Pharaoh’s Tomb

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A couple weeks ago I was in Dallas for a work conference and I had the opportunity to visit the George W. Bush Presidential Center. It was, like all presidential libraries, a fantastic spectacle of power and wealth. Ostensibly, the point of these places is to preserve the papers and records of the executive administration for historical research. Most presidents treat them as a means for securing their legacies. This is done with a mixture of awe-inspiring architecture, propaganda-laced museum exhibits, and, of course, very careful control of the vital information buried within.

Compared with the LBJ’s towering monolith at the University of Texas or Reagan’s mountaintop fortress overlooking the Simi Valley, the George W. Bush Presidential Center has a more understated grandeur. It’s built in a weird neo-neoclassical, antebellum style that appears to mimic the old mansion residences of the Highland Park neighborhood that surrounds it. The public is allowed access to only a small portion of the building’s interior, giving one the false impression that the space is not very large. In fact, the George W. Bush Center is the second largest presidential library and comprises 207,000 square feet. President Bush raised an astounding $500 million for the construction and maintenance of the library. Of the building’s several wings, I only visited one: the museum.

In the grand, marble and granite lobby of the Presidential Center’s museum visitors may gather, purchase tickets, and gape bemusedly at the lavish gifts of state given to the President and to the First Lady by various dictatorial regimes from across the globe. I found that the ostentatiousness of the gifts roughly corresponded to the poverty of the country of origin. Africans autocrats seem to be fond of garish sculptures shaped from precious metals. Middle Eastern states gave gems. The Saudi royal family gave a jewelry set of diamond and sapphires which itself is probably worth a moderate-size fortune.

The museum exhibits were not as bluntly propagandic as I was expecting. I think there was a willingness on the part of the museum’s planners to acknowledge that a uniformly positive narrative of the George W. Bush presidency would be met with some skepticism. Bush’s approval ratings at the end of his second term were hovering around 30% and most of his economic and foreign policy had been roundly discredited. Consequently, the museum’s focus tends to be more on the historical events that took place during the Bush presidency and less on the extent to which the president shaped and had influence over those events. Not surprisingly, too, the museum gives a good deal of both physical and intellectual space to the 9/11 attacks, when Bush’s approval ratings were at an all-time high and the country was awash in patriotic sentiment. Special focus is paid to the speech President Bush gave at the Ground Zero a few day after the attacks, with artifacts like the bull horn that was used to deliver the speech, audio recordings, handwritten drafts of the text, and high resolution photographs all on display. I don’t remember this being a significant occurrence at the time, but the museum posits it as a galvanizing moment in the national consciousness and an heroic act that signaled strength and resilience to the nation and to the world. I don’t actually think the museum is trying to mislead visitors by over-playing the ground zero speech. I imagine Bush’s view this was a genuinely important moment in his life, and I think we learn more about the President—though perhaps less about September 11th—by seeing how it is presented in the museum. In this respect, the museum is honestly fulfilling its purpose by preserving the provenance of the president’s thought process.

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Be that as it may, the George W. Bush Presidential Center Museum cannot be said to be perfectly honest and measured in its representation of the Bush years. The omissions are noticeable: no explanation given for the failed occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, no justification for Abu Ghraib or the administration’s tacit approval of torture, no mention of Guantanamo, complete disavowal of the “Axis of Evil” speech, the Hurricane Katrina exhibit included nothing about FEMA’s disastrously inadequate response, nothing about how the financial crisis might have been averted through better regulation of the housing market, or about how the Patriot Act might have jeopardized our civil liberties. The countless blunders and errors in judgement, all of them danced around ever so delicately, as though the place was less a museum and more a white elephant preserve. But if I try to imagine a presidential museum that did plunge itself heedlessly into the controversies and debates of its day, what would it be but a pillbox of political partisanship and bitter antipathies? What lessons would it have to teach beside shameless historical revisionism and pointed bluster? In the story that the Bush library attempts to tell, there is a minor note of reconciliation. One of the more popular features of the museum is an interactive exhibit called the “Decision Points Theater.” Visitors are placed in front of individual video displays and introduced as a group to one of three key crises which President Bush was forced to confront during his presidency. Given a limited set of facts presented by a host of advisors, all in various states of disagreement with one another, you are prompted choose between three courses of action. At the end of the exercise all of the participants’ choices are averaged and a cumulative decision is presented. You are not told if your answer was right or wrong, only what the president decided and what the consequences of his decision were. It is a magnificent device of rhetorical ethos, one in which the president seems to be saying to his critics, you think you could have done better? And for the most part, we do chose the same decisions that the president did. I will say that the decision points are cherry-picked somewhat. Apparently, they removed the decision point about going to war in Iraq, presumably since there is been a good deal of debate about what the administration did and did not know in that situation. While the exercise fails to make Bush’s policy positions seem any less objectionable, it does succeed in making the president a more sympathetic character in the drama of our nation’s history. It really is difficult to make these decisions, when none of your options seems exactly right, and you are keenly aware of the extreme and unforeseeable consequences any decision is bound to trigger. It illuminates just how untenable the position of the president is. No one emerges from the apparatus of power with her or his soul entirely intact.

The Bush museum has other exhibits that create a similar effect of placing you, the average person, at the reins of power. There is, for example, an exact replica of the oval office, painstakingly recreated down to the upholstery and the wallpaper. The only thing missing, we are told, is the bust of Winston Churchill, because they could not get the size right apparently. The museum stations a photographer in the exhibit who can take pictures of you sitting at the president’s desk which can be purchased on your way out in the gift shop. I think this consonance with the average person underscores a lot about what made the Bush presidency appealing. Here we have a man of manifestly average intelligence and ability, friendly in his demeanor and firm in his beliefs, who after a series of improbably political victories finds his himself in the highest office in the land, this proving to all that it does not take that much really to be a great man. More than any other president, I think people saw themselves in George W. Bush, because he was mediocre, like most everybody else.

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Touring the oval office replica I was struck by the room’s artificiality. This was due I think not to the fact of the exhibit’s being a simulacra of the real thing, but more because the real thing has the uncanny feel of a museum exhibit. In every archival photo we have of the oval office, it always look so impeccably maintained. When a president is at the desk there is rarely nothing more in front of him than a single piece of paper an a cup of coffee. Most often we only see presidents using the phone or hosting guests of state. It makes one wonder if any work actually gets done in this room. I would wager that it doesn’t. The oval office is more like a stage upon which the gestures of governance are performed for a unsuspecting constituency. The real labor of statecraft, the schemes, the maneuvering, the intrigue, is played out behind closed doors. In this sense I think the oval office exhibit in the George W. Bush Presidential Center serves an almost identical purpose to its counterpart in the White House in that it functions as a sign or totem of a power whose true countenance remains obscured from view. It and the museum to which it is attached are a fun and palatable surrogate for the complex of secrets which lie hidden in the Center’s restricted archives.

Here I’ve gone on for pages about the Bush Library’s museum exhibits and have largely ignored the central purpose of the place which is preserving and restricting access to the administration’s corpus of records and information. I imagine the museum being a mere tip to a vast iceberg of material concealed beneath the Center’s liminal surface. The public is not allowed access to the archives. Even if you have a stated research interest, you still must arrange an appointment with one of the Center’s 20 or so archivists and submit a request to obtain material from the collection. Of course, this would be rather difficult to do given that there is no comprehensive inventory of the library’s contents. If we look at the Library’s finding aids, we find surprisingly little in the way of documentation. There is no catalog, no metadata. And this for a collection of over 70 million leaves of paper and petabytes of digital information. How are we to know anything about the contents of this mountain of information? The only material that has been digitized and made available on the internet is a smattering of FOIA requests which the library has been compelled to service. I wonder what it must be like to be a librarian to a collection like this. It seems like you’d be more like a prison guard than a guide; that you would spend your days patrolling the vault, protecting its contents from the intrusions of sunlight and human thought.

Thus I concluded my trip to the George W. Bush Presidential Center, great monument to the old king. As we drove back through Highland Park on our coach bus, the driver, who was black, told us about how he had been pulled over by police while scouting the route the day before. He said they wanted to know if he had business in the community. We rode back to our suburban hotel, through the sprawl of Dallas and surrounding communities, this most American of places. I recommend visiting the Bush Library next time your are in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. It is something to do in a city famously empty and sedate for its monstrous size.

Bishop Berkeley and America

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THE MUSE, disgusted at an age and clime
  Barren of every glorious theme,
In distant lands now waits a better time,
  Producing subjects worthy fame.
 
In happy climes, where from the genial sun
  And virgin earth such scenes ensue,
The force of art by nature seems outdone,
  And fancied beauties by the true;
 
In happy climes, the seat of innocence,
  Where nature guides and virtue rules,
Where men shall not impose for truth and sense
  The pedantry of courts and schools:
 
There shall be sung another golden age,
  The rise of empire and of arts,
The good and great inspiring epic rage,
  The wisest heads and noblest hearts.
 
Not such as Europe breeds in her decay;
  Such as she bred when fresh and young,
When heavenly flame did animate her clay,
  By future poets shall be sung.
 
Westward the course of empire takes its way;
  The first four acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama with the day;
  Time’s noblest offspring is the last.

These lines were on the minds of the early regents of the University of California when they selected the site for their new campus, and it was in honor of their author that they named the place Berkeley. It’s interesting that Bishop Berkeley holds such a revered place in the intellectual life of Anglo-America. In Europe, and especially in Britain, Berkeley has been viewed as an irrelevant distraction from the ineluctable march of materialism and the growth of the physical sciences. His writings were either ignored or ridiculed. In Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson we have the famous “I refute it thus” scene where Johnson kicks a stone and jokingly claims that his stinging foot disproves Berkeley’s theory that the universe is immaterial and purely ideal instead.

Berkeley has received far better treatment in America. This may be due to his own interest in the New World. He lived in Rhode Island for several years and tried to establish an school in Barbados. As “On the Prospect of Planting Arts…” shows, Berkeley plainly saw great promise in the Americas. But more than this circumstantial affinity, I think there is quite a lot in Berkeley’s philosophy that corresponds to American thought. I see elements of Berkeleian metaphysics in American Pragmatism, Transcendentalism, and the American spirit of exploration.

In addition to the excellent Youtube video above, my favorite explanation of Berkeleian metaphysics appears in the Encyclopedia Britannica Eleventh Edition

“[Berkeley’s principle] may be expressed in the proposition that no existence is conceivable—and therefore possible—which is not either conscious spirit or the ideas (i.e. objects) of which such spirit is conscious…. Matter, as an abstract, unperceived substance or cause, is shown to be impossible, an unreal conception; true substance is affirmed to be conscious spirit, true causality the free activity of such a spirit, while physical substantiality and causality are held to be merely arbitrary, though constant, relations among phenomena connected subjectively by suggestion or association, objectively in the Universal Mind. In ultimate analysis, then, nature is conscious experience, and forms the sign or symbol of a divine, universal intelligence and will.”

The article is split between two different contributors, R. Ad. and J. M. M. The first, who seems to have written the original article, does a passable job of summarizing Berkeley’s works and his biography, but makes no attempt to hide his prejudice against his subject’s ideas. The second author offers a kind of addendum to the main article in which he weighs Berkeley’s contribution to early inquiries into empiricism and contextualizes him within the Western philosophical tradition. He restates Berkeley’s position in a more measured and altogether more elegant manner:

“External things are produced by the will of the divine intelligence; they are caused, and caused in a regular order; there exists in the divine mind archetypes, of which sense experience may be said to be the realization in our finite minds. Our belief in the permanence of something which corresponds to the association in our minds of actual and possible sensations means belief in the orderliness of nature; and that is merely assurance that the universe is pervaded and regulated by mind. Physical science is occupied in endeavouring to decipher the divine ideas which find realization in our limited experience, in trying to interpret the divine language of which natural things are the words and letters, and in striving to bring human conceptions into harmony with the divine thoughts. Instead, therefore, of fate or necessity, or matter, or the unknown, a living, active mind is looked upon as the centre and spring of the universe, and this is the essence of the Berkeleian metaphysics.”

This idea of trying to decipher the “divine mind” through experience I think is central to American thinking and the method by which American thinkers have sought to understand the world. When Emerson describes how nature provides symbol and meaning to our thought, what is this but a recognition of nature’s archetypes and their relationships with one another? When Thoreau insists that Nature has most to teach us when it is wild and undisturbed what he is advocating is unmediated access to the divine mind as expressed through being and causality. When Natty Bumpo in the Leather Stocking Tales observes that there is no better cathedral than the woods, he is not denigrating churches and organized religion as some have interpreted, but rather he is extolling the natural world as an expression of the divine that is no less significant or sacred than scripture. Charles Sanders Peirce saw little to no meaning in existence if it could not be proven through experience, thus his Pragmatic Maxim bears a good deal of resemblance to Berekeley’s New Theory of Vision: “Consider what effects that might conceivably have practical bearings you conceive the objects of your conception to have. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.”

If you look at a list of State mottos, except for those that pertain to armed rebellion, every one invokes the necessity of providence. The motto of my own state, Colorado, is Nil sine numine, which translates to “Nothing without God.” If you read this as an ontological proposition, it essentially corroborates Bishop’s idea of a the divine mind and enshrines the concept in the state’s very identity. But my favorite state motto, and the one I think that gets closest to what Bishop Berkeley’s philosophy really means to Americans, is California’s Eureka. “I have found it.” Supposedly uttered by the 49ers upon having struck gold, I think Eureka captures the elation and astonishment with which we are met in our encounters with this miraculous world. It implies discovery and startling revelation. It is an expression appreciation over faith rewarded. Faith that that which we do not perceive is still nonetheless existent and waiting for us to uncover it. The utterance of Eureka accompanies the ecstatic communion with the divine will, when we are permitted a glimpse into the universe’s true identity and made familiar with yet another of God’s infinite secrets.

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Nesmania

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For almost two years I’ve been watch this guy on twitch.tv who calls himself “The Mexican Runner” try to beat every Nintendo game ever released. These are games for the original Nintendo Entertainment System with releases spanning from 1985 to 1994. In all, there are 710 games TMR is trying to beat. So far he has completed 395. He’s past half-way.

MR calls the project “Nesmania.” When he first started, it was a unique idea. No one had ever tried to master every game for a particular console, let alone one with as punishing a game library as the NES. I started following it back in August 2014 when he was at 60 or 70 games. In that time TMR has logged over 2000 hours of game play. That’s the equivalent of about one year of full-time work.

One of the things I really admire about Nesmania, besides just the insanely ambitious premise of the thing, is all of the meticulous documentation TMR and his followers create around the project. Every minute of every game is live streamed over Twitch, usually to online audiences of between 600 to 800 viewers. The gameplay video is then archived, both in the highlight section of TMR’s Twitch channel and on his Youtube channel. TMR even rates and reviews each game after he’s competed it.

I have to admit, I have a soft spot for the NES. It was the only video game console I spent considerable time playing when I was a kid. And what I’ve discovered watching Nesmania is that I never even scratched the surface of what the NES was about. I think I’ve played maybe 10% of the entire game library. I try to watch a little bit of every video, just to get an idea of what each game is like. Truth be told, though, I’m really not capable of sitting down and watching an entire playthrough. For one thing, I’m an adult man with a job, and I don’t have time. But also, most of the games are just really boring. Dull to watch but I’m sure also dull to play. Just this last month, TMR had to beat all three of the Bases Loaded games within a couple weeks of each other. For every title he had to win 80 nine inning baseball games. They each took him between 30 to 40 hours each to beat. It was painful to watch. He’d basically score a run in the first inning and then bunt out on every subsequent at-bat just to move the games along faster. But those are easy games. To watch him systematically destroy some of the hardest video games every made has at times been truly thing of beauty. He beat all of the Dragon Warrior games blind, without any maps, hints, or cheats. For Q-bert he basically had to memorized the game’s entire button sequence to get through. And his epic 37 hour slog through Ikari Warriors is one of the only documented instances of someone beating that game without resorting to the ABBA code.

Now, of course it goes without saying that Nesmania is an absurd and quixotic venture that helps no one, serves no real purpose, and is probably a complete waste of time. Yes, it is clearly nothing more than a bizarre fantasy quest of an eccentric shut-in. But there’s an undeniably poetry to what The Mexican Runner is trying to do. No one has ever passed all the NES games before, so in that sense TMR something like a gaming explorer, planting his flag atop a heretofore unassailable peak. Also, I think will ultimately be looked at as an activity in deep archiving. There is a lot of cultural content in the NES library that’s locked away in an obsolete digital format, which even when emulated can only be accessed by playing out the program. Nesmania unfolds each game and creates a record of its contents. It’s surprising that game developers aren’t already doing this to capture and preserve their work. Perhaps years from now, the Nesmania videos will be used for historical research. Even for people like me who still remember playing these games as kids, Nesmania is still a fantastic feast for nostalgia.

Trust in Civil Service

Last week President Obama nominated Merck Garland, Chief Judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, to the Supreme Court of the Unites States. After the President announced the nomination in the White House Rose Garden, Judge Garland was given a few minutes to speak. It was a simple speech. Garland introduced himself, spoke of his family, his personal background, his philosophy of service, his approach to adjudication. It was a very abridged auto-biography delivered by a modest man, a mere whisper in the public discourse against the backdrop of a provocative and spectacular campaign season. And yet many found the speech quite moving. Garland shows marvelous candor. Here we witness a man of great ability reaching his highest professional accomplishment, and there is not a single note of pride or ambition in his reaction. I think achievement must be sweeter to those who have devoted their lives to service. It justifies all of the sacrifice, invalidates all of the doubts with which you wrestled getting to where you are. It is vindication. I think Judge Garland must be an unusual embodiment of the best parts of Plato’s tripartite soul: the merging of logistikon and thymoedes, the logical and spirited soul, which when aligned strengthens one to virtue, making you a creature of duty and higher purpose.

Putting aside praise for a moment, I would like to examine more closely how Judge Garland characterizes his career in public service. Describing his work on the bar and bench, he repeatedly cites this value of trust-building. He talks about winning the trust of his witnesses as a prosecutor, not in him necessarily but in the rule of law. Of his prosecution of the Oklahoma City bombing, he speaks of the sense of responsibility he felt to restore the trust in the victims that the system will protect them and will respond justly. I think Garland’s statements can be summarized as follows: it is necessary in a just and orderly society that people trust their government, and that those individuals who make up the government do everything in their power to cultivate and sustain the trust of the people. To me, this has to be the driving principle of public service. More than investment in the common good or protection of markets or advancement of national interests, a government must first and foremost produce a stable platform of inextricable law and social order that can support all of the varied and diffusive activities of the nation. And that platform must be firm and consistent and utterly unassailable, and the people must trust that it is so. I think anyone working in civil service or in any other public interest capacity should constantly be asking her or himself, is what I am doing promoting trust among the people in their government and in the social system more broadly? Because this should be the primary concern of any government. Some would argue that this is all government should ever aspire to do. I’ll not go so far as to say that the government cannot be a positive force for change in society, but before it can even begin to be that, it must first create a degree of tranquility which would foster profit, progress, and improvement derived from the people. Not only would I call this the highest purpose of government, I would also suggest that it is what government is best at doing. No other entity in society is better positioned than government to preserve the public trust. In government you have a powerful and ubiquitous force whose only motive is to promote the public good. Now that isn’t to say those who control and carry out the business of government cannot abuse its systems for their own personal profit. But government itself, as a body, does not seek profit. It sets out only to enrich the people whom it serves. This makes it a unique manifestation of human community: an executive organization that is not ruled by profit motive but by the sacred requirement to maintain order and protect civil rights. Now, the fact that the defining principle of democratic government is one of reservation rather than action probably does place limits on what a state can plausibly be expected to accomplish. As we’ve seen time and again, the state falters when it is made to lead the people to social change or when it is compelled to carry out some utopian vision of its leaders. Government is not flexible or nimble. It cannot pivot to adapt to changing circumstances. It will never be an agent of change or disruption. But it shouldn’t have to be. Government is a regular, reliable, policy-driven, rules-based collection of unprofitable but incredibly necessary and useful services. We can look to business, labor, or the academy for the novel or the revolutionary. We turn to government when we need something to be permanent and lasting. And yes, this makes government boring and predicable, but that is why we rest our trust upon it, as the bedrock that underlies everything we do, the ballast the keeps everything upright. Such a government succeeds when it is guided by steady hands and a quite kind of leadership. Judge Garland is a crowning example of what a model civil servant should look like. We should be thankful that there were so many like him who came before, and do everything we can to ensure that there will be more like him in the future.

Boundary Control

I found a curious passage in the newest edition of Brown’s Boundary Control and Legal Principles, which is a book about drawing and legally supporting boundaries lines to define real property:

“In the primeval forest, particularly in the plant kingdom, there are no known boundaries between living things. Although some horticulturalists dispute this, we accept the fact that plants do not create boundaries to separate themselves. Animals—especially humans—do create boundaries. We like to think that only humans create and appreciate boundaries, but it has been observed in nature that most mammals, some reptiles, and a few fish create, identify, mark, and defend boundaries… Field examinations and studies by naturalists have revealed that most animals really don’t create boundaries per se. However, it is recognized that they usually create terminal points (corners) and they identify the boundaries between these points.” (pg. 2)

It is true that we don’t think about the boundaries animals make, mostly because there is nothing forcing us to respect them. We often equate the wild with license, and we view wilderness as a place without rule or imposed order. Of course what we mean by this is that wilderness is a place free of human rule and human-imposed order. Wild places are actually thronging with rule systems put into place by the animals and plants. Any bit of landscape you might point to is really a palimpsest of ancient struggles and territorial claims asserted by the multitude of living things that reside there. These dictates of the animals are difficult to see because the animals are not issuing them to us. Except for antagonism resulting from predation, I think it is actually quite rare for animals to exchange their various warnings and threats across species. Animals law is promulgated within the species, mostly to enforce sexual hierarchies and to manage competition for resources. To my knowledge, the ants don’t make it their business to order around the birds, frogs remain indifferent to their neighbors the fish, and mice and marmots have little or nothing to say to one another. I have seen and heard of instances where animals of different species will fight if one threatens the other’s home with inadvertent destruction, as when my cat was stung by a hornet last summer after disturbing belligerent little thing’s nest. I once saw a large bird of pray snatch a newly killed chipmunk from the mouth of a fox. I suppose I cannot deny that conflict proliferates across the animal kingdom, but I don’t believe it can be said that animals of one species establish broad and complex strategies for dealing with animals of another. Were animals capable of such behavior they would have gone to war with human beings many generations ago. The fact that the animals have not committed themselves to our absolute destruction is proof that they know nothing about us and haven’t they faintest clue about how to interpret the meaning of our activities.

I think one important way we human beings are distinct from other lifeforms is our insistence that other animals listen to, fear, and obey us. We do this to some degree, ignorantly, with wild animals, but I speak mainly of our relationship with domesticated animals. We call these animals domesticated because they are trained to dwell within the domicile and acknowledge the home space’s boundaries. I sometimes wonder how much we confound our pets by imposing upon them what they must view as mysterious and incomprehensible restrictions. Our demand that a dog relieve itself only on grass must seem as baffling and perverse to the dog as God’s commandment that the descendants of Abraham be circumcised and that this somehow forms a convenient between man and God. I remember my grandmother used to rebuke her dog for licking its genitals, a perfectly common ritual for a dog, but entirely impermissible from my grandmother’s point of view. I am sure eventually she trained the dog also to see genital licking as shameful.

Of the myriad cruelties we inflict upon animals to make them more amenable to home life (removing a cat’s claws, clipping a bird’s wings, putting fish in bowls) one of the most unconscionable I think is using a shock collar to contain a dog within the parameter of a small suburban yard. I feel it to be worse than simply chaining the dog because at least the chain can act as a concrete signifier of the dogs captivity. The mechanics of it are simple enough for the dog to understand: the animal knows it cannot escape because it ascertains that it is caught with a cord. With the shock collar, the dog is controlled by the fear of pain, triggered by what it must understand only as a vague notion of proximity to something absent and unseen. What hope does the dog have of ever comprehending this human concept of a contiguous boundary, much less locate the thing and position itself appropriately in relation to it. I’ve been watching invisible fencing ads on Youtube to try to figure out how the boundary is supposed to be communicated to the dog. Apparently there are flags you erect to provide a visual indicator, something to avoid. At best, you might succeed in teaching your dog to fear small, white, triangular flags. You will never accomplish what you really set out to do, which is to get your dog to acknowledge and respect your boundary.

I think it is appropriate that so many of these invisible fencing commercials have such a sterile, upbeat tone to them. In addition to conveying the product’s usefulness to the customer, the ad also has to ameliorate whatever misgivings the customer might have about holding his or her pet captive with psychological trauma. I can’t help seeing a resemblance between these invisible fencing ads and North Korean propaganda art.

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Romances

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Of all Shakespeare’s plays I like the romances the best.  These are his last plays, written after 1607.  Typically included in this group are Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Cymbeline, The Winters Tale, and The Tempest.  Edward Dowden called these plays romances because they span great periods of time and distance, similar to the courtly romances of the chivalric age.  He also recognized other common themes between Shakespeare’s late plays such as redemption, reunion, reconciliation, and forgiveness.  I think these are the more salient points of late plays.  Coming as they do after the tragedies, in the twilight of his career, I think they represent a kind of thawing in Shakespeare’s conception of the world, an acceptance, perhaps an acquiescence, that comes with age and wisdom won from pain.

I’m sure I would find no one else who would agree with me that the late romance plays are Shakespeare’s best.  It is generally held that they lack dramatic tension, that the jokes are broad and lazy, and that the turns of plot leading to conclusion are obvious and unsurprising.  Ingram called these his “weak ending” plays, observing an absence of the clever resolution which we see displayed in the early comedies or of the panic and horror that unfold in which the tragedies terminate.  Endings in the romances come about either as foregone conclusions or as happy accidents.  At no point in The Tempest is one led to doubt Prospero’s command of events.  He seems to be the author of the play’s conclusion just as much as Shakespeare.  Pericles just happens to stumble across his lost daughter Marina when his wanderings bring him to Mytilene and then a literal deus ex machine device leads him to his lost wife.  In Cymbeline, just as it seems Posthumus might suffer the tragic fate of being executed by his own liege alongside the Romans, Jupiter himself appears to dispel the audience’s consternation and guarantees that destiny will grant happiness to Postumus and to Britain.  The plays aren’t much better leading up to the endings.  There’s a lot of pointless grab-assry, like the hammy shepherd jokes in A Winter’s Tale or Marina’s tangential plot line in Pericles, Prince of Tyre.  I don’t deny that a lot of the more traditional narrative structures fail in the romances.  That’s actually why I like them.  I think the romances represent a kind of intellectual transcendence for Shakespeare, both over the art form of theatrical storytelling and over simple mortal tribulations like time, misfortune, petty antipathy.  They signal a resignation from struggle and a triumph over it.  I think many have interpreted this as exhaustion.  I see it as a rejuvenation.

If Shakespeare had experienced exhaustion at any point in his career, it would have been during the writing and staging of Timon of Athens.  Timon is the culmination of Shakespeare’s late tragedies, both chronologically and philosophically.  It delves deeper into the tragic abyss than any other Shakespearian play and finds, in the furthest logical extent of tragic catastrophe, an intellectual dead-end.  The play follows Timon’s descent into misanthropy and cynicism.  Suffering betrayal from his friends and the loss of all of his wealth, Timon renounces society and flees to the wilderness where he dies alone.  Unlike previous tragedies where protagonists die in a heroic or dramatic fashion, Timon passes from the world feeble and ignored.  There is nothing redeeming in Timon’s existence.  His life is as pointless as his death.  I’ve never seen Timon of Athens performed but I imagine it would be dull.  I don’t see how it could convey any amount of emotional charge or dramatic urgency.  Even its ideas are superficial and small.  It has nothing to offer but nihilism, a bewildering night of meaninglessness.

The romances are Shakespeare’s triumphant return from the purgatory of tragedy.  Coming as they do directly following Timon, they are a reaffirmation of life and of meaning.  They are a vindication, an acknowledgement that life can and should be redeemed.  Even after the accretion of many years or a separation of many miles, things can be set right: grievances redressed, delusions dispelled, disunions rewed.  These plays proclaim a restitution of life’s value.  I think they are a spiritual reawakening for Shakespeare, his final, grand insight into the nature of being: that life, though poisonous, is also a sweet elixir.

I went to see a production of A Winter’s Tale just a few weeks ago.  It was being put on by some theater students at the University of Colorado.  I was impressed.  The staging was interesting.  The timing was good.  They seemed to have a very rich and deep understanding of the text and what was special about it.  And some of the kids could really act too.

I read all of Shakespeare’s plays in college.  I remember liking A Winter’s Tale almost as much as Hamlet.  The re-animation of Hermione from statute to human read to me like a miraculous dream, meant, I thought, to astonish both the characters and the audience.  What I discovered after finally seeing the play staged is that from the beginning of the scene it is perfectly clear to the audience that the statute is a living person and that Hermione has reappeared.  Paulina’s bid to Leontes not to touch her demonstrates that the audience was intended to be in on the ruse.  We do not share Leonte’s astonishment when it comes alive.  And yet we feel the same outpouring of emotion.  The miraculous reversal here is not that a statue has been made animate.  It is that one human being, after withholding for sixteen years, has forgiven another.  I could not keep myself from weeping.

Friends, with this post I hereby revive the Golden Assay.  I have been away for a long time, wandering.  I have not learned much, I am sorry to say.  But I have learned that the writing I do here is important to me, that it helps me understand things, and that I am a poorer person if I let myself neglect it.  I have resolved to make a regular effort of adding to this blog and to my writings.  My thanks to anyone who has found this website and has spent time reading any of what I have written here.  I look forward to sharing more ideas with you.

Frontier Libraries

PuebloLibrary

This past week at work I was reviewing some Colorado territorial laws that we just recently digitized and I found this great one from the 1872 about the establishment of the first public libraries. Apparently what happened was each little mining town would set up a fund where they would put all of the money collected from violators of the place’s the vice laws (it says any penal ordinance, but that was pretty much all there was in the way of municipal law back then), and they would use that fund to purchase books for the town library. So, as you might imagine, a lot of these towns ended up having really nice libraries.

The old jail in Telluride.  Built in 1885, it began as the town's library.

The old jail in Telluride. Built in 1885, it began as the town’s library.

It’s kind of ingenious when you think about it: you use people’s predilection for bad behavior to nourish institutions that promote the public good; because you if you can’t keep people from gambling and whoring around, you might as well harness that energy and put it towards something that could end up being corrective. It’s like they were trying to systematize moral rectitude. Pretty crafty for a bunch of semi-literate hack lawyers.

Reading these old session laws, one gets a sense of how these frontier people were essentially building a civilization from scratch. The Native American tribes in the area certainly had a social order, and I think during the early half of the 19th century when white people, trappers mostly, first began entering Colorado that’s what was used. Trade, war, friendship, and kinship were conducted in the Indian way, because it was a tried and proven system. But when people began doing other things in the region besides hunting and subsistence farming, an entirely new complex of rules and norms had to be devised. As evidenced by the strength of their laws and the prosperous communities they built, those early Coloradans did not fail at what they set out to do.

The Stellar Evolution of JoJo

jojblackdress

The other night I fell down a Wikipedia rabbit hole studying about this also-ran pop star branded as “JoJo.” I was reading the article about the Hannah Montana tv show and was intrigued to learn that the staring role of Hannah Montana had initially been offered to her. In what would go down as a monumentally bad career decision of historic proportions, she actually turned it down(!)–or rather her agents and managers thought that because she couldn’t have been more than 14 years old at the time. The only reason I can think of is that they must have thought that staring in a Disney sitcom would diminish JoJo’s reputation as a recording artist. This would have been in 2006, before the days when platinum singles could get their start from being showcased in car ads. So, as we all know, the role went to Miley Cyrus who goes on to become a teen sensation and international megastar, while JoJo quietly drifts to the margins of teeny bopper R&B. The last real gig she had was opening for the Joe Jonas & Jay Sean Tour back in 2011.

Last thing I did before going to sleep that night was rake through JoJo’s twitter feed to see if I could detect any notes of bitterness over the way her career turned out. For the most part it just seems like she was soldiering on, trying to make it work, trying to find a place for herself in the middle echelons of pop stardom. Doing yeoman’s work selling the same act as 5 years to an aging audience that’s rapidly growing out of it.

Cab Economics

uber

Listened to this podcast story about Uber and the economics of variable rate car services. The story is premised on the question of whether it’s fair for a cab driver to charge extra for a ride when demand is higher. I was surprised to hear so many people on the customer end complain in interviews about how they felt they were being cheated. The typical taxi passenger is cheated to a much greater degree by the outmoded municipal rules that govern the ride service business. In many places cab fares are standardized for all companies and the law restricts the number of companies and cabs that can operate within city limits. These systems are set up specifically to thwart competition between drivers and to make sure that everyone get some business. Rules are different in every city. Some places have next to no restriction on taxi carriers; but most do. I don’t know where the laws come from or why they were passed in the first place. I can say with some certainty that standardization has an unmistakably negative effect on quality of service. It isn’t favorable to the consumer. It does mean that the cab companies pull in regular and reliable profits. One cab company in the town I grew up in had been in business since 20s. It was a small but assured revenue stream for this old ,wealthy family that had always owned it.

When I graduated college, I worked for that company for a little while, or more accurately I contracted with them since none of the drivers were actual employees. What we were, in fact, were customers of the cab company. We would pay them rent to use their cars and their dispatch service. It was then up to us to make enough money on our fares, on top of the money needed to pay for the car, to support ourselves. As you might imagine, this sort of arrangement attracted a lot of dodgy people: deadbeat dads trying to hide their incomes so that they didn’t have to pay child support, ex-convicts who couldn’t get traditional employment, people on disability who wanted a sit-down job that the government didn’t know about. The whole operation was sketchy as hell, and I blame the city for setting it up so that it could be that way

I can say with confidence that municipal control over fares and licensing has a ruinous effect on cab service in a city. If you’ve ever called for a cab to take you to the airport and they never showed up, it’s because of the way taxi service is regulated. If you’ve ever been taken to your destination via an indirect route, it’s because of the way taxi service is regulated. So much of what’s wrong with getting a cab could be remedied if we let drivers and companies compete with each other directly for our business and let them control their own pricing models.

Some anecdotal evidence…

When I was a cab driver, I used to work the bar time crowd. This was in Madison, Wisconsin, a college town full of bars. When the bars let out at 2am, hordes of inebriated people would flood into the street, and everyone all at once wanted to go someplace else. It was like a salmon run to the cab drivers, wall-to-wall business. A driver could make a third of his money for the night during that 2 o’clock hour if he worked it right. What you wanted is to do as many rides for as many people as possible the shortest amount of time that you were capable of doing them. You wanted short rides so that you could turn over and get a new ride in the cab right away. And you wanted to drive a lot of people at once, since each body added a dollar to the fare. So we’d look for big groups of students because most of the students in Madison lived downtown, and if you worked for them you could be pretty sure that you’d be done with their ride in five or six minutes and you’d be ready to work again. What we would avoid is older, affluent-looking people whom we could tell probably lived in the suburbs and were downtown to blow off some steam and have fun like they did when they were kids. If these people got in your cab, they’d take you all the way out to the edges of town and you’d miss out on the bartime frenzy. Now this is exactly counter to how the market should work. The wealthier customers would all get served last, and business of the poorer, more numerous underclasses was coveted. There isn’t much in a capitalist economy that functions this way, and I can tell you that the rich and entitled do not appreciate being neglected by service workers. They’d bang on my windows and kick at the car because I’d lock the doors on them. One time, on New Year’s eve, I had a man offer me sixty dollars to take him home to Middleton, about eight miles away. I did a calculation in my head and determined that I could make it worth my while for $90. He agreed. I took him home and we were both happy. Uber has made a wildly successful business out of doing exactly this.

I will say, it is interesting how the rules of our bartime game completely inverted the normal market. Instead of going after the whales we all hustled after the big schools of little fish. When the prices are all fixed, the only way you can prosper is by scaling up and being efficient, spending less of your time serving more people. It’s a good case for setting up a market that is more egalitarian and that works for more people. It would be effective in the majority of cases, but completely dysfunctional for anything irregular or outside of a foreseeable norm.

To Encourage the Destruction of Mountain Lions

panther01

As I mentioned a month or two ago, I’m building a digital collection containing legislative session laws passed by the Colorado General Assembly starting with territorial laws and going forward. This past week I was doing some review of 1881 and found some pretty fascinating Acts…

Apparently selling counterfeit butter was a thing people were doing back in the late 19th century. Or at least the problem was bad enough that they had to pass a law making it a misdemeanor to do so. According to “An Act to Prevent the Fraudulent Sale of Oleomargine as butter” anyone caught selling adulterated butter was subject to a hundred dollar fine.

Swainsona_galegifolia_(Edwards)

When I came across this law providing for a reward to persons contributing to the eradication of loco weed, I wondered what loco weed was. After rooting around in some old horticulture books from the period I discovered that it is a scrub bush which, taken in large quantities, is poisonous to grazing animals. Typically they won’t eat it, but if no other food is to be found, horses and cattle have been known to try it. I assume that’s why the reward is only made available during the summer months, when conditions are dry in Colorado and proper grasses may be scarce. The reward for digging up loco weed was a penny and a half per pound. As far as I can tell, nothing in the law prevents someone from cultivating the loco weed intentionally and selling it in great quantities to the county for immediate disposal. I wonder if anyone tried that. You could see how a law like this might actually incentivize people to disseminate the plant on purpose.

But the best by far was this one: “to Encourage the Destruction of Mountain Lions.” The act specifies that a resident of the state could collect $10 from the county treasurer in exchange for a scalp, “with the ears entire” of a mountain lion. Actually it says, “any mountain lion or lions within the state,” so in the event that you came across an African lion in the mountains of Colorado, you could kill this too to claim the bounty. One assumes this law served a similar function as the one mentioned above regarding loco weed. Mountain lions likely posed a major threat to live stock and horses and were probably hated and persecuted by ranchers. Then again, it is perhaps meaningful that the law instructs the scalping of the mountain lion, since this is very often what mountain lions do to people when they attack. Most big cats, when they attack humans, will for some reason scalp the victim. Perhaps there is, in this law, some sense of retribution, as well as practical concern for chattel property. Whatever the case, the mountain lion problem must have been urgent in Colorado in 1881 because the law indicates that the Assembly is responding to an emergency with the bill’s passing and that the law shall go immediately into effect after adoption.