Animal Review for
1 | June 11
Old-fashioned, naive, clueless people believe that the cerebellum has something to do with motor activity, perhaps because people with cerebellar damage walk funny, but did you know that they also can't tell E from F? Microtonal singing is wasted on them. However, if instead of suffering from diffuse cerebellar atrophy you are born without one, no one will notice until your autopsy or until some power-mad psychobiologist, neuropsychologist, neurologist or the like (if anyone else tries it, turn him down) confines you to an MRI scanner with masks strapped to your head, and/or injects you with water containing a radioactive oxygen isotope, in both cases hoping to capture images of blood flow in your cerebellum while you bristle with wires. You of course have no cerebellum. He gets no useful data and must revise the project budget. As you lie trapped in the tube, pondering the apparent identity of E and F, the experimenter gazes wistfully at the computer screen and thinks of roasted potatoes with rosemary. As his thoughts turn to 'Asterix,' worthless data flow from your brain onto a tape and thence into a sophisticated (the tube itself is relatively simple -- just giant supercooled magnets that take weeks to turn on with regular careful additions of helium like oil to mayonnaise, but once they're on, they cool themselves and are truly economical) system of graphic triangulations that produce an image of whatever is where your cerebellum would be, if you had one. When you emerge from the machine, the experimenter doesn't know how to treat you. Are you his best friend, the woman who has just provided him with data that will make him rich, famous and desired? Or have you churned out a string of pointless, contradictory numbers that will reduce him to helpless cursing and rueful apologies to his superiors? Will your brain grace the cover of 'Neuroimaging,' or line a trash can? Past caring, the exhausted experimenter drives home and creeps up the narrow staircase to his room. Not long after, his regular breathing disturbs the copy of 'Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World,' open for weeks to page nine, on the blanket beside him. It falls on a demitasse lined with cream liqueur, fruit flies and dust; the resulting clatter wakes the experimenter, who removes his glasses and pants, then hugs the soft pillow close to his ear and falls asleep again, curled up like a dormouse.
Probably his experiment uses what is called a subtraction design. It's hard to find a control group for a brain, so scientists try hard to figure out what makes a task special, and then subtract everything that isn't special. They do this in a suspiciously simple way. White noise, for example, is assumed to engage every auditory mechanism except whatever is involved in hearing notes. So if you take one picture of the brain hearing white noise, and another of the brain hearing notes (having no cerebellum, you're not sure which ones), and then subtract all the white noise data from the E or F data, you'll get a picture of what special things happen when you hear notes. The example seems insufficiently absurd and might be taken seriously, so I'll provide a better one: Say you are trying to find out what brain regions receive the most blood flow during petting of baby chicks. First you record blood flow during passive viewing of baby chicks. Then you record blood flow during petting of washcloths. Then you record blood flow in a resting state, when for all you know the subject is wondering what it's like to fuck a chicken, and can you cut your dick on the eggs. Then you let him pet the baby chicks, and subtract everything else. I know it sounds icky, but the alternative is poking real monkeys with electrodes.
Scientists are falling all over themselves trying to develop a unified theory of the cerebellum. Some think it's an afterthought and merely helps optimize the "calculation" of "data" in "feedback loops," like a graphics accelerator, I suppose. Others say that it sets our clock speed, that the cerebral cortex is a bottlenecked data bus, and that our thoughts are an early version of DOS, writing to addresses in the hardware buffer and crashing under normal conditions at least twice a day. What is known is that if you read 'Where's Waldo?' and don't really care where Waldo is, your cerebellum will pass out cold, but if you try to find him, it lights up like a Christmas tree. Does this mean it is involved primarily in perception, in movement, in the imagination of movement, in dreams, fantasies, poetry, walks in the woods, wishes, and love, or only in skiing, golf and baseball? The supporters of competing theories ridicule each other openly. They, too, must compete. The tenured professors are able to find room in their hearts for everyone. The competitors cannot know which theory will provide the highest return on investment. "Let's discard all theories," an uppity interlocutor proposed at the lecture I attended this afternoon. Why not? Then there will be a level playing field, and he'll be just as good as the speaker, whose position is so beyond secure that he can take a sabbatical in the second year of a new job, if I understood the introduction correctly. The speaker's first words were, "Thank you for the most detailed introduction I have ever received," so I can tell you with confidence that he attended UC Irvine, got his doctorate from UCSD, moved to MIT, from thence to Austin, and from Austin to San Antonio. He's spending his sabbatical in D.C. and his name is Larry. It's important that I include detailed information so his fans won't miss my review. He presented many delightful studies. "Thirst" and "Air Hunger" were especially nice (I hope the volunteers got paid -- they lived in Australia), as was the implication that chronic alcoholism fucks the cerebellum but good as evidenced by the alcoholic's inability to tell E from F. I enjoyed the lecture very much and I'm starting to develop a real affection for the lonely, misunderstood organ, which is proportionally largest in electric fish. Chickens, I am told, lay an egg every day but only in spring, and can live to be 16. Unfortunately, contemporary tradition holds that eggs should be available year round, so our chickens live in artificial light, and for two brief years only. The chickens, as above, are irrelevant.
Animal Review for
| The Third Goldfish
| Hardship Cases
"God is with us -- resist sexual desire!" read the graffiti in the little pedestrian tunnel connecting the university hospital complex to picturesque Cheese Creek Valley. Looking forward to a two-mile uphill march to the botanical garden, I was a receptive audience for the bewildering non sequitur. I approved its modest failure to pose a challenge. Who exactly walks from a dermatological clinic into a sunny valley filled with flowers to be suddenly overcome by lust? Or maybe it's the tunnel itself that cripples conventional morality, but actually, now that I think of it, hospitals and rural landscapes play key roles in local sexual iconography, as I discovered while loitering mildly drunk in the Handelshof two days ago.
I took what I call a "beer walk" ($.60 from a gas station) because I was convinced I needed a power strip for the improv series. It was only when the beer was gone and I stood in the parking lot of the Handelshof (a Farm Fresh Super Savings Center-like megamarket) that I suddenly realized that I already own two perfectly serviceable power strips. Alcohol has been known to relax my conscious suppression of my own intelligence. Nonetheless I shopped, standing for a long time mesmerized by the dime novels which came in three sorts (a fourth was advertised but not represented): doctor novels, mountain novels, and love novels. A loose bundle of five novels costs $2.50. For reasons that I assume will be obvious to everyone reading this (shats.com in its entirety gets about five hits a day), I jumped right on those doctor novels. To my disappointment, the heroines do not get it on with doctors. Rather, the reader is plunged into enjoyment of the medical mindset from inside, from outside, from below and above, and all in all, I couldn't tell how one comes into possession of the hero's omnipotence and omniscience if not through possession, or with whom one is expected to identify. Dr. Fabian is happily married, with two smartass children. Younger doctors under his tutelage have an unfortunate tendency to hook themselves on uppers. Patients of all ages lose flesh and color in a vague abstraction of organic malady that made me think of the lady with the camellias, Susan Sontag, Michel Foucault, et al. Ultimately the lax interns and pale patients find each other and start to put on weight. I would estimate the novels' average length at around 15,000 words.
The fourth sort of novel was reported to offer a peek behind castle walls into the secret lives of the aristocracy. The high production costs associated with television force the four archetypal genres to bed down together in uneasy coexistence (why must patients be rich, doctors young and good-looking, and farmers businessmen, if not to save money?), while newsprint lets them fly free, each true to its own inner determinism, which I'm afraid I can't explain any further, since after all I only stood there for about ten minutes before buying coffee filters for $.50 and returning home. Thus far, my research would indicate that where soap operas employ props and stock footage to suggest the patrician surroundings through which handsome overachievers pass invisibly from hospital to nightclub to anywhere else they feel like going that doesn't have any windows, even the barest suggestion of luxury, when rendered in prose, strains the patience of a reader not self-selected through his voluntary purchase of a (type 4) duke novel.
My readers (or reader -- I'm pretty sure I have one, though I'm forced to place the statistical error at four, so I might have negative three) may wish to point out that I referred to the novels' "sexual iconography" without getting around to demonstrating their sexual content. I feel that disclaimers are out of place in essays of this stripe, but it is important to note that when I told two friends about the novels, they refused to believe that there were no explicit sex scenes. I'm willing to assume that a significant number of purchasers make the same mistake. More importantly, just because a text has clothes on doesn't mean we don't all know what's under there. I am a case in point: Witness my spontaneous preference for doctor novels over love novels.
Cheese Creek Valley offered a cool retreat from the hot asphalt sidewalks and sun of the ascent. The road wound between orchards and tiny farmettes before entering a stand of firs. To my left I heard a rushing sound. There was no wind. The precipice, which I had never noticed because I'm always up there on my bike or when the wind is blowing, is only a few feet from the road. The creek falls straight down 15 or 20 feet (there's a layer of something hard among the crumbly limestone) over wet, blackened moss to a tiny pool filled with flakes of red and grey clay. Large trees line the edges and their roots give you something to hang on to while you scamper down. I sat a while watching brown bugs like brine shrimp run back and forth through the clear water on mysterious errands (presumably something to do with sex or food, an eternal Saturday morning of the soul).
At last I arrived at the botanical garden. The lilacs had faded, except for the ancestral wild form, which has flowers a bit like honeysuckle and was still going strong. A dahlia was out. I meant to head straight for the rhododendron department, but my progress was arrested by the Flower of the Century, or at least I am prepared already to proclaim its unique symbolic importance for the next 99 years, before which I stood long in silent awe: Meconopsis, or Fool's Poppy (an admittedly creative translation of "Scheinmohn," "apparent poppy," by analogy to pyrite or "fool's gold"). The flowers were blue, each with four huge, papery petals. At the center of each flower was a bright yellow furry cone. The foliage was a uniform, slightly hairy, pale green. After reaching a height of four feet, each plant terminated in a crown of five or six flowers that gave the appearance of having been gathered into a bunch by an impatient child -- the clumsy plastic stems were too long, the oversized silk flowers seemed to have gotten wet and been ineptly dried, the leaves borrowed from another species. "Nepal, Tibet, Sikkim," read the informative sign. For the first time ever, I experienced an urge to travel to Nepal, Tibet, or Sikkim.
But first I must visit the Caucasus, where boxwood trees (according to another sign) grow 60 feet tall.
The Third Goldfish
I don't intend to belabor this point any further, but there are three goldfish in the pool where I once stood thoughtfully pondering nature's mysteries with the A. of Z. You have to sneak up on them to see all three. They are afraid and hide under lily pads.
[Freely translated, with
omissions but no fabrications, from the general application form for
German university departments with competitive admissions policies.
The following are a few of the examples the form provides of hardships
that will win you no sympathy in your quest to get the spot you want at
the university of your choice for the next semester. I changed them
to the first person so they'd be complete sentences as well as beautiful
poetry. - ed.]
I am sick and must stay where I
can be cared for.
My illness limits my career
I can't afford to
If I wait to start studying
later, I won't be able to pay.
If I wait to start studying
later, I won't get the inheritance that would allow me to pay.
I get money because I am a
young orphan, and I want to finish studying before it runs out.
I am wasting what money I have
on studying something I don't want to study while I wait for you people to
let me study what I really want.
I am supporting myself while
studying something I don't want but as soon as you let me study what I
want, someone else will support me.
I am borrowing money to study
something I don't want, and if you don't let me have what I want soon,
I'll never get out of debt.
My spouse is my sole
If you send me to the wrong
university, my spouse will have to give up working.
My spouse is also studying and
we are flat broke.
I am widowed or divorced and
want to be able to support my children.
My parents have financial
I want to begin supporting my
parents or brothers or sisters who have financial problems as soon as
I am an orphan, or my mother or
father is dead.
I am married.
I have a child or several
My father or my mother or both
are sick or disabled.
My father or mother are Eastern
European refugees of German descent, were driven from their homes, have
been persecuted for political or racial reasons, or were refugees from the
My brothers or sisters are sick
I have many brothers or sisters
who are too young to work.
I will soon require financial
help from my family.
If I wait too long to take over
the pharmacy or medical practice I have in mind, I will not be prepared
when the current pharmacist or doctor becomes too old or sick to continue,
and the local population will be deprived of care.
I gave up my previous career or
course of study because I was unemployed or expected to become
I gave up my previous career or
course of study because I possessed neither motivation nor
I gave up my previous career or
course of study for reasons of conscience.
I am exceptionally well-fitted
for my first-choice course of study.
I have spent many years doing
theoretical work in my field of choice.
I am getting old for
I have already been turned down
If I wait any longer, I will be
too old to enter the civil service.
If I wait any longer, I'll
forget everything I learned in school.
If I don't start studying, the
army will take me.
Animal Review for June 1
I waited a long time to see
Miyazaki's most successful feature film. I think it was released in Japan
in 1997. It hit west Texas in 1999, Germany two months ago, and Tuebingen
this week. A cynical pastiche of 'The Lion King,' the chronicles of
Narnia, and 'Pantaleon y las visitadoras' (the chesty steelworkers on
four-day shifts are former prostitutes), 'Princess Mononoke' boasts
Miyazaki's only male lead, unless you count the pig in 'Porco Rosso.'
Mononoke is no more a princess than Xena, and (biggest shock of all) she's
16 if she's a day and her skirt goes all the way to her
Of course there are lots of beautiful scenes, and the
action-packed beginning (the end seemed to be missing completely -- at the
two-hour mark, just when you think the hero is ready to head back east to
his home village, he suddenly says, "I think I'll live here in the old
steel mill") is worth the price of admission ($6). He rides around on a
very sweet giant ibex, sort of a cross between a blesbok and a horse.
Mononoke rides an oversized white wolf. They both bend their knees and put
their feet back behind them, soles facing the sky, like racers on crotch
rockets. Raised by the wolves, Mononoke has rustic ways. You can see she's
longing for tenderness, or at least no human can look at her without
assuming she's longing for tenderness, when actually all she wants is to
kill every human she encounters. Her wolf-mother assumes she might be
interested in spending more time with the hero, but Mononoke is adamant:
Humans suck. By the conclusion of the film, when the creepy god of the
forest (a Pere David's deer with a Dancing-in-Your-Head-mask piebald human
face) has been shot dead by industrialists and the landscape looks like
Mount St. Helen's, you are ready to agree, but not nearly as ready as you
would have been after 'Laputa,' 'Nausicaa,' or 'Pon Poko.' The earlier
films convey a message of hope: Obviously humans suck generally, but
sometimes, especially around age eight, they are heroic and pure.
Mononoke, in contrast, seems to promulgate the doctrine of original sin.
Humans are neither good nor evil; "As long as we're
still alive, all is not lost," say the prostitutes as they huddle in the
lake like the forest creatures in 'Bambi.' They have an important point,
but a sermon about loss and compromise doesn't benefit from a fantastic
setting, whereas (in my view) an uplifting, tear-jerking utopian
environmentalist transfiguration can't get by without one.
A. of Z.: Candide or, Five Acres and Independence
Prophet lumped Jews and Christians together as "people of the book" and
consigned them to a happy life keeping each other company in hell, and as
Voltaire says, the book in question is an embarrassment to every sensible
person. God, the two agree, did not have a mother, nor was Abraham a Jew.
I'm not sure the Prophet was the Deist Voltaire takes him for, but at
least he was trying. The long-suffering German Candide and his much-abused
friends end their wanderings idle and rich near Istanbul, free to talk
philosophy all day every day, but they are not happy. One of his
companions asks, "Which is worse -- being raped by a hundred pirates,
having half your butt cut off and eaten, running barefoot over spikes,
being whipped and hanged, rowing in the galleys, and in short everything
else I've gone through recently, or sitting here with nothing to do?"
"Good question," says Candide.
Finally they meet a poor Turk with
beautiful daughters, who gives them the first good coffee they've had in
years and the following advice: "Work keeps three evils from us --
boredom, vice, and need."
Suddenly enlightened, Candide and his
friends develop useful skills. On the little plot of land the Jews have
left them (Jews end up with all Candide's diamonds -- Voltaire doesn't say
how), they plant every exotic fruit. Candide's ugly wife bakes cakes, the
syphilitic whore embroiders, her boyfriend the monk learns cabinetmaking.
"Without Hitler, no Israel," Sebastian Haffner writes. Voltaire's Dr.
Pangloss puts it differently: "In the best of all possible worlds, all
events are interconnected, for if you hadn't been booted out of your
pretty castle, brought before the Inquisition, crossed South America on
foot, killed your future brother-in-law and lost the thirty gem-laden
llamas of Shangri-La [I'm translating roughly from German that was already
translated from French], you wouldn't be eating pickled zitrons [those big
yellow lemons you need for Sukkoth] and pistachio nuts." "Whatever,"
Candide replies, "but we need to get to work in the garden."
suppose now I should compare 'Candide' to 'Altneuland,' but I've never
read it, plus I've heard it's terrible. In any case I begin to suspect
that the dignity of labor predates the industrial revolution and has more
to do with Jefferson's ideas of a nation of small farmers than with
Marxism or even nostalgia (as with Ruskin et al.). There's no less
alienated labor in the world than picking fruit, especially if you eat
some as you go along. Anyhow, I don't think this is a case like 'Mr.
Twigg's Mistake,' where you have to ask, "Did Robert Lawson read Kafka's
'Der Dorfschullehrer' before writing his own giant mole story?" I'm
thinking it's pretty much 100% guaranteed that Herzl read
I saw Weasel-Stop ("Marder
Halt") in a flyer from an auto supply store. "WMO's Weasel-Ultrasound
System is ideally suited to protect from cable-bite in automobiles," reads
the perky text. The system costs $60. Alternatively, you can encase your
cables and brake lines in hardened plastic for $5. My initial impulse was
to think, "How clever -- an urban legend becomes a license to print
money," but a friend swore to me that it really happens. The best thing
about it is the "no weasels" symbol, a weasel in a red circle bisected by
a red slash.
Back when I had a car, I assumed that workers in the
brake and muffler shops where I was an all-too-regular customer were
regularly puncturing rubber parts with screwdrivers. The German belief in
weasels helps strengthen the fabric of society.
I try not to
generalize about Germans, but last night I attended a lecture about the
brain, and afterwards a middle-aged man asked the lecturer, "Do you think
I have a will?" I thought to myself that every German has a will -- that
is, before he does just about anything, he thinks about it, because he's
as spontaneous as the Three Gorges Dam. Aloud I said to the middle-aged
man, "But he doesn't know you." He laughed. The lecturer himself was all
of 36 and had just been awarded an important professorship in Goettingen
for his work poking trained macaques with electrodes. I am confident he
has a will, i.e. inhibitions. He made my shit list by responding to my
open-ended question about current understandings of depth perception by
covering one eye and explaining that each eye provides a different picture
of the world around us etc. etc. I stepped back slowly, as if he were a
rattlesnake, then reformulated my question in a hopefully more
sophisticated way. In his next answer he claimed having two eyes isn't
relevant, since we perceive depth in photographs. My third and final
question (I'd rather not provide a full context) was easier for him. I was
forced to ask whether he makes a habit of feeding macaques controlled
substances to induce synesthesia. No, he doesn't, he said.
I've often considered going back to school, but I'm starting to think it
would be a bad idea.