Sunday, January 31, 2010

jane was here

It's disturbing enough to consider how tenuous a grasp on the globe we all have. What do any of us want from our short stay? To be loved, to have a little more time.

As a father, there's an extra pocket of black terror that I get to carry around at all times, knowing that I can only reliably provide one of those things. I'd rather avoid that sort of ultimatum at all, of course, and (not to my credit) I become guarded when the situation appears to surface in the waking world--I'd rather hold the walls in place around that terror. But this is a direct request, from a friend.

Here's a record of someone who was here too, and not as long as anyone would have liked. She was loved though. Read about their girl Jane.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Big Game

Before the screens, clipboard in hand, the commander continued to pace. It had been nearly ten days of continuous occupation, and the space was now resembling a lair more than a conference room. Off-camera, food scraps cluttered yeastily around the bin, and combined with male sweat (and other eructations), they suffused the place with a positively feral aroma. The time was upon them, the suspense was knife-thick, expectations hummed, and a hundred other anticipatory cliches clamored for expression. Without warning, the general paused, eyebrows beetled into a contiguous, hairy V. He drew in a breath as if to speak, and the entire room inhaled with him. And held it.

His lieutenant spoke for them all. "Sir?"


"Is it time to deploy the force-forward units?"

The general considered, as if this were a novel question. As if anyone might be thinking anything else. "We will coordinate deployment of the light mobile units with the enemy's first action," he said. He tapped the northwest corner of the map with his free hand, "almost certainly right here, if I know those Stanni bastards." He narrowed his eyes even more. "But we'll be on the watch for where they do in fact emerge."

"Er, yessir."

The general turned from the display, and faced the room of live and videoconferenced faces. "Needless to say, men, maintain maximum battlefield awareness. Watch the feeds. Record decisions of all units. This is war, after all." He resumed pacing.

"Yes sir!"

The general considered the way the patch of well-worn carpet kept receding in front of his polished boots. He knew, as did his lieutenant, that the actions in this room were largely formal at this point, close-up shots to be interspersed with live footage, or in the post-mortem. He may have set the process in motion, but field assets were sufficiently autonomous that even that impetus would be evaluated, optimized, and if necessary, countermanded before engagement. Training and programming was paramount, and winning, as one of the ancient forbears of his profession had once said, isn't everything...

Yes, he'd set the process in motion almost half a decade ago. By his estimation, the coming battle was nearly fifty-five full months in the making, and if in the final twelve, it finally developed that sense of its own existence as coding, production and transport finally geared up, as underlings bifurcated and responsibility metastasized, for all of the others it was only inevitable in his mind, and by his effort. What really brought this fight into being was his own--the general's--untiring efforts at marketing, networking and grooming. It took half a year to get the administration to finally agree to review his strategic proposals. Even if success was algorithmic now.

At the front of the conference room were three large screens. The center one, the largest, was a map view, lit up with icons, and was, in fact, a low-information representation of the display on his clipboard. The actual terrain was located somewhere in eastern Eurostan, covering a rough square of about 5000 square miles, with some shoreline on the east and west and mountains to the south. The region was largely depopulated but for some hardscrabble dissidents and primitives and so forth (the general was not entirely sure about these distinctions) in the plains. Forests, steppes, seas and mountains--it was perfect. On the left, the view switched between representative aerial and ground-based views provided by the remote drones, the first cut at the video feed which would be processed by engineering programs and broadcast after a suitable time delay. (In previous wars, the drones had been active units too, but ratings-rights were now protected by internatonal treaty. The general, like most modern men in his position, insisted on rudimentary defenses of the video feeds, in the unlikely event that any dirty tricks were employed by the enemy, but had no expectation of needing them.) Right now, the scene projected a village landscape as seen by a large ambulatory unit: craters lining a grubby street and bullet-holes blistering antique concrete. Standard stuff. The right-hand display was a confusing series of metrics and graphs presented for statisticians and for any citizens who were so inclined to analyze them. Much would be made of this information in the following days, but as with the map, it was designed for public consumption, and not particularly informative.

Suddenly, a red light started blinking on the map, and the supporting screens brightened and began to roil with activity. The general halted, his back straight. "Men, to your battle stations!" He took a moment to note to himself that the Industani attack had, indeed, come from the northwest.


"What I can't explain," thought John, "is why they're doing this to me now."

He had been spent his entire adult life around the level four growth vat. Over the years, he'd gone from fourth-class maintenance supervision, which involved trailing the low-level roombas with an assortment of shining cleaning tools to wipe or otherwise remove any errant trail of slime, ichor, broth, or medium that might have escaped their fastidious passage, to mechanical supervision, involving visual daily inspection of the vat-works and intubations, to catch any gross breaches of product that might have been missed by the automated ultrasonic, x-ray, or nuclear tomographic micro-analyses--never a single report to the central computer, he noted bitterly--all the way to chief human supervisor, which is to say that all the people working at the level four growth vat were personally monitored by him. He'd taken pride in his work, pride which even now, after everything, threatened to swell his heart. It took responsibility to recite the time clock instructions every day. It took skill to make sure people lined up properly. He clenched his fist and swung it at nothing, unbalancing himself for a moment. The memo advised that he was redundant, and indeed that a general electronic supervisory tool was replacing his entire division. If the propaganda feeds were right, and John tended to believe that they were, he was a victim of the newly touted Industani management model, which had been making their war effort as much as 2.4% more profitable. And now the powers were applying the enemy model to food production. As he approached his own sidewalk, he stopped to seethe a moment. He turned around a last time to look at the huge, smooth bulk of Ag Tower casting the town into an early sunset, and, wistful again, he tried to mentally map level four onto its light-absorbing exterior. "Will they still let us live here?" he thought. He wondered about the security of his wife's position in packaging. Maybe he'd finally be able to indenture one of the boys...if only either of them were more promising.

John opened the door to a smiling crowd. Behind his wife and children flew bunting and festive banners. One said 'TGIF'. Across another rolled cartoon artillery, dodging cartoon explosions. He could see that the kitchen table had been dragged into the entertainment room. "Wha--"

Kurt and John Jr. raced out to hug his legs, and his wife Sheila gave him a peck on the cheek, and pressed a Fortified Fungo-Brew into his hands. "Pre-game is going to start in an hour," she said, "and maybe while we wait..."

He grabbed the Forty, took a swig, and sighed. "Right. The game." He looked at Kurt and gave a small involuntary shudder. "Warmups going on now? Maybe some field reports? I could go for that." He tried to look past the table. "My chair still in it's spot?"

Sheila's eyes began to droop, but then perked up again. "Oh, and I have three days worth of appetizers, John. Is anyone up for Salti-Plax and Cheez to start? It's Crobia Cheez, Sweetie, nothing but the best for our family!" She winked at her husband.

"Yeah, look. About Crobia..."

"Is that the new infantry model, Daddy?"

"You know, let's check that out," he said, eyeing John Jr. appraisingly. He took another pull at the bottle and, perhaps already growing calm from the brew, worked himself around the table to where his favorite chair waited. He patted his lap for Sheila to join, a long-accepted compromise between them. "Who's ready for the big game?"

"And let's stick it to those Stanni bastards," he added to himself.


They, whatever "they" was left, called the village Pay Fyerma, and it was said to be as old as time itself. A handful of farms still dotted the countryside, even now. Barley and wheat grew in yellow patches, and sheep speckled the green hillsides like wildflowers. In the distance, the mountains loomed like magisterial old gods, witnessing the tragedies of the millenia. Local legend said that the first men worthy of the name walked in the hills around Pay Fyerma, and that the first empires of men fought here, between the seas, across the mountains. It was said that only a hundred miles away, peace was declared in the hemisphere. It was said that right here, a hundred years of war was brought forth in its aftermath. Without doubt, there was a sense of eternity to the landscape, that despite the vindictive movements of the ages, life and beauty endured.

Or so were Piotr's thoughts, as he watched one recalcitrant group of mammalian wildfowers. Up close, he considered, it was impossible to escape the notion of a sheep's insides, its stinking flatulent guts and, when circumstances so wrote, succulent flesh. (And were we vaunted men any different?) One of the great paradoxes of modern times, for those who cared to ponder it, was exactly that beauty of scale, how things got both more stunning and more disgusting the closer you looked at them. But then, how could Piotr really understand of modernity? He was practically alone out here. "Well," he thought, "the farther you got from it, the better you could see it." Another paradox maybe.

It was a difficult life, and an extraordinarily simple one (enough already!), what better for a human. A thought worth recording: he reached for his pocket computer, but headlines screamed at him from the other continent, and disgusted, he stowed it.

It was getting late as he wandered down the hill, and by the time the sheep were penned, it was dusk. By the time he got the methane pool seeded and warm, it was fully dark. Piotr offered a little generic prayer for another day fully lived. He pulled the door behind him, and considered turning on the generator. Charge the notepad? The world was abuzz with war, he knew--it was that time of year--and what the hell, maybe it even mattered who won. More importantly, his waffles were superior when he utilized a little electricity. He kicked open the back door and trudged off to the shed.

The generator normally had a small light, when it was working, but he hadn't opened the gas pipes as of yet. And this was bright--Piotr squinted at the outbuilding--and large.

And, he realized, not so close as he assumed. Silently, something blacker and much, much bigger than the shed, rose up on spider's legs. The red dot, an eye--no, an illuminator, he realized; this thing must have a NIR scope for vision--swung a great arc toward the sheep pen. It took a step forward on one of its improbable needle legs--

Piotr hadn't sensed the concussion, but his head, he realized, wasn't quite right. Recent: smoke was billowing from the sheep pen and rubble was smoking, steps from him, if he could step, something was still aflame. Discordantly, he smelled a roast, and within feet of him, was the upper half of a member of his flock, recently released of its glistening insides, flayed almost like dinner. It had its mouth open as if to speak warning, but its waist was seared and hairless. Piotr vomited, and tried to rise, failed. His thigh hurt too. When he looked at it, the panic set in.

Whistling, he heard, and his own eyes followed the red illuminator, possibly seeing as much. Explosions, and spindly legs gone the way of his own. A black mechanized hillside lurching and stuttering. Another whistle, another shock wave, and sound now, roaring. Old stones of Pay Fyerma raining. The red light was closer, on the ground vertical now, wrong. It was swinging his way again, noticing him another time. Crunch. Whirr. Roar. Red. Black. Silence.


The general looked at the screen tiredly. It was customary, he supposed, and he hoped the men didn't get nostalgic enough to dump a bucket of Fungo-Brew on him, which wasn't to say he didn't earn it. He looked at the summary stats on the clipboard: Industan withdrawn with at least twenty units; a surprising amount of collateral damage managed to surface on the video feeds; ratings topping even the historic slaughter of '98. It had been a long weekend, but the general was looking at national hero status. Medals, women, fame. He steeled up for a last moment, and for the benefit of the public, rose and faced the cameras.

"Thank you," he said. "And God bless our country."

A crisp salute, and it was done. A fadeout was palpable as he walked round the table to shake the hands of his staff. Good job, thank you, great work. He clapped the back of the lieutenant, and together, exhausted, they turned at last to the conference room door. A shower first, then makeup, and to the interview room. He had the speech prepared in his mind for months. A hero. He loved this game.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


1. Massachusetts
Well, the circle's complete. For the third consecutive time since I moved here, Massachusetts elected the empty suit over the girl. Granted, it couldn't have been easy to get worked up over Kerry Healey or Martha Coakley, although it didn't take much for Shannon O'Brien to look like a candidate against Mitt Romney, despite the best efforts of the press. (In 2006, I voted for Grace Ross, the Green candidate, who wiped the floor with both Healey and Deval Patrick in the debates--the libertarian kook was more compelling than either of them too--but in addition to being a third party candidate, she was worse than a normal woman, an open lesbian who eschewed pantsuits.) When I first signed the papers on the new place, the local media was in the middle of crucifying acting governor (never spoken without the adjective) Jane Swift for being a new mommy and governor at the same time. Maybe it's a series of coincidences, but electorally, it looks like the Bay State continues to wrestle with some daddy issues or something.

Refreshingly, and on top of the generic right-wing blather, our new guy (did I call it or what?) is a climate change "skeptic." (It's part of the Obama agenda, says this guiding intellectual light.) I wonder what his views on evolution might be? He's also the pro-war, pro-secuirty candidate [and as of his speech this morning, the man who will protect our Medicare] who's against government spending. He's the independent candidate unbeholden to special interests who somehow bankrolled an immense, well-produced ad buy in the last two weeks of the campaign. At least I'll have something to complain about and amuse myself with for the next six years. My best hope now is that he turns out to be yet another Republican closet case. At least get us some entertainment value.

2. Aphorism
War and peace, revolution and stability, misery and abundance, human assets and liquidity---all merely macroeconomic functions?

He was probably baiting me, but I responded. Here's how I wish I had phrased it:

Human behavior is described by macroeconomics, it is not governed by it. Social sciences, describing war and peace, politics, etc., are also descriptions of group human behavior. It's not surprising that they sometimes bump into one another.

3. Ivory tower silage?
Was I just singing their praises? I like working with grad students well enough: they're generally pretty motivated, and smart, and will work long hours doing the more boring, repetitive sorts of scientific tasks. But on the other hand, it's easy to get in a situation where they run in circles, and where inexperience leads them to unproductivity or to surprising conclusions. Very often, grad students do need to be led, and there's something to be said for wily veterans after all.

Although as with any other employees, it's great to get a good one (my advisor must have been as disappointed as my boss is now).

4. Hyundai
Mom's Subaru went off to auction on Monday. We would have sported the (at least) $3500 repair bill if we had liked the car better--turns out the exhaust noise wasn't so much a leak as an obstructed catalytic converter, which was building up some backpressure. The exhaust and the head gasket problem may well have been related (which is why you should maintain your cars, kids), although I can't guess which was chicken and which egg.

We replaced it with a Hyundai, whose all-wheel drive is some rpm-based power-rationing thing with, basically, automatic transmissions on each front/rear wheel pair. AWD was something we shopped for, but this version is far inferior to the Subaru drive mechanism, even if it gets the vehicle through the snow eventually. With the weather, we've had plenty of opportunity to compare this week both versions. On the other hand, it's comfortable, with some luxury features that please my wife, and Korean cars, despite serious improvements in the last 20 years, don't yet suffer the reputation of value that leads to the inflated prices of Japanese models. (How far we've come, eh?) Maybe that's how the American automotive industry catches up again, by manufacturing good bargains. I see some irony that the only car we had that really lasted was a Ford...built by Kia.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Review: A Lion Among Men, by Gregory Maguire

Okay, I'm getting tired of it now. If A Lion Among Men were the second book in "The Wicked Years," I would have probably liked it as much as I liked the actual second book in "The Wicked Years." It's a similar formula: take a not-terribly-sympathetic minor character and flesh him out in context. It's the Cowardly Lion's backstory this time. We saw Brrr (did Baum name him that?) in a couple of brief cameos in Wicked, and now it's an illumination of the life lived in between being a motherless cub and a surprised, chucked-aside adult member of the Dorothy team, as well as some events after. More engagingly, Maguire also fleshes out several of the bizarre bit players that have been circling the margins of the story till now.

And really, more of this and less of that, please. It starts off well, with a heretofore rare Yackle point of view, a scene from the scarred eyes of the old bat that's been pestering the characters with prophetic catcalls for a couple of books now. She demands her fellow nuns to lower her into the crypt, to hasten the end of the burden of her life and sweep her out after a year. The suicide is a near-comical, near-chilling failure. Deliciously macabre, ("wicked"), which is not my go-to place for entertainment, but a hell of an entrance in this case. The other secondary characters are almost this good too, but soon enough we're with the Lion again, and his personal history gets the, um, Lion's share of print. Some new folds in the character are revealed, and it wasn't badly done, but it more colored in the outline of his character than expanded it. And it costs us readers 200 pages of retreading old backstory, even while the author is telegraphing a larger plot and doing nothing about it. Now that these Oz books are a committed series instead of an entertainingly revisionist standalone, now that it's a story arc in other words, there's an entirely different pacing at play. Or maybe it was all fine, and it was just too soon to get back in.

The history of the Cowardly Cub picks up after his escape from the University lab, and he finds himself in the wilderness, subsisting without meat, and, Frankenstein-like, without language. He picks up the art of words by spying on humans, and boy, he's quick with that. The author isn't about to let inexperience get in the way of a few good puns or a little witty banter. Like Shelley's creature, or like old Quasimodo, the young Lion craves acceptance, and commits love straightaway, which, due to his disconnectedness from the world, has brutish results. Neither does he fit in with Oz's disenfranchised talking Animals, and his life flits between the spheres, from an uncomfortable society Animal, to an uncomfortable outcast. Poor Brrr isn't quite as likable as he might be. He has a tendency for vanity, self-absorption and conflict-avoidance, but it's clear they'd have only ever been venial sins were he not pushed around by circumstances. The tragedies aren't so much that people suffer for his failures to act, but rather that he keeps ending up in situations where his inaction matters. A hard thing to illustrate.

Maguire, incidentally, is as breezy with his allusions as he is with the language (as he is with his pocket philosophizing, his character development, his geography, his law, economy, and politics), and let's not forget the essential silliness of the setting either. It's his talent as a writer to balance that playfulness elegantly with outsized, but sneakily substantial, seriousness. I was on about it last time, but it's probably why he's so busy reinventing these classic and fairytale settings.

I don't know that any of his character arcs have been fully redemptive, but I'll go as far as to spoil you this: the ending of this one, however mild a poke to the implacable machinery of history and chance it may have been, is genuinely uplifting and satisfying. I felt good when I finished reading it--not all I want out of literature, but a hell of a nice thing.

Ad Hominem 3-fer

Too shrill! Too shrill! I am still surprised to find myself rising (or sinking) to the level of politically-motivated Tourette's blogging, never mind of the lefty stripe (hey, I used to think fiscal responsibility implied something fiscally responsible), which is why I keep apologizing. But it's the silly season, again already, here in the People's Republic of Massachusetts, and it's been getting to me. I'm purging this from my system, see, which means it has to end up somewhere. I'm just going to sneeeeeak it in here right before another book review. Yeah, just like that. Nothing to see here.

1. Scott Brown.
So a number of my acquaintances support this guy, out of some sense of contrarian spirit mostly. Maybe that's understandable in some sense. Ms. Coakley is evidently a solid Democratic functionary (with all that might entail), and doesn't lend much in the inspiring leader department (her message: Scott Brown's a Republican!). As with any election, we have differences in party, uh, campaign themes, and some corresponding differences in policy, how "minor" depending on whether they affect you, but there's a large amount of institutional resistance to any big issue ever getting changed, which is evidently insurmountable in those areas of policy where money has already collected. As always, and despite everything, the willing suspension of disbelief descends over the electorate like smog.

The more responsible voters are forced to guess which things the heretofore anonymous candidate is lying about, and which things he or she actually intends to (or is able to do), and keep their expectations low. Dispense your requisite bullshit if you must, but don't expect me to believe you can reroute the Alpheus and the Peneus into your own stables, even while you're adding so prodigiously to the steaming pile yourself. Anyone who's been through this exercise more than twice should realize by now that a budget-cutting Republican is as rare and phantasmal a creature as an anti-war Democrat, and with this in mind, all I ask is that they don't insult my intelligence too aggressively with their endless campaign. In Scott Brown's case, it doesn't help that he speaks in a bellowing mad-lib of conservative code words, proudly spouting them in that passive-aggressive, indignant tone of voice that you only find in political ads and empty-Senate C-SPAN harangues. Or in debates, evidently. (Doghouse Riley blames Nixon for this. I trust him.)

I listened to about five minutes of the debate. It's pretty hard to stomach these things at all, and while Scott Brown didn't "hold his own" in the following assessment as laughably as George W. Bush did back in the day, he didn't exactly come off as a shining beacon of wit, integrity and sensitivity. I mean, in the current political climate, it takes a special kind of belligerent obliviousness for a conservative to campaign like it's 1992, or even 2002. A good Republican is for the war industry, for unrestricting the finance industry (so is a good Democrat of course, but Republicans are the extroverts), and is ...anti-spending? This was insane back then, but after the last ten years? That takes some big brass ones.

You can come out against general spending, hard as it is to believe you can do it with a straight face, but let's list some priorities. Show me where you are pointing those scissors, asshole. In the light of undisclosed trillions for optional and privatized wars, for bailing out banking, for insurance industry deals, what pisses you off, what really grinds your gears, is Medicare? I mean, helping out sick old people is where you draw the spending line? Fuck you, Scott Brown, you shrivel-souled, pea-brained, terror-scared, bedwetting whore.

Sadly, he's an uptight white dude with light brown hair who fills out a suit okay. He'll probably win.

2. Bruce Bartlett.
I have some memory of not detesting Bruce Bartlett, probably for being soberly, anti-deficit. I don't think I ever bought into the supply-side economics he once championed, but back in a younger life, it was easy to imagine that wealth correlated strongly to the extent one could perform generally useful tasks, goods-n-services, renting excess capital, blah blah blah. Huge caveats implied, but I don't think most of us object on principles to some version of a do-more, get-more kind of economic system. The problem is that in terms of principles and surprising reality, like Madgie said, you're soaking in it.

Anyway, Bruce Bartlett. Those are some tired poses, moreso given the last thirty years. No, we can't expect helping out the rich to automatically benefit the poor, but look, the rising tide thing: are those especially buoyant arks benefiting from the swell (or suffering from the ebb) proportionally to their contribution to it? That might contribute to the "aesthetic," you insensitive shithead.

"[N]either does it follow that there is no limit to how much we can soak the rich without average people suffering some of the consequences. We really don't want the rich spending all their time figuring out how to hide their wealth from the tax man or engaging in conspicuous consumption; we'd rather that they invested their wealth in businesses that will increase their wealth but also create jobs and income for the rest of us, too."

And that's just it. Are we within miles of that limit? The U.S. government has been eagerly outlining an investor class and reducing their economic burdens (and we can include Mom and Pop's pension fund here if you want to) for three decades now, and it's not clear that investment in job-producing companies is where enough of it went. It looks like a good fraction of value got extracted from job-producing companies (or from the the labor generated at formerly-job-producing companies) through some combination of liquidation (hey look, if we get rid of payroll, share values go up a lot!), marketing (the old rules don't apply! your home value will only go up!), pressure (better let us manage your 401(k), we got our thumbs on Social Security's jugular), and taxes (sometimes directly transferred, whee). Some jobs and infrastructure emerged from the tech bubble, and I guess we got some extra buildings out of the real estate one, although a lot less real economy than advertised. And yes, Joe Homeborrower walked away with a big TV and a new pickup that came out of his HELOC, which will be hard to give back now, and for which he's still on the hook, theoretically. How's that stack against the billions in guaranteed corporate payola?

The argument isn't that economic transactions are zero-sum, and I'm unclear why zero-sum is particularly relevant to describing a fucked-up distribution anyway. In terms of the comparative advantage thingie, someone's adding less to the system than claimed, and reserving more of that somewhat-optimized (and inflated) sum for himself. This is the opposite of the do-more, get-more idea, isn't it? I won't tell Bruce Bartlett to fuck off without a better body of evidence: I'll take a thoughtful conservative if I can find one, and it's not really his fault he looks like a cartoon of an evil banker. You can at least catch him questioning his assumptions sometimes, which I guess is better than not doing so, but that column is a blatant fucking anachronism.

3. That "Ladders" Guy
I don't have a six figure job, but if I had self-confidence, motivation, or a talent for bullshitting, I could presumably pursue one with my credentials. (Those traits would probably also have made me "successful.") I'm a Phucking Dork with years of experience, and I get that job-hunting would be less depressing if I could weed out appropriate positions from the more frequent calls for recently-graduated ivory tower silage. Which isn't to say that those eager youngsters aren't often smarter and more useful than I am. They are, and it's the sort of knowledge that keeps me in this stew of vanity and self-loathing when it comes to employment, at least when I relent to its seriousness.

Maybe you've seen this ad. Here's some earnest-looking manchild, decked out in country club attire, just about to take his first swing at a tennis ball, when an athletic woman slams him out of the way to poach his shot. The court quickly swarms with the usual suite of office incompetents, humorously flailing at imaginary balls. Funny stuff.

And what a message. If that guy is six figure material, we don't know it, because we never see him actually swing his racquet. Evidently, to earn above $100k, it's who you are more than what you can do, and that person is well-represented by some preppie prick who stole John Cusack's girlfriend in 1986, the sort of guy that plays on clay, pays a pro for private lessons, wears pristine collared whites to match his peachy complexion, and, rather than doing anything corrective or competitive, casts whithering, beleagured looks at the dusky but unworthy officials when things aren't going his way. A six-figure man already owns the court, in other words, and deserves to have the riffraff and the underclass kept out.

And the really killer part is that woman, were she not barred from club like in the bad old days, would totally mop the court with that guy. So fuck you, you privileged, pencil-armed, Hugh-Grant-looking motherfucker. Learn to deal like the rest of us.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Nature Trail to Hell

I still haven't seen the film, although I intend to sooner or later, hopefully while it's still on the big screen. I can (and expect to) enjoy a souped-up B-movie of a blockbuster as much as anyone, and I do appreciate the big visual and sound experience, even though I remain deeply suspicious of the merits of 3-D technology itself. And I believe the many reviewers when they say that Cameron over-invested heavily in his own writing genius, which will no doubt shame him all the way to the bank. For groundbreaking legacy, it would have been nice to hire some screenwriters and all, but for something like this we don't expect much more than reaching for the fastest cliché-ridden quasi-heroic epic that the nearest body can put to paper. And to his partial credit, it took James Cameron a longer resume than George Lucas to get to this point.

(Actually the problem with Star Wars is that Lucas did outsource for one of his flicks, and it turned out to be the good one.)

No, what it's going to take for Avatar to finally irritate me, is when they start believing their own bullshit, and we may already be in the event horizon of that. Star Wars was bad enough, and in that mold, we're about ready for four too many Making Of Avatar features, and worse, endless documentaries about the deep philosophical implications of the bargain-bin script, probably invoking three pounds of Carl Jung and ten pounds of Joseph Campbell, maybe a dash of whoever likes to say that science fiction is really about today, dude, to describe how the story is not some cheap-ass derivative piece of crap, but something timeless.

Avatar has also set the media abuzz with how 3-D television, introduced this year, is going to Change Everything. I am sure that they can do better than the awful, headache-inducing cardboard glasses that they (used to?) distribute in the theaters. Wikipedia says that more advanced versions use glasses with polarizers, or which have shutters synched to a rapidly flickering screen. The latter has got to be better way to go about it, and could justify dedicated hardware to manage that control link. And the refresh rate on the screen would have to be twice as fast as usual, which may even be why they were pushing 120 Hz last year, come to think of it.

But now you've introduced ergonomic variables (Not everyone's eyes are the same distance apart; not everyone is sitting in the same position relative to the screen; people may wish, at times, to briefly divert their attention to something else) that are sure to make many users highly uncomfortable. And let's be honest, stereoscopic vision just isn't all that. Don't believe me? Try closing one eye, and tell me how much less real everything fails to seem. I mean, the big mover for 3-D television is ESPN, and if you actually watch live sports, you'll notice that they tend to be, you know, far away, and coming right at you doesn't change the perspective much at all. I mean, except for horror or sci-fi flicks with big cluttered screens and objects you want to believe are near the lens... Christ, the worst thing about 3-D TVs, if they're adopted, will be what they direct the content to.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Review: Mirrors, by Eduardo Galeano

So I was pleased to learn from this book that one name of the form is zuihitsu, based on Sei Shōnagon's The Pillow Book, one of classical Japan's several indelible contributions to literary form. At least it's a word to keep in mind as I attempt to review Steinbeck or Dos Passos doing similar things, even as they may diverge from the contemplative, essay-ish, impression-heavy style that the name more correctly implies. I like it better than writing "mosaic" or "tapestry," and it's nice to lessen the obligation to say things about sums and parts and all that, but of course I will anyway. Mirrors strings together historical tidbits, each several paragraphs long, more or less chronologically, chosen for poignancy, sensitivity, and horror. Given history, it's not like he lacks material. It feels a little bit like some polite children's lesson-book that one only barely remembers, but I'll tell you, picking at the world in three-paragraph chunks is also a lot like reading a blog. It would be a brilliant project in the right hands. Just sayin'.

Subtitling it "stories of almost everyone" is a bit ambitious (the original una historia casi universal appears to convey a slightly different meaning, no? Galeano evidently collaborated closely with the translator, Mark Fried, to ensure the right context), but it is impressive for its comprehensiveness just the same. He takes us through prose-poetry snapshots of lives, starting at the fuzzy dawn of human memory through the bloody birth of our new century, stopping at many corners of civilization along the way. Although I think it takes more excursions eastward than western literature may normally, the focus is still mainly centered on the Americas and Europe, but that's mostly, from Uruguay, what he has been confronted to explain. The language of each individual entry strives for a beautiful simplicity, and I have to admit that I wasn't sure at first that the language quite lived up to the attempted sentiment, but a couple things about that: (1) it's a translation from the Spanish, and (2) it does add up. So it's bigger than the sum of the parts after all; the cumulative effect gets in there quickly, and I surprised myself staying up late pulling through half the book in a night. As for the language, my running hypothesis is that Spanish (heavily Latinate, relatively formal) lends itself well to a certain directness of expression, which may be minimalist or deceptive, but it's pretty hard to make that case with so few data points. It's unfortunate that my language skills are not up to reading it in the original.

Galeano's historical mission is to remind his readers of the causes and the consequences of power. He neglects to address the somber, theatrical regrets that the wielders of power find so ennobling, and shifts his focus to the people who actually bore the cost of it all, on those obvious casualties that history likes to leave unmentioned. Revisionist? More like making a different claim as to What It's All About, which is worthwhile in any honest history, and in literature doesn't even require an explanation. These things happened, and happened more constantly and more universally than big daddy cracker's grand march of progress. The other half of it, the judgment that conquest just isn't so fucking great, becomes hard to refute when you actually start counting the lives, or the quality of lives.

The author's governing philosophy is gently humanist, maybe another Howard Zinn type of anarchist, with a general distrust of power and its justifications, formal or otherwise, perhaps a little optimistic about democracy, appreciative of open-minded scientific inquiry, of art, supportive of common wholesome comforts over the excess grief imposed by the big ideas of powerful men, however noble they may seem. If there's a religious sentiment here, it's more about quiet spirituality--early on, he grants primitive fables a lot of power--than any formal religion, for which he doesn't hesitate to document myriad horrors. If Inkberrow reads this thing, note that Galeano isn't too deluded about it all. He doesn't come out against the Enlightenment, aware that he is sharing many of the values purported at that time, and he extends them as their original proponents failed to. He takes a couple pokes at John Locke's convenient theories of property rights (or of their limits when it came to John Locke), the failures of the French Revolution, the limited sphere of the American founders, etc. What good are values of equality, after all, if after every implementation, the result is still violently unequal for so many people? My favorite quote in this regard was directed against Marxism:

And thus, for what it said and what it did not, the Manifesto confirmed the most profound truth its authors had hit upon: reality is more powerful and astonishing than its interpreters.

The generally equanimous view is one to which I am not unsympathetic, which is no doubt one reason I appreciated the book. In any given one-note vignette, the impression of many of our saints can become monstrous, and of our monsters, unforgotten. But he can sanctify normal people beyond normal too. He doesn't change these perspectives without awareness, and in at least one passage he pens how humans can be all of those things, which is of course true on an individual scale too. I tend to be more forgiving of history's more well-intentioned or half-right actors, who are inevitably flawed products of their times, although Galeano has knocked another chink or two in that apology, pointing to what the wrong half costs. And we can still look critically on the times themselves. Our times too.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Review: Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

Several years ago, I spent the better half of a summer reading Lord Jim. Picking my way over the dense, congested prose was a slow business, and the effort became more tiring than rewarding if I kept at it too long. I was advised at one later point that Conrad is better traversed paragraph by paragraph--there is no shame in keeping a copy by your bed and conquering a little bit every night. I find these interesting observations, because I'm hard pressed right now to understand what the hell my problem was. Heart of Darkness, while some of the heaviness of the writing was still there, tore right along. (And in the other novellas in that economical Barnes and Noble canon fodder edition--Amy Foster and The Secret Sharer--were also quick reads.) It might be that Conrad works better at the shorter length. Or I might just be reading differently nowadays. Who knows? I'm mostly shocked that the count is "several years."

You might call all three of them allegorical stories, fictionalized memoirs built up around Conrad's larger ideas of imperialism, the immigrant experience, or the alienation of command. Heart of Darkness, is the ringer of the bunch, taking a deep look at human nature, civilization and savagery, yet again. As everyone who was forced to read it in tenth grade, or who has seen Apocalypse Now knows, the plot is the chronicle of a seaman's journey up the Congo River to relieve the ivory trading station furthest up, and to meet his counterpart in Kurtz, the enigmatic chief of the inner station. This is put into a frame story of an afternoon yarn shared among comrades, the main purpose of which appears to challenge the reader to pay attention to quotation marks, although it does allow Conrad to avoid speaking in an authorial or autobiographical voice.

Like many novels written at the turn of the last century, the bridge between the modern and the pre-industrial is palpable. Certainly Conrad snapshots the technological transition from wind to combustion marine power, and in Africa, the empire has dug deeper into the colonial model, deeper into the continental interior and its other-than-human resources. The unreliable narrator that Conrad uses to subtly balance the moral dimension of the novel seems to me (and I am probably wrong) like a more modern trick, and if Charles Dickens might have written any number of scheming, soulless bureaucrats, he lacked the context of a national corporation to describe the general manager in the unsettling way Conrad that did. The madness that fractures the nobility of Kurtz is an ancient theme too (though maybe his final assessment isn't), and we find Conrad following any number of nineteenth century writers contrasting man's wholesome instincts with his barbarous ones, but here he's looking more directly at whom his fellow Europeans are actually "civilizing."

It would be too simple to say that the Africans represent the savage aspect of man, although it's clearly a concept that Conrad entertains, and it would be easy enough to take that as a superficial reading (as his contemporary audience likely did). He is looking at race here, in colonial Africa, and, through a tangle of dichotomies and contrasts, comes off with suitable ambiguity in his condemnations and approvals. What is missing here, and what really makes the novella so challenging, is that there's very little authorial empathy for the dark-skinned Other. We end up with some complex jigsaw puzzle with the contours of the missing pieces discernable by their absence. There's no major black character--the psychological dynamics are among the whites, between the narrator Marlow and Kurtz primarily, and also Marlow dealing with his own and Kurtz's relatives, and the company managers. Kurtz clearly has as much powerful leadership mojo on the locals as he does on everyone else, but the exotic savages are not the ones interviewed. Of course, it's natural that these are the people Marlow actually talks to, and the author can release any moral judgments through his mouth, or else leave them obviously hanging.

Marlow observes the Africans and toys with the idea that they're like us, and dismisses it without justification. The men he first meets are a sorry bunch, conscripted into forced labor by the Belgian company. He offers a cynically accurate judgment on imperialism in general, but chooses to expiate it with some vague ennobling idea. He judges the British colonial efforts to be a more beneficent sort (and judging against Leopold's efforts in central Africa may have had something of a point), and does not fail to observe, at the beginning of the story, that in antiquity, Albion was a dark continent too (uh, despite the name). Marlow's bond with the black crew, to fellow seamen, even though he judges them inferior sorts, is stronger than with the white passengers. He offers the shipboard cannibals the dignity of self-restraint in difficult circumstances, while the white passengers also on board are ignorant loudmouths with hair triggers. For so little screen time, Kurtz offers the richest contradictions. He's introduced as an emissary of civilization, as a possessive monster, a leader, and while he has beguiled and intimidated the exotics into his service on their own terms, it's not at all clear that his savagery is an adopted native sort. I take him as a stark raving parody of the civilizing influence. The horror.

Conrad paints the African jungle as dark, eternal, mute, indifferent to man. The effect is supposed to include predatory tension, but it reminds me of modern observations of the big empty universe, the infinitesimal significance of humanity in the big void to anyone but ourselves--an observation that resonated a little with a science fiction nerd. I hadn't known that Conrad was friends with H.G. Wells, although it's the wrong generation of the genre: nature was smaller back then, and I think Wells' was more social speculation. I was also impressed with the virulence of the dark continent. According to the notes, fully a third of the International African Society were casualties of malaria and other disease. And yet they kept at it, until it was no longer profitable. That the manager rose by means of his stomach doesn't sound like an exaggeration.

UPDATE: Responding to LentenStuffe's comment below, and since I want to write here what I actually mean: I didn't intend to suggest that Africans as savages was the correct reading, just one that Conrad appeared to be aware of, and which he was contradicting. I was trying to list some aspects of the way he discusses it that may be challenging (supporting the idea of Congolese "savages" with weak arguments, and with ugly proponents, and showing a whole lot of the opposite; selecting a narrator, and characters with whom the narrator most empathizes, that doesn't offer much light to an African point of view). And I don't think the contrasts tend to be cut and dry, but to my reading, one of the important take-homes is that Kurtz didn't go native so much as he went around-the-bend colonial. He brought his savagery with him.

He nails me on another point too, and makes some great observations.

Also, this is one of the banned books selections, and is now labeled appropriately. It was a good excuse to finally read it.