Waiting – Ha Jin

If you appreciate Chinese culture and the wrenching changes it endured in the twentieth century, this book has more meaning and significance. At face value, the story is about a country doctor working in the army who has an arranged marriage with an unattractive, illiterate woman he doesn’t care for. Nevertheless, she bears him a daughter, cares for the child and the household and serves him without complaint for decades.

Away in the army, he falls in love with a young nurse but their relationship is forbidden by law and tradition so they skulk around for 300 pages. The doctor vows to divorce his wife, but predictably fails to do so. The lovers are frustrated, waiting 18 years for the right circumstances for him to get a divorce so they can marry.

The doctor’s country wife represents the traditional rural ways and values, where people eke a difficult living not far removed from the life of the animals they tend. The doctor is at least educated and curious. He has a library of forbidden Russian classic novels and he ponders questions of fate and destiny and is frustrated by traditional ways, but helpless to act.  He is an almost-modern man and represents the “new” China – not the sophisticated China we know today, but the emergence of the modern mind in the latter half of the century, after the Cultural Revolution. The story takes place from the 1960’s to the 1980’s.

The doctor is an individual. He has an ego. He has personal desires and feels he has a right to satisfy those desires but is constrained by a personal morality. He is a modern man in that sense. But he respects tradition and waits eighteen agonizing years of close separation from his lover until he can finally have her, and those were the best years of his life he discovers when it is too late. Just like millions of people who endured the transition from premodern to modern China, the doctor waited for life to happen and then found it had passed him by.

The reader almost feels as if his own life is passing him by as he reads chapter after repetitive chapter about the doctor going to the judge for a divorce every year then backing off when his wife refuses to agree. We spend hours, afternoons, days, weeks and years admiring the landscape and preparing and eating the seasonal foods. That tedium does convey the actual pace of rural life, the way a Bela Tarr movie does, but as a modern man myself, I would have appreciated some conceptualization and time compression.

In the end, I think the story is more sentimental than compelling. The flaw is that modern individualism grows out of a certain kind of culture.  It does not sprout like a weed for no reason, and Doctor Lin did not live in a culture that would support and nurture the world view of a modern person. So in the end, when he reflects on why one is “not allowed to have what your heart was destined to embrace,”  I found the sentiment flat.

He was supposed to be a man with one foot in the past and the other in the changing present, but all we saw was the past. We did not see the modernization of China, in politics, literature, movies, banking, industry, architecture, or international relations. Unlike in Dr. Zhivago, only the faintest hints of those great changes are glimpsed, so in the end, Doctor Lin is a cipher.

Still, for those with patience and interest in experiencing rural Chinese life in a bygone era, reading this National Book Award winner is like reading history, much as reading Stendhal and Flaubert will give you a sense of nineteenth century France.

Jin, Ha (1999). Waiting. New York: Random-Pantheon (308 pp).

Wolff – Fire and Fury

Like many people, I have a morbid fascination with Donald Trump and I watch his bizarre machinations like a gawker at a highway wreck. Wolff’s book promised an inside scoop and was widely reviewed in the media so I gave it a read.  My conclusion: “Meh.”

There’s nothing new in the book, as the author himself stated on television, but I did not realize he meant that quite literally.  It’s as if he went through episodes of TV political reporting for the last nine months and summarized the trends. Anyone who watches CNN or MSNBC regularly will learn nothing from this book.

As for the mud-slinging gossip that had news commentators titillated for several days, there’s also nothing new. The juicy dishes have been consumed in public and nothing remains. Trump is exactly as childish as he appears, Bannon as nasty, the Trump children just as clueless.

Wolff claims to have had unlimited access for interviewing White House staff and the president for some unspecified period, beginning during the campaign, and apparently he used that access to collect only gossip. There is no virtually no discussion of policy or strategy, money or demographics. It’s almost a hundred-percent, “he-said, she-said,” and with this troupe of actors, who really cares?

Also notable is the absence of evaluation or analysis. Wolf simply reports what he saw and heard (more-or-less: he admits that many of his stories are syntheses of multiple tales using his own judgment).  As a result, he, and the book, add nothing to a reader’s understanding of current politics, the state of political institutions, or domestic problems or international relations. It’s not supposed to be a thoughtful book, and it lives up to that billing.

There are obvious omissions in coverage, and one cannot help but wonder about those.  Vice President Mike Pence hardly appears in the book. His name is not even mentioned for the first hundred pages. The whole “Pussygate” episode from the Access Hollywood scandal is brushed past in a few paragraphs with no explanation of why Trump’s campaign was not derailed at that moment. There are many other virtual omissions, including the Steele Dossier, and above all, consideration of racism, which I think was and is the main driver of Trump’s political success as an anti-Obama reactionary.

The book is actually mostly about Steve Bannon.  He gets more ink and more psychological and biographical analysis than the president does. Nevertheless the takeaway is simply that Bannon is even more aberrant and unpleasant than portrayed in the media so far.  No insights or forecasts are offered.

A recent review in the New York Times (https://nyti.ms/2EoKG8W ) comes to similar conclusions, as have other reviews of this book, so I feel confident in not-recommending it.

Wolff, Michael (2018). Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. New York: Henry Holt and Co. (321pp.)

Towles – Rules of Civility

Rules of Civility is perfection in world-building, the art of constructing a believable and engrossing fictional world for the characters to inhabit.  Nineteen-thirties Manhattan is long gone but Towles brings it back to glittering life and that is the main enjoyment of the novel.

The characters who inhabit that world are compelling, at least for the first two-thirds of the book. The first-person narrator, Katey Kontent (Miss Kontent is improbably pronounced ‘misconent,’ we learn) is a working-class twenty-one-year-old who inserts herself into the wealthy upper classes after being picked up in a bar by a Gatsby-esque prince charming.  She and her friend Eve, who does the same (it’s a twofer for the prince), lead the reader through the money-soaked pages in a loose and drunken triangle reminiscent of The Sun Also Rises.

I totally bought the voice and character of Katey. Having written several female main characters myself, I know how hard that is for a male author to do. Towles’ touch is subtle. In Katey’s world, what gets noticed most are clothing, jewelry, food, and relationships.  For the guys, like Prince Tinker, life is tinted instead by guns, boats, money, war, and social power. Fair? Maybe not, but for the time and place portrayed, these subtle shadings were enough to backlight a compelling female lead.

This is a literary novel, so be forewarned, nothing happens. The only dramatic tensions are petty resentments. Characters yearn for nothing and no antagonist appears. It’s just people living their lives in sparkling prose.

In the last third, main character Katey dissolves. Sophisticated, composed and reflective in the main part of the book, she suddenly throws a hissy-fit and becomes arbitrarily moody and directionless for the duration, destroying the piston that drove the engine of the story. Other characters, most notably prince charming, likewise suddenly change course without sufficient motivation and virtually evaporate from the pages, so for the last section, the character magic is gone and one is left only with clever writing, which is never enough, in my opinion, to sustain a story (excepting Nabokov, of course). An attempted Gatsby-esque denoument falls flat because nothing was at stake.

An epilog, which seems an afterthought, tells ‘what happened’ to each major character, an attempt to nail down an ending that says “…and the world continued to turn despite the self-centered mini-dramas of each life.”  That takeaway reminds me of McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, but is much less effective. I think Towles just ran out of steam.  Still, the first two-thirds is a great read.

Towles, Amor (2011). Rules of Civility. New York: Penguin (335 pages).

Smile – Roddy Doyle

You must be a fan of fine writing to persevere with Smile, Roddy Doyle’s latest, because no genuine drama is apparent, except for the closing scene, which is deus ex machina hogwash.  Actually, not even that. At least that classic ending had cultural context, God dips his finger into human affairs and resolves all story problems.

In this case, the ending is equivalent to “…and then I woke up.”  It’s totally manufactured and it breaks the implicit contract with the reader who has been coddled along in a context of realism for two hundred pages.

The first-person narrator, Victor, is a divorced, middle-aged man living alone in an apartment in a small town or district in or near Dublin, in contemporary times.  He goes to the pub and meets people and drinks and that’s the extent of his life, on the outside, anyway, but the reader is ‘treated’ to his extensive backstory, especially his childhood education in a boarding school where he was sexually abused by the head priest. He represses and rationalizes that period, with Freudian costs.

That tale might have been shocking fifty, or even twenty-five years ago, but not today, so I was mystified as to why that was the main theme.  Doyle seems to have been trying to portray how seriously deep the psychological scars of such childhood trauma can be, not merely document that such things happened in boarding schools. If so, he missed the mark, in my estimation, missed it over the top.  The psychological consequences of repressed shame might manifest in many ways but psychotic hallucination and delusion would not be among them. It wasn’t believable and it stood out like the contrivance of a writer who had lost his way.

In a parallel backstory, we see Victor’s long-time relationship with a dynamic and beautiful woman, Rachel, who he was always amazed stayed with him, so undeserving of her fame and her charm he was.  That was an interesting relationship dynamic and could have been developed much more. But it wasn’t. We saw only endlessly repetitive episodes of crazed, passionate sex. We never did understand what Rachel saw in him until the whole story was undone with the phony ending. So that thread was also a disappointment.

As for the writing, it is seductive at first, but quickly becomes repetitively quirky and little more than recitation of quotidian detail and vapid chit-chat. This might have been successful as a tight story of under 10K words. At 200 printed pages, it’s not my pint of beer, I’m afraid.

Doyle, Roddy (2017). Smile. New York: Viking/Penguin/Random (pp. 214).

What Darwin Got Wrong

I never paid too much attention to the details of Darwinian theory before I read this book. I assumed, as many do, that the basic ideas are sound. The offspring of any animal vary in traits (blue vs brown eyes, large vs small wings, high vs low intelligence, etc.). Some of those offspring live to reproduce, some don’t.

Not all diversity is good for survival. Brown polar bears would have a harder time avoiding wolves than white ones. Over time and generations, the bears adapted for survival continue in the gene pool, while the nonadaptive ones die out.

Not only does natural selection seem to explain the animal world we see, but it’s also a great heuristic, for problem-solving, as an example. Throw a lot of solutions at the wall and keep the ones that stick, discarding the others. Likewise, social explanations often invoke the heuristic of natural selection.

Fodor, a philosopher, and Piatelli-Palmarini, a geneticist turned cognitive scientist, argue that Darwin’s idea cannot be correct. After plodding through their dense arguments, I came away with a shocking conclusion: they’re right. The theory of evolution by natural selection cannot be correct. The authors don’t offer an alternative theory, so they have left me with a profound puzzle I did not have a week ago. I love books like that.

This is not to say the book is all good. The arguments are often made badly, densely, obscurely, and sometimes fallaciously, so it’s not an easy read. But in the end, they do point out critical reasons that make them correct, in my opinion.

Evolution by natural selection is a scientific theory, that is, a naturalistic explanation depending only on physics, chemistry, and biology – not at all on God or magic; not on the idea of “progress” the erroneous notion that evolution is “heading towards perfection.” All of that is irrelevant. Evolution as a scientific theory is mindless, lacking in intention, purpose or direction, like wind rustling leaves for no reason at all. I was already on board with that understanding. If you’re not, this is not a book for you.

One more time: By arguing that Darwin was wrong, the authors do not say that Intelligent Design, Creationism, or any other such supernatural explanations are right. The theory has to be correct “on its own,” in the natural world. And Darwin’s theory cannot stand on its own, they say.

The seductive error we commonly make derives from the success of artificial selection. Humans have been breeding everything from roses to cattle since before Mendel’s peas. When you consider that all varieties of dogs have been bred from wolves, you have to respect the power of artificial selection. It works.

But artificial selection is not a proper model for natural selection because in the natural (non-human) world, nobody is doing the selecting. There is no literal “Mother Nature.” The process of natural selection is supposed to work the way water flows downhill, because according to natural laws, it must.

The problem is that we have no natural laws to explain natural selection.  Did evolution select white fur for polar bears, or did it select for “blending into the background?” If white polar bears lived in green grasslands (as they may well do in a few decades), they would not blend in, so white fur would be “maladaptive.” We can’t say if selection was for “white fur” or for “blending-in” because we don’t know how natural selection works.

The authors dismiss the idea that natural selection works directly on genes. The relationship between genes and traits is not one-to-one. One gene can produce many traits, and one trait can be produced by many genes. So the idea that environmental conditions, like the color of ice and snow, can select fur color at a genetic level, is not plausible. But how else could it work?

Our intuition (my intuition) is very strong that wolves would have caught and eaten the brown bears quickly, leaving only the white ones to reproduce, thus “selecting” for white fur. But intuition is not a fact. How can fur color in a bear be “selected” by the visual system in a wolf? The scientific fact is that we do not know exactly how natural selection works. I fought it, but I was forced to bow to that logic.

The authors argue along similar lines that we also don’t know what an “ecological niche” is. The planet has many, many environmental particularities. Why one set of circumstances is called a “niche” for an animal is a projection of our own human ideas. What’s a niche for you could be a hellhole for me. Who is to say what’s a niche, without human opinion?

The authors also prove, to my satisfaction, that the hypothesis of random mutation is wrong. Many, perhaps most traits, are severely constrained by endogenous factors, not by random mutation and subsequent environmental filtering. The fact that we see no pigs with wings is not a result of natural selection. It is a consequence of how genes and bodies work and has nothing to do with natural selection, so it is wrong to say that genetic variation is random.

I come away from this book with shaken confidence in the idea of natural selection. Evolution of the species is a reasonable, demonstrable fact, and there’s no problem with the theory of evolution in general. We just don’t know how it works. Natural selection cannot be the answer.

However, in their explanations, the authors engage in the same promiscuous point-of-view shifting that led to Darwin’s error. Just by using the word, “selection,” they automatically smuggle intentionality and purpose into the discussion because that’s what the word connotes. There is no such thing as selection without intention (except metaphorically). Nearly all the authors’ arguments are flawed by that error.

Despite that, I still was convinced by the gist of their main point, that “natural selection” is not an adequate explanation of how evolution is supposed to work. It’s a bit upsetting to be left dangling, but at the same time, when I’ve looked at some of the more incredible co-adaptations in nature, such as among bees and flowers, antibodies and pathogens, and so on, I’ve always had to suppress incredulity that a mindless process of natural selection was the best explanation. I’d rather have no answer than a wrong one.

Fodor, Jerry & Piattelli-Palmarini, Massimo (2010). What Darwin Got Wrong. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 264 pp.

What Exists and How Do You Know?

From what I understand of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, this book about his work, The Clamor of Being, is not helpful. It seems to deliberately obfuscate rather than clarify Deleuze’s thinking, though that could just be the au courant style of French philosophy.  I managed to wrest some useful ideas out of this short essay, but I can’t recommend it as an exegesis.

Author Badiou was a co-founder of the University of Paris VIII, along with Deleuze, and with Michel Foucault and Jean-Francoise Lyotard. Quite a crowd of eminent founding fathers! Deleuze committed suicide in 1995, presumably in despair over his quality of life, which was marred by respiratory illness.

In my comments, I understand ontology to be the study of what exists. I understand epistemology to be the study of knowledge. Can things exist that you don’t know about? Of course. Can things exist that are unknowable, such as Kant’s “Things-in-themselves” or Freud’s “id?” That’s difficult to say.

Can you know about something that doesn’t exist? That depends on what you think “exist” means. I know about Mickey Mouse. How knowledge is related to what exists is a fundamental problem of philosophy.

This book seems to me Badiou’s attempt to articulate his own ontology by contrasting it to the views of Deleuze. But I understand Deleuze to be first an epistemologist. While Deleuze’s analysis of knowledge does inevitably lead to a study of what’s “there” (e.g., what one knows), Badiou wants to start with ontology and derive epistemology from it, a doomed endeavor, in my opinion.

Deleuze’s main work is considered by many to be Difference and Repetition (1968), in which he inverts the traditional relationship between being and knowing. Traditionally, one says that X is different from Y, which presupposes that X and Y exist, and the only question is how they differ.

Deleuze said, no, X and Y are defined by their differences. One comes to identify them as X and Y after detecting differences, or discriminating patterns in the flux of experience.

For example, one might decide, “wine tastes good!”  After some experience one discriminates that some wine is gold, other is purple, some fruity, some tannic, and so on, and eventually, one comes to see that there are white and red wines. The identity of the two classes arose from discriminated differences in experience. X and Y did not exist until differences were noticed and labeled.

By Deleuze’s account then, epistemology precedes ontology. It’s like baseball umpires comparing how they call strikes and balls. One says, “I call them as I see them.” Another says, “I call them as they are.” The third says, “They’re nothing until I call them.” The second umpire is correct, according to Deleuze. I would choose the third guy.

As a student of American psychologist James J. Gibson, I learned that from a perceptual point of view (the only one we have), the world is composed of invariant features detected over change. A world that does not change, quickly disappears from view. From change, we notice the features that change more slowly than others. Those are invariants. From invariants, we conceptualize what exists.

Badiou wants to argue that one must start instead with what exists, and worry about perception and knowledge later. He claims (wrongly, I believe) that Deleuze did the same.

He says Deleuze believed in a single, unitary Being (noun), something like the Platonic forms all mashed into one big one (though Platonism is vehemently denied). This One Being is sub-personal, so we have no direct, conceptual  (epistemological) relationship to it.

Instead, we are familiar with the multifarious forms of being (gerund and noun), very similar to Heidegger’s Dasein (although Heideggerian ontology is vehemently denied). From being, we infer knowledge of the One Being.

This is all well and good, I say, except for one small detail. Without  consideration of epistemology, how could Badiou know these things? Is he magic? Mere declaration of what exists is authoritarian fiat. Maybe it’s right, maybe it’s wrong. Without a defined epistemology, you can’t know.

This is the fundamental problem with any philosophy that begins with ontology rather than epistemology. You’re left only with grand pronouncements. That worked for the Old Testament, but it’s not so good as contemporary philosophy.

This, and many other objections to the book, forced me to confront my presuppositions, always a good thing, and that’s how I managed to learn from Badiou, despite my rejection of his presentation. The main insight, which I came to reluctantly, is that there is a sense in which ontology does precede epistemology, and that is the sheer givenness of the world.

Before I embark on an intellectual inquiry, I sit at my desk with a cup of coffee and face my computer. Wait, what are those? Desk, coffee, computer? Are those things that exist? Yes. They must exist and I must believe in them at a pre-philosophical level or I cannot even begin the investigation. Ontological fact has preceded everything.

What Husserl called the “natural attitude” is taking the world “for granted,” as most of us do, most of the time. The “philosophical” or better yet, the “phenomenological” attitude that one uses for doing philosophy, is a special state of mind that comes later, and is built upon, and transcends, the natural attitude.

Nevertheless, I argue that if you are going to write a philosophy book, as Badiou did, you are entering the scene in the philosophical attitude and it is disingenuous to pretend you are starting with a pre-philosophical, pre-epistemological ontology. So I am still annoyed at Badiou and his book, even while I admit I gained significant insights from it.

Badiou, Alain (2000). Deleuze: The Clamor of Being. Louise Burchill, trans., Volume 16 in the Theory Out of Bounds Series. Minneapolis, MN: Univ. of Minn. Press, 142 pp.

Underwhelmed by Smart Speakers

I bought a “Google Home” voice-activated speaker (VAS) that uses Google Assistant, a synthetic voice that answers questions. Google Assistant is comparable to Siri, Cortana, and especially Alexa, the persona on Amazon’s “Echo” line of voice-activated speakers. For all of them, you bark out your command and get answers and actions.

I chose the Google Home over the Echo despite heavy discounting of the latter near year-end, because I do my work in a Google environment. I use Google as my search engine, Chrome as my browser, Gmail, Google calendar, maps, and so on. Echo has the advantage of making it easy to buy things on Amazon.com, but that solves a problem I don’t have. I’ve never had any trouble buying things on Amazon, except for the Google Home speaker, which Amazon refuses to sell. I bought mine at Target.

I thought I’d use the Google VAS (these talking speakers need a generic name. Voice-activated-speaker is not great. I hope somebody comes up with something clever) for two main chores: putting things on my grocery list, and retrieving shows from YouTube (which is also owned by Google).

When I’m up to my elbows in cooking and notice I need to replenish an ingredient, I am not likely to bring everything to a stop, wash my hands, find the list, and write on it. I’d like to just say as I work, “Hey Google, I need eggs.”

With Google Home, I can sort of do that. I say “Hey Google” or “Okay Google” to get its attention, which works well, even while it’s playing music, then I say, “add eggs to my shopping list.” Later, I can ask it to play back the list while I write it down.

What really want though is a generic notepad to which I could speak all kinds of random thoughts, reminders and lists while I chop then later print it all out.

To accomplish that, I had to create an Evernote account www.evernote.com  then link it to Google Home using an app called “If This Then That” (IFTTT) https://ifttt.com  and then I could make generic notes using the VAS and print them out from Evernote on my PC. It’s a very round the bush way of doing things.

For selecting videos from YouTube on my TV, I was less than satisfied. The Google Home does not interface with Roku. It seems to recognize an Amazon Firestick but recently Google has pulled YouTube from Firestick (Ah, America!).  Google Home does work with Chromecast (made by Google). Even so, you need to know what you’re looking for.

I can say, “Hey Google, play funny cat videos on Chromecast,” which defaults to YouTube. But if what I really want are clips from Stephen Colbert’s monologue that I haven’t already seen, I’m going to have to browse with the TV remote as I always have. There’s no browsing with a VAS.

The same goes for music. I can say, “Hey Google, play some Jazz,” and it selects some insipid “smooth” jazz from, where else, Google Music ($15/month). Or, I can say, “Hey Google, play guitar blues on Pandora” and it will do that, provided I have already set up my Pandora account ($5/month) and linked it to the Google Home VAS. But again the software selects featureless soporifics. If I specifically want Stevie Ray Vaughan, I’m going to have to say that. Just as with YouTube, there is no opportunity to browse with the VAS. You have to say exactly what you want.

The speaker quality on the Google Home is not bad, with decent bass, and if I don’t mind asking for exactly the same few things every day, it’s nice to have the Google Home play music next to the reading chair. And it is great to have the google search engine at my fingertips.

Yesterday I asked it how long the French revolution lasted and the VAS told me, correctly, ten years It assumed I meant the first revolution in 1789, not the second, in 1830, which features in Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education,” which I was reading, and why I asked. My mistake.

When I wanted to know if the Dow Jones average had gone up or down that day, I asked “What is the Dow Jones?” and it explained to me that it was an industrial index of 30 American Stocks. Again, my mistake.

I like being able to ask for translations and dictionary lookups as I read. I have a tablet nearby, but I confess, just speaking out my request is easier. I’m lazy. I often ask the VAS odd questions as I read, like how much today’s dollar was worth in 1870.

As for all the other wonderful things a VAS can supposedly do for me, I am less enthusiastic. I do not want to order a pizza from Domino’s (only Domino’s – that sort of thing only works for companies Google has contracts with). If I want to order an Uber ride, I’m going to need to see my calendar and a map; it’s not something I can do only by voice (and there’s no easy interface to Lyft, which I prefer anyway). I don’t need Google to tell me a riddle. I don’t need it to tell me the time, I don’t need any recipes, and I don’t care how tall Ryan Gosling is.

I have not fully explored the Google Home. I haven’t had a need yet to ask questions about my calendar and I don’t want my email read out to me. Or the news, either. I don’t mind setting my thermostat myself and I can turn my lights on and off with an ordinary switch. I wish it could tell me if the garage door is closed, but it can’t do that (at least not cheaply or easily). I’m sure there’s more to the device I will discover over time.

I’m also worried about privacy. The speaker is always on, always listening. Supposedly it listens only for its wakeup phrase, “Okay Google,” but who knows what goes on behind the curtain? To link the Google assistant to another app, you are required to give it access to your entire location history, which includes your Android smartphone. There’s no logical reason for that except surveillance. We’re moving into unknown territory on the privacy question.

Paranoia aside, I am underwhelmed by the idea of a voice-activated speaker but I suspect that as the technology improves, and as the “internet of things” takes hold, the VAS will become an important part of the technosphere. For now, I’m keeping my Google Home for the expensive luxury of having convenient access to the google search engine while I read.

Children of Dynmouth

This is a very British tale by a very British author, an acquired taste, I believe. You must appreciate understatement and dry wit to find it engaging, and you also must be able to bulldoze past a mind-numbing batch of opening pages documenting the town’s scenery. It’s a very slow starter but picks up after the first quarter.

The town is a tiny seaside community in long decline where the chief economic engine is a sandpaper factory.  The characters are small-minded, dim-witted, and set in traditions and their habits of behavior, speech, and activity. These are ripe characters for satire, though by now, some forty years later, they are well-worn stereotypes.

Among the few children in the town is Timothy, an under-socialized and delusional sociopath who spies on the townsfolk, learning their secrets, such as infidelities, then insinuates himself into their lives with the promise that “their secret is safe with him.” People treat him with annoyed and chilly politeness at first, then later, with alarm. He is portrayed merely as a troublemaker at first but near the climax, more delusionally  psychotic.

I didn’t find the characters’ psychological moves realistic or convincing, but I admit the culture portrayed is not my own, so that could be my deficiency. The descriptions of the town and its characters are vivid.  In the end, we are told by the preacher that the “case” of Timothy is a study in the banality of evil. He is neither possessed by devils nor intentionally evil; just a mixed-up kid.

The writing is mild, the theme is mild, and the overall tone is mild. It is a mild book, a study of manners in a certain time in a certain place, interesting now because that time and place have virtually vanished from the modern world. Winner of the Whitbread Award and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the novel will appeal to those who enjoy British dramas on PBS and appreciate a quiet, British sensibility.

Trevor, William (1976). The Children of Dynmouth. New York: Penguin, 195 pp.

And Now Here’s the Pitch

Morro Bay, CA

I recently attended a “pitch” conference for a week at a charming seaside town on the coast of California. Morro Bay is a fishing village and a tourist trap, stereotypically picturesque and aggressively insular, but like all such small towns, tawdry. You don’t have to look very deeply into the eyes of hotel and coffee shop clerks to see the hopeless boredom of a prisoner. Even the “fancy” restaurants on the boardwalk betray desperation with their superlative descriptions of the Pacific Ocean view to be had from their dilapidated deck. The tablecloths are white, the wineglasses spotless, the lighting soft, and the greasy menu offers “Chile Relleno Burrito” for $19.95.  Can’t beat that for elegance.

But I wasn’t there for the scenery or the culture.  I was there to pitch my latest novel to agents and editors.  The conference had two parts.  For the first three days, each person among the dozen writers pitched their novel to the group and got feedback, mainly from the expert workshop leader.  The “pitch,” also known as the “elevator pitch” is about 150 words that accomplishes these goals:

  1. Describes your whole novel, including title, genre, word count and comparables.
  2. Presents the main character, setting, story conflict, and antagonist
  3. Suggests the story arc and ends on a cliffhanger
  4. Engages the attention and interest of an agent or editor in about one minute.

Writing a good pitch is an art form similar to writing good haiku.  In this workshop, the emphasis was on how to make the pitch commercially marketable.  Every attendee struggled mightily with revision after revision after revision.

At the end of three days, we’d all heard iterations of the pitches so many times, any one of us could have described any other person’s novel in concise detail, even though no manuscripts or writing samples were exchanged. All the novels were in the sci-fi-fantasy genre, and actually all but two were fantasy. Only mine and one other lacked dragons, witches, and mythological beasts. It’s what’s happening.

As a group we also heard “war stories” from two recently published authors about how they got the job done.  Those tended to be not helpful, as every case is unique and there’s not much to generalize to your own situation.

During the final three days of the conference, each person pitched invited agents and editors, sometimes serially in the group setting, sometimes one-on-one in private.  There were five agents and editors present, not all at once.

By the time I was “up” for pitching, I had rewritten my pitch so many times I was dizzy. I had traveled down a long path from a conceptual exploration of an idea to almost an action-adventure format. I had my doubts about whether the final version was even interesting. But I pitched it.

The result was pretty good. I got three requests for “pages” from the five listeners.  One agent asked explicitly for three chapters, a two-page synopsis and a bio, “right away.” You bet I will!  Another just said, “That’s very interesting. Send me some pages.” By asking around I learned that meant send a query letter and about 25 pages. The third person gave me helpful notes on my pitch, said she liked it, and moved on to the next person in the circle, but at the end, just as we were breaking up, she handed me her card and said to send her “something.”

Three out of five ain’t bad, especially compared to three out of fifty on my last outing with a different project using the method of cold email query.  No fish have bitten that hook so far.

My problem now is that the pitch that “worked” at the conference has only a very loose connection to the actual manuscript.  I’ve got the main ideas, the characters and locations, but the story line is not the one I started with. Now I’m furiously rewriting my query letter, synopsis and first three to bring them into alignment with the pitch.  Then I face the daunting task of rewriting the whole manuscript to match.

So it goes.  Hope springs eternal.

More Things That Don’t Work *

* as well as they should.

Some time ago I posted a rant about things that don’t work, at least not as they should (http://billadamsphd.net/2017/04/24/ten-things-that-dont-work/). Those things included cell phones, ice-dispensers, gift cards, and others.

Here’s a list of a few more things that don’t work but somehow, inexplicably, flourish in the market as viable products and services.

  1. Streaming Movies

People don’t go to the movies anymore, not in the numbers they used to. They’re ‘staying away in droves.’  Part of that is price, but also the advent of large television screens and home theaters.

I hardly ever go to movies anymore, mainly because most movies seem targeted to children and are not for me. But also the journey across town to a theater is an obstacle, and parking, and then the admission price is too high. They can pump up the volume on the sound until the contents of my stomach curdle and it’s still not worth $12.

On the other hand, everyone and their dog now “streams” video online, from Netflix, Amazon, the cable provider, or whoever else is peddling movies. I’ve done it. It’s easy, fast, and cheap.

The problem is the catalog. Having all those movies digitized for on-demand access was supposed to be a boon for people like me, the outlier who doesn’t care about the next superhero and who has had it up to here with explosion movies.  It was supposed to be economically feasible to serve ‘long-tail’ customers like me who enjoy thoughtful and artistically done films which are not profitable to the mass market. Hasn’t worked out that way.

I have to spend an inordinate amount of time scrolling through providers’ film lists looking for movies that interest me. It’s all the more difficult because if I click on something I might be interested in, the entire list of movies presented is suddenly changed to emphasize those similar to what I just clicked on, even if (as usual) I reject it. I am therefore not free to pursue my own interests without interference by oxymoronic ‘artificial intelligence’.

For example, I recently got onto a ‘film noir’ kick for a while and watched, and enjoyed, “Night and the City” and “Elevator to the Gallows.” But after that, whenever I want to browse for another movie, I’m flooded with old black-and-whites from the ‘50’s and ’60’s and enough Alain Delon films for a lifetime.

If I want to see (again!) Goodfellas and Silence of the Lambs, no problem.  But if I’m interested in “The Conformist,” “Dogville,” or an old Jean Reno movie like “Crimson Rivers,” I have a much more difficult search ahead of me. Those are not movies easily browsed because they do not appear in the endless lists of ‘Most Popular!’ ‘Recent Hits!’ ‘Family Drama!’, and so on.  You have to already know about those films by other means to find them online.

So the reason streaming video doesn’t work is because of the catalogs. They are not well-indexed and tagged and therefore almost impossible to search if you want anything other than the latest cartoon or monster movie.

My solution is the video store. I’m lucky to have an excellent one near me, clogged floor to ceiling with DVD’s in a broad set of categories.  DVD’s are eminently browsable. You can see what’s there with a quick visual scan and read the boxes for details. The cost is the same as online rental. I always come away with a stack of good ones. Alas, I know that distribution model does not have long to live. I don’t know what I’ll do after the place folds.

 

  1. Electric Cars

I recently purchased a smallish second car when my old Scion xB was eaten by rats. They didn’t do serious damage, just nibbled the insulation off some wires, but they got inside the cabin and stunk it up like an abandoned carcass. No amount of carpet shampoo or detailing could make that right. So it was new car time.

I looked seriously at an electric car and I considered the top hybrid models as well. Many of them are attractive.  However, in the end, I bought a small, internal-combustion-engine hatchback (Chevy Sonic).

Electrics have not yet arrived, in my opinion, despite the hype.  For one thing, they are quite expensive and even with the government subsidies, which are fast declining, you pay a hefty several-thousand-dollar premium for the privilege of going electric (or hybrid). But I looked past that.

Another problem is the batteries themselves. What am I buying there?  It is extremely difficult to get information about the batteries, what they are, how they work, whether they are safe, how long they are expected to last, and so on. I supposed those are all “proprietary” secrets but call me old-fashioned, I want at least some concept of what I’m buying.

I learned, for example, from a garage mechanic, not from any online research, that the battery packs in a Toyota Prius cost about $5,000 to replace, and there are two of them.  They last about five years, putting out less and less power with each charge until finally you have to replace them. Maybe the car is only designed to last 5 years, but in my mind, that’s a $10K hidden cost of ownership that does not appear with the sticker price. I don’t know what the comparable numbers would be for a Bolt or a Volt or a Leaf, or any of the others, and nobody will say.

Also, you cannot just park an electric vehicle in your garage and expect it to perform when you need it. The electrics are designed to be driven, the batteries discharged and charged continuously.  I only use my second car a few times a week for errands around town. Most of the time it stays parked.  But that’s no good. If you don’t drive an electric every day, the battery can go flat, and once it does, it cannot be revived. The electrics are designed for commuters, or at least for some kind of a hectic lifestyle I don’t engage in anymore.

The “range anxiety” problem is gradually reducing, and is not even a serious problem with the new hybrids.  Charging stations are popping up all around down, though I still would never try to drive an electric from Tucson to Los Angeles.

Finally, nearly all electricity in my part of the country comes from burning coal, so there is no environmental benefit from going electric, so that’s not even a consideration.

I think electrics are the future, more so than hydrogen power, but that future is still quite a ways off.  Electric cars are a product that’s not quite there yet.

  1. E-Books

I have several Kindles and I also sometimes read e-books on a tablet, but every time, it’s an unpleasant experience.

The main problem with e-books is navigation. You can’t easily see where you are in the book, can’t easily glance ahead or behind. It’s not easy to flip to the footnotes or the index or the table of contents, and if you do, you most likely will lose your place.  Reading an e-book is like reading through a soda straw.

I use e-books when there are few, or no alternatives.  One common case is for a book that costs too much in paper, which I consider to be over $30 or so.  If I can get an e-book for $10 that costs $50 otherwise, I do it.  That doesn’t come up as often as it used to, since E-books are now priced almost the same as paper, just a few dollars less usually, so I buy the paper.

A second good use of e-books is for textbooks. When I was teaching, I was loathe to lug around a six-pound, thousand-page book of statistics, but I had to do it.  When textbooks finally became available online I switched to that medium and I could carry three or ten reference volumes around with me. A lifesaver.

However, for most reading, novels, popular nonfiction, and so on, there is no advantage to an e-book and plenty of disadvantages. The main downside, as noted is the tunnel vision. A book is a Gestalt, a whole experience, from thumbing through the pages to writing in the margins.  An e-book is only good for processing sentences, one at a time, a charred ember of the full reading experience.

Yes, you can, in principle, enter highlights and underlines into an e-book, but try to access those later. It is possible, but certainly it is not easy to quickly survey the parts of the book you noted for later reference.  You essentially have to re-read the book page by page to find your highlights. A list of highlights in themselves are without context. There is a reference number with each highlight so you could find the textual context if needed, but good luck with that.

Likewise, marginal notations are useless in an e-book. It used to be possible to export all your notations into a file that could be word-processed into contextual relevance, but I don’t think that’s possible anymore. At least I haven’t been able to figure it out. And as with highlights, your notes are out of context, just a list of nonsequiturs.  Their accompanying “reference numbers” are not actual page numbers, so you don’t even really know what part of the book the note is from.

Finally, a paper book will sit on my shelf and stare at me. If I haven’t read it, it will nag me. If I have read it, it will call me back into memory, either good or bad. The spine, the cover, the title, the cover art, the size and shape – all of it triggers associations, thoughts, memories.  Old books are like old friends. New books are exciting promises.  E-books are like mummies – out of sight and out of mind.

So I admit there is a place for e-books and it is a technology that serves a purpose. Yes, you can quickly look up words in the dictionary in an e-book (if the dictionary has your word in it), and yes, you can enlarge the font size. These are positives.

Alternatively, you can load a dictionary app, or several of them plus an encyclopedia, and really find out what your mystery word means, and you can buy a pair of drugstore readers to enlarge the font of any book.

Reading a book, for me is a whole-body immersive experience that an e-book just cannot deliver. E-books are enormously popular because the producers of books love them. The incremental cost of production is very close to zero. How wonderful for them. For me, the benefits are just not there.