There Will Be No More Birthday Celebrations, and Other News


On the Shelf

The insignia of a master.

  • Mike Davis was an artist, and the irate company-wide memorandum was his canvas. Few in the history of humankind have recognized the savage beauty of this lowliest of media. But Davis—the erstwhile head of Tiger Oil Company, and now dead at eighty-five—shattered the limits of the form with routine ease, showing us just how big an asshole one man could be to his employees. Consider his memos a spin-off of the Theater of Cruelty: “ ‘There will be no more birthday celebrations, birthday cakes, levity or celebrations of any kind within the office,’ the boss wrote on Feb. 8, 1978. ‘This is a business office. If you have to celebrate, do it after office hours on your own time.’ … ‘Do not speak to me when you see me,’ the man had ordered in a memo the month before. ‘If I want to speak to you, I will do so. I want to save my throat. I don’t want to ruin it by saying hello to all of you.’ ”
  • It’s hard enough to get a human being to pay to read your book. Now robots are refusing to pony up, too. Google has just “fed” some eleven thousand books to its artificial intelligence, hoping to teach it how to talk like a real boy. But even though they’re rolling in the dough, Google didn’t pay any of the authors of these books, Richard Lea writes: “After feeding these books into a neural network, the system was able to generate fluent, natural-sounding sentences. According to a Google spokesman—who didn’t want to be named—products such as the Google app will be ‘much more useful if they can capture the nuance of language better’ … ‘The research in question uses these novels for the exact purpose intended by their authors—to be read,’ [Authors Guild executive director Mary Rasenberger] argues. ‘It shouldn’t matter whether it’s a machine or a human doing the copying and reading, especially when behind the machine stands a multibillion dollar corporation which has time and again bent over backwards devising ways to monetize creative content without compensating the creators of that content.’ ” 

  • If you’re like me, the only thing stopping you from seeing Shakespeare’s history plays is their intertextual cross talk—you can’t really understand one without taking in the whole bunch, so why bother? No more excuses, though. Gary Wills explains, “the Chicago Shakespeare Theater has tried to solve this problem by showing three plays in a single day (running six hours with a dinner break, the procedure followed for some lengthy Wagner operas) … The second gulp, “Civil Strife,” comes now to open the Fall season, presenting Henry VI, Parts Two and Three, and the ever-popular Richard III … Barbara Gaines, the founding director of the Chicago company and the primary force behind the series, is a pacifist, so she thinks the deep futility of war is the most important (and relevant) aspect of these plays. She is right to find in Shakespeare an understanding that war poisons all social relationships. The three parts of Henry VI find multiple ways to emphasize this point. These early works are still influenced by the medieval morality plays and by festival pageants as living traditions. They can be as didactic as such ethical allegories.”