Human Error

Approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes

Designers in silico (link to an essay on the OUP blog)

Having just undergone the relatively unpleasant, but fortunately rare, experience of having a shipped package from a reseller (in short, merchandise paid for by me) go astray, I am particularly sensitive to the matter of imperfect heuristics in the most banal of interactions. My concerns are amplified personally, because at one time in my career my income derived in part from having in my designer repertoire of skills the need to design and, unfortunately, implement user interfaces on computer screens.

In the case of my package gone astray, the Fedex Ground delivery route driver (I did encounter him the same day, because he managed to deliver the second package from the same reseller accurately) seemed harried and confused. It’s not surprising. These folks are required to deliver the day’s assignment of parcels before being able to quit. They have to account for every package, get signatures for those cartons and parcel requiring it, scan every single item delivered as to time and date of leaving it at its destination. And of course, all of this must be done accurately, that is, trying to ensure that the package goes not only to the right address, but the correct recipient.

All of this must be done, moreover, under the unique constraint of the carrier (and all of them are alike in this regard, but especially the major ones, because they carry the bulk of the freight and their logistics are particularly dicey as they have all those individual residential addresses to which they must deliver) being required to deliver within a certain promised window and, if the purchase cost threshold is exceeded according to tariffs and fees that have been negotiated to the fraction of a cent, they must do so at a contracted rate, with razor thin margins. In the case of sales over a stated amount (anywhere from $25 to hundreds of dollars) the reseller is picking up the cost, and the services are very competitive, but especially so these days as the U.S. Postal Service, in its struggle to reach profitable operations (at the mercy of a refractory congress, which otherwise takes up the slack of the cost of operations), is now carrying a lot of the water for the other two major national delivery services, FedEx and UPS. The most costly part of any route is the proverbial “last mile,” which is the figurative representative distance between the last rational distribution point and a recipient’s address.

In the case of my errant delivery, the package did require a signature. And the last mile, like all the preceding miles of transport, was being covered by FedEx Ground. The driver obtained a signature. Unfortunately it was the signature of whoever answered the doorbell or knock of the guy when he brought the package to the door of the wrong address, somewhere in my neighborhood (but now, four days later, I am as much in the dark as to where it went as any other ordinary shmoe just waiting for his purchase). The signature, according to the tracking data I am allowed to see as the addressee, was by someone named, apparently, Sshishaanna. If you know this person, please let them know I’m still waiting for the package they took out of the sweating hands of the FedEx route guy.

You’d think anyone accepting a package would, among other things, first check to see where it was coming from, especially if you weren’t necessarily expecting a delivery, and two, to check to see who in the household it is to whom it’s addressed. But no, we, in our general mindlessness, apparently just sign, scribbling whatever indecipherable nonsense appears on the crude screen of the tracking device the route driver hands you along with the plastic stylus that doesn’t seem to register half the time anyway. It used to be you signed and that ended it, but these days – and let me guess, could it be because more and more packages go astray and more and more efforts to trace the package fail because the signature is indecipherable, for starters? – if the driver can’t make out what you wrote, they ask for the spelling of the name you wrote. I’ll also guess it probably took more time for him to type in “Sshishaanna” than he took to read the label before ringing the bell.

I could suggest some things that, germane to the topic of this essay about how to make interfaces not only more friendly and efficient, but more accurate in the everyday contexts of costly logistics as the last step in the process of getting merchandise into the hands of the paying consumer. And this is true especially in these days of more and more retail trade being conducted on the internet, and with a lag (as small now as two or three hours, given Amazon’s intrepid advance to abbreviate the wait for your precious consumer goods) before what you’ve purchased is in your anxious little mitts. Why doesn’t that tracking gizmo that the driver hands you for your signature show in a conspicuous way the name and address of the recipient in clear and readable text with the caveat that you are about to sign for a package shipped to this individual and to please make sure it’s correct? That’s just for starters.

I don’t know how you train route drivers cost-effectively so that you reduce the kinds of imbecilic errors they perform routinely. And which even mistakes that result in sanctions they feel in their own wallets and purses do not encourage them to behave more mindfully in the performance of their salaried duties. But I do know there is clearly a great deal more to be done with the materials and technology at hand, which is being used anyway, and which would produce more and more accurate results (at greater cost-effectiveness) with the small adjustments that an informed methodology applied to the design of labels, device screens, and the mechanisms, both mechanical and electronic, used to ensure that the participants in a transaction are given the best chance of not screwing up. The untoward consequences in most cases are a small amount of frustration that most adults can shrug off, especially in a day or so. But sometimes the result, as this OUP essay adverts to, can be as disastrous and anxiety provoking on a mass basis as the goof that sent the entire population of Hawaii into a panic because of an alleged nuclear attack. The warning was an error of monstrous proportions in its effects, but tiny in terms of the mechanism deployed to trigger it on the simple assumption that no one who was thinking and paying attention would do absent-mindedly or in error.

The denouement of my package disappearance is that the reseller has to ship me another one, that is, as soon as they get more items in stock, because it’s back-ordered. Popular item you see. Flies off the shelves. Even if the cost is high enough that I get “expedited shipping” for “free.”

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Only Human

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

Harvard Professor Will Retire After Chronicle Investigation Revealed Harassment Allegations

Since I was a boy I’ve wondered at the ability of people to own up, or not, to their failings and mistakes. Somehow I grew to expect that this is what responsible humans did, usually adults, and I understood it was at great personal cost at times, often in terms of humiliation, shame, and what required many more years of maturity and experience on my part to understand was a painful rendering of one’s personal sense of worth and esteem.

What took me considerably longer to understand – my earlier apprehensions about confessing one’s fault and conscious assumption of responsibility having been more of an intuitive perception, subject to the invisible hand of my parents’ moral suasion (if not, in retrospect, as well, in seemingly inconsequential episodes from time to time in my childhood, the more palpable stern upbraiding I took from my mother) – were the ways in which cultural forces have reshaped the methods and the narratives by which we remove ourselves from the forum of social engagement. We never openly admit guilt, and certainly not in some earnest and transparent heartfelt rendering of such feelings, but we take actions that are signals, or perhaps even more formally signifiers of our acknowledgement of that desultory state of conscience that itself signifies dishonor and mortifying embarrassment.

In the current climate of daily broadcasts of the untoward behavior of male authority figures toward their female subordinates – in plain language the constant stream of accusations of sexual harassment, abuse, if not outright violation, which justifiably goes largely unchallenged as to veracity, because there are inevitably multiple victims testifying – the inevitable response, the usual one, the one that seems almost autonomic in its spontaneity and lack of reflection, is denial of all charges. Inevitably the miscreant attests to his utter lack of such debased character as to behave in a matter contradictory to his innate respect and support of women and his lifelong championship of feminist causes, in spirit, if not in name. Given the preponderance of evidence that is all but sanctioned by the gravity of the charges even in the absence of formal testamentary oath-taking by the victims, there is a farcical quality to the defense offered by the offender. It would, indeed, be funny, if the circumstances and the repercussions of the prior acts did not redound so disastrously on the victims, while perpetrators too often retain their powerful tenure.

In the fullness of time, there are never worse repercussions, despite allegedly exhaustive inquiries and what is lamely often put under the rubric, as it is here, of “full and fair process of review.” Severe penalties are defined. If they are ever imposed, they seem never to hit the headlines with the same force as the original exposure, which usually is the culmination of years, if not decades, as in this case, of abuse and concealment (if not outright contemporaneous dismissal or minimalization, in those rare instances that victims brave the virtual institutional skepticism of accusations made at the time of the violation). As the promised new order of better vigilance and active fostering of an atmosphere and environment of safety and protection of the interests of vulnerable populations, but especially women who remain largely in positions of subordination and powerlessness, has yet to be established, the question remains about how seriously society is willing to punish, never mind speak of the remote potentiality of reform and rehabilitation, and vilify offenders in such a way that the prospect of the depth and extent of humiliation once publicly exposed will be sufficient to deter the behavior that occasions it.

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Some Things I Can’t Reconcile in Today’s News

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

Doesn’t “compute:” The apparent perception that the shutdown of government is either a viable political tactic or, more importantly, part of some larger political strategy – especially by the party not in power in any sane and predictable course toward overturning the present ratio of power in an election ten months hence. The plight of the Dreamers is now going on 20 years. The crippling of liberal, never mind progressive, objectives is an ongoing current crisis, in which the left continues to be at a disadvantage.

Makes no sense: The expectation that officeholders, especially congressional Democrats with seats in peril in the next national election, should vote along ideological lines for positions they know do not square with their constituencies. And that they should do so at peril of being challenged for those seats by more hardline partisans of progressive principles in a primary. If I were an incumbent trying to reconcile a successful campaign strategy for reelection with my own sense of adherence to principles, I’d say to challengers, bring it on. Either one argument will win the nomination or the other will – presumably the incumbent knows more about holding onto the seat. When did the electoral process get subverted with a preference for brinksmanship in legislative standoffs?

The New York Times today reports this:

“The grass-roots are rightly furious with a slew of elected Democrats,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director of “In the Obama years, Republicans learned to be more afraid of primary challenges than general elections. But Democrats are still operating as though the Tea Party is more powerful than The Resistance.”

What I’d like to know is, how did the Times know that “The Resistance” was in upper case capitals? And whatever the case, what exactly is “the resistance?” To what? Who comprises it? How large a percentage of the electorate is it? This sounds discouragingly like propagandistic rhetoric of the left. MoveOn has a not too unblemished history of its own.

from today’s NYTimes:
Senate Democrats’ Vote to End Shutdown Infuriates Some on the Left

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Out of the Mouths of Knaves

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

Forget Walter Cronkite. The best we’re going to do these days about truth from behind the curtain are Rex Tillerson and Steve Bannon.

We all look to heroes in the form of truth-tellers when our lives seem imperilled, especially by the larger, the more global, forms of threat. When mired in the disorder and chaos of war, or epidemic, or the greater natural catastrophes, we have always found in their words a kind of anchor for our fading sense of security and some glimmer of a chance at survival – if it’s not existential continuity that is jeopardized, too often the threat is to our apprehension of the decay of any hope of the feeling, vague, surely inchoate, but always real, of well-being. This notion that life, despite its hiccups and glitches, its disappoints and frustrations, will somehow overall be OK is possibly as essential to our will to go on as is being free of real and immediate palpable dangers to our lives.

In the past, especially during what is now effectively a two-hundred year epoch of accessible mass communications, first with pamphlets and broadsheets printed cheaply on paper, and more lately with instantaneous digital emissions that appear in the cold glow of our portable screens, we’re turned to those who somehow establish for themselves a quality that goes by various labels, but all of these amounting to some warrant of credibility and trust. With the shaming and exposure of the last crop of avatars of a semblance of truth, maybe better understood as “brands” of what passes for truth – hoist on their own petards of randiness and an arrogance of power; in case I am being too allusive here, I am speaking of the ruined careers of Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer, and Charlie Rose (not to show any political bias in pointing at skullduggers) – we are losing even the sense of some remnant of the kind of trust that not too many decades ago we placed in the hands and velvet delivery of such seemingly noble individuals as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.

Not only have we been steadily trading down in what we find acceptable to label as “truth,” with some of us exercising even lower standards, and lesser indices, than others of us. Concommitantly we have obviously demanded less and less of our public seers and glorified towncriers, even as we’ve rewarded them with higher and higher emoluments for their ability to draw and keep a loyal, and preferably unquestioning, but certainly not taxing audience of followers and adherents. What we’ve lost with the downfall of this last crop of exposed sexual predators is not so much a reliable source of truth, sometimes not comforting to hear, but reassuring for its show of courage in the form of veracity. We’ve mainly lost the comfort of a familiar and expected face. In the end, I suspect, it may be no worse than the adjustments required of us when death strikes a celebrated and popular figure prematurely, not to mention unexpectedly.

Some of us may feel there’s not much lost at all. The greater loss is something more abstract. It’s the loss akin to the loss of reason. Even as reason and logic are thrashed, as a manifestation of the age, along with their greater, if more abstract, sibling truth. I’ve long since convinced myself that the result is that even greater loss: a reluctance to accept the truth in whatever unexpected form we find it, perhaps sealed in a shipping carton, like an Amazon reward, or perhaps a bomb, or perhaps merely a load of horse manure right on our front steps when we open the front door of a morning.

What I’m getting at with all this is that we must cling to whatever shreds of truth we discern whatever the source. We may have to credit that source with whatever tatters of humanity necessary to honor in them as a sign, indeed, of some vestigial humanity of their own. It’s a bestowal of recognition we may be reluctant to extend, for any number of arguably good and justifiable reasons given their apparent characters and past behaviors. There is something to be credited though, if there is any hope of America (and Americans) for survival as a respectable political entity in a world where this is still the first best way of establishing bona fides in the commmunity of nations.

It’s possible that one unseen benefit, an artifact of some still nascent healing process, will be to tune our instruments for eliciting compassion and empathy by conveying the smallest necessary bit of credibility – as I say, where we can find it – on those whom otherwise we might cast utterly into a state of non-existence simply because they are not so much evil as hideously inconvenient to our own possibly too rigid sense of the proper constituency of an acceptable world order. We are all fragile vessels, and perhaps it is true that in the language of such a trope their fragility is greater than ours, but we must acquiesce I’m afraid, if there is to be any real hope of progress, in the recognition that even these are humans after all.

And of course, there is that sought-after solace, and that comforting sense of security, and that hope, however vague and evanescent it seems at the moment, in accepting that, despite the messenger, there simply is a certain stubborn immutable truth in the pronouncements of Rex Tillerson, a few months ago (concerning the effective cerebral competence of our president), or of Steve Bannon, just yesterday (concerning the dire insinuation of incompetence, and worse, into the administration in the characters of the president’s own offspring).

I personally am reassured in persuading myself there is sufficient credibility to build on, and see these provocative pronouncements as more than transitory, possibly even involuntary, utterances of a kind of rueful humor. As merely that, they get us nowhere.

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About Joan Didion: “On Keeping a Notebook”

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

Book jacket of re-issued essay collection, first published in 1969.


Having myself always been an inveterate notebook keeper, but with no substantive knowledge of the habits of other notebook keepers, whom I’ve known in a meaningful way since I was in college, I have no idea why others do so. Or, consequently, what they take notes of, how they take them, of what they consist rhetorically, or why they think they keep a notebook in the first place. This is not true of Joan Didion.

There’s this essay (which I am sure I read back when it was published in the late 1960s, but of which I have no recollection) from the redoubtable Ms. Didion. What’s clear are two things, one not very important, because it’s personal, and the other which seems to point to maybe a significant insight.

The unimportant thing is, it’s clear that Joan Didion and I have different feelings on the subject, and different motivations. It’s not as clear that she is solid on recognizing that maybe her natural note-taking instincts are not universal ones.

The more important thing is what seems to emerge, from her generalized thoughts about the specific kinds of notes Joan Didion takes and why she thinks she takes them (because there’s not much here demonstrating the content of specific notes; and what there is, as she indicates is true even for her, is that sometimes notes can be so vague as to require massive reconstruction as to the factual underpinnings, the actual event that may have inspired taking a note, and the probative value in other contexts, like a deposition, of the documentation). What seems to emerge, specifically for me, is that maybe there is the foundation of some kind of taxonomy here.

Maybe, I’m thinking, there are those of us more subconsciously led by an urge eventually (and only speculatively and provisionally) to be writers of what has come to be called creative nonfiction. And there are those equally internally disposed, but with different objectives in mind, if only vaguely and possibly wholly inchoate, to write what is called fiction. I’ll only interject here, as some are coming to believe (and why would we expect otherwise in this age of things becoming indeterminate and not so distinct, or, if you prefer the term, queer – presumably as opposed to definitive, precise, replicable, evidentiary, and “normal”): as if there really is a difference ultimately (and that qualification is _so_ important) between creative nonfiction and fiction.

Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. …


Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss. …


So the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess.

I would tell you what I do, but I am not Joan Didion, who had ample reason I surmise in retrospect even then to believe that there were people who cared to know, separate and apart from what issued from those notes she kept.

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The Poses of Dotards and Madmen

Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes

I may dip as far down into my being as I care to and come up with the solid sense that what I feel is what must be the right way to feel. It is. For me. That’s not to say I doubt my beliefs and interpretation of how to go about life and get around the world I inhabit. I’m thoughtful and analytical, and prudent and careful. I can be punctilious, and, even more, scrupulous in my choices. I am rarely rash. Nevertheless, I have to keep reminding myself that what I think is right is not necessarily what everyone who is right-thinking in their own minds believes as well. As of this morning, the clash between North Korea and the United States has taken an incremental change to the status of personal feud, between two tyrannical egomaniacs—both small change when it comes to their worth as moral and ethical leaders, but each with his fingers on very lethal nuclear buttons.

It occurs to me, as I ponder the possible outcomes, that at least part of the analysis of what strategy will work in terms of neutralizing a rogue threat—lest there be any mistake, I am talking about Kim Jung Un and his small but deadly arsenal—now must take into account matters of character, role-playing, and the myths we all cherish about heroes and champions, and how the latter are supposed to behave in times of peril. No matter how bellicose in many other regards, especially behind the faceless abstractions of military strategies implemented on a grand scale with talk of “forces” and “troops” and “armies” and “civilians,” that is, always plural and mass nouns (so there is no incentive for the ordinary citizen to think, even for a minute, that in actuality we are talking about the actions of individual combatants, ordinary men and women like ourselves, under orders, or merely about the individual victims of execution of a particular order of battle, the dead and wounded of bombings, errant drones, missiles, and small arms fire), American presidents and then down the chain of command, pretty much without exception, tend to try to appear to be grave, serious, sober, rational, and above all cautious, so as not to make it a contest of individual wills or personalities. They work mightily not to have it appear personal, for sure, but they also work mightily to wear the mantle of responsibilty for the actions of the mightiest military force that has ever existed. They pay a price for proceeding cautiously, at the hands of critics who, at least philosophically, embrace a posture of displaying greater strength and the ultimate ability to crush virtually any enemy—short of bullying, of course, though there are those voices, always, in the halls of government, and among the rabble, who believe that the label “champion” is synonymous with “tough guy.” And tough guys talk tough.

Trump certainly talks tough, and it repulses me, more than anything else. But I sit in my zero-gravity chair (there is enough tension in my life, in the personal sphere and in the global sphere, that I don’t want to put any more strain on my back than I have to, on top of ingesting unpleasant news about the state of the world) reading today’s New York Times with its account of the exchange of school yard taunts traveling around half the world between Washington and Pyongyang and I am left to ponder what’s going on—to examine the meta-text so to speak, and compare my spontaneous reactions to what I imagine are the responses of others, especially those unlike myself. First, the shot across the bow, while Trump stands defiant and bristling with menace on the deck of the good ship United Nations: “dotard,” that now rare, vaguely British and hence vaguely charming and formal epithet—and, so, given the source, vaguely comic and yet apt… would that we all had the presence of mind, the nous (that Greek philosophical term, with its overlay as a quality of intellect: that determining affect of “gumption”) to call Trump what he is, among other things, and that is just another alter kacker. And, with his enfeebled and meager arsenal of taunts and insults—with which he is admittedly quite effective, there’s something to be said for a limited range of weapons, used repeatedly and in volume—Trump counters with “madman,” quickly abandoning the actually jaunty (and probably mistaken) provocation of “rocket man,” well intended, but in a different way than Kim’s use of an archaism to belittle he who is, indeed, an ancient one, falling comically into the swirl of spent cultural memes.

If only we needed to look forward merely to a battle of words. I’ll put the latter-day masters of the language that gave us Wilde and W.S. Gilbert, Shaw and Joyce, Orwell, the Python, and leaping across the ocean to our shores, also gave us Twain, Mencken, Parker, Kauffman, Perlman, and Marx (and I don’t mean Karl) up against a post-adolescent who nevertheless does throw across some incisive verbal weaponry, albeit with the added burden of having to work in a language other than his own, for the sake of the larger audience (and because he doesn’t have to work very hard to shore up his constituency, which he has, for the time being, let us concede, largely by the short hairs). But there is always the risk, as there has been on the Korean peninsula since the ascendancy of the Communist Chinese on the mainland in 1949, that it will become a very hot war of deadly weapons.

And what I wonder, after a lifetime, mine, of living with such a threat, which flows and ebbs like the proverbial tide, over us from so far away in the world, how many people—sick, perhaps, of the dread, of the nameless anxiety, at once ridiculous and real, fomented by a backward country of 25 million subjugated people who have withstood possible annihilation in the form of hot war, cold war, famine, and the ravages of capitulating to the demands of a regime, now three generations old, whose sole reasons for being are to be venerated (for whatever complex set of reasons) and to be self-perpetuating—are thinking and feeling the same thing, opposite those feelings of nausea and repulsion of mine. “Yeah, it’s about time.”
“Who are they to push us around?”
“We need to talk tough, and stand tall, and not take any guff [use whatever other euphemism you like here].”
“Thank god. Trump will show them! And teach them a lesson.”

At this stage, it little matters what the actual consequences will be of “talking tough” in a way that materially is no different than the resistance, cajolery, diplomacy (both visible and behind the scenes), and cautious but prudent policies we have exercised for over 60 years, while two armies of Koreans eye each other across no man’s land. That there are now significant rhetorical differences is clear*, but even these have consequences, which will not become clear until we learn exactly what Trump thinks he is doing, beyond imposing on as many people as he can at once with the mere tactics of swagger and braggadocio (and I don’t pretend to believe for a moment that he is unaware of exactly what maneuvers he has at his disposal to deploy—and even taking into account that he is also likely aware by now, eight months into his fragile tenure, that in Kim he is no longer dealing with a business adversary akin to those he faced while trying to build a hotel in a Middle East oasis). He does not do well with humiliation—which he is courting, if he actually has no desire to act like the monster he would be if he attempted to unleash our forces, in any way that exceeds a token show that somehow manages to be effective in humiliating his adversary, the scion of a tradition that has its own monstrous ways of neutralizing much smaller incidents of being humbled.

* One problem is that political discourse has become coarsened, and generally less civil, as a result of the past five cycles of presidential politics—with all of the more localized interstitial contests increasing the opportunities for vulgarizing and debasing not only the vocabulary, but the general rhetorical tenor. Now, with the most proficient perpetrator ever of applying the vernacular to the previously fairly elevated, if not polite, stage of addressing opponents, adversaries, and even colleagues and allies, with some degree of tacitly accepted decorum on a world stage, it is that much harder to assess the impact—never mind the underlying significance, at least in terms of degree, if not force of influence—of street language that could as easily be bluster as it is mere verbal prelude to mortal physical engagement. Parley is an art that was invented in the days of leather and steel armor, when potential combatants rode on horseback. It is an art, I am afraid, that has had its methods and techniques fade and wither. Today, the battle is usually for people’s “minds,” that is, the inclination, hopefully favorable, to those who are the authors of the utterances. But the effect of Trump’s words—the ability to differentiate real intent from figurative manipulation of popular sentiment is beyond me, and as far as I can tell, beyond every commentator, interpreter, analyst, pundit, you name the expert, that I have seen—must, at some point, do more than keep an entire population in thrall. At some point, actions will occur. And it is what they may be that I dread, far more than the largely inept usages he deploys.

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Apple’s Role in the Noösphere

Approximate Reading Time: 15 minutes

At the behest of a good friend, who asked me on Facebook what I thought of the following article on the Web, I read the article. I tried to read it twice, to assist in getting a significant number of potholes and bumps in the text, but I simply could not muster the initiative to get past that first reading, which left my friend feeling with regard to Mr. Kay's narrative, "he goes over my head a few times." I felt, conversely, that my friend was being charmingly polite and self-effacing. As you will see, I can't manage these otherwise authentic sentiments and remain credible in what would be in me my feigned sincerity.

Here is the link to the "Fast Company" Web page with the article in question. You can read it before or after reading what I have to say. Or, if you have sufficient self-regard, you can skip it altogether. If you have an overabundance of self-regard, it's possible you'll elect to stop reading me right here.

Undoubtedly Alan Kay has always been a smart cookie. It's not entirely clear that he is able to articulate intelligibly and clearly what goes on in that head of his, not from this Fast Company interview. It's been filtered through the mindset of a typical Fast Company contributor, which is to say, one of a huge team of well-educated millennial ax-grinders. Whatever Kay actually said remains, likely irretrievable, in the silicon pathways of Brian Merchant's digital recording device.

That's the first problem with extracting anything of meaning, never mind of value, from this deliberate, cozy, but still reverential brush with the greatness of late 20th century cybernetic science pioneers. The second problem is that, despite the first fact, I think, but cannot be sure, it's possible to extract some hints of motive in the various expostulations of Mr. Kay, though these may have been colored by the mission of young Mr. Merchant (as evidenced in his selective contributions to the "conversation" documented here). It sounds like there's more than a bit of the product designer manqué in Kay, and despite his generous assessment of Steve Jobs's marketing genius, it seems clear that the deficiencies he delineates in the progress of the product concepts he envisioned with his collaborators more than 50 years ago now are more of a marketing nature, than of a failure in the evolution of the underlying technology, which he hardly touches on (possibly because the lede here should have been not that Mr. Kay is not impressed—this seems to be a fragmentary memoir of his history of insufficient esteem for the accomplishments of Mr. Jobs, with whom Mr. Kay seems to imply a collaborative bond—but that Mr. Kay would have loved to have introduced products to a market that had the same demonstrable, indeed monstrous, success as those that Apple actually did present so successfully, going back to the iMac).

Further, and this is the third and possibly the biggest of the problems I have reading this feature story from "Fast Company," it is not at all clear that errors in navigation, so to speak, for the great ship of Human Knowledge (with its fleet of support vessels, which entail the means of not merely furthering its course, but how it will continue to sail the endless seas of the universe), at least since the advent of products that further what I'll call the market for consumer computing, are attributable to the products being offered so much as the applications to which the market asserts its preferences. In short, it's never been my perception that Apple envisioned the design and production engineering of a product that would optimally enable spending hours playing the wholly hermetic self-involvement of a game called "Candy Crush." Along these lines, and more in an abstract sphere, Kay had occasion to allude to the great, if not culturally cataclysmic, aperçu of Professor Marshall McLuhan concerning the impact of certain specific mechanical technologies on not only human societies, but on human nature. I think it's unfortunate that Kay, I am sure unwittingly and unintentionally (but who knows?) perpetuates the perception that McLuhan was a philosopher (and maybe possibly an evolutionary psychologist) when he was, in fact, mainly a literary qua cultural critic.

I can't be sure of this, though, because, ironically (which Merchant and Kay make clear is the touchstone communicative mode of the zeitgeist), albeit Kay lavishes praise on the rhetorical skills of such as Neil Postman, or even further back to Bertrand Russell ("that bastard") being capable of writing "like a dream," Mr. Kay is not capable, at least he doesn’t talk like a dream… All of this suggests, and punctuates the perceptible fact in the form of this published interview, that unlike them Mr. Kay is not capable of being either clear, first and foremost, and thereby persuasive—especially of facts, it's suggested, not otherwise palatable to the recipient of the argument. But then, this is a heavily edited and manipulated interview on the heels of a major product introduction by the world's largest company in terms of market capitalization. And it appears in Fast Company—a tarted up business magazine that has what seems to be an inalterable mission. Its agent, in this case, the aggressive journalist bent on positioning himself as the resident historian of the development and impact of the Apple iPhone, states his professional purpose (on his LinkedIn site profile) as follows:

Today, he spends most of his time investigating the myriad ways humanity is attempting to survive itself.

Talking of high-minded purposeful solipsism.

Instead of McLuhan, it seems as if Kay, and his self-appointed henchman Merchant, should have dug a bit more into the ideas of Teilhard de Chardin, and in particular that of the noösphere. It's a concept that has been kicking around (though it's hardly a popular lively topic) since the 1930s, and thereby lends a certain estimable patina to the already comfortably burnished ideas that issued from the labs of not only Xerox (the company that never got over not becoming what Apple has proven itself to be, though it showed every promise of doing so; it just could never get over the hump of being utterly incapable of conceptualizing and developing products that could be marketed and sold successfully to the mass consumer market… something that Sony, Apple, and for a long while (until it lost its technological grip) Polaroid, among many others, had proven themselves to be), but of a great number of academic laboratories and whole departments in the applied and theoretical sciences.

The notion that there is a concurrent, coextensive, and (insofar as I can understand some complex and possibly arcane theory) commingled developmental human capacity keeping pace with, if not finally and now (should I say NOW!) exceeding the excrescences of evolution, usually understood in terms of natural selection is, in short, not a new idea. That there is a superceding (what I will provocatively call) ontological development in the evolution of human epistemology—please IM me if that "human" is redundant, and I'm just sounding like a fool—remains to be proven, however. But a lot of people seem to sure want to think so. And a lot of very smart people are counting on the insinuation of certain largely 20th century technologies (starting with the Turing engine—in the form of the still barely modern digital computer—and continuing through the accretive accumulation of a wide range of programming languages, including so-called object-oriented ones, but not stopping with them, as well as mimetic architectures for computer engine design (with their tightly bound software|hardware manifestations) with neural networks the most prominent as an example in my mind) in the gestation of some new kind of what I'll call consciousness, and which Kay here, very clumsily and slightly incoherently calls "another level of thought." There is, possibly, some suggestion, and this would be particularly in keeping with the thinking of the theorists of noöspheric structure, that this presumably extranumerary level of thought is, in fact, a wholly new level of thought—somehow, again mysteriously and incomprehensibly (here) aided and abetted, if not stimulated, with some vague suggestion of insemination, by the great potential computing advances envisioned in Palo Alto, and other places. That, the aiding, abetting, the, uh, stimulation, the, erm, insemination, which is to say, the enabling of some new dawn of thinking would occur if only we would let it. Except we are bent on watching serially, or with sporadic binging, entire seasons of the alleged comedy series "Bojack Horseman." All that potential enlightenment down the omniverous black hole of popular culture.

Having said all that, allow me to say, just briefly, because I am afraid that I have already taken up too much of your time to leave you comfortable, even at the risk of seeming suddenly to change the subject. I'm not. I'm just doing what every creative nonfiction writer in this day and age does, worth his or her rhetorical salt, and that is, I am making it personal, because the mission of deconstructing and then deriding the suspect emissions of a noteworthy brilliant computer scientist is always a dead end. Unlike Mr. Merchant, who by familiar conversational postures and ploys suggests he is, I am not by any means Mr. Kay's peer (though, to play the age card, I am far closer chronologically than Mr. Merchant can ever be while Mr. Kay lives—and thereby have my own memories of the very same periods of the development of computer products and the underlying science and engineering).

Nevertheless, I have no problem stating that I am not at all unimpressed by Apple's latest product announcements, and especially in the light of what small lights went off in my mind (kind of premonitory LEDs) as I watched the Apple Event on September 12, the extended product commercial, wherein they announced the much anticipated new line of iPhones. First let me say, and I must offer the caveat that I am not an inveterate watcher of these fanboy events—I've never watched one from beginning to end, as I did this one, before. Something told me, and I can't say what (nor do I wish to devote the time and emotional energy to figuring out what "told" me; I'll just say, I have a lot of faith in intuition), to watch.

After consciously noting and filtering out that tsunami of ejaculations (I am speaking entirely of rhetorical phenomena) from the mouths of the parade of Apple executives delegated to announce the products and their attendant features, consisting essentially of the words, "beautiful" and "magic," I realized that two things struck me as particularly compelling. I don't pretend to be an exhaustive reviewer of popular media, or even the self-consciously nominal intellectual fare of which I am a significant consumer. But little attention was paid to two facts about the new products, one a functional capability of the newly announced Apple Watch Series 3 and the other a facet of the underlying enabling computer design of the new crown jewel of smartphones, the iPhone X.

First, we were told that in addition to the liberating capability of being able to don a watch that would leave us coupled, with an available signal of sufficient power, to the nation's grid of cellular transmitters, the watch, with forthcoming software revisions, will be capable of monitoring cardiac arrhythmias. This is very big. It's big, no doubt, in terms of a significant potential advance in diagnosis and prevention of debilitating, if not fatal, cardiac and cerebral anomalies. Without belaboring this (this is not the place, and I don't have the time, even if you do) this can have a significant impact on ensuring well-being and greater healthy longevity for humans, and I would suggest, tantalizingly, that this has implications for how we will be able to think about the nature of mortality, and all the attendant epistemological matters pertaining. Talk about a new "level of thought."

Second, and this could be even bigger, but I can't say, because I don't have the bona fides for even thinking about potential applications, the new iPhone X, embedded in the Face ID engine of the product, has a computing advance—with clear, proven, highly affordable manifestations, albeit as a consumer product the vendor is hard-pressed to describe to an avid public in any language other than to use the ridiculous word, "magic." It's not magic, but it is incredibly powerful, and it will fit in anyone's pocket. I am speaking of the architecture of the new A11 Bionic Neural Network chip in the iPhone X. This was conceivable, but, if you will, unthinkable in a consumer product, back in the 1980s (for perspective, the Macintosh, which Mr. Kay considered the first personal computer "worth criticizing," was introduced in 1984; it was a capable of facilitating, but in what in hindsight was only in the most primitive way, the graphic user interface, with the ability to "draw" on the screen of a cathode-ray tube… and, frankly, not much else worth noting, except the use of a new "input" device charmingly called a mouse, and all of which were envisioned by Mr. Kay and his cohort at Xerox PARC labs, back in the 60s and early 70s—which is to say, it took, let us say, 10 or 15 years to see realized in a consumer product). It has, for practical purposes, taken 30 years for a true neural network architecture to see realization as a viable product.

I'll just say, to conclude, that it's too bad, to note only one major benefit at least as Apple presented it. I mean this aside from the vaguely engaging (not sufficiently to justify replacing my perfectly fine current iPhone 7+ model, less than a year old, outmoded as its technology suddenly has become; I will just have to live with the humiliation) application of highly secure three-dimensional facial recognition to permit use of the phone. It's really too bad, in fact, that Apple in their considerable wisdom (borne of incredibly successful and undoubted marketing acumen—certainly Mr. Kay attests to it) chose to put enormous emphasis on what I can only describe as the colossally trivial ability to animate cartoon characters with a simulacrum of basic emotive expressions, and all that anthropomorphically at best.

You'd think, and I hope in a small way, that Mr. Kay would be in concurrence, if this is not precisely what he was trying to say, and would have without the interference of Mr. Merchant, the world has enough smiling, grimacing, gesticulating cartoon panda bears.

I could add that, once you have an iPhone X, unless you can use it to solve some significant complex problem that has eluded very serious invesigators and researchers for years (which I fully intend to do with mine), I would suggest you put down the phone making sure it’s on its self-charging wireless Qi pad, and go play with a dog. Salutary for all aspects of the brain chemistry. But I won’t add that, because it would be snotty.

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In Medio Facebook

Approximate Reading Time: 13 minutes

I tend to think about my life these days in terms of a cultural phenomenon I have, at best, ambivalent feelings about. There is a strong trend, as we like to say on the Internet, to loathing. I am talking about Facebook, of course. Life tends to divide, thinking about it from the vantage of now, among pre-Facebook, and being in the midst of it, and what I hope I will be able to label as post-Facebook. I am in the middle of withdrawal.

It’s not the first time. I subscribed to Facebook, though I contributed in an insignificant way at the beginning: from the time of its inception as a public forum on the web. It was in 2007. I became more and more active, and increasingly vociferous about my discomfort participating, starting in 2009. The record, or partially so, of all this is recorded here on Included in the archive (you won’t find it on Facebook because I deleted my first account in 2012 for a period of about eight months) is a farewell to Facebook—also here.

I’m sorry, you’ll have to search. I am not encouraging you to read it, given my recidivism. I rejoined Facebook that same year, and have been quite active, with a voluminous output mainly in the form of lengthy posts, largely (to my mind) in the form of an extended and fractionated apologia. There were also many many links posted, with what I hoped always were evocative or enlightened or, possibly, provocative introductory comments. Most of these were, from the evidence of the overall responsiveness of a closed readership, either ignored, or not too inspiring, or (what I believe is most likely) never seen because of Facebook management’s strange protocols and algorithms for distributing posts even to one’s own manageable friends’ list. I rarely, if ever, posted publicly (because of a distaste for engaging with potential trolls—the mere day-to-day of absorbing the less-than-determinative mix of elements I was exposed to on the famous newsfeed, and responding in a measured, rational, and well-meaning way, as much as possible with good will and humor is enough of a challenge). I have just a little over 100 well-chosen and considered individuals on my list of Facebook friends.

I accepted long since, because I don’t have the desire to “follow” each of them persistently, if not doggedly and grudgingly, that it was probably also true about each of them with regard to my choices as to what to lay at their doorsill for review, if not perusal. Hence, likely as not, the chief reason they didn’t respond in any way—the preponderance of them with not even a “like”—was because they didn’t even see a post, which is not to dismiss the possibility they saw none. Ever.

I am someone who gets on a social medium for the sociability of it—the only reason for the connection is the connection, the sense of having ties and to take advantage of the opportunity to converse, however etiolated the connection. I do and have always appreciated the band of “regulars” I seemed to have cultivated. The usual roundup of Renaultean “suspects” were the people I could count on to offer a comment and thereby, often enough, start a conversation. Stilted as it may have been—a phenomenon attributable solely to me, because I was mindful, likely overly so, that private as the space may seem on Facebook, someone is always monitoring and filtering. It is a public space, no matter what alterations to the policy statement, especially that regarding our so-called “privacy,” the jejune and profit-grubbing commissariat of Facebook might testify otherwise periodically.

The pleasure of connecting with friends was valuable, and in a good way, measured in the spirit of the exchanges, incalculable. However nothing about it was unique to Facebook. The only thing unique is the peculiar condition of seeming round-the-clock access one has to one’s friends. Not all of one’s friends, for sure. At least in my case, a significant number of friends forbore and either never joined Facebook or had the greater strength than I could muster, but that one time, and removed themselves, pretty well for good. I maintain contact with them in the “old” ways, which still work, of course.

One of the deficits to Facebook, in order to glean what measured and titrated pleasures it affords, is the amount of time one must devote to it to exact those pleasures as a kind of reward. I don’t need Facebook for any other purpose to which people put a whole arsenal of means of contact together. Indeed, some methods, like good old-fashioned email, are still better, given a certain mix of demographic characteristics in any segment of one’s social set. Our neighbors—literally the people who live in a state of propinquity in our town—still best confer for whatever communal purpose by email. Only one of our neighbors, and she is one of my valued, staunch, and consistent “usual suspects” among the tiny number, really, of reliable correspondents, is on Facebook.

The overall deficiency of Facebook is determined not only by the disproportion of desired opportunities for substantive contact with other human beings, balanced against exposure to the clichéd booming buzzing chaos of society at large in the myriad forms this disorder takes on Facebook, inescapably, and is colored, indeed overshadowed emotionally by the dark view I get of humanity at large thereby. It may all be me. But if so, it’s a problem I’d rather deal with by removing myself from the provocation.

In all events, I find myself, once again, feeling, at best (and it’s a deteriorating condition) ambivalent about this social boon, which at latest count (according to Statistica) stands at over 1.85 billion people around the world subscribing and, theoretically at least, potentially online all at the same time. It’s more a testament to the triumph of the technology necessary, and the cleverness exercised at developing and managing that technology in real time—reliably and transparently, indeed oiling the mechanism to make it seem effortless—that allows the possibility. It is not a testament to the wish of any sane person to want to have contact with any representative sampling of humanity, never mind fully one-quarter of mankind inhabiting the planet all at once.

In all events, it’s my sanity that I feel is being tested. More my equanimity and sense of well-being, with a realistic sense of my worth, and the worth of my time, best spent in productive pursuits as I define them than my ability to be rational. But these are times where rationality must be not merely clinged to, as a life preserver, but stood behind as a bulwark to help keep the vessel afloat and on course. Increasingly, as we all confront the swells of the waves, and the tempests that rise up to stir up and electrify the whole atmosphere, it’s more important to see to the fitness of the vessel than merely to worry about survival by finding diversions and distractions. There are plenty of each of these on Facebook. And I needn’t do more than mention, never mind even think of belaboring, the inadequacy of the channel called Facebook that Mark Zuckerberg is working with desperate ingenuity to turn into a medium that will serve all purposes, no matter how ill-suited it is to inform without bias, and to provide safe harbor from hysteria.

All of what I’ve said in the foregoing is prelude and prologue to writing I have done, and am continuing to write, about the phenomenon of Facebook, especially insofar as one person, myself, has experienced it, and spent far too much time in one regard pondering that experience and trying to elicit some sense. In the hopes that I have begun to delineate that sense and it’s a sense that may prove useful to others trying to understand, if not merely decipher, one of the major phenomena of our time that is bound to define at least this episode, now ten years in duration and promising to continue, in the formation of the culture, the living culture, in which we all are a part.

What’s past is prolog; Facebook as reality distortion—a foreword

One difference between pre- and post-FB behavior is the loss of that restraint that allowed us to keep thoughts to ourselves, reserving judgment on whether it’s appropriate even to say things to the few people for whom they are truly intended. Now it’s perfectly acceptable to say things publicly that, if we thought about it, will give offense to somebody and beyond that, even if truly innocuous, is of fleeting interest to most.

Mindy Kaling, one of the great comic sages of our time (yes this is sarcasm) had a great aperçu—undoubtedly an accident, but then she tweets all the time, so statistics are on her side—and that is, “People take things at face value on social media. Earnestness is the assumption.” Better that, I suppose than having to craft an apology, as in the old days, when you spoke out of turn, or unwisely hit the “send” button. However, this is merely the largest of the ineluctable consequences of making all personal communications accessible through public channels (yes, I’m being ornery and contrary; FB is not a medium—paint is a medium, pen and ink is a medium—it’s a channel, you know?, a conduit, a canal or, if you prefer, a sewer). We’ve lost nuance. I’d suggest we’ve also lost perspective.

The highest grossing movies, at least within the generation of Judd Apatow—the current Socrates and Aristophanes rolled into one of our era, at least in America—are rife with what pass for jokes, mainly about reproductive and excretory body parts, acts of coitus and oral/sexual contact, and put-downs. Yet all of these, plus sarcasm (which is irony, an absolutely useless mode on social media, without the benefit of your higher brain function) and slapstick, are strictly prohibited on Facebook. Try them, see how fast your “friends” shut you down.

As a consequence, we spend some part of each day on a virtual version of Soma (Google or Wiki it, look under Aldous Huxley and his novel Brave New World), assuming we have fallen prey to the need to stay in touch via Mark Zuckerberg’s jejune, if not wholly ill-adjusted, notions of what constitutes the proper means of maintaining meaningful personal relations with other humans whose contact we value. That these relations are eviscerated by the unspoken and unwritten etiquette of Facebook contact (unless it is wholly private—sending messages one-on-one does beg the question of whether Facebook is the best vehicle for communication in this form) goes without saying. We “speak” to one another in a different way than we do in person (persuade yourself otherwise if you like; if you are truly mindful of what you are saying and to whom, and at the same time mindful that there is likely a larger audience, you will say it, whatever it happens to be, with, shall I say, a little less juice—otherwise consider the possibility that you have a need to demonstrate to others just how caring, sweet, and civilized you are).

You may be completely in control of the various channels of communication you have open to you, depending on the audience, and more power to you. There’s no doubt Facebook serves some need. Even as significant a cynic as I am cannot argue with an overall membership of over one-and-a-half billion people, who use Facebook daily a half-billion at a time. Whatever the need, Facebook fills it. I note with some rue that Zuckerberg has organized a consortium of like-minded enterprises to extend the fundamental benefits of Facebook to the other five billion people in the world. The initiative (with several B-players in supporting roles, and a giant called Samsung also on board) is called []. However, the insidious effects of Facebook are not to be denied, and the results have only started to come in from research that substantiates just what social impact this particular channel of networking on a grand scale has.

A recent study, that received some (but, in my opinion, not enough) attention from the University of Michigan concentrated on the effect of Facebook use on college-age adults. In brief, here is the abstract of that study:

“Over 500 million people interact daily with Facebook. Yet, whether Facebook use influences subjective well-being over time is unknown. We addressed this issue using experience-sampling, the most reliable method for measuring in-vivo behavior and psychological experience. We text-messaged people five times per day for two-weeks to examine how Facebook use influences the two components of subjective well-being: how people feel moment-to-moment and how satisfied they are with their lives. Our results indicate that Facebook use predicts negative shifts on both of these variables over time. The more people used Facebook at one time point, the worse they felt the next time we text-messaged them; the more they used Facebook over two-weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time. Interacting with other people ‘‘directly’’ did not predict these negative outcomes. They were also not moderated by the size of people’s Facebook networks, their perceived supportiveness, motivation for using Facebook, gender, loneliness, self-esteem, or depression. On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”

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Who Is Julian Assange, Really?

Approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes

Julian Assange portrait by Espen Moe

Julian Assange, captured in the wild, By Espen Moe (Julian Assange Uploaded by Ralgis) via Wikimedia Commons

I found myself this morning in a place I have been before. I was casting about for an appropriate trope, some metaphor, or analogy perhaps, that could most economically sum up a thought on the tip of my tongue and at the verge of my mind.

I had just perused a screenful of Google finds, having searched on Julian Assange and Bernie Sanders. Having been informed that something dire about the latter had been hinted at by the former, I found there was to be no satisfaction as is often the case (with the former) perusing the usual at least vaguely reliable sources—what we’ve come to refer to with a faint air of noble disdain as “the mainstream press.” No matter that the New York Times, the Washington Post, and let’s say The Guardian (the Anglophone’s “Libération”) have been doing a creditable job, at least since the Republican National Convention, of quietly, but still forcibly, holding Trump’s feet to the fire. Most of the stories are, alas, not of the headline grabbing sort where the gist of the story is, in fact, solely in the headline: “Trump Insults God—Where Will He Go Now?” Rather they are of the sort that requires digging, genuine hard-nosed investigative journalism research in the basement files and news morgues and tax filings of the past 40 or more years. But dig up stuff they do.

We can only hope the effect on the electorate, at least around the edges known as undecided voters, will be accretive. In the meantime however, the real juice still flows on sites that largely are self-accredited news organizations. These reside, at the bottom, being bottom-feeders, on the left and right. Indeed, if they checked into the same three-star tourist hotel on the Riviera for the weekend they’d readily get one of those suites consisting of two bedrooms sharing a bath, with a doorway between them that is supplied with a lock, but whose key was lost long since.

The latest news, if it’s to be called that: apparently the somewhat cryptic and amorphous factoid hinted at by Julian Assange back in August (and reported via the same sources, and then either discredited or patently ignored) has been revived in the last 24 hours by way of a timely interview that M. Assange granted to an Austrian news source. He hints, but hints only, saying only that all will be revealed in due course, that, indeed, it’s true that Bernie Sanders was “threatened” in early July sufficiently convincingly by the Clinton campaign that he ended his candidacy, as demanded. The threat is not, of course, clear. One version of the story holds that his wife was threatened with physical harm.

The theme, not a sub-text, but the real topic here, is that this, as Assange has warned us repeatedly, is how the Clinton organization of goons and thugs rolls. Indeed, the entire Democratic Party is apparently, to use a phrase Trump has come to embrace, “a criminal enterprise.” [speaking out of the side of one’s mouth, lit cigar held at the corner of the lips, Groucho-style: “and he oughta’ know…”]

With no shame in the admission, I have to say, once again, I didn’t know what to make of this. However, it did occur to me that there has been perhaps an incremental elevation in what I will call Assange’s mysterious pernicious temperament toward certain targets. His hatred of the Clintons, which he doesn’t deny, is now, if not well documented, at least accepted universally as de facto truth—the sort that will be still only partially uncovered in history texts, using to-be-recently-in-the-future discovered primary sources, of the 22nd century.

So there I was, as I say, on a weekday morning with the day’s non-story, from the paranoia newswires that never stop clattering, puzzled, yet again, with a persistent repetitive topic, the maleficent sheer hatred of one celebrity for another. That it involves global issues of political and economic significance only means that it’s to be pondered with a portion or two of more grave concern than the latest dispatch about the Kimwe/Swift Feud.

Fortunately, my episode of matitudinal puzzlement of the day coincided with my usual duty every other weekday, of assuming stewardship of the dog’s first walk. The blessed imposition of this pleasant duty provided exactly the mental respite I needed to have it come to me, even as I tugged Artemis along, coaxing her, now that she had delivered the first of her excretory performances, to achieve the more, shall I say, solid of these discharges. I wish I could say that my thought arrived simultaneous with her visible relief, but it preceded it, and possibly with even less strain.

I’ve struggled not merely to categorize, not merely to characterize, but to personify the role Julian Assange plays in our lives, I mean beyond the obvious ways the news is free to describe his presence on the world stage: accused rapist, purloiner of secret documents, unrepentant publisher of unfiltered government papers, fugitive on a global scale immured, with a kind of cosmic and comic irony, in the embassy/sanctuary of a former banana republic. No matter what he is accused of: of almost equal unimportance is what, ultimately, he may be found guilty of. These are matters, especially at this point (he’s been living ignominiously in the London Ecuadorean embassy for over four years now), of far greater moment surely to him than, well, at least, to me. What’s more important is the role he plays, insofar as someone like him still can capriciously and, apparently with seeming ease, continually play and have an impact on matters that will, potentially, affect our lives: the quality of them at least, in abstract terms, such as the ethos that pervades.

And then I had my thought as it plopped into my consciousness. Julian Assange is our J. Edgar Hoover.

Same tactics, same tendentious attitude, same presumption of moral superiority (hollow, as it turned out, and always seemed to be: the morality of a hypocrite), the same willingness to destroy reputations, never mind lives, with innuendo and with lies impossible to disprove—access, gained illegally, to “evidence” of the mischief of others, and used more as leverage than as concrete probative facts beyond a shadow of a doubt. The same implacable and undeviating mission to project an essentially paranoiac’s fantasy of a world beset with corruption and evil.

Subsequent to the publication of this blog entry, I learned of this investigative piece, which had appeared a little more than a week before in “The New York Times.” It speaks for itself: Wikileaks and Russian objectives sometimes seem to dovetail…

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Camille Paglia on Lena Dunham

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

Camille Paglia broke on the national public scene with the publication of her magnum opus Sexual Personae back in 1990. It was originally her weighty and quite serious doctoral thesis, at Yale University, some 20 years previously. Since its commercial release, I have had the guarded ambiguity-laden relationship with her we all like to place under the heading of “love/hate.” Ever wary of Paglia’s inevitably brash, seemingly liberal pronunciamentos, always to my ear, as well, vaguely self-congratulatory, what I brace for, always, are crypto-fascist eruptions.

These days she seems to have found at least one rhetorical nesting place in which to opine regularly, that is, with the National Enquirer of the proto-progressive left, “Salon.” Indeed, she falls well into line, as she puts it, with her “perspective as a fervent supporter of the ruggedly honest and principled Bernie Sanders.” Unhappily (in the French sense), she says so even as she steps without a skosh of trepidation and embarassment away from her prior position towards Donald Trump. He was a “carnival barker.” Now, she thrusts toward a much more accommodating stance, in a paroxysm of self-revision (perhaps in fear—and I say this knowing that la bohème de l’académie springs with predatory zeal when so accused—of not having gotten on board soon enough to embrace the inexorability of The Donald’s earth-scorching march on Philadelphia this summer). It seems now, conversely to mere weeks ago, he (or should we be considering any reference or adversion with an upper case pronoun, usually reserved for kings, God, and Jesus or Mohammed, and call Him “He?”… I would prefer Trump, or His Trumpness, or Trumper, or El Trumperino) is to be viewed differently. According to a reassuring la Paglia, as she informs her public that “[his] fearless candor and brash energy feel like a great gust of fresh air, sweeping the tedious clichés and constant guilt-tripping of political correctness out to sea….Trump is his own man, with a steely ‘damn the torpedoes’ attitude.” And she does so with an equal insouciance to the appearance of a public reversal, like any seasoned pol intent on righting the meaning of truth.

However, I am not here to challenge her on what was, indeed, a refreshing and validating expression of opinion by she who must be heard in the very same column in today’s Salon (I Was Wrong About Donald Trump). Though, briefly I have to admit it is inviting to point out the myriad aspects of Trump’s public persona that are signifiers of a wholly insupportable inhumane tendency—qualities the foremost diva of the academy elects to overlook in her 180-degree reassessment.

By David Shankbone - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Lena Dunham, by David Shankbone – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Rather I am here to take what is to me a godsend of an opportunity to quote her on another curious phenomenon in this day of grotesque judgments by the establishment as to what constitutes newsworthiness. Never mind as to what constitutes worth of any sort that is substantiated by reality, and validated by any kind of rigororous epistemological scrutiny. I speak of one of my personal bêtes noires, Ms. Lena Dunham.

Quite simply, let me quote Camille without comment. I could not have said it better. Having observed that Ms. Paglia has seemed to have overlooked Ms. Dunham while doing a “superb job of analyzing contemporary figures,” one of the professor’s admirers ask her point blank for her “thoughts on this young woman who fancies herself The Voice of her generation:”

On the one hand, I believe that each generation has the unchallengeable right to create its own aesthetic and to carve its own idols. On the other hand, as Gwendolen Fairfax darkly remarks to Cecily Cardew in the great tea-table confrontation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, “On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one’s mind. It becomes a pleasure.”

Lena Dunham belongs to the exhibitionistic Andrea Dworkin school of banner-waving neurotic masochism. The body is the enemy, a tainted lump whose limitations and afflictions the public must be forced to contemplate in grisly detail. We must also witness, like hapless medieval bystanders at a procession of flagellants, just how unappetizingly pallid Caucasian flesh can be made to be without cracking the camera lens. The torpid banality of Dunham’s utterances (reverently accorded scriptural status by the New York Times) is yet another matter. I am woman–hear me kvetch!

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