29 January 2012

8 Points

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:59 am

On my walk this morning I nearly bumped into one of these guys:

He was out in front of a house, standing between the mailbox and some evergreen shrubbery. I didn’t even notice him until we were eye to eye, close enough for me to have reached out and patted him on the muzzle. My instinct though was to take two quick steps out of his way. He did the same. I kept walking; when I looked back I saw that he was still grazing.

25 January 2012

Point Omega by DeLillo, 2010

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 11:00 am

There was a man standing against the north wall, barely visible.

*   *   *

This first sentence captures the essence of the book. There is a wall between visible and invisible, between real and unreal, between human and transhuman, but the wall is itself a permeable membrane, a translucent movie screen. The wall is visible and real only when you look at it from the side where visible reality holds sway. From the other side it might look like something else.

I’ve discussed Point Omega at some length with Patrick on his blog. The story pivots around the disappearance of a young woman named Jessie. While there is no direct evidence of foul play, circumstances suggest that Jessie was kidnapped and likely killed by her stalker boyfriend. This is a guy who has become so obsessed with the movie Psycho that he seems to have merged with the film, and especially with Norman Bates.

That interpretation of what happened to Jessie might well be the right one. But in rereading the book (only 115 pages) I found myself looking at it from the other side of the movie screen. Most of the book is abstract, theoretical, aesthetic, almost inert, but when Jessie disappears the narrative shifts to more concrete considerations — the search for the missing girl, the investigation of clues. And yet even in the whodunit portion DeLillo alternates between concrete description and mystical reverie. In brief, I’m suggesting that DeLillo is inviting the reader to watch these concrete, visible, human events, possibly including a murder, from the other side of the screen.

The title of the book derives from an idea championed by the mystical Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. According to Wikipedia,

“Teilhard postulates the Omega Point as this supreme point of complexity and consciousness, which in his view is the actual cause for the universe to grow in complexity and consciousness. In other words, the Omega Point exists as supremely complex and conscious, transcendent and independent of the evolving universe. Teilhard argued that the Omega Point resembles the Christian Logos namely Christ, who draws all things into himself.”

For Teilhard the Omega Point already exists; it is personal; it is transcendent, both preceding and succeeding human evolution; it is unconstrained by space and time; and it is inevitable.

The Omega Point might be the glorious singularity by which we are moved and toward which we are moving. But what does the passage into supreme posthuman transcendence look like from this side of the divide, bound by time and space, by material bodies and material objects, by calendars and telephones and trips to the grocery store? It might look like a barely-visible shadow on the wall, a hole in the air. It might look like death.

Yesterday I copied down a number of sentences from the middle portion of the book, when Jessie first appears and then later disappears. I focused specifically on passages in which DeLillo emphasizes the immateriality of things and places, of people, and especially of Jessie. In human terms she is hardly there at all, but on the other side she might also be a forerunner, a transhuman demiurge, an avatar of the Omega Point. I’m posting these sentences here without further commentary.

*   *   *

She was sylphlike, her element was air. She gave the impression that nothing about this place was different from any other, this south and west, this latitude and longitude. She moved through places in a soft glide, feeling the same things everywhere, this is what there was, the space within.

She was her father’s dream thing.

Other times she seemed deadened to anything that might bring a response. Her look had an abridged quality, it wasn’t reaching the wall or window. I found it disturbing to watch her, knowing that she didn’t feel watched. Where was she? She wasn’t lost in thought or memory, wasn’t gauging the course of the next hour or minute. She was missing, fixed tightly within.

It was part of her asymmetry, the limp hand, blank face… She was sitting next to anyone, talking through me to the woman in a sari on the crosstown bus, to the receptionist in the doctor’s office.

She had to touch her arm or face to know who she was… Her body was not there until she touched it… She wasn’t a child who needed imaginary friends. She was imaginary to herself.

One day soon all our talk, his and mine, will be like hers, just talk, self-contained, unreferring. We’ll be here the way flies and mice are here, localized, seeing and knowing nothing but whatever our scanted nature allows.

I thought of Jessie sleeping. She would close her eyes and disappear, this was one of her gifts, I thought… She sleeps on her side, curled up, embryonic, barely breathing.

“Think of it. We pass completely out of being. Stones. Unless stones have being. Unless there’s some profoundly mystical shift that places being in a stone.”

Then I adjusted the reclining chair to full length and lay flat on my back, eyes shut, hands on chest, and tried to feel like nobody nowhere, a shadow that’s part of the night.

But I just closed my eyes and sat there, nowhere, listening. When we got back to the house she was gone.

It was hard to think clearly. The enormity of it, all that empty country. She kept appearing in some inner field of vision, indistinct, like something I’d forgotten to say or do.

I finished putting away the groceries. I tried to concentrate on this, where things go, but objects seemed transparent, I could see through them, think through them.

Passing into air, it seemed this is what she was meant to do, what she was made for, two full days, no word, no sign. Had she strayed past the edge of conjecture or were we willing to imagine what had happened?

First thing [the sheriff] wanted to know was whether there had been any recent deviation in Jessie’s normal pattern of behavior. The only deviation, I told him, was the fact that she was missing.

I could think around the fact of her disappearance. But at the heart, in the moment itself, the physical crux of it, only a hole in the air.

Nothing happened that was not marked by her absence.

He began to see things out of the corner of his eye, the right eye. He’d walk into a room and catch a glimpse of something, a color, a movement. When he turned his head, nothing. It happened once or twice a day. I told him it was physiological, same eye every time, routine sort of dysfunction, minor, happens to people of a certain age. He turned and looked. Someone there but then she wasn’t.

“I think I know his name.” “You think you know.” “I was sleeping. Then I wake up with his name. It is Dennis.” “You think it is Dennis.” “It is Dennis, for sure.” “First name Dennis.” “This is all I heard, first name. I wake up, just now, it is Dennis,” she said.

The sky was stretched taut between cliff edges, it was narrowed and lowered, that was the strange thing, the sky right there, scale the rocks and you can touch it. I started walking again and came to the end of the tight passage and into an open space choked at ground level with brush and stony debris and I half crawled to the top of a high rubble mound and there was the whole scorched world. I looked out into blinding tides of light and sky and down toward the folded copper hills that I took to be the badlands, a series of pristine ridges rising from the desert floor in patterned alignment. Could someone be dead in there? I could not imagine this. It was too vast, it was not real, the symmetry of furrows and ruts, it crushed me, the heartbreaking beauty of it, and the longer I stood and looked the more certain I was that we would never have an answer.

I walked back into the wash under the shallow line of sky and then stopped and put my hand to the cliff wall and felt the tiered rock, horizontal cracks or shifts that made me think of huge upheavals. I closed my eyes and listened. The silence was complete. I’d never felt a stillness such as this, never such enveloping nothing. But such nothing that was, that spun around me, or she did, Jessie, warm to the touch. I don’t now how long I stood there, every muscle in my body listening. Could I forget my name in this silence? Then something made me turn my head and I had to tell myself in my astonishment what it was, a fly, buzzing near. I had to say the word to myself, fly.

That night I could not sleep. I fell into reveries one after another. The woman in the other room, on the other side of the wall, sometimes Jessie, other times not clearly and simply her, and then Jessie and I in her room, in her bed, weaving through each other, turning and arching sort of sealike, wavelike, some impossible nightlong moment of transparent sex. Her eyes are closed, face unfrozen, she is Jessie at the same time that she is too expressive to be her. She seems to be drifting outside herself even when I bring her to me. I’m there and aroused but barely see myself as I stand at the open door watching us both.

We drove in silence behind a motorboat being towed by a black pickup. I thought of his remarks about matter and being, those long nights on the deck, half smashed, he and I, transcendence, paroxysm, the end of human consciousness. It seemed so much dead echo now. Point omega. A million years away. The omega point has narrowed, here and now, to the point of a knife as it enters a body. All the man’s grand themes funneled down to local grief, one body, out there somewhere, or not.

There we were, coming out of an empty sky. One man past knowing. The other knowing only that he would carry something with him from this day on, a stillness, a distance, and he saw himself in somebody’s crowded loft, where he puts his hand to the rough surface of an old brick wall and then closes his eyes and listens.

23 January 2012

Are You a Psychopath?

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:22 am
  1. Are you glib or superficially charming?
  2. Do you have a grandiose sense of self-worth?
  3. Do you need stimulation, being prone to boredom?
  4. Are you a pathological liar?
  5. Do you con and manipulate people?
  6. Do you lack remorse or guilt?
  7. Do you have shallow affect?
  8. Are you callous, lacking in empathy?
  9. Do you have a parasitic lifestyle?
  10. Do you have poor behavioral controls?
  11. Are you sexually promiscuous?
  12. Did you have early behavioral problems?
  13. Do you lack realistic long-term goals?
  14. Are you impulsive?
  15. Are you irresponsible?
  16. Do you fail to accept responsibility for your own actions?
  17. Have you had many short-term marital relationships?
  18. Were you a juvenile delinquent?
  19. Have you ever had your conditional release from custody revoked?
  20. Are you criminally versatile?

These twenty questions are adapted from Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist, Revised, or PCL-R, as cited in The Psychopath Test (2011) by Jon Ronson. Diagnosis is usually established not by questionnaire but by interview, with responses evaluated according to the twenty indicators. I thought it might be fun to turn the checklist into an online survey using WordPress’s Polldaddy app, but it’s characteristic of the psychopath to deny, lie, fail to accept responsibility, etc., so results would be useless. If you’re concerned that you might be a psychopath, that means you probably aren’t one.

19 January 2012

Getting the Facts Straight

Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 11:32 am

On a modern school protractor you cannot distinguish ten minutes of a degree, and only one astronomer before Kepler would have thought such a measurement unsatisfactory. The greatest astronomer of the ancient world, Ptolemy, had regarded ten minutes as precisely his acceptable margin of error. But Kepler had worked with Tycho Brahe, who had devised new instruments capable of measuring with unbelievable accuracy, to a single minute.

Kepler was worried about such tiny numbers because he wanted to prove that Tycho’s theoretical tools could not provide an accurate account of Mars’s movement through the heavens – Kepler’s best predictions, using traditional methods, were out by up to eight minutes. By the time Kepler had found a satisfactory way of handling this aberrant eight minutes, he had abandoned the notion that all heavenly movements are circular and introduced the idea of an orbit – the regularly repeated trajectory of an astronomical object through space….

Kepler replaced orbs with orbits (the word used in this sense was a marker of Kepler’s key innovation – previously an orbit was the track left by a wheel in the ground), replaced circles with ellipses, geometry with physics. He did so even though he came to recognize, reluctantly, that one could give a perfectly satisfactory account of his new measurements using the old apparatus of circles, eccentrics and epicycles. The problem for Kepler was that circles, eccentrics and epicycles were geometrical constructions; there was no evidence that any such gearing existed in the heavens….

Kuhn, it turns out, was wrong. His theory was that a scientific revolution is always a response to an intellectual crisis. But Copernicus neither responded to nor brought about a crisis in orthodox astronomy. In the first fifty years after the publication of his book only two competent mathematicians defended Copernicanism as a cosmology in print – Copernicus’s sole disciple, Rheticus, and the Englishman Thomas Digges. Experts read and annotated their copies of Copernicus, but the heliocentric hypothesis was in their view the least interesting part of the book. What they were interested in were the new tools that Copernicus provided for geometrical astronomy. Even Kuhn recognized that “the success of the De revolutionibus does not imply the success of its central thesis”. Astronomers were happy to employ and revise Copernicus’s tables for predicting the positions of planets in the heavens. This did not make them Copernicans; it just showed that they were keen to get their facts straight….

When Kepler published the Rudolphine tables in 1627, based on Tycho’s measurements, and named after their deceased patron, Rudolph II, no one disputed that they were superior to anything that had gone before. Thus the printing press strengthened the hand of the innovators by making it possible for them to pool information and work together. It replaced the professorial lecture, the voice of authority, with a text in whose margin you could scribble your dissent. And, by fostering a constant clash of arguments and ideas (Riccioli against Copernicus; Hobbes against Boyle), it forced each side to adapt and change. What the printing press did, quite simply, was weaken authority and strengthen evidence. One of Galileo’s opponents, Lodovico delle Colombe, protested that Galileo was undermining the monarchy of Aristotle, and with it the principle of monarchy itself – while Galileo and his supporters wrote of a republic of letters and of the learned (repubblica scienziata). Over and over again we find the new scientists adopting their motto from the second-century Platonist Alcinous, “philosophizing wants to be free”.

The printing press also fostered a sort of intellectual arms race where new weapons (the astronomical sextant, invented by Tycho; the telescope, improved by Galileo; the pendulum clock, invented by Huygens – astronomical measurements are worthless without accurate timekeeping) were constantly being brought up to the front line. It’s not surprising that Kepler’s New Astronomy is full of military metaphors – indeed he presents the whole book as a war over the motions of Mars….

Kepler did not have the word “fact” (he wrote of phenomena, observations, effects, experiments, of to hoti), but he certainly had the idea. He chose to place on the title page of his Stella nova (1606) the image of a hen pecking around in a farmyard, with the motto grana dat e fimo scrutans (“hunting about in the crap, she finds grain”). He presented himself not as a great philosopher, but as someone prepared to grub around for facts. And because he had to make his facts credible, he was obliged to adopt many of the techniques that Shapin and Schaffer think are new with Boyle – the apparently prolix recounting of irrelevant details (the glowing coal by which he read his instruments on the night of February 19, 1604), the determination to report failures (Kepler presents his war on Mars as an almost endless series of defeats) with the same care as successes, the insistence on involving the reader as if he were really present. In the Stella nova he even introduces us to his wife, as though we were visiting them at home, explaining that he had found it difficult to refute the arguments of the Epicureans, who thought the universe was the product of chance. But his wife is a more redoubtable adversary than he is:

“Yesterday, when I had grown tired of writing and my mind was full of dust motes from thinking about atoms, she called me to dinner and served me a salad. Whereupon I said to her, if one were to throw into the air the pewter plates, lettuce leaves, grains of salt, drops of oil, vinegar and water and the glorious eggs, and all these things were to remain there for eternity, then would one day this salad just fall together by chance? My beauty replied ‘But not in this presentation, nor in this order’.”

So much for what is known as the infinite monkey theorem.

– David Wootton, from his TLS review of Robert S. Westman’s The Copernican Question

16 January 2012

Back to the Sand

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:07 am

Surely somebody has noticed how much this record…

…sounds like this one…

8 January 2012

Just Like the Ones We Used to Know

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:44 am

It’s a couple of weeks late, but what the hell: if it’s nostalgia it ought to be late. This is the bit I was working on this morning…

He thought about Christmas movies and the Portals embedded in them. Was it the bridge that Jimmy Stewart jumped off, or was it the icy river he landed in, that transported him into an alternative present in which he did not exist? Was Rosebud the Portal, or the castle in which it was enshrined, or the fire that consumed it? He wondered if there was anything Portalic in those old Bing Crosby holiday musicals. Bingo and Danny Kaye, both self-consciously ridiculous as frilly drag sisters, lisping their way through that corny Irving Berlin number. Bing and Danny marching in full uniform with the rest of the boys across that Vermont ski mountain, reassuring a beleaguered but ramrod-straight Dean Jagger that even a retired Army hero occupied a very special place in the post-War nostalgia. Bing seated at the piano in the chalet singing White Christmas to an enraptured Rosemary Clooney. Yes, of course that was it: that was the Portal.

Ulrich remembered reading somewhere that in real life Bing Crosby had been rather a cold-hearted bastard. This spiteful allegation had endeared the Crooner to Ulrich in a way that the smooth, schmaltzy screen persona never had. Bing wasn’t simply being himself up there: he was an artist who had created an alternate version of himself so consistent and compelling that the public bought it. Ulrich wondered whether the on-screen Bing wasn’t more real than the brooding and insular workaholic who sat chain-smoking in his trailer between takes. A mean SOB singing a Jew’s Christmas song to a lush: this combination, this synergy, had opened a Portal so pure and powerful that it still worked more than half a century later. Ulrich hoped that maybe it would be in this place, at this time, with this cast of characters – two asleep on the couch, one standing in the darkened kitchen gazing into the outer darkness – that something improbable would open up and pull them through. “Or maybe,” he considered, “it will happen when I walk back into the living room.” He did; it didn’t. Ten minutes later: “maybe if I go to my Lab.”

Ulrich wondered if the Portal would offer a nostalgic sort of passage, like White Christmas. He thought his wife would like that. Many of the basement boxes contained talismans for invoking their past lives, preserved and packed away in bubble paper. There were probably a dozen boxes of Christmas ornaments down there, most of them remnants from her childhood. His, too – when his parents had sold the old house he had picked through the stuff they weren’t going to take with them down to Florida.  A video of “White Christmas” was on one of the basement shelves, he realized – his wife had recorded it off the television many years ago. She would be sad if the basement wouldn’t fit through the Portal.

Ulrich remembered their first Christmas in this house. It was before their daughter was born, and his wife’s family had flown in for a visit. She was so nervous serving Christmas dinner that she broke down in tears when she dropped a Brussels sprout on the carpet. Later her little brother got sick and vomited all over the room they had put him up in, which also happened to be Ulrich’s office. That tonight of all nights he should be barraged by nostalgic memories Ulrich regarded as indicative of something, but he wasn’t sure what.

Ulrich O’Connor found himself remembering many things as he stared unseeing from his Laboratory window into the expectant night. The exact moment he had quit his last job. The day before his mother died. The shocked look on his newborn daughter’s face as she confronted the world for the first time. Proposing. The last cigarette he had ever smoked. The first cigarette. Getting kicked out of his own junior high school graduation. His only Little League home run. The get-well cards his classmates sent him when he had the chicken pox. The time his best friend hit him over the head with a toy fire truck – the very first entry in Ulrich’s sparsely-populated memory. He wondered if he might be dying.

And then he remembered, or seemed to remember, something else, something even before the fire truck. He would be all alone on a small island, watching the small waves as they timidly crept out of the surrounding sea and up onto the sand. Either that, or else he was in the middle of a vast and empty parking lot. There would be a pulsating sensation and a whooshing noise, and he would feel enclosed inside an enormous emptiness. As a young child he had experienced this hallucination many times; never before had he realized that the hallucination itself must have been a kind of memory. “I believe,” Ulrich thought then, “that it is everyone’s first memory.”

1 January 2012

Three Economic Shorts

Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 8:24 am

I thought I’d written my last economic post. I get it, more or less; why belabor the point? But this morning I find that I’ve not yet lost the capacity to be startled.

1. From this article:

For the first time, the top export of the United States, the world’s biggest gas guzzler, is — wait for it — fuel. Measured in dollars, the nation is on pace this year to ship more gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel than any other single export, according to U.S. Census data going back to 1990. It will also be the first year in more than 60 that America has been a net exporter of these fuels…

There’s at least one domestic downside to America’s growing role as a fuel exporter. Experts say the trend helps explain why U.S. motorists are paying more for gasoline. The more fuel that’s sent overseas, the less of a supply cushion there is at home. Gasoline supplies are being exported to the highest bidder, says Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service. “It’s a world market,” he says. Refining companies won’t say how much they make by selling fuel overseas. But analysts say those sales are likely generating higher profits per gallon than they would have generated in the U.S. Otherwise, they wouldn’t occur.

While the fuel is a national resource of the United States, it’s of course not the nation that exports it or that jacks up domestic prices or that reaps massive profits on the global market.

2. From this article:

The United States will remain the top choice of most global commercial real estate investors in 2012, but the country has lost ground to Brazil which ranked No. 2 this year, according to a survey released Sunday. While the United States offers the most stable and secure option in commercial real estate, investors said improvement in rent and occupancy growth and the repeal of a 1980 foreign investment tax would have the strongest impact on their investment decisions, according to the 20th annual survey of Association of Foreign Investors in Real Estate (AFIRE) members…

As for U.S. commercial real estate, respondents said that this year they would most likely invest in apartment buildings, the fourth consecutive year multifamily topped the list. Of all the types of U.S. commercial real estate, the multifamily sector has not only recovered from the post-2007 real estate slump but rents and occupancy are even stronger than before.

The real estate investment opportunity poses a particularly striking contrast with…

3. This piece:

Since 2007, banks have foreclosed around eight million homes. It is estimated that another eight to ten million homes will be foreclosed before the financial crisis is over.  This approach to resolving one part of the financial crisis means many, many families are living without adequate and secure housing.  In addition, approximately 3.5 million people in the U.S. are homeless, many of them veterans.  It is worth noting that, at the same time, there are 18.5 million vacant homes in the country.

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