Monday, 30 December 2013

On Automatically Generating Character Names

One amusing thing that my automated freeware text-generation program JanusNode can do is generate character names, ranging from the mundane to the extraordinarily bizarre. I didn't take advantage of this in my novel The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even but since then I have used JanusNode-generated names in other (as yet unsubmitted) fiction. Here are a few random examples (that you may feel free to use as you wish....):
  • A woman named Gilda "Stunning Chemical" Lumpthoud.
  • A Buddhist named Kristie Humpella Unschooled, Sr.
  • A man named Sung Mouserood.
  • A woman named Saundra Inane Sigmund Freud-Hank.
  • A man named Arthur Pittman-Pup Warm "The Idiotic Dog" Larker.
  • A checkout clerk named Amparo Puntalina Pope.
  • A woman named Norma Burpcoyde.
  • A personal woman named Poetic Goof.
  • A man named Archie MacPeculiar "Rank Acidic-Sole" Murki.
  • A man named Brant Von Moody.
  • A woman named Mari "Grubby Dauber" Cockroachcell.
  • A woman named Kasey Shoe "The Sugar-Free Honey" Von Chowderhead.
  • A ruler named Jodie Goyie Shamauskas.
  • A personnel officer named Luther Zebrajeh.
  • A man named Carmen Freak.
  • A man named Lewis Sikhella Mariana Roofellesity.
  • A concessionaire named Ivory Ingram-Ashley.
  • A woman named Reverend Lucille Turnson Noif, MA.
  • A woman named Fern Insipid Watkins.
  • A installer named Daub-daub Bellie Otternest.
  • A despot named Tenssho Tigerchi
  • A man named Woodrow Spotorda.
  • A cryptographer named Lend Assiassibosk.
  • A woman named Reverend Sparrow Taylor "The Cat-Damned" Pitiful, BSc.
  • A man named Reverend Donald Harter.
  • A man named Miles Rat Bush.
  • A woman named Retesi Oifoifholy.
  • A man named Lustful Greer.
  • A woman named Fey-fey Wayward Elki.
  • A woman named Elva Apollo McHolmes.
  • A domestic named Soto "Fanciful-Eyebrow" Workman.
  • A man named Faoge Guminheot O'Zipperhead.
  • A jolly woman named Esperanza Fencdo.
  • A woman named Greasy Gashson Miller-Blair.
  • An anxious man named Sensual Tiltalina Turding Otter.
[Image is a JanusNodeLOL, as invented by Calum Rodger. I maintain a full collection here.]

Saturday, 28 December 2013

On Living Well

"CT: [...] I think that Duchamp is a kind of Montaigne-like figure.
PC: What do you mean?
CT: He wasn't telling you how to live so much as he was just trying to find out for himself. His friend Henri-Pierre Roché once said Duchamp's greatest work was his use of time."
     Calvin Tomkins (2013) 
     Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews. p. 19
     [PC = Paul Chan. CT = Calvin Tomkins]

Thursday, 12 December 2013

On Naming Nothingness

I like the idea of giving names to absences. My current favourite is 'airplane mode on', which turns almost everything off. I like that we have to ask for 'room' at StarBucks if we want less coffee in our cup, as if the absence of coffee were a commodity that StarBucks prided itself on being able to deliver. Wittgenstein remarked on how odd it would be (and yet how consistent with normal usage) if we went into a room to see if Mr. Nobody was there.

When we turn off the lights we should say we are turning on the darkness. When we end a relationship, we should say we are enabling solitude. When we die, let it be said that we have just switched on our nothingness.

[I plagiarized this blog post from my own FaceBook post, December 12, 2013]

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

On the Most Dangerous, Least Useful Thing

In my day job as a research psychologist, I study how human beings process language. I use many methods, one of which is to model semantics using a  co-occurrence model of semantics. These computational models bootstrap word meaning by quantifying patterns of co-occurrence in a very large text corpus, using some fancy math that would be boring to explain here. The basic idea is this: the model can figure out that cats are more similar to dogs than they are to tractors because the word 'cat' occurs more often near the same words as the word 'dog' than near the same words as the word 'tractor'. Quantify that notion, and you have the model.

Recently I spent some time trying to construct a computational model of human judgments of a word's dangerousness and usefulness. My friend Lee Wurm has shown that people's behavior is measurably affected by a word's dangerousness and usefulness, suggesting that these dimensions are unconsciously assessed by people when they process words. He and I used my co-occurrence model to try to see if we could model these dimensions, with some success (the paper we wrote has been submitted for peer review).

One of the interesting side-effects of having a formal model of these dimensions is that we can compute quantitative estimates of dangerousness and usefulness for every word in the English language. Once we have done that, we can ask: What is the most dangerous, least useful thing there is?

The answer was kind of brilliant. According to our computer model, the quantifiably-proven most dangerous, least useful thing is [See if you can guess and then select the box to see.] anger!

[Image taken by me in about 1984 at the Acropolis in Greece.]

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

On Peeing on Duchamp's Art

In my earlier post on the varieties of the ReadyMade, I failed to mention an interesting example of a Reciprocal ReadyReMade, which I define as a replaced mass produced object designated as art that is then used a piece of non-art. In 1917 Duchamp selected a toilet and designated it as art, thus creating a ReadyMade. That original Fountain was lost so Duchamp later selected other toilets to stand in for the lost one, thus creating what I call ReadyReMades. Several people (Kendell Geers, Brian EnoBjörn Kjelltoft, Pierre Pinoncelli, and Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi, according to Wikipedia) have had the idea of urinating into Duchamp's ReadyReMade urinals. (Pinoncelli also attacked one of them with a hammer.) Peeing on one of Duchamp's urinals is the equivalent of Duchamp's idea (never carried out) of using a Rembrandt as an ironing board. By peeing into his ReadyReMade, these people turn Duchamp's ReadyReMade back into a urinal, this creating a Reciprocal ReadyReMade, perhaps one of the few members of that obscure class of objects.

[Image: Daniel Spoerri's (1964) Utiliser un Rembrandt comme planche à repasser (Marcel Duchamp)]

Saturday, 7 December 2013

On the MadeUnReady

Duchamp is famous for inventing the concept of the ReadyMade: an ordinary industrial object (a coat hanger, a wine bottle rack, a shovel, a bicycle wheel, a urinal) that is re-conceptualized as art simply because the artist chooses to designate it so. In his notes to The Large Glass (another name for The Bride  Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even), Duchamp also discussed the Reciprocal Readymade: "Use a Rembrandt as an ironing board". Many of Duchamp's original ReadyMades were lost, with the result that many that do still exist are 'reproductions' by the artist: stand-in ordinary objects, pressed into service to stand in for the original ordinary object. We might (though Duchamp did not) call them the ReadyReMades.

There are other possible classes that Duchamp didn't discuss.  One class I call the MadeUnready, defined as an object that previously functioned as art but has since been damaged so that it no longer does. The most famous example is perhaps Robert Rauschenburg's Erased De Kooning, subject of an earlier blog post. The Reciprocal MadeUnready is a previously-destroyed piece of art that has been fixed so that it functions as art again. The Large Glass itself is a perfect example, having been shattered in 1926 and then painstakingly put back together by Duchamp into its current state. If de Kooning had drawn another drawing on the paper that had been erased by Rauschenburg, that would be another example. Following the structure above, we can go on to define the ReMadeUnready, which would be a damaged piece of art that has been fixed to function as art and then damaged again so that it no longer functions as art. Although the category may seem strained, I think a lot of children's art falls exactly into this category. A child makes something that gets damaged and is then carefully restored by a parent. Ten years later no one cares about the childish piece anymore and it is discarded as a ReMadeUnready

[Image: Photograph by German photographer Martin Klimas, via Slipcast- The Ceramics Blog]

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

On Being Obsessed and Chocolate

I was amused and pleased to see my novel listed on (Hong Kong) among 'Chocolate Obsession Books'. This is totally correct, as the book concerns two obsessive men who go on a road trip to buy a very expensive chocolate grinder, very much like the one pictured above (or this one).

[Image: Marcel Duchamp's Chocolate Grinder (No.1) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.]

Sunday, 24 November 2013

On Not Being Able to See Your Favorite Piece of Art

I hardly know anything at all about one of my favourite works of art. I can hardly even remember it at all. I saw a painting somewhere important about thirty years ago. I remember that it was a large painting by an emerging contemporary artist. I remember that it used lava colors: bright reds, oranges, and yellows. I remember that it was painted in a surrealist style. I think it was about a male body, but somehow about birth, too. It was rich and luscious and thought-provoking. I have looked for that painting ever since, but I have never found a hint of it. Today I have no idea who painted it or where I saw it or even what it is actually about.

But the interesting thing is that I still think about that mere notion of a painting with such fondness and admiration! I still completely love it!

The image shows a picture of Andy Warhol's (1985) 'Invisible Scultpture', which actually consisted only of a label that said: “Andy Warhol, USA/Invisible Sculpture/Mixed Media 1985. Copyright (2013) by Chris F. Westbury; May not be reproduced without permission of the artist.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

On a Sense of Balance

I am a longtime fan of Canadian singer/songwriter  Jane Siberry. I saw her in concert a few days ago and she sang this song 'Calling All Angels' as an encore. It is my favorite song of hers.  

She has released all her songs on a 'pay as you think best' basis. I like this item among her items for sale: "Lump sum according to your sense of balance.  This is how I like to do things, personally."

Saturday, 9 November 2013

On Mobius Dick

A few years ago my favorite blog BoingBoing had a competition to 'mash up' two authors. There was a prize; I forget what. I submitted a mash-up between Thomas Pynchon and Herman Melville. It didn't place and so perhaps failed to achieve what it set out to do, but here is my entry for your amusement.

 [Image is from this article on the space whale meme. I love the Internet.]
Mobius Dick, by Thomas Pynchon & Herman Melville

Our imaginations set aflame by yelling, our shouted slogans, our inflated sense of team spirit, we all sensed the gigantic apparition at once. But though each of us saw the same thing with wide-open eyes, none of us knew if the thing was in the real world, or whether it had been ripped out of us and made to appear real by the strange times, the extenuating circumstances, the insanity of the moment materializing for us as bleeding heaving flesh, our pure goal. Anyway something every one of us, freaks and ex-cons and escapees, all of us lost devils, could believe in. Something we could bet our lives on.

When it came Captain A-Man climbed and climbed and climbed. He didn’t stop climbing but continued beyond the upper edges of our limping vessel’s ragged rigging, climbing, as we swarmed in awed confusion below, to an impossible perch. The A-man could gaze at the water and see all its mysterious beasts and he could see inside them, could enter into each one. He fell into the dark water to enter all the beings living in that vast heaving chaos. He was billions of vectors of thought accelerating out through earth’s oceans looking for life that inflected in a whisker’s breadth so that at once he was pushing himself, his multi-vectored self, like a reverse big bang, from all directions with fantastic speed into just one little speck, a tiny speck in the midst of vast oceans, one beating heart among the billions. Inside that great heart the brave man burst like a firework, sparkling out into every cell, and then into every cell’s chromosomes and every chromosome’s nucleotides and each nucleotide’s atoms, until at last, lost in salt watery wash beyond the reach of normal vision, there was no more climbing to look outward, there were no more vectors in flight. He had become what he had wanted to become, what we men had all fought and bled and died for him to become, had done at last what he had needed to do, what you and I need him to keep doing; conflicting desires, conflicting lives, conflicting needs and ambitions and dreams, resolved by the simple application of a meta operator. At last at long last, he was (at peace and whole! So marvelous!) the hunter and the hunted at once.

Monday, 4 November 2013

On the Cover of 'The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even'

This is the cover to my novel, coming out in June from CounterPoint Press. My first blog post here explains the title. Along with the piece named in the title, the cover alludes to several of Marcel Duchamp's other pieces, including The Green Box (from which my chapter titles were drawn), the Boîte-en-valise, and Self-Portrait in Profile.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

On 36 Plots from the Futility Closet

The always-excellent Futility Closet has an interesting article today on French writer Georges Polti's (1916) claim that all stories are variations on just 36 basic plots (although Cecil Adams claims that Polti stole the idea from Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi). It's an interesting and thought-provoking list, but I find that many of the categories are vague enough to cover each other at different levels of abstraction.

My novel The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even tells a story about a hero and his faithful sidekick who go on a heroic quest with a powerful third friend, to obtain an object that is necessary for the hero to obtain liberation. (More briefly: it's a buddy road trip story.) Depending on the level of abstraction at which you view the story, I think it could be described by any one (or some combination) of six of Polti's plots:
9. Daring enterprise. The Bold Leader takes the Object from the Adversary by overpowering the Adversary.
10. Abduction. The Abductor takes the Abducted from the Guardian.
11. The enigma. The Interrogator poses a Problem to the Seeker and gives a Seeker better ability to reach the Seeker’s goals.
26. Crimes of love. A Lover and the Beloved enter a conflict.
30. Ambition. The Ambitious Person seeks the Thing Coveted and is opposed by the Adversary.
35. Recovery of a lost one. The Seeker finds the One Found.
If I have to pick just one to describe my story, I choose number 11, The Enigma: The Interrogator poses a Problem to the Seeker and gives a Seeker better ability to reach the Seeker’s goals.

[Image: Altered detail from Caravaggio's Sacrifice of Isaac, now at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence]

Thursday, 31 October 2013

On the Defense of Blue Stuff

Reading about Yellowism made me think of Yves Klein's International Klein Blue (though International Klein Blue has more to do with blue than Yellowism has to do with yellow). This video homage to Yves Klein Blue by Jason Judd made me laugh. Nice work.

On the Defense of Yellow Stuff

Until I read this passionate defense of Yellowism by Calum Rodger, I did not know anything about the Yellowist movement.

[Image: Paul Cézanne's 'The Card Players', a version of the most valuable painting on earth today, valued at between US$250,000,000 and US$300,000,000.]

Sunday, 27 October 2013

On the Treachery of Images

J.S.G. Boggs is a contemporary artist who has carved out an interesting niche for himself. He specializes in making drawings that look (very much) like real money, and exchanging them at face value in commercial transactions. For example, he has used a drawing of a US$1000 bill to buy a three dollar hamburger, receiving US$997 in real money (insofar as American money still is real, in these days of imminent US bankruptcy) as change. The extra-interesting twist is that Boggs' work is usually worth far more to his collectors than the face-value of its denomination. A Boggs bill with a $10 'face value' might sell for more than a thousand ('real') dollars on the open market. Although he has had a little trouble with counterfeiting charges, he has generally avoided them since he never pretends that his drawings are real money, only draws one side, and usually includes obvious changes from the real bill into his drawings. He has made his living from this art form for many decades. You can read more about Boggs here, at the on-line Duchampian journal, Tout-fait.

[Image: René Magritte's La trahison des images]

Sunday, 20 October 2013

On Remaking Duchamp's Readymade

I like this re-make of Duchamp's Fountain,  entitled Nouveau Rendez-vous (New Meeting) by contemporary French artist Jerome Pierre, who has a lot of Duchampian-inspired pieces on his website.

Friday, 18 October 2013

On The Rape of the Sabines

This painting, The Rape Of The Sabines, by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) has always seemed powerful to me. In part this is because I had a friend named Sabine when I first paid attention to it, and I knew no other meaning of the word than that it was a woman’s first name. I wondered if all the women allegedly being raped could possibly be named Sabine. Youth is difficult.

In fact (and now I speak with the full authority of Wikipedia) the Sabines were a tribe from whom the Romans abducted wives in 750 BCE, as attested to by, e.g. both Livy and Plutarch. The women in the painting weren’t actually being raped in the modern sense of the word, but in the old sense of the word, when rape (from the Latin root raptio meaning a large-scale abduction of women, as any careful reader of Wikipedia already knows) meant...well, yeah, a large-scale abduction of women. Like Wikipedia said.

Despite my confusion about the victims and my early visual confirmation of the lack of any partially naked women in the painting (and by no means implying either that rape and sex have anything more to do with each other than that a woman must be partially naked or that violent mass abduction is in itself just an enjoyable spectator sport), this is an exciting and great painting. You’ll know why if you go to the Louvre: this sucker is 1.6 metres by 2 metres (Americans: that’s really big for an oil painting).


Tuesday, 15 October 2013

On A Dozen New Episodes of 'Breaking Bad'

[All these synopses were randomly-generated by my freeware text generation program, JanusNode. Sorry, there are no more actual episodes of the fabulous TV show, Breaking Bad.]
----- ----- -----
Lydia Rodarte-Quayle unexpectedly discovers that her old school buddy Jesus has just hired a new meth cook: Saul Goodman. At the same time, Hank Schrader has fallen in love with Badger. Sponsored by Ripley's 'Believe It Or Not'.
Saul Goodman and Todd decide to blackmail Mike Ehrmantraut. Skinny Pete locks Mike Ehrmantraut into an organ donation container. Loosely based on the life of Bob Dylan.
Steven Gomez and Marie Schrader meet in an airplane to discuss what to do about Gustavo Fring. Much to Walter White's surprise, Lydia Rodarte-Quayle hits Badger with a weapon carefully built using a piece of enamel screwed onto a piece of pine. Viewer discretion advised.
Lydia Rodarte-Quayle unexpectedly discovers that her lover Ronnie has been accused of murdering Lydia Rodarte-Quayle. Meanwhile, some shady characters with federal government connections are asking questions about Lydia Rodarte-Quayle's income. Thanks to this masterful cast, the plot plays out better than it sounds.
Walter White is surprised to learn that his old school buddy Otto is having sex with Skyler White. Meanwhile, Jesse Pinkman decides that it is necessary to kill Hank Schrader. Episode title: Exploding Heroine.
Walter White, Junior and Walter White decide to start selling rosemary together. Much to Walter White's surprise, Lydia Rodarte-Quayle hits Steven Gomez with a weapon that Gretchen Schwartz has constructed using woven hair. Episode title: Culminating Synchronizing Pawn.
Skyler White unexpectedly discovers that her colleague Cody has accidentally injured Marie Schrader. Meanwhile, Skyler White threatens Walter White's bottom. Gratuitous nudity adds little to this lacklustre work.
Marie Schrader unexpectedly discovers that her lover Freddy is suing Skyler White. Meanwhile, Saul Goodman locks Mike Ehrmantraut into a canoe. Chaos ensues.
In this surprising episode, Gretchen Schwartz and Marie Schrader decide to start selling crystal meth together. Much to Mike Ehrmantraut's surprise, Badger is planning to kill Todd. Episode title: Fen-sucked Swooning Dandelions.
Marie Schrader unexpectedly discovers that her father-in-law Doyle has recently had drunken sex with Skyler White. At the same time, Badger starts studying genderization. Loosely based on the works of Oprah Winfrey.
Gustavo Fring is surprised to learn that his mate Ernest already knows Skyler White. Much to Gustavo Fring's surprise, Gustavo Fring reluctantly decides that it is necessary to kill Gustavo Fring. Episode title: Stealing Dill.
Skyler White is surprised to learn that her sweet lover Josh has a new meth cook: his eager neighbour, Sheree. Skyler White starts studying atheism. Great art direction.

Monday, 14 October 2013

On Charging To See Graffiti

Although this story of people charging other people to see a Banksy graffito is amusing in itself, the comments are perhaps the most interesting part, for several reasons. Some of the comments suggest that the people charging to view Banksy's alleged work (one of whom exclaims: "I could step on this shit; it don't matter to me") may in fact be part of Banksy's art. I would go further and say: even if they were not intended by the artist to be part of it, they are part of it now.

 Duchamp would surely have approved of this intertwining of art and non-art, so close that you cannot even see the seams.

[Via BoingBoing]

Sunday, 13 October 2013

On Art As A Urinal

"When you stand close to 'beauty and truth', you realize it's just a bunch of old carved stone that some drunk fucker or gypsy has pissed on." Todd Babiak / Come Barbarians, p. 75

Perhaps Duchamp's most famous piece is his (1917) Fountain. This is the first work of his I ever heard of. It was featured in an anarchist calendar someone gave me when I was in my teens (and therefore, of course, an anarchist). Duchamp bought an ordinary urinal from a plumbing supply store (J.L. Mott Iron Works on Fifth Avenue in New York, if you're a details guy), signed it 'R. Mutt' and submitted it an exhibition organized by the Society of Independent Artists, who had agreed to show every piece submitted. They did not exhibit R. Mutt's urinal. Duchamp and his collector friend Walter Arensburg both resigned from the
Society of Independent Artists in protest. 

As my narrator Isaac put it succinctly in my novel: "Chaos and modern art ensued."

Saturday, 5 October 2013

On The Importance of Framing Things

The frame in art is a fantastic innovation. Presumably before the frame there was just stuff. People before the frame took things (I speculate freely) just for what they were.

The frame is a magnifying glass, a punctuation mark, an augmentive. It is a technology for sharing attention, sharing ideas. It invites viewers to linger carefully on something very particular. Anything deliberately (or, indeed, randomly) framed becomes imbued with more meaning than it had before framing. A framed leaf is not like a leaf fallen on the ground. The frame invites the viewer to consider the leaf, the worlds of all leaves, the universe of things leaves might make us think of, to meditate on all this, to understand the leaf as something more than just organic trash on the ground.

Framing anything augments that thing and makes its better, by reminding us to augment that thing and make it better.

[Image by Spanish artist Lorenzo Durán ]

Friday, 27 September 2013

On Seeing Patterns (On Vi Hart)

Everything I have seen by the 'mathemusician' ('mathemagician') Vi Hart has been mind-blowing and inspiringly brilliant, all presented in her very charming half-folksy, half-genius-showoff style. I particularly enjoyed this (30-minute long) clever meditation on 12-tone music/the nature of art/the insanity of copyright law/the psychology of pattern-finding. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

On Being Grateful For Small Things

At one particular low period of my life, I decided to make a list of things I liked. This turned out to be a very instructive exercise. Many things that made the list were things that I already had or that were very easy to obtain, so the world started to seem quite manageable. After I made the list, I started eating a lot of pre-cut pineapple, which I could buy at my local grocery store. It cheered me up greatly. It is so nice when someone else cuts up fruit for you.

Here's a selection of good things from my list.
- Drinking earthy red wine
- Watching epic films that take place in ancient times
- Having it rain when I am supposed to water the lawn
- Beauty
- Exquisitely detailed bone or ivory carvings
- Religions that have a different God for every human need
- Probability theory
- Having stereo speakers in the kitchen
- Visiting extremely populous cities
- The quality of the light at twilight
- Anything sour with lime
- Solo piano music
- Witticisms
- Stocks with a P/E ratio under 10
- Good teeth
- Digital cameras
- The computer language LISP
- The incense they use in Catholic cathedrals
- Basil, fresh ginger, and garlic
- Japanese furniture
- Dishwashers
- Chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa
- Hammocks in the woods
- Walking in old growth forests
- Floating on my back in the ocean like a piece of driftwood
- Sleeping
- Having an umbrella with me when it rains
- Old trees
- The art of Tom Phillips
- A high speed Internet connection on a cell phone
- Drinking Calvados after a meal
- Ouzo
- The Montreal Jazz Festival
- Seeing people I love smiling
- Eating Greek lamb
- Politeness
- 'Bring your own wine' restaurants
- Bonsai trees that are older than I am
- Champagne
- Public displays of affection
- Watching the ocean from the back of a boat
- Things that are dappled by the sun
- Rice paddies at sunset
- Five-year light bulbs
- Automatic garage door openers
- Goat cheese
- Portabello mushrooms
- Indian, Japanese, and Thai food
- Spring skiing
- Salt and vinegar potato chips
- Seeing my friends in love
- Generous hosts
- Bed quilts when it is cold
- Soft beds
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky
- Monty Python
- Travelling without a goal (the dérive)
- Nectarines that are perfectly ripe so the pit falls right out when you cut them in half
- Pre-cut mango and pineapple
- Recursion
- Idealists
- Cruise control
- The game of 'Go'

Friday, 20 September 2013

On Self-surgery

I have had reason in my writing life to consider a topic that few people ever look into: the topic of self-surgery. Only a few people have the combination of misfortune and courage that could make self-surgery possible. Merely hacking off a limb to escape from some horrible trap hardly even counts. Any mammal worth the name would do as much. I am interested in more difficult surgery. In 1921, a Dr. Evan Kane took out his own appendix, to show that local anaesthesia was a good idea. His case brings to mind perhaps the most famous self-surgeon, Dr. Leonid Rogozov, who also cut out his own appendix, as a matter of necessity, in Antarctica in 1961, using a novocaine solution for local anaesthesia. These two had the advantages of being medically-trained and having access to good pharmaceuticals. More recently, in 2000, a Mexican farmer's wife, Mrs. Inés Pérez, gave herself a C-section with a kitchen knife, using only a few glasses of liquor against the pain. The operation, while inelegant, succeeded in saving both mother and child.

I admire these people intensely. They make me proud to be a human being.

It is interesting to think about why this is so.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

On Hidden Noise

Marcel Duchamp’s (1916) piece called With Hidden Noise is kept in the Arensburg collection near The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, at The Philadelphia Museum of Art. With Hidden Noise consists of a ball of twine secured with bolts between two plaques of brass. When he was putting it together, Duchamp invited his friend and collector Walter Arensberg to add a small object inside the twine. Nobody knows what it is. Clearly, the essence of With Hidden Noise is the hidden object.

The idea of hidden noise plays a role in my novel The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even in various ways. There are always unknowns inside things and people, even inside ourselves. At one point my narrator, named Isaac (though he has another name too), discusses the value of Duchamp's piece:

“What dollar value can we put on the ball of faded boric twine known as With Hidden Noise? It is impossible to answer. Duchamp made the only copy of the piece for his friend Walter Arensburg. Arensburg donated it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art where it remains today. It has never been put on the market. In the normal sense of the word, the piece has no value at all.  Only market price determines the value of art. With Hidden Noise has never had a market. It is art that does not act like art.
    When Duchamp was asked if he knew how much Arensburg had paid for his fabulous painting Nude Descending a Staircase (which was $240, in case you are wondering), Duchamp replied “No, I wasn’t interested. I never knew the price.” He went on to add: “It’s the same for With Hidden Noise...what’s secret is the price!”
    It pleased him to be unable to say what anything was worth.
    If it went on the art market today, would With Hidden Noise be worth as much as one million dollars?
    Oh yes.
    Let’s be serious.
    Oh yes.
    I am definitely sure that With Hidden Noise is worth much more than a million dollars. I can be definitely sure because, if it went on the market today for just a million bucks, I would sell my house so I could buy it.”

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

On Things Not Being What They Seem To Be

Claes Oldenburg's (1962) Ghost Drum Set is one piece of visual art I have always loved, ever since I saw it at the George Pompidou museum in Paris when I was in my 20s (many decades ago now). There is always something a little bit thrilling about things that just cannot be what they nevertheless seem to be (Oldenburg's speciality).

Saturday, 7 September 2013

On Some Untrue Facts About Me

[All these statements were randomly-generated by my freeware text generation program, JanusNode.]

        I have never used white bread recreationally.
        I have never used Worcestershire sauce in an immoral way.
        I did not invest in punk.
        It is absurd to be pretending that I called Elizabeth Taylor a "pottle-deep sack of neuroses".
        I am not the kind of person who would knowingly enjoy priestess-subjugating.
        I don't know why unskilled laborers are saying that I wanted to ban curry.
        I emphatically deny that I touched Al Gore's nipple.
        It is simply untrue that I called Hank Aaron a "strange ass cooer".
        Contrary to what you may have seen on the Internet I have never used maraschino cherry juice to do anything unnatural.
        I am not the kind of person who would knowingly get caught drinking American beer.
        I did get caught being statistically illiterate.
        I did destroy forgiving your enemy. 

        I did ingest whiskey.
        I will not deny that I did get caught gossiping.
        I will not deny that I did get interested in mischief.
I will not deny that I did get caught having sex. 
        I did get caught repressing emotion.
        OK, I did have sexual relations with an aardvark.

Friday, 6 September 2013

On How You Can Write

One of my favourite poems is William Carlos William's (1934) poem This Is Just To Say:

                I have eaten
                the plums
                that were in
                the icebox

                and which
                you were probably
                for breakfast

                Forgive me
                they were delicious
                so sweet
                and so cold

To me this poem is the poetic equivalent of J.D. Salinger's (1953) book-length Nine Stories, which blew my mind when I read it 35 years ago.

Until I read each of these, I did not know you were allowed to write like that.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

On Tending Lawn In The Era of George Bush

Ah, when you have your own blog you can publish anything you like. How liberating. The tyranny of The Other, overthrown. Here is a parody of Robert Frost's wonderful poem Mending Wall that no one except you and I has ever read.

I wrote this some years ago, in deep despair [as who wasn't in those days, before Barack Obama taught us how stupidly gullible we had always been, before we were all just resigned to the dull ways of this world, when we still clung with such simple and naive hope to the belief that things would eventually get better?] after the casual killer George Bush Jr. had– incomprehensibly to all non-Americans– been invited to blunder his way through a second term as US president.


                       Tending Lawn [in the Era of George Bush Jr.]

                        Something there is that doesn’t love the wild
                        That thrives in Other’s houses and their lawns
                        And spews its vile seed forth in the wind,
                        And brings unwelcome Chaos to our lives.
                        The work of insects is that kind of thing:
                        I must go after them and make repair
                        Where they have left not one blade on my lawn
                        But they will not come running out of hiding
                        To help my killing work. The bugs I mean,
                        No one else knows they live or cares they live,
                        But all through my life I have sensed them there.
                        I ask my neighbor to help with killing;
                        If any day we meet between our homes
                        And point out the disorder as we talk.
                        To each the vermin that fall to either.
                        And some are huge, and some so hard to see
                        They must be the devil's to have survived here:
                        "Go forth, oh Fiends, and multiply on lawns!"
                        I wear my fingers rough with killing them.
                        It is not just a kind of old man's game,
                        My fight against Them. It means something more:
                        Where Others thrive I should not need to point:
                        My neighbour should see that order's breaking down.
                        My good advice will never get across
                        And save that mad chaos that he calls a life.
                        I only know good killing means good living.
                        Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
                        If I could put that notion in his head:
                        "Why can't you make a nice lawn? Isn't it
                        Order you crave? And here you have a chance.
                        Before I'd buy again I'd ask to know
                        What kind of killing all my neighbours do.
                        And if they knew which Others give offense.
                        Something there is that doesn't love what lives,
                        That wants it dead." I could say 'Us' to him,
                        But it's not just Us I know, and I'd rather
                        He said it for himself. I watch him now,
                        Playing with his children, with one small one
                        In each arm, laughing as their life runs wild.
                        I am alone; I have no time for play,
                        Or love or friends or laughs or carefree times.
                        They do not understand what living is.
                        I say again, "Good killing means good living."

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

On Not Being Able To Touch Our Treasure

Andy Warhol famously said that in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. In the era of blogs, reality TV, and cynically-manufactured pop music, his remark seems  amazingly prescient.

However, Warhol could have gone further. In the future that is today, everyone gets to be famous for fifteen seconds. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media allow us to achieve fleeting 'micro-fame', that lasts for each of our 'micro-fans' only as long as it takes them to click 'Like' or 'Re-Tweet'.  When the button is clicked, the fandom relationship ends. A few seconds after he has liked you, your micro-fan,  now clicking other buttons, will not possibly be able to remember your on-line handle, let alone your real name.

Many Twitter users who have nothing to say (and are saying it) have acquired tens of thousands of followers, while tweeting sporadically about their morning toast, the weather, and the fact that they have annoyingly misplaced their running shoes. To amass so many followers while offering them so little requires actual effort; boring, relentless, persistent work.

What are those people working for, when they are working to get all those micro-fans?  Why do humans crave this kind of highly abstracted micro-fame? Why do we find it so satisfying? Why are we the kind of animal that is willing to work for the mere idea of something good, a pointer to a thing that we cannot actually grasp? 

The Jewish/Catholic/atheist mystic Simone Weil suggested in her book Gravity & Grace: "To ascertain exactly what the miser lost whose treasure was stolen; thus we should learn much."

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

On David Hume As My Kindred Spirit

I am, I believe (at least, I think I do), a natural-born skeptic. I firmly believe that I remember five events from my childhood (all before I hit puberty) that lead me to believe that I came out of the womb a skeptic.
  1. I once vomited while I was in my mother's (Anglican) church, due to some sort of stomach bug. I remember thinking that this involuntary act was proof that God either did not exist or (but perhaps I did not really go this far at the time) that God did not care. God as I understood Him would not let me (or anyone else) vomit in His church. [This event plays a role in my (as-yet unpublished, first-spawned) novel, Red Stockings For Beginners.]
  2. I remember sitting in our kitchen watching a kettle boil and thinking: "It is totally crazy that the difference between boiling and not boiling depends on such a tiny thing as whether or not the kettle is plugged in." I was young, but I had some idea of the science of electricity and of scientific causality, more generally. Nevertheless, I felt that the difference between being plugged in and not plugged in was absurdly small to have such such a large effect. I was dubious that it could really be so. I thought it might be a con.
  3. I used to lie in bed and imagine that I was not actually living my life, but rather listening to a story that my mother was telling me about one way my life might be. The oddest part is that I had a very distinct picture of my mother, a very large-breasted and sweaty lady from the southern United States, who bore little or no relationship in either biography or appearance to (the woman I assume to be) my real mother.
  4. I used to lie in bed at night and consider, in a rather obsessive way, that it was possible that I was the only real person in the world and everyone else might be a robot. I wondered in particular if my parents could be robots. I considered the fact that they bled when they were cut, and decided they might just be the kind of robots that bled when they were cut. I am very proud of my young philosopher self because I eventually decided that the question was undecidable. I decided that I just had to live with not being sure either way.
  5. I nurtured and loved a vivid memory when I was a child, of floating up the stairs without touching them. I looked forward so much to doing it again one day. Now I assume I must have just dreamt it. But I still remember it.

One might take these facts to be simply signs of early mental instability. But I have had no trouble in my life navigating the apparent reality in which we are embedded as if it were really the only reality. For example: I always plug in my kettle when I want boiling water.

When I encountered the skeptic philosopher David Hume (my first skeptic!) in university, I was so delighted to have encountered a kindred spirit! I had never discussed these ideas with anyone. Until I read Hume, I thought I was the only one who had them. After that I began to realize that I belonged to a club that has existed for centuries.

Today, age 50, I drive a car with a vanity license plate: "I D0UBT".

Monday, 2 September 2013

On 'On Physiognomy'

My Dad gave me a Penguin paperback of Michel De Montaigne's Essays when I was studying philosophy and computer science at McGill University in Montreal. I had never heard of Montaigne, but my Dad seemed very sure that I would like him, so I wanted to read him. I was taking a summer reading course in Greek Philosophy, the only course I needed to graduate, and asked if I could write my term paper on the influence of Greek skepticism on Montaigne. The professor said I could, so I spent a wonderful summer reading Montaigne and the Greek skeptics. I still re-read both, and I hardly re-read anything.

I do love Montaigne: he so human, so real, and quite funny at times. After you read his essays you feel like you have made a new friend.

One of my favourite stories from Montaigne is the one he tells in his essay entitled Of Physiognomy (the essays often end up having little to do with their titles) about how he invited in his enemy's soldiers even though he thought they might kill him.

"...after came four or five of his soldiers, who presented themselves in the same countenance and affright, to get in too; and after them more, and still more, very well mounted and armed, to the number of five-and-twenty or thirty, pretending that they had the enemy at their heels. This mystery began a little to awaken my suspicion; I was not ignorant what an age I lived in, how much my house might be envied, and I had several examples of others of my acquaintance to whom a mishap of this sort had happened. But thinking there was nothing to be got by having begun to do a courtesy, unless I went through with it, and that I could not disengage myself from them without spoiling all, I let myself go the most natural and simple way, as I always do, and invited them all to come in. [...] We make, methinks, a mistake in that we do not enough trust Heaven with our affairs, and pretend to more from our own conduct than appertains to us; and therefore it is that our designs so often miscarry. Heaven is jealous of the extent that we attribute to the right of human prudence above its own, and cuts it all the shorter by how much the more we amplify it. The last comers remained on horseback in my courtyard, whilst their leader, who was with me in the parlour, would not have his horse put up in the stable, saying he should immediately retire, so soon as he had news of his men. He saw himself master of his enterprise, and nothing now remained but its execution. He has since several times said (for he was not ashamed to tell the story himself) that my countenance and frankness had snatched the treachery out of his hands. He again mounted his horse; his followers, who had their eyes intent upon him, to see when he would give the signal, being very much astonished to find him come away and leave his prey behind him."

I miss my Dad.