When You Just Can’t Get into Authors You Want to Get Into

Last night, instead of going to sleep like a sensible person, I read Bret Easton Ellis’ “Thoughts on David Foster Wallace and ‘The End of the Tour‘”. In it, the American Psycho author holds forth on how the film “The End of the Tour” is a treacly one-note pile of horse flops that, with almost obligatory irony, does precisely what the character of David Foster Wallace worries about in the film: makes a false D.F.W. and substitutes it for the real one.

In The End of the Tour something happens that the Wallace in the movie keeps arguing he would never want: to become a character, and the movie willfully or mindlessly ignores this complaint. This is what the Wallace in the film is bothered by in scene after scene after scene — and what does the movie do? It keeps filming him. What does Segel do? He keeps playing a particular ideaof David Foster Wallace — and this is why the movie would have driven Wallace insane. The Wallace estate as well as his editor have disavowed the film not because it gets anything factually wrong but because it does something that Wallace would never have wanted: it turns him into a character.

All of which is a fine point scored on a film I probably won’t see anyway, for reasons I’ll discuss later. But while reading it I find myself asking why Ellis bothered to write it. Because for all the complaints against the film destroying Wallace’s authenticity in the act of worshipping said authenticity, I didn’t get the impression that Ellis actually thought there was much in the authentic Wallace worth preserving.

Do I think he is the most overrated writer of my generation as well as the most pretentious and tortured? Yeah, I do. And I tweeted this along with other things that bothered me, not so much about David himself but more about how he had been reinterpreted by the culture. The sincerity and earnestness he began trafficking in seemed to some of us a ploy, a contradiction — not totally fake, but not totally real either, a kind of performance art, sensing the shift toward earnestness in the culture and accommodating himself to it.

Of course he goes on to tell us that he did like Wallace and thought he was a genius (Yeah, he did). And a good thought about being okay with complexity follows. But I can’t avoid the idea that if Wallace started selling himself before his death as a great big earnest dork, then he’s complicit in the film’s “false” version of himself, so who cares?

Granted, that may just be me sharing Ellis’ opinion of Wallace’s work. Every time I get on Amazon and try to cajole myself into checking out his books, I get to the part about how Vlad the Impaler is a parakeet and my enthusiasm swiftly dies. I know I’m supposed to find that bold and clever, but I don’t. And reading a multi-layer, meta-narrative Rube Goldberg watchama-thing, as Infinite Jest is supposed to be, sounds exhausting. Making a novel not-a-novel doesn’t make a novel better.

But if I’m being honest, I have the same problem with trying to read more Bret Easton Ellis. I read Less Than Zero last year, and have re-read it since, and I still don’t know where Ellis put the plot. Then I read American Psycho and I had to stop about halfway through because I could not read another brand-specific catalog of what every person in the room was wearing. Getting the joke didn’t make it easier to process; I eventually started skimming both them and the step-by-step descriptions of murdering people (I get it, Patrick reduces people to atomized parts…) just so I could get to the end, which has the same problem as LTZ: it doesn’t close so much as stop. I guess that’s a point, too.

I like the guy’s prose style, and he’s got an inventive eye for decadence, but the thought of downloading Imperial Bedrooms to my Kindle and slogging though another 200 pages of Clay observing things – himself included – with all the emotional involvement of an alien scout reporting to the mothership, makes a nap and a cup of tea sound like a much better use of my time.

Yet here I am writing about him, and thinking about what I’ve read of his. Cavils about plot and structure aside, Ellis makes for a good tour guide to the darkness at the heart of the City of Man.

Are People Really That Bothered by the Word “Moist”?

I remember first hearing this back in college. It was girls who said that they hated the way “moist” sounded. I’ve never had that level of aversion to a word, where I experience white-girl-ewws if I hear it. There’s one four-letter word that I wrinkle my nose at, but I fortunately don’t encounter it that much.

Yet if The Oatmeal is any guidepost, “moist” is about to join clowns in the group of Things That We Just Can’t With Right Now.

And as far as both “moist” and clowns go, I’m calling BS. Clowns are not that scary. They just aren’t. Yes, some people have legitimate coulrophobia.  And some people are scared of wide open spaces. Some people are scared of books. Some people have a phobia about clocks. Here’s a whole list of innocuous things that people are irrationally terrified of.

Anything can be scary. You give a clown a mouthful of blood and a flail made from children’s bones, and yes, I’ll be running in the other direction as quick as my feet will carry me. That doesn’t mean that all clowns are terrifying all the time. Are the clowns in Dumbo scary? No, they’re dumb and kind of mean, but not scary. Hitchcock devoted a whole film to making birds scary. That doesn’t mean we devote endless memes to the horror of a robin.

The horror…the horror.

This is all a miasma of trendiness. It’s trendy to think clowns are scary, and its trendy to act all skeeved out whenever someone utters “moist.” I say “moist” is a perfectly fine word to describe things that have an appropriate level of wetness, or “moisture” if you prefer. I’m not going to stop using it, and I’m going to offer racheting levels of disdain to people who call attention to their inability to function in the world by objecting to my use of it. Put on your big-kid pants and deal.


Spengler: You Are Not Original. Be Glad of It.

Why You Won’t Find the Meaning of Life:

Most people who make heroic efforts at originality learn eventually that they are destined for no such thing. If they are lucky, they content themselves with Kierkegaard’s pot roast on Sunday afternoon and other small joys, for example tenure at a university. But no destiny is more depressing than that of the artist who truly manages to invent a new style and achieve recognition for it.

He recalls the rex Nemorensis, the priest of Diana at Nemi who according to Ovid won his office by murdering his predecessor, and will in turn be murdered by his eventual successor. The inventor of a truly new style has cut himself off from the past, and will in turn be cut off from the future by the next entrant who invents a unique and individual style.

This is why we all hate modern art. It’s not made for us, it’s almost made in contempt of us. It’s half a joke and half a screed and all scam. It. Does. Not. Mean. Anything.

If Blogs are Dying, We Shall Miss Them.

Lileks at his profound best.

While most blogs weren’t deathless examples of great writing, there was the opportunity for individualism, and you don’t get that from a Pinterest page. You don’t get it from a feed of things snipped and reblogged and pinned and shoveled into The Feed. The web turns into bushels of confetti shoveled into a jet engine, and while something does emerge out the other end, it’s usually made impressive by its velocity and volume, not the shape it makes.

All web sites are becoming the same web site. They look the same, they swipe the same, they beg you for subscriptions the same. The noise has become so great that I took February off of social media and I haven’t missed Facebook once. Not. Even. Once.

Content is King, we are told. But the rat at which the content is consumed seems to make the consumption the point rather than the content itself. I can read a thousand articles on Medium in a day; how many of them will really stick with me?

The same can be true of blogs, of course, but whenever I found a blog I liked, I almost always wanted to read everything that they had. Whereas I couldn’t remember the name of anyone who’s “written” any Buzzfeed listicle I’ve gif’ed through if you paid me.

The medium is becoming the message. Which bodes not well, now that the FCC has made it a public utility.

The Three Steps of Cord Cutting

Step 1: “I’m paying $100 a month for cable. Netflix costs $8 a month, Amazon Prime $75 a year. WTH?”

Step 2: “Is it really worth $100 a month to watch football and 24-hour news?”

Step 3: “Hold up, digital rabbit ears are a thing?”

via Breitbart, noting the death-spiral of cable. Huzzah.

Or, as I noted when I underwent this process myself two years ago:

Mostly, I’m tired of paying through the nose for channels I never ever watch. The History Channel might be worth my time if I was an illiterate who needed everything explained to me real slow and then repeated. The Learning Channel has taught me nothing except that some women don’t realize when they’re heavy with child, but you can be a raging, soul-sucking, child-pimping, social climbing psycho hose beast control freak for eight seasons and the whole world will forgive you if your ex-husband puts on an Ed Hardy T-Shirt.

The pleasure are just not enough anymore. The Soup is not enough; reruns of How I Met Your Mother are not enough. Mad Men and Breaking Bad are not enough.

I’m a bit behind schedule, but I’ve finally watched all of Breaking Bad as it is.


Why Chess Computers do Not Signal Skynet

An excerpted chapter from Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise is worth reading in its entirety. It deals with how Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in 1997:

Deep Blue had won. Only, it had done so less with a bang than an anticlimactic whimper. Was Kasparov simply exhausted, exacerbating his problems by playing an opening line with which he had little familiarity? Or, as the grandmaster Patrick Wolff concluded, had Kasparov thrown the game,47 to delegitimize Deep Blue’s accomplishment? Was there any significance to the fact that the line he had selected, the Caro-Kann, was a signature of Karpov, the rival whom he had so often vanquished?

But these subtleties were soon lost to the popular imagination. Machine had triumphed over man! It was like when HAL 9000 took over the spaceship. Like the moment when, exactly thirteen seconds into “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the synthesizer overpowers the guitar riff, leaving rock and roll in its dust.48

Except it wasn’t true. Kasparov had been the victim of a large amount of human frailty—and a tiny software bug.

The bug occurred when the computer, unable to select a best move, defaulted to a random move. This move was so divorced from what looked like a sound move that Kasparov decided that Deep Blue must actually be twenty steps ahead of the game. The idea that the computer had acted in error – out of a programming bug – never occurred to him, because computers do not make mistakes. Rattled, Kasparov resigned the game.

Clarke’s Third Law applies. When a computer — a device all of us use and almost none of us understand — can beat a human at something that humans find very difficult to do, some of us begin to wonder if we really are building something too powerful to control. If any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, is any sufficiently advanced supercomputer indistinguishable from God?

Silver has his doubts:

Computers are very, very fast at making calculations. Moreover, they can be counted on to calculate faithfully—without getting tired or emotional or changing their mode of analysis in midstream.

But this does not mean that computers produce perfect forecasts, or even necessarily good ones. The acronym GIGO (“garbage in, garbage out”) sums up this problem. If you give a computer bad data, or devise a foolish set of instructions for it to analyze, it won’t spin straw into gold. Meanwhile, computers are not very good at tasks that require creativity and imagination, like devising strategies or developing theories about the way the world works.

A highly advanced machine remains a machine. It does what is programmed to do. It does not program itself.

Of course, neither do we, but consider this:

[I]t is not really “artificial” intelligence if a human designed the artifice.