Friday, September 12, 2014

Shame on Blue Crass

Parthian has reaped a bountiful return lately from the coin of privacy he invested inadvertently when he downloaded “free” apps or donated to political (or worthy) causes. His inbox overfloweth; his telephone ringeth– most often at mealtimes. These everyday annoyances can be managed with a fast finger on the delete key, or by unplugging the phone. But why should the consuming public be obliged to cope with cybergarbage at all? We need an effective “do not spam” list to supplement other very low bars to intrusive marketing. Unsubscribing simply promotes the naive user to a higher level of harassment, since any response indicates that the “unsubscriber” opened the junk that provoked a sucker’s effort to escape. 

Come the revolution, oligopolies will be regulated or dismembered in the public interest, and then we will have a button that enables a user to decline further solicitations, push-messages, and spam, and impose an immediate cost, debited to a bond posted to ensure respect for the privacy rights of the public. Pending the revolution, our providers will persist with their robo-calls. How can the ordinary user of existing technology fight back? Where would a striker picket? How else can we impose costs upon those who waste our time and clog our systems with dross and impertinence? 

The latest expression of our rulers’ contempt for the dignity of their serfs is exemplified by a call the Arrow receives from his health care insurer, daily. The caller is a robot, endowed with infinite persistence and zero empathy. The script is short (before the Arrow hangs up): “Hello, this is ___, your insurer, calling about an important matter. Is this the Arrow? Say YES or NO.” 

Feeling no obligation to respond at all to interrogation machines, the Arrow replies, “If you want to transact business at this number, have a human call.” The response is “Is this the Arrow? Say YES or NO.” The Arrow responds with “F__ You, Robot!”. 

If he doesn’t hang up at this point, the robot demands to leave a message for the Arrow to call back. “Will you take the message? YES or NO?” NO!! “Okay, we will try again at a later time, until we reach theArrow.” Thus, a stalemate is reached between a vexed humanoid and an invective-proof automaton. No mechanized appeal to the Arrow’s curiosity will ever elicit a reply that the robot can appreciate. No business will be done. The Arrow risks “losing” whatever opportunity, warning, notice, or advice that his insurer wishes to communicate in an unsolicited, entirely one-way ‘transaction’. The offending caller loses nothing. 

Corporate harassers operate in a very unfree marketplace. They stand to gain if the ‘missed’ call counts as legal notice enough to trigger a forfeiture, or constitutes compliance with the nominal privacy requirements of HIPAA. 






Friday, September 5, 2014

James Joyce Manuscript Discovery

Dear Schmitz,

For our next session, memorize (and be prepared to recite) the following terms. I will use Georgio’s metronome to measure the accuracy of your accent and delivery. This exercise will provide you with rudimentary understanding of English vowel quantities (poets say ‘numbers’), and I hope that it will improve your atrocious accent.

Learn the idioms below in pairs. I will mix and rearrange their sequence when you recite them aloud from memory. As a mnemonic aid I include abbreviated definitions:

Professional mourner service tear hire
Time to repair punctures tire hour

Label on armored wrappings tear here
Advance man for group guides tour hare

Escalation unit for ziggurats tier higher
Rental Rapunzel tower whore

User of weeding implement tare hoer
Repairman of spilt paving oil tar hayer

Woodsman shredded by a bear tore hewer
…… [torn, illegible]

I will provide drinks if your accent does not defeat you.


JJ

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Morsel of Verbal Macaroni

On a recent visit to Cambridge, a bit of wind-blown litter crossed the Arrow's path. He stooped to retrieve it for deposit in a nearby bin, when these lines caught his eye. He begs the indulgence of Italian music lovers for sending such a lame lampoon into the cloudy skies of cyberspace:

              A popular crooner had the luck
              To make a pet of Donald Duck.
              Near the end, when pipes will crack 
              And fissures cross the crazed shellac–
                     They craved the sound of Frank’s anatra!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Su Vida es Sueño


Anticipating his possible extradition to the USA, El Chapo has been busy working on his English language skills. He can afford the best tutors, so his progress has been rapid. He says he has reached that crowning point for students of a foreign language, when he has begun to dream in English. When he writes, he writes much more comfortably in his native Spanish.

Through a secret agent in the Parthian cavalry who currently works as a turnkey in Mexico’s securest prison, these lines were copied from El Chapo’s notebooks, while he slept blissfully in his cell, high on the finest opioids the black market can supply. Beside his cot, two books had fallen as he dozed off: Jabberwocky, and Finnegans Wake. 


El Chapo’s Dream
(translated from the Spanish by Elsie Gee)

Inland, I knew, hid Culiacán–
A shaky treasure home for me: 

There Ralph, my nacred shiv began 
Lewd taverns pleasureless to ban, 
Brown as a thumb-prest flea.

No lice knive piles of futile, drowned
Stiff palls that blowers stir, who found
Guerdons' blight from sinful thrills, 

Whore-bosomed, zany with incestuous glee--
Old dears wore corsets, nescient as goldfish gills, 

Embold'ning bunny-shots of ‘scenery'... 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Town of Greece is no Athens

The Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece has blown a strong gust of oxygen into the embers of sectarian conflict in the United States. In their increasing glow, the Arrow discerns the outlines of issues long since debated and resolved to his intellectual satisfaction in late night dormitory free-for-all arguments. He came away from that experience, like most of his college cohort, with his faith unshaken (because he never had any to begin with) and with a firm repugnance towards evangelistic creeds that depend upon ginned-up catharsis and social coercion for their continued existence. Now that small town America is licensed to fudge lines that Washington and Jefferson (and before them, Isaac Backus) drew to ensure the stability and legitimacy of public institutions in a religiously diverse society, Parthian’s interest in religion is piqued once more. 

How do Believers reconcile their epistemic and ontological doubts with their hopeful reliance upon a being whose existence they cannot confirm? Why do all faiths adopt rituals and liturgies emphasizing ‘prayer’? Why don’t they (since believe in a Supreme Being) replace their supplications with forms of address that abominate the author of the world and its woes– and demand what begging never manages to obtain: kinder and more particular attention, and more perfect justice? A major feature of the world’s dominant creeds is their demand for abjection. Why do the faithful grovel when invoking an absent and apparently malign Creator? Evidence and universal experience regarding the supposed benignity of the supposed Supremo (the sleazy PR evasions of theodicy notwithstanding) suggest strongly that He, She, or It is at best indifferent to human concerns, and most especially, to human suffering. So why do we see no sects or cults devoted to fuliginous objurgation? 

Theologies of all stripes stress our infantile ignorance, the better to instill dread lest we offend a deity whose postulated omnipotence is capable of delivering fates worse than the ones that presently immiserate all sinners. Why do religions spend so much psychological capital on propitiation, and so much intellectual effort moving the goalposts of Mystery? Why has Mystery supplanted Revelation as the basis of religious faith? Mystery is real, and it is also an endless scrim of veils that science manages to shred, one by one, always leaving more mystery for the next generation, forever intimating that there is a space beyond where we cannot argue, because we cannot see– yet. 

Parthian has noticed that the proprieties of discourse on the subject of religion require deference to ‘tradition’. In reference to the obligatory norms and validating assertions of various creeds, tradition seems to mean much more than the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy: it represents a continuation between generations: commitments, values, and ‘teachings’ about the Meaning of Life that are deeply personal but shared by groups tied together (religio) by rites and doctrines that members accept as binding by virtue of the length of the tradition, or by its claims to derive (however indirectly) from divine ukase. Parthian is puzzled by this. What distinguishes an unfounded ‘belief’ from a tradition? What is the difference between the sense of religion as a confession, and the sense of religion as a profession of belief based upon individual psychological conversion experiences? Only Tartuffe can tell, and he will be too busy addressing the citizens of Greece, NY. 

The original Hellenes must be fulminating in the shades of Hades!





Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Money Talks

In our constitutional culture, rhetoric requires judges to build their opinions upon foundations of strict logic, often extending bad metaphors. Orthodox doctrinal development generates pseudo-Euclidean demonstrations derived from a common starting point– the text of the First Amendment, for example– which end with polar opposite QEDs. The majority and the dissenters share a focus of disagreement. Their disputations carry large consequences in the real world, as well as differing implications for resolving future disputes. Thus a flawed analogy in Buckley v. Valeo spawned a ‘consistent’ line of decisions culminating most recently in McCutcheon v. FEC– all derived from the seductive idea that money is speech. The more money you have, the more (or louder) speech you can utter. If you don’t sing on key, you can submerge yourself in a mercenary chorus. 

The First Amendment field of play is not like a chess or Parcheesi board: it is not  orthogonal. One way to escape from perverse encouragement of political corruption that arises from literalist reading of the Amendment might be to examine the underlying metaphor, to show that the ‘four corners of the text’ form a box that won’t fit snugly with other, similar boxes, because there are more sides to it than the issues comprised by the simple equation: freedom to spend = freedom to speak. Here are a few off-the-wall implications of the free market metaphor that have been under-discussed (in Parthian’s opinion) by academic and judicial analysts–


  • Personal (“private”) expenditures to amplify one’s voice in the political marketplace reflect “values” including ideological commitments. The speaker prefers to have a louder voice in political discourse than his neighbor, signaled by his willingness to pay the cost of amplification. It follows that his incentive to speak as a political (dialogic) equal participant in democratic discourse is not impermissibly compromised if he is taxed (for example by a broadly construed, legislated or defamation-based ‘fairness doctrine’ that obliges him to fund opposing voices in the same medium and at comparable volume) according to the size of his more-than-equal space in the political forum. “At the margin”, of course. We wouldn’t want to completely ‘dis-incentivize’ robust levels of political speech, would we?

  • The cost willingly paid by interests (exemplified by the Kochs) with the deepest pockets to gain ‘access’ and exert strong leverage to move decision-makers in all areas of legislative– or executive– governmental policy is only one of many costs of doing business, whether the business done is clean or dirty. In this respect, contributions are best conceptualized as a tax upon capital resources– raising the question whether the funds invested might have a more publicly beneficial next-best use. 

  • By the same token (under current conditions of income distribution) opposing viewpoints from all stripes of ‘activists’ among the 99.9% of hoi polloi usually cannot surmount high cost barriers to be heard in legitimate public debate. To raise the necessary resources, huge investments of volunteer commitment and expensive, intellectually inefficient fund-raising are required before political discourse in the marketplace of ideas can begin. The result (for all practical purposes) is a poll tax levied upon myriad individual contributors of the small sums needed to meet the purchase price(s) of ticket(s) to participate in the political arena. 

Parthian wonders: is it proper (however inconsistent with the Constitution's Preamble the result may be) to construe the First Amendment so as to give ‘private’ oligarchs such power to levy a poll tax upon their fellow citizens? Are separation of powers principles honored or compromised when the judicial branch denies the legislative a sphere of law-making jurisdiction to regulate campaign finance (excluding the elected Congressional branch of our constitutional structure through impossibly rigorous standards of judicial ‘scrutiny’, or otherwise)?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

If it's a well, my memory is nightly plumbed

        
The bucket slops up turbid broth– a bath
Immersing dregs of daily intercourse:
Food for a blind eel’s recursive path,
Eked in darkness– gossip’s sordid idle source.

The dropping bucket leaks. The rope frays
With every turning of the winch. He swims
Alone, his puddle shrunk. Above, my days
Go dry.  The water table drops.  Aching limbs

Can scarcely haul another load. And then
I hoist a list of lists.  O wonder!  It contains itself
Atop my tasks still pending at the last Amen–
One book more, falling off a crazy shelf

(Those catalogs of uncut pages, false starts
Dumped by the gatherer of avatars).
Mine’s the one too many. At last she parts
My tether, flays my palimpsest of scars,

Leaving me to cash my one-way ticket:
“Call it a pail– still,  you must kick it!”

If every element of a set A is also an element of a set B, then A is said to be a subset, or part, of B. We write A ⊆ B or B ⊇ A. In particular, B is itself a subset of B.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979)

The lines above were shared by a reader in the waiting room of a clinic. He told Parthian  to post them only with a caveat, since they were too formal for today’s taste, too easily parsed by readers of poetry (“the sophisticates”) and constructed from familiar clichés about mortality: a topic, as he said, that is both too general for lyrics and one that was “all plumbed out” by the end of the 19th Century. Despite the caveat, this eddy in the current of our times seems worth a click, to dispatch it into the ether of cyber-oblivion.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Clinical Glimpse–Prognoses and Speculations

Before he garaged his undependable personal carcass, Parthian retired his 1950s era Mercedes limousine– and for the same reason: he became weary of the expense, annoyance, and unreliability of his coach. Every time the Arrow’s excellent shade-tree mechanic installed one scarce and expensive  replacement part, the rest of the car seemed to reject the resulting  ensemble. The process would repeat itself. Parthian used his bicycle more and more, because he was sentimentally attached to the fine coachwork and high style of his German bijou; but he finally sold it to a better owner who dedicated many hours to its restoration before reselling it to an Arabian sheikh.

The hobbyist-restorer was a physician. Parthian never required advice or intervention from him, but he likes to think that an obsessive interest in extending animate or inanimate life is a valuable asset. Innate patience may be an advantage more basic and important than all of the clinical skills a physician acquires by study. So when Parthian required ever more frequent medical attention for an age-appropriate degenerative disease, he was surprised to see his impatience with medical routines exacerbated by the system’s impatience with him. No matter how expert, the specialist has a pre-scribed time limit for symptomatic chit-chat. The limit of a clinical consultation, before a patient begins to see that he has become a thief of time reserved for probably worse sufferers, never extends much beyond 20 minutes.

During the typical quarter hour or so of physician-patient encounter the doctor must quickly review notes from the last visit and take or order routine diagnostic measurements to assess the extent of subsequent dilapidation. All the while, she is also casting an experienced eye on the ‘presentation’ of the prisoner at bar. Her visual assessment gauges a variety of Sherlockian tell-tale signs as well as the the patient’s narrative of current sufferings, elicited with whatever sympathetic prompting the physician can muster. Much of the patient narrative will be irrelevant, reflecting a naive faith in the magic of medical insight into everything touching upon the somatic. An office visit thus offers at best a clinical glimpse– just enough information to last until the next encounter. A good visit ends with mutual sighs of relief and frustration because under the circumstances, our time together was all too brief. We could have learned to tango!

Parthian expects more solicitous and longer attention when end-of-life issues must be addressed. He recently attended an excellent presentation at MGH, designed to prepare his fellow villagers to make intelligent plans for hospice, intensive or palliative care, and pain management, under the general rubric of hard topics. The presenters showed both tact and understanding as they explored the borderline between therapy and policy, law and medicine. Whether or not the ACA funds an extra half hour to talk with one’s physician about advance care directives (Palin’s ‘Death Panels’), it is clear that problems relating to eu-thanasia are best addressed in the context of overall planning for inter-generational wealth disposition, final arrangements, and a host of post- as well as ante-mortem issues. Parthian’s present reflections are not about life’s end, but the preceding period, when one’s nightmares are patrolled by the little prophet in the cartoon with his placard calling the fallen because ‘the end is nigh’. The medical profession has left the domain of personal eschatology entirely to the pilots found in pulpits and upon soap-boxes.

The Arrow would like to see some branch or specialty in medicine emerge to provide him with the same kind of best-guess, personalized assessment of his odds that a nurse or retired physician provided (behind his back) to the life insurance company he enrolled with in his youth. Of course one’s statistical ‘prognosis’ (in an actuarial sense) may not fit any specific case. Moreover, studies have shown that the stronger the bond between physician and patient, the more wildly optimistic physician estimates will be even when the end of life is in immediate prospect. You may be able to find graphs showing the shapes of various end-state declines on your own, but the clinical glimpse and the ethic or mystique of the white coat make it quite unlikely that you will  explore your personal place on the graph, the trends and speed of your own course, as a matter of shared speculation. 

This is a pity, because we all would benefit fiscally and psychologically if we could better (not perfectly but better) estimate the trade-offs between the cost (in both money and recovery time) of a present investment in a new hip or knee, or a root canal job, on the one hand, and the absence of surgical risks, hospital infections, and down time for recovery from interventions foregone, on the other– on a scale that allows a patient to decide the equilibrium point between his life’s present and future value, to himself or to his family. The Arrow is influenced perhaps by his lifetime exposure to comedies and fantasies about the riotous living indulged by characters who learn they “have one more year to live.” He always roots for the hero who opts to go out in flames, burning through his savings, taking dangerous drugs, taking up paragliding… daring the devil to do his worst! 

Parthian is told by his friends in the health care sector that the Affordable Care Act will stress compensation for global results embracing the physician’s entire patient roster. Replacement of the current regime with its patient by patient episodic ticking of code boxes is expected to liberate more time for physician-patient interaction. With luck, the new emphasis on prevention will provide more elasticity in clinical scheduling, but the Arrow fears that more time spent on early prevention and diagnosis will result in new protocols of medical time triage at the expense of older wrecks, like himself. That is as it should be; but the chronic patient now has a stronger incentive to learn as much medicine as possible, from whatever extra-clinical resources he can find on the internet or medical libraries. Armed with a higher degree of specialized knowledge, his clinical presentation will have higher (more cogent) production values

No matter how efficiently the clinical glimpse is used, it will seldom afford (again according to reliable informants in after hours chats) an opportunity for talk about what patients most wish to learn, and doctors are least qualified to teach. Doctors are taught to ‘accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative and don’t mess with Mr. Inbetween’. To do otherwise (at least before the end-stages of disease) is both un-Christian and un-Scientific. Downers are presumed to work like antidotes to the placebo effect. Contrast Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers. These able mechanics freely prognosticate the remaining useful life in an old wreck, and however reckless their advice may be from a medical perspective, it is gratefully accepted by callers whose ‘presentation’ is done entirely by sound, at a distance. 


Saturday, February 1, 2014

Further Reflections on "Like"

The language Parthian was taught to write and speak is dying. Two generations down from Parthian’s mid-20th Century cohort, no sentence will be uttered without frequent punctuation by the sound Parthian hears, with annoyance, as “like”. This phenomenon has not escaped the attention of linguists and lexicographers, who have analyzed these newly dominant usages syntactically and semiotically. The Arrow regards with amazement all findings in the fuzzy borderland where science and the humanities intersect; but he wonders if the scholarly world has missed the most essential aspect of the like case.

The Arrow notes how much vocalic energy and time is devoted by the young to uttering that ubiquitous monosyllable! Never mind whether like has more or less ‘meaning’ than familiar indefinite articles, nor whether the use of like to make comparisons and analogies is shrinking as fast as the Greenland ice cap. Simply consider like as non-verbal noise. Are we witnessing the replacement of silence, or of uh, by a sound that is perhaps more audible on headphones– and more necessary too– since it signals the continuance of connections that might have dropped or become lost in cyberspace? Does like mean something like “I’m still here, but I am pondering what next to say while holding the floor as interlocutor in our dialog (although I invite my companion to suggest a fitting metaphor or adverb)”?

Parthian often overhears sidewalk conversations that confirm this translation of like, especially if the speaker resumes with a word or two, followed by d’yaknowhatimean.  The search for a karmic side-channel is important when rapport is limited by the strictures of narrow bandwidth, uncomplemented by gestures or eye contact. If the newest usage of like is an artifact of the electronic age, we might expect that the prevailing usage will crest and then diminish as advancing technology offers more complete and multiform interpersonal communication at planetary distances. He invites his descendants to watch and see if that happens. 

The Arrow suspects that a deeper change is signaled by the frequency of like in current discourse. He proposes that ‘English’ is trembling on the verge of fundamental syntactical transformation. He cannot identify the precise contours of colloquial speech in the next or the following generation, but he surmises that his generation’s speech may sound as antique to our grandchildren as Chaucerian English sounds to us. The epochal shift that the Arrow foresees will be driven by the desires of native speakers to rearrange habitual and standard sentence structures to eliminate some of the gaps now filled by multiple likes. 

An example of Emergent English would be useful at this point. Forays into the future are currently impossible for the Arrow without violating medical advice. He must therefore approach this problem from the speculative stance of a critic. Perhaps we can find our future speech adumbrated in the themes and phrasings that characterize contemporary verse. 

Starting traditionally, let’s choose an epigraph, from Lorca:

The arrival of my essential things
They are refrains of refrains

Contemporary stylists love diction that mirrors a hall of mirrors. Our most successful poets embed their epiphanies within highly digressive and idiosyncratic internal monologues– trains of thought that they whimsically derail, not so much to see what happens, as to produce an effect of anamorphic obliquity so bewildering that the very idea of parody or imitation becomes unthinkable. Incoherence is considered a small price to pay for work that records a mysterious, shared preverbal apprehension of the world. The stimulus that initiates inspiration need not be chemical; aleatory devices, Oulipolitan constraints, and all sorts of bricolage have been indiscriminately deployed. Art consists of choosing what to retain, to publish, to endorse as the artist’s choice among the many exotic perceptions that percolate to the surface of consciousness. Thus authorship morphs into editorship, and the artist’s manifesto becomes as important, if not more so, than any signed object, regardless of the medium of expression. 

Revision of a work in progress becomes problematic in a world where  method is an uncharted quest for happenstance serendipity.  Poesis loses its historically banal purpose, of seeking greater precision through the labor of objectifying a poet’s intuited and pre-existent donnée. Creative effort has evolved to become an interior, idiosyncratic feat of subjective recognition. 

The unifying idea of objectivity has dwindled to the hope that others will share an artist’s “aha!” moment. Thus high brows and low meet in the domain of d’yaknowwhatimean. Since you don’t know, and can’t, it suffices to claim that if you work almost as hard as the artist did (perhaps with a little academic help), your viewing, listening, or parsing experience will repay your effort– but only insofar as both parties lose the distinction between performer and audience. Adapting a metaphor of science, we might say that catalysis replaces analysis; making becomes a laboratory job of splicing together the genetic elements of deep Chomskyan structure.

Pardon all this theorizing. Parthian digressed in order to provide a wider context for the salience of like in ordinary usage. We all strive to grope our way through the fog of mutual incomprehension with strategies that spring from a poetic impulse. One last dichotomy distinguishes ‘fine’ art focused on esthetic precision, from a more vernacular art that elevates the quality of concision, holding as an article of faith that the last squeezed rind of karmic ecstasy must retain the taste of the artist’s momentary thrill, the transformative epiphany, once it is properly ‘appreciated’.

We will end these reflections with an experiment, to show how our modern sensibility exalts perfection of rapport above perfection of expression. 

A few nights ago, Parthian stirred from deep slumber induced by psychotropic medication and exhaustion. In a moment of ephemeral lucidity, he sensed he was alone in the pitch dark of a measureless cavern, beside the River Alph– but with no sounds of revelry, nor roar of a nearby surf. His dream placed him in the vanguard of a spelunking expedition; he knew that his companions had lost him, and he was trapped. His headlamp shone a narrow beam on the tip of a stalactite, from which a tiny crystal drop hung above the torrent. He felt compelled to capture the moment before the next drop formed. His very life depended on it; he understood that the droplet represented the first tick in the countdown of his last minutes. No time for formalism– but perhaps a chant might open a crack in the tomb of his panic. 

Be it noted, his response began with a tri-syllabic line:

thewaythe
thewaythe
thewaythe

like
like
like

Spelunker’s headlamp reflects
Stalactite’s crystal droplet
Diamond-dropping clepsydra
Radiant, unfaceted.

The next step was to wake up, and hire a translator to render the lines in Japanese. A second bilingualist must then retranslate them into English. Next, the Arrow would invite each reader to shuffle and shift these semantic atoms, like scraps on a refrigerator magnet. Iterate the process n times, until you have tapped out a sort of tanka in your own idiom. Then recite it. 

Can it be declaimed without additional pauses, represented by further likes? Do the line endings indicate a wee caesura, with some enjambments for variety? Can you remove the first six lines of scaffolding, and still perceive a structure? Does that structure seem linear, narrative? Keep going until it doesn’t. Use additional words if you must, but bias your efforts toward subtraction, not addition. With persistence, you may be included in our anthology’s next edition!