The portable cathedral

Today I read an interpretation of the Jewish Sabbath, and a reason for its great importance in the culture, an interpretation that made more sense than any explanation I had ever heard. The gist of it was as follows.

The Jewish people have lived with uncertainty since the destruction of the second temple, around two thousand years ago. There has never been a time when they have been completely secure. As we have seen just from the last century, even the most culturally accepting host culture could turn, in a few years, into something quite the opposite.

Unlike many religious groups, for the last two millenia the Jewish people have not had their cathedral. No Notre Dame, no St. Peter’s, no Anghor Wat, Canterbury Cathedral, Mahabodhi or Great Mosque.

So, it is posited, they built a cathedral not of space but of time. A day of the week, one of every seven, that belongs not to the world but to the spirit. A temple can be defaced, torn down or set on fire, its rubble and ashes strewn over the uncaring countryside.

But a day of the week cannot be destroyed. It is a portable cathedral, packed in one’s bag when fleeing the Pogrom, carried in the heart like a secret, indestructable and serene, ready to serve as a place of worship anywhere in the world.

Thus we may see the brilliance of this cultural adaptation to adversity. So long as a single breath is drawn by those who wish to worship within its walls, so stands the Sabbath.

Clouds from the air

On an airplane today looking out at the clouds, while taking in their majestic loveliness, I found myself pondering the nature of beauty. As far as I can see, we cannot know anything of the nature of beauty outside of human experience, since we can confer on the subject only with our fellow humans.

I don’t expect Martians to land on Earth anytime soon to invite us for tea and some good conversation on the nature of beauty. Our nearest companions here on earth don’t seem particularly interested either. I’ve never known a dog or a cat to look up at a cloud (although I’d be willing to be surprised).

And so we are faced with this odd situation – the wonder of a tree, the dance of a flame, the delightful meandering path of a mountain waterfall, none of these wonders can be teased apart from the human brain that perceives them. Perhaps things matter only because they matter to us.

And so I wonder – does “beauty” exist in the universe outside of the human perception of beauty? Or is the question itself meaningless?

Future Subversive

On a whim I went on-line and watched Ben Stiller’s directorial debut “Reality Bites”, which I had not seen since its opening weekend in 1994. At the time I had enjoyed it, but I hadn’t fully appreciated what Stiller and his partner in crime, screenwriter Helen Childress, were really up to.

On the surface the film is a Gen X take on an age-old romantic triangle. Disaffected young post-college cute girl caught between two guys. One guy is a useless, fickle, completely self-absorbed loser/slacker hottie, the other a kind, sweet, supportive, loving, successful not-as-hottie. So which one turns out to be Mr. Right, her one true love?

Since this is a Hollywood movie, there is only one right answer to this question. Hint: the first guy is played by Ethan Hawke, the second by Ben Stiller himself. Of course she realizes that her one true great love is loser/slacker Hawke.

After all, this was still 1994. Audiences were not yet ready for the sexy-as-hell ICW (Irresistible Child-Woman) to choose Zach Braff – “Garden State” was still a full decade away. Wynona Ryder’s job was to fill the deep and yawning vacuum in the ICWU (Irresistible Child-Woman Universe) that had begun with the retirement of Audrey Hepburn from motion pictures. Yes, Natalie Portman was already bursting on the scene, but she was not yet ready to be seen as an object of full-on ICW lust (there was still too much of an inconvenient proportion of Child), unless you happened to be Luc Besson.

But I digress.

The genius of Stiller and Childress is that the entire enterprise is a subversive satire of the conventions of romantic comedy. There is no “other guy shows his true evil colors”. There is no “good guy does something to redeem himself and show he is at last ready for a grown up relationship” in the third act. None at all in fact.

Throughout the entire film, Stiller’s character remains the perfect gentleman, loving, thoughtful, caring, believing in the potential of the woman he loves. Whereas Hawke’s character persists in acting like a total bastard. He insults her, throws tantrums like a three year old, runs away after intimacy, blames her for his own failings, and does absolutely nothing – ever – to redeem himself.

But this is a Hollywood romance, and casting is destiny, so of course she realizes that the slacker/loser is her great love and soulmate. Basically, this film is the ultimate raised finger to everything that’s stupid and unthinking about the idiocy of the Hollywood formula.

You have to hand it to Stiller and Childress. They sailed this right past an entire nation, and as far as I can tell, at the time nobody even noticed what was really going on. Now of course we have seen “The Cable Guy”, “Zoolander” and “Tropic Thunder”, so we know exactly how subversive Ben Stiller is.

I wonder whether this is a kind of identifiable genre: Works of art that shout out their true message to an audience still far in the future – after all, that’s what D. A. Pennebaker was doing with “Don’t Look Back” – a genre that we might perhaps call “Future Subversive”.

Natural allies

Today over lunch somebody explained to me some of the dynamics behind the way the music industry lost control of the debate over song distribution. It was something I hadn’t really thought through before, and I found it fascinating.

For many years the recording industry had been taking a hard line with musicians. The general attitude was “We’re putting all this money into production support, promotion and distribution. Therefore we should get the lion’s share of the profits.” Artists responded by learning to depend upon another source of income: Concerts and touring. While the industry was making money hand-over-fist, first on record sales and then later on CD sales, musicians learned to maximize their earning power as performers, rather than relying on the modest cut they received as recording artists.

It all worked fine until the dawn of the age of internet downloading. Suddenly the recording industry found that its natural ally – the artist – didn’t really care. Consumers would have listened if their beloved musicians had asked them not to indulge in free downloading. But the musicians simply weren’t all that invested in the issue.

And so the great unwashed masses of the music-loving public engaged in a massive collective act of intellectual property theft, and the industry was powerless to stop them. In the end, the labels were brought to their knees.

And one could argue that they were done in by their own greed, which had led them to establish an adversarial relationship with their greatest natural allies – the recording artists.

Fortunately for the film industry, directors and actors make their money through film sales, not through film promotion. So Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep and all the other glamorous Hollywood icons are right in step with the studios on this one.

I guess there is a lesson in this: Don’t get too greedy. You never know when you’ll need friends.

St. Patrick’s Day, American style

St Patrick’s Day in the U.S. is a very weird phenomenon. Here in New York City green-clad people stagger around on the streets and stumble in and out of Irish themed bars, drunk out of their minds. And most of those people are not even Irish. It’s obvious at first glance that many of these people are of Italian or Puerto Rican or Eastern European descent, or from some other place far from the Emerald Isle. So clearly something is going on here besides ethnic identity.

The morbidly funny thing about all this is that it is such a U.S. phenomenon. In Ireland St. Patrick’s Day is a religious holiday. Some people might lift a pint at the pub, but not especially more than on other days.

And yet in America everybody goes crazy. For me the whole spectacle lost whatever little charm it had once held the year I saw a man in his sixties, dressed in a nice suit, falling down in the gutter, obviously soused out of his mind, while his equally well dressed wife pleaded helplessly with him to get up. Clearly the man had gotten caught up in the general madness, and had forgotten when to stop ordering more drinks. As I looked on in horror, I realized that sad little scenes like this were most likely playing out all over the city.

Remember how strange it was in Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” to see Japanese people dressing up like cowboys and pretending to be exotic Americans? That’s how I imagine this would all seem to anybody from Dublin who happened to find themselves this side of the big pond on March 17.

Perhaps somewhere in the world, maybe in Latvia or Bora Bora, there is a little village where the people have voted to declare one day of the year “George Washington Day.” On this magical day, everybody wears American colors and drinks to that great patriot from Virginia – drinks until they are all falling down drunk and flopping on the ground like fish. Imagine you were to come upon this little down on that particular day, only to find crazed foreigners staggering around all piss-eyed and incoherent in their red, white and blue striped costumes.

Wouldn’t you find it all just a little bit disturbing?

Watching the Watchmen

Actually watching “Watchmen” (in IMAX, I might add) was an odd experience, after having been immersed in the great written work by Alan Moore, upon which it is based. So many details are correct, so much loving care has gone into respecting the source. And yet while watching it I felt the strain – the attempt to suggest a vast and sweeping epic in the space of a mere 2½ hours. Of course it’s the same with all films that adopt novels – large chunks of what you loved about the original never make it to the screen – often some of the most compelling and powerful parts. We might call this the Tom Bombadil problem (if you don’t know what that refers to, you’ve been missing a truly great book).

But I thought the resonance was right (with the exception of one role that was miscast). You really feel the book, its rhythm and its crazy psychological logic, oozing out of the pores of the film, just as Horton Foote made you feel Harper Lee’s writing in his adaptation for the screen of “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

By streamlining down to essentials the book may in fact better serve Alan Moore’s intent than the book ever did. At heart, it’s a meditation on the strangeness of vigilante justice: The more focused you become on serving the greater good of humanity at any cost, the less you are able to focus on the value of a single life.

And at some point it all goes ‘pataphysical: the ultimate “good” superhero is the ultimate Nietzschean monster. “Watchmen” lays bare the choices: What kind of superhero do you want to be, and therefore which brand of insanity will you embrace?

Because the novel was so rich, and went into so many dimensions at once, both psychologically and aesthetically, this central point was sometimes hard to see. But in the movie it comes across loud and clear.

And that’s one of the great things about movies. You don’t really have any time to explain anything in detail – but instead you can insert a visual that tells the same thing on a gut emotional level. And visual images have a way of getting into our memory on a more primal level than mere words on a page. All part of the magic of cinema.

Whether that’s a good thing or not, I have no idea.

Dogs and cats

People in the U.S. and in much of the world don’t eat dogs and cats. But it goes beyond that. If you even mention the idea of eating dogs and cats, people will get very upset and try to change the subject. There is clearly some taboo here – something that goes beyond the rational.

On an emotional level, it’s as though dogs and cats have an intermediate place in our collective consciousness – somewhere between “human” and “animal” – and for this they get a free pass out of our food chain. It’s clearly not a free pass that we collectively extend to other animals. People are perfectly content to watch a film like “Babe” and then go home and cook up some pork chops, without batting an eye. But even the idea of somebody frying up Rover or little Tigger will send most people into a tizzy.

I was involved in a discussion last week about this, and somebody raised the theory that there is some co-evolution going on here. There are sound practical reasons for humans to cohabit with dogs and cats. Dogs were the first burgler alarms – their barking has probaby saved many a soul from hostile invaders over the millennia. Cats, of course, have historically been the main line of defense against disease-carrying competitors for human food sources, such as rats and mice.

If you gain a survival advantage from spending time in the company of another species, it probably furthers that advantage to develop an emotional attachment to members of that species. And this attachment will go both ways – humans can afford protection and a steady food supply to the dogs and cats in their company, and so dogs and cats would have co-evolved to want to hang out with us as well.

One glaring contradiction to this theory is that canine exceptionalism is not universal among humans. In the markets of Shanghai you can purchase a dog for the purpose of cooking and eating at home – a dog that looks very much like that cute stray many Americans and Europeans would welcome into a loving family.

So what is going on here? Why are pigs and cows – even those pigs and cows that people on a farm might bond with and feel affection for – suitable for eating upon their demise, whereas dogs and cats are not?

This is not a video

Sometime in the early 1990s I was visiting my friend Ephraim and his family. We went to the video store to rent a video, and on the way out the door Ephraim held up the box and said to me “this is not a videotape”.

I said “Of course it’s a videotape”. He said no, that’s just incidental. It’s actually a physical brick that video rental places distribute so that customers will understand that they are renting intellectual property. Customers need to bring the brick back to the store, thereby forcing them to acknowledge that they need to relinquish the intellectual property when they are done renting it.

Because concepts like “intellectual property” are somewhat abstract, a system was developed to make people carry around these bulky boxes with pictures on them. Ephraim went on to explain that the technology was already sufficiently developed that the videotapes were really unnecessary, but it wouldn’t serve the industry’s purpose to make them virtual. Without the boxes with tapes inside them, people might not understand that they were paying only for a temporary license to view a movie.

At the time I thought Ephraim’s comment was insightful yet a bit weird. Now of course – fifteen years later – the rest of the world has caught up with him. The boxes have indeed become virtual, and the very problems and misunderstandings he predicted are part of the fabric of our lives.

Because the music industry did a bad job explaining to people that a digital download is merely a limited license to intellectual property, rather than a transfer of ownership, the entire industry was brought to its knees.

The movie industry seems to be doing significantly better in making the transition, but the jury is still out. I would say that all in all there is now a greater awareness on the part of consumers – now that there is no physical brick to serve as a token – that they are actually paying for a limited license to intellectual property.

One thing is for certain: It sure is nice not to have to bring the brick back to the video store when you’re done watching the movie.

Useful responses

Another Friday the 13th (that makes two months in a row now!) and today I found out that somebody in a position of trust – authority actually – did something thoughtless which was quite hurtful both to me and to people I care about. And I also know they weren’t acting out of meanness or vindictiveness, but rather out of incompetence and perhaps a kind of dull unthinking stupidity.

Of course I went through all kinds of rage reactions in my head, but I already knew from long hard experience, even as various angry responses flooded my thoughts, that I had better filter out all of those reactions before saying or doing anything.

And instead, after I’d had time to contemplate the situation, I found myself formulating a plan. I resolved that rather than react to the action they had taken, I would try to understand what had led them to do it – what was the underlying structural problem they were dealing with so ineptly. And so, rather than respond directly, I’ve resolved to respond indirectly – by doing something good and generous, something that has the effect of helping and protecting the people I care about, and helping to make those people less vulnerable to thoughtless acts by those in positions of authority.

As you can tell, I’m not giving any specifics here. After all, this is a real situation involving real people, and therefore it is delicate. But the principle can be discussed: When somebody else’s stupidity makes your world a poorer place, don’t even bother with that person – there is nothing to be gained there. Instead, figure out the particular richness their carelessness has taken from the world, and find a way to put an even greater richness back. Do something which undeniably makes the universe a better place, and helps the people you love.

And, incidentally, this approach gives you something actually productive to do with all of that negative energy, rather than wasting it on useless arguments. I am reminded of Mark Twain’s wonderful quip: “Never try to teach a pig to sing. You’ll only waste your time, and annoy the pig.”


The thoughtful responses to yesterday’s post really got me thinking. Why don’t we see more of the sorts of front-end + back-end consortia that would clearly serve everyone – such as the ability to add external database operations to the results of a Google search?

Google presents its search engine only through a monolithic access point. Unless you make a different business arrangement with Google, Inc., you can only access those powerful search algorithms through a relatively simplistic interface. I assume that this is because Google wants to remain a vertical monopoly – just one carefully branded route to its underlying search engine, unless you pay to become a business client for other uses of that engine.

But perhaps it might be in Google’s long-term interest to “let a thousand flowers bloom” – to allow others to try their hand at building alternate interfaces on top of the core search engine.

I’m not suggesting here that everyone program in SQL – any more than we would expect every consumer to implement an IPhone app. The key is to allow a vibrant community of people to do so, in a way that is of use to many more people. If Google were to allow more access to the underlying engine, then some people would start to come up with uses for the engine that Google couldn’t possible have thought of – because Google, as big as it is, and as smart as its employees are, cannot replace an entire economy of implementers.

There seems to be an underlying question here: How does a profit-oriented corporation make the best win-win arrangement with a peripheral group of folks who inhabit a more freewheeling microeconomic style of creation? Consumers in general are best served when those two forces combine to create a synthesis whereby everybody wins: (i) The corporation wins because ever new markets are found for its core engine (its greatest strength); (ii) The individual implementer community is able to do things that nobody would have done otherwise; (iii) The larger community of users wins because all these innovative, more-focused, easier-to-use, tailor-made interfaces start appearing in their lives, or at least become available at on-line check-out counters.

Maybe one way for U.S. industry to work its way out of the current economic malaise is to figure out how to harness our collective brainpower to foster new information microeconomies.