“Endings that Hover”: On Stories and Resolutions

I really, really enjoyed reading Nelly Reifler’s essay “Endings That Hover.” It’s about our (human) need to tell stories, create narratives, and come to terms with endings in short stories/books/movies.

The need to tell stories, to create narratives, grows from the weird essence of the human condition: we are conscious, and inextricable from consciousness is the awareness that we are going to die. This knowledge makes simply living kind of a crazy act. Plus, life is chaotic, and most of what happens during our short time alive just happens to us. Most of what happens occurs by chance or through the will of some outside entity; occasionally we are able to exert power, but usually with compromise and adjustment. So we narrate our lives as we live them, making sense of the chaos by organizing our experiences. Forming our lives into plot, we can pick out certain patterns and see some cause and effect. We learn to navigate the chaos, sometimes, little by little. We believe we are moving forward.

On our need for resolutions:

Within every story with a moral was a story with resolution. The role of literature has changed over the centuries, and it no longer carries the burden of reinforcing our social structure and codes of behavior. But even now — after modernism, after postmodernism — we’re still looking to narratives to provide us with a sense of resolution.

Like the author, I appreciate stories with ambiguous endings, where we’re forced to rattle our brain to come up with interpretations:

I’ve noticed that stories that appear to have resolutions don’t give me the satisfaction I want them to, and I imagine that’s true for some of you as well. Even if we crave resolution, it only satisfies us briefly. I’d say that the popularity of sequels and serials speaks to the fact that as humans we know that nothing resolves.

We writers have the urge to wrap up our stories, to provide our characters, ourselves and our readers with a sense of completion. For a while I had trouble ending my stories because I thought that I needed to somehow contain or recap everything that had unfolded in the preceding pages; I thought an ending had to be the end. It was befuddling for me. I hoped that in my fiction I was talking about the awkward, ineffable, eerie, and unresolvable aspects of life, and coming to a conclusion felt contradictory to what I understood as fiction’s purpose. It felt like lying.

This is wonderful:

To my mind, a story’s ending ought to acknowledge the ever-moving quality of life; that is, I want it to engage change rather than finality. Your final word and the void following it on the page are as close as you’ll get to conclusion. The best endings to stories have a sense of hovering in space and time; even a dark ending can be uplifting, exhilarating, as long as it seems to hover in space and time — because then it reflects life to us as it is: unresolved, eternally unresolvable.

Worth reading in entirety. I also endorse Nelly Reifler’s claim that Chekhov’s story “The Lady with the Dog” will take your breath away. It’s one of my all-time favourite short stories.

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(Thanks to Jodi Ettenberg for the recommendation)

 

A Craigslist Ad For a Poem

Esther Cohen, a writer/poet in New York City, profiles a delightful experience in answering a Craigslist ad, seeking a submission for a poem. The prize? A cool $10,000.

On the day of the Craigslist diversion, my poem was “Pre-Used”:

And now, at this point
insane moment of age and longing
cusp and pinnacle
when my arms are different arms
when my dreams are always interrupted
longing becomes more than longing
I can no longer do this
or that as much as I still want to
I wake up wondering how
I no longer care so much about why
when a day is not just a day but right now.

Contestants were told to upload their poem and include a brief cover letter explaining what they would do with the prize money. I also had to write a few sentences about myself and my theme. I’m getting older. That’s my theme. It didn’t need much more explanation. With the $10,000, I would write more poems.

A few weeks later, close to midnight on a Tuesday, a mysterious e-mail arrived.

“Congratulations!

“You have been selected as one of the 11 finalists chosen from the hundreds of entries we received. We would like to meet you this Friday, July 26th along with the other finalists at 5PM.”

The note gave an address in Chelsea, near the High Line.

She goes on to the specified location to meet two hosts by the name of River and Whisper. An evening with flowing drink and food ensues. I love this story because while Craigslist gets a bad rap for scams, there are, occasionally, amazing gems waiting to be discovered. Highly recommended.

Louis C.K. on Loneliness and Cell Phones

Louis C.K. went on Conan last night and talked about why he won’t give his kids cell phones.

 

A brief transcript:

You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty. That knowledge that it’s all for nothing and that you’re alone. It’s down there.

But does reaching for the phone in times of sadness make the sadness go away? Louis C.K. admits:

I started to get that sad feeling and reached for my phone, but I thought ‘don’t’ — just be sad, let it hit you like a truck. I pulled over and I just cried like a bitch, it was beautiful. Sadness is poetic.

All this to say: I am reminded of this powerful video that went viral recently, “I Forgot my Phone”:

 

Sometimes we need to take a break from our phones. Have a great weekend, everyone.

C. D. Hermelin on Being a “Roving Typist” and Dealing with Internet Trolls

C. D. Hermelin has published a wonderful, personal post on what it’s like being hated on the Internet. As a struggling writer, he went out to various locales in New York City with a vintage typewriter (he dubbed himself a “roving typist”) and offered to write short stories for people on the spot, asking for a modest, voluntary donation in return (“Stories While You Wait”):

I started at Washington Square Park. My cousin joined, which was particularly nice, since it started raining and he held an umbrella over my head. Barely anyone stopped, but there was a grand piano player and dancers to contend with. So I tried the 5th and 59th street entrance to Central Park, and was lost among the Statues of Liberty, the bubble guys, the magicians, the stand-up comic, the free hugs guy, the jugglers. At the Hans Christian Andersen memorial statue, I was writing post-card size stories for grade schoolers, mostly in the vein of Pokémon and Disney. I didn’t make a lot of money—only enough money to grab a slice of pizza on the way home.

When I set up at the High Line, I had lines of people asking for stories. At seven to 10 minutes per a story, I had to tell people to leave and come back. It surprised me when they would do just that. I never had writer’s block, although sometimes I would stare off into space for the right word, and people watching would say, “Look! He’s thinking!” Writing is usually a lonely, solitary act. On the High Line with my typewriter, all the joy of creating narrative was infused with a performer’s high—people held their one-page flash fictions and read them and laughed and repeated lines and translated into their own languages, right in front of me. Perhaps other writers would have their nerves wracked by instant feedback on rough drafts, but all I could do was smile.

And then he hit the front page of Reddit, and immediately the collective hive mind labeled him as a hipster (online bullying):

I woke up one day not long after I started “Roving Typist” to a flurry of emails, Facebook posts, text messages and missed calls. A picture of me typewriting had made it to the front page of Reddit. For those who don’t know, being on the front page of Reddit is hallowed ground—the notoriety of being on the front page can launch careers, start dance crazes, inspire Hollywood. In other words, ending up on the front page of Reddit meant a decent chunk of the million-plus people who log on daily saw my picture.

But the overwhelming negativity towards me, and the “hipster scum” I represented, was enough to make me get up from my computer, my heart racing, my hands shaking with adrenaline.

The author describes his reactions:

I did not ready myself mentally for a barrage of hipster-hating Internet commenters critiquing me for everything: my pale skin, my outfit, my hair, my typing style, my glasses. An entire sub-thread was devoted to whether or not I had shaved legs. It was not the first time I had been labeled a “hipster.” I often wear tight jeans, big plastic-frame glasses, shirts bought at thrift stores. I listen to Vampire Weekend, understand and laugh at the references in “Portlandia.” I own and listen to vintage vinyl. The label never bothered me on its own. But with each successive violent response to the picture of me, I realized that hipsters weren’t considered a comically benign undercurrent of society. Instead, it seemed like Redditors saw hipsters and their ilk as a disease, and I was up on display as an example of depraved behavior.

The whole thing is worth reading, but this paragraph was a sigh of relief:

For all the hateful words that were lobbed at me, it barely ever bubbled over from the world of online forums and websites. I received zero angry emails, only a few mean tweets. My Facebook was never broken into and vandalized—my typewriter remains unsmashed, no one has ever threatened violence towards me in real life. Instead, there are these pockets of the web that are small and ignorable, filled with hate for a picture of me, for this idea of a hipster—for the audacity of bringing a typewriter to a park.

A great story. If I were in NYC and saw C.D., I’d definitely offer a few dollars for a short story. I think this kind of creativity is awesome and welcome and these accusatory Redditors boggle the mind.

If you enjoyed the story, I suggest going to the Roving Typist site and supporting C.D. by ordering a story of your own.

What Happened in the Markets on September 18, 2013 at 2PM?

This is an intriguing analysis at Nanex of what happened in the financial markets (equities and futures) on September 18, 2013 milliseconds before the FED announcement of “no taper” at precisely 2:00PM.

One of Einstein’s great contributions to mankind was the theory of relativity, which is based on the fact that there is a real limit on the speed of light. Information doesn’t travel instantly, it is limited by the speed of light, which in a perfect setting is 186 miles (300km) per millisecond. This has been proven in countless scientific experiments over nearly a century of time. Light, or anything else, has never been found to go faster than 186 miles per millisecond. It is simply impossible to transmit information faster.

Too bad that the bad guys on Wall Street who pulled off The Great Fed Robbery didn’t pay attention in science class. Because hard evidence, along with the speed of light, proves that someone got the Fed announcement news before everyone else. There is simply no way for Wall Street to squirm its way out of this one.

Before 2pm, the Fed news was given to a group of reporters under embargo – which means in a secured lock-up room. This is done so reporters have time to write their stories and publish when the Fed releases its statement at 2pm. The lock-up room is in Washington DC. Stocks are traded in New York (New Jersey really), and many financial futures are traded in Chicago. The distances between these 3 cities and the speed of light is key to proving the theft of public information (early, tradeable access to Fed news).

We’ve learned that the speed of light (information), takes 1 millisecond to travel 186 miles (300km). Therefore, the amount of time it takes to transmit information between two points is limited by distance and how fast computers can encode and decode the information on both sides.

Our experience analyzing the impact of hundreds of news events at the millisecond level tells us that it takes at least 5 milliseconds for information to travel between Chicago and New York. Even though Chicago is closer to Washington DC than New York, the path between the two cities is not straight or optimized: so it takes information a bit longer, about 7 milliseconds, to travel between Chicago and Washington. It takes little under 2 milliseconds between Washington and New York.

Therefore, when the information was officially released in Washington, New York should see it 2 milliseconds later, and Chicago should see it 7 milliseconds later. Which means we should see a reaction in stocks (which trade in New York) about 5 milliseconds before a reaction in financial futures (which trade in Chicago). And this is in fact what we normally see when news is released from Washington.

However, upon close analysis of millisecond time-stamps of trades in stocks and futures (and options, and futures options, and anything else publicly traded), we find that activity in stocks and futures exploded in the same millisecond. This is a physical impossibility. Also, the reaction was within 1 millisecond, meaning it couldn’t have reached Chicago (or New York): another physical possibility. Then there is the case that the information on the Fed Website was not readily understandable for a machine – less than a thousandth of a second is not enough time for someone to commit well over a billion dollars that effectively bought all stocks, futures and options.

The conclusions the authors draw? The announcement was leaked:

The Fed news was leaked to, or known by, a large Wall Street Firm who made the decision to pre-program their trading machines in both New York and Chicago and wait until precisely 2pm when they would buy everything available. It is somewhat fascinating that they tried to be “honest” by waiting until 2pm, but not a thousandth of a second longer. What makes this a more likely explanation is this: we’ve found that news organizations providing timed release services aren’t so good about synchronizing their master clock – and often release plus or minus 15 milliseconds from actual time. Their news machines in New York and Chicago still release the data at the exact same millisecond, but with the same drift in time as the master clock. That is, we’ll see an immediate market reaction at say, 15 milliseconds before the official scheduled time, but in the same millisecond of time in both New York and Chicago. Historically, these news services have shown a time drift of about 30 milliseconds (+/- 15ms), which places the odds that this event was from a timed news service at about 10%. 

Something does sound fishy based on the charts provided by Nanex. I’ve read some of their analyses before and they have been overwhelmingly convincing. We’ll see how this one unfolds pretty soon, I think.

Breaking Bad Props Auction: Tuco’s Grill, Hazmat Suits, and More

If you’re a Breaking Bad fan (like me) and have plenty of cash to spare (unlike me), you might want to look into the auction of the props from the show. The New York Times reports:

The “Breaking Bad” sale already lists Hazmat suits, a charred pink Teddy bear, a Lucite-encased grill and various automobiles familiar to viewers of the series, about White, a high school chemistry teacher who becomes a kingpin in New Mexico’s methamphetamine trade.

Tuco’s grill is up for grabs. My favorite is probably Walter’s edition of Leaves of Grass.

Notable item that’s not for sale? Mr. White’s mobile meth lab, a Fleetwood Bounder RV.

Farhad Manjoo on the Defense of Email

Farhad Manjoo, a departing columnist at Slate, pens a piece praising email. He writes: “Nobody gives email its due. We all kvetch about how much mail we get, how little of it is important, and how difficult it is to sort the good from the bad. Filtering and responding to email is one of the most annoying parts of my job. But I wouldn’t ever give it up.” I’ve read too many pieces espousing how email is terrible and/or evil, so this was a refreshing read.

I think the best point in Manjoo’s piece was about email being democratic and non-discriminating:

One thing people hate about email is that every message shows up in your mailbox pretty much the same way—you see the sender, subject line, and a small preview. Emails from your boss aren’t accorded better placement than messages from an intern or from some schemer in Nigeria. Smart email services like Gmail and Outlook do offer lots of tools for automatically filtering mail, but in general, if you get a lot of messages, your inbox looks like a big mess every morning.

Another way to say this is: Email doesn’t discriminate. Because anyone in the world, even strangers, can email me, and because a message that comes from my boss looks exactly like one that comes from an intern, email is the most egalitarian, accessible communications tool in your office. When every message looks the same, you’re forced to confront lots of viewpoints. Email gives newcomers to an organization just as much of an opportunity to join the conversation as old-timers. I suspect this would be less likely on social networks like Yammer, where richer profile information—follower counts, pictures, and such—clouds out content.

Excellent. I’m going to miss Farhad’s columns at Slate. He is definitely departing in style.

Is Homework in American Schools Getting Harder and Longer?

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Karl Greenfield has a lengthy piece titled “My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me” on attempting to do his 13-year-old daughter’s homework for one week. Comparing to his past, he is overwhelmed by how much homework is assigned to her daughter on a nightly basis.

I don’t remember how much homework was assigned to me in eighth grade. I do know that I didn’t do very much of it and that what little I did, I did badly. My study habits were atrocious. After school I often went to friends’ houses, where I sometimes smoked marijuana, and then I returned home for dinner; after lying to my parents about not having homework that night, I might have caught an hour or two of television. In Southern California in the late ’70s, it was totally plausible that an eighth grader would have no homework at all.

If my daughter came home and said she had no homework, I would know she was lying. It is inconceivable that her teachers wouldn’t assign any.

What has changed? It seems that while there has been widespread panic about American students’ falling behind their peers in Singapore, Shanghai, Helsinki, and everywhere else in science and mathematics, the length of the school day is about the same. The school year hasn’t been extended. Student-teacher ratios don’t seem to have changed much. No, our children are going to catch up with those East Asian kids on their own damn time.

Every parent I know in New York City comments on how much homework their children have. These lamentations are a ritual whenever we are gathered around kitchen islands talking about our kids’ schools.

Is it too much?

Well, imagine if after putting in a full day at the office—and school is pretty much what our children do for a job—you had to come home and do another four or so hours of office work. Monday through Friday. Plus Esmee gets homework every weekend. If your job required that kind of work after work, how long would you last?

This exchange caught my attention (I hadn’t heard of this cross-disciplinary work being popular in schools):

One assignment had her calculating the area and perimeter of a series of shapes so complex that my wife, who trained as an architect in the Netherlands, spent half an hour on it before coming up with the right answers. The problem was not the complexity of the work, it was the amount of calculating required. The measurements included numbers like 78 13/64, and all this multiplying and dividing was to be done without a calculator. Another exercise required Esmee to find the distance from Sacramento—we were living in California—to every other state capital in America, in miles and kilometers. This last one caused me to question the value of the homework.

What possible purpose could this serve?, I asked her teacher in a meeting.

She explained that this sort of cross-disciplinary learning—state capitals in a math class—was now popular. She added that by now, Esmee should know all her state capitals. She went on to say that in class, when the students had been asked to name the capital of Texas, Esmee answered Texas City.

But this is a math class, I said. I don’t even know the state capitals.

The teacher was unmoved, saying that she felt the homework load was reasonable. If Esmee was struggling with the work, then perhaps she should be moved to a remedial class.

Worth the read, especially if you’re a parent with kids in K-12.

David Block, the Baseball Archaeologist

This is a fascinating story in Grantland about David Block and his quest to find the origins of baseball:

Block was coming to the subject of baseball’s paternity not as a historian but as a book collector. “Historians are driven by story and issue,” said Thorn. “David was driven by artifact.” As he scoured eBay in the late ’90s — back before anyone knew what their junk was worth — it was Block’s brainstorm to bypass books about baseball. He was looking for books that mentioned baseball, books historians might have missed. “I always liked to go where no one else was looking,” Block said. His collection grew big enough that he decided to write a bibliography of early texts. The bibliography became a proper book.

In 2001, Block got ahold of a copy of a 1796 German book with the ungainly title of Spiele zur Uebung und Erholung des Körpers und Geistes für die Jugend, ihre Erzieher und alle Freunde Unschuldiger Jugendfreuden. His copy has green and white marbled boards and brown binder’s tape on the spine. An inside page carries the stamp “D. Schaller,” a previous owner. Block ran his finger down the table of contents when he saw a reference:

                    3. Ball mit Freystäten, das engl. Base-ball

A translation confirmed what Block suspected. Here was a reference to baseball 32 years before the first literary reference to rounders. And the German book, by J.C.F. Gutsmuths, wasn’t the only example. The 1744 A Little Pretty Pocket-Book mentioned baseball. So did a letter of one Lady Hervey of England, from 1748. Even Jane Austen included the word “baseball” in her novel Northanger Abbey, which was published in 1818. If baseball had descended from rounders, Block wondered, then why did baseball keep popping up in the historical record before rounders?

Block began to get a little nervous. The historian Thomas Altherr, who talked to Block during this period, said Block was worried he was imposing on the work of others. For Block had confirmed that both the Doubleday theory was bunk. But he had also discovered that the rounders theory was bunk. Everything we knew about baseball’s parentage was wrong.

A reference to baseball, according to Block, can be traced as early as 1755:

In 2007, Block was on a computer terminal in the British Library in London. He came across a comic novel called The Card, by John Kidgell, which was published in 1755. He found this passage:

… the younger Part of the Family, perceiving Papa not inclined to enlarge upon the Matter, retired to an interrupted Party at Base-Ball, (an infant Game which as it advances in its Teens, improves into Fives, and in its State of Manhood, is called Tennis.)

On English baseball: 

Block offered an alternative proposal for baseball’s paternity. It was both simpler and more complex than any previous theory. First, Block said that baseball had descended from … baseball. What the authors of the BA’SEBALL dictionary entry and John Kidgell and William Bray and Jane Austen were describing was a primitive version of the game played in English fields. Block calls this English baseball.

And how was this English baseball played? Block offers that there were no bats (players used their hands), and that the game was social rather than competitive/athletic:

There were bases of some unknown counting. The pitcher threw to the batter underhanded. The fielders tried to catch the ball on the fly or retrieve the ball and throw it and strike the runner when he was off base.”

Fascinating throughout.

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Note: If this topic piques your interest, Block wrote a book called Baseball Before we Knew It that has stellar reviews on Amazon.

Do Humans Pick Friends Who Have Similar Genetic Makeup?

Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler, in a recent paper titled “Friendship and Natural Selection,” make an interesting hypothesis: that we select friends who have similar genetic makeup as ourselves. The dataset used was the famous Framingham Heart Study. From their abstract:

More than any other species, humans form social ties to individuals who are neither kin nor mates, and these ties tend to be with similar people. Here, we show that this similarity extends to genotypes. Across the whole genome, friends’ genotypes at the SNP level tend to be positively correlated (homophilic); however, certain genotypes are negatively correlated (heterophilic). A focused gene set analysis suggests that some of the overall correlation can be explained by specific systems; for example, an olfactory gene set is homophilic and an immune system gene set is heterophilic. Finally, homophilic genotypes exhibit significantly higher measures of positive selection, suggesting that, on average, they may yield a synergistic fitness advantage that has been helping to drive recent human evolution.

So the interesting question is why would this happen? The arXiv blog goes into possible explanations:

Perhaps the genetic links are simply a reflection of this common background. Not so, say Christakis and Fowler. The correlation they have found exists only between friends but not between strangers. If this was a reflection of their common ancestry, then the genomes of strangers should be correlated just as strongly. “Pairs of (strictly unrelated) friends generally tend to be more genetically homophilic than pairs of strangers from the same population,” they point out.

There are certainly other processes that could lead to friends having similar genomes. One idea that dates back some 30 years is that a person’s genes causes them to seek out circumstances that are compatible with their phenotype. If that’s the case, then people with similar genes should end up in similar environments.

Personally, I don’t buy this:

There may be another mechanism at work. One idea is that humans can somehow identify people with similar genetic make up, perhaps with some kind of pheromone detector. Indeed, Christakis and Fowler say that some of the genes they found in common are related to olfaction, a discovery they describe as “intriguing and supportive”.

While interesting, I’m not entirely convinced of the overall findings and would be curious to see this study expand. What do you think?