Category Archives: Views

Are the great just the lucky?

I have a new piece up at Numero Cinq, a little essay about how those who we regard as great may only be greatly lucky:

Beyond the flickering light of those few writers who achieve fleeting fame in their lifetimes, past the much brighter halo of the Faulkners and Dickens and Shakespeares whose posthumous fame constitutes the canon, lies a vast, unseen, unmentioned graveyard.  A graveyard of unknown books, a monstrous, unknown continent that surrounds the little enclave of books we revere.

Please head on over and have a look.  Thanks.

I am a First Amendment Fundamentalist

There’s a reason the 1st Amendment is First: it outlines the most important liberties we have.  It trumps all opinion polls and all outcries and all protests and all “community standards”.  It is the bedrock of a free society.  And sometimes in a free society you have to put up with things you don’t like.  Things you might even hate.  And yes – so do your children.

If you believe this too, you are a First Amendment Fundamentalist.  Like me.

So folks can build a Muslim community center wherever they want.  In Manhattan.  Near Ground Zero.  On Ground Zero, if they can afford the real estate.  And some minister can burn all the Qurans he wants on 9/11.  Pretty stupid way to exercise your First Amendment rights, but hey, there’s no clause in there saying you can’t be dumb.

The mural in question.

And right here at home, some artist has created a mural some are calling “grotesque” and “offensive”, especially to schoolchildren.  I call it juvenile, but that’s beside the point.  All editorial comments are.  The artist, David Marez, can put up whatever he wants on this wall, for whatever reason he wants.  He doesn’t have to justify it to anyone.  The Constitution went on ahead and took care of that for him.

The City of Scottsbluff so far is doing its job, and has not attempted to come up with some cockamamie reason to force this mural off the wall.  Good.  They best keep it up.  Let the moral crusaders for “decency” preach all they want – on their own streetfronts.

The twittification of America ushers in a golden era of aphorisms?

I wonder if all this twittifying is going to cause hordes of people to perfect their little statements into gems of intent, meaning, clarity? As in Nietzsche and La Rochefoucauld and Marcus Aurelius and Oscar Wilde?  I don’t tweet myself but I’ve seen enough of them to be hopeful.  A legion of master aphorists: wouldn’t be a bad legacy for American culture to leave.

Interesting, isn’t it, that owing to their ephemeral online nature, you “see” a tweet, not “read” it.

Inevitable Minds by Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly has a wonderful post about the preponderance of minds in nature, all the way down to plants.

Plants exhibit all the characteristics of intelligence, except they do it without a centralized brain, and in slow motion. Decentralized minds and slow minds are actually quite common in nature, and occur at many levels throughout the six kingdoms of life. A slime mold colony can solve the shortest distance to food in a maze, much like a rat. The animal immune system, whose primary purpose is to distinguish between self and non-self, retains a memory of outside antigens it has encountered in the past. It learns in a darwinian process, and in a sense also anticipates future variations of antigens. And throughout the animal kingdom collective intelligence is expressed in hundreds of ways, including the famous hive minds of social insects.

It’s worth reading the whole article. There’s even speculation about what “Dinoman” would have looked like had dinosaurs not been wiped out, and continued to evolve instead of mammals. The result would have been, well, something like this:

Kelly does get a little too enamored with his own rhetoric, to the point where it seems he comes dangerously close to assigning purpose and / or intention to the blind processes of evolution.

The daily grinding of evolution, as accelerated by technology, churns out more and more complex organisms, with higher rates of energy use, and with increasing specialization. Minds are the ideal way to express complexity, energy density, increasing specialization, expanding diversity — all in one system. Mindedness is what evolution produces. Mindedness is what technology wants, too.

As I understand it, evolution doesn’t “want” anything. It happens because it happens, and for no other reason. But then I’ll grant you my view is very much that of a layman’s, simplistic and unnuanced. So perhaps I’m missing something.

And the speculation that AI research could “evolve” minds in its own way; well, I don’t know about that. I guess it could happen. It is the stated intention of the folks at Google, anyhow, and they’re powering this (sub par) Blogger system. I don’t think it’s inevitable, but Kelly’s point that already web AI can do something no human can – remember everything via a search engine – seems to point to the very distinct possibility. Anyhow, more than I can chew off here.

The whole article is here.

Kevin Kelly, by the way, is the founding executive editor of Wired magazine. Which I didn’t know until I’d been around his sites for a while and a commenter mentioned it. No doubt this is common knowledge to the technorati but it was news to me. While I was busy growing up and then gallivanting around foreign parts the digital age happened and I’m on a steep learning curve of catch-up.

How the other two-thirds lives

While Americans are munching on Mel’s Mega Burgers and bemoaning the end the Hyper-Sized American Dream, this is how folks in my soon-to-be abandoned neck of the woods are living:

Open sewer running beside market fruit stalls, Bangkok.

Bangkok’s canal network is both a transportation system and an open sewer.

It’s all relative, is what I’m saying. Things are rough everywhere and getting rougher, but if you’re reading this in the First World, just take a moment to reassure yourself that things aren’t that bad.

And lest you think all Asia looks like this,

This is an open drain & not a river, Mysore India.

here’s a sewer in Japan:

Some have sewer rivers, some have sewer Transformers.

Images via Crooked Brains.

Free money, courtesy Ars Technica

Today’s lowlight: the swindler Merdle, er Madoff has stolen $15.2 million from Elie Wiesel’s charity, to which Wiesel said: “The psychopath should be put in a solitary cell with a screen, and on the screen, [would be] pictures of his victims.” This seems pretty charitable coming from a man whose entire family was murdered by Nazis.

You hardly need me to point these things out: if you’re conscious, you’re already feeding on a steady diet of doom. But Wiesel and the scumbag Madoff were on my mind when this flashed across my screen:

That’s right. You can still get free money. You didn’t know that? Well, why don’t you just “Click Here”?

So. Should I be a) comforted, or, b) disturbed?

a) Even in the face of crisis, human nature remains profoundly unchanged. You can’t go overturning a few billion years of evolution with a mere planetary financial crisis. The wheels of the machine run on. Translation: there are still enough greedy idiots out there to finance these Google click-through ads.

b) Even in the face of crisis, human nature remains profoundly unchanged. Though I don’t know why I should be hoping for headway where the Buddha, Christ, and Woody Guthrie failed to make inroads. Translation: some mini-Madoff is rubbing his hands with glee at the greedy idiots that will finance these Google click-through ads.

This piece of work comes courtesy Ars Technica, home of the ubergeek, by the way. As I understand it, it’s not a person but a Google algorithm that controls what an Adsense ad looks like (I’ve got one on this page and I have no idea). But still: if the geeknorati can’t even reign this stuff in, what hope is there for us techno-commoners?

As is my wont, I’ve emailed someone at Ars Technica. This one styles himself “Imperator”. We’ll see what, if anything, he’s got to say about it.

Joseph Conrad on blogging, language teaching, and verbiage

Well, not exactly on blogging: here in Under Western Eyes (get it at Manybooks and Feedbooks.)he is talking about keeping a diary, which seems a lot less egoistical than blogging in retrospect. Not to mention a lot more quaint:

A mysterious impulse of human nature comes into play here … innumerable people, criminals, saints, philosophers, young girls, statesman, and simple imbeciles, have kept self-revealing records from vanity no doubt, but also from other more inscrutable motives. There must be a wonderful soothing power in mere words since so many men have used them for self-communion. Being myself a quiet individual I take it that what all men are really after is some form or perhaps only some formula of peace. Certainly they are loud enough for it at the present day.

In other news, I guess I should get out of the language-teaching business. At least, according to Conrad:

Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality. I have been for many years a teacher of languages. It is an occupation which at length becomes fatal to whatever share of imagination, observation, and insight an ordinary person might be heir to. To a teacher of languages there comes a time when the world is but a place of many words and man appears a mere talking animal not much more wonderful than a parrot.

Ouch. Okay, I promise. Just because I’ve been an English teacher doesn’t mean I think you’re a parrot.

A small observation. Many writers take Chekhov’s advice that if you have a 7 page story, you should lop off the first 3 pages. (I paraphrase, probably badly; can’t locate the source of this – if I’m totally off-base or someone has this quote to hand, please correct me). Most contemporary writers, it seems to me, have taken this advice entirely to heart, and go happily a-loppin’ everything extraneous they can find. If Conrad had taken this approach, likely we wouldn’t have the above little bits of ebullient brilliance. He just would have gotten on to the story.

Anyway, maybe he should have. Don’t know yet. I’ll let you know when I finish Under Western Eyes. These two gems came up in the first few pages and were too good to keep for a full review. Besides, who knows what else Conrad has in store. Might make these passages pale in comparison. Here’s hoping.

If you put it on the internet, you give it away

A writer named David B. Dale (a pseudonym) has a site. On it he posts stories of 299 words. It boasted 197,577 visitors the last time I was there. I am not posting a link. Here’s why:

Not only has Mr. Dale copyrighted his work, but he has “protected” his page with Copyscape. Which boasts a homepage copied from Google’s.

Just for fun, I put in my blog address. This yielded ten hits – to see more I have to pay. Hilariously, it sternly informed me about a page on the Ars Technica forum: “This page has 35 words matching your text”. Which 35 words I copied from Ars Technica in a quote in this post. Goodness. Wonder what I’d find out if I forked over some cash for the premium version.

I’m not going to reiterate all the reasons why content should be unrestricted in a free culture. If you’re unconvinced, or don’t know what I’m talking about, please see here. It is certainly Mr. Dale’s right to slap all the copyrights or other “protections” on his content that he wants. But it’s a wrong-headed move.

I do hope Mr. Dale hasn’t given any cash to the good folks at Copyscape. Because though the logo claims to “protect” his page, it has protected precisely nothing. I now have copies of Mr. Dale’s short stories in the caches of three internet browsers (just like everyone else who has visited the site.) And just for fun I copied a couple into Word and Notepad, and made screenshots. Took about 11.2 seconds. Required no special knowledge (and, Mr. Dale, I didn’t bother to save them).

Obviously, I’m no pirate. I’m no hacker. I have very basic computer knowledge, and I’m making a point. “Protecting” content does not work. Does not work. You can’t put a lock on digital content. Every proprietary system ever invented has been broken within days, if not hours. E.g., “The Dark Knight.”

As for writers, there’s no keeping your stories and books yours, all yours. Unless you print it out and put it in a locked safe. In which case no one would ever read it. That’s not what a writer wants. It’s not what I want, anyway. I want people to read what I’ve written. The enemy of a writer is not piracy. It’s obscurity.

If you put content on the internet, you give it away. That’s the reality. Rather than fight it, I think it behooves writers and artists of all stripes to embrace this reality.

I’ve emailed David B. Dale to invite him to respond to this post. I’m sure he has his reasons. I’d like to hear them. Here’s hoping we’ll be able to talk this out in a rational, adult manner.

Update on the DRM dilemma: Got a nice note back from Mr. Cornwell’s assistant, saying that he lacks time and also “he doesn’t even know what a DRM is!” I wrote back suggesting that he ought to, but I can see how if you’re on the “successful writer” side of the fence, these issues might not bother you so much, or at all. I’ll post on it if I hear any more.

Preach on, Brother William

“A writer robs and steals from everything he ever wrote or read or saw. I was simply writing a tour de force and as every writer does, I took whatever I needed wherever I could find it, without any compunction and with no sense of violating any ethics or hurting anyone’s feelings because any writer feels that anyone after him is perfectly welcome to take any trick he has learned or any plot that he has used.” – William Faulkner

Quote from Faulkner in the University, p. 115 (Session Fourteen). Photo of Faulkner’s childhood home from Joseph A’s photostream on Flicker.

John Updike's rules for reviewing reviewed

I’ve read only a small portion of John Updike’s voluminous output. I confess to being underawed. I’ve also come across one or two of his book reviews, though I can’t recall which. Maybe it’s because they weren’t memorable. (Whether a book review should be memorable is another topic.) Today I came across Updike’s rules for reviewing, and now I think I know why.

These rules so chivalrous that you might fool folks into reading a book you didn’t much like. I am more of the Dorothy Parker school: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” There’s no point prancing around with niceties.

But Updike was clearly more of a gentleman than me. Here, then, are the John Updike Rules of Reviewing, via Critical Mass:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.


2. Give him enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.


3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the books, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

Surely some summary is allowed. You can do a Wikipedia or Imdb-style spoiler warning, though.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.

This only matters if the plot is essential. Not the case in all books.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

I’m with Faulkner in thinking that all writing is failure. A reviewer’s job is, at least in part, to determine to what degree this is the case.

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. … Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

Praise is only worth something if it’s given when deserved. That is to say, sparingly. Writing a novel or short story is a formidable endeavor in a world that already contains Pale Fire and Pride and Prejudice and Slaughterhouse-Five and Bleak House (to say nothing of “The Dead” or “Death in Midsummer” and “The Things They Carried”). In my judgement, reviews ought to reflect this reality. Succinctly.