There’s an App for That: A Fantasy

It Was the App to End All Apps!

It Was the App to End All Apps!

It all started in 2016 with an app called OmegApp, available simultaneously for the Android and iPhones. It was inevitable that a program like this would eventually make an appearance. Smart phone callers were running out of people to call, or even text. What OmegApp provided was a robotic interface that appeared to deeply care for anyone who communicated with it. The name of the interface was Tag. If you called Tag, Tag would reciprocate and call you back later, with occasional text messages stroking your ego in the meantime. (Tag’s ultimate message? “You’re IT!”)

Soon, the majority of all cell phone calls and texts were handled by the OmegApp system, which operated on five continents in over sixty languages. Before long, people would distractedly wander the streets with that sh*t-eating grin demonstrating that they were, in fact, wanted and needed by somebody (or something).

Of course, it had an immediately catastrophic effect on traffic—pedestrian, bicycle, and motorized.

In Cleveland, the Dotes twins, Mairzy and Doezy, were struck head-on by the 56A bus as it barreled down East 177th Street. Both the driver and the victims were on Tag at the time. In Santa Monica, a distracted little Lambsy Divey walked off the bluff overlooking the Coast Highway and ended up being run over half a dozen cars, all of whose drivers were texting on Tag.

One would think that there would be an outcry. Unfortunately, there wasn’t. The phone companies were making more money than ever, and those Tag users who didn’t end up a casualty felt happier than before. In fact, talking to Tag was more satisfying than sex and raising a family. In all probability, this may be curtains for the human race: Only the deaf and blind seem to be immune to OmegApp’s blandishments.

Antinomians, Ranters and Republicans

We Are Reliving a Strange Period in English History

We Are Reliving a Strange Period in English History

The Seventeenth Century in England saw some strange happenings. Not only was King Charles I tried for treason and beheaded, but there was an outbreak of religious eccentricity that was at times chaotic and even lunatic. According to Christopher Hill in his book The World Turned Upside-Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution:

From, say, 1645 to 1653, there was a great overturning, questioning, revaluing, of everything in England. Old institutions, old beliefs, old values came in question. Men moved easily from one critical group to another, and a Quaker of the early 1650s had far more in common with a Leveller, a Digger or a Ranter than with a modern member of the Society of Friends.

Levellers? Diggers? Ranters? These were just some of the strange splinter groups that flourished during that time. There were also Fifth Monarchists, Seekers, Mechanic Preachers, Grindletonians, Millenarians, Familists, Brownists, and scores of other types of sectaries that were more or less disorganized, frequently localized (especially in the North of England). Some cherry-picked the Bible; others cast the Bible away as more or less a distraction.

What was common to all these groups was that they were antinomian. According to the Theopedia,

Antinomianism comes from the Greek meaning lawless. In Christian theology it is a pejorative term for the teaching that Christians are under no obligation to obey the laws of ethics or morality. Few, if any, would explicitly call themselves “antinomian,” hence, it is usually a charge leveled by one group against an opposing group.

Antinomianism may be viewed as the polar opposite of legalism, the notion that obedience to a code of religious law is necessary for salvation. In this sense, both antinomianism and legalism are considered errant extremes.

Ranter Document, Illustrating Free Love

Ranter Document, Illustrating Free Love

Essentially, antinomians believe that the law comes from inside their minds and hearts, not from any received set of beliefs. It does not matter what many or most people believe. Hill continues:

In the following April troopers in Suffolk were saying they would never disband ‘till we have cut all the priests’ throats.’ Three months earlier, when a group of Presbyterian ministers visited the New Model Army at Oxford, ‘the multitude of soldiers in a violent manner called upon us to prove our calling … whether those that are called ministers had any more authority to preach in public than private Christians which were gifted.’

All men and women, if they had the inner light, were their own prophets and preachers.

Now translate some of this behavior into our own time, with Truthers and Tea Partiers and climate change deniers. The U.S. House of Representatives has dozens of members who thing that whatever they believe is, ipso facto, true. Everything in the news, in magazines, on the Internet is in effect a giant conspiracy and that only they know what is true.

Of course, our own Ranters tend to be Conservative Republicans—though God knows what they are conserving.

At the Greek Tailor’s

It’s Greek to Them

It’s Greek to Them

It’s a stupid little joke, but it highlights an important lack in our education. I saw it as a cartoon in a magazine when I was a child. I understood it at once, but only because I had a good classical education.

A man wearing a toga walks into a Greek tailor shop:

Tailor: Euripides? (“You rip these?”)
Customer: Eumenides! (“You mend these!”)

Euripides was, of course, a great Greek tragedian (ca. 480-406 B.C.), author of Medea and eighteen other surviving plays.

But who was or were the Eumenides? Eumenides was the name of a play by Aeschylus in the Oresteia trilogy, which also consisted of Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers.

Another name for the Eumenides is the Erinyes, probably better known as the Furies, Greek goddesses of vengeance, mostly invoked by the gods when someone has sworn a false oath. I believe the Eumenides gave George W. Bush a hard time over “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, from which he is still suffering.

By the time I was in high school, I had read Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way and The Echo of Greece, as well as a number of the Greek tragedies, so I was fairly conversant with classical literature. Now virtually no one reads the works of ancient Greece and Rome, let alone books about them. But that’s where it all began.

If you don’t know your origins, you won’t know where you’re headed.

Halloween Is Icumen In

Lhude Sing Eek!

Lhude Sing Eek!

We may not go to Halloween parties (I’ve always thought dressing up was for … well … you know), but I find myself celebrating the day in my own way. It has been over fifteen years since we’ve seen any Trick-or-Treaters here (they stick to suburban neighborhoods without stairs to climb), but both of us like horror films—especially the classics—and I am growing increasingly fond of Victorian and Edwardian horror literature.

One of the ways we celebrate is visiting the Grier Musser Museum near downtown L.A., where Susan and Ray Tejada have assembled an outstanding collection of Halloween-related memorabilia, including cards, animatronic gizmos, figurines, and paintings. There are half a dozen rooms full of displays.

This is a museum for which one has to make an appointment, and Susan gives each group a thorough tour during which she turns on all the battery and other electrical figures and answers questions about how she and Ray assembled the collection. On Sunday afternoon, October 26, there will be a special tour with refreshments included.

Other holidays that receive the full treatment are Valentine’s Day, the Fourth of July, and Christmas.



America’s Concentration Camps

Why Not the Germans and Italians?

Why Not the Germans and Italians?

Today, Martine and I returned to the Skirball Cultural Center to see their new exhibit of Ansel Adams photographs of the Manzanar Relocation Center for Japanese-Americans during Wold War Two. In 2010, we had traveled to the Owens Valley to visit the Manzanar site, midway between Lone Pine and Independence. It was there I photographed the above rather disgusting display image.

Manzanar now has an interesting visitor center which is worth a stop on the long highway between Los Angeles and Reno.

In addition to Ansel Adams’s work, there are a number of photos by Dorothea Lange and others, as well as interesting documents relating to the “evacuation” and the maintenance of a system of concentration camps throughout the American Southwest.

Miné and Her Brother Hear the Radio Announcement About the Pearl Harbor Attack

Miné and Her Brother Hear the Radio Announcement About the Pearl Harbor Attack at Breakfast

Down the hall, there was a smaller exhibit of artwork by Miné Okubo, who published a book of sketches called Citizen 13660 about her experiences at the Tanforan and Topaz War Relocation Centers.

Below is a photo of me taken by Martine at the monument to those who died at Manzanar, in lieu of individual headstones.

Monument to Manzanar’s Dead

Monument to Manzanar’s Dead

Born in Discord

Map of Argentina in 1816

Map of Argentina in 1815

We tend to forget the sharp birth pangs of any republic. After we approved our famed constitution, it took seventy-five years and a bloody civil war in which millions died before we could begin to act as a unified country. (Though, even now, that seems in doubt.)

In Argentina, the process took roughly as long, and not without substantial rough spots until as recently as 2002. Originally, the country was called the United Provinces of the River Plate. Then, after the Congreso de Tucumán in 1815, the land was briefly named after the congress.

But major trouble lay ahead: A long conflict between the Federalists and the Unitarians. In South America, both parties had no relation to the U.S. Federalists or the Unitarian church. In San Martín: Argentine Soldier, American Hero, John Lynch wrote:

In spite of his fanatical liberalism, [Bernardino] Rivadavia was essentially a man of peace; bowing to the opposition of provincial caudillos and porteño [Buenos Aires] Federalists, he stepped down from the presidency in July 1827 and retired to poverty and exile. He did not appreciate the changing pattern of power in Argentina. Did San Martín? The Rivadavia group consisted essentially of intellectuals, bureaucrats, professional politicians, ‘career revolutionaries’ as they have been called, who did not represent a particular economic interest or social group. His [federalist] enemies, on the other hand possessed real power; the estancieros [ranchers] formed a strong political base, rooted in the country and the cattle industry, and they wanted their profits to remain in the province instead of being absorbed into a national economy. The estancieros were the new men of the revolution; they brought a military and economic power to the federal party and soon began to seek direct political power.

If you ever want to read a damning indictment of the Federalist caudillos, I recommend you read Domingo  Faustino Sarmiento’s Facundo, about the crimes of dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas. After several periods of political exile, Sarmiento became president of Argentina from 1868 to 1874.

Serendipity: Summoning Up the Genie

César Aira

César Aira

I have written before a couple of times about Argentinian author César Aira, the man from Coronel Pringles (not related to the potato chip). Today, in the August 13, 2015 issue of The New York Review of Books, I finally read an article that seems to understand him. It is called “Staggering Local Wonderlands” and written by Geoffrey O’Brien, For your delectation, here are the concluding paragraphs of the article:

Finally one sticks around because of the tantalizing possibility that Aira may yet get to the bottom of something that seems to have no bottom. He is the master of a method whose application and ultimate purpose remain in perpetual doubt. He might be a rationalist demonstrating the irrationality of what is; a naturalist of the impossible; a maker of allegories, or of parodistic pastiches of allegories, of parables whose precise lessons deliberately elude clarification. He is just as likely demonstrating that such forms as allegory and parable are no more than imperfect attempts to capture a reality more elusive—“real reality, so distinct from the pale fantasies of reason” (The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, 2002). Aira seeks to improve on such earlier, approximate methods by means of his mad-scientist investigation into the neurology of story-making.

The act of storytelling is nowadays conventionally prized for its universal, ageless, benevolent associations. It is our shared heritage of magic; it is a defining human trait. With Aira we are just as aware of the essential cruelty of storytelling—or rather its cosmic indifference, an indifference only partly disguised in the oldest myths and legends and fairy tales. Finally there is nothing to cling to. Emotions are free-floating, personhood itself is free-floating—a state of affairs only thinly masked by the reassuring “thereness” of the voice-over commentary. The stories here do have a life of their own, and it is a life offering much surprise, much humor, much brilliance of observation and invention, but little in the way of even momentary consolation. They summon up a genie who can do everything but fulfill our wishes.

The reader feels at moments as if he has washed up in some successor state of literature, in which outward forms, characteristic tropes and techniques, are carefully maintained, but where former purposes have given way to some new and not yet decipherable intent. Yet in such a situation the old forms are perhaps more potent than ever: they regain the mystery of the incomprehensible that stories are always promising, in vain, to explicate. One of the stories in The Musical Brain begins: “Circumstances had reduced me to begging in the street”: a perfect narrative set-up for The Arabian Nights, that most wonderful, as well as supremely cruel, work. Aira’s reconceiving of such a compendium of all possible stories might be called an Arabian Nights of the corner drugstore; but then it is fair to say that The Arabian Nights itself was an Arabian Nights of the corner drugstore.

Posada’s Mexico

Posada’s Assault of the Zapatistas

Posada’s Attack of the Zapatistas

José Guadalupe Posada was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico, in 1852.During the Mexican Revolution. By the time of the Mexican Revolution, of which the above engraving shows a scene, he was poor despite his immense talent as a folk artist. He died in 1913, but not before having influenced the great muralist José Clemente Orozco. It was Orozco’s frescoes in the Reserve Room of Dartmouth College’s Baker Library that influenced me in my own visual tastes.

Posada’s Cyclists

Posada’s Cyclists

Posada is probably best known for his calaveras, images of skeletons savagely satirizing life under Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz. Not surprisingly, most of these cavorting skeletons have become associated with the Mexican Day of the Dead, or All Souls’ Day, on November 2. On this day, families have picnics by the graves of their loved ones who have passed on.

I thought Posada would be a good artist for Halloween as well.



When Everything Changed

The Caisson Bearing Kennedy’s Body Enroute to the Cemetery

The Caisson Bearing Kennedy’s Body Enroute to the Cemetery

It was another blast furnace day in Southern California. To avoid the smell of charred walls and furniture in our apartment, Martine and I decided to spend the afternoon in the air-conditioned video library of the Paley Center in Beverly Hills. While Martine watched Gale Storm in episodes of “My Little Margie” (1952-55), I watched the funeral cortège of the assassinated John F. Kennedy (November 24, 1963).

What would have happened if Kennedy were never shot dead in the streets of Dallas? (Way back in the depths of my mind, I have never forgiven Texas for being the scene of that sad event.) America was stunned. The news seemed to go on all hours: Poor Walter Cronkite talked about Lee Harvey OsBURN being shot by Jack Ruby. I remember watching the coverage at the auditorium of the newly opened Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College, where the TV coverage was aired in the auditorium.

Blackjack, the Riderless Horse in JFK’s Funeral Cortege

Blackjack, the Riderless Horse in JFK’s Funeral Cortège

The President was buried with full military honors. Six grey horses pulled the artillery caisson on which his flag-draped coffin lay. Behind the caisson was a riderless black horse named Blackjack with stirrups and riding boots reverse, whose friskiness was in marked contrast to the grim pace of the procession. The muffled drums, the horns breaking out into the marche funèbre, the tolling bells of St. Christopher’s church, the grim faces of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and the two surviving Kennedy brothers—all added up to one of history’s grinning death’s heads.

What would have happened if President Kennedy were not assassinated? Would the conservative insurgency that followed years later ever have happened? There are so many terms in the equation that follows that it is difficult to conclude anything with any degree of certainty. There was Viet Nam, Cuba, Communism, the Economy, even the Mafia to consider. I guess, in the end, whatever happened was fated to happen.

Certain images from that funeral have stuck in my mind. Among the heads of state, there was the gigantic Charles de Gaulle in the front line. There were endless women crying—women that looked different in that period over half a century ago. As the procession proceeded, it was followed on either side by hundreds, perhaps thousands of everyday people who wanted to miss nothing.

Lots of Heat—But No Power!

Three Power Outages in Two Days!

Three Power Outages in Two Days!

For the last several days, the mercury has topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The result? Southern California’s air conditioning habit has led to rolling blackouts. Last night, we were blacked out from eight to midnight. Today, the first blackout occurred around noon and lasted until 1:30 pm. The second outage we can only infer from the settings on our own electronics.

I have come to the conclusion that weather forecasts are like clickbait: They want you to keep tuning in. If there’s a 10% chance of rain, the forecasters will be beating the drums for rain. But it almost never occurs. But when we have a heat wave—which is far more common—the weather always says it will be getting cooler tomorrow. And it almost never does.  The weather is getting to be like the news, merely a form of entertainment, usually of dubious veracity.

Martine and I are wondering whether we should even bother buying food for the refrigerator until it does cool down. While we were driving back from seeing Everest (highly recommended, especially if you are suffering through a heat wave) at the Arclight Theater in Culver City, we noticed a stretch of several blocks just south of us which are blacked out, as well as two traffic lights that were dark.