Monday, November 28, 2011
by James McGirk
Our brains are filled with the whispering of objects, the shrieking presence of things we lust after or despise or simply want to ignore but can’t for all the noise. It seems impossible to write fiction without addressing it but so little does. Part of this is the nature of the medium. The contemporary novel or short story is a ghostly place, a necropolis where memories are dissected and pinned to the page.
“Anecdotes don't make good stories,” the great Canadian short story writer Alice Munro once told an interviewer, “Generally I dig down underneath them so far that the story that finally comes out is not what people thought their anecdotes were about.”
Writing literary fiction is a bit like tunneling (minus the physical component). You gnaw a room out of the wall of the previous one, scaffold it with description and feed in a few disembodied voices, hoping the histories and hierarchies those voices are quibbling over create enough momentum to propel your reader into the next room. Munro takes this a step further, using the shape of those excavations to back engineer a second, deeper narrative structure from the first.
Hers is a second order of story, ideal for spelunking the complex residue of a lifetime of deep emotion, but one that seems to collapse the realm of the object. Unless an author like Munro is a pure technological determinist, a deep dive into character motivation seems unsuited to describing a world where the collective ache of consumer culture - and being left out of it - might manifest itself in something like the Occupy Wall Street movement. Yet it is not impossible to use intricately rendered characters as a way to roam the realm of material consciousness.
George Saunders writes grotesques, mostly short stories and novellas that echo and amplify our material and marketing obsessed culture. He lets the language of capital and its bureaucratic and corporate brethren intrude into his characters’ consciousnesses. Abominations like advertising jingles and double-speak substitute for the emotions of the disenfranchised nobodies who populate his stories. His characters all but drown in this soup of gibberish, but rather than just let his characters sink, Saunders redeems them, letting odd little bits of mysticism, especially ghosts, seep through his stories and sometimes exact revenge.
“Sea Oak” follows this pattern; it’s a story of a passive but sympathetic father who earns a living as an erotic dancer but is failing at it and about to be fired. His family is saturated with the idiocy of television and consumer culture.
“My sister's baby is Troy. Jade's baby is Mac. They crawl off into the kitchen and Troy gets his finger caught in the heat vent. Min rushes over and starts pulling. "Jesus freaking Christ!" screams Jade. "Watch it! Stop yanking on him and get the freaking Vaseline. You're going to give him a really long arm, man!"”
A shot at redemption comes from beyond the grave when the narrator’s spinster Aunt Bernie dies during a robbery, then returns to life as a macabre version of the ghosts in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, horrifiing the rest of the family into shaping up by giving them a glimpse of the macabre future they faced. Meanwhile Aunt Bernie tries to savoring all of the material pleasures she denied herself while alive, visibly decaying as she does this. It’s an acerbic maximalist style that is almost pungent with politics and agendas, yet for all of his contempt of objects and consumer culture, Saunders acknowledges the power and influence that this strange other realm of objects has in his stories.
Ernest Hemingway wrote that in his stories he tried to “get the feeling of the actual life across, not just to depict life, or criticize it, but to actually make it alive.” He deployed an austere style that he compared to a iceberg: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
Tao Lin has pushed this minimalist ethos of Hemingway's into a sort of rolling laconic rumble, and although some critics view Lin as a sort of anti-literature art project (or self-promoting fraud) there is an undeniable accumulation in his sentences. Take this paragraph of “Relationship Story,” for example, for all its apparent rambling, each word of the following paragraph seemed too crucial to cut:
“In August they visited Michelle’s separated parents in Pittsburgh. Michelle’s father gave Paul his 650-page, self-published memoir. Her mother brought Michelle and Paul to a Chinese restaurant that was one gigantic room, high-ceilinged and low-lit as a natural-history museum. The next night Paul had a fever and Michelle gave him Tylenol Flu and cream-of-broccoli soup and, on her L-shaped sofa, holding each other, they watched a movie about a blind woman hanged for murdering a man who raped her after stealing her life savings. Michelle, who was staying home a few more days, dropped Paul off at the airport the next morning and he stood in line feeling both zombielike and feathery, like he might unidirectionally collapse, for about 30 minutes before learning that his flight was canceled. He called Michelle and she returned and he crawled into the backseat hazily imagining a heavily medicated version of himself holding hands in IKEA with an affectionate Michelle who was watching him sip an interesting, miso-y broth. “Can we go to IKEA?” he said, on his back, eyes closed.”
Tao Lin demonstrated his genius for self-promotion with a series of increasingly sophisticated juxtapositions. He emerged on the scene in 2007 by harassing Gawker, which was then a sort of haven for the New York literati; then having established himself (N.B. this process included winning literary prizes for his poetry collections), Lin began self-publishing novellas with titles like “Shoplifting from American Apparel,” which, of course, was immediately suspected of being a crass attempt at generating attention and sales. Since then, he has continued to play against his critics, naming a book Richard Yates, after the author, which again seemed like a stunt given Yates' reputation as the grandmaster of suburban ennui (i.e. Lin's metier), while writing columns for Vice Magazine and other vulgarities seemingly designed to drive his priggish detractors wild, yet maddeningly relevent to his own literary work.
Lin’s writing works through juxtaposition. There seems to be an enormous space howling around each of Lin’s sentences. The passage above echoes the bleak but prosperous existence of the separated parents, the emptiness of airports and strip malls, the bland food they eat and generic furniture they sit on. He knows his characters the way Hemingway ordains an artful omitter should, but he also knows the power of a brand like Ikea or Tylenol Flu and lets those objects cast their shadows into the text, and just lets them sit there and do their thing. It’s a bit like the poems in Charles Simic The World Doesn’t End or the carefully arranged contents of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, the ones Simic claimed to have been inspired by. Tao Lin's silent juxtapositions seem to be the syntax of the material realm.
Stories are a primitive sort of brain scan. An enormous amount of our neural throughoutput is devoted to the slightly morbid reenactment of old memories and the anticipation of new ones, which is probably the same part of brains that generate fiction. But our stories could also benefit by paying attention to the other media crackling our collective lobes. Computer games have an approach to objects that is almost diametrically opposed to most fiction writing. The acquisition of items, such as a weapon, changes the narrator’s relationship to his or her surroundings. In a story it is the narrative that usually changes the narrator. Research into messy desks and pathological hoarding suggests a link between organizing objects in our environment with memory, and projecting belief systems into our environment. Anyone who has ever dismantled an estate after a death of a loved one can’t help but assemble a sort of narrative from the deceased’s possessions. Which perhaps suggests that the best way to write about objects might be to do what Tim O’Brien did in “The Things They Carried” and list them and let the them speak for themselves.
Gaze at the dripping flags and talk of the parade you have witnessed
Some Notes Made on Evacuation Day 2011
by Jen Paton
One hundred years from this moment, crowds in this same city would stand on the streets, in the rain, under “stars and stripes from every Flag-pole,” to commemorate this day, and to commemorate it for the last time on such a scale: “every tower, every steeple, every rooftop which commanded” river views would be “peopled with human beings,” and thousands would brave torrential rain to catch a glimpse of the festivities. Two hundred and twenty five years later, this would be the subject of a snarky Gawker Post. Two hundred and twenty eight years later, a humorous conversation in The Daily Show. But for now, in 1783, it’s just eight hundred guys waiting at Bowery, waiting for the signal.
Once this road was a footpath for the people who lived here first, a bit later it was a road that led to the Dutch Governor General's farm. At one o'clock, in the distance, they heard the cannon fire, fired from the departing enemy ship, and this meant it was safe to enter New York City. They marched in, a newspaper would say a few weeks later, with "an inviolable regard to order and discipline, as Tyranny could never be enforced." (qtd in Hood, 2004). Quite.
The occupying British commander, Sir Guy Carleton, now on a ship living the island, had received the orders to evacuate months before. It was a delicate operation: the Americans wanted military control of the city as soon as possible, the better to quell any lingering dissent there, but they also hoped to keep the British army and their own from exchanging fire in the process. Carleton had to pull out not only his troops, but the thousands of refugees loyal to him, who had been streaming into this city since rebel victory became assured, as well as the slaves liberated from the enemy who had sought refuge within its walls. He would leave with thousands of refugees, including 3000 freedmen, whom the British promised to “pay” the Americans for at Washington’s insistence and, apparently, never did. Some would settle in Nova Scotia, of which some would end up in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
There was also the bay, the infamous bay. For years rebel prisoners were kept on ships in Wallabout Bay, from Walloon bay, where "perhaps 11,000" died, their bodies hastily buried or dumped into water to wash up on the surrounding shores of Brooklyn. British treatment of the prisoners, alive or dead, was much chronicled, most notably through Philip Freneau’s "The British Prison Ship", published in 1780.
THE various horrors of these hulks to tell,
These Prison Ships where pain and penance dwell,
Where death in tenfold vengeance holds his reign,
And injur'd ghosts, yet unaveng'd, complain;
This be my task —ungenerous Britons, you
Conspire to murder whom you can't subdue. —
It is inarguable that this is what the British spent a good few centuries doing. Of course, it’s never simple, is it. Freneau’s claim to actually have been imprisoned on those boats has fallen into disrepute. And as for the British treatment of American bodies, however terrible it was, Robert Cray has discussed how little real attention Americans in Charge paid to these dead after victory. Most of them were poor and unidentifiable, or not seen to be worth identifying. Bleached bones sat on Brooklyn beaches for years. In 1788, a group of laborers stormed a medical college believing, probably falsely, that they were stealing body parts from the unburied dead.
But history marches on and deifies itself, and Evacuation Day, commemorating this British departure, Became a Thing. Fancy dinners. Parades. Speeches. Fancier artillery exercises. In a 2003 paper , Clifton Hood tracks Evacuation Day as a way of examining how a tradition morphs, and sometimes eventually lapses into a curious aside.
Just after the war, New Yorkers were still finding their feet as a community in recovery, and didn’t really have time for such things as parading about. But by 1787, as debate about whether to ratify the Constitution intensified, Federalists publicized Evacuation Day celebrations – at that moment, mainly private, indoor affairs - to remind newspaper readers that a strong federal government was part and parcel with the esprit de something Americans demonstrated that fateful day. The professionalized military reviews that arose over subsequent decades, notes Hood, "advertised a European style professional army as one of the chief blessings of national government" , even though the ranks of the “national army” were filled out for parade day with private militias – an irony not lost on Republican newspapers of the day.
Mere parading grew into Quite A Show. Cannons and artillery blared in feu de joie - firings of joy- where companies fired their musket in elaborate coordinated crescendos as tests of skill became a part of the public celebrations. By the 1820s and 30s, New York newspapers ran advertisements for Evacuation Day revues in all the big theaters. Probably related to this razzmatazz, in this period, as the last actual survivors of the Revolutionary War died off, there was much grumbling from old timers that people just didn’t get it anymore: "their interest seems lost, however important the object commemorated." (New York Herald, 1848, qtd. by Hood, as above).
During the Civil War, popular attendance at Evacuation Day events soared, though, rather than commemorating loss or preening military prowess, concerns were different – maintaining the continuity of a riven country, but on Union terms.
In 1865, the mood was quite somber, with 50,000 at Gettysburg just months before, when the The New York Times wrote:
"It is to be hoped that the occasion will be observed with some of that joyousness and bonhommie customary in days gone by, when a gigantic war had not swept away so many landmarks and traditions of the past."
The Times lamented that New Yorkers used to celebrate Evacuation Day proudly:
The honest citizens of these ancient days were wont to dress themselves in their best doublet and hose, and make an imposing parade as they marched through the streets. Cannon ushered in the rising sun, saluting the god of day as he rose from his slumbers, and the green and classic Battery was hidden from view beneath the sulphurous smoke of the artillery.
However, the outbreak of Civil War had distracted the public with its "intense excitements, its battles and sieges, its marches and retreats, its sad reverses and glorious victories, [which] caused the public mind to lose that veneration for Evacuation Day which was previously entertained for it. "
This year, though, would be different, the Times told us. This was the year to remember what happened that day. The military would be parading, and - as the Times wrote in excruciating detail their orders to march "in full white glove". The Eighth Regiment would march to the home of one MRS CHARLES A. SECOR, returning a flag she had donated to them four years before, "the banner having been carried by the command with honor to itself and credit to the city." Never forget.
Attendance at public celebrations of Evacuation Day like this one also became a way for new Americans, particularly Irish-Americans, to solidify their American/Union identity as well as hate on the English – a “bonhommie” that would stick for a decade or so after the Civil War. The Irish World’s notice from 1873 makes explicit why Evacuation Day held such appeal:
The forces of King George leave New York, bag and baggage, a free city in a free land, 1783. [Let us hope we will not have to wait till 1883 for the forces of Victoria to leave in the same way, a place we know of, where they have no right to be.] (Irish World, quoted by Hood, 2003).
Evacuation Day’s centennial celebration in 1883 was its largest. “Gloomy skies overhung the city yesterday morning” the Times intoned (in what is a rather incredibly written, Wikileak-from-Dagestan style narrative). The next morning, the day of the thing, the weather cleared, for a while at least, and business stopped completely, and it was “doubtful if ever before in the history of the City so many persons came to together as flocked the streets that day.” The city was “full of strangers” who had come to see, many unable to secure accommodation and struggling through muddied streets “with satchels and valises in their hands.” The Times tells us these folks didn’t mind there were no rooms left to rent in the city that day, as “when night fell upon the gloomy, muddy streets, they were still crowded with people, who waded through the puddles, gazed at the dripping flags on the buildings, and talked of the parade they had witnessed and the many features of the celebration.”
This spectacular marked the last gasp of Evacuation Day as a public affair. In following years, celebrations receded behind closed doors, celebrated by the Sons and Daughters of the Revolution – up until really a few years ago, when there have been some coordinated light shows and other neo-Evacuation Day commemorations, though none on a grand scale, involving all of New York and America.
Even that centenary evening, though, it was clear it would never be the same. The Chamber of Commerce hosted an elegant dinner for soldier-participants and for themselves – the committees comprised of "presidents of merchants exchanges, bankers, railroad executives, corporate lawyers" (Hood, as above) who had organized the whole grand affair.
This hint of elitism masquerading as populism, and the general spectacular, led the Irish American to accuse “these degenerate Americans” of “aping..everything English…[and] slight[ing] their own country, show[ing] they regret the abolition of class distinctions, and the equalization of all men before the law, that their Revolution brought about.” (1883, qtd. by Hood, as above).
Evacuation Day evening in 1883, one hundred years after 800 men waited at the Bowery, while parade organizers and participants dined, the valise carrying people were to have enjoyed a fireworks show, but these were “postponed on account of the rain.” Not to worry: they would “be given [the next night] if the weather is fair, and, if not, on the next pleasant evening.”
Marie Lorenz. Tide and Current Taxi project. 2005- Present
"The Tide and Current Taxi is a rowboat water taxi in the New York Harbor, operated by the artist Marie Lorenz. Each trip is planned to coincide with strong tidal currents in the harbor, all documented with pictures and stories ..."
The Witness You Want to Be
by Hasan Altaf
In their outlines, all of Joan Didion's novels seem more or less the same: The protagonist is always a woman, in some way "troubled"; there are always men, usually two, usually powerful in some way; there is sometimes a son but always a daughter, who is generally what the woman is "playing for," as Maria Wyeth puts it in Play It As It Lays (1970): "What I play for here is Kate." The stories of the troubled women torn between the two men and trying to save or reconnect with or find their children do not, in general, end happily; the children remain lost, the men too are gone (divorce, death, abandonment, some combination thereof), and at the end the woman we've been following is alone and still in some way "troubled."
The first time I read Didion's novels, I read them all at once, and the similarities began to annoy me: If they were all going to be the same, what was the point in reading more than one? (There are other writers who do this, who write the same story time and time again, and those in general I abandon after the first; Didion's style is what always kept me coming back.) Recently, however, as a way of preparing for the publication of Blue Nights, I went back and reread the novels, starting with Run, River (1963) and ending with The Last Thing He Wanted (1996). The second read-through answered this question for me. It also answered another, perhaps more important question - what is the point for the writer in telling the same story so many times?
I still feel that the characters in Didion's novels are almost interchangeable (Treat Morrison can stand in for Jack Lovett, Inez Victor and Charlotte Douglas have much in common) but as a writer I don't think she is particularly interested in her characters. The real subject of her novels seems to me to be systems, structures, societies. Each of the novels is set in a different world - Sacramento agricultural society, Hollywood, "the three or four solvent families in Boca Grande" - and these worlds all have their own rules for their own games. The protagonists of the novels are slightly out of sync with their societies; they do not or cannot play the game they are expected to. Maria Wyeth again: "I mean, maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?"
More than that, these are all closed-off worlds that are under some kind of threat, as the Sacramento Valley faces development in Run, River or as the war in Vietnam changes the American political landscape in Democracy (1984). In her novels what Didion writes about is an individual's inability, failure or refusal to operate successfully within a system or society that is not even on its own terms entirely successful anymore. This is of course what Didion's essays are famous for, too, and what I think I love most about them (beyond of course that style) - Didion operates at the place where the personal and the political intersect, where the failures of an individual or a group come across something larger. The theme is expressed most obviously in Where I Was From (2003), in which the author's personal history and the history of California are explored side by side, but it was there from the beginning. Even as Didion's focus turns more personal, in The Year of Magical Thinking (2006) and now Blue Nights (2011), the same theme is there. Perhaps the "trajectory" has simply turned around.
But focusing on the novels: Reading all of them together has another impact, too, which is for a writer I think more striking. It's in the narration, the point of view, and how that changes from one book to the next. Run, River could be seen as a more or less traditional third-person novel (for the most part), but that was already beginning to break by Play It As It Lays, which is told largely in the third person but includes sections from the perspectives of Maria Wyeth, her husband Carter, and their friend Helene. The tension between what the character could say and what the writer wanted us to know was obvious even in Run, River, and the later novels all deal with this in different ways. In Democracy Didion directly inserts herself, as Joan Didion; in The Last Thing He Wanted the "I" is another character, a journalist following a story.
While my favorite of her novels is probably for now Run, River (it's a first novel, a younger novel, a novel of nostalgia and homesickness), the device I find most interesting is in A Book of Common Prayer (1977). For this novel, Didion invents a new character, one who has no real equivalents as such in the other books: Grace Strasser-Mendana, a first-person narrator who not only has her own story but also somehow manages, plausibly, to give us the perspective of Charlotte Douglas. As she tells us Charlotte’s story, she creates her own, and we end up with two strands intertwined – the novel’s final line, Grace saying “I have not been the witness I wanted to be,” hits us once for Charlotte and once for Grace.
In an interview with the Paris Review in 1978, Didion said that the device of third person and first person together of Play It As It Lays emerged simply because she wasn't "good enough" to tell the whole story in the first person. She added, "The juxtaposition of first and third turned out to be very useful toward the ending, when I wanted to accelerate the whole thing." That does seem to make things a little easier for the writer, but if that were the only issue, I don't think she would have continued to use variations on that device in her other novels, too. There is something more important, or perhaps just more consistent, at work.
If everything we write is in some way autobiographical, in some way about ourselves (which based on my own experience seems to be reasonably accurate), with these disjointed narrators Didion has found a way in which we can both "be" ourselves and "observe" ourselves directly. We all have this tendency, I think - at the same time as we live our lives, we're watching them, narrating them, telling a story to make sense out of them. "Joan Didion" and Inez Victor worked together at Vogue, they met later in Kuala Lumpur; Grace Strasser-Mendana and Charlotte Douglas could be seen as the two sides of a coin, women from the American West who somehow wound up in Boca Grande. The narrators and the protagonists reflect our own conflicting impulses, our own ability (and need) to analyze our lives as we live them. The difference might just be that most of us have this ability, to some extent, while people such as Maria Wyeth or Charlotte Douglas do not. As Inez Victor puts it, in Democracy, memory is the major casualty of a life in politics; extend that outwards. (We also get the chance, with this method, to rewrite the story, to have it a different way, as Didion does at the end of The Last Thing He Wanted: “I want those two to have been together all their lives” – another natural impulse that in fiction frequently gets suppressed.)
Joan Didion's novels are of course pleasurable as novels - the style, the dialogue, the weather ("Anyone can do weather," she writes in Democracy, which is true but not entirely accurate; anyone can do weather but not everyone can do weather like Joan Didion). Reading them simply as stories did not quite work for me, but reading them again, as a "writer," did; in sequence, they seemed like another kind of education, a new lesson. The first lesson was the hopeless kind that leads to several futile attempts to "do weather" like Joan Didion, but the second - a lesson in possibilities, in purpose - will, hopefully, stick. We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, a famous phrase of Didion's; you can see it working itself out in her novels, and for me it seemed the gift of a kind of freedom. We can tell ourselves whatever stories we need to, however we need to; we can both live our lives and then shape them; we can imagine every different ending. We just can’t all do it quite like Joan Didion.
Pain, Humility, and Thanksgiving
by Kevin S. Baldwin
There is nothing quite like a serious illness or injury to focus one's mind on what is truly important. I recently injured my back (probably from lifting my 6 year old off the floor where he had fallen asleep). I do this about once a year, usually by forgetting to bend at the knees when lifting something. I bent my knees this time, but I guess it wasn't enough. I don't recall a pull or a pop, but over the next few days, things slowly deteriorated. I went from taking 2 Ibuprofen at a time to 4 at a time, and even that didn't help like it usually does.
Eventually, while climbing stairs, a turn on a landing threw my back into such spasms that I collapsed. Sweat began pouring off my face and I felt extremely nauseous. This was terra incognita for me. Had I ruptured a disc? (I guess I've been pretty lucky so far. I am pushing 50 yet have suffered no broken bones, major accidents, or diseases. I think I took a single Tylenol after my wisdom teeth were pulled). Suddenly, I was helpless and in agonizing pain.
Pain is one of these enigmatic aspects of existence. It serves a purpose, but there can be too much of a good thing. Pain and swelling keep you from moving or using an injured area so it can heal. Of course, a lot of pain is uncomfortable and has a way of consuming most or all of your mental bandwidth. People who are born without pain receptors tend to live short lives because of all the injuries they suffer without realizing it.
I remained crumpled on the landing while pondering my next move. Not enough room to stretch out: I would have to stand up. After several attempts that ended when my lower back locked-up, I finally convinced myself to work through that pain and made it back to being vertical. Standing was actually fairly comfortable as long as I didn't move. But I couldn't be stranded on the landing for the rest of the day. I ended up sitting down on the stairs and pushing myself up backwards one step at a time. I grabbed the handrails at the top of the stairs and managed to pull myself up and drag myself to the bedroom to lie down.
I've always been intrigued how this kind of personal suffering tends to result in an almost obligatory internal monologue of "what have I done to deserve this?" and "what do I need to do to get it to stop?" In the absence of any kind of scientific understanding, I could see how demons, evil spirits, or other supernatural agents could easily be assigned blame. Given how social we humans are it isn't too difficult to see why some could ascribe social significance to injuries and illness. Karma seems all too real at these times and I began cataloguing any people I could have possibly wronged recently or any situations that I could have handled better.
In my new state, the simplest tasks required huge applications of will and planning. How to now get in the bed? How to move once in the bed? If I lay flat on my back, the pain was substantial but manageable. Any attempt to shift position resulted in complete lock-up, as if my lower lower back were hooked up to an electric power source. A beached whale probably had more grace and flexibility. Something as routine as getting up and going to the bathroom took on a whole new meaning. I lost my appetite and even suppressed thirst because initiating the inevitable trip to the john was so unpleasant. Not good.
What followed was the longest night ever. Unable to sleep and unable to move: All I could do was think about pain. I began to understand why addiction to painkillers was so common. I even managed to feel some empathy towards Rush Limbaugh. I often think of the repetitive motion injuries that workers in the local slaughter-house must endure working 8 hour shifts at high intensity. What about others who suffer chronic, severe pain? The depression and suicidal ideations they deal with suddenly made much more sense. Not that they didn't before, but it is one thing to think about or understand pain abstractly, but it is another to actually experience it directly. No wonder some people are so crabby. I gained new respect for people I knew who suffered from various maladies but didn't let it get to them.
By morning, things had not improved: Every movement was by necessity very deliberate and minimal, as if I had discovered a kind of Zen kinesiology. My wife insisted on driving me to the doctor's office. We took the minivan, because I wasn't sure I could lower myself into or extricate myself from our sedan. She commented that I moved like a 90 year old. I certainly felt decades older. Is this what I had to look forward to? The handholds placed throughout the van and office took on a new significance and utility. Ramps looked much more inviting than stairs.
The doctor's exam revealed a muscle strain but, thankfully, no obvious damage to the intervertebral discs. She prescribed a muscle relaxant and a pain killer. I thanked her deeply and repeatedly, went to the pharmacy, and very quickly began feeling better. I had dodged a bullet.
To what extent has minimization of risk, and our understanding of pain and illness and the ability to mitigate their effects dulled us to the central realities of existence and rendered us immune to the suffering of others? Physical anthropologists tell us the patterns and frequencies of bone fractures and other injuries in early humans resemble those of modern-day rodeo riders. Just about everybody was hurt or hurting. There was a universality or democracy of suffering. Before antibiotics, infections were frequently equal opportunity. Calvin Coolidge lost his son to sepsis resulting from a blister on his foot. It is unimaginable today that a president's child would die of anything short of the most aggressive cancer. Would the 1% be a little more concerned about the rest of us if they spent a few sleepless nights in agony? Would some serious discomfort or illness prompt the deficit super committee to quit posturing and compromise? I don't really want to wish infirmity on anybody, but perhaps some good can come from it.
The whole experience was supremely humbling. It stripped me bare. Possessions and ambitions suddenly didn't matter any more. I just wanted to feel better, get back to my life and family, and try to be better at what I do in the time I have left on this planet. Fortunately, I am able to (for now). And for that, this Thanksgiving weekend took on a special meaning.
Sunday, November 27, 2011
Inverting the Turing Test
Stuart Shieber in American Scientist:
In his book The Most Human Human, Brian Christian extrapolates from his experiences at the 2009 Loebner Prize competition, a competition among chatbots (computer programs that engage in conversation with people) to see which is “most human.” In doing so, he demonstrates once again that the human being may be the only animal that overinterprets.
You may not have heard of the Loebner competition, and for good reason. The annual event was inspired by the Turing test, proposed by Alan Turing in his seminal 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” as a method for determining in principle whether a computer possesses thought. Turing meant his test as a thought experiment to address a particular philosophical question, namely, how to define a sufficient condition for properly attributing intelligence, the capacity of thinking, to a computer. He proposed that a blind controlled test of verbal indistinguishability could serve that purpose. If a computer program were indistinguishable from people in a kind of open-ended typewritten back-and-forth, the program would have passed the test and, in Turing’s view, would merit attribution of thinking.
The Loebner competition picks up on this idea; it charges a set of judges to engage in conversation with the chatbot entrants and several human confederates, and to determine which are the humans and which the computers. At the end, a prize is awarded to the “most human” chatbot—that is, the chatbot that is most highly ranked as human in paired tests against the human confederates. “Each year, the artificial intelligence (AI) community convenes for the field’s most anticipated and controversial annual event,” Christian says. Well, not so much. The AI community pretty much ignores this sideshow. It’s the chatbot community that has taken up the Loebner competition.
Offense, irony, comedy, and who knows what else
Jed Perl in The New Republic:
They are selling postcards of Hitler in the gift shop at the Guggenheim Museum. To be precise, they are selling photographic reproductions of a work entitled Him, a polyester portrayal of the Führer that is one of the works by Maurizio Cattelan in his retrospective at the museum. I can imagine being outraged or at least troubled by the postcards in the gift shop, except that by the time I saw them I had already been bombarded by this exhibition in which nearly all of Cattelan’s oversized neo-Dadaist baubles have been hung from the ceiling of Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda. Cattelan’s Hitler doll—like his Picasso doll, his bicycle, his dinosaur, and the rest of the 128 items in this stupefyingly sophomoric show—is engineered for offense, irony, comedy, or who knows what else. Those who are bothered by the Hitler postcards in the gift shop are naturally going to be dismissed as insufficiently hip. The same goes for those who are disturbed by the sight of one of the world’s greatest public spaces once again turned over to an art world charlatan as his personal playpen. My own feeling is that the postcards, however misbegotten, are speech we accept, although not necessarily embrace, in a society we prize for its openness. What is really disquieting is the event that has occasioned these postcards. “Maurizio Cattelan: All”—that’s the title of the show—amounts to hate speech directed at the sponsoring institution.
Donald Duck as a Nazi
Mapping the Interior
Imagine that you had a dishcloth
Bigger than the one mothers put on the bread
To slow its cooling, that you could spread
Over the whole kitchen floor to bring up its face
As clearly as the features on the cake.
You’d have a print you could lift up
To the light and examine for individual traces
Of people who came to swap yarns, and sit on
Sugan chairs that bit into the bare floor, leaving
Unique signatures on concrete that creased
Over time into a map you could look at and
Imagine what those amateur cartographers
Were thinking when their eyes fell, in the silence
Between the stories, that was broken only by
The sound of the fire and whatever it was that
Was calling in the night outside.
by Eugene O'Connell
from One Clear Call
Bradshaw Books, Cork, © 2003
Mitch Dobrowner in Lensculture:
Landscape photographers count ourselves lucky to be in the right place at the right time if a storm system is moving through — but I wanted to actively pursue these events. Since storms are a process (not a thing) I needed a guide. I soon connected with Roger Hill (regarded as the most experienced storm-chaser in the world); he introduced me to Tornado Alley and the Great Plains of the United States. In July 2009 Roger and I tracked a severe weather system for nine hours — from its formation outside of Sturgis, South Dakota, through Badlands National Park and into Valentine, Nebraska. Eventually we stopped in a field outside of Valentine, and there we stood in awe of the towering supercell (a thunderstorm with a deep rotating updraft) which was building with intake wind gusts of 60mph. It was like standing next to a 65,000-foot-high vacuum cleaner. It was unlike anything I had seen before in my life; the formation of the supercell had an ominous presence and power that I had never witnessed or experienced before. I remember turning to Roger, who was standing next to me, and saying, 'what the ****... you have to be kidding me'. It was only the second day of my “experiment” in shooting storms, but I knew without a doubt that this experiment would become an important project to me.
Words are inadequate to describe the experience of photographing this immense power and beauty. And the most exciting part is with each trip I really don’t know what to expect. But now I see these storms as living, breathing things.
The Era of Small and Many
Bill McKibben in Orion Magazine:
Earlier this year, my state’s governor asked if I’d give an after-lunch speech to some of his cabinet and other top officials who were in the middle of a retreat. It’s a useful discipline for writers and theorists to have to summarize books in half an hour, and to compete with excellent local ice cream. No use telling these guys how the world should be at some distant future moment when they’ll no longer be in office—instead, can you isolate themes broad enough to be of use to people working on subjects from food to energy to health care to banking to culture, and yet specific enough to help them choose among the options that politics daily throws up? Can you figure out a principle that might undergird a hundred different policies? Or another way to say it: can you figure out which way history wants to head (since no politician can really fight the current) and suggest how we might surf that wave?
Here’s my answer: we’re moving, if we’re lucky, from the world of few and big to the world of small and many. We’ll either head there purposefully or we’ll be dragged kicking, but we’ve reached one of those moments when tides reverse. Take agriculture. For 150 years the number of farms in America has inexorably declined. In my state—the most rural in the nation—the number of dairies fell from 11,000 at the end of World War II to 998 this summer. And of course the farms that remained grew ever larger—factory farms, we called them, growing commodity food. Here in Vermont most of the remaining dairies are big, but not big enough to compete with the behemoths in California or Arizona; they operate so close to the margin that they can’t afford to hire local workers and instead import illegal migrants from Mexico. But last year the USDA reported that the number of farms in America had actually increased for the first time in a century and a half. The most defining American demographic trend—the shift that had taken us from a nation of 50 percent farmers to less than 1 percent—had bottomed out and reversed. Farms are on the increase—small farms, mostly growing food for their neighbors.
Saturday, November 26, 2011
Lynn Margulis 1938-2011
John Brockman in Edge:
Biologist Lynn Margulis died on November 22nd. She stood out from her colleagues in that she would have extended evolutionary studies nearly four billion years back in time. Her major work was in cell evolution, in which the great event was the appearance of the eukaryotic, or nucleated, cell — the cell upon which all larger life-forms are based. Nearly forty-five years ago, she argued for its symbiotic origin: that it arose by associations of different kinds of bacteria. Her ideas were generally either ignored or ridiculed when she first proposed them; symbiosis in cell evolution is now considered one of the great scientific breakthroughs.
Margulis was also a champion of the Gaia hypothesis, an idea developed in the 1970s by the free lance British atmospheric chemist James E. Lovelock. The Gaia hypothesis states that the atmosphere and surface sediments of the planet Earth form a self- regulating physiological system — Earth's surface is alive. The strong version of the hypothesis, which has been widely criticized by the biological establishment, holds that the earth itself is a self-regulating organism; Margulis subscribed to a weaker version, seeing the planet as an integrated self- regulating ecosystem. She was criticized for succumbing to what George Williams called the "God-is good" syndrome, as evidenced by her adoption of metaphors of symbiosis in nature. She was, in turn, an outspoken critic of mainstream evolutionary biologists for what she saw as a failure to adequately consider the importance of chemistry and microbiology in evolution. I first met her in the late 80's and in 1994 interviewed her for my book The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution (1995). Below, in remembrance, please see her chapter, "Gaia is a Tough Bitch". One of the compelling features of The Third Culture was that I invited each of the participants to comment about the others. In this regard, the end of the following chapter has comments on Margulis and her work by Daniel C. Dennett, the late George C. Williams, W. Daniel Hillis, Lee Smolin, Marvin Minsky, Richard Dawkins, and the late Francisco Varela. Interesting stuff.
Jeffrey Eugenides talks about 'The Marriage Plot' and pokes fun at literary theorists
From The Christian Science Monitor:
Jeffrey Eugenides published his first novel at 33 after he was fired from his position as executive secretary at the Academy of American Poets. The reason he lost his job? He was spending too much time at work honing the manuscript of his debut novel "The Virgin Suicides” (1993). “Middlesex,” his second novel, earned Eugenides a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2002. “The Marriage Plot,” just released in October, is Eugenides' third novel which took him nine years to complete. The story centers around three college students – Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell – all of whom graduate from Brown College in 1982. The book is a postmodernist take on the original marriage plot within the Victorian novel. A lot of the time, it is also a novel about other novels, in which the characters spend their time discussing Derrida, Tolstoy, Austen, and Hemingway. The second half of the book moves away from literary theory, and in some colorful scenes set in Paris, Calcutta, and New York, Eugenides explores the difficulties of dealing with mental illness, failed romance, and one man’s battle with his faith in religion. And of course Eugenides also returns to his central source of inspiration: the coming-of-age story. Eugenides recently spoke to the Monitor about the extent of free will, why semiotics is needlessly convoluted, and how reading James Joyce nearly made him choose a career in religion over a career in writing.
Your new novel moves more towards realism than your previous work. Why the change in style?
I’ve always considered myself a realist at heart. I’ve never written a book that violated physicalprinciples. My books often have an atmosphere of the fantastic or
the surreal, but actually nothing happens in them that couldn’t happen in reality, so I don’t know if this book is that much of a departure in terms of realism.
When amma came
to New York City,
she wore unfashionably cut
mostly in beige,
so as to blend in,
a puzzle that was missing a piece –
the many sarees
she had left behind:
that peacock blue
that nondescript nylon in which she had raised
and survived me,
the stiff chikan saree
that had once held her up at work.
When amma came to
New York City,
an Indian friend
who swore by black
remarked in a stage whisper,
“This is New York, you know –
Does she realise?”
Ten years later,
transiting through L.A. airport
I find amma
all over again
in the uncles and aunties
who shuffle past the Air India counter
in their uneasily worn, unisex Bata sneakers,
suddenly brown in a white space,
louder than ever in their linguistic unease
as they look for quarters and payphones.
I catch the edge of amma’s saree
like a malnourished fox’s tail
some other woman’s sweater
meant really for Madras’ gentle Decembers.
by K. Srilata
from Arriving Shortly
Publisher: Writers Workshop, Kolkata, © 2011
Look, I Made a Hat
It might be that the stage musical is now pretty well over as a form. Certainly, the gloomy parade of ‘juke-box’ musicals through the West End doesn’t give one much hope for the future. It is difficult to pick out a worst offender, but the Ben Elton We Will Rock You, confected from the Queen catalogue, is as bad as any. Its premise, of taking the work of a curious-looking, homosexual, Parsi, excessive genius like Freddie Mercury and turning it into an idiotic story about two clean-cut stage-school kids Putting the Show on Right Now says something truly terrible about the musical: it says that it can only deal with conventional views of conventional subjects. The demonstration of just how untrue that really is comes with the collected works of Stephen Sondheim, who is surely the greatest figure in the entire history of the stage musical. In his long career, he has not hesitated to address difficult subjects. It’s certainly true that other classics in the genre have dealt with some serious issues — race relations in Showboat, the Anschluss in The Sound of Music, even trade union movements in The Pyjama Game and urban prostitution in Sweet Charity. When Sondheim takes on themes of colonial exploitation (Pacific Overtures), political assassinations (Assassins) or Freudian psychological depths (pretty well the whole oeuvre), he is not stepping outside the previously established limits of the form.more from Philip Hensher at The Spectator here.
thinking through ows
Protests do not write policy. And something as loosely formed as the OWS action shouldn't be drafting white papers. What protests can do most effectively is to alter the common sense understanding of what is right and wrong. In this case, the OWS action makes other sufferers of debt and disenfranchisement feel that their problems are political—not a symptom of personal shortcomings, and not just the unfortunate side effect of a passing miscalculation by the Peter Orszags of the world. The real "goal" of OWS is to rally together everyone who is willing to say to Washington, "American democracy cannot bear this inequality." This movement may prove to be adept at waging ideological war against the disastrous free-marketeers, occupying the airwaves as well as the streets—but it will indeed fall to others to write legislation and to organize economic priorities in debt-wracked communities. The OWS protests should operate in concert with such efforts (OWSers have assisted foreclosure resistance in Queens, for instance), and should put up new forms of protests that keep the public's eyes on the culprits. Bank occupations have already begun. Major campaigns are now successfully exhorting citizens to move their savings and checking accounts from big banks to local credit unions. The black box of high finance has finally been pried open and exposed for the unregulated machine of destruction that it is, and the alternatives being proposed in the tumult of Occupy Wall Street sound pretty smart to me.more from Sarah Leonard at Bookforum here.
Agatha Christie was not cozy. She earned the title the Queen of Crime the old-fashioned way — by killing off a lot of people. Although never graphic or gratuitous, she was breathtakingly ruthless. Children, old folks, newlyweds, starlets, ballerinas — no one is safe in a Christie tale. In "Hallowe'en Party," she drowns a young girl in a tub set up for bobbing apples and, many chapters later, sends Poirot in at the very last minute to prevent a grisly infanticide. In "The ABC Murders," she sets up one of the first detective-taunting serial killers. The signature country home aside, Christie's literary world was far from homogenous. Her plots, like her life, were international, threading through urban and pastoral, gentry and working class, dipping occasionally into the truly psychotic or even supernatural. Christie murders were committed for all the Big Reasons — love, money, ambition, fear, revenge — and they were committed by men, women, children and in one case, the narrator. Some of her books are truly great — "Death on the Nile," "And Then There Were None," "The Secret Adversary," "Murder on the Orient Express," "Curtain" to name a few — and some are not. But even the worst of them ("The Blue Train," "The Big Four") bear the hallmarks of a master craftsman. Perhaps not on her best day, but the failures make us appreciate the successes, and the woman behind them, that much more.more from Mary McNamara at the LA Times here.
The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception
Drew DeSilver in The Seattle Times:
Back in 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 was attempting to take off from Washington, D.C., in a blinding snowstorm. Though the co-pilot was concerned the plane's wings hadn't been thoroughly de-iced and his instrument panel wasn't displaying the correct airspeed, the pilot dismissed his concerns until seconds before the plane crashed into the Potomac River, killing all but five aboard.
The crash, as cockpit voice recordings later showed, was primarily the result of the pilot's overconfidence leading him to ignore or minimize a whole series of warning signs that his more observant, but less assertive, colleague had pointed out to him. It's one of the most dramatic illustrations of the costs of self-deception in Robert Trivers' new book, "The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life" (Basic Books, 397 pp., $28).
Trivers, an evolutionary biologist who teaches at Rutgers, starts by asking one of those questions that seems obvious once someone else asks it: Why should our brains — whose job, after all, is to make sense of everything we see, hear, touch, taste and smell — be so prone to self-deception? Natural selection would seem to work against creatures who persistently fail to see the world as it is, yet self-deception seems to be deeply embedded in our psyches.
Trivers' answer, which he first advanced in 1976 and has been elaborating since, is that we deceive ourselves the better to deceive others. If we can convince ourselves that we are stronger, smarter, more skillful, more ethical or better drivers than others, we're a long way toward convincing other people too.
Africa Unleashed: Explaining the Secret of a Belated Boom
Edward Miguel in Foreign Affairs:
It is well known that the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s were a disaster for the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. In a period when other underdeveloped regions, especially Asia, were experiencing steady economic growth, Africa as a whole saw its living standards plummet. Nearly all Africans lived under dictatorships, and millions suffered through brutal civil wars. Then, in the 1990s, the HIV/AIDS epidemic exploded, slashing life expectancy and heightening the sense that the region had reached rock bottom. It was no surprise when an intellectual cottage industry of Afro-pessimists emerged, churning out a stream of plausible-sounding explanations for Africa's stunning decline. The verdict was simple: Africa equaled failure.
What is less well known is that Africa's prospects have changed radically over the past decade or so. Across the continent, economic growth rates (in per capita terms) have been positive since the late 1990s. And it is not just the economy that has seen rapid improvement: in the 1990s, the majority of African countries held multiparty elections for the first time since the heady postindependence 1960s, and the extent of civic and media freedom on the continent today is unprecedented. Even though Africa's economic growth rates still fall far short of Asia's stratospheric levels, the steady progress that most African countries have experienced has come as welcome news after decades of despair. But that progress raises a critical question: what happened?
Richard Feynman - No Ordinary Genius
[Thanks to Farrukh Azfar.]
How It Went
Christopher Buckley in the New York Times Book Review:
Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007, but one gets the sense from Charles J. Shields’s sad, often heartbreaking biography, “And So It Goes,” that he would have been happy to depart this vale of tears sooner. Indeed, he did try to flag down Charon the Ferryman and hitch a ride across the River Styx in 1984 (pills and booze), only to be yanked back to life and his marriage to the photographer Jill Krementz, which, in these dreary pages, reads like a version of hell on earth. But then Vonnegut’s relations with women were vexed from the start. When he was 21, his mother successfully committed suicide — on Mother’s Day.
It’s a truism that comic artists tend to hatch from tragic eggs. But as Vonnegut, the author of zesty, felicitous sci-fi(esque) novels like “Cat’s Cradle” and “Sirens of Titan” and “Breakfast of Champions” might put it, “So it goes.”
Vonnegut’s masterpiece was “Slaughterhouse-Five,” the novelistic account of being present at the destruction of Dresden by firebombing in 1945. Between that horror (his job as a P.O.W. was to stack and burn the corpses); the mother’s suicide; the early death of a beloved sister, the only woman he seems truly to have loved; serial unhappy marriages; and his resentment that the literary establishment really considered him (just) a writer of juvenile and jokey pulp fiction, Vonnegut certainly earned his status as Man of Sorrows, much as Mark Twain, to whom he is often compared, earned his.
Was Kurt Vonnegut, in fact, just that — a writer one falls for in high school and college and then puts aside, like one of St. Paul’s “childish things,” for sterner stuff?
Friday, November 25, 2011
New Analysis Deals Critical Blow to Faster-than-Light Results
Natalie Wolchover in Live Science:
Those famous neutrinos that appeared to travel faster than light in a recent experiment probably did not, a group of scientists say, because they failed to emit a telltale type of radiation.
According to one physicist in the group, "it's hard to argue against" this latest objection to the controversial faster-than-light result produced by other scientists in the same Italian laboratory.
In a paper posted to the physics pre-print site arXiv.org, the group, which runs the ICARUS (Imaging Cosmic and Rare Underground Signals) experiment based at Gran Sasso Laboratory (LNGS) outside Rome, argues that any faster-than-light particles would be expected to emit a particular type of radiation as they traveled. Because they didn't detect any of this coming from the neutrinos — and because the particles didn't seem to be shedding energy in the form of undetected radiation — they must have been traveling at or below the speed of light.
Ultimately, the ICARUS group is arguing that the OPERA group, which ran the experiment that measured neutrinos making a trip from CERN Laboratory in Switzerland to LNGS in Italy 60 nanoseconds faster than light would have done, must have made some mistake in its timekeeping.
The Justice Cascade: Six Questions for Kathryn Sikkink
Scott Horton interviews Kathryn Sikkink in Harper's, via Andrew Sullivan:
1. You start your work by examining the collapses of brutal military dictatorships in Europe’s southern tier (Greece, Spain and Portugal), and point out that although political and social processes led to accountability in Greece and Portugal, they didn’t in Spain. Will accountability for the horrendous crimes of the Franco period be avoided forever, or have they merely been delayed?
Based on charges filed by associations of victims and their families, Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón opened an investigation in 2008 into more than 100,000 cases of executions and disappearances that took place from 1936 to 1951. So, we are talking here about executions and disappearances that happened between sixty and seventy-five years ago. My book is about the trend toward individual criminal accountability, which requires that cases be brought against specific living perpetrators. Virtually all of the suspected perpetrators in Spain are now dead. Although individual criminal accountability for human rights violations from that period is no longer possible, other forms of accountability are needed. In particular, many family members still hope to locate the remains of their relatives, to rebury those remains, and to know more about the circumstances that led to the deaths. Such truth-telling is still necessary and possible, even if individual criminal accountability is not.
2. Samuel Huntington wrote that if accountability trials were to be conducted, they had to occur immediately in the wake of transition or not at all. His view seems to have been the received wisdom of political scientists twenty years ago. Have the intervening events tended to sustain or to refute him?
The single most forceful finding of my research is that on this issue, Huntington was completely wrong. Justice comes slowly — often painfully, unacceptably slowly in the eyes of victims — but surprisingly it often does come. Domestic courts in Uruguay took twenty years to sentence former authoritarian leaders Juan María Bordaberry and General Gregorio Álvarez for ordering the murders of political opponents. The Extraordinary Chambers in Cambodia issued its first conviction last year, more than thirty years after the horrors of the killing fields.