From Current Reading

In addition to the pleasure of reading well-crafted prose, I also enjoy coming across words, phrases and aphorisms that I find apt:

1) In his current book Wind Sprints, Joseph Epstein catalogues the reasons he doesn’t like certain cuisines. He nailed my own dislike of Korean food, labeling it “too hot and blatant.” 

Exactly: every Koreandish I’ve ever tried — not many, I admit, but including such losers as their bbq beef and kimchee — is blatant. Then I wondered if one could apply simmilarly appropriate adjectives to other styles of cooking. There is comfort food; is there complacent food? politically correct food? homeopathically sound food?

 

2) In an essay on the withdrawal of many Russians from the repressive politics of their nation, I found this useful expression: “But many more Russians have simply turned away from politics, and gone into what Russians half-jokingly call internal emigration.”

That phrase exactly describes my own attitude toward current American politics. There are many fruitful lands out there which better reward my efforts and attention.

 

3) And finally, Samuel Johnson on the fluid nature of power in human affairs: “Power is always gradually stealing away from the many to the few, because the few are more vigilant and consistent.”

3a) And on the subject of power, here’s Epstein on homelessness: “I blame the number of beggars in America not on capitalism, but on the great human lottery, which awards less skill, little power of forming good habits, and simple bad luck to a small but, it now seems, not insignificant number of people in every society.”

 

Any gems from your current reads?

Sacred Places of San Francisco Explotation #1

The Hua Zang Si Temple (formerly the St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church, built in 1903)

My wife and I started on a new venture: an exploration — one per week is our goal — of the cathedrals, churches, and temples of San Francisco.

We started with this one:

A red gothic cathedral with red doors is something of a shock to someone steeped in the European tradition; but red means something entirely different to the Chinese culture (our daughter-in-law attended all of her wedding parties and receptions in a red dress).

Very little of German gothic sensibility remains in the Hua Zang Si. the altar has been completely redone, the arches of the nave plastered over into a flat ceiling, etc. I wish I could report that a cultural blending has taken place, but it hasn’t. It’s still a sacred place; but the European component has been almost completely replaced or covered up.

 

One of the images in the temple that started me thinking was an oversize representation of a jolly, laughing Buddha:

I’ve never seen a picture of Christ, or Mohammed, or Moses laughing — have you? I was reminded of Nietzsche’s comparison of Christianity, which he characterized as a “struggle against sin,” with Buddhism’s “struggle against suffering.”

Accordingly, the big areas of red on and within the Hua Zang Si temple seem meant to nurture a feeling of good luck. To Western eyes, the large areas of red appear garish and detract from the architectural unity of the whole. But the church’s original color (or lack of it) probably came across as counterspiritual to the Buddhists who now own and occupy the building.

Merely Great

Ordinary mortals can have only the faintest idea of the first-world sorrows of a newspaper music critic. Last Wednesday night, San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman attended an all-Mozart concert performed by the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of it emeritus conductor, Herbert Blomstedt. Along with Mozart’s Hafner and Jupiter symphonies, the performance also included Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 1, played by the orchestra concertmaster Alexander Barantschik.

A violin concerto by Mozart, performed by an outstanding violinist and a word-class orchestra led by a distinguished conductor in a concert hall with superb acoustics — a classical music lover’s dream right?

No. 

Not caring for the violin concerto, the critic’s mind drifted elsewhere. The concertmaster gave “an eloquent and committed performance,” but the experience left Kosman “wishing I were hearing him play something else.”

Is the Mozart concerto a failure, in the critic’s estimation? Not quite, opines Kosman: 

“Mozart’s compositions only come in two flavors — great and phenomenally great — then this early work is merely great, covering all the requisite bases with skill but not much innovation or surprise.”

So — merely great is second rate. Without novelty, the discerning critic is left yearning.

You think you have disappointments? Just imagine that your sensibilities are so exquisitely tuned that merely great Mozart fails to please. 

Bosch at a Belgian Beer Fest, 2015

In the midst of a close-packed crowd in Leuwen, Belgium, I suddenly appreciated Hieronymus Bosch.

It was a festival crowd of people ranging from cheerful to roaring drunk.The overall ambience was festive, but with a kind of rambunctious undercurrent.  I saw babes and businessmen, gawking tourists and smiling homebodies, biker badasses and larking students, all holding beer, smoking, shouting greetings or smut.


So I thought of Bosch, who knew that all crowds, even at the most sacred event, can look like this:

 

What is such a crowd? Improvised festivity, a swarm of loneliness, islands connected when the tides of labor recede.

 

 

 

 

 

Attitudes Toward Technology: From Awe to Ordinary?

Then and Now

 

I’ve been revising my Paris universal exposition essays recently, and reread this observation by Henry Adams, written about his visit to the 1900 universal exposition in Paris (he writes of himself in the third person):

To Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm's-length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring -- scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair's-breath further for respect of power -- while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force. Among the thousand symbols of ultimate energy, the dynamo was not so human as some, but it was the most expressive.

He goes on to assert that:

 “The nearest approach to the revolution of 1900 was that of 310, when Constantine set up the Cross,” and that the dynamos of the gallery of machines, like the Christian cross,  represents a “moral force.”

Looking further via google into discussions Adams’s experience, I came across this view of how attitudes toward technology have changed in the passage of a century, from his time to ours:

"Henry Adams’s dynamo has been replaced by Everyman’s iPod, and awe has given way to complacence and dependence. Your computer’s e-mail program doesn’t inspire awe; it is more like a dishwasher than a dynamo. Nineteenth-century rhapsodies to the machines that tamed nature, such as the steam engine, have given way to impatience with the machines that don’t immediately indulge our whims." -- Christine Rosen, http://incharacter.org/features/awe-and-the-machine/

So I wonder:

Is Ms. Rosen correct, or are there still manifestations of technology that inspire the kind of awe that Adams felt? The best example I could come up with is the New Horizons voyage to Pluto. Some other candidates:

The access to knowledge and friends via the internet

Big Blue’s defeat of chess master Kasparov

 

What do you think: 

The thrill has "faded into the light of common day," or

The Saga Continues. or 

Something else?

 

To put alongside all points of view:

“A technology has truly arrived when the new problems it gives rise to approach in magnitude the problems it was designed to solve.” 

RESPONSES

“I’m awed (I guess, though I don’t use that word much :-)) by the nearly instant access to answers to most factual questions I come up with. And I was thrilled by the images from the Pluto trip. I don’t share Ms Rosen’s “impatience” reaction but am rather still amazed (awed?) by the power of connected personal computing in all its emerging forms.” — David Grady

"I tend to agree that we have become more blasé about recent technological innovations (though many have scientific and technological roots in the 19th century) for two reasons.  First, because we now expect them, they're now part of our ordinary life.  And, second, because of the rapidity with which new technological advances come on the scene.  Their very density reduces the wonder with which we receive them.  In the 19th century such things as steam engines, Jacquard looms, photography, sewing machines, telegraphs, telephones, autos, recorded sound, moving pictures and air flight were life changing, economy changing and even politically changing events which took some time for society to digest.  The last of such events would seem to be nuclear weapons.   Now we have monthly, if not weekly, new toys.  Even the marvelous photos of Pluto pale in importance because of earlier missions to Mars and the dazzling images produced by the Hubble.  In the very recent past we've put vehicles on Mars, landed vehicles on a comet, seen I Watches marketed, been shown replaced hands and faces, etc., etc.  One other observations.  There now exists a huge, world-wide community of techno-nerds who quickly absorb the utility of innovations and quickly introduce them into popular consciousness." — Marvin Nathan

"The grandchild of Adams’s dynamo did indeed defeat the best human chess player alive (and, perhaps, ever). At some point, in the course of devising and executing strategies for the game, the computer had to carry out decisions based on an ever-changing array of possibilities. Isn’t that process getting close to consciousness? Our conclusion rests on the similarity of what, for both Kasparov and Big Blue, deciding means.

"To use technology to generate independent consciousness — we’re not there yet; but even the cross of Constantine would not match that achievement. It would be an epochal event approaching the magnitude of the creation of Adam and Eve." — Bayard Coll

Apple Watch? Not for me...

I made an appointment today to get a personal demo of the Apple Watch.  It did not begin well, since the store’s watches are stored in an electronically locked drawer, and my sales lady took some time to get it open.

Once open, she first showed me all the wristband options — metal, fabric, etc. Then she asked “Are you ready to place an order?”

No, I said, I wanted to see the functionality. So she then pulled out another watch.

“The is the 38 mm version. You can see it’s somewhat smaller.”

I could see that.

“So would you like to order this one?”

“Please show me the functions.”

So she went over to another table with an Apple Watch mounted into a secure board — secure from extraneous movement, secure from rapid theft too, I presume.

“Say you want to know the temperature in London”… click…”or New York”… click.. “Or…”

“Let me see something else.”

“This is your GPS, so you can find where your friends are.”

My putative friends were microdots on a very tiny screen. And these days, I’m rarely on the streets searching for my wanderings pals.

“Or say you wanted to monitor your heart rate…”

No thanks.

“Here is the camera function… if you have an iPhone, you can take picture by pressing this button…” But I already have a remote bluetooth shutter release that works very well, and a handy stand to hold the iPhone.

“Thanks. I’ll think about it.”

Since I carry my iPhone with me all the time — and I don’t even wear a watch — I could see no earthly reason why I should by an Apple Watch. 

I was mistaken about the future and utility YouTube, and I’m not 25 years old. But I think I’ll watch this one from the bleachers.

Scooter

This poem by Ronald Horn won first prize for poetry in the Texas Technological College literary magazine, Harbinger, in 1961. It deserves to be resurrected and remembered as a powerful vision of sympathy and empathy penned by a young man, from a small town in Texas, awakening to the wide world of human suffering.


Ronald Horn enlisted in the army, and went to Viet Nam with his unit:

“On October 3rd, 1968, Ronny's unit was awakened by the sound of enemy fire and were soon being attacked by a superior NVA regiment. As a helicopter came in to bring in ammunition and supplies, the helicopter was shot down. In the wreckage of this helicopter was much needed ammunition. Ronny exposed himself to enemy fire and ran to the wreckage and retrieved much of the ammunition. After he had gathered ammo belts from the wreckage and returned to his men, as he was attempting to distribute them, he was mortally wounded by small arms fire. For these actions, Ronny was awarded a posthumous Silver Star.”

Artifact Aura: A Follow-Up to the Previous Post

An instance that has stayed vivid  in my memory over the years took place in the rare books library at Harvard. I knew that they possessed the manuscript of my favorite poem, John Keats’s To Autumn; so, with the chutzpah of the young, I walked in and asked a librarian to bring it out for me to look at. After filling out forms and donning plastic gloves, they brought it for me to hold, behold, and wonder:

 

 

 

The manuscript in my hands was (in the words of Stefan Zweig) “one of those poems which from the minute that the inspiration found its first earthly realization, started on its way to eternity.”

An unromantic realist might object: “The artifact has no aura. It’s all in the mind.”

To which I readily agree: “Yes, that’s true. An artifact of great significance is a mirror as well as a window.”

I Touch the Moon

Today, I journeyed to the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park to touch the moon.  NASA had brought into the Academy grounds an exhibit trailer, complete with videos, a space suit and gloves, and an actual rock, brought back aboard the Apollo 17 in  1972, from the moon.  In the line in front of me were what seemed like every elementary school student in San Francisco, running around, tussling, hooting, until their teachers shepherded them back into line for the moon rock experience.

 

Finally, after about an hour, it was my turn. I was disappointed that I could not hold the rock. Visitors put their fingers into a plastic enclosure and touch the top surface of the stone, which was fastened to a plastic base. I can’t blame NASA for their caution: what are the odds that at least one kid would do something with or to that stone? 

 

The moon rock was as smooth as glass, perhaps as a result of being stroked by thousands of fingers over time:

 

 

One time many years ago, I harbored another hope of touching the moon. I had achieved an “Extra” ham radio license, and looked for someone who had the equipment to allow me to bounce an EME (earth-moon-earth) signal off the moon.  But I never located anyone who had access to the elaborate equipment necessary for the experiment:




Some day, when we resume our exploration of space, I hope that moon rocks become commonplace, and it will take a chunk of Charon (or beyond) to excite the wonder of kids. In the meantime, I’m happy to have run my finger over a surface untouchable by the human race since its beginning.

Three Principles of Privacy

Some years back, I would occasionally attend the meeting of the cypherpunks in Silicon Valley. Privacy was their main concern, and encryption, their main hope for maintaining privacy. I came away from those meetings with two principles that have stuck with me:

  1. Privacy is the power to reveal yourself selectively to the world.”

  2. “Encryption is fundamentally a matter of economics: how much are you willing to pay to get my information, and how much am I willing to pay to keep you from getting it?”

In a world of digital information storage, it seems to me, #2 will always and inevitably trump #1. So if anyone’s list of library check-outs, phone calls, emails, etc.  is stored somewhere electronically, they can be obtained. And the more prominent the person, the more likely (under #2) they will be hacked out.

I would add a third principle to the two excellent cypherpunk definitions and descriptions:

3) For some people, breaking into guarded places can be challenging and fun.

Just breaking into a server and looking around may do no apparent harm in and of itself. But there is always the temptation to brag about the achievement, and, worse, to create mischief while snooping around. Hacking can give the hacker a sense of pride in accomplishment, augment his (it’s usually a male) sense of self-worth, and generate the kind of enjoyment in mischief that some people (and maybe more than just “some”) never outgrow. It’s the pleasure of knocking down a delicate house of cards, or kicking down a termite mound. Bill Watterson’s Calvin expresses this transgressively exciting impulse in many of the Calvin and Hobbes panels.

So to return to the principles of privacy. Here is a scenario for #3:

Scene: an Aspiring Scholar (A.S.) — a graduate student or an untenured assistant professor in an English department — meets up with a buddy at a local brewpub.

Buddy: Whazzup?

A.S.: I’m working on a paper about the literary influences on David Foster Wallace. Everything’s been said about his personal library and his published recommendations.

Buddy: What about the books he checked out of various libraries?

A.S.:  Can’t be done. Those files are private and inaccessible, like medical records.

Buddy: Got ten bucks for a six-pack? I know a guy…

The Aesthetics of Customized Cars

That’s the title of a talk I gave at a meeting of the Popular Culture Association many years ago in Los Angeles. One of the many pleasant features of academic life is that you can occasionally take a breather from your more serious studies and hold forth on any subject that interests you.  And so, having long been an admirer or both customized and racing cars, I decided to gather my thoughts together and present them to a roomful of other academics who had the same or similar sideline interests.

For most people, a car just is a vehicle to get you to where you want to go. A nice looking car is desirable, of course, but cheap initial cost and low maintenance expenditure are among the most important features of the family or personal car. Such vehicles should have decent “pick up,” but not monster engines that provide needless power at great expense. If you’ve got the money, you can buy a classy-looking German or Japanese car, then drive it around to impress yourself and your friends. But the thought of making alterations to the body of the car (except for adding a trailer hitch or some such utilitarian add-on) just for the sake of customizing its looks would never occur to the usual purchaser of automobiles. 

Then there are the car lovers, fanatics, race drivers, customizers —a whole breed that takes cars seriously. Basically, these people who harbor a special care (love?) for their vehicles divide into two classes: Power and Beauty.

The power people like to race and win. The venue may be a drag strip, an oval track, a complex autocross maze, or any other place where power and skill make for winners and losers. Fort the serious contenders, such cars require a team of specialized caregivers who know their business and can respond quickly and professionally to the needs of the moment. The outstanding member of such teams, of course, is the driver, the one who can power to victory.

The beauty class likes to show off their cars. Their venuesare the many custom car shows (such as Hot August Nights in Reno or the Good Guys events around the country) , concours d’elegance, and local show-and-shine events. In general, there are three basic approaches to making a car beautiful according to the owner’s standards: Restoration, Mild Custom, and Radical Custom.

The restorers have an absolute standard for their efforts: Original Condition. The idea is to take the car back to the way it was when it first appeared in the showroom of its inaugural year. Any deviation from original condition — substituted parts, inauthentic paint job (original paint is best), or even hidden grease stains — mark the car down from the standard of 100% perfectly restored.

Doubly Classic: Restoration of Mae West's 1934 Duesenberg

 

The mild custom car obeys no such objective standard. The owner simply refines — subtracting and adding, inside and out — the original “look and feel” of the car. In some cases, such as the restomod, the modifications may even be invisible: improved suspension, a better sound system, even an entirely new engine. But the original lines and details of the restomod car are preserved, much as in the classic car restoration. But in general, the mild custom departs significantly, in external form and internal power train, from the original model.

Radically Mild: a 1939 Ford at the Pleasanton Good Guys Show

 

The builder of the radical custom car regards the original vehicle much as the way a sculptor might look at a block of marble: any modification is possible, even if the final product bears little or no resemblance to the starting vehicle. Chopping, sectioning, channeling, inserting parts from entirely different vehicles: anything goes in the realization of the customizer’s conception of what the final product should look like. They are the pure creations of automotive fantasy.

Detail of a radical custom that began life as a 1959 Buick

 

Customized cars may be the work of a single person; but more often, they are “team efforts,” though the term doesn’t denote the kind of single-minded dedication of the automotive race car team. The owner of a custom car often parcels out the work to individual specialists: the upholsterer, the welder, the pinstriper, etc. 

Power often receives its due in the customized car, but only in a special sense. The opened hood may reveal a massively powerful engine, with a towering supercharger, headers leading to an unmuffled exhaust, etc. But the power he is on display as an adjunct of beauty. Many parts are chromed and polished, neatly arranged, and are intended, not to give power, but to present it. The effect is analogous to the musclature of the body builder: power for the beauty of the display, not necessarily to be put into action.

There are exceptions to all the remarks above. For example, the “rat rod” presents a kind of intentional funkiness at the opposite end of the spectrum from the “trailer bitch” — the custom car do delicately and perfectly crafted that it is never driven, but only transported by trailer from show to show. The line between mild and radical custom is not so clearly defined as I have presented it, with some cars straddling the boundary. And the additions to the restomod may intrude into the original look and feel of the car.

Bad Attitude: a rat rod with mounted machine guns

The final product exhibited by the owner in a car show is very often an autobiography. The car represents those qualities of a “ride” that the owners regards as the most beautiful (within the boundaries of their financial means). They are dream cars, and as such present the owners’ ideas of beauty with objective clarity. Such ideas often represent the best of blue-collar creativity: they represent the expertise of craft applied to utility for the expression of beauty.

Privacy on the Internet

I see these two issues (I’m sure there are others) at the heart of this issue:
    1)    Legality
    2)    Stupidity

    1) Legality 
 
        As long as I’m not doing something illegal, I don’t have anything to fear from snoopers into my cell phone conversations or the contents my hard drive, or from the security cameras that are becoming more frequent on the fronts of buildings and looming over street intersections. 
     
      Do I care if some government snoop is looking through my files? Yes, I do mind. But the real threat is:

      2)    Stupidity

       When I read that people have said indiscreet things, sent nude selfies over the ether, retained records that they should have destroyed, I can only marvel, and have to say that it’s their own fault, for which they must suffer the consequences (as must the people who steal and/or release to the public information or images that were never intended to be publicized).  

Therefore, it seems to me, that the ramifications of privacy and its invasion in the electronic world should be thoroughly and competently taught in the schools — just like driver’s ed, and for some of the same reasons.

Aside from good sense, the next best defense is encryption. “Encryption,” the cypherpunks used to say, “is really a matter of economics: how much money are you willing to spend to keep me from getting into your files, and how much money am I willing to spend to get in there?” But the Feds (and other big government agencies, such as the Chinese) have a huge advantage (as the Silk Road folks just learned), so even strong crypto isn’t a sure bet.

I can probably buy an encryption system good enough to keep amateur snoops, and maybe even local police, out of my hard drive or cell phone — at least for now. But the other force working against encryption is Moore’s Law. Schemes regarded as unbreakable in the 1990s can be penetrated in a few minutes today.

So the only real defense against snooping turns out to be common sense. Don’t commit anything to the ether that you would not want to wind up in strangers’ hands and could be used against you.

The Bed and Breakfast from Hell

I’ll call this place La Belle Beelzebub, out of consideration for the management’s gesture of refunding 20% of our room charge after the mishaps described below.

The place looked lovely from the picture: two nineteenth-century houses tastefully restored and outfitted with elegant furniture and fixtures. We arrived at the Napa b&b in the afternoon and were shown to our room.

A brief online mention of the houses stated that the b&b houses were built in the 1890s, but the piece didn’t mention the architect.

“Who designed these houses?” I inquired of the lady who was showing us to our room. I’m interested in California architects, and might have recognized the name of the designer.

“I don’t know,” she replied.

She then showed us our room in the second building, across the street from the main house. The room had an inviting-looking electric fireplace.

“How do we turn this on?” my wife asked. The young lady looked around for a bit, then said, “I don’t know. I’ll have to ask and get back to you.”

She never did.

This was an unfortunate situation, since there was a note pinned to the wall over the thermostat in the room: 

Do not turn this unit to under 72 degrees or it will freeze up.

As the night went on and the room temperature dropped into the low 60s, therefore, there was nothing we could do to heat the room.

Once settled in, though, we were delighted to find that they management had provided a small complementary decanter of port wine on one of the tables. So we poured two glasses and raised them to a toast.

Ugh — the wine had turned sour — gone bad quite some time ago, it seemed to me.

“Let’s go up on the second-story balcony and check out the view, “ I suggested. The view was extensive, and there was even an outdoor heater which might have kept us warm. Unfortunately, the heater wires had been ripped out and were dangling uselessly from the wall. 

We didn’t stay long on the balcony anyway, since it primarily offered an intimate view of a huge pile of trash adjacent to the backyard garden. 

So we went back down to the bedroom, piling the blankets on the lovely four-poster bed in the vain hope of staying warm through the night.

“Well,” I thought when we emerged shivering from the bed in the morning, “now I can finally warm up with a nice shower.”

Wrong again: no hot water.

So we dressed in the room’s cold air, looking wistfully at the non-functioning fireplace.

“You go on over to the main house and get us a table for breakfast,” my wife urged me. “I’ll be along in a few minutes.”

The main dining area was quite elegant. It was also completely full except for two places — not at the same table.

I was mulling over how to deal with the situation — it would, after all, have been nice to enjoy breakfast sitting with my wife and not with complete strangers — when I heard the wail of sirens. Two fire trucks pulled up outside the house where we were staying:  an incredibly loud smoke alarm was howling away, and my wife was hurrying out the door with our suitcases.

It turned out that, evidently, someone was smoking in the room above us, and the fumes set off the fire alarm.

After things settled down, the innkeeper in charge of the b&b came over to make sure everything was all right.

“By the way,” I said to her, “we never did hear from the young lady last night how to turn on this electric furnace.”

The innkeeper puttered around, then announced. “I can’t figure it out. I’ll have to ask the owner.”

Bags finally packed into the car, I went back to the main house and asked the innkeeper:

“We never found out the name of the architect who build this house. Can you tell us?”

“It’s written down somewhere, but I don’t know where the paper is,” she replied.

So we left the Beelzebub b&b, never to return (at least in this lifetime).

 

The "Done and Done" Syllogism

Something must be done.

I am doing something.

Something has been done.

 

I like that syllogism, and I’ve often seen it at work, especially in politics.

But the incident that comes to mind was this:

Many years ago, we lived next door to a neighbor who had utterly let his back yard go to ruin. The entire space was choked with weeds, brambles and a large assortment of wild, ugly, untamed plants. He himself was a total slacker who made his living as a substitute teacher and evidently spent most of his time drinking and watching tv.

One day I saw him emerge into his back yard carrying a canister of Weed-B-Gon. He gave the yard an appraising look, aimed the can in the general direction of the homegrown jungle, and fired one quick pfffft.

He contemplated his handiwork, then turned back into the house.

I have never before or since seen such a completely ineffectual act executed with such profoundly misplaced hope.

But he could return, warmed with the satisfaction of the above syllogism, to his sofa and sitcoms.

Everything and More, Nothing and Less

The writer David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008. Like Robin Williams, he had long suffered from severe depression. Both men were doing very well at their chosen professions. Both were married. Both hanged themselves with a belt — to me, a ghastly and painful way to take yourself out, perhaps with some kind of psychological symbolism that I don’t understand.

Wallace was very close to another writer, Jonathan Franzen. In the circle of Wallace fans and students, Franzen is notorious for having publicly come down very hard on Wallace for inflicting so much suffering — on his family, his friends, his admirers — by taking his own life. So I looked up Franzen’s New Yorker essay to read first-hand what he had to say about the matter.

The essay (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/04/18/farther-away-2) is a travelogue. Like Twain, Theroux and others, he uses his trip as a platform to mix private meditations with vivid observations on his surroundings. Franzen's remarks about Wallace come in the middle of his (Franzen’s) trip to the Island of Masafuera, made partly to experience the world like that imagined in the first genuine novel in English (Robinson Crusoe), partly to see the rare and headed-for-extinction rayadito bird, and partly to set free the ashes of DFW which his widow had given him for that express purpose.

In the course of his musings, Franzen gets off this insight:

“It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that what distinguishes our culture from all previous cultures is its saturation in entertainment.”

That remark offered me a clear context as to why so many people pay serious emotional attention to entertainers, and feel such a strong personal loss when their favorite performer dies. It also connects to another element of modern existence that may help explain the no-exit inner lives of people like Wallace, Williams, and Danny Gatton (another talented suicide):

“Boredom is the soil in which the seeds of addiction sprout.”

In a culture like ours which provides “everything and more,” endless possibilities can turn into an endless plain devoid of ultimate purpose: a place of “perpetual stimulation without satisfaction.” Those of us who watch our entertainers take satisfaction and solace from their performances. But perhaps, for some of those performers themselves, being a fragment of everything and more becomes increasingly an experience of (and attraction to) nothingness.