Greasy hands, always.
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But Who’s Counting

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I don’t know how many file strokes it takes. My tool of choice is a Bahco 5 1/2″ Barrette with an aggressive cut. I think these are the ones with the low numbers. 00 for example. Not sure. But it takes a lot of strokes, and I don’t care if the return dulls them. I […]
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The underappreciated art of the file
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An American in the UK National Health Service

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It had been a stressful few weeks, with far more than the usual amount of fuckery and frantic frenzy, and I arrived in Liverpool last Friday on a total of about 4 hours of sleep in two days. Walking around the Liverpool One area shortly after dropping off my bags, heading towards the Tesco to get some supplies, I realized that I was sweating like Nicholas Cage on a meth bender and my heart was racing like, well, the same. I felt a tightness in my chest, short of breath, needing to sit down, and I thought, "Well, fuck, this would fuck up the next week or so." When your Dad dies of a heart attack at 46, you take that shit seriously.

So I found a National Health Service walk-in clinic just around the corner from Tesco. It was in the same space as the NHS's sexual health office, which offered free morning after pills, among other things. I went in and there were maybe twenty people sitting there. I don't know how many needed sex-related attention and how many needed regular medical help. But a very nice receptionist took my name, date of birth, and phone number, and then she asked what was wrong. I described my condition without the mention of Nicholas Cage or meth, which could have confused the whole situation. She very nicely told me to take a seat and that triage would be with me shortly. The triage nurse, I learned, examines everyone to see who might need to get in sooner than others. Apparently, I was looking terrible enough to be bumped to the front of the line.

After a few moments, I was called back to see the nurse practitioner, Niamh (pronounced "Neeve" because, well, Irish names). I can honestly say that I've never been treated with as much care, patience, and good humor by a medical professional as I was by  Niamh. She asked permission every time she wanted to do anything, from take my blood pressure to listen to my pulse. Even as I kept insisting that I was probably just exhausted and whiny, she took everything about my condition incredibly seriously and assured me that I should just follow through with what she was recommending. "It won't cost you anything," she said more than once, as if understanding the anxiety that Americans have about health care spending. "Unless you're admitted to hospital." She laughed and joked, and we talked like we're human beings having a conversation, not a transaction.

Niamh asked me a few questions about health insurance in the United States and shook her head at it. "I'm afraid we're going to head to that kind of system," she exclaimed. She told me a story about when she and her family - husband and five children - visited New York City the previous year. Her youngest, a toddler, had gotten an ear infection, so they went to a walk-in clinic, just as I had come to this one. She told the receptionist that they would pay out of pocket for expenses because they would be reimbursed when they came home. "Now, they prescribed my little one a medicine," Niamh said, "one that I know is in that locked cupboard behind you. And I know that it costs about three pounds. Do you know how much they charged me in the states? $354." She laughed, as one can when they get the money back for outrageous expenses. I told her that her experience is pretty typical.

Apparently, the way the UK system works is that whoever is taking care of you stays with you until you are moved on to the next person. Niamh recommended that I go to the Royal Liverpool Hospital for blood tests. She called ahead to see if they could move me through quickly because she knew that I wanted to get back to what I was doing. And she insisted, gently, that I take an ambulance to the hospital, even as I said I could just take a cab and would be embarrassed by such a fuss. She thought I was foolish for saying that and said that she didn't want to have to worry about anything happening to me on the ride over. I relented when she said I wouldn't be wheeled out on a stretcher. Just a wheelchair.

The two EMTs were also kind and professional and chatty, utterly and completely concerned with my well-being. One of the EMTs, a woman named Phil, told me that she had just gotten into the Royal Coast Guard sea rescue training program. The other, a man named Jack, told me about his two teenage boys, one who loves history and one who was an IT guy. When we arrived at the hospital, they advocated for me to get treatment, even though my blood pressure had returned to earth and, really, I was feeling much better. Phil and Jack said their good-byes when a nurse took me (by now, I was on a wheeled stretcher) to check me in, sitting in the hallway outside the emergency room. I was placed next to another gurney with a grizzled old man there who said he was "Mike" and wanted me to fist-bump his scabby, fungal hand. I did because, fuck, why not.

People working there wanted to talk about New York and New Jersey. One attendant, an old guy named Mick who sounded like John Lennon, chatted me up about Bruce Springsteen and Jake Clemons. The nurse who did my ECG (my second of the afternoon) wanted to talk about The Sopranos and places she could visit from the show (looking at you, Holsten's Ice Cream).

Finally, I was brought to a curtained room in the ER where, after a bit, a doctor came in and took blood samples. The doctor examined me again and, even though she insisted I should stay for another two hours and await the lab results, she brought me forms where I could discharge myself, promising I would call to see if the tests showed anything. (Spoiler: They didn't. I was fine.) As I filled out the forms, I asked her and the attending doctor, who needed to witness, for restaurant recommendations, which they readily gave me.

I've sped up the last part here, but, from walking into the clinic to leaving the ER of the hospital, it was a total of four hours. And there was not a single person I met who seemed angry or beleaguered or disgusted by the system they worked in. Every one of them was simply devoted to making sure I was ok. No profit motive. No forms to fill out. No card to check. No in-network or out-of-network. No phone calls to beg for approval. I didn't pay a dime. That's how you treat a guest.

I was blown away. Obviously, I know it can't always work so smoothly and efficiently (and that there are rocky times ahead for the NHS), but, holy shit, there was something so sane and humane about the entire process that I felt a revulsion towards what we're put through in the United States just to try to not die, the degradation of putting a price tag on our health.

If we actually lived up to the ideals that we supposedly have as Americans, we'd look out for each other by making sure that no one has to have one's worth measured against what one can afford.

Fucking pass single-payer. Or stop fucking pretending that we're a society and just admit that the USA is a Darwinian dystopia.
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3 days ago
"there was not a single person I met who seemed angry or beleaguered or disgusted by the system they worked in. Every one of them was simply devoted to making sure I was ok. No profit motive. No forms to fill out. No card to check. No in-network or out-of-network. No phone calls to beg for approval. I didn't pay a dime." ditto in Canada on many occasions for my mother especially for acute care which is when you really need to not be worrying about anything else.
Waterloo, Canada
3 days ago
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Should-Read: On how today's Republican Party is sick, sick, sick... Jay Nordlin...

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Should-Read: On how today's Republican Party is sick, sick, sick...

Jay Nordlinger: Seeing the Confederacy Clear: On the terrible issue of monuments and all that: "Ed Gillespie... is running for governor of Virginia...

...Born and raised in New Jersey... he knows his territory... is running... on the monument issue: the retention of Confederate monuments. He recently sent a mass e-mail headed “Save Virginia’s Statues.” He said that his opponent had “promised to do everything he can to remove Virginia’s Confederate monuments and statues if he is elected governor.” The issue must poll well for Gillespie and the GOP.

The Democratic nominee is Ralph Northam, currently the lieutenant governor. He says that he recently discovered that some of his ancestors owned slaves. The Virginia GOP issued a tweet — alleging that Northam “has turned his back on his own family’s heritage in demanding monument removal.” After a backlash, the party deleted the tweet, and apologized for it. If I were a cynic, I would say, The party had made its position clear. More people believed the tweet than the apology.

Every now and then, the issue of the Confederacy re-erupts.... I said that I would not wade into the issue, or back into it: because I had written so much about it at the beginning of 2016.... I have decided to wade back in after all.... Too many of my fellow conservatives are too defensive of the Confederacy, and too ardent in favor of the Confederate symbols....

What was the Confederacy? Earlier this week, I recorded a podcast with George F. Will. What he said, spoke for me:

The Confederates tried to destroy our country. That’s kind of a serious business.… And they tried to destroy our country in the name of the ultimate human evil, which is the complete annihilation of freedom we call slavery. So there’s no point in investing the Lost Cause with glamour and romance. It was an execrable movement with a hideous objective.

If I were a reporter in Virginia, I would like to ask Ed Gillespie, “Are you glad the Confederates lost the war?” Another way to say that is, “Are you glad the United States hung together and that slavery was abolished?” I wonder what he would say — in the home stretch of the campaign, I mean.

Lately, I have taken to adapting a comment I once heard Richard Brookhiser make. My line is, “I come from the pro-freedom, anti-slavery branch of conservatism.” I have no nostalgia whatsoever for the Confederacy or the Lost Cause. I’m glad that the Lost Cause is a lost cause, and not a won cause. I believe that the cause of the Confederacy was evil. (According to Norman Podhoretz, “evil” is “the strongest of all epithets.”) And I count it a great blessing of human history that this cause lost.

All of my life, I have been polite about the Confederacy and its nostalgists and its monuments. This is for a couple of reasons. First, it’s important to be polite. Second, the Confederacy… you know, lost. So one can afford to be magnanimous and understanding. One can afford to play “Dixie,” and have it played. It’s hard to lose a war. And that war was so devastating.

I remember what Barbara J. Fields said. She was my beloved professor, a historian of the American South. Her statement went something like this: “After the fall of Saigon, everyone said, ‘Americans have never before had the experience of losing a war.’ But they were forgetting white southerners.”

Anyway, I am getting less polite, as you can see. I’ve kind of had it.

Not long ago, I was at Washington and Lee University, that beautiful place. An enchanting place. I love its stateliness and grace. I love its lore. It’s sort of like southern Disneyland. Yet I don’t forget what the Confederacy was, and what General Lee was fighting for.

I was being shown around by some wonderful students. One of them mentioned that the Union Army invaded the campus (as I recall). I gave a discreet fist-pump. Just a private little gesture.

A friend of mine was saying the other day how beautiful the Confederate monuments are. Okay. I like beautiful. But what about the Confederate cause? Damn ugly, in my book.

I am told — I have always been told — that only a tiny percentage of people who fought for the Confederacy actually owned slaves. People say this as though they were proving something. I always say, or think, So what? Confederates in general were fighting for the slave system and the right to keep black people as slaves. And as Brookhiser was telling me recently, John C. Calhoun argued that slavery was the great equalizer of whites. It was slavery that made white men equal.

How so? Well, one white man may be a plantation grandee and rich as Croesus, and another white man may be a penniless bum — but they can both look down on the nigger. They can both regard him as subhuman and fit only to be enslaved. That is what united, or equalized, these white men.

I am further told that, in removing monuments, people are “erasing history” or “eradicating history.” Sometimes they are, I think, and that is to be opposed. But sometimes they are doing something else. Remember: Some monuments, or memorials, are meant to record history; others are meant to honor the person being depicted.

In the 1990s, people all over the former Soviet bloc tore down monuments to Lenin and Stalin (and to Hoxha, Ceausescu, and others). Were they eradicating history? Not at all. They know the history all too well. They want the history recorded. It’s just that they thought Lenin and Stalin should not be honored.

And they were right.

What else am I told? Well, I’m told that we can’t judge people in the past by the moral standards of today. I understand the point. But I sometimes answer, There were people for and against slavery. There were lots of Americans before the Civil War who knew that slavery was wrong and, indeed, evil.

For that matter, Moses knew it. Spartacus knew it. Wilberforce knew it. Plenty of people knew it. I can’t be snowed by this shifting-moral-standards business.

Every so often, I’m reminded how bad slavery was. Consider: For generations, Americans had the right to own other people as chattels. They could work them, rape them, torture them, and kill them with impunity. Earlier this year, I interviewed George Walker, a nonagenarian American composer. His grandmother was an ex-slave. She had had two husbands. She lost the first when he was sold at auction.

Walker knew this grandmother, very well. She never talked about slavery — ever. Except for one time, when her grandson’s curiosity got the better of him and he asked her about it. She uttered one sentence, only: “They did everything except eat us.”

That is the reality that the Confederates fought to preserve. That is the reality that they seceded from the Union to preserve. Dress it up all you want — states’ rights and all — but that is the core of it.

William F. Buckley Jr. used to warn against “slippery-slopism,” as he called it. There were always people saying, If you ban Hustler magazine from the public library today, you will ban D. H. Lawrence tomorrow. Bill hated this kind of thinking. It was a kind of anti-thinking. People should make judgments, he said. People should exercise their powers of discrimination.

I, however, have always been soft on slippery-slope arguments. And I make them. But I also think Buckley had a point: People should not be excused from thinking.

If you dishonor John C. Calhoun, do you have to dishonor Thomas Jefferson? If you take Calhoun’s name off a college within Yale University, do you have to raze the Jefferson Memorial? Do you have to change the name of our nation’s capital, because Washington owned slaves? Oh, come on.

Slavery was not central to Jefferson’s life. And he said, thinking of slavery, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” He knew. He knew. And so did Washington, who manumitted his slaves.

But Calhoun? He is famous for slavery. He dedicated his life to a defense of slavery as a positive good, for both enslaving and enslaved (and everyone else). He dedicated his life to the perpetuation of human bondage. I don’t feel the need to honor him. Do you? I’m not that kind of conservative. Are you?

Well, what would I honor and dishonor, if it were up to me? (I’m glad it’s not.) On our podcast, George Will said that honoring Lee is one thing, honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest another. (He was the Reb who helped found the Klan.) I think I would honor the dead, the fallen — memorialize them. But if it were up to me, I would not glorify the Confederate leaders. I would not put them on a pedestal.

True, people have a right to their heritage, their ancestors, their heroes. Their understanding. But remember: There are black southerners too, not just white southerners. They have ancestors too, you know. When they walk by monuments to Rebs, should they say, “Yay, they tried to keep us in slavery! Hurray!”?

And if you’re an American, what do you think of the treason? If the Confederates so loved the U.S. Constitution, as their defenders sometimes claim — why did they write their own?

Now, it’s possible to be moved by other people’s memorials. I have frequently made this point, in my columns. During my travels in the South, I always pause to look at Confederate memorials. I read the names of the dead. I think about them. I am particularly moved by the Confederate memorial in Arlington Cemetery, that woman facing south.

But — may I say it again? — I’m glad they lost. So glad. And I have no illusions about the cause.

For ages, the Republican party was known as the Party of Lincoln. It would be a shame if it became the Party of Lee. Several months ago, my colleague Tim Alberta interviewed Patrick J. Buchanan, who posed in front of a picture of Lee and held a replica of Lee’s revolver in his hands. Yippee! PJB ran for president a couple of times, coming up short. The way he put it to Alberta was, “The ideas made it, but I didn’t.”

These days, when you speak as I have, you’re accused of “moral preening” and “virtue-signaling.” (Often by people who have spent their careers morally preening and virtue-signaling.) I don’t care, frankly. I will not let my hatred of political correctness, and love of tradition, obscure the Confederacy or perfume its symbols. If that makes me a bad conservative — well, tough. You can have your Stars and Bars and your Lee; I’ll have my Stars and Stripes and Lincoln.

But can’t you have them all? Aren’t they all part of American history, and the American family? Of American history, yes. But the Confederates wanted out of the family, right? And for what reason, fundamentally?

Oh, this is a lousy issue. I will not be wading in again — I hope — anytime soon.

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#internet #socialmediamarketing #cyberpunk #graphicdesign...

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#internet #socialmediamarketing #cyberpunk #graphicdesign #illustration #peekasso

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They Have Come for the Rohingya

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New satellite imagery obtained by Human Rights Watch shows the complete destruction of the village of Chein Khar Li Satellite imagery © DigitalGlobe 2017

I spend too much time thinking about genocide. It’s a professional hazard—twentieth-century history is rather murderous—and has led to a disturbingly glib sense of gallows humor (we all have our own coping mechanisms). So, it’s hardly an alarmist or knee-jerk reaction on my part to insist that we need to be paying attention to Myanmar right now.

Latest estimates number the people fleeing Myanmar’s Rakhine state over the past two weeks at 290,000. These refugees represent over a quarter of the 1.1 million Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority. This recent round of persecution was sparked by Rohingya militant attacks on government forces in late-August. The official response has been devastating:

The retaliation that followed was carried out in methodical assaults on villages, with helicopters raining down fire on civilians and front-line troops cutting off families’ escape. The villagers’ accounts all portray indiscriminate attacks against fleeing noncombatants, adding to a death toll that even in early estimates is high into the hundreds, and is probably vastly worse.

“There are no more villages left, none at all,” said Rashed Ahmed, a 46-year-old farmer from a hamlet in Maungdaw Township in Myanmar. He had already been walking for four days. “There are no more people left, either,” he said. “It is all gone.”

Satellite images reveal entire villages have been burned. There are reports of the Myanmar military setting landmines along the Bengali border to prevent further exodus. Aid agencies and journalists have been barred from Rakhine. Some video footage appears to show mass graves.

There are long roots to this violence. Rohingya are subject to a wide range of discriminatory practices, including forced labor, limits on movement, restrictions on marriage and having children, prohibitions on certain professions, and disregard for basic rights:

Rohingya are routinely subjected to confiscation of property, arbitrary arrest and detention, physical and sexual violence, and even torture at the hands of authorities.

Earlier this year, there were revelations that government forces have perpetrated systemic sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls.

One of the most troubling state policies has been Myanmar’s absolute refusal to recognize the Rohingya. The 1982 citizenship law erased their legal existence—the government insists on classifying Rohingya as illegal Bengali immigrants and, by denying them citizenship, has left them stateless.

Moreover, this policy of non-recognition has allowed Myanmar to elide accusations of misconduct:

In 2013, Win Myaing, the official spokesperson of the Rakhine State Government said “How can it be ethnic cleansing? They are not an ethnic group.” By referring to them as Bangladeshi Muslims the state not only presents them as a symbol of Muslim invasion (which is seen as a global problem) but also as the “Bengali Muslim”, which has been constructed as an ethnically inferior identity and used throughout the Indian subcontinent to justify and legitimise genocide, whether within the Bangladeshi Liberation War or the Nellie massacre in Assam, India.

Already in 2016,

the new government of Myanmar ha[d] asked that the United States “not call the Rohingya people by that name because it does not recognize them as citizens,” said Suu Kyi’s spokesman, U Kyaw Zay Ya, reported the New York Times. He hastened to add that “Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi had not ordered the Americans to stop using the word or threatened consequences if they did.”

The world has not played along. Repeated reports have castigated Myanmar’s leaders for complacency—or complicity—with mounting violence. As Erik has been saying here for years, Aung San Suu Kyi’s human rights bona fides are tarnished. Earlier this year, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights found that Myanmar was likely guilty of crimes against humanity, while the International State Crime Initiative accused the state of genocide in 2015.

It is an unpalatable irony that even the Turkish president has deployed the g-word. 1915’s Armenian genocide echoes through the reports of unaccountable government militias in Rakhine and Myanmar’s official denials of any misdeeds.

This persistent stream of anti-Rohingya actions would be unimaginable if only we didn’t have so many ready examples of how exactly violence and purges and obsessions with illusory purity can combine to “shock the conscience of humankind.”  “Never again” usually means “not until the next time we can’t be bothered.”

Now, I know there’s a lot going on here at home. Crisis fatigue is real, what with the hurricanes, wildfires, white supremacists, daily attacks on democratic rights and institutions, and the specter of nuclear war. But this is often how it goes: when we (as a global species) are too busy—some of us fucking up the world, others fighting for much-needed justice on varied and vital fronts, many desperately trying to survive—when we are distracted and preoccupied and otherwise engaged, there are corners of the world where the virtual darkness becomes easy cover for atrocity.

I can’t offer any policy solutions and will leave it to others to try. But, as an historian I have a deep conviction in the power of witnessing. Witnessing is not watching silently; it is not a nihilistic abdication of responsibility or action; it is not passive. When we witness, we stand ready to act. We prepare refuge and sanctuary. We chronicle losses and lives. We name and condemn crimes. We protest in order to force light into the shadows. We brace for the aftermath and strengthen the supports for that brand of justice that always comes too late. We see—really see—victims’ suffering, their desperation, their will to live and to thrive, and, above all, the humanity that others would deny them.


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12 days ago
"Witnessing is not watching silently; it is not a nihilistic abdication of responsibility or action; it is not passive. When we witness, we stand ready to act. We prepare refuge and sanctuary. We chronicle losses and lives. We name and condemn crimes. We protest in order to force light into the shadows. We brace for the aftermath and strengthen the supports for that brand of justice that always comes too late. We see—really see—victims’ suffering, their desperation, their will to live and to thrive, and, above all, the humanity that others would deny them."

The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial


A few months ago, while dining at Veggie Grill (one of the new breed of Chipotle-class fast-casual restaurants), a phrase popped unbidden into my head: premium mediocre. The food, I opined to my wife, was premium mediocre. She instantly got what I meant, though she didn’t quite agree that Veggie Grill qualified. In the weeks that followed, premium mediocre turned into a term of art for us, and we gleefully went around labeling various things with the term, sometimes disagreeing, but mostly agreeing. And it wasn’t just us. When I tried the term on my Facebook wall, and on Twitter, again everybody instantly got the idea, and into the spirit of the labeling game.

As a connoisseur and occasional purveyor of fine premium-mediocre memes, I was intrigued. It’s rare for an ambiguous neologism like this to generate such strong consensus about what it denotes without careful priming and curation by a skilled shitlord. Sure, there were arguments at the margins, and sophisticated (well, premium mediocre) discussions about distinctions between premium mediocrity and related concepts such as middle-class fancy, aristocratic shabby, and that old classic, petit bourgeois, but overall, people got it. Without elaborate explanations.

But since the sine qua non of premium mediocrity is superfluous premium features (like unnecessary over-intellectualized blog posts that use phrases like sine qua non), let me offer an elaborate explanation anyway. It’s a good way to celebrate August, which I officially declare the premium mediocre month, when all the premium mediocre people go on premium mediocre vacations featuring premium mediocre mai tais at premium mediocre resorts paid for in part by various premium-mediocre reward programs.

It is not hard to learn to pattern-match premium mediocre. In my sample of several dozen people I roped into the game, only one had serious trouble getting the idea. Most of the examples below, and all the really good ones, came from others.

Premium mediocre is the finest bottle of wine at Olive Garden. Premium mediocre is cupcakes and froyo. Premium mediocre is “truffle” oil on anything (no actual truffles are harmed in the making of “truffle” oil), and extra-leg-room seats in Economy. Premium mediocre is cruise ships, artisan pizza, Game of Thrones, and The Bellagio.

Premium mediocre is food that Instagrams better than it tastes.

Premium mediocre is Starbucks’ Italian names for drink sizes, and its original pumpkin spice lattes featuring a staggering absence of pumpkin in the preparation. Actually all the coffee at Starbucks is premium mediocre. I like it anyway.

Premium mediocre is Cost Plus World Market, one of my favorite stores, purveyor of fine imported potato chips in weird flavors and interesting cheap candy from convenience stores around the world.

The best banana, any piece of dragon fruit, fancy lettuce, David Brooks’ idea of a gourmet sandwich.

Premium mediocre, premium mediocre, premium mediocre, premium mediocre. Mediocre with just an irrelevant touch of premium, not enough to ruin the delicious essential mediocrity.

Yes, ribbonfarm is totally premium mediocre. We are a cut above the new media mediocrityfests that are Vox and Buzzfeed, and we eschew low-class memeing and listicles. But face it: actually enlightened elite blog readers read Tyler Cowen and Slatestarcodex.

Premium mediocre is international. My buddy Visakan Veerasamy (a name Indian-origin people will recognize as a fantastic premium mediocre name, suitable for a Tamil movie star, unlike mine which is merely mediocre, and suitable for a side character) reports that Singaporeans can enjoy the fine premium mediocre experience of the McDonald’s Signature Collection.

Anything branded as “signature” is premium mediocre of course.

Much of the manufactured cool of K-Pop (though not the subtly subversive Gangnam Style, whose sly commentary on Korean life takes some digging for non-Koreans to grok) is premium mediocre. Carlos Bueno argues that Johnny Walker Black is premium mediocre in the Caribbean. In Bollywood, the movies of Karan Johar are premium mediocre portrayals of premium mediocre modern urban Indian life.

The entire idea of the country that is France is kinda premium mediocre (K-Pop is a big hit there, not coincidentally). The fact that Americans equate “French” with “classy” is proof of its premium mediocrity (Switzerland is the actually elite European country).

At its broad, fuzzy edges, premium mediocre is an expansive concept; a global, cosmopolitan and nationalist cultural Big Tent: it is arguably both suburban and neourban, Red and Blue, containing Boomers and X’ers. It includes bluetooth headsets favored by Red State farmers and the tiki torches — designed for premium mediocre backyard barbecues — favored by your friendly neighborhood Nazis. It includes everything Trump-branded. It covers McMansions, insecure suburbia-dwelling Dodge Stratus owners and Bed, Bath, and Beyond shoppers. It includes gentrifying neighborhoods and ghost-town malls. It includes Netflix and chill. It includes Blue Apron meals.

At some level, civilization itself is at a transitional premium mediocre state somewhere between industrial modernity in a shitty end-of-life phase, and digital post-scarcity in a shitty early-beta phase.  Premium mediocrity is a stand-in for the classy kind of post-scarcity digital utopia some of us like to pretend is already here, only unevenly distributed. The kind where everybody gets a mansion, is a millionaire, and drives a Tesla.

But the demographic at the very heart of the phenomenon, the sine qua non of premium mediocrity, is the young, gentrifier class of Blue Bicoastal Millennials. The rent-over-own, everything-as-a-service class of precarious young professionals auditioning for a shot at the neourban American dream, sans condo ownership somewhere at a reasonable distance from both the nearest meth lab and minority ghetto.

It is a class for which I have profound affection, and one whose eventual success I am sincerely rooting for. In a generally devastated global human condition, the Blue Bicoastal Millennials of the US represent The Little Demographic That Could.

Premium mediocrity is the story of Maya Millennial, laughing alone with her salad. She’s just not a millionaire…yet. She just doesn’t have a mansion…yet. She just doesn’t drive a Tesla…yet.

The essence of premium mediocrity is being optimistically prepared for success by at least being in the right place at the right time, at least for a little while, even if you have no idea how to make anything happen during your window of opportunity. Even if you know nothing else, you know to move to San Francisco or New York and hoping something good happens there, rather than sitting around in some dying small town where you know nothing will ever happen and being curious about anything beyond the town is a cultural transgression. This is a strategy open to all.

As a result, as another buddy Rob Salkowitz put it in our Facebook discussion, premium mediocrity is creating an aura of exclusivity without actually excluding anyone.

On the production side, “democratization” of anything previously considered actually premium, through disintermediation of pompous but knowledgeable experts, in the name of “consumer choice,” generally creates a premium mediocre economic sector, with a decent selection available at Costco.

Reach Up, Don’t Crash

Premium mediocrity is a pattern of consumption that publicly signals upward mobile aspirations, with consciously insincere pretensions to refined taste, while navigating the realities of inexorable downward mobility with sincere anxiety. There are more important things to think about than actually learning to appreciate wine and cheese, such as making rent. But at least pretending to appreciate wine and cheese is necessary to not fall through the cracks in the API.

As practiced by its core class of Bernie voters, premium mediocrity is ultimately a rational adaptive response to the challenge of scoring a middle-class life lottery ticket in the new economy. It is an economic and cultural rearguard action by young people launched into life from the old middle class, but not quite equipped to stay there, and trying to engineer a face-saving soft landing…somewhere.

Not all who participate in the culture of premium mediocrity share in the precarity that defines its core, trend-setting, thingness-defining sub-class, but precarity is the source of the grammar and visual aesthetic — and it is primarily visual — of premium mediocrity.

How big is the premium mediocre class? My scientific #TrueNews twitter poll reveals that at least in my neck of the online woods, 58% identify as premium mediocre gentry (N=127).

At a more macro-sociological level, as my opening graphic illustrates, premium mediocre is a kind of modern proto middle class, born of a vanishing old middle class, and attempting to fake it while waiting for a replacement to appear under their feet while they tread water. It is a class sandwiched between the crypotobourgeoisie above and the API below.

Why this particular class sandwich? It has to do with mobility options.

About the only path to wealth-building available to the average premium mediocre young person in the developed world today, absent any special technical skills or entrepreneurial bent, is cryptocurrencies.

The traditional wealth-building strategy in the US, home ownership, has turned into a mix of a mug’s game and unassailable NIMBY rentierism.

The public markets are no longer reliable wealth builders, while the private markets exclude almost everybody who isn’t already wealthy.

And the tech-startup options lottery and media-celebrity games are not open to those who can’t program at world-eating levels or shitpost at election-winning levels.

That leaves the cryptocurrency lottery as the only documented way up open to all, regardless of skills. Like many other denizens of the premium mediocre class, I too am aspiring cryptobourgeoisie, awaiting The Flippening.

To be fair, the actual cryptobourgeoisie, comprising bitcoin and ether cryptomillionaires, is a tiny class; a representative narrative placeholder rather than a social reality. The name is synecdoche; the cryptobourgeoisie includes anyone who’s made it through any kind of mostly-dumb-luck Internet get-rich-quick scheme anytime in the last couple of decades.

For the most part, even as the too-big-to-fail 1% class and the tech-nouveau-riche consolidate a new nobility, there is no real equivalent to a haute bourgeoisie class today. The cryptobourgeoisie is a sign that one might emerge though.

This thought led me to my most premium mediocre tweet of the year so far:

And below? There lies the terrifying structural boundary of our times — the API. Today, you’re either above the API or below the API. You either tell robots what to do, or are told by robots what to do. To crash through the API, and into what I previously termed the Jeffersonian middle class, is to go from being predator to prey in the locust economy.

To live a premium mediocre life is to live this pattern of potential social mobility. Many of my friends — the fraction who inhabit the tech scene but aren’t actual #entitledtechies pulling down #DeepLearning money — are from this class. The more fortunate ones occasionally break into the cryptobourgeoisie for days to weeks at a time, depending on the current value of bitcoin and ether.

The less fortunate ones have to occasionally patch over lean months with a stint of Uber or Lyft driving on the DL, under the API.

People like me, old enough and lucky enough to have earned some freebie institutional capital, socked away some 401k dollars, and earned something of a professional career rep before the shit hit the fan around 2008, are somewhere in between.

Like Molly Millennial, I’m not a millionaire…yet. But I also haven’t had to drive a Lyft…yet. As a Gen X’er with lots of free college under my belt, the momentum of my decade in the paycheck economy has created a certain amount of stability in my life that people a decade younger than me usually lack.

This is the tense, fragile, calm of a social order pretending furiously that it is not unraveling, even as a new breed of zero-sum political opportunist is gaining power by pointing out its necessary hypocrisies.

That’s what the Trumpenproletariat don’t get. The apparent hypocrisy of the bicoastal “elites” (really, the premium mediocre) isn’t weakness or low moral fiber. It is a necessary fiction that’s critical to the bootstrapping logic of the new economy.

The question is, why? Who is served by the pretense? To what end is it maintained? Is it a useful hypocrisy that leads to better things, or a toxic one? How can you too, be premium mediocre? Where should you get your premium mediocre lunch?

Before we can address these questions, we have to understand what premium mediocrity is not.

What Premium Mediocre is Not

Here’s the thing that distinguishes premium mediocrity from related concepts like middle-class fancy, nouveau riche, arriviste, and petit bourgeoisie. Though it is a social response to similar forces (a high-inequality gilded age marking an economy in radical transition from one kind of middle-class wealth-building to another), there are two elements that, I think, distinguish premium mediocrity from its transitional-middle-class cousins through the ages.

First, the consumers of premium mediocre things are generally strongly and acutely self-aware about what they are doing. In the age of Yelp reviews, memes, and Twitter trends, you have to be living under a rock to harbor strong illusions about how what you consume is perceived by your more tasteful peers. It is not a false consciousness in the traditional fish-in-water sense.

So premium mediocrity is not clueless, tasteless consumption of mediocrity under the mistaken impression that it is actual luxury consumption. Maya Millennial is aware that what she is consuming is mediocre at its core, and only “premium” in some peripheral (and importantly, cheap, such as French-for-no-reason branding) ways. But she consumes it anyway. She is aware that her consumption is tasteless, yet she pretends it is tasteful anyway. To quote scholar of taste Gabe Duquette, she consumes pablum knowing it’s pablum.

Sidebar: The Avocado Toast Paradox

There is an exception to the idea that premium mediocre things are always mediocre at the core, which I call the avocado toast paradox. Avocado toast is Actually Good,™ to use another term of art coined by Gabe Duquette, despite being legitimately premium mediocre too. This is not really a paradox. It just seems like one. Here’s why.

Though the typical premium mediocre product is an inferior good in the guise of a Veblen good, there are some things that manage to be premium mediocre by virtue of being higher-quality, but lower-utility substitutes for higher-utility experiences. Avocado toast is a good example. You can get a heartier but more mediocre (and less photogenic) breakfast item for the same price. Cupcakes follow the same logic. So does kale. All these foods might taste Actually Good,™ but might leave you hungry.

This exception exists because premium mediocrity is by and large sanguine rather than melancholic about itself. It does not wallow in brooding despair about its own precarity. It is not joyless. It likes to occasionally actually treat itself, instead of only pretending to, without disturbing the fiction it presents.

At its worst though, the avocado toast exception can lead to really weird trade-off patterns. I know of at least one pretty young woman who forgoes food for expensive Actually Good™ purses, an extreme instance of what is known as trading up. She is neither anorexic, nor particularly narcissistic. She has an entire clever repertoire of canny lifehacker tricks to score free food. Young women seem to be grandmasters at the 8D chess that is the game of premium mediocrity.

Another example that came up for discussion on my Facebook wall was really good grilled-cheese sandwiches. Are they premium mediocre or not? Depends. If they are consumed instead of two cheaper, but more mediocre meals, they are premium mediocre. If they are a substitute for an average grilled cheese sandwich, a rare gouda-over-velveeta treat, then they are a kind of middle-class fancy.

Premium mediocrity then, is a function of context and intentions, rather than absolute taste.

Second the distinguishing feature is that premium mediocrity only signals an appearance of striving upwards. Everybody in the premium mediocre world recognizes that it is not a reliable indicator of actual upward striving, such as number of code commits on github, or non-bot retweets achieved by on a tweet.

In other words, premium mediocrity is dressing for the lifestyle you’re supposed to want, in order to hold on to the lifestyle you can actually afford — for now — while trying to engineer a stroke of luck.

New Economy Social Hitchhikers

In a world where actual mobility is both difficult and strongly dependent on luck, but there is a widely performed (but not widely believed) false narrative of pure meritocracy, it pays to signal apparent control over your destiny, while actually playing by the speculation rules of a casino economy.

Premium mediocrity is the idea of the towel in Hitchhiker’s Guide. A show put on to serve as an attractor of a certain kind of social serendipity, such as being picked for one of the scarce non-technical, non-skilled jobs in the tech economy because you’ve been tweeting and exercising right, in the right kind of hoodie or yoga pants. As Douglas Adams observed:

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: nonhitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, washcloth, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet-weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have “lost.” What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the Galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

I’ll call this towel-based personal branding, TBPB. The strags in this picture are those who’ve actually made it in the new economy and have new wealth available for trickle-down operations.

For the average premium mediocre type, it pays to appear to be striving, but not to actually strive (until you have engineered an actual opening at least). To dress up near-pure gambling as near-pure Horatio-Alger-heroism. That’s towel-based personal branding.

The presence of two features — being aware of one’s own mediocrity, and faking striving — help distinguish premium mediocrity from several related concepts. Middle-class fancy, for example, is simply a sort of low-end luxury (“fancy” by the way, is an official grade designation for peanuts by the USDA) favored by the tasteless but non-precarious suburban middle class.

Premium mediocrity is also not the same as what another buddy, Chris Anderson (no not the one you’re thinking of, this one), in my original Facebook thread, dubbed “mediocre premium, aka aristocratic shabby”, which is simply diminished wealth adjusting to a lower standard of living, but not existentially distressed by financial worries. That would be things like trading a Benz for a Lexus or downsizing to a smaller house by selling a bigger one.

Premium mediocrity combines elements of the brave face-saving resigned downward mobility of a Tennessee Williams heroine, and the sunny optimism of Dickens’ Micawber, but is more complex than either.

Unlike Blanche duBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, the premium mediocre actively conjure up the kindness of strangers with towel-based personal branding rather than relying on unfocused forces of cosmic serendipity. They make their own luck; they clickbait the kindness of the new elite into their lives by laughing over their salads.

And unlike Micawber, who lives a manic-depressive cyclic life between actual optimistic striving and debtors-prison despair, the premium mediocre merely collect Foursquare mayorships (is that still a thing?) rather than actually striving to become Mayor like Micawber.

Shockingly, the strategy works more often than you might think. I’m constantly wondering, how did THAT guy/gal land THAT gig? What do I have to LARP to get that?

Because after all, we live in a more complex age than even the most prescient premium mediocre French intellectuals foresaw. One in which an emerging, not-quite-there-yet middle class must put on a show of substance for two other classes that need to believe it already kinda exists: Boomer parents and universe-denting Big Man entrepreneurs.

The Parents Are Alright

Here’s the thing — and this confused me for a long time — premium mediocrity is not a consumption aesthetic, but a financial hack powering a deliberately crafted illusion that is being strategically crafted for a purpose.

Viewed as a voluntarily chosen consumption aesthetic, premium mediocrity does not make sense. Why would anyone knowingly pay too much for obviously inferior products and experiences? Why would anyone pay a premium merely to present a facade of upward striving? Why would anyone participate in maintaining a false consciousness knowing it is false? Why would anyone choose the Blue Pill if it didn’t come with a comforting amnesia?

Why would you give up consumption value for signaling value if none of your in-group peers, among whom you are striving for status, is actually fooled by the signaling?

Who is the illusion for?

Part of the answer, in one word, is parents.

Premium mediocrity is in part a theater put on by Maya Millennial in part to spare the feelings of parents. Inter-generational love, not inter-generational war.

The premium mediocre harbor few illusions about their economic condition. The false consciousness at the heart of it is manufactured for the benefit of a parental generation that is convinced it has set the kids up for success.

In the blame-the-millennials generational war, we sometimes forget that millennials are the children of boomers, and that by and large, broken families aside, there is genuine affection going both ways. It is important for parents to believe that their hard work through the late eighties and nineties was not for nothing. That they succeeded as parents. That they set the kids up for a life better than their own.

That despite everything, their kids are alright; it’s only others’ kids who are all about participation trophies, narcissism, and entitlement.

It is stupid to doubt this. Parents everywhere generally want their kids to do better than they did, and enjoy advantages they did not. To this end, they will eagerly buy into even the flimsiest theater of success put up by the kids, and avoid asking too many pointed questions that might ruin the illusion.

No normal parent actively wishes a lower standard of living on a child coming of age. It’s just that the economy sometimes does not play ball with the best-laid plans of parents and teachers.

Equally, it is stupid to think that average millennials actively want to hurt their parents. The minor skirmishing around entitlement, participation trophies, snowflakiness, and performative narcissism is a sideshow featuring other parent-child relationships, not yours. By and large, most young people I know simply want to spare their parents the pain of facing the fact that despite their best efforts at parenting, they are struggling.

So the false consciousness — the maya at the heart of premium mediocrity — is one manufactured for the benefit of parents who desperately want to believe that they succeeded as parents and that their kids are thriving. And it is manufactured by kids who, almost as desperately, want to spare their parents the pain of knowing that they aren’t thriving.

That’s one half of the story, the backward-looking half, the passing-the-torch half. It is the part that forces a laugh at unfunny Dad jokes when Dad needs validation, and helps him feel useful assembling Ikea furniture. It’s the part that assures Mom that everything is okay and that the job is fun and that they’re going places and that they will land an art-history job with stock options and that the stock options will pay off enough for a downpayment on a house anytime now.

This is the half of the story that’s young people telling their parents they are Perfectly Normal Beasts, not disoriented and punch-drunk creatures from an entirely different economic planet who visit home through a time-space rift on Thanksgiving.

It’s why it’s worth paying that premium dollar to reassure the parents that the kids are alright. Because that’s the only way the kids can know that the parents are alright, and will live out their lives relatively untroubled by futile concerns they can do nothing to address.

Because the harsh reality is that the kids are largely on their own. They are beyond the ability of parents to help.

My parents still think I’m the reliably and steadily occupied suit-and-tie McKinsey-type consultant rather than an opportunistic skirmisher on the edge of that world. They think I am a dead-trees type writer rather than a traffic gambler. They aren’t entirely sure what a blog is. They think it’s my hobby. When I tell them I made a bit of money investing, they think stocks, not blockchains. I’m not even going to try explaining bitcoin to them. They don’t need the aggravation.

That’s the half of the act that is only dropped when parents and other significant elders are either estranged or have passed on, and you don’t have to pretend anymore.

But there’s another half to the story, the part that’s forward-looking and in a weird way, constructive.

Reverse Reality Distortion

What do you do when you find yourself coming of age in a radically unequal society, where the rent is too damn high, success is a serendipitous function of mysterious Internet trends your parents assume you’ve magically mastered in the cradle, and the only skill of unquestionable value —  programming computers well — is relatively hard to acquire and ideally suited only to a minority neurotype?

And just to make things interesting, you are also saddled with debt from a white elephant college education your parents sincerely thought would be your ticket to a good life and you were too young and clueless to avoid. And to make it even more interesting, the entire economic engine of the Brave New Economy requires you to avow belief in the reality of meritocracy and pretend luck plays little to no role.

To proclaim loudly that you think it’s mostly luck is, ironically enough, the best way to make sure you are excluded from the lottery.

So you fake it till you make it. Unless you don’t.

If the rear-facing part of the theater of premium mediocre lifestyles is designed to reassure parents that everything is keep-calm-and-carry-on fine, and not falling apart, the front of the house is designed to reassure the captains of new economy that yes, their meritocratic utopia is being constructed on schedule.

That there is a strong deterministic, learnable, and predictable relationship between striving and success; between legible merit and desirable outcomes.

That their playbook for a post-scarcity digital utopia is working as designed.

That the exceptional outcomes they enjoyed can become commonplace.

That there is not just a meritocracy in place, but that it is a broad-based meritocracy, one where most people, not just 10x programmers, can get ahead through cunning plans rather than desperate gambling.

This part of the false consciousness crafting is not so much a bunch of lies as a bunch of helpful, premature exaggerations directed at movers and shakers, a kind of collective visualization exercise. A kind of collective cheerleading to boost the morale of the heroic world-denters.

The wealthy do not actually want to be surrounded by a naked, devastated dystopia. They are not vampires who would enjoy the sight of environments drained of life energy. They like to think they are simply winning the most in a society that’s winning overall.

The things they hope are true are all true. Just not quite as true as the more deluded and tone-deaf among the fortunate like to believe.

It’s like 90% true. We’re 90% of the way towards the brave new world. Utopia is always just 10% away. It just takes the other 90% of the time to get there.

This idea of reverse reality distortion too, took me a while to figure out. Silicon Valley acknowledges the existence of the reality distortion field cast by the conjurers of new wealth. What it does not quite recognize is the reality distortion field that goes the other way: the theater of yes-your-plans-are-succeeding manufactured for the benefit of the leaders, so they continue trying to make the New Economy happen. It’s quite fetch.

Because the New Economy isn’t there yet. And building it is hard work. And signs that the plans aren’t working as smoothly as you think makes it even harder. The work needs cheerleading. Premium mediocre cheerleading suitable for Instagramming.

Because you see, while it is somewhat important that everybody drink some kool-aid, it is absolutely crucial that the leaders drink a lot of their own kool-aid. The geese who lay the golden eggs must not be killed by despair at the slow rate of progress. If they want to believe the wealth being created by the new economy is largely a consequence of their brave, individual, Randian striving, then that illusion must not be disturbed too much.

This little-recognized dynamic is why almost everybody gets the Episode of the Avocado Toast completely wrong. A clueless millionaire-next-door type, fooled by randomness into believing his own success to be a divinely ordained reward for grit rather than a matter of survivorship bias, thinks avocado toast is a substitute for home-ownership savings. This means the premium-mediocre illusion-crafting is working. 

Rejoice fellow-premium-mediocre locusts, our plan worked.

The Randian strivers will continue putting in their 100-hour weeks figuring out obscure crypotography and machine learning problems and 3d printed tiny houses so our premium-mediocre free-riding gets just a little bit more sustainable every year.

You just have to laugh while you eat your salad alone. Except you’re not alone. You’re being watched by people who sincerely want you to enjoy your salad so their work feels more meaningful. The emotional labor serves a psychological purpose.

Smile, you’re on millionaire Instagram.

This took me a while to understand because on the surface, all the illusion-crafting and believing goes the other way. Steve Jobs hypnotized you, not the other way round, didn’t he? Actually the hypnotism has always been duplex.

We help them believe the new economy is emerging faster than it is, they help us believe we are contributing more to it than we are, rather than mostly just free-riding and locusting. This is consensual utopianomics at its best.

The movers and shakers of the new economy believe sincerely and strongly in their theories of how the world they are creating works. They have to, otherwise they’d be too demotivated to continue building it. They have to believe that merit is rewarded because they sincerely believe in rewarding merit. They have to believe luck isn’t that important. They have to believe a new prosperity is taking root because they genuinely want prosperity for all. They have to believe that more new wealth has been created than is actually in circulation. That the rising tide is raising all boats faster than it actually is. That the new middle-class is bigger than it is. That 8 out of 10 can learn programming and make it rather than 2 out of 10.

That making it to the new world is a matter of grit rather than gambling.

That you’re actually enjoying your premium mediocre salad beneath that method-acted Duchenne smile.

So you see, premium mediocrity is about faking it for them, so they can continue making it for you. 

There are details here. You have to present yourself as an MVP — a minimum viable person. You need lorem ipsum filler in your performed life. Your entire existence is a sort of audition waiting for somebody to replace the stubs of a potential life with the affordances of an actual life. You cannot afford to have the stench of desperation about you, or visible signs of having been defeated by the hollowing-out.

So you must laugh as you eat your salad.

To be picked to thrive, you have to show that you are already thriving and don’t need no stinkin’ luck. You have a towel.

A Naked Call Option on Life Itself

Like all escaped realities, the theater of premium mediocrity that serves as an MVP of post-industrial modernity in our Swedish-styled neourban cores is not actually sustainable in its present form, but it could become sustainable. It is something like a complex stack of individual and collective cultural debt — in the sense of technical debt in software — embodied by what are essentially the wireframes of the new economy and the stick-figures navigating them, rather than a fully functional UI.

This is fine. This is good. This is how agile software development of the new economy should work.

I was puzzled by the economic structure of premium mediocrity until I (re)read this clever refactoring of technical debt as a naked call option. I wouldn’t have understood this as recently as a year ago, but with my newly acquired premium-mediocre cryptoinvesting savvy, and newfound cryptobourgeoisie ambitions, I do.

Unlike a covered call, which is about promising to sell what you actually own, a naked call is about promising to sell what you don’t actually own.

Like wearing a nice sweatshirt, learning the lingo, and hanging out at a hackerspace with a code editor open, looking the part, but only scrambling to learn a new skill if somebody actually hints they might want to hire you if their funding comes through in a few months.

That’s selling a naked call option. Faking it till you make it. Ironically, it calls for careful dressing up.

Like any option, the naked call option that is the premium mediocre life has an expiry date. LARPing a non-role in a meritocracy-by-consensus has a burn-rate to it. At some point you have to drop the pretense, yield your place in the lottery to newer players, and retreat to a cheaper small town and a life of below-the-API subsistence.

But there’s a chance you will win the lottery.

Human beings are odd assets: they acquire the value the moment somebody believes in them. In this they are totally unreal, in the sense of Philip K. Dick’s definition of reality as that which does not go away when you stop believing in it. Humans come alive the moment somebody believes in them enough to invest in them. Ghosts that materialize within premium mediocre shells, conjured up by magical spells known as “non-sucky job offers”.

We shouldn’t be surprised. There is a reason the Hollywood model is the reference for the tech economy. The only difference in the premium mediocre world is that it is the waiting-tables part that’s hidden from view, in the form of aggressive, invisible, price-shopping behaviors. It is the auditions that are in public view.

The premium mediocre life is an immersive, all-encompassing audition for an actual role in the party that is the new economy.

This is necessary of course, to bootstrap an economy built out of larger collective efforts, spanning hundreds or thousands of individuals acting in coordination on increasingly weird new platforms. And there has been progress. Making dollars driving Lyft is better than making pennies selling ads on a blog.

But we’re not there yet. We’re just 90% there, and the other 90% will get done any day now.

But if you don’t want to take your chances in the lottery-locust economy of naked call options that is premium mediocrity, you can try to be a Real Person™ in one of two ways: being a hipster or a lifestyle designer.

How to Be a Real Person™

If we premium mediocre types in the metropolitan neourban cores of the developed world are naked call options, your friendly neighborhood hipster down the street and your friendly online-neighborhood vitamin vendor 12 time zones away are covered call options, but for smaller stakes. They largely only sell what they can already actually deliver. They do not like the high-risk/high-return/short-runway premium mediocre life as a naked human call option in rent-is-too-high places. They tend not to dream too big, like hoping to own an actual house, unless they get unusually lucky.

To understand this, you have to situate premium mediocrity, which is a mainstream ethos, relative to its two marginal subcultural neighbors within the same economic stratum: the hipster class to the left, and the lifestyle-designing Tim Ferriss class to the right.

Unlike Maya Millennial, your friendly neighborhood artisan barista Molly Millennial actually cares enough about taste to log serious hours cultivating itMolly Millennial’s condition is sincerely aestheticized precarity. To forget, if only for a moment, the unsustainability of one’s economic condition by making obsessively high-quality latte art, is to access a temporary retreat from awareness of your false consciousness.

And at the other end of the spectrum you have the hustler, Max Millennial, arbitraging living costs and, with a bit of geo-financial judo, attempting a Boydian flanking maneuver around the collapsing middle-class script.

Four-hour workweek my ass. The Bali-based lifestyle designer people are the second hardest working people I know. Second only to hipsters avariciously collecting and hoarding TasteCoins.

Whether he sells over-the-counter vitamins, high-quality backpacks, or internet marketing services, Max Millennial too is attempting to escape the premium mediocrity that his mainstream cousin has accepted.

Though polar opposites in many ways — Max is mercenary and instrumental-minded, Molly is missionary and appreciation-minded — they are ultimately two sides of the same coin. Both are likely to be young, white (the premium mediocre class is relatively more diverse), and blessed with Boomer parents given to snide remarks about participation trophies and entitlement. Both are throwbacks to an earlier Catcher-in-the-Rye anti-phoniness ethos. Both are likely acutely aware of their privileges even as they navigate their difficulties.

Neither likes the idea of the performed life of a naked call option, of being a shell waiting for a ghost to be conjured up within. Both seek substance. One seeks financial substance within reach of non-exceptional individual striving far from white elephant student loans and high rents. The other seeks cultural substance far from centers of soul-sucking premium-mediocre consumption theaters. Both work hard at acquiring real skills. Max Millennial can actually market on the Internet and make memes happen. Molly Millennial can actually guide you to better coffee than Starbucks offers.

Each has a nemesis. Molly’s nemesis is the basic bitch. Max’s nemesis is the basic bro.

Molly and Max are fundamentally local-optimizing life-hackers, trading the mainstream casino economy for more predictable marginal ones with some substance. Both appreciate excellence and detest mediocrity. One optimizes for taste and aesthetics, the other for effectiveness and financial leverage.

But here’s the fundamental problem with Molly and Max: there is ultimately no guaranteed sustainability on the margins either. Max might retire early, but must then face the void of meaning created by a decade of mercenary arbitraging. Molly might find deep meaning in her knowledge of coffee, but at some point the credit card bills will become overwhelming. Max and Molly sacrifice the small chance of big mainstream wins for a more realistic shot at finding actual meaning or financial sustainability, but never both at once.

That is the tragedy of excellence on the margins; what Bruce Sterling evocatively labeled favela chic. Instead of individuals and specific experiences being premium mediocre, it is a case of entire subcultural milieus being premium mediocre, in ways that are only visible from outside them. Inside, things seem excellent. So long as you avoid asking tough questions too often.

Neither Molly, nor Max, has accepted the bargain at the heart of premium mediocrity that Maya Millennial has, which is to refuse to deny either the need for meaning or the need for financial sustainability. Which is why — and this is definitely my attempt at supplying a redemptive account of Maya Millennial’s choices as being fundamentally the correct ones — she chooses to fake both for a while in the hope of acquiring both for good later.

Because Maya Millennial, you see, is the basic bitch. A risk-taker who wants it all. Meaning and money.

Molly thinks Maya has a taste problem; that she is a beyond-the-pale philistine. But Maya knows she actually has a long-term financial sustainability problem and refuses to be in denial about it.

Max thinks Maya has a skills problem; that she’s a bullshit artist who cannot deliver the twitter trends she pretends to understand. But Maya knows she actually has a long-term meaning problem and refuses to be in denial about it.

Max and Molly can no more escape awareness of the false consciousness at the heart of Premium Mediocrity than Maya, but they have crafted temporary refuges that make it easier to temporarily escape from whichever flavor of existential dread — lack of meaning and lack of financial sustainability — bothers them more.

Oddly enough, Maya, she of the consciously worn mask and obviously premium mediocre theatrical life, is the most real person in this particular glass menagerie. Molly and Max Millennial, so sure of their own authenticity, are in fact the robots with Real People Personalities,™ products of Sirius Cybernetics. It is their pleasure to serve a fine cup of coffee for you, with artisan pride. Or a finely crafted marketing campaign for your fundamentally shitty product, delivered from Bali at a quarter of your local costs, with stoic grace.

Neourban Elegy

This post is, I suppose, in some sense, a sort of neourban elegy. In the past year, we’ve become so obsessed with hillbilly elegies and elaborate accounts of (and excuses for the Nazi shittiness of) the Lost Boys and Bartlebys of Middle America who seek neither meaning, nor financial sustainability in any meaningful way, that we’ve lost sight of why we so-called bicoastal elites are the way we are.

We’ve almost started believing the hostile gaslighting accounts of our own hypocrisies as some sort of conspiracy of cruelty towards a brave Middle America, where men are Real Men, women are Real Women, and avocado toast is Real Guacamole and Chips made by Real Illegal Mexicans.

Screw that.

At the heart of premium mediocrity, underneath all the hustling and towel-based-personal-branding, behind the luck-making and laughing-salad-eating, there is a deep and essential kindness. Kindness towards parents. Kindness towards the talented who work harder because they have found more meaningful work to do. Kindness towards those unlike you in every way except willingness to play the premium mediocre fake-it-till-you-make-it MVP game. A cheerful willingness to pronounce strange names and try strange foods, in the spirit of learning your part in an emerging theater.

Yes, sometimes it means accidentally buying our own bullshit for a while. Sometimes it means believing our own illusions for a while. That’s not coastal elitism. That’s not hypocrisy. That is the art of the premium mediocre performed life.

Those are the alternative facts of bicoastal life, facts that are part of trying to invent the future, even if large parts of it look like poorly designed Hollywood sets peopled by bad actors.

This story, I think, has a happy ending. The stone soup that is the new economy does create increasing serendipity. Just not as fast, and as painlessly, as the villagefolk — and here I mean techies — earnestly believe.

The premium mediocre gentry are the cultural market makers and stone-soup instigators that the new economy needs to emerge. In the end, this is what the much-valorized hillbillies who want to fearfully retreat from the future don’t get. That inventing the future means showing up to help sustain the fiction while it is being built out. It means taking risks to make money, meaning, or both.

Even if you’re only an extra on the set playing a bit part, and paying high rents for the privilege.

Even if you prefer not to.

It takes an entire gentrified neighborhood to raise a premium mediocre post like this one. Thanks to everybody who played the PM game on Facebook and Twitter with me over the last few weeks. 

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8 days ago
Yeah this one needs some editing but hits some nails right on some heads. Read read read.
Brooklyn, NY
10 days ago
"Even if you know nothing else, you know to move to San Francisco or New York and hoping something good happens there"
Bend, Oregon
10 days ago
Both this and two other posts ("Uruk Machine"/"Thresher" by samzdat) Slate Star Codex linked last week are a little too cryptic to reach the readership they may deserve—with this Premium Mediocre piece I'd have cut whole sections for clarity—and both tell ugly truths about the costs of modernity I've been pushing to the recesses of my mind for several years. I was lost in LAX with these posts in my head the other day, feeling the coherence drain out things.
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