Hawking Up Hairballs

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Part Donald Duck

This is just plain nuts. Grand Canyon National Park is not allowed to give an official estimate of the age of the canyon, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees. Here is the relevant press release from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. PEER

According to an article by Robert Fisk in the Independent, Thomas Friedman once described Sadaam Hussein as "part Don Corleone, part Donald Duck". I've tried to come up with a similar description of George Bush. The best I have come up with is that he's part Oliver Cromwell, part Donald Duck. The trouble with that is that Cromwell is generally acknowledged as a brilliant soldier. Otherwise though, it seems to fit. Cromwell was a religious zealot and, according to the Wikipedia entry for him, "He was a parliamentarian who ordered his soldiers to dissolve parliaments. Under his rule, the Protectorate advocated religious liberty of conscience but allowed blasphemers to be tortured. He advocated equitable justice but imprisoned those who criticised his raising taxation outside the agreement of Parliament." There seems to be a certain parallel there.

Monday, December 18, 2006

A Pynchon Snippet

I'm still working my way through Thomas Pynchon's Against The Day. I can't say that my opinion has changed all that much but he does have a nice way of putting things from time to time. Here's an example that I ran across in today's reading. He's talking about an eventful but confusing day for one of his characters.

"...but none of it hung together, the details were like cards tossed on the table of the day that upon inspection could not be arranged into a playable hand."

I like that. I like it a lot.


How could I fail to like a novel with three main characters like those in Peter Carey's Theft? There's Michael Boone, a failed painter in his late thirties, his younger brother, Hugh, and twenty-something Marlene Leibovitz, nee Cook. Michael is a scoundrel, Hugh is retarded, and Marlene is an utter psycopath. Quite a stew of characters, and Carey makes good use of them.

When the novel opens, Michael has just been released from prison. He has served several months for attempting to steal some of his best paintings, which had been declared community property and awarded to his ex-wife in their divorce. He is living with his brother Hugh on a farm 200 miles outside of Sydney, Australia, in property owned by his chief collector, Jean Paul. It is there that he meets Marlene. They become lovers and she involves him in schemes to forge and steal works of art.

The novel alternates between the voice of Michael and that of Hugh. It's a nice device, since it allows Carey to contrast the way in which Michael sees himself, as opposed to how others see him. In Michael's mind, he's a victim who is beset by a cruel and uncaring world that just seems to want to screw him over. Given that, why wouldn't he allow himself to be drawn into Marlene's schemes? It only makes sense. Hugh presents a different picture of his brother. In his narrative, Michael is a self-involved fool who tends to bull his way through to what he wants, no matter what the cost to others. Marlene is initially Michael's salvation, and she charms Hugh as well, but it eventually becomes clear just what she's all about.

Character is destiny as they say, and that's the way things play out in the novel. In one sense Michael and Hugh have the same character, though Hugh is simpleminded. They're the sons of a brutal father in a family of butchers, and both are large, strong men. They could be characterized as bulls in a china shop. It's their passions that get them into trouble. In Michael's case, those passions are love for Marlene, and the desire for success in one form or another. In Hugh's case, the passions are blunter and more mercurial. He has the nasty habit of breaking the little finger of anyone who sufficiently upsets him, but he is not a vicious soul. He likes to carry around a folding chair, and his favorite activity is sitting on the the sidewalk watching the cars and people go by.

Theft is a comedy. Not a haha, I fell down laughing comedy, but a comedy nonetheless. There's a long tradition in which the comic is used to induce the reader to identify with compromised characters, and Carey employs this device to good effect. I found myself liking Michael, though I wouldn't approve of the things that he did. The fact that he cares for his handicapped brother also gives him a sympathetic dimension that he wouldn't have otherwise. Hugh is an appealing character as well. Carey does a good job of realizing him as a person of his own, rather than as a mere foil for his brother. As for Marlene, she is the weakest of the three characters but that's to be expected. She really is a foil in the narrative. The novel is mainly about the two men.

Theft may also be read as a commentary on the world of the visual arts. In Carey's view, it is inhabited by scoundrels, thiefs, deceivers, phonies, and worse. From everything I've ever read, he's more right than wrong, but what can one expect? So much money is thrown around in the art world, that it's bound to attract the more unsavory elements. It's such an artificial world too, one swept by fads and fashions that have little to do with the quality of the work. In one brief section, Michael talks about how he likes to view works of art alone because he just wants to let it impact him free of the opinions and expectations of others. That's the way it should be too. I once read Simon Schama's book on 17th-century Holland. In it he had some reproduction of paintings by artists that I'd never heard of. They were every bit as good as the works of people like Rembrandt and Vermeer. Perhaps they had it right in earlier times, when works of art were unsigned.

Carey's writing is pretty good, though there are a few places where it didn't ring true, especially in Hugh's narrative. From time to time, he uses a turn of phrase or verbal construction that sounds too sophisticated to come from the mouth of one who is so mentally limited. A little more care in the editing would have helped.

That said though, I highly recommend the book. It is an entertaining and worthwhile read.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Greatest

Neal DeGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and celebrity scientist. He's not as well-known as the late Carl Sagan, but I've seen him on three or four documentaries on PBS and the cable channels, so he may be on his way. He's telegenic, eloquent, and blessed with a deep, resonant voice. Even better, he's black which gives comfort to those who would like to believe that the US really is an egalitarian country where there are adequate opportunities for African Americans in science.

All of this is to lead up to a remark that Dr. Tyson made in a recent speech. He said that, all things considered, Isaac Newton was the most brilliant intellect ever. Statements like that irritate me, and we Americans seem to have a particular affection for these kinds of judgements. They're even more common in sports. A favorite pastime of TV announcers is speculating upon who was the greatest baseball pitcher, basketball center, or football running back.

This cultural obsession arises from a number of strains in the American character. One is our persistent belief that talent will out in the end. I've had people say exactly that to me before, and even those who do not state it so baldly believe something of the sort. A corollary to that says that there is a spectrum of talent, and that we can rank people from top to bottom. This attitude probably originates in Puritanism. People are just where they are supposed to be in life. Those who are most virtuous are at the top, those who are not are at the bottom. Remove religion out of the equation, and talent takes the place of virtue.

A second belief that influences this obsession with "the greatest" is our decidedly ahistorical prejudices. We tend to believe that those of considerable abilities would thrive at any time under any circumstances. If Newton were alive today, he would stand at the forefront of physics. Pasteur would be knocking on the door of a cure for cancer. Lavoisier would be discovering a substitute for our diminishing supply of petroleum.

Neither of these prejudices stands up under scrutiny. Talent does not win out in the end. One can only speculate as to how many potentially great intellects languished in the cotton fields of the slaveholding South, or in the textile mills of New England, just to name two of the more mind-numbing environments. Not only that, but talent is conditioned by circumstances. That is something that we don't tend to realize in this country. It's even reflected in popular culture. The movie Good Will Hunting is a prime example. Here we have this guy, who is about twenty years old. He's not only a mathematical genius, but a polymath too, and he grew up in blue-collar South Boston, where he lived in a series of foster homes in which he was abused. Let me tell you something folks. Anyone who grew up in such circumstances would not become the sort of genius portrayed in that movie. If those kinds of abilities aren't nutured early, they don't develop. At best he would have shown a facility with numbers and ended up working for a bookie or something like that. On the other hand, consider two of the great intellects of 20th-century physics, Richard Feynmann and Murray Gell-Mann. They were both Jews who grew up in New York City. If you read their biographies, you realize that, not only were they blessed with good DNA, but they were raised in a local culture where learning was respected and intellectual achievement was encouraged. That counts for a lot.

In addition, the historical circumstances have to be right for someone to shine. In terms of sheer brilliance, there are dozens of theoretical physicists alive today who are just as smart and imaginative as Einstein was. Their IQ's and accomplishments certainly suggest as much, but they're not famous. Why? Because the historical circumstances are different. At the time when Einstein began his career, quantum mechanics and relativity were just waiting to be discovered and developed. No one really knew it at the time but, in retrospect, it's apparent. Now, in 2006, it may very well be that the physics of fundamental things has played itself out. It could even be at a deadend, for the simple reason that it is so difficult to obtain any experimental results that will fuel theoretical breakthroughs. String theory, the cutting edge theory of the moment, is coming under increasing criticism for just that reason, because it doesn't make any practical experimental predictions. Edward Witten, the leading figure in the field, is obviously a man of immense intellect, and probably the equal of Newton, but he won't be remembered like Newton. The historical circumstances don't permit it.

I would have been happier if Dr. Tyson had said that Newton was a great intellect who was responsible for some wonderful accomplishments. It's not as dramatic as statements go, but it's closer to the truth.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Two Quick Takes

I'm about 150 pages into Thomas Pynchon's new novel, Against The Day. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times slammed it in this review, and my early impression is that she's right on the mark. Kakutani review. The New York Times requires registration and some of you might not want to bother registering, so here's the first paragraph of the review. "Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, 'Against the Day,' reads like the sort of imitation of a Thomas Pynchon novel that a dogged but ungainly fan of this author’s might have written on quaaludes. It is a humongous, bloated jigsaw puzzle of a story, pretentious without being provocative, elliptical without being illuminating, complicated without being rewardingly complex."

Sometimes one can like a book, and recommend it to others without having a whole lot to say about it. That's the case for me with David Masiel's The Western Limit of the World. It's something that you don't find much of these days, a sea tale, somewhat along the lines of Joseph Conrad. It's well-written. The plot is fresh and the characters are interesting, if massively flawed, and I recommend it.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Limits of Discourse

Noam Chomsky has said that one of the chief functions of the media in the Western democracies is to set the terms of acceptable discourse. It has been my experience that this is true, and it came to mind yesterday when I read the following headline on the Yahoo site. "Legacies bind aging Castro, Pinochet."

It could be argued that this is true. After all, both men are apparently near death, and both leave behind controversial legacies. However, something more is connoted by that particular headline. The verb "bind" suggests that the men are fundamentally the same, ruthless totalitarian dictators who have oppressed their peoples. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Castro is undoubtedly a dictator. There is no question about that. However, he is a benevolent one, and he has endeavored to create one of the more egalitarian societies in the world. Everyone gets an education. Everyone gets enough to eat. Everyone has access to adequate health care. That can't even be said about the United States. The restrictions on things like freedom of expression are not severe, and I would argue that political oppression is no worse than it is in the United States. Of course, there are limitations. Those who have special talents and abilities that are highly valued might resent the fact that they aren't permitted to exploit these talents and abilities for personal gain. Many of Cuba's top athletes certainly resent the fact that they aren't permitted to travel to the US to make the big bucks, and I don't understand why Castro doesn't just let them go. But that underscores the weakness of Castro's regime. The egalitarianism that characterizes it was imposed from the top down instead of being implemented from the bottom up. As a result, I expect that it will die with Castro, especially under pressure from the US.

Not only was Pinochet a ruthless dictator, he was also a de facto agent of the United States. When he overthrew the Allende regime, he tortured and killed thousands, and installed a repressive regime that did not permit much dissent at all. Even worse for the larger population, he implemented Milton Friedman's economic austerity regime, enriching many international corporations, mostly American, at the expense of the populace. The poor and unfortunate in Chile were denied food, medical care and education. In that sense, it was pretty much the opposite of the situation in Cuba and, when an objective history of Spanish-speaking America is written a couple of hundred years down the road, Castro is bound to come off better than Pinochet.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


At the age of 58, John Steinbeck drove across the United States alone, and subsequently wrote about the trip in Travels With Charley. In explaining why he embarked on such a journey at his age, Steinbeck wrote the following. "I have seen so many begin to pack their lives in cotton wool, smother their impulses, hood their passions, and gradually retire from their manhood into a kind of spiritual and physical semi-invalidism. In this they are encouraged by wives and relatives, and it's such a sweet trap. I knew that ten or twelve thousand miles driving a truck, alone and unattended, over every kind of road, would be hard work, but to me it represented the antidote for the professional sick man. And in my own life I am not willing to trade quality for quantity. If this projected journey should prove too much then it was time to go anyway."

I couldn't agree more. I haven't worked in several years and I occasionally have people ask me if I'm retired. It makes me want to smack them upside the head. The way I see it, for the first extended period of my life, I've escaped servitude and can now spend my time pursuing those activities that are most meaningful to me. I no longer have to pretend to be a team player, to care about the fortunes of the company that employs me, or to give a good goddamn whether or not I'm "making progress in my profession". That's not retirement to me, it's liberation.

I'll never forget the movie A Thousand Clowns. I haven't seen it since it first came out in the mid 1960's, but there's one scene that's etched into my memory. Jason Robards plays this guy who's living an unconventional, and unemployed life. He's living in this ratty old tenement with his 12-year-old nephew. One morning, he takes the kid up onto the roof, or someplace like that, at the morning rush hour. He puts a pair of binoculars to his eyes and watches all the people hustling back and forth on the sidewalk. He tells the kid that it's one of the saddest sights he'll ever see, people going to work. Over the years, I've mentioned that scene to a number of people, and the usual response is a chuckle. What the fuck were they laughing at? The fact is that it is sad seeing all of these people going to work each morning. They're just throwing their lives away.

Now some will say that these jobs need doing. There are certain tasks that have to get done if we're going to hold society together. Someone has to grow the food, build the homes, etc. I couldn't agree more, but the world of work isn't set up to accomplish the tasks that need doing. Rather, it's organized to make money for the employers. In the nineteeth century they called it wage slavery. That was a more honest term. These days employees are encouraged to see themselves as "professionals". What nonsense. It's just part of the con. Neither a computer programmer, nor a nurse, nor a teacher is a professional. They're employees, but their bosses want them to think of themselves as professionals because, when they do, they police themselves and there's less labor trouble.

So, no, I'm not retired, and I do believe that I just might actually smack the next person who asks me upside the head.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Echo Maker

I was going to write a review of The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. It's a fine novel but Margaret Atwood's review in the New York Review of books is better than anything I could write, so I'm including a link to the article on their web site. Atwood's Review

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Ebooks And Such

I recently ran across an online ad for the Sony Reader. It is a device for reading ebooks. It apparently holds hundreds of books, and plays MP3 music files as well. I'm all for these things. There's no particular romance for me in holding a paper book in my hand, but I must say that I don't understand the business model. At this point there are a very limited number of titles available for these things, and the cost of the ebooks are ridiculous. It seems to cluster around $15. That's the cost of a trade paperback, and it's absurd. An ebook doesn't require a manufacturing plant with printing presses and such. It doesn't require a physical warehouse. Why then does is it being peddled for the same price as a trade paperback?

I suspect that it has a lot to do with book publishers trying to protect an increasingly obsolete business model. Whether or not they would state it as such, publishers still conduct themselves as though they are a manufacturing concern that produces physical books. However, with computers, the internet, and print-on-demand, there's really little reason for them to be involved in anything more than marketing and distribution. If I were a book publisher, here's what I would do. In the first place, I would become an adviser in self-publishing. Anyone who wanted to could publish with me. I would offer editiorial, cover design, and marketing services for anyone who wanted it, but at a price, and I would list anyone who wanted to publish with my imprint in my catalog. There would be a fee for this listing, since I would also be keeping a laid-out copy of the book in my computer. In most cases, I would not print any copies of the book. The author, or bookstores, or whoever would have to order copies, which would be printed on demand. I would also offer traditional contracts to established authors, and authors who started selling well on my site. I would then foot the expense for actually publishing, marketing, and distributing the book. The author would get a percentage on each sale, as they do today.

Of course, there are a lot of reasons why such a model has been slow in coming, at least among the powers in the publishing industry. Chief among them is fear of killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Similar remarks could be made about the music industry, and there the pressure from artists and consumers on the music companies seems to be stronger. For example, you can't download individual songs in MP3 form because that's the way the companies wanted it. They would prefer that you have to buy a CD to get the one or two songs that you really want, but the consumers forced their hands with pirated downloads and such.

The future, though, is in devices like the Sony Reader. In fact, I think ebook readers will be merged with several other devices to produce a single personal assistant that is cell phone, personal computer, music player, ebook reader, and what have you. This device will even take the place of credit cards. There are already places, like Finland, the home of Nokia, where you can make purchases with your cell phone. You just dial a number enter the relevant information. It's even likely that you will be given one of these devices of the most rudimentary sort when you apply for a Social Security number, and that your number will be encoded within the device. Companies will make their money by providing upgrades and services for these devices, not by actually selling them. Bar codes are next, on the back of your neck. No wait, that's science fiction. Bar codes are so crude when they can implant an unremovable identity chip at birth.