Archive for April, 2008

And in the room the women come and go talking of Michelangelo

There really are an ungodly amount of lectures available around here to go to. It seems like every visiting ichthyologist and failed insurrectionist has to throw their two cents in the trough like visitors to the Trevi Fountain in Rome do for good luck (only the crudest and most literal manifestation, by the way, of the phenomenon upon which practically everything pretty in Rome seems to be based: throwing money used to buy spiritual well-being into art). I suppose it’s impressive in a way, and should indicate that the owl of Minerva has landed, evoking images of Athenians sitting around the Agora and boring each other with metaphysics, even if it was only in lieu of buggering each other behind the olive tree. But I don’t usually go to them, partly because there are so damn many of them that there’s no balance. The joke about the German tour bus at the gates of heaven, with a sign saying “Heaven” pointing to the left and a sign saying “Lectures about heaven” pointing to the right, and all the Germans filing to the right, would certainly apply here.

It’s like a conspiracy to change the basic mode of verbal exchange from dialogue to monologue and conversing people into book and reader. There’s something so programmed about that form of interaction. And there’s already a lot of that in life. Have you ever watched somebody walking around, moving, and tried to count how many of their movements and gestures were really spontaneous, unique, indicating the spiritual individuality of humanity, as opposed to stereotyped, instinctive, uniform from person to person? How many any of us make of that kind in a day? That was really one of the most disappointing aspects of that teenage descent into pituitary gland-dominated chaos and confusion so sardonically called “sexual awakening”: the realization (at least for those of us who had a passing knowledge of biology inflicted on us) that all of these new pleasures that erupted so spontaneously and naturally were in reality standard, even mechanical in their homogeneity and deflatingly functional. It’s like going on a trip for pleasure and then finding out it was business all along.

links for 2008-04-21

  • If the breathless advocates of “the free distribution of ideasâ€? are serious, they need either a) to come up with a realistic proposal as to how I am to keep feeding myself while giving the fruits of my labours away for free; or b) come out and say honestly that they don’t think any such thing as a “professional writerâ€? ought to exist, and that I should just get a job like anyone else. In a way, I’d respect people who came out and said the second thing. What I don’t respect is people who can’t see that those are the choices.
  • “Artist choice is the key for new technology having an opportunity to be open for business and we need to build artist choice here if these new technologies are to have that opportunity.”

links for 2008-04-20

  • I suggest that the design of information software should be approached initially and primarily as a graphic design project.


    Twenty years later, despite thousand-fold improvements along every technological dimension, the concepts behind today’s interfaces are almost identical to those in the initial Mac.


    The future will be context-sensitive. The future will not be interactive.

  • Fascinating story, from no less an authority than the NSA, of the cracking of the Enigma.
  • Much has been written about IKEA’s remarkably effective retail formula. The Economist has investigated the group’s no less astonishing finances.

    What emerges is an outfit that ingeniously exploits the quirks of different jurisdictions to create a charity, dedicated to a somewhat banal cause, that is not only the world’s richest foundation, but is at the moment also one of its least generous.

    Clearly, the Kamprad family pays the same meticulous attention to tax avoidance as IKEA does to low prices in its stores.

hail to whoever happens to be currently occupying the position of chief

Two centuries ago Catherine the Great made a tour of Russia to see what the life of the peasants was like, but she didn’t know or didn’t care enough about the basic rudiments of peasant life to realize that the happy-looking people and prosperous towns she was being shown were actually a bunch of actors in made-up fairy-tale-villages. Yesterday when I was walking along Brattle Street I saw kind of the opposite of that. There was a pack of people lining the street around the co-op bookstore, out of which the British Prime Minister was apparently coming. He might not be greeted with flowers and huzzahs in Baghdad, but at least in Harvard Square he can still attract the indifferent attentions of 50 bored people wandering around with nothing better to do.

Unfortunately it soon became apparent that no one actually seemed to be sure what he looked like. The secret service wouldn’t have even needed a body double to protect him. They could have had a degenerate brother-in-law or some fat bodyguard sitting in that limo for all that anyone would have noticed the difference. But everyone was still mighty eager to catch a glimpse of such a memorable statesman, whoever he might be. It was like the delegates to the Chinese People’s Congress: they just need to be directed who to applaud and vote for.

I don’t know if you can call it an image problem if no one actually has an image of you in their mind’s eye, but maybe Gordon Brown should spend more time hanging out with Bono. British Prime Ministers don’t enough of that. Speaking of which, it turned out that the Wu-Tang Clan was playing at Harvard’s version of the ubiquitous American College Spring Drunk-Fest at the same time. So, Gordon Brown and the Wu-Tang Clan were both on campus simultaneously. I don’t really know what that means, but that’s probably the next Live 8 concert right there.

Reason for leaving academia #545

The neuroscience delusion: “Dreams of explaining or even overthrowing Western capitalism by unmasking its discourses of power through an embittered analysis of Shakespeare look simply daft. The reign of Theory seems to be over. Unfortunately the habit of approaching literature through ideas assimilated uncritically from other disciplines, and of examining individual works through an inverted telescope, has not yet been kicked.”

The keepers of the true not-very-strong religious feeling

Some religions are founded on faith, some on fraud, and some purely to allow some guy to get a divorce and marry someone younger and hotter. The latter is of course the origin of the Church of the England. While this founding isn’t really inspiring or even humanly decent in any way, Anglicans and Episcopalians have at least been able to be proud of their church’s claim to form a moderate “middle path” between Catholicism and Protestantism, but it seems more like a middle path between Christianity and a medieval reenactment society.

I’m not saying that they’re all weak in the faith, but last week I went to a friend’s birthday party and had gotten to the point where the Harvard girls had practically turned into the Miss America Pageant before I found out that the guy I was talking to, who was drinking about the same amount that I was, was training to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. I don’t know if he loved Jesus, but at least he seemed very enthusiastic about drinking His blood (and by the way, isn’t it typical that when the Church finally throws a bone to those who like to party, or at least need something to take the edge off their hangovers on Sunday morning, by offering them a drink during the service, they then try to convince them that they’re actually committing cannibalism?). And from the Episcopalians and Anglicans I know (granted not a very large group), it seems that to be in the church you don’t have to be very devoted to Jesus, you just have to kind of like him, or at least not have anything in particular against him. They’re kind of like God’s Facebook friends.

Harmoniouser than thou

The Communist Party decided after he died that that Mao was 70% good and 30% bad, and that’s been the official line to this day. Defenders have claimed that China simply has a different form of democracy, and maybe it’s true: percentages of Americans vote wholly in favor of one leader or another, whereas the Chinese vote unanimously in favor of a percentage of their leaders. Of course anyone would surely be contented to have their life so validated, but since only 30% of Chinese emigrants later return for good, they seem to be tacitly claiming that China itself is just the opposite. Plus, the Communist Party may say that Mao was 70% good, but they never specified which 70%. I would imagine that his internal organs and arms and legs are about as good as anyone else’s. In fact, I think his only problem was his brain, which only weighs a couple pounds (and perhaps his incapacity to grow a suitably sinister identifying dictator mustache), so I might grant him an even higher score. And finally, although they may still claim him as a patron saint, they no longer hold to his revolutionary ideal but instead claim to be a “harmonious society,” which has also met a certain skepticism abroad. But again, I think they might be right: after all, China is such a harmonious society that even its supposed terrorists and rebels don’t put up a fight, and the chief of them all has won a Nobel Peace Prize! Then again, Yasser Arafat and Henry Kissinger have both also won Nobel Peace Prizes. Hm. Alright, let’s just move on.

links for 2008-04-07

Saving it!

Spring is un-American. At least the places I’ve lived in America don’t really have spring. When I was living in Paris I started to understand what the big deal was for the first time. There spring comes on like cognac, first a few sharp pricks of color and smell, which slowly broaden and soften into a warm haze. Even northern China has some encouraging touches of pink from the cherry blossoms by the end of March, although they turn into little pollution blossoms within a month. But no doubt that kind of two-month seduction of humanity so early in the year is a little too sinful for our culture. Here the trees and flowers are like the Christian girls wearing their chastity bracelets, waiting to burst into bloom until we can enjoy them within the bounds of summer, when the crops really start growing. Because the earth doesn’t flower for our decadent pleasure, but to produce food so we can survive, right? So the winter wind keeps sodomizing the land until about May, and then all of a sudden the earth seems to get sprung and bursts into a compensatory sweaty orgy of green all at once.