Monday, February 23, 2015
The Love Of Money
by Mandy de Waal
"I never realised that I had a problem until quite recently. Before this I thought it was normal. I thought that everyone thinks (about money) the way I do," says Charles Hugo (not his real name) on the phone from an upmarket seaside resort on South Africa's Cape coast.
"It doesn't matter how much money I earn, I always feel I need more." As Hugo describes his relationship with money, his speech is carefully measured. The forty-something year old former banker-cum-currency trader pauses for a while during our conversation, and then adds: "It was only recently I realised I have a problem."
For as long as Hugo can remember money has featured as a complex protagonist in his life. The dominant force in his decision making, this man measures everything in terms of what it will cost him and if the value he'll be getting from the transaction will be worthwhile. It doesn't matter if the transaction is an emergency trip in an ambulance or going into a restaurant for a sirloin.
"Every time a decision needs to be made, the first thing I think about is the financial impact. It doesn't matter what it is. I will always find a money angle to each and every decision," he says. "If someone has a problem I won't think about the person or the emotion." For Hugo cash is cognitive king.
"I used to think everyone was like this. That money came first in everyone's lives. It's only during the past couple of years that I've realised this is not the case." Today Hugo – who doesn't want his identity to be revealed publicly – is in his early forties. Hugo talks about having a problem and about being obsessed with money. A couple of times the word ‘addiction' enters the conversation. "I have an addiction to money," he says, adding that his ‘obsession' with money causes problems in his interpersonal relationships because he thinks very differently from those he cares about.
MONEY - THE EARLY YEARS
To understand how Hugo's relationship with money evolved, the writer of this article asks him about his early memories – about the events that shaped his formative years. "I didn't ask for things often because I knew the answer would always be about money," says Hugo, who was told by his father that money was something one had to work very hard for. Hugo internalised the idea that extreme effort and difficulty was associated with financial reward.
"When I was about eight years old and in standard one I went through a period at school where I always had a pain in my stomach. The teacher would get sick of me and send me to sick bay, and then my parents would be called and I would be sent home. I didn't realise it then, but thinking about this now I understand why this happened. I guess I thought that if I wasn't at school my dad wouldn't have to pay for me to be there. At that time I had a strong sense of wasting my dad's money and of definite guilt. I didn't fully understand it then, but if I think about this now, those same guilt feelings arise. To be honest, if I spend money on something now, I still feel guilty about it," Hugo says.
As Hugo's school career progressed he found he thought about money often. " It was constant. It was a worry," he says, adding that the thoughts mostly related to how he was going to earn money or get by once he left school. "Whatever I was busy doing at the time… well, I wouldn't think about what I was doing, but rather about money."
When it comes to psychological disorders that are related to money, what's evident is that—gambling aside—there are no easy definitions or neat borders for containment. Money is an indispensable part of our daily lives – as integral as sex and food. Most people wake up in the morning and go to work in order to make money, and this is never thought of as pathological. Far from it – it is an activity that's characterised as very healthy. It is a responsible citizenry that gets up and keeps the cogs of the consumerist machine moving. More so, society lauds those who rise up through the capitalist ranks to become captains of industry or breakout entrepreneurs.
SHUFFLING BIG MONEY
Hugo describes a time in his late twenties, when he shuffled funds around for a financial institution and was earning some R300,000.00 a month. "I was working in a bank and there were retrenchments. I was put into an admin role where I was dealing with money," he says, explaining that the designation he found himself in wasn't supposed to be a money-making position.
"I turned this into a massive money-making division for the business. All I was doing was moving money around. I started this admin function with some R100 million, but when I was done I was dealing with R20 billion," Hugo says, adding: "This put me in my element. It was like a dream come true. Every day I could get up and move money around. I never realised it at the time. I didn't know it was what I could do or how to do it. But I just fitted into this role perfectly. The longer I did this the better I became at doing it. My whole focus was on the money – moving the money around and making more money."
When the bank realised what a boon Hugo was, he was given financial rewards, which only served to intensify his drive to make more money. "The bonuses just spurred me on. At that time I had calculations going in my head non-stop. All I thought about every day was how much I would make and what it would take to make this grow," he says.
A defining moment for Hugo at the time was going on leave, and spending his entire vacation consumed with the thought about how to make more money. Being away from the day-to-day minutiae enabled Hugo to review how he was working for the bank. "I looked at the bigger picture," Hugo says, declaring that in the month after he returned to work he'd made more in that month than he'd made the whole year. "It was non-stop thinking about how to make more and more," he confesses.
THERE'S NO PATHOLOGY
Trying to deconstruct what presents as an obsession with lucre is something of a challenge because an addiction to money is not a pathology that is officially recognised by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Published by the American Psychiatric Association, the DSM codifies mental conditions and is a diagnostic standard used globally by mental health professionals. The only addictive disorders associated with money recognised by the DSM is gambling disorder, which is defined as a process disorder, or an addiction to an activity (like sex, for instance, or internet gaming.)
"We have a situation where the leading diagnostic manual isn't prepared to commit to a behavioural addiction as something that they are willing to codify," a psychiatrist who used to practice in London, and who asks for his name to be withheld, tells me. "If this is not even codified as a disorder, where do we start decreeing that something is beyond norms, or even pathological? Do we make that judgement from our own value-set?" he asks, and then answers his own question: "For many people this behaviour might sit well within their own set of values," the psychiatrist explains.
The psychiatrist continues: "One of the requirements for codifying a disorder as pathological, the criteria is that it must have negative consequences for a person's physical, mental, social or financial well-being. In other words, there must be some form of tangible destruction going on, in one or more of these key areas. In fact most clinicians would be reluctant to commit something as pathological if no damage has been done."
We live in a society where amassing wealth is simultaneously revered and reviled. Greed was classified a vice as far back as the 4th century when Christian monk Evagrius Ponticus penned a list of what he called ‘evil thoughts' in Greek. This list became the ‘seven deadly sins' two centuries later when it was revised as such by Pope Gregory I, based no doubt on Matthew 6:24: "No-one can serve two masters… You cannot serve both God and mammon" (or "God and riches").
THE RELIGION OF GREED
Fast forward to the 21st century and you'll discover a time when greed had all but become a religion. I'm talking about the excessive eighties, that period personified by Gordon Gekko - the protagonist in Oliver Stone's ‘Wall Street'. Gekko sums up the spirit of this capitalist period without a conscience: "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works." A ruthless corporate raider, Gekko tells a packed annual shareholder's meeting in a seminal scene from the film: "Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind."
Gekko epitomises the capitalist ideology of the latter half of the twentieth century, a time when America's economic growth was on the ascendancy and materialism was rampant.
In 1983, sociologist Philip Slater saw what was happening in the States, and called for caution by labelling money "America's most powerful drug." In his book, "Wealth Addiction" he examined consumerist American society. Slater described what he saw like this: "Our economy is based on spending billions to persuade people that happiness is buying things, and then insisting that the only way to have a viable economy is to make things for people to buy so they'll have jobs and get enough money to buy things." Thirty years on, its interesting to see that status is no longer as important as it once was to Americans.
SUCCESS = MONEY?
An Ipsos MORI Global Trends Survey of more than 16,000 people across 20 states showed that people who took this global survey in the US largely no longer measure success by what they own. However attitudes in Hugo's home country are quite different. By way of contrast South Africans are fairly materialistic but are much more likely to feel under pressure to make money or be successful than the global average.
The Ipsos data revealed that 33% of South Africans surveyed say they measure their success by the things they own in contrast to 21% of Americans. This compares with 71% of respondents in China, 58% in India and 16% in Britain. The research also shows that 66% of South Africans feel enormous peer pressure to succeed. For people surveyed in the US this figure was 46%.
In South Africa, Hugo struggles to work with his obsession with money. "I am currently trading on the financial markets in my personal capacity, and it is a huge challenge to get my emotions out of the way when it comes to making a decision about entering and exiting… about taking a trade or not taking a trade. Often my emotions start overtaking the rational reasons why I am doing this," he says.
Hugo describes how he often needs to wrestle with himself internally to ensure that his decision-making isn't hijacked by his emotions. "Managing my emotions so that they don't impinge on what I am doing takes huge effort. This would be an ideal vocation if I could take money out of the equation, but what I do now to make money is directly related to money. But now I try to manage this in a different way," he says.
Hugo isn't going for professional counselling but spends time speaking to people, and works on trying to be mindful and conscious of his thoughts, thought processes, decisions and actions. "Typically I try to take a step back. To do some breathing exercises for three to five minutes. I try to be mindful of the present moment in the hope that I can walk away from the situation at hand with a new light, or a new insight or perspective," he says.
PENNIES AND PRINCIPLES
The moral of this story? Understanding our psychology and the role that money plays in it, requires an appreciation of complexity. On an individual level, what we think of as dysfunction, may not be. On the contrary, what we think of as sick could be the projection of our own value system flexed in judgement of another.
On a macro or systemic level Hugo's advice makes sense. Isn't it time we stepped away from the means we use to measure success in order to re-examine how useful this is to our lives and to society? Don't we need to become more conscious about our relationship with money in order to really understand how our ties to financial transactions hinder, harm or help us?
Loris Gréaud. The Unplayed Notes Museum. 2015
"What exactly will happen during the opening on Saturday? “If I tell you too much,” the artist says, following something like secret-agent protocol, “It will kill the idea.”"
"On the evening of Saturday, January 17, the artist Loris Gréaud opened The Unplayed Notes Museum, his solo exhibition at the Dallas Contemporary, to a private audience—and then immediately destroyed it. A riot, choreographed by Gréaud and carried out by actors, stuntmen, and museum security, broke out that left the show in pieces, patrons in the parking lot, and the museum in complete darkness."
The Return of the Aam Aadmi Party
by Namit Arora
What to make of the verdict in Delhi’s Assembly elections this month? After a dismal show in the national election last year, when many had written it off, the Aam Aadmi (‘common man’) Party achieved a crushing win in Delhi with 67/70 seats. Delhi may be electorally small but being the capital of the nation and of empires past, the headquarters of the national media, and a trendsetter for other regions, its control has great emotional significance—all too evident in AAP’s main rival BJP’s desperate eleventh-hour tactics to win in Delhi.
The verdict has drawn many explanations: AAP’s strategy, grassroots campaign, and populist promises; people’s disaffection with the fueling of communal strife by RSS, VHP, and other BJP-affiliated Hindu right-wingers; the invisibility of BJP’s much-hyped ‘development’; BJP’s arrogance, disorganization in Delhi, and its dirty campaign; AAP’s success in framing this as a two-way contest which enabled anti-BJP votes to consolidate behind AAP; Modi’s $18K splurge on a suit—in retrospect, a major wardrobe malfunction, and so on. Whatever the mix of factors, last year’s ‘Modi wave’ now seems subdued, if not stalled.
Various polls show that AAP won due to greater support from the poor, the rural sections, slum dwellers, lower castes and Dalits, religious minorities, students, and women voters of Delhi—an enviable constituency for social liberal democrats like me. I’m not a member of AAP or any other party but I wanted AAP to win—not only because the alternatives were much worse but also because, despite some lamentable populism, there are many hopeful and progressive things in AAP’s politics and 70-point manifesto. These include two innovations it already practices: transparency in campaign finance and ensuring candidates have no heinous criminal charges. AAP’s win may slow the rise of BJP’s communalism and its model of socioeconomic ‘development’, aka neoliberalism, in which the state’s provisions for welfare lag behind the growth of the corporate sector—a GDP-growth driven model that’s almost always marked by rising disparity, shrinking safety nets, crony capitalism, and faster ecological damage. AAP’s win may also bolster BJP’s opposition in upcoming state elections.
I have my own misgivings about AAP but in politics—especially in the rotten landscape of Indian politics—all we’re entitled to is hope for improvement, not perfection. Other progressive parties in Delhi, like the BSP and the Communists, either don’t have their act together or are wedded to ideas that no longer find enough traction. Though its leadership is still largely privileged-class men, AAP has grown a lot since its birth from the IAC movement, which was a big tent that included people of all ideological stripes, united only by their dislike of public corruption. With help from Yogendra Yadav, political scientist and admirer of socialist leader Rammanohar Lohia, AAP developed some ideological ballast, at least going by its formal vision and manifesto. In shaping its core values and politics—and professing a certain pragmatism of means—AAP then parted ways with a host of disagreeable travelers (e.g., Anna Hazare, Baba Ramdev, Kiran Bedi). Such churn is only natural in a new, maturing party.
Whether due to its moralistic rhetoric or due to other motivations, AAP drew intense scrutiny from a corporate media that rarely took the same critical stance towards BJP or Congress, both of which are financed by the same corporations. AAP certainly has many problematic aspects—its overly narrow idea of ‘corruption’, for instance. Some left/liberal intellectuals in India, however, continue to get so caught-up in berating this or that policy or dubious remark or mistake of AAP or Kejriwal that they often fail to notice the opportunity in AAP to make our current politics more progressive, at least along some dimensions (e.g., public spending on social goods, communalism, graft). While criticism and scrutiny are essential—as long as they don’t merely feed an obsessive armchair game of competitive radicalism on social media—we often let the perfect be the enemy of the good and refuse to see obvious distinctions across our options.
On the Future of AAP
I think it can be instructive to see AAP’s potential as Congress 2.0. Consider some commonalities first. Both parties are seen as left-of-center and relatively secular. Congress, too, has long appealed to religious minorities and the poor (recall ‘garibi hatao’). The social composition of AAP’s leadership resembles that of the old Congress: almost all Hindu upper-caste ‘honest’ men, who see nothing wrong with this lack of diversity (Congress of recent decades is somewhat better than AAP). This means an absence of many important social perspectives and even a blindness to certain prejudices in their ranks. Isn’t this too a kind of corruption? No wonder both parties have been laggards in approaching caste-based reservations, settling to barely accept and follow the progressive vision and laws initiated by other parties. Both see themselves as progressive on ‘women’s issues’, yet do little to question patriarchy. Despite the slogans, AAP fielded only 6/70 women (Congress 5/70)—below even the national average of 11 percent women legislators (the global average is 21 percent). It has 0/7 women in its Delhi Cabinet, 1/22 in its National Executive, and 0/9 in its Political Affairs Committee (Congress beats AAP here; BJP actually beats both!).
Both Congress and AAP subscribe to a similar idea of secular nationalism and ‘tolerant Hinduism’ while making little room for religious minorities in their upper ranks and often invoking God in their rhetoric. AAP’s pet slogans—Bhaarat Mata, Inquilab, Vande Matram—evoke an era of agitational Congress nationalism in which, too, many a idealistic ‘common man’ participated to demand freedom from the British; the demand in AAP’s case is to ‘free the nation’ from a venal, indigenous political class and to establish swarajya (‘self-rule’). Both speak of egalitarian and democratic ideals but invoke and adore Gandhi, not Ambedkar. With such a shared weltanschauung, is it any surprise that AAP gained its vote share largely at the expense of Congress? (BJP’s vote share remained practically unchanged.)
But in what ways has AAP exceeded Congress so we might think of it as Congress 2.0? Transparent campaign finance. Firm opposition to public corruption and ‘VIP culture’. Distaste for dynasty. Youthful energy and tech savvy. Above all, AAP has aggressively and firmly staked its future on the promise of improving basic human infrastructure and services (water, electricity, hospitals, education, affordable housing, curbing graft, roads, cleanliness, toilets, waste disposal, physical security, free wifi, etc.). The AAP package is unusual enough, and Delhi—clearly seduced, and in light of its competitors’ track records—has voted to take a chance. Warts and all, AAP may be the best that the human material in Delhi can bubble up at this time; too bad for those waiting for the perfect revolution.
Whether AAP turns out to be a big advance over Congress will depend on its ability to create real governance innovation, deliver solid results, adhere to their core ideals, avoid big fiascos, and alter its own social composition to represent a wider diversity of Indians. Even within a single heart, as in mine, this election’s verdict can provide cause for genuine hope, skepticism, and even despair. If AAP does well in Delhi, it’ll likely secure itself a future in many other states by growing into that part of the political spectrum long occupied by Congress. And if AAP fails, it’ll become yet another churn in the great ocean of Indian democracy.
More writing by Namit Arora?
by Lisa Lieberman
He had told me that he shredded street posters himself to uncover the ones hidden beneath the newer strata. He pulled the strips down layer by layer and photographed them meticulously, stage by stage, down to the last scraps of paper that remained on the billboard or stone wall.
Patrick Modiano, "Afterimage"
I picked up Suspended Sentences after Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature this past fall and was immediately reminded of an Alain Resnais film—not that I'm the first to draw a connection between the two memory-obsessed artists. Modiano himself acknowledged a debt to the late filmmaker when accepting a prize from the Bibliothèque nationale for his body of work in 2011. "During my childhood, I saw Alain Resnais's documentary Toute la mémoire du monde (1956) [All the World's Memories] about the journey of a book arriving at the Bibliothèque nationale," he said, "and the film made me want to write."
Resnais made the All the World's Memories after his documentary about the death camps, Night and Fog (1955). In contrast to the brutal manner in which memory is evoked in this film and the accusatory tone of the narration, All the World's Memories is irreverent and light-hearted. I can easily imagine the ten-year-old Modiano being drawn in by Resnais's gently ironic depiction of the great library as a fortress dedicated to preserving memory at any cost. Words are captured and confined, books imprisoned, never to leave. Issued with an identity card, "the prisoner awaits the day it will be filed," we are told, but lest we worry, Resnais is quick to assure us that this incarceration is entirely beneficial. Books are treated well. Scientific expertise is deployed to stave off the destruction of perishable documents: "An ointment is applied to preserve bindings, the writings of vanished civilizations are restored, books are vaccinated, shrouded, holes made by insects are filled in, loose pages glued back in." Those of us old enough to remember card catalogues will appreciate hearing them described here as "the brain of the Bibliothèque nationale." And if you were fortunate enough to conduct research in the vast reading room under the glass dome, as I was, you'll be charmed by the birds-eye view of the rows of readers seated "like paper-crunching insects" at those long tables, "each in front of his own morsels of universal memory."
You wouldn't know that the director of All the World's Memories was the same person who made Night and Fog, or that he would go on to make Hiroshima mon amour (1959), a fictional story about a short-lived affair between a French woman and a Japanese man, both scarred by their experiences in the Second World War, or the mystifying Last Year at Marienbad (1961). But now I must mention a fascinating series of coincidences. During these very years, while still a student at the prestigious Paris lycée Henri IV, Modiano was the protégé of the avant-garde writer Raymond Queneau, who had just published his famous novel, Zazie dans le métro. Zazie would be made into a film by Louis Malle the following year, and Modiano would write the screenplay for Lacombe, Lucien (1974), Malle's film about a French boy who joins the collaborationist militia during the Occupation. Queneau was a friend of Resnais's. He wrote the text (in rhyming couplets, no less) for Le Chant du styrène (1958), a short documentary celebrating the virtues of plastic, and was one of the founders of OuLiPo (Potential Literature Workshop), an experimental literary collective subsequently joined by Georges Perec. The son of Polish Jews whose mother died in Auschwitz, Perec returned again and again to the ineffable trauma of the Holocaust in his literary works, frequently re-imagining his own past during the era of the German Occupation, as does Modiano in his literary works. Indeed, when Modiano won the Nobel, Perec was inevitably invoked, some critics going so far as to suggest that the prize was actually intended for Perec, a belated tribute to the author who had succumbed to lung cancer in 1982 while only in his forties.
Yes, the world of French arts and letters can feel awfully incestuous, but there's something else at play here. The late 1950s and early 1960s were a formative time for Modiano, but his interests were more esoteric than the average teenager's. In a 2007 interview he gave to the center-left daily, Libération, he identified Léon Bloy as a favorite author—a bizarre choice, as he admitted, for someone of his generation, although the works of the late-nineteenth-century Catholic extremist have been cited by Graham Greene, Flannery O'Connor, and Pope Francis. I get from Bloy a sense of the author's sacred mission, words like gifts offered up from a pure and open heart, and can only assume that the young Modiano was attracted to this romantic view of writing as a quasi-religious vocation. He later discovered, when reading Queneau's journals, that his mentor had been no less obsessed by Bloy in his younger days. Perhaps the message of All the World's Memories continued to inspire Modiano, but when I said earlier that his work reminds me of a Resnais film, I had a different film in mind.
Muriel, or the Time of Return
The Algerian war officially ended with the signing of the Evian Accords between France and the provisional government of Algeria in March 18, 1962. The bloody colonial conflict caused an estimated one million native Algerian deaths and tens of thousands of deaths on the French and European-Algerian (pied-noir) side, but mortality statistics reveal only part of the war's traumatic legacy. French soldiers sent to "maintain order" in the wake of the terrorist campaign initiated by the FLN (National Liberation Front) in Algeria in 1954 brought back stories of atrocities they committed. They took part in sweeping roundups of insurgents in the countryside, conducting raids on Algerian villages to root out guerrillas which entailed hostage-taking and indiscriminate reprisals against civilians. Brutal tactics were employed to make the Algerians talk: beatings, rapes, sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and electric shocks administered to the suspect's genitals. As early as 1947, Albert Camus had denounced the "Gestapo methods" routinely employed by the French in their colonies of Madagascar and his native Algeria—torture, collective reprisals, executions. "Three years after having felt the effects of a politics of terror, the French take in the news like people who have seen too much," he charged. "And yet the facts are there, clear and hideous as the truth: we are doing over there the same thing that we reproached the Germans for doing here."
All of this is alluded to in Resnais's unsettling film from 1963, Muriel, ou le temps d'un retour [Muriel, or the Time of Return]. What is returning here are the repressed memories of World War II, an unstable foundation upon which is layered the more recent history of French atrocities in its former colony. The story takes place in the northern port city of Boulogne, which was bombed heavily during the war. It was actually the screenwriter, Jean Cayrol, who chose the setting: "I situated the story in Boulogne, despite Resnais's doubts, because Boulogne is also a town after a drama. There are two towns, the old one spared by the war and the reconstructed town, the topography of which the old inhabitants cannot recognize… As the town plasters over the effects of the war, so do the inhabitants."
The ruins are still visible, as this still from the film makes clear, new structures looking out of place and poorly anchored, threatening to topple at any moment. A character in the film underscores the point in a scene included in the trailer, "The building is ready. They get the windows in. But it slides," he says.
Hélène has invited her old lover Alphonse back for a visit, to settle some unfinished business. He arrives with his young mistress and over a period of days, or perhaps weeks, the two express recriminations that apply as much to the situation of France as to their personal relationship.
Alphonse: Let's not dig up the past.
Hélène: That's why you're here.
Alphonse: I resent you Hélène, for all these memories.
Hélène's stepson Bernard has recently returned from military service in Algeria. He is angry at everyone, including himself, for what he did over there. Muriel is the name that he and his fellow conscripts gave to a girl they suspected of being a terrorist, whom they tortured to death. Bernard speaks of her as if she is still alive, as if she is still in his life, and of course we realize that she is present; the memory of what he did will never leave him. But Resnais could not say this outright in 1963, when de Gaulle's government was actively suppressing the memories of the Algerian war and when the French, like Alphonse, were disinclined to dig up painful memories of the German Occupation, notably their complicity with the occupier. And so the story is revealed only partially, and obliquely, forcing the audience to do the work at peeling away the obfuscations that have been plastered over the war's effects.
The Slow Dissolve
I don't know whether Modiano ever saw Muriel, but his fiction addresses the same gaps in memory, locating these lacunae in a place—the Parisian neighborhoods from which Jews were deported in the war, or vaguely remembered buildings he visited or resided in as a child—in much the same way that Boulogne was employed by Cayrol and Resnais to suggest impermanence. Walking these streets some years later, the narrator of Dora Bruder finds "nothing but a wasteland, itself surrounded by half-demolished walls. On these walls, open to the sky," he continues, "you could still make out the patterned paper of what was once a bedroom . . ." Modiano's lacunae arise from a different source than Resnais's. Too young to remember the Occupation, but aware of the taint it has left on French history and on his family history (Modiano's father dealt in the Black Market and may well have had dealings with the Gestapo), he attempts to fill in the gaps through repeated acts of the imagination. And yet he will not allow these imaginative recreations to endure. Unlike the books in the Bibliothèque nationale, the holes in Modiano's books are not filled in and the missing pages are gone for good.
In my favorite image from Suspended Sentences, the narrator of the last novella, "Flowers of Ruin" attempts to weave a story, gathering together all the threads he has collected, joining seemingly random events and images the way we do in dreamwork, but it always unravels. Tissue-thin, the cloth dissolves like a scrim, lit from behind. In the theater, this device would reveal the characters onstage, who would spring to life. In Modiano's fiction, the characters dissolve as well.
I hadn't moved from the window. Under the pouring rain, he crossed the street and went to lean against the retaining wall of the steps we had walked down shortly before. And he stood there, unmoving, his back against the wall, his head raised toward the building facade. Rainwater poured onto him from the top of the steps, and his jacket was drenched. But he did not move an inch. At that moment a phenomenon occurred for which I'm still trying to find an explanation: had the street lamp at the top of the steps suddenly gone out? Little by little, that man melted into the wall. Or else the rain, from falling on him so heavily, had dissolved him the way water dilutes a fresco that hadn't had time to dry properly. As hard as I pressed my forehead against the glass and peered at the dark gray wall, no trace of him remained. He had vanished in that sudden way that I'd later notice in other people, like my father, which leaves you so puzzled that you have no choice but to look for proofs and clues to convince yourself that these people really had existed.
Patrick Modiano, "Afterimage," Suspended Sentences, trans. Mark Polizzotti (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 15.
Albert Camus, "La Contagion," Combat, 10 May 1947.
James Monaco, Alain Resnais (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 90.
Patrick Modiano, Dora Bruder, trans Joanna Kilmartin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 111.
Patrick Modiano, "Flowers of Ruin," Suspended Sentences, 211.
Who's Building Tomorrow's Monopolies?
This standalone piece is part of a special series on Startup Tunnel, a new incubator based in New Delhi. Links to earlier articles appear at the end of the article.
This past week I led a workshop on building pitchdecks, not only for our own startups but for a wider crew of entrepreneurs. I’d asked the assembled group to help me whiteboard out the essential information they thought should be included in a pitchdeck. One bullet point, nearly overlooked towards the end of the list, said: Competition and Competitive Advantage. At this point I asked the group whether they didn’t also want to talk about creating a new monopoly?
Folks seemed to shift uncomfortably in their seats... apparently not. Why not? I asked. Do you mean like a public sector company, someone said. Ah, ah, ah, no, I said, realizing that the term monopoly wasn’t an abstract concept in the Indian context, but a real and oppressive part of our not-so-distant past. Yes, perhaps I’m being a bit loose with the term monopoly -- I don’t mean state-sanctioned and absolute monopoly -- I mean the kind of market leadership, let’s say more than 50% market-share, that can resemble monopolistic dominance. Don’t you want that? Well, VCs want to know that the space is real, said one founder. We want to work in an area where there is a good chance of success, said another, and that means there will already be competitors.
But isn’t that a problem? I asked. If the area you’re working in can already be defined as a competitive landscape it isn’t really all that new. In which case, how innovative is your startup concept? Think of any major startup that you’re inspired by these days and you’ll see they’re all near monopolies: SpaceX, Tesla, Airbnb, Dropbox, Snapchat. Before they came along, no one was doing what they’re doing. Now that they exist, people will come along and try to emulate them, but they’ve actually created a new market, in which they’ll continue to enjoy dominance. In some sense, that’s the only way these kinds of valuations can even be justified, either economically or socially or even in terms of the public good. These startups have created fundamentally new value and new social-technological possibilities that never existed before.I really want to see a slide that describes how you’re going to aspire to that kind of presence in a fundamentally new market.
Many folks still didn’t agree. Perhaps in some cases they couldn’t agree, because their business proposition wasn’t in fact all that radical as to create a fundamentally new market. Or maybe the term monopoly was just too distracting. At any rate, we broke for lunch with the question still open and animating conversation.
After lunch we were joined by several investors and mentors, and a series of teams were pitching for support as well as feedback. Included in the mix was a startup from our own stable called MeraGarden.Com. The two cofounders, Shubham and Rashmi, began by talking about how busy people’s lives had gotten and how tending plants can be a great stress buster. They talked about Delhi’s polluted air and how indoor plants can serve as a kind of air scrubbing technology. They talked about the high cost of land all around Delhi and how it was increasingly becoming difficult to find nurseries that would sell you the plants you wanted and had the botanical and lifestyle expertise to suggest plants for your home. They wanted to ship plants to you anywhere in India, based out of a network of micro-warehouses. Their website looked slick, and they were enthusiastic and knowledgeable about plants and gardening. They could think of many future areas to extend their business. They’d also looked at things like plant survival, breathable packaging design, soil alternatives, specialized pots and had figured out how to ship plants successfully in any orientation the whole way, even upside down. This was a niche ecommerce play, but it seemed like it could work and these guys seemed like the guys to do it. I was quite proud of their presentation and the way they fielded questions -- they made Startup Tunnel look good.
Someone called out from the back: But will this be a new monopoly? It was Bala from Nasscom10k, the industry group that had helped organize the day’s session. Shubham answered the question in pragmatic terms, saying that there was no one working this space in India, that they had already tested demand, solved for scale and that they were quite confident about establishing a niche position. But Bala pressed the point from our earlier conversation, now redirecting it to me. Earlier in the day I’d asked every startup to present themselves as a new monopoly, he said, but here I was, supporting an ecommerce play that wasn’t really doing anything all that new, and might in fact struggle to defend its market share were it to even taste initial success. I smiled and conceded the point -- perhaps selling plants online wasn’t in fact the creation of something entirely new. Maybe it was just a new niche. But this venture could be successful, operationally and financially, and that’s ultimately why one would back it. Touché, Bala.
After several intervening presentations, we eventually got to a founder I’ll call DroneFarmer, who had no presentation deck, but wanted to talk about agricultural drones. The first thing she said was that what she wanted to do was pretty much illegal right now. She thought she could see a way to fly a series of hobby drones all over agriculturally cropped areas to collect biomass and shade canopy information to create a new dataset that could then be mined to provide agricultural consulting services. She used the example of the coffee plant, which needed very precise conditions to be successful, including a particular kind and character of shade from the canopies of taller trees, information that couldn’t be modeled from satellite imagery. Flying a drone around would allow her to model an entire plantation area and advise on where taller trees, for example, needed to be grown. She’d bought and test-flown drones, hacked complex imaging solutions on to drones, and had consulted with agricultural developmental agencies. It was obvious she knew what she was talking about, in both agricultural and micro-aviation terms.
What DroneFarmer was proposing was also fraught with risk, not only because it represented a new model of creating and monetizing datasets, but also because of the looming presence of the public sector in all matters related both to aviation and to agriculture. That was why the investors in the room had suddenly gone quiet. Bala, from Nasscom10K, cut in again: Aditya, this dataset is going to be unique, the services offered new and unprecedented. This is going to be a brand new monopoly! You gotta get in now! I laughed and squirmed at his ribbing. That’s what it feels like to be confronted with risk and a dare you don’t want to take on.
Just about every element of enterprise she was showing, promising, embodying, was bound to run up against constraining regulations or the prospect of veto by state agencies. It was this other sense of the term monopoly, linked to the state, that so significantly increased the risk-perception around her proposals. It could be epic. It could be a total sink of money and time and legal fees. Maybe there would be a biopic. We’ll talk, I nodded to DroneFarmer, we’ll talk...
The truth is that any investor’s portfolio represents a balance of risk and return, which is conditioned not only by other investors’ views, but also by the larger horizon of the marketplace and it’s regulatory conditions. The more open and adaptive the regulatory horizon, the more risk one can take on in one’s bets for the future. There have to be channels to government and to regulators to help create and define a new and exciting market, as for example in the case of agricultural applications of drones. In the best of worlds we would actually see government agencies offering grants and running challenge competitions to spur these technologies and businesses along.
We can’t offer DroneFarmer funding or incubation at Startup Tunnel just yet, but perhaps we can offer her fellowship, of both a formal and collegial character. As an Entrepreneur-in-Residence she might gain access to an enabling environment and an intellectual milieu wherein she might continue to develop her business proposition, while also lobbying for partnerships with government agencies and scouting other opportunities. Other foundations and networks in India should also be joining hands in finding ways to support people like her, who can envision future monopolies that sound fantastic to most people’s ears. That’s the only way we’re going to see those worldchanging companies coming out of India's startup ecosystem.
This is a dispatch from Startup Tunnel, a new incubator based in New Delhi, simultaneously published by the portal iamwire.com. Some details in the above account have been changed or condensed for narrative flow, rhetorical effect and to respect the privacy of individuals. Read prior dispatches: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.
Monday, February 16, 2015
Leather and beads.
Her Rodney King piece is currently in Philadelphia Museum of Art's show "Represent: 200 years of African American Art", January 10, 2015 - April 5, 2015.
Incubating the Revolution
This is new dispatch from the frontlines of Startup Tunnel, a new incubator based in New Delhi. Links to earlier dispatches appear at the end of this stand-alone piece.
On Saturday we went to see Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party take his oath of office as Chief Minister of the state of Delhi. We rode the metro out to Ramlila Maidan, Delhi’s traditional center for agitations and large public ceremonies. I was with Namit Arora and Usha Alexander, also sometime correspondents of 3QD, along with another friend of theirs, Pran Kurup, who had had a role in the online campaign. It was a bright winter’s day and a festive scene at the maidan, where volunteers were giving out stickers, banners and those trademark hats which we also put on. Kejriwal spoke about inclusion and participation and about his plans of making Delhi a city free from corruption. If anyone asks you for a bribe, he began smiling at his trademark line, never say no, setting kar dena, put your phone recorder on and record the official demanding a bribe. And then report him to us so we can begin disciplinary action.
The holacratic revolution is taking so many shapes and forms all over the world, whereby new services, new forms of decision making, new kinds of patterns of interaction and financial flow are coming about. This is its first and most memorable articulation in India. No complex audio-visual equipment, no CCTV required, just a record function already included in just about every smart and feature phone on the market and in the pocket of every second citizen of Delhi. The extortionary optic of the state is suddenly subverted, power is distributed everywhere and to everyone with the means to participate in the network. It is a powerful and true instantiation of the change the Aam Aadmi Party wants to bring about, but it is surely only the very first and initial step. And yet, the solution envisioned by Kejriwal to report such incidences of citizen extortion, a hotline number, seems in no way related to the much higher sophistication of a digital recorder situated on mobile OS. Shouldn’t that digital just go into an app somehow, time and location stamped, with some metadata concerning the identity of the officer being reported on? Shouldn’t this be the very first app that this administration puts into production?
These were my preoccupations, at any rate, as I headed back to campus for our Saturday afternoon session with our startup cohort. I’d asked the group needing more time and attention to come in early, while the startups at the head of the pack came in later. After some collective presentations we broke out into three groups huddled together to address their go to market strategies. I asked each of them to think about the feedback they’d received and whether there was someone in the cohort or in the mentor network who might actually possess the resources or skills they were looking for. Subir said he’d like to connect with Raj further, who had skills around data analytics and platform growth. Ishita said she’d like to connect with Anurag who seemed quite on the ball in terms of hiring and managing android developers. I suggested to Dipesh that he might connect with Ishita and Rashmi around customer engagement, outbound marketing and Google Adwords. Our own internal team at Startup Tunnel decided they wanted to speak to both Raj and Ishita on ways of growing audience. It was an interesting moment, for the boundaries between our nine startup teams had temporarily dissolved, and one could see here a significant concentration of complementary talent which could have been reorganized and directed to a great many number of different kinds of challenges, including, for instance, the challenge of using mobile social media to create a better self-organizing city.
The question of how to use innovation and technology to create better citizen experiences has preoccupied me for a while now. Last year, I worked with Namrata Mehta to plan a public convening on this question, for which we’d looked at some innovative ways in which big data was being used to improve civic services. Social Cops, for instance, is an angel-funded startup that first came up with the idea of citizen social reporting of infrastructure or service fails. There are many challenges for them to still overcome, but if they’re successful in using data analytics to partner with different government agencies we might yet see a new threshold of accountability and monitoring in how civic agencies acquit their responsibilities. In a related vein, we documented the social enterprise NextDrop, which has built an innovative kind of service model based on citizens texting back to their servers whenever their locality doesn’t have enough water running through their pipes. The company feeds this information to linesmen directly working for the city’s water supply, who in fact are working the pipes either blind or through a legacy regimen, and they then redirect water through the city in ways that makes the texting stop.
We also discovered that despite relatively low standard of municipal services delivery, India had claimed an astounding tenth place in the global open data index, which now tracks ninety-seven participating nations. This means that there is already a mechanism in place to render government data public and open. We also learned that the officers in charge of data.gov.in were eager and interested to partner with the startup scene, and were actually looking for the right kinds of partners to mediate and host this ecosystem for them. And conversely, there is a new kind of energy in urban India to volunteer time and expertise towards rethinking and rebuilding civic infrastructure, not least through the efforts of the anonymous activist group The Ugly Indian, which hosts flash-mob-style clean up parties in the public spaces of different towns and cities all across the country.
It’s really only from the perspective of actually running an incubator that one can see a way to address these needs in a new way. We’re already able to bring together young and committed talent that has the capability to work together in complementary ways. What’s required is for us also to be able to focus that talent on challenges that will really have impact in this social market. One of the ways one might do that is by running a weekend hackathon, for instance. We tried this last year in partnership with Startup Weekend, a global network with a large chapter in Delhi. We had some seventy wannapreneurs and developers in our space, who reorganized themselves into some seven teams to pitch different product and business ideas related to challenges of governance. More recently, Khosla Labs had hosted a similar hackathon related to the Aadhar number, India’s national identity program, out of which some 36 actionable ideas apparently emerged, some of which are now attracting venture funding. And beyond hosting these kinds of hookup and meetup events, perhaps there’s a role for us in merely publicizing the fact that we would like to work with entrepreneurs who are themselves committed to addressing civic challenges through their business and product ideas. That kind of signaling can have a transformative power on the market dynamic over time, creating a channel or funnel for civic entrepreneurship where none exists today. In the early period of this transformation, moreover, we might need to partner with more patient capital or donor funding to support future civic entrepreneurs through a grant funding model while they develop the understandings and insights required for them to arrive at a growth model that can attract private capital.
Even though the Aam Aadmi Party’s public messaging is still focused on the issue of citizen extortion, the grape vine suggests that they’re now thinking about water, sanitation, power, transportation and a host of other more complex areas of citizen services delivery. Yesterday, Arvind Kejriwal tweeted that he would devote himself to finding systemic governance and technology solutions to Delhi’s problems. Now that smartphones are widely distributed in the urban landscape, we might see citizen reporting of infrastructure failures, for instance, like the lack of running water or flooding in the city, or of domestic violence, or confirmations of new babies born needing vaccination, or perhaps citizen participation in the delivery of those services in the form of flash mobbed volunteer action. An entire new class of mobile apps could emerge -- civicapps, if you will. With this dizzying plethora of possibilities, the challenge is to figure out how we can best enable these changes to come about.
That weird sense of anomie I was feeling at the end of a heady day that began at Ramlila Maidan had to do with the already existing co-presence of all the different kinds of intellectual assets and resources that one might need to bring about tremendous change. At issue was only the prospect of recombining that talent, directing it towards the real challenges of our times and bringing together the right model with the right members of an implementing team. This cannot be done through old forms of agitation, legislation, command or control. It requires a more subtle and recombinant approach to needs identification and solutions development. This is ultimately the work we do at Startup Tunnel. I’m beginning to see that we can and must use the social technology of incubation to address civic and governance challenges, working if we can with this new and hopeful government installed in Delhi.
Monday, February 09, 2015
This Essay Is Not About American Sniper
by Akim Reinhardt
I was gonna write something about the Clint Eastwood film American Sniper. Seems like a topic of the Now. Something the internetting public can really grab onto and scream about.
Clint Eastwood: Sentimental warmonger, or artist of more nuance than leftists and pacifists can discern?
U.S. sniper Chris Kyle: Troubled war veteran of humble origins whose experiences are a sharp prism for viewing America's exploitative class divides and tragic foreign policy, or a remorseless, racist killing machine who's murderous life and violent death reflect much of what's wrong with the nation?
That kinda thing. People love that sort of stuff. Gets ‘em all jacked up, clickety-click. Plus, I just saw the movie and have some ideas of my own. But you know what?
I don't wanna talk about moral ambiguity. I don't wanna dissect global politics. I don't wanna filter through the finer shades of artistic vision, intention, and reception. I don't wanna delve into any of those abstractions. I don't wanna tap society's pulse and jump on the topic du jour. You know why?
Because life is meaningless.
As I sit down in front of this keyboard, I can't bring myself to care about what 3QD readers want or would enjoy reading. I can't be bothered to speculate on what type of essay might once again garner me a citation by Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish or land me back in the Huffington Post.
None of that matters. Because nothing matters. Nothing at all.
Meaning and truth are just illusions that humans chatter about incessantly because they can't stomach the sheer meaninglessness of it all.
The Earth is a snowball of cosmic debris. The possibility of life on it is a longshot accident that came in like a broken down nag in the 10th race at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens (a real dump if you've never been). To consider the evolution of single cell floaters into multi-cell life forms is a far more boring prospect than even the droning monotone of the dullest high school biology teacher could suggest. Just that jump took over two and half billion years.
The rest of it? Some dinosaurs, some meteorites, some mammals, and us.
Us. You, me, and every other human who's ever lived. Let's start with you.
If you're under the age of 30, the only reason you're here is because two fertile people fucked. If you're younger, test tubes might've been involved, which is like a thin layer of bizarre frosting atop a massive cake of strange.
When your conception took root, that actual-you began forming after winning a 40,000,000:1 lottery ticket. Forty million. That's the number of sperm your father ejaculated, assuming he was producing on the low side. He might have unleashed as many as a billion sperm or more. And one of them bought a subscription to your mother's egg-of-the-month club, thereby making you and only you.
Any other egg/sperm combo would've produced an entirely different omelet altogether. Your parents would have had a different child instead of you, your siblings a different sibling in your place; it would be a real life daughter or son, brother or sister, but it wouldn't be you. And there'd be no you. Your one astronomical chance at creation on this tenuous little rock would have been gone in a grunt and a blink, with no one noticing. Just like it does for the other tens or hundreds of millions of sperm who don't ever come to fruition every single time some dude shoots a load, whether it's into the love of his life or his favorite jerkoff rag. None of those centillions of potential people will ever live. Ever. Done.
But you and me and the rest? Us? Our numbers on the sexual roulette wheel came in and here we are. What of it?
Nothing, I say. Nothing.
From simple cells to photosynthesis to complex cells to multi-cells to early animals to fish to land plants to insects to amphibians to reptiles to mammals to birds to primates to great apes to humanoids to us. It's not a plan. It's not a miracle in either the religious or the secular sense. It's a meandering, shit stained trail of eating, fucking, killing, and dying.
But because you and I are part of the homo sapiens freak show that's capable of complex language like these here words, and sophisticated thoughts like the ones you're likely to find running down 3QD's ongoing log like a massive can of fancy cat food smeared on the side of an abandoned building, we're capable of endlessly deluding ourselves by creating and embracing meaning. Meanings which don't even exist, but which we manufacture for our own enjoyment and peace of mind. Or to torture ourselves and others with. And then we convince ourselves those meanings are real.
But they're not. There is no meaning and nothing matters. Nothing matters because nothing is capable of mattering.
Lots of stuff is matter, but it doesn't matter. The rest of the stuff is energy, and it doesn't matter either.
There's no grand lesson to be drawn from any of this because there are no grand lessons. Or even little ones. We have senses and we can observe. But all ideas are manufactured. They're make believe.
Matter, energy, and ideas. That is all there is. The first two are out there all around us, and they are us. The third is within us, peculiar fantasies that we create and then embrace or reject for a variety of reasons.
We are by far and away the most sophisticated life form we've ever encountered, and probably ever will encounter. We're the only one that can thoroughly manipulate matter and energy. And we're the only one that has any complex ideas whatsoever, so far as we can tell.
Dolphins and elephants and dogs might have good memories, some impressive non-verbal communication talents, and enough sophistication to create and maintain relatively complex social systems. They might even make for better company than human beings. Well, at least the dogs certainly usually do. But no animal besides us debates ethics and morality. They don't argue about the merits of various political and economic systems. They don't daydream about the afterlife they believe awaits them. And they don't have the kind of existential angst or nihilistic miasma that drives an essay such as this one.
We, and only we, have sophisticated ideas. Not because they exist and we have especial powers of perception. But because we are the only beings capable of creating them. And boy, do we love to create and share ideas.
Among all those countless ideas, in the first rank are fantasies of meaning and truth.
Our minds like to discern patterns, even where there is none. Our minds crave meaning, even though there is no meaning. And so we fantasize. We build ideas like large, intricate Rube Goldberg contraptions. We're desperate to know that we caught the mouse because we built a proper trap. We're distraught by the prospect that we are the mice and the mice are us and every living thing dies, whether in a trap or in an open field or in the talons of bird or in the wreckage of a car or in a hospital.
I don't write this because I'm trying to convince anyone. I don't care if you agree with me or not. Whether you do or don't doesn't matter in the least. Nothing matters. Rather, I write these words because the absence of truth is the only truth I know. Because meaninglessness is the only thing I have.
And because today I just can't bring myself to pretend otherwise.
I've pretended a lot in my life. I grew up believing in God It was the Jewish version of God. Not terribly anthropomorphized. Kinda vague. Lots of omnis: omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. I used to talk to him. I thought he heard me. That was nice.
I used to believe America was a unique land of opportunity and freedom. I used to put my hand on my heart during the national anthem. I used to think the United States was synonymous with justice, and that its greatness was inspiring. That was nice too.
I used to believe it didn't matter how I ate so long as I enjoyed it and I got to keep living. I believed human lives mattered more than the lives of other animals because humans are more important than any other animal. That other animals were inferior. That human lives have purpose where theirs don't. Yummy nice.
I don't believe any of those things anymore. Not because I woke up one day and began a personal revolution. Not because someone told me not to believe those things. Not because I suffered life-wrenching trauma or experienced some great epiphany.
I really wanted to keep believing in God and America and Big Macs and hundreds of other things that gave my life meaning and joy and comfort. But eventually I just couldn't do it anymore, despite my best efforts to hold on. I mourned as God slipped away like water through my cupped fingers. I sighed heavily at the realization that America doesn't equate to Totally Fucking Awesome. I knew I would miss bacon terribly even as I forsook it.
My fantasies melted away, leaking out of my ears and seeping out of my pores, one by one, drop by drop. After the big fantasies evaporated, the smaller, more esoteric ones dissipated in turn. Truth, courage, justice. Good and evil. They're all make believe, convenient abstractions we use to categorize matter and energy and the things they do. Things that we, as matter and energy, do. But that's all they are. Matter and energy.
They have no meaning. Nothing has meaning despite our best effort to impose meaning. Nothing matters.
I realize that many religious people are apt to look at me and say: This is what happens when you don't believe in God.
But I'm apt to look right back at them and say: This is why you do believe in God. I wish I could too. I remember when I did. It was very comforting.
People are lonely. And afraid. They crave connection and meaning. So they believe what I no longer can.
This doesn't make me any better than believers. Maybe just a little sadder. And in a way, a little more dishonest. After all, I still pretend a lot of things day to day. Most of the time even I pretend things matter. Things like my career or the love I feel for my family or the joy I share with friends. Worst of all, my ideas. I pretend that they matter. What I think about history or politics or morality or American Sniper.
I'm not sure why I still pretend so much. Is it because human beings are hard wired to pretend? Is it because I spent so much of my early life pretending that it's now difficult to move on to simple reality? Is it because almost everyone around me is pretending all the time, and humanity's collective, unrelenting influence takes its toll? Some combination of the above? Either way, it usually comes as second nature to me. Very often, I too pretend that things matter.
But not today. Today nothing matters. Today is a moment of clarity. Today I have no lies, no fantasies, no illusions. There's just me and you and these words, and none of it matters.
P.S. No, I'm not depressed.
P.P.S. Yes, next month I'll probably talk about what I pretend matters. Maybe.
Akim Reinhardt normally mentions his website at the end of a 3QD article, but really, there's no point.
Charles Campbell. Declarations Series: Homecoming. 2013.
Charlie Keil’s Simple Appeal to the Pope on Behalf of the Future
by Bill Benzon
This post, which will be brief as my posts go, consists of three parts. The second is a letter that my friend and colleague, Charlie Keil, has sent to the Vatican where he hopes it will come to the attention of Pope Francis. He urges us to send the letter as well. Charlie tells me that the second part of the letter, in which he speaks for the creativity of children, is the heart of the appeal. The first part, urging a peace process, is necessary for the second to flourish.
I’ve placed some contextual information before and after Keil’s letter and, as you can see, I’ve larded the post with photographs of children.
The Roman Catholic Church is a Remarkable Institution
It must be one of the oldest corporate bodies in existence and, of course, it precedes the existence of the nation state, a corporate form that now dominates world affairs. Other religions are older than Christianity, Judaism of course, but also Hinduism and Buddhism and others. But none of them are organized in the way that the Roman Catholic Church is.
The Roman Catholic Church is organized as a hierarchy that extends from the top, the Papal See in the Vatican, throughout the world to individual parishes, with various levels of organization in between. Other forms of Christianity have a similar organization, but not all of them. Most religions aren’t like that at all. They operate at the local and perhaps regional level, but without world-wide coordination on matters of doctrine.
There is an obvious sense in which the Catholic Church is the foundation of Western Civilization. Before Far West Asia, so to speak, had come to think of itself as Europe, it thought of itself as Christendom. The European nations didn’t exist. What existed was a bunch of Germanic tribes, cities, medieval fiefdoms, and regional empires.
And the Catholic Church. It preserved the books of the ancient world. And its liturgical music, descended from the chants of Jewish ritual, created states of mind conducive to contemplation and thought. It is in that context that Europe began to form itself and become the West.
Maybe the Catholic Church can now help the world to move out beyond its dependence on the nation-state as the organizational backbone of world affairs. It was there before the nations arose. Perhaps it will remain when nations have become obsolete. The job now is more modest, to bring the nations to embrace peace.
An Open Letter to Pope Francis
I assume that this e-mail address email@example.com is a way to send a message to the Vatican, and perhaps it will get to Pope Francis if it is deemed worthy of His Holiness's attention.
I am constantly praying for two processes to flourish:
1) Peace Processes: a year round "24/7" discussion of peace processes all over the world that could easily start with:
A. Pope Francis inviting representatives from all churches to come to Rome for a week of “waging peace” conversations early this spring, first week of May perhaps, or for the week following Easter Sunday.
B. Creating a year round Vatican Peace Council in which 20 to 30 selected delegates from around the world meet to propose, discuss and promulgate policies that they hope all churches and all secular, democratic governments around the world will adopt and promote at the United Nations and throughout the world.
2) Children's Creativity Processes: Throughout the “poor” world children are suffering and dying in the thousands each day from hunger, malnutrition, polluted water and preventable diseases; throughout the so-called “rich” or “civilized” or “advanced” world children are being shut down, dumbed down, alienated, techno-cocooned, dulled by media, stunted spiritually for lack of play, singing, dancing, drumming, reciting poetry, etc. each day. Every home, street corner, neighborhood, village, needs times and places for play, creativity, the joys of living.
I will continue to believe and to pray that the Pope and the Vatican will take decisive steps 100% consistent with Christ's teachings to save the Creation and the Creativity of Children through daily emphasis on #1 above, Peace Processes.
Please pass this along to people who tweet, twitter, do smoke signals, put letters in bottles, pass the peace pipe.
A Break from Tradition
The election of Pope Francis is a break from tradition. He “is the first Jesuit pope, the first from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere and the first non-European pope since the Syrian Gregory III in 741, 1,272 years earlier.” I cannot be an accident that the Cardinals chose such a man. Even the Catholic Church must change, and they chose Francis to lead them.
Of course, he wasn’t Francis when he was elected. He was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, born in Argentina and noted for his humility. He chose to name himself after Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment. And the animal and the environment certainly need our help.
Perhaps Pope Francis can link the legacy of his namesake with the unfulfilled legacy of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who proposed a Department of Peace in 1793. It was to be on an equal footing with the Department of War. One of the provisions was that the “following sentence be inscribed in letters of gold over the door of every home in the United States: The Son of Man Came into the World, Not To Destroy Men's Lives, But To Save Them.”
The proposal got nowhere until after World War II, when various bills were introduced into Congress to establish a Department of Peace and advocacy work is ongoing through the Peace Alliance. The most recent bill, H. R. 808, was introduced into Congress in 2001 by Dennis Kucinich. The text of the bill includes the following findings, among others:
(7) During the course of the 20th century, more than 100,000,000 people perished in wars, and now, at the dawn of the 21st century, violence seems to be an overarching theme in the world, encompassing personal, group, national, and international conflict, extending to the production of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons of mass destruction which have been developed for use on land, air, sea, and in space.
(8) Such conflict is often taken as a reflection of the human condition without questioning whether the structures of thought, word, and deed which the people of the United States have inherited are any longer sufficient for the maintenance, growth, and survival of the United States and the world….
(10) We are in a new millennium, and the time has come to review age-old challenges with new thinking wherein we can conceive of peace as not simply being the absence of violence, but the active presence of the capacity for a higher evolution of the human awareness, of respect, trust, and integrity; wherein we all may tap the infinite capabilities of humanity to transform consciousness and conditions which impel or compel violence at a personal, group, or national level toward developing a new understanding of, and a commitment to, compassion and love, in order to create a shining city on a hill, the light of which is the light of nations.
The “higher evolution of the human awareness, of respect, trust, and integrity” – that sounds like something that Francis of Assisi would have approved. Among many other things, the bill even has a provision directed at St. Francis, for it specifies that the Secretary of Peace would extend to developing “policies to address violence against animals.”
Maybe the Secretary of Peace would even address the Vatican Peace Council that Keil has proposed.
The Limits of User Research
Having commissioned a new suit of armor, the emperor Akbar was now in the process of inspecting it. Installed upon a stone mannequin in the armory workshop, black bell metal and brass accents gleamed back upon the badshah and his vazir Birbal. Fresh from recent campaigns, the emperor now said he wanted to be sure of the quality of protection it offered. And so he called for a lance, with which he reared back and then charged upon the mannequin. He was able, after a few tries, to pierce all the small slits of the helmet. He asked for a sword and tore apart the subtle slits between the body armor and the helmet. He asked for a mace and went at the now headless mannequin and cracked the chain metal links all around its torso. Even now that it had fallen upon the floor of the workshop, Akbar was still working out his PTSD on that prone suit of armor and the lifeless dummy within. When he was done, he looked up and declared it to be a lousy suit, practically the same as wearing nothing at all.
Perhaps you already know the end of this parable? Perhaps you have heard some other version of it? I'm not sure when I first encountered it, either at the back of an Amar Chitra Katha or else perhaps among a collection of stories from Iran. Either way, it has stuck in the mind, long awaiting the unraveling. There is something so shocking about seeing a new suit of armor being destroyed like that, something like a medieval crash test. One knows not what to make of what is going on, nor even how to respond to Akbar's judgement. Is a suit of armor really useless if it cannot survive many minutes of the untamed rage of a battle hardened king?
The badshah is about turn his fury onto his smith, when Birbal suggests that they give him a sharp warning and a week to build another prototype. The next week, when Akbar returns to the workshop to inspect the new piece he finds Birbal already there, wearing the emperor's battle armor and spoiling for sport. It is new and improved, he says, have at me and I'll show you. Akbar is eventually goaded into picking up a lance. He makes straight for Birbal, who steps lithely aside, pulls the lance forward, tripping Akbar forward and landing him on all four. Now that someone's wearing it, he grins, it's begun working pretty well.
On the face of it, this would seem to be a parable about how an artifact changes with use -- an early instance of user-centered thinking about human artifacts. But there's something a bit tricky about how a suit of armor is best used and what its function really is. Birbal's response is cryptic, and it forces you to think about the whole the point of battle armor: it must not only resist onslaught, but allow its wearer to move about and conduct battle. This little fable sticks in the mind is because of the way it shifts between offence and defence, between object and agent. That little shift of the mind, between a closed and essentially reactive reference frame and a horizon of open possibilities is sudden and complete. It cannot arise gradually and it has no continuity with that earlier way of thinking.
You will remember, reader, that I've signed up to share a more prosaic kind of story, about the setting up of a new kind of business in a more prosaic time in a global city whose air is already thick with pollution and corruption and crony capitalism.
The moral of every tale will continue evolve over time as it is told and retold. What I now understand is that so long as one remains inert and unmoving, any preparation will be inadequate and one's defences liable to be demolished with a few quick jabs. But once one enters a field of action, as one bobs, weaves and improvises in many ways, one leaves preparation behind.
For many years I've been in the business of making armor, not actually of giving fight. I've built a consulting company that studies how people respond to new technologies, I've led teams that have imagined different kinds of solutions for clients, I've drafted and delivered strategic recommendations to company boards. For more than a decade, I've pursued user-centered design as a new kind of ethic and means to remake our technological world more perfectly in our own image, as individuals and as communities. If the world seems misshapen by the forces of capital and crudeness of technology, those forces and their forms could be remade through iterative design intervention. And this has also been one of the fundamental principles of our new incubation program: that when those same skills and methodological approaches were applied to startup challenges, they might yield substantially better and more successful startups.
Several interesting things happen when you move from advising large imperious organizations like Nokia or Vodafone to working with startups. First the creative budget collapses to very nearly zero. And then the time horizon in which one's research and learning must emerge and be applied also falls to something like zero. All the market frictions which needed to be resolved and mediated by a creative agency so as to earn its living all begin to fall to miniscule levels. The budget and time required for product development can approach zero when startup founders create product for end users very similar to themselves and when they themselves can bear the costs of product development, iteration and modification. Today, so many young people new spend their free time dreaming up an experience that they would enjoy and that they think others might enjoy as well.
Digital and network technologies, of course, are allowing and encouraging both these trends: while the cost of software product continues to fall lower and lower as this expertise becomes more widely available in society, young founders are following their own passions and preoccupations in the development of new product concepts. In effect, market forces are compelling them to do so, because the costs of figuring out what people might need or want if they are very different from you grow quickly prohibitive. There's a better chance of your work coming good if you code about things you already know something about.
It's quite interesting that the academic turn in favor of design research begins to emerge at almost the same moment as its refutation by startup founders. Writing in 1982, for instance, the design theorist Nigel Cross more-or-less assumes that design research is more or less the future of this discipline, but by 1985 Steve Jobs is already dissing his PC competition for having been designed by focus-group. His own Macintosh devices, by comparison, he says, are designed for the very people who made them. This makes them intuitive and superior in every way because how can people really know what they want from a computer experience when they've never seen a computer? This brash insight, which has always chafed during the many years I've worked on user research projects, was later articulated with some greater sophistication by Eric von Hippel. Lead users, he said, are members of a user population who are currently experiencing needs that will later be experienced by many other users, and who anticipate relatively high benefits from obtaining solutions for their needs. One may read back into Jobs comments the idea that Macintosh devices were made by and for lead users, who knew a great deal about what they themselves wanted out of a new computer platform, and whose needs would prove predictive of the marketplace as a whole.
With startups, moreover, there is no possibility of cross-subsidizing new product development with margins from existing product lines -- there are no existing product lines. And this is why Ben Horowitz advocates shipping a lousy product even when you know it's lousy, so long as you can get someone to buy or pay for it. Shipping product ensures you live to fight another day and gives you a chance to improve it. Without that channel to the market, all product debates are rendered moot, abstract and academic. This is obviously anathema to any designer or perhaps any ethically minded person at all. But it is the difficult and bitter truth of people struggling to engage a market.
A product concept must be developed and defended, not only as an abstract idea, but also as a living, struggling, market proposition. It's useful to acquire all kinds of information about one's users by studying them and looking over their shoulder, but all of that is nothing compared to the information one acquires about them through one's own digital products, once they begin to adopt and use them. Over time one way of understanding your users may complement the other, but if you never get anyone to use anything you've made, you're nowhere and there's nothing really to talk about.
There's one final change of reference frame that might be in order, from building armor to waving one's arms around in it, and that has to do with the role of user research and design thinking in relation to the long-term goals and strategic objectives of a startups. The ethic of design research and user experience mapping is inherently reactive, operating on faith that this approach will always ensure that one lucks into the most beneficial market alignment without actually forcing that convexity into existence. Through the last decade my own ideal of a tech company was Nokia, a global organization that continuously valorized users, expressed unflagging interest in all the minute details of user behavior and promised always to try to build human technologies, none of which prevented that company from turning into a giant flaming rig. Peter Thiel's advice is rather to always look to the end game first, and decide what kind of market needs will a company fulfill going forward. A stable solution to a large market problem can define the contours and possibility of a product concept. But can user research identify such an unmet challenge? Not directly, in any case. It can only help define and characterize such a problem once it has been already identified through market and value chain analysis.
We still believe we're right to build suits of armor and teach our founders to learn to stalk about in them. We're also humbled to realize that it won't nearly be enough. They will have to rely on their wits and reflexes to survive and succeed with their startup.
Monday, February 02, 2015
The Red Ribbon Argument for Skepticism
In his Contra Academicos, Augustine discusses a fragment of Cicero's Academica in which Cicero advances a unique argument for skepticism. Cicero's argument is unique in that it derives, ironically, from a positive epistemic assessment of human judgments. Skeptical arguments usually proceed from negative assessments of human cognition according to which humans cannot tell the true from the false, cannot articulate their reasons, are prone to unreflective dogmatizing, and so on. Those negative assessments are then taken to yield the skeptical outlook. Cicero's argument for skepticism, by contrast, derives from a positive assessment of a subset of human judgments. Let us call it the Red Ribbon Argument (or the Argument from Second Place):
The second prize is given to the Academic (skeptical) wise person by all the self-declared sages from the other schools, since they must obviously claim the first prize for themselves. A persuasive conclusion one can draw from this is that he is right to take the first place in his own judgment given that he has the second place in the judgment of all the others.
Cicero starts from a regular observation about dogmatism: those committed to a view become not only invested in their view, but also less capable of critically reflecting on it. We often form our own theoretical, political, and religious alliances well before we have thoroughly surveyed and critically compared all of the plausible options. That is, we make our allegiances first and critically examine later. As Cicero notes elsewhere in the Academica:
All other people . . . are held in close bondage placed upon them before they were able to judge what doctrine was best, . . . they form judgments about matters as to which they know nothing at the most incompetent time in life, either under the guidance of some friend or the from the first harangue from the first lecture they attend, and cling as to a rock to whatever theory are carried to by stress or weather.
Hence we might say that we are serially confirmationally biased. As we are committed to our beliefs, and loyal to our doctrines, we tend to seek evidence that supports them. And yet we formed these allegiances with almost no judgment at all! And so, Cicero observes, we will of course assign our own view first place when asked to rank all of the views. But this method of ranking obviously is not reliable. And the widespread conflict between votes for first place is testament to it.
So our votes for first place are unreliable. And when we compare the competing views to our own, we likely will succumb to similar distortions; the competing views will be rejected simply on the grounds that they are incompatible with our own view. So our ranking of the competing doctrines against our own are epistemically polluted as well. However, our assessments of the merits of the competing views relative to each other tend not to involve such distortions. Thus Cicero predicts that when enthusiasts of a particular view are asked what the second best view is, they will judge more clearly and less prejudicially. The interesting thought is that the skepticism has massive support as the second best view. According to almost all perspectives, skepticism is the best of the incorrect views.
Cicero provides no outline of the reasoning that fuels this second-place judgment. Nor does Augustine gloss this element of the argument. Our hypothesis is that every dogmatist sees and condemns the dogmatism of every other dogmatist. They see their opponent's use selectional evidence, and they see their opposition's early alliances playing determining roles. But skeptics don't have those alliances, or at least they've overcome them. One does not begin as a skeptic; rather, one begins as a naïve enthusiast, becomes a dogmatist, then comes to see the problems with one's view, and only then arrives at skepticism. Academic skeptics master all the arguments for each view, can provide the counter-arguments, and so embody the spirit of inquiry all dogmatists take themselves to have satisfied. Thus the dogmatist judges skepticism the second best view.
Again, it is important to note that this argument for skepticism proceeds from a positive epistemic assessment of our judgments regarding the second-best view. It depends upon the claim that although our judgments about the best view are distorted, our votes for second place tend to reflect what unbiased rational judgment favors. As skepticism is nearly everybody's second-best view, we have a positive reason be skeptics.
There is a possible skeptical alternative to this positive assessment. If, as we've assumed, first-place votes are infected by confirmation bias, then what prevents that very bias from contaminating our second-best assessments as well? Now, for sure, the bias of positive commitment isn't going to distort the skeptics' judgments, since they hold no views. The skeptic and dogmatist have no agreement on things to accept. But they do agree widely about views to deny. And so the Stoic says that skepticism is second best because skeptics reject the animalistic hedonism of the Epicureans, the antisocial behavior of the Cynics, the supercelestial ambitions of the Platonists, and the fussy aristocratic virtues of the Aristotelian. This kind of argument could be advanced from any non-skeptical perspective.
It seems, then, that Cicero has provided a novel argument for skepticism: There are familiar reasons for thinking that our judgments about the best view are polluted, distorted, biased, and unreliable. Importantly, there are also familiar reasons for thinking that our judgments regarding the second-best view are generally reliable. From any non-skeptical position, skepticism is likely to appear to be a clear second-best view. Hence we have reason to think that it's in fact the best view. We should be skeptics after all.
Literature and Philosophy in the Laboratory Meeting
by Jalees Rehman
Research institutions in the life sciences engage in two types of regular scientific meet-ups: scientific seminars and lab meetings. The structure of scientific seminars is fairly standard. Speakers give Powerpoint presentations (typically 45 to 55 minutes long) which provide the necessary scientific background, summarize their group's recent published scientific work and then (hopefully) present newer, unpublished data. Lab meetings are a rather different affair. The purpose of a lab meeting is to share the scientific work-in-progress with one's peers within a research group and also to update the laboratory heads. Lab meetings are usually less formal than seminars, and all members of a research group are encouraged to critique the presented scientific data and work-in-progress. There is no need to provide much background information because the audience of peers is already well-acquainted with the subject and it is not uncommon to show raw, unprocessed data and images in order to solicit constructive criticism and guidance from lab members and mentors on how to interpret the data. This enables peer review in real-time, so that, hopefully, major errors and flaws can be averted and newer ideas incorporated into the ongoing experiments.
During the past two decades that I have actively participated in biological, psychological and medical research, I have observed very different styles of lab meetings. Some involve brief 5-10 minute updates from each group member; others develop a rotation system in which one lab member has to present the progress of their ongoing work in a seminar-like, polished format with publication-quality images. Some labs have two hour meetings twice a week, other labs meet only every two weeks for an hour. Some groups bring snacks or coffee to lab meetings, others spend a lot of time discussing logistics such as obtaining and sharing biological reagents or establishing timelines for submitting manuscripts and grants. During the first decade of my work as a researcher, I was a trainee and followed the format of whatever group I belonged to. During the past decade, I have been heading my own research group and it has become my responsibility to structure our lab meetings. I do not know which format works best, so I approach lab meetings like our experiments. Developing a good lab meeting structure is a work-in-progress which requires continuous exploration and testing of new approaches. During the current academic year, I decided to try out a new twist: incorporating literature and philosophy into the weekly lab meetings.
My research group studies stem cells and tissue engineering, cellular metabolism in cancer cells and stem cells and the inflammation of blood vessels. Most of our work focuses on identifying molecular and cellular pathways in cells, and we then test our findings in animal models. Over the years, I have noticed that the increasing complexity of the molecular and cellular signaling pathways and the technologies we employ makes it easy to forget the "big picture" of why we are even conducting the experiments. Determining whether protein A is required for phenomenon X and whether protein B is a necessary co-activator which acts in concert with protein A becomes such a central focus of our work that we may not always remember what it is that compels us to study phenomenon X in the first place. Some of our research has direct medical relevance, but at other times we primarily want to unravel the awe-inspiring complexity of cellular processes. But the question of whether our work is establishing a definitive cause-effect relationship or whether we are uncovering yet another mechanism within an intricate web of causes and effects sometimes falls by the wayside. When asked to explain the purpose or goals of our research, we have become so used to directing a laser pointer onto a slide of a cellular model that it becomes challenging to explain the nature of our work without visual aids.
This fall, I introduced a new component into our weekly lab meetings. After our usual round-up of new experimental data and progress, I suggested that each week one lab member should give a brief 15 minute overview about a book they had recently finished or were still reading. The overview was meant to be a "teaser" without spoilers, explaining why they had started reading the book, what they liked about it, and whether they would recommend it to others. One major condition was to speak about the book without any Powerpoint slides! But there weren't any major restrictions when it came to the book; it could be fiction or non-fiction and published in any language of the world (but ideally also available in an English translation). If lab members were interested and wanted to talk more about the book, then we would continue to discuss it, otherwise we would disband and return to our usual work. If nobody in my lab wanted to talk about a book then I would give an impromptu mini-talk (without Powerpoint) about a topic relating to the philosophy or culture of science. I use the term "culture of science" broadly to encompass topics such as the peer review process and post-publication peer review, the question of reproducibility of scientific findings, retractions of scientific papers, science communication and science policy – topics which have not been traditionally considered philosophy of science issues but still relate to the process of scientific discovery and the dissemination of scientific findings.
One member of our group introduced us to "For Whom the Bell Tolls" by Ernest Hemingway. He had also recently lived in Spain as a postdoctoral research fellow and shared some of his own personal experiences about how his Spanish friends and colleagues talked about the Spanish Civil War. At another lab meeting, we heard about "Sycamore Row" by John Grisham and the ensuring discussion revolved around race relations in Mississippi. I spoke about "A Tale for a Time Being" by Ruth Ozeki and the difficulties that the book's protagonist faced as an outsider when her family returned to Japan after living in Silicon Valley. I think that the book which got nearly everyone in the group talking was "Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity" by Andrew Solomon. The book describes how families grapple with profound physical or cognitive differences between parents and children. The PhD student who discussed the book focused on the "Deafness" chapter of this nearly 1000-page tome but she also placed it in the broader context of parenting, love and the stigma of disability. We stayed in the conference room long after the planned 15 minutes, talking about being "disabled" or being "differently abled" and the challenges that parents and children face.
On the weeks where nobody had a book they wanted to present, we used the time to touch on the cultural and philosophical aspects of science such as Thomas Kuhn's concept of paradigm shifts in "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", Karl Popper's principles of falsifiability of scientific statements, the challenge of reproducibility of scientific results in stem cell biology and cancer research, or the emergence of Pubpeer as a post-publication peer review website. Some of the lab members had heard of Thomas Kuhn's or Karl Popper's ideas before, but by coupling it to a lab meeting, we were able to illustrate these ideas using our own work. A lot of 20th century philosophy of science arose from ideas rooted in physics. When undergraduate or graduate students take courses on philosophy of science, it isn't always easy for them to apply these abstract principles to their own lab work, especially if they pursue a research career in the life sciences. Thomas Kuhn saw Newtonian and Einsteinian theories as distinct paradigms, but what constitutes a paradigm shift in stem cell biology? Is the ability to generate induced pluripotent stem cells from mature adult cells a paradigm shift or "just" a technological advance?
It is difficult for me to know whether the members of my research group enjoy or benefit from these humanities blurbs at the end of our lab meetings. Perhaps they are just tolerating them as eccentricities of the management and maybe they will tire of them. I personally find these sessions valuable because I believe they help ground us in reality. They remind us that it is important to think and read outside of the box. As scientists, we all read numerous scientific articles every week just to stay up-to-date in our area(s) of expertise, but that does not exempt us from also thinking and reading about important issues facing society and the world we live in. I do not know whether discussing literature and philosophy makes us better scientists but I hope that it makes us better people.
Sughra Raza. Over Maryland. January, 2015.
Monday, January 26, 2015
Remembering Old Friends: Cars I have known and loved
by Carol A. Westbrook
New Year's Eve, 2014. Time to ring in the New Year, to reminisce about good times, and remember old friends that have left our lives. No, I'm not referring to relatives who have passed, or ex's that have moved on, I'm talking about ... cars.
Now, I'm not a car person like my husband, who has cars like Imelda Marcos has shoes, one for every season, in both of our houses. I like to drive only one car at a time; I grow attached to my car, give it a name, and when necessity demands "out with the old, in with the new," I shed a silent tear on losing a good friend.
I've not yet taken a picture of a favorite car, though at times I wish I had, unlike my husband, Rick, who has photographed every car he has ever owned, and some he has rented. Rick's first car was a 1957 DeSoto HemiHead V8, shown here.
He has even photographed some cars that he has rented, such as the memorable black, 100 series BMW hatchback that we drove on the Autobahn in Germany, as you can see in the picture. We even drove this delightful car through the "autos verboten" square near the 500-year-old cathedral in Strasbourg on market day--quite by accident--after bad advice from our GPS.
I searched my photo archives to see if I could find pictures of my own favorite drives, but they exist only incidentally, at the periphery of a family photo, or near a landmark on a vacation trip. I don't need a picture, though, because I remember them all well, every car I ever called my own. I rarely remember the model and the year, but I remember its make and color, "like a girl," Rick would say.
I learned to drive in 1972 on my ex's Karmann Ghia. Not recognizing its value as a collector's item even in 1979, we traded it in for a pittance to buy an orange VW Golf, after we had our first child. That car had energy and spunk, and it was fearless. It drove us across country three times, through the high mountains of Canada, and it hauled our sailboat and our children. We sold it for cash through an ad in the paper, and shortly thereafter it was used for armed robbery. The car's title hadn't yet been changed, and the cops came for my husband, who fortunately could prove that he was out of town during the robberies. I felt violated, since our old faithful family car was robbing taxis and convenience stores, but it certainly had spunk! The sale funded the down payment on a 1983 Dodge Colt hatchback, also known as The Gray Ghost, which I kept after we split up.
The first car I bought and paid for on my own, after the divorce, was a maroon Toyota Corolla. It was a new car in 1992, when I returned from my sabbatical year in London. My boyfriend at the time, a Professor of Genetics in a London medical school, helped me with the purchase, though as it turned out he didn't know much about cars. I got a good deal on the car, which was brand new with a full warranty, and had a standard transmission that was very forgiving and reliable, unlike the Professor. The car lasted longer in my life than the Professor.
I loved that car! And so did all of my children. The story of that Toyota is the story of my family. It came into my life when my family was very young, and I was on my own, and it left when the children were grown and left home, almost 15 years later.The car was used by our European au pairs--all of whom were adept with manual transmission drives--to run errands, and to shuttle the kids to school and their various karate, music and drama lessons. They also used the car on their free evenings, when they went out with boys, or went to nightclubs in Chicago. One of them managed to get the trunk jammed, which we didn't get open until after her term was up, where we found a large stockpile of empty beer bottles.
I taught all three of the children to drive in that car, including where and how to park in our crowded neighborhood in Chicago, and how to navigate the Chicago freeways in rush hour traffic. They all passed their driving test in the Toyota on the first attempt. Eugene shouldn't have passed, because he went through a stop sign during the test, but the instructor was so impressed by the fact that he could drive a stick at all that he was given a pass! What I didn't realize was that our au pairs had been teaching the kids to drive for some time even before they had their permits.
We had great times in the Toyota on road trips and family outings, and each of the kids borrowed it at some period in their lives when they were away at boarding school or college. It had a few bumps and bruises, especially when Eddy and his school friends sat on the roof, trying to be cool. They put a big dent in it. But it never had a major accident, and only one moving violation when the teenage Eddy got a speeding ticket on Lake Shore Drive--in spite of the fact that each of my children were given radar detectors when they got their licenses! Fortunately, the judge let him off with only a warning. The Toyota did, however, get quite a few parking tickets, but that was Chicago. The engine was remarkable. It kept running like the Everyready bunny. We never had a major breakdown, though it rusted through two radiators and about 5 mufflers. Chicago winters were hard on the undercarriage, but the Toyota was a great drive in the snow with its snow tires and front-wheel drive. Eventually the rust got to it; the engine ran well at 130,000 miles, but the vehicle body was falling apart, like an old man in a nursing home who is fully alert but physically deteriorating. We said finally said goodbye and sold it almost 15 years later, through an ad in Craig's list.
Of course there were other cars. There was the Chevy Cavalier wagon, Oscar the Grouch, bought to accommodate three children and their friends. Oscar was indeed a grouch, and was sold by Eugene, then a teenager. As a reward for a good sales job I let him have the proceeds to buy an electric bass guitar.
Then there was the haunted Plymouth van, which we bought from a dead woman. One of the mechanics in our local garage--which kept our old clunkers in working order--lost his mother that week, and he was anxious to sell the van before the estate went into probate. He signed his mother's name and we got a used but low-mileage van, a safe car that had only been driven to church once a week by a little old lady. Rick used the car, but whenever I took the driver's seat, without fail, the electric system would go haywire, the lights wouldn't work, I couldn't turn off the headlights, or it would lock me out. I was sure it was haunted. We sold the van to a Bible-thumping family of seven who just barely squeezed into it. They were thrilled to get such a good deal, and you can be sure they didn't tolerate any nonsense from the spirit world.
And who in our family could forget The Beast, a Crown Vic that was bought on auction from the police department of our town, like the car that Elliot Blues drove in Blues Brothers. It had a very powerful V8 engine that was outfitted with a police package including a side spotlight and low profile tires. You could still see the outline of the police insignia. Eugene loved that car! He took it to graduate school in Philadelphia, where it gave him a lot of street cred, and a lot of offers to buy it. When he drove on the freeway everyone slowed down, thinking he was an undercover cop. He finally sold the car because the maintenance and gas costs were excessive, but he still misses it today.
I bought a green Dodge Neon when my oldest son, Eddy, turned 15, so he could learn to drive on an automatic transmission. It was the first automatic I had ever owned, aside from the haunted van. But of course, Eddy wanted to learn on the stick, and I was stuck driving the Neon, which promptly fell apart at 31,000 miles--the warranty ran out at 30,000. Eddy still enjoys driving a stick, and his favorite car was a green VW Cabriolet, now long gone. He is married, with two dogs, and drives a sensible Subaru.
I sold the Neon, and Rick insisted I could no longer drive the beat up old Toyota. My old cars were an embarrassment, certainly much worse than anything driven by the hospital janitor. I purchased a beautiful forest green 1985 VW Golf GTI, my second favorite car. The car had energy and spunk, though it never committed a crime like the orange Golf--unless you count speeding.
The Golf followed us to Boston, along with a new 2004 light green Hyundai Accent, standard transmission. The next year the Accent followed my daughter to college at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, and later to medical school in Madison, Wisconsin, where she and the car are still in residence. I suppose she will have to get a new car when she becomes a doctor, but for now she takes good care of her 10-year old drive, and she even asked for snow tires for her birthday!
My current drive is a dark red BMW, a 328xi, 2011. A doctor's car, my husband calls it. It is safe, with its all-wheel drive and snow tires and automatic transmission, so I can get to my morning clinic, which is 25 miles away in the Pocono Mountains. And it looks like a doctor's car. It is the second BMW I have owned, and my husband also is on his second. I suppose we are now BMW people, and of course we made the obligate visit to "BMW World" in Germany last summer. The BMW campus It's a striking architectural masterpiece, complete with the BMW logo on the tower, as you can see in the photo.
Although I am fond of my BMW, it doesn't have much personality, and it was not hard to trade in the first car to get the second, newer model. I will probably replace it with yet another 3-series BMW when the time comes, but I will not sing Auld Lang Syne after it is gone. I still miss the Toyota.
Liliana Porter. Man with Axe, 2011.
by Maniza Naqvi
Flogging newspapers with hate drawn up as free speech is a cheap self serving marketing trick. Nothing new there. Hate sells war. It sells weapons. It sells newspapers. Hate sells.
Floggings and cartoons to caricature Muslims as the newest kid on the block to hate, well that's relatively new in the scheme of history and things. And who does that? The House Saud for one, which has condemned a citizen blogger to a thousand lashes in 20 batches of 50 lashes each for his speech. Public floggings, though this one has been postponed, are routine in the Kingdom of the House Saud. The House Hebdo flogs Muslims too. Both flog and lash Muslims. And neither of them protests or caricatures war. A funny thing happened while the wars were being waged in these last fourteen years—Mecca was transformed into a strip Mall by the House of Saud. Charlie Hebdo and the House of Saud have another thing in common they couldn't give two hoots about the Prophet. They both sneer at him. And both probably consider their own versions of caricatures in the name of the Prophet their most sustainable profit making enterprise.
And both are supported by the so called leaders of freedom of speech. Witness how free speech and freedom were caricatured when those great defenders of human rights and freedom of speech, the Saudi foreign minister, Netanyahu and the President of Gabon formed the frontline at the march in Paris on January 11, 2015. Witness the eulogizing of the chief financier of extremism this week in Riyadh by all these leaders of freedom of speech--sellers of weapons, guzzlers of oil.
But lashes, words and caricatures can be survived. You cannot survive bombs and bullets. The House Saud and stunts like the House Hebdo sell hate and ensure that bombs and bullets will continue to be produced and used without question. France is the largest seller of weapons to Saudi Arabia, followed by the UK and Germany and Sweden and the US. Germany has announced its decision yesterday to stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. The majority of the Germans want Germany to stop all trade with Saudi Arabia. That is a good step.
‘I think therefore I am.' We are told that this is central to European culture. As if, it isn't a universal idea. Reason requires the ability to question and laugh be satirical. But a cheap laugh is easier to get behind than thinking it through. We are constantly being given memes and moments to stop thinking and just acquiesce to the reality of a perpetual war. And we are churning in a state of endless war. To paraphrase Graham Greene from a Gun for Sale ‘The news of a murder has pushed war off the front page.' How Rupert Murdoch must be laughing alongside most of the arms linked together thugs sales representatives of arms manufacturers, walking along solemn faced as the front line of the more than a million people march in Paris on January 11, 2015.
The cartoons and the jokes have me choking with laughter. I can't breathe because I'm laughing so hard at all this racially and religiously selective freedom of speech which confines itself to attacking the Prophet Mohammad and not war and its merchants.
It's been a Charlie Hebdo moment hasn't it these last fourteen years of war? Safe from drones and invasions and so forth cozy as June bugs watching our nightly comedy shows as sources of fact and news. Hahaha. We have been reduced to this. So we've ha-ha-ha-ed our way through the Patriot Act, drone attacks, wars, racial profiling, torture, secret black sites, extra renditions, Abu Ghraib. Yup, it's all a big laughing opportunity—free for all takers isn't it. And for those of us who don't quite get it—Its only because we don't understand satire, the subtle humor and the context is lost to us in translation because our thinking isn't sophisticated enough, we are told, to be able to understand Charlie Hebdo. Our inability to laugh is a sign of our intolerance.
Why insult Mohammad the Prophet who a billion Muslims revere and love like their mother and father and more? Why not focus on the criminals and draw cartoons of them? Ah, the Charlie Hebdo moment. Because Muslims are never victims right? Because, if they were, how would it be possible to justify this endless war? How else to justify the carnage wreaked on Gaza last summer without a peep from the world leaders on freedom of speech? How else to turn criminal individual acts into acts of war—a whole ideology with a potential army of over a billion people and their still unborn progeny?
The point of the cartoons of the Prophet are not to make fun of jihadis or extremists—but rather to make fun of Muslims. To try to show that their anger and hurt amounts to all of them being extremists. The point is to delegitimize their claim as European citizens and more importantly their claims to their ancestral lands, motherlands and homelands or any grievance caused to them there or anywhere.
The illustrative moment in the march on January 11 2015 was when all the Charlies marched arms linked, forming its frontline, the largest weapon suppliers to Saudi Arabia, led by France of course. An average of 100 people, mostly Muslim, die every single day if not more---because of war and its financiers. We've compared the jokes at the proverbial office water cooler instead of being horrified by the news of war, torture, secret renditions or surveillance. Few question the easy stilted usage of the word terrorism and terrorist. We don't need to because now the image of who is a terrorist is embedded in our brains just as the journalists were embedded in the military invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. So we've spent a decade and a half laughing and chortling away instead of protesting war and the weapons, the uranium depleted ammo and the daisy cutters and the use of phosphorous bombs.
The second illustrative moment was in which a pigeon pooped on Hollande's coat sleeve during the Paris march and the supposed bunch of ‘Je Suis Charlies' went nuts, giggling away. And that moment captures it for me. They simply don't care. Don't give a shit—pardon the pun. You see they are having so much fun. Their friends have been killed and this march is an outpouring of emotion and yet they can't take it seriously.What a lark,-quelle droll momente, ne c'est pas. Oh mon dieu! It's not that they have a joie de'vivre or they are equal opportunity offenders or whatever—or tres specifique genre of low artists—no, no, no—they're just con artists----no they simple don't care at all. That's just it. They just show a fuck you finger, because it sells. No thinking required. They don't care if those giant pencils look like missiles or bullets or pitchforks to a cowering frightened minority. Or that this one million or more march for freedom of speech can easily be a forerunner to pogroms. They're not making any point at all, except that they are racist and they are exactly like a bullying high school gang. These are unfeeling morons who insist with their bully pulpit to bully those who have no voice.
Maybe it's true the path to the profane lies through the sacred just as the journey to the sacred lies through the profane. All I know is that the profane sells by selling the sacred. There is no Prophet in this, its just Profit.
The House Hebdo the magazine and the House Saud, the House Murdoch and the weapons industry of Europe and North America have much in common. They profit from the caricaturing of the Prophet. They are all first and foremost business enterprises. The magazine enterprise and the House Saud both profited from the caricaturing of the Prophet. Witness the 5 million copies sold and witness the turning of Mecca into a tiled cheap Mall complete with an oversized Big Ben. Witness the support and outpouring of sympathy and subservience to the House of Saud, by the House of the coalition of the willing in the wars. And there you have it.
Why print such cartoons? Because they sell. There is a demand for them. This hate towards Muslims sells. What was the reason for the crime against the cartoonists? Because that sells too and so does war. This is truly frightening. The shelf lives of the products in the shops of House Murdoch, House Hebdo and House Saud have been extended for a few more decades purchased by selling hate for Muslims. At what an awful cost?
When Startups Begin to Fail
This is the 3rd of a series of brief weekly pieces on the unfolding journey of a new incubator based in New Delhi: www.startuptunnel.com, @StTnL. Checkout earlier pieces in the series: Entering Startup Tunnel and What Makes an Incubator Tick?
Prashant and Ishita came to see me on Monday afternoon. We’re a bit uncertain at this point about our startup concept, Ishita began… Maybe you can tell that we don’t perfectly align on the idea anymore...? I could tell no such thing, so I just looked intently back at them as they continued. Basically, I would like to use the remainder of the incubation program to pursue another idea, said Prashant, having to do with music, which is what I’m really about. Ishita has several ideas up her sleeve that she’s considering, including the one we came in with.
And so it begins, I thought. We’d accepted eleven startups to the program. Ten got back to us saying they would join but then we realized with had a conflict between two of them who were both working in the social health space. We withdrew our offer to one of them, bringing the cohort down to nine teams. One cofounder bailed when he finally got around to reading the fine print of our contract, leaving us with eight. Or perhaps we’re back up to nine given that Prashant and Ishita now represent two startups? Or perhaps, more realistically speaking, we’re actually down to seven?
It’s really hard for me to tell you guys what to do, I finally said.If you don’t see eye-to-eye anymore on what you want to do then there’s really nothing for it. You have to pursue what you want to pursue. If that means you’re going to work separately then I’m fine with that. But make steps towards building something, whatever it is, as soon as you can.
With Prashant and Ishita working separately, we now have five single-person startups in this cohort. That’s a proportion way higher than most people would be comfortable with. Many incubation programs won’t accept single founder startups because they’re perceived to be less resilient and fail more frequently. At the same time, any good founding vision usually comes from one single mind, who then brings others along for that journey, be they cofounders or early employees. There's always a team, but must it necessarily be a team of cofounders or will early employees do? I think we see more single founder startups in India than in the United States because of greater power-distance in this culture and because of the easy availability of technical talent. So single person startups don’t have to be the deal breaker that they are sometimes seen as in the States -- so long as the founder is really invested in the guts of the product they want to make, they can also be successful. In fact, as Mukund Mohan has argued, single founder startups can avoid the internecine conflict that can be an altogether different cause for startup failure, and allow a single vision to be pursued in a more coordinated fashion. Overheads are also lower, and so long as funding arises to pay for early employees, the path to future success is not closed. At the end of the week Prashant debuted his new idea to the cohort, and many gave him a big thumbs up. It's not a shoo-in, but it's interesting, untried, and worth pursuing.
Prashant and Ishita weren't the only ones changing their minds this week. With two rounds of mentor pitching, several different kinds of feedback sessions and one-on-one reviews, this has been a tough couple of weeks for the cohort. Many teams are being forced to rethink their initial ideas and approaches in response to hard questions from our mentors and from other members of the cohort. One team discovered that their business concept was a non-starter given the existing regulatory environment. Another team realized that while their concept pitched pretty well, and even though they were picking up early users, their product was dead-on-arrival if they couldn't figure out how to get those users to interact and transact. A third team, working on a messaging app, is trying to decide how niche to go, and how to best customise the app's user experience for a relatively niche market.
All of our exercises, pitching sessions and peer feedback exercises have been about bringing the spectre of failure more clearly into focus. I think this is one of the signal benefits of any incubation program. Teams have had the opportunity to see other teams succeed and come to quick realizations about what they will have to change about their own way of working in order to ford the same hurdles. It’s not a given, of course, that every cohort will actually be capable of responding to the new realities they must quickly confront, in which case they must bob, weave and pivot to better align their goals, they capabilities and their product with one another.
Team, Dream, Machine, is the mantra my friend Marko recited to me out in the alps some years ago. It remains the minimum three point checklist for any startup that wants to remain in business and get to a respectable level of early stage funding. But expert opinion remains divided as to which of these matters more. One school of investors says it's all about giving money to smart people. Even if their initial idea is flawed, they'll eventually get the picture and change their idea -- you never change the people. Another group will cites surveys showing that the number one reason that startups fail is that they are pursuing a product and business idea that really no one wants now, and in fact no one will never come to want later either. In this way of thinking, the people are not the critical differentiating factor, but rather the alignment of those individuals with lead users or niche consumers of the proposed product. If this alignment can improved somehow, the business viability of the startup can be substantially enhanced. This is in fact our own point of view as well, and it is also the reason we are spending so much time asking startup teams to draw and diagram their customers' journeys and to spell out different points of uncertainty and doubt. They can then focus on these areas of fog through new user inquiry and product definition.
The causes of startup failure will, of course, multiply determined. I'm afraid I haven't seen this more complex and sociologically-grounded view reflected in any Silicon Valley survey I've come across so far. These causes will have to do with the dynamics between team members as well as the many ideas and thoughts that string them together, as well as the product they end up making together. At each point there is the potential for new insights from the market to be included and for a better fit with reality to be effected. It's when teams are unable or unwilling to hear these signals that one should worry. If the team cannot make a habit of converting market challenges into product features and market strategies then there is nothing live here, just an inert idea with a ticking half-life that was probably partially misconceived to begin with. It's only when startups begin to become aware of how they are failing or missing the market that they really come alive to the mortal struggle they're already locked in, and begin taking steps towards success.
This is the 3rd of a series of brief weekly pieces on the unfolding journey of a new incubator based in New Delhi: www.startuptunnel.com, @StTnL. Checkout earlier pieces in the series: Entering Startup Tunnel and What Makes an Incubator Tick?
Monday, January 19, 2015
A new year
by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
It's 2015. The year has begun clandestinely, as have I. The days suddenly feel lighter, and full of possibility. Even as I say this, I feel performative. After all, how can the beginning of a year be anything but full of possibility? Beginnings are where we take a measure of ourselves, and our world, and speak aloud of all the things we will accomplish in the year and the ways in which we will not end December on a note of things we could have done, a list of 'almosts'.
I almost wrote a book once, I might say.
I almost saw a leopard once. This was at Yala National Park. We had been driving around for a few hours on a late December afternoon. The sun was going down. Much like other urban tourists, we were there in the hope of our big prize, a leopard sighting. Under the watchful eyes of a guide whose last name was Don, we scoured the grounds seeking signs of the famed park dweller. The sun went down, and we were almost ready to leave disappointed when Mr.Don signaled to indicate that all hope was not lost yet. We veered away from the other vehicles and turned onto a long stretch of road by a swamp to wait by a tree. Somewhere across the pond, we could hear the cries of deer. The cries came intermittently, growing louder, and then fainter. The guide, the driver, and my companion and I sat quietly as we were gradually enveloped by darkness. The quality of that waiting is difficult to capture. The leopard was at its prey, a few metres away even as we waited for it to emerge. Things were so quiet. Every now and then, a faint cry broke through dusk. We sat in silence, sharing the same hope, and I suppose, the same sorrow. A deer might be killed. The leopard might go hungry. Only one of two things would happen.
Of course, while everyone comes to Yala to see leopards, I had also wanted to come to see where the tsunami had swept away people. Having read Sonali Deraniyagala's incredibly brave memoir of loss and pain, "Wave", I was drawn to this remote outpost that had witnessed the events she speaks so poignantly about. Many years ago, my graduate class and I survived an earthquake but had been far enough to feel its effects only perfunctorily. To this day, the only memory I have of this event is of feeling like perhaps the dog had hidden under my bed. That, and a faint visual memory of the earth heaving like waves.
So at the place that still bore signs of the giant wave, we waited for the leopard to show. I meditated on that uncanny quiet evening upon loss, and fear, and darkness. No leopard came. I'd like to think that the deer got away.
As I looked through my notes on Yala to remember the details of a year ago, I squinted at my diary and at my faint notes. I remember being at a hotel room outside Yala later that night playing with a black and white kitten that pulled at my hand as I tried unsuccessfully to write. Swatting it with one hand, I had grabbed a blunt pencil with the other and jotted down as much as I could recall from the day. This was why the notes were faint; first the kitten, and then the pencil.
Does anyone write with pencils anymore? I have always thought that the humble instrument only serves artists, architects, schoolchildren and of course, as the answer to that tired old question about innovative low-tech solutions for space travel.
A few months ago, I wrote a column about writing letters. Deciding to take my own advice, I hunted for foolscap sheets and finding none, I turned the house upside down. I was rewarded for my efforts with a box of fine pencils. I know that my some kind person had found these for me from a trip to Germany long years ago. Such beautiful inventions, I thought. Fine tipped, lean, and so full of promise, albeit a quiet kind.
I am currently reading Steinbeck's "Journal of a Novel". Steinbeck pencils daily letters to his editor even as he crafts "East of Eden" and also writes lovingly of the tools of his craft, pencils. He changes pencils, finds favorites, and remarks specifically on how useful his indulgent purchase of an electric sharpener has been. I marvel at how prolific he is, writing letters about his book even as he writes his book. I also marvel at his object attachments that lead to such immense productivity. Mine only lead to hoarding. But then, I console myself, Steinbeck has his Vera. On most days, I am neither Nabokov nor Vera. What I am is a fine procrastinator.
Every other day, as I tend to my almost-book, I organize my notes, adjust my chair and sink into it in repose, imagining my picture on the inside cover of a book dust jacket. Keeping in mind the advice of other infinitely more published friends, I look off-camera. These important details squared away, I knit my brows at the difficult business of finding actual content, and desperately seek the next distraction. Today, it's pencils.
My handwriting when writing with pencils is terrible. It often tears through paper and can be very uneven. It tells me the truth that I do not want to acknowledge, that I am heavy-handed. Pencils should be held like the edge of a kite string. I am also terrible at flying kites.
I like sharpening pencils though, and I like making flowers out of the delicate whorls of pencil shavings. Flowers such as these would make beautiful New Year greeting cards I think. But then, we do not send cards anymore either. New Year rituals long years ago included the bulk purchase of UNESCO or CRY greeting cards, the hunt for black leather address books, and wintery afternoon sessions of writing out in long hand names, wishes, and hopes for acquaintances, and friends at large. These years, New Year rituals include escaping from everybody at large.
In further procrastination, I return to Steinbeck and I make notes with a newly sharpened pencil. Confidently, I draw out these tentative, and hesitating observations by the side of his carefully ordered sentences. Pen marks are loud and pushy. Pencil marks merely engage, and in such self-effacing ways at that. The pleasure of writing on the margins of books is really quite singular. Susan Sontag writes of the pleasures of writing aloud. I hate it. I much prefer this silent interlocution with a silent author. For long years, I couldn't write in books, believing that I was defacing them. Writing in pencil helps, because surely pencil marks can be erased? Things can rarely be erased these days. We leave signs of our presence everywhere and all signs are under observation. There is no starting over. Our histories are in code, and all our secret pleasures open to scrutiny. We must not write anymore except when things we write are not worth scrutiny. Perhaps, writing with pencils might make for a good New Year resolution. But resolutions are a tired old game. Everything about our craven craving for order at the beginning of the year comes already exposed and foiled in the shape of resolutions.
So yes, we are in a new year. What is the New Year, but the old in another guise? Except, as any good post-structuralist will tell you, guises are all we have. Happy new year folks.
Bill Hudson. Birmingham, Alabama, May 3, 1963.
"... Associated Press photographer Bill Hudson is perhaps best known for capturing this galvanizing image of Parker High School student Walter Gadsden being attacked by police dogs in Birmingham, Alabama on May 3, 1963; a three column-spanning version of the shocking photo ran above the fold in The New York Times the following day."
"When a group of young women in rural Georgia were placed under lock and key after protesting segregation at the local library, photos like the one above, which was snapped through the bars by new journalism pioneer Danny Lyon, helped secure their release."
by Leanne Ogasawara
I never really understood the expression, "drank the Kool-Aid" --until I went to Jerusalem. It happened at the Western Wall, where I found myself standing in a very long line to the ladies' restroom. The young woman ahead of me turned around to look intently into my eyes as she spoke of her love of Jesus Christ. Talking blissfully of her savior, she told me a bit about the evangelic church tour she was on. Those tours don't spend all that much time in Jerusalem, she explained, for their focus is up in the north, where Jesus had his ministry along the Sea of Galilee. Rarely stopping in churches either; they don't acknowledge their Orthodox and Catholic counterparts as co-brethren.
I was not so surprised by what she said, since the Via Dolorosa had been filled that week with Orthodox pilgrims from Russia; along with Catholics from Africa and southern India and Indonesia. It was a more eastern Christian church along the stations and in the Sepulchre. It was an unfamilar Christianity for an American in many ways, in fact.
What I found disturbing was not what she was saying but by the strange look she had in her shining eyes. So deeply committed to the point of tearing up as she spoke--she appeared almost alngelic in her religious certainty. It scared the hell out of me...
American novelist Robert Stone died a few days ago. I rarely read North American fiction and to be honest, I had only just discovered his work--having been recently really impressed by his novel Damascus Gate.
The reviews uniformly mentioned that Damascus Gate was peopled by Stone's usual cast of "outcasts." Searching for meaning beyond the practical concerns of family, corporate job and mortgage, they are characters who reject "what most people want." And searching for personal meaning, his characters drift toward dangerous places--particularly in the third world, where they are taken up in revolutionary activities or get mixed up with all manner of religious nutcases.
And speaking of religious fanatics I am reading a really interesting book about the terrifying alliance between Christian Zionists and Jewish Zionists in Israel. I am a big fan of Victoria Clark and I really like this book of hers as well.
The title says it all, I think: Allies for Armageddon. I couldn't really find many reviews online, but the topic is a similar one as taken up by Stone in Damascus Gate, in which Christian fundamentalists are shown trying to achieve the Second Coming by funding and collaborating with Jewish nationalists to blow up al Aqsa on Temple Mount. (For anyone not following their "logic," the Second Coming cannot be realized unless the Temple is re-built and the temple cannot be re-built unless the Dome of the Rock is cleared to make way for it. Their reasons are so tenuous and shaky that I couldn't really spell them out any better than simply to state, this is what they think for some reason). In the novel by Stone, the alliance is specifically with American Fundamentalist groups and Israeli politicians of the Likud persuasion.
In both books, the Fundamentalists are foaming at the mouth to "force the hand of God." These are no mere crusaders aiming to control the Holy City and bring back relics, but rather these people are serious millenarians in the 17th century tradition. In fact, Clark traces a fairly straight line from the beliefs of the founding Puritans straight down to Christian Zionists today, such Falwell, Robertson, and Hal Lindsey.
In Stone's novel however, these two factions (Christian and ultra Jewish Zionists) are too wily to do their own work-- and instead use a group of spiritual seekers to do it. Typical Stone characters, the seekers are wandering the world in search of personal meaning --but being isolated and adrift they have no idea what they are doing. Putty in the hands of the Zionists, they become pawns. They are too unmoored to have any common sense. But how religious were the Boston bombers or the murderers in Paris? As with the terrorists on the planes in NYC, the more you read about them, the less grounded in religion they appear--more like isolated outsiders in a novel...
Of believers of millenarian philosophy, Clark writes this:
Dreams of obtaining a thousand-year heaven on earth by way of a comprehensive cataclysm have tended to flourish whenever a society's values are changing and old structures breaking down, wherever peace, security and happiness are at a premium. The typical millenarian dream assuages feelings of incomprehension and powerlessness by converting them into a sharply focused trust in supernatural intervention.
Sometimes a nut is just a nut. But when these fundamentalist nuts are manipulated by political leaders (by the Saudis or Israeli politicians seeking to remain in power or whoever), it starts getting scary. It has nothing to do with particular religions, peoples or race but everything to do with nationalism and politics, I would say. For as Zizek asks, are the worst of the religious nutters really full of passionate intensity?
The cartoons were never my cup of tea-- and I have no strong opinion (or even real understanding) of the slogan je suis CH. That said, however, I hate to see humor go the way of play in our socity. As a friend of this blog, Justin Smith justly states,
We are living in such an image-critically illiterate age that jihadists in France and professors in American universities alike are entirely unable to interpret the Charlie Hebdo cartoons beyond a dull, clerical registering of the content of the images. There has been virtually no effort to make sense of their context, nor indeed of their success or failure as instances of the art of caricature. The attackers say "These images are an insult to the Prophet and they must be avenged," and the social-media activists say, "Um, these images are racist, and that's not OK," but the critical skills at work in both cases are roughly the same. I certainly will not defend all of them, though I do think many are works of true inspiration. They have little in common with the hack work in the Danish newspapers (to which the great Art Spiegelman gave generally low grades) that set off this brutal campaign against cartoonists some years ago.
While I won't defend them all, I believe it is crucial for society to provide what we might think of as 'satirist insurance', which would grant the people who play this vital role the freedom to misfire, and not to be thrown to the lions when they do. It is their job to explore the boundary between biting social commentary and offense. They are not politicians, and they should not be held up to the same standards.
I couldn't agree more and really loved his piece. So therefore, standing up with play, humor and art against the modern condition of prosaic efficiency, utilitarianism and "the hell of the literal, I want to send out my hope that Salman Rushdie wins the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. It's high time he wins it-- and what a year it would be to do it.
Images by artist Meg Hitchcock (Top image are letters cut from Rushdie's Satanic Verses) /Video here where artist discusses fundamentalism and art as the True Religion
What Makes An Incubator Tick?
It’s been three days and our eight teams are already up, pitching for their lives. Watching them from the front row is a series of mentors we’ve curated, from areas like branding, user interface design, product development, technology, business and investing. There’s a tug between the mentors and the startups underway -- criticism and backtalk, kicking the tires and trash-talking the car, defending its value and selling its golden possibilities.
Startup mentoring is a lot like teaching, supervising, consulting, parenting -- plus maybe running a cult retreat. It can’t happen without a deep and personal bond between the mentor and mentee. That relationship usually arises accidentally, through life circumstances, working relationships and chance meetings. Here we were engineering that relationship into existence, several entities and multiple individuals at a time.
In the run up to our first day, my main goal was to ensure that I made a personal connection with each cofounder. Without this central relationship gelling, the whole thing would fall apart, fall away. In the weeks leading up to the launch of Startup Tunnel I’d been taking long winter walks, doing yoga and actively working on clearing my thoughts to make space for this set of startups and their many needs. I also designed a series of exercises that would allow startup founders to see in one another and in our mentor group a useful set of resources that they could draw from as they developed their business. I scripted every aspect of our initial interactions in detail. There would be a ball to play with, a registration desk, thirty chairs set up against the demodeck, startup names posted along their workstations. There would be self-introductions, peer-feedback sessions, a seminar and workshop on understanding end users.
This way of working is not very old. It brings together three distinct kinds of expertise: entrepreneurial insight, technology capacity and financial investing. It was Y-Combinator, beginning in the summer of 2005, that began putting batches of young entrepreneurs through a common program of enrichment, trying to learn through that process what would work and what wouldn’t, thereby iteratively improving their program and reinforcing observed insights. Y-Combinator has enjoyed extraordinary success over the past nine years, having seeded numerous successful startups, in which the group’s equity holdings now exceed a billion dollars USD. But the scope of their success is even more unfathomable when one considers that they have also brought into existence a significant new business model that inverts everything that most people thought they knew about business: that entrepreneurial success cannot be predicted, that the charisma of the entrepreneur cannot be taught or improved, that entrepreneurship cannot be any better organized or routinized.
In Silicon Valley, Xerox PARC was an early attempt at systematizing technology innovation under a new kind of industrial umbrella, but it built on earlier models of the corporate lab -- Large corporate research labs -- Bell, AT&T, Kodak. PARC has been accused of fumbling the future, but the means to align funding resources to useful innovation activities that had been somehow validated with the market simply hadn’t been devised at that time. Corporate extension programs for tech universities, industrial parks attached to campuses, and other kinds of tech transfer entities all suffer from the absence of market signalling. It’s when individual investors vote not only with their mouths, but also with their wallets on what kinds of startup dreams should be funded, that a more focused and rapidly self-evolving type of innovation can be unleashed.
With the dawn of the internet, all kinds of entrepreneurial frenzy was unleashed, which brought scheming tech investors into a difficult dialogue with the more sedate and tony world of equity investors. Michael Wolf’s 1999 novel Burn Rate provides a glimpse of that pre-Y-Combinator cowboy frontier, where scheming tech investors could easily swindle soft-shoe old money, and the worlds of private equity financing and startup advisory services had yet to synthesize and recombine. The startup incubator provides a stable intellectual and social space where these worlds can collide and forge something new.
On account of Y-Combinator’s success there has been an explosion of incubators and accelerators in every part of the world, including in India. In 2009, The Morpheus began incubating companies remotely, operating out of Chandigarh. Venture Studio began trying to bridge the worlds of design and investment at NID in Ahmedabad. The Times of India opened its TLabs out of an building in NOIDA outside Delhi, where it had once planned to house a television and films division. GSF began incubating batches of mobile and tech startups in New Delhi and Bangalore two times a year. Microsoft and Google host and enable developers through their offices in Gurgaon and Bangalore with a view to keeping their respective platforms well stocked with apps and games interesting for their users. And Silicon Valley investors like Vinod Khosla have opened offices in Bangalore. More and more sophisticated and thematically-specific kinds of programs are now being planned, including at med-tech incubator in Bangalore. That’s the crowded field in which we’re now digging Startup Tunnel.
As with conventional institutions of higher education, one of the strongest predictors of incubator success is the strength of their pipeline: when strong teams are competing to enter an incubator, it’s a better bet that stronger teams will exit. Along the way, they seem to receive a still ad-hoc mix of war stories from former investors, critical feedback from specialists in different areas from technology to finance to marketing. They also meet potential investors at demodays and other networking events, which can also shake open their social network and increase the chance for them to achieve entrepreneurial success. All this sounds decidedly unscientific, and I believe there’s still abundant opportunity to better understand what entrepreneurs need and how those needs can most effectively and quickly be met.
Startup Tunnel has organized its incubation program into a series of seminars and workshops under two distinct heads: Product Development and Startup Operations. The first ensures that teams arrive at product concepts that truly solve existing needs for end users, while the second helps the entrepreneur conceptualize a large business at scale and then design a pathway for how to arrive there. The formal, routinized part of the program is complemented by the individualized attention and mentoring that startups received through our network of mentors. But in order to receive this mentorship they must first connect with a mentor, and convince them that the startup concept is worth their time and effort. Startups get a chance to chat up mentors through a speed-dating exercise right after pitch presentations. We bring in some seven to nine mentors to review eight startups, and follow up with a process of mutual matching between them, face-to-face as well as online.
All of our structured training is about readying founders for the marketplace. Once they’re up there, explaining and defending their proposition, and the audience begins to evince some interest in the startup, the buzz can get dizzying. It all begins to feel very real. You can breathe in the electric current of the market.
* * *
This is the second of a series of brief pieces by Aditya Dev Sood on the unfolding journey of a new incubator based in New Delhi: www.startuptunnel.com, @StTnL. Also check out the first article, which was published on 3QD last week.
Monday, January 12, 2015
I'm on a Big Boat
I think I'm supposed to call it a ship. I get confused about these things. All I know for sure is that we're headed south.
I used to be tough when it came to winter. Not like strap-on-some-snow-shoes-and-hunt-a-walrus-with-a-harpoon tough, but tough enough that a five month season in Nebraska or Michigan didn't bother me. That, however, was then.
I've lived in Maryland since 2001. It's made me soft. When I first showed up, I thought to myself: These people are pathetic. Complaining about their mild, mid-Atlantic winter that lasts all of ten weeks. Can't drive worth a damn in the snow. Losers.
And I do still make fun of them for their shitty winter driving and their weird snow amnesia; every year when it snows for the first time (and it snows almost every year), there's a collective gasp of horror and frenzied panic, as if they've never seen the white before. Two inches, they close all the schools and pillage the supermarket. But by the time it dumps eight inches in late February, they're acting like seasoned pros, talking about how this one's easier to shovel than the last one because the snow's not as wet. Every year, the same thing, evolving in two months from snow virgins to grizzled winter vets. Strangest fuckin' thing I've ever seen.
I think mocking them for stuff like that is the right thing to do. But the truth is, after fourteen years, I'm soft too. It gets below 50F, I start to shiver. I recently told that to a native New Yorker who transplanted to Minnesota. He didn't respond. It was over the phone, so I couldn't see his facial expression. Couldn't tell if he wanted to strangle me or if he was just silently crying to himself.
I'm not proud of having turned weak when it comes to the cold, but I'm not ashamed either. Fuck it. I'm skinny and I don't like being cold. And so one question has dogged me for several years now, vis a vis winter:
How can I get warm on the cheap?
I'd been toying with that question for a few years, but last winter broke me. I didn't want to endure it again. The 2013-2014 season was a tough one throughout the East. From Maine to Arkansas, whatever passes for your normal winter, it was colder and longer than that.
In Baltimore that meant winter was three and a half months instead of two and a half. It meant frequent bouts with temperatures in the twenties and teens. It was so bad, I wrote about it here. Wasted your time, dear readers, with my drivel about how it was so goddamn cold, and for so long, that it was the first Maryland winter to ever remind me of a Michigan winter.
Fuck that. I'm soft. I'm weak. I want out. Don't wanna write about winter anymore. I just wanna be warm.
How can I do it on the cheap? As I looked into it, the same answer to that question kept popping up.
Get on a big boat and sail south to the Caribbean.
I'm not the kind of person who wants to take a cruise. You don't know me, but I know myself, and I'm not that kind of person. Especially not in this here modern world where just about any leisure activity designed for thousands of middle class people is corporatized, homogenized, and watered down to the point that it all kinda seems the same. The formula's pretty well known at this point. Spend half a billion dollars or so on something that'll make people ooh and ahh. Then, while they're craning their necks and pointing, overcharge by about 1000% for any ingestibles or tchotchkes you can pawn off on them.
A sporting event, a concert, even a big Vegas hotel once you strip away all the weird Vegas shit. It's all kinda the same. Lots of white people shuffling around in flip flops and t-shirts, sucking down overpriced drinks, overpaying for incredibly salty food, talking about sports or TV or the pre-packaged local exotica, gawking at one thing or another, and getting fleeced by the entertainment corporation at nearly every turn.
I'm not the kind of person to really enjoy that. I don't even own any flip flops. A cruise? Sounds like nothing more than a seaworthy suburban retirement community for pensioners of all ages. I have zero interest.
But fuck it, I tell myself. I don't care. It's not about having a good time. It's not about doing anything interesting with anyone interesting. It's about one thing and one thing only: get some fuckin' sunshine rays on my skinny white ass and warm me the fuck up for long and cheap.
For $950 bucks you're gone for ten days. That includes your room on the ship. That includes all the incredibly salty food you can eat. That includes pre-paying tips to most of the exploited service workers. And the big boat even leaves out of Baltimore, a 15 minute drive from my house.
Shit. Sign me up. Let's do this.
There's a lot that can be said about a floating village of several thousand people bobbing through the Atlantic at about 30 miles per hour. Too much, perhaps. But the first thing that comes to mind, as I acclimate to life on the big boat, is dog shows.
Once upon a time there were elites and commoners and not much in between. But with the advent of the industrial revolution, big business corporations, urbanization, global conquest, and international commerce, Europe and the United States witnessed the rise of a new middle class. During the 19th century, merchants and eventually managers, bureaucrats, and the like carved out a new socio-economic niche for themselves.
The new middle class certainly weren't rich. Rather, despite their strident striving, grand aspirations, and frequent delusions, any sober economic analysis shows the middle classes were (and still are) much closer to the poorer classes than the millionaire robber barons and such. But perhaps that's exactly why the new white collar folk were so hell bent on distancing themselves from the poor, treating them like the embarrassing relations who show up unannounced and spoil the carefully planned party.
The best way to ensure they wouldn't be confused with the poor, many new middle class people reckoned, was by actively aping the rich. Sometimes this was easy. Save up some money for a nice set of china and flatware, and then follow arcane rules about how to use them. But sometimes passing for rich was all but impossible, and efforts to do so were laughable
Like dog shows.
Wealthy aristocrats had land. They had commoners to work that land and tend to the animals for them. And from this they derived various forms of prestige and leisure time activities, like showing off their prized animals. Here, let's have a fair, and you can all admire my large and sturdy cow. Isn't she pretty? Yes, agreed. Now give her a ribbon. A blue one, if you would.
But when you're middle class? No, you don't own much land, and you certainly don't have any blue ribbon cattle. But you can have some dogs if you like. Those are within your means. Let's groom them and show them off like the rich people do. And presto! You get eyebrow archingly bizarre shit like kennel club dog shows.
That's what the big boat reminds me of at first.
The clientele is decidedly middle class, mostly of the midd-middle and upper-middle varieties. These are retirees living on savings and a pension, not some gaudy inheritance. These are couples and families in the very high five digit or very low six digit income salary range, not millionaire Wall Street financiers or corporate honchos. You get the feeling that no one on this boat has a second or third home, because if they did, they wouldn't be here.
So they are here, experiencing some extremely diluted version of a Titanic-era luxury liner. But just as a snotty-nosed shih-tzu will never be a white face Hereford despite whatever airs the kennel club puts on, the truly shitty food they serve up in this boat's formal dining room will never be anything but that, despite the reasonably fine attire attire worn by the patrons or the exceptional service provided by the even better dressed staff.
It's a floating dog show.
Speaking of the staff, they are of course the central piece to any breezy class analysis we might like to indulge in.
That was the editorial "we," though given the topic, perhaps it should be the royal "we."
Anyway, I'm not here to provide some dumbed down, dogmatic Marxist interpretation of what's going down on the big boat. I don't know what kind of lives the workers here have or what they think of their jobs, whether they're happy to have them for the right reasons or the sad reasons, or whether they're just resentful and occasionally reconstitute the powdered mashed potatoes with their urine.
That being said, however, you have to have social blinders on not to be taken at least somewhat aback by the fact that the clientele looks to be at least 90% white Americans (the remainder mostly Asian and Asian American), and the servant class is overwhelmingly foreign workers, with a clear majority of them not white, although there are also some Eastern Europeans; most every service worker wears a name tag that says where they're from.
Of course it makes sense that an international cruise line would have an international labor pool. However, within it there is also an obvious pecking order. The white workers (including many Americans) are in the higher middle class positions, such as the cruise director, the piano bar singer, and the guy who gives you a truly curious lecture about art history and then tries to sell you a bunch of paintings at an auction.
Above them are those men in uniforms (I've seen one woman among them so far), nearly all of them white, who presumably give all the orders. This includes the captain, who at the opening night reception, stood atop the grand staircase like a naval Santa Clause as people lined up to have their picture taken with him.
The people who clean your room and serve your food and perform various odd tasks around the boat? None of them from the developed world and none of them white, so far as I can tell.
And in this respect, once again the big boat is very much like any other form of large scale, corporate leisure time activity. It's a disturbing commentary on the state of the world for, oh, the last half-a-millennium or so. It may preclude me from ever doing this again. It's never very far from my mind and it colors my perceptions of everything.
I wonder how many of the thousands of other patrons on the boat think about. I suspect very few. Even when they're on the islands, where the hustle gets gritty.
On Christmas Eve a friend passed a long a piece of gossip after I told her I was going on a cruise. She said that executives she met from a particular cruise line, which shall remain nameless, refer to their clientele as "the newlywed, the nearly dead, and the overfed."
It's funny. It looks to be mostly true. And of course it's unfair, snobby, and the worst kind of cynicism.
After two days aboard the big boat, most of the people seem to be perfectly nice. They come across as working stiffs and retirees looking to get their little slice of the good life. Like the guy I met in the hot tub.
He's from near Buffalo, New York. He takes his family on a cruise once every five years. They save up the money and go. He drove all the way down to Baltimore. Normally a six and a half hour drive, because of the weather it was closer to ten
A nice enough fella. Talked a little too much, not very interesting. What came out of his mouth was very predictable. Like most people I've met here, he wasn't terribly inventive, creative, or daring. Or at least that's what I gathered from ten minutes of idle chatter in a hot tub, which means I'm a smug, overeducated, judgmental prick.
So despite all the disturbing socio-economics on this boat, and they are disturbing, on some level I'm disinclined to begrudge these people their moment of low rent luxury. And I certainly don't want to mock them for not being as bourgeoise as my upper middle class friends who take sabbaticals in Europe, who regularly dine in the East Coast's best restaurants, or who refer to the New York-London trans-Atlantic metropole as NyLon. That stuff has its paw prints all over our ongoing exploitation of the developing world just as much as the big boat does.
Anyway, it's not these cruisers' fault that the world sucks. They're not the big fish. They're not the politicians and CEOs who perpetuate this global system of inequity and profit from it. They're just the regular people who happen to be from an irregularly wealthy empire. They're the farmers and centurions of Rome. They're the small tradesmen and yeomanry of Imperial England. They're the guy who drives his family more than nine hours in the snow so they can get a little sunshine, eat Olive Garden quality food, sip a drink with an umbrella in it, and get a sniff of the good life before they turn back to ashes and dust.
We left late Tuesday afternoon. By Thursday, I'm up top on the big boat, lounging poolside. It's 72 and sunny. Back home it's 12. I've decided that it would be fitting, on many levels, if I were to stand upon the deck of this big boat and have a big banner drop down behind me that says Mission Accomplished.
I am shallow and fragile and, like the rest of humanity, ultimately disappointing. And anyone who tells you Southern California has perfect weather hasn't been to the Caribbean.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com.
Heaven and Hell—in Bruges
by Leanne Ogasawara
"Every night God takes his glittering
merchandise out of his showcase--
holy chariots, tables of law, fancy beads,
crosses and bells--
and puts them back into dark boxes
inside and pulls down the shutters: "Again,
not one prophet has come to buy."
Jerusalem: utterly obssessed by the place, I even love finding copies of the holy city-- both imaginal and real. There are, for example, William Blake's rural England of his imagination (Ah, Jerusalem) and the Puritan's "city upon a hill" in America. There are also the real Jerusalems built of brick and stone.
Such real-life copies can be found mainly in European cities, from Cambridge to Bologna. My own favorite "new Jerusalem" is the holy city of Lalibela in Ethiopia, however, where it is believed that pilgrims receive the same blessing visiting that city as they would if they had visited Jerusalem itself. It is a place I long to see someday.
Despite knowing that copies of Jerusalem can be found dotted around Europe, I never really expected to find one so far north as in the Flemish city of Bruges.
Belgium's greatest poet Guido Gezelle referred to the city as a "copy of the holy land." But, in the movie In Bruges, the mob boss Harry calls the town a "fucking fairy tale."
In any event, my astronomer and I were visiting the city on a van Eyck pilgrimage. Starting in Paris, we looked at van Eyck pictures in the Louvre, in Ghent and then in Bruges --and I was struck over and over again by the way time was conflated in the paintings. Like a wormhole connecting discrete and distant points in time, these late Medieval and early Renaissance pictures were stunningly transportive in terms of time and space so that, for example, Mary and the baby or the Lamb were depicted side-by-side with contemporary figures. Contemporary donors appeared in the paintings accompanied by their patron saints, who thereby formed a link between these two worlds. The church authorities not surprisingly clamped down on this practice and the early Renaissance donor portraits disappeared --but it was in Bruges that I realized how wonderful it would be to see oneself in a picture like that. If I lived back then, I certainly would have desired a picture of myself like that, depicted alongside saints, pilgrims and God. Is it not the ultimate selfie?
In summer, I had written here in these pages about relics and their long-lost power to emotionally and spiritually transport and spiritually move a person, asking:
I wonder if things have the power to move us in this way anymore? I mean, there was a time (the time Umberto Eco likes to write about) when people were obsessed by fantastical maps and with great quests for objects that held much power. Like mountains, certain objects had the power to draw people in. Relics, for example, were big business. Think of Sainte-Chappele, built to house the Crown of Thorns or recall the mystery surrounding the quests for the Holy Grail. Eco's Baudolino is almost entirely taken up with the relic trade and the role played by faith (faith in the fragrance of these relics--where it is the perfume that is true-- not necessarily the relic itself). This kind of devotion to relics is famously practiced by Catholics and Buddhists, and probably harkens back to an ancient propensity for becoming enchanted by things.
It is also a commitment to remember, right? (Poor, dear Henri Fontal!)
Believe it or not Bruges happens to be in possession of one of the Top Ten Relics Associated with Jesus Christ. This came about when the Count of Flanders, Thierry of Alsace, was given a relic of the Holy Blood by the king of Jerusalem, Baldwin III of Anjou (who I think was also the count's brother-in-law). Given as a reward for his courage during the second crusade it came with the approval of the patriarch of Jerusalem. In all probability the relic was obtained during the sack of Constantinople a hundred years later --but whatever the fact, this relic was to put Bruges on the map big time (transforming the town into a holy city)-- and the adoration of the relic is the main reason that Bruges came to be seen as a little Jerusalem.
The blood of Christ was seen by some as being what is commonly referred to as "the Holy Grail." (Sang Real, etc.) Interestingly, the man credited with starting the legend of the Grail romance, Chrétien de Troyes, stated that he had found the story of the Grail in a manuscript supposedly given to him by Philip of Alsace, who was the son of Thierry of Alsace--the very man who brought the vial of blood back from Jerusalem in 1150. Or so the legend goes.
Remember in the movie In Bruges when Ken and Ray go to visit the relic of the Holy Blood? Instead of going to the Basilica of the Holy Blood where the relic is actually housed, the two characters visit an altogether different church. It seems crazy not to film such a famous relic in the church where everyone knows it is kept and yet how could the director resist Jerusalem Church? So, we see Ken and Ray in Jerusalem church, preparing to view the relic of the holy blood.
It is such a great scene in what is such a great film!
It all started around the time that van Eyck was painting his Mystic Lamb altarpiece (un sospiro~) that two members of the illustrious Italian banking family, the Adornes, returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Deeply impressed by the beauty of the Christ's tomb in Jerusalem, the two brothers immediately began work on their own chapel based on the design of the Holy Sepulchre upon their return to Bruges.
With its rounded dome and Jerusalem cross atop, it is reminiscent of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem--but what awaits one inside is what is the real surprise. The clip from the film describes the feeling best, I think. Here it is again.
Beneath soaring crosses and a dark and morbid altar of skulls and bones, along with whips, nails and hammers, lies the the crypt of Anselm (who died while engaging in intrigues in Scotland) and his beloved wife Maragaretha. It is Golgotha. The scene of Ray and Jen talking in the church is classic. Instead of the holy blood, however, in reality when one ascends upstairs there one fins a splinter of the True Cross, also brought back from the holy Land. Un unexplained mystery, as described here, it is not prominently displayed nor was it being worshipped (compared to the massive crowds at the Holy Blood relic). It's my favorite scene in the movie and in many ways perfectly depicts the gloomy or morbidly medieval mood of Bruges. For there were orders of men (knights?) that grew up around the crusades--orders such as the Order of the Holy Sepulchre (of which Anselm was a card-carrying member) and the Knights Hospitaller, also known as the Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, who had toyed with the idea of turning Bruges into a "New Jerusalem," which could serve as spiritual HQ of Europe, should Jerusalem and the Sepulchre fall again to "the Moors."
The Dead City (Glück das mir verblieb). I am now reading George Rodenbach's Bruges-La-Morte. Believe it or not, I had never heard of the book (nor the opera which some say inspired the making of Hitchcock's Verigo). Filled with beautiful black and white photographs, it is one of the most stunning portaits of a city that I have ever read. Rodenbach indeed insisted that cities reflect different states of the soul. And, in the author's introduction to the novel, in his poetic and evocative prose he writes:
In this study of passion our other principle aim has been to evoke a Town, the Town as essential character, associated with states of mind, counselling, dissuading, inducing the hero to act. And in reality, this town of Bruges, on which our choice fell, does seem almost human. It establishes a powerful influence on all who stay there.
It molds them through its monuments and its bells.
Devastated at the loss of his beloved wife the main character chooses Bruges as the perfect place to mourn. So much like in Mann's Death in Venice, the city is portrayed like death itself. With cold and still, unmoving waters filling the city's canals, the swans themselves become images of decay and death; while the famous bells of the belfy toll with the stagnation and weight of the church (or maybe like in Pamuk's Istanbul, it seems to be crumbling by the sheer weight of its own glorious history?) Before long the story becomes a stage for the character's fight between darkness and light as he obsessively struggles with the allure of a young dancer with whom he confuses with that of his beloved lost wife ("even their voices are identical"). The story does not end well. In fact, it ends in the death of the novel's title...
But Bruges is not simply a "dead city," like Mann's Venice or Pamuk's Istanbul. Because Bruges is both about heaven and hell.
The mind is its own place,
and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell,
a Hell of Heaven.
- John Milton
Burning in hell-- this city after all was the inspiration for the "Dante of the painters" Bosch's images of hell. For as Joel Bleifuss says, it is a city with a dark past.
While the sleepy, medieval backdrop to Martin McDonagh's hitman comedy certainly appears like the setting for a fairy tale, it also hides a very dark past, one full of fundamentalist depravity and dank dungeons as well as knights and ladies. It was a city of contradictions-host to one of the most spectacular banquets in medieval times and the inspiration for Hieronymus Bosch's hellish visions
The movie is very much taken up with these images of hell and of purgatory. It is a place where nothing works and everyone dies. As Ernest Mathijs says,
The key to In Bruges is its nothingness. Nothing works, nothing is sacred; every action misses its goal; everyone is misunderstood; and no one escapes.
What a strange fate for a city said to be holy; a city housing a relic of the True Cross and a vessel containing drops of the Holy Blood. But I think it is perhaps this dual quality of heaven and hell that most ties the place to Jerusalem. As I said about Jerusalem here, maybe Bruges too exists as a heavenly city lying on the same axis as purgatory AND heaven -- as not just the center of the world, but also the heart of the world? Less a city of fanatics and never-ending conflict, Bruges reminds me so much of the poem by Yehuda Amichai at top...a sleeping city, where all the fancy beads, crosses and bells are on display in wait. Like Venice and Jerusalem, Walking around the city, I could not help but think of Dante's great allegory of the soul's journey to find God. Down, down, down...Time and space warp...on Dante's Holy Mountain.
Wonderful movie, wonderful book, wonderful poem, wonderful city.
Annie Lapin. Feel, 2009.