Thursday, January 31, 2013

On Book Snobbery

"Oh, I thought you said you liked to read."
You'll be shocked to know I follow a lot of book people on twitter. Writers, bloggers, critics, publishers, bookstores, etc. (Disclaimer: I don't follow every book person or read every book article. There is a chance that what I am discussing is not actually representative of the state of the book world, but just, for whatever reason, has appeared as a pattern in the media I happen to read.) Every now and again the idea of book snobbery pops up in my feed, most recently in response to some responses to the announcement of a forthcoming Dan Brown novel. As a bookseller, at an indie bookstore, in Cambridge, MA, who reads big difficult books, reviews poetry for lit websites, and writes fiction and poetry on the experimental side, it's not too surprising that I have ideas (and a bit of sensitivity) about the idea of “book snobs.” What is frustrating to me about “book snobs,” is that too often, the positive, necessary, and truthful ideas of intellectual populism, end up as, at best, arguments against the very idea of evaluating the quality of literature, and, at worst, justifications for lazy reading. There is a difference between passively dismissing a genre, author, or work and arguing from evidence that a specific work or a specific author isn't very good or observing that genres fall into particular patterns. The first is snobbery, the second is criticism. I'll go a bit further with this, in list form.

It Is Not Snobbish To...

"Oh, sorry, I only read small presses.
Argue that some books are better than others.

Defend the works you love, even when they are difficult and critique the works you don't even when others love them.

Explore the implications, repercussions, and sources of individual and social reading patterns.

Fight for diversity in reading, not just in terms of the identity of the author/character, (though definitely for that) but for the full range of human expression as well.

Enjoy books that are stylistically difficult and tell people that you do and why you do.

Ask for better books; when done right critique raises all boats.

But wait, there's more.

Other Thoughts on Snobbery:

"Sorry, couldn't hear you over my ennui."
There are good ways and bad ways to argue about quality and bad arguments do not de-legitimize the act of arguing.

Since you don't know the content of another person's life, you cannot judge them based on a few book purchases, a few comments on the Internet, or a few blog posts.

What we choose for entertainment is beyond debate, but we can ask whether, as a society, we choose to be entertained far too much. (We do!)

There is no difference between me telling everyone they should read Ulysses and you telling everyone they should read The Da Vinci Code. I love Ulysses. You love The Da Vinci Code. We both have the right to share the books we love, whether those books are literature or entertainment, difficult or easy, well-crafted or poorly written.

If your taste is permitted to enjoy books with shitty sentences (it is) then my taste is permitted to hate books with shitty sentences. (Honestly, I try. I like entertainment writing in all genres, but I mean, I'm paying these people to write, so shouldn't they know how sentences work?)

If we only read easy books, our intellects and imaginations will be unfit to meet the challenges of modern life, exactly like how you can't run a marathon without exercise.

These ideas work for any form of human expression, books just happen to be the form of human expression most important to me.

There's a charming witticism that I think, in a strange way, ties a lot of my arguments in this post together, but you have to think a little past conventional wisdom to see it. The witticism goes like this: “Opinions are like assholes, everyone's got 'em and they all stink.” I don't know if they say this anywhere else in the world,but to me, it's always expressed fatalism in the face of the limits of human knowledge crossed with good old fashioned American individualism. But here's the thing about assholes, yours, mine, and everyone else's: YOU WOULD DIE WITHOUT ONE! Or would you prefer a colostomy bag? Opinions are part of having an identity in a society. However they are formed and supported, they are a vital aspect of being a person with a brain. Intellectual populism seems to devolve into this weird paradox where an argument is made against the very idea of having and expressing an opinion about the quality of a book, usually in the comments field of an online article and quite often expressed while expressing an opinion about the quality of a book. Intellectual populism is about respecting all opinions, separating judgment of the person from judgment of the opinion, and not pre-evaluating a work based on its genre, author, suggested reading level, or anything else. It is not attacking difficult works of literature just for being difficult and those who defend them just for defending them and it does not mean that all opinions (and books) are of equal quality.

Ultimately, people like what they like and that's fine, but we shouldn't let that be an excuse for personal stagnation. “It's all just a matter of taste,” might ultimately be true, but it's not permission to give up, it's not permission to just accept whatever media is churned out of content factories, and it is not permission to dismiss out of hand critics and criticism. Because if there is no such thing as a “good” book, what is the point of reading at all?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fixing Our Stupid, Stupid Elections

I voted for Barack Obama, so I'm not arguing for election reform because my guy lost the Presidential election. I'm arguing for election reform because what we have now is a kluge of obsolete systems manipulated and exploited by certain powerful groups to ensure that only certain people, with certain opinions, within a very small range of political beliefs, ever hold political power. Simply put, because of how our two-party system has evolved over the years, we have reached a state where the American people have the vote, but very little power. Many of us don't vote even vote at all, and, too often, those of us who do, do so grudgingly, holding our nose, voting against a worst possible outcome rather than for a preferred candidate.

The truly frustrating part of our stupid, stupid elections, is the ease with which they could be fixed. Of course, though all of these fixes are logistically, even constitutionally easy, they are damn near impossible, because those who have the power to change the current election system were elected by it and thus have the least motivation to change it. Of course, if your goal is an election system that truly represents the will of the voting citizenship, there really aren't any arguments against massive election reform. So, in order of ease of en-action here are the steps we should take to fix our stupid, stupid election systems. (One more note: most of these ideas have been kicking around for quite a while with varying levels of advocacy.)

Instant Run-Off Voting: Instant run-off ballots would look pretty much exactly like current ballots, with one big difference, instead of voting for one person per position, you would be able to designate your 1st, 2nd and 3rd choice per position. When the ballots are first counted, everyone's first choice is counted. If no candidate gets 51% of the vote (or “first past the post,” though I could see an argument made for that “post” being a higher percentage) the candidate with the lowest vote total is dropped from the race. If the dropped candidate was your first choice, then your second choice vote is counted for that candidate. Rinse and repeat until one candidate gets 51% (or whatever) of the vote. You know, it's the basic run-off structure, but it happens instantly. There are two key benefits to the instant run-off election. The first is that you can never “throw your vote away.” If a third party candidate's beliefs are closest to yours, you can make that candidate your first choice and make the lesser of two evils candidate your second choice. If the third party candidate doesn't get much traction, your vote will get to the safe major party candidate. In short, you can actually vote for what you believe in, not the least offensive of the two major party candidates. The second key benefit; the first vote count would be an accurate representation of what the American people actually fucking want. Sure, most of the time, I imagine the winner of the election would ultimately be a member of one of the two major parties; but the winners would know for sure--no polling bias or pundit interpretations in the way--the spectrum of political beliefs of their constituents.

Open Primaries: Given that races tend to be between a Democrat and a Republican, their nomination processes constitute, perhaps, the majority of the electoral process, and most of the time, most Americans have very little to do with the nomination process. Whether its backroom deals, closed primaries, or other methods of deciding who runs, when it comes time to vote, most of the time, most of the decision has been made for you. In Open Primaries, there would be one primary per position in which everybody can vote and anybody who can reach a reasonable signature threshold (we could even piggy-back on current election procedures) can run. Voters then vote for their four favorite candidates out of the pool of everybody and the four candidates with the most votes are on the ballot, along with the incumbent, in the official election. Does this mean there could be elections where five Republicans or five Democrats run against each other? Of course, but in those situations, the candidates will actually have to campaign. Rather than focusing all of their campaign effort on “undecided voters,” (You know, the thing that happens when unicorns mate with griffins in a waterfall of leprechaun tears.) they will have to speak to their entire constituency.

Taken together, instant run-off elections and open primaries will go a long way in breaking the stranglehold the two-party system has on our elections. Not only will they result in more third party and independent representation at all levels of government, they will also produce the most accurate data on political belief in this country. And, because states are responsible for much of the logistics of voting, these reforms could be enacted state by state. Sure, most of the time a Democrat or Republican will win, but that particular Democrat or Republican will have proven herself to her entire constituency, and know exactly to what degree her constituents support her election.

Repeal the Electoral College: Contrary to what some might say (Hi, Drew!) the Electoral College was not designed to ensure sparsely populated portions of the country were represented in the choice of President (more on that later). It was designed because the Founding Fathers didn't believe poor white men were capable of choosing a President. In the original Constitution, citizens only actually voted for their state legislatures and their House representatives; the state legislators selected the state's Senators and electors. In short, the Electoral College is an archaically elitist institution. Since then, the process of the Electoral College has kluged along with the development of the two-party system. In terms of the Electoral College protecting the interests of sparsely populated areas; there is no way that argument can be made without also saying people who live in cities don't count as much as people who live in suburbs. Take California and Wyoming. California had about 18,245,970 registered voters in the last election and 55 Electoral College votes (the most in the country.) Wyoming had 218,056 and 3 Electoral votes. Do some division and move the decimal point six places to the right and you get: each registered voter in California had 3.014 Electorinos. Each Wyoming voter had 13.757 Electorinos. Essentially, if you live in Wyoming, you have over three times the presidential electoral voice of someone living in California. (Since only one state counts, Ohio had 2.304 Electorinos.) No matter how you formulate the defense of the rural argument, you end up also saying that voters in cities and densely populated states deserve less of a voice in Presidential elections.

Most of the time, however, the Electoral College vote matches the popular vote anyway, so what would getting rid of the Electoral College accomplish? It would radically change how Presidential campaigns operate. First of all, the votes in “safe” states would actually count. It would matter whether the Democrat got 60% or 70% of the vote in Cambridge. And, much to the relief of everyone in Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania, there would be no more swing states. Presidential candidates would actually have to speak to the entire nation in their campaigns rather than just motivating their base and targeting the states and demographics potentially up for grabs. Add in the two reforms from above and you have a Presidential election that actually represents the political will of the people.

A third reason for eliminating the Electoral College has risen in recent weeks; the beginning of brazen, shameless, cynical, underhanded, dishonest, efforts of Republican legislatures in swing states to prevent Democrats from ever winning them again. By changing how Electoral College votes are allocated, several states, starting with Virginia, in what has to be the most overt, unrepentant pissing in the eye of democracy I think we've ever seen, are changing the rules so a Republican candidate is more likely to win the election without winning the popular vote. If the proposed changes were in effect in November in the states under discussion, Romney would have one the Electoral College while losing the popular vote 47% to 51%.

It would take a Constitutional amendment to eliminate the Electoral College, which is why it's third in this list, but there is a good chance it will be the first (if not only) of these reforms adopted. Since it's so clearly ridiculous and obsolete, there's always some national momentum for it around elections, and Republican controlled states are drawing attention to how unfair it really is. Regardless, it is exponentially more likely to happen then either of the two reforms that round out the list.

Corporations Are Not People: This time around the dark money allowed by the Citizens United decision didn't demonstrably sway elections, but if I've learned one thing from 20th century American history it's that the wealthy with questionable ethics are patient and determined. They didn't get the results they wanted this time around, so their strategy will change, their focus will change, and they will get results. If not the next election, then the one after it. It's only a matter of time before the Super-PACs learn (or steal) the techniques of successful grassroots political organizers and apply them (with a healthy mix of more traditional ruthless techniques thrown in) to their goals. The root of the problem though, really isn't Citizens United, but Santa Clara County vs Southern Pacific Railroad, which ruled corporations were guaranteed some protections under the 14th amendment. From there corporate personhood has only grown. I'm not going to argue against corporate personhood here if for no other reason than I have never heard a single reasonable argument in its favor (which is not to say corporations should not have legal protections). By far, the most efficient way to deal with the issue of corporate personhood is a Constitutional amendment that distinguishes the protections afforded to corporations from those afforded to people who can get sick and die and somehow never end up too big to fail. And, given that all political donations by corporations are drawn from potential dividends for shareholders or wages for employees, I would think strictly regulating corporate political contributions totally reasonable.

Much like the Electoral College, there's a fair amount of momentum for an amendment that at least addresses some of the problems caused by corporate personhood, a momentum drawn, at least partially, from the fact that “corporate personhood,” doesn't make any fucking sense. Furthermore, it's been reported that there's some willingness in the Supreme Court to revisit at least the issue of campaign finance reform, so there actually is a legitimate chance this could happen. But there's no fuckin' way for the next reform.

Congressional Districts are Drawn by a Non-Partisan Division of the Census Bureau: Why is Congress so fucking awful and yet the same fucking fuckers keep getting fucking elected? Because state legislatures draw Congressional districts and they draw them to create “safe” districts in which, historically and demographically, their party always wins. It's called gerrymandering (fantastic word, by the way) and we only tend to notice it when it's really, obscenely egregious. (Shout out to Virginia again!) But even practiced in moderation, it has ensured there really isn't a lot of actual competition for the House of Representatives. So, you can have elections, like the last one, where Democrats running in the House received the majority of votes nationwide, but didn't gain a majority in the House. Before the development of the modern two-party system, letting States draw their own districts made sense, especially considering the kind of Federalism around at the writing of the Constitution and the limits of demographic data. But now, there are no data limits and our Federalism has changed. Congressional districts should be redraw by a non-partisan entity (the Census Bureau makes the most sense because they already have the data) with only two goals in mind: fair distribution of Electorinos (which are equal to a voter's voice in Congress) and logistical convenience. Essentially, districts would all have about the same number of people in them, within the frame work of the 435 member House, and they would be drawn to make it as easy as possible for the most number of voters to get to a polling place. Can you imagine what elections in this country would look like if every one were an actual competition?

This reform is the last one the list because it would probably take an Amendment and there's no fucking way state legislatures would give up this power. I mean, the only argument for it, is that it would ensure our elected officials actually represent the beliefs of those they elect them, so, yeah, that's about it.

A Note on One Absence: You notice I haven't mentioned term limits. I actually don't think term limits solve anything. The election of individuals really isn't the problem, the problem is that only certain types of people with certain beliefs will be elected. Term limits would only change the names on the jerseys, not the teams playing the game. Furthermore, I think they ask the wrong question about the pathetic state of our elections. The question isn't “Should someone be allowed unlimited terms in office?” but “why do these jabronis keep getting elected?” The problem is not that these certain people are elected over and over again, but that they are elected in the first place, in the context of a system that radically constrains our choice.

Of course, the problem with our elections is not that we don't know how to fix them. The problem with our elections is that they work for some people and those people end up with the power to decide how our elections work. Rational self-interest dictates there isn't a single elected official truly motivated to change the process that elected them. Which leads us directly into the chicken-and-egg problem that makes daddy drink. We need election reform to get people with an actual interest in meaningful election reform elected. In some ways, a lot of progress can be made at the state level (see Virginia again, except for the bizaaro version of everything I've talked about) and the Constitution has been amended in the past, so what I've proposed isn't impossible. But can we get all the needed reforms through in time to create a government whose policies will actually deal with climate change before it's too late or solve the radical wealth disparity before the next stock market crash? Well, mix daddy a martini.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Hockey Thoughts!

Well, we get an NHL season, which means I get to share a few thoughts on hockey.

On the Lock-Out: As soon as the owners risk their health and well-being to entertain hockey fans, they can whine for a larger cut of the profits. Sure, owners deserve to make money on what they own, and yes, they deserve input on the nature of contracts, but there is no hockey without hockey players. Also, again, because this infuriates me, owners don't get concussions in their luxury boxes, they don't put their brains and knees on the line, they don't prematurely wear out their bodies and risk living like cripples for the second half of their lives. They don't get stitched up on the bench and then play hockey with a gash on their faces. Their broken hands don't curl into arthritic claws in their 40s. They don't kill themselves because repeated hits to the head cause brain damage. They should be thankful they get anything, not hold out for more. And was it the players who put a team in Columbus?
He is better than you. Except for knee health.

There Should Be a Bobby Orr Award: There is absolutely no way Erik Karlsson was the best defenseman in the NHL last year. He was an extremely dynamic, versatile player, who happened, like Dustin Byfulgien, (one of my favorite hockey memories is telling Riss how that last name is pronounced. You should've seen the look on her face.) to stand at the blue line on face offs. I'm not arguing that Karlsson is not an extremely talented player or that he did not deserve some kind of recognition for his skills, but the Norris isn't it. I think the NHL should create the Bobby Orr award to be given to the defenseman with the highest point totals. Forwards have both the Ross, for the most points, and the Selke, for the best defensive forward. I know the Ross trophy isn't technically limited to forwards, but, exactly one defenseman in the history of the award has won it. Bobby Orr, who scored 120 (!!!) pts in 1969-70. (Ross, side note, Gretzky makes a pretty compelling case for the greatest of his game whatever that is. I mean, I hadn't planned on mentioning it, but he won the thing 10 times, including 9 in a row and a 215 pt season. That is all.) I suppose the Ross could be stipulated for forwards but last season, Malkin had 109 pts and Karlsson, far and away the most for a defenseman, only had 78. (And, for a guy who creates that many goals, a pretty thin +/- of 16, especially when compared to Chara's (who was sent out against every team's top line) +/-33 (and 52 pts thank you very much), and why not point out Bergeron, who, unlike Karlsson, killed penalties, had an eye-exploding +/-36, but, well, I guess this argument is over.)

Now he'll never write a villanelle.

The Biggest Question Facing the Bruins in 2013: The state of Nathan Horton. Losing Horton to a second concussion last season, effectively hamstrung the entire Bruins offense. It wasn't just his own point totals they missed; his presence created opportunities for other players, most demonstrably David Krejci (who at times seemed to be the one suffering from the concussion). But there is absolutely no guarantee that, even with all the time off the lock out gave him, Horton will be able to come back at the same level he played at before his second concussion. The Bruins had plenty of success without him. I think they could've repeated if Bergeron hadn't been injured. But it was clear there was a difference between Bruins with Horton and Bruins without him. Despite playing only half the season last year, Nathan Horton might be the most important Bruin this year. Unless...

Tyler Sequin Could Explode: Tyler Sequin had some fun in Europe. Larger ice surfaces, less hitting, somewhat diluted talent, really for a player with his speed and skills, it couldn't get any better. His first two seasons in the NHL he's shown flashes of pretty ridiculous talent. He can score with his shot, with his stick handling, and he seems to have hockey's equivalent of “The Shining.” Remember when that puck bounced in the air and he casually batted it over the goalie's shoulder for a goal. Yeah, he does that kind of stuff. Put it all together, with the breakaway speed and you've got a 40 goal scorer waiting to happen.

This Year Could Be the End of Hits to the Head: Not because of Shannahan's uneven handling of discipline last year, where he showed pretty definitively in the slap on the wrist given to Shea Webber, that he'll cave to status and story, but because the season is so short. A 5 game suspension is more than 10% of the regular season schedule. Even with fourth line forwards the risk generally outweighs the rewards. Furthermore, players, coaches, and owners will need to rehabilitate the sport and, really only the players can do that. A hits to the head scandal after a lockout could do substantial, perhaps even permanent damage to the NHL. There are just more reasons this year for players take Shawn Thorton's advice and just stop hitting each other in the head. We might be a little more sensitive to this in Boston, but there seems to be a critical mass building and this problem might work itself out.

He didn't even have to be here today.
Rock Bottom for the Habs: The Montreal Canadiens have been on a death-spiral since the Bruins eliminated them from the playoffs a few years ago. Right now, they are one of the most mismanaged teams in the league, if not in sports. (Don't worry Brian Burke, I'm still thinking of you. Also, thank you.) We saw the psyche of their management unravel when they traded their most dangerous goal scorer at the time, Mike Cammalleri, for definitely not a dangerous goal-scorer Rene Bourque mid-game against the Bruins. Essentially, they shipped him out for a round of vocal criticism. Gionta was a flop last year. Now P.K. Subban is holding out. What they need is a complete overhaul from the GM down, a change in organization culture, and a re-appraisal of their team and their strategy. They need a Cam Neely. Another year at the bottom of the division might just be what ownership needs to show them they've lost their way. And, for the love of all things merciful, trade Carey Price. Despite being rock solid for a ton of minutes every year, the fan base turns on him just about instantly. If he played for either Pittsburgh or Philly, they would've won the cup. Perhaps a deal for draft picks and young players for Carey Price might be exactly what the Habs need to begin the rebuilding process. Because, frankly, I want the Habs to be good. Not unlike Boston, hockey is just better when the Habs are good. And it could be a long time before they are again. (Also, Brian Burke is awful.)

It's been to Kenora!
The Stanley Cup is Up for Grabs: The winner of the Stanley Cup is the quality team, healthiest in the playoffs, who also happens to reach a playing peak at that time. Like all things, hockey teams have their ups and downs, and, just like in everything else, no one has figured out how to guarantee the ups and prevent the downs. The Kings were healthy and peaked in the playoffs, so they won the Cup. Same thing with the Bruins the year before. That hasn't changed, but, the other determining force has been removed. The hockey season wears players down so every team carries players who are hurt, if not injured, into the playoffs. Think Bruins in 2010-11, the year they won the President's Trophy. The team was riddled with nagging injuries in the playoffs, most notably Charra and Reichi. With only 48 games, that process of wear isn't going to happen. The Stanley Cup playoffs are already sports greatest tournament, but there's a chance this year, for every team to enter the playoffs healthy. For the same reason, teams with less depth will have a better shot of getting in the playoffs. For example, Edmonton's raft of young talent, though I don't think ready to distinguish themselves in the course of a full season, might have a shot of making the playoffs.

The Shortened Season Will Be Entertaining: Finally, this is going to be one hell of a season to watch. The shorter season will mean heightened intensity. Teams won't be able to take any games off and they won't be ground down by the end. And, with about a week of training camp and no pre-season, we'll probably see a lot of shinny hockey stuff in the beginning which should be tons of fun. Everything that makes hockey great will be condensed and intensified. It was a stupid, stupid lockout, driven by the stupid greed of the stupid owners, but the fans who return should be rewarded for their loyalty with one hell of a season.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Empathy and Error: What I Learned from 1493

1491 by Charles Mann is an eye-opening work of history. Using relatively recent archaeological data and written from the perspective that maybe contemporary European conquerors wouldn't have the most subjective opinion, it argues that there was a lot more civilization in the Western Hemisphere before Europeans arrived than we've always believed. The essential point is that European viruses traveled through native civilizations faster than European observes, and so, often, what the Europeans encountered were not typical native cities and villages, but societies on the brink of collapse from epidemics. 1493 looks forward from the moment of contact, again with the goal of telling the stories neglected by previous histories. Much like the work of Howard Zinn, Mann writes with the understanding that all history is written from a perspective, and that, in order to approach the truth of history, different perspectives must be considered. Here are a few of the things I learned from 1493.

Chili in it's natural state.
Weeds Are Plants We Don't Know How to Use: One of the first assumptions Europeans made when they first landed in the Western Hemisphere was that the land was uncultivated and the inhabitants were hunter gathers. From that assumption a whole bunch of others followed drawn from strict definitions and evaluations of “civilization.” That assumption, though, was based on a lack of information. Quite often, the fields and forests Europeans thought were wild, were just differently cultivated. A quick example is the “three sisters;” maize, beans, and squash. In a traditional field, the beans would grow up the maize stalks and the squash would grow along the ground amongst the rows. To Europeans used to clean rows of wheat and grain, a “three sisters” field would have looked, at best, like a badly weeded garden, and more likely, a wild field. In other words, even though they crossed an ocean and entered an entirely different climate, they held on to their definitions of cultivation. When what they saw did not match those definitions, they assumed what they saw was not cultivated. “Except for defensive palisades, Powhatan farmers had no fences around their fields...The English, by contrast, regarded well-tended fences as hallmarks of civilization...The lack of physical property demarcation signified to the English that Indians truly didn't occupy the land—it was, so to speak, unimproved.” (p61)

Of course, this myopia extends far beyond agriculture. European Christians couldn't fathom Indians had good reasons to reject Christianity and so they had to develop theories that explained why some Indians refused to assimilate. Racial inferiority is one of them. They couldn't grasp why their African slaves wouldn't want to work as hard as possible for them, so they needed a theory to explain slow downs, sabotage, and escapes. They decided Africans were lazy and treacherous. Perhaps the most radical display of this myopia is European attitudes towards the cities and colonies of escaped slaves that surrounded all the slave owning societies; many more in the Amazon and South America, fewer in North America and the United States. The point is not that there was constant conflict between the maroon cities or quilombos and Europeans, but that, at least as quoted and presented by Mann, the Europeans seemed to have no awareness of their role in the existence of maroons in the first place. Somehow, from the European perspective, maroons were an independent problem, only incidentally connected to African slavery.

Humans evolved a self-centered myopia because for most of human history we only saw ourselves and our societal extensions. We never needed to understand the experience of distant others in order to survive and so we never evolved the skill. Furthermore, for most of our history, all “others” were either food (edible animals), not-food (docile but inedible animals) or threats (dangerous animals and competing humans). As societies grew, more people encountered more “others.” Sometimes our evolved myopia dominated the interactions and sometimes humanity took a step towards a more diverse and empathic perspective. In some ways, the conflict at the heart of human progress has been against that myopia, not just directly, but in all of its invisible tendrils throughout our culture and mindsets. Another way to describe the bend toward justice the arc of history is supposedly taking, is as the step by step, culture by culture, group by group, person by person, extension of human empathy; not just our extension of knowledge, but an extension of the awareness that weeds are just plants we don't know how to use.

The “Scientific Method” is a Fancy Name for “Trial and Error Plus Writing the Trials and Errors Down:” Few problem solving techniques are as effective as hundred of years of trial and error. From that you get the Wacho or furrowed technique of growing potatoes in the Andes, which had its own expression in Ireland as the “lazy-bed” technique. Refined over thousands and hundreds of years, this technique had benefits beyond the observation of contemporary science, so contemporary science assumed it had no benefits. The result of scientific attempts to improve these techniques were disastrous.

The big mistake we made in humanity's scientific revolution is not realizing that we had always used the scientific method of trial and error. Every time we tried a new seed, a new technique, a new plot of land, a new couple of animals, we experimented just as we do today. The only difference was the lack of formal structure and recording technology made the pace of advancement much slower. But advance we did. The Enlightenment Mistake was to reject the data of lived technique. In a way, it goes back to the issue of myopia. Because the generations that preceded them did not have the same perspective on the physical world, Enlightenment thinkers assumed all of the previous ways were to be discarded.

Of course, the “Enlightenment Mistake” isn't limited to the historical Enlightenment. We saw the exact same thing happen in the early to mid 20th century in America. By the 1900s, Americans had been farming on this land for hundreds of years and had developed techniques for handling pests and managing soil and irrigation. Furthermore, because the techniques had developed over time, they were relatively incorporated into and with the landscape, and so had reached a relative balance with the environment. But once chemical pesticides and fertilizers were invented, it was assumed that none of the older techniques had any value. The result is the massively destructive industrial agricultural complex that we have today. (Oh, and the Dust Bowl that contributed to the Great Depression.) We knew how to grow food in America, and the addition of new substances and new techniques to that stable of knowledge could have certainly increased yield, but discarding the old techniques as worthless and replacing them en masse with new techniques that had not gone through hundreds of years of experimentation lead to ecological disaster.

And that, I think is the key to the “Enlightenment Mistake;” it's that not the old ways shouldn't be changed or improved, but that we should assume some value in those old ways, even if we do not understand what those specific values are, and introduce changes to those ways, rather than suddenly replacing them. Whether it was the introduction of a new technique or a new species, sudden change resulted in disaster; sometimes the disaster hit right away, as with the planting of maize in China and sometimes the disaster was displaced to, well, about now.

This is why you shouldn't complain about winter.
The Most Important Beings in Human Society Are Invisible: Absolutely everything would have been different if malaria could live in Europe.

Samurai in Mexico: Visual Approximation
There Were Samurai in Mexico: I don't have any thoughts about this except: “Fucking Awesome! Wait, someone call Quentin Tarantino. No, wait, that'd be derivative of himself. Call the Cohen Brothers!” I know, I know. Citation. “The Spaniards made an exception for samurai, allowing them to wield their katanas and tantos to protect their silver shipments against the escaped-slaves-turned-highwaymen in the hills.” (p414) Original source: Slack, E.R. 2009 “The Chinos in New Spain: A Corrective Lens for a Distorted Image.” JWH 20:35-67.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Review of Gun Machine

You know Warren Ellis, and if you don't know Warren Ellis there is a festering gap in your life, riddled with information viruses. His comic series Transmetropolitan, set in a distant future and starring the Hunter S. Thompson inspired radical rabble-rousing journalist Spider Jerusalem, is one of those terrifying and brilliant works (like Infinite Jest) that drifts more and more towards non-fiction, as our technology and society continue their solipsistic death-spiral. Yes, it is on the required reading list, and yes, there will be a test, and no, you do not want to know what will happen if you fail said test. In Gun Machine, Ellis turns his two-headed chain smoking cat of an imagination on the New York City cop thriller, modernizing the characters and twisting the genre into something unique.

John Tallow is a cop who is pretty much just punching the clock. He puts in his hours, he goes home, he reads; rinse and repeat. He wallows in information, almost always having several different devices constantly pouring data over him. Like so many of us, he is just doing what it takes to keep the paychecks coming, but unlike most of us, he seems to have found a relatively comfortable emotional space for himself in his own particular brand of iStagnation, not particularly seeking professional satisfaction or friendship or true love. Well, it's not hard to see the partner's brains splattered over the mildewed ridden walls of a decaying apartment building by a doctor recommended dose of crazy pants fired shotgun shells in this scenario. And yes, Tallow does get a little partner-plus-shotgun effluvia on him.

When he investigates one of the apartments in the building, Tallow discovers hundreds of guns filling the entire place, arrayed in a complex and clearly significant pattern. And if that wasn't interesting—in the cop sense—enough the actual front door to said apartment is a high-end nigh on impregnable security door. Not only does discovering this apartment drop an foot-long turd sandwich on the NYPD, (which they make Tallow eat, because you know, finding the guns has the exact same moral weight as shooting puppies with them), but it also draws the attention of the apartment's owner, a mysterious serial killer wafting back and forth in his consciousness between modern Manhattan and ancient Manhatta.

Powerful men are involved with the mysterious killer and Tallow is eventually shoved over to the outcasts at evidence collection where he gains his only two allies on the police force; Bat and Scarly. Bat and Scarly will be familiar characters to fans of Ellis' work; twitchy, angry, manic, stepping up to the line of parody and then kicking it in the balls, and entertaining. The investigation into the gun machine will be mostly familiar to fans of cop thrillers, but Ellis has a very unfamiliar storytelling style and the result is a story that is comfortable enough to be entertainment, but interesting enough to be really good entertainment.

Gun Machine has two shortcomings. The first might be just a personal preference of mine that I won't share here because it would provide a spoiler about the villain. The second is that Ellis has a hard time matching the imagery and effect of the opening few chapters, where Tallow's partner is killed and the Gun Machine itself is revealed. It is such a fascinating image, such a perfect metaphor for some aspects of American society, such a mysterious entity whose possible explanations rattled through my imagination, such a downright cool visual image, that everything following suffered in comparison. It would have been very difficult indeed for its ultimate solution to be as fascinating as its mystery. Had Ellis pulled it off, he would have written one of the great cop novels.

Regardless, Gun Machine will still be one of the best cop novels you read this year (maybe for the next several years). Tallow is a fantastic character, utilizing some of the forms of the “downtrodden,” cop without being beholden to their formulas. I mean, he even likes to read. He reads! Likewise, Bat and Scarly could have easily been filler characters, but Ellis has a way of turning up the volume on characters, environments, situations, fire arms, and everything else so that it goes way past parody and cliché into something totally unique and a lot of fun. Ultimately, you'd be hard pressed to find a cop novel that has a broader appeal and it'd be damn near impossible to find one that also doesn't pander to some lowest common denominator. I don't know if Gun Machine will be Ellis' breakout novel in America, (I mean, who the fuck knows what's going to be popular in books because, well, you've seen what's gotten huge) but if it is, America will be a much more interesting place. (You've started Transmetropolitan, right? Right? Well.)