A new standard by which to measure infamy

A true champion at work

The more I think about this Lance Armstrong business, the more I’ve come to have a sort of perverse admiration for the way he put one over on the world. The sheer scale of the deception is mind-boggling; the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) says that Lance presided over “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” I think they meant that as criticism, but still — if cheating and lying were an endurance sport, Lance would be the all-time champion. He denied everything with a straight face, often bristling with righteous anger, for a full decade-plus; in its own sick way, that’s just an impressive as winning seven straight Tours de France.

And what elevates this achievement to a whole other level is that he didn’t just cheat, he didn’t just lie — he lied so boldly and so successfully that he actually filed, and won, libel suits against people who were telling the truth. Think about that for a minute. This is a historic achievement in mendacity that ought to be recognized — if not celebrated, exactly.

I find myself wondering about the mechanics of how they did it. Part of the reason I was willing to believe that Lance was clean was that it just seemed too hard to cheat that much for that long while under constant scrutiny by a phalanx of drug testers, not to mention the entire population of France. But somehow he and his teammates pulled it off.

A lot of people are very pissed at Lance right now. I personally can’t summon up much in the way of anger over all this; more than anything I’m just sad. Sad that cynicism won another one. Sad that cancer patients have to learn their hero was a fraud. Sad that people like Lance think winning is worth the cost of their integrity and self-respect. And sad that right now, people all over France are cocking an eyebrow and saying “Je vous l’avais bien dit.

Death by PowerPoint

Oh, the irony.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before — but in the course of doing research on the history of PowerPoint for my day job, I discovered today that one school of thought holds PowerPoint responsible for the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003.

This theory, first elucidated by the big-brained Edward Tufte (author of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information), is outlined in some detail here. The gist is that a deck shown to engineers at NASA before the fateful shuttle flight actually warned them of the looming disaster, but because the information was presented in a poorly thought-out PowerPoint — clipped, jargony, and with too many levels of hierarchy — no one noticed.

I can’t help but think of the famous pre-9/11 briefing that warned “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.” — one line amidst an ocean of data that turned out to be of world-shaking consequence. If it’s hard for even the rocket scientists among us to filter out the signal from the noise, what chance did a dim bulb like George W. Bush have? I never blamed George for failing to prevent 9/11 (though cynically exploiting it was another matter). Likewise, I find it hard to blame anyone in particular for the failure to communicate in the shuttle disaster — even Microsoft, though certainly the idea has its appeal.

While we’re on the subject, here’s something else I ran across in my research. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before too: The Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation.

Where are we now? How about now?

Clockwise from top left: young Bowie, old Burroughs, old Bowie

It’s not my position for the kind of artist that I am – which is a person who tries to capture the rate of change – for me to adopt any given policy or stance, politically. Because my job is as an observer of what is happening.

     –David Bowie

This quote is from a 1977 interview posted by Momus on his blog yesterday (along with his insta-cover of the new Bowie single “Where Are We Now”). It lends some insight, I think, into the quandary that a David Bowie (in this case, the David Bowie) finds himself in circa 2013, and perhaps into why he’s been largely silent for these last 10 years.

Back in the 70s, the rate of change was faster than it had been previously, but still reasonable enough that an artist of Bowie’s abilities (aided sometimes by illegal stimulants) could keep pace and even stay slightly ahead of the curve. Nowadays, the rate of change is so astronomically fast that no one could keep up with it — least of all a 66-year-old man with a bad heart.

His answer, it appears, has been to go completely in the opposite direction, toward radical slowness. (One album in 10 years is slow by anyone’s standards except maybe Axl Rose or Andrew Eldritch.) We have no way of knowing what the album’s going to sound like, but the only clue he’s given us so far is “Where Are We Now” — which seems blithely oblivious of the modern speed of life, instead reveling in a languid pace suiting its sentimental subject matter. (In contrast, remember how frantic David seemed playing drum’n’bass during the Earthling era, circa 1997, when he was still trying to Keep Up? Seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?)

So far it seems to be working for him. About half of all Internet traffic yesterday was Bowie-related, and none of it save the initial salvo (single release, album announcement, and website relaunch) came from the man himself. I imagine him holed up in his New York City apartment today, watching with bemusement the cascading ripples spreading out from his position at the center of the universe.

As an approach to dealing with 21st-century anxiety, this is a sound strategy we would all do well to emulate. As a marketing plan, though, I wouldn’t try it at home, no matter how successful it is. What works for him won’t work for you. Why, you ask? Because he’s David Bowie, that’s why.

David Lives

Over the last couple days I’d been thinking what I could post to mark David Bowie’s 66th birthday today (also the birthdays of Elvis, 78; Bill Graham, 82; Graham Chapman, 81; Stephen Hawking, 71; Soupy Sales, 87; and on a slightly lesser note, R. Kelly, 46). It was hard to generate too much enthusiasm, as David appeared to have shuffled off into retirement after his last album, Reality, in 2003. It was going to be a link, maybe, to the video for the original version of “Space Oddity,” circa 1969.

But the tricky Mr. B beat me to the punch, shocking the world by releasing a new single and announcing a new album shortly after midnight. What is perhaps most shocking is that he managed to keep it a secret for so long. As an article in the Guardian said,

It’s incredible that, in an era of gossip websites and messageboard rumours, one of the biggest stars in the world, presumed retired, can spend two years making a new album without the merest whisper of it reaching the public. But somehow he did it.

Another interesting twist is the cover, which appears to be simply the cover of the “Heroes” album, with the word “Heroes” crossed out and a white square with the words “The Next Day” obscuring much of the content. Strange and provocative — well done, Mr. Jones and co. As for the music, I like the single — I’m not sure yet if I love it — but I can’t wait to hear more. How long till March?