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Posts Tagged ‘maps’

Michael Herr, 1940–2016

June 27, 2016 | by

Photograph by Jane Bown

Photograph by Jane Bown.

No one could write like Michael Herr. We all tried: scribes and grunts, killers and chroniclers, fool novelists and crackpot journos. Herr’s work doesn’t so much loom over contemporary war writing as course within it, a dark ideal and omen all at once. The electricity of the language. The power—and futility—of bearing witness. The howling, howling rage. Whether you were reading him for the first or the hundredth time, you always felt like his pages were offering a strange air; not oxygen exactly, but still something vital. Dexedrine breath, maybe, like dead snakes kept too long in a jar.

That’s one of his lines, of course. No one could write like Herr.

Herr, a titan of New Journalism, died last week, at the age of seventy-six. He made his name in Vietnam as a young Esquire correspondent who shunned official briefings for infantry patrols in the jungle and helo assaults with the air cav. He sometimes carried a rifle to gain access, and once told the Boston Globe, “I only had to use a weapon twice. And I had to, I had to. It was impossible not to.”  

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Elaborate Networks of Siphons, and Other News

May 13, 2016 | by

Detail from an illustration in an 1851 English edition of Hero’s Pneumatica.

  • While we’re on government-generated weekend-reading material: if you’re feeling morbid, you could try, instead, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s catalog of the ways people have died on the job. Something about its bland, administrative style makes it a chillingly effective memento mori: “Worker was crushed when tractor he was driving, pulling a bin dumper full of pomegranates, fell onto its side. Worker was possibly trying to make a U-turn while going too fast … Worker was engulfed after standing on a pile of beans at a bean plant … Worker was crushed by a rack of baked goods … Worker was eating lunch and swallowed a bee … ”
  • Well before the likes of Alan Turing, the notion of artificial intelligence came alive in automata, i.e., self-moving machines. The first robots were, in a sense, waterworks. Jessica Riskin writes:Many involved elaborate networks of siphons that activated various actions as the water passed through them, especially figures of birds drinking, fluttering, and chirping … Waterworks, including but not limited to ones using siphons, were probably the most important category of automata in antiquity and the middle ages. Flowing water conveyed motion to a figure or set of figures by means of levers or pulleys or tripping mechanisms of various sorts. A late twelfth-century example by an Arabic automaton-maker named Al-Jazari is a peacock fountain for handwashing, in which flowing water triggers little figures to offer the washer first a dish of perfumed soap powder, then a hand towel.”
  • It’s one thing to translate a dead author, who can no longer quibble with your decisions—but a living author is another matter entirely. “The few living authors I’ve translated,” Lydia Davis says in a new interview with Liesl Schillinger, “tend to be very modest and self-effacing, like Snijders and Blanchot, so they’ll say, Whatever you think is best, this is really your work, that sort of thing. I have had friends who have had very different experiences with authors, who say, No, that’s not it at all, and virtually force them to write in a way that they’re not happy writing. I’ve had times when I wished an author were still alive, especially in the case of Michel Leiris, so I could ask, What exactly did you mean? Actually, Leiris sent me a couple of postcards that I framed. His handwriting is great, black spidery old man’s handwriting. As I remember, he said something like, I’m here to help in any way I can. I don’t think I took advantage of his offer, which is something I really regret, now.”

Martians—They’re Just Like Us! And Other News

December 2, 2015 | by

Robert Abbett’s cover art for John Carter of Mars, 1965.

  • Compared to writers at the beginning of their careers, successful authors have an enormous freedom to experiment with form and style: their reputations are sound. And yet so few of our most prominent authors risk anything in their books. Writers like Haruki Murakami and John Irving compare their readers to addicts, “always waiting” for the fix of a new book; Tim Parks asks if “addiction” is really what an author should seek in his readers. “If a writer accepts such addiction, or even rejoices in it, as Murakami seems to, doesn’t it put pressure on him, as pusher, to offer more of the same? In fact it would be far more plausible to ascribe the failure (aesthetic, but not commercial) of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and indeed Franzen’s Purity, not to the author’s willingness to take exciting risks with new material … but rather to a tired, lackluster attempt to produce yet another bestseller in the same vein … to create anything genuinely new writers need to risk failure, indeed to court failure, aesthetically and commercially, and to do it again and again throughout their lives, something not easy to square with the growing tendency to look on fiction writing as a regular career.”
  • On social media, hyperbole reigns supreme: I’m literally dying because it’s the worst thing ever. It can be hard to mock or even to coolly discuss the trend toward overreaction without sounding like an uptight dad with a wedgie—but let’s try to have that conversation, because right now we’re standing at the brink of Total Overstatement. The Internet, Jessica Bennett writes, “has taken all these speech patterns and hit them with a dose of caffeine: the need to express emotion in bite-size, 140-character bits; the fact that we must come up with increasingly creative ways to express tone and emphasis when facial cues are not an option. There’s a performative element, too: We are expressing things with an audience in mind … Yet if a bacon-flavored ice cream sundae gives you all the ‘feels ever,’ or you are ‘dead’ over a cute cat photo, how do you respond if something is actually dramatic?”
  • Along with hyperbole, the Internet has made a cozy home for trite bursts of New Age pabulum, and science has at last intervened to ask: Why does anyone like this shit? Last month a journal called Judgment and Decision Making published “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit,” by Gordon Pennycook and colleagues. “People who are more susceptible to BS,” he found, “score lower for verbal and fluid intelligence, are more prone to ‘conspiratorial ideation,’ and more likely to ‘endorse complementary and alternative medicine’ … In a series of studies, the authors presented participants with randomly assembled pseudo-profound statements, Deepak Chopra tweets, and tests of cognitive and reasoning ability… In general, the profoundness ratings that participants gave the BS statements were very similar to those they gave to Chopra’s tweets.”
  • Given the ever more likely presence of water on Mars, it’s time to reevaluate the Martian in fiction. Though the Martians of the later twentieth century were often destructive, bloodthirsty creatures with only a superficial resemblance to humankind, the earliest Martians were basically exactly like people—demonstrating either a failure of imagination or a deep optimism. Percy Greg’s 1880 novel Across the Zodiac features a polygamous society of ‘Martialists’—diminutive men and women, less than five feet tall, who look a little bit like Swedish people and dominate the planet. They’re an agricultural society: they raise one-horned antelope-like creatures, birds ‘about twice the size of a crow,’ and a range of crops, that, besides their color, basically resemble plants on Earth … In Aleriel (1883), Martians are about twice the size of humans and much more hairy; in Stranger’s Sealed Package (1889), besides being blue, they are essentially the same as humans—they even share ancient ancestors.”
  • One of the more bizarre artifacts of the eugenics movement is this 1904 map showing “The Distribution of Men of Talent” throughout our fair nation. Its author, Gustave Michaud, thought we needed to see where geniuses lived in high density so that, I don’t know, laypeople could move to their towns and force them to reproduce with us, spawning a new generation of baby geniuses. Unsurprisingly, Michaud contended that the overwhelming majority of geniuses lived in New England, and that Wyoming was all but genius-free. Sorry, Wyoming.

Old Maps

November 17, 2015 | by

Islandia, a map by Abraham Ortelius, ca. 1590.

Many years ago, on a family vacation in another country, we took an English-language tour of a medieval university. The group saw the antique telescopes and charts used by famous astronomers, and the stone-floored laboratories where philosophers had tried to turn lead into gold. And there was a room filled with maps—sixteenth-century maps, we were told. These were objects of beauty, filled with colors and sea monsters, fanciful by modern standards. Read More »

A Corporation for Every Artist, and Other News

October 21, 2015 | by

Andy Warhol, lenticular prints designed for Rain Machine (Los Angeles version), 1971. Image via Hyperallergic

  • Fact: there are men still walking the earth who have shared a meal at Denny’s with Orson Welles. “One day in 1974, Orson Welles, John Huston, and the comedian Rich Little were sitting in a Denny’s near Carefree, Arizona, about to order a meal … A waitress approached the table where the three men sat. She recognized Little right away. After bantering with the impressionist for a bit, she nodded toward Welles and asked Little, ‘Who’s your fat friend?’ Huston, saving the day, answered for Little with a straight face. ‘You know, we don’t actually know this man,’ he said, indicating Welles. ‘We picked him up on the highway and he seemed undernourished. We’re going to feed him and then send him on his way.’”
  • Today in the sex lives of whalers: few things speak to the hardships of a whaler’s life than dildos, which were ubiquitous (or, okay, maybe just not uncommon) in the New England homes such men abandoned for the seas. At least one such dildo survives to this day, all plaster and memories. “By 1830, the average length of a whaling voyage was thirty months, but they were often longer—Nantucket wives were dubbed ‘Cape Horn widows,’ because their husbands might be gone for eight years. In Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab tells his first mate, Starbuck, that of the past forty years of ‘making war on the horrors of the deep’ he’d only been ashore three, leaving only ‘one dent in [his] marriage pillow.’ ‘[W]ife?’ Ahab rages, ‘wife?—rather a widow with her husband alive!’ The dildos, called ‘he’s-at-homes’ in some books on the history of the Yankee whale fishery, were meant to be some insurance of fidelity for a husband who was rarely present.”
  • Halloween is coming, which means it’s time to practice an age-old ritual: reading online essays about books bound in human skin. Bonus points if you go on to give them to trick-or-treaters. “The earliest examples of books bound in human skin date from the seventeenth century and were produced in Europe and the United States … Many of the earliest examples relate to punishment. England’s Murder Act of 1751 stipulated that those convicted of murder would not only be executed but, as an additional deterrent, could not be buried … making items out of criminals’ skins provided yet another way to ensure the body stayed aboveground. A famous example of such punishment was the body of William Burke, who, with his accomplice William Hare, killed sixteen people in a ten-month period in 1828 in Edinburgh, Scotland, and then sold the bodies to medical schools. After being caught, executed, and dissected, some of Burke’s skin was used to make a pocketbook as a final—and lasting—humiliation.”
  • Back in the sixties, Kaiser Steel, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, RAND, and Lockheed Aircraft started a program to match artists with corporations—a kind of late-model patronage system. “Some of the collaborations resulted in successful projects. Working with the magazine publisher Cowles Communication Inc., Andy Warhol created holographic photographs of daisies … Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Ice Bag (1969) was produced in collaboration with WED Enterprises, the design and development branch of Disney. The pink sculpture was designed to undulate and twist as it deflated and inflated, in accordance with Oldenburg’s interest in objects that broke and then reconstituted themselves … Richard Serra, who was matched with the Kaiser Steel Corporation, created stacked sculptures that did not differ radically from his usual output. In contrast, Robert Rauschenberg, who collaborated with the industrial company Teledyne, created an installation that split from his best-known assemblage work but was consistent with his later interest in viewer-activated spaces.”
  • Andrew DeGraff’s Plotted: A Literary Atlas makes maps from great literature, allowing you at last to visualize, say, every nook and cranny of the bleak terrain in Waiting for Godot. Hours of fun await. “DeGraff’s book … raises the question of the way we tenuously hold fictional universes in our minds. Absent anything concretely visual to latch onto, we create messy, complex maps to maintain a grip on the disorienting profusion of information coming at us. If we could transcribe these mental representations, they would probably look less like DeGraff’s thorough, well-executed images and more like those medieval maps, with small pockets of knowledge surrounded by huge swaths of emptiness. In literature, as in life, we can’t see everything. We can’t keep track of all the details, nor can we truly envision specific geographies, even ones we’ve visited before.”

The Honeymoon Package

October 13, 2015 | by

Pál Szinyei Merse, Balloon, 1882.

 

She said that my good qualities were my bad qualities—this I have come to realize is true of everyone. On the one hand, I was game, eager and perfectly ready to see what was in front of me. On the other hand, I had no sense of direction or destiny. —Laurie Colwin

Those of us without a sense of direction have never known anything else; its absence is more annoying to others than to us. Actually, to us it seems normal to be marooned in a mysterious landscape, reliant on technology, at the mercy of others. Maps are of course inscrutable; they depend on an essential understanding of space. It is interesting, and sometimes enviable, that other people should have an internal compass. But also strange, and maybe even sinister. How do they know? Read More »