Friday, June 29, 2012

A Good British Comedy Goes Awry

Michael Frayn, Skios: A Novel

Michael Frayn is a writer who makes other writers jealous, because he can dip into new forms easily and often. Though he made his name as a playwright, and his Noises Off is standard repertory for regional and educational theatre, he has also written highly successful, award-winning novels and nonfiction. (As far as I know, he’s ducked poetry.) After ten years away from novels, he returns with a farce whose noble ambition perhaps exceeds its capacity.

London playboy Oliver Fox hates himself and his reputation, and already regrets the weekend rendezvous he’s arranged with a girl he hardly knows. At the baggage claim on the Greek resort island of Skios, he steals the luggage, and the life, of Dr. Norman Wilfred. It seems Dr. Wilfred is committed to speak at a prestigious but shady philanthropic foundation. Oliver’s natural charm wins over wealthy Americans, but he will soon have to deliver a lecture on a topic he knows nothing about.

Elsewhere on the island, Dr. Norman Wilfred can’t find his luggage, his connections, or anything that brought him to Greece. A strange, inarticulate cabbie has dropped him at a decaying holiday villa with an emotionally unstable co-ed, and calling the foundation’s desk just leaves him trapped among goats. As he grows increasingly desperate, he starts to question everything on which he’s built his life, and whether this strange, pretty woman might not be the salvation he needs.

This book starts as a traditional British comedy of manners. In one plotline, Oliver digs himself a hole he knows he can’t get out of, yet he enjoys the attention (and the pretty coordinator) so much that he can’t stop himself. In the other plot, Dr. Wilfred’s Oxbridge pretensions slowly unravel. A primal, lusty caveman lurks beneath his cultured restraints, but the woman he now loves doesn’t share his passions, much less understand. Jane Austen lovers would approve.

But this is Michael Frayn, and anyone familiar with his work knows he loves to watch lies unravel. Over the course of two hot Mediterranean nights, people pin their hopes on the air, then watch everything fall down around them again. Angry declamations lead to heady cross-island pursuits. Jilted lovers, thought long gone, suddenly reappear. Secrets prove impossible to conceal, and someone pushes Dr. Wilfred to reclaim his life, even though he no longer wants it back.

The giddy pace and emotionally intense storyline feel like they would work on stage or screen. The book is fast-paced, and you can read it in two evenings, but prose puts a limit on something like this. Specifically, where a movie or play drags audiences along and forces them to keep up, readers can put the book down and ask themselves questions. Farce doesn’t do well answering questions. It relies on an audience that remains, in some way, permanently confused.

In pursuit of that, as we approach the end, the dramatis personae takes a quantum leap. People briefly mentioned in early chapters suddenly become major players in the story. A gentle, intimate comedy suddenly has a cast of thousands, all of whom talk past each other. Roger Ebert would call this an Idiot Plot, a story of epic misunderstandings that could easily resolve if one person told the truth. That is, if anybody else were listening.

Which is a shame, because the early chapters are quite good. They contain deep psychological insights and complex cantilevered motivations, all for characters so complex that they can’t understand themselves. We laugh good-naturedly with these characters, at first, because we know them better than they know themselves. They remind us of people we all know, the kind of people who could benefit from a long, solemn conversation with their own bathroom mirror.

Perhaps Frayn is dissatisfied with subtle character humor. Perhaps a writer who made his name slipping philosophical insights into panicky farces thought he needed the big laughs to sell the conclusion. Even he knows how confused the product winds up looking, since he includes a chapter explaining how this story would end in an ordinary farce, right before he suddenly swerves, giving us a conclusion that has little to do with everything that came before.

This should be such a good book. It’s insightful, funny, and rueful, right up to the moment where it implodes. I enjoyed the early chapters, and thought perhaps Frayn was bringing back an older form of gentle but surgical comedy. Then, in the clinch, it turns into stampeding entropy. So close, and yet so far away.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Rebuilding Phil Dick Wholesale—a True Story

David F. Dufty, How to Build an Android: The True Story of Philip K. Dick's Robotic Resurrection

The Philip K. Dick Android—a collaboration between private roboticist David Hanson and a team of intelligence researchers at the University of Memphis—gained great notoriety when it debuted in 2003. People jockeyed for a chance to speak with it for just one or two minutes. Audiences cheered when it said something unpredictable, profound, or even hurtful. Though rudimentary, viewers glimpsed in “Phil” a possible shape of their future.

Then, in 2005, bound for its highest profile gig yet, the android vanished.

Author David F. Dufty, now an Australian government researcher, was present in Memphis for the android’s bizarre life, and even stranger disappearance. Though not a participant, Dufty knew the research team well enough to recount a thorough insider’s perspective. And though he swears he has inserted not one word of fiction, this heady blend of computer science, mechanical engineering, psychology, and art has more twists than PKD’s legendary novels.

Art Graesser, founder of Memphis’ Institute of Intelligence Studies, dedicated his life to understanding and recreating the rational mind. David Hanson, a Dallas graduate student and entrepreneur, felt it didn’t matter how intelligent Artificial Intelligence became if humans couldn’t feel comfortable interacting with it. The two found kindred spirits in each other, and together opened the door to one of modern technology’s strangest and most exciting enterprises.

The decision to build an android in PKD’s likeness was extremely meta. An android image of a writer who envisioned a world where people wondered if they were androids? Really? Then they displayed it in an illusion of the house in which PKD came to believe all reality was an illusion. Dick, a paranoid amphetamine addict with a gregarious temperament and a flair for the dramatic, could not have choreographed a better science fiction spectacle.

Perhaps he did choreograph it. Dufty does not assume readers recognize PKD’s strange, sometimes opaque writings, and walks us through many of Dick’s recurrent themes. Among the most important, PKD believed that intelligent machines were not only inevitable, but imminent. But intelligence was nothing, a parlor trick. We would only know an android by its failure of empathy, or what we could call “humanity.”

Immersed as he was in Cold War hysteria, amplified by his drug habit and countercultural ties, Dick believed he was subject to constant surveillance. This paranoia, with strong anti-state overtones, pervades his work, making him a perennial favorite of libertarian types. But as he came to believe in a machine intelligence dominating all apparent reality, his visions, and his fiction, progressively blurred the line between science and metaphysics.

So it makes sense that PKD could have planned his own resurrection as a remarkably lifelike machine. Even the fact that “Phil” regularly appeared with his scalp off, showing his complex inner workings, supports such a paradox. How better to soothe the masses, and prevent them fearing they would be exposed as androids, then to expose yourself first? See, people? I’m nothing like you. You’re safe. Stop asking questions and go about your day.

Popular science fiction has feared the collapsing gap between man and machine. Consider The Terminator or the revamped Battlestar Galactica. In mass media, when we can’t tell people from devices, we assume the devices will prove predatory. Dick dared suggest the issue wouldn’t be so cut and dried. Who’s to say the machines wouldn’t have more to fear from humanity? So, like one of his own replicants, the Philip K. Dick android escaped.

By no means was the android an unqualified success. Only the face and head were articulated; the body was basically a mannequin. Its speech recognition technology was vulnerable to even slight interference. Worse, because PKD left a massive corpus of publications and interview transcripts, the language generation software could hit a recursive loop, lapsing into a trance or spouting inane, interminable monologues. It required constant human supervision.

But it also came closer than any artificial device, before or since, to bridging the gap between humans and our creations. It substantially disproved two generations of technological philosophy, which thought humans would fear machines that proved too lifelike; indeed, people psychologically imbued it with human traits it didn’t yet have. People wanted to believe this was the reborn visage of a unique, cultic novelist.

Dufty seamlessly merges journalism, science, and literary criticism in a history of one of recent technology’s most remarkable events. He makes us dream of what seemed possible just a few years ago. And he makes us hope we might live to see those possibilities once again.

On a related topic:
Why Cleverbot Proves Computers Should Remain Stupid

Monday, June 25, 2012, a Blues Mystery, and the Tiger That Whimpered

Eyre Price, Blues Highway Blues sells more media than anyone, and has cornered the e-book market. But apparently that isn’t enough for the Bezos Bunch, who for the last two or three years have tried to make their mark in dead tree publishing, too. Their latest attempt is Thomas & Mercer, an imprint specializing in mysteries and thrillers. I’m sad to say they’re off to an inauspicious start.

Deep in hock to the mob, washed-up music mogul Daniel Erickson raids his safe in his Malibu home. Only, his safe is bare. Instead, he finds a one-track CD warning that, to reclaim his money and his soul, Daniel must begin his search at Robert Johnson’s famous crossroads. With two enforcers on his trail, Daniel begins an odyssey along Highway 61, the road at the nexus of America’s blues heritage.

Perhaps debut novelist Eyre Price feared he might never get to publish another book. That would explain why he overstuffs this volume with material that, separated out and treated with the care each part deserves, could have made three or four very fine novels. As it stands, Price has so many irons in the fire that none achieves maturity. Perhaps if he respected his material more, I might finish reading with something beyond a shrug.

Price starts well, with a darkly comic premise that combines his love of music with a noir thriller. His gallows humor and fine ear for dialogue make for interesting characters in absurd but plausible situations. And early on, when he swings from bleak comedy to shocking scenes of casual cruelty, Price seems almost Shakespearean. Price sets himself a high standard in the early pages.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t maintain that standard. Over a hundred pages in, our protagonist Daniel picks up a mysterious hitchhiker who does a terrible job concealing his secret identity. For a guy who claims to know his blues, Daniel really, really misses the obvious. Moreover, this stranger introduces an element of the supernatural—a quarter of the way through the book—that upsets the balance and changes the tone of the story.

Nor is this the only clue Daniel fails to notice. Daniel isn’t a dummy. More than once, he stops the narrative to lecture other characters, and by implication us, on why Howlin’ Wolf beats Elvis, how Stax Records had more integrity than Sun, and why Mardi Gras ain’t New Orleans’ beating heart. Yet repeatedly, strangers dump clues in his lap, and he sleeps through them. I wanted to grab Daniel’s lapels and shout at him to just pay attention already.

Price keeps introducing subplots, many of which I recognize from elsewhere. When a local homicide detective and an FBI agent clash over jurisdiction, for instance, and begin a dragnet for Daniel, I notice two problems. One, there’s no jurisdictional problem. Since Daniel is wanted for no crimes in the detective’s city, the detective has no claim. Also, the agent sounds just like Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive.

Price also shows no understanding of criminal business: loan sharks seldom kill defaulters. The dead don’t pay interest. No criminal enterprise would pursue a target from Vegas to Malibu to Memphis and beyond; it’s too expensive and risky. Any enforcers that left as many bodies, and thus as many liabilities, as these Moron Twins, would quickly find themselves wearing cement overshoes. Price creates a Mafia seemingly run by posing teenage shoplifters.

These increasingly complicated thriller boilerplates never quite coalesce into a narrative. I don’t see the story so much as the sources Price quarries. Is this a cops-and-robbers chase? A mob comedy? An introspective mystic musical? Yes, all this and more. Like a sleeper couch, these various components combine in absolute discomfort. And Price’s attempts to integrate everything leave visible authorial fingerprints all over the story.

Price simply tries to do too much, and in the process, does little justice to any of his story components. Every time I turn the page, I see the zygote of another good story. Yet none of Price’s many, many ideas comes into its own. I hope he gets the chance to publish another book, because he deserves the opportunity to achieve his potential.

And I hope Amazon, if it wants to play in the big publishers’ sandbox, gets a little more discerning in its selection process. Maxwell Perkins might have midwifed this book into a critical and commercial stunner. With its money and its market might, Amazon could fill that role for new writers. Here’s hoping they start doing so. Soon.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Church, State, and the Almghty Dollar—a Defense

My friend Duane, whom I trust and admire although we disagree on some topics, posted the picture on the right this week on his Facebook page. Duane, who calls himself “antireligion,” was unambiguous in his purpose: “If they can't afford the tax then they can cease to exist. That would be fine by me.” Because Facebook updates don’t permit complex multipart debate, indulge me as I lay out three reasons why I think non-religious people should disagree with this thesis.

1. The Giver of Values. In American tax policy, religious houses are equal to colleges, fine arts organizations, scientific research laboratories, and organizations for prevention of cruelty to children and animals. These contrast with businesses, like department stores and heavy industry, which exist to turn a profit and a dividend for investors. By contrast, the above charities exist to do not what is profitable, but what is right.

Real life tells us we often do the right thing only at cost to ourselves. Dan Ariely has scientifically demonstrated what most of us know instinctively, that when profit enters the picture, it creates (occasionally strong) disincentives to do what is right. Therefore, if religious houses have to pay the same taxes as commercial enterprises, it would change the system of values at their heart. I suggest Duane would have no problem with this.

But play this out fully. Religious houses exist because they believe God or the gods provide an objective system of right and wrong. God is the giver of values. The state, in forcing religious houses to change their business model, requires them to adopt a new set of values. The state, in essence, usurps the role of God. And if the state usurps that role for churches, what’s to stop it from usurping that role for everybody?

2. Shifting Ground. If America had always subjected religious houses to property and other taxes at the same rate as private enterprise, maintaining that position would be value neutral. But they haven’t, and it’s not. If a groundswell of opinion allowed American lawmakers to change the values behind our tax code, well, a secularist like Duane might not mind. But that would set a precedent he would not like.

History records that American values can shift very quickly. Consider the changes in racial politics two generations ago, or the changes in sexual politics right now. Statistics indicate that American religious feeling is at a low ebb now, but this has happened before. Maybe all we need is another Jonathan Edwards to whip up strong feelings, and Duane could find himself outnumbered by a new ascendant majority.

Our Founding Fathers placed limits on popular sovereignty because they feared that a “Tyrannical Majority” would use sheer numbers to silence opposition. (Then they passed the Three-Fifths Compromise. Don’t overthink things.) They feared a resurgence of Greek democracy, which was little better organized than a street gang. An idea’s popularity is not enough to change our political structure.

Even if my ideas reign right now, shifting ground could put me in the minority quickly. Thus, I must never use my ascendance to limit others’ freedoms. Indeed, in a free society, I have a personal imperative to defend the freedoms of those with whom I disagree. I think Duane’s opinion is flat damn wrong, but even if I didn’t enjoy spirited debate with a friend, I have personal stakes in ensuring nobody could stop him speaking his mind.

3. Don’t Feed the Bears. Right-wing Christian economist Larry Burkett warned in 1991 that secularists would suggest exactly the action Duane has suggested, for exactly the reason he suggests it. Other conspiracy theorists may have voiced the same paranoia earlier, I don’t know. From a simple strategic position, it makes little sense to play into the hands of those who want to become martyrs to the system.

Let me say, though, what I don’t mean. I don’t consider all positions equal, or think freedom has no constraints. Any position that limits others’ freedom has overstepped its bounds, and we must make sure they are constrained. For instance, those who use faith in God to justify shooting abortionists or bombing mosques are not exercising religious freedom. They are criminals, who should be punished.

I only mean that personal, or even public, opinion, is no justification to change our policies or enforce value positions on any organization. There are many opinions out there that I find odious. And I intend to defend them to the utmost of my strength.

Monday, June 18, 2012

A Secular Gospel for the Sickened Soul

Phil Stutz & Barry Michels, The Tools: Transform Your Problems into Courage, Confidence, and Creativity

Hollywood head-shrink Barry Michels, with his mentor Phil Stutz, thinks we have made some very serious mistakes. Instead of addressing these mistakes in the present, psychiatry as an institution fixates on the past, keeping the wounds of yesteryear open long after they should have healed. But after nearly half a century of hard-fought practice, they believe they have fine-tuned the tools to move forward, and are ready to share them with you.

Using a blend of creative visualization, introspection, and muscular will, the authors lay out five simple steps ordinary people can use to overcome the limitations we set ourselves. Like Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell, Stutz & Michels believe we exist to do something specific, something we haven’t discovered yet. Until we surmount our own attempts to sabotage our purpose, we will live diminished lives. But we have the power to reverse our spiral and reclaim ourselves.

Some people spend their lives fretting; the authors want them to practice gratitude. Some live in fear of external judgment; the authors want them to find their own authority deep within. Some (like me) build walls to keep ourselves in our tiny Comfort Zones; the authors want us to embrace pain as a pathway to the rewards we fear. To do this, we rely not on our own limited strengths, but on the Higher Forces that color our universe.

The authors’ overtly spiritual approach seems counterintuitive in today’s medical settings. They admit it may require some struggle (MIchels describes being raised atheist, and resisting belief in forces that cannot be quantified). But they bolster their techniques with case studies, philosophy, and wheels-on-the-ground evidence. They make a persuasive case that their techniques deserve at least a fair shake if we really want to move forward in life.

But pause briefly on the spiritual aspect. Stutz & Michels perform elaborate verbal gymnastics to avoid getting pinned to a single spiritual tradition. They insist that people of any spiritual heritage can use their techniques equally; even atheists can believe in their Higher Forces without attributing divine meaning to them. Yet the only spiritual heritage they directly cite is the Judeo-Christian one, quoting the Hebrew Tanakh and the philosopher Kierkegaard.

If you removed the New Age lingo from their techniques, and subbed in specifically Christian terminology, it wouldn’t leave a scar. Unfortunately for the “spiritual but not religious” set, the more we learn about the human psyche, the more our understanding accords with that of the Apostle Paul and St. Augustine. Despite lingering myths of post-Enlightenment rationalism, we now know humans are not beings of pure science; we cannot be quantified so easily.

Consider: if we walk this earth for a purpose, then this earth itself has a purpose. If we become whole when we surrender our own ego and live in the likeness of the Higher Forces, then we were perforce created in the image of the Higher Forces. Graphing the parallels between Stutz and Michels’ psychology and Western religious tradition would be long and tedious, yet observant readers will note that the correlations are most certainly present.

Therefore, let’s say it: psychotherapy is a religious pursuit. We humans are worth saving because we know we’re finite, and we know we’re redeemable because our infinite universe opens doors it could slam in our faces. Jesus and Jeremiah shared many of the authors’ beliefs, from a benevolent universe to disdain for the priesthood. Even without a specifically embodied Savior, Stutz and Michels pitch a path to salvation that any Christian pastor would recognize.

Stutz and Michels barely stop short of proclaiming that “we are justified by grace through faith.” I’m not adding to their message, only clarifying where they play coy.

The authors also show no false modesty about their technique’s larger potential. In the final chapter, they assert that the same problems which plague us as individuals characterize our society as well. Like a human spirit, our social spirit lives under a cloud, separated from the Higher Forces. And they dare us to imagine a society that, together, uses their Tools to recapture the spiritual footing that makes healthy life and forward motion possible.

I recommend reading this book alongside Clinton & Springle, Christian therapists with a similar emphasis on spiritual reconciliation. Though the two pairs of authors overlap somewhat, they differ enough that the two parallel books make intense learning. Perhaps if enough readers recover the spirituality to make themselves well, we can see the improvement Stutz and Michels promise, with such bold chutzpah and learned panache.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Creating a Marketplace for Honesty

Dan Ariely, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves

If we’re honest with ourselves, we know we’re not honest with ourselves, at least not always. Post-Enlightenment rationalism has a myth of humans as instruments of reason, and sees unreason as a failure of human nature. But behavioral economist Dan Ariely, who has studied the limits of human rationality for years, turns his attention to what those limits say about humans’ ability to deceive. And his results are fascinating.

Classical economics contends that most people weigh the rewards of breaking the rules against the risk of getting caught. Ariely demonstrates how that vision, called the Simple Model of Rational Crime (SMORC), withers under scrutiny. Even as a thought experiment, it doesn’t make sense, or nobody would carry their laptops and iPods in public. But Ariely isn’t content with thought experiments, when he could apply very real science.

Behavioral economics apparently combines the most ambitious aspects of developmental psychology with business administration. As such, Ariely buttresses his assertions with bold new research. He demonstrates, through clinically controlled experiments, the manners in which honesty waxes and wanes. And he shows the manner in which diligent leaders can encourage greater honesty without resorting to irrational moralism.

Start with two seemingly contradictory facts. First, if we remove consequences, nearly everyone cheats at least a little bit. Second, almost nobody cheats as much as they could. Even if we kick the doors wide open and send all the guards home, few people would plunder the treasury. We can perform bizarre mental gymnastics to rationalize away small transgressions, but people will do what it takes to think of themselves as essentially good.

Unfortunately, we often cannot see the subtle ways in which daily life undermines our honesty. We miss the conflicts of interest that plague virtually all of us—if I can recommend two choices of action for you, and one will make me a profit, what will stop me from putting your needs ahead of mine? And, strangely enough, common human altruism can justify dishonesty. If I can tell a lie that earns you a reward, my likelihood of dishonesty increases.

But it’s not enough that dishonesty just happens; it also spreads virally. When we see people who essentially resemble us get away with dishonesty, we are more likely to cheat ourselves. Anyone who remembers the business ethics failures of 2002 and 2008 recognizes this. The reassuring corollary of this, however, proves that, if we see others resist dishonesty, our likelihood of virtuous behavior increases. We seek role models, even as adults.

Importantly, the most common suggestions for suppressing dishonesty don’t work. While Ariely proves that supervision discourages cheating, regulation only works if regulators remain omnipresent yet emotionally distant, which is unfeasible. And harsh punishments only work if people perform cost-benefit analysis before cheating, which Ariely shows we do not. Thus both the traditional liberal and conservative solutions prove founded on empty air.

Ariely’s most notable solution to dishonesty is also his simplest: remind people that they have a moral code. If people signed contracts, tax returns, and other documents at the top rather than the bottom, people would fudge less. If we ask people to contemplate their ethical foundations, they act appropriately. Even self-avowed atheists cheat less after swearing on a Bible. These elegant solutions arise not from external scolding, but innate declarations of character.

Rituals of purification also seem to make a difference. Research subjects cheated less right after Catholic confession, the rites of Ramadan and Yom Kippur, and other sacred “reset buttons.” Of course, today’s plural society could not compel us to participate in religious rites; but Ariely speculates on the possibility of creating secular equivalents. Considering how many of us have something to confess, I heartily endorse this plan.

I wish Ariely addressed how much our flexible honesty is innate, and how much is learned. In a late chapter, he describes performing his honesty experiments in multiple nations, finding that people demonstrate similar levels of honesty across borders. But since all societies rely on standards of trust, a dishonest society seems very unlikely. Perhaps Ariely could only test inherent honesty using children raised by wolves or something.

Ariely demonstrates that, if we clear away the ideological rubbish, the systems currently in place to encourage honesty have not worked. If we claim to be rational people, we will stop clinging to our Enlightenment myths, and recognize the deeper truth: humans are complex and inconsistent, and deserve the respect that comes with addressing our issues with nuance. We can become honest. Here’s hoping.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Clothing and Class War in HBO's True Blood

Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) after his graduation
to tailored suits and nigh-unchecked power
Our introduction to Russell Edgington, the principal antagonist in season three of HBO’s genre-busting vampire procedural True Blood, emphasizes two traits. First, his house, gilded and soaring and full of antiques. It establishes him as old money, versus Bill Compton’s decaying antebellum plantation, or Eric Northman’s throbbing goth dance club. Indeed, with his uncounted millennia-old artifacts, Edgington’s house calls him beyond old money: it calls him old.

But as Edgington moves through his spandrel-filled mausoleum, we can’t miss his mode of dress. His elegant silks and fitted trousers broadcast that this man would not deign to bend over to pick up a dollar. He practically shoots his cuffs in the face of anyone who would question his judgment: “How dare you impugn my wisdom,” his clothes ask. “Me, whose shirt cost more than the car you drive. My ostentation proves my worth.”

Throughout the series, clothing repeatedly serves as a shorthand for social standing. Take note of any crowd scene in Bon Temps, the fictional Louisiana town at the heart of the series. This it a town of ripped t-shirts, loose jeans, and patched denim jackets (which actually make little sense in the climate). Citizens have an apparent aversion to tucking in their shirt tails. The clothing announces that ours is a town proud of its working class roots and dirt farmer heritage.

Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) doesn't
require Dr. Freud to decipher her costume choices
The muted earth tones, often laced with moth damage, which Bill Compton favors through the first three seasons, emphasize his connection to the South, with its long memory. Southerners know history better than just about any other Americans, and feel at one with long-dead heroes. Southerners practically invented the science of genealogy. The past, in the American South, is never really gone. Bill is an undead embodiment of this fixation.

So we cannot miss the significance, in season four, when Bill transitions from his battered vintage wardrobe to Armani suits and hair pomade. Though he wears dark wool-blend coats, his shirts and ties shimmer in bright primary colors, announcing his ascension to power, and daring anyone to look away from him. The slim cut even makes him look taller. People entering his executive suite appear almost poised to kiss his ring—in part because he now has one.

The change in Bill’s wardrobe is mirrored in the change of his house. In the first three seasons, his house always resembles a work in progress, like someone trying aiming for shabby chic yet only hitting the first half. Now, as vampire King of Louisiana, he lives amid stainless steel, dark woods, and glimmering crystal. Compared to his former conditions, or his predecessor’s Vegas-style faux Mediterranean grotesque, Bill’s refurbished home exudes power.

Eric, by contrast, reeks of hedonism. Despite declarations of filial loyalty in the second and third seasons, Eric doesn’t blush to live in sensual indulgence, feeding on buxom maidens and dancing the night away in his rave club. Though he wears sport coats over t-shirts in an effort to seem hip, look closely. The drape announces tailoring, and his creases are so sharp he could shave with his cuffs. His clothes bespeak immense wealth—which he may not actually have.

Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard) can only
look about so bad-ass in a jacket that cost more
than my combined student debt
When Eric drinks the blood of strangers, he works to keep a drop from spilling on his clothes. Perhaps he’s remarkably fastidious. Or perhaps he can’t afford to take his blazers to the dry cleaner. Despite prestige and authority, Eric remains unsatisfied, trying to look richer than he is. What wealth he might lack, however, doesn’t impede his lifestyle. We’ve seen him exsanguinate, mangle, strangle, and otherwise massacre countless humans without consequence.

The rich really can get away with murder. At least on pay cable.

Bill, Eric, Edgington, and other vampires embody Thorstien Veblen’s principle of conspicuous consumption. This contrasts with Sookie, the central human and serial love interest. Her blonde hair and fair skin, always displayed for maximum advantage, bespeak the sun she can view, which her paramours cannot. But her clothing, favoring simple cuts and natural fibers, reflects the relative poverty of her circumstances. If Bill is the undead South, Sookie is his living alternative.

With vampires clad in climate-inappropriate designer labels, we cannot miss the symbolism when they walk amid humans wearing patched off-the-rack cotton. The implicit criticism of wealth and power, which sucks the blood of the working class (literally, in this case) reflects deeply held attitudes among the American working class. The wardrobe design on True Blood practically serves as a manifesto of economic reality in today’s South, and America in general.

Monday, June 11, 2012

What Happens In Fantasyland Stays In Fantasyland

Review, Vicki Pettersson, The Taken: Celestial Blues, Book One

PI Griffin “Grif” Shaw and journalist Katherine “Kit” Craig are both outside their time. Kit made that choice: she’s part of the rockabilly subculture, which adores wide lapels, pompadours, and boxy Detroit cars. Grif made no choice: he hasn’t come to grips with his murder in 1960. When one ill-chosen act of kindness forces Grif back into human flesh, and into Kit’s life, they must stand together to face down a threat that may shatter Las Vegas to its desert roots.

I’m of two minds about Vicki Pettersson’s noir fantasy romance, the first in a trilogy. On the one hand, Pettersson doesn’t just follow the conventions of a repetitive genre. Though she knows what audiences expect, and doles it out at the right moments, her decision to emphasize mystery and use fantasy only subtly makes an interesting change. Unlike, say, Jim Butcher or Seanan McGuire, Pettersson uses her supernatural heroes to solve a very earthy crime.

On the other hand, that virtue is also a problem. In Grif, Pettersson creates a hero heightened with the promise which only fantasy offers, then essentially sidelines that for most of the book. She launches two parallel narratives. In one, Grif, after half a century as an apprentice angel, must come to grips with the limitations of the flesh. In the other, he and Kit must solve a crime before the criminal kills them both. And the two narratives scarcely meet.

Don’t get me wrong. The heroes must solve an interesting crime laden with urgency, and a criminal who feels oily to readers without being obvious. Pettersson uses the “What Happens In Vegas” ethic in an unexpected way, turning Sin City on its head. Does a city premised on sensual indulgence have a bottom limit? Where must a vice merchant draw the line? Pettersson gives her characters strong views on these questions, but provides no pat answers.

My views on urban fantasy as a genre are well documented: much as I enjoy the premise, it often descends into the same old routine. Anyone could say this about any genre, since some readers don’t want to be challenged, and would rather see more of what already makes them comfortable. Yet such slipstream fiction’s heightened reality should lead to challenges about what makes us real and human.

Some authors do that. One of my prior reviews dealt with three authors who used fantastic elements in real world settings to draw our attention to the unexamined prejudices many ordinary people share. Pettersson starts in the same direction, since one of her protagonists has crossed the line between human and superhuman, then finds himself thrust back. Grif’s struggle with his protean nature is remarkably subtle for a genre that often prefers bombast.

Yet she undercuts her gains by a reliance on frankly ordinary interactions. Considering how Grif comes to the story laden with knowledge of the transcendent in a way few mortals will ever have, he should upend the characters’ lives and shine a light into their hidden corners. Instead, his celestial intervention consists of grilling a witness after he’s dead. And Grif’s romantic encounter with Kit is downright humdrum.

I kept waiting for this book to break out of the ordinary. It had multiple opportunity. A scene of organized debauchery could attract sufficient psychic energy to breach the gap between the ordinary and the transcendent. An angel’s new discovery of life’s sensual pleasures might overthrow Sin City’s reliance on anonymous, repetitive gluttony. Yet it never quite happens.

This list of shortcomings, though, overlooks one important point: I really like this book. The narrative didn’t play it safe, and while its ending was predictable, the path it took to that ending took me by surprise several times. I particularly like that Pettersson focuses on a human crime, because many writers (Seanan McGuire comes to mind) largely exclude mortals from the story.

And I like Pettersson’s use of religion. Many urban fantasy writers are frustratingly vague when it comes to God. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden has had sit-down confabs with archangels and elementals, yet still refuses to take sides. Though Pettersson narrows her focus to cosmology, and deals very little with theology, she at least uses a topic many of her peers carefully avoid.

I just wish the story halves were better integrated. In a crowded noir fantasy market, authors must create a bang to stand out. Pettersson has good characters, good situation, and powerful conflict. Merging them more seamlessly would take her story from merely good to great.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Boris Johnson and the Summer of London

Boris Johnson, Johnson's Life of London: The People Who Made the City that Made the World

Flamboyant London mayor Boris Johnson loves his city. Not just the city as it is, either: the city he governs, in which everyone jockeys for the chance to snap pics of their beloved “Boris” on his bike. He loves the whole historic sweep, from Roman foundations around a convenient tide pool, through Saxon hegemony and Elizabethan pomp, to Churchillian perseverance and modern rock stardom. And he wants to share that love with you.

Boris recounts the history of his city in seventeen personalities, nine inventions, and two structures. Some of it seems obvious: how can we survey London without stops on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Florence Nightingale? Others may take readers by surprise: when we think of London, few of us remember Lionel Rothschild or Emperor Hadrian. And who knew that London gave us the three-piece suit, the municipal sewer system, or ping-pong?

Already available for a year in Britain, Johnson’s smart, witty, surprisingly touching tome has hit American shores in time for 2012, the Summer of London. With the Queen’s Jubilee and the Summer Olympics, the world has turned its eye to the City in a way it hasn’t since the Carnaby Street heyday. Boris makes the case that our interest should last beyond the here and now.

This cracking yarn starts with Boudica, the Iceni queen whose claim on London was that she destroyed it. When its marble collonades represented Mediterranean intrusion on fair-skinned Britain, London earned unmatched Celtic wrath. Yet the city proved resilient. First Romans, then Saxons, competed to rebuild and improve it. St. Mellitus considered it so important that he built the first St. Paul’s Cathedral from driftwood and glue.

William the Conqueror claimed he won England at Hastings, but even he couldn’t call himself King until London knelt—which it almost didn’t do. Parliamentary gadfly John Wilkes lit a fire of civil reform in London, one which found its truest home in the Americas. And Keith Richards, initially passed over by the cruel post-war meritocracy, refused to bend until he had remade himself as the bard of a generation.

Boris turns out to be a remarkable storyteller. He brings together solid history, fanciful folktales, and new discoveries in archaeology and anthropology, to spin London as a yarn of hard-fought but glorious accomplishments. Persons who could have vanished into history’s morass become giants, in a way they only could in a city like London. Boris tells his tales in a breathless, wheeling, funny, and even mildly naughty tone that hooks readers eagerly.

This unabashedly mythmaking turn at pop history carries the same vigor that has made Boris an international phenomenon. He doesn’t even pretend to represent everything about the city. He acknowledges, for instance, the shocking inequality created by the Industrial Revolution, but doesn’t linger on it. And he extols the “great deeds of gread men” (and some women), creating a history that happens primarily at the top.

But maybe that’s the point. This isn’t supposed to be dry documentarian history, talking about everyone in an undifferentiated mass. This is the mythic story of a city where anything can happen, and look! Sometimes it does! A woolspinner’s son from upriver can turn into the greatest crafter of language ever, as Shakespeare did. A Cockney barber’s son can remake the world of art, just like JMW Turner. Wow, just think what you or I could do.

Johnson anchors his story to the present, as mythmakers do. He locates ancient landscapes according to modern street maps. Some great battle took place where a building now stands. The ancient Rothschild home, he says, has been replaced by a motorway. This melding of past and present ensures we understand that history matters because, in a real way, it’s still with us.

Perhaps most remarkably, most of the personalities Boris so lovingly recounts were, like Boris himself, born elsewhere. King Alfred the Great retook the city from the Norse and restored its greatness, but he was a Winchester man. Samuel Johnson, tabloid firestarter WT Stead, and showman mayor Dick Whittington all immigrated from the provinces. Some of Boris’ great Londoners aren’t even British.

London, for Boris, is more than a place. It’s the opportunity to remake ourselves, to encounter new ideas and more diverse peoples, and become the spirits we were meant to be. If America is the new Shining City on a Hill, as one President claimed, it inherited that role after that honor straddled the Thames for nineteen hundred years. Boris tells an exciting, spirited yarn. And he makes his city a true hero.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

All Work Is All Play

Popping prefab cartons into shape for the assembly line gets tiresome fast, so to shake off boredom, I ramp up my pace, get several places ahead, then jump back and grab more flattened cartons to refill my work station. Normally, this is somebody else’s job. Packing techs, line runners, or anyone passing should replenish our cartons; but their presence is unpredictable. I’d rather take on the challenge of stocking the station myself.

After I do this several times, replenishing cartons, crushing packing boxes, and generally doing two mens’ jobs, Cindy at the next station looks up. “Kevin, are you testing yourself again?”

I pause for a moment. “Yes.”

Cindy has seen me do this before. I’ll do more than my job description requires, sometimes pushing myself to the limits of my strength, just to see if I can do it. I have sometimes attempted more than I can do. I have wrenched myself at times. But I keep doing it, because only doing the minimum is boring. Doing more than required doesn’t just keep me engaged through long midnight shifts; it gives me something for my job to be about.

Psychology has demonstrated that humans derive meaning from complexity. It’s the reason many people see a starry sky as evidence of a benign creator. It’s also the reason why difficult jobs feels more rewarding than simple jobs. I’ve seen many line workers complain about how tedious factory work is, then find ways to do the absolute minimum. Those people tend not to last.

Biohacker Meredith Patterson
Jack Hitt writes about the play principle, the idea that we do more and better work when it feels fun, than when we do it for pay. This idea of intrinsic motivation, getting our momentum to work inside ourselves rather than from an outside authority, has support going back a long way. Writers like Paul Lockhart and Richard Lanham advocate for a return of play to education, but their core arguments apply to the workplace as well.

In perhaps his most engaging passage, Hitt describes sitting for ten hours in a jury-rigged laboratory in a San Francisco apartment with amateur geneticist Meredith Patterson, experimenting with ways to use the transformer from a neon sign to attach a bioluminescent gene to live yogurt cultures. You read that right. But if you think it resembles the tedious “experiments” you ran in high school biology class, you’re wrong

Importantly, Hitt makes gene hacking sound fun. If the tech slaves in America’s biotech firms enjoyed their jobs as much as Patterson does, imagine how much further along science would be today. Imagine lab-grown organs for transplant, inexpensive vaccines for common diseases, or affordable biofuels. But because industrial organization reduces our smartest minds to the level of service station grease monkeys, such progress hasn’t happened yet.

The industrial model now ascendant in America was devised over a century ago, by a machinist and Harvard dropout named Frederick Winslow Taylor. His system was dubbed scientific management, though empirical science had little to do with it. Taylor believed that control should rest entirely in the hands of credentialed managers, not artisanal workers. Labor should remain entirely in the dark about the work they do; they are simple machines.

Frederick Winslow Taylor
Reading Taylor’s words now, with his overt disdain for labor and almost magical belief in the goodness of management, looks stunningly naive, especially after managers almost tanked the economy in 2008. But we cannot deny his system has produced some benefits. Standardizing industrial products ensures that any screw I buy will fit the same size screw hole. And the computer I wrote this on would not exist without industrial standards.

But we also know, if we’ve done industrial work, that the marginal cost has been great. Because machines are expensive, scientific management has created an unbridgeable gap between labor and management. And it has created generations of workers who have no investment in the job they do, because the job is dull, repetitive, and bland.

My managers love to tell us line workers how vital we are to the company’s economic viability, yet I have to find ways to make meaning in my work. Political economists like David Brooks and (yeah, I’ll say it) Mitt Romney claim that if we aren’t rich, it’s our own fault, yet my peers are refused any stake. I believe our industrial masters would see a flush of wealth, for themselves and the nation, if they could restore a sense of complexity and play to the work we do for pay.

Monday, June 4, 2012

America, Land of the Do-It-Yourself Self

Jack Hitt, Bunch of Amateurs: Inside America's Hidden World of Inventors, Tinkerers, and Job Creators

Andrew Carnegie never went to school. Thomas Edison had no professional credentials whatsoever. America’s greatest innovations have come from the hands of people who the “proper officials” said had no business getting involved. Journalist Jack Hitt asserts that amateurism, the pursuit of a field out of sheer love, without expectation of reward, sits at the heart of American identity.

Amateur derives from a French term for love, and signifies that we have a passion for some subject that no amount of money can approach. And that’s what makes America strong. We made a country without relying on kings or popes. We advanced science sometimes in the face of proper scholarship. Our best businesses started as shoestring operations. We are a people that has built ourselves without waiting for someone to rubber stamp our enterprises.

Amateurism stands, for Hitt, against “credentialism,” the dogmatic belief that externally bestowed endorsement makes somebody an expert. Credentials often impede innovative thought—a point that isn’t even new this year, since it played so large in Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine. The very process of becoming a professional insider instills habits of thought that ensure the thinker can do the job exactly how it’s always been done, and not one step beyond.

We can see this in Hitt’s book, when professional ornithologists wear blinders that keep them from seeing what even an amateur birder can see: that ain’t an extinct bird returned to earth. Or in the chapter on amateur astronomy, when the professionals have to keep doing work that will produce results. The amateurs have the liberty to study the sky, looking for the kinds of discoveries that rarely come, but actually move human knowledge forward.

Jack Hitt
We know this, just looking around. We can see that business school graduates make lousy entrepreneurs. Journalism school graduates seldom do meaningful investigations, preferring to repeat official statements with the agreeability of bobblehead dolls. Most physicists’ best work is done before they turn thirty. Outsiders, guerillas, and eager neophytes make the actual inroads that keep America’s greatest disciplines thriving.

Hitt notes an important study showing that compensation actually sucks the life from pursuits. From an early age, pay changes the equation that drives our actions. Small children will draw or write or play for the sheer joy of the process; but when rewards, or grown-up approval, gets into the equation, creativity and productivity go through the floor. That’s why, when you get a job doing what used to be your hobby, the joy goes out of whatever you used to love.

Not every chapter supports Hitt’s thesis. Indeed, his chapter on amateur archaeology, with its implications of sublimated racism and pseudo-intellectualism, suggests that amateurism contains the roots of powerful abuse. Even in his largely laudatory chapter on amateur genetics, he never quite addresses the risk he brings up of some exuberant teen warping the common cold into the next Black Plague. These serve as cautions against unbridled amateurism.

The do-it-yourself ethos taps into the best America has to offer, but also the worst. It forms the lifeblood of cultural development, allowing those truly passionate about their field to make substantial contributions. But it allows ignorant crackpots to go off half-cocked, propogating ideas that are dangerous or wildly offensive. But maybe that’s a fair description of America and her people: a nation of unrecognized geniuses and wild-eyed fanatics.

How, then to counter the worst impulses of amateurism? Hitt has no suggestions. Instead, he simply reminds us that, for all its risks, amateurism has contributed more to our national well-being than we can possibly calculate. It falls to us to ensure that we keep up the passionate immersion of amateurism, without lapsing into the dangerous extremes of moronic crankery.

Hitt overlaps with several other recent books. In addition to Lehrer, mentioned above, Hitt shares many themes with Susan Cain’s Quiet, Charles Pierce’s Idiot America, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers—must be something in the water. Sometimes they correspond almost verbatim, since they’re quoting the same sources. While Hitt doesn’t necessarily bring new ideas to the table, he brings new and interesting context.

Hitt makes a strong case that Americans’ frontier ethos, where we do it ourselves, and where we make our own expertise, makes us the people we are. He sells his point with careful insight, unexpected dry wit, and spirited narrative panache. If he can get just a few people out of their TV-induced comas and out doing what they love, he will have done a good service to this great land.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Reasons to Believe—Thinking Faith in Today's Society

Mitch Stokes, PhD, A Shot of Faith (to the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists

Since the turn of the millennium, a new generation of extremely vocal atheists with a strident tone and a near-dogmatic reliance on science have reached the forefront of public discourse. Though they’ve had little impact on what Americans (and other peoples) actually believe, they have raised questions that deserve answers. Sadly, many theists have tried to answer the New Atheists note for note, dragging the discussion into the mud.

That’s why I like Dr. Mitch Stokes. Rather than sorting the New Atheists’ hash, he recognizes that it’s more important for Christians to have sufficient insight and mental hygiene to hold their own in a discussion. Drawing primarily on his mentor, Alvin Plantigna, Stokes brings Christians up to date on spiritual philosophy. This is no small task: as Stokes makes plain, Christian philosophy, once left for dead, is now a thriving enterprise.

Like Peter Hitchens (brother of Christopher) and Alister McGrath, Stokes is a former atheist who could not sustain his unbelief. Having studied philosophy and religion after a successful career in engineering, he is supremely qualified to stand in the gap between religious and secularist mindsets, translating each for the other. And, though he definitely takes sides in that debate, he treats even those he opposes with remarkable fairness.

In the first part of his treatise, he discusses epistemology, the philosophical study of how we know what we know. This matters because many prominent atheists decry theism as an irrational proposition which flies in the face of supported reason. Stokes discusses what reason really looks like, as well as the limitations humans routinely place upon their own faculties. Some people try to constrain reason by simply declaring certain topics off limits a priori.

In fairness, atheist adherents probably don’t know they have done this. Like a fish explaining water, these advocates have been so immersed in their position for so long that they see it as eminently reasonable. And has happens in such situations, disagreement looks like unreason, even when it’s not. Stokes shows, in several diverse ways, why the evidence does not lead to the conclusion, and why belief in God is as reasonable as its opposite number.

Following on that, Stokes graduates onto the two most common objections to religion: that science renders God moot, and that evil contradicts the presence of a good God. But in both cases, the premises fail to sustain the conclusions. Stokes approaches both questions from multiple angles, allowing both believers and unbelievers to examine why we cannot consider atheist reasoning as ironclad as its proponents claim.

Consider, first, science. The feud between them did not arise until very late; Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton were deeply religious. (Darwin, a parson by training, vacillated throughout his life.) Early conflicts, like that surrounding Galileo and his trial, turned not on whether science refuted God, but whether Galileo’s science accorded with Christianity better than Aristotle’s. Even the Vatican now concedes it does.

More important, science, by creating explanations that do not follow inevitably from observation, takes a theological tack. Whether we believe our universe was designed or arose through mechanical principles, we cannot discuss origins without taking some position on God. (Bonhoeffer realized this eighty years ago.) Modern physics has reached a point of dependence on principles which exist outside nature, and are therefore supernatural.

Stokes does less justice to the problem of evil. I fear he takes too much as written. He makes the point, like many before him, that we have no concept of evil without absolute standards, which imply a First Cause. Even Nietzsche, nobody’s theist, fled atheism because it lacked moral foundation. But Stokes ignores recent atheist strides in codifying non-religious morality.

Unlike the perennially frustrating Hank Hanegraaff, who tries to instill faith by outmaneuvering doubt, Stokes does not try to convince others to believe. Creating faith is, by Christian reckoning, the exclusive domain of the Spirit. Rather, Stokes attempts to create head space in which belief is simply possible. Christianity, for him, is as much intellectual as religious, and he wants believers to take faith as seriously as any other mental proposition.

Stokes admits few people have ever been converted to theism by weight of argument. But that does not absolve Christians from having solid intellectual positions. In fact, this lack of learning has contributed to Christianity’s more egregious failings. Stokes translates the newest Christian scholarship into plain English, so believers can not only counter unbelievers’ arguments, but can test their own doubt, and thus grow stronger in their own faith.