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I’m still here March 9, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in bookmooch, Books, Education, history, literature, narrative, Philosophy.
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I’ve been really busy lately.  Our campus has been searching for a new Chancellor, which is what we call our chief executive here.  What with the public meetings, newspaper articles (for one of the top candidates is the Congressman of the Massachusetts Fifth District, the Honorable Martin Meehan, gaining us national attention), and attendent gossip and what if talk, it is awfully hard to get things done and also accomplish my new, and more demanding, position. 

On  a distantly related subject (trust me on this, for now), it occurred to me the other day that I had been unfair to someone in the past that I am building much more respect and admiration for these days.  That person is the new President of Harvard University, Drew Gilpin Faust.  Back in graduate school I had to read her book Southern Stories: Slaveholders in Peace and War, and my review of this book was . . . ungenerous. 

Southern Stories is not only excellent scholarship, it is also good writing and has some interesting things to say about how narrative shapes worldview.  My objection to the book at the time was twofold, I now realize. 

  1. It is about Slaveholders in the Antebellum South (and during the war, too, of course).  Let’s face it, people, I should have studied philosophy.  I would have, too, if there had been a well-funded Ph.D. program at the university where I ended up.  Mostly I didn’t care about history and still don’t.  There are times when it is relevant, deeply relevant and important.  Mostly, though, you can get by without it, I think.
  2. Dr. Faust is one of those scholars who don’t say things that are overtly controversial.  For ADD-related reasons, I found her book difficult to handle.  My usual tactic with reading books that didn’t hold my interest was to attempt to disprove, or at least seriously undermine the author’s main thesis.  This usually didn’t sway the opinion of the professor running the class, mind you.  But that wasn’t the point.  It did accomplish its main goal–proving that I had read and understood the book and that I took it seriously.  This book is a collection of essays, which made it even more difficult to overturn. 

So, let me say, Dr. Faust, I am sorry about what I wrote.  The sheer amount of underlining in my copy (which you, gentle reader, may have, if you request it from my bookmooch or paperbackswap account, for I am done with it now) demonstrates that I found much of interest, but few fat targets.  I think that your diplomatic and reasoned approach to Antebellum scholarship and culture will make you an excellent administrator for America’s oldest University.

For the rest of you, I will make a concerted effort to read your blogs this weekend.  I have been adding subscriptions this week to my bloglines account, because I am losing track of all of you with blogspot addresses, unwittingly dropping discussions on comment threads and all of that.

Textbook for the School of Rock-Chapter II, Part B February 9, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Education, history, Music, Other, Rock.
2 comments

Van Halen came to power in the late 1970s and the first few times I heard the band I was put-off by David Lee Roth’s trademark yodel-howl vocal stylings.  For those of you unfamiliar with this, simply finish each phrase on a rising note, reaching as quickly as possible the highest note your voicebox will accomodate.  Done by somebody like Roth, who could frighten the tiny forest animals from miles away, it was merely odd.  Done by legions of teens and tweens and 20-somethings since, it is flabbergasting.  For those with lower vocal registers every phrase sounds like a question?  It is good to have somebody to blame for this?  And I’m, like, happy that it is David Lee Roth?

After I got past Roth’s eccentricities I was confronted by a guitar sound that some people found difficult.  I don’t mean difficult to mimic, although it was.  (My good friend swore for years that Edward Van Halen’s unbridled velocity came from an effects box, the “echoplex.”  It was only upon seeing them in concert that I realized that he was striking the fretboard with fingers on his left hand and the index finger of his pick hand, enabling him to achive speed which could not be described with standard Italian musical notation. [On the sheet music for “Eruption,” for example, it didn’t say “Allegro,” or “adante,” or whatever.  It said in the upper-left hand corner “Play as fast as possible.”])  What I mean by difficult is this:

You are a sheltered, self-conscious, suburban teen at your first rock show.  Imagine row upon row of happy forest creatures of different sizes.  They have been selected for their ability to yowl in pain at specific frequencies corresponding, more or less, to the E-Blues scale.  There are little rabbits, field mice, shrews, and birdies for the high notes, muskrats, beavers, hedgehogs, tiny deer, all the way up to the low notes of the grizzly bears and the elk.  Suddenly you hear a rhythmic thudding noise.  Then someone fires up a chainsaw.  From the hills in the distance you hear anti-aircraft fire, coming closer.  Then a group of samurai descend upon the forest tableau, hacking them to bits with short swords, road flares, sporks, jack-hammers, and dental drills, as the stragglers are picked off by automatic weapon fire.  And someone with an odd voice is screaming and howling a song called “Running with the Devil.”  You know fear.  But the cool people next to you seem to be enjoying it, so you chill.

In time, of course, you get used to it, and come to love it, especially the songs where the guitar sound is like all of the cables on the Golden Gate Bridge rhythmically giving way, people, cars, eighteen-wheelers, the entire Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, plunging into the cold water, hundreds of feet below.  How could anyone resist?

I mentioned in the first part of this chapter that there were more ways of coming up with new music than copying songs that had already been performed by others.  Copying would have been easy for Van Halen, because their sound was (at the time) so distinctive, that anything they played would sound completely new.  But Edward also created new riffs and phrases by a second method, which goes like this:

  1. Improvise a solo as quickly as you can, or play a song you don’t know well.
  2. Listen very carefully to the mistakes that you make: remember them.
  3. Adapt those mistakes, turning them into songs and phrases.

Up until the mid 1980s Edward Van Halen used this method very creatively.  But he reached a point that he really should have seen coming, given the amount of time he spent practicing and playing, and his aptitude and talent.  Eventually he made so few mistakes that he ran into a writers block of sorts.  So he started playing keyboards, to free up his creative side, to make the kinds of mistakes that would generate new music.  Unfortunately, Edward and the band made a fatal mistake, they used the keyboards on their next album. 

Why was this a mistake?

It probably would not have been a mistake if “Jump” had not been a huge hit.  “Jump” made lots of people who were not cool at all say “hey, I like Van Halen.”  So Van Halen was no longer cool for rockers.  Which was a shame.  And “Jump” was just weak, dude.

Textbook for the School of Rock-Chapter II February 7, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in DIY, Education, fiction, history, how to, lifehack, Music, Other, postmodernism, Rock, writing.
16 comments

La propriété intellectuelle, c’est le vol!***

The above itself encapsulates a wealth of wisdom about the creative process.  I have stolen the famous words of anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon, and added a word.  Now they are my words–see how easy writing is?  Proudhon said “property is theft,” in French, cause he was French.  I have modified this to “intellectual property is theft,” which is the topic of today’s lesson.  Essentially what I mean is if you write (not just music) you steal, whether you realize it or not.  Intellectual property is based on theft of the ideas of others.

Some of the people who write music are more conscious of theft in the creative process than others.  I grew up near Sacramento, California, where in the late 1970s and early 1980s there was (and for all I know there still is) a local band, Steel Breeze, which had one nation-wide hit song.  In an interview with a local radio station the band described one of the ways in which they wrote music, which was basically this:

  1. They set up their instruments and got ready to play. 
  2. They put on an album made by some other band and played one of the songs.
  3. They turned on a tape recorder and attempted, more or less, to play the song that they had just heard.
  4. They spent a few hours attempting to make the song work.
  5. Then, eventually, they listened to original song again, the one that had sparked their horrible copy, to make sure that their song didn’t sound enough like it to be accused of stealing.
  6. If the new song was recognizably based on the old, they worked on it, making small changes, until it sounded new.

Some writers are not as candid about the creative process.  Kurt Cobain, I believe, was quite conscious of his own creative process.  I think that this is one of the reasons that he was paranoid about others catching on, so paranoid that he hid in a closet in his own home to write music.  I am not the only person to notice the similarities between Boston’s “More than a Feeling and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”** Both were hits.  The hooks are almost exactly the same.  Cobain had heard “More than a Feeling” dozens of times.  Was his copying conscious?  I think so, but I don’t think that this is a bad thing.  Indeed, I think that when this sort of thing is unconscious it can mislead people into all sorts of weird assumptions about human thought. 

So Steel Breeze was pretty conscious of their creative process.  And they never became millionaire superstars with platinum albums, but they did better than the majority of other bands in the world.  While outright, conscious theft is one way of being creative, there is another, which is the topic of the next part of Chapter II: happy accidents.

 To be continued . . .

*A proper discussion of anarchism will have to wait until the chapter, if there is one, on the Punk movement.  What I mean by “intellectual property is theft” is akin to Lucretius’s dictum “there is nothing new under the sun.”  Any time you think you are having an original thought, an inspired epiphany of some sort, what you are probably experiencing is more like this: two old thoughts which you have added together in a way similar to the ways in which you have seen many other ideas added together, but have forgotten that you saw these ideas somewhere else, and that adding them together is a pretty simple thing, after all.  

**See Malcolm Gladwell’s “Something Borrowed” in the November 22, 2004 issue of The New Yorker if you really need proof of this, or a lot of other examples.

***I have not yet read Jonathan Lethem’s article in this month’s Harpers.  Since it is basically a bunch of ideas stolen from others, like this post, what would be the point?  But I hear that it is interesting, so I link to it here.  Christopher Lydon’s Open Source is taping a show on this idea tonight, which has a comment thread running here.  So you could check that out, too. 

Note to Self: Do not make a spaceship out of cement February 2, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Education, libertarians, Other, science, Science Fiction.
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I ordered a bunch of the original Star Trek episodes from Netflix, and my son and I have been watching them.  (I sometimes neglect his educational needs, and this project, as well as the school of rock conducted on our morning commute are part of my effort to redress that.)  Anyway, I’m scrambling to extract lessons from these old television shows.

I’m scrambling because I find the whole Spock thing very confusing.  I tend to identify with the character more than with the “human” ones.  I have a particularly difficult time with Spock’s nemesis, the Doctor, Bones McCoy.  Bones is always needling Spock, saying that he lacks a heart, trying to get him to be more “human” and then rubbing his nose in it when he sometimes seems to do things out of human motives.  What a jerk.  Spock’s always trying to do the right thing.  Spock does have this weird notion that he is motivated by logic (logic is a tool, it has no capacity to motivate), but most people don’t really analyze themselves well enough to figure out why they do what they do.  Why get on Spock’s case about his own pet theories regarding his own motivations?  Why doesn’t Bones look at his own capacity for being a pain in the neck during stressful situations.  “Physician, heal thyself,” I say.

There’s lots of grist in these things for science and engineering lessons, of course.  I find it striking that the Romulans wouldn’t realize that a spaceship made out of cement would be a bad idea.  My son and I watched them cough their lungs out in the control room during a battle near the Neutral Zone (from the dust) and watched one of their commanding officers die after being crushed by a huge concrete beam.  And we laughed and laughed. 

But then my wife pointed out much more important lessons to draw from the show regarding race and gender roles.  As a stupid highly educated upper-middle-class white guy this stuff often goes right over my head.  The producers of Star Trek tried to look ahead and see how things were going to be in the future.  And they really made an effort in these areas, but they were also bound by the social mores of the time in some really sad ways.  So I’m going to turn my efforts toward that for a while in our studies of Star Trek. 

Textbook for the School of Rock-Introductory Preface January 29, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Education, Memory, narrative, Other, postmodernism, Rock.
14 comments

The week before Christmas my son and I got “The School of Rock” from Netflix, and after I prescreened it I watched it with him.  We don’t play much rock music in the house, partially because I can only really do one thing at a time.  Playing loud rock music (’cause if it ain’t loud, what’s the point?) with a 9-year old in the house is actually two things, since he would have to play with the dog at the same time, or whistle along with it, or talk about it, or pace.  But he seems very interested in rock now that he has seen the movie.  So when I take him to school in the morning, about a ten-minute drive, he asks for another lesson, which I give him, a blasting CD and commentary afterward, a short quiz.  The school commute has become a rolling school of rock.

I guess my own musical education is pretty typical of most consumers of rock in my age group, in that I had four guitar lessons, which came free with my first guitar, an incredibly crappy Les Paul knock-off made by Memphis (all of the rigidity of an actual Gibson Les Paul, without any of the sustain, solid electronics, or prestige).  I was a pretty strange 18-year old, and instead of asking the lanky, long-fingered, long-haired guitar teacher to teach me some ACDC (where is the little lightning-bolt symbol on the keyboard, dammit?) I asked him to teach me some theory.   It never occurred to me that there was no rock theory, or that this guy might not know it.  At any rate, he taught me how to tune the thing, as well as three very different moveable jazz chord forms, barre chords, the blues scale, and a couple of other things, mostly by accident.  And then the lessons were over and I was on my own. 

Consequently, much of my knowledge of rock is stuff I have made up in my head, stuff I have interpreted incorrectly by watching rock videos on MTV, concert movies, going to actual concerts, listening to the radio, doing some reading.  What I like about rock, though, and its history, is that this is the way most people experience rock.  You go to a concert in a alcoholic daze, sit in a pot-fueled haze and you really can’t tell truth from apocrypha anyway.  So that’s what I’m giving him, myths that are better, more dramatic, than the ugly commercial reality of the actual business.  And I fit them together in a narrative, which reshapes and warps what little is left of its relationship to the truth.

We aren’t going in chronological order in these lessons.  It gets a little confusing, but that’s the postmodern world, pal.  “No,” I tell him, “the Brian Setzer Orchestra, a 1990s group, re-envisioned the music of the 30s and 40s; it was Setzer’s first group, the Stray Cats, a 1980s band, that re-envisioned the music of the 1950s.”  And we aren’t going thematically either.  So it may be confusing to put these lessons online.  But that’s what I will probably end up doing.  Check this space for lesson one soon.

Introduction to Radical Constructivism IV January 17, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Blogs and Blogging, Constructivism, Education, lojban, Memory, Other, Philosophy, postmodern, postmodernism, science.
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Postulate Number II: Verbal and nonverbal communication is the most frequent and important way that adult brains acquire information.

According to studies of daytime activities of representative adults and teenagers in the United States, we spend from 20-45 percent of the day working or studying, 4-15 percent of the day talking, eating, or daydreaming at work, 9-13 percent of the day exposing ourselves to media (television and reading, mainly–does not include going to a cinema), and 4-12 percent of the day talking or socializing.  Assuming eight hours of sleep (well, you could take better care of yourself) we spend anywhere from six hours, forty minutes (6:40) to fifteen hours, eighteen minutes (15:18) engaged in communication.*  Those of you with jobs that entail less physical work and more talking, writing, reading and other sorts of communication, and this probably includes most of the people reading this, spend more than that.

This constant communication forms the world in which we spend not only the time actively engaged in it, but much of the remainder as well, as our self-talk, coming now from our minds but originating in countless past conversations, television shows, books, movies, advertisements, shouted insults, lectures, blogs, memes, interrogations, beatings, affairs, jazz riffs, hate mail, spam, the lyrics of Oingo Boingo songs, jingles, warning flags, spankings, gestures, and such bathes us in a constant stream of images and words–messages. 

This communication, more than anything, even more than the physical constraints which seem to keep you from, say, flying to the moon or sinking to the Earth’s molten core, is the world in which your brain lives most of its waking hours.

[To reinforce Postulate Number I for this specific and important way in which our brains acquire knowlege: This allows an amazing amount of potential for misunderstanding.  Partially, this is a feature of our language, any language (except Lojban, about which the jury is still out).  Partially, I think, it may come from the belief that one can reason objectively about this world of language.]

Postulate Number I: The process by which we acquire knowledge is limited, hobbled, and distorted by a number of things.

Postulate Number II: Verbal and nonverbal communication is the most frequent and important way that adult brains acquire information.

*Finding flow : the psychology of engagement with everyday life, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, pp 9.

Introduction to Radical Constructivism II January 11, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Constructivism, Education, Other, Philosophy, postmodern, postmodernism, science.
5 comments

My apologies, SilverTiger, and others who are following this dialogue, for being so long in posting the second of this series.  The following is only a partial response to his second post on the subject.  There is a great deal there, and although I would love to respond to it all, I am thinking that it might be easier to follow this discussion if it is taken in small chunks. 

SilverTiger’s first question is a digression, probably, from the main body of this, since it originated in my personal narrative, which had perched on the razor-thin fence of relevance.  However, I will attempt to answer it, just to be fair to the spirit of this discussion. 

The “progressive historian” quoted by your professor held the opposite opinion but although he sought to interpret history in support of his opinion, do we have any reason to suspect his treatment of historical fact?

Yes.  Of course we do.   We always have reason to suspect a historian’s treatment, as well as the facts they chose, and how they were chosen, and whether they are answering relevant and valuable questions, etc.  Unfortunately, historians don’t agree on these things as a matter of course.  They don’t always agree on facts, methods, important subject areas, or other weighty concerns.  Within the profession there is a tacitly-agreed-upon canon of books and studies that form the basis of what we might call “historical knowledge.”  But every generation new and talented historians decide that other areas need to be included (as, for example, the Middle East becomes more important and the fall of the Soviet Union makes more Ottoman materials available for study).  And sometimes talented historians smash old “truths” and dispute old “facts” as well.

The next question SilverTiger poses is

The description of the pilot flying on instruments is interesting, but what does it really tell us? . . . How true is it, though?

Well, it is a workable, and somewhat functional, start to other important points of which Radical Constructivism is, itself constructed.  It is a model of the way the body and brain seem to function.  Is is true?  I’m not sure this question makes any sense in RC.  But SilverTiger elaborates further down with some additional questions.

More prosaically, the idea that we “only” receive our information about the outside world via the senses, while true, can be overstated. Put your hand on a hot plate and what happens? You move it away pretty damn quick. Are you aware of any “information” coming to you “via the senses” and “being interpreted by the brain”? Nope. You feel pain, you yell and you move, all in one. So much for seeing the world through a TV screen.

This is an interesting example of the difficulty of a scientific, rational, realist worldview.  When you put your hand on a hot plate your reflexes and reactions occur without the intermediary of the brain, pulling your hand from the plate and initiating another series of actions, an adrenaline rush, for example, and possibly an exclaimation.  What the brain does, is reorders these reactions.  You think that you yelled simultaneously with pulling your hand off.  You think that the sensation of pain came before the reaction.  It did not.  In fact, it had to be interpreted as pain, whereas it began as intense sensation along a number of nerves. 

I agree that the whole thing is nothing like seeing the world through a TV screen.  But I’m not sure how that invalidates the analogy or the point I was attempting to make, which was that our brains are locked inside our heads. 

Regarding the next question, about the Newtonian vs. Einsteinian worldviews, you seem to be saying that that I originated that distinction.  I was talking about Ptolemaic vs. Copernican models of the behavior of the Earth and the Sun–a simpler distinction.  Regardless, let me attempt to answer the questions posed below.

I too have heard that when NASA sends vehicles into the reaches of the solar system, they use Newton’s equations, not Einstein’s. What does this mean? Does it mean that the objective real world is inaccessible to us and so we can construct any world we like – or borrow Newton’s or Einstein’s – and use whichever we please because the world is merely what we think it is? No.

I didn’t use my example to demonstrate that “the real world is inaccessible to us.”  I take this as an axiom, a provisional assumption that nobody has really been able to demonstrate false to my satisfaction.  But first they would have to get me interested in the importance of thinking that the real world is accessible to us.  I have seen many of the “real worlds” asserted by others dashed to bits.  Whenever I hear somebody talking about “facing reality” I become wary.  Such a phrase usually means that they have recognized that I do not share their view of a situation and have, thus, become upset by that knowledge.  The assertion that somebody else will not “face facts” or “see the real situation” is what Nietche would have called a “will to power.”

So, does the Earth revolve about the Sun (Copernican), or does the Sun revolve around the Earth (Ptolemaic)?  This is a spurious distinction to somebody who thinks as a constructivist.  RC thinking would go more like this:  Which equations are easiest to use in order to get me up in space and return me safely to Earth? 

Regarding the question of whether we can “construct any world we like . . . and use whichever we please because the world is merely like we think it is,” I’m always a little puzzled by this assumption.  The idea that we construct reality does not mean that we do so arbitrarily.  We rely on a great deal of sensory data, millions of little experiments that we conduct and record, our interactions with others, and perhaps most important, the voices in our heads, to “construct reality.”

Most people, scientists included, will acknowledge, as SilverTiger has, that one shapes questions about the world, which, in turn, shapes the answers one gets about it.  So everyone is “constructing” their own reality.  The important questions, it seems to me, have to do with the amount of our own reality that we are constructing, the proportion.  I won’t assert that we construct all of our own reality, for the simple reason that I assume that is the case.  The more I come to grips with the process by which I am constructing my world, the more control I am able to assert over the construction process. 

I’m working hard on proposition number two.  But in the interests of the give-and-take of discussion, I’d like to ask one question first.  SilverTiger asserts that “the question . . . is whether we can in any meaningful way know this underlying real world.”  For Radical Constructivists, of course, this is not a meaningful question.  Can we know something about this thing that seems so important to you?  I don’t know.  I promise to think carefully about the answer to that, however, as soon as SilverTiger, or anyone else out there, can show me that it is an important question.

Name that Blog December 21, 2006

Posted by caveblogem in Blogs and Blogging, bookmooch, Books, Constructivism, Education, Hipster PDA, how to, librarything, lifehack, Lowell, luck or time, Market Research, Massachusetts Drivers, Origami, Other, statistical analysis, web 2.0, writing.
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Davidbdale brought to my attention yesterday, late at night, when I had already had a particularly difficult day, the fact that there is a blog called “as a blog returns to its vomit” which is run by a pastor, somewhere in the Midwest, probably.  Why did this bring me even lower?  Well, david saw this blog, which does not even have an open comment thread, in WordPress’s list of fast-growing blogs and thought that it was mine.  (No, david, mine’s the blog that’s hardly growing at all.)  And it bothered me because I really should have thought about the name a little more before I started this thing, and I should have checked for others using the name, or variants thereof.

In an earlier post I said that I was thinking about making some changes to this thing, more drastic ones than the accretive ones and annoying changes of backgrounds and themes that I normally make.  Well, let’s add a name change to the list.  The name of this blog doesn’t really reflect the content of the site, or the community that reads it, or really anything important.  And pastor whatever-his-name-is seems to have gotten the name first anyway (in March, I think.)

So I am changing the name temporarily to Pro Tempore (another nod to davidbdale, who needles me about my use of Latin).  This will not affect any links that you have made to this blog.  They will still appear as the original name and will still link here, because I am not changing the URL.  But as the name implies, this is a temporary measure.  I would really like some suggestions as to what to call this thing going forward (accordingly, I have tagged it with most of the tag categories I normally use, so that people who read this tag-surfing will get a chance to chime in here.)

So, tell me what to call this blog.  The prize will be, I don’t know yet.  Suggest something for that too.  I’d like to hear from everybody who reads it.  That means you too, Mom, Dad.  And I’d particularly like to hear from those of you with descriptive names that seem to work so well for your blogs.  That would be davidbdale, whose blog name describes exactly the content of his site, as does strugglingwriter’s, prairie flounder’s and some of the others on my blogroll.

Novel moving today December 1, 2006

Posted by caveblogem in Books, Education, Massachusetts Drivers, NaNoWriMo 2006, national novel writing month 2006, Origami, Other, writing.
4 comments

I’m moving the novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo today, so I’ll post a quick link here, in case you have trouble finding it.  

Here’s a picture of the cover I made for it last night:

covershot.jpg

I have shortened the title a little, but other than that this is the first draft you are looking at.  I’m not going to start editing it until at least tomorrow.  At that, I’m seriously thinking about doing some reading about writing before I start with that task. 

Do any of you have any suggestions about books on writing?  I’m not interested in the kind about mechanics so much as something that can tell me some things about the more esoteric stuff.  Themes, I don’t know, stuff like that. 

Books–A Man Without a Country November 11, 2006

Posted by caveblogem in Blogs and Blogging, Books, Education, Other.
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Happy Birthday Mr. Vonnegut.

Kurt Vonnegut is 84 years old today. And he still ranks as one of my favorite authors of all time. He is always easy to read, and until his latest book, A Man Without a Country, he has always been scathingly funny. (a side note: Unless you are a real fan like me, this book will probably disappoint you. It seems to be an extremely pessimistic work that repeats some sentiments, anecdotes, statements, and stories he has already put in print in earlier books and essays.)

A Man Without a Country is mainly a contemplation of the current state of the world and there is a little bitterness in it, bitterness that I cannot recall seeing in his other works. I don’t think of Slaughterhouse Five as a particularly pessimistic work, for example. And yet, as I think about it, the firebombing of Dresden is about as sad a thing as you could possibly write a novel about. His pessimism has a deep taproot, possibly several of them. Here’s one source:

“Many years ago I was so innocent I still considered it possible that we could become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of. We dreamed of such an America during the Great Depression, when there were no jobs. And then we fought and often died for that dream during the Second World War, when there was no peace.

But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts us absolutely. Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many lifeless bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.”

Now it would be easy for those who support the military to bristle at such a statement. Take the Kerry incident that preceded last week’s midterm elections, for example. John Kerry, one of my State’s two Senators, floated a lame joke in a speech. Apparently he forgot (in some Freudian slip) to aim the joke at the President and it turned into a moralistic and elitist screed about the ability of educational opportunity to keep our sons and daughters out of the War. Although he probably didn’t mean to say what he said, most people think that he believed it nonetheless.

Kerry’s Ivy League degree didn’t keep him out of his generation’s war because he volunteered. It would be easy to believe that doing so had more to do with the knowledge that serving in the Navy would make him seem even more like J.F.K., would help his political career immeasurably in the future. Regardless, to say that education will keep you out of a war is like saying it will somehow make you smarter.

I’m not knocking education or educational opportunity. Education will help those who want to be “educated;” It will help them earn a college degree, for example. It will probably, almost certainly, help them learn valuable skills of some sort. For those who want to serve in the military an education might help them to become officers. It might give them different perspectives on military service. If anyone has any research about whether educated people, ceteris paribus, are less likely to join the military (adjusted for the fact that to be in college you have to postpone service until you are older and cannot serve while in college) I’d really love to see it. You can just cite it, of course, because I have excellent access to a wide variety of online journals to which my University subscribes.

Back to Vonnegut’s book for a moment, and the roots of his pessimism. A Man Without a Country takes issue with the Iraq War and with a number of other things, including the Bush Administration.

“George W. Bush has gathered around him upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka Christians, and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or PPs, the medical term for smart, personable people who have no consciences.”

The title of this slim volume makes a certain amount of sense. You see, Vonnegut feels that politicians should be ashamed of themselves for not speaking out against the war, and other injustices, global warming, etc., more vehemently. And that this country is different from the one he fought for because nobody is ashamed of not doing the right thing anymore.

I have to admit that my glee over the rascals being thrown out of control over Congress is tempered by the knowledge that a different set of rascals is now in control, the set of rascals who, in the main, lacked the courage to take a stand against the ones who stampeded toward war in the first place. So I’m not optimistic that we will see much of a difference with the changing composition of Congress.

I couldn’t help but wonder when things will change, if they will ever change. And then I thought that maybe there has to be some moment when somebody takes a stand and says “you should all be ashamed of yourselves.” And then this made me think of the Army McCarthy Hearings (1954?), in which on national television somebody asked the Wisconsin Senator “have you no shame?”

So what’s different now? What’s different is that there is no such thing as television in the way it was back then. Our President seems to have no problem with lying about things. I was listening to NPR the other day and heard him equivocating about statements that he made about Rumsfeld during the campaign. He knew that he would be exiting the Cabinet, but during the campaign he claimed, nonetheless, that Rumsfeld would stay until the end of his administration. It’s a small and innocuous lie, when you compare it to some of the whoppers that came out of the last six years. But his explanations seemed to justify the lie in a way that was really pathetic—that was the campaign.

But NPR is not national television. Everybody does not listen to or watch the same channel anymore. A few weeks ago I went to hear a friend of mine, Doug Muder, talk about blogging. I came away from that feeling a little more optimistic about the state of this thing, this difficult-to-grapple-with manipulation of Americans (not me, of course, just the rest of you) by corporate media. Today I cannot remember where that optimism came from. But I wish that I could make Mr. Vonnegut feel better about some of this on his eighty-fourth birthday. So many times he has made me feel like life is indeed worth living.

Happy 84th, Mr. Vonnegut. I am a big fan. Thanks for trying.

Next Up: Dean Koontz–Forever Odd