encountering your past self

Samuel Beckett’s play, Krapp’s Last Tape, now being performed at the Keegan Theatre, resonates poignantly in our age of cheap, easy, and ubiquitous digital recording. Imagine thirty years from now looking back at your Facebook News Feed, or at your e-mail archive. Imagine looking through the old digital photos piled up on your hard drive or watching a personal video that you recorded a long time ago. Even if you don’t have such records, your family and friends do, and they will share them with you. Memory of your past self has been growing rapidly outside your and others’ minds.

Bits of Krapp’s memory of his life reside in spools of reel-to-reel tape.  As a sixty-nine-year-old, Krapp listens to a taped diary entry he recorded thirty years earlier.  His recorded voice, in turn, talks about past events, including a recording that Krapp made about a decade earlier.  Krapp reacts viscerally to scenes his recorded voice describes, he condemns his old self’s thoughts and attitudes, and he continually manipulates his recorded voice by stopping, rewinding, and skipping sections of the tape.  As a counterpoint to this fragmented, varying spool of himself through time, Krapp relishes saying, and experiencing himself saying, the word “spool”.  The sensuousness of a banana that he retrieves from drawer in the desk drives him into a frenzy of physical appetites.  Sense of presence of oneself across a long span of time jars all levels of neural processing.  How could I have thought what I thought?  I am physically here, not there, this I, I am.

The Keegan Theatre’s production conveys beautifully both the all-encompassing flow of time and the altered attentional response to distanced viewing.  As the audience enters and finds seats, Krapp sits, facing the audience across a  desk that has its working side toward the audience.  The play has no definitive start.  The audience has the protagonist’s desk position for a review of Krapp’s old self. But, distancing and objectifying these circumstances, Krapp is silent, stationary,  and framed on the stage like a portrait placed on a black background.  I found myself scrutinizing and interpreting Krapp’s facial expressions, which varied slowly over time.  Thus I entered into solo actor Brian Hemmingsen’s expressive, sympathetic, and continually engaging performance of Krapp’s Last Tape.  Everyone who can should see this Krapp.

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Krapp’s Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett, directed by David Bryan Jackson, starring Brian Hemmingsen, presented by Keegan Theatre new island project at the Theatre on the Run, February 19 through March 14, 2009.

balances in stress responses

In her interesting book, The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions, Esther Sternberg describes how the brain’s hormonal stress response balances susceptibility to inflammatory and infectious diseases.   Stress stimulates hormones that repress immune cell functions that cause inflammation. Hence a rat strain that reacts more to stress is less susceptible to a common type of inflammatory disease than a rat strain that reacts less to stress. A small-scale evalution of human subjects by means of a controlled stress test found that persons with a higher stress response are less likely to suffer from a particular type of autoimmune disease. On the other hand, chronic stress is associated with greater susceptibility to infectious disease.  A good balance of stress-related hormones is needed to keep the immune system active (not too much stress hormones), but not over-active (not too little stress hormones).

Humans’ behavioral response to their genetic/developed stress response creates an additional problem of balance across biology and experience. Persons consciously or unconsciously aware that they react strongly to stress (become highly distressed) have a strong biological incentive to avoid stressful situations.  Thus persons with a relatively high stress-response may respond by adopting a low-stress lifestyle. Correlation between degree of stress-response and inflammatory disease in health surveys might not be negative because of this life-historical behavioral response.  An important challenge for persons with a high stress-response is to find a satisfying lifestyle with a moderate amount of stress.  That seems to be the kind of lifestyle that provides the best biological circumstances for avoiding both inflammatory and infectious diseases.

books or greeting cards?

“Content” producers — journalists and writers, book authors, musicians, film-makers, and similar professions — are becoming digital goods producers. Person thinking about how digital goods producers can make money might ponder two old-fashioned paper goods: books and greeting cards.

According to U.S. Census Bureau surveys, from 2001 to 2007, greeting card publishers received about 50% as much revenue from greeting cards as book publishers received from adult trade books. So don’t write a novel, make two greeting cards!

My neighborhood CVS provides additional evidence of the value of greeting cards. The store has 30 aisle sides (connected sections of display space). Greeting cards (holiday cards, birthday cards, wedding cards, condolence cards, etc.) take up 2.5 aisle sides. Books have only about 1/4 of an aisle side. Magazines have about 1/3 of an aisle side. Small, convenience-oriented stores such as CVS manage display space carefully to maximize profit. The large amount of display space for greeting cards suggests that these cards are highly profitable to sell.

The books on display attract even boring and stolid economists. I noticed Susan Yarina’s Best Man for the Job. The epigram: “They’re up for the same job — love decides who comes out on top.” This story of workplace competition and love features a “fiercely handsome cowboy” and a “sizzling saucy cowgirl.” The back cover explains:

The work is hard, the sexual tension is blazing, and they are desperate for relief from both.

The regular prices is $8.99, but it’s now 1/3 off ($5.99). The book has 348 pages. Hence it costs about 1.7 cents per page. Quite attractive!

Greeting cards have relatively higher value. Prices for many cards, which probably by weight have less than 1/100 of the paper of Yarina’s romance, are from $2 to $3. Poetry is an important component of many greeting cards. A birthday card selling for $2.99 has on the front: “Today we / CELEBRATE / Your birthday, / and in you / we celebrate LIFE / Kahlil Gibran“. Another birthday card, this one selling for $2.49, features another illustrious writer: “Treat / every birthday / as a shining / brand-new / birthday / still wrapped / in glossy / paper / Maya Angelou“. Given that Maya Angelou read a poem at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993, the lower price of the Maya Angelou birthday card relative to the Kahlil Gibran birthday card is somewhat surprising. But this pricing may just be a straight-forward matter of supply and demand. Gibran has been dead since 1931, and hence cannot produce more poems. Angelou is still alive and potentially productive.

Greeting cards are more readily, significantly differentiated than books are and have much lower cost of consumption than books do. Different greeting cards look different, and customers judge cards by their looks. A book, in contrast, is not to be judged by its cover. In addition, reading a book has much higher time cost than receiving an attractive greeting card with a few socially sanctified words on it.

Digital goods producers need to figure out how to make their goods more like greeting cards. Actually, successful digital goods producers seem to have already figured that out.