Saturday, January 29, 2011

Random Roundup

1. Obama's State of the Union speech last week announced, in a way that has become customary for this sort of thing, an increased emphasis on math and science education. I think it's a line that gets more guffaws than it used to, not without reason, and I've followed some conversations from some of my very favorite out-of-network blogs, where American technololgical exceptionalism was derided with some of the good, bitter humor that our situation has earned. I'm tempted to laugh along with, but wait... I'm not joking, this is my job! I guess I feel stung enough about these points to offer a mild rebuttal. Since those posts are, like, already from last week, and since I do not wish my infrequent commenting to be limited to the dickheaded antagonistic variety, I guess I'll just deposit the thought here.

It's worth asking how much power scientists and engineers command in American society right now. It's a solidly middle-class occupation, and in an era when the middle class is shrinking and the price of extensive training is skyrocketing, that's at least something. It's not the sort of career that makes you rich or a leader, and I often cynically suspect it's lauded in the press precisely because it's a non-threatening pursuit. Even in pricey endeavors like defense contracting and medicine, scientists aren't running things, or if they are, they need to abandon science in order to get on the management track. And as Ed points out, it's not as if the people doing R&D are immune from cut-rate Asian competition. The folks working in the field today understand that (outside of the military-industrial complex), technical work is quietly getting frog-marched out of the country right behind Labor.

I did add a pallid point to one of those posts that I fear the tyranny of humanities majors who can't assess technical data at least as much as I do the inhumanity of technical people, and that's true, although I may have understated it. I also agree that the humanities is important (if you have seen any portion of my craptacular archives, then you're aware of what I spend my time writing about). But look, oppression by the innumerate is what we have right now, and if you don't believe me, then please let me interest you in my homeopathic cures, Amway sales, and supply side economics. If we break down the leadership class by occupation, then observe how we're ruled by lawyers, lobbyists, financiers, and managers, perfectly respectable occupations and all, but these are people for whom persuasion is more important than evidence, and they're the ones reminding us that the atmosphere can't possibly be affected by the megatons of carbon we pump into it. We're constantly pushed around by the professional definition of poli-sci geeks (politicians) and visual artists (advertisers). No fair you say, to define humanities and social sciences by the evil versions. Well, that's my point.

2. Why the hell is it that I can never sleep in on weekends but on Monday through Friday, I can't wake up with the alarm? I think the answer is that my body is actually accustomed to waking up at 5:39 or 5:48 every morning, which is a weekday challenge and a Saturday travesty.

3. The two most useful links I've found all week, via the Roy Edroso gang:
- What's happening in Egypt
- What happened in Iraq (and Afghanistan--to another abyss, motherfuckers)

Both of them provide an easy entry point to describe a situation that is considerably more complicated (and in the second case, depressing) than official announcements and the evening news would prefer to discuss.

4. I've complained at length about new and improved information business models that force you to subscribe to your own content. This is an egregious way to distribute books and music, which many people prefer to keep for decades, and for which, now that digital formats are more fungible, they can otherwise no longer scam you to replace your collection every couple of years.

But there's a place where this kind of business makes a hell of a lot more sense, a business where you don't necessarily hold onto the content for a long time, but frequently reference a very small fraction of a very large body of it. (Hell, like cable TV, which is maybe why the fuckers are trying to get away from subscription to more pay-per-view.) Additionally, let's replace a system where the current subscription model is so prohibitively expensive and onerous that only your large overpriced institutions can handle it. I'm thinking subscriptions to scientific journals.

I work at a small scientific company (Massachusetts is littered with these) that can't afford this kind of thing, and I'm constantly forced to sneak onto various university library systems to get the papers that I routinely need to understand to do my damn job. Why can't I find a Rhapsody-like service, a virtual library, that fronts the ridiculous prices of journal services and then lets second parties subscribe to some number of downloads per month for a modest fee? That would be incredibly useful. (Most journals will let you download a pdf for a one-time charge of 20 or 30 bucks, which I guess helps if you have a corporate card, and are willing to take the risk that this low-impact paper is not a likely piece of shit. Note this is a pay-per-view model too. The fuckers.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Your Free Market at Work

So let me get this straight: One of the great triumphs of Milton Friedman-style American capitalist economics is monetarism, wherein the currency is manipulated to achieve a couple of macroeconomic and/or social goals. China also manipulates its currency to achieve a couple of macroeconomic and/or social goals. The opinion of this practice isn't as salutory when foreigners do it, but that's to be expected, just garden-variety hypocrisy.

If I understand things correctly, the economic do-si-do between these two countries relies on extremely cheap credit provided to American consumers and extremely cheap wages (and inexpensive social programs, regulations, etc.) provided to Chinese workers, neither of which valuations are especially well connected to what either group actually produces. Although this situation generates tension (at least so far as macroeconomics properly describes international relations), it's currently very lucrative to people who facilitate lending to American consumers, hiring Chinese workers, or selling their low-overhead products. While fear of instability may be real (and hence the occasional mild pokes against exchange rate manipulation), it's unlikely to change before the feces actually makes contact with the whirling blades (and if the finance crisis has taught us anything, probably not even then). Presumably this will happen if Chinese workers can command some more compensation for their effort, if Americans' consumer debt becomes too hopeless, if they can find a new population to do technical work on the cheap, or something like that. Pessimistically, China will prefer to open up its markets to consumer credit, American wage and job growth will still be held in check, and the mechanisms of wealth consolidation will be maintained as global resource limitations finally begin to resist the edges of growth. I think I understand the gist of all that. As practiced, at large enough scales, capitalism and communism concentrate power, just like everything else. Check. Free trade ain't no such thing. Got it.

I don't keep up well with the blogosphere when it comes to making this entertaining or intellectual, and this story's already a week old, but it's noteworthy when these relationships condense into such a powerful and relatively open meeting. (What do you suppose goes on at those things? I imagine it's a bunch of dull yay-rah powerpoint speeches full of mission statements and global visions, followed by a dinner that breaks down, as usual, to jostling over where the cool kids sit, or which are the power tables, and after that there are a hundred informal breakout discussions, filled with harrumphing, agreeing to talk to your people or theirs, awkward cross-cultural affection: what, no cocktail? ha ha do we shake hands or bow first?) This is expression of political power at its more outward and banal, and it's hard to see them agreeing to any arrangement that makes them less rich. I'll give Obama the benefit of the doubt and assume that he really does want to see clean energy products exported to China (whose environmental concerns are probably real), and maybe we'll even do better than the usual tactic of exporting clean energy jobs there. Well, at least GE is a surviving American non-defense company that actually makes stuff, so there's that, even if society can't seem to rid itself of Lloyd Blankfein.

Worth noting, however, that this inner party arrangement is our leader's preferred mileu, none of that weenie Carter-style public incentivizing that worked so poorly for, say, Germany. Meeting with business interests to orchestrate the economic push and pull is probably inevitable to the process of governance, and the moral balance comes down to which parties Obama or Hu feel they represent, and to achieve what ends. If the presidents are representatives of their populations, then they sure are outweighed by business interests in meetings like this. Personally, I think that Barack Obama (or any other president in memory) represents the people about as much, and in a similar capacity, as Jeff Immelt (or any other CEO of a gigantic multinational corporate empire) represents his employees, which is to say that the minions are an inevitable component to their power, a necessary evil, probably not hated, but of secondary and sometimes contradictory concern to the governing idea of the organization, as voiced by those who get rich by owning or administering pieces of it. I'm sure they'd rather not and all, but fucking the lower-downs is certainly on the table, while fucking themselves is not. And I don't think it's necessarily a question of evil so much that representation has inherent limitations—when the problem becomes the entrenchment of an elite group that is insulated from the concerns of everyone else, then the process of elevating someone to the elite makes it hard to accomplish things.

Has conservative economics disowned Milt Friedman yet? I know that the Fed is a pariah among the freedumb wing, not that they slow it down, but even so, it still has to be difficult to advocate for the idea of "competitiveness" when so much of the economy is the flow-down of executive decisions rather than market forces or other cost optimization. Mostly, I kind of wish the usual assortment of advocates would just shut up for a while.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Review: Mission Child, by Maureen F. McHugh

Science fiction has a strong tradition of short story writing. It's a great length to elaborate an idea, and in the best cases, a writer can build the tension around the underlying concept as effectively as with the more conventional constructs of characters or plot. I think the desire to elaborate these quick poses must be common among many writers of the form. The Missionary's Child, the short that this novel built from was published in 1992, and I read it about ten years ago in a science fiction anthology. I liked it enough to try and remember to find the novel version, which evidently I did at some point in the intervening decade, because there it was in the pile. I have usually enjoyed McHugh's short stories when I've found them, but it is difficult to formulate a readable novel whose only purpose is to exhibit an idea. It's hard to support a story in the long form when there is not any special plot. There's a character and setting, and there's conflict here—our protagonist, Janna, has no shortage of external or internal struggles—but these do not really suggest or deliver any clear resolutions. It's more a matter of unfolding the understanding the character and where she lives setting, but here too, there's not a well-conceived pace of the discovery, it's really more like a tour. The world is not earth, but it is earth-like, populated with human societies that have been around long enough to be considered aboriginal, now struggling with a cultural invasion of well-intended colonial types. Maureen McHugh creates an environment with enough intimate and honest detail that it makes the outré circumstances of the story take a back seat to the cultural and personal issues. On one hand, it's an impressive accomplishment to make the unreal realistic, but on another, it sort of takes the fun out of it. It's difficult to generate a (cheap) skiffy thrill when the book features believable people who spend most of their time going about their boring lives. The only other novel of hers that I read was utterly sunk by the mundane: it had a city under the sea, cool Voudon rituals, and it bored me to the point of depression. Mission Child is much better than this, chiefly because it's a central character that is sympathetic, troubled, resourceful, accessible, and alien—you know, interesting.

McHugh is making some direct comparisons to known societies here, a couple that are chosen to reflect less a background of outright conquest and more the unintentional casualties of European expansion, which suits the mood she's trying to build. The story starts on the cultural fringe of a fictionalized version of the nomadic Sámi people (I had to look that one up—Lapplander is considered derogatory these days), comprised of a tribal Scandinavian-ish population moving between semi-permanent settlements up north of that planet's arctic circle, supported by an economy of genetically engineered reindeer which have long since run as wild as the people. The push from more recent Earth settlements in the south is probably, inadvertantly, the cause of the violent consolidation of the nomadic clans that claims Janna's family, the early tragedy around which she's forced to define her character. Janna starts her life in an ecumenical mission (run by an Indian couple, trying to teach the white locals technical culture at a non-threatening rate), a mixed background from the start, and is lucky enough to survive an encounter from a neighboring clan that escalates to the murder of nearly the whole settlement. The poor kid flees into a war (which also has few survivors) and then from it (even fewer), becoming a wife, a mother of a sick baby, a pariah, a widow in the process. While her age is purposefully left indeterminate, she can't be more than sixteen or so by the time she wanders into a refugee camp two (local) years later, and decides, for her own protection as well as psychologically complex reasons she is unable to assess, to compartmentalize her gender and present herself as a male. This gender confusion eventually gets reinforced by her spiritual practices, and later by some modern magic as well. Janna makes it out of the refugee camp to another mission, now in an industrial city further south, where she's sharp enough to expand her English and land a job and a training program for a factory technician. The story here is more of a back-country girl skirting the modern urban culture and counterculture. The final setting brings us to something of a South China Sea that Conrad might have recognized, an already robust trading economy recently beset with new pressures from outside. (Or maybe it's more like the end of the 20th century than the end of the 19th, a handful of hopeful NGOs have also recently arrived of the scene.)

For all this not-entirely-unfamiliar changing of times going on, McHugh does a very good thing with Janna, letting her take on a "native" view of the cultural invasion, and an individual one. This may be one of those cases where science fiction is a good tool to explore an otherwise sensitive or typically ill-informed setting. Coming from a survival culture, Janna makes for an interesting narrator. She is pragmatic instead of introspective, is relatively stoic, and has difficulty forming an internal conception this character of hers, divided between both worlds and genders. She lends herself to terse matter-of-fact descriptions of violence, death, and hunger that leave it more poignant. Janna has a moral sense, but she impressively (and believably) maintains little investment in foreign cultural baggage (both the good and bad kind; the author isn't given to the sort of moralizing that lets her character adopt modern notions of charity and tolerance while rejecting the general bullshit of working for a living or the danger of street culture), and mentions them as irrelevencies or sources of confusion, or in some cases finds the right analogy from her own experiences. We sophisticated readers can spot a great deal of childhood trauma in her, but she gives us a worldview that doesn't include the concept that our character is defined through formative events.

I wonder how much of this thematic weight can be pinned on female authorship. We have endurance trumping triumph here, and flight a bigger motivator than exploration, neither of which is the usual stick used to poke around brave new worlds. We have some gender identity issues, a focus on how those affect relationships, a theme that is much more self-acceptance than it is self-discovery or self-motivation. We have an ambiguous opinion of charity and conquest and culture, which worries more about lost self than it does lost dignity. Mission Child is a view of cultural change from the receiving end, with some clear connection to our own history. Anyone want to recommend a similar novel in a real historical setting? (All I can think of for the moment are one or two stories about Native American that I didn't read in high school. It'd be interesting to compare science fiction vs. the historical kind, or male vs. female writers.)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Finally, a Serious Subject: Blogging The Biggest Loser

With a mountain of work on my desk (most of it recently prioritized by my twice-weekly chewing out, and no, morale has not improved, thanks so much for asking), then the obvious course of action is Road Trip! to waste an hour or two blogging about some utterly pointless piece of cultural trash. I'm not quite in stupid and futile gesture territory yet, but we'll see how next week's meetings go.

So yeah, as I mentioned, I'd never seen the show before this season. That makes me seven years and eleven seasons behind it's peak popularity, with an interest that is, I have to admit, less than completely sincere. But that's just how I like to approach fandom. And, like with most Americans, I find some personal relevance here. Although I don't know how I could ever hit a quarter ton, I've nonetheless slid far enough up and down the BMI scale to appreciate just how hard it is to lose weight and keep it off. I have an intimate understanding of what it takes to do that through exertion and discipline, how damn much more that takes for some people than others, and how even small changes of habit, not all of which you have a good handle on (for example, your sedentary job may be unhealthy, but so is not paying the mortgage), can tip you right back to an unattractive equilibrium porkulence. Watching this show makes me appreciate the minor blessing that my own Weebley resting poundage is only in the lower 200s. This, of course, is one of the major unstated selling points of the show. The others include Americans' undying love for cheap sanctimony, and the fact that there's no easier straight line to set up than one for a fat joke. I'll do my best to be sensitive.

1. Let's first dissect the show's basic premise. Yes, we have some people who have really let themselves go, and they've been selected thanks to some (I imagine) intense psychological and physical screening to help predict that the success rate will be high enough among this carefully chosen sample so they will at least not to depress the entire viewership in their where-are-they-now spot. These folks are then subjected to a grueling supervised workout schedule, every filmable moment of which (again I assume) is recorded in order to mine for positive storylines, in an effort to drop the pounds.

JaredAnd really, good for them, they have every reason to be proud of themselves. But the corrollary to all that production is that unless you have 16 hours a day available for exercise under the direction of a crack personal trainer and a team of possibly competent doctors, then don't expect to lose 3% of your body mass every week. Obviously not everyone has this option. It's encouraging how they follow up and all, but I wonder how the average contestant does 2 or 5 years out, because unless your job is "personal trainer" (and more about that in a second), then your regimen is unlikely to be sustainable, or to be compatible with full-time employment. Even here, beyond the careful screening, the TBL constentants have a better shot at staying thin than your average schlub does, because they always have a chance at making a career of their minor celebrity. If they keep the weight off, there's always an endorsement to be had, maybe not full Jared, but there's the opening the new GNC in the Niceville mall and that sort of thing.

2. The show does not neglect to include a smidgen of contempt for its participants by inviting fat jokes. (You'll notice that this formulation cleverly removes the moral responsibility from me, the sarcastic viewer, who is responding to those invitations.) I'll give them a pass on the title, whose backhandedness is overt, and instead present the location as exhibit A. Do the biggest losers compete on a compound? On a set? In a complex? A retreat? A campus? Even a farm or a camp? Nope, it's the Bigger Loser Ranch. Moooo-ve over, losers.

3. I don't know if the whole season is like this, but the first two episodes of the damn show have been drawn out to two interminable hours. Now look, as hinted above, the sedentary but stressful lifestyle of Americans, often forced on them, is an important factor contributing to our general rotundity. (Independent of exercise level! An ariticle in a high-impact journal, but man, if there's any medical research that needs airtight scrutiny, it's obesity research.) This show which exhorts us to get off our expanding asses is all about dulling up the programming in an effort to extend the fraction of precious free time that we spend sitting on them.

(On the other hand, maybe it prepares us for the tedium of riding an exercise bike for 16 hours a day if we do get the bug.)

4. The show is decent enough to limit its advertisers to (among the usual purveyors of cars, investment assistance, and penis stiffeners) to diets and healthy things. I don't believe for a second that this is done out of decency, however. I suspect that the producers have spent some quality time with their actuarial models and concluded that the recriminatory backlash of Very Concerned Viewers would cost more than the substantially increased profits they could get from pitching Doritos and Twinkies to hungry and self-loathing viewers.

5. One of the female contestants is an opera singer. For some reason, I have her to make the finale.

6. I understand the need to milk every emotional angle, but I can't be the only one who finds this policeman's family situation horrifyingly unlikely to lead to fulfilling reconciliation. Dude, if your son said that he doesn't love you because you're a fatass, the problem is not that you are obese, it is that your son is a dick.

7. And okay, I know this is wrong, and I feel like a terrible person mentioning it, but can we please get a shot of Dan and Don on tiny motorcycles. Just one quick clip?

8. Contempt for the contestants exhibit B: they really played up that doughnut thing last night, lingering on the torture the poor guy was feeling about tossing that pancaked cruller into the dumpster. I mean, I thought for sure he was going back for it as soon as the cameras were off. I expected to learn this at the big weigh-in ceremony. (Good for him though.)

9. In my own life, it took some time for me to realize that aches and pains from exercise weren't an effect of my general conditioning. When I get a regular enough cycle going, I can look forward to constant discomfort of one kind or another. Now I realize that if you get fat enough, you will be pretty uncomfortable already, but I'm impressed that they are not complaining constantly about screaming knees, shin splints, stiff-as-hell muscles. These poor folks must be so sore they need to be pried out of bed with a canoe paddle in the morning, and correct me if I'm wrong, but I didn't see anybody stretching once.

What?! 10. What was interesting about Rulon Gardner wasn't precisely that he was an olympic wrestler, but that he was a kind of unlikely one even ten years ago, a doughy kid with a strained but honest grin who somehow bested a Russian genetic cyborg by the space of a quarter-inch of a lost hold. Presumably there are legal reasons for not including Alexander Karelin's picture in there, but the images of the two of them together were what really told the tale of the match.

Judging your lifetime fitness level against your prime bulemic high-effort wrestling best is a forbidding standard, and while he seems like a nice guy, even in 2000, you could see that he was on the thin side of his normal weight. You could see that those heavy-guy features were ready to threaten the integrity of his unitard about five minutes after he stopped training. More than most of the contestants, he's well-suited to a mad dash of weight loss, and while they need the pounds off, feast or flail is not the strategy they need for the rest of their life.

11. I don't much like Bob and Jillian. I mean, it's somewhat refreshing that Bob is fit and attractive into his forties (and even Jillian would have been retired from MTV ten years ago), but the cult of Bob and Jillian is creepy. Look what those contestants gave up last week just to bask in their twin glow.

I do think that the two of them are sincere in their drive for the Losers to succeed (who wouldn't be?), but I'm not buying the shows of empathy for a second. Not only are they high-metabolism people feigning to understand folks cursed with a low one, but exercise is their job! That Jillian confesses to having been tubby when she was twelve years old or so is telling. Adolescence is a tough time, and there are lots of kids who grow out of it late, but it's not really the same thing as weight maintenance as an adult. I think trainers have a valuable role as teachers, for people who don't know how to exercise, or who need some new suggestions. But inspiring? How is a normal person supposed to relate?

12. I'm ambivalent about the trainers, but I attained an instant and active loathing for that smarmy blonde doctor they trotted out. First, you figure that your average doctor on the show has about as much professional integrity as the medicos who signed off on the treatment of prisoners in Iraq. (Given the size of these people, and how hard they're pushed, it's a bit alarming. The wiki article on TBL doesn't suggest that everything is perfectly kosher, even though a heart attack would take a worse toll on the viewership than an advertisement for Little Debbie.) That age calculator he drags is about as scientific as that computer simulation that told Lisa Simpson she needed braces, and his accusing "evidence" hurled at Dan (or was it Don?) was about the lamest tv-drama bombast that ever failed an audition.

But what really gets me is that here's the guy on the show who's not holding back to belittle these people in the bad way. I mean, they're here because they want to make a change and are willing to do it. Does it help to rub it in their face how badly they've been fucking their lives up?

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Obligatory thoughts on the Arizona shooting

Obviously nobody's pestering me for my thoughts here, but I've seen so damn much CNN in the last two days, that it's hard to avoid forming an opinion or two. I'd like to get it off my chest before I go and try to be entertaining.

1. A nine-year-old girl as well as half a dozen grownups were killed. This kind of thing just ties me up in knots, and I wish I could stop thinking about it. I mean, if you're losing your positive outlook on the human race, then the best thing you can do is to get to know a well-balanced nine-year-old girl. Taking that away is the stuff of enduring heartbreak and terrifying nightmares. When little girls start to fall under your vision of acceptable collateral damage, then maybe it's time it's time to give a serious second thought to what you imagine it is you're trying to accomplish.

Of course, this draws up the usual unsettling disconnect. How many little girls are getting shot, orphaned, abused, and starved thanks to accepted violence? It happens far too commonly outside of society's purview or its capability to control, and that's awful enough, but we're out there killing them too, on purpose, or as an accepted consequence, through intentional policy, domestic and foreign. Political violence is common and condoned, while violence against politics has been pretty rare here by comparison in the last hundred years, and roundly condemned. Increasingly, I find I am sick with both. If you want to remember what the middle east wars cost, then try to imagine the thousands of nine-year-old kids, if you can take it.

2. I tend to agree that inflammatory rhetoric and the more-belligerent pose of the right wing is partly to blame here. I think that actual concentration and expression of economic power is also part of the problem. Powerlessness and ignorance seem to be common themes of many a confused American revolutionary poser, if you want to call in the Truthers and Birthers and the rest, not to mention the Tea Party. I don't think that's an entirely wrong perception: the political representation in our system is not engineered to make the system fair even according to the points of its own narrative, or to give these folks much of a voice. I mean, people have obviously been incited from time to time in history, and oppression and (limited) freedom are the fuel and oxygen of certain kinds of political conflagration. Are we there yet? I don't know. I think it's early to spot a general trend from this (not that it matters what I think), and occasional violent outbursts seem to be part of human behavior, no matter what causes the stress.

Of course, glibly supporting violence and throwing around martial rhetoric beforehand sure does make you look like an asshole when it finally does occur.

3. I liked the sherriff dude abetter on an extended interview this morning (I actually plugged into the sound!), but still, "consequences" sounds like a menacing addendum to free speech. It's worrying what people choose to believe, but if we're talking susceptibility to propaganda, then I find that our media is similarly infuriating. I think I'd still care, but if it weren't for twenty-four hours of concerned opinion, then I don't think I'd be this fucking irritated. Every time I calm down, I go a round on the hamster wheel and read one of the zillions of blog posts on the subject and I get annoyed again. We have several familiar themes emerging in the professional press, including that the dude was nuts, that you shouldn't challenge authority, that he was incoherently political, that both sides have troublemakers, that the political climate is just too nasty and it must unite for healing. Maybe he's nuts, and probably he's a poor thinker, and sure, people should calm the fuck down, but I'm not learning anything here about what people get angry about. I'm annoyed that this lone whackjob is a standard script for someone who does not speak with an accent. I think reporting like this is why people question authority.

I worry about cracking down, as false syllogisms continue to emerge with respect to violence and dissent. All terrorists disagree with the system, but not all complainers are violent, right? A high fraction of people against the establishment are selfish and too stupid to breathe, but that's true of people for it too. If our governing outlook does change as a response, it will probably be at the expense of the lower economic orders, who usually bear it. I suspect that amendments 1 and 4-10 are at more danger of being compromised than the second one. More than that, I'm worried about what we get for this affirmation of bipartisanship, if no one dares protest a crazy idea from the establishment. The last few times they came together as a concerned whole, we got bailouts, and a war, and a Patriot act.

4. This kind of false syllogism thing writes itself: Obviously these damn white dudes are nothing but trouble, and the only rational response is to crack down on them. I don't think we should randomly pull them over or anything, but airports? In schools? The bleeding hearts call it "profiling" but if they are the ones who commit these terrorist acts, then that's only a matter of using the information we have. Maybe there are good white guys out there (maybe!) but until they get together and keep their nutjobs in line, then they obviously don't deserve to be treated like real citizens. If they want respect, they have to earn it. They say it's a culture of peace, but really, who we kidding here?

5. What to make of the reading list? The nooze cites Animal Farm, The Communist Manifesto, and Mein Kampf, and although you can sense a theme there, that's a pretty contradictory set of inspirations. The liberal blogs add that an Ayn Rand doorstop or two was in the mix, perhaps omitted in the media since that's too close to our own governing madness. Now, I've read Animal Farm a couple of times, and the first time I did it was assigned. I haven't read Marx's manifesto but I've heard that it is powerful as a critique (and not so controversial as advertised), even if it turned out to be a terrible prescription when it got into certain hands. You couldn't fucking pay me enough to read Mein Kampf, but I think that there's an argument that it should be read, to help understand where a fascist monster came from. I don't see the reading list as sufficient evidence of lunacy, in other words, but it's been hauled up a lot.

Based on reports from people who read his screeds, the guy really does look unhinged, but I still think it was an early call by the media. Like "radicalized," it's a facile judgement that dismisses all disagreement with the dominant narrative as bonkers. Meanwhile, the same simple view can be applied to policy and our dominant ideologies when we look at what those things actually do--they're nuts too!

Well, maybe they all are. Maybe the sane people are the ones who don't waste their lives thinking about this crap. Right up to the point when they have to live with it.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Review: The War of the End of the World, by Mario Vargas Llosa

[This review contains spoilers. Cleaned up a little too.]

To recap from previous comments, when Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel literature prize last year, the choice was lauded from many quarters, a sometimes political novelist (and a sometimes politician novelist) who found supporters from many surprising quarters. When pressed the crack team of commenters over at alicublog recommended The War of the End of the World as particularly impressive, and that was a good enough excuse for me to pick it up.

The story involves a relatively large cast of players and several significant intertwining threads, moving along approximately linearly, which keep up tension despite a few gigantic giveaways, despite this being a story whose outcome is already known anyway. It's a fictionalized account of the "War of Canudos" that took place in Brazil in 1897, a stunningly tragic affair in which the government, at great cost to its own military, mercilessly eradicated some twenty thousand souls that had founded a religious colony in the dusty backlands of the state of Bahia. The villagers, composed of fanatics, pilgrims, and former bandits, turned back three invasions before being overwhelmed and butchered by an ovewhelming final force. The conflict was by various respects an extension of the struggle between the country's contemporary republican and conservative political factions, an assertion of state authority over independent homegrown autonomous movements, or even an understandable attempt (gone horribly awry) to curtail extortion of the neighboring localities by the upstart community. Modern American parallels might include the massacres at Waco or Jonestown, although those were at not nearly the scale.

The Canudos war was chronicled by a Brazilian war correspondent named Euclides da Cunha, who published Os Sertões (the title is usually translated, apparently not well, as Rebellion in the Backlands) in 1902 after his experinces there. Now, Os Sertões is highly acclaimed in its own right, thought by some to rival Tolstoy, a comparison which, when it comes to scope and its morally tinged realism, is easy to draw for The War of the End of the World as well. (Or if not War and Peace, then at least War.) Although he remains unnamed in the novel, da Cunha is one of Llosa's primary characters, and the author does not present him very favorably. His physical deficiencies are used instead of his name (he is "the nearsighted journalist"), and no mention passes without a reference to his irritating voice, his ungainliness, his social awkwardness, his crippling myopia, his insufferable allergies. (I would add cowardice to the list, but I don't think Llosa condemns cowardice so much, and it may even be a byproduct of relative sanity.) He is moreover offered as a shallow hipster sort, possessed of a tiny, spent cachet of coolness among the other journalists, which only makes him more of a misfit among the serious people and ascetics. The actual journalist's Wikipedia entry has a photo of a handsome man, however, and while I don't want to add much approving weight to ideologies in this review, he seems to have been motivated by a reasonably decent naturalist one. And of course there's that great book he wrote. As one of a handful of survivors, Llosa's journalist is also one of the two people to experience a positive character evolution from the conflict, and may be the only one gifted with both intelligence and, at the end, something like maturity. I wish I had read Os Sertões too, wish I knew what comment Llosa was making on it and why he felt one was needed. Is he looking to remove that early 19th century gloss? To call out its simple ideologies? Possibly The War of the End of the World is ultimately a novel of becoming Euclides da Cunha.

I have the characters in War divided loosely among three types: the mad idealists; the pragmatists; and lastly, the group that includes the journalist, the dependents at the mercy of the rest. The first are the most striking, and include the inscrutable Counselor (Antônio Conselheiro) who founded the place, Colonel Moreira César who led the second expidition against the rebels at Canudos, the peasant guide Ruffino, and the itinerant revolutionary Galileo Gall. As a group they favor extreme views of their individual philosophies (the Counselor's Catholic-derived teachings; Moreira César's Republicanism; Ruffino's code of personal honor; and Gall's anarchism) and they have considerable overlap in terms of personality and even the structure of their ideas, but the intensity of conviction makes them utterly incompatible with one another, to the point of death for each one of them.

The pragmatists temper their belief with necessity, and great examples of this are Antônio Vilanova and Abbot (a.k.a. Satan) João who lead Canudos' surprisingly effective administration and military staff. They are motivated by idealism, but it's tempered enough to make them useful people. This category could also include the baron de Canabrava (monarchist and the nominal landowner of Canudos, gradually losing his grip to the republicans) and his opponent Epanimondas Gonçalves (the schemer of the other political faction). These people tend to survive, or at least die less fantastically, in the novel. They're shown capable of change, but don't necissarily manifest any worthwhile personal growth. The baron shrinks in moral stature; Vilanova's left to re-start his life yet again; and Epanimondas continues to shift around like a perpetual Reynard. Further down the spectrum, other dependant types include Ruffino's wife Jurema, a circus dwarf (doesn't every epic novel have to have a traveling circus?), and the deformed, lenonine scribe of Canudos. These people are given to fear, doubt, and childish displays of need. You might call them the victims, the real people (although these are all of them novel-style people) least infected with zealotry, and in the absence of spiritual salvation or other true belief, they're the ones who at least have a chance of a hward-won literary redemption.

[In addition to the journalist, known historical figures include the Counselor and Colonel Moreira César. My guess about Epanimondas Gonçalves is that his name is meant to suggest a political provocateur that history forgot, but I had similar and stronger suspicions about a militant little shit named César, and I was wrong about that one. Presumably there was a real Baron de Canabrava at this time; hopefully history did not give us a Galileo Gall.]

Now this can clearly lead to a lot of smaller personal conflicts and all kinds of compare-and-contrast kinds of exercises, and that's the meat that Llosa fills his book up with. (The skeleton is a story of sad deaths and unlikely survivals, and a hate-to-admit-it gripping military tale of plucky underdogs versus the hostile empire.) Although I had early difficulties with some aspects of the book, I really loved the way he could jump gears to weave in a background story or a subplot into the body of the text. There is no loss for words or ideas here. The story of Canudos is, as the journalist describes it late in the novel, in reality a tree of stories, with expansive roots, and branching everywhere.

I want to put the uniting theme of the book as a failure of idealism, but there's the troubling fact that Canudos, as Llosa presents it, basically works as an idealist society before it's squashed. Is it a story specifying the conditions for ideology's success then? Well, the town works nearly in spite of the loopy counselor and his inner core of whackos; and the various other modes of belief presented in it could have similar interpretations. There's a more-or-less effective Brazilian state or of a more-or-less successful mutualism going on in town.(It happens that the faithful follower of Proudhon has no hope of understanding it, but he is also sort of right about it.) Is it about the correctness of that faith, of that brand of libertarianism? No, the counselor's specific objections to the Republic are basically silly (at best a well-motivated misunderstanding), and Gall is a philosphically ineffectual but personally monstrous buffoon (his ideas are cast off as naive and he unrepentently fails to practice them when it comes to individual people--he's a real Alden Pyle type). Is it a contrast between European (Gall's) vs. Brazilian ideas of liberty? Not really--it'd take some familiarity with European history to use "Jacobin" as an epithet for the political ascendents. Speaking of the rapist Gall, is the message to put the abuse of women and the poor in the inevitable denominator of society? Well not even that: a woman is the other character lucky enough to catch an epiphany through all that; the poor rebels were happy as well as oppressed; and the rich had their successes and failures too. It's maybe all of those things. Or maybe it's just given as a bunch of stuff that happened, with a healthy nod to how things relate to ideologies, but aren't really.

I'll have you know that it's a bitch to type out all of those special characters, and I found the early abundance tilded, carated, and accent-marked proper nouns (the first 50 Brazilians that you meet are all named either Antônio or João) for which I had little feeling of a correct pronunciation to be an extra difficulty. Add to this that I didn't have a good intuition for the geography, and was learning fast to loathe this redheaded Scottish asshole featured so prominently at the front end of the book, and the first 75 pages was actually a bit of a slog. After that, however, (and maybe because I was home and had time to read) I caught the groove of it, and the book suddenly flew. I enjoyed the rest of the novel enough to go back and reread the first parts, which no longer seemed so slow.

The geography issue wasn't the backlands of Bahia, which are presented in great fine detail. As I mentioned yesterday, I got a distinct Victor Hugo vibe from their description, as Llosa lovingly and condescendingly re-introduces to the reader these superstitious country folks that modern society has stopped thinking about. He gets across that we're in an arid climate of scrub forest and Andean pampas in this part of the country. No, what I really missed here was any useful contrast between that and the coastal parts of Bahia. I didn't get a good picture of Salvador as an urbane, cosmopolitan place, and it took a while to figure out that Queimadas was the railway terminus, the cutoff point between civilization and the rest of the state. I mean, Llosa is writing to a South American audience which has some of the requisite cultural baggage, and that's all fine, but I kept thinking that if this was straight fiction instead of the historical variety, I'd have been content to have it spelled a little clearer. In a great departure from the inability of the characters of the novel to communicate with each other and the difficulty they had in traveling out there, I scouted out Canudos and environs with Google Maps, and it helped a lot.