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. . . 2001-11-19

Michael Lind explains (link via metameat), in clearer prose than I'm ever likely to produce, what's wrong with talk about "the West," and comes to a depressing conclusion:

"The collapse of liberal denominations promises an increasing polarisation between consistent secularists and devout believers."
Empty chatter about "the Christian West" or "the capitalist West" fogs perception, as universalizing abstractions tend to do: when we need to know the weather, we're told that clouds look like bunnies (or at least real clouds do). But what makes this particular parochialism dangerous rather than merely annoying is its easy slide into racism and aggression.

The reader a-thirst for closer analysis of Rise-and-Fall Clash-of-Culture rhetoricians might enjoy Robert Musil's 1921 essay, "Mind and Experience: Notes for Readers Who Have Eluded the Decline of the West":

For there is a favorable prejudice -- I want to use the word spiritual, let us say then in spiritual circles, but I mean in literary circles -- toward offenses against mathematics, logic, and precision. Among crimes against the spirit, these are happily counted among the honorable political ones; the prosecutor actually finds himself in the role of the accused. Let us be generous, then: Spengler is speaking approximately; he works with analogies, and these are always right in some sense or other. If an author is bent on referring to concepts by the wrong names or even confusing them with each other, one can eventually get used to it. But some key symbol, some kind of ultimately unequivocal connection between thought and word, must be sustained. Even this is lacking. The examples I have adduced, without having to look very hard, are only a selection among many; they are not errors of detail, but a way of thinking.

There are lemon-yellow butterflies, and there are lemon-yellow Chinese. In a certain sense, then, one can say that the butterfly is the winged, middle-European, dwarf Chinese. Butterflies and Chinese are both familiar as images of sexual desire. Here the thought is formulated for the first time of the previously unrecognized commonality between the great ages of lepidopteral fauna and Chinese culture. That butterflies have wings and the Chinese do not is only a superficial phenomenon. If ever a zoologist had understood anything about the ultimate and deepest ideas of technology, it would not have been left to me to be the first to disclose the significance of the fact that butterflies did not invent gunpowder precisely because the Chinese had done so already. The suicidal predilection of certain kinds of nocturnal moths for bright light is a relic of this morphological connection to Sinology, a connection hard to explain in terms of everyday reason.

It really makes no difference what it is that is to be proved by such means.

. . . 2001-11-20

The Gift of Fruitcake

Last week, Paul McEnery bemoaned to me the balkanized states of psychology in America: clinical psychologists ignoring research psychologists ignoring social psychologists when they could so profitably be building on each others' work....

As a layperson who likes snooping around half-understood academic journals, I've wondered about that myself.

For example, when reading a very widely noted report (Joan Freeman knows how to work those publicity machines!) that "emotional problems" and "mundane jobs" are more likely to come to intelligent children who are told they're gifted than to those "told nothing."

"Told nothing"? Enticingly vague, that....

Thus enticed toward a fuller summary, I find that Freeman's study "compared [after 27 years] the lives of pupils whose parents joined a society for gifted children with equally talented students whose parents were not members."

OK, then, what Freeman compared wasn't "children told all" vs. "children told nothing," but "parents who joined a society" vs. "parents who didn't join."

As Freeman herself acknowledges, high-IQ children are more likely to be singled out for special treatment if they already have behavior problems. Otherwise, they'll just be getting along quietly (and easily) in school. (It wasn't teaching myself to read that attracted my guardians' attention; it was acting like a horrid little monster in kindergarten. Only as part of trying to figure out how to calm me the fuck down did a counselor come up with the "gifted" label -- which may well mean that my sole "gift" was that of acting like a horrid little monster. "And what super powers do you have?") Right off, that skews the study to a "gifted" / "disturbed" correlation.

Then there's the question of what kind of parent would be most likely to join the society. Seems likely it would be someone worried about freakiness or about class mobility, either of which would up the tensions at home. As opposed to, like, all the smart-as-a-whip people I met later who came from families where big IQs weren't considered big deals: bohemian or genteelly academic or upper-middle-class or just amazing.

And it seems unlikely that society membership would be felt necessary if there was an obvious route already laid out for the kid -- something like the Bronx High School of Science or the Dalton School, where academic progress wouldn't require a misaligned age -- as opposed to having to decide between jumping grades in a regular old underfunded public school or staying stuck in a regular old underfunded public school.

Freeman's results may be secure as all get-out, then, but their only clear application is "don't think that joining a society for gifted children is going to be helpful for your child." They certainly don't support Freeman's extensive lists of recommendations, some of which seem benign -- don't assume the kid can make mature decisions -- but some of which seem less than realistic. (Despite the lasting inconveniences of that kindergarten badge, I'd have to insist that the most genuinely cheery times I had in school were due to the singling-out counselors and the few teachers not too exhausted to handle special-tracking -- though I still cringe remembering the agonizing opacity of fractions.)

Population studies work fine for spotting problems, but for spotting causes and treatments you can't beat lab work. Such as Mueller & Dweck's 1998 study showing that praise for intelligence or giftedness mimics learned helplessness, lowering both performance and motivation, whereas praise for effort or for the task itself increases performance and motivation.

Mueller & Dweck admitted their study's limits, but it ties usefully into other research, like Dykman's. And they also came up with plausible empathic explanations for the results: My attention having been drawn to myself, my goal becomes maintenance of my self-image by "succeeding at" the task, a starkly win-or-lose approach which hardly entices me to move forward: winning means I'm done, and losing means I lack the innate ability I thought I had. More fruitful is to define the goal as gradually improved competence, with setbacks expected and due to (surmountable) lack of effort or training.

(And, as a "To Be Continued" marker, their contrast of inward and outward attentiveness fits some central neuraesthetic speculations....)

. . . 2001-11-21


OURS to fight for


Eat Hearty

From its beginning, the USA has been unable to coherently coordinate foreign intervention or isolationism with domestic policy and rhetoric for any length of time. George Washington, sweating hard, managed it for eight years, but international hostilities tripped up John Adams, then Thomas Jefferson, and then so on and so forth. It's not a question of "Right" or "Left": the same initial arguments for or against use of the military have been applied by every political faction.

The orthogonality of war is no accident. War, by definition, can never be fully justified as "consent of the governed." War can't be fully dealt with in ethical or even in practically political terms; being between nations, it requires the concept of nationalism, with all its heated confusions. War isn't hell because it's painful; war is hell because it contains no possibility of virtue -- only the possibility of more or less serious misunderstandings, and more or less disastrous mistakes, and more or less sincere avowals of necessity.

Although I feel solidly hostile toward theocratic governments (until the Quakers seize power, anyway), I can't possibly obtain enough information about the war-in-progress to feel solidly "pro" or "anti" about it -- much of the lack of information being by design* but much being inherent to any war.

Luckily, at the moment my opinion doesn't matter a bit.

For which I am truly thankful.

* Consider the following sequence:
  1. The Bush family has a long history of private financial and secret governmental operations in the Middle East.
  2. On attaining the presidency, Bush younger orders investigative agencies to lay off bin Laden and other Saudi terrorists.
  3. Bush refuses to disclose the evidence linking bin Laden to the September 11 hijackings.
  4. Bush orders that the papers of the Reagan-Bush administration be kept out of the hands of historians.
  5. Bush calls for secret quasi-military tribunals under his exclusive control.
I'm hardly an antiwar protester or a conspiracy theorist (link via wood s lot), but it seems clear enough that the Bushes want to maintain a number of germane secrets (while insisting that no one else is entitled to any), and, given what history teaches us about secretive presidents, it seems possible that their motives include ducking personal responsibility as well as preserving national security.

Which has absolutely nothing to do with blaming the victims of terrorism, or with defending the Taliban, or with dividing populations between "thugs" and "refugees" -- but which still seems likely to be overlooked by the well-funded reporters of FOX news....

. . . 2001-12-12

A Message for Our Readers

117 KB WAV (via).

. . . 2001-12-19

Those who've wondered whether the world would be a better place if this site was updated less often should have sufficient data by now, I reckon....

Being neither a Bush, a tobacco company, nor a gun purchaser, I have no secrets. It's just that my list of delays offers little in the way of instruction or entertainment -- save perhaps the following:

2001-11-22 - Better to dive than to crash
A seal's head emerges, facing shore; it pivots 180 degrees and spots the oncoming swell -- an exclamation mark sproinging into existence overhead -- and the seal ducks straight down, its tail waving in the air for a dubba-duh-dubba-duh instant before disappearing.

2001-12-05 - Consumer report
The much-linked-to but underreported-on hardware vendor turned out to be another front for "Florida Computers" (aka USBGear aka QualityCables): a professional-looking ecommerce site in which no links worked except those directly related to taking money. Phone calls weren't returned, the "online order tracking" form simply reloaded the page, and email was either unanswered or (in the case of "") bounced back. My order eventually showed up, but the experience could only be recommended to the hardiest of online shoppers.
Update - On January 28, 2002, APDrive's Rad Rozycki finally sent a response to my queries of December 5 and December 6, 2001, with the following added note: "I do not appreciate the link you gave us and would kindly ask for removal of this information!" The next day, he sent eleven more vehement emails ("Last time I checked if someone accuses you of something they better have some proof or a very good lawyer!") and posted a denunciation of me on his company's website. I can't say that this tardy outburst of attention has improved my opinion of his customer support, but Your Reaction May Vary.

2001-12-09 - Beginning of an era
On this day, I encountered the exclamation "Gosh all hemlock!" in two completely separate sources: email from Joseph Whitehill to me and a letter from Jonathan Williams to the London Review of Books:

In her article about J.R.R. Tolkien, Jenny Turner (LRB, 15 November) mentions that 'Tolkien was immediately and enduringly popular, unlike the writers of OuLiPo or the Black Mountain School.' I don't know what OuLiPo is, but I must yell out as one of the few Black Mountain writers left on foot. I read The Hobbit in 1940, at the age of ten, and Lord of the Rings in my twenties. The other great fan in our circle was the poet Robert Duncan. Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn and Joel Oppenheimer wouldn't read stuff like this. Leave it to the fruitcakes! It puzzles me to read Turner (and Philip Pullman on several occasions) going on about Tolkien's 'dreadful prose style'. Tolkien is even taken to task for using the word 'noisome'. Gosh all hemlock, as people used to say. Philip Sidney used 'noisome'. And a decade or two before Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft used 'noisome' like there was no tomorrow. I have reread Lord of the Rings maybe five or six times over the past forty years and every time I am thrilled by the language. The style is direct, transparent and unadorned, making it perfect for all the descriptions of the landscapes, while the characters say affectionate and modest natural things to each other. What could be better?

Jonathan Williams
Highlands, North Carolina

2001-12-15 - Better to dive than to crash, cont.
From L. A. Weekly's "Woman Seeking Man" personals:

EX-VEGAS DANCER, with full moon eternally lit, has tattoos and hip hop
body, seeks wild man from surfworld; intensely funny, hard worker, hard
lover. Please be pretty like me. P.S. Lost legs in surfing accident.
(Pasadena) Call Box 3009.

. . . 2001-12-20

Ed's Redemptions

Dan Leone is an undeterminable variable as a restaurant reviewer and a terrible influence as a social diarist (nary a Bay area columnist now but must refer to their dining companions by cutesy pseudonyms), but as a pundit he's just fine:

At this point, instead of saying Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas and Top O' Ramadan and Whatever Whatever to you all, I would like to say something about holiness in general; but before I do, let me point out, in the interest of offending everyone equally, that I despise all religions and every notion of sacredness, and if I had a big enough stick I'd knock down God and Allah and any other piñata full of Smarties® anyone wants to hold up over our heads. Higher powers suck. They inspire nothing in us mere mortals more consistently than the desire to exercise other mere mortals' mortality. But, bad as the killing is, what really gets my goats is when they start fucking with what's-for-dinner. Go ahead and knock off your neighbor, but whatever you do, you must not eat that sacred chicken or goat or cow or pig.

Back when I was a kid in no-meat-on-Friday school there was a lot of talk about putting Christ back in Christmas. I say we get him the hell out of there entirely. I mean it: happy holidays, everyone! Here's hoping that your happiness has nothing to do with holiness and everything to do with general human givingness and, most important, what's-for-dinner.

- close of review of Your Black Muslim Bakery, Oakland

Of course, he was best as a rock star, but what can you do..?
There are dogs & cats & owls & pets
& people & cows & elk & moles.
Here's what I think: I'm placin' a bet
that chickens are the only ones with souls.

Good ones go to heaven, bad ones to hell;
People & dogs & cats just die.
You didn't want to hear it but you may as well.
You didn't want to know. Well, neither did I.

- Another Song in Celebration of Chickens

. . . 2001-12-22

By writing out a puzzle, Lawrence L. White finds the solution (and as a side-effect shares it):

In the latest issue of Context a piece on Kathy Acker brought to mind an old problem.

Ms. Wheeler talks a lot about Acker's ambitions (to change the world w/words) but not much about how she carried it out. & the ambitions are read straight off. Any clever workshop student knows "show, don't tell," and, as Marx put it, "every shopkeeper can distinguish between what somebody professes to be and he really is."

To be fair, there's a lot to say about stated intentions. You can at least repeat them. There may not be that much to say about the means art uses. & of the little that has been said, most of it is painfully obvious. But maybe that's okeh. Maybe there should be less talking about poems & more reading them.

Then I noticed how I had not managed to avoid my own problem. Wittgenstein says, somewhere, something like what is needed is not new theories but reminders of what we wanted to do in the first place. So reminding yourself which problems are bothering you might not be a complete waste of time.

Better yet, why not make talk about poems as interesting as the most interesting poems?

+ + +

I feel your gain

Employment consultant Juliet Clark reports:

  Just spotted this wonderful sentence in a job listing from Cedco Publishing Company ("seeking a brand manager for its line of illustrated gift books on the topic of witchcraft and magic"):
    Salary + commission commiserate with experience.
  I've always wanted a salary that would have more sympathy for my experience....

I don't know... maybe I'm an ingrate, but I've had employers say "I'm so sorry" while they handed me a paycheck, and it didn't make me feel any better at all.

. . . 2001-12-23

Although my usually beloved readers were of no help in tracing the origins of "Is dis a system?" and therefore are, per threat, to be smote again with the jawbone of a Betsy lyric:

  I'm just the mother type,
  You want no other type,
    And I'll be very chummy with the stork.
  All babies charm me, dear,
  You'll have an army, dear,
    And we'll make London smaller than New York.

de Fox witt de Crow witt de Chizze

and another (SMACK) for luck (SMACK!!):

  At the Saskatchewan,
  We will not scratch you on
    Your race
    Or on your face;
  We'd let Lon Chaney in.


and, what the heck, I'm starting to enjoy this:

  If you don't understand my language
    You must be a big dumb Dora.
  My people make the Bronx and Brooklyn
    Look like Sodom and Gomorrah!
  We are here two million strong,
    Not counting the Assyrians
  And many Christian Scientists
    And several Presbyterians.

Ho K.

...anyhow, never mind, it doesn't matter, 'cause the mysterious unseen (and probably unwashed) hand of the American muse has already hooked my snoot in the right direction. While trying to use up some trade at Moe's, I found a copy of Nize Baby, prose mitt illustrations from Milt Gross yet. What I really wanted was a pure collection of comics from Milt Gross, but I never get what I really want, so I brought the book home anyway: at least it was Milt Gross, and for a high-low-brow waggler the pages' surface resemblance to contemporaneous work by John Dos Passos and William Carlos Williams was irresistable:

     First Floor —So it was a socksess de hoperation?
     Second Floor A whole night long I couldn't slip.
     First Floor —Wos boddering you maybe de — efter-defects, ha?
     Second Floor —No was cerrying on in de next bat from me a patient someting tarrible. So I made a complain to de head sturgeon from de hospital. So he explained wot he was soffering from attaletic fits!
     First Floor —So you came home.
     Second Floor —Hm. I went for a copple of wicks to rest in a cemetarium so den I came home.
     Third Floor —So, Isidor! (SMACK) Wid a paddler you ronning arond to paddle de hepples, ha? (SMACK) De huss from de paddler you got to fid yet, he should bite you off maybe a feenger, ha? (SMACK) To de dalicatassen store you wouldn't go, when she esks you de momma, ha? (SMACK) De lassons wot you got to stoddy you don't do it, ha? (SMACK) Benenas you should paddle better, ha? (SMACK) A hockster you should grow opp maybe yet, ha? ( SMACK.)
     Fourth Floor —Oohoo nize baby, itt opp all de mosh witt milk so momma'll gonna tell you a Ferry Tale about De Dug in de Manager. Wance oppon a time was seeting a dug in a manager. So de manager was full from hay wit hoats. So it came along a cow so he said, "I'm filling a leedle hongry —I tink wot I'll goin' in de manager und have a leedle bite hay maybe." (Nize baby take anodder spoon mosh witt milk.) So it came in de cow but dot doidy dug was sotch a crenk witt a minn ting wot you wouldn't billive it could exeest. So he stodded in to bok —"Gr-r-r-rrr! Gerraderhere, you cow!!" So de cow went away like a gantleman so de naxt day he came beck so dot doidy dug sad. "Grrr-rr-rrr! Gerradahere, you cow!!" So de cow sad, "Wot's de metter? You don't want me I should itt it opp de hay??" So de dug sad, "NO!!" So de cow sad, "You want maybe you should itt it opp yourself de hay?" So de dug sad, "NO! I don't want I should itt it und I don't want you should itt it." So de cow sad, "Hm, you don't want you should itt it und you don't want I should itt it. Is diss a system???" (Oohoo, sotch a dollink baby ate opp all de mosh witt milk!)

The undoubtedly perspiring reader who made it to the end of Fourth Floor's Ferry Tale will have noticed our prey at bay. (The more reasonable reader who gave up early on is directed to the next-to-last sentence.) In fact, our prey is all over the dang place! So here's why, failing counterargument from R. Crumb or someone like him, I think Milt Gross is the ultimate source:
  1. You need a catchphrase to make it in this wicked world, and Milt Gross gives the peculiar catchphrase "Is diss a system?" the blanket coverage of an assured trademark -- it's in pretty much every other column. (His claim to "Banana oil!" seems more contestable, though he's still two years earlier than the first OED attestation, P. G. Wodehouse in 1927.)
  2. It fits for Hart to be making a topical reference: the original "Gross Exaggerations" columns were running in the New York World in 1925, the Nize Baby collection was a 1926 bestseller, and Betsy flopped onto the Broadway boards like a suicidal inedible fish on December 28, 1926.
  3. Internet research at its finest: two guys on Usenet credited it to Gross in passing.
Hm! See, is de law from gratification!

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2001 Ray Davis.