Wednesday, January 11, 2017

On "Spirals" by David Eagleman (583 words) ****

God is omniscient. He knows why we are here, what our purpose is. But what if this weren't so? What if we were created by creatures who were actually less knowledgeable than we are? What would be the implications of that? Find out one possible outcome here.

On “Command and Control” by Eric Schlosser *****

I am a big fan of Schlosser's expose on fast food and had read an excerpt of this work, so I have long been looking forward to getting down to reading it. I was not disappointed. Command and Control revolves around an accident involving a Titan II missile silo in 1980, but around that story, Schlosser also tells the story of the American nuclear weapons program and of the dangers that accompany it, most specifically as related to accidents.

The Titan II accident dealt with in detail began with a routine maintenance operation, a man dropping a wrench and it hitting the missile, tearing a hole in it such that fuel began to pour out. It ends with an explosion. In between are tens of hours of terror, consternation, and planning. The escaped fuel leads to heavy amounts of toxic gas in the silo, enough that the command center feels a need to abandon the structure, this despite the fact that they sit behind several blast doors that can supposedly withstand a massive explosion, but gas seeps, and nuclear explosions are, well, you know, sort of big, big enough that one doesn't want to test such doors.

Outside, Air Force personell discuss what to do. They forge plans. Few of them actually do anything. The sherrif of the nearby town warns people to get away, even though the Air Force largely says that it has things under control. The sherrif knows better, from an accident a few years before involving a toxic oxidizer that killed lots of cattle and made many people sick. News crews arrive. Information given to the public is sparse.

Meanwhile, there's a general sense of dread and panic among the military people in the know. The fuel leak is slowly draining the bottom of the missile, making a vacuum. Above this vacuum is oxidizer, even more toxic than the fuel. It will crush the bottom of the missile like a tin can at some point, and the result will be an explosion. And above that are nuclear warheads, and one explosion might well set off the other. Over the course of several hours, a plan is forged. The silo doors will be opened in an attempt to disappate the fuel fumes and allow workers to go down and patch up the leak.

And then there's that explosion. When it happens, it is gut-wrenching. I'd thought the sheer number of characters Schlosser introduces would mitigate against one's feelings for them, but that is not the case with those who are hurt.

In between the account of the accident is a history of America's nuclear arsenal--and of the accidents in which it has been involved. One of the most harrowing involves another silo that catches fire in which fifty-three men are trapped and killed. Another involves the accidental dropping of a nuclear bomb over North Carolina in which every failsafe but the very last fails to prevent detonation.

But despite such accidents, thousands of them, the military continues to use the weaponry, even that which is questionable in terms of safety, and often it fights against safety precautions because of the added cost. Some accidents don't involve the warheads themselves but the early warning systems. In one case, a computer malfunctions and tells U.S. military people that the Soviet Union has launched an attack. Only because the head of the Soviet Union is actually in the United States at the time do experts realize that the computer has a bug.

And then there are the various military strategies the United States has during the Cold War. The main one involves essentially sending over so many missiles in retaliation for an attack that some places are being bombed three times over. The Cuban Missile Crisis is recounted, showing just how close the two nations came to war--but often that closely was mirrored by accidents like the one recounted above.

What's scary, Schlosser notes is that the United States probably has one of the safer aresenals. Other countries in possession of nukes don't have as good of a safety record, as bad as the American record is. And all it takes is for one of those thousands of accidents to get out of hand.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

On "Shower of Gold" by Donald Barthelme (3500 words) *****

Here's a fun and absurd story about a man who agrees to go on television to make a little money, which he needs. But in between, we're provided into people's opinions about the show and even into some information about the president. Read the story here.

On "The Jews in the Time of Jesus" by Stephen M. Wylen ***

This book sets out to provide the context for Jesus's life--that is, to provide readers with a sense of the Second Temple period in Palestine. He rightfully points out early on the trouble that exists in any such study and that has existed throughout--that scholars often say more about their times than about the time they are studying. Anti-Jewish works were the order of the day in the 1800s; modernists corrected this to an extent, but still had their own contemporary biases in trying to find the real Jesus. Contemporary historians have moved toward trying to present Christ as a Jewish man in a Jewish setting--what would a carpenter's life have been like at the time? But even when confronting this question, there is the issue of which historical sources to trust. Do we take the New Testament at its word or the Jewish writers of the Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrash? None of these were written strictly at the time of Jesus but rather anywhere from twenty to several hundred years later, depending on the source. Contemporary sources can be found, but they are usually from small Jewish sects that did not represent mainstream views. Can these be trusted themselves?

Wylen kicks off his discussion of the Second Temple period with a short summary of the Biblical narrative leading up to the building of the Second Temple. It's interesting to think of several of the biblical books as being written at the start of this period and as being a response to the events that are happening. Prophecy ends with Malachi soon after the Second Temple, much to the chagrin of many of the Jews. In its place comes apocalyptic works, most of which don't end up in the final scriptures (as Wylen relates, the Torah was the most accepted as scripture in the Second Temple period, the Prophets with a lesser degree of acceptance as time goes on, with the Writings not being finalized in the Jewish Old Testament until around 100 CE); the author credits Ezra as a likely authority in terms of editing the Torah and other books into their final form during this period (although this ignores the references to kings such as Hezekiah restoring the holy books--I would assume the Torah--to the center of practical application in their own time [other scholars see the time of Ezra, and the Great Assembly of Priests, as being the final period of Old Testament canonization, including all the Prophets and Writings]). It would only be after Jesus that scripture writing would return--in the form of the Talmud for the Jews and in the form of the New Testament for Christians. But even there, the writing would be more a matter of interpretation of previous scripture than of new revelation. Of further interest would be the introduction of the interpreters to the Jewish public reading of scripture, as most Jews by now spoke Aramaic and did not always have a firm grasp of Hebrew. These translations often took the form of true interpretations, though, as commentary often was added.

The next chapter turns to the Hellenistic world, especially as it affected the Jewish religion and as the Jewish religion affected it. That the Jews did not wholly assimilate to the Greek is unique among the Middle Eastern cultures, and this has a lot to do with the belief in one God, as opposed to a pantheon that could be easily added to (or "translated"--some Greeks saw the Jewish God as Zeus). That the Jews lacked idols was unique also. Jewish thinkers were seen as quite wise, and a good number of people converted of a sort (again, unique, as one doesn't convert when there are more than a single god--one just adds to the pantheon). These God-fearers did not circumcise (something the Greeks abhorred, unlike most Near Eastern cultures), but they adopted a belief in the one God of Judah; it is to them that much of the New Testament is addressed (as in Acts 15). Jews also moved out into the Roman Empire, losing sometimes the ability to speak Hebrew or Aramaic and thus getting most of their Bible from a Greek translation. Paul was probably most fluent in Greek, the author says, as evidenced by the Septuagint's influence on his letters (as we see in his choice of certain words and even some of his ideas). Fully 10 percent of the Roman Empire might have been Jewish, the author says. But these Hellenized Jews disappeared by the Middle Ages. What happened? We don't know. They may have been subsumed by Rabbinic Judaism or by Christianity. Indeed, the popularity of Jewish culture fell by the wayside as the Jews became more and more trouble within the empire. Their unwillingness to join in with civic rites because of the latter's steeping in paganism led to a separation and to some resentment, especially as the Jews began to push for more rights--and eventually participated in several armed rebellions. An interesting aside dwells on the Pharisees, who, the author says, were actually quite missionary in their attempts to convert Gentile believers to Judaism (the Sadducees by contrast were not); once Christianity became the official religion of Rome, it became illegal to proselytize as a Jew.

Much of the first century's Jewish history is dependent on the Macabees, the subject of the next chapter. While relations between Greek and Jew were quite cordial during the period of Greece's empire, for a short period they were not so. The Greeks generally let local people continue to administer their own affairs, but for this brief period Antiochus IV decided to forcefully Hellenize the Jews, removing the high priest for one of his own, outlawing the Torah, and forcing them to eat pork. Enter a small group of rebels called the Macabees who successfully led a revolt. What I did not know was that the original Zadok (Aaron-descended) line of the priesthood was moved, at this time to Egypt, where an alternate Jewish temple was set up with high priest Onias. When Jerusalem was restored to Jewish control, this priest was not brought back--the Zadok line ended. As such no high priest thereafter was seen as fully legitimate. (The Egyptian temple was destroyed by the Romans at the same as the Jerusalem temple.)

The lack of legitimacy for the high priest helped lead to the formation of various Jewish sects, each claiming rightly understanding of the Torah and the priesthood, including the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Two Pharisaic doctrines became central to later teachings of the Jews and Christians. First was the oral law, which would be the basis for the Mishnah and the Talmud. The other was the belief in the resurrection, which is most clearly discussed in the Old Testament in Daniel, a book the Sadducees would have rejected. Christ too would preach this doctrine. Greek ideas about the immortal soul would creep into Judaism (possibly around this time) and Christianity [in the next century] and change this doctrine.

There is, in the next chapter, some discussion of Jewish education. Simon bar Shetah is said to have introduced compulsory education for Jewish boys, though some historians doubt the accuracy of this claim. The idea is significant, however, because if this is so, then Jesus likely would have received formal religious (and literary) education.

The Sanhedrin's origin is unknown, but its power structure is recounted in the Talmud. Some doubt that this structure was actually in place until the destruction of the Temple, for it gives the Sanhedrin power even over the high priest. Nevertheless, the president of the Sanhedrin (the Nasi) became eventually Rabban (Our Rabbi) by title. This president was a Pharisee. (The Pharisees and Sadducees shared power on the Sanhedrin, but the Pharisees, having the majority, wielded greater power. So while the Sadducees made up the high priests, the Pharisees were the ones who oversaw the ritual functions of those priests and also interpreted the law and set up civil authority.)

In describing Judaism, Wylen says that it was not so much a religion (as we think of it today) as a "way," just as Christianity was called "The Way." Grounded in traditions and rituals that had to do with daily life, it was central to one's being. To Wylen, the idea of Satan comes out of gnosticism, for Judaism focused on one God only. Angels were a later creation of the religion and were still seen as below God. Satan was the lesser being that in Gnostic circles would have been the counterposing god of evil. [Of course, Satan is called the god of this world, so in that sense, it would fit with gnosticism. But the idea that Satan never appears in the Old Testament seems flawed, early Genesis being a prime example. But it is true that he does not seem to play as prominent a role as in the New Testament.]

Liturgical prayer, Wylen says, was not part of the First Temple set of ceremonies. Prayer then was spontaneous. It was only with the Second Temple that such prayers became common and that after the first century. [Again, I'd be prone to point to scripture, where Christ warns against repetitive use of prayers. But my bet would be the Wylen would say that such scriptures are anachronisms, creations of second-century writers, put into Jesus's mouth.]

Wylen sees the synagogue, whose origins he denotes are mysterious, as being largely a place for public reading of scripture and explanation during the first century. The popularity of the synagogue would take off after the destruction of the temple. The synagogue could also be used as a community center and hostel for travelers.

Concerns about ritual purity weighed heavily on first-century Jews. Whereas earlier generations had seen this largely as a priestly function, the Pharisaic teaching that all were priests of a sort meant that all people had to be ritually clean. And thus, ritual washings became part of daily life.

A chapter on the writings of the time discusses the difficulty of reconstructing history from them. We have writings of later years, which include the Jewish Mishnah; in the author's view, the New Testament; the apocrypha from the Second Temple period; apocalyptic writings from various Jewish sects; the writings of Philo; and the nonreligious writings of people like Josephus. Each has its agenda, and most were not concerned primarily with history. The Mishnah is viewed in Judaism as being the oral law put down in print by the rabbis. Lacking complete sentences and often without much logical order (it is "oral" tradition and thus based around that rather than around how we would write), one often has to know the whole to know the part. Nevertheless, its major themes delineate themes that were of concern to the Jews of the time, themes that in many ways go along with those in the New Testament, such as purity. The oral law was about delineating the "gray" areas of the law. The Mishnah notes what different rabbis think and what the majority thinks. In some ways, its being written out was a response to the destruction of the Temple. Although the rabbis claim it as oral law descended all the way back to the times of Moses, many date its teachings to the Second Temple period.

This scholar does not believe the Pharisees were as important as the New Testament and the Mishnah imply that they were, as both were written (in the writer's view) after the temple's destruction as that sect gained ascendancy. Looking at apocryphal writings we see works that concerned particular sects but that often spoke of events to come that were actually historical at the time (Wylen does not believe, one gets the feeling, that such a thing real prophecy exists), a discussion of the present evil, and a prediction of coming greatness for the people of the sect. Greatness was almost always seen as something imminent, not as something millennia into the future. (We can see this in Phillip's explication of Isaiah to the eunuch: the book is, for him, primarily about Jesus.)

Wylen raises similar problems with the trial of Jesus. Mishnah teachings would make the trial illegal (such trials had to occur during daylight hours and had to take place over two days--one day for trial, and one day for conviction--and would not have occurred on a holy day). So either the Mishnah is an idealized version of legal practice written two centuries later, or the history is wrong. Wylen sees the likely answer as both. He says it's more likely that the high priest was in cahoots with the Romans, since he'd have been appointed by the Roman-appointed Herod. The Romans would have seen any Jew garnering crowds and talking of a new kingdom (literal or metaphorical) as a threat. For Wylen, the idea that Pilate washed his hands to show his unwillingness to convict Jesus is a fiction, as the practice was a Jewish custom, not a Roman one, and Pilate was not otherwise one with a moral compass that would have kept him from killing innocent Jews. Also problematic are the crowds around Jesus, one for him, one against, and one absent--these, for him, are simply literary devices, like a Greek chorus. (One could probably find arguments against each of these points. First, the trial court was a kangaroo court and the claim of blasphemy it made is not, even in the scripture, seen as proper. The events occur the day before the first holy day, if one takes into account different ways of counting the Passover, a controversy at the time. Pilate may have washed his hands precisely because it was a Jewish custom, as he was before a Jewish audience when he did it, and his "conscience" scripturally is spurred by his wife's bad dream, not by personal compunction. Likewise, crowds can differ depending on situation, as they do even for politicians today. Crowds riot over Trump's election, both for and against.)

Wylen's chapter on the sects of Judaism is perhaps one of the most informative. He focuses on four main ones: Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and Pharisees. The priests were chiefly Sadducees; the Sadducees were the powerful and the high class, and they favored those in power (namely the Romans and Herodians); they controlled the Temple. They were not popular with the people. They accepted the Torah only as scripture and did not accept the oral traditions of the Pharisees. As such, they did not believe in angels or the resurrection. They did not believe in divine providence.

Essenes were a group that believe everything was divine providence. They eschewed civilization, living in the wilderness. They had their own solar calendar, not accepting that of the majority of Jews. They believed strongly in a world of good versus evil, Rome of which was part of the latter. And they believed in two Messiahs, one priestly and one royal, and a final prophet.

Zealots, Wylen sees, as being only in existence right before the rebellion around 70 A.D. As such, he sees the rebel groups we call zealots of the time of Jesus as not being an organized sect. Rather, if we believe part of what Josephus says (who saw them as an organized philosophical group), they were simply people who believed in no ruler but God and often were like Pharisees in their other views.

Wylen spends the most time discussing the Pharisees, for it is from them that Rabbinic Judaism descends. Seen as wise among the people and largely supported by them, the Pharisees were also likely despised by the masses and despisers of them, much the same that intellectuals are often looked up by to and look down upon others today (and vice versa). They believed in divine providence over history but not over individual actions, which means that they viewed repentance and obedience to the law as important. They were progressives when it comes to scriptural interpretation, often looking to apply the law to modern contexts and, thus, creating and sustaining an oral law tradition to accompany the written scriptures. This also meant that they accepted such beliefs as that in the resurrection. The Pharisees worked with Roman authorities rather than against them, but not necessarily as part of the governing elite. This positioned them well for power in the post-Temple period. The Pharisees did not separate themselves from other Jews but rather lived and worked among them--and attended synagogues. (Though one sect, the Haverim, were so picky as to separate themselves out from other Jews who did not follow the same practices.) Overall, the Pharisees did tend to separate themselves from Gentiles, however, because they came to see priestly laws as applying to all Jews--the nation is a called out as priestly one. Hence, laws concerning ritual purity, including various washings, came to be applied to all, and others laws regarding eating, tithing, Sabbath keeping, and marriage only to other Jews were also promoted.

Another chapter details the work of Hillel and makes various comparisons to the sayings of Jesus, showing how the two actually parallel each other in many ways. (The complication, of course, is that while Jesus postdated Hillel, Hillel's sayings weren't put to paper until after Jesus's sayings were, so who copies whom is an open question. But the easy point is that Jesus and Hillel came from similar traditions.)

The next chapter looks at various "roles" that one might play in the first century and how Jesus would have fit into each. For example, Wylen does not look at Jesus as being a prophet except in the form of a preacher, as the age of prophets ended several hundred years before Christ (he disregards the idea of New Testament prophets). For Messiah, Wylen looks at the meaning, "anointed one" and denotes that the anointed was always king and priest in Israel/Judah; the connotations that Christianity adds were not present for Jews in the first century, though there was an interest at the time in the resurgence of a Jewish state and physical king that would overthrow Rome rather than a king not affiliated with the Davidic line (as in Herod) (indeed, many Christians expected Jesus to found such a kingdom, as the Bible makes clear--it was only after his death that they began to understand his Messiahship in a different form, as a sin-taker). "Son of man" means simply one from Adam, a human being--it's a way of talking of yourself in the third person. But it, too, came to have greater connotations, such that the absence or inclusion of capitalization can suggest something different. Nor was Jesus a philosopher, which was a Greek idea, though some Jews looked upon wise Jewish teachers are comparable figures. Nor does Wylen see him as a rabbi, a concept that arose much later--or even a teacher of the law, as a rabbi would have been at this time (for to Wylen, Jesus mostly provides wise teachings, not biblical interpretations--this is the meaning of Jesus speaking by his own authority). So what was Jesus to a Jew at the time? Wylen sees him likely as fitting into the tradition of miracle worker/healer/charismatic rejected by the mainstream Jewish leaders, of which there are several later Jewish teachers who founded specific branches of Judaism (Hasidism, for example).

A final chapter looks at how the Jews and Christians separated and why. Both religions developed quite a bit in the wake of the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., Judaism especially. Jewish leaders reorganized under the Hillellian Phrarisee Yahanan ben Zakkai, who put togher a new Sanhedrin of seventy-one leaders. The influence of the Pharisees became fully felt as it became the basis for the rabbinic Judaism that followed. Following Zakkai's death, Gamaliel II took over the leadership--it was his grandfather who trained Paul. The Bar Kokhba rebellion, some sixty years after the Temple's destruction, probably helped seal the separation, as its leaders was seen by much of the Jewish leadership as the Messiah, a hope that proved unfounded but that doubtless alienated Christians who already had a Messiah.

Another factor that lead to separation was the Birkat HaMinim--the curse upon the sectarians. I had always thought this was a curse upon Christians, but it was really a curse added to the synagogue worship service on all groups that were not mainstream. Wylen sees this as not necessarily directed at Christians, but I suspect that his views are motivated in part by his tendency to want to see the two groups as less antagonistic than they sometimes were in early times.

Roman politics played its part too. In 98, the Roman emperor Nerva, ruled that Christians did not have to pay the annual tax on Jews, thus recognizing Judaism and Christianity as separate. Although Christians were not free of said tax, they were not recognized as a lawful religion, unlike Judaism, and thus were not protected from other laws such as those allowing Jews not to participate in certain pagan rites. Just before Constantine took the throne, Julian the Apostate reigned. A thorough pagan, he actually gave the Jews permission to rebuild the temple. His death in battle, however, ended that hope early--and brought to power the one who would recognize a brand of Christianity as the state religion.

But the version of Christianity eventually accepted by the empire was quite different from that with its Jewish roots. Around the year 380, John Chrysostom became bishop of Antioch. He found that the church was still "Judaizing"--meeting with Jews in a synagogue--and put a stop to it. Such Judaizers were increasingly pushed out of association with those who came to be known as Christians within the empire.

I found this book very informative, one of the better secular accounts of first-century Judeo-Christian tradition. But as the author notes at the start, knowing for sure how some things happened is difficult. Even if one believes scripture fully, there is much background that is not completely clear, even with a fuller knowledge of history.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

On "All of a Sudden" by Carla Panciera (3018 words) *****

In "All of a Sudden," the first story from Carla Panciera's collection, Panciera paints the contours of a friendship from grade school into high school, showing how something so meaningful at one age can become something else at another, as we outgrow our various concerns. This is a sad story about the loss of friendship, even as other friendships take its place. Read the story here at New England Review or listen to it here at The Drum.

On "Bewildered" by Carla Panciera ****

Most of the stories in this collection center on loss in some way, and as such have a kind of emotional heft that can be appreciated. The writing tends toward the succinct, which can at times be off-putting, but when Panciera gets going, the manner is effective.

"No Sooner" revolves around a woman who dreams of having affairs while her husband is away from her. Despite her reservations about her in-laws and vice versa, however, she knows how good she has things with the husband she's chosen, even as her sister is watching her own marriage break apart.

The title story is deservedly just that, one of the best in the collection. It recounts the tale of a man who somehow just happens to end up in the right places at the right times. With no real plan in life, but with hard work and dedication, he's ended up well liked and very successful, as well as well married. Or at least, that's how it looks from the outside. Bewildered by his success, he is also bewildered by his seemingly crazy wife, who he both loves and find annoying. Her frequent tantrums with little warning finally, one day, result in her leaving him. What to do is next is not so easy to know, especially for one who has had so many things just work out sans plan.

The very short "Having Your Italy" is a meditation on the ways in which moments in a relationship fade with time, even as we attempt to cherish them.

"Weight" involves a woman dealing with the loss of her partner of many years by spending time with a new man and her brothers. Another story about loss, "Fine Creatures of the Deep," involves two women, neighbors, who despise one another with seeming no explanation. Both lose children. One cannot have another and has replaced it with a dog. In an effort to make peace, she makes soup each day for her neighbor. Do we make such sacrifices, show such love, for another person or for ourselves?

"End of Story" is about a man whose wife has cheated on him and who, as a result, has left the marriage for a younger woman. His recovery from the marriage has not gone well, however, and his pull back into it is something less than satisfactory. The love we had cannot be brought back to what it once was after such damage. I found this one of the more affecting story.

"Singing Donkeys, Happy Families" is about a woman with a crush on a man whose social network is largely a set of hippi families that do child activities together. The woman's attempt to fit into this group lead to strains with her daughters and husband.

"On Being Lonely and Other Theories" is also about infidelity and how such infidelity can destroy the lives of everyone around. Jon Olvey is a cop who is having an affair with his son's schoolteacher whose literal run-in with a dog brings the affair to the community's attention, including his son's, his wife's, and his boss's.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

On "Descent of Species" by David Eagleman (about 650 words) *****

Want a simpler life? Be careful what you wish for. Eagleman traces out the implications of such a wish here at Biblioklept.

On "The People in the Trees" by Hanya Yanagihara ***

This is a disturbing book. Yanagihara makes the idea of raping a culture for one's own ends physical--makes the metaphor potentially real. Alas, where some books manage to be disturbing but to somehow keep one fascinated via language or character development, I was left rather cold by the main character throughout.

Norton Perina writes his life story at the urging of a colleague, who serves as the editor of his biography. Perina has been jailed for a sex crime against his adopted children--children that he has gathered from a Pacific Island nation that he has helped to destroy through his quest for knowledge. As readers, one is left somewhat in the dark with regard to whether Perina is actually guilty of the crime for which he's been jailed until the very end; part of me wishes that Yanagihara had left us in the dark.

One's distaste for Perina begins not just with the first-page revelation of what he's been accused of but for the tone of superiority that he maintains throughout the book. This is extended further as he goes about his scientific tasks.

Perina is invited to accompany some anthropologists to a South Pacific island as a medical doctor and aid. On the island, he and his colleagues discover a group of people who appear to be about sixty but who turn out to be much older, yet whose cognitive functions are less than to be desired. These people live in a native culture that has eschewed Western ways in, what we might say, both good and bad ways. The longevity of the people, however, is what most fascinates the researchers, most especially Perina, however, and his desire to find the reason leads him not only to the answer but to fame as he publishes papers on the subject. That fame, however, comes at a cost to the island and the islanders themselves, as it is then dredged by Western companies for the secret drug that they hope to create from what Perina has found. It is this destruction that is so hard to read about (and that inspires a great deal of pity), especially when described by someone as egocentric as Perina. One wishes he had been jailed long before the accusations fly that ruin his life, whether they be true or not.

As an indictment of Western colonialism, this work is as damning as any novel could hope to be.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

On "The Highline Highway" by Nathan Oates (3152 words) ***

"The Highline Highway" involves a strange proposition wherein the narrator is paid to sleep with a young woman to help diversify the breeding pool for an Amish-like community. The situation seems somewhat preposterous, though I'm guessing that Oates perhaps pulled the story from a headline somewhere. The story itself is a bit hard to read in some ways, as it's essentially like reading about a woman being raped each night for a week. There is little joy in this, even as the narrator tries to make some. It's one of the weaker stories in Oates's mostly very fine collection. You can read it here.

On “The Empty House” by Nathan Oates ****


The world is not a safe place. Oates's stories are often set overseas and in unfamiliar settings. The strongest ones involve people in over their heads, reminiscent of Paul Bowles's work. While some of the stories are real shockers, the collection unfortunately isn't wholly consistent in quality.

"Nearby, the Edge of Europe" focuses on a man whose wife has become an alcoholic no longer interested in her career or in putting in much work on the marriage, all this on a trip to Europe to see the husband's sister's family. A kind of sadness pervades the story as the narrator comes to grips with his dissolving marriage. The story can be read here at Jstor, with a free membership.

I'm not sure how to take "Looking for Service." Written from the point of view of a conservative businessman who doesn't much care for the liberal persuasion of his children and the like, the story recounts his trip to a third-world nation to resolve yet another issue for the mining company he works for. A subplot involving his need to care for his ailing wife provides a sympathetic side to him. And one can see that it is compassion that causes him to tour parts of the country with a youngish hippie couple. But what we don't see is much of a transformation in the man--he has preconceived notions of the country, of youth, of these two people in particular, and they're all confirmed for him, whether what he believes is true or not. I suppose the one thing we do come to see is that the man is full of fear.

In "A Woman without a Country" Oates hits his stride. The story involves a woman whose sexual escapade becomes part of a hit reality television show so that she is forever trying to escape from a past that it seems everyone knows about. I've often wondered how people who catch a bit of unwanted fame deal with it, and Oates does a good job here of channeling one possible reaction.

"Running Rapids" is a cold-hearted story that deserves its coldness. It's about a couple who go camping in Alaska and who run in with a group of Danish campers. What happens next is chilling in more ways than one. The matter-of-fact tone of the story adds to its macabre, and was the first to remind of some of Paul Bowles's work.

"The Yellow House" is the story that first brought Oates to my attention many years ago. My review of it can be read here, where a link to the story is also available.

"In the World Below" returns to some of the themes in "Looking for Service." In this case, an American with a diplomatic or multinational job of some sort has brought his son to Haiti, and together they sit out an ongoing revolution and all its apparent dangers rather than fleeing to safe American quarters. The story is told from three points of view--the father's, the son's, and their Haitian guide. Such multiple viewpoints are hard to pull off.

"Developing" is one of my favorites insofar as it uses a technique and tells a story I had never quite read before. It's a letter about a man who goes to pick up a set of photos he was not aware he had asked to be developed. The photos include pictures of a woman he does not know--or perhaps does. One is left wondering how to interpret the letter writer's actions to follow. Has he gone to live in his head? Or has his imagination actually come to life? Or is this simply a metaphor for another life he wishes he had? I was reminded of the fantastic realists of Latin America (Cortazar's "Orientation of Cats," in which a man's family is transported into a painting he goes to stare at each day in a museum).

"Hidden in the Trees" is another overseas story, this one about a American couple who tour nontourist areas of foreign lands. The woman is a former drug addict who draws her strength from her husband and who struggles with the lack of strength within herself. "In the Ravine" is about a slacker who realizes that his parents actually know that he is one, as his father takes him on a trip to find and dig up illegal marijuana plants.

The last two stories return to the dark and shocking material recounted in "Running Rapids." "Famous for Crabs," despite its seemingly trifling title is one of the darkest stories I've ever read. It's about a man who goes to visit an old college friend he reconnects with through Facebook. It can be read at here at Jstor with a free membership. The title story is about another man visiting an old college friend in Guatemala during the civil war and about the younger brother, twenty years later, who goes to track down the man who disappeared soon after.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

On "The Dolt" by Donald Barthelme (2189 words) ***


An exploration of the difficulties involved in writing narratives, this one centers around a man preparing for an examination. Read the story here.

On "The First Christian Century in Judaism and Christianity" by Samuel Sandmel **

Sandmel's book appears to have come out of a series of lectures on the subject that he gave. The general thesis of the lectures was that it's difficult to be certain about much of anything historically in the first century. In the sense that I often feel as if there is not enough information available to interpret some sections of scripture within their historical context, it was nice to read of a learned scholar essentially saying that that is how he feel as well. In the sense that I came to this book hoping for more information about the first century, it was a disappointment, for the book dwells mostly on this uncertainties and in that sense fails to present much of a portrait of first-century life.

The book is divided into four chapters--on the significance of the first century, on Palestinian Judaism, on Hellenistic Judaism, and on Christianity. Of course, the first century is very significant, for out of it springs Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Knowing this century is in essence to know the origins of these two faiths. Too bad it is so hard to know much about the century.

The next chapter goes into this origin of Rabbinic Judaism, wherein the author has difficulty finding where the moment that Pharisaical Judaism transition into Rabbinic is (if indeed this concept is even correct). As for what we do know: Jews read scriptures at service, though the set Parsha calendar may or may not have existed at that time. The sermon, as we know, may have come before the first century or maybe later--it is hard to know how a short explanation of a given scripture transformed into a full-on discourse on the subject or when it exactly happened. Were there two Sanhedrin, one political and one religious? And did they (or one of them) have authority over life and death, and if so, why did Rome have to be involved when putting Jesus to death? The major issue throughout is that our major sources are religious (Rabbinic writings) or historical (Josephus), but there is not historical religious source, so we have to glean what we can from each.

The chapter of Hellenistic Judaism does a lot of comparing of Philo's views to those of Paul. And the chapter of Christianity focuses on how, in the author's view, most of the writing in the New Testament tells us more about the time in which the books were written than about the first century. In the author's view, most of the New Testament was written much later, some as late as the second century. Here, the author's view, corresponding to mainstream Protestant beliefs, that Paul created a radical break with the Jewish law, colors most of the author's views. Since the author is Jewish I suppose I can't be surprised that he looks on the New Testament from a largely secular perspective and, thus, is prone to dismissing much of the more typically religious view of the writing of the works. But I came to this work hoping to find out more about the Judaism of the time, and the fact that the author feels there are so many uncertainties that he can't make too many claims rather disheartened me to the extent that by the time I came to this final chapter, his views left me rather unimpressed.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

On "Sum" by David Eagleman (381 words) *****

The title story from Eagleman's collection reflects on our lives as packets of discreet activities. When thought of that way, what we do seems to take on much greater significance--and also lesser. Is our time really best spent on our phones? Also included are three other short pieces from the collection. Read the story here.

On “People in Cities” by Edward Krupat ***

A somewhat dated work (mid-1980s), Krupat's text is a grand summary of various theories about the city. And that's what it excels at--at summarizing. The issue with this is that it's hard to get a grasp on the ideas at times because so much information is conveyed, and generally Krupat takes little stand on any particular one. Hence, it's a book without a very dull thesis: Cities . . . people look at them in different ways. Unfortunately the writing isn't engaging enough to keep one enthralled without a strong thrust.

Krupat's book is really an exercise in social psychology--as it pertains to the city. As he points out in his introduction (chapter 1), any one view of the city can be widely different. Look at a map. There is the map that a cartographer of streets creates, and then there is the map that an individual might create, which would drop out certain things and add other things in.

Krupat's message really begins to take shape, however, in chapter 2. Here he looks at what a city is and what makes for a good city. He examines two ways of evaluating a city: objective and subjective. A short summary of various objective measures is then rendered, going back to the early 1900s. Think of those "best cities" lists one reads about perennially in magazines. That's what Krupat is examining--how such lists are created, what the criteria are, and how fair such lists are. Some lists look largely at economics. One interesting list looked at moral integration--that is, to what extent the people in the city shared similar values. Each list comes up with different "best" cities.

Krupat then turns to subjective measures. Most interesting in this list is his own measure, which was created by having people list off five adjectives that described three different cities, and then three kinds of cities (large, medium, and small). Large cities tended to be found to have more culture but also to be more isolating and dangerous.

Eventually, Krupat argues that both the objective and subjective need to be considered when viewing a city. Objectively, a given city or area might have less crime, but if people feel as if they are in danger, it doesn't matter. Feelings and reality, of course, affect one another. Feelings of danger can lead to actual danger, just as feelings of safety can lead to actual safety, just as actual danguer can lead to feelings of the same, and so on. And what we value in a city will differ from person to person, making such lists on some level highly subjective in the end anyway.

The next chapter focuses much of its discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of anonymity that a city offers--or whether  the city offers anonymity at all. Krupat claims that living among strangers is a relatively recent phenomenon. Such can be alienating. But there is also something else that a city offers that isn't offered in a rural area or small town. Whereas one's friends in a smaller enclave are largely determined by who lives nearby, in a city one's friends are often people with similar interests. This is afforded by the fact that the city offers more density and thus more opportunity for people of similar interests to live nearby. So where a small town might have three people who like live jazz, a large city might have three thousand. The latter would afford such jazz lovers more opportunity to meet with each other and to enjoy the same activity. In a sense, then, the city often has enclaves within it that are not so anonymous.

Krupat then returns to the idea of the image of the city. Here, he explores in great detail Kevin Lynch's work (based around his seminal work). Krupat also looks at various studies coming out of that work. Our views of what is distant and far, for example, are influenced by this image. Interestingly, we will tend to view things moving toward the center of town as closer than things moving away from the town, even though the latter might be closer in actual distance. Reasons this might be the case include one's tendency to go toward the center for other activities or simply the more arresting qualities of the landscape moving to the center. This can be offset, however, by such things as how straight the path is. If we have to make a lot of turns to get somewhere, we will tend to view that place as farther away, even if the straight shot is actually a longer distance. There is also the means by which we go about forging our personal maps, which tend to start very egocentrically with key paths sketched out; we then move to disjointed landmarks; and finally, once we have been in a place for a while, we fill out our map with a larger, less-egocentric sketch. Likewise, how much we have to travel affects how we see our city. Usually, the poor have smaller maps, as they travel through cities less, but in a city where all services are granted in a given small area in which largely rich people live, the situation might be reversed, so that the poor travel more to get to various necessary things, thus forging a wider map. Walkers see more detail but a smaller area than drivers. Drivers see and remember more about a city layout than passengers, but navigators see and remember more than drivers. How we view a city then depends on how we function within it. Putting all this together for design purposes, Krupat summarizes his point about the image of the city this way: “Good design . . . satisfies two conflicting needs. It provides order to facilitate comprehension, movement, and security, and at the same time it offers enough complexity and change to stimulate curiosity and exploration.”

In the second half of the book, Krupat discusses how people live in cities. The fifth chapter focuses on the city as "too much"--how or whether the city is stressful--in terms of crowds, noise, and pollution. In terms of crowds and their affect on the human psyche, Krupat draws a set of four variables: crowded in the house but spacious outside (farmhouse), spacious in the house and spacious outside (e.g., suburb), crowded in the house and crowded outside (urban ghetto), and spacious in the house but crowded outside (urban luxury condo). Research has not been completely clear as to whether any of these have negative effects more than others, especially with regard to social pathology, although there does appear to be some increase in stress with regard to the crowded living inside caused by the lack of privacy. A general feeling of helplessness can ensue, and people who feel helpless, Krupat says studies show, tend to be less willing to do things for themselves to resolve situations. Kids in such situations, in other words, will tend to give up at hard puzzle tasks much more quickly than kids who live in less dense and less stressful situations. All this is mitigated by cultural context. The definition of dense differs from place to place. What is thought of as dense in New York might be seen as fairly spacious in Hong Kong, for example.

The same kind of social considerations go into the effects of noise. Where the noise is coming from often affects how it is heard and whether in contributes to stress. People are more willing to accept, say, traffic to constant parties from youngsters downstairs--that is, the latter is seen as noisier, even in situations where in fact the two might be the same in terms of decibels. As with crowding, children raised around noisy environments, say, close to an airport, are less likely to stick with difficult tasks, such as reading. Reading scores drop for kids who live in noisier surroundings.

But stress--what constitutes noise and crowding--really depends on perspective. Someone coming from rural Arkansas may find Fayetteville to be very stressful with regard to these factors, whereas someone coming from New York to Fayetteville may find the town quite spacious and quiet. Our reactions to a city are thus always quite personal.

Are cities places where loneliness is rife or do they contribute to people's interactions with one another? That is the next question Krupat tackles. As with so many other questions that Krupat answers via various studies that have occurred, he finds no definitive answer--it all depends on how you look at things. One study finds that people in the country have relationships based more on locality, whereas city people have relationships based more on shared interest. Hence, in terms of place, city people have a wider net, whereas country people have a smaller one. But that is also not entirely certain, as the rest of the chapter brings out in its focus on neighborhoods and communities--on what these are and whether cities offer them. One intriguing study denoted one other difference between smaller places and larger: Moving to a small town, one made friends faster than moving to a big city; however, after six months, the number of friends a given newcomer had made was essentially the same, if not a bit larger for the big city. Friendships are still common in larger areas, though they may take more time to form, and when they form, they may actually be more intimate (or not--there's discussion on this as well, what an intimate relationship actually means). As for communities, the discussion in part goes into whether they have to be a place. Neighborhoods, however, are seen as places--but what sort of places? Again, more definitions are presented. Krupat also looks at kinds of neighborhood communities and the people who live in them. He presents a grid based around two variables: rooted/nonrooted and bonded/nonbonded. People tend to fit one combination of these sets. Rooted and bonded people are "established participants" in an neighborhood (think, families with kids). Bonded but not rooted would include young people with limited education and monetary prospects--they grew up in the neighborhood and can't leave it easily. Rooted but not bonded would include isolates--older people who have lived in the neighborhood for years and don't plan to leave though they don't really participate in many of its activities. Finally, there are not bonded and not rooted, which would include people Krupat labels "young mobiles," folks who live there for, say, work but who aren't particularly wedded to the neighborhood in anything but a superficially participatory way (e.g., going to the coffee shop). These kind of inhabitants can in turn help define the kind of community a neighborhood forges: homogenous, constrained, or committed. In homogenous communities interest and residence coincide (I think of hipster communities, where everyone is an artist of sorts). In constrained communities, people are bound together by limitations, such as a foreign language or culture, as in an immigrant community. (It would seem to me these could also be considered homogenous, save that many people aren't there entirely by choice.) Communities by commitment are forged when people have a stake in the community (e.g., young families with kids or, often, communities that are threatened by outside forces such as a highway).

The next chapter turns toward questions of design and how designers can help or hinder the facilitation of the social aspects of cities. Here, Krupat relies a lot on Jane Jacobs--especially her chapters on housing for the poor. Krupat raises three examples of how bad design can hurt communities. One is a town in India designed and built by Le Corbusier (who has come under fire in other books). Here, the design was centered on Western ideals and was thus wholly inappropriate for its consumers. The Indians thus sit on the floor of their kitchens in shifts rather than use the table altogether because, you know, tradition and comfort. Parks go unused because Indians don't really "do" that sort of thing, and shopping nodes intended to service small communities with a diverse array of shop instead service one industry, meaning people have to travel all over the city to get to one kind of shop (since Indian shopping happens in bizarres, where there are not set prices and people need to compare, say, one place's bid for a muffler versus another's). Families, rather than being gathered as they would be traditionally, have to journey across the city to see one another because housing is segregated by income.

Another town damaged by well-meaning planners is the West End of Boston. Planners assumed the area to be a slum because of the run-down buildings, but while it might have been slummy physically, the social aspect of the area was not. Old buildings were removed for a mix of high-rise apartments and offices, and the community itself died, as the locals, even though they had been guaranteed housing in the new facilities, found the new neighborhood not to their liking. Gone was the family-and-friend oriented community.

Krupat then looks at a project in St. Louis, akin to one described in Jacobs's book. Here, high-rise housing afforded nice apartments for the poor but failed to provide any sense of community. Common living areas were obliterated, and crime surged. Large parks and small hallways where it is easy to hide do not facilitate parents being able to keep watch on their children, let alone neighbors mixing with each other and keeping watch on their neighborhood. In fact, Krupat compares one project next to another in New York, one with shorter buildings and many common areas and one with high rises and one very large common area. Crime is relatively less pervasive in the first and even maintenance is cheaper.

What is needed is more scientific study so that designers are more in-tune to the end users' needs. The gap between the two is one that often creates trouble for urban projects. Complicating this gap is another one--that the designer is often working for a city or committee that is itself one step away from the end user, so that there are in fact two gaps.

Krupat closes the chapter with a discussion of defensible space, introduced by a theorist named Oscar Newman. His idea is that project design needs to be worked around space that provides a range of spaces--private, semipublic, and public. It is these semipublic spaces that many of the high-rise projects lack. Without them, communities can't flourish, and anomie sets in, encouraging crime and other ills that occur when no one knows one another or keeps track of what's going on around. It is in fact in this context that Krupat raises the example of the two next-door New York projects.

Another finding of Newman's is that smaller is generally better. This is something Krupat argues against, however, as his point is that small cities are not necessarily better than big ones. They both have their advantages, and it is those advantages to which Krupat turns in the next chapter. As he notes at the start, whether one prefers big or little depends on what one is looking for. The most intriguing portions of his final chapter focus on planned cities. There is talk of Howard's Garden Cities of Tomorrow. Whereas Rybczinski made it seem as if Jane Jacob's made the plan something of a strawman, Krupat's description of his plan seems more akin to what Jacobs rejected: small cities surrounded by greenspace, yes, but also lots of greenspace within the city. Krupat does not consider the cities that grew out of said plan to be a success. He also looks at the planned town of Columbia, Maryland, which he says was a mixed success. It had various nodes—little villages with commercial centers for each, one major town center, a bus system linking them all, and carefully deployed greenery. It sounds like a well-planned city. But that is exactly why Krupat says it's a mixed success. One issue is that such planned cities tend to focus rather homogenously on families, so there isn't much in terms of cultural mixing (no young singles, no old people, no poorer people). Second is the question that such a city raises, namely, Whose city is it? Being so planned, residents have little control over what goes on in the city, and that lack of control can lead to frustration. Such a city, in other words, can't live and breathe the way truly successful cities do. People have to feel as if they have some control over their living environment in order to feel secure and at peace—that's really the key to urban or rural living.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

On “The Straightened Arrow” by Tom Noyes (8587 words) ***

"The Straigthened Arrow" involves a man on some sort of religious mission involving a ten commandments statue. But he suspects that what it really involves is his devout wife trying to get rid of him so that she can spend time with the pastor. What is surprising here is how well versed Noyes is with scripture and with differing religious views, for much of the story concerns debates among Christians over doctrine. Read the story here at Stonework.

On "Spooky Action at a Distance and Other Stories" by Tom Noyes ***

Tom Noyes's collection of tales merges religious concerns with violence, oddity, and the regular day. As such, it doesn't seem to have that much drawing the pieces together, other than a few characters that seem to repeat. The strongest stories involve violence of a sort, mostly because we are treated to watching something unexpected slowly develop until we completely understand how such a thing could happen--in fact, had to.

"Here, There, Yonder" is told from multiple perspectives that all fit in the same setting. One is a boy flying for the first time. Another is his grandmother, returning to visit her two sisters, who years before she stopped talking to. And yet another is a flight attendant who is in a somewhat unhappy relationship with another flight attendant. I'm not sure what we're to glean from the differing perspectives except perhaps that the adults seem to have a number of broken relationships that the innocent young boy has not yet discovered is part of life.

"Everything but Bone" is a slice-of-life piece about a divorced man and woman who reunite to attend the man's father's funeral and about their son, who brings along his new girlfriend, a kind of carbon copy. There is a focus, in part of the story, on hair, on how it outlasts "everything but bone" once we're dead. This hair plays a role in each man's life in the story, defining them but also hiding them. Memory is hard to piece to together.

"Love Canal," one of the stronger stories from the collection, involves a pastor's family. The pastor is replacing a former pastor who ran off with one of the wives of his congregation (one might assume the wife from the opening story, "The Straightened Arrow"). But what seems an easy task--simply not messing around on your wife when you are pastor--becomes much more than the pastor bargained for.

"The Daredevil's Wife" is a short piece about Niagara Falls barrel riders.

"Greeting Phantom" focuses on a newly but less-than-happily married couple with a newborn son. The husband creates an imaginary to entertain his son with; the wife does what she can to push the ghost away. But still, the couple is together, while upstairs, what appears to be a less well-off couple that has split up is actually a couple who are dealing with health issues. This is the first in a set of stories in which violence is heavily implied or present. And maybe it's that passion that makes these latter stories feel as if they matter more.

"Wrong Hands," the strongest story in the collection, is about an out-of-shape man who takes up dieting and exercise at a gym--or seems to be about that. But as the story progresses, and the man becomes more and more heavily involved in weight training, a kind of violence begins to pervade the story, as the man is caught up in a way of life in which machismo plays a larger and larger role. Soon, just as his eating was once out of control, his anger becomes out of control.

"Rot and Squalor" focuses on a high school basketball coach whose disappointment in his team and desire to motivate it turns darkly violent.

The title story is cleverly told tale of a man who believes he is the spawn of a dead twin. The story comes to us via recordings to his psychologist.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

On "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning" by Donald Barthelme(3022 words) ****

More a fictional expose on a real-life figure than a story per se, this was one of the stories that vaulted Barthelme toward fame. Think of "Thirteen Ways to Look at a Blackbird"; then think of a character sketch for a popular magazine. That's essentially how this fun piece reads, which you can read too here.

On "Design with Nature" by Ian McHarg ***


This book combines ideas from urban planning and landscape architecture with ideas from ecology. What is to be gained? A lot of lyrical passages about the beauty of nature, which grow more and more tiresome the longer they go on. It's not that the book is without its merits. McHarg's text, after all, is considered a classic. And when he gets down to practicalities, he often has intriguing ideas to present. But every other chapter is theory rather than practicum, and reading this theory fifty years later is like reading a set of dated truisms amid a collection of late 1960s liberal diatribes.

McHarg especially has it out, it seems, for Christianity, which he often blames for the environmental ills of the planet. Christianity is anthropocentric, he denotes, and as such we don't pay attention to the earth's natural balance. (What, I might ask, would paying attention to the earth's natural balance entail other than stewardship and a belief in human-centered superiority? I don't know any cats or dogs or pigs or chickens that worry about preserving the planet's balance. If they overpopulate or do environmental damage the earth naturally takes care of it--through evolution, if you will. The distribution of the animal changes, as does the distribution of the other animals and plants it affects. So too, one might argue, with humans, if indeed we are here merely by chance and are merely one other creature among the rest of the globe's inhabitants. The idea that we need to keep nature balanced, the way it was supposed to be, is then itself an anthropocentric one, one that implies that we are somehow above the other creatures on the planet. Anyway, the constant attacks on Christianity obviously wore thin on me.)

But as I noted, the practicum chapters were of some interest. An early one discusses the ocean and the beach. Much of this is old information to me from other reading I've done--how important beach dunes are, how various attempts to keep beaches in place using groins actually damage beaches further down, and so on. But it was concrete.

Those sort of points make for interesting studies later in the book, when McHarg lays out the best ways to, for example, choose where to lay roads. Too often, he points out, we pay attention chiefly to costs--and by that, he means, the physical costs, of laying a road. Hence, highways are placed where there is less development or where development is cheap (i.e., poor communitities) and where the land offers the cheapest means to lay the road (less drilling, etc.). But this often doesn't equate to what the actual cost is--that is, the actual cost needs to include the culture and social cost. When we lay down a highway through a community, we're splitting the community in half and we are likely killing off neighborhoods. And when we lay a road through pristine forestland that birds use for nesting, we may also be laying out environmental effects that will in turn affect the social and cultural ones. His solution? He takes various maps that lay out the different costs associated with each route for a road. Overlaying this maps allows us to see which route is likely the most cost effective.

In another practicum chapter, McHarg looks at different environments that are best for city building, laying out a hierarchy of preferred land on which to build, in this descending order: flat land, forest, steep slopes, aquifers, aquifer recharge areas, floodplains, marshes, and surface water. Knowing these preferences, we should thus really aim not to build on floodplains and to build on flat land. The only qualifier? Flat land is also the best land for agriculture, so we have to be attuned to those needs as well.

In an extended example, McHarg focuses on a plan for the city of Baltimore and how that city can continue to grow without giving in to sprawl, selecting the proper places to grow and the proper places to preserve and what the density in these locations should be.

Next, McHarg turns to a theoretical discussion of how we would go about creating a proper environment for an astronaut sent to live in space. He shows how all the various systems are integrated and how difficult it is to account for everything that nature does naturally. The astronaut easily can find that he or she has not accounted for some need and throw the system out of whack. This leads into the chapter on Staten Island, which again is planned according to different values and needs, using overlaying maps that give planners the means to know where the best places for conservation are, as well as the best places for urbanization, both residential and commercial.

In the next theory-heavy section, McHarg approaches a group of thinkers he calls "Naturalists." Here he lays out the idea that we need not see evolution, the survival of the fittest, as necessarily negative. He argues that natural organisms adapt to one another, that the fittest only surviving is actually a way of advancing nature so that it is more interdependent. The lion that eats the caribou, for example, is doing the caribou a favor in terms of keeping its stock lower and also helping it to evolve to a higher state through only letting the most fit survive. Parasites depend on hosts, but hosts often adapt to depend also on the parasite. Whole ecosystems exists because of this interdependence. One of those, arguably, is our own body, which consists of a host of cells, most of them cells that have learned to specialize in particular tasks in order to make the body work together efficiently. The cells are interdependent, supporting a much greater whole, the way each living thing supports the greater whole of the earth.

Next, McHarg turns to a project on the Potomac River basin. Much as he has done in earlier chapters, he lays out the various areas as being most suitable for various resources in order to understand where it would be best to urbanize and so on. The one intriguing point he makes in this chapter is that we are too prone to zone things for one use, whereas nature does not zone: various uses can be gleaned from one area in nature, and we should do the same in the city. But other than that, the discussion of the Potomac seems like yet another practicum that repeats information that has gone before. The techniques to discover what the best places to build are well known by now, and so the extended examples grow increasingly tiresome.

Potentially, the section on Washington, D.C., could prove interesting insofar as McHarg attempts to apply his ideas to a city that is already in existence, rather than to the suburbs of a city that is expanding. But in the end, I found this section to be disappointing. His main point seems to be that we need to take into account more than finances when designing sites. In D.C., it would be important to take into account the "pallette" of the particular area, make the landscape conform to the overall tone of the section of the city. Of course, this is easier said than done, since in the end it is the market that determines how we value space. His earlier points about taking into account how altering that space affects value seemed more direct to the point.

The book ends with a chapter on the health of a city, which is perhaps one of the most interesting and thought provoking. Here, he uses his mapping system to denote neighborhoods in Philadelphia with various diseases, mental diseases, and pollution, along with economic troubles, crime, race, education, unemployment, income, density, and so on. Putting all these together helps to establish a "healthy" area of the city as being in the north and west. But why is not as clear. He then goes into studies of population carried on with rats, showing how density of living has great affects on health. Though apparently able to have a denser population in their environment, the rats at some point begin to stop multiplying as fast, and disease--physical and mental--begins to become more rampant. Those rats that are dominant don't have the health problems; the rats that are submissive do. They become loners or sexually deviant or sickly. This, he thinks, is because of the stressful stimuli that exist in high densities. There seems that there might be some correlation to human populations as well, as denser areas have greater amounts of antisocial behavior and sickness. But the ideas, while intriguing, are not entirely proven or provable. But surely, one wouldn't then say that humans need to move into suburbs and less dense areas for health reasons--or would one? Here he briefly looks at how attempts to gentrify troubled areas with such densities rarely solve the problem. The original inhabitants are usually pushed out of the area, and what social network they had to deal with their problems is thus taken apart. I found myself here wanting to read more about density and its effects.

In the end, then, McHarg notes how we can take into account various factors of our environment as we build and plan and rework cities. This is a valid point but one that seemed, in McHarg's reasoning, too bound to its time.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

On "I Asked My Mother" by Lesley Dormen (1113 words) ****

"I Asked My Mother" focuses on obsessive compulsive shopping. It's a short piece but exquisitely put together, the middle story in Dormen's excellent collection. Really, it's about how a mother and daughter communicate and how the weaknesses of one become the weaknesses of the other. Read the story here at Five Points.

On "Contagious" by Jonah Berger *****

The subtitle of this book promises much--it says the book is going to tell readers "How Things Catch On." And Berger does a great job doing just that, combining conversation recountings of studies and analysis and setting out a book of interest both to psychologists and marketers.

The book reads like many a self-help or marketing guide, a trade book. But what makes this one different is that the author really knows his stuff--the load of examples and the use of footnotes shows it.

Basically, Berger points to what some things go viral or catch on as being related to six factors. Viral things will sometimes have all six going for them but not always; however, they will always have some of these factors going for them.

The first factor is social currency. The idea here is that people like to appear hip or knowledgeable. Being able to talk to someone about an oddball restaurant or a cool movie shows that you are a person worth talking with--one who has something to share. An interesting example is a bar modeled after a speakeasy called Please Don't Tell Anyone. You have to go through the back of a hot dog stand and dial a special phone; only seventy or so people are allowed in each night. There isn't any advertising other than word of mouth. This does indeed sound like a cool secret folks would want to hear about. I was left, however, wondering how such a place starts. If secrecy is your gimmick, how is it those first hundred or so customers find you in order to spread the secret? I suppose an invitation to a select crowd might work to get the buzz going.

The second factor is triggers. These are essentially items that remind you of something that is being marketed. The key here is frequency and the context. If somehow you can align what you're selling with something that folks think about regularly, you're more likely to stay on their minds. Write a song about Fridays, for example, and you'll probably be on folks' minds once a week. And that in turn will spur word of mouth.

A third factor is emotion. People are more likely to share things that stir particular feelings. Interestingly, Berger finds that contentment and sadness do not cause people to want to share. However, emotions that stir people a lot are anger and awe. That makes sense, though, when I think about articles that I might myself want to talk about with someone else: something unjust or something amazing.

A fourth factor is something Berger calls public--or making the private public. I'd call this the sheep or crowd factor. Basically, we are more likely to try something or to use a certain product if others are doing so as well. Hence, if there are two restaurants to choose from and one is crowded and one empty, we're more likely to think the crowded one is better, irregardless of the actual quality. So many people, we think, can't be wrong. This is, I've long thought, one of the most frustrating facts about marketing--success breeds more success. It's like money: the more you have, the easier it is to make more. Much of the chapter focuses on how brands attempt to get their logos and message out for folks to see. Berger looks particularly at the "residual" effect--we might look at them as souvenirs. These are things like bags we take home from a store and then reuse, which then show off the product's identity to others. The crowd factor might seem contradictory to the social currency factor, but it isn't when one really thinks about it. Take something as popular as the Super Bowl. If one watches it or the ads that run during it, one has the ability to discuss them with folks then next day. Being knowledgeable, even about something that most people already know about, still makes for one being a potentially good conversationalist.

A fifth factor is practical value, which is exactly what it sounds like. If something is useful, it's more likely to catch on. I guess my big question here would be why some things seem to be more useful than others. That, I suppose, comes down to ability or technique and also to branding. If you create something that is easier to understand than other things that do the same, your instructions or product will get more use--or so the theory would go. But branding has much to do with success here too--people will gravitate toward practical products from others who are already familiar. That's the reason for the success of the Dummies books, though some such books are better written than others. Much of Berger's chapter, however, focuses on price points and how we tend to buy things contrary to actual sense. If something is “on sale,” for example, we more likely buy it--even if it's not actually discounted. For products under one hundred dollars, it's best to give a percentage for how much one is saving; for over that amount, it's best to give a dollar figure. Ten percent seems a lot more than five dollars, for example; but $200 seems a lot more than five percent.

The last factor is story--basically, products are best marketed as some sort of narrative. When one looks at the first five factors, word of mouth is most likely to spread if a good story is attached to the technique involved. Hence, we tell someone about the great deal we got on something or how amazing some product is or something like that. Some attention here is given to advertising and how that can be counterproductive if the story told as part of the ad is not inherently connected to the product. You might catch someone's eyes with dancing penguins, for example, but if you're selling laundry detergent, the two narratives likely won't have much of a connection and thus won't remain part of the same story. It's essential that the attention grabber and the product have some relation so that they both become part of the story told.