Friday, December 30, 2005

Dept. of What Thou Lovest Well is Remaindered

Diminished Capacity
A novel by Sherwood Kiraly

I just got a Christmas card from Sherwood Kiraly. He must be one of the last in America to send Christmas cards through the regular mail, with pictures of the family and so on. And it's not because he doesn't do email. It just one of those things about Sherwood.

So this is my Christmas card. Dear Sherwood, I came upon a copy of your novel, Diminished Capacity in a used bookstore, I bought it and read it, and loved it. I realize I'm a little behind the curve here (since you published it a decade ago) , and I probably shouldn't say I liked it better than Big Babies, which I liked a lot, because writers don't usually like it when you like an earlier book more than a newer one. And maybe it's not a better book, just that I felt closer to the story and the characters in D.C.

Anyway, it's terrific, I had a great time reading it, and thanks for writing it. If I were you, I'd be proud to have written it.

For those people looking in who aren't Sherwood, this novel is a lot of fun--there's a solid and funny and fast moving story, well-crafted (everything pays off) and appealing, well-rendered characters, stylishly told in a gentler kind of Vonnegut way. (Although when I think of Sherwood and Vonnegut, I remember my copy of Slaughterhouse Five he borrowed in college and returned all bent up. That was a first edition, Sherwood. Do you realize what it would be worth now, unbent? Not as much as some of those baseball cards, but still...)

So as I was saying, it's very midwestern and would make a terrific movie, the kind that actually got made in the 60s and 70s. But on the page, it's the kind of a novel you see as a movie while you're reading, which is also fun. The story does involve baseball cards, love lost and found, and diminished capacities redeemed. And fish poetry, of course. That's in all your midwestern authors. Twain, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald... Ernest Hemingway and the fish poetry of the Big Two-Hearted River up in Michigan.

The thing about books is, they're news that stays news. (Another midwesterner said that.) So treat yourself to this one. It definitely won't hurt you.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

A musical picnic in the 1930s Posted by Picasa
Holiday Gift Books from 2005: Social Studies

Brother, Can You Spare Me
Some Time

by William S. Kowinski

THE MARCH OF SPARE TIME: The Problem and Promise of Leisure
in the Great Depression
by Susan Currell
University of Pennsylvania Press

I highly recommend this absorbing and revelatory book. Though her subject seems narrow, Currell traces the relationships of prevailing thought that shaped a wide range of policies affecting all of us to this day.

It also seems an odd if not frivolous subject—leisure in the Great Depression? We are used to a different emphasis in books on the 1930s, as in Malcolm Cowley’s sharp and steady memoir, The Dream of the Golden Mountains, which I’ve recently read. The spectre of vast unemployment, drought, malnutrition, incipient revolution and half a million men a year riding boxcars, would seem to make the issue of leisure irrelevant, or even perverse.

But beginning in the late 1920s it was a concern, and not applied to the rich or leisure classes, but to the working class. The industrial revolution was transforming the country, and even with the Depression between the 20s and 40s, it continued (many innovations and inventions were actually created in the 30s but would not make their impact until later.) Greater mechanization would inevitably lead to shorter work days and weeks, and what were workers going to do in the slack time?

And if you were unemployed, you had lots of time on your hands. Still, many families made it through the Depression with difficulty but basically intact. The powers that be worried about their idle hands as well.

There was a lot of class and other bias involved in how the question was approached, going back to late 19th century immigration. As Currell tells the story, much of the concern had to do with the science and pseudo-science of the day, including eugenics.

(One reason I prefer the old designation “social studies” to “social science” is that these young disciplines don’t seem like science to me, and too often engaged in presumptuous social engineering. What Currell writes about in this book only further convinces me.)

The social engineers wanted to divert the non-leisure classes to good and healthful use of their downtime, rather than bad. What was bad? It was Trouble, right here in River City, with a capital T, that rhymes with P, that stands for Pool. And worse.

The results were not always nefarious: public parks beginning in the 1890s, then amusement parks, family sports, board games, and the sand box. (Not much about marching bands, though, despite the title.) Still, the theories of eugenics, sex differences (movies were good for men but “morally corrupting” for women), race and class are chilling, even when they fostered reforms, like the expanded role of public libraries for "self-improvement."

This is a very different take on a fascinating period of history just outside the memory of most of us today, but one which has many lessons for our time, and quite probably our future.

WEIGHING THE WORLD: The Quest to Measure the Earth
by Edwin Danson
Oxford University Press

This sort of book, combining science and history, has become quite popular, with a version often turning up on PBS at some point. Danson has previously written about how Mason and Dixon surveyed their famous line. This time he takes on a bigger subject---the entire world. As more of it was being explored and more money dependent on trade in the 18th century, accurate maps became essential. For real accuracy, larger questions had to be answered, including the shape and size of the planet itself.

There is plenty of history and some science and adventure in this chronicle for the general reader. The prose is sometimes a bit fevered and strained, but also has its shining moments. Danson presents context, description and background, though not much personality. Fans of popular history should find it congenial.


by Gerard J. DeGroot
Harvard University Press

This biography of the atomic bomb has to be ranked as one of the best and most important books published this year. Making deft use of accumulated history and new information from Soviet archives, DeGroot, Professor of Modern History at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, writes with grace and economy of a 60-year history still unfolding. More HERE.

BORN LOSERS: A History of Failure in America
by Scott A. Sandage
Harvard University Press

From the 19th century of Emerson and Thoreau (the first and most paradigmatic "born loser" in the book) to the formulation of the American Dream in 1931 and presumably through the Dale Carnegie-redux 1980s of "market yourself" which is still with us, America has defined losers in economic terms, yet attributed that losing to personal character failure. We continue to do this today, '>Scott Sandage writes, "because a century and a half ago we embraced business as the dominant model for our outer and inner lives." MORE HERE

by Jeffrey D. Sachs

Penguin Press

Concerning the world's future, Jeffrey Sachs in his new book offers convincing proof and a practical plan for addressing and essentially ending poverty in our time. We've known since President Kennedy said so in his Inaugural Address in 1961 that eradicating poverty is within our power. This book, which is both based on information gathered for the UN Millennium Project and is the basis for the 20 year effort inaugurated by that project this year to eliminate poverty, offers the blueprint for actually doing it. At very little cost to the wealthy nations and their citizens.

By Russell Muirhead

Harvard University Press

An Associate Professor of Government at Harvard, Muirhead examines some of these knotty common issues ("Can we each get our due while at the same time contributing to the common good?" ) as problems in political theory. This book examines philosophical approaches to the issues of work, the individual and society, from Plato and Aristotle, through John Stuart Mill and Betty Friedan. This is basically a scholarly work, well-organized and quite readable in style. It is a solid contribution, a thorough background that raises the pertinent issues, though few readers are likely to find it the last word on their own concerns. MORE HERE.

How American Hospitals Shape the End of Life
By Sharon R. Kaufman

The spectacle of demonstrations and the political as well as judicial intervention in the decision to withdraw life support from Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who was kept alive in a persistent vegetative state for more than a decade, is a dramatic illustration of many issues and emotions that Sharon R. Kaufman addresses in "And a Time to Die." For when hospitals can prolong most organ functions indefinitely, decisions can hinge on such apparently straightforward yet suddenly uncertain concepts as recovery, responsiveness, personhood and life itself. MORE HERE.

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

by Dutch company Submarine, at Doors of Posted by Picasa
Holiday Gift Books from 2005: Design & the Future

The Things of Shapes To Come
by William S. Kowinski

by Bruce Sterling
Mediawork Pamphlet Series
The M.I.T. Press

I tend to see the future in terms of story, while real professional futurists see it in terms of design. (Then there’s Star Trek, which sees it as both. I know, you don’t want to hear about Star Trek.)

As a science-fiction writer and a futurist, Bruce Sterling also sees it as both. This particular slim but very full of pith and moment book (under 150 pages) is about designing---and redefining---things, as leading the design of the future.

Things, as created objects, and more. “Properly understood, a thing is not merely a material object, but a frozen technosocial relationship. Things have to exist in relationship with an organism: the human being.” Though this book comes pre-underlined and highlighted, that’s a quote I lifted all on my own.

But things are not generic. They are, for example, artifacts, machines, products, gizmos, spimes and arphids. My spell-check doesn’t like spimes and arphids, they come pre-underlined in red, but that’s because these are new words Sterling coins to extend the technosocial relationships into the present and future characterized by new proportions of physicality and information.

This is all pretty fascinating, especially when Sterling links the design future to the sustainable society he understands as the only lengthy future possible for civilization, though he assumes this more than makes a case for it. There are real designers referenced---the section on Raymond Loewy, for example, is informative and entertaining. I like the brisk elegance and wit of Sterling’s prose, so I went along for the ride even when I wasn’t quite sure where I was going, or even where I’d been.

Of the stuff I understood, I found some revelatory, some reassuringly what I believe is so, and some I’d like to argue about. Oddly, for a book that articulates the changes and possibilities of the Internet and information technology, the book doesn’t name a website for the discussions this book prompts. (However, Sterling is a principal of Viridian Design , with a website where more of his entertaining commentary can be found.)

Here’s one of the parts I like: “ A SYNCHRONIC SOCIETY sets high value on the human engagement with TIME…we are not objects, but processes. Our names are not nouns, but verbs.” Though Sterling disses Buckminster Fuller later in his book without naming him (specifically Fuller's “Utopia or Oblivion” choice, which he topples partly by constricting the definitions), I seem to recall that it was Fuller who famously said, “I seem to be a verb.”

Anyway, before this becomes longer than the book, Shaping Things is a highly recommended read, and a great gift for “designers and thinkers, engineers and scientists” (I’m copying the cover now) and anyone on your list interested in how information technology is changing us, and its role in designing the future. Because that’s what's on these folk's minds, that’s what the buzz is going to be, and besides it’s, you know, short.

MAKING THINGS PUBLIC: Atmospheres of Democracy
Edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel
M.I.T. Press

As Shaping Things is short, this book is long---really, really long. Well over a thousand pages. But at only fifty bucks, it’s a truly great deal. It’s a compendium of fascination, an anthology of great photos, illustrations and pieces of prose you are unlikely to find anywhere else.

My first browsing foray took me to Richard Powers describing his process on his novel about the personhood of technology’s freak child, the corporation, and its relationship to the personhood of people; a chronicle of the role of photography in the human-Great Ape relationship, and another about the contemporary obelisks of Stockholm, attractive, oddly iconic and mysterious objects which also visually monitor urban water quality. And an essay on Northwest Coast Native art (which I actually know something about---and recognized people in the photo.)

I’m sure that the editors have a carefully worked out progression of arguments about making, unmaking, remaking, assembling (as in assembly lines and also the state assembly), disassembling and dissembling, of things as they define public relationships. But at least for the first many hours, my guess is this book’s main appeal is in its gorgeous variety, a browser’s paradise, a dilettante’s delight, a playground of ideas and images ultimately relating to contemporary and future design and technosocial meaning, including especially the political---a different emphasis of Sterling’s schema.

More than a hundred writers are represented (including relevant excerpts from the likes of Melville, Hobbes and Jonathan Swift)—philosophers, scientists, political scientists, anthropologists, sociobiologists, artists and scholars. And the illustrations are very well done, probably worth the price alone. Making Things Public is related to a show at the ZKM Center for Art and Media, where co-author Peter Weibel is Director.

IN THE BUBBLE: Designing in A Complex World
by John Thackara
M.I.T. Press

So this makes a trifecta for MIT Press, but design and the future is clearly a major theme for this publisher. The people involved are all over the world---a lot from Europe-- but as a group it's probably a small world (this book comes with a plug from Bruce Sterling on the cover.)

Still, I believe this is an important book, at least as much as Sterling's, and it's also fascinating to read. So it's a highly recommended choice from earlier in the year.

Thackara skewers conventional wisdom and many guiding delusions of the digital revolution with pungent facts, while noting contrarian trends and suggesting greater possibilities with all the elusive precision of aphorism. His intent goes beyond analysis. Director of a design firm called Doors of Perception, headquartered in Amsterdam, Thackara uses 10 principles to organize his ideas about "sustainable and engaging futures and the design steps we need to take to realize them."

The tech revolution didn't lead to the paperless office, nor to eradicating business travel or product transport (in fact, it created much more), and many plans for future uses, such as implanting computers in appliances and "smart" buildings, seemed doomed to equally dour unintended consequences. Nor does technology exist in a valueless vacuum. For all its vaunted efficiencies, like most consumer products it involves vast waste: It takes 15 to 19 tons of energy and materials to make one desktop computer. Cyberspace may seem ethereal but Internet computing alone may soon use as much power as the whole U.S. economy did in 2001. "We've built a technology-focused society that is remarkable on means," Thackara writes, "but hazy about ends."

The ends are near, though Thackara is not so indelicate to say so, but he does point out that we're using up the planet with incredible rapidity, even as we refuse to face the greatest threat that may very well dominate human history for the next century: the climate crisis. Instead, he accentuates the positive. Some 80 percent of environmental impact is determined by design, and "If we can design our way into difficulty, we can design our way out. ... Designing is what human beings do."

"Sensitivity to context, to relationships, and to consequences are key aspects of the transition from mindless development to design mindfulness," he writes. This includes paying "close attention to the natural, industrial, and cultural systems," and material and energy flows. It means focusing on services over things, and treating place, time and cultural difference as positive values rather than obstacles. " 'Out of control' is an ideology," he writes, "not a fact."

As much influenced by Italian literary artist Italo Calvino as by visionary American architect William McDonough, Thackara brings a refreshingly European perspective, not only in examples from societies consciously grappling with social implications and solutions, but in an ability to bring the macro and micro, the big picture and life as it is lived, into a more capacious and balanced perspective. His principles include lightness, conviviality, smartness and flow. "Our machines are disturbingly lively," he points out, "and we are frighteningly inert." He calls passive acceptance of technology "borg drift."

"In the Bubble" is often delightful, stimulating and surprising. Thackara may well emerge as a visionary voice for the wired era. For planners, designers and anyone with an interest in the future, this book is a rich resource of inspiration, ideas, and guiding principles as well as sharply observed cautionary tales. It suggests that what the tech revolution most needs, and may already be moving toward, is a sense of purpose.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

"Jaguar" by Andree Tracey at Posted by Picasa
Holiday gift books from 2005: Nature, Environment and Science

Encounters with our given world
by William S. Kowinski

by Mark Tredinnick.
Trinity University Press.

Mark Tredinnick calls them “encounters,” with the kind of care for parsing both words and experience that characterizes this author’s approach to what others might just call profiles of four prominent “nature writers” (another troublesome term, especially to these writers): Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, Terry Tempest Williams and James Galvin.

In a lovely essay called “The Job is To Pour Your Heart Out,” Edward Hoagland writes, “I believe, incidentally, that those of us who care about bears and frogs haven’t much time left to write about them, not just because---among the world’s other emergencies---a twilight is settling over them, but because people are losing their capacity to fathom any form of nature except, in a more immediate sense, their own.”

These four writers grapple with both problems, which pushes them to more public roles as advocates and activists. They (and the author) also rebel against the usual notion and sometimes past practice of nature writing as being pretty and ornamental, or even as separating humanity from the active context of nature. They are all engaged in “Encounters with Nature” (the title of a collection of Paul Shepard essays.)

Tredinnick’s style is recursive and meditative. He burrows into his subject. But he is also journalistic enough to keep the magazine-fed reader focused on the issues that concern him and the writers involved. The result is a thoughtful book of pith and moment, a good winter’s read, with the emotional seeds of a regenerative spring.

It’s too bad that Tredinnick couldn’t include his planned profiles of Native author Linda Hogan and anthropologist Richard Nelson, with his intensive experience in one of the last remaining indigenous peoples still living close to their traditional lives in nature, because the Native perspective is too often missing from nature/environmental writing. Still, including Peter Matthiessen, with his books on contemporary Indians of the American West and his experience and practice in Tibetan Buddhism as well as his exemplary books on birds and other naturalist subjects, covers a lot of good ground.

These are writers, insistent on literary encounters in the context of their lives with nature, who produce novels and poetry as well as memoir and nonfiction, which these days is often categorized with the redundancy, “creative.”

“A writer’s job is to pour his heart out,” Hoagland concludes, "and whether his immediate concern is the death of whales and rhinos or the death of civilization, there will be plenty of chances…to do so.” These writers, including Tredinnick, do just that.

TERRA ANTARCTICA: Looking into the Emptiest Continent
by William L. Fox.
Trinity University Press.

It’s the Ghost continent, not only because its peculiarities induce hallucinations and its solitudes inspire humans like Peter Hillary to converse with the dead (as he relates in his recent, peculiar book on an Antarctic trek, “In the Ghost Country”). Besides its forbidding yet beckoning white immensities where explorers have died, and the tantalizing sense of its own brilliant mysteries at the heart of things, this continent gains new notoriety as the place where civilization’s fate is sealed in the ice: if this eternally frozen fastness were to fail, the ice thundering down will rush instant Armageddon to most of the world’s seaside capitals.

Even with Greenland’s ice melting and the Arctic threatening to dissolve, the major fear for global heating’s instant cataclyism is if the Antarctic’s mighty Ross Ice Shelf were to split and partly drop into the ocean, immediately raising the global sea level high enough to drown the coastal cities of the other continents.

But even before this possibility started to sink in, Antarctica existed for most people as stories and images, changing over time. So vast and strange was this continent that mid-19th century explorers didn’t even try to capture it in primitive photographs, Fox writes---only the scope and perspective of drawings could hope to convey a sense of the place. Even with today’s technology and the resulting mountains of information, Antarctica resists being captured. It still slips away like a phantom. Yet we know better than ever that it is not a dead place, even without penguins marching.

William L. Fox brings formidable credentials to this huge place. He’s won institutional approbation as a writer and scholar, but he also walks the walk, as a climber and Himalyayan guide, and a scout in the Arctic for NASA.

It all pays off in this book, which is at once an account of three months spent in several areas of the Antarctica, the lives and work there of other researchers, and a survey of the history of human exploration and other encounters with the Antarctic, physical, scientific and artistic. For once the adspeak cliché is appropriate: if you read only one book about Antarctica, you won’t go wrong choosing this one.


EVOLUTION IN FOUR DIMENSIONS: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral
and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life
By Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb
With illustrations by Anna Zeligowski
MIT Press.

BEFORE DARWIN: Reconciling God and Nature
By Keith Thomson
Yale University Press.

Darwin's theory of evolution remains the most socially important and scientifically generative theory in the 21st century so far, as it was in the 20th and 19th. These two excellent books that advance knowledge of Darwinian evolution and Darwin himself. Full reviews HERE.

by Carl N. McDaniel
Trinity University Press.

So it's been 35 years since the first Earth Day and the world is still a mess. It's not that we haven't learned a lot and done a lot, just not enough. How far we've come in understanding the extent and nature of the problems, in devising and carrying out solutions, and especially in communicating that understanding and getting politicians and the public to listen, can be gleaned from this book consisting of profiles of eight environmental visionaries. Full review here.

by Gordon M. Burghardt
MIT Press

Professor of psychology and ecology Gordon M. Burghardt examines and analyzes the "mysterious" and "enigmatic" phenomena of animal play. A fascinating way into the realities of our fellow animals, and inevitably a comment on ourselves. Full review here.

AFTER THE ICE: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC
by Steven Mithen
Harvard University Press
Among other things, Mithen skillfully sums up the various discoveries and controversies over the settlement of the Americas. This wideranging approach to the latest research updates in an engaging way a broad overview of how humans became human and engaged the whole planet.
Review here.

BIG BANG: The Origin of the Universe
By Simon Singh
Fourth Estate/Harpercollins.

Despite its title, this book is not about the Big Bang or the origin of the universe. It is a history of some of the major discoveries, theories, personalities and controversies that contributed to the basic Big Bang explanation and its present acceptance. It is essentially a textbook on cosmology in Western science from before Copernicus, and a conservative one (in a scientific sense) at that. Simon Singh, best known for his TV documentary ("Proof") and best- selling book ("Fermat's Enigma"), has written a decent chronicle of the making of this theory,with an interesting through-line is the story of how science works in the real world context of personalities, professional relationships and political, economic and religious interests. Good choice for high school and college students. My SF Chronicle review here.

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Monday, December 05, 2005

Smiling Buddha Posted by Picasa
Christmas Gift Books From 2005: Arts

Contemplating Art: The Gift That Keeps On Giving
by William S. Kowinski

SMILE OF THE BUDDHA: Eastern Philosophy and Western Art, From Monet to Today

by Jacquelynn Baas, with a foreword by Robert A.F. Thurman
University of California Press

“It depends a lot on the particular artist, but I certainly am convinced that the mind in the moment of creativity and the mind in the moment of meditation are the same mind.” Yvonne Rand, a Buddhist teacher and a major figure at the San Francisco Zen Center for 28 years, said this to me in an interview. Jacquelynn Baas, this book’s author, calls Rand her teacher, and dedicates this book to her.

Baas selects 20 particular artists, from early 20th century stars like van Gogh, Gauguin, Duchamp and Kandinsky to more recent and widely known artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, Jasper Johns, Isamu Noguchi, John Cage, Agnes Martin and Nam June Paik. Her rigorous scholarship and fine writing illuminate the connections between creativity informed by at least some exposure to Buddhist thought, art and practice, and the works available for our engagement (many in illustrations.)

Perhaps even better, Baas looks at somewhat lesser known past(Odilon Redon) and current artists (Vja Celmins), and at the art of two well-known women whose work is seldom examined in the same spirit as other artists, namely Laurie Anderson and Yoko Ono.

The Buddhist perspective is useful in understanding artistic intent, but even more in our role as the viewers (or listeners or experiencers), regardless of whether the artist has a specific relationship to Buddhist practice. Exploring and then focusing the meditative mind is invaluable to taking in more of what the artwork has to offer us. Baas begins her chapter on Robert Irwin with his statement: "If you asked me the sum total---what is your ambition?—basically it’s just to make you a little more aware than you were the day before of how beautiful the world is.”

That beauty produces a particular pleasure inherent in Buddhist practice, which seems pretty dour to some because of its discipline. Yet as Robert Thurman gently make the point in his foreword, “How incredibly fortunate that the Buddha smiled!”

Other Recommendations:

AN AMERICAN LENS: Scenes from Alfred Stieglitz’s New York Secession
by Jay Bochner. MIT Press.

The life and times of an American photographer, exhibitor and activist of the arts who changed the art world and its relationship to his time, providing links between Europe and America, and the new technologies and realities of his twentieth century. (full review)

AN AMERICAN THEATRE: The Story of Westport Country Playhouse
by Richard Somerset-Ward. Yale University Press.

Through the 20th century, this time touching the changing roles of theatre, movies and television in a changing nation through the story of this important and new kind of theatrical enterprise, the summer theatre: at times more innovative, and often more accessible to more people in this suburbanizing country. With a foreword by two of Westport's famous stalwarts, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. (Full review.)

DEATH SENTENCES:How Cliches, Weasel Words, and Management-Speak Are Strangling Public Language
by Don Watson'>Gotham Books

"Words can be like notes, like expressions of the soul," Don Watson writes. "They can make our hair stand up, they can lift our understanding to a higher plane, make us see things differently. They can inspire love and hope. You can see it happen before your eyes. Words can create a magic halo."

But before closure can be achieved on such product, robust parameters of total quality and competitive international best practices are key self-management and self-marketing requirements, in order to leverage vibrant pre-empowering emotional communication nodes and re-purpose functional deployment as a strategic initiative committed to an enhanced content provider environment. A personal mission statement sometimes helps.

You get the idea. It's pointed, funny and pretty short, too. (Review here.)

ITALIAN TALES: An Anthology of Contemporary Italian Writing
Massimo Riva, editor. Yale University Press.

Riva, who is professor of Italian studies at Brown University, has collected tales (mostly of the 1980s and 90s) that curious and casual readers can enjoy, while supplying helpful background and point of view for both interested readers and scholars of literature and culture. Bravo!

HERO, HAWK AND OPEN HAND: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and Southedited by Richard F. Townsend. Yale University Press, in Association with the Art Institute of Chicago. (Review)

Published late last year, this is still an excellent gift book of text and photos for anyone interested in Native American cultures, cultural history, arts and artifacts.

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Monday, October 24, 2005

Alfred and Georgia without their dog at the end of the war. Posted by Picasa
AN AMERICAN LENS: Scenes from Alfred Stieglitz’s New York Secession
by Jay Bochner
(MIT Press).

We’re not exactly bereft of books about this very important---and for us now, perhaps very romantic period---in the arts, the early 20th century in Europe and America. But after so many tomes (as well as exhibits) about the painters, poets, musicians, dancers and pioneer filmmakers, particularly in Europe, it’s a little surprising to realize we haven’t had much about a man who was the vital link between Europe and the emerging Americans, and who put his stamp on the whole century with the work he introduced and championed, and produced.

Perhaps it has something to do with Alfred Stieglitz being a photographer, the most neglected art of that period. Yet as Jay Bochner demonstrates in this fascinating book, Stieglitz may be our invisible man, but he was that era’s indispensable man.

Beginning as the 19th century ended, Stieglitz was an innovator in photography, and by the first decade of the 20th century, he was in active dialogue with the major innovations in painting. At his New York gallery called 291, Stieglitz offered the first American exhibitions of Matisse and Toulose-Lautrec, and Picasso’s first one man show anywhere. In the pages of his Camera Work periodical, he was one of the first to print Gertrude Stein.

Stieglitz is of course linked to the great American painter, Georgia O’Keeffe, whose work he exhibited before he’d met her, but with whom he had a long and storied romantic relationship. But Stieglitz was the link between European modernists (not just the Paris school, but Italian futurists like Gino Severini, and the Dadaists and Surrealists throughout Europe) and other American artists (Marsden Hartley, John Marin), writers (William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane) and photographers (Paul Strand.) Actors, architects---except perhaps for Charlie Chaplin and early Hollywood filmmakers, there is hardly a significant American in any art who isn’t mentioned in this book about Stieglitz.

Bochner’s book is subtitled “Scenes from…” and that’s accurate. Though it's roughly chronological, there is no central narrative, but there are lots of great stories and observations, both historical and critical. It begins with a riveting description of 1890s New York and the labor strife of the period, provides fascinating context to the famous Armory Show of 1913 which introduced European modernism to New York and America, and spends considerable time with Stieglitz and O’Keeffe.

Bochner can adroitly slip in the deconstructionist code words and semiotic aside, but despite that, he is an engaging writer. There is of course a lot about photography (that’s the focus of the Successionist movement in the title) but he also lavishes teasing pages on the tortured courtship of poet William Carlos Williams and poet/artist Mina Loy, including their husband-and-wife roles in a Provincetown Players production, enduring catcalls during rehearsals from Eugene O’Neill for the shyness of their stage kisses.

I’m sure Bochner is a fine scholar and critic, but he also has that indispensable talent of storytellers: he gets us interested in what fascinates him through what he chooses to describe and narrate. So out of this collection of anecdotes, observations, critiques, forgotten or obscure historical moments that seem formed as responses to unknown interlocutors, emerges an entertaining book and, by the way, an absorbing and gallant portrait of the life and times and undervalued accomplishments of Alfred Stieglitz.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals
By Robert M. Sapolsky

Robert M. Sapolsky, the author of "A Primate's Memoir," is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford and lives in San Francisco. The essays collected in this volume, previously published in magazines including Natural History, Discover and the New Yorker, address a variety of subjects in sections titled "Genes and Who We Are," "Our Bodies and Who We Are" and "Society and Who We Are," each with its separate introduction.

Your pleasure and profit in reading this book are apt to be influenced by the extent to which you share the author's sense of humor, which is prominently and persistently displayed. If it makes you laugh and increases your appreciation, good for you. If you find yourself distracted and even cringing, and you wish for more clarity and depth in the place of attempted vaudeville, believe me, I understand.

Review continues at the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

Friday, August 26, 2005

Unforgettable voices Posted by Picasa
Summer Reading, Some of the Time

I used to make fun of the whole concept of summer reading. Of course I was being paid to read year round at the time, and I suppose I still am, intermittently (and not at all well.)

It’s also hard to get behind the idea of beach reading in a place where it seldom breaks 70F, and the beach is as apt to be windy or foggy as not. Don’t get me wrong, we love our beaches, they’re never crowded and quite close by, but though I’ve read on the beach , I was fully clothed. With a thermos of hot coffee by my side.

So the fact that I actually did some summer reading this summer has almost nothing to do with summer, just with the impulse.

I started with Star Trek novels, which I have on hand for air travel. They keep me absorbed without much effort, I can read them when I tired or zoned out, so they are perfect for waiting, which is all you do, waiting in airports in order to wait on the runway in order to wait while you’re in the air, and so on, ad exhaustum boredom.

A lot of people like paperbacks of various genres for this---mysteries, thrillers, etc. but it’s not just the science fiction aspect: it’s partly that I hear the actor’s voices, and see the action to an extent. Which is partly why I stay with original series and Next Generation characters. For all I know, the DS9 and Voyager novels are better than the TV versions, but I don’t know the characters as well and I'm not as interested in them.

Anyway, since I have no flight scheduled for the next generation, and I had the impulse, I read several Star Trek novels over a few days. I enjoyed them all but one of them stays with me: a TNG novel called Gulliver’s Fugitives by Keith Sharee (Pocket Books.)

The Trek novels often features worlds and alien creatures that even CGI couldn’t realize under budget. This one has an appealing underground world with unusual creatures, but it’s the premise and the story that are the most interesting. The Enterprise encounters a world settled by humans where anything fictional is criminal, and there’s an underground society preserving the old stories. But it takes the Bradbury “Fahrenheit 451” preservation by memorizing classic texts a step farther. Individuals become the characters, they personify them. The group’s leader is Odysseus. Counselor Troi is among them, and her observations on the complications of this make for interesting reading. It’s also a gloss on the Trekkie phenomenon itself.

From there I moved on to books I had collected but were never a priority enough to have read. One was Broken Music, an autobiography by Sting (Dial Press.) It borders on being unfair that he writes this well. Isn’t being a superior songwriter, singer, musician, sex symbol and human rights advocate enough? I asked to review this book for the SF Chronicle, but was told that it would be done by the pop music department, if at all. That’s too bad. It would be worth reading even if the protagonist never became famous, although in that case it’s unlikely it would have found a publisher these days.

Then I indulged in Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made by David Halberstam (Random House.) Halberstam is a very good reporter, a great talker, but not such a great writer. If he thinks it’s worth saying once, it’s worth saying three times within a few pages or even paragraphs. But if his stories aren’t so well told, they’re worth telling.

Pro sports is a bizarre world, of course, where grown men paid two million dollars a year complain they are under-appreciated. But these sports are also more difficult and more gladiatorial than fans see or want to see. Halberstam deals with all this, and creates a bigger context of changes in the NBA, but the most fascinating stuff is specifically about Jordan. Halberstam writes that in addition to his obvious physical skills, Jordan just had energy. He slept little, hardly ever stopped moving, and confounded opponents when he got stronger as the season or the game wore on.

The unfortunate byproduct of reading this book however was that it inspired me to unpack the tapes I made of Bulls games in the glory years (I lived in Pittsburgh until 1996, where the cable system included WGN in Chicago, which broadcast Bulls games). I intended to watch them only while exercising of course, but that resolution soon faded. I’m now up to game 5 of the second round of the playoffs in 1996.

But when I wasn’t watching or reading about the Bulls, I read some novels. “The Haunted Bookshop” by Christopher Morley was first published in 1919, and would be completely forgotten if it hadn’t been for the Akadine Press and their Common Reader Editions (this one published in 1998.) This book attracted me because of its subject---a bookstore and the book business of that era—and the author, a favorite of my mother’s when she was in high school.

It turns out to be charming, gently amusing, and pretty informative about the period. There’s a bit of satire and an unexpected glimpse of conflicted feelings about the Great War shortly after it ended: a long anti-war argument by one of the characters, but a late developing plot just this side of jingoism that hinges on dastardly German terrorists.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (HarperPerennial) is a surprising little book, a fable that several blurbed reviews liken to The Little Prince, but the main character here, a young shepherd in Spain, is much more of a believable character, and his journey, while mystical and exotic, is grounded in real landscapes and history. The guiding ideas, the Personal Legend and the other capitalized qualities, are as matter-of-fact as the wind and sun. It’s a bit like Hemingway meets Casteneda. I don’t know if its charm or the hope that the author is on to something makes it compelling, or maybe it’s just hypnotic writing. I enjoyed it, and it’s the kind of book it’s easy to read any time, and any number of times.

I finally got around to reading Don DeLillo’s novel, Cosmopolis (Scribner.) I’ve been reading DeLillo since the early 1970s, when I considered his early novels like “Americana,” “End Zone” and even the all-but-forgotten “Ratner’s Star” to be my kind of summer reading. DeLillo has always been good at getting right to the Zeitgeist with the most outrageous and yet only slightly exaggerated premises. One of his characters, after all, was teaching Hitler Studies only a few minutes before such courses became common. But I also had some feeling for his protagonists, which began fading after awhile, and with this novel pretty much disappeared. The Zeitgeist detector is still intact, and there are still passages of the kind of writing that made the giant “Underworld” so mesmerizing, and the precision that was so striking in earlier novels.

Nick Sagan’s second novel, edenborn (Putnam) is just out in paperback, so I’ll append a note about it to this summer’s review. Nick, who wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation and was a story editor for Voyager, has been an email friend for several years. (He’s also the son of Carl Sagan, and that’s his young voice greeting the cosmos on the recording aboard Voyager I.) His first novel, Idlewild, set up the science fiction world in which this and his forthcoming novel (everfree) inhabit.

Idlewild was engrossing, convincing and fun to read. It had a Matrix-like premise in that the young characters were living in a virtual reality world and returned to a real world that turned out to be just another one of the VR neighborhoods. But they aren’t prisoners of nefarious aliens; they are survivors of a plague that wiped out humanity.

In edenborn they’ve returned to that devastated real world, and some have borne (or synthesized) children. We learn more about their world and their histories, as well as our world and our history, but this novel is less concerned with story than the various and compelling voices of its characters. The result is unique. Neither familiarity with the first book nor a special taste for science fiction is necessary to find this book highly enjoyable and illuminating. The ensemble characters are well-wrought, and several of the more prominent characters with the most individual voices will simply be unforgettable.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Harry VI is here (this being the younger, movie Harry) Posted by Picasa
'>Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
By J.K. Rowling

by William S. Kowinski

You’ve heard of it, perhaps?

This, the sixth book in the series continues the admirable pattern of developing the character of Harry (as well as the other important young characters) as they grow older, while developing the overall story of how the wizarding world deals with its resurgent dark side. Moreover, Rowling has performed the sly and difficult feat of never giving Harry more than he could handle at a given age, but always enough to test his mettle. But there's plenty for those of us lost in Bushworld to learn about our evil empire.

In previous books, Harry was believable as a boy of the stated age and is generally so in this one, though some might argue he and his friends are a little behind the curve in gender relationships and Harry has otherwise achieved a remarkable maturity at 16. But all of this is well within the believable range and also within the traditional mythic framework. It took considerable skill to add just the right amount, progression and tone of the romance that was needed to make the characters credible at this age, and have it say something about the characters, yet not throw the story off balance. Pleasing all the ages that read these books now, including adults, is a feat in itself. Rowling's skills admirably keep pace with her saga.

It is somewhat unusual, and more than a little risky, for a child hero to get older book by book---it would drive niche marketers crazy. But of course, they would have put a stop to this series long ago.

If you haven’t read this one, the following discussion might say too much, and if you have, it may say too little. But there are some relevant points that can be made without too much danger either way.

In announcing the new reign of terror by the evil wizard Voldemort, this book begins with an unpremeditated but inevitable whiff of the contemporary geopolitical atmosphere, but terrorism has been part of the UK experience and consciousness for some decades now, so the metaphor is a natural one. Still, an opening chapter dramatizes the crossover of darkness from the wizarding world to the Muggle (non-magical) world, and Rowling has hinted it won’t be the last such relationship.

Within the wizarding world, there've been such Muggle-familiar acts of official and cultural denial, craven media, petty tyrants, slick politicians and maddening bureaucracy, which this time expands to the imprisoning and probable torture of an innocent for political symbolism. Harry will have none of it.

There’s a through-line of philosophy about choice in the series that becomes most significant here, though it ends up with the inevitability of destiny. It’s not too surprising that Macbeth is Rowling’s favorite Shakespeare play. Yet the book (if not Harry, yet) unashamedly promotes the power of love as the ultimate defense against the dark arts.

Along with Harry’s coming of age, there are complications in the polarized battle of good and evil. Beyond betrayal, there are flaws in the best of the wizards, and one turns out to be fatal. (“Immense brainpower doesn’t protect you from emotional mistakes,” Rowling commented on this.) Harry was especially hot tempered in the previous book, so we're prepared to discount his obstinate judgments, but it turns out he is feeling some things pretty clearly. He's developing intuition, and by the end of this adventure, his rational evaluation of people and his own actions is clear and sure.

Yet even apart from his famous scar, Harry, too, is flawed. He is intellectually lazy and his righteousness borders on self-righteousness and vengeance. But that’s about right for a mythic hero, especially at a pentultimate stage. Though he doesn’t actually do much in this book (he witnesses a lot, which is worse), he’s just about to go into action in the last act of this story, which is to be concluded in book seven.

At our house, we read this aloud to each other, alternating chapters, as we have all the books. The murder most foul fell to me, and I did not react well. It surely has something to do with the fact that I am closer to the age of the mentors than the young heroes. But I more or less knew it was coming, if only because---as Rowling herself has said---in this genre, the hero usually must go on alone, or at least with his contemporaries.

There was plenty of misdirection to maintain suspense, so it was a satisfying story, as usual. In a recent interview (which I’ll describe below) Rowling mentions Dorothy L. Sayer, the mystery writer, and Jane Austen. She’s learned well from both, as well as from other discernable influences, be they direct or not: Tolkien, Dickens, E. Nesbit (in the first books in this series especially) and the Beatles. (As I recall, George was her favorite, though Harry seems more like John, and of course in the movies, looks like him.)

Part of what made these books fun to read aloud was the wit in the dialogue and the names. The villains have villainous sounding names: Mal-foy is malicious, the house of Slytherin is sly and slithering snake-like, and just try and say Severus Snape with a happy smile. The evil nemesis is Voldemort, a name with death in it, and depending on the language, it could meant the vault (tomb) or face or mask or denial of death.

But the really interesting choice was to make the names of the heroes so ordinary. What could be more anonymous than Harry Potter. Ron Weasley, maybe. And the name of the magical school---Hogwarts---is a kind of juvenile joke. Even the greatest wizard and Hogwart’s headmaster is Dumbledore: literally an old name for bumblebee, though both “dumb” and “humble” are in it.

There is a definite working class hero aspect to all this (the Beatles again) and the wizard students are unostentaciously multicultural. But there is also a strong theme of class consciousness and racial purity as part of the villainy, and the appropriate and very realistic hypocrisy that goes along with it.

This one was a little harder to read aloud, though, because of the emotional content. Yet that might be better insulation than reading it silently, because the last third of the book has more horror to it, the deeper you sink into it. The lake in the cave scene was as horrifying as any I know, though I’m not given to the horror genre. Rowling usually manages to end on a high note, and as the last chapter started I found myself wondering how she was going to do it this time. She found a way.

If you’ve had your head in a bucket for the last few weeks, you might have missed the launching of this book, and all the sales records it broke in the UK and US. (A fact I came upon in passing—the Braille edition was ready the same day as the worldwide publication date, so nobody was left out.)

As part of the launch in Rowling’s home country of Scotland, she was interviewed by various children and teens who’d won contests on the merits of their Potter knowledge, and by the editors of two of the leading Potter websites (all the previous references to Rowling’s comments come from these interviews, which can be accessed from Rowling’s own site.)

Rowling, who seems to be a witty, smart and good person (in an earlier interview she said she told her accountant, I read in the paper I’m richer than the Queen. You must be embezzling quite a lot) and appears to be having some well-deserved fun exploring the Harry world of the web. Though she posts comments only on her own site, she has been known to show up disguised in a chat room---where she says she was “treated with utter contempt” as a newbie who didn’t know anything---and she’s entered at least one contest. She likes all the theorizing, though she discourages unfruitful speculation and is bothered by things like the girls who are too fascinated with the evil boy Malfoy.

So what can we expect in book seven? No more Quidditch, but more backstory on Dumbledore (the “gleam of triumph” in his eye at the end of book 4 will turn out to be “enormously significant,” as apparently will much more from that book), and on Harry’s parents and how they were killed. Dolores Umbridge, the simpering villain of book five and exactly the kind of character Dickens would have created if he wrote now, and with the same name---will be back as well.

As for when, despite the rumors of writing block and other distractions, Rowling described writing the first six books almost continuously. She is taking some nurturing time for her new infant as well as some breathing space, and expects to work on book seven in earnest starting the first of next year. And yes, this will be the last in this series. Though she did say she might do a kind of encyclopedia of her magical world, since she spent so much time working out the details of it, and hasn’t used it all. She actually did profiles of all forty students in Harry’s class, for instance, before she started the first book.

She knows basically what’s going to happen in book seven, and has known for a long time. Somebody almost guessed, she said some years ago, but nobody got it exactly right. She’s set an enormous set of tasks for Harry, and her task will be not to let its seriousness sink the charm that made this series so popular. But her subject, she says, is evil. That’s also been part of the fascination and the power of the series.

And despite the schedule she’s set for herself, she’s written some of the seventh book already, including the final chapter. And the last word.

Which is: scar.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

new from Yale U. Press Posted by Picasa
'>AN AMERICAN THEATRE: The Story of Westport Country Playhouse
by Richard Somerset-Ward
Yale University Press

by William S. Kowinski

Cities were hot, the country was cooler. This condition before air-conditioning led to summer theatre in America, beginning early in the twentieth century. Later on there would be other incentives for the tonier summer theatres, especially near enough to New York City: summer reruns meant television stars could headline on the summer stage. It was part Straw Hat Circuit, and part tryout venue for Broadway.

But the Westport Playhouse in the affluent Connecticut town also began with high artistic purpose. Its fascinating founder, Lawrence Langner, had already begun elevating the quality of New York theatre by the example of his Theatre Guild productions. He divided his time between theatre and a very successful patent business, scrupulously keeping them separate, but he did transfer at least one idea from one to the other. "All my [patent] clients have research departments to develop new products," he said. "The summer theatre must serve the same function for new plays and for playwrights, for actors and technicians, for directors and stage designers."

Though this large format book is liberally illustrated and generously sprinkled with celebrity names, the text is substantial. With this informal, almost conversational history of some 75 years of this unique theatre inevitably says a lot about American theatre in general.

Readers may absorb insights into the business of theatre, its dependence through changing economics on remarkable individuals (many briefly profiled) and other lovers of theatre, who create shared experiences that include the risk that audiences share with everyone in the production every night.

There are the famous names---early productions and world premieres by Eugene O'Neill, George Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward, appearances by theatrical legends from Eva Le Gallienne, Laurette Taylor, Ethel Barrymore and Paul Robeson to film stars like Dorothy Gish, Gene Kelly, Jean Arthur, Henry Fonda and Joan Fontaine, and famous entertainers like Sid Caesar and Groucho Marx. But what may surprise some readers is the importance of theatre to the actors, directors and others they may know only from the movies and television. At the height of his Hollywood stardom Tyrone Power insisted on a three week run in a now forgotten play, which required some high stakes legal bluffing to keep 20th Century Fox from suddenly recalling him to Hollywood. This phenomenon remains true today.

Westport experimented with various formats and seasons, hit its stride in the 30s and 40s, had great years and not so great through the 50s, 60s and 70s (and the author doesn't pretend the misses were hits), nearly closed in 1989 and stumbled through the 90s, until its latest rebirth began in 2000 when Joanne Woodward became Artistic Director. Westport's 2002 production of "Our Town" with Paul Newman was seen by additional millions on television. Newly renovated, Westport continues to nourish theatre in its many forms with a mix of classics and new plays. Even out there in the country it fulfills a basic element of civilization: to bring live productions together with live audiences in as ancient and as human an experience as we have.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

where the fungi hits the evolutionary road Posted by Hello

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

'>Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life
By Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb
With illustrations by Anna Zeligowski
MIT Press. $34.95

'>Before Darwin: Reconciling God and Nature
By Keith Thomson
Yale University Press. $25.

by William S. Kowinski

It's the genes, stupid. That's been the battle cry of the orthodox Darwinists (or neo-post-Darwinists if you prefer) in aggressive defense of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.

They used it as the simple, all-purpose weapon to defend against the assault from reactionary forces, revived since Darwin's day and especially since the Scopes "monkey trial" humiliated them and (some say) fueled the so-called Christian fundamentalist movement. That well-financed and messianic movement, with no visible twinges of conscience restraining the scorched earth deployment of hyperbole, character assassination, vitriol, mendacity, harassment and even violence, has successfully returned biological evolution---and with it many basic operating assumptions of science---into the realm of ideological politics. School boards are harrowed, and institutions intimidated. Recently IMAX withdrew from exhibition a film that referred to Darwinian evolution, the basics of which are fundamental to most of modern science and the modern description of reality.

In the battles between the "reality-based" or fact-based, and the "faith-based," such a single powerful idea as the supreme gene, was easily employed and zealously defended--a kind of scientific nuclear device. But those questioning it weren't only reactionaries who deny that evolution took place or that the earth is more than a few thousand years old, or even those who obscure a faith-based model in the appealing jargon of "intelligent design." (Though both intelligence and design are open questions, these politically motivated operations seem to seldom be sincere attempts to address them.)

The questioning was also coming from other scientists, who risked being tarred with the same reactionary brush by the more virulent defenders of Darwinian orthodoxy, who sometimes adopted the tenor and tactics of their reactionary foes. For awhile these subversives were held at bay, but perhaps no longer.

Some charged that the simplicity of orthodox claims was supported by an unduly narrow range of evidence. Most evidence, as in Darwin's day, was from large animals. Challenges came from microbiology and molecular biology, from the study of very small life forms. Lynn Margulis was one of those leading the charge with her forceful research, forceful thinking, and forceful advocacy and writing. '>Acquiring Genomes by Margulis and Dorion Sagan is a landmark work, and highly readable.

But challenges were launched from many other directions. '>Stephen J. Gould (who probably disagreed with Margulis as much as captain of the orthodox team, '>Richard Dawkins) took the heat for awhile. Several summaries of various challenges meant for non-specialists appeared, such as '>Alas Poor Darwin by Hilary and Stephen Rose, and the one I found most informative and balanced in terms of reporting and rhetoric: '>Darwin's Blind Spot by Frank Ryan. (There are several other books on the history and controversy cited in the volume under review, including Bowler's '>Evolution: The History of An Idea and Brown's '>The Darwin Wars) .

Now comes '>Evolution in Four Dimensions, which combines detailed descriptions of the science with conscientious and creative attempts to clarify the situation for the non-specialist reader, in the process of producing a real synthesis, and something like the outlines of a new theory in the Darwinian tradition that takes into account the increasing collections of evidence that tends to poke holes in the "genecentric" orthodoxy.

One more motivation for that orthodoxy ought to be mentioned. The hoopla surrounding the Human Genome Project several years ago wasn't all about the wonders of science, as if we were witnessing the equivalent of the first moon landing. Pharmaceutical companies and other corporate interests were salivating like Pavlov's dogs at the prospect of developing and selling gene therapies to offer cures of diseases and conditions as well as a menu of enhancements for their better-off customers. All of that might be possible once the genome was identified, assuming that it is indeed all about the genes. Well, stupid, it's not, and the revolution promised by the genome project is on hold.

The genecentric dogma supported some political views, such as a neo-social Darwinism of the selfish organism composed of selfish genes. Evidence from the human and animal worlds of altruism and empathy and other unselfish behavior got twisted and scorned. The social was supposed to be a kind of illusion, because only the individual's genes really counted. So the idea that culture or learning or even consciousness could combine to successfully create new behavior, perhaps even on levels beyond individuals, was considered hopeless, counter to the biological imperative.

This orthodoxy also supported the idea that humans were a kind of programmable machine, an android with perhaps too much wetware. So the AI crowd was happy with it, too. The mechanistic and deterministic bias also supported the meme theme craze (mental genes operating as what we used to call fads), leaving little to the imagination, and providing a whif of scientific pizzazz to political p.r. consultants.

Finally, there is the scientific bias for the simple (or "elegant") explanation. However as science gets beyond the more obvious and into the more fundamental, we may find that the fundamental is complex.

In any case, though there may be a biological imperative, we clearly don't yet know what it is. These authors explain how the possibilities have expanded in the areas of heredity and evolution. In addition to the genes, they outline evidence for three other factors involved: the epigenetic (transmission of traits on the cellular level but not involving DNA), behavioral (social learning transmitted through generations, which includes animal behavior) and symbolic (language and other forms of symbolic communication, mostly but not necessarily only operative in humans.)

Simply presenting these four dimensions with illustrative examples and explanations would be useful and provocative. But this book goes beyond that description to suggesting how these dimensions interact, how they may have originated and what roles they may have played in evolution. They also tackle larger issues, including moral questions that follow from this approach.

Though many readers may find this book to be densely technical, but with effort and attention, quite coherent, most readers will learn plenty even without engaging all the detail, especially from the summaries and dialogues (with a kind of devil's advocate) that these authors provide. Because the contents have apparently been road-tested with audiences, this book is a resource, a volume that can be studied and used repeatedly.

This is an important book. It will be a revelation to many, and it is a solid beginning to an important dialogue in science and beyond, with very important societal implications. In broadening evolution beyond genes, it opens up new vistas for many areas of knowledge, and how they interrelate to form our dominant conception of who we are and what the world we're in is all about. It is a vital step in an important shift in conventional wisdom.

For example, I know one of the pioneers of the study of human altruism, whose work was sociological. But one question that his audiences often had, and which bothered him as well, was whether there was a genetic basis for this behavior---whether, as he put it, there is "a gene for altruism." For many people, altruism couldn’t be considered “real” without a genetic basis. With a better understanding of the dimensions of evolution, this question becomes less meaningful. The way is open to showing that altruism is truly part of our inheritance.

Science is troubled territory these days, threatened by political and corporate pressures. One hopeful sign is an increasing diversity among scientists. Women, for example, have made usually unacknowledged contributions throughout the history of western science, but more are becoming prominent in their fields today. These authors, with distinguished careers in related fields of the history and philosophy of science, are prime examples. Since in this book they skewer the theory proposed in a popular book a few years ago that men are by nature rapists (a logical outcome of the selfish gene dogma), I won't engage in gender-based determinism. But the history of science as well as of the emergence of other suppressed social groups suggests that more women in science may bring more collaborative attitudes and greater openness to complexity.

Defending against political and "faith-based" challenges aren't the only reasons why this or any orthodoxy maintains itself. Scientists are human beings, with the same unexamined unconscious fears, needs and motivations as other humans. Despite pieties about evaluating evidence and coming to a conclusion, scientific theories are maintained for all kinds of less rational reasons.

Apart from personal and career motives, from group needs to maintain positions or keep jobs or make money, there seems to be a strong need to believe in the central dogma. We all know at least a little about the controversies over evolution in Darwin's day, though a lot of that little is likely to be inaccurate. But the extent to which Darwin's ideas, and the science that preceded and supported his theories, challenged the basic views of real people at the time, is remarkable. This is the subject of Keith Thompson's fascinating new book, '>Before Darwin: Reconciling God and Nature.

Consider Dr. Plot, a 17th century Doctor of Laws in England who wrote extensively about the fossils then being discovered, laboring mightily to reconcile fossil evidence with the reigning orthodoxy concerning the natural world, largely derived from the Bible. As his possible explanations for what turned out to be fossil dinosaur bones dwindled, the desperate imagination of Dr. Plot thickened to include the idea that such bones were actually left by a race of human giants, which had the virtue of being mentioned in Genesis.

But while it is easy to laugh at an obscure figure, consider also that Thomas Jefferson could not accept the idea that some animal forms had gone extinct. When mastodon bones were found, there were those who theorized that these animals weren't extinct, but simply were living where no man had gone before. (A plot for many intriguing adventure stories and sci-fi films.) Thomson claims that in addition to the other purposes of their epic journey in the American West, Jefferson charged Lewis and Clark with searching for mastodons.

Thomson's book is timely, entertaining and enlightening. It provides a human dimension to these controversies when they first appeared, and a window on what is to me a fascinating period, when most of the science in these fields was being done by what today would be considered amateurs---people initially trained in another profession, who might still practice law or perform their duties as clerics, but whose obsession with aspects of the natural world, combined with great energy and intellectual rigor, advanced and in some ways invented several earth and biological sciences.

Their intellectual interests were sometimes widely shared, as newspapers followed the latest findings and theories, and fossil-hunting and geological outings on the weekend became fashionable pursuits. In fact it was only when the expanding industrial revolution needed more and more applied science, that specialization and professionalism began. The word "scientist" didn't even exist until the mid 19th century. Before that it was more integrated into a larger sense of knowledge and the nature of reality (which is partly why so many were troubled by contradictions between new discoveries and religious worldviews), and more open to innocent enthusiasm. So as Thomson's book shows, even the conscientious doubters and skeptics played a role, as did the dogged subversives, like Darwin in his day.

Darwin was himself torn between orthodoxy and the faith-based worldview. This book follows that central problem of the subtitle. Even though the Catholic church, for example, found a way to accomodate Darwin's theories, the struggle obviously goes on.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Evolving customer needs in an impactful---hello?  Posted by Hello
'>DEATH SENTENCES: How Cliches, Weasel Words, and Management-Speak Are Strangling Public Language
by Don Watson

'>Gotham Books, 208 pages, $20.

by William S. Kowinski

"Words can be like notes, like expressions of the soul," Don Watson writes. "They can make our hair stand up, they can lift our understanding to a higher plane, make us see things differently. They can inspire love and hope. You can see it happen before your eyes. Words can create a magic halo."

But before closure can be achieved on such product, robust parameters of total quality and competitive international best practices are key self-management and self-marketing requirements, in order to leverage vibrant pre-empowering emotional communication nodes and re-purpose functional deployment as a strategic initiative committed to an enhanced content provider environment. A personal mission statement sometimes helps.

Don Watson wrote speeches for the prime minister of Australia and corporation chief executives, and he wrote company brochures and manuals. The essence of these jobs (as I know from personal experience---except for the prime minister part) is translation. You have to translate their normal vocabulary and syntax into something a little closer to English. That's mostly so you can understand it. You may then be required to re-translate it back into the vocabulary and syntax that lies in their comfort zone, and that of their colleagues, while giving other people at least a hint of what it's all about.

It's a tough job and who can blame Watson for getting snarky about it. But for all the built-in satire (while Watson was writing for the prime minister, he was also writing for a comedian), this is not one of those decorously amusing Edwin Newman collections of bad grammar. Watson quotes Eric Alterman's phrase, "the post-truth environment" as a section title, because that's where we live now and where we must try to survive. Unfortunately, the truth environment surrounds it, and it contains everything necessary for our ultimate survival. If we lose touch with that, we're cooked. Sorry---I meant to say "opted out."

But don't despair: your call is important to us. That's why we've hired these nice Third World people to take it, if you insist on hitting zero while our rich-toned mechanism recites the Tibetan Menu of the Dead.

"Managerial language is an abuse of human rights," Watson writes, in a suspiciously short sentence. "It robs people of their senses, their culture, and their tongue."

I recall a New Yorker cartoon from years ago that I have been pondering ever since. A woman at a cocktail party cornered a corporate officer type to inquire, "If this is the Information Age, why doesn't anyone know anything?"

It's because most people are lying. They may only be lying in that they don't actually know what they are saying, but usually that's because they're selling something, and they're trying to find the magic words.

Watson writes about the new clichés (or are they memes?), the jargon and fashionable abstractions that do actually mean something sometimes, but often not what the people who use them intend. The two most important things in most people's working lives today are being accepted and getting noticed. It's a difficult and dangerous dance. Skillful deployment of cliché is key. Passive voice is such a help.

But of course it must be the right sort of cliché. With loyalties becoming more virtual and temporary, ideology identifies the feathers of the birds you want to flock together with. This of course goes way beyond politics. There are corporate ideologies, and ideologies specific to certain business sectors (used to be "trades" but no longer). "Ideologues speak in language best understood by ideologues of like minds," Watson notes. Elementary. It is language as ritual code. Most people understand this, and so books like this are for private chortles in the bathroom at home, assuming the cell phone is not in use, which is getting to be a big assumption.

"Parrots, when they are separated from their flocks, know by instinct they must quickly join another one or they will make a meal for hawks," Watson observes. He doesn't mean they will realign to a cooking mode. "It is from this understanding that their mimetic skill derives."

So we don't actually need some genetic basis for the sudden popularity of "death tax" or "re-framing" (as in meme theory), although this is kind of a sad biological explanation. In the meantime, in this era of full-time communication, our vocabularies are actually shrinking.
This bodes not well.

A small stroke of genius here is the glossary, which is devilishly revealing. It is largely made up of single buzzwords (like "event," "product," "issue") that are so broadly used that they are just about meaningless, except as they describe what marketing attitude you take towards them. Watson helpfully uses them in a sentence, emphasizing the classic and familiar: "To be or not to be---they are the scenarios," "I workshop, therefore I am," and my favorite, "There is more product in heaven and earth, Horatio/Than is dreamed of in your philosophy."

I would now like to initiate fundraising to coalesce a committee to implement a quality thank you to Gotham Books for bringing this book to America, despite the potential flexible outcomes, and to Don Watson who, at the end of the day, made lemons out of lemonade, for which we'd like to hire someone to express our bottom line, which is gratitude. You may now buy this book.

This seems an appropriate occasion to brag about my good fortune at the recycling center recently. In a pile of discarded books I found a worn but intact copy of English Synonyms and Antonyms by James C. Fernald, published in 1914. It is wonderful.

Much of the book is taken up by indexes and study questions, but the heart of it is a list of several hundred words, with not only their synonyms, but a marvelous paragraph about the proper shades of meaning. For example:

"Anxiety is, according to its derivation, a choking disquiet, akin to anguish; anxiety is mental; anguish may be mental or physical; anguish is in regard to the known, anxiety in regard to the unknown; anguish is because of what has happened, anxiety because of what may happen."

Anxiety is then contrasted with apprehension, fear, dread, forboding, terror, worry, solicitude, fretting, disquiet and perplexity.

I would now like to declare a war on forboding. It will involve bombing the axis of anxiety.

The entry for Physical states: "Whatever is composed of or pertains to matter may be termed material; physical (from Gr. physis, nature) applies to material things considered as parts of a system or organic whole."

That's useful, but frankly I consume these paragraphs like a glutton recently discharged from South Beach. It's a sad prospect but it's unlikely I will ever get to choose between using pique ("denotes a sudden feeling of mingled pain and anger, but slight and usually transient") and umbrage ("a deeper and more persistent displeasure"), but now I know, and I even know why (because pique signifies a sting, as of a nettle, while umbrage, from L.umbra, a shadow, is displeasure at being overshadowed.) And there is the guilty pleasure of these sentences: "It may be said, as a general statement, that pique arises from wounded vanity, umbrage from wounded pride or sometimes suspicion. Resentment rests on more solid grounds, and is deep and persistent. Compare ANGER."

But of course it's all obsolete now---why the entry for "support" says nothing at all about "supportive of." I first heard this loathsome locution in the 70s, when it came directly from T-groups and sensitivity training. It actually meant something specific then, distinguishing a kind of psychological support from a physical (or material) one. I even recall joking that if it caught on, people would go around saying they were supportive of a particular candidate for president, or paying "child supportive of." I don't think the second has happened yet, but we are long past the first. And frankly, I am more than piqued. I am impacted. I take umbrage.
Elsewhere Today...

My review of three books on "the wired revolution--then, now and beyond" can be found in print or on line at the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review.

Sunday, May 15, 2005


Notes on the restored version of Capra's "Lost Horizon" based on James Hilton's best-selling novel, at Blue Voice.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Econ for the Future 101

'>THE GREAT UNRAVELING by Paul Krugman. W.W. Norton & Co.
'>THE END OF POVERTY by Jeffrey D. Sachs. Penguin Press.

by William S. Kowinski

It's called the dismal science because of all those gray lines of figures, but the name might stick because as a science it has been a dismal failure. Abused by ideologues and self-serving liars, puffed up beyond its accomplishments in academia, with a deserved reputation for predicting the obvious and getting even that wrong, economics has failed its function and its potential. In this, a world predicated on economic relationships. Dismal.

Here are two of the few books that do better. There is no better analyst of the economics of our time, especially those involved in political machinations at the federal and global level, than Paul Krugman of the New York Times. His ongoing analysis of the chicanery and cynical foolishness applied to the Social Security debate in Washington is only his latest invaluable contribution to truth, justice and the American way.

His columns should not be missed, and though this book is a few years old---a long time in political economics---it is still the best analysis of what's going on. The venerable Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., author of POLITICS OF HOPE, calls THE GREAT UNRAVELING "required reading for anyone concerned about the American future."

Concerning the world's future, Jeffrey Sachs in his new book offers convincing proof and a practical plan for addressing and essentially ending poverty in our time. We've known since President Kennedy said so in his Inaugural Address in 1961 that eradicating poverty is within our power. This book, which is both based on information gathered for the UN Millennium Project and is the basis for the 20 year effort inaugurated by that project this year to eliminate poverty, offers the blueprint for actually doing it. At very little cost to the wealthy nations and their citizens.

What little hope there seems to be rests with courageous individuals like Krugman who step up to the possibilities that they've been given, and to organizations like the Millennium Project that operate doggedly, under the media radar, to achieve goals that amount to justifying our claims of humanity. The future depends on them, and individuals and organizations like them in many categories of knowledge and endeavor.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

It's April 22, 2005. Do you know where your planet is? Posted by Hello