Fondness for and frustration with Dr. Pereira

It is a sure sign of a great writer when the reader’s heart is filled with fondness for a character just from the first 15 sentences or so of terse yet rich description. This is precisely what happened to me while reading the first page of Antonio Tabucchi’s  novel Sostiene Pereira (Feltrinelli, 1994; translated into English as either  Pereira Maintans or Pereira Declares – none of which I like, but that’s another story; I would have opted for Pereira’s Testimony). Some examples of Pereira’s being lovable are these: he converses with the photo of his departed wife (and therefore he brings this photo with him when he travels); as a good Catholic, he believes in the soul but does not believe in  the resurrection of the body since he is rather heavy and does not see the need to resurrect the “lard and sweat and all the breathlessness going up the stairs”. Furthermore, he does not create problems for others, he keeps to himself and that makes him lonely – but he never complains of loneliness. Above all,  there is more: as the novel progresses, the fondness for him becomes accompanied by stronger and stronger frustration. Why does he act as he does? What are his unspoken motives?  So at the end,  after closing the last page, I am left with a mountain of unresolved issues which surround the lovable yet aggravating Dr. Pereira.

sostienepereira

There is no doubt that the novel deals with some of the most troublesome problems facing (not only) Portugal in 1938: violence, police brutality, citizen apathy, political upheaval. It is small wonder that Dr. Pereira has death on his mind: but death for him is a philosophical matter, and linked to literature  through the passing of important literary figures. As the editor of the cultural page of a literary magazine, he wants to be prepared for deaths of famous poets, philosophers, novelists and he engages an unknown young man Monteiro Rossi to write obituaries, both in the form of anniversaries of death and of notices of passing.  The hold Monteiro Rossi has on Pereira is inexplicable (is it because if Pereira had had a son, he would have been of the same age?), and in terms of the plot development, the least tangible and most frustrating element. This young man, it turns out, brings complete upheaval into Pereira’s life, as well as a concrete and real presence of death. Pereira ends up doing what he knows how to do best: he writes the account of police brutality which would have surely gotten him arrested, and he leaves Portugal presumably for France.

Three ideas keep surfacing in my mind which Sostiene Pereira forefronts but really does not come to terms with. They are the following:

  1. Who is a hero? What is a hero? It could be surmised that by having his damning testimony of police brutality published, Pereira is a hero of sorts: his words are available for people to read, but his readership is minimal, so his verbal effort surely does not bring down the corrupt and hated political system.
  2. Is the pen mightier than the sword? It could be argued that the repressive political system is dead, but Pereira’s written testimony lives on. However, it is obvious that other repressive systems thrive, other abuses of power come to the surface, other types of violence are born. The final judgment as to the greater mightiness of the pen or the sword is still to be made.
  3. What is fiction good for? I heard some author state that “All fiction is a lie.” This statement is blatantly not true, as you cannot prove that Pereira lied in his testimony, that his life is a lie, that this journal article is a lie, etc. etc. Others say that fiction makes us more in tune with, more caring about our fellow beings, human or not. Still others claim that fiction helps us forget our sorrows and transports us to other realms where we forget our troubles. Rater than closing ourselves within a created world, it is more likely that this imaginary world allows us to open up to other possibilities and other lives, not to make ours more palatable, but to make it richer. I am grateful to Dr. Pereira for doing this for me and to Tabucchi for creatively elaborating a real flesh and blood journalist’s life.

There are many fictional protagonists for whom I feel a strong fondness, and there are others who swell up seas of frustration for me, but very few imaginary characters combine both fondness and frustration in a way that Pereira does.

Shortbread in Slovakia

Although Wikipedia assures us that shortbread comes from the British isles and the recipe has been in use about 800 years, similar cookies are found wherever butter is used as shortening to make sweets. In Slovakia, shortbread cookies are called  linecké cukrovinky (i.e. from the name of the Austrian town Linz). In Linz, however, you couldn’t buy “Linz cookies” – there, they are called “eyes” (even though Linz cake is the famous “Linzer torte”; http://www.rozhlas.cz/radiozurnal/zzz/_zprava/patrani-po-puvodu-lineckeho-testa-pripomina-skoro-detektivku–1426323).

The Slovak (and Czech) name, therefore, is a mystery. One things is sure: ancient Slavs used honey to prepare food, so clearly if the recipe calls for sugar, it must be a relatively recent arrival.

Below are two Slovak elaborations on the 3-ingredients “original” shortbread recipe (sugar, butter, flour, in the ratio 1:2:3). The first one has a couple of innovations, namely the native addition: walnuts, the second also adds some ingredients and one a foreign addition: almonds. These elaborations make the cookies friable (i.e. in Slovak, krehké) and extremely tasty.

cuc1

Ingredients

280 g butter

140 g ground walnuts

140 g powdered sugar

420 g flour (may be all purpose)

1 egg

lemon rind from one lemon

Work all the ingredients into a dough (it may stick, so put it in the fridge for 5-10 minutes, and take it out in smaller batches). Roll out evenly (slightly less than 1 com) and cut out desired cookie shapes. Once baked (edges can be slightly golden, not brown), sprinkle with sugar.

 

cuc2

Ingredients

420 g flour (may be all purpose)

280 g butter (room temperature)

140 powdered sugar

2 egg yolks

60 g ground almonds (the almonds may be slightly toasted beforehand)

Work all the ingredients into a dough (it may stick, so put it in the fridge for 5-10 minutes before rolling out, and take it out in smaller batches for an easier process). Roll out evenly (slightly less than 1 cm) and cut out desired cookie shapes. Once baked (edges can be slightly golden, not brown), join two cookies with red currant (or any tart, not too sweet) jam.

 

 

Social Media: Implications for the University

book

The purpose of this volume is to offer a balanced critical reflection on the role of social media in the workings of the engaged university. The 15 contributors analyze, critique, and explore the rich ideological and pragmatic relationships ensuing from the intersection between social media and academic life. This book is the sixth volume in the Social Theory: Communication and Media Studies published by Aracne Editrice (Rome). Its contents are definitely of interest to 1. those who work or have a stake in modern academia, as well as 2. those who observe the radical transformations of the manner in which knowledge is shred, elaborated, and used in contemporary life and 3. those who reflect on the unforeseen ramifications of technological advances. Moreover, many contributions have readers step outside of the classroom, presenting bridges especially to the arts communities: bridges that would have been impossible even 5 years ago. Oftentimes, edited volumes are criticized for “unevenness”, but the pleasure deriving from reading various ideological perspectives on, and multifaceted illustrations of the same general topic overrides any “unevenness”. The individual voice of each of the contributors is clear and purposeful.  It is hoped that the volume engages all the crucial players in today’s academic life and that the contributions may reach those who work as platform designers, making the most of (automated) connectivity and (human) connectedness (J. Van Dijck’s terms). In times such as these, when the end of many human occupations and professions are being placed in the hands of robots, questions should be asked also of what will become of the engaged and purposeful university – and it is without doubt that social media will have a significant role to play in the spread of knowledge. Decisions must be made regarding the balance between academic gatekeepers and technological gatekeepers: this volume provides a number of starting points in order to reach satisfactory answers.

The book is available from http://www.aracneeditrice.it/aracneweb/index.php/pubblicazione.html?item=9788854897427.

 

 

Technology-driven unemployment: dilemmas for ethics and social welfare

This is a call for articles to be published in a Special Issue of the journal Ethics and Social Welfare.

untitled 

In Praise for Idleness (1935), Bertrand Russell claimed that “We have the technology and infrastructure to greatly reduce the forced workload of the average human, and that should be our goal—to liberate people from excessive work so that they can freely pursue the things that bring them intrinsic joy and happiness.” Russell’s optimistic vision regarding the role of technology advocates for work reduction which would increase human welfare and liberate people to be able to devote their time to culture and leisure. His optimism does not seem to be justified in light of recent economic and technological developments which lead to serious unemployment rather than cheerful work reduction. The loss of jobs due to technological innovations is starting to reach crisis proportions as many scholars (such as David F. Noble, Progress Without People: New Technology, Unemployment, and the Message of Resistance, Between the Lines, 1995) and popular press warn (for ex., Eduardo Porter, “Jobs Threatened by Machines: A Once ‘Stupid’ Concern Gains Respect”, The New York Times, June 7, 2016).   There are indeed many voices which decry the unemployment situation exasperated by the replacement of humans by machines, and apparently no job is likely to be immune. The World Technology Network forecasts that “Accelerating technological unemployment will likely be one of the most challenging societal issues in the 21st Century”. Although the scholarly work published on the topic focuses mainly on the technical, technological, and market side, assessments which consider the ethical and social welfare implications of technological unemployment are still to be addressed in detail. The submissions to the special issue will contribute to setting the agenda for this serious and timely discussion. Topics to be explored from theoretical as well as practical perspectives include, but are not restricted to, the following:

  • The role of governmental institutions in technological unemployment
  • Jobless future: is unconditional basic/universal income the answer?
  • Social, political, and economic approaches to welfare in a jobless future
  • New ethical dimensions of work originating from the technological unemployment crisis
  • Political and social inequality created by a jobless future
  • Strategic plans for skills, education, re-deployment for the technologically jobless
  • The political control of technological unemployment
  • Welfare, leadership and jobless future
  • Technological displacement vs technological innovation from the perspective of social welfare
  • Historical visions on the ethical impacts of workload reduction
  • Creating new values for a jobless future
  • Political values in welfare and technological disruption in the job market
  • Work as human value
  • Conflicting values in a jobless world (for ex., the refugees crisis in the EU)
  • Religious values and technological unemployment

Brief for contributors: In line with the editorial aims of the journal, this call for papers focuses specifically on the relationship between ethics, welfare, and values implicated in the policies and political strategies on the one hand and technologically-driven unemployment on the other. The editors welcome academic papers which are interdisciplinary in character. Contributions may combine wider ethical and theoretical questions concerning technology-driven unemployment with practical considerations leading to social policies and professional practices (especially the existing and future policies of local/national governments and international institutions, such as EU, UN, WTO to cope with the problems of technological joblessness). The special issue, as with other issues of the journal, welcomes material in a variety of formats, including high quality peer-reviewed academic papers, reflections, debates and commentaries on policy and practice, book reviews and review articles. Academic papers should be between 4-7,000 words long, and practice papers should be between 750-2,500 words long. Please consult the style rules laid-out on the journal’s website: http://www.tandfonline.com/resw. All academic papers will be double-blind peer- reviewed in the normal way.  Practice papers will be considered for publication by the editors. 

For any further information, contact Prof. Antonio Marturano (marturano@btinternet.com) and Prof. Jana Vizmuller-Zocco (jvzocco@yorku.ca).

Procedure and timelines

Submitters will be informed about the outcome as soon as possible after this date.

Abstracts should include 1. The essential content, argument, and methodology of the submission, 2. The submission’s aims and conclusions, 3. The relationship of the submission to the aims and scope of the journal.

  • Completed first drafts of papers are due by the 23rd of July 2017 and must be submitted to https://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/resw.
  • Final (revised) versions must be submitted by the 18th of June 2018.
  • Final confirmation of paper acceptance by the 30th September 2018.
  • Papers published in the first issue of Volume 13, 2019.                                                                                                                                                                       

The twists and turns of fate: Retracing Tomáš’s war steps

It has always been my desire to discover the territorial footprint of my grandfather Tomáš (1898-1971).  He died in Bratislava, where he lived with his youngest daughter (my mother) for more than 10 years. Before then, the paths he took can be traced between Kysucký Lieskovec and Žilina, Bratislava and Devínska Nová Ves, all spanning about 50 years. But the most interesting journeys had to be those he undertook when he was barely 18 and was sent from Kysucký Lieskovec to the Italian front in WWI, to fight for  the Austro-Hungarian side. I was pretty small when he talked about his war experiences, but I especially remember the following four of them. Maybe my memory is helped because these circumstances all have to do with death being so close you can feel, smell, and see it. My aversion to violence of any kind surely had its beginnings right then,  during the narration of these experiences.

One-on-one

As probably the youngest in his troupe, Tomáš  was sent on many reconnaissance missions. On one occasion, near Gorizia, he was dispatched in  advance of the marching troops to make sure no Italian enemies were nearby. As he made his way through the thicket, scared, with his awareness heightened, and with his bayonet pointed forward, he heard rustling right in front of him. Suddenly, his eyes met a young Italian soldier’s eyes. The soldier’s bayonet was also pointed at Tomáš. During what my grandfather called the longest seconds of his life,  the two young men looked at each other without moving or making a sound. Then, as if obeying an agreed-upon decision, they both lowered their weapons to the ground, turned their backs on each other, and slowly crept back to their respective companies.

I often must break the intense feeling which grips me when I imagine this story unfolding by remembering that my husband, a Sicilian, also had a grandfather (Orazio) at the front. What if this story is about my grandfather and my husband’s grandfather? What if they had shot each other? Why didn’t they shoot? What did they say to the respective commanding officers?

stary-otec

Above: Tomáš is in the front row, the third from the left.

 

nonno-orazio-zocco-alpini

Above: My husband’s grandfather, Orazio, is the first one on the left, standing.

 

A boat explodes

Close to  Palmanova, the troops were embarking on a makeshift boat, when the commanding officer, standing on a little hill away from the river (probably the river Torre) called my grandfather away from the boat. As soon as Tomáš turned his back, he heard the bomb flying and hitting the boat. Everyone died in that explosion, except for my grandfather and the commanding officer.

The question is, What was so important that my grandfather was called back?

Eating bark

Needless to say, at a certain point, Tomáš was made prisoner by the Italian army and shipped to Sicily. Although there were numerous war camps all through Italy during the First World War, few people are acquainted with the camps set up in Sicily, especially those near Vittoria and Palermo. I have attempted to discover where Tomáš served, but to no avail. There is a Museo degli Ungheresi (Museum of Hungarians) in Vittoria, which apparently has some information about the “Hungarian” war prisoners. Unfortunately, it is not open. My grandfather’s recollections of his prison time pointed to hard labor and hunger; especially for a young man, the second must have been atrocious, when he says the prisoners were forced to eat bark as they were not fed properly. But who in those days had an interest in  enforcing the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions that were drawn up to protect war prisoners? This sentence sums up the situation: “…of the 477,024 Austro-Hungarian combatant prisoners held by Italy, 18,049 died, suggesting they were generally relatively well-treated” (from http://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/prisoners_of_war). My efforts to trace his steps in Sicily have come to naught. To add insult to injury  (ah, fate!), the files for soldiers born between 1887-1900 housed in the Vojensky ústřední archiv in Prague were all shredded by mistake! Queries to the offices of Vojenský historický ústav,  Vojensky ústřední archiv, Vojenský historický archiv bore no results at all. The works by the journalist Vince Grienti and prof. Giancarlo Poidomani were of some help to contextualize the camp experiences, and I am thankful for their help, but my quest for my grandfather’s time as war prisoner in Sicily still awaits answers.

Sicilian oranges and red wine

On a more positive note, Tomáš often repeated that were it not for the kindness of Sicilian women who brought the prisoners oranges and red wine, he would have surely died.

That the war experiences made a profound impression on my grandfather needs not be underlined. He got a hold of the series published by the periodical Epoca (1965?) on the First World War (I don’t know how, in socialist Czechoslovakia!) and he annotated almost every page, even without knowing Italian. This continuous perspective reversal (Italian publication and nationalism as opposed to a Slovak man’s concrete experiences) makes for a much richer impact on the reader of  his annotations and it makes one’s blood boil on account of the injustices and uselessness of all wars.

stary-otec-epoca

Above: One of my grandfather’s annotations on the pages of Epoca: “The Italian soldier who is on leave must  abandon his family immediately and so he kisses his little son, mother, and wife for the last time to return to the front in Trieste where I was likely waiting for him in 1918 to measure our powers. July 1918.

So far, I did not learn any concrete facts about my grandfather’s Sicilian territorial movements, but my search has underlined two facts for me:  1) it is impossible not only to know the full history of a person, but also to answer a focused and simple question about a person’s concrete earthly movements. The twists and turns of fate intervene at every step (both his and mine), making the vicissitudes stand out, and the cracks in the flux of history open up more; 2) despite all odd hurdles thrown in my way, my desire to find the answers in order to retrace his steps is still undiminished.

Design fiction and designing future

fall.jpg

The following are critical comments on the content of the YouTube video of a presentation given by Jasmina Tesanovic and Bruce Sterling entitled Future Domestic Robots: Design Fiction and the Home of the Future. Although theirs is not the only way of looking at design fiction and designing future, it is a starting point and a rich mine full of bits and pieces of thought. You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyb6JgWDSvg.

While the idea of design fiction, defined by Bruce Sterling as “a form of design that has an audience”, seems intriguing and full of promise, in actuality the gist of the design production of fiction and its connection to designing future is problematic. Designing things that are fictional, mythological, futuristic right now creates more problems than it solves. My take on design fiction belongs to the realistic and critical camp, rather than that of unquestioning acceptance and adoption, not to mention adoration. Three main ideas are the foundation of what follows: 1) the generation of waste 2) the false sense of “anything is possible by anyone” 3) conscientious and conscious language use.

1) The generation of waste

Anyone who has designed and produced something knows that the way to a finished product is punctuated with waste, garbage, junk: only one prototype remains and even that does not guarantee its adoption by everyone. The saddest part of design fiction is that the people who are involved in this enterprise know that they are producing an exorbitant amount of garbage but they just shrug it off and laugh about it. In the video program, there was an example of the OCAD group inventing things which may be in use in 2025: all of them were made of plastic! Where will these “invented things” end up? There seems to be no sense of the finiteness of  natural resources. And, needless to say, the extollment of  3D printing has no bounds, again, without awareness of the fact that the machine will “print” 99.9% of things which are waste.

2) The false sense of “anything is possible by anyone”

It is customary in the post-modern world to accept the fact that “the burden is on the user” and “do-it-yourself” is praised as the epitome of human creativity. In the video program, Sterling exclaims: “Just go and do a project!”, “Make your own stuff!”. However, talking about Casa Jasmina, both Tesanovic and Sterling fail to mention where their financial backing comes from: granted, they may be independently wealthy (after all, they are “married emigres” as Sterling puts it) and the abandoned factory in Torino may not have costed much, but they do have to have robotic technology (lots of it and of an up-to-date kind), pay taxes, so they do need money. They do not mention the amount of free (?) help they get from the “squatters” who apparently use open source information. Their works presented in an installation version are sought after by museums (who also do their own de-accessing, i.e. separation of what stays and what is junk: see 1) above), and certainly the installation costs the museum a nice sum. Furthermore, they “do not want to be depended on Google”. This is simply to underline the fact that projects such as these look beautiful on the outside, doable, and accessible to anyone; the truth is that unless the individual is backed by an institution, a university, a museum, and paid by these, the design fiction works would not be realizable.

3)  Conscientious and conscious language use

The language used  especially by Sterling (writer, novelist, lecturer) is really thought-provoking without being accountable.   He uses the adjective “moral” in two phrases: “our work has moral effects on society” and “ours is a moral gesture”, and yet nowhere in this video program there is an explanation of what these “moral” effects and “moral” gestures really signify. As if social responsibility and social awareness were a side-product of design fiction.

Tesanovic notes: “The stuff you have determines your lifestyle.” The assumption is therefore, “have more robotically-supported stuff , so you will have a better lifestyle”. The consumption’s doors have opened yet more widely…   She is also surprised that a UN group wants to use the Casa Jasmina: theirs is not a business but an avocation.

They both claim that they do not want to be anyone’s “users” or “clients”. Nevertheless, they are users of technology and clients of Arduino and internet providers.

In conclusion, to design things that so far exist only in the imagination and fiction must surely be extremely satisfying. However, as these designs are also projected into the future, it looks like humanity must elaborate and generate different fictions in order to design a more creative future.  It may be true, as Sterling claims at the end of the video, that technological breakthroughs are chipping away at the fine metaphysical line between what is real and what is imaginary, but technology by itself will not solve the more pressing problems humanity is facing right now.

 

 

 

Incredible illogicalities of the human world (focus on energy): 31-33

This installment of the series devoted to the incredible illogicalities of the modern world focuses on energy*. The examples below are not only illogical in view of the state of energy production word-wide today, but are downright absurd. And yet, no obvious opposition to them exists. How do we make these absurdities disappear?

fireplace

31. Restaurants using lighted gas fireplaces on their patios in the summer.

32. City by-laws forbidding the use of outside cloth lines to hang washing.

33. Household air conditioning units without the feature which turns them off when the windows/doors are open.

34. Please add the ones you find illogical in the comment section below.

The previous installments can be found in the posts from 29 June 2014, 4 August 2014, 13 September 2014, 26 June 2016, 2 March 2016, 1 April 2016.