Thursday, January 27, 2011

Quote of the Day

When we look at the ocean, we see that each wave has a beginning and an end. A wave can be compared with other waves, and we can call it more or less beautiful, higher or lower, longer lasting or less long lasting. But if we look more deeply, we see that a wave is made of water. While living the life of a wave, the wave also lives the life of water. It would be sad if the wave did not know that it is water. It would think, 'Some day I will have to die. This period of time is my life span, and when I arrive at the shore, I will return to nonbeing.'

These notions will cause the wave fear and anguish. A wave can be recognized by signs -- beginning or ending, high or low, beautiful or ugly. In the world of the wave, the world of relative truth, the wave feels happy as she swells, and she feels sad as she falls. She may think, 'I am high!' or 'I am low!' and develop superiority or inferiority complexes, but in the world of the water there are no signs, and when the wave touches her true nature -- which is water -- all of her complexes will cease, and she will transcend birth and death.

- Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation. pp. 124-125.

Dramatic Taylor Calling

My buddy Joel pointed me towards an excellent David Mitchell short story published in the Financial Times called "Earth calling Taylor". It's got the best that Mitchell has to offer: vibrantly descriptive prose; a story that twists and turns through multiple scenes, all of which are entertaining; and a narrator whose thoughts are as entertaining as the events of the story - if not more so. In fact, one of the big strengths of Mitchell is his ability to chart the highs and lows of the ego as it lurches from one moment to the next. In this story, it's the twists and turns of Taylor's promotion: will he get it or not? At one moment when his success seems assured, Mitchell writes:
"'Taylor. Calvin Hathaway here, with a bit of festive good news ...'
The crowd went wild. King Ryan is anointed."
It reminds me of the scenes in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet where Zoet dramatizes his actions in this thoughts, often jumping from the depths of depression to the heights of ecstasy within moments. It’s an accurate depiction of how our brains often work, and it has the benefit of being extremely entertaining.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Nurture your Innovator!

Lane Wallace writes about Steve Jobs as an innovator, and expands the scope to write about what makes an innovator. Money quote:
...K.R. Sridhar, the CEO of the innovative energy start-up company Bloom Energy, attributes his inventor's vision to four elements in his childhood:
1) Exposure to many cultures, which instilled in him a belief that just because something was done a particular way didn't mean there weren't 16 other valid ways it could be done.
2) support and enthusiasm for trying new things. ...
3) support for failure. ...
4) A belief that finding innovative ways to make the world better is important. A mind in search of better ideas, even if they sound radical, is more likely to stumble across one.

It's what the Internet was Invented for

I'm a sucker for bad SciFi cover art. Luckily, an entire website - Goodshowsir - exists to highlight and mock this under appreciated genre.
For you lowfi blokes, you can participate by browsing the SciFi paperbacks in your local used bookstore. Hilarity ensues.

A Bolano Tactic

I recently finished Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. As I’ve mentioned here before, it's a simply stunning book.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Adam Kirsch statement I wrote about the other day (short version for those of you that don’t want to click through: “Only once we have learned how to read [an orginal author] do we realize that this ugliness is really a new, totally unexpected kind of beauty and that what seemed wrong in his writing is exactly what makes him great.”) Now 2666 is a book that is about a lot of awful things, and yet it’s compulsively readable. But it’s not the morbid readable of Cormac McCarthy, which is like rubbernecking at the carnage of an automobile accident on the side of the highway. Instead, Bolaño gets you to really care about his characters through a number of tactics, not least of which is the obsessive capturing of the minutia of their everyday lives (or deaths, in "The Part about the Crimes"). But he does this through writing that is almost willingly bland, a stream-of-consciousness style consisting of clinical descriptions of banal events. But he also keeps you on your toes by including sudden strokes of absurd poetry. To chose just one example, in one of the tangents in "The Part about Archimboldi", Bolaño has just finished telling a story of how Popescu has found happiness with a beautiful actress and spends two large relatively boring paragraphs detailing Popescu’s economic investments in Tegucigalpan public transit. After all this, Bolaño suddenly writes:
“With Asuncion Reyes, Popescu found happiness, but then he lost it and they were divorced. He forgot the Tegucigalpa metro. Death surprised him in a Paris hospital, asleep on a bed of roses." (page 856)
The abrupt mood change from happiness to death, the absurdly poetic detail of having a bed of roses in a hospital (in Paris, of course): all this elevates the story to another level. There are many other examples that probably illustrate this point better – in fact I’ve quoted a few of these before, but they don’t really do the effect justice without the “regular” prose that precedes the beautiful part – but its this mixing of “boring” with magical writing that lends a lot of his writing his power.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Space... the Final Frontier

A fun flash video of the International Space Station coming together. It's gotten quite large over the years!

Unintended Consequences of Bad or Incomplete Learning

Fostering Creativity:
Context clearly matters. When the apparently knowledgeable teachers in the experiments provide a seemingly complete lesson about the toy, the children deduce that there is no more to learn. If the lesson is interrupted, or if the instructor seems like a novice, the child deduces that there is more to discover.
Short lesson: Don't always tell your kids what to do with things. They may surprise you (and themselves!) with their creativity. I know that many is a game that we don't use anywhere near what was intended to do, and it's even more fun because we've come up with the rules!
h/t Daily Dish

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Quote of the Day

Outlaws only do wrong when they feel it's right; Criminals only feel right when they're doing wrong.
- Jim Dodge

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Calvin & Hobbes & Tyler Durden

Fight Club and Calvin & Hobbes. Genius.

Learning to Read Writing

Writing in Slate about 2666, Adam Kirsch paraphrased an intriguing idea:
According to Proust, one proof that we are reading a major new writer is that his writing immediately strikes us as ugly. Only minor writers write beautifully, since they simply reflect back to us our preconceived notion of what beauty is; we have no problem understanding what they are up to, since we have seen it many times before. When a writer is truly original, his failure to be conventionally beautiful makes us see him, initially, as shapeless, awkward, or perverse. Only once we have learned how to read him do we realize that this ugliness is really a new, totally unexpected kind of beauty and that what seemed wrong in his writing is exactly what makes him great.
This describes exactly what happened when I first read Thomas Pynchon (Vineland, to be specific). At first, the manic energy, page long sentences, and worm hole digressions were wildly entertaining but very hard to make sense of. However, after a few readings, his prose style falls into place and I fell in love.

Song of the Day

Can't get McCartney's "Ever Present Past" out of my head...

I've got too much on my plate
Don't have no time to be a decent lover
I hope it isn't too late
Searching for the time that has gone so fast
The time that I thought would last
My ever present past

I've got too much on my mind
I think of every thing to be discovered
I hope there's something to find
Searching for the time that has gone so fast
The time that I thought would last
My ever present past

But things I think I did
I do, I think I did
But the things I think I did
When I was a kid

I couldn't understand a word that they were saying
But still I hung around and took it all in
I wouldn't join them in the games that they were playing
It went by, it went by... in a flash
It flew by, it flew by... in a flash

There's far too much on my plate
Don't have no time to be a decent lover
I hope it's never too late
Searching for the time that has gone so fast
The time that I thought would last
My ever present past

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Synchronicity of 2666 and the Bloodlands

Had a strange moment of synchronicity yesterday. It started off with my nightly reading of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. I’m on the last section – “The Part about Archimboldi" – the main character of which is a German on the west front of WWII. The part I read last night involved him learning about a town administrator who was “accidentally sent” 500 Greek Jews and needed to “take care of them,” with predictably brutal results. (2666, for all of its brilliance and amazing reading, is far from an uplifting book.) Then, at 2:30 this morning, suffering from what I learned today was bronchitis bordering on pneumonia, coughed myself awake and spent some insomniac time reading through the latest Harpers. Adam Hochschild reviews a Timothy Snyder book Bloodlands: Europe Between Stalin and Hitler in a chilling examination of “how what is today Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, the three Baltic states, and a narrow strip of Russia became, between the early 1930s and 1945, a killing ground almost without precedent.”
The article goes on to detail how much these people suffered – and not just the Jews. From the article: “...a minimum of 14 million people altogether were deliberately murdered there during that period, the Soviet POWs, almost all of the Jews who perished in the Holocaust, at least 3.3 million inhabitants of Ukraine who died in the famine caused by the Soviet collectivization of agriculture, civilians starved or shot by Nazi occupying troops, and people from a variety of ethnic groups targeted by Hitler or Stalin or both. This appalling total does not even count the many millions of combat deaths in the region, on the bloodiest front of the bloodiest war in history.” Yikes. The situation was indescribably grim, and one of the strengths of 2666 is it brings these cold statistics to life in a way that you can start to empathize with the situation.
Confronting this grim situation is not pleasant. The sheer scope of the slaughter is depressing enough, but Hochschild also presents two other reasons “why Americans, when we talk about those years, almost entirely ignore [this territory].” His conclusion is twofold: that 1) “in the bloodlands... it is sometimes frustratingly hard to draw the line between victim and victimizer. Many people were both;” and 2) “Americans… like to imagine ourselves always making the right moral choice; hence we prefer to hear about times and places where people could do so.” The second point brings me back to 2666, one of the themes of which could be described by Hochschild when he writes “And not only were there few chances for heroism, there was little inherent nobility in being a survivor.” The last section at least is grim writing about tough times, and I was happy to have supporting evidence to drive home just how tough it really was.

Monday, January 17, 2011

First Lines of Travels in Siberia

Officially, there is no such place as Siberia. No political or territorial entity has Siberia as its name. In atlases, the word "Siberia" hovers across the northern third of Asia unconnected to any place in particular, as if designating a zone or condition; it seems to show through like a watermark on the page. During Soviet times, revised maps erased the name entirely, in order to discourage Siberian regionalism. Despite this invisibility, one can assume that Siberia's traditional status as a threat did not improve.
- Travels in Siberia, Ian Frazier

Quote of the Day

But I didn't understand then. That I could hurt somebody so badly that she would never recover. That a person can, just by living, damage another human being beyond repair.
- Haruki Murikami, p.28, South of the Border, West of the Sun

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Quote of the Day

... shouted Ivanov with all his strength. The shout had a rending violence, like a claw, but not a claw that did any damage to Ansky's or Ivanov's real adversaries. Instead it was like a claw that pounces and floats in the middle of the room, like a helium balloon, a self-conscious claw, a claw-beast that wonders what in God's name it's doing in this rather untidy room, who that old man is sitting at the table, who that young man is standing with tousled hair, then falls to the floor, deflated, returned once more to nothing.
- Roberto Bolano, p. 725-6, 2666

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Praise is Always Tempered

Terrence Rafferty, in a generally positive review of SK's Full Night, No Stars, tempers his praise for the book by writing things like:

He’s essentially the same grab-you-by-the-lapels literary showman he was in the pulpy, punchy horror stories he used to peddle to men’s magazines... Unlike most writers, he seems never to have become bored with his own peculiar gifts — to have tired of the wonderful toys left under the tree for him when he was a kid.
This naked pleasure is King’s secret ingredient: it makes his work — good or bad — weirdly irresistible, even addictive. And it disarms criticism, as boyish enthusiasm often does. You might feel, as I do, that “Fair Extension,” the deal-with-the-Devil story in Full Dark, No Stars, is too glib and casual to bear the moral weight it aspires to, but it seems almost rude to say so. You might also think (as I do) that the long suspense story “Big Driver,” about a woman who suffers and then violently avenges a roadside rape, is a bit too easy for King... You could think that. But you wouldn’t really feel good about it.
I still don't understand why people begrudge SK's ability to just tell a damned good story. Is his prose great? No. Do his quirks - use of italics to indicate interior monologues or mental interruptions, the integrating blue-collar bonding that two characters inevitably share - grate after a while? Of course. But his stories are almost always entertaining, and usually scary as hell too. I don't have any problems with that. In fact, if you turned SK into a better prose writer - if he lost what Rafferty calls his "pulpy" writing - you'd probably lose the qualities that make him so entertaining, and I wouldn't want that at all. Three cheers for lowbrow literature!

Inherent Vice Introduction

This video of someone introducing Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice to the reading public is classic. The ending alone is worth the price of admission.

Monday, January 10, 2011

My Personal Party

Absolutely fascinating article by Jen Paton where she ponders the meaning - and ramifications - of listening to music players in public. Being someone that's constantly listening to music in headphones while working, while doing the dishes, folding laundry, and sometimes even as i drift off to sleep, i've never really questioned if this is a good thing or not. At work, its been more of a necessity as the noise levels in modern office cube farms can reach stunning levels and, since I'm without whatever gene you need to be able to ignore loud conversations that occur mere feet from you, I use music to drown out this noise so I can concentrate on what I'm doing. Since I do a do of writing, this means I listen to a lot of instrumental music, ranging from classical (Bach and Mozart are the best) to electronica (think Boards of Canada or The Orb) with a healthy dose of Booker T and the MGs. When doing chores around the house, I love making the chores go faster with tunes, and the added benefit here is that I really get to hear the subtleties in the songs. So vie never really questioned if this earphone listening was a bad thing. Paton, while not changing my mind, makes some good points, including:
You have to sit down to watch a film, devote your attention to it in a way that is conscious or half conscious. You have to choose to linger over a photograph or a painting. Music or spoken word is simultaneously less encompassing of one’s attention and thus more encompassing of one’s life, and has become, in little over a century since its invention, ever more intimate, moving from our living rooms to our cars to earbuds themselves. ...
By choosing music (or podcasts on anything from chess to Italian language to current affairs) to play in your ears, you change the message from inputs pointed at you to inputs you have chosen. ...
[Audio] represents a sort of personal branding of oneself to oneself... There is some heady hubris that comes from setting your life to music: banal moments acquire emotional heft, and one’s dash to get a sandwich at lunch acquires some extra swagger. It’s a feeling most of us, in the past, could’ve only enjoyed in a clearly public space – the club – or a clearly private one – the car, your living room. Taking that purely private pleasure in public, but in secret, is a relatively new thing.

A Rabid Dog

I was emailing with some friends recently about Cormac McCarthy, who doesn't do a lot for me personally. His writing is good enough but not a lot seems to happen in his important novels - and I'm always on the look out for symbolism! IMO, his more recent work is more entertaining (if you could call the brutal realism of The Road that) if only because the plot is more up front. Anyways, I enjoyed what this blog had to say about Blood Meridian:
I think you need to have read quite a bit of contemporary fiction to appreciate rare his talent is for writing beautifully about horrible things. This book’s the literary equivalent of a rabid dog.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Quote of the Day

"Something about her expression pulled people in. It was as if - this is something I thought of only later, of course - she were gently peeling back one layer after another that covered a person's heart, a very sensual feeling. Her lips changed ever so slightly with each change in her expression, and I could catch a glimpse deep within her eyes of a faint light, like a tiny candle flickering in the dark, narrow room. ...
There are some things in this world that can be done over, and some that can't. And time passing is one thing that can't be redone. Come this far and you can't go back. ... After a certain length of time has passed, things harden up. Like cement hardening in a bucket. And we can't go back anymore."
- Haruki Murakami, South if the Border, West of the Sun. Page 14

At Least They're Honest

The label from a bottle of Shaws juice we bought recently:
100% cranberry
Flavored blend with two other juices with added ingredients
From concentrate
Could you think of any other caveats they might add?

It's Always About the Small Things

I'm not a big Eric Clapton fan (my brother still can't believe I traded Crossroads to him for a song back in the day), but I do like his "Pretending" song. Its a killer track for many reasons - a good melody, excellent singing, and fantastic lead guitar - but it's the small things that really put the song over the top. Dig the synths in the background, or the horns that burp along behind it all. It's these small details, really only appreciated with headphones, that keep me coming back for more.

First Lines of The Tent

Why the hunger for these? If it is a hunger. Maybe it's more like bossiness. Maybe we just want to be in charge, of the life, no matter who lived it.
- Margaret Atwood, from "Life Stories," first story in The Tent.

Friday, January 7, 2011

An Obsession, Revisited

So Kelly found a copy of Civilization III (originally released in 2001) at the dollar store and picked me up a copy for Xmas. Ruh-row. I had bought this computer game when it originally came out and spent WAY too much time playing it. I'm talking multiple hours at a stretch. But now I just don't have too many spare hours!
I did find myself with a day off a few days ago. I had just come out of a long, dark tunnel of illness and decided to (mainly) devote the day to me. So what did I do? What you might expect - went for a run, relaxed with a good book - but I also spent a few hours playing Civilization.
Essentially, Civilization is a world domination game. It’s like Risk on crack. You build cities, distribute your armies, control how your resources are spent, and negotiate (and fight!) with other civilizations. It's fun, time-consuming and addicting.
But why is it so addicting? I suspect that part of it is the element of control - you have complete control over your world. The other part of is that there are so many little things going on – cities growing and building resources, armies traveling from one place to another, scientific advances being made – that each turn brings something new, so it’s hard to find a stopping point. There are probably other reasons, but I can’t think of them now – I’ve been spending too much time on the computer!

Poem of the Day

"The Consent" by Howard Nemerov
Late in November, on a single night
Not even near to freezing, the ginkgo trees
That stand along the walk drop all their leaves
In one consent, and neither to rain nor to wind
But as though to time alone: the golden and green
Leaves litter the lawn today, that yesterday
Had spread aloft their fluttering fans of light.

What signal from the stars? What senses took it in?
What in those wooden motives so decided
To strike their leaves, to down their leaves,
Rebellion or surrender? and if this
Can happen thus, what race shall be exempt?
What use to learn the lessons taught by time.
If a star at any time may tell us: Now.
I've always been amazed at how fast ginkgo trees drop their leaves. There's a large one at the end of my street and the day it lets go is a stunning event. One morning the three is golden symmetry, that night a skeleton arising out of its yellow carpet.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Understated Power

Been listening to a few songs recently that remind me of the power of understatement, including Cat Power’s You Are Free and “Crystalized” by The XX.

These songs are basically structured in a traditional rock n’ roll sense. However, the sound (mainly the muted instruments) contrast with what we expect from the form has taught us over the years (loud guitars and singing, etc.) Taking this approach one step farther is the lack of a dramatic release (typically an over-the-top bridge or ecstatic guitar solo). Since there’s a lot of power in anticipation, this missing release perversely enhances the songs' power. The tension driving the tunes derives from expecting something that hasn’t arrived yet, and so you keep listening.

Of course, the pitfall here is that you might feel let down by the lack of this release. Certainly, my first listen to You Are Free disappointed me. However, I found that once you let go of your expectations, the songs really grow on you. This may be a conscious decision by the artists, who probably know that they are thwarting listeners expectations driven by years of Classic Rawk. In many instances – certainly, in “Crystalized” – the song is enhanced by the lack of the traditional “release”. After all, who says tradition is always correct?

(As an aside, an interesting thought experiment would be to ponder the fact that both of these songs are led by women. Liz Phair has also played with musical expectations in this manner in the past. Does a strong feminine viewpoint contribute to this conscious rejection of the traditional rock n' roll form - typically seen as extremely masculine? Just thinking out loud here... I certainly don't know enough about modern music to make any judgments.)