Sunday, May 29, 2011

Pretty Soon You're Talking Real Money, Part II

In The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, Richard Feynman was asked his opinion on whether another Michael Faraday could emerge in today's (some today twenty-odd years ago, that is) scientific milieu. Faraday was a rare and spectacular sort of genius, one of the fathers of electromagnetic theory. He never had formal training, reportedly found the mathematical basis of the early theorists incomprehensible, and yet he managed to piece together the basic relationship of electricity and magnetism, figured out some of the subtle business of electrical polarizaiton of materials, describing qualitatively (as I write in my occasional proposal) physics that it would take another sixty or seventy years to report the mathematics for. He did this on a combination of pure intuition, language, and a facility for cobbling together chewing gum and baling wire experiments. That he managed this before the invention of duct tape is no doubt equally remarkably to experimental physicists. As for me, my admiration for Faraday is only enhanced by the fact he looked like some plausible combination of a sideshow barker and garage-tinkering lunatic, but then nearly everyone in the early 19th century looked like that.

Anyway, Feynman replied that a late twentieth-century Faraday was unlikely. Physics had evolved, he thought, to the point where it was necessary to understand the current mathematics to really make a new innovation in the field. Naturally, he held out that it wasn't impossible, but he didn't currently see enough new area where even the basics needed to be worked out. He believed that the questions that were being asked in the 1980s were on the forward edge of theory, or outside of the easily measurable.

This morning on NPR, as part of a series this week that is evidently sponsored by the damn Chamber of Commerce, I learned that Peter Thiel, the co-founder (wait, which half did he found?) of PayPal is offering students $100,000 to drop a couple years of college and become entrepreneurs. Now, on one hand, I get it. With some colleges topping $50k per year these days, it's a hell of an investment, and if you're nineteen and can get into the grind without first sinking that cost, then you're ahead of the game. I'd tell you college is a pure scam if I didn't personally value it so much, and if my engineer's training (mostly trained judgment, but no doubt some people are born with that) wasn't so helpful. But if you're the kind of kid that can create high tech with twist ties and duct tape, then those two extra years of theory are probably not going to make the difference in your career. For the right kind of kid, thihs is a good deal: high-risk, sure, and it's not competitive remuneration with a full-time employment with benefits and existing capital equipment, but you 'll be ahead of your peers looking for that deal in two years when your venture fails. But is it a good way to be looking at engineering in society?

I mean, fucking PayPal, anyway. There was a short window where the acceptance of the internet, as a new medium, supported innovation that could get by on concepts (that is, without fucking doing or making anything), an arena freshly enough sodden where any goddamn thing had a chance of taking root. You idea men flourished precisely because you were in a unique moment when there were no established competitors, or because your particular branding took a little better than C2it or CertaPay or whatthefuckever unremembered version of failed to find utility, and if I remember 1999 at all, about 99.4% of those conceptual masterpieces still managed to blow other people's fortunes, thanks to about as much actual technical or business savvy as your typical 1830s peddlar of miracle tonic. But yeah Pete, your confirmation bias tells you you're a genius. Let's ask for your next business opinion.

As a professional bullshitter in the field of applied research, I have a good idea how far the lower five figures are going to get you. A hundred grand is exactly the business I'm in. To identify a problem, to propose a solution, and work it out is hard enough. Often you find it's for marginal improvement (or marginal loss) that requires a detailed cost analysis, and that's on the off-chance it works at all. There's a question of how far you can get in your garage, a question of far can you get without infrastructure. To do technical research you need to measure things. You need a laboratory, tools, at a minimum, materials to build things out of, and while there is room for innovation in the area, even the basic areas, it's not so virgin a field as it once was. As I started to write this up, CNN was broadcasting an excited news piece on the latest X Prize, which rewards complicated high-tech ventures after they demonstrate success. How much do you think you have to invest for a 10% chance to win a $1.4 million for a mechanical oil separator? We need 'em so badly (and we do), then why are we doing it on people's own thin dimes? Fucking cheapskates.

Now, we're not quite in the place with engineering as we are with fundamental physics: there's room for tinkerers, and the entrepreneurial model isn't completely broken. I don't intend to discourage the effort by any means, and I think that finding these people and supporting them is wise. But spotting a hundred grand to spark a high-risk research program is chump change, and doing it for the equivalent expected value is even worse. Baiting kids with dreams of Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Wozniak to fabricate shit in their dorm rooms and garages is probably not the best alternative to more comprehensive funding research the sciences, and it's not as if you can count on the paradigm shifting every generation, especially when you leave it to revolutionize itself, while fluffing the egos and fortunes of the people who recognize talent instead of apply it. Democraticization of innovation seems to correlate with the speed of its progress (rich patrons and then universities was better for progress than keeping it in the monastaries, letting women into the academy was a plus, that sort of thing), although it's hard to generalize across the slow sweep of history. Twenty Under Twenty and the X-Prizes are not bad ideas, and it's great to have something like that in the suite of science investment. But relying on them over straight-up funding seems like a giant step backward.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Review: The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

Browsing randomly through the non-genre aisles is just a terrible way to shop for books, no matter what your dotty strollers and romantically-inclined geeks would prefer to tell you. It's great to get drawn in by something stacked nearby and all (I might have been rewarded to find my way here if, for example, I happened to be mired in the Stephen King wing of the store) but if you don't have much free time, it's a lot better to have a list. This time I didn't, and so when I made a trip to the local Barnes and Noble to support one my daughter's school programs, I was encouraged to buy something quickly, but also listlessly. The Barbara Kingsolver book I had intended to buy, had I remembered to write it down, was her charming manifesto about gardening, not her Important Novel from the fiction section. I'm not angry about it. It's more of a segue than a complaint.

The Poisonwood Bible was very enjoyable—I tore right through it—although if you ever catch me without some criticisms, then look for signs of encroaching senility. I hate to be pushed that hard by the display, and a novel marketed as significant has got to face some high standards. In that light, I'll try and reveal my usual assortment of faint damns as quickly as I can; there were definitely some small contentions that kept creeping in. The Poisonwood Bible is the story of a missionary family's attempt to evangelize a village in the Congo in the early 1960s, told in a sequence of rotating (all-female) character points of view. We are introduced to Orleanna first, the mother, who in the opening sequence appears to be addressing the reader (she actually is not, and there is a nice symmetry with the Orleanna pieces that is not obvious at the outset, which do well under a re-read) and introducing the story as a stand-in for the author herself. This next shifts to the point of view of Leah, one of the middle children, and she is similar enough to her mother's voice, and so damnably precocious for a 14-year-old, that she sounds a lot like the author too. Two of the other sisters (Ruth May and Rachel, the oldest and youngest) feel again similar, but now straightjacketed respectively by childhood and by general dimwittedness, which leaves Adah as the odd girl out, physically handicapped, sly, secretive, and cynical, and of course I liked her best from the get-go. For the other four, it takes a while for their individual natures to be drawn out. To be fair, they're family, facing the same immovable obstacles, and I am sure that Kingsolver realizes that it's not uncommon to get to know a bunch of sisters this way.

The bulk of the novel covers the 18 months or so they lived in the Congo village, a period which takes them through the nation's independence from Belgium, and quick subjugation under the Mobutu regime. A frame story for revealing the alternating anecdotes would have helped this book a great deal. The individual sequences comes off a little like the indistinctly-timed interview portions of your lazier television mockumentary. It is unclear how do their composition might fit in alongside with the contemporaneously occurring drama. It's as if the characters are being deposed in some neutral purgatory space by the omniscient narrator. It would be a plausible explanation if Nathan had ordered the kids to write about their experiences--it would have been within his character, and they had plenty of downtime--but if the parents had been aware of children's' diaries, then some of the challenges in the book could have been overcome by reading them. And only Adah is ever portrayed as keeping a journal (a coded one). Touching on this framing issue could have helped some other things too. Leah (who I continue to see as the author's stand-in) is the only character that really seems to grow and change much in that long real-time section. If they wrote them all at once (as hinted by the section headings), then that would explain the stasis in tone, but in that case, the voices still don't change in the next sections, years or months later. Maybe we expect this from Rachel, who only grows into a bigger nitwit during this stretch, but here's Ruth May, who's somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 years old at the beginning (I missed her revealed age, but old enough to write?) and in almost two years, we'd expect her especially to evolve a great deal.

A few throwaways and Kingsolver could have settled the minds of certain kinds of continuity-minded geeks, but the stasis goes even a little beyond that. The conflict in the story is very well laid out, and the set pieces are well-positioned to proceed to a logical and probably inevitable conclusion, which they do. And to an extent they are revealed or they intensify (I don't want to give the impression that the plot is poorly written), but the conflicts do not develop. It's stated at the outset that Orleanna resents her husband, she doesn't grow to that point. Nathan doesn't become a tyrant, he starts as one. The only one that moves away from Nathan (and that needs to) is Leah, and she moves to someone else, a(n improbably appropriate) romantic interest, but that one's telegraphed from miles away too. The sections play out as examples of the known difficulties, but those misunderstandings were always there. And it's weird, because in the last third of the book, the long epilogue, the characters age in great leaps, and get a chance to look back to understand how their experience in Africa has defined them. Here the evolution of their characters is suddenly wholly plausible and highly persuasive. Now Adah is challenged with the selfishness of her conception of things. (Is it plausible that her handicap was merely learned behavior, incidentally? It gives her an interesting vehicle for self-reflection, but I'm not sure how realistic that is.) Now Leah develops depth to her cultural understanding. Hell, even Rachel evolves postscripturally into the true mode of her uselessness, and Kingsolver is able to subtly put an iota of wisdom in her head too. Certainly she's grown beyond a Georgia debutante, despite her disinclination to.

A modern reader might find it hard to buy into Nathan. He's a smart and motivated guy, but how could he maintain his will over a family of wiser, cleverer, more dynamic, and more interesting women by the mere force of patriarchy? If he didn't resemble so many of that, and even the children's (my parents') generation, if I didn't see my own family members so clearly right in there, then I might think him a caricature. Instead, I see him as an accurate (if extreme) portrayal of how people can oppress and subdue the families they imagine they nurture. His religious inflexibility is ironic--as if Christianity hadn't evolved to accommodate any number of societies, including his distinctively American Baptist take on it—but Nathan isn't a man with the slightest dose of irony, nor one to question the singularity of the American experience. If we learn anything more about Nathan, it's the perfect depth of his contemptibility.

The parallel of the Price family with America's treatment of the Congo isn't very subtle, and it gets a mention, but admirably, Kingsolver doesn't really harp on it. Viewing (patriarchal) politics and society from the angle of motherhood and womanhood is useful. The author shows, in the context of an interesting story, how power can be willfully blind and self-interested, as well as how its use can extend from the powerful, or fail to, instead extending from the setting. (To that running interest of mine, she makes a good anthropological case, intentionally or no, about calorie (and protein) availability as it dictates certain modes of civilization.) The African women are focused mostly on the basic dynamics of life and the forces above impinge on it, but change things only with difficulty, more by changing the conditions of things than imposing rules and ideas. I thought Kingsolver did an excellent job of positioning that observational understanding against the larger relationships in the world theater, giving the modern corporate state the indictment it deserves, although occasionally you do occasionally get a whiff of credulity when it comes to the prospect of any better proposals (Could Lumumba really have been so benevolent? Could the pre-contact Congolese society really have been so well balanced?) but it's smart to pose them from Leah who is given to a bit of ideal-worship in spite of moving past her old man, and anyway, it's understood that these are lost questions, worth regretting.

[There's probably a good case to be made that the Enlightenment- or colonial-era Europeans did not understand primitivism very well, or were at least ill-equipped to study it. (I say "probably" because I'm still not very willing to delve into the source literature.) It seems like a related issue, although I think it'd be better to say that your typical citizen these days, with more available information but lots of his own society's structure and benefits in front of his eyes, simply declines to make a validating comparison. I think that Kingsolver (based as much on Animal, Vegetable, Miracle than this one) and I, as well as of other writers on the theme (Wendell Berry or Eduardo Galeano come to mind), and a couple readers of this blog, will agree that we've ignored some valuable lessons from the throwback days, that would be worth re-examining in a modern context. A community of interconnected but more deeply rooted localities, each appropriate to its own environment, is probably a better one, and possibly an end-point of our own arc anyway. I don't know if it's realistic to think we can up and go all Iroquois Confederation or anything, but it's interesting how radical that would really be. Western history has been a long story of consolidation and subjugation over the couple of millennia (and of course people got the empire bug in Asia, Africa and the Americas from time to time too). Localizing like that would certainly throw the European-style bordered nation-state right on its ass, but I have my usual urge to caveat the hell out of that sort of thing: (1) we'd need a lot fewer people; (2) it's a better land-use and community support model, but it's society model that has a lot of room to righteously suck. Ample interconnections between the nodes has got to be an improvement over a more primitive form, as does technology and exchange. Imagine limited but versatile travel, easy communication, ready access to ideas, science and history. Also, (3) centralization works for some things, although it seems very difficult to pick and choose what we employ it for. Public insurance and resource management without ruling classes and wars between them? Good luck with that. Maybe I should call all this out as a longer post, but it fits in Kingsolver's themes, and frankly, I desperately need some new headlines.]

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Pretty Soon You're Talking Real Money

So, I saw on TV last night that Obama is looking to raise a billion dollars for his 2012 presidential campaign. There's not a candidate alive who doesn't think his stewardship is worth the effort and manpower required to put him in that capacity, but still, a billion bucks? Wow.

I'll admit that a billion doesn't buy what it used to. If so inclined, candidate Obama could bankroll both Feeding America and Doctors without Borders for a year ($400M and $600M respectively) with that kind of scratch. If he had the gall, he could also front the entire budget of federal alternative energy research for a year too. Or fund three free days (more or less) blowing people up in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A billion dollars spread out to every hospital in the country (about 6000 of them) could donate about $170,000 to each, about a doctor for a year. Spread to every town (about 25000) could be about $40,000 each, employing yet another sorely underpaid teacher for twelve months, although probably not with benefits. Spread to every household (about 100M), then it's crisp clean ten dollar bill. Not much, but we can certainly appreciate the thought. Once I got past my justifiable suspicions, I would at least drink the sixpack the president bought for my family. Chump change I can believe in.

(Parenthetically, I suppose that this implies if everyone and their spouse checked off the $3 box on their 1040s, then these fuckers would have more than enough money for campaigning and related graft.)

It's not like we don't know who the guy is, but let's assume he still needs to extract a couple hundred thousand bucks to attend the inevitable debates. He can explain the other details of the stunt to the incredulous press during the usual briefings. If president Obama decided to forgo the rest of the business (and taking the further improbable assumption that one can fundraise a billion without returning a significant chunk of it to the fundraising activities)--no babykissing, no ad buys, no rubber chicken meet-n-greets--would you vote for Barack Obama if he gave you ten bucks?

Sure you'd just be getting bought off by the donors directly, but at least you'd be in the loop for once. And it'd be a lot fucking quieter. And who knows, maybe the pundit goobers could find something useful to talk about besides the campaign.

Review: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, by Richard Feynman

By Richard Feynman? Well, it's a series of presentations and interviews given by him, so the byline is mostly correct. Although it includes some of his famous technical predictions (on the future of computing and nanotechnology) and indictments (his report on the Challenger disaster), it's basically non-technical, filled up with anecdotes and the wider variety of his thoughts. It contains most of what I had actually read or heard of Feynman before I picked up some of his physics lectures the year before last. I saw the video following his report on the space shuttle in materials science class back when I was a freshman—the one where he dunks the o-ring into the ice water—and thought it was a bit of grandstanding actually. I was more impressed with the report statement this time around, which seems less out to impress and more to rather boldly condemn the deserving. I'd read the same snippet of Cargo Cult Science on the internet a half dozen times, which seems to get at something profound, and I remain ambivalent about the plenty of room on the bottom speech, as pull-quotes have appeared in front of approximately forty bazillion talks or review papers in the past 20 years. And, right, I am sure that Feynman diagrams got mentioned in passing somewhere near the end of physics III, where they wrapped up a survey of the stuff that was part of the field but you probably wouldn't need unless you chose to study it. And that's it. I was aware of who he was, knew something of his general contributions, and had heard of his mercurial approach to life. The influence on scientists and rationalists of my acquaintance has tended to sneak in here and there.

So let me tell you why I am disappointed. It just makes my own quasi-public bloviating seem so pointless. Maybe it should be validating, but the science philosophy you'll find here is of a tune with what I've been occasionally wailing about for more or less the entirety of time I've held this blog: accepting doubt as part of an honest worldview; evidence-based thinking; the dynamism between theory and measurement; approximations and representations pitted against objective reality; inquiry as a sort of moral imperative; informed wiseassery. What more does that leave me to comment about it? And I am forced to ask: how much debt does my own struggling worldview owe to this guy? Obviously I've read and interacted with many folks who were influenced by him. How corrupted am I by the company I've kept? Do we all think the same? What a depressing thought. (I don't actually think it's quite right: here's only one of many giants who asked the questions I, and you, happened to land in the middle of a public answering.)

Feynman's science philosophy was clearly important to him, but from these interviews, espousing it was more of a byproduct of his life than a motivation. (He always had quantum electrodynamics to fall back on, after all, not to mention rhythm.) He didn't read a lot of the stuff (and I still wonder how much it shows, really), dismissed what little he did read as an elaborate exercise in simplistic thinking, but for all that, he did do a lot of philosophizing. If this collection is representative of all his interviews, then it's a big part of what the public wanted to hear from him, and what we took away, and so he gets the role by default. It's a shame, almost, that he never really took it as far as he took his science, and while he was willing to march up and acknowledge the big moral questions of his career, I think he chose to leave some of the difficult ones hanging. Was he haunted by his role in the Manhattan project? He has a story about it that he liked to tell (he must have been asked about it a lot), and from it, I think the answer was yes. He tells us of the distinction between the thrill of the intellectual work, and of being a part of a community of exceptional and quirky scientists, and the late-dawning realization of the bomb's implications, which might be the end of all things. But acknowledgement is not judgment. Was there shame, regret, disillusionment? I can't really tell from the writing. In various of these interviews, Feynman would rather set judgment and decisions apart from the scientific process, and I think that's a fair peace, if it's a valid one. But if your research is driven with an intent to do massive harm, then should you do it? He doesn't seem to be the guy to indulge in very much self recrimination, and what the hell, he was really young at that time. By the time he challenged the NASA higher-ups later in life, his view of managerial competence had obviously dimmed. In the last segment of the book, he makes some similar observations on religion, noting, diplomatically, that its matters of spiritual fulfillment are, and should probably remain, unchallenged by science, but that faith exceeded its power of natural explanation some centuries ago. He avoids reaching a deeper conclusion about this, but maybe he's only offering a properly skeptical interpretation, and leaving the actual judgment to the audience. Maybe that's the best thing an honest thinker can do.

It must have been a big score to interview Feynman about religion. But for a few vestigial cultural trappings, I don't get Feynman as any kind of deist, but in ways he thinks like one, really one of these wonder-in-the-miracle-of-god's-creation types. He is infectious when he's talking about the surprising elegance of the universe, and the surprisingly deep logical reach of mathematics, and the underappreciated poetry of these things. He talks about his early mentors, especially his father, who taught him to approach an understanding of the world with appreciation, playfulness and creativity. And speaking of cargo cults, you could do all the things his dad did with little Richard, and you still wouldn't get a Feynman--any more than freezing over your yard and strapping the skates onto Junior gets you a little Gretzky--there was no doubt some outstanding nature that came together with the outstanding nurture. You could see where it grew from: here's the rare scientist who you'd imagine could get himself to devalue his own beliefs or theories with pure objectivity, given the proper evidence, possibly because he was humble enough, or had a knack to see things clearly from several different approaches, or because it was easy and exciting for him to reformulate his understanding of things.

I've mentioned that I picked this to read paired against that David Foster Wallace romp, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which looks at childhood and other power structures with every intention of holding the reader down, and biting him back, a wit which was the definition of mordant. Since both were broken up into shorts, I basically shuffled them together, like an angel/devil sort of thing on each shoulder. One guy felt paralyzed by doubt, the other energized by it. Feynman's wit was more the force of inspiration, clear thinking, and optimism in new discoveries, which he retained even after catching a glimpse of how people and nature really work.

Monday, May 09, 2011

And I'm Over Getting Older

Well, it's obvious that thinking about the state and trajectory of the species couldn't depress me very much more, so maybe it's time to change the subject to something that is a madcap buzz of positivity and optimism, you know, like getting older. Thirty-eight and counting, and somehow, without realizing it, I've crossed over into crinkled-forehead, responsible adulthood. This sucks! I mean, what the fuck, how did this happen? How did it happen to me?

I was never huge into trendy music movements, but there were a few bands I'd try and see if I could, and I generally liked the experience of a good crowd enough to try and get out once in a while. I haven't gone and seen a big rock show for ten years now, and I'm not sure how I got permission even that time, but the last experience was typical. Waiting in traffic, watching everyone toke weed in the parking lot, a run to the beer tent to pleasantly remove the edge, sweat, noise, screaming, darkness, dancing with minimal rhythm. It was almost exactly ten years ago, and I tell you, there's nothing like being outdoors with a beer in a crowd on a summery evening. It's exhilirating. I've never seen a professional baseball game, but last weekend's concert had me walking the kids on the sidewalk outside of Fenway park right before the Red Sox game, and there was something similar. Since the last show though, my live music experience has generally been limited to bar blues (meaning the setting rather than the musical structure), and your more ecumenical sort of outdoor event (a number of bluegrass festivals in that last category). I've really come to appreciate the summertime show that can get multiple generations up there and dancing around. Somehow, I've drifted away from any venue where you might readily spot a defiant youth.

I went to my first "real" concert when I was 15, when a friend dragged me along to go see Cheap Trick at a small outdoor venue. Good times, enjoyable show, but there wasn't a lot of 'em I needed to see at that age. At 13, safe to say that I had no friggin' clue at all about the music scene. My daughter, well, hasn't been quite the same. She's been following a Canadian band for about a year, and in February not only got her chance to see them, but actually got her picture taken wih her favorite singer (supervised, thank goodness). Since then, she has become totally insufferable, branching out into an appreciation of the general scene, blasting the radio or plugging herself into it, and coming up with all these annoying expectations.

What's her music like? I'm googling up some descriptors of the genre, including punk, rock, pop, and emo, but I probably would have used none of those words. Or maybe you need to use all of them, either as some kind of post-generational fusion, or (depending on the artist) the usual approach to the lowest common denominator. I've found it to be musically competent (even if it failed to melt my face off, dude), and it doesn't suck out of the gate. I'd describe the sound as something resembling dance tracks that someone finally decided would be more worthwhile with actual instrumentalists playing them and with songwriting that actually aspired to care what the lyrics said. I'd warrant a guess that the fan community occupies some transitional ground between the factory-made teenybopper garbage and whatever the college kids are into nowadays. Or maybe it's the legitimate big thing--who can tell now that there's no radio anymore?

Suggestively, it rises to about an entendre and a half, which appears to fly right over the heads of the fangirls (and it's just as well). I can't tell if the whole thing has been strangled down to semi-authenticity by what's left of the music industry, or if they're all just resigned to not out-do their parents and grandparents. I mean, our rock icons have already got the sexual ambiguity, religious affront, tuneless shouting, drug culture, music comprised entirely of sampling, death iconography, creepy body art, and angry rebellion covered, so what's left to piss off the parents? All that hasn't gone out of style is the stuff that never will: sex and youth. I mean, if these guys were to pump their fists and scream how it's all bullshit anyway and fuck The Man, then Mom and Dad are going to be cheering louder than the kids are.

Anyway, I digress. Here's the scene from a couple weeks ago. "Please Daddy, my friend already bought tickets. I love this band, you can't say no."

Now, I am a pretty permissive parent, but telling me that I can't say no is right up there with telling me that that's all you can eat--I'll show her what I can or can't do. Also, I really didn't want to have to deal with it, so I thought that saying the dad thing played up nicely to the family gift for contrarianism and reverse psychology. "No way are you going to a concert without an adult. Thirteen years old? You must be joking. Hell no." (Yes! Triumph!)

Which how I ended up with a ticket to go see All Time Low on Friday, along with a couple of other bands a that fanned out a little bit in either direction on the teenager/adult spectrum. (The headlining band collected bras, which is a bit creepy given the fans' age, but I suspect they weren't removed at the scene. My daughter's friend brought some pajamas in her bag to throw, but we were too far to reach, and had a better chance at hitting the sound guys and so refrained.) As mentioned above, it wasn't the music that was so bad, but the crowd was definitely ...offputting. A two-hour drive with the Fenway traffic, and the beer was overpriced and crappy, but the line to the bar, as well as to the men's room, was non-existent. There were 13-14 year old girls as far as the eye could see, and I failed to pass myself off as a teenager, even though I tried to dress down. On the second-tier section, where we were, the kids all lined up along the along the balcony, and there was enough space behind them for the straggling minority of parents to mill around and look bored. The cheering was decidedly high-pitched.

(Late in the show, they put the Bruins game on in the bars, and sometimes male cheers would sound up out of nowhere, drowning out the kids for a few seconds. I think it pissed off the band a little, but you know, welcome to Boston.)

When I used to go to rock concerts, people would hold up lighters during the inevitable ballads. (The one Grateful Dead show I watched, the place looked like a Christmas tree the second the lights went down, as the lighters got to more normal use as well.) Now it's constantly-waved iphones and cameras, to similar audience effect. It's weird without the (absence of) smells, but smoking is now outlawed here in Massachusetts for just about all public places (the single most benevolent accomplishment of the nanny state), and it's weird without the general intoxication, but most of the audience was too young to drink. There wasn't much press of crowd up in the balcony, as I said, but it looked somewhat energetic down below. Kids still mosh evidently, to varying approval of the bands.

My daughter and her friend snapped about ten dozen pictures, and at least one bedroom now has a new All Time Low shrine. And of course I'm curious what it will grow into. But what's the rush? Older comes before you're ready anyway.

Close it out, kiddos:
Maybe it's not my weekend, but it's gonna be my year,
And I've been going crazy, I'm stuck in here...

Tuesday, May 03, 2011


What usually jars is the racism. You're reading along, and suddenly some horrible slur leaps from a dead author's pen. Ethnic characters are confined to minor roles, and generally reduced to accommodate popular caricatures. Hook-nosed and oleaginous Jews haunt the boundaries of European literature; pickaninnies and injuns pop up to offend from American books (and hell, from American television in living memory); British novels are populated with innumerable demeaning extras from the various colonies. Examples are so trivial and common that it's hard to hunt for them. When race is addressed consciously, there's some threshold of skill under which the thinking of the time could be exposed and subverted, but that was still done from a worldview that included the racism. I am thinking of your Faulkners or Twains or Conrads in that second category, who showed us whiteness with its scars and its travesties, and were observant and capable enough to complicate identities and entertain true personhood, but still used racial characters to to tell stories about what it meant to be white in those times, even with the knowing gleam that it meant being a monster. Looking back, you almost wonder why those great minds tortured themselves around a now-obvious empathy, why they instead elected to develop complexities which didn't fail to include the simplified foreignness, but of course it's how they, or everyone around them, were used to thinking about darker people. More than that: it's how they were used to observing them. We underappreciate how difficult it was to look past the prejudices that their society was built around, as well as how thoroughly we fail to see the ones which inform our own. Writing character fiction is so much extrapolation of ourselves into alien minds (and they all are alien), and even extending the map as far as possible still communicates something to readers about you and the worldview you inhabit. It had to be hard for a 19th century white man to write realistically about black identity and experience, especially when it was not customary to sit and have a conversation on an equal footing. (There is plenty historical literary trend to dismiss women too, but at least there, a fella had incentive and excuse to occasionally talk to them.) Can we judge a writer for being part of his times? Maybe and maybe not, but I think we can judge their times. Ours too.

[Jews may have gotten a head start on rehabilitation in the western canon. I was interested to read, for example, how Charles Dickens revised Fagin after the original publication of Oliver Twist, following the feedback of Jewish friends. But his subsequent efforts to create empathetic Jews still seem a little patronizing, don't they? Fifty years later, and I thought that James Joyce was a smidge patronizing to Leopold Bloom too, despite all the effort at a realistic in-the-head representation of him.]

There are a couple of associations I've had in my life that, while I don't really approve of the traditional view, were nonetheless wonderful experiences. As an adult, it fills me with fondness and apology, torturing me with ambivalence and presents a lot of conflict about institutions and individuality thanks to good personal experiences in them and the quality of people that inhabit them. (Sound familiar?) A big one of those was the boy scouts, which I loved for some of the reasons I was supposed to, and also for the aspects our little band of losers, misfits, and assholes refused to take seriously. Recently, I was reminded of Boy's Life. (Can I now justify leaving that perplexing comment?) When I was a kid, I used to go to the library and pore over that magazine, skipping to the comic serializations of John Christopher's Tripod stories (since I stole this person's thumbnail, go ahead and check the thing out at length on their blog; I get a kick out of the dangly schlonginess of that lone Tripod tentacle), and stayed for the boy's outdoor adventure porn. The Tripods would put a little mesh hat on you, and you'd go through life hypnotized, oblivious to their nefarious alien schemes (which of course I no longer remember, probably they were stealing our precious resources, aliens always do that). Science fiction likes to invent reasons to blind people to the horrifying truths, but I think the reality is more banal.

For example, the boy scouts. Please ignore here the recent blowups the organization has had over gay members and at which point it discards moms, the weird thing about the boy scouts is that they are, at heart, a military-friendly organization. We've got the uniforms, the regimentation, the pledges and purity oaths. (About half of my leaders were veterans too, and I should note good people, but I don't want to confuse anecdote and data here.) More than that, there's the history. I mean, scouting is a combat job. Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the revered founder, looms over the movement like some benevolent spirit, cast in fading colors in a Stetson and fatherly mustache, more symbolic than real, like the George Washington of self-reliant boys. In life, he was a career military man, advancing Britain in its imperial heyday, forging his scoutcraft in Africa and melding it with a naturalist appreciation there, fighting in India and the Mediterranean, rising rapidly through the ranks to cement his reputation leading a miraculous resistance at the siege of Mafeking in the second Boer War. It was a decidedly odd sensation to roll across a boyhood icon in one of Churchill's histories, and you know, it's a far different perspective than what I got when I was 10. The Boer war is remembered for the Brits' innovative use of pestilential concentration camps to their military advantage, and as Wikipedia notes, the boy soldiers (participating in a civilized junior capacity) at Mafeking contributed to his ideas to promote military scouting skills to kids too. And look, I don't want to demolish the man's reputation so much as I want to develop ambiguity and complexity about it. He was an important figure in a monstrous enterprise as well as an educational one. Baden-Powell may well be shining example of personal discipline, a Kipling-esque model of integrity, a genuine survivalist and naturalist. On the other hand, what reason to think he didn't order improper executions, or send legions of expedient locals to their doom? Any cause beyond revisionism to believe he wasn't impressed, however naively, with fascist ideals later in life? I mean, the overlap in style is a little discomfiting. Was he not also a propagandist, a guiltless and decent face to paste on Britain's foul imperial reach, monarchical infestation, and heartless butchery of the dusky hordes? I don't remember any of those things getting much attention when I combed the back issues of Boy's Life.

We might call the man a product of his times too, and aren't we all. Baden-Powell shot people that, to his understanding, it was okay to shoot. He operated nobly within his idiom, which is the usual and understandable approach to the human experience, but the legacy of that worldview is still actively fucking up the globe. And things like imperialism and peonage, violence and exploitation, deforestation and extinction, persist because people are inclined to make the best of their various situations, and not push much against the bounds they're born into. (Should they? How should they? Isn't revolution its own evil?) It's hard to bust out of the paradigm. It's hard even to identify it. I am certainly doing no better, and I admit that paradigms can come with some redeeming features too.

Do you remember how you felt in 2001 when you saw this?

Disgusted, angry is how I felt. How does it compare to these assholes?

In 2011, it's hard to find a picture of those cheering Palestinians (of which there were evidently as many as a couple dozen) that isn't linked to some really noxious blog. The cheering Americans are all over the quality outlets, but hey, it's more recent. (It took me till the ride home to find the right expression of my distaste, and of course I only find that I was beaten to it, but at least that was one less photo I had to look up.) Similarly, it's almost been enough to make me swear off Facebook.

I don't read books for the lessons and I hate to preach (really, what the hell has happened to me?), and by no means do I suggest giving up on the literary canon. Beauty, insight, and entertainment are justification enough, and the apologies get easier the farther you go back in the past, or the more disconnected you let yourself feel. (Parenthetically, it took a while to understand how lucky it is to be so removed. I remember I took a class in college where we were instructed read Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea back to back. It was an interesting contrast I thought, but I felt like an outside observer to both narratives, and no doubt still would. For some of us doofi, this empathy thing takes years.) But the act of working out context, of mapping our own worldview onto the alien mind and strange times of a great writer is a project with some nice side benefits, not a bad tool when it comes to building understanding and perspective.

They'll judge us for our times too, possibly by some distasteful or unanticipated standard, or maybe on standards we just prefer to not admit. 19th century racism and imperialism didn't exactly go unopposed. Maybe it's worth asking what are we ignoring in our bliss. As for me, I tell myself that I am at least struggling to an awareness of the paradigm, that at least I won't celebrate my cognitive dissonance. It's not like history will view me any better.