Friday, October 31, 2008

The flight from I Mandorli

Apeldoorn, October 31—

TOO SHORT A STAY at I Mandorli early this week, sharing its pleasures with our friends Richard and Marta; but this is a trip with a social purpose, and we flew up to The Netherlands yesterday.

We'd driven from Monferrato to Bergamo on Thursday. What a drive: we took the wrong highway at Alessandria, forcing a turnaround and losing twenty minutes; then the wrong toll-gate at Milan, winding up in the dreaded town of Rho where I'd been stopped by a traffic cop twenty years ago: another loss of twenty minutes.

That meant we were no longer following Richard and Marta, and had to find our way to the day's destination using a description that misled us. Get off the autostrada at Casella Bergamo, it said; so we went past the Bergamo exit, expecting Casella Bergamo to be next. It wasn't: Seriate was; so we went on. We took the next exit, though, and a good thing we did: "Casella" turns out to mean, simply, "exit." I'm going to look more closely into this later; I suspect casella is more like "tollgate"; uscita remains legitimate Italian for "exit": but I could be wrong.

Phone calls, small roads, traffic congestion; and finally we pull up in front of a café and wait for the hotel to send someone to lead us into Trescore Balneatico, an odd little suburb outside Bergamo, where we spend the night at the Hotel al Torre. We'd spent half an hour finding this hotel the night before, consulting a 1997 Michelin Guide we found in the breakfast room at I Mandorli. Bergamo was indicated, because we fly out of here: it's the third airport of Milan these days, much used by cut-rate airlines like Ryanair. We'd have preferred staying in the old city of Bergamo itself, fascinating and dedicated to good eating — little birds (thrushes) with polenta being only one of its delicacies — but the hotels are full; there's a feria on, a business show of some kind; Milan and Verona and Bergamo are dedicated to these big commercial expositions; in a way trading and trade fairs have kept northern Italy and central Europe busy since the Amber Route days.

The hotel turned out to be quite nice, with an inviting garden, a pleasant bar-café, a comfortable big bedroom, and an acceptable restaurant; and Trescore is only twenty minutes' drive from the airport. Bergamo Orlo e Serio, as the airport's called, is small and accessible once you figure out the car-rental return (always an airport problem, it seems) and deal with the improvements being made (ditto), and yesterday's flight to the equally provincial Dutch city of Eindhoven was smooth and quick.

From that airport, a bus ride was enlivened by a small accident when a little delivery truck pulled out in front of us, earning its German driver a sober lecture (delivered in Dutch) from our driver. Oh well: no harm done, though it was unsettling; miglior qui che giù, better here than up there, said the Italian fellow next to me who'd shared our flight from Bergamo, pointing up toward the heavens.

Train to Utrecht; change to train to Amersfoort; change to train to Apeldoorn, all quick and efficient once you figure out which platform you need. Low-roofed Dutch houses; open Dutch pastures; orderly rhythmic lines of Dutch elms in the fading autumnal light. I ignore the industrial complexes, the endless clusters of huge new apartment-building suburbs, the occasional heap of scrap metal or concrete awaiting orderly recycling. Italy is delightful and cluttered, like the shouted conversations of the Italians in the airplane; The Netherlands, here in the east, away from the big cities, is delightful and serene. We feel at home, wherever we are.

A few days in Monferrato

I Mandorli, Cardona di Alfiano Natta, October 28—
WE FLY THIRD CLASS, excuse me, "Coach." Though I stand six feet tall my legs are a little short; I'm not disfigured, I like to think, just a little long in the waist; in any case my legs don't mind the cramped airplane seat on a reasonably short haul, say nine hours.

This, though, was not a short haul, and we were lucky to be boosted into "Business Class." I'd never realized what a difference it makes. The flight from San Francisco to Milan began well enough, a smooth ride halfway across the States to JFK where we'd change planes. Over the Great Lakes, though, the weather began, and by the time we were approaching JFK it was pretty rough.

We circled so long waiting for weather to clear enough to land that fuel was running low, so we touched down at Dulles, Washington D.C., to refuel; then, after more delay, flew on up to JFK where we landed in the roughest weather I've flown in, fishtailing our way down the slick runway.

We were four hours late, and the Milan plane had left, of course. There wouldn't be another until the next night, so we were put on an oversold flight to London, where British Airways would pick us up for the short hop to Milan. We had no seat assignment, and were not given one at the gate. Don't worry, we were told; we'll page you.

We waited. Boarding began. Passengers were paged. Standbys were seated. We were left waiting.

I went back to the desk, where the clerk drew me aside with a conspiratorial air, beckoning also to Lindsey. She whispered, as if afraid others would hear: We have two seats in Business, but they aren't together. Will they do? Yes, I assured her, and we finally boarded, to be greeted by a glass of Pommery, a menu offering various meals, white and red wines poured from real bottles — and, best of all, noise-cancelling headphones, and a seat that reclined fully. I haven't slept so soundly in years.

Arrived finally at Milan Malpensa, nine hours later than expected, we found our baggage had not accompanied us. We were not the only ones, of course, many Milan-bound passengers had missed flight 198 out of New York. Niente a fare, nothing to be done about it: we got into our little rented Panda and drove here to Cardona, in one of my favorite corners of the world, to I Mandorli, where though we'd missed Sunday dinner's bollito misto its soul was awaiting us: see Eating Every Day.

The weather has been foggy, autumnal; the colors muted and deep though subtle. White truffle weather; knit sweater weather. Richard and I took an hour's walk to the next town, Alfiano Natta, along an unpaved country road past modestly imposing farmsteads, big sturdy buildings that are homes at one end, haymows and corncribs at the other, with elegant brickwork and molded stucco decorations, and beautifully tended gardens whose lawns are set about with pines, elms, poplars, cypresses.

The days are devoted to conversation at breakfast, drives in the country, conversation at lunch and dinner, and the occasional fretfulness at missing baggage.

Ah! Here it is! The poor deliveryman had been detained by little "incidents", foggy weather, and mystification at the many hamlets and winding roads here in Monferrato. Did I mention the telephones (and therefore Internet) have been out for days, victim of a mouse attack on the trunk line?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Nassim Taleb and his black swans

LAST WEEK I WROTE about Nassim Taleb's book The Black Swan, forgetting to steer you to an interesting online review here. Then last night on the McNeil News Hour who should show up, at the end of the show, but Mr. Taleb himself, in an interview with the News Hour's sometimes determinedly entertaining economy commentator Paul Solman. Even more striking, exciting really, Taleb was joined by the man he claims as mentor, Benoît Mandelbrot.
For ten minutes they talked about Taleb's book and the economic crisis. The interview was both fascinating and disturbing; I wish it had been an hour long. Fortunately PBS does a good job of making itself available: you can read the transcript, listen to or download the audio track, or watch the streaming video of the interview on the PBS webpage.
Not to be overly dramatic, but Taleb and Mandelbrot say that this crisis may well be the greatest disturbance since, not merely the Great Depression, but the American Revolution. Citing the incredible complexity of the global economy, they see the entire apparatus to a chain reaction of unknowable effects. As Taleb explains:

You may have chain reactions we've never imagined before. And these come from the intricate relationships in the system we don't understand.

PAUL SOLMAN [turning toward the 84-year-old Mandelbrot]: You've been around a lot longer than we have. That's possible. Is it likely?

BENOIT MANDELBROT: Well, we don't know the probability. We don't have enough knowledge. We don't have enough information. We don't have enough reliable information on data which are not published. I mean, I sleep better, perhaps, than Nassim, but I don't sleep very well.

Sorry if I've disturbed your sleep.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"Values," abstraction, accumulation, chaos

FOR SOME TIME NOW I've wanted to write about a fascinating book read last month, Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2007). Alas, I read it from the library, and did not take notes; I won't write about it in any critical detail here. (There's an extended discussion of the book online.)
Briefly, it's Taleb's point that history is the litany of convulsive unexpected events punctuating daily predictability. (It occurs to me that The Blog is a convenient analogy.) The title refers to the scientific and philosophical certainty, going back to Aristotle, that swans are white, a black one being exceedingly improbable — a certainty convulsed by the discovery of black ones when Australia was "discovered" in the 17th century.
Taleb uses analogy and metaphor to propel his book, analogy and metaphor and above all humor; and he does this so well that one races through it where one should stop and consider, take note and perhaps demur.
Another bird metaphor intrudes: his Turkey Narrative. The turkey, according to Taleb, assumes that tomorrow will be just like today, someone will come and feed it as has happened every day of his life. The turkey does not suspect that final morning, when instead of being fed he'll be sent to slaughter.
As you might have suspected, The Black Swan is largely about Wall Street. It is also an assault on the idea of the Bell Curve, on the notion that Experts Are Infallible, on The narrative fallacy which, according to the Wikipedia discussion referenced above,
refers to our tendency to construct stories around facts, which … may serve a purpose, but when someone begins to believe the stories and accommodate facts into the stories, they are likely to err.

and on the division of information among the categories Known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.
That last will sound familiar to those whose memories go back to the early days of the present Iraq war. I always thought in not amusing that Secretary Rumsfeld talked about "unknown unknowns"; it seemed a perfectly legitimate concept to me. Turns out that Nassim Taleb was a consultant, on occasion, to the Department of Defense. Indeed he writes, in The Black Swan, of a brainstorming session he attended in Las Vegas, of all places:
The symposium was a closed-doors, synod-style assembly of people who would never have mixed otherwise. My first surprise was to discover that the military people there thought, behaved, and ated like philosophers… I came out of the meeting realizing that only military people deal with randomness with genuine, introspective intellectual honesty—unlike academics and corporate executives using other people's money. … the military collected more genuine intellects and risk thinkers than most if not all other professions. Defense people wanted to understand the epistemology of risk. (p. 126)

TALEB REFERS TO HIMSELF as a "skeptical pragmatist," a phrase I like; and divides the world we live in into two mental constructs: Mediocristan, "the province dominated by the mediocre, with few extreme successes or failures," ruled by the bell curve; and Extremistan, "the province where the total can be conceivably impacted by a single observation," like that of the final arrival of the turkey-farmer. His book goes a long way to suggesting reasons for the institutional failure of the market this year, and indeed the statistical near-certainty that such failures will happen. Another publication, much smaller and less public, discusses a different philosophical approach to the problem: Money and the Crisis of Civilization, an essay by Charles Eisenstein published at Reality Sandwich, an online forum-magazine-construct so visually cluttered I haven't had the desire to explore it further.
I am impressed, though, with Eisenstein's essay (and thank Richard Burg for sending it to me). It explains the paper credit crisis very clearly (perhaps too simply, economists might object), and then comes to a startling conclusion. The entire affair is of course a gigantic Ponzi scheme (here again Wikipedia is entertaining): moreover, Eisenstein suggests, the entire history of capitalist economy is a Ponzi scheme, and the current crisis is another in what may be the death throes of capitalist economics as we've known it for the last century or so.
The startling conclusion is that Capitalism has very nearly eaten itself to death. The problem lies in the conversion of Things to Money. Money originated as a token of a pledge, an object to stand for the promise to pay in the future, with a service or a product, in return for a temporary loan symbolized by the token: a shell, gold, a slip of special paper, whatever.
Eisenstein recites the dismal litany of Things sacrificed, one after another in the several centuries of capitalist history, to the conversion into Money — which had gradually grown from token of delayed repayment to retained "Wealth":
Essentially, for the economy to continue growing and for the (interest-based) money system to remain viable, more and more of nature and human relationship must be monetized. …
The crisis we are facing today arises from the fact that there is almost no more social, cultural, natural, and spiritual capital left to convert into money. Centuries, millennia of near-continuous money creation has left us so destitute that we have nothing left to sell. Our forests are damaged beyond repair, our soil depleted and washed into the sea, our fisheries fished out, the rejuvenating capacity of the earth to recycle our waste saturated. Our cultural treasury of songs and stories, images and icons, has been looted and copyrighted. Any clever phrase you can think of is already a trademarked slogan. Our very human relationships and abilities have been taken away from us and sold back, so that we are now dependent on strangers, and therefore on money, for things few humans ever paid for until recently: food, shelter, clothing, entertainment, child care, cooking. Life itself has become a consumer item. Today we sell away the last vestiges of our divine bequeathment: our health, the biosphere and genome, even our own minds. This is the process that is culminating in our age. It is almost complete, especially in America and the "developed" world. In the developing world there still remain people who live substantially in gift cultures, where natural and social wealth is not yet the subject of property. Globalization is the process of stripping away these assets, to feed the money machine's insatiable, existential need to grow. Yet this stripmining of other lands is running up against its limits too, both because there is almost nothing left to take, and because of growing pockets of effective resistance.

WHICH LEADS ME TO the phrase in today's subject-line. I think of this latest crisis, the one centered on the Global Economy and its collapse (though no doubt to be set right temporarily by the infusion of money promised, yet again, by an unknowable Future), as more evidence that contemporary social life is accelerating itself to death. Matt Matsuda writes about this in his book The Memory of the Modern (Oxford University Press US, 1996):
One key, recurring word explains all: acceleration. Pierre Nora begins Les Lieux de mémoire under its sign: "The acceleration of History: let us try to gauge the significance, beyond metaphor, of this phrase. An increasingly rapid slippage of the present into a historical past that is gone for good, a general perception that anything and everything may disappear." As History accelerates, the "lieux de mémoire" are designated sites which defy time's destroyer, the places of commemoration where memory anchors the past. My studies, rooted in the biology, technologies, and political economy of the late nineteenth century are somewhat differently oriented: they attempt to approximate Henri Bergson's understanding of memory as action and transformation. In looking to shattered monuments, financial markets, high-seed machines, and the nervous system, my subjects are not the memories preserved from an accelerating history, but histories of accelerated memory, subjected to the dramatic rhythms of an age.

(Think of Francis Ponge's note, in Soap, that that (French) literary device the momon is typical of late historical eras in which rhetoric, dying, turns on itself; Ravel's La Valse is a good example.)
If we're indeed in a "downhill slide," acceleration is as inevitable as gravity; putting on Henry Paulson's brakes will generate a lot of heat, very little light, and only somewhat slow the collapse of the monetary economy. So what should we do? In Taleb's words,
Snub your destiny. … You stand above the rat race and the pecking ordere, not outside it, if you do so by choice.
Quiting a high-payiing position, if it is your decision, will seem a better payoff than the utility of the money involved… (p. 297)

And in Eisenstein's:
Individually and collectively, anything we do to resist or postpone the collapse will only make it worse. So stop resisting the revolution in human beingness. If you want to survive the multiple crises unfolding today, do not seek to survive them. That is the mindset of separation; that is resistance, a clinging to a dying past. Instead, allow your perspective to shift toward reunion, and think in terms of what you can give. What can you contribute to a more beautiful world? That is your only responsibility and your only security. The gifts you need to survive and enjoy will come to you easily, because what you do to the world, you do to yourself.

I THINK IT'S OUR endless tendency to evade the immediate that gets us into trouble, whether the evasion is prompted by boredom, distaste, laziness, or greed. It has something to do with our apparently also innate tendency to abstract and generalize, to categorize. Obviously it's useful to do that; it makes it possible to sort things out, to lay things aside for future use, to communicate concepts effectively (if not always truthfully) by using analogy and narrative. The problem is that it's so easy to forget that that's what you're doing, that you're dealing with not the thing but the idea of the thing. The Industrial and postindustrial ages have accelerated the extend to which the concept, the idea, has displaced the thing, the real. Profit-based economy is in a state of near-terminal confusion about this, generating commodities sold and bought for their code value, conceiving and generating services serving artificially generated needs.
When Senators Obama and McCain are asked what they will do about the economy they tend to talk about taxes, bailouts, jobs, mortgages: all of them very important politically. Lately Obama has also been talking about government kicking the economy by addressing infrastructure repair, which sounds a lot like a WPA effort: if so, good, say I: that was an triple effort aimed at improving the economy, employing the out of work, and providing for the community.
In the last analysis much of what I've been calling vaguely "the problem" results from the detachment of details from the context in which they exist. Money from an economy; concept from a reality; profit from an exchange; individuals from society. And, increasingly, it seems to me that this kind of detachment grows exponentially — accelerates, in fact — in a society whose numbers increase unsustainably, resulting in greater pressures of various kinds, and the temptation to turn against one's society, one's community, for sheer survival (as one thinks), rather than to trim one's individual sails, turn away from the accumulation of wealth, and take an appropriate place within the world as it is.
As the turbulence accompanying this process, and generated by it, continues, the things that truly matter to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are overcome by an accelerating accumulation of complexity leading to chaos. I hope the next Administration will think about these things. Perhaps the Department of Defense can give the departments of the Treasury and of Health and Human Services some pointers.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Late Mattia Pascal

LAST MONTH, CASTING ABOUT for a book to read while visiting in Portland I picked up an early novel by Luigi Pirandello, whose short stories entertained me fifty years ago or so, and whose plays have always fascinated me — though opportunities to see them actually produced have been far too rare.
(An important exception to that was The Imaginists's Tonight We Improvise, seen in January 2007 in a marvelous production.)
I hadn't read his novels, though, and was unprepared for this. Written in 1904, preceded by at least two earlier novels, The Late Mattia Pascal is clear, entertaining, thoughtful, nostalgic, as complex as you want to make it, accessible, and a quick read. I won't give you the plot; you can find it summarized here: it's enough to report that Mattia Pascal has the luck to be found dead even though he is in fact on what Algernon Moncrieff called a Bunbury. The novel concerns events as they play out during Pascal's second life, and climactically as he returns to the scene of his apparent suicide.
I suppose it's only because of the time and place their authorship shares, but The Late Mattia Pascal made me think of Italo Svevo's novels and plays, and of Alberto Moravia's novel Gli indifferenti; there's a similar meticulous lassitude, shared by Pirandello and his character I think. The precision of Pirandello's descriptions of Pascal's awareness is really quite wonderful; you might think of Henry James, but a very efficient James.
William Weaver's translation seems fluent and expressive, placing the novel in its time but holding the 21st-century reader's attention. I'm sorry I now have to return the book…
Luigi Pirandello: The Late Mattia Pascal. Translated and with an introduction by William Weaver. 1995: Marsilio Publishers, New York

Does he really want to win?

WATCHING THE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE tonight, and thinking about it afterward, I suddenly begin to think it's possible McCain doesn't really want to win the election — or at least doesn't really care that much about losing. Do you remember his saying at one point that he'd rather lose an election than sacrifice a principle? (I paraphrase; I don't have an exact quote at hand.) Clearly he would have had to have gone on the attack in the debate to reverse his ebb in the recent polls, and he's stated at various times that he wasn't going to engage in that kind of campaign.
I think that statement was not disingenuous, even though his campaign, if not he himself personally, has turned to character attacks — certainly his vice-president pick, Sarah Palin, has done that. But in the debate tonight, McCain really didn't. I think he can't bring himself to that kind of conduct in live real time, and of course the physical presence of Obama would have had a sobering effect.
Don't get me wrong: I don't think McCain's any better a man than he needs to be, and I certainly don't give him points for consistency, let alone fidelity to principle. But I wonder if, faced with the recent polls, the overwhelming economic disasters, the difficulties shaping up on the international front, and his age and perhaps his physical condition, he doesn't really mind not winning. Perhaps his main point all along was to revise and reshape his party, not to be president. Perhaps he came to some kind of awareness when he told his party he wanted Joe Lieberman for vice president, and the party told him no. Perhaps the Palin choice was a challenge, not to the Democrats, but to the Republicans.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Further on flarf

FLARF IS A WORD new to me; I found it yesterday, in the course of reading further, among the many comments posted to Ron Silliman's blog, about Issue 1, the huge "anthology" of "poems" that included one attributed to me. One of Ron's commenters referred to it as a "fauxthology," a word I like.
"Flarf" apparently refers, originally, to a specific kind of writing: poems — let's beg that question for the moment — generated by a computer routine that trolls the Internet for source material and then, using various algorithms, chops up the material it finds and reconfigures it into lines with the appearance of poetry.
There's lots to like here, beginning with the neat trick by which the figurative "net" of the Internet is used to sieve material on the Internet.
Recursiveness. Matt Matsuda, I think it was, suggested that our culture like all previous cultures will die of acceleration: but our own culture's death will result, I think, from an accelerated recursiveness, and flarf may be a straw in the wind.
In any case it's a procedure with an honorable source going back to the cut-ins of William Burroughs and, beyond them, to the "random" generation of literature by Marcel Duchamp, of art by Hans Arp. It's inevitable that the literature of our time would be spelled with the double "l" of litter; Joyce got to that one in Finnegans Wake.

Flarf is automated Oulipo, and that's a contradiction in terms; surely any real Oulipo outcome must proceed from deliberateness. Perhaps the ouvroirs of potential literature — or should it be translated "literary potential"? — are taking over the consciousness of the workers within; perhaps that's what interconnected computers are doing to us all.
Fine with me: let bots do their mindless thankless work all they like; if some of the result is amusing, or poignant, or possibly even provocative, so much the better. But there's more to this affair than simply flarf.

Issue 1 has resulted in metaflarf by activating a sizable community; many of its 3,164 "contributors" are apparently readers of Ron's blog, or have been mentioned in it; and the sixty-odd comments that have appeared so far on his complaint about the fauxthology amount to flarf criticism, in both senses of the term.

While I've never been a fan of the concept "intellectual property," which sounds to me like a contradiction in terms, there are two things about a completely open public domain that bother me. One is the possibility of one's own work being forwarded or distributed inaccurately — with errors, whether deliberate or not, attributed to one's original work. The other is the possibility of one's own name being attached to things one has had nothing to do with, as is the case with Issue 1.

In this case, or at least in my own case, no harm done: no one would remotely think of me as a poet, or of the "poem" reproduced here yesterday as something I would or might have written. But if I were a poet, as Ron Silliman (to name only one of the thousands of "contributors") is a poet, then a casual reader may easily have made that mistake, and formed an opinion of the poet completely outside the poet's ability to influence. This, it seems to me, is an intolerable situation; it goes beyond hoax in the direction of fraud.
So I revise my feeling of yesterday that Ron goes too far in his anger with this event. His outrage is justified, and the perpetrators of the event can't be excused with the explanation that their work is art. I've never before been comfortable with the idea that artists, however outrageous their work may seem, are hoaxers. But then I've never before had to deal with anything quite as postmodern as this event seems to be.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Charles Shere, poet

I have written a new poem, as follows:

An ardent point

Supernatural as a point, more supernatural than evolution
Natural as an organism, more natural than development
Natural as an access, more natural than disputation
Natural as a point, more natural than stage

Perturbation on a forest and rare
       science, fair in
            news and privacy
Rarely simplifying, condemning, tottering
       slowly at a kindly crumb
What if she should have
       known at night?

Approached and got
She reached for timidity
Ardent as point, more ardent
       than nightfall

She vanished the point
       and pointed to the approach

Knew and ignored
Came and went

Well: I didn't write this, of course; I suspect it was generated artificially; it doesn't look like a poem that a conscious human would have written.
It appears online in an "anthology" called Issue 1, a 3785-page .pdf file containing poems attributed to 3,164 different writers. I found out about this over at Ron Silliman's blog, a daily reading that has provided me quite a lot to think about over the months.
Ron's in a dudgeon over this, and I can see his point: he's a professional poet, and annoyed at seeing something attributed to him that he certainly never wrote. It's even more automatically synthesized than the one I've reproduced above. The first four lines:
Lost as food and won as a coast
Inefficient as a corner and efficient as a recess
Lost as balance, won as a time
Lost as a coast and found as a recess

You can see the similarity of form in the openings of these two "poems." I don't know if others in the anthology are similarly generated; I haven't looked. There are enough books around here I haven't read that I want to read that I don't have to spend more time on this anthology.
But it's interesting, I think, that someone has programmed a computer to do all this, and to post the result on the Internet, and as a .pdf file: why's he doing it? And where did he get those 3,164 names? And what made him think I'm a poet?