Our president took to Twitter last night to compare the size of his button to the size of the button on the North Korean dictator’s desk. Comparing button size seems like Gertrude Stein-thing from a previous gilded age. Whatever.
The button on my desk is this button:
I’ve lived in different countries for extended periods, moved around the country quite a bit, run from one home with just what I could throw in a van (read about it here), and this button has followed me. I have never consciously packed / unpacked it or moved it or thought about it much (except that I like trains and always have liked trains in a little-boy kind of way). It is just so much childhood flotsam that turns up in desk drawers wherever I am; an unwitting talisman and fellow traveler through time; a hopeful Amtrak Turbo(!) 1973 button; a visitor and companion; a little button from boyhood that has gathered a kind of personal-historical depth just by sitting in drawers for decades.
If I push it, nothing special happens. Nothing is destroyed except a few minutes of thought for this strange object.
This year I read one book that was published this year. That book, Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi, was taken as a tonic to soothe a Foulcault-addled brain. It’s about power and gender and sexuality and fighting our own inner-fascist to save what is most human in us…. Really, Scalzi? Must you pepper your slam-bang plots with ideas?
This year I read, I dunno, fifty books not published this year. If by “read” you mean: looked at, considered, sampled, crammed, or flipped through, probably over a hundred books. Out of this sampling of texts, here are the top books that I, a PhD candidate in Humanities, read this year:
Europe and the People Without History by Eric Wolf (1982). Easily the most important (to me) book that I read this year. It is the book that I, now an ABD PhD candidate in interdisciplinary Humanities, should have read in my first semester. Western history is not a story of progress. The “third world” is not more or less traditional than anywhere else. The invisible hand was working long before Adam Smith was born (it was just invisible). This book is going to re-mix and re-jigger your perceptions faster than you can say “Marxist Anthropology”.
Illuminations by Walter Benjamin (1968). I am partial to any series of essays that makes a special, mysterious, almost sacred, more-or-less metaphysical place for art. Heidegger will do that for you, if you’re into that kind of thing, but Benjamin is something you can actually read and enjoy without any taint of kind-sorta Fascist autochthony. Be an idea flaneur with the good guys: Benjamin and Baudelaire.
You, an intellectual: “You are a PhD candidate in Humanities and never read Benjamin before??”
Me, ABD PhD in Humanities: “We all have gaps. How much Scalzi have you read?”
The Art of Haiku: Its History through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters by Stephen Addiss (2012). I, an interdisciplinary Humanities scholar, am sometimes in a position to, you know, actually do things related to being an interdisciplinary Humanities scholar. Like teach a class in Japanese Poetry and Philosophy and then go to Japan with some students. Skip the travel guides and read this book: the translations are unfussy and get the ineffable soul of the poetry (ala Benjamin), which lies in its bracing humanity. The history and the translations wrest this poetic tradition from the “5-7-5 + nature” form you learned in elementary school. It’s all war, sex, frogs, farts, and mosquitoes.
Security, Territory, and Population by Michel Foucault (2004). Foucault had to give public lectures each year as part of his job as chair of “History of Systems of Thought” at the College de France. In them, he had to present original research, so no two years between 1970 – 1984 were the same. Pit that against me, a modern ABD intellectual, hoping to find that One Thing I can TED-talk into a career and beat senselessly until whatever money, prestige, and recognition I can get from it is drained from its’ lifeless body. Anyway, read this if you read “Panopticon” and the first chapter or so of Discipline and Punish (with the torture and what-not) and think: I want more. Just read bits here and there, not the whole thing at once. Flaneur the crap out of Foucault’s ideas. Soon you’ll see how governmentality is a use of power that distorts reality in order to control the masses and, well, that’s a nice thing to know as we enter post-America America in 2018. (See also: No news is “fake” in that all news is an exercise in power.)
A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey (2005). I, working on a dissertation in economics and anthropology, need to be able to bandy about the term “neoliberal” with intellectual rigor. To that end, I read four books with “neoliberal” in the title and this is by far the most readable. Here are two thoughts: 1) Individual freedom is achieved through market freedom. 2) Neoliberal “market freedom” wrests capital from governments and workers and concentrates it in a class of economic elites.Therefore, neoliberalism gives us the freedom to be poor. (This describes the latest Republican tax cut (fight me!) so don’t confuse the term with ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’. Also, Happy f-ing New Year American working class!) Neoliberalism was generally a project of American foreign policy and the IMF. It was something we did to the “third world”. Now we’re like, “Hey, you know a country that has a lot of capital to loot and a big government to suck dry?” The United States of America!
Note: Before you mention it, yes, it’s embarrassing that this list is five white men. Please take that up with the PhD program in Humanities where the curriculum includes (as I recall): Margaret Atwood, Donna Haraway, Carolyn Merchant… and, um, probably others? In my own research I lean heavily on Dorothy Shineberg (you’ve never heard of her unless you are into the sandalwood trade in the 19th century) and was big-time influenced by reading articles by anthropologist Micaela Di Leonardo.
The trick with songwriting, I think, is to keep it simple without making it stupid. Here’s how McCoy does it:
I’ve been traveling night and day / Baby running all the way / Trying to get to you
Here’s a promise that I’ll never break / I’ll never deceive you / or make your heart ache
Another element to great songwriting (says I, no-one in particular) is to make it sound like something that could reasonably be said by a real person, yet still be a song. i.e.
I realize fame and fortune are not for me / All those pretty stories ain’t what they cooked up to be / I know every move I made was wrong / If I had any sense I would go back home
If I hadda known / You’d come back my way / Then my heart wouldn’t hurt me / Like it’s hurting today
Finally, I like a songwriter who can be funny or clever without veering into novelty act territory (keeping the emotions clear and at the same time showing intelligence).
My baby jumped up this morning, / ‘n’ sat on the side of the bed. / He said, “I’m leaving you, baby.” /And this is just what I said. / I said, “I can’t make you stay if you want to go, / but it’s high time, baby, that you should know, / one monkey don’t stop the show.
You’ll find all three of these elements in Rose Marie McCoy’s songs. The playlist is just a sampling of her prodigious output. I should say that, finally, maybe the best marker of a good (and successful) songwriter (lyrics and music) is that the songs can be done by different artists in different styles and still be good songs. The list above has country, blues, funk, and R&B artists interpreting McCoy’s songs. For my money, the blues does best by her.
I guess it is obvious, but we may as well acknowledge, that these songs were written in that “great” age of 50s – 60s popular music appropriation / adoption of black music by white artists. Here again, McCoy’s songs really shine — they seem very specific and yet are totally at home being sung by James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt (which, really, it doesn’t get much whiter than) or Aretha or Elvis or Peggy Lee or Big Maybelle or country singers like Jimmy Dale Gilmore (much love, Jimmy) and Donna Fargo. Somebody could probably write a decent 5-page media studies paper contrasting the Rondstadt /Taylor and Ike / Tina versions of “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.” But certainly not me because blecch. Like I said, I just like the songs.
The year: 1974. The question: What will I get for my birthday?
Answer: Evel Knieval stunt cycle. Ooooooh, yeah.
For more, check out this page on Ideal Toys (the manufacturer of fine Evel products.)
The above linked page comes complete with non-PC quote from Evel himself: “You wind it up, it goes like a little bugger, goes across the floor, grabs this little Barbie doll, throws her on the floor, gives her a little lovin’, jumps back on the motorcycle and goes whizzing out the door screaming, ‘G.I. Joe is a faggot!’ “
This quote is disturbing. I loved my toy back in the day, little realizing it was some kind of homophobic, wind-up Barbie ravisher. I just liked the vroom-vroom sound it made, man. And, honestly, most of the time it just kind of plopped over limply after you wound it up.
I -do- actually have home video of the toy in action. I’ll save that for another post!
Very excited that my ebook, Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years in Micronesia, is #1 on Amazon’s “Books > Travel > Australia & South Pacific > Micronesia” section. What that means, I don’t know. It’s just nice to be #1 in some category.
This is Scabby (his stage name). He struck a blow for brick-and-mortar, mom-and-pop, local, hip, actual meat-space bookstores by eating my Kindle Paperwhite (truly a paperweight now). I consider this a positive review of my eBook — available soon for your Kindle (but not mine.)
As I write this, my Twitter stream just lit up with news of a bomb blast in Kunduz, a town in northern Afghanistan (near Tajikistan). Suicide bomber. Killed the anti-terrorism chief of the province.
In other words: whatever. It happens all the time, or seems to anyway. That was the whole story of Afghanistan, bomb-blasts and intractable zealots, until I met, talked to, and read the stories of some teenage Afghan students. So, anyway, read about this education in an article I wrote for The Morning News.
I didn’t title the piece (“The Smog of War”) but the more that I think about it, the better it is. Smog is man-made pollution that disrupts our vision. And, indeed, the smog was a self-imposed ignorance of Afghanistan rather than a natural fog.
The insane graphic above describes the wonders that will be worked in public education by the Common Core Standards. I found it on this post by Ellie Robins at Melville House. Basically, the Standards launch a Cyberman-style attack upon your child and encase them in a robotic shell called “measurable output.” Ellie’s post and the Washington Post article it is refers to are both enlightening.
Here is my own version of this graphic. WARNING: I suck at graphics and did this quickly on MS Publisher. MS Publisher is a frustrating program for those wishing to do things. It ended up looking like washing day for the Illuminati. If you’re better at graphics, please improve upon it!
Here’s a guide to this graphic:
We will begin with MS clip-art boy in the cross-hairs. This boy is engaged in Free Voluntary Reading. He is lucky: he has access to books!
First of all the name seems as horrible as iPad used to seem (remember?) because of course you are going to call it a “paperweight.” So I began ridiculing the product even before it arrived.
Name: 2 Stars
When my Kindle Paperwhite finally came (I waited about a month), it came, ironically, in a black box. Amazon has taken a cue from Roku, Apple, and others who make box opening part of what they call the “user experience.” (I just call it life.) I know this is manipulative because, of course, what do I really care what the box looks like? Still, I am a total sucker for this kind of thing. I think it’s a genius move to make opening the box “special.” Now I’m stuck with a strange box, though. I could use it to wrap up Xmas gifts, I guess. But then the giftee would think they were getting a Kindle and be disappointed by the slightly burnt Xmas cookies the box actually contained.
Box: 5 Stars
Here’s the very best part of my “user experience” / life with the Kindle. When I took it out of the box the Kindle appeared to have a clear plastic covering of the sort you find on your new iPhone. Upon inspection (i.e. trying to lift off the plastic sheet with my fingernail) it turned out that this was the actual screen in sleep mode. It still kind of freaks me out. It’s very very cool how sharp the resolution of the screen is and also how the screen feels course or matted rather than smooth and reflective like an iPhone screen. After attempting to remove the Kindle screen because I thought it was a physical object (and in doing this I felt a bit like my dog must feel when he barks at the TV) I had to admit it: this thing is amazing. It’s practically like paper!
Screen: 5 stars
The Kindle feature that made me finally take the plunge: the Kindle Lending Library. I’m the sort of guy who reads a lot of things in the public domain: 19th Century novels, mostly, and other things of that nature that I expect to be able to get out of the library or pay, perhaps, a dollar for at a used book store. So what a killer feature: I would be able to borrow this type of book for free on my Kindle! A library! Of books!
Except that it is not a library. Read the fine print.
The first thing I did on the kindle store was to try out the lending library. I downloaded a book of links to free sci-fi novels on Amazon Prime (yes, I took that plunge too!) Why would somebody pay money for a book of links? I don’t know. Doesn’t Amazon have an easy way of navigating it’s free content? (Answer: No.) I perused the links a bit and then returned the book. When I went to borrow my next book the button for downloading into my library was grayed-out and unusable. I had failed to read the fine print: in Amazon’s “library” you can only borrow one book a month. God, I’m such a sucker.
When someone uses the word “library” I have a network of associations with that word — hot librarians, shelves full of books for the taking, smelly bathrooms, free wifi, etc. What I don’t think of is a place that allows you to check out one book a month, even if you only had that book for a grand total of twenty minutes. Ugh. What a sucker I was!
Amazon is besmirching the word library. They must be stopped.
Kindle Library: Negative One Million Stars (Until they call it “one free book a month out of a selection of mostly unpopular books” instead of a “library”.)
P.S. — There is still free content that is non-library related. I downloaded Thomas Hardy for free. Other books, such as Middlemarch, are available for $.99. So that’s cool. It’s just not a library.
Yes, the Kindle is just another money suck. If I had known that going in, rather than being duped by their “library,” I would not feel so burned. I am in the process of re-calibrating my expectations. As such, I have begun reading a book on the Kindle (Spillover by David Quanmen). Each day my score for the device crawls a little bit higher out of the dumps. After all, it did have a cool box!
Total Score: 4 stars (with lowered expectations)
Note: I have a book coming out in Dec/Jan. It will be Kindle only — so buy your Kindles now!
Recently I was looking for a place to live and was reminded of the “veil of ignorance” as popularized (?) by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. If you had to choose where to live from the “original position” (one presumes missionary, but I could be wrong) from behind a veil of ignorance – that is, you did not know what status you would have in society– where would you choose to live? In a country where a few have wealth? Or in a more egalitarian society? Keep in mind that you have no choice of what rung of the societal ladder you will be perched upon. Rational minds go with the egalitarian society. It is the safest choice because even the lowest of the low in such a society will be better off than most people in a very unequal society. Better to be on the dole, in other words, than on the street.
If you pose this question in a classroom there is always a dude who wants to gamble that he will end up in the 1% and chooses an unequal society. He is confident that he will wind up on top because he is a good guy and a business major taking Introduction to Philosophy because he heard it would be easy. In this thought experiment there is no moral dimension to being poor, since it is randomly assigned, yet it is quite difficult to explain this to American students. It takes some imagination, in other words, to think of a place where the poor don’t deserve to be poor. This is, I think, what keeps this particular sort of student from choosing the egalitarian society.
Which brings me to taxes. If you had to choose from behind a veil of ignorance, in the original position, where to live, would you choose a place with high or low taxes? The automatic reaction might be low taxes. Low taxes means more money for me, right? Yet when enacting this thought experiment in reality while looking for a place to live, I found myself drawn to the places in America with the highest tax burdens. The reason: they are almost invariably the best places for a family to live. Better schools, better roads, better parks, better health care, better arts, better police, better services… As a lower-bracket kind of guy, working for non-profits and married to someone working for non-profits, I am happy to sneak into your high-tax district and take advantage of the rich-guy services you require. You can be as snooty as you like to my daughter while she takes advantage of your superior public schools.
What’s more, I think most Americans with families would be happy to make this choice – more taxes for better services. But somehow we have added a moral, or I guess an immoral, dimension to taxes. High taxes are bad, I suppose, if you consider the money completely wasted. Yet, one can see that in the high-tax areas (not to mention high-tax countries with free health care) people live longer, are happier, are smarter, and are currently strolling in a safe park while their kids play on the new swing set. I guess I am saying, with my move, that you should please tax me and in return I will get to live in an awesome place.
Of course, it is possible to both pay high taxes and get little to nothing in return. Take Cook County for instance where the poor pay more and services only trickle down to them eventually. (One only has to note which neighborhoods are plowed after a snowstorm to see where the revenue goes.)
So where did I end up moving? Connecticut, just south of Taxachusetts.
From the National Archives, a 1040 form from 1913. Considerably easier. Also, lower taxes. But note that the rich are taxed at many times the rate of the poor.