Sunday, February 28, 2010

Readings: Monk on Sight, Song, and Cetaceans


From a tape transcription of Thelonious Monk theorizing on the subject of aquatic mammals:

“They say if you can ever make a tape of a porpoise and play it back, down slow enough, it’s the same as the human voice. They are so close to the human species. Because they have the same box here [pointing to his throat].” After explaining that they communicate at very high frequencies, Monk performs a pretty convincing imitation of a porpoise cry. He then launches into a lecture about how man might benefit from harnessing the porpoise’s ability to sense everything around them: “You know, it’s an amazing thing to study the porpoises. With the study of the porpoise, they going to find out possibilities of completely obliterating a blind man’s stick. Walk down the fucking street blind as a bat, and naked. They’ll put a little sonar thing in his ear or something that is able to tell when you’re getting up to anything, the kind of object, the texture of the object, whether it’s a building or a person…it could tell that it’s either a hard surface or cloth. Because they’ve checked out porpoises and they can’t figure out, they hadn’t been able to figure out why a porpoise can swim in dark, murky waters, so you can’t see nothing at all, and they won’t hit a motherfucking thing.”
~ Robin D. G. Kelley, Thelonious Monk: the Life and Times of an American Original
Monk plays for the porpoises: Blue Monk, Oslo 1966: Charley Rouse, tenor; Larry Gales, bass; Ben Riley, drums.
Note: If you ever doubted that the piano is actually a percussion instrument, this performance will disabuse you of that doubt.

Note on the illustration: Torn many years ago from an issue of Oui magazine, the picture is of scientist John C. Lilly and friend. Lilly's well-publicized research into the intelligence of aquatic mammals was most likely the inspiration of Monk's rap as quoted above.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Quote du Jour: Gloria Mundi, call your office

"Thinking about his youth, as he had often done in the past few days, it seemed like a film overlaid with grandiose gushing music which flooded every banal scene with emotion and made it seem transcendent and unique. Being older, he thought, meant living the same film without the music." ~ Michael Dibdin, Dead Lagoon

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Readings: The Cynical Shepherd

In this previous post, centered on an excerpt from Rebecca Goldstein’s novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, I discussed the dangers inherent in the infusion of logical positivism into the liberal arts. A bit further on in her novel, Goldstein treats the issue of neo-conservatism as it relates to our society’s politico-religious life.

In this excerpt, the character Cass Seltzer (whom I designated only as the younger of the two grad students featured in my earlier post) is now all grown up and a faculty star in his own right. He is a professor whose discipline is Psychology of Religion. Seltzer has hit it big, both academically and financially, as the author of a best-seller with the distinctly William Jamesian title, Varieties of Religious Illusion. I.e., Professor Seltzer is to be classified among the “professional atheists.”

Seltzer has accepted an offer to publicly debate a man named Felix Fidley: “a Nobel-laureate economist who has been taking his stand on a wide range of issues by publishing in the neoconservative magazine Provocation, [and who] has been challenging the so-called new atheists to debate him on the existence of God.”

Addressing his partner, Lucinda, also a star academician (and a staunch rationalist), Seltzer sums up the current situation thusly:

“For lots of people it’s become a matter of political coalitions more than anything having to do with theology. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. If liberals are going in one direction in the religion-versus-reason debates, defending the theory of evolution and secular humanism, neocons feel they have to head off in the opposite direction. Or they think that it’s okay for people like them, who are thoroughly civilized, to question God’s existence, but that it would be moral anarchy if the teeming masses started to doubt God. I suspect that’s what Fidley believes."

How accurately this describes the political herding of Christian evangelicals, conservative Catholics and Jews, and other socially conservative Christians, by the rightwing extremists operating within the American political system. If these types were symbolized by an Orwellian ultimate leader, that figure might be called “the Cynical Shepherd.”

I am more than a little concerned that a neologistic compound such as “politico-religious” [see paragraph one above] is even possible, let alone meaningful.

Given this scenario, put me down—for now—as a “moral anarchist.”

Note on the illustration: This is another of the doodles gleaned from the margins of my college notebooks. If you are wondering why I found it appropriate for this particular post, only realize that it is a left hand, and note the condition of the fingers.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Readings: Everything That Really Matters

I am currently reading the novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, by one of my very favorite contemporary writers, Rebecca Goldstein. Or, as she designates herself on the title page of this offering: Rebecca Newberger Goldstein.

The excerpts I will share below involve a discussion between two doctoral candidates, each a disciple of the brilliant, if eccentric, faculty star: Prof. Jonas Elijah Klapper. The pair had been for a late-night drink at a student hang-out and had been accosted and “good-naturedly” ridiculed by a group of other grad students for being Klapper’s students. The older of the pair speaks first:
xxx“Of course [that’s a typical opinion of Klapper]. Jonas gets that all the time from so-called philosophers. He’s the only one who’s doing real philosophy these days, ever since the logical positivists set out to hunt down and exterminate any genuine philosophical insights. These are the guys who run around calling out ‘meaningless’ wherever they find something difficult and profound. …If they can’t bag it in some trivial empirical test, they blast it out of the skies with ‘meaningless.’ Look, according to these guys, even Nietzsche isn’t a real philosopher, and that—to use one of their own favorite ploys—is a reductio ad absurdum if ever there was one.”
xxx“Why didn’t we set the guy straight? Shouldn’t we have defended Professor Klapper?”
[asks the younger of the two]

Now, here follows the points that grabbed me, and with which I tend to wholeheartedly agree (even if Rebecca Goldstein may not, btw):

xxx“There’s no point. These guys are ideologues. Their worldviews would crumble if you got them to give up their positivistic, nihilistic scientism. The English departments are mired in political ideology, and the philosophers are buried in scientistic ideology. Jonas is the sole defender of the faith.”

The liberal arts, like the departments of political science and economics, have been invaded and successfully colonized by ideologues. But the issue is not—as is often bruited about by the rightwing ideologues—that they are political leftists; the issue is that they are positivists, dominating disciplines which should be the domains of creative thinkers and idealists. If this trend is not reversed, the soul of our living, organic, age-old civilization is kaput; replaced by a debased anti-culture of mass-produced, repeatable and disposable, inorganic facts.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Reflections: = 1000 Words

You have probably had occasion to hear it said of some ultra-Gaelic individual, "Ah, that Paddy! (or Seamus!, or Eamon!) Sure, his face is a map of Ireland!"

With that in mind, I suggest that we have pictured below an individual whose striking physiognomy comprises a detailed topographical chart of my current state of residence:

Hey-o, way to go, Ohio.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Quote du Jour: Who's Calling?


To my mind, this is one of the most darkly beautiful passages in a darkly beautiful book:

there’s a man in a pay phone
dramatically lit
he’s saving himself
for his last cigarette

his face changes color
his hand’s dripping wet
as he digs for a quarter
and comes up with ten cent

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Remembrances: Who Laughs Last...


The portrait is of a guy named Richard Bousley. It is dated February, 1967, which places it in the second semester of my sophomore year at the University of Michigan. I was still living at home then. In the following summer, my parents moved to Ohio. After spending most of the break in Ohio with them, I returned to Ann Arbor and moved into my first student apartment. Bousley was one of my two roommates. Jim Rutherford was the other.

I first started hanging out with Bousley in the ninth grade. After living in Ann Arbor through fifth grade, I had lived in Muncie, Indiana during sixth and seventh grades. Returning to Ann Arbor for eighth grade—a “new kid” all over again—I had palled around almost exclusively with another kid named Jim—Jimmy Malcolm—who had lived across the street from me during my grade school years, and coincidentally now lived in the same neighborhood where my parents took an apartment upon our return to Ann Arbor. But following eighth grade Jimmy’s parents moved across town, and I was alone in the neighborhood.

At the beginning of ninth grade, Dick Bousley was a “new kid” at Tappan Junior High School. We met in art class. Dick walked home from school by the same route as I. We soon became friends. Other than liking to draw, one of the first things we found ourselves to have in common was an appreciation of Elvis Presley. Only Dick had the haircut, however.

After a year or so, Dick’s family moved to another neighborhood on the outskirts of Ann Arbor. He was now a neighbor of Jim Rutherford, and the three of us soon formed an after school trio.

Dick’s house had a backboard mounted on the garage and we would play “horse” or two-on-one in his driveway after school. Sometimes Dick’s younger brother, Don, would be asked to make a fourth, so that we could play two-on-two games to 21. Don was kind of a strange, quiet kid, who was fascinated with extraterrestrials—the chariots of the gods, and all that.

Following high school, Dick enrolled at Eastern Michigan; Rutherford and I at the University of Michigan. But when Don graduated high school a year or so later, he enlisted in the army. This was at the height of the war in Vietnam. As I recall it, Don completed basic training and shipped out for ‘Nam right after Thanksgiving and was dead before Christmas. He died almost immediately and right around the holidays, anyway.

By this time, neither Dick nor Jim was still in college. I had new roommates in the apartment on White Street. But Jim and I attend Don’s military memorial service together. I remember it featuring much folding of flags and the shrieking of Don’s girlfriend, who was cursing at the honor guard with some kind of foreign accent. Jim and I then went to the funeral—rifle salute, and all.

After the cemetery, we went back to the rental house on Jorn Court that Jim was sharing with two other friends—Douglas Mount and Luther B. Weems. We didn’t have much to say, as I remember. We couldn’t really fathom the waste of Don Bousley’s young life. He hadn’t really asked much of the world.

We put the Country Joe and the Fish album on the stereo and played “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” over and over and over again.

And we laughed and laughed. We laughed until we were empty and could laugh no more.

Reflections: You're Laughing Now

Here is an excerpt from an essay on George Orwell that I read this morning on the New York Times Sunday Book Review page:

… [W]henever perplexed Americans fret over Osama bin Laden or suicide killings, and delude themselves that material progress will cure these ills, I think of what Orwell wrote in 1940 about another charismatic monster. “Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice. . . . However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.”

While I agree with the essayist about Osama bin Laden in this connection, I glean something more about current events from this quote to which the author does not allude. What could sum up more succinctly the impetus behind the snowballing rejection of Barack Obama’s liberal agenda of providing the security of universal health care, along with “comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth control “ for all citizens than does this typically prescient insight of Orwell’s?

This quote shows exactly how, and why, the activist “Tea-baggers” have arisen to agitate against their own best interests by championing the likes of intellectual and ideological non-entities such as Sarah Palin, Rick Perry and Scott Brown.

And it shows, more chillingly, whom they most resemble within the larger context of history.

I know, I know... You’re laughing now…


Your comments welcomed:

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Rodak Goes Rogue...


...running the range

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Rodak Presents...



Monday, February 8, 2010

Rodak Retreats



Saturday, February 6, 2010

Reflections: A Dilemma of Medical Ethics

My friend Michele Battle-Fisher first made me aware of the story of Henrietta Lack and the cell line created using tissue from her body in a recent post on Facebook. The ethical questions raised by Henrietta’s story are both interesting and thorny. This week’s Sunday New York Times book review includes a review of a recent book documenting the history of that cell line, the moral and legal implications of its continued existence, and the almost uncanny implications that this version of “immortality” has had for Henrietta’s descendants.

I have chosen to post the following excerpts from this book review, both because the story is worthy of some thought in and of itself, and also because the final excerpt below highlights nicely the dichotomy between this country’s world-class medical technology, and its shameful failures in the area of health care delivery. This remains a distinction that is all-too-rarely made by politicians debating the issue.

To set the scene, here are the two opening paragraphs of the NY Times review:

From the very beginning there was something uncanny about the cancer cells on Henrietta Lacks’s cervix. Even before killing Lacks herself in 1951, they took on a life of their own. Removed during a biopsy and cultured without her permission, the HeLa cells (named from the first two letters of her first and last names) reproduced boisterously in a lab at Johns Hopkins — the first human cells ever to do so. HeLa became an instant biological celebrity, traveling to research labs all over the world. Meanwhile Lacks, a vivacious 31-year-old African-American who had once been a tobacco farmer, tended her five children and endured scarring radiation treatments in the hospital’s “colored” ward.

After Henrietta Lacks’s death, HeLa went viral, so to speak, becoming the godmother of virology and then biotech, benefiting practically anyone who’s ever taken a pill stronger than aspirin. Scientists have grown some 50 million metric tons of her cells, and you can get some for yourself simply by calling an 800 number. HeLa has helped build thousands of careers, not to mention more than 60,000 scientific studies, with nearly 10 more being published every day, revealing the secrets of everything from aging and cancer to mosquito mating and the cellular effects of working in sewers.

The next excerpt capsulizes the current state of the law with reference to the use of “medical waste” for research purposes:

In the 1980s a doctor who had removed the cancer-ridden spleen of a man named John Moore patented some of the cells to create a cell line then valued at more than $3 billion, without Moore’s knowledge. Moore sued, and on appeal the court ruled that patients had the right to control their tissues, but soon that was struck down by the California Supreme Court, which said that tissue removed from the body had been abandoned as medical waste. The cell line created by the doctor had been “transformed” via his “inventive effort,” and to say otherwise would “destroy the economic incentive to conduct important medical research.” The court said that doctors should disclose their financial interests and called on legislators to increase patient protections and regulation, but this has hardly hindered the growth of the field. In 1999 the RAND Corporation estimated that American labs alone held more than 307 million tissue samples from some 178 million people. Not only is the question of payment for profitable tissues unresolved, Skloot notes, but it’s still not necessary to obtain consent to store cells and tissue taken in diagnostic procedures and then use the samples for research.

Finally, we can see the strange predicament of Henrietta’s surviving family, as reflected in the words of her daughter, Deborah:

[Skloot] tacks between the perspective of the scientists and the family evenly and fairly, arriving at a paradox described by Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. “Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore! . . . But I won’t lie, I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make.”

To sum up: the next time you hear a politician insisting that we have “the best health care system in the world” stop and ask yourself how and why—if that boilerplate is true—we can so easily, as a society, tolerate the cruel irony at the heart of the circumstance in which Henrietta’s daughter can’t afford her needed medications.

Your thoughts welcomed:

Friday, February 5, 2010

Remembrances: You Are There

"All things are as they were then, except... You Are There."


Your thoughts welcomed:

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Riffs Redesigned

Rodak Riffs no longer features comment boxes. I am no longer soliciting published comments. If you wish to have a conversation with me regarding something I've posted, or regarding something that came to your mind because of something I posted, or just because you think I'm a fine fucking fellow (FFF), please send me an email. Or use my Facebook account. Or use my Twitter account. You will find the means to choose one of these options on the sidebar. If you wish to have a conversation with somebody else, you're on your own.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Readings: Graduate Students, Beware!

The excerpt which follows is taken from a long footnote, on pp.97-98, of Junot Díaz’s great novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The footnote documents the sorry fate of one Jesús de Galíndez “a Columbia University grad student who had written a rather unsettling doctoral dissertation. The topic? Lamentably, unfortunately, sadly: the era of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina.”

Let this be fair warning to all you ABDs out there:

Long story short: upon learning of the dissertation, El Jefe first tried to buy the thing and when that failed he dispatched his chief Nazgul (the sepulchral Felix Bernardino) to NYC and within days Galíndez got gagged, bagged, and dragged to La Capital, and legend has it when he came out of his chloroform nap he found himself naked, dangling from his feet over a cauldron of boiling oil, El Jefe standing nearby with a copy of the offending dissertation in hand. (And you thought your committee was rough.)

Enough said?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Rants: Turn Out the Lights, the Party's Over

There doesn't seem to be much worth talking about in the political realm any more. The whole game has now been so transparently exposed for the sham that it is, that it is impossible to discuss it as though it had any legitimacy.
I see the recent SCOTUS decision as the nose under the tent of eventual one-party rule--i.e., "the Corporate Party"--and I'm quite certain that following the nose comes the hump(ing).
To the extent that an Obama is opposed to the "System," he is largely powerless to do anything about it. The fact that he has these congressional majorities and still can't get anything done ("He can't lead, Gladys!") is due largely to the fact that he is the most legitimately "grassroots" POTUS that we've had in my lifetime. Much of his campaign war chest came from individual, small donations. And much of his organization was done by actual engaged citizens, rather than by union operatives and the usual crowd of partisan hacks.
This looks like a good thing--"democracy in action"--until one comes to realize that by trumping "the game" with actual democracy, we have elected a man with no power. He has no chits to call in. He has done no favors in the past for powerful men, upon whom he can now call to scratch HIS back. He can state his goals as eloquently as hell, but he can't get them enacted as legislation, because he has no political leverage. The Dems in congress can't be pressured by the White House to risk displeasing their corporate sponsors, because Obama has no means of punishing them for non-compliance.
All the Republicans need to do is stonewall while Obama fails, and then get swept back into power, big-time, by the now limitless access to corporate money that those who go-along-to-get-along will enjoy. It's over. America will soon be a one-party vassal state, or else the perpetrator of WWIII in an attempt to get out of debt by killing the lender.
This is a good time to be getting old.
Cross-posted in the comments section here.