Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Barbie: She talks the talk, but does she walk the walk?

Hello Barbie
Christopher Stark for The New York Times

So . . . Barbie now speaks her mind. Maybe we'll find out what she really thinks of Ken. But the real question is . . . how do we get her to stop talking? Or more to the point, to stop listening. I'm serious, sort of. Read this:
This fall, Mattel plans to introduce Hello Barbie, a Wi-Fi enabled version of the iconic doll, which uses ToyTalk's system to analyze a child's speech and produce relevant responses.

"She's a huge character with an enormous back story," Mr. [Oren Jacob, the chief executive of ToyTalk,] . . . says of Barbie. "We hope that when she's ready, she will have thousands and thousands of things to say and you can speak to her for hours and hours" . . .
Fine, if you want a doll that can outtalk you. But what else is it doing? Listening?
"Is this going to be some creepy doll that records what is going on in your home without you knowing it?" asks Nicole A. Ozer, the director of technology and civil liberties at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. "What is being recorded? How long is it being stored? Who is it being shared with?"
This is only the beginning of a new generation of 'intelligent' toys, and they'll be getting more and more 'intelligent.' For more on this, see Natasha Singer's article, "A Wi-Fi Barbie Doll With the Soul of Siri" (NYT, March 28, 2015).

This could get creepy . . . or even scary.

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Monday, March 30, 2015

Dylan and Cash and the Nashville Cats

Art by Jon Langford

I'm blogging about this exhibit that opened last Friday because I like both Dylan and Cash - and because I like the above image by artist and musician Jon Langford. You can read about this era when rock and country 'first' met in Alan Light's "'Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats,' an Unlikely Alliance of Rock and Country" (NYT, March 27, 2015):
The era is documented in "Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City," an ambitious exhibition that opened this week at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The show points to three primary forces behind the migration to the Music Row studios: Bob Dylan's journey here to record the "Blonde on Blonde" album in 1966; the ABC television series "The Johnny Cash Show," which filmed at the Ryman Auditorium from 1969 until 1971; and an extraordinary group of session musicians informally known as the "Nashville Cats," who played in one form or fashion on virtually all of these recordings, including albums by Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Linda Ronstadt, Simon and Garfunkel, and three of the four Beatles.
Yet, some people still think Country Music is limited to rednecks and hillbillies! Of course, I did use to watch a lot of Porter Wagoner back in my hillbilly days.

Well, get back, honky cat . . .

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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Michael Zelehoski - Hard to believe they ain't paintings . . .

Michael Zelehoski

Hard to believe, but Michael Zelehoski's artworks - such as Pallet - are not paintings:
Mike Weiss Gallery is pleased to announce that Musée National d'Art Moderne - Centre Pompidou has added Michael Zelehoski's Open House to its permanent collection. With his upcoming show New Order opening on May 7th at Mike Weiss Gallery, this news could not have come at a more exciting time.

Zelehoski starts with 3-dimensional found objects - from pallets to dilapidated houses - and restructures them into 2-dimensional assemblages. At first glance the works seem like paintings, but actually are meticulously engineered collages of hundreds of parts that play with perspective and its inherent subjectivity. The work hovers between sculpture's three-dimensionality and painting's historical flatness, often activating both types of space and breaking with our typical consideration of the picture plane. Zelehoski's work celebrates the eccentricities inherent in his chosen material, rendering remarkable compositions from otherwise unremarkable objects.
Entirely correct! Just look at the above image. Doesn't it look like a painting? It's flatness, however, is deceiving . . .


Saturday, March 28, 2015

Marius as Heathcliff?

Bad to the Bone
Google Books

I'm glad I'm not the only reader to see that Howard Jacobson was channeling Emily Brontë in his novel The Act of Love through his depiction of Marius as Heathcliff, though not in each and every respect, of course, but the resemblance is definitely there in Marius's dark good looks, rough roguish manners, and corruscating intellectual brilliance:
Marius is Much Wenlock's answer to Heathcliff, brooding and muscular. (Tim Adams, "Take my wife . . . and I wish somebody would," The Guardian, October 5, 2008)
Not that we had no assistance from Jacobson himself, for he 'hints' as much on page 41: "the Heathcliff-if-all-else-perishes rocky-eternity beneath you."

The book is morbidly fascinating and forces its readers into assuming the perversely voyeuristic perspective of the first-person narrator, Felix Quinn, manipulator par excellence who somehow brings his wife and Marius into an affair that appears headed toward disaster for all.

I say appears because I've finished all but ten percent of the novel and have yet to see how things end . . .

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Friday, March 27, 2015

Hodes . . . Hodegs . . . Hodges!

A Story Takes Flight

I recently received the published version of my paper "The Mis-Education of Horace Hodges," which I presented at Chung-Ang University's Storytelling Conference last December, and I've pasted the abstract below:
Horace Jeffery Hodes, (2015). The Mis-Education of Horace Hodegs. Storytelling, 1(2), 52-69. This paper attempts to give listeners the experience of storytelling, from the perspective of both a storyteller and a listener, by alternating between relating stories and analyzing them, and so beginning with allusions to Cervantes, Shakespeare, Henry Adams, and Charles Darwin, the paper traverses hillbilly concern with storytelling as lying, through a 'just-so' children's story by the author of this paper, through a tall tale by Bob Dylan from his Chronicles, through another tale by Dylan, but in song, then on to remarks on truth and the believability of stories in the thought of Plato, Boccaccio, Sir Philip Sydney, Shakespeare, and Coleridge, then again a story through showing Milton recounting one in Paradise Lost, wherein he also claims to receive divine inspiration, then on through Hans Blumenberg's thoughts on myth, to another story, a Faustian one by the author himself, drawn partly from Bulgakov's own Faustian tale in his novel The Master and Margarita, and finally concluding with Nietzsche on poets as liars and the author's admission that the whole paper has been a lie.
Attentive readers will have already noted that my surname is misspelled twice in bold font! I swear I wasn't the heterographic malefactor, though who will believe me since I have owned up - in the above abstract - to being a liar.

Speaking frankly, however, I'm surprised to see my middle name, "Jeffery," spelled correctly, but my surname misspelled! The opposite is usually the case.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

David Brooks on Three Kinds of Anti-Semitism

David Brooks

Since I've been speaking of religious intolerance lately, let's take a glance at an Opinion piece by David Brooks titled "How to Fight Anti-Semitism" (NYT, March 24, 2015), in which makes a threefold distinction among types of Anti-Semitism:
In the Middle East, anti-Semitism has the feel of a deranged theoretical system for making sense of a world gone astray . . . This sort of anti-Semitism thrives where there aren't that many Jews. The Jew is not a person but an idea, a unique carrier of transcendent evil: a pollution, a stain, a dark force responsible for the failures of others, the unconscious shame and primeval urges they feel in themselves, and everything that needs explaining. This is a form of derangement, a flight from reality even in otherwise sophisticated people . . .

In Europe, anti-Semitism looks like a response to alienation. It's particularly high where unemployment is rampant. Roughly half of all Spaniards and Greeks express unfavorable opinions about Jews. The plague of violence is fueled by young Islamic men with no respect and no place to go . . .

The United States is also seeing a rise in the number of anti-Semitic incidents. But this country remains an astonishingly non-anti-Semitic place. America's problem is the number of people who can't fathom what anti-Semitism is or who think Jews are being paranoid or excessively playing the victim . . .
I would alter what Brooks says about Anti-Semitism in Europe. It's not primarily a response to alienation, not among Muslims, anyway. The "young Islamic men" who turn to violence are absorbing much of the Middle East's "deranged theoretical system." This system, as described by Brooks, sounds like a religious one, given the talk of Jews as "evil," as a kind of "pollution," as a "dark force," even as the reason for this "world gone astray."

An article by Bernard Lewis, "The Roots of Muslim Rage," is good for understanding why much of the Muslim world has grown delusional about its failures. You can read this article in The Atlantic (but after clicking on the link, you have to wait for about 15 seconds for some sort of ad to disappear).

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Phillip Jenkins on the end of Middle Eastern Christianity

Mosaic in Hagia Sophia
A Long-Lost Church
Baylor Magazine

Baylor professor Phillip Jenkins, adapting for Baylor Magazine (Winter 2015) an article originally published in Christianity Today, asks "Is this the end for Mideast Christianity?" I excerpt at length here from his answer:
For Christians in the Middle East, 2014 has been a catastrophe, . . . [though Iraqi Christians had] long believed they could maintain a foothold around Mosul, . . . [but] Islamist militants have controlled Mosul since June 10. Even if the total extermination of each and every believer is not the goal, those ancient communities and churches face the prospect of utter ruin . . .

The current battles are part of a lengthy story. Islam gained power over the Middle East in the seventh century, but . . . [Christians] retained . . . [a majority] for more than 500 years. Not until the 14th century did persecution become systematic and violent . . . [but even as] recently as 1914, Christians still made up 10 percent of the whole region from Egypt to Persia (Iran) . . .

Matters changed swiftly during World War I. Massacres and expulsions all but removed the once very large Armenian and Greek communities in Anatolia (now Turkey) . . . Emerging Arab nations also targeted Christians. Iraq's slaughter of Assyrians in 1933 gave lawyer Raphael Lemkin a basis upon which he defined the concept of genocide. The partition of Palestine and subsequent crises in the region massively shrunk other ancient Christian groups. The modern story of the Christian Middle East is one of contraction and collapse . . .

How bad could this get? All local Christians know the answer. They look back at the experience of Jews, who flourished across the region just a century ago but have now vanished from virtually every Mideast nation outside Israel . . . The only Christian community that seems secure is the Copts, perhaps eight million strong, and a solid majority in some of Egypt's southern districts. Even so, after the crisis there of the past two years, the potential remains for imminent civil conflict and Islamist violence . . .

More broadly, these events teach us about the long-term trajectories of Christian history. They show how churches vanish and, more important perhaps, how they survive under the direst of circumstances . . . One lesson emerges strongly: However often we talk of churches dying, they rarely do so without extraordinary external intervention. Churches don't die because their congregations age, their pastors behave scandalously, the range of programs they offer wears thin, or their theology becomes muddled. Churches vanish when they are deliberately and efficiently killed by a determined foe . . .

The Church of the East, the ancestor of the Assyrians and Chaldeans, perfectly illustrates that long survival - and profound current crisis. The disasters of the 14th century reduced that once transcontinental body to a much smaller remnant. That vestige continued within Iraq, Syria, and Anatolia for seven centuries. Throughout that latter period, hard-line Muslim jurists and demagogues competed to invent new humiliations to inflict on Christians: limits on what those believers could wear, the houses they could own, and the horses they could ride. At the worst of times, Christians wore rags to avoid giving any impression of wealth . . . If there was a single penalty that stung more than any, it was losing control of the soundscape. In a Muslim-ruled land, the only public voice of religion was the cry of the muezzin from the minaret; ringing church bells were utterly forbidden . . .

But Christians endured century through century. They maintained their faithful witness while recognizing their severe limits. Through bitter experience, they learned to identify the irreducible core of their faith while setting aside additional practices . . . Critically too, they could support monasteries where spiritual warriors maintained prayer and study. As long as monks prayed and priests said the liturgy, the church was intact, and that situation could last, in theory, until Judgment Day. Surviving monasteries tended to be in remote and highly defensible places, and their fortifications were formidable. Egypt still has such legendary fortresses of prayer, such as St. Antony's monastery and St. Catherine's in Sinai . . .

Some believers hoped that powerful Western churches would send aid, although foreign Protestants in particular could rarely grasp the distinct patterns of local religious practice . . . No less dangerous was the temptation to support secular nationalist parties that promised to govern regardless of faith or denomination. Such alliances were always something of a trap, as they intertwined local churches with dubious regimes, most notoriously the Ba'athists of Iraq or Syria . . .

The church persisted stubbornly until modern times, when new militants emerged to tear it up, root and branch. Believers were killed en masse, leaving survivors to flee the country for a time or altogether. Only at that point did churches cease to function . . . In the darkest years of the Middle Ages, when European Christians fled from barbarian invaders, their obvious refuge was the neighboring monastery. This past summer, that was exactly the course taken by the Christians of northern Iraq to escape the Islamic State . . . [R]emnants of Mosul's Christian community took shelter in the ancient cloisters of Mar Mattai. As the Islamic State has recently demonstrated, the practical logistics of destroying a church are not terribly difficult: You occupy a region militarily, and kill or expel all its inhabitants who practice the offending faith . . .

Over the past thousand years, Christians have repeatedly had to ask: Why would God allow his followers to suffer defeat, subjection, exile, and enslavement? They find some answers in biblical precedent, looking to the Hebrew prophets who saw their own kingdom defeated for lacking faith and betraying the national covenant. Seen in this light, even the worst disasters can be seen as God’s scourge on his sinful people . . . But deeply embedded in . . . Christian thought is the idea of the righteous remnant, the community that survives tribulations only to follow God's commands still more exactly. Perhaps the exile that initially seems a nightmare might form part of this greater plan, as dispossessed believers carry their witness to other lands. You cannot read the Bible without realizing how the Exile and Diaspora experience could powerfully spread faith into distant corners of the world . . .

Far more challenging is the question of why God would permit Christianity in a particular land to vanish altogether. Yes, churches move to new pastures where they might prosper. But what about their homelands? What about churches that are altogether destroyed, no remnant remaining? . . . God may seem silent on occasion. At other times, people simply don't trouble to hear his voice. Those previous cases of church extinctions are dreadful enough, but rarely are they as total as they initially appear . . .

What to us may seem like a definitive act of annihilation seems quite different when located upon a divine timescale. As we are often told, extinction is forever; but humans should be very cautious about using the language of eternity . . . As an example, we might look at the experience of China, which over the past two millennia has remained the world's most populous nation. The story of Chinese Christianity is a recurrent cycle of mighty boom years followed by what seemed like total annihilation at the time, an obliteration so absolute that on each occasion, it was quite clear that the church could never rise again. That cycle has occurred five times to date since the ninth century. On each occasion, the Chinese church has reemerged far more powerful than at its previous peak. Each successive "nevermore" proved to be strictly temporary . . .

Even when institutional churches vanish, believers persist in many different forms. One of the most understudied facts in Christian history is that of crypto-believers, those hidden remnants who hold on to truth while superficially accepting the prevailing regime. As Anatoly Lunacharsky, the frustrated Soviet minister of education, complained in 1928, "Religion is like a nail: The harder you hit it, the deeper it goes into the wood" . . . In Japan, for instance, the brutal destruction of the Catholic Church . . . did not prevent large groups of Kakure Kirishitan ("Hidden Christians") from maintaining the faith underground. In fact, some survived four centuries and a few elderly hang on today. We see the same phenomenon in China and, most relevant to this article, all across the Middle East. In Syria, estimates of the size of the Christian population before the present crisis commonly varied between 5 and 15 percent, with crypto-Christians accounting for much of the difference. Underground belief and practice will be much more difficult under an extreme Islamist regime than under the secular Ba'athists, but "cryptos" have often endured for astonishingly long periods, until gentler times return . . .

Even at this worst of times, Christians survive. But dare we say that, even in an increasingly intolerant Middle East, Christians as a whole are not just remaining but in places actually [growing]? . . . This gets us into sensitive territory. Over the past decade, we have heard amazing claims about new Christian evangelization in Muslim countries, usually accompanied by incredible conversion statistics . . . [S]ome specific accounts are much more believable. David Garrison's recent book, A Wind in the House of Islam, describes the Christian appeal in diverse Muslim societies. Remarkably, Syria offers some of the most convincing examples of this trend. Garrison is a responsible and critical reporter. The problem, though, is that all such activity is clandestine, for fear of arousing persecution . . .

[L]et us adopt a sweeping skepticism and dismiss all such stories. Even so, we are still witnessing a striking upsurge of Christian numbers in some of the most unlikely settings, almost entirely as a result of immigration. Look at Saudi Arabia, a land of 28 million people where Islam is the only permitted religion. Consequently, official sources list the country as 100 percent Muslim, [but] . . . Saudi Arabia is only one of many Middle Eastern countries that have imported millions of poor foreigners to perform menial jobs over the years. Many of those immigrants are African and Asian Christians, including many Filipinos. As they do not officially exist as Christians, they have zero right to practice their faith, even in private. But exist they do. By some estimates, Saudi Arabia's Christian population is about 5 percent of the whole, perhaps 1.5 million . . .

Other Gulf nations are more honest about just how religiously diverse they have become. Christians - mainly guest workers - probably make up 7 percent of the population of the United Arab Emirates, and 10 percent of Bahrain or Kuwait. Those are nations where Christianity scarcely existed . . . No less surprising is Israel. Together with Palestine and the Occupied Territories, the State of Israel now includes thousands of adherents of ancient Christian denominations. Those older churches have fallen sharply in their numbers in the past half-century, but newer Christians have more than replaced them. There are thousands of Global South guest workers. Also, many Russian Christians invoked Jewish ancestry to enter Israel in the 1990s. Some were Orthodox Christians, others Baptists and Pentecostals. Israel’s Russian Christian community today is perhaps 80,000 . . . Israel and Palestine combined have a population of some 10 million, of whom perhaps 5 percent are Christians - Arab, Armenian, Russian, African, and Filipino. Together with the Arab Gulf, these are the region's new and growing centers of Christian belief and practice . . . Not for a second should such signs of growth distract our attention from the dreadful situation facing Christians elsewhere in the Middle East. Individuals are being murdered, raped, enslaved, and turned into refugees, and Western governments have no option but to intervene on their behalf . . .

Armed intervention might actually succeed in crushing the most aggressive jihadi campaigns. In the longer term, Western churches undoubtedly have their role to play in assisting fellow believers, whether in their homelands or in their new diasporas. Even with vigorous activism, though, whether military or humanitarian, it is difficult to imagine the churches of Syria and Iraq returning to the flourishing condition they enjoyed . . . But that is quite different from saying that Christianity as such faces extinction in the region . . . In God's terms, words like strength and weakness can have surprising meanings. We must be very cautious indeed about making statements that claim to understand the goals or directions of history.
This is a theologically articulated article, one expressing hopes more than fears (since God is supposedly working his mysterious way behind the scenes), but I can't see Christian 'guest workers' on the Arabian peninsula having much impact on local Muslims, as I noted before in commenting on this article when it appeared in Christianity Today.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Andrew Singer Reviews Emanations: Foray into Forever in World Literature Today

Andrew Singer - the driving force behind Trafika Europe - has written a positive review of Emanations IV in World Literature Today, from which I excerpt:
Emanations: Foray into Forever is a refreshingly focused collection - focused by staking out a particular frequency of literature to explore. This hefty volume is the fourth in the Emanations series, which seems to be groping toward a renewed, internationalized avant-garde. Series editor Carter Kaplan has assembled fine offerings, and what unifies the whole is the specific range of experiment it hosts - now slyly unruly, now intellectual, now delighted. This is an expression of the range of Kaplan himself, in the (correct) assessment that others of us will enjoy being invited along . . . . Given its inclination, the whole is notably readable. There is an effort to balance works with generous helpings of prose that push a bit against expected narrative frames, and poetry that pushes quite a bit more than that at times . . . . There are three sections: "Tales," "Verse," and a short collection of essays, "Themes," prefaced by a deft introduction by Kaplan, titled "Out of the Hermeneutic Captivity" . . . . There are more than enough high points to make this volume a worthwhile addition to any library - something to return to whenever the muck clears . . . . No piece in this collection is representative; each is a facet compelling us toward gratefulness for such pearls.
My contribution to this fourth literary anthology is a number of poems on pages 263 through 266, namely: "Crater Lake Blues," "Before the Storm," "Ozark Indian Mound," "Day Breakin'," "Souvenirs," "Ad Age," "Trail Home," and "Natural Philosophy." I hope you enjoy these bits of times humorous, times melancholy verse.

In the upcoming volume of Emanations - fifth in the series - there will be my second story, titled The Uncanny Story, which I will post on Amazon as an ebook sometime later after reworking a few parts, which will likely make the ebook version somewhat longer.

Incidentally, World Literature Today is the literary magazine that selected the translation that Sun-Ae and I did of Yi Kwang-su's novel The Soil as one of the top 75 translations for 2013.

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Monday, March 23, 2015

V. S. Naipaul on the Islamic State

V. S. Naipaul
Daily Mail Online

For a scathing critique of the Islamic State (IS aka ISIS), read V. S. Naipaul's article, "A grotesque love of propaganda. Unspeakable barbarity" (Daily Mail Online, March 22, 2015), for he does not hold back one iota, and here's a sample:
Imagine a world in which a young man is locked in a cage, has petrol showered over him and is set alight to be burnt alive.

Imagine the triumphant jeering of an audience that has gathered to witness this. Imagine, also, a 12-year-old child with elated determination on his features shooting at close range a kneeling man with his arms tied behind his back.

Then picture the spectacle of a hundred beheadings of victim after victim in humiliating uniforms, their hands and feet bound, kneeling with their backs to their black-robed executioners who wield knives to cut their throats as though they were sacrificial lambs.

Picture queues of helpless men and women being marched by zealous executioners who nail them to wooden crosses and crucify them, howling and bleeding to death as crowds watch.

Then picture thousands of girls and women, their arms tied, being marched by hooded and armed captors into sexual slavery. And then, if that is not enough, picture men being thrown off cliffs to their deaths because they are accused of being gay.
And this is only the beginning of Naipaul's masterful takedown of the IS in all its disgusting barbarism, savagery, ignorance, and destructiveness, for he understands what he's talking about and doesn't mince words, nor is he politically correct:
Are Isis and its followers heretics? The politicians of Europe and America, including David Cameron, Barack Obama and Francois Hollande, after every Islamicist outrage insist on describing them as a lunatic fringe. Their constant refrain is that these perpetrators of murder and terror have as much to do with Islam as the Ku Klux Klan has to do with Christianity or the testament of Jesus Christ. But does such political assurance bear scrutiny?

Of course the politicians, church leaders and others who say 'these atrocities have nothing to do with Islam' are not making a researched or considered theological statement. They are attempting, quite rightly, to prevent civil discord in a world in which there are considerable Muslim immigrant populations in most countries of Europe and in the US.
This tendency to distance Islamism from Islam is understandable, says Naipaul, given the large numbers of Muslim immigrants living in Europe, but he clearly thinks that the frantic distancing is barren nonsense, void of substance, obvious falsehood.

Read the entire article.

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Gender Identity Crisis: No Exit Until Now . . .

Trevon Milliard
Reno Gazette-Journal

My brother Shan - professor of counseling at Niagara University - recently sent me an article of interest by Trevon Milliard, "Strangers unite over their transgender children" (USA Today Network, Reno Gazette-Journal, March 20, 2015), and the article begins thus:
When Jessi Arroyo was four years old, her mother taught her to pray.

"Pray to God and he will listen," said her mother, Elvira Diaz. "Ask for whatever you want."

"Mom, I want to pray to God and wake up in the morning with a penis," her daughter said.

Diaz dug up her basic anatomy drawings for children and re-explained the differences. "This is you. You can't be a boy. You're a girl."

"You don't know anything," her daughter said. "I'm a boy."

Diaz didn't know what to do. She'd never heard of this.

"I didn't tell anybody," Diaz said.
Well . . . she did, eventually. Told somebody, I mean, or we wouldn't be reading these words.

I find fascinating, though also troubling, the fact that one's body, more often than might be expected, fails to fit one's inner identity. Of course, I don't personally experience that divergence, but I can imagine - through empathy - how a transgender individual might feel, namely, trapped within the confines of what others consider that individual's corporeal identity, the transgender person suffering claustrophobic angst at being unable to escape, ever.

Except through suicide, thereby ridding oneself of one's flawed body . . . until now, that is, with plastic surgeons as postmodern heroes . . .