Don’t Be a Jerk (Unless You Really Can’t Help It), and Other News


On the Shelf

A still from PBS’s Blank on Blank.

  • Before YouTube, people were convinced that all poets were boring, lifeless people who made little ink marks on pages—very sparingly, at that. Fortunately, there’s online video, and there’s never been a better time to witness poets at their mediagenic best. Austin Allen writes, “However scruffy by academic standards, online video libraries have dredged some remarkable treasures from obscurity. Even as they change the way new poets present their work, they’re reshaping our relationship to the history of the craft. ‘Read at random,’ Randall Jarrell advised, and now poetry lovers can view at random too, free-associating our way through the most precious archival footage. It’s a new mode of research, a conjuring of spirits to our private theaters, where at a moment’s notice we can evaluate—or just savor—records that scholars a generation ago would have killed for … What videos give poetry fans above all are performances: windows onto authors’ conceptions of pieces we’ve carried in our own heads; cadences we never detected on the page; obscure material, curiosities, ‘extras.’ ”
  • Honest question: Are you a jerk? No, silly, not a soda jerk—a jerk jerk! An asswipe! You probably think you’re not—that’s so like you—but maybe, giving you the benefit of the doubt, you’ve never had a reliable, fail-safe way to measure your own jerk quotient. Eric Schwitzgebel is here to help, with science: “The first step to the solution is to nail down more clearly what it means to be a jerk. I submit that jerkitude should be accepted as a category worthy of scientific study in its own right. The word jerk is apt and useful. It captures a very real phenomenon that no other concept in psychology quite does. Jerks are people who culpably fail to appreciate the perspectives of the people around them, treating others as tools to be manipulated or fools to be dealt with, rather than as moral and epistemic peers. To be a jerk is to be ignorant in a certain way—ignorant of the value of others, ignorant of the merit of their ideas and plans, dismissive of their desires and beliefs, unforgiving of their perceived inferiority. The nugget of folk wisdom in calling certain people jerks is to highlight this particular species of deficiency.” 

  • Prescience—you gotta love it! PBS’s animated Blank on Blank series reminds us that Aldous Huxley was, all the way back in 1958, predicting some very advanced shit about the rise of technology in our culture: “Well another force which I think is very strongly operative in this country is the force of what may be called of overorganization … As technology becomes more and more complicated, it becomes necessary to have more and more elaborate organizations, more hierarchical organizations, and incidentally the advance of technology is being accompanied by an advance in the science of organization. It’s now possible to make organizations on a larger scale than it was ever possible before, and so that you have more and more people living their lives out as subordinates in these hierarchical systems controlled by bureaucracy, either the bureaucracies of big businesses or the bureaucracies of big government.”
  • It’s important to be courteous, even after you’re dead. A truly considerate person worries not just about how her death will affect her friends and family but about how her decomposing body will affect all of humankind for centuries down the line. That’s why we should go green when we die: “The artist Jae Rhim Lee envisions a pajamas-like burial outfit that would not only encourage bodily deterioration, but would use mushrooms and other microorganisms to remediate any environmental toxins in the flesh, such as from pesticides or pollution … Lee is among a growing movement actively examining ways in which burial, our final personal gesture for our lives, can be greener. Embalming involves toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, which can seep into groundwater; cremation can release these chemicals into the air, and also uses a high amount of energy. Architect Katrina Spade recently proposed the Urban Death Project, involving specially designed towers where human remains could naturally decompose and be transformed into rich soil. The Death Lab at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation imagined using biomass to power cemetery lights as an ephemeral tribute. And Pia Interlandi’s Garments for the Grave are designed to decompose along with the bodies.”
  • New York City recently installed Wi-Fi kiosks on sidewalks, intended to democratize Internet access for the citizenry. Shocker: people just watched a bunch of porn on them. And the Times has helpfully shown us that this isn’t the first time the city has witnessed an ambitious failure: “On the first day of summer in 2005, Snapple sought to break a Guinness World Record by erecting a 25-foot, 35,000-pound tower of flavored ice in Union Square. The kiwi-strawberry pillar was to be the world’s largest Popsicle. If only the sun had cooperated. The massive frozen block, shipped from New Jersey, had barely been raised before it started to liquefy into a pink ooze that spilled out onto the street. The police closed off the surrounding thoroughfares. The Fire Department arrived to hose away the sticky goo.”