I suspect I’m about to draw down the wrath of the Internet on me, but I finally saw The Hunger Games (the first one) and I’m simply not impressed.
Spoilers and such.
I suspect I’m about to draw down the wrath of the Internet on me, but I finally saw The Hunger Games (the first one) and I’m simply not impressed.
Spoilers and such.
So Doctor Who has been bopping around time, space, and the BBC for 50 years now, and the Beeb put on a very special 50th anniversary episode. My thoughts below. And, to quote a certain archeologist: SPOILERS
I just received the Kingston 64 GB USB flash drive shown above. I included a US quarter for size comparisons.
It holds (duh) 64 gigabytes of data. My first computer was a Commodore-64, for which I had the venerable C1541 floppy disk drive. That used 5.25″ floppy disks — which were actually floppy, you could bend them (though that was not advised!) — and could cram as much as 165 kB onto each one. Yes, that’s kilobytes. This means that, to hold the same amount as the flash drive, I would need something like 406,721 floppy disks. Laid end-to-end, they would stretch about 33 miles, or half again as long as you’d need to bridge the English Channel. Laid out in a square, they would cover an area of about 1.8 acres or 1.44 (American) football fields. Stacked, they would stand 650 m tall, or about 1.46 Empire State Buildings.
A single floppy disk cost about $2.25 (when purchased in bulk, and we would obviously have to do that!). So the cost to own this much storage would be about $915,120. We probably shouldn’t neglect you’d have to buy the drive as well — that would add $400. OK, we probably COULD neglect that. Oh, wait. That was in 1982. According to the Inflation Calculator, $915,520 in 1982 would be equivalent, more or less, to $2,144,035 in 2012. (Information not available for this year yet.) I paid amazon.com the princely sum of $37. And got free shipping. (And don’t need a warehouse to store my 400,000 disks!)
My point? We live in an age that leave Scheherazade a-gasp and disbelieving. We live in an age of miracles.
Also, get off my lawn.
So Elon Musk has revealed his great new intercity transit idea, the HyperLoop. It would seem the emphasis should be on the first syllable — to wit, HYPE — but I’ll leave engineering analyses to those far more qualified than I. My impression is that Musk offers vaporware that over-promises and under-delivers, that will never be implemented and would fail if it were. (See here for one take-down.) I’m more interested in how he generated all this buzz and why the media fell all over itself to hype it.
A good starting point is simply that it’s August and the news is slow. There haven’t been any recurrences of the 2010 summer of rage to capture the media’s attention. So a guy who’s always been good at self-promotion and who has a flair for the cool can definitely garner a few minutes air time. But I think there’s more.
First, as a society, we fetishize monetary success and idolatrize those who achieve it. We assume that anyone who’s made a bunch of money must be intrinsically smart, clever, or wise, and that this means he — and it is almost always a “he” — will magically have expertise in areas far removed from the one in which he made his fortune. (Not to double-link, but this point really is made nicely at the article above.) This impulse is particularly virulent in an age when the captains of industry must desperately justify their outsized share of the economy to the plebes whom they stand upon, and since media empires are one of the trappings of those captains, the popular media go along. We must worship success and idolatrize financial achievers, because otherwise the grueling inequality of our system would make us monsters.
Second, and not unrelated, we live in an age that builds up the private enterprise but denigrates the public work. An entrepreneur is to be hailed and held up; a privately-funded superssytem is admirable. But a public/private partnership that slogs through all the legwork of providing a high-speed rail system? That must be torn down. It is considered prima facie susceptible to corruption, of course, but it’s even worse if it succeeds. A successful HSR project would not only pump money into the economy; it would be evidence that government can succeed, and our current political atmosphere cannot sustain that sort of heresy. (There are definite shades of Atlas Shrugged here, which probably also help explain the positive reception of a subset of the media.)
Third, the HyperLoop idea plays into a creeping anti-professionalism in American culture. We are more and more convinced that “expertise” doesn’t exist. Anyone with a big idea can succeed! Details are for wimps! This myth comforts those at the top of the pyramid, of course, because it can post facto justify their position and tells them it’s OK to leave the hard work of, say, designing things to others. (I submit it’s one reason for the idolization of Steve Jobs, whom many have distorted into just an idea guy. I don’t think Jobs himself fell victim to this; he insisted on solid work and good design.) The Big Idea myth, ironically, also comforts those not at the top. They can imagine that, someday, their own Big Idea will come and they will catapult into the stratosphere of the 1%. They don’t have to work, or save, or plan; they just have to wait for inspiration. (A twisted version of this is peddled to our youth, who see their way out of the morass in athletic or musical stardom — and again, the assumption is that talent trumps training.)
Finally, and not unrelatedly at all, the HyperLoop ties into the strain of romanticism that infest American pop culture. We celebrate the dashing hero, the incorruptible outsider, the lone genius. Our central myth is the rugged individualist. Of course, our understanding of how the West was won is little more than myth. Consistent and continual community-building made this country, not loners standing in wastelands. Our films reinforce this, even in our science fiction, with The Professor the common archetype for the “good” scientist (and the evil genius his dark counterpart): A man (and again, it’s almost always a man) who stands outside the scientific consensus, sees things no one else can imagine, and single-handedly fashions exotic new technologies and whole worlds from the fruits of his solitary mind. This is the exact opposite of science, of course, with its community of learners and its painstaking assembly of new knowledge from the pieces contributed by hundreds of peers. But The Hero is sexier than the team, and so we celebrate that. We find irresistible the idea that the one guy — a genius or a billionaire — could sweep past the hundreds of researchers, activists, and experts patiently slogging away. (Any consideration of this fight would be remiss without pointing toward David Brin’s brilliant analysis of Star Wars versus Star Trek and what each says about our values.)
We live in a complex and scary world, with intimidating and complicated problems. It’s a dangerous conceit to believe that there are simple and clear answers that, somehow, no one’s thought of. It happens from time to time, of course, but so do lightning strikes. The human mind amplifies the impact of rare events and accords them a too-great weight in how we plan things. The solution to high-speed intercity transit is unlikely to come out of the blue from a guy who’d hardly thought about the problem before.
Some people have made dark rumblings that Musk — a man who’s trying to sell cars and thus has a motive to sabotage trains — might just be committing an underhanded intellectual fraud in pursuit of profit. I don’t think that’s true. I think he’s deluded by his impression of his own genius, and his delusions neatly plug into our societal ones.
We know nothing of import yet, and won’t for several hours, if not an entire day. That is the way of these things, and the truth of them.
Nonetheless, the circus has begun. Each network has already offered its own (or its several own) opinions on who caused the bombing, who planted the bombs, and why. They’ve thrown up experts onto the screen, some with actual expertise but none with actual knowledge. How do I know? Because anyone who does actually know something is busy right now, with, you know, the investigating and the saving lives and stuff. People who know are too busy contributing for them to waste time satisfying our ghoulish need for details.
The terror of actions like this, for me, does not lie in the risks we face or the suddenly-heightened sense of my own mortality. The terror lies in the amazing speed with which this sort of event divides us, inflames us, sets us against each other. It did not take long for World Net Daily to come up with its list of suspect ideologies to be blamed. It didn’t take long for CNN. It didn’t take long for me — and that’s what scares me. I have to keep reminding myself that we don’t know anything. We don’t know if this is the work of a terrorist group (foreign or domestic), or a lone madman, or someone with a grudge or a defective sense of grandeur or an aching consuming need to grab our attention.
It is so easy to take such an event and slot it into our comfortable pre-existing narratives. We spend our time imagining the worst of our opponents, so when the awful happens, we say “I can see how [group X] might be behind this sort of thing”, and then we seamlessly convince ourselves that they are behind it, and eventually we forget that we’re just speculating.
There is a nebulous, magical radius around the site of a catastrophe. Within that distance, we find the extraordinary ordinary people, the ones who run into fire and smoke and fear, who reach across the yawning divide and yank people back, the ones who won’t give up and won’t let go and who unthinkingly do the right thing. But beyond that special radius, it seems we fall prey to the worse angels of our nature: We accuse and tar and disdain; we assume the worst; we fall upon each other in anger and accusation.
So, tonight, let us remember this: We don’t know anything yet. The who and the how and the why will come out, will be known, will be important, but not tonight. We don’t know anything tonight. How this happened and how it could have been avoided and how it might happen again — these are questions of weight, but not right now. We don’t know anything — except that some have died, many are injured, and many more are grieving.
Tonight, that is our truth.
[Note: This post has been edited for spelling and grammar.]
It’s not small-government. It’s not anti-tax screeds or culture war crusades. It’s not being pro-big business or pro-gun. It’s not being anti-choice or anti-gay. It’s not suport of “traditional marriages” or of non-traditional “special interrogation”. It’s not being pro-Gitmo or anti-drone or pro-Keystone or anti-FEMA. It’s not even being sexist or being racist.
It’s a complete and utter lack of empathy, and an unhealthy disdain for the same in others.
How else do you explain the sudden 180=degree shifts in philosophy once the consequence of the party line hits home? Dick Cheney supports gay rights, because his daughter is a lesbian. Bob Portman now supports same-sex marriage, because his son has come out of the closet. Mark Kirk suddenly understands the value of government health care, once he has a brush with death. It’s how Republican governors can decry federal spending on disaster relief… right up until their state needs it.
Republicans like to claim that they’re the party of grown-ups, reining in those rascally irresponsible Democrats. But a hallmark of maturity is the development of empathy — the ability to think beyond the confines of your personal experiences and to imagine, however imperfectly, the life lived by people who are not you. On that measure, the Republican Party is a haven for toddlers and crybabies. I applaud Senator Portman for revisiting his philosophy in light of new evidence, but if we have to wait for a singular personal experience for each and every Republican, it’s going to be a long long slog.
“Rest for the Weary”
The Rainy Season
One of the things I like about Marc Cohn is that his songs aren’t all about finding, having, and losing the girl. Every album includes very personal songs that nonetheless seem to be universal. I’m also struck by how well his songs, without generally being all that upbeat, convey a certain subtle, almost unreasonable, hopefulness. More than optimism, it’s faith that, despite all appearances, there is something wonderful in even the most mundane times.
For a while this song was a touchstone in my life. It doesn’t really reflect any details of my personal history but I was very moved by the thought that someday, there will be rest for the weary. I think it’s both telling and fantastic that he passes by “love for the lonely” so quickly and dwells on “rest for the weary”. A lot of the time, that’s what we hope for: Not a surplus of joy but a cessation of struggle — just quiet time to enjoy life and life’s blessings.
I hope there was some laughter
Cause I know there were some tears
That is just an amazing line. It captures the whole arc of a family’s life. It’s also genuinely sad, in that he knows there were tears but he is unsure of the laughter.
Now I’m just another traveler
On another winding road
I’m trying to walk some kind of line
I’m trying to pull some kind of load
Now sometimes I move real easy
Sometimes I can’t catch my breath
Sometimes I see my father’s footsteps
And man it scares me half to death
These are the lines that made the song resonate with me. No child of suicide can ever think about his parent’s death without wondering, at least once, if there’s any difference — if the same siren song will call out. You try to understand but at the same time, you fear understanding. You don’t want to think the choice was senseless, but you don’t want it to make sense, either. And you always worry, in some corner of your mind, that you might have made the same choice, that you might still. For me, it’s never been a strong urge but I know that I shy away from thinking about my father’s death in part for this reason.
Although it probably wasn’t written that way, this is why the song is hopeful, for me: It gives voice to a hope I have, which is that after everything, my father found peace and rest.
“The Rainy Season”
The Rainy Season
The Rainy Season is not a happy album and “The Rainy Season” is not a happy song. While Marc Cohn held a wide mix of songs and styles, Cohn’s sophomore album is generally dark. What comes through more than anything is how hard love can be to maintain, especially when you’re on the road and apart for large stretches.
Clouds move in
From off the horizon
Feels like nighttime
In the middle of the day
This is a nice working of metaphor, which will extend to the refrain and indeed the entire album. Not only does he evoke memories of actual storms really well, but the threat of the future is pretty palpable here. When it gets dark in the middle of the dark, it’s not just any old storm. We’re talking flash-flood thunderstorm activity, something with lots of lightning and thunder and howling wind.
And I don’t know why
But it’s still so suprisin’
How a love grows stronger
Or it just fades away
The segue to the relationship is smooth, so smooth you hardly notice how much it hurts. He’s clearly not writing about a love growing stronger, is he?
But you look older today
Than I’ve ever seen you
I’m not expect on relationships, but things rarely go well when you tell your lover, “You look older than I’ve ever seen you”. But it’s a bit more than that: She looks older today — something’s changed, something that’s bringing the rain.
I think I know the reason
While I’m just making this up, I’ve always assumed that “the reason” is that she’s found out he’s cheated on her. (I think that’s backed up by “Paper Walls”) That’s the culmination of a process, of course, but the cheating (and her discovery of it) provide the singular act that cause her to look older today.
We might wash all our tears away
But you got to bundle up baby
For the rainy season
Here he’s holding out the hope — thin as even he sees it must be — that this won’t be the end of things. They might get through, wiping away their tears. But it’s going to take a storm to do it, and she’s got to be ready to walk through that storm.
I hear you breathing heavy
On the telephone tonight
I can feel the air is thick as thieves
If he’s calling her on the telephone, I’m not exactly sure how he knows she looks older today than he’s ever seen her. But let that slide. This line implies (to me) that he’s cheated; she knows he’s cheated; he knows she knows he’s cheated — but no one has said or confessed anything. That’s why the clouds are stil gathering. The unspoken accusation trembles in the air; it’s why he can feel the storm coming. Moreover, this opens the possibility that she doesn’t know and he’s just projecting his guilt.
Sometimes I just want to tell you
We’ll be all right
At least that’s what some part of me believes
Here, the forlorn hopefulness is just heartbreaking. He’s trying to offer comfort but he has none and (in my theory) it’s his own fault. He wants to think they can weather the storm but he knows, deep down, it’s unlikely.
Oh, oh I’ve been holding on so long
Holding on and holding on so long
Oh, oh I’ve been holding on so long
It’s interesting that he focuses on how long he‘s been holding on. This might upend my model of the relationship. Maybe the root cause lies with her. Or maybe he’s trying to justify his own failures. In the live version (which I prefer to the studio version), there’s an interesting twist: He says he’s “been holding on so long — holding on maybe just a little too long“. That signals, to me, that he’s come to understand things aren’t going to work out and that it’s been unhealthy for a long time.
All in all, you have to wonder what his wife thought when this song and album came out.
“Girl of Mysterious Sorrow”
Burning the Daze
I’ll make a confession. I did not get, at first, that this song was about graveside remembrance. In fact I felt quite clever to figure it out. Listening to it again, it now seems pretty obvious and I was just dense the first time around. There is cleverness in the song, in that he never comes out and says he’s at a graveside, but it really isn’t as subtle as I had thought. In any event, it seems clear now that this is a part of his Missing Mother triptych (along with “Ghost Train” and “Momma’s in the Moon”). It would be trite to comment that losing one’s mother, especially when young, will be a formative experience that naturally influences everything else that comes in life. It’s no surprise that he’s moved repeatedly to engage with that loss on every album. Here he tackles head-on the lack of answers to questions he never had the chance to ask.
I’m coming to see you, tomorrow sometime
Gonna bring you some roses, gonna tear off the vines
Gonna talk to the wind that blows through the trees
Kiss you like always from down on my knees
Gonna ask you some questions, get no replies
Wipe all the tears, falling down from my eyes
‘Cause the one that I wanted, I never could know
I think I was misled because I was still in my literal stage of lyric comprehension. I probably should have remembered that roses grow in bushes, not on vines, and thus the second line is about clearing a tombstone. The first of many heartbreaks comes with “Gonna ask you some questions and get no replies”.
Gonna park in the street, gonna open the gate
Walk to the spot where you always wait
I’ll be shaking my head like I usually do
‘Cause the name and the dates tell me nothing about you
Here we see why he keeps coming back: He has the facts of his mother’s life but not the truth of it. She died when he was very young, before he could know her as a person at all. One imagines he’s had family stories (although most likely people have been circumspect even in those), but he has nothing to connect them to. He’s looking for meaning, for a connection that was broken far too soon, and this patch of ground is the only place he has to look for it.
But I’ll sit in the shadows and let you explain
All of the sadness and all of the pain
Did it all seem so hopeless you just had to let go?
This is odd at first. How can he wait for her to explain? She’s dead. But that’s the point: He’s spent his whole life waiting for understanding that simply isn’t going to come. There’s also the first hint of something even darker here. I have no knowledge of the circumstance under which Marc Cohn’s mother died but this line makes me think it might have been suicide. If not that, then the end of a long drawn-out illness. People who die suddenly, unexpectedly, usually wouldn’t be described as having “let go”.
Yeah I’m coming to see you but I really can’t stay
There’s just a few things I needed to say
Like why were you hiding so much of yourself?
Why were you living for somebody else?
The lyric site I consulted has this as “but I really can’t wait”, but that’s pretty clearly wrong. First, why would he be eager to visit? The rest of the song sounds resigned and reluctant. Second, of course, is the deeper meaning. His life, unlike hers, moves on. He can visit her in the past but he can’t linger there.
It might be putting too much import on a word choice probably motivated by rhyme scheme, but I think it’s significant that he doesn’t ask the questions; he says them. He isn’t really expecting to understand. He’s just expressing bemusement and confusion. He might not even believe there is an answer.
Well I know that I’ve always been looking for you
But lately it’s not such a hard thing to do
‘Cause it seems like inside every woman I know
There’s a girl of mysterious sorrow
A bit of self-analysis for Cohn, here. He knows that his mother’s death has cast a shadow over everything he’s done, even when he wasn’t conscious of it. Her death informs his life, all the choices and desires and hopes and fears. He’s been searching his whole life for the connection he can never make. And then he’s explicit: He’s been looking for his mother in all the women he’s known. He senses there’s something universal to her story, to her plight (which is one reason why I believe it might have been a suicide). The “mysterious sorrow” is that unbridgeable ineffable something that he can’t quite puzzle out but which he sees reflected around him.
This song speaks to me on two levels. First, I recently lost my mother in a car accident. Although I haven’t visited a grave yet, and though I had the joy of knowing her throughout my life, I can’t hear Cohn’s plaintive loss without feeling an echo resonate in that empty place that has erupted in my heart. There’s something primal about losing one’s mother, something universal and personal all at once.
Second, I did lose a parent to suicide, though it was my father and not my mother. I was closer in age to when Cohn lost his mother, too, right on the edge of teendom and looking for answers and guidance as I grew into a man. It took me four years to even begin asking the questions, much less finding the answers, and like Cohn, I really can only say them, not genuinely ask them. There is the same unbridgeable gap between what I feel and whatever my father felt. Part of me worries I will never understand. Part of me is terrified that someday I will.
More on my father and I when this compilation hits “Rest for the Weary”.