Monday, May 31, 2010

Digging deeper holes

Oil continues to spill in the Gulf. That makes it as good a time as any to continue reflecting on the truth that complexity breeds collapse. In the real world, where large engineering projects are subject to large, unpredictable risks and threats, it would be silly to pretend that engineering is a science. Engineering is an art.

Elizabeth Rosenthal wrote in the New York Times on Friday:
Americans have long had an unswerving belief that technology will save us — it is the cavalry coming over the hill, just as we are about to lose the battle. And yet, as Americans watched scientists struggle to plug the undersea well over the past month, it became apparent that our great belief in technology was perhaps misplaced.

Misplaced indeed. Remember the bridge that collapsed over the Tacoma Narrows in 1940?

Well, I don't remember either, it happened when my parents were toddlers. The lesson still applies, however. Mistakes happen.

Industrial food production is another complex aspect of modern society that has to do with energy. In this case industrial technology is applied to the goal of energizing human bodies -- as opposed to cars, trucks, and airplanes. As in the extractive industries, complexity leads to toxic disaster time and time again.

In China in 2008, milk processing factories added melamine to dairy products, including infant formula, leading to illness in hundreds of thousands of victims, including hundreds of hospitalizations and six infant deaths. Why would food producers do such a thing? Because addition of the industrial chemical lent an appearance of greater nutritional value to poor-quality milk. The goal, apparently, was to fool parents into feeding their children poison in order to spin profit from dross. But 2008 wasn't the first time reckless milk profiteering killed Chinese infants. BBC News reported in April 2004 that:
Dozens of Chinese babies are said to have died from malnutrition in the past year after being fed fake or inferior-quality baby milk powders. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said makers of the products would be severely punished [...].

It seems that whatever punishment was actually meted out didn't do the trick. But why is this a technology issue and not just about evil profiteers? Because proximity encourages accountability.

According to Wikipedia's definition,
Slow Food is an international movement founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986. It strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and promotes farming of plants, seeds and livestock characteristic of the local ecosystem.

The resurgence of farmers markets in cities and towns, restaurants that advertise "grown locally" on their menus, bestselling books by Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan (Fast Food Nation, The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food), and the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc. are all related to "slow food." This is a movement that aims to simplify complexity in food production and distribution ... complexity that leaves room for layers of industry between producers and consumers to spice up plain old food with toxic fraud and negligence. Some call this a 'local food' movement.

One of the ickiest kinds of industrial food poisoning is meat and packaged-produce tainted by E. coli bacteria, a product of factory-farmed beef and pork ... quite literally. Where animal feces meets the food supply, E. coli flavored illness and death frequently result. This can happen when fields are overrun by feral pigs or irrigated with water contaminated by animal waste, for example, as happened on an (organic) produce farm in 2006; or when animal carcasses are not kept clean as they are moved through meat processing plants.

Can technology fix this sort of problem? A set of articles in the San Francisco Chronicle last week suggested otherwise.

Carolyn Lochhead reported on 23 May that:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service served notice in March that all meat plants should validate their existing safety plans to ensure they are preventing E. coli, salmonella and other contaminations. The draft document, part of a raft of new food safety actions stemming from the President's Food Safety Working Group, calls for microbial testing.

But smaller, 'slower' meat producers are crying foul.
While small meat cutters do some testing now, they worry that the proposed rules would require them to do much more, at far greater expense. [...] "This is typical of food safety regulations over time," said John Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri. "There's a fundamentally different relationship between processors and farmers who sell in the local community and big, impersonal operations that are bringing in livestock and shipping those products all over the country." [...] Ikerd said the government's proposed rules could pose "a serious setback for the local food movement."

A second article on that date by the same reporter described in some detail how high tech meat processors operate differently from small slaughterhouse operations, comparing an operation near Harrisonburg, Virginia that butchers 2,897 animals per year to one in North Carolina that kills 32,000 pigs in a single day. The smaller plant takes 25 minutes to turn a live cow into a carcass hanging in cooler; industrial slaughterhouses
"have beefs flying down their lines every few seconds. The line speeds are extraordinary. You can't keep that carcass clean."

It's a fascinating read for those who have the stomach to know where food comes from.

Jumping straight to the conclusion of the Chronicle article, we have Joe Cloud, who operates that small slaughterhouse near Harrisonburg:
"They want me to go through the exact same testing regulations as a plant that kills 5,000 or 6,000 head of beef a day," Cloud said. "It's the high-tech industrial system that creates the problems, and all the solutions are technological solutions. That's all Congress is capable of mandating, and it drives the system further into the paradigm that created the problem."

Hmmmmm. Technology-driven "testing regulations" are the way to solve a problem caused by our reliance on high-tech slaughterhouses?

There's something funky in that logic.

Here's Elizabeth Rosenthal again, from yesterday's NY Times article about the Gulf oil spill:
Indeed, think of all the planes grounded for nearly a week in northern Europe last month, as a volcano poured ash in the atmosphere. There was no technological fix, and many passengers couldn’t believe it. Said Mr. Kohut, of Pew Research, “The reaction was: ‘Fix this. Fix this. This is outrageous.’ ”

Fix a volcano. Um, yeah.

Maybe we need to take a few slow steps back from the seductive belief that engineering conquers all.

So consider this video posted May 23rd, 2010, 70 years after the bridge over the Tacoma Narrows collapsed. The voices in the sound track are speaking Russian, and the YouTube uploader Chinese:

[UPDATE: sorry, this video seems to have been pulled for copyright infringement. However:]

In English, from the U.K.'s ITN on May 21:
The Russian Emergency Ministry has closed a seven-kilometre-long bridge which crosses the Volga River in Volgograd, after the structure started to wobble. [...] Strong currents in the river caused by the huge flow of extra water from melting snow upstream had apparently loosened one of the vertical supports, which affected the balance of the entire bridge.

And here's a rich take on the incident from U.K. tabloid The Daily Mail, datelined May 25:
The bridge, spanning the giant Volga River, cost £275 million and was opened by deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov - a close aide to premier Vladimir Putin - eight months ago. [...] So far, experts blame the wrong kind of wind for the extreme turbulence suffered by drivers on the bridge [...].

The "wrong kind of wind"? Okay, I know, it's the Daily Mail so who knows where they found their "experts," but ... what kind of wind, exactly, qualifies as "wrong"?

The belief that technology will shield us from complexity's fallout isn't just betting on the wrong horse. It's watching the wrong race.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Nuclear meltdown abroad and at home
The radiation cloud is blowing in the wind
Things fall apart

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Collaborative Opera

In Narrative vs. Conversation, a post of a couple months back, I considered the difference between works of fiction created by one author and those created as collaborative efforts. On May 6th the Savonlinna Opera Festival has upped the ante by announcing a grand collaborative endeavor to create an entire opera, soup to nuts -- a collaboration open to all.

From the web site:
Savonlinna Opera Festival is one of the leading festivals in Finland, attended annually by over 60,000 guests. We are now initiating a unique project, through which anyone can participate in creating an opera. The finished opera production will have it’s premiere at the Savonlinna Opera Festival in July 2012.

And the invitation:
You will have an 80 member opera choir, a symphony orchestra and the unique stage of a medieval castle at your disposal. Join us in writing a script, composing and designing the staging of an opera.

Here's Savonlinna's promotional video about the collaboration:

The press release of 6 May explains that
Helping the Internet community will be a group of opera professionals: the Savonlinna Opera Festival’s Head of Productions Jukka Pohjolainen, composer Markus Fagerudd, opera director Jere Erkkil√§ and project manager Sivi Uitto. The idea is being developed and worked on in partnership with the hasan & partners advertising agency.

More than fifty would-be librettists have pitched their concepts to-date. The FAQ page contains a discussion in which the organizers are looking for tools for collaborative composition of a musical score, so it looks like the most usual sequence of opera composition is being followed: the composer(s) start with the story.

Are you skeptical yet?

A composer friend who is also a software developer, upon hearing of this endeavor, wrote to me:
[...] it seems like it will yield a [...] comic result more than anything else. I guess I don't have too much faith in design by committee working out in software, so maybe that's transferring over to here too!

Most operas, before they are performed, are created as collaborations of a narrower sort: between a librettist and a composer, the latter usually dominant (and sometimes a full-blown prima donna). And by definition opera is an art form that is performed as collaboration. An orchestra plays the instruments and a conductor governs their rendition; singers sing and act the libretto; director and producer frame the staging; and then there are the set designers, costume designers, choreographers, and a host of supernumeraries (I love that word).

The Savonlinna is going beyond all of that, though. And composition by committee is something any reasonable person might reasonably decline to take on faith.

What do you think? If you were to write a speculative review of Opera For You, pre-dated July 2012, how would you lay your bets? What do you guess will come of the Savonlinna Opera Festival's project?

(Thanks to Matthew Felix Sun for pointing me to the Savolinna's collaborative opera project.)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Right-wing cultural relativism

When I was a college student, so was Dinesh D'Souza. He majored in English at Dartmouth. I majored in English at UC Berkeley. He graduated the year after I did. I didn't make a noticeable splash at Berkeley, but D'Souza made a name for himself at Dartmouth by
writing for the campus newspaper, working in the international students' association, joining an energy conservation committee, and eventually, helping to start the Dartmouth Review, a politically conservative magazine that became nationally notorious for attacking the college’s administration and taking controversial stands on minority issues

(quoting a piece by Rosie Grier that's posted on the subject's own website).

Though it predates him by many years, I will forever associate D'Souza with the silly, silly construct "politically correct," one of those phrases that regularly zips from human ear to human mouth without passing through a single human neuron. One indication that this is the case is that the literal meaning of the phrase is, from the perspective of a speaker or writer who applies the term, 'a statement about social organization that I endorse so fervently that I assert it is empirically true'; yet conservatives never seem to agree with things that they label "politically correct." Perhaps this is a form of irony?

Anyway, D'Souza was a major player in the so-called "culture wars" of the eighties and nineties, in which conservatives churned out reams of invective against multiculturalism and cultural relativism. Here's D'Souza himself on the topic, from an abridged version of a speech given in 2001, in Boise, Idaho:
Multiculturalists insist that [...] our children [...] must stop thinking of Western and American civilization as superior to other civilizations. The doctrine underlying this position is cultural relativism -- the denial that any culture can be said to be better or worse than any other. Cultural relativists take the principle of equality, which in the American political tradition is applied to individuals in terms of rights, and apply it instead to cultures in terms of their value.

Curious. It strikes me that it's conservative wingnuts these days who are trying to reshape principles of equality into constructs that, well, they just don't fit.

For example, creationist wingnuts assert that myths about the creation of the world, especially those in the first book of the Old Testament, are equal in credibility with scientific theories of evolution. (If this 'debate' seems murky to you, read Scientific American's "15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense" of July 2002.)

Then there's climate change denier wingnuts, who try to elevate crackpot dissent from overwhelming scientific evidence & consensus to an 'equally valid' interpretation of the (d)evolving physical characteristics of our planet. (Does this one seem murky too? Scientific American has "Seven Answers to Climate Contrarian Nonsense" for those who can use them.)

Then there's the Texas school board.
Texas schools board rewrites US history with Lessons promoting God and guns

That's the headline of an article of May 16 in the UK's Guardian. In this you-wish-it-were-a-fairy-tale,
a clutch of Christian evangelists and social conservatives [...] have grasped control of the state's education board.

It is noteworthy that curricular requirements in Texas significantly shape publication of school textbooks nationwide due to publishers' economic incentives to deliver acceptable product to the largest markets. As the Guardian puts it,
Texas buys millions of text books every year, giving it considerable sway over what publishers print. By some estimates, all but a handful of American states rely on text books written to meet the Texas curriculum.

It's just as Orwell might have put it if he'd lived to see the 21st century: Capital is Truth.

Texas passed its new Ten Year Plan for social studies and history curriculum on Friday. Here are some of the more startling elements of rewritten Texas curriculum, paraphrasing the Guardian:

  • Thomas Jefferson, who favoured separation of church and state, is sidelined
  • references to the term "slave trade" are dropped in favour of the more innocuous "Atlantic triangular trade"
  • "the right to keep and bear arms" is trumpeted as an important element of democratic society
  • Sir Isaac Newton's contribution to scientific advance is dropped in favour of examining science through the lens of military technology
  • economics can now be said to show that prosperity requires "minimal government intrusion and taxation"
  • the anti-communist witch-hunt by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s is now regarded as justified
  • the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is driven by Islamic fundamentalism

These changes do not advance accuracy, truth, or understanding. They are ideological positions, plain and simple. If you're not sure that's so, take a look at how state education board member Cynthia Dunbar justifies recasting education in Texas:
There seems to have been a move away from a patriotic ideology. There seems to be a denial that this was a nation founded under God. We had to go back and make some corrections."

Cynthia Dunbar is an adult, and is free to embrace a "patriotic ideology" if she likes. But when she rams it down the tender throats of millions of schoolchildren, she's practicing cultural relativism on steroids, insisting that her alternate ideas are valid even when they conflict directly with those that form well-understood, considered & reconsidered, evidence-based, and widely-held bodies of knowledge. In fact, she's practicing cultural relativism at a pitch that would have Dinesh D'Souza spinning in his grave ... except for the fact that, unlike the infamous parrot in the well-known Monty Python sketch, he's not dead yet.

The New York Times quoted Benjamin T. Jealous, president of the N.A.A.C.P., putting the matter succinctly
The biggest danger is we’ll end up with children who don’t understand history. The school board members are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Katinsf says: Ordinary People Can Change the World

My friend Kate -- Katinsf -- blogs as Democracy Sometimes, a wry reference to Amy Goodman's Democracy Now (or at least that's how I read it).

Yesterday she published this post: Ordinary People Can Change the World. Now I'm not a very hopeful person. The message in Kate's title is not one you'd catch me believing most of the time. But with OPCCtW she knocked my cynical socks off.

The narrative arc is a one-two punch.

First, Kate writes about the film Budrus. From the film's website:
Budrus is an award-winning feature documentary film about a Palestinian community organizer, Ayed Morrar, who unites local Fatah and Hamas members along with Israeli supporters in an unarmed movement to save his village of Budrus from destruction by Israel’s Separation Barrier. Success eludes them until his 15-year-old daughter, Iltezam, launches a women’s contingent that quickly moves to the front lines.

Kate participated in many of the events documented by the film, and knows many of the key actors. Some of her on-the-ground footage is included in the documentary, and her posts from Palestine during this struggle were riveting at the time. A principal lesson she takes from the film (and the events) is that ... ordinary people can change the world. It's a terrific story, and I can't wait to see the film myself.

Cut to the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which I've blogged about myself a couple of times. Kate makes some astute observations about how this still-burgeoning disaster is being covered in the news:
The media – especially the mainstream media, but even the progressive media does its part, for different reasons – promote the idea that dangerous offshore wells are drilled and wars for oil are waged so that we in this country can drive our cars and watch our televisions. And that in turn has a silencing effect on people who might otherwise want to criticize those policies. I heard someone essentially say on KPFA the other day that if you drove a car to work today, you have no right to complain that somewhere between half a million and 2 million gallons of oil are leaking into the Gulf every day.

She then goes on to debunk the spin, explaining why
U.S. policies are not proof that Americans are so selfish that we want to keep using fossil fuels despite their enormous cost to the planet and its inhabitants.
And then ties the two threads of her post together:
We do not have to accept that just because this is the way things have been for the last 150 years or so, it’s the way it needs to be for the next 150. We do not have to simply swallow bad news with our morning coffee. We can be like the women who stood in front of the Israeli army that day in Budrus and said, no, we won’t accept reality as you have declared it to be. We are going to change reality.

Go Kate.

Read her post. It'll make your day.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

More on fiction categories

I was thinking about that pesky fiction 'category' problem a few weeks back, and a bright idea came to me. Well, it seemed like a bright idea at the time.

Faithful readers will recall my Literary v Commercial post way-back-when (all of three months ago), in which I pondered the difference between "literary" and "commercial" fiction, or even whether such a difference exists.

My bright new idea: that fiction categories are determined by backlist, in a meta-publisher sort of sense -- by a book's antecedents. Or that category is transitive, in mathspeak. That is to say, if my book nods to or borrows from X and Y and Z, and everybody knows that X and Y and Z are steampunk, than my book is steampunk too.

Literary fiction is the category I read the most, so it's no surprise that to me this idea seems to apply most clearly when determining whether a book is literary fiction in a European tradition. The backlist in this case is the Western canon, all those Important Books you were assigned in literature classes at University (if you attended university in Europe or North America). If a book resembles or extends the canon -- especially insofar as it refers, explicitly or subtly, to prior work in that body of art -- it's literary fiction.

I asked a number of writers I know which authors they think the backlist might include in genres they write and read. Here's an unsorted set of what they came up with:

  • Westerns: Larry McMurtry, Stephen Bly, Max Brand
  • Mystery: Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Higgins Clark, MC Beaton
  • Fantasy: J.R.R. Tolkien, Jeff Carlson, Robert Jordan
  • Young Adult: C.S. Lewis, Madeline L'Engle, Judy Blume, JK Rowling
  • Detective: JD Robb (a.k.a. Nora Roberts), Lawrence Sanders
  • Romance: Danielle Steele, Nora Roberts, Catherine Coulter

But -- as often happens when you ask a question of people who think creatively -- some of the alternate perspectives that came back in response to my question are probably more interesting than my little brain-burp.

One idea is that categories group fiction by needs or core concerns that occur in the social milieu in which the work is created. Writer KL suggested that "Literary Fiction is just an umbrella for a bunch of 'invisible' genres. I bet if you pulled out your 'literary' books, you could quickly group them into categories based upon the main theme of each: environmentalism (the need to be one with nature), activism (the need to be heard), etc." Here's some suggestions adapted from KL's list that correspond to familiar categories:

  • Romance = our need to be loved
  • Western = our need to be free
  • Mystery = our need to find answers
  • Fantasy = our need to dream
  • Epics (e.g., Beowulf) = our need to be brave
  • Religious books (e.g., the Bible) = our need to have a big picture

A suggestion from another writer, SL, tentatively agreed with my 'backlist' concept, but with some distancing caveats:
"I'd say [...] perceived antecedents, perceived being the key word, because those decisions are made like the old fashioned pinball machines, where the ball made it's way down hitting rubber pegs: agent/editor/editor/publisher/agent/editor, and your book is branded [...] Personally, I see all art as fluid and at the most basic level lacking genre, and speaking instead to the human condition itself, what great books scholars would call the 'Great Conversation.'"

SL had some amusingly unkind things to say about great books scholars, but we'll leave that aside... I think he's got an interesting idea, though perhaps it reaches too strenuously for a Platonic ideal: most writers, I think, are in some way influenced by what sells -- whether it's shaping a work so that it has a prayer of getting published, or deliberately writing against the market to make an artistic point ... or someplace in between these polar responses.

I think it's also worth considering a concept I first heard in one of those classes about the canon when I was in college: that there are only 7 plots in fiction (some theories give a different number). Christopher Booker's ponderously thick volume, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, lists these plots as:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage & Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

This is a way of sorting fiction across category boundaries like "romance," "mystery," and "fantasy." The Hobbit is a Quest, and so is The Road -- but you won't find Tolkein and McCarthy shelved in the same section of most bookstores. (Each of these books also has Overcoming the Monster elements to it, but that's the thing with this seven-plots business: the most interesting books mix & match. Cf. some of the reviews/critiques on the linked Amazon page, above.)

I don't suppose there's any one way of slicing and dicing, but SL probably got it right with the suggestion that categorization is all about brand and market ... and that the best writers -- including the best genre writers -- attend more closely to the human condition than to rigid compliance to genre conventions.

As always, your thoughts are welcome.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The desire to destroy is also a creative desire

Anarchist Mikhail Bakunin wrote it in 1842: Die Lust der Zerstörung ist zugleich eine schaffende Lust. To tell the truth, Bakunin hasn't been foremost in mind as I've watched the destruction of a building slowly accelerate and, this month, hurtle toward flat across the street from where I work in Berkeley. Not until this past Friday, anyway.

For many years the nearly-demolished California Department of Health Services building occupied a site slated to host the Helios Energy Research Facility come 2013, an element of the Energy Biosciences Institute funded by a $500 million investment by energy giant BP (formerly British Petroleum).

Let's get back to BP and 19th century anarchists in a moment. First some visuals, starting with a photo of the DHS building just before workers began tearing out the windows and asbestos, a precursor to bringing in heavyweight wrecking equipment.

Now fast-forward. On Friday, I stood outside UC Berkeley's Earl Warren Hall and took some video of what's left of the building being eaten by a big big machine. Check it out. If you are or ever were a six year old boy, you're going to love this...

Okay, back to BP.

Those who are paying attention -- not just to this blog, but to actual & consequential news -- will recognize the name of this largest U.S. producer of gas and oil as the party responsible for the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig fifty miles off the coast of Louisiana. The explosion killed eleven crew members. The rig sank two days later, and a broken pipe into the undersea well has been hemorrhaging oil into the Gulf of Mexico ever since. A lot of oil. Big, big problem.

As I write this post the dirty laundry hasn't all come to light, but it looks like there's plenty of blame to spread around, from BP owners who failed to take reasonable and mandated steps to safeguard their operation, to federal regulators who were sleeping at the switch, to entropy (the gist of my blog post of May 3rd). Extractive industries aren't known for warm, fuzzy environmentalism, and BP seems to be playing a typecast role in the current eco-disaster.

So try to contain your outrage when contrasting the mess this oil behemoth is making off our southern shores with this leading snippet on the website of the BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute:
Embarking on a journey of discovery is always exciting, as any of the scientists at the Energy Biosciences Institute can tell you. Like the explorers of old, the partners in the Institute are setting forth in a colossal search for new breakthroughs that will lead to sustainable, clean fuel sources..."

Can anybody out there spell "greenwashing"? Ruining vast ecosystems with one hand while trumpeting noble intentions for the future with the other ... that can't be what Bakunin meant, can it?

Yet five hundred million dollars is too big an investment to call cosmetic, even for a company with a market capitalization of $150 billion as of mid-May 2010. For investment at that scale, no one can reasonably doubt that BP execs are looking for ways to extend their dominance in energy beyond the time their oil wells utterly destroy the environment. It's best to plan ahead, right?

So I started putting together BP, the demolition next-door, and collectivist anarchism when I emerged from my office around six o'clock on the selfsame day that I shot the video embedded above. Just down the block I stumbled upon a demonstration called by Rising Tide Bay Area and EarthFirst! -- yes, that EarthFirst! -- at the intersection of Hearst and Shattuck, the northwest corner of the site formerly known as the California Department of Health Services.

Not Berkeley's biggest demonstration ever, but it was the first overt sign of dissent I've seen on the site since the DHS building was fenced off some months back. These activists get extra points for enthusiasm, costumes, props (see that guy carrying a replica of UC Berkeley's Campanille?), and for trying to make Berkeley look like the 80s again.

(Yes, I do mean the 80s. Not the sixties. I can't tell you how exhausted I am by media coverage of modern-day political activism that begins, in print or voice-over, In a scene reminiscent of the sixties...)

More photos and the groups' own report of the demo can be found on the Act Against Oil site.

It would be hard to make a case that BP's massive oil spill in the Gulf is a product of creative desire, even in Bakunin's sense. Maybe especially in Bakunin's sense. Nope. BP's disaster looks a lot more like a product of insufficiently regulated industry. When an organization's mission is to generate profit for shareholders, quarter in and quarter out, it's not hard to imagine that an imperative to cut operational costs outweighs warm, fuzzy, environmentalist concerns. If government regulators look the other way, what (short-term) incentive does an outfit like BP have to implement expensive safety and mitigation programs? As an organization, BP's nature, like that of any publicly traded company, is acquisitive. Failure to curb that nature, hard, is a formula for further wreck and ruin. The proof is in the underwater plumes.

For what it's worth, happy birthday, Mikhail (May 18th, by the Julian calendar, say some).

The Mikhail Bakunin's quote at the start of this post is from "Die Reaction in Deutschland" ("The Reaction in Germany").

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Chicago Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew"

I've been hearing good things about Chicago Shakespeare Theater for years, from a co-director of the multi-university endeavor that has more-or-less subsumed my professional life these last two years. When a project meeting was scheduled in Chicago this month, I arranged to come in early enough to catch the company's current production, The Taming of the Shrew.

This is not an easy play for a modern audience. The essentials: Katherina suffers no fools, and for her take-no-prisoners sharpness is shunned by the smarmy men panting over her compliant younger sister, Bianca. Not that she'd have any of them in the first place. Their father won't consider a suitor for Bianca until a husband is found for Katherina. Yet finding a husband for Katherina is impossible for the gentlemen of Padua to imagine ... until Petruchio comes to town, looking to score a major league dowry. Petruchio claimes wholesale indifference to the looks, nature, quirks, habits, wishes, or internal life of any woman through whom he can score the big bucket o' ducats. Long story short, Petruchio marries Katharina then subjects her to a harrowing regimen of humiliation, sleep deprivation, near starvation, and emotional terrorism. He's a first class prick, an Elizabethan Dick Cheney, yet the story of how he breaks Kate's will is meant to move the audience to laughter and cheer: the play is classified among Shakespeare's comedies. Go figure.

A modern company would want to take care presenting Shrew to modern theatre subscribers. Staged straight up, the play is likely to raise the hackles of pretty much anyone who holds women and men to be equals. In the text, Petruchio treats Katherina as hardly-human. His brutishness is revealed when the gold digger brags to their wedding party of how low he holds his bride:
I will be master of what is mine own
She is my goods, my chattels, she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing

Her life goes downhill from the moment Petruchio 'acquires' Katherina. The play ends with a speech that shows unmistakable signs of Stockholm syndrome: Katherina calls on all women to forfeit the independence that Petruchio cruelly stripped from her.
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband's foot;
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready, may it do him ease.

In Shakespeare's text, the story in Padua is framed by another that takes place in Elizabethan England: for sport, a drunken tinker named Christopher Sly is dressed in a Lord's robes and the story just summarized is performed for his amusement.

Chicago Shakespeare's production replaces the Sly frame with the messy lives of the actors and crew performing the play. The conceit is that the audience is watching a technical rehearsal for a production that will soon open, affording an excuse to interleave the body of the play with the actors' antics. The actress who plays Katherina and the woman directing the company are lovers-in-crisis. When the women cast as the two sisters make out during a break from the tech rehearsal -- and the director witnesses her partner's flirtation with a young and flighty actress who plays a flighty younger sister -- the modern lovers' struggle becomes counterpoint and commentary on relationships in Shakespeare's Shrew.

If 'breaking the fourth wall' describes an actor speaking directly to an audience, this production rips away the set, elevating the players' story to the same prominence as the drama they perform. Discord between women who have removed themselves altogether from intimacy with men is set against rough relations between the sexes in sixteenth century Padua. The modern-day director uses her authority in the production as an instrument of retaliation, amping up Katherina's humiliation at Petruchio's hands to levels that her lover, playing the role, can hardly tolerate.

(Spoiler alert!)

The tension between Shakespeare's drama and the production's frame culminates at the end of Katharina's final speech, when she lays her hand on the stage to enact the gesture of submission just spoken. As heavily-shod Petruchio approaches, marveling at his own success in mastering his headstrong bride, the actress playing dutiful Kate can take it no longer. She breaks character, loudly declares that she's through with the play, and marches off -- audience cheering, of course, that she has refused the role to which the bard's text relegates its women -- be it seriously or as farce.

In a theatre whose courtyard architecture echoes the rebuilt Globe in London, on a vigorously clean set, ebulliently costumed, and lustily played, this production is a terrific success. If you live in Chicago, get thee to Navy Pier by June 6th.

Thanks to Open Shakespeare for text quoted from The Taming of the Shrew.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Chicago Cultural Center

I am an American, Chicago-born. While this isn't meant to imply I'm a big Saul Bellow fan, it does inspire a personal kind of pride-of-place when I visit the broad-shouldered city of my birth.

I've visited frequently in the past couple of years for work-related meetings, and have managed to arrive early or leave late several times in order to see family who still live in the north suburbs and to enjoy what downtown offers. Last weekend, following an all-day meeting on Friday, I spent Saturday wandering up and down the Magnificent Mile, taking a riverboat architectural tour of the city, and visiting the Art Institute to see its new Modern Wing and a ravishing Matisse exhibition. Before the meeting, I'd managed to fit in Chicago Shakespeare Theatre's production of The Taming of the Shrew and a Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance of work by Martinu, Debussy, and Tchaikovsky.

It turns out that almost forty years after leaving the city, I love Chicago ... which isn't meant to imply that I'm eager to return to the full annual rotation of midwestern weather.

In the course of this and earlier visits I passed the bronze bull standing at the corner of the Chicago Cultural Center, on E. Washington at Michigan Ave., quite a few times before I wandered in on an impulse the other day. The building that houses the Center was built as the first permanent structure of the Chicago Public Library system in 1897, and has recently been restored. My photos of Preston Bradley Hall aren't nearly as good as the one on Wikipedia, so here's a shout-out to Daderot and the Wikimedia Commons for the copy re-posted here.

I love grand public libraries. I rarely visit Manhattan without stopping by the Rose Main Reading Room at the 42nd St & 5th Ave branch of the NYPL. My favorite place to edit fiction on the Berkeley campus, where I'm paid to edit software and grant proposals, is the North Reading Room of Doe Library.

The Chicago Public's original edifice was built in the same, magnanimous turn-of-the-century spirit that engendered its younger sisters in New York and Berkeley. Around the base of the great glass dome in Preston Bradley Hall these words are inscribed: "Books are the legacies that a great genius leaves to mankind which are delivered down from generation to generation as presents to the posterity of those who are yet unborn." Amen, Joseph Addison...

The building is bejeweled with similar sentiments culled from the work of canonical authors:

  • "A library implies an act of faith which generations still in darkness hid sign in their night in witness of the dawn" (Victor Hugo)
  • "The real use of knowledge is this: that we should dedicate that reason that was given us by God for the use and advantage of man" (Francis Bacon)
  • "A good book is the precious life blood of a master spirit embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life" (John Milton)

I drank my fill of domes, arches, grand staircases and mosaic aphorisms, then left this monument to the value of literature elated by the juxtaposition of its Tiffany-domed reverence for beauty & truth with the muscular, vertical thrust of the downtown skyscrapers that surround the old Chicago Public Library.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Time, History, and Human Forgetting

My first exposure to an on-the-ground rendition of the Allied firebombing of German cities was a visceral depiction of the attack on Hamburg, written by the late W. G. Sebald. The piece was published as a New Yorker excerpt from the author's posthumous volume, On the Natural History of Destruction. Sebald's description left me deeply unsettled. Where and when I grew up there was no ambiguity about who was victimized in WWII and to whom the villain roles were assigned. The excerpt in The New Yorker challenged my conception of the 20th century, pushing the boundaries of a mental map I'd redrawn and redrawn again as my education and perspective evolved.

In his essay, Sebald surveyed German writers who responded, most of them elliptically and equivocally, to these infernos. The post-war world in which they wrote was filled with the silence of fellow-Germans haunted by the destruction their nation had visited on humankind. Germans were ashamed to complain about the ravaging of Germany's cities. Silence, guilt, and indirection infused a literature of apocalypse and despair. I went scurrying to bookstores and library stacks in search of translations.

George Packer's "Letter from Dresden," in The New Yorker of this past February 1, approaches the same volatile material in a different frame. Packer considers how present-day Germans are framing the history of World War II not in literature, but in the architectures of cities still being rebuilt following their destruction almost seventy years ago, cities in which many perished and whose citizens and infrastructure effectively murdered millions more. Packer writes that current efforts to restore Dresden's center amount to a kind of "Baroque fantasia," driven by nostalgia to return the city to a past unsullied by the war that destroyed it. From his article:
Stephen Adams, the spokesman for the state art collections of Dresden [...] told me, wryly, "If they could the people here would rebuild every single building. They want to completely forget. It never happened."

Packer's work is worth following. He analyzes rigorously, grapples with hard realities, and seeks moral clarity in ways that are exemplary and instructive. He wields a sharp wit too:
Dresden is the Blanche DuBois of German cities -- violated, complicit in its violation, desperate to recover its innocence. It has the unstable character of a place with a romantic self-image and a past that it would rather not discuss.

There's no mucking around in 'moral equivalence.' Packer quotes a German colonel, Hans-Hubertus Mack, to diametrically opposite effect on responsibility for the devastation of World War II:
"We are not guilty, we who are living. But we are responsible to make sure it never happens again."

W. G. Sebald, a German himself, born in 1944, is quoted briefly in Packer's "Letter from Dresden." This fine author's work would have supported a deeper dive. Sebald's novels worry relentlessly at the erasure of history as an effect of passing time. His narrators (or doppelgangers) sift obscure artifacts of a nearly invisible past, whether that past is personal (as in Austerlitz) or of place (as in The Rings of Saturn). Undoubtedly influenced by the "herculean repression," as Packer named it, among his countrymen in relation to the Third Reich and its manifold crimes, Sebald made a strong argument for the inevitability of forgetting in human history. Not that it's right, and not even that it's wrong. But that it happens.

I was instructed early and repeatedly in what Hitler's Reich meant to "my" people, enslaved and tortured and gassed and burned in the Nazi death camps; yet it took me until 2002 to even begin to grasp the scale and horror of World War II through the eyes of those on the receiving end of Allied firebombings. A quirk of my own particular education? I don't think so. Perhaps, rather, a small example of how a general pattern, an historically-shaped cultural memory, insinuates itself.

As a matter of policy, of literary and historical responsibility, of political and personal commitment, I could not agree more strongly with George Packer's call for clarity, understanding, and honorable purpose as a nation frames history in the long-lasting architectures of places it occurred. At the same time, by the light Sebald evoked in his fiction and essays, one can't help but contemplate how human culture might evolve as the last living witnesses to World War II die away, and the great, inevitable forgetting and revision and reinterpretation accelerates.

I attended a writer's conference in San Francisco in February (which I blogged about repeatedly), just as the Packer article was being read by subscribers to The New Yorker. At the conference, a new acquaintance pitched his novel about a wartime relationship in rural Norway, between a Nazi officer and a Sami civilian, to a literary agent of non-trivial experience and reputation. The agent declined to consider his manuscript, asserting there's nothing left to say about WWII, that everything worth writing has already been written.

I don't agree.

Packer's "Letter from Dresden" is evidence that the agent is mistaken on this point. So is Steig Larsson's current best-seller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a terrifying look at how one generation's turpitude spills into the next.

And yet, I wonder what will mark the border of unacceptable human conduct -- what new compass we will steer by -- as the twentieth century silts over.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Ann Packer reads from Swim Back to Me
Art as long as history, time beyond memory

(For the record, George Packer and I attended the same high school with a year's difference between us. We knew each other from Mr. Farrell's English class, among others, and through mutual friends. We have not been in touch for many years.)

Monday, May 3, 2010

Things fall apart

Within the last week I heard, from people I know, about three unrelated computer glitches:

  • a blogger's ISP hiccuped, bringing down her website on its busiest day of the week
  • a bookkeeper's business client found his bank balance off by $50,000 (leaving him $30K underwater) when a subcontractor to the company hired to handle credit card processing neglected to lift a software-triggered hold on his account
  • a different blogger's platform kept flagging legitimate comments to his posts as spam, and afforded no discoverable means to control the dysfunctional filtering

A more consequential glitch by far is the oil spill off the Gulf Coast, brought to you by petrobehemoth BP. Let's take a moment to quote from an Associated Press report on that one, datelined ten days after the explosion that set this disaster in motion:
(30 Apr 2010) British Petroleum downplayed the possibility of a catastrophic accident at an offshore rig that exploded, causing the worst U.S. spill in decades along the Gulf coast and endangering shoreline habitat. In the 52-page exploration plan and environmental impact analysis, BP repeatedly suggested it was unlikely, or virtually impossible, for an accident to occur that would lead to a giant crude oil spill and serious damage to beaches, fish, mammals and fisheries. BP's plan filed with the federal Minerals Management Service for the Deepwater Horizon well, dated February 2009, says repeatedly that it was "unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities." And while the company conceded that a spill would "cause impacts" to beaches, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas, it argued that "due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected."
Again, with conviction: "unlikely, or virtually impossible." Have you been following news out of Louisiana?

"Unlikely or virtually impossible" is just about exactly what energy companies said about nuclear power plant disasters before Three Mile Island (not to mention Chernobyl seven years later).

The common denominator throughout, covering the spectrum from superficial to outrageous, was stated eloquently enough for the ages by Irish poet W. B. Yeats: "Things fall apart."

Little things that fall apart aren't a big deal. The damage is contained, in space and time and reach. That wonky ISP came back to life after a bit; I suggested the blogger in question take the blip in stride ... it's not as if she's hosting NORAD or the NYSE. That credit card processing negligence is going to get cleaned up eventually, and the victim of a contractor's contractor's carelessness will be made whole. And that errant comment filter might be misbehaving due to an unresolved collision of two spam-protection features of a blogging platform; experiments are ongoing to see whether the annoyance can be fixed.

The oil spill in the Gulf? Another story altogether. The damage will be awful. The only issue left to debate is whether the leak will hemorrhage oil as fast as petroexecs and politicians sling blame. (I'm tempted to pile on with everybody else attacking the G.O.P. for their blithe "drill baby drill" fests during the 2008 campaign and since, but that territory has been claimed. Just one word, maybe? How about "idiots"?)

As for nuclear power, those intrepid fission fans are again promising everything will be just fine if they're allowed to build baby build. In February the prez pledged $8,000,000,000 (count the zeros...) to guarantee financing for a new round of nuclear-powered fallacy.

"Unlikely, or virtually impossible"? Feh.

To put it simply, things break.

Complicated things are more likely to break than simple things. Big complicated things are likely to have big complicated effects when they break. We are living in big, complicated times. Do the math.

When I was a freshman in college the guys on my dorm floor were hanging out one evening, arguing about nuclear power. Is it safe? Or is it disaster waiting to happen? Most of my floormates were majoring in one engineering discipline or another. I was pursuing a degree in physics at the time. Well, conversation got heated, and I -- arguing the danger of nuclear power -- blurted out the poorly-articulated argument that "nuclear things blow up." My engineering-major adversaries fell over themselves laughing at my vague, feebleminded foolishness. I sounded like a humanities major, they told me, hurling the vilest insult these nerds could imagine. (I say "nerds" lovingly, as a member of the tribe.) This all took place a few months before Three Mile Island melted down.

I ditched physics to study English literature the next year, and have no regrets. I'd say that I had the last laugh in the matter of nuclear things blowing up, but Three Mile Island wasn't funny. And Chernobyl was a horror show with a long shadow.

This spill in the Gulf? I'm staking my reputation as a pessimist on the certainty that its effects are going to get worse. A lot worse.

Nuclear power? We can only hope that Obama's plan to revive that lunacy gets torpedoed. Before the plants get built, I mean. Because ... well ... things fall apart.

Humans + hubris = tragedy. The Greeks got that one right.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Nuclear meltdown abroad and at home
The radiation cloud is blowing in the wind
Digging deeper holes