Saturday, May 27, 2023

Breakfast Pest

No minikin that! On my table a thin imp, barely an inch, stood barbecuing a midge. He’d kindled some twigs, held the midge on a long sliver.

“How did you light that fire?”

“I’m an imp. Fire’s a given.”

“You’ll singe my wood finish.”

“So try to dislodge me. See how it goes.”

A glint in his tiny lizard eyes.

I sighed. I rose and limped to the kitchen. Not for a stick, but to fix coffee.

Truth is, the last imp put a crimp in my hip.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Carlson Was Fired for Calendrical Conspiracy

OK, not exactly. But bear with me. We’re going to do some alternative history.
Instead of COVID, let’s imagine that in early 2020 America was hit by a somewhat different crisis. Experts noticed that average Americans were missing more meetings than usual. Yup, the rate at which people mixed up the day they were supposed to appear for this or that had nearly doubled. A sudden rise in screwed up lunch dates and missed dental appointments. What was to be done?

Many of America’s calendrical experts suggested traditional methods: citizens should double-check meeting times, look at their schedule every morning, etc.

But Dr. Fantony Ouchy, head of the US Department of Dates and Calendars, disagreed. This was “a new kind of crisis” calling for a radical approach. Luckily, the calendar industry was working on an emergent technology that could soon be deployed. In the meantime, according to Ouchy, we needed to temporarily suspend meetings of all kinds. With all meetings canceled, no one could miss meetings.

“Two weeks to flatten the curve,” was the rallying cry.

Ouchy’s enthusiasm for this idea, added to many state governors’ enthusiasm for killing meetings, ended by extending the “two weeks” to several months. At this point many Americans began to suspect something odd was going on, that this wasn’t really about missed meetings, that there was some other agenda. But conspiracy theories being endemic to America, these people were quickly and loudly shouted down.

In summer 2021, the new technology was ready for launch. Ouchy announced at a press conference in June that for the foreseeable future Wednesday and Thursday would change places every week—that the weekdays would now run “Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Wednesday, Friday."

Ouchy: “We have evidence that the switching of Wednesday and Thursday will provide 100% protection against missed meetings. Once you do it, you won’t flub another appointment.”

Some respected calendrical authorities openly rejected this plan. They pointed out that there was zero evidence such an approach would work. The number of dissenters remained small, however, because Dr. Ouchy, aside from heading the Department of Dates and Calendars, also happened to control all funding for calendrical studies in the US and had authority over copyright for calendar publication in the US and much of the world.

So the plan was official. Many Americans, shaken by nonstop news coverage, began switching Wednesday and Thursday. And within weeks the corporate media began reporting data that indicated the switch was working: fewer meetings were being missed. The crisis would soon be overcome.

Still, there were resisters. Most resisters were getting their analysis from the sidelined calendrical authorities and preferred to stick with older methods like double-checking the day’s schedule before heading out. In the media, these people were tarred as backward “science deniers” and “MAGA riffraff” and were blamed for slowing down the fight against skipped appointments.

After a month, however, evidence emerged of people who had used the Ouchy method but who still missed meetings. These “breakthrough cases” caused a stir.

Ouchy: “The technology isn’t perfect, we now realize. Still, our data indicates 97% effectiveness. Also, although you yourself may miss a meeting or two, if you follow the method, you can never cause another person to miss a meeting.”

Certain disreputable figures in right-wing media began to call the federal response to the crisis a “power grab”. On Fox, the insufferable racist Tucker Carlson openly mocked Ouchy and the lockdowns and what he called the “Thursday-Wednesday lie”. Others brazenly recited the weekdays in traditional order, or posted them on Twitter, after which their accounts were cancelled for spreading misinformation.

Independent researchers proved that big banks and two Silicon Valley companies, having developed software to this end, were making billions off the switch of the weekdays. Some conspiratorial-minded rubes suggested that the whole thing may have been planned to effect just this outcome. They were banned from Twitter and social media.

The left, in this new century never suspicious of corporate power or federal authorities, doubled down in defense of Ouchy and the Thursday-Wednesday Rule and Silicon Valley. Other US corporations got on board.

WaPo: “Punch Out Thursday Night and Punch In Wednesday Morning, or be Fired: Southwest”

Forbes: “Target to Fire all Employees who Reject New Weekdays”

Slate: “Did you tie one on Thursday night? How to be your best for that Wednesday a.m. meeting”

NYT: “Bill Gates Touts Plan to Make Every Day Thursday”

As official data proving the Thursday-Wednesday Rule wasn’t working began to pile up, media and Democratic governor soundbites against “science deniers” grew only louder. Then official government numbers from Europe showed that those who followed the rule were actually twice as likely to miss meetings.

The crisis slowly morphed into the new normal. Most Americans, even the switchers, returned to the traditional order of weekdays. Oddly, Ouchy himself published a scientific paper in which he acknowledged that there never was any likelihood switching weekdays would work, and that this had always been known. Crickets from the media. Then the DDC (Department of Dates and Calendars) claimed in a published statement that they had never actually coerced people into switching Wednesday and Thursday, and that they had never claimed doing so would help people keep meetings. Crickets from the media. Even Bill Gates tempered his plan somewhat. In the 2.0 version, only three weekdays would be called Thursday.

In the media and academia and other educated places like Hollywood, those Americans who had been skeptical from the beginning were still tarred as mouth-breathing science deniers. “Philosopher” Sam Harris even admitted in interview that although they may have been right, “they were right for the wrong reasons.”

Then white-supremacist child sacrificer Tucker Carlson was finally fired by the Fox News corporation. Because the Fox News corporation is a corporation.

Though in the end the crisis caused trillions of dollars in economic damage and ruined tens of thousands of small businesses, no indictments or actual investigations ever occurred. The reason is simple. Rubes who are dumb enough to insist Wednesday comes before Thursday are not the kind of people given power to indict or investigate.

Check out my Idiocy, Ltd. and begin the long, hard reckoning.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Women on a Sailboat

Look at this vintage shot. Click and enlarge it.
First Thoughts:

That famous “effortless grace” of the 1960s, a style set by Jackie O with her strings of pearls. Of course the photo was taken on the east coast somewhere. Whose yacht were they on? What afternoon party was just coming to an end? The photographer has really captured the era.

Second Thoughts:

Oh. None of these women ever existed, nor did the yacht, nor the sunny evening in question. The image was entirely generated by AI, by an image generator called Midjourney, version 5. All the AI needed to generate it was the following short text prompt: “1960s street style photo of a crowd of young women standing on a sailboat, wearing dior dresses made of silk, pearl necklaces, sunset over the ocean, shot on Agfa Vista 200, 4k --ar 16:9.” So the image is entirely fake. No east coast women ever gathered on a yacht, no photographer ever “captured the era”. Rather, a sophisticated AI program impersonated an era.

Third Thoughts:

It’s uncanny really, bordering on creepy. From many angles. First, how can such a simple, short prompt generate such a convincingly realistic image? The AI had to get so many things right, all on its own. For instance: There are sunsets all over the globe, there are women of many races and cultures, the AI can of course generate images of any of them. But merely getting the prompts “1960s, pearl necklaces, Dior dresses, sailboat”, the AI knew the likely locale and culture to reproduce. Though it could have, it did not generate Korean women on a sailboat on the Korean coast. But also: The facial expressions, the natural variations of pose in a group of women in Dior dresses, seem precisely right, don’t they? Each maintains a poise and stance suited to being in the presence of the others in that moment, and this poise and stance are also culturally encoded facts, which the AI managed to get right.

And these are just some of the things it got right. One can think of more. In short, not only is the realism of the image itself uncanny, but the sophistication of an AI that can generate such visually and culturally persuasive images, on the basis of minimal keyword hints, makes it doubly uncanny.

Final Thoughts:

Such persuasive power is a force we’re not ready for. AI technology’s ability to fake human things (whether human images or human language) is going to have massive, unforeseen impacts. And it’s all starting right now, with Microsoft’s ChatGPT-powered chatbox, and with these image-generating programs improving at lightning speed. The uncanny feeling we get looking at these nonexistent women should tell us something. The discordance it causes in us is probably nothing compared to what waits round the corner.

Think of AI products guaranteed to arrive in the coming few years. It’s not hard to predict some of them. Why not, say, visually “personalize” your AI chatbox as an avatar, a little lifelike talking doll on your screen, a talking doll that has memorized the entire Internet and can entertain you with stories and sympathy and advice? Why not give your doll the personality traits you like, or the appearance of your favorite celebrity?

If the rise of social media has damaged young people’s mental health (evidence suggests it has) what will come of the ability to create custom digital “friends” that grow increasingly human-like? And what about custom digital fraudsters? What security challenges (think ID verification) will arise once AI can impersonate an individual’s appearance in image or video, or impersonate an individual’s voice and speech patterns over the phone? All this is not to mention the millions of jobs that will become obsolete once AI can do it better.

At least as regards fraud, we know Big Tech is struggling to program AI products to prevent their use for criminal activities. And we know the sheer computing power needed to run AI prevents anyone but Big Tech or state actors from developing it. So there is some oversight protection. But so what? Given what we’ve learned recently, do you really trust Silicon Valley, working hand in glove with our federal three-letter agencies, not to start using AI to modify evidence or manipulate public perceptions? Most Americans already recognize corporate media growing faker by the year, and that social media is not so much an “open forum" as a tool of mass control. How long then before we begin getting video clips that sway elections or rile mass emotions but are in fact sophisticated, untraceable fakes?

Of course these myriad looming impacts from AI are being widely discussed, debated, hashed over. Reading into the debate is sobering. One ex-Google engineer who was fired succinctly captures some of the aura in a recent Newsweek piece. Many balked at some of his claims (“sentience”). Still, whether analysts are hopeful or full of dread at what's coming, most agree with the engineer's key point: AI is a Huge Cat just now crawling out of the bag, and no one can predict what this Cat will get up to.

The image above was posted by one Nick St. Pierre. See more of his uncanny images here.

Have some deadpan with your coffee. Check out Idiocy, Ltd. Dryest humor in the west.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Should you read Proust?

With most great writers, I’d answer such a question with an unhesitating “Yes!” With Proust, however, the honest answer would have to be: “That depends.”

It depends on a lot actually. For one, have you read wide swaths of Western literature? If not, you maybe shouldn’t read Proust. Your efforts would be better spent reading other major writers you’ve so far missed. The reason is simple: the time it will take you to read Proust’s massive novel would be enough to read well into your list of neglected greats. And you’ll certainly get more from immersing yourself in five or six different writers than you’d get from burying yourself alive in one writer, however great he may be.

A friend asked me years ago if he should take up Proust. “You can if you like,” I said, “but you won’t be able to finish it.” He was a bit miffed, but understood the gist: the work’s stylistic density plus its sheer length have left thousands of corpses in the ditches of Volume I or II.

“What if I read five pages a day, so I don’t get bored with it?”

“Yeah, that’s not a bad plan.”

“I wonder how long it would take.”

“Well, you’re 34, yes? If you start now, and read five pages a day, you’ll likely finish before you retire.”

I was exaggerating, but not by much. Because hey, how many people planning to read “five pages a day” of something actually end up reading five pages a day?

Proust as a young man, portrait by Jacques-Emile Blanche.

I myself don’t find Proust boring, except in stretches, but the work is often exasperating. To give one early example, the denouement of the narrator’s failed love for Gilberte in Volume II (which has the delicious French title A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur) seems well-nigh interminable, insufferable. He explains how he has decided to break with Gilberte, analyses his reasons, lays out his plan of action, then … a handful of pages later, explains again how he has decided to break with Gilberte, analyses his reasons, lays out his plan of action, etc. This gets probably four iterations over what may be thirty pages. I realized just how bad it was only later in Volume II when my eye fell upon Gilberte’s name again, long after the affair was over, in a paragraph on Balbec. I shuddered. Just to see the name. At that point I didn’t want to see the name Gilberte again. Ever.

Proustians will say I’m not being fair. Proust is a supreme artist of the tricks desire plays on us, of the inevitable pain of love. An artist of pain, he needs to detail that pain as experienced by his narrator. He needs to do this even when that pain is drawn out and overwrought, because that’s what really happens when one is smitten, no?

I remain unconvinced. Because, to take the same example, the Gilberte passages are not redeemed by the usual brilliant formulae that make Proust worth reading. They are, for instance, pale stuff compared to his treatment of Swann’s love for Odette in Volume I. That grim tale, though also lengthy, traces a clear movement. And in it Proust offers us one of his first great insights into the mystery of love. Namely, that we are subject to falling most deeply in love with those who are precisely not our type. The treatments of Gilberte and Odette offer a contrast revealing much about what works in Proust and what doesn’t.

But I digress. Still, I’m writing of Proust. And if a two-paragraph digression bothers you, here’s your takeaway: You will not enjoy reading him.

The problem is this: What makes Proust supremely worthwhile is also what makes him, at intervals, a bore. That’s the paradox you’ll have to shoulder. The wellsprings of everything in Proust reside in his narrator’s indefatigable inwardness. The work prods out what lurks at the margins of the narrator’s psyche, prods it into the light, then sketches the shades and contours of what is there. Needless to say, Proust is masterful at this, unmatched really. And as he’s also one of us, a being who lives in time and loves and suffers, the shapes he reveals are shapes we often recognize. Much of the joy of reading him, as with other great writers, is in the frequent recognition of something we already knew, but weren’t conscious of knowing it, because we aren’t possessed of the same analytical inwardness. But as Proust is also prone to diagnostic forays that risk tripping over into verbosity, there’s the paradox again. It is, finally, part of the deal. One doesn’t get the brilliant revelations without having to sit there while the master polishes his microscope. And polish it he will, a couple times each volume.

Still, I don’t want to give a false impression. Though he delves obsessively on the games our psyches play on us, the perfidious landscape of the self, Proust’s work doesn’t at all read like the journal of an introvert. In this respect he’s very different from, say, Pessoa, whose Book of Disquiet stands as modern Europe’s great monument to introversion. My own delight in Proust comes when he’s narrating encounters with others, setting down the echoes others provoke in his narrator, “Marcel”, at the moment of encounter. Here too we see his keen attentiveness to how the world impacts the self, the reverberations of that impact. But if the person or place whose impact is in question is allowed to lose immediacy—if, say, she drifts out of the narrative and becomes entirely a matter of thought, it’s there the sentences will tend to circle into tedium.

Still sticking to Volume II, we could contrast passages that show the law at work. If the break with Gilberte is overwrought and redundant to the point of intolerable, against this, however, in the very same volume, we have the brilliantly oblique introduction of Charlus and then the supreme opening pages of “Frieze of Girls at the Sea”—both passages taking their strength from their staging of the affect these others provoke in Marcel. Both passages depend, in short, on the same unflagging inwardness that makes other stretches of Volume II falter.

Likewise, in Volume V, we meet similar contrasts: the wonderful pages on Albertine sleeping, followed by pages in which Marcel lays out the metaphysics of jealously. In the former Albertine is present, grounding the narrator’s attention. He cannot go wrong. The latter pages, however, grow needlessly recursive.

I’m just giving examples. And perhaps it comes down to that fundamental rule recognized by all good writers: Don’t tell, show. When Proust begins to tell at length, he risks losing us. When he is showing us a scene as it unfolds, we cannot set the book aside. His handling of the back-and-forth between external event and the immediate echo provoked in his narrator gives us some of the finest pages in 20th century prose. Yes, all good writers know the rule Don’t tell, show—but Proust is not merely a “good” writer, he’s one of the greatest. Thus the paradox.

Some may again protest: "To appreciate the impact others have on his narrator, we have to know that narrator intimately. We have to know just what he is." Thus Proust’s lengthy passages of self-analysis and hand-wringing are claimed as necessary to give us such knowledge: they are are needed as ground for everything else that “works”. I’d disagree, insisting that whole pages could have been cut, and the work would still stand, and we’d still know just who it was that was so taken by the clique of rude girls strolling down Balbec beach. We’d know who it was and why he was so taken. I’m not convinced the doldrums are necessary to the work.

But yes, there are also crucial passages of telling, even telling at length: most obviously the series of epiphanies jostled from the uneven paving stones in the final volume, where Marcel at long last realizes what he is to do. The rule, then, doesn’t always apply. Proust succumbs to telling as soporific only on occasion.

But a Disclaimer: If I’ve read Proust myself, it was … partly a matter of duty. As a grad student in literary studies, I thought it necessary to know this writer. And in fact I didn’t read all the novel in grad school, only the first two volumes, in French, then some of the rest in English translation. So in a way I was similar to the friend I warned above: I too had once fallen as casualty to Proust’s prose. I’d only finish it a few years later, and am rereading it now, decades later, spurred on by René Girard's brilliant assessment in his early study Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. (Amusingly, during those grad school years, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, there was a course offered by Prof. Elaine Marks in which students were to read the whole work in one semester. Which, honestly, is obscene. I knew how obscene it was, and didn’t take the course. As to how many students took it and “faked” it, not actually reading the whole, I’m not sure. 97%? 100%?)

Whether telling or showing, Proust is not entirely a novelist of human relations, a “psychological” novelist full of labored character analyses and dredging in the Self. The passages I complain of here don’t make for a sixth of the whole, if that. And the rewards of reading him outweigh these dull stretches any day. The work is stunning in its rhetorical effects: Proust’s metaphors, often extended over pages, are among the most subtle in literature. The work is also rich in penetrating passages on music, landscape, painting, architecture—the range of aesthetic phenomena. Marcel is, as always, the medium of perception, Proust tracing the troubled encounters with art of one coming of age in a society for which art mattered greatly. Marcel’s long struggle with literature especially, culminating in the final volume, effects a signal shift in the history of the novel, in our idea of literary writing per se.

The work is, besides, often very funny. From the indomidable dignity of the family servant Françoise to the grave hysterias of the Baron de Charlus, Proust’s humor catches all classes and types, yet manages to remain sympathetic to those he satirizes. Such sympathy is perhaps necessary in this narrator, who records his own manias and follies in detail, yet it is another mark of the work’s greatness. Proust is something one would think impossible: a high aesthete who is also a wisdom writer. (Girard's book, by the way, reveals much about Proust's wisdom, relating it to the extremity of his follies.)

In Search of Lost Time immerses us in the Belle Epoque world of the writer’s youth, a world that already in the writing is recognized as lost. To read him, for us, is also to travel back more than a century, to engage the struggles and subtleties of a culture now distant and growing more distant with each decade. I’d say that Proust’s world is foreign, but not entirely so. To read him is to recognize things both familiar and intimate, things being lost even as we read, lost both in our own lives and in the swiftly changing culture we’re subject to. To read him, above all, is to attain to a deeper grasp of the power of time and how it shapes and warps us.

Finally—need it be said?—reading Proust is unlike reading anything else. In this, he’s similar to other great writers, Kafka for instance, writers who create a world that one enters, rather than write a novel set in this or that milieu, but one which, if one reads random pages, one might mistake for a different writer’s work. There are great writers of the latter sort, but the greatest writers are the former.

Should you take up the challenge, then? I’ve tried to offer some aspects of what it entails. If you’re going to read Proust in English, I do recommend you stick with the C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation, originally titled Remembrance of Things Past. Certain precisions are gained in the later translations (titled In Search of Lost Time) but Scott Moncrieff’s work is a masterpiece in its own right, he was a contemporary of Proust’s, and his prose captures the era in an English style closer to that era.

I should acknowledge that Proust does have his detractors among other major writers. Though Conrad, Woolf, Faulkner and Nabokov saw an absolute value in him, Joyce, Borges, Evelyn Waugh, a few others, left mostly negative assessments. Some of these No votes, however, come down to incidental carping, or even individual pique. Those who voted Yes offer more in the way of actual argument. Conrad for instance: “What compels my admiration for M. Proust’s work is that it is great art based on analysis … I don’t think there is in all creative literature an example of the power of analysis such as this.”

Proust’s novel, at 3,000-plus pages, demands time. And will test your patience. But after the passing of many decades, Conrad’s judgment still holds true.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Pfizer FAIL: Was Jordan Walker “lying to impress a date”?

Sadly for Jordan Trishton Walker, he almost certainly no longer works for Pfizer as “Director of Research and Development, Strategic Operations, and mRNA Scientific Planner”.

Life comes at you fast. One day you’re in meetings discussing top secret experiments at a global pharma giant, the next day you’re saying “Do you need a bag with that?”

But isn’t it possible Walker really was, as he claims, just “lying to impress a date”? Rewatch the clips while considering this possibility. Just to be fair. You will see the claim doesn’t hold water. Walker's way of conveying information, its very disjointedness, indicates there is in fact a backstory. This is not the speech of someone making something up to impress, but the speech rather of someone who is giddily talking about things he knows he shouldn’t. Because he can’t help himself. Because his eager erotic interest in the person across from him outweighs any interest he might have in protecting the people he works for.

Further, Walker’s speech clearly shows that he was not in the loop in terms of actual decision making on experiments (no surprise there) but was merely privy to meetings or conversations where such experiments were discussed. He’s obviously referring to discussions where he was mostly a listener. But if that is so, then higher ups at Pfizer were in fact discussing the kind of experiments he alludes to.

His speech manner indicates all this. Had Walker been lying to impress a date, he wouldn’t have communicated this way. He’d have implied a more central role for himself, presented things more coherently, and instead of being flippant, he’d have been more mysterious. As it is, the guy gabs on like an undergraduate.

Flippant, immature, he of course goes ballistic when O’Keefe comes in to question him. Can one imagine a clumsier attempt at damage control?

So many contradictions. On the one hand he was “lying to impress a date”, on the other he laments: “How can I trust anyone?” (Which I suppose can be summed up as: “How can we liars trust anyone?”)

At one point, of course, he tries to play the race card. He tells police dispatch there are “three, four, five white people. I feel very unsafe.”

Yet he insists on keeping these supposedly dangerous white people locked in the restaurant next to him. And soon he’ll be lunging at them—himself against “three, four, five”.

But of course we all know what “unsafe” means to people like Walker. It means: “I’m being challenged in a way I don’t like, and since I’m a protected status person, these people need to be in big trouble RIGHT NOW!”

My own idea of unsafe is quite different. What makes me feel unsafe is knowing that drug companies are continuing to “evolve” pathogens in defiance of law and medical ethics.

Will anything concrete happen because of the efforts of Project Veritas here? Of course not. Pfizer will go into deflection mode (apparently already has) and that will be the end of it. There will be no investigation, or at least none with teeth. Think back through the record. There hasn’t been a shred of accountability for any of our elites (whether political, financial, military, or medical) since this new century began.

A society that allows nonstop reckless malfeasance in its elites, no repercussions--where does such a society end up? Wherever that might be, we're already halfway there.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Things Realized

My sock drawer is divided into two large categories: the new socks and the old socks. Your sock drawer may be the same. The new socks occupy the front of the drawer and the old socks the back. But today I realize, I only ever wear the new socks. Ever. Not a single pair of the old socks has been taken out in … two years? Conclusion: Toss them.

Political elites have of course always lied to the citizenry. Nothing new there. Still, the lies our current regime foists on us show a brazenness and absurdity that wouldn’t have passed muster even a decade ago. Official explanations are now regularly shrill, ridiculous. Like the frantic speech of someone doing everything they can to keep you from looking in the corner.

The last actual improvement in telephone technology was the switch from dial to push button. Was that the 1970s? Everything that’s happened since, including the “cordless headset”, has been an annoyance. And cell phones? Cell phones are basically ankle bracelet monitors. That you pay for.

People who don’t trust you are often people you can’t trust. Another version: People who suspect you of lying to them are often liars. The reason is clear. Those who get through life by lying and deception tend to generalize such behavior. They assume it’s normal. They thus project their own dodginess onto others, and this is a tell.

The 21st century “left” is not a political movement but a new religion. And bizarrely, we now have a left that is fully corporate-sponsored. Think of it! It would be laughable if it weren’t so dire.

The slippery slope is no longer a logical fallacy.

“Is the Pope Catholic?” is no longer a rhetorical question.

Your willingness to opt for convenience is leading, step by little step, to your enslavement.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

The Price Was Right

This morning I dreamt I was a contestant on The Price is Right. Somehow there were a couple dozen contestants on the stage, seated in rows. The host was Anthony Fauci. As the show continued, contestants would just disappear, randomly. Seats would suddenly be empty. Worse, Fauci wouldn’t acknowledge it, and most of the people on stage didn't notice. A sense of growing unease, exchanging of glances under the heavy stage lighting.

It seemed to be early '70s. Fauci was in a tan leisure suit.