Archive for ‘Uncategorized’

December 2, 2011

A Short Guide to Getting to Know the Human Species

About a year ago, I read this piece on a blog of a friend o mine, and loved it. (The original, for those who read Serbo-Croatian, can be found here.) With his permission, I translated it, and thus bring you

A Short Guide to Getting to Know the Human Species
by Miloš Luković

On July 15th 1972, the space probe Pioneer 10 left Cape Canaveral for outer space, designed to go beyond the Solar system. It was later followed by Pioneer 11, as well as Voyager 1 and 2. As part of the Pioneer 10 project, a gold-anodized aluminum plaque was welded onto the antenna support struts. Its purpose was to describe who we are and our location to potential extraterrestrials. Among other things, the plaque features a drawing of a man and a woman. They are drawn in the nude. Why? Why are they naked? How is it that nakedness describes people well?

the plaque attached to Pioneer 10

Don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not a puritan, against nudity for moral reasons. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, it is as far from the truth as a naked man is from a complete man. To be complete, a man has to have pockets, which I claim out of personal religious conviction.

I was once asked what I believed in. I said that I believed in pockets. Pockets are very useful. Useful to keep things so as to free my hands. Free to give the middle finger to people who ask stupid questions.

However, pockets have a utility that surpasses my needs. One carries all of oneself in one’s pockets. Alright, alright! I am aware that half the human population prefers to carry all of itself in its purse. As far as I’m concerned, pockets beat purses every time, if for no other reason, then because they are sewed to clothes and thus more practical. A purse I would constantly forget. I’d forget my own head were it not for my neck connecting it to my body. Now that we’ve settled that, let’s see about the contents. Here, I’ll empty my pockets onto the table. House keys, wallet, mp3 player and a mobile phone. Trinkets? Perhaps to the untrained eye.

If you were to try to describe humanity as a species, you couldn’t get around pocket contents. Pockets are incredibly important because they hold everything that anyone could ever tell you about Homo sapiens. Before we begin, let me mention that I know that I’m writing this for other Homo sapiens, and not some other, extraterrestrial species, so if you think I’ve left something out, you’re either an ET or you’re not paying attention.

Let’s go in order:
Keys – among pocket trinkets, this is the most common. Keys point to having a residence or a home, a place to harbor you from inclement weather, heat, cold, tiring members of your species. Your residence is where you live. A home is your personal space. Space for an individual. And people who say that the family is the basic unit of society, let them answer me this: why is it, then, important for each family member to have their own room? Wherever you chose to live, apartment, house, cottage, mansion, your house had to be made. This points to a myriad sciences, technology, crafts, trades that man has mastered. Mastered, not so much to build shelter, but to make this shelter adequate for its own kind (as opposed to shelters made by birds, termites, or beavers).
Billfold [1] – a most interesting object that could tell us something about man. Starting with its name: billfold. The word itself tells us it is meant for holding bills. Bills, money, these are universal equivalents in market trading. A sort of shortcut in exchange of goods. Instead of exchanging goods, you pay for things you need. Money indicates complex inter-human relations caused by an arbitrary division of resources on the planet humans inhabit. We call this the economy. However, the wallet holds within it other things characteristic for Homo sapiens – documents. In complicated familial, tribal, and inter-tribal relations, with the increase in population, we have arrived at the point of not knowing all the people from our own community. This is what documents are for. They tell us who we are. Where do we com from, when were we born, where we live, and most importantly, how we look? Documents are essential. When you are born, you are issued a paper recording the birth. You don’t even know that you are born if you have no papers. When you die, you are issued a paper. If there is no paper, you didn’t die.
Mp3 player – my favorite gadget. I prize it above the cell phone and wrist watch. Although I am not one of those who venerate so-called “single function devices,” I must admit that there is a certain elegance to them. Whence the mp3 player on the complete man? Simply because an aspect of the complete man ought to relate exclusively to art. This is why I don’t mind it being a single function device. It won’t cover all the arts, but that’s less important. It’s enough to make my point.
Cell phone – this object found in everyone’s pocket is most controversial. Plenty of debating can be done about this one, but I’ll say that we haven’t yet gotten completely used to it. Future generations, those growing up with digital technologies as inevitable part of their landscape, will not even consider this object especially odd or worth debating, but there is an aspect I would like to mention. Every cell phone has in it a phone book. A phone book with the numbers of people more or less important in our lives. Those more important we place on our speed dial list, for ease of access. The cell phone is a manifestation of man’s desire to have those nearest to him at hand at all times.

There. A religious confession. Like all confessions, limited to the interpretation of the one offering it. A pocket confession, appropriate to our modern age.

1. I am using the word billfold here because the Serbo-Croatian word novčanik contains within it the word for money, which wallet does not.

July 23, 2011

Letter to FIAF

I discovered this while going through some stuff in an old box.

Back in 2006 I was working part time for FIAF or French Institute Alliance Française. Among other inane tasks, I was in charge of opening random mail. One day, I got a letter from a prison inmate in California. In itself, that would be pretty interesting, but this letter was also special because I have never quite seen handwriting as beautiful as this.
Click on the image for a (much) larger version so you can see the penmanship.
[transcript after the break]


Sept 19, 2006

French Institute / Alliance Française
To whom it may concern:

I just came across your address in an old almanac and I had to write you to see if you could help me.

You see recently I started reading and studying French because one; I have plenty of time on my hands and two I have always admired everything French, especially the language.

I am currently studying French from this book titled “French step by step” by Chalres Berlitz and so far I’ve learned many words and sentences however I feel that I would learn faster if I could hear the language and speak it but since I’m in prison there isn’t anyone who speaks it.

Well I’m wondering if you offer any c.d.’s that could help me to learn this beautiful language and if you do could you please send me a catalog. Also do you have any free literature about your organization and what you are all about.

Thank you very much for taking the time to read my letter.

               here ]

Ruben Vasquez

I smudged out the address in the bottom left of the letter, in case you’re wondering what that is.

Nobody from FIAF ever responded to him. I talked to a coworker about writing back to him, but we agreed that it would not be a good idea. More than just information about learning French, this person is looking for someone to talk to, and writing back once would be making a commitment to keep writing. But I couldn’t bring myself to throw the letter away. And then I forgot about it, until I found it among old papers.


June 9, 2011

What’s in a cup of coffee

Over at n+1, Alexander Bevilacqua wrote an article about European-Middle Eastern relationships prior to (say) the French Revolution. The article begins with the following brilliant sentence. “Hard as it is to imagine today, there was a time before coffee.”
He continues, “[b]y the Renaissance, Sufi mystics were consuming coffee in Yemen, and soon the drink became popular throughout the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt. In the 16th century, Ottoman Turks discovered the beverage when merchants from Aleppo and Damascus founded the first coffeehouses of Istanbul. Gradually, and in a manner that was anything but inevitable, coffeehouses opened in Europe too—first in Oxford, then in London, then on the continent. By the end of the 17th century, Europeans had learned to love this strange new concoction.
In a book that had something entirely different as its subject, I read that “[i]mports to England an Wales soared after 1790 as ‘coffee became the alarm clock that marked industrial time.'”
I really like that idea of coffee marking industrial time.

But back to the Sufi mystics for a second. I cannot but wonder what coffee meant for them, given that Sufi literature and poetry is allegorical and escapes direct interpretation. It often sounds overtly erotic, even when the object of desire is God and not a human lover, and much of it refers to intoxication, which is expressly forbidden in Islam. In a world without drugs or alcohol, was coffee their poison of choice?

And what does coffee mean to us, aside from marking industrial time? Bevilacqua makes the case that Western dominance over the Levant was by no means a foregone conclusion prior to the 19th and 20th centuries. Before that, there was a moment of cultural exchange between Europe and the Middle East, unrepeated since, as equals. “It was a chapter fleeting enough to be long forgotten. Yet traces of it survive in the global popularity of coffee, the ideal of the coffeehouse, the percussion section of classical orchestras, and the name of furniture pieces from sofas and divans to ottomans.”

And a whole other history could be written about the moment when you ask “Do you take sugar?”

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June 6, 2011

Deadly Truth

I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative structures recently. Then I heard that the Fox show, America’s Most Wanted is finally being taken off the air, after over twenty years. The show might have been a forerunner of the ‘reality TV’ genre, but it was another aspect that caught my attention. The show did re-enactments of the crimes they were ‘investigating.’

The person I was listening about this said, however, that the show did not start this trend. In the 1930s, newsreels shown in cinemas before feature films also included crime stories recreated for the audience. Like this.

What I like about that newsreel is the inversion of ‘illustration’ and ‘truth.’ One knows on some level that the narration is the news and the images on the screen are only there to illustrate. The camera was not there to witness the actual events talked about, but that rather this is a subsequent dramatization. Despite that, the impression one gets when watching is that the narration, the talking voice, only explains the events that we can see for ourselves, events brought to life in themselves.

The practice of re-enactments goes even farther back. The sensational murders of Jack the Ripper in London in the 19th century had newspapers printing graphic illustrations of various portions of the stories, as they came out.

Notice how the illustrations seem to imply that we the readers are there, at the crime scene, at the moment of discovery. As if to say, this is surely how it must have happened. And again, the text in the graphics serves to invert the relationship between truth and illustration: in stead of the graphic illustrating the news, it’s the text that illustrates the truth we have just learned with our eyes.

The simple retelling of the truth, it appears, is not enough. There needs to be a story told, or the moment of truth enacted dramatically, and it needs to come in images as well as text for information to become knowledge.

May 18, 2011

Pity the Fool

On their stroll, Virgil and Dante encounter a giant (in Canto XXXI) who addresses them thusly:

“Raphél maì amèche zabì almi,”
he began screaming from his fierce mouth,
for which no sweeter psalm would be appropriate.

And my guide turned toward him: “Stupid soul,
play instead your horn, and with it vent yourself
when ire or other passions touch you!

Search your neck, and you’ll find a lanyard
to which it’s tied, o confused soul,
and you’ll find it upon to your chest.”

Then he said to me: “He blames himself;
this is Nimrod who through his evil designs
one language is now not used in the world. […]”

That’s Virgil explaining to Dante how God confounded humanity by giving it languages to prevent the Tower of Babel from being built. In the process, God also scattered people all over the world.

The part of the story that didn’t make it into the Bible is this. Right after God confounded humanity, he felt bad and took pity upon humans scattered every which way. In order to unite them again, but in such a way so that they would still be unable to complete the tower, God gave them STUPIDITY.
(That’s why Virgil calls Nimrod “stupid soul.”)
Stupidity is a sign of God’s mercy and love for humanity. Back when people used to believe in God, they knew this. Like around 1590, when this World Map in a Fool’s Head was produced.

In The Image of the World: 20 Centuries of World Maps, Peter Whitfield writes (via the Retronaut):
Its central visual metaphor is the universality of human folly and various mottoes around the map reinforce that theme. The panel of the left says: “Democritus laughed at it, Heraclitus wept over it, Epichtonius Cosmopolites portrayed it.” Although Epichtonius Cosmopolites appears to be the author’s or artist’s name, it translates roughly as “Everyman,” leaving the mapmaker’s true identity hidden.”

May 12, 2011

Double Connection

Apparently, Faulkner had a few choice words about Hemingway.

“He has no courage, has never climbed out on a limb. He has never used a word where the reader might check his usage by a dictionary.”

The other half of this double connection is that I saw this posted on a photo blog a friend of mine recently showed me. And then it was reblogged on Magic – which I follow regularly – photo and inscription. It seems the World Wide Web is not as big as all that, after all.

May 11, 2011

Dr. Feelgood

I heard an interview with Frederick Kempe, who wrote a book called Berlin 1961, about the Kennedy administration’s first year in office. My ears perked up when I heard him mention that JFK had a certain doctor, Max Jacobson, inject him with amphetamines for the Vienna Summit with Nikita Khrushchev in June of 1961. I’m sorry, who, what?!

Max Jacobson was a German-born doctor who emigrated to the US in 1936. By 1952 he had become a doctor to the stars: Anthony Quinn, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Cecil B. DeMille, Yul Brynner, Marlene Dietrich, Zero Mostel, Nelson Rockefeller all became his patients after the “vitamin injection’ treatments he had developed became famous. What was in them? Multivitamins, steroids, enzymes, hormones, bone marrow, animal organ cells, solubilized placenta, and of course, amphetamines – i.e. speed.

By 1960, he was already treating, at the time, senator Kennedy. In fact, he gave him an injection before the famous televised debate with, also at the time, vice-president Richard Nixon.

One of these men is high. The other is Nixon. Who would you vote for?

As I said, Jacobson was with Kennedy in Vienna in June of 1961 and gave him some of his miracle drug for talks with Khrushchev. By May 1962, Jacobson visited the White House thirty-four times. And he gave the president much needed boosts for the struggle with US Steel later that year and even the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Jacobson is standing, right

Jacobson eventually committed the cardinal sin for a charlatan. He bought into his own bullshit. (And in his case, who knows, there might have been actual bull shit in his cocktails.) He started taking his own injections. Speed may be fun and a temporary solution for fatigue, burn out, depression or some such, but Jacobson was ordering enough amphetamine for over a hundred doses a day! He saw thirty or more patients a day, and worked around the clock with never a day off.

In 1969, just as the fun-loving sixties came to a close, Mark Shaw, the official Kennedy photographer, died of an amphetamine overdose, age 47. This led to an investigation into Jacobson’s practices as a doctor, and the revoking of his license in 1972. He died in 1979.

During his time working with celebrities, Jacobson was called Miracle Max and Dr. Feelgood. It is entirely possible that he made it into Aretha Franklin’s song Dr. Feelgood. The lyrics towards the end:

Don’t send me no doctor
Filling me up with all of those pills
I got me a man named ‘Dr. Feelgood’
And oh, yeah that man takes care of all my pains and my ills.
His name is Dr. Feelgood in the morning.
Taking care of business is really this man’s game.
And after one visit to Dr. Feelgood
You’d understand why Feelgood is his name
Oh yeah, oh good God Almighty the man sure makes me feel real


May 7, 2011

David Hume turns 300

Today, May 7th 2011, David Hume would have turned 300.

Happy Birthday old boy!

May 3, 2011


Since I already started posting headstones…This one’s gonna be mine.
(Also, I love that the word atheist is misspelled.)

May 2, 2011

The Light of Teddy’s Life

On February 14th, 1884 Alice Hathaway Lee, aged 22, died from kidney failure, two days after giving birth to a daughter. Her husband, aged 25, made a large X in his diary, and wrote the following.

Her husband was Teddy Roosevelt.

(from The Shipwreck of My Ill-Adventured Youth)