Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, December 23, 2013

I Didn't Say They Were Good Poems

"History Has a Way of Happening in Korea"

History has a way of happening in Korea,
Where Chairman Mao's son went to get killed
(by South Africans! History has a way of happening in China too)
Where General MacArthur
Got his ass fired
By Harry Truman,
Himself no South African.

Where the president got shot to death by his own head of intelligence,
Years after fighting in the Japanese Imperial Army.

Duk-koo Kim went to Las Vegas
To get killed in the ring by Ray Mancini,
Himself no South African.
His mother killed herself a few months later.
The referee who didn't stop the fight
(Not a South African)
Killed himself the next year.

The daughter of the president who got shot to death
Was herself elected president,
Her father's service in the Japanese Imperial Army
Being a sensitive matter, politically,
Koreans not having the fondest memories
Of that institution.

The Japanese imperial project being, at its core,
Like any imperial project,
The decision that history should happen somewhere else,
Somewhere like Korea.

But history has a way of happening in Japan.
After Truman reached his terrible resolve,
And the atomic bombs tumbled down onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
Before the arrival of General MacArthur.
Along with the Japanese victims
Died thousands of slave laborers brought from Korea.

[NOTE:  I continue to edit this thing, it is a work in progress, to put it generously.]

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Concise Expression of Skepticism

For Grobstein:

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The Western Canon

Dave Gottlieb's sophomore effort, The Western Canon, remains his most enigmatic novel, and it's fair to say the world didn't know what to make of it when it appeared.  It is difficult even to categorize the book—it is part science fiction, part coming-of-age story, part policy brief.  In any event it attracted neither the critical acclaim of his first book, Dizziness From Success, nor the commercial success of his bestselling memoir, My Year of Living Vicariously, which documents the year Gottlieb spent living and blogging as a vicar in the English countryside.  In recent years it has come to be seen as a minor work, thematically and temperamentally unconnected to the books that made him famous.

But The Western Canon may be due for a reappraisal.  It is true that the book has nothing like the frenetic energy of Dizziness From Success, but in its quiet way it paints an equally sharp critique of modern life.  The protagonist of the book is Miroslaw Jaworski, a second-generation immigrant who, although not socially isolated, feels a lingering sense of alienation from the world around him.  After graduating from CalTech, Miro lands a prestigious job at NASA, where he is assigned to a team developing computer simulations of exoplanets—planets that orbit nearby stars and that might support life.

When Miro receives his first assignment, he wonders whether he has fallen into a dream job or is being set up to fail.  NASA's computers have simulated not just the physical characteristics of exoplanets, but also their life forms, including in some cases intelligent beings.  Miro's job is to develop tools to assess these simulated societies—to measure their demographics, their economic output, and their technological capacity to communicate with Earth.  But the simulator's interface is far from user-friendly, and at first Miro can extract only raw data, so voluminous and devoid of context as to be unintelligible.

Miro's first breakthrough comes when he trains the simulator to retrieve the planets' electronic transmissions.  By consulting with a linguist, Miro is able to decipher many of the planets' languages, and soon he has come up with a shortcut:  instead of writing a program from scratch to compile and analyze data, he simply taps into the various statistical agencies that each society has developed.  If he wants demographic data, he consults the censuses of the major countries.  If he wants economic data, he translates reports published by the planet's equivalent of the Federal Reserve or the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  For less formal information, he consults newspapers or social media.

But now Miro must venture into deeper conceptual waters, because each simulated society compiles data differently.  Some of the differences make sense—on the hyper-intelligent algae planet Obos 8, no employment data is compiled, but the government keeps close track of average membrane permeability.  But many of the differences remain enigmatic, reminding Miro of a line in one of his favorite movies, the Sang-soo Hong classic Oki's Movie:

This theme of repetition, and slight but cryptic differences, permeates the book.  Despite a superabundance of data, or maybe because of it, Miro finds it nearly impossible to understand the differences among the planets.  Often institutions that are superficially similar take on different meanings and functions.  Democracies remain stable or give way to assassinations and bloodshed; ecological catastrophe is managed adroitly on one planet but devastates another.  Lenebras 4 and Tuleo are near-identical planets, with technologically advanced, slightly corrupt social democratic governments and secular, pluralistic civil societies.  Lenebras 4 has high self-reported happiness and a low suicide rate; Tuleans are miserable.

Desperate to make sense of these findings, Miro plunges into his old social science textbooks, and once he has devoured those, he looks further afield:  history, political philosophy, geology, religion.  Miro even spends a few weeks learning about architecture, going so far as to take an online class on Tulean architecture provided by the planet's biggest university.  The architecture is very much to Miro's taste—the planet's mild climate and low gravity allow it to build light, airy buildings, which Miro finds surpassingly beautiful—but Miro uncovers no clues to explain the planet's dismal population.

While all of this is happening, Miro starts a relationship with Fumiko, a grad student in economics.  Fumiko encourages Miro to delve even deeper into the humanities, and it is at this point that the book becomes somewhat heavy-handed as it explores the possibilities and shortcomings of a liberal arts education.  Luckily Gottlieb doesn't linger here very long.  When Miro learns that a NASA colleague has plagiarized two of the most accomplished astrophysicists from Lenebras 2 (including one who frequently emails with Miro), he faces a whole new set of personal and professional dilemmas, and the plot quickly accelerates to its sensational, almost cinematic final scenes.

I won't give away the book's ending, which in any case is open to multiple interpretations.  I will note, though, that it is quite unfortunate that The Western Canon stands as such an isolated piece of Gottlieb's work.  In place of its earnest sensibility and imaginative flourishes, Gottlieb has increasingly turned to politics and pop culture references, and it is hard not to regret the cynicism and self-conscious celebrity of his later (and admittedly, much better-selling) works.  In some ways, then, his recent blow-up on the Daily Show and his confessional, rambling interview on Fresh Air may actually be helpful for his career:  hopefully he will make a virtue of necessity, give up his celebrity lifestyle, and return to the kind of literary work that people will still be talking about 50 years from now.

Monday, December 02, 2013

What to Expect From Capitalism

I sympathize with the fast food worker portrayed in this New York Times story.  I genuinely do.  He is working two jobs to support his family and is barely scraping by.  His life sounds miserable.

But it is important to consider what is reasonable to ask of our economy.  I think it's reasonable to ask that low-skill workers get a little more for their labor than they currently do.  But consider the demands being put on this man's income:  he has to support his wife (who can't work) and put a child through college while paying for a $500,000 house and paying the rent on an apartment in Pennsylvania.  If we raise the minimum wage high enough for fast-food workers to be able to live in half-million dollar houses while supporting entire households, then it's going to be a very different country indeed.  A household with two fast-food workers will be able to afford a $1 million house.  So for instance, a couple employed at McDonald's might be able to live in a house like one of these, with money left over for a very fancy car.

To put it another way, this is not primarily a story about the minimum wage.  It is a story about New York real estate, and the New York Times has done a pretty bad job of keeping these issues distinct.  The result is fairly absurd (although, again, I acknowledge this is a sad story—it's just not the story that the Times thinks it is).  You can make a doctor look poor if you put him in an expensive enough house in New York City.  This Washington Post story, which focuses on food stamps, seems more representative of what it means to live on low-skill wages in the U.S. today.

Worse Than A Crime

Dave Gottlieb's latest effort, Worse Than A Crime, can perhaps best be described as utopian political satire.  The novel opens bluntly, describing a press conference given by Secretary of State John Kerry while on a visit to Japan.  A college student asks Secretary Kerry how the U.S. can justify its huge military budget while billions of people lack access to clean drinking water.  Kerry briefly hems and haws before settling on a clever response:  the U.S. would happily cut its defense budget by 10% if China and Russia were willing to match the cuts.  "And we could spend the money on clean water, living wages, free ponies for everyone—whatever you'd like!" Kerry smirks, before moving on to the next question.

But Kerry's ordeal is far from over.  China and Russia almost immediately accept Kerry's "offer," putting Kerry in the difficult (but by now familiar) position of having made policy while trying to make a reductio ad absurdum.  To make matters worse, China and Russia don't equivocate:  each of them immediately slashes its military budget by more than 10% and launches an ambitious program of financial aid and technical support.  The countries jointly declare that the true measure of a country's economic, technical, and administrative capacity (as well as diplomatic clout) is its ability to eliminate waterborne diseases wherever it chooses to do so.  Providing clean drinking water thus becomes not just a humanitarian project but an arms race of epic proportions, with the U.S.'s status as the sole superpower hanging in the balance.

Gottlieb is careful not to portray the resulting flood of money into clean-water infrastructure as an entirely positive development.  The U.S. is forced to twist elbows, and worse, in its diplomatic effort to get the job done.  When Bangladesh refuses to allow outside contractors to bid for key infrastructure jobs, the U.S. threatens to take away the Bangladeshi military's lucrative peacekeeping contract with the United Nations, nearly instigating a coup.  Meanwhile China uses southeast Asia's lingering resentment against Japan to stir up nationalist fervor, hoping to channel it into political support for massive water projects.  The results are, unsurprisingly, not exactly what China intended, and soon Japan abandons its longstanding neutrality and plows headlong into the global clean-water arms race.  Great Britain can't long resist joining the fight, especially when France announces that all of its former colonies will have clean drinking water long before Britain's.  Germany, while not directly participating in the struggle, deploys a vast fleet of u-boats that help install undersea pipes and cables for coastal cities such as Lagos and Manila.

Before long, old resentments resurface, and countries across Asia, Africa, and Latin America are forced to pick sides in an increasingly acrimonious "cold peace."  Developing countries shrewdly play the great powers against each other, demanding not just physical infrastructure but large-scale social and economic changes that will make it possible to deliver clean, affordable drinking water in a sustainable manner without further assistance.  The results are devastating to the world's water-borne pathogens, which are the true victims of the superpowers' insatiable zeal.

Worse Than A Crime subtly suggests that, even as vast resources are devoted to clean water and other public health initiatives in a mad game of geopolitical one-upmanship, the real madness is that this didn't happen sooner.  If the world depicted by the novel is not an entirely realistic one, the moral question that Gottlieb presents is no less urgent:  just what, exactly, will it take for technology developed in the 19th century to become available to all humans who live on this earth?  Just when, exactly, will the last person die of cholera, an eminently preventable disease?  And why should we tolerate any delay whatsoever?