Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Re-Reading Ulysses or Basta

After being cruelly dumped by my undergraduate girlfriend and being quite insufferably suffering about it - I needed distractions. God knows why graduate school in astrophysics shouldn't be enough, but it wasn't.

I was introduced to some distractions my last semester of undergraduate. I had enough credits to graduate after 3 1/2 years, but I wanted to compete one last season in track. So I took classes to explore stuff. I took piano, drawing, lit of the theater, the 20th century American Novel. And the weird thing is that all of these things are very strong in my life now. I practice piano two to three times a week, I draw, I subscribe to two theaters and I read novels practically all the time in my free time. The class (besides drawing) that had the most effect on me was the American Novel class. It was taught by David Morrell who wrote First Blood, the novel that introduced Rambo. He introduced me to a lifetime of reading good, well-written stuff. We analyzed books like The Ambassadors by Henry James, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton and others. I learned that there is much more to novels than just the plot - there are the characters, the motivations, the culture, the history, the notion of locale influencing everything etc. This wonderful stew was something I didn't know existed and it sent the science fiction stuff I had read in high school away from my hands.

After my dumping by my girlfriend Erin, I began reading all the classics of literature and also critical works to help me understand what I was reading. I don't know how, but I think it was after reading Dubliners by James Joyce, and in particular the story "The Dead", that I began an obsession with Joyce. I suspect there was also some dreadful Freudian psychology going on in that Joyce wrote to recapture Ireland from which he was exiled, and that I read Joyce to symbolically recapture Erin.

In any case, I devoured all I could read about Joyce. I got the guidebooks that helped understanding "Ulysses" and even got through "Finnegans Wake". I was in a friend's wedding in Ireland after I had read Ulysses and made sure I went to the places mentioned in the novel.

And then, like some obsessions, it died out. Partly because I had read everything by Joyce, and partly because I grew out of it. Art became more important in my life. I graduated many times, still trying to get it right :-) and began an Odyssey of places lived, girlfriends, and jobs until I ended up in Seattle where I am now.

Yesterday, I read parts of Ulysses in honor of the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday (June 16, 1904 - the day Ulysses takes place.) I still had my marked up copy and I was immediately struck by the things I know now that I didn't know then. I didn't know Dublin at all, and there were notations in the text about certain places that I don't need anymore.

There are other things as well, like the word "Basta" in the 3rd chapter which I had scrawled above "Enough". I now know that word very well, my Greek girlfriend in London always used to say it to me. And while she may have not said it to me when we ended our affair - it would have been very appropriate if she had.

I think I will re-read Ulysses soon, with a further fifteen years of life that has taught me things I didn't know then.

Friday, June 11, 2004

One Ring To Rule Them All

Years.

More than 7 years at the least.

We knew we were perched on the skin of a bubble that can burst at any time. We took all the right precautions, carefully studied the consequences of our actions and never let our guard down. Let it never be said we were not vigilant.

But, the world, the world.

We were trying to carve out our little hobbit hole of peace. The tranquility of dinners eaten without rising from the table, the evenings of quiet solitude broken only by cats or invited diversions. We had an oasis from the cacophony of the world around. It wasn't much, but it was ours and we were jealous guardians.

What we were doing was against the law and the law finally caught up with us. As the song says, "We fought the law, and the law won." The Second Law of Thermodynamics. The one that says that disorder in the universe is always increasing. Ozymandias, The Forum of Rome, the Great Wall of China - they were all great, shining, perfect creations of man - now they are piles of rubble on the ground. They are wrecks, reminders that everything we build will decay.

Drying off in my shower last night after my bike commute home - the phone rings. Is it Rebecca needing a ride with her end of school stuff? Is it our contractors that will be working on our house? Friends, relatives?

I was naked. Defenseless. Vulnerable. The entropic vultures swirling around my cold skin, chilling me. The puddles cooling at my bare feet.

I pick up the phone, "Hello?"

Silence.

Silence.

And fear. My stomach tightens, thoughts race. "Is this it?", "Did they finally find us?", "What went wrong?!?"

No one ever got our home phone number. Not our credit card companies, not our banks, it's not on our checks. We are unlisted, our phone number is blocked. The dike had held for seven years. But is there now a leak?

"Hello, is this J.. L.......?" In a subcontinent accent. But the voice isn't of any of my Indian friends.

"Yes"

"I am calling...blah...blah..blah...offering you...blah..blah....a low cost Discover card...blah blah -"

I cut him off.

"How did you get my number?

Surprised, "From the National Consumer Bureau", he answers.

I stumble, my shoulders sag.

I quickly gather back my strength and recite what I learned in case this day ever came, "Please take us off your calling list and don't call again."

But they are just the advance guard. The scouting party. The entropic vultures are turning and turning in the tightening spiral. All our ceremonies of innocence are drowned in the loosed tide of database fueled lists. Our phone number is replicating like a rabid virus, breaking into all the call centers of evil that our vigilance denied entry previously. The electronic ink is indelible - no Herculean labor can clean these electronic Augean stables. Pandora's box has opened and hope is its only captive.

The Visigoths are heard breaking through the gates of our peace. The Viking long boats with their dragon heads are visible in the mists of the future. Where is the fatted calf to sacrifice? How do we get our nights back? Is the telephone now our enemy? Seven years of prosperity are over. The Telemarketing Barbarians are here.

And they have our number.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

He Speaks the Truth

God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut:

Many years ago, I was so innocent I still considered it possible that we could become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of. We dreamed of such an America during the Great Depression, when there were no jobs. And then we fought and often died for that dream during the Second World War, when there was no peace.

But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America's becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.
The amazing thing to me, is how far our Constitution got us before the power-drunk chimpanzees took over completely. Maybe there is a second Abraham Lincoln or Spartacus being born right now that will lead us out of these Dark Ages, but as long as Rove, Cheney, Rehnquist, DeLay and the money for which they stand run this country, we are as slaves.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Alls I Have To Say

My phd thesis advisor used to play up his Iowa farmboy upbringing by prefacing his (frequent) soliloquies with the folksy "Alls I have to say...". He was also a student of Latin and rhetoric, and Cicero was his hero (there is the beginning of bad doggerel in that last phrase...). What he was doing with that prefatory phrase was trying to cast what he was saying into the golden-age, Wilfred Brimsley honest folks patter that lulls you into a better frame of mind to accept what he is saying. I.e. "now you know that I can't be messin' with you, because I'm really talkin' to you like a hay-straw-suckin' farmer with his leg up on the lower rung of the wooden fence." You do these kinds of tricks to short-circuit the "logos" style of rhetorical argument (i.e. facts and logical constructions to make a point), into the "ethos" and "pathos" styles which cast the argument into an appeal to the listener to judge the argument based on knowledge of the person's character and emotions.

So what? Well, the "Great Communicator" died over the weekend. His acting abilities allowed the use of the ethos and pathos styles of rhetorical persuasion to overwhelm any presence of the logos (if it was ever there.) So what we end up with is being sold a bill of goods with a smile on our faces. The stupendous waste of Star Wars, the fiasco of Iran-Contra, the enormous deficit, the dismantling of the social order that brought us the S&L disaster, mentally ill homeless, and a host of felons in the White House only surpassed by Nixon and the present Casa Blanca Cosa Nostra. To Reagan it wasn't facts that were important at all - what was important that he believed it AND he could communicate it. Some say he was stupid - well, the first lemming over the cliff ain't got nothin' on the ones following him.

The genius of the ethos/bathos style came out in the debates with President Carter. Any rational argument could be counteracted with a flip of the head and "There you go again." Carter, of course, could not function that way at all - it was all logos with him. The American public, no doubt sick of being lectured to, gobbled it up. Christopher Hitchens, in his always contrarian way, has a great article to counteract the canonization presently happening.

And of course the true legacy of Reagan, is what we are living in now, where instead of the Reaganic optimism deluding the populace into felonious and immoral actions, we have Bush league fear and avarice frightening and gouging America into submission. "Morning in America"? Alls I have to say is how 'bout "Twilight in America".

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Plato's Republic

I am reading Republic by Plato right now. It was written about 2400 years ago. From what I can gather from the text, politics in all its horrible little details and grimy facets has not changed one iota (greek word?) from Athens or Sparta in the 4th-5th centuries B.C. On every page it seems I can correlate to something that is happening now in our world.

Which is depressing. In our modern times we have microwaves, open-heart surgery, clean water and Hello Kitty! but we still can't govern ourselves without corruption, greed, and inhumanity.

Though, I wouldn't say Plato had exactly the right idea in his "Republic". His ideal state has all the "best" qualities of communism, fascism, and eugenics without the cool uniforms.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Survivor's Guilt

Some people were laid off at my company yesterday. The "division" I'm in has been in maintenance mode, no new projects or even aggressive selling of the product. So the decision was made to let people go who aren't really maintainers i.e. developers, testers and other engineers, and keep people who can help on a new internal project.

Which brings up my guilt. Originally, I was brought in as a part time person to supplement the full time person - call him Abe. Abe taught me everything that I needed to know but I still wasn't as good as him on some particulars that experience at the company brings. However, Abe let it be known that he thinks of himself and his career as aligned with one particular technology, he was very adamant about this. Now, I think that kind of thinking is kind of dangerous. I have affinities towards the technology I am working with, but things change in technology all the time and in five years who knows if anybody in the US will be doing it. So I think it is wise always to keep options open.

Well, this new internal project may use another technology that I have experience with - and that is why I was held on, and Abe was let go yesterday. We really didn't have work for both of us for some time with no new development and the maintenance was not onerous. Unfortunately, Abe has a chronic health problem and his wife asked for a divorce and she is now weirding out about being served divorce papers (which happened the night before the layoff...) Now, I have to deal with the fact that here I am healthy, happily married, and only in the job for 9 months part time, while Abe needs the insurance, is paying for a divorce and child custody (and might not get them without a job) and was doing the job very well for almost 3 years - there were no performance or other problems.

I know that our situations can be explained by the choices we have made in our life. I work at being healthy and so do not have obesity related diseases and did not marry somebody who was unstable. And also I made the choice to be flexible in my career.

But it still sucks. I can see it is fair in one way, and then so fucking not fair in another way. I hardly slept last night tossing and turning about this.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

At Ease

I know that everyone who reads this blog is waiting for the decision1 on whether I will read The Confessions of Max Tivoli. I would link the blog entry where I go over this, but my links are broken since switching templates- the entry is "Skin Deep" in the May archives.

Well, the verdict is in. I like the cover. However, I don't like the printed "Today Book Club" badge that blemishes it. Verdict: Won't buy the book.

1This statement is like Bertrand Russell's famous statement "The present King of France is bald" - an unsatisfied definite description. Consider the statement "Everyone who reads this blog is waiting for the decision", is it true, false or meaningless?

No one reads my blog, so the statement can't be true. But if it is false, then the negation must be true, i.e. "Everyone who reads this blog is not waiting for the decision" or "No-one who reads this blog is waiting for a decision". But these statements are equally absurd, as it is proven that no-one reads this blog. But is it meaningless? If one takes the position that anything I say is meaningless, of course! Otherwise, the statement (if uttered by an otherwise non-nutter) would make perfect sense in a universe where people read my blog. The truth or falsity of the statement appears to be in the whether or not waiting for the decision is happening NOT whether there is anyone dim enough to read my blog.

The problem is that the overall disputation of the statement relies on the existence of a definite subject - i.e. people who read my blog. To be more meaningful, the statement should be:

1. There are people who read this blog.
2. There are no people who read this blog that are not waiting for a decision.
3. Therefore, everyone who reads this blog is waiting for a decision.
Therefore we have properly phrased the statement into a set of statements that are definably true or false under all conditions and hence statement 3 is a valid statement.

Additionally, this exercise will ensure that nobody will ever read this blog again. Which again has its problems. But now I've learned my lesson:
1. Either there are people who read this blog OR
2. Nobody reads this blog.
3. In either case, there will be no more reading of this blog by other people- either because nobody has in the past OR anyone who is now reading will certainly cease and desist from going through this pain again.
Unless they are insane.