Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Five More Thoughts: Let Them Eat Cake Ed.

Don't we all wish I could shut up about this stuff? If you're tired of sarcastic half-baked economic thoughts, skip to #4. If more suspicious foodie-ism isn't your bag, just go to the last one. If the antics of clueless fathers and husbands bore you too, then I guess I'll review another book eventually. Does anyone remember when these things used to be frivolous?

1. Warmed Over Red Meat
Like most Americans, I've developed a growing animosity toward the financial management of our country. In my case it's tempered by a certain long-term, big-view fatalism, but still, I look at the criminal Madoffs and whining DeSantises compared to my negligible prospects of ever getting out from the immobilizing weight of debt--never mind the prospects of ever getting rich--that a prescribed life of education, family and salary stick you with, and I can understand revolutionary fervor. Then I think about the sickening possibility of actual mob violence, and how the mob, when it has managed to win, has tended to produce mammoth injustices of its own, and I downgrade my smoldering class resentment into patriotic-feeling thoughts about the threat of the mob when the aristocracy gets out of hand, and, short of violence, how great it would be to put these motherfuckers in a position where they have to work to get by like the rest of us.

So I settle on the happier counterfactual where R&D is remunerative and finance is an exhausting niche for overspecialized geeks. Because that would be different, oh yes, the believers in reason would rule the world at last! Unfortunately, and speaking of working for a living, this leads to speculation about what exactly it is I'm producing, and then to the conclusion that I've spent nearly a decade leveraging my limited technical skills to a similar (over-)extent as the banks have with their finite capital reserves and debt obligations, selling the idea that someone down the chain will come through with the intellectual goods, or that my own skills will catch up in time to perform the increasingly unlikely stuff I propose. I suppose financially lucrative R&D would also attract a different kind of scientist, and companies like mine would be filled to the rafters with confident young men with more attitude than talent, and the halls would be thick with power ties and greasy smiles and stress. Even more marketing, in other words, to the eventual exclusion of any product at all. Then I sigh and go back to surfing the net.

2. Manna
One positive thing this finanical mess shows us however is that a gigantic shadow economy based on very little tangible value, can, in fact, exist, at least for awhile. The basic iniquity of this situation isn't that we have a high standard of living based on nothing much, it's that the standard of living is highly unequal within the same system. It doesn't have to be that way, or rather, it wouldn't have to be that way if humans weren't collectively such a bunch of assholes. If it could somehow enter our species' consciousness to do so, we could base an economy on nothing more than telling each other jokes, swapping files, gambling, and blogging. If "productivity" can just grow forever, then that's a logical enough conclusion.

Now, naysayers might argue that someone under that imaginary system would still have to grow the food, maintain the transmission lines, clean up, produce the pictures, and so forth, but the truth is that we have more potential workers than there are jobs needed to generate all the crap that makes us happy. This is true in the United States certainly, where for decades, we have been able to increasingly count on automation, an endless supply of willing menial labor overseas, and plentiful oil energy to make our society go at the pace we enjoy. At some point, we could get out of the "production" mindset entirely, and finally abandon the annoying pretense of distributing wealth by "working for a living," and instead share the sort of effortless ride that the fat cats have been on for generations, without even their ulcers and burgeoning self-importance.

You know, at least for a while.

3.Soylent Green
And hey, we've already solved the challenging half the problem. One thing our--cough-cough--free market economy does pretty well now is distribute the cost of the pesky externalities. Sure there are political ramifications to oil and electronics being produced in regions that live more poorly than us consumers of them. The cost of that delicate diplomacy or that ballsy belligerence (as the case may be) doesn't come out just in the prices, but is also spread out among all of the consumers that benefit from it by other means. (Profits, of course, are another matter.) Similarly, it would be alarming if all the costs of controlling the waste streams were included in the prices of all our favorite products. (Hey, the selenium all leaches downstream, and you can't prove anything.) Can you imagine if the price of invading Iraq went into our gas tank? If the entire cost of cleaning up the shit lagoons went into our hamburger (if, in fact, we thought so far ahead as cleaning up the shit lagoons)? If the entire cost of maintaining the banking sector came only from our retirement savings? If the entire cost of our consumption came from the value of the stuff we produced?

When we hit that fantastic Star Trek apogee of labor-free production worldwide (hey, we'll still have automation), then management of natural and political resources will be the only things left to worry about, and fortunately, that social machinery is already in place. Maybe by then we'll have it pointed the right way.

4. Cake
I had a fourth short rant puttering along when I realize I'd already written it six months ago, right down to citing Doghouse Riley (who you should read in general). While I disagreed with his main point this time around, his complaints about foodie magazine pretensiousness came through loud and clear. We subscribe to a handful of these recipe magazines in Chateau Keifus, which vary in articles from endless filler variations on mashed potatoes to boutique faux-cultural items presented for your envy (I'm convinced that the "busy mom" articles are engineered to be crappier than the "summertime memories of Montalcino" spreads), profiles of unaffordable or unavailable key ingredients, the celebration of a local food culture that never leaves California, or disappears from upstate New York from October to May, to the column on how J. Random Celebrity eats better than you.

And it's reasonable to assume that the pretty people do eat more fashionably than I do: they have more cash, wider travel, and more opportunities to get tired of fine dining. There's a lot going for the skill in preparation, but I suppose you'll never get Mom's meatloaf either. Or something. The foodie-tainment industry has to strike some sort of balance there, but I don't like it when they rub in how hopelessly provincial I am.

5. Spicy Meatballs
While we're on the subject of celebrity food...

"Hey, Keifus, do you know who you look like with your hair pulled back like that?"

"Uh, no."

"Mario Batali!"

"Are you shitting me, dear? The dude is half my height, and at least twice as big around. He wears clogs. Mario Batali? You wound me."

"Well, he does have a beard. And with your hair pulled back..."

"He looks like a giant friggin' pumpkin."

"I don't know what your problem is. I'm giving you a compliment. He cooks great food."

And to be fair, doing something as well as Mario the Red appears to do is sexy. Maybe someday I'll afford to take my wife to one of his restaurants. It'll be payback for years of general relationship cluelessness.

The story might end here, but in the pretend genealogy of housecats I find myself unwillingly Marioed again, and since the children must be the parents of our cats, that leaves me, chillingly, as the grandfather, or "Grandpa Mario," as it works out, thanks to some passing resemblance to the curly proprietor of a famous Japanese-Italian plumbing and pest control firm.

"Mario? Are you kidding me? He dresses like Mickey Mouse."

God, I'm shallow.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Hunching Back: A Couple of Tangents

An online Spanish/English arts and literature magazine called Yareah--a myth-and-legend, cultural-roots sort of thing--is evidently hungry enough for material to Google certain occasional book reviewers and solicit them for contributions. They've asked to reprint my review of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in an upcoming issue (April 1). Their theme will be ugliness in literature, and after all, who's uglier than that deformed little sprout, Quasimodo? I did take the trouble to modify the review a little for their theme, but they're still getting what they paid for it.

Looking back to Hunchback, I was struck again by a couple of thoughts, stuff that didn't get expressed very thoroughly in either the new or old version...

1. The tranlation of Notre-Dame that I read I had really annoyed me with its persistent use of the archaic English "you," filling up the book with thees and thous, which to my jaded ear, reads either like a half-assed effort to recreate the speech of the middle ages, or else a clumsy attempt to recreate the original French word flow. Since I was now submitting my crappy review to a bilingual magazine, I thought I might find something clever to say about the absence of a formal second person in English, which I've never decided is a blessing (given all the people I half-know, I'd hate to wrestle with vous or tu in every single greeting--it's bad enough figuring out who to grandma-hug among the people I know intimately) or a flaw (because after all, it does take away nuance). It's my understanding that the formal second person has been falling out of favor in the Romantic languages too for some years, to the irritation of traditionalists, something on par with how no one in America (not in the decadent North anyway) addresses anyone as sir, and everyone lets kids call adults by their first names. I'd always assumed that the "thee" cognates were the dropped formal forms, abandoned on Albion a few centuries before the continent got around to ditching them. This, it turns out, is flat wrong.

The T-V distinction in English (Wikipedia tells me) originated as a singular/plural distinction, and the weight of formality that it later grew stemmed from the early French habit of turning the king into a pluralized synecdoche for authority. In other words, the respectful use of vous comes from the French royal we,* and the old English plural "ye" took on the same pattern following the Norman injection of 1066. "Thee" is the old singular form, and it came into use as the informal second person for the next 600 years. Cast thee back, varlet!

So in English, the informal/singular form is the one that eventually disappeared. The whole thing is complicated by holding on just barely long enough for Shakespeare to intermittently use it, by later bad authors of archaism, and by persistent religious use (from bible translations which adhered strictly to the singular/plural distinction, and not the informal/formal one--it's interesting that the "thee" got that dignified sense round about the time of the Reformation, reducing God to an informal invisible Buddy maybe, or alternatively enhancing the status of the singular pronoun because, hey, you don't sing how great Thou art to just anyone) which lent the singular a new assumed solemnity. In any case, Victor Hugo's speakers were using their pronouns correctly in the 1482 French sense, and I have to conclude that the nameless translator did a fine job after all.

2. There's a lot of madness lurking around within nineteenth century writing. Mental illness wasn't particularly well understood in those days, but writers tend to be good observers, and a lot of those plausible conditions of human nature can be represented without understanding the mechanics of it very much. Those Dickensian crazies really told us more about the problems of the relatively sane anyway, and what shape sanity took in a heartbreaking time that was filthy with disease, religious injunction, poverty, and death looming around every corner, but still cursed with a modicum of badly enlightened hope. I'm not 100% content with modern descriptions of brain malfunction, either. Diagnosing depression or PTSD or ADD is useful, but absent any real neurochemical understanding, the expertise is less perfect than the guys in the white coats would have you believe. Worse, those sorts of behavioral pathologies seem to get around talking to the basic horrors and absurd beauties of our existence, which, for all their faults, those Romantic-era writers had down in spades.

Putting madness on the same spectrum as physical deformity and moral ugliness fits the Romantic ideas pretty well (and I'll review Frankenstein really soon now, I promise). I'm not sure that it helped their development that these ideas were tied into (if you'll forgive my philosophical naivete) the ideas of innocence and morality that had been recently getting hashed out by the likes of Rousseau and Hobbes, whose philosophies were slowly filtering down to practice for some captive subjects in the middle of the century. Quasimodo is given to us as developmentally disabled (I should stop joking with the word "retarded," but then it's the same thing that happened to "idiot" decades ago), and inhibited cognitively by his physical handicap, which is not a bad portrayal given what limited technical understanding Hugo would have had at his fingertips. The problem is that Hugo was playing with--mostly satirizing--themes of redemption, and even giving Quasimodo a partial transformation through beauty and love seemed a little too credulous to me.

Victor Hugo wrote Notre-Dame at an interesting time in the west's understanding of mental disability. Victor, the famous wild boy of Aveyron, was discovered near Hugo's boyhood home, but the idea that he was a template for Quasimodo is evidently apocryphal. Victor (whether he was really wild or not) was taken as a case study in the Enlightenment notions of mankind's natural state, and it's not surprising that Hugo would entertain similar ideas that his own unsocialized character could graduate to the more touted human qualities through some kind of personal moral Renaissance.

In the mid-1800s, the field of mental health was growing up a little too. The idea that a scientific basis for behavior could be sought led to a greater desire to understand the nature of the handicapped. Previously, and at various times, retarded people had been taken care of in the church, as Quasimodo was, or in the community, or by the public. The thought that idiocy could be understood, categorized, or even cured in some cases, led to a spate of study in Hugo's time, and France, though home of one of the more notorious asylums, was progressive about it in those days. The inmates of Bicêtre were unchained around 1900, and Édouard Séguin, who classified idiocy into four categories based on capability,** was advocating more humane treatment for these people while Victor Hugo was still writing.

Regrettably, early brain science wasn't much up to its hoped-for task, and Séguin's humanitarian notions gave way to awful pseudosciences like phrenology and eugenics, and eventually to a return to mere custodial care for "moral degenerates", giving the science a bad name for the better part of the following century. I wonder if the still considerably qualitative nature of some kinds of brain science slows down the more substantive research, or if it damages public perception, as it did in the later nineteenth century. (Not that I'm so very on top of the state of the art. Where the hell is TenaciousK when I need him?)

(Some google finds that informed this: 1, 2, 3)

UPDATE! Study questions for non-idiots.
1. Was Charles Dickens a Romantic-era writer?
[Well, if you concentrate on "era," then I suppose he was writing at the same time as the Romantics. If you stress the "Romantic," I think he may have shared some of the sensibilities, but was not in quite the same mold. I should be more careful.]

2. For that matter, were all those Gothic horror elements (which was closer to my actual train of thought) part of of the Romantic movement?
[I'd argue yes, although maybe it's an argument that needs acknowledging, since I don't really know how serious literature people tend to view the distinction. These handful of writers I've been reading lately were all about (violation of) beauty and nature, and had all of the melodrama. And even their ugly was beautiful, really.]

3. Did Romantic writers find life's beauty an absurd, unlikely sort of beauty?
[Probably not in the way I do, although it's fair to say they were also struggling to incorporate, or just struggling against, a growing scientific understanding of nature. Bad wording, though.]

4. Didn't a revolution in psychoanalysis occur around 1900, which is, in fact, "well into the next century" after ~1850?
[Well, my criticism of psychoanlysis even now is that it's still pretty qualitative, and in the early days, basically unprovable and possibly even in pathological science territory. But there's a lot of prejudice in that statement, and I don't really have the first clue how the Freud boys dealt with the more obviously physiology-based cognitive problems.

I don't feel too bad about more modern classification of behavior patterns based on observation, and I think categorization of them is more or less useful, although it still loosk pretty qualitative. What little I read now of cutting-edge brain science seems like a different world than these earlier twentieth-century views, even from only a couple decades ago, and also a lot more like actual science than all those behaviorist experiments I remember reading about in that one psychology class.]

* I really should have titled that post "The Royal Wii." Dammit.
** Not those four, Dave.

Friday, March 20, 2009


"Alas! Why does man boast of of sensibilities superior to those apparent in the brute; it only renders them more necessary beings. If our impulses were confined to hunger, thirst, and desire, we might be nearly free..."
--Mary Shelley, in Frankenstein.

Pumpkin, a.k.a., FartknockerCurrently, my cat Fartknocker (photo pending my getting around to iton the right) is under quarantine. Her sentence: 45 days in the oubliette. Her only crime: losing a fight with an unknown animal. Yes, it's harsh, but we don't accept that kind of failure at castle Keifus, not when such woeful lack of vigilance imperils us all. Now you might argue that this is really a result of my lack of vigilance, you know, letting that rabies vaccine get a month past due, not to mention the sort of vigilant husbandry that leads me to prefer random outdoor turds to cleaning the catbox every week (okay, yelling at the kids to clean the catbox every week, but what I'm trying to say is that it's Hard Work), but really, she should have known better. She should have been tougher than that.

And it's not like I'm not suffering here. I have to be the warden. Not once, but twice a day, I must crack the door to the dungeon (formerly our downstairs bathroom) and demonstrate my god-like powers to this lesser creature. I control the sun: a flick of my wrist, and it's day or it's night. I control the presence of food and (if I remember make sure the toilet lid is down) the supply of water, each brought in as mysterious bounty from the hypothetical spaces beyond the shadowy cave. I administer horrible potions as punishment for Pumpkin's uncomprehended sins, and bear moist treats as my arbitrary reward.

The cat, I'll add, loves me, or at least she is always happy to hear the warden scrape his rusty keys on the lock. She meows plaintively at the door sometimes, but she always bursts out with uncharacteristic affection when I push my body through. I dose her, pet her briefly, and then present the reward. (Incidentally, cat food labels are a new source of amusement to me. They all contain pretty much the same meat by-products with that same thick chemical nose, but they're packaged as individualized wholesome gourmet fare, reinterpreted in a peculiar cat-food-label advertising patois. And I keep wondering: who the fuck is swayed by cat food laced with "garden greens"? Whenever my cats have eaten greens, garden or otherwise, it's always required cleanup.) Often, guilt will extend my visit, but much as the little creature loves me, when she's given the choice between my affection and Mariner's Catch Salmon Dinner Now With More Savory Chunks, it's always the latter she prefers. Similarly, she'll inevitably scramble for Turkey and Giblets Classic Pâté instead of the looming freedom of the open door. I am sure that Fartknocker is being transformed, through boredom and regiment, into an institutional cat, which, frankly, is part of the plan. Soon, she'll be unable to make it on the outside. I understand that prison life can do that to you.

My cat's decision to bolt for the dish instead of the door is stupid, but in the greater sense, I think it reflects her species' relatively high intelligence. It takes some element of higher thought to accept training (even if the system is based on visceral punishments and rewards), and if Pumpkin isn't sharp enough to weigh the long-term benefits of increased freedom against the short-term thrill of highly processed meat animals, then the fact that she can anticipate results and modify her behavior according to those imagined connections tells me she's operating on a higher plane than, say, a hamster that chews through the walls of his cage to rut.

It takes an extra crinkly cortex to be able to drown out those survival and pleasure impulses, that collection of urges which is rather condescendingly called our animal nature. I don't recall if J. M. Coatzee covered this angle, but animals clearly have a spark of cognition too, and the poor beasts most capable of an anthropomorphic-style self-control are the same ones that can suffer the misfortune of being domesticated. Creatures which had heretofore evolved just fine into hunting and scavenging machines, content with the pack or the herd, sniffing assholes with happy abandon, they met man, and sadly let that silly upright quadruped twist their simpler minds toward his own. The beasts continue to suffer under a generations-long experiment to be bred and broken for our consumption, companionship, and entertainment. They live dependent lives, and learn to trade the dignity of their own species for behaviors that will please their masters, or else suffer the oubliette. And for what gain? A rationed taste of Fisherman's Platter with Brown Rice and Garden Greens?

As an institutional man myself, I'm sympathetic to their plight, even if my balls aren't literally cut off. It may seem that I'm comforting myself--okay, martyring myself--with the idea that my lofty capacity to reason, that the majestic mind which puts me so far above the brutes, is the source of my quotidian misery, that it's my evolutionary pinnacle that suffers me to the life of a bespectacled desk jockey, but that is not the case. No, brains are good, but it's the defiency of our impulsive nature that's the problem here, at least when it comes to hunger thirst and desire (I still find brute violence to be terribly overrated, damn that rational mind), and, of course, freedom. And for us poor domesticated bastards? Well, there's still the cat to keep us company.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Royal Wii

[formerly titled, Family Time with the No-Friend-O]

At some point recently, I mentioned that I wish I had more time for video games. It was a lie. Well, not a lie, but not really true either. I crave the opportunity for distraction, but I'm ambivalent to offer up yet another hour of my precious breathing time to the unflinching gaze of the big glass basilisk in my living room (the one in my office is obviously another matter), not unless it's entertaining enough to face addiction over. My relationship with gaming is sporadic--now and then something will grab me and I'll immerse myself in that virtual world at some extended leisure--but the finitude of experience hangs over me like a gigantic fantasy sword. Games feel like a healthy distraction for a while, and, if it's the right kind of game, good enough, the pleasure turns to a sincere focus, and then, before very long really, it's an unrelenting quest to probe the pixellated secrets of the game writers, and with enough time and nervous lip-trembling sweat, I can find gratitude, satisfaction of the weighted sort that leaves my sorry person spent and more than a little bit disgusted at the wasted hours, and chastened, packing away the whole damn console to moulder unloved into a couple generations of obsolescence before I start to miss the experience again. So yeah. Gaming.

I am, of course, in the middle of a binge right now, which is just one reason for the posting lull. I find myself scouring the world of Hyrule for its hidden elfin treasures for the second time in 20-odd years. Twiffer will tell you that the original Legend of Zelda was the perfect video game, and it's hard to disagree with take on that. Zelda had exactly the right combination of scope, pacing, charm, engaging puzzles and amusing cartoon violence. I have fond memories of taking contested turns on my buddy's (Jay's) NES, pushing imaginary boulders and striking out with a pudgy sword at bats and monsters, stinking up his family room with popcorn farts and unwashed teenage B.O.. (Good times.) Zelda is still going, and the newest Nintendo console gave us Twilight Princess three years ago, and it's like I'm playing the exact same game, but now with incredible backgrounds and smooth 3-D effects (on a TV screen worthy of a spoiled modern adult), surprisingly intuitive control from those silly Wii remotes (swordfights!), and a complicated and fun assortment of gizmos to address the many minor-league brain teasers. It even has red-assed monkeys, and I think we'll all agree that there is no higher humor to be found in the natural world.

Now you may think that video gaming, taking on a single-player quest epic, is a selfish act. Not so. Most of my hobbies (playing music, blogging) are annoying to the other people in the house, representative of supsiciously independent thought, which must be relegated to my private hour or two a week, driven off to the porch or to the after hours, or else stolen. When I pick up Zelda, however, it's different. The family hushes as I swagger over to the front of the screen, and unfold my chair placing in the middle of the empty space, carefully aligning my position with the sensor bar. C. scuttles over to the gadget basket and fishes out the remote, enjoying a second of interaction, calling up the game screen, loading the file, before she relinqueshes it to me. I think she's the only one that gets the tinge of injustice from this situation, and it's transitory. Well, she's the only other one. I feel like a self-conscious king in the middle of the room, propped up in my throne, waving my arms around like a buffoon, dressed up in robes and displayed for entertainment. My wife pours a glass of wine and sets it at my side. As one, we breathe deeply and accept the warnings against seizures. It's not like they've gotten us yet.

C. is the least inhibited, and has a gift, if you want to call it that, for color commentary. Normally she goes through her day tamping down that monologue that's flying by at ninety miles an hour even when she's not speaking, and when Link starts jogging across the screen, she turns into my little John Madden, complete with non-sequiturs, obvious points, savoring her own contribution, and nostalgia for the game (which we've been playing for all of two weeks now). "Oh Daddy, do you remember when I said you'd get two claw shots? Remember when I told you where to look for the heart container? Ha ha. That was good. Lookout daddy, lizard men! Aww, he hit you..." She gets genuinely sad when the cartoon avatar falls off the bridge for the tenth time in a row. As for my wife, I turn to her and ask if she really wants me to play. She nods affirmative, every time. I realize it's entertainment for her too, but when she's yelling at the screen, it's not at some football player in another state, it's me, right here. "You going to let him hit you like that? Move! Go there!." It reminds me a lot of driving, actually. My other child, M., cracks jokes. I love her.

Zelda is as fun as ever, but there's an awful lot of pressure to perform, and it's thrusting me square in a role I've spent my adult life understanding the injustice of. It hypnotizes my children, makes my wife yell at me, and makes my ass hurt. And yeah, I know what I'm doing when I get home. I can sense C. batting her eyes at me even now. "Daddy, will you play Zelda tonight?"