Entries Tagged 'Fiction' ↓

Postmortem on a specific failure to #AbolishICE…and a reboot?

Note: In 2021 I’ll publish one blog post per week. Here’s entry 17 of 52.

The image is a high quality photograph of protestors, primarily Hispanic, crossing a bridge above a freeway. One in front, a young boy, carries a stark sign that simply says "ICE Kills" in black and red against a white background.
From Los Angeles, July 2019, the Homeland Security Kills Rally. Photo by Ronen Tivony via Getty Images

This post is a reflection on my failed, and unfortunately short-lived, attempt to help #AbolishICE in the summer of 2018. When considering the horrifying cruelties of the camps of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency under the federal Department of Homeland Security, I think it’s important to look at the experiences of everyday activists and what we’re trying — or shrugging off trying — to do. Maybe then we can reboot our efforts and try again, better this time.

ICE camp in McAllen, Texas, I believe in 2019. Nietzsche wrote approvingly of “men without pity” in 1881: “it does not seem to them so unfair that others should suffer” In the video, the big cheese without pity is former vice president Mike Pence

For those who think calling the ICE centers concentration camps is extreme, consider the words of multiple Holocaust survivors in 2019 (Rene Lichtman, Ruth Bloch, Bernard Marks): ICE is equivalent to the Gestapo, and their current ‘detention centers’ really are concentration camps where genocidaires crush minorities. The sadistic abuse by la migra at these camps is well-documented here by Gabriela C. Romeri. Borrowing from her article, the DHS’s own oversight reports found that children imprisoned at the camps reported wide-ranging abuses: officials pointing their guns at the children, shooting them with tasers for amusement or punishment, hitting or kicking them, and threatening them with rape or death. Additional reported abuse included: agents stomping children; punching children in the head, sometimes repeatedly; kicking one child in the ribs; tasering several children; denying them food and forcing minors into stress positions. Further, children held in freezing rooms with no blankets, food, or clean water; forced to sleep on concrete floors or share overcrowded cells with adult strangers; denied necessary medical care; bullied into signing self-deportation paperwork; and subjected to physical assault and rape. Mothers of infants were denied diapers; trashcans were removed from crowded holding cells and feces and other fluids were seen along the floor. The Associated Press reported in September 2018 that federal Health and Human Services (somehow or supposedly) “lost track” of 1,488 migrant children — a number that must be no coincidence: 14 represents the Fourteen Words white supremacist slogan, and the number 88 is HH (H is the eighth letter of the alphabet), a common code for Heil Hitler. Furthermore, Nazis frequently combine 14 and 88 into 1488. Presumably many of the “lost” children were enslaved (trafficked). The pedosadist likes of Jeffrey Epstein do not obtain their slaves singlehandedly; the powerful trafficking networks are planetwide organized crime. They have to grab kids from somewhere, and ICE camps along with everything surrounding them make for perfect crime scenes.

What the IBM-Nazi collaboration says about the importance of knowledge control

The color photo shows, sitting atop a wood board or table, an IBM Hollerith tabulator, which looks like a strange combination of a telephone, computer, sewing machine, and typewriter.
An IBM Hollerith machine. (Source.)

It’s a little, but increasingly, known fact that the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM), popularly recognized for products such as the Deep Blue chess-playing supercomputer and the first-rate line of Thinkpad consumer laptops (prior to Lenovo acquiring them in 2005), aided Nazi Germany in carrying out the Holocaust. The collaboration, overseen by IBM in New York City, was carried out in Germany by IBM subsidiary the Dehomag Corporation. Dehomag’s punch-card tabulating machines, called Hollerith machines, were installed at the major Nazi concentration camps, where SS personnel, following training by IBM who knew what was going on, used the tabulators to track information on prisoners. Arrivals, transfers, deaths, occupations, and slave labor details were all catalogued on IBM Hollerith machines. The SS also supplied Reich central authorities in Berlin with that data on an ongoing basis.

In addition to the outright horror, killing millions relatively quickly is a complicated logistical challenge. As explained in investigative journalist Edwin Black’s book IBM and the Holocaust: The strategic alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation, the Hollerith machines helped Nazi leadership “prioritize, schedule, and manage the seemingly impossible logistics of genocide across dozens of cities in more than twenty countries and territories. It was not just people who were counted and marshaled for deportation. Boxcars, locomotives, and intricate train timetables were scheduled across battle-scarred borders—all while a war was being fought on two fronts. The technology had enabled Nazi Germany to orchestrate the death of millions without skipping a note.”

The black-and-white image shows a punch card, an old-fashioned, gridlike paper record about the size of a dollar bill. It has a German word, Rassenamt, printed in the midle, along with the SS bolts and the number one.
Example of IBM custom punch-card for the SS Race Office. (Source.)

The Reich using Hollerith machines at their concentration camps representated a huge, profitable commercial victory for Big Blue. Further, IBM didn’t sell the machines to the Nazis, but instead, merely leased them (as in today’s corporate software ecosystem where endusers rarely own much but typically just lease ‘their’ apps, ebooks, etc). The leasing arrangment forced the Nazis into dependency on Dehomag/IBM, just as individuals and schools/universities and even governments presently are dependent on, rather than governing over, Silicon Valley. In 1934, Dehomag’s director, Willy Heidinger, bragged (in a statement that emphasizes with astonishing bluntness the role of medical control):

We are recording the individual characteristics of every single member of the nation onto a little card […] We are proud to be able to contribute to such a task, a task that makes available to the physician [i.e. Adolf Hitler] of our German body-social the material for his examination, so that our physician can determine whether, from the standpoint of the health of the nation, the results calculated in this manner stand in a harmonious, healthy relation to one another, or whether unhealthy conditions must be cured by corrective interventions […] We have firm trust in our physician and will follow his orders blindly, because we know that he will lead our nation toward a great future. Hail to our German people and their leader!

Dehomag was directed from New York City by IBM head Thomas J. Watson. Between 1933 and 1940, Watson courted Nazi business and made Hitler’s regime dependent not just on the leases of Hollerith machines, but also on the unique punch-card paper IBM sold. When the Nazis ran out of that fluid capital, they had to replenish their stock of paper by going as customers to IBM, who, at the same time as its employees even had sales quotas for working with the Reich, somehow continually managed to evade the Treasury Department in D.C., a top-echelon bureau formally tasked with stopping domestic firms from trading with official enemies. Hmm, curious, that. The business between IBM and the Nazis kept going: Dehomag serviced/repaired the Hollerith machines on site at the concentration camps regularly. Even food allocation (i.e., who would starve and who would be fed) was managed by the Nazis using an IBM proprietary database system. Unless humanity elects to establish a universal database, a global commons, owned by everyone, for organizing and sharing public data, we’ll continue to have such opaque databases of proprietary control as the Nazi’s, where injustices occur aided by secrecy. (Of course, injustices also occur in plain sight, especially since nowadays people lack shame or a sense of duty to the vulnerable, and have trouble putting the disparate puzzle pieces together to recognize that their emotional responses have been conditioned from above; it’s ‘secrecy’ through flooding everyone with distracting trivia and corporate entertainment.)

The black-and-white photo shows men in suits sitting around a table.
Hitler and IBM president Thomas J. Watson (among others) meeting in Berlin, 1937. (Source.)

Did IBM face consequences? As World War II progressed, Big Blue sold Hollerith machines to the Allies also, playing both sides. After Armistice Day, no IBM executives were charged with war crimes, and their profits from working with the Axis were shielded from reparations. Not only that, but Hollerith machines were used to handle records at the Nuremberg Trials — Big Blue playing both sides and the referees too — and IBM formally requested compensation for its Hollerith machines getting damaged during the war. Legal cases since have had mild success but nothing full, due to reasons such as statute of limitations. IBM’s business steamrolled on: not as IBM contracting with the powers that be, which is the usual phrasing, but IBM (and big tech today) as the power that is, needing to trade its products somewhere anywhere, and looking down to the lowly governments below as dependent customers. Two examples follow. Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks’ The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence (1974) — an interesting instance of a U.S-published book that has been censored; my paperback copy has black ( DELETED ) marks throughout — says “The first step in the [CIA’s] evaluation process [for obtaining a spy] is to run a ‘namecheck,’ or trace, on the person, using the CIA’s extensive computerized files located at headquarters in Langley [Virginia]. This data bank was developed by International Business Machines exclusively for the CIA and contains information on hundreds of thousands of persons.” Investigative journalist Tim Shorrock’s book Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing (2008) mentions IBM’s work “as a major provider of computer systems to the Pentagon and the NSA.” Have the highest levels of warfighters ever really been defeated?

What does all this mean — is it just a random contingency that tech companies happen to be so powerful, and is interest in the Internet and technology a mere “subgenre” of anarchism or activism, less important than, say, the heart-pounding physicality of black bloc streetfighters skirmishing with cops? After all, Edwin Black, author of IBM and the Holocaust, wrote “Make no mistake — The Holocaust would still have occurred without IBM. To think otherwise is more than wrong. The Holocaust would have proceeded — and often did proceed — with simple bullets, death marches, and massacres based on pen and paper persecution.” Is the difference merely something quantitative, that the technology enabled the Nazis to automate genocide and to massively multiply the killing, murdering millions relatively quickly with cold efficiency, beginning a new era of military intelligence, two words combined that can’t make sense?

The image is a black-and-white poster showing an open eye looking upon a city. German words are written on the poster, translated in my caption.
Creepy Dehomag poster from circa 1934 reads in German: “See everything through Hollerith punch cards.” (Source.)

It’s more than quantity: the IBM-Nazi use of Hollerith tabulating machines were the contemporary beginnings of yoking genocidal domination based on knowledge together with mass data. Although you might debate the particulars, big picture wise, human behavior has always stemmed from knowledge: everything else is downstream. It might appear that the celebrity who’s the sexiest calls the most shots, but emanating like magic from the high, remote towers of the intelligentsia, the definitions of sexy and celebrity (and whatever else) are too often imposed, not from a community’s storytellers and mythmakers who must answer to their neighbors, but from above. Similarly with initial definitions and emotional responses around things like black blocs and cops. Community storytellers lack the amplification and computing power of the powerful intelligentsia-magicians. To outsmart, or route around, the force-multiplying technology wielded by the supranational powers (especially spy agencies), is like seizing a staff away from a wizard, or besting a wizard in spellcasting. If the public wins at this magical duel over abstractions (and the logic systems for organizing our abstractions and connecting them to the physical realm, i.e., software, networks, etc.), then control of mythmaking and other knowledge creation finally return to the public’s control, and hence the public regains control of all that which is downstream as well. That controlling the fount yields the most power must have been why, for instance, Winston Churchill was obsessed with, and kept close tabs on, the Bletchley Park professor types, including Alan Turing, whose organization after World War II grew into GCHQ, the British equivalent of the NSA; unlike many other British leaders in his orbit, prime minister Churchill intuitively understood how powerful this wizard-staff of software structuring of abstraction information was and would become. Computer software isn’t just goofy game apps on a smartphone: it’s ‘instruction tables’ (to use Turing’s phrase that later was changed into ‘software programs’) for logically processing information itself, and that can translate into knowledge itself, which not spy agencies from above, but the public from below, must control, if control over everything else is sought. Such a picture, introduced to the public from 2010 to 2012 by WikiLeaks Central (an adjacent but separate organization from WikiLeaks, including in terms of ideas and agenda), was challenging to see a decade ago, but based on offline conversations in Seattle anyway, with those roughly ages 25-30, I imagine many bright young people really into the Internet can see it more easily these days. It’s become all the more obvious, at least in broad strokes. Then again, it’s a picture that, though comprehensive and incisive, can quickly be overwritten for some when the louder, seemingly more accessible advertisements from various ideologies (e.g., Marxist groups) pop up, as they do nonstop here in Seattle, diverting people from taking on corporations and spy agencies (through mechanisms such as lawsuits, the Magnitsky Act, inventions, mutual aid infrastructure, etc.), toward smaller goals regrettably fleeting.

Now imagine refusing a defector from the IBM-Nazi collaboration

The image shows a screenshoot from the game. It's a low-tech three-dimensional shooter from the first person perspective. The player sees their gun. They're in a stone castle, where images of swastikas and Hitler decorate the walls.
Wolfenstein 3d computer game from ’92. No information technology, no propaganda, just shoot, you grunt.

Pretend it’s the early 1940s and a higher-up at IBM’s German offices, perhaps one of the lowest executives in the C suite, goes to meet with the Nazis about more Hollerith machines they want for a planned concentration camp. The Nazis give him completed paperwork describing plans for the camp and what they expect from the Dehomag tabulators. Walking back to his office, our fictional employee, sickened by his collaboration with the Reich (sickening which began a few months back), decides to defect to the public. He worries passersby can see the growing sweat stains on his suit. Hell, he worries he’s going to bang right into another pedestrian, because he can’t focus on walking correctly for all the thoughts wheeling in his head: about the opposition newspaper he sometimes bought when no one was looking (telling himself it was out of mere curiosity), about an antifa group he heard gathered sometimes in the back of a nearby art gallery, and about his family, especially his son, who though ten and unusually talented at the violin — which won him enrollment at a special music conservatory — still has trouble reading simple German, and always seems disconnected from everything around him.

The black-and-white photograph shows the Buchenwald concentration camp in the bakground, with a rally in the foreground.
Antifa rally at Bunchenwald concentration camp, 1945. (Source)

That night, the defector pretends to his wife over the dinner she cooked that he has back pain forcing him to stand and not sit nor sleep. Then he stays awake into the small hours, drafting an anonymous letter stating his severe disagreement with IBM’s Dehomag. It’s something of a rant; it doesn’t mention the plans, nor does it make any threats to his employer. But it’s powerfully worded, and it does demand Dehomag drop its relationship with the Nazis. Between the lines, the letter conveys: Or else. He isn’t quite sure or else what, but then again, he’s now not quite sure how far he wants to go with this, or if he’ll chicken out and change his mind. Maybe it’s all just crazy thoughts arising from the back pain he really does sometimes have? And his son does love the conservatory — music is the only time he’s not spaced out. But the sun comes up and, after downing some coffee and putting on a suit without sweat stains, our defector leaves home for the office of the opposition press newspaper. His conversation with the editors, filled with specific details, lead them to conclude he’s telling the truth about who he is and the planned concentration camp, and the editors print his anonymous letter as soon as possible.

Switch from our defector focal character, to the back of the art hall, where indeed an antifa collective comes together the next afternoon. There are just three of them, one woman and two men, relatively inexperienced and young, not at all the hardened crew the defecting executive imagined. Perhaps against their better judgment, they’re proudly discussing the successful sabotage another antifa group apparently carried out last week, covertly cutting signalling cables. They lament reports of human cargo packed into freight cars, of people beat with batons. Then one of the men asks if the others saw the anonymous letter in the opposition newspaper. They haven’t, so the guy fills the rest in. He’s the most ungainly in the group, bookish and a little overweight. He says, “Through our contacts, we should find the person who wrote the anonymous letter, and help him break from Dehomag. He probably knows a lot. He probably has a lot of coworkers sympathizing with him. Fucking up Dehomag could really save lives, protect the vulnerable from the Reich.”

“What, are you joking?” says another of the men. “Those bourgeois businesspeople. They wear fancy suits, they have fancy salaries, and their kids go to fancy schools. I don’t want to do anything that benefits them.”

The ungainly guy blinks, staring startled at the other two as if they must know something he never has. Maybe the other man is simply dissing him in an effort to impress the woman (who’s turned aside to straighten a portrait hanging on the wall), but so petty a motivation is typically beyond his own rationale. He dismisses the possibility from his mind, which suddenly feels destabilized, dizzy somehow. There simply must be a logical misunderstanding somewhere. “No,” he says, “the beneficiaries of this effort would be the concentration camp prisoners, not the letter-writer.” The other man repeats himself: “I’m just not going to help those bougie business types.” Later the ungainly guy thinks, he could have added, The letter-writer is a means to an end: not palling around with him, but saving the victims. Besides, who knows what this letter-writer is really like; we have to find him first. Had he more social skill, he might also have said: You won’t try anything far riskier than trying to seduce women. The letter-writer opposing the Gestapo seems braver than you. But such conversational ability is beyond him, and his own background — his own suits and schools — hangs heavy in the silence. He stumbles away, not sure where he’s going, and realizes he could take a breather in the bathroom. As he opens the bathroom door, the other man heads for the portrait-straightening woman with a new grin stretching wider and wider across his face.

Who are your sympathies with in this admittedly thrown-together, cliche-ish story? I’d suppose people would support the defector, the irritatingly inept ungainly guy, the violin-playing child, and maybe the two women (although their stories are sadly only hinted at, if that).

The image is from the video game. It shows Hitler's face as he's being resurrected out of some sci-fi cryo chamber. According to the dialogue box, he's saying to the player:  "What, you're going to fight against me? You damn fool."
From the 1988 NES video game Bionic Commando and my childhood.

But when something loosely analogous happened in summer 2018, when Microsoft employees anonymously told their employer to drop contracts with ICE, those I imagined would be sympathetic reacted in a way I didn’t expect. After reading the news of the Microsoft employees (presumably living in and around Seattle), I suggested to Seattle activists offline that we figure out who the anonymous Microsoft employees nearby were and support/encourage them in shutting down Microsoft’s contract with ICE. Perhaps we could bring them food, or introduce them to other activists, or something? I was shocked how many Seattle activists immediately balked at the idea of helping ICE camp prisoners by locating and offering strike support to rebelling Microsoft employees. The Microsoft employees don’t need their employer’s permission to cease coding and maintaining software platforms for ICE; they could just stop. But in that case, they’d definitely need support from wider society, which our conversation unfortunately quickly depicted as a bean-counting debate over whether the programmers, unknown to us personally, likely could or couldn’t afford to purchase their meals, rather than as an issue of support overall (including legal and emotional support and connecting with others). The balking activists cited software developers’ salaries and lifestyles as justification for choosing not to help ICE camp prisoners in this way. Decent disgreement might have been, say, if Microsoft drops their contract with ICE, wouldn’t la migra simply redirect to get the vanished help from another company instead, for instance Dell or IBM? Or, couldn’t Microsoft just hire more programmers to replace any striking ones refusing to code for ICE? Those weren’t the disagreements that happened. Despite posters in Seattle bedrooms calling upon viewers to #AbolishICE, deciding how to (not) accomplish that goal was based on affinity for apparently well-off programmers or lack of affinity thereof, as if abolishing ICE should be based on personality contests or who you would or wouldn’t go to a bar with. That being said, fortitude and social/verbal skill is required from anyone (including 2018-era me, who didn’t have enough of either) who suggests face to face that people collaborate in actually planning out and following through on doing something as huge as providing strike support to employees walking out on their jobs to challenge a Gestapo-like federal agency.

As the history of the Reich using IBM’s Hollerith machines shows, information technology is crucial in multiplying and structuring mass genocide, and in gaining control over the information associated with it, information people get used to and start taking for granted. Somebody should unplug that stuff, and not everyone in the world — of seven billion people, 190-odd countries, multiple major religions — is going to see eye to eye on lifestyle topics like suits and violins, and not everyone is going to come from the same background of economic class. Perhaps instead of using those differences as excuses for pettiness, we could use them as strengths. Am I missing something?

It ain’t over till it’s over: rebooting

Unplugging the computer systems upon which ICE crucially depends would have, and still could, have a tremendous effect in fucking up la migra. I haven’t followed how the internal Microsoft rebellion has played out since the New York Times published the above-linked Microsoft anonymous employee letter in 2018, and I’m unsure what the present status of the ICE camps is. However, Reuters reported last month that the Biden administration wants to increase their funding by 22% supposedly to root out white supremacy, and I know from my day job that released children are making their way into the public school system, a system already overwhelmed for the usual reasons, plus trying to return in-person during coronavirus. I’d assume ICE camps are continuing as usual, and by default, I’d distrust messages from the blue religion saying all is well or will be shortly if we just trust the authorities, or messages from the red religion saying the White House is trying to overrun the country with terrorists by uncaging children.

As sources such as ItsGoingDown.org, Crimethinc.com, and search.twitter.com show, there are still people out there in the United States working to #AbolishICE in various ways. Focused on other concerns instead, I haven’t followed the topic as much as I should have. If anyone has any good leads on projects for abolishing ICE, or thoughts, please drop them in the comments.

Creative Commons License

This blog post, Postmortem on a specific failure to #AbolishICE…and a reboot?, by Douglas Lucas, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (human-readable summary of license). The license is based on a work at this URL: https://douglaslucas.com/blog/2021/05/02/postmortem-specific-failure-abolishice-reboot. You can view the full license (the legal code aka the legalese) here. For learning more about Creative Commons, I suggest this article and the Creative Commons Frequently Asked Questions. Seeking permissions beyond the scope of this license, or want to correspond with me about this post one on one? Please email me: dal@riseup.net.

The battleground of names

Note: In 2021 I’ll publish one blog post per week. Here’s entry 12 of 52.

The image shows simple computer code that asks the user to input their name and age, then stores this data as a name dollar sign variable and an age dollar sign variable, and finally prints the information back out.
Screenshot of a tutorial for QBasic, a Microsoft programming language from the early nineties

In 2004, I began asking others to call me by my first name, Douglas. Before that, I’d been called a variant of my middle name (which I won’t share here for mundane privacy purposes). I wanted a fresh start, because I was just entering my first semester at a university, and also, I was annoyed by the various paperwork hassles seemingly everywhere when your legal name and the name you go by differ. For example, class rosters not specifying how you’re actually called encourage teachers to address you by what appears on the roster. Since many teachers labor under the unfair requirement that they educate very large class sizes, and thus face far too many students to always memorize the preferences of each successfully, try as they might, you as a student can go through months and months of unpleasantly trying to correct a teacher about your name, something that’s supposed to intimately characterize you. The indignity of being called wrongly is even more profound for those whose name changes signal giant shifts in their personhood, such as those who switch names as part of gender or religious transitions. Me, I just thought a fresh start and an end to the paperwork hassles would be nice.

The image shows Jim Carrey as Truman in the movie. He's standing atop steps and before a door. He has his arms and hands spread wide, and he's looking up, smiling.
Image from The Truman Show

It’s strange how names characterize us, isn’t it? Consider the eponymous name of the protagonist in the 1998 movie The Truman Show: unlike those around him pretending to be his neighbors, Truman is a true man. But names, at least when initially given, actually characterize the parents/caregivers, their aspirations for the infant who’s receiving some particular name in the first place. A sense of this reality is frequently missing from fiction, when authors pick a name to symbolize or allude to something about a character, rather than about that character’s parents or environment (including economic class). In other fiction, such disparities between a character’s true self and their name are portrayed, especially if the story involves a name change. While authors spend lots of time thinking over the given names characters go by among their peers, I think surnames in fiction don’t receive much scrutiny, particularly in terms of migration. If an author is writing a story set in 2030 in Nebraska, and currently in 2021 nearly all people alive with surname X live only in France, should the author provide backstory for why someone with surname X is living in Nebraska just nine years into the future? Or are surnames freebies for authors and readers alike? As long as it sounds good and plausible enough, maybe no bulletproof backstory is required. You could reduce such realism problems to absurdity by requiring an author depicting a coffeepot in a story to know how it got there, tracing it all the way back to the specific particles emerging from the Big Bang. On the other hand, books too often expect readers to assume narrators are white and show WASP-y names as the norm, presenting anything else as exceptions in need of explanations.

Since 2004, there’s been a certain discomfort with my first name, for many of those using it and me alike. I’m regularly asked the same question when meeting people: “Do you prefer Doug or Douglas?” The question stumped me for a very long time. Whenever I looked within, I discovered I legitimately don’t have a preference. Either is cool with me! So I couldn’t advise the question-askers, who as far as I could make out, wanted to be caring and accommodating. Just about every time I replied that I have no preference, the question-asker became frustrated. They said I should have a preference. But I didn’t. Maybe I hurt their feelings, as though they were going out of their way in offering to remember my preference, and my not having one stung like a rebuke, in some transactional world they exist in. Only this past month have I finally figured out something more about the question. I’ve been doing core strengthening in physical therapy to help with one of my legs (two surgeries on it in my life so far), and the physical therapist is extremely knowledgeable and competent. I like him, and I’m really grateful to have his excellent help. He told me he has a thing for trying to remember the best names to call people by. We were both a bit flummoxed by my lack of a preference between Doug or Douglas. I thought it over. I think the fact I get along well with this superb physical therapist enabled me to see something more about the question and my lack of a preference.

Here’s the answer, what’s been the answer all along: Doug and Douglas are the same name — just at different diction levels. Doug is informal; Douglas is formal. Compare “What’s up, Doug?” with “Listen, Douglas, we need to have a talk.” They’re the same name in two different forms. I don’t want to micromanage which level of formality my interlocutor picks for any particular conversation. I trust the appropriate diction level can just emerge naturally, simply from both parties’ interactions and the environment at large. Because I realized all this just a few weeks ago, I haven’t had the opportunity to test it out in real life yet. But the next time someone asks me, Do you prefer Doug or Douglas?, I’m going to tell them one’s for informal, the other’s for formal, and that they can select between the two as they think proper. I wonder what will happen. As long as they don’t call me Doogie.

The image shows a black book cover, with the title More Than Human at top, and at bottom, the author's name plus "The provocative novel of six people who became--together--a new form of humanity" and in reference to the author, "whose work is increasingly being called a classic of its kind"
Original hardback cover of Sturgeon’s best-known novel

A common thread in the above — asking others to use my first name (revealingly, sometimes frenemies from the past still don’t, pointedly refusing to honor my request); trying to justify to readers a surname’s presence in a geographic location and time period; attempting to explain to strangers that the two forms of a single name are for different diction levels — is a sense of individuals having to legitimize their names, and perhaps themselves, to others. Names are usually social, bestowed upon us and by us as we pass life down through generations. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 novel The Dispossessed, each character on an anarchist moon has but one name, handed out by a central computer registry to keep things organized. In contrast to this socially-focused system, in Theodore Sturgeon’s 1953 novel More Than Human, there’s a gripping moment when the first character we encounter, a lonely outsider, finally names himself. Initially, “Men turned away from him, women would not look”; however, after roughly five years living and working with the Prodd farming family, he learns to speak, though “always he preferred not to.” Eventually the farmer Mr Prodd asks him for his name (get it? Prodd as in prodding him). Because he has come to trust Mr Prodd, he’s able to fulfill this request. He thinks that a name “is the single thing which is me and what I have done and been and learned.” Despite his growing connection with the Prodds, he picks the name Alone, which he can manage to pronounce merely as a single syllable, Lone. That seems very individualist, but he chooses a name only when someone else asks him for it, so it’s an event both personal and social. (The book later follows Lone gathering what Sturgeon calls a gestalt, kind of a chosen family, from other outlier outsiders.) Does a person living on a desert island like a castaway need a name at all? Might they forget their own name? Finally, look at the concept of true names in Le Guin’s Earthsea fiction. Characters and objects in that univese have two names, a common one that’s safely shareable, and a second, secret, true name that empowers them and gives others power over them if it’s discovered. In neither case, however, are the names chosen.

The image shows an Internet Relay Chat window, with the user having typed "Hello to all you good people!" with a smiley emoticon. To the right of the image is a vertical list of various handles for users, such as Jolo and herbie and sat.
Internet Relay Chat, what I was doing in the nineties

Online, as in certain types of radio communication, users choose handles, also known as pseudonyms or simply nyms. These lessen tendencies in conversation/debate toward the logical fallacies of personal attacks and arguments from authority, where interlocuters waste time saying “You only believe that because you are [insert identity attribute here]”, as in, because you’re tall/short/rich/poor/white/of color, etc. With nyms, individuals can choose personally meaningful ways to describe themselves, and the handles can become so meaningful that among those heavily involved in computers (or perhaps simply involved in online chatting), it’s common to go by the handles even in face-to-face conversation, rather than by legal names. Some users, in contrast, choose random characters (for example: ang) to identify themselves, not wanting to give their personal story away to strangers. And some change nyms frequently, rebooting their name over and over, trying to prevent others from assuming things based on what might have been past interactions with the person. When I play around with it, this aspect of computing (akin to writing under a psuedonym) can feel very liberating.

At top, the image has text saying "If I was the teacher, i'd give this kid an A." Below that, the image shows a schoolwork assignment, which reads: Defend your answer. Rather than follow the assignment (for whatever it was, perhaps math or English Language Arts), the student has drawn a fort around the word answer, and drawn a solider with a machine gun saying "Sarge, I don't know how much longer we can hold them!"
Must everything be so stressful?

It seems names should be a touching aspect of life, and fun to ponder, but they’re commonly just another battleground. Picking a name can feel empowering (because how could an unchosen name really represent/express who you are?), while keeping a name bestowed by others can offer connection linking the past, present, and future together. Maybe, like successful accounts of trauma that provide healing, names need to be simultaneously personally meaningful, and effective and connecting in social contexts. Really thinking names through, as opposed to dissociation from life (“it’s all a blur”), as well as good relationships for experimenting with names, seem very helpful for individuals trying to determine what might be their own best path.

Creative Commons License

This blog post, The battleground of names, by Douglas Lucas, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (human-readable summary of license). The license is based on a work at this URL: https://douglaslucas.com/blog/2021/03/26/battleground-names/. You can view the full license (the legal code aka the legalese) here. For learning more about Creative Commons, I suggest this article and the Creative Commons Frequently Asked Questions. Seeking permissions beyond the scope of this license, or want to correspond with me about this post one on one? Please email me: dal@riseup.net.

Review of the novel Shantaram

Note: In 2021 I’ll publish at least one blog post per week, ideally on Wednesdays, but more practically, whichever day I get to it. Here’s entry 7 of 52.

Note: I haven’t forgotten about Biden! I’ll post about him next week.

Note: You should probably skip this review if you want zero spoilers.

The cover of a paperback edition of Shantaram. It shows the book's title and authorship, plus a blurb, a building, and the sea.
The edition I have

On Monday I finally finished reading the 2003 novel Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. The semi-autobiographical bestseller came to my attention because Putingate whistleblower Reality Winner, whose August 2018 sentencing I reported on in person, included it in her art from the FMC Carswell prison in Fort Worth Texas, specifically in the piece reproduced below. The book is 933 large pages in the paperback edition I have (pictured left), so it took me quite a while to finish. Here’s what I gained from it, what I didn’t like, and my thoughts on whether you should consider reading Shantaram, if you haven’t already.

First, a quick summary. The story revolves around the main character Lin, who, after escaping imprisonment in his home country of Australia, where he’d robbed banks to maintain a drug habit, arrives in India with a false passport to live as a fugitive. There he participates in many areas of life unfamiliar to many Westerners or non-travelers, among them a restaurant-and-bar where fairly well-off migrants from Western countries reflect, as Lin sits at their table, on the ups and downs of their shifting fortunes and gossip about Mumbai. Lin meets the goofy and basically nonstop-happy Prabaker, an Indian taxi driver whose characterization is an offensive Sambo caricature, not a careful depiction of a fully realized individual. Prabaker becomes a sidekick for Lin and invites him, when the fugitive’s chips are down, to live in the city’s friendly Colaba slum. The Australian accepts, and then provides improvised medical services to the slum dwellers, an endearing (but also borderline stereotyped) section of the novel that shows the inhabitants of Colaba owning little, yet helping each other tremendously with little to none of the war of all against all common in the so-called civilized world. In other news, Lin somewhat randomly meets an elder statesman of a large gang/mafia, the oddly philosophical Abdel Khader Khan. Lin’s in love, too, with one of the restaurant-and-bar crowd, a Swiss woman named Karla who’s in the habit of offering purplish one-liners about life. The fugitive assists her in liberating her friend Lisa from the vile Madame Zhou’s prostitution/slavery den. Zhou retaliates by getting Lin thrown into a wretched prison once more, this time in India. After the Australian suffers much behind these new bars, Khader bribes the authorities to free him. In gratitude, and to learn skills for revenge, Lin goes to work for Khader in Mumbai’s criminal underworld, swapping out currency and trading passports on the black market, plus physical training and fistfighting members of a rival gang. This dark side of Lin increasingly comes to dominate over the slum doctor side, culminating in the fugitive travelling to Afghanistan as a gun-runner for Khader. Due to battling in that country, he barely makes it back to India, where he soon heads to Zhou’s for revenge. At the novel’s climax, he finds Zhou already a wreck, and, changing his mind, chooses to let her live. Lin muses that the cheerful slum dwellers, not the macho criminals, are the truly heroic ones — which doesn’t stop him a single inch, for another 100-or-so gratuitous pages after the climax, from continuing to fistfight members of rival gangs and promising those men in his particular gang that he’ll go on future missions beyond Mumbai with them, presumably a setup for the sequel I haven’t read, The Mountain Shadow.

As many reviews have noted, the best aspect of the novel is its vivid, lively depictions of various places. These off-the-beaten-path settings include Prabaker’s native village of Sunder, the Colaba slum, Zhou’s slave den, the Australian prison (in flashback), the prison in India, Bollywood sets, Afghanistan mountains and caves, a temporary settlement built atop a skyscraper, and more. The author’s personal experience of the environments enrich his portrayal of them, as when you stumble upon a Reddit post by a stranger who’s not dedicated to writing, but who’s suddenly putting together gorgeous, moving prose because they’re talking about something they’re profoundly invested in personally and know all the fascinating details of. For audiences starved of adventures, Shantaram seems as good a way as any, short of actual travel, to experience unfamiliar locations. But, then again, I unfortunately haven’t read many realist stories set outside Britain, Europe, and the United States. To read about India in English, there are probably many worthy alternatives to Shantaram out there; it’s simply a matter of finding them.

The novel is also enjoyable when it focuses on a bank-robbing druggie gone wrong changing for the better, into a compassionate doctor living and practicing among the friendly dwellers of the largely ignored, but massive, slum village in Mumbai. At these points, the book seems, or did to me, spiritually uplifting, and it really piqued my curiosity about this slum and similar parts of the planet, not that I know how accurately Gregory David Roberts depicts Colaba. In these portions, the novel reads like a modern-day Les Misérables, the 1862 French novel (and mainstay Broadway musical) about the ex-convict Jean Valjean who similarly improves his lot and turns to helping others. (I don’t know, but given reporting about Reality Winner’s numerous altruistic endeavors throughout her life, I imagine this component of the novel might appeal to her especially.)

Sadly, the Les Mis-esque portions of Shantaram don’t win out. As the pages mount up, Lin becomes heavily invested in the drug lord Abdel Khader Khan, treating him as a father figure godsend. Now that he’s in thrall to Khader, Lin’s altruistic side fades away, leaving readers to wade through seemingly endless tough-guy scenes of macho dialogue and beat ’em up. The book gives the impression that each twist and turn of these rival gangs scheming and warring against each other are of utmost importance to Roberts, but readers more interested in thoughtful humanity will probably lose sympathy with the suddenly swaggering Lin, as I did, and hang on only for the descriptions of the unusual Afghanistan setting, where the Australian’s warlike side emerges full blown, without any real apology. Toward the end of Shantaram, I was reminded of author Peter Straub’s Blue Rose crime novels from 1988-1993, in which again, labyrinthine complexities of plot are supposed to be gripping, yet really, reading, trying to keep track of the reversals and revelations, having my patience and memorization capacity taxed, I was just hoping for Straub to go rogue from corporate expectations and write something that simply interests or amuses him, as he did in his 1999 novel Mr. X, namely the fun scene, wholly unnecessary to the plot no one remembers anyway, of a college kid on amphetamine, sleeplessly blazing through tests and causing assorted humorous troubles (as best I can recall from having read that book a decade or so ago, anyway. Also, still waiting for a Peter Straub comedy of manners novel.) It isn’t really required for fiction to be a Rube Goldberg machine of cloaks, daggers, and derring-do to maintain audience interest, but living in a world of easily digestible intellectual abstractions and unnoticed emotional hypervigilance, that’s what audiences today are trained to look for from corporate entertainment: whether it’s the banging jolts and high-pitched shrieking of the ubiquitous cartoons everyone from toddler to adult seems to watch nowadays, or the action-heavy, fatal exploits of weapon-toting superheroes in blockbuster movies, characters in film will switch sides, chase MacGuffins, navigate ridiculous plot twists, and try to kill each other for hours and hours, and since all this is usually folks’ starting point with art, other options aren’t always readily salient. Anyway, to sum up Shantaram along with its reliance on needless hyperstimulating plot machinations, Lin first gains reader sympathy, going from gun-waving druggie to altruistic slum doctor, then loses it, dwindling into a cardboard gangster character working his studly way through the forgettable mazes of noir plot. The fugitive’s climactic forgiveness bestowed upon Madame Zhou, as predictable as a million other Christian-esque forgiveness stories (see for instance the Star Wars movies, where blowing up inhabited planets, committing mass genocide, is no significant obstacle to redemption: no trials, no reparations, no transformations, no nothing), makes little lasting impact on Lin after quick passages of him standing before her musing yet more aphorisms before returning to beat ’em up (where sure, he sometimes muses additionally, but he keeps on in the gang, doesn’t he). Among other things, Lin blames his second imprisonment for his downfall, but as I’ll conclude below, I think there’s more to his dark side coming out on top than the novel openly expresses.

The poor characterizations are another problem with Shantaram. Lin’s sidekick, Prabaker with the never-ending flashbulb smiles, was already mentioned briefly; he’s largely a troubling Sambo caricature, the offensive stereotype that paints people who aren’t white and are classed far below the colonial rulers and their offspring as happy and loyal and stupid untermensch. The women, Karla and Lisa among them, are routinely described in terms of their attractive physical appearances, and their roles are mostly delimited to how they impact the Australian and his sex drive. I suppose both these flaws were regrettably par for the course in 2003, prior to the widespread adoption of social media, but I’m glad white male authors can’t so easily escape with this sort of unaware, compulsive thing anymore.

Shantaram's author standing in front of a waterfall with a jewelry necklace, a vertical line of red paint on his bald forehead, and a giant grin.
Photo of Gregory David Roberts in 2020, by EmpathyArts

Finally, I want to talk about how Lin seems, to me, unreal, depersonalized. I’d imagine someone who robs banks, busts out of prison, and travels the world to be a person of great strength, for good or ill. Maybe I’m wrong, and there are more things in heaven and earth than dreamed of in my philosophy, but I’d expect such a fugitive to have bold opinions, disciplined willpower, and definite preferences. Yet Lin floats, without much volition, as if pushed by undescribed waves, from healing doctor to warlike gun-runner, to someone listening to music on a beach or drinking in a bar, to many other roles, with little explanation of his zigzagging path beyond obvious observations in his first-person narration to the effect that, say, strutting gangsters want attention and aren’t happy in themselves. Duh. Papering over this depersonalized way Lin comes across are corny aphorisms from Karla and the-author-speaking-through-Lin. Many reviews have mocked these purple groaners, but just to give one example, I’ll open to a random page in the middle of my copy. Page 451: “there’s an innocence, essential and unblinking, in the heart of every determination to serve.” Huh? Essential and unblinking? Well, maybe? After reading hundreds of these easy-on-the-ears, yet ultimately cryptic, assertions, one or three every few pages, I lost my hopeful tolerance that I might learn from them something profound, and began to grow exhausted with them and the book overall. The one-liners seem to cover for the lack of a real Lin — Why did he gain that doctoring ability in the first place? Why India, or Karla for that matter? — so Roberts shoehorns the aphorisms into just about every available spot, apparently trying to create the illusion that meaningful things are happening. Lin turns to Khaled as a father figure, hoping the drug lord (who himself spouts paragraphs of undergraduate-sounding metaphysical theories into the eager ears of the fugitive) will provide something of substance, perhaps an understanding of life that Lin lacks. But Khaled is himself just some puffed-up mob boss, impressive only because the author repeatedly insists through Lin that it is so. The understandings never really come — except as more charlatan’s aphorisms. It isn’t just that Lin was pissed off to get imprisoned again, and so became a gangster when he should have remained with the friendly folks at the slum. It’s more crucially that, despite what we’re told of the prison-break and doctoring abilities and other superhuman attributes, there isn’t actually much of a Lin to begin or end with; referring himself to the ignoble Khaled for answers is just one dead end he tries of several. So in the absence of a more real, perhaps more determined individual to follow, the author instead fills too much of the novel with the supposedly cool scenes of rival gang fights. With all his anxious musings and flailing, flip-flopping soul-searches, Lin certainly doesn’t know himself truly, not even by the end of the novel, which to be fair is the first released in a planned quartet — if readers have the patience for whatever the grand total page count and grand total aphorism count end up at.

For all its problems, the novel does cohere quite well, and Roberts’ evocative, vibrant descriptions of the unfamiliar-to-me settings are worth the price of admission. They make me want to visit India even, and might be very enjoyable for you as well. The book includes a sampling of fun curios, from dancing bears to commentary on the challenging and sometimes dangerous peculiarities of Mumbai transportation. However, given all the complaints against the book described above, including the automatic turn-offs of weak/caricature characterization, there are probably better works about India and Afghanistan in English out there, more deserving of 900 pages’ worth of reading time. I definitely decided against reading the sequel (The Mountain Shadow), which racks up nearly another 900 pages. Reviews of the sequel say that with the autobiographical material burnt through and thus unavailable to him after Shantaram, Roberts piles on the aphorisms even worse in The Mountain Shadow, as the crime plots continue their needless complexities that don’t even titillate successfully. Beyond the setting descriptions, expressed sufficiently in Shantaram, I don’t think there’s more to learn from Roberts. So as 2021 gets underway, I’m now turning to read all of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea fiction. There’s only so much time.

Creative Commons License

This blog post, Review of the novel Shantaram, by Douglas Lucas, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (human-readable summary of license). The license is based on a work at this URL: https://douglaslucas.com/blog/2021/02/19/review-novel-shantaram/. You can view the full license (the legal code aka the legalese) here. For learning more about Creative Commons, I suggest this article and the Creative Commons Frequently Asked Questions. Seeking permissions beyond the scope of this license, or want to correspond with me about this post otherwise? Please email me: dal@riseup.net.

I Hate Game Theory

I have yet to read this book

A lot of people I’ve recently met center their lives around winning games, with scoring casual sex encounters as one of the main ones. In this Interview with Pickup Artist Chaser Clarisse Thorn, the interviewer, whom the answer-ready Clarisse just barrels over, splashing her slang about One-itis and strategic ambiguity and outcome independence, asks: “Must everything be framed in terms of a game? What if […] You want to opt-out of that worldview?”

Clarisse answers by saying everyone’s playing games regardless of whatever nobility they affect.

Protester nobly not playing a game; opting-out or super-rational opting in?

One guy I know who regards himself as a skilled pick-up artist (or, as their lingo has it, a PUA) denigrated a certain other person who likes to read books in public by saying the person reads books in public for the sake of appearing broody to women. Maybe the reader just likes to read books. Anyway, the guy writes off men who do not optimize for the degree of social success he regards as advisable by saying these broody idealists have lost so many social games that now they’re just bitter. (As if bitterness alone is damning.) That’s often partly true, I believe, but by not thinking further he’s foreclosing himself from understanding a dimension of human experience that for him just isn’t salient.

I think practicing idealists — let’s say good artists and whistleblowers for specificity — share something: they intentionally lose games in order to create new realities. Think about whistleblower and soldier Joe Darby who exposed the abuses at Abu Ghraib — which included the gruesome CIA-assisted murder of “ghost prisoner” Manadel al-Jamdi. As recounted in Phil Zimbardo’s excellent book The Lucifer Effect (p.476-77), Darby said the abuse he witnessed

“just didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. After about three days, I made a decision to turn the pictures in. You have to understand: I’m not the kind of guy to rat somebody out….But this crossed the line to me. I had the choice between what I knew was morally right and my loyalty to other soldiers. I couldn’t have it both ways.”

After retaliation by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Darby “was whisked away, and eventually concealed in military protective custody for the next several years.”

“But I don’t regret any of it,” Darby said recently. “I made my peace with the decision before I turned the pictures in. I knew that if people found out that it was me, I wouldn’t be liked.”

“For many,” Zimbardo writes, “Darby’s calling attention to the abuses was unpatriotic, un-American, and even faintly treasonous. ‘Hero a Two-Timing Rat,’ ran a headline in the New York Post. [… Darby] was unable to accept [a Presidential Citation honor from the American Psychological Association] because he, his wife, and his mother had to remain in military protective custody for several years in the wake of the many retaliation threats they received.”

The game, the incentives lined up for Darby did not offer him victory for whistleblowing. He decided it was more important to create a new reality wherein injustice at Abu Ghraib had a better chance of being righted. These are the kind of people, I think, that pickup artists write off as merely being bitter. (Note the mainstream media’s dogged efforts to reduce idealist Bradley Manning’s motives to social frustration.)

Another guy I know defended Joe Paterno for not doing enough about the Penn State child sex abuse scandal. This guy said Paterno was being paid well, and when you are being paid well, you can’t be expected to risk things; he also said it with a wink wink, nudge nudge attitude that conveyed “Mature people in the know agree with me.” He is a popular, cheerful young man who is solidly liberal, solidly Democrat. His attitude that maturity consists in surrendering ideals belongs to the feel-good pickup artistry of political and social marketing: Romney’s RNC speech, Obama’s speeches, The Daily Show, TED Talks. The content is irrelevant here; the truth or falsehood or the value of a particular Daily Show joke or Romney claim is irrelevant here. What I am saying is that the way marketers prioritize making the audience feel good higher than the content is most dangerous. We have a world where marketing and appearance trump reality and truth-telling to such an extent that anyone who prefers the latter over the former is cast off as immature and bitter before they are even listened to. But how are you supposed to report CIA torture? With a laughtrack?

Good artists work the same way, though not in the conscious decision-making manner of whistleblowers. By a sort of instinct, good artists wind up rejecting the incentives the main of the art market offers them and create not ossified things but new and therefore real things. New realities. Creative writing is good to the extent that writers allow themselves to live fully while writing; that reality pays off in the voice or tone of the piece, which reminds readers not to trust in appearance but rather in reality. Somebody might be reading a book in public to remind himself of that.

Read this book

You could ask, though — what is the difference between perception-management (a negative term for a component of marketing: managing consumer or voter perceptions) and putting your best foot forward? After all, many of the techniques pickup artists teach are useful social skills to learn, just amped up and repurposed for sexual conquest. And though the horizon for contributing to humanity anonymously (see these to learn more) is improving, people pretty much still need to interact with others to get where they want to go.

When you put your best foot forward, you are primarily allowing people to perceive you of their own accord, rather than emphasizing your manipulation of consumer and voter perceptions. I say emphasize because of course people are always managing perceptions by picking out what outfit they want to look good in today, etc. But it is when appearance overtakes reality that you have a problem. Especially if you can no longer tell the difference between the two. The phenomenological difference between them in first-person experience is real, I think. I’m not entirely sure. More than one slightly ashamed person in a private moment has asked me how they can make themselves more authentic. Maybe I am bitter, but I never know how to answer that question, because it is a problem I’ve never really had.

Creative Commons License

I Hate Game Theory by Douglas Lucas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.douglaslucas.com. Seeking permissions beyond the scope of this license? Email me: dal@riseup.net.

Literary Cablegate, Number 2 of Many

Clark Stoeckly‘s Wikileaks Truck on Flickr, Twitter

Second in a series of posts where I’m picking through WikiLeaks Cablegate for literary topics. See my first post in the series for an important introduction, and view the entire series here. At the time of my first Literary Cablegate post (then called Literary WikiLeaks), not all of Cablegate had been published; CablegateSearch.net showed 665 hits for the search term “literature” and 334 for the term “literary”. Now that all of Cablegate has been released (a.k.a. “Cablegate2”; see my remarks on the controversy surrounding the comprehensive Cablegate publication), CablegateSearch.net shows 1,214 hits for “literature” and 403 for “literary.”

I’m going through all of them.

I’m focusing only on cables where “literature” or “literary” is used in the sense of short stories, essays, the humanities, etc. So I’m mostly ignoring cables mentioning literature as in, say, campaign literature, or the medical literature for a malady (unless the cable mentions one of Oliver Sacks‘s highly literary case studies, you see?). Given the importance of intellectual property (or lack thereof) to free speech and the Internet, copyright and copyleft issues will be included as well. Literary Cablegate blog posts will feature about 8 cables each, starting from the most recently written cable. I’ll take on the 403 cable hits for “literary” first.

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Here we go!

  • The United States maintains an annual “Special 301 Report” that, in the words of the United States Trade Representative, reviews “the global state of intellectual property rights (IPR) protection and enforcement” and “reflects the Administration’s resolve to encourage and maintain effective IPR protection and enforcement worldwide.” The Report lists nations perceived as threats to copyright interests. Some nations wind up on the Watch List, and others on the more severe Priority Watch List. In a cable dated February 2010, the US Embassy in La Paz said Bolivia’s laws granted powerful intellectual property rights:

    the existing copyright law does protect literary, artistic, and scientific works for the lifetime of the author plus 50 years. Bolivian copyright protection includes the exclusive right to copy or reproduce works; to revise, adapt, or prepare derivative works; to distribute copies of works; and to publicly communicate works. Although the exclusive right to translate works is not explicitly granted, the law does prevent unauthorized adaptation, transformation, modification, and editing. The law also provides protection for software and databases.

    Compare the Bolivian law’s extreme length of copyright (50 years) to the US Pirate Party’s intent to reduce the length of copyright to 14 years and legalize all noncommercial sharing, and to the efforts of Creative Commons.

    Regardless of Bolivian law, the US Embassy noted, copyright was so laxly enforced in Bolivia that their

    Video, music, and software piracy rates are among the highest in Latin America, with the International Intellectual Property Alliance estimating that piracy levels have reached 100% for motion pictures and over 90% for recorded music. There are no legal sources of audio-visual materials in most of the country, since it would be impossible to compete with pirated products prices: in the capital of La Paz there is only one store that sells legal CDs. Bootleg CDs, DVDs, computer software, pharmaceutical products, and other goods are sold on street corners and in stores across the country.

    The Embassy blames the rampant piracy on Bolivia’s lack of human and financial resources to enforce copyright, and says pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to file patents in Bolivia due to fears of trade secret theft and counterfeiting. Despite all the piracy, the US Embassy suggests keeping Bolivia only on the Special 301 Report’s Watch List and not its Priority Watch List just so as not to frustrate Bolivia and thereby damage the copyright interests’ outreach efforts. In 2010 and 2011 Bolivia did remain on the ordinary Special 301 Watch List.

    (Original Cable “Special 301 La Paz Input” 10LAPAZ368.)

  • A February 2010 cable from Baghdad discusses the membership of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s State of Law Alliance (SLA), formed in October 2009 as, according to the cable, “a nationalist, non-sectarian political” group. The cable identifies Hassan Sunayd as one “key figure” of SLA, describing him as

    SLA candidate 4 in Dhi Qar. A well-known poet and literary figure in Iraq, Sunayd has been in Da’wa’s political bureau since the late 1980’s. A member of the previous COR’s Security and Defense Committee, he is Maliki’s closest friend, one of his security advisors and liaison to the KRG leadership. Having survived physical torture during the Saddam regime, he has used his position as spokesman for the SLA to rail against the threat of resurgent Ba’athism and was critical of purported U.S. efforts to interfere in the de-Ba’athification process.

    A somewhat substantial search of Google’s various resources as well as academic journals and US newspaper archives turned up no discussion of Hassan Sunayd’s literary background, with one minor exception. (Sometimes his first name is transliterated as Hasan, sometimes his last name as al-Sunayd.) According to an April 14, 2008 BBC transcript, Sunayd recited a poem at a ceremony held in Baghdad to commemorate the 28th anniversary of the martyrdom of Islamic scholar Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. Sunayd is mentioned with some frequency as a spokesperson for the Iraqi government.

    Professor Hanan Hammad at the TCU History Department told me Sunayd used the pen name “Jawad Jamil (could be Jawwad Gamil). he lived in Iran in early eights along with members of al-Da’wa Islamist Party. his sister Balqis is also a poet, but with the Communist party. nothing indicate that he’s a great poet/ intellectual.” My searches for his pen name turn up nothing.

    (Original Cable “Coalition Profile: Pm Maliki’s State Of Law Alliance” 10BAGHDAD499)

  • The US State Department maintains an annual Trafficking in Persons Report to “engage foreign governments on human trafficking” and as a resource for “governmental anti-human trafficking efforts.” In a February 2010 cable, the first of three parts (part 2, part 3), the US Embassy in Paris gave its input for the tenth annual report. The cable notes “France prosecutes French nationals who travel abroad to engage in child sexual tourism” and goes on to say

    Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand faced criticism during the reporting period related to his 2005 literary work, which included depictions of sexual tourism in Asia. In “The Bad Life,” Mitterrand details the experiences of an unnamed protagonist with so-called “boys” in the brothels of Thailand. Facing pressure to resign for engaging in sexual tourism before he joined the government, Minister of Culture Frederic Mitterrand stated during an October 8, 2009 television interview that he had never had sex with a minor. “Each time I was with people who were my age, or were five years younger,” the 62 year-old Mitterrand said, adding: “I condemn sexual tourism, which is a disgrace. I condemn pedophilia in which I have never participated in any way.”

    The Guardian extends Miterrand’s quote a sentence: “The book is in no way an apology for sex tourism, even if one chapter is a journey through that hell, with all the fascination that hell can inspire.” The BBC termed Mitterrand’s book an “autobiographical novel” and said the scandal would have brought him down in other countries, “not because he is gay, but because there is an inconsistency between a government committed to fighting sex tourism and a minister who has been a sex tourist. But in France, where a belief in the right to privacy and a liberal view on sex are both near sacrosanct, many believe it would be hypocritical to hound Frederic Mitterrand from office.”

    The cable says France prosecutes child sex tourism, and Mitterand claims he was involved with people basically his age. More importantly, the book is, autobiographically based or not, a work of fiction. How much of it is true to Mitterrand’s life is therefore hard to evaluate beyond educated guessing. Mother Jones, reviewing the book, says the French right wing targetted Mitterand by quoting the book out of context. The Mother Jones reviewer makes the book sound pretty good:

    The Bad Life is a stunningly candid and beautiful book. Described by its author as an “autobiography which is half real and half dreamed,” it recounts his life as a child of privilege born into Paris’s haut bourgeois sixteenth arrondissement, his experience of homosexuality, and a number of deeply felt personal relationships. Much of this is set in a social milieu of movie stars, politicians, renowned artists, and other public figures. […]

    The Bad Life is an intimate, courageous memoir in which Mitterrand is brutally honest not only about himself, but with himself. If it includes a few sordid accounts of a homosexual underworld that some would rather not be asked to consider, it does so within a larger portrait of one man’s life and desires, a nuanced collection of affecting incidents examined with an unsparing eye.

    The entire scandal was complicated by Mitterrand’s defending Roman Polanski shortly beforehand, demanding the director be released after arrest in Switzerland over his US conviction for sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977. Yet again, the publisher calls The Bad Life a “novel inspired by autobiography.” You don’t take Philip K. Dick’s autobiographical novel VALIS as definitive proof of anything, do you? Or Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead. Writers build off their own experience, but don’t exactly replicate it in fiction. No crime was shown here. Mitterrand is still in office.

    (Original Cable “France: Input For The 2010 Trafficking In Persons Report (part 1 Of 3)” 10PARIS196)

  • A February 2010 cable from the Consulate Shenyang US Embassy in China noted traffic across the border between China and North Korea. “For all the talk about frozen trade between the DPRK [North Korea] and China,” the cable says, the Consulate General Office noted people crossing the border talking business and culture. For example,

    At the train station many different groups of North Koreans were seen waiting to take the train up to Shenyang [China]. On board, a middle-aged North Korean female trader was reading a Sino-Korean literary journal and a Dandong business weekly.

    The apparent significance for the Office is the interest North Koreans show in the Chinese, as evidenced in part by the Sino-Korean literary journal. One wonders which journal the woman was reading. In the United States, “literary journal” tends to mean a venue for highbrow literary work, as opposed to a “magazine,” which can run the gamut of literary taste classifications.

    (Original Cable “Prc-dprk Border: Amcit Crossers, Trade Push, Border Smuggling, Regional Growth” 10SHENYANG21)

  • A February 2010 cable from Berlin discusses German copyright law in the context of foreign investment in Germany.

    Germany is a member of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Germany is also a party to the major international intellectual property protection agreements: the Bern Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property, the Universal Copyright Convention, the Geneva Phonograms Convention, the Patent Cooperation Treaty, the Brussels Satellite Convention, and the Treaty of Rome on Neighboring Rights. […]

    Germany has signed the WIPO Internet treaties and ratified them in 2003. Foreign and German rights holders, however, remain critical of provisions in the German Copyright Act that allow exceptions for private copies of copyrighted works. Most rights holder organizations regard German authorities’ enforcement of intellectual property protections as sufficient, although problems persist due to lenient court rulings in some cases and the difficulty of combating piracy of copyrighted works on the Internet.

    The Berne Convention — spelled Bern or Berne — was instigated by the writer Victor Hugo in the late 19th century. It says copyright is established when the creator puts the work into fixed form, bypassing the need for registration. The Berne Convention also establishes a minimum term of 50 years after the author’s death for written works. Cory Doctorow talks a bit about the Berne Convention in this Guardian article.

    (Original Cable “Germany – Revised Investment Climate Statement 2010” 10BERLIN166)

  • A February 2010 cable from Geneva and the US Trade Representative discusses January 2010’s 7th Working Party meeting on Yemen’s Accession to the World Trade Organization, the in-progress effort to enter Yemen into the WTO. In a section about trading rights, the cable noted

    The US and EU had additional concerns about certain requirements that only Yemeni nationals could be granted the technical clearance needed to import medicines, medical equipment, fertilizers, pesticides, books, newspapers, audiovisual and other artistic literary works, and requested that the Trading Rights Action Plan be updated to include information on these technical clearance requirements.

    I suspect the technical clearance for Yemeni nationals who regulate the import of “artistic literary works” involves Yemen’s prohibition against the import of “Any item offensive to Muslim culture.” (Yemen’s population is 98% Muslim.) Reporters Without Borders ranks Yemen within the bottom 10 of all nations for press freedom. This might or might not be relevant: a May 25, 2009 piece in the Yemen Times by Dr. A. K. Sharma said if “a nation has to import and export not only goods and commodities but also knowledge and skills, it has got to have an army of well-equipped and professionally competent translators.” Currently Yemen isn’t a member of the WTO.

    (Original Cable “7th Working Party Meeting On Yemen’s Accession To The Wto Held January 26, 2010” 10USTRGENEVA12)

  • A February 2010 cable from Beijing discussing the climate for foreign investment into China notes the country is a member of the Berne Convention (discussed above).

    (Original Cable “2010 Investment Climate Statement – China” 10BEIJING303)

  • Another February cable discussing the climate for foreign investment, this time from the Colombo embassy, notes Sri Lanka is a party to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (discussed above). Original literary works are protected under a 2003 Sri Lanka copyright law that was “intended to meet both U.S.-Sri Lanka bilateral IPR agreement and TRIPS obligations to a great extent.” In a January 2003 article for Daily Variety, an entertainment-industry trade magazine, Bryan Pearson said the new law aimed to crack down on piracy; pirating software was “not illegal in Sri Lanka,” Pearson wrote, and the island was a “paradise for fraudulent imports.”

    (Original Cable “Investment Climate Statement, 2010 – Sri Lanka” 10COLOMBO72)

  • Creative Commons License

    Literary Cablegate, Number 2 of Many by Douglas Lucas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.douglaslucas.com. Seeking permissions beyond the scope of this license? Email me: dal@douglaslucas.com.

About Stories About Things

Through my interest in and use of the social micropayment service Flattr I came across Aelius Blythe (Website: cheapassfiction.com; Twitter: @CheapassFiction) who also writes free fiction you can Flattr some cash toward. She curates a list of fiction writers who use Flattr, too. After a guilty two months or three of just reading her blog & Twitter feed, I finally downloaded her short story collection Stories About Things. I’ve been reluctant to read fiction on a screen, but given her (and my) support for piracy, it seemed the proper way to read hers. I was also reluctant to read her fiction because even if writers are cool people, their fiction usually sucks — and then I’m all disappointed.

But I’m really glad to have read Stories About Things. That’s my standard: “Was reading this a worthwhile expenditure of my time?” And it was. (Who needs fancier criteria?) Aelius seems really at ease writing fiction, happy doing it and if you don’t like it you can go read something else.

I don’t like Amy Hempel. Hempel writes these “miniaturist” stories where nothing happens and you’re supposed to feel awakened by the beautiful comma placement (and other sentence-level things). One of her fans, a friend of mine, wrote in the course of praising Hempel that “style becomes the writer’s morality.” Really? Your ethical theory is predicated on the placement of commas? The fan meant something more like voice or authenticity. All the same I like Aelius’s perspective better:

If [WebFiction] gets in the way of enjoyment, put the book down and go enjoy something else.

But before you judge to harshly, remember one thing: You are reading the literary version of graffiti art You may not want to stand in line for $20 tickets to a gallery opening for it. But somewhere in the scrawled mess of spray paint there may be a picture that sticks with you. And it gives you something better than a brick wall to stare at while you’re waiting for the gallery to open.

Stories About Things put Hempel in mind because Aelius’s stories are similarly short. Except I enjoy Stories About Things. And in the same way I enjoy The Police. Really talented and thankfully more interested in being enjoyable and rewarding than in being aesthetically elite. Here’s a good excerpt from Aelius’s collection:

Sal’s grandmother always warned him like this when she caught him looking. His mother said this was silly, and he was old enough not to be scared by fairy stories. If he looked into the sun, she told him, he would go blind, and that was that.

He never understood how someone could say that — “Don’t look at it.” People looked. If they could, they did. Sometimes, Sal thought, if he wasn’t paying attention he could turn off his hearing so when the lawnmower was going while he was reading he wouldn’t even notice. He could turn off his nose too by breathing through his mouth. Touch was a sense that everyone ignored unless it was too bad or too good. Taste was the same. But he could only turn off his sight by closing his eyes, and he couldn’t go around like that. He had to look. He didn’t know how not to. If he could see something, he would.

Another:

The flower has brown eyes, a bright brown, almost-red. They smile. They don’t shine in the sun. They shine at the sun.

In describing webfiction, (something distinct from fanfiction), Aelius lists a bunch of fiction “errors” — starting a story with weather descriptions, or the white rooms the characters are in, or making tpyos, etc. — and considers them all good, because who’s counting?

She says:

Part of the reason why I turned to web fiction was because of a sort of disillusionment with regular fiction in which I find many distractions (repetitive plot patterns, dull characters, predictable everything) that just happen to be dressed up better. I wondered for several years why I couldn’t find books that I liked, even though I read so many. But then when I started writing seriously myself and studying writing, I realized that there are certain styles that are institutionalized in writing — it’s how people are taught and styles change slowly so you get so much of the same thing. I think that’s why I can ignore the flaws in web fiction. Because I needed something DIFFERENT, and web fiction is different.

Charles Darwin’s quote (also paraphrased by Bradley Manning) describes webfiction well: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

As for setting some stories on the Internet, Aelius writes that her collection Brave New World (which I haven’t read yet) is

a collection of stories about the natural world. Not the natural world that Whitman or Thoreau wrote about, but the world that comes just as naturally to my generation as sky and woods did to theirs. Our world is made of more than that. It’s made of computer screens and wifi and endless libraries of information all at the tip of our fingers. This is our Nature, or part of it anyway.

I think she has more courage to do what comes naturally to her than I do. Following her on Twitter, where she often remarks about her fiction-writing, inspires me to write more.

(Perhaps I should cut myself more slack. My life right now primarily consists of divorcing, moving in to a new place, a knee injury, and figuring out my budget + wacky streams of income. But I haven’t ever particularly believed in cutting myself slack.)

One of the really interesting things Aelius is doing is writing authors letters to ask if they know about, if they approve of, their publishers suing their fans over piracy. (I like this exchange she got into.)

So webfiction is the opposite of National Endowment for the Arts writers who want to write comma-perfect books at taxpayer expense, and then charge taxpayers to read them, too! Sharing culture freely is better and artists need to deal with changing technological mediums instead of whining about it and suing people over it.

I feel as if I should say something critical in a token effort at Neutral Point of View. Aelius, don’t start so many sentences with conjunctions, especially “But” and “Yet” — conjunctions kick in readers’ logic modules and thereby reduce emotion. It’s fiction, not Boolean! (Unless you want it to be more logic-y.) Really in a way I don’t want to post any of this, because talking about good things sometimes interferes with them, and she certainly should just continue what she’s doing and not listen to anyone.

You on the other hand should go read her fiction.

Creative Commons License

About Stories About Things by Douglas Lucas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.douglaslucas.com. Seeking permissions beyond the scope of this license? Email me: dal@douglaslucas.com.

Searching Wikileaks Cables for Literary Topics, First of Many

Clark Stoeckly‘s Wikileaks Truck on Flickr, Twitter

This week WikiLeaks published thousands more US diplomatic cables as part of its Cablegate operation. Among many other items, Cablegate has confirmed or revealed the following:

  • Referring to the United States’ secret air strikes in Yemen, Yemen’s president promised US general David Petraeus that “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.” (Original Cable, Salon, BBC.)

  • Though Canada publicly claimed opposition to the Iraq war “for domestic political reasons and out of a deep-seated Canadian commitment to multilateralism,” it secretly told the United States it was “prepared to be as helpful as possible in the military margins,” using Canadian naval and air forces “discreetly” on behalf of the US. (Original Cable, CBC News.)

  • The United States ordered American diplomats to secretly and illegally collect top United Nations officials and others’ credit card numbers, biometric data (fingerprints, iris scans, DNA), passwords, and more. (Original Cable, NYT, Guardian.)

  • In 2009 U.S. Senator John McCain promised Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi some American military hardware. (Original Cable, Politico.)

  • Texas security contractor DynCorp pimped little boys to be raped by Afghan policemen at a DynCorp-organized party. (Original Cable, Houston Press, Guardian.)

Whoops

WikiLeaks initiated a crowdsourcing effort, #wlfind on Twitter, ensuring its latest cable releases would be looked through. Inspired by Furry Girl (Twitter), who put together a post about the latest cables in her area of expertise (sex work), I decided to do something similar for literary topics. If you’re eager to dig through some cables yourself, try this cablegate search engine, and then share your findings online.

(Also! Watch Glenn Greenwald defend Wikileaks and Julian Assange on CNN with this embed.)

I restricted my work to this most recent batch of cables. Here are the search results, and the total number of hits when I first searched, for: literature (665); literary (334); … wow! This is going to take more than one post.

Reading the below, one should bear in mind Evgeny Morozov‘s astute critique of Internet-centrism, a lazy perspective that ignores the importance of local cultures when interpreting material and instead focuses faith on technology. I’m not at all an expert on foreign countries, etc. I can only fish out cables with some literary significance in the hope others might benefit from them.

  • In April 2006, a few months after gun-firing Chinese police in Dongzhou subdued villagers protesting land confiscations (WaPo), the American consulate in Guangzhou invoked a metaphor of Lu Xun‘s (“China’s most prominent modern author”): the Chinese sense, in the area, of rapid economic growth is that it “eats people.” From the cable (my link):

    in his “Diary of a Madman” short story […] the supposedly mentally deranged narrator has looked at the whole of Chinese history and found its grandeur and power to be founded on the eating of people

    The cable claims

    there is a conscious attempt led in part by Guangzhou’s most progressive and highly influential magazine, the “Nanfengchuang” (the “South Wind Window”), to revive the spirit of the New Culture Movement of the 1920s of which Lu was a key figure

    The cable goes on to advocate for increased injections of humanities programs to teach core American democratic values. These, the cable argues, will make rapid economic growth in the area more humane. After all, the cable says,

    there is a very large audience for American literature and thought. American literature specialist Ernesto Suarez, our Fulbright Scholar at Guangzhou’s Zhongshan University, is in demand not only at Zhongshan but also at other institutions every weekend throughout China. Recently, the Shantou University English Language Department approached the Consulate about strengthening the American literature component of its program in line with the desire of students to learn not merely the language but also the values of the American people speaking that language.

    (Original Cable.)

    The Cold War-style argument that humanities talks and courses (apparently) alone can sufficiently soften the steamroll of global economics makes one worry (especially in light of other cables).

  • A 2007 cable from the Beijing Embassy summarizes a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conference that included China’s suggestion that the US State Department study up on its Confucius.

    Spokesperson Qin Gang said at the March 8 regular press briefing that the Human Rights Record of the United States in 2006 issued today by China’s State Council Information Office serves as “a mirror for United States to view its own human rights condition” and “understand why it has no right to use double standards in criticizing other countries.” Qin continued, saying the MFA would give the State Department copies of the “Four Books and Five Classics” of Chinese literature as a guide to good governance. Asked if the report constituted a double standard on China’s part by interfering in the domestic affairs of the United States, Qin referred the reporter to his previous statement.

    (Original Cable.)

    The Confucian work “Four Books and Five Classics” praises feudal values.

  • A 2008 cable from Taiwan noted growth in the market for simplified-character Chinese books as government restrictions on the products loosened and more translations of foreign books into Chinese were imported from mainland China.

    A survey done by local book dealers in 2006 showed that 50 percent of simplified-character Chinese books sold in Taiwan are on literature, history, and philosophy; 10 percent on social science, law, politics, and the military; 10 percent on Chinese medicine and art; 10 percent on education, finance and engineering; with the remainder on tourism and other topics. As for the consumers, Chu Fu-ming, head of the Eslite flagship bookstore’s simplified-character Chinese book section, told AIT, “those who buy simplified-character Chinese books are mostly intellectuals and academics. Only 20 percent of the buyers are in their twenties, while 40 percent are in their thirties and forties, and the remaining 40 percent are over 50 years old. Older people are especially noticeable because they come in the mornings and spend a long time poring carefully over selections,” Wu observed, with “history books being the most popular.”

    The cable worries about simplified-character textbooks supplanting US textbooks more and more, since Chinese college professors were finding the former less expensive and easier to assign.

    (Original Cable.)

  • In the Chinese city of Zhenjiang, readers of Nobel Prize-winning American novelist Pearl Buck (Mike Wallace interview; Nobel write-up), who spent much of her time in China, worried, according to a 2008 cable, that Buck wasn’t getting enough attention in the United States.

    Comment: Zhenjiang’s fervor for its long-ago American “daughter” points to possibilities for the upcoming celebrations of the 30th anniversary of U.S.-China relations.

    (Original Cable.)

  • A 2003 cable cited “the latest Human Development Report on the Arab states” as noting

    The economic, political, artistic, and literary creativity of the Arab states are being stifled by the exclusion of women, among other factors. As an example, the report notes that Turkey alone published more works of creative literature over the past year than the entire Arab world combined.

    (Original Cable.)

    Female Turkish novelist Elif Shafak spoke at a 2010 TED conference on the ability of fiction to overcome identity politics.

  • A 2003 cable said although “European public opinion may be skeptical about the politics of GOT joining the European Union, […] civil society has shown that sharing space with Turkey in the
    cultural realm is as natural as can be.” The cable cited the European popularity of Istanbul-born novelist Orhan Pamuk as evidence of Turkey’s “de facto integration into European cultural life.”

    His recent novel “My Name is Red” won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2003; this award was the latest in a series of European honors dating back to his 1991 Prix de la Decouverte Europeenne for the French translation of his second novel, “Sessiz_Ev” (“The Quiet House”).

    (Original Cable.)

  • With a 2005 cable, the American embassy in Tel Aviv took note of an editorial referencing Egyptian playwright Ali Salem:

    “We have already seen that both Israel and Egypt generally obey when there is an American scolding…. Why not initiate, for example, the award of an honorary doctorate by an American university to Ali Salem for his contribution to peace between the peoples?”

    (Original Cable.)

    The original op-ed can be found here.

  • According to a 2006 cable, staff from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Director-General’s office “held misperceptions” about the World Digital Library, “a project to put rare and remote items on the web.” The staff worried over Google’s involvement, saying it troubled European nations, and that the countries might be more receptive to a UNESCO label.

    (Original Cable.)

Thus far I’ve come away with the impression that the United States strongly believes spreading American culture is an effective way to spread its core democratic values, but other countries often see this as hypocritical given the States’ frequent disregard of those values. If you’re interested in reading more about that, I recommend Evgeny Morozov’s book The Net Delusion. Another observation: writers and their work do make more of an impact in international politics than you might suspect.

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Searching Wikileaks Cables for Literary Topics, First of Many by Douglas Lucas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.douglaslucas.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at www.douglaslucas.com.

Clinical Teaching Day 1; Rumination on Roles

My first day as a clinical teacher went very well. Except: I’m exhausted!

Right now the coordinating teacher and I are together in the same classroom throughout the day. She’s running the reins, and I’m just observing, sitting at the side. Eventually I’ll be able to lead some activities. I’ve done that before when I’ve substituted for the same groups of students across a continuous week or so, but this would be more serious, especially as it’s long-term.

The day began quite early; my alarms blasted off at about 4:30am. I showered & got ready, and Wifely Kate cooked breakfast:

iPhone pic by me, public domain for you. Food by Kate!

How awesome is that? The coffee was ready and everything. I was able to write fiction for about an hour and fifteen minutes — quickly revising (line-editing) an older, completed story so I can re-submit it; didn’t quite finish, since I’m having to fact-check some details — and then I headed to campus, the lunch Kate packed me in tow. At noon-ish I discovered she’d left a note in my lunchbox. The note talked about how proud she is of me. I got teary-eyed!

The coordinating teacher uses a Promothean ActivBoard (I’m not sure if the link points to the exact same model) in some very effective ways. For one portion of the classes, she shows multiple-choice math questions on the ‘Board, then the students record their answers using controllers — all students have one on their desks. The coordinating teacher shows the results on the ‘Board — as a bar graph; looks like something off Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? — and uses them not just to motivate the class (the students love the video game-y vibe), but also to hone in on the students’ misunderstandings of the material in order to explain it again. Good real-time assessment.

Weirdly, one of the few TV shows I really like

The ‘Board can even export the collected data, so at a later time, we can analyze the answer statistics more precisely to spot recurring troubles. Totally something out of a Tim O’Reilly project.

Since I was mostly only observing — catching up to speed on this campus’s schedule, rules, etc. — I focused on watching one student at a time. (I’ve blogged before about developing observation skills. As for characterization, can a writer quickly notice in real-life what makes another person absolutely unique?) I noticed a boy whom I think might need glasses. Squinting, tilting his head to see better, putting his face inches from his paper. There’s a school program to address vision issues, but I’m not sure how prompt it is. Watching how in need and at risk students are can be upsetting. I’ve seen it before, substituting.

This particular student is enthusiastic, often raising and waving his hand even before the teacher asks another question. His enthusiasm hasn’t been disruptive. He seems to be a bit in his own world — smiling to himself, thinking his own thoughts. Good kid.

After leaving the campus, I went to Stay Wired! Coffeehouse and Computer Service for two hours, where I’m helping out as a computer tech. After my two hours were up, I informally sat in on a meeting for Democrat Cathy Hirt‘s campaign for the Fort Worth mayor position. There, upon being asked, I talked a little about my experiences and observations working for the local public school system.

I have to confess I’m bewildered about the relationships between my roles as a writer, teacher, newbie activist, blogger, and tweep (Twitter person). For example, working as an activist differs from volunteering for a political campaign (as I did for Bill White), from working for one in an official capacity, from blogging reportage or opinion about it, from incorporating observations of a campaign into a fiction project, etc. It’s a bit unnerving when you’re sitting there with a few people talking local politics and you’re trying to figure out which hat you’re wearing, so to speak. I have no real idea how to resolve these mini-conflicts, and there’s no one right answer.

The convention for blogs to be frequently updated conflicts with my personal preference for long-form or at least mucho-revised writing; and, when I’ve tried to blog long-form writing in the past, it’s often come off as too complex (Latinate, twisted syntax…) and hasn’t been revised well enough — a bad compromise between careful long-form writing and a quick blog post. Really, if you’re blogging long-form pieces, you’re essentially writing e-books. Since I consider myself a non-commercial writer (i.e. my goal isn’t profit; that possibility is a fringe benefit; I don’t mean that I consider myself highbrow — I try not to think in those terms), I’m not against the idea of eventually releasing more of my creative writing (fiction and otherwise) under Creative Commons licenses, but I sense that right now, I still need the bigger bullhorns and reputation-build of established venues (i.e. magazines, publishing houses).

Vika covers Metallica’s Orion

The increasing online success of vkgoeswild (Vika Yermolyeva) has been a bit of an eye-opener for me. I thought she was cool before she joined forces with Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione (Hipster cultural capital snobby-stupid FTW! =p). Vika supports herself by receiving online tips and selling customized transcriptions online. Other artists and bloggers have figured out similar business models (search through Boing Boing for many examples and discussions). But for creative writing, I just don’t excel at the very short, very quickly written form, which seems to be necessary to any feasible online business model I can actually think up for right now.

Besides, I love teaching!

Fiction Filmable … so what?

My good friend Cynthia Shearer said something in a long-ago (long-ago in net years) blog post, a review of Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road, that has puzzled me for a while. Before I get all critical of a single phrase in her post, lemme say some positive stuff to block any negative feelings.

  • Her blog post’s awesome.
  • Cynthia’s awesome and her blog’s awesome.
  • Revolutionary Road and Richard Yates are awesome.
  • Thanks to Cynthia’s review, Wifely and I both read the novel, and we found it so worthwhile, the book has since become something of a touchstone in some of our conversations.

Now with the kindnesses out of the way, here’s my quarrel, or really, quibble jumping-off point. In the course of otherwise spot-on praise for Yates’ novel, Cynthia gives the following as a thought on the book:

The novel is flawlessly structured, three acts, and eminently filmable.

Confirming what I thought, my OS X dictionary gives the following definition for “eminently”:

used to emphasize the presence of a positive quality

Maybe Cynthia wasn’t using the word so specifically, but regardless of authorial intent…and setting aside commerce, writers upping their audience — i.e., considering aesthetics alone — why is it a positive (or a negative) quality for a book to be filmable? We don’t say: “That’s a great sculpture; after all, it’d make a fantastic piece of photography” or “That’s a great painting; after all, it’d make an excellent symphonic work.”

Connections between artistic content remixed into another art form can be worth pursuing and elaborating and evaluating, but I don’t see any basis for using as a criterion of aesthetic appraisal the ease with which an artistic piece can be remixed to another art form.

By the way, one of my favorite remixes of artistic subjects is Rachmaninoff’s symphonic poem Isle of the Dead Op. 29, composed in the early 20th century and then recorded with Rachmaninoff himself conducting. And yes, it’s “beginner’s classical,” shut up. Arnold Böcklin’s painting Isle of the Dead inspired Rachmaninoff’s piece — apparently the black-and-white version:

Here’s the color version:

And the music, low-fi and split into two parts due to copyright and YouTube limitations:

And here’s an online encyclopedia of Isle of the Dead remixes.

Anyway, the (wrongheaded!) idea of using as a criterion of qualitative judgment an artwork’s capability to be transformed from one art form to another got me to thinking: what can a novel do that no other art form can do? The closest (non-textual) art forms are probably plays (in performance) and movies (“movies,” not “films”; I don’t screen films, I watch movies). What can novels do that those art forms can’t do? I’ll not consider plays, as I haven’t thought much about them. So: movies.

In my tentative answers I’m going to put aside style, too, since sentence-level quality, I think, is a) not obligatory for a novel to be good, and b) not inherently novelistic. So, my first tentative answer: maybe novels can represent time, the workings of memory, changing perspectives, and the inner experience of emotions and thoughts better than any other form. As an example of what I mean (UPDATE: screenhead.com’s list of the hardest novels to film), Theodore Sturgeon’s excellent short story The Man Who Lost the Sea (legal full text at link) — warning, spoiler in the third quoted paragraph:

Say you’re a kid, and one dark night you’re running along the cold sand with this helicopter in your hand, saying very fast witchy-witchy-witchy. You pass the sick man and he wants you to shove off with that thing. Maybe he thinks you’re too old to play with toys. So you squat next to him in the sand and tell him it isn’t a toy, it’s a model. You tell him look here, here’s something most people don’t know about helicopters. You take a blade of the rotor in your fingers and show him how it can move in the hub, up and down a little, back and forth a little, and twist a little, to change pitch. You start to tell him how this flexibility does away with the gyroscopic effect, but he won’t listen. He doesn’t want to think about flying, about helicopters, or about you, and he most especially does not want explanations about anything by anybody. Not now. Now, he wants to think about the sea. So you go away. […]

His head isn’t working right. But he knows clearly that it isn’t working right, which is a strange thing that happens to people in shock sometimes. Say you were that kid, you could say how it was, because once you woke up lying in the gym office in high school and asked what had happened. They explained how you tried something on the parallel bars and fell on your head. You understood exactly, though you couldn’t remember falling. Then a minute later you asked again what had happened and they told you. You understood it. And a minute later . . . forty-one times they told you, and you understood. It was just that no matter how many times they pushed it into your head, it wouldn’t stick there; but all the while you knew that your head would start working again in time. And in time it did. . . . Of course, if you were that kid, always explaining things to people and to yourself, you wouldn’t want to bother the sick man with it now. […]

Say you were that kid: say, instead, at last, that you are the sick man, for they are the same; surely then you can understand why of all things, even while shattered, shocked, sick with radiation calculated (leaving) radiation computed (arriving) and radiation past all bearing (lying in the wreckage of Delta) you would want to think of the sea. For no farmer who fingers the soil with love and knowledge, no poet who sings of it, artist, contractor, engineer, even child bursting into tears at the inexpressible beauty of a field of daffodils—none of these is as intimate with Earth as those who live on, live with, breathe and drift in its seas. So of these things you must think; with these you must dwell until you are less sick and more ready to face the truth.

(Oddly for a science fiction story originally published in a straight-up “genre” magazine — The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction — “The Man Who Lost the Sea” was selected for the 1960 edition of The Best American Short Stories.)

I’m not sure a play or a movie could represent the Sturgeon story, its workings of time, memory, changing perspectives, and inner experience as well and as concisely — or even at all. But that’s a huge disjunction: are plays and movies able to represent the Sturgeon story — just not concisely or well — or is there something inherent to the story that cannot be translated to another art form? I think that depends on how inherent an aspect of an artwork has to be for it to be considered inherent. ;-) And, how good does the movie have to be? The movie could voice-over or crawl tons of text to get closer to the original fiction format, but that (probably) would become annoying. You never know, however; artists are always figuring out new techniques. All the same, because representing time, memory, changing perspectives, and inner experience is at least a huge strength of fiction (and especially the novel), more and more I try to emphasize those qualities in my own writing.

I said first tentative answer, so how about this second one, which I can describe best in a metaphorical way? Novels are like multicharacter, revised, organized daydreams — or, imagine being a kid and playing with dolls or figurines, making up stories. That’s basically what novels are, I think, but not so much created daydreams worlds as the daydream-y experience of personal identity as a network of multiple narratives, comprised of images, emotions, etc., and stuck into the context of particular settings and social histories/influences and so forth. Sorta sounds like Bakhtin’s account of polyphony in Dostoevsky. But I haven’t read enough Bakhtin yet to say much; besides, his name sounds like Bactine.

Please don’t DMCA-takedown me, Bayer

This way of looking at what’s unique to novelistic form doesn’t seem to strongly entail the memory rumination or time aspects or changing perspectives I mentioned earlier, but yeah, I think fiction — especially when it avoids too much exposition and abstraction — stages a vehicle for experiencing a daydream related to identity and traveling in a specific historical or social context. Yet in “When Narrative Fails,” an article in May 2004’s Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, J. Melvin Woody makes an interesting case that other forms of art can do this, too:

“Why […] should we limit our understanding of the constitution of the self to the narrative? Indeed, why limit ourselves to language? Do not music and dance often articulate our passions more eloquently than any literary form?”

Nevertheless I think my second answer is pretty strong, and pertinent to why reading fiction is not just another hobby or preference, but something people who have the ability and resources and time to read it really should do so.

Fiction gatekeepers officially circumvented, once anyway!

Whoa, I just earned actual money by writing and self-publishing fiction without an agent or a publisher or an editor or an acquisitions editor. Without any other gatekeeper. The point of this post isn’t the handful (or less) of euros, but another anecdote supporting the march toward what might well be a new paradigm for publishing.

I’ve received fan mail for the story; again, this is not to brag, but to point out that netizens actually read and enjoyed the piece without mediators between them and me. (Artistically, critiquers helped me, of course; and, there are Dreamhost and Flattr and other web companies/organizations, plus the overhead cost of running this website. So in a very loose sense there are, if not mediators, connectors.)

The money came because someone I’ve never met flattr‘ed — donated in favor of — my short story “Glenn of Green Gables,” which I self-published under a Creative Commons license.

The license allows readers to share (copy) and remix (adapt; e.g., translate) the story so long as they do so on a noncommercial basis, give my name and my story attribution & linkage, and license any remix/adaptation they make similarly. In other words, share the story all you want, freely, and do something cool with it, unless it involves plagiarism or making money. (If you’re Hollywood, email me.)

Yeah, download the short story, the whole thing, and toss a few coins in the tip jar on my digital street corner here where I’m being your bard.

I think magazines and publishing houses are still very necessary. They provide authors with infrastructure for, say, interviews and book tours, among other functions. (After all, most artist types aren’t the greatest biz folk at promoting themselves.) Houses help readers choose between fiction based on reputation. They connect authors with communities and with editors — though tons of editors are already freelancing outside the umbrellas of publishing houses. AND magazines and publishers still have bigger bullhorns than many websites (including mine), bigger wallets than micro-donaters, and they typically bestow more credibility (for opportunities such as speaking gigs) than self-publications. So, sure, I definitely still want to get a bunch of stories past gatekeepers. They’re not all bad or anything!

But the bottom line: in order to connect with readers and score some pocket change, I won’t have to have gatekeepers’ approval. Not anymore. Score one for the Internet.