Posts by Cheryll Barron

Henry Higgins, digitised, and a housekeeping alert

These snippets come from a yellowing scrap of newsprint cut out long ago from an obscure little Manhattan paper, and taped to the inside of a kitchen cabinet door — unnoticed for years, until yesterday. Before the internet, it might have taken oh, … the time it took to build the Pyramids, to explain the first item to someone who has never been to the segment of New York known as the Bronx, or got to know and adore by other means the sounds its natives make. Now, you can hop onto a link:

The second clip has an easily decoded message — in the half of the conversation attributed to the wicked ironist labelled ‘He’ —  the reason why post-Gutenberg posts might be less frequent, for a while.

Dear Diary:

… The scene, West 53rd Street, outside the Museum of Modern Art. Leading characters: a well-dressed girl, about 10 years old, with a thick Bronx accent and a large French poodle.

Girl (commanding the dog): Asseyez-vous! Asseyez-vous!

The dog does not respond.

Girl: Oh, sit down, why doncha!

The poodle sits.

Girl with accent: Mon dieu!

The poodle barks.

— Rodman Philbrick

Quick conversation between man and woman overheard by Robert Crohan of New Rochelle, N.Y. in a Brentano’s book store.

He: I’ve written a book.

She: You’ve written a book! How did you have time to write a book!

He: I have no life.

She: I have no life either!

He: Yes, but I have no life better than you have no life.

— Metropolitan Diary, edited by Ron Alexander for The New York Times, 1 January 1995

Literary sanitisation: Go Set A Watchman on the original Rapunzel! She got pregnant — and oh, the first Snow White’s would-be assassin was her own mother

Rapunzel CADOGAN IMG_8104

Above: a purer and more innocent Rapunzel by the English painter Frank Cadogan Cowper (1877-1958) . Left, below: a book cover closer to the spirit of the Grimms’ collection.

Grimm's Sogen winged monsters

By far the most heartening conclusion from the fiasco following the discovery — actual or concocted, to make a bundle — of the aborted manuscript of To Kill A Mockingbird, decades after the fact, is that people yearn deeply to be nicer than we are. Many thousands who placed advance orders for Go Set A Watchman were disillusioned, and struggled miserably to reconcile their beloved Atticus Finch, the lawyer hero of Mockingbird, with the bitter, cynical racist he became in old age, in Watchman. By now, everyone knows that this transformation did not happen in the sequence in which Alabama’s most celebrated author imagined and wrote her story — the very reverse — but in which, you might say, the genie escaped its bottle.

William Wordsworth, despised by the militantly anti-sentimental for the sweet simplicity of ‘Daffodils,’ is probably disliked by them just as much for an aphorism not quite as well-known:

We live by Admiration, Hope and Love.

The public reaction to Watchman proves that Daffodil Willy was right. And this should hardly surprise us. You could see the figure at the centre of each of the monotheistic religions as a monumental elaboration of the first, inspiring Atticus.

Something funny leaps to mind as you mull over our apparent preference for idealisation.

The old Germanic folktales that the Brothers Grimm collected and wrote down in the 19th century — stories in some cases preserved for aeons, passed from generation to generation in the pre-Gutenberg oral tradition — were scrubbed clean of cruelty and violence in their revised versions, the ones most of us were read in our cots or bunk beds. Our ancestors clearly had stronger stomachs than we do — to hang onto, regurgitate and delight in the narrative equivalent of unsweetened, extra-strength, dark chocolate. Most of our palates can only be tempted by cocoa cut with sugar and cream. It is not easy to imagine the true Grimms’ fairy tales earning many ‘likes’ on Facebook.

On the current home page of the New York Review of Books, you can read a fine account by the novelist and cultural historian Marina Warner of how this purging came about. She blames — or credits — the English:

The [Grimm] brothers had been strongly encouraged to make their scholarship a bit more family-friendly by including … illustrations after they learned of the huge success in England of the first English translation by Edgar Taylor (1823 and 1826), with its quirky, joyous drawings by George Cruikshank. … [T]he tone of the English illustrations changed the tales’ reception, inspiring Dickens to write sentimentally about their innocence …

This is an example of how a technological shift — what appears to be a simple change from delivering stories by the spoken word to print — can be at least partly responsible for culture jumping tracks. Later, in Disney’s retellings in celluloid, the stories could define schmaltz.

Rapunzel, in the Warner exegesis, was knocked up by the valiant suitor who clambered up that astonishing hair. Here are some of her blood-curdling mentions of unhappy families in the Grimms’ compendium, yarns more terrible even than Snow White’s — whose would-be assassin was her own mother, and not her father’s second wife:

‘The Singing Bone’:

The Grimms also acknowledged that the wonderful, shivery tale of “The Singing Bone” bears a resemblance to the famous Scots ballad “The Twa Sisters” … In the Grimms’ tale, rivalry between brothers over a princess drives the plot. But the central, haunting motif of the bone that denounces the murderer recurs in both stories: a passing shepherd sees it sticking out of the riverbank where the murderer has buried the body of his or her victim. In the Scots ballad, it’s the breastbone—which the shepherd strings with the golden hair of the victim. In the Grimms’, it’s a femur or some such. He trims it for a mouthpiece for his pipe and then finds when he puts his lips to it that it sings of its own accord: “Dear shepherd, blowing on my bone…/My brothers killed me years ago!”

‘The Tale of the Juniper Tree’:

… another story that contains that “playful—and therefore paradoxically comforting—terror” of the very best Grimms tales. In this tale, an evil woman kills her stepson so that her daughter, Marlenikin, will inherit the family’s money. She then cooks the boy into a stew and serves him up to his father. When Marlenikin buries the boy’s bones under a juniper tree, he reemerges as a beautiful bird who sings his misfortunes […]

My mother, she smote me,

My father, he ate me,

My sister, sweet Marlenikin,

Gathered all my little bonikins,

Bound them in a silken scarf,

And lay them under the juniper tree.

We also learn from Marina Warner that Wilhelm Grimm, thirteen months younger than his brother Jacob, tidied up some of the stories himself, meting out satisfying, poetic justice:

Dortchen Wild, later Grimm after she married Wilhelm, was one of nine children of neighbors who were close family friends; she is the first source of “The Singing Bone,” but later the brothers amended it, with the possible help of another woman narrator, and Wilhelm both elaborated and trimmed the story, adding an opening “Once upon a time” and tying up loose ends, such as the confession of the evil sibling: “After the fate of the murdered man was revealed, the wicked brother could not deny the deed, and he was sewn up in a sack and drowned.”

Question we have been discussing with a good friend: would children be better prepared for life as it can be — at its most frightful — with the older versions of these confections?

grimms' original cover

The cover of the original English version

Google should spotlight and respond to critics of Sundar Pichai and other Silicon Valley chiefs — not bury the complaints

Civic Centre, San Francisco -- a city of steeply rising economic inequality -- photograph:

Civic Centre, San Francisco — a city of steeply rising economic inequality
— photograph:

Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence.

— Léon Bloy (1846-1917)

Better than suppressing criticism of Google’s new chief executive, Sundar Pichai — as Google seems to have been doing in some recent search rankings — would be answering the critics in a public debate. That would give Pichai-backers a chance for a friendly counteroffensive, listing all the reasons why his appointment is so hopeful for all unreconstructed idealists.

Though we have yet to come across any personal attacks on him, there has been angry murmuring in certain quarters about Indian leaders of Silicon Valley companies, lumping them together as selfish elitists. For two or three days after the announcement earlier this month about the Tamil Nadu-ite who had landed at Google’s pinnacle, a post by one Wajahat Qazi — described in his Twitter bio as ‘a former senior policy analyst’ in the part of Kashmir governed by India — persistently appeared in search engine results at or near the top of links offered for inquiries under the new tech star’s name. Then, it all but vanished: his Pichai-focused screed on — ‘Fading American dream: Sundar Pichai is a metaphor for a new kind of elitism in US’ — did not appear on the first page of Google offerings for queries using Qazi’s name. Even if it sank partly because the words of writers and bloggers with larger followings were rising, it does not seem likely that its displacement was unassisted by colleagues and friends of Pichai’s, like the tweeter in the screen shot below.

What is Qazi’s objection to Pichai and other successful Indian techies? That’s hard to say, exactly, because his post is somewhat incoherent, as if written in a furious rush, and strikingly self-contradictory. He praises Pichai lavishly, then condemns him for belonging to ‘a new class of people: the nouveau elite who are the children of the marriage between technology and liberalism [… that … ] owes no real allegiance to any state, nation or culture …’. He is apparently protesting on behalf of the “average” white young man from the South’ who ‘would perhaps naturally vent out his frustration at the brown, Indian ‘geek’ or techie for the loss of status and employment opportunities.’

Actually, white- and blue-collar workers shut out of the great Silicon Valley casino are envious and resentful across the entire U.S. and probably most of the globe, as Qazi does point out. The local resentment, especially in San Francisco, now at the northern limit of Silicon Valley, makes the most sense — for the reasons set out in ever more frequent reports about consequences of missing public services or public services strapped for cash, beneath headlines like the one for Debra Saunders’ 9 August piece in The San Francisco Chronicle: San Francisco’s summer of urine and drug-addicted homeless’. ‘How bad is the urine situation in San Francisco?,’ the piece began. ‘Monday night, a light pole corroded by urine collapsed and crashed onto a car, narrowly missing the driver. … Prosperity has produced a building boom — so there are fewer vacant spaces where the homeless can burrow.’

Facts and events like these are shocking enough in themselves. And there are few other places with so many physical, sensory reminders that economic inequality in America is greater than in any other rich country. Silicon Valley, as a whole — with all its native-born Americans, immigrants and highly skilled temporary workers with H-1B visas — could be accused of a callous detachment from economic hardship on its doorstep and everywhere else.

But it’s clear from detailed reports about encounters with Pichai — especially from an excellent interview by Dieter Bohn of last May — that Qazi could not have made a poorer choice of target — or ‘metaphor for this new elitism’:

Bohn: Is there anything personally important to you that you wish Google as a whole were doing more of?

Pichai: The thing that attracted me to Google and to [the] internet in general is that it’s a great equalizer. I’ve always been struck by the fact that Google search worked the same as long as you had access to a computer with connectivity, [whether] you were a rural kid anywhere or a professor at Stanford or Harvard.

I want Google to strive to do that — not just build technology for certain segments. For me, it matters that we drive technology as an equalizing force, as an enabler for everyone around the world.

Incidental descriptions of Bohn’s like this make that commitment credible:

Pichai is thoughtful and friendly in person, nodding carefully as he listens and then responding with real empathy. After the first day of I/O, I watched as Pichai walked into the hungry press gaggle, giving everybody who approached him equal attention. Amidst the tumult, he even sought me out to finish a conversation we’d had the previous week.

Last year, techie sites like gleefully quoted the gentle and restrained answer Pichai gave, when asked about the Apple leader Tim Cook’s description of the security designed into Google’s Android technology for mobile devices as a ‘toxic hell stew’ – obviously, by comparison with his own company’s comparatively flawless iPhone and its siblings. Apple, Pichai said, set its products’ price tags so high that it could afford to commission custom components (chip-sets) for elegant solutions to technical dilemmas — whereas Google had to make do with off-the-shelf parts to keep prices low for its volks phones:

“It must be liberating [for Apple] to wake up and think about your device, your software, and hey, ‘I can even call the chipset guys and say what the chip should be,’” he says. “I have to think about building a platform and bringing as many people along on this journey and getting it right. I believe that ultimately it’s a more powerful approach, but it’s a lot more stressful as well.”

You have to be careful when you make a $100,000 Mercedes car not to look at rest of automotive industry and make comments on it… We serve the entire breadth of the market, globally across all form factors, et cetera. Android from the ground up is designed to be very, very secure… History shows typically that malware is also targeted at the more popular operating system. So you know there is that.

In January, when only Silicon Valley insiders knew that Pichai was being groomed for his promotion to the top, the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof posed an unusually interesting question: can people be made more empathetic?

One of his observations was that ‘affluence insulates us from need … Wealthy people who live in economically diverse areas are more generous than those who live in exclusively wealthy areas.’

Pichai does not seem to be one of those who forget all about growing up relatively poor — as virtually every recent story about him has emphasized — or about the infinitely greater poverty than his family’s, in India’s underclasses. Nor would he need the reminder in the last sentence of the Kristof meditation on empathy: ‘Above all, let’s remember that compassion and rationality are not effete markers of weakness, but signs of civilization.’

It is not inconceivable that someone exactly like him could become the influential conscience Silicon Valley needs.

In the meanwhile, it’s important to let the Wajahat Qazis have their say — rant, if they must.

sundar pichai supporter tweet