Category Archives: Books

Notes on Gravity’s Rainbow

From pg 250ish:

Plasticity has its grand tradition and main stream, which happens to flow
by way of du Pont and their famous employee Carothers, known as The Great
Synthesist. His classic study of large molecules spanned the decade of the twenties
and brought us directly to nylon, which not only is a delight to the fetishist and
a convenience to the armed insurgent, but was also, at the time and well within
the System, an announcement of Plasticity’s central canon: that chemists were no
longer to be at the mercy of Nature. They could decide now what properties they
wanted a molecule to have, and then go ahead and build it. At du Pont, the next
step after nylon was to introduce aromatic rings into the polyamide chain. Pretty
soon a whole family of “aromatic polymers” had arisen: aromatic polyamides,
polycarbonates, polyethers, polysulfanes.

Puts me very much in the mind of synth bio today. (This story falls into the ‘too good to check’ category, and besides since I’m using it for allegory, I don’t care if it’s historical or rhetorical.) What, do you suppose, is the nylon of synthetic biology? The application that will not only escape from the lab, but if need be wrenched from its hold to satisfy so basic a desire as to make women somehow prettier to men?

Another kind of book club

I have loved Infinite Summer. I am on for Gravity’s Rainbow, probably in September, as many of the infsum alums are talking about. Somewhere in the mean time I have signed up for a completely different kind of group reading project- call it a spontaneous economics education, with participation.

My dear friend Aaron is starting a reading group for Samuel Bowles’ Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions, and Evolution. If that sounds like a textbook title, that’s because it is. But this textbook is a bit different. It’s real writing (oh thank god) and it’s challenging many of the fundamentals of a field that has recently tried to drag the whole world to Hell. Or so I’m told, since I haven’t read it yet. I am looking forward to reading it, finding out more. My future plans include arguing about how ignored principles of social psych, clinical psych, and neurology actually interplay with the economy, posting ignorant and pleading questions about bits of calc I’ve forgotten or never learned, and comparing Bowles’ examples to class/SES examples I’ve seen or studied.

I totally want vast numbers of other people to sign up. If you’re reading this, that means you. This will be great brain calisthenics, and fun for the whole family, if the whole family kind of likes economics too much.

Google groups is here, and the hashtag on Twitter will be #bowles.

We don’t have a start date quite yet, but Aaron is talking a chapter every week, or possibly every two. Doable!

In this one moment

pg 859: ‘At St. Collie only the Crocodiles’d heard of him. My own Daddy’d followed him, cut out pictures, as a boy.’ Gately can tell she’s smiling under there. ‘But what I used to do, I’d throw away the pipe and shake my fist at the sky and say As God is my fucking witness NEVER AGAIN, as of this minute right here I QUIT FOR ALL TIME.‘ She also has this habit of absently patting the top of her head when she talks, where little barrettes and spongy clamps hold the veil in place. ‘And I’d bunker up all white-knuckled and stay straight. And count the days. I was proud of each day I stayed off. Each day seemed evidence of something, and I counted them. I’d add them up. Line them up end to end. You know?’ Gately knows very well but doesn’t nod, lets her do this on just her own steam. She says ‘And soon it would get… improbable. As if each day was a car Knievel had to clear. One car, two cars. By the time I’d get up to say like maybe about 14 cars, it would begin to seem like this staggering number. Jumping over 14 cars. And the rest of the year, looking ahead, hundreds and hundreds of cars, me in the air trying to clear them.’ She left her head alone and cocked it. ‘Who could do it? How did I ever think anyone could do it that way?’

Gately remembered some evil fucking personal detoxes. Broke in Maiden. Bent with pleurisy in Salem. MCI/Billerica during a four-day lockdown that caught him short. He remembered Kicking the Bird for weeks on the floor of a Revere Holding cell, courtesy of the good old Revere A.D.A. Locked down tight, a bucket for a toilet, the Holding cell hot but a terrible icy draft down near the floor. Cold Turkey. Abrupt Withdrawal. The Bird. Being incapable of doing it and yet having to do it, locked in. A Revere Holding cage for 92 days. Feeling the edge of every second that went by. Taking it a second at a time. Drawing the time in around him real tight. Withdrawing. Any one second: he remembered: the thought of feeling like he’d be feeling this second for 60 more of these seconds — he couldn’t deal. He could not fucking deal. He had to build a wall around each second just to take it. The whole first two weeks of it are telescoped in his memory down into like one second — less: the space between two heartbeats. A breath and a second, the pause and gather between each cramp. An endless Now stretching its gull-wings out on either side of his heartbeat. And he’d never before or since felt so excruciatingly alive. Living in the Present between pulses. What the White Flaggers talk about: living completely In The Moment. A whole day at a crack seemed like tit, when he Came In. For he had Abided With The Bird.

But this inter-beat Present, this sense of endless Now — it had vanished in Revere Holding along with the heaves and chills. He’d returned to himself, moved to sit on the bunk’s edge, and ceased to Abide because he no longer had to.

His right side is past standing, but the hurt is nothing like the Bird’s hurt was. He wonders, sometimes, if that’s what Ferocious Francis and the rest want him to walk toward: Abiding again between heartbeats; tries to imagine what kind of impossible leap it would take to live that way all the time, by choice, straight: in the second, the Now, walled and contained between slow heartbeats. Ferocious Francis’s own sponsor, the nearly dead guy they wheel to White Flag and call Sarge, says it all the time: It’s a gift, the Now: it’s AA’s real gift: it’s no accident they call it The Present.

‘And yet it wasn’t til that poor new pipe-fellow from home pointed at me and hauled me up there and I said it that I realized,’ Joelle said. ‘I don’t have to do it that way. I get to choose how to do it, and they’ll help me stick to the choice. I don’t think I’d realized before that I could — I can really do this. I can do this for one endless day. I can. Don.’

The look he was giving her was meant to like validate her breakthrough and say yes yes she could, she could as long as she continued to choose to. She was looking right at him, Gately could tell. But he’d also gotten a personal prickly chill all over from his own thinking. He could do the dextral pain the same way: Abiding. No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was undealable-with was the thought of all the instants all lined up and stretching ahead, glittering. And the projected future fear of the A.D.A., whoever was out there in a hat eating Third World fast food; the fear of getting convicted of Nuckslaugh-ter, of V.I.P.-suffocation; of a lifetime on the edge of his bunk in M.C.I. Walpole, remembering. It’s too much to think about. To Abide there. But none of it’s as of now real. What’s real is the tube and Noxzema and pain. And this could be done just like the Old Cold Bird. He could just hunker down in the space between each heartbeat and make each heartbeat a wall and live in there. Not let his head look over. What’s unendurable is what his own head could make of it all. What his head could report to him, looking over and ahead and reporting. But he could choose not to listen; he could treat his head like G. Day or R. Lenz: clueless noise. He hadn’t quite gotten this before now, how it wasn’t just the matter of riding out the cravings for a Substance: everything unendurable was in the head, was the head not Abiding in the Present but hopping the wall and doing a recon and then returning with unendurable news you then somehow believed.

Malcolm Gladwell being sloppy and school shootings

I’m just now getting through The Tipping Point. A lot of it felt poorly researched- Kitty Genovese and Broken Windows and the fashion industry’s Just So stories represented too uncritically for me. Not that I think these stories have no merit, but before you draw conclusions I want to see them questioned. Then, in an afterword to the book, he talked about the Columbine shooting starting an epidemic. That was where I got annoyed.

In 1998 I was teaching part time at a Jr. High/Highschool in Oregon City, Oregon. On May 20th we got the news of a school shooting in nearby Springfield. It was the fifth school shooting since I’d starting teaching, but the only that close to me. It all hit much harder than I expected. The kids were fine, it was as random and distant to them as all the other school shootings. The fact that it was so normal to them was what made me finally unable to handle the situation. My principle saw my condition and told me to take the day off. Columbine, almost a year away, would be the next shooting.

If it was already so normal the year before Columbine, how did Columbine start the trend? In fact, it seems to have kicked off a period with fewer actual school shooting. It wasn’t until the 2006/2007 school year that we would see as many shooting as the 1997/1998 year that I taught.

Then comes the interesting aberration. 2008 (the year, not the school year) saw nine shootings. That’s a notable and horrible spike. Is that how long it’s taken the media’s over coverage of Columbine to hit? Is it related to the recession? Foreclosures? Neither the 97/98 nor the 06/07 spikes were times of financial stress. It drops off to a normal level come 2009, though I suppose we could have a sudden burst in September.

So if Gladwell is pulling the Columbine connection out of thin air, what is really going on? And what started in the 60s and 70s to set the whole phenomena going, both here and around the world? There wasn’t a precipitous rise in gun access, that’s for sure. What makes school shootings jump or settle down?

I have no idea. But I can promise the answer is complex. I find these questions far more interesting, and too hard for the quick answers Gladwell seemed to settle for in this book. I guess the problem with something like The Tipping Point is that how these things happen is actually an ecological question, but ecological contexts are highly complex- there are no simple answers, no generalizable useful truths one can fit into a short book. Anything you can say needs a caveat about probably being wrong.

My brief summary and review of A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Gödel and Einstein by Palle Yourgrau, who believes many modern philosophers are complete dicks to Gödel and that he should be appreciated more, this being Yourgrau’s second book attempting to remedy that.

Time may be an illusion, and lunch time may be doubly so, but Gödel should have eaten lunch anyway.

(It was good.)