Overweening Generalist

Monday, August 27, 2012

Coltrane/Holdsworth/Jarzombek:Abstract Melodic Expression and Odd Affinities

Material Format of Music, c.1973-1987?
Hey Kids! This may be news to you, but aside from the radio, old geezers like myself - anyone over 40 - once had to either 1.) buy a vinyl record; 2.) check a vinyl record out from our local library if they had what we wanted; 3.) borrow a friend's vinyl record if they had what we wanted to hear...in order to listen to what we wanted to in the privacy of our own homes. Okay, cassette tapes were around, too. We could record vinyl records onto cheap blank cassette tape, but these things had the propensity to become stuck inside the machine, and then...spaghetti. They really sucked. (Or I guess you youngins would say "suck ass"?)

I remember when the Walkman was a new thing. (I know, I know: I'm leaving out 8-track tapes, which were often played in cars.) The trendiest people walked around town with these gigantic (now they are, right?) players, with headphones on. That was...just a few seconds ago on the tech-scale timeline.

                                           The Walkman vs. the iPod

What I want you to realize: there was once no digital music available for consumers. Zero. I remember the first time I saw a CD: are you tryna tell me...do you mean that tiny record (it looked like a micro-version of a vinyl record to me, only it was silver, not black) is supposed to be "better" sounding than my old records? I suppose I have to buy a new fangled machine to play those things, eh? Indeed.

Wikipedia tells me that audio CDs and CD players became commercially available in 1982, but my friends and I weren't sold on them until 1987. By 1988 we had become Converts. At that time, if you told me there would be little computers everyone would personally own, they would hook into some Net that we were all hooked into, and you could obtain digital music FREE from this thing, I would have thought you were high, or had been reading too many bad science fiction stories, or you were off your meds. Maybe all three.

But enough about the material conditions of the music we listen to.

The Way A Few Players Have Played, c.1961-2012
Now: I know you don't have to be a musician to understand what I'm going to note here, but maybe it would help: once certain jazz soloists who played treble-clef instruments achieved such a dazzling level of technical virtuosity, the music started to get "out" there, for a lot of people's ears.

Some would argue that the 1940s invention, in New York in after-hours clubs, of be-bop, by the finest players in the world, was when all this started. They soloed a lot. They played faster than anything ever heard. They were willing to use more chromatics (notes that don't belong the scale and key proper, but served to "color" their solos), more dissonant intervals (especially diminished substitutions for 7th-type chords), and they were willing to exploit anything their particular instruments could do (mostly saxophones and other horns, but the clarinet too). They got really good at playing the highest pitched notes.

By 1959, Ornette Coleman's group was playing way-out "free jazz" and...if you got it and liked it you were in the minority.

When artists are completely devoted to their craft, they know what's gone before them. They know who the Greats are. They want to do something no one had ever done before; they want to stand outside the shadows of the Greats that came before them and maybe be Great themselves. If only a small, devoted audience "got it," then so be it.

Now: I grew up playing guitar, wanting to be a great rock player. And later I became influenced by all kinds of non-rock music, including jazz, classical, bluegrass, and Indian ragas. I listened and listened and tried to incorporate what I heard in those musics with my rock playing. Lots of rock guitarists did this. Now here's my point: when I finally started listening to John Coltrane, who I think is the greatest sax player ever, I heard the most fantastic heavy metal soloing imaginable. I knew jazz purists - who seemed to at best loathe heavy rock - would think I was crazy for perceiving things this way, so I kept my mouth shut. Only a few other metal guitarists I knew understood where I was coming from.

What we were seeking to do, in the shadow of Edward Van Halen, Ritchie Blackmore, Randy Rhoads and Uli Jon Roth, was to play extremely fast, but with a singing melody, all the while exploiting our instruments for what they were capable of doing. When I heard Coltrane play a familiar tune from 1961 (I'm not sure exactly when the following clip was recorded), I flipped-out when I heard him solo! Check it out, Coltrane on soprano sax:

This is still just unbelievably cool and amazing and thrilling phrasing to me. He's melodic and fast. He's thematic and inventive. McCoy Tyner's piano and Eric Dolphy's flute solos are also tremendous. I thought Coltrane sounded like the greatest metal player ever, because I was so firmly ensconced in that frame of reference. Of course he's playing a non-metal instrument, and there are no Marshall stacks. That's not the point. The point is: if you're practicing all day long, and you have ideas about how you want to sound, you will accept things that other extremists wouldn't. Who knew what Coltrane would sound like in five or six years? (Later)

Out of England, a jazz fusion guitarist. I read an interview with Edward Van Halen, and he mentioned a jazz guy that played with a rock sound, on a Stratocaster, and he thought this guy was the best he'd ever heard. His name? Allan Holdsworth. Of course I had to go out and buy Holdsworth's latest vinyl record. (It was I.O.U. and I didn't "get" the singer.) I had no idea what Holdsworth was doing when he played chords, but when he soloed? Our jaws dropped off our faces and rolled around on the floor! He was playing really "outside" but still: gorgeous melodic lines which seemed like extensions of the chords he was playing over, but maybe some odd scales we hadn't acquainted ourselves with, plenty of dissonance and odd intervals. He was doing wide stretches and playing just an uncanny legato style, as if he's not picking the strings; his left hand was so large, flexible and dextrous he sounded to us like Coltrane he was so fluid...only with a sort-of rock sound! I couldn't believe it.

Here's Holdsworth playing "Devil Take The Hindmost." After all these years I've grown to appreciate his chordal playing much more too. Note: Holdsworth has experimented with all kinds of fancy guitars since I first discovered him. Here he plays a small-bodied thing with no headstock. He's also become known as the finest Synth-Axe player. The solo starts around 1:50.

Heavy metal shredders Joe Satriani, Richie Kotzen, John Petrucci, and Greg Howe have noted Holdsworth as a big influence. Also: Rush's Alex Lifeson, Journey's Neal Schon, and the late great Shawn Lane mentioned their admiration for Holdsworth. But note: when Holdsworth was a kid, he admired sax players more than guitarists, and has said he's modeled his solo playing - legato so smooth it sounds like his favorite Coltrane - and he once said he "detests" the sound of pfft when a player pulls off - lifts off - a note on one string to a lower one on the same string.

Note that the solo flight here may seem quite abstract. I argue this is inevitable when a player is trying to distance himself from others playing around and before him. I know of no other electric guitarist who ever played like Holdsworth before him.

A friend of mine who knows far more about the newest, youngest metal bands told me, when I asked him who the guitarists were being influenced by, replied after a moment...Allan Holdsworth. I thought he was going to say John Petrucci or Paul Gilbert. I should've known.

Here's my favorite metal guitarist - I also think he's the best metallist in the world, although he's still relatively unknown: Ron Jarzombek. From his solo recording Solitarily Speaking of Theoretical Confinement, here's a 2 and half minute series of little metallic bagatelle that evinces Jarzombek's place in this long line of virtuoso legato - smooth, fast, clean and connected - soloists. The picking is off the charts. His left hand is godly:

From Jarzombek's band Blotted Science, here's "Synaptic Plasticity." The solo at 3:04 - after all those mathematically-challenging time-changes, abrupt shifts, and odd harmonic sequences he suddenly drops into what I call "Holdsworth Mode" - and it's a striking mood shift. Note the solo at 3:55 is much more in the classic metal "shred" style. This guy can do it all.

So, in ending, I've tried to argue that, as much as its hardcore adherents would like to try to refute it, jazz player Coltrane, fusion player Holdsworth and metal player Jarzombek all meet in this rather abstract area in which the best players find common ground: extremely fluid and effortlessly fast line playing, which is both melodic while straying outside the ordinary confines of garden-variety scale playing. In Ben Ratliff's 2007 book, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, he notes Coltrane's considerable influence on metal players.

Here's a pic of Holdsworth and Ron Jarzombek, looking at the former's chord-solo charts. Ron looks as baffled as I was when I looked at similar stuff in Holdsworth's Melody Chords For Guitar. Holdsworth has a very idiosyncratic way of thinking about his note selections...and Jarzombek is a Frank Zappa-level total theory-freakazoid!, but how can you "think" when you play that fast and with such freedom and abandonment?:

In case anyone's wondering how far out Coltrane went, here he is, not long before he died, on "Mars." I personally have not heard a guitarist play this far out there. It's impossible for me to describe:

Monday, August 20, 2012

Aldous Huxley, H.L. Mencken and My (Our?) Consumption of Trash

Recently my brilliant blogging colleague Eric Wagner answered a query I made about reading difficult books. At the end of his response he noted that both James Joyce and Ezra Pound lived through a period in which information doubled, and this may account, in part, for why both men wrote such crazy-difficult books, still avant in play with forms and a level of abstruseness. The idea of information doubling was taken from Robert Anton Wilson, who called the apparent logarithmic increase of information flow-through in a society the "Jumping Jesus Phenomenon."

                                   Aldous Huxley, my intellectual main squeeze until I 
                                   discovered Robert Anton Wilson. I still love Aldous.
                                   Aldous? I can't quit you, man!

When I read his response it reminded me of something Aldous Huxley wrote, in 1934. Aldous is still in his worried-angry-aristocratic-mandarin phase in the quote ahead, two years after publishing Brave New World, and vexed over humanity's prospects. A pacifist of astounding intellectual gifts, he navigated his way through two world wars almost clinically blind (yet publishing terrific art criticism!), writing an astonishing array of essays and novels of ideas, landing in Hollywood to avoid the bombing in Europe, and eventually becoming one of the most interesting mystics in history and an early experimenter in psychedelic drugs:

"Advances in technology have led...to vulgarity....Process reproduction and the rotary press have made possible the indefinite multiplication of writing and pictures. Universal education and relatively high wages have created an enormous public who know how to read and can afford to buy reading and pictorial matter. A great industry has been called into existence in order to supply these commodities. Now, artistic talent is a very rare phenomenon; whence it follows...that, at every epoch and in all countries, most art has been bad. But the proportion of trash in the total artistic output is greater now than at any other period. That it must be so is a matter of simple arithmetic. [I would call this part of Aldous's riff an analog to the Jumping Jesus Phenomenon. - OG] The population of Western Europe has a little more than doubled during the last century. But the amount of reading - and seeing - matter has increased, I should imagine, at least twenty and possibly fifty or even a hundred times. If there were n men of talent in a population of x millions, there will presumably be 2n men of talent among 2x millions. The situation may be summed up thus. For every page of print and pictures published a century ago, twenty or perhaps a hundred pages are published today. But for every man of talent then living, there are now only two men of talent. It may be of course that, thanks to universal education, many potential talents which in the past would have been stillborn are now enabled to realize themselves. Let us assume, then, that there are now three or even four men of talent to every one of earlier times. It still remains true to say that the consumption of reading - and seeing - matter has far outstripped the natural production of gifted writers and draughtsmen. It is the same with hearing-matter. Prosperity, the gramophone and the radio have created an audience of hearers who consume an amount of hearing-matter that has increased out of all proportion to the increase of population and the consequent natural increase in talented musicians. It follows from all this that in all the arts the output of trash is both absolutely and relatively greater than it was in the past; and that it must remain greater for just so long as the world continues to consume the present inordinate quantities of reading-matter, seeing-matter, and hearing-matter." - from Beyond the Mexique Bay: A Traveler's Journal, sourced by Walter Benjamin for his famous essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in his Illuminations.

Two things: Aldous is probably right: there's much, much more trash to be consumed, whatever "trash" is (I guess you know it when you see it?); and isn't it touching that Aldous cared so much about what that trash must be doing to us?

24 years later, in 1958, Theodore Sturgeon would formulate his (eventual) "law": 90% of everything is crap.

In this passage, Aldous reminds me of an Adorno or some other German Frankfurt Schooler who seeks to critique the "culture industry" and thereby save us from wallowing in mind-numbing Bad Art, which leads to fascism.

Who knows what Bad Art, or inferior radio/painting/writing does to us. I do think Aldous was being a tad snooty in 1934, but then I grew up watching Gilligan's Island...

I had previously blogged on Aldous way back HERE.

An interesting observation? In their days, H.P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick were all writers not even considered as "important" by the official intellectuals; they were declasse; now they are at the top of the canon in their "genres": horror, detective fiction, and science fiction. As Marx quoted Shakespeare, all that is solid melts into air...and, I would add, often that which was "trash" turns to gold.

                               The Grand Vizier of Bad Taste, one of my faves, John Waters,
                               with his supporting players of geeks, hillbillies, rednecks,
                             sex perverts and dope addicts. Waters's books make me laugh out loud.

How do we know trash? Yes, you just know it when you see/hear it. But also: if we know well that which seems great and profound to us, perhaps the trash reveals itself by juxtaposition? Yes, but who's to say what is "great"? I say: your call. But keep expanding and exposing yourself.

I found this quote in a book by the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman:
"Edmund Wilson quotes H.L. Mencken as saying that he even enjoys the prospectuses put out by bond houses, because everything written is an attempt to express the aspirations of some human being. Burke's concepts of 'symbolic action' and 'rhetoric' result in a similar embracing of trash of every description..." The Burke here being Kenneth. (Hyman's book: p.386, The Armed Vision)

I receive catalogs in the mail, for a small press distributor, and often find myself reading these things, knowing I'll probably never buy any of the books, or maybe never read any of them either. (Although I will find little gems of ideas and author's names I'll follow up on...) I look at the layouts, the way the copy is written, maybe the unconscious aspects of the arrangements of things. I read catalogs for Dover publications, an entire 40-page extravaganza of books that I would never understand, like - I'm looking at one now - An Introduction to Orthogonal Polynomials, or Nash's and Sen's Topology and Geometry for Physicists. I end up daydreaming about the sort of person who really gets into this stuff. (Lately it's been a woman, but I digress...) How much different a mental life someone has who finds fascination in titles like Kernal Functions and Elliptic Differential Equations in Mathematical Physics, by Stefan Bergman and Menahem Schiffer! Do they apply this stuff right away? On what? And do they follow up by taking to bed with them Tensors, Differential Forms, and Variational Principles, by Rund and Lovelock? Not that any of this might constitute "trash," it's just that...because I buy books on history, mythology, poetry, linguistics and sociology from Dover, they send me their math catalogs too. And it may as well be "trash" to me, although on another level I know that these maths built the modern world. I cannot understand it. I do marvel that others do. They seem to marvel that I (seem to) understand Ulysses and The Wasteland, so there's some mutual respect radiating across the bow of the Two Cultures.

                                      Mencken, sage of Baltimore, also where John Waters
                                        is from.

I also read the health tips sent by insurance companies, the utility bills, a magazine called Beer Advocate my brother bought for me, which is about 80% ads. I'll pick up disparate magazines from the community-donated FREE rack at my local library, and just look a the worlds depicted and implied there. I do this in the sense of Mencken reading bond house prospectuses. I'll "read" Vogue and Highlights and Field and Stream. 

If Aldous was basically "right" in 1934, we all swim in trash, but like fish, we don't know it, for it pervades every space in our lives. It's as if we swim in and amongst the Great Pacific Trash Vortex, and we're almost totally oblivious.

Or Aldous's esthetics were too much hung over from someone like 19th century Matthew Arnold's - who happened to be related to Aldous on his mother's side.

Because I accept "trash" so willingly, and often enthusiastically (it used to be - 1967 to 1995 - that you were required to name drop Susan Sontag and her "Notes On Camp" right about now, but I refuse to), I think this brings both wonderful "trash" and extraordinarily luminous works of genius into a bold relief, and I will truncate yet another far-too-long spew by quoting from a fragment of Heraclitus:

"It is by disease that health is pleasant, by evil that good is pleasant, by hunger satiety, by weariness rest." (frag. #111, found p.77 of The Presocratics, ed. Wheelwright.)

                                Simon has written a gem here. He manages to link soap 
                                operas with classic literature, Seinfeld with British comedies 
                                of manners, etc. An underrated Lit Crit book, in my opinion.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How To Become A Dictator

Opening Pitch: A Curveball, Low and Outside
If you look at a map of Africa, and gaze down its West Coast, 20 miles off the coast of Cameroon, in the Gulf of Guinea, you'll see a little island named Bioco. For nearly 500 years it was called Fernando Po, after its discoverer.

In the early 1970s Captain Ernesto Tequila y Mota read and re-read from Edward Luttwak's book Coup d' Etat: A Practical Handbook. Reading from yet another book that addresses Mota's coup: "He set up a timetable, made his first converts among other officers, formed a clique, and began the slow process of arranging things so that officers likely to be loyal to Equatorial Guinea would be on assignment at least 48 hours away from the capital city when the coup occurred. He drafted the first proclamation to be issued by his new government; it took the best slogans of the most powerful left-wing and right-wing groups on the island and embedded them firmly in a tapiocalike complex of bland liberal-conservatism. It fit Luttwak's prescription excellently, giving everybody on the island some small hope that his own interests and beliefs would be advanced by the new regime. And, after three years of planning, he struck: the key officials of the old regime were quickly, bloodlessly, placed under house arrest; troops under command of officers in the cabal occupied the power stations and newspaper offices; the inoffensively fascist-conservative-liberal-communist proclamation of the new People's Republic of Fernando Poo (sic) went forth to the world over the radio station in Santa Isobel. Ernesto Tequila y Mota had achieved his ambition - promotion from captain to generalissimo in one step. Now, at last, he began wondering about how one went about governing a country. He would probably have to read a new book, and he hoped that there was one as good as Luttwak's treatise on seizing a country."

I'm having you on, of course: that long passage I quoted was from the rollicking, psychedelic book of conspiracy theories, the eldritch and menacing underground fiction book, The Illuminatus! Trilogy, by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. (pp.18-19)

OG Loves His Crazy Books
Except...the Luttwak book is a real book. I own it. It's one of my favorite "Walter Mitty" books: I have a large collection of outrageous literature: Hitler's autobiography, The Turner Diaries, John Birch Society classics, books on how to get revenge on your enemies, Lyndon Larouche tracts, books explaining how advanced aliens have been herding humans like sheep since Day One, Report From Iron Mountain, a book called How To Start Your Own Country, on and on. There's a frisson I cop from owning these books; the reason I call them "Walter Mitty" books is because they have solely to do with some sort of ironic fantasy life: it's not that I would ever adhere to the ideologies in those books, much less take the same actions. The ideas are almost 100% abhorrent to me, but maybe they make for fascinating sociology? A large chunk of my epistemology is influenced by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann's phenomenological sociology: knowledge must be anything that is taken as "real" by anyone. For my literary mind, these tomes represent possible habitable worlds. Possibly: worlds that some of my fellow Citizens take seriously as "real." (So...:"oppositional research"?)

These sorts of outrageous books also fuel the anthropological imagination. I like to imagine I could or would, but know I couldn't or wouldn't (I really want us to be nicer to each other: what a friggin' dreamer!) be in some racist, nazi terror group, for some inexplicable reasons not entirely clear to me. When friends see my couple shelves of Weirdo Lit, the easiest - and indeed very true - explanation is: I'm a hardcore 1st Amendment person, especially when it comes to books. But then there's my digression...

                                    Edward Luttwak, prodigious amoral scholar of power,
                                      born 1942.

Edward Luttwak
My, but Luttwak is a learned person, if an amoral one. I've seen him interviewed a few times and he's guileless. And smart. The amoral intellectuals scare the crap out of me, but fascinate me in roughly the same way that Mad Scientists do. I don't consider myself a Moralist, but when I'm confronted by the mind of a Luttwak, or Kissinger, or Herman Kahn, who experimented with LSD and found it a delightful enhancement to his schemes for winning a nuclear war, or...the King of the NeoCons, Leo Strauss...it makes me think.

Let me quote from Luttwak's Coup d'Etat:
(He's discussing France's ineffectual 4th Republic [1946-59]): "The France of 1958 had become politically inert and therefore ripe for a coup. The political structures of most developed countries, however, are too resilient to make them suitable targets, unless certain 'temporary' factors weaken the system and obscure its basic soundness. Of those temporary factors the most common are:
(a) severe and prolonged economic crisis, with large-scale unemployment or runaway inflation;
(b) a long and unsuccessful war or a major defeat, military or diplomatic;
(c) chronic instability under a multi-party system." (p.31)

Near the end of the book, in Appendix A, "The Economics of Repression," we read:
"Once we have carried out our coup and established control over the bureaucracy and the armed forces,  our long-term political survival will largely depend on our management of the problem of economic development. Economic development is generally regarded as a 'good thing' and almost everybody wants more of it, but for us - the newly-established government of X-Land - the pursuit of economic development will be undesirable, since it militates against our main goal: political stability." (p.175)

In 1999 Luttwak published an article in one of the foreign policy journals called "Give War A Chance." Some more idealistic scholars attempt to take him to task HERE.

                                        Out of the mouths of morons...

These Books Have Been Around For Yonks!
From Sun-Tzu's Art of War to (my personal fave) Machiavelli's The Prince, to Clausewitz on to today, polymathic scholars of realpolitick  have written books like Luttwak's. And what always strikes me when I read them: how refreshingly empirical and rational they are! I know that may sound horrible, but hear me out: given the 24/7/365 of corporate propaganda and punditocratic mush we're all subject to, I feel a sense of no-bullshit relief when reading the scholars of realpolitick. I'm not saying I agree with them - I cop to a certain idealism - but at least they are saying the stuff that you're not supposed to say. And if they have wit, all the better.

Back to my Walter Mitty frisson-dealio: I distinctly remember working in a posh old public library in a very rich and conservative area of Los Angeles, and I happened upon a field manual for how to conduct guerrilla war, by Che Guevara. Of course I checked it out and read it cover to cover. How it managed to stay on the shelves of that library (I doubt anyone had read it in at least 15 years), I don't know. That's one big reason I love physical books in physical libraries: the shock and joy of finding something that you didn't even know existed!

                                This is probably pretty close to what Machiavelli looked like

The Latest In This Hallowed Tradition: The Dictator's Handbook
Appearing in 2011 and subtitled, "How Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics," from NYU political scientists Alastair Smith and the very Robert Anton Wilson-y and Robert Shea-ishly-named Bruce Bueno de Mesquita (I actually thought that was Alastair Smith's nonexistent writing partner, a nom de plume of sorts), but Mesquita (not to be confused with the fictional character Ernesto Tequila y Mota) is not only real but he's a big deal. Apparently he has a odd track record of making predictions that come true, which, if you've been reading me for long, know is quite rare. HERE is a five minute piece on "the new Nostradamus" (as Mesquita's been called) on NPR, from November 2009.

Aye: "Using the logic of brazen self-interest" pretty much sums up Smith and Mesquita's approach to political power, whether it's Obama or some dictator in a war-torn little African country. The only difference, our NYU profs think, between democracy and dictatorship, is that the guy operating in the democracy has to deal with more constraints. For any leader, the goal is simple: to get power, keep it, and control the money as much as you can. Perusing The Dictator's Handbook reminded me of reading Luttwak, but it was more breezy, and had a Freakonomics-like vibe.

If "using the logic of brazen self-interest" makes you think immediately of Game Theory, then you're one of those I wanna party with. 'Cuz you're smart, not due to any adherence to a singular "logic of self-interest." Yes: Smith and Mesquita use game theory as both a method and as a motor of considerable rhetorical effectiveness. It's as if their deftness about embedding their ideas in the theory of games makes the book not only compelling due to argument, but thrilling due to mood. And why would I, a non-Gamer, who's never played Grand Theft Auto or World of Warcraft, find something thrilling in a popular-poli-sci book that seems to be imbued with a chunk of that same zeitgeist? I don't know, but it's not because I feel emotionally removed due to feeling like a disembodied player for hours-on-end of intense and involving video games. I think it's more that I'd rather my body not be as much affected by what I now - pessimistically? - call realpolitick. Fascistic, money-driven politics of the spectacle tend toward depressed moods. Therefore, I'll cultivate an...ironic mood?...towards... "reality"?

Let me think this through a bit more over the next week or so. And back to Mesquita and Smith.

Forget about the complex logistics and strengths and weaknesses of states, what "they" want, the grand strategies and even national interest and good and right and wrong and justice: you need supporters to keep you in power, and you need to draw from as large a pool of supporters as possible (which our profs call "the selectorate"). Who will keep you there? Billionaires and fanatical leaders of coalitions, which explains why a democratically elected leader will champion spending programs that a large chunk of the population don't really want.

There's soooo much bullshit in political reality - especially as we're ramping up for another Prez Election in Unistat - that reading a book like this might feel to you like going through the looking glass. One of our new Machiavellis, Alastair Smith, says, "It's virtually impossible to find any example where leaders are not acting in their own interest."

Another one: "If you're working for the common good you didn't come to power in the first place. If you're not willing to cheat, steal, murder and bribe then you don't come to power."

And every man's vote counts, right? Well...I have talked to a whole lot of very brilliant, well-read young people at Occupy rallies. They have read everything and they're articulate and passionate and they can't get a job to pay off their student loans. And they know why.

But when they vote, who reading me here believes their vote goes as far as a billionaire's or the leader of some fanatical coalition that will rally voters to the polls?

Furthermore: the leader must not terrorize his supporters or take money out of their pockets to make other people's lives better - says Smith and Mesquita - but it's okay for Occupy folk to feel terrorized; it's always better to tax the crap out of people and make them fear for their next meal; it is bad to let them grow their own food. So: Occupy kids: no change, plenty to fear, almost zilch for power. The CEOs on Wall Street?: they're part of the leaders' supporters, they take care of the members of the board and big investors and senior management people. No terror there. And for their "work" they receive mega-outrageously large bonuses.

When we were in grade school, the answer to the riddle, "What do you get when you cross a penis with a potato?" had a funny answer. Now? Maybe "funny" in another, darker way. And I'm reminded of Gore Vidal, who died last week. I paraphrase, but he often said that the American public were so gullible that they harbored the perennial belief that if we just elected a "good, nice man" as Prez, we'd be fine.

for extra credit:
How Will the 99% Deal with the Psychopaths in the 1%?
10 Mad Dictators From the 20th and 21st Century
Dictators and Fascists and their musical tastes: Kim Jong Il loved Eric Clapton?
Osama bin Laden smoked pot and watched "The Wonder Years" and was crazy about Whitney Houston?
George W. Bush 43: "Eight years was awesome and I was famous and I was powerful."
Got a budding scholar of dictatorships? Read 'em all!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

50 Shades of Grey: My Take, My Fake

In Laurie Penny's article in New Statesman on the book and hub-bub surrounding E.L. James's 50 Shades of Grey she writes, "The only people who haven't bothered to read the damned books, it seems, are most of the journalists writing about it." I'm no journalist (although I play one in my fantasies), but I'm - as of the date above - one of those non-readers of 50 Shades. Laurie Penny writes "books" - plural - because James has come out with a trilogy, and they've sold, according to the London Telegraph of 7 August: 12 million as a trilogy in the UK alone, 40 million worldwide. The entire Harry Potter series sold 450 million worldwide, but still, James's trio counts already as one of the greatest sellers of all-time. Already. And they haven't been out for a year!

In a cosmically hilarious sense and a bit synchonistically I decided to look into the 50 Shades phenomenon just after finishing a funny book by Pierre Bayard called How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read. I have read Marquis de Sade, "Pauline Reage"'s The Story of O, and Anne Rice's well-written porn, and I use the term "porn" neutrally. I just think it's a basic part of culture. And I read Anais Nin and all sorts of stuff like that. (Some 20-something female readers of James will one day learn that a book called Lady Chatterley's Lover was, like, a total scandal ya know? only about 60 years ago, and they'll be incredulous, think it almost inconceivable, after skimming in this Lawrence character for eight minutes. But then I was unimpressed as a 14 year old boy, when I checked into Mellors and the Lady.)

When I saw that James's books were selling off the charts, I had to figure out what was going on, so I started reading articles - with excerpts of the clunky prose - and knew I couldn't stay awake if I tried to actually read James. What interested me was the social phenomena that attends sales of multi-millions of one single title...which qualifies as a "Black Swan" event in publishing. 

                              Here she is: the firer of loins the world over, E.L. James

Back to Bayard for a moment. He argues near the end of his book: "How can one deny, however, that talking about books you haven't read constitutes an authentic creative activity; making the same demands as other forms of art? Just think of all the skills it calls into play - listening to the potentialities of a work, analyzing its ever-changing context, paying attention to others and their reactions, taking charge of a gripping narrative - and you will find yourself convinced." (pp.182-183) Earlier in the book there's a very amusing chapter that features Montaigne, and asks, if I have read a book but can't remember what happens...have I really read the book? Can I honestly say I've read that book if I don't recall the plot, who the main characters are, etc? When I know I have read a work but can't remember much of anything in it, and I don't say that outright, but instead report some sort of "here's what I'm guessing I read if only I can remember it," you're basically doing the same thing as the person who has never even touched a copy of the book they're going on and on about right now, totally pulling your leg. And yet: yes. I believe Bayard has made a strong - and completely hilarious - claim for the act of talking about a book one hasn't read as an Art. This book - Bayard's - was on a level of sheer ludic joyfulness - and very learned, I must say - that Derrida only dreamed  he could reach. And I thought Derrida was very funny at times. But then there's my OG-required digression, fulfilled for yet another blogspewage...

I hope I have qualified if not justified myself in commenting on a book I haven't read. I am performing here, utilizing the artistic skills of the forger. Oddly, I consider this just fine when Bayard and I do it, but when you do it you're being a pretentious ass, and I want to cage you and make you admit you haven't read the book like I (really) have. I admit this is a moral quandary, and...I'm working on it. Let us take this discussion up later, hmm? Back to James. (By the way, if you're reading this S&M trilogy and feel self-conscious in a certain setting, and someone of repute asks you what you've been reading, might I recommend saying you're reading "James again." With luck your interlocutor will assume Henry or William or even P.D. When faced with a follow-up question, go ahead and just practice Bayard's art.

Or go the bold route and say you're interested in kinky sex, and thought this one would fill the bill. Your call.

By almost all accounts - and conservatively, I've read about 60 articles on the James books, I sorta feel  like I've read them - the books appear awkwardly-written and cliche-ridden by those in the media who seem to have actually read them, and what saves James appears to be her fidelity to the classic romance novel tropes. But when have we ever demanded great prose style from the romance genre, let alone the S&M novel? (And anyway, style and "good writing" seems far more horribly subjective than almost all critics officially Milled and Humed in our finest universities. If I love the story, and it's a page-turner and "flows," who gives a crap if it's not James Joyce?)  Listen to these three journalistic hipsters at Slate talk about the book for 40 minutes; it's terrific for the practice of Bayard's art. These were James's first novels. She's an ex-TV exec, lives in West London with her husband, has two boys. She was inspired by the Twilight vampire stories, and wrote fan-fiction based on it, finding herself in mid-life crisis, pouring out her sexual fantasies into the template provided by Twilight creator Stephenie Meyer (I must confess I haven't read those books or seen the film either). When she found she'd gotten 37,000 hits for her stuff - she took it down and re-wrote what she had, leaving out Meyer's characters, re-purposed the plot, and well, you're probably up on this stuff already. Anyway, she's struck publishing gold.

If you aren't up on the new "mommy porn," - of which term I find pretentious and galling because, as more than one commenter has noticed, do we have "daddy porn"? No: daddy's porn is called "porn." Are we supposed to pretend mommies don't have sexual fantasies? Where do we imagine those babies came from? Jeez, can't mommy also be a "woman"? -  the major Hollywood studios got into a bidding war for the rights to the book(s), and Universal won, at $5 million. What's funny is there are plenty of interviews with James online, and she knows she's not a good writer; she's genuinely astonished she's sold 40 million copies. Hell, Dan Brown only got $3 million for The DaVinci Code's rights. 

Earlier I labeled the 50 Shades sales as Black Swan. In a world where most books published are lucky to sell 10,000 copies, selling a million in a few months is off-the-charts weird. It's as if one book can support the entire publishing industry. Harry Potter and The DaVinci Code were Black Swans too. As one literary agent is quoted in Katie J. M. Baker's article in Jezebel, "Sometimes a random book will just pop." Aye. I couldn't have said it better myself. 

Oh wait: yes I could've. 

Why? Why the Massive Popularity?
So here's what quickly fascinated me: why all the sudden the openness about S&M? Publisher's data shows that more than 50% of the women (and it is women who are reading this trilogy) are in their 20s and 30s, and they're more urban and blue state. I have found no data on what percentage of readers are bona fide mommies...

Well, the first big splash came from renowned academic feminist Katie Roiphe. First she published this article in Newsweek, arguing that women now have much more equality and economic power in the world of work, and, as one of her detractors lampooned Roiphe, "women are tired of all this feminist liberation, and secretly want to be tied down and whipped by wealthy plutocrats." (Laurie Penny, in the New Statesman article linked above.) What strikes me most about Roiphe here is how deluded she seems about her earthshaking importance. I'd read a bit of her before. She's a smart academic feminist, but I sensed a smidgen of the Cult Leader in that video. In this one, related to the topic of James's books, she seems more down-to-Earth. Just as I'm writing this, a Slate article appeared by Katie, and she has her problems with us saying "vagina" out loud so much lately. Go figure that irrepressible Katie! Later I read Sarah Seltzer's piece at AlterNet and claws come out: "Most feminists are in a longstanding sadomasochistic relationship with Katie Roiphe." 

Someone - my notes have failed me - commented on the glosses that link the massive popularity of James's novels to the economic depression, and the increasing income inequality in society. Their point? This can't explain it: do we look at men who read James Bond novels and say, "Do men just want to be spies and seduce women because of the recession?" Which I found both funny and glib. I found I needed more. What could explain 40 million poorly-written romance-and-S&M books sold in a few months? 

Patty Marks, who has run the publishing house Ellora's Cave since 2000, which specializes in romance genres with very hardcore sex in them in which the characters live happily ever after in the end, says that women have achieved much more power over the last 20 years, and they have fantasies about giving it up every now and then. They have real power now; they can afford to give some away when they want to. She says her market research reveals that men also want to see stories in which a woman takes control. Her house claims to be "the world's first publisher of erotic romance, " and they sell 200,000 books a month, both in print and e-book versions. They have sub-genres: "Older women/younger men," "Multicultural/Interracial," "male/male" (which she says took off after the movie Brokeback Mountain), "time travel" (really?), and "paranormal," this last featuring shape-shifters, wolf-men, and of course, vampires. Marks says the hardcore sexy vampires stuff really got going around the time of Anne Rice's Interview With The Vampire

So Marks seems to agree with Roiphe about the reaction to increased power, but she sees it as female responsibility in general: hell, mommies have to make a lot of decisions every day; they're responsible for far more than most of us give them credit for. They too fantasize about relinquishing power every now and then. (And why not make it to a good-looking billionaire, who, if you only could get to the hurt boy inside him, you can heal and nurture him too, in a true love story...with whips and paddles and buttplugs? I ask this rhetorically.)

Ahhh...but now we're getting somewhere. Marks also thinks 50 Shades took off because, well, these kinds of books already sell a lot, the media just doesn't want to talk about it, but the e-book format makes it a lot easier to purchase, and read furtively. Further, Marks was there when it blew up: 50 Shades "had a good publicity machine around it." Now that makes sense to me. Also, after James pulled her fan-fiction, there was a lot of word-of-mouth about how hot it was; later it could be found on a tiny publisher in Australia. All those who loved the massively popular Twilight series but who would love to have seen the characters actually go through with it and have sex - and why not kinky sex? - were primed. 

There's a really terrific academic book - funny and learned - by a sociologist named Murray S. Davis. The title? Smut: Erotic Reality/Obscene Ideology . Davis saw three basic views about sex in our culture: Jehovanist, Naturalist, and Gnostic. One thing I remember about the Naturalist position (which is what I seemed to have grown up in) is that, nudity is nothing to get all worked up about. The human body is beautiful. My parents were like this. One problem for the Naturalists, as Davis saw it, was that, sex is a natural, loving expression, no hang ups...but you have so much of it and it can get boring. You need to spice it up. I was reminded of Davis's book when I read Marina Warner's take on 50 Shades in an article by Vanessa Thorpe in the London Guardian. It could be, Warner thinks, that nudity and arousal are so commonplace with Internet and pop kulch, that something about the linkage between prohibition and arousal has been rent (this is my inference), and women need to take it up a notch in their reading of romance novels. That also rings intuitively true to me.

O! There is no end of material to read if you want to know all about 50 Shades of Grey but don't want to actually read it!

I will end with an observation from the euphoniously-named Giaconda Belli, from her piece on the James trilogy in the Los Angeles Review of Books. First she has some insights on Sade and James's books, and later: "With no offense to J.K. Rowling, one could say that these novels are Harry Potter for sexually active female adults." And I'll have to say, without reading the book(s), this is spot-on!

Why do YOU think these books became a Black Swan?

Ellen Degeneres reads from 50 Shades of Grey:

Saturday, August 4, 2012

John P. Ioannidis and Reading the Latest Dispatches From the World of Science, Featuring Jonah Lehrer

In 1905 - stop me if you've heard this one - a young Swiss patent clerk published three papers that have shaken the world of physics ever since. We have not thought about little things like matter, space and time the same way since Einstein published in Annalen der Physic, in his Wunderjahr 1905, papers that proved to be paradigm-shattering and which addressed puzzling anomalies surrounding the photoelectric effect and Brownian Motion. Then Einstein added a little something called special relativity.

In 2005, an epidemiologist and medical statistician published two papers that had a similar effect in medical research. His name? John P. Ioannidis. (Say "yo-NEE-deez") He was a math prodigy and, after studying rare diseases, became interested in the problem of solid research that backed almost all of the taken-for-granted truths that your doctor and most medical researchers were working with. At first he thought he would take the rather paltry and shoddy studies that formed the basis of sound medical practice, then perform his speciality: a critical analysis of the founding papers, do a meta-analysis, and shore up and legitimize what had been a bit non-rigorous and sloppy for a body of practice that was so basic to our understandings of the best modes of treatment.

And...just...oh boy...

This was in the 1990s. Ioannidis, in his research, found that about 90% of what doctors believe and what they tell their patients, what drugs they prescribe, was seriously flawed. The research that supposedly legitimized the dogma in most of our doctors' heads was riddled with mistakes.

                             John P. Ioannidis, hero of this blog-spew, underrated thinker?

Brief Digression
I admit it: I read probably 100 articles a week on little scientific findings that sound..."interesting." I love Science Daily! There are about six or eight other science sites I read regularly, and I'm interested in  physics, chemistry, cosmology, medical findings, neurobiology, social psychology, genetics, archaeology, evolutionary studies, on and on, und so weiter. And I link to those in the OG, as for instance, earlier articles on the obesity problem, which is serious to me. But there's reason to believe, given what John P. Ioannidis has found, to read those studies with far more than a grain of salt. Rather read with something in mind between a dull news article about some crime that was committed...and fiction. Why? Read on.

Ioannidis and His Two Papers of 2005
One was published in PLoS and had a wonderfully provocative title: "Why Most Published Research Findings Are False," and was a rigorous mathematical proof that, summarized by David H. Freedman, who wrote the best journalistic piece I've seen on Ioannidis (HERE, and highly recommended you read it three times over the course of a year), as "Simply put, if you're attracted to ideas that have a good chance of being wrong, and if you're motivated to prove them right, and if you have a little wiggle room in how you assemble the evidence, you'll probably succeed in proving wrong theories right." This applies to medical research, but many researchers in other fields have taken note.

Another way of summarizing Ioannidis's meta-research here (the PLoS paper their most downloaded one ever, and heavily cited by others) could be like this:
1. Assume modest levels of researcher bias and add to that:
2. typically imperfect research techniques, and then add to that:
3. the human tendency (well-known) to focus on exciting rather than highly plausible theories, and it all adds up to:
4. VOILA!: researchers will come up with wrong findings most of the time

Isn't this sorta galling, freaky stuff? Or is it just me?

[I consider David H. Freedman one of our very best Expertologists, and I just now remembered that I wrote about him and his book HERE.]

Also in 2005, Ioannidis published, in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), a paper that tested the idea that, sure, there's a lot of bad studies, but the larger social world of doctors and medical researchers will read these flawed studies and be able to identify them; the flawed stuff will get weeded out. As you may have guessed, this was not found to be true.

Ioannidis picked 49 of the most highly regarded research findings over the previous 13 years. These were the most widely cited articles in the best peer-reviewed journals. These papers had to do with hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women, vitamin E to stave off heart disease, the use of coronary stents, and daily low-dose aspirin for keeping the arteries unclogged, etc.

41% of these studies were shown to have major flaws. Physicians and researchers do not know how to see through dubious research findings. Or there's a herd mentality among medical professionals. Or some would rather not know. Or possibly all of the above and Something Else.

A Few Upshots From All of This
Ioannidis shows there are routinely problems at any and every step of the research process, and they have to do with conception and hypotheses, research techniques and other methodological problems, conclusions, conflicts of interest, the human desire to make a breakthrough, the human desire to publish to gain academic standing, the need to feel part of a larger research group by supporting their findings, and the politics of peer-review and how journals decide to accept or reject certain papers. Among other things. Like the common obsession of winning a big research grant, often from Big Pharma.

On top of all that, the field seems resistant to change what it already "knows." Sorta like the tuberculosis out there now, that's resistant to antibiotics because those antibiotics were too over-prescribed? (Hold on, that may be a Bad Analogy...)

Regarding obesity studies, Ioannidis says "ignore them all." Why? Because they're seriously flawed. Some studies found fat people live longer than expected, and were just as healthy as the non-fat. Why? The problem of bio-markers: they tell us something, but not the entire picture, and they don't take into account very many other interactions within the body. We may be spending far too much in the wrong places. What about using Vitamins A, D, and E? Forget those studies also, says Ioannidis. What about whether we should eat more fat or carbs? Forget it, says John P. Read the David Freedman article from The Atlantic that I linked to above for Ioannidis' reasons why these studies are to be ignored.

Then...then...then...if there's so much bad research done in the medical field, what about our health, as a society? Ioannidis answers: "That we're not routinely made seriously ill by this shortfall [of truly evidence-based medicine] he argues, is due largely to the fact that most medical interventions and advice don't address life-and-death situations, but rather aim to leave us marginally healthier or less healthy."

Ioannidis says bad ideas spread like an epidemic, "They're spreading it to other researchers through journals," says Ioannidis, who Freedman says looks "like Giancarlo Giannini with a bit of Mr. Bean."

How were Ioannidis's two bombshell papers received by the medical community? Very well. People seemed relieved. He was attacking general mistakes, and so every researcher could say to himself, maybe something like, "Yep, this stuff goes on a lot, and it's a problem. My colleagues need to be very careful..." It's not you who conducts bad research; it's other people.

Interestingly, in 1989, two Economists, Kevin Lang and Brad DeLong, published a meta-study of economic dogma and research and what they found was very much like what Ioannidis found: basic assumptions that formed the working models of almost all economists were found to be seriously flawed. However, the field of Economics has not embraced their research. There seems to be a profound lot of significance here about who we are, but I will leave that to my Dear Readers.

Here's Jonah Lehrer on video, for 30 seconds, explaining why he became a journalist:

Jonah Lehrer on This Stuff
Although I consider David H. Freedman's piece on Ioannidis most excellent journalism, Jonah Lehrer published a pretty terrific piece around the same time as Freedman, and about roughly similar problems in epistemology and scientific methodology, but for The New Yorker. It's HERE, and I was enchanted by the many examples of fascinating research Lehrer strings together. It's very entertaining, or at least I thought it was/is. Lehrer is trying to tease out a problem in science: that "the truth wears off," the name of his piece. The idea of verbal overshadowing and how it related to J.B. Rhine's studies in ESP was fascinating. One researcher's term, "cosmic habituation," reminded me of a fascinating outlaw biologist, Rupert Sheldrake, whose outre ideas about morphogenetic fields has not exactly been embraced by the larger Biology community.

Jonah quotes Ioannidis here, and many others. Irony-lovers: note the last paragraph of Lehrer's piece, where he writes, "Because these ideas seem true..." But I don't want to jump on Jonah here. He's gotta be reeling right now, the 31 year old fallen genius who fucked up royally. I am not one of those given to schadenfreude in this instance.

But read Lehrer's piece. Are you suspect of his research, now that you know he'd been outed as a fabricator of some sort? I find that I mostly believe what he's writing here. I particularly like what Jonah has to say about the "decline effect" in science, and I'll quote him here before giving Ioannidis the last say:

Jonah Lehrer: "The decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything. We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that's often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn't mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn't mean it's true. When experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe."

Or, as Paul Feyerabend might've said, "Anything goes." Keep delving into the inner machinations of scientific research and it looks more and more like anarchy to us (well, I'll speak for myself and Feyerabend), and a lot less like the way Francis Bacon envisioned it.

I leave us with this quote from Ioannidis, which I find very poignant, hard-nosed, and revelatory of how rare and truly special the findings in any scientific field have been that have truly worked to provide major breakthroughs, research - like Einstein's - that led to a new paradigm:

"Science is a noble endeavor, but it's also a low-yield endeavor. I'm not sure that more than a small percentage of medical research is ever likely to lead to major improvements in clinical outcomes and quality of life. We should be comfortable with this fact."

Here's Jonah Lehrer on Charlie Rose, talking about Bob Dylan and creativity. 2 mins:

Here's a 15 minute video in response to Ioannidis's "Most Published Research Findings Are False," and I think it's pretty good in explaining the statistical methodology for determining good research. The narrator - who, to me, sounds very erudite and funny about this stuff - seems to want to stave off the possible reactionaries who already have problems with "science," or as he says, "on the road to science denialism." Sorry for taking so much of your time!