Sunday, December 31, 2006

Analogies We Wish We'd Thought Of

Okay, so we all know, I think, that carbon emissions are killing ocean life incredibly rapidly, right? Policymakers, however, are still thinking in terms of "stabilizing" our emissions, rather than drastically reducing emissions, which appears to be the only choice if we hope to reverse global warming, or at least not worsen it.

Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at Stanford recently described going to Washington "to brief some members of Congress. 'I was asked, "What is the appropriate stabilization target for atmospheric CO2?"' he recalled. 'And I said, "Well, I think it's inappropriate to think in terms of stabilization targets. I think we should think in terms of emissions targets." And they said, "O.K., what's the appropriate emissions target?" And I said, "Zero."'

"'If you're talking about mugging little old ladies, you don't say, "What's our target for the rate of mugging little old ladies?" You say, "Mugging little old ladies is bad, and we're going to try to eliminate it." You recognize you might not be a hundred per cent successful, but your goal is to eliminate the mugging of little old ladies. And I think we need to eventually come around to looking at carbon-dioxide emissions the same way.'"

--"The Darkening Sea," by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, 11/20/2006.

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Bring in the Clownz

Ian Frazier, in an article chronicling the fall of Baghdad -- then a center of great learning and culture -- to the Mongols in 1258, sums up the caliph of Baghdad this way:

Mustasim, the caliph, was not of a character equal to such large problems. He is described as a weak, vacillating layabout who liked to drink sherbet and keep company with musicians and clowns.
--from "Invaders," by Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, April 25, 2005, p. 52.

First, I love the idea that the civilization of high Islam, in its decadent flower, was distinguished not by astronomy and algebra, but by clowns. Second, it seems to me that Mustasim had the right idea, generally, though perhaps he shouldn't have gotten his strategic advice from liberal arts majors.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

But Probably on the Money

In Elizabeth Kolbert's devastating three-part series on global warming, called "The Climate of Man," and published in 2005 in three successive issues of The New Yorker (which used to do a lot of serializing, by the way, and now almost never does), she quotes David Rind, from the Goddard Institute for Space Studies:

"We may say that we're more technologically able than earlier societies. But one thing about climate change is it's potentially geopolitically destabilizing. And we're not only more technologically able; we're more technologically able destructively as well. I think it's impossible to predict what will happen. I guess -- though I won't be around to see it -- I wouldn't be shocked to find out that by 2100 most things were destroyed." He paused. "That's sort of an extreme view."

--"The Climate of Man," The New Yorker, May 2, 2005, p. 71.

I highly recommend the series. It's no longer available online, though a few other shorter pieces by her on this topic are available at New Yorker dot com. She came out with a book this year, titled Field Notes from a Catastrophe. A Scientific American review of her book, posted on Amazon, says this of it:
The details are terrifying, and Kolbert's point of view is very clear, but there is no rhetoric of rant here. She is most directly editorial in the last sentence of the book, and by that point, she has built the case... For a friend of mine, Kolbert's New Yorker series was an awakening--the first time, she said, she really understood what was happening and why we must act.
Hear, hear.

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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Say Cheese

Chances are, you've seen the amazing black-and-white photos of Sebastião Salgado. He had stunning photos in The Atlantic about three years ago, of shipbreaking in India, and he is arguably the most famous photographer in the world. A recent profile of him in The New Yorker illuminated his working method, and the depth of his concentration. I was particularly struck by this passage:

His intensity, when working, could inspire a kind of shame in one's own lack of stamina, and in one's willingness to read and gossip rather than at all times commune with the scenery. It was like visiting an art gallery with someone able to study a single portrait for a full afternoon. In contrast to Salgado, the rest of us took photographs that seemed to be a kind of defense against the unease that can creep into our response to the sublime -- a shield against the guilt attached to not knowing how to fix one's gaze on something spectacular that one will never see again.
--"A Cold Light," by Ian Parker, The New Yorker, April 18, 2005, p. 157.

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Who's Got Your Number?

More from Richard Preston's fascinating 1992 piece on pi:

Pi is a transcendental number. A transcendental number is a number that exists but can't be expressed in any finite series of either arithmetical or algebraic operations ... Pi is a transcendental number because it transcends the power of algebra to display it in its totality ... [Pi] can't be written on a piece of paper, not even on a piece of paper as a big as the universe. In a manner of speaking, pi is indescribable and can't be found.
Preston goes on:
In 1873, Georg Cantor, a Russian-born mathematician who was one of the towering intellectual figures of the nineteenth century, proved that the set of transcendental numbers is infinitely more extensive than the set of algebraic numbers. That is, finite algebra can't find or describe most numbers. To put it another way, most numbers are infinitely long and non-repeating in any rational form of representation. In this respect, most numbers are like pi.

Cantor's proof was a disturbing piece of news, for at that time very few transcendental numbers were actually known ... [His] proof of the existence of uncountable multitudes of transcendental numbers resembled a proof that the world is packed with microscopic angels -- a proof, however, that does not tell us what the angels look like or where they can be found; it merely proves that they exist in uncountable multitudes ...

Cantor's proof disturbed some mathematicians because, in the first place, it suggested that they had not yet discovered most numbers, which were transcendentals, and in the second place that they lacked any tools or methods that would determine whether a given number was transcendental or not.
Wish I'd made more use of transcendental numbers when I was struggling with algebra in junior high school. After all, my math teachers sure felt my answers were irrational ...

--"The Mountains of Pi," by Richard Preston, The New Yorker, March 2, 1992, pp. 39 & 60.

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Ars Longa, but Pi is Even Longa

If you were to assign letters of the alphabet to combinations of digits, and were to do this for all human alphabets, syllabaries, and ideograms, then you could fit any written character in any language to a combination of digits in pi. According to this system, pi could be turned into literature. Then, if you look far enough into pi, you would probably find the expression "See the U.S.A. in a Chevrolet!" a billion times in a row. Elsewhere, you would find Christ's Sermon on the Mount in His native Aramaic tongue, and you would find versions of the Sermon on the Mount that are pure blasphemy. Also, you would find a dictionary of Yanomamo curses. A guide to the pawnshops of Lubbock. The book about the sea which James Joyce supposedly declared he would write after Finnegan's Wake. The collected transcripts of The Tonight Show rendered into Etruscan. Knowledge of all Existing Things by Ahmes the Egyptian scribe. Each occurrence of an apparently ordered string in pi, such as the words "Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate/That Time will come and take my love away," is followed by unimaginable deserts of babble. No book and none but the shortest poems will ever be seen in pi, since it is infinitesimally unlikely that even as brief a text as an English sonnet will appear in the first [10 to the 77th power] digits of pi, which is the longest piece of pi that can be calculated in this universe.

--"The Mountains of Pi," by Richard Preston, The New Yorker, March 2, 1992, p. 63.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Everybody Gets a Slice of the Pi

Physicists have noted the ubiquity of pi in nature. Pi is obvious in the disks of the moon and the sun. The double helix of DNA revolves around pi. Pi hides in the rainbow, and sits in the pupil of the eye, and when a raindrop falls into water pi emerges in the spreading rings. Pi can be found in waves and ripples and spectra of all kinds, and therefore pi occurs in colors and music. Pi has lately turned up in superstrings, the hypothetical loops of energy vibrating inside subatomic particles. Pi occurs naturally in tables of death, in what is known as a Gaussian distribution of deaths in a population: that is, when a person dies, the event "feels" the Ludolphian number [i.e., pi].
--"The Mountains of Pi," by Richard Preston, The New Yorker, March 2, 1992, p. 40.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Putting the "Extra" in "Extraordinary"

One of the best Christmas presents I ever received was given to me last year by my wonderful wife: The New Yorker magazine on DVD, every issue ever printed ... except that it's always about a year behind. I love the magazine but don't subscribe because I know I can't keep up with it, which is silly because it's fairly easy to keep up with 50 issues a year compared to catching up on 80 years of back issues.

Anyhow, this explains why I'm only just now reading a 2005 article by Richard Preston called Capturing the Unicorn. The thing is an unintentional catalog of the extraordinary. First, there's "The Hunt of the Unicorn," the seven tapestries "woven from threads of dyed wool and silk, some of them gilded or wrapped in silver, around 1500" and owned since 1937 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They are "the most beautiful tapestries in existence," are "among the great works of art of any kind," and "their monetary value today is incalculable." They were moved in 1998 from the Cloisters to the Met itself to be cleaned and repaired. (I'm thinking art heist movie -- are you?)

Second, the linen backings, which had deteriorated, had to be removed, performed by a team at the Met "using tweezers and mangifying lenses." And just so you know, these tapestries aren't small: they're 12 feet tall, and some are 14 feet wide. Did I mention there were seven of them? Preston estimates it probably took about seven years to make them. Imagine trying to take off the backings without harming them. (Would you be nervous? Naah, I didn't think so.)

Third, the Met's chief photographer has a goal of making a "high-resolution digital image of every work of art in the Met's collections. The job will take at least twenty-five years ..." Nothing like having a goal. Anyway, her team had to photograph the tapestries in sections. It took two weeks and the images filled over 200 CDs. The plan was to stitch the images together in Photoshop.

Fourth, when it turned out the images couldn't be stitched together, two mathematicians, Gregory and David Chudnovsky, came to the rescue. The pair are brothers and "insist they are functionally one mathematician who happens to occupy two human bodies." Preston refers to the two as "the Chudnovsky Mathematician." They took the CDs from the Met (yes, there was a predictably hilarious incident where one of them accidentally left a whole bag of the CDs at the grocery store) and fed the data into their home-built supercomputer ... but couldn't stitch the images together at first. Why? Because a tapestry is not a 2-D object, but a 3-D one. The warp of it changed shape over tme, responding to changes in humidity and heat. Hour by hour, as the photographers worked, it expanded and contracted, its edges shifting slightly, and "the gold- and silver-wrapped threads changed shape at different speeds and in different ways from the wool and silk threads." On top of this, the photographers had placed a sheet of paper underneath the sections they photographed, and as they moved it, they stretched the tapestry slightly, making it ripple. All of which added up to a heckuva math problem.

Solve it the Chudnovsky Mathematician did. Now the Mathematician is working on a supercomputer for the US government that "will contain two million processors and fourteen thousand hard drives. It will use two and a half million watts of electricity -- enough to power a few thousand homes. Two thousand gallons of water per minute will flow through [its] core ... to keep it cool. If the pumps fail, it will melt down in less than ten seconds."

Sorta puts our own puny ambitions into scale, don't it?

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Did the Plague Create Real Estate Agents?

Joan Acocella, reviewing a book about the Black Death in the March 21, 2005 issue of The New Yorker, gives these sobering statistics:

In four years [circa 1350], the plague had killed at least a third of the population of Europe: twenty-five million people ... Measured against Europe's population today, the Black Death took the equivalent of almost two billion lives.
Untreated by appropriate antibiotics, which were not introduced until the nineteen-forties, bubonic plague kills three out of five of its victims within two weeks. If the disease goes straight to the lungs -- a variation known as pneumonic plague -- the course is shorter and nastier.
Imagine the resulting labor shortage if one-third of the world's people were to suddenly die. And consider its impact on property law. The cascade of litigation that resulted from the Black Death resulted in the basic legal framework we accept today. Norman Cantor, author of In the Wake of the Plague and quoted in Acocella's review, writes:
A barrister of 1350 deep frozen and thawed out today ... would need only a six-month refresher course at a first-rate American law school to practice property or real estate law.
Sounds like a great movie. The country bumpkin from Geneva with his outlandish dress and an outlook one could only call positively medieval gets into Yale Law School and then graduates in six months (think The Paper Chase on adrenaline), going on to get the girl and hang out his shingle, not necessarily in that order.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Voltaire Rocks La Maison

I don't think much about Voltaire usually. After an unhappy encounter with Candide in a high school French class for which I was inadequately prepared, I've been content to consign him to the same category one consigns any other elder: well-meaning, no doubt, and perhaps brilliant in his own outdated way, but not relevant. Voltaire, of course, wouldn't have seen himself this way, judging by a book review by Adam Gopnik in the March 7th, 2006 issue of The New Yorker. To explain why Voltaire would have begun his campaigns for human rights at all, Gopnik writes of him that, "there is the kind of egotism so vast and so pleased with itself that it includes other people as an extension of itself. Voltaire felt so much for other people because he felt so much for himself; everything happened to him because he was the only reasonable subject of everything that happened. By inflating his ego to immense proportions, he made it a shelter for the helpless."

And Gopnik makes a convincing case that Voltaire was indeed important, not just because he was one of the first campaigners for human rights, but because he refused to countenance religious violence, and with it, he also refused faith itself.

If you've read Candide, you know that Voltaire pokes merciless fun at Leibniz' idea that "the world is optimally designed," and that suffering is part of "some universal balance." Gopnik writes, "Voltaire's target throughout Candide is not optimism in the sense of fatuous cheerfulness but optimism in the sense of optimal thinking: the kind of bland reassurance that explains pain with reference to a larger plan or history." Generally speaking, Gopnik asserts that we no longer believe that natural disasters are part of a benevolent universe, as people did in Voltaire's time. (As an aside, I think Gopnik is wrong in this: after Hurricane Katrina, I was startled to hear more than one educated colleague refer to it in a way that made it clear they thought of Katrina as divine retribution for the sins of New Orleans. I wondered what would happen if they'd said that to anyone in Mississippi whose homes and livelihoods were also destroyed.)

"But almost all of us still do believe, stubbornly, in some kind of optimal thinking. We believe, vaguely or explicitly, that liberal democracy, with all its faults, is the best of all possible political systems, that globalization, with all its injustices, is the best of all possible futures, and even that the American way is the best of all possible ways ... We are all optimalists of this kind, perhaps reinforced by the doctrines of evolutionary psychology ... or by faith in an inevitable evolving 'future of freedom.' Attacks on these beliefs -- September 11th was the most acute -- shake us up the way eighteenth-century people were shaken by the Lisbon earthquake. The realization that all may not be tending toward the best, that religious fanaticism and tribal intolerance could prevail over liberal meiliorism, is the earthquake of our time.

"Voltaire's radicalism, then and now, lies not in his refutation of optimism but in his refusal of belief. Candide is not really, or entirely, a satire on optimism. It is an attack on organized religion."
I think Gopnik is correct that most Americans share a vague, benign belief that everything is getting better in small ways, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it isn't - famine persists, genocide proliferates, we are doing rapid damage to the environment, and the poor in this country are getting poorer. And many people believe that "things happen for a reason," and will say so regularly. Or they'll say that "God doesn't send you anything you can't handle." To both of which I say, Horse-hockey! Yes, I know that it can feel that the course of one's life seems, in retrospect, to make more sense than it did at the time one was living it; and yes, human beings are capable of great endurance and change to meet enormous personal, physical, and psychological challenges. But try telling someone who survived the Rwandan genocide that "things happen for a reason." Try telling that to the next homeless people you meet and see if they agree. Or consider telling someone who was brutally raped and maimed as a child that "God doesn't send you anything you can't handle." Assuming there is a God, it's clear He's got no qualms about sending people trouble they can't handle. People break all the time.

I have no quarrel with spirituality or people of faith. But lately it's become clear to me that this meliorist view is based on very sloppy thinking. The flip side of what we usually mean when we say that "things happen for a reason" is this: if you're suffering, you better suck it up because it's what's on the menu. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn't: if you're suffering at the hands of other people or if your suffering is due to our collective short-sightedness and stupidity, then the platitudes don't cut it. No one should have to suffer, or suffer evil, and be told to simmer down because the Big Guy Upstairs has got it all under control.

But to get back to Voltaire, is it possible that his denial of faith brought the horrors of the Nazi death camps and the like upon us? No, says Gopnik:
"Of course, in the light of later horrors, the horror that Voltaire wanted to crush doesn't seem a horror at all ... His enemies were local lynch mobs, not centralized terror. A Nazi or Soviet regime would have crushed him, horribly, and everyone else with him. The argument has even been made that Voltaire's rejection of moral order and God helped lead to the later horrors. But unless one believes, against all the evidence, that faith in God keeps one from cruelty, this is a bum rap. There are absolutist and totalitarian elements in the Enlightenment, of the kind that Burke and Berlin alike opposed: the desire to rip up the calendar of the past and start over implies murdering whoever isn't with the program. This wasn't Voltaire's spirit by a mile."
And finally:

"It is still bracing, at a time when the extreme deference we pay to faith has made any attack on religious beliefs unacceptable, to hear Voltaire on Jesuits and Muslims alike -- to hear him howl with indignation at the madness and malignance of religion -- and to be reminded that that free-thinking, which inspired Twain and Mencken, has almost vanished from our world."

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Literary (Un)Scene

Literary innovation isn't dead yet -- because it's undead, I guess. In the September issue of LOCUS, I was fascinated to read about author Laurell K. Hamilton, whose new book, Danse Macabre, is an instant hardcover bestseller. Seems she's got 6 million copies of her work in print (with no help from an Espresso Book Machine) because she helped create a new subgenre: paranormal romance. Evidently, "almost 20% of romance novels sold in 2005 had some paranormal content." Who'da thunk?

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Things No Author Wants to Hear

In a blurb in the September 2006 LOCUS, I found a blurb describing the ongoing merger of the British bookselling chains Waterstone's & Ottaker's. Apparently, about 30% of Ottaker's stock has to be "sold, pulped, or returned during the process of converting the stores." Here's the revealingly descriptive language Waterstone's PR flak used:

"[A]bout 30% of the stock needs improving; it can be broken down as roughly 5% that is dead and of no use to anyone, 10-15% that is dead range but is still saleable and the balance as excess copy depth."

My heart goes out to those authors whose work is "dead and of no use to anyone," but I'm also curious about how something can be "dead range" but "still saleable." Many of my favorite authors would probably be described as the reverse: unsaleable, but not dead range.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Grand Prize: Best Dream Involving Robert Hughes and a Sea Plane

In a recent memoir, Robert Hughes, former art critic for Time magazine, writes about the coma-delirium he was in after a horrifying head-on crash in Australia in 1999. He was in the coma for five-and-a-half weeks, in the care of an intensive care unit. Most of the time, he was unaware of his visitors, or unable to apprehend them accurately; he hallucinated, and spent many hours in pain and dread. Two lighter moments:

"At a certain point, Cathy reported, I started signalling wildly, miming the act of writing. Pencil and paper were brought, and with a shaking left hand I managed to write a sentence in Spanish -- a language that neither Cathy nor any of the doctors and nurses understood. Eventually a Filipino wardsman was found. 'I am dissatisfied with the accommodations,' my note read, rather formally. 'Please call a taxi and take me to a good hotel.'"

Later, after a dream in which he believed he was crewing a "Torres Strait pearling lugger," he imagined he was captured by Chinese pirates and then he found his means of escape.

"It was a World War II flying boat: the high-wing, twin-engine PBY Catalina, with its bony Art Deco lines and its twin gunners' blisters on the fuselage -- to me, one of the most elegant aircraft ever designed ... I was on board her ... before I quite realized that she was empty, rocking on the deep-water swells. But she was not the Catalina of my childhood. She was tattered and sooty, her skin faded and laced with dried-out fish guts. Her fabric was torn. Odd designs and images had been painted on her: stones, a fish, a falling parachutist, a ladder-back chair. Who had done this? Who but the artist I most admired among all the living -- my dear, benign friend of twenty-five years, Bob Rauschenberg.

"Inside, the Catalina -- whose interior spaces lengthened irrationally into tunnels and broadened into halls as I gingerly explored it -- was a small Rauschenberg museum, full of combines, cardboard assemblages, cast-off truck tires and even a stuffed goat, cousin of the emblematic beast from Bob's great signature piece of 1955, Monogram. It became clear to me that my task would be to fly the Catalina and its contents from island to island around the Pacific, a small traveling retrospective, landing in lagoons, mooring at rickety jetties, semaphoring the message of American art from the second half of the twentieth century to peoples who had no reason to give a damn about it."

--Things I Didn't Know
, by Robert Hughes, pp. 18 & 19.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, Who's the Fairest Pachyderm of them All?

Fascinating article in the Washington Post about a recent experiment to measure the extent of consciousness in elephants:

Researchers over the years have provided body-size mirrors to hundreds of animals in zoos and other habitats. Almost always, the animals act as though the image they see is of another.

"Most animals seem incapable of learning that their behavior is the source of the behavior in the mirror," Gallup said. "They are incapable of deciphering that dualism."

By contrast, human babies get it by age 2, as do adult chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans.

The elephants passed the test. Check out the Post link for video.

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Sunday, October 29, 2006

That's My Kind of Award

Just found about the Jack Trevor Story Memorial Cup, a literary prize I could really get behind:

"The prize, not given every year, is awarded for a work of fiction or body of work which, in the opinion of the committee, best celebrates the spirit of author Jack Trevor Story, who died in [1991]. In addition to the cup, the award includes a $1,000 prize, with the stipulation that the money must be spent within a week to a fortnight, with nothing to show for it at the end. "

--LOCUS, September 2006, p. 78.

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How to Have a Million Copies in Print without a Publisher

"In April 2006, On Demand books launched a beta version of their new Espresso Book Machine, which can print a paperback book, complete with laminated color cover, in minutes. The device -- a print-on-demand vending machine -- looks like a large copier, and can produce 15-20 paperbacks per hour. It was tested at the World Bank InfoShop in Washington DC, with other installations planned at the New York Public Library and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt. Commercial production is expected to begin later this year, and the creators hope the machines will someday be ubiquitous, with readers swiping their ATM cards and printing any of thousands of digitized titles."

--from LOCUS, September 2006, p. 77

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

What Knowledge Workers Don't Know

Check out this eloquent piece in The New Atlantis that decries the move to eliminate shop class from American secondary schools -- and, indeed, an apparent trend away from educating ourselves in how things work. Don't buy it? Then consider this:

"While manufacturing jobs have certainly left our shores to a disturbing degree, the manual trades have not. If you need a deck built, or your car fixed, the Chinese are of no help. Because they are in China."

Working as I do with juvenile delinquents, I can attest to the fact that many of them are not auditory or visual learners. They learn with their hands: by doing. They'd do great at manual trades, but this opportunity to engage their minds (and no matter what anyone says, manual labor is also mental) and to make a good living is increasingly denied them.

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Saturday, August 12, 2006

Just Water for Me, Thanks

"The more history I learn, the more the world fills up with stories. Just the other day, I was in my neighborhood Starbucks waiting for the post office to open. I was enjoying a chocolatey cafe mocha when it occurred to me that to drink a mocha is to gulp down the entire history of the New World. From the Spanish exportation of Aztec cacao and the Dutch invention of the chemical process for making cocoa, on down to the capitalist empire of Hershey, PA and the lifestyle marketing of Seattle's Starbucks, the modern mocha is a bittersweet concoction of imperialism, genocide, invention, and consumerism served with whipped cream on top. No wonder it costs so much."

-Sarah Vowell , in The Partly Cloudy Patriot

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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Upon Finding Oneself in a Friend's Novel: One Approach

Anthony Powell, the Welsh author of the 12-volume A Dance to the Music of Time, appeared in a his friend John Heygate's novel, Talking Picture, thinly disguised as a Welsh writer named "Rightlaw." Here's an excerpt from Powell's review of the book as quoted in Michael Barber's Anthony Powell: a Life (2004):

There will be few readers who do not succumb to Rightlaw's charm, even though he appears for a few pages only. His considered, brusque remarks about himself, followed up by equally brusque questions about other people, make us feel at once that we have been privileged to meet a really delightful person, intelligent, sensitive and reserved. If there were more Rightlaws about, the world would be a pleasant place to live in; if there were more characters like Rightlaw in literature, novels would be a joy to read.

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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Aslan: the Un-Cola - Er, I mean Un-Christian

Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, puts his finger on the very thing that no doubt troubles every fifth-grader reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for the first time: "Aslan the lion, the Christ symbol ... is, after all, a very weird symbol for that famous carpenter's son -- not just an un-Christian but in many ways an anti-Christian figure."

He goes on:

"[A] central point of the Gospel story is that Jesus is not the lion of the faith but the lamb of God, while his other symbolic animal is, specifically, the lowly and bedraggled donkey. The moral force of the Christian story is that the lions are all on the other side. If we had, say, a donkey, a seemingly uninspiring animal from an obscure corner of Narnia, raised as an uncouth and low-caste beast of burden, rallying the mice and rats and weasels and vultures and all the other unclean animals, and then being killed by the lions in as humiliating a manner as possible -- a donkey who reemerges, to the shock even of his disciplies and devotees, as the king of all creation -- now, that would be a Christian allegory. A powerful lion, starting life a the top of the food chain, adored by all his subjects and filled with temporal power, killed by a despised evil witch for his power and then reborn to rule, is a Mithraic, not a Christian, myth."

--From "Prisoner of Narnia: How C.S. Lewis Escaped," by Adam Gopnik, from The New Yorker, November 21, 2005, p. 92.

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Friday, July 14, 2006

Travels in Absurdistan

Now that the summer issue of The King's English is out, I've been trying to catch up with all the submissions that have come in -- not a job, by the way, that I do alone. (Thanks Bill, Mark -- and of course to the Czarina.) One thing I never see enough of is submissions from outside the United States. We get a decent number from India, and we've certainly received one or two from many other countries, but nothing like the volume we need in order to have a reasonable chance of getting top-notch work.

Fortunately, you don't have to look far to satisfy my desire for writing from elsewhere. Check out Christopher Hitchens' review of an anthology of recent writing from Iran. If you're not quite ready to embrace other cultures, maybe you'd prefer this cranky (as in, crank alert) review examining a legitimate question: why do we romanticize "primitive" people as peaceful, living in harmony with the land, etc., when in fact they were and are just as contentious, warlike, and rapacious as contemporary western culture?

Meanwhile, in completely unrelated news, the world's biggest fusion reactor -- that's right, fusion, not fission -- is being built right now in France. Check out what one of the physicists says about it: "We think it's going to work. We have to, or the politicians wouldn't give us the money."

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Sunday, July 09, 2006

Armageddon: the Flowchart

Just in case you were wondering how Armageddon would play out in Britain, here's the flowchart.

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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Gauss Again

Remember that story about Gauss, the brilliant 18th-century mathematician? As a schoolboy, he showed up his teacher when he tried to give the class a make-work problem involving adding up all the numbers from 1 to 100, and Gauss solved it in just a few moments? I do. I first heard it somewhere in elementary school, and it made me feel incredibly inadequate. (I knew I'd never make it to junior high school.)

Turns out, however,that the story's a very old urban legend. Brian Hayes, writing in American Scientist Online, has collected over 100 examples of the story in eight languages. According to Hayes, the earliest account of the story, though able to claim Gauss himself as its source, was written long after the fact and does not specify what arithmetic problem was assigned to the class. In other words, the anecdote simply says Gauss solved an unnamed problem very quickly. It was later authors who inserted the detail about the problem being to add up a series of numbers from 1 - 100. Hayes' account of what he's learned about the history of the story and its evolution is worth reading; more interesting still is his point that the other students -- the putative dunces who couldn't see a shortcut to adding up a series of integers -- would have found lesser shortcuts of their own if they actually tried adding up all those numbers, because they would've seen obvious patterns. As he writes,

Let me invite you to take a sheet of paper and actually try adding the numbers from 1 to 100.

Finished? Already?

All right, all right, no need to show it to me. So you've guessed the next part of what Hayes says:

On a small slate or a sheet of paper, it's difficult to write 100 numbers in a column, and so students would likely break the task down into subproblems. Suppose you start by adding the numbers from 1 to 10, for a sum of 55. Then the sum of 11 through 20 is 155, and 21 through 30 yields 255. Again, how far would you continue before spotting the trend?
Which brings us to Hayes' real point:

On first hearing this fable, most students surely want to imagine themselves in the role of Gauss. Sooner or later, however, most of us discover we are one of the less-distinguished classmates; if we eventually get the right answer, it's by hard work rather than native genius. I would hope that the story could be told in a way that encourages those students to keep going. And perhaps it can be balanced by other stories showing there's a place in mathematics for more than one kind of mind.
... and in many other fields as well.

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Got it in One, I'd Say

From an obituary for Dr. Philip Rieff:

"Dr. Rieff argued that traditionally the primary function of culture was to integrate individuals into a larger corporate body. He showed how art and literature weren't just aesthetic pursuits but tools to teach people morality. To see Hamlet was as much an object lesson about duty as a leisure activity.

In modernity, Dr. Rieff wrote, this has been supplanted by the idea that culture is there merely for our gratification. This, he said, teaches that we have no ultimate goals or a higher good, except an obsession to maximize individual advantage and pleasure."

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Monday, July 03, 2006

The War on Everything

Notice how we seem lately besieged -- at least in popular discourse -- with large, global-scale threats to our well-being? Terrorism, global warming, overpopulation, bird flu, vanishing oil and natural resources ... each can lead to massive loss of human life, destabilization of our society, and the end of life as we know it. Without disputing that each of these has the potential to be every bit as bad as we can imagine, if not worse, it's an interesting phenomenon, sociologically speaking. Why, at this juncture in our history, are we fixated on large, almost insoluble threats? (And for the literal-minded among you, yes, I've heard all about Al Gore's new movie on global warming, and I think I remember hearing something about 9/11, too.)

Frank Furedi at Spiked points out that when we talk about these threats and what to do about them, we now use, almost exclusively, rhetoric about our "security" to do so. Everything -- overpopulation, bird flu, and so on -- is made to fit under the security rubric, implying that these problems require military or security solutions, rather than technical or political solutions, or adaptive changes. That our discourse has become so warped by "security" is to some degree a reflection of the current administration's insistence on its importance, and the diversion of funding to "homeland" security (does no one else feel any authoritarian chill when they hear that phrase?). But it's also a fascinating case study in how dominated our society is, right now, by fear -- and, I suspect, by fear of massive social change brought on by globalization and the speed at which technology is changing our lives. This is not to say that the threats being waved in our faces aren't real, but the narrow way in which we conceive of them -- strictly through the lens of security -- reveals how limited our ability to deal with them really is.

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Who Wants a Retired Harry Potter?

Rumors that J.K. Rowling may kill off Harry Potter in the last book of her series have stirred up, so I gather, some indignation and disbelief among her fans. Charles McGrath, writing in The New York Times, has a good point to make about this:

Would we even remember Little Nell if she hadn't died in such spectacularly mawkish fashion? Would we prefer that Emma Bovary didn't swallow the poison and instead became a clochard, cadging francs at the agricultural fair? And do we really want to contemplate Harry, now bald and grizzled, the lightning-shaped scar faded into an age spot, retired from magic and, pint in hand, prattling on about old quidditch matches? Surely it makes more sense to employ the other kind of magic, and go back to Volume 1 and start over.
This is, of course, the sort of heartlessly clinical thing that only a critic could seriously propose. If Dickens or Flaubert were writing today, they would've found a way to revive their characters. ---No, scratch that. Dickens wouldn't have bothered with writing novels if he were alive today; he'd have gone straight to scripts, and even now be hard at work on An Even Bleaker House. Flaubert, well ... he'd probably be unpublished.

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

Svidrigailov Circa 1977

Philip K. Dick must've been thinking about Dostoyevsky when he wrote this exquisite image:

"Her heart, Bob Arctor reflected, was an empty kitchen: floor tile and water pipes and a drainboard with pale scrubbed surfaces, and one abandoned glass on the edge of the sink that nobody cared about."
It comes from his 1977 book, A Scanner Darkly -- the entire text of which, incidentally, you can find online (no doubt illegally), though I ran across the quote on page 94 of the 1991 Vintage edition.

Now compare it to Svidrigailov's chilling vision of the afterlife in Crime in Punishment:
"Eternity [says Svidrigailov to Raskolnikov] is always presented to us as an idea which it is impossible to grasp, something enormous, enormous! But why should it necessarily be enormous? Imagine, instead, that it will be one little room, something like a bath-house in the country, black with soot, with spiders in every corner, and that that is the whole of eternity. I sometimes imagine it like that, you know."

--Feodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, trans. Jessie Coulson, (W. W. Norton & Co., (c) 1975), pp. 244-245. (Compare to the Constance Garnett translation.)

True, Dostoevsky and Dick are talking about different things -- the fate of the soul in the afterlife vs. the state of a particular person's soul in this one. But one has to allow for this, I think, since their different concerns exemplify the historical trajectory of literature's concerns in miniature. What both images have in common is an absolute terror of the mundane; the echo is remarkable. (I always thought Svidrigailov had it about right -- another instance, as in Milton, where the bad guy [Satan, the nihilist Svidrigailov] is so pungent and interesting that the good guys can't compete.)

Don't bother with reading Scanner, by the way. It's flabby and meandering, much like conversation with an addict, Dick announcing his insights into drug culture and the blurred roles of dopers and cops solemnly, without the surprising veer of his usual narratives. I much prefer Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, The Man in the High Castle, and Dr. Bloodmoney (which really has nothing at all to do with Dr. Strangelove, except the title). Even his slighter novels usually have an element of surprise, a spark missing from Scanner's leaden, misogynistic narrative. I've just shared with you its brightest moment; now go and read something else.

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Why We Read Fiction & the Nietzche Diet

Who's more generous, women or men? Regardless, they certainly have different tastes in reading, according to a piece in Reason, which summarizes a recent British survey of each sex's favorite novels ever. (Where women's tastes are varied, men's choices, interestingly, tend to center around only four books by Camus, Vonnegut, Salinger, and Marquez.) Apparently, there's also an interesting theory (supposedly new) about why people read fiction, based on cognitive theory: essentially, it gives us practice doing something we like to do anyway, which is figure out what other people are thinking and why they do what they do. Does this mean that women spend more time thinking about others than men do?

Bonus reading tip: Friedrich Nietzche's new diet book.

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Thursday, June 08, 2006

Wish I Could Dance Like That

"Fred Astaire, whatever he may do in whatever picture he is in, has the beat, the swing, the debonair and damn-your-eyes violence of rhythm, all the gay contradiction and irresponsibility, of the best thing this country can contribute to musical history, which is the best American jazz."

--Otis Ferguson, film critic at The New Republic 1936-1942, quoted in a review by Clive James of Philip Lopate's encyclopedic collection of film criticism. James admires the placement of the word "violence," but this seems wrong to me -- that "damn-your-eyes" has been ringing in my ears all week.

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

He Ain't Heavy, He's My (Rental) Brother

This past week, I was browsing articles I'd furled a while back, and ran across a fascinating story that The New York Times ran back in January. It seems that significant numbers of young Japanese are retreating from normal life, sequestering themselves in their rooms -- often for years at a time. They do come out, of course, for food and other necessities, but for the most part they don't socialize, not even with their families. They spend their time in their rooms; many of them play video games, listen to music ... and not much else. Most are male, but some are female. The Japanese word for them is hikikomori, which is translated as "withdrawal."

Obviously, they couldn't sequester themselves this way if their families didn't support them, but family culture in Japan is such that many families do. The shame of asking for help is huge, too, as it is felt that it will reflect on the parents. Yet the problem is large enough that a social service system has grown up around them. Agencies employ young men and women to serve as "rental" brothers and sisters, who go the the young person's home and try to engage him or her, much as a social worker might do here in the States. They'll keep this up, week after week, for up to a year before they move on to other youth. The ones they succeed in engaging go live at the agency, in a dorm with other hikikomori. There, they have the opportunity to obtain job skills and so forth, with the aim of reintegrating themselves into normal life. Some make it; some don't. (One rental brother kept going back to the house of one young man for 10 years -- and finally broke through. The man graduated from university, is now working and, we are told, vacationed in Spain last year.)

The most common explanation for their withdrawal appears to be a fear of failure. The pressure on them to do well -- in school, on exams, in the working world -- is intense, and as Japan's economy has changed for the worse, so have their chances of security. In response, they hide away.

Check it out for yourself. It's worth it.

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Sunday, April 30, 2006

Top Ten Online Stories 2005 Reviewed

Tomorrow, May 1st, the Million Writers Award run by storySouth will name the top story of the year (chosen by reader vote) from the top 10 notable stories storySouth's editor chose from a list of approximately 130 notable stories for 2005 selected by a panel of judges. (Five of the stories The King's English published last year were -- ahem -- notables.)

"Famous Fathers" by Pia Z. Ehrhardt (Narrative Magazine) should be our pick as the best story of the lot, but we just can't get there. The main character is the daughter of the mayor of Texadelphia, and her problem is that she wants her father's attention and can't seem to get it. Thwarted, she embarks on a sexual adventure/love affair with one of her father's employees. Her recklessness intrigues, and the writing is head-and-shoulders above any of the others in the top 10 -- Ms. Ehrhardt is clearly in control of her material, and her voice -- but it left us cold. Perhaps it's the narrator's disconnection from anyone around her, her father's never-punctured remoteness, and her mother's odd absence that leaves the characters largely obscure and the story unsatisfying.

You could do a lot worse than to choose "Diamonds and Lemons" by Omar Beer (Fiction Warehouse) as your favorite story of these top 10. In it, Paul and Margaret are engaged to be married when Margaret dies in a car accident. The story shows its readers (rather than telling them, and thank God for an author who trusts us this much!) how Paul makes his way through life, noting its details without latching on to any. When Paul goes to dinner a year after the accident at the home of Margaret's parents, Donald and Janine, Janine becomes upset and Donald and apologizes to Paul, his guest:

He took his drink from the bar and swirled it with his hand. He sat down ... "She just gets a little wound up." Donald took a small drink.

Paul held his. "Should I go?"

"We're not there yet," Donald said softly, patting the air with his hand. "She'll be back down in a few minutes." He flipped through channels, lapped back around to the news station, stopped.
That's nicely done, that "not there yet," and Donald patting the air - it conveys just the right amount of detachment, that of a man who knows his wife and relies on her displays of anguish to cover his own. Ultimately, the story feels flat: Paul leaves the story as he began it, having confessed to doubts about marrying Margaret that were after all hardly surprising. Even the title demonstrates the problem. "Diamonds and Lemons" is a lovely title, but it is, like Paul's scattered, uncommitted experience of life, fatally unrevealing.

Another story in the top 10 that's worth a read is "Two Lives" by Michael Croley, which appeared in Blackbird. Cleverly constructed, a story of plangent regret, it suffers two fatal flaws - its primary narrator is a writer (ho-hum); and it lacks dramatic power. Even the story-within-the-story, about a young boy's father who loses his livelihood and must sell moonshine to keep his family in food, cuts away once the going gets tough.

But I didn't choose any of those as my favorite. Instead, I chose Richard Bowes' There's a Hole in the City", which appeared on the Hugo-award-winning SCIFICTION website before it was rudely shut down for good by its parent company (you can still access the story, though). Bowes' piece is a ghost story, set in the chaos of 9/11 - the slow revelation of the mystery pulls you along. It's strangely similar to Terry Bisson's "Super 8" of 2004, which made storySouth's top 10 last year. Bisson's is better -- it's longer and more sophisticated and because it's also about people haunted by friends from their crazy, student days, it makes Bowes' piece look like a knock-off -- but they both have the virtues of being told in a plain, direct style that counterbalances their spookier aspects, and evincing the supernatural with subtlety and trust for their readers. And, judging from the votes so far, it appears that other readers agreed with me that Bowes' piece is tops.

I think it's significant that Bowes' piece is entertainment fiction, not literature -- most of the other top ten stories could not even compete at this most basic level. A few of the stories struck me as interesting only because they were set in exotic (to us in the U.S.) settings -- Anjana Basu's The Black Tongue" (Gowanus), "Wedad's Cavalry" by Mohja Kahf (MWU: Muslim Wake Up) , and "Nang Fah Jam Laeng: Angels in Disguise" by Cynthia Gralla (Mississippi Review) all fell in this category. You can skip Basu's piece entirely, unless you're curious about what a novel excerpt looks like. Even if it's not intended to be one, it's paced like one, and has all the resolution of an opening chapter, and all the focus on witches and its setting in India can't save it.

"Wedad's Cavalry" details a young Saudi Arabian wife's quest for an orgasm and how her female friends educate her. Though it has some entertaining passages -- the delicious irony of the narrator's second husband, a fundamentalist Muslim, making warm, sweet love to her while detailing all the religious justifications for taking pleasure in it -- it's sloppily written (note the clumsiness of the dialogue at the outset, much of which is there for the reader's sake, not the characters') and the basic question of why it's set in Saudi Arabia in the mid-1980s is never addressed. Set in Saudi Arabia, fine - but why that particular time period? Everything the author describes seems, from my admittedly ignorant point of view, to be typical of Saudi Arabia now. This begs the question, and makes the reader suspect that it's set in the 1980s because the story is autobiography masquerading as fiction.

Gralla's piece is unsatisfying in the extreme. Set in Bangkok, the only thing of interest is its setting; the self-absorbed narrator never engages with anyone, and nothing happens to her. It's supposed to be about seeking solace and healing from a place, I think, but when you're done, you say to yourself, Who cares?

But stories set in less exotic locales weren't necessarily any better. Witness "The Rules of Urban Living" by Kara Janeczko (Anderbo). Told from the point of view of a woman living in an apartment house, it consists entirely of musings about the etiquette of, well, urban living - how we pretend we can't hear other people's private lives through thin walls, and yet we draw conclusions (often false) based on what we hear as well. "Urban Living" is also supposed to be about the end of an affair, but the narrator is so detached from everything and everyone around her, her experience so abstract, that the story can do nothing more for its readers but inspire a longing to move to the country.

Even better-known writers suffer from self-absorption, like John J. Clayton (his delightful "The Man Who Could See Radiance" has been aired on Selected Shorts on NPR), and his infuriating "Light at the End of the Tunnel" (Agni) proves it. "Light" exists in a perpetual postmodern uncertainty that can only be described as coy. Ostensibly about the death of the narrator's brother, one of a group of 12-year-olds taken by a camp counselor into the Hoosac Tunnel through the Berkshires and killed in a train accident, the story includesthe history of the tunnel, speculation about the camp counselors who led the campers into the tunnel ... but the narrator keeps hedging, refusing to allow the reader to get comfortable with any of the details, because they're all conditional: maybe it happened this way, or that way, or maybe it didn't happen at all. So it's not clear if the 12-year-old campers survived or not, because the narrator won't even tell us for sure if they existed; or even if his brother Joel exists. Which is why it's infuriating to find the narrator recalling the near-accident in the train tunnel the morning after Joel's wedding only to write, "Or there is no Joel; I grew up with my missing brother more real in my life than anyone." Infuriating, yes, but that's not all. Clayton has the temerity to finish up with a sententious paragraph about how much it matters whether or not the train comes through that tunnel with the children inside it, whether there's an accident or not, it matters, "either way, the same: nobody's life ever again the same." Which is horseshit. Of course it matters, but it's an obvious point and it's small details like whether or not the narrator has a brother to lose in a train accident that matter more. If he doesn't have a brother, and there was no train accident, then all Clayton's doing is using his power as a narrator to jerk his readers around. Rubbing our noses in the fact that he's in charge of making up the fictional world his readers are agreeing to pretend exists is pointless and manipulative. I'm not necessarily a hound for realism, and I do like postmodern work as much as anyone -- I like Fowles' two endings for the French Lieutenant's Woman, I like Pynchon's main character dematerializing 3/4 of the way through Gravity's Rainbow, and I think John Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse" is as perfect a metafictional story as has ever been written -- but for God's sake, commit to something. Otherwise, it's just writerly games, and no fun for the reader. Reminds me of Tim O'Brien's idiotic In the Lake of the Woods, which abuses the narrator's position of knowledge mercilessly to tease and needlessly confound the reader. Since O'Brien's point in that book is the unknowability of "the truth," it's particularly irritating that the main obstacle to the reader's ability to make up his/her own mind about the truth -- or to draw his/her own conclusions about its subjectivity -- is the narrator/author.

After Clayton's piece, it's a relief to turn to "Down and Out in Brentwood" by Neal Marks (Crime Scene Scotland), which is a slick little piece of crime fiction. You'll like it a lot of if you're a fan of Elmore Leonard. In fact, you'll be right at home: the narrative voice and the angle of attack are obviously an homage to Leonard, right down to the references to Detroit. The only thing it's missing is a Sig Sauer. Not a bad piece, but I suspect Marks can do better working in a more original vein.

Considering all 10 of the top stories, I'd say that many of their authors chose detachment as a theme, which is too bad, because detachment also made many of these stories weaker than they should have been. This is a common problem for writers. Most of us like to be observers, and that necessarily flavors our fiction. The problem is, readers aren't really interested in the aperçus of writers. It's conflict and engagement they want from the characters they read about. It's the hardest thing in the world to create characters that care about something passionately enough to wrestle internal as well as external conflict, and still make your story realistic. It's less difficult, though not by any means easy, to do this, as Bowes does, well enough to merely entertain. (Literature is often distinguishable from entertainment fiction because it does not entirely depend upon its plot to interest the reader, and can be re-read without spoiling its pleasures.) So here's to 2005's top 10 authors, and all who set their sights on bigger game.

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Friday, April 28, 2006

On Being Irrelevant

From Frederick Barthelme, Natural Selection, p. 144 :

...I just suddenly thought it: "This isn't my world, anymore." It's a curious sensation to describe, this moment in which you realize your sole proprietorship has been breached, your purchase on the world around you has given way, that you no longer obtain, so to speak, that not only are you not a primary force in the culture, but your group is not a primary force, not even in the small way in which it was, formerly. It's that moment when you know beyond any doubt that whatever it is you think about anything, about any cultural or historical or theoretical thing, whatever you think about politics and personal relations and government and clothing, movies, art, theology, sociology, whatever it is, it just doesn't matter, period. That's a bad moment and the only comfort is that it happens to everybody, it even happens to people who don't notice that it's happened to them. If you do notice it's heart stopping, it's like somebody points a finger at you and says, "You. You're out. You're in the way. Move along."

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Monday, April 10, 2006

The Bizarre Fate of Dorothy Parker's Ashes, Plus Muzak's Founder

In Fort Mill, South Carolina, you can find the corporate headquarters for Muzak -- equipped, we hear, with an "awesome" sound system that quite purposely does not pipe tunes into the elevators. Guess you'll need that iPod after all ...I know all this because I caught that fascinating piece on the evolution of the Muzak company in The New Yorker recently - anyone else see it? Apparently, it's not your father's Muzak anymore. Heck, it's not even the Muzak of the early 1990s: they're hip now, with a digital menu of over 1.5 million songs (with everything from Led Zeppelin to 50 Cent and Miles Davis) and chances are you hear it regularly in retail stores everywhere, and never notice. I have to say I haven't thought much about Muzak in a long time -- though one of my neighbors, whose living room was recently overhauled to make it look up-to-date circa 1958, apparently works at Muzak, to judge from the van parked outside his house -- so it was quite an eye-opener to learn about Muzak's founder (What? Muzak had a founder?), a career Army officer born in (yes) 1865. Talk about a guy who moved with the times.

Back when Muzak actually was Muzak, instead of a musical chameleon crafting soundscapes to express a corporate image, the writer Dorothy Parker died. This would be the famously sharp-tongued Dorothy Parker, author of the often-anthologized "Big Blonde," and recently the subject of a movie starring Jennifer Jason Leigh. --Actually, that's a terribly demeaning way to speak of a serious writer, but the truth is that I haven't read anything by her, not even "Big Blonde," and while that may speak to my own shortcomings as a person and as a reader, it's also true that Parker has either been neglected, her work has grown dated, or she's been terrifically underappreciated, because not many people my age have read her. I can't judge why her work has fallen into obscurity, given my unfamiliarity with it, but a piece in Bookforum pointed to one reason why Parker might have missed out on some attention, and that reason's name was Lillian Hellman. Hellman was Parker's literary executor, and exercised such repressive control over it that almost none of the biographers or publishers who might have touched off a renewal of interest in Parker after her death in 1967 were allowed to go forward, and by the time Hellman lost interest, in the early 1970s, so had much of the rest of the world. Even Parker's remains were neglected: her ashes sat in the file drawer of a law office on Wall Street for fifteen years before they were finally interred on the campus of the NAACP, to whom she'd willed her entire estate. Alas, poor Yorick!

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Saturday, April 08, 2006

Why Math Matters

From a review of the new Airbus A380, the world's biggest passenger plane:

Debra also pointed out ... the hydraulic system that operates the A380's control surfaces ... The hydraulics also handle the braking on the A380's twenty-wheel main landing gear. A 302-page promotional Airbus publication titled A New Dimension in Air Travel informed me that "the brake is capable of stopping 45 double-decker buses traveling at 200 mph, simultaneously, in under 25 seconds." It is an ambition of mine to learn enough math to figure out comparisons like that and write them myself. But I'm afraid I'd get carried away with digressions about what kind of engine you'd have to put in a double-decker bus to make it go that fast, where you'd drive it, how you'd find forty-four people to drive the other buses, and what would happen to the bus riders.

--"The Mother Load," by P.J. O'Rourke, The Atlantic Monthly, November 2005, p. 173.

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In the Beginning was the Word ... and Someone with a Big Mouth

" is understandable that someone should ask how it was possible to know that these things happened so and not in some other manner, the reply to be given is that all stories are like those about the creation of the universe, no one was there, no one witnessed anything, yet everyone knows what happened."

--Jose Saramago, Blindness, p. 265.

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Call Me Hypocrite

A while back, I complained about the fact that writers aren't more inventive: when authors find a stable, compelling voice and mode of telling stories, they rarely deviate. I decried this on the theory that different stories demand different voices and approaches, and that part of what readers expect from writers is a new way of seeing things. If there really are only seven plots, as Christopher Booker argues in (you guessed it) The Seven Basic Plots, then it's up to authors to relay their stories in the most inventive, varied ways possible. And part of the skill of being a writer, it seems to me, is to avoid getting too comfortable in any one combination of voice and point of view.

Well. I was soon to be hoist by my own petard.

A couple of weeks ago, desperate for something diverting to read, I picked up a Terry Pratchett novel, Monstrous Regiment. Those of you familiar with Pratchett know that he's a very funny man. I don't pretend to have read all of his books -- his oeuvre is quite large -- but based on those I have read, I'd say he's not particularly inventive in the way that I describe above. His charm comes in his ability to elaborate endlessly on the Discworld he's created. Most fantasy writers create a world and then find themselves stuck with characters and mores that grow increasingly rigid, until the whole thing groans creaking to a halt, and the author has to create an entirely new world. Not Pratchett. From within his Discworld, he's fearlessly found new characters to write about, on topics as varied as the postal system or what it's like to be Death, though his overriding theme is human folly and stupidity. From his abiding rage, he is able to spin endless jokes and riffs on contemporary culture, while never failing to be entertaining.

So imagine my disappointment when I opened Monstrous Regiment and found that it was ... earnest. Oh, there're occasional jokes (there's a vampire in it who has, like a reformed alcoholic, sworn off human blood - he's a member of the Temperance League), but all in all, it's a fairly bitter story about sexism and the stupidity of war (and humans for waging it). So it was entertaining enough, but it lacked the usual Pratchett brio. As author of over 20 novels, he's got a right to flag occasionally, of course. But man, was I mad that he dared to write a book that was halfway serious. What I wanted was the old Pratchett, the usual Pratchett, the one I was comfortable with. It's not clear that he was experimenting with something new, by the way, just that he was angrier and maybe sadder than when writing other books, but the effect was the same: he blazed a new trail, and I was damned if I was going with him. Put me in mind of T.R. Pearson, whose voice in The Last of How it Was and other earlier novels is peerless and quite mannered; but when he began to deliberately break it down in a later novel, Cry Me a River, and meld it with contemporary details and a less mellifluous voice, he lost some of his charm for me, no matter how much I admired him for his daring.

Which just goes to show you: that's why writers aren't more inventive.

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Saturday, April 01, 2006

Most Hair-Raising Extended Metaphor of the Week

From "The Drug Pushers," by Carl Elliott, The Atlantic Monthly, April 2006, p. 91:

The seduction, whether by one company or several, is often quite gradual. My brother Hal explained to me how he wound up on the speakers' bureau of a major pharmaceutical company. It started when a company rep asked him if he'd be interested in giving a talk about clinical depression to a community group. The honorarium was $1,000. Hal thought, Why not? It seemed almost a public service. The next time, the company asked him to talk not to the public but to practitioners at a community hospital. Soon company reps were making suggestions about content. "Why don't you mention the side-effect profiles of the different anti-depressants?" they asked. Uneasy, Hal tried to ignore these suggestions. Still, the more talks he gave, the more the reps became focused on antidepressants rather than depression. The company began giving him PowerPoint slides to use, which he also ignored. The reps started telling him, "You know, we have you on the local circuit giving these talks, but you're medical-school faculty; we could get you on the national circuit. That's where the real money is." The mention of big money made him even more uneasy. Eventually the reps asked him to lecture about a new version of their antidepressant drug. Soon after that, Hal told them, "I can't do this anymore."

Looking back on this trajectory, Hal said, "It's kind of like you're a woman at a party, and your boss says to you, 'Look, do me a favor: be nice to this guy over there.' And you see the guy is not bad-looking, and you're unattached, so you say, 'Why not? I can be nice.' The problem is that it never ends with that party. Soon you find yourself on the way to a Bangkok brothel in the cargo hold of an unmarked plane. And you say, 'Whoa, this is not what I agreed to.' But then you have to ask yourself, 'When did the prostitution actually start? Wasn't it at that party?'"

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Saturday, March 25, 2006

Buy Lisa Moore's Book Now

Like most literature fans, I don't read a lot of short story collections, and once I do, I don't re-read many of them. This is partly a pragmatic decision (who has the time to re-read everything?); but not many deserve re-reading, either. Then again, those that do deserve it don't necessarily inspire it: Dubliners, for example, is arguably the most famous short story collection ever, but I've not cracked its spine since I first read it 23 years ago. Compare that with my experience with Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son: I tore through it in an afternoon, but I could never really put it down, so to speak, until I finally gave in and re-read it over a year later.

Which brings me to Lisa Moore's 2002 collection, Open, which was a bestseller in Canada and a finalist for the Giller Prize there, but was largely unnoticed here in the States. (I have my public library to thank for bringing it to my attention: thank you, thank you, Multnomah County.) One could say that my decision to re-read Johnson and Moore and not Joyce says more about my reading tastes than their relative merits -- and you'd have a strong case. Moore's collection, at any rate, appears at first glance to be disappointingly homogeneous. Almost all of the ten stories are first-person (and those that aren't may as well be), the main character is always a woman, usually middle-aged with a child or step-child and an emotionally remote husband to whom she is nevertheless almost helplessly attracted. Even the stories' greatest strengths -- their sensuous, room-wrecking imagery and their odd fusion of past and present -- are unvarying from story to story, which is the sort of thing that usually causes my heart to sink.

With all that said, though, I found myself re-reading Open within a week of finishing it, and suggest you get started on her too. If you're a fan of the monotonously sequential or you're deaf to imagery (so to speak), then skip it. But if you've got an ear for voice and like stories that appear to be relentlessly allusive and indirect, than Moore should be on your bedside table by nightfall.

The stories in Open are fragmentary, non-sequential, unpredictable, and rely heavily on repeated imagery to convey their emotional undercurrents. Here's the section I found when browsing the book at the library that convinced me to check it out:

I guess I should read the Manifesto. The literary critic who spoke before you at the conference said it was an authorless tract. That Marx repeatedly tried to make it sound as though it came from thin air, or rose by itself from the people, spontaneously. He was willing to claim the bad poetry of his youth that even Penguin didn't want to publish. But the Manifesto just was. Just passed through his pen.

Tell me what happened? Did you meet somebody? (from "Mouths, Open," p. 29)

You don't need to know that the narrator and her partner (the "you" mentioned in the second sentence) are in a relationship, and that the narrator's partner is turning away from her -- it's abundantly clear. The longing in the second paragraph, the abrupt juxtaposition, is poignant. Marx's delusion, his attempt to remove his fingerprints from his own work, suggests fertile parallels: perhaps the narrator's partner is attempting to dissociate himself from his own work (the life he's built with the narrator, or his responsibility for breaking them up); or perhaps the narrator is trying to remove herself from the pain of his rejection by accepting that it "just is," that it's historically inevitable.

Much of Moore's fiction works like this, by suggestion and juxtaposition. In this way, she is able to dramatize how memory can radically impinge upon the present - many of her characters seem to live in an unstable storm of past and present, a cinematic montage of moments flashing by. In some stories, like "The Way the Light Is," she makes her debts to the cinema explicit; in others, like "Mouths, Open," she uses the technique and expects her readers to follow. She can pull this off because of the sheer sensuousness of her imagery and the sharp turns she takes to pull the reader through the story.

Like a poet, she is prodigal with her images: at an outdoor party, "a paper napkin flutters off the table and dips, like a dove shot out of the sky, a gash of lipstick on its breast" (154). Or this:

Melody comes out with a bottle of orange juice. It has stopped raining. Steam lifts off the asphalt and floats into the trees. Sky, Canadian flag, child with red shirt -- all mirrored in the glossy water on the pavement at our feet. A car passes and the child's reflection is a crazy red flame breaking apart under the tires. The juice in Melody's hand has an orange halo. A brief rainbow arcs over the wet forest behind the Irving station (8).

She can stumble, too, as she does here, when the narrator of "Craving" describes a childhood friend's dexterity in handling adolescent boys:

She could suss out the swift-forming passions of the gang of boys we knew, and make them heel. She knew the circuit of their collective synaptic skittering and played it like pinball (62).

I have trouble imagining "passions" coming to "heel," but more than that, "circuit of their collective synaptic skittering" isn't nearly as concrete as her imagery usually is - it's abstractly interesting, but works better for its sound than its sense. (Nor can I imagine playing a "skittering" like "pinball," but that's comparatively minor.) Sure, I'd've liked to see her edit this sort of thing out, but it's a mark of the sheer fertility of imagery that her stories don't suffer from lapses like this one - she knows her next one will be better, and so does the reader.

Her opening story, "Melody," is impressive because it tells four stories in one, almost all indirectly: the narrator, a teenager, slowly awakens to desire, sexual and otherwise, as she carelessly betrays her friends, including Melody, who has an abortion after getting pregnant by an older man; the narrator's subsequent marriage and five years of grief after her husband dies; the mistake of her second marriage to a rich dentist; and the wrenching power of Melody's reappearance in her life at 40. (Actually, the piece may contain fewer than four stories or it could be more; like all of Moore's work, it's hell to summarize.)

Other pieces are weaker -- "Grace," for example, the novella that closes the collection, is wonderful but shows the weakness of applying her technique to longer fiction: it's exhausting, after a while. One stops taking in the imagery and the connections and begins longing for closure. But there are many standouts here. "Craving" is about an old theme - the destruction of romantic illusion - but does it well. The narrator is at the dinner table with two old friends she hasn't seen since her teens, and their respective men:

She's thinking, Remember the guy on the surboard in Hawaii? I felt total abandon. An evanescing of self, my zest uncorked.

Yes, but if you had kept going, it wouldn't have been abandon. He wouldn't be a man swathed in the nimbus of an incandescent wave, muzzling the snarling lip of that bone-crushing maw of ocean with a flexed calf muscle. He would be one of these guys at the table, half drunk and full of mild love (62-3).

Perhaps the best story of all is "The Way the Light Is," in which the narrator is making a short film inspired by a poem by John Steffler. She describes the poem as being about "the elusive," and tries to do this by filming her friend Mina, who affects nonchalance that her husband sleeps with other women but unintentionally keeps revealing her pain. The narrator describes the video her own husband took of their son's birth, a series of jumpcuts of the contractions (the camera was shut off during all the peaceful, happy moments in between) and then the bloody, terrifying complication that follows. She and her son survive, and then she writes, ostensibly about Steffler's poem, "Everyone knows what it means to want something with such intensity you crush it in your haste to have it. " But of course she's talking about giving birth, and her friend Mina's longing for her husband, and even the way in which artists always fail to entirely grasp what they're reaching for, and so for that story alone, the book is worth your while.

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We're Guerillas - We Don't Floss Our Teeth

Sorry to spoil the punchline, but there's no better headline. From the Chicago Tribune, May 5, 1987:

"Duemling said a contra doctor requested 60,000 containers of dental floss and thousands of toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste to start a major dental care program for the contra troops and their families.

But contra military leaders said few Nicaraguans use dental floss and questioned whether the department should have filled that part of the order.

'We're guerillas,' one said. 'We don't floss our teeth.'"

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Return of the (Prize-winning) King

You may have noticed that there haven't been any new issues of The King's English lately. We were on hiatus (one of them fancy Anglo-Saxon words for "vacation"), but now we're back. Good thing, too: while you were sleeping, we picked up another Million Writers Award for being the Best Publisher of Novella-Length Fiction in 2005 (for the second-year in a row).

What's more, five of the eleven fiction pieces we published last year were chosen as "notable stories of 2005" in the same contest, putting us in the same company as the august Agni and the well-funded Narrative (which can afford to pay the likes of Rick Bass for publication).

And who were the authors honored?

Bill Bukovsan, "Pig Roast." Spring 2005.

James Chapman, "The Audience." Fall 2005.

M. Frias-May, "The Longest Suicide Note by Stanley K." Fall 2005.

J. Todd Gillette, "Halcyon." Sumer 2005. (Also, the First-Prize Winner of the Blodgett Waxwing Prize in Literary Fiction)

Kei Miller, "The Fear of Stones." Winter 2005.

Check out the announcement on our home page, and be sure to drop the authors an e-mail to congratulate 'em. We've already told them we're proud, but they'd rather hear it from you.

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Paradise Lost - the Text Message

Here, for example, is a text-message version of "Paradise Lost" disseminated by some scholars in England: "Devl kikd outa hevn coz jelus of jesus&strts war. pd'off wiv god so corupts man (md by god) wiv apel. devl stays serpnt 4hole life&man ruind. Woe un2mnkind."

From “The Pleasures of the Text,” by Charles McGrath, January 22, 2006, the “New York Times Magazine."

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Fascinating Lore from Sci-Fi's Archives (Sub-Basement D)

From "Worlds Enough: Travels in an Adolescent Genre," by L.J. Davis, Harper's, January 2002, pp. 71-2:

"Also cited is Erasmus Darwin, the poet-scientist-physician, grandfather of the naturalist, inventor of the steering wheel, discoverer of photosynthesis -- and a corpulent libertine who played the trombone to his flowers, cut a semicircle out of his dining-room table so that he could get closer to his food, and sketched the world's first known schematic drawing of a hybrid ramjet-rocket engine ...

"As a novel, Frankenstein is a pretty punk piece of work. The good doctor is a crashing bore, the monster is no better, the book is a lot of talk, and at the end Mary [Shelley] can think of no denouement more compelling than to assemble her cast at the North Pole, where they close our little drama with another rousing gabfest. Nonetheless, a fragment of all this chin music is not without its interest. The thing that qualifies the book as the first modern science-fiction novel (though it is not, as I will shortly astound you by demonstrating, the first science-fiction novel) is electricity ...

"The history of science fiction usually begins here, with Frankenstein. The history is wrong ... the world's first sci-fi author was a certain Lucian of Samosata, a Romanized Syrian whose two lunar-space operas, Icaromenippus and True History, by some incredible fluke escaped the torching of the Alexandrine Library by the Emperor Theodosius in 391. Writing in the second century, Lucian took his protagonists to the moon ... On the moon, we learn, the poor have wooden phalluses and the phalluses of the rich are made of ivory, which sounds perfectly plausible to me. "

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