Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '16

No words can better describe the reaction to Donald J. Trump this year than the title of this blog post. Hunter S. Thompson, where are you now that we've created the perfect candidate for you to despise?

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Notes on Wallace Stevens

Magisterial, serious, smart.  These are some of the words used to describe Wallace Stevens.  Might we add: muscular, musical, aesthetic?  How about: obscure, erudite, pedantic?

Wallace Stevens is a challenging poet, about this there can be little doubt. His reference book is deep and his metaphors skip from image to image like the needle on an old record player. The reader is left hanging on for life, hoping eventually to land in a groove of understanding.  This is particularly true in his earlier work, when he explores the full poetic toolkit to produce effects, to dazzle, perhaps even to show off.

This is not uncommon in writers.  The tricks of the trade are new to the craftsman who is new to the craft. In the good ones, there also exists great ambition and energy. It’s only through practice that the power of the language grows on them, or perhaps more correctly, grows into them, and they can measure ornament, filigree and plain talk more precisely.

What’s interesting in Stevens is that the development of his craft is visible from his early poems to his late ones, but it also coincides with a philosophic stance that shadows it.

Let’s start with this question: Is early Stevens just a pedantic puzzle of meanings and references, High Church Latin that only the scholars can perceive, or can we say we have understood enough if we have heard the music of his verse? In other words, is there a value in trying to decode his meanings, or should we allow the poetry to stand on the strength of its sounds alone?

There is a simple answer to that question: to enjoy the depth of any of his poems without first digging into to the text to see and hear what the poet is talking about is a waste of time. Stevens’ poetic language moves from scene setting to core argument with a fluidity that is rapid and elusive. If the boundaries of these two realms are not adequately chalked out, the reader is lost.

Here’s an example: In the first stanza of “Sunday Morning”, “the green freedom of a cockatoo” is a very vivid image to tell us where the action is.  It sets the scene, gives us the mood and tell us where we are. However, two short lines down in the same sentence, we encounter the core argument of the poem for the first time, the “holy hush of ancient sacrifice”. Only the most sensitive reader is going to extract the differing weights of these two different images without guidance.

And what about the core arguments, what Stevens is trying to say?  In line 1 of stanza II, “Why should she give her bounty to the dead?”, we are left to ask, how should the living relate to the dead, and what obligations should they have. For religious Christians, it is Jesus and the Trinity. For the secular, it is not. Stevens answers his own question later in the stanza

Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?

These verses lead to this question:  If we are to look to things on this earth for our joy, as this question would have us do, then who would play the role of Jesus? Or to put it more directly, where does the artist stand in this relationship?  Wouldn’t Stevens include the poet in the “balm and beauty of the earth” or as its interpreter?

In the final stanza of the poem Stevens utters the more radical claim that there was never anything in Jesus’ tomb but the bones of a dead man, and that “The tomb in Palestine/is not the porch of spirits lingering”.  Our ephemeral selves are it. And then Stevens continues on in an extended metaphor that is nigh on impenetrable, but through whose imagery we are to understand that what we have on this earth is what we should enjoy, focus on, sense, experience, live.

We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make …

Why is this interesting? Because Stevens, like many human beings, develops in his later life a milder assessment of the power of art to transmit either meaning or emotion.  Is this because art is inherently limited by and of itself, or is this because art is the product of human endeavor, and incomplete capacity to know and understand ourselves and how to the use the tools at our disposal means that whatever humans produce will also fall short?

Again, Stevens answers his own question. In “The Poems of Our Climate”, Stevens moves us through an image of aesthetic perfection
Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnation. The light
In the room more like snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.

But this image, so delicately crafted to convey the Platonic ideal of an absolute, “Clear water in a brilliant bowl” – both an ideal of beauty and an ideal of art’s ability to capture it – turns out to be nothing more than the straw man Stevens is about to tear down.

Pink and white carnations – one desires
So much more than that.

Stevens continues in the poem’s final stanza

The imperfect is our paradise.
Not that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

Here for the first time does Stevens hint that the paradise that “is so hot in us” actually exists outside not just the aesthetic realm (and poetry) but outside of art itself.  For the first time we grapple with the possibility that art cannot achieve its ultimate goal – to serve us in the way that Christ serves the religious, as that portal through which we can derive meaning from life. The “flawed words and stubborn sounds” are not the lines of poetry that don’t quite work.  They are the words and sounds that never make it into the poem. Poetry struggles its way towards a kind of bliss, and the poet begins his journey as the creator or explorer of that bliss. But the poet can only ultimately fail at capturing it, because he is human.  At exactly this moment, when art fails to succeed, paradise begins. Ultimately, life is not some ethereal abstraction distillable into art. Life is the experience of living, a fact whose sum is greater than our capacity put boundaries around it. Stevens’ early work was about becoming a master craftsman for the ages, but by his later work, he could only acknowledge the futility of that task. None are worse for his journey though. Indeed we are much the better for it.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The evolution of the bumper sticker

The bumper sticker has evolved from something you put on your car to something you put on your laptop. This mirrors exactly the transformation that our culture has gone through over the past two decades. The material possession that gives us our strongest sense and expression of freedom is no longer our automobile. It is our electronic device. I’d never seen it quite that way until I thought about adding another sticker on my laptop today.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Defining mob rule

Last week, I was talking with my friend Sunil about ways to improve our democracy, a task that seems particularly important to both of us in this toxic time. 

We got on the subject of direct democracy, its attractions and its pitfalls, and why it appears to be a better solution to our public dysfunction than perhaps it is. I argued that a representative government - where elected representatives are empowered to make decisions on behalf of a larger voting public - is a preferred choice, for a host of reasons. Highest  among these is that the voters get the elected official's judgment, which is of great value especially in the toughest calls. Next, we acknowledged the difficulty of effective executive action in direct democracies. Somebody has to try to make the trains run, and generally the will of the people alone is not sufficient.

All of this got us onto the subject of "mob rule", the thing that procedure and due process are designed to protect us against. This led me to thinking, how would I define "mob rule"? Here was my go at it, and so I offer it:

When the majority opinion of those speaking fails to take into account the full array of that community's interests. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A walk through Celebration, Florida

Celebration, Florida is the new urbanist’s dream. It’s like walking through the pages of a Christopher Alexander book on the theory of places and space. 

There are towers, lots of them ... 

and clocks, lots of them ... 

and a village square ...

and roads that curve with white pickets fences ...

and porches ... 

and a post office ...

and cafes ...

and everything you’d ever dream could happen in a little village in New England, or perhaps Europe. The only difference being that nothing existed here 20 years ago and this isn’t New England, nor is it Europe. And Disney developed this place.

Actually, it really isn’t that bad, for what it’s trying to do. And given the scale of the dreck that is spread more generally across the Florida landscape, its walkability is worth celebrating. Still, if you’ve ever read any theory about new urbanism, there is an aspect of “cut and paste” to everything. It’s the poster child for Alexander’s archetypes and Allan Jacobs Great Streets, and it points to the strength and the weakness of the theory (and the theoreticians). 

Even at at this low-intensity scale, the challenging interrelationships of street to building, open space to built environment, pedestrian to cars, residential to retail are deftly addressed. In that sense, Celebration is confirmation that the theory of new urbanism works in practice. The attention to detail is impressive. 17th century building styles (think Concord, Massachusetts or Savannah, Georgia) really do work at a human scale. 

In this, its creators are to be commended. Celebration is battling against the land use practices of the past century by offering a credible alternative. To that end, it succeeds. It’s not even terribly racially segregated. 

Still, the proxy for my critique is best phrased by a friend, “It looks like a 1950s movie set. The Stepford Wives perhaps.” Yes, exactly.

It’s pastiche. It’s faux. It’s ersatz. It’s plastic. It’s a myth about urbanism that we desperately hang on to. It's a myth that is both true and false at the same time. Maybe all urbanism shares this complaint, but it’s particularly stark in Celebration.  By way of example, there are no poor people in Celebration, anywhere. A development model cannot stop at the land use plan or at the urban design detail. It must encompass society in all its permutations, not just in those that remind us of something we think we want to see. Cohabitation is more than that but Celebration isn't.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

12 Hours of Sebring 2016, recap

As many of you know, I've become a bit of a car nut in my recent years. It's a handy way to spend time (or do I mean to waste time?) and like anything, it becomes more interesting the more you know about it.

Which brings me to where I am right now, the 2016 12 Hours of Sebring, one of the most venerable and venerated endurance tests in motorsport. It takes place every year in March in Sebring, Florida, and the top teams take out their new tech kits and run them around the track to see who will fare the best. Yesterday, I had the pleasure of watching the race live, rain and all. Here are some of my notes and photos of the experience ...


I now have gone to a few car events, and every time I go, I always think I should write a blog called "What going to Grateful Dead shows taught me about automobiles" because they share many similarities ... grungy people camping in fields for days, some of them needing tickets to the event, drinking lots of beer (or in the case of the Dead, smoking lots of dope).

But I digress.

I showed up too late for the start of this year's race because my drive down from my hotel took longer than I thought. I arrived at the main gate to this unexpected question by a gate attendant, "Any water, fireworks or guns in the car?" When I answered "no", he waved me through. That led me to a full parking lot, which worried me a little, but I found the last spot in the way back corner. Having dealt with my wheels, I packed up my gear, which consisted of my camera and some recharging cords, and headed down to the track. Notice that nowhere in here did I mention either rain gear or something to keep me warm. Both would become more relevant as the morning wore on.

At the track, I saw this ... cars moving at tremendous speed in conditions that can only be considered slippery, if not dangerous.

A Porsche makes some time
And that was before the rains really came. After only a few laps of seeing these cars rolling at these high speed, the conditions got even more treacherous.

Heading down the main straight, rooster tails flying

The two cars I cared about the most were the American makes, the new Ford GT with its stunning aerodynamics and red, white and blue livery, and Corvette Racing, a team that's been dominant over the past year with their deep throated V8 rumble. Talking to a guy at Corvette, he said that Ford was the one to watch. Once they had worked out their kinks in the program, their car was going to be a world beater. 

Ford GT, returning to race circuit for the first time in 50 years

Chevy Corvette, best in class these days
The Ford chasing the 'Vette on a different corner, later in the race

It wasn't until the lightning and the thunder that they decided to red flag the race, requiring all drivers to return to the pits until the weather subsided and it was safe to race again.  Here's what we looked like ...

Just before the heavy rains

Corvette Racing, waiting out the storm

Spectators huddled like sheep in the fold, trying to stay out of the rain

Once racing resumed, the drama unfolded in all kinds of ways. In the classification that I care about - GT Pro, also known as GTLM - Porsche was dominant for a number of laps in the middle of the race, with their two 911s holding the road exceptionally well in the difficult conditions, but at about Hour 9 of the race, it appeared that one of these two Porsches crashed into one of the Corvettes, knocking them both out of the race and promoting a Ford GT up to the front of the pack.

For all the excitement the rain brought earlier in the day, it wasn't until nightfall that the true nature of the contest become apparent. The speed of these cars is appalling. The wail of their engines is terrifying. The idea that there is a driver in that cockpit, making decisions, taking chances, is hard to imagine. Still, there is an undeniable magic once evening comes. All of a sudden, we enter the kingdom of night, become spirits in the half-seen world, a merry band of fools and pranksters. The yellow hue of the headlamps poke little dots of light through the linen of blue dark, visible down the full distance of the straightaway, then they grow in size until they fly by with a roar and change into little red taillights moving away.

At that moment, the length of the race, both in terms of time and distance and endurance, becomes clear. The cars scream. The party revs up and I had to go. Given the long drive that awaited me, I couldn't stay for the checkered flag. Still, here's what I saw ...

Here they come

The Mobil Bridge

Headlights piercing through the night down the back straight, at speeds unimaginable

There is of course some wonderful strange at these events. Just to give a sense of what I meant with my Grateful Dead comments, here's some of the fringe ...

Saturday, March 19, 2016

My song to America

For those of us who thought Simon and Garfunkel caught the nature and the essence of this country so beautifully in their 1968 song "America"

I give you another version of our great land, this one from Florida.  Red state, blue state divide? I don't know what you're talking about ...

Monday, March 14, 2016

3.14 = Pi Day

Yes, March 14th is 3.14 or as it is known here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Pi Day.

This means that Petsi Pies, my friendly local pie shop, has stocked up its inventory for the rush on the delicious round things, a rush which I gather is quite intense.

I believe that Petsi recognizes a correct recital of the first 10 digits of Pi with a slice of pie, whereas a correct recital of the first 100 digits of Pi gets you a whole pie. Of course, it takes a while to get through 100 digits of anything, so expect longer lines today.

I file this under, "Living in Cambridge", even though this particular Petsi Pies is just over the line in Somerville. Regardless, it's part of what makes this place wonderful.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Friday Grab Bag: The Plot Against America?

I wholeheartedly concede that Donald Trump is a fascinating character and phenomenon, but in my darker moments I worry we may be living out a version of the Philip Roth novel The Plot Against America in which Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 election.

It is a book admittedly I have never read.

Monday, March 7, 2016

It is anticipated ...

Under the category "Sometimes, you can't make this stuff up ...", here's what the FY2015-2016 Cambridge municipal budget reports about the city's fiscal position ...

FY14 was another remarkable year financially for the City. Our sound financial practices have left the City with substantial reserves, including $160,500,000 in free cash, $134,000,000 in excess levy capacity, $15,600,000 in Parking Fund Balance, and $9,700,000 in Water Fund Balance. It is anticipated that the City will also end FY15 in a very strong financial position. 

Friday, March 4, 2016

Friday Grab Bag: The Lost Art of Doing Nothing; The "F" Word; Rich and Poor in Boston

The Lost Art of Doing Nothing
Doing nothing is a wonderful thing. It is also the perfect title for a book. It is also an art we have lost. Online this and virtual that. Pshaw! What about just sitting on your butt for a while or wandering along a waterfront without checking your cell phone every 15 seconds? Whatever happened to those pleasures? Here's another one, now long gone: plopping down at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a newspaper, an actual paper newspaper, turning the pages one by one, languidly, deliberately, hearing the crinkle of the fold, noticing the ink on your fingertips. That's a joy from the 20th century never to return. 

The "F" Word
It's sitting on everyone's tongue and now it's showing up in print too. It's the "F" Word. Donald Trump is introducing fascism back into American political language for the first time since the 1930s. Between his Mussolini tweet and his disingenuously slow disavowal of the KKK, The Donald is leading us into very strange territory indeed. The Republican Party will surely fracture under this strain. When Mitt Romney speaks out in condemnation, you know they've got serious problems.

Rich and Poor in Boston
The Brookings Institution reports that Boston is Number One on a list of American cities that has seen the gap between rich and poor grow. As if our troubles weren't big enough, the wealth divide expands. Here is the report:

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Why Hillary will win

Last night over drinks with a Republican friend of mine, we started talking politics. I said that I had just voted for Bernie in the Massachusetts primary. He answered, "I'm a Hillary person." When I looked at him quizzically, he added, "she's the closest thing to a real Republican I can find." This bodes well for her.