• Microserfs, Douglas Coupland

    Late 90s?

    So I just finished reading Microserfs. First off a couple of things amazed me right away: the book was written in the early nineties and yet Coupland manages to avoid the starry-eyed view of the information superhighway that was sucking everyone in left and right back then. He sees all the technology around him with a level-headedness and equanimity that as far as I remember was absolutely lacking back in the day. Secondly, he really does come across as seeming to know a lot about coding software. He may not know squat about any particular programming language, but he knows what it s like to sit in a room and code for several hours. Coupland writes about coding the way Hemingway wrote about fishing. I was impressed by the authenticity of the characters work experiences.

    If anything, the book is about a search for meaning. It tries answer questions about what role money and creativity and personal satisfaction play in the uncovering of meaning in one’s life. None of the questions are particularly new. Against the backdrop of a purely late 20th century lifestyle (nomadic coder, moving from job to job), the questions take on a slightly new significance. Several of Coupland’s characters argue that because of the nature of technology and the miracles it promises, to simply be involved in the computer industry in any capacity at this point in history is enough to bring meaning to one’s life. Being on the cutting edge of what will inevitably effect the rest of human history is supposedly sublime enough an occupation that meaning need not be sought elsewhere. I disagree, but this here bit of writing is about the book, not me.

    Another interesting issue brought up by the characters is at what level we function simply as members of the human race and at what level we function as individuals. One character describes it as this: when we look up at the sky and see a flock of geese flying overhead we do not see any one individual goose, instead we see them all as a group and evaluate them as a group. Should humans be seen any differently: should our individual actions be so scrutinized or should we instead step back and see the human race’s actions as a whole? It goes back to the question: In what ways are we like all other people, some other people and no other people? Everyone answers that questions differently I guess.

    So among all the bitching and whining about how life has no meaning and crap like that, the only solution the characters of the book can find is to share common experiences like the huge effect that playing with Legos had on their lives and crap like that. This is where Coupland always has driven me nuts and continues to do so in this book. Yes legos and nerfguns can be sublime in how they connect us to one another. Maybe they connect us despite their unnaturalness or maybe because of their synthetic, purely from the hands of man, nature. Same with computers. Yes computers may bring us closer together, but there’s something weird about it.

    There’s something distasteful about human bonds being formed of inorganic substances. A shared affinity for a particular sunset warrants that feeling of sublime connectedness that makes us feel a part of the human race. But what about a shared affinity for Linux? I think this geek will look elsewhere for connections.

  • The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles

    June 5, 1998

    After seeing this movie two or three times I decided it was finally time to read the book. I’d without hesitation suggest that if you haven’t already seen the movie or read the book you do one or the other or preferably both as soon as possible. 

    Lately I’ve been under a modified grass is greener on the other side spell. Only the grass isn’t greener it just more real and it’s not on the other side, it’s anywhere that is strange or exotic or different. So I’ve had this nagging notion that anything that is unfamiliar to me is more real than the world I live in everyday.

    I don’t think I’m alone in this mis-guidedness. I think a lot of times people can easily fall into the trap of seeing how bland, homogenized and seemingly boring life in 1990’s America can be. As such, any cultural blip that appears as an anomaly on our radar is instantly more exciting than where we are right now. That yearning makes us saturate our own world in diversity: Brazilian music (Tropicalisimo!) instead of Stone Temple Pilots, Zen replaces Catholicism or whatever you were raised up to be not because it’s better but because it’s different, instead of American meals like meatloaf and apple pie we hover over exotic recipes for Moroccan Ras el Hanout or ancient South Indian chats. 

    An infant lying in a crib, if presented with two images– one simple with few colors and shapes and the other more complex with many colors and shapes and designs—will gravitate and show more interest in the complex than the simple. Is that why a new palette of spices makes us want to travel thousands of miles to taste strange fruit from its native tree?

    In any event, I’ve been aching for the exotic lately. Sometimes it seems more real to me than McDonalds and Wal-Mart and marketing scams like Beanie Babies and Godzilla. But it’s not. It’s not any more real. I pulled out of my driveway and over the hood of my car looked out over Ohio. A Moroccan native would look at all this mid western blandness and find it as strange and exotic as I would his Algerian Bazaar. It’s all real. The exotic is only exotic and strange in the eye of the beholder. But like an infant lying on his back in a crib I’m pretty sure I’ll keep grasping for the complex and strange instead of the simple. It just keeps things interesting and keeps me from not paying attention.

    So but anyway, that’s what The Sheltering Sky sort of covers. It answers the question: What happens when we grasp too much, too far for the complex and strange?

    Lines I found particularly cool:

    “I wonder if after all I’m a coward?” he thought. Fear spoke; he listened and let it persuade—the classical procedure. P131

    “Before I was twenty, I mean, I used to think that life was a thing that kept gaining impetus. It would get richer and deeper each year. You kept learning more, getting wiser, having more insight, going further into the truth—” She hesitated.

    Port responds: “And now you know it’s not like that. Right? It’s more like smoking a cigarette. The first few puffs it tastes wonderful, and you don’t even think of its ever being used up. Then you begin taking it for granted. Suddenly you realize it’s nearly burned down to the end. And that’s when your conscious of the bitter taste.” P 165

    How many times his friends, envying him his life, had said to him: “Your life is so simple.” “Your life seems always to go in a straight line.” Whenever they had said the words he heard in them an implicit reproach: it is not difficult to build a straight road on a treeless plain. He felt that what they really meant to say was: “You have chosen the easiest terrain.” But if they elected to place obstacles in their own way—and so clearly they did, encumbering themselves with every sort of unnecessary allegiance—that was no reason why they should object to his having simplified his life. So it was with a certain annoyance that he would say: “Everyone makes the life he wants. Right?” as though there were nothing further to be said. P198

    “death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” P238


    I just watched the movie again last night and it occurs to me that it’s easy to miss the point of the book if you only see the movie. The movie leaves out the story of the three sisters who go to have tea in the Sahara (yes, The Police wrote a song about this story). The finally get to the Sahara to have their tea but they can’t agree on which dune to sit on while they drink so they keep saying, “oh this next dune looks much better,” then upon arriving at the peak of that particular dune they’d point and say, “well, that next one looks much better than this one,” and they’d move on indefinitely—never satisfied with their particular dune, always pushing on across the Sahara to the next, bigger and better dune– until they die without ever stopping to have their tea.

  • Galatea 2.2, Richard Powers

    Richard Powers: Galatea 2.2 

    (not sure when I wrote this, late 90s?)

    I don’t really know why I read. Usually i don’t even remember half the stuff that happens in a book that i read. It’s not even like i read all that quickly either. it’s more like i read a book the way I listen to a Coltrane solo. Coltrane started the idea of sheets of sound, where the individual notes were not quite as important as the flavor, the feel of the entire melodic phrase taken as a totality. Or maybe instead a better analogy is curry. you don’t notice any one particular spice, it’s the collection of spices as a whole that decide whether a curry is good or bad. 

    That’s the way i read books. It’s admittedly, not the best way to read. I mean, i am horrible at remembering particular passages or events or whatever. but i don think that i get a pretty decent overall flavor from a book. I come away with something good that lingers around long enough to remind me how badly i need to find a new book when i haven’t read in a day or two. 

    That’s how i came across Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers. I hadn’t read in a few weeks. I was taking a break because nothing was appealing to me. I couldn’t find anything that would leave anything but the blandest most tepid sensation on my cortex after the first few sentences. So i didn’t read for a while and then i came across Powers’ book which pretty much seeks to answer the question: why bother reading? 

    i think it does a really decent job at explaining why we keep picking up book after book after book. The premise of the novel appears to be a bit on the sci-fi end if you only read the dust jacket for the book. But it’s pretty far from being sci-fi, it just so happens to use technology in an effort to answer the questions about why we read. 

    Powers’ is the main character in the book, it’s got a ot of autobiographical stuff that is worked in via some pretty cool narrative technique. He is hired as a Humanities Resident at some Institution where he is given the assignment of teaching a computer how to read. The computer not only has to be able to read, but has to understand well enough to pass something called a Turing test. Meaning that the computer (who is named Helen) has to go up against a graduate student in English. The test is administered via terminal and the answers are presented to the tester who then has to tell which is the computer’s answer and which is the real human’s. Powers reads Helen pretty much everything from Beowolf to Emily Dickinson and the computer does start dealing with some pretty interesting issues w/r/t reading and writing. 

    One exchange between Powers and Helen is particularly cool: Helen, in the days before the Turing test, asks Powers how many books there are. He replies by telling her that the Library of Congress contained 20 million volumes and that the number of new books published increased each year, and would soon reach a million worldwide. He continues that a person, through industry, leisure and longevity might manage to read, in one life, half as many books are published in a day. 

    Helen reached the conclusion that the more days that pass, the less likely that any particular book will be read and the less likely any one of us will run into someone who can have a conversation with us about a book we’ve just read because the chances that any two people will have read the same book will diminish over time. 

    Consequently, Helen asks why do humans write so much or even at all. Powers is great here because he goes back to Nabokov’s afterward to Lolita and says that humans are each pretty much trapped in their own cage, and a book ?bursts like someone else’s cell specifications.” And the difference between the two cages completes an inductive proof of thought’s infinitude. He closes the conversation with Helen with a poem that i think is by Emily Dickinson: 

    There is no Frigate like a Book 

    To take us Lands away 

    Now any Coursers like a Page 

    Of prancing Poetry– 

    The Traverse may the poorest take 

    Without oppress of Toll- 

    How frugal is the Chariot 

    That bears the Human Soul!

    I pretty much highly recommend that anyone who likes reading check this book out.

  • Forgotten Truth, Huston Smith

    probably read this mid-90s

    What follows are a slew of quotes by a book called Forgotten Truth it’s sort of like a grandparent of Power of Myth. I think what he’s getting at with all this stuff here is that we’ve got to believe that there is something bigger than us and that we are part of that something bigger.

    The scientific gauge is quantity: space, size and strength of forces can all be reckoned numerically. The comparable yardstick in the traditional hierarchy was quality.

    To the popular mind quality meant essentially euphoria: better meant happier, worse less happy. Reflective minds, on the other hand, considered happiness to be only an aspect of quality not its defining feature.

    The man of archaic societies tends to live as much as possible in the sacred…because for primitives the sacred is equivalent to power and in the last analysis to reality. The sacred is saturated with being.

    Objects can be larger or smaller, forces can be stronger or weaker, durations can be longer or shorter, these all being numerically reckonable. But to speak of anything in science as having a different ontological status–as being better, say, or more real–is to speak nonsense.

    Itself occupying no more than a single ontological plane, science challenged by implication the notion that other planes exist. As its challenge was not effectively met, it swept the field and gave the modern world it soul. For this is thew final definition of modernity: an outlook in which this world, this ontological plane, is the only one that is genuinely countenanced and affirmed.

    Though man’s conversion to the scientific outlook is understandable psychologically, logically it involves a clean mistake. Insofar as we allow our minds to be guided by reasons, we can see that to try to live within the scientific view of reality would be like living in a house’s scaffolding, and o love it like embracing one’s spouse’s skeleton.

    Norbet Wiener used to make the point by saying: Messages from the universe arrive addressed no more specifically than To Whom it May Concern. Scientists open those that concern them. No mosaic constructed from messages thus narrowly selected can be the full picture.

    Ambiguity seems to be an essential indispensable element for the transfer of information from one place to another by words where maters of real importance are concerned. It is often necessary, for meaning to come through, that there be an almost vague sense of strangeness and askewness. Speechless animals and cells cannot do this. . .Only the human mind is designed to work in this way, programmed to drift away in the presence of locked-on information, straying from each point in a hunt for a better different point.

    Science can tell us what men do prize but not what they should prize. Values, life meanings, purposes and qualities slop through science like sea skips through the nets of fishermen.

    Since reality exceeds what science registers, we must look for other antennae to catch the wavebands it misses.

  • Razor’s Edge, S Maugham

    The Razor’s Edge Somerset Maugham

    Monday, February 03, 1997

    Finished reading this one last night. At by the time I put it down, my opinion of the book had done a huge turn around—from thinking it was a weak, well thought but poorly executed book, to a book that really did have something to say. One reason perhaps for the turnaround is that I realized I was trying to get the wrong information out of the book. I thought the book was telling a different story than the one printed on the pages in front of me. I was second guessing the author, thinking that I knew what he was trying to do and I judged that he was doing a poor job at it. Though eventually, I just started reading it as a story and stopped trying to see through the writer and it occurred to me that if I just read what was in front of me and didn’t go too much deeper behind the words, it was an ok book. 

    I’ll propose a weak analogy here: it was a bit like star wars, which I saw this weekend. If you watch star wars and try to distill some life guiding principals from the Force, you’ll come away disappointed. On the other hand, if you just enjoy the story, the Force is an interesting, integral part of the movie and has its inspiring moments.

    So is there anything wrong with a story that is just that: a story? I don’t think so. I mean, and even as stories go, this one had a lot more to offer than the regular time killing book. I mean it’s a success story done in a completely new way. It’s odd how its connection to the 20’s is pretty clear, but that connection is important in a way unlike the connection Gatsby has with that era. I think in a sense, Maugham uses the era in a way unlike Fitzgerald did and as such gives the reader a slightly different perspective of that era. I think that it would be wise for anyone teaching Gatsby to put this book up along with it for the benefit of the student. 

    The epigraph that starts the novel illustrates this difference:The sharp edge of the razor is difficult to pass over;thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.Katha-Upanishad

    I think that at first I was looking for some sort of connection between Seymore and larry. And while certain similarities exist, there is a historical difference between the two that spans like 20 or thirty years. Maugham doesn’t purport to know anything about what larry is talking about. It’s a good cop out, granted, but it’s also pretty understandable. But even for someone that doesn’t appear to know all that much about what larry is going through, he does have some good insight into the path that larry has chosen. Particularly this piece of dialog that appears much later in the book (269):

    “But that poor little drop of water, when it has once more become one with the sea, has surely lost its individuality.” (Maugham speaking)

    “You want to taste sugar, you don’t want to become sugar. What is individuality but the expression of out egoism? Until the soul has shed the last trace of that it cannot become one with the Absolute.( larry).

    So it appears that Maugham raises the same objection to The Way as yours truly, and he does a hell of a job both expressing it and a damn good job of expressing larry’s argument against that objection.

    His ending is suitable:For all the persons with whom I have been concerned got what they wanted: Elliot social eminence; Isabelle and assured position backed by a substantial fortune in an active and cultured community; Gray a steady and lucrative job, with an office to go to from nine till six every day; Suzanne Rouvier security; Sophie death; Larry happiness.

    I would only fault him for stating so categorically that larry has in fact achieved happiness, because Maugham does seem to skirt the issue of whether individuality is a requisite of happiness. But, once again though, he has only aspired to write a success story about these people and in this universe he is perhaps correct. But in the larger universe of life, I have to wonder whether or not he sort of cheated. I mean what good is a story if the truths it expresses are only valid in the universe created by the author? This is where salinger clearly has the upper hand. Maugham does a damn good job of getting to the point that everyone wants something different out of life and that these people, elliot and gray in particular, should be judged by the criteria they set for themselves. It seems that maugham, by taking this position, is saying that (since a universal criteria is so arbitrary) it is impossible to apply any sort of universal criteria of success to every person’s existence, and each person is required to define his or her own criteria. While I disagree with this argument, Maugham does a really good job expressing it.

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