Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The New Math of Inequity and Wealth

Samuel Bowles, The New Economics of Inequality and Redistribution

Lost in the debate surrounding capitalism’s vast inequality structures has been the fact that inequality is as bad for the haves as the have-nots. As veteran economist Samuel Bowles demonstrates in his latest monograph, vast systemic inequity results in good-faith members of a free society operating below their economic potential. But implementing solutions will prove more difficult than pinpointing the problem.

Bowles has been at the forefront of innovative economics for decades (he name-drops Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy), during which time inequality has migrated from the margins of Marxist theory into the journalistic mainstream. The attention paid to massive inequity in the Presidential campaign just past makes Bowles’ theories, which have incubated for decades, all the more timely. And to his credit, he resists the desire for an ordinary partisan screed.

The debate, up to now, has turned on two contrasting points. Traditional conservatism holds that markets have a balancing effect, distributing rewards according to just principles of merit and reward. Progressives have countered that by saying that those who start out with more will receive greater rewards. Conservatives want the state to defend property rights and ownership, while progressives want government to redress injustices stemming from poverty and lack.

But Bowles asserts both these models omit important information. Market libertarianism and statist interventionism both assume a utopian system free from coordination failures. Yeah, right; we should live so long. Laissez faire only works if everyone plays by the same rules, which measurably happens too infrequently, while strict Keynesianism has been long-since overtaken by global technology. The old ways don’t work anymore.

Our problems arise from a perverse incentive structure. Consider the example of a factory, one Bowles explicates often and well. Owners have every incentive to resist modernization and demand workers do more, because they want to maximize profit on existing capital investments. Workers, by contrast, have no ownership stake in outcomes, and thus little incentive to obey owners’ expectations. Without governance structures, the two talk past each other.

Nor could they do otherwise. Because they have asymmetrical power (bosses have many reprimand mechanisms, while workers can only work or quit), no discussion can be truly frank and fair. Inequality therefore stretches beyond the realm of wealth, into distributions of power: the rich have many options, the poor have few. No wonder the poor stop participating in economic and political advancement. Diligence produces small, or no, reward.

Ownership, that conservative shibboleth, provides some answer. People work harder when they own the means of production. They care more for outcomes when they own the product of their work. But breaking into the world of ownership requires massive capital, which only the elites have. Bowles backs this up with graphs and charts, which make his math-rich narrative much more comprehensible, but it boils down to that old working-class proverb: Them that has, gets.

Credit markets compound this problem by limiting lending practices. Those already imbued with wealth need not borrow to finance new ventures, but the poor must borrow to finance anything new. And lenders, especially post-Great Recession, are notoriously averse to loaning money to those without a proven track record. Business loan interviews are more dreaded than dental exams. This creates material disincentive for innovators to try anything new, risky, and visionary.

The answer lies in redistribution, though not the methods traditionally arrayed. Conventional socialism and central planning have failed spectacularly. Direct capital transfers, as Bowles documents them, have not imploded with Kremlin-like flair, but have tended to die quietly, because giving the poor money and goods does not give them power, authority, or knowledge. We will only redress Twenty-First Century inequality with Twenty-First Century remedies.

This book is not for everybody. Bowles writes for fellow economists and political leaders, and his prose is dense with terminology. He provides definitions for some idioms, but not others. He’s particularly fond of the term “Nash equilibrium,” perhaps assuming we’ve all seen A Beautiful Mind. Alongside frequent allusions to other economists, Bowles’ jargon-rich prose makes for slow reading. This book could really use a glossary.

But for those eager to participate in the important discussions that will dominate economics in the coming years, Bowles does well. Not only does he lay out the terms that have defined the debate until now, he creates a persuasive third-way approach that defies doctrinaire thinking. His proactive proposals give activists something to speak for, and his charts offer ways to make it comprehensible. This slim, powerful book will help set the tone for years to come.

Friday, November 23, 2012

A Fun New Take on Christmas Music

Robin Harper & Marvin Goldstein, Simply Christmas

I admit it: I don’t like Christmas music. Many artists tear off Christmas albums to get something in under deadline, and apparently hope to score a crossover hit, so the music doesn’t get as much care as it deserves. Between the bland secular gruel and the pious pomp, I turn my radio off more at Christmas than any other time of the year. Which is why I like Robin Harper’s Christmas album, misleadingly entitled Simply Christmas.

Harper sings a selection of Christmas standards, including old hymns, recent chart toppers, and classics you probably heard on your uncle’s old 45’s. Though none of these songs are original compositions (the most recent is from 1993), Harper puts her own spin on them. She sings in a classic Broadway jazz-fusion style, backed by pianist Marvin Goldstein, whose playing recalls Richard Carpenter, or a more laid-back Vince Guaraldi.

The “Simple” part of Harper and Goldstein’s title refers to their stripped-down style. With no overdubbing or ornate orchestration, they play with remarkable intimacy, like the star musicians at a wine-and-cheese party. You can imagine these two at your favorite fern bar, an impression amplified by the audible smile in Harper’s voice, and the playful embellishments Goldstein throws on his piano. Their music eschews hip studio trickery.

But do not assume this music is “Simple” because it lacks sophistication. Harper’s vocals recall the heyday of jazz pop, and while she doesn’t growl like Shirley Bassey, she could hold her own with the likes of Connie Francis or Dinah Shore. And when she takes on songs associated with particular artists (Eartha Kitt on “Santa Baby,” Kathy Mattea on “Mary Did You Know?”), she avoids the trap of merely mimicking the famous renditions.

Harper and Goldstein are not satisfied merely playing lounge classics; this is not somebody’s bland karaoke album. Interesting flourishes, like Harper’s accelerated take on “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,” or her unexpectedly brisk “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” keep listeners guessing what she’ll do next. Behind her, Goldstein throws ornaments on his playing that keep his piano spirited, without overwhelming his vocalist.

Nor is Harper afraid to vary her tone. Her take on “Mary Did You Know?” captures the minor-key energy of Mattea’s classic recording, but in an urbane jazz style that deflects Mattea’s country original. Harper captures the fear Mary must have felt, knowing she’d birthed the Son of God. This remarkable detour into sonic darkness sustains the poignant edge that she begins with the almost political “Grown-Up Christmas List” and carries into her bold yet wistful “Silent Night.”

I especially appreciate that Harper’s repertoire is specifically Christmas-oriented. Between her use of religious songs, and secular tunes that specify Christmas, she maintains a thread that her music stands for something. No “Happy Holidays” here, thank you very much. Of her eleven tracks, only one, the jazz standard “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” doesn’t mention Christ or Christmas specifically.

Even “White Christmas” and “The Man With the Bag,” artifacts of seasonal sentimentality that usually bore me, have remarkable spirit in Harper’s renditions. Perhaps that’s because, instead of rendering them in the blandly inoffensive stylings of lounge singers everywhere, Harper sings them like they mean something to her personally. This results in tracks that feel like she’s sharing something intimate with us, like she’s invested a piece of herself in the product.

Harper bookends the album with two takes on Mel Tormé and Bob Wells’ “The Christmas Song,” which, in its combination of religious and secular images, sums up her album well. Of her many covers, this is probably the closest Harper comes to recreating the original, and she does a great job capturing Nat King Cole’s barely detectable syncopation. This track clearly situates Harper as part of an ongoing jazz Christmas tradition.

My only complaint with this album is its brevity: it runs just under thirty-five minutes, merely LP length, which by current standards is unusually short. Harper and Goldstein could have taken on many more tracks from the great Christmas tradition without losing the energy that makes this album so listenable. Maybe she figured less is more. But it ends much sooner than I would have liked.

This album probably won’t change my opinion of all Christmas music. As long as artists see the season as a chance to be insipidly sentimental, I’ll probably dodge Christmas songs. But Harper and Goldstein do well in an area where better-known artists fall flat, and craft a listenable album for the season.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Ken Davis, Christian Vagueness, and God's Full Life

Ken Davis, Fully Alive: Lighten Up and Live - A Journey that Will Change Your Life

About seventy years ago, George Orwell said that Christianity would suffer in the latter Twentieth Century, because while we were good at instilling a fear of hell, whenever we trod anywhere near heaven, we turned vague and elusive. Look it up: he repeats it several times in All Art Is Propaganda. When I first read that, I didn’t know what he meant, but as I grow older and more mature in my faith, I see it displayed around me every day.

Too often, unfortunately, we don’t know what we believe. We have grown accustomed to Christmas pageants featuring fifth grade girls in liturgical robes, pretending to be angels and proclaiming, “Do not be afraid.” Afraid of what? Indeed, we fear too little, and enjoy too little, and so much of what we call piety is an accrued shell of cultural mess. Because of that, we don’t really live, because we feel we have little to live for.

We Christians are moving into a season when we celebrate the humble birth of a King who came not to be served, but to serve. We celebrate His calling to exalt the poor, restore hope to the broken, and make ourselves an image of the God we proclaim. Yet looking around our churches, I see that enacted all too infrequently. We try to lure converts with highly programmed liturgy and a “worship high,” when the world really wants to see us live what we believe.

Nor do I hold myself exempt from that. I know I talk a much better game than I live. And an important part of that comes about because I’ve never successfully stated what I really believe.

Christian humorist and motivational speaker Ken Davis hits many of the right notes in his latest exhortation. By zeroing in on the ways in which we hold ourselves back from the life God made available to us in Jesus Christ, he makes a convincing case that we do our professed faith injustice when we live half-alive. But I think he tries to do too much, and parts of his book aren’t nearly as strong and confident as other parts.

In his early sixties, Davis, who has been making people laugh for the Lord for decades, had a real “come to Jesus” moment when he saw a photograph of himself on the beach with his granddaughter. By then, he had ballooned to over 240 pounds, and his physical and mental health were in a spiral. He knew that, if he wanted to enjoy his grandchildren, he needed to get back on track, or else he was going to die.

Davis embarked on a journey intended not only to restore his health, but to reconnect him to the Source of all life and meaning. He spends several chapters detailing the processes he took to regain control of his body, and all the ways in which his life is improved now that his “Temple of the Lord” is capable of greater acts of worship. Looking back, I wish he’d written a spiritual memoir of his health; I would have enjoyed that book.

Instead, Davis tries to tackle the whole Christian experience, and all the ways in which our short-sighted choices cut us off from the source of real life. And because Davis attempts so much, he accomplishes too little. Whole chapters have a stultifying vagueness that saps them of their vigor. Make new friends? Shed the baggage that holds you back? These are easier said than done, and they lack the specificity that makes Davis’ health-related chapters so electric.

Davis essentially spreads himself too thin, and in the process, he trots out the superficial vagueness that has become Christianity’s tragic hallmark. While he dissects the mistakes all Christians make when we try to go it alone, his solutions too often turn into bland bromides. I really wish he’d stuck with the health memoir. “I started out here, did this to correct, and learned these lessons.” Those are the best, and also most specific, parts of his book.

Early on, Davis quotes Saint Irenaeus, one of the post-apostolic Church Fathers, who wrote: “God’s glory is the earthly creature made fully and eternally alive with the life of the Spirit.” Davis makes this the thesis of his book, and returns to this point several times. I couldn’t agree more. But because Davis tries to address too many parts of life, few of them appear full. I like Davis’ point, but his execution falls short of his effusion.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Bob Roberts Calls All Faiths To Gather At God's Table

Bob Roberts, Jr., Bold as Love: What Can Happen When We See People the Way God Does

Once upon a time, people chose religions much the same way they chose football teams: they rooted for the same team their neighbors did. But today’s unprecedented mass migration has resulted in diverse, powerful world religions living next door to one another. Picking our faith passively, or throwing our hands in the air, is not an option. We must speak frankly, but lovingly, with all religions in today’s compact world.

When Dallas megachurch pastor Bob Roberts, Jr., met a Saudi prince who asked him what he had done to promote dialog, he felt overwhelmed. Dallas is the capital of Jesusland! Yet when he got home, he noticed mosques, synagogues, temples, and more, right on his doorstep. The supposed Bible Belt has as much religious diversity as any American region. So he took the logical step, reaching out to imams and rabbis for his city’s first multifaith sit-down.

This book combines anecdotes of Roberts’ personal discoveries, lessons he learned about his own and others’ beliefs, and suggestions to build similar experiences across America. Roberts’ suggestions are both timely and relevant. The Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) share a call to love our neighbors, a call shared by most faiths and philosophies. But it’s hard to love one another when we don’t know one another.

Like me, Roberts distrusts the sort of “interfaith” meetings that enjoyed hip cachet in the 1990s. Too often, these descended into huggy, syncretic pablum in which nobody stood for anything. No wonder interfaith outreach dwindled after 9/11. Roberts prefers the term “multifaith,” which reflects his real goal: people who passionately believe their own faith, and passionately want to know their neighbors as real people.

Roberts expected initial hostility from his congregation, and to an extent, he got it. Some people have a fortress mentality, only talking to others of like mind, seeing outsiders as a besieging enemy. A certain subset of American religious and political discourse drums up the idea that we only retain our ideological purity if we keep diversity at arm’s length. Some families left Roberts’ congregation rather than sit down with Jews and Muslims.

But far more families stayed. People with intensely different theologies found they could discuss their beliefs without muddying themselves. Indeed, Roberts says how frank, respectful dialog with believers of multiple faiths urged him to refine his own beliefs. Creation makes more sense after you’ve explained your beliefs to atheists; the Trinity comes into sharp detail when you define the doctrine for Muslims.

Roberts says, “The strength of a religion or faith is not what it is when left alone but what it is when challenged. Hard times make for strong faith, deep learning, and moving closer to God.” Participants in Roberts’ multifaith encounters emerged with a deeper understanding of their own beliefs, and cast off trappings that were merely cultural, not true to the faith.

Often, sincere believers of good character fall into the trap of seeing other faiths’ adherents as prospective converts. We proselytize without bothering to learn each other’s hopes and aspirations. But God does not call us to keep a scorecard. We love one another when we know each other’s names and hearts. We have the best hope of reaching each other when the world sees us live the true tenets of our faith.

For instance, Roberts describes one early meeting between his congregation and local Muslims. His congregation forgot to put away their Sunday stuff, and Roberts was astonished to see several Muslims signing up to join his members on an inner-city work retreat. Think about that. What better way to learn what another religion believes than to sweat side-by-side with true believers? Even if we never make converts, we make friends.

Roberts tells touching, funny stories about his multifaith friendships. His wife joined a multifaith cooking club. Not only did the women learn about each other’s cuisine and culture, but the Muslim women made new friends around whom they could take off their hijabs. Roberts also describes halal turkey hunting with his good friend, Imam Zia. He sees these encounters as metaphors for what’s possible when faiths talk with, not past, each other.

If we want to know members of other world faiths, we must abandon the fuzzy dream of ignoring our differences. Bob Roberts makes a persuasive case that, if we just talk to one another in love, we will not only make inroads toward lasting peace, but we will know the belief our faith has called us to for a long time.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Tyler Dilts' New California Noir

Tyler Dilts, The Pain Scale

A Congressman’s daughter-in-law and grandchildren are murdered in a manner both gratuitous and pointless. Long Beach homicide detective Danny Beckett thinks he’s seen everything, but even this is more than he expected. Just back from a year-long medical leave, Beckett has survived a disfiguring attack that leaves him in constant racking pain. But at least his physical pain gives him something to think about, besides his psychological pain.

Tyler Dilts makes good use of traditional noir boilerplates, upending readers’ expectations in ways that keep us wanting to pay attention. Instead of relying on our familiarity with traditions, like the sarcastic loner hero and the villain for hire, he creates them anew, giving us characters who want to rejoin the human race, but for whatever reason cannot. His attempts to imbue old stereotypes with new motivations revive the noir tradition for today’s generation.

Detective Beckett doesn’t want to hold the human race at arm’s length. He remains friends with an old case witness, tries to keep good working relations with his fellow LBPD detectives, and has a puckish sense of humor. And he isn’t a conscious “man outside his time.” He reads widely, savvies technology, and gets liberal arts in-jokes. His learned indie hipster persona resembles nothing so much as, well, me.

But his personal history is studded with suffering. He lost both his father and his wife violently, which plagues him, but also gives him remarkable sympathy for the victims he must investigate. His last major case left him a scar running the length of his left arm, so pain marks every moment of his life. In other words, unlike your typical smart-mouthed noir hero, Beckett has unusual cause to fend off the world with sarcasm and arrogance.

Also unlike typical noir heroes, Beckett understands himself as damaged. Where Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe think themselves honorable for alienating others and nursing grudges, Beckett realizes the trials he puts others through. He tries to make amends, but finds himself impeded by his constant pain, which prompts him to lash out at the worst possible moments. This alternating presence and absence of awareness gives Beckett’s edge real human dimension.

Dilts writes with a striking tenor that shows at once his familiarity with mystery standards, and his refusal to be bound. For one, his chapters are unusually long for genre fiction. He offsets this, however, by subdividing each chapter into short, action-driven scenes, many of which flash past with the urgency of a 1980s TV drama. This lets him linger on important developments as long as he needs, while still keeping the pace brisk.

He also numbers his chapters, not sequentially, but according to where Beckett stands on the titular pain scale: from one to ten, how bad is it? The worse Beckett’s pain, the more terse his language, so that, in chapters numbered above seven, sentences are often little more than noun-verb. Lower-numbered chapters have more introspection, studded with sudden moments of touching humor.

In the best noir tradition, Dilts avoids the simplest answer. After all, his murder victim is related to a Congressman, so how could anything be merely straightforward? Dilts’ intricate layering of conspiracy with psychological depth gives us three false endings, because each solution only opens more problems. I know I keep mentioning Sam Spade, but not without reason: this story has more cantilevered threads than anything I’ve read since The Maltese Falcon.

Some parts of this story will certainly bother certain readers. Beckett’s remarkable frankness can be off-putting. Though there’s no sex, his descriptions of violence spare no particulars. This comes across especially in the crime that drives the novel, a triple murder, including two child victims. Beckett spells out details with a clinical detachment that thankfully prevents him getting needlessly florid. Dilts essentially warns the squeamish to get off this train right now.

If I had to fault one issue, I’d pick Dilts’ strange reliance on brand names to set the tone. It gets overwhelming. In one scene, discussing a Porsche Panamera, Beckett keeps calling it a “Panera.” His partner corrects him, reminding him that Panera is a bakery chain, which Beckett calls “Starbucks for bread.” Layering works well for story elements, not so well for hipster nods.

But of you push past his brutal frankness and brand name dropping, Dilts crafts a story melding noir storytelling with New Millennium accuracy. Call it “noir procedural.”. Dilts both keeps within his genre, and stakes out territory entirely his own. In a crowded field, that makes him distinctive.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Science, Ethics, and the Coming Genetic Debate

Maxwell J. Mehlman, Transhumanist Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares: The Promise and Peril of Genetic Engineering

Continuing advances in genetic sciences have produced two entirely predictable responses from the public: giddy proponents who prophesy an age of refined humanity, and doomsayers who equate genetic engineering with eugenics. Bioethicist Maxwell Mehlman tries to find the middle ground between these two extremes. He crafts an interesting, readable prolegomenon to genetic studies, though I wish he went further.

Prominent futurists and public intellectuals spin yarns of how genetic engineering will advance human evolution, better suiting us for the actual world around us. Not only have gene therapies made it possible to treat, and potentially eradicate, genetic diseases, but they may soon make material improvements in human physiology. Ray Kurzweil is probably the most prominent such voice, but others, like Gregory Stock and Simon Young, are making names, too.

In the other corner, science fiction authors have, for the last generation, predicted catastrophic consequences as we manipulate human flesh. From strange chimeras and rapid devolution to the creation of genetic castes and tyrannical supermen, genetics has been seen as the key to untold failure of our shared humanity. These narratives have struck much more of a chord with the general public than the futurists’ technical discursions.

Both these views have their limitations. Despite its reputation for technophilia, science fiction has more often feared than embraced development. This goes double for Michael Crichton, whom Mehlman cites copiously, and whose basic authorial stance was to just hate everything. But the futurists tend to gloss over known setbacks, seeing science as an unbroken trajectory of progress. Their optimism renders opinions as lopsided as the authors’ pessimism.

Mehlman, by contrast, weighs both trends, seeking the truth in the broad, uncharted territory between them. At times, Mehlman maybe drifts too much into merely cataloging others’ opinions; his endnotes run thirty-five pages. But in surveying the broad terrain of genetic futurism, he gives us plenty of angles to view an important problem. And he resists facile arguments, rejecting pollyannaism as much as needless paranoia.

What does it mean when we go beyond fixing illnesses in the present, or giving individuals enhancements that will end with themselves? Why shouldn’t we use germ line genetic engineering to create inheritable improvements? What objections exist, and which objections should we treat seriously? How should we calibrate potential risks versus likely benefits, particularly for future generations that cannot speak for themselves?

This may sound like tedious reading, but Mehlman translates difficult and contentious positions into plain English. His prose reads as easily as most novelists, letting us grasp issues usually cast in language too specialized for us amateurs. He also, as he spells out the parameters of the controversy, avoids hemming us in. He seldom openly intrudes his own opinion into the discussion, much less telling us what he thinks we should believe.

That said, his work is not objective. No work by a human ever is. He does mock objections he considers beneath him, especially religious ones. Though he does not dismiss religion, and seems warm to scientific-minded Christians like Francis Collins and Teilhard de Chardin, he has no patience for creationism, or its gussied-up cousin, Intelligent Design. Anyone who dismisses literal (read: blind) evolution merits Mehlman’s naked disdain.

Likewise, he refuses to place his trust in science alone. Some non-religious people have raised objections that we should not interfere, say, with natural evolution. But natural evolution has been slow, haphazard, and unresponsive to rapid environmental change. Mehlman is unabashed in thinking that evolution sets a poor standard, and that it could benefit from some guidance by informed, presumably beneficent human wisdom.

I had two specific objections which Mehlman never answered. First, as anyone who has read Thomas Kuhn knows, science lacks the precision implied by calling it genetic “engineering.” Indeed, Rampton and Stauber describe how engineered plant genes are vulnerable to chromosomes landing on the wrong allele, degradation in transit, or unanticipated interactions. How do we prevent that in human subjects?

Second, and more important, we don’t need to speculate on the future to see serious risks. Look at the present. Look at global warming, antibiotic-resistant microorganisms, and nuclear waste disposal. Mehlman never gives me any reason to think we will handle live human genetics any more responsibly than technology we already have.

Mehlman’s guided debate will not resolve the concerns he raises. I doubt he means it to. But it does spell out at least one set of terms we can use as we proceed, to determine what we consider acceptable risk, and what we will reasonably refuse.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Sir Tom Stoppard's Maiden Voyage to Nowhere

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part Three
Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead


Don’t you see?! We’re actors—we’re the opposite of people!
—The Player
Whoever coined the axiom “there are no small parts, only small actors,” never was cast as Rosencrantz or Guildenstern in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The roles are so indistinguishable that audiences cannot tell which name belongs to which character without a printed script. They don’t appear until Act II, vanish partway through Act IV, and die offstage, deaths so insignificant that we need an exposition character to explain their end.

Which makes them perfect characters for Tom Stoppard. This was his fourth play, debuting in 1966, and presaged an award-winning career in which he persistently blurred the lines of theatre. His characters comment on stage conventions, openly observe the audience, and disregard (rather than break) the fourth wall. And all together, these characters and actions create a strange momentum that questions the relationship between the show and its audience.

In some ways the play mirrors Beckett’s better known, but less accessible, Waiting for Godot. Two characters stand in place, trying to understand their strangely bleak life and abstract purpose, while the world caroms past them. They play the same sorts of games Vladimir and Estragon play to stave off awareness of their hopeless situation. Even the opening stage direction reflects Beckett:
Two Elizabethans passing the time in a place without any visible character.
But this play is emphatically not Godot Redux. Unlike Beckett, who saw all human action as essentially adrift, Stoppard repeatedly reminds us that we are watching the back half of a profound story. On the other side of the wall, the most important story ever staged continues, unheeding of the two daft courtiers, who in turn remain blind to the profundity surrounding them. Hamlet, Claudius, and Polonius keep interrupting their solitude, yet they never understand.

That’s because these two are more caught up in their own narrative. Like the audience, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have lost sight of the most important fact of their lives: themselves. They know their names as a pair, but no longer remember which of them is which. Throughout the play, they devise tests and games to see if they can rediscover their names. Everything that happens can be perceived as an attempt to relearn lost identities.

Without that inherent sense of self, everything else seems colorless to them. King Claudius has given them a task, but for them, it exists with no vital context. Hamlet keeps trying to draw them into his confidence, alternately entrusting them with his secrets, and turning them into his personal weapons against Claudius. But because the court is pouring its majesty into empty vessels, nothing ever happens. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain unmoved.

Throughout these actions, our antiheroes maintain a strange symbiosis with The Player, a character whose equal lack of identity spurs him not to inaction, but to vacillating rage and fatalism. His play within a play, The Murder of Gonzago, forms a bridge between this play and Hamlet, but the more our heroes see of it, the more they see their own stories played out. This layering of theatre upon theatre poses many of the play’s most interesting questions.

When Roland Barthes spoke disparagingly of authors having “theological” control over their creations, he may have had this story in mind. Shakespeare created Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, set their story in motion, and seemingly lost interest in them. Like a disinterested and mildly cruel God, he introduced these characters for no purpose but to die. Stoppard asks: what control, then, do they have over their lives?

Like us, these characters never grasp their place in their own story. The forces that placed them there remain curiously absent. They know they have some purpose, but they don’t see what, and their fumbling attempts to discover that purpose leave them only more confused. As history’s great pageant plays just beyond their vision, they remain trapped in a permanent present. Yet they retain a strange optimism. Guildenstern’s final words reflect this: “Well, we’ll know better next time.”

Of course, for us as for them, there is no next time; their optimism is part of the illusion that makes life bearable in the face of such profound nothingness.In this play, Stoppard has created the opposite of a tragedy: small characters whose insignificance achieves such overwhelming proportions that they don’t even understand their own deaths. And he defies us to ask which side of the wall we stand on, that of Shakespeare and the heroes, or that of these two, inches from eternity.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Sadness of Seeing a Great Mind In Decline

Dashiell Hammett, Return of the Thin Man

Dashiell Hammett is famous for rebuilding the mystery genre away from mere intellectual puzzles, into complex realms of psychological realism. But he only published five novels. So when a publisher claims to have discovered two previously unknown novellas in his personal papers, you can imagine the excitement among mystery fans worldwide. And I can imagine the disappointment they’ll feel when they actually read these stories.

Hammett’s fifth and final novel, The Thin Man, differs from his prior works in its sense of humor. The culture clash between hard-bitten, alcoholic Nick Charles, and his glamorous wife Nora’s old-money world, enlivened by the kind of quick banter Hammett perfected, remains funny decades later. That’s saying something, since humor doesn’t age well. Not for nothing is the movie adaptation, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, considered classic.

But by the time The Thin Man hit shelves, Hammett had already grown bored of his own fame. Publishers, fans, movie studios, and paparazzi all thought they owned a piece of him. He felt estranged from the world he wrote about, and cared more about leftist politics than about his six-book contract, which remained incomplete at his death, nearly twenty years later. A known drunk with a razor tongue, Hammett was turning into Nick Charles.

These two novellas, written under contract for MGM, provide a glimpse into a mind on the verge of collapse. But calling them novellas does them, and Hammett, an injustice. These are screen treatments that the studio would turn into the movies After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man. And they look like exactly what they are, screen treatments. Hammett dedicates all his energy to action and dialog, and none to the atmospherics that make his novels so powerful.

In some ways, that isn’t much of a loss. So we don’t get a lot of insights into the characters’ psyches. So what? Hammett’s characters are notoriously immune to introspection. Can you imagine Sam Spade ruminating over the morality of his actions? Of course not. That was part of the point with his characters: they exist entirely as they are, driven by ad hoc honor codes, not chained to the exigencies of the past.

But by replacing Hammett’s unique narrative growl with a blunt, declarative voice, these stories drop us into a world free from nuance. Characters are introduced not by the subtle application of action and language, but by full name and a character note. Actions simply happen, spoken into existence. Hammett’s novels are beautiful in their ambiguity; Nick Charles could as easily be a villain as a hero. But in these stories, he expects the director to fill that in.

Moreover, Hammett appears tired of his own creation. Editors Richard Layman and Julie Rivett give examples from Hammett’s life and papers to back up that impression, but we would know that even if we didn’t have their thorough notes. We’d know it from the way scenes get shorter and less detailed, as though Hammett were physically weary of writing. We’d know it from the way he reaches for easy, obvious jokes.

And we’d know it from the way a third story at the back of the book, simply entitled “Sequel to The Thin Man,” runs only eight pages and stops mid-sentence.

In all, this is clearly the work of a man who knows that his own best work is probably behind him. Instead of creating anything new, he’s tied to Hollywood, trying to extract more life out of his last great accomplishment. And as Layman and Rivett note, he isn’t even doing his own work. His stories incorporate bits lifted whole from screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, and the studio (and Hayes Office) excised many of Hammett’s best contributions.

Many writers have to do Hollywood work to pay the bills. Such diverse authors as William Faulkner, Ayn Rand, and Dalton Trumbo did the studio shuck for rent and groceries before their novels took on a life of their own. But Hammett, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, did his Hollywood work after his peak had passed. His resentment comes across in every line. And the weariness he carries, trying to finish stories he clearly doesn’t love, infect us, too.

These stories make interesting historical artifacts. I can’t say I’m sorry I read them, because they give new glimpses into a great author’s creative process. But unlike Hammett’s novels, these don’t invite repeated reading or close attention. Read them for what they are, nothing more, because they aren’t Hammett’s great lost works.

Monday, November 5, 2012

How We See What We Know Isn't There

Oliver Sacks, Hallucinations

In popular culture, we often associate having hallucinations with mental illness. Back in the middle Twentieth Century, simply hearing voices, with no other symptoms, was sufficient for the state to commit you involuntarily. But a growing body of evidence indicates that many ordinary, healthy people see and hear stuff that isn’t there. Rather than a sign of madness, hallucinations are a key into understanding how the human mind works.

Oliver Sacks compiles many anecdotes about individuals “suffering” a range of hallucinations, correlating their remarkable, and sometimes exciting, experiences with the most up-to-date science about how the brain generates images which have no substance. Far from the domain of mental illness, the process of generating hallucinations may reveal a mind at the peak of its performance. But it turns out, there’s no one phenomenon called “hallucinations.”

Instead, the brain generates hallucinations from a myriad of sources. For instance, a person slowly losing one physical sense may find the brain generating content to fill the growing gap. A person going blind may experience complex visual hallucinations, which, for some, may open the doors for all manner of art. People may hear intricate music when going deaf. Smell, the easiest sense to lose, also generates the most elaborate hallucinations.

No one knows exactly why this happens, though Sacks relates some interesting speculations. Perhaps the brain manufactures sensory input to keep idle neurons busy. Perhaps we need the input to maintain our sanity, and our brains would rather invent content than go mad. But in a later chapter, Sacks talks about how people suffering grief may hallucinate that which they have lost. I suspect the answer is very succinct: nature abhors a vacuum.

Neuroscience has looked into the process of how the brain creates hallucinations, and some of its conclusions are fairly surprising. For instance, the process of hallucinating is completely separate from the process of imagination. It is also distinct from the process of dreaming. The brain responds to hallucinations the same way it responds to something physically present. It just happens that the source of the response has no presence outside the brain.

This discovery led to the apparent hope that hallucinations, like dreams, could reveal something important about the inner workings of an individual psyche. Not so, as it turns out. Not only does the conscious mind have no control over hallucinations, neither, apparently, does the unconscious. We either completely invent our visions, or as in the case of mourners seeing the lamented dead, we see only what we have already seen before.

Thus, hallucinations have little application for clinical psychology, but provide a wealth of knowledge to neuroscience. Researchers have made great inroads mapping what parts of the brain govern what perceptions by charting electrical currents through a hallucinating neurosystem. In the case of some of the stranger hallucinations, like phantom limbs, they have even granted insight into how much of the mind dwells outside the cranium.

Hallucinations may even be far more common than we realize. The visual imagery we create on the cusp of sleep demonstrates identical traits to hallucinations, as does that weird effect most of us have from time to time, when we wake up and see something that isn’t there. Night terrors and narcolepsy have the same characteristics as hallucinations. The borderlands of consciousness are fertile ground for remarkably tangible phantoms.

Physical conditions may cause hallucinations, as well. For instance, many people who have migraine headaches, including Sacks himself, see lights and hear sounds prior to an attack. People suffering delirium may have short-term hallucinations as a symptom of their illnesses. Tracking blood flow and electrical currents in people whose hallucinations have outside causes teaches us a great deal about how bodily illnesses steer the mind.

Sacks even goes into how hallucinations arise from drug use. He is remarkably frank about his own experience: though hardly a “head” himself, he tried psychedelics and amphetamines back around the same time Abbie Hoffman made drugs look sexy. The difference is that, where Death came to clear Hoffman’s mess, Sacks learned what drugs had to teach, made a few mistakes, and put that part of his live behind him.

Oliver Sacks has been a prolific writer of popular neuroscience for many years now. The movie Awakenings was adapted from his writings. His years of experience come across in this book, which deals eruditely with complex science, but speaks in a clear voice, uncluttered by jargon. This smart, funny, incisive book turns a tough topic into an engaging read.

Friday, November 2, 2012

New Keys to Understanding Real American Voters

Sasha Issenberg, The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns

If it seems like the last several elections hit us with unusual urgency, with an unprecedented number of earth-shattering issues and bold proposals, you’re right. Not that life has become more fraught with peril and possibility (we could argue that), but the people who would become America’s leaders have grown more savvy in pursuing their goals. Journalist Sasha Issenberg unpacks several recent developments in the science of American elections.

For years, candidates and their handlers have run campaigns as largely intuitive enterprises. Office seekers took sweeping patterns of behavior for granted, assuming that, for instance, flyers and TV ads got the message out. They also assumed voters were rational actors, voting their own interests, and that they voted basically on the belief that their single votes could swing the election. These assumptions had no scientific basis; electioneers just took them for granted.

Nobody thought to test such assumptions with laboratory rigor until the 1920s, when Harold Gosnell subjected different voter groups to targeted messaging. This was just after his home base of Chicago had instituted primary voting, letting candidates get on the ballot without the patronage of monolithic party machines. His discoveries, particularly about why free citizens don’t vote, were published, heralded, widely read... and quickly forgotten.

After Gosnell, the science of political movement proceeded only by fits and starts. Despite its name, “Political Science” has largely been more a branch of philosophy than an actual science. Isolated discoveries during the middle of the Twentieth Century made for momentary leaps forward, and elections became a somewhat more refined enterprise. But politics remained the domain of professional chin-pullers who largely only talked to one another.

This in part stemmed from the risks inherent in serious testing. For a long time, the only way to see whether a particular message worked, was to set up a control group of voters who would not receive key messages. No candidate, obviously, wanted to give up key votes, particularly in closely contested elections, which were the ones that would yield the most meaningful results. So political science inched forward, relying on untestable beliefs.

Throughout the Twentieth Century, we could rely on certain constants: Democrats had better luck mustering volunteers to get out the vote. Republicans could curry more and bigger monetary donations to pay for media blitzes. To use the military metaphors beloved of campaign professionals, the Repubs had better air cover, while Dems did better at close quarter combat. But after the 2000 elections, everything began to change.

Real advances in understanding voting and campaigning came, not from within the political science fortress, but in economics. The rise of behavioral economics allowed a field previously famous for starched shirts and inscrutability to study why ordinary people do ordinary things. They discovered, for instance, that voters do not vote because we think we can swing the election; we vote because of social implications. We vote when others expect us to vote.

You remember what happened in 2000, right? You remember the Presidential election decided not by voters, but by a quirk of the court system. Republicans wanted to ensure their win wasn’t seen as a mere quasi-legal fluke. Democrats wanted to restore what they perceived as diminished legitimacy to the electoral system. And behavioral economists were perfectly positioned to fill the need coming from both sides.

It would be easy for Issenberg to make this book about only one party. Dubya’s ability to do the impossible and solidify his slippery grip in 2002 would have made an exciting story in its own right. So would Barack Obama’s unprecedented ability to drum up small donors and sweep the election in 2008. But neither of these would have told the whole scope of the story, which Issenberg admits is far from done. New discoveries come out every day.

I feel a bit disappointed by Issenberg’s approach. He promises “the secret science of winning campaigns,” but focuses more on personalities than processes. Knowing who made important discoveries matters, and the range of personalities creates a narrative flow that binds the book together. But apart from a few discoveries (bullying, sadly works; front door visits from volunteers turn out more voters), he doesn’t give us very many working points.

Still, Issenberg does give a good overview of recent developments, and his thorough source notes suggest further reading. He also reveals important avenues of investigation still open for boots-on-the-ground research. For anyone interested in politics, either as a voter or an activist, Issenberg shares ongoing insights and important open questions.