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This Week’s Article

In David Foster Wallace,Matt,Tuesday's Article on January 4, 2011 by Two Barbers Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

Thoughts on David Foster Wallace-10th Installment

Discussing Suicide Part 3

I wouldn’t venture into the forest of trying to synthesize some meaning for suicide (or Wallace’s suicide, in particular, either) out of Wallace’s fiction and essays (we’ll leave interviews out of this for now, for reasons that will become more obvious in a bit) if it didn’t seem like a necessary, albeit trapdoor fraught, step, and won’t do so without first establishing caveats. Both concerns, fortunately, can be handled nicely by this quote from an episode of Charlie Rose, from May 17th, 1996.

“I think part of the fun for me was being part of some kind of exchange between consciousnesses; a way for human beings to talk to each other about stuff that we normally can’t talk about…like we’re sure not going to be able to talk about this stuff here…” 

Which also should reveal why interviews will be disregarded. Wallace said it in during the show’s second half segment, that was a panel discussion on the purpose of fiction among which included two other authors, Mark Leyner and Jonathan Franzen.

Now despite the overall attempt to view suicide with a new, less sanctimonious and horrified lens, the word ‘fun’ is not a word that’s ever going to come anywhere near it. But if you can isolate the idea of fun from the rest of the quote (it may even be a good idea to go one step further and treat ‘fun’ here as a circumstantial term, exchangeable with words like ‘rewarding’, ‘cathartic’, or even ‘satiating’, or ‘invigorating’, none of which really fit well with suicide either, but are at least more thoughtful than ‘fun’…perhaps ‘moving’ or ‘compelling’ would be closer…) and focus on ‘a way for human beings to talk to each other about stuff that we normally can’t talk about’, you should be able to understand why it’s more than just a good idea but practically necessary to look at DFW’s fiction, as well as, to a lesser, more discriminating extent, his essays (Wallace claimed he was a little foggy on the definition of this writing form in his Introduction to The Best American Essays: 2007Deciderization 2007-a Special Report, stating “I think I personally prefer the term ‘literary nonfiction’). In order to fully understand why you have to be somewhat familiar with Wallace’s life (which, since you’re reading this, you most likely are), important details of which will be included, or somehow or other gotten to, further on. For right now, its important to make sure, as we go ahead and look into his writing, to be aware of the influence of his major depressive disorder and suicide, with which he had his first serous struggle in college (at least in a way that can be attributed to a time line), before any of his fiction was published.

It feels as though I’m now actually beginning to talk about suicide.

-Matt

PS

Here’s a video of the entire May 17th episode of Charlie Rose in 1996, in case you’re interested in getting a better feel for the conversation and time.

Read past blogs on David Foster Wallace here which you can also get by scrolling to the bottom, where all of our recurring topics are listed and linked.

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Good Enough For Government

In Good Enough For Government,Matt on December 31, 2010 by Two Barbers Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Contracts

January 17th will be the 50th anniversary of Eisenhower’s presidential farewell address in which he gave that famous warning about the “military-industrial complex”, that was really more like a caveat than a straight-up beware the Ides of March style foreboding to the American public. It has been portrayed in the more commonly viewed rehashing as the latter, to up the drama. But, really, the drama is either going to be sensed or not by the viewer based on what he/she knows about history, government, and our economy, all the way up to his/her present (the distinction between ‘to know’ and ‘to believe’ is infinitesimal here and not meant to be nailed down) and the attempt at manipulation through emotional cues may work for some things, but would ultimately fizzle out.

Here’s the whole address, plus coverage and commentary from some member of the media…

But if you don’t have time to listen to the whole thing, here’s at least a very available example of the military-industrial complex stuff, with dramatics and all…

Now, the Department of Defense announced Thursday a new roll of contracts that are worth $183,451,599 collectively.

Its divisions (because the military is all about hierarchy and ‘divide and conquer’) unfold as such…

Navy

  1. The Boeing Co., St. Louis, MO-$69,098,221- as a “delivery order against a previously issued basic ordering agreement…for the procurement of integrated logistics support”
  2. Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc., Fort Worth, TX-$22,021,303- as a “modification to a previously awarded firm-fixed-price…and services in support of H-1 helicopter upgrade program”
  3. The Boeing Co. (again), St. Louis, MO-$14,471,274– as a “modification to a previously awarded firm-fixed-price contract”
  4. Mikel, Inc., Fall River, MA-$9,068,671– as a “cost-plus-fixed-fee contract to provide engineering services to Team Submarine and the PMS 425 program offices”
  5. Northrop Grumman Systems Corp., Bethpage, NY-$6,582,920– as a (if you were thrown by the contract-ise above, get ready for this) “modification to a delivery order placed against a previously issued basic ordering agreement…to exercise an option for engineering, technical and sustaining services in support of Taiwan Air Force E-2C aircraft”

Air Force

  1. Teradyne, Inc., North Reading, MA- $28,377,673– “for maintaining the B-1 automatic digital test systems and application development environmental systems” (So far only, $9,617,451 “has been obligated”)
  2. Integrated Data Services, Inc., El Segundo, CA-$10,436,911– “for the Comprehensive Cost and Requirements System, a financial program management software tool which is used by Air Force acquisition and sustainment organizations to accomplish planning and execution of program budgets” (So far, only $4,354,725 “has been obligated”)
  3. General Dynamics Advanced Information System, Minneapolis, MN-$7,832,414– to “provide a research and development program…to develop an open architecture for modular open systems architecture common back end for radio frequency…” The last ellipses covers the phrase “that conforms to interface standards” which implies that the Air Force already has the system referenced above, but that it does not meet “interface standards”; Only $230,000 “has been obligated”
  4. Lockheed Martin Information Systems & Global Solutions, Santa Maria, CA-$7,189,632- “for four adaptable multi-based land/ocean stabilized antenna systems to replace aging antenna systems”; Only $6,657,099 “has been obligated”

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency– which is, taken from the “About” page on its website, “the research and development office for the U.S. Department of Defense. DARPA’s mission is to maintain technological superiority of the U.S. military and prevent technological surprise from harming our national security. We also create technological surprise for our adversaries.” which engenders more questions but foremost- What is “technological surprise” exactly?

  1.  BAE Systems National Security Solutions, Burlington, MA-$8,372,580- for a “cost plus fixed-fee contract”

It’s not exactly a decisive point to make, to say that you should pay at least cursory attention to military contracts and activity, since it is the largest sector of our government (and that’s to say by a lot: the most at $663.7 billion compared to the second most, which is $76.8 billion in Health and Human Services, according to the budget from 2010)…

…because it really might not be imperative for you to do the work to pay attention. It may even be overall detrimental to your life. And it might not matter one bit in the end if you had paid attention or not. Or rather, furthermore, tried to pay attention, because even if you do, it’s an engrossing complicated endeavor that necessitates certain knowledge that might never even be available to you. This stuff is really hard and there is no guarantee to anyone that he/she will attain the understanding set out for or even anything compensatory to it.

But on the other hand, it’s really no less a waste of time than reading a book, watching a movie or sports, dicking around, or doing a crossword puzzle, the merits of all of which could be argued.

-Matt

PS

The info for the contracts was taken from Veterans Today’s website, linked here  veterenstoday.com’s report on defense contracts where you can find more specifics, such as breakdowns of the locations where the work being paid for will be done.

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This Week’s Article

In David Foster Wallace,Matt,Tuesday's Article on December 29, 2010 by Two Barbers Tagged: , , , , ,

Thoughts on David Foster Wallace-9th Installment

St. George

Yeah, so the idea of rifling back through Wallace’s stories, essays, and interviews for a kind of composite, total expression of his experience with suicide and then, out of which, some complete explanation of suicide itself, is just a little too sentimental. It fits too easily into this narrative template that, stripped down, goes more or less like ‘all that exists of a person after he/she is gone are what he/she left behind’, which is useful in its own right and could work in many circumstances, but in this case is just too small and simple, and the opposite of robust. Applied here, it would be like being given the answer to a riddle or like an android version of true meaning.

Here’s relevant a quote from Everything & More, in which the specifics are not carbon copies of DFW’s, but it is obvious how they correspond-

“The cases of great mathematicians with mental illness have enormous resonance for modern pop writers and filmmakers. This has to do mostly with the writers’/directors’ own prejudices and receptivities, which in turn are functions of what you could call our era’s particular archetypal template. It goes without saying that these templates change over time. The Mentally Ill Mathematician seems now in some ways to be what the Knight Errant, Mortified Saint, Tortured Artist, and Mad Scientist have been for other eras: sort of our Prometheus, the one who goes to forbidden places and returns with gifts we all can use but he alone pays for. That’s probably a bit overblown, at least in most cases.”

And there’s a footnote that comes later in the paragraph that is not attached to anything in this quote, but expands on the concept and is essential to the point I want to make-

“In modern medical terms, it’s fairly clear that G.F.L.P. Cantor [who is the ‘mathematician’ of concern in the quote above and whom Everything & More is about] suffered from manic-depressive illness at a time when nobody knew what this was, and that his polar cycles were aggravated by professional stresses and disappointments, of which Cantor had more than his share. Of course, this makes for less interesting flap copy than Genius Driven Mad By Attempts To Grapple With ∞…Saying that ∞ drove Cantor mad is sort of like mourning St. George’s loss to the dragon: it’s not only wrong but insulting.”

This is taken out of context, somewhat, since the statement was tangential to the text, included for the sake of setting boundaries for the reader. The point was about how a to look carefully at a person’s biography and what the reader is able and unable to learn from it; how, embedded in this vehicle, are untruths married to truths like conjoined twins. But if I’m wrong about what DFW meant by it, or have myself twisted its meaning, you at least now know without having to have read the book. To say that Wallace is the sum of what you can quote from him is not only wrong…it’s insulting.

(aside: Can you insult someone who is not present to receive the insult and be affected by it, and could never possibly be in a position to receive or be affected by it? is a metaphysical question so I’ll just leave it at, it certainly feels like it will insult someone; and wrongly too.)

-Matt

Read previous blogs on David Foster Wallace here.

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Good Enough For Government

In Good Enough For Government,Matt on December 24, 2010 by Two Barbers Tagged: , , ,

The Net-neutrality of Net Neutrality

On Tuesday, the officials at the FCC announced that they, in addition to deciding to finally let Eminem be, have approved a set of regulations on the distribution practices of broadband service companies, an issue that has been carried under the opaque, ideological umbrella dubbed “net neutrality”.

The temper and sheer volume of reports and blogs on this news, which not only generally highlight the fact that it was basically a split decision, 3-2, between Republicans and Democrats who make up the legislative, or ‘commission’ component of the commission.

Here’s a simple explicatory paragraph from the ‘About’ page of the FCC website that gives a helpful account of how the FCC is organized and how it functions…

“The FCC is directed by five Commissioners appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for 5-year terms, except when filling an unexpired term. The President designates one of the Commissioners to serve as Chairperson. Only three Commissioners may be members of the same political party. None of them can have a financial interest in any Commission-related business.

As the chief executive officer of the Commission, the Chairman delegates management and administrative responsibility to the Managing Director. The Commissioners supervise all FCC activities, delegating responsibilities to staff units and Bureaus.”

…it comprises 16 executive bureaus and offices.

All of the details were published and posted in a document on the internet on the 23rd, which you can peruse here. It’s outlined in eight sections (first 87 pages) with four appendices, that go like…

  1. Lofty opening summary.
  2. Argument for the statements made in the summary.
  3. The rules to be imposed.
  4. The legality of the rules.
  5. How the rules will be imposed.
  6. Dates, continuing structuring methods, and review.
  7. Description of the legal procedure.
  8. Official orders for the particular offices to adopt the new rules.

The appendices includes all the information behind the main text…but a few random specifics are lists of commenters, concluding, concurring, and dissenting statements by the 5 commissioners, who are (left to right in the picture) Mignon Clyburn, Michael J. Copps, Chairman Julius Genachowski, Robert McDowell, and Merdith A. Baker…

from FCC website

…which is where the 3-2 net neutrality of the regulations is represented. The ruling is getting complaints from both sides, and it is also written somewhere in the appendices that it is pretty much guaranteed to be challenged in the court system.

-Matt

Also see Good Enough For Government, 11/26/10.

PS

Congress passed a whole bunch of bills this week, including the James Zadroga 9/11 Health Compensation Act on Wednesday.

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Monday’s Suggestion

In Matt,Monday's Suggestion,Music on December 20, 2010 by Two Barbers Tagged: , , ,

Nebraska, by Bruce Springsteen, In Particular, “Highway Patrolman”

Putting Springsteen in the title runs you the risk of turning off hand-fulls of readers at a time, which is why I’ve been waiting for the right set of circumstances to suggest this album, and in particular this song. (There’s just a general weirdness behind the dichotomy of this suggestion that I can’t really explain or justify. It’s like, in a remote way, when you have two people that you call your best friend. I don’t want to just pick one to suggest. I could just suggest the album and, that way, the song would be covered; or just sever ties and go solo with the song; and maybe that’s what I should do since there’s this impulse to highlight it. But I don’t want to. [Additionally, there’s a chance that you may be a reader to whom the top assumption about Bruce Springsteen repelling people sounds really off base because Bruce is first and foremost extremely popular, which means it’s more unlikely to come across someone who wouldn’t be at least interested in reading an article about him. In that case, all I can say is we probably come from different orientations, but we can ultimately agree on how good the Boss really is.])

Anyway, the circumstance is-

  1. it’s the Christmas season, which is steadily on its way to becoming longer than the calendar seasons, and means a lot of hassle, both functionally and psychologically, one driving the other;
  2. work has been overwhelming (not entirely unrelated to Christmas, but now I’m perseverating);
  3. additional pressures pinned to writing (that is to say, trying to keep head above water), and I have a headache tonight.

Now, the reason why this subject fits those circumstances, is that Springsteen is really easy. Everyone knows him and has an opinion that’s set and dried, although this latter aspect could be the cause of difficulty if I was planning on making this about trying to change people’s minds.

There is no reason to think differently about Bruce Springsteen. Or, at least there’s no reason for someone to try to persuade another person against his/her tastes. But despite being aware of this, it’s really hard for me to imagine anyone not liking this song, if not being really moved by it. It could fly pretty well on its own as a suggestion for the week. Structurally, it’s of craftsmanship-grade quality. And artistically, it’s like Cain and Abel set in 20th century America, with irony that is as tragic and profound as the works of Shakespeare. It’s Steinbeck.

But as soon as I listen to the song, I want to listen to the whole album. If you’re the type of person who is turned off by Bruce Springsteen, be apprised that this song and album are NOT what you dislike about Springsteen. It’s not Glory Days or Thunder Road. There’s no saxophone. It is made up of the songs you hear on the radio that turn off the background noise of traffic and stress, with the first thing you hear when your inner monologue starts again being “Wait, is this Bruce Springsteen?”.

Sony has blocked the original recording off of YouTube, which is the best version. But this is the best one I found on YouTube.

Here’s a version by Johnny Cash. So if you hate Springsteen, the odds are pretty high that you’re into, or at least respect, Cash.

Nebraska. This is the title track and probably responsible for the “haunting” descriptor that is probably used most commonly in descriptions of the album as a whole.

Johnny 99. Ok, this one fits more with the popular Springsteen persona. But it’s still fantastic.

-Matt

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Good Enough For Government

In Good Enough For Government,Matt on December 17, 2010 by Two Barbers Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

Mineral Dust

Joseph A. Main from wvgazette.com

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) released a press release announcing an “increased focus” on regulating mining operations to ensure appropriate safety precautions against airborne contaminants, across the industry. Assistant Labor Secretary for Mine Safety and Health, Joseph A. Main, held a conference at MSHA headquarters in Arlington, VA, to explain what this means to the press. It’s not entirely clear whether or not anyone was actually there, since it seems like no-one reported has it other than whoever writes the press releases for MSHA.

Basically, the MSHA has decided to enforce the laws listed as sections 56.5002 and 57.5002 in Title 30 of the Federal Code of Regulations, which both state the same thing “Dust, gas, mist, and fume surveys shall be conducted as frequently
as necessary to determine the adequacy of control measures” (language which couldn’t be more noncommittal if it were written in the voice of some college kid stopped on the University mall and sucked into promising to sponsor a child in Bangalore) and has composed a letter to be sent businesses that might be affected by the change, to notify them and explain what they will be responsible for.

Also today, the Labor Department will be arguing for the authority to invoke injunctive relief on Freedom Mine No. 1, a mine in Pike County, KY owned by Massey Energy, at a federal court hearing in Covington, KY. According to NPR, this “injunctive relief option” is a 33 year old facet of federal mine safety law that has never been attempted for use until now. If the judge rules in favor of DOL, then it will go to trial on January 4th. in Pikeville, KY.

There are beads of news articles having to do with DOL and safety regulations strung around the internet lately, all seeming charged by the April 5th explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. The MSHA is also supposedly planning to crack down on shuttle car safety in mines too. They say 16 miners have been killed and 800 injured by shuttle car accidents between January 2000 and September 2010. Mostly what we’re hearing on the news is preservation around the Republican and Democrats congressional infighting over the Bush tax cuts, Zadroga, the DREAM Act, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and the Omnibus Bill slipped in there at one point, and for good reason. But apparently legislation called The Robert Byrd Mine Safety Act (H.R. 6495), meant to update mine safety law , was on the floor of the House last Wednesday, the 8th…But it was blocked by Republicans.

-Matt

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This Week’s Article

In Matt,Tuesday's Article on December 14, 2010 by Two Barbers Tagged: , , , ,

A Cursory Run Through the History of Chocolate

In 1753, Carl Linnaeus named the tree that provides the essential ingredient for chocolate Theobroma cacao. Theobroma is Greek for ‘food of the gods’ and cacao, a Mayan word with etymology that extends through preceding civilizations as far back as 1000 B.C. Michael D. Coe, the eminent scholar of Mayan cultures, commented “The face-off between the two worlds is nicely illustrated by [this] scientific name…” and writers, and historians writing on the subject seem often to begin around this crux on the historical calendar, despite the fact that it is so far over on one end of the timeline.

It’s probably because chocolate as we know it, as it is defined by governments for food marketing and health regulations, did not really exist until around the time of its addition to Linnaeus’ binomial nomenclature. To be more exacting, it was almost 100 years later in 1828 that a Dutch guy named van Houten patented a machine that enabled production in the bar form that is now conventional. Twenty years later in 1847, another guy named Fry, this time an Englishman, used the machine to manufacture the candy this way, powered by steam engines to mass market them. When Europeans in the 1700s used the word, its denotation was the original bitter liquid that was handed down by the Aztecs and Mayans, albeit with alterations such as sugar, cinnamon, or milk.

Basically, what van Houten’s machine did was press fermented, dried, and ground cacao beans, a.k.a ‘cotyledons’, a.a.k.a ‘nibs’, into fine powder, a.k.a. ‘cocoa’ , dislodging it from much of the fat molecules (‘cocoa butter’) that constituted 55% of its mass while keeping the other molecules intact. van Houten then treated the cocoa with an alkalizing chemical such as potassium carbonate to lower the acidity, taking the edge off the bitter flavor. The cocoa was mixed (this is where Fry comes in) with sugar and additional cocoa butter and then, through an even more elaborate process, made to crystallize in a structure that gave it the smooth, pleasing texture that melts in your mouth.

At the time Linnaeus was applying his playfully reverent, slightly European chauvinist categorization, chocolate was being consumed in pretty much the same fashion as the people of Central America had been consuming it for 3-4,000 years. Evidence for its cultivation and use between 1800-1400 B.C. exist with artifacts that contain traces of theobromine, which is a chemical attributed to cacao and only a few other members of its genus, Theobroma. There are ancient drawings of the tree, connected to gods and legendary heroes, or that depict its traditional preparation, pouring it from one jar into another to work up a layer of foam on top.

It took some time to gain acceptance in Europe. The way the Aztecs took it, it was a bitter, frothy drink usually flavored with intense spices like chili pepper. The conquistadors reacted in pretty much the same way we all did as kids, trying baking chocolate thinking there’d be no difference because chocolate is chocolate; Only I guess they did not experience the same feelings of disappointment. The initial allure for people then was most likely the thrill and mystique they probably felt from sampling a product of a distant culture, as well as incorporating it into their diet. Aided by health claims (a trend that is still common now with antioxidants), its popularity grew steadily to the status of delicacy in Linnaeus’ day; Segway to the innovations of the industrial revolution that have defined it ever since. But whatever movement chocolate made within European culture, it was grounded in Mesoamerica where, for millennia, it was as universal a drink as coffee or Coke is to us.

Today, cultivation of cacao has been spread beyond its native habitat in Central America and the Yucatan Peninsula. It is grown mostly along the west coast of Africa, from where estimated about 70% of the world’s supply comes, but also in South East Asia and even, most recently, in Hawaii.

-Matt