lee Cole is a member of Loners on Wheels, a rolling singles club with chapters across the United States. Mrs. Cole says there are at least 10,000 people who belong to this subsociety of aged hobos, people who drive around in search of nothing except tomorrow. They tend to be women, she said, because women live longer than men. …

“We women aren’t looking for a man,” she explained. “The divorcees walked away from a bad situation and don’t want another one. The widows draw Blue Cross and their husband’s Social Security and would lose it if they married a new man. So you don’t bother. You’re just looking for some company.”

Besides, Mrs. Cole says, look at the quality of men, no offense. “They’re bald and paunchy and toothless. I’m old, but I’m not dead.” …

The lonely-hearts clubs have happy hour and social mixers, dances twice a week and trips to town for steak dinners. Still, the Elvis generation goes to bed early and goes to bed alone.

“I was married 46 years,” says Tina Faye at the afternoon mixer at the L.O.W. slab. At 80, Mrs. Faye strikes an exotic figure, lean, rouged, coiffed, with a voice as thick as apricot nectar.

“My man told me to go on if I was to outlive him. So I took to the road. But I feel him sitting there right next to me. I can’t let him go.”

The mood is a bit sad until Ruth Halford, a 74-year-old-widow with a silver permanent, pipes up. “I’m not sad about anything. I don’t owe nobody nothing. I scratch my plans in the dirt. I’m not looking for anybody. The only person I’m in love with is me. Right, girls?”

This is maddening to the eligible bachelor, like a dog chasing a pork chop on a string. A waste of a perfectly beautiful woman.

“Those girls, they get to being independent and they don’t need men,” said John Clairmont, 77, a retired truck driver. “You can never get them to come home with you.” …

The pastor talked about random things from his life with his wife. The snowstorms and eggs in a rooming house. The smell of her hair. Ceramic snowmen she collected. Her face lighted by the dashboard lights. Recipes the children do not ask for. Grandchildren who, chances are, will not remember her name. Death in the desert in some nameless place without longitude or shade.

“That’s the tragedy of old age,” the pastor said as his eyes welled once again. “I’m alone. I’m derelict without her.”

Rusty stared at his feet.

Writers take a while to attain full power

From Thomas Babington Macaulay’s “A Speech Delivered In The Committee of the House Of Commons On The 6th Of April 1842” (Prime Palaver #4: 1 September 2001):

It is the law of our nature that the mind shall attain its full power by slow degrees; and this is especially true of the most vigorous minds. Young men, no doubt, have often produced works of great merit; but it would be impossible to name any writer of the first order whose juvenile performances were his best. That all the most valuable books of history, of philology, of physical and metaphysical science, of divinity, of political economy, have been produced by men of mature years will hardly be disputed. The case may not be quite so clear as respects works of the imagination. And yet I know no work of the imagination of the very highest class that was ever, in any age or country, produced by a man under thirty-five. Whatever powers a youth may have received from nature, it is impossible that his taste and judgment can be ripe, that his mind can be richly stored with images, that he can have observed the vicissitudes of life, that he can have studied the nicer shades of character. How, as Marmontel very sensibly said, is a person to paint portraits who has never seen faces? On the whole, I believe that I may, without fear of contradiction, affirm this, that of the good books now extant in the world more than nineteen-twentieths were published after the writers had attained the age of forty.