Navel-Gazing – God of the Machine
Nov 032007

I was on blogging leave last week. Not my usual no-writing-today-so-fuck-right-off-and-read-someone-who-cares leave — actual medical leave. I was confined to the hospital for more than a week with acute appendicitis. (Fine thanks, but a word of advice: if you must have your appendix out, do so before it ruptures.) Hospitals are interesting places; hang around one for a few days and you start to believe that Foucault had a point after all. I shall have more to say about them presently, but for the moment I will confine myself to a few preliminary observations.

1. If you want to know when you can expect to be released, consult the Wiki, not your doctor. The average stay for acute appendicitis is about a week. Your doctor will never tell you this, lest he sound too much like an algorithm in an expert system, which can probably outdiagnose him anyway. Best to keep your mouth shut, particularly if you are inclined to ask questions like, “Can you give me a range of dates within which you expect, with 0.9 probability, to release me?” Complaining to my doctor about her vagueness provoked a stern and rather terrifying lecture about how medicine is both an art and a science and each individual case is different. As it turned out, because of her art and my individuality, I spent thirteen more hours in the hospital than the average.

2. Pet therapy appears to be medically certified. One morning I was awoken from a fitful sleep by a mangy griffon called Kindu — I read the name from his official hospital ID, and yes, his department is “Pet Therapy” — who is apparently hauled from bed to bed, to be petted serially. The hygienic implications of this program may not bear scrutiny.

3. Catholic hospitals take their religion more seriously than you might imagine. St. Vincent’s has a rather large chapel, although I never saw it occupied. It also employs priests who roam the halls, ostensibly to offer succor. This merely annoys the non-believer; and if I did believe, and were sick in a hospital bed, I wouldn’t be in any special hurry to see one either. One of my roommates’ guests also thoughtfully took time from his busy schedule to try to bring me to Christ. This, however, was not authorized by the hospital.

4. In Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen asks the prostitute he has hired how she likes her job and receives the usual reply. “It’s funny,” he says, “every hooker I meet says it beats the hell out of waitressing. Waitressing must be the worst job in the world.”

It’s not. Nursing is.

5. Old people spend a really remarkable amount of time discussing “Dancing with the Stars.”

Aug 112007

In the Seaworld auditorium, waiting for the evening Shamu show.

In the Seaworld auditorium, waiting for the evening Shamu show, watching the wide-screen video. It shows soldiers and firemen, then August Busch III, or maybe IV, representing Anheuser-Busch, the corporate parent. He tells us to honor our heroes, which we do, with applause. A whale trainer, perky, live, asks everyone who has served in the American, Canadian, or British Armed Forces to rise. They do, to more applause. I wonder where Australia went. The video ends and the show begins. Shamu splashes soldier and civilian alike.

Bertha, my server for the evening, points out that she makes the salads. I do not order one.

My ten-year-old niece says that she does not understand me and I scare her.

(After our new Poet Laureate.)

Update: Jim Henley comments. Jim and I have had our disagreements in the past, but we stand to shoulder to shoulder in the unalterable conviction that, as bad a poet as Charles Simic is, Billy Collins is worse, perhaps the worst in human history. Sound and Fury comments.

Sep 202006

In a footnote in Martin Amis’s memoir, Experience, he has this to say of the ideal reader:

I am not [Saul Bellow’s] son, of course. What I am is his ideal reader. I am not my father’s ideal reader, however. His ideal reader, funnily enough, is Christopher Hitchens.

There is a theory to infer here, once we discard the prissy Platonism of the word “ideal.” A single ideal reader does not exist any more than a single soulmate. Still, some readers are better than others, and for the best of them the word will serve.

An ideal reader is a kindred spirit, not a doppelgänger. Hitch, the Trotskyite, and Kingsley, the Tory, are savage and bloody-minded in a way that Martin is not. Martin and Saul Bellow, on the other hand, both have a taste for wistful picaresque and a sense that even rotten bastards aren’t rotten all the way through. They treat phonies and frauds sensitively where neither Hitchens nor Kingsley would have the patience. (To see how Kingsley handles such people in his novels, read Hitchens on Mother Teresa or Bill Clinton.) It is no accident that The Adventures of Augie March is Martin’s favorite Bellow novel. Martin’s own best novel, Money, is a sort of picaresque itself: its moneyed yob, John Self, blunders and binges through America.

An ideal reader sometimes vastly surpasses his author — Poe’s ideal reader was Baudelaire. The other way around is impossible; understanding presupposes intelligence.

An ideal reader often writes about his author, but he is too near him, temperamentally, to play the judicious critic. He reads the author as the author would want to be read, not as others would want to read him.

The relationship can be, but is usually not, reciprocal. Edith Wharton’s ideal reader was certainly Henry James, although he had died by the time she wrote her best novel, The Age of Innocence; and Henry James’s ideal reader was very likely Edith Wharton.

Just as an author can have multiple ideal readers, so can a reader be ideal for multiple authors. My girlfriend is Quentin Crisp’s ideal reader; also Doug Kenney’s. You now know her better than her immediate family does.

Who is my ideal reader? I thought of Matt McIntosh, but no: he agrees with me too often, and the literary blather obviously bores him. My ideal reader, in an upset, is Conrad Roth, of the scholarly, whimsical, and criminally underrated Varieties of Unreligious Experience. He is literary but has mathematics as well, sympathetic but critical. (I am too poor a linguist to be Conrad’s ideal reader; he’s on his own.)

Whose ideal reader am I? In the world of actual books, I am of course Yvor Winters’ ideal reader. I have occasionally, unfairly, been regarded as a Winters epigone. (This is a Winters epigone.) Winters was a Thomist and a theist. He made more fuss about ranking poems than I do. His theory of free verse scansion differs entirely from mine. But we are both especially attuned to the conflict of the abstract and the particular, the subject of a large percentage of Winters’ favorite poems and an even larger percentage of his own verse. More to the point, we both regard “poetry-lovers” as the very people from whom poetry urgently needs to be rescued.

In the world of blogs, I am owned by Colby Cosh. This began to dawn on me one day, about the middle of last year, when I was contemplating a post about the great AC/DC — now, as ever, 100% irony-free! — only to discover that Cosh had already written it that morning. Several months later the realization was completed when I found myself linking to a few of his posts about hockey, a game I do not understand. His themes include, but are not limited to, the idiot innumeracy of journalists, bureaucratic idiocy, sportswriting idiocy, and idiocy all around. He is a shrewd literary critic, sometimes at my expense, when he cares to indulge. Our cats also look alike.

Who is your ideal reader? Whose ideal reader are you?

Update: Conrad Roth comments. I couldn’t have been a contender either. Megan McArdle comments. I report with embarrassment that I had to look up L.M. Montgomery.

Aug 072006

One problem with blogging is that anyone can read your archives and see what an idiot you were. I will spare you the trouble.

  • I used to be a race skeptic. Eventually a cursory reading of Cavalli-Sforza convinced me how wrong I was. The History and Geography of Human Genes is a careful and scholarly demonstration of what everyone already knows: that humans once wandered the earth in small tribes, that these tribes had distinctive genetic profiles, and that they tended to breed together, increasing their differences from other tribes, which are still plainly visible today. (In a few wealthy places miscegenation has begun to attenuate this process, but Dinesh D’Souza’s wishful thinking notwithstanding, it will not be reversed for a long, long time.) The fact that we cannot say how many races there are does not render the concept invalid; it has fuzzy boundaries, like many concepts. If you need a definition, Steve Sailer’s “an extended family that inbreeds to some extent” covers the territory just fine.

    All of this is doubly embarrassing because I was perfectly willing to treat race as a valid category when it suited my purposes.

  • Deep Throat was “obviously” a composite. Obviously. Good thinking there Cool Breeze.
  • Animal rights. I got in a lather here and here about how moral agency distinguishes humans, who have rights, from animals, who don’t. I must have understood “moral agency” then; I don’t now. Agency and rights, I now believe, are constructs. They come in handy, to be sure. We need good alpha approximations to adjudicate claims that would otherwise be too messy. I still think rights are a fine idea, but I won’t get all ontological about them the way I once did.
  • The war. This is the big one. On the one hand, I write: “Human beings are good at estimating first-order consequences, notoriously poor with second order, and the third order is like the third bottle of wine: all bets are off.” On the other hand, I support a long-term, insanely complicated geopolitical strategy to democratize the Middle East, which entails foreseeing third- and further-order consequences up the wazoo. The U.S. government has not done very well at it. Surprise! But what was I thinking?

    I was thinking, first, that Saddam Hussein was a really bad guy. Knocking over the occasional tinhorn despot, if only to keep the rest of them on their toes, has a superficial appeal. When your target despot rules a slapped-together country encompassing three perpetually warring ethnic groups, any two of which can agree only on the necessity of annihilating the third, then it may not be such a hot idea. Should I have seen what was coming? No. Should I have seen that I could not see? Damn straight.

    There was also a certain haste to blame America in the anti-war arguments that bothered me. I have no desire to discourage self-criticism, least of all in this post. But even Jim Henley, who among the long-time opponents of the war most closely resembles a responsible adult, has not exactly emphasized the horrors of a culture that treats suicide bombers like rock stars and stones homosexuals to death. These very horrors, ironically, undercut the case of the warbloggers, who harp on them. Surely the least likely people to successfully impose your political ideas on are those whose core values are utterly alien to your own. You end up just killing them instead.

    I can also go along only partway with the classically libertarian “health of the state” argument. Yes, “the Pentagon is the Post Office with nuclear weapons.” And yes, war is the health of the state. But the man who said that was a pacifist, and only a pacifist could regard it as dispositive. War in Iraq? Health of the state. World War II? Health of the state — as anyone who has tried to rent an apartment in New York City can tell you. Civil War? Health of the state for sure. Should we not have fought them on that account?

    Of course the current Administration has seen the state flourish. It has attempted to arrogate to itself the power to suspend habeas corpus for U.S. citizens (Padilla) and to deny the presumption of innocence to the accused (Hamdi), with only feeble objections from the judiciary. It has decreed a “War on Terror,” which is in effect a permanent war. Health of the state is one thing, and permanent police-state powers are something else.

    The anti-war people were right, and I was wrong, and I hope my caveats do not sound too churlish.

Update: Will Wilkinson comments.

Aug 022006

This blog used to run on Greymatter, a collection of Perl scripts that its creator stopped supporting about ten minutes after I chose it. Greymatter served me well for years, but modern features that I need, like RSS feeds and comment spam control, are alien to it, and my Perl isn’t good enough to add them. Greymatter also stores posts in flat files, which is OK if you just want to display them, but not so good if you want to search or perform any other batch operations. I program computers by trade and therefore report these matters with some embarrassment.

New software was called for, and a cursory survey of the alternatives led me, on a Wisdom-of-Crowds basis, to WordPress, a collection of PHP scripts. The WordPress slogan is “Code Is Poetry.” I agree; but if code is poetry, WordPress code is doggerel. Here’s a sample from their Greymatter import script:

if ($i<10000000) {
$entryfile .= "0";
if ($i<1000000) {
$entryfile .= "0";
if ($i<100000) {
$entryfile .= "0";
if ($i<10000) {
$entryfile .= "0";
if ($i<1000) {
$entryfile .= "0";
if ($i<100) {
$entryfile .= "0";
if ($i<10) {
$entryfile .= "0";

A non-programmer, being told that Greymatter file names are eight characters long and begin with as many zeros as are required to fill out the number of the blog post (e.g., “00000579.cgi”), can probably figure out what this code snippet does. If you said that it prefixes the appropriate number of zeros to the blog post number, you win. If it occurs to you that there are more concise ways to do this than with seven nested if-statements, you may have a future in the burgeoning software industry.

On the other hand, this code, like WordPress itself, has the great merit of actually working. WordPress has a pretty easy-to-use API as well, so people can, and do, write skins that you can borrow and modify to your taste, and other extensions to its functionality. Its administrative interface is excellent. The documentation is extensive and the forums are helpful. You could do worse.

Several flavors of syndication are now available, at the bottom right. Old posts can be left open for comments thanks to proper spam control. Comments are numbered. Posts are (beginning to be) categorized.

The mini-blog is a transparent effort to raise my marks in Deportment, by allowing me to pretend I’m interested in what the rest of you are writing while I’m off Thinking Big Thoughts. It will also improve my discipline: at one short sentence every other day, I’ll have a finished book after forty years.

A few matters remain. The baseball search engine is busted, thanks to an ill-advised upgrade. A new one will be forthcoming, with better-looking results, more search criteria, and updated statistics. A reorganization of The Gee Chronicles, which can still be found at their old location, in their old format, for the time being. Links to old posts still work, but point to their old versions. URLs will eventually be rewritten to point to the new ones, but the old links will always work because permalinks should be permanent.

The banner and layout are mostly the work of my girlfriend. All complaints should be directed to her.

Mar 192005

Anyone who writes so intimately, not to say voyeuristically, about my personal life surely deserves a link or two. And a restraining order.

For the record, I wear my hair “cropped close” because I am bald.

Jun 162004

Got my hand on your grease gun,
Ooh, it’s like a disease, son.
— Queen, “I’m in Love with My Car”

For the first time in my life, last week, vicariously and briefly, I owned an expensive consumer durable. This is profoundly out of character. I can’t be bothered myself, and Lisa is usually legendarily tight; the local deli guys are still laughing about the time they crazy-glued a quarter to the floor and she tried to pick it up. But she was feeling flush, with her tax refund in hand — the IRS kindly sends you all that free money in May — and she needed a new bicycle, so out she went to shop, and home she came bearing a Giant Prodigy DX, in Aspen Silver. Now this is one flash bike. No boring old wheel spokes for the Prodigy DX, just an inner aluminum frame. Disc brakes. Built-in front and rear lights. A computer that tracks your speed, mileage, and probably heart rate and bad-cholesterol count, although we never managed to figure out its finer points. Cantilevered body, like a Nike swoosh. Adjustable shock absorbers, allowing the rider to control, with precision, the amount of internal bleeding he sustains when he rides over a pothole. Retails for $1649, which our local bike merchant knocked down to $1200, special deal just for us.

Lisa rides the Prodigy home, and hauls it up the stairs to our third-floor walkup, not without difficulty. The bike weighs more than 30 pounds. The handlebars have the approximate wingspan of a California condor, and the cantilevered frame is a lot more fun to look at than to try to carry. We park it in the living room and admire it for a while. Finally she agrees to let me take it out for a spin. If you set the shock absorbers so you don’t feel the bumps the bicycle gives the strange sensation of being about to break in two. If you set them normally, then you feel the bumps. Still, it’s a pleasant, stately ride, the cycling equivalent of an expensive SUV.

Not twelve hundred bones worth of ride, but who cares? The raison d’etre of the Prodigy is to display it before an adoring public. I parked it in front of a line for the Staten Island Ferry. As the attendant came over and asked me, obsequiously, what I paid for the bike; as a hipster child strolled by, muttering “nice bike” out of the side of his mouth; as the tourists in line stared and elbowed each other in the ribs and stared again — then I understood, for the first time, rappers and their bling-bling and dork-knobbed* men and their Lamborghinis. You’re King of the Ghetto, Prince of the Streets. Soon you begin to resent the people who walk by without a second glance. Look at my bike dammit! Can’t you appreciate beauty when you see it?

There remained the small matter of hanging the Prodigy on the wall; we live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment and cannot afford to leave it in the middle of the living room like sculpture. Lisa, who is extremely handy, nonetheless concluded, an hour and five gaping holes in the drywall later, that the Prodigy is so oddly balanced that it cannot be hung horizontally with any commercially available bike rack. Possibly it could be hung vertically, by the front wheel, but we don’t have the space for that.

If only I had read The Theory of the Leisure Class with more attention. What Veblen says about churches applies just as well to fancy bicycles:

…the sanctuary and the sacred apparatus are so contrived as not to enhance the comfort or fullness of life of the vicarious consumer, or at any rate not to convey the impression that the end of their consumption is the consumer’s comfort. For the end of vicarious consumption is to enhance, not the fullness of life of the consumer, but the pecuniary repute of the master for whose behoof the consumption takes place.

The inconvenience is an indispensable part of the program. You’re supposed to employ servants to manage these sorts of goods. I looked at Lisa. Lisa looked at me. We shook our heads sadly, in silent agreement that we were not cut out for the leisure class. We lack the wall space.

The protests of our bike dealer were in vain. Back went the Prodigy DX, to be replaced by a practical Stumpjumper, which rides better, is about 20 pounds lighter, has a crossbar for easy carrying, hangs on the wall just the way you’d expect, and is cheaper into the bargain. Lisa and I hereby abdicate as King and Queen of the Ghetto. We shall pass our remaining days in equanimity, without envious stares at our possessions. The old joke about Jaguars turns out to be true: the two happiest days of your life are the day you buy it and the day you finally you get rid of it.

*Dork-knob, n. A pony-tail on a man who’s losing his hair.

Jun 142004

Back from a blogging holiday, only to find that I’m a killjoy, a bully (check the comments to the last link: “fists raise to strike?” For the record, I haven’t hit anybody since 7th grade, and he hit me first), a “finely-tuned yay-boo machine,” and, my favorite, “ruler-wielding,” as if I were the evil nun from parochial school.

These bloggers are offended because I object to some work of art that they like. (Such quaint favorites too. I expect to catch grief for savaging Invictus, but Wordsworth, Shelley, Frank O’Hara, Yeats: who knew?) I understand, and I even sympathize, to a point. Polibloggers vastly outnumber artbloggers because people are less interested in politics, not more. Art is just too damn personal. What you like goes to the core of who you are.

Public discourse being what it is, you must expect to see your loves bruised a bit. Nothing personal. I do not, no matter what Ray Davis says, “argue against the possibility of taking pleasure in Frank O’Hara,” or W.E. Henley, or anyone else. The pleasure that people take in Frank O’Hara is real, I am sure, and they are welcome to it. But it is obvious to me that the Williams poem to which I compared O’Hara exploits the possibilities of free verse in a way that The Day Lady Died does not. I write in the forlorn hope that some of my readers might see this as well. It is piety, not destruction.

When I say that art is this, or poetry is that, I will happily entertain counter-claims and objections, even the objection that the questions are pointless. With few exceptions, like the estimable Jim Henley, who argues like a proper adult, these are not forthcoming. Instead it’s “but I like Frank O’Hara!” or “art is an affair of the heart!” or “poetry is magical and mysterious!” The Department of Defense has plans for a refinement of the neutron bomb, which will wipe out the humanities faculty while leaving the campus buildings and the science faculty intact. This is why.

Art is not a curiosity shop to nance about in. It is not a verdant meadow to which you hie your exquisite sensibility for a picnic and a sunbath. It is a discipline, with basic questions that remain unanswered. What is it? What use is it? What makes some works better than others? How do genres differ, and how do their peculiar techniques produce their peculiar results? One way to get at these matters is to disassemble the works, find out what makes them tick. This no more deprives of them of their beauty than knowledge of civil engineering prevents one from admiring the Hoover Dam. On the contrary, I would think.

Doubtless these questions are difficult. But progress in answering them for the last two and a half millenia — since, oh, Aristotle’s Poetics — has been near zero. Somehow, during this same time, human beings have managed to answer other difficult questions, like how blood circulates, what causes smallpox, what the relationship is between mass and energy, and whether arithmetic can be axiomatized. Is art really that hard to understand? Or are its devotees just not interested in understanding it?

(Update: George Wallace comments, generously. Jim Henley comments, estimably.)

May 312004

Exiting the bodega today I was accosted by a beggar, which is unusual in itself; I’ve lived in New York for twenty-odd years and by now wear an invisible sign that reads “Don’t Even THINK of Asking Me for Money.” Today’s mendicant hadn’t perfected his invisible-sign-reading skills, or maybe he had, because his opening line was, “I don’t want money,” and he had me hooked.

“You don’t want money. What do you want then?”

“Coffee, juice, anything.”

“How do you plan to buy these things?”

“You can buy them for me.”

“OK, let me clarify. You don’t want money. You want consumer goods that must be purchased with money.”

“But you can buy them!”

And as he wandered off, a scene from The Jerk suddenly, unbidden, flashed through my mind. Steve Martin, having made his fortune from the Opti-Grip, has lost it all in a class-action suit (paging Wally Olson!), for making customers permanently cross-eyed. His wife, Bernadette Peters, sits despondent in an empty living room as the repo men cart away their worldly goods. “It isn’t the money I’ll miss,” she says. “It’s all the stuuuuuuuuff!”

May 172004

Instapundit, with Lileks’ encouragement, took 20 minutes off the other day, Lileks himself took a month near-holiday, Teachout has stopped blogging on weekends, Cosh hasn’t updated his hockey page for a week, which I know you’re all busted up about, and even the Blowhards have been backfilling with guest posters. You people griping that I haven’t updated for ten days are so last year. Sloth — it’s the new black!

But I’m making it up to you below. In spades.