This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country. The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows. The Mormons settled this ominous country, and then they abandoned it, but by the time they left the first orange tree had been planted and for the next hundred years the San Bernardino Valley would draw a kind of people who imagined they might live among the talismanic fruit and prosper in the dry air, people who brought with them Midwestern ways of building and cooking and praying and who tried to graft those ways upon the land. The graft took in curious ways. This is the California where it is possible to live and die without ever eating an artichoke, without ever meeting a Catholic or a Jew. This is the California where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy a book. This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers’ school. “We were just crazy kids,” they say without regret, and look to the future. The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past. Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer. Here is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways. Here is where they are trying to find a new life style, trying to find it in the only places they know to look: the movies and the newspapers.
The indigenous resistance to the westering anglos as they punched their way over the Appalachian Crest for the seizure and enclosing of the continent was led by a young Shawnee warrior, Tecumseh. Invited into the governor's mansion to negotiate, Tecumseh refused: "Houses are built for you to hold council in: Indians hold theirs in the open air." He also refused to take a chair when offered one, saying that he would repose on the bosom of the earth. There is a resonance here with the spirit of Occupy, and its mode of inhabiting space.
Popular protest takes to the streets because that is the space that remains. To be sure, most of the major events in history have happened outside, in the sense that the decisions taken inside—in the chancelleries, the boardrooms, the smoke-filled backrooms, etc.—are ultimately conditioned by things that happen, or do not happen, in the open air. Tecumseh's retort to Governor Harrison points up the significance of spatial and political form, and of the different architectonics of societies rooted in common—as opposed to private—property.
The spaces of modernity are shaped and dominated by private and state interests; under modernity public space is a subordinate category, residual even, and confined to what is left once land has been commodified and parceled into private lots. What remains is the open air. Literally. The air itself treated by economists as and "externality" (in the language of the business schools), which are commons of a peculiar capitalist kind. The air becomes a sink for the waste produced during the manufacture of commodities. This amounts to the theft of a common, though it is sometimes hard to see since it doesn't happen all at once, nor everywhere. Like many other things, pollution is very uneven, and has a class geography.
As more and more of modern life moves away into a representation, as the image-world comes to dominate civil society, and as the spectacular state gets drawn further into the day-to-day management of consumer obedience, internal policing, and the prevention of riposte to its lies, so the problem of image politics and of the very possibility of making spaces for strategic discussion takes on critical importance. (...) Given the de-realization of human collectivity under conditions of spectacle, these brief interruptions—the occupations of the squares and critical mass rides—produce real manifestations of community, albeit fleeting. Yet in each case it's a move beyond the horizon of representational politics, and takes life off the screen for a moment.
Every universe, our own included, begins in conversation. Every golem in the history of the world, from Rabbi Hanina's delectable goat to the river-clay Frankenstein of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, was summoned into existence through language, through murmuring, recital, and kabbalistic chitchat -- was, literally, talked into life.
Frankly, the overwhelming majority of academics have ignored the data explosion caused by the digital age. The world’s most famous sex researchers stick with the tried and true. They ask a few hundred subjects about their desires; they don’t ask sites like PornHub for their data. The world’s most famous linguists analyze individual texts; they largely ignore the patterns revealed in billions of books. The methodologies taught to graduate students in psychology, political science, and sociology have been, for the most part, untouched by the digital revolution. The broad, mostly unexplored terrain opened by the data explosion has been left to a small number of forward-thinking professors, rebellious grad students, and hobbyists. That will change.
Everybody lies. People lie about how many drinks they had on the way home. They lie about how often they go to the gym, how much those new shoes cost, whether they read that book. They call in sick when they’re not. They say they’ll be in touch when they won’t. They say it’s not about you when it is. They say they love you when they don’t. They say they’re happy while in the dumps. They say they like women when they really like men. People lie to friends. They lie to bosses. They lie to kids. They lie to parents. They lie to doctors. They lie to husbands. They lie to wives. They lie to themselves. And they damn sure lie to surveys. Here’s my brief survey for you:
Have you ever cheated in an exam?
Have you ever fantasised about killing someone?
Were you tempted to lie?
Many people underreport embarrassing behaviours and thoughts on surveys. They want to look good, even though most surveys are anonymous. This is called social desirability bias.
An important paper in 1950 provided powerful evidence of how surveys can fall victim to such bias. Researchers collected data, from official sources, on the residents of Denver: what percentage of them voted, gave to charity, and owned a library card. They then surveyed the residents to see if the percentages would match. The results were, at the time, shocking. What the residents reported to the surveys was very different from the data the researchers had gathered. Even though nobody gave their names, people, in large numbers, exaggerated their voter registration status, voting behaviour, and charitable giving.
Has anything changed in 65 years? In the age of the internet, not owning a library card is no longer embarrassing. But, while what’s embarrassing or desirable may have changed, people’s tendency to deceive pollsters remains strong. A recent survey asked University of Maryland graduates various questions about their college experience. The answers were compared with official records. People consistently gave wrong information, in ways that made them look good. Fewer than 2% reported that they graduated with lower than a 2.5 GPA (grade point average). In reality, about 11% did. And 44% said they had donated to the university in the past year. In reality, about 28% did.
Then there’s that odd habit we sometimes have of lying to ourselves. Lying to oneself may explain why so many people say they are above average. How big is this problem? More than 40% of one company’s engineers said they are in the top 5%. More than 90% of college professors say they do above-average work. One-quarter of high school seniors think they are in the top 1% in their ability to get along with other people. If you are deluding yourself, you can’t be honest in a survey.
The more impersonal the conditions, the more honest people will be. For eliciting truthful answers, internet surveys are better than phone surveys, which are better than in-person surveys. People will admit more if they are alone than if others are in the room with them. However, on sensitive topics, every survey method will elicit substantial misreporting. People have no incentive to tell surveys the truth.
How, therefore, can we learn what our fellow humans are really thinking and doing? Big data. Certain online sources get people to admit things they would not admit anywhere else. They serve as a digital truth serum. Think of Google searches. Remember the conditions that make people more honest. Online? Check. Alone? Check. No person administering a survey? Check.
The power in Google data is that people tell the giant search engine things they might not tell anyone else. Google was invented so that people could learn about the world, not so researchers could learn about people, but it turns out the trails we leave as we seek knowledge on the internet are tremendously revealing.
I have spent the past four years analysing anonymous Google data. The revelations have kept coming. Mental illness, human sexuality, abortion, religion, health. Not exactly small topics, and this dataset, which didn’t exist a couple of decades ago, offered surprising new perspectives on all of them. I am now convinced that Google searches are the most important dataset ever collected on the human psyche.
«In many ways, the work of a critic is easy,» Ego says. «We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.»
This is the Story
This is the beginning. Here is where the story begins. The character is introduced—we meet the character, her, we’ll call her a her. We begin to learn about her background, or if not so much as that, then her habits. We see her doing what she does every day, in medias res. What she does now foreshadows what will happen to her later. She does the same thing every day, and then something changes. It’s not much, but it’s something, and so it is a story.
This is the middle. The thing that happens, the different thing, happens here. She was safe in her assumptions, but this thing occurs, or something occurs to her, a realization, and she can no longer go on thinking what she thought. Perhaps it has to do with him, someone important to her, someone whom perhaps she loves. And yet he is also her antagonist, the one who stands in the way of what must happen for her to be, if not happy, then consummated, fulfilled. This is when we meet him, when we come to understand the obstacle he presents, when we are allowed to wonder how she will, how she can, proceed.
This is the ending. At this point the situation comes to its crisis. Events build to a climax. We have been expecting this: a conflict, and, through its resolution, change. But then something happens that we had not -expected, a surprise, a twist, which nonetheless feels, now that it has happened, -inevitable. They were at odds in a way that had become familiar, and now we learn that their goals are not so far apart, that perhaps what had seemed a conflict is in fact its own resolution.
Finally there is this, something after the ending, after the climax: the result. It is not at all what we expected. Perhaps one of them—him—is left behind in some way by the events that have transpired. He is lost, and she must suffer a kind of grief, as must he, for he is lost but must go on, as she must, too. So the story comes to its conclusion, open to interpretation, and we find that the only way out, for us as well as for them, is this lyrical finale, a few words, a bit of poetry. This last sentence is beautiful, as though beauty is itself the justification, though it isn’t—not quite.
El febrer de 1948 el dirigent comunista Klement Gottwald va sortir al balcó d'un palau barroc de Praga per adreçar-se als centenars de ciutadans txecs que omplien la plaça de la Ciutat Vella. Aquella havia de ser una gran fita en la història de Bohèmia. Un d'aquells moments fatídics que ocorren una o dues vegades cada mil·lenni. Gottwald estava envoltat pels seus camarades i just al seu costat hi havia Clementis. La neu planava en l'aire, feia fred i Gottwald anava amb el cap descobert. Clementis, tot sol·lícit, es va treure la gorra de pell i la va posar al cap de Gottwald.
La secció de propaganda va reproduir en centenars de milers d'exemplars la fotografia del balcó des del qual Gottwald, amb una gorra de pell al cap i envoltat de camarades, s'adreça al poble. En aquell balcó va començar la història de la Bohemia comunista. Aquella fotografia, la coneixien tots els nens d'haver-la vista en els cartells, en els Ilibres de text i en els museus.
Quatre anys més tard Clementis va ser acusat de traició i penjat. La secció de propaganda el va esborrar immediatament de la història i, naturalment, de totes les fotografies. Des d'aleshores Gottwald està tot sol al balcó. En el lloc on havia estat Clementis hi ha només el mur buit del palau. De Clementis tan sols ha quedat la gorra de pell al cap de Gottwald.
Another fundamental error of Christianity is that it has in an unnatural fashion sundered mankind from the animal world to which it essentially belongs and now considers mankind alone as of any account, regarding the animals as no more than things. This error is a consequence of creation out of nothing, after which the Creator, in the first and second chapters of Genesis, takes all the animals just as if they were things, and without so much as the recommendation of kind treatment which even a dog-seller usually adds when he parts with his dogs, hands them over to man for man to rule, that is to do with them what he likes; subsequently, in the second chapter, the Creator goes on to appoint him the first professor of zoology by commissioning him to give the animals the names they shall thenceforth bear, which is once more only a symbol of their total dependence on him, i.e their total lack of rights.
It can truly be said: Men are the devils of the earth, and the animals are the tormented souls. This is the consequence of that installation scene in the Garden of Eden. For the mob can be controlled only by force or by religion, and here Christianity leaves us shamefully in the lurch. I heard from a reliable source that a Protestant pastor, requested by an animal protection society to preach a sermon against cruelty to animals, replied that with the best will in the world he was unable to do so, because he could find no support in his religion. The man was honest, and he was right.
When I was studying at Göttingen, Blumenbach spoke to us very seriously about the horrors of vivisection and told us what a cruel and terrible thing it was; wherefore it should be resorted to only very seldom and for very important experiments which would bring immediate benefit, and even then it must be carried out as publicly as possible so that the cruel sacrifice on the altar of science should be of the maximum possible usefulness. Nowadays, on the contrary, every little medicine-man thinks he has the right to torment animals in the cruellest fashion in his torture chamber so as to decide problems whose answers have for long stood written in books into which he is too lazy and ignorant to stick his nose. – Special mention should be made of an abomination committed by Baron Ernst von Bibra at Nürnberg and, with incomprehensible naïveté, tanquam re bene gesta, [As if the thing were done well] narrated by him to the public in his Vergleichende Untersuchungen über das Gehirn des Menschen und der Wirbelthiere: he deliberately let two rabbits starve to death! – in order to undertake the totally idle and useless experiment of seeing whether starvation produces a proportional change in the chemical composition of the brain! For the ends of science – n'est-ce pas? Have these gentlemen of the scalpel and crucible no notion at all then that they are first and foremost men, and chemists only secondly? How can you sleep soundly knowing you have harmless animals under lock and key in order to starve them slowly to death? Don't you wake up screaming in the night?
It is obviously high time that the Jewish conception of nature, at any rate in regard to animals, should come to an end in Europe, and that the eternal being which, as it lives in us, also lives in every animal should be recognized as such, and as such treated with care and consideration. One must be blind, deaf and dumb, or completely chloroformed by the foetor judaicus, not to see that the animal is in essence absolutely the same thing that we are, and that the difference lies merely in the accident, the intellect, and not in the substance, which is the will.
The greatest benefit conferred by the railways is that they spare millions of draught-horses their miserable existence.
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) The Horrors and Absurdities of Religion
Furnished like a third act passion set:
They owed two months on the rental.
Blue cushions: overlaid
With silk: with lace: with gold brocade.
These lay propped up on a double bed
That was covered with a Far East tapestry spread.
Chinese dragons with writhing backs:
Photographs caught to the wall with tacks:
Their friends in the profession,
Celebrities for the impression—
(“So’s your old man—Isidore.”
On a Chinese lacquer tray there stood a
Gong with tassels, and a brass Buddha.
An Art vase with broken handles,
Out of which came an upthrusting
Of cherry blossoms that needed dusting.
My god! You don't understand.
They were far too busy living first-hand
Mary had also taught that the human brain was the most admirable survival device yet produced by evolution. But now her own big brain was urging her to take the polyethylene garment bag from around a red evening dress in her closet, and to wrap it around her head, thus depriving her cells of oxygen.
Before that, her wonderful brain had entrusted a thief at the airport with a suitcase containing all her toilet articles and clothes which would have been suitable for the hotel.
Her colossal thinking machine could be so petty, too. It would not let her go downstairs in her combat fatigues on the grounds that everybody, even though there was practically nobody in the hotel, would find her comical in such a costume. Her brain told her: ‘They’ll laugh at you behind your back, and think you’re crazy and pitiful, and your life is over anyway. You’ve lost your husband and your teaching job, and you don’t have any children or anything else to live for, so just put yourself out of your misery with the garment bag. What could be easier? What could be more painless? What could make more sense?’
Just about every adult human being back then had a brain weighing about three kilogrammes! There was no end to the evil schemes that a thought machine that oversized couldn’t imagine and execute.
So I raise this question, although there is nobody around to answer it: Can it be doubted that three-kilogramme brains were once nearly fatal defects in the evolution of the human race?