Annals of Literature: The Palantir Mistake

The technology company Palantir Technologies may or may not have been part of the NSA’s currently publicized surveillance program “PRISM.” Right now it looks like a confusion among names. But considering their established relationship with the U.S. Department of Defense, the “Intelligence Community” (love the phrase), and their long-known relationship with the CIA, it wouldn’t be surprising. Leaving aside their PRISM possibilities, let’s look for a moment at the company.

Their current homepage splashes a story about combating human trafficking. Rich liberals hate human trafficking right now, a lot. What’s to like? They also sent “Philanthropy Engineers” (I did not make this up) to Oklahoma to fix things with computers in some way. Take a moment now to look through their website. They’re Google-smart and clearly successful, and it looks like a great place to work. Plus, strong ethics. Just look at the mission page. Not only are they committed to saving lives and fixing diseases, they have an explicit mission to preserve civil liberties. Very explicit.

If the CIA is a big customer and investor, you’re the darling of the Department of Defense, you advertise your usefulness in the fight against terrorism, and you’re making a pantsload of money off this, how can you possibly have any “commitment” to civil liberties? What do you do for the CIA, tell them what the mountains are like in Afghanistan? Or how likely it is that Suicide Bomber #53 will show up at Bagram next week? Who do you think you’re fooling, other than yourselves?

Also, “Palantir” is a funny word. Why would you name your company that?

J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novel The Lord of the Rings is a nerd Bible, the original sword & sorcery fantasy. After Peter Jackson’s films, everyone knows it. In the novel, the Palantir is a crystal ball. “Kingly” people with appropriate credentials can stare into the Palantir and see all over the world. There are my enemy’s armies! Looks like the harvest is going well! Oh heck, is that a pirate ship? Send the cavalry!

Unfortunately, the major antagonist and bad guy has got hold of one of these things and because he’s kingly and a demigod too, he exerts influence. The bad guy can mess with another Palantir customer’s  visions and distort them, showing only bad news, twisting images, creating paranoia, and wrecking morale. A key plot point involves a good guy king spending too much time looking into the Palantir like bad daytime TV and getting so depressed about his war with evil that he commits suicide, nearly killing his son as well, and dies in flames clutching the thing. It is literally an epic fail. Another powerful character slides into 100% nasty evil partly because he gets trolled by a hijacked Palantir. He gets his town wrecked by angry anthropomorphic trees and later is stabbed by his assistant. One sees a pattern.

Another smarter kingly type picks one up to mess with the antagonist a little and scare him, and then doesn’t use it any more, because the thing is dangerous. Why pick it up, even during a war, if you don’t have to? It’s unreliable now and will lead you to make bad mistakes and give up the fight. It’s not useful any more. That’s the end of that!

I understand that nerds use words that are “cool,” or even entire ideologies that seem “cool,” without thinking about the meaning of, well, anything at all. Happy Star Wars geeks get together and march in parades as the civilian-murdering, robotic, and incompetent adversaries from the movie, for example. What the hell? Oh, right. It just refers to something. Meaning is not important.

In this case, though, it’s just too damn good. The generous, progressive, socially involved, and brilliant philanthropy engineers at Palantir are one and the same with the surveillance state. Whether or not their Prism is the current PRISM, they’re both key vendors and and investment for the U.S “Intelligence Community.” These are the people who tell the President who should be drone-murdered, which civilians are threats to national security, who’s going to try to blow us up, and who is being troublesome. There has been the occasional misstep here, which is mentioned even in the news.

Our government has in its hand a Palantir, some of which is provided by the eponymous company. Look into it and you’ll see enemies without and within, plots, revolutionaries, malice concealed as dissent, and an unending future of unstoppable terrorism and necessary war. The one thing you won’t see is the sign that says “STOP! This is stupid and evil. Get a grip willya?”

So far the national Palantir has been bad for everyone. Be smart, kingly types, and throw the thing away, and throw away the war on terror as well.

And by the way: that company should change its name once it has the guts to dump its most important customers. If they read more, they’d make fewer branding mistakes and kill fewer people.

The Wave, or Why to Publish (corrected and expanded)

Contemporary Literature cover and frontispiece
Fred Schreiber's copy of Contemporary Literature, 1956

My father was a skilled and productive writer. He published many novels, including the recently reissued National Book Award nominee The Balloonist. There were a few non-fiction books as well: some early scholarly work about Italian literature, a book about solo sailing around the world, and a series of literature study guides for students with the usual plot summaries, discussion of themes etc. The crib books were the least important thing he had done, and my mother had done a lot of the work with him grinding out summaries.

Now, a leap. In the early 1990s I was an America Online user and an avid player of online trivia. Online social networks were very new, and this was a great one. Intelligent, educated obsessives battled for free online hours at a time when connection time was expensive. I made some good friends among the “Triviots” and not too many enemies, and some of these people are close friends to this day.

One day in chat I talked about my father and his work. Later I received an email from a fellow Triviot: Are you really this guy’s son? He changed my entire life around! We have to talk.

The email was from Fred Schreiber, an antiquarian bookseller in New York and a former professor of Classics.

And now, a lesson. The three paragraphs below are completely incorrect, which is why they’re in strikeout. I am not sure how this happened, but a story appeared in my mind — backed up by memories of conversations that did not occur — that is in fact not true. The story is told in the link below, and is very different: a working-class kid and compulsive reader, a love for books, and a formal education that started a mile behind and finished to win.

My Life With Books: How One Thing Leads to Another

After gently correcting my bizarrely fictional account, he was kind enough to say:

“The fact remains that your father’s book played a VERY BIG part in my early education; the proof is that I have kept it for well over a half century.”

So there we are, with a new story. At this point I really have no idea what part my father’s little book had, and I’m going to back slowly away from the story and just say that Fred’s pretty amazing. For my own part, I seem to have fallen into one of my father’s novels, possibly Hemingway’s Suitcase, in which the line between fact and literature becomes thicker and thicker as imagination and fraud switch places.

I apologize to Fred for inadvertently romanticizing him into a kind of high culture Horatio Alger character. The true story is better and more complicated than accidental fiction, as lives usually are.

Fred’s story did not begin in academia. In 1956, he was uninterested in school or anything else in the straight world. By his account, he was a tough guy headed for a working class life at best, and constantly in some kind of trouble. Some twist of fate, probably a court order, put him in night high school at the age of 21, taking bonehead classes and hating it.

For his sweathog English class, Fred picked up a copy of Contemporary Literature, one of my father’s crib books, with plot summaries and critical paragraphs to get him through this nightmare with the minimum of actual reading. And then something odd happened.

He became fascinated with the stories, the ideas, and the writers. In a recent email to me, he put it this way: “I remember how fascinating and instructive I found the book: your father had a way of telling the essential facts about an author in a most readable and elegant way.” I have to drag out a cliché here: a door opened for him into an entirely new world, full of stories and characters and ideas, the last thing he’d expected from an enforced trip back to high school.

The transformation took Fred from the streets of New York to college, graduate school, a Ph.D. in Classical Philology from Harvard, and a professorship at CUNY in Classics. He was as immersed in literature and ideas as a person could be, and loving it. When he got tenure and a job for life, though, he was immediately bored. He left academia and began dealing in old books. To this day he and his partner wife are E.K. Schreiber, dealer in books before 1700.

So this is the story of how a young person headed for a tough life in a hard city became a seller of “Early Printed Books, Incunabula, Renaissance Humanism, Early and Important Editions of the Greek & Latin Classics, Early Illustrated Books, Emblem Books, Theology, Early Bibles (in Greek & Latin).” And my father’s books were the key to that world. Not any of the award-winning novels, or the studies of Italian post-war literature, but the plot summary study aids he bought for $1.95 so he wouldn’t have to read his assigned work in remedial adult high school.

Publish! Record! Blog, even! Don’t just create, distribute, as far and wide as you can. To this day my father’s mostly out-of-print books are in libraries and used bookstores all over the world, in many languages. I have no idea if there’s just one Fred story there, or a thousand. If you have something to say or make, please put some effort into sharing it.

A bit of yourself, thrown far enough, hits the ocean and makes a little wave. You may never see the shore on the other end, never see the size as it breaks, but make the wave anyway.

Literature, it fails us now

Dale Peck body-slams cheap, decayed postmodernism:

…But as I puzzled my way through this and the rest of Moody’s books, I found myself looking not for the place in their execution or conception where they went wrong, but rather for something even prior and more primary: the wrong turn in our culture that led to Moody’s status as one of the anointed ones of his — okay, our — generation. In my view, the wrong turn starts around the time Stephen Dedalus goes to college in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and echoes all the way through Don DeLillo’s ponderously self-important rendering of Bobby Thompson’s shot heard round the world in the opening chapter of Underworld. Moody’s badness is a little less inexplicable if you look at him as the lowest common denominator of a generation of writers — and readers: they, too, bear some responsibility for the condition of fiction — who have long since forgotten what the modernist and postmodernist assaults on linearity were actually about, and as such have lost the ability to tell the difference between ambiguity and inscrutability, ambition and bombast; of writers who are taken at face value when they are being ironic and who are deemed ironic when they are telling it straight — assuming, of course, that they themselves know the difference. Assuming, I should add, that they actually have a subject.

He’s right even about writers I like.

Regency

The word implies aristocracy, wealth, romance, opulence, and a continuous social scene of balls and parties and comings-out. The legacy of ten thousand Jane Austen imitators has made a million prides and prejudices into a story form called simply “a Regency.” And the frothy effortless wealth implied in that word has glued it to every kind of product: cars, air fresheners, pet foods, mobile home parks, bathroom tile, insurance plans. For a whole generation it was the noise that meant luxury and sophistication in a perfectly generic context.

The other night I was taking the long way home down Pickering in Whittier and saw this place: http://rcci.org/

It is a religious organization that started as a church and is now an entire complex, what we call a “mega-church.” As usual it is a charismatic Protestant Christian organization. The church inhabits a working-class town with a broadly diverse population.

My guess is that “Regency” got put on their name in the beginning because it just sounded good. The name suggests success and respect. I doubt anyone meant to suggest that the church would consist of a series of fancy balls in which young ladies and young gentlemen would waltz and exchange witticisms over ices and champagne. I don’t think they use Regencies as texts in Bible study, either. It’s probably just a bit of American class-conscious marketing languages seeping in.

But what would it be like if the church was based on an actual theological regency? God is somehow incapacitated, and Jesus is too young to run the Universe. So we’ll just help out, here, and run things on behalf of the kid until he’s ready. It may take a while! Lord knows it’s complicated running everything and he’s barely sitting up in his crib.

This is going well. Let’s throw some parties! Lots of them! Bring out the champagne and ices!

Being God’s regent in Whittier, California might not be such a bad gig. But I don’t think I’ll suggest it to the pastor. He and his wife seem settled enough with their current theology.

D.H. Lawrence’s Ashes: What the Heck Happened To Them?

My dad told the one in which Lawrence’s widow Frieda and her Fascist Italian army officer lover left Lawrence’s ashes at a railway station platform in an excess of passionate disorganization. Some of the other stories are below.

  1. LAWRENCE was buried in the old Vence cemetery on a March 1930. His remains were exhumed in March 1935 in the presence of Mrs Gordon CROTCH, an English resident, and incinerated at Marseille on March 13. A wooden box holding a sealed zinc container in which were his ashes, was then delivered, together with the appropriate transatlantic transport authorization by the Prefecture, dated 14 March, to the former captain of Bersaglieri Angelo RAVAGLI, at that time the factotum and lover of Lawrence’s widow. His mission was to take the ashes to Taos (New Mexico) in “a beautiful vase” specially ordered by Frieda for this purpose. The ashes brought to Taos by RAVAGLI in grotesque cicumstances were cast by him into the concrete slab of a “shrine” which he built at the KIOWA ranch at San Cristobal near Taos.
  2. When Baron de HAULLEVILLE and his sister-in-law Rose NYS-de HAULLEVILLE (who knew Ravagli through the Huxleys) were Ravagli’s guests atTaos, Ravagli after partaking from a bottle of bourbon, confessed late one night to having dumped the box and ashes between Marseille and Villefranche (where he was due to sail on the Conde di Savoia), so as to avoid the expense and trouble of transporting them to the USA. When in New York he collected Frieda’s vase, mailed “to be called for” from Marseille, and put into it some locally procured ashes which he took to Taos.
  3. The following year Frieda had his body exhumed, cremated and the ashes brought to Taos. Her plan was to have the ashes housed in an urn in the memorial but Brett and Mabel Dodge Luhan wanted to scatter the ashes over the ranch (while Lawrence was alive the three women often competed for his attention). In response, Frieda dumped the ashes into a wheelbarrow containing wet cement and exclaimed, “now let’s see them steal this!” The cement was used to make the memorial’s altar. There are other stories concerning the whereabouts of Lawrence’s ashes but this one is the most widely accepted.

Oh Frieda. Oh Captain Ravagli. Oh dear.

Physics poetry

  1. There is no force, however great
    To pull a wire, however fine
    Into a horizontal line
    That shall be absolutely straight

    — Unknown

  2. Stone walls do not a prism make
    They’re better made of glass
    If you had studied Science
    You would not be such an ass

    — My father

confession (and so it goes)

edit: fixed markup so it actually makes cognitive sense

I didn’t like Vonnegut.

He had one good book in him (Slaughterhouse-Five) and then he kept writing it again. Norman Mailer had a similar trajectory. The war, then The Naked and the Dead, followed by celebrity and admiration and a string of terrible books. Vonnegut had good ideas after that, but not very good books. He’s a bad influence on other writers, and he was a bad influence on himself in the same way. That self-important, nearly echolalic fairy-tale storytelling style never varied. Reading Vonnegut never felt like hearing a story; it was more like being backed into a corner at a cocktail party by the man himself while he told his too-familiar stories yet again.

Like Tom Robbins and John irving, Kurt Vonnegut wrote young adult novels that were sold to grown-ups. Like other counterculture heroes and hippie gurus, he was an unmoveable conservative who never changed his style or his message. And like the Grateful Dead, he had armies of fans who would never doubt him.

I’ve felt this way about Vonnegut for a long time. There’s been more violent opposition to this opinion is than most of my tiresome and admittedly annoying political and philosophical ideas or even my macaroni & cheese recipe. I have lost two “LJ Friends” over Vonnegut and I shouldn’t talk books with some of my friends in case The Topic comes up.

I can’t say so for sure, but I think Vonnegut himself tired of being a sacred object.