You think you can read?

I have been reading “The Crying of Lot 49” by Thomas Pynchon for a while — and as for now I am yet unsure if I am really enjoying it. It is, at times, tough going if English is not your native tongue. Pynchon is fond of difficult grammatical constructions and every now and then one can find a sentence that meanders on for half a page or more, taking loops and consisting of entire subplots. Here’s an example for you, it took me a couple of readings to get into grips with what was being said:

Yet at least he had believed in the cars. Maybe to excess: how could he not, seeing people poorer than him come in, Negro, Mexican, cracker, a parade seven days a week, bringing the most god-awful trade-ins: motorized, metal extensions of themselves, of their families and what their whole lives must be like, out there so naked for anybody, a stranger like himself, to look at, frame cockeyed, rusty underneath, fender painted in a shade just off enough to depress the value, if not Mucho himself, inside smelling hopelessly of children, supermarket booze, two, sometimes three generations of cigarette smokers, or only of dust — and when the cars were swept out you had to look at the actual residue of these lives, and there was no way of telling what things had been truly refused (when so little he supposed came by that out of fear most of it had to be taken and kept) and what had simply (perhaps tragically) been lost: clipped coupons promising savings of 5 or 10¢, trading stamps, pink flyers advertising specials at the markets, butts, tooth-shy combs, help-wanted ads, Yellow Pages torn from the phone book, rags of old underwear or dresses that already were period costumes, for wiping your own breath off the inside of a windshield with so you could see whatever it was, a movie, a woman or a car you coveted, a cop who might pull you over just for drill, all the bits and pieces coated uniformly, like a salad of despair, in a gray dressing of ash, condensed exhaust, dust, body wastes — it made him sick to look, but he had to look.

At least now I understand why is it that DF Wallace held him in such a high esteem. Speaking of Wallace, if you’ve read Infinite Jest, there’s an article on Guardian book blog that you might find interesting about a mad idea that some folks in Columbia University had.

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Cracking the code


When idly browsing through the Daily Telegraph’s lists of 100 books and movies that defined the noughties (here and here, respectively) I couldn’t but notice a very interesting discrepancy. I had seen (if not always watched) 39 of the total 100 movies mentioned on the list but only read 2 out of 100 titles in books—one of those a rather bland novel that had me simply shrug my shoulders (The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith) and the other a complete atrocity against literature and civilization in general (none other than Da Vinci Code).

Now this had me scratching my head in puzzlement.

It could be that my personal criteria for approaching books and movies are somehow very different—that I am somehow a lot less discerning when it comes to movies than I am when choosing which book to read next, and subsequently my taste for literature is a lot more snobbish and eclectic than my choice of movies. It is also true that while it takes seldom longer than 2 hours to see a movie there are relatively few books that can be consumed in less than a couple of days (unless you’re Harold Bloom, of course, in which case you can read The War and Peace in the same time that it would take to watch Shrek), and thus the decision whether to see a movie is more trivial, so to say, less of a commitment. It is quite possible to watch movies rather passively, spacing out at home or in an airplane, while reading a book takes at least somewhat conscious effort. However, eventually I don’t think that all this would get us very far in explaining the 39:2 score. It must be something else why I haven’t read 98 out of 100 books that define the decade.

This all got me thinking a bit more deeply about this curious thing we refer to as a “taste”—as in “taste for music” or “taste for certain kind of literature”. When I refer to “books that I like” (or those that I don’t), and if I want to get beyond a simple ostensive statement—then what qualitative set of features am I actually talking about? It is quite easy to specify my likes and dislikes when talking about particular books (movies, songs, paintings or whatnot) but it is not easy at all to actually put your finger on what precisely do I like about them.

As the things are, there seem to be two principal ways of doing it. First, functional way, would be to say that even if there is such a set of qualitative features then it really doesn’t matter. This is why we are comfortable asking our friends “read anything interesting lately?” and then heed the recommendation, assuming that a certain level of interpersonal compatibility would also translate into similar tastes—if they liked it then there’s a good chance that so do we. And there seem to be pretty good grounds to believe that this is true. Pierre Bourdieu has done some research on that topic and found out that, although we are nominally completely free to like or dislike whatever the hell we choose, our actual tastes are remarkably similar to those of the other people in our immediate social surroundings. We learn to like things not because of their innate qualities but simply because other people like them and thus our musical, literary or whatever other sympathies cluster together. This is, of course, the idea behind phenomenons such as J.K. Rowling Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson, the Beatles or Oasis. In the case of all those examples, their literary/musical merits (or respective lack thereof) matter a lot less than the fact that they are liked by so many. Incidentally, this is how amazon.com-s recommendation engine works—it ultimately treats us as members of a crowd, even if the crowd in question is a pretty small and elitist one. In music, this is how the self-proclaimed internet music revolution Last.fm operates, profiling you by the music you seem to like and then suggesting you artists from the playlists of people whose listening habits have a significant overlap with yours.

However, there are people who insist upon taking a different, ontological approach. Here’s an article on how Pandora, an alternative service to Last.fm, works—it’s an interesting and, at least to me, quite a counterintuitive idea. Last.fm is completely oblivious of the content it streams to you, differentiating between Britney Spears and Metallica only based on their different listener bases. Pandora, however, employs a bunch of specialists with PhD-s in musicology who pick every musical piece apart to its constituent parts and assign a numerical value to each of them. As a result, Pandora completely disregards who listens to (or even who performs) any particular tune and makes its suggestions based on what could be called a genome of the musical piece, a certain set of quantitative similarities rather than certain number of shared listeners. And with more than 6.5 million subscribers, they seem to be doing something right.

If this approach works with music then there should be no reason why shouldn’t we be able to similarly sequence the genome of literary works. If it is possible to quantify the level of “emotion” in a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo or tone of Fela Kuti’s voice then it should also be possible to score how “engaged” is Nabokov compared to, say, Kafka. And as it turns out, there are people crazy enough to try and do just that.

Apparently, a group of Swedish physicists undertook a study where they examined some of the formal properties of literary works by authors such as Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence and Herman Melville, quantifying the rate of appearance of new words in their texts, looking for a distinctive pattern, sort of “literary fingerprint”. If you find this intriguing, then here is the article itself, but be warned that it is not a stuff for the squeamish—I once used to be reasonably good with maths but what I found in there had me recoil in terror.

Once all is said and done, the proofs have run their course and the mathematical dust has settled, the authors come to a rather interesting (and very Borgesian) conclusion:

These findings lead us towards the meta book concept—the writing of a text can be described by a process where the author pulls a piece of text out of a large mother book (the meta book) and puts it down on paper. This meta book is an imaginary infinite book which gives a representation of the word frequency characteristics of everything that a certain author could ever think of writing.

Now, if we take this insight and approach it he way Roland Barthes might—claiming that, in terms of what they say or mean, books are “read” rather than “written”—then it would follow that when it comes to literary taste, each reader also has his or her meta book, consisting of everything that this particular reader would like, or find personally moving and/or meaningful. A kind of reader’s fingerprint, a receptive literary genome, if you like.

I do wonder what mine would look like.

For humans only

A few months ago in Los Angeles I was rather baffled when driving from the airport to the center I noticed public benches along the road with big signs painted on them, saying “FOR HUMANS OLNY”. Tonight I went to see Neill Blomkamp’s movie District 9 and suddenly realised what this all was about.

Let me first get this off my chest : District 9 really is a good movie, easily one of the best I’ve seen this year – and I have seen a few pretty good ones. It excels in a number of different ways and is a very thought-provoking, relevant and deeply ironic piece. The camerawork is particularly good, and the way how different formats such as newscast, interview or hand-held camera have been used is nothing short of genius. Although the movie has a couple of sentimental slips they didn’t really distract from the overall experience – which is pretty bleak and disturbing.

But more about the way the movie works: while the mockumentary and mock-newscast formats have became kind of popular recently in Hollywood movies (see “Sweet and Lowdown” and “Syriana”, for example), D9 takes it to a new level. Not only does the movie itself play with formats we are used to acquire and digest information with, it also expands the same thing into areas such as outdoor media (such as park benches in LA that I mentioned), websites (see MNU and Non-Human Rights movement site, for example) and social networking sites (on Twitter and Facebook). In this way, D9 is critical towards both modes of engagement with the world – the purportedly objective gaze of CNN/BBC as well as their hundreds of smaller and local off-shoots, as well as Facebook- and twitter activism (which all too often boils down to statements such as “non-humans are humans too” – something that Ali G has already parodied earlier). It is precisely that kind of an “objective reporting” and armchair activism that allow us to distance ourselves, not only to objectivize what’s happening but also objectify those it is happening to. Because ultimately this is the only thing, the modus vivendi that allows us to see and realize everything that’s going on in places like Darfur, Palestine, Rwanda, and indeed, often in our own cities, and still go on seeing ourselves as moral subjects. It is only possible through dehumanizing the other in our minds, both collective and personal.

[*** MILD SPOILER ALERT ***] It is also interesting to note how the camerawork changes from detached  newscast format into a hand-held camera akin to this used in Blair Witch Project once the protagonist moves into the D9 and becomes an alien (both literally and metaphorically) himself. Losing the professional editing and voiceover, what we see suddenly becomes a lot more subjective, and this inevitably changes also the way we see those it is happening to – they become human, in the deep sense of that word. Actually, even the mockumentary/newscast-format parts have a layer of this self-awareness, with a couple of scenes left in which are being referred to as something that will have to be edited out later. And then, before the movie returns to newscast format at the very end, we have a short patch of rather typical Hollywood-type view of heroic battle and self-sacrifice that appears to be the usual mode in which we conceptualize heroism.

Oh, and as far as I’m concerned, Sharlto Copley’s performance as Wikus van de Merwe is absolutely amazing.

So if you haven’t, do yourself a favour and go see it.

Still not dead

ivorysnowOn April 12, Marilyn Ann Taylor, 56, passed away in her trailer house in somewhere in North Los Angeles County, California. Her death made some brief headlines in the American press and got a mention in the main TV channels’ news reports. Having been the face girl of 1970s Procter&Gamble’s ad campaign of Ivory Snow laundry soap, famously described by its manufacturer, as “99 and 44/100 percent pure”, and ran twice for the office of Vice President in the US presidential elections (in 2004 she received 946 votes), her actual claim to fame was movies. In 1972 she appeared, under the name of Marilyn Chambers, in a movie called “Behind the Green Door” which was, together with another 1972 release “Deep Throat”, one of the first feature length pornographic movies.

“Deep Throat” and “Behind the Green Door” started a short period of “porno chic” in New York in early 70s and subsequent, almost two decades long Golden Age of Porn that was the subject matter of 1997 movie “Boogie Nights” by Paul Thomas Anderson. Both movies were enormously successful also financially, with “Deep Throat” widely considered being the most profitable movie ever made – costing less than $50,000 to produce it has made well over $100 million even by rather conservative estimates of the FBI, and is still going strong with a screening in Dutch national TV last year that was seen by estimated 907,000 viewers. However, the importance of Marilyn Chambers and Linda Lovelace (who died in 2002) lies somewhere else. “Porn chic” movies such as Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door, Devil in Miss Jones, Boys in the Sand, and Score (which featured Sylvester Stallone in a brief role as telephone repairman Mike) were important not simply because they were first full length forms of adult entertainment that so far had been a genre geared for “horn dick daddies” frequenting the XXX-rated theaters for reasons that didn’t quite require 90 minutes of screen time. With going mainstream, they were influenced by, as well as feeding into, a much broader culture of gender and sexuality – and this is why feminism has had such a torn and difficult relationship with porn ever since. On one hand, the new wave of pornography that saw Marilyn Chambers, Linda Lovelace, Traci Lords, John Leslie, Ginger Lynn, John Holmes, Kay Parker, Harry Reems and many others becoming household names among the American urban high-middle class was seen as leading into a commodification of sex and female body on an industrial scale. On the other hand, however, together with an increased availability of birth control it largely contributed to the slackening of old and not overly liberal attitudes towards female sexuality and gender roles – it was both increasingly possible as well as acceptable for women to be sexually active the same way as men.

In addition to the explicit nature of the sex scenes, Golden Age movies caused a lot of strife for breaking many other taboos and customs that were of a more broadly social nature. For instance, “Behind the Green Door” featured, for the first time, an interracial sex scene between black male and white female, which was a very difficult terrain at the time. Many of the later classic porn movies dealt with similarly controversial themes – “Taboo” series movies in 80s featuring Kay Parker caused a public outrage by depicting incestuous sex. Yet other movies, such as “The Grafenberg Spot” were openly didactic in terms of sexual practices and details that were certainly beyond the prevailing standards of “normal”.

“Deep Throat” and “Behind the Green Door” also broke some new ground in terms of adult movie aesthetics – the most famous point in the case being the 7-minute slow motion money shot at the end of 45-minute sex scene in “Behind the Green Door” – at the end of which Marilyn Chambers was said to have fainted at the set. Although certainly not overly sophisticated, they had soundtracks that featured some distinctive, very catchy and campy funk and jazz that became enormously popular. The original 1972 soundtrack of “Deep Throat” by Trunk Records has became a collector’s item that would set you back by at least $300, should you be lucky enough to find it. There still are several remastered and remixed 70s adult movie soundtrack anthologies (such as, for instance, Inside Deep Note – check out the tune called “Fuzzy Navel” for a good example for the kind of a funk track that I referred to earlier) to be found in amazon.com and iTunes Store.

For a while in early 70s there was a rather widely held belief that, at some point, adult and mainstream movie industries would merge. Although this never happened, there is a certain amount of overlap today. Somewhat explicit content (at least what would certainly have been judged as such before 1972) is now a commonplace in pretty much every Hollywood movie with a romantic theme. And the porn industry has been experimenting with productions that are edging closer to the regular fare of movie theaters. The last example of this is the recent release of Pirates II: Stagnetti’s Revenge, that, with a production budget of $10 million is hands down the most expensive adult movie ever made. It recently caused a controversy in the USA when it was intended to be screened in University of Maryland campus. The irony of the situation is that “Deep Throat” was screened there four years ago without anyone so much as batting an eyelid. So in that sense, “Deep Throat” has managed to acquire enough cultural capital that makes it possible for people to overlook the hard core content and treat it as kind of a period piece – something that is apparently not possible with a mock Pirates of the Carribean style porn movie. And while both Linda Lovelace and Marilyn Chambers are now dead, the legacy of their… shall we say “work”, is still very much alive and debated today.

A whole new genre

bwpThis afternoon I went to see a screening of a recent documentary here at Emory, with a full title of I.O.U.S.A. – One Nation. Under Stress. In Debt. It’s a rather small budget simple movie that, much like The Blair Witch Project ten years ago, aims to scare the wits out of its American viewers. Quite like in the BWP where the good people of Burkitsville might or might not have heard stories about the child-stealing ghost of Elly Kedward, there are streetwalk-interviews in IOUSA with your average Americans, who in general are completely clueless and oblivious of what a budget or trade deficit might be and why precisely should it be a problem. There’s similarly shaky camerawork and instead of amateur actors of Blair Witch you’ve got Alan Greenspan, Paul Volcker, Robert Rubin and Warren Buffet telling you the similarly spooky things that are about to happen to USA very soon unless Americans mend their ways. Only that Greenspan and Buffet are no actors and they’re not reading a script. For an added dramatic effect the movie was presented (and followed up by a Q&A) by a former US State Comptroller from 1998 to 2008, David M. Walker, who was present in person.

Apparently the official national debt of the US is currently somewhere around $11 trillion. Again, in order to help lay people visualise what are we talking about – here is a helpful link in that regard. Of course, on its own 11*1018 expressed in dollars might be big amount of money or not so big – depending on what we compare it to. So how about that – according to the CIA Factbook, the US 2008 Gross Domestic Product was $14.33 trillion. Not too bad, the national debt is less than 80% of the annual output of the US economy. Somewhat worse news is that it is growing pretty fast – according to the current estimates, this year’s budget is in the red for another $1.8 trillion or thereabouts, while the GDP ain’t doing that hot either.

However, the scary point of the movie is that this is only part of the story, and a small part at that. In addition to direct public ($6.3tr) and intergovermental ($4.3tr) debt, the US government has apparently a total of about $43 trillion in unfunded liabilities mostly in Social Security and Medicare, on top of a few more trillion here and there. You can get the whole breakdown here. Of course, I’m really not in a position to assess what part of this is going to be unavoidable and what can be simply cut – and something certainly will have to be. And while this doesn’t necessarily have to mean that the USA will be bankrupt in a decade or so (although quite obviously this kind of a thing is no longer a realm of science fiction for an increasing number of people in the US), it does mean that the current levels of spending and saving are not sustainable.

The movie doesn’t even get into the issues of private debt which has, if anything, ballooned even faster. Or discuss the fact that the savings rate that has now steeply rebounded from the negative levels of last few years is a bit of a mixed blessing currently, as every penny saved also means penny not spent – and that will further add into the contraction of the economy.

The movie has apparently caused a bit of a stir, ranking #5 in amazon.com among documentaries. And it seems that there will be a rich field of inspiration to draw upon, as well as a wide market of viewers to cater to, for other similarly minded practicioners of the economic horror documentary genre, both in America as well as in Europe.

Look before you leap

French thinker Régis Debray has this grand theory in which he divides the cultural history of the Western humanity into three eons: Logosphere, Graphosphere and Videosphere – which could loosely be interpreted as a “time of writing” (which designates period from the invention of writing to Gutenberg), “time of printing” (which is by and large modernity) and “time of showing” (which is, basically, now). What he is claiming, among many other things, is that our main mode of acquiring information, as well as validating it, has shifted from reading to watching, from books to TV and movies. This, quite obviously, doesn’t spell anything good for books and reading. That is, unless they can adapt and somehow fit into the new modality.

While completely morphing into Debray’s “videosphere” would probably mean that books stop being books and simply become movies (which is also happening to a great degree), there are another ways of skirting the audio-visual medium without having to give up the print. You could, for instance, promote your book in a video – and there you go, you’ve got an extremely fast growing crossover genre of book trailers. Virtually unknown before 2006, HarperCollins now estimates that between 25 and 50 percent of their titlesare promoted by trailers.

While the idea certainly sounds enticing, there is a million ways to go wrong with it. The ease of use of both the tools for making videos as well as distributing them means that it was probably indeed only a question of time when will someone come up with something as heinous as the clip below:

The previous attempt exemplifies all the fears that different people have voiced over the last couple of years about internet killing our culture, making us dumb and causing the universe to freeze over in general – but all is not lost. One only has to have some taste and basic dignity to try a bit more, and the result can be pretty darn good. Instead of reading your own book and then stiching the resulting soundtrack and photos together in iMovie, you can actually ask people in the NY subway to read it, and then resist the temptations to get creative with hideous violet-background-fade-in-and-out effect. And the result looks a lot better:

Now, watching someone read a book instead of reading it yourself will probably get old pretty soon. And in many ways, this hardly gives you an idea about the whole book – unless you watch someone reading the whole book, but that’s probably not going to work out too well. So the alternative might be to use the video to try and convey the mood of the book – and if people like it, they will probably want to go and read the book. This is a haunting trailer of “The Kept Man” by Jami Attenberg:

If you happen to have a bigger budget and more of a mainstream book, you may want to go about it in a way that pretty much falls into the Hollywood mold of movie trailers. It is basically still the same approach – reading the beginning of the book – it is simply made to look and sound as if you were not reading a book rather than watching a movie. “The Mystery Guest” by Gregoire Bouillier:

Or, you can disregard the text completely as reading the first few paragraphs with a very dramatic voice might not necessarily be the best way to convey how thrilling or witty the book is. So you may take the same approach what William Bernbach did with TV commercials in 1960s and 70s and instead of talking about the book, talk to the reader. Last two trailers, both by m ss ng p eces are good examples of this kind of a creative approach – “I Was Told There’d Be Cake” by Sloane Crosley and “Blood and Ice” by Robert Masello

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Danny, you’re out of your element!

walterThe World Bank has published a paper for G20 meeting that has very little room for optimism regarding the outlook of the global economy. In the light of this Ben Bernanke insisting that everything is fine and the US economy is all but recovered by 2010 starts sounding more and more like  Walter Sobchak of the Big Lebowski when he tells the Dude who has just received a toe with green nailpolish in his mail that it is really no big deal:

Walter Sobchak: You want a toe? I can get you a toe, believe me. There are ways, Dude. You don’t wanna know about it, believe me.

The Dude: Yeah, but Walter…

Walter Sobchak: Hell, I can get you a toe by 3 o’clock this afternoon… with nail polish. These fucking amateurs…

Of course, it’s a tough spot. The stability of the banking system relies first and foremost in the level of confidence that people have in that system and that confidence (precariously short in supply at recent times) in turn relies in big part on the credibility of the central bank and the faith that people have in it being able to fulfill its role and functions. Now, you might of course ask what does THAT rely on. It could be something like actual figures from the economy along with different scenarios on how things might proceed. But what if those won’t provide much support? I guess then one must take the same view as an elderly lady from Stephen Hawkins’ book, who told a bigname scientist that he had it all wrong and that the world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise. When the scientist then slyly asked “And what is the turtle standing on?” the lady triumphantly replied: “You’re very clever, young man, but it’s no use — it’s turtles all the way down.”

This appears, by and large, to be a line that’s being taken by Federal Reserve as well as, to varying degrees, other central banks and governments around the world. The logic is very much the same than what led president Clinton to lie not tell complete truth about the nature of his relationship with one certain intern – if you admit being screwed you certainly will be, but if you deny it there still is a chance that everything might work out somehow. And if it doesn’t… well, then you’re screwed.

To which the Dude might say:

That’s a great plan, Walter. That’s fuckin’ ingenious, if I understand it correctly. It’s a Swiss fuckin’ watch.