Monday, February 14, 2011

IJ, the Third Time Around

I finished reading "Infinite Jest" for the third time. Let me tell you, it just gets better with each read. Sorry, no reading notes this time; I read it just to savor each word. It was worth it. Maybe my next time through it.

I can't recommend enough reading IJ more than once.

Other Notes of Note

"Every minute spent in introspection is a minute outside of reality. But without introspection, reality is merely reaction." -- (I came up with that today.)

Humans and Humanity

A few weeks ago, my son popped off a term in one of our uniquely deep and personally satisfying conversations that stuck in my head long after the conversation ended. At the time, it was the right phrase at the right point in the conversation. It was the perfect cornerstone for our topic of conversation at that point, and I recall that our conversation from that point on built on that term. The term was "the law of large numbers."

I have long since forgotten the conversation from that time, but "the law of large numbers" has been stuck into some back recesses of my neurons and has never left. I've been turning over the concept in my head, like turning over a rock with a fossil embedded in it, feeling that there is more to the imprint than the surface reveals, but unable or unwilling to crack the surface to see what was inside and possibly destroying the embedded fossil in the process.

So, the idea of "the law of large numbers" has been going around in my head over and over since I first heard of it. I've considered it from one direction and then another, and it seems to keep popping up when I'm reading something in the least bit philosophical.

This morning, as I was having coffe and catching up on the New Yorker fiction of the last few weeks, I finished the last story (mentally thanked the New Yorker for such good writing and good writers) and realized that I still had half a venti Starbuck's Pike Place blend left and nothing to read. I pulled out my iPod, plugged in the earbuds, and began browsing for something to fill the mood. I came across DFW's Kenyon Commencement speech and put it on.

As Dave's voice came on and the speech came to the part of You being in the exact center of everything you experience, "the law of large numbers" came back into my head. And it seemed to dovetaile (in my mind, anyway) perfectly with what DFW was saying. It was like getting X-ray vision for a moment and being able to see into that rock with the fossil and seeing, just for that moment, the entire shape of the rock and the fossil within. It was sorta like that, seeing a connection between DFW's thoughts on solipsism as a "default setting" and "the law of large numbers."

The "large numbers" seemed to me to refer to a large collection of human organisms, and by large I mean, like, millions, even hundreds of millions, maybe even billions or more. On this scale, the human mind simply cannot discern individuals, it simply overwhelms the intellect. On this scale, the collection seems almost to be an individual of its own, much like we are completely unaware of the individual cells that make up our own bodies. (I mean, yeah, I know what a cell is, but as far as one particular cell in my body, I have no clue.)

From what I was hearing from my iPod, our default setting may tend to be the conclusion, individually, that what happens to the collective happens to us, individually, that what is directed at this collective is also directed at us.

I observe that advertising is almost always universally disliked, yet advertising continues to exist. How could something universally disliked continue to exist? Advertising is still with us, I believe, because it works. It may be universally disliked on an individual level,but it works on a collective level.

Advertising works because the collection of individuals exhibits an emergent patterm of behavior of its own, like the collection is itself an individual, composed of us individual human beings who, like the cells in our own bodies, are completely unaware of the larger organism we compose. But this larger organism exhibits its own behavior and its own preferences. Advertising is merely poking and prodding this larger organism to elicit the behavior that the advertisers desire; there is no more awareness of the individual human beings composing this corpus than we have of the cells composing our own bodies. The whole point of advertising is to prod this slug of collective humanity to make it twitch in a desired way.

So it is nothing personal, this pointless, continuous blather of advertising. It really as nothing to do with you, as an individual. Advertiser are only trying to make the larger collective organism twitch in a desired direction.

Individually, our perception is that each poke and prod is directed personally at You! It is personally offensive to discover (or perceive) that one's own behavior and choices can be so easily manipulated.

Behind the emergent pattern of the collective is, in fact, numerous individual choices. Most of these choices seem to be the result of "default settings" (as DFW put it), meaning that each and every individual human being is responding to the advertising message, most of them not from conscious awareness of their choices.

As DFW points out in his speech, it is unimaginably difficult to exercise conscious choice over one's own thoughts all the time, which is probably why nearly everyone does not do it most of the time, and most people don't bother to do it at all. Imagine the change in the collective emergent pattern if they did!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Portrait of a Young Man (Not Necessarily an Artist)

After reading the Jest, it seems quite natural to me to pick up some more heavy reading, so why not "Ulysses", right? And (thanks to my son (again)) Joyce wrote some background for "Ulysses", e.g., "Dubliners" and "A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man". I had an encounter late this morning that, now that I'm through "Dubliners" and halfway through "Portrait", just screamed for an entry with the above title.

Early this afternoon I stopped for lunch at the local Subway. I was on my way to pick up my car, which in the midst of my unemployment had started overheating. (The timing could not have been better, really.) Since I was without wheels, and not averse to a little exercise, I walked the three miles to the Goodyear dealer where my car was located. The car still wasn’t ready; the filler cap that it needed yesterday still had not arrived. All it would take would be to screw on that cap once it got here. After that three-mile walk, and a very early breakfast, I definitely felt that an early lunch was in order.

So while I’m placing my order, this guy walked in and asks for some water. The counter staff ignored him like totally, which I thought was a bit rude. I was scanning the people, looking for reactions, when he looked directly at me and said they were messing with him. They were always messing with him. They messed with Bruce, too, and Bruce stopped coming around. It wasn’t exactly a rant, but there was an odd sort of edge to his whole soliloquy. (I call it a soliloquy because, although he was facing me, he didn’t seem to expect a reply or even an acknowledgment. It seemed more rhetorical than anything else. But, well, he was looking right at me.)

As I paid for my sandwich and drink, I asked for another drink and gave it to the guy. He said thank you, thank you very much, and his eyes actually started tearing. It caught me a little by surprise. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such gratitude for such a small act. I encouraged him to fill his cup and enjoy his drink.

He sat down. I sat down at the next table and asked, “So, what’s your story, if you don’t mind me asking? I mean, I’m just curious to know. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.” He said no, he didn’t mind and offered the chair across his table to me, where I then sat.

He said he was handicapped and these people were stressing him out. He sipped on his drink, appreciatively and gratefully. He said he was on medication. For stress and for high blood pressure. The high blood pressure medication surprised me, because I guessed he couldn’t have been much more than 30. But considering his nervous and highly agitated state (which seemed to be a more or less constant condition for him) it made sense.

I tried to make more sense of him. He wasn’t homeless; he said he lived with his parents, who he said would fight all the time, stressing him more. Said his mom was always yelling at him, and that stressed him more. His brother borrowed his mom’s car that morning, but he knew his brother had driven it to the local liquor store. Or he had driven it to one of his friend’s, and the friend had driven him to the liquor store. Or he left the car in his mom’s driveway and his friend drove him. It was hard to make sense out of his story. But he didn’t seem strung out on drugs or medication or anything. But I got the sense of a somewhat underdeveloped adult in a very bad home life.

He look like he was scared. Constantly scared. That kind of scared like being constantly under attack by everyone around you. His hands shook the whole time I sat there at the table with him, and he had those vertical furrows in his brow, between his eyebrows, that someone under constant worry gets. He spoke with long pauses between each sentence, like something else was demanding his attention. My impression was of hunted prey. And, yes, I could see how someone not quite sharp enough to deal with the world around them could become prey to at least some elements of the world.

He had mentioned Bruce. I remembered Bruce from several years ago. I used to hang out at the Starbuck’s next door, and there was this character named Bruce who would come in there once in a while. Bruce was unquestionably mentally handicapped, but a very pleasant guy, really, and liked to talk, although you had to use simple sentences in any conversation with Bruce. Compound phrases just totally lost him. Bruce’s big thing was always asking for a hug. Eventually his conversation would always turn to a request for a hug. Most people, myself included, indulged him, disregarding whatever social discomfort it produced, which seemed pretty minimal in retrospect. And Bruce always appreciated a good hug. He always said thanks.

But there was an unfortunate side to Bruce as well, which you would find out if you talked to him for a length of time, that is, if you took the time to actually talk to him. Bruce had a hard life. He talked about his parents beating him, and of how hard it was for him to keep a job, and how he had to live at home because he couldn’t live on his own. Talking to Bruce, I could imagine the frustration of his parents dealing with their son who (through no fault of theirs, his, or anyone's, really) just didn’t have the mental horsepower to function on his own in the world and who would depend on them probably for the rest of his, and their, lives. This, in no way, excused the beatings (if, in fact, there were beatings, keeping in mind the child-like intellect I was talking to here.)

And this guy knew Bruce, apparently reasonably well; well enough it seemed to identify with him somewhat. He seemed familiar with Bruce’s situation, so I reasoned that this must be what his handicap was, as well.

He said I reminded him of his uncle Darrell, the way I calmed him down was like his uncle Darrell could do (but, hell, all I did was listen to him!), but his uncle Darrell died several years ago, and he missed him.

Aside from the store owners stressing him, there were these two kids on the sidewalk in front of the stores that were always messing with him. The cops were always chasing these kids away, and they were always in gang fights up the road. These kids threatened him with all kinds of things, and he gave them money to make them go away. I pointed out that giving them money was only encouraging them to keep threatening him, but he seemed to have trouble getting his head around the concept, and all I could see was predator and prey, a sort of intraspecies Darwinism. Considering that it was humans involved, it kinda made my stomach lurch; I guess I’ve held out hope that, just maybe, we could be better animals.

After going on about these two kids who seemed to be terrorizing him on the sidewalks in front of these stores, he told me that he guessed he needed to block out those kids somehow. His tone was kinda flat; his statement came across as, I dunno, a request maybe, or a confirmation or admission of sorts. But his face looked like a mixture of hope, deprecation, maybe a little embarrassment, maybe more. All I could think to tell him was some breathing exercises that seem to work for me; I didn’t know if they would work for him or not, because everyone is different, and our feelings are the hardest things to control.

After finishing my sandwich, and after one of the more interesting lunchtime conversations I’ve had in a while, I excused myself to go see how my car was doing. The kid wished me good luck on my job search (I thought of him as kid, because however developed he was physically, he still seemed to be a kid, a confused lost kid in a world he was trying very hard to figure out), with probably the most sincerity I’ve ever witnessed from another human being. I said, yeah, good luck to both of us, right? And he almost smiled.

Monday, March 23, 2009

More Signs of the Times

Earlier this week, in my pocket change, I found a wheat penny. Wheat pennies have the image of two stalks of wheat stamped on the obverse side, where modern pennies have the Lincoln memorial. Nowadays they are scarce and maybe somewhat valuable, and as coin collectors hoard them they are becoming scarcer and more valuable (perhaps). This one in my pocket change is worn from years of apparent penny-pinching and bears the date 1929, the year of the last great depression.

This morning, as I was getting the oil in my car changed, I witnessed a drug bust on a street corner of my pretentiously upscale, suburban bedroom community. The county officer making the bust was very business-like and no-bullshit, definitely getting the job done. He smashed some sort of paraphernalia under his heel as the two perps, already in handcuffs, watched, then he made one of them deposit the smashed-up bit of paraphernalia in a nearby trash can. The perp making the deposit looked very unhappy. I'm not really sure what to make of this observation.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Sign of the Times

In keeping with the general tenor of the times and of the economy, I lost my job. No, not like I drove all the way in to work and then realized, “Dang, it was here yesterday”. Actually, my job was taken from me. My company gave me two week’s notice.

Not like I didn’t see it coming. At the end of January, I was cut from the project I was working on due to cost overruns. (Severe cost overruns, I might add.) What happens in my company whenever anyone gets off of a project, they get assigned to a “special” office, where their job becomes to find a job. While they are performing this very special job, they charge their time to a very special charge number. (More about the very special charge number later.) Now, if you find yourself in this position, there are numerous resources at your disposal. For example, your manager helps you locate jobs within the company, but you must realize that your manager is up to his ass in alligators trying to deal with the cost overruns that put you in this very special office to begin with, so he (in my case it was a he) doesn’t have a lot of spare cycles to devote to your personal catastrophe. Nonetheless, I had a good relationship with my management (including the guy up to his ass in alligators) and they were very useful in getting other manager’s attention focused on my particular job application.

That very special charge number that I mentioned earlier? Well, it’s an overhead charge number, which is just an accountant’s way of saying you are now costing the company money. See, before, when you were on that project that was hemorrhaging finances so badly, you were actually making more money for the company than it cost to keep you employed. (Or so it appeared; don’t ask me how the accountants figure that.) Now that your circumstances have changed, this equation has flipped over, and you are now costing the company money. Now you get to charge your time to that very special charge number, so the company can keep track of exactly how much you are costing them. You can only suck on that tit for so long before it runs dry.

All this I knew when I walked in to that very special office and began my very special job. Almost immediately I formed a plan; a plan and a schedule. It looked something like this.
  • Week 1: Search the company job resources for jobs within the company and apply to them, as many as I possibly can. Involve my manager.

  • Week 2: Same as week 1, but if no interviews by now, start to worry. Otherwise, keep searching and applying for as many jobs in the company as I possibly can.

  • Week 3: If still no job interviews, begin looking outside the company at job prospects, but continue to apply within the company and involve my manager as needed.

  • Week 4: If still no job interviews or interviews are not resulting in jobs, put my resume out on the streets (applying for as many of those jobs as I possibly can). Begin looking seriously outside the company. I felt no need to mention this move to anyone in the company, nor did anyone ask. I’m not sure how I would have answered if they did ask.
Events began to follow my plan uncomfortably closely. I was not getting any interviews for company jobs. I wasn’t even getting acknowledgments for my applications. (Here’s where a manager comes in handy as well. A word to my manager, and he would drop a word to the hiring manager, and I would very quickly hear what my standing for the job was. Generally, it was not good, but at least I knew.) But by week 5, I was getting interviews outside of my company. Incredibly, the market was far more responsive than my own employer. (Go figure!); there were jobs out there. By week 6, I was getting job offers from outside my company, nothing from the inside. There were jobs, just no jobs in my company. It was looking like I was going to have to change employers.

Back to that very special charge number; there are ways to minimize your use of it. In my case, I found training, lots of it, as much as I could find. If there was a training course within the company, and I could get to it, I enrolled in it. You see, training is also overhead (you’re costing the company money) but it’s more like an investment. You are learning skills that the company can market to its customers and, thus, make even more money from you. So training is a more acceptable form of overhead than simply sitting on my ass and waiting for the next great job to come my way.

So to all you other bread-winning life forms out there, the secret is to get up off your fat asses, guys. Here’s what I’ve learned you can do instead of waiting for that choice plum of employment you feel so entitled to.
  • Get up and look. Hit every job search resource you have at your disposal and hit it hard.

  • Network. Network like crazy. Get out of your comfort zone and go talk to people. (You're going to wish you had started this a lot earlier.) Yeah, you hear this one all the time, but only because it works. Networking deserves its own blog entry, at the very least. There are more networking books on the market than you can shake a pink slip at. Some of them are probably worth reading, but since it’s your economic survival at stake, maybe you should open one or two of them.

  • Have a plan. Knowing that you have a course you are going to follow calms the mind and gives you confidence. You are going to need confidence going into the numerous interviews you will be doing, because you aren’t going to have much of it when you get out.

  • Follow the plan. As your confidence wanes, it’s going to become harder and harder to hit the job searches and go to the interviews. And you need to hit the job searches and go to the interviews. See, getting a job is all a numbers game. To get a job, you need at least one job offer. To get that offer, you need to go to at least ten interviews (just a round number, but you get the idea. Your mileage may vary (and not necessarily for the better!)) To get an interview, you have to have submitted at least ten applications. Right there, that’s a hundred jobs you have to apply to, to get the ten interviews, so you get the one job offer. Having a plan helps you do all this on autopilot. Realize this, and be empowered.

  • Involve your manager(s). Managers can be extremely powerful tools when wielded properly. All you have to do is ask. Even the busiest manager will spare a minute or two to make a phone call on your behalf. Besides, it’s good networking.

There are those who may point out that my approach is perhaps optimistic, maybe a bit naïve, maybe a little too positive, perhaps even unrealistic. All I can say is, I have a new job.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Connections: Ulysses and Infinite Jest

I'm tackling James Joyce's Ulysses now and finding similarities between Ulysses and Infinite Jest as well as insight into The Jest. Here's one example.

3.416-417, in the Gabler edition of Ulysses is this little piece of text: the veil of the temple. I was actually looking on Google for anything about airing his quiff, from 6.196, and came across a good description of this phrase in Ulysses Annotated, by Don Gifford. Poking around in Ulysses Annotated, I found the veil of the temple, and then the A-Ha neuron fired.

Get this (from Ulysses Annotated): 3.416-417 the veil of the temple...shovel hat -- As described in Exodus 26:31-35, the veil acts as a multicolored screen between the outer "holy place" and "the most holy" (behind the veil). And this veil is rent at the moment of Jesus's death (Matthew 27:51). Berkely argued that "Vision is the Language of the Author of Nature" (The Theory of Vision [London 1733], section 38); in other words, the visible world is like a screen with signs on it, a screen that God presents to be read and thought rather than seen. Thus, the signs on the screen could be regarded as something taken out of one's head (or hat). A "shovel hat" was worn by some Church of Ireland and Church of England clergy in the eighteenth centure.

So, Madame Psychosis sat behind a tri-fold screen during her FM broadcasts from the MIT student union. And she wore a veil.

This seems to mean so many things on so many levels; I'm still piecing it together. And I'm just blown away by an intellect that can intentionally make connections and references like this, although I realize my admiration may come from reasoning more like the Watchmaker argument of Creationists (i.e., the Universe is too well put-together to have come about by chance, therefore, there must be a God.) Maybe DFW just accidentally put veils and screens in The Jest just because he read a lot; I just have trouble believing that it was accidental.