Wednesday, February 16, 2011 4:04 PM
Robots, of course, are everywhere, and though some might find them creepy they're generally a lot more useful than clowns.
Maybe robots aren't actually everywhere yet, but here at the Utne Reader we seem to read a great deal about robots, and much of that reading seems to suggest that robots will soon be babysitting our children, tending to our sick, and keeping many of us company in our dotage. Some of the people involved in the robot industry, in fact, believe that we may soon see the day when robots could be our very best friends.
Like plenty of other people I am advancing on dotage with alarming speed, and I'll admit that I sometimes worry that, as a childless old man, there will be no one to care for me --let alone talk with me-- when I can no longer care for myself and get tired of talking to the walls. Except in a pinch (and it may well come to that) I can't really imagine I'd want a robot for a best friend, but I don't suppose I'd mind terribly much if a robot was around to open soup cans, speak my name from time to time, and make sure I didn't hurt myself doing calisthenics. My Utne colleague David Doody, who is also my personal physician, assures me that there is no reason in the world a robot couldn't make a dandy personal care assistant and Gin Rummy partner. He said he read a robot article that I must have missed that said that robots are even handier than crossword puzzle dictionaries and can also turn on the water in the bathtub and insure that it is neither too hot nor too cold. I wondered aloud whether it might be possible to program one of these elder bots so that it could convincingly simulate the voices of friends and loved ones, and Doody said that, yes, he felt certain this was possible. He even suggested that a robot could be taught --I don't know if that's the right word-- to discuss television shows or literature with me, if only --at least for the time being-- in a prompting, conversation-starting way (i.e. "Do you enjoy this program?" or "What was the name of Don Quixote's squire?").
Anyway, I guess I'm all for this sort of thing, and if there is going to be a proliferation of robots I can't help but hope for the peaceful coexistence of humans and robots. In science fiction novels I read when I was young, the robots always seemed to be portrayed as either slaves or combatants, and I think it would be an encouraging, progressive step if we were able instead to truly embrace them as helpmates.
In the January 21st issue of The Chronicle Review there was a story about a woman named Sherry Turkle who is some kind of scientist at M.I.T. (She's also the author of a book called Alone Together). I guess you'd have to call the article a "cautionary tale," in that Turkle started out sort of starry-eyed about robots and their potential; so much so, in fact, that there was an early moment in Turkle's career when she developed a "schoolgirl crush" on a robot.
"Imagine standing in front of a robot, gazing into its wide, plastic eyes, and falling in love," Jeffrey R. Young writes of that early moment.
You can read the article yourself, but suffice it to say that these many years later, now that all of us are inching closer to being able to fall in love with robots, Turkle is no longer so keen on the idea of "sociable robots." She now finds the notion that a man might one day marry a robot --an idea put forth by David Levy in a 2007 book called Love and Sex With Robots-- repellent. What David Levy is saying, Turkle contends, is that "for someone who is having trouble with the people world, I can build something. Let's give up on him. I have something where he will not need relationships, experiences, and conversations. So let's not worry about him."
Turkle then wonders, "Who's going to say what class of people get issued something? Is it going to be the old people, the unattractive? The heavy-set people? Who's going to get the robots?"
Who's going to get the robots? might seem like a pretty good question, although my assumption would be that the people who can pay for the robots will be the people who are going to get the robots. But I'm guessing the kind of robots we're talking about here --the kind you could marry, for instance-- are going to be pretty expensive, so maybe there will eventually be government-issued robots for people like me.
Ultimately, Turkle strikes me as a bit of killjoy. "We may be drawn to machines like this robotic seal," she says in the caption to a photo of her snuggling with a robotic seal, "but they can never deliver on their promise."
That sounds to me like the sour grapes of a woman who's had her heart crushed by a robot.
Source: The Chronicle Review
Image by Joamm Tall, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, February 14, 2011 10:03 AM
Monday, January 17, 2011 12:21 PM
InThe Human Use of Human Beings:Cybernetics and Society, Norbert Wiener’s humane and prophetic examination of the effects of new technologies on culture, psychology, and human imagination and potential, Wiener offered up a thoroughly rational definition of equality: “By which what is just for A or B remains just when the positions of A and B are interchanged.”
Wiener’s book was first published in 1950, and later that same decade Martin Luther King, Jr. would begin to test the Missouri mathematician’s cool (and seemingly irrefutable) proposition against the more complex algebraic of America’s attitudes and public policy regarding race.
We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.
--M.L.K., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” 1963,
Like many righteous outlaws, of course, King paid a steep price for the things he espoused and fought for, and though there are still, 50 years later, plenty of people who would qualify—and ignore—his legacy, King’s words (and deeds) still have the power to inspire. That they remain relevant and retain their urgency into the 21st century is both a tribute to the man and an indicator of how far we still have to go.
So on this national holiday that remains in some circles contentious, and that is unacknowledged in far too many others, it only seems fitting to spend a little time actually listening to and thinking about some of the things King said, wrote, and accomplished. With that in mind, here's a brief Martin Luther King Day sampler:
The I Have a Dream speech, from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963.
Beyond Vietnam –A Time to Break Silence, a speech delivered on April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York.
A collection of King’s speeches –including his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance—in text form.
The King Center, established in 1968, provides a nice historical overview, and has a large photo and video archive.
It’s also worth digging into the essays of James Baldwin, a contemporary of Dr. King’s, where you’ll find plenty of lovely proofs of Norbert Wiener’s principle of equality. Like this: “Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated, and this was an immutable law.”
Finally, a few selections from the poetry of Langston Hughes: A Dream Deferred. The Negro Speaks of Rivers. And I Look at the World.
Source: Huffington Post, American Rhetoric, Poetry Foundation
Monday, January 10, 2011 1:54 PM
In the aftermath of Saturday’s gruesome shooting spree in Tucson, people on both sides of the growing American political divide can try to backpedal all they want, but if ever there was a time to point fingers and ask tough questions about the tenor of our national “debate,” that time is now.
Yes, it takes a seriously disturbed individual to open fire on a crowd of innocent people, whether those people are schoolchildren, former co-workers, or merely random targets. You cannot, however, separate Jared Loughner’s actions from the political climate in which they occurred, and to pretend that the attempted (and explicitly planned) assassination attempt on a member of the United States Congress—an attempt that claimed the lives of six others, including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge—was purely the act of an isolated madman operating in a moral vacuum is disingenuous, at best.
By now everyone’s heard about Sarah Palin’s disgraceful “target” map. Rational people might view that graphic as nothing more than a folksy way to mobilize campaign resources, but Palin—and the rest of her Tea Party cohort—surely know that there are an awful lot of irrational and disturbed people out there who may not necessarily understand the nuancesof such a subtle motivational tool. Nuances tend to elude the kind of people who might, say, carry guns to political rallies or, say, stomp a woman outside a Senatorial debate in Kentucky.
To say that such deeply angry and irrational people could not possibly be susceptible to deeply irrational rhetorical incitement from pundits and politicians is foolhardy. Gabrielle Giffords knew as much, and said last spring—referring explicitly to Palin’s map—“When people do that, they’ve got to realize that there are consequences to that action.”
There are consequences, and there will continue to be consequences, when, as Extra! magazine noted in its January issue, Fox pundits like Bill O’Reilly joke about “decapitating” newspaper editors and columnists (as he did in 2005, and again last year), or when Glenn Beck “jokes” about poisoning former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Or, for that matter, when Liz Trotta, yet another Fox contributor, “jokes” about assassinating President Obama. Funny stuff, I guess, if you’re a Beltway sophisticate of a certain political persuasion.
Not so funny, however, if you don’t quite get the joke, and really not funny when there are so many people out there who aren’t joking at all.
Source: Extra!, New York Times, Huffington Post, Media Matters
Image on the home page by Freedom To Marry, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, December 28, 2010 2:09 PM
You don’t have to spend much time digging around in the Utne Reader’s library to learn that alchemy of one sort or another remains an enduring obsession of both science and society. The magazines and newspapers of our time are full of stories that are essentially about people trying to turn one thing (usually worthless) into something else (usually something of value). On one end of the spectrum you have the alchemy of celebrity as exemplified by Lady Gaga, and on the other there are the alchemists of the Green movement, who are trying to save the earth. You could, I suppose, disagree about where the most interesting alchemy is taking place, but you’d have to be living in a pretty shallow pool to think that anything Ms. Gaga is up to is of greater relevance than—just for instance—the work of Gerardine Botte. And as fascinating as I may find the antics of the former, I’m even prepared to argue that Botte’s got Gaga beat in the interesting department.
A professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Ohio University, Botte has, according to Conservation Magazine, somehow figured out how to turn urine into hydrogen fuel. It turns out that urine contains two compounds—ammonia and urea—that are necessary for the production of hydrogen.
I’ll be honest and admit that I don’t have any idea how the hell this business might work (and, yes, I did read the article), but it sounds legitimate and potentially inspiring. And should you wish to write off Botte as a crackpot, understand that she’s apparently not alone in embracing urine’s energy potential; Conservation’s Sarah DeWeerdt reports that there’s also a company in the U.K. that is already at work on a fuel cell “powered directly by urine.”
Botte, though, might already be one step ahead of the Brits. She is the chief technology officer for a recently-launched company, E3 Technologies, that aims to commercialize what they call “pee power.” E3 hopes to have a “GreenBox” prototype on the market by the end of 2011.
Panel image by Stephen Edmonds, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, December 28, 2010 12:37 PM
It’s hard to know what to believe about the book anymore. Bookstores and publishers may be struggling, libraries might be imperiled, and readers are supposedly disappearing (or just hiding behind illuminated screens), yet books—the real, physical objects—just keep appearing in the world. Surely no endangered species has ever bred quite so profligately as does the publishing industry.
I’m certainly not going to complain, even if I might sometimes wish that, given the purportedly uncertain economics of the industry, these characters would stop throwing so much paint at the walls and spend a bit more time (and money) on quality control. Still, this is the time of year when all sorts of people who still love books and reading knuckle down and apply themselves to scouring the Library of Babel for the very best of the newest acquisitions. And no matter how widely you read or how much time you spend in bookstores, there are always plenty of surprises, enticements, obscurities, and genuine curiosities to be found on the best-of lists that proliferate around the holidays. Here are a bunch of the things, and please feel free to quibble or offer up your own suggestions:
The New York Times
10 Books of the Year (Alas, not a single surprise here), and the 100 Notable Books of 2010.
Anis Shivani at the Huffington Post: 10 best books of the year (plenty of surprises).
Five Best Books You Probably Didn’t Read
The Guardian queries a batch of writers on their favorite books of the year. As does The Millions in its sprawling Year in Reading feature. And Bookforum does the same.
asks independent booksellers to name their favorites from 2010.
Chicago’s estimable Seminary Co-opassembles its 20 favorites.
Photographer Alec Soth winnows down the year in photobooks.
For the Yoga folk, Daily Cup of Yoga has the year in Yoga books covered.
And if you still haven’t had enough, head over to Largehearted Boy for a ridiculously exhaustive roundup, and all the evidence anyone should need that books are still hanging around and –at least here and there (here, certainly)—making a dent in the culture.
Source: New York Times, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Esquire, Seminary Co-op, NPR, Alec Soth, Largehearted Boy, The Millions, Bookforum, Daily Cup of Yoga
Image by dweekly, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, December 20, 2010 10:19 AM
The word freaks at the Oxford English Dictionary have long had a reputation for being snobs—exhaustive snobs, with something of a completist obsession, but snobs all the same. To say that they’ve been challenged on multiple fronts in recent decades would perhaps be an understatement, and as James Gleick writes in The New York Review of Books blog, the OED’s mission has gotten all the more complicated (and comprehensive) thanks to its roomy new digs in cyberspace.
I’ll confess to being a dictionary obsessive. I own at least a dozen, including a 12-volume set of the OED, the two volume unabridged (with magnifying glass), and an unabridged Webster’s that requires a sturdy stand. I also don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I consult a dictionary at least once a day, and a search for the meaning or etymology of a particular word will often lead to an hour spent wending my way along sidetracks and stumbling into interesting—if useless—cul-de-sacs.
That said, when it comes to words and their meanings there may be such a thing as too much information. Samuel Johnson understood this when he more or less singlehandedly produced his own enduring, and remarkably succinct, contribution to lexicography in 1755. Gleick also clearly understands this, and his piece, in fact, addresses the recent OED regime’s obsession with that single word: “Information.”
“In their latest quarterly revision, December 2010, just posted, the entry for ‘information’ is utterly overhauled,” Gleick observes.
The renovation has turned a cottage into a palace. Information, n., now runs 9,400 words, the length of a novella. It is a sort of masterpiece—an adventure in cultural history. A century ago “information” did not have much resonance. It was a nothing word. “An item of training; an instruction.” Now (as people have been saying for fifty years) we are in the Information Age. Which, by the way, the OED defines for us in its dry-as-chili-powder prose: “the era in which the retrieval, management, and transmission of information, esp. by using computer technology, is a principal (commercial) activity.”
Through those 9,400 words the OED editors track “information” from its humble origins to its current status as a teeming metropolis of meaning, and as fascinating as that journey can be at times, it’s also exhaustive to the point of exhausting.
Gleick quotes an attempt by Michael Proffitt, the OED’s managing editor, to justify the dictionary’s aggressive approach to blowing out the definition of “information,” even at the risk of leeching the word of all real meaning:
What makes it so distinctive as the fabric of mass communication is the very combination of immateriality and massiveness, its overwhelming diffuseness. It’s also a word which provides a point of imaginative sympathy between OED‘s editors and readers.
That paragraph—troubling on so many different levels—says about all you need to know about both the current state of our language and the slowly eroding “imaginative sympathy” that exists between the OED’s editors and readers.
Source: The New York Review of Books Blog
Image by Cofrin Library, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, December 17, 2010 12:37 PM
, New Jersey, where Walt Whitman is buried, is the poorest and most dangerous city in the United States. Chris Hedges has a dispatch in The Nation that paints an almost unbelievably dystopic portrait of a place that few Americans would recognize or ever visit. It’s a tough read, and you’d be hard pressed to find in Hedges’ story a single kernel of any version of the American dream. Joe Sacco’s accompanying illustrations would not look out of place in his graphic novels set in Palestine or Bosnia.
Once a booming city of 120,000 and industrial power that employed 36,000 in its shipyards, today Camden’s population has shrunk to 70,390. The high school dropout rate is 70 percent, Hedges reports, and unemployment is somewhere in the range of 30-40 percent. Hundreds of the homeless live in elaborate encampments, and open air drug markets represent one of the city’s few viable businesses. Despite such grim facts, Hedges writes, “The city is planning $28 million in draconian budget cuts, with officials talking about cutting 25 percent from every department, including layoffs of nearly half the police force. The proposed slashing of the public library budget by almost two-thirds has left the viability of the library system in doubt.”
Not surprisingly, Camden and its residents are mining the ruins to get by:
The city is busily cannibalizing itself in a desperate bid to generate revenue. Giant scrap piles rise in hulks along the banks of the Delaware. The piles, filled with discarded appliances, rusted filing cabinets, twisted pipes, old turbines and corrugated sheet metal, are as high as a three- or four-story house, and at their base are large pools of brackish water. A crane, outfitted with a large magnet, sways over the pile and swings scrap over to a shredding machine. A pickup and a U-Haul filled with old refrigerators, gates, screen doors and pipes are unloading in front of a small booth when we arrive. There are about twenty scrap merchants in the city, and they have created a market for the metal guts of apartments and houses. As soon as a house is empty—even if only for a few days between renters or because it is being painted—the hustlers break in and strip every pipe, radiator, screen door and window. Over the past three or four decades thousands of owners, faced with the destruction, have walked away from their properties. Camden produces a million tons of scrap a year. Its huge shredding machines in the port can chop up automobiles and stoves into chunks the size of a baseball. Ships from Turkey, China and India pull into the port and take the scrap back to smelters in their countries.
For a little perspective, the Fall 2010 issue of Global Journalist has a slideshow of a community of 2,000 residents that has sprung up in the middle of a cemetery in Manila, and the photographs and commentary of James Chance make what might otherwise seem like an unspeakably sad story look positively hopeful when considered alongside Hedges’ bleak portrait of Camden.
Source: The Nation, Global Journalist
Thursday, December 09, 2010 9:33 AM
Though some of us persist in our refusal to even enter into discussions regarding “the future of the book,” there’s no longer any point in denying that there are now all sorts of people who are positively gung ho about the possibilities of portable reading devices and electronic books. People are buying them in staggering numbers and you can already buy some knock-off version of a Kindle at the Pump N Munch. Print devotees may relish fantasies about these gadgets ultimately languishing in thrift stores, garage sales, and landfills—someday every Third World urchin will have an e-reader! How can that not be a good thing?—but for at least one more holiday cycle we’re all just going to have to play along with what is essentially an upscale Cabbage Patch Doll phenomenon that creates serious money for maybe a dozen already onerously wealthy people.
This week’s big news on the e-book front is Google’s launch of its eBookstore. One more pig has joined the pile! According to MobyLives, however, this pig might not be quite so piggish as the other pigs in the pile; through Google’s entry in the e-book biz, Nathan Ihara writes, “American Booksellers Association bookstores now have the opportunity to sell eBooks directly from their websites, offering them a first opportunity to take advantage of the rapid increase in the eBook market and to fight back against the corporate juggernauts of Amazon, Barnes and Noble, andApple.”
It’s obviously early, but the list of independent stores that are already hawking their e-book wares over at Google is modestly encouraging. Paul Constant, writing for the Seattle Stranger’s Slog blog (quoted in the MobyLives piece), says that before indies can hope to generate real online traffic and sales, they “need to figure out ways to make their websites into destinations that are just as interesting, appealing, and welcoming as their physical stores.”
The Google development is encouraging, in other words, but Constant reminds the little guys that they still have work to do:
Like it or not, your website is just as important as your physical store; the bookselling business is about to go through a change as dynamic as when Barnes & Noble and Borders first came on the scene, or when Amazon suddenly became the go-to bookseller for America. This time, indie booksellers have a shot at reclaiming some ground from the big boys; if you blow it, you'll go out of business. It's that simple.
Source: MobyLives, The Stranger
Image by anitakhart, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, December 09, 2010 9:13 AM
For a woman who is one of the great modern symbols of writer’s block, Fran Lebowitz certainly has plenty to say. Her ongoing relevance speaks volumes about the influence of the corrosively funny essays Lebowitz wrote in the late ‘70s (collected in 1978’s Metropolitan Life and 1981’s Social Studies). An entire generation has come of age since those books established their author as the Baby Boomer’s clearest heir to Dorothy Parker, and the enduring appeal of Lebowitz now has as much to do with her ongoing battle with writer’s block as it does to anything she wrote 30 years ago.
Lebowitz has never really stopped talking, though, and the million-dollar question is how someone whose trenchant and seemingly effortless conversational style so closely resembles her voice as a writer could ever suffer from writer’s block. Judging from her frequent interviews and public appearances, however, Lebowitz doesn’t seem terribly eaten up by her publishing drought. And as Martin Scorsese’s new HBO documentary, Public Speaking, demonstrates, Lebowitz is as caustic, funny, and in tune with the weirdness (and aggravations) of the times as she ever was.
If nothing else, Scorsese deserves credit for shoving his subject back out into public, and the spate of interviews Lebowitz has given in conjunction with the film’s release have been a bonanza for longtime fans. Whether she’s talking about kids, pop culture, technology, or New York—the city with which she is inextricably linked—Lebowitz has a remarkable ability to give some fresh spin to everyone she talks with.
In a conversation with Bust’s Phoebe Magee, Lebowitz says, “I like to tell people what to think. I just don’t want to tell people things about myself. I also believe that I am the last person who knows the difference between think and feel. These are two different things. These days, everyone feels, and almost no one thinks.” And on the subject of her beloved New York:
What used to be called middle-class respectability looked like it was going to disappear, but it didn’t. It’s returned. It just returned in a different costume. If you do it in a loft instead of a split-level in the suburbs, it’s still the same. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be allowed to do it; I’m saying it’s suburban. This is why New York today seems suburban to me—all kids and babies in strollers. It’s 1950s domestic life. The sidewalks are the same size, but now you have twins and dogs….Are you under the impression that we need more New Yorkers? Does this place seem sparsely populated to you?
Source: Bust(article not available online), New York Observer, New York Magazine, New York Times
Tuesday, November 23, 2010 5:27 PM
In 1889, Lewis Carroll wrote that authors of the future would no longer ask themselves “What book shall I write?” but, “Which book shall I write?” Fifty years later, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges published his classic story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” a fictional review of one man’s attempt to literally re-write—line-by-line and in Cervantes’ 17th century Spanish—Don Quixote.
Appropriation and outright theft have, of course, always played a role in the creation of all manner of art, but the lines between original work and imitation, or truth and fabrication, have never been more fluid.
Nathan Ihara, writing over at MobyLives, suggests that 2010 represented “a tipping point when it comes to our concept of originality, art, and theft.” Ihara’s piece borrows its title—“To live outside the law you must be honest”—from Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” a line that, as Jonathan Lethem has pointed out, Dylan clipped from The Lineup, a 1958 film noir. The same Dylan whose 2001 album “Love and Theft” took its own title from Eric Lott’s 1993 book, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class.
You could certainly argue that the mash-up is—along with zombies and vampires—sort of a perfect zeitgeist metaphor for our cultural present, and Ihara both makes that case nicely (with assists to Lethem, and David Shields’ recent appropriation manifesto, Reality Hunger)and raises the compelling question of where or when we should draw the line between sampling and stealing.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010 2:36 PM
As someone who hasn’t played a video game since Ronald Reagan was in the White House, I obviously wasn’t the ideal reader for Tom Bissell’s “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.” I was curious, though, and willing to give Bissell at least 100 pages to make his case. Fifty pages in I decided 100 pages was 50 too many. That’s not fair, I know, but I have all sorts of other things just sitting around waiting to boggle my brain. According to Booklist, however, Bissell’s book ultimately demonstrates that playing a video game “is a form a self-surrender, but a different form than, say, a movie. We have no influence over what happens in a movie, but we do in a video game. In playing a video game, we are, in a sense, the authors of the stories we’re acting out.”
I took from this a surely misguided notion that video games are in some way similar to real life, in the living of which we are, in a sense, the authors of the stories we’re acting out. From the little of Extra Lives that I did read I should add that the sorts of video games Bissell describes are perhaps more similar to the lives of other people (people, generally speaking, with weapons and a compelling reason to use them) than to my own, but I recognize that I live in something of a bubble and my own “story” doesn’t offer a whole lot of opportunity to “act out” and represents, in and of itself, its own unique (if terribly boring) “form of self-surrender” (read: resignation).
Because I’m both cynical and skeptical, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that there are people –writers, journalists, novelists—who are wildly enthusiastic about penning the scripts for video games. Why wouldn’t they be? It’s a $40 billion-a-year industry, and, though it hadn’t exactly occurred to me before reading Dan Duray’s piece in The New York Observer, somebody has to create some sort of backstory for these games, even if only to provide a framework within which gamers can author the stories they act out.
“As Faulkner and Fitzgerald made their attempts in Hollywood,” Duray writes, “more and more journalists and fiction writers are making the shift to writing video games.” He quotes a man named Todd “P” Patrick, a concert promoter who runs something called a “pop-up video games gallery” in New York: “You want to write a novel? Who's going to read it? A bunch of people in grad school? Fuck that. Everybody plays video games.”
Many of the video game writing gigs used to go to characters with Hollywood screenwriting credentials, Duray says, but these days, with companies cutting corners, the work is increasingly going to journalists and fiction writers. People like Tom Bissell, who was recently named to Game Developer magazine's power list and is currently shopping around a “comedy shooter.” For that project, Duray reports, Bissell hopes to get the novelist Junot Diaz to provide the voice of the main character.
Source: The New York Observer
Image by Nikkibearrrrr, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, November 12, 2010 12:05 PM
Google the word “freedom” right this moment and the first of 209,000,000 entries is the website for some sort of gizmo that allows your computer to essentially kick your ass off the internet.
Am I the only one who finds that profoundly sad? Am I the only one who generally finds the internet a lonely vacuum, a vortex, a votive candle in the men’s room of the noisiest shopping mall on the planet? Am I the only one who feels like I’m wasting way too much time nosing around in nonsense, having what’s left of my brains beaten in by jackhammers, and trying to “make friends” when I should be doing a better job of actually being friends?
I don’t think so. Daniel Akst, writing in The Wilson Quarterly, doesn’t think so either. In a piece entitled “America: Land of Loners?” Akst delves further and more thoughtfully than most other critics into the perils facing a generation that spends such huge chunks of its life in front of screens. “In restricting ourselves to the thin gruel of modern friendships, we miss out on the more nourishing fare that deeper ones have to offer,” Akst observes.
Aristotle, who saw friendship as essential to human flourishing, shrewdly observed that it comes...in three distinct flavors: those based on usefulness (contacts), on pleasure (drinking buddies), and on a shared pursuit of virtue—the highest form of all. True friends, he contended, are simply drawn to the goodness in one another, goodness that today we might define in terms of common passions and sensibilities.
“Land of Loners” is fundamentally a passionate defense of traditional friendships and meaningful relationships, but Akst isn’t just another guy running a jackhammer. He’s asking important questions, and at its core his piece isn’t even a cut-and-dry anti-net screed. He—like lots of other people—is simply trying to understand why so many of us are so lonely, so depressed, so unhealthy, and so disconnected from sources of genuine stability, connection, and vitality.
It’s probably no real surprise or comfort, but it turns out that more than 50 years ago a science fiction writer had a pretty clear and disturbing vision of where humanity was headed; the best sci-fi writers, after all, have always had a particularly keen understanding of the average human’s weakness for all manner of gee-whizery.
“In the late 1950s,” Akst writes:
far-sighted Isaac Asimov imagined a sunny planet called Solaria, on which a scant 20,000 humans dwelt on far-flung estates and visited one another only virtually, by materializing as ‘trimensional images’—avatars, in other words. “They live completely apart,” a helpful robot explained to a visiting earthling, “and never see one another except under the most extraordinary circumstances.”
Should you find any of this as troubling as I do, there’s another gadget out there that’s designed to limit your social networking. You can buy it, of course. It’s called Anti-Social, and, like Freedom, it’s designed to boot you back into the real world.
Source: Wilson Quarterly
Image by Marshall Astor, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, November 11, 2010 3:39 PM
Map of usage of lethal injection chair for the death penalty in the United States.
In our latest issue (Nov/Dec) you’ll find a couple fine features on the subject of the death penalty in America; The Texas Observer’s Robert Leleux takes a long and very hard look at the assembly line approach to executions in the Lone Star State, and The Sun interviews legendary capital punishment opponent Sister Helen Prejean, 17 years after the publication of her Pulitzer Prize-nominated Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States.
Whether your interest in executions (you can’t really sugarcoat that word) is fueled by moral outrage or purely voyeuristic curiosity, the internet offers all sorts of resources, history, and creepy diversions.
The Death Penalty Information Center provides everything from the latest news and data to a comprehensive execution database that will tell you, for instance, that of the 45 executions in the U.S. so far in 2010, 17 have been carried out by the state of Texas. The site also allows you to break down data in all sorts of revelatory ways. Want to know what percentage of those executed in any given year have been juveniles, white, or female? The information’s there.
At the Texas Department of Criminal Justice site you can read the rap sheets and final words (where a statement was offered) of the 464 inmates the state has put to death since 1982.
The Dead Man Eating Weblog hasn’t been updated in awhile, but it still offers a sad and oddly fascinating inventory of the last meals of a host of executed offenders. And the artist Kate MacDonald has done a series of stark paintings that capture the aftermath and essential melancholy of those lonely meals.
Finally, the diligent folks over at Executed Today offer a scholarly and obsessively-annotated timeline (updated pretty much every day) of executions throughout history.
The Texas Observer
, Executed Today, Dead Man Eating Weblog
Image by Lokal_Profil, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010 4:07 PM
The October issue of Harper’s contained a provocative sampler from the Iowa Republican Party’s platform, and there was enough eyebrow-raising bait there to warrant a more thorough investigation of the entire 387-plank document.
Whether you find the thing harrowing, inspiring, or just plain mystifying is purely a matter of personal politics, but whatever prevailing vision or version of America you might believe in there’s no denying that the Republicans in the Hawkeye State have coughed up a fair bit of zeitgeist bile in their rabblerousing blueprint for a government ruled by black-and-white (or black-and-blue) political and moral values.
Consider that the RPI platform requires that “each duly nominated candidate” and primary winner “sign the State platform once passed, and agree with 80% of the planks in order to receive funding.” Also keep in mind that “candidates running as Republicans for any local or state office should be required to complete and return to the Republican party of Iowa a signed questionnaire indicating whether the candidate agrees, disagrees or is undecided about each plank on the party platform.”
Now imagine that you’re a Republican candidate in Iowa and ask yourself whether you can swallow some of these horse pills:
The proper role of government is to protect equal rights, not to ensure equality.
We believe animal husbandry decisions and production practices should be decided by individual farmers, not the state or federal government.
We call for fewer EPA controls on agriculture.
We believe all individuals and business owners have the freedom to choose the quality of air in their homes and establishments.
We call for the repeal of all mandatory minimum wage laws.
We call for the elimination of the Federal agency, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
We support the elimination of the Iowa Department of Education and of the U.S. Department of Education.
We oppose duplication of educational programs for bilingual consideration. Every child should become proficient in English by being immersed in English.
We oppose teaching multicultural based curriculum.
We oppose the “Bullying Law.”
We believe that claims of human caused global warming are based on fraudulent, inaccurate information and that legislation and policy based on this information is detrimental to the well being of the United States.
We call for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Energy.
We support the abolition of the IRS.
We call for the repeal of sexual orientation in the Iowa Civil Rights Code and we oppose any other legislation or executive order granting rights, privileges, or status for persons based on sexual orientation.
We oppose unconstitutional “hate crime” laws.
We support the continued use of Guantanamo Prison as long as needed.
We believe that the term “assault weapon” should not be used as a term applicable to a semiautomatic weapon.
The whole thing is pretty amazing, and it sort of makes you wonder what happened to the old kneejerk Patriot’s fallback line, “America, Love It or Leave It.”
Make of it what you will, but whether you consider yourself a Republican or a Democrat, you really owe it to yourself to check out your state’s party platforms to see exactly what sorts of things you’re signing off on when you step in the ballot booth in November.
Source: Iowa Republican Party, Harper’s
Tuesday, October 19, 2010 2:28 PM
In his 1826 landmark The Physiology of Taste, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es”—literally, “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.” That imperative has always struck me as stereotypically French, sort of goofy (I am canned soup?) and, frankly, judgmental. That hasn’t, of course, stopped food cultists from carving Brillat-Savarin’s commandment into stone, and if anything the old gastronome’s words have become an increasingly shame-based creed in our present culture of hyper-conscious—and hyper-conspicuous—consumption.
Secular transubstantiation has always been a subtext of both the ethics and the aesthetics of cooking and eating, but thankfully the history of food writing is full of entertaining stuff that owes more to decadence than duty. Plenty of it, in fact, does little but pay slavish devotion to the muse Gasterea (Brillat-Savarin felt obligated to create a tenth Muse), and celebrates in often eccentric terms the pure pleasures of chow.
Darryl Campbell over at The Millionshas a nice short history of food writing that ranges from Brillat-Savarin to Anthony Bourdain (although it curiously manages to avoid a single mention of M.F.K. Fisher). Somewhere in there, though, you will find this quote from a typically prophetic George Orwell: “We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun.”
Source: The Millions
Wednesday, October 06, 2010 12:01 PM
Today (October 6), in one of the most closely watched First Amendment showdowns in recent memory, the United States Supreme Court will finally hear arguments on the case of Albert Snyder vs. the Westboro Baptist Church.
The WBC is, of course, the Kansas church presided over by the notorious Fred Phelps, whose God Hates Fags crusade has garnered scads of international publicity and outcry. There doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of logic—Biblical or otherwise—behind the views or actions of Phelps and his cronies, but one of their most peculiar and inexplicable publicity stunts has been showing up at the funerals of slain soldiers and brandishing signs with such slogans as “Semper Fi Fags.”
In 2007, Albert Snyder, the father of one such soldier, successfully sued Phelps and his church for infliction of emotional duress. The Maryland jury award of $11 million was eventually carved in half by a judge, and the verdict was later overturned on appeal.
Scott Swenson at The Huffington Post has a nice piece that provides a bit of historical perspective on Snyder v. Phelps and its odyssey through the court system and potential ramifications.
As odious as you might find Phelps and his brethren, the case presents a thorny constitutional challenge. What do you think? Is the First Amendment so sacrosanct and pliable that even the Westboro Baptist Church should be able to use it for shelter?
Source: The Huffington Post
Image by celebdu, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, October 05, 2010 11:37 AM
One of the most enjoyable aspects of life at the Utne Reader is the daily access to hundreds of publications from all over the world. On any given afternoon, the mail bin might bring the latest issue of anything from Tin Houseto Waxpoeticsto The American Window Cleaner. This onslaught can be overwhelming, as you might imagine, and it’s surprisingly easy to lose half a day wading through a case study of mid-life crisis in Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention.
Fascinating as that might be, however, I recognize that it might be rough sledding—or even just plain too creepy—for the general reader. And even I sometimes feel like I need a little palate cleanser, some entertaining trifle to stoke my day dreams.
Billionaires feature was just what the doctor ordered today, and of particular interest was the magazine’s list of the world’s billionaire bachelors and bachelorettes. It’s irresistible, really, and full of lots of people I’d never heard of.
Oprah kicks the thing off, but from there it was all fresh faces to me (and if you think it’s nothing but snoozy white geezers, think again). Hong Kong’s Richard Li (net worth: $1.1 billion), for instance, is only 37 years old and is “a licensed jet plane pilot and avid scuba diver.” Twenty-year-old Albert von Thurn und Taxis (there’s a name fit for a billionaire, and the lad is worth $2.1 billion) is a 6’ 4” German who “enjoys riding his Harley-Davidson and playing the drums.” Guy Laliberte ($1.1 billion) is the 44-year-old founder of Cirque du Soleil, and is described as a “fire-breathing billionaire” as well as a “consummate dreamer” who loves kids.
And then there’s Adrei Melnichenko, a 33-year-old Muscovite also worth $1.1 billion. But he seems like a bit of a snooze, frankly.
Also, Ria Novosti has a gallery of Russia’s other wealthiest celebrities, but there’s no indication of eligibility status (or even proper identification—a number of them appear to be hockey players), so if you’re really serious about snagging a billionaire you’re probably just wasting your time.
Image by mahalie, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, October 01, 2010 2:19 PM
Moby Lives has some background on one of the weirder and more disturbing publishing stories in a long time. What do you call it when the government buys out the entire first printing of a book –in this case Anthony Shaffer’s Operation Dark Heart—in return for the publisher’s agreement to destroy every one of the copies? Munificent censorship, maybe? A particularly ugly but perfectly legal bit of capitalist monkeyshines?
It sure sounds like a cut-and-dry case of censorship to me, but this attempt at an explanation from Thomas Dunne, publisher of St. Martin’s Press, is pretty curious, to say the least:
We have been receiving letters of concern that we changed the text due to government censorship, and that the government “burned” the books from our initial printing. The true facts are that the government bought the entire first printing in its entirety and we destroyed and recycled those copies at their request.
Source: Moby Lives
Image by altemark, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, September 24, 2010 2:50 PM
Maybe it’s precisely because I don’t much like dinner parties that I spend so much time fantasizing about dream dinner party guests and ideal seating arrangements. At any rate, one of my perfect scenarios involves being seated between Dorothy Parker and John Waters, and Michael Ehrhardt’s recent interview (in The Gay and Lesbian Review), with the man William Burroughs dubbed the “Pope of Trash,” did nothing but reinforce Waters’ standing on the A-list.
I can take or leave Waters’ films (Hairspray, Pink Flamingos, Polyester), but every interview I’ve encountered with the man has been a marvel, and his new memoir, Role Models, is one of the most entertaining books of the year.
Waters’ back-and-forth with Ehrhardt is a smart, snappy, free-range delight from start to finish.
Read the whole thing, but here are a few highlights:
I really hate people who go on an airplane in sloppy jogging outfits. That’s a major offense today. And I can’t abide people who bore you by talking about their food allergies and special diets, like vegetarians. Of course, I wouldn’t go so far as murdering them.
[In Provincetown] I even lived in this wonderful tree fort, with a rope ladder and small apartments. Some crazy person constructed it; it had no roof, so if it rained you got soaked to the bone. It was owned by Prescott Townsend….He was an early gay liberationist who would ride around on a small motorcycle on the beaches and hand out gay liberation material to people. Mink Stole was going to marry him. Prescott would let you live in his tree fort if he liked you, and you got free hot dogs.
I’m sometimes surprised to have made it this far. I guess now I can attract, uh, guys who are into gerontophilia—which is a really ugly word. But, old chickens make the best soup! I prefer being a “filth elder.”
And, finally, here’s an atonement opportunity for somebody in Hollywood (hello, criminals who financed Hot Tub Time Machine):
I do have a movie called Fruitcake ready to go, but it’s fallen through a couple of times. It’s a children’s Christmas adventure film about a family that steals meat. They’re door-to-door meat salesmen, which we have in Baltimore, who knock on your door and say, “Meatman!” You say, “I want two porterhouse steaks and a pound of ground beef.” And then they shoplift it for you, bring it back, and you pay half of what’s on the label. The young son, named Fruitcake, runs away from home during the holidays, after he and his parents are busted for shoplifting food. He meets up with a runaway girl, who was raised by a gay couple and is searching for her birth mother. Johnny Knoxville and Parker Posey would have starred in it. The people who paid me to write it liked it, but now the production company is no longer there.
The Gay and Lesbian Review
Tuesday, September 21, 2010 2:15 PM
There’s nothing like another round of elections in the U.S. to rekindle one’s nostalgia for the rough wisdom of Henry Louis Mencken.
Last night, after reading The New Republic’s “Year of the Nutjob,” which would be funny if it weren’t so appalling, I pulled a copy of Mencken’s Prejudices from the shelf and opened it to a random page. I long ago learned that this exercise—and it really doesn’t matter which Mencken collection you choose—virtually never fails to provide both uncannily up-to-date perspective and a queasy reminder of how little has changed in American politics in the last ninety or so years.
There are, of course, a lot of Mad Hatters at our current national Tea Party, but The New Republic spotlights nine especially brain-boggling candidates (including Minnesota’s own procreative gubernatorial candidate, Tom Emmer) for the Maddest Hatter crown.
As you peruse that scary bit of business, I’d encourage you to keep in mind these random observations on “the normal Americano” from Mencken’s 1922 essay “On Being An American”:
The mob-man cannot grasp ideas in their native nakedness. They must be dramatized and personalized for him, and provided with either white wings or forked tails.
He is a violent nationalist and a patriot, but he admires rogues in office and always beats the tax collector if he can.
He is intensely and cocksurely moral, but his morality and his self-interest are virtually identical.
He is violently jealous of what he conceives to be his rights, but brutally disregardful of the other fellow’s.
All of which can be boiled down to this: that the United States is essentially a commonwealth of third-rate men.
Extra credit: Here’s a typically strange, rambling portrait of Tom Emmer from The Awl.
Source: The New Republic
Image by brownpau, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, September 16, 2010 10:23 AM
The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “My Daily Read” feature, in which various professors “describe their media diets” is reliably snooty good fun. Turns out neither the University of Chicago’s Martha Nussbaum nor Northwestern’s Laura Kipnis has much time for blogs (Kipnis: “I’m not a fan….I like to read prose that’s edited, frankly.”) or Twitter (Nussbaum: “Never.” Kipnis: “That would be the last straw!”).
Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education
Photo Credit: Image by schani / Mark Probst, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010 12:50 PM
J.R. Ackerley’s lovely, hilarious, and touching account of his 15-year relationship with the “ideal friend” he never expected to find, was the first title issued in the always reliable NYRB (New York Review of Books) Classics series. Now, the animated adaptation of My Dog Tulip is headed for theaters. I’ll file this under the Department of We Can’t Wait.
Source: New York Review of Books
Wednesday, September 15, 2010 12:39 PM
As pull quotes go, this one from The Believer’s interview with anthropologist Robin Nagle is pretty golden: “Every single thing you see is future trash. Everything.” I’d have been even more delighted if Nagle had dispatched with that qualifying “future,” but then I’m a curmudgeon, not a scholar of rubbish in the strictest sense.
Nagle’s obviously got a rich stomping ground for her studies—if you’ve ever wandered Manhattan’s streets in the wee hours you’re familiar with that city’s Sisyphean relationship with garbage disposal—and she also more than established her bona fides by working a sanitation route in the Bronx. In this wide-ranging conversation with Alex Carp, Nagle discusses, the archaeology of household waste, the lives of sanitation workers, dirt, garbage flow, our cognitive issues with trash, the topography of landfills, and her own Sisyphean attempts to create a Museum of Sanitation in New York.
Nagle’s rambles are smart, funny, and full of lots of serious food for thought; for some reason this interview did more for my own garbage consciousness than a hundred earnest jackhammer pieces on recycling, righteous greenery, and carbon footprints.
I’m also seriously excited about the commercial possibilities for a line of stylish “Future Trash” t-shirts (I’m calling dibs right now).
Source: The Believer
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