August 31, 2010
Three Arguments for the Consciousness of CephalopodsAnnalee Newitz in io9:
They may be tasty when you fry them up, but evidence is mounting that cephalopods like octopuses and squid possess consciousness. Over at the Cephalove blog, neuroscience student Mike Lisieski explains why.
The problem with measuring something like "consciousness" is that there is no agreed-upon definition. However, scientists can use a few basic tools to determine whether animals think in ways that humans would recognize as similar to themselves. You can measure (to a certain degree) whether a creature has self-awareness, independent problem-solving abilities, and exhibits brain activities that resemble "thinking" in the human brain.
In his essay, Lisieski walks us through three of these tests, and explains how cephalopods score.
Learning and object-recognition
First, do cephalopods exhibit self-awareness, which is to say are they aware of their environment and can they learn from it? Very few tests have been designed to suss this question out - partly because it's difficult to find a good cephalopod equivalent to the tests we do on rats, where the rodents learn to do tasks for a food reward. However, there were tests done on cephalopods in the 1970s where, as Lisieski puts it:
It was eventually concluded that octopuses (that is, individuals of the species O. vulgaris, the common octopus) don't use a set of simple rules to categorize objects. Rather, Mather argues, they "[evaluate] a figure on several dimensions and [generate] a simple concept, where [a] concept is an abstract or general idea inferred or derived from specific instances." Other evidence for the ability of cephalopods to exhibit learning like that taken to indicate cognitive ability (and thus the potential for consciousness) in vertebrate species comes from more complex learning tasks. The spatial learning abilities of cephalopods have been studied and it has been found, in general, that they might be capable of spatial learning to rival that of commonly used vertebrate laboratory species (such as rodents).
When Value Judgments Masquerade as ScienceUwe Reinhardt in Economix:
The economist’s concept of efficiency, as I’ve discussed previously, is quite distinct from the meaning associated with it among non-economists.
Most people think of the term in the context of production of goods and services: more efficient means more valuable output is wrung from a given bundle of real resources (which is good) or that fewer real resources are burned up to produce a given output (which is also good).
In economics, efficiency is also used to evaluate alternative distributions of an available set of goods and services among members of society. In this context, I distinguished in last week’s post between changes in public policies (reallocations of economic welfare) that make some people feel better off and none feel worse off and those that make some people feel better off but others feel worse off.
The first type of policy can unambiguously be said to enhance social welfare. But no such claim can be made for the second, which nonetheless is typical of virtually all major public policies.
To illustrate this point with a concrete example, consider whether economists should ever become advocates for a revaluation of China’s currency, the renminbi — or, alternatively, for imposing higher tariffs on Chinese imports.
Such a policy would tend to improve the lot of shareholders and employees of manufacturers competing with Chinese imports. Yet it would make American consumers of Chinese goods worse off. If the renminbi were significantly and artificially undervalued against the United States dollar, relative to a free-market exchange rate without government intervention, that would be tantamount to China running a giant, perennial sale on Chinese goods sold to the United States. If you’re an American consumer, what’s not to like about that? So why are so many economists advocating an end to this sale? Do they have a professional license, as social scientists, to become such advocates?
Taking Aim at Pre-Leukemia Disorders
I proudly present this news about my sister (and fellow 3QD editor), from the website of New York Presbitarian Hospital:
NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center has established a new center devoted to research and treatment of pre-leukemia blood disorders. Known as the Myelodysplastic Syndromes Center, it is one of the largest programs of its kind in the nation.
Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) are disorders interfering with blood production in the bone marrow. Approximately one-third of patients with MDS progress to acute myelogenous leukemia — a cancer characterized by the rapid growth of abnormal white blood cells that accumulate in the bone marrow and interfere with the production of normal blood cells.
The new MDS Center is led by Dr. Azra Raza, who is also professor of medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. A world authority on MDS, Dr. Raza has been advancing new treatments for myeloid disorders since the 1980s. Her research into the biology of MDS led to the approval of new treatments, notably lenalidomide.
Dr. Raza continues to pursue research on a number of fronts. The Center is testing the effects of novel drugs and is now developing treatments for early-stage MDS.
U.S. wins by helping Pakistan stabilize
Sharjeel Kashmir at CNN:
The monsoon floods that engulfed most of the country and affected 20 million people have added yet another burden of misery onto the shoulders of the average Pakistani. More than 4 million people are homeless. Livestock, crops and livelihoods were destroyed.
How far this once-proud nation has fallen.
In Urdu, Pakistan means the "land of the pure." It reflects the noble intentions of its creators to build a nation that enshrined the best of Islamic principles. Unfortunately, that nobility has given way to chaos because of bad luck, incompetent political leaders, corruption and religious extremism.
Pakistan may be a world away from the United States, but instability feeds the extremism that fuels terrorism, so we ignore this crisis at our peril. To find the path forward, we must look back to the past.
Steven Gubser on String TheoryOver at Five Books:
The first book you’ve chosen is Superstring Theory, Vols 1 and 2. This is pretty technical, isn’t it?
As a practitioner of the subject I am drawn to the serious accounts. The two volumes by Green, Schwarz and Witten are a wonderful early account of the subject. It was a subject that first fluoresced in the mid-80s. The notion of string theory was already present, even in the late 1960s, but only in 1984, with the work of Green and Schwarz, did people realise string theory could really be consistent with quantum mechanics, as well as including gravity, and could provide theories that looked very much like the standard model of particles. So there was this tremendous light-bulb moment, where everybody said, ‘Oh my God! This could work.’ And that book, Superstring Theory, captures that era in a very substantive way – as well as being a fairly readable account. In terms of readability, I would say even non-physicists could get something out of the first chapter, and then later chapters, they’re more for practitioners.
Yes, my nephew, who did a masters degree in physics, didn’t recommend it as one to dive into. He said in a semester-long undergraduate course they only got halfway through the first volume…
Yes, there’s a lot there. What’s amazing is that all this came together in such a hurry – a lot of the material in that book is the result of two-and-a half years’ activity. There was an incredible upwelling of creativity in that era and these two books are the record of it.
It isn’t out of date just because it dates a while back now? It must be a quickly evolving field.
It’s true. John Schwarz once remarked to me that the things he most regrets having left out of that pair of books were the developments that happened shortly after they published it. But that indicated that it was indeed part of a quickly evolving field, and captured what was going on in a really compelling way. It really hastened the development of the field for a while. There must be parallels in other fields, where you have some solid contribution that really pushes the field forward in a remarkable way…
You told me you put your books in order, does this mean this is your favourite?
Yes. There is something unusual and special about Green, Schwarz, Witten. It was a book very much of the moment, and yet a classic – the words instant classic spring to mind. If we compare it, for example, to Polchinski’s book, another great account – in fact the one that I have used myself the most…
The Secret History of Psychedelic PsychiatryMo over at Neurophilosophy:
ON August 15th, 1951, an outbreak of hallucinations, panic attacks and psychotic episodes swept through the town of Saint-Pont-Esprit in southern France, hospitalizing dozens of its inhabitants and leaving five people dead. Doctors concluded that the incident occurred because bread in one of the town's bakeries had been contaminated with ergot, a toxic fungus that grows on rye. But according to investigative journalist Hank Albarelli, the CIA had actually dosed the bread with d-lysergic acid diethylamide-25 (LSD), an extremely potent hallucinogenic drug derived from ergot, as part of a mind control research project.
Although we may never learn the truth behind the events at Saint-Pont-Esprit, it is now well known that the United States Army experimented with LSD on willing and unwilling military personnel and civilians. Less well known is the work of a group of psychiatrists working in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, who pioneered the use of LSD as a treatment for alcoholism, and claimed that it produced unprecedented rates of recovery. Their findings were soon brushed under the carpet, however, and research into the potential therapeutic effects of psychedelics was abruptly halted in the late 1960s, leaving a promising avenue of research unexplored for some 40 years.
The secret history of psychedelic psychiatry began in the early 1950s, about 10 years after Albert Hofmann discovered the hallucinogenic properties of LSD, and lasted until 1970. It was uncovered by medical historian Erika Dyck, who examined the archives from Canadian mental health researchers and conducted interviews with some of the psychiatrists, patients and nurses involved in the early LSD trials. Dyck's work shows early LSD experimentation in a new light, as a fruitful branch of mainstream psychiatric research: it redefined alcoholism as a disease that could be cured and played a role in the psychopharmacological revolution which radically transformed psychiatry. But, despite some encouraging results, it was cut short prematurely.
White Fright: Glenn Beck's Large, Vague, Moist, and Undirected Rally—the Waterworld of White Self-PityHitchens in Slate on Glenn Beck's rally in DC, in Slate:
In a rather curious and confused way, some white people are starting almost to think like a minority, even like a persecuted one. What does it take to believe that Christianity is an endangered religion in America or that the name of Jesus is insufficiently spoken or appreciated? Who wakes up believing that there is no appreciation for our veterans and our armed forces and that without a noisy speech from Sarah Palin, their sacrifice would be scorned? It's not unfair to say that such grievances are purely and simply imaginary, which in turn leads one to ask what the real ones can be. The clue, surely, is furnished by the remainder of the speeches, which deny racial feeling so monotonously and vehemently as to draw attention.
Concerns of this kind are not confined to the Tea Party belt. Late professors Arthur Schlesinger and Samuel Huntington both published books expressing misgivings about, respectively, multiculturalism and rapid demographic change. But these were phrased so carefully as almost to avoid starting the argument they flirted with. More recently, almost every European country has seen the emergence of populist parties that call upon nativism and give vent to the idea that the majority population now feels itself unwelcome in its own country. The ugliness of Islamic fundamentalism in particular has given energy and direction to such movements. It will be astonishing if the United States is not faced, in the very near future, with a similar phenomenon. Quite a lot will depend on what kind of politicians emerge to put themselves at the head of it. Saturday's rally was quite largely confined to expressions of pathos and insecurity, voiced in a sickly and pious tone. The emotions that underlay it, however, may not be uttered that way indefinitely.
First Ant Genomes Promise Insight into Epigenetics and Longevity
From Scientific American:
Some ants live longer than others—way longer. And the mapping of the first full genome sequences of ants helps to reveal how two ants from the same colony, and with much the same genetic material, can have such different life histories. The work may also provide insights into longevity in another social species with which ants share about one third of their genes: humans.
Researchers sequenced the genomes of two ant species: Jerdon's jumping ant (Harpegnathos saltator) and the Florida carpenter ant (Camponotus floridanus), which have quite different levels of social—and hence, biological—mobility. Carpenter ants live in large colonies that revolve around a queen that lays all of the fertilized eggs. Once the queen dies, the colony perishes as well. Jerdon's jumping ants, on the other hand, have smaller colonies in which worker ants can replace the queen after she dies. These so-called gamergate queens change physically and behaviorally as they take on the queen's duties. All of these ant castes seem to start with the same basic genetic blueprint, yet end up looking—and behaving—very differently. Scientists point to epigenetics, the change in gene expression (rather than direct alterations in the DNA code), as a likely explanation.
Think the Answer’s Clear? Look Again
From The New York Times:
Win an Academy Award and you’re likely to live longer than had you been a runner-up. Interview for medical school on a rainy day, and your chances of being selected could fall. Such are some of the surprising findings of Dr. Donald A. Redelmeier, a physician-researcher and perhaps the leading debunker of preconceived notions in the medical world. In his 20 years as a researcher, first at Stanford University, now at the University of Toronto, Dr. Redelmeier, 50, has applied scientific rigor to topics that in lesser hands might have been dismissed as quirky and iconoclastic. In doing so, his work has shattered myths and revealed some deep truths about the predictors of longevity, the organization of health care and the workings of the medical mind. “He’ll go totally against intuition, and come up with a beautiful finding,” said Eldar Shafir, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University who has worked with Dr. Redelmeier on research into medical decision-making.
Dr. Redelmeier was the first to study cellphones and automobile crashes. A paper he published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1997 concluded that talking on a cellphone while driving was as dangerous as driving while intoxicated. His collaborator, Robert Tibshirani, a statistician at Stanford University, said the paper “is likely to dwarf all of my other work in statistics, in terms of its direct impact on public health.” As an internist who works at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, Canada’s largest trauma center, Dr. Redelmeier sees a large number of patients in the aftermath of crashes. As a result, one of his abiding professional preoccupations is with vehicle crashes. He found that about 25 more people die in crashes on presidential Election Days in the United States than the norm, which he attributes to increased traffic, rushed drivers and unfamiliar routes. He also discovered a 41 percent relative increase in fatalities on Super Bowl Sunday, which he attributed to a combination of fatigue, distraction and alcohol. After publication of the findings on the Super Bowl, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration embarked on a campaign with the slogan “Fans don’t let fans drink and drive.” In preparation for a recent interview in his modest office in the sprawling hospital complex, Dr. Redelmeier had written on an index card some of his homespun philosophies.
“Life is a marathon, not a sprint,” he read, adding, “A great deal of mischief occurs when people are in a rush.”
hitch on stieg
I suppose it’s justifiable to describe “best-selling” in quasi-tsunami terms because when it happens it’s partly a wall and partly a tide: first you see a towering, glistening rampart of books in Costco and the nation’s airports and then you are hit by a series of succeeding waves that deposit individual copies in the hands of people sitting right next to you. I was slightly wondering what might come crashing in after Hurricane Khaled. I didn’t guess that the next great inundation would originate not in the exotic kite-running spaces at the roof of the world but from an epicenter made almost banal for us by Volvo, Absolut, Saab, and ikea. Yet it is from this society, of reassuring brand names and womb-to-tomb national health care, that Stieg Larsson conjured a detective double act so incongruous that it makes Holmes and Watson seem like siblings. I say “conjured” because Mr. Larsson also drew upon the bloody, haunted old Sweden of trolls and elves and ogres, and I put it in the past tense because, just as the first book in his “Millennium” trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was about to make his fortune, he very suddenly became a dead person. In the Larsson universe the nasty trolls and hulking ogres are bent Swedish capitalists, cold-faced Baltic sex traffickers, blue-eyed Viking Aryan Nazis, and other Nordic riffraff who might have had their reasons to whack him. But if he now dwells in that Valhalla of the hack writer who posthumously beat all the odds, it’s surely because of his elf. Picture a feral waif. All right, picture a four-foot-eleven-inch “doll” with Asperger’s syndrome and generous breast implants. This is not Pippi Longstocking (to whom a few gestures are made in the narrative). This is Miss Goth, intermittently disguised as la gamine.more from Hitch at Vanity Fair here.
it's hard to kill the king
They dug up the body of Nicolae Ceausescu. Or did they? The Romanian dictator and his wife Elena were executed on Christmas, 1989. But there are those who still won’t believe it. So last month, Romania dug up the body in Ceausescu’s grave to perform DNA tests on it, and to pronounce Nicolae Ceausescu dead, once and for all. In “The Great Christmas Killing,” Hungarian author Peter Nadas wrote about the Ceausescus’ execution as he saw it on television, 10 years after the fact. He describes in stark detail the scenes before the killing and after, from the hasty trial to the hurried postmortem examination. “The captors of the dreaded Ceausescu couple…forced them into a space between the wall and the two steel-legged tables. Either it was cold in the room, or the uniformed members of the summary tribunal did not permit the tyrant and his wife to take off their coats.” He writes of the moment when the hands of the Ceausescus are tied behind their backs with clothesline as they protest, indignant, and the terror of the attending physician whose entire body shakes as he is called on to show the camera, the world, that Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu are gone.more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.
PAROIKIA, Greece — Like the throbbing of the cicadas in the cypress trees, an electric pulse of anxiety is scoring this otherwise unremarkable summer on the tourist island haven of Paros. Greek visitors sip their frothy iced coffees; foreign tourists play racquetball at the water’s edge; and the small merchants whose exertions fuel Greece’s middling economy serve ouzo on the rocks with their customary theatrics. Summer here is sacrosanct, a time when Greeks exercise their inalienable right to lazy lunches of tomato salad and deep-fried smelt. For a month or two, most people decamp to an island or their ancestral village, escaping the enervating responsibilities of everyday life — a ritual enjoyed by everyone from janitors and factory workers to ship owners and government ministers. The nation simply shuts down in July and August. This year, however, the sense of an impending economic disaster has injected a sour note: You can hear it in the once-crowded cafes, in the warnings about strikes that might disrupt travel, and in the foreboding with which restaurant owners bid farewell to longtime summer patrons by saying, “If we’re here next here!” rather than the traditional kali antamosi, “until we meet again.”more from Thanassis Cambanis at The Boston Globe here.
August 30, 2010
Of Ants and Men (part 2)
A Paris Review-style interview with E.O. Wilson
A score of books. Two Pulitzers. Papers that defined entire fields. So why did biologist Edward O. Wilson bother writing a novel? Because people need stories, he says. Wilson hopes his fictional debut from earlier this year, Anthill—about a young man from the South, militant ants, and the coupled fate of humans and nature—will help spark a conservation revolution.
Wilson met me at his Harvard office—a three-roomed cavern at the university’s natural history museum. “Harvard treats emeritus professors very well,” he observed. He showed me part of the world’s largest collection of ant papers, and a copy of his portrait for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. He wore a blue/black checked shirt and slouched when he sat. His sentences were criss-crossed with asides and qualifications, and he squeezed in a few startlingly good impressions. Throughout our talk he sipped iced tea—or as Wilson, a native Alabaman, might say, sweet tea. When he spilled some on the table, he swept it onto the floor with his hand. “The difference between a book review and an interview,” he mused right before we started, “is like the difference between a handshake and a shot in the back.”
SK: In the book, was the “Anthill Chronicles” section the easiest one for you to write? [It describes a war between ant colonies from the p.o.v. of the ants.]
EW: Actually it was. I had just finished with Bert Hölldobler the book The Superorganism. And earlier I’d done many, many—well over 300 scientific papers—on ants. And with Bert Hölldobler, the two of us are about to bring out another book called The Leaf-Cutters, on these ultimate superorganisms. And now they’re one of the best-known group of species in the world in biology because they’ve become a model group to work on, at all levels, from genetics up.
Of course, that was all in my head, so I just rolled it out. And it’s authentic: how they talk to each other, what responses they have, what their cycles are, their constant wars with each other. They’re the most war-like of all creatures we know. Even more than people.
SK: Even more than humans?
EW: Even more than humans, yeah.
SK: One thing that surprised me in the book was that, when Rafael went to Harvard, I noticed you teased the Harvard pieties. Was that something you just wanted merely to tease a little, or was it something you wanted to get off of your chest?
EW: No, I was just teasing. But you know, this happens anywhere you go, especially to a top-rank university that prides itself on its excellence—this could equally well be Oxford and Cambridge. And what I did with Harvard has been done hundreds of time with Oxford and Cambridge. I thought I’ve earned the right to poke the university in the ribs a few times. After all, I’ve been here for fifty-nine years. That was what I doing: I was getting a bit of humor at the expense of what many people see as a puffed-up self-regard.
SK: Another thing that surprised me were references to humans as, I guess for lack of a better word, programmed, sort of like ants are. Especially in some ways sexually. Was that something you wanted to get across, too?
EW: Well, that was not a main emphasis. I had to, from the very beginning, say there are vast differences. And I wasn’t all that interested in comparing the sex adventures (or misadventures) of Raphael at Harvard with ants. What I did want to get across, though, in spite of the vast differences with ants—after all, with the ants we’re dealing with an all-female society, and then take it from there—is that with ants it’s all instinct. With humans it’s substantially culture, and the interaction of genetic propensity and learning with culture.
But let’s not get into all the all. As far as comparisons, it was primarily on the whole issue of the countless wars, of the conflicts between societies. I have been involved in developing, as science, the theory of the origin of many of our social traits—including our powerful propensity to be territorial and respond quickly, with aggression, to territorial invasion. I wanted by implication—I don’t think I spelled it out, but by implication—I wanted for the attentive reader to make the comparison with the ants and their countless wars.
I love the quote from Homer that I used: Zeus has made the decision we should unfold our lives in painful wars from youth until we perish, all of us. There’s something about the tragedy of human existence bound up in that—our struggles and territorial and personal ambitions and our inevitable death. Often caused, at least in part, by that internal cycling. That’s what we call Greek tragedy, because it’s something inborn in people, or in their circumstances. Of course, this is precisely the case in ants.
If you look in Descent of Man, you’ll find that Darwin himself made what may be the most politically incorrect and least quoted surmise about human evolution. He said that it’s quite possible that some of what we call our highest qualities of the human character—heroism, leadership, and the like—have evolved by disputes between groups and wars between groups and conflict, which reward those very qualities that we most admire. Because they give the group an added advantage in conflict. That was what Darwin said. And that is something that we will be hearing more and more about in terms of our reconstruction of human behavior. I actually had that at the back of my mind. It comes through, I think. It comes through for almost anyone who brings a highly social group of animals like ants into play, in a realistic depiction of them.
SK: You mentioned also in the interview you did with The New Yorker that you really wanted to lay out nature “as it was.” And you said you thought it was the first time that a novelist had really tried to do that. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
EW: That’s what I was getting at earlier. Over ninety percent of all novelists, even those who deal with nature as part of the background, present it simply in terms of its impacts on human emotions. In the case of this novel, I tried to do something I haven’t seen done. My knowledge of fiction is not that strong, but I’m reasonably sure what hasn’t been done adequately, even by American nature writers, is to develop in as vivid detail as I can the environment. Particularly the living environment itself, the fauna and the flora. And I make them important for the fate of the human characters—as it should be. I think that was something really new in this novel, and I hope it takes
SK: Do you think Moby Dick was able to do that?
EW: I think certainly so in terms of his attention to whales, and to the appeal to see.
SK: That’s immediately what I thought of, that sort of obsessive attention to whales. But you think yours is doing something different still from what that did?
EW: Yes. There’s a huge difference between a species and an ecosystem. And the latter, the ecosystem, is vastly more difficult to characterize—both accurately and in sufficient literary detail to be interesting.
One of the devices I had, of course, and used, was the journey into the ecosystem as an exploration. I could use that with some confidence because that is one of the human archetypes. By which I mean, that is one thing that most appeals to human beings, instinctively: to go into new worlds and discover surprising things. People love it. That’s a big part of not just fiction—
SK: But of your life!
EW: My life, the naturalist’s life, and human history. Why do we like to read history, and so much of it? We like to read the great trips of exploration, even if there’s not much natural history in them. It’s the wonder of it. The early explorers in the Age of Exploration are compelling because of that journey.
I think we’re on the cusp in literature—a key statement for me to make—we’re on the cusp in literature of inaugurating more detailed journeys into the world of natural history, as part of fiction.
SK: That leads nicely into my next question. What can fiction do in an age that’s largely science based?
EW: There’s one thing it can do. As I said, people respect nonfiction, they give you prizes for nonfiction. But people read novels. It’s what they talk about, and they talk about it because it’s a story. It’s extremely difficult—as important as it is—to describe the molecular structure of the membrane in terms of a story. [Laughs.] I think this is where perhaps environmental scientists and evolutionary biologists have an advantage over molecular biologists.
SK: Did you ever worry that getting into scientific detail or adhering to strict scientific accuracy would undermine any of the human drama in the story?
EW: Quite the reverse.
SK: Why is that?
EW: Because it enriches the context. Simple answer.
SK: There’s a reason I brought that up... The part I was thinking about was the part where the original ant colony had to spend a night by itself after it had been attacked. It knew the other ant colony was coming back, and there was a comment in there about how they really didn’t understand what was going on. It was just a circuit in their neurons. That seemed to me to undermine the drama a little bit, with the ants not understanding their fate—like a human might under siege.
EW: Well, that’s the point. There are many great tragic times in humanity when people were caught like those ants, like the Christians in the Hagia Sofia [left] in Constantinople in 1453 as the Ottoman Turks closed in. And they don’t realize that they’re all going to die, that it’s all hopeless, that it’s over. They don’t know what’s happening. They’re praying, they hope for divine intervention. But it does not make sense to them. That happens to people under a great many circumstances on very small scales and on very large scales. It’s one of the tragedies of existence.
SK: In Consilience especially you had called on social scientists and eventually humanities scholars to incorporate a more scientific outlook in doing their work. While you were writing this did you have in mind what, say, Joseph Carroll [a Darwinist literary scholar] or somebody like that would think about your fiction?
EW: You’re well informed if you know about Joseph Carroll. I had it in mind as a possible consequence to contribute to that, and help bring together in particular science and humanities, yes. But that’s not why I wrote the book. I wrote it for the reasons we just went through.
SK: If your primary purpose had been to bring them together, do you think you would you written it differently or done anything differently?
EW: I think I would not have written a novel. Of course I have feelings and ideals and messages in the novel, but I thought they live in there comfortably, because of the substance of the novel and the way I develop the characters. I think that wanting to do something that you think of grandly as bringing science and humanities together is pietistic. Anyone trying to do it that way, they would seem stiff.
SK: Sure, if you’re trying to do it yourself. But you could make a contribution.
EW: Well, I rather hope this novel will contribute to—how shall I say it?—hands across the chasm of humanities and science. But I didn’t write it for that reason. Thanks for asking, though.
SK: When I first heard that you’d written a novel, I wondered if that was the purpose.
EW: I feared that that might be seen that way. People would say, “There’s one novel I will not read.” That’s the last thing I wanted. That would repel readers. And I would never tell the humanities anyway to “get their act together,” although a lot of scholars in the humanities think that’s what I’ve been doing since Sociobiology, trying to take over territory, intruding. Trying to—how should I put it—melt the Inca gold. All that beauty, melting down in the reductionist way. That’s not what I had in mind at all.
What I had in mind was more like what people like Carroll and Jonathan Gottschall, who just wrote The Rape of Troy, did—it’s adding biology to the whole story. What they’re trying to achieve is to utilize biological insights to augment literary criticism. I think it’s valid to bring biology in then. As part of the explanatory armamentarium for literary critics, to have it in addition to what he or she would already have as a critic writing about something. And I mean critic in a broad sense of not just dealing with a particular novel, but trying to understand what’s going on in the mind, why it happens, and so on. It’s obvious you can bring biology and the way the brain works! It can only be helpful.
But it would be a mistake to be so—what’s the word I’m looking for—direct and plainspoken in fiction. You don’t want to pre-design your fiction to fit any kind of critical framework. That would be a big mistake, and I didn’t try to do it. The creative arts should be to a large degree spontaneous.
SK: So you’re making a distinction between the criticism of it and the creation of it
EW: Exactly. Don’t mess with the best of the creative artists. But think about enlarging the scope and power of criticism of the creative arts, criticism in the broad sense of analysis of the cause and content.
Positive Failure - a review of "The Power" by Rhonda Byrne
Review of Rhonda Byrne, The Power (London: Simon & Schuster, 2010) ISBN: 978-085-720-1706.
1. The Law of Attraction
Rhonda Byrne, author of 2006 best-seller The Secret, has released its sequel. Entitled The Power, it claims further depth into the insights gleaned from The Secret. As she humbly states: ‘You don’t need to have read The Secret for The Power to change your life, because everything you need to know is contained in The Power.’
According to Byrne and her publishers, Byrne’s oeuvre (The Secret movie, released prior to the book; and various cards, sayings and other fashionable accessories) focuses on readers’ abilities to get what they ‘deserve’, using what is known as ‘the law of attraction’. According to The Secret’s synopsis by her publishers: ‘fragments of The Secret have been found in oral traditions, religions, literature and philosophies throughout the centuries … By unifying leading-edge scientific thought with ancient wisdom and spirituality, this riveting, practical knowledge will lead readers to a greater understanding of how they can be masters of their own lives.’ We become ‘masters’ of our lives by invoking the ‘law of attraction’.
To understand the law of attraction would require either a casual or a long glance at the current trend in the self-help industry. This is the factory-produced, standardised answers to questions of human betterment, which elicits a solipsistic attitude as the touchstone for all problems in the world; a tethered link between religious guilt and nihilistic dismissal, self-help gurus claim to walk this fine line over the precipice of our banal existence.
This is how they do it. The three rules of the Law of Attraction – let us capitalise the letters now – according to Byrne are the following: Ask. Believe. Receive. As Byrne says, in The Secret, it means that: ‘like attracts like. What that means in simple terms for your life is: what you give out, you receive back. Whatever you give out in life is what you receive back in life. Whatever you give, by the law of attraction, is exactly what you attract back to yourself.’ If you want good things to happen, be a good person, think positive thoughts. By doing so, you can have many things granted: if one wants a parking-space, simply ask the universe to provide it for you; if you want that career, simply ask for it, believe in it and you will receive it. By this logic, Byrne then went on to state one of the worst sentences any literate, twenty-first century individual can make. She says, in The Secret: ‘The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts.’
Consider this claim. Repeat it to yourself. Then consider the poverty-stricken multi-tudes. We may reasonably assume that horrendously poor individuals desire poverty alleviation, i.e. money, more than many of us already maintaining a regular income. After all, if we are already making money, why do we need to desire it – unless, as Byrne is hinting, we desire more? Of course, Byrne might say our regular income is a result of our ‘desire’ for money (Ask) – but this does not answer the question of the poor. Byrne sickeningly implies that the poverty-stricken, sub-Saharan African mother, dragging her crumpled, dying infant through a diseased village, has brought such hardship on herself. The mother is, after all, ‘blocking’ money from coming to her, thus preventing herself from saving her child.
The problem of course is Byrne never explains how the Law of Attraction works. Quantum physics, the old canard of a dying industry constantly asked for verification, is hinted at – but never elaborated upon. This is a false analogy: quantum physics is spooky and mysterious; the law of attraction is spooky and mysterious; therefore the latter must work according to the same principles. One is reminded of Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman, who said that if you think you understand quantum physics, you don’t understand quantum physics.
In The Power, Byrne has ‘updated’ her ideas from The Secret, invoking something called the Creation Process: ‘Imagine it. Feel it. Receive it.’ Why does Byrne assume we can obtain things through simply feeling and desiring it? She states her reason on the first page: ‘You are meant to have an amazing life! You are meant to have everything you love and desire.’ She proceeds to list the most juvenile of desires; similar to an outline of life as perhaps imagined by comfortable Western teenage girls who have yet to face hardship in life. She outlines things like a happy marriage, a ‘perfect husband’ (yes she actually does say that), money, etc. Her outline is one cheesy sunset away from being a 1920’s Hollywood movie.
And it is an outline, but one drawn with chalk as reality lays waste, constantly, to our dreams and desires. This is not illusory pessimism but reality. To think otherwise is to confine oneself to juvenile denial (to coin a silly word: ‘juvedenial’). By what logic are we meant to have anything, let alone happiness? There is no one we can appeal to; contra Byrne, there is no force that cares about us. We have no reason to accept, as we will later see, Byrne’s assertion of the Law of Attraction. Byrne’s logic is tautological: the law of attraction works because we are meant to have a good life. We are meant to have a good life because of the law of attraction. This shows how vacuous this notion is.
She does attempt something approaching sophistication, as with most adults who can write a fairly coherent sentence. But her sophistication ends up displaying her utter ignorance on matters of the world: ‘Five thousand years ago, ancient scriptures recorded that all of creation was done and complete, and that anything approaching that could possibly be created already exists. Now, five thousand years later, quantum physics has confirmed that every single possibility of anything and everything actually exists now.’
This appeal to authority – an informal logical fallacy – also forgets that people, five thousand years ago, thought the earth flat and the sun a raging god. She does not list her sources for this blanket assertion, so we cannot verify – as usual – her claims. Two points: ‘ancient sources’ are not necessarily good – just as ‘ancient wisdom’ is not necessarily wise. Ancient sources are the sources of ‘ancient wisdom’; but wisdom, like medicine, is either applicable or not: from where and when it comes does not give it a further quality at all. Medicine is medicine, it cures or it does not – there is no such thing as ‘alternative’ or ‘complementary’ medicine, for example. It is simply medicine. Similarly, wisdom either aids us in living better, or it is fallacious, solipsistic statements made without foundation – as is the case here
The second point appears to be a misunderstanding of quantum physics or quantum theory’s ideas of non-locality, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, etc. Her statement is nonsense, of course. Many quantum physicists will agree ‘spooky’ things happening to your atoms is not completely out of the question but the likelihood is equivalent to, as physicist Brian Greene says, you randomly marrying Nicole Kidman or Antonio Banderas, as you read this sentence. (This does not apply to any potential lovers of either celebrity). The other important point is all the ‘spooky’ aspects of quantum physics – that we cannot at the same time tell the speed and position of an atom for example – all happens at the quantum level not the everyday or, as biologist Richard Dawkins would say, ‘middle world’: that is what we encounter without the aid of micro- or telescopes. For example, we see rocks as completely solid even though they are, according to scientifically-verifiable observation methods, mostly empty-space. Similarly we do not deal with the quantum, i.e. smallest, level of the natural world because it simply does not operate on a scale which would be useful to us everyday. (This does not invalidate quantum theory; it only highlights that Byrne’s claims that quantum theory has confirmed her own shows up to be nonsense, since quantum theory deals with the quantum level. I would also asked more informed readers on the current trends of quantum physics to correct me, if I am severely mistaken.)
Byrne’s assertion that ‘every single possibility of anything and everything actually exists now’ makes no sense. Surely she cannot ignore the progress of, for example, technology, government and medical science which will show up new inventions, policies and medicines in the future? This is not hope but a logical extrapolation from history: could we have imagined a cure for polio, before we even had a germ-theory of disease? There will be things beyond the imagination of anyone – because we do not have the means to create any of it. We cannot dogmatically assert that every possibility exists now – what does that even mean? It seems this appeal to a static existence is one more feather in the cap of apathy and egotism. Take no heed for the morrow because today everything is possible.
Her undermining of science is shown elsewhere: ‘the law of attraction is what holds every star in the universe and forms every atom and molecule. The force of attraction of the sun holds the planets in our solar system, keeping them from hurtling into space … it holds your car to the road, water in your glass.’ I am not sure why she asserts this, because she has not forgotten about that tiny thing called ‘gravity’. But after mentioning gravity, she implies the Law of Attraction actually subverts or governs gravity. She is remarkably unclear about this. Her idea that planets will hurtle into space if not held, makes it seem like planets ‘want’ to hurtle away; that the only thing preventing them is the law of attraction or gravity (do not worry: I am getting confused, too). Of course, planets are reacting in accordance with the physical laws in the universe – even if hurtled, they would still be operating according to physical laws, not undermining them. Perhaps it would undermine the Law of Attraction, but it only shows then that the Law of Attraction is not a testable, physical law of the universe – it is Byrne’s assertion that all is well because all is well. (We should also note her relating the story of water reacting to positive and negative emotions [p.205]. A view, I think, which has been thoroughly disproved.)
2. Glorified Solipsism: Ignoring the Misses
If you doubt Byrne’s solipsism as the source of her ‘wisdom’, consider one of many egotistical examples she lists to compound the Creation Process. ‘A few years ago I was in Paris for my work and I was walking down a street when a woman rushed past me wearing one of the most beautiful skirts I had seen, intricately detailed in Parisian style.’ When she returned to Australia, she found herself through pure luck facing a store-window with ‘the exact same skirt’ she had seen earlier. The store only received one and, in one of her usual egotistical assertions displaying how much the universe loves her, she says: ‘Of course the skirt was my size.’ Not only that, but it was half-price and the store had no idea where it had come from! (Notice my random use of an exclamation mark.) This is part of the endless fallacious statements people make using barely noticeable, day-to-day examples to reinforce their belief in the spooky, the supernatural or the ‘mystical’ (we see the resort to the equally spooky domain of quantum physics). This is the same logic people imply when they tell us the tired old anecdote of thinking of a person and her calling you; or dreaming about a long-lost friend and suddenly they appear in your life, backyard or grocery-store.
As Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptic Society, constantly states: people remember the hits and ignore the misses. All the hit-counters in Byrne’s life have achieved such a high number she has built her entire system of random accidents into a bizarre conquest of delusion. She has conquered the territory of life’s mysteries and ‘destiny’ using the sword of solipsism, carving through a forest of counter-claims. How often do we think of someone and the phone remains silent? How often do we remember distant friends, but never see them again? We forget when these apparently mundane incidents occur because they appear so normal. By normal, I mean in keeping with our day-to-day expectations about occurrences in our lives: it is no wonder that we forget the ordinary and remember the extraordinary. We hardly react to a flat road, but do react to sudden slopes, surprising dips – similarly for the plateau of everyday life. Indeed – to continue the stone metaphor – what makes for milestones in life, dinner conversations, anecdotes worthy of retelling: the banal or the wonderful? What colours the lines of our monochromatic existence except the palette of the extraordinary?
But remember, too, that a property of the extraordinary is that it is exceptional. It is an exception to the banality or normalcy of something. Extraordinary would not be worth the name, unless it stepped beyond – usually above – the environment from which it springs. Therefore, of course finding the same dress is extraordinary – it is ‘out of’ the ordinary. Of course you will remember all the times you had a phone-call from a friend in the front of your mind; of course we are glad for the countless cases of people raising themselves out of terrible positions in life – but what about those misses? What about those people who fail, those poverty stricken multitudes, those desperate people huddled in the rain, those crying infants born with painful cancers only to die days or weeks later? If we are ‘meant’ to have a good life, we cannot just keep evoking stupid, banal examples about dresses and shoes and parking-spaces. We need to be aware of the whole of humanity.
Stepping beyond the tower of egotism reveals a world cruel, harsh and unforgiving; it relates an uncaring universe, an indifferent countdown toward death, a dismissal of all our efforts toward anything meaningful sub specie aeternitatis, or ‘under the gaze of eternity’. There is nothing honourable about locking yourself in a tower of egotism, peering through the lens of solipsism at the wider world. Doing this means seeking only what will make you ‘happier’ according to wealth, love and other boring and banal American-housewife idiocies. Laying down your hair only when Mr Perfect melodically sings your name further transmutes solipsism into apathy.
3. It Is All About Love
Byrne tells us that ‘the law of attraction’ is empowered by love.
‘Every single invention, discovery, human creation came from the love of a hu-man heart … Take a look around you, right now. Whatever you see that is a human creation would not be there without love.’ She lists examples like the planes from the love of the Wright Brothers; buildings from the love of architects; education from the love teachers. This is typical of Byrne to make massive, sweeping and unfounded claims about our world.
What about weapons? We do not even have to think of nuclear bombs to reinforce this thought. Weapons are made with one intention: to destroy, hurt or cripple something. There is little else the bomb dropped on Nagasaki could do except destroy; there is little use for a Glock except to make large holes in meat, or to turn sculptures into wreckage. When the first of our ancestors raised a stone against the head of his annoying friend, he turned it into a weapon. That was a human creation – but that was not done out of love.
Even if we give Byrne the benefit of the doubt, it still says nothing about this force being ‘good’. Byrne and other lawyers of attraction could argue that scientists so loved their science they made the atomic bombs; a man so loved his family and his life that he created a weapon to defend himself or conquer others; Nazis so loved their racial purity they were willing to wipe out everyone who failed their template. Does this make these things ‘good’? No, because they caused great suffering. So even if things are made using love, it tells us nothing about whether we would want such things existing in our world. But to compound all reasons for the creation of inventions or institutions into a singular thread called love is to dismiss the complexities of history and the world. It answers no questions and gives us little reason to trust love at all.
4. Life’s Simplicity
‘Life is simple. Life is made up of only two kinds of things – positive and negative things. Each area of your life … is either positive or negative to you. You have plenty of money or you lack money. You are brimming with health or you lack health. Your relationships are happy or difficult. Your work is exciting and successful or dissatisfying and unsuccessful. You are filled with happiness or you don’t feel good a lot of the time. You have good years or bad years, good times or bad times, good days or bad days.’
Byrne commits a false-dichotomy here, another informal logical fallacy. This states there are only two options to a situation, things are either ‘black or white’ (an-other name for the fallacy). Yet, there are plenty of people who are content with their modest income; many people who are not in incredible health but are not in their death-beds either; couples who are not comfortable with each other all the time, but remain firm through bad times. I do not even understand what her last sentence means. It is purely descriptive: of course we have good days and bad days. No one, not even Byrne, can say her life is built upon rainbows, ponies and butterflies every single day – even with the Law of Attraction.
By showing that she has committed this false-dichotomy, we also have under-mined her assertion that ‘life is simple’. Once again, we see the mindset of a comfortable, teenage girl who is not worried about hardships in the real world. Perhaps life is simple for her: but she cannot tell the rest of us that all our lives are simple. What is simple about eradicating diseases, solving conflicts in dictatorial countries, attempting to feed, clothe and cure victims of despotic strife? What is simple about the emancipation of women in Darfur, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Iraq? These happen and are happening. To say ‘life is simple’ implies there is a simple solution to these problems: after all, they are part of someone’s life (obviously not Byrne’s or her fellow apathetic followers).
There is nothing simple here: imagine saying to those attempting to cease strife and hardship – the United Nations, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders – that life is actually simple, and made up of only two kinds of things. Do we need to stretch our imagination very far to ask if a person proclaiming such juvedenial would be granted a senior position in these groups’ policy-making? Would anyone seriously want such profoundly babyish ideas to be running through such important organisations, goals and objectives? If we do not, what use does such an approach have to aid us at all? It might, as we have seen, cater to Byrne and others living in comfort. But for the rest who want to actually have an impact on the world in improving the plight of our species – especially for the better sex living in despotic patriarchal environments – proclaiming the simplicity of life not only raises apathy in these areas, but would dissolve all and any attempts at amelioration.
5. Hume’s Passion
‘Everything in life about how you feel. Every decision you make in your life is based on how you feel. The single motivating power of your entire life is your feelings.’ Here, Byrne is stating that feelings override reasoning; why reason when you can just listen to your feelings?
The greatest Scottish philosopher during the Enlightenment, David Hume, made a similar point in his Treatise on Human Nature: ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.’ Hume thought that reason could act as an auxiliary, in order to achieve our passions. Reason cannot inform our desires, or cannot form them initially. After all, we cannot reason ourselves into hunger, into love, into choosing what type of person we are. Hume was right to a great degree but of course he was far more sensitive to the subject than Byrne. Hume made concessions that reason could waylay passions, could undermine them, could displace them by showing another or subverting passion.
Also, one is reminded of Karl Popper’s idea, which can serve as a weapon against Byrne’s whole book: a theory that explains everything explains nothing. Unfalsifiable claims are useless. Consider the dancing, invisible pixie on the tip of my nose: disprove he does not exist. He is beyond testing, beyond measurement, but I can feel he is there. This is an unfalsifiable claim, since any charge you lay against me, I can bat off with my assertion of his properties. This, of course, only means our answer for everything can make no concessions for its disproof. To be worth any value a theory ought to postulate scenarios of counter-claims. To say ‘everything in life is about how you feel’ means we cannot disprove it – showing it to be worthless, not powerful.
Also consider the position of non-believers facing death. Many of us have concluded that death is the end. Does that make us feel good? To an extent – but what would we rather have? Certainly not the awful heavens and paradises proposed by the theisms – which seem more like penal-colonies than paradise-islands. But we each of us can imagine some sort of place that we would want to continue our existence. That would make us feel better about facing death – but we cannot because reason has shown otherwise. That does not make us ‘feel’ good at all; to the contrary, it at times is terrifying but we face up to it anyway.
Does this show feelings are not involved? No, of course not, but it does highlight that feelings are not the main reason we accept eternal annihilation. It shows we are willing to face it, even when we do not want to. Here reason dominates not feelings.
Also, Byrne does not articulate that feelings are necessarily good. Many of the Ku-Klux Klan felt that abusing blacks was important for their fulfilment; the apartheid government truly felt that non-whites deserved worse treatment than whites. Like ‘love’, the idea that ‘feelings’ somehow give our actions an automatic moral pass is ludicrous.
6. Bringing It On Yourself
‘No one can come into your life and affect you negatively, unless you are already on the same negative feeling frequency. If you’re on a feeling frequency of love, it won’t matter how tough or negative someone is, they will not and cannot affect you.
Maybe they cannot but their bullets, fists and policies can; their trains, ovens and gas-chambers could; their gulags and gas-masks will certainly affect you. Remember: Byrne asserts that no bad thing happens to you, unless you invite it to your life; just as good things happen because you give out good things.
As we saw earlier, she implies poor people are preventing money from coming to them; she must also say that the many who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki wanted to be annihilated; that the millions of Jews, Gypsies, the old and physically-impaired, and many children in Nazi Germany all wanted to die; that non-whites in South Africa wanted to be oppressed during the long apartheid years.
On the same page as the above quotation (p. 180) she ironically quotes Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Widely revered and praised, fighting for the incredible cause of equality between the races – have we forgotten King was assassinated by an escaped convict? Have we forgotten Steve Biko in South Africa was probably murdered by the police? Did these great figures, who gave as much as they could into the world, want to be shot, abused, or die by the hands of those they fought against? At what even remotely rational level could you possibly say King, Lincoln, Kennedy, wanted to die by the hands of an assassin.
Byrne must, according to her invoking the Law of Attraction, say these people brought it on themselves. She in fact did say so about the recent floods in America. People actively chose to murder themselves, in one of the most awful ways – with large amounts of water killing them and their families. This point is central to why I consider this work completely anti-moral, in any sense that a thinking, literate individual ought to be behaving in today’s world – as I will outline at the end.
7. It’s All About You
Byrne has titled a sub-section of her fourth chapter, ‘It’s Not About the Other Person’. This is her engagement with relationships. By now, we can guess what her view of relationships is: give enough and your relationships will be give back. The banality of it is made extraordinary by her random assertion of the Law of Attraction. However, she also infuses our conduct in relationships with her usual glorified solipsism: ‘It’s all about you!’ Remember too that she thinks love is behind every type of creation, be it railways or relationship. (You should be unsurprised that ‘the force’ indicated by the book’s title is love. Stifle the yawn.) But to be fair, let me give the full quotation.
‘Some people think a relationship is either good or bad because of the other person, but life doesn’t happen that way. You can’t say to the force of love, “I will give love only when the other person gives it to me!” You can’t receive anything in life unless you give it first! Whatever you give, you receive, so it’s not about the other person at all: it’s all about you! It’s all about what you are giving and what you are feeling.’
Consider psychological egoism; this is the position which states that everything we do is for our own benefit. We do something because it either gratifies us now, or serves to gratify us in the long run. Even self-sacrificing individuals – no, not the very unmaternal ‘Mother’ Teresa – like soldiers leaping on grenades, do so because they know their friends will live. This makes them feel good, moments before they die. There is no case in which gratification is not forthcoming for us. Even if we are doing something we hate, we at some point will get gratification (e.g. the drudgery of obtaining a passport means we will be able to travel; taking out the trash at least means our partners will stop whining at us; helping AIDS orphans makes us feel good). The problem with psychological egoism is mainly its unfalsifiability: there is no hypothetical situation we can postulate which negates it, like invisible creatures on the tip of my nose. Byrne appears to be brandishing a version of this. As we saw with regard to her use of love, it is unhelpful and vacuous because it answers all claims.
Another problem is self-evident. There are clearly many, if not most, relationships that are one-sided. This is not to say both partners do not give, but that one evidently cares, gives and engages more than the other. Many relationships continue like this for years. It is not unheard of, nor impossible. My point is merely that Byrne is talking nonsense, if we think relationships will not last or even be authentic by saying we must give in order to receive. And these can be ‘great’ relationships – even if one sided.
She also tells us that by ‘looking for the things you love in the person … every-thing will change in the relationship’. I would be interested to see such an approach performed by oppressed women in African or Muslim (not mutually exclusive) societies. Here they are thrust into a relationship, usually with someone old enough to be their father. It is not unheard of for these women to fall in love with their husbands, from these arranged marriages. Yet, if he keeps beating or raping her, simply focusing on what she loves about him will be absolutely no help to her. Even in Western societies, a woman who stays in an abusive relationship maintains she still love ‘parts’ of him, even though he continues to beat her. Byrne’s solution could just compound the problem. Recognising those aspects you love of someone does not mean you must become a slave to them.
Byrne proceeds to list one of the most awful examples about a woman who had an (verbally) abusive husband who ‘complained every day. He was sick all the time. He was depressed and angry.’ Apparently being sick is a bad thing and he should have stopped being sick. I am uncertain why Byrne lists this as a property; it seems a bizarre choice of slander against this husband. (Unless, his sickness is an indication that he was doing something bad in his life. See, sceptics? The Law of Attraction does work!) If anything, someone’s sickness ought to elicit compassion. Perhaps Byrne is relating the burden he had on the woman’s life? After all, ‘it’s all about you’.
She continues: ‘When the woman learned about the power of giving love, she decided right away to feel happier despite the problems in her marriage.’ The woman took out photos of their previous ‘life’, when both were young and in love. When she did so, she felt love return for her husband. They both reconciled and he got healthier, happier and was no longer depressed.
To Byrne this was ‘the power’ in action. But there is nothing supernatural about this. People solve relationships all the time, some in worse tatters than this mundane example. Byrne gives no evidence to support her claim that love is an active force in the world (or universe). What should be particularly worrying is whether this couple worked out the problems they had in the first place. Unless they have focused on the root causes for their conflict, simply ‘loving’ each other will do nothing to abate future problems. It is stupid and juvenile for anyone to think serious, adult discussions are less important than simply allowing love to conquer all. No doubt a change in attitude is always helpful to articulating, even identifying problems – in a relationship or life in general – but this is not what Byrne claims occurs.
We should also be troubled by the statement: ‘she decided right away to feel happier’. Byrne has said that our feelings decide everything. But how could this woman decide to feel anything, other than what she is feeling? The very basis of feelings is that they are not decided upon; they simply are. Decision implies reasoning about different choices: either this woman decided through reason to change her attitude, or her feelings arose as feelings do. I do not even know what ‘deciding to feel’ any emotion means.
8. Instant Happiness
The previous paragraph also tells us the woman decided to feel happier. What does ‘feel happier’ mean and how does one simply elicit happiness? Does Byrne mean joy or warm, fuzzy feelings? Or does Byrne mean happy, in the sense of consistent fulfilment? If Byrne means the former, so what; if the latter, how so?
We cannot simply evoke happiness. There needs to be a situation that calls for joy or usually a long process toward consistent fulfilment. It cannot simply be evoked, spontaneously. Especially in situations where one is abused and badly treated. Then you are simply deluding yourself by imagining things are fine, good, wonderful. Byrne has told us the woman was in a horrible relationship. The woman then ‘decided’ to be happy. Imagine you are a soldier on the battlefield: around you, explosions, tanks and your dying friends. You are hit with a bullet. You look around, see nothing but death and misery, your leg bleeding out. You could decide to simply ‘feel joy’ (I still do not know how to do this, but let us give Byrne the benefit of the doubt) or fulfilment. Will that heal your leg? Will that attitude help you survive? Far more likely is a grenade exploding nearby, a tank rolling over you, or an enemy soldier killing you. A realistic conception of the situation would have you crawl, with gritted teeth, over to the medic to receive help. The woman in the relationship would be the soldier smiling up at clouds and the pretty blue sky. The one who would get crushed by a tank or shot.
Self-delusion does not work nor is it ever a good thing. There is no situation where being out of touch with reality, with your situation, can be a good thing. It might serve you, but it will do little for those under your care, who depend on you, etc. For example, the children would still be receiving abuse, even if their mother fell into her fit of joy and spontaneous happiness combustion. She can delude herself and feel happy, or take charge and get her children out of that situation. Byrne is suggesting that former works every time. Maybe it worked in this example (and we have seen why, even if this was the case, it does not make it a good thing) but there are probably far more instances where it will not. Rejecting reality for self-delusion makes life into a beautiful performance, but it will always be just that: a performance, where the only audience member is you.
9. Why This Book is Anti-Moral
There are two reason to think this book anti-moral, if not immoral, if not simply evil. I mean nothing religious by evoking evil; but anything that subverts attempts to act morally for the good of our species, that gravitates toward egotistical fulfilment despite the hardships of others, I conclude as being an evil thing. Yet, I know that such a word will be misused, so instead I will say anti-moral.
By anti-moral, I mean the same thing: it dissolves attempts at caring for the wider world, attempts to aid our species, active engagement and realism about wider situations occurring as we speak. Apathy is, I conclude, one of the reasons our world remains horrible. Apathy on the part of those who are able change, aid or care for people in need perpetuate situations that otherwise could be ameliorated, if not overthrown. I mean nothing optimistic or hopeful. Most Enlightenment thinkers believed that progress was never inevitable, that the world was a terrible place. Yet they saw a lack of engagement with the world, a lack of passion for change, a submission to the chains society had locked peoples’ situations in. We all know that changed: it changed because people of passion and persuasion, people of realistic appreciation for the sciences and political situations decided to really make things better, not simply rest in idle dreams where it was so.
Byrne’s horrid little book continues to weld chains to passion. It tells us, as we saw, to focus only on ourselves: it tells us everything – and I mean everything – is about us, individually. ‘Life is responding to you. Life is communicating with you. There are no accidents or coincidences … There is a reason [for example, why] you saw the police car … but you have to ask the question “What is this telling me?” to receive the answer. Police represent law and order, so the police car may be a message of something that’s out of order in your life, such as you forgot to call a friend back, or didn’t thank someone for something.’ She also gives an example of a fire-engine racing past: did we not put out a fire in our life? Do we need more fire in our love life?
Byrne then relates a few sentences that makes the psychology-student in me worried: ‘Whenever I hear something, even if they are the words from a conversation of two strangers who are standing near me, if I can hear the words, their words have meaning in my life. Their words are a message for me, they’re relevant to me, and giving me feedback on my life.’ She continues: ‘Every single thing that surrounds me is speaking to me.’
I do not believe she is hearing voices – this is not my concern. It is picking out messages from random places, people, signs, police-cars and ‘fire engines’ that is worrying. This is of particular concern since it only reinforces to Byrne that everything is about her. We are pattern-seeking creatures, makings faces out of clouds, battles out of stars. But seeing patterns – or rather, imposing patterns – does not make their ‘messages’ true. We can see patterns wherever we like. Indeed, there are some wonderful things arising out of seeing patterns where previously there was chaos (see Philip Ball’s award-winning Critical Mass). But, refracting these patterns off the lens of solipsism is simply bizarre: why should we think the fire engine is trying to spice up our love life? Maybe it was trying to put out a fire at an orphanage, which, remembering the Law of Attraction, the orphans brought on themselves. One again, Byrne says think about what the fire engine means in your life, do not think maybe I can aid the fire-services.
Indeed, it is symbolic of the entire anti-moralist stance of Byrne’s book: think about what a random event means to you, find meaning in your own life on some mundane topic (who did I not thank; should I use those handcuffs tonight?), and repeat, knowing that anything bad that happens to other people was, according the Law of Attraction, brought on by their own blocking of good things or wanting of negative things. Thus, there is no guilt or engagement.
No guilt. No engagement. Thus, solipsism and apathy. As I indicated, this glorification of moral dismissal, doing away with any notions of helping others to make a better world in some way, is part of the problem of today’s suffering. Byrne has made an entire project out of this: showing not only how you can make your meaningless life into something special, how the world is all about you, but compounds this by an extra move that makes it, to me, anti-moral or evil: it says, other peoples’ problems are their own, you have no part in their lives, let them simply learnt how to be positive to invite positive things into their life, even if they invited floods, are living under despotic regimes, etc.
But, to live in the world is an invitation to live a meaningful life: meaning can be found in realistic passions, in realistic comprehension of helping others, in being adult about suffering and its alleviation. The extraordinary can occur and can be appreciated without the superstitious, without the supernatural. Nothing is needed to revel in the wonders of art, literature, music and photography, for example; all extraordinary but not superstitious, not supernatural. Byrne’s book does nothing to aid us as individuals, provides no insight into life itself, and is anti-moral in a new and horrible sense. To glorify solipsism, peeling apart the skin of morality and wearing it to the performance of our self-delusion; to perpetuate apathy and waylay passion, by flattening any conceptions that arise like bubbles on the flat terrain of our existence. The damage of this book is that it appears not to damage: it simply continues and then goes on to glorify the lack of realistic engagement with the world. The Power and books like it gives banality a supernatural essence, which transmutes banality into solipsism and, furthermore, into apathy. The world remains unchanged, if not in reverse, whilst the apathetic majority rock to the rhythm of their egotism. Ambrose Bierce appears quite prescient about such an approach to life, when he defined ‘fool’ in the Devil’s Dictionary: ‘[The fool’s] grandmotherly hand has warmly tucked-in the set sun of civilization, and in the twilight he prepares Man’s evening meal of milk-and-morality and turns down the covers of the universal grave. And after the rest of us shall have retired for the night of eternal oblivion he will sit up to write a history of human civilization.’
Through no optimism of my own, I doubt that Byrne is a terrible person, or that people who subscribe to her view are stupid or bad people. That is not my criticism: my criticism is what occurs by embracing this life-style, by glorifying in apathy and solipsism. However, Byrne has presented herself as the ‘fool’ according to Bierce; Byrne and similar authors are guilty of burying real-world concerns under their carpet of feel-good, instant-gratification. And for that, they deserve no respect and to be called out for the hucksters and snake-oil merchants of morality they are.
If you really want to think about how horrible The Power is, imagine if we all started thinking of our lives in this way, ignoring the world suffering around us, then imagine the collapse of passion, the fallout of mediocrity and revelling in the muddied-waters of self-aggrandisement. I for one will not be found near such waters, smiling like Narcissus at my reflection. Byrne wants us all to gaze into these waters, to become trapped by the wonder of our existence, but to remain there without looking up at the calls for help as these waters of life drown the starving multitudes: after all, they brought it on themselves.
Ezra Johnson. Still from What Visions Burn. 2006.
"Ezra Johnson’s What Visions Burn relays the story of an art heist and its aftermath, in which Johnson intertwines content with style for a unique take on the robber-film genre. He paints and repaints his canvases to create each frame of his films, providing a rich visual texture and continuity. He uses the medium of painting to make a film about stolen paintings, and interjects newspaper headlines—made from newsprint collages—into the action..." From SITE Santa Fe Biennial 2010 website.
Religion Should Not Get A Pass
In my last essay "A Rational Approach to Irrationality," I argued that not all forms of religious criticism are equally effective. Judging from the comments and blog articles posted in response, I seem to have hit a nerve. The respected evolutionary biologist and blogger Jerry Coyne took me to task in his article, "Should religion get a pass?" because he interpreted my position as going soft on religion.
In all fairness to Coyne, I wasn’t clear as to where I stood on the issue of criticism of religion. So let me set the record straight here: my answer to Coyne’s question, “Should religion get a pass?”, is an emphatic no.
I suggested that attacks on religion may not be the most effective approach to protecting secular education. And I argued that verbal abuse may do more harm than good. That I oppose all criticism of religion is an easy, but incorrect, inference. I think critical discourse is a vitally important part of a healthy society; religion merits no exemption.
I’m not surprised that my article precipitated such a passionate response from atheists, since to many it seemed to support the widespread public attitude that religion is sacred territory, and criticism of any kind is akin to a personal attack.
Which raises the question, why is it that the general public seems to think that religion should get a pass, that any kind of criticism of religious beliefs is offensive? Maybe it's because religious people feel that their beliefs are as much a part of who they are as their race or their eye color; something they were born with and can’t change. This feeling probably isn't too far off- to some extent, religious faith is not a choice. Children are born into the religious world of their parents and after years of indoctrination, religious beliefs are not easily changed or abandoned.
The importance of early childhood education is recognized by both sides of the religious debate. This is evident in the Jesuit motto "Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man". The secular movement should adopt a similar motto.
The systematic indoctrination of children is unethical and must be stopped. Strictly speaking, religious freedom is a state protected right. But I think we can agree that freedom to choose a religion can be restricted in a more practical sense. For students at a religious school, the choice is free in a legal sense. It’s not a free choice in any practical sense, since all but one of the options have been obscured. If you are only exposed to one option, you don’t have a choice.
Criticism of religion is respectful of people’s freedom to choose. Presenting facts and arguments that people can use to draw their own conclusions doesn’t in any way restrict their freedom to do so. It informs the decision. It’s a good thing.
I think Richard Dawkins sets a great example. He doesn’t stoop to personal attacks. He isn’t gratuitously offensive in speech or in writing. His recent documentary “Faith School Menace?” draws attention to the rise of faith schools in the UK. It raises important questions, like what’s best for children and what rights should children have in determining their beliefs. I suggest we follow his lead, in both the way we treat people and what we focus on.
Jerry Coyne also sets a great example. In a review of Coyne’s book, Why Evolution is True, Publisher’s Weekly said this: "Additionally, although fully respectful of those who promote intelligent design and creationism, he uses the data at his disposal to demolish any thought that creationism is supported by the evidence while also explaining why those ideas fall outside the bounds of science.
Generally speaking, I think we should pay greater attention to strategy and tactics. More specifically, I think secular education should be our top priority. To this end, non-threatening persuasion tactics may be especially useful. It will be a long battle and we should identify of our most effective weapons.
Coyne closed his response to my essay with this statement: “In the end, the arguments to go easy on religion all boil down to this claim: it’s the most common form of superstition. It’s useless to attack it because it’s ubiquitous and entrenched, and we’ll only alienate people if we try. But I need hardly point out one lesson of history: the ubiquity of bad beliefs does not make them immune to change.” I agree wholeheartedly, and real change may begin when we are able to grant every child their right to an education free from religious indoctrination.
...and points inbetween
by David Schneider
I'm hunting for an apartment in Brooklyn. It's 2010. I only halfknow the borough; it's hipster havens and borderlands, vacant lots and lofts, new towers and old clapboard – a shredded psychogeography re-folding itself every second, like hyperactive origami.
I take CraigsList to the GoogleMap, stroll a StreetView to the Subway, and race a grey L to a green 6 or brown Jay-Z. Time the walk. Time the trains. Recalc the time –– rush hour, late night –– recalc revised (the new service cuts) –– rush shower, late tight –– and is there a supermarket? A laundromat? Rats, mice, bedbugs, pricepoint? What if the…what if the…what if the roof –– the electric –– the piano up the stairs?
Down to Brooklyn and up the stairs. Down the stairs, out of Brooklyn, sit. Scribble out. Redraw. There's got to be a better way.
The roadmap for Middle-East peace lies crumpled on the floor, an accordion with a compound fracture. Can't anyone fold this damn thing? It's an origami in the shape of a dove. Special Envoy George Mitchell is a courier, shuttling messages back and forth down the 20-mile road from Jerusalem to Ramallah and back again. The origami master is named Möbius of Zeno.
I want to install a CraigsList app on my iPhone so I can get the jump on new Brooklyn apartment listings while mobile. I download the iOS4 app but I don't have iOS4 yet so I've got to download that. But first I need iTunes 9.2 to get iOS4. The download for iOS4 says, "It'll take an hour. Don't interrupt." My ISP enjoys interrupting me. The pulsing blue bar ticks down to 11 minutes and stops. I have to start from the beginning. The process ends up taking a day and a half. The CraigsList app doesn't work anyway. I rename my iPhone "Zeno."
I'm rewriting my résumé for the 12th time in six months. As I click homeward to collect the mail, three Yahoos are gibbering through the window, regarding me with expert eyes. One suggests, "Don't use deadening phrases and jargon! Make your résumé unique!" A second admonishes, "Make sure you use common keywords, or the computers will sift you out." The third waggles its finger, "Here are ten things that will make sure your résumé is never even looked at." If I had a job I'd hire a résumé writer, I think; I procrastinate the twelfth redraw of selfmap by scanning the opportunities at Catch-22 Incorporated. I think of Dante, in the middle road of life, in that dark wood.
At the Front Room Gallery, near Brooklyn's Hope Street, I encounter the work of Patricia Smith. She draws symbolic maps of interior consciousness, stylized like 18th-century explorers' maps, or of dissected organs and nervous systems discovered, but censored, from Vesalius's Anatomy. Her "Plot Plan for an Ideal City of One" is folded up like a Triple-A roadmap; it is delicate, it must be opened carefully on both axes, so as not to tear –– though it is manageable when helped by a second pair of hands.
I imagine George Mitchell, Special U.S. Envoy for Middle East Peace, shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah. I imagine him asking first Abbas, then Netanyahu, for help in unfolding the maps of themselves, those crumpled lines.
The rooms are maps of ourselves, my one and lover. And "an entire past comes to dwell in a new house," writes Bachelard. Well, it's not a house, it's an apartment, but it's the best a Brooklynite can do. The realtors are kind and quick: the economy has ground to a halt, and people don't move as much. We shuffle through angles of space, blank canvases. This is uncharted territory. Neither of us wants the realtor to know that we don't know that we don’t know what we want.
I overlay: seven, eight maps a day, maps of interior spaces. Of our spaces, and our interior spaces, innumerable. On the candy-colored knot of the Subway map, the L Train tongues its way into the Brooklyn burrow, slashed by the manically angled streets. We are off the grid.
There are no maps in the future. Our cartographers circumscribe a flat world, misperceive a cliff as Finisterre. "Here be Monsters!" they scrawl upon the sea. So we retreat to the familiar maps of a mythical age, imperfectly drawn.
We redraw the past to fit our maps. Ground zero is a hole as big as a country, and we have failed to fill it fast enough. No one deserves a handout and pull your own bootstraps. Usurper! That's our land! No one likes to be colonized, say the ghosts of Little Syria.
There are too many holes in the ground. We keep digging. Maybe we'll reach China?
On my wall, above my desk, is an image of Simon Patterson's "The Great Bear," a subtly maddening 1992 work in which the London Tube map's stations have all been replaced with the names of comedians, artists, philosophers, and a gaullimaufry of celebrities, politicians and saints. Leonardo da Vinci stands in for Highbury; the Monument stop becomes Epicurus. But we'd be laughed at for trying to find meaning in the overlay; Patterson has written a system guided by its own fallible and obscure logic, and it's up to us to navigate our own route from, say, Immanuel Kant to Neil Armstrong. Change at Titian and Gary Lineker? Or should we take the Circle Line to Pythagoras?
The past of the mind is an empire. It is a great weight to bear.
We uprooted and transplanted, heliotropically, and America turned southerly. And a plantation is a mansion that makes money. "The house shelters dreaming," Bachelard wrote, "the house protects the dreamer." The dream was "The American Dream," given on loan.
"They" took my dream away! "They" took our dream away! "They" took the American Dream away from me! It's always Them.
In Dixieland I'll take my stand to live and die in Dixie. Look homeward, angel. No, you can't go home again.
rather not go
to the old house
I'm in Pete's Tavern in the East Village. Workingman's pub in the day. A construction worker is talking to the bartender. "So I need this additional thingamabob to make my DVD player play Blu-Ray discs!" The bartender replies, "It's impossible to keep up." I chime in, mention the software gap. Every new technology is its own map. Every update changes the map.
Subway Map 3.2 overlay: GoogleMap overlay: topographical – high and low points PULLDOWN MENU: bars, restaurants, galleries, fruitstore meatstore fishstore.
We drive through Brooklyn. Black and white bands of one-way streets, angling in laws of their own, governed by no compass.
"You have to know the street," I say.
"I like a dirty girl / that drinks up what I'm serving," says a rapper, on a car stereo passing by.
I walk up Jefferson Street in Brooklyn. Salsa music is blasting from a first-floor apartment, and kids are screaming, playing, rolling scooters down the sidewalk. It's a neighborhood – I mean a neighborhood, charcoal grills on the curb, everyone knows one another, everyone's friendly in Spanish.
I say hello and hello. That's what Usain Bolt was taught. "You've got to tell everybody good morning. Everybody. You can't miss one person." I know the word on the air.
"I used to live right there," says an old man to his friend, ricketying his way down the street in shorts and sandals and a cane, flapping his Puerto Rico t-shirt over his bare shoulder. "We used to have parties forever, man, no one could tell us what do do."
Sez his friend: "The neighborhoods, they're always changing."
Usain Bolt runs very fast.
The furniture upon the floorplan upon the block upon the 'hood upon the subway upon the commute upon the city upon the work upon the mapping, the mapping, the remapping. Look homeward you cannot look home. The past is a different country.
How could we not go mad?
"I'm lost," you say. "I only know the neighborhood while driving."
"Yeah," I say, "the streets go both ways when you're walking."
Do you know the Muffin Man?
Sit back and let me tell you a story: a large professional services firm, let’s call them Firm A, once went up for a large job at the Client. Firm A, which had good reason to think a lot of itself, had excellent qualifications for the work and gave, what they didn’t doubt was a winning pitch. Then, they sat back, waiting for the call that would certainly anoint them as the winning bid.
A week later they got the call; the other firm, their bitter, but undoubtedly lesser, rival Firm B had won the bid. Confusion reigned at Firm A. How could this have happened? What did they do wrong? They called the Client and did a postmortem. The Client told them that they had done nothing wrong, their pitch was as compelling and as convincing as they thought it had been. So what happened? To the amazement and bewilderment of Firm A they were told, “You were great, and we have no doubt that you would have done a fantastic job, but they brought muffins.”
Muffins! What did the Client mean, “They brought muffins”? It turned out that the Client had very recently moved offices. They hadn’t unpacked all their boxes yet and people’s desks were still in state of disarray. Firm B had realized that this meant that people probably couldn’t find their coffee mugs, or even the coffee machine and, on the day of their pitch, had brought coffee and muffins for everyone in the office. They had thought about what it must be liked to be the employees of the Client, had put themselves in their shoes and had performed a relatively cheap and minor act that had proved to the Client that Firm B had the emotional intelligence necessary to really understand what the Client needed. The Client had decided that there was little enough between the pitches of Firm A and B that, all other things being equal, they were giving the bid to the company that had the institutional empathy to feel the Client’s pain.
As we try to shift the US economy to a new, 21st century paradigm, one where innovation is front and center, emotional intelligence will be an increasingly important skill, helping to propel forward every kind of innovation from product to service innovation. Understanding a customer’s pain is the first step to innovating a product that will alleviate that pain. Zappos understood that an online shopper’s pain is returning items. Intuitively, shoes would seem to be one of the products least conducive to online retail; you have to try shoes on to see if they fit and are comfortable. However, if it was as easy, if not easier to return a pair of shoes bought online as ones bought in a store and that pain could be alleviated, then suddenly shoe shoppers could be free to enjoy all the benefits of online shopping. Zappos has a policy that it will take back any item within 365 days of delivery and will also pay for the return shipping. They make this return shipping very simple and they have customer service representatives who are empowered to smooth over any bumps along the way. As the company’s Marketing Chief recently said, “Customer Service is the New Marketing!” and emotional intelligence is the new killer app for customer service.
Which, of course, leads to my question: are we encouraging emotional intelligence in our children? It goes without saying, or at least it should, that most parents and schools try to encourage children to be good sharers and kind friends. But is this enough? As I’ve discussed before, there seems to be no doubt that the jobs that traditionally were thought of as stable, secure, well-paying white collar employment are increasingly being outsourced or automated. From IT to accounting, these jobs are disappearing from the US and Western Europe at an alarming pace. Daniel Pink posits in his book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, that there are six right-brained directed “senses” which are essential to the kinds of creativity and innovation increasingly necessary in the 21st century. These are: design, story, play, meaning, empathy, symphony. I’ve talked in detail in previous posts about the importance of design, story and play and how, I believe at least, that these are not getting the air time they need to in the curricula of most schools today. Now let’s look at empathy, a key component of emotional intelligence.
I know, I know, schools barely have time to teach math and reading and now they’re supposed to have units on empathy? I’m not saying that. What I am saying is that not everyone is naturally empathetic, and it would seem likely that it is possible to teach people to be at least more so than they already are in the context of other subjects. If this is a trait that is increasingly being valued in the workplace, perhaps we should think about not just leaving it up to chance as to whether or not it is part of a child’s education.
Sometimes I worry that I’m a broken record on the topic of testing, but here I go again: if the focus of education is not much more than cramming facts and figures into a child’s head so they can be enumerated through for the purpose of taking a test, then what room is there in a school day to ask a child to try to put themselves in the shoes of the Ancient Greeks, or the Native Americans, or the Jews in Nazi Germany? Trying to understand the point of view of the players in world history, of the players in current events, of the characters in a work of fiction is to encourage children to be empathetic, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
Last semester, my daughter learned about Ancient Greek myths. She and her classmates were encouraged to write skits to retell the stories of the various gods. My daughter and her friend wrote a play called “Medusa Makeover,” set in a modern-day beauty parlor. They also did a unit about the Mayans in which, through various activities, including creating Powerpoint presentations that told Mayan-like myths that they created, they gained an understanding about why the Mayans might have written the stories they did. In both cases, they were learning about much more than just the facts; they were learning to see these ancient stories from a different point-of-view. Learning about art, music, literature, history through the eyes of the protagonists is about so much more than memorizing facts and figures.
Emotional intelligence requires the ability to look at an issue from multiple perspectives. This kind of learning benefits from a more holistic approach than is commonly used in schools, a truly integrated curriculum. For example, learning about the Amazon rain forest can be a theme that is threaded through art, science, social studies, reading, music, even math; each subject providing a different perspective on the topic and reinforcing what is learned in the other classes.
Emotional intelligence in children is no longer just a case of lowering the incidence of bullying, though of course, that is a likely end result. Ultimately, a company is only as emotionally intelligent as the sum of its employees. Therefore, as companies try to boost their emotional intelligence to connect with customers, it would seem to me that this will be an increasingly valuable job skill. Are we educating our children accordingly?
Build no Mosque Near Zero
—zero's too near the hole in our hearts: the naught
we know at night when the bogey-man bites, the zip
we feel when we love hate, the nada of exclusion
which seeths in the interstices between faith and fear,
the cipher that numbers the digits displayed in a holy fist,
the nadir of our understanding, the O in no,
the void which deepens our capacity to destroy,
the nil of unknowing, the aught of unloving,
the nullification of our presumptions of God's
will in the midnight of His contradictions;
—no mosque must be built near the silence
of the negative space in which god speaks
his or her or its apparently futile
promise of peace and good will
—no mosque and no church
by Jim Culleny
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird -- and at Obama
by Evert Cilliers (aka Adam Ash) and Wallace Stevens
In 1917, Wallace Stevens, to my mind the best American poet of the 20th century (sorry, Sylvia Plath fans), published one of his most famous poems, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” What with Barack Obama being our first black President, and also a leader who elicits a variety of responses, from the sensible to the absurd, I thought it might be interesting to look at Obama through the lens of this poem.
(Note: this piece is shorter than my usual 8,000-word epic rants. Last month I wrote a 17,000-word saga, mixing stories about my strange family with social commentary and snippets of the history of South Africa, where I grew up. I didn't get the usual fifty plus readers comments, but the ones I got were so enthusiastic and heartfelt that I am honor-bound to repeat this personal anecdote/social commentary form again. I thank all those 3QDers who read the whole damn thing and expressed their thanks. You make me love what I do, and make me love 3QD for letting me do what I do. BTW, if you're brave enough to climb this Mt. Everest, google “The World Cup, my White Afrikaner Skin, my Fascist Parents, Mandela, Obama and Forgiveness.” And now on with a mercifully shorter piece.)
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
The problem with Obama is the problem with democracy, as famously described by Churchill in a Commons speech in 1947, after the British voters repaid him for saving civilization by throwing him and his party out in 1945: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Obama is the worst form of president, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. Today there are a few pols that are mildly interesting -- Nancy Pelosi, Ron Paul, Anthony Wiener, Paul Ryan, Bernie Sanders, Howard Dean, Jeb Bush, Barney Frank, James Webb, Newt Gingrich, Alan Grayson -- but none to match Barack Obama. Among the snowy mountains of Washington, his is the only eye worth catching. He can still summon the mojo to enchant a crowd (to see him in top form, google “realclearpolitics Obama: Republicans want to bamboozle you”).
However -- and this is what makes Obama really interesting -- he appears to have lost his progressive base somewhere between Air Force One and the White House urinal. Obama may be the smartest guy in any room, but when it comes to keeping his loyal base loyal, he has moved into full possession of an ear of tin, a tongue of lead, and a brain of plank.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
Looking at candidate Obama in 2008, three mindsets pertain:
(a) Obama was the hope of the universe, the dawn of a new day, a progressive nation changer of unfathomable potential, an avatar of Dr King, Gandhi, Mandela and FDR.
(b) Obama was a socialist demon Nazi Hitler Lenin Antichrist Arab Muslim, the real-world manifestation of super-conservative America's worst hates and fears.
(c) Obama was a blank slate on whom we could all write ourselves; he was whatever you wanted him to be, a projection of your innermost desires, the change that was us that we were waiting for.
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
How significant is a president in the life of a nation? Bush-Cheney took a big part of the American pantomime, and turned it upside down. They started with a reasonably happy country and a sizable budget surplus. Eight years later, their stumblebum idiot asshole pantomime left Obama with the worst legacy any leader has ever inherited, with the possible exception of the Germany that Adenauer inherited from Hitler. It wasn't even autumn in America: more like the deepest darkest Ice Age. Eighteen months into Obama's presidency, the nation is so mind-frozen, a majority of us want to give the keys of our car back to the GOP, whose policies drove us into the ditch in the first place, and whose current single two-word policy (“cut taxes”) promises to add three trillion to a deficit that by some estimates has now reached 13 trillion, as Obama tries to spend us out of a depression.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
The Obamas are the first First Couple since forever of whom it is blatantly obvious that they're really hot for each other. There are nights when that presidential bed must be creaking like an outhouse door in a gale. Two attractive people in their forties who both work out ... can you imagine the marathons? You don't want to? Well, I do, and I get a really big smile when I think about it. Most of us don't think about it, but subconsciously we all do, and perhaps, as a nation, we are consequently bonking our partners harder and better and longer.
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
The attacks on Obama from the right do not consist of beautiful inflections or innuendoes. They are mostly blatant and brutal and outright lies. Obama is a socialist? Rosa Luxemburg would spin in her grave. Obama wants to take over your life? He must have signed at least fifty bills undoing the various ways in which Bush-Cheney took over our lives. Obama wasn't born in America and is a Muslim? During the campaign they said he was in his Christian church to hear his pastor say “God damn America”, and last year they complained about his liberation theology. Lie upon lie upon lie. But because our electorate includes a big chunk of the dumbest voters on earth (probably the same dumb Americans who picked for their American Idol a guy whose name I can't remember over Adam Lambert), these idiot asshole LIES of extreme dumbfuckery aimed at supreme fuckwits of the lowest dumbfucksterism SEEP into the general discourse as incessantly and quasi-mysteriously as SAND sneaks into your genitalia when you're doing the wild thing on a beach blanket. At this point, only 42% of Americans believe Obama was born in America. 41% of Republicans are sure he wasn't. If you repeat the stupidest lie often enough, a nation as dumb as we Americans will believe it. After all, we believe in UFOs. And in psychics who channel the dead. And in astrology. Madame Blavatsky is alive and well. The whole enlightenment and the Age of Reason passed us by. Or it all died when Lionel Trilling died. One thing we don't believe in is common sense, because we don't have any sense in common.
No matter how pretty the tune whistled by the blackbird, the land is rife with the discordant squawks of black crows ready to peck out our eyes, and with the yelps of hungry vultures waiting to pick our bones bare.
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
Verily, 'tis true. Darkness hovers from sea to not-so-shining sea. Like Kafka's frozen lake, we're still awaiting an ax to break the crust of icy cold. Our Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner -- upon whom Obama has a man-crush, the most unfortunate political crush since the Czarina's crush on Rasputin -- our darling Timothy rattles on about how Obama and he saved us from a great depression, and points to the fact that Detroit is back -- what an amazing place is Detroit: socialism works better there than capitalism! -- and that our financial system is working again -- no matter that the Fed printed or accountancy-magicked 13 trillion greenbacks to hand over to bankers who've had less control over their greed than a newborn has over its poop, and no matter that you or I could save Iceland, Greece, Africa, the rainforest and my alcoholic aunt with that amount of soiled lucre. Then darling Timothy says there's more work to be done, but meanwhile he and Obama have spent less than $500 million on the people who are ACTUALLY suffering.
Must be Barack and Timothy have figured their need for Wall Street cash in the 2012 re-election campaign is greater than their need for the votes of the eight to fifteen million folks out of a job and the up to 30 million underemployed, and the votes of the friends of those folks. Maybe they figure those folks will feel too beaten down to even bestir themselves to a voting booth.
Whatever they figure, we plebs should have realized One Big Thing back when Reagan slashed the top marginal tax rate from 60% to 28%, and when meritocrat Bill Clinton signed NAFTA and obliterated (a) the wall between traditional banks and Wall Street casino speculators and (b) any and all oversight over derivatives. That One Big Thing is this: being in the Washington-Wall Street-Pentagon bubble is so deliciously cozy and removed from Main Street reality, it will turn Jesus Christ himself into an anti-American-anti-regular-folks demon who enables the worst ambitions of our corporate-welfare taxpayer-subsidized vampire Satans.
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
Obama went on the morning show The View to shore up his support among the important demographic of white women. Presumably he's got black women in the bag: after all, he's married to the most popular political figure in the land, his wife Michele, who handily beats her charismatic husband in approval ratings. I watched Obama on The View, and when they chit-chatted, he was his charming and witty self, and the women of The View and the audience lapped it up like puppies at a bowl of Half and Half. But most of the time Obama went into his political talking points.
Oy bloody vey. Obama and his speech writers had forgotten to inject any humor or charm into the talking points, and Obama jawboned his brand of blah-blah in an unfortunate stentorian mode, like a professor faking his enthusiasm in his Friday-morning lecture to his bored students because he can't stop thinking about how he's going to bang his favorite Ph.D student that afternoon on his desk.
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
There are those who think Obama is involved in just about everything they know. These lasses and lads go by various names. Pundits. The commentariat. The chattering classes. Journalists. Op-ed writers. White House correspondents. They chatter to each other and to various politicians, lobbyists and other influentials in a bubble which exists deep inside the butts of their masters, the people with actual power. It's really odd to see these pundits beat a different dumbfuck narrative to death every few weeks. Remember the one about Obama not showing enough emotion about the BP oil spill? Or the one about Sarah Palin being confused about why she resigned as Governor? The weird thing is, their various narratives rarely have anything to do with substance. If it did, they would have to attack their masters, and then they would lose access.
It's really weird that it's taken a semi-fringe mostly-music magazine like Rolling Stone to do the substance avoided by our MSM: Matt Taibbi's takedown of Goldman Sachs, which led to the MSM suddenly helping to ruin the reputation of GS, as if the scales had been ripped from their blinkered eyes; Ken Dickinson's takedown of Ken Salazar's corrupt Big Oil-friendly MMS, which hasn't led to Salazar being fired; and Michael Hastings' exposure of the Afghanistan War as a farce in The Runaway General, which did get General McCrystal fired.
I guess Rolling Stone values keeping their access to the truth more than keeping their access to the assholes in power. The rest of our punditocrats are like those kids in high-school who brown-nosed the teacher. Suck-ups to power. One of them, so rich and high-born himself that he doesn't need to suck up to politicians quite as much as most of his colleagues do, goes by the name Anderson Cooper. I'll never forget how Cooper sniggered on his CNN perch at some poor dude who was caught impersonating his dead Mom to pick up her social security check: “And he did that for $8,000 a year? I don't get it, that's peanuts.” Well, Coop makes millions a year, besides the millions he inherited, so for him $8,000 is a year's tips for the guy in whose hands he spits his gum, but for the rest of us $8,000 a year can make a big difference. There is no way Anderson Cooper or any of these highly-paid big-mouths can EVER walk in our shoes or EVER represent our interest. Pity them, folks. They probably never see any roses to smell past the hairy sphincters of the inside-the-Beltway-buttholes in which they're ensconced till the twelfth of never.
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
There are a number of circles around Obama. His family. The twelve people on his Blackberry. His Chicago cronies. His White House staff. His cabinet. His friends in the House and the Senate. His friends on Wall Street. His friends in the Pentagon.
But the big question to ask about Obama's circles is this: when Obama reads those ten letters every night from regular folks presented to him by his staff, who presumably plough through hundreds or thousands of the missives, and probably pick out the most poignant ones, or those most apt considering what that month's legislative push is about, or those that pertain to the agenda the staff are trying to get Obama to get behind ... ah, the vicissitudes of access ... when Obama reads these letters, to what degree does that connect him to Main Street, or to those broken-down neighborhoods across the tracks from Main Street?
We know Elvis Presley was connected to the black music he parroted so incredibly well, because he grew up one street away from the black ghetto, and went and hung out in black clubs to soak up the music he loved right at its source. But how close is Obama? He did receive a little taste of poverty when he lived in Indonesia a few years, and could see rich guys with three cars on one street and struggling beggar urchins a block away. But he went to the most pukka private High School in Hawaii. He went to Columbia, then did a two-year stint as a community organizer in Chicago -- a pretty big brush with the damned -- and then it was back to the Ivy League bubble of Harvard where his ambition was so naked, his nickname was “Mr. President” (true: I heard it from a guy who was pals with a couple of Obama's Harvard classmates).
Obama will still throw rhetorical bones to the middle-class (“the Recovery Act gave America the biggest middle-class tax cut in history”), but how about the underclass? OK, maybe they don't vote. Well then, how about the unemployed? OK, they get extensions of unemployment benefits. Well then, how about the federal government directly employing the unemployed on infrastructure projects we so badly need? Didn't FDR do that? Why doesn't Obama do that? OK, maybe Wall Street or the GOP or Blue Dog Democrats don't like it. Well, if you believe that, may I remind you that while the KGB were executing and gulag-ing Russians by the millions on Stalin's orders, most Russians firmly believed that if Stalin only knew about these atrocities, he would stop them.
Here's the unvarnished truth: Barack Obama doesn't like the idea of the Federal government employing out-of-work Americans to fix up our infrastructure. He's one of those Democrats, like Clinton, who believes the best way to get anything done, is to subsidize private enterprise to do it. He actually TRUSTS private enterprise to be socially responsible. In other words, Obama is a damn asshole. He's a better asshole than most, but he's still an asshole. It takes an asshole to appoint a Supremo Asshole like Larry Summers as your top economic advisor. What has Larry Summers done in his new job, having failed upwards from being booted out as President of Harvard because he said stupid stuff about women, insulted Cornel West (who could actually do with a bit of insulting), and shielded one of his friends who was advising the Russian government on Harvard's dime, while this friend had investments in oligarchical ventures, a conflict of interest so egregious it's a wonder that he and Larry didn't end up in jail for fraud?
This is what Larry Summers is doing: he's making sure that nobody gets access to Obama who doesn't toe the Larry Summers line, which is that Goldman Sachs is better for America than a company of saints would be, even if that company's employees consisted of Abe Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Susan B. Anthony, FDR, Dr King, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cook, Michael Jordan, Katherine Hepburn and Jesus.
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
Ah, the sharp cries in the night over Obama. When he started, I liked him, but I liked Hillary more. Number one, she's a bonkable woman who has a great cackle of a guffaw (yes, this stuff does enter into my value judgment, but I hasten to add that when it comes to women like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, drop-dead beauties over whom I'll admit to having had extremely pleasant objectified daydreams, I wouldn't vote for them, or want to have lunch with them, since they're no deeper than the little pond that forms on my apartment steps after a night's rain). Number two, Hillary knows her stuff. Boy, does she know her stuff. Number three, she's quite a straight-shooter for a pol, and tough as nails, too. And number four, she hates the GOP as much as I do. “Vast right-wing conspiracy”: those be golden words as far as I'm concerned.
But then I saw one of Obama's campaign speeches on TV. Halfway through, the fucking tears were pouring down my cheeks. Damn, I thought, I love this man, because he loves America the way I love America, and he makes it OK to love America heart and soul again, after those Bush-Cheney bastards had been crapping all over my idea of America for eight long years. So I became a bawd of euphony for Obama, but pretty soon after the Inauguration, when it dawned on me that Obama had two economic war criminals, Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner, running our economy, my euphony turned to squawkery, and I've been ranting and raging ever since, a progressive who is more enraged than most, because as an ex-South African I can appreciate what one guy can do to move a country in the right direction, as Nelson Mandela did. I guess I had naively wished that Obama would do the same. His campaign speeches had put that many pretty stars in my eyes. Yes, I believed. Yes, I was an Obamabot. Now I see him get one chance after another to step up to the plate -- the Wall Street meltdown, the healthcare debate, the war in Afghanistan, the BP oil spill -- and every time the polls show the MAJORITY of voters want BIG CHANGE, in other words the actual nation of actual Americans want our leader to make an actual difference in our lives, a difference this leader of ours promised to make, which is why we fucking VOTED for him, for chrissake ... and what does Mr. Hope-and-Change do, time after time after time after time? He wimps out.
Speaking as a guy, it's enough to make me want to jump the bones of a tow truck.
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
It's bizarre, I live in Connecticut, after living in Manhattan for 30 years. I haven't seen Obama capable of being pierced by a fear, though. People say he acted a little intimidated the first time he met the top Pentagon brass, but I think they're mistaken. Obama has always known he's the smartest guy in any room, so maybe he was just taking the measure of these guys in an area where he had zilch credibility, having never served in the Army and not even being known as a guy who threw a mean punch in Junior High. One time, and one time alone, we got to see Obama's unscripted smarts at work, for more than an hour. That was when the GOP stupidly allowed their Q and A session with Obama to be televised. It was so embarrassing to the GOP folks that Faux News cut their broadcast short. Even the Faux News folks, who are thicker than planks cut from trees that have been dead five years, could see that Obama was eating the GOP's lunch for breakfast and dinner.
To me, that TV was as good as the time Johnny Carson had Angie Dickinson as a guest, and they got so flirty and hot for each other it was obvious that they were going to jump each other's bones the second the program ended, and the time Johnny Rotten was interviewed on the late-night show Tomorrow with Tom Snyder, and Snyder started by asking Johnny Rotten a rude question, and I saw Johnny lean back with a wickedly rotten gleam in his eye, asking for it, are we? and then Johnny, in his cockiest cockney way, proceeded to bait Snyder for many, many hilarious minutes to the point that Snyder got totally red in the face and was having a hard time containing himself, just aching to take a punch at Johnny, who was having the best time ever, driving his pompous TV host batshit crazy.
Obama smacked the assorted GOP buffoons as deftly as he smacked that fly two years ago, and afterwards picked them up in his hankie and threw them in the trash. All the IQs of the GOP leaders together didn't add up to half of Obama's. Yep, Obama is smart. It's not just his command of the facts, easily as broad and deep as either Clintons'. Keith Olbermann tells the story of how a bunch of left-wing journalists, usually a tad brighter or at least more wonkish than your standard right-wing blowhard, met with Obama at the White House, and how he, Olbermann, was so blown away by Obama's command of all the facts about anything these wonkish lefties threw at him for more than two hours, and Obama's marshaling of said facts, that Olbermann went from his original estimate of Obama being among the thousand smartest guys in the nation to the hundred smartest, and ended up thinking, heck, maybe he's the smartest of all ever.
However, smart as he is, Obama can mistake the shadow of his equipage for blackbirds. Here's why. Obama has surrounded himself with Ivy League academics and public service experts, most of whom have never built a business from the ground up or had to meet a payroll. They're all supersmart and have thought a lot about the real world, but they've never really lived in it. Talk about a bubble: there is no worse a bubble than the bubble of the intellect. The privileged, entitled intellect. These guys and gals KNOW they're right, and that makes them only a tad less idiotic than religious fundamentalists. We're talking the Taliban of the Brain. Brainy Obama surrounded by all these brains. Outsized cerebellum linked to outsized cerebellum in a circle jerk of outsized cerebellums.
No wonder they're fucking up. No wonder they're losing sight of what Americans outside the Washington bubble want. It's the best and the brightest all over again. Remember, the smart guys who got us into Vietnam and kept us there till over 50,000 Americans were dead, as well as over a million and a half Vietnamese and Cambodians? For fucking what? You tell me. For some damn construct in their brainy brains that was as ridiculous as the medieval construct of trying to figure out how many angels could dance on a pin. McNamara and crew actually thought that if they kept stepping up the number of American troops in Vietnam, they could get to a point where the Vietnamese Commies would go, “that's just too many American soldiers, we surrender.” A calculation more idiotic than calculating the number of angels doing the Hanky Panky on a pin. McNamara and his fuckwits of numerate intelligence figured there's a number out there in the universe of numbers that's assignable to a people's love of their nation; their calculations didn't include the calculation that when people are fighting for their country against some hated invader, they are likely to fight harder than the invader, and likely to fight to the last man.
This is a basic fact of human nature known to the biggest dickbrains in the galaxy, but it had escaped the American brains in the White House and in the Pentagon because they were living in a bubble of their own bizarre fundamentalist braininess.
When it comes to Obamaland, Barack and his White House have constructed a similar bubble. A really peculiar bubble, because it's made of of these equal but disparate parts: Reinhold Niebuhr (you have to fight evil, you can't appease it); the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and White House staffer Cass Sunstein (people can be nudged by legislation to do the right thing); Arpege advertising (promise them anything but give them a meaningless bauble); Cicero (when all else fails, our man will save the day with a speech); Milton Friedman (private enterprise does everything better than government can, and too big to fail is OK because the free market takes care of everything); Nuremberg Trial amnesia (don't prosecute the elite for torture and other crimes, just prosecute the lower minions who followed the orders of the elite); Ayn Rand (the rich deserves our attention more than the poor, because they make political contributions and vote, and the poor do neither); and Murphy's Law (if it's broken, fix it just a little, so everything can and will go wrong again).
Here's why this bubble is so scary. The only reason our half-a-loaf President is palatable is because his predecessors have set the bar lower than the pond scum in the backyard of a used-car salesman. It's not that difficult for a man of Obama's IQ and charm to rise above pond scum. But two questions loom like the Ghosts of Roads Not Taken:
One, does Obama have the Dumbo-sized ears needed to heed the voice of American majorities who told him that they wanted the public option in their healthcare choices, that they wanted the Volcker rule in financial reform, that they were ready for big changes in energy policy after the BP oil spill, and that they wanted the heck out of Afghanistan? Or does Obama have the genitalia of Wall Street, Big Oil, Big Pharma and other Big Vampire Parasites so high up his butt, his ears hear worse than my 93-year-old Dad, who hasn't switched his hearing aid back on in three years because the blah-blah of his second wife and her family bore him to insensate geological substrata?
Two, does Obama have the Godzilla-sized gonads needed to do what the country is asking for and more? Does he have the actual leadership balls -- like FDR, like Mandela -- to elevate a nation of traumatized dumbfucks above their dumbfuckery into a future worth having? The jury is out on those two question. They're so far out they were last seen having a picnic with some bearded dudes in flowing robes and AK47s in Fuckyouistan.
The Obama bubble operates like restraints -- unbreakable S & M restraints -- on the size of Obama's ears and balls; that's the problem with the bubble, and if Obama doesn't burst it, or fill it with more real-world brains (which only Joe Biden has a modicum of), his presidency will never get bigger than his bubble.
I once did advertising for GE Corporate, and my favorite executive there was this blue-collar guy who had no degrees but had worked himself up into the rarified midst of the senior MBA managers, because he knew better than anyone else how to run a factory profitably without any labor problems. I'll call him Jerry. Headquarters had sent Jerry these two Wharton MBAs, a girl and a guy, a year out of school, in their early twenties. One time we show up there, and Jerry tells us the Wharton MBAs have a presentation to lay on us. So they have this slide presentation and they talk us through some “shareholder value enhancement” stuff, or whatever crap was in vogue their final year at Wharton. I tried not to fall asleep and eventually this assholic presentation was over, and we thanked the pair and they left the room. Our favorite exec is looking somewhat embarrassed.
"What the fuck was that?” my creative director asks.
"What are those idiots doing at GE?” I ask.
"What are YOU doing with them, Jerry?” asks my art director.
"I've got no choice,” says Jerry. “I've got to look after them for the next two years. I've got to take an hour out of my busy day every day to try and teach them how to run a business.”
Hey, GE is still alive and more well than many others. Maybe they know how to turn assholes into decent managers. But if those Wharton MBAs were the cream of the crop that year, I have my doubts.
In fact, I still feel sorry for Jerry. And I feel sorry for America, because I know that in Washington they're expert at turning decent people into assholes, and because I know that the Ph.D-smart dudes and dudettes around Obama, and Obama himself, are not that much smarter about running a real country than those two greenhorn MBAs from Wharton were about running a real business. They'll get it half-right and half-wrong and we won't know the difference, because the last guy who got it more right than wrong was FDR.
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
Well now, this here blackbird, is it a positive or a negative force? Is the river moving in order to water thirsty flora with its munificence, or is it moving to drown some unsuspecting creature? Does the blackbird have the power to move the river or does the blackbird fly because it sees the river moving? Is Obama moved by events to do something, or does Obama actually cause the moving of events? Here's another question: is the Obama we see on TV the actual Obama, the Obama that our five senses can apprehend, or is there another Obama we can never know, an Obama outside our five senses, a dog-whistle Obama, an unknowable Kantian Obama-an-Zich? Is the Obama that I'm disappointed in, a shadow Obama? If I came face to face with the real Obama, say in Lacan's mirror, would I know him? Would I recognize him? Would he be the Name of the Father? Or would he be a social construct that would fade away in six years' time, as evanescent as Jerry Ford?
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
Indeed it is snowing in America. A thick blanket of metaphorical and somnolent ignorance covers the land. We have been asleep for three decades. Our elite has lulled us and consoled us and stirred us against each other as they reaped the benefits of our somnia. We've had it with Washington, but Washington is all we have. We've fallen out of love with Obama, but we see no compelling alternative to his half-a-loaf presidency. We thought he would bring us maybe three or four big changes, but all we got were hundreds of little changes. Maybe we will bestir ourselves to demand those big changes in no uncertain terms. Maybe we won't.
It is hard to say what we will do. We are Americans and we will be caught forever between two poles: the freedom of the individual and the responsibility of being the keeper of our sister and our brother. Individual freedom vs. social justice. In our minds, we've set this up as a false binary, when each needs the other to make both stronger.
Sometimes we have known this: when we enshrined freedom of speech in our Constitution, and religious freedom, and the separation of Church and State; when we fought among ourselves to banish slavery; when we fought together to have labor unions; when we agitated for Social Security; when we marshaled our industrial might to help rid the planet of the scourge of Germany's Hitler and Japan's militarist regime; when we marched for Civil Rights; when we advocated for Medicare; when we marched against the Vietnam War; when we clamored for women's liberation, and gay liberation, and access for the disabled.
That was when our individuality and our commonality came together in a single yet diverse community, and we summoned our better angels to create a better America. That was when the United States of America showed what it means to be United. That was when we could be proud to say we're American. That was when we were as big as our dreams.
Our better angels have been asleep too long. And so we ask, of our diverse gods and non-gods: may our better angels rise again, and spread their wings, and lift us high.
May they rise again, in enough American hearts, to make a difference.
The cinephile's conversation in new media: Colin Marshall talks to Battleship Pretension hosts Tyler Smith and David Bax
Tyler Smith and David Bax host the film podcast Battleship Pretension. For over three years, Smith and Bax have explored on the show all aspects of cinema history, cinema appreciation, cinema technique, and cinema criticism, doing so with the freewheeling, humorous sensibility of the best late-night film school conversations.Colin Marshall originally conducted this interview on the public radio show and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]
David Bax: Maybe you should've picked, like, Bio-Dome and Black Sheep.
David Bax: I was drawn to film for the same reason that the sport I played when I was a kid was swimming: because it's not a team thing. Film is something you do in a dark room alone. It keeps you from having to talk to other people, and I was such an antisocial kid — it's not like they would have had me, that the social groups would have welcomed me in if I had applied. I wasn't a popular kid, so I watched movies all the time. The way I view films is very much personal, individual; I'm not really interested in the community aspect of it, which there is now with the internet. There's very much a community aspect. We're kind of on the outskirts of that, but it's not what got me into film. As far as defining moments, my favorite film of all time is Barton Fink. The reason is, I was at the grocery store video counter and saw the cover, and it had John Goodman on it. I always liked to watch comedies; I'm a comedy nerd as much as I am a movie nerd. I thought John Goodman was funny — I mean, King Ralph, you know —
Tyler Smith: He's very funny in Arachnophobia.
David Bax: He was. So I just picked it up, and it just blew my mind. It was so much more ambitious, otherworldly, and just plain old artistic than I Had come to expect from films. From that moment, that was my search. It was like a junkie looking for that high again. It also helped that this was the beginning of the age when the internet was readily available, so I could find discussions and writings about film. It was easy to research, and I had a library card.
You bring up a good way to frame this, which is that there's usually a film in any cinephile's life that was the one to expand their view of what film can do, that gave them new vistas, that first high you want to reach again. Tyler, what opened up your cinematic vistas?
Tyler Smith: It's odd; I have a very difficult time pinpointing a specific film or a specfic moment where I'm like, "This is what I want to do" or, "This my official passion." I loved movies growing up. My parents went to a lot of movies. It was one of my favorite things to do. I saw as many movies as I could. I really loved them. Right around middle school, I started becoming very dissatisfied with the films aimed people at my age.
Which, at the time, were, like... ?
Tyler Smith: Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. Don't get me wrong; looking back, they are very funny in moments.
Tyler Smith: Yes, Black Sheep especially. I did see both of them in theaters, and I remember being deeply disappointed in Black Sheep, which frustrated me because I did enjoy Tommy Boy.
David Bax: Tommy Boy's great. And, by the way? Holds up. I re-watched it recently.
Tyler Smith: Glad to hear it. And, of course, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls: — that's the second one. All my friends were like, "Let's go see this!" I'd go see it and be like, "Ehh, I don't like any of this." I'm convinced that I actually like Billy Madison more now than I did then, but these are the films that were made for people like me. I just got really dissatisfied.
I don't know how I stumbled on slightly better movies, but I do remember, my parents always liked to watch the Oscars. I would watch with them, I would see clips of the performances and the movies themselves and think, "Wow, that sounds really interesting!" I found a VHS my mom had called Oscars Greatest Moments 1970-1990 and said, "Apparently these movies are good. I'll just start making my way through these." I found I had a strong tendency towards watching really great acting.
David Bax: Did you find, because you were told they were good, that you assumed they were good? How long after you watched Gandhi did you realize it sucked?
Tyler Smith: I didn't see Gandhi until my English 3 class, so I guess I just assumed then. I watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Godfather and Patton, and I loved those. Cuckoo's Nest not as much these days. Probably the first Best Picture I watched and was like, "How is that Best Picture?" was The French Connection, which I love now but at the time was like, "It's just a long chase movie!" I didn't get it, but I thought, "Okay, there must be something going on that I'm not getting."
That's when I first acknowledged there might be a slight divide between what is objectively good and what is subjectively good. I realized there is a lot of interplay between those two, and if you know what you're talking about, it's really just a matter of opinion. The parents I had, they took us to see Forrest Gump. That's a really great movie, but I was twelve when that came out. I think the environment I was raised in really instilled a love of movies in me, and then a general dissatisfaction with the films that were supposedly for me led me to seek out greener pastures.
What do you think defines your film taste now, if you had to name a few selections?
Tyler Smith: In many ways, they haven't changed. Strong characters, well-acted, preferably solid writing, specifically dialogue. David and I have discussed this, that a film can be merely adequately shot, but if it's well-acted, it's enough for me to enjoy it. My favorite movie of 2008, for example, was The Visitor, which is not, cinematically, an incredibly dynamic film. There's nothing particularly wrong with it, but no one's going to be like, "Oh, did you see that shot?" It's an actor's film and a character's film. I think it's incredibly well-written, very well-acted, and I felt a connection with the characters.
That's usually what does it for me. Every one in a while, a film will be really technically amazing, and I appreciate that. But if there's not a character connection, I usually just feel distant from it. I can appreciate it objectively, but it's not going to be one of my favorites.
There is a contrast between you two: there's a cartoon image I can construct, which is that, Tyler, you like a lot of the craftsmanship you see in the interesection of the best-known, most beloved, highest-quality films. Films people know about, that the "average film viewer" would know and maybe love, but also ones that cinephiles like.
David, it sounds like I'm going to say, "You like terrible films, on the other hand," but no. I'm going to say you like — this is a lot more like me, as well — films that take a lot of risks. I remember on your top ten of the 2000s list, you included Ming-liang Tsai's Goodbye Dragon Inn, one of my favorites of the decade as well. How much can I get at that as an example of how you differ from Tyler in taste?
David Bax: I don't know if "taking risks" is necessarily what I look for. The main difference between me and Tyler is that he's into character and plot, mostly, and I'm more into atmosphere and theme. That's changed a lot. One thing's been constant: if you can make me laugh, that's good. It's a problem I have with certain "serious" films: they think having a joke or two would take the weight out from under them, whereas actually it strengthen's it. That's the constant.
But when I was a kid, I looked for things I thought were innovative and kinetic. It's called a motion picture for a reason. Whereas now — and maybe this is risk-taking — the most difficult thing to do in filmmaking is to sustain a tone and atmosphere. Film is so collaborative, and there are so many people making it.
Here's a great way to compare me as a younger film fan and me now: the movie Trainspotting, which I have always loved. My reasons have kind of changed, because I loved it when I was a high schooler because of the extreme dutch angles, the speed, the way it moves, the whimsy, whereas now, the fact that the characters are a sad modern version of a picaresque, and there's an insouciance to it. The fact that you've got a whole crew, and you had to write a script and storyboard and go through the editing that makes it such a mannered process — the idea that you can keep this anarchic insouciance, this tossed-off feeling, and make that authentic and sustained for 90 minutes, that's really impressive to me.
There's a theme here of maturing as a film fan. Tyler, you mentioned how you got into film watching this VHS tape of the Oscars' best moments, which I have a hard time envisioning. What has your maturation been like? What's a good example of something you didn't like then, do like now, or vice versa?
Tyler Smith: A good example, if you watch the "Ask BP" videos, somebody asked for a film David and I vehemently disagreed. A good example is Mulholland Drive. Mulholland Drive does not have much of a narrative structure. The characters are — I wouldn't say they're two-dimensonal, but they're not incredibly well-developed insofar as you're given a lot of information about them. They merely are. When I saw it, I had nothing I could grab onto thematically, as far as character, or anything like that. It infuriated me. To me, it was the definition of pretentious — in the negative sense. Some people see it as a positive word; I think we've started to champion that.
It really bothered me, and has time as gone on, as I became further involved in film school and got to know people whose tastes were different than mine, I came to an appreciation for Mulholland Drive and recognized that one of the things it was trying to do was approximate a dream. How well-developed are characters in dreams? Not very much at all. If anything, they're purely representative of something. Circumstances change on a dime, and an entire person can change.
I became so fascinated by that, and started to meet the filmmaker where they are rather than require that they meet me where I am. It may not be something I pop in on a regular basis, but it is a film I have gained a great deal of respect for, whereas at the time I found it to be incredibly self-indulgent, pretentious, all these things, simply because it didn't adhere to what I thought an effective movie should be.
David Bax: But also — if we could talk about Mulholland Drive for a second — a good film manipulates you, draws a certain emotion out of you. I feel like that's a little bit easier to do with words, whereas just through image and sound, being able to do that — I picture Dumbledore pulling a memory out of the Pensive, the way he sticks his wand in and it attaches to the wand and comes out. It's magic, and that's what I like about a great film like Mulholland Drive. When they go to that theater and see that woman sing, and then she collapses but her voice continues, that is so sad, so terrifying, and almost exhilarating at the same time. That's exactly what David Lynch wanted. That's why he is kind of like a magician with a wand.
Tyler Smith: Which brings up another thing I started to embrace as I got older. David, you said the word "exhilarating." The idea that something might actually be beyond my own comprehension — and, maybe, beyond the comprehension of the person that created it — that they have somehow managed to lock into something way bigger than they are, but they have no choice to keep going. Films like Apocalypse Now, There Will Be Blood, Vertigo, and then my favorite film, which is completely unoriginal, Citizen Kane.
David Bax: It's common. I don't know that it's unoriginal.
Tyler Smith: Fair enough. I arrived at it organically, but people at film school didn't seem to appreciate that. Those are just at the forefront of my brain; I'm sure there are several others I could mention. These are films I'm almost positive the filmmakers were like, "I don't quite know what I'm doing, but I know I'm doing something. I know what I started doing, and I guess I'm just going to keep going." To their credit, they didn't try to sum things up easily. They didn't try to put everything out there. They didn't insist that it be what they wanted it to be at the beginning. They were willing to let it go and be what it was going to be, and in doing so it wound up being something that you can't —
What I've said about a film like Apocalypse Now or Citizen Kane, I feel like it's about maybe ten things, and in my viewing I've only uncovered, like, three of them. There's all these layers, and you keep going deeper and deeper, but there's a certain exhilaration in knowing you're never going to actually get to the center. You're never going to get to the Tootsie Roll center of this Tootsie Pop.
David Bax: It's not built like that. There's something to be said for films that say, "I have a theme. I have a message." American Psycho is a great movie that has specific things it wants to say about America in the 1980s, about conformity, and it finds a very clever way to say them. That's what it is. I don't want to take away from that film; it's a great film, but these monstrous There Will Be Blood-type things that really do feel like they skipped the middleman on their way from the id to the screen, you know? They seem to have just poured out of the filmmaker.
Tyler Smith: I don't mean to crap on a film that has a clear message and does what it can to communicate that. For me, that's what it used to be all about: how clearly it communicated its message. As time has gone on, as I've gotten older and experienced more in life, I realize you can't understand everything, and even the things you do understand, you probably don't have all of it. I've started to embrace things like that in film.
Lost in Translation is another one where a lot of people said — I worked at a video store when it came out on DvD — "It wasn't about anything! Nothing happens! What's it about?" It's like, Ah, I can tell you what I think it's kind of about, but that's just scratching the surface. It's a thing that needs to be experienced. That's what it's about.
David Bax: This idea I talked about of drawing a certain emotion — Lost in Translation evokes an emotion there's not even really a word for. You could say, "You know that thing when you're on vacation an dyou meet another person who's on vacation and your shared otherness makes you really close, but you're not in love with the person, not friends with the person — that connection to a person?" There's no word for that, and there's no real way to explain it with words. That's what art is for. Lost in Translation is a great example, because Sofia Coppola picked a specific emotion a lot of people have felt but that there isn't a word for and made a film for it instead of a word.
You've brought up the word "pretension," and this was obviously going to be something we can't let go of; it's in the title. I tell friends, "It's one of my favorite shows, Battleship Pretension," and they always laugh. I'm sure you guys have had the same experience.
David Bax: You have smart friends.
Classic film, the word "pretension" in there. This is tough to articulate, but pretension comes up so often in regard, specifically, to film, to cinephiles, to film students, which you both once were together in Chicago. We brought up Mulholland Drive, Lost in Translation, There Will Be Blood — all have been called pretentious.
There's a root the word "pretension" has taken in film that it's taken in no other art form. Music gets some of that, but people blow it off, don't take it seriously. They take the "pretension" of the film word so very seriously, especially if they're outside it. What do you guys think about the way pretension hangs around the film world? Not necessarily the thing itself, but the perception. How do you explain why the accusation is so prevalent?
David Bax: Because film, more so that most other art forms, is viewed by the majority of people who watch it as not being art. It's a completely, in a certain meaning of the word, vulgar art form, because it's almost dominated by commerce and as many people liking it as possible. When someone makes a film like There Will Be Blood, which does not set out first to entertain or to scare you or make you laugh. You go into a blockbuster and there are signs for genres: these are the films that will make me cry, these are the films that will make me laugh, these are the films were I get to see somebody get shot...
And here are the foreign ones.
Tyler Smith: Because that is its own genre.
David Bax: If a film like There Will Be Blood is not aiming to do any one of those things, these people who are only expecting those things are saying the film thinks it's better than those other films. Because it's not art to most people — and let's get this straight, film is an art form. Even Kuffs is a piece of art.
Tyler Smith: I don't know why you went to that; that's obviously art, David.
David Bax: When people who don't view films as art are set in front of a film that they can't deny is art, or that it's practicing an art form, they're going to call it pretentious, because pretentious means it's "pretending" to be something it's not. "Why are you acting like you're so much better than Kuffs?" The thing is, some of the time, they're right. There are a lot of pretentious films, a lot of people making films that they think are smarter than they actually are.
Tyler Smith: Garden State.
David Bax: Inception.
I've not seen Garden State or Inception, but I will bring this up because you mention you do see some pretension in films. It's always been an odd thing to me: I talk to people who are less films fan than I am, I mention movies I like, and they get the attitude of, "I don't watch those movies with the French people in turtlenecks yammering at one another." I've done a lot of film viewing; I don't see those movies. I think they might be made up.
David Bax: Every parody of foreign film has two French people smoking and not making eye contact, speaking monotonously. I've been looking about fifteen years for that movie.
Where is it? I've been searching.
Tyler Smith: I will say this, though: the film The White Ribbon is a movie that I love, but one of the things I like about it is that it is the essence of what people who don't watch foreign films think all foreign films are: long, slow, black-and-white, very emotionally cold at times.
David Bax: The French get the brunt of that, because the idea of taking films seriously has its roots in Cahiers du Cinema. But a film like Breathless — if Breathless wasn't in black-and-white and French, it's got cars, guns, and naked breasts. Everyone would like that movie.
Tyler Smith: It might also just have to do with, I would say, an American attitude toward France in general, but if anything, if you watch British television and comedy, in Europe in general, this attitude of, "Ah, the French, they think they set the standard for food, taste, art. They're the ones who set it up; they're the ones who think they're better than everyone else." In America, if you go up to someone on the street and say, "Hey, what's the snootiest nationality?" They're like, "Uh, France? Come on now!"
You mentioned The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke's newest film, which I also loved. I had the late Peter Brunette on the show, the critic who wrote a book about Michael Haneke, to discuss how good that movie is, in large part. It is, sure, in many ways a caricature of a foreign film, superficially, but it has a visceral appeal that has got to be hard to deny to anybody watching it. To what extent do you guys think that is a quality of films that are actually great, no matter the content, no matter the themes, no matter the turtleneck height?
Tyler Smith: My dad and I went to see Gone in 60 Seconds, which is not a good movie. I was becoming who I am today, for good or ill, and on the drive home I was talking about the things I didn't like about it. My dad — he wasn't trying to be a jerk, he's the one who introduced me to a lot of great movies — he enjoyed the film, and he turned to me and said, "You can't turn this off now, can you? It's not a choice you're making anymore. It's now your instinct. If something is bad, you can't enjoy it, and if it's great, you can't not enjoy it. You see it only from your perspective at this point." That's true with me. I also went through a phase where I was astounded that it wasn't true for other people.
I do feel there is a certain stigma attached to certain types of movies, and if people could just get out of their own way and just forget about the fact that people are reading the lines — it can be distancing, if you're someone who loves performances as much as I do, it's an extra step. You have to recognize, "That's the performance I'm seeing. Those are the lines the person is saying. Now I have to go back and imagine, all in a split second, if those lines match that performance and how that registers for me." I understand it can be difficult, but if you're able to push through, it can be an incredibly satisfying experience. There's just so many things: black-and-white, foreign, even films that explore emotions people aren't used to exploring in film: fear, laughing, and a certain type of melodrama — not to imply that's a negative term — and, like, a thril. But what about awkwardness, embarrassment, or just good old-fashioned sadness?
If a film is wanting to explore that, the only thing the person knows — and this sounds kind of condescending — is that they're experiencing something bad. They don't like feeling bad, so they will blame the filmm. But if they were to get out of their own way and recognize that, "Man, this film is making me feel something," you can still feel that feeling, but also feel invigorated by the fact that something you went to go do with friends — now this entire theater is all feeling this thing you weren't feeling before. It created something inside you. I think there is something in film everybody can respond to if they just got out of their own way.
David Bax: People often say the average filmgoer just wants escapism, but I don't think that's true. I started thinking about this when you talked about genuine sadness. The difference between a movie that is just plain sad and a movie that's a tearjerker, the difference is that the average filmgoer is looking for more catharsis, whereas you and I and fans of film or any other art are intellectually curious. If I go see a movie that's about sadness —
Tyler Smith: The Sweet Hereafter.
David Bax: Good example. I don't feel like, "Oh, I had a good cry at the end and now I can move on," but I do feel like I've learned something about the human condition. If you're not getting a catharsis, if you're not crying, but then it ends up that everything's okay, or it's not Beaches, which, like, puts Vaseline on the lens of looking at death. It's that sort of — I keep using this word — catharsis. It's getting past something that most people respond to. But if we watch The Sweet Hereafter, we walk away not feeling any better about the world at all. A lot of people — and rightfully, it's their prerogative — don't see the benefit of that.
This faculty you mentioned, Tyler — you can't turn this off, your analysis of film — it seems like that's just being a critic. Maybe there's just some internal quality that drives you toward film criticism. I'll put this to you as well, David: what do you consider a critic to be? Because I hear Tyler talking about being a film critic, do you think of yourself in the same way on this show, David?
David Bax: You know, you are far from the first person to ask me that, and I never know what to say.
It's the tough questions on this show.
David Bax: I guess the connotation when you say I'm a film critic is that I'm looking at it film-by-film and saying, "This one is good or not good for these reasons." We don't really do that on Battleship Pretension; we don't review movies. We do critique film as a whole. Maybe we're film theorists.
Tyler Smith: I remember I once said — we needed to send in a description to some damn thing — "film theory podcast." Ugh, I don't like that, but it's the best thing I could come up with, because the term "film critic" has been co-opted by movie reviewers. At this point, if you say "film critic," they're like, "Oh, so do you review new movies?" When people ask me that, I don't blame them. The term "film critic," at this point, means movie reviewer. We need to take the term back or create another one.
David Bax: I read a book called Complicated Women, which was written by Mick LaSalle. It's about female Hollywood actors pre-code. Pre-Hays Code. Mick LaSalle also writes reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle. Which one of those enterprises makes him more a film critic? I guess that's the question.
Tyler Smith: I would say the very fact that you said "pre-Code" and we all knew what you were talking about means everyone in this room's a critic, David. They're two sides of the same coin. You can review movies, and in doing so you review at least three or four a week — in the case of Ebert, sometimes like seven. As long as you're willing to watch the specific movies week-to-week but also see the big picture and see maybe the whole month, maybe the whole year, maybe the whole decade, and you can see where film is trending, where it was, where it's going. In your capacity of being a movie reviewer, you can learn some deeper truths about film itself. In doing so, you are a critic, if you're willing to have that kind of critical mind in the old-school Pauline Kael critic sense. You can definitely do both, but I feel like there are some people out there who are — this sounds mean — merely movie reviewers. For them, it's just a function of week-to-week, and that's it. Whatever came out last week has no bearing on what came out this week.
Can we frame it this way: whether somebody is a film theorist, a professor somewhere, whether they defined film theory, whether they came up in the whole French scene, whether they're just a lowly one-through-five star movie reviewer — not to denigrate the Chronicle reviewers, but — giving the man-jumping-out-of-his-seat icon or not —
Tyler Smith: Those things are delightful.
From the perspective of the user of film criticism, the reader, the viewer, they just want a guide, don't they? From the perspective of somebody listening to your show, or watching At the Movies, which just ended, or reading Ebert, all they want is a guide. Is that true or false, in your guys' minds?
Tyler Smith: In some cases, it is, unfortunately, true.
A guide — is that a negative thing, that that's the role you might play?
Tyler Smith: When you said "guide," there's nothing unfortunate about that, but my mind immediately goes to having read a lot of online comments about reviews. As lowly as we've made movie reviewers sound, they at least are expressing an opinion, and in most cases trying to express an educated opinion. It has become clear that some people don't want your opinion; all they want is entertainment, tonight.
Maybe literally the show, Entertainment Tonight.
Tyler Smith: Yeah, probably. They want to know what it's about. If you want to throw the slightest of opinions in there, go right ahead, but if you overstep, then you're telling me what to think, and that's not cool.
David Bax: But do people who feel that way about reviews actually read reviews anymore?
Tyler Smith: I would think not. Then if you go online and read a review of a major film, people will find it. I don't know why they seek them out if they don't care about someone's opinion. They care about someone's opinion only insofar as if they agree with it or not. The example I give is, A.O. Scott did a review of Sex and the City 2 — negative review, of course — and I read a lot of the online comments. A few people said, "Hey, I'm just lookin' for a fun night out. I don't want your opinion. I just want to know what the movie's about." It's like... really? What did you think you were reading? And why did you read the whole thing? Once you recognized, "Hey, I don't like where this is going," why not just stop? But I feel like that's the kind of guide the want.
David Bax: The poster tells you what Sex and the City 2 is about.
Tyler Smith: It's about sex.
David Bax: No, it's about four spoiled airheads on a camel.
Tyler Smith: When I said "unfortunately," that's what I was thinking of: people want someone who can tell them what something is about, a place they can go and get all their movie information without any movie opinion. However, I do think, in the spirit of what you actually meant by "guide," there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. To me, a critic can be a very personal thing: you find the critic you relate to. You may not always agree with them, but you at least agree with what they look for in a movie. If that person likes a movie, you're like, "Okay, I think I'm more inclined to like it, Let me look at the reasons. That sounds pretty good." I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with that.
Do you consider what you're doing to be as guides, on Battleship Pretension?
David Bax: I think that's a way someone could use it. I've always assumed there are some high school and even younger kids out there who are budding film fans and do want the opinion of us and other podcasts they listen to as to what they should pick up at the video store. But for the most part, I don't assume they're looking up to me in any way. I think they know as much about movies as I do, and they're looking for another opinion. It's an ongoing conversation. We get e-mails, there's the message board, there's Twitter. I understand there are people who use us as guides, but for the most part I assume they know and care every bit as much as we do. We just have microphones and charming personalities.
Tyler Smith: And in many cases, they know more than we do. We've gotten some e-mails where someone says, "You should profile this famous filmmaker." I'm like, "I have not even heard of this person, much less seen their entire catalog." The person who e-mailed us, it's their favorite filmmaker. I just feel like, "Aw, jeez." It can be a very humbling experience when you think, "I've got the microphone... yeah, but I don't have the knowledge." There's huge gaps in my film knowledge.
What we haven't really addressed much is that, of course, this is a podcast. It's a new medium, to break out a tired expression. You're on the internet with everyone else doing film podcasts, everybody writing film blogs, everybody chatting about films wherever. This is something an older guard of film critics have trouble with. The internet itself, they tend to treat as the bane of their profession. Ebert has embraced it more than many twenty-year-olds, but he's the exception. What do you gain or lose coming up in this world of film podcasts, film commentary pre-existing on the internet, where somebody can replicate your setup, but they can't replicate who you are?
David Bax: There are good and bad things with the mostl level playing field of the internet. On the one hand, Tyler and I did go to film school. We didn't go to USC or a theory-heavy film school, but we did go to film school. We have credentials in that way, but we didn't go to journalism school. Before, when you had to get a job and be in print, you had to have a certain level of credentials most of the time. Now, I would be the majority of people doing film podcasts and film blogs didn't go to film school. And that's fine with me. I don't feel threatened by that. I think it's good that you're getting more of a perspective. You don't have to have gone to film school to understand film. It's good that you're avoiding that rarefied, insular group that criticism once was.
On the other hand, you've got people who aren't reviewing movies. You've got movie news sites that are really just regurgitating press releases or stuff they found on other move news sites. There's no insight, there's no editorialism, there's no journalism, really, to their news or reviews. That's the downside. But again, if through some miracle we can hold on to net neutrality — despite Google and Verizon's best efforts — the good thing about the democratization of the internet is that — I was going to say the cream will rise to the top, but that's not necessarily true for every person. The cream will rise to the top for you: whatever you're looking for, that's what you'll find. There's bad stuff out there, but thanks to the internet and the fact that there's net neutrality and it's a "pull" medium as opposed to a "push" medium, you can ignore the bad stuff and find the good stuff.
Tyler Smith: There's a certain degree of impulsiveness to the internet, blogs, and podcasts. There's a number of people. that have started a podcast or blog because they've got opinions and will put them out there. There's a million podcasts out there, a million film blogs out there, so there's a lot of competition.
David Bax: I've counted them. There are exactly one million.
No more, no less.
Tyler Smith: That's the amount the internet can hold.
It's full. If you want to start one, wait until someone stops.
Tyler Smith: Give me and David a couple weeks. So this is kind of a piece of advice for podcasters out there, or bloggers: if it seems insurmountable because, "There are so many! How am I going to get noticed?" Here's how you get noticed: keep doing it. The same impulse that gets people to start a podcast will also cause them to run out of steam, and they will stop. The people who are really passionate, whether their opinion is educated or not, they're just going to keep going, and they product will probably get better as they do. So really, it's gotten to the point where there's probably only about fifteen to twenty film podcasts of any note that have been around more than two years. There have been plenty that go maybe ten weeks and stop.
I know, because various listeners say, "Hey, I started a podcast! Want to listen to it?" I say, "Yeah, sure." Then after three weeks, they stop putting out episodes. It can be a difficult thing to do, and if you're not getting listeners immediately, it can be very disheartening. But all you have to do is last and be open to the idea of putting out a better product as you go. As David said, the cream rises to the top — not necessarily in an objective sense, but after a while, people will start to hear of you. People will just find you. It is astounding to me. The equal-opportunity aspect of the internet can seem very overwhelming, but all you have to do is show that you can outlast anybody. Because none of us are vying for ratings, you can last as long as you want to last. That's one of the things I find awesome about being an internet presence as we are, David.
There is longevity to set you apart, but what else goes into making a voice you want to hear talking about film — you personally, or your listeners? Not necessarily the actual tone of one's voice, though you both have very sonorous voices, I'm sure that's part of it. What makes a voice, in print or on a podcast, one you want to hear talk about this sort of thing?
Tyler Smith: I can speak in terms of how our show came along, because it does come from something I thought was lacking in the film podcast community. I will take a slight tangent and say that, if there was a podcast that had Travis from The Criterioncast and you, man, I would just be in heaven, speaking in voices. Oh my gosh, it would be just such a pleasure to listen to.
We'd just talk at each other?
Tyler Smith: Who cares? It would sound like a sweet melody. But our show was my idea, the name was David's idea — I owe him a lot for that, because it does get us a lot of attention. I started getting into comedy podcasts, I really enjoyed them, and I thought, "You know, I'm a movie guy, in theory. Maybe I'll start listening to some film podcasts. At the time, it was 2006 — I don't know if The /Filmcast was around, but I think Filmspotting was around. There were a few that were really solid, but I hadn't found them. I instead found an NPR or public radio or stuff associated with other web sites, and they'd talk about movies. I was like, "Wow! You've managed to bore me about the subject I love most. That's really quite a feat!
What were they doing wrong?
David Bax: I made the joke earlier that we're as smart as our listeners, we just happen to have microphones and personalities. But that's really what it is. Personality is the big draw for a podcast, for me. If you're funny, then I'll listen to you all day long. Sometimes there are people who know a whole lot about movies and TV, but it's just so dry. If you have multiple hosts, chemistry helps a lot.
Tyler Smith: It might just be who they were; they weren't suited to host something. But also, there just seemed to be a lack of passion. They seemed to really restrain themselves. This sounds insulting, and I don't mean for it to, because I can relate to it: they wanted to sound like they knew what they were talking about rather than just be who they are, and it came off incredibly dry. I didn't want to listen to that.
David Bax: I think that's why the biggest influence on us was Never Not Funny. That was exactly what we said going in: we want this podcast to sound exactly like the kinds of conversations — you go to a party in college, most people are drinking, and then you find the two film geeks over in the corner talking about Aliens movies for two hours, you know? That was the feel we wanted.
Tyler Smith: There's a podcast that's still going called Doug Loves Movies. I listened to that, and it's very funny. But as far as movie discussion, everybody involved clearly knew what they were talking about, clearly had strong opinions, but often, because it was primarily a comedy podcast, they would start out with movies and then spiral off into something that has nothing to do with movies. I, as a movie guy, was like, "Augh! You guys clearly know what you're talking about, and I'd love to hear your opinions — I wish there was something that had the know-how of these really dry podcasts and the humor of I Love Movies."
David Bax: Not that we're that funny. We're only funny compared to the average movie podcast.
A low bar, it sounds like. Jesse Thorn from The Sound of Young America was on this show a while ago, and he said public radio is very invested in you sounding dispassionate — which results in you losing your passion. I say this on a public radio show right now, so I'm well aware of that. You've managed to position yourself between the realms of comedy and film in such a way as to please both?
Tyler Smith: When I entertained the idea of doing a show, there was no question of who I was going to co-host with. It was David, because I knew we would have the chemistry. I remember our discussions in college: there were always fun, and other people said, "Man, I could just listen to you guys talk about movies for hours, because you clearly love it." I saw a hole there I thought we could fill pretty well, and it certainly helps that we've taken a lot of guests from Never Not Funny, including all three hosts from the first season as well as several guests from Doug Loves Movies. These people clearly know what they're talking about, and they can be funny if they just had slightly more structure. To me, that's what our voice is, and that's what I wanted to accomplish. This is advice to budding podcasters out there: if you see a hole somewhere and you think you can feel it, at the very least try to be the kind of show you would enjoy listening to.
David Bax: And three years later, you'll have a tenth of the listeners of The /Filmcast. I just needed to poke a pin in our hubris for a second. We're talking like we're giving advice to podcasters, and all these other podcasts we're talking about are ten times more successful than we are.
Tyler Smith: Hey, they're not on The Marketplace of Ideas. I'm just sayin'. And no, we are far from being the most popular podcast out there. Filmspotting is a great show, /Film, is a very good show —
David Bax: You wouldn't make a very good diplomat.
Tyler Smith: I know I wouldn't. Especially to France. Should I cut that out and put in "great"?
David Bax: No, it's fine.
All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.
The Owls | Blood Simple + A Woman, A Gun, and A Noodle Shop
*Ben Walters and J. M. Tyree have been talking about movies, often amicably, since 1995. Together, they wrote a critical appreciation of The Big Lebowski for The British Film Institute's Film Classics series of books, and reviewed No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading for Sight & Sound. They recently had a transatlantic chat about Blood Simple, the Coens' first feature. Blood Simple has been remade by Zhang Yimou as A Woman, A Gun, and a Noodle Shop, set for a limited theatrical release in the States on 3 September. This prompted thoughts about homage, genre looting, pulp, and Wong Kar-Wai's Barton Fink...
12:46 PM JMT: Just watching the end of Body Heat...
wanna finish it?
12:47 PM JMT: Not unless you want to wait 15 mins...no need...I know what happens...
BW: i don't mind
JMT: Let's start!
BW: all righty then
12:50 PM JMT: I'd been thinking about Blood Simple and Body Heat after watching the Australian noir The Square. Then we noticed that Zhang Yimou’s remake of Blood Simple, called A Woman, A Gun, and A Noodle Shop, was getting reviewed and released. A good excuse to revisit Blood Simple...
12:51 PM BW: tell me about the square, i don't know that one
12:53 PM JMT: Brothers Nash & Joel Edgerton made this delightfully grim Aussie crime thriller in 2008 featuring infidelity, murder, and arson. The deadly fire is set off using Christmas tree lights!
12:54 PM BW: ho ho ho
that passed me by. is it notably similar to blood simple or more of a fellow pastiche?
12:57 PM JMT: It has that same sense of pressure and humor - a dog is eaten by an alligator and it's played for laughs.
BW: well, that's pretty funny
i think noir has always had a sense of humour
12:58 PM it's easy to overlook now that it's such a venerated genre but most of them had some kind of absurdity
JMT: Like the bowling in Double Indemnity!
12:59 PM and they're usually full of puns and dramatic irony
JMT: Interesting you say that, because I keep circling back to Pauline Kael's comments about Blood Simple.
Ben: she wasn't a fan, right?
1:00 PM JMT: She said it was "Hollywood by-product." She also disliked Body Heat - for one reason because she felt it was slavish vis-a-vis classic noir. But Blood Simple and Body Heat are very different - although they're in the same mid-80s neo-noir wave. In classic noir, the sap kills the husband and then gets betrayed by the wife, right? Body Heat follows that pretty much all the way to the end of the line. But the fun of Blood Simple lies in inverting the classical scheme. Here, the sap mistakenly thinks the wife has killed the husband, setting this whole train of events in motion...
1:04 PM BW: right - so the coens made it new and their picture remains strong while kasdan's was mere pastiche so hasn't weathered well?
1:05 PM JMT: I don't want to run down Body Heat but I do think Kael's complaint is slightly more interesting in that case than in the the case of Blood Simple, where, as with Cassavetes and the Maysles brothers, she missed the boat on major filmmakers.
1:06 PM In fact, the Coens have never had much luck with The New Yorker...David Denby called A Serious Man "intolerable"...
BW: i suppose they've learned to live with it
1:08 PM JMT: Another clever inversion has to do with the female lead, don't you think? Body Heat is actively prurient, whereas everybody in Blood Simple looks worse for wear. As Abby, McDormand is the opposite of a femme fatale.
1:09 PM BW: right, they push the absurdity at the expense of the glamour
1:10 PM ...and refuse to punish the dame!
JMT: I'd say while Body Heat is knowing about noir, Blood Simple is more heavily invested in irony.
1:11 PM BW: yes, the coens are much more upfront about playing with genre. it's almost a form of cinematic drag
1:12 PM JMT: Ha! The love is genuine. I believe they've said that they thought the names of Cain, Chandler, and Hammett ought to be chiseled into the stone above the Columbia University Library.
1:13 PM BW: oh, it's out of love, absolutely
JMT: Blood Simple came out in 1984 when I was like 10 years old - it was the year of Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins and The Karate Kid! So I saw it much later on VHS. But I had been reading a lot of pulp in high school. Jim Thompson, Davis Goodis, the Black Lizard Crime series from Vintage. Blood Simple is deeply engaged with pulp.
1:14 PM Pulp fiction...
1:15 PM BW: that's one of the things that's so striking about blood simple as a directorial debut. rather than trying to offer a new kind of cinematic language, they demonstrate their understand* and control of an existing form. it's a very sophisticated piece of filmmaking - you might call it a kind of late style, formally speaking, which is not what you expect from first timers!
1:18 PM JMT: Or the creation of deliberately "minor" literature. Chandler once wrote a letter to Hamish Hamilton explaining that people always asked him when he'd write something "serious." He talks about Pindar and Sappho and mocks "the Book of the Month Club, the Hearst press, and the Coca-Cola machine." He prefers "a savage, dirty age." Like the 1980s!
1:19 PM BW: like there's an age that isn't savage and dirty...
1:20 PM and zhang seems - on the basis of the trailer and the bits i've read about a woman, a gun and a noodle shop - to be applying it to another 'low' genre
1:22 PM although he's an interesting case in that he's become a specialist at classy pulp - the kind of pulp the book-of-the-month sensibility accepts as 'high'
hence his being recruited for the olympics gig, perhaps?
1:23 PM JMT: Danny Boyle and Stephen Daldry are following in his footsteps!
1:24 PM but adaptability is very much in the coens' dna. zhang is remaking a remake
1:26 PM JMT: Yes, there's that weird sense in many Coens films of a remake even when it's not the case - like O Brother w/r/t Sullivan's Travels, and The Man Who Wasn't There w/r/t the notorious execution scene cut from Double Indemnity. Most markedly in Miller's Crossing, which is almost like a missing Hammett novel adapted to film.
Which isn't to discount the originality in the films, at all.
1:29 PM BW: well, originality is always only a form of variation. their consummate ability to go with the tide, formally, is what allows them to surf it so well
1:30 PM JMT: Right - Kael didn't realize that they were more like Wilder or Hitchcock.
Hitchcock is quoted in the original trailer.
1:31 PM JMT: "It is very difficult, very painful, and it takes a very long time to kill someone."
1:32 PM That quotation is interspersed with various images, including the grave digging scene out in the Texas fields.
1:33 PM BW: they certainly share hitchcock's sense of humour about violence and death...but yes, wilder and hitchcock are very useful reference points - wilder especially, the idea of genre-skipping almost as a project in itself
1:37 PM JMT: I was just reading David Thomson's book The Moment of Psycho. He suggests that the whole first half of Psycho evokes American loneliness and banality. So does Blood Simple. Something's not right in the landscape. Everyone's pretty much alone - even the couple, Abby and Ray. When the husband Marty dies he has a bleeping computer to keep him company. It's like the low-rent assassin Loren Visser says, "Down here, you're on your own."
Whereas in Body Heat, William Hurt is like this smug jogger! Imagine anyone in Blood Simple jogging? (Maybe Meurice - he wears those great sneakers!)
1:38 PM BW: haha - visser at the gym
JMT: His "yellow lounge suit" is specified in the screenplay.
1:39 PM BW: amazing. he's what's wrong with the landscape
1:40 PM JMT: He's so intriguing!
1:41 PM I love his interest in the Soviet Union...
1:42 PM BW: there's a sort of compensation in the pastiche - the milieu is, as you say, alienation and ignorance and solitude, but the form, even though it's subversive, relies on the audience's recognition, its community of appreciation
JMT: You mean, we get the joke, like Visser?
1:43 PM JMT: Got it!
BW: we get it and appreciate it, and by getting it we assert fellow-feeling with the coens and other genre fans
and visser totally appreciates the irony too
the way he laughs at the absurdity of his own death - that's ecstatic!
1:45 PM JMT: Visser's wonderful. He does the killing for the money, reasoning that it's free enterprise - "in Russia they make fifty cent a day" - but he does the math and recognizes that it's more efficient to kill Marty than the couple. He's like a shady parody of one of those management consultants that says you can eliminate 50% of your workforce and streamline everything...
What a performance by Walsh! Talk about the banality of evil.
1:46 PM BW: he's amazing. they all are - utterly archetypal but also utterly, ridiculously unique
1:47 PM coming back to the remaking thing, it's interesting that the coens are currently finishing off their second official remake
JMT: True Grit
1:48 PM BW: right. though i think technically their film is based on the charles portis novel rather than the john wayne film
but as the film is much better known, it's kind of a remake in pop-culture terms
1:49 PM (or something)
amazing cover to the novel btw: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_Grit_(novel)
1:51 PM JMT: I've got that version! Another very strong female lead. This is one thing I really like about the Coens’ work. McDormand's lead in Blood Simple sets up her later role in Fargo as a source of "ordinary strength," for lack of a better phrase.
BW: yes, they have bottomless faith in the ability of sensible women to get on with it
1:52 PM JMT: Whereas, again, not to flog Body Heat, but there Kathleen Turner is viewed as a toy who turns malicious.
Abby is more subtle.
1:53 PM There's a great bit of noir-type laconic dialogue when they're first leaving town.
Abby: ...What was that back there?
Man: Back where?
Man: I don't know. Motel...
==>Another cruddy Coen motel coming up!==>
1:55 PM BW: moving around never does anyone any good in coen films, yet it's the american condition...
1:56 PM JMT: Like in Psycho!
BW: ha, totally
1:57 PM JMT: Thomson talks about how "in America the poetry is often in the official signage." Like "interstate." The desire to be elsewhere. And that terrible road loneliness. The Hopperesque.
1:58 PM That's what James M. Cain was getting at, too!
BW: it's another kind of subversion - taking these emblems of american furtherment like hitting the road and looking for the big payday - this applies to psycho and most of the coens' work - and showing it as sheer folly
1:59 PM JMT: All those bags of money dangled in Coen films. Marge in Fargo speaks to Visser, in a way, when she says "All for a little bit of money."
2:01 PM BW: and to ed crane and the big lebowski and llewelyn moss andlinda litzke...
2:02 PM JMT: "Dry cleaning - was I crazy to be thinking about it?" (Ed Crane.) He needs that $10,000 to start his business.
Visser gets...how much? Is it $10,000? Due to inflation, the standard Coen payout has increased to around $1 mil over the years...
2:03 PM BW: it's A Lot Of Money
2:04 PM you could almost do a breakdown of coen movies by deadly sin
blood simple - wrath and avarice
raising arizona - envy
2:05 PM miller's crossing... um...
2:06 PM JMT: Hmmm...
2:07 PM --Yes, it's $10,000 - "a right smart of money," Visser says - "smart" and "stupid" being another big theme here.
BW: smart also being what you do when you're hit. like a pummel of cash or a bruise of change
2:08 PM JMT: "When you smart me, it ruins it.” As Bernie says in Miller's Crossing.
BW: in the chair
2:09 PM his big hollywood reveal! waiting in the dark to put the frighteners on regan in true noir style, but regan spoils it by laughing
that's what classical hollywood could say to the coens, really
'when you smart me, it ruins it'
JMT: Yeah! "Who looks stupid now?" What Visser says to Marty after he's killed him.
2:10 PM BW: a quote from the ladykillers, which in due course the coens would recycle in full!
or at least riff off. it's their own approach to sources that makes them so ripe for remaking (or remixing) themselves
it would be great to see them remake one of their own movies, like hitch with the man who knew too much
2:12 PM JMT: Whoa - which one? Huh...
BW: maybe raising arizona? updated with ref to fertility technology?
2:13 PM i guess it's complicated by the fact that they do so many period pieces
JMT: They joked for awhile about remaking Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Since the story wouldn't phase anybody, they could focus on production design exclusively...wallpaper, etc.
like van sant's psycho but more so
2:14 PM but also it would be intriguing to see, say, wong kar-wai's take on barton fink
the writer trapped in the hotel...
2:15 PM JMT: Wonderful!
BW: paul rudd as the big lebowski?
2:16 PM JMT: Which brings us back to Zhang's remake. I don't know enough about it. But it got me thinking about how memorable Blood Simple remains. What New Wave figures like Truffaut and Godard saw clearly was that America has a fundamental relationship with crime literature. This is the country that produced Poe, Hammett, Chandler, Goodis...Mark Harris’ book Pictures at a Revolution discusses how both Truffaut and Godard had an abiding interest in Bonnie & Clyde - in directing it - a script which was itself influenced by the New Wave. This remake seems to set up Blood Simple as a weirdly quasi-canonical work, at least in the sense that it’s being reworked and adapted to another culture.
2:17 PM BW: certainly there's a whole conversation to be had about the transmission of cinematic ideas across cultures - american genres drawing on and returning to japanese, italian, french and indeed chinese cinema... kurosawa, new wave, leone, now zhang.
it's the same old song, but with a different meaning...
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August 29, 2010
The 3 Quarks Daily Ball 2010, Brixen
The 3QD Ball was almost unbearably fun and a great roaring success thanks to the help of many, many people. In fact, I think it's safe to say it was our best party ever. I won't thank everyone by name here, but you know who you are and you know how grateful I am to you for making our ball such a stylish affair! Here are more pictures (all of which are taken by my incredibly talented and dear friend Georg Hofer):
I speechified for about ten minutes:
Hartwig welcomed the guests in German:
My friend Marko sang an amazingly beautiful aria for us:
Then the band started playing:
And the dancing began:
Then Cyrus Hall started spinning some serious dance music and got people rocking, especially Aditya:
The Parable of Metatechnology
Our own Aditya Dev Sood in The Sunday Guardian:
I dreamt of a Hungarian technocrat and polymath from the late 1800s, whose name is too complicated to remember. He had helped design many of the bridges that crisscross the Danube, interconnecting Buda and Pest, and so creating the twin-city of Budapest. He had consulted on the design of the city's underground railway, only the second in the world after London, and the only one on the Continent. In addition to his Engineering practice, He had a scholarly career in the field of Descriptive Geometry, so he was a kind of mathematician. He was an amateur linguist, and toyed with representing sentences in a simplified code -- he was a kind of programmer, long before there was something called software.
Right around the end of the ninteenth century, his milieu, the city as a whole, was trying to figure out how to advance the pace of its technological development, how to ensure that Budapest would become the center of the twentieth century. He had a vague notion, a hunch, that there might be something beyond technology, which if it could be discovered, unlocked, unleashed, could predict the now uncertain pattern of the unfolding of technology. Just as two dimensional spaces can be projected into three, and as three can be projected into four and more, perhaps a modeling of metatechnology would allow him to resolve the technology layer through which his city was passing.
He asked for funds, of course. He set up his laboratory on one of the empty hilltops across the Danube, on the Buda side. From his window, he could see the last of his bridges being completed over the glistening Danube. His bright young assistants projected each of the known sciences and applied disciplines onto the other, struggling mightily to generate a unifying theory, trying to map this new field of metatechnology.
Ladies, gaga: What drag is doing for women
From The Boston Globe:
Maybe you’re shy, or a shut-in. Maybe you’re single and don’t want to be. Maybe all that truck driving, dog walking, kid raising, and company running has sapped your femininity. You’re a woman, and whatever the reason, you long to feel sexy and glamorous for a change. A spa day usually does the trick. But this is a deeper, almost spiritual problem that no spa — or therapist or “Sex and the City” binge — can cure. You could turn to your girlfriends or your sisters or your stack of Sophie Kinsella books. Instead, you do something more drastic, something more unexpected.
You dress in drag.
That’s the premise of the drag queen RuPaul’s new show — “RuPaul’s Drag U.” It takes biological women who feel disconnected from themselves, and, under the tutelage of a bunch of professional male drag queens, gives them heels, a giant wig, and a drag name, like Saline Dion. They sashay down a runway. They lip synch. They dance. “I had no idea how much work went into being a woman,” says one contestant whose drag name was Kornisha Kardashian. At the end of the runway competition, a winner is selected. Everybody seems moved. Even if you’ve been following the steady mainstreaming of gay culture, this premise may come as a perverse shock. Drag is the art of men borrowing — and often parodying — the archest and most extreme womanly characteristics. They razor-line their lips and give themselves giant hair as a kind of subversive theater. A woman, presumably, can do this whenever she feels like it. So it seems strange, not to say retrograde, for a woman to turn to a drag queen not simply to look like a woman but to feel like one.
America's misguided culture of overwork
Since the start of the recession, the number of unemployed in the U.S. has doubled. Those who are fortunate enough to still have jobs are often working longer hours for less pay, with the ever-present threat of losing being laid off. But even before the recession, American workers were already clocking in the most hours in the West. Compared to our German cousins across the pond, we work 1,804 hours versus their 1,436 hours – the equivalent of nine extra 40-hour workweeks per year. The Protestant work ethic may have begun in Germany, but it has since evolved to become the American way of life.
According to Thomas Geoghegan, a labor lawyer in Chicago and author of "Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?: How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life," European social democracy – particularly Germany’s – offers some tantalizing solutions to our overworked age. In comparison to the U.S., the Germans live in a socialist idyll. They have six weeks of federally mandated vacation, free university tuition, nursing care, and childcare. In an attempt to make Germany more like the U.S., Angela Merkel has proposed deregulation and tax cuts only to be met with fury on the left. Over multiple trips spanning a decade, Geoghegan decided to investigate how the Germans were living so well, and by extension, what we might be able to learn from them.
bolaño, crime, chi-chi's
Literature about crime, or crime stories in general, hold their interest for one of two reasons. In the first case, exemplified by, for instance, the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, we are presented with a mystery that, through various twists and turns, gets solved. This is exciting and satisfying. We didn’t know who done it, then we get to know who done it. The second kind of crime writing is more illusive. Crimes may get solved, but the question of “why” often takes precedence over “who.” The question of who is relatively easy to answer: it was that guy. The question of why is more intractable. It tends toward a lengthy regress. OK, he did it for the money or for love, but, still, why? In the novels of James M. Cain or Georges Simenon, for instance, there are crimes and those crimes are sometimes solved. But buzzing around the Who and the What is a troublesome Why that often does little more than buzz. The novel ends and the buzzing fades away, only to reemerge in the next novel. Once, in an interview with Giulio Nascimbeni, Georges Simenon was asked about a recurring dream. Simenon replied, “Yes, it’s true. It was night and I could see a large and calm lake, reflecting the moon. Black mountains rose around it. I arrived from between two of these mountains, I looked at the lake and the moon, and that was it, nothing else happened.”more from me at The Owls here.
bulgarian folk (for shuffy)
finnish tango (for Marko)
A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny BombA discussion with Amitava Kumar on The Leonard Lopate Show:
Amitava Kumar looks at the global repercussions of the war on terror. His book A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb tells the story of two men convicted in U.S. courts on terrorism-related charges: Hemant Lakhani, a 70-year-old tried for attempting to sell a fake missile to an FBI informant, and Shahawar Matin Siraj, who was accused of being involved in a conspiracy to bomb a subway. Kumar explores the experiences of ordinary people caught up in the war on terror and the growing suspicions about foreigners in post-9/11 America.
The Arrogance of Immortality
The Ballad of David Markson: A PrimerColin Marshall in The Millions:
I laughed loud and long after coming across a retired schoolteacher’s self-published book of poetry with the wildly unappealing title Meanderings of an Aged Mind. Yet it now occurs to me that the late avant-garde novelist David Markson’s literary output eventually assumed exactly that form. And though he never quite reached the depth of being forced into self-publication, his fame seems to have peaked around 1970. Quasi-praise such as “undeserved obscurity” and “smartest novelist you’ve never heard of” would thereafter accumulate like barnacles on his hull.
Markson wrote two novels that look just about like traditional novels, one that could pass for a traditional novel’s second cousin, and four that invent, develop, and refine the aggressively non-novelistic shape that would become his very own genre. Line them up, and you’ve never seen such clear stylistic progress. Final destination: books made of evenly-spaced, meticulously arranged facts from the lives of notable artists, writers, philosophers, and other intellectuals. No, not historical fiction. Not narratives of any lives in particular. Not tracings of any currents of thought. Just textual accretions, really, but textual accretions of the highest erudition and artistry.
If you’re looking for grand statements about David Markson’s career, you might say the same thing that makes his novels so fascinating — and, to his fans, so endlessly engaging — also makes them so little-known. Not just steeped in but crafted from the West’s achievements in thought and aesthetics, they pay off in excitement to the extent that you know your Yeatses from your Keatses, your Kierkegaards from your Spinozas. Truly meriting the label of sui generis that otherwise gets thrown around so carelessly, his novels are fiendishly tricky to contextualize. What might you have already read that suggests you’ll like David Markson? Tough call, since, for good or ill, nothing’s like David Markson.
Back From the Future: Can Measurements Performed in the Future Influence the Present?
Zeeya Merali in Discover:
[Jeff] Tollaksen and [Yakir] Aharonov proposed analyzing changes in a quantum property called spin, roughly analogous to the spin of a ball but with some important differences. In the quantum world, a particle can spin only two ways, up or down, with each direction assigned a fixed value (for instance, 1 or –1). First the physicists would measure spin in a set of particles at 2 p.m. and again at 2:30 p.m. Then on another day they would repeat the two tests, but also measure a subset of the particles a third time, at 3 p.m. If the predictions of backward causality were correct, then for this last subset, the spin measurement conducted at 2:30 p.m. (the intermediate time) would be dramatically amplified. In other words, the spin measurements carried out at 2 p.m. and those carried out at 3 p.m. together would appear to cause an unexpected increase in the intensity of spins measured in between, at 2:30 p.m. The predictions seemed absurd, as ridiculous as claiming that you could measure the position of a dolphin off the Atlantic coast at 2 p.m. and again at 3 p.m., but that if you checked on its position at 2:30 p.m., you would find it in the middle of the Mediterranean.
And the amplification would not be restricted to spin; other quantum properties would be dramatically increased to bizarrely high levels too. The idea was that ripples of the measurements carried out in the future could beat back to the present and combine with effects from the past, like waves combining and peaking below a boat, setting it rocking on the rough sea. The smaller the subsample chosen for the last measurement, the more dramatic the effects at intermediate times should be, according to Aharonov’s math. It would be hard to account for such huge amplifications in conventional physics.
For years this prediction was more philosophical than physical because it did not seem possible to perform the suggested experiments. All the team’s proposed tests hinged on being able to make measurements of the quantum system at some intermediate time; but the physics books said that doing so would destroy the quantum properties of the system before the final, postselection step could be carried out. Any attempt to measure the system would collapse its delicate quantum state, just as chasing dolphins in a boat would affect their behavior. Use this kind of invasive, or strong, measurement to check on your system at an intermediate time, and you might as well take a hammer to your apparatus.
By the late 1980s, Aharonov had seen a way out: He could study the system using so-called weak measurements. (Weak measurements involve the same equipment and techniques as traditional ones, but the “knob” controlling the power of the observer’s apparatus is turned way down so as not to disturb the quantum properties in play.) In quantum physics, the weaker the measurement, the less precise it can be. Perform just one weak measurement on one particle and your results are next to useless. You may think that you have seen the required amplification, but you could just as easily dismiss it as noise or an error in your apparatus.
The way to get credible results, Tollaksen realized, was with persistence, not intensity. By 2002 physicists attuned to the potential of weak measurements were repeating their experiments thousands of times, hoping to build up a bank of data persuasively showing evidence of backward causality through the amplification effect.
Just last year, physicist John Howell and his team from the University of Rochester reported success.
On the Value of Indian and Chinese Industrial PoliciesJesus Felipe, Utsav Kumar, and Arnelyn Abdon argue that the now criticized Indian and Chinese industrial policies of the 1960s through the 1970s (and later for India) are responsible for the high growth rates of the 1990s and the 2000s in Vox.
The emergence of China and India on the world stage has aroused much interest. As in many other areas of (policy) economics, just how these countries “did it” and the lessons for other countries is something economists either do not know, do not agree on, or both.
In the case of China, the literature seems to agree that capital accumulation, industrialisation, and export-led growth were key factors after 1979. Economists like Gregory Chow (1993) or World Bank chief economist Justin Lin, argue that, before 1979, Chinese central planning was a failure, economic performance was poor, and “haste made waste” (Lin 2010).
In the case of India, its poor performance during the 1960s and 1970s, referred to as “Hindu growth”, has often been attributed to, among other things, poor planning, and the license-permit Raj (Bhagwati and Desai 1970). Yet economists such as Bardhan (2006) and Nagaraj (2010) argue that infrastructure bottlenecks and demand–side constraints have been neglected in the discussion of India’s industrial performance.
In two recent papers and using a data set covering almost 800 products (Felipe et al 2010a and 2010b), we examine the evolution of the export basket of the two countries. We argue that the capabilities that both China and India accumulated before reforms started are vital to understanding their growth later on. While we agree that planning led to mistakes, inefficiencies, and to the misallocation of resources in both countries, we argue that, given their income per capita, China’s and India’s export baskets are more sophisticated – as measured by the income content of the export basket – and diversified – as measured by the number of products exported with revealed comparative advantage – than might otherwise be expected. Both are far ahead of countries at similar levels of development. This could have been achieved only through planning, industrial policy, and sector targeting.
Does Your Language Shape How You Think? Or the Retrun of Benjamin Lee WhorfGuy Deutscher in the NYT Magazine:
Seventy years ago, in 1940, a popular science magazine published a short article that set in motion one of the trendiest intellectual fads of the 20th century. At first glance, there seemed little about the article to augur its subsequent celebrity. Neither the title, “Science and Linguistics,” nor the magazine, M.I.T.’s Technology Review, was most people’s idea of glamour. And the author, a chemical engineer who worked for an insurance company and moonlighted as an anthropology lecturer at Yale University, was an unlikely candidate for international superstardom. And yet Benjamin Lee Whorf let loose an alluring idea about language’s power over the mind, and his stirring prose seduced a whole generation into believing that our mother tongue restricts what we are able to think.
In particular, Whorf announced, Native American languages impose on their speakers a picture of reality that is totally different from ours, so their speakers would simply not be able to understand some of our most basic concepts, like the flow of time or the distinction between objects (like “stone”) and actions (like “fall”). For decades, Whorf’s theory dazzled both academics and the general public alike. In his shadow, others made a whole range of imaginative claims about the supposed power of language, from the assertion that Native American languages instill in their speakers an intuitive understanding of Einstein’s concept of time as a fourth dimension to the theory that the nature of the Jewish religion was determined by the tense system of ancient Hebrew.
Eventually, Whorf’s theory crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any evidence to support his fantastic claims. The reaction was so severe that for decades, any attempts to explore the influence of the mother tongue on our thoughts were relegated to the loony fringes of disrepute. But 70 years on, it is surely time to put the trauma of Whorf behind us. And in the last few years, new research has revealed that when we learn our mother tongue, we do after all acquire certain habits of thought that shape our experience in significant and often surprising ways.
Whorf, we now know, made many mistakes. The most serious one was to assume that our mother tongue constrains our minds and prevents us from being able to think certain thoughts. The general structure of his arguments was to claim that if a language has no word for a certain concept, then its speakers would not be able to understand this concept. If a language has no future tense, for instance, its speakers would simply not be able to grasp our notion of future time. It seems barely comprehensible that this line of argument could ever have achieved such success, given that so much contrary evidence confronts you wherever you look. When you ask, in perfectly normal English, and in the present tense, “Are you coming tomorrow?” do you feel your grip on the notion of futurity slipping away?
August 28, 2010
Believe in People
From The Telegraph:
One of the many pleasures of reading Believe in People, a collection of Capek’s journalism and letters translated here for the first time, is to gain the acquaintance of a sensibility as universal and relevant as Kafka’s, and yet bracingly unfamiliar. As John Carey suggests in his excellent preface: “There is no English writer like him”. Here’s how the inventor of the word “robot” typically saw things: “Sometimes it can make your hair stand on end to see what can raise a laugh.” “Imagine the silence if people said only what they know!” “Only little people fight for prestige; great people have it.” A freer spirit than the Catholic writer G K Chesterton, whom he met on a visit to London in 1924, and more optimistic than George Orwell, Capek closer resembles a Czech Montaigne. “I like scepticism as inordinately as enthusiasm,” he writes playfully. “I take care to learn from anything that I stumble on.”
The son of a country doctor, Capek viewed himself as a physician who helps others, but with words. “In my own way I also try to do doctoring.” In the daily practice of journalism, he spins unfading pieces out of the important issues of the day and also out of ephemera. Flowers, dogs, cats – “because they truly exist” – are no less worthy of his curiosity than New Year’s resolutions or toothache; or, come to that, “the fanatical dopiness of our times”. What his critics describe as relativism, he prefers to call “an anxious attentiveness to everything that exists”.
Peace and War
From The New York Times:
Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, “Freedom,” like his previous one, “The Corrections,” is a masterpiece of American fiction. The two books have much in common. Once again Franzen has fashioned a capacious but intricately ordered narrative that in its majestic sweep seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life. Franzen knows that college freshmen are today called “first years,” like tender shoots in an overplanted garden; that a high-minded mom, however ruthless in her judgments of her neighbors’ ethical lapses, will condemn them with no epithet harsher than “weird”; that reckless drivers who barrel across lanes are “almost always youngish men for whom the use of blinkers was apparently an affront to their masculinity.”
These are not gratuitous observations. They grow organically from the themes that animate “Freedom,” beginning with the title, a word that has been elevated throughout American history to near-theological status, and has been twinned, for most of that same history, with the secularizing impulses of “power.” That twinning is where the trouble begins. As each of us seeks to assert his “personal liberties” — a phrase Franzen uses with full command of its ideological implications — we helplessly collide with others in equal pursuit of their sacred freedoms, which, more often than not, seem to threaten our own. It is no surprise, then, that “the personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage,” as Franzen remarks. And the dream will always sour; for it is seldom enough simply to follow one’s creed; others must embrace it too. They alone can validate it.
Jesús and the Snowman
It’s a west–Texas thing:
three Delco car batteries strapped to a switch lighting a line of icicles.
Draped from barbed wire.
As far north or south as a man can walk in a night,
a clutter of jackrabbit holes and arroyos,
cactus and yucca,
sand too coarse to be good,
too dry to be dirt.
A plastic snowman guards the south end of the illuminated line.
Cheerful in its green tie and top hat, its buttons and broom, carrot nose.
The balls of its head and chest light up the sage
like St. Elmo’s fire.
Decoration for the chiggers and toads, fire ants and lizards.
For the ones who cross at night,
taught by word of mouth to know it as a beacon,
a place to meet at 3 a.m.,
where, after fanning out for 10 miles or more,
they can regroup, drink some water, fan out again.
It’s 5 am when Jesús finds the snowman.
It should be cold, but it’s warm.
He huddles against it, stone eyed and afraid,
trying to look past the snowman’s lasso of light.
There are three figures moving toward him,
silhouettes in wide-brimmed hats against a pale horizon.
Hearing them before he sees, knowing he will want to be erect,
Jesús stands, tries to button up a smile.
by Joel F. Johnson
from Blackbird, Spring 2010 Vol. 9 No. 1
Peter Singer on the Life You Can SaveOver at Philosophy Bites:
You'd help a drowning child. Why then aren't you doing more to help the children you know are starving and sick in various parts of the world? Peter Singer discusses the issue of the life you can save with Nigel Warburton in this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast.
The Strangeness of Space Travel
Prison Rape: Eric Holder's Unfinished BusinessDavid Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow in the NYRB blog:
A new report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) provides grim reaffirmation of something we already knew: sexual violence is epidemic within our country’s prisons and jails. According to the report, 64,500 of the inmates who were in a state or federal prison on the day the latest BJS survey was administered had been sexually abused at their current facility within the previous year, as had 24,000 of those who were in a county jail that day—a total of 88,500 people.
In fact, as we’ve explained before, the true national total is much higher. The BJS numbers don’t include thousands who we know are sexually abused in juvenile detention and other kinds of corrections facilities every year, nor do they account for the constant turnover among jailed detainees. Stays in jail are typically short, and several times as many people pass through jail in a year as are held there on any given day. Overall, we can confidently say that well over 100,000 people are sexually abused in American detention facilities every year.
As appalling as this figure is, mere numbers can obscure what is at issue here. So consider the case of Scott Howard. Scott was a gay, non-violent, first-time inmate in a Colorado prison when he was targeted by members of the “2-11 crew,” a white supremacist gang with over 1,000 members in prisons throughout the state. For two years he was forced into prostitution by the gang’s leaders, repeatedly raped and made to perform oral sex. Even after he told prison staff that he was being raped and needed protection from the gang, Scott was told that nothing could be done unless he named his abusers—even though they had threatened to kill him if he did. Because Scott is openly gay, some officials blamed him for the attacks, saying that as a homosexual he should expect to be targeted by one gang or another. And by his account, even those officers who were not hostile didn’t know how to respond to his reports, because appropriate procedures were not in place. They failed to take even the most basic measures to protect him.
Their Black Imaginings: Letters from an Exiled Wife to Her Imprisoned HusbandThe letters of the Iranian exile Fatemeh Shams to her imprisoned husband Mohammad Reza Jalaeipour in Virginia Quarterly Review:
In these thirty days, I have written letters to whomever I can think of. When I tired of appealing to the closed doors of law and (in)justice, where nobody heard my cries, I consulted your three martyred uncles. I told them that these days our youth are charged with defending the honor of our country—the same goal that they, your uncles, sacrificed their lives for—and now our youth are being imprisoned. I told them that your father named you after them so that the memory of their sacrifices and bravery would not escape our minds.
The dead were the first and last place of authority to which I took my complaints. In the visits that the families of the detained had with the authorities, your name was ever present. That day when they visited our dear Khatami, and I was exile-bound, I wrote him and asked him to bow his head on his pure prayer mat and pray for your safe return. I heard back that he is worried from the depths of his heart and will not stop at anything to free you and the others.
But it was not just these letters my lovely! Our families tried numerous times to exercise the fundamental right of obtaining an attorney. But each time, they were met with obstacles. They took away your right to visit with an attorney. Our calls have gone unanswered, and this is my share: no news of you, my own vagrancy, and this worry about your state.
The days that you have been in prison, with no news, have been historic. But the bitterest of these events was the grief of Sohrab’s mother.2 You were not present, you did not see how young Sohrab’s mother wept by his graveside. With every ounce of my being, I feel her twenty-six days worth of unknowing, uncertainty, and with each tear, I wish to wash away the blood that she has witnessed. This earth is once again being watered by the blood of its fallen youth, and the green sapling of freedom is growing from its core.
Two nights ago I said a prayer of gratitude because a friend brought word that your singing fills the nights in the solitary cells of Evin, though she had not been to see your face. But just knowing that the songbird of Evin still has his voice calmed my heart. As another friend said, your song tells us of your health and breath and aliveness. I know your heart is strong. I know you are standing strong and that the lack of news is due to your continual resistance. I know that if they had broken you and you had told them what they wanted to hear, I would have heard your voice by now, or even seen you. When at night the grief, stronger and many-rooted, attacks my body and soul, I cry for the weak constitution of your interrogators. Staring into your green, lively eyes and forcing you to write and confess to that which you do not believe. This act must require such a hardened heart. I cry for the repression of those who keep you from sleep for long stretches of time trying to make you give in to their dirty, false confessions, and I ask God to guide them and to give you strength.
The Trotsky ConundrumDmitry Babich and Peter Taaffe discuss Trotsky in The Moscow News. Babich:
Leon Trotsky is a unique figure in recent Russian history who is despised by all of Russia’s major political currents.
Gennady Zyuganov’s communists hate him because he was made into Bolshevism’s anti-Pope during most of the Soviet period. Russian liberals hate him because he had no respect for private property and for human lives, which he destroyed in the millions during his tenure at the top of Soviet power in 1917-24.
The “party of power” hates him because he was a revolutionary and every revolution is an anathema to United Russia. Nationalists hate him because he had no love or pity for Russia, viewing it merely as “fuel for world revolution” – and not the best, for that matter.
Unlike Nikolai Bukharin and other Bolshevist leaders, Trotsky never had his “moment of glory” in post-Stalinist Russia. Despite his books being published and his family’s tragic fate enjoying some sympathy (Trotsky survived all his four children and only one grandson out of five escaped Stalin’s epic ire), this country’s public opinion did not rehabilitate his ideas. It can be said that Russia once and forever rejected Trotskyism, firing at it on all cylinders.
Trotsky, however, returns the fire. Not via tiny groups of his followers in Russia, which are usually reduced to the third roles in the already not-too-strong anti-Putin protest movement. Just as he did during most of his life, Trotsky – even after his death – is damaging Russia from abroad.
“Western publications headed by former or acting Trotskyites tend to be post-Soviet Russia’s most acerbic critics,” explains Yury Rubinsky, the head of the department for French studies at the Moscow-based Institute of Europe. “To these people, Russia is not just a traitor, but a double and triple traitor.”
Great Female Artists? Think KarachiSeher Shah in Newsweek:
“Why have there been no great women artists?” asked American art historian Linda Nochlin in a landmark 1971 essay.
Four decades later, her question still stands: while a handful of Western female painters, sculptors, and performance artists—Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, Marina Abramovic—have achieved the same level of fame as their male counterparts, the West’s elite art world continues to be dominated by male artists, curators, dealers, and collectors.
Look elsewhere around the globe, however, and women are thriving in some of the most dynamic up-and-coming art scenes. They’re even achieving widespread success in a country not exactly known for women’s rights: Pakistan. Female artists from the developing Muslim nation have been recently feted in exhibits like last year’s Hanging Fire at New York’s Asia Society and the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial in Japan.
Women also hold prime positions of influence in Pakistan’s art system, running prestigious galleries such as Karachi’s Canvas and Poppy Seed, and heading key art institutes such as the School of Visual Arts at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore (under the direction of Salima Hashmi), and Lahore’s National College of Arts, which is overseen by Naazish Ataullah.
One reason for the unusually high ratio of female artists in Pakistan has to do with the fact that the art industry has not traditionally been viewed as a lucrative business by men, says South Asian art historian Savita Apte, who administers the internationally renowned Abraaj Capital Art Prize. Until very recently, creatively inclined males tended to focus on fields such as advertising or illustration, leaving the art field wide open for some very talented women.
the hunted man
Graham Greene hated interviews. He granted one in 1968 to BBC television (his brother, Hugh Carleton Greene, was then director-general) but made two stipulations: the interview should take place on the Orient Express, thundering across borders to Istanbul; and his face should not be shown on screen during the hour-long conversation, only his hands. They titled the programme The Hunted Man. Greene was always easier to hunt than to catch. Norman Sherry notes in the preface to his monumental biography: “A man who would write two versions of his diary is not a man who gives up his secrets easily.” Sherry’s attitude is baffled but deferential. Had he not worshipped Greene, he would never have spent the best (30!) years of his scholarly life on his project only to receive a cascade of scorn from critics when, in 2004, his third and final volume appeared.more from John Sutherland at the FT here.
the rain is falling on the last place
Reporting from Maui — We've been batting our way through W.S. Merwin's yard for a couple hours, swatting mosquitoes in the streambed under the dark wet canopy of towering, philodendron-draped mangoes and looking at some 700 species of palm trees, every one of which he has planted by hand. He stops to touch them, saying things like, "Oh, this is Carpoxylon macrocarpa; they were thought to be extinct on Madagascar, but here it is." Many of these trees are exceptionally rare. Then he pulls up in front of a short broad palm, rather unimpressive next to the other trees on his property on Maui's northern shore, but he smiles as he fondles the leaf. "We think this Pritchardia minor is from the Kalalau Valley," he says, referring to a spot in the rugged Na Pali cliffs on Kauai, also a key setting in Merwin's epic narrative poem about Hawaii, "The Folding Cliffs." "It gives me gooseflesh to think of it being here."more from Dean Kuipers at the LAT here.
The Czech novelist Milan Kundera’s new essayistic book, “Encounter,” his fourth, is alternatingly elegiac and celebratory. An émigré from the Communist horror of what was then Czechoslovakia, he settled in Paris and proceeded to write in French. But he discovered in France “the sense that we have come to the era of post-art, in a world where art is dying because the need for art, the sensitivity and the love for it, is dying.” Still, there remain the particular artists whom Kundera celebrates — novelists, poets, composers, painters — who keep beauty alive. There are 26 essays, some of only a couple of pages, some rather longer. Let us examine a characteristic one, “What Will Be Left of You, Bertolt?” It begins by making reference to a 1999 article in a Paris weekly, “one of the more serious ones.” (Frequently Kundera will refer to a person or a piece of writing without identification, unclear whether for universalizing or diplomatic reasons.) It contained a special section on 18 “geniuses of the century,” featuring, among others, Coco Chanel, Maria Callas, Bill Gates, Le Corbusier, Picasso, Yves Saint Laurent and the little-known astronomy professor Robert Noyes.more from John Simon at the NYT here.
Masters of the Universe
Hartosh Singh Bal in Open:
A young man of striking looks, his long brown hair framing his face, his suit offset by an oversized wine-red cravat and a trademark spider brooch the size of a palm, is being followed around a vast hall by a film crew. He is one of the four men about to be honoured by an award that is among the rarest accomplishments in any field of intellectual endeavour—the Fields Medal.
The award’s monetary prize is insignificant—about $15,000—but the prestige it offers is incalculable. The actual medal, made of 14 carat gold, is 9 cm in diameter and bears the head of Archimedes in profile with an inscription in Latin from a passage by Manilius, a first-century Roman poet: Transire suum pectus mundoque potiri (‘To pass beyond your understanding and make yourself master of the universe’). The inscription on the obverse side translates to: ‘The mathematicians assembled here from all over the world pay tribute to outstanding work.’
Given once every four years for outstanding mathematical work completed before the age of 40, in the 70 or so years since the Fields Medal has been instituted, just 52 have been awarded—four of them this year at the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) underway in Hyderabad, the first time in over a century of its existence that the conference is being held in India.
Three thousand assembled mathematicians rise in tribute as President Pratibha Patil awards the medal to the chosen four: Elon Lindenstrauss from Israel, Stanislav Smirnov from Russia, Ngo Bao Chau from Vietnam (originally, though now a naturalised citizen of France), and Cedric Villani from France (the man in the cravat).
August 27, 2010
Infinite Doppelgängers May Explain Quantum ProbabilitiesRachel Courtland in New Scientist:
AN IDENTICAL copy of you is also reading this story. This twin is the same in every way, living on an Earth and in a universe that looks exactly like our own. And there may be an infinite number of them. Such doppelgängers could be a natural consequence of our present conception of the universe. Now, some physicists say they could pose a serious problem for quantum mechanics. But a possible fix may also be in sight, and it could help tie abstract quantum concepts to concrete physical causes.
In the uncertain, fuzzy world of quantum mechanics, particles do not have fixed properties until they are observed. Instead, objects that obey quantum rules exist in a "superposition" of all their possible states simultaneously. Schrödinger's famous cat, for example, is both alive and dead until we take a peek inside the booby-trapped box in which it has been placed.
Because the probability that the cat will be found alive is based on a quantum event - the decay of a radioactive substance within the box - it can be calculated using a principle called the Born rule. The rule is used to transform the vague "wave function" of a quantum state, which is essentially a mixture of all possible outcomes, into concrete probabilities of particular observations (in this case, the cat being alive or dead). But this staple of quantum mechanics fails when it is applied to the universe at large, says Don Page at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.
At issue is the possibility that there could be a multiplicity of copies of any particular experiment floating about the universe, just as there could be a multiplicity of yous. There could even be an infinite number of them if, as is thought, the early universe underwent a period of exponential growth, called inflation. Although this period ended very soon after the big bang in our observable region of space, inflation may have continued elsewhere, giving rise to a "multiverse", an infinite space containing infinite copies of our Earth. "In an infinite universe, every possible thing would happen, and it would happen an infinite number of times," says cosmologist Alex Vilenkin of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.
Interpretation as a Fine ArtAnna Aslanyan's interviews Tom McCarthy, in 3 AM Magazine:
I seem to be surrounded by Tom McCarthy fans. In a small bookshop, I run into an acquaintance and, after a brief hello, he moves on to McCarthy’s latest novel, C. A friend who, upon reading his first, Remainder, realised her boss reminded her of its protagonist (she herself felt like one of its extras, the lady who is required by contract to fry insane amounts of liver), comes round and asks me what I make of the new book. Another friend tries to predict the author’s trajectory over the next decade and says about C, “You can’t pretend life is a literary quotation any more.” I realise that, when the conversation turns to the book, each of us is talking about a different one, which makes me think of my own perception of it as incomplete, perhaps totally skewed.
A hot summer day, C not yet out, the Booker judges still busy deciding on this year’s longlist, I go to meet Tom McCarthy. On the way to the cafe, I remember the last time I interviewed him, a couple of years ago, when C was but a distant signal in the space, part of the white noise. Back then, Tom said the book was about mourning, quickly adding for my benefit: “Mourning with a ‘u’.” He was the first to burst out laughing, but the memory still does little for my confidence as a critic, so the first question I ask him is: “You’ve read my review of C – what did I get wrong?”
Tom McCarthy: I don’t think you can actually get things right or wrong when it comes to books. As a writer, you can only set up a number of possibilities, things to be interpreted. It there were one interpretation it would probably be a rather one-dimensional book. But then again… who am I to say? I can just share some anecdotes of its production.
3:AM: Let’s do anecdotes then. Your Black Box Transmitter project has been launched a while back. Is it related to the book in any way? I guess it’s a chicken-and-egg question.
TMcC: The precursor of the Black Box was the chicken – it was while I was researching it that I had the idea for C. This link between telephony and death, communications and family structures, which in literature have always been incestuous, from Sophocles onwards. Also, Nabokov is a large presence in the novel. I’ve been reading Ada – I think it’s his masterpiece, the best book by a long, long way. Strangely, a lot of Nabokovians don’t like it… Anyway, it’s all about encryption of some kind or another. Telephony is key – even though it is the one thing completely banned in the book. Again, this is by the same token as sex has been banned in Remainder. That book was all about sex, of course, so having it there in any explicit form would have diluted the message.