Archive for March, 2013


I met an Iranian General

I took megabus* from San Francisco to LA. But we stopped in San Jose. A man got in and sat next to me. I ignored him.

Later, we talked, and I wondered about his accent. Still later I asked if he wanted some of my water. He didn’t. Then he turned the vents down a little.

Finally, he told me he was visiting this country from his native land. I asked where that was. He said, somewhat uncomfortable, “Iran.” We kept talking. I found out he was in the Iranian military. Ok fine. He said he flew Chinook helicopters. Alright, pretty sweet. He told me he retired as a Brigadier general. haha. I couldn’t believe it.

America is an egotistical nation in this way: time after time, polls, data, and reports tell us that we’re doing something badly. Or worse than before. For instance, we find out that we’re falling behind in math and science. But public sentiment is unconcerned. This is America! We don’t do things badly. Yet, what always puffs our ego is talking to people from other countries, and this guy did that for me. He told me how much he loved America. He trained in America (there were no flight schools in Iran), then he moved back to Iran, but never forgot America. All of his family members live her and he tries to come here as much as possible. He wants to get a green card, but it will be hard because he’s from Iran. He doesn’t care though. He loves America.

I tell him that the schools in America aren’t what they used to be. He tells me he loves our religious freedom. I tell him college is expensive, he tells me his grandson is an electrical engineer at Stanford and that it’s worth every penny. Wherever I see room for growth or change, he tells me what a wonderful country we’ve built. It feels good. It really does. It’s deceptive, but it does feel really good.

It makes me laugh to think that we have trouble getting behind the idea that it should be easy for people to come to america and study math and science, and then live here when they’re done. I won’t claim that such people love America more than some Americans, that would be heresy. But these people, by and large, seem to love America in a way that some native-born American cannot quite appreciate first-hand.

This general had broken english, and I told him about “the immigrant mentality.” The idea that with hard work, one can make it in America. He knew this phrase and agreed. He said that he told his grandson and other family members that education was most important. That they should work, study, and take advantage of all America has to offer. It was very inspiring. It may be proud to be an American, and it made me more optimistic about the future. Last, it made me think that we really need to welcome people who want to come here.

It’s like school. You can’t make kids want to be in class, and a corollary; those who want to be in class usually do much better than those who don’t. I want to be around people who want to be in America.

*Megabus claims to have wi-fi. That is laughable. Most people know that it is laughable. I could create better wi-fi if molded tin-foil to take signals out of the air.


My first time in San Francisco

I’m in San Fran for a conference this week. Technically, I’ve been in SF once before, but I was at the age when it’s doubtful that I “took it all in” so to speak. I don’t think I remember one thing from that trip.

Here’s what strikes me. (I’m near Nob Hill and Market St.)

1. SF is a lot like downtown portland. Not too surprising since they both qualify as Pacific Northwest.

2. Living in LA, I will probably never have much reason to use the Golden Gate bridget. I used the Bay bridge to get into town.

3. SF is also A TON like New York. It’s a small little real estate market, bounded by water, on a coast, that has become extremely wealthy and liberal. I wonder if any of those things are related. The only real difference is the hills. Getting back to my place at the top of NH was like climbing Kilimanjaro. Some of the hills I thought had a laughably high incline. I wonder if it’s hard to build houses. My place is at a small slant so that doors close on their own if you don’t shut them.

4. I ate at an indian place called “chutney” it got good reviews but was quite bad. Shame. I guess I should have done something more local cuisine-y. What would that be? Chinese?


I understand the Breakfast Club

I watched John Hughes’ 80s masterpiece The Breakfast Club before. I really liked it and I thought it may even have some artistic merit. I watched it again, and I think I more closely follow its main aesthetic contribution. I am convinced that it is much more than a teen movie and that it is not about childhood, though it appears to be.

It may seem convenient to think about the movie as about social pressure and the pains of growing up, but the key thing to keep in mind is that the movie begins with an existential question. The kids who are in detention are asked, as their overriding goal for the day to write about who they are. It is this question that prompts the introspection and the eventual short answer that is read over the final sequences of the movie by Brian “the brain,” of the group.

In answering this question, I believe that the main contributor is Bender. To me, this is only natural. These students, placed in Illinois somewhere, are asked to think about who they are, and Bender immediately begins the process by pushing. He’s Socratic. He asks questions. He asks Molly Ringwald, who plays Claire, “the princess” whether she’s a virgin. This line of questioning exposes his main philosophical commitment, which is to undermine all the institutions that everyone else takes to be good and normal. His job is to question and undermine all “respectable” society, and within the confines of the movie, I think he succeeds. He is a Nietzschean hero. He questions everything, and accepts nothing. This is fitting with Nietzsche’s conviction that to grant something legitimacy is to grant it a type of tyranny — to give it free reign to become corrupted and controlling. He is a radical individualist. This fits with his role as “the criminal.” He begins the movie as sitting on the wrong side of every societal fence.

His job is to cleverly twist everyone’s goals and commitments. “Why doesn’t he participate in extracurricular activities?” he muses. Because those people are assholes. As we find out later, this answer is elaborated. We find out that the clubs that Brian is in — the physics and math club — are part of a constellation of social pressures that gets him to contemplate suicide, and we find out that the student-councily-things that Claire does is how she comes to be a slave of peer pressure. During an exchange with Claire, he is threatened by Emilio Estevez, playing Andrew, but he protests that he is trying to help Claire. To me this is the beginning of his Nietzschean therapy, whereby he slowly shows the other students that they should not be afraid of the principal, “Dick” or “Richard Vernon.”

He initiates this strategy by refusing to back down when the principal heaps discipline on him. “Do you want another?” the principal threatens, to which Bender replies “sure.” Shortly thereafter, Bender convinces everyone to follow him to the hallway where they break the rules of their detention. Brian briefly asks whether they’re disobedience makes any sense. “We’re going to get caught,” he laments, but then the camera moves to Bender who asks Claire “it feels good to be bad doesn’t it?” The fact that Bender is the hero movie is then cemented as he casually sacrifices himself to the ire of Dick so that the others can escape back to the library unseen by the principal. Bender is then subjected to sadistic and illegal threats from the principal who tries to bait Bender to fight him. The connection between the principal and “respectable” society is cemented as he reminds Bender that he makes a $30,000 and owns a house and that the world will forgot Bender but that he will still be around. That he “means something.” This echoes Andrew’s earlier insult to Bender that he could “disappear and no one would notice.”

Bender then sneaks back into the library and the healing begins, courtesy of a kind of psychoanalysis, introspection, and the critical analysis of the forces arrayed each and every one of them. For instance, Andrew comes to understand that he is controlled by his father, whose desire to have a successful son. “I’m a race horse,” and the implication is: who is made to run. Brian is pressured for grades. Allison is, in her own words, “ignored” by her parents. Bender is physically abused, and Claire is used by her parents as a weapon of emotional manipulation.

These stories may again tempt one to think that this kids stuff. Ringwald asks “Are we going to turn out like our parents,” which focuses the problem as one of parental pressure. This is what drives Brian to contemplate suicide after all, and Bender’s dad clearly beats him.

But to construe the breakfast club as a young person’s movie misses the point. All of these issues are serious adult issues. Domestic abuse, marital strife, they’re all problems for anyone, its just that the people experiencing them happen to be kids. Presumptively, Bender’s mom suffers just as much as Bender as she is depicted by him as being beaten by his father.

In any case, the point in my mind is wider. The Breakfast Club could be said to be just about kids in the way that a mistaken interpretation of Warm Bodies could be said to be about zombies. In the latter film, the metaphor is clearly that we can all be zombies and that we could all use renewed contact with other people. The point in the breakfast club is the same too. From an early age, we find ourselves enmeshed in networks of bullshittery. This is Bender’s target: the networks of social power, pressure, institutional abuse, parental abuse, wealth (when he fires a broadside at Claire for having diamond earrings), sexual repression (a huge theme that I’ve basically ignored in this essay). Everything is fair game and the cure is radical individualism. Bender is outraged that Claire would talk about his friends and shows his commitment to being friends with anyone he damn well chooses. And perhaps a further lesson is that to break down the unseen walls of status, popularity, and political power, one must be a little bit of a criminal. Completely unallied with the forces that fix us into boxes.

At the end, everyone transforms, partially due to Bender’s leadership and intervention, partially due to their own honesty. Notice however that the final catharsis is dancing, which is again very Nietzschean (“And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once”). When Bender fist pumps at the sky at the iconic end of the movie to the tune of “Don’t Forget About Me” by Simple Minds, he is celebrating a triumph over the creeping forces of “civilization” when that word is taken in its worst way. And insofar as Bender has triumphed, I believe the movie has too.


At Home with the Marquis De Sade

I finished At Home with the Marquis De Sade. I started off wanting to read about him because many european philosophers make reference to him and treat him with some reverence in terms of his place in intellectual history.

The book wasn’t an intellectual history though, but a personal biography. That was fine, I was just curious about this man who I had heard inspired the word “sadism.”

In the end, I think I found out why people find him so interesting. He was one of the first true anti-enlightenment writers in the tradition of a marx or a Nietzsche, who rails against everything that is taken for granted and accepted. He thought pain could be good, that humans were by nature bad, that the governments were organized perpetrators calumny and theft. He was voraciously against the death penalty, an egomaniacal aristocrat who pretended to be a revolutionary to stay alive. He was a misogynist and a swindler, but a champion of sexual equality and also just ONE WEIRD DUDE.

Hearing about his sexual exploits was kind of interesting and shocking. He was into weird stuff, smelling people’s farts, anal sex. When he was in his seventies, he tried to have anal sex with a 17 year old girl. He horrified prostitutes with his deranged wishes. He used the mathematical null sign to indicate in his diary when he had had anal sex. He call dildos that he used for masturbation “prestiges.”

I find two progressions particularly revealing abou this life. For one thing, he was almost always in jail. Vincennes, the Bastille, and finally he ended up in a mental hospital, Charenton. He probably visited a total of more than 15 jails, and he survived execution during the Terror by nothing more than a mistaken roll-call (or maybe he bribed someone). His jail sentence I think contributed heavily to his view that life was nothing but a series of wrongs built on a foundation of injustice. What he did to initially land in jail was bad. It was exploitative, traumatizing, and harmful. But he never caused permanent harm to anyone (I don’t believe, it’s hard to keep track of what happened to all the prostitutes he slept with after the fact). But his reputation just grew and grew until he was seen by all sides, royalist and revolutionary as a monster. A fringe maniac who wanted nothing but blood. Of course, his novels didn’t help with that impression as the descriptions that the author of At Home chooses to quote are truly horrifying. Cannibalism, rape, torture, infanticide. All on a large scale. It is kind of frightening, even for a modern reader who has watched Kill Bill and seen horror movies.

The other progression is of Sade’s personal/social life. He is such an irascible person, but it is compensated by his unbelievable charm and charisma. The combination of his insufferability and his magnetism created a pattern through all of his main personal contacts. His wife, Pelagie, loved him ardently, but over a period of decades, his tantrums slowly ground her down, to the point where she could not tolerate him. She utterly and completely cut ties with him. This process repeats in everyone Sade meets. Pelagie’s mother was the same way, but she, the Madame De Montreuil, was smarter, and so her period of infatuation with Sade was shorter. Sooner or later though, everyone grows tired of helping him out. First Madade De Montreuil, then his wife Pelagie, then his best friend from home (forgot her name), then his lawyer and counselor Gaufridy, then his son and finally his best friend Madade De Quisnet all reach their limit with him. He loses all his friends in this way, and it’s quite sad to see how he incapable of properly valuing a relationship.

However, my overarching conclusion about Sade though is that very little of his reputation as a “great” (here just meaning momentous) man is deserved. He’s really what today we would just call a garden variety loser. His dad was deadbeat, and he followed right along. He never made any money in his life, he clung to his aristocratic title like a talisman, and indulged himself in a paralyzing type of egoism, complete with tantrums and delusions. When his lawyer was on the run, trying to stay alive as revolutionary members of the terror were hunting down royalists like himself, Sade complained that he wasn’t finding enough credit to feed the Marquis’ unrepentant gluttony. I don’t know if it has been considered, but there seems to be a strong chance that Sade was bipolar. His kids treated him terribly, but it’s not surprising given that he would hurl abuses at them and their mother when all she did was try to make his incarceration term in the Bastille more comfortable. I mean, if Sade hadn’t decided to write some of the most offensive fiction ever seen until that point in history, he would be a painfully pathetic person.

Last, I can’t resist contrasting and comparing Sade with Robespierre. Robespierre was the ultimate prig. The ultimate prude. A famous quote about him was that he would pay someone to offer him gold just so that he could refuse it. The ultimate in self-righteousness. Sade was the opposite and obese man of desires, he lived only to satisfy whatever desire crossed his mind. Sade was an aristocrat, Robespierre was a petty bourgeoise. The contrasts are extensive, but what they shared was an ability to hold others captive with their words, written (Sade) and spoken (Robespierre). It’s amazing that either of them became anything at all, given how socially flawed they were (Robespierre had his best friends put to death, Sade drove them to misery), and how untalented they were at most things.

To me, there is some kind of wider trend going on, because during the French revolution, it seems like there were so many lunatics running around who were endowed with power and respect. How did that happen? Another example: Jean Paul Marat, a pamphleteer in the French revolution who indiscriminately called for death and massacre in the name of revolution. Du Plessix Gray rightly calls him “one of the revolution’s most bloodthirsty vampires.”



A classic story of overcoming

My dad loves stories of overcoming, and so I made sure to send him this.

These stories are not common in the statistical sense — it’s rare when someone beats all the obstacles in their path. Hell, it’s rare when someone with every advantage overcomes every obstacle in their path, much less someone who starts with disadvantages.

But these stories are common in the narrative that they tell and what they exalt about human potential. Everyone made fun of this guy, then all the college programs made up reasons why he wouldn’t be good. Blah blah blah. This just continued to not care what other people said; to be impervious to the prejudices, narrowness, and the laziness of others.

There’s  a quote by John Wooden that I like: “Never let the things you can’t do prevent you from doing the things you can,” and the secret of this aphorism is that if you really believe, if you take its spirit to heart, you find out that there’s really not much that you can’t do, in the end, at all. Another Wooden quote, “do all the little things right, and that’s when big things can happen.”


Who Tells Us What

When you have data and a nuanced, long-view, of an area, it’s easy to say profound things. It comes naturally. Look at this sentence from a very recent pew report on the state of the media.

In 2012, a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.

The point is striking, but I never thought about it before. When reporting manpower goes down, but total content output needs to stay the same, then something must give. In this case, Pew seems to think that other entities step in to provide content in a more packaged or ready-to-press form. This shouldn’t be surprising. If you go to, you’ll see that some of their content is put together straight from advertisers. There model is not really reporting so my analogy is flawed, but there is definitely something convincing about the hypothesis that as reporting and analysis dry up, powerful groups such as the government and the market can dictate the terms of content promulgation even more.

Again, I don’t want to shortchange the rise of bloggers and specialists. I’ve learned a ton from individual people who just decided to drill down on a complex issue. It just doesn’t seem to me like the burgeoning independent journalism sphere yet makes that much difference. It seems like there are established message channels and that they are still up for use/hijack depending on how you see it.


Cooperative Hunting

I’ve been trying to figure out whether species that are not as advanced as primates are able to represent the behavior of another organism as directed toward a goal. This is a big step and its different than being SENSITIVE to the goals of other organisms. Ants in a colony are sensitive to the behavior of the ant next to them, but the question is can any species represent another organism as pursuing goal. 

I thought that a place to start might be in coordinated predation situations in which the hunting animals have to represent escape routes of prey or represent the prey as pursuing shelter, etc. I don’t think I found any convincing examples, but I did see the article. Apparently some Groupers recruit moray eels to help them hunt. They then go and hunt together!