Sects in the Afternoon

Caught but not certain. Laid low and silenced by the voices within, he withdrew from the room seriously, like he had a better reason than even a phone call to take. As though he would be relieved to be relieved of his colleague’s wife and his colleague for a moment, even of his own wife. She looked at her guests to see their reaction follow the silence created by the ringing but there came no obvious offense to the one face they seemed to share, looking in across the table. Green peas, everyone had green peas still on their plates, that’s what she noticed more. Maybe they had been no good, no good at all, and perhaps she wished that had been the reason her husband had left the room with a weak excuse. Perhaps.
All she knew now was that their conversation which had been so lively moments before had ceased, as if awaiting his return before it could more properly resume. This unnerved her. Was she so incapable of conversing that her guests needed him? Needed him more? Had she not attended _______ with him, earned better grades and knew more people, giver her own thoughts about a master’s in archeology a childish look back after it was decided, somehow fucking decided, that he would attend medical school as if in her stead, and indeed in the stead of many things? She had admired his boyish streak then, encouraged him and had witnessed how, in subscribing to some manly beliefs that would provide dark difficulties for the boy, he was seeding the luxury of a future utility. And thus was performed a type of acrobatics that made sense, even with gravity, even in medical school with her remembering school in all the same fall when they had been anything but slaves to the future and even their own commitment had more to do with love than anything beyond it. Another fall had rolled around, and she had grown painfully accustomed to waiting on him, now over cold peas and two frosty guests that she’d considered liking during the cold banana appetizer.
She could hear him talking in the next room and wondered why he had chosen a phone so close to where the guests waited, perhaps to let them overhear the muffled sound of his voice and further convey the seriousness his attention warranted. But she knew there was more, as he had stopped subscribing so closely to concerns of what others thought of him months before; it was reminiscent of giving up exercising for an injury. He nursed his injury, and let his wife answer the door, bake the ham and light the candles. He just breezed in looking fresh and nibbled, made excuses to leave whenever his hard-fought trappings became too much of themselves. Themselves in a painless light of caricature by which his accomplishments more resembled responsibilities. She hoped he might come back and say he had to leave, the phone call, ‘you know, they need me,’ he would say. She would then feel no further obligation in humoring the seriousness of her guests, no requirement to answer their questions about the old house or the painting in the hall like some multiple choice questions on a master’s exam she never took. She had her own calls to make.
But he didn’t. He returned and claimed his seat next to the wife of his colleague before his cold peas and across from his own sexy wife he hadn’t seen in years. He made a small joke about the presence of seamen at which his wife laughed out loud at exactly the wrong time so that she laughed alone and the other three just stared at her, and he could not even finish his joke then because all of a sudden, he was unsure what was so funny. He knew something was eating him alive, he even saw the teeth marks, but without the courage to stop it, so he could only blame her and claim as his evidence those times when she laughed out of place and embarrassed him. The colleague and his wife sat as one, unsure in movement and embarrassed themselves. But not as part of the fray; they refused to see what they could easily identify as a war on the cold pea horizon and were intent on remaining frozen, afraid even to look at the opposing forces. Silver clanged to china because now everyone, except the wife – who saw many things – everyone saw only one thing as the last recourse and the only thing to do until there was another opening like a beautiful phone call to be taken: eat the peas.
“Would anyone like more wine?” she watched him say with genuine curiosity in his voice. He rose at his place at the table as the colleague and his wife agreed certainly and without doubt that yes, they would love some more wine. “What about you, honey?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I think I want Scotch. Does anybody want Scotch?” she asked with a different curiosity. The husband began to sink where he stood, almost reaching his chair again. He had been stabbed by her once again, he thought. The guests watched them and looked at her with the assurance that they definitely did not care for, could not more fervently beg against – it was only Tuesday night – the very idea of Scotch. Their eyes squared with hers, emboldened by the clarity they had yet ever met; squinting, they tried to remember her but after a few seconds all they could do was look back at the husband, who had now reseated himself. “Okay, I guess wine sounds good.”
“Great!” he said and sprang from his seat again, making her smile somewhat in the old way, before medical school; perhaps she even let out a slight peep of a giggle. She had no course for intimidating him or turning their marriage into a true success or an actual failure, neither of which it could be classified at that moment. Things just happened. And as easily as both of them were bothered by his life and her especially of being the same small island off of it she had been when he had decided, it often passed as easily as the cork through the bottle’s top and not the needle’s eye, which it more properly resembled. He congratulated himself on what he considered small victories such as these, but his vision often failed him such that he was unable to see that she had only made a decision to call it off for a while. He proceeded to unconsciously gloat in his conversations about the hospital and the boy who would surely have died if not for the technique he had executed perfectly just that morning, which he recalled from an obscure journal article he had read and which had surrendered to his magnetic memory. Things that did not, could not, involve her, and these made up the blurred and windswept roadside she had been seeing all along. More he gloated, pushing his colleague into silence he mistook for respect and permission to continue the never-ending story of his worth. His duty was unclear, he thought and said in the same instant, and played tricks with his mind during the long days he spent at the hospital, at the humble service of a generic man. The wife sipped her wine and listened. Not to him, but to the voice inside her own thoughts, which she garnered without the need to verbalize immediately. She looked down on herself in the dining room among the three other people and imagined the scene just as it was, even with her husband talking. Except this time he was saying things which kept her interest and even flattered her; the colleague and his wife kept looking at her in amused adoration mixed with sensual envy as the husband shared brief tales not especially extraordinary except for the smile of believability through which he slipped them the words. She felt in love, not because she thought about it or was reminded of the fact by something he said to their guests, but simply in adjusting her eyes to where he sat. It aroused her, where he sat, the way he sat, and she knew the days and nights and places and unplaces where they had made love and loved each other almost as much as they did, sitting feet apart among two guests they had been obliged to entertain and nothing more. He made her feel the way only women at 24 or 28 know sex, just by the movements of his crossed leg, ever so perceptibly, back and forth. She could not wait, then, for the guests to complete their visit and bid an unacquainted farewell so she could take him by the trousers wherever she wanted as soon as the door slammed shut. It never took him long, she thought.
“Well, this has been wonderful,” the colleague began, interrupting more than he knew of the evening’s progress, of its host of events left incomplete, of its untold manners, of its ability to distract even itself. Things just happen, she considered as she re-entered the room consciously, slowly, reluctantly, with a pain immobile unless he would only, finally, press her into service.

© 2018 Alan Flurry

Into metaphors and back again

Most English speakers are familiar with the saying, “a rotten apple.” Employed as a sort of lame excuse for the bad behavior of some, it’s the end of the saying that makes it so much worse, “spoils the bunch.”
Do we develop metaphors to describe things/phenomena/feelings/people that otherwise elude description? It seems so. But do we then turn the metaphors back onto actual situations again? Less clear, but promising.

His only adaptation of a book from his favorite writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Akira Kurasawa’s “The Idiot” turns the film into a larger metaphor for Postwar Japan, a nation traumatized, ashamed, destroyed and suffering a severe identity crisis. It also has a what-could-have been awfulness: the director originally intended the film to be nearly five hours long, and in two parts, but his backers, Shochiku, cut it to shreds, ending up a little shy of three hours.

No other work has been a better companion to Dostoyevsky’s unrelenting view of humanity than Akira Kurosawa’s much-maligned 1951 film Hakuchi. The original cut stood at 265 minutes, trimmed to 166 minutes by studio executives at Shochiku against the director’s wishes. “In that case, better to have it cut lengthwise,” he is said to have responded. Nobody knows what was left on the cutting room floor as Kurosawa was unable to locate the lost footage, leaving it impossible for audiences to follow the narrative of the film. Hakuchi was critically derided upon its initial release, finding only a handful of fans in Russia – among them Andrei Tarkovsky.

Hakuchi must have been a very special project to Kurosawa. It is one of his most important early works, and he refused to stray from a wholly faithful adaptation to the book unlike later on with his liberal interpretations of Shakespeare in Throne of Blood and Ran. And despite its obvious failings in narrative flow, no other Kurosawa film tells us more about Japan at the time or conveys as much intense emotional power as Hakuchi. His decision to transport the novel’s events from the glittering St Petersburg to wintry Sapporo on the northernmost island in Japan, is not a purely aesthetic one.

Perhaps a more obvious choice would have been Tokyo or Osaka, cities which are closer similar in spirit to St Petersburg. But then we would have been denied that remarkable scene at the beginning of the film. The thuggish merchant Akama (Rogozhin in the book, played by Kurosawa stalwart Toshiro Mifune) and Kameda (Masayuki Mori as Myshkin) stop before a portrait of the woman they will both destroy each other for, her gaze lit up by the blizzard. All around them, peasants struggle by with their carts and goods in the bitter cold. The darkness, both literal and metaphorical, is almost complete save for the faint falling snow, which makes the men’s faces flicker in the shop window. How difficult it is, Kurosawa seems to be saying, to bring light to a place where it is perpetually night.

An old stereotype valorises the purity of the “traditional way of life” in Japan, outside of the moral corruption of the big cities. This is epitomised in many classic novels including Yasunari Kawabata’s ‘The Old Capital’ from 1962. But Kurosawa situates the showy greed and lust of The Idiot in the heart of Japan’s rural outposts, turning this assumption on its head. There is no foreign malice come to take away the innocence of the people; they have nobody to blame but themselves. Fittingly, although the film is set in post-war Japan, the endless snow negates all reference to the time period. The struggle to do good in the world and to eke out a redemptive humanity requires no specific cultural context.

I have a deep reverence for The Idiot (as well as Poor Folk), and its rendering into a different medium brings up some good questions about the utility of metaphors themselves. Refracted cultural explanations of real life that slap back onto actual things; this is [one of the reasons] why, as soon as I heard about it, I couldn’t wait for Postmodernism to be over.

A.I., A.I., captain!

Joseph Stiglitz, he of former World Bankiness, haver of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics who warned that globalization was taking place at the behest international conglomerates rather than “forces,” now comes to light his hair on fire present similar cautions about Artificial Intelligence:

“Artificial intelligence and robotisation have the potential to increase the productivity of the economy and, in principle, that could make everybody better off,” he says. “But only if they are well managed.”

Beyond the impact of AI on work, Stiglitz sees more insidious forces at play. Armed with AI, tech firms can extract meaning from the data we hand over when we search, buy and message our friends. It is used ostensibly to deliver a more personalised service. That is one perspective. Another is that our data is used against us.

“These new tech giants are raising very deep issues about privacy and the ability to exploit ordinary people that were never present in earlier eras of monopoly power,” says Stiglitz. “Beforehand, you could raise the price. Now you can target particular individuals by exploiting their information.”

It is the potential for datasets to be combined that most worries Stiglitz. For example, retailers can now track customers via their smartphones as they move around stores and can gather data on what catches their eye and which displays they walk straight past.

The data farming of which we are all willing seeds know no boundaries, recognizes no politics and sees only profits. Shaded with the camouflage of complexity, it is a winning hand. Are we up for the ‘boring overwhelming’ of taking on the Tech giants? Wait, let me come in again…

Image: Warehouse operated by Amazon, via The Guardian

The Bike works, except for the wheels

And the chain. And the pedals. And the handle bars. Oh but the stickers on the frame are okay? No, anonymous NYT Op-Ed writer, you don’t get to do that:

It is one thing to argue that professionals should be willing to serve a bad president in the interests of public service, and it is quite another to argue that the officials working for the president are entitled to disregard and override the president’s decisions because the president happens to be an ignorant buffoon.

Their only option is to come clean, resign in protest and protection of their own good conscience, ability to beg forgiveness and be trusted with an unpaid internship sorting recyclables at the landfill.

Use any other metaphor as needed – spouse abuser, drug addict, anyone known to be a danger to themselves and those around them. Only the context this time is global. You’re stopping them or you’re an enabler. The longer this goes on, the longer it goes on.
And the same goes for the Times op-ed page.

Mining industry elected Prime Minister of Australia

Much less of an exaggeration than it sounds:

The fate of Australia’s embattled Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is likely to be decided within hours as rivals seek enough signatures to force a vote on his leadership.

Amid a flurry of ministerial resignations Thursday, Turnbull said he would call a special meeting of the governing Liberal party at noon on Friday only if his main challenger — right-wing populist Peter Dutton — can gather enough signatures on a petition.

Just Monday, Turnbull abandoned a modest effort to reduce energy emissions under pressure from conservatives in his party. And yesterday, those same conservatives just missed toppling his government. Hmm:

Australia’s resistance to addressing climate change — by limiting emissions in particular — is well documented. Turnbull could yet be turned out of office as rivals rally support for another challenge as soon as Thursday. If that happens, he will be the third Australian prime minister in the past decade to lose the position over a climate dispute.

Despite the country’s reputation for progressiveness on gun control, health care and wages, its energy politics seem forever doomed to devolve into a circus. Experts point to many reasons, from partisanship to personality conflicts, but the root of the problem may be tied to the land.

“The Europeans think we’re crazy,” she added. “Who’s got more solar, who’s got more tidal power than us? It just goes to show the strength of that particular group.”

The trend of hyper-partisanship has not helped. Just as climate and energy issues in the United States create a toxic divide, with many on the right opposing anything the left supports — including well-established science — any mention of emissions control tends to create an anaphylactic reaction among Australian conservatives.

The arguments differ. Some make a case for free markets, despite subsidies granted to fossil fuel companies, or they say action works only when all nations act. Others, like Turnbull’s opponents this time, emphasize local priorities such as reduced energy prices for consumers.

The Aristocrats!

Under Turnbull, a former investment banker and a moderate, the Australian government has increased its support for fossil fuel extraction projects, failed to meet goals set under the Paris climate agreement, and shied away from challenging the consumption status quo even as the Great Barrier Reef bleaches toward oblivion.

Darren Saunders, a cancer biologist in Australia, spoke for many in a popular tweet that said, “It’s incredibly hard to describe how utterly sad it feels to be a scientist and dad in a country being dictated to by a small group of science-denying clowns putting their own short-term political gain over the long-term public interest.”

Which of these underlying conditions don’t we share with the Aussies? Show your work.

Image: Coral bleaching at Heron Island in the Great Barrier Reef, via

Best New Problem in the Role of a Solution

We are certainly and historically renown for this in every realm, which now to the massive surprise of absolutely nobody positively includes I Would Like to Thank the Academy:

Over the past several years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the body that votes on the Oscars, has made tremendous strides in diversifying its membership. In 2016, the Los Angeles Times reported that 91 percent of AMPAS’s 6,000-plus members were white and 76 percent were male, a barely perceptible change from the figures the LAT first reported in 2012. But that year, the academy invited a record new 683 members, a record it went on to break in 2017, and again in 2018, increasing AMPAS’s overall membership by nearly half in a three-year span and doubling the percentage of members who are people of color.

This has represented a tremendous effort to bring sweeping change to one of the world’s most prominent cultural arbiters. And, Wednesday, in one fell swoop, the academy undid it all.

The announcement that the Oscars would be adding an as-yet-unnamed category for “achievement in popular film” was met with near-universal derision, and for good reason.

Hmmm… because we certainly can’t have that ‘Moonlight’ thing happening again, Nosiree. The Oscars of course are just a self-promotional artifact for the movie industry, but come on. They might reserve a little, teeny tiny bit of artistic pretension. What is all the marketing preening video mantage for anyway? Wait, don’t answer that.

Not exactly the smoothest criminal but perhaps the one we deserve

Apologies to Mr. Jackson, but let’s introduce Mr. Mencken of 1920:

As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

Brought you courtesy of Mr. Harriot:

He has become the world’s most powerful man in the world’s most powerful country through a system that rewards white men for being white men. He has no particular intelligence or expertise, yet he has convinced his poor Caucasian co-conspirators that the only way they can succeed is by placing their foot on the neck of the people who don’t look like them. The brown people. The black people. The non-Christians.

Isn’t that the most American idea of them all?

Good grief. Okay, I get it. Green – young, inexperienced. Naive. Wet behind the ears. Easily fooled.

Uncle.

Just Kool it

Famed architect Rem Koolhaas says a lot of smart things in this WAPO sitdown. Here he responds to a question about cities in the age of cyberspace and smart technology like self-driving cars and the Internet of Things becoming large neural networks that will develop their own mind and consciousness:

Koolhaas: If we simply let cyberspace run its course to a future determined by Silicon Valley, those libertarian-minded engineers will paradoxically lead us to cities shackled by algorithmic conformity. It would be a neural network, yes, but one that operates in lock step.

Like many of my friends, I am a car fanatic. So we have been looking very closely at the development of self-driving cars. What we know without hesitation is that self-driving cars will only work at the price of total conformity of every member of society. Such a system of mobility will depend on everyone behaving with no exceptions. As exemplified by self-driving cars, there is a built-in authoritarianism in this managed space of flows we call cyberspace.

More and more people are becoming uncomfortable with such a future.

He also thinks LA is the protype city of the future.

Image: De Rotterdam mixed use towers, next to the Erasmus Bridge, by OMA

Elevation of Silicon Valley

The lowest point in San Jose is 13 feet below sea level and though it has its high points, I agree that the tech boom is probably done. The way in which profits are squeezed from marginal web apps has gone the way of wide brim ties for the moment, and though Musk remains a hero at the major news outlets there seems to be only shadow chasing for the big start-up fashion show funding carnival that was all the rage until the lights came on. And despite the hype, even autonomous vehicles appear to be circling back to their original question: how?

BUT… the economy is… booming? Okay, the business news will all turn negative as we reach full employment and wages go up because anything that is good for workers must be bad. The captains of cronyism continue their long-term project of undermining capitalism from within. Now they’ll have pay higher wages or else. I kid. Will the know-nothings in power begin to learn to love the tariffs as they slingshot back at US? How many socialists will take the oath of office after November? Can capitalism be crippled without putting representative democracy in traction, too? This is to say nothing of the boiling racism at the heart of every policy question from immigration to the environment to voting rights.

Okay, enough vacation. Everybody back to work.

Image: Author photo from a somewhat great height.