Monday, January 31, 2011


As I have by now restarted or failed to start so many distinct careers, likening myself - as I must to remain American - to those careers, and thus finding myself a wreck sunken before it was ever launched, I also find occasion to re-read that essay I wrote by virtue of which I was awarded a Bachelor's Degree.

By the evenness of the type's impression on the page, I can tell the machine whose keyboard I pounded was electrified. My own powers of recall would have told me as much. But by the unevenness of the type's line, I can tell that it was the more primitive and by then worn hammer-type machine and not the IBM Selectric I would later use.

There would be daisy wheels and there would be electrostatic machines, but now they're all subsumed beneath virtualized page drawing languages which can be rendered in any number of ways onto literal or virtual sheets of blank approximate whiteness.

They keyboard remains. Sort of. As happens often, I got my hands on a newer smartphone from Google, and right there on its keyboard is an icon for a microphone, and sure enough it will replace your keystrokes with a typographic rendering of your voice. And I watched a friend capturing his notes and a lectures soundtrack electronically by his pen. I don't really know what it is I want anymore.

I know I don't want videos of myself giving lectures. For one thing, I'd have to write them first. And even though I'm still working on a writer's 'voice' I wouldn't trade it - elusive though the writing voice may be - for my literal droning voice (cross-genre resemblance you say?).

Even when I wash a floor, I like to get down on my hands and knees once in a while so that I can see what it is I'm interacting with. When I write English, the letters are near enough to the keyboard, but when I write Chinese they're not. I lose touch with the written forms which are replaced by my ability to recognize them quickly which is not the same as to be able to form them.

To type Chinese is to lose touch with the forms as they are formed, and so, of course, many scholars note that it should be as it must be. And good riddance to needless complexity.

Alongside the typescript of the essay I've just re-read are my handwritten Chinese characters, and they are lame. To protect myself, had it been possible, I would have used a word-processor to hide my handwriting disability, just as I had to render written English.

I'm just now reading a book written by one of my oldest friends. I believe that I would be accurate to say that it treats the history of the introduction of industrial printing to China as synecdoche for a variety of technological and organizational changes in China which occurred as the result of the overall confluence of Chinese and Western traditions, starting from some time after the Gutenberg revolution in the West and still ongoing with the globalization of technologies to reproduce the written word.

I am astounded at the extent to which the machinery of printing in both its development and its form is part and parcel of the machinery of industrialization more generally. But the really interesting part is how, in the case of printing, the output of that production was the actual means for dissemination and ideological persuasion about the process by which it was created; printing machines could seed the globe with schematics to describe the building of more such machines. Printed words could persuade readers of the utility in doing so. And along the way this same technique for the broad-casting of written tracts would expose and transform the social arrangements which had been transformed because of its arrival on the scene; industrial capitalism brutalized workers, and nowhere more markedly than for the workers of printing presses.

There is a kind of ironic feedback loop to the technology for mass producing words. At one and the same time that it accelerates the penetration and acceptance of the underlying print-making technologies, it also accelerates ideological transformations which might and sometimes do counter those very trends.

And no wonder that governments quake now in the face of Facebook or WikiLeaks. Widely dispersed and replicated agencies, microbe style, have always had the collectivized agency to topple centralized institutions of power.

One effective antidote to this kind of threatening infection of the body politic is to flood the field with sound and fury. Captivate attention and signify nothing. A less effective antidote is to try to contain, privatize and control access to what gets published.

But as with plans for nuclear devices, it's not so much the actual material as its context which makes widely disseminated writing so powerful and dangerous. I know from small and insignificant examples that it is mostly the knowledge that it can be done which most often empowers me to do it, whatever the "it" is. I don't always need to be shown the precise means, if I can but know with some assurance that what I might attempt has actually once been done.

But such knowledge can be a demotivator too.  Why would you bother if it's already been done by someone else somewhere else? Why, if you can master only a small part of what the masters have mastered would you essay a long shot on your own? And so we all lose touch with the written word because we no longer even try to write it. We only speak it. We give T.E.D-sized renditions for our friends' consumption in company and let the world take care of itself. We have confidence that someone somewhere will know how to and will have done the work.

What then will be my work? What will I do with hands-on that is not merely to keep the machines humming? Which language is left to be informed once words have proliferated to such an extent that there is no principle which will or can prevent our being lost among them? Or has it already all started its descent once again to nonsense, where the makers can no longer make without machine?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

More Mental Chaos

OK, so lately I've discovered things that you've known for some time now. I'm a little slow. But I read this article about how nobody can touch Apple selling "apps" because nobody else has iTunes. So I opened up my iTunes for the first time in maybe a zillion years, and wow is it overwhelming.

I mean you can listen to radio stations from all over the world, and you can buy TV episodes and movies, and of  course I already knew you could buy songs. But how the hell do you sort among it all? And what about cross-platform compatibility? And how do you know what's available on one platform or format which might not be available on another?

Chrome, the browser, has just introduced apps too - well, OK they might have done it years ago, but I just noticed. And the line between a browser-based application and a machine-based app now seems entirely blurred. It's confusing! I can read the New York Times via my browser, or I can read it with an app, and I can't even tell which one is more like the "real thing" or even what the real thing is like anymore.

Sometimes I see an article on the print version and can't find it online and vice-versa.

But get this! We - royally we - just bought a superannuated and thus discounted Blue-ray player. It plugs into the Internet. It has apps! OK, so not nearly so many apps as iTunes has, but way more than my Windows mobile phone. You can rent movies one-off from Blockbuster, or if you don't like their scant collection, you can find any number of other venues, each one claiming to have more than the others - newer and out faster and with higher definition.

You can buy it on your TV and watch it on your smartphone if you have the right smartphone which is almost always the iPhone and almost never the Windows mobile phone, but sometimes it is. Now if I only knew what I wanted to watch I would be able to find it, but you know I like to browse, and when I browse, I like to know that the list is reasonably comprehensive so that I'm not making my choice from among mediocrity.

Browsing the apps on this Blue-ray player I found one for USA Today and I thought "oh!" so I can get my print news right on the TV.Weird, but OK let's see - and I found articles from months and months ago. I'm thinking this is one delivery medium that never quite took off. I had a sad thought about that one person somewhere who actually is depending on this source for "news."

Days were when I would and could listen only to the local radio and watch the local TV. The boundaries around the possible were vaguely comforting although I couldn't have known it then. Now I might listen to any number of university stations, but without affinity why would I want to? I don't feel a whole lot of affinity to any of my various alma maters, although they all stalk me for it like a Google mediated ad for something I never did want but only wanted to look at and now it won't leave me alone.

What's really annoying is that there is no easy way - although my phone handles podcasts just as well as the next guy - to find a podcast via iTunes and then listen to it on my Windows phone. But yeah why would I want to? I can't even imagine sparing the time to listen to podcasts. When I'm in the car, which is as seldom as possible these days, I find the NPR station and feel reasonably reassured that I will at least know if the world has melted down and what are the main topics on everybody's mind.

But people do listen to podcasts, and I suppose they mostly follow the path of least resistance and get the Apple branded product because it just works. Although they don't seem to get Apple TV all that much. Other products are more highly rated. And free still has some draw to it. But who can sort out the copy protection schemes and the Digital Rights Management schemes, and since when did the US of A get all high and mighty about not copying someone else's copyrighted stuff? We invented the concept.

It's hard to know when the obstacles are a matter of law or a matter of manufacturers and publishers trying to maximize profits by opening or closing off various avenues to corral your interest or affinity. I mean, you just know that Microsoft doesn't want you to inter-operate with Apple all that much, or is it the other way around? And Google just wants to take over the world again now that a younger guy over at Facebook is the IT I.T. innovator.

I wonder what it feels like to even be a contender at that level, and why can't you just let it go and be on the top of your game. It must be that being the king of the hill that way is a special kind of drug whose high just keeps on giving.

But, since my thread these days is about consciousness, one thing I'm pretty sure of is that these top dogs - the Jobs and Gates and Pages and Zuckerbergs and the rest of 'em - aren't any more "conscious" than you and I are.

But what if I'm missing stuff that everyone else is aware of? Every time I turn on PBS I think Oh Yeah I really should pay more attention to all those wildlife shows. It would be as though I'd actually traveled the world, and I could understand that much more about how it works. Or the shows about how the brain works. I really should watch T.E.D. more often too.

I could be just a troglodyte mind in a thoroughly modern civilization, you know, but on the other hand I do typically spend a lot of time reading books. And when there's a really good movie out I've been known to buy a ticket. Live theater sometimes. You know, the good stuff. Yesterday's movies feel so yesterday, and you're all alone watching stuff that everyone else has already watched.

Driving around SoCal it seems the popular way to live now is in big desert-block condo developments which look for all the world like big hotel complexes. I paid a visit to OpryLand once with my daughter - you know that massive complex of stores and restaurants and rooms all overlooking what's inside the superdome-like enclosure. They're attractive, these housing complexes, and they seem squarely aimed at middle-class people who can't afford a house even with depressed real-estate pricing. It's gotta make you feel special though, living in a convention complex 24-7-365.

I imagine they get all these apps and video choices and consider them cheap compared to what they'd pay in an actual hotel room. I'm guessing they play video games and listen to what smart futurists say about how video gaming will actually save rather than destroy us. But you know I'm also guessing that if you do enough of this by the end of the day there's not really a thought in your head. You're as conscious as a drunk or a doper who can't summon the energy to organize all the raw data streaming into your head.

It must feel really good, but I guess it always feels good to kick back and stop all attempts to organize. Watching movies, getting drunk, blowing some dope (do people still talk about it that way?). It's no way to live an entire life.

But you don't have to do all the organizational work alone! You see, we're all conspiring to play an epic game together, and there's this really powerful narrative behind it -  the greatest story ever written, say - and if everyone plays his little part, blogging up the stuff they're good at and not knocking down stuff just because they don't understand it, then with the magic of the Internet, all this data will self-organize and resolve itself according to quality and depth metrics.

Consciousness expands!

There is a change afoot. How could there not be? When we are or can be, to various degrees, aware of what's going on in most if not almost all of the world. We can get images and we can get sounds and videos, and of course all of it is subject to the pre-ordering of the various editorial and profit-making processes which bring it to us.

Sure those processes are as likely to omit by virtue of motivated over-emphasis as they are to include by an abundance of generous spirit. Thinking that we're in touch with the whole world might leave us a little less well in-touch than to be certain that we're not. but who really wants to go back to being limited by our local paper anymore? Who wants only to be able to witness the local amateur opera?

What we get to see or virtually experience is powered by politics and marketability and our own disposition to oogle and satisfy various levels of curiosity, informed or not.

And still I prefer books. There are all sorts of assumptions about the power of the technology which brought us the printing press - that it brought down the institution of the church and replaced it with freer thinking autodidacts who could read the Word themselves.

And now there are analogies being drawn between those cataclysmic times and these, when Blogging and picture and video sharing technologies allow each of us to try his voice in the public square. Sure it's chaotic, but it seems we've - most of us - managed to remain reasonably coherent.

As always, we pick and choose among the stuff swirling around and about us. We form a narrative thread and make rhyming associations. We pick our way forward, and wonder how it is, eventually, that we will or won't manage to find a way collectively to keep our heads about us.

Some stuff we pay attention to and some stuff we ignore. We give over to the commons that part of our thoughts which we feel comfortable giving over, and we keep to and for ourselves that part we need to call ourself by name. And it's all good or not depending on how it all comes out. About which we can know almost precisely nothing - except that if we don't participate, it won't come out well at all.

Back to reading . . .

Monday, January 24, 2011

Still Trying to Find Myself

No, not that way. I gave up that jejune exercise a long time ago, although I think a lot of people I know remain unconvinced. I mean I really have a hard time finding the self that is mine. I'm not so concerned with finding the essential me which might be expressed by style and a life's work leading to accomplishment. I just have a hard time actually believing that there's anyone me at home here.

There's been a lot written lately about traumatic brain injury survivors following on the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. It almost seems as though a shot to the head is not the quickest way to kill someone, despite assumptions we've all fostered on TV. Or to put it another way, there are lots of critical systems in the body, but there is also a lot of redundancy - proven by our ability to remain alive despite all sorts of outrages to the body - including in the brain.

The brain's analog would be a hologram, whose information is distributed throughout the substrate, but the more substrate, the sharper the image. So, with the brain, it turns out that we can still be ourselves despite radical attenuation of the brain's substrate. Naturally, there are critical regions and parts without which nothing much goes right.

As I was ruminating the other day, much of the brain's activity is alien to that self I seek. It seems to operate more quickly - the subliminal level seems to throw things up faster than I can process them. So this organizing principle, or is it principal, which makes some kind of sense out of all that random sensation seems closer to me. Some process of the brain, but not the brain itself. Maybe we stop being when the ratio tips upside down to where there is some sort of stalling in the information to be ordered.

I mean, if you think about it, we know that sensory deprivation leads to hallucinatory insanity - we seem to need the relative stability of a relatively unchanging world outside our heads. But on the other hand, if there is no motion there is no perception either. Our eyeballs bounce around to construct a stable and seamless reality "out there" and our brain fills in the gaps to where the seeming is still more enhanced.

We need to learn to see. "Above" seeing we need to learn to organize what we see, much of which will remain invisible until we have some kind of category for it. Eventually, we need some language to smooth our raw insights to some sort of conformity with those held by everyone else. And as we learn, many of these tasks move to someplace "beneath" our conscious attention, so that we can deploy that for higher order ordering.

It's funny (or NOT) how much of what gets called education relates to making conscious all that stuff which works better when it remains unconscious. Well, OK, so let's say someone has a lot of musical talent. If they want to play the violin, there's lots of technique to be focused on until the point where it can be fogotten and the focus is on the music.

But what waste for someone without musical talent. Well, unless you're a Chinese Tiger Mom, and then you might want to push the technique anyhow. And the very success of such efforts might do a lot to disprove certainties about "native talent."

But learning is about conforming what you can do to the way it's being done by others, and to the technologies which have evolved to enhance what you could do without them. Silent reading was impossible not so long ago, but now we've pushed those voices well back beneath our vocal apparatus.

It turns out that brain trauma survivability is partially a function of the mental power of the victim before the accident. For sure, we know that anyone who works out will look and be more physically fit. But being mentally fit is not always such a popular pursuit in American society, where anti-intellectualism often engenders a kind of inverse association between mental and physical virility.

Intelligence is so commonly thought to be a fixed attribute. Indeed the studies of brain trauma survival which indicate that brain power predicts speed and quality of recovery depend on the intelligence assessments conducted by the Army, thus producing a massive pool of data for Vietnam War brain trauma survivors.

But who knows where the mental desire which leads to fitness is first engendered? In the womb? In the genes? In the family constellation? There are so many chicken-egg type problems to sort out, since surely curiosity of any sort is where real learning starts. Who would ever start by wanting to know how to answer multiple choice problems. Who would start wanting to know how to do arithmetic? But it isn't so hard to imagine starting with music. Or with being able to build a durable house.

I have experienced several kinds of near death. The two most acute both involved loss of breath,. In the first instance, by drowning, my conscious knowledge of impending death against which I could and did swim with all my resources, induced that storied sensation of my entire life passing before me. In the second, a pulmonary embolism where there was nothing I could do, I only felt a fairly calm and actually serene sense that I was checking out. That this would be it, and afterward nothing at all.

Learners who already know that they have no "native talent" must also stimulate nothing at all to arise in the brain, and so the thoughts become flaccid. But you know, given a sharp enough sensation of impending end,  combined with some real swimming and breath-holding ability, the result may also be a kind of eternal life, if time is compressed toward the limit of zero.

It must be this then, in which consciousness consists. This compression ratio where the information coming in does neither over nor under whelm its organizer. Where there is just enough to stimulate the forward motion, but not so much as to stun the self into massive hallucinatory chaos.

Just so, consciousness has not always been an attribute of human animals. And its origins must be not unlike that memory I have of writing my name for the first time, on a paper bag with a pencil. Right up there with where I was when JFK was shot, or when the Trade Towers came down. No real mystery to it at all. And no real moment of inception.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A New Idea about Ideas!

As you know, Faithful Reader, I'm not a big believer in "ideas." I'm not an idealist, and I'm not a goddist, and I'm not even much on the whole notion of a spiritual self which might persist beyond the grave or as it were above this earthly realm. I don't really get the idea of myself, and remain radically skeptical that there is any meaning to the "I" I use just as much or more than anybody who writes or talks or exposes the goings on inside.

But the thing is, also just as much as anyone, when I have something to say I often introduce it by some vague enumeration of the points I'm about to make. Now it would be impossible for me to tell if my exposition retrofits itself into the enumeration I've committed to, or if I really do have some kind of inception [sic] "in mind" which only awaits the words to be "fleshed out," as it were, for someone else's comprehension.

Of course, as I age, I sometimes can't keep hold of these objects in my head, and I find myself apologizing to my interlocutor that I can't remember "point three" or whichever one it was. I know it's there, I know I had it, but I can't bring it back to mind. Just this morning, for instance, I had this idea about what I was going to write about in this blog, and after my shower I had a moment's panic that it was gone.

I also panicked that my day would be dogged by this nagging sense that I'd forgotten something important. But in the event I retraced some of my earlier steps, consciously trying to empty my mind, glancing back across the pages of the newspaper I'd perused earlier, and oh thank the heavens, it came back.

You see I've been trying to rehabilitate my usage of Mandarin Chinese. I watch Chinese TV which, amazingly, is all over the place here in SoCal. I open my mouth in Chinese bookstores, and quite often I find myself fishing for words just beyond the tip of my tongue. I know what it is I want to say, and not in English either. . .

Well, of course this is near enough related to what happens in my native tongue. Again, the ravages of age. I have some clear conceptual construing of some topic clear in my head, but I can't find the words. I feel bankrupt of vocabulary.

Generally speaking, if I just start talking, I can recover the shape of the concept and get across, in the main, what it is I have in mind, and if I'm allowed to keep talking long enough, I'm usually satisfied that I did the job. But for the nagging feeling that there was a word; something more economical which would have gotten the concept across either more quickly or more precisely. Oftentimes, using Chinese, I'll get the right kind of help from the person I'm speaking with. Less often using English.

While speaking Chinese, I have to beat around the bush to make a point, not having the words, although as happens nearly as often in English now, I'm aware that I once did know the word, or someone did, or at least I know I've come across it somewhere once.

This is all, of course, nothing other than a trick of the brain; the way that consciousness, so called, is able or not to pay attention to all its activities. My brain has likely formed its concepts using proto-words, which simply can't make it out into the quasi-tangible cosmos of shared words until they're slowed way down and captured. These proto-words are like a shorthand, the brain dancing over the space where words are formed in a near-perfect analog to the relation my aging verbalizations now have to my once more limber speech.

Except that as a younger man my vocabulary was so much less rich, even if more alacritous for recall. Or was it only that the smaller repository allowed for at least the sensation of rapid recall. I fade, and yet my brain can claim elaboration beyond that it showed when I was brighter. Or someone can claim such for it.

Anyhow, these concepts formed before they can be articulated or expressed are what gets called "ideas." It would be - no it IS - a mistake to consider them prior to language or closer to some ideal form, the way a geometric circle mocks attempts in reality to reproduce it's concept. The ideal shape is caricature, only seeming perfect because it hasn't yet been realized. Or ever.

Mathematics is an economical shorthand, and by its usage we can arrive at things like perfect circles, but even there reality mocks the attempts, since perfect circles remains measurably and thus demonstrably absent from reality.

Together with some really smart friends and relations, I recently had some fun trying to come up with the obviously lacking English-language word for that condition of ironic made in earnest. It seems clear that there is a gap there in English. The closest we could come is 'po-faced' which is awkward at best and whose likely etymology - "potty faced" relates to the look you have coming out of the outhouse, trying to look as though you haven't been doing what anyone you see knows you have been. But without the self-awareness.

And it is just such absence, whose existence now is as certain as the existence of the word you do catch when the tip of your tongue is actually working, which delineates the I which only seems to exist but doesn't. It has always been as faded as it will have been in my grave. Subject to recall, perhaps, in minds around me did they but love me.

Though what business do I have calling it "my" grave? Surely it will not be I who occupy it. It will only be the idea of me, which is all I ever was and shall be.

That Lady Wasn't My Mother!!

So here's a nice rhetorical trick that cries out for clarification! A baby, abducted shortly after birth, now senses as an adult that her mother isn't really her mother. She Googles events around the time of her birth and finds notice of a baby abduction. DNA proves the match and she's re-united with Mom and now the law enforcement hunt is on for the fake Mom who abducted her.

What's the story here? Is it that biology trumps love, nature trumps nurture? Or is it that there never could have been "true" love involved, since what kind of mother would steal another woman's baby? Or is it that telling lies is what makes it a fictional attachment in the first place?

What about all those babies who never were loved or wanted by their DNA-matched "real" moms? What do they get, if not a real mom, to prove their misgivings? Only Jesus? No one calls Him Mama Jesus.

Just because you can find a story in reality whose odds might approach those of the Lottery, doesn't make the real story any less Hollywood. I mean this particular outcome isn't going to happen to you. Which doesn't mean a thing about how wonderful it might be for the reunited family in reality.

Still, as with Lottery winners who seem to get depressed and even kill themselves at a rate higher than the rest of us, and just as with Hollywood Hotties who seem to have a harder time than the rest of us staying in relationships, the real story is about keeping our dreams alive. This story is a realization of the fantasy that there really is someone out there who might love us the way that we deserve to be loved.

Except, oddly enough, most of us now feel lucky not to have been in the winner's shoes. Most of us are happy to have been raised by a real Mom who really did love us. Right? But, you know, I'm pretty sure that there are lots of people who do just fine without one.

The real prize is to be happy with what you are where you are, and there are as many different routes to that destination as there are individual stories. It's never easy. And the story never ends.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Television Everywhere

There are so many homeless in LA. As with the depth of snow when I was a little person, how am I to know how much of this is life as normal in the sunnier climes, and how much is the impact of our economic meltdown. They say I came of age during a mini Ice Age, and so the snow was likely really deeper then.

Some wheel around with impressive quantities of stuff. I wonder what's bundled up within the third-world-wrap improvised baggage. I wonder if it would be very easy to distinguish mental illness from hard luck, or if the distinction gets lost by the time a person is used to living on the street. By the time one gets to know the purple-shirted downtown security marshals by name.

I am barely holding my stuff together. Some's here in California, and some's in Buffalo. Some is among the contacts I keep going, grateful for the existence again of correspondence, of the sort I used to write before the days of email. There was that awful time when no-one was writing anymore, and before you could be very sure that everyone had email. Thank God that desert is in my past.

I've reconnected with people I haven't seen for years, thanks to Facebook, or thanks to profiles on various Internet sites. My world feels manageable again, as though I never did leave so much behind. My daughters will visit me in my new place, and I will settle my mind.

This self I am, nestled among stuff and correspondence. This self whose eternal existence I don't quite believe.

Then what is consciousness? From where does this conviction come that I am me and here and now and concerned about my persistence at least for a while longer?

My reflexes and behaviors are not so different from the dog I now befriend. We have - dogs and mankind - co-evolved over that same time span which created humanity floating atop of so much meat. We conspire with language to create something more than just a species of animal embedded in the holograph of life's matrix. Even our personal consciousness, that self we hold onto so closely, is conspiracy's merest end.

There was once so much talk of finding oneself, of being true to oneself, of the possibility to lose oneself sometimes for the good, and sometimes for the ill of it. Perhaps we've grown to realize that this fetishised self never did exist, and that the nirvana satori states which ancient exotic practice once promised us exist only at a metaphorical remove from real. Where our own true singular God resides.

Now we know there are no limits to what an individual will aggrandize to himself and for himself alone. In stunning competition with those grandiose rulers from the days of our inception as humanity, the Chin Shih-huang dis (Emperors) or however the hell you prefer to spell it (秦始皇)from back when the rest of us behaved ourselves as worker bees, individuated in terracotta,  with faces enough to mimic proper names.

Was he a psychopath, then, that despotic unifier of what China still claims for it's persistent identity? If you lose yourself in drink or beneath the kind of psychosis that either sends you to, or which develops as a result of, living on the street, are you then in that same remove from self-ness that those with the power of life, death, and personal pleasure from the backs of lowlier selves once had?

So many of those we admire now have that capacity to live as kings or princes or emperors. They do good works and give their money to programs for people in need. They would keep psychotic shooters away from crowds if they could, and, like the autocrats of old, they strive to be responsible and to resist the temptations to live as though there were nothing else in the cosmos but their personal self, and perhaps some comely other for a while.

They show up on TV.

Not too long ago, back when families would eat together, we would also sit together to watch network TV. These were somewhat communal moments, not too far removed from attending a live show or a concert. Television has since become fragmented to the point where it would be hard to understand how people know what they like to watch, and since the gradations are so fine, it seems unlikely that even family groupings might like to watch the same shows.

Our small screens have grown now, and they show things ranging from games to avatars moving in synch with our gestures to Internet redirected amateur-generated YouTubes to the movies we still like to watch in a group when they aren't too lurid.

People still gather up the news on television screens, although this also blends with computer screens, and it's almost impossible now to distinguish responsible news reporting from a packaged and hyped presentation calibrated to capture attention. And much of this descends into a strange kind of semi-hypnotic telling to folks who are frustrated by their own difficulty making sense of the world around them, things which will cause them to be assured that they are right in their lazy and unschooled assumptions about how things must be.

Even those of us who are demonstrably enlightened, at least by virtue of our schooling and our ability to read and to agree with peer-reviewed thinking from among the very best prepared among us, cannot seem to help but to live as though things which we know to be true aren't true.

We know that global warming is real. We know that temperatures in Antarctica are rising at a terrifying rate. We know in our very bones that the human species cannot keep on the way it is, and yet we keep on as though it really can and will. As though a real and tangible God will descend to rescue us. As though we can achieve technologic and satori of a sort which won't alienate us from that self we never want to leave, though we might wish to invent a new one.

This all generates a kind of extreme cognitive dissonance. We live in a perpetual state of waiting for the next shoe to drop. We wait for the final war of the worlds to erupt, and there might be a tiny part of each of us which would feel relief when it does. But there's absolutely nothing any of us can do to head it off.

We listen to the reasonable people up on TV who wag their heads because they also can't get any action even though they have voices that we don't. People carry on as though there's nothing to be done because there's nothing they can do themselves and we're scared about changing what's worked in the past. Indeed, as with the US Constitution, we valorize those things to the point almost of making them sacred. We need something to hold onto. We need something to behave as if forever.

Meanwhile, as we all stare at screens ranging in size from pocket-sized and hand held to wall-sized and almost theatrical, we keep in touch with one another and with the world, and the one thing that we must suppose is that there's something indelibly me about me and that can't change until something kills me. Even then some of us think that there's a way to carry on in the great beyond, whatever that could possibly mean.

Sometimes we worry about whether we have inherited DNA which is just a little bit off. That secret code, still inscrutable even to the one who owns it, which represents our right to exist according only to natural law, and as part of an environment from which we now diverge relentlessly and at an accelerated pace.

Will we be tripped up earlier than some of our cohort, perhaps because the environment has been shifted too far too fast? Or is it just that we may have outlived the span for which the code was optimized? Or are we just simply deserving, according to that natural law, to go away and good riddance. To what extent would you re-invent yourself if you could? How far would you transform from the one those who love you love?

I think we stare at screens for the same sort of fix. We want to know if we are sound in our thinking, in our environment, and we want to check ourselves out according to the widest possible sweep of what's out there.

It seems clear enough that warm homes, shelter from the weather, flush toilets and other such innovations are to be desired universally. We even want those around us to share the amenities, since otherwise we all might be drowning in shit and filth from those who live like animals. There is no-one short of Jesus who loves a smelly homeless person. A dog does better. And yet we must distance ourselves from the shooters and the thieves, and why not the shouters and the haters too?

Sometimes we just want to be entertained or amused, which must stimulate a process internal to our brains which can also be stimulated just by ingesting certain substances. Drugs. We used to entertain each other face to face. We used to watch entertainers live. Now they would look amateurish. We have become used to the best. Projections on a screen at ever heightened fidelity.

Or are the ones we watch the best? We watch them because their genes expressed themselves in bodily forms of exceeding beauty. Comic genius, maybe, or glibness with tongue. We watch them because their parents imbued them with a work ethic which made them climb and climb until they were at the very top, while the rest of us continued to play the lottery of when will someone notice me.

I don't wish for someone better than the ones I  love. I don't dream of perfect skin and form and intelligence. There is something better than that, and it's right here before me now. And still I am intrigued by all the new ways I can get "content" on my various screens. Quite soon now, it will all be mediated by the ubiquitous trade in packets of diminutive data. A kind of genetics of communication, which will render obsolete all investments in satellite infrastructure, or cable plant, or even fiber optics except for the backbones. Even these might get subsumed in some vibratory pulsation through the ether.

We will all swim in that same electromagnetic vibrant soup beyond the sensory capacity of mere organism to detect. Perhaps the screen will turn into a pair of cheap 3D glasses, and we can tune in and out from reality, sight and sound, depending on where we want to be. We can expand its virtual size to all-encompass the drear reality round about us. We can inhabit filmic dystopias and they can become real and real is good.

Except that when the electromagnetic resonance drops, when the generators hiccup, we all fall down, we all fall down and then what of that vaunted selfness which was to be so elaborated? What of that then?

Yes, and it's true that we already condition reality at that remove from our animal selves. We have already touched the quantum fringes, and life on the edge is all that there ever has been. Our reality is already shared. But that we can still, for a moment longer, chose to shut it out by virtue of those historically extravagant riches that you and I, demonstrably by our ability to read and write across the ether, share.

This is the moment then, when all collapses and we face a collective future. Or not. As always.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Big City, The Big MLA Conference

Your feckless correspondent finds himself, of all places, in the grand city of L.A. where he is company (no bona-fides) witnessing the annual gathering of literary types from across our land. I have nothing in particular to do and so I have enjoyed walking (!!!!) throughout the city. What a city!!

Having just written about Buffalo, again, and being among those who "talk proud" of that city, it does have to be said that the worlds' great cities each have something about them which leaves a city like Buffalo, well, in their dust.

I've been to a few, and have gotten to know each quite well in my time - that would be the old days to most people since I'm not a jet setter. I bar-tended in London, and worked as an au-pair in New York. I studied Chinese in Beijing, and have paid more than a tourist quick stop to Toronto, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Madrid, Paris, Hong Kong, Shangai, and now L.A.

Each of these cities has a distinctive personality - something that makes it unmistakably itself and not even remotely confusable with any of the others. But each is also of such size that it can be said to embody a near infinity of diversity and choice; things to see, things to do, places to be surprised by.

There is nothing in the world which could have prepared me for L.A. I've seen images, and read stories and of course we all have a televised sense of what L.A. must be like. After walking as much as I have, it all starts to feel something like familiar but it's definitely not like anyplace else I've ever been.

I don't think it's just the architecture, or the distinctive way public and private get merged, though in each case - and I'm sure the weather is a factor - there are spectacularly unique things about the way it's done here. I gawked at the "post-modern" cathedral, and especially its catacombs: financial footing and foundation for the building's maintenance. It's the only time I've ever seen anything "modern" worthy to be put alongside medieval cathedrals, although I'd have to be on the side of those who must have protested the extravagance of the project. Well, especially given where the Church's money has all been going.

From Sacred Destinations website

I ducked into a nice bookstore in Chinatown, and asked the very well-educated proprietor if he might suggest some modern novelists for me to practice my Chinese with. Ten years ago, he said, there was still a lively trade in literary works - novels, poetry, that distinct Chinese essay form san-wen. But he complains that no-one reads anymore, and that I must read more than his Chinese customers. The old ones too, I ask? Well, if they're still alive he shrugs.

I don't know if it's just that the Chinese have moved up and out of Chinatown and he doesn't get the literate customers anymore, or if that general sense of things descending ever downward has infected him from American intellectuals. Or if what he reports is literally true. No-one reads anymore. Well, he hadn't heard about the MLA coming to town either, and that's been prominent on the news. Even for L.A., it's a big deal, with upwards of 9,000 participants. I guess the action's in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show. Alas. Still, I have to say there's nothing like a world-class city, and I wasn't prepared to find one in L.A. All we hear is sprawl.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Honoring Sarah Palin

Maybe I have her mixed up with Oprah Winfrey. I'm not in the right demographic to pay attention to either of them, but I did come across the fact of Winfrey starting up a new distribution channel, the Oprah Winfrey Network (her OWN the world network!), to start on cable and satellite TV.

With a somewhat snarky tone, Time Magazine makes note of who it is that watches Oprah and why. I guess they're still smarting that most readers have migrated over to the video-magazine format. As far as this under-informed reader knew, Oprah had only recently announced her retirement from her vastly successful television show.

Of course, that seemed unlikely, but was I the only one who'd already guessed that she would only do that as a way forward to bigger and better and more powerful ventures. Even as a reader now, you have to be a specialist, so I really have no idea what the entertainment insiders already knew that I didn't.

I appreciate Time Magazine's continued conscious and conscientious literacy, by the way. I'm sure it's not so highbrow as the New Yorker, or the Atlantic Monthly or Harpers; magazines which I'm far too unspecialized to take the time to read. Maybe I just simply don't want to be that much of an insider. Anyhow, it feels as though catching on to the special narrative style of each of those could only cut into both my book reading time and my book reading budget. Time gives me a good survey of what's going on, and doesn't seem to presume a thing about my identity.

They do, however, seem to presume a thing about the identity of the Big O's fans. OK, maybe there's a bigger O now, but I'm talking about Oprah. These are people who want to bask in the glow of her celebrity, and who are not so small minded as the Big Mama Grizzly's fans. Oprah makes ordinary people feel large minded, and capable not just to make sense of the world, but to be competent at its pinnacle once they get their chance, just as Oprah is.

Yes, as Time's tone implies, this celebrity craze goes too far and the people who spend too much time on it should learn to get on with their own lives. Still, you get the sense that Oprah does more good than harm overall. At least she's not in any known danger of wanting to run the country.

One thing that caught my attention in the Time announcement was their take on a new show to be featured on OWN, called Enough Already! with Peter Walsh. Ostensibly about decluttering your house, this show is really, Time assures us, about how to live in your own present, by clearing out 'two kinds of clutter:' "memory clutter," which recalls the past, and "I might need it" clutter, which anxiously anticipates the future.'

Well, you know this just resonates with me since I've been pretty intensely involved with cleaning out clutter in my own life. It isn't that fun, and it hasn't been easy. Cleaning out clutter is definitely not something I ever wanted or needed to do. What I needed to do was to move, however much more pleasant it would have been to stay put.

I don't really think the Oprah ethos would have anyone moving so smartly in the direction of Spartan as I've had to move. She probably has in mind that fabled empty executive desk, topped with an Apple, and with the rich wood grain showing all the time except when papers might need signing.

She's talking about celebrity decluttering, to a demographic made up of those who wish they could have celebrity makeovers, celebrity style consultants, and celebrity designers to guide their self-creation.

I've always prided myself on a fairly contained and only modestly growing collection of belongings. But when I recently vacated the one and only house I've ever owned, I did discover that stuff, just like work, expands to fill the space/time available for it. Smart executives work from a Spartan desk if they need to get stuff done. I am not a smart executive of my own life, I guess. (To be honest, when I did have an executive desk, it was always cluuttered.)

The biggest thing was my long campaigned wooden sailboat, and it's surrounding accouterments. That might have been all mixed up with my identity. The boat would be still sitting beside the house after it was occupied by the new owner, but for some hapless fellow not all that much younger than me allowed as how I might give it away to him.

There were all sorts of clothes which had documented my inevitable middle-aged sprawl, and useful stuff I pretty much gave to the new owner for pennies on the dollar. Tools, even, and a lot of furniture. After relocating back to the same apartment I lived in before the house, I still had too much stuff. Now I'm trying to get rid of as much of that as possible to complete my move to California.

I'm still not quite here yet, not having found a job and therefore unable to get health insurance, and so my apartment in Buffalo remains intact, if forlorn. And it leaves me still not having had to confront the main issues; the Christmas Tree ornaments collected across the years, the file cabinets, certain pieces of furniture I've had with me my entire life, even against all sorts of odds, and boxes worth of just plain stuff. It's not the "sentimental value." I think this stuff actually embodies my mind; all the little decisions one makes each and every day about what to save and what to discard.

I came out here with a carload at first, which was more than enough to keep me going and not missing anything at all. Having things available is not the same as having them with you, and it's easy enough to be away from "home" even for extended periods of time. But for me, home has probably always been a sprawling and extended collection of stuff, not all of which is in "my place."

Over the recent holidays I packed up 5 boxes of cherry picked books and notebooks - things which I thought  contained aspects of my self and mind which It would be difficult if not impossible to reassemble without them - and had them shipped out to my newer digs in California. It looks like I'm straddling two "homes" now.

Sure, it will remain as unlikely as it ever has been that I will ever re-open my old Chinese literature notebooks. Had I completed my entry into that field, these notebooks would already be buried beneath piles of subsequent production; of value to me only by virtue of their ability to contrast with my later and more sophisticated production.

As it is, I find that looking through them actually does recall circuits of my brain which I might easily have thought dead. But they come back to life in ways which would be impossible if I were to try to start over. Looking at my own actual handwriting brings back the actual moments of study and discovery.

Among the notebooks I left behind this time are collections from all my various careers. There are conference notes jotted when I was a private school headmaster or a technology administrator. There are classroom notes from the study of Comparative Education. These also recall parts of me, but parts I feel content to allow to fall away. Or maybe it's just that whatever I once did know in any of these fields would be so utterly obsolete and superseded that starting over would be the only way to get back into those games.

With Chinese literature, it's more a game of mastery at the basic level in ways that never will change. Whatever my career might be now in this last slide of my life, I do want it to be informed by my once and now re-enlivened study of Chinese traditions. Maybe that's because it's the only way out I've ever found from the conundrum of "progress." Where continuous improvement is meant always to lead to something new and better, but where also, therefore, the medicine we practice now and bet our lives on will surely be shown to be idiotic some day ever sooner rather than later.

It's nice to think that there's always something more to learn and a better self to become. But it's also nice to know that maybe it isn't necessary always to leave the familiar one behind. Medicine would be nicer if it were more like Chinese literature, with certain principles always enduring, though no two pieces could ever be the same.

I am glad for my study of education and my facility with technology, but these have failed to define me, or I have failed to invest myself in these fields. Is it that I never did fully see myself in these careers. Or were tthey what happened to me, and while I climbed on top of them, it was also seemingly random or unlucky happenstance which knocked me from my game. Well, same with Chinese literature.

Among the notebooks I was perusing while making my selection for shipping (equal to my weight and travelling steerage, these books still cost more to ship coast to coast than I do - weird!) was one which I just knew would satisfy a partial memory I've carried for maybe 20 years now. I had been attending an Independent School Management Institute about integrating and coordinating curricula, and had been struck by a section on "expert learning" and in particular had a memory of being alerted to a study of chess masters.

Over the years I've conducted Internet searches and asked knowledgeable people questions, but I was never able to find anything about this study, and I couldn't remember the excellent  teacher's reason for having brought it up. But I had apparently forgotten about the notebook. Perusing it recently after coming across it during my cherry picking expedition I just knew it would have my secret.

On maybe the fifth pass through, it finally did. Yes! It was about how chess masters can "read" a board, and will be able to tell in an instant if the pieces have been randomly (or inexpertly) placed. There is a meaning to the board, a telling of the expertise of the players and of the place in the game where the expert finds the board. This can't be taught directly. The only thing you can teach is the rules of the game. And then the student has to want to play.

I think that must also be the way that a person views the debris of his own life. To an interior decorator, maybe my stuff is all random. To someone with better taste, much of it will be clutter. But to the person who lives there, each item contains its own history, and when you let it go you might as well let your mind go the way my Dad's has. It will not remain a part of you. Being forever new and always in the present is not always a thing to be desired.

On the plane out here to California I finished reading this excellent book on Buffalo called City on the Edge. In its essence, I think the book opposes everything about the living-in-the-present-decorator-ethic. My home town Buffalo is presented as both victim and victimizer of itself across the years. It would repeatedly take giant sweeps across its scruffy architecture in an attempt to get out ahead of what the expensive seers from out of town assured it would be directions for the future.

In general, the book urges, Buffalo was the victim of Urban Renewal; the very same thing on a massive scale which makeover artists would have you do to your home. You can inhabit someone else's view of life, and adapt it for yourself. But in the process, you might destroy everything that makes you you.

The book's author, Mark Goldman, documents the many extravagant successes of Buffalo: in the arts, in music, in architecture, even in politics. But all of these have been subsumed beneath the collective finish by the turn of this still-new century, where Buffalo is the butt of jokes about impoverishment and lack of style in every dimension.

There is not a soul who lives in Buffalo who can't document his litany of regrets for the city. The Big U. should have been built downtown on the waterfront. The suburbs shouldn't have been allowed to cannibalize the culturals of the city. Regionalism should have overwhelmed home rule and competing jurisdictions sprawling toward the lowest common denominator. No mass transit would have been better than a partial realization of its vision in the form of a single underground line.

This sense of regret can get transported inward, until as a denizen of Buffalo you start to believe what outsiders already know; that in such a downtrodden and dingy place, it's unlikely that an interesting soul remains. Could have been great, but now the City of No Illusions, accepting itself as a might-have-been, leaves the Oprah life for elsewhere. To have remained behind at all, we must be losers all.

So many people have moved away from Buffalo. And in the moving, they must have faced the same thing that I do now - it simply isn't worth the money to take it all with you. Plus, you'd be bringing along your Buffalo style, or lack thereof. You'd be dragging along self doubts.

So here's the point. (There's always a point!) Ever since we all realized that there's something wrong with Kansas, thoughtful people have been trying to figure out what's up with politics that people believe and act on utterly unthoughtful certainties. Sarah Palinesque idiocies. Why???

The only cogent analysis I've come across is the one given by a well-known left coaster, George Lakoff, who divides the world of political predilection into those who value most the strict father vs. those who value a nurturing mother. And that simple distinction can explain - maybe it's the only thing that can explain - the bizarre lineup of political positions. Save the unborn but nuke Iran and death penalty to anyone who ought to be guilty but demonstrably might not be. Libertarian, but join the mob shouting down any liberal sentiments.

I don't know if anyone's remarked on this or not (that reading trouble I have) but surely it can't have escaped notice that the entire American experiment can be viewed as a giant filter to capture all the strict father types. We are people who have deserted our motherlands. We have quested for frontiers. We quake on the brink in California, well, except that there is one place further. Alaska!

Sarah Palin's Alaska (I am vaguely aware that there is a show by that name, and I even caught a part of it once, but it was so far fetched that I couldn't believe that anyone would or could take it as real). That's where the Mama Grizzlies are stricter than strict fathers. Or to paraphrase Jack Nicholson in some movie or other, a strict mother is just like a strict father, but take away the honor.