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Walter Cronkite and the Old Man at the Quadrant (or the McMansions on the Hill)

In Reviews on June 21, 2012 at 7:00 am

by Michael Buozis

The oblivion of childhood does not provide us with reliable memories about the state of the world when we were youngsters.  Why would it?  Kids don’t watch the news, unless you sit them down and make them watch.  Psychologically, children up to a certain age – let’s say around twelve years, because I think that’s what the experts say – don’t even process events outside of their immediate reckoning.  Maybe twelve is a bit old.  But there is a certain limit for the youngest of us to empathize with others, or comprehend the consequences of the news they may or may not be exposed to in the course of any given day.  How old was the youngest child to look upon the multitude of images of September 11, 2001 and get what he or she was seeing?  Probably younger than twelve, but most likely older than five or six or seven.  Enough with the pop psychology.

The media landscape has changed so much since my youth, I don’t know if I’m equipped to understand the effects of this oversaturation of information on the hearts and minds of children born in the last ten years.  In my formative years, television news was contained in little compartments, easily avoidable.  Four months before I was born, Walter Cronkite retired from the CBS Evening News.  News was something curious adults sat down with and consumed, deliberately.  If one wanted more in-depth coverage of any of the events briefly noted in network news segments, one had a host of newspapers to choose from.  Seven million fewer daily newspapers are read today than when I was born.  This in a country with 80 million more people.  The deliberation once required to stay informed has receded in the face of constant bombardment from at least five national 24-hour news networks and the vagaries of the Web 2.0, where social media has been coopted as a tool for information dissemination as much as a tool to say, “Happy Birthday, Charlie!”  The picture of a married couple sitting down to watch a newscast, as it’s being aired, while their children play with wooden blocks on the carpet seems anachronistic today, like a pastel-tinted midcentury relic.

The old days, which aren’t as old as all that, seem quaint in a number of other ways.  Again, my childhood memories are not a wellspring of world events and societal analysis, but I remember the days before conspicuous consumption.  Or at least I remember the days before conspicuous consumption was so damned conspicuous.  When I was five years old, halfway through kindergarten in a rural township in New Jersey, my parents bought a house in Easton, a small city on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River.  Taxes were low and they got a good deal, and the house was literally right across the street from the river and a park with a modern playground – think polished steel tubes and cracked concrete – and open grassy lawns.  The house, which was built for someone in the second decade of the 20th century who had enough wealth to require a servant’s quarters in a separate building, had only one proper bedroom.  My father built a wall, which stood unfinished for at least ten years, in the middle of a large family room on the first floor of the house, so my sister and I could have our own rooms.  I had to walk through my sister’s room for the rest of our time by the river.  The servant’s house in the next lot had grown into a massive gray apartment building with wooden shutters and siding and a bright red door which matched our own.  Otherwise the house was much the way it must have been for the original owners.  Over the garage, a concrete patio opened over the gravel driveway and on the other side of the house terraced flower beds led down to a nice lawn with two more terraced sections bordered with railroad ties.  The railroad ties would get chewed up by car tires every couple of months when a nighttime driver on the river road lost control and ended up spun out in our yard.  Sounds nice, huh?  A recent real estate listing of the house showed the size of the interior as 924 square feet.  Tiny!  Especially by suburban standards.  But I never thought of the space as remotely inadequate, despite the fact that I had a few friends who lived – get this – in big mansions on the hill.  That was the sort of town I grew up in, like a rustbelt city in a Bruce Springsteen song where a kid could look up enviously and with disdain at the wealthy people who looked down on everything else.  Only I didn’t feel that way at all.

The envy never came, but the disdain showed up – and I’ll overstate that feeling for the purpose of this essay – when families in similar economic situations as my own started bulldozing the cornfields and dairy farms north of the city, in quiet Forks Township, to build massive homes off of Sullivan’s Trail, where John Sullivan had led his expedition to eradicate four nations of Iroquois who had sided with the British in 1779.  I haven’t been back to Easton in years, but by the time I graduated high school, the landscape had changed so remarkably I could not tell whether my own age or the city’s accelerated development had sucked all the magic out of the downtown and the surrounding countryside.  I slept in cornfields where now stand endless tracts of McMansions.  As a young child, I walked with my father and sister every winter Saturday morning to the Quadrant Bookstore near Easton’s Center Square.  The old man behind the counter told me stories about executions on an intermittently submerged island in the Delaware River, and blew dust from the covers of dusty tomes, and always smiled when I brought my books to the counter.  By the time I was old enough to know how special this was, the old man had to sell the store, and the new owners cleared the first floor for a café and were only friendly when you bought coffee or an expensive sandwich and had nothing to say about the books you purchased.  Somehow I knew, without knowing it literally, that the people moving into subdivisions on the periphery of the city, by driving up real estate prices, were ruining all the things that made Easton special and would ever make me want to stay there into adulthood.  Again, I’m overstating my disdain.

Of course conspicuous consumption, the building of big houses and the purchase of big cars and trucks, bigger sodas and bags of chips, had started long before I noticed them.  In retrospect, Easton, as something of a backwater, survived relatively unscathed until rather late in the game.  Sure the midcentury ranch houses of Palmer Township and even some smaller developments on the fringes of the farms in Forks Township fit closely into the tendrils of the urban landscape, but they did not infringe in a significant way on the hinterlands.  Most of California, by contrast, outside of San Francisco, started as sprawling blight.  But to the woods of that rural New Jersey township we left for Easton, I returned often, well into the 1990s and there I saw the way Americans, outside of city centers, could still be inconspicuous.  But I’ve rambled on relentlessly about my childhood enough and will leave a telling of those simple experiences for another time.

*

The great Shakespeare scholar, Stephen Greenblatt, frames his recent book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, around two epochs in European history, when the rising civilized cultures looked to be on the precipice of a fatal fall, both eerily familiar to anyone who lived through, or is now living through, America’s current and decades-long fin de siècle.  Poggio Bracciolini, a late-14th/early-15th century notary and scribe to two popes, serves as a guide, in Greenblatt’s text, not only to his own era of the early Renaissance, but also to an earlier bastion of humanism, the heyday of classical Rome, only slightly more distant from Poggio’s time than Poggio’s is from ours.  If Poggio’s vocation was to work in a secular manner for the most corrupt of Catholic history’s sacred leaders, his avocation was to hunt for books.  You will be forgiven if the title “book hunter,” conjures only Johnny Depp’s cigarette smoking, goateed schlock in Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, but Poggio’s adventures were much more prosaic, if not much less dangerous.  Instead of beautiful blonde demons, Poggio had to fight off grumpy, drunk and burly monks to get at the lost humanist treasures of the decrepit monasteries of Europe.

Greenblatt particularly calls attention to Poggio’s discovery of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, a book Greenblatt himself discovered in his school’s bookstore while rummaging for cheap summer reading as an undergraduate.  Lucretius can only qualify as a beach read for the most astute students of classicism and Greenblatt gives a good history of the Epicurean tradition, which Lucretius, and therefore Poggio, helped bring into the modern world.  Epicureanism, in its true sense, is not what most of us think.  Epicurus never advocated excess or decadence.  The early Christians who wanted his memory pilloried stuck us with this misunderstanding.  Instead, Epicureanism embraced a view that allowed humans, in Auden’s words, “to find the mortal world enough.”  Epicurus preached moderation and an embrace of the simple pleasures of this world: friends and family who would support us, food that would sustain us, and avoidance of the complications inherent in a belief in existence beyond the physical world.  But because of Poggio, and a long succession of monk scribes before him, the Epicurean tradition, as maligned and misunderstood by posterity, exists despite the weight of the world falling away from any intellectual tradition, as Christian tyrants pulled Alexandria and the rest of Western civilization into the Dark Ages.

In an ironic subversion of influences, the progressively secularizing West may have unconsciously misunderstood the ideas of Epicureanism, the basis for modern secularism, as a call for excess.  It’s a common misconception that might be tragically malignant.  If the mortal world is all there is, then one ought to delight in the possessions one can accrue while alive.  Buy the biggest house.  Drive the most expensive car.  Drink every 32 ounce soda you can fit in your gut.  Act on every tickle in your loins.  If there await no rewards beyond the grave, then take your treasure now!  This is the impulse behind our collective embrace of credit cards and unfair mortgages and leases on luxury gas-guzzling vehicles.

Greenblatt stumbles upon a few interesting revelations in his examination of Lucretius’s legacy.  While current ignorance of the world’s affairs among zealous folks, and many others, seems due to laziness and self-centeredness, during the Middle Ages, many Christians suppressed a deep desire for intellectual exploration and discovery.  Thus, Saint Jerome deprives himself of reading his beloved Cicero.  Though controversial, to this day, from a Christian point of view, Lucretius’s ideas about “the nature of things” are simple, yet rigorous, life-affirming, yet fearlessly rational.  His ideas, older than Christ, are as advanced as many fully modern understandings of the world.

For all the doom our perennial misunderstanding of Epicureanism and humanism might spell, Greenblatt spins a magnificent yarn filled with corrupt popes and murderous zealots and tracts scratched out by candlelight in dusty tomes to be relegated to monastery shelves and eaten by worms.  The deposition of Pope John XXIII in Constance, and Hus’s and Jerome’s burning at the stake, provides an intriguing politically- and religiously-charged backdrop for Poggio’s discovery.  Poggio, for all of his book lust, wrote a few classics himself, including a book of anecdotal jokes still hilarious in their bawdiness.  Have you heard the one about the priest who chastised a couple during one Sunday service for their sexual adventures so explicitly that he inspired his congregation to go home and try out some new positions for themselves?  It’s a crack up.

Though Poggio rescued Lucretius from the shelf, it was left to later pens to rescue him from obscurity.  It was not until Thomas More, in his vision of a Utopia in the Americas, and Giordano Bruno, in his denial of the Christian ideal of Providence, that Lucretius infiltrated the intellectual discourse of Europe.  Unfortunately, the mass of humanity has used secularism as an excuse for overconsumption and debt.  We’re so fat that we’ve got to start thinking about the extra fossil fuels burned in the process of carting our extra fat around.  If every overweight or obese America lost ten pounds, how much less carbon dioxide would be spewed into the atmosphere every year?  It’s a disturbing question from an ethical standpoint.  Can we even ask the question, whether fat people, in all the ways people can be fat – fat in belly, fat in property, fat in technology and noise pollution and ignorance and hatred and violence – are destroying the earth?  Is it even possible to turn back the clock and reimagine secularism in its initial Epicurean conception?  Do we, as Saint Jerome’s account of Lucretius’s life has it, drive ourselves mad with love for something we can never attain?  Or do we, like Lucretius’s guest in On the Nature of Things, retire “sated with the banquet of life, and with calm mind embrace, like a fool, a rest that knows no care” before our bellies are bloated?

*

Michael Lewis thinks many of today’s European societies have done the former.  In fact, in his new book, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, Lewis goes so far as to blame the entire world financial crisis of the last five years not on a few opportunistic traders on Wall Street and in London and Hong Kong and Frankfurt, but on the varied, but fatally flawed, dispositions of the people from the many nations involved in the collapse of markets.  Assuming Lewis gave a sufficient lashing to the American people in his previous book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, he focuses, in Boomerang, on four European nations and one state of the United States.  The state, California, was governed by a native European, and the countries – Iceland, Greece, Ireland, and Germany – could not be more different from each other or from the United States.  While Americans may be just plain fat, the Icelanders, Greeks, Irish, Germans, and Californians arrived at the brink of financial catastrophe in distinct ways, all elaborated in Lewis’s lucid narrative-driven prose.

While he explains complex financial issues, such as the collapse of Iceland’s economy, Lewis always tells his story with revealing details.  Walking the streets of Reykjavik, Lewis notes the tendency of Icelandic men to ignore everyone around them, bumping into other people obliviously, not even stopping to excuse themselves or readjust their posture.  Icelandic men, it appears, have no sense of collision.  When the cod fisheries of the surrounding North Atlantic were nationalized and fishermen forced into hedging and selling their quotas to bigger businesses, socialism got a firm chokehold on Iceland.  This, and not lax domestic and international banking regulations, Lewis posits, brought this tiny island nation of no more than 300,000 people to its knees.  To be fair, one of the bankers Lewis speaks to says the fishing industry requires more training of its employees than the investment banks.  We can only guess this has not changed all that much.

The hotel cafés and bars and the halls of government finance come alive in Lewis’s description of the unsustainable corruption and spending of the Greek public sector, not to mention the monasteries of Mount Athos.  Greece bucks all the normal expectations of fiscal collapse.  It’s a model the Republicans in America, led by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, surely can’t resist using as an example of socialism gone wrong.  Seeing the European version of the Tea Party, in the guise of fat, overpaid Greek public workers and the scapegoats, a bunch of monks who were smarter than the government, and the bankers who were the only fiscally sane people in the country, turns expectations upside down.  Even when Lewis gets to Athens, long after the previous government’s budget fraud was revealed to the European Union, the halls of the new government are still overstaffed.  Albeit, they are floored in linoleum.  It turns out those savvy monks used ancient deeds and promises of blessings (or perhaps threats of damnation) to force the government into questionable real estate deals.  When the abbot is the only one who’s fat, there’s a problem.  Those cozy public workers and the shyster monks and the Greek people who trust foreign strangers more than they trust their own countrymen and colleagues killed the Greek economy.  Forget the government’s role in encouraging this state of things.

Ireland, on the other hand, suffers from a problem of government.  However, Lewis suggests the problem is that the Irish government is too Irish for its own good.  Ireland’s three biggest private banks lent money irresponsibly to developers who had little or no business plan, thus inflating a bubble so big that the majority of educated Irish young people started staying in their homeland for the first time in over a century.  The banks failed when the housing bubble burst.  Good enough.  But then the stereotypical Irish spirit of self-sabotage set in.  While the government couldn’t torture itself and its family for a jilted love and lost opportunity, it could bail out those reckless investment banks at the peril of its own people.  Lewis visits the steel skeletons of Ireland’s bust and talks to an old man named Keogh who threw a few rotten eggs at the prime minister.  The Irish people, despite their resignation, know how to stick it to the politicians who have stuck them with the bill.

The Germans, on the other hand, are obsessed with feces.  Actually, Lewis’s idea, supported by some American thinkers, is that Germans are obsessed with clean exteriors and dirty interiors.  You can’t polish a turd (they have this saying in German) so you’ve got to hide it in your banks.  Lewis hires a young blonde woman to translate for him at his meetings with German economists and politicians.  It turns out everyone speaks English, so he overpays her to drive him around the country and talk about shit.  He remarks on how assured she is talking about poop, how odd it is for such a pretty girl to be saying such ugly things.  It turns out there’s much to share of feculent German witticisms and idioms.

Geldscheisser – One who shits money.

Bescheissen – Someone shit on you.

Klugscheisser – An intelligence shitter.

Die Kacke ist am dampfen – The shit is steaming.

Scheissegal – I don’t give a shit.

Those shitty bankers housed in immaculately clean German banks acted against the German character of thrift.  The survival of a healthy, robust, even dominant German economy despite the fact that its banks’ gullibility, along with Wall Street deception, caused the world financial crisis, hinges on the German people.  They are not stupid, Lewis says, the way their shitty bankers are, thus they survive and thrive.

In Vallejo, California, the municipal government has exactly the opposite problem from the Greeks.  There is one man running the city, with a staff of one.  When his secretary goes to the bathroom, she must lock the door to the government offices, because no one else remains to receive visitors.  After a long, treacherous bike ride on the streets of Venice Beach with Arnold Schwarzenegger, during which Lewis learns the governor wasn’t such a bad guy after all, he visits Vallejo.  The weeds grow high.  There are not enough cops or firefighters.  People in California don’t like to pay taxes.  Public workers in California fight tooth and nail for some of the best pay in the country.  These two factors are helping break the Golden State off into the sea.

Whether the wealth-obsessed residents of Vallejo, or the cozy public workers of Greece, or the gullible bankers of Germany, or the headstrong men of Iceland, or the self-sabotaging Irish, Lewis points to aspects of cultures as the source of national fiscal destinies.  The roles of governments and regulators, in this picture, are non-existent.  What needs changing is the culture.  Good luck.

*

To be clear, the alternate title of this essay is somewhat misleading.  Those mansions I looked up at from my place down by the river in Easton were not McMansions.  They were old houses, and some of them were full of old money.  So who could blame all the middle class people who wanted mansions of their own, when the growth of their borrowing ability outpaced the growth of their income?  I could, but that story’s for another time.

Discussed in this essay:

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt.  W.W. Norton & Company. 2011. 356 pages. $27.

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, by Michael Lewis.  W.W. Norton & Company. 2011. 213 pages. $26.

Photo Credit: focusonfloods.org

Light Study

In Images on June 20, 2012 at 7:00 am

by F.W. Pascal

F.W. Pascal is a photographer.  He lives in Philadelphia with his two dogs, Teaser and the Firecat.

The Noise and the Fury

In Reviews on June 18, 2012 at 7:00 am

by Michael Buozis

I set up my laptop and place a Shure SM-57 microphone on the edge of one of the mesh seats of the aluminum chairs on the back deck of my house in Philadelphia.  The neighborhood I live in with my family is densely populated, but suburban in its layout.  Most streets are residential.  There’s a strip of businesses struggling to stay open on the main thoroughfare – a hearing aid store, a shoe repair shop, a few dollar stores, an antique kitchen appliance seller, and too many pizzerias and Chinese take-out joints.  These businesses are faring better than the many shuttered storefronts – the family grocer, the car dealership, the gas fireplace showroom, the embroidery shop.  People drive through the neighborhood.  Not many stop and get out for a stroll.  We live a block off of the main street.  Capturing the ambient sounds outside my new home, for the hour between 7:50 and 8:50 one early June evening might reveal things not so apparent when the dissonance of combined senses, the distracting sights and smells, reduce the noise to a mere accompaniment, meaningless and signifying nothing.

At 7:50:47 a baby cries a few dry duck-like quacks and then stops.  I can tell, listening back, it is not my daughter.  At 7:51:58 the siren of a fire engine whines, slowly rising and then disappearing in the distance.  At 7:53:30 someone draws metal utensils over earthen dishes in their sink.  My neighbors must have their windows open.  At 7:54:00 the wind picks up and ruffles the leaves, sounding like a flash of water in a hot pan, sizzling violently for a moment and then quickly trailing off.  At 7:55:51 a dog barks plaintively.  The sound is in the high part of the midrange.  He’s a small dog and he wants to go inside.

At 7:57:18 a small plane passes over.  At first the engine moans, as if accomplishing an incredible task, but as it flies directly over it roars with undeniable power.  At 7:58:40 a helicopter passes over.  Initially, the whirring of its prop blends together in a faint and singular, rolling sound, but when it’s overhead, the spinning blades cut out distinct thumps in a deafening war-like crescendo. At 8:00:00 the bells of the Leverington Presbyterian Church ring out the hour as a big plane roars above.  These two sounds silence any audible signs of wildlife.

As these distinct sounds occur throughout my recording, a base level of constant and repeating sounds persist from the very beginning to the very end.  The engines of cars and trucks fluctuate like waves, travelling the whole spectrum of frequencies, from a low constant hum to a ceasing hiss.  The chirps of crickets or some other insect persist in the most upper registers, an ever-present but slightly varying rhythm.  Various species of birds tweet, trill, chirp, and scream.  These are the clearest sounds I record.  Buses and large trucks groan as their transmissions work.  At least six window air conditioner units hum, occasionally jumping for a second as they spit trickles of water onto the sidewalks and into the grass.

At 8:00:27 a screen door opens, its hinge snapping emptily.  Heavy feet fall on a wooden deck and glass bottles clatter into a plastic recycling bucket.  At 8:01:56 a man finally yells at the little dog and the yapping stops.  At 8:02:17 another plane flies overhead, larger but more distant than the earlier aircraft.  At 8:03:27 a bus’s breaks squeal and air hisses out of its suspension.  An automated voice announces a message to the passengers too muffled to decipher.  At 8:06:16 another distant, large plane passes.  At 8:08:00 a police siren appears in the distance, more compelling than the fire engine’s siren.  It lasts much longer too, still audible on my recording well after two minutes of its initial appearance.  At 8:12:40 the police siren faintly comes back into focus, right before an air compressor in my neighbor’s garage sputters and comes to life.  This causes a larger dog to bark.  The siren lasts another two minutes, switching at times to the aggressive garble impatient officers use to scare drivers into letting them pass.  At 8:15:00 the birds start chirping more insistently and consistently, though they are still interrupted and silenced often by vehicular and air traffic.  At 8:17:50 a few more bird species join the chorus.  I count at least seven different types of voices, though I cannot identify the species by their songs.

This is the soundscape of Roxborough at dusk.  While I listen to the playback, I can’t distinguish, at times, between the recording and the insistent snare beat of the music blaring from my neighbor’s garage.  This is the same neighbor with the air compressor that boots up too often in the course of a day.  He and his buddies kickstart their straight-pipe motorcycles and leave them running in the driveway along the side of my house, before roaring off, too fast, down the street.  I don’t capture this sound in my recording, but I know it would have a similar effect to the helicopter passing over – a complete silencing of the little remnant of wildlife present in the soundscape.  Still the wind hitting the diaphragm of my SM-57 is the only sound strong enough to register as a graphic blip on the spectrograph in my recording software.  Though the biotic elements can be silenced, the abiotic forces of nature are immutable.

When I listen to Bernie Krause’s soundscapes, I can tell they are not recorded on an outdated laptop with free software and a unidirectional vocal mic ill-suited to pick up ambient sounds.  Krause’s recordings capture a spectrum of frequencies in crystal clear resolution, most of which my backyard soundscape only hints at.  But that’s all beside the point.  The very soundscapes Krause seeks out are by their nature richer and more varied than Roxborough at dusk.

In the Brazilian rainforest, a puma’s purrs and growls rumble with such resonance as to fill every space among the branches of the trees.  When the cat leaves, a vast array of insect calls are revealed as a large swath of sound with uncountable voices, punctuated by the croaking and hiccupping of birds.  Each animal inhabits a specific place in the spectrum of frequencies, and though the puma’s purrs absorbed most of my attention, the birds and the insects are not silenced by this predator’s roars as they are by the helicopter or the straight-pipe motorcycles.

In Belize, rain provides a bed of white noise, punctuated by thunder.  If you listen closely, you can hear birds playing in the undergrowth of the forest.  They do not halt their activities even for the deafening thunder.

In Costa Rica, the rain sounds entirely different from the rain in Belize.  It’s much more hollow, yet the way it hits the leaves is much more resonant.  If rain can sound dry, the rain in Costa Rica sounds dry.  A pig squeals, and the crenellation of its vocal cavity audibly scratches like a güiro or a straw pulled through a soft drink lid.  Birds screech and sing, chasing a swarm of buzzing insects through the air.  The small emptiness of a bird’s beak is captured in the recording.

Bernie Krause has been travelling the world for well over forty years, recording the soundscapes of the last truly wild places on earth.  Urban parks, or even national parks or most wildlife refuges, fail to meet Krause’s criteria for wildness.  His life’s passion has been to find those disappearing locations where no human sounds can be heard, where the primeval soundscape remains untouched, and to record those soundscapes with the best available audio equipment.  In his new book, The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, Krause brings us on a sonic trip around the world, from the beaches of Big Sur, the Indian Ocean and the North Atlantic, to the glacial calving range of southeast Alaska and the mountain jungles of Rwanda.

It seems ironic, then, that Krause came to a love of the natural world and its wild soundscapes through a close study of the elementary aspects of sound in synthesizer music and effects for Hollywood science fiction movies in the 1960s.  But when he began collecting sounds for a contracted album at the venerable record label Nonesuch, he realized the biophony, or soundscape of a biohabitat, is a useful and telling indicator, a piece of evidence essential in determining the natural health of a place.  There is no doubt that Krause’s recordings of Brazil, Belize, and Costa Rica, in the examples above, show a much greater wealth of biodiversity and density than my backyard recording of Roxborough.  But what about two less obviously contrasting habitats?  Krause records soundscapes of forests and meadows before and after more subtle environmental degradation and compares the richness of each spectrograph, a graphic representation of the sounds he captures.  Minimally invasive tree culling dramatically reduces the population of subtle wildlife indicators that are certainly not visible to the naked eye, such as insects and some perching birds.

Additionally, Krause’s spectrographs, which illustrate The Great Animal Orchestra, reveal another interesting idea – that each biotic element of a soundscape fits in a particular niche, almost like a line or space on the musical staff.  Birds and insects populate the upper registers.  Small mammals and abiotic elements, such as wind and water, fit in the middle sections.  Large mammals and thunder provide the bass in this illustrative concept.  But this is about as far as Krause goes in connecting the soundscapes of wild places with the organized music of early cultures.

Thankfully, though perhaps misleadingly, Krause’s book focuses much more on the ecological impact of human civilization, specifically in the realm of auditory infringement on the natural world.  He acts as quite an iconoclast when he suggests that the pronouncement of man’s dominion over nature in Genesis is responsible for the desertification of Eden.  Krause also reminds the oblivious weekend naturalist set, with their dog-eared Lonely Planet guides, that John Muir removed two Indian tribes from Yosemite so well-heeled white members of the Sierra Club could more peacefully enjoy the scenery.  Which is to say, Bernie Krause is unafraid to buck the orthodoxy of ecological discourse.  You’d have to be fearless to last nearly fifty years recording the soundscapes of the natural world, arguing to deaf academics that your product is key in determining the health of a biome.  Many of the most disruptive forms of anthrophony, human noise, compromise the life cycles of sensitive wildlife species, even killing some through disorientation.  Some generations of the U.S. Navy’s sonar systems can stun and beach whales hundreds of miles away from the source.

However, Krause is not only concerned with the natural world, separate from humans.  The physiological effects of noise, not just on the biome, but on individual humans, as shown in The Great Animal Orchestra, is alarming, especially for someone living in an increasingly noisy part of the world.  It turns out my neighbor’s straight-pipe motorcycles might give me a heart attack and give my daughter a learning disability.  The white noise systems installed in many offices to block out distracting sounds and to provide a semblance of privacy in open cubicles, do not relieve stress, but instead produce more tension.  Our manmade attempts at calm and contemplation are no substitute for the relaxing sounds of nature.  Though, again, we’ve perverted ourselves so much so that most nature sounds worry us.  If we can hear the crickets out our open windows, the ambience is a little too quiet for many.  We’ve all become Woody Allen, reassured by the blaring of sirens on our city streets throughout the night.  Maybe not.

The ray of hope Krause provides in The Great Animal Orchestra comes from an odd source, as it did in Alan Weisman’s 2007 book, The World Without Us.  Chernobyl, an environmental catastrophe, in its exclusion of humans, stands as an ideal wild place with a rich diversity and density of wildlife, both flora and fauna, far surpassing managed wild places where human use is prevalent.  The message is clear, if we want to preserve wild places, we need to stop futzing around in them so much.  Recreation, if it means dirt bikes and snowmobiles and rifles and jet skis, does not equal preservation.  Only a reduction of careless human use, along with other restoration measures, can restore any biome to the richness of a primeval wild place.  Let’s hope we learn this lesson before all of the soundscapes Krause has recorded disappear forever.

Discussed in this essay:

The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, by Bernie Krause.  Little, Brown and Company. 2012. 277 pages. $27.

Photo Credit:  charlesveasey.net

Soufan and Rodriguez: The Torture Question

In Reviews on June 14, 2012 at 7:00 am

by Michael Buozis

If public discourse is any measure, as a nation we’ve become comfortable with the idea that the national security apparatus is working.  To what extent it’s working, is less agreed upon.  But fewer and fewer of us are disputing the contention that if the men and women who serve protecting our interests abroad and American lives at home were not doing what they’re doing, we would all be considerably less safe.  This is not to say there are no voices of dissent.  In May, Harper’s Magazine ran an article in the Readings section called “Eye of the Drone,” a series of statements from the families of victims and survivors of a March 17, 2011, drone attack in the village of Datta Khel in the Pakistani region of North Waziristan.  The collateral damage of counterterrorism, counterinsurgency’s small-footed brother, is still devastating.

“The tribal elders who had been killed could not be identified because there were body parts strewn about. The smell was awful. I just collected the pieces of flesh that I believed belonged to my father and placed them in a small coffin.”

“The mothers and wives plead with the men not to congregate together. They do not want to lose any more of their husbands, sons, brothers, and nephews. People in the same family now sleep apart because they do not want their togetherness to be viewed suspiciously through the eye of the drone. They do not want to become the next target.”

Whether capturing the bad guys is worth this innocent blood on our collective hands is not clear, but there’s no doubt we are capturing (or killing) the bad guys.  However, two important narratives concerning the methods we use to capture and interrogate said villains are emerging as the national security and anti-terrorism community loosens its lips to the media, and the publishing world, about the last ten years of its operations.  These two positions pit the FBI against the CIA, a rivalry as old as the institutions themselves.  In the media, Ali Soufan and Jose Rodriguez, two men with firsthand experience of opposite sides of this coin, have brought interesting new facts to light regarding the treatment of suspected terrorists at the hands of U.S. interrogators.  Both men are affirmed patriots.  They are less concerned with the moral implications of the way they treat prisoners than they are with the efficacy of their methods.  They say they will do anything to save American lives.

By what methods do we get information from a hardened criminal, when that information may stop a terrorist attack on our interests abroad or on our people at home?  Should the nature of the information sought, or the attitude of the suspect, change those methods?  Soufan and Rodriguez think they know the answers to these questions and they don’t agree.

Jose A. Rodriguez Jr. thrust himself into the spotlight recently upon the publication of a memoir of his career in intelligence.  That book, Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives, particularly its description of the destruction of tapes showing the torture of Abu Zubaydah, was the subject of a controversial 60 Minutes interview in April.  In the interview, Rodriguez claims he destroyed the tapes to erase any ugly images which might incite violence toward his fellow officers and other Americans.  He never questions the moral implications of the behavior shown in the footage.  In fact, Rodriguez goes so far as to claim the enhanced interrogation methods used by the CIA, particularly in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was only identified as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks after Zubaydah’s arrest, helped thwart numerous terrorist attacks.  Lesley Stahl, the 60 Minutes interviewer, never directly confronts Rodriguez on his use of torture.  She tiptoes around the issue, though President Obama has identified the use of enhanced interrogation as torture for years.

“So you were getting pressure from Congress and the White House to take the gloves off. Did you go to the dark side?”

“We are the dark side.”

“But I mean, these were enhanced interrogation techniques. Other people call it torture. This was– this wasn’t benign in any– any sense of the word.”

“I’m not trying to say that they were benign. But the problem here is that people don’t understand that this program was not about hurting anybody. This program was about instilling a sense of hopelessness and despair on the terrorist, on the detainee, so that he would conclude on his own that he was better off cooperating with us.”

Dana Priest, a reporter for the Washington Post, described Rodriguez as “a big-city police detective stuffed uncomfortably into a tailored suit” with the ruddy complexion and walrus mustache to match, when she met him in 2005 while he was still an undercover boss at the CIA.  He’s a bit of a cowboy, a Latin George W. Bush.  In his memoir, undercover in Latin America, he woos a dictatorial warlord with his horseback riding prowess, befriends Manuel Noriega’s witch doctor, and runs straight to the office on 9/11, ready to take on America’s newly confirmed enemy number one.  Though this all sounds like the stuff of spy thrillers, Rodriguez’s James Bond is always filtered through the lens of Will Ferrell, a ready-made parody of itself, full of stifled laughter.

In response to the president labeling his agency’s practices as torture, Rodriguez says, “When President Obama condemns the covert action activities of a previous government, he is breaking the covenant that exists between intelligence officers who are at the pointy end of the spear, hanging way out there, and the government that authorized them and directed them to go there.”  Rodriguez’s loyalty to the agency, and his fellow agents, trumps his loyalty to his country.  Moral ambiguity does not exist in this worldview.

What Rodriguez fails to address is the fact that the information leading to the arrest of KSM, as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is known, was extracted from Zubaydah under the FBI’s routine interrogation procedures.  Ali Soufan, along with his partner, Steve Gaudin, interrogated Zubaydah when he was captured in Pakistan in March 2002.  The CIA already had the mandate from the Bush Administration to head up all investigations of terrorist activity in the world of radical Islam, but was still pulling itself together for a task not practiced much in its illustrious history – namely the collection of actionable intelligence from captive enemies of the United States.

The “sense of hopelessness and despair” Rodriguez hoped to evoke in a detainee so he “would conclude on his own that he was better off cooperating with us” turned out to inspire detainees to provide false information.  In his recent Frontline interview, Soufan reflects on how information obtained through enhanced interrogation and passed up through the intelligence community to the White House, fueled Colin Powell’s argument that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.  The Iraq War was predicated on false leads procured through torture.  This much we know.

Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer’s new book, The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, opens with a description of Abu Zubaydah’s apprehension and interrogation.  Ali Soufan, a young FBI agent who’d become familiar with the big shots and the bit players of violent jihad in his years working the anti-terrorism beat, and his partner Steve Gaudin, fly from the U.S. to Pakistan, where Zubaydah has been apprehended.  In the boondoggle of intelligence bureaucracy after 9/11, they don’t even know who the other people on the government-chartered jet are or why so many people would be accompanying them.  When they reach Zubaydah, critically wounded in his capture, this becomes clear.  The other passengers are medical professionals who spend hours stabilizing Zubaydah’s condition.

When a CIA agent asks Soufan why he is not interrogating Zubaydah, Soufan tells him he thought he was being brought in only as support for the CIA’s interrogators.  This is not so.  Soufan and Gaudin get to work on Zubaydah alone, with frequent pauses for the doctors to see to his wounds.

No enhanced interrogation techniques are used.  Soufan and Gaudin open by calling Zubaydah a pet name only his mother uses.  They show him pictures of men they know well by reputation and convince him they are legitimate experts and will know when he is lying.  Gaudin holds Zubaydah’s hand while he slides into an MRI machine.  They gain his trust, and he talks.

It is in these casual, conversational interrogations that Zubaydah reveals the identity of the mastermind behind the attacks of 9/11.  Ali Soufan, unlike Jose Rodriguez, is an expert on al-Qaeda.  Before 2001, he was one of the few agents working in the U.S. anti-terrorism community to speak Arabic.  In his new book, The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, Soufan describes his years of experience, the methods and organization of the men who developed and carried out terror plots around the world.  He knows his stuff.

In his Frontline interview with Martin Smith, Soufan refers to the actionable intelligence he acquired through standard interrogation protocol and to the false leads secured through enhanced techniques.  He says “heck” a lot, and “freaking” at least twice.  He’s as unpolished as Rodriguez, but much more specific in his narrative, and a whole lot younger.

“You compare interrogating somebody [to] dating.”

“Sometimes it is, because it’s about building a rapport with an individual. It’s about building the chemistry. It’s about building a trust, a little bit, because if he’s going to tell you something, he needs to have some sense of trust about you.”

Some people might cringe at the thought of building chemistry with terrorists.  These men don’t deserve to be courted.  True.  But if courting them provides better information than waterboarding them, Soufan argues, we ought to play nice.

While Soufan’s assertion that he could have prevented 9/11 if the CIA hadn’t interfered with an earlier operation is questionable, McDermott and Meyer’s book supports the idea that Soufan, along with FBI agent Frank Pellegrino and Port Authority officer Matt Besheer, were the best prepared to investigate and interrogate those responsible for 9/11.

While the divergence of the FBI and CIA in post-9/11 anti-terrorism operations is at the heart of The Hunt for KSM, McDermott and Meyer reveal how some of the most notorious terrorists in the world eluded justice despite all odds.  Ramzi Yousef, KSM’s nephew, sleeps in for a few hours the day he bombs the World Trade Center in 1993, and his inept partners let him sleep.  In the Phillipines, later in the 90s, Yousef and KSM live more like lowlife criminals – bunking with exotic dancers and eating takeout burgers – than ascetic, religious political actors.  Yousef’s charisma shows through in his defense of himself in court, in which he calls himself “my client.”  His closing statement, despite its violent notions, rings true in some ways.

Much of this narrative is cinematic, such as when Pellegrino and Besheer “oreo” Khalifa, an important link to KSM.  Pellegrino, dressed in baggy sweats, and Besheer, in dapper pressed suits, record every word Khalifa speaks in his hotel rooms, from stakeouts in both the room above and below Khalifa’s.  You can see the cutaway hotel like a dollhouse.  Tom McHale, a Port Authority Police Officer who worked with the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Pakistan, arrests suspects with handcuffs that take on the power of a religious talisman.  The cuffs imbue the operation of counterterrorism with a uniting importance.  When the cuffs are lost, the Pakistanis working with the JTTF are devastated.  Their return to McHale’s hands is a sign of the role of fate in fighting terrorism.  Karachi, the cinematic equivalent of the Wild West, with its dusty streets, rampant crime and endless hiding places, provides KSM, the wiliest of outlaws with a perfect backdrop for his evil escapades.

While KSM’s back story is given its fair share of attention, McDermott and Meyer put the hunters in the spotlight, showing the struggles of Pellegrino and Besheer in getting sufficient attention and resources allotted to their investigations.  The sense of lost opportunity hits close to home, as anti-terrorism pre-9/11 is repeatedly described as a backwater in the FBI, CIA, and NYPD.  The few agents willing to embrace the post, which others considered a career dead end, fought hard to make the bureaucracy understand the importance of thwarting men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Osama Bin Laden before they struck again.  If Soufan is right, the FBI could’ve changed the course of history.

In the end McDermott and Meyer’s narrative in The Hunt for KSM comes back to the methodology of anti-terrorism post-9/11.  The structural and institutional incompatibility between the FBI, a prosecutorial organization, and the CIA, a preventative organization, makes the investigation of terrorism slipshod at best.  The false information KSM supplies to the CIA under enhanced interrogation, shows the inefficiency, not to speak of the immorality of torture.  President Obama has given an unofficial pardon to those who broke the Geneva Conventions and tortured America’s captive enemies, saying the U.S. will not prosecute torturers who were acting under duress from the CIA and the Bush Administration.  Jose Rodriguez might have mentioned this in his 60 Minutes interview.  Instead he cited Obama’s identification of enhanced interrogation as torture as an endangerment of his fellow agents and the American public, by extension.  The failure to prosecute, however, may end up being not only a source of America’s moral fallibility, but also a real incentive for further attacks.  But the way Rodriguez and Soufan frame their respective arguments, we may never know.

Discussed in this essay:

The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, by Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer.  Little, Brown and Company. 2012. 350 pages. $28.

Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives, by Jose A. Rodriguez Jr. and Bill Harlow.  Threshold. 2012.  288 pages.  $27.

The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, by Ali Soufan and Daniel Freedman.  W.W. Norton & Company.  2011.  608 pages. $27.

Photo Credit:  Corbis

Notes from Shale Country: June 13, 2012

In Jots on June 13, 2012 at 8:00 am

Fracking “Gag Order” on Pennsylvania Physicians

On Valentine’s Day of this year, Pennsylvania Governor Corbett signed The Act Amending Title 59 (Oil and Gas) of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes (Act 13 of 2012) that contains long-overdue regulatory guidance as it will apply to the Marcellus Shale fracking industry. Troublesome to physicians and citizens alike is the provision’s mandate requiring physicians to sign a confidentiality agreement vowing that they will not disclose what they know about the chemical list to “others.”

Let’s put this into perspective by ignoring for a moment the things we don’t know, and just concentrate on the things we do know:

We know that congress investigated Halliburton (remember them?) in 2010 and discovered that they used 32 million gallons of diesel products.

We know that diesel fuel contains toluene, benzene, xylene and ethlybenzene.  Think cancer.

We know that one reason that congress had to get involved is that in 2005, the industry applied for and received an exemption from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Drinking Water Act.

We know that the industry is also exempt from the  Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, a program that granted concerned neighborhoods the right to know which chemicals are being used by companies operating near their homes.

In the words of the Philadelphia chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility’s president Dr. Tsou, “What is the big secret here…?

-Tony Brown

Photo Credit: thelibertyvoice.com

Peace Time

In Memoirs on June 11, 2012 at 8:00 am

by Damian Sebouhian

I’d been living in Northern California for five years. I make it a priority to visit friends and family in New York and Ohio, at least once a year. I’m a middle school teacher, so that time is generally during the summer. My brother Gareth still lives in the same town we were brought up in – Dunkirk, NY – a blue-collar factory town off the southwest coast of Lake Erie. When I arrived, he had just moved from the east side to the west side for his first attempt at home ownership. It’s a three-bedroom, two-story house with functional basement and large A-framed attic. His two kids live with him: Morgan, a highly responsible Junior in High School, and Evan, a goofy and awkward Eighth-grader. Gareth’s wife had left him for a large black guy right before the move. According to Gareth, she had been cheating on him for some time. They both had gained so much weight and were fighting all the time. The combination had a deleterious effect on their sex life to the point where they weren’t having any. His wife began hooking up with strangers via the internet, behind his back, until one day she confessed everything and told him she had met this guy, a roofer who lived in Fredonia – the neighboring town – and that he could satisfy her and that he didn’t always want to talk politics and books and movies. He was a man, a real man.

Gareth never replaced her. He dates a lot, but, at the time of my visit, he wasn’t troubling himself with any long-term commitments. In a lot of ways he was regaining his youth. Started working out, started running, and as a result, he lost a lot of weight. Looked really good, the best shape of his life. Ironically, on top of that, he started smoking. Got up to about a pack-and-a-half a day during the weekends. The other five days of the week, Gareth spends in Allegheny’s high security prison, teaching English Literature to inmates. Not a lot of opportunity for smoking, but he manages to sneak one every now and again. Most of his smoking, he does at home, in the attic.

When he gave me the tour, he saved the attic for last. He pulled open the flimsy, unpainted door, which was hanging on a single hinge. “Gotta fix that soon,” he said.

He warned me, just as he pulled out a Marlboro cigarette. “It’s a little gross, I know,” he said, sounding confessional and matter-of-fact at the same time. I could smell what he was talking about before I could see anything. The aroma of used cigarette filters, carried by the thick, musty attic air. “Damn, dude,” I said and borrowing a phrase from one of my seventh graders, I added, “it smells like butt ass up in this place.”

We climbed the creaky narrow staircase and Gareth paused three steps from the top. “Yep,” he said, “that’s exactly what it is.” He pulled the chain to a naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling, and it flashed to life, illuminating the smell’s source. To our left, between the stairwell and the wall, covering a 2’ by 10’ cranny space, were several containers of all kinds, from ash trays to plastic bags to mason jars, all filled with cigarette butts. Thousands and thousands of them. He had five mason jars, standing in a neat little row, filled to the rim, two clamped shut, the crooked and smashed yellow butts spilling over the top of the other three. The last time I had seen mason jars was at my mom’s house in Ohio. She keeps a stock of jarred tomato juice in her basement. Whenever I visit I like to use the juice to make Bloody Marys. Looking at the jars in my brother’s attic, I couldn’t help but shutter.

Gareth pushed open a window and lit his cigarette. “I don’t know why I don’t throw them away,” he said. “Look over there,” he pointed to our right. A long row of stacked empty Marlboro hard packs lined the stairwell railing and led to a three-foot high mound of cartons. It looked as though he had lost patience with his initial project of organization and said “fuck it,” and just started hurling the empties into an ever-growing pile of thin, neatly painted red and white cardboard.

“I don’t know Gareth, why don’t you throw them away?” I was trying not to sound too disgusted. “Do you really want to know how much you smoke?”

“It’s about three years’ worth,” he said, looking around the room.

I pulled out my pack of American Spirits, withdrew a cigarette and put it between my lips. Gareth lit it for me with his silver lighter. “I don’t think I need this cigarette,” I said pulling it out of my mouth. “Just inhale this room and I got all the stale nicotine I need for a week.”

“I like this room,” he said. “It’s not about the smoking, though, it’s about having my own space. My own time, you know, to reflect, to just relax, to get away from the kids, the tv, the world.” He looked up and casually swatted the light bulb’s chain. He looked at it snaking in the air and pinging against the bright bulb and he snagged it, let it slide gently through his fist. He looked at me with his brown eyes, the look that brothers get when they are letting you know this isn’t just bullshit. This is them, opening up to you in some little way, giving you the truth of themselves, if only for a moment.

“Being here, smoking, thinking…it’s the one time I feel like I have control. You know what I’m saying? I don’t have to do anything. Just look out the window and inhale and exhale and think. Each of these butts represent, what? five, seven minutes? Seven minutes of peace.”

“That’s one way of looking at it,” I said. We smoked in silence and I climbed the rest of the stairs and investigated the rest of the long room. Cobwebs glimmered dully in the shunted light, looking like hammocks weighed down by dust and rocking between both sides of the angled ceiling. Boxes of books and records, a stained mattress, empty picture frames, an old tv set, speakers, vacuum cleaner, bags of clothes. His ex-wife’s wedding dress housed in clear plastic, the dress all puffy and white. The stale smell of cigarette smoke clinging to it all. It seemed so haphazard and depressing, especially compared to the rest of the house, which was always neat and put away, everything in its place. Polished wood flooring, plush black leather couches and chairs, a wide, hi-def flat-screen television, a computer in every room, all the latest in technology. Both Evan and Morgan own cell phones and i-pods and dozens of video games.

It just didn’t match up, was the thing. If Gareth were living in a trailer and was an alcoholic who beat his kids every morning before breakfast, this deplorable collection would make sense. I’ve seen homes where the occupants, usually elderly folk, refused to throw out newspapers and magazines. They were stacked all over every nook and cranny forming furniture for more junk, furniture made with yellowing paper and filled with crumpled fading words no one would ever read again.

Compared to me, Gareth’s life seemed so stable and secure. He’d had the same job for years, lived in a big house, drove a nice car, paid all his bills, took care of his kids, dealt amiably with a manipulative, half-crazed, 300-pound ex-wife. He seemed to do it all with an almost saintly, non-judgmental air. I was thinking all this while skimming through his LP collection, smoking my cigarette, when Gareth said, “Two days ago, one of my students hung himself.” I let the Jane’s Addiction flop against Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast” and raised my head. He was wearing a faded purple t-shirt with holes around the belly section and the sleeves. Some kind of compass design logo adorned the chest. His blue jeans were likewise haggard with a hole at the right knee. Red flip-flops revealed his black-painted toenails. Painting his finger and toenails was a habit he acquired in high school. He never explained it and never applied any other makeup – say eyeliner or something – but I always took it as a sign of rebellion. There was always something of a rock-star wannabe in Gareth. It’s probably why he DJs at pubs, and why many of his friends are musicians. Gareth himself, like me, doesn’t sing, play guitar or any other instrument.

Gareth was looking at the wall more than at me and the way the light glinted from his thin, peach-fuzz facial hair made him seem a lot younger than his 35 years. Despite all his lost weight, he still maintained a round baby face, an attribute that made him quite attractive to the ladies. He was always going out with women much younger than him.

I didn’t know how to respond, so I waited. Still looking at the wall, he bit at one of his fingernails. I noticed that all his fingernails were chewed down past the quick. All but the pinky nail which was extra long and quite feminine looking.

“It’s fucked up, man,” he said. “One day you’re discussing the imagery of T.S. Eliot’s ‘J. Alfred Prufrock’, and the next morning you come in and are informed, in this business, matter-of-fact tone, that John Runningbear hung himself in the middle of the night.” He looked at me, an angry glint in his usually soft brown eyes. “With his own goddamned shirt. What the fuck am I supposed to do with that? I mean, talk about imagery. I didn’t have to see him or anything, it’s all here,” Gareth tapped his head. “I can see him hanging there, his eyes rolled back, his head at a fucked up angle, the blood gone from his face. Just hanging there like some heavy sack of lard. He had these huge dimples too and he was always smiling, you know, like he wanted poetry in his life, literature, books, something other than the shit and misery of prison. You think maybe you can do something, make some kind of positive impact.” He shook his head and looked back at the wall, took out another cigarette and lit it. Inhaled a lung-full of carcinogenic smoke and blew it out in a giant cloud that climbed the ceiling and billowed into non-existence. “And it doesn’t even matter. His life was totally worthless, you know, as far as the ‘system’ is concerned. They just replace him with another felon and I get a new student.”

I had to say something, so I stood up and walked over to him, wanting to put a hand on his shoulder, but choosing not to. “Heavy shit, dude,” I said, sounding pathetic in my attempt to be reassuring. “God, I mean the worst I ever have it is worrying about a student getting expelled or turning to drugs.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry for sounding like a downer. It just happened you know. I can’t stop thinking about it.”

Suddenly we were interrupted by the sounds of banging furniture against hardwood floor and we could hear Evan screaming at Morgan and Morgan screaming back at Evan, and then footsteps pounding up the stairs and the attic door crashing open and Evan sobbing in explanation: “Morgan…(sob)…Morgan…(sob)…turned off…(sob)…guitar hero…(sob)…right in the middle…(sob)…of my game…”

Gareth looked at me and sighed then smiled. He dropped his cigarette to the dusty floor, coated with streaks of smeared ash. He stepped on the cigarette and ground it into the floor, picked it up and tossed the remains into a white plastic bag, to join its countless brethren. “Well, bro,” he said to me as he started down the stairs. “Looks like peace time is over.”

Damian Sebouhian is a writer, actor, and teacher who has had five of his plays produced (most recently “Zombie Killers Brigade” in New York City) and resides in Willits, California, a small town known as “The Gateway to the Redwoods.”

Photo Credit:  louisianapremisesliabilitylaw.com

Quantum Thoughts and Quaint Ideas

In Reviews on June 7, 2012 at 8:00 am

by Tony Brown

Wandering through a bookstore last week, I searched mental candy as a distraction from the academic rat race that is my life, when I passed This Will Make You Smarter, a collection of essays edited by John Brockman.  Like a fingernail’s compulsive return and return to the mouth for biting, I ended up in the same aisle not twice, but thrice.  Less by its bright, arterial-blood red cover, than its humbling title, Brockman’s work called up my latent inadequacy feelings.  Bereft of will, I stopped.

My long-time fascination with the subject of consciousness meant names like Lisa Randall and V.S. Ramachandran were immediately recognizable in the list of contributing authors on the front cover.  Others on the list, like Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and Steven Pinker, Harvard professor of psychology, vanquished any uncertainty about whether I would find the book interesting, if not useful. It seemed to me that Brockman was preaching to the choir, the already converted in that instead of the typically credential-laden inventory of authors on the cover, he opted for a simple listing of names, no degrees, no titles.  The most likely buyer would be someone interested enough in biology, science or creativity to have already read Brockman’s Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution or What We Believe but Cannot Prove, or otherwise have read about the subjects in the writing of the contributing authors.

An advantage of reading a publication of collected works is that, given 1-2 page essays (as these are) I can carelessly skip around from section to section, reading whichever story I happen to be in the mood for.  The writings in Smarter, however, are not divided into sections, chapters or even themes, as far as I can tell. Luckily, the lack of structure served well my intellectually promiscuous style of reading.  Still, the creature of habit that I am, I lunged first for the seductive heading “An Instinct to Learn,” W. Tecumseh Fitch’s antidote to “nature versus nurture” thinking.  Fitch submitted the essay in response to the question put to him and every other contributing author: What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?

I landed first on the lead essay, Martin Rees’s “Deep Time.”  Unlike the angst that I typically felt after reading books about the immanent dangers of global warming, I felt irrationally relieved after Rees informed me in that essay that, “[f]ar more time lies ahead than has elapsed up until now.” Our sun is not even halfway through its 10.5 billion-year life span, and even though few scientists will speculate past the next 20 or 30 billion years, somehow it was reassuring to at least talk about those years—in whatever form they might exist. Reese makes an interesting point in asserting that genetic modification, technology advancement and environmental pressures of non-earth colonization will combine to accelerate evolution on a timescale much faster than that of Darwinian selection.  Maybe my great-great grandson will not resemble me as much as I had hoped.

Next, I flipped to Lisa Randall’s “Science,” in which she asserts, “[t}he theory that works best might not be the ultimate truth, but it’s as close an approximation to the truth as you need…”  Lisa is one of those so-called rock star scientists, a Harvard University physicist and one of the most cited authors in her field. She began her career studying something called “supermymmetry,” in an effort to prove that for every particle we know about, there is another particle that we do not.  In effect, supersymmetry predicts that our present search for the most fundamental particle in the universe will not only be tedious, but never-ending because the count is infinite.  Randall’s “Smarter” article looks at science through a very practical lens, noting that although we know that quantum physics is involved when we throw a ball, it does not appreciably affect our perception of the ball’s trajectory, and if it did, the problem is to actually measure it.  Therefore, maybe we should recognize the importance of being able to explain the ball’s motion with Newton’s laws of motion.

“We Are Not Alone in The Universe” is an example of a work that reads as if excerpted from an earlier writing, but cut down a little too much. That “[w]e have more than 100 trillion microbes on and in each of us”  was one of the dozen or so facts rattled off in just over a page, but the writer, J. Craig Venter stopped short of stating something new, or even clarifying something old. Instead of telling us that there is likely to be life on other worlds, I would have been really interested in his hypothesizing about whether that life breathed sulfur or methane or carbon dioxide, for instance.  I reiterate in his defense; however, that each article was only one or two pages long.

I found “We are Unique,” by Marcelo Gleiser , the antithetical argument to Venter’s “We are Not Alone” a bit more interesting, if less probable.  Gleiser argues that whatever it is we end up adding to our cognitive toolkit to satisfy the editor’s query, it “must make it clear that we matter.”  He concedes that as living organisms, we may be a rare accident in an indifferent universe, but it is precisely our rarity that makes us special.  Even if there is life elsewhere, he asserts that it most likely is not intelligent like us—which makes us all the more special.  If; however, there proves to be other intelligent life out there, Gleiser thinks, “it will be so remote that for all practical purposes we are alone.”

Terrence Sejnowski in his “Powers of Ten” managed to make me feel much smarter than I am.   He demonstrated our need to appreciate order of magnitudes by learning to utilize powers of ten. Offering an example of a number so large that it is difficult to grasp otherwise, Sejnowski points out that there are 10^15 synapses in our brain, each firing on average once per second, totaling 10^15 bits per second, “greater than the total bandwidth of Internet backbone.”  I found interesting his point about William James’s speculation that “subjective time was measured in novel experiences.”  The theory was enough for me to at least try to understand why I experience the trip to a new destination to be  longer than the return trip home, despite traveling the same route, but in reverse.  According to James’s theory, the trip to the new destination was punctuated with many, many new sights and experiences, that is to say, increments of time.  The trip home; however was no longer novel, rather familiar and broken up by the few forgotten sights that we might pass again.

That latter essay, I believe, typifies most of the book’s articles in that I finished the second page, satisfied that I knew more than I did before I picked up the book, or at the very least was challenged to think another way. There are 151 essays in Smarter so it is likely that anyone with even a passing interest in the subject matter of the contributing artists will find several enough stories to justify the price of the book.

Discussed in this essay:

This Will Make You Smarter, edited by John Brockman. Harper Perrenial. 2012. 415 pages.  $15.99

Photo Credit:  symmetrymagazine.org

Tony Brown is a former U.S. Army (Reserve) Medical Officer, and currently completing his studies as an M.D./PhD/MBA candidate, with a research thesis titled, “Radiological Identification of the Neurological Correlate of Consciousness.”

A Con for Everyone (or Everyone’s a Con)

In Reviews on June 6, 2012 at 8:00 am

by Michael Buozis

The food court at the Sands Casino in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania lies off of the betting floor.  You don’t show your ID to anyone to get in, but the Formica tables and steel tube chairs are closer to the gambling action than even the diamond store on the other side of an ATM behind a wall of thick, spotless glass 40 feet away from the turnstiles admitting gamblers.  If you’re in town for an event at the Sands Bethlehem Event Center – say a Beach Boys concert – you enter the food court through the hotel and then a shopping mall.

The mall contains a high-end children’s clothing store, another retail outlet with gauche souvenirs of the American flag-draped bald eagle snow globe variety, and the immaculate diamond shop.  The rest of the storefronts are empty.  The glass walls glitter over polished white marble floors and silently rolling escalators.

“I’ll take the Triple Play with spaghettis and two meatballs with sauce and a salad.  Don’t forget the garlic roll.”

The Italian restaurant in the food court serves all of its dishes a la carte.  The woman ordering the Triple Play wears a white linen shirt with the cuffs of its sleeves unbuttoned to relax the flab under her arms.  She watches the young man behind the glass buffet counter spoon her food into a foam tray before he hands it to a shorter young man behind him in front of a microwave.  The short guy will heat her food for her.  She wants to be sure they give her all the spaghettis she is due.

“Pepsi.”

The Triple Play comes with a 32 ounce soft drink.  You can substitute a 20 ounce water.  One of the many paradoxes of the casino is that soda is cheaper than water.  Another is that you cannot bring any beverages, not even the 20 ounce water, from any section of the casino complex into any other section.  A casino employee will confiscate your water as you enter the Event Center, wherein you can buy another water for three times the price.

The backlit menu above the heads of the workers at the Italian a la carte place lists only eight prices.  The Triple Play is $10.99 and combo meals 1 through 7 range in price from $8.99 to $12.99.  None of the individual items sitting under heat lamps and smudged glass are priced.  Rare is the brave diner who orders an individual item.  Most order the Triple Play.  Gamblers lose their love of risk off the maroon carpet.

I follow suit.  But it turns out the square of lasagna I was eyeing is not considered a pasta dish in the Triple Play deal.  Live and learn.

“Nice.  They got a diamond shop right there so you can cash in all your chips and buy a ring for the girl who blew on your dice at the roulette table.”

“There are no dice on a roulette table.”

Enough beating around the bush.  I’m running late for the Beach Boys concert.  The food court offers quick, convenient dining.  I don’t want to miss a moment of Mike Love’s wooden dance moves or Brian Wilson’s Adidas training pants falling down as he walks to his white piano.

Something about the whole casino complex reminds me of a massive con.  The place is a black hole, sucking tourists in for the entire duration of their stay in this faded steel town.  Why would you leave the premises of the Sands Bethlehem Casino and Hotel and Event Center when you’ve got a bad hip and the food court serves Basset’s ice cream and mozzarella and spinach paninis and bitter iced coffee and you can buy your grandkids new clothes and a bird house with a mildly racist, greatly patriotic aphorism stenciled on the side?  You would not leave the premises.  Not if you’re the bald brute in the striped polo shirt rubbing his shiny scalp and checking hidden sections of his wallet for cash and cards.  Not if you’re one of the Chinese ladies sitting at one of the food court’s tables staring away from your companion in silence.  Not if you’re celebrating your 50th wedding anniversary with Henrietta, happy to be wearing khaki shorts and tall white socks in the air-conditioned early spring.

*

In November of 2010, in the parking lot of the Sugar House Casino overlooking the Delaware River in Philadelphia, not long after midnight, two men robbed a 31-year-old woman and stole her winnings before they jumped into a 2001 Pontiac Bonneville and fled the scene.  One of the men pistol-whipped the woman to subdue her.  She was treated for her injuries at Temple University Hospital.

In October of the same year, the casino’s second month in business, two armed assailants followed a man from Sugar House to his home in Cinnaminson, New Jersey.  There the men pistol-whipped the victim, knocked him to the sidewalk, and demanded his $2000 winnings.  The man wrestled the assailants to the ground and shouted for a neighbor to call the police, before the bandits ran away and fled in their car.  They collected none of the gambler’s $2000 in cash.

In July of 2011, Nikale Mitchell, 21, stole $5000 worth of chips from the casino’s tables.  In August, casino security apprehended him for stealing another $3 worth of chips and matched his distinctive tattoos to footage of the original theft captured by security cameras.  Next time young Nikale will wear long sleeves.

According to Casino-Free Philadelphia, 2 crimes were committed each week, on average,  on or adjacent to the Sugar House Casino, in its first year of operation.  This figure does not include off-site crime, such as the attempted robbery in Cinnaminson.  The Pennsylvania State Police patrol the casino grounds 24 hours a day.

Gamblers lost $232,034,168 at Sugar House in that first year.  $116,017,084 of that total came from the pockets of Philadelphia residents.  The City of Philadelphia received only $11,479,868 in taxes and fees from the casino.  This represents a 10 to 1 ratio of loss for residents of the city and gain in revenues for the municipality.

Investors in Sugar House made $54,185,333 of the first year of operations.  $34,136,759 of this went to Chicago businessmen Neil Bluhm and Greg Carlin.

A “large percentage” of Sugar House’s customers visit the casino 3 to 5 times per week.

This all sounds like a big con perpetrated on a willing populous, something the government might find in its own best interest to protect the residents of Philadelphia from.  And all the talk of pistol-whipping stinks of the Old, Wild West.  Not the new Old, Wild West of the housing bubble (though parallels exist), but the old Old, Wild West of free vice towns, mineral prospecting and land grabs (not to mention complex and opaque stock market speculation with whiffs of default swaps and derivatives).

It turns out the Wild West is none too distant in place, time or spirit from present-day Philadelphia or an increasing number of towns and isolated resorts across the country, not to mention an increasingly maligned Wall Street.

Amy Reading opens her new book, The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, a Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con in Dallas, Texas.  There, in November of 1919, the Furey Gang conned J. Frank Norfleet, a prosperous 54-year-old rancher from the Panhandle, out of the equivalent of $1.66 million in today’s currency.  The gang, headed by Joe Furey, one of the most accomplished and inventive confidence men of his time, managed to sucker Norfleet into increasing his investment in a shady enterprise, convincing him to return home at one point and borrow a further $45,000 from his bank.  Furey, posing as a broker for a major bank, offered what he claimed was insider information, and with a few bundles of cash, made Norfleet believe he could grow his wealth eightfold and cover a debt on nearby pastures he owed to a neighboring family back in the Panhandle.  This was just the endgame in a con that involved Reno Hamlin posing as a hick rancher to draw Norfleet into the con, W.B. Spencer pretending to be a young, polished banker and real estate man who could fix all of Norfleet’s land problems and even throw in with him on Furey’s privileged investment opportunities, and finally Charles Gerber and E.J. Ward playing the parts of stock exchange floor manager and disgruntled trading regulator.  It sounds complicated, and it is.  The big con works by sucking its mark into a world full of complications where only the con men can help set things right.  The criminal is always doing the victim a favor, and with each new twist of the play, the favor just keeps on getting bigger.

Before continuing Norfleet’s story of redemption and transformation, and in further interjections later in the book, Reading gives readers a history of cons and con men, a profession and practitioner so engrained in the spirit of America as to seem essential to the young nation’s formation and the source of its own tragic defeats.  From the social climbing of Benjamin Franklin, to the imaginary products of the financial industry, the swindle, the art of inspiring confidence in non-existent prospects is an essential element of America.  In love with this idea, Reading’s portrait of these men, and their victims, is a little too rosy.  Though in The Mark Inside they are romanticized, the con artist is the most anti-social of all criminals.  They fool the most susceptible of marks and coopt otherwise innocent people into criminal practices.  The confidence man is the entrapper of the crime world.  Very few social implications of speculation, a legitimized confidence game, are explored herein.  We never see the worker who is exploited and robbed of the fruits of his labors by high finance, only the more obvious mark, the greedy sucker who chooses to invest his money in often questionable ventures in the hopes of moving further up that social ladder.  We do see the parallel between the insidious foisting of financial schemes on unsuspecting but willing people and the self-delusory enjoyment of sideshow oddities in the long lines to see an obviously fake mermaid skeleton promoted by P.T. Barnum.

Reading, however, hits her stride when she returns to Norfleet’s post-con story.  Though he has his doubts all along, Norfleet only realizes he’s been duped for certain after returning to his Panhandle ranch, where he is unable to contact any of the men who he believes owe him a massive amount of money.  Unlike most suckers, J. Frank Norfleet is not too proud to admit his foolishness or the wiliness of his swindlers.  As a young man, he pulled himself up by his bootstraps, forging his own successful ranching business after many years of working other men’s cattle.  He tells the sheriff what’s happened.  He comes clean with the bank from which he borrowed some of his investment money.  He tells the newspapers.  Norfleet will not rest until the Furey Gang is locked up, each and every one of them.  As a boy, he followed his father on a long chase to extract rent money from a tenant, and this instilled in little J. Frank a sense of the means and ways of justice in the hinterlands of the United States.  It’s the same ethos Norfleet used to acquire his wealth.  If you want something done, you better be willing to do it yourself.

The Texas Panhandle, especially in the early part of the 20th century, is no base of operations for a criminal dragnet, and the ill-tailored clothes and unfashionable bowl-cut hair of a hick cattle rancher are no visage for catching the sharpest of perps.  So, Norfleet hops trains to Palm Beach, San Antonio, San Francisco, Denver, and every shady hamlet and metropolis in between to search for the five men who stole his money.  He takes on a number of different personas, to ease his movement through the transit of depots, hotels and trading floors he knows will bring him to his prey.  Employing the same tricks the con men do, he cons a different gang into thinking he’s a foolish mark.  This is a vital part of Denver District Attorney Philip Van Cise’s ingenious and massive raid on the infamous Lou Blonger network of racketeers.  These adventures lead Norfleet into perilous territory.  He’s nearly poisoned in the dining car of a train, almost hanged and dropped into the ocean by thugs in Florida.  In his memoirs, and in a never-released silent film directed by and starring Norfleet, he tells of his exploits with relish and flamboyance.

Reading is right to draw the parallel between the Furey Gang’s elaborate and dramatic staging of their big con, and Norfleet’s fantastic and unbelievable tale of catching them and playing an indispensable part in destroying other rackets.  This is the American way.  You make up your story as you go along.  If reality doesn’t work, you create something that does.  Sure, it’s ironic that for even the sharpest, most sophisticated of con men, the only way to catch them red-handed is to con them into a trap.  You’d think a good swindler could smell a con when it was being foisted on him.  But the big lesson here, is that we’re all willing participants in this elaborate game of deception.  Reading contrasts the fall of Blonger’s empire in Denver with the deplorable spread of the sucker, under the banner of risky investment, through middle class America.

The smoky trading floors of the cities and towns Norfleet visits look a lot like the monitors of today’s investment banks and hedge funds.  They’re both too opaque.  The presence of legitimate gambling in Denver and many other Old West cities only encouraged stronger forms of vice.  We’re learning these lessons again, for what will certainly not be the last time.  Though the cons committed on the plush carpeted floors of the Sands Bethlehem and the Sugar House might be more prosaic, they are no less insidious.  One will undo you as good as the other.

I wish I could say, in the end, J. Frank Norfleet returns to the simple life of a Texas cattle rancher, but instead, he is reduced to a dotage of good-natured cons, telling his fantastic story for money and exploiting the hunger of the public for tales of revenge and deception.  The mark becomes the con man, and the two roles lose their distinction.

Discussed in this essay:

The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, a Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con, by Amy Reading.  Alfred A. Knopf. 2012. 290 pages. $27.

Checkpoint

In Drama on June 4, 2012 at 8:00 am

by Jason Irwin

Scene:

Center stage. A military checkpoint at the border of an unnamed country. Two soldiers sit at a desk in two upright chairs. There is a yellow legal pad and a pencil on the desk. Stage  left the desk (about 10 feet away), is a sandwich board sign that reads “Suspicious Individuals Keep Out!”  Blue tape is on the ground forming a large square around the soldiers, marking off the border. Soldier A. is a veteran, mid 50’s, stout, with a big gut and broad mustache. Soldier B. is tall and pencil thin, early 20’s. The rookie. As the play begins they are sitting at the desk, very bored. It is mid-afternoon. 

SOLDIER A. (looking at his wrist watch) Another hour to go.

SOLDER B. It sure is a beautiful day.

SOLDIER A. What’s beautiful about it?

SOLDIER B. They said there’s supposed to be a fabulous sunset and the stars, they said you will be able to see the stars!

SOLDIER A. Who are they?

SOLDIER B. Huh…? Oh, the weather man. I saw the forecast this morning.

SOLDIER. A. Aaahhh.

(Pause)

SOLDIER B. Have you ever been out there? (pointing to stage left)

SOLDIER A. Have I ever been where?

SOLDIER B. Mmm, I don’t know. Out there, in the Eastern or Western provinces?

SOLDIER A. Not since the wars, when I was in the infantry. Why?

SOLDIER B. I just wondered, you know? I always wanted to go there.

SOLDIER A. Why? (Takes an orange out of desk drawer, starts to peel it.)

SOLDIER B. To see someplace different I guess. Experience another culture.

SOLDIER A. (Amused and mocking in tone) Culture? You want to experience culture?

SOLDIER B. Yeah. I mean, don’t you ever just want to travel. Go somewhere else. Meet new and interesting people?

SOLDIER A. Out there (points left and then right) is the abyss. The void. There is no culture, just misery and savagery, okay? Trust me. I fought those people in two wars!

SOLDIER B. Oh.

(From stage left an old man appears. He is dressed in rags and is dragging himself on the ground by his elbows. SOLDIER A. sees him, stands and points)

SOLDIER B. Look! That old man.

SOLDIER A. Aahh, here comes your culture! (laughs)

(The old man drags himself to within a foot of the sandwich board sign, fumbles through the tiny purse he has tied around his neck, pulls out a stack of index cards. Reaches up and hands one to SOLDIER B. who has walked over to him. SOLDIER B. takes the index card and reads it aloud. SOLDIER A. looks on with annoyance, sets his orange on the desk.)

SOLDIER B. “Mint chocolate chip ice cream in a waffle cone, please!” Huh?

SOLDIER A. (Walks over, takes card out of  SOLDIER B’s hands, reads to himself, the tosses the card on the ground.) Obviously this is some kind of trick. There’s probably a sniper somewhere zeroing in on us right now. (Looks around)

(The old man pulls on SOLDIER B’s pant leg, hands him another index card, but SOLDIER A. grabs the card instead.)

SOLDIER B. Maybe he just wants some ice cream. I know I sure would.

SOLDIER A. I bet you would.

SOLDIER B. I don’t know the last time I had an ice cream cone! (Pause as SOLDIER A. reads.) So what’s it say?

SOLDIER A. (reads) “Forgive me for interrupting your afternoon. My name is Franz. I was born without a tongue and the use of my legs, hence the index cards.” What rubbish!

(tosses card to ground. SOLDIER B. picks it up and reads to himself.)

SOLDIER B. It says here he’s been crawling for six days!

SOLDIER A. It figures! They’re all a bunch of filthy serpents, slithering through life, trying to infiltrate our country! And you want to meet them, experience their culture! (laughs) I’ve been at this too many years to fall for this, too many years!

(The old man hands SOLDIER B. two more cards. He reads to himself)

SOLDIER A. And what does that one say? Does he want food, shelter, does he think we’re a couple of good Samaritans?

SOLDIER B. No. Listen. “Please accept my apologies. As I said, my name is Franz and I was born in the Westernlands many, many years ago.”

SOLDIER A. More like centuries from the looks of him.

SOLDIER B. (continues reading) Along with many of my countrymen and women my family and I were forced to leave our homeland. Now, as you can see, I am an old man…”

SOLDIER A. He that have eyes seeth!

SOLDIER B. “Since I am unable to stand or walk upright I have been dragging myself, one inch at a time.”

SOLDIER A. A country of serpents! Dirty, filthy serpents!

SOLDIER B. “It is my dying wish…”

SOLDIER A. Oh God, my dying wish! Good move, good move you old serpent!

SOLDIER B. Sir? Please! He’s been crawling for days.

SOLDIER A. He has no use of his legs you idiot. He’s been crawling his whole miserable life!

SOLDIER B. Just let me finish, okay? (Pause) Okay. So. “So I ask, as my dying wish that I may be permitted to see the sunrise from my homeland one last time before I meet my glorious maker in the next life.”

SOLDIER A. So you want to cross our border, go through our checkpoint to see the sunrise in the Westernlands? Can’t you read either, huh? Can’t you read the sign? (He runs to the old man, squats down, grabs the man’s face in hihand, looks in his eyes and yells.) See this sign? It reads “Suspicious Individuals Keep Out!” (He lets go of the old man’s face, stands, brushes off his pants and backs away, looks at SOLDIER B.) You see? You see how shifty they are? How vile and shifty? Bunch of serpents!

SOLDIER B. But sir, he’s just an old man?

SOLDIER A. (Mocking) But sir, he’s just an old man! But sir, but sir, my ass! He’s an undesirable! What, you think if we let him pass through this checkpoint and go twenty yards that way (points stage right) that that will be the end of it?

SOLDIER B. But Sir, it’s only twenty yards!

SOLDIER A. I know what you’re thinking, I know. You think I’m a moron, right? Over the hill, past his prime soldier, whiling away his days at some God awful checkpoint at the edge of civilization, right? Right? I mean what is going on here Soldier? We are at the edge, the very edge of civilization. Out there lies nothing but a vast abyss with more of his kind, more filthy men and women crawling through the muck! You want to take a chance of allowing one more, just one more of these vermin into our country so they can suck the life blood out of us? Do you want your tax dollars paying for the likes of that?

SOLDIER B. but Sir…

SOLDIER A. Don’t but Sir me, soldier. I am a thirty year veteran. You’re lucky if you can even count to thirty!

SOLDIER B. Sir, he just wants to see the sunrise one last time from his homeland!

SOLDIER A. And I want a lap dance from Miss America, okay? We don’t always get what we want, and besides, just suppose we let him crawl his filthy serpent’s body across our border, our twenty yards into the Westernlands, how do you know that he won’t turn around and sneak back in when we’re not looking? Maybe not today, or tomorrow, maybe not even next week, maybe in two months he’ll drag his sorry self back over the border, maybe ten or fifteen miles north, then what? Do you want to be responsible for that; for another illegal in our country? Do you, Soldier?

SOLDIER B. But he just wants to see the sunrise!

SOLDIER A. He can see the damn sunrise from over there can’t he? (Points stage left)

(Pause)

SOLDIER A. Besides, how do we know that once he crosses this line (jumps on blue tape that signifies border) How do you know he won’t blow us all up? How do you know he’s not a terrorist? That’s what they do now a days, they’re clever about things. They’ll use women and children, even dirty old men without tongues who drag themselves through the dirt pretending they want to see the sunrise one last time!

SOLDIER B. So what am I supposed to do? I mean I have a date tonight. Hell, our shift ends in less than half an hour!

SOLDIER A. Listen to me, please! I know you are young and idealistic and you want to travel and see the world and do the right thing, right?

SOLDIER B. Yes sir, that’s why I joined.

SOLDIER A. And you want to protect your country and its citizens? You want to protect civilization from the abyss?

SOLDIER B. Yes Sir.

SOLDIER A. Okay. I am going to go over there, see? (Points upstage) Behind that tree, okay? I am going to take a piss, a nice, long soothing piss, and what I want you to do is protect your country okay?

SOLDIER B. I don’t follow, Sir.

SOLDIER A. If that serpent, if that, man crawls over this blue line I want you to shoot him!

SOLDIER B. Shoot him, Sir?

SOLDIER A. Yes, shoot him, dead!

SOLDIER B. But Sir, he’s old and…and he can’t, he can’t even stand up and he has no tongue!

(The old man hands SOLDIER B. another card. He reads to himself.)

SOLDIER A. What does it say…? What does it say?

SOLDIER B. He says that if he’s going to be shot he’d like an ice cream cone first!

SOLDIER A.  (Becomes very angry,) Okay, okay that’s it! I have had enough! Give me your gun!

SOLDIER B. My gun, Sir?

SOLDIER A. Never mind. Just never mind you shoot him. You shoot him!

SOLDIER B. Shoot him?

SOLDIER A. Shoot him right now, soldier. That is an order! Shoot him!

(SOLDIER B. takes his pistol from its holster, very nervously and clumsily. The old man tries to hand him another card. SOLDIER A. continues to scream “Shoot him!” SOLDIER B. points the gun and fires. He is sobbing.  The old man falls dead. SOLDIER A. walks back to the desk, sits down and continues to eat his orange. SOLDIER B. stands over the old man crying.)

Jason Irwin is a poet/playwright living in Pittsburgh, PA.

Photo Credit: nypl.org

Organizing the Obvious

In Reviews on June 1, 2012 at 8:00 am

by Michael Buozis

My favorite professor of philosophy in college once derided the academic study of psychology as, “organizing the obvious.”  He said this over a cup of bitter coffee at a tall table in the café of the student union with only a few of his most admiring students listening in.  This professor, a tall, youngish bachelor with sandy hair swept across his forehead struck most of us as intriguingly European, though from what we could tell he grew up in suburban Chicago and earned his degrees in this country.  Something about his hard-to-pronounce last name and his tasteful and innocuous dress, a clean leather jacket, rimless spectacles and jeans without a hint of American frump or self-conscious stylishness seemed foreign to the students of the state college I attended in the Poconos.  He was one of the few professors who lived up to the enthusiastic student’s illusory image of a college professor.  He sat with us for coffee and talked about ancient texts as if we could uncover something new by shouting out our unstudied responses in class and subjecting them to stringent logical tests.

But this was not what made me register for every philosophy class he taught, despite my status as an English major.  Instead, the true allure of those lectures and classroom discussions was exactly what set philosophy apart from psychology, at least in this professor’s blunt statement in the café that day.  Philosophy was markedly not “organizing the obvious.”  It was a method of trying to answer problematic questions that might affect one’s political, moral and social outlook.  In his class, the paradox of the mound, a seemingly inconsequential examination of when a pile becomes a mound and when a mound becomes a hill (can these meaningful distinctions be attributed to the addition or subtraction of a single grain of sand?) turned into an analysis of the language we use when discussing abortion.  There were still no clear answers at the end of most of these arguments, but the process was by no means obvious.  You had to think hard, make notes, build logical equations.  For a young man who wanted to resist the gut-check emotionality of most moral systems, this process was life-affirming.

Not long after college I moved to Manhattan and, squeezed in by a tiny apartment, left all of my books to my old roommates in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.  This included a half shelf of philosophy texts.  In New York, I learned to laugh off most references to philosophy and poetry, my two undergraduate pursuits.  They both seemed impractical in the same way.  Morality, it turns out, might be more intuitive than logical, and many of the subjects of philosophy and poetry are taken for granted by the rest of the world.  Talking about them in mixed company is like telling someone the process and history of salt mining when all they’ve asked is for you to pass the shaker.  You are just a royal bore.

Talking or writing about psychology, on the other hand, can bring in the big bucks and plenty of attention and even admiration from the average person.  Pop social scientists have been taking advantage of the human need to understand why we are the way we are, for a long time, but recently a slew of them, helmed by Malcolm Gladwell, have been convincing legions of casual readers and consumers of media they have it all figured out.  We all now know it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be a world-class performer in any discipline.  We all now know to second-guess some of our stereotypes and gut reactions.  Groundbreaking stuff here, folks.

People buy books entirely dedicated to these self-evident ideas.  In droves.

Daniel Kahneman’s new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow is more of the same.  Kahneman, an early purveyor of behavioral economics, tries to disguise many of his findings as novel.  But most of the ideas put forth by his discipline, namely that people are not always rational actors who collect large amounts of relevant data for each of their economic decisions, are only surprising to overzealous students of Economics 101.

Kahneman, like his peers, creates a new nomenclature for his “groundbreaking” scheme.  System 1 is the fast thinker, your intuition.  It is a subconscious function of decision-making.  System 2 is the slow thinker, the deliberative one.  Kahneman stresses again and again throughout Thinking, Fast and Slow that he is making up names for non-existent entities.  System 1 and System 2 are functions.  Kahneman makes a noun out of a verb, a time-tested way of organizing the obvious and making it look like a brilliant, creative discovery.

I couldn’t help getting duped, on occasion, by Kahneman’s enthusiasm.

The idea of Suggestive Priming helps us understand the influence of advertising, politicians, and everyday occurrences on our thoughts and moods.  Obviously.  The Halo Effect and other arbitrary influences on our behavior and opinions, excuses the masses for irrational, stupid political action and belief.  Okay.  The Availability Paradox – the more evidence you gather to support something, the less certain it seems – does not bode well for the justice system.  Right.  Though it might be distasteful to humanists, it’s obvious a formula or algorithm would process and analyze relevant data better, statistically, than a human who is swayed by emotion.  This was much more interestingly shown in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball.

While none of Kahneman’s research qualifies as groundbreaking, some is intriguing.

Regression to the Mean is a particularly interesting concept as it describes phenomena in the real world not just mistakes of intuition.  The first truly surprising finding presented is the Illusion of Understanding in which a more coherent narrative is formed with less available details in a person’s mind.  Entrepreneurial delusions and overconfidence contradict Kahneman’s earlier theory of strict statistical regression to the mean.  The economic ideas of Prospect Theory and the Endowment Effect help us understand our gut instincts, but don’t help us know if they are useful in economic decision-making.  Duration Neglect supports the benefits of euthanasia and serves as a powerful argument against the prolongation of the lives of suffering terminal patients.

Though some of the many ideas discussed in Thinking, Fast and Slow might influence everyday decisions, Kahneman’s observations lack impact, because he is always so quaintly pleased with himself and neglects concrete, verifiable examples.  His book is full of those verbs turned into nouns, capitalized functions: System 1, System 2, Suggestive Priming, the Halo Effect, the Availability Paradox, Regression to the Mean, Prospect Theory, the Endowment Effect, Duration Neglect, and many, many others.  Kahneman and his fellow pop social scientists are making the rules up as they go, like bored children inventing a new game to suit their needs.

Discussed in this essay:

Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2011. 499 pages. $30.

Photo Credit:  bbc.co.uk

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