December CommQuote

British author, journalist, intellectual Christopher Hitchens frequently placed himself in military hotspots, up close and personal with despots; he wa an astute observer.

Well, as Hannah Arendt famously said, there can be a banal aspect to evil. In other words, it doesn’t present always. I mean, often what you’re meeting is a very mediocre person. But nonetheless, you can get a sort of frisson of wickedness from them. And the best combination of those, I think, I describe him in the book, is/was General Jorge Rafael Videla of Argentina, who I met in the late 1970s when the death squad war was at its height, and his fellow citizens were disappearing off the street all the time. And he was, in some ways, extremely banal. I describe him as looking like a human toothbrush. He was a sort of starch, lean officer with a silly mustache, and a very stupid look to him, but a very fanatical glint as well. And, if I’d tell you why he’s now under house arrest in Argentina, you might get a sense of the horror I felt as I was asking him questions about all this. He’s in prison in Argentina for selling the children of the rape victims among the private prisoners, who he kept in a personal jail. And I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone who’s done anything as sort of condensedly horrible as that.”
Christopher Hitchens (A Conversation with Christopher Hitchens, posted by Hugh Hewitt, July 14, 2010

November CommQuote

This month’s quote features a brief transcript from NPR’s The World on the improvisational poets of Kyrgystan and their role as reporters and commentators on their local political scene. The piece, by Lily Jamali, aired on November 14.

The small Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan held a presidential election recently. It was the first peaceful handover of power since the end of the Soviet Union.A violent revolution last year overthrew the previous president. As the country’s fledging democracy moves forward, the local media have been covering events closely. But so has an older, arguably more powerful institution in Kyrgyzstan. For centuries, the people of Kyrgyzstan have used improvisational poetry as a way of telling their nation’s story.The poets are called “akyns” – and in a country that’s experiencing rapid political change – they are considered the voice of the Kyrgyz.

At this performance in the ethnically-torn southern city of Osh, two of the nation’s most prominent akyns, Aaly Tutkuchov and Jenishbek Jumakadyr, banter about the power they wield over politicians, some of whom are in the audience. “They’re afraid” – sings Tutkuchov. “They’re thinking “What will they say about me?” Jumakadyr responds: “Someone’s taking cell phone video of us. They must be with the National Security Service.”

Akyns are masters of improvisation. The two-person performance itself called an “aytish” – is like a cross between an American rap battle and a stand-up comedy routine.In another routine, the akyns talk smack about fellow performers. Tutkuchov jokes that a guy waiting in the wings to come on is so short, he has to wear high-heels – Jumakadyr responds that even then, he can hardly reach the microphone.

The men play a small three-string guitar-like instrument called the Komuz in between insults.But like the best rap artists, akyns take their role in Kyrgyz society very seriously. Tutkuchov says he sees himself almost like a journalist, creating a political dialogue for the public and keeping lawmakers in check.

If one akyn is promoting the government or some leader, the second akyn should take the opposite point of view, he says. He should judge how that akyn is supporting the government. And politicians try to curry their favor. Tutkuchov says when that fails, politicians sometimes threaten akyns after a performance. He’s had to change his phone number to stop harassing calls.

“We know – when we point out wrongdoing – they will try to put pressure on us. Or make us scared of them but we’re not afraid of them. This is the important thing about akyns. We need to tell the truth,” Tutkuchov says.

Kyrgyzstan’s akyn tradition is making a comeback after decades of Soviet rule. Ethnomusicologist Elmira Kochumkulova says Soviet officials would force akyns to tell them what they planned to say ahead of time – even though akyns are supposed to improvise. And sometimes, the Apparatchicks would make akyns an offer they couldn’t refuse. They knew they could use their skills – oral art – because they were quite popular among the people. They used them to spread soviet ideology, to spread soviet culture to remote villages, mountain villages among the Kyrgyz. Oral poets were used like propaganda tools.

Two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, the status of the Kyrgyz akyn is returning to its former glory. Kuchumkulova says the power of akyns shouldn’t be underestimated. They really are the social commentators of Kyrgyzstan. They’ve helped the country transition to democracy and deal with some of the traumatic events of the past year.

That includes the death of dozens of people in an uprising that led to former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s ouster. When the April 7 events happened and over 80 young men died, they were key players at the funeral, improvising funeral songs for these men at the burial site. “My dear Kyrgyz. You’ve seen so many things, you’ve gone through so much sorrow,” one of the akyans sang.And they have. After the political and ethnic violence of the last six years, last month’s presidential election was peaceful. But it’s also seen as Kyrgyzstan gravitating back into Russia’s sphere of influence. And the akyns will most certainly have something to say about that.

October CommQuote

Here’s an offering for our October CommQuote from recently crowned Nobel laureate, Tomas Transtromer.

The Scattered Congregation

We got ready and showed our home.
The visitor thought: you live well.
The slum must be inside you.

Inside the church, pillars and vaulting
white as plaster, like the cast
around the broken arm of faith.

Inside the church there’s a begging bowl
that slowly lifts from the floor
and floats along the pews.

But the church bells have gone underground.
They’re hanging in the sewage pipes.
Whenever we take a step, they ring.

Nicodemus the sleepwalker is on his way
to the Address. Who’s got the Address?
Don’t know. But that’s where we’re going.

Tomas Transtromer:Selected Poems, 1954-1986, edited by Robert Hass, Ecco Press, 1987

August CommQuote

Plato on rhetoric, from Gorias, one of the Socratic Dialogues written around 380 BC.


Socrates: And now let us have from you, Gorgias, the truth about rhetoric: which you would admit (would you not?) to be one of those arts which act always and fulfil all their ends through the medium of words?

Gorgias: True.

Soc. Words which do what? I should ask. To what class of things do the words which rhetoric uses relate?

Gor. To the greatest, Socrates, and the best of human things.

Soc. That again, Gorgias is ambiguous; I am still in the dark: for which are the greatest and best of human things? I dare say that you have heard men singing at feasts the old drinking song, in which the singers enumerate the goods of life, first health, beauty next, thirdly, as the writer of the song says, wealth honesty obtained.

Gor. Yes, I know the song; but what is your drift?

Soc. I mean to say, that the producers of those things which the author of the song praises, that is to say, the physician, the trainer, the money-maker, will at once come to you, and first the physician will say: “O Socrates, Gorgias is deceiving you, for my art is concerned with the greatest good of men and not his.” And when I ask, Who are you? he will reply, “I am a physician.” What do you mean? I shall say. Do you mean that your art produces the greatest good? “Certainly,” he will answer, “for is not health the greatest good? What greater good can men have, Socrates?” And after him the trainer will come and say, “I too, Socrates, shall be greatly surprised if Gorgias can show more good of his art than I can show of mine.” To him again I shall say, Who are you, honest friend, and what is your business? “I am a trainer,” he will reply, “and my business is to make men beautiful and strong in body.” When I have done with the trainer, there arrives the money-maker, and he, as I expect, utterly despise them all. “Consider Socrates,” he will say, “whether Gorgias or any one-else can produce any greater good than wealth.” Well, you and I say to him, and are you a creator of wealth? “Yes,” he replies. And who are you? “A money-maker.” And do you consider wealth to be the greatest good of man? “Of course,” will be his reply. And we shall rejoin: Yes; but our friend Gorgias contends that his art produces a greater good than yours. And then he will be sure to go on and ask, “What good? Let Gorgias answer.” Now I want you, Gorgias, to imagine that this question is asked of you by them and by me; What is that which, as you say, is the greatest good of man, and of which you are the creator? Answer us.

Gor. That good, Socrates, which is truly the greatest, being that which gives to men freedom in their own persons, and to individuals the power of ruling over others in their several states.

Soc. And what would you consider this to be?

Gor. What is there greater than the word which persuades the judges in the courts, or the senators n the council, or the citizens in the assembly, or at any other political meeting?-if you have the power of uttering this word, you will have the physician your slave, and the trainer your slave, and the money-maker of whom you talk will be found to gather treasures, not for himself, but for you who are able to speak and to persuade the multitude.

Soc. Now I think, Gorgias, that you have very accurately explained what you conceive to be the art of rhetoric; and you mean to say, if I am not mistaken, that rhetoric is the artificer of persuasion, having this and no other business, and that this is her crown and end. Do you know any other effect of rhetoric over and above that of producing persuasion?

Gor. No: the definition seems to me very fair, Socrates; for persuasion is the chief end of rhetoric.

July CommQuote

Anke Birkenmaier on French radio pioneer Paul Deharme:


In principle, radio broadcasting seemed to Deharme a surrealist medium par excellence. Similar to the surrealist automatic writing, it made its audience listen to the dictate of an unknown voice; also, it allowed for instantaneous communication between audiences all over the world that resembled the quasi telepathic communication achieved by the first members of the movement in their creative sessions. How could the surrealists not be taken in by a medium that seemed to promise liberation from analytical “written” reasoning and grant access to a mass audience that had been out of reach until then? And yet, surrealist radio broadcasting would remain an experimental radio practice that aimed at being better than surrealism itself…

For Deharme, radio broadcasting’s greatest asset was precisely the fact that vision was not available to the audience. The absence, in radio-and also in the surrealist automatic writing-of physical images would lead to the creation of increasingly powerful mental images in the listener. In this way, radio was superior to film or theater. Relying on the work of French psychologist Henri Delacroix and the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, Deharme put forth the argument that pure words were in fact always associated with “inner” mental images, and that the physical production of words in combination with images in film or in theater deprived the audience of their own mental images, creating “only” sensations and impoverished after-impressions of what should be a creative act. The radio experience, in contrast, was more stimulating because its mental images were sensations at the same time.

One problem with radio broadcasting, as Deharme saw it, was the short attention pan of the listener. All of his professional know-how was invested in preventing it rom becoming a background medium. Due to the absence of physical images, the radio listener’s attention span is smaller; though the voice may seem real, the image associated with it has its origin only in the brain and is accompanied by a feeling of unreality. For that reason, music and sound effects are especially important to lend life and substance to the image-yet this liveliness should always appear to be dream-like, in a realistic yet artificial way.

The distinction between the dream-likeness of radio and the everyday reality of the istening audience was crucial to Deharme, for whom the main task of radio was to ake the listener dream, as opposed to the producer-focused surrealist idea of using dreams to extract or generate words from the inspired artists. The problem with the surrealists, according to Deharme, was that they claimed to rely not on dream images ut on the language of dreams, whose authenticity was generally to be doubted because it is extremely difficult to reproduce. The language produced during a period of half-sleep was not quite the same as the one that would originate from a dream. In short, Deharme contested the relevance of the surrealist automatic writing for a larger audience. He associated the ability to dream with the freedom to imagine alternate worlds, and did not find that surrealist poetry was effective at producing these words for the reader. This is why radio-fiction took a prominent place in Deharme’s radio heory: the listener seemed to understand it and be provoked by it more easily than by poetry.

From Surrealism to Popular Art: Paul Deharme’s Radio Theory, by Anke Birkenmaier, Modernism/modernity (volume 16, Number 2, pp357-374)

June CommQuote

Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, has a more more sober view of the internet and social media as great liberators. He wrote a short piece on the subject a few months ago in Wired Magazine.

The last time American leaders were this ecstatic about the power of information was at the end of the Cold War, when illicit fax machines and photocopiers and the work of broadcasters like Radio Free Europe were presumed to have been a leading cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union. (In 1990, Albert Wohlstetter—the ur-technocrat who was one of the inspirations for Dr. Strangelove—told an audience of perplexed eastern Europeans that “the fax shall make you free.”) Today, most historians reject such views as reductionist, but they are still extremely popular among US politicians (probably because celebrating smuggled technology allows them to celebrate the politicians who made the smuggling possible—particularly Ronald Reagan). Such Cold War thinking showed in Clinton’s speech: “Virtual walls,” she said, are “cropping up in place of visible walls,” and viral videos and blogging are “becoming the samizdat of our day.”

But not all blogs are revolutionary. China, Iran, and Russia all have bloggers who are more authoritarian in their views than their governments are. Some of these governments are even beginning to follow the path laid by Western corporations, actively deploying regime-friendly bloggers to spread talking points. Is this “samizdat”?

Cold War baggage, in short, severely limits the imagination of do-gooders in the West. They assume that the Internet is too big to control without significant economic losses. But governments don’t need to control every text message or email. There’s a special irony when Google CEO Eric Schmidt suggests—as he did in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations last November—that China’s government will find it impossible to censor “a billion phones that are trying to express themselves.” Schmidt is rich because his company sells precisely targeted ads against hundreds of millions of search requests per day. If Google can zero in like that, so can China’s censors.

Calling China’s online censorship system a “Great Firewall” is increasingly trendy, but misleading. All walls, being the creation of engineers, can be breached with the right tools. But modern authoritarian governments control the web in ways more sophisticated than guard towers.
Why the Internet Is a Great Tool for Totalitarians, Wired Magazine, January 2011

May CommQuote

Kelefa Sanneh on the genre of reality television in May 9 issue of The New Yorker. He is reviewing several books on the topic, including Brenda Weber’s, Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity. (Duke, 2010).

Weber sees in these makeover programs a strange new world—or, more accurately, a strange new nation, one where citizenship is available only to those who have made the transition “from Before to After.” Weber notices that, on scripted television, makeovers are usually revealed to be temporary or unnecessary: characters often learn that though a makeover is nice, they were really just fine in their Before states.” On reality television, by contrast, makeovers are urgent and permanent; “the After-body, narratively speaking, stands as the moment of greatest authenticity.” We have moved from the regressive logic of the sitcom, in which nothing really happens, to the recursive logic of the police procedural, in which the same thing keeps happening—the same detectives, solving and re-solving the same crimes. In fact, Weber points out that a number of makeover shows present their subjects as crimes to be solved: in the British version of “What Not to Wear,” makeover candidates line up in front of a one-way mirror, like perpetrators awaiting identification; “Style by Jury,” a Canadian show, begins and ends with the target facing a jury of her peers.

Makeover shows inevitably build to a spectacular moment when “reveal” becomes a noun, and yet the final product is often unremarkable: a woman with an up-to-date generic haircut, wearing a jacket that fits well; a man who is chubby but not obese; a dog with no overwhelming urge to bare its fangs. The new subject is worth looking at only because we know where it came from, which means that, despite the seeming decisiveness of the transformation, the old subject never truly disappears. “The After highlights the dreadfulness of the Before,” Weber writes. “In makeover logic, no post-made-over body can ever be considered separate from its pre-made-over form.” She might have added that no makeover is ever really finished; there is no After who is not, in other respects, a Before—maybe your dog no longer strains at the leash, but are you sure that sweater doesn’t make you look old and tired? Are you sure your thighs wouldn’t benefit from some blunt cannulation? Weber’s makeover nation is an eerie place, because no one fully belongs there, and, deep down, everyone knows it.


April CommQuote

Newspaper blackout poetry is a pretty cool idea. It’s a bit of a gimmick, but nice things happen.
Invented by Austin Kleon, it works like this: Grab a newspaper. Grab a marker. Find an article. Cross out words, leaving behind the ones you like. Pretty soon you’ll have a poem.

Said The New Yorker: “[The poems] resurrect the newspaper when everyone else is declaring it dead…like a cross between magnetic refrigerator poetry and enigmatic ransom notes, funny and zen-like, collages of found art…” (The New Yorker)

So our April CommQuote is a one of these poems. More can be found in Kleon’s book, Newspaper Blackout (Harper Perennial, 2010). Happy Poetry Month and long live newspapers!

Since you probably can’t make most of it out from the copy-paste, here’s the text of Time-Traveling: so/they look/as they did when I was 10/the Old King/and his queen/ my parents/ The size of/Egyptian/ sculptures, all/ Secrets/ that/ I didn’t know

March CommQuote

Freeman Dyson reviews James’ Gleick’s The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood in the March 10 2011 issue of THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS. In this passage he introduces us to Claude Shannon, founding father of information theory.

For a hundred years after the electric telegraph, other communication systems such as the telephone, radio, and television were invented and developed by engineers without any need for higher mathematics. Then Shannon supplied the theory to understand all of these systems together, defining information as an abstract quantity inherent in a telephone message or a television picture. Shannon brought higher mathematics into the game.

When Shannon was a boy growing up on a farm in Michigan, he built a homemade telegraph system using Morse Code. Messages were transmitted to friends on neighboring farms, using the barbed wire of their fences to conduct electric signals. When World War II began, Shannon became one of the pioneers of scientific cryptography, working on the high-level cryptographic telephone system that allowed Roosevelt and Churchill to talk to each other over a secure channel. Shannon’s friend Alan Turing was also working as a cryptographer at the same time, in the famous British Enigma project that successfully deciphered German military codes. The two pioneers met frequently when Turing visited New York in 1943, but they belonged to separate secret worlds and could not exchange ideas about cryptography.

In 1945 Shannon wrote a paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Cryptography,” which was stamped SECRET and never saw the light of day. He published in 1948 an expurgated version of the 1945 paper with the title “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” The 1948 version appeared in the Bell System Technical Journal, the house journal of the Bell Telephone Laboratories, and became an instant classic. It is the founding document for the modern science of information. After Shannon, the technology of information raced ahead, with electronic computers, digital cameras, the Internet, and the World Wide Web.

According to Gleick, the impact of information on human affairs came in three installments: first the history, the thousands of years during which people created and exchanged information without the concept of measuring it; second the theory, first formulated by Shannon; third the flood, in which we now live. The flood began quietly. The event that made the flood plainly visible occurred in 1965, when Gordon Moore stated Moore’s Law. Moore was an electrical engineer, founder of the Intel Corporation, a company that manufactured components for computers and other electronic gadgets. His law said that the price of electronic components would decrease and their numbers would increase by a factor of two every eighteen months. This implied that the price would decrease and the numbers would increase by a factor of a hundred every decade. Moore’s prediction of continued growth has turned out to be astonishingly accurate during the forty-five years since he announced it. In these four and a half decades, the price has decreased and the numbers have increased by a factor of a billion, nine powers of ten. Nine powers of ten are enough to turn a trickle into a flood.

In 1949, one year after Shannon published the rules of information theory, he drew up a table of the various stores of memory that then existed. The biggest memory in his table was the US Library of Congress, which he estimated to contain one hundred trillion bits of information. That was at the time a fair guess at the sum total of recorded human knowledge. Today a memory disc drive storing that amount of information weighs a few pounds and can be bought for about a thousand dollars.