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Saturday, July 26, 2003
Some web-related stuff here, mostly (though I'm hardly an avid surfer). Upcoming weeks look to be very busy whether I'm dying or not, so - lest I forget - I wanna mention a few things.
Before I get to them, can anyone tell me what is said in the recorded announcement that comes on when you try to "star-69" a missed phone call? If it's your cousin Isidore, the message goes: "The number of your last incoming call was…" etcetera. You recognize the number, sigh "Ah jeez, Izzy" and that's that. But if it's a telemarketer or other annoyance with a block on the number, you hear "************ is unavailable or private, and cannot be reached by this method…" etcetera. I cannot make out the first part of the message. It sounds like something got cut off. It's garbled. I wanna know what and why this is and how it's permitted to continue, especially when "star 69" costs extra, so you figure they'd try to put a sort of coherent message up there. Near as I can interpret, it sounds like "peturnican call is unavailable…"
Pretend I can crawl?
Since I don't want to pay money for "blogspot PLUS" or whatever it's called, I can't put fancy hyperlinks in here like all the other blogs do. So just copy/paste these urls, fer cryin' out loud. They're worth the trouble, I think.
Rollicking Roentgeneer Jim Gray sends an exciting site… I was hoping something like this existed:
I myself found this one… a real bull's-eye find for tonsorial sensualists like me:
But here is something at least as fascinating as inspecting the personal ephemera of strangers… at least as significant as the pleasures of the barbershop: the story of a man named
WILLIAM JAMES SIDIS.
I'd heard of this guy many years ago in one of those Felton/Fowler or Wallace/Wallechinsky books collecting offbeat factoids, peculiar whatchimahoozits and obscure jimmycrackcorns. The basic, accepted version of his story can be found here: http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a991210.html
(Boy genius - raised by driven parents - viewed as a curiosity at best - horribly alienated - cracks up - amounts to nothing - dies fairly young)
The story is more fully fleshed out in a chapter of Ken Smith's highly recommended book "RAW DEAL."
It is obvious from all accounts that Sidis the child was probably the most shocking specimen of all-around genius on record. It's also clear that he was the object of awe, gawking curiosity and resentment (add eventual mockery and ultimate obscurity); everyone agrees that he turned his back on the life of a public braniac as soon as he could manage to do so. The general perception of his later years (meaning his post-teens up until his death while still in his forties) breaks down into two versions: either he "shorted out" or he turned his back in contempt. The former is the common view during the guy's life: the masses, who loathe "intellectuals" and idolize sports figures and other charismatic morons, want to believe that a genius child is an accident of nature… a monster. The latter is more appealing to folks like me, who respect the "Atlas Shrugged" contempt of denying those same masses the satisfactions of the freakshow and the potential benefits of such a mind applied to the common good. One notable point often mentioned to make fun of Sidis-the-failure is a book he published (supposedly his one laughable "achievement") concerning the hobby of collecting mass transit transfers. I found this magnificent; nothing appeals to me like the diligent pursuit of the utterly meaningless.
Just as those masses venerate the sexually-charged, power-laden, violence-tinged, money-stinking myths personified in sports stars, movie stars or pop stars, they detest the stereotype of the nerd. They are so desperate to distance themselves from the allegedly asexual, weak, passive, valueless dork of common myth that they create überdorks as a defense mechanism. Urkels and Horshacks are the court jesters they pretend to love even though the character, more freakishly dweeby than their deep-seated fears about themselves could ever be, is nothing but a eunuch punching bag. Currently, the genuine "revenge of the nerds" at Columbine (et al) has contributed to a vision of them as tortured (and who wouldn't wanna torture these fags, haw haw) outcasts who live for black clothes, Dungeons and Dragons and vampire novels. They're ready to snap… to go "postal" (another current-day archetype of the despised dweeb… impotent civil service worker seething with revenge fantasies) at any time.
These newer clichés provide at least an attractively dangerous component to the mix, replacing the old ones wherein the nerd was a bespectacled (from "reading too much") goofball who collected stamps, listened to unhip music and masturbated all the time. As if anything's wrong with any of those fine pursuits! The nerd may have bowled… bowling was seen as dorky until reclaimed by hipsters, who than made it safe to bowl again… but that's as close to athletics as he or she ever got. Loser. My point:
Sidis collected TRAIN AND BUS TRANSFERS? Jeee-sus! Dork of dorks!
Well, I LIKE model train layouts and comics and stuff like that. I have little patience with obsessives, but I'd rather be bored by a model train fanatic showing me a cool layout along with all his deadly dull yammer than be bored by a fucking junkie with nothing to show or share or say. I'd rather hang with a bunch of Trekkers in a bar than a bunch of bikers. But believe me, most people who'd run screaming if I said: "let me show you the Captain Picard poster I hung up in my train room" would get all fascinated (and possibly aroused) if I claimed that I finally quit heroin after it made me wreck my favorite Harley. I do not lie when I assert that, quite apart from the relative merits of their music, I'm sure I'd have a better time chatting with John Tesh than with Keith Richards.
This is why the idea of Sidis throwing it all away and only collecting transfers appealed to me. The clueless scorn of those effete douchebags at The New Yorker (who ran a "where are they now" article on the adult Sidis that aimed to humiliate him as a pathetic loser) is delicious to me as an example of how disgusting and evil and WRONG the "hip" usually turn out to be. This is high comedy. For even if Sidis was the washout depicted, what right did they have to mock him? What reason other than sheer cruelty? And, from this evidence, what could possibly justify the elitism of a magazine as eager to bring down this one already damaged person as any schoolyard bully had been?
So Sidis captured my attention… is this a hero for that "Objectivist" part of me that insists my own happiness is all I need achieve? Is he a martyr for that sentimentalist side of me that mourns a lone man driven to doom by the mob? (Don't you feel like a chump when you read some work of philosophy or ethics or psychology and think: "yeah, makes sense?" and then read a different one and think the same thing? Except they're kinda fundamentally opposed? What are you, stupid? Easily persuaded? Decide, damn you! Right? Choose! Right?)
Looking into the Sidis story online has yielded surprising results. It now seems that the guy did NOT go nuts, did NOT turn his back on pursuits of the mind and did NOT loathe the human race that shunned him. The intense publicity he received as a prodigy did turn him against publicity and fame with a fervor, but evidently he'd developed a philosophical approach based on the Native American cultures he admired (mind you, this was long before hippie appropriation of Indian lore, so put the horseshit detector on standby one minute). It told him to shun the limelight and use his talents to benefit others anonymously. Apparently he published brilliant works, -under many pseudonyms- on a wide range of subjects. These books, articles, essays and pamphlets - which are only now being tracked down and accredited - apparently comprise a shockingly visionary body of work.
It's all here:
Now, this is new to me, and I dunno if these Sidis-boosting people are fanatics of the L Ron Hubbardite sort (yech), misguided admirers like some of those who took to Charles Fort's satirical/skeptical/sciosophist work (yay) and warped its woof, or whether they're simple obscurantists or even hoaxers. I think they are smart and sincere. I also think that - even if all the big claims don't really wash - this version of Sidis has checked MY oil but good. It's nice to get one's cranky prejudices shaken up by something better and higher. Maybe this "new" Sidis embodies the same qualities I supposedly admire in my hero, Ives, and maybe all my own bullshit needs to be readjusted toward a healthier and smarter view of living this life, now that I'm gonna have 2 kids to edjumacate. Whatever it is, it excites the mind on a bunch of levels.
Bear in mind also that even in the cheap "revenge" terms under which I was enjoying his story, the new version's better: he withdrew from the public eye, but not the private passions. He overcame a need for credit (success) and respect (fame), and still made work designed to illuminate our understanding of - and thereby improve our experience of - life. His reputation outlived that of every asshole that called him a has-been, and for totally BENIGN reasons! Wow. He was a better rebel than I thought I wanted him to be.
I begin to suspect that all one needs of religion, philosophy, civics and self-help can be drawn from Rabbi Hillel, a Jesus precursor (just by a little bit) who gave us the famous:
"If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?"
I think the priority implied by the sequence of Hillel's saying is also important. To give the political ferinstance, why must I choose to be a "conservative" or "liberal" or "reactionary" or "radical" or "libertarian" (or whatever) under all conditions and circumstances? Everyone knows it's stupid to freeze into ideology. I think, if the new picture of Sidis is correct, he was even more amazing a man than the boy genius promised to become. And not the least of the attractions here is that my impression of this man's life, mind and personality is still fluid. The only sure thing is that his tale is remarkable. How one reacts to a question mark like him... which version is the most satisfying... can be pretty telling.
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