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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A follow-up on male genital mutilation

Following up on my earlier post about circumcision, I want to mention that my sister did not circumcise her son, who is named Dylan and is, as expected, even cuter than fifty animals driving.

A friend of the family who gave birth just a few days later, however, did circumcise her son, partly because men in her family have had problems with penile infections--one had to be circumcised as a teenager, not a pleasant experience.

I'd like to post one of the most informative comments I've read on the subject, an email I received a few days ago:
Hi Ben -

As a fellow Jew who was also uncircumcised (until mid-adulthood), I'd like to make a few points - maybe too late for your letter, but for you to keep in mind.

1) Jewish circumcision differs from hospital circumcision in technique and result.

Basically, Jewish circumcision preserves the sensitive inner lining of the foreskin. Only a portion of the outer layer of skin is removed (this is a lot easier to explain to a fellow uncut guy!) The pinkish inner layer of skin gathers in folds behind the head of the penis, and may cup it like an acorn cup. This skin accommodates erection and continues to fulfill its sensory function.

This is in sharp contrast to most hospital circumcisions, in which everything is removed. These are the guys with the same colored skin all the way down to the head. As some posters here have mentioned, often this leads to tightness, torsion, or friction.

So not all circumcisions are alike.

2) Israel has absorbed hundreds of thousands of Soviet emigres, and as a result tens of thousands of adults underwent (Jewish style) circumcision. Israeli doctors used this opportunity to ask the sexual pleasure question - they sent follow-up surveys to several thousand men who underwent circumcision.

The results split evenly into thirds:

1/3 said "now it's better"
1/3 said "now it's worse"
1/3 said "no significant change"

Immediately the pro- and anti- circ forces set out to prove their point using this study.

So the doctors went back and correlated between the response to this question and the reason given for circumcision.

The "now it's worse" group contained almost all the men who were circumcised for external reasons - pressure from peers or girlfriends.

The other 2 groups contained mostly men who were circumcised because they themselves wanted it.

So the nerves between the ears are at least as important as those between the legs...

Shalom and best wishes -

--Posted by Anonymous


Tuesday, May 30, 2006

I love me, too

On economist Tyler Cowen's Marginal Revolution blog, he posts his "symmetry thesis":
A given person likes (loves) you as much as you like (love) him or her.

I find the symmetry thesis a surprisingly strong predictor of human behavior and inclination.

Do I want to know how much you like me? It is simple. I imagine how much I like you. (If you do the same, are we circular? Or does some kind of fixed point theorem apply?)


Unilateral crushes are possible and indeed common, although with repeated contact they usually collapse into symmetry, one way or the other.

I can imagine several (non-exclusive) mechanisms in support of the symmetry thesis. Perhaps "having a connection" -- which is mutual by nature -- is the key to true liking and attraction.

The idea is just meant to be provocative, and he urges doubtful readers to "keep it in the back of your mind, and see if it proves useful over the next few years."

I think the amount X feels she could love Y needs to be differentiated from the amount X does love Y. I imagine that each successful romantic relationship (that is, pair of people who get at least as far as dating happily) is preceded by several failed connections in which the desire was great but the reciprocity not. To move on, I think we tend to remember these as more even than they really were; I am always surprised to see the intensity of emotion in my old journals towards people and situations that now evoke only a glimmer of what they once made me feel.

One commentor writes:
I think a common theoretical arguement against the symmetry thesis is the "Groucho Marx Syndrome", made manifest in Woodie Allen's Annie Hall: 'I refuse to join any club that will have me as a member.'

This maps into the truism 'wanting is better than having,' which has moderate support from hedonic theory.

Of course, after Alfie rejects Annie, he regrets his decision and his love returns.
Different types of people, like Alfie and Annie, may have a tendency to love/like people who don't reciprocate evenly--who either show them more love or less.


Monday, May 29, 2006

Open calls for revolution

Wired copy chief Tony Long just posted a dead serious call for outright revolution in the United States:

So why aren't the streets clogged with angry Americans demanding to know why their president lied and deceived them so he could attack a country that had absolutely nothing to do with his so-called war on terror? ...

Why aren't we marching to demand an end to the illegal surveillance of American citizens by their own government, again under the pretext of waging war on terror? ...

Why aren't irate Americans camping out in the lobby of every newspaper and TV station from coast to coast...?

Why aren't enraged college students occupying their campus administration buildings...?

Why aren't we storming the battlements of every filthy oil company in America...?

In short, where the hell is everybody? ...

Bread and circuses. The government and the corporations are giving us bread and circuses to keep us sufficiently distracted so the powers that be can pursue their agendas...

The real voices of dissent and engagement are found on the internet these days, but the internet is simply too diffuse to effectively galvanize a revolution.

And we desperately need a revolution.

Not an unusual sentiment, but it's a sign of the divide in political opinion in the US that Wired would publish this.

I finally saw V for Vendetta the other day. It's strange that Alan Moore, who wrote the original comic, took his name off the film, because it was an absolutely faithful adaptation. That was its problem. The book is an open call for violent revolution along the lines of Che Guevara's disastrous Bolivia campaign, or what critics to the left of Che call "focoism"--the idea that the hard work of building a popular revolution can be replaced with dramatic and violent acts of defiance. So is the movie.

I am amazed that a successful, major Hollywood film applauds the murders of stand-ins for Bill O'Reilly, George Bush, and John Ashcroft (the original book essentially called for the murder of Margaret Thatcher), and that and there is little controversy over this.


Blogger Ralph Hälbig on Mon May 29, 02:13:00 PM:
Thanks for your great blog about Georgia! I like it to read your exposes. Thanks! Perhaps you can show more photos about your themes.

Regards from germany, Rappo.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Getting teary with celebrity blogs

The internet was made for the military to be able to communicate after a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. But in another sense, the internet--and in particular, blogs--was made for stuff like Mark Cuban's blog post after the Dallas Mavericks' game seven, overtime, upset victory over the Spurs, and Kevin Smith's blog post about the response at Cannes to Clerks II.

I have never seen or felt anything like that in my entire life. It was like watching 7 heavyweight championship fights. You know that any second either combatant can throw a haymaker and end the entire thing.
Going into last night the mood in the locker room was surreal. No one was tense. It wasnt like the guys were even nervous.
When they hit that 3 pointer to go ahead. All I could think about is that I wasnt ready to go to the Lune , a local Dallas bar. I had seen us come back in this situation before. I trusted that we would get our shot. I couldnt hear what they called in the huddle, so i had no idea what was coming. I expected we would go for the quick 2. Then Dirk did his thing, and all of the sudden it was tied.

Like Deja Vu all over again, we just needed 1 stop. We got it.

Overtime the Legend of Ghana Diop was born. A broken nose trying to guard [Tim Duncan]. Watching him push gauze up his nose, Ghana didnt blink. He just went out and got a huge dunk, 2 of the biggest offensive rebounds in Mavericks history and a dunk. When Ghana got the pass and finished the dunk, all I could think of was Avery pre game saying “trust your teammates. Trust the system.”

That symbolized this Mavericks team.
Last night, we debuted “Clerks II” at the Cannes Film Festival.
When the flick ended and the credits started rolling, a standing ovation began that lasted a full eight minutes. It was surreal and wonderful, and it just kept going and going. I looked to Harvey (Weinstein, our boss), that old Cannes war-horse, to see if the cast and I should start heading out of the theater: as it was two in the morning and the applause wasn’t showing any signs of stopping. But from two aisles back, he responded with a waving “No” finger at me, mouthing the words “Don’t move.” So we all stayed put.
The applause finally stopped after eight minutes. Harvey was over the moon about it. “In my thirty years of coming here, I’ve never seen a standing ovation last that long at a midnight show in Cannes,” he said. “Ever.”

En route to the theater, I prayed that the notoriously fickle Cannes’ audience wouldn’t boo the flick... After the screening, I started praying that I never forget that insanely special moment that I shared with Jeff, Brian, Rosario, Mos and Jen - when time seemed to stand still, and at the world’s most famous film festival, we all stared wide-eyed (and wider-smiled) at a room-full of cats staring back at us (with equally wide smiles and palms cooked red from non-stop applause) who really, really “got” what we were trying to communicate with “Clerks II”.


NY Times online: rush to publish leaves Heat burned

The NY Times' Liz Robbins, in an article posted late last night on Saturday's Pistons-Heat playoff game, error in bold:
[Guard Dwyane] Wade scored 10 of his game-high 35 points in the final quarter, lifting the Miami Heat past its only patch of trouble from the Pistons and on to a 98-83 victory in Game 3 of the N.B.A. Eastern Conference finals on Saturday night. Detroit leads the series, 2-1.
Miami leads, not Detroit. The error was fixed after a few hours.

Online articles tend to have more errors than their printed counterparts, but is rife with them these days. They seem to rush certain articles to the website without a full copyedit to capture early readers, with the plan to revise them a few hours later.

This practice, by and most other new sites, raises a few questions. I imagine that the correction to the article above won't be noted for the record, either online or in print. But what if the erroneous version shows up later in search engine caches? A formal correction sets the record straight, but if no recognition is given to an article's error, would a writer be correct in quoting the original text as normal Times reporting? What if the article's errors are fixed by the time it runs in print, but the mistake is left in the online version for months or years after it was published?

On a different note, the article also reports two new nicknames created by Shaquille O'Neal:

When O'Neal first arrived in Miami last season, he immediately gave Wade the nickname Flash, to complement a comic book nickname he gave himself, Superman.
I wonder if Al Pacino is miffed that Shaq's previous nickname for Wade has competition? From a recent New York Post article by Evan Grossman:
In the past, O'Neal played with three up-and-coming shooting guards, but never before has Shaq taken one under his wing quite like Wade. Shaq compared playing with a young Penny Hardaway in Orlando, a young Kobe Bryant with the Lakers and now a young Wade with the Heat.

"The difference between those three is the Godfather trilogy," O'Neal said in classic Shaq-speak. "One is Fredo, who was never ready for me to hand it over to him. One is Sonny, who will do whatever it takes to be the man, and one is Michael, who if you watch the trilogy, the Godfather hands it over to Michael. So I have no problem handing it over to Dwyane."

It doesn't take a brain surgeon to realize Shaq was comparing Kobe to the psychotic Sonny, and Penny with the weaker Fredo characters from that movie.
"I would love to see the ball in my hands, but I'm not the best player or the best shooter on this team," O'Neal said. "I don't mind handing it over to Michael Dwyane Corleone."

I wonder if the Times has received corrections from readers over Dwyane Wade's first name, which really is spelled that way, and must cause as much trouble as Andruw Jones and bell hooks put together.


Friday, May 26, 2006

Letter to Eliot Spitzer: stop enforcing bad LLC law

I sent this letter today to Eliot Spitzer's office:

Dear Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, and to whom it may concern,

I am writing because I am a member of a recently-formed Limited Liability Company in New York State. I have always been a supporter of Attorney General Spitzer, and I campaigned for him on election day, 1998. I have been dismayed, however, to read about how Attorney General Spitzer has fought to support the unfair LLC laws in New York State that require expensive "publication" in newspapers of the state's choice for six weeks--if the LLC does not comply, New York State Limited Liability Company Law § 206 removes the company's right to bring suits in court.

These obscure and essentially undistributed newspapers, everyone knows, exist solely because of an unholy alliance with Albany, and in 2001 one Manhattan LLC, Barklee Realty, whose owner had previously spent $1645 publishing a previous LLC's creation, refused to pay and brought the matter to the New York State Supreme Court, which ruled in 2001 that requiring such publication was a violation of the due process, equal protection, and acces to court clauses of the United States Consitution (Fifth and Fourteenth amendments) and the New York State Constitution (Article I § 11, Article X § 4). The Supreme Court called it "an obvious stretch to assume that any potential defendant to an action commenced by a limited liability company would be perusing the classifieds on a regular basis so as to note the organizing information provided by a newly formed LLC", and enjoined the enforcement of the law.

Though his Rebublican predecessor as Attorney General opposed the unfair publication requirement, Eliot Spitzer took great pains to support it, flouting the Supreme Court order and seeking to appeal the ruling by arguing, according to the financial appeals judge who took his side, that "the publication requirements as a condition to a limited liability company's access to the courts" does not need to "enhance the adjudication of justice" in order to be justified. Spitzer's appeal was successful, and the law stands, to the tune of millions of dollars per year in tax revenues lost because many businesses avoid forming in New York, and millions more handed to a special interest and--through campaign contributions that make "adjudication of justice" sometimes not seem to matter so much--shared by state politicians.

The LLC law might have been fair in an earlier time, of less access to public records, and it still might be fair today if it allowed publication in any journal of at least a given circulation and for a reasonable amount of time; this would provide the desired effect of allowing clear reference to the Articles of Organization and identities of the founders in case of disputes later. But the law as it stands is clearly the result of campaign funding by an antiquated corner of the newspaper industry, and not by genuine public interest.

Thanks to Attorney General Spitzer's continued refusal to accept the Supreme Court's fair ruling, my LLC, until it pays for six weeks of a Potemkin publication's state-granted monopoly on ad space, does not have the right to sue or countersue in court, no matter how just the cause.

Thank you,
Benjamin Wheeler
Brooklyn, NY


Blogger Ben on Tue May 30, 07:49:00 AM:
It gets worse. A friend forwarded me this notice:As you may have heard, New York recently passed legislation amending the publication requirements for LLC's, LP's and LLP's. These entity types are required to publish notice of their FORMATION or REGISTRATION in New York and file proof of publication with the Department of State. Previously, failure to publish and file evidence resulted in not being able to maintain an action or proceeding in the state until the requirement had been met. As a result, many did not comply especially with the high cost of the publication. Effective June 1, 2006 Senate Bill 85-A changes all that. Now failure to comply will result in the suspension of your authority to conduct business in the state.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Jane Austen in the barroom

Yesterday I was delighted to find an early unpublished Jane Austen story, "Jack and Alice." My brother's name is Jack, so I thought this would be the coolest thing to happen to the Boone siblings since my dad discovered that John Jacob Astor's children were named Jack and Alice. I made two copies of the story (from in the Minor Works volume of the collected Jane Austen) to send to my parents and went to 1020 to watch the Red Sox-Yankees game with my friend Brette. I showed her the story and then set it off to the side of our table so we wouldn't accidentally spill beer on it. After the Red Sox lost, the bartender came over and picked up the story and started to read it. I doubted that he was really interested in Jane Austen juvenilia.

Why all the backstory about taking young Jane Austen to a bar? Because "Jack and Alice" is about two drunk siblings! I've never felt so poorly served by a Jane Austen story, ever. Brette and I play the "which Jane Austen character are you?" game sometimes, and my answer tends to waver between Elinor Dashwood and Anne Elliot. Why can't I share a name with an honorable Jane Austen character? Alice Johnson is a walking disaster, and her brother Jack is a cad. He dies in the seventh chapter, leaving Alice a large estate that she'll no doubt drink away. It's not surprising that Alice and Jack don't have a place in Pemberley, the online estate of Janeites.

In the story, which is only ten pages long, Lady Williams tries to counsel Alice against her heavy drinking to no avail, but Lady Williams is also something of a gossip:
"When you are more intimately acquainted with my Alice you will not be surprised, Lucy, to see the dear Creature drink a little too much; for such things happen every day. She has many rare & charming qualities, but Sobriety is not one of them. The whole Family are indeed a sad drunken set. I am sorry to say too that I never knew three such thorough Gamesters as they are, more particularly Alice. But she is a charming girl. I fancy not one of the sweetest tempers in the world; to be sure I have seen her in such passions! However she is a sweet young Woman. I am sure you'll like her. I scarcely know any one so amiable.--Oh! that you could but have seen her the other Evening! How she raved! & on such a trifle too! She is indeed a most pleasing Girl. I shall always love her!"

The arrogant eligible bachelor of the story, Charles Adams, rejects Alice, telling her father:
"Your daugher sir, is neither sufficiently beautifull, sufficiently amiable, sufficiently witty, nor sufficiently rich for me,--I expect nothing more in my wife than my wife will find in me--Perfection."

Alice's reaction is typical: "She flew to her bottle & it was soon forgot."

The story ends with a murder, a hanging, and a cliffhanger about who Charles Adams will marry. So it's a satire, but an extremely minor one. My parents don't need to see their children's names sullied in such a way--although my dad loves to point out that the Astor children frittered away the estate, too.

I'll stick to Northanger Abbey.


Blogger Jenny Davidson on Thu May 25, 11:05:00 PM:
I was really going to wait to show you till I actually got it published (it as yet has no home), but I wrote a story this spring called "The Other Amazon" (it's sort of like one of my blog posts, only my alternate-self narrator starts being able to get imaginary books via Amazon) and one of the many (in this world unwritten) Austen novels I get is called "Alice and Adela"! A minor in-joke. I think "Jack and Alice" is a good satire, though; nice that it's your brother's name too....
Anonymous Anonymous on Fri May 26, 01:06:00 AM:
But Alice, you should be at least a little happy to be in one of the few Austen works which more blatantly shows her comaraderie with Burney! The best of two worlds...
Anonymous Anonymous on Fri May 26, 01:16:00 AM:
blah...sorry: camaraderie
Blogger Marina on Sun May 28, 05:35:00 PM:
I am thrilled that there are Jacks and Alices in Austen. I've never played the 'which Austen Character are you?' game, but I'm going to have to spend some time sorting through my friends now.

I also want to register a sulk: there are no likeable literary Marinas. Are there? I don't think there are. But I don't read very many Russian authors.

Primitive pirate passions were a prelude to death!

As part of their salute to the pulp novel, Slate asked several book cover designers to create pulp covers for classic stories. The results are beautiful and hilarious.

I was obsessed with Ray Bradbury when I was a teenager and own multiple editions of his books. This illustrated biography of Bradbury features an amazing overviews of the cover art for his books and stories. The Grand Master editions were my favorites because they looked like sinister Lisa Frank. The Grand Master cover of the The Martian Chronicles looks like the West Mesa in Albuquerque, except without water or martians. As a wry (or pretentious) 14-year-old, I cracked myself for weeks when I displayed my copy of Agatha Christie's By the Pricking of My Thumbs with Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. Wow, the cover art on the new edition of By the Pricking of My Thumbs is terrible. I think I had this edition, or one similar to this one.


Digital art, swiftly obsolete, is unexpectedly ephemeral

Wired commentator "Momus" has a disturbing article about the swift obsolescence of media and file formats, and what this means for digital art:
The other day I tried to watch a Flash media piece my friend Florian Perret and I made back in 2002 for the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art's Digital Gallery. It wouldn't play because, according to MoCA's error page, "Suffusia: A Beautiful Life requires the current Flash Player." Flash 8 wasn't good enough for the MoCA website; it wanted Flash 6 or nothing.

Eventually I was able to reach the file by another route. But it made me think about just how quickly formats die these days. I remembered how, back in 2000, blown away by Mumbleboy's Flash work, I speculated that, had this program been around when I was 20, I'd have dedicated my life to making Flash files instead of pop records. After all, we tend to fall in love with media, programs, idioms or formats even before we have anything to say in them.
But nobody at this point knows whether the Flash medium itself is just a flash-in-the-pan. Who's going to think of something like that as a vocation? Who's going to try to be "the Tolstoy of Flash" when we don't know whether Flash will even be around in 10 years, let alone a hundred?

Ten years ago I taught myself to use Macromedia Director (it was release 4.0 at the time) and made a CD-ROM called This Must Stop! I put as much effort into it as I put into my records, but just 10 years later This Must Stop! ... is accessible only to cranks and connoisseurs, members of the "dead formats society" who've invested in the dead tech required to play it.

Momus goes on to talk about Jacques Derrida's idea that "archiving represents both attempting to preserve something to be remembered and leaving out something to be forgotten."

When I interned at the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford, the staff was painfully aware that every esoteric detail about King's activities that we catalogued meant that we were not cataloguing an equal amount of information on the broader black liberation movement, which has received surprisingly little basic research attention considering its huge impact on American society.

Unfortunately, big money donors give for research on King far more than they do for research on the movement's poorly-catalogued rank-and-file organizers and marchers. Even in death, King's iconic national image was blunting the movement's effectiveness, something he was widely criticized for within the ranks during the late 50s and early 60s.


Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Mescalanza, formerly rose, still sweet

An excellent Salon article (you gotta watch an ad to read it) by Ruth Shalit describes companies that specialize in naming other companies. Some create consistently bland names like "Altria" or "Aquent", but others--like those from firm A Hundred Monkeys--have a bit more character:
We got so much more than a name," says Robin Bahr of 98point6 [a health care site formerly called "MedicaLogic"]. "I mean, I got a name for my daughter. One of our senior executives identified strongly with 'Mescalanza.' No one calls him Jim anymore. His name is Mescalanza." Meanwhile, she says, "our senior manager for Internet development just fell in love with the name 'Jamcracker.' And so today, the Harvey meeting is known as the Jamcracker meeting. There are 300 people at this company who identify Jamcracker with Harvey."


What's more, at A Hundred Monkeys, $65,000 will buy you an entire word. Some rival firms charge more than that for a mere suffix.

Consider Luxon Cara's $70,000 "identity program" for US Air. The airline "wanted to be repositioned and perceived as a major U.S. airline," says John Hudson, Luxon Cara's president. "And so we researched this. We checked it out globally. We basically lived with them for nine months to a year. It was one of the most exciting things we ever did."

What was the new name? I asked. And when would it be unveiled? I was guessing Skystar, Glident, Proficienta. "Oh, it's already been unveiled," Lagow explains. I was perplexed. "But isn't US Air still US Air?" I asked. "I was just in an airport the other day, and I could have sworn ..."

"No, no," Lagow says. "It's been changed to US Airways."

I definitely bought the US Airways rebranding hook, line, etc. Even the envelope the tickets came in seemed somehow more efficient and helpful.

I've been developing a todo list program in my spare time for a year or so, and trying to find a good name. (If you have a suggestion, please let me know.) When I look at the names of other todo list programs, the one that stands out to me is the one with a very A Hundred Monkeys-style name:

  • Bla Bla List
  • Ta-da List
  • Tudu List
  • Remember The Milk
  • Voo2Do
No question, I'd try Remember The Milk first. (Don't bother, you'd have to by a Harvard Symbology department chair to figure it out. Try Ta-da List.)


Monday, May 22, 2006

Blazing instant ray of death from outer space

The AP reports that the US military has considered developing weapons to send "directed-energy" pulses, also known to sci-fi fans as "phasers" or "death-ray guns":
"Directed-energy'' pulses can be throttled up or down depending on the situation, much like the phasers on "Star Trek'' could be set to kill or merely stun.

Such weapons are now nearing fruition. But logistical issues have delayed their battlefield debut -- even as soldiers in Iraq encounter tense urban situations in which the nonlethal capabilities of directed energy could be put to the test.


The hallmark of all directed-energy weapons is that the target -- whether a human or a mechanical object -- has no chance to avoid the shot because it moves at the speed of light. At some frequencies, it can penetrate walls.


"When you're dealing with people whose full intent is to die, you can't give people a choice of whether to comply," said George Gibbs, a systems engineer for the Marine Expeditionary Rifle Squad Program who oversees directed-energy projects. "What I'm looking for is a way to shoot everybody, and they're all OK."

I do appreciate the humane spin on this impending invention, but it does still hasten the day that anyone, anywhere, can put anyone else in their coordinates and kill them instantly at whim.


Massive multiplayer online lending

Salon has an article (that you might have to watch an ad to read) about a fascinating new trend in money lending -- what it calls "P2P lending". Sites like Prosper and Zopa allow borrowers to post appeals to potential lenders, who group together with individual loans of $100 or so if they trust the borrower to make good. This way, lenders get excellent interest rates and distribute the impact of defaults, which are (so far) surprisingly few.

One thing the article discusses is how Prosper encourages users to form official borrowing groups whose members vouch for each other. Groups compete with catchy names and themes, from volunteer firefighters to Columbia University graduates. The groups do actually improve the economics of the lending system, by pre-screening members and developing reputations based on members' default rates, but I bet their real function is to create mild social networking seems to draw in users and make the site feel like a community where a significant number of other users is always present.

From the article:

Many of the lenders on Prosper, for instance, know almost nothing about BusyLady52, not even her name (which she asked me not to publish). What they do know about her (a middling credit score, a couple of current delinquencies) is the sort of thing that would render her ineligible for a traditional loan. Yet lenders saw in her story some spark of genuine responsibility, a possibility that she'd do well if given a chance. More than 50 people got together to give her a total of $5,000 at a 16 percent rate. She now says she's determined to set her money straight again, if only to prove herself to those who invested in her.
Often, though, borrowers will argue that these numbers don't tell the whole story. Sometimes, they have a point. If I told you about Person X, who had a credit rating of H.R. -- "high risk," the lowest rating -- a string of recent delinquencies, and a 20 percent debt-to-income ratio, you'd probably conclude that she was heading straight to bankruptcy. Lending this person money would be about as profitable as throwing it into a fountain and waiting for your wish to come true. But what if I also told you that this person, Suzy, had accumulated her debt while she was studying at Harvard Law School? And what if I mentioned that she had just graduated with honors, and had accepted a job at a Manhattan firm with a starting salary of $140,000 a year? She only needs a loan to tide her over until she starts work. Now I tell you that she's willing to pay a 20 percent interest rate on your money. Would you take a risk on her now?

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To turn heads, heads should be soulless

According to a recent NY Times article, the increasing use of search engines and news aggregators like Google News to find news articles is changing the way their headlines and section titles are written:

About a year ago, The Sacramento Bee changed online section titles. "Real Estate" became "Homes," "Scene" turned into "Lifestyle," and dining information found in newsprint under "Taste," is online under "Taste/Food."

Some news sites offer two headlines. One headline, often on the first Web page, is clever, meant to attract human readers. Then, one click to a second Web page, a more quotidian, factual headline appears with the article itself. The popular BBC News Web site does this routinely on longer articles.

Nic Newman, head of product development and technology at BBC News Interactive, pointed to a few examples from last Wednesday. The first headline a human reader sees: "Unsafe sex: Has Jacob Zuma's rape trial hit South Africa's war on AIDS?" One click down: "Zuma testimony sparks HIV fear." Another headline meant to lure the human reader: "Tulsa star: The life and career of much-loved 1960's singer." One click down: "Obituary: Gene Pitney."


In the print version of The New York Times, an article last Tuesday on Florida beating U.C.L.A. for the men's college basketball championship carried a longish headline, with allusions to sports history: "It's Chemistry Over Pedigree as Gators Roll to First Title." On the Times Web site, whose staff has undergone some search-engine optimization training, the headline of the article was, "Gators Cap Run With First Title."

I found this article through a recent post on the Collision Detection blog which discusses the phenomenon, along with some advice:
One of the biggest areas of change is headline-writing. Normally, a headline writer tries to use some witty wordplay to attract readers: A literary or cinematic allusion, perhaps, or maybe a pun. But such nuances are totally lost on machines. A bot is trying to quickly figure out the content of an article, and wordplay just gets in the way. Though the article doesn't discuss it in this depth, this dilemma is known, in A.I. circles, as "the problem of synonymity": A machine doesn't know that when a copywriter pens the line "A horse of a different color", she's not talking about horses. The bot might accidentally slot that story into the sports section, even if the piece is actually about politics.


Here's a further thought. When I interviewed Cory Doctorow -- cofounder of Boing Boing -- for my recent New York magazine feature on blogging, he pointed out an interesting aspect of Boing Boing's success: Simple, straightforward headlines. Many bloggers tend to write clever, wry, allusive heads to their blog posts. This is a big mistake, Cory said, because so many people use RSS readers to scan their favorite blogs. Many RSS readers are configured to display the headline to each blog posting and a bit of text; in some cases, they display only the headline, Cory noted. And many people have dozens of dozens of blogs in their RSS readers, which means they're scanning hundreds or even thousands of headlines a day -- and thus scanning them at lightning pace. If you write abstruse, punning headlines where the meaning isn't immediately clear, the reader will never click on your entry. Boing Boing, in contrast, always writes simple, just-the-facts headlines -- and this, Cory says, is one secret to the blog's success.

Um, does that mean I have to stop attempting to write clever, wry, allusive heads to my blog posts?


Friday, May 19, 2006

With a little kelp from my friends

Our friend Miriam has concluded her old blog, Eat, Drink and be Miriam, and started a brand new one, Hope Yourself. She'll be dishing out ample servings of food reports and recipes for life (without adding a pinch of cliche, unlike me). Her opening entry explains:
I gave my notice at work this week, and it's hard not to feel relieved.

I've worked as a journalist for almost four years, but I'd been preparing for a reporting career for nearly a decade. I thought reporting would be a great way to help communities improve and encourage activism. I still think journalism is an immensely important job and that local papers play very necessary roles. I've been lucky to work at two locally owned newspapers, one in Brunswick, Georgia, and another in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

But I've come to believe that journalism isn't the career for me. I've found reporters to be so afraid of being labeled "biased" that they avoid sharing an opinion on anything, on the job or off. Too often, I've seen reporters and editors hide behind a claim to be objective, when they're actually showing a lack of compassion or concern. I don't want to lose my capacities for empathy and compassion, and I'm afraid that staying in this job will make holding on to those habits difficult.

So I'm off to try something new.


With dress disgusting as a hideous dream

Here's a selection from the Liberator, one of William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspapers, although poor aid and temperance are related concerns. Once in a while, the editors turned their eye to women's health and fashion and we get something like this awful poem. It was probably not reprinted among the pre-Raphaelites later in the century.

Memento Mori
from the Liberator, 1831

I've seen some females, (there are many such)
Who strive to look thin, delicate, and pale;
Whose fragile forms, scarce palpable to the touch,
Seem strange and frightful as a goblin tale;
Who pride themselves in seeming weak and frail,
In going thinly clad and tightly laced;
Who tread the streets, rejoicing to reveal
A ghost-like visage and portentous waist,
The mournful witnesses of morbid taste.

And when I meet such images of wo [sic],
A sudden tremor rushes o'er my frame:
Such wasp-like figures conjure to my view
The fabled hourlgass in the hand of Time;
And when I see them swim through fashion's stream,
With dress disgusting as a hideous dream,
And features mournful as a cypress wreath,--
Methinks I hear them shriek--Remember Death!


In praise of potatoes

I've been rearranging my files and have found a folder of all the weird stuff I've found in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century periodicals. This ode to potatoes may rival Pablo Neruda. OK, it doesn't. This is a terrible poem, notable only for the clunkiness of the descriptions of how to prepare potatoes and the abuses of alliteration and exclamation points (I like "benaeth the cope of air-excluding lid" and "from subterranean stores selected"--and yes, the word "multangular" makes an appearance in the poem):

A soliloquy in praise of potatoes
by Dermot O'Murrough
County Magazine, 1791

Hail, rare Potatoes! hot or cold, all hail!
O quickly come, my appetite's delight--
Whether in an oven's fiery concave clos'd,
By Baker's art delicious thou'rt embrown'd
While rills of purple gravy from the pores
Of mighty beef improve the luscious fare;
Whether the Dame of culinary skill,
Hath rudely sclp'd thee o'er and to the rage
Of warring elements confined thee deep
Beneath the cope of air-excluding lid,
In humid durance plung'd; or when with steaks
Of marbled vein, from rump of stall-fed steer
Disparted late, slic'd in the shallow pan,
I view thee kindly stew'd--how joys my heart!
How flash with eager glance my longing eyes!
Or in the tedious eve, when nipping frost
Reigns potent, 'mid the mould'ring embers roast
(From subterranean stores selected) those
Of am lest size rotund, of native coat,
Yet unbereft, And if my homely board
Penurious, add but a few salubrious grains
Of humble salt. I bless the cheap repast
But chiefly come, at noontime hunger's call,
When from th'ebullient pot your mealy tribe,
With happiest art prepar'd, profusely pours;
And be the mass, with butter's plenteous aid
To rich consistence wrought. Nor, oh! with hold
The pepper's pungent power of grateful glow
Beneficient. In Pudding's praise
Let others rant loquacious. I despise
The doughy morsel for my favorite food:
Give me but this, ye Gods! I scornful pass
Each celebrated shop, (Williams or Birch,
Or he of Belgic fame--I do! supreme
Of City Saint! in City Hall ador'd
By mortals! Hoffman, Wight!) where brittle puffs
Multangular, with custards, cakes, and cream
And lucid jellies nodding o'er the brim,
Of crystal vase, in pastry pomp combine
To lure the sense. These, these unmov'd, I pass,
While fond I antedate Potatoes' Charms,
"Nor cast one longing, ling'ring look behind."

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Don't blame me, I voted for Bartlett

A NY Times profile of Martin Sheen reveals some things I didn't know:

At 65, [Martin Sheen] has decided to make good on a promise he made to himself long ago: to enroll, for the first time, in college. A graduate, though just barely, of Chaminade High School in Dayton, Ohio, nearly five decades ago, he will began taking classes next fall — in English literature, philosophy and, he hopes, oceanography — at National University of Ireland in Galway, in the country where his mother was born.

A BBC piece reports more:

Martin Sheen's President Bartlet is far removed from George W Bush. Bartlet is liberal, idealistic, intellectual and charismaticl.

In an NBC survey on the eve of the last US presidential election, fictional President Bartlet polled more votes than Bush and Gore combined.

Yet the man who plays Bartlet is more radical still, and, over the years, has become one of the most prominent campaigners for social justice and peace.

Martin Sheen has been arrested more than 70 times at protests, on a range of issues from the rights of workers and the homeless, to the environment and defence.

His campaigning spirit stems from a deeply held Catholic faith.

He was born Ramon Estevez in 1940, in Ohio, the seventh of 10 children of a Spanish immigrant father and an Irish mother.

He so wanted to be an actor that he deliberately failed his entrance exam to the University of Dayton, so that he could attend acting school in New York.

He changed his name to Martin Sheen to avoid being typecast in ethnic roles.

And Wikipedia reports that Sheen is a believer in the Catholic-lefty Consistent Life Ethic:

The Consistent Life Ethic is an ethical, religious, and political philosophy with the basic premise that "all human life is sacred", and that this calls for "a coherent social policy which seeks to protect the rights of the weakest and most vulnerable in our society, the unborn, the infirm, the refugee, the homeless, and the poor." Advocates of the Consistent Life Ethic are consequently opposed to abortion, capital punishment, "economic injustice", assisted suicide and euthanasia, and unjust war; some who hold the Consistent Life Ethic oppose all war.

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Original genius of love

The problem with calling Mariah Carey a pioneer isn't that she wasn't the first R&B singer to look to hip hop. It's that doing so guarantees that you'll have a boring article. The Pioneer Narrative tends to limit what you can say about an artist: You name someone a pioneer, select a few events to use as evidence for the claim, make a few nods to alternate pioneer hypotheses, maybe make a few digressions, and come up with a judgment about how the current output is or isn't of the same caliber as the artist's previous work.

But what would you learn about Mariah Carey if you were able to determine definitively (!) that she was responsible "more than any other musician" for the R&B/hip hop coupling? And what would you learn if someone determined definitively that she's derivative?

Instead of tracing the trend back to one person as the would-be authenticator of an admittedly derivative (and fantastic) genre, it might make more sense to look at constellations of artists who were working at the time (as Ben notes, Carey would join Mary J. Blige, TLC, and others). Those artists sometimes shared producers, engineers, record labels, music video directors, and so on. That is, one alternative to the Pioneer Narrative is to trace the circulation and adaptations of the genre. Even if Carey wasn't the first to work with rappers, "Fantasy," and the remixes for "Honey" and "Heartbreaker" are still great examples of what's possible in the genre. Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" (2003) is very similar to "Heartbreaker" (1999) (structure, presence of Jay-Z, remixes), but it's not more or less authentic.

Frere-Jones starts to talk about how melisma became one of the defining conventions of R&B music--and, actually, I probably wouldn't be interested a history of recent abuses of melisma, either--but then he returns to his Pioneer Narrative, which overtakes the piece. How do you review The Emancipation of Mimi and not talk about the genius of "We Belong Together"? You spend most of the article on a selective history and relegate the album under discussion to a few general statements without mentioning any specific songs. Boring.

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Blogger Ben on Fri May 19, 12:38:00 PM:
You said it when you quoted "We Belong Together"--

I can’t sleep at night
When you are on my mind
Bobby Womack's on the radio
Singing to me, 'If You Think You’re Lonely Now...'
Wait a minute this is too deep
I gotta change the station
So I turn the dial tryin' to catch a break
And then I hear Babyface
'I Only Think Of You' and it's breakin' my heart
I'm tryin' to keep it together but I'm falling apart.

Gladwell: junk Bonds

Malcolm Gladwell is reading Game of Shadows, and concludes that sports records should be contingent on statistical analysis to expose obvious doping:
“Game of Shadows” is a death sentence for Bonds. More to the point, it’s impossible to read the book and accept that Bonds has a right either to the single season home-run record or, assuming he keeps playing, the career home run mark.

So what should we do? I think we need to set the bar a little higher for record-setters. Justin Wolfers, an economist at Penn, just did a study analyzing college basketball scores, concluding that there is ample statistical evidence for point-shaving in about five percent of college games... I think we should loose the forensic economists on all record-setters, and require that athletes pass a statistical plausibility in the wake of their achievements.
“Game of Shadows” points out that Bonds had the second, ninth and tenth greatest offensive season in baseball history at the ages of 36, 37, and 39 respectively—and the average age of everyone else on that list (Gehrig, Foxx, Ruth and Hornsby) is 27. No one—no one—turns himself into one of the greatest hitters of all time in his late 30’s. His home run record should have been denied as statistically implausible.

He has also followed up, in the wake of massive reader revolt against his proposal:
Juries send innocent people to jail all the time. But we put up with that because the alternative--no legal system--is a lot worse. What if--in sports like baseball and track and field and swimming--we had a record-review board. We assembled a panel of experts who reviewed the circumstances under which the record was set, physiological evidence from the athlete himself or herself, and statistical evidence about the plausibility of the performance. Beamon would pass. FloJo would not. Bonds would not--and nor, I would wager, would McGwire or Sosa.
Incidentally, in "Baseball by the Numbers," by the Baseball Prospectus team, there is a very nice essay by Nate Silver doing exactly this: using forensic tools to try and gauge the extent of steriod cheating in major league baseball. It's worth a read. Silver concludes, interestingly, that the overall amount of cheating seems to be quite small, and confined largely (at this point) to mediocre players trying to get a little edge, not superstars trying to become mega-superstars.

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Further grinding the axe for Sasha

This is what happens when you give a self-important critic a venue where few readers will know to second-guess what he or she says:
Yet Carey, more than any other musician, established R. & B. and hip-hop as the sound of pop. One of her frothiest and most delightful No. 1 hits was “Dreamlover” (1993), which features a loop of The Emotions’ 1971 soul tune “Blind Alley,” a song made famous by the rapper Big Daddy Kane, who sampled it in his 1988 track “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’. ” Beginning in 1995, rappers started performing guest verses on Carey’s songs. Suddenly, people who would cross the street to avoid listening to hip-hop were bringing rappers into their house, under the cover of Carey. It became standard for R&B stars, like Missy Elliott and Beyoncé, to combine melodies with rapped verses. And young white pop stars—including Britney Spears, ’N Sync, and Christina Aguilera—have spent much of the past ten years making pop music that is unmistakably R&B
--Sasha Frere-Jones in the April 3, 2006 New Yorker
Mariah Carey is awesome, but you can't credit her with either popularizing rap or introducing the 90's pop song rap interlude. Her strength is not in being a pioneer, it's in awesome taste and execution, and excellent career guidance and producer selection (first by Tommy Mottola, now by herself).

I don't know about the rest of the country, but in the town where I grew up, most pop music listeners "who would cross the street to avoid listening to hip-hop" but who bought Mariah Carey records were already familiar with easy-listening rap from at least three huge singles: Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby" (1990), Bel Biv DeVoe's "Poison "(1990), and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch's "Good Vibrations" (1991). (All of the songs I'm mentioning hit #1 on the Billboard singles chart.)

As for mixing melodies with rap interludes, TLC's "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" (1992), Mary J. Blige & Biggie Smalls' remix of "Real Love" (1993), and Salt 'n' Pepa's "Shoop" (1993) predated Mariah's rap conversion by several years. It was obvious at the time--and it still is--that Mariah was trying to follow the direction of pop music, not leading it. What's amazing about her is that she comes up with such great takes on current pop styles.

Sasha also writes that

“The Emancipation of Mimi” includes no songs as effortlessly cheery or as durable as “Dreamlover” and “Fantasy,” partly because Carey’s melodies now meander, in keeping with current trends in R&B, and have lost the clarity that pop demands.

He mentioned Missy and Beyonce in the wrong place earlier. They didn't ape Mariah -- she is drawing on them (and they are drawing on Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, who were the kind of sui generis genre creators Frere-Jones is trying to talk about) for the style of "Mimi", which I would call something like "stop/start rhythm" rather than "meandering".

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The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin

An excellent opinion piece in the Moscow Times today by Boris Kagarlitsky (whose column is called "Always a Dissident") addresses the Russian ban of Georgian and Moldovan wine and food imports:
We are no longer going to drink Borjomi mineral water. And Georgian and Moldovan wines are out too. We're going to drink vodka with patriotically named beer chasers. To hell with our livers!
The obvious reason for the crises in Russian-Moldovan and Russian-Georgian relations is the "separatism" issue. By supporting the breakaway powers in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transdnestr, Moscow naturally sets itself in opposition to Tbilisi and Chisinau. It's easy to understand the emotions here: The separatism of the autonomous territories was an answer to discrimination against them from the republican centers -- in exactly the same way that the separatism of the republics themselves was prompted by the policies of the Soviet central government.
The Kremlin is consciously and systematically carrying out a policy of isolating itself across the former Soviet Union. The more pressure it puts on former Soviet republics, the more it hurries them into the arms of the West... And the cruder the Kremlin's measures and methods, the easier it is for the governments in Chisinau and Tbilisi to justify their own mistakes and failures: All economic problems become the fault of the evil Russians.
It's like Princess Leia tells Governor Tarkin in Star Wars: "The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers."

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Blogger Axar Harebate on Sun May 21, 03:03:00 AM:
I think in the situation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia is the good guys. This is not to say that Kremlin is not reverting back to what we come to believe to the Soviet Past. But if you examine the issue fo this conflict you can see that the Georgian side as done many wrongs to both Ossetians and Abkhazians. Georgian government did its best to decline the South Ossetian commerce shutting down its roads, markets and bombing their industries in 1990s. The region is still isolated by the Georgian side, if it was not for the Russian support it would surely die. There are also the Ossetian genocide at the hands of Georgian authorities in the early 1990s.

South Ossetian people have declared independence a decade ago. Why are they not recognized by the US and EU governments, even when the popular vote supports this time and again? Should be the real question. My guess since the region is full of natural resource, US plans an oil pipeline and it is a good military strategic location for US -- the democracy is again not living it up to its own standarts, supports Georgia.

Russia putting sactions on Georgia is fair, seeing how Georgia isolates South Ossetia and continues to opress the region which does not belong to them. Since sanctions is exactly what the western government uses.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

When everyone has an opinion, everyone hates the reviewer

When a reviewer posts all his or her reviews in an easily-scannable format, it's easy for any opinionated reader to quickly find a few glaring differences of taste. For me, these somehow overwhelm the majority of films/plays/books/albums, about which there is more agreement.

Super-blogger Jason Kottke has an online list of his movie reviews, and although he did love Raising Victor Vargas, Being John Malkovich, and less universally critically revered favorites of mine (like the first Star Wars and Master and Commander), I can't get past the fact that he adored Crash, Closer, Step Into Liquid, Traffic, Catch me if you Can, and Star Wars ep. 3, but gave middling reviews to Thirteen, Shrek 2, Happy Gilmore, The Bourne Identity, and Toy Story. Immediately I feel like I couldn't be friends with the guy. He might as well be a Republican.

(In case you want to feel the same way about me, my own list of 1000+ movie ratings is here.)

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Golden Gate suicides has a map of suicides by location on the Golden Gate Bridge. Among the disturbing facts you can glean from this is that the most common place to jump off is at lamppost number 69. Perhaps, as they chose where to stop and jump, a large number of suicidal people maintained a sense of humor? Or did a reminder of sex trigger shame and self-hatred? Or does there just happen to be a marker there, or an easy place to jump from?

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Anonymous Anonymous on Thu May 31, 07:48:00 AM:
"69" could be a sort of dark joke certainly, but a more distant view physically shows what might be the actual answer. Lamp Post 69 is in the middle of the span, theoretically the highest point on the bridge deck. A jump from here potentially results in a successful suicide.
Anonymous Anonymous on Tue Jan 29, 11:40:00 PM:
i agree with tis comment...peaople who wants to get suicide don t count the lamppost but search for the highest successful place to get suicide... and i would add...the farest point from the cost (a way to already live the world) and the it will take more time for rescue vehicules to reach the site.
i don t know at all the geographical situation between san fransisco cost and marin country or about the bridge directions of circdulation. but perhaps, if peaople are driving on the left, people from marin country gest more suicide than peaople from san fransisco, and for pedestrian, it would mean than they get more suicide than byciclists, and the fact that it s still opened for bycliclists after sunset show that there is a low incidence on the proportion od suicde on the west side of the bridge.
have u heard sth relative to such data??

NBA esoterica

I can't get NBA playoff games on television here in former-Soviet Georgia, so I've been obsessing over scores and stats instead. (I hope I'm not violating any copyrights by referencing numbers the NBA put up on its own playoffs page. Incidentally, I found one game score that is incorrect -- in baseball, could I be prosecuted for pointing this out?)

In the 2006 playoffs to date, there have been 63 games so far. Of these, there have been a large number of overtime games--seven--including a double overtime yesterday (Suns over Clippers). Only 10 games in the playoffs so far have been decided by two points or less, but this includes two games in a row that Cleveland won in a row in overtime by a single point to eliminate the Wizards in Round 1 (game 6 of this series is reported incorrectly by

The Dallas Mavericks, who are now up 3-1 over the Spurs and look destined to face the Pistons in the NBA Finals, have scored 82 more points than their opponents over eight games, and have lost only one game, to the Spurs by two points. The Pistons don't seem to be doing as well--they are tied at 2 games each with the Cavaliers--but they have outscored opponents by 70 points over 9 games for an average of an 8 point margin per game (though their opponents have been easier than the Mavs'). The Pistons-Cavs series has had no close games--the average margin of victory has been 12.

As for Phoenix, they are kicking ass in overtime. In four overtime periods so far in these playoffs, they have outscored opponents 53-39.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

More on fantasy baseball

The question may not be "who down with OPS?" but "who owns OPS?"

Here's an article about licensing fantasy baseball from The New York Times today:
The dispute is between a company in St. Louis that operates fantasy sports leagues over the Internet and the Internet arm of Major League Baseball, which says that anyone using players' names and performance statistics to operate a fantasy league commercially must purchase a license. The St. Louis company counters that it does not need a license because the players are public figures whose statistics are in the public domain.
Major League Baseball Advanced Media is not making a copyright claim to the statistics themselves; a 1997 decision in the United States Court of Appeals involving the National Basketball Association ruled sports statistics to be public-domain facts that do not belong to the leagues.

Rather, the central issue concerns celebrities' ability to control use of their names in commercial ventures, and how this "right of publicity," which has developed under state common law and statute over the last half-century, may commingle with Constitutional press protections under the First Amendment.

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Who down with OPS?

A few surprises in baseball statistics: take a look at the league's players ranked by OPS--on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, the best of the common statistical measurements of a player's offensive production, calculated by adding the percentage of at-bats in which the player reaches base (either through a hit or a walk) plus the average number of total bases hit per plate appearance (so a home run counts four times as much as a single).

A presumably un-juiced Jason Giambi is currently second (at 1.134, behind Albert Pujols' amazing 1.302), Moneyball hero Nick Swisher is fifth (at 1.069), and the top Red Sock is the hated Mike Lowell (at .974). As expected, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez also have OPS numbers above .900, as do Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Trot Nixon, Jorge Posada, Kevin Youklis are all in the upper .800s, while Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui are close to .800.

That means that among possible all-stars, Swisher, with his $335,000 salary, leads baseball in the made-up statistic "OPS-per-$100k", at .319. Youklis, who is paid $355,000, is not far behind, at .246. These are incredible numbers. In comparison, Ortiz, who is generally considered a steal at his salary of $6,500,000, has an OPS-per-$100k of .015, and Giambi, a money hole top-dollar player, is .006. Of course, most decent players have a higher OPS-per-$100k than Ortiz and Giambi. The first .500 of OPS seems to get a player something like the league minimum; another .250, and it's around a million or two dollars per year; another .250, and it's a good ten or twenty mil. Which reinforces the argument of Moneyball that two good, cheap players are a much better value than one great player.

By the way, Giambi's turnaround is an amazing vindication for Joe Torre, who ten months ago was seen to be losing touch when the Yankees were under .500 and Giambi was batting something you could only write in scientific notation. I don't know if he's on the juice again or what, but I wouldn't mind sending his urine samples to the same lab in France that handled Lance Armstrong's. Whatever the cause of Giambi's comeback, I have to hand it to Torre and Yankees GM Brian Cashman--it's hard to imagine Theo Epstein and Terry Francona or Grady Little showing patience and support for a Red Sox player through thick and thin like that. Sox fans would have turned faster than cod from a Flatbush Ave. fishmonger you bought at 6pm.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Tue May 16, 04:03:00 PM:
Sox fans should be worried in particular to see Jonny Gomes and Vernon Wells (who is a dead ringer for Worf on Star Trek!) in the top 10 in OPS. Wells seems to have Boston's number these days. Interestingly enough, the Somerville Poodles, my fantasy team, has six members (Beltran, Tejada, Nick Johnson, Carlos Delgado, Glaus, and Blalock) in the top 50 in OPS, but the team ranks in the middle of the pack for OBP in my league. Behold, the power of the slugger.

I have warmed to Lowell (he leads the league in extra base hits), and I think many other people have or are on their way there. Hey, for a throw-in, all he had to do was be better than last year--but the question at this point is whether he can keep it up.

The support for Giambi is an interesting contrast to the way Yankee fans are turning on Randy Johnson. Newsday is pretty much calling for his head. Giambi has been around for a few years, sure, but he's no Bernie Williams when it comes to tenure in New York, and he didn't win a Series with the Yankees. It's impressive that he's turned around, but it could just as easily have gone the other way. I think Torre and Cashman took a gamble and got lucky. I don't know that I would have been as forgiving--as a fan of baseball more than anything else.

Sorry for the novel-length comment! Maybe I need my own sports blog.

Broken umbrellas and literary New York

The NY Times offers a guide to literary sites in New York City, and it sounds like they've been following Alice around:
...perhaps more than any other American city, New York has been a beacon to writers and a ready-made backdrop for novels. So much so that it's entirely possible to plan a vacation based solely around literary New York — to eat at the same restaurants, stay in the same hotels, explore the same city as a beloved fictional character. (Try that in, say, Tulsa.) This journey may reveal a fresh glimpse of a city that is, tantalizingly, never fully knowable. As the novelist Paul Auster writes in "The New York Trilogy:" "New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighborhoods and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost." Here, Mr. Auster is setting down the thoughts of his protagonist, Quinn, a mystery writer. But both men know that New York is a place worth getting lost in any time of the year. [emph added]
It's disappointing that writer Stephen Kurutz went so far as to quote Auster's City of Glass (Amazon, Wikipedia), but failed to mention the labyrinthine walking tour of Manhattan included in the book, which Alice once retraced on foot according to Auster's description.

This page dedicated to Auster's New York Trilogy (of which City of Glass is part 1) continues the connections to Alice, with a passage from Auster that I didn't notice when I read City of Glass:

When I say the word "umbrella", you see the object in your mind. You see a kind of stick, with collapsible metal spokes on top that form an armature for a waterproof material which, when opened, will protect you from the rain. This last detail is important. Not only is the umbrella a thing, it is a thing that performs a function - in other words, expresses the will of man... my question is this. What happens when a thing no longer performs its function? Is it still the thing, or has it become something else?
To assist in contemplating this, the author proceeds to MercBar, where he collaborates with a bartender to invent a drink they call the "Broken Umbrella":
The cocktail consists of three principal ingredients, each symbolizing different elements of this chapter: The umbrella is represented by Amazonian rainforest Acai berry juice; it is broken by the addition of vanilla vodka; and finally my seduction of the broken umbrella image is represented by a mixture of Godiva chocolate and creme de cocoa.
The Times can't compare with stuff like this. I mean, out of Lawrence Block's bajillion Bernie Rhodenbarr detective novels set in NYC, the only landmark Kurutz comes up with is the West Side's Morningstar Diner. Why not include the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, where Bernie was forced to pull off the daytime heist of a fake Mondrian, so he could use it to bait a killer?

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Blogger Alice on Tue May 16, 09:56:00 AM:
Here's the link to my list about umbrella corpses and bats (I'll add the City of Glass stuff eventually).
Anonymous Tove Hermanson on Sun Aug 30, 11:19:00 PM:
When I went to Paris the last time, I was plowing through the ex-pats' novels / (fake) auto-bios, etc. to get me in the mood. To entertain myself while my friend Ashley worked, I walked myself around using A Movable Feast as my general guide. It was so immensely satisfying, incorporating (many) pubs and cafes in addition to fountains and squares.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Antarctic Traveller

I was looking through the poetry section at a used bookstore the other day when I found Katha Pollitt's collection of poetry, Antarctic Traveller. Years ago, long before she started writing for the Nation, my dad cut out a copy of her poem "Archaeology" from the New Yorker and taped it to his office door, so I think I've read that poem a hundred times since I was little (that link to the poem comes from a talk she gave called "Emily Dickinson Had the Worst Taste in Men," which is a pretty great title). I decided not to buy the book, though.

I like to check the inscriptions in used books (Antarctic Traveller was a Christmas gift from Tom to Renee in 1983). A couple of years ago, my friend Graham sat next to a guy who was reading the collected poems of Pablo Neruda on the subway. When the guy's stop came, he accidentally left the copy of the book on the bench. He remembered it at the last second and Graham tried to hand it back to him, but the doors closed and he could only shrug about the lost book. Graham found an inscription on the inside cover--from Sara to Jonathan, with an ambiguous message I can't remember now--and he spent days concocting a soap opera of lost love for them. Jonathan--if the man on the train was in fact Jonathan and not someone who had bought it used--had dog-eared some pages and put checkmarks next to some of the odes. Everyone had a different take on the sentimental value of the book and the inscription.

I'm not much for writing inscriptions myself. If I give a copy of Lorrie Moore's Birds of America to someone as a gift, I sometimes mark my favorite paragraph (about the feminist film club in "Four Calling Birds") and make a note about how that passage is why I love Lorrie Moore so much.

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The Summers of their discontent

A recent Financial Times piece [registration required] by Graham Bowley connects a few of my favorite topics: Russia's development, institutional responsibility, and Larry Summers:
...near the end of the meeting [of Harvard's teaching faculty], Frederick Abernathy, an elderly, soft-spoken professor of engineering who had not talked publicly at a faculty meeting since Summers took office, stood up and asked what the president knew about the Andrei Shleifer affair.

Shleifer and his wife, Nancy Zimmerman, a former Goldman Sachs bond options trader, had invested in Russia in the 1990s, taking advantage of Shleifer's position as director of a Harvard project that oversaw the US government's aid programme in Russia helping with post-communist privatisation and establishing functioning capital markets.

The whole story was told in the latest edition of Institutional Investor, a leading investment magazine, and many of the professors in the room had read it. (Many had received photocopies of the story in unmarked envelopes in their faculty mailboxes.) In 2004, a judge in a federal district court in Boston found that Shleifer was liable for conspiring to defraud the US government by violating federal conflict-of-interest rules, and in August 2005 Harvard agreed to pay $26.5m after a long legal battle. (In the settlement, Shleifer himself paid a further $2m, although neither he nor Harvard admitted wrongdoing.) Despite the ruling, Shleifer was still a Harvard professor.

Shleifer was a close friend of Summers. The implication was that Summers was protecting his friend.

"I really think that Harvard was defending the indefensible," Abernathy told me later by e-mail. "It offended my sense of values and what I hope are the values of the institution." In fact, Harvard had not been able to start its own investigation until the government's case was settled, and since August a Harvard ethics committee had been looking into Shleifer's conduct but Summers was bound by faculty rules not to disclose this. In answer to Abernathy, Summers told the academics gathered in University Hall that because of his personal links he had disqualified himself from any of Harvard's dealings with Shleifer.

"We all saw that as a Washington lawyer's non-answer," a professor told me afterwards.

When pressed by Abernathy about whether he had any personal opinion about the case, Summers said he didn't know the facts.

"A gasp went around," said one person who was there. "The provost rolled his eyes. Afterwards, people were saying, 'Does he think we are children that he would lie to us?' It was the moment the presidency disappeared."

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Funeral in Israel

Friday, May 12, 2006

Kitsch and serendipity in translation

The most direct contact I have had with translation has been the books and papers my father has translated from German and French, and a few repeated stories about Jay Rubin, a family friend who is the head of the Harvard Japanese department as well as one of the translators of Haruki Murakami and the author of a book about Murakami's writings. I like Rubin best of Murakami's three Japanese-to-English translators (Rubin, Philip Gabriel and Arnold Birnbaum), but not everyone agrees.

Wendy Lesser several years ago wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that, having read Gabriel's translations of three Murakami novels, she disliked Rubin's Wind up Bird Chronicle. Curious, she compares each translator's take on the same passage:

When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini's The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.

I wanted to ignore the phone, not only because the spaghetti was nearly done, but because Claudio Abbado was bringing the London Symphony to its musical climax.


I'm in the kitchen cooking spaghetti when the woman calls. Another moment until the spaghetti is done; there I am, whistling the prelude to Rossini's La Gazza Ladra along with the FM radio. Perfect spaghetti-cooking music.

I hear the telephone ring but tell myself, Ignore it. Let the spaghetti finish cooking. It's almost done, and besides, Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra are coming to a crescendo.

Lesser prefers the second translator, Birnbaum; I prefer the first. But that may just be because I am used to Rubin's take on Murakami's upbeat, light, young characters' narrative voices. As Lesser says about Birnbaum's prose, Rubin's has become "my voice-in-the-ear version of Murakami".

It must be tough to adapt someone's style, weighing literal repetition of their sentences against a different cultural context, finding matches for expressions and words that just can't translate without changing the way they sound.

In recognition of the difficulty of translation, a worldwide poll of translators was recently conducted to determine the toughest words to translate. The winner was "ilunga", a "Tshiluba [central African tribe] word for a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time; to tolerate it a second time; but never a third time." According to the press release, the rest of the Top 10 list was:

  • "shlimazl" (Yiddish for a chonically unlucky person)
  • "radioukacz" (Polish for a person who worked as a telegraphist for the resistance movements on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain)
  • "naa" (Japanese word only used in the Kansai area of Japan, to emphasise statements or agree with someone)
  • "altahmam" (Arabic for a kind of deep sadness)
  • "gezellig" (Dutch for cosy)
  • "saudade" (Portuguese for a certain type of longing)
  • "selathirupavar" (Tamil for a certain type of truancy)
  • "pochemuchka" (Russian for a person who asks a lot of questions)
  • "klloshar" (Albanian for loser)
Going by the press release's single-word translations, "gezellig" and "kiloshar" don't seem so tough after all, though I suppose nuance has been lost.

As for English words that are hard to translate, the winners were:

  1. plenipotentiary
  2. gobbledegook
  3. serendipity
  4. poppycock
  5. googly
  6. Spam
  7. whimsy
  8. bumf (which means printed matter of little importance)
  9. chuffed (made a loud noise such as an engine puff or chug)
  10. kitsch
I pity the translator of "googly", but "chuff" must have analogues in most languages, and "poppycock" can be translated like "nonsense" if you are willing to sacrifice the feeling of the word.

Whatever the difficulties of translation, it is clear that computers are not yet up to the task, judging by the state of online translation. Altavista's "Babelfish" free translator, named after the universal translating animal in the Hitchhiker's Guide books, takes the opening of the Gettysburg Address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
And, after translating this into Dutch, then from there to French, then Spanish, and back to English, returns:
If years our undergone parents who contribute themselves next on this continent, a new nation devotes itself, priss in freedom, and to the proposal that all people gecree are equal, celebrate the result and sept. now, been we have occupied with a great civil war that can support or this nation, or any nation as much taken and so specific, test long time.

Don't short Berlitz just yet.

Finally, J.M. Coetzee has a great set of comments about his experience with translators:

Working on the Serbian translation of Elizabeth Costello, AB [one of my translators] met an unexpected obstacle when she transliterated Elizabeth's name into Cyrillic characters.

Elizabeth looks forward to seeing her writings on the library shelves among such great Cs as Chaucer, Coleridge and Conrad. Then with dismay she realises than her nearest neighbour is likely to be Marie Corelli.

The first problem is that in Serbian, Chaucer, unlike Coleridge, Corelli and Costello, is not spelled with an initial K.

AB: Should I drop Chaucer, or replace him with, say, Keats? Corelli is a K, but the allusion would be lost on Serbian readers. May I insert an adjective like "sentimental" or "very minor"?

JMC: Drop Chaucer. Then I suggest you consult a Serbian-language encyclopedia and pick out a minor English-language writer near to Kostelo.

AB: Minor writers: only the popular ones get into foreign encyclopedias. Agatha Christie, James Fenimore Cooper, A.J. Cronin?

JMC: Agatha Christie, I think.

A negative experience with translation makes him wonder if translation should be the subject of more concerted academic study:
Waiting for the Barbarians was first translated into German in 1984. By common consent this translation was not a success, and the book has since been retranslated. Why was the first translation a failure? The translator could read my English perfectly competently, word by word and sentence by sentence, and turn it into adequate German prose.

Yet as I read the text she produced I felt more and more disquieted: the world that her pages evoked was, in subtle and not so subtle respects, not the world I had imagined; the narrator whose voice I was hearing was not the narrator I had conceived.

In part this was a matter of word choice: given a choice between two valid options, the translator seemed more often than not to choose the one I would not have chosen.

But in the main it was a matter of rhythm of speech but also rhythm of thought. The sensibility behind the German text, a sensibility embodied in particular in the speech of the narrator, felt alien to me.
This leads to my final question: Is there a high road (a highway) to excellence in translation, and might that high road be provided by a theory of translation? Would mastery of the theory of translation make one a better translator? There is a legitimate branch of aesthetics called the theory of literature. But I doubt very much that there is or can be such a thing as a theory of translation - not one, at any rate, from which practitioners of translation will have much to learn.

Among practices that take a great deal of knowledge and experience, translation is the subject of relatively little academic focus. How many college undergraduates take a course in translation?

Also, I wonder if there have been authors who, unlike Coetzee, are surprised to find themselves liking their writing more in translation than in the original?

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Blogger Jenny Davidson on Fri May 12, 12:15:00 PM:
Thanks for that great Coetzee link; I love the Agatha Christie detail.

I have to say I much prefer the Birnbaum version of the passage to the other, it's so much more colloquial & age-appropriate. (Murakami is also an interesting example because he's so obviously influenced by American writing, which makes the English-language translator's task in many respects more straightforward, no?) But I take your point about voice-in-the-ear versions.
Anonymous Anonymous on Fri May 12, 04:12:00 PM:
I liked the list of difficult-to-translate words. Yiddish as a whole is probably the worst offender in that category, if my personal experience is an indicator. My grandmother grew up speaking Yiddish and seems to think in it a good deal of the time, and she also believes that other people have an inborn knowledge of Yiddish (you eat enough kasha and gefilte fish and the language will seep into your bloodstream). We have a lot of family conversations that go like this:

Grandma: [blah blah in Yiddish] And you know what that means, right?
Katy: Uhh, no... not really...
Grandma: It means... well... it's difficult to explain, but...

And then a 20-minute argument ensues as other family members dispute the meaning of some idiomatic Yiddish phrase involving death/the messiah/ungrateful grandchildren/eating/what have you. Yiddish operates in its own world, and that's the problem with translating it--you need to get the "oy, I should be so lucky" outlook in there somehow, and the literal meaning tends not to be as important.
Blogger Ben on Tue May 16, 09:45:00 AM:
My grandfather is constantly saying Yiddish phrases, and my mother nods along, and they ask me "You know what that means, right?" I usually think I do, but then can't put it into words, and I'm often wrong. I guess that's what happens to the first generation of kids to really not know a language--they know it well enough to hang out with Grandpa, but not well enough to be able to tell their own kids one day what the words mean.
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Abe Rosenthal dead at 84, incl. 61 years as a journalist

In the New York Observer, Charles Kaiser remembers NY Times editor Abe Rosenthal, who died yesterday:
Rosenthal was famously quotable, although competing publications weren’t always smart enough to use his comments. When a Watergate tape revealed that Richard Nixon had said, “I don’t give a shit what happens, I want you all to stonewall it,” The Times ... The Times printed shit for the first time, though only in the text of the tape, and not in the accompanying news story.
When a Newsweek reporter called Rosenthal to ask if this was a seismic change in the paper’s standards, he replied, “No. We’ll only take shit from the President.”
But the magazine never printed that.

Much more widely circulated was his reaction when it was revealed that Times reporter Laura Foreman had been sleeping with Pennsylvania state Sen. Henry J. "Buddy" Cianfrani, when she had been covering the politician for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I don’t care if my reporters are fucking elephants,” said Rosenthal, “as long as they aren’t covering the circus.” Then he fired Foreman.

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Proper propaganda

The new "Fast Talk Nation" anti-Eric Schlosser propaganda site is mind-bogglingly bad.

Its main attraction, a myth-vs-fact page, grasps at more straws than a teenager with headgear:The lead "myth" is a Schlosser quote from Fast Food Nation where he says "In some cases... the fast food industry has been a catalyst and a symptom of larger economic trends. In other cases ... fast food has played a more central role."

Are you feeling a desire to browse away from this right now and go check your email? That's because the quote is boring and inoffensive.

Ready for Schlosser to be blown out of the water? Here's the big reveal:

  • "In 1991 Arby's Became The First Fast Food Restaurant To Introduce... Three Sandwiches And Four Salads, All Less Than 300 Calories And 94% Fat Free..."
  • "Wendy’s Led The Industry With A Salad Bar In 1979, And Continues To Offer Healthy Options."
So fast food restaurants serve some stuff that won't kill you. By the way, we also serve water, which is not only not bad for you, but has been proven to be healthy! Also, um... catalyst!

But the best part is the response to Schlosser's innocuous call for "a single food safety agency, higher standards for food safety", unions, etc.:

"Schlosser Wants to Regulate Fast Food, But Not Marijuana!" Or rather, he wants both to be regulated and not advertised aggressively. Anyway, fuck 'im!

I feel called to offer my services to them as an experienced propagandist on principle. Really, don't they know there's an army of young conservative college students who can write better stuff than this while they sleep through the women's studies courses they're taking in order to write a damning memoir?

(No, I'm not jealous of any of my former schoolmates' current success.)


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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Savoir Frere: skip the wit, Sasha

(Now that there are so many out-of-work headline pun writers, can I get a little help here? This post's headline is killing me.)

So I'm reading Jody Rosen, in Slate, discussing the state of rock criticism...

This turn of events isn't all that surprising. Inevitably, each generation of critics will swoop in to adjust the excesses of the previous, and besides, current pop is dominated by sonically adventurous hip-hop and dance music while rock's commercial power and cultural influence is on the wane. I also suspect that many of my colleagues, like me, have embraced the anti-rockist critique with particular fervor as a kind of penance, atoning for past rockist misdeeds—for the party line we'd swallowed whole in our formative years and maybe even parroted under our bylines.
...and I'm reading about Sasha Frere-Jones (if I were Spiderman, he and David Denby would be Venom and Carnage) sorta calling poor, whiny Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields a sorta-racist because he included so few black artists in his awesome list of one awesome piece of music from every year in the 20th century (though Public Enemy, Michael Jackson, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Dionne Warwick, and Screamin' Jay Hawkins did make the cut)...

...and I'm reading SF/J (Sasha's self-assigned moniker) prose like:

And what to make of “Underwater,” a lighthearted and goofy song produced by the rapper and producer MF Doom, who is responsible for four of the album’s twenty-three tracks? The sound is odd and noisy, reminiscent of early Wu-Tang songs produced by The RZA. Flutes swoop around the beat and gurgling water punctuates Ghostface’s ungangsterlike reverie of being “lost underwater”...
...and I'm thinking, who needs it? When was the last time, besides the condensed Lester Bangs, that I actually enjoyed reading music crit?

What I want from music criticism is a tiny bit of wit and a lot of worthwhile recommendations. Or to be more precise, very few recommendations, that are really worth it. That's more or less what I get from the Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics' poll, but it's not hard to see the bias towards popular-and-good-but-not-great that a poll brings.

Really, wouldn't most music reviewers be better if each of his/her articles consisted of just a single album recommendation, together with 50 words? "Try 'Underwater', track 8--Ghostface gets silly." Or "New Pearl Jam album--better but still bad. Just listen to Ten again." Done.

I've pretty much stopped reading movie reviews because the recommendations I get on Movie Lens, which are based on my ratings of the movies I've seen, are so much more useful. (To their credit, few music reviewers demand that their readers waste their time on stuff as bad as Crash and Russian Ark, although then again there's The Streets...)

Maybe it's time to try, which:

...creates personalized radio stations for every profile, so if you find someone you like the look of you can tune in to a station that plays their sort of music. radio is a good-quality (128kbps) MP3 stream which works flawlessly with the Player. (pictured left). The player is Free, Open Source, and available for Windows, Mac and Linux.
I wonder, in fact, why in this age of ever-briefer media why publications like the New York Press don't focus their unspectacular music reviewing (as opposed to their movie reviewing, which is good) into something that could attract the impatient millions who never pick up their paper: running a single, big, recommendation of an unknown album every issue. It would play a practical function: you don't have time to listen to 100 albums per week, we do; this was the best one you would never have heard of without us. Wouldn't that move papers and sell ads?

Or is music just inherently more subjective a matter of taste than movies or books? I hardly ever read a rave review of a book, only to buy it and decide it's not so great (although this has been happening more lately, for example with Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore). This sometimes happens with movies, but for the most part I can trust that approval from the NY Times or Village Voice means a movie is worth seeing. But as for music, I'll dislike a recommended album as often as like it, and there's no one whose advice I've had good luck taking. Is it that way for other people?

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Blogger Alice on Thu May 11, 06:10:00 PM:
You think the movie reviews in New York Press are good? Armond White's bombastic, occasionally incomprehensible reviews are terrible. Too often, he resorts to damning other critics and artists in parentheses or asides--a cheap move if you ask me. Are movie reviews suppose to ridicule readers, or do they invite them to look at a film in a different way? Even when I agree with one of White's criticisms, I find myself disagreeing with the ends to which he takes them (for instance, I saw what he was saying about "Cache" but didn't think that other critics only liked it because it was bland):

I also don't like being berated for not liking every single movie Steven Spielberg or James L. Brooks has ever done. White's music criticism--here's an example from Slate--is over-determined, too:

"Because Morrissey has few champions among those mainstream American pop critics preoccupied with business-as-usual routines by Pink, T.I., Beth Orton, and the Arctic Monkeys, the millennial vision and excitement—the progress—of Ringleader has been overlooked."

Can Morissey's new album be good without other music critics being fools? (Also, the only Beth Orton I've heard lately was on a car commercial, so her new album can't be that overhyped, and saying the Arctic Monkeys are overexposed is like shooting [to quote D.Sloane] monkeys in a barrel). There's more:

"That doesn't mean he's made a political record in the conventional sense. Morrissey, too clever for Bono's po-faced sincerity, eschews the self-congratulatory earnestness of the maudlin sloganeers and the peacenik righteousness of Vietnam-era pop musicians. Instead, Ringleader is aggrieved—candidly personal yet vividly reportorial. The songs are full of the mixed emotions that characterize our conflicted allegiances. Whatever one's position on Iraq, Gitmo, or that mosque down the street, Morrissey's perspicacity fits the mood through his indulgence of complex, contradictory feelings."

That's a lot of big words and backhanded insults to characterize a "complex" album.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Friends with money keep the $30 entrees flying

A recent NY Times article by Jennie Yabroff uses a review of the new film "Friends with Money" to discuss the awkward ways that differences of wealth divide friends and acquaintances:
In an early scene the friends are gathered for dinner when Olivia, a former schoolteacher played by Jennifer Aniston, announces that she has started working as a maid. A few moments later Franny, played by Joan Cusack, says she and her husband will be making a $2 million donation to their child's elementary school. When another friend asks why Franny doesn't just give the money to Olivia, everyone laughs uncomfortably and the subject is changed.
When I was about eight, my best friend had parents who struggled with money in a way mine didn't. My parents certainly emphasized thrift (I still can't stand to see anyone leave the refrigerator door open for a single unnecessary second) and I don't think they were able to build up much savings around this time, but they just didn't communicate any anxiety over money. Not so with my friend's parents, who were extremely conscious of money, constantly worried about it, and always quick to point out any tiny excess--I was ridiculed by my friend's father when I slept over once because I used too much toothpaste on my toothbrush.

Looking back, the surprising thing is how close our families' incomes actually were--my friend's parents were lecturers at Harvard with two children, and mine were psychologists with five children paying an enormous mortgage, with no extra support from their own parents or other wealth. But a few thousand dollars per year can mean the difference between constant budgeting and a relaxed but careful attitude towards money.

(Is this a good time to mention that I have made exactly $1500 so far this year? It's May right now. I guess that's a story for another time.)

As the Times article points out, anxiety between friends over money is often not a matter of traditional class differences, but rather that within the middle class, professionals who live and work side by side and share similar cultural backgrounds can have very different incomes:

Perhaps the most fraught social ritual of all when it comes to money and friendship is the settling of a restaurant bill. "I know wealthy people who are extremely troubled by the whole idea of who's going to pay the bill," Mr. Johnson said. "They're terrified for hours before it happens."

He said he has found himself arguing over the check with a dining companion who was not as wealthy. "Sometimes people feel obligated to buy me dinner because they don't want me to think I'm expected to pay for the meal," he said. "I don't really appreciate it. If anything, I think it's unfortunate that people feel that uncertainty."

This topic reminds me of one of my favorite books, George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which has a wikipedia summary, was made into a movie with Helena Bonham-Carter, and whose text you can read in its entirety online. (An aspidistra is a hardy plant related to the rubber tree that Orwell's main character, Gordon, sees as a symbol of quaint middle-class life, and which he alternately loathes and longs for.)

Orwell opens Aspidistra with an adapted version of I Corinthians 13:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not money, I am become as a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not money, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not money, it profiteth me nothing. Money suffereth long, and is kind; money envieth not; money vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. . . . And now abideth faith, hope, money, these three; but the greatest of these is money.
The few times I have been out in New York City with very wealthy friends, I have experienced the sort of grace that money allows, which Orwell finds described in Corinthians; luxury is not merely about getting such nice things, it is about the joy of being able to do something exceptional, to drive in an extraordinary vehicle, to make decisions spontaneously that might have seemed out of reach, to make the impossible possible. When plentiful money is at work it can slip out of sight, making the world into what we fantasize that it can be--a place where wonderful things happen, where there are pleasant coincidences and surprises.

When money is not plentiful, it can rise up and introduce shame at any moment, because so many tiny decisions involve balancing desire with the anticipated need to pay money, the amounts of which are often uncertain. This happens, torturously, throughout Aspidistra:

Gordon and Rosemary had halted in the doorway. The people at the table were already eyeing them with offensive upper-middle-class eyes. Gordon and Rosemary looked tired and dirty, and they knew it. The notion of ordering bread and cheese and beer had almost vanished from their minds. In such a place as this you couldn't possibly say 'Bread and cheese and beer'; 'Lunch' was the only thing you could say. There was nothing for it but 'Lunch' or flight. The waiter was almost openly contemptuous. He had summed them up at a glance as having no money; but also he had divined that it was in their minds to fly and was determined to stop them before they could escape.

'[Sir]?' he demanded, lifting his tray off the table.

Now for it! Say 'Bread and cheese and beer', and damn the consequences! Alas! his courage was gone. 'Lunch' it would have to be. With a seeming-careless gesture he thrust his hand into his pocket. He was feeling his money to make sure that it was still there. Seven and elevenpence left, he knew. The waiter's eye followed the movement; Gordon had a hateful feeling that the man could actually see through the cloth and count the money in his pocket. In a tone as lordly as he could make it, he remarked:

'Can we have some lunch, please?'

Things go badly from there:
The waiter retired and came back with a folded slip on a salver. Gordon opened it. Six and threepence--and he had exactly seven and elevenpence in the world! Of course he had known approximately what the bill must be, and yet it was a shock now that it came. He stood up, felt in his pocket, and took out all his money. The sallow young waiter, his salver on his arm, eyed the handful of money; plainly he divined that it was all Gordon had. Rosemary also had got up and come round the table. She pinched Gordon's elbow; this was a signal that she would like to pay her share. Gordon pretended not to notice. He paid the six and threepence, and, as he turned away, dropped another shilling on to the salver. The waiter balanced it for a moment on his hand, flicked it over, and then slipped it into his waistcoat pocket with the air of covering up something unmentionable.
Gordon and Rosemary later start making out on a secluded hillside, and begin to have sex, but then Rosemary pulls away, and they begin to argue:
'But what else can we do? I can't have a baby, can I?'

'You must take your chance.'

'Oh, Gordon, how impossible you are!'

She lay looking up at him, her face full of distress, too overcome for the moment even to remember that she was naked. His disappointment had turned to anger. There you are, you see! Money again! Even the most secret action of your life you don't escape it; you've still got to spoil everything with filthy cold-blooded precautions for money's sake. Money, money, always money! Even in the bridal bed, the finger of the money-god intruding! In the heights or in the depths, he is there. He walked a pace or two up and down, his hands in his pockets.

All through the first half of the book, Gordon, who is a writer, thinks up various lines for a poem that is slowly coming to him. After the experience of money getting in the way of his having sex with Rosemary, the end of the poem comes to him, and Orwell provides it to the reader in full:
Sharply the menacing wind sweeps over
The bending poplars, newly bare,
And the dark ribbons of the chimneys
Veer downward; flicked by whips of air,

Torn posters flutter; coldly sound
The boom of trains and the rattle of hooves,
And the clerks who hurry to the station
Look, shuddering, over the eastern rooves,

Thinking, each one, ‘Here comes the winter!
Please God I keep my job this year!’
And bleakly, as the cold strikes through
Their entrails like an icy spear,

They think of rent, rates, season tickets,
Insurance, coal, the skivvy’s wages,
Boots, school-bills, and the next instalment
Upon the two twin beds from Drage’s.

For if in careless summer days
In groves of Ashtaroth we whored,
Repentant now, when winds blow cold,
We kneel before our rightful lord;

The lord of all, the money-god,
Who rules us blood and hand and brain,
Who gives the roof that stops the wind,
And, giving, takes away again;

Who spies with jealous, watchful care,
Our thoughts, our dreams, our secret ways,
Who picks our words and cuts our clothes,
And maps the pattern of our days;

Who chills our anger, curbs our hope,
And buys our lives and pays with toys,
Who claims as tribute broken faith,
Accepted insults, muted joys;

Who binds with chains the poet’s wit,
The navvy’s strength, the soldier’s pride,
And lays the sleek, estranging shield
Between the lover and his bride.

I love this poem. Orwell, who struggled to write good poems much of his early career and never thought himself any good at it, writes his best poem through the voice of one of his agonized characters, and it's chilling.

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