Update on the firescreen: below is a first view that Howie has sent. Pick up will be next week.
Speaking of Lydia Davis, here’s another of her short stories that I really like:
This is a beautifully constructed story with matryoshka-like nesting of several accounts: first, Davis writing this story; second, of the account written down by the English teacher; third, of the story told by his student; forth, of the experience by the student’s wife; which turns into Davis’ favorite story. And then there’s the nice parallelism of the word “hesitate.”
Turns out this story is based on a section (p.58) in Mark Salzman’s book “Iron and Silk” in which he writes about his experiences as an English teacher in China in the 1980s.
(Someone once compared Davis to the Velvet Underground, saying that, although their first LP sold only a few thousand copies, everybody who bought one went out and started a band. (e.g. Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, etc.))
This quote is from one of Beckett’s lesser known (or, to me, totally unknown) prose poems, Worstward Ho, and as an isolated quote the perfect counterpoint to the important maxim from Beckett’s Endgame: “The end is in the beginning and yet you go on.” While I vaguely recall seeing a poster with this quote in the room of a college friend, I never knew about or read Worstward Ho.
I mention this because I came across a four page long story today in “The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis” called “Southward Bound, reads Worstward Ho.” Not having been aware of the Beckett story before, I had to read up on it because otherwise, as was clear from the first paragraph, Davis’ story and especially her odd staccato writing style closely following the quote above, would have been entirely lost on me.
This article describes my reaction perfectly:
Baffling yet wonderful, Davis’ story “Southward Bound, Reads Worstward Ho” may have one of the more bizarre short-story premises of all time. An unnamed woman sits on an airport-shuttle van and reads Samuel Beckett’s enigmatic story Worstward Ho. However, due to the bright morning sunlight, she cannot read the book when the van is heading north, because she is sitting on the right side. The story consists of detailed descriptions of the woman’s van ride and exactly what she is reading, accompanied by copious footnotes concerning the trajectory of the van, the quality of the light [etc].
Reading a difficult story about a person having difficulty reading a difficult story is exasperating, even outraging. Of course, this kind of frustration is exactly what Beckett’s story is about. Worstward Ho is an existential lament over the unending frustrations of life, a Sisyphean howl. The woman in the van, with her constant attempts and failures to read and understand Beckett’s text, embodies Beckett’s basic dilemma, but in a hilariously mundane fashion.
Two books by the Australian crime fiction writer, Peter Temple: The Broken Shore and Truth. Here’s a good review of The Broken Shore and here is one of Truth.
One point to emphasize is Temple’s gift at dialogue. I haven’t read such high-quality and truly authentic exchanges since Lush Life by Richard Price, he of The Wire fame (5th season). And that’s not only because of the ubiquitous use of Australian slang which is entertaining by itself, but also because of some of the dialogue which is subtle and smart, raw and visceral, and steadily dripping with sarcasm. The elliptical story-telling is superb as well and the characters are sublime. Especially Truth has some good story lines of discrimination against aboriginals, father-son conflict, urban planning, etc., all expertly woven into the plots.
Needless to say, the dictionaries of Australian slang in the back of both books come in handy.
A few quotes:
- “He smoked, tapped ash into his plastic cup. He looked away, watched the birds across the street. Sleep, shuffle, shit, fight.”
- “All chip and no shoulder.”
- “There is no firm ground in life. Just crusts of different thickness over ooze.”
- “Don’t get waylaid.”
- “There are no permanent alliances, only permanent interests.”
H/T to MS for recommending this entertaining 30-minute BBC 4 program with Rowan Pelling: “Helping Hamlet – Can Science Cure Procrastination” (Note: this may no longer be available by the time of reading).
Procrastination, the show argues, appears to be one of humanity’s greatest and oldest plagues. In Works and Days, Hesiod exhorts us:
Do not put off until tomorrow and the day after.
A man does not fill his barn by shirking his labors
or putting them off; it is keeping at it that gets the work done.
The putter-off of work is the man who wrestles with disaster.
(ll. 410-413; 1959, 67)
This reminds me of something contrarian I once heard from a Moroccan friend, AKA, who told me a phrase in French, which now escapes me in its original, but which roughly captures the following absurdist but oddly appealing procrastinating position: “If you can’t do something tomorrow, there’s no point in starting it today.”
Somewhat related, my friend IA once told me, only half in jest, “You know, I think in Arabic we have a similar word like the expression mañana in Spanish. It’s just that our word in Arabic doesn’t carry the same sense of urgency.”
Below are a few interesting quotes and references from the BBC show:
- Root of procrastination: Akrasia (/əˈkreɪzɪə/; ancient Greek ἀκρασία, “lacking command (over oneself), not properly balanced”), occasionally transliterated as acrasia, is the state of acting against one’s better judgement.
- “As a procrastinator, what you are actually doing is attacking a future version of you.” (after Aristotle)
- “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they go by.” (Douglas Adams)
- “Writers and procrastination are an odd mix. You never here somebody say, “I have plumber’s block. I got to go for a walk in the woods before I can do you a u-bend.”
- Books mentioned:
Click to view slide show
(Addendum: Originally, I had mistakenly titled this post “Lake Mormon.” Thanks to my friend BK for correcting this in the line of duty pointing out that “a geographic fail safe light was blinking somewhere and I got the call to go into defcon 1…”)
Went up to Flagstaff again today. This time with TLMW to meet Howie H. Earlier this spring we had gone to Tucson with KuMa and KuVa and visited some downtown arts and crafts place. In one of the small galleries there, we saw a funky fire screen which we liked quite a bit – even though it didn’t have the right shape for our fireplace.
We’ve been needing replacement screens for years but made do with what we have out of a lack of suitable, simple, and affordable alternatives. (Skipping here a long and sordid story about taking a blacksmithing class at a local community college in an overly confident attempt to take matters into my own hands. The resulting works of ineptitude can only charitably be considered as “abstract garden ornaments.” I did, however, end up with a usable, self-made fire place poker.) Anyway, while in Tucson, we never found out who made those fire screens. I wrote a couple of e-mails to the place to get more information but to no avail.
Had all but forgotten about this, when I chanced upon a similar piece in a gallery window while in Flagstaff a couple of weeks ago. This time there was a name attached. Enter Google and Howie’s web site. We spoke a few times and he agreed to make two custom pieces for us. Both openings of the fire place have somewhat irregular shapes, and foam board cutouts were therefore in order to give Howie a sense of shape and dimensions. Thus, we trekked up to Flagstaff today to hand them over. Should have the screens with whimsical figures loosely modeled after Southwestern petroglyphs in about a month.
|Howie H. – Tuscon
||Howie H. – Flagstaff
||Fire Screen Foam Board
Saw two movies:
The NYT reviewed it perfectly. Don’t have much to add, except to say that I laughed myself silly. It’s a stupidly funny film loosely patterned after the narrative structure of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (H/T TLMW), but with a triple dose of inappropriateness. This is not your father’s Dogme 95 Danish movie fare, but a hilarious “Tour de Pussy” that is, in parts, quite sublimely depraved.
This film was shown at Sundance earlier this year but I didn’t get to watch it there. The film is a quasi-documentary (it includes some re-creations) from which one can only walk away thinking truth is stranger than fiction. It tells the story of a 23-year-old French Algerian man in Spain who with dark hair and dark eyes came to pass himself off as a blond-haired, blue-eyed, and younger boy from Texas who’d been missing for nearly four years — fooling international officials and, most incredibly, the boy’s family. Yes, it is that bizarre and incredible. It’s all about deception, self-delusion and the desire to believe.
One of the priceless characters in this movie is a private investigator called Charlie Parker. This guy is the quintessential gumshoe who not only looks the part (see below) but who also has got to be one of the most brilliant figures in the history of documentaries. I don’t want to say he steals the show, because this is about much more than him, but he is the perfect deus ex machina for the last third of the film.
Gripping and thoroughly mesmerizing stuff. Here’s an interesting interview with Charlie Parker (spoiler alert).
Sundry items of interest dredged up from the profundity of the interwebs during the month of August:
[July 2012 Oddments]
- It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the global trade in coffee and tea. Among commodities, the $80+ billion international coffee market is sometimes said to trail only that of oil. Coffee is an essential source of revenue for many countries, with Burundi making more than half of its export earnings from the crop. Coffee is a strictly tropical crop that is consumed largely in the temperate belt, which is one reason why it figures so prominently in international trade statistics. Most exporting countries are relatively poor whereas the main importers are relatively wealthy. [link]
- How do Americans spend their money? And how do budgets change across the income spectrum? Poor, middle class and rich families spend similar shares of their budgets on clothing and shoes, and on food outside the home. But poor families spend a much larger share of their budget on basic necessities such as food at home, utilities and health care. Rich families are able to devote a much bigger chunk of their spending to education, and a much, much bigger share to saving for retirement. [link]
- For the 2012 Olympic Games, Speedo has created a “racing system” called Fastskin 3 that combines suit and goggles and cap working in synergy to reduce drag and improve performance. The company called on experts in kinesiology, biomechanics, fluid dynamics and even a sports psychologist, who suggested a blue-gray tinge on goggle lenses to instill a sense of calm and focus. They tried the “Six Thinking Hats” method of brainstorming, a green hat for creative ways to attack a problem, a black one to look at the feasibility of those ideas. They “reverse brainstormed,” picturing how to make a swimmer go as slow as possible with oversized goggles and a suit compressing the body so parts stuck out, creating drag. [link]
- Extensive research in a wide range of fields shows that many people not only fail to become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started. In field after field, when it came to centrally important skills—stockbrokers recommending stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants—people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with very little experience. (From a comment: “Some people have 3 years experience 10 times.”) [link]
- ‘Agnotology’, the art of spreading doubt (as pioneered by Big Tobacco), distorts the scepticism of research to obscure the truth. Areas of academic life have been tainted by the practice, but some scholars are fighting back by showing the public how to spot such sleight of hand. [link]
- Modern Indo-European languages – which include English – originated in Turkey about 9,000 years ago. Researchers used methods developed to study virus epidemics to create family trees of ancient and modern Indo-European tongues to pinpoint where and when the language family first arose. Using phylogenetic analysis, they were able to reconstruct the evolutionary relatedness of these modern and ancient languages – the more words that are cognate, the more similar the languages are and the closer they group on the tree. The trees could also predict when and where the ancestral language originated confirming the Anatolian origin. [link]
- The behavior of harvester ants as they forage for food mirrors the protocols that control traffic on the Internet. Transmission Control Protocol, or TCP, is an algorithm that manages data congestion on the Internet, and as such was integral in allowing the early web to scale up from a few dozen nodes to the billions in use today. As a source, A, transfers a file to a destination, B, the file is broken into numbered packets. When B receives each packet, it sends an acknowledgment, or an ack, to A, that the packet arrived. This feedback loop allows TCP to run congestion avoidance: If acks return at a slower rate than the data was sent out, that indicates that there is little bandwidth available, and the source throttles data transmission down accordingly. If acks return quickly, the source boosts its transmission speed. The process determines how much bandwidth is available and throttles data transmission accordingly. It turns out that harvester ants behave nearly the same way when searching for food. Researchers found that the rate at which harvester ants – which forage for seeds as individuals – leave the nest to search for food corresponds to food availability. A forager won’t return to the nest until it finds food. If seeds are plentiful, foragers return faster, and more ants leave the nest to forage. If, however, ants begin returning empty handed, the search is slowed, and perhaps called off. [link]
- Satellites tracking the extent of the sea ice found that it covered about 1.58 million square miles, or less than 30 percent of the Arctic Ocean’s surface. That is only slightly below the previous record low, set in 2007, but with weeks still to go in the summer melting season, it is clear that the record will be beaten by a wide margin. Parts of the Arctic have become like a giant Slushee this time of year. The amount of sea ice in the summer has declined more than 40 percent since satellite tracking began in the late 1970s, a trend that most scientists believe is primarily a consequence of the human release of greenhouse gases. A time will come when the Arctic will be completely free of ice in the summer, perhaps by the middle of the century. By itself, the melting of sea ice does not raise global sea levels, because the floating ice is already displacing its weight in seawater. But the sharp warming that is causing the sea ice to melt also threatens land ice, notably the Greenland ice sheet, which is melting at an increasing rate. Melting land ice does raise sea levels. [link]
- In one of the Mars rover’s first images of Mount Sharp, scientists have spotted what is called an “unconformity.” The term refers to an evidently missing piece in the geological record, where one layer of sediment does not geologically neatly line up with that above it. Images from orbit had indicated that the lower foothills of Mount Sharp consisted of flat-lying sediments rich in “hydrated” minerals, formed in the presence of water, but that layers above seemed to lack the minerals. Now, the rover’s Mastcam – which provided the new colour panorama image – has taken a picture of the divide, showing sediments apparently deposited at a markedly different angle from those below them. Similar deposits on Earth can arise due to tectonic or volcanic activity. [link]
- Google reflects what is, over all, a male-driven engineering culture. Mr. Page values product people like himself over business people, they say, and at Google, as at many technology companies, product engineers tend to be men. The number of women working in professional computing jobs dropped 8 percent, to 25 percent of the total, between 2000 and 2011 while the number of men climbed 16 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. [link]
- Pot-smoking teens may become slower-thinking adults. I am not sure I quite understand the previous sentence but perhaps I’m no longer that quick on the uptake. [link]
- Fandom is fundamentally a spiritual arrangement. It is a form of surrender, an agreement to live in a state of powerlessness. The only thing we control as fans is the object and ardor of our devotion. And this unilateral covenant, however absurd, constitutes a vital expression of who we really are. This is why each new indignity hurts so much, yet fortifies our bond. And this experience forms the unconscious bedrock of our identification. Those who disavow their chosen team because of losses disavow themselves. To those who don’t live by the code, this devotion seems deranged. And maybe it is. But lurking within the weeds of extreme fandom is the perpetual seed of hope. [link]
- Africa is today the fastest growing and second largest mobile phone market in the world. Mobiles are now streamlining education administration and improving communication between schools, teachers and parents. For example, Yoza Cellphone Stories offers downloads of stories and ‘m-novels’. Since 2010, the non-profit organization Worldreader has provided school children in a number of developing countries with access to digital books through donated Kindle e-readers. Recently, it has begun to publish the books via a mobile phone-based e-reader. Dr Maths on MXit, Africa’s largest homegrown mobile social network, has helped 30,000 school-aged children work through maths problems by connecting them with maths tutors for live chat sessions. UNESCO predicts that there will be a shift away from teaching in a classroom-centred paradigm of education to an increased focus on contextual learning, which happens informally throughout the day. There will also be an increased blurring of the boundaries between learning, working and living. Mobiles already support skills development in a range of fields including agriculture and healthcare, and provide paying job opportunities for mobile-based ‘microwork’. [link]
- Now that you have thrown everything and the kitchen sink at President Obama and it still hasn’t worked you are panicking. Obama’s approval ratings are still near 50% despite your best efforts to undermine the economy and America’s recovery at every step you can. You tried to hold the American economy hostage to force America into default on its’ debts, debts that YOU rang up under Bush, so you could blame it on Obama and it failed. You’ve used the filibuster more than any other Congress ever, going so far as to vote against providing health care access to 9/11 first responders. You remember 9/11, don’t you, it’s that thing you used to lie us into a war in Iraq, and then when Obama killed Bin Laden and ended the war in Iraq you told people that he hates America and wants the troops to fail. You monsters. You hate Obama with a passion, despite the fact that he is a tax cutting, deficit reducing war President who undermines civil rights and delivers corporate friendly watered down reforms that benefit special interests just like a Republican. You call him a Kenyan. You call him a socialist. [link]
- The Romney-Ryan speeches were a bizarre exercise in tightroping and hair-splitting. Ryan’s speech weirdly went after the Democrats for a plan to cut Medicare that he himself had rejected for not cutting enough – and then in the same speech went after the Obama vision of society that is a “dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.” Just a lame pair of speeches, overall. They made me miss George Bush. At least the Bush/Cheney/Rove era offered a clear ideological choice – and some pretty passionate, ingeniously-delivered political theater, comparatively. Where’s the blood and guts, the bomb-‘em-till-they’re-crispy war calls? Where are the screw-the-poor tirades, the “you can pry it from my cold dead hand” guns-and-liberty crescendos? [link]
- Best photo after Clint Eastwood’s rambling “speech”: [link]
- The most likely outcome of the next election in the US is stalemate. Barak Obama will win reelection and the Republicans will hold on to their majority in the House of Representatives. The House Republicans refusing to budge from their collective commitment to reactionary opposition, highlights the flaws of the American system. The constitutional provisions establishing competing authorities in the US, lauded in every high school civics class as “checks and balances”, assures that the US can only be governed if the different branches of government cooperate. Can American politics be fixed? Two reforms inspired by practices in Europe can make a huge difference. One, the reign of money can be significantly reduced if television time were free to all candidates and paid political advertising were made illegal. Two, America’s state legislatures currently define the borders of electoral districts. If districts were designed, as in Britain, by independent boundary commissions rather than by partisan legislatures, the tendency toward polarization might be significantly reduced. But what is the likelihood of such reforms occurring? Sadly, things look bleak for those who prefer democracy and a more perfect Union. The probable outlook for US politics is continued paralysis and possible catastrophe. And most likely, both. [link]
- Frequent Airline questions. Windows on planes don’t block UVA rays and the dose of UVA at 20,000 feet is a lot bigger dose than one would get on the surface of the Earth. Plane cabin humidity level is generally at 10 to 20 percent, which is lower than the typical indoor humidity level of 30 to 65 percent — so passengers are more likely to become dehydrated. Consuming alcohol in the cabin can further increase dehydration. Alcohol also decreases the ability of the brain to make use of oxygen — an effect that can be magnified by altitude. The Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Report includes a “mishandled baggage rate, which combines lost, delayed, damaged and stolen bags. In May, there were 2.77 reports per 1,000 passengers. One reason there’s not Wi-Fi on every flight is that for each model of aircraft that a Wi-Fi system is to be used on, the manufacturer must get F.A.A. certification for the system, and the airline must get F.A.A. operational approval. [link]
- Why do Bedouins wear black in the desert? Because black cools the same way as any other color robe (and perhaps because black doesn’t show dirt.) [link]
- Researchers apparently have demonstrated that organisations would become more efficient if they promoted people at random, or in one improvement on random promotion, randomly chose the people who will make the promotion decisions. [link]
- The type of reasoning Sherlock Holmes uses is of a conjectural kind – sometimes called abductive reasoning – that can’t offer certainty or any precise assessment of probability, only the best available account of events. He does this in many of his cases, but it’s not applying this rule that accounts for his astonishing feats. If Holmes can identify an unlikely pattern in events, it’s by using what Watson describes as his “extraordinary genius for minutiae”. As Holmes tells Inspector Lestrade, the plodding Scotland Yard officer: “You know my method. It is founded on the observation of trifles.” [link]
- A company owned by Ikea is planning a whole new suburb in London’s Stand East. Ikea is already selling pre-fab houses in Sweden and is apparently also getting into the discount/boutique hotel business. [link]
- This article contains a critique of Facebook’s goal to make every user “totally transparent” by encouraging users to chronicle their entire life on FB, and the increasing monetization of user data which forcing uses to constantly “defend themselves against FB.” The article speculates that it is becoming increasingly harder for users to manage their FB personality and will eventually end up using it only for managing their contacts. [link]
Got a “classic wreck” 1/24 scale model from John Findra this weekend. The metallic blue 1964 Chevy Impala has lots of funky details like wired and hosed engine, broken glass, removed chrome trim with mounting holes, loosely hinged trunk lid with rusty trunk and spare and all that amazing body rot applied by Classic Wrecks. John is not a big fan of society’s constant strive for perfection and basically goes into the exact opposite direction: by mucking things up. The Impala has been rusted, dissembled for parts, and painted in grime and dirt to convey that charming backwoods sitting-in-the-neighbor’s-yard-forever look.
Seems like the EPL just ended and here it is already starting all over again. I got back into the swing of things watching the season opener between Arsenal and Sunderland with the always engaging, though not always flawless, pair of Ian Darke and Steve McManaman on ESPN. Their best exchange was a hilarious dialogue about McClean’s misspelled name on his jersey. El Macca was “gobsmacked” when a blazing hot female supporter appeared on screen shortly before the start of the second half.
No more RVP but several new faces on the Gunners’ team: Podolski, Carzola, Giroud. None of them convincing. The Black Cats with their new jerseys featuring “Invest in Africa” sponsorship. Africa’s largest independent oil company, Tullow Oil, is evidently the founding partner in this initiative. Question is, who’s wearing Invest in Sunderland jerseys?
Lovely sunny and hot afternoon at the Emirates in North London. Darke must have mentioned the obvious at least four times, #thisaintradio. Good noise but a scoreless tie. Familiar feeling of frustration for Arsenal.
On Sunday, City was on the edge of defeat against newly promoted Southampton, but sadly battled back to eke out a 3:2 win in what was a pretty spirited campaign by both teams. Southampton made City look quite ordinary for significant portions of the game. Hope this is a sign for things to come.
Can’t wait for Monday, the start of Man U’s Sweet Revenge Tour.
Update: Well, Man U’s Sweet Revenge Tour started on a sour note with a 1:0 defeat to Everton. The Red Devils got sucker punched on a header from Fellaini from a corner. RVP played for about 20 minutes but didn’t really get into the game. Kagawa showed great form, nice spacing, good pace, fit the Man U system perfectly. But hate to admit it, Everton had more chances, played with more passion, and deserved to win. Three points down from the lead. Not an abyss, but a hole.