Archive for August, 2008

Just as the two-week sports orgy called the Beijing Olympics comes to a close, the pump is primed for a four-day political orgy called the Democratic National Convention. Far from being the sober selection of the best Democratic nominee and running mate to challenge the eventual Republican nominee and running mate (all third parties being irrelevant), the selection has already been made and the greater likelihood is that we’re in for pure spectacle, not unlike the Olympics, where protesters, Republicans, supporters of Hillary Clinton, and anarchists interested in recreating events of 1968 will all make their bids for media coverage, hoping to outlast the 15-minute rule and go down as something greater than a tertiary footnote in history by hijacking the ostensible purpose of the convention. The candidate himself will most likely be contorting himself every which way to avoid giving any ammunition to his detractors and will accordingly be quite easy to outshine.

Of course, the MSM cannot be relied upon to report calmly and rationally. Rather, stories will be selected and shaped to provide the highest degree of controversy, meaning newsworthiness, so that its pundits and anchors can spin them into analysis to justify their air time, egos, credentials, and salaries. And because we’re a populace bred on overstimulation and immediate gratification, we fully expect to have regular adrenaline jolts provided by the political process, which packages itself as the centerpiece of the national narrative with the slickness of the best Hollywood propagandists.

Naturally, I’m watching and waiting for at least a dozen spinning plates to run down and fall from their perches as we enter a season of cataclysm (oddly positioned on the calendar just when we prepare to go to the polls to elect our new masters) to inaugurate a new era of cataclysm. In the meantime, there may be another summer blockbuster yet to be screened that functions as an admirable précis of the current state of American culture, but it’s unlikely that one will appear that captures the new nature of villainy more accurately that the Joker from the new Batman movie, who is an irredeemable agent of chaos. Welcome to the maelstrom.

Update: I am pleased to say I was wrong about at least one thing. Obama did not avoid specifics in his acceptance speech. He has been described as a thematic speaker, using soaring rhetoric but not articulating his plans clearly. That wasn’t the case at the DNC. I just went to his website and downloaded his Blueprint for Change, a 33-pp. document outlining 15 areas of concern.

Stuff Inside

Posted: August 19, 2008 in Philosophy, Science

I remember having my mind blown as a teenager by Edwin Abbott Abbott’s book Flatland, which can be read here at Google books since it’s no longer protected by copyright. The book explores the limits of perception faced by an inhabitant of 2-dimensional space, known as Flatland, when visited by a 3-dimensional being, a sphere. It was exciting to think outside the box (pun intended) and extrapolate the possibility of multiple dimensions beyond human perceptual apparatuses. Similarly, it was curious to imagine what it would be like to artificially limit perception from spaceland (normal 3D space) to flatland (a plane in 2D) to lineland (1D) to pointland (0D). This abstract reasoning is well within the power of ordinary folks and doesn’t require specialized training in geometry.

That there exist hidden dimensions (or layers or depths) is a fascinating idea, and it applies and extends equally well to all manner of things, both mundane and exotic. Indeed, it occurred to me that the profundity present within much of human experience often lies beyond our perceptual ability, whereas in other cases we lack sensitivity, training, or focus to appreciate what we experience, instead skimming along the surface. In short, there is an awful lot of stuff inside that is lost on us. (more…)

Human Exploits

Posted: August 13, 2008 in Culture

I picked up Bill Bryson’s curious book A Short History of Nearly Everything and have been wading through. I’m still in the early parts of the book, but I find it curious how he devotes considerable space to profiling people who laid the foundations of science in various disciplines. It also got me wondering whether it’s really all that laudable to be the sort of flawed, driven person who makes a mark on posterity sufficient to be written about in a book years later. (As Bryson makes clear — unintentionally perhaps — it’s frequently the case that individuals way out of balance with normalcy are those who work the hardest and/or take the largest risks, whereas others stumble unwittingly into their niche in history.) Biographers used to laud the exploits of military leaders and statesmen. These days, our attention is almost exclusively riveted on celebrities, which is to say, entertainers. Whether artists and athletes (and others) fall within the entertainment category is impossible to establish irrefutably, but I’d say “yes” simply for the fact that we pay attention to the output of artists and athletes for our own enjoyment. The question of worthwhile entertainments vs. base ones I’ll leave untouched.

I also recently saw the movie Lions for Lambs. The movie’s central imperative is clear: one must choose between the options of living a life of relatively unconflicted (and decadent) ease and enjoyment versus striving to make a difference — any difference. Two characters in the movie opt to try and end up wasting their lives in a pointless military gambit on an Afghan mountaintop; another character, a politician well schooled in GOP talking points, insists he’s trying to make a difference with this military maneuver but may instead really be positioning himself for a run at the presidency; a further character is wrestling with the decision whether or not to bother. It’s clearly a young man’s game (the omission of young women may not be significant), as the two seasoned characters have long since addressed the central imperative and are now, later in life, clinging to the tatters of their integrity and former ideals.

As a young man, I certainly internalized the call to greatness, though from my perspective now it looks nearly indistinguishable from a will to power. I strove for a number of years to enter a highly sought-after profession, where I believed I could make a difference, but never succeeded. Perhaps it’s sour grapes, but now I’m uncertain whether I would even want it anymore, considering the really interesting aspects have been blunted by the adoption of a corporate veneer. Similarly, after a few foundering attempts, I abandoned the call to service as a schoolteacher, sadly recognizing that my efforts would inevitably be squandered due to the bureaucratized nature of that aged institution.

As a middle-aged man (middle age appears to be shifting to later in life), I’ve comforted myself that my attempts to make a difference, though meager, have meant doing my work quietly and competently (expertly even) within a veritable ocean of mediocrity and incompetence. My presence in a room or on a project, though not usually dazzling, always improves the overall level and sometimes stands out as special. Further, I labor quietly though steadfastly to build and maintain a sense of community in my various endeavors, which is a value now on the wane but one that has sustained us through the generations.

My name is unlikely to appear in any books written in the future as my contributions are too subtle and anonymous to matter for that particular honor. And I can’t foist that craving for immortality on my children as so many parents do (parents of celebrities now inevitably become celebrities in their own right). So I’m left with option 2: the sort of anonymous life lived by billions of us. But that need not be wholly decadent, as suggested in the movie. It might in fact be the only sane response to a world out of balance.