Monthly Archives: January 2013

Review: ‘Honeybee Democracy’

Bees give lessons for leadership and group intelligence. 

. . . [N]atural selection has organized honeybee swarms and primate brains in intriguingly similar ways to build a first-rate decision-making group from a collection of rather poorly informed and cognitively limited individuals.

Honeybee Democracy

Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley. Princeton University Press, 264 pp.

Seeley-Honeybee Democracy

How can humans make better group decisions? We might look to the bees, says Thomas D. Seeley, a Cornell biologist who has spent his life studying the insects.

Each year, the legions of (female) worker bees in a colony must make a life-or-death decision: where to build a new home? Scouts report on prospects with their famous waggle dances, arguing for one site or another, which the other scouts check out based on directional clues encoded in the dances. A bad choice—a cavity too small to hold enough honey for the winter, an entrance too large to exclude predators—and the entire colony dies.

This stark imperative has driven bees, Seeley explains, toward dissent-free decisions:

This is what normally arises from the democratic decision-making process used by house-hunting honeybees and, quite frankly, I find it amazing. We have seen . . .  how the debate among a swarm’s scout bees starts with individuals proposing many potential nesting sites, vigorously advertising the competing proposals, and actively recruiting neutral individuals to the different camps. All this makes the surface of a swarm look at first like a riotous dance party. Yet out of this chaos, order gradually emerges. Ultimately the debate ends with all the dancing bees indicating support for just one nesting site, usually the best one.

Honeybee Democracy brought me back to childhood, when I devoured books about the natural world and was a steady observer of nature myself. It reminded me too of how little I know or have retained. Such as: the colony’s queen, who does all the reproducing, decides the sex of her offspring, and she lays eggs that produce mostly females. A nest’s 10,000 worker bees, who collect pollen for honey, and a few hundred who become scouts for new homes, all are her virgin daughters. The comparatively few large male drones are not drones at all, in practice, but lazy, well-fed inseminators of young queens, bred once on their maiden flights and fixed, reproductively speaking, for life.

One of Seeley’s salient findings is that bees try to sense a quorum (sufficient number in agreement) rather than a consensus (unanimity) when they swarm. In taking off without complete agreement they risk that the swarm may split in flight—thus endangering their queen, whose loss would be fatal for the colony’s future. But a quorum strikes a balance between speed and accuracy in decision-making for the exposed and vulnerable swarm, and in practice usually every bee gets on board and makes a beeline for the most popular site. The risk of consensus, as we know from some human groups (Seeley gives an example from a Quaker meeting, but juries came to mind for me), one holdout can overrule the wisdom of the group and prevent a decision or prompt a bad one.

As chair of his academic department, Seeley has instituted the “Five Habits of Highly Effective Groups” that he learned from bees:

Lesson One

Compose the Decision-Making Group of Individuals with Shared Interests and Mutual Respect.

 

Lesson Two

Minimize the Leader’s Influence on the Group’s Thinking.

 

Lesson Three

Seek Diverse Solutions to the Problem.

 

Lesson Four

Aggregate the Group’s Knowledge Through Debate.

 

Lesson Five

Use Quorum Responses for Cohesion, Accuracy, and Speed.

Of course, unlike humans, bees appear to lack individual egos, humans’ blessing and curse as a species. In fact, bees operate without leaders, let alone with the domineering ones who  subvert group decision-making. As a recent national failure from poor leadership, Seeley cites how the “headstrong” style of George W. Bush steamrolled his policy team into agreeing to invade Iraq in 2003. “They did little to question his thinking, engage in extended debate about the possible policy options, or delve deeply into the consequences of going to war,” Seeley writes. “In short, they squandered their opportunity to use group intelligence. We now know that the hasty and flawed decision to invade Iraq was based largely on the gut feelings of just one man, George W. Bush.”

Contrast this with Barack Obama’s “team of rivals” ideal, as enacted by his hero Abraham Lincoln, which emphasizes a dialectic arising from a buzz of dissenting opinions. Lincoln was criticized for not being headstrong enough, for hanging back, for bordering on passivity, but look at his results, the preservation of the union and the abolition of slavery. He led by acting in accordance with his sense of his advisors’ growing recognition of the right. Now our politics seem so ugly that many apparently believe our system itself is broken, even with its brilliant checks and balances against egoistic extremism, but surely that’s what many in Lincoln’s day thought too, when the invective was at least as bitter.

Listening to Obama’s second inauguration last week on my car radio as I drove into snow flurries in Ohio, my eyes stung with tears at the beauty of the progressive ideals being expressed. Some would respond to this rhetoric with hate, I suspected, and indeed they have—unlike bees, some humans will always be on the wrong side of history. Our earliest simian layer might be blamed for this: chimps are brutally hierarchical, fierce toward rivals and rival clans, and masters of the elemental two-against-one calculus of politics.

But in the animal kingdom, ants and bees, the most highly social of insects—not apes—are considered most like humans, at least in exemplifying the kind of cooperation humans strive for and sometimes achieve. And after reading Honeybee Democracy, I’m heartened by how much we’re like the bees when we’re at our best.

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Filed under emotion, evolutionary psychology, politics, REVIEW

Boycotting ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Kathryn Bigelow falsifies an American tragedy.

Stormclouds x

That’s too strong a word, boycott. It’s more like deep ambivalence that has kept me away. And today I’ve failed yet again to get myself out the door to see Zero Dark Thirty, despite being between semesters and having my classes pretty well planned. And despite having loved Kathryn Bigelow’s previous movie, The Hurt Locker, about a bomb disposal unit in Iraq, which captures both war’s horror and its addictive quality for some combatants.

Zero Dark Thirty reportedly shows, in sickening scenes, what the Bush administration’s pro-torture policy led to: the brutalizing of helpless prisoners. But widespread criticism of the movie concerns the way Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, portray that torture as having led directly to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. That is false, all knowledgeable experts claim. America’s locating Bin Laden resulted from sustained inquiry of and small kindnesses offered to a particular captive.

Apparently Bigelow and Boal wanted so show the human cost, in prisoners’ agony and torturers’ depravity, and to rub our noses in what our government did on our behalf to find Bin Laden. But it’s so much worse than that! The torture and degradation were worthless in this case, as far as we know from experts and insiders. I cannot imagine a work of nonfiction or a literary novel falsifying this matter because the moral ambiguity here is so rich, the sins against others and ourselves so tragic. Maybe this is “just” Hollywood, a topic too complex for Hollywood and too expensive for indie producers to tackle? For me, though, part of the effect of Zero Dark Thirty’s lie based on a grievous moral and artistic error is to make movies in their execution seem, once again, a lesser art form than literature.

The real story, the real issue.

The real story, the real issue.

For a great book—really a long essay, at only 189 pages—about American policy as revealed in the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal during the Iraq war see A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America by David Griffith (reviewed). Griffith’s book is a brave inquiry into America’s grotesque violations of its transcendent ideals and a meditation upon the larger problem of human evil. A Good War deals a lot with film. Griffith shows himself enjoying violence, becoming uncomfortable, and ultimately grasping a felt, moral response to violence in Blue Velvet and Deliverance in contrast to what he views as Quentin Tarantino’s creepy aestheticization of violence and denial of its seriousness in Pulp Fiction.

Griffith has just published a new essay at Image Journal about writing as a devout Catholic in an age of unbelief.

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Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’

Beachroom x

Narrative craft & spirituality in a classic feminist essay.

Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time.—A Room of One’s Own

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Harcourt, 112 pp.

Like last year when I was at the beach, where I’ve been for the past few weeks, I remember I should have brought Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, what with the Atlantic surf hissing and breaking outside. Sometimes I feel almost frightened by what a ghost I feel here, so much time alone for memories to flood in of the boy I was and of my past friends, some dead or disabled and most scattered. A few people whom I’ve lost touch with are living quietly here where we grew up, and in my mind’s eye they are still eighteen. I wouldn’t know them if I saw them, yet part of me thinks I’d still be eighteen had I stayed here too. At the same time, the beach is magic—it’s the air, so mild, and the ceaseless murmur of the waves and the sun on the living and moving water. Perfect, really, for reading Woolf, that most retrospective of writers, who wrote often of the sea and of water. And so I reread A Room of One’s Own, which I did bring, and marveled anew at her foresight, her courage, her humor, and her artistry.

One might assume that this extended essay, six chapters that make a short book, would be didactic. But I’d noticed before how much Woolf unfolds her essay in scene. For instance, there’s always the track of her mind in a physical place—as she roams a public library or ponders a bookshelf in her home—and there are a series of sexist indignities she suffers while researching the book, which is famous for its dictum that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” This time I noticed Woolf’s caveat about her scenic narrative approach, her “making use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist” to show her audience how her topic consumed her and how she “made it work in and out of my daily life.” Great novelists are highly sensitive to the murky nature of memory and to the porous border between fiction and nonfiction; Nabokov and Updike made similar statements in their memoirs. In any case, a great move there on Woolf’s part, flagging her method and making her audience complicit in her imaginative approach. And there was at the start of A Room of One’s Own a very specific audience: two women’s colleges at Cambridge University, where Woolf delivered her book in a series of lectures in October 1928.

The first edition's cover.

The first edition’s cover.

Having been asked to speak on “Women and Fiction,” Woolf tells the story of her process, beginning with being flummoxed by what in the world that topic meant and what to say about something so nebulous and vast. Soon we have her brilliant imagining of Judith Shakespeare, the genius sister she creates for William, and her fate. Which isn’t pretty. Indeed the midsection of A Room of One’s Own makes for uneasy reading by a man, despite Woolf’s ever-present tart humor. For we know those opening incidents might well have happened to her—the world’s great lyrical novelist and avatar of modernism chased off the grass at “Oxbridge” by the Beadle (women had to stay on the paths), then barred from the library (being unaccompanied and without a letter), and then too timid to risk entering the institution’s chapel. Thus she gives us experience along with then-radical ideas regarding the equality of women. And of course this resonates too because we know that Woolf herself wasn’t granted a formal university education by her philosopher father, who instead squandered higher education on her cretinous half brothers. Who’d bullied and molested her.

So it’s tough, this little book. But its transcendent reward comes in the final chapter, where Woolf argues that at base gender differences are a fiction of and for the small-minded. Quite simply, Woolf says, beyond that it is natural for the sexes to cooperate, artists must be conversant with their inner opposite sex. The creating mind must indeed be androgynous. Only those with this dual mind, those who partake in this “marriage of opposites,” she says, have a shot at writing with “suggestive power,” at making writing that has “the secret of perpetual life.” The book’s spiritual dimension soars here, so reminiscent of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet with its insistence on the sexes’ deep commonality, their inner union. Woolf: “The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating.” For in the end, for anyone of either gender involved in creation, Woolf observes, “There must be freedom and there must be peace.”

I previously reviewed Woolf’s memoir A Sketch of the Past.

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Filed under craft, technique, essay-narrative, fiction, humor, modernism/postmodernism, MY LIFE, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, scene

Swamped by ‘Infinite Jest’

On failing to finish David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece novel.

 Beach Stick x

Carry nothing even remotely vegetabalish if in the path of a feral herd.

Infinite Jest

To paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, “It’s a terrible thing to quit a book. To take from it less than it has to give.” I don’t believe that about books—we should quit any one that’s not working for us and start another—but David Foster Wallace’s 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest is a special case. And I’ve just failed to read it for the second time.

How many sail around the world on their first try? Still, there’s a sense of failure involved in quitting any one of the world’s acknowledged Great Novels. (I have a secret list.) And a special poignancy for me in giving up yet again on Infinite Jest since I love Wallace’s nonfiction and wanted to join those who’ve beaten on against the current to the bitter end. It appears, as well, to be a novel, like Catch-22 and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance were for my generation, that’s an important marker for twentysomething readers and writers. Alas, I am not young. Just dropping Infinite Jest on my toe, even in this paperback version, might be tragic at my age.

I’ve had plenty of reading time between semesters, down here in Florida in my sister’s beach condo. Even so, I feared the cetaceous bulk of Infinite Jest. And once you open it and see its pages covered in a smaller-than-usual font, with sentences at tighter than usual spacing—and I’m not talking about the 96 pages of tiny single-spaced endnotes—you instantly know one thing for sure. Reading Infinite Jest is an opportunity cost. Because you could read at least six good novels in the time it’d take you to read it. Just sayin’.

Wallace's Infinite Jest

But that’s not relevant if it’s worth six good novels. There’s testimony it is, though in all honesty I made it only to Page 109 so how would I really know? Yet Wallace’s genius, energy, and belief in his work are palpable from the start. He could do anything as a writer, and he seems to do everything in Infinite Jest; of course he’s got all the basic chops, from sentences to scenes, from point of view to voice. Incidentally, Wallace, both a grammarian and someone who could write circles around almost anyone, had no problem with breaking the heart of his frenemy Jonathan Franzen by using the “, then” construction that drives Franzen crazy. Franzen’s hatred of this common and useful usage pattern has made me weirdly sensitive to it; I see it everywhere, and I see his point. But his point, in his way, is also annoyingly overstated (and partly specious). (Watch Wallace cruelly dominate Franzen on Charlie Rose’s show.)  A minor quirk in Infinite Jest is Wallace’s use of single quotation marks; reviewing another book of his, Oblivion, for The Modern World, Marie Mundaca said they “seem to indicate that the entire story is enclosed in a set of double quotes.”

But to stand back. Wallace had the genius’s way with metaphor—at the sentence level, sure, but pertinently here in the overarching sense: how he sets up a bleak exaggerated future America. One in which our prosperity and beloved diversions (video, drugs, sports, advertising) turn hellish as richly flawed people struggle amid ascendant corporations and an environmental holocaust. New England is a toxic waste dump called the Great Concavity and roamed by Québécois separatist terrorists.

Blessedly I made it to Page 93, and so to the horde of rampaging hamsters:

     It’s a herd of feral hamsters, a major herd, thundering across the yellow plains of the southern reaches of the Great Concavity in what used to be Vermont, raising dust that forms a uremic-hued cloud with somatic shapes interpretable from as far away as Boston and Montreal. The herd is descended from two domestic hamsters set free by a Watertown NY boy at the beginning of the Experialist migration in the subsidized Year of the Whopper. The boy now attends college in Champaign IL and has forgotten that his hamsters were named Ward and June.

 

The noise of the herd is tornadic, locomotival. The expression on the hamsters’ whiskered faces is businesslike and implacable—it’s that implacable-herd expression. They thunder eastward across pedalferrous terrain that today is fallow, denuded. To the east, dimmed by the fulvous cloud the hamsters send up, is the vivid verdant ragged outline of the annularly overfertilized forests of what used to be central Maine.

 

All these territories are now property of Canada.

 

With respect to a herd of this size, please exercise the sort of common sense that come to think of it would keep your thinking man out of the southwest Concavity anyway. Feral hamsters are not pets. They mean business. Wide berth advised. Carry nothing even remotely vegetabalish if in the path of a feral herd. If in the path of such a herd, move quickly and calmly in a direction perpendicular to their own. If American, north not advisable. Move south, calmly and in all haste, toward some border metropolis—Rome NNY or Glens Falls NNY or Beverly, MA, say, or those bordered points between them at which the giant protective ATHSCME fans atop the hugely convex protective walls of adonized Lucite hold off the drooling and piss-colored bank of teratogenic Concavity clouds and move the bank well back, north, away, jaggedly, over your protected head.

One of the funniest passages I’ve read, it thrums with a deep sadness, maybe like all humor. Like Wallace’s, anyway. Like watching reruns of Leave it to Beaver and aching for your lost youth and for a more innocent America. Maybe you’ve not read Infinite Jest or, like me, have failed so far to finish it (in my case for largely unknown reasons but probably involving a reading hangover from my personal best reading year just ended, work I lugged with me, and a stupor induced by ocean waves breaking a stone’s throw from my pillow). If so, remember you read it here first: Carry nothing even remotely vegetabalish if in the path of a feral herd.

In 2009, my son, Tom Gilbert, reviewed Infinite Jest for Narrative.

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Filed under experimental, fiction, humor, metaphor, MY LIFE, punctuation, reading, REVIEW

A slew of new books about writing

“Most problems in writing are structural, even on the scale of the page. Something isn’t flowing properly. The logic or the dramatic logic is off.”—Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd

Kidder-Good Prose

As the owner of an entire bookcase crammed with writing manuals dating back to the 1940s, Dad’s as well as mine that begin in the 1970s, I’m leery of new acquisitions. Rearranging my books earlier this winter, I thought, “I should at least reread some of these before buying another.” But that’s not a formal vow. Hence I find myself tempted by a sensible-looking new one, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, to be published January 15, because I admire Tracy Kidder’s nonfiction narratives and I know his editor and now co-author, Richard Todd.

Theirs has been a long and fruitful collaboration, beginning in 1973 when Todd, as an editor at The Atlantic Monthly, began editing and encouraging Kidder, a brash newcomer trying to break into magazine journalism. Their new book reveals that the tables were turned in their relationship recently when Kidder edited a draft of Todd’s wry lament about America, The Thing Itself (reviewed). I’m eager to know more, to see the editor get his comeuppance, but I’ll have to read the book to find out what Kidder said because Amazon’s “Look Inside!” feature cut me off.

Having stumbled across Good Prose on Amazon, I found myself directed to four more forthcoming books on writing.

Essayist and essay scholar Philip Lopate will publish in February To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. Patricia Hampl blurbs the book, saying it “includes brilliant and helpful considerations of the essay and memoir, placing them and their vexing questions in clear cultural context. This is the rule book.” Also in February, Lopate’s new collection of essays, Portrait Inside My Head, will be published.

Goldburg-True Secret

Natalie Goldberg, author of the enduringly popular Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within and Old Friend From Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir (reviewed) will publish in March The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life With Language. It’s unclear how this book will extend Goldberg’s vision of writing because Amazon’s “Look Inside!” isn’t yet functional for it, but the description—which reads in part, “Sit. Walk. Write. These are the barest bones of Natalie Goldberg’s revolutionary writing and life practice . . . ”—implies that this is a summation of her teaching methods.

Then there’s Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method, by Stuart Horwitz, to be published January 29. The description says Horwitz’s method is “a tested sequence of steps for organizing and revising any manuscript. By breaking a manuscript into manageable scenes, you can determine what is going on in your writing at the structural level—and uncover the underlying flaws and strengths of your narrative.”

Finally—and I’m sure there are more forthcoming writing books but I refused to look—there’s The Plot Whisperer Book of Writing Prompts: Easy Exercises to Get You Writing (January 13) by Martha Alderson, author of the blog Plot Whisperer for Writers and Readers, recognized by Writer’s Digest as one of “101 Best Websites for Writers.”

Briefly sagging in the face of this how-to cornucopia, I wondered why are there so many books on writing. The obvious answer is that they sell.

Which only begs the question: What is it about writing? On the one hand, I take comfort—as intended—in statements like “writing’s just bricklaying”; i.e. making meaning and pleasing structure from piles of inert material. And I know there’s merit in the metaphor’s veiled plug for discipline; something made, day by day, takes on its own life, makes its own plea for completion. I even ruefully appreciate the heartless corollary mocking those with “writer’s block”: There’s no such thing as plumber’s block.

Yet such analogies seem partly disingenuous and reflect only partly my own experience. Writing is different. (Isn’t it?) It’s an art as well as a craft. It’s concentrated thought. And it’s far spookier, and far less substantial, than bricklaying. Bricks are physical objects, and words are symbols, invisible until writers pull them from their brains as if snatching them from thin air, write them down, and accept or reject them. Love works better than discipline, for me. But lonely work it can be. Surely I’m not the only writer who has gone to the bookcase and pulled down a book, almost any book, to reassure myself that my sentences are not so very different from those that have found print.

Writing can feel so insubstantial. Which is why, if nothing else, books on writing offer scribblers something beyond advice: comfort. As my groaning bookcase might attest, however, be  selective.

The plot whisperer, Martha Alderson, at work at her white board.

The plot whisperer, Martha Alderson, at work at her white board.

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