Monday, May 31, 2010
Richard Dawkins to judge 2nd Annual 3QD Prize in Science
June 21, 2010, UPDATE: The winners have been announced.
June 11, 2010, UPDATE: See list of nine finalists here.
June 8, 2010, UPDATE: Voting round closed. See list of twenty semifinalists here.
June 2, 2010, UPDATE: Nominations are now closed. Go here to see the list of nominees and vote.
May 31, 2010, UPDATE: Today is the last day for nominations.
Dear Readers, Writers, Bloggers,
A year ago we announced that we would start awarding four sets of prizes every year (on the two solstices and the two equinoxes) for the best blog writing in the areas of science, philosophy, politics, and arts & literature. We awarded the science prizes, judged by Steven Pinker, on June 21, then announced the winners of the philosophy prizes, judged by Daniel C. Dennett, on September 22, followed by the politics prizes, judged by Tariq Ali, for which the winners were announced on December 21, and finally, the arts & literature prizes were judged by Robert Pinsky, and the winners announced on March 22, 2010.
Thus we completed our first annual cycle of prizes having exceeded our own expectations of success: through our contests we found, for our readers as well as for ourselves, great new blogs and writers to read and follow, and the quality and range of the submissions was excellent in general. And we hope that in our own small way we also managed to spur and encourage good writing in the blogosphere by acknowledging and rewarding it. We are proud that well-known and highly accomplished experts agreed to serve as final judges for each of the four sets of prizes in the first year. We thank each of them again.
We are now ready to start the second cycle of annual prizes, and could not be more excited that Professor Richard Dawkins has agreed to judge the second annual science prize. Since we hardly ever mention him here at 3 Quarks, and many of you may not know who he is, let me say a few words to introduce him... Please, I am joking! I do actually, and very seriously, wish to say this: we could not have found a better judge for science writing, as in my opinion as well as that of many, many others, Richard is simply the best science writer of our time. We are very honored to have him.
As usual, this is the way it will work: the nominating period is now open, and will end at 11:59 pm EDT on May 31, 2010. There will then be a round of voting by our readers which will narrow down the entries to the top twenty semi-finalists. After this, we will take these top twenty voted-for nominees, and the four main editors of 3 Quarks Daily (Abbas Raza, Robin Varghese, Morgan Meis, and Azra Raza) will select six finalists from these, plus they may also add up to three wildcard entries of their own choosing. The three winners will be chosen from these by Richard.
The first place award, called the "Top Quark," will include a cash prize of one thousand dollars; the second place prize, the "Strange Quark," will include a cash prize of three hundred dollars; and the third place winner will get the honor of winning the "Charm Quark," along with a two hundred dollar prize.
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(Welcome to those coming here for the first time. Learn more about who we are and what we do here, and do check out the full site here. Bookmark us and come back regularly, or sign up for the RSS feed.)
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May 24, 2010:
- The nominations are opened. Please nominate your favorite science blog entry by placing the URL for the blog post (the permalink) in the comments section of this post. You may also add a brief comment describing the entry and saying why you think it should win.
- Blog posts longer than 4,000 words are not eligible.
- Each person can only nominate one blog post.
- Entries must be in English.
- The editors of 3QD reserve the right to reject entries that we feel are not appropriate.
- The blog entry may not be more than a year old. In other words, it must have been written after May 23, 2009.
- You may also nominate your own entry from your own or a group blog (and we encourage you to).
- Guest columnists at 3 Quarks Daily are also eligible to be nominated, and may also nominate themselves if they wish.
- Nominations are limited to the first 200 entries.
- Prize money must be claimed within a month of the announcement of winners.
- You may also comment here on our prizes themselves, of course!
May 31, 2010
- The nominating process will end at 11:59 PM (NYC time) of this date.
- The public voting will be opened soon afterwards.
June 7, 2010
- Public voting ends at 11:59 PM (NYC time).
June 21, 2010
- The winners are announced.
And another Mini-Contest!
For each of our contests, I have asked designer friends of mine to produce "trophy" logos that the winners of that prize can display on their own blogs. You can see all of them here. I am now running out of designer friends, so here is an offer: send me your design for a logo for the winners of the Arts & Literature Prize (it must contain the same info as in the examples I have linked to, and the size is 160 X 350 pixels), and if I use it, I'll send you $25. Try. It'll be fun. Deadline: June 10, 2010.
One Final and Important Request
If you have a blog or website, please help us spread the word about our prizes by linking to this post. Otherwise, post a link on your Facebook profile, Tweet it, or just email your friends and tell them about it! I really look forward to reading some very good material, and think this should be a lot of fun for all of us.
Best of luck and thanks for your attention!
Eco-Friendly Grub: Arguments for Entomophagy
by Quinn O'NeillClimate change, pollution, and dwindling natural resources are growing concerns. “Green” products are widely popular and discussion of environmental issues is constant in the media. Increasingly, people are recycling and reusing, and thinking twice when they reach for plastic bags.
Despite increased public awareness of environmental problems, the role of livestock is generally underestimated. A comprehensive 2006 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN indicated that livestock are a major factor in water use, depletion, and pollution, and also in loss of biodiversity. The report estimates that, in the United States, livestock account for more than half of all soil erosion, 37% of pesticide use, and half of the volume of antibiotics used. Their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change is described as enormous.
Nevertheless, the demand for meat products continues to grow. The FAO report predicts a doubling of global meat production by 2050. This will have devastating effects on the environment. Livestock represent a slowly progressive, man made environmental disaster.
If the environmental consequences of our meat consumption aren’t enough, there are the implications for our health. High intake of animal fats and red meat contributes to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain types of cancer. Livestock products are also highly susceptible to pathogens. The consumption of animal products can transmit tuberculosis, brucellosis, and parasitic diseases caused by tapeworm and threadworm.
These problems, and concern for the welfare of the animals, have led some to adopt vegetarian and vegan diets. More recently, the possibility of in vitro meat has been proposed. But petri dish carnivory won’t be an option any time soon. Other alternatives are worth considering. What about insects?
The practice of eating insects is known as entomophagy. Though the very thought is disgusting to some of us, in many parts of the world insects are a normal part of people’s diets. Over 1400 species are consumed - not out of desperation, but as a dietary preference. And they’re not just delicious - they’re nutritious. Insects range in nutritional composition, but generally serve as an excellent source of protein and other important nutrients, like fatty acids, iron and zinc.
Europeans and North Americans, unfortunately, have a somewhat irrational aversion to eating insects. We spray our crops with toxic chemicals to kill pests that are more nutritious than the grain they eat. Yet we’ll readily eat the pests’ arthropod cousins, like lobster and shrimp. Shrimp look quite a lot like insects. Locusts, which are considered a delicacy in some places, are even referred to as “sky prawn”.
When we think of eating insects, images of Fear Factor contestants stuffing live critters into their mouths might come to mind. Others might recall the last creepy crawler that turned up in their homes and imagine popping it into their mouths. Certainly these images are revolting, but not more revolting than taking a bite out of a live chicken or a live cow. Most of the animals that we eat are killed, prepared, and cooked in a manner that renders them difficult to identify as animals. The slaughter and gutting of animals is unappetizing to say the least, but we tend not to think about these things when we’re eating hamburgers. Similarly, insects must be well prepared for consumption. Crickets, for example, are cleaned first and their heads and legs may be removed prior to seasoning and roasting.
To get around strong aversions to entomophagy, pulverization might be useful. Insect flours could be used in baking or as a protein powder in shakes. The source of the products wouldn’t be readily identifiable.
It’s worth noting that we already consume insects. Extracts from cochineal beetles are commonly used as food coloring agents. Grain beetles and weevils are milled along with grain, and some of the fruits and vegetables that we eat contain small insects. Most varieties of figs are pollinated by wasps and typically contain some insect parts. The FDA allows up to 13 insect heads per 100g of fig paste. Yum. Inadvertent consumption of insects generally isn’t harmful. Nevertheless, it’s can be good to know what you're eating. A large number of insect species are edible, but this number is small compared to the number of insect species in existence. There’s no guarantee that the insects that we eat unintentionally will be healthy.
Some people are allergic to certain insects and their components. Severe allergic reactions to cochineal extracts have been reported. This shouldn’t deter us from entomophagy in general any more than allergies and sensitivities to wheat should deter us from using wheat as a human food source. Rather, it’s a good reason to insist on the complete listing of ingredients on the labels of our food products.
In cultures that consume insects, the insects are often harvested from the wild. This can cause a couple of problems. For one, over-harvesting can devastate the insect population. Careful monitoring of population dynamics is necessary to ensure the sustainability of the harvesting practices. Unintentional exposures to pesticides can also be problematic. Monitoring the insects for the presence of potential contaminants, and cautious use of pesticides would minimize the risk of toxicity.
Raising insects is a reasonable alternative. “Mini-livestock” could be incorporated into existing farms. Insects are generally easy and inexpensive to raise, and they can be used to feed livestock as well as people. In fact, some insects are so easy to raise that raising them in one’s home is a viable option. A number of guides for raising crickets and mealworms can be found with a quick internet search.
Concern for the welfare of animals is a common reason for vegetarian and vegan diets. On factory farms, high production is the top priority and less attention is paid to animal suffering. Routine practices are often cruel, and numerous cases of exceptional cruelty have been exposed. From a moral standpoint, the killing of insects is much less objectionable than killing larger, sentient animals. Though some people prefer to relocate the wayward insects that they occasionally find in their homes, for most, the killing of insects isn’t much of a moral issue. It’s also pretty much unavoidable unless we pay neurotic attention to where we step.
From an evolutionary perspective, incorporating insects into our diet makes sense. Many of our primate cousins, including chimps, gorillas, and orangutans are entomophagous to some extent. Our earliest known hominid ancestor, Ardipithecus ramidus, is also believed to have eaten insects. Bugs have been a part of our diet for a very long time.
Entomophagy figures prominently in religious scriptures too. Leviticus recommends any kind of locust, katydid, cricket, or grasshopper. John the Baptist liked his locusts with honey. Some varieties of grasshopper and locust are kosher, and with a few exceptions, the Quran permits the consumption of insects.
Entomophagy offers a range of culinary and gustatory experiences that have yet to be discovered by Western palates. It’s also environmentally friendly, sustainable, and nourishing. The real question is not whether we should explore insects as a food source, but how to make entomophagy easier to swallow.
On the surface, overcoming such aversions would seem to be a big challenge. When one considers the popularity of hotdogs, however, and the fact that they’re made from a puree of assorted animal scraps, it seems quite possible. Perhaps the marketing, presentation, and taste value of our foods is more important than their content. In any case, keeping an open mind can’t hurt. Cricket anyone?
Cerebral ImperialismThe present is where the future comes to die, or more accurately, where an infinite array of possible futures all collapse into one. We live in a present where artificial intelligence hasn't been invented, despite a quarter century of optimistic predictions. John Horgan in Scientific American suggests we're a long way from developing it, despite all the optimistic predictions (although when it does come it may well be as a sudden leap into existence, a sudden achievement of critical mass). However and whenever (or if ever) it arrives, it's an idea worth discussing today. But, a question: Does this line of research suffer from "cerebral imperialism"?
The idea of "cerebral imperialism" came up in an interview I did for the current issue of Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine, with transhumanist professor and writer James "J" Hughes. One exchange went like this:
Eskow: There seems to be a kind of cognitive imperialism among some Transhumanists that says the intellect alone is “self.” Doesn’t saying “mind” is who we are exclude elements like body, emotion, culture, and our environment? Buddhism and neuroscience both suggest that identity is a process in which many elements co-arise to create the individual experience on a moment-by-moment basis. The Transhumanists seem to say, “I am separate, like a data capsule that can be uploaded or moved here and there.”
You’re right. A lot of our Transhumanist subculture comes out of computer science— male computer science—so a lot of them have that traditional “intelligence is everything” view. s soon as you start thinking about the ability to embed a couple of million trillion nanobots in your brain and back up your personality and memory onto a chip, or about advanced artificial intelligence deeply wedded with your own mind, or sharing your thoughts and dreams and feelings with other people, you begin to see the breakdown of the notion of discrete and continuous self.
An intriguing answer - one of many Hughes offers in the interview - but I was going somewhere else: toward the idea that cognition itself, that thing which we consider "mind," is over-emphasized in our definition of self and therefore is projected onto our efforts to create something we call "artificial intelligence."
Is the "society of mind" trying to colonize the societies of body and emotion?
Why "artificial intelligence," after all, and not an "artificial identity" or "personality"? The name itself reveals a bias. Aren't we confused computation with cognition and cognition with identity? Neuroscience suggests that metabolic processes drive our actions and our thoughts to a far greater degree than we've realized until now. Is there really a little being in our brains, or contiguous with our brains, driving the body?
To a large extent, isn't it the other way around? Don't our minds often build a framework around actions we've decided to take for other, more physical reasons? When I drink too much coffee I become more aggressive. I drive more aggressively, but am always thinking thoughts as I weave through traffic: "I'm late." "He's slow." "She's in the left lane." "This is a more efficient way to drive."
Why do we assume that there is an intelligence independent of the body that produces it? I'm well aware of the scientists who are challenging that assumption, so this is not a criticism of the entire artificial intelligence field. There's a whole discipline called "friendly AI" which recognizes the threat posed by the Skynet/Terminator "computers come alive and eliminate humanity" scenario. A number of these researchers are looking for ways to make artificial "minds" more like artificial "personalities."
Why not give them bodies? Sure, you could create a computer simulation of a body, but wouldn't they just override that?
Intelligence co-developed with other processes embedded in the body and designed for evolutionary advancement - love, for example, and empathy. A non-loving and non-empathetic humanlike empathy is a terrifying thing.
In fact, we already have non-loving, non-empathetic autonomous creations that function by using humanlike intelligence. They're powerful and growing, and they operate along perfectly logical lines in order to ensure their own survival and well-being. Here are two of them: British Petroleum and Goldman Sachs. Each of them is an artificially intelligent "being" (whose intelligence is borrowed from a number of human brains), designed by humans but now acting strictly in their own self-interests.
How's that working out?
This isn't a "science" vs. "religion" argument, either. "Cerebral imperialism" in its present form is a computer science phenomenon, but religion runs the same risks - on a far greater or more immediate scale, in fact. Religious fanaticism is selfless heroism when viewed through a certain lens of belief. And the Eastern religions that so many of us hold in warm regard have the potential, if misused, to turn anybody into an "unfriendly AI." Buddhism and Hinduism revere life. But by emphasizing the insubstantiality of life and the relative nature of human values, any of these religious philosophies run the risk of encouraging participants toward amorality.
Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult that conducted sarin gas attacks on Tokyo's subways, blended some Christian iconography with a melange of Buddhist and other concepts. They were able to lead their followers through a step-by-step process that stripped them of their attachment to transient existence and then removed their resistance to violence. It's a remarkable testament to the power of the Eastern spiritual tradition that there haven't been dozens of such groups during its history.
The Fourth Century Christian schismatics known as Donatists had a group called the "Lord's Athletes" or Agonistici, who attacked the "impure" Catholics and other believers, driving them from sacred sites the way the Taliban does to Sufis in Pakistan today. And Sufism, the loving and gentle branch of Islam, is open to similar forms of abuse. Hassan-i-Sabbah was reportedly influenced by Sufism when he formed the hashashin group (of original "assassin") in the 10th Century. Sufis have been among the most gentle and loving of historical figures, and the Persian Sufi poet Rumi is the most popular poet in North America, seven centuries after his death (although mostly in highly bowdlerized New Age translations). Yet this popular quote is attributed to Rumi: "Out beyond right and wrong there is a field. I'll meet you there."
Um, no thanks.
When mystics like Rumi or the Buddhist masters discuss going "beyond right and wrong," it's after a rigorous framework of training and is based on a cosmology that inclines toward benevolence. "Friendly AI" researchers may want to study these philosophies. If "artificial intelligence" isn't rooted in a body, it might be a good idea to make sure they're Sufis or Buddhists.
Could it be that there is no intelligence without a body? That there's only computation? That cognition is the byproduct of biological processes, and never the driver of them?
There is also the possibility that "pure intelligence," devoid of body and emotion, might sometimes or always be sociopathic.
I've written before about the Turing Test's value and its cultural and religious roots. Conversation is an output of mind, but that doesn't mean conversation is impossible without mind. The whole discussion seems to confusion "selfhood" with "mind," and "mind" with the products of mind. At best, it confuses output with structure or essence.
After all, the factory that produces synthetic leather isn't an "artificial cow."
Couldn't this over-emphasis on cognition as the core part of identity really be an attempt to suppress unruly and unwelcome emotions? That would be the same impulse that leads people to misuse the mystical experience like the hashashin and Aum Shinrikyo did. "Unfriendly AI" is a frightening prospect, but the most immediate danger is to live in a society where we are collectively detached from our emotions - one where we create a false ideal of cognition and then worship to the exclusion of other values. That's how we got BP and Goldman Sachs, two far more immediate dangers, isn't it?
Gehirn, Gehirn Über Alles! Brain, brain above all ... we might want to give that a second thought. Our current "unfriendly AIs," the mega-corporations that control our world, have already given us as much disembodied, emotionless logic as we can stand.
(1) About the term: I was going to use "cognitive imperialism," but a quick Google search to see if it was taken found 1,380 results for an anthropological term that describes a form of cultural bias. It's a related concept, but different. So I hit on "cerebral imperialism," which is even better because a) it may reflect the idea even more accurately and b) it sounds kinda cooler. A Google search of that phrase found only nine hits for a Jungian term of some kind. Oh, well ... Virtually any two combinations of words in the English language will have been used for one purpose or another, and in this kind of Google contest the low number wins.
Image of brain neurons licensed via Creative Commons from Dr. Jonathan Clarke.
Shame On Us
A time arrives when circumstances dictate that there is no choice.
“Of course the choice is yours”--- said the nonchalant and gentle voice---typically urbane, typically sophisticated— of a seasoned diplomat in the Embassy of Pakistan. His thinning hair jet black and a sliver of mustache equally gleaming above his lips curled into a smile. His eyes shone as he leaned back in his chair behind his desk—amused. A shrug of his shoulders as he contemplated me—his finger tips delicately brought together as his index fingers touched his lips and his thumbs held up his chin. As though, he were contemplating an experiment, or a work in progress. He had dealt with me before, at an embassy reception when we had gotten into an argument about Bhutto and Benazir— Bhutto had been hanged by then and she was in jail. General Zia-ul-Haq’s era was at its zenith. I had exchanged heated words with the embassy man. Now here I was sitting before him in his office at the Pakistan embassy, there to have my passport renewed. And here I was refusing to sign a clause in the application form.
“I won’t sign this” I repeated.
“Fine,” he said, “It is entirely up to you. Then I guess we are done here.”
I sat facing him in silence. He fingered the edge of the application form that I had tossed in his direction. Then without needing to push it back towards me---there was no need, he must have known, he must have done this before---he waited for the moment when I rose from my chair, as I did and watched as I leaned over his desk and retrieved the form. I signed. I needed the passport.
He grinned. “Good girl. Your hero had the Ahmedis declared as non-Muslim through an amendment in 1974 in his newly minted 1973 constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Remember?”
“He had no choice! He was forced to!”------“Like I was today.”
“Forced, really? Who forced you? Said the embassy man, his eyebrows raised in mock surprise “No one forced anyone. You weren’t forced—the choice is always yours”.
The section I signed demands that I declare, attest to the fact that I am Muslim. Muslim in a manner that the Pakistan State defines as being Muslim. This section is called: Declaration In Case of Muslim.
It reads thus:
The above heading announces a section on page two of the Pakistan Passport Application. I ______s/d/w/of-----aged--------adult Muslim, resident of__________________ hereby solemnly declare that:
a. I am Muslim and believe in the absolute and unqualified finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him) the last of the prophets.
b. I do not recognize any persons who claim to be a prophet in any sense of the word or any description whatsoever after Muhummad (peace be upon him) or recognize such a claimant as prophet or a religious reformer as a Muslim.
c. I consider Mirza Ghulam Qadiani to be an imposter nabi and also consider his followers whether belonging to the Lahore or Qadiani group to be Non-Muslim.
The section demands that you sign your name, the date and attest with your thumb print agreement with the three statements above. This section demands that you sign on to State sponsored cessation of thought and rationality. It demands that you consider Islam as only being something defined by the State of Pakistan—and as being only predicated on the negation of all others. Ordinance XX of the Government of Pakistan promulgated under General Zia ul Haq and still on the books forbids Ahmedis to call themselves Muslim or refer to their mosques as mosques or to recite the Kalima or greet using the Muslim salutation. The law of the land forbids Ahmedis to protest or take to court any injustice done to them in the name of religion including the destruction of their mosques.
The same type of clause is present in the National Identification Card's form.
There is silence about taking any real meaningful action against the violence and injustice wreaked upon the Ahmedi community. Witness the murderous events that unfolded at two mosques in Lahore, Pakistan on Friday May 28, 2010.
A report titled Persecution of the Ahmadiyya Community in Pakistan: An Analysis Under International Law and International Relations, in the Harvard Human Rights Journal states “The right to religious freedom was not only central to the struggle for the independent state of Pakistan in 1947; it was also an important part of a larger worldwide debate over human rights at that time Zafrullah Khan, the Pakistani representative to the session, Pakistan’s first foreign minister, and an Ahmadi, hailed the adoption of the articles as an “epoch-making event” and considered them entirely consistent with Islam’s emphatic denunciation of compulsion in religion. Re-asserting Jinnah’s ideals, Khan said the following to the General Assembly at the occasion of the adoption of Article 18 of the UDHR: Pakistan is an ardent defender of freedom of thought and belief and of all the freedoms listed in Article 18. For the Pakistani delegation, the problem had a special significance as some of its aspects involved the honor of Islam . . . . The Muslim religion unequivocally claims the right to freedom of conscience and has declared itself against any kind of compulsion in matters of faith or religious practices.”
The State of Pakistan has morphed over six decades into something beyond recognition. There must be millions like me who silently signed and continue to sign—an application form for a Passport of their country—meted out to them by embassies and consulates all over the world and the passport offices in Pakistan.
This declaration in the passport that the citizens of Pakistan have to sign in order to obtain a passport is the State sponsored terrorism which forces the Pakistan State’s home-brewed religion. It should be called “Paki-slam”—the definition of religion that the Pakistani State has foisted upon all its citizens. This is the campaign of hatred started by the Islamic fundamentalist parties decades ago in Pakistan to which every politician cow-towed including Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. In fact, if memory serves me correctly isn’t the current Pakistan Ambassador to the US a former leading luminary of the fundamentalist Islamic party that unleashed this terror in Pakistan against the Ahmedis?
The first thing that States that claim to have tolerant and open societies should demand of the State of Pakistan—in the war on terror is that Pakistan overturn this Paki-slam by removing this odious barbaric declaration. This claiming of one’s faith not only in a narrow manner of absolutism but also claiming piety and faith by negating and humiliating someone else’s beliefs should be repugnant and absolutely unacceptable to all States who claim to be otherwise.
Countries should ban Pakistanis, all Pakistanis, this includes the President, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister from traveling abroad to countries who claim to be open societies---until this declaration is removed, erased, deleted from the form.
If this is not done---The question becomes: Why NOT?
The time has come—there is no choice.
More Writings by Maniza Naqvi here
The river that flows both ways
flows through my house
Sometimes called paradox
—called Muhheakantuck by the Lenape
who knew that reversals in time
are not unusual,
just often misunderstood by we-
The river that flows both ways
has two sources
one in front and one behind. It flows from
two horizons and meets here
in the middle turbulently sometimes
but not always —only when I speak with
forked tongue. At all other times it
comes together silently as one
The river that flows both ways
is like the god with two faces
—antipodal from beginning to end,
Janus, like Vishnu, drifts upon his raft
into the past and future at once
remembering and hoping
The river that flows both ways
has the properties of a mirror
whose face is a nexus as Alice knew
by walking through— call it Paradox,
a town, a place I lived once
in a time before this
The river that flows both ways
has nothing to do with imagination
or poetic conceits
The river that flows both ways
really falls from mountains
is caught by tides
and carried into estuaries
The river that flows both ways
flows through my house
like the Lenape
I'll just call it
by Jim Culleny, May 27, 2010
Thanks to Frances Madeson for her comment on another poem
that lead me to this one.
The cinema of recontextualized relationships: Colin Marshall talks to filmmaker Andrew BujalskiAndrew Bujalski is the young director of the films Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax, which is newly available on DVD. Though Bujalski's funny, realistic movies are often considered by critics to be of a similar genius to other independently-produced pictures of the 2000s focusing on the personal relationships of twentysomethings, they possess an intellect and an aesthetic all their own. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]
Watching your three films, I feel like Beeswax is starkly distinct from the two that precede it, but I can't put my finger on exactly why. What would you say to that?
I would probably agree, for starters. Are you asking me to put my finger on it?
Yeah, obviously you're the closest person to that film in existence. I can't quite articulate why. It feels different. I can't exactly point to reasons why it's so different, but why do you think it's so different from Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation?
I could get into a million reasons, which are mostly minutia. One of the things about being so close to a film is, I do sort of see the forest for the trees and the trees for the leaves. I could start with technical things: we shot widescreen format, which we hadn't done on the earlier films. I could go into the fact there are twins at the center of it, which is very different, too, from the other films. All of them have been written for the people who ultimately played the leads, none of whom were professional actors but all of whom had a particular kind of charisma that I thought would translate onscreen.
Of course, those are very different kinds of charismas. That's another thing that's different about this film. What the Hathcher sisters, Tilly and Maggie, who play the twins in the film, brought to it is... there's something about their energy which is a little more inward, not quite like anything I was used to seeing on screen myself and was really interested to try to put at the center of a movie and see what happened. The audience has to lean forward a little bit to see what they're doing. I think — of course, I'm very attached to the film — I think they're miraculous in it. The rhythm of it is a little different. It's more plot-heavy, more exposition-heavy. Certainly, that was another challenge. I could go on and on.
This procedure of creating a film, of conceiving a film starting with the fact that you know somebody and wanted to see if they could carry a film, it's something you've talked about in othe r interviews and have done with the previous two films as well. What sort of things bring these people to your attention as possible leads, whether the Hatcher Sisters or the stars of Funny Ha Ha or Mutual Appreciation?
Maybe it comes from having spent too much time at the movies as a kid. It might not be healthy to look around the world and say, "How would this translate in the movies? What would this be like if I were asking it to hold together the center of a narrative?" I think everybody knows somebody who they think, "Oh, that guy could be a movie star." Not that I've asked these people to be "movie stars" with everything that entails today.
In no case have I written films I thought were biographical of these people, per se. Beeswax is not the true story of the Hatchers any more than Funny Ha Ha is the story of Kate Dollenmayer and Mutual Appreciation is the story of Justin Rice. I took what I could imagine them projecting onscreen, how I imagined what they do in their ordinary lives, and translated that into the realm of the performer. I've noticed that, when you ask people to act — and this is probably true of professional actors as well — most people pick out something about themselves to exaggerate. People tend to want to do caricatures of themselves. You start from there, and then you can craft it in one direction or another. What is this essence of you that we can translate into a performance? Is there a story to be built around that?
Was the essence these actors would pick out from themselves and exaggerate the same thing you saw in them that you wanted to use? I can imagine that being ideal — they pick out the same thing you see — or they pick out something completely different, and you've got to make a different movie. Has that happened?
Certainly, yeah. There are surprises throughout the production process. Anything you try to boil down in concrete terms — there are always swerves and surprises. If somebody ate something weird for breakfast, they might come in in a different mood than you expected.
With Beeswax, I had a vague notion of the story, but I hadn't begun to write it. I went to the girls and asked them if they would... first of all, it's a huge commitment. You're asking somebody who is not a professional actor to take quite a bit of time and quite a bit of emotional energy to give to a project like this. As we all get older, it becomes harder for people to find the time to do these. First, I asked if they would even be interested. They both seemed game for it. We did a little screen test, and at first I had a notion of what these two roles would be. We switched it.
We did one run-through of a scene with Maggie playing the small business owner and Tilly playing her sister, and then we did it again and switched the roles. My initial instinct had been to cast the opposite of the way I ended up actually doing the film. I thought I would have Maggie play Jeannie the small business owner, and it became clear from that screen test that what they were going to bring of themselves to the roles instinctually — it was much more interesting the opposite way. Tilly was bringing a certain reservation. There was an inwardness and even maybe a defensiveness that I thought could be really, really interesting, if we used it right, in the Jeannie role.
This was a situation where, early on in the process, before I'd written the script, where something made me think very differently about how I was going to approach this. That's at the macro level. On the micro level, when you're on set, you always have to be paying attention to what the actors are bringing, and looking for ways to make that make the film more interesting.
It seems like you have an interesting relationship to — how to put it? — the way your own imagination and what you envision for a film interacts with all the other minds involved. It sounds like that's both the biggest challenge and also something you absolutely need to do what you do. Does that make any sense?
That makes perfect sense. My wife is a novelist, and I often envy her for not having to deal with all the pragmatic headaches that come with filmmaking. I also know that I wouldn't survive doing what she does. She goes off to a room by herself; everything has to come from within her. I think that would eventually drive me insane.
When it's working, it's great fun; it's a great feeling to be able to feed off the energies of others. Directing is a very strange job. If you go to a movie set and look around, you see lots and lots of people: everybody's running around, everybody has specific jobs to do. On a good movie set, everybody's very talented and good at their jobs. The director's the one person who doesn't really... do anything. Everybody else has some specific task to fulfill, and the director theoretically is, in some cosmic, alchemical way, shaping everything. But it's very unclear what the job really is. Ultimately, it's just about channeling other people's energies and then taking the credit.
Is the fact you're feeding off of these energies, shaping them, is that why you tend to work with actors who you have some existing relationship with, who you're already friends with? Is it easier for you — obviously, the answer should be yes — to work with energies of people you got to know in a non-moviemaking capacity?
It's certainly helpful in terms of knowing what those energies are, just having a better read on the people. That said, there are a lot of people who work on these films: some are old friends, others I did just meet in the context of making the film. It's probably a limitation of sorts, but I wouldn't really know how to work with somebody I didn't essentially already like and get along with. I get along with most people, so it's not too narrow a framework, but I do find I've always worked better communicating in the language of personal rapport as opposed to some elevated language of craft.
To get back to the characters in Beeswax, I was thinking of the contrast between the characters of this film and the characters of the previous two. It seems to me that what people often bring up as far as the differences between this film and its predecessors — what's the Chuck Klosterman quote — the ones before being about people "beyond college but unprepared for life." It seems like the characters in Beeswax are — I'm not saying it's a difference in kind, but — a little further out of college, a little more prepared for life. Is that an acceptable way to put it?
I'm not sure what constitutes preparation for life. For better or worse, we're all in it and it's moving at a constant speed, although sometimes it seems like it's speeding up. Certainly, the characters are a little older, which is a by-product of the fact that... I keep getting older. I think I object to the notion that any of the characters are "unprepared for life," or that they would ever get more prepared. I'm not sure exactly what they're supposed to be preparing for. There's jobs, there's adult responsibilities, so forth and so on. But those come at you one way or another.
Would you say the concept of preparation for life itself is maybe ill-defined, not that useful?
It seems that way to me. Of course, someday I'll have a teenage child, and I will throw that same notion at him and say, "Get prepared for life." The world has changed so much. I showed Funny Ha Ha in Florida a few months ago, at a college. There was a hand raised during the Q&A, and the guy said to me, "This all seemed very familiar, but when was younger, this would be the kind of behavior exhibited in teenagers. I wouldn't expect it from people in their twenties."
Whether or not that's a fair or accurate assessment I don't know, but it does seem like there is a kind of ever-extending adolescence in our culture and in whatever subset of the culture I exist in. But I also noted that, in terms of marriage and family and all these things, my father was 25 when I was born. My wife is pregnant now, I'm 33. Just taking that as rough estimate of how much things have slowed down in a generation. It takes you that many extra years to get to the same place. But does that mean I was less prepared for life? Not necessarily. I just think the world was moving at a different pace.
I want to know what you think of the way the press about your films, the reviews and the discussions and the reactions, think about your characters. Obviously, you've had such a huge role in making these films, and you have a lot of understanding for these characters — I would say compassion for your characters. Even the people who like your movies a lot often will regard your characters as one step up from drifters. How do you feel about that?
Mixed feelings. I don't want to step on anybody's toes who's trying to take their own feeling away from the films. I never would say, "No, you're wrong." I will say, I've never gone into the films as a sociologist or ethnographer. That's something that, sometimes, the films are tagged with: "This is an ethnographic study of middle-class white people in their twenties." I can only say that was never my approach or intent.
I always looked at it — again, stuck in the minutia — at this very basic level of character and story. I cared a lot about these characters, and I cared a lot about what was happening to them, what paces I was putting them through. I've always looked at it, maybe naïvely, in a much more general sense. Funny Ha Ha, for me, was a story about a young girl trying to find her way in the world much more so than it was a story about the challenges of communication in the 21st century or whatever the bloggers or the people writing their theses might say about it.
There is a certain amount of grandness that reviewers use. I suppose you don't really feel that until you are the subject, or your work is the subject, of one of those high-flown reviews.
It's a peculiar position to be in, but I grew up in that same movie-watching culture and movie critical culture. I go to movies and come out of them using words I learned in college to describe them, so I don't want to say that's the wrong way to approach it. When you make a film, you fantasize about this platonic idea of the audience member, somebody who comes in with open eyes and an open heart, ready to experience it on a personal level.
That's the thing I most wish for an audience member, just that they go in there willing and ready to have their own personal experience of the film, and have it relate to their own life and not go into it thinking about something else they read about it or some other movie. Of course, that's unavoidable. That's how a lot of us watch movies these days. But it's not my dream
That openness you hope for, is it a hope that springs from not seeing a lot of it around, or is it a hope completely separate from what you actually do see in audience members? That's not a very clear question, but —
I think I get it. The hope springs from my best experiences of the movies. I've had the best time and the most moving experiences when, either by intent or coincidence, I have come to it open. Certainly, some of my favorite movies I just happened to stumble into not knowing anything about them. That's a really hard experience to wrap up and market.
Funny Ha Ha had this great journey. I "finished" that film in 2002 — of course, in one way or another, it's still a presence in my life today — but it took until 2005 to have an official theatrical release. When I finished the film, I was very unconnected in the world of independent film distribution or even the festival circuit. It was very slow getting attention for that film, working its way to wider attention.
In a way, that film had a perfect build, where at first people really could come to it free of preconception. I think that was the best way to see it, and I'm happy we got to draw that out on as large a scale as we could. It becomes unrepeatable, and of course, I don't have the time now to let a film build its audience for three years. I'm too busy for that. But it was nice to go through it that way, and I do think it was ideal for that film.
With Funny Ha Ha, this is the question that comes to mind. It seems to me that one of two things could be true, but not both: it could've found success because it is extremely accessible, because it's a milieu, to use one of those words you learn in college, that people will be super-familiar with — it's pulled from the lives of so many — or it could be very inaccessible, because it doesn't look or feel like a "regular movie." I could see either. Do you think either did have an effect, positive or negative?
I think both. The harshest critics of the first two films have always been what you would imagine to be the target audience. The most vituperative reviews would be written by someone who is 23 and just out of college, saying, "That's supposed to be my life and it's not. Here's a detail they got wrong," a very sharp critical eye to it. That's also a certain kind of — I don't want to get too deep into this — self-loathing endemic to people at that place in their lives of the American white middle class right now. There's not a huge desire to see something too familiar represented onscreen.
Kind of a "close to home" feeling?
I think so. Again, maybe that's self-serving to say. Certainly, it's the impression I've gotten.
Has that decreased over time? You're now on number three. The characters in Beeswax are distinctive enough that I don't know how many audience members are going to think they're like them in ways that are obvious. But maybe they do. Maybe I'm predicting wrong and maybe there's more identification this time around?
I really don't know. What identification there has been is not necessarily right on. Again, I've always gone into it thinking not about representing a certain social class and not about ethnography but about very, very specific characters. My hope is that, in doing so, they will seem flesh-and-blood enough to be relatable and familiar. But everybody who walks into that theater has a different experience of life.
The films, to a fault, have always avoided trying to cue the audience and tell the audience what they should be making of a situation at a given point. This is the thing I think people who don't enjoy my films and don't get into them find most infuriating: they're never being told what the movie's about. It can drive people crazy. It only works if you are willing to find your way in and figure out what it means to you, or what it feels like to you, maybe more importantly.
The most exciting thing is, when I do talk to people about the films and go to screenings, people come out with wildly different opinions. While the film may decline to tell you, "This person's a hero, this person's a villain," nonetheless people do want to make those judgments themselves. People do come out and say, "I loved this guy, I hated that guy." The next person will have felt exactly the opposite. To me, that's when it feels like it's working well, when two very different viewpoints can look on the scren and see something that makes sense to them, that feels like a complete world to them, but tak away very different conclusions from it.
This notion that the films don't tell the audience what they're about — I think, as a lover of cinema, that's a good thing. I look for that in movies. That's maybe the number one quality my favorite movies share: what they are about is not "obvious" and certainly not dictated by the film itself. But there is a side effect. Just last night, my girlfriend was asking me what Mutual Appreciation was about. I was saying, "Well, it's about this guy, a musician, who turns up in New York and complicates the lives of his friends there. He's at some parties that go on too long." I could tell I wasn't really selling it. It boils down to me saying, "You just have to watch it." Is that a quality you find in your own favorite movies?
A feeling that I love, sitting in a movie theater, is the feeling of being just one step behind, of watching the movie, being completely engaged, and feeling like I'm just a little behind and trying to figure it out, trying to catch up, Obviously, if you fall too far behind, you get frustrated, you give up, or you say, "This is horseshit. They're leaving me behind on purpose." You might have to bleep that. Sorry.
When the world feels complete up there, you're always willing to go after it. That's always been my goal, to get something up onscreen that makes a certain kind of sense. If there are mometnts of obtuseness, if there are moments of confusion, hopefully they ring true and make the thing all the deeper. That's part of using nonprofessional actors. Not to disparage profesisonal actors — obviously, 99 percent of my favorite movies are my favorite movies because of the work done by professional actors — but there's a way in which I think part of what a professional actor is trying to do is clarify and help the audience understand what the scene is about. For these films, I didn't want that kind of clarification.
For better or for worse — I don't know if I intended it to be — Beeswax may be the most challenging of my films. Part of that is this real desire and drive to point away from that clarification. I really enjoy watching characters try to figure out things happening to them, but I always want it to have an inherent logic and make sense. I like feeling a step behind, and I kind of like it when the caracters are a step behing, when they're trying to catch up to the movie, too.
As a filmmaker working on your own projects, is it even possible that you could have actors very precisely articulate what a scene is about? Are you actually conceiving a scene with this concrete idea you can write down about what it is "about"?
Yes and no. I need to know what I'm doing as a writer. I need to know where the movie's going. Directing a film, you have to play god. That's the job, and you can't abdicate your responsibility, but, by the same token, you're not god. There are always going to be things beyond your control. You try to use them, you try to work with them, to make the film more interesting. I have found myself, as a writer, when I go back to take another pass, to write the next draft, sometimes, in an early draft, I will come too close to a line of dialogue that says, "Here's what the scene is about." That's always the first thing I cut, because it seems to make the scene more interesting to have people trying to discover that thing, or going toward it, or going around it, or going near it, than bounding off it.
Some of the critics that I really like, when they write about your films, they bring up a usual suite of themes: ethics, morality, various forms of social confusion and maybe crossed wires or slight miscommunication. It's the ethics and morality component that I find the most interesting. Do you actually see those as being common themes throughout your three films? In Mutual Appreciation especially, you can see the worldviews as cross-purposes, and the "twenty different motivations at once" you once talked about in an interview that characters operate with. Is that a constant through your films so far?
I think so. Probably more so as they go. Beeswax literalizes that motif inasmuch as there's some threatened legal battle at the center of it. A lot of the narrative drive of that film comes from one character afraid she's going to be sued by her business partner. That's directly about not only a moral-ethical standoff which may metastasize into this legal battle, but also the difference between how people conceive of things officially, how you write it down in your legal contract, and how you thought you were relating to that person.
Any time I've ever signed any kind of contract, it's caused me great anxiety. I always look at the words on the paper and think, "When we talk on the phone about this, this is not the way we're talking about it. This is a whole different language. This is a whole different agreement." That always has fascinated me, the difference between the official story and how people actually relate to each other.
This recontextualization of relationships — you talk about moving something that's been a friendly arrangement into the world of law and contracts and legal language and lawsuits and what have you. It gets me thinking about how you can see that kind of recontextualization in Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation.
My first impulse is to say that characters struggle in those movies have certain relationships between one another that are tacit, that they don't talk about directly. When they do try to transfer those relationships to words, when they try to define them, it ends up becoming a dog's breakfast. It's this muddle they can't figure out, at least for a while. They're trying to define who they are to each other. Is that too far to extend this, or do you think that's accurate?
I buy it. I don't know that I have much to add.
You buy it, but was it anything you thought or was it just kind of how they came out?
I think it's just how it came out. Ultimately, a lot of these questions about where these motifs come from, where these themes come from probably just come from my own muddled-mouthedness.
You can see the clash of worldviews in your movies, but you can also see — I want to get an idea of what elements of your own worldview are present in there as well. You've talked elsewhere about how you can't conceive of characters as being evil or villianous, inherently. That's another quality in my favorite movies: there aren't "bad guys," nor are there necessarily "good guys." Is that a quality of movies you like as well, or is that just the way you find you create characters?
It would be interesting to try to do, because obviously I live in the same world that everybody else does, in which there are highly villianous acts undertaken all the time. Where do those come from? Do they come from bad people or somebody who was abused as a kid, and that's the reason why they're going to take it out on somebody else? Where do these things come from? I never meet somebody and think, "That's a bad guy." I might think, "I don't like that guy" or, "I don't want to deal with that person" or, "I don't understand this person." That's a common one. My wife makes fun of me for this: sometimes we see a movie, and occasionally I will say, "I didn't like that movie. That movie's a piece of crap." More often, I'll say, "I didn't get it," which is how I tend to feel about things I don't relate to.
Maybe evil is something I just don't relate to; I don't get it. It's too easy for me to say, "That's person is possessed by the devil." It makes more sense for me to say, "I don't know where that came from. I don't understand it." I want to be ginger about that, because I know ther eare people in the world who have been injured by villianous acts. I would never say to that person, "You just need to try harder to understand the person who killed your family." Maybe that is a worthwhile endeavor, to try to understand the person who killed your family, but I understand why you might not want to hear that if you're that person. We may be way off topic here.
That's okay. There is no topic. Besides, I think it is pertinent. With this issue of "bad" people versus the "non-bad" ones —
This was a big question when we were doing Beeswax. The Amanda character, the business partner, who may or may not be suing Jeannie, who drives a lot of the story — Anne Dodge, who played that role, was afraid her character was the villain in the script. She didn't want to be the villian. To some extent, that was something we had to work through on set: I would find her wanting to soft-pedal the character and I would say, "Don't do that. Give the character her due and push it the way the character would. I don't see her as a villain and I don't think you should either."
She's somebody who has a very, very different perspective than Jeannie. She's frustrated and giving trouble to this nice person at the center of the story. People have come out of that movie and said, "Oh, I hate Amanda, Amanda's a bitch." Other people come out of the film, and I think the film makes it very possible for you to say, "Huh. Maybe she has a point." She may seem villianous in a certain context, and narrative film asks you to think that whoever's giving the lead character a hard time is the villain, but there's a lot of evidence in the film that Amanda might be on to something.
In the first few scenes in which she appears, I did feel something of a dislike for her. I couldn't put my finger on why, because I wasn't totally clear on what objection Jeannie had to Amanda and vice versa. finishing up the movie, Amanda does seem more sympathetic, but at the same time, it does seem to me that the actual conflict between them isn't laid out clearly enough to prevent people from seeing what they want to see in Amanda, or even in Jeannie. Is that what you found?
Yes, that sounds exactly right. I think it's also true of those conflics in general. That was also my feeling going into it. It is not explicit in the film exactly what the crux of their argument is, so we talked about it, we said, "Here could be some points of contention. Here's maybe how this all grew." But ultimately, I feel like partnerships that end up in disorder, it's almost invariably a situation of personality conflict: people who don't think about the world the same way being forced to work together.
Although you might think you like each other, when it really comes down to it, when things get difficult, when you have to work together day after day, it's hard not for these personality conflicts to erupt. Like a marriage, either you figure out how to work together, or things devolve. That's where this movie finds these characters, in this devolved place, trying to figure out how they got there, which is always fascinating to me. You take people who try to look at things — each of them is looking at the situation rationally, but they have different ideas of what rational is.
This idea of personality conflict, two sides who are looking in a rational way at the same core issue but coming to a conflict — obviously this is at the center of so much drama throughout history, drama in the sense of wrought drama as well as drama in regular life. It's a fixture as well of super-super-super-mainstream movies. Many of them are about a personality conflict, in a broad sense, the same kind of thing you might use.
In a lot of those very mainstream movies, it is resolved in a textbook way. There's a standard set of resolutions for the kind of problems a mainstream movie might use. Beeswax ends before the resolution of a certain thing, if that's vague enough. Do you find that, in life, these personality conflicts can get resolved, or are they perpetual? Is that maybe why they interest you?
Great question. What do you think? I think some people work their way to their own personal version of a resolution. You can cut off ties with somebody and say, "That person's out of my life, therefore the issue is resolved." But is it? I don't know.
It does become an issue of defining resolution, which itself sounds like a pretty thorny thing to get into.
Your films get talked about so often as, "They're not plot, they're character." It's the sort of film I enjoy, and you probably do as well, or else you wouldn't be making them. You've talked in other interviews about how you started, as a kid, going to movies all the time: watching Return of the Jedi, Friday the 13th Part V, Rocky III. These films are very, very plot-driven. What was your path, as a lover of cinema, from plot to character, from liking one to liking the other in larger doses?
I don't know if it's anything so direct. Partially, this is just the journey from being five years old to getting older. When I come out of a blockbuster and say, "I didn't get it," it's just how you watch movies. Rocky is a very vibrant character, for me, was and is. Maybe all those movies are always character-based in my mind.
It's more an issue of perception? A movie might not actually be this percentage plot, this percentage character? It just depends on what you're looking for?
Absolutely, there's no question that my experience has shown to be that people have different ways of watching movies. Some people can't handle my films because the way they watch a movie does not allow for this kind of storytelling. They can't process it. It's like not being able to digest certain enzymes.
I saw Iron Man 2 a few days ago and had a great time; I really liked it. One of the things I liked about it — I'll really get in trouble if I spoil Iron Man 2 — the climactic battle with the supervillain was not that long. I was kind of amazed at how relatively concise it was. I don't go to most blockbusters, so I'm not completely up to date on them, but it's my impression that, in recent years particularly, those things are supposed to drag on forever.
Not that the movie lacks for robots punching each other — it has a ton of that — but that stuff is not the most fun stuff for me, robots punching each other. There are other things that really endeared the film to me. But there are other people who go to the movie and really, really, really want to see robots punching each other, and really get something out of that that I don't quite understand. I'm not going to take that away from anybody; I couldn't take that away from anybody if I wanted to. But it's just another way of watching movies.
I haven't seen either of the Iron Man films, but I have heard they're blockbuster action movies that set themselves apart from, say, a Transformers or a Transformers 2 — I don't know if there's a third one, but — a Transformers 3 by having a very — "nuanced" is maybe too much — distinctive character in the person of Iron Man himself. Do you think that's true, and you respond to that?
That's a big part of it, but it also could be what I ate for breakfast. I liked the second Iron Man better than the first one, which I think is a minority opinion. I just enjoyed the way it moved; structure means a lot to me. There are all these things I expect to see in a modern Hollywood movie, and it moved much more reasonably than those. Let's not spend 45 minutes on the final battle. Not that I felt underserved by the final battle; the final battle was fine. It was great.
But there were a lot of choices in Iron Man 2 that maybe were more character-centric, if I think about it. They were spending time on things and they were building things in a way that I found a lot more relatable than what blockbusters are in the habit of doing these days. I think it's very, very similar steroids in major-league athletics: every script is on steroids now. It takes a lot of the fun out. For me, that does not produce the artistic equivalent of a home run, but obviously, for many viewers it does.
I'm interested by the attitude you have displayed toward the dynamic between blockbusters with steroided scripts and everything else, movies that aren't driven in that same way. A lot of people I talk to who are young filmmakers, young cinephiles, or who like the kind of movies you make, they'll adopt what I would call a much worse attitude. They'll say, "Oh, audiences are stupid, America's stupid, producers are stupid, money is stupid —"
Money is stupid. I'll go with that one.
What does that mean to you, "Money is stupid"? I need some clarification from a filmmaker here.
Over the years, I've developed a fair amount of confidence in my abilities as a filmmaker. If the word came down that it's time to go out and make a movie, I feel confident that I could bring back something good. Whether or not it's great depends on how lucky we are and how in the zone I am, but I believe I can consistently make good films, and I hope do that for the rest of my life, if I'm able to.
I have no confidence in my ability to produce and participate in the commercial marketplace. The commercial marketplace has always made me very nervous, probably more so than is necessary. That's something I need to get over. But money has one goal, which is to produce more money. If you look at the kind of films that come out of that, they're not usually the best films. Something like Iron Man 2, which i enjoyed, is a kind of aberration — sneaking one past the gates. It's also this cluster of good forune: Jon Favreau, making that film, had a certain amount of good taste.
You read interviews with him, and he talks about how he had to fight the cast, Robert Downey in the first one, Mickey Rourke in the second one. You look at these films and go, "Of course. These guys make the movie." That's somebody in a position of power who had the juice to push against the money, in one sense, although obviously it worked out fine and the money is happy.
It seems to me, though, that a director controls many things, but the one thing a director can't really control is the financial return. There's so many players, as you know better than me, between the director and the people paying at the other end, the audience members, the people buying the DVDs. There's all this distribution stuff and all these rights issues, where it plays, who's screening it and all that. In a real sense, can you care, as a director, about the money it makes? Of course you do care, because the money it makes affects you, but does it make sense to care?
I wish I didn't. I've made three fairly cheap, fairly small films where there was no expectation for them to be blockbusters by any means. But I've always gone into it, for better or worse, for better and worse, refusing to think about money until the movie's done. When the movie is done and we're ready to bring it into the world, the we can talk about how to market it. I'm not interested in talking about how to market it before we make it. Maybe that's naïve, maybe that's childish, maybe that needs to change,
I've always felt like the one thing that the vast majority of movies that are relased in the marketplace have in common is that they were, in some way, designed with that marketplace in mind. Obviously, the studios have made a science out of it and it's hit or miss in the indie world. Most movies that are made, somebody, somewhere has an idea of how they're going to get their money back. Sometimes they're right, sometimes they're wrong.
I always thought, "Well, if I take that out of the equation, I open up a whole other spectrum of things I can do as a filmmaker." There's all kinds of movies that just can't get made from that mindset, so if I remove sustainability from the list of priorities, there's a lot more i can do and a lot more that I'm interested in. That's another thing I'm stuck with: a lot of the things I'm interested in go hand-in-hand with ways to lose money.
It seems like we've reached a point where the sort of aesthetic you've worked in and at least a handful of other pretty well-known filmmakers of your generation and younger have worked in — that's become a reognized way of making films that are good and that people appreciate and that are attractive, in some sense, to audiences.
But it seems to me that also brings about the conditions where — I hesitate to use the word "suit," but — some suit might say, "Hey, now that these sorts of movies about twentysomethings made kinda lo-fi are hot, here's what we do: we market this movie to these twentysomethings, it's gonna be made to look deliberately 16-millimeter-y, deliberately directionless protagonists," a super-engineered version of Funny Ha Ha. Is that actually a condition that has obtained? Is the money world interested in making the cynical Funny Ha Has at this point?
I don't think so. Basically, what it comes down to is, these days anybody can log on to Boxofficemojo.com and see what these movies gross. They don't gross that high. There are a lot of reasons for that, and certainly the independent world in general — depending on your definition of "crisis" — there is a kind of crisis right now, where it's very, very hard to make the money back on anything "independent." Even the things you think would have been indie hits ten years ago, certainly twenty years ago, are having a lot more trouble today for a variety of reasons.
That's a lot of excuses. What I'm trying to say is that my movies haven't made a lot of money, and so any suit looks at that first before they think about what they might be able to pillage from it. Certainly, a business-savvy person might look at my films and say, "There's something we can use here," but they're not going to try to replicate those films.
All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.
EXPOSED: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera. Tate Modern, London
by Sue Hubbard
Little could the British inventor, William Henry Fox Talbot, have imagined, when in 1841 he developed the calotype, an early photographic process using paper coated with silver iodide, where this nascent technology would lead; the ethical and moral questions that photography would raise. From Fox Talbot’s point of view the camera was about producing ‘natural images’. But more than 150 years later we know that the photographer’s relationship with his subject is more complicated. As Susan Sontag perceptively put it in her seminal book On Photography: “like a pair of binoculars with no right or wrong end, the camera makes exotic things near, intimate; and familiar things small, abstract, strange, much further away. It offers, in one easy, habit-forming activity, both participation and alienation in our own lives and those of others – allowing us to participate, while confirming alienation.”
Voyeurism and its cousin, surveillance, have been one of the unforeseen consequences of photography. We take it as a given of modern life that the celebrity is both hungry for photographic coverage, whilst feeling that the paparazzi (as in the case of the late Princess Diana) is constantly hounding them. One of the most complex questions raised by photography is what constitutes private space, provoking slippery questions about who is looking at whom and the degree of surreptitious pleasure and exploitation of power involved. Since its invention the camera has been used to make clandestine images and satisfy the desire to see what is normally hidden or taboo. No one knows exactly how many CCTV cameras are spying on us in the UK as we go about our day to day lives. A figure of 4.2 million cameras has been cited. That’s about one for every 14 citizens and means that most of us will pass an average of 300 cameras a day. Mobile phone and digital cameras are now ubiquitous, making voyeurs of us all.
This summer Tate Modern’s massive show Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, takes a look at photography’s voyeuristic role from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present day. Taking as its starting point the idea of the unseen photographer the exhibition includes a wide range of images, from the impromptu to the intimate, taken in a number of ingenious ways. For when the camera moved out of the photographic studio into the street – where originally no one expected to find it – it was easy to take a subject unawares. By around 1870 advances in technology meant that the gelatine dry-plate had virtually eliminated the cumbersome wet-plate process which had evolved from the daguerreotype and salt print. Movement became easier to record. With the dry plate’s increased sensitivity came the invention of the shutter, which regulated the passage of light into the lens to hundredths of seconds, allowing for a reduction in camera size. Soon cameras became small enough to hide and use covertly. These early portable examples known as ‘detectives’ were often more fanciful than useful. On display at Tate Modern is an (undated) pair of men’s black brogues with a camera hidden in the heel. It seems uni-bombers are not the only ones to favour shoes. Others were concealed in canes or umbrella heads. Among the most practical was the early ‘vest pocket’ camera designed to be worn on a man’s chest with the lens located in a cravat or tie, where a stick pin might have been, leaving the hands relatively free.
By the 1880s George Eastman’s Kodak, which needed little or no focussing, allowed the man or woman in the street to shoot (note the violent terminology alluding to the stalking of prey) their own ‘snap’ shots. The photographer became a potential violator of private space, snapping bathing young women like some latter-day version of Susannah spied upon by those biblical elders, and intruding on moments of public tragedy, as well as private grief. Divided into five areas the exhibition explores street photography, the sexually explicit or implicit - pictures we normally associate with voyeurism and pornography, celebrity stalking, death and violence, along with surveillance in its many forms. Some of the viewing is uncomfortable, turning us and not just the photographer into a voyeur. There is Auguste Belloc’s 1860s image of an unknown Victorian woman (covering her face with her hand, whilst lifting her voluminous petticoats to expose herself), Jacques-André Boiffard and Man Ray’s 1930 fetishised Seabrook, Justine in Mask with black stockings, high heels and a dildo, as well as more contemporary shots by Kohei Yoshiyuki of Japanese men, unaware that they are being photographed, gathering a dark park around copulating couples to indulge in their oniastic pleasures, and Robert Mapplethorpe’s deliberately provocative 1980 image of a Man in Polyester Suit exposing his amble manhood. But it is not images such as these, or the one of a group of fat bellied guys gathered in a tent in Presque Isle, Maine around a masturbating female on a platform, as if watching a performing circus dog, that are as disquieting as the images of extreme poverty: the bum sleeping on a sidewalk in the Bowery NYC or the appalling conditions suffered by lodgers in a crowded, filthy Bayard Street tenement in 1899, where it cost ‘Five Cents a Spot’ to share a louse ridden mattress and huddle round the solid fuel stove.
Photography is particularly good a catching fleeting moments of despair when the subject is unaware of the camera. Paul Strand’s Man, Five Points Square, New York taken in 1916, stares ahead from beneath his battered homburg, his face unshaven, and his eyes full of disappointment, like one of Beckett’s tramps. Perhaps it is all to do with the photographer’s intent. During the summer of 1936 Walker Evans worked with the writer James Agee on a project for Fortune magazine. The conflict between being intruders and compassionate artists was one of which they were constantly aware. Their photographs of the humble dwellings of the impoverished tenant farmers whom they befriended in Alabama are full of painful dignity, creating a sense of the sacramental from the modest lives of these ordinary people.
But it is the images of violence that are the hardest to look at and raise most questions. What right does a photographer have to snap the last desperate moments of a woman jumping into the street to escape the fire that engulfed the Hotel Ambassador in 1959, or the brutality of a Viet Cong Officer executing a terrified civilian, or William Saunders’ 1860s picture of a Chinese Execution, which is made no less chilling through the lens of history? Two of the most unsettling pictures are Malcolm Browne’s Vietnamese monk immolating himself in 1963 before American TV cameras in protest against the government’s torture of priests, and the disquieting 1928 record of Ruth Snyder hooded and strapped ready for execution in the electric chair. Can the photographer justify intruding on these last desperate moments? Are we lessened by such images? Or do they become such a potent part of our moral landscape and cultural heritage that they are worth having at all costs?
Perhaps all subjects who are taken without their permission are, in some way, victims. Though as celebrities, willing engaged in a Faustian pact with the photographer, this makes the situation more ambiguous; the moral here might be, be careful what you wish for. The interest in Liz Taylor and Richard Burton was such that they could not enjoy a private canoodle as they sunbathed on the deck of a boat in 1962, without the intrusive lens of a long distant camera seeking them out. Greta Garbo famously wanted to be left alone as we can see from the hand raised in front of her face in a St. Germain night-club, while Andy Warhol was more than happy to reveal the scars of his near fatal stabbing by "Vox Superstar”, a mentally disturbed young woman by the name of Olga Kulbis, who developed an unhealthy obsession with Warhol and vampires whilst hanging around his studio, the Factory. His ease with celebrity is such that he simply colludes with the photographer to turn his wounds into art.
For those who have seen Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others, that charts an agent of the secret police in 1984 East Berlin conducting a surveillance on a writer and his lover, the emotional and ethical questions around spying are brilliantly played out. War has long fed the drive for new surveillance technologies to gain advantage over the enemy. But today such covert prying has become an ubiquitous part of everyday modern life, most often taken by unguided machines that simply watch over us like some omniscient deity. There are photographs, here, of Russian missiles sites in Cuba in 1962, built in a characteristic Star of David pattern, that made an irrefutable case when Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, presented them as evidence of Russian aggression in America’s backyard, and there is a threatening image of the Golf Five Zero watchtower (known to the British army as ‘Borucki Sanger’) in South Armagh, a potent symbol of the northern Irish troubles at the end of the twentieth century. There is also work by the contemporary French photographer Sophie Calle who has used the camera to explore how surveillance destabilises notions of public and private space.
This fascinating exhibition asks if we have unavoidably become a society of voyeurs. Images which were never intended to be seen by a wider audience that have now entered the collective public imagination such as that of the kidnap of the toddler James Bulger being lead away by two ten year old boys, who would later murder him, in an anonymous shopping mall, and the infamous pyramid of naked Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, watched over by two American soldiers in green rubber gloves, giving the thumbs up. Along with the proliferation of camera phones, reality TV, You Tube videos and photographs of private events plastered on public sites such as Facebook, go the debates about terrorism and personal safety. The ubiquitous security camera has, it seems, become an unintended icon of our age. Big Brother is alive and well.
List of images from the top:
Untitled (Atlanta) 1984
Dye transfer print
9 7/16 x 14 5/16 in. (23.97 x 36.35 cm)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
© The Estate of Harry Callahan, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York
Stranger No. 2, 1999
31 1/4 x 31 1/4 in. (79.4 x 79.4 cm)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase
© Shizuka Yokomizo
[Street Scene, New York] 1928
Gelatin silver print
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
What Makes Jackie Run? Central Park, New York City, October 4, 1971
Gelatin silver print
7 3/8 x 9 7/8 in. (18.73 x 25.08 cm)
SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase
© Ron Galella, Ltd., courtesy the artist
Greta Garbo in the Club St. Germain, Paris ca. 1950s
Gelatin silver print
7 1/16 x 7 1/8 in. (17.94 x 18.1 cm)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Members of Foto Forum, 2005.200
© Estate of Georges Dudognon
What Makes Jackie Run? Central Park, New York City, October 4, 1971
Gelatin silver print
7 3/8 x 9 7/8 in. (18.73 x 25.08 cm)
SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase
© Ron Galella, Ltd., courtesy the artist
Sue Hubbard’s Adventures in Art: selected writings from 1990-2010 is published by Other Criteria: www.othercriteria.com and her latest poems The Idea of Islands are published by Occasional Press: www.occasionalpress.net.
Editor's Note: In the spirit of The New Yorker's popular caption contest, we will be presenting original cartoons done for 3QD by the very talented Robert Pichler. Unlike The New Yorker, we are not running a real contest, but just for fun, we encourage you to suggest captions in the comments area.
Return to Nothingness
Tetris and its Connection to Confucianism
By Angus McCullough
Tetris is a video game about clearing away what is unnecessary in the best possible way, accessible on almost every gaming console imaginable, on cellular phones and for free on the Internet. Perhaps you played it once on an ancient game system in your youth or maybe you play it whenever you're sitting at your desk at work. Alexei Pajitnov, the creator of Tetris, calls it the first “casual game”, meaning that it is timeless in just such a way: it is the same every time you play, without plot or characters to follow. The first time you played it in middle school is the same game that is probably programmed into your phone today. To compare Tetris to any other game is somehow wrong – it is a masterful test of how our brains function while trying to balance instinctual and intellectual challenges in real time. The major difference between Tetris and other games is the simplicity of its construction and complexity of play. Most importantly, it is a game that does not have a goal or end. There is no castle to storm or high score to achieve – the only way to end your game is to lose. The result of this simple and mildly daunting setup is that Tetris affords the user a repetitive task every time he or she picks it up: to play better than the last time. It has also been shown to have beneficial effects outside the game itself, making it a powerful tool for personal development, mirroring certain aspects of Confucian ritual.
Confucian thought originates somewhere in the 5th or 6th century BCE, though debate rages on about exactly when it began. Confucius himself is thought to have been an upper class citizen from the Lu In Province of China. And while his background is contested by a number of scholars (including whether or not he truly existed at all), it is agreed upon that from a young age he threw himself into study and became a teacher by his 30s. The Confucian “way” is a delicate and open-ended guide for living, suggesting ways in which to cultivate and better oneself through study, excellence and ritual. There are many aspects to Confucian thought, but ritual (whether complex or mundane) stands out as a core belief that enables one to transform laborious tasks into care-free instincts. Ritual to a Confucian would include both ceremonial functions and, more importantly, personal routines comprising everyday life. Norms concerning color combinations of clothing, afternoon tea, the pursuit of knowledge, etc. were as important as major functions. The primary passage that comes to mind when speaking about these rituals is 2:4 in the Analects, when the Master says, "At age fifteen I set my heart upon learning…and at age seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without overstepping the bounds of propriety”. The way to become such a Confucian gentleman is through mastery of ritual, training your instinct to work with your mind. To be good at Tetris, one must follow just such a pattern of development.
I have been playing Tetris almost every day for six years or so, and my relationship to it has shifted over time. I initially played to beat high scores (and my friends on the school bus), but after a long hiatus the practice regained my attention as a personal pursuit. Tetris now holds a meaning for me that is unconnected to points other than as a side effect – I play it now as a routine rather than a challenge. I have become instinctively good at Tetris, and have started treating it as a therapeutic and restorative process. It has led me to develop confidence in my instincts and intellectual reflexes, which in turn have helped me find my own opinion on unrelated matters in a consistent way. This, I think, is in keeping with Confucian rituals in the way that they effect and inform emotional selfhood and knowledge co-dependently.
To adequately discuss Tetris, a few definitions are needed. First, its name comes from the Greek "tetra" (four) and tennis (the favorite sport of the inventor Pajitnov). To systematically define it, Tetris is a puzzle game played in two dimensions where pieces consisting of four units each called either tetrominoes or tetrads “fall” down the playing board. Each block consists of four units, in different configurations of those four units touching face to face, not excluding mirrored images. These seven tetrominoes are commonly referred to as the letters they resemble: I, J, L, O, S, T and Z (top to bottom in the image above) . All of the pieces are capable of completing two-line clears: if there is a correctly shaped space, they can be inserted two lines deep. The “L” and “J” pieces are capable of three-line clears. The “I” piece is the only one capable of a four line clear, also called a Tetris, that renders the player the highest points of any clear.
It is important to note that all the pieces have their own merits. For example, the “T” shaped block is by far the most flexible in its use, with an ability to be placed in step-shaped gaps in either direction, and spun into place to fit into small gaps. While many players covet the long stalk, other than the Tetris it only has one other configuration that is usually difficult to use. But because of the systematic way all of these blocks are engineered, they have equal value in terms of the points they can render and variety of application. The object of the game is to manipulate these blocks by moving each one sideways and rotating it in 90-degree units to drop into horizontal lines of blocks without gaps. But instead of building up, every time a line is completed it disappears from the board, and any line above will fall into its place.
Points are awarded for each line cleared, with double, triple and four-line clears resulting in higher scores. The game also encourages you to play faster than the falling speed, with points awarded when the player “pushes” the block into place faster than it would fall on its own volition. As a player accumulates points the playing level increases, by way of faster falling speed of each brick. This shifts the focus from carefully considered moves to more instinctual ones. I propose that by playing Tetris repeatedly, these instincts can be informed, trained and educated to make these instantaneous choices both productive and correct. Not only does the game consider the duality of order and chaos but trains and improves your decision-making skills.
A basic counter-example of a game with a simple arc is the original Super Mario Brothers, wherein the player starts on level one and tries to progress Mario through consecutive stages with increasing difficulty. And while Mario restarts every time you play, the conventional structure of levels and bosses differentiates it from a game like Tetris. Any game resembling Mario does not represent a ritual in the way I am defining it; it is merely a task (which, most would say, is an enjoyable one). To access the self-improving ethos of ritual, there must be more than set goals to complete. To play Tetris well, you must figure out new ways to play it, so your advancement in skill is about advancing your own learning.
The sense that Tetris is constantly on the brink of beating you fades over time, and it becomes clear that one false move will not, in fact, send your game into the depths. The easier speeds allow for such mistakes and slips, and it is only the very latest stages of the game that present truly nerve-racking moments. But because of the constantly changing difficulty of the game, the faster falling speed is more about fitting the challenge to the player rather than an attempt to make you lose. This vertiginous quality is not present in the Confucian philosophy because it seems like a gentleman of that kind would lead his life in a relatively contemplative way. But there are clearly moments when immediate action is required of such a person, and it is important in those situations to be sure of one’s true feelings and rational instincts. Tetris trains these, and by playing it over and over, the sense that there is ever present failure at every moment should be relieved by the fact that you can pick up the game and play again. In this way, it is important to keep things in perspective: Tetris may be exemplary of Confucian meaning, but the act of playing is merely a game.
The Confucian conception of ritual is explicated in a number of texts, especially in those of philosophers Mencius and Xunzi. The creation of rituals according to Xunzi was a case of sensitive and wise kings who hated chaos and desired order. Xunzi writes:
If there is chaos then they [the people] will be impoverished. The former kings hated such chaos, and so they established rituals and the standards of righteousness in order to allot things to people, to nurture their desires, and to satisfy their seeking…This is how ritual arose.
The thrill and addiction of playing Tetris comes from a similar desire. Hank Rogers, the man responsible for bringing Tetris to Nintendo and the rest of the world, says of the game “It satisfies a basic human desire, and that is to make order out of chaos.” If this is true – and I would posit that it is – then Tetris accesses a basic human desire that was the genesis of rituals in ancient China. One difference between the Tetris ritual and Xunzi’s philosophy lies in his conception of human nature as inherently bad. The gradual transformation from pettiness through studiousness, in order to become a gentleman and ultimately a sage mirrors the moral progression of Confucius in passage 2:4 of the Analects, but begins in a different place. At the end of the long and arduous road, the state of human eudaimonia is attained when the person has reverence for the Way, and once sagehood is reached, he may follow his desires and fulfill his dispositions because they have been transformed. Xunzi writes,
When one has grasped Virtue, then one can achieve fixity. When one can achieve fixity, then one can respond to things. To be capable both of fixity and of responding to things— such a one is called the perfected person
This fixity is a bolstering against any pull of temptation or obsessions, which distract from true virtue and reinforce human limitations. This, I would say, is expressed in certain methods of playing Tetris: if one is responsive to the natural structure of the game and plays it with a will to learn rather than overcome, Tetris can be a method of personal cultivation. It is a matter of finding one’s balance and then responding instantaneously to a number of stimuli, letting all affect the outcome for the better.
Xunzi is pessimistic about inherent human feelings, but I believe that Tetris is a balanced test of human nature. For example, when someone plays the game for the first time, it is without any conceptions of strategy or technique and because the game is so simple and accessible, it allows any person to simply pick it up and play. I have watched as my mother discovered the game (after my suggesting that she try it), and to see her moving the bricks at first was exhilarating to me simply because it was so true to how one should play the game: without any conceptions of skill or strategy. When confronted with this unknown challenge, I think the human mind will attempt to play Tetris in a way that is respectful to the game, but without skill. This is not completely different to the way in which we should be reverent to other people, the order of things, or when encountering anything greater than ourselves. “Playing to win” is the antithesis of this in the game, and the ambition that leads us to fend for ourselves over others is expressly the wrong way to live if one wants to enjoy life. Perhaps Xunzi is harsh in his assessment of human nature, and we simply need to be encouraged to follow our instinctual respect towards challenges, but additionally taught skills in which to rediscover that naiveté in a productive manner.
Such an open innocence is reflected in the way Mencius writes about human virtues and their cultivation. In the philosophy presented in his Inner Chapters (2nd C. BCE), he sees all virtues as present in a person as small traits of character and inklings, like little sprouts that must be nurtured if they are to grow. In this way, he sees virtues as inherent to humans and that is it foolish to try and impart a virtue that is not already present in the self. If Tetris is a kind of ritual such as this, the sprout it nurtures is organization, surely, but also a similar balance and clarity between reason and instinct that is key to the conception of ritual. In addition, Tetris is about repeatable, consistent improvisational problem solving, not about having that one lucky shot or burst of successes. Mencius talks about his flood-like ch’i (one of his cultivated sprouts that imparts a flowing sense of energy and purity) in this way, saying,
Nourish it with integrity and place no obstacle in its path and it will fill the space between heaven and earth. It is a ch’i which unites rightness and the Way…It is born of accumulated rightness and cannot be appropriated by anyone through a sporadic show of rightness
This is merely an example of one of Mencius’ sprouts, but this quote shows that its cultivation is a result of accumulating rightness rather than practicing at flooding his ch’i. This is part of how I conceive of Tetris, in that it teaches you how to play and your skill improves, but it shows something more, a hidden structure through which one can access a higher sense of things.
To exist in such a state where one would have flood-like ch’i would take quite a bit of practice to hone the rituals necessary to attain that openness and sensitivity to the Way. Playing Tetris functions in the same sense, as it takes a while to build up the skills necessary to play without any tension or pressure. It turns from an intense game into a pursuit more akin to cultivation of skills and the investigation of the reasons behind them. Xunzi explains the relationship between the Way and the emotions, saying that to find the Way, you must feel it. He writes, “How do people know the Way? I say: It is with the heart. How does the heart know the Way? I say: It is through emptiness, single-mindedness, and stillness.” So the skills learned with ritual and practice are there to merely calm and clarify one’s view to what is already there emotionally, a kind of nothingness that allows one to see what lies below shallow life. Xunzi goes on, saying, “Those who are murky understand only the external manifestations, but those who are clear understand the internal manifestations…The benevolent person ponders it with reverence, and the sage ponders it with joy.” This runs parallel to what Confucius says in the Analects about reaching a state when he can simply respond to his desires and know that he will act virtuously and things will turn out well. This is how playing Tetris over time will affect one’s sense of decision-making and pattern recognition. With practice, you can simply put the pieces where you desire, and be sure that they are filling in the right spaces.
Ritual in the Analects is mentioned in the least concrete fashion of all the Confucian philosophers, but the outline of them is both open and delicate. The effects of ritual are talked about more than the specific practices, which is in fact a more effective way of finding out exactly how these rituals work and their underlying causes. Playing Tetris in the right way leads to a sense of harmony with underlying principles, but because of the randomness of the game, it is impossible to conform to a set of goals. Other games allow players to simply fill out specific tasks in the same way over and over again, but Tetris is open in its construction, so it allows something like what Confucius outlines, saying, “The gentleman is harmonious but not conformist. The little man is conformist but not harmonious”. Finding the harmony between your speed and the skill level of the game is how to find the Way of Tetris, which is hidden just below the surface of normal play.
Return to Nothingness
There are many ways to play Tetris, but they can be organized into two categories: to try to win or try and play well. I define the attempt to win as trying to get as many points as possible, which also implies a desire to overcome the basic structure of the game. The method for this ambitious perspective on the game is to orchestrate multiple-line clears rather than single lines at a time. This is how most beginners approach the game at first. There are many misguided ways to go about it, but for our purposes here, I will skip to the most effective style of “winning.” As I have mentioned, the highest scoring clear is the 4 line Tetris with the stalk. In order to make a Tetris occur, the player must fill the board in a gapless block except a single line of bricks missing in one vertical avenue. It is a neat and organized playing style that requires definite skill, but creates a few problems. One: the player is inherently valuing one piece over the others, causing devaluation of the other pieces. Two: to bank on this one piece appearing at some point before the board fills up makes the player pass up opportunities to place other blocks in effective positions. More importantly, in order to play in this fashion, you must conceive of a future moment in time instead of the present one in which you are playing – the moment the stalk appears. Because of the random nature of the game and the fact that the stalk has no pair (like the L and J or S and Z), what invariably happens is that you get caught without a stalk and end up losing prematurely. To think about playing Tetris respectfully, we must start at the opening screen.
The first frame of Tetris is completely empty, with your brick almost floating at the top. This is both your starting point and the goal you are trying to reach at every moment of the game. You see your current piece, the next one, and nothing more. The first move is to place the first brick as a counterpoint to the second; in this way it is the perfect move, as it has no intentions other than a connection between these two pieces in the best possible way. In many ways, the ideal of Tetris is to continually return to this first frame, where the simplicity of the game is truly represented; a scenario where all the pieces are weighted absolutely equally, no matter who is playing the game or in what manner. To have a piece interact with the board purely is the most elegant aspect of Tetris, and this is where personal choice comes in. If you have an empty space, where do you place the block? Anywhere you like, of course, and in any manner you want. No matter what you decide, you can work other pieces around and on top of it. This is another reason why the “winning” perspective does not reveal the nature of the game: you are ambitiously building up when the point of the game is to return to nothingness. The fact that emptiness is the goal, both in the sense that you are removing bricks and returning to the first screen, connects with Xunzi’s saying about clearing away murkiness to be able to see.
The opening screen is the always the goal, to exist in the exact moment as when you started. Because this is a strange ritual compared to those of the ancient Chinese, it is important to compare the properties of the rituals and their consonance rather than their external aspects. The closest resemblance in Confucian rituals are the ideas of benevolence and rightness, because being in the moment requires having little to do with profit. In fact, this duality is what begins the Inner Chapters, with Mencius talking to King Hui of Liang, who asks what is the best way to profit his people. Mencius responds, saying, “What is the point of mentioning the word ‘profit’? All that matters is that there should be benevolence and rightness.” But a sense of returning to nothingness other than the moment is not quite aligned with this. It has almost more to do with Daoist beliefs, and can be linked to elements of Chaung-tzu’s philosophy.
One story presented in the Chapters is an encounter between Mencius and Hui and a local cook named Ting. Cook Ting presents a perfect analogy to the Tetris player who is constantly seeking new methods for playing the game and honing one’s craft. In the passage wherein Ting lays out the nature of his specialty, he is cutting up an ox for his lord. His movements are deft, without any real hacking or scraping of the meat. His explanation for why he is so good is that he actively trains himself in the craft, and is only interested in bettering his technique.
Cook Ting…replied, ‘What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now--- now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants… I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint…there are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room --more than enough for the blade to play about’
This explanation prompts the lord to say that he has been edified on how to live his life. Tetris offers a similar framework for “finding spaces” when the flow of the game might “tell” you to go. At every moment, the Cook is finding a new way to increase his skill so that he can cut with artistry and respect both the ox he is preparing and his knife. This is an example of how Tetris has begun to teach me.
To use each block in the best way for that specific moment is the method I am currently investigating, but it is difficult to maintain. I can reach it in short bursts, but once I become aware of myself I lose the complete skill I possessed just a second before. While I have certainly gotten much better at staying in this state than I could have done years ago, the calm exhilaration that accompanies the mindset is still a treat to me. In such a state, everything seems to fall into place, making every single block “lucky” or meant to work in the space I find for it. Tetris is like singing along to a song, while making up the words. You need to sing in tune and tempo, but however you reach the meaning of the song is up to you.
I am far from the first Tetris addict. The first anecdotal evidence that Tetris provided lasting effects came soon after its inception into pop culture and was called the “Tetris Effect.” Gamers would report seeing falling blocks after playing, or obsessions with trying to organizse everyday objects into small spaces like little blocks. Since then, there have been a number of psychological studies linking Tetris to brain development, some even claiming positive results when used to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This has something to do with both the visual aspect of Tetris and the way its game-play is dealt with in the brain, making it visual stimulation like a painting that requires cerebral action in order to make it visible. It is “an intrusive image-based memory” as one study calls it, or memorable iconography created by a functional action in our brain – a memory-creating memory.
In a study done in April of 2009 (MRI assessment…of a Visual-spatial Task), Tetris was tested as a brain developing challenge for teenage girls. In the test, the thickness of the cerebral cortex was measured, along with the consumption of glucose from solving problems. 26 girls were charted playing Tetris over a three-month period, with brain MRIs serving as the methods of documentation. The results of the tests showed that subjects who played on a regular basis gained both chemical efficiency as well as physical brain growth. For every subject who played consistently, the cerebral cortex increased in thickness, and challenging visual tasks required less glucose than before the test. The findings state:
After three months of practice, compared to the structural scans of controls, the group with Tetris practice showed thicker cortex. The Tetris group showed cortical activations throughout the brain while playing Tetris, but significant decreases, mostly in frontal areas, were observed after practice
Because of this evidence, it is clear that Tetris has a direct effect on the use of our brains when played over a period of time. And with this development, it is important to note that all of them may not have been playing the style I have presented. Unfortunately, there have been no scientific studies testing methods of game-play (not yet, anyway), but these initial findings point to powerful advancement through simply playing the game.
Another test conducted at Oxford was set up with more focused goals: to ascertain whether playing Tetris could help calm Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Forty adults watched a 12-minute film containing graphic scenes from surgeries, car accidents and other violence that would normally produce mild flashbacks if viewed individually. Then, one group was asked to sit quietly for 10 minutes after viewing, while another was asked to play Tetris. Both groups reported on how they felt immediately after and for a week following the test. The group that played Tetris reported 42% fewer flashbacks than the group who had no visual stimulation after the film. The researchers have deemed that Tetris falls under a category of intrusive memory when applied in this way, and helps to understand how our short term and long term memory function in regards to this kind of visual stimulation:
The capacity of visual memory is both limited and vulnerable to proactive interference, i.e. interruption of memory for presented stimuli by the presentation of similar, but different stimuli after a time delay. Thus ‘‘Tetris’’ provides a promising candidate
Tetris is a “cognitive vaccine” as Emily Holmes, one of the lead researchers on the project, calls it, and could lead to more discoveries about this type of brain function. Tetris is so simple and ubiquitous that it is becoming part of scientific study, even more evidence to its importance in modern society. This project, in kind, was mentioned in the New York Times Magazine 2009 Year in Ideas issue. Its practice, either intrusive or otherwise, has been shown to provide lasting effects on the brain’s ability to function visually – a key subject in a society more and more reliant on non-verbal communication. Because it has positive effects in both of these cases, it could be said that it aids in experiencing the customs of contemporary culture, and is perfectly fitted to help the player live a full life, especially after playing.
"Water can flow, or it can crash. Be like water, my friend" - Bruce Lee
Mihály Csikszentmihalyi, the renowned psychologist responsible for bringing forward the theory of “flow” talks at length in various books about his desire to move away from psychology obsessed with instinct and drives, saying instead that we are more about focus than desires. Tetris is a perfect example of such focused attention, much like the scenario of Cook Ting, and I think that I’ve been able to let both instinct and intellect cohabitate in my mind while I play, and have learned intellectually from repeated instinctual playing scenarios. In this way, it influences both at the same time. I would even posit that this dichotomy is in fact misinformed, and that to truly learn anything at all, both of these “sides” must be prodded and stimulated. This is exactly what Csikszentmihalyi defines as flow, saying
The state of flow is induced when a good fit results from the interactions between two lists of instructions: those contained in the rules of a cultural “game” (a tennis match, a religious ritual, a professional activity) and the list of intrasomatic instructions – based on biological predispositions – which constitutes the actor’s skills
When these two lists combine in a situation to find a balance between challenge and skill, this is the state of flow. It makes an activity joyful for the sake of doing it, and creates the basis of self-knowledge or “information in consciousness”.
Csikszentmihalyi uses this defintion to help explain how flow can lead to a more productive and fulfilling life, completely removed from any sense of well-being derived from ideas of self-worth. He instead uses this matched challenge as a method to find immersive ways to go about life, saying that it is important to find activities that fulfill this slot, because we only have so much experience to use in our lifetimes. He lists the extent to our possibilities for thought and interaction with life in terms of bits of information, coming up with a large sum. He writes, “185 billion bits of information. This number defines the limit of individual experience…it seems like a large number, but in actuality most people find it tragically insufficient.” Because Tetris in fact makes our brains more efficient at processing information, and thickens the cerebral cortex, the time and information spent processing the game results in a net gain for productive thought. All of our actions require a large amount of our processing power, and Tetris might in fact allow us to think more with less energy. “When a person’s skill is just right to cope with the demands of a situation – and when compared to the entirety of everyday life the demands are above average – the quality of experience improves noticeably”. The interesting part of Tetris is that the goal is to play it well, and it constantly gets harder to match the skill of the player, so by playing the game to it’s fullest potential (and your own), you are not only enjoying it, but also laying down foundations for fuller enjoyment next time. This is perfectly parallel to Confucius’ explanation of the importance of ritual.
It is worth noting that Csikszentmihalyi’s definitions of the challenges are cultural in nature, which at first glance discounts Tetris as a simple game, not a fitting challenge. But because of the extensive visual stimulation that modern society requires to function, Tetris can be thought of as a social ritual. Virtue ethics, as a whole, is concerned with such interactions, as a major part of morality has to do with our interactions with others. And while Tetris – as an act – is not about playing with others, the shared experience of playing is international (with over 125 million copies sold) and completely non-verbal, making it a kind of shared cultural dream. So while it may be an escape from talking to your boss in the office, he surely plays it as well. What other ritual can be understood all over the world? But beyond the ubiquity of the game, it is possible to impart lessons learned in solitude to others, only to find that they have reached similar conclusions. Cook Ting’s ritual is a personal process, but the teachings he learns are applicable to the experiences of others, and such learning is easy to translate. This is perhaps true of most learning: once the student finds a higher level in a particular field of study, the lessons can be applied to other subjects. Or, if not, they interact with other higher-level lessons in a sort of pantheon of lessons. For example, two people interested in architecture or public speaking can discuss the appreciation of delicate asymmetry from two different perspectives, but bring about conversation and interaction.
There are definite connections to be made between my mindset while playing the game and my score, which leads me to treat the act of playing it in a ritualistic manner. Because I play it so much, I often find myself doing it without thinking about the game at all – musing on dreams, personal interactions, and ways of thinking about them. It is therapy, in a way. And not only does it allow me to reflect, my level of clarity is directly connected with my progress in the game. If I have a calm and levelheaded approach to my life, I can attain a calm instinctive playing style. The pieces seem to come at just the right moments, making the game an affirmation of my reasoning and feelings about my life. Conversely, when I am anxious or undecided, my disconnect with the game seems complete, and I have no luck with blocks, and often make mistakes. It is a fulcrum around which both subconscious and conscious thought can pivot to find a level with each other. There is something very satisfying about figuring out just how I truly feel about a given subject, which otherwise might be clouded by over-thinking or hidden under anxiety. While I do not take my only counsel with the tetrominoes, Tetris often gives me a moment of eureka that is full of resolution – an experience difficult to replicate by other means. I think that it may very well be the greatest electronic ritual for finding one's true level.
This might all be due to the fact that Tetris, in its highest and purest form, is about learning how to fail. Even if you spend your whole life working at the game and playing at a high level, you will inevitably reach a moment of failure in every single game. This is, I think, the greatest lesson that the game can impart. And even though you can simply play again, I have recently begun playing only one game at a time, to fully savor every moment of the process: the moment of loss may be the moment where I have lost my grip on my game, but it offers much more learning than resentment. This intellectual workout has helped me let go of many needless pursuits towards meaningless goals, to focus my attention on the best and most important ones. If Tetris is a virtual ritual, then I am better for it – and I am surely better for it. And while I do not claim to be anything close to a master of the game, nobody else can either. That is the benefit of this inevitability: there is no champion, only students for finding out how to better their game next time. And after every game, one feels very much like Cook Ting:
‘I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.’ ‘Excellent!’ said Lord Wen-hui. ‘I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!’
E. Bruce Brooks and A. Taeko Brooks. The Original Analects: Sayings of Confucius and his Successors
Isabella Selega Csikszentmihalyi, and Mihály Csikszentmihalyi. Optimal experience: psychological studies of flow in consciousness.
Trans. D.C. Lau. Mencius: The Inner Chapters.
Philip J. Ivanhoe and Brian W. Van Norden. Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy.
Richard J Haier, Sherif Karama, Leonard Leyba, and Rex E. Jung. MRI assessment of cortical thickness and functional activity changes in adolescent girls following three months of practice on a visual-spatial task. BioMed online database, September 2009.
Emily A. Holmes, Ella L. James, Thomas Coode-Bate, Catherine Deeprose. Can Playing the Computer Game ‘‘Tetris’’ Reduce the Build-Up of Flashbacks for Trauma? A Proposal from Cognitive Science. Oxford: Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford, January 2009.
Joystiq.com audio interview: Hank Rogers and Alexei Pajitnov. June 10th, 2009.
Burton Watson. Chuang-tzu: Basic Writings.
Stephen Angle, who taught me everything I know about Confucianism, and without whose guidance and encouragement these ideas could not have coalesced.
Sunday, May 30, 2010
Why are people so eager to invade their own privacy?
Rochelle Gurstein in The New Republic:
What astounds me about today's metaphorical glass-house dwellers—those people who eagerly publicize on websites every detail of their "health" (DNA profile), "finances" (shopping bills and consumer preferences), "family situation" (online dating profile)—is how cheerfully they participate in "one of the most horrifying aspects of modern life." Self-invasions of privacy on the Internet now compete with "bureaucracy with its documents" and "the press with its reporters" for a place on Kundera's list of the institutionalization and I would add normalization of this "age-old form of aggression." And so, too, it seems to me, do all those glass apartment houses which sprang up everywhere in New York City during the glory years of the last building boom. I am still baffled as to why architects thought it was a good idea to erect pricey, luxury apartments without solid, exterior walls on streets that are exposed not only to the casual glance of thousands of city walkers from below but also to the unavoidable notice of those who live or work in the many neighboring buildings, and that a new breed of fashionable New Yorkers couldn't wait to live in them.
In Between Layers
Diverse, affluent cultures around the world have recently embraced a mash-up of photography, trompe-l’oeil imagery, conceptual art and super-large-scale digital printing, to cloak the temporary “ugliness” of construction scaffolding with building-size outdoor art displays.
Photographer Han Sungpil has documented this trend worldwide, with an obsession for making large-format photos of these huge temporary installations from ideal viewing locations — precisely at the times of day when the light is perfect to make the illusions appear almost seamless.
Mating competition explains excess male mortality
Researchers have long known that women outlive men on average, and more recently have discovered that men have higher mortality risks across the entire lifespan. University of Michigan researcher Daniel Kruger offers this explanation: It is all about sex. Women invest more physiologically in reproduction than men, thus men compete with other men for mating partners and try to make themselves attractive to women. This competition leads to strategies that are riskier for men both behaviorally and physiologically, and these result in higher levels of mortality.
"If mating competition is responsible for excess male mortality, then the more mating competition there is, the higher excess male mortality will be," said Kruger, an assistant research professor in the U-M School of Public Health. In the current study, Kruger shows that two factors related to the level of male reproductive competition contribute to higher rates of risk-taking and mortality. The first factor is polygyny, the social situation in which one man maintains sexual relations with many women (the opposite is polyandry—one women and many men). Several species of primates show high levels of polygyny, where one dominant male mates with most of the females in the group, and other males are left out. Human cultures have varying degrees of polygyny, and Kruger found that the more prevalent the practice, the higher the rate of male mortality.
(intuition, black rose)
the city lay pressed together, steaming at the joints
the city, a rosebud composed of metal,
pressed together, steaming at joints,
it wheels its rose-head, sucks in a cold night, thick night
sucks in night like ink through a straw
my city is a rose-bud all cold metal
some nights i walked circles through her folds
shadows flapped and tore, broke loose like a storm
a dream made of black lace smothered my mouth
with the scent a man would chase through sheets
(which man? mine!)
a dream made of black lace come scratching my throat
i walk toward the man who loves with ice
lungs aching with a scent he’d chase through sheets
my heart, it twists like rope
but i walk toward the man who loves like ice
my sweetheart crush my bones at the steaming corner
but my heart, she twists quietly.
pressed to my ribs this man (my man!)
pressed to my ribs, ice, ice.
the dream clogs my throat with her careful lace
and my lips go off burning with his lips
the whole city wheels its head off
off comes the rose from its stalk of brute wanting.
see what you’ve done, i thought, when my city
loosed and split, folds cracked with ice
and streets fell away with buildings and night.
(we stood froze like a root, but twisting)
by Mara Jebsen
from Union Station Magazine
The Haunted House
Saturday, May 29, 2010
Terrorism, Shameless Religious Bigotry and Pakistani Mindset
Raza Habib Raja in Pak Tea House:
As I write these sentences, the details of the most shameful attack on the religious sites of Ahmedis in Lahore are unfolding. However, this is not new as Pakistan has been the victim of this brazen behavior repeatedly. The thirty years of state sponsored “true” Islam is showing its colors. In Pakistan all the minorities are constantly harassed and state’s protection has often proved completely ineffective when a serious attack occurs. Although the counterargument can also be made that state is not also able to protect even when Muslims are attacked.
In case of Ahmedis it is a well known fact that they have been victims of state induced discrimination also apart from being openly hated by the public. In fact even today as this most in human barbarity was unfolding I had the opportunity to actually hear people in my office saying that though terrorism is bad Ahmedis deserved it. Muslims are an extremely intolerant group and yet extremely sensitive when it comes to their own religious sensitivities. And when such minorities are under attack the state protection has often been particularly inadequate and public condemnation virtually absent.
More here. [Thanks to Mustafa Ibrahim.]
If you want to watch Silverman’s TED routine, you can’t: It was never put online. So she tells me the joke. “The bit was tied into the theme of the conference, which was ‘What the World Needs Now.’ So I say I’d like to adopt a retarded baby because I don’t have this urge to have a little version of myself to get right this time.” She stops to explain her feelings about the word retard. “I don’t like it. I think it’s a negative bummer word. Retarded, however, technically means [mentally challenged].” She continues: “So I say I’m adopting a retarded baby and I’ll be worried about who will take care of my child when I’m gone. So, solution! I’m going to adopt one with a terminal illness. Now, you’re probably thinking, what kind of person looks to adopt a terminally ill retarded child? An amazing person! I don’t see those 9/11 firefighters adopting retarded children with terminal illnesses. I’m just saying. Of course, there’s going to be the uncomfortable, inevitable question in the adoption process: Are you sure there are absolutely no cures on the horizon?”more from Will Leitch at New York Magazine here.
the larsson phenomenon
It's an authentic phenomenon. As "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," the last of three posthumous thrillers by the Swedish writer Stieg Larsson, goes on sale this week in the United States, his books have already sold 40 million copies worldwide in a mere five years, while the modestly mounted movie version of his first title has already grossed something like $100 million, with talk of remaking these Swedish productions in Hollywood versions. There is simply no precedent for figures of that magnitude, especially in the mystery-thriller category, where authors become brand names only after they have patiently added many titles to their bodies of work. It's possible, of course, that Larsson's own rather dramatic story is helping to fuel the phenomenon. The writer was well-known as a crusading anti-fascist journalist and as a genial, rather careless man whose addiction to cigarettes and junk food might have hastened his premature demise (at age 50, of a heart attack), not long after delivering his three manuscripts to his publisher. The fact that he also left behind a widely reported controversy is also a good story. Larsson died without a will, meaning his fortune in royalties went to his family, a father and brother with whom he was not close, instead of to his helpmate of 30-odd years, whom he never married but whom everyone (except the lawyers) thinks deserves more than a grass widow's mite of his earnings. But none of that quite explains the mystery that lies beneath the phenomenon.more from Richard Schickel at the LAT here.
Central European classics
From The Telegraph:
Just as rich people assume that they have nothing to learn from poor people, big nations assume that they have nothing to learn from small nations. This is not true of scientists, nor does it apply to the super-educated in general, but the majority of big nations know very little of the wider world, starting with their ignorance of any language but their own.
Here it is possible to graduate from a top university without having read, even in translation, the classic authors of France and Russia, let alone of Central Europe. As the insights of small, poor, oppressed nations do not come naturally to the British, many aspects of life remain a closed book to them. Which is why this new series of Central European Classics is important well beyond simply providing 'good reads’.
Dispatches From the Other
From The New York Times:
In 1946, when Simone de Beauvoir began to write her landmark study of women, “The Second Sex,” legislation allowing French women to vote was little more than a year old. Birth control would be legally denied them until 1967. Next door, in Switzerland, women would not be enfranchised until 1971. Such repressive circumstances account for both the fierce, often wrathful urgency of Beauvoir’s book and the vehement controversies this founding text of feminism aroused when it was first published in France in 1949 and in the United States in 1953. The Vatican placed it on the Index of Forbidden Books. Albert Camus complained that Beauvoir made Frenchmen look ridiculous. On these shores, the novelist Philip Wylie eulogized it as “one of the few great books of our era,” the psychiatrist Karl Menninger found it “pretentious” and “tiresome,” and a reviewer in The Atlantic Monthly faulted it for being “bespattered with the repulsive lingo of existentialism.”
In her splendid introduction to this new edition, Judith Thurman notes that Blanche Knopf, wife of Beauvoir’s American publisher, heard about the book on a scouting trip to France and was under the impression that it was a highbrow sex manual. Knopf asked for a reader’s report from a retired zoologist, Howard M. Parshley, who was then commissioned to do the translation. Knopf’s husband urged Parshley to condense it significantly, noting that Beauvoir seemed to suffer from “verbal diarrhea.” Parshley complied, providing the necessary Imodium by cutting 15 percent of the original 972 pages. And so it was this truncated text, translated by a scientist with a college undergraduate’s knowledge of French, that ushered two generations of women into the universe of feminist thought, inspiring pivotal later books like Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” and Kate Millett’s “Sexual Politics.”
Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier’s new translation of “The Second Sex” is the first English-language edition in almost 60 years, and the first to restore the material Parshley excised. In this passionate, awesomely erudite work, Beauvoir examines the reasons women have been forced to accept a place in society secondary to that of men, despite the fact that women constitute half the human race. Supporting her arguments with data from biology, physiology, ethnology, anthropology, mythology, folklore, philosophy and economics, she documents the status of women throughout history, from the age of hunter-gatherers to the mid-20th century. In one of her most interesting chapters, “The Married Woman” (a chapter Parshley particularly savaged), she offers numerous quotations from the novels and diaries of Virginia Woolf, Colette, Edith Wharton, Sophia Tolstoy and others. She also scrutinizes the manner in which various male authors, from Montaigne to Stendhal to D. H. Lawrence, have represented women (and, in many cases, how they treated their wives). Urging women to persevere in their efforts at emancipation, she emphasizes that they must also do so for the sake of men: “It is when the slavery of half of humanity is abolished and with it the whole hypocritical system it implies that the ‘division’ of humanity will reveal its authentic meaning and the human couple will discover its true form.”
Saturday PoemStorm on the Island
We are prepared: we build our houses squat,
Sink walls in rock and roof them with good slate.
This wizened earth has never troubled us
With hay, so, as you see, there are no stacks
Or stooks that can be lost. Nor are there trees
Which might prove company when it blows full
Blast:you know what I mean – leaves and branches
Can raise a tragic chorus in a gale
So that you listen to the thing you fear
Forgetting that it pummels your house too.
But there are no trees, no natural shelter.
You might think that the sea is company,
Exploding comfortable down on the cliffs,
But no: when it begins, the flung spray hits
The very windows, spits like a tame cat
Turned savage. We just sit tight while wind dives
And strafes invisibly. Space is a salvo,
We are bombarded by the empty air.
Strange, it is nothing that we fear.
by Seamus Heaney
from Death of a Naturalist,
Faber and Faber, 1999
Sister Margaret and the hierarchy of mostly aging men
Nicholas D. Kristof in the New York Times:
Sister Margaret made a difficult judgment in an emergency, saved a life and then was punished and humiliated by a lightning bolt from a bishop who spent 16 years living in Rome and who has devoted far less time to serving the downtrodden than Sister Margaret. Compare their two biographies, and Sister Margaret’s looks much more like Jesus’s than the bishop’s does.
“Everyone I know considers Sister Margaret to be the moral conscience of the hospital,” Dr. John Garvie, chief of gastroenterology at St. Joseph’s Hospital, wrote in a letter to the editor to The Arizona Republic. “She works tirelessly and selflessly as the living example and champion of compassionate, appropriate care for the sick and dying.”
Dr. Garvie later told me in an e-mail message that “saintly” was the right word for Sister Margaret and added: “Sister was the ‘living embodiment of God’ in our building. She always made sure we understood that we’re here to help the less fortunate. We really have no one to take her place.”
I’ve written several times about the gulf between Roman Catholic leaders at the top and the nuns, priests and laity who often live the Sermon on the Mount at the grass roots. They represent the great soul of the church, which isn’t about vestments but selflessness.
When a hierarchy of mostly aging men pounce on and excommunicate a revered nun who was merely trying to save a mother’s life, the church seems to me almost as out of touch as it was in the cruel and debauched days of the Borgias in the Renaissance.
Peter Beinart vs. the ADL
From the New York Review of Books:
Abraham H. Foxman:
Peter Beinart offers a conveniently impressionistic view of the American Jewish community to frame his critique of Israeli policy trends. He should know better than to fall into the trap of generalizing about the Jewish state without giving proper context for what is going on.
He sees an Israel that is clearly moving to the right, that has less regard for the “other,” no matter who that may be, and that is unwilling to take seriously efforts toward peace. Beinart seems to be suffering from the same problems we have seen in the Obama administration, ignoring what Israel has gone through over the last decade and thereby misreading what Israelis are thinking today.
Israelis, to a large extent, and this is shared by many in the American Jewish community (another of Beinart’s targets), feel frustrated that all their efforts toward changing the dynamic have been met with rejection and/or violence. Most Israelis understand that continuing to sit in the West Bank is not good for the country. So at Camp David in 2000 they tried a solution of ending the conflict, which included withdrawing from 90 percent of the territories and eliminating the majority of settlements. They got a big no and suicide bombs...
Abraham Foxman’s letter illustrates the problem my essay tries to describe: an American Jewish leadership that publicly defends the Israeli government, any Israeli government, rather than defending Israeli democracy, even when the former menaces the latter.
Obviously, as Foxman suggests, the Palestinians are not blameless. Yasser Arafat deserves history’s scorn for not responding more courageously to the chances for peace at Camp David and the much better ones put forward by Clinton in December 2000. And the election of Hamas was a tragedy, for both Israel and the Palestinians. But to suggest that Palestinian and Arab behavior fully explains the growing authoritarian, even racist, tendencies in Israeli politics is to don a moral blindfold, a blindfold that most young American Jews, to their credit, will not wear.
Firstly, Palestinian rejectionism cannot explain Avigdor Lieberman’s crusade to humiliate, disenfranchise, and perhaps even eventually expel Arab Israelis, the vast majority of whom want nothing more than to be accepted as equal citizens in the country of their birth. Lieberman is not a marginal figure. He was Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff; he heads Israel’s third-largest party; he serves as foreign minister; and when Israel held mock elections in ten high schools last year, he won.
Nor are his views marginal. In 2008, in a poll cited by Yediot Ahronot, 40 percent of Jewish Israelis did not believe that Arab Israelis should be allowed to vote. Among Jewish Israeli high school students surveyed this March, the figure was 56 percent...