Books and Their Clandestine Pleasures

March 31, 2012 § 3 Comments

Talking about books is easy — you just follow the models of the form. Most book reviews converse in a professional idiom, of whether a book is more like Cormac McCarthy or more like Michael Chabon, of what modern-day themes it expresses or what are its ties to current events, of its conflict or its arc or its redemption or its sympathies. Schools have a similar expedient way of looking at books: as moral machines that work a certain way. Agents and publishers and other literary business types have their own set of values: what does the protagonist want, and what makes the reader care about them and turn the page? The personal conversations I’ve had about books — whatever that tiny body of data is worth — were generally some amalgam of these approaches.

But this isn’t how people enjoy books, is it? I can’t be sure. But it’s certainly not how I enjoy them. It’s hard to imagine a reader — though I’ll do my best: in bed Sunday morning, the sheets tossed back, lotus position, sweatpants, her hair done up just enough to keep it out of her eyes — turning a page and sighing to herself, “Yes, yes it’s a perfect parallel to the moral underpinnings of the financial crisis!” That’s the kind of idea and the kind of “appreciation” that’s thought up as a rationalization after the fact, long after the real experience of the book has faded from memory and it’s time to sum up the book for an article.

I bet you don’t read books the way reviewers write about them, the way teachers teach them, and the way literary professionals advise about them. They don’t read them that way, either. I’m going to go out on a limb and say they, and you and I, read them for fun.

The problem here is that there’s a disconnect between the ways people read books (which are as varied and strange as people themselves) and the standardized ways people talk about them. Ulysses, for example, garners a lot of flak (and publicity and prestige and name-dropping) as a difficult modernist tome. Just try to imagine for a second — what’s it like to read a difficult modernist tome? Does your brain hear the words any differently from a pre-modernist book, or assemble their images any differently? The vast majority of what I’ve heard and read about Ulysses has nothing to do with the mysteries and pleasures of reading it, and more to do with its reputation. The professional assessment of the book has replaced any talk of its contents.

Here’s what I like about Ulysses: I like the part where the protagonist obliviously tips off a passing acquaintance about a racehorse named “Throwaway”, and how all through the book that racing tip, and its winners and losers, keep reappearing. I also like how the texture of the tenth chapter (“Wandering Rocks”, which follows various roving characters through the streets) heightens the luridness and absurdity of the snatches Bloom steals from the romance novels he pages through (“All the dollarbills her husband gave her were spent in the stores on wondrous gowns…Her mouth glued on his in a luscious voluptuous kiss.”)

Things I don’t like: the book’s modernist significance. Its Hellenic symbolism. Its convenience as a cultural touchstone. Its “importance” of any kind. Not that I dislike these necessarily — I just don’t care.

And why should I? Why should anyone care why a book’s important or relevant? It’s an act of flagellation really, that we go around telling ourselves and others of the importance of great books, when we could be talking about their greatness instead.

The problem is, when Ulysses comes up at a cocktail party, what chance is there to talk about the tempo of snatches of romance novels in some particular unimportant scene? First off, many of the people talking about the book probably haven’t read it. Second, you can probably imagine that such an impression, and such a pleasure, doesn’t translate well into conversation.

Tragically, the greatest pleasures of reading — the sensuous surprises of a scene, or an illuminating frivolity, or an exchange between characters laden with only the most delicate of their motivations — are commonly incommunicable. You could go your whole life without having a chance to share them with an appreciative audience. So people talk about books in the only expedient way they can: via their generalities.

There’s a bright side to all this hopelessly furtive pleasure, though. To someone who’s spent his or her whole life reading, exploring great books, building up his or her sensitivities without even realizing it, only to find now and then a momentary realization of sheer bliss in the turn of an image or in the disclosure of a vivid detail of a character — each of those moments is yours forever, indelible, tender, permanent. Nothing can ever, ever take away from you the secret understanding of a passing detail of an author’s genius, when your imagination disclosed to you a strange beauty you and an author share, in secret, forever.


Suddenly Moving Pictures: “Up” and “La Jetee”

March 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

Two movie moments I know of are remarkable and surprising for the same graceful mechanical device. Both Pixar’s “Up” and the 1962 short sci-fi film “La Jetee” feature moments where a slight, sudden bit of physical motion from a character adds a delicate wobble to the storytelling. These are two examples of those great frivolous passing moments in a movie that define them, like Michael dropping the gun at the Italian restaurant in “The Godfather”.

The first is already famous. In the “Married Life” montage of Pixar’s “Up,” Carl and Ellie go through a rapid highlight reel of their life together. The emotional core of the scene is the revelation of Ellie’s infertility, and the crucial moment comes after that, when Carl is watching her sitting outside in their yard. First comes Carl’s still gaze. From the slight shifting of the shadows of leaves around him we cut to the slight shifting of Ellie’s bright red hair. The curtains of her hair move in the slightest flutter, and for a moment they are the only sign of life in the frame:

This is the most alive moment in the film, this flutter. Most of the movie is hijinks, and even most of this montage is typical ups and typical downs, but the one moment it takes to linger on a dreaming Ellie is magic. (This reminds me of an interview with someone from Pixar I remember hearing once, where he described how in computer animation, blowing up an entire city is cheap, but animating the ripples of one character tugging on another’s shirt is painfully expensive.)

From that we go to “La Jetee”, Chris Marker’s stark and also dreamy sci-fi slideshow. This film is also about memory and the passage of time. (Aren’t they all? Yes, they are.) A time traveler sent back in time from a post-apocalyptic future is, crucially, tethered to the past by his memory of a woman, of himself as a child, of the jetty at Orly airport… The story is told almost entirely in still images. Almost. Here’s his last memory of her:

There it is again, at the end there, the little flutter imparting an unexpected motion, even in a motion picture. This one, like the other, illuminates the texture of a passage of memory, hangs on its odd corners like all memories do. This bit of motion is the film’s offhand way of confirming the ascendancy of the protagonist’s memories, and his enthrallment to them.

Really good wobbles like these are rare in any medium. Most movies assume their strength comes from the typical staples of bluster like action and conflict or whatever, so they don’t have any non-typical strengths, and the resulting product is leaden and workmanlike, and sucks. The fact is, such wobbles like these two are actually the bedrock, the staple, of great movies or great whatevers. Nabokov once described a work of Gogol’s as “a grotesque and grim nightmare making black holes in the dim pattern of life”. When Ellie’s hair shifts in the breeze or that dim heroine in “La Jetee” bats her eyelids, the dim pattern of typical storytelling is fatally punctured.

That’s all I wanted to share. I remind myself of an Onion article.

The Derivative, Or Why People Hate Math

March 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Derivative formula, the word boring superimposed

This is a post on math for the non-math-inclined. It’s a study of motion, because numbers are boring.

I heard about something called open-source textbooks, where teachers wanted to provide free high-quality textbooks online to the entire world. This is great — math doesn’t change, for example, and good teaching doesn’t change, so why should there be a booming business for math textbooks? I’m not here to talk about open-source textbooks, though. They’re just the set-up.

I looked for an open-source textbook on calculus and opened it to its explanation of the derivative. The derivative is a good litmus test for a teacher or a textbook, since it’s a simple thing that can be explained in a very complicated way, and has been since it was invented.

Here’s what I found. This is the first picture on the derivative in the textbook I checked. Ask yourself an honest question: does this look simple?

derivative graph

Attribution: Copyright © 2000 by H. Jerome Keisler
(Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License)

I’m not ragging on this particular book. As far as I’ve seen, every calculus textbook has a similar explanation of the derivative — something about slope, and tangent, and rise over run, and lots of overlapping lines at different angles.

This is not simple. Why can’t this be simple? Why does a fundamental concept of math, one that applies to every other physical phenomenon on planet Earth, have to be so dry and complicated? Why is math education so plain bad?

So I’m going to show you what the derivative is as simply and truthfully as I can. Because that stuff above, on slopes and tangents, is correct, but not true — in the same way that describing music as sound waves is correct, but not true.

The derivative is about motion. Let’s take ice skating for example. Here’s a sketch (I admit it — it’s mine) of the trails somebody leaves on the ice with their skates. It draws a little picture of their motion. It’s pretty!

ice skating trails

Ice skating

The derivative describes motion at an instant in time. Here I’ve chosen an instant in the skater’s motion. Nothing too fancy, just an ordinary turn:

ice skating trails, red circle around one small curve

An instant of motion

Now we’re going to look close at that instant:

ice skating trail zoomed in


ice skating zoomed in further

Closer, darn it!

ice skating zoomed in furthest

What does the skater’s motion look like at that instant in time, when you zoom in close? What shape is this? Take a moment and think about it. Don’t overthink it, but do think.

ice skating zoomed in furthest

What shape is this?

What we’ve got here is a straight line. At this particular instant, if you look really close, the skater was skating in a straight line. And that straight line is the derivative. In other words, the derivative is the straight line of smooth motion when you look really close at a particular instant.

Jagged motion doesn’t have a derivative, because when you zoom in on a jagged instant, it’s not a straight line. Here’s a ball bouncing:

trail of a ball bouncing

Ball bouncing

And when you zoom in on the bounce, it’s not a straight line, it’s V-shaped:

ball bouncing, zoom in on bounce

The instant of the bounce

…So no derivative there. The motion isn’t smooth at that instant.

I don’t understand why calculus is introduced with formulas when it’s the foundation of physical change in the universe. Why isn’t it introduced as an aspect of motion? Newton invented calculus to solve physics problems. Why is it divorced from its natural roots in the classroom? If you hated calculus, or trig, or geometry, or other parts of math because you were forced to understand something physical via numerical formulas, you were right to feel something was off. You were being coerced into unnatural thinking because that’s how the book was written.

You don’t learn to play the piano by memorizing the frequencies of notes. You put your finger on a key, feel its heft, press down and feel it quiet, or loud, learn the difference, hear it quiver and fade. Why don’t we teach kids to get a feel for math?

The SAT Is a Test of Character

March 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

SAT problem: 3 x 4 box, stick figure with a question mark looking stumped

A typical hard SAT problem

Things I learned as an SAT tutor:

  • The reading section is harder than the math section.
  • The test is so long.
  • Sometimes, in very rare, fleeting moments, the test can provide a pinprick-size insight into a student’s character.

I want to write about the third one. I was working on the math section with a student and we got a question along the lines of “How long is a pencil that fits end to end inside a can that’s 4 inches wide and 3 inches tall?” My student wasn’t sure how to go about solving it — what kind of problem it was, what technique fit, what formula the numbers were supposed to go into, etc. So I got around to suggesting that maybe she should draw a picture of it, and she produced the above meditation.

But before she did, she stared at the problem for a moment (just a moment), and, I think, was peripherally fixated on the blank space underneath the question where she was supposed to show her work. And for a fleeting moment before she fell back on sarcasm, I got a glimpse of what it’s really like to take that test (I’d suppressed my own memories of it, of course).

Try to remember, despite the unpleasantness: you are in the latter, harder stages of a section, the minutes left have dwindled to the single digits, you’re starting on a fresh page, there’s a large-ish swath of blank space expecting you to fill it, and you just don’t know how to do this problem.

The right thing to do in this situation is so difficult: you have to pick up your pencil and you have to fill in the blank space even though you don’t know where it’s going to take you. You have to push your own thoughts forward without a destination in sight. The very counter-intuitive secret of improving on the SAT is that sometimes, on a test, under a time limit, you have to explore the possibilities of a question. (For some reason, “show your work” as taught in the classroom seems to imply that your work is a by-product of knowing how to do a problem, rather than the means to that end.) My student, in this case, couldn’t press herself to draw the pencil in somewhere.

In my experience, this was consistently the difference between students who made strides. It’s not a hard and fast prescription — some students could boost their score a hundred points on a section just by filling in some gaps in their knowledge and getting some practice. But for the ones looking to go from good to great, the difference was how they handled the blank page.

As an SAT tutor, you in fact have little control over how much your students improve after a certain point. For the good ones looking to break through, I wish I’d figured out sooner what I could do to help. I think I’d ease up on the notion of categorizing a problem and trying to figure out what the right approach is from a repertoire. Instead, I’d give them problem after problem that’s not complicated, but not conventional, and I’d tell them they can’t move on until they’ve broached their thoughts on the blank page.

Adventurousness is a skill. If students can get practice trying an approach out, pursuing it, discarding it, modifying it, playing with the premise of a problem, immersing themselves in it, learning to pursue their thoughts rigorously, then they can conquer the blank page.

Mad Libs and Artistic Enlightenment

March 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

I once taught a little class at my workplace on reading deeper, getting to the magic of a great piece of writing, and one of the things we did was Mad Libs. Mad Libs reveal the soul of good writing by removing it altogether and forcing you to reconstruct it. If you can’t write a good Mad Lib, you can’t write.

For those of you who don’t know, a Mad Lib is a party game where all of a passage’s colorful bits are replaced by blanks, and you fill in the blanks in isolation, then read the passage out to see what monster you’ve created:

Every day I rise from my (noun) and thank God Almighty for this (adjective) day.

If you said “bed” and “glorious”, you’re missing the point.

For the purposes of my class, we did a variation where you’re forced to fill in the blanks of an otherwise generic passage, which you read ahead of time, according to a scene you pulled from a hat: “The world is under zombie siege,” “The narrator did it,” that kind of thing.

The idea is that Mad Libs, played this way, force you into the agonizing, ecstatic, strenuous and hilarious process of picking the right word for a scene. If, in your scene, it is literally raining cats and dogs, you need to find just the right way for your main character to do the dishes while a distracting thudding pummels the roof. (“Humming deliberately,” perhaps.)

If you think that’s easy, let’s try it. Here’s a Mad-Lib-ified version of a passage from the opera house in Chekhov’s short story “The Lady With the Little Dog” (the greatest short story ever, BTW):


She (verb) at him and turned pale, then (verb) again with (noun, emotion), unable to believe her eyes, and tightly gripped the (noun) and the (noun) in her hands, evidently struggling with herself not to faint. Both were silent. She was sitting, he was standing, frightened by her (noun, emotion) and not venturing to sit down beside her. The (nouns, instrument) and the (nouns, instrument) began (verb, -ing). He felt suddenly frightened; it seemed as though all the people in the boxes were looking at them. She got up and went quickly to the door; he followed her, and both walked (adverb) along passages, and up and down stairs, and figures in (adjective), (adjective), and (adjective) uniforms, all wearing (noun), flitted before their eyes. They caught glimpses of (noun), of (noun, clothing) hanging on pegs; the draughts blew on them, bringing a smell of (adjective) (noun).

The scene is that the man, Gurov, and the woman, Anna, are seeing each other after a fling at a resort town months ago. They are both married, and after an interval of desolate boredom Gurov has tracked Anna down and surprised her in her box at the opera house in her hometown. Soon it will become clear to them that their feelings for each other are inconveniently permanent, and they will need to find a way to carry on both their affair and their lives for the foreseeable future.

There’s your scene. Now fill in the blanks accordingly. Go on, I’ll wait…

It’s not easy. And as a way of getting to Chekhov’s artistry, to touching the heart of the thing, we can pause to consider how he chose to fill in each blank. (Of course, we are limited by the fact that this is a translation, so we’re dealing with a re-casting of Chekhov’s words. It’ll have to do.)

But first, consider: it would be so easy to fill in these blanks — changing only a handful of minor elements in the narration — and get it all wrong, wouldn’t it? We could make Gurov and Anna shameless and infinitely arduous, merely by saying “she gazed at him and turned pale”, or that the “strings and the piano began swelling“, or that they “both walked eagerly along passages, and up and down stairs”. Nothing could be easier than the arrangement of conventions! Each of these is actually fine in itself, and perhaps each fits beautifully in another story, but not this one.

So how did Chekhov, certainly a writer unconcerned with convention, do it?:

  • “She glanced at him and turned pale, then glanced again with horror.”

    The key is the contrast between her accidental reaction — the simple double-take of mechanical recognition — and the heaviness of her emotions. A plain instinctive reaction leads to a shocking emotional response. This is a natural Chekhovian line of action.

  • “[She] tightly gripped the fan and the lorgnette in her hands, evidently struggling with herself not to faint.”

    Anna, after all, is gentry in a gentrified setting, and the material, feminine, cosmetic touches — that which makes her fit right in at the opera house — are essential to conveying the quality of her life without Gurov.

  • “The violins and the flute began tuning up.”

    This, I think, is a more straightforward choice but a delicate one. Of course a trombone, for example, is entirely the wrong kind of sound for a scene where profound emotions are creeping up on either character. Chekhov strikes a reedy, sinuous timbre. And I like how they are “tuning up” — not swelling, not entering a passage, but something more practical. (If my translation is accurate, the use of a singular “flute” is also effective in conveying the smallness of the orchestra. What a difference a letter makes!)

I highly encourage you to find a copy of the story online and see how Chekhov fills in the rest of this passage. Every simple detail is chosen to convey a unified impression of wariness, subterfuge, and passion.

Two aspects of Chekhov’s writing are revealed in such passing features.

One, generally, his taste/judgment/restraint. Any writer could have given Anna a locket with Gurov’s photo, or an old letter of his or something. Chekhov leans on the casual details of her existence without Gurov. This is key.

Two, particular to Chekhov, we see the development of his preference for plain detail — Anna’s glances, her fan, her lorgnette, the flute tuning — and its profound implications. He finds the most trivial image to fit his purpose. Nobody does that like Chekhov.

Now and then as our eyes coast along a page consuming sentences like popcorn, it’s jarring to remove the sense of inevitability from professional writing — to cover up a few given phrases, and force ourselves to reckon with the ins and outs of the aesthetic choices before us.

My Favorite Simpsons: “Marge Be Not Proud”

March 9, 2012 § 1 Comment

Despite growing up with The Simpsons, I was amazed watching the old episodes again on DVD. With some years’ distance, and a few fresh viewings, you realize how the roots of the show’s absurdity lie in strong story-telling. When Homer says, “I want to tell you about the most wonderful place in the world: Doggie heaven,” that line sticks in the memory because it’s situated in a terrific back-and-forth between Homer and Bart (who asks about doggie hell) and Lisa (who angrily points out that Nixon’s dog is named Checkers). That’s why there’s such a thing as a Simpsons quote: the dialogue and its cadence are situated in a solid bit of story.

A seventh-season episode called “Marge Be Not Proud,” where Bart gets caught shoplifting around Christmas time, is my favorite because the rich strangeness of the writing is integrated with the structure of the story more artistically than in any other episode. If any Simpsons episode can be compared to a great short story, it’s this one. It’s a Christmas episode where Christmas is just an excuse to immerse the vicissitudes and complexities of Bart’s growing pains in the season’s wintry cheer.

Bart shoplifts a videogame against his better judgment — there’s an air of striving in the decision, when Jimbo and Kearney indirectly goad him into it — and the rest of the episode is about his subsequent estrangement from Marge when he gets caught. Really, Bart and Marge aren’t estranged by each other, but by themselves: Marge isn’t ready for Bart’s un-innocence, and Bart is amazed into remoteness by her reaction and by his own shame. They drift apart, Bart feels bad, he makes amends, and they are reconciled. That’s the plot. What sells it are the ways their individual discomforts are brought to life.

The balance between innocence and adult understanding in Bart and Marge — this is the theme of the episode. The initial trivial disagreement between them — that she won’t buy him Bonestorm — draws a line between Marge’s domestic cheer and Bart’s pre-adolescent striving. When she tucks him in at night, the ironic contrast of their characters is that she has a childlike enthusiasm and he’s cramped by it:

Marge creeps up to Bart for tuck-in time

Who's the child here?

So he shoplifts Bonestorm, and there are a few great images that capture Bart’s uneasy boyishness in the endeavor. His conscience is a slew of videogame characters:

Bart's conscience: Mario, Luigi, Donkey Kong, Sonic, and Lee Carvallo

Bart's conscience

…and in that same vein of cartoonish imagery, when he finds out he and his family are headed back to Try-N-Save the next day, his shock registers as puffs of steam from the teapot behind him:

Bart's shocked, and steam shoots out his ears from the teapot behind him

Bart's conscience (again)

The spine of these images is how their cartoonish frivolity is essential to Bart’s state of mind.

Bart gets caught when he goes back, Marge is aloof, and he spends the third act walking and talking and feeling alienated. What follows is a beautiful meandering sequence of images: all the world conspires in Bart’s confusion. The winter is snowless and austere, and there is that air of reticence about everything — Marge’s reserved manner toward Bart, Bart’s conversation with Lisa as they brush their teeth (I think the conversation between the two kids is a mirror of an earnest back-and-forth in bed between Marge and Homer), his tender stepping across the bathroom rug, the stingy snowfall that affords Bart only enough sludge for a crappy likeness (the way his muddy self-portrait stands out from the rest of the family’s is a marvelous touch).

Christmastime in Springfield: green grass, bare tree, wreath on door

A reluctant Christmas

Bart assembles a snowman alongside the rest of the family's; his is made of sludge from under the car

Bart does what he can

When Bart makes it up to Marge by revealing a paid-for portrait of himself — the act is so simple and obvious that it highlights the enormous gulf between the complexity of what Bart feels and the simple mischief of what he’s done — it is another delicate demonstration of Marge’s essential cheer and Bart’s essential ambivalence. She is effusive, relieved, gushing at the reparation, and he is still queasy — and, clearly, relieved — at it.

Note the delicate balance of deceit in this reconciliation: when Marge bridges the gap between them with a copy of Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge, there’s another deception on Bart’s part — his reluctant, humoring smile — that marks his tenderness toward Marge. Bart’s innocence, at least, is not magically restored. His affection for Marge has a touch of self-consciousness and vulnerability now. And Marge, in her adulthood, can’t help a pure outpouring of motherly love.

Bart feigns delight at his Christmas gift

It's Christmas: Bart tells a white lie

(If only sitcoms and especially cartoons didn’t force their characters into an endlessly resetting cycle, this ending would mark a new maturity in Bart and Marge’s relationship.)

The ending isn’t a pat closure — it’s a natural extension and resolution of the uncertainty that’s preceded it. The fake snow partially glazing the tree behind them, Lisa’s lingering resentment at Bart’s early present, the bizarre passive-aggressive gameplay in the Lee Carvallo epilogue — these are essential details of the not-quite-Christmas spirit that pervades this episode and gives it life.

In animation, nothing is passing or offhand. Animators have to commit to every gesture and mannerism. I would wager that rigor exaggerates either a staff’s conventionality or its creativity. In the best episodes of The Simpsons, there’s no such thing as a tossed-off gag, only a carefully placed one.

P.S. Three beautiful details of Bart’s unease between boyhood and adolescence:

  • He doesn’t know the word “Capisce”, so he remembers the mall security head asking him, “Catfish?”
  • Before the second go-around of the “tuck-in express”, he pushes the blanket back a bit in expectation of Marge’s visit.
  • Marge tasks him with putting his marshmallow in his hot chocolate by himself. He screws it up somehow and it expands inexplicably like a sponge, so he’s forced to eat his hot chocolate with a fork and knife. If there’s a more delicate and hilarious metaphor for growing up, I’ve never encountered it in any medium.
Bart looks on woefully at the screwed-up marshmallow in his hot chocolate

Too much, too soon

Story Time: “Trochilidae Escapades”

March 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

(This is a story I wrote in 2007 and shopped around for a couple years. Thanks for reading!)

Trochilidae Escapades

Ted Vasava
Department of Ornithology
Pepperdale Museum of Zoology
R―― University, H―――, C―, ―307
{vasava, t.vasava, ted}@pepperdale.r―――.edu


The experiment is a 12-year foray into “evolutionary hyperselection,” a process I theorized for the 1993 Conference on Microevolution in Raleigh. The problem is to establish a system wherein a biologically improbable trait can be nurtured into fruition. The trait itself is arbitrary; I chose beauty. Successive generations of hummingirds (Trochilidae various) were raised in a large enclosed facility at the museum, and encouraged by technological means (described below) toward the vivid and ornate. The result, almost immediately: descendants within 4-6 generations displayed a stunning variety of plumage, based on photometric data. This trend continued into later generations; further advances propagated beyond purview. Deeper inquiry is needed in order to properly confirm and comprehend the results.


Evolution is the process by which we are improved. It is a blind, frenetic, inexorable march toward perfection. The very name conjures up some grand mechanism, a deep, inscrutable force.

Early in my career, while struggling for a thesis, I began to wonder at the existence of a means of finally, totally controlling the evolutionary mechanism. Below, I describe such an experimental attempt. I first discuss the problem and its attendant motivations; then, the apparatus of the experiment and its timeline; finally, metrics of success, and conclusions.

The Evolutionary Problem

Among the weaknesses of the evolutionary model is its scope — its refinements are solely for practical purposes. Indeed, practicality is such a subtle, insidious theme in our lives that it slips into everything we do without a thought. I wanted to demonstrate the power of a model where practical aims and constraints are lifted.

The goal, then, is to synthesize an environment of adaptation whose selection criterion is impractical. Virtually by definition, nothing is more impractical than aesthetic appeal. Examples abound of naturally occurring shows of glamour and grandeur — Pavo cristatus, Dionaea muscipula, Tyrannosaurus rex… But I refer to the kind of symmetry discerned in a Turkish rug, or the gluey beads of moisture on an artificial rose. That is the object of this experiment: a state of maximal aesthetic flowering.

The Solution

For such an environment, I needed a family of creature with sufficient potential for exquisiteness and variegation. I chose hummingbirds. The family Trochilidae is prodigiously creative already, but it did present experimental possibilities.

The next part of the problem was the environment itself. The museum graciously provided me a large, sunlit cage in an open storage hall in their research wing. Lighting, humidity, temperature (along artificial seasonal curves) and other natural conditions were set as much as possible in accordance with the museum’s own ornithological husbandry guidelines, and remained consistent throughout the experiment, barring acts of God. Sustenance was provided by automated feeders of my own design (more below), and only trained museum personnel were allowed to enter the cages for cleaning. There were no natural predators in the environment, so that the birds would live and die solely by their plumage — the interactions of a second party are far, far beyond the scope of this experiment.

The Problem of Taste

All that remained, then, was to provide the environment with a means of selection. The entire experiment might have been a simple demonstration of breeding — what happens when the prettiest birds etc. etc. — but this introduces the problem of taste, the intractable set of human assumptions and unconscious preferences that threatens to derail scientific objectivity.

For purity, then, the authority in the experiment would be a neutral observer. The mechanism used was inspired by a paper of Keim and Koza’s on self-correcting scoring mechanisms, and by my own ruminations: the flowers, in the form of artificial nectar feeders, would decide.

I spent months over the fall and winter devising the flora I needed. I integrated into their synthetic petals an array of sophisticated and unobtrusive photosensors finely tuned for motion detection and color measurement. They were the state of the art — they can discern lilac from wisteria at 3 A.M., and they can mark the sun sliding off a wingbeat.

This sensitivity was the foundation of the birds’ survival. The photosensors were connected to the “nectar” reservoirs rigged through the flowers’ stems, and they determined, on detection of a specimen, the mix of substances given to the particular hummingbird feeding at that moment. That is, if the photosensor detected a vibrant and subtly ordered display (hues, shadings, symmetries, asymmetries), the nectar provided would be a sweetened mix of fortifying supplements, growth hormones and aphrodisiacs. If not, a neutral mix of sugar water and basic proteins, or, in the presence of banal simplicities — monochrome, repetition, straightforward anatomic differentiation — a perhaps slightly bitter mixture of arsenic, barbiturates, etc. They were even programmed to learn from previous data and grow in sophistication and discernment over time. They were like precocious, painterly young minds.

In the Beginning

It is almost embarrassing to describe those early years of my experiment. I felt like I was taking notes on a star field. Every morning I downloaded the new data to my laptop and sat by the cage for a few hours in a papasan chair about four feet away, poring over it all and convincing myself that some new pattern was emerging to wrest control of the experiment. I noticed that one of the feeders, a prim rose-red tulip, was underutilized; I replaced it with a different flower. The next day I changed it back — feeding had dropped overall. During a spell of relative inactivity, I concluded that the birds were unhappy, and sprayed the area with a perfumed mist. I realized as soon as I put the spray bottle down that it might have affected the photosensors, and I never did it again. Later, a branch of morose cousins began to form, much to my concern; their wings and backs were of the same deep black. I was a fool, though — when I went into the cage and drew them aside (something I wouldn’t ordinarily dream of doing), I found that their gleaming black was laced with threads of sapphire. It was this that had won over the photosensors. I let them go at once, back into the cage.

These corrections went on and on at first, until I grew comfortable with the working order of things. The first few generations were starting to call attention to themselves. Most of the early specimens were ordinary, even ungainly, and must have passed muster by some occasional flashes of potential. But a few of the birds had minute features above and beyond the requirements for survival. I remember, on an early March day with a soft chill, standing before the cage and the shifting drones of its residents, stirring my breath in my hands, and seeing a quick ball of light with a hummingbird’s body flit by, pause for an instant at a feeder in front of me, and zoom away. I wasn’t quite sure what I had seen. I sat down again with my laptop and looked up that feeder, and any images it had taken in the last sixty seconds. (It was a technological marvel, that I could regather a moment at will like that.) I found the bird, staring deep into the flower’s stem. The individual feathers of its wings each had a cold, gleaming fibrous outline around a slate-grey body. I was amazed. I knew the color — I had seen it in previous generations — but the arrangement was new.

Another example: a few months later, I failed to see a bird whose plumage re-created the dense shades of the cage’s foliage. In its chest, back, and wings it had adopted a smooth sequence of leafy greens and browns that blended into the air itself. It was a marvelous imitation. I first found the bird on my computer, to my shock, before spotting its aquarelle body in flight a few weeks later: it was given away by an amethyst burnish in the rims of its eyes.

All told, within three years there was a recorded 37% increase in color diversity, with generational variation and reproductive frequency continuing to accelerate. I obtained this measurement by the technique of Lorenz interpolation — for details, see that man’s only paper.

Wanderjahr and Middle Period

After, among other projects, finalizing my first three years of analysis, I spent the next year working with the Systematics and Evolution group of the Institute of Biology at Freie Universität Berlin, at their generous invitation. The Trochilidae experiment was in perfect running order, and I left minimal supervision of the project in the trusted care of a graduate student.

At Berlin, I met with little scientific success (my hypothesis on an Urform theory of crustacean differences didn’t pan out), but I had a good year, and when I came back to the US, I swore I’d never drink again.

The research area, when I returned, was not quite as I had left it, but better. The museum had cleaned its skylights, and removed for exhibition a nearby and very noisy kestrel display that had been bothering me since day one. And before me, my birds were thriving — not too many, not too few. Half the research wing was dominated by a healthy hum.

Of course, I had been keeping track of the experiment’s progress from abroad, at least once a week sitting down to sift through my student’s progress reports and the new data and images. It all looked good in the abstract — new colors were there that I didn’t remember seeing anytime before. But it was something else entirely to come back to it in real life. Freed for a year from the force of habit, I was able to resist opening my laptop first thing in the day, and I surveyed the cage with my fingers curled through its walls, as if I were looking into the world through a fence.

Before long a bird dipped its beak into the feeder near my right hand. I confess with shame an initial twinge of disappointment, which was slowly forgotten. The bird’s wings were a cloud of ink; its body was a deep and dazzling blue gem, some facets catching the light and others declining it. Around its thighs and lower abdomen, the plumage began as daubs of obsidian, which smoothed along its breast into a brightening swath of blue, until, around its throat and the flat top of its head, it tufted into a blue-white field. When I first saw it, my eyes were drawn all along its body at once from darkness to light, bottom to top, pausing only at the blots of its eyes. The sensation was like seeing the sun pass very quickly over something.

The thing of it was — and here its survival must have been staked — if you took a moment, focused your eyes and scanned straight across its body, left to right, you could see the individually brilliant lines that made it up. Along the lower swell of its belly was the upper rim of the nighttime sky; across its chest, the blue-grey shadows of trees against the sea.

Now I felt a thrill of pride. This was only the first specimen I had seen since coming back, and already a new subtlety was materializing in the experiment. I remember fondly the mornings of the years starting then, camped out in my chair, going over the computer images and glancing over my shoulder now and then at their real-life counterparts. Image after image seemed typical enough until I had looked long and conscientiously at it. Then, as if in a moment of inspiration, I would start to discern its workings. This one, for example, had spots of lime and amber irregularly placed, until I realized that each set was symmetric to the one on the other side of the opposite wing, and that across wings, they appeared in complementary positions.

There were times of confusion. One bird, vexingly, seemed to have little color at all — its body was as plainly white as a dove’s, with touches of soot-grey smeared along its sides — but in the pictures, its eyes seemed to keep changing. In every instance, they were stunningly vivid, but different: red and cratered like a volcano here, striped green like a peppermint there. I couldn’t make sense of it; I had to see it for myself.

By its plainness, the bird wasn’t hard to find. It was sluggish even, moving with perceptible effort between leaves and pausing long enough at a feeder that I could really, happily stare. Nose-deep in a rayon bluebell, it stared right back. And then, as if to show me, its eyes shifted, from plain grey into a watery saffron. I started back, and it flew away. I couldn’t explain it; I kept turning over its gaze in my mind as I went back to my chair. There was a thread, something that shifted, running through each moment I remembered. Its gaze was deepening — I snapped my fingers, and opened a sequence of its images on my computer. Its pupils looked to be dilating as its eye color shifted. Possibly, I thought, the tissue in the folds of its iris had various pigmentations that were selectively revealed in its eye’s contractions. It seemed like the simplest explanation. That might have accounted for its success before the photosensors, despite seeming at first blush like your typical albino.

I sat back in my chair for a few moments. I had the feeling of having seen something that was not quite supposed to be possible. It was, to reach for a comparison, like the first time I saw the circus, and felt an elephant’s roar, and a tremble of fear. I had followed elephants religiously on TV as a kid, but… And each individual aspect of the birds’ plumage was probably nothing I hadn’t seen before, but to see it come together like this, so unexpectedly and with ramifications I couldn’t have conceived, was almost more than I could take. Suddenly I began to see, to ponder, the true possibilities of my achievement. My experiment had reached its fateful maturation.

Playing God — And Winning

For the first time in the entire experiment, I’d say, I spent more time theorizing than observing. Why on earth would one of the birds emerge with condensed, rapidly brightening shades, and another with shape-shifting eyes? It made no difference to the photosensors — they made their judgments on still images alone, and they had no eyes to rove a bird’s body.

But wondering led me nowhere. I stood before the cage for hours a day now, watching specimens come and go in the running of their lives, trying to make sense of what I’d done. I waited for inspiration: I started to eat lunch there, read my books there, anything I could do that might connect to the birds in a sudden insight — an interesting character or passage, an irregularity in my sandwich… Ironically, I was in my office when it came to me (I found I couldn’t think straight when the nagging thing itself was in sight). I realized, spontaneously recalling some paper toy with spiralling lines of color that I’d had as a boy and worn out in the course of a summer, that maybe the specimens were using various movements as a way to game the system. The photosensors used, as part of their measurements of variation, a record of each bird’s images over time. The faster the bird’s progression and the greater its divergence or blossoming, the sweeter and more powerful the nectar. So just think — just think!— of the gains to be made by changing oneself in as short a period as possible, i.e. altering one’s appearance right before the sensor. I could practically taste on my tongue the excess of sugar the clever ones must have been enjoying. I checked the photosensor logs and the sugar and supplement levels in the feeders to be sure — this time, my theory was supported. The recorded variation over time was sky-high; the birds had been gorging, and they owed their success to the exploitation of a dimension I hadn’t thought of.

The marvel to me was that all this had come about naturally, merely by the simple dictates of my set-up plus time. I hardly involved myself anymore in the experiment, except in the appreciative sense — I reviewed the findings, monitored the birds every day, now and then tried to acquaint myself with them personally — and here we were, careening on a tangent that no one could have foreseen.

Plus ça change…

I will tell you the exact moment the end of my experiment came into view. It was a Thursday night in October, and my wife and I were drinking wine and watching an American romance movie. She’s not sentimental, but she has an imagination rich enough that she is moved easily. She asked me, as we were sprawled on the couch under a blanket, what I thought of having a baby. I thought three things — one, I had never thought of it before; two, when I did at that moment, I felt a vague and vast negative inclination; and three, it seemed inevitable all of a sudden. I couldn’t think of a clear reason to say no just then; I told her I would think about it.

The next day at work, I discovered with my own eyes a bird I hardly remembered from the computer. It wasn’t hard to spot — it was rather small, but it moved in frail swoops from bough to bough. When I saw it, and stared, it steadied its flight and came right up to me, to the feeder by my left hand. It was a bright rustic yellow all throughout, with lines of blue crisscrossing around its throat and back. Its plumage was coarse and ruffled in patches, and flattened in others, so that the whole bird looked a little worn. It was, clearly, a bit aged and anemic, and when it extracted its beak from the feeder, it looked around with dull blinking eyes and wavered, as if it were only vaguely aware of its own existence.

Apropos of nothing, my gut turned in on itself and I looked away. I looked up and around the research wing, blinking into the warmth of the sunlight. Nothing came to mind; for a moment I felt like I’d forgotten what I was doing and was just a recreational observer in the museum’s halls. I turned my head back to the cage, and the bird was still there. So it was real, I thought. That didn’t answer anything for me — in fact, it just unsettled me further, since I didn’t know why I was reacting at all to this one specimen. I called lunch and left the research wing altogether for the museum cafeteria. This was, I now infer, a Tuesday — I had a weekly departmental meeting a couple hours later, where Dr. Thorne would wear his old corn-colored sweater — and before my afternoon started I just wanted to relax a bit, to escape my thoughts. I picked up a ham sandwich and started spreading mustard across, evenly, in long, smooth strokes, thinking.

I found myself in the middle of my meeting three hours later, dreadfully bored. Dr. Thorne and the department chair were discussing whether or not to overhaul the intra-office messaging system, and I was staring between the thick braids of Dr. Thorne’s sweater. Somehow, even though I had seen that sweater regularly for years now, it was suddenly so palpable; at this angle across the long conference table, its frayed threads could be seen sticking out, suspending the room’s light. I realized, as I brushed my fingertips against each other, that I was seized by some feeling — I mean an actual tactile sensation — from long ago. It started in the fingers of my right hand, went down the underside of that arm and spread out across my side and back and over my legs, and it felt like that sweater fuzz on the other side of the room was brushing against me. With a shudder, I realized what was going on. I stood up, my legs overcome and my heart pounding, and started out the door.

Walking down the museum stairs, my mind was racing, and the blood was working through my lower body. I now had within grasp what it was I had been slowly recalling all afternoon. It was in my childhood, and it involved my bedtime, but not the sleep itself. It was warm, and bright, and if I curled my toes in my shoes, I could feel it stretching out, suspended inches in front of me. It was the fading, square, cotton blanket I had used from time immemorial till about ten years old. In that time, I hardly spent a night without it, in my own bed or wedged between my parents and their soft, complacent bodies.
I was approaching the research wing, walking faster, the pastels of hallway murals streaking past the corners of my eyes. Over the years, that blanket had been washed and dried, crumpled and sporadically folded, so many times that it had started to flatten and wither by the time I gave it up. Which is to say, I remember it growing more comfortable over time. But there was one thing I couldn’t quite remember.
I was at the cage now, pulling the walls toward me and peering through, stretching its wire in my grip. I waited for the bird to show, and when it did, shrugging aside a large leaf and making its way toward a feeder, the rest of the memory filled in, with faded yellow diamonds and ribbons of blue running diagonally and parallel across the blanket.

“Odd,” I said, to no one at all in the research wing.

I watched it feed. The bird was dying, was almost already gone. An ominous throb went up the left half of the stem, and I knew it was being fed the wrong formula. Clearly, the bird had no place in the experiment. It was awkward, frail, ungainly, unsure. Probably it had filled some long-obsolete niche in the cage environment. When it fed, it did so joylessly, out of a vague duty, and when it flew, it knew not where, or for what purpose. For most of this time I had been pinching the plastic flower stem to stanch the flow through the feeder, and doing what I knew I shouldn’t be doing, what had always created trouble for me in life and left me worse off in the long run: I was thinking.

Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going?

I walked back to my chair, plopped down with a sigh and hefted my computer into my lap. I hardly ever recalled my youth, as it was so ordinary, and spartan. There were school and homework, as for everyone, and I had friends on the Science Olympiad team that I talked about Kerouac with in high school. Further back, I loved salamanders, but only for their repulsiveness. And from the earliest years, say, from five to about ten, I recalled essentially nothing.

So this was very exciting for me. I had pulled up all images of the specimen, and was watching it age rapidly from month to month. Its plumage lost its sheen and smoothness (yes, yes, I said, that’s exactly how it was), and it fed less often, for less time. By winter, the bird disappeared from the logs for days at a time between feedings.

The data was unsettling. All taken into account, it wouldn’t be long now before the specimen was surpassed and forgotten. In the nervous way that my colleagues knew well, I was tapping my fingernail against my laptop, faster and faster. Something was wrong with the experiment, I knew, that I just couldn’t grasp, that would require deeper inquiry. I checked and re-checked the data, and pored over the photosensors’ log files. The sensors had a flawless memory, and were monstrous students. They would make layers and layers of revisions to their settings, based on every image they had captured. When I opened up their settings on my computer, they were a mess — an incomprehensible, sordid mess. Clearly, over the years, they had gotten out of hand, to the point where I had hardly any idea what their computations were doing. Certain adjustments were needed, to stay true to the original aim of the experiment — an elevation of the impractical.

I spent the night there at the cage, revising the code in the sensor settings, trying to guide it back to a simpler point, wondering what might happen. It would be interesting, I decided. I was frantic and hopeful; my fingers stumbled on the keys, and I worked long into the night.

Success and Failure

That winter was a very stressful time for me. I had started sleeping less, getting up earlier, and having breakfast at the museum — dry poached eggs and as much coffee as I could drink before 9:00 AM. My head would still be rattling in a dream-like state; but it would dwell on conversations from the night before, and looks given in bed this morning, and ignore the content of my dreams themselves.

After I cleared my breakfast and shaved, I went down to the research wing and rested my temple against the cage. I closed my eyes for a couple of minutes, and when I reopened them I surveyed the birds. Over time, the yellows in most of their wings were sharpening, and other colors were receding. Thin ribbons of blue were appearing in families that didn’t have them before, and were widening in those that did. Now and then I would see the original zip by, happier, healthier — older, of course. These days, I felt like I had less time to enjoy it, before it would zip away from view.

I didn’t much like hanging out at the cage, so I avoided it. I preferred my office, or the unpopular iguana exhibit, or just walking through the halls, my fingertips trailing behind me on the wallpaper. I had asked for, and been granted, a reprieve from teaching for the school year, and I started to wonder if that had been a mistake. I missed the company of young like minds; the respect, or deference at least; the pursuit of knowledge and the questions that don’t make any sense. Afternoons, I would sit hunched forward in my chair with my knees drawn up on my desk in front of me, balancing an old adventure novel — the kind I used to like — between them. If I didn’t fall asleep, I’d stare at the walls while people passed in clanging hordes outside, and I’d curl up against myself.

The data from the last few months were so clear, there was hardly anything to analyze. I flipped through it on my computer occasionally, say during two-hour dinners at the cafeteria, between card games in another window. The birds were dying; they were being fed hormones and poison in equal amounts. They had figured out what the sensors wanted — hence the profusion of yellows — but they couldn’t avoid triviality to achieve it. I would check on them about as often as I checked my voicemail — after naps, after one too many cups of coffee, after a sidekick had been killed in one of my novels. At times like that, I was hoping for some news that things were reverting, that the death rate was slowing. It wasn’t. And just when I properly filled with shame, the nerves in my stomach clenched up and I had to rush to a bathroom stall for a few deep breaths.

The birds’ lifespans now lasted for a scant handful of heartbeats — I would say, no more than four to six weeks each. Reproduction continued and generations came and went within days of each other. Measured by my own sense of time, by my languorous heart rate, they could hardly be thought of as fathers and sons. This was, to be fair, the kind of logical extreme I had once envisioned for the experiment. I just never expected the element of futility in it all.

These days, if I was at the cage, I was sharing in the birds’ lethargy, and watching the bizarre bursts of mating that punctuated it. A male would drift toward the top of the cage and absorb a bit of sunlight, then make a sudden and violent dive into the foliage, and a moment later two birds would wander out into view looking jaded and close to death. There was something mesmerizing and sickening in the decadence of the whole thing. They hauled themselves to feeders and ambled back into the greenery, waiting, I supposed, for the next blissful interlude. You didn’t have to wait more than fifteen minutes to grasp the extent of the whole ecosystem by now. It was, I suppose, incredible.

I should say something on the birds’ evolution at this point. If you looked closely, you could see just how they had managed to survive this long. One of them, hovering by, had a sprinkling of dark marks along its belly and inside its tail, and the effect was like seeing the shadows between wheat stalks in a field, without a sun or a sky nearby. I imagined if it flew up and caught the sunlight just right it would form some kind of optical illusion, some half-trompe l’oeil with real light and false shade, but that’s idle speculation. There was another bird, sitting on a branch in a daze, that showed in its bizarre stillness a stippling along the edges of its wings, of faint orange and white and blue. It looked slightly ill, and when it raised its frail wings to sun them, they disappeared into the light around their edges, as if being eaten away. I watched them all day long if I watched them at all, as they moved slowly about the cage, revealing the slightest patterns in their edges or undersides, rich yellow creatures with beige scars and fading golds. For a while, I noted, they looked like real birds. When the nighttime came, they seemed to grey quickly and fold into sleep, and I had nowhere to go but to my office.

I made it through February, March, and April without so much as visiting the research wing. In one last act of responsibility, some time in late spring, I left a note on my calendar for a month later telling myself to go check on the birds. I saw my note first thing in the morning on the appointed day, tugged at the bristles on my chin for a few minutes, swore I would go, and heard my stomach gurgling for breakfast. That day, I alphabetized the books in my office, swept out the petals from the smoking patio, sketched a mock for an experiment I’d been planning (on nondeterministic breeding), and tried dipping my french fries in applesauce at dinner. Shortly before midnight, I walked back whistling toward my office with the intention of setting the timer on my espresso machine for 6:00 the next morning. I was thinking about seahorses; I found myself wandering down a narrow hall with a few pastel beachscapes, toward the cage I quickly realized, my footsteps plodding in echo around me. I sighed; my feet were thinking things my mind wasn’t, I thought.

The storage hall was smaller than I remembered it. The cage still occupied the middle, eight looming feet of dark, musty steel rising from the other exhibits. The foliage inside was shockingly green; the flowers, arranged three to a side at three heights, were still and dusty. When I approached the cage, I saw nothing but plants; when I stood in front of it, I counted four birds folded lifelessly into sleep on the branches. The lighting overhead had been replaced with warehouse-quality orange-yellow bulbs, which made the birds look like they had greyed into a stupor. On the floor, out of the very bottom of my eyes, I saw the original. It was round and rough-edged, a blinding yellow in the middle of a steel sheet of star-shaped droppings stains. It was dead, which hardly surprised me.

I looked around, whistled something I’d heard that morning, listened to it bounce off the walls and come back toward me. The skylights were mottled with weather stains, and I was hemmed in on all sides by exhibits being fine-tuned for display.

My body slumped against the cage. My hand crept up and gripped the wires, and I leaned against it with most of my weight on my cheek. The next exhibit over was a small garden of tulips. There was a poster display of a genotype diagram propped up in the soil behind it, with a banner reading “Red, White, and Blue Genes.” I stared at it; one of the tulips toward the front had the same bright shade of pink, in one wilting rim of its petals, as the lipstick my wife used to wear when we were in school.

I turned my head and looked through the cage at a blank stretch of wall in the corner, concentrating absently. Actually, I only remembered her wearing it once — the first time I saw her, in the library, by the computers, walking toward me with a copy of Rimbaud falling from her arm, and her shining — iridescent — pink, absurdly pink lips. And I knew. I just knew. The last I’d seen her, it was five a.m., I was sneaking in for my toothbrush, and her body lay poised on its side, almost alertly, lending curves to a pile of thick sheets. I briefly sat beside her and lifted a trembling hand, in thrall to my captive eyes, to her raised, bare shoulder, and felt hot gulps of blood churn my heart and course to my hips.

My heart was pounding; my thoughts swirled and in my slacks I was straining against the cage. I let out a sigh through the wires, and my attention leapt to a rustle of movement in the corner of my eye, in the center of the cage. It was nothing — one of the birds, half-conscious, had started to dip on its wispy perch. It sidled over a couple of inches and went back to sleep. I watched for a few seconds, had lost my train of thought, turned away and rested my head on the wires like a pillow. My head ached; my blood was cooling, my feet were urging me home. My eyes flashed to our bed, and at the sight of her curiously inclined, sleeping neck, my stomach clenched and my fingers softened their grip, instinctively, and dropped to my side with an absent thud. I thought to myself, as I fell onto my toes and started home, that I had lost count of my senses.

Where Am I?

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