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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Going Delta Berserk

Jean Smart is such a great addition to 24! I've loved her since Designing Women in the late '80s. She had some memorable small roles in Guinevere, Garden State, and I [Heart] Huckabees, but her return to television is great.

Designing Women was a key influence on my feminist development as a girl. Julia Sugarbaker was an early role model, although I've since heard the rumor that Dixie Carter, a rare Republican in Hollywood, used to bargain feminist time for singing time. The tribute site is hilariously earnest. The fan fiction is kind of depressing, though.

In other Designing Women-related news, in the latest issue of Bust, Beth Ditto of the Gossip describes her "Delta Berserk" inspiration for her DIY style: jewel tones, shoulder pads, lots of cleavage.


How to invent a Creole

A new invented language, "Esata", as described by its creators:
Many people have studied English and can speak it well, but millions of others who do not have the time or the educational background are also speaking it, badly. Less competent speakers of English represent an ever increasing user group. Eventually, we can expect that the numbers of those who speak some Creole or corrupted version of English will predominate over those who speak it well. In this context Esata is proposed as the basis for a standard internationalized 'creole English', an attempt to gain control over the 'vulgarized' form of the language, and influence its future.

Words are formed from syllables of consonant plus vowel. The normal English alphabet is used, but vowels have only one sound, and some consonants have different sounds (c as ch, x as sh).

Here are some examples of phrases in Esata:

hubiyu who are you?
wobixi where is she?
vayuti what do you think?
bidara is that right?
hobihiko how is he coming?
yonotavegu I don't talk very good
feyunosanose If you don't know, don't say
mikanorenu My car isn't running now.

What is the official definition of a "creole", anyway? The UN High Commission on Human Rights explains:
A 'Pidgin' (and also a 'Creole') is a language variety used for interethnic contact... As a result thereof, the language in question may undergo drastic changes and result in an entirely new language... Pidgin is usually not anyone's primary language (so its users have their native tongue to fall back on for in-group communication), but when it becomes a native language for its speakers it is called a Creole.
One of the main languages that must have inspired Esata is Nigerian Pidgin English, spoken by tens of millions of West Africans. The UNHCHR explains that "Nigerian Pidgin English... [has] no unified standard or orthography. It is used in novels, plays, radio, poetry and becoming more and more important as a language."

Nigerian Pidgin English is among the hundreds of languages and dialects that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been translated into:

For December 10, 1948, di meeting of di whole world, wey dem de call United Nations (naim be say all di kontris wey de for di world come unite to be one), come hold talk and dem come bring out one paper and write wetin suppose to be our right inside. Dem call am Human Rights...


Georgia stops the rain

Some Tbilisi residents jokingly call the bus system "Sandrabus", a reference to president Saakashvili's Dutch wife, Sandra Roelofs, because Georgia bought the busses recently from Holland at a suspiciously excellent price.

But like a mom in front of a Dukes of Hazzard sweatpants display, Georgia was blinded by the bargain. It turns out busses' aisles are so narrow that riders must spend endless time negotiating ways to squeeze past each other.

I suspect that at this moment the Dutch are sitting in spacious, new busses, which give plenty of room to smoke hash and fondle prostitutes, while meanwhile Georgia's hand-me-down busses move around like giant sideways telephone booths stuffed with impossible numbers of people, many of whom have long ago given up on getting out near their destination and instead have given themselves over to the whim of fate. "I wonder what unexpected adventure awaits me," a lucky Geogian might say as the hospital where he was scheduled for a kidney transfer recedes in the distance.

When the busses were launched last summer, officials were mortified to realize that their windows didn't open. When riders complained about the sauna-like conditions, the minister of transportation held a press conference and triumphantly announced that he would have every third window on the busses simply removed. "But what if it rains?" Asked a journalist. He froze, stunned, and responded sternly, "It won't rain."

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Anonymous Anonymous on Mon Dec 31, 04:47:00 AM:
Yes, buses we have maby the best on the earth :))

but if you only have seen buses in georgia and nothing more you missed a lot ..... my darling :)

there are more things to do heree than look after buses

Portraits of Georgia

This photo-heavy blog by Hans Buhr, a German who conducts adventure tours in Georgia, makes me wish I knew German.
Azeri women selling produce at the market in Gori, Stalin's home town
Cattle drivers descending to Kakheti from Tusheti
Sheep being herded across the Alazani river
Niva lost to hidden road collapse in Tbilisi
Unknown Georgian woman with rifle

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Monday, January 30, 2006

Sincerity and authenticity

The James Frey and JT Leroy spectacles are old news by now (that's what I get for starting these posts and then refusing to finish them), but I wanted to put in a few words:

First of all, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan totatlly forecast this event in their song, "Kid Charlemagne"!!! The similarities are eerie:

While the music played you worked by candlelight
Those San Francisco nights
You were the best in town
Just by chance you crossed the diamond with the pearl
You turned it on the world
That’s when you turned the world around
Did you feel like Jesus
Did you realize
That you were a champion in their eyes
On the hill the stuff was laced with kerosene
But yours was kitchen clean
Everyone stopped to stare at your technicolor motor home
Every A-frame had your number on the wall
You must have had it all
You’d go to LA on a dare
And you’d go it alone
Could you live forever
Could you see the day
Could you feel your whole world fall apart and fade away

(and that's just the first verse!)

OK, who's stopped reading?

Memoir isn't a genre with fixed conventions. Writing a memoir doesn't have to have a moral purpose, though the success of Frey's book is grounded in its triumphant arc of recovery and self-discovery. The fraud exposed the arc as Frey's construction, as his attempt to conform to a convention of a recovery memoir. Frey's fabrications aren't defensible, but they reveal his readers' desire to find a moral purpose in writing. Memoirist Mary Karr argues this point uncritically in her op-ed article from The New York Times (January 15, 2005 and TimesSelected). In writing her memoir The Liars' Club, she writes, she had to examine her memories and determine their truthfulness (as opposed to their Steven Colbertian 'truthiness'):

"Mr. Frey seems to have started with his perceived truth, and then manufactured events to support his vision of himself as a criminal. But how could a memoirist even begin to unearth his life's truths with fake events? At one point, I wrote a goodbye scene to show how my hard-drinking, cowboy daddy had bailed out on me when I hit puberty.

"When I actually searched for the teenage reminiscences to prove this, the facts told a different story: my daddy had continued to pick me up on time and make me breakfast, to invite me on hunting and fishing trips. I was the one who said no. I left him for Mexico and California with a posse of drug dealers, and then for college.

"This was far sadder than the cartoonish self-portrait I'd started out with. If I'd hung on to my assumptions, believing my drama came from obstacles I'd never had to overcome -- a portrait of myself as scrappy survivor of unearned cruelties -- I wouldn't have learned what really happened. Which is what I mean when I say God is in the truth."

This writing process is admirable, perhaps, but it's not the only possibility for memoirists. The success of Karr's The Liars' Club might have made it more popular to write and read memoirs about an author's search among her memories for what's psychologically constructed and what really happened, but that's a convention that can be charted historically. Mary McCarthy makes some of those gestures in her excellent Memories of Catholic Girlhood, but she doesn't have the same vocabulary of recovery and psychology that Karr learned in the 1980s recovery movement. McCarthy and Karr may be farther apart in purpose than Karr argues. Presidential memoirs don't usually contain deep the psychological insight that Karr demands.

Michiko Kakutani's commentary on the affair in The New York Times (January 18, 2005 and appears to be TimesSelected) hits all the predictable targets in a reactionary defense of Absolutely Truthful Memoirs, and in so doing hits wide of the mark.

"If the memoir form once prized authenticity above all else--regarding testimony as an act of paying witness to history--it has been evolving, in the hands of some writers, into something very different. In fact, Mr. Frey's embellishments and fabrications in many ways represent the logical if absurd culmination of several trends that have been percolating away for years. His distortions serve as an illustration of a depressing remark once made by the literary theorist Stanley Fish--that the death of objectivity 'relieves me of the obligation to be right'; it 'demands only that I be interesting.'

"And they remind us that self-dramatization (in Mr. Frey's case, making himself out to be a more notorious fellow than he actually was, in order to make his subsequent 'redemption' all the more impressive) is just one step removed from the willful self-absorption and shameless self-promotion embraced by the 'Me Generation' and its culture of narcissism."

The thing I find weird about all this handwringing about the demise of Truth is that we've seen several examples of it treated historically in films this year: Johnny Cash gets confused for the subjects of his songs and embraces the persona in Walk the Line; Truman Capote gets involved in the story he's writing for the New Yorker and manipulates the events; and I'm all set to see the meta-film of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, itself a play on the malleable conventions of a memoir and the novel (and film, in this adaptation that I'm dying to see). People have responded to these tricky formulations of authorial personae and truth in complex ways; I haven't read many reviews of these films that take up Oprah's crusade for clear genre conventions.

Sterne's fictional memoir, Cash's prisoner persona, Capote's novelistic journalism, and McCarthy's author's note about the imprecision of memory all occurred before the "Me Generation." Steve Winn's column from the San Francisco Chronicle comes close to pinpointing some of these issues of how generic conventions might necessarily be reexamined or played with in a moment of technological change:

But then again, maybe people are a whole lot more sly and better at this game than that. Among the great pleasures and promises of 21st century life is our own self-awareness, our media-tutored sensibility about a mediated age. Technology has taught us to be wary of technology. TV warns us against itself. Writers, filmmakers and visual artists revel in the ambiguities and imprecision of their own work. We can happily submit to a con now -- whether it's reality TV, fiction packaged as nonfiction or a fraud dressed up as truthiness -- and know we're doing it. That's not to say we can't be had. But now, if it happens, we can't say we didn't see it coming.

Something similar happened in the eighteenth century with the rise of print: with so many forms of news, ballads, romances, and other genres of print competing for space in a writing market, authors were bound to play around with notions of authenticity determining use value. Lennard Davis argues that these mutable conventions are the basis for the early novel in Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel. In their own weird little way, the Statistically Improbable Phrases for the book, which include authorial disavowal, simulacrum theory, moral verisimilitude, and attitude toward fact, demonstrate that playing with authorial truthfulness and personae is a historical phenomenon that can't be ascribed to a "Me generation" of first-person shooters. Steve Shapin's A Social History of the Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England is another great book to consider when working against these "Death of Absolute Truth" arguments.

Ben's post about F. Scott's Fitzgerald's use of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin makes for another example of how the memoir genre has historically not demanded absolute truthfulness. Here's an excerpt from Adam Gopnik's review of recent biographies of Franklin (published in the New Yorker, June 30, 2003), including Tom Tucker's Bolt of Fate, which argues that Franklin embellished many of his achievements, including the story about the lightning bolt and the key. Far from taking an expose-type tone, Tucker wants to know what Franklin's embellishments say about how the ideas of authenticity circulate and are valorized. Gopnik writes,

"Who is to decide when doctors disagree? It is, finally, as conservatives like to say, all about character. And here one approaches an area of subtle gradations, easy to misinterpret. Tucker points to evidence of Franklin's series of hoaxes as conclusive, or anyway highly suggestive. He offers a long list and shows how they often advanced Franklin's career; for instance, when he was just starting out as a printer he wrote a pseudonymous essay in favor of paper currency and then, after the legislature had been persuaded, got the government contract to print money. As Tucker recognizes, the majority of these impostures are closer to deadpan satiric jokes than they are to self-seeking lies. Franklin liked to write letters claiming to be from other people--a 'famous Jesuit,' or a Scottish Presbyterian--in order to dramatize some political point through obvious overload. The last thing he wrote was a letter purportedly from a Muslim slaver, 'Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim,' whose lust for slavery was intended to hold a mirror up to the American slaveholder's own, and shame him.

"This is the reason for Franklin's opacity and, perhaps, for the doubts about the kite, which do not begin with Tucker. Franklin was an instinctive ironist. That is not to make him contemporary; it was Enlightenment irony, not Duchampian irony-begun as a way of getting past censorship. But it was his natural mode, as in the joke about the electrocuted turkeys: which was a joke, and had a serious point, and was something he actually did, and the whole thing depended on being reported with an absolutely straight face. It was not that he did not value honesty. He did. It is that he did not value sincerity, a different thing. He would have been reluctant to say something that he believed to be a lie. But, as a businessman and a writer and a diplomat, he might very well have been willing to dramatize, or even overdramatize, something he believed to be essentially the truth."

Fitzgerald didn't look to Franklin as a known embellisher but as a man obsessed with self-improvement, including self-improvement through "publishing [his] errata." So that's another loop in the Franklin-Gatsby story: is self-aggrandizement a form of self-improvement, or should self-aggrandizers be publicly shamed--and even sued--a la Frey and Leroy? Also, to compare Gatsby's story to Leroy's, why isn't starfucking an acceptable form of self-improvement?

The other wrinkle in the story that concerns me is how quickly commentators jumped on Leroy's play with gender and how Oprah's intervention into the story was used to reify a woman as the arbiter of moral truth (Daniel Defoe's Roxana is a fantastic rebuttal to this convention). Here's Virginia Heffernan's gleeful Times coverage of Oprah's interview last week:

Just like back in the days when her guests were abusers and sexual deviants, Ms. Winfrey came for vengeance — and vengeance on behalf of the poor, the voiceless and the women above all, who get conned and defrauded and violated by men who think they're so bad. But because Ms. Winfrey never sounds just one note, she turned in an uncanny performance, modulating her aggression with such finesse that she seemed to be the penitent one, and not the one with the whip hand.

So along with Oprah's insistent delineation of genre conventions, add gender conventions to that list of worries, as well.


Blogger Ben on Tue Jan 31, 06:28:00 AM:
Can there be any remaining doubt that Oprah should run for president?
Blogger Alice on Tue Jan 31, 05:22:00 PM:
I'm skeptical of her attempts to control genre and gender conventions, but I'm cool with Oprah for president if she can follow the Geneva Conventions.

"I see it as a night scene by El Greco"

When it came time to write about The Great Gatsby in high school, I wrote a four-page prose poem about Cugat's art deco cover for the novel, H.L. Mencken's "The Libido for the Ugly," the El Greco painting Vista de Toledo, and Michael Stipe's photography for the New Adventures in Hi-Fi album art. The section of the book that (I believed) tied these various pieces of art together was Fitzgerald's commentary about who could adapt to mid-Atlantic and midwestern landscapes best:

"That's my Middle West--not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all--Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were alll Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us all subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.

"Even when the East excited me most, even when I was most keenly aware of its superiority to the bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio, with their interminable inquisitions which spared only the children and the very old--even then it had always for me a quality of distortion. West Egg, especially, still figures in my more fantastic dreams. I see it as a night scene by El Greco: a hundred houses, at once conventional and grotesque, crouched under a sullen, overhanging sky and a lustreless moon. In the foreground four solemn men in dress suits are walking along the sidewalk with a stretcher on which lies a drunken woman in a white evening dress. Her hand, which dangles over the side, sparkles cold with jewels. Gravely, the men turn in at a house--the wrong house. But no one knows the woman's name, and no one cares.

"After Gatsby's death, the East was haunted for me like that, distorted beyond my eyes' power of correction.

I wanted to know what acts of visual "correction" and "distortion" are required for adaptation--not just for viewing the landscape, but for living in the East. I probably should have focused more on Mencken and less on Michael Stipe, but maybe he gets the vision thing just right when he drives up to Mulholland Drive in "Electrolite". The first paragraph of that passage is evocative because the images are instantly recognizable, even in our post-sleighbell culture. The second paragraph is a distorted, even ugly image that doesn't appear in the book (though it's evoked, I argued as a seventeen-year-old, in the similar organizations of sky and landscape in the Cugat and El Greco paintings) and probably doesn't evoke any specific memories for the reader. So what's changed in Nick Carraway's vision in those two paragraphs?

If that sounds esoteric, belabored, and high-minded, recall that I was a junior and high school, I really wanted to be an English professor when I grew up, and I loved REM. I don't pull stunts like that anymore.

But Bernard Henri Lévy does! I kind of want to know what he would do with the night scene by El Greco. Or maybe I don't.

I wanted more from Slate's book club discussion about Bernard Henri Lévy's new collection of essays, American Vertigo. "Don't Go Back to Tocqueville," is an inspired title, but my eyes glazed over at the mention of Francis Fukuyama, if not before. Garrison Keillor's review in the New York Times Book Review on Sunday is fantastic for its clear-headedness about Lévy's work:

Lévy is quite comfortable with phrases like "as always in America." Bombast comes naturally to him. Rain falls on the crowd gathered for the dedication of the Clinton library in Little Rock, and to Lévy, it signifies the demise of the Democratic Party. As always with French writers, is short on the facts, long on conclusions. He has a brief encounter with a young man outside of Montgomery, Ala. ("I listen to him tell me, as if he were justifying himself, about his attachment to this region"), and suddenly sees that the young man has "all the reflexes of Southern culture" and the "studied nonchalance ... so characteristic of the region." With his X-ray vision, Lévy is able to reach tall conclusions with a single bound.

My prescription: Just listen to REM.


"Manny Ortez"

Why I love the Red Sox (besides the footage of David Ortiz in 2005 spring training shouting "Give me the sticky-icky-icky!"):
Bill Simmons: My favorite "Manny being Manny" moment happened in the final game of the regular season -- he had just crushed a home run, the cameras caught you guys sitting next to one another in the dugout, he was talking excitedly about what pitch he had hit, and somewhere along the way, you just started staring at him in disbelief, as though he had just said something like, "I knew it was going to be a slider because I started craving a pork sandwich, and that always means a slider's coming!" And you just kept staring at him, and then he walked away to another part of the dugout, and you started shaking your head in shock like, "Wow, I will never, ever, ever figure that guy out." How many of those Manny encounters happen per season?

Curt Schilling: Three to four per day.

--from a recent interview with the latest right-wing Christian to unexpectedly win the hearts of Bostonians


Anonymous Anonymous on Mon Jan 30, 03:11:00 PM:
My favorite "Manny being Manny" moment of the 2005 season (and there are many, of course) was probably the period of a few weeks in about May when he regularly wore David Ortiz's bright red #34 wrist bands--up around his elbows. It was very noticeable on TV. Another great moment--I can have two favorites, right?--was the interview Manny gave on the field right after the trade deadline game where he was like, "Man, you know, I love Boston, man. It's the place to be, man. It's great, man." I don't think Manny really speaks English.

I strongly suspect that many of my favorite Sox are right-wing Christians. But as Manny might say, whatever, man--they're great!
Blogger Jeff'y on Mon Jan 30, 11:05:00 PM:
Do the Sox still have all those Jewish players? That was cool.

The French prisoner

NY Times on David Mamet:
There are many lessons about the craft of writing that David Mamet would like to share with the general public — pithy, sensible guidelines that any aspiring wordsmith could instantly benefit from — but alas, most of them are unprintable in this newspaper.


Smuggled Cigarette Arrested

You gotta love the clumsy translation.
Prime News Online
January 29, 2006, 10:20 pm

Smuggled Cigarette Arrested

... 32 packages of smuggle were found in the truck heading from the breakaway South Ossetia to Georgia, Prime-News was told by the representatives of the Interior Ministry.

Driver Tengiz Tutberidze, citizen of Russia was detained. The proceedings were instituted.


My pipeline is bigger than yours

In the last 48 hours, Georgia cut off the gas supply to the Russian embassy in Tbilisi (mayor of Tbilisi: "It is better to supply gas to two blocks of flats at least than to the agencies that are directly associated with the energy crisis in Georgia"), and Russia retaliated by cutting off the electricity at the Georgian embassy in Moscow (Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman: "the Russian party is fully authorised to take the relative measures with regard to gas supply to the Georgian Embassy to Russia too").

Though I think the Georgian tactics are shortsighted, they are certainly staying ahead of the news cycle and appearing to be active and not passive, which is unfortunately the standard by which most freezing Georgians will judge them. (After all, in national polling about role models, Stalin and even Beria beat out the generally popular current president.)

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Sunday, January 29, 2006

Professional BS artists

In the unlikely position I find myself in, here in Georgia -- immersed in international relations, with absolutely no training or education -- it's surreal to me how important tiny nuances of meaning are. Witness this press statement:
Sean McCormack, State Department spokesman
Press Statement of January 27, 2006

The United States welcomes reports that the repairs to the Mozdok-Tbilisi pipeline in southern Russia are on course to restore gas to Georgia and Armenia in the coming days. Most of the citizens of Georgia have been without gas, and many without electricity, following explosions on January 22. The United States applauds the resilience of the people of Georgia during this crisis, as they and their neighbors in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia endure severe winter weather and the threat of energy shortages. We commend Azerbaijan's efforts to supply some gas to Georgia. The United States has been in close contact with concerned governments on the importance of restoring the flow of Russian gas and electricity to those in need.

What this statement is really saying is, "We are extremely angry at Russia, we do not believe it acted in good faith in this crisis, to the point that we are considering shifting our long-term strategic relationship with Russia." How does it say this? By commending everyone's role except Russia's.

I don't think this kind of hair-splitting is how I want to spend a career.

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Recommending gateway books

I have often wondered why Amazon doesn't introduce a more useful system of ranking and recommendations. The system of giving starred ratings and the suggested purchases (which always seem heavily skewed towards the last author I bought) are not very helpful, and it'hard to surmise from the written reviews what the consensus is on, say, which Philip Dick book you should start with if you want to give him a try.

A new site called "Debbie's Idea" tries to solve this by allowing you to endorse certain books as good entry points:

Long before the Internet was commonly available, Debbie had the idea that it would be useful to have a reference work suggesting which book of an unfamiliar author would be best to read first. Start reading an author with a poor or atypical example of his work, she observed, and you would likely never read that writer again—perhaps losing in the process a world of pleasure and knowledge. On the other hand, since there would seldom be one right book to read first, the resource would have to be a compendium of opinions.

Debbie died in 2004, at the age of ninety. This website has been created in loving memory of her and her very good idea.

I think the best Philip Dick book to start with is Ubik.


Georgia's skip-stop energy crisis

During the Georgian energy crisis, life goes on normally with only small differences. When the lights are out, the heart of downtown Tbilisi looks like a village road in the mountains. Friends make plans around when electricity is, and isn't, available. McDonalds can't get its lettuce shipped in, so Big Macs are made with cabbage. Whereas the Parliament building is usually brilliantly lit at night, now the only lighting is this memorial built into the steps, to help people keep from slipping on the smooth marble. And when the heat comes back after an outage, it seems amazing I ever took it for granted.

The burden is not evenly distributed, despite the government's promises to the contrary. In our wealthy neighborhood at the center of town, we hardly ever have outages of more than a few hours. In other neighborhoods, there is only gas and electricity for a part of each day. And there are reports that in some of Georgia's smaller towns, gas and electricity have been cut off completely.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Mon Dec 31, 04:54:00 AM:
when you was in Georgia almost 5 years here is everying 24/7

electricity and gas and water :))

and alosw we have 3 McDonalds alrady :D
i offer you visit georgia once more

Saturday, January 28, 2006

"Greatest living philosopher"

NY Times on philosopher Saul Kripke:

In many circles, Mr. Kripke, who in 2001 was awarded the Schock Prize, philosophy's equivalent of the Nobel, is thought to be the world's greatest living philosopher, perhaps the greatest since Wittgenstein. Mr. Kripke is actually superior to Wittgenstein in at least two respects. Wittgenstein did not accomplish some of his most important work while still in high school. And unlike Wittgenstein, who was small, slender and hawklike, Mr. Kripke looks the way a philosopher ought to look: pink-faced, white-bearded, rumpled, squinty. He carries his books and papers in a plastic shopping bag from Filene's Basement ...

While still a teenager he wrote a series of papers that eventually transformed the study of modal logic. One of them, or so the legend goes, earned a letter from the math department at Harvard, which hoped he would apply for a job until he wrote back and declined, explaining, "My mother said that I should finish high school and go to college first." ...

Except on very rare occasions, Mr. Kripke does not actually set words down on paper. He broods, gathers a few texts, makes a loose mental outline, and then at some public occasion, a lecture or a seminar, he just wings it, talks off the top of his head, the way Socrates used to, come to think of it.


Dungeons & Harpsichords

John Chuang of The University of Vienna has an ancient site (1995!) that describes a musical dice game that Mozart created:
In 1787, Mozart wrote the measures and instructions for a musical composition dice game. The idea is to cut and paste pre-written measures of music together to create a Minuet.

This site is an implementation of such a game. The music and table of rules for this game appear to have been published anonymously in 1787, and interestingly, the table of rules for this Minuet is identical to Mozart's. However, it is not clear who the composer of these measures is.

There are 176 possible Minuet measures and 96 possible Trio measures to choose from. The result of a dice roll is looked up in a table of rules to determine which measure to play.

Two six-sided dice are used to determine each of the 16 Minuet measures (i.e. 11 possibilities for each of 16 measures). One six-sided die is used to determine each of the 16 Trio measures (i.e. 6 possibilities for each of 16 measures). So in theory, there are (11^16) * (6^16) = (1.3 * (10^29)) possible compositions.

The site allows you to produce such a randomized minuet and hear it instantly! Just reload the page to create more random versions.


Blogger Alice on Sat Jan 28, 02:01:00 PM:
This piece of trivia was used as a clue in last week's Sunday crossword puzzle in the Times.

Self-made men

Just finished rereading Ben Franklin's Autobiography. It's fun to see the inspiration his prototype gave to Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, which I have been teaching. I made my students a handout quoting first Franklin's self-improvement program:
{5-7} Rise, wash, and address Powerful Goodness! Contrive day's business, and take the resolution of the day; prosecute the present study, and breakfast.
Question. What good shall I do this day? ... [etc.]
Then Gatsby's:
Rise from bed - 6.00 A.M.
Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling - 6.15-6.30 A.M.
Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it - 5.00-6.00 P.M.
Resolves: ... Bath every other day ... Save $5.00 {crossed out} $3.00 per week ... [etc.]
I love these perfection systems, which remind me of utopian languages like Esperanto and utopian keyboards like Dvorak. Unlike the abs exercises in Cosmo, or various diet recipes, they are a comprehensive order for all aspects of life. The wide-eyed ambition is irresistible. Here is Franklin explaining his system:
I wished to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other.
And his list of precepts:
1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. Moderation. Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
11. Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.
13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
I love to wonder, how many of these do I, and my friends, believe? What would be my list?

I asked my students which of these they agreed with (though I skipped chastity). The principles they rejected were temperance, silence, order, industry, and moderation; they strongly defended occasional wildness, passion, and anger. One student even meekly raised her hand and stood up for her right to get drunk. A job well done on my part!


Friday, January 27, 2006


Who's the guy who visits Edgar Allen Poe's grave every year, and leaves
roses and cognac? And is it the same guy who's been doing it since 1949?

Paul Thomas Anderson is making a movie out of Upton Sinclair's mucracking
novel, "Oil!". It will star Daniel Day-Lewis.

This is why I should become an academic. Link to pdf of paper by Simons, D. J. & Levin, D. T. (1998): "Failure to detect changes to people during a real-world interaction." The researchers have an actor stop passersby and ask for directions, then actors depicting workmen pass between them with a large door, and the original actor is swapped with someone else. The directions-givers don't have a clue!


David Remnick, funnyman

New Yorker editor David Remnick's got jokes! From Lenin's Tomb (just finished, was great), his Pulitzer-winning 1993 account of the last years of the Soviet Union:
"You are the worst kind of anti-Semite!" Volsky barked. Why had I besmirched the reputation of such a good man as Bogdanov, why had I mentioned two such obviously Jewish names as Bronfman and Zuckerman? "Don't you realize what people will do with this?"

I could not quite tell yet whether Volsky, in his fury, knew that I was Jewish. To be frank, a Malawi tribesman could take one look at me and say, "This man is a Jew." But Volsky was off of a flight.
[USSR vice-president Gennady] Yanayev... was the worst sort of Party nonentity. He was a vain man of small intelligence, a womanizer, and a drunk.

I'm not sure it is possible to describe just how hard it is to acquire a reputation as a drunk in Russia.


All that is solid melts into air

Responding to this post about all of the forgotten books on the bestseller lists of past decades, John M. Ford (link to his email address) adds a comment about an experiment Anthony Lane conducted:
Anthony Lane... read and reviewed the NYT fiction bestsellers for the (then) current week (15 May 1994), repeating an experiment conducted by Gore Vidal a little over twenty years earlier, and then did the same for the list of 1 July 1945 on its fiftieth anniversary. In both cases some of the books are on the Cader annualized lists as well. Both pieces, as "Bestsellers I" and "Bestsellers II," are in the collection Nobody's Perfect, which, being solid Anthony Lane, you ought to read.

The '94 list is:
10. Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel
9. Disclosure, Michael Crichton
8. Lovers, Judith Krantz
7. The Alienist, Caleb Carr
6. The Day After Tomorrow, Allan Folsom (a thriller, but not the source of the later disaster film)
5. Inca Gold, Clive Cussler
4. The Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller
3. "K" is for Killer, Sue Grafton
2. Remember Me, Mary Higgins Clark
1. The Celestine Prophecy, James Redfield

While the '45 books are:
10. Forever Amber, Kathleen Winsor
9. Earth and High Heaven, Gwethalyn Graham
8. Dragon Harvest, Upton Sinclair
7. The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand, as if I needed to tell you
6. The Wide House, Taylor Caldwell
5. The Ballad and the Source, Rosamund Lehmann
4. Immortal Wife, Irving Stone
3. Commodore Hornblower, C. S. Forester
2. Captain from Castile, Samuel Shellabarger
1. A Lion is In the Streets, Adria Locke Langley

Both lists contain a fair amount of Commercial Product, Books That Got Filmed, and Books That Just Went Poof. Lane finds more to like in the Nineties list, and from the half of each list I've read, I would agree with him.

And I will admit to being aware of Mary Roberts Rinehart, but that's mainly due to the movie adaptations of The Spiral Staircase (there are four) and The Bat two filmings, one silent). But then, is anybody still reading Forever Amber?

Here's my question: I have read plenty of Michael Crichton and can state with conviction that he sucks, sucks, sucks. But I'm embarassed to say I haven't read any other potboiling authors always on the bestseller list. Alice, have you read Dan Brown? Or Tom Clancy, or John Grisham, or Sue Grafton, or Mary/Carol Higgins Clark?


Blogger Jenny Davidson on Sat Jan 28, 04:43:00 PM:
I can't say I recommend any of those. DB: ludicrously ill-written sentences (but good short chapter thing/scene pacing). TC: SERIOUS hardware. Better off reading ads at back of soldier-of-fortune magazine. His best 1-2 are classics, but the proportion of STUFF scenes to character things is completely awry. And the weaker ones are pretty unreadable. JG: sub-literature. Read classic (and awful) The Firm if you want to see why you don't need to bother with the others. I have read 3-4 of his and found them awful. SG: weakest of all the big series female PI novels, in my opinion. Alphabet thing a bad idea. Try Sara Paretsky instead, or Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan novels, if you want a better-quality version of the same thing. MHC: UNBELIEVABLY trashy. Have never read daughter Carol. And I love potboilers, you know; I will stand up strongly for, oh, Judith Krantz or Michael Crichton. The best MC ones are amazing though I don't think he's written anything really great for quite a long time.

Freeing Jill Carroll

The effort to free Jill Carroll, an American (and very pro-Arab) journalist kidnapped in Iraq, is remarkable, and just might work.

Appeals for her release have come not just from her parents and newspaper editors, but from: a group of 37 Arab intellectuals, politicians and journalists; a former member of Gamaa Islamiya; a top Hamas official; and a number of Jordanian women's groups. The wife of Tareq Ayyoub, a Jordan Times journalist killed by the US in Iraq in 2003, wrote that "Kidnapping journalists hurts the message of humane resistance and makes its message criminal." The mother of Hala Khalid, newly released by the US, said "I call upon the kidnappers of the American reporter to release her because she is as innocent as Hala."

The AP reports speculation that Carroll may be freed soon:

A top Iraqi police officer says he thinks kidnapped American reporter Jill Carroll will be freed. And he says today's release of five Iraqi women from U.S. custody could help. U.S. officials have said the release had nothing to do with the demands by Carroll's kidnappers that the U.S. release Iraqi women.

The chief of Hamas in the Gaza strip said:

Hamas is against the kidnapping of innocent people, of foreigners who are guests in the Arab countries, and those who introduce humanitarians services and help for the Arab people--and for any people in general--especially when they are not interfering in internal Arab affairs.
There is something both impressively humanistic about these statements, but also something chilling about the way they suggest that the wheat be sorted from the chaff. Hamas is not so vehement when it comes to, say, the identity of those killed by suicide bombers in Tel Aviv.

Carroll's mother said, in a televised statement pleading for her daughter's release, "they've picked the wrong person ... If they're looking for somebody who is an enemy of Iraq, Jill is just the opposite." I understand why she put it this way, but the suggestion that there is a right person to kidnap still feels eerie.

It is amazing that the case has become a flashpoint in a way that Margaret Hassan could not, even though calls for her release came from people as unlikely as al-Zarqawi himself. (Robert Fisk uses the fact that killing her made no strategic sense as evidence to suggest that the US orchestrated her murder in order to illustrate the righteousness of its cause.)

It is almost impossible not to view the US and Islamist terrorists as pure versions of opposing forces; that is, the war seems such an expression of deep impulses that it's hard not to blame or credit those impulses for their results. But Abu Ghraib, horrible terrorist attacks, kidnappings and beheadings, "targeted" assassinations, and abusive arrests on scant evidence are not the only way these forces could play out. I wonder if the horrible mess we're in has as much to do with complex power struggles within each party to the war, with incompetence, and ith lack of leadership, as it does the underlying impulses.


Thursday, January 26, 2006

Garden of restful peace

Iron Chef Palmer

Speculation about a 24 movie is stirring up information about the origins of the series.

Backwards City reports speculation that when '24' was first pitched, it centered more exclusively around the single-day-real-time gimmick, and not specifically around the whole counter-terrorism genre:

For instance, Year Two might have been opening night of a play. Year Three might have been about stockbrokers.

There was even some talk, I think, of using the same basic cast of actors playing roughly the same characters in a new 24-hour situation every year. So Jack would always be a hard-ass get-it-done sort of guy, and Tony would be his somewhat embittered loyal sidekick, and Palmer would be the conflicted but essentially virtuous leader--but one year they'd be chefs, and the next they'd be public school teachers, and so on.

Chloe: Fine, Shanice, don't do your homework! Give blowjobs in class! Whatever, it's not like I really care. [does Chloe face #6]

Principal Logan: So, Adrock, you threw your teacher's chair out the window?
Asst. Principal Mike Novick: [very slowly] Sir, I think it's important to... set an example here...
Logan: [gets really sweaty and fidgety] I know that! I know that!
[Novick and Logan stare at each other]
Adrock: Dude, I'm so fucking high right now, this is freaking me out.


Blogger Jeff'y on Thu Jan 26, 10:27:00 PM:
Where'd you hear about Backwards City? Sheryl's pretty good friends with the editor and she turned me on to it (the blog, at least; I haven't subscribed to the journal [yet]).

Sex and car crashes
Self-righteousness and overacting

Things I didn't expect from the movie Crash, which I finally saw last night (spoiler warning):
  1. That the audience would be expected to believe the best racial slurs Los Angelinos can come up with are "Chinese lady", "gangbanger", "Osama" and "rag head"
  2. That amidst the most belabored direction in movie history, Brendan Fraser would actually stand out as a bad actor
  3. That director Paul Haggis would not have gotten the memo about the creative exhaustion of ripping off the "royale with cheese" scene from Pulp Fiction
  4. That after Ryan Phillipe reveals himself to be an armed cop, level-headed Larenz Tate would not realize that angrily yelling "I'll show you what I got in my pocket!" and whipping out a metal object was probably a bad idea
  5. That incredibly self-conscious white people forced to reveal their subtle, latent racism will loudly shout out things like "He'll sell the keys to his gang-member friends!" and "I need a picture of me pinning a medal on... on a black man!"
  6. That Jennifer Esposito, who looks like she was doing coke at Michael Ovitz's parties at age 11, would retain enough innocence at age 35 to be outraged when Don Cheadle, with whom she was just having sex, says "Mexican" instead of "half Salvadoran and half Puerto Rican"
  7. During the denouement, that the sountrack would best any future attempts to parody the film by actually kicking in with the lyrics "You think you know everything..."
My father once did the same thing the Iranian woman in the movie does--put blanks in someone else's gun for their own good. In his case, this was an elderly aunt who seemed way too excited about the idea of killing an intruder. She called him weeks later, explaining that she took the gun to the garage to take some practice shots. He thought he was busted, but then she happily reported that the gun made a huge bang and kicked up a lot of dust.


Wednesday, January 25, 2006

To pursue perfection...

This passage from Samuel Johnson's Preface to Volume I of the Dictionary (quoted in The Meaning of Everything) breaks my heart--it's exactly the way I feel when I'm working:

When first I engaged in this work, I resolved to leave neither words nor things unexamined, and pleased myself with the prospect of the hours which I should revel away in feasts of literature, with the obscure recesses of northern leanring which I should enter and ransack; the treasures with which I expected every search into these neglected mines to reward my labour, and the triumph with which I should display my acquisition to mankind. When I had thus inquired into the original of words, I resolved to show likewise my attention to things; to pierce deep into every science, to enquire the nature of every substance of which I inserted the name, to limit every idea by a definition strictly logical, and exhibit every production of art or nature in an accurate description, that my book might be in place of all other dictionaries whether appellative or technical.

But these were the dreams of a poet doomed at last to wake a lexicographer. I soon found that it is too late to look for instruments, when the work calls for execution, and that whatever abilities I had brought to my task, with those I must finally perform it. To deliberate whenever I doubted, to enquire whenever I was ignorant, would have protracted the undertaking without end, and, perhaps, without much improvement; for I did not find by my first experiments, that what I had not of my own was easily to be obtained: I saw that one enquiry only gave occasion to another, that book referred to book, that to search was not always to find, and to find was not always to be informed; and that thus to pursue perfection, was, like the first inhabitants of Arcadia, to chase the sun, which, when they had reached hill where he seemed to rest, was still beheld at the same distance from them. I then contracted my design, determining to confide in myself, and no longer to solicit auxiliaries, which produced more incumbrance than assistance; by this I obtained at least one advantage, that I set limits to my work, which would in time be ended, though not completed.

When I was thirteen, I wrote an imitation of Emily Dickinson:

You needn't strive for perfection, miss,
For it will never be.
You try and reach it every day,
It's just a hyperbole.

(I know 'hyperbole' doesn't really work, but I was excited about it at the time)Though I've long remembered writing it, I found it this summer when my mother was moving and now have sad proof that perfectionism is a lifelong affliction.


Blogger Anna on Wed Jan 25, 01:37:00 PM:
When I was in Spain, I once explained to one of my teachers over drinks that there was in fact no Language Academy for English. "Who writes the dictionary then?" he asked, horrified. I explained about the OED and Samuel Johnson. When he heard that our first real dictionary was written by just one man, he shook his head and muttered into his drink, "Barbarians from the North."
Anonymous Anonymous on Sun Jan 29, 09:49:00 PM:
Perfectionism is a narrowing, an obsession with accuracy. To long to follow every link beyond, and beyond, to feel intense regret at the focus required to actually achieve something large...that's something else.

A girl called Curtis

I just read Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep in a weekend (Dave Eggers has the lead blurb: "I would believe anything she told me."). A friend, hearing people say it needed to be adapted into a screenplay, sent it to my girlfriend Kate, who is writing a different screenplay.

In a nutshell, it's about a girl who goes to prep school and is lonely. I've read books where the character has been more depressed than she is, but never where the isolation feels as familiar to me.

I recently put down Orhan Pamuk's Snow after fifty pages, because it felt so belabored; Prep in contrast didn't take cheap shots like forked tongues (I also just put down the Japanese "cult classic" Snakes and Earrings) or dead siblings (I'm due for my periodic Catcher in the Rye realization that it's not that good) or hospitilization of the narrator in a mental ward. It just feels right, with scenes that begin for believable reasons and end in believably unsatisfying ways. Though the book is basically a series of setups for subtle observations, the observations tend to come on the fly, and not in long explanations or descriptions (Philip Roth).

The author, a woman named Curtis (which prompted one Amazon reviewer who forgot to look at the back flap to write "the verbosity of his words really bored me to tears sometimes"), joins the tradition of Michael Drury and Wendell Steavenson, both women and respective authors of the great self-help book Advice to a Young Wife from an Old Mistress and the hit-and-miss book of adventures and profiles in Georgia and the Caucasus, Stories I Stole (statistically improbable phrases: "wait for the electricity", "thousand roses"). George Eliot doesn't count!


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Reading the dictionary

I read The Warden of English: The Life of H.W. Fowler a few weeks ago and was left wanting more information about the process of compiling a usage guide and less biography of the Fowler brothers. Fowler's Modern English Usage is a really cool usage dictionary, but I'd like to know more about how it was compiled and edited. McMorris's book tends to veer into somewhat boring biography every other chapter.

I thought I might find such information in Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, but once again I was disappointed to find more biographical anecdotes than discussion of the compilation process. It's been several years since I wasn't thrilled by Winchester's The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary for many of the same reasons--overreliance on anecdotes and quirky biographical details, a lot of padding about various odd etymologies, underdeveloped discussion of how the organizational methods developed under different editors. I know where I'm pointing myself: I need to read Defining the Word: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary has gotten great reviews and I'm really interested to see how Hitchings' organizational method: the chapters are each a letter of the alphabet corresponding to Johnson's efforts. Is it gimmicky, productive, or both? I would hope that Hitchings' interest in organizational method might complement a discussion of how Johnson fine-tuned his own editing methods. I share Jenny Davidson's excitement about recent Johnson-related work, so I'm looking forward to this book.

When I edited the Columbia Daily Spectator in college, I tried to fix the copy-editing system to little avail. My intentions for revising the copy guide--make a list of every single possible error a sophomore could make--now look to me a lot like John Wilkins' system of error correction in Essay Towards a Real Character. By the time the revised style guide was done, it was already out of date: it was September 2001 and there was no entry for how to refer to residents of Afghanistan. I don't know if Spec has moved to a Wiki system of organizing the style guide online. I took the errors so personally when I was editor! They consumed me: I remember sitting on the floor of the Plaza hotel ballroom in a very nice dress, circling mistakes in that day's paper with Isolde while everyone else enjoyed the John Jay Awards. I took the errors so personally! After Spec, I figured I should move to a different profession where the errors weren't apparent every single day, to a century when this obsession with print and correction were familiar.

Maud Newton's entry about dictionaries got me hooked on Etymologic, an online multiple-choice quiz about etymologies of words and phrases. Some of the questions are really difficult! I've scored 80%, 70%, 90%, and 30%.


Power Rationing

Last night I worked late, then left the state chancellery at 11pm. Electricity was out throughout the entire city due to the Sunday bombings, with only scattered lights on in homes and businesses that had generators. There was no moon and it was so dark that I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. I lit my cell phone and my lighter to see the steps I had to walk down, then realized I'd need to keep them lit in order to even see the uneven asphalt of the sidewalk.

On Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi's central street, most lights were out. It was the first time I had seen the Parliament building and opera house not brilliantly lit at night. I decided against walking home and took a cab. The cabbie talked bitterly about president Saakashvili, and when I joked that the problem was really Putin, he shrugged. The ride was only five minutes, but he managed to find out that I worked here, lived here with my "woman" (I don't know how to say "girlfriend" or even "wife"), where I was from, and what languages I spoke and how well.

I asked if he was from Tbilisi--Tbilisi citizens almost universally tell me they are from Tbilisi, which I imagine is sometimes just because they don't think I'll have heard of their home region--and he said no, he was from a part of Georgia near Turkey. "Samstkhe-Javakheti?" I guessed. He lit up, happy that I knew of it. Samstkhe-Javakheti is near the border of Armenia, not Turkey, and this meant he was almost certainly Armenian, though even when I knew he was from he didn't tell me this. (Armenians have lived in Georgia forever, but they are generally disliked by Georgians for reasons I cannot comprehend--every Armenian I have ever met has been kind and generous.) When I opened the car door, he shook my hand and patted me on the back.

This kind of pleasant encounter, made possible in large part by Georgians' (and Armenians') infinite patience for my clumsy Georgian, is why I love living here.

Above: Tbilisi at Night by Dato Kvantaliani

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Monday, January 23, 2006


Georgians have been protesting outside the Russian military headquarters in Tbilisi; there are reports that members of Parliament, the Tbilisi city council and the nationalistic Patriot youth movement are among them. A few protesters pitched a tent and vowed to continue the protest indefinitely.

In classic protest theater fashion, posters have been made that depict a grotesque Vladimir Putin, labeled "Gasputin". This all comes at Putin is G-8 leader.

President Saakashvili said on Georgian television that "A major act of sabotage against our country's energy system has been committed by the Russian Federation." You might not think statements like this were intended to see the light of day (much is said by politicians in Georgian that is never translated) except that they have been consistent.

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Crisis in Georgia: Hysteria and Bacchanalia

Explosions yesterday in southern Russia cut off the supply of natural gas to Georgia. There has been some panic about whether homes would go without heat, but there are apparently enough reserves to keep things going with partial rationing. There was a massive run on space heaters, but now it looks like the electricity won't be so reliable, either.

The question on everyone's mind is, why did this happen?

Actually, that's not true. Foreigners are wondering why this happened. Most Georgians are not, because they have no doubt that it was sabotage by Russia. Georgians have been manipulated by Russian policy all their lives, and they are more than ready to believe Russia could blow up its own energy facilities in order to make a point.

There are plenty of reasons why this explanation, as outlandish as it seems at first glance, makes sense:

  1. It's hard to believe that the explosions--four over the course of Sunday, separately affecting natural gas and electricity supply--were not coordinated attacks. But
    who would gain? Possibly Chechen terrorists, who have struck nearby towns in Russia before. But Chechens have never seen Georgia as an enemy, and have never threatened Georgia. And Chechens would have claimed responsibility right away; so far, no one has.

  2. Russian state-owned energy utilities have suspiciously cut off gas to Georgia in the dead of winter in the past, and most observers agree that these were moves intended to instill respect for the power of Georgia's former master. This outage comes in the middle of an uncharacteristically cold period in the region.

  3. Tensions were already high regarding the future of Georgia's relationship to Russia as an energy consumer. Georgia and Russia are in heated negotiations right now over the possible acquisition of much of Georgia's internal gas distribution infrastructure by Gazprom, the Russian state-owned utility; Georgia's offers so far have been declared too selfish and restrictive by Russia. Also, before the Ukraine energy fiasco a few weeks ago, Russia similarly hiked the gas price way up on Georgia, which prompted widespread anger.

  4. This is in the context of Russia's support for Georgia's separatist regions of Abkhazia and, in particular, South Ossetia. Russia has been under increasing pressure from the United States to remove its "peacekeeper" forces from these regions, which are little more than a way to continue to occupy its former subject, Georgia. This blast--which occured in North Ossetia, just across the Russian border--will surely provide further evidence that Russia needs a military presence in the area.

Georgia's president Mikheil Saakashvili is under pressure in this type of situation to act defiant and not helpless. It's still surprising, though, that he has accused Russia of outright sabotage. He told the Times that "We don't think it is accidental in any way... The places where it happened, the environment in which it happened, the history in which it happened--this all looks like a policy decision." He even accused Russia of recently making veiled threats.

Of course, Occam would remind us that it probably isn't Russia, and that these accusations are likely just paranoia. But then again, to paraphrase Kurt Cobain, even if Georgians are being paranoid, that doesn't mean that Russia didn't orchestrate the bombing.

The Russian Foreign Ministry responded to Saakashvili's statement with their own, declaring that "The desire to find external enemies to justify one's own helplessness in establishing a normal life in one's country has never led to anything positive." Ouch. But high-stakes international standoffs not only good opportunities for bitter accusations--they are also moments perfect for levity! Someone at the Russian FM couldn't help but adding that Georgia's government was guilty of "hysteria and bacchanalia"--which, as the Times pointed out, is a reference to Georgians' fondness for wine. Ba-Zing!! They don't teach that kind of brilliance in diplomacy school.


As 'Twer a Miriam up to Nachos

Miriam Haskell, the reportin', retortin', liberty belle/sea island siren conducting school board raids in the everglades, has a new blog about food at the Fayetteville Observer: Eat, Drink, and Be Miriam. Her writing promises to provide time-saving tips, shortcuts and simple recipes so that I have more time to come up with stellar puns and post titles.

When I think of Miriam and food, I think of eating cous cous and lamb at the Djemma al-Fna square in Marrakech (above). Her mom is also the first person who I ever heard soaked her hair with honey and olive oil.


Friday, January 20, 2006

Fire on ice

Like Mike and Anna, I love to watch ice-skating. I could barely contain myself on Wednesday night when the contestants on my favorite reality show, Project Runway, were assigned the challenge of creating a costume for Sasha Cohen. Whereas America's Next Top Model is addictive because it's such a train wreck, Project Runway is classy and interesting. My mom calls me after every episode (Wednesdays at 10 EST on Bravo, but re-run all the time) to debrief the night's events. At the grocery store yesterday evening, I got into an intense conversation about the show with women I didn't even know. Tim Gunn's commentary about each contestant's work is indispensible for any fan of the show.

Highlights from the latest challenge, which Chloe deserved to win over Zulema:

"It was like International Male gone g-g-g-g-gay."
--Nick re: Emmett's assigned costume.

"Kara's design was basic. Not in a Calvin Klein way, in a J.C. Penney way."
--the adorable Daniel V.

When I was 13 years old, I was obsessed with the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding fiasco. Somewhere, I own copies of Fire on Ice: The Exclusive Inside Story of Tonya Harding (bought at the grocery store, now available for one cent on; not very oddly enough, Sasha Cohen's biography is also titled Fire on Ice, as was Santino's disastrous design last night on Project Runway, Women on Ice: Feminist Responses to the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan Spectacle (statistically improbable phrases include voyeuristic camera and fetishistic scopophilia), and Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters. One of the points of comparison between the two came down to their costume design: Nancy had costumes designed by Vera Wang, while Tonya's were cheap and sometimes tawdry. Thus it was easy to cast them into the virgin-whore dichotomy, which made it even easier to deconstruct that dichotomy.

My obsession knew no bounds. The Tonya-Nancy spectacle broke weeks after The Pelican Brief was released in movie theaters, and I was convinced that if I followed Julia Roberts' investigative methods, I'd discover the real culprit responsible for the assault. This delusion seems impossibly weird now, but I really did spend hours at the library poring through articles about the seamy underbelly of the ice-skating world on a pre-Windows version of ProQuest. I'm not sure how sorting through old issues of People magazine was going to help me--or Tonya, whom I believed to be innocent for longer than I should have. My deluded sleuthing was based in a popular myth that the act of reading a text holds as its main goal the discovery of secret information--a fine myth that's productive of all sorts of literature from detective fiction to adventure movies. Of course law students discover corporate cover-ups in their case studies; computer programmers discover secret plots to take down national and global information systems; archaeologists decipher secret maps to find the fountain of youth; English graduate students find secret correspondence that will make for the best dissertation ever and fall in love ; and symbologists ... don't exist.


Blogger Jenny Davidson on Sat Jan 21, 01:33:00 PM:
Alice, my equivalent of your girl-detective-story was my (in retrospect equally bizarre) conviction that I would be able to solve the puzzle of a series of mysterious deaths of polar bears at the Philadelphia Zoo -- I don't think I ever did as much archival research as you, though...
Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Jan 26, 09:50:00 PM:
Alice, I love this post. Don't forget to add to your read-and-crack-the-secret list Three Days of the Condor, with Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway, in which RR is a CIA agent whose JOB it is to read every effing novel published that year to find messages being passed between spies IN THE TEXTS. It's ultimately a story about becoming disillusioned with the supposedly noble motives of US foreign policy and its governing organziations (i.e. CIA), but RR's job in it is cooooool. He is Super Nerd Spy Hunter.

Games people play

My current Tradesports bets:
Shorted Hillary for Democratic nomination (2:1)
Edwards, Warner to win Democratic nomination (20:1, 5:1)
Shorted Giuliani for Republican nomination (7:1)
George Allen to win Republican nomination (5:1)
Shorted Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture (2:1)
David Straithairn for Best Actor (25:1)
But I don't only bet on sissy stuff:
Seahawks to win Super Bowl (5:1)
Shorted Broncos (3:1)
Pats and Bears to win Super Bowl (12:1 each): lost $10
Shorted Colts (2:1): made $20, one more reason Pittsburgh is the most livable city


Rob Liefeld drinking game

Alice's tally of "24" cliches reminds me of a drinking game invented by the staff at America's oldest comics store, the Million Year Picnic in Cambridge, MA.

"Rob Liefeld drinking game"


Read any comic both drawn and written by Rob Liefeld (X-Force, Youngblood, Brigade, etc.)

Take 1 drink for every time the following occur:

  • clenched teeth
  • mouth open really wide in battle cry
  • action shot where background is just abstract colored space
  • leg of running/jumping character positioned so that you can only see thigh
  • spray of bullets that doesn't hit anybody
  • large gun that shoots colored blasts of indeterminate nature
  • character or team moves into/out of another dimension or otherwise warps
  • character seeming to fly, who cannot actually fly
  • character who is not invulnerable casually jumps out of plane/space ship
  • indoor floor that is colored green, silver or red
Bonus round: when a new "team" of enemies or allies is introduced, take 1 drink for each correctly-predicted member:
  • exactly one big guy
  • exactly one woman
  • exactly one flying guy
  • exactly one character with black and white face makeup
  • exactly one robot (robotic nature may not be immediately obvious)
  • exactly one black guy with gun and no discernable powers
  • white male leader, regular size, with gun and no discernable powers
  • In addition, 1 drink must be taken for every team member who wears segmented metallic rings around their arm-shoulder joints.
The maximum number of drinks for a new team appearance, 14, has been documented (during a reading/drinking of Brigade #2). The successful completion of any Rob Liefeld issue under these rules, however, has never been recorded.

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Blogger yelling_at_the_radio on Sat Aug 19, 11:16:00 PM:
Awesome and Hilarious
Blogger Shyaporn on Wed Oct 24, 11:10:00 AM:
Hahaha! Fantastic!
Blogger Unknown on Sun Dec 09, 02:48:00 AM:
hey you should also add "take a shot for every gratuitis* pouch is thrown onto a belt/leg/arm/someplace else thats pointless to have a pouch"

...but then again everyone would die from alcahol poisoning so never mind : )

Thursday, January 19, 2006

No sleep till Tbilisi

How did I come to be living in Georgia, working for the presidential administration?

I came in 2001 on a bare-bones fellowship which consisted of little more than the suggestion of going to Georgia, and cost me most of my life savings. The professor of international law who ran the fellowship had had a drink with Mikheil Saakashvili (then Georgia's Minister of Justice) six months before, and he casually agreed to take an unpaid intern for the summer.

So I showed up at the MoJ, completely unable to speak Georgian and armed with only the name "Saakashvili". The guards didn't know what to do with me. On about the third day of showing up and asking to see the minister, someone who spoke English finally came down and took me around to various offices, asking if anyone would take an intern with no facility in the language; the response was usually something like "Get the fuck out of here." Finally, we knocked on one door, and the office head excitedly agreed to take me on: he was Giorgi Arveladze, a longtime deputy of Saakashvili and now chief of staff of the Presidency.

At the time, Arveladze was running the office of prison reform, and I spent the summer touring the country's prisons with him and his staff, coming along on inspections, and learning about the various successes and failures of their efforts. I ended up writing a proposal for a prison staff training program and finding partners and money to implement it, but no sooner were the pieces lined up than Saakashvili resigned in protest against then-president Eduard Shevardnadze's refusal to punish corruption.

Two years later, Saakashvili led the Rose Revolution in response to government fraud in the November 2003 parliamentary election; Shevardnadze resigned, and Saakashvili was elected president six weeks later. Friends in Tbilisi wrote me in excitement about what was happening; some observers said it was more intense and unifying than the destruction of the Berlin Wall.

When it was over, I emailed Arveladze, who gave me a standing invitation to come back and work for the government. I spent another year and a half at my job teaching math to high school kids after school, and when the class that I started with graduated, I came to Georgia and managed to convince my girlfriend to come too.

Now I'm working for Saakashvili's administration as a consultant, helping with things like writing English versions of documents, organizing conferences, and making policy reports. It's a very exciting time, and intense questions abound: Will Saakashvili live up to the hope people placed in him in 2003? Will the next transition of power be another revolution, or the nation's first entirely electoral succession? Can Georgia finally succeed in escaping Russia's imperial grasp? Can Georgia become another Estonia and completely transform its economy?

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Georgians and New Yorkers

An old acquaintance, Sana Krasikov, just found this blog via Google (while looking for info on the Paula Fox-Courtney Love connection!) and left a comment saying she was surprised to realize that she knew one, and possibly two, of the authors from New York.

I say "possibly" because while I remember her face and that I liked her, I can't remember what friend-of-a-friend connection she is. She reminds me that we hung out at a bar once. My memory is different: instead of a bar, for some reason I remember her coming to a party my girlfriend and I threw. I am sure she was a friend of my friend Nick, unless she was a friend of Tove's, or maybe Robert's. As I consider each possibility, she appears as a different person. It's one of those moments of swiss cheese memory where big bubbles of absent information get filled in with scraps from the lives of totally unrelated people.

Sana is an Iowa Writers' Workshop grad, class of 2005, and she already has a story in the New Yorker--quick work! It's a simple, sweet story that I really like (I've been reading Dave Eggers's short stories, and her lack of gimmicks seems like sudden genius). She's from Georgia, and the story weaves in some Georgian history and culture.

She also asks how I found myself here in Georgia. For brevity, I'll put that in the next post.

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Blogger Jeff'y on Fri Jan 20, 10:44:00 AM:
I remember really liking that story back when it was published. Definitely recommended.
Blogger Ralph Hälbig on Thu Feb 16, 07:10:00 PM:
Hello Ben, I found your Blog via another Blog. I Have got also an Blog about Georgia (Caucasus). May be it is interesting for you. This Blog is not so much political. But for me it is like a slipbox for links, source etc. about this area ...

Have a good time in Georgia!

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Hearts of Darkness

I spent three days last week watching a marathon of season 4 of 24. I can watch 24 only in marathon format; I think it would be impossible to sustain a level of suspense from week to week. We kept a tally of how many times the following phrases were uttered, although I now lack the highly scientific hard data:

"You Have to Trust Me": much fewer instances as compared with previous seasons, although Jack is never rogue in season 4

"There's Not Enough Time!": plenty, if one counts only the times Jack Bauer utters the phrase; off the charts if other characters are counted

*Chloe's sourpuss face*: tied with "There's Not Enough Time!" from Jack; has to be distinguished from other faces (Superiority, General Grumpiness, Adrenaline Rush) in Mary Lynn Rajskub's extensive repertoire for the character
"Open Up a Socket": fewer instances than season 3

Part of the way through the season, we realized we should have made tallies for "Dammit!" and something else.

As we were watching, Graham kept giving me significant looks every time a character on the show used torture, illegal or semi-illegal surveillance, and profiling to the advantage of the plot. "See!" he'd say, triumphantly or at least contrarily, "torture really does work!" or "Wire-tapping suspicious people can yield important information!" But torture and surveillance work on the show because they're functions of the script, not because they provide a practical model of how to fight terrorism. They work (or don't work) because they're supposed to contribute to the arc of the episodes. This interview with Michael Loceff, one of the head writers for the show, bears out this argument partly. Loceff argues that the show isn't "torture porn" because torture is used to tell viewers something about the characters, not to provide an argument for or against specific practices:

I think its [torture] real use in the show, aside from its narrative function, is to create dramatic conflict, conflict not just between two people but within characters as well. If you look at any given torture scene in the show, you'll find that there's something in it that shows someone's distaste or disgust. And Jack Bauer's decision to torture people for information in the past has cost him, because it's shown other people just exactly what he's capable of. Jack himself is appalled by what he feels he has to do, but he's also convinced he has to do it. That is a real dramatic conflict.

Discussing the uses of profiling and torture in season 3, Matt Feeney argues that invoking dramatic irony or character development isn't much of a defense:

In both Season 2 and Season 3, the writers set up a plot twist that hinged on the audience judging a character's ethnicity as a piece of evidence against him. But the agenda here is psychological, not political. No somber moral lessons unfold from this ethnic bait-and-switch. 24's writers are too agnostic to lecture us about ethnic profiling. Whether or not homeland security types are right to look more closely at certain ethnic groups, we instinctively latch onto such profiles ourselves, not necessarily out of racism, but as a way of coping with the darkness in which terrorists place us.

The writers of
24 grasp that when it comes to terrorism we are desperate for answers. Almost maliciously, they dangle something plausible in front of us. Then they yank it away at the last minute and replace it with something utterly outrageous, leaving us with nothing to believe in but the darkness itself.

Richard Kim makes a similar argument in an article from the Nation (December 26, 2005) when he discusses the ubiquity of torture in season 4:

In casting torture as melodrama, 24 reverses the dehumanizing mode of actual torture and replaces it with something familial and social. So blase are these victims of torture that they come as close as one can to consenting to it. Less focused on torture's instrumentality, the narrative upshot of torture in this rendition of 24 is that it troubles, deepens, and ultimately clarifies personal relationships.

Is the writers' substituting the pain of personal betrayal for the physical pain of torture a fair trade? How do other artists render the personal-political scaling of tragedy, say in Apocalypse Now, where the Vietnam War becomes a setting for larger questions about the human condition?


Blogger Ben on Thu Jan 19, 04:37:00 AM:
David Hume was right--most of the opinions people form about controversial topics have nothing to do with the nature of the subject in question itself.

"So blase are these victims of torture that they come as close as one can to consenting to it" ??? Tell that to the innocent CTU vet who was suspected of being an undercover spy in season 4, and begged frantically for them not to torture her? Or what about the agony and terror of the secretary of defense's son, who must be tortured because he is the most likely leak? How exactly does that not satisfy Richard Kim's disingenuous complaint that the show is not "focused on torture's instrumentality"?
Blogger Alice on Thu Jan 19, 03:00:00 PM:
No one on 24 consents to be tortured, but their reactions afterward are curiously low-key; that we don't have to see the day after, or that it appears to take only one hour to recover from severe electric shocks (or gunshot and knife wounds unrelated to torture) makes it possible to see the violence on the show as separate from the physical consequences of it in reality. On 24, torture has the effect of humanizing the person who's tortured (the CTU agent who's wrongfully accused gets more of a character; Heller's son becomes less of a cariacature) and humanizing the torturer (see Loceff's comments about torture and dramatic conflict). These effects are diametrically opposite from the effects and purposes of torture outside of a television drama. 24 doesn't have to represent a realistic view of the effects of torture or profiling, but it's hardly fair to say on the other hand that it presents a valid model for the use of these practices. The "ticking bomb" scenario that Michael Kinsley dismissed a few weeks ago on Slate exists only on film and television but has somehow become a topic for debate about the necessity for torture in some cases.

Bill Simmons on Isiah Thomas

From Bill Simmons' column about being called out by Isiah Thomas on Stephen A. Smith's call-in radio show:
Well, now I have a new career highlight: During a New York radio interview Monday, Isiah Thomas threatened to make trouble for me. Talking to Stephen A. Smith he said, "I'm gonna tell ya ... if I see this guy Bill Simmons, oh, it's gonna be a problem with me and him ..." I thought it was ironic he threatened me on Martin Luther King Jr. Day -- I'm sure MLK would have been proud.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wouldn't have cared about Isiah Thomas's idle threat, and Isiah doesn't think about Martin Luther King, Jr. every time he talks. I think MLK, Jr. may have been one of the topics of Stephen A. Smith's radio show that day, but Isiah was clearly just talking about himself and his own problems here. He's one of the most competitive guys in the entire universe. He's the GM of a team that hasn't done well under his tenure. I bet he forecasts problems between himself and others all the time. Furthermore, the exchange happened on Stephen A. Smith's radio show, where it's incumbent on guests to be reactionary. Invoking Martin Luther King, Jr. as a comparison to these intentionally provocative performances is inappropriate.

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Blogger Unknown on Wed Jan 18, 04:07:00 PM:
The invocation of Martin Luther King's ideas to try and paint someone else as an asshole is driving me crazy. There's Simmons, there's the Republicans with Hilary Clinton's "plantation" comment. Seriously, it has to stop.
Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Feb 08, 06:59:00 PM:
Isiah was talkiing about how media members are rough on African Americans in the front office. It had everything to do with MLK, Jr day. His conversation was about racism in sports. Too bad Isiah is an idiot and deserves to be criticized for sucking at his job.
Anonymous Anonymous on Tue Dec 19, 09:24:00 AM:
Isiah Thomas is an asshole

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Said surveillance

Here is an important article by David Price about government surveillance of Edward Said. Price filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the FBI's files on Said; he received 147 partly redacted pages of the 238-page file. Price explains the contents of what he has received: "Most of Said's file documents FBI surveillance campaigns of his legal, public work with American-based Palestinian political or pro-Arab organizations, while other portions of the file document the FBI's ongoing investigations of Said as it monitored his contacts with other Palestinian-Americans." Later in the article he discusses the omission of significant discussion about Said's landmark book, Orientalism:

Having read hundreds of FBI reports summarizing "subversive" threads in the work of other academics, I am surprised to find that Said's FBI file contains no FBI analysis of his book Orientalism. This is especially surprising given the claims by scholars, like Hoover Institute anthropologist Stanley Kurtz in his 2003 testimony before the House Subcommittee on Select Education, that Said's post-colonial critique had left American Middle East Studies scholars impotent to contribute to Bush's "war on terror". Given what is known of the FBI's monitoring of radical academic developments it seems unlikely that such a work escaped their scrutiny, and it is reasonable to speculate that an FBI analysis of Orientalism remains in unreleased FBI documents.

Price details surveillance of Margaret Mead and other American anthropologists in Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and FBI Surveillance of American Anthropologists. Alexander Cockburn adds a few comments here.


Blogger Ben on Wed Jan 18, 10:00:00 AM:
When Said was in the Palestinian National Council, tapping his phones was the kind of reasonable intelligence-gathering (like the Presidential daily briefings from August 2001, or the report about flight training) that we're always criticizing Bush & co. for fucking up.

But once Said left, one look at the liberal politics in his Al-Ahram column should have shown that monitoring him was going to be a waste of time and focus. Failing to stop monitoring him wasn't just unlawful and intrusive, it was stupid.
Blogger Ben on Wed Jan 18, 10:09:00 AM:
Also, when I met David Horowitz, he said the same thing about Orientalism--that it "just completely destroyed Middle East Studies departments." There must be a conservative training camp somewhere that teaches them these slogans.

How did Orientalism destroy Middle East studies? As Horowitz explained, by arguing that all Middle Easterners are pure experts about the Middle East, and all Westerners are fundamentally racist and incapable of analyzing the Middle East fairly. That's a pretty ridiculous reading of the book, not that I think Horowitz ever read it... although I remember Richard Bulliet, my favorite history prof at Columbia, suggesting he felt eternally suspect to the tenured Middle East department for just this reason.

Open source currency?

The "What is your dangerous idea?" website has been widely linked to. Here are some of my favorite entries:

Douglas Rushkoff thinks that the next step for open source is to create its own monetary currencies:

Open Source or, in more common parlance, "complementary" currencies are collaboratively established units representing hours of labor that can be traded for goods or services in lieu of centralized currency...

It's what the Japanese did at the height of the recession. No, not the Japanese government, but unemployed Japanese people who couldn't afford to pay healthcare costs for their elder relatives in distant cities. They created a currency through which people could care for someone else's grandmother, and accrue credits for someone else to take care of theirs...

Turning currency into an collaborative phenomenon is the final frontier in the open source movement.

Systematic favor trading == ironclad tax evasion!



Monday, January 16, 2006

King's birthday observed

Poet Carl Wendell Himes on King:
Now that he is safely dead
Let us praise him
build monuments to his glory
sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make
such convenient heroes: They
cannot rise
to challenge the images
we would fashion from their lives.
And besides,
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.
Also, academic Vincent Harding encourages King revisionism, arguing that "Those of us who want to create a twenty-first century marked by justice and compassion in this nation need a hero who is not always triumphant."


Quigley down under

A recent letter I sent to the dean of Columbia College:

December 21, 2005

Dear Dean Quigley,

The Young Alumni Fund committee points out that "Last year, 21% of
young alumni contributed an annual fund gift to Columbia, compared to
over 60% at Princeton." But they do not discuss why this is...

Here's a quick list of things that Columbia's administration, under
the board of trustees, president George Rupp and provost Jonathan
Cole, did while I was a student: refused to release to students an
internal report on Columbia's controversial Center for Addiction and
Substance Abuse; refused to release to students an independent report
on AcIS and the library system, rumored to be highly negative; kept
the minutes of trustee meetings completely secret for something like
30 years; left student input out of the design process of Lerner,
which proved a disaster for student services; almost never solicited
feedback about the quality of administrators and deans, several of
whom repeatedly blew off my friends and me in shocking fashion;
refused to allow the graduate student votes on unionization to even be

The administration maintained poor policies and unresponsive offices,
including: a cryptic science requirement that made Jacques Derrida
seem easy to read (you could actually take five semesters of computer
science, three of math, four of advanced physics, and two semesters of
Barnard intro biology, and according to the regulations, you still
wouldn't have completed the science requirement); patronizing major
cultures requirements which insisted you can't learn history if you
take a course on 20th century history before one on the 17th century;
a study abroad program whose application process was horribly
administered and unnecessarily complex, which had Columbia pocket
outright the thousands of dollars of tuition difference between
Columbia and the schools students attended abroad, and that unfairly
left many students without course credit when they returned; an
unnecessarily adversarial financial aid system that was too quick to
put holds on accounts of students who had always paid what they owed
(one friend of a friend, in active contact with the financial aid
office about his pending money transfer, found out he was barred from
enrolling only when his card wouldn't let him swipe into Wallach).

I probably need not mention president Rupp's demand for your
resignation, Dean Quigley, followed by his rescinding his acceptance
of your resignation and his subsequent attempts to quash the reporting
of the episode in Columbia's alumni magazine--all with little
explanation to the student body. I was also disappointed last year
with the failure of president Bollinger to distinguish between the
unpopular opinions of professors in the MEALAC department and unfair
or biased treatment of Jewish students, which I, a Jew, never
experienced in my classes with two of the three accused professors.
But I am less concerned with the particular actions of Rupp, Cole,
Bollinger, and Brinkley, and more with the impenetrable nature of the
administrative bureaucracy at Columbia. Presidents and provosts come
and go; institutional problems remain.

I wish the Steering Committee (on which a friend sits) success with
the fund drive, and I am proud to have contributed this holiday
season. When I have more money to give, I would like to be able to
trust Columbia's administration with it. I hope that by then the
administration will have made clear it understands the errors of the
past, will issue a mea culpa, will fire the administrators I remember
as egregiously irresponsible, and will demonstrate institutional


Benjamin Wheeler, CC '02


Blogger Ben on Sun Feb 04, 10:47:00 PM:
Update: I never received any response to this letter from Columbia. Not a form letter. Nothing.