Apr 27, 2009

Of note

1. David A. Ferrucci and the IBM scientists are working on teaching a computer to answer Jeapordy! questions, according to the New York Times article which says success would mean "a leap forward" for Artificial Intelligence.

I read as much of Ferrucci as I could find when I was working on my philosophy thesis. I was trying to work out a linguistic,Wittgensteinian solution to the Mind-Body problem, and Ferrucci's work struck me as important. He isn't a philosopher or even a theorist, really, and I had trouble articulating why his work mattered. I spent a bunch of time trying to write about BRUTUS.1, his story-generating computer, but my advisers seemed to dismiss the section as irrelevant to the philosophical problem.

Reading the New York Times piece, I now realize how Ferrucci's work is philosophical important. He makes two assumptions which eliminate almost all of the tangle of Mind-Body philosophy:

First, he doesn't care if the world is dualistic or monistic. It is what it is and we can't know and even if we did it wouldn't change how we interact with it or, more to the point, speak about it. Second, unlike most all of the theorists, Ferrucci takes the Wittgensteinian step of assuming there's nothing wrong with our "mentalese" language. Our talk of the experience of pain and the perception of color doesn't need to be philosophically corrected or reduced. It is enough to say that our language is dualistic, even if our world is not, and so "intelligence" and the possession of qualia are equal, in every practical sense, to the use of the first person singular and mentalese phrases.

"The big goal is to get computers to be able to converse in human terms."

Regardless of whether computers can yet do what Ferrucci wants them to, his assumptions could be a theoretical break through.

2. Consistently the best in storytelling, on or off the radio, This American Life has put out a particularly good show with this old episode, Scott Carrier's The Friendly Man:

"The people I interview are all so sad, so lonely, with such thin souls, like ghosts and demons have invaded their hearts and are sucking their souls dry. A person's soul should be like an ocean, but a schizophrenic's soul is like a pool of rain in a parking lot. They suffer and they are completely alone in their suffering and there's nothing I can do, nothing anyone can do to bring them back. I come home at night and cry. I sob like a 3-year-old."

3. Democratic economic policy is finally clear to me, after reading Franklin Foer and Noam Scheiber's piece in The New Republic. Their work shows how Obama fits into the evolution of liberal economics in America, tracing the changes since Carter and Clinton, and how it fits into the general acquiescence to capitalism and Keynesian theory, while pushing the ethical concerns and the policies progressive's have pushed since the Great Depression.

"In Obama's state, government never supplants the market or stifles its inner workings--the old forms of statism that didn't wash economically, and certainly not politically. But government does aggressively prod markets--by planting incentives, by stirring new competition--to achieve the results he prefers ... Rather than force markets to conform to his wishes, he shapes their calculus so they conclude (on their own) that their interests coincide with his wishes."

It's hard, sometimes, to get past the cries of "socialism" and the straw men and the false claims of government-"free" markets made by the Free Marketers, but if Conservatives are actually going to make an economic case, if they're going to be serious and not just demagogue and rally with tea bag, then this is the economic policy they have to oppose.

The truth is, though, that Conservatives and Liberals don't really disagree about economic means, about governmental tweaks and nudges to the market. They disagree about the ends, about who should be helped, who should be protected, who should benefit, and what a better society looks like.

4. A national sense of humor is obviously a nebulous thing, but we learn a lot about Germans from their TV ads. Such as this, this, and this.

Apr 24, 2009

The way of us all

The detective’s voice didn’t hush in the presence of the picture of the dead. He flopped open the investigation folder to show me and he pointed and said he was shot there and there and there.

The detective wasn’t supposed to show me the picture, it wasn’t procedure, but he did. They all did. Whether inured to the images themselves or assuming that I, like them, was a professional at death, I don’t know. But they showed me pictures. I asked where and they opened up and pointed.

The pictures weren’t violent. Just cold. And naked.

Detective said the man was a long way from home, but he didn’t know why he’d come.

The last thing he’d said was “save me,” but there was no one to protect him from the part-time pimp he’d paid to take him to the room where he died. He asked the prostitute to save him, but she couldn’t. She was sorry but she couldn’t save anyone. It was like the end to a bad Bukowski story. The shitty things we want. The self-destruction we seek. Salvation eludes us again. How’d we think we were going to get out of this, doing more of the same?

And then he got shot to death and the part-time pimp took his money and his car.

The wounds were clean on the naked man’s chest when he lay there on the table under the lights, looking cold. He came a long way just to get goose bumps in death, to lie like that on his back before the bright light and get his picture taken for the homicide detectives and me. There wasn’t a cloth to cover his nakedness, nothing like what was so delicately draped around the cross to cover Jesus Christ, so he was naked and dead.

Apr 20, 2009

The odds of joy


Sometimes I try to weight the variables. I try to calculate the odds of this. I try to chart all the courses careening and note all the ways things could have gone differently than they did. It's like physics predicting the pattern of spilled noodles, but these noodles are like Motzart to me, and sometimes I try. I try to flag all those moments that added up to this, to go back and appreciate all the weird things which, through the weird math of this-followed-that, turned out to equal this.

I can't do it all in my head. I get lost in the coincidences, the consequences, the chaos of protons banging neutrons and the generations of accidents and adults who didn't know what they were doing. I lose my way in the chain reactions. I lose my way in the counting of quarks per spin. I lose the line of destination as I try to follow the foreordination back to the Big Bang of my happiness. I get lost in it and just say I don't know. I don't know; I got lucky. What are the odds of joy? I say, and it's a rhetorical question, because I can't do the calculation.

Apr 17, 2009

Groomsmen mug shots

Wedding photos - the fabulous work of Ava Kate & her husband Chris - can be found online here.

"My daughter's stupid fish is dying."
Don't blame Christianity for Christian ideology
Conservatives against denim, coolness, and youth:
"a straight line from the fall of the Bastille to the rise of denim"
What's killing book stores?
The keeper of the Hubble
I married a novelist
Writers' writing spaces
Government blogging
Zizek is overrated
Bikes in America
Lost luggage art
Image of the author
Harvey Pekar does the Beats
Tangled alphabets (at the MoMA)
The byte-sized approach to news
Close reading Creeley's "I Know a Man"
Could we (would we/should we) edit memory?
The politics of an alleged cop killer
Bob Dylan on Barak Obama
Writing about Bob Dylan
Social history of sewage
Bigots on the bookshelf
Elements of Style is 50
Death of a bookstore
John Rawls' religion
Census director selected
Eyeglasses in photographs
Europe's stimulus problems
New architects in Latin America
The Pennsylvania Avenue Circus
Cheney's attempt to stave off history
Review of the collection of The New Criterion
Furious, impotent and sorry
The night kept coming on in and there was nothing I could do.
                -- Charles Bukowski

He was always breaking stuff. He broke bottles with baseball bats and threw chairs off of balconies. He threw other people’s CDs into the basement wall to watch them shatter. He smashed coffee pots against concrete and threw our potted plant down the stairs. He crashed a car into a bridge and had his arm in a sling for weeks. He used to slink around after destroying something, hoping no one noticed and no one would ask him what happened.

Everyone thought he was who he was because of the breaking. He was known by his breaking and disliked because of the smashing and the sense of raving, naked destruction. But to me it was the always slinking and guilt, the embarrassment and the sinking feeling that showed in his face that made him who he was. It wasn’t the madness, it was the shitty feeling of having fallen down again, just like everyone thought he would. It wasn’t the insanity. It was the helplessness and shame.

Apr 15, 2009

Herr Göttinger's happiness

In the spring morning he stands there smoking and surveying the plot. He puffs at the pipe he puts in his mouth and he looks at his pile of rocks, his little bushes, his turned-up dirt: the start of the garden he’s designing in his mind. He looks at his flowers, which haven’t yet opened, and his trees, which are skinny saplings still tied to stakes. He looks at his tools where he left them from last night, clean but well-worn and with traces of dirt still clinging and coloring the metal, still smudged into the cracks in the grain of the wood. He walks all around his little square of earth, seeing everything and seeming to see even more than is there, and he puffs at his pipe, surveying his plot in the morning.

He is the master. Not of the universe or this world, but of this little spot of earth.

His shaggy-headed dog sort of follows him around. The dog checks in with him every few minutes, looking at the man who’s planning the garden, and then looking away again. The man mostly ignores the old dog, letting him lie by the fence and watch the kids get up and go to school, but every so often he says something softly, repeating a generous phrase, saying something the dog clearly already knows and takes for granted. The shaggy-headed dog is really too old for this cold, this early in the morning in the spring, but the dog has to pee and the man wants to smoke and they use each other as an excuse. So they both get to go out to the garden.

In the spring evening the man works. Bareheaded now, he moves rocks to make a wall and moves dirt to dig up a bed. The old dog watches the neighbor kids kick a ball into a garage where one wall has been declared a goal. During the day a tree has bloomed. In the morning it didn’t seem to be there, but now it’s flowering and smelling soft and sweet and it seems like he made it bloom, like he made it appear here, fully formed and beautiful. There are more flowers and more rocks, as if he multiplied them with his mind, and there are more patches of up-turned earth, warm and chunky and wormy and brown, and now they seem like they form a pattern, as the man transforms the plot. He sticks his hands into his earth and he changes it, imaging this spot as beautiful and then working and making it so.

Life is a little ridiculous. It’s so full of beauty and joy and also pointless pain, full of the meaning and order we find and make, and also of chaos and vast gaps of emptiness. It’s a world where men grow flowers, children play and people make up silly songs, where sunflower seeds and milk in coffee share mathematical explanations, and also where worms were made to eat children’s eyes and where whole cosmoses have been snuffed out for longer than any God has been believed in. It’s a world that was made out of darkness and that will return to darkness, no mater how long we live, or love, or remember. This is a world where the resurrection of a Jew who triumphed over death and the death of three Somalians can be celebrated in the same weekend. It’s more than a little ridiculous, but we are condemned to meaning, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty once said, even if the words we say are only ever unheard babblings. And we are consigned to beauty, even if we only make it up in the midst of ugliness, and we are assigned to joy, even though it’s unreasonable and sometimes simply silly. This is just the way it is: Grown men have nightmares on every street, every night, and they also have hobbies where they take a little earth and bring forth beautiful life.

The man works in his garden, down the street from where I live, in that little square where he plans everything out in his mind. He has his hands around a wheelbarrow, and his hands and knees are dirty. Down the street the boys cry out in victory when the ball slams into the wall of the garage, not caring that the goal is arbitrary, or that the assigned points don’t mean anything, but shouting anyway, jumping and waving their hands, and running on to make the next play. The shaggy-headed dog starts to bark, for no reason but to bark, because it’s evening and the air is sweet with spring and because babies are getting baths, up and down the street, and people are finding things funny, and dinner dishes are being washed, and the sun might shine again tomorrow. The man says something to his dog and the dog is quiet again and they stand there, the tousled man and his shaggy dog in the lot in the evening in the spring. My wife tells the man his garden is beautiful, as we walk by tonight, and he says thank you, and he says, “It makes me happy.”
red roof

Apr 13, 2009

Religious celebrity ashes

His family had him quickly cremated. The business of body disposal merged with the mission of keeping the crazies away. So they did it quickly. They didn’t announce it. They just burned the body and scattered the ashes, as if in secret, and the family was finally finished with the street preachers.
Notes on questions in Christianity

a) We can't not blaspheme. Speaking theologically, we always speak hideously of God. The only question can be what shape we want out blasphemy to take, whether we want, for example, to say that God isn't All-Powerful and All-Knowing, or whether we want to turn him into a sort of Stalin who tolerates rape and pain and death for the sake of a big Idea.

But we ought not talk about God unless we are willing to be terrified by what we say.

b) I can be ecumenical, can learn to be ecumenical, by understanding everything religious as another expression of the longing for God. I have to especially do this with the things I consider obscene and stupid. While your acts of faith might not be how I would express the longing for God with my stuttering, stammering tongue, they are, nevertheless, cries for the divine. Doing this, hearing everything as a cry, shifts the focus away from my conceptions of God and how he might rightly be worshiped, and instead focuses on how the human word is heavy-laden.

c) Shouldn't these pirates be seen as a critique, not just a technical problem? The reality of the attacks say something about the world we live in, perpetuate and create. It says something about our economics and our ethics, something I find deeply disturbing. This is the by-product of my consumption; the whey of the western world.

I think the pirates are actually making a critique Christians should be making.

Apr 11, 2009

The first of a flood of wedding photos can be found at avaphoto.net.

Apr 8, 2009

The last Sunday

I remember her freckles like finger paint, red and brown mixed to muddy red-brown. They were smudged onto the back of her hands and on the bony points of her thin wrists, up along her forearms and over the elbows and the soft insides of her elbows, covering her muscles and her shoulders and disappearing, massed together like marching fingertips, into her sleeveless sun dress. She had long arms. Bare arms. Covered in freckles. She had a long and freckled neck.

She taught us to sing that Jesus’ loved us, the little children. She taught us to paint with our fingers, in red and yellow and black and white. She taught us about the children of the bible, Moses in a felt-board basket, Jacob in a crayola coat, David in motions to a song, Jesus just like us. She taught us about the children and compared us to the sheep who were always so fluffy and white in the pictures, the sheep who were snotty, slobbery and stupid on the farm but always seemed so clean in the pictures.

I remember her holding her hand up and saying were we ready. Her arms were smooth. Her freckles were smooth and ran up her arm. Was it Palm Sunday? I remember a pile of palms and she held one up and said were we ready and I was and she said did we know what this was and I wanted to know. I wanted to.

And then my dad was there and I didn’t know why and I was confused and said what? and he said we had to go. “I’ve been told,” he said, “that we’re not welcome here."

Apr 6, 2009

The tidal birds

The long-legged birds run along the endless edge of the water, heads down, hunting through the sand. They hunt where the sea foam is a drying fringe, where the sand is sifted by the water and the water rushes shallow. The hunt without stopping, run without stopping, even more untiring than the waves, which are metaphorically known for not stopping. They run up and down, heads down, scanning the sand for something to eat.

On the balcony, above the beach, there are five old ladies sitting out and wrinkling up in the St. Augustine sun. The ladies are sitting there in swimsuits and sun dresses, curled hair and bare toes, each of the five as shriveled as a finger in a spa. They are each outside their door, in beach chairs on the balcony above the beach, reading and tanning and watching the wet-suit boys and surfer girls, the children and dogs, the waves and the birds and everything, sitting and watching all that running and teeming. They are sitting there and reading there, on the side of the hotel where it's turned into an extended-stay motel for old ladies to sit out and read.

As we walk by, holding our bags up to squeeze by, each one looks up and says, "hi." Each one looks up and seems surprised at us. Then we turned the corner and they all laugh, each with a full and funny laugh. Then they go back to reading and wrinkling, feeling good with their books and the sun, sitting above the beach and watching the world through cataract glasses.

A line of pelicans lag by the old ladies, flapping together but slowly, sluggishly, looking like they're peddling out to the beach. In the tall grass, little birds squat their long legs over eggs. A fat seagull squawks at a chubby girl in shorts and in the front office, the hotel parrot says "hello" "hello" "hello," until the clerk covers his cage with an old blanket. Things are like they should be, and always would be, and all the birds did what they did and would do, being birds. The hunting birds move in and out with the tide, up and down the sandy edge in an endless hunting jog. They try to catch any movement beneath the sand, any squirming in the sand and the shells, trying to snatch anything that's turned up by the water.
Passing Through

Apr 3, 2009

Poof and proof and texts

The little lawyer had a leather book, with all the verses in it. He had them written neatly in two columns, the right side for the prosecution and the left for defense. He had them down in neat notation, the references for quotations of the bible, columns of quotations for religious-looking juries and for the general sense of generic belief in the bible, verses for all purposes for all arguments requiring invocations and an appearance of the authority of God.

He had verses for blood and for forgiveness, for justice and judging-not. He had verses for condemnation, with sonorous sayings for an assured and unimpeachable sense of righteousness. And he had verses for grace, for taking the plank out of your own eye, for pity and piously choosing to step aside and leave well-enough alone.

In the one column, blood called out for blood, and eyes called for eyes. In the other, the blind cried for mercy and end to cyclical senselessness, and the saviour taught forgiveness without end.

There were other pages with other tactics and grab-bag stratagem, in the little lawyer's leather book, but this one was about ways to make the bible be on the side of a specific case, whatever the case might be. It was titled God's Word. It was underlined twice. He flipped it open for opening arguments and closing arguments, finding the appropriate column and finding fitting words to fit the crime. He flipped it open, every time, and always stood and always started saying, the great prophet, the bible prophet Isaiah, he said something important I always like to remember at moments like this. The wise prophet, this good man of the holy bible, he said, Come down now, and let us reason together.

It didn't really mean anything, the little lawyer knew, but he said it like a magician says poof before the proof is revealed, and it always sounded good.
Gas chamber light

"Do you think things are the way they seem, as simple as that, no complicating factors, no questions asked? No, said Harry Magaña, it's always important to ask questions. Correct, said the Tijuana cop. It's always imoportant to ask questions, and it's important to ask yourself why you ask the questions you ask. And do you know why? Because just one slip and our questions take us places we don't want to go. Do you see what I'm getting at, Harry? Our questions are, by definition, suspect. But we have to ask them. And that's the most fucked-up thing of all. That's life, said Harry Magaña."

-- Roberto Bolaño, 2666, The Part about the Crimes

Apr 1, 2009

Be thou my

Not nervous, but not not nervous, but something else: jangley.

Jang-jang-jangley, like jittery and hopped-up jumpy, with the sound of my heart beating bumpy, the sound of nerves tin-tattering screeching pulsing and pump pumping as I stood there in a suit, waiting for her to come down.

I couldn't see her but only the movement, the movement of white and walking, the movement of heads and hushed turning and thoughts talking there she / there she / there she is. From behind me sang Be thou my vision and she walked slow, walked slow, walked slow and stately stepping strong foot and flowers forward and I couldn't see past the heads and the crowds craning around to see. I couldn't see down the aisle where she was coming to me, couldn't see down the church, down the stainglassed space to where she was and I stood there, standing still not nervous, but inside jump-jump and jangling.

And then she was there and she smiled, through the veil, and I took her hand in mine.
The paradise, the kingdom of God comes out of our hearts like thunder, booming out of our chests. -- Fr. Troy Beecham


Bring back yellow journalism!
Eliot dissed Orwell's Animal Farm
Tax deniers and their weird arguments
Gay squeamishness with transgender issues
Leper with a song: an autobiography of Chuck Hinkley
The rise of the apocalypic Glenn Beck
Don't despise science, volcano monitoring
Catholic claims on Reformation dogmas
T.C. Boyle on Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The 3rd sex, from Plato to punk rock
Political lessons of the AIG blowup
Magnetic cows act like compasses
Zombie banks build ghost towers
Scrabble words stir controversy
Gandhi's experiments with truth
Summing up Seamus Heaney
The beautiful ruins of Detroit
On the idea of Communism
Jesus rides the dinosaur
GOP's Cheney problem
Rod Dreher's gay fixation
What's right with Mexico?
The Hipster Depression
Mosley's new detective
Jim Webb's courage
The facebook aeneid
Pardon sought for Jack Johnson
Horsey @ the P-I
Adam again