November 29, 2010

About food, but perhaps applicable elsewhere

[Lawrance Timothy] Ryan listed the four criteria that define greatness in any artist:
  • They are excellent craftsmen.
  • They are innovators—they do something that no one has done before.
  • They are “on trend,” as he put it—their innovations are perceived to be of value; people buy their stuff; they aren’t tragic and misunderstood, appreciated for their innovations after they’re dead.
  • They are influential—others begin to do what they started.

November 27, 2010

Stoned immaculate

But what Achmed had in large quantities and which he imbued with a new glamour was a kind of hash. It was called hash because it came in chunks, but it wasn't hash strictly speaking. Hash is made from the resin. And this was loose powder, like pollen, from the dried bud of the plant, compressed into shape. Which was why it was that green color. I heard that a way of collecting it was to cover children in honey and run them naked through a field of herb, and they came out the other end and they scraped 'em off.
Keith Richards & James Fox, Life

November 25, 2010

Enlightened self-interest

As long as redistribution is conceived as a form of charity or compassion (and the Bleeding Left appears to buy this conception every bit as much as the Heartless Right), then the whole debate centers on utility—“Does Welfare help poor people get on their feet or does it foster passive dependence?” “Is government’s bloated social-services bureaucracy an effective way to dispense charity?” and so on—and both camps have their arguments and preferred statistics, and the whole thing goes around and around.…

The mistake here lies in both sides’ assumption that the real motives for redistributing wealth are charitable or unselfish. The conservatives’ mistake (if it is a mistake) is wholly conceptual, but for the Left the assumption is also a serious tactical error. Progressive liberals seem incapable of stating the obvious truth: that we who are well off should be willing to share more of what we have with poor people not for the poor people’s sake but for our own; i.e., we should share what we have in order to become less narrow and frightened and lonely and self-centered people. No one ever seems willing to acknowledge aloud the thoroughgoing self-interest that underlies all impulses toward economic equality—especially not US progressives, who seem so invested in an image of themselves as Uniquely Generous and Compassionate and Not Like Those Selfish Conservatives Over There that they allow the conservatives to frame the debate in terms of charity and utility, terms under which redistribution seems far less obviously a good thing.

I’m talking about this example in such a general, simplistic way because it helps show why the type of leftist vanity that informs PCE is actually inimical to the Left’s own causes. For in refusing to abandon the idea of themselves as Uniquely Generous and Compassionate (i.e., as morally superior), progressives lose the chance to frame their redistributive arguments in terms that are both realistic and realpolitikal. One such argument would involve a complex, sophisticated analysis of what we really mean by
self-interest, particularly the distinctions between short-term financial self-interest and longer-term moral or social self-interest. As it is, though, liberals’ vanity tends to grant conservatives a monopoly on appeals to self-interest, enabling the conservatives to depict progressives as pie-in-the-sky idealists and themselves as real-world back-pocket pragmatists. In short, leftists’ big mistake here is not conceptual or ideological but spiritual and rhetorical—their narcissistic attachment to assumptions that maximize their own appearance of virtue tends to cost them both the theater and the war.

November 23, 2010

An age of plenty

By April, 1945, chaos had replaced order in the economic sphere: sales were difficult, prices lacked stability. Economics has been defined as the science of distributing limited means among unlimited and competing ends. On 12th April, with the arrival of elements of the 30th U.S. Infantry Division, the ushering in of an age of plenty demonstrated the hypothesis that with infinite means economic organization and activity would be redundant, as every want could be satisfied without effort

The Economic Organisation of a P.O.W. Camp, R. A. Radford,

November 21, 2010


INTERVIEWER: If you could have it all over again, would you pick your joys outside literature?

CÉLINE: Oh, absolutely! I don't ask for joy. I don't feel joy. To enjoy life is a question of temperament, of diet. You have to eat well, drink well, then the days pass quickly, don't they? Eat and drink well, go for a drive in the car, read a few papers, the day's soon gone. Your paper, some guests, morning coffee, my God, it's lunchtime when you've had your stroll, eh? See a few friends in the afternoon and the day's gone. In the evening, bed as usual and shut-eye. And there you are. And the more so with age, things go faster, don't they? A day's endless when you're young, whereas when you grow old it's very soon over. When you're retired, a day's a flash; when you're a kid it's very slow.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Paris Review interview

November 19, 2010

Fluctuation and noise

Dr. Todorov has studied how we use our muscles, and here, too, he finds evidence of optimization at play. He points out that our body movements are “nonrepeatable”: we may make the same motion over and over, but we do it slightly differently every time.

“You might say, well, the human body is sloppy,” he said, “but no, we’re better designed than any robot.”

In making a given motion, the brain focuses on the essential elements of the task, and ignores noise and fluctuations en route to success. If you’re trying to turn on a light switch, who cares if the elbow is down or to the side, or your wrist wobbles — so long as your finger reaches the targeted switch?

Dr. Todorov and his coworkers have modeled different motions and determined that the best approach is the wobbly, ever-varying one. If you try to correct every minor fluctuation, he explained, not only do you expend more energy unnecessarily, and not only do you end up fatiguing your muscles more quickly, you also introduce more noise into the system, amplifying the fluctuations until the entire effort is compromised.

“So we reach the counterintuitive conclusion,” he said, “that the optimal way to control movement allows a certain amount of fluctuation and noise” — a certain lack of control.

Seeing the natural world with a physicist’s lens. NYTimes

November 17, 2010

Everything does everything to everything

What we are finding is that at the molecular level the organism is so dynamic, so densely woven and multidirectional in its causes and effects, that it cannot be explicated as living process through strictly local investigations. When it begins to appear that, as one European research team puts it, “everything does everything to everything,” the search for “regulatory control” necessarily leads to the unified and irreducible functioning of the cell and organism as a whole — a living, metamorphosing form within which each more or less distinct partial activity finds its proper place.

November 14, 2010

The virtue of continual, engaged experience

I’ve listened to the tapes from the bus trip and reread his letters and autobiography—The First Third—for years. I’ve tried to distill his teachings as best I can. The most important lesson is also the most ironic: most of what is important cannot be taught except by experience. His most powerful lesson behind the rap was not to dwell on mistakes. He used the metaphor of driving. He believed that you got into trouble by overcorrecting. A certain sloth, he thought, lets you veer into a ditch on the right side of the road. Then you overcorrect and hit a car to your left. Cassady believed you had to be correcting every instant. The longer you let things go, the longer you stayed comfortable, the more likely the case that you would have to overcorrect. Then you would have created a big error. The virtue of continual, engaged experience—an endless and relentless argument with the self—that was his lesson.
Ken Kesey on Neal Cassady, Paris Review interview

November 13, 2010

Hi gang, I'm back, just like the book says

But it was in the third issue of American Avatar that he dropped the final veil. On page three, next to a picture of him floating lotus-positioned in the universe with a halo above his head, a drink in his hand and a leering, shit-eating grin on his face, Mel published the following Message to Humanity:

Hi gang, I'm back, just like the book says. By God here I am, in all my glory. I thought I'd never come. But I'm here now and getting ready to do the good work. Maybe some of ya think I sent Him. You'll see. I sent about to prove it for you, much too corny, I'm Him and there just sent no question about it. Betcha never thought it would happen like this did ya? Sorry to disappoint you but I've got to make the most of what's here and there sure as hell sent very much. No turnin water to wine and raisin the dead this trip, just gonna tell it like it is. You've waited a long time for this glorious moment and now that it's actually here I expect most of you will just brush it oft and keep right on waiting, that's what those damn fool Jews did last time I came, in fact they're still doing it. Oh well, what's a few thousand more years to people who've been suffering for millions. So while most of you turn your heads and continue sticking to your silly romantic beliefs I'll let the rest of you in on a little secret. I'm Christ, I swear to God, in person, and I'm about to turn this foolish world upside down...

November 11, 2010

Everything is important to someone

The words came freely; he composed them on the spot. But they flowed, syntax perfect, no hesitation between sentences. His voice grew softer, even more strained with emotion when he got to the core of his message: he could not accept a postponement in a nightly habit Americans had participated in and shared for nearly six decades; he would not be an accomplice to the destruction that this idea of NBC’s might inflict on the greatest franchise in television history. If it truly came to this, if NBC would actually force him to decide whether to give up his dream or play a role in undermining a cultural landmark, then maybe it would be better for him to find someplace else to work, someplace that prized the art of late-night television more than NBC now apparently did.

When Conan finished, his group sat silent. Jeff Ross, his own eyes welling up, looked around and saw no dry eyes on the Conan team. Patty Glaser finally broke the silence. “I like it,” she said. She paused, then said definitively, “Let’s do it.”

Bill Carter - The Unsocial Network

November 09, 2010

Life outside of academe means failure

What almost no prospective graduate students can understand is the extent to which doctoral education in the humanities socializes idealistic, naïve, and psychologically vulnerable people into a profession with a very clear set of values. It teaches them that life outside of academe means failure, which explains the large numbers of graduates who labor for decades as adjuncts, just so they can stay on the periphery of academe.

November 07, 2010

The disasters produced by the changing of values

What I think, fundamentally, is that you can’t do anything about major societal changes. It may be regrettable that the family unit is disappearing. You could argue that it increases human suffering. But regrettable or not, there’s nothing we can do. That’s the difference between me and a reactionary. I don’t have any interest in turning back the clock because I don’t believe it can be done. You can only observe and describe. I’ve always liked Balzac’s very insulting statement that the only purpose of the novel is to show the disasters produced by the changing of values. He’s exaggerating in an amusing way. But that’s what I do: I show the disasters produced by the liberalization of values.
Michel Houellebecq, Paris Review interview

November 05, 2010

Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms, he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date fort the apocalypse. (“Time is running out,” said Welch in 1951. “Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month when Stalin will attack.”)

As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).

It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry.

November 03, 2010

The first legitimate limit

“I had failed to realize,” Peter reflects, “that the body was the first legitimate limit.”

November 01, 2010

A ruthless self-interest

The straight and narrow beckoned. A ruthless self-interest defined my apostasy. I wanted women. I wanted to write novels. Sobriety meant efficacy. I couldn't advance my agenda in my current raggedy-ass state.