Geoffrey Fox

Unsolicited Comments 1999

Index Unsolicited Comments 1999

99.07.11 – Constructed memories

Our memories are constructed, but no one person can choose how; and our memories are not simply retrieved, and yet neither are they free flotating, entirely manipulable to present interests.

Two truths, though, must remain bedrock. First, some versions of the past are wrong. …

The second … is that failure to remember can impose unacceptable costs.

Martha Minow, in Phi Beta Kappa Oration at Harvard, June 8 (Harvard Magazine, July-August 1999, p. 64) Minow is a Harvard law professor.We are what we remember.

Rebecca Rupp, Committed to Memory: How We Remember and Why We Forget (New York: Crown Publishers, 1998), p. 10

99.06.21 – Individual intelligence & collective stupidity

A statue of the 14th-century King Dusan of Serbia lay on the ground in Prizren, Kosovo, Sunday after it was toppled by local Albanians. (Agence France Presse)

The destroyed statue of Serbian King Dusan lies on the ground in the southern Kosovar city of Prizren 20 June 1999 after it was toppled by local ethnic Albanians. The NATO international peacekeeping force for Kosovo (KFOR) confirmed 20 June 1999 that Yugoslav troops had completed their withdrawal from the Yugoslav province. AFP PHOTO/EPA/MICHELE LIMINA

The destroyed statue of Serbian King Dusan lies on the ground in the southern Kosovar city of Prizren 20 June 1999 after it was toppled by local ethnic Albanians. The NATO international peacekeeping force for Kosovo (KFOR) confirmed 20 June 1999 that Yugoslav troops had completed their withdrawal from the Yugoslav province. AFP PHOTO/EPA/MICHELE LIMINA


This photo on the front page of Monday’s New York Times provokes three questions:
How could the Serbs have been so stupid?
How could NATO be so stupid?
How can we keep from being so stupid ourselves?
The collective stupidity of intelligent individuals is the great conundrum of our, the human, race. Serbs, not all Serbs certainly but a critical mass at critical moments, have allowed themselves to be bamboozled by a tiny clique of opportunist politicians to pursue a horribly self-destructive campaign that has ruined their economy, made refugees of great numbers of their people and now, finally, lost what their own myths proclaimed as their most sacred territory, symbol of their national aspirations.

The stupidity of NATO included alienating China, trying to outfox Russia (the agreement with Russia that ended the war said explicitly that the occupation would be under UN, not NATO, command), and ignoring the protests over the bombing campaign from its own members, especially Germany and Italy. Bombing markets, hospitals, TV stations and commuter trains in Serbia wasn’t all that bright, either. Only the bombs were smart, not the people or policies that directed them. No matter what the insufferable, smirking Shea may think (if he thinks), we are not going to achieve a unipolar world led by the US and seconded by Britain, where compromise is unnecessary. Even the power of NATO will meet, and already has met, certain immovable objects.

As for the last question, well, we just have to remain alert, and skeptical.


Stephen Dusan, or Stephen Uros IV, b. 1308, d. Dec. 20, 1355, who reigned (1331-55) as king of Serbia after deposing his father, Stephen Uros III (r. 1322-31), brought Serbia to its height of power through his conquests. He seized part of western Macedonia from the Byzantine Empire in 1334 and in 1343 conquered Albania and more of Macedonia. Stephen had himself crowned emperor of the Serbs and Greeks in 1346. He captured (1348) Epirus and Thessaly and promulgated (1349, 1354) a law code. His empire collapsed, however, under his son and successor, Stephen Uros V (1355-71).
From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. ©1998 Grolier Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

99.06.07 – Bullets can’t harm me, or, ‘La vida es sueño’

The movie “The Matrix” is great fun, clever, fast moving, and scrupulously coherent within its fantastic premise. That premise (in case you still haven’t seen it) is that everything we see around us today is in reality an immensely complicated computer-constructed illusion — “the matrix.” When the hero penetrates the matrix, he sees that human civilization really destroyed itself circa 1999, that it is now at least 100 years later, and New York City is a jumble of immense, abandoned ruins. The rulers of the matrix are machines, including “agents” disguised as men (like secret service, with tight little gray suits, dark glasses and a coiled communications cable plugged into one ear) with extraordinary superhuman powers. Their job is to prevent any humans from penetrating the matrix and discovering the reality, which is that they are all slaves of the matrix, kept because only the energy (electrical?) of their bodies keeps the whole system functioning. Which brings me to the literary and historical matrix of “The Matrix.”

One reading of it is as another iteration of the solipsistic fantasy, the suspicion of the irreality of the perceived world, also the theme of “Truman’s World.” In that film, the hero is the unwitting subject of a sociological experiment watched by millions on TV; the town where he was born and has lived all his life is a stage set, his parents, friends, wife and children all actors. He finally figures this out and escapes. A much earlier version of this confusion and doubt about the reality of the perceived world is Calderón de la Barca, “La vida es sueño.”

“The Matrix” is also connected to another, related theme in world culture, the power of belief to conquer mere matter. The hero is able to defeat the “agents” only after he achieves absolute faith in the irreality of the weapons they use against him. At that moment, he is able to hold up his hand and make the bullets stop and drop to the ground, and to do many other extraordinary things. The Sioux warriors of the Ghost Dance religion believed they could do that, and so have many warriors in Africa and Asia, when they had only their spirits to defend them against superior (material) weaponry.

Oddly, though, the belief also pops up in settled, unthreatened, technologically advanced societies; when the material world is not what people wish it to be, some of them strive to believe that thinking alone can change it. As the “Scientific Statement of Being” of Christian Science (written by a Bostonian lady, Mary Baker Eddy, in the 1880s) puts it, “There is no life, intelligence nor substance in matter; all is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation, for God is all in all. Spirit is immortal truth, matter is mortal error. Spirit is God, and man is His image and likeness. Therefore man is not material, he is spiritual.” The material world is just an illusory matrix.

99.06.01 – Stamping out the entrepreneurs

History teaches us that it is only too easy to stamp out entrepreneurship. It is a fundamental human characteristic but, despite its creative and destructive powers, an extremely fragile one. Among most peoples in most times and most places entrepreneurs do not exist. The economic possibilities exist, but they are not seen, the energy to realize them is lacking, or the risks they involve seem too great.

When societies aren’t organized so that the old vested interests can be brushed aside, entrepreneurs cannot emerge. Social systems have to be built in which entrepreneurs have the freedom to destroy the old. Yet destroying the old can too easily be seen as a step into chaos. Societies that aren’t ready to break with the past aren’t willing to let entrepreneurs come into existence.

Lester C. Thurow, “Building Wealth.” The Atlantic Monthly, June 1999: 63

Thurow obliquely supports a thought I have long held, as to why the industrial revolution began in England and Scotland and not in Asia, or central Africa, or Mexico or the Andean highlands, or even England’s European neighbors Holland, France or Spain — and consequently why England’s colonies in the Americas had such a headstart, economically, on the parts colonized by Spain, Portugal or France. The main problem, I believe, was that the rulers of these other places were too good at doing what rulers always try to do, which is to suppress innovations that threaten the social order. The Spanish monarchy was especially efficient at this, through a cultural stabilization program called the “Inquisition.” The British monarchy, in contrast, had been so shaken by civil wars and regicide (1640) that it had lost control of the economy, and couldn’t stop a James Watt or anybody else who thought up a new industrial process.

99.04.19 – Balkan wars

My apologies to my webpage visitors — who, to judge from the hit counter below*, exist entirely in my imagination. Still, I have always felt affection for the creatures of my imagination, and I do not wish to disappoint you. I have let too many weeks go by without a new “thought” — not because I had suspended thinking (oh, if only I could!) but because I had lost connection to the server. Now this page resides on a different server.

A strange thing has happened to me lately. Everybody looks like a Serb. Even people on the subway who, because of their skin colors, almost certainly are not Serbs. I think it has to do with the realization that there is no possible useful distinction between “guilty” and “innocent.” I know it’s a hallucination — similar to the one suffered by many where everybody with a gun and a sneer looks like a German Nazi, and everybody persecuted looks like a Jew, except that in my version, there is only one category.

I am very disturbed by all of it — the Serb paramilitary black-jackets (whom, I strongly suspect, are not at all controllable by Milosevic), the KLA hotheads who had more or less deliberately provoked retaliation by murdering both Serbs (starting with policemen) and even Albanian Kosovar “collaborators,” Milosevic’s thuggery against the opposition journalists & politicians, the burnings of villages, the bombings of Belgrade and Novi Sad, the killing by NATO “friendly fire” of refugees, and on an on.

So I’m struggling to define how I can best intervene, make some effort to help redeem the dignity of our human race. It will have to be by writing; that’s the only way I know to fight. And it will have to be to make at least some more human beings stop to think, instead of letting smart bombs be our only smarts.

[*To avoid further embarrassment, I removed the counter shortly after the above was written.]

99.03.015 – Yogurt nationalism

For instance: do cultures actually exist as separate, pure, defensible entitities? Is not mélange, adulteration, impurity, pick’n’mix at the heart of the idea of the modern, and hasn’t it been that way for most of this all-shook-up century? Doesn’t the idea of pure cultures, in urgent need of being kept free from alien contamination, lead us inexorably toward apartheid, toward ethnic cleansing, toward the gas chamber?

Salman Rushdie, “Rethinking the War on American Culture,” NYT op-ed, Friday, March 5, 1999

In Istanbul a year and a half ago, my wife I were accosted by one of those young men eager to practice their English and to sell you something. What he was selling was his national superiority, and with no encouragement from me launched the well-worn riddle, “What is the difference between America and yogurt?”

I knew the punchline — “Yogurt has a culture” (har, har) — and didn’t want to hear it, so I just told him it was a stupid joke. What I wish I’d said, and may yet say if the opportunity recurs, is that America has many cultures, whereas yogurt has only one. Or maybe I should say, no illegal aliens by the hundreds of thousands are trying to smuggle themselves into yogurt– but I like the “many cultures” response better.

99.03.08 – Urban life

“Eeh! Fellow was spitting at my Shoes? Another Pushing folk one by one into the Gutters, some of them quite dangerous to look ah’ ? How can Yese dwell thah’ closely together, Day upon Day, without all growing Murderous?”

“Oh, one may, if one wishes, find insult at ev’ry step, – from insolent Stares to mortal Assault, an Orgy of Insult uninterrupted, – yet how does one proceed to call out each offender in turn, or choose among ’em, and in obedience to what code? So, one soon understands it, as yet another Term in the Contract between the City and oneself, – a function of simple Density, ensuring that there never be time enough to acknowledge, let alone to resent, such a mad Variety of offer’d Offense.”

p. 15, Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997.

It’s 1761, and 28-year old Jeremiah Dixon has come to London for the first time to meet Charles Mason, 5 years older and more experienced in the ways of the great city. I’ll bet Dixon would get a thrill from riding the No. 4 subway with me, between Manhattan and the Bronx, some morning or evening.

99.03.01 – Genesis of fiction

Fiction was invented the day Jonas arrived home and told his wife that he was three days late because he had been swallowed by a whale.

“Why my Friend Bill Had to Lie,” by Gabriel García Márquez, 1/30/99, The Guardian

This is the best line in what is otherwise a gushing ode to the U.S. president with the most public privates in history. As a journalist, GGM is a great entertainer — “Escribo para que mis amigos me quieran más” (“I write so that my friends will love me more”), he’s said many times, and because of that intention, his ideas are nicely formed but lack critical depth. And I suspect that fiction — deliberate invention of stories — is really even older than Jonas.

99.02.22 – Ends, means and art

Trotsky said once — probably he said it many times, because it’s too good an idea not to repeat — that the question wasn’t whether the ends justify the means. Of course they do! What else could possibly justify them? The problem was to justify one’s ends.

(There used to be more to this revery, but the computer has swallowed some text and now — 00.10.27, more than a year later — I remember only that I was critiquing two plays. Wonder what I said?)

99.02.15 – Making “moments” into “stories”

The carapace of coolness is too much for Claire, also. She breaks the silence by saying that it’s not healthy to live life as a succession of isolated little cool moments. “Either our lives become stories, or there’s just no way to get through them.”

p. 8 of Douglas Coupland, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

99.02.01 – Time and the wordsmiths

Time that is intolerant
of the brave and innocent,
and indifferent in a week
to a beautiful physique,
worships language and forgives
everyone by whom it lives,
pardons cowardice, conceit,
lays its honors at their feet.

W. H. Auden, from “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” (February 1939; Yeats had died the previous month.)
This stanza, which I first heard intoned in Audens’ deep, hoarse voice, recording date unknown, was not included in his final version in Collected Poems. Still, even if Auden himself came to have doubts, I treasure these lines, and want to believe that they are true.

99.01.25 – Art, love and historical destiny

Well, there you are. You care about the punctuation or you don’t, and Hemingway did. You care about the “ands” and the “buts” or you don’t, and Hemingway did. You think something is in shape to be published or you don’t, and Hemingway didn’t.

Joan Didion, “Last Words (Those Hemingway wrote, and those he didn’t)”. The New Yorker, Nov. 9, 1998, p. 78, commenting on his heirs’ “cleaning up” and publishing some of Papa’s typescripts.

« ¿Sería justo que este raro ejemplar de la especie humana tuviera que malversar su destino histórico sólo porque no encontró un rincón seguro donde hacer el amor? »  (Would it be fair that this exceptional human being should have to ruin his historic destiny simply because he couldn’t find a safe place to make love?)

Gabriel García Márquez’s comment on the trials of Bill Clinton, in an editorial in his new magazine Cambio, Jan. 25, 1999.

99.01.19 – Basic science as poetry

The strange thing about basic science is that it is often justified as useful economically, and in the end indeed often it is — but seldom in a way we can foresee in advance. Really if we were more honest we would just say it’s a cultural activity, and fund it with poetry, through the National Endowment for the Arts or something like that. (Of course, then I’d be out of a job; I gather the National Endowment for the Arts gets less money than the DoD gets for military bands!)

Bill Wheaton, in a recent email note

William Wheaton is an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology. He is also a contributor to the wonderful, zany science information page “Mad Scientist.” For more of the thoughts of Bill Wheaton, check out his web page.

99.01.11 – Adult education among the Oghuz

“Egrek said, ‘Ters Uzamish, is cutting off heads and spilling blood a clever thing to do?’ ‘Of course it is,’ he replied. Ters Uzamish’s words had their effect on Egrek; he rose and asked Prince Kazan’s leave to go on a raid.”

From “The Story of Segrek Son of Ushun Koja” in The Book of Dede Korkut, tr. Geoffrey Lewis. London: Penguin, 1974. P. 161

Sometimes people need to have the most obvious things pointed out to them, and thereafter can manage brilliantly. Egrek in the story turns out to have a real gift for cutting off heads and spilling blood. (This little example of adult education comes from the folklore of the Oghuz Turks of Central Asia, ancestors of the Ottomans.)