Archive for January, 2013

Fruitless

Reflecting back over the previous two weeks, I see that a good news resolution can really get things going.  I have indeed written much more in this first half of January than I would have otherwise.

Last night, though, I ran into a problem.  In my New Year’s post announcing my intention to make much more regular contributions to this site, I references Flannery O’Conner’s writing ritual.  Flannery, of course, said she was always willing to just throw out whatever she wrote if it was no good.

Well, I wrote both a poem and another bit of flash fiction last night and guess what?  You ain’t going to see them.

I always tell my students that the cure to writer’s block is to write anyway, to push through it.  This, though, is a case when I didn’t even know I was blocked (though I’m feeling it now).  I just couldn’t make the damn things work.

It happens.  There have been many times when I would post something late at night and then when I saw it in the light of day I shrieked in horror and expunged it from the record of collective memory that is the Internet.  I’m saving myself the trouble with these two pieces.

So, sorry, dear and devoted readers.  You won’t be reading “Murakami I” or “found poem constructed from googling the first line.”  They’re going down the drain.

Meanwhile, I’m staring at my list of idea in the queue and none of them are jumping forward and begging to be written tonight.  (Damn them!)  Maybe something will coalesce later, but until then, I’ll just say this:

Did you know about this one space after periods thing?  I’ve been doing it wrong for twenty years (including this post)!

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Unconcerned

“What if you found out I wasn’t who you thought I was?” she asked.

He wasn’t sure when she’d joined him.  She was sitting on the love seat, pointed the wrong way, but not looking at him exactly, more staring past him as if the window blinds behind him weren’t shut.

“What do you mean?” he asked, clicking off the television because, really, nothing was on anyway and they might talk for a while.

“I was rereading Sabbath’s Theater and I think Roth wanted us to sympathize with Sabbath himself, but I found myself thinking about his lover’s husband and family–how shocked they must have been when they found out about her affair after she died.  Then I wondered, what if I died and you discovered I had another life?  A secret life?”

He didn’t feel any gravity in her voice to suggest she was on the verge of some great confession and, besides, he knew her, knew every corner of her and it wasn’t in her.  But then again, neither was it like her to throw out curious hypotheticals, literary or otherwise.  “I don’t know,” he said cautiously.  “Like in that movie the Descendents, you mean?”

“It reminded me of The End of the Affair, too.  I think I told you about that when I read it last year.  The husband lets his dying wife’s lover live with them.  I wonder if you could be that man.”

“I don’t think so–” he started to say.

“Could you forgive me?  When I was gone?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think I could forgive you?” she asked.  She still did not look towards him and the silent spaces swelled up with their own stillness until the room was gone and the two of them were on a plane alone in nothing, no world except for what was already done and no questions except for hers.

Then he thought on his sins.

Progress

as you move
your wrist trailing behind you
cutting through the water
a broad v-shaped wake
black shadows of refraction
spreading with each careful step
into the soft, clasping sand below

the space between the world that has known you
and the virgin territory beyond your borders

Corporatocracy

Screen Shot 2013-01-11 at 3.31.07 PM

 

Certain wavelengths in the media’s soundstorm are buzzing with O’Henry’s old term, “banana republic.”  The fortunes of the United States have so fallen in the minds of these talking heads that it is time to weigh with serious consideration the question of whether or not we are, in fact, now a banana republic.  (Never mind that we are still easily the largest economy in the world–nay, the history of the world–and wield humankind’s most powerful army as well; to some the Republican Party’s irresponsible tax cuts and spending increases coupled with the Tea Party’s irresponsible brinkmanship pushing us to the “fiscal cliff” mean we must be doomed.)

In his editorial addressing the question in The Atlantic, David Graham points out that we are not “dominated by overseas corporations” in order to refute the appellation.  So much for banana republicanism.

The phrasing Graham chooses, though, is quite significant.  “Dominated by overseas corporations.”  No, we’re not a banana republic.

We’re something worse.

Four years after major financial institutions were bailed out after being dubbed “too big to fail,” the international bank HSBC has become too big to prosecute.

The bank has been faulted for assisting both terrorist-supporting states and drug cartels to launder money and circumvent U.S. laws.  Billions of dollars flowed safely to the coffers of the most wicked elements of global society against the wishes of American policy and standing law.  What price shall this bank, with assets upward of $2.5 trillion, pay?  Will that enormous chest of assets be raided to pay back the costs of fighting global crime or ensuring homeland security?  Will its corporate charter be dissolved for clearly being no longer in the public interest?  Will those actual human beings who chose to infringe upon these laws be prosecuted?

No.

None of it.  The bank will pay a fine of less than $2 billion, despite revenue in excess $105 billion in 2011.  That’s like me getting a $1,000 fine…for aiding terrorists.  HSBC’s punishment amounts to a really bad speeding fine.

This is the era we live in.  Corporations are the new states.  The most powerful nation on Earth is afraid to attack the employees of a major bank because doing so might jeopardize the company’s ability to create wealth and jobs.  Not that those “jobs” count for much in a country increasingly plagued by wealth inequality–so it’s the wealth that matters.  Contrary to supply-side economic thinking, that wealth does not benefit America, or Britain, or any nation, really.  Nor does it drive the wheels of the economy to benefit consumers and ordinary citizens.  It simply recirculates in the hands of the ultra-rich, again and again, accumulating more with every crooked deal, like history’s dirtiest snowball.

HSBC may be “overseas” relative to America, but in reality, today’s multinational corporations have no country.  They do not exploit one country for the benefit of another as in the days of the banana republic.  They exploit absolutely.  HSBC’s crimes are just as antithetical to the interests of European nations, but profit trumped all.

Now, no individual within its auspices will face criminal prosecution.  A paltry $1.9 billion dollars will have to be written off its books, and then it will churn onward, along with all the other corporate behemoths.  Revered and sacred engines of capitalism that are now granted the unlimited privilege of bulldozing the rule of law and the livelihoods of individuals so long as they continue to do what it is they do:  amass wealth for a few.

We’re There

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My children and I bounce from TV show to TV show.  They get one series in their heads and then they beg, cajole, harass me to continue watching as many episodes as Netflix can disgorge at them, marathon-style, until the series is done, gone, finished.  Most recently:  Futurama.

This animated sci-fi comedy is right up our alley.  It’s also rife with pop-culture allusions that I sometimes have to explain to them–well, I think I “have” to; occasionally they groan when I pause the stream to expound on the way in which the show is echoing this sci-fi master or parodying that 90s icon.

Most recently, though, I was actually responding to my son’s question when I got to explain the broad strokes of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey--frequently referenced in Futurama.  My son’s comment afterward was, “Ha, they were way off.  We’re nowhere near there and it’s 2013.”

2001’s predictions may not have come to pass, but ironically, one of Futurama’s looks like it might.  Routinely in this goofy, sci-fi farce, a character loses a limb that is easily replaced by cloning a new one.

Growing body parts isn’t science fiction anymore, though.  It’s happening right now.  The laboratories at University College in London recently published a spread of photographs documenting their work in rebuilding noses and ears from stem cells.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil has made a name for himself by popping by various talk shows and raving about “singularity,” the coming moment in history when it becomes possible for man and machine to merge into one–for human consciousness to be uploaded into a computer and live forever.

Such cyber-enthusiasm, though, belies the true import of the breakthroughs happening right now.  The work of Dr. Seifalian, professor of nanotechnology and regenerative medicine at University College, heralds something much more subversive that a hard drive copy of the brain.  The future he and his team are building–along with other researchers all over the world–is one in which the human body becomes just another technology, one designed by natural selection instead of human imagination.

The sometimes frightening, sometimes wondrous truth we are learning here at the dawn of the 21st century–whether through genetically modified foods or replacement ears grown in labs–is that nature’s cookbook isn’t closed to us anymore.  What’s more, the recipes can all be rewritten with ease.  A viral truck here, a gene splice there and you have a glow in the dark cat.  Emerging technologies like optogenetics offer the possibility of understanding the brain so well that at some point in the future, it may be the hard drive.  Easily rewritten.  Easily erased?

Jealousy a problem in your relationship?  Retool your brain so you no longer feel it.  Need to train for a new career?  Reset your neurons to learn as quickly as a child.  The breakthroughs just at the edge of our grasp offer to transform society more than every other technological advance combined.  Yet all the exciting possibilities are balanced by equally terrifying dystopic visions of abuse–of human beings made machine.

Kurzwiel’s term “singularity” may indeed be apt.  We are on the cusp of living through the most singular transformation in human civilization.  In fact, in fifty years, it may no longer be appropriate to label it “human” civilization anymore.  We may be something else entirely in the very near future.

What will it be?  And would we want to be it?

 

 

Remembrance

There are no photos
of you
in the bug dress
I’m forced to hold it in memory
I remember its yellow
and on one level I know
the printed beetles must have been faded
muted little shapes
paisleys from a distance
only up close
would someone blink or smile
seeing them for what they were
but I remember them
photorealistic
glistening rhino bugs
opal shelled
living placidly in the stitches of the dress
and of course
you glow in it
you glow

someone should warn them
warn the young
in godly, stone commandments
yes, children
take your pictures now
someday they’ll be all you have

Tomorrow’s Technocracy?

the scales

In an op-ed out today at CNN.com, Michael Halpern makes a dispassionate, well-reasoned argument to step back from the impassioned, biased viewpoints that currently drive our political discourse in the United States.  Halpern argues that we can use scientific research to reach sounder policy decisions in today’s gun control debate instead of allowing pre-existing ideological stances to sway the furors of one side or another to sufficient pitch to scare off or motivate Congress.  We have seen this same dynamic in issue after issue.  Again and again, our debates favor ideology over fact.

Can we do better than a bitterly divided political battlefield?  Can we coax entrenched ideologues from their own personal Maginot Lines?

The challenges of our times deserve reasoned solutions, not knee-jerk reactions.  Acknowledging this, though, changes nothing.  Our system has been locked into a two party dyad of political gridlock for a century and a half.  It has been a model of inefficiency designed by both circumstance and by Enlightenment thinkers who argued that the government which governs least, governs best.  At the dawn of the twenty-first century, though, there is another alternative:

We could govern scientifically.

We could restructure our system to allocate political will not only through majority rule, but also through empirical tests.

Such a notion may sound like a monumental change in the nature of our government, but it needn’t be.  China’s one party rule is often labeled as a technocracy, and some in the West even praise it for the way in which is has avoided the curse of other Communist nations by orchestrating a smooth transition from leader to leader.  Beijing’s technocracy, though, lacks the transparency to allow reason to govern.  Science, after all, strives for open dialogue–something shunned in China.

An American technocracy could be entirely different, and it could be erected with a few simple pieces of legislation establishing non-partisan research boards and mandating a burden of proof for key types of legislation.

We could, in short, require our duly elected representatives to ask for evidence before enshrining any ideology into law.  It would be a new component of the checks and balances system, one more plate on the multi-faceted scale that has preserved our republic through calamity and corruption, striving onward for a more perfect union.

Our founding fathers were, after all, believers in the capacity of the logical mind above all else.  The rigor of the scientific method that has ushered us into the modern world would impress and delight them, and there can be little doubt that they would approve of further enshrining their most sacred of beliefs, the faith in human reason, as an indelible component of our system of government.