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.

What is Bulgarian for “Oingo Boingo”?

Arrived early. Ate at the HOB restaurant, decent food. Fell in love with Lara, the waitress. How was I to know she was with the Russians too?

First band: Five white guys in their twenties, dressed up like a hard rock band from 1974: full beards, shaggy hair, one jewfro, lots of denim. I thought I’d never utter the phrase “Grand Funk Railroad imitation”, but there you have it. The lead singer tried very, very, very, very, very, very, very hard to be wacky. He said they were from Venus. They are called Valient Thorr. THEY BLOW. Grade: D

Second band: Five white guys in their twenties, dressed up like white guys in their twenties who are in a roots music band. They played Americana Punk Rock. Basically it’s the Real MacKenzies/Flogging Molly formula applied to bluegrass and roots rock. Since the Real Flogging Molly Mackenzie crowd is an imitation of the Pogues, who are an imitation of the Mekons, oh forget it. Anyway they were pretty good but not at all innovative or interesting. Would see as an opening band again. They are called the Scotch Greens. Grade: B-

Third band: Five white guys in their twenties, dressed up like the Stooges. Big local following. Lead singer is rail thin, covered in tattoos, takes his shirt off during the third song. Unremarkable Stooges/Sex Pistols sound. Lots of yelling about sex. Girls from the audience pulled up to sing onstage, causing near wardrobe malfunction. Members of Valient Thorr come on stage and sing with them, do the I’m Not Worthy bow, play air guitar. Guitarist has gigantic expensive Gibson guitar. Lead singer removes pants during last song. Constantly ordering various people in the audience to perform sexual acts immediately. They are the 2005 tweaker version of Social Distortion, which was the 1985 surfer heroin burnout version of the Sex Pistols, who were the London prefab fraud impresario version of the Stooges. They BLOW. Grade: D They are called Throw Rag.

Gogol Bordello were great. Five white guys in their twenties, dressed up as Dude Ranch Gypsies. They’re from New York. The Flogging MacKenzies idea is used on Eastern European Roma music to great effect. Plus, they have washboard girls! Who also play big parade drums and shoot slingshots! And they have a mean accordion player. It’s a double pantload of fun. The lead singer is just annoying enough to be a good lead singer. Their schtick might well be very annoying to people actually from Molvania, or to gypsies. I don’t know. It’s like 3 Mustaphas 3 that way: ha, ha, Eastern Europe funny! Yeah, also blood-drenched. Anyway it’s got a great beat, you can dance to it. Grade: B+

Review and thoughts: A Symphony in the Brain

What do I do when something new falls into my life? I read a book about it. It’s just how things are done in my family. Since I’ve started neurofeedback therapy I went on the search for books on the subject. There aren’t many, and most of them are $150 tomes for practitioners. I found the one pop science book on the subject and ordered it: Jim Robbins’ A Symphony in the Brain.

The first hurdle to surmount is the writing. Robbins is a magazine journalist, and the book reads like every other pop psych book written by a magazine journalist. It’s heavy on the personal stories and light on science. Way too much of the material is from interviews. There’s about 50 pages of filler, mostly history. And, in the tradition of books about medical breakthroughs, it’s packed with case histories of success.

More seriously, Robbins doesn’t reveal a fact I know from other sources: he was commissioned by one of the players in the story. More about this below.

The history of neurofeedback begins with a UCLA researcher named Barry Sterman and his graduate student, Margaret Ayers. They developed a method for using biofeedback with EEG to help patients control their own brain waves. The technique showed promise and Ayers left to take it into clinical practice, causing the first of many wars in this field. She took with her the technician who had built the original machine, and started a company called Neuropathways. She did therapy and also sold hardware and software.

As usual there was a lot of resistance from medical and psychological experts to this new treatment. There weren’t any good large-scale studies of its efficacy, so clinicians wouldn’t touch it, and no grant money could be scared up to do such studies. Marginalized as she was, Ayers took on the defensive, messianic role of the radical truth-bringer oppressed by closed-minded conservatives. Robbins tells this story pretty well. You can see that there was merit in the therapy and that new ideas were treated unfairly, and you can also see that everyone involved was prickly enough to make things worse. However, Ayers had a lot of success helping patients who were in coma states, where no other treatment even seemed possible, and began to take clients with severely unhappy children who were violent or otherwise uncontrollable and had failed attempts at other help.

The narrative then moves on to a couple named Siegfried and Sue Othmer, and stays with them for the rest of the book. They brought their son to Ayers after the usual series of failures in other treatments for his severe neurological and psychiatric problems. The neurofeedback worked so well that they became enthusiastic converts to this new idea. In fact, they became so enamored of it that they bought equipment and trained themselves in its use. They and Ayers and Ayers’ computer programmer planned a joint venture to spread the good news and get more trained practitioners and equipment distributed.

This relationship also broke down in a mess of broken verbal agreements, patents, lawsuits, and accusations of bad faith. The Othmers started their own venture, EEG Spectrum, and began training and selling equipment themselves.

The rest of the book is taken up with examples of neurofeedback’s uses in epilepsy, ADD, injury, drug dependence, and personality disorders. Some of the case histories are fascinating. Unfortunately the practitioners and clients have a breathless enthusiasm for neurofeedback that breeds skepticism. In a chapter on ADD treatment, for example, Robbins and his interview subjects come perilously close to saying that drug therapy for psychiatric problems is the same thing as drug abuse, and that the “medical establishment” are drug dealers who don’t want to lose their hapless victim-patients. There is about a 20 page attack on the idea of treating ADD patients with drugs, and many of the arguments are essentially religious. This is unnecessary and brings down the tone of the whole narrative, and should have been eliminated.

This points to the real problem with the book, which is that Robbins has given us a pop psych cheerleading exercise about the wonders of neurofeedback that lacks critical bite. He does take trouble to interview some opponents of the technique but they’re straw men he sets up to knock down. And as above with the drug rant, there are a number of places where the tired old idea that “they” don’t want you to know about the real thing that will cure you pops up. There’s a bestselling book with a title like “The natural cures they won’t tell you about” that plays on this unreasonable idea that physicians and psychologists want their patients to be sick and take expensive drugs and treatments. It’s very unhelpful and also untrue, as you’ll find out if you spend a little time around “them”.

The problem with new treatments like this, and with their proponents like Ayers and the Othmers, is that they’re crusaders and not scientists. At a certain point in her career Ayers walked away from research because she saw so much potential for immediate clinical use. Her patients benefited but medical science did not. And the Othmers are neither clinical professionals nor scientists; they’re boosters. The fact that both of these parties make their living selling training and equipment for neurofeedback does not help things at all. Psychological therapies in the world of “alternative medicine” turn into cults too easily, and more so when charismatic leaders with a lot at stake take charge of them.

The really damning thing about A Symphony in the Brain is that it was commissioned by the Othmers and Robbins doesn’t reveal this. I only know it because people closer to the story than I revealed it. He makes a pretense of having stumbled upon this and decided on his own to write the book, so I’m not sure how exactly it happened. In any case he’s far too closely tied to them and their story. He does give Ayers a fair shake rather than taking their side, which is a good sign.

After finishing this book I thought about my own practitioner and the nature of this treatment. Like the Othmers and Ayers and Robbins, she’s a true believer. Neurofeedback approaches the Solution to Everything, kook-style, for true believers. Considering the history of “cures” for ADD and personality disorders over the years (sugar-free diets, weird psychotherapies, cult-like schooling) I can’t help feeling very skeptical. In my own case I have nothing to lose but $95 a session unless it turns me into a werewolf or a catatonic, so I’m going ahead with it. I really wish someone would do a proper study with a large patient population on neurofeedback, though. The war between conservatives and radicals is harmful to patients.

Harvard and the Unabomber: Review

I just finished reading Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist, which I had begun and read about a third of when it came out and then set aside.

Ted Kaczynski was that odd math-major guy. He had an upbringing in which he couldn’t come up to his parents’ standards, was teased badly at school and left out, and was miserable a lot. He went to college, where he was a loner and withdrawn. Then he went to grad school and did really well, but wasn’t very happy. Then he became a professor of math, and then he moved to nowheresville, and then he started killing people with bombs. Wait, where’d that come in? There are enough tightly-wrapped smart kids, lonely outsiders in college, and crazy mathematicians around who don’t turn into terrorists.

Chase’s thesis is that Ted was driven into a state of permanent homicidal rage by psychological experiments done at Harvard by Charles Henry Murray. Ted was coaxed into joining a lengthy psychological study as a subject, and it apparently was no fun. For example, participants (who were chosen for their intelligence and sensitivity) were asked to write out a thorough explanation and defense of their philosophy of life, and then called in to a meeting in which a trained and prepared speaker demolished their ideas and attacked them as viciously as possible while they sat in a chair with EEG and blood pressure monitors on them and cameras pointed at them. Other participants in this program are bitter to this day about these experiences.

Murray was clearly a class A weirdo who had a lot of trouble separating his work from his personal life, and who enjoyed power over others way too much. He was also an ex OSS spook with a background in interrogations. Chase makes a lot of the CIA connection, and certainly Murray’s friends were dosing hapless victims with LSD and doing other grimy things at this time, and he was part of an academic alliance with intelligence agencies.

Chase was also an undergrad at Harvard around this time, and he spends about 100 pages attacking the school. The elitism, coldness, and anomie of the environment are described in detail. He also dissects the academic dogma of the time, which was despairing in the extreme: existential, tragic, and rigidly structuralist. The Universe was described essentially as a huge machine for grinding up the Soul.

After Harvard, Ted did go around telling people he wanted to move to a remote place and kill a lot of people. He was also full of rage against “The System”, but who wasn’t? But he didn’t participate in any of the Berkeley radicalism even when he was a young professor there in the late sixties. In fact, he left for Nowheresville in 1969.

Chase overstates his case all over the place, as monomaniacs do. Harvard and Murray are demonized to an unbelievable degree, as if poor Ted was a tabula rasa until he stepped inside the gates of Hell and met the Tempter himself. It’s pretty clear that Murray’s “research” was deeply fucked-up, though. It can’t have been good for a hypersensitive and socially withdrawn guy with critical parent issues to be screamed at and belittled over and over again with a bright light shining in his face. And it’s significant that this was done in the context of a psychological institute with government ties, part of a big university.

What Ted did later on was make war on industrial society. He wasn’t insane by any good definition; he was a terrorist. His stated aim was to bring down the entire structure of computer technology, big government control, the military, and big businesses. He also wanted to kill a Communist but I guess he couldn’t find one. He wasn’t an environmentalist or a hippie. He was, if anything, a revolutionary anarchist. Chase points out that a lot of his behavior and language seems drawn from a few books, one of which is Joseph Conrad’s meditation on anarchist violence The Secret Agent, which is also one of my favorites. Oddly Ted didn’t get the message about the pointless, tragic nature of this kind of violence. It reminds me of Tim McVeigh getting inspired by watching Robert DeNiro’s heroic A/C repairman blow up government buildings in Brazil, only a bit worse. Ted was highly intelligent and sophisticated about literature.

I’d recommend this book if you’re interested in terrorism, psychology, or this case in particular. A chunk of salt is recommended, since Chase is pretty clearly rehashing his own problems with Harvard and the America of 1962; there’s far too much generalization about generations and Big Ideas of the Time. I’d also not pay more than a few bucks for it, since it was expanded from a magazine article by dumping in a lot of filler, including an unnecessary forty page history of Western thought.

Product Showcase: Activ BurnStuff™

A couple of years ago I got a new soldering iron and did a bunch of radio cabling work. I hadn’t soldered in forever and trinnit told me I should immediately buy some of this burn creme for the inevitable “Hey I have hot lead on my skin!” moments.

burnstuffThe other day I was reminded how good his advice was when I toasted about a half inch long strip of skin on my hand near my thumb. It seemed okay at first, but a couple of hours later it suddenly announced that NOW IS THE TIME FOR THE ITCHING AND BURNING THAT COMMANDS ATTENTION! Off to the bathroom and I put one little ampule of BurnStuff on. Immediately the pain disappeared and stayed gone, and I had no further problem that night.

According to their propaganda it has an anesthetic, an antibacterial, and some nutritional substances that accelerate healing. Whatever it is, it’s the only burn creme I’ve used with success. A+!

We have met the enemy, and it’s us again.

I’ve just finished reading Backfire, by Loren Baritz. It’s a book about the Vietnam War that I saw recommended somewhere here on Livejournal; if you recommended it, remind me.

I grew up in the shadow of my country’s Vietnam War. I was born just as it was starting, and the final defeat happened while I was in grade school. My older brother registered for the draft but wasn’t called. My childhood was colored by a war we were losing, that a majority of the country disliked. As I got older I read a lot about the war. Quite a few people my family knew had been in combat there, too. At least partly because of Vietnam, my country didn’t fight any serious wars for quite a while. We’d fought an unjust war, done it poorly, been beaten, mistreated our soldiers, made ourselves an international pariah, and lied to each other about it. Any suggestion of war made people consider the phrase “another Vietnam”.

Most books about the Vietnam War follow one of a few patterns. There are military histories, first-person journalistic accounts, vast tomes about the social impact in the United States, even more gigantic tomes about the strategies of various Great Men of the time, and rip-roaring military adventures. I recommend reading one of each, since they don’t vary much in quality.

I also recommend reading this one. Babitz treats the war as a disastrous expression of American culture. Our belief in American uniqueness and virtue, the explicitly religious belief that we are a “City on a Hill” that can heal the world’s ills, and a doggedly held belief that everyone everywhere wants to be American are three points that stick very well. Once we’d set out on this project of defending South Vietnam, it was impossible to back out or to admit that we were doing things poorly, because national prestige was at stake. There are depressingly many points along the way where the whole thing could have been stopped — and people in power who did their best to stop it — but the war was a cultural necessity. Everything else follows from this point. The total lack of strategy (one general is quoted as saying “The operations are the strategy!”), ignorance of our enemy, hatred of our allies, bureaucratic idiocy, official lying, and downright insanity of highly placed officials just mark the way that was set from the beginning when we declared ourselves to be the world’s savior.

That’s not why this book was such a gut-punch, though. I knew all of this before from other reading. No, the reason I’ve been so disturbed reading this is that the generals and CIA agents and politicians who fucked this thing up so badly are clearly superior to anyone we have managing our current war. White House staff, military officers, and CIA agents resigned in protest. Senators and Congressmen questioned the war and its conduct incessantly. I realized as I read that I was becoming nostalgic for the uniformed brass and right-wing politicians of 1966.

Because we didn’t learn. The reaction to Vietnam that I described from my childhood didn’t last. Starting in about 1980, the revisionists got to work. A new story was written about the war; It had been won by the soldiers but they were made to lose by our enemies at home: liberals, protesters, craven politicians, and desk-bound soldiers. Our boys could have won it but they were stabbed in the back, and spat on when they returned. A whole new genre of movies showed up: the Vietnam payback flick, in which POWs were rescued or angry vets got to do one right this time and shoot up some Central Americans or drug dealers. And at the end of the decade we had our Anti-Vietnam, the first Gulf War. We fought a set-piece battle against an enemy no one could love and rolled right over him using all the technology that failed us in an unconventional war against popular guerillas. The pride was back.

And now we’re doing it again, but worse. We’re ass deep in a country that hates us, fighting popular guerillas with the wrong weapons just as before. We’re losing and trying to extricate ourselves. We’re committing atrocities and idiocies right and left. But this time there’s no reporting worth reading, because that’s all been shut down. There will be no Seymour Hersh finding My Lai. There’s no draft, because that was unpopular. Therefore this war is fought entirely by the poor and mercenaries, and the great American middle class won’t see their children dead. And the reaction of those in power to the painful lessons of Vietnam is to deny them entirely. We are bringing democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan; the people love us and want us to save them from evil. Any opposition to any tiny part of the war is treachery. There is no dissent within the government or the military. The solution to the problems that ended the Vietnam war is to silence the journalists, muzzle the naysayers in the government, and lie like crazy.

It’s trite and forced to make exact analogies with German in the Thirties; too many parallels are absent, and the culture is very different. But it’s hard not to see that Vietnam was our Great War and our Versailles. The first Gulf War was our Spain. And the current eternal war on Terror and Evil is an attempt at erasing the shame of Vietnam by beating the entire world into submission: a Thousand Year City on a Hill. We didn’t really lose that war before, we were stabbed in the back. And we’re a great people. And we’re going to show the whole world how great we are, and how right we were, by doing it all over again without the distractions of competent journalism, honest officials, a well-informed public, or the shadow of a doubt in this Administration’s mind that we were chosen by God to bring his light to the world.

This book does a good job of telling you why this happened; read it. And hope I’m wrong.