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Hapas: The New America

Unfolding Crises:

Global Financial Meltdown Watch

Battle for the Soul
of America

The Next Revolution: Health, Wealth and Demographics


Weblog and wEssays

wEssay, wessay noun, combination of 'web' and 'essay,' denoting a short essay which exploits the hyperlinks, interfaces and interactive capabilities of the World Wide Web; coined by Charles Hugh Smith on May 1, 2005, in Berkeley California.

May 30, 2005

Memorial Day:
"Footprint of the American Chicken:" Your Congress

On this Memorial Day, I honor the veterans of my family--my father Hugh (U.S. Navy, Pacific Theater, World War II), my stepfather Jim (U.S. Navy, Pacific Theater, Korean War), my stepfather Bill (U.S. Air Force, Korea and Vietnam War), my uncle Wally (U.S. Army Air Force, European Theater, World War II), my uncle Jim (U.S. Army, World War II), my stepsister (U.S. Navy, 1970s), my first cousins Wally, Larry and Jim (U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army, Vietnam Era), and my second cousins (U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army, active duty)--and all the veterans I have known as colleagues and friends--Denny, Scott, Don and dozens more, mostly Vietnam-era veterans.

If only those voting to send the volunteers of the U.S. Military to war had the same record of service. Back in the mid-60s, about two-thirds of the members of Congress had military service. Now the number is less than 30%, and most of those are ageing veterans in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Congresspeople with children in the military number a grand total of seven (out of 535 members). Young congresspeople with military service are rare as chicken's teeth.

Back in the Vietnam Era, supporters of the war derisively labeled the Peace Sign "the footprint of the American Chicken." Now the footprint of the American chicken blankets the hallways of Congress.

Is anyone else appalled by the cheapness of their "patriotism", men and women alike? (Plenty of females serve in the Armed Forces, so being a woman is no excuse.) Most are Caucasian children of privilege who run straight to law school or lucrative careers which enable their jump to a political career. Once ensconced in power, they send the children of lesser mortals off to war with no understanding of the military or war.

Their lack of service can only be interpreted as a form of high hypocrisy. "Patriotism" for them is making a ton of money and assembling the network needed to grasp power, while "the dirty work" of actually serving in the nation's military is left to others less privileged, those whose patriotism gives the lie to those with no record of service other than to themselves and their careers.

To highlight the dangers of leaders with zero understanding of military matters, let me illustrate with an essay by James Fallows which ran in the Atlantic Monthly back in the 80s. Mr. Fallows--no doubt a fine person and a decent reporter--flayed the Air Force for wanting the costly F-15 fighter jet while the F-5--a cheap trainer-- was available for an eighth the cost.

By Fallows' bean-counter reckoning, one was as good as the other. I sent his essay to my stepfather Bill Ferguson, a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force. He sent it back heavily notated, highlighting the mis-information (plenty) and all that was left out of the article, which turned out to be everything of importance.

The bottom line came to this: if you're the one flying the plane, wouldn't you want the best the nation has to offer, the one which gives you the best chance to get home? The Fallows crew would have happily sent guys off in inferior planes to die in order to save money. Having a loved one killed to save money is as stupid as seeing them killed for a political gesture; it's not a Red State or Blue State issue at all. It's called experience and expertise; know something about war before you assume the mantle of power to send someone else off to war.

The F-15 is an old aircraft now, but it's still doing duty, while the F-5 is forgotten: it was slower, less capable, with less range, no night-flying abilities, no electronic warfare, basically a stripped down plane for cannon-fodder warfare. Great if you're the pipe-smoking essayist, not so great if you're the pilot.

As for me (if you're wondering)--I was granted conscientious objector status at 19 in 1972, the year of the N.V.A.'s huge offensive in Vietnam, and of the Christmas bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong. I was available for service as a CO if my lottery number had been called. I went to my pre-induction physical and received a 2-S classification, which basically meant "once we work through the 1-S guys, you're next." Even though I had a low number (49 as I recall, out of 365), I didn't get the call. I did not want to serve that war and was relieved I wasn't called up. I considered the war a misguided, ineptly conceived catastrophe for the U.S., Vietnam, the ideals of democracy (the South Vietnamese government was certainly one of the most corrupt and venal in world history) and for the people drafted to serve in an unwinnable (picture LBJ picking which bridge to hit each night and Nixon patting his "secret plan to end the war" in his coat pocket) war.

It takes courage to stand up for what you believe, as my friend Jeff Blair did, refusing to comply with Selective Service laws, and consequently standing trial in Federal Court. I did not have such courage, and so I went along with the system, just like all the guys who didn't believe in the war but got drafted. Most of the vets I knew who served in Vietnam were drafted; most just went because the alternatives were few and difficult (five years in Federal prison, for instance). Most didn't choose to go to war; they went because they had to.

The same is true of those serving in the Reserves now; they signed up, sure, but they're getting sent to Iraq because the current political leadership of our nation refuses to enlarge the standing Armed Forces, preferring to "do it on the cheap" by using Reserve forces as more or less permanent units in the regular Army. If there's a difference between the "cheap" liberals like Fallows and "cheap" conservatives like Mssrs. Bush, Rumsfeld, Congress,, I fail to see it.

War on the cheap--just what you'd expect from the cheapest form of patriotism.

May 27, 2005

A Fun Bit of Coding

You know those little icons next to your "Favorites" links? They're called "favicons," from "favorites icons." Go ahead and bookmark my site to see mine. (Don't worry, it isn't a marketing trick--you can delete the link after you see the favicon.) There are sites which offer to make you a favicon for $125. Hey, at that rate I could net a $1,000 before breakfast. It's easy, and I'll show you how to do it right now.

First, put the following lines of code in the [head] of your HTML coding.

[link rel="icon" href="favicon.ico" type="image/x-icon"]
[link rel="shortcut icon" href="favicon.ico" type="image/x-icon"]

(Note that I've used [ and ] but in the coding you need to use < and > brackets. If I use them here it won't display, as the browser will see the lines as coding.)

Next, go this website, where you can design and create your "favicon.ico" for free:

Transfer the favicon they email you into your public HTML folder (along with your modified "index.htm" page) and voila, there is your favicon. You may need to empty your browser cache and then close it to get the favicon to display. If you want a more elaborate favicon, just do a web search for favicons and download one of the other tools. (Some are freeware, some cost money.)

I love how easy it is to do this stuff. Save the $125 and do it yourself in 10 minutes.

May 26, 2005

Forbidden Stories

Check out my "Forbidden Stories" page if you're in the mood for some short fiction. The selections cover five topics: adultery, combat, humilation (subset romantic), bullying and semi-random violence. Enjoy!

May 24, 2005

Bandwidth and Knowledge: The Human Factor

Please read yesterday's post for background.

The ability to quickly assess the value and potential impact of new information--that is, to easily place it in the appropriate historical, technical and intellectual contexts--is now described by the techno-geek term "bandwidth."

John F. Kennedy possessed a famously wide bandwidth, as does Bill Gates. A critical aspect of bandwidth is the ability to sort the important from the non-important. Thus, a small article on page A-7 is often of greater import than the front page stories (finger found in bowl of chili, etc.), and only a piece of the article on page A-7 might be worthy of inclusion in a readers' internal knowledge structure.

Continuing the theme of yesterday's post: what does this mean in a world of largely unedited or fact-checked information being served up by search engines on the Web? Clearly, a person with a high bandwidth and deep knowledge can quickly sort through the first 50 listings and recognize those sources which are reputable, and gather an understanding of the topic by "reading between the lines." In other words, the high-bandwidth person has a great store of pre-existing knowledge which can be applied to new information.

The poorly educated or inexperienced person, on the other hand, has no way to sort the grain from the chaff. They could slog through the first 50 listings on a search and have little in the way of "real" (that is, contextual) knowledge of the subject. If they'd read a brief compilation of works by recognized authorities (preferably covering a spectrum of opinions), their understanding would at least have a solid base on which to build.

This is of course what a university education is supposed to provide--a base of rigorous skepticism and general knowledge on which to build a greater understanding of complex problems.

But search engines don't pull up such compilations; they pull up whatever sites score highest on factors such as the number of site links, the frequency of visitors, etc. The net result (no pun intended) is that the Web is a great resource for those already at the top of the knowledge food chain, but a confusing and perhaps distracting resource for those with less knowledge and bandwidth.

There are other problems with the Web as a source of knowledge. It's difficult to read more than a few pages comfortably on a computer screen, especially if the webpage designer has foolishly placed a tiny white font against a black background. So the temptation is to simply stop reading after a few pages, and move on to another source. Without an ability to read an entire essay, it's impossible to learn anything of substance.

As a result, the "knowledge" gained is in reality more an illusion of knowledge than an actual working knowledge. This leads to an illusory confidence in one's understanding, and to an oversimplified view of complex problems. This illusion of knowledge could have profoundly unsettling consequences both for the nation and the individual.

If you doubt this, consider how much people actually know about nutrition and the foods they consume. Despite all the vast amount of information on the Web, people are clearly uninformed about basic nutrition. If they were informed, would they choose so poorly? I think not. Rich people tend to be leaner not just because they can afford better food or personal trainers, but because they know better than to eat the junk inaccurately labeled "food" in the American diet.

May 23, 2005

The Flattening of the Knowledge Curve: The "Googling" Effect

Take a look at the following graphs:

The first graph shows that if you're entering an area of knowledge which is new to you, it takes little time to access key sources which have been edited or selected by scholars, critics or experts whose credentials or experience is public knowledge. The quality of the knowledge is thus high; if you find a supposed expert is biased, it's short work to find a worthy substitute. The net result is that any neophyte can gain high-quality knowledge in a short period of time. After the initial survey, the quality of the knowledge drops as primary sources are absorbed and the search extends into secondary sources.

In the alternate global Web-search world we are now entering, the ranking of the various sources of knowledge (websites) is done by a commercially protected, closely guarded algorithm. Since we cannot know how the search engine picked the highest "matches" to a search query, we cannot assess the quality of the knowledge (or the accuracy of the information--and those are two separate issues) until we have scanned many sources and sought out those which can summarize or assemble the most credible sources.

This takes time, and still produces low-quality knowledge--knowledge which may contain untrustworthy or even misleading information--because the selection is being performed by a neophyte, i.e. the user. Note also that the quality of the knowledge drops off after a plateau as the sheer volume of secondary information overwhelms the user.

Google has stated the goal of digitizing all the world's knowledge, and suggested this might take 300 years. Predictably, the European Union is in a panic, lest the English-speaking American hyperpower dominate not just all the world's commerce and sea lanes but information itself.

The question is: will access to such a vast sea of information make us smarter, or will it simply perfect the distraction that the Web already provides?

A similar question is raised by the drop in newspaper readership and the rise of blogs. Is the knowledge gained on a blog truly equivalent to that which has been screened by editors or experts? It is quite a stretch to claim "yes." If you want to know more about Japanese films, where should you spend your precious time? Reading Donald Richie or scanning somebody's list of "favorite Japanese films"? (such as mine) Some of each, no doubt, but the latter is no substitute for the former.

Put another way: information is not equivalent to knowledge, and relying on a secret algorithm to index, sort and rank information into a simulacrum of "knowledge" is not the same thing as actually understanding a complex topic, or being able to assess the value of a point of view or argument.

What are these charts based upon? Nothing but my views. But then I'm not claiming to have gathered any hard data; if I did, would you value the charts more? If I claimed to be an expert, would you put more stock in the charts? How do you know I'm not an expert? In a world of automated search engines without editors or recognized experts to help us sort the wheat from the chaff, then the task of sorting huge quantities of facts and opinions falls to each of us-- an impossible task. Maybe the Standard Hype about how wonderfully the Web is expanding human knowledge has it backwards; perhaps this flattening of the knowledge curve is providing the illusion of knowledge rather than the real goods.

May 22, 2005

New Work Alert

If you've finished your newspaper and want more Sunday fare, check out my piece on agricultural landscapes in California Wine Country in the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine. (The above photo is one of the illustrations.) I'm please to note the cover art (which of course I don't see until I unfold my own paper) features one of my sources, the di Rosa Art Preserve in lower Napa Valley. It's worth a visit for both the landscapes and the art. Today's magazine also has an interesting profile of master landscape designer Lawrence Halprin, whose works include the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C.

May 19, 2005

What's a gallon of gas worth? Depends on When

Have you ever wondered if your pay is keeping up with inflation, or whether a movie ticket was actually cheaper "back in the day"? It's rather eye-opening to find out, and here's how. Go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics home page and then click on the "inflation calculator" link in the upper left, under the heading "Inflation and Consumer Spending."

Notice how closely the unemployment rate (the solid line) tracks inflation (the dotted line), revealing how devastating inflation is to the economy. Also note how the extremes just happen to coincide with my graduating from college (1975) and starting a business (Aug. 1981).

Minimum wage in 1970 was $1.60/hour (I remember that well, of course, and also that Dole Pineapple paid a nickel more for the swing and night shifts--whoopie. Note that was for picking pineapple in the tropic heat of the afternoon, not sitting in a cubicle hiding your Solitaire game from your supervisor.). Enter the date and amount into the calculator and voila, you'd have to earn $8.02 today to equal the buying power of $1.60 in 1970. I note that this is considerably more than the current minimum wage, meaning that today's entry workers are making less than we did 35 years ago.

That's troubling, to say the least.

It's amusing to plug in other prices you remember. I recall that during the great Oil Crisis of 1973-74, I was paying between 65 and 75 cents per gallon, which equates to $2.85 to $3.29 in today's dollars. So gasoline is cheaper today--at least for today. (For more on this, see the National Resources Defense Council's page on oil dependence and conservation.)

Say you paid $500 rent for an apartment in 1982. Would you guess that it would cost $1,000 in today's currency? yes, a clean double since '82. Check to see if your wage has also doubled. For a free-lance writer, the exercise is futile, of course; the fees never seem to rise. They seem to actually be dropping. Note to new writers: don't do it for the money. Do it for the glory of truth and the byline.

The BLS site has a raft of other interesting statistics as well. If not hours of fun, at least 22 minutes' worth--and there's no commercials.

May 17, 2005

On Courage and Activism

In perhaps the only hour of television worth watching in the month of May, PBS's "Nature" of May 15 featured a film by Hardy Jones entitled "The Dolphin Defender." It is an account of Jones' courageous efforts over the past 25 years on behalf of sea mammals--to conduct research on their behaviors and social structures, and to protect them from needless slaughter by fishermen in Japan and elsewhere.

While our so-called culture has raised self-indulgent displays of wealth to a new level of pornographic fetishism, there are still people of undaunted courage working to save what's left of life in the planet's oceans. Although I don't know Hardy Jones personally, he is a hero in my book. We had a mutual friend, however--another hero, Dexter Cate. What made Dexter a hero? In just one example of many, Dexter risked his life to free hundreds of dolphins hours before they were to be butchered by Japanese fishermen. (Account and photos by Howard Hall.)

You can also read about Dexter's role as organizer and candidate in the People's Party of Hawaii circa 1974-76.

If you didn't know that dolphins are still being slaughtered and exploited, check out these resources:
fund for animals
links about dolphins
Earth Island Institute
Elsa Nature Conservancy (located in Japan)

So what can you do? Plenty:
  • Don't attend SeaWorld-type "entertainments" which employ sea mammals who've been torn from their families and imprisoned for life to perform demeaning "tricks" for food.
  • Don't pay money for your kids to "swim with the dolphins," an "amusement" akin to someone stealing your kids and then making money off their imprisonment.
  • If you eat tuna or ahi, find out about "dolphin-safe" tuna.
  • Donate money to one of the organizations working to stop the killing and capture of dolphins

    May 14, 2005

    Emoticons in Asia

    We have many friends in Asia, and like everyone else, we keep in touch via email. We found that our Korean and Japanese friends interspersed their emails with mystifying symbols like T T or (T_T). Despite our best efforts, we couldn't figure out what they meant. The answer is obvious, but only if you know that Asian emoticons are "read" left to right and not "sideways" like American emoticons such as :-)

    T_T symbolizes tears dripping down from the eyes, expressing sadness.

    This new world of emoticons led me to do a web search, and I discovered that the emoticons of Japan and other Asian countries have a far richer vocabulary than any Western collection I've ever seen. The creativity and range of these emoticons is truly wonderful.

    What could be more expressive than \(^o^)/ for happiness or "wow!" ?

    Or how about (p_-) to signify looking through a magnifying glass, expressing "digging for the truth"?

    Or (=^.^=) for "nekko" (cat), which in Japan expresses the coy question, "am I cute?"

    As for actions, consider (-.-)y- for a cigaret break.

    The best website I've found on Japanese emoticons is Japanese Smileys (emoticons). Please let me know if you find any sites listing emoticons used in other Asian nations.

    May 10, 2005

    China Reflections

    I have visited China twice (May 2000 and September 2004), the first tagging along on a semi-official visit which included factory tours, formal meetings with a mid-size city mayor and staff, and the usual parade of tours and banquets. I have been a student of the country since the early 70s, when there were only a few books available and virtually nothing on what was actually happening during the Cultural Revolution.

    Now we have a vast literature in print and online about every aspect of China's culture, rulers, sights and economy. Newsweek just featured a 23-page spread on China in its May 9 edition, asking "Does the Future Belong to China"? This kind of giddy coverage usually signals the top is in and the wheels are about to fall off whatever Newsweek featured on its cover (and I don't mean Zhang ZiYi!).

    China's challenges are not unique in themselves--many nations have environmental or corruption problems-- but China's enormous influence in the global community is indeed unique. Simply put, China's problems are everyone's problems, or soon will be.

    The issues I will be addressing in my "Unfolding Crises: Asia" page can be summarized thusly: does the world have enough resources for both China and India to successfully industrialize, and do these mega-countries have enough time to overcome the enormous obstacles to that success?

    One issue is demographics--the same problem facing the EU, Japan, Mexico (yes, Mexico), Japan and the US--but China faces the truly staggering task of supporting 400 million people over 60 within a few decades. While everyone hoping to enrich themselves selling something to China (for example, the French, Germans, Japanese, South Koreans, Americans, etc.) is focused on its mouth-watering economic growth, I observed scenes "on the ground" which can only be described as deeply troubling.

    Here's a good summary of the demographic challenge China faces, and a short essay I wrote after my last visit to Shanghai.

    Shanghai Postcard

    How much can we ever know about a culture different from our own? Experienced travelers learn not to extrapolate superficial experiences into an illusion of cultural understanding; they know ex-pats can live in a foreign culture for years and still remain only half-aware outsiders.

    But there is at least one universal in human experience that is not shrouded by culture: the facial expressions of joy, anger, distrust and sadness. These, it seems, are in our genetic wiring.

    This is not to say there’s no cultural content in a smile or frown; but it is something that an outsider can grasp with visceral immediacy. This may be why a face glimpsed in a faraway land can haunt you long after the recollections of a cultural artifact have faded.

    For me, that face belongs to an aged man standing on a side street in Shanghai, China, facing the bustling stream of fashionably dressed young people crowding the city’s main shopping street, Nanjing Lu.

    A bent, scarecrow figure with a weathered face beneath a woven peasant’s hat, the elderly man wore the simple post-Mao garb of faded white tunic and loose trousers; his hands were extended in the universal gesture of begging.

    Although you don’t read much about it in glossy tourist literature, this is not an uncommon sight; many old people are begging in China nowadays. Weathered grandmotherly women shuffle down Shanghai’s sleek new subway cars, hands extended, and various beggars cluster around any Big Nose (foreigner) entering a train or bus station.

    The elderly beggars are largely invisible; few people glance at them, and even fewer drop a coin or two in their outstretched palms. Beggars are certainly not unique to China; but unlike many American panhandlers, the beggars in China don’t seem troubled by drug addictions or mental illness. Their insecurity seems to stem not from disease but from age; the boomtime China walking by seems to have no place for them.

    The cause of such social insecurity is no secret; for decades pensions came from state factories and communes, not the state per se, and as factories have been closed and communes dissolved, so too did the employees’ pensions. China is still a poor nation compared to the West, and the Chinese government does not yet have a universal social security safety net in place.

    But the old man’s expression was not of anger or resignation; his features were fixed in an unwavering, abject grimace of pained bewilderment. Though I cannot know the man’s thoughts, the bewilderment in his half-open mouth and piercing eyes suggested that none of Nanjing Lu made any sense to him.

    His own impoverishment amidst such overabundance made no sense; the complete dissolution of his generation’s social uniformity made no sense; and the transformation of his city from a backwater to a gleaming metropolis of wildly extravagant and widely disparate wealth made no sense. The brightly dressed young people strolling past, shopping bags and McDonald’s ice cream cones in hand, indulged by his children’s generation and chasing a lifestyle beyond his era’s fantasies, made no sense.

    In a nation where family ties are paramount, I wondered how the man had been reduced to such a state. Certainly no one with any means would let their father or grandfather reach such depths; if he hadn’t lost his family, he’d certainly lost touch with them. Whatever the circumstances, he was not alone in this plight.

    I too was guilty of passing the man by. I caught a quick glimpse of him as the crush of bodies carried me past the side street, and though arrested by his expression I did not break free from the flow to give him money. Hardened by the clusters of beggars who’d descended on me at every train and bus station, I’d sworn off rewarding such pestering. But this old man wasn’t pestering anyone. He was simply standing alone in his pain and bewilderment, hands beseeching, taking the one action left to him in the enfeebled poverty of advanced age: hoping for a handout.


    May 5, 2005

    It is with some trepidation that I launch a weblog into an already crowded field of some 9 million blogs. While there may be projects more suseptible to self-absorbed vanity, few offer a cheaper venue for self-indulgent ramblings.

    Hopefully I will avoid that particular circle of Hell by focusing on the six topics which are listed on the left.

    Coining a word--in this case, wEssay--is also fraught with peril. If it remains forelorn and unloved in this space, it smacks of a very precious sort of vanity. But it seems worth that risk to offer it up as a term for a short essay written and coded specifically for the Web.

    What is a wEssay? Let me start with what it is not. It is not a stream-of-consciousness account of everyday events, or a log of unorganized meanderings last updated three years ago. Like an essay written for a printed media, it presents and defends a thesis; it has a beginning, middle and end. If brevity is the soul of wit (Shakespeare), it is also the heart of an wEssay. Reading long documents on a monitor is tedious, and a wEssay is explicitly designed for consumption on a screen.

    Unlike an essay prepared for the printed page, a wEssay exploits the key advantages of the Web over the printed page: hypertext links to related web resources, ease of modification, and the interactivity implicit in the readers' experience of hypertext links. Readers who forego all the links will have a different experience of the wEssay than those who click through every link and go on to pursue secondary and tertiary links.

    I have performed a number of web searches and found no reference to wEssay as an English word with a stated meaning. It appears as a typo, or as an HTML tag signifying "writing essays" or the like; and it also appears in Japanese and other non-English sites. Therefore I lay claim to coining the word and assigning it a meaning in the English language. If you think it worthy of use, please feel free to link this blog/wEssay page to your own site.

    Ok, so you've coined wEssay. Now show us one. Yikes. Well, here goes.


    If Only Writers Had Uniforms

    Writers don't get no--oops, make that any--respect, and it's easy to see why. It's not difficult or dirty or adventurous work, and no fearlessness (except, perhaps, of rejection) is required. Anyone can do it, and judging by the limitless blogs, webpages and online conversations shuttling over the Web, everyone does.
    The skills involved are not clear, despite all those years of high school and college English courses; open the latest Atlantic magazine and you'll find some utterly pedestrian prose praised to the stratosphere. Praise for the few is outsized, bordering on godhood (i.e. Nabokov), while the vast majority labor in sunless obscurity. Even more damning, a great many non-professional writers are very good: succinct and funny, with an identifiable voice.

    Imagine if the same could be said of attorneys; in that wonderful world, any of the other folks on your Yahoo message board could take your case to court with a near-professional confidence.

    Is it any wonder writers get zero respect?

    The pay is similarly imbalanced, with the golden few earning sums usually reserved for those sitting on vast pools of pretroleum, while the remuneration for the typical scribbler is abysmal, laughable or even, if some "creativity" is allowed, truly pathetic.

    Even worse, time has an insidious way of undermining what was categorically taken as "great" and revealing it as mediocre (Who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1919?); or alternatively, by taking what was dismissed as rubbish (Moby-Dick, anyone?) and elevating it to unabashed greatness. (This of course usually occurs after the writer's demise.)

    So what it to be done? (Arrgh, Lenin again!)

    If only writers had uniforms.

    My, how our breasts would swell with pride! Why, we might even venture out in public without that cowering look of the oft-rejected.

    But what should a writer's uniform look like?

    History offers a rich trove of possibilities. For the slightly morbid careworn dandy look (easily feminized, as you can tell by the foppy bow), who better than Baudelaire?

    In a more classic vein, consider Mark Twain's natty all-white outfit--also easily feminized (picture Annie Hall with a white vest and matching linen jacket).

    In this publicity still from the film "Annie Hall" (originally titled "Anhedonia," if sources are to be believed), we note that Woody Allen, as befits a talented megabucks writer/director, is sporting the 1977 version of timeless white. Another fan of the look is Tom Wolfe.

    Any number of female writers also offer a stylistic model for a writerly uniform befitting either the female or male form. Consider the Chinese-inspired look of Simone de Beauvoir in the accompanying photo (credit:

    But for my money, the only uniform flexible enough to clothe the vast range of writers is the unisex proto-futurist attire of Star Fleet Command. We are, after all, looking desperately to the future (and if not the future per se, then to a royalty check or handsome-paying gig just ahead), and the easily laundered, clean lines of the Star Fleet look should appeal to even the most fashion-averse amoungst us. Conversely, the Fashionistas will find ample expression in accessorizing the uniform (imagine what red open-toed sandals would do for it on a languid summer evening!)

    There will be those in such a famously individualistic trade who will reject a uniform as somehow authoritarian; but these rebellious souls will still be free to maintain their scruffy non-comformist look (thereby confirming their conformity, albeit to a parallel form), including the tattered bathrobe and crushed velour slippers which are the de riguer uniform of the dejected L.A. screenwriter. You know the one, sitting on a broken sofa in a dingy North Hollywood studio, pondering why his landlord calls so often and his agent so rarely. A uniform would sluice some pep right back into his step, for it would say one proud thing: despite the odds, the rejections and the poverty, I am still a writer.

    There is another enormous advantage to the StarFleet look: the implicit hierarchy of Fleet uniforms. Even the most ardently egalitarian in our motley trade secretly or openly desires recognition as a damned fine writer; and if not that, then at least some standing within the exasperating horde.

    It's easy to conjure up a Fleet-like array of epaulets and insignias which would subtly confer rank. A single ribbon might denote a journalism degree, while two would signify employment, with a small oak-leaf cluster for each decade of service in the newsroom. Service in the field could be recognized by a series of battle ribbons (red and white for 'Nam, blue and white for the Balkans, etc.)

    A series of crisply designed silver ensignias could denote a writer's specialty: I for investigative, T for technical writing, SD for script doctor, PW for playwright, E for editor, M for marketing, BS for business-speak (a truly unfortunate set of initials, but somehow appropriate for slingers of jargon like "right-sizing"), and so on.

    A stylized lance ensignia would confer the unenviable status of free-lancer, with epaulets awarded for the milestones of publication in a major media outlet or a $1,000 fee. Book contracts could be signified with artful pins, silver for non-fiction and gold for fiction. Sales above 5,000 would earn the writer a silver cluster while sales above 20,000 would earn a gold. For sales above 100,000 and a sale of film rights--who needs a lousy uniform once you've reached that Olympus?

    Comments? Feel free to email me. Please check back to read my weekly updates-- and if you like, add this page to your own links.


    All contents and coding copyright © 2005 by Charles Hugh Smith