The turd artist: David Foster Wallace revisited

October 27, 2016


“But it’s s**t.”

So begins The Suffering Channel. Its author, David Foster Wallace (who committed suicide in 2008), is an epic American literary figure. I previously reviewed his huge masterwork, Infinite Jest – I found it unreadable and gave up after about 100 pages.

My wife must have remembered that, because for my birthday she (slyly smiling) gave me The David Foster Wallace Reader, another fat doorstop of a book.

sufferI’m glad she did. There’s some amazing stuff here. Forget Infinite Jest; read this instead.

It includes The Suffering Channel, a novella, whose title refers to a (fictional) TV channel showing exactly that: photos and videos of people suffering, in every conceivable way. Ewww.

But the novella is actually mainly about something else: the tribulations and machinations among staffers at a slick (fictional) magazine, Styles, over how to handle one particular story, about an artist.

images-1It’s set in July, 2001; looking toward the publication’s September 10 issue. Its offices are at New York’s World Trade Center. So there’s a dark cloud hanging over the whole narrative. To which Wallace never explicitly alludes, except once. Near the end, after a lengthy sequence focusing on one young character, he appends the spare words, “She had ten weeks to live.”

The magazine’s culture, and the dynamics among its staffers, are portrayed with an incisive dead-on realism. So far, so serious. (Though there is a weird, quasi-comedic sexual thing going on between the runty chief reporter on the story and the artist’s super-plus-sized wife.)

images-2But all the novella’s seriousness is anchored upon a premise that’s utterly silly. The “artist” works in excrement. Now, admittedly, we’ve had some art contretemps involving excreta – Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” and Ofili’s painting incorporating dung – however, Wallace goes one better. His “artist,” Brint Moltke, produces small sculptures replicating iconic images (like the Winged Victory of Samothrace). By “produces” I mean he sits on the toilet and they come out. And Moltke is a non-intellect who probably doesn’t actually know the Winged Victory of Samothrace from Rodin’s Thinker (just to make the premise all the more preposterous).

unknown-1Yet Wallace depicts how a slick magazine would wrestle with all the issues that this subject matter would entail, and the concerns of the people who work there (one of whom speaks the quoted opening line). How will its readers react? How should the story be presented – if at all? And the implications regarding the pecking order and careerist jockeying among the staffers.

Call this “magical realism?” Perhaps Wallace was giving us a send-up of that genre: marrying uber-realistic portrayal with uber-ridiculous magicalism. The result is wickedly delicious.

How to reduce crime

October 23, 2016

unknownOur prisons are called “correctional facilities.” Social science writer Daniel Goleman says this is “a tragic misnomer: nothing gets corrected.”

Indeed, prisons are crime schools. Rather than being “corrected,” young inmates learn to emulate more hardened ones, their antisocial psychology is reinforced, and their criminal skills enhanced. No wonder most, after release, soon return.

Crime is stupendously costly to society. What criminals rip off is only the start. The damage to victims tends to vastly exceed their monetary loss; some never shake off the trauma. We lose what criminals could contribute were they instead productive citizens. The whole criminal justice system is another gigantic cost. As is running the prison system.

images-1People who work in the system like the status quo. And justifying their existence requires a constant supply of inmates. Turning minor offenders into hardened criminals is a good way to assure that.

But what if prisons truly were places of “correction?” Of course, that concept does encompass the idea of punishment; but also the idea of changing the behavior that incurred the punishment. Our prisons do the former but not the latter.

Goleman’s book Social Intelligence discusses a special pilot program to fill this gap. “Brad” was in prison for injuring a college classmate during a drunken binge. “Basically all the guys are in here because of a bad temper,” Brad said – “easily pissed off” and ruled by their anger and an “us-versus-them paranoia.” The special program sought to change that mentality, giving inmates daily seminars on topics like “telling the difference between actions based on ‘creative thinking, stinking thinking, or no thinking.’”

unknown-1Goleman explains that this actually isn’t naïve utopianism, because the brain circuits for empathy and regulating emotional impulses – “perhaps the two most glaring deficiencies among the prison population” – are the last parts of the brain to mature. So the brains of inmates about 25 or younger can still be, well, corrected, into more socially desirable patterns.

It worked for Brad. Once released, he was a new man, returned to college, got a job, and detached from his previous loutish pals. Goleman also cites similar (and similarly rare) programs for social and emotional learning in schools that have likewise achieved big reductions in antisocial behavior.

(I’ve previously discussed Goleman’s writing about the “marshmallow test” for self-control and deferring gratification, so helpful for of adult life success, and how such positive traits can be taught.)

Programs like Brad’s would cost a tiny fraction (probably under 1%) of our huge prison budgets. Given the enormous cost of crime to society and the vast sums we spend locking people up, shouldn’t we be willing to spend 1% to keep them out of prison.*

images-2A proposal in New York to give inmates college educations was shot down by public outrage. It did seem unfair to give criminals for free what poor, law-abiding folks struggle to achieve. But surely it makes sense to do something to re-educate prisoners and make them responsible citizens, to head off more crimes and all their associated costs. Currently we don’t even try.

images-3*Another example of such lateral thinking: asked to review plans to spend billions on rail facilities to speed up trains, an economist proposed instead hiring super-models to go through trains handing out champagne and other treats. Most of the billions would be saved, and riders would not mind the slow trips – they’d want them longer!

Trump descends deeper into the heart of darkness

October 20, 2016

images-1He’s the gift that keeps on giving. In the debate, Trump was asked a question that can have only one answer. His running mate had given that answer. So had daughter Ivanka. But Donald shockingly refused. He refused to say he would accept the election result.

You know it’s an extraordinary moment when a newspaper begins its debate reporting with the words, “Threatening a fundamental pillar of American democracy . . . . “

Peaceful transfer of power has been just that, a crucial element of our democratic culture. It’s the acceptance of pluralistic legitimacy – acceptance that people other than you may have a right to participate and even to exercise power. (We see, in today’s Middle East, what happens when this concept is not part of the culture.) Trump shows yet again he does not understand our democracy, does not honor it, and would wreck it.

Past presidential losers not only accepted the results, but always did so with exemplary graciousness. Even Richard Nixon, in 1960, rejected advice to challenge the close outcome, knowing that would damage the country. Even Al Gore, who many believed was cheated of the presidency in 2000, refused to pursue his claim and instead conceded in a very gracious speech.

Why did Trump say something so repellently different? He can’t think it will attract votes, to actually win the election. No, this is about after. Cynically fueling his supporters’ sense of grievance, to carry his “movement” and plague our politics for years beyond.

unknownPreviously, channeling the worst dictators, he had threatened to jail his opponent. Last night, compounding it, he said she should not even be allowed to run. That’s how things work in dictatorships (like Iran’s). They hold elections but pesky regime opponents are not allowed to run. Trump is the banana republican candidate.

unknown-1His insistence that the election is being rigged against him, with massive voter fraud, is itself a massive fraud. American voting fraud is actually about as rare as people with two heads.* (And in a majority of states, elections are overseen by Republican officials.)

But the huge irony is that if the election is rigged, it is actually rigged against the Democrats. Because many Republican state legislatures – on a phony pretext of preventing nonexistent voter fraud – have enacted all sorts of restrictions, like onerous ID requirements, whose naked real aim is to prevent voting by minorities who favor Democrats.

I’m a Republican. Republicans should be trying to attract minority votes – not to suppress them. And should not be whining about election outcomes – let alone beforehand.

UPDATE: Trump now says he WILL accept the election result, on one condition: if he wins.

* True, voter rolls are filled with ineligible names – people who’ve moved away, or died, etc. But how many of them try to vote?

David Gelernter and the ideology trap

October 19, 2016

unknownDavid Gelernter is a well-known computer scientist, whose talk I wrote about previously. Afterwards, I wanted to speak with him, but didn’t want to buy the new book he was promoting. So instead I bought a previous one, America-Lite, which looked more fun.

America-Lite actually argues a serious point, but is aptly titled, being, well, lite. This is no weighty Closing of the American Mind (which he mentions). Indeed, given my general sympathy with much of what it says, I found the book annoyingly supercilious and off-putting.



It concerns America’s cultural revolution since the 1960s. Gelernter basically doesn’t like it. He attributes it to two related phenomena. First, “the Great Reform” in higher education. Key here was the breakdown of old efforts to limit Jews on campuses, which changed their WASP culture, as mainly social institutions, to mainly intellectual ones. And shoved them leftward. Meantime, secondly, there emerged “Imperial Academia” – an enlarged influence of the university world upon the broader American culture. This was largely down to sheer heft – a much bigger percentage of today’s population has been through higher education than in past epochs.

unknown-2Gelernter says the old WASP elite has thus been replaced by post-religious globalist intellectuals – “PORGIs” – who now run the country. Not everyone in academia buys this intellectual stance, but its influence is leveraged by the fact that non-subscribers care much less about politics and just go along with the flow, taking on board the indoctrination, while nonconforming viewpoints are cudgeled into silence and delegitimized by the PORGIs’ political correctness policing.

unknown-3The result is what Gelernter relentlessly labels PORGI Airheads (always with a capital A) – people full of received wisdom but empty of factual knowledge. Indeed, he sees much of PORGI-ism as contrary to fact, but uninterested in learning as much. After all, it’s far easier to reach judgments from preconceived ideas than from factual analysis.

For Gelernter, President Obama exemplifies the PORGI Airhead. He denies Obama is an ideologue – saying the President’s thinking doesn’t even rise to that level, being instead a zombie-like slavishness to the PORGI theories about the world that, like so many other students of his era, Obama had installed in his brain while at Columbia and Harvard.

I’m no Obama fan; but willing to give the Devil his due. Gelernter’s book itself epitomizes a lamentable trend in American political discourse: the notion that our side thinks and the other does not. Indeed, the left is inordinately fond of this gambit too, always casting itself as coolly rational whereas the right is a bunch of unthinking automatons. Al Gore even wrote a book titled Assault on Reason with that exact theme.

unknownNo. You may disagree with how the other guy thinks. But don’t imagine that you are thinking while he is not – a grossly arrogant self-delusion. While I am certain anti-evolutionists are wrong, I never forget they are equally certain I am wrong.

That said, it is true most people seem to view the world through pre-shaped lenses of bias. I have written about trying to base my beliefs upon what I see to be facts – my “ideology of reality” – whereas most people do it the other way around, letting their beliefs dictate what they see as facts.

Gelernter is right that many have beliefs about the world because those beliefs fit ideas they like, not because they’re actually factually true. A perfect example is GM food. It must be bad, on principle, a certain mindset holds; so the science must support that view. The Albany Times-Union recently editorialized that the issue remains open and some scientists see dangers. False! The newspaper commits exactly the sin for which it repeatedly pillories climate change deniers. They too see that issue as scientifically unsettled – because that fits their preferred picture.

unknown-4And like small children, bedazzled by shiny objects, the left in particular is bedazzled by labels – like “socialist.” It’s like putting lipstick on a pig, convincing them of its beauty – like Venezuela’s vile regime, or Mugabe’s.

In all these cases, the idea trumps the reality. The left sees itself as holding lofty ideals. They’ll burble on about inequality and the 1% making people poor – which is factually untrue – while failing to notice how “socialist” regimes do make people poor. Or how their prejudice against GM food, factually baseless, condemns millions of poor people to malnutrition and starvation.

They just think differently than me.

Meantime, Gelernter’s whole shtick about “Airheads” seeing the world through a veil of theory uncontaminated by facts was hard to take seriously – when one perspective whose waning he laments is the religious one. Gelernter, an observant Jew, doesn’t see how people can figure out moral issues without religion. unknown-5Well, I can. In fact, atheists without religion’s prepackaged answers are forced to think that much harder about moral issues. And if ever there was a belief system impervious to factual realities, surely it’s religious faith!

Our Gal in Iraq

October 17, 2016

elizabIn the last episode (“Our Gal in Kabul”), daughter Elizabeth (now 23) was headed to a job with a humanitarian organization in Afghanistan, to sort out the country’s problems. Having put Afghanistan to rights, next she’s off to Iraq.

This time she’ll be working for the Danish Refugee Council (her third NGO), a topnotch outfit which she rates very highly, an opportunity she couldn’t refuse.

She’ll be stationed in Erbil, in the good part of Iraq. The one with sun-drenched beaches, four-star hotels and restaurants, spas, designer stores, opera. Well, okay – just sun-drenched. unknownActually, this is Iraqi Kurdistan which, though not without its problems, has put distance between itself and the mess that is the rest of Iraq. The Kurds have a long history of being America’s friends; we haven’t always done enough right by them; I’m gratified Elizabeth will be making a contribution there.

If it sounds like I’m living vicariously through my daughter – a common enough parental syndrome – well, perhaps a tiny bit. A part of me does have the feeling she’s doing the kinds of things maybe I should have. Oh, I have no regrets, I did have a great career, doing some important and worthy work. Yet in truth that was only sheer luck, since I was so clueless starting out, lacking the wit or imagination even to consider the full range of possibilities that might have been open to me. Can’t say that of Elizabeth. She is seizing the world by the horns, to live a meaningful life.

Her chosen path is not one followed by your typical American millennial. And it does please me to think that’s at least partly down to having had parents who were not typical either.

Does science prove rich people are jerks?

October 13, 2016

Left wingers obsess over inequality partly because they hate that others are rich and they’re not. It’s more than just envy, but a sense of injustice: they feel morally superior, yet it’s the rotten rich who are rewarded.

unknownSocial science is rife with evidence showing that the rich and powerful are nasty. Is it that being nasty helps one get wealth and power – or that wealth and power corrupt one’s character?

Pertinent here was Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison experiment. Student volunteers were assigned to role-play as prisoners or guards. The latter soon became so brutal toward the former that the experiment was stopped. Taken as evidence that power corrupts.

unknown-1A recent article by Matthew Sweet in The Economist’s “1843” magazine starts with a study analyzing behavior at traffic intersections. People in fancier cars behaved worse. And Sweet cites a different Berkeley study summed up as “science proves rich people are jerks.”

But – he says – not so fast.

A 2010 analysis by three European academics, using much larger data sets, found opposite results: privileged individuals were more generous and charitable, more likely to volunteer, more apt to help a struggling traveler, or look after a neighbor’s cat.

But here’s where the story gets interesting. They submitted their paper to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which had published the Berkeley work. “We thought,” said one of them, Boris Egloff, “naïve as we were, that this might be interesting for the scientific community.” The paper was rejected.

 images-1The researchers thereupon extended their analysis to data from America and other countries, becoming more confident they were on to something important. Rejected again. Eventually it was published in an online journal. But meantime Egloff was seared by the experience. “Personally I would have loved the results of the Berkeley group to be true,” he said; that “would provide a better fit to my personal and political beliefs and my worldview. However, as a scientist . . . .” He vowed never to touch this subject again.

But why do studies disagree so diametrically? Sweet suggests this sort of research may be inherently problematical. In 2015 the journal Science reported on a group of 270 academics attempting to replicate 100 psychological studies, succeeding in only 36 cases. unknown-2And this work too has been faulted by yet another group of academics led by Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert (whose book Stumbling on Happiness influenced me greatly). Sweet says Gilbert has a vendetta against replicators, and when questioned on this by a journalist, he hung up.

Comes now Jonathan Haidt (another writer who influenced me greatly with The Righteous Mind), co-authoring a 2015 paper saying that over-representation of left-wing opinion in psychology faculties distorts the research results they report. This helps explain the Egloff paper’s rejection. As I’ve written, academia is becoming a fortress of enforced opinion defensively hostile toward non-conforming ideas.

“Might a shared moral-historical narrative in a politically homogeneous field undermine the self-correction processes on which good science depends?” the Haidt paper said. “We think so.”

images-2In plain words, researchers often find the results they want. During my days as a PSC judge, I recall one hired-gun economist whose analysis attempted to show that something that had quite obviously occurred had not, statistically speaking, happened at all. It prompted me to quote, in my decision, Mark Twain on the three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Meantime, the reliableness of scientific results more generally is becoming a widespread concern. Much gets published, it seems, that doesn’t hold up. A lot of biases, not just political, operate. For example, researchers like to publish positive results – We found it! : -) – but not negatives ones — We didn’t find it : -(

However, the lesson is not that all science is suspect. New insights or data are not going to overturn something like Darwinian evolution. Instead, it’s that scientists are human, and must not let beliefs compromise objectivity. Take care against telling yourself (and your political bedmates) what you want to hear.

images-3So – are rich people nicer or nastier? I think it’s hard to say – and to generalize. I’m comparatively rich. And very nice.

Trump: no more Mr. Nice Guy

October 11, 2016

unknownNow he says the shackles are off him.

I’ve watched political debates for 56 years. But Sunday’s featured the most shocking and frightening thing I ever heard in one: Trump’s threat to jail his opponent.

We take for granted our free and open political competition. But if government can interfere with that, voting is meaningless. That happens in too many countries, like Russia, Cuba, Iran, China, Egypt, and now Turkey, where politically challenging those in power means jail. Dictators everywhere pervert laws and courts to lock up critics. Even in some ostensible democracies like Singapore and Malaysia, governments abuse judicial processes to persecute and neutralize political opponents. unknown-1We’ve just learned of South Africa’s well-respected finance minister being hit with corruption charges, an obvious political set-up (while President Zuma gets away with huge transgressions).

America was established to avoid just that kind of pernicious abuse, with a strong system of checks and balances, including an independent judiciary, and the First Amendment guaranteeing free expression. Our record is not spotless. The 1790s Alien and Sedition laws put a congressman behind bars for his anti-administration views; during the Civil War, some pro-slavery Northern politicians too were jailed; and Nixon tried to use the IRS to harass opponents. Yet those were exceptions that prove the rule. Throughout our history, the rule has been that you don’t use control over the levers of government power to beat on and intimidate political foes.

That, once more, has been a key underpinning of our democracy, because it gives opponents a fair chance of winning elections. And this is not even so much a consequence of our system and rules as it is a part of our culture. It’s our civic and political ethos; the way we’ve grown up to behave.

images-1The matters for which Trump threatens to jail Hillary Clinton have been fully investigated by the relevant federal authorities, and as explained by the (Republican) FBI Director, they determined that no criminal charges are appropriate. But even if that were not so, a candidate talking about jailing his opponent is a visceral, terrifying threat to the kind of country we are. Hearing it froze my blood.

This is not how America does politics.

La commedia è finita

October 9, 2016
"Believe me . . . this much."

“Believe me . . . this much.”

He said, “These words don’t reflect who I am.”

Oh yes they do, you creep. They reflect perfectly who you are. Some of us saw it long ago.

And let’s be clear. It wasn’t just lewd words. It was bragging about criminal sexual assault.

How can any self-respecting person continue to support this disgusting monster? Even before, otherwise intelligent people tied themselves in knots trying to rationalize a vote for him, waving away all his numerous grotesqueries: the lying, the frauds, the rip-offs, the financial chicanery, the ignorance, the egotism, the vulgarity, the encouragement of violence and divisive bigotry. One kept wondering what it might take to finally open their eyes. It turns out not even criminal sexual assault is enough. A quick poll reports three-quarters of Republicans saying the party should still stick by him.

I’ve been a Republican for 52 years. The party used to stand for something. Now it’s nothing but naked tribalism.

Book groups and “the good old days”

October 8, 2016

imagesI’m in two book groups. One, for about 25 years, originated among PSC co-workers. (The story goes that it began with two guys expecting two gals at a restaurant; the gals didn’t show; but the book was discussed anyway, and it grew from there). We meet monthly, reading serious fiction and non-fiction; talk about the book for an hour or more amid appetizers; then have dinner. It’s very convivial. And filling.

The other one is the Capital District Humanist Society’s. We read non-fiction books and discuss them intensively, page by page, for two hours, twice a month. We’ve been known to take a year on one book. No food.

unknownThe PSC group in particular has led me into very rewarding books I’d otherwise have missed. Though not all our selections have been winners. We often look back with bemusement on clunkers like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase (which I still think was highly interesting).

imagesAnd we seem to have a thing for “lifeboat” books: Unbroken, In the Heart of the Sea, The Life of Pi, Ahab’s Wife, Dead Wake, etc. Not to mention Three Men in a Boat.

Recently we read Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations, and before that, Geraldine Brooks’s The Secret Chord, historical novels about the mystic saint Hildegard of Bingen and King David respectively. Both made me really glad to live in modernity. If you doubt progress, read these books.

It’s natural to wonder how I’d have behaved in those past times. Hopefully not like the typical men portrayed. But you can’t graft modern sensibility, even hypothetically, onto long-ago people. Folks acted as they did because that was their world. Though each book did include at least one man we’d call good, they were truly exceptions.

Hildegard lived in 1100’s Germany. At age eight she was sent to accompany 14-year-old Jutta as monastery “anchorites.” I didn’t know what that meant. Neither did little Hildegard. But on the trip, her blood froze when someone used the words “walled in.”

unknown-1That was literal. Jutta and Hildegard were immured in a small bare chamber and the entrance was bricked up. There was one window. A “hatch” delivered food. And if that weren’t awful enough, they were clothed in “hair shirts” – intentionally crafted to lacerate the skin.

“Saintly” Jutta, of noble birth. was there supposedly because being mad she was unmarriageable. Actually it was because she was no virgin – raped by her brother. But if not mad to start with, Jutta soon embarked on a project to starve and torture herself to death.

It took thirty years.*

When Hildegard at last emerged into daylight, amazingly she was not mad too. But by then she’d acquired some fellow inmates who formed the core of an abbey of nuns Hildegard went on to establish; something of a fairy tale after her ghastly beginnings.

images-1If that story was ghastly, King David’s was worse. So blood-soaked, so full of human evil. (It too includes a royal brother-sister rape. Indeed, more than just rape.) Brooks’s novel hews quite close to the Bible’s detailed account. The only saving grace is that that was mostly if not entirely fiction. But the way its authors imagined a “hero” shows the barbarity of their minds and their world. Remarkable that people today consider this a “holy” book.

* An Afterward notes a different account saying the “enclosure” began six years later.


Simultaneous pleasures

October 5, 2016


It is sunny, the sky a vivid blue. It’s in the seventies, with a gentle breeze. The warmth, modulated periodically by caresses of air, feels delicious on my body.

I’m relaxing in my lounge chair, leaning back lazily, upon a soft cushion. I have another little cushion to hug the small of my back.

images-1Now add lunch. Some sweet grapes, crunchy tortilla chips, and my favorite iced “sparkling water beverage.”

And now add a good book, to engage the mind while I eat. unknownOr else paper and pen to scribble out something like this, another pleasure. Is it sensory overload?

What does it mean to truly experience something? I try to attend to pleasures; to be fully present to them; when I’m eating something, to be sure I’m really tasting it, without my mind being elsewhere.

But one’s mind is always elsewhere, at least partially. It’s not even a unitary phenomenon, the mind is always doing many things at once. unknown-1And while we think we can multi-task, studies have shown we’re better when focusing on one thing at a time. Trying to do two things at once means neither gets done as well.

So is it possible to enjoy all these different pleasures simultaneously, or does my consciousness actually flit flightily back and forth among them? Do I really fully taste the grapes while my mind is engaged with what I’m reading? And am I still really feeling the Sun’s warmth?

And maybe add some music . . . and suppose further still that what I’m reading is erotically arousing . . . .