Monday, June 25, 2007

06:42 The Baron In The Trees

The Baron In The Trees
Italo Calvino

A delight. One day in late June 1767, the young Cosimo di Rondo, first-born son of a local baron, upset at his sister Battista’s latest perverse culinary creation, climbs a tree in protest…and never comes down for the rest of his life. What begins as a child’s willful act of defiance evolves into one man’s desire to live free of earth’s constraints, even though his life is determined by the trees in which he lives.

The irony is that, even though Cosimo tries to live a solitary life, he is still connected to the lives of others. He fights in wars, meets statesmen and philosophers, battles pirates, farms, hunts, has love affairs, and all without ever setting foot on the ground. The Baron In The Trees can be read in many ways: fable, satire, ribald tale, outsider’s view of the Age of Enlightenment. Despite the eccentricity of the plot, Calvino’s language is never coy or precious. Cosimo’s younger brother narrates the tale, his bewildered yet intrigued tone prevents it from becoming an exercise in terminal whimsy.

As with any novel that records the span of a character’s life or a specific historical era, there is a sense of loss that pervades The Baron In The Trees, as in this early passage, included for verisimilitude:

I don’t know if it’s true, the story they tell in books, that in ancient days a monkey could have left Rome and skipped from tree to tree until it reached Spain, without ever touching earth. The only place so thick with trees in my day was the whole length, from end to end, of the gulf of Ombrosa and its valley right up to the mountain crests; the area was famous everywhere for this.

Nowadays these parts are very different. It was after the arrival of the French that people began chopping down trees as if they were grass which is scythed every year and grows again. They have never grown again. At first we thought it was something to do with the war, with Napoleon, with the period. But the chopping went on. Now the hillsides are so bare that when we look at them, we who knew them before, it makes us feel bad.

The abundance of life inevitably falling victim time’s sharp ax. But at least a baron in the trees (as well as The Baron In The Trees) pays tribute to the rich strangeness possible in life until the final chop.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

I Believe You

On the subway this morning I spotted a fashionably dishevelled young man wearing a ball cap. On the front of the ball cap was written:

Rock and Roll Asshole


Monday, June 18, 2007

05:42 No god But God

No god but God: The origins, evolution and future of Islam
Reza Aslan

Author Reza Aslan has always come across as one of the more reasonable, informed guests on shows like “Real Time with Bill Maher” and “The Daily Show.” I read “Imperial Life In The Emerald City” after seeing its author on “The Daily Show” so now I’m not only getting my news from Jon Stewart but also my reading list.

Aslan’s book is aimed at the Western non-Islamic reader so that s/he can understand the religion’s current conflicts and their historical origins. “What is taking place now in the Muslin world” writes Aslan “is an internal conflict between Muslims, not an external battle between Islam and the West. The West is merely a bystander – an unwary yet complicit casualty of a rivalry that is raging in Islam over who will write the next chapter in its story.” The conflict is basically between fundamentalists and progressives – a similar battle that rages across most religions and political systems. “Fundamentalism, in all religious traditions, is impervious to suppression. The more one tries to squelch it, the stronger it becomes. Counter it with cruelty, and it gains adherents. Kill its leaders, and they become martyrs. Respond with despotism, and it becomes the sole voice of opposition. Try to control it and it will turn against you. Try to appease it, and it will take control.”

No god But God begins in pre-Islamic Arabia, providing an overview of what Mohammed was reacting against (polytheism, mainly, but also city-state corruption) when he began reciting the word of God. It continues with an overview of Mohammed’s life and the development of the Quran, taking time to address standard complaints about Islam, notably its sexism and being a “religion of the sword.” Addressing these concerns, if Aslan sounds defensive it’s because, well, he is. He attempts to justify ideas one would think incongruous with a peaceful religion through three methods. One: “Everyone else does it, too” (ie Christianity’s history is as bloody as Islam’s). Two: “The Quran has a verse that says NOT to do that bad thing.” Which is fine as an excuse for the scripture, but doesn’t excuse what people do in its name and ignores scripture that contradicts it. The third and final excuse “you have to understand these things in historical context.” This is where my problem with Islam (and other organized religions) begins.

I can not accept any spiritual teaching that explicitly favors part of God’s creation over another, such as proscribing different laws for men and women or members of one tribe versus another. The Quran, the Torah and the Christian Bible all contain such passages. “Historical context” is usually the excuse, but a truly spiritual teaching, not to mention the Word of God, would transcend human history. What would be as true in 6000 BC would be as true in 33 AD and would still be true tomorrow morning. I accept that ideas need to be understood in context, but then I can not accept those ideas as the legitimate edicts of an all-powerful, all-benevolent, eternal God. This applies specifically to Islam, which is said to be the recitation of the Word of God by His prophet Mohammed. Without this claim as divinely inspired speech, the Quran is a nice (abeit inconsistent) book of teachings, no better than most others.

Azlan's book is a great overview of the history of the religion. Islam, like all major religions, is particularly conflicted in the face of science and rational thought. The Muslims are just as skilled as the Christians in tying themselves in theological knots when they attempt to "logically" explain the nature of God. Like all religions, it always falls back on "you just have to believe" with the hidden corollary "if you don't believe, then you have to live with the fact that I believe."

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Everyone Gets Atrophy, part II

Yesterday I received the following email from my friend Andrea. The show she is referring to is an amateur art exhibition in Lancaster county, PA. I wrote about last year's edition here.

Mon, 4 Jun 2007 11:42:49 -0700 (PDT)
From: Andrea Collins
Subject: titles
To: John Hanlon

I thought I would send you my favorite titles from this year's "If you pay your entry fee your painting is in" show that we took you to last year.

"Untitled Little Boy" (Not exactly untitled then, is it?)
"Lady in Cage"
"Latte Conversation" (A painting of two ladies talking, because ladies love lattes almost as much as being in cages)
"Oscar Wilde Twice"
"Nurturing Earth Mother, She's All We've Got"
"Stacking the Lobsters"
"The Nose Licker!" (My favorite)
Thank you, Andrea.

It's hard to pick a favorite, but this morning I'm leaning towards "Stacking the Lobsters."

Monday, June 04, 2007

04:42 The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point
Malcolm Gladwell

I borrowed this book – what, three years ago? – from someone at work. Then I quit my job and had no desire to see the person from whom I borrowed the book, so I kept it, unintentionally stealing. Then, as fate would have it, I ended up being rehired at my old job as a temp (I didn’t make enough to be considered a “consultant”). Earlier this year when I decided I was going to quit my job for a second time, I was determined to read and return The Tipping Point before I left. I’m a big fan of closure, though obviously not a big fan of that job.

Why do some phenomena become ubiquitous in the culture, whereas others die a quick death? This is the guiding question in The Tipping Point but you get the sense that Gladwell’s answers could fit on a PowerPoint presentation: he classifies people who carry new ideas as Connectors, Mavens, or Salesman; outlines a “Stickiness Factor,” and the “Power of Context,” all of which explain (or are imposed on) such disparate phenomena as sneaker popularity, venereal disease epidemics, and teenage smoking.

I remember the article in The New Yorker in which Gladwell first articulated his ideas. He used the example of cars parked on a street in an unsafe neighborhood. A number of cars are parked on the same street, similar with respect to price, condition, and age. But if you noticeably damage one of them (for example, cracking the windshield), then that car alone would then be preyed on and further vandalized within a few days, sometimes even hours. All factors were equal save the broken windshield, “the tipping point,” the one extra nudge that would let people in the area know that this car could be damaged without repercussions. This theory, “little things mean a lot,” was behind Giuliani’s crackdown on crime in New York City in the 1990s. Remove the atmosphere that forgives minor crimes and you’ll remove the atmosphere that permits major crime. We may not be able to prevent crimes like murder, but we can stop the small noticeable crimes (graffiti, panhandling) that let people to think they live in a society that ignores all crimes.

Like many books written by journalists, The Tipping Point reads like a series of previously published articles re-written and edited to fit a theme. Gladwell does write well and is able to discuss scientific or sociological studies without wallowing in jargon. The proof offered for his theories ranges from “Sesame Street” to Paul Revere’s ride and seems chosen less for applicability than for the fact that he finds them interesting. As did I. The “Stickiness Factor” and the Connectors aren’t as engaging as the history of “Sesame Street.” For example, before the show aired, child psychiatrists insisted that the Muppets be kept separate from the scenes with live actors because children wouldn’t accept the interaction between fantasy and realistic figures. When they tested the show with children, the kids lost interest as soon as the Muppets were off screen. The producers decided to try an episode in which Muppets and humans mixed. This time, the children’s attention rated higher than it did for either the Muppets of the humans alone, and they never had any trouble with the mixing of fantasy and realism. Makes one wonder what else child psychiatrists have gotten so wrong.

What was most satisfying about The Tipping Point was that it supported two pet theories of mine:

1. The human mind is formed and formatted by narrative, not by language.
Child development experts, psychologists and neurologists have argued that language, initially spoken, then written, is the source of connections in the human mind. Learning language is what sparks growth in our brains as children and it is how our brains are thereafter conditioned. Other factors can be important (images, music) but language is primary.

Doesn’t ring true to me and never has.

I have long believed that it is narrative, little stories, cause and effect, that structures a child’s brain, and remains the underlying way in which they think as they get older. Yes, we use language to express and understand narrative, but narrative is what’s primary, not language. Before children can understand words, they experience life as a simple story, cause and effect: I was hungry, I cried, I got fed. A story with a happy ending. As we grow, the stories become more complex as our brains develop and our understanding of the world increases. Language develops in response to our brains’ growth and its ability to handle more complex narratives.

I’ve never done the requisite research to prove this – I wouldn’t even know where to begin – and I think I’ve only discussed this idea once or twice with others (while a little drunk, no doubt). However, on page 119, Gladwell writes:

The project centered on a two-year-old girl from New Haven called Emily, whose parents – both university professors – began to notice that before their daughter went to sleep at night she talked to herself. Curious, they put a small microcassette recorder in her crib and, several nights a week, for the next fifteen months, recorded both the conversations they had with Emily as they put her to bed and the conversations she had with herself before she fell asleep. The transcripts – 122 in all – were then analyzed by a group of linguists and psychologists led by Katherine Nelson of Harvard University. What they found was that Emily’s conversations with herself were more advanced than her conversations with her parents. In fact, they were significantly more advanced. One member of the team that met to discuss the Emily tapes, Carol Fleisher Feldman, later wrote:

“In general, her speech to herself is so much richer and more complex [than her speech to adults] that it has made all of us, as students of language development, begin to wonder whether the picture of language acquisition offered in the literature to date does not underrepresent the actual patterns of the linguistic knowledge of the young child. For once the lights are out and her parents leave the room, Emily reveals a stunning mastery of language forms we would never have suspected from her [everyday] speech.”

Feldman was referring to things like vocabulary and grammar and – most important – the structure of Emily’s monologues. She was making up stories, narratives, that explained and organized the things that happened to her.

Emily is making up stories to make sense of the world around her, and to entertain herself before she goes to sleep. The story is primary; language is merely the tool to express it. This reminds me of my own experience as a child. Language and words were not that important to me or any of the children I knew. But stories were. Not only as entertainment, but as a way of processing and passing on information and solving the mystery of the world into which we are born.

2. Individual psychology is overrated; group psychology is underrated.
For a while, I’ve been interested in what I think of as group dynamics: the way that people assume roles when in a group, modifying their personalities or behavior based on how best to fit in or what they think the group needs. Consequently, I see individual psychology as only significant when an individual is alone, and how often is that? Otherwise you have to take the group dynamics into account when discussing someone’s personality or actions. In other words, personality is not fixed and rigid, but depends on context.

This idea came from observing people act differently depending on who they are with. When I was younger I judged this as hypocrisy; now I accept it as human. I recall a few years after college seeing a group of friends and being annoyed at how they kept treating me as the person I was rather than who I thought I had become. The irony was that, under their influence, I began acting like that person again, reverting to my old self. At the time I thought “This isn’t who I am anymore. Why am I behaving this way?” My answer was to attribute it to the power of group dynamics. Gladwell would call it the power of context.

To demonstrate this, Gladwell writes about a study conducted by Hugh Hartshorne and M. A. May in the 1920s to measure the honesty of children using several kinds of SAT-type tests. I won’t go into the details of the study, but the results did show consistent patterns, though not as consistent as one might think. The researchers concluded that most children

Will deceive in certain situations and not in others. Lying, cheating, and stealing as measured by the test situations used in these studies are only very loosely related. Even cheating in the classroom is rather highly specific, for a child may cheat on an arithmetic test and not on a spelling test, etc. Whether a child will practice deceit in any given situation depends in part on his intelligence, age, home background, and the like and in part on the nature of the situation itself and his particular relation to it. (from Hartshorne and May)

Gladwell continues:

This, I realize, seems wildly counterintuitive…All of us, when it comes to personality, naturally think in terms of absolutes: that a person is a certain way or is not a certain way. But what…Hartshorne and May are suggesting is that this is a mistake, that when we think only in terms of inherent traits and forget the role of situations, we’re deceiving ourselves about the real causes of human behavior…

Character, then, isn’t what we think it is, or rather, what we want it to be. It isn’t a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits, and it only seems that way because of a glitch in the way our brains are organized. Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context. The reason that most of us seem to have a consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment.

So it’s not just group dynamics that determines an individual’s behavior, but everything about a situation. It was acutely painful for me when I believed in consistent individual psychology because that was not how I experienced the world. In Western psychology, I thought of my personality as “fragmented.” Not dysfunctional, but without a clearly defined core “self.” I was too aware at how I would change based on the immediate situation. It was a relief when I read that in Eastern religions, not clinging to a rigid sense of “self” and being able to go with “the way” are goals that one should work towards.

Saturday, June 02, 2007


I took these pictures last year. It was the best use of vandalism I had seen in a long time.

A new building was being built on Broadway across from Lincoln Center. A fairly common sight, as was the re-routed sidewalk and the protecctive wooden barricade which lined it. Because there's little that's more offensive in New York than a blank surface that's not being used to sell something*, the entire wall, a block long, was covered with a billboard size advertisement for the bank that will eventually be on the site.

A lot of money was spent on this ad from conception to printing and hanging. Yet all it took to completely subvert its message and render the money and time spent wasted was a smartass with a Sharpie. How successful was this subversion? Well, I have no idea what bank this ad is for. All I remember is the commentary. Plus it was taken down shortly thereafter; I'm assuming ahead of schedule.

Once while visiting New York City as a teenager, I saw a subway ad that someone had taken a sharpie to, but instead the usual penis going into someone's mouth, blackening their teeth or giving them a Devil's beard, the vandal had done a clever semiotic analysis of the ad, transforming it from sponsored information into a lesson on images and how advertising works. Again, I have no idea what the initial ad was trying to sell (tourism, maybe?) but I still remember some of the ideas expressed by the graffiti.

Sadly, these photos don't do the experience justice or express how funny it was. Walking alongside the mural, the first speech balloon would catch your eye and you'd think "Okay..." But the combination of montonous repitition, its minor variations, and the notion that the only thing anyone could think about was a new bank, served as a parody of advertising's methods and goals. It's also a critique of the changes in New York City. Goodbye playhouse and the arts. Goodbye little shops, like your florist. Hello to a city now dominated by money and populated by those who can only conceive of things in financial terms.

Of course, we all know who ultimately wins in the battle between powerful financial interests and smartasses with magic markers. The proof of their victory is all around us, although I am happy that there are at least a few who fight as if its not over yet.

*Don't even get me started on the ads placed above urinals in bars and restaurants. I hope there a special torment in Hell awaiting anyone responsible for, or who benefits from, this annoying piece (or piss) of marketing.