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Friday, March 31, 2006

Archive fever, vol. V

The New York Times ran a great special section on Museums on Wednesday. Some highlights:

How do you preserve digital art and other variable media (performance art, interactive displays, pieces made of hardware that has or will soon become obsolete)? Several art institutions have joined together to propose models for creative preservation, but the article doesn't address smaller galleries that may be the first or only venues for some variable media art. Here's a link to Rhizome, a group for digital artists that's working with some museums on possibilities for digital archives. The director of digital media at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives, Richard Rinehart, is quoted in the article:
"Digital art, like all art, may be at the forefornt of a larger question. ... What is rapidly developing is this black hole. In the future, people may look back and be able to see what was happening in the 18th century, the 19th century, and then will come a period in which we cannot tell what artists were working on. But this is not limited to the art world. This problem about retaining thigs will be for our collective social memory, and it will be of concern to everyone in every walk of life. Government documents, for example."

Still, he added, the heart of computer-generated art "separates the logical from the physical."

"We have worried about preserving the physical," he said. "Perhaps we should be worreid more about preserving the logical." Mr. Rinehart has written academic proposals for creating documentation that is more akin to a music score--with work recognizable even if some of the period instruments at the time of creation are changed.

Edward Rothstein, who's quickly becoming one of my favorite Times critics for his Connections series, wrote an article about repatriation of collections of Native American artifacts and skeletons in museums:
In the Kennewick case, scientists sued the government and ultimately won the right to examine the bones, something that is now taking place. (DNA testing has not demonstrated any genetic connection between the skeleton and contemporary peoples.) But museums have taken a different course: they are transforming themselves under the law's pressures.

According to federal statistics, by 2005, remains of more than 30,000 individuals had been "deacquisitioned," along with more than 500,000 funerary and sacred objects. The effects have been profound, not because of the loss of the objects from museums, but because the law enforced a way of thinking about them. In the protection act's version of "cultural patrimony," it is not just ownership of an individual object that can be called into question, but the possession of all objects from an Indian culture. The "repatriation" has also led to consultations in which tribal leaders become involved even in the treatment of objects that are not repatriated, able to help mold their interpretation, to guide research about their pasts and to influence how they are displayed.

Rothstein discusses David Hurst Thomas's Skull Wars at length. It's a fascinating subject.

Here's a cool piece about the Exploratorium web site. The Exploratorium is one of my favorite museums. I haven't been there in years, but I'm positive I would have just as much fun as I did when I was a kid. This page has a photo of San Francisco rendered in Jell-O.

I want to read more of these interviews with popular art historians about their dream exhibitions. Here's Francine Prose on the color black as an organizing principle:
Black has been very much on the mind of Ms. Prose, whose "Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles" was published last fall. While writing the book, she said, "I thought how revolutionary, how nervy, how extraordinary his use of black was."

Then, in the spring of 2003, Ms. Prose visited the Metropolitan Museum to see "Manet/Velázquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting," which she reviewed favorably for The Wall Street Journal. There, she said, "I kept thinking — the thing that no one is talking about, what carries over, is the black." It's almost as if Caravaggio, who no doubt influenced Velázquez, should have had a little anteroom at the Met exhibition all his own.

Caravaggio's work would inaugurate Ms. Prose's exhibition — the first work would be his "Flagellation of Christ," which is now in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, Italy. Next would come a Velázquez, either "The Jester Pablo de Valladolid" or "The Adoration of the Magi," both owned by the Prado. John Singer Sargent's "Madame X," from the Met's collection, would be there, as would Manet's "Dead Toreador" from the National Gallery of Art. Taking the show into contemporary times, Ms. Prose said she would pick something by Ad Reinhart — perhaps his "Abstract Painting," 1960-66, from the Whitney Museum of American Art or perhaps "Abstract Painting No. 4," from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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Wackypedias

In response to Alice's mention of the Britannica-Nature-Wikipedia bickering--

It's pretty satisfying to find out that Britannica has as many errors per article as Wikipedia. What's amazing though is the existence of great articles in on subjects too insignificant to merit inclusion in EB... look up chess-playing software, or failed aerodynamic theories, or the East Village, and you get info that EB just doesn't have... at least not the 15th edition from circa 1980, which my father obtained in the process of divorcing his first wife (you get the car, I get the Britannica).

He also had an ancient, fraying 14th edition, as well as an Oxford English Dictionary--one of those ultra-compact, 4-pages-to-1, 2-volume monsters that comes with a magnifying glass, which they should revive because it makes doing research feel really cool.

Whenever I hear about class and race differences in the degree to which a student's home environment supports his or her education, I think about that Britannica set. I consulted it for school scores of times. I could have used my schools' crappy World Books, I guess, but you can't beat last-minute, same-school-day cribbing from the Britannica.

Incidentally, I searched britannica.com to find the edition numbers my dad has, but all I found was a fawnine and low-substance summary of the encyclopedia's history. Wikipedia found a full version history of the Britannica right away.

By the way, if the Britannica stewards want to quash the notion that novelty is fast becoming the primary function of their printed volumes, they might want to reconsider their pricing. On their website, the standard print edition is $1000, but the Limited Edition Britannica Renaissance Suite--which "makes a statement on any bookshelf"--is $2500. I'm afraid that writing "such renowned individuals as Carl Sagan, Milton Friedman, and many Nobel Laureates" doesn't beat Wikipedia anymore. I don't trust Sagan or Friedman more than a crowd of random internet editors, and I wonder how many Nobel Laureates have edited Wikipedia? Not currently more than Britannica, but that won't be true forever.

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racial test gap

http://www.freakonomics.com/blog/2006/03/13/new-evidence-on-racial-test-score-gaps/

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remote prayer

http://www.uic.edu/classes/psych/psych242f/spring2004/targ.htm
http://dailygrail.com/node/2813
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=10547166
http://www.freethoughtfirefighters.org/remote_prayer_report_misrepresen.htm
http://www.religioustolerance.org/medical6.htm

esalen
http://wwwcdf.pd.infn.it/~loreti/science.html
http://www.esalenctr.org/index.cfm

Sir John Templeton: http://wired-vig.wired.com/wired/archive/7.06/sir_john.html?pg=1&topic=&topic_set=

leads with:
The Lord is my banker; my credit is good. He maketh me to lie down in the consciousness of omnipresent abundance; He giveth me the key to His strongbox. He restoreth my faith in His riches; He guideth me in the paths of prosperity for His Name's sake. Yea, though I walk in the very shadow of debt, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me; Thy silver and Thy gold, they secure me. Thou preparest a way for me in the presence of the collector; Thou fillest my wallet with plenty; my measure runneth over. Surely goodness and plenty will follow me all the days of my life, And I shall do business in the name of the Lord forever. Charles Fillmore, 1915

...
Letters, faxes, email, and phone calls find their way to Unity Village from all over the world, containing pleas for health and prosperity, for redemption from sins, for power over bad habits, and for the banishment of anxiety and negative thoughts. In the center of the quiet campus of the Unity School of Christianity, under a high cupola where a light burns 24 hours a day, the small staff of the school's prayer service, Silent Unity, makes sure that every request is prayed for and - unless anonymity is requested - acknowledged with a note. This ongoing prayer service is free, nonsectarian, more than 100 years old, and the subject of its first rigorous, multiyear, double-blind scientific test.

Belief in the ability of prayer to affect events has been a mainstay of religion forever, and has at times provoked scientific curiosity. Silent Unity is one of four prayer groups providing subjects for research on the effect of intercessory prayer on health, a study originally funded two and a half years ago. Supervised by Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School, the study may revolutionize science, since there is no known mechanism for prayer-induced healing.
...
"If spiritual leaders would begin to use scientific research, experimental scientific research, there is no reason we couldn't multiply spiritual information like we have multiplied scientific information."

Few churches have responded to the suggestion that they reform their doctrines with the help of science. Sir John acknowledges that most religious denominations, and most religious individuals, would reject the notion that the essential doctrines of their faith could be improved or amended through research. He intends to meet this resistance head-on. In order to have solid evidence to back up the campaign, Sir John is committed to funding the relevant science himself. "We expect to spend about $40 million next year," he says, "and that is probably more than has been spent on research into spiritual information in history.
...

Not everything Templeton is curious about has received the imprimatur of mainstream scientists and scientific institutions. Of all his convictions, the philanthropist's strong belief that the power of prayer is demonstrable offers the greatest potential for embarrassment. Such investigations have been dogged by failure. Larry Dossey, in his best-selling book on prayer and medicine, Healing Words, reviews this discouraging history back to 1872, when Sir Francis Galton pointed out that neither clergy, supposed to be the prayingest of people, nor royalty, supposed to be among the most prayed-for, lived longer or more healthful lives than their nonpraying, non-prayed-for compatriots. Nor do prayers for male offspring in India or China, where such prayers are common, seem to affect male-female birth ratios.

One of the best-known prayer studies, whose results were published in the Southern Medical Journal in 1988, was carried out by Randolph Byrd in a coronary-care unit at San Francisco General Hospital. Three hundred ninety-three patients were randomly assigned by a computer to two groups: one that was prayed for and one that was not. Over the course of 10 months, home-prayer groups of believing Christians prayed daily for "a rapid recovery and for prevention of complications and death." Each patient was prayed for by five to seven Christians. Byrd's study drew widespread notice because it appeared to produce positive results, with the patients who were prayed for showing less need for antibiotics and proving less vulnerable to certain cardiac problems.

The Templeton Growth Fund, started in 1954, has an average annual return of 14.3 percent. Sir John's secret: find value in places that are generally scorned.

However, in the decade since Byrd's report was published, its conclusions have been undermined by criticisms both of its design and of its statistical analysis, and few scientists have been tempted to retrace Byrd's steps. Recently, the Templeton Foundation succeeded in recruiting Benson, head of the Harvard-affiliated Mind-Body Medical Institute, to try again. Benson is not anxious to share the details of his research before publication, but he has said that the prayer study is a multiyear project involving hundreds of cardiac patients at many medical centers. Harper says the study should be complete by late 1999. Silent Unity's prayer teams are participating in the study, presumably praying for distant patients who have no knowledge that prayers for them are being said.
...

But Templeton, who was knighted in 1987, has devoted the main portion of his philanthropy to his interfaith, or, as he prefers, "open-minded" campaign for religious progress. To advertise the great importance of diverse religious traditions, he created the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, and to stress that spiritual accomplishments are worth more than secular ones, he makes sure the cash value of the prize is always higher than that of the Nobel. The first prize was awarded to Mother Teresa, in 1973 - six years before she was recognized by the Nobel committee - and other recipients have included Baba Amte, a Hindu scholar and philanthropist; Lord Jakobovits, Britain's chief rabbi; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; and Billy Graham. This year's $1.2 million prize was awarded to Ian Barbour, a theologian and nuclear physicist.

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Thursday, March 30, 2006

broken windows (done, but nothing special)

In 2006, the Boston Globe ran an article called "The cracks in 'broken windows'", that demolishes that view on fighting crime:

[University of Chicago law professor Bernard] Harcourt and [Georgetown University public policy professor Jens] Ludwig also use the results of a Department of Housing and Urban Development program to suggest that neighborhood disorder has no effect on criminality. In the HUD program, public housing tenants from cities including New York and Boston were moved from inner-city projects to safer, more orderly neighborhoods. Contrary to what broken windows would suggest, there was no decrease in criminality among the relocated public-housing tenants: They continued to offend at the same rates in their new, more orderly neighborhoods as they did in their disorderly ones.

''There's no good evidence that disorder causes crime [or] that broken windows policing reduces serious crime in a neighborhood," Harcourt says.

Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson and University of Michigan education professor Stephen Raudenbush argue that even if you agree with Kelling and Wilson that disorder begets crime, it doesn't mean there's anything the police can do about it. Their research, they believe, shows that perceptions of a neighborhood aren't so much determined by things like graffiti as they are by race.

In their study, researchers toured a set of Chicago neighborhoods in an SUV and counted, literally, all the physical signs of decay. They then compared this data with interviews of residents about how disordered they believed their neighborhoods to be. They found that the actual level of physical disorder-the number of boarded-up buildings, for example-wasn't the most important factor in making people think their neighborhood was disordered: It was the number of black, and to a lesser extent Latino, neighbors. And it wasn't just white residents who felt this way-black and Latino residents exhibited the same racial bias.

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Massive multiplayer fact-checking

Julian Sanchez of Reason Magazine writes about the Washington Post's Ben Domenech, hired as a conservative blogger and then forced to resign days later after bloggers noticed he plagiarized parts of several articles earlier in his career. Bloggers did what the Post's HR staff did not, or, as Sanchez argues, could not. The task is just too large for a few people, but not too large for thousands of energetic dorks avoiding their bosses' gaze:
Maybe someone saw a phrase they thought looked familiar and started Googling. Once the first instance of apparent plagiarism was spotted and blogged, thousands more began looking through that same body of writing, perhaps with each individual only checking a few pieces, a few phrases at a time. The same task would have taken a committed body of researchers days, but because the task was what Net theorist Yochai Benkler would call highly modular and granular—capable of being broken up into highly fine-grained microtasks—a distributed swarm of bloggers was able to accomplish it incredibly quickly, turning up many more instances in a matter of hours.
Sanchez notes, however, that this advantage does not make blogs better than newspapers, just different:
The blogosphere's virtues on this front are not necessarily the Post's defects, any more than it's a problem with the blogosphere per se that it's less well suited to producing intensive, sustained investigative reporting on stories that aren't similarly modular and granular. They're different kinds of information systems with different comparative advantages.
This comes at the same time as news that the US government is using the distributed skills of internet users to translate a huge trove of once-classified internal documents of Saddam Hussein's goverment:
The documents' value is uncertain--intelligence officials say that they are giving each one a quick review to remove anything sensitive. Skeptics of the war, suspicious of the Bush administration, believe that means the postings are either useless or cherry-picked to bolster arguments for the war.
...
There are up to 55,000 boxes, with possibly millions of pages. The documents are being posted a few at a time--so far, about 600--on a Pentagon Web site, often in Arabic with an English summary.
...
"The secret of the 21st century is attract a lot of smart people to focus on problems that you think are important," said Glenn Reynolds, the conservative blogger at Instapundit.com ...
This trend owes a lot to Distributed Proofreading, an offshoot of public domain e-book library Project Gutenberg. Distributed Proofreading scans books that have fallen into the public domain, then uses optical character recognition software to generate best-guess text files from the scanned images. On their website, anyone can proofread the books, one page at a time.

From their front page:
When a proofreader elects to proofread a page of a particular book, the text and image file are displayed on a single web page. This allows the page text to be easily reviewed and compared to the image file, thus assisting the proofreading of the page text. The edited text is then submitted back to the site via the same web page that it was edited on. A second proofreader is then presented with the work of the first proofreader and the page image. Once they have verified the work of the first proofreader and corrected any additional errors the page text is again submitted back to the site. The book then progresses through two formatting rounds using the same web interface.

Once all pages for a particular book have been processed, a post-processor joins the pieces, properly formats them into a Project Gutenberg e-book and submits it to the Project Gutenberg archive.

It's going well: they just celebrated their 8,000th digitized book, W.E.B. DuBois's The Suppression of the African Slave-trade to the United States.

Distributed projects like this bear more than a passing resemblance to massive multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) like EverQuest, World of Warcraft and Second Life. There's even a page on Wikipedia's ever-fascinating Meta-Wikipedia site that lists reasons why Wikipedia might be considered to be an MMORPG:
  • Thousands of articles (magical items)...
  • Editors/players who seem addicted, unable to leave the site, who spend all their waking hours on the site, and whose "real" lives and work are suffering as a result...
  • The accumulation of experience points (edits) leading to higher levels (higher rankings)...
  • People with similar ideas and goals form guilds...
  • Player-killing, which is strongly discouraged, but nevertheless happens, taking several forms, among them edit warring, banning and blocking; player-killers may be taken before a magisterial court, the Arbitration Committee...
  • Trolls - controversial or unpopular people whose goal is to fight the dominant groupthink. Seen as enemies or bosses to fight.

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Blogger Alice on Thu Mar 30, 11:05:00 AM:
This is a fascinating post, Ben! Have you read about
the Britannica-Nature-Wikipedia bickering re: error identification and correction? It's very interesting.
 
Blogger Ben on Thu Mar 30, 12:27:00 PM:
Wow, what's it called when one blogging partner leaves the other a complimentary comment? Blog-cest? If we coin a catchy word for this, we can be #1 on Digg.com for a few hours!

Thanks, Alice!
 

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Solar eclipse in Georgia

My friend John "Pachydon" Mackedon snapped this picture of today's solar eclipse in Georgia:It was only a partial eclipse in Tbilisi--but it was total in western Georgia, and supposedly perfect in separatist Abkhazia, Georgia's westernmost province.

It was a cloudy day, just hazy enough so that during the eclipse you could stare directly at the sun without discomfort. I had a meeting moved into a hallway in the state chancellery so I could watch from the window.

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Blogger Alice on Thu Mar 30, 02:51:00 PM:
Does anyone remember a PBS film from the mid '80s (or maybe earlier) about a group of children who live in a basement because they're allergic to the sun, and they get really excited when there's a full solar eclipse because they can finally go outside, but then one of the bullies traps the most enthusiastic girl in the basement during the eclipse so she doesn't get to see the outside world? I saw this movie when I was five or six and was inconsolable: I fervently believed I had committed a transgression that somehow equaled this one, and I needed to atone for it big-time. I can't remember what the transgression was--or if there even was one--but I've felt uneasy about solar eclipses since then. Ross keeps telling me the film is based on a Ray Bradbury story, but I can't figure out which one it is. I've Googled all sorts of word combinations but it's not working. Help! Or don't--I had nightmares about the movie last night, and reading the story may exacerbate the problem.

Lunar eclipses, on the other hand, are AWESOME. I watched one from the sidewalks of the Upper West Side a few years ago. Everyone was stopped to point at the sky. Employees streamed out of stores to watch. It was really cool.
 
Blogger Ben on Fri Mar 31, 01:02:00 AM:
Sounds like TV movie All Summer in a Day. From an Imdb.com user review:

"It's about a group of kids who live on Venus where it rains all the time. The sun comes out only once for an hour every seven years. I won't say any more about what happens, but if you've seen it, you know how it ends. When the end credits started rolling, everyone in the classroom started laughing. I wondered why until I looked over and saw one girl crying. I then laughed too. It was hilarious. The entire class was laughing at her. The girl responded by giving everyone the finger."

Could Alice have been that very girl?
 
Anonymous DB on Wed Apr 05, 03:02:00 PM:
More to the point of eclipses, don't forget "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov.
 

Killer dolphins, orca to enslave humans

Orca whales are not only setting traps--by spitting fish onto the water surface and waiting for a gullible gull to take the bait--they are teaching each other how to do it.

A group of dolphins has learned to protect their noses by lancing a sea sponge and wearing it like a glove on their snouts while digging for worms. This behavior appears to be passed down by demonstration, and only from mothers to daughters. (Seeing grandma doing it clinched the matrilineal hypothesis.)

The only other species that are known to pass on cultural ideas are great apes, who teach each other how to use tools such as hollow reeds to suck ants from anthills. Birds pass on songs, but in isolation they're still programmed to sing, just not the same tunes as each other.

The aquatic mammals seem ever more clever than we previously thought. And they're cross-breeding to perfect their genetic edge, creating the unbeatable 'wholphin'. The inter-species war scenario The Simpsons warned us about in Treehouse of Horror IX: Night of the Dolphin can't be far off.

Is this a bad time to mention that Hurricane Katrina released a group of "armed dolphins, trained by the US military to shoot terrorists and pinpoint spies underwater" who may be "missing in the Gulf of Mexico"?


P.S. If we are attacked by terminator dolphins, we'll need intrepid scientists like biologist Frank "yeah, I know it's apropos" Fish. Investigating "spinner" dolphins, who twist up to seven times in a single leap into the air, Fish hypothesized that perhaps the dolphins were attempting to shake off ramoras. But don't most large aquatic animals like teaming up with ramoras? To understand why having a ramora might be unpleasant, Fish attached one to his back. Turns out it's pretty painful. Way to take one for the team, Fish!

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Blogger Jeff'y on Thu Mar 30, 01:48:00 PM:
Dolpins are delicious.
 
Blogger Ben on Fri Mar 31, 10:18:00 AM:
Wrong, wrong, wrong. I know for a fact that dolphins are more intelligent and sensitive than most French protesters.
 
Blogger kitty_dolfi on Sun Apr 02, 01:37:00 AM:
I ALWAYS KNEW THAT DOLPHINS ROCKED!!!!! YEY FOR DOLPHINS!!!
 

H for Hack

Speaking of V for Vendetta (and with apologies to reader Marina), what do you do if you're a critic, and you're asked to write about comic books, because they're the new thing, but you don't know Jim Shooter from Jim Lee?

Wired's Jason Silverman:

The Wachowskis adapted the screenplay from Alan Moore's acid, richly layered comic, written in the early 1980s. Controversial long before 9/11, the original Vendetta follows an embittered anarchist-terrorist as he tries to spark a revolution by, in part, dynamiting government buildings.
In related news, Animal Farm is a richly layered meditation on the nature of communism! I, too, got a liberal arts degree without reading the assigned books.

I liked V for Vendetta fine, but it doesn't hold a candle to Moore's Watchmen, Swamp Thing, Tom Strong, Top 10 or Marvelman (aka Miracleman). Compared to these, V is heavy-handed and shallow, and I'd wager that most readers who made their way to comics through Dan Clowes, Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware would agree.

Silverman:

... Vendetta [the film] is too vague to pack much political punch. Hollywood, with its congenital fear of alienating anyone, manages to dilute the comic book's radical, complex vision.

What's left is a fuzzy, pandering film. What are its lessons? Totalitarianism is bad. People power is good. Unless you aren't quite sure where to stand on the whole Hitler-Nazi-Holocaust thing, Vendetta is unlikely to evolve your worldview.

Yeah, I read The Stranger, professor. It was radical, complex.

The Vendetta book allows for a few moments when the hero's violence to his oppressive government targets seems inhuman. But it'd be hard for the movie to be any more pro-terrorism than the book was. After all, people are saying that the movie plays down Natalie Portman's metamorphosis to inherit the role of revolutionary killer, and isn't she the real protagonist, the audience stand-in?

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Blogger a Reader on Thu Mar 30, 10:29:00 AM:
ooooh, Watchmen!
(that's all you get - murmurs of admiration, no real debate... but did you notice in the guardian comment
here http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/david_boaz/2006/03/liberty_on_stage_and_screen.html
that Boaz thinks the film addresses "the willingness of most people to endure much loss of liberty"? That was the part that I felt robbed of - I thought the film barely touched on it, whereas the book clumps all over it with big boots on.)
 

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

O for overreaction

Katrina vanden Heuvel's post about V for Vendetta on the Nation's blog is puzzling in its insistence that movie reviewers aren't responding seriously to the film's Big Ideas about Contemporary Society because they don't believe the Big Ideas are important:
The New York Times' review opened with the line: 'Thumb-suckers of the world unite.' It concluded by wondering how anyone over the age of fourteen could find the movie subversive. David Denby in the New Yorker speculated that the movie would mainly appeal to 'aging kids.'

This infantilizing line of attack is sadly nothing new.

Those of us who objected to the results of the 2000 presidential election were told to, quote, 'get over it.' Those of us who were outraged by the outing of Valerie Plame were condescendingly told that this was 'how the game is played.' Those of us who question the continued occupation of Iraq are accused of being quitters or 'cut-and-runners.'

It never ceases to amaze me how desperate many members of the media are to appear cool, to show they 'get it'--their eye-rolling cynicism masquerading as maturity. Government surveillance, torture, fear-mongering, media manipulation, corporate corruption--this is how the world works, they shrug.

Well, they may be comfortable in such a world. But for those of us who are not, V for Vendetta is a movie to savor.

What if the movie just isn't very good? Isn't that what Manohla Dargis is saying in her Times review that vanden Heuvel cites extremely selectively:
The Wachowskis appear deeply enamored of the great (super) man theory of history, with mysterioso leaders who are intent on delivering the rest of us from false consciousness. Given this, it's no surprise that the geopolitical terrain staked out in this film skews so last century: globalization having been given the jackboot, partly, one imagines, because multinational capitalism, with its total market value and shareholder wealth, doesn't register as cool as all that shiny, shiny leather and crypto-Nazi styling.
...
Initially scheduled to be released in November 2005, to coincide with Guy Fawkes Day, the film was delayed in the wake of the July bombing attacks in London. Since then, inevitable questions and objections have been raised about whether V for Vendetta turns a terrorist into a hero, which is precisely what it does do. Predictably, the filmmakers, actors and media savants have floated the familiar formulation that one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter, as if this actually explained anything about how terror and power (never mind movies) work. [bolded because it's such a great point]

The more valid question is how anyone who isn't 14 or under could possibly mistake a corporate bread-and-circus entertainment like this for something subversive. You want radical? Wait for the next Claire Denis film.

And here's Stuart Klawans' review of the film in the very publication vanden Heuvel edits. He's not infantilizing anyone by pointing out that Big Ideas don't make a great movie:
But if you want simulated knife-throwing, chaotically edited fight scenes, ponderous musical cliches (the 1812 Overture, Beethoven's Fifth), wholesale borrowings from 1984, strained allusions to the Bush Administration and Fox News, lengthy and yet inconsequential protests against the ostracism of gays and lesbians, a muddled girl-in-peril plot and some gee-whiz production design, V for Vendetta is the movie for you. Never mind that the Wachowskis' characteristically logorrheic script defeats at every turn first-time director James McTeigue, who has been asked to make a comic-book movie but can't possibly keep it going. V for Vendetta is about the idea of a comic-book movie, you see, and the idea of liberation.

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Blogger Xopo on Tue Mar 28, 03:59:00 PM:
Ok, Alice, I was not going to watch this film. I even mocked my students, who were raving about it, because I thought they were lying when they said this film was worth seeing. The fact is, I can't stomcah Natalie, but after reading your review, I may well have to spend sometime on this one...after orals.
 
Blogger a Reader on Tue Mar 28, 04:54:00 PM:
I have read 'V for Vendetta', and I urge you to do the same (wanna borrow?). The film takes huge liberties with the plot, and in effect becomes a film 'in the style of the book' rather than a film OF the book (like, say, Sin City was). I'm not suggesting that the Sin City approach is the best way to film graphic novels - not at all, though it does make me talk excitedly about generic mixing.
I don't mind film adaptations that wander off from the things they adapt, generally, but it IS a shame if they make interesting ideas tame, add in flashy knife fight sequences, and leave people feeling vaguely robbed of the big ideas that are promised. I am gutted that they ignored the most interesting idea that the book offers: V tells Evie that anarchy is not chaos, but a voluntary order. Their discussion on this is thrilling.
plus, I feel the guardian reviewer said it all when he described Natalie Portman as 'reliably terrible'...

Marina
Comic Book Pedant since all of three weeks ago.
 

Don't sleep on Sam

The NY Times' Caryn James looks at Spike Lee's films. Great, but how does she fail to mention the excellent Summer of Sam?
A look back at his career, freed from received opinions and skewed memories, shows that major works like "Do the Right Thing" hold up. And some underappreciated gems emerge, like the nuanced "Jungle Fever" (1991), about an interracial romance, and the audacious "Bamboozled" (2000), his satirical take on a contemporary minstrel show.

Nola Darling, the sexually voracious heroine of "She's Gotta Have It," who unapologetically juggles three men at once, is no longer quite so daring. And the acting is as awkward and rough as it always seemed. But the film's energy still leaps off the screen; the black-and-white photography that turned an inexpensive necessity into sultry atmosphere still works; the characteristic Lee blend of drama and humor is already there. Nola remembers a parade of men offering ludicrous come-on lines, like "You so fine, baby, I'd drink a tub of your bathwater."

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Monday, March 27, 2006

Archive fever, vol. IV

The New York Times printed an excerpt from Rick Poynor's essay from Print magazine about found photographs. Poynor argues that the interest in magazines such as Found magazine, sites such as Look at Me, the Horus Archives, and Time Tales are evidence of some cultural gesture toward amateurism and nostalgic unmediation:

It's the emotional implications that make found photographs so fascinating. They look much the same as the snapshots that fill our own family albums. Yet cut loose from their points of origin, they become objects of deep mystery...

These unofficial images answer a persistent need to belive that photographs can still capture some essential, unvarnished truth about the subject. Where, even before the digital era, professional photographers were often show to have manipulated images that might appear to represent actuality, amateur photographers can still be given the benefit of a doubt. Their directness, ineptitude, and lack of artifice become signs of reliability. The taste for these pictures is a measure of our enduring hunger to experience unmediated reality.

I'm not sure that's the only conclusion one could draw from the found photography phenomenon. For one thing, Found takes far more delight in snarkiness than in nostalgia (the Columbia equivalent, perhaps, is the Digitalia feature of the Blue & White). William Gibson took the idea of how people connect to found photographs/footage in a completely different direction in his brilliant novel, Pattern Recognition. Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves is scary take on found materials. It took me two tries to love Gibson's novel and I'm not totally into Danielewski, but they're both ambitious books that move away from the nostalgia trope toward something weirder.

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Love truth, pardon error

One of my favorite blogs is Regret the Error, a compendium of newspaper corrections minor and less minor. One of my favorite corrections ever ran last year in the Columbia Daily Spectator: "A column ... incorrectly identified the current president of the Columbia College Conservative Club as an avowed fascist. It is the former president of the Columbia College Conservative Club who is an avowed fascist."

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airplane

I was told by several science teachers that airplanes obtained lift via the "equal transit-time" phenomenon (from Wikipedia's "Airplane" entry):
the "equal transit-time"... states that the parcels of air which are divided by an airfoil must rejoin again; because of the greater curvature (and hence longer path) of the upper surface of an aerofoil, the air going over the top must go faster in order to "catch up" with the air flowing around the bottom. Therefore, because of its higher speed the pressure of the air above the airfoil must be lower.

Turns out this it has been proven wrong. See these pictures for evidence that air does not need to rejoin at the same place at all, though of course that doesn't mean that no air acceleration occurs at all.

As Wikipedia points out in its article on lift,

Such an explanation would predict that an aircraft could not fly inverted, which is demonstrably not the case. When an aircraft is flying inverted, the air moving over the bottom (in the aircraft reference frame) surface of the airfoil is moving faster. The explanation also fails to account for airfoils which are fully symmetrical yet still develop significant lift.

It is unclear why this explanation has gained such currency, except by repetition by authors of populist (rather than rigorously scientific) books, and perhaps the fact that the explanation is easiest to grasp intuitively without mathematics.






best expl is from "See How it Flies", an online book about airplane physics: http://www.av8n.com/how/htm/airfoils.html
you can see how a curveball works with any ordinary business card...!
The famous aerodynamicist Flettner once built a ship that “sailed” all the way across the Atlantic using huge rotating cylinders as “sails” to catch the wind...

Also, it is easier than you might think to demonstrate this important concept. You don’t need four vanes on the rotating paddle; a single flat surface will do. A business card works fairly well. Drop the card from shoulder height, with its long axis horizontal. As you release it, give it a little bit of backspin around the long axis. It will fly surprisingly well;






Jef Raskin, who started the Macintosh project within Apple, has a great page about what makes airplanes fly, which gets into curveball aerodynamics, upside-down flight, and the wing Albert Einstein designed for the Luftwaffe in WWI.
...the most common explanation of lift seen in elementary texts and popular articles today... is based on the Bernoulli effect, which correctly correlates the increased speed with which air moves over a surface and the lowered air pressure measured at that surface.

In fact, most airplane wings do have considerably more curvature on the top than the bottom, lending credence to this explanation. But, even as a child, I found that it presented me with a puzzle: how can a plane fly inverted (upside down). When I pressed my 6th grade science teacher on this question, he just got mad, denied that planes could fly inverted and tried to continue his lecture. I was very frustrated and argued until he said, "Shut up, Raskin!" I will relate what happened next later in this essay. A few years later I carried out a calculation according to a naive interpretation of the common explanation of how a wing works. Using data from a model airplane I found that the calculated lift was only 2% of that needed to fly the model.

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The cathedral vs. the bazaar, revisited

William Taylor, founding editor of FastCompany magazine, has an article in the NY Times about companies soliciting ideas and participation from employees and customers, rather than just handing down perfect ideas fully formed.

He makes reference to similar shifts in software development, which were described most famously in "The Cathedral and the Bazaar", a 1996 paper by Eric S. Raymond, a leading evangelist of open-source software.

Taylor:

At Rite-Solutions, the architecture of participation is both businesslike and playful. Fifty-five stocks are listed on the company's internal market, which is called Mutual Fun. Each stock comes with a detailed description — called an expect-us, as opposed to a prospectus — and begins trading at a price of $10. Every employee gets $10,000 in "opinion money" to allocate among the offerings, and employees signal their enthusiasm by investing in a stock and, better yet, volunteering to work on the project. Volunteers share in the proceeds, in the form of real money, if the stock becomes a product or delivers savings.

Mr. Marino, 57, president of Rite-Solutions, says the market, which began in January 2005, has already paid big dividends. One of the earliest stocks (ticker symbol: VIEW) was a proposal to apply three-dimensional visualization technology, akin to video games, to help sailors and domestic-security personnel practice making decisions in emergency situations. Initially, Mr. Marino was unenthusiastic about the idea — "I'm not a joystick jockey" — but support among employees was overwhelming. Today, that product line, called Rite-View, accounts for 30 percent of total sales.

"Would this have happened if it were just up to the guys at the top?" Mr. Marino asked. "Absolutely not. But we could not ignore the fact that so many people were rallying around the idea. This system removes the terrible burden of us always having to be right."

Raymond:
Linux overturned much of what I thought I knew. I had been preaching the Unix gospel of small tools, rapid prototyping and evolutionary programming for years. But I also believed there was a certain critical complexity above which a more centralized, a priori approach was required. I believed that the most important software (operating systems and really large tools like the Emacs programming editor) needed to be built like cathedrals, carefully crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation, with no beta to be released before its time.

Linus Torvalds's style of development—release early and often, delegate everything you can, be open to the point of promiscuity—came as a surprise. No quiet, reverent cathedral-building here—rather, the Linux community seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches (aptly symbolized by the Linux archive sites, who'd take submissions from anyone) out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a succession of miracles.

The fact that this bazaar style seemed to work, and work well, came as a distinct shock. As I learned my way around, I worked hard not just at individual projects, but also at trying to understand why the Linux world not only didn't fly apart in confusion but seemed to go from strength to strength at a speed barely imaginable to cathedral-builders.

By mid-1996 I thought I was beginning to understand. Chance handed me a perfect way to test my theory, in the form of an open-source project that I could consciously try to run in the bazaar style. So I did—and it was a significant success.

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Saturday, March 25, 2006

David Remnick on fact checking

David Remnick in Haaretz (it's not a great interview) goes into some depth about the New Yorker's fact-checking:
"When I go to interview, for example, Sheikh Naif Rajoub, one of the leaders of Hamas, I go with a translator, because I do not speak Arabic. I don't want to record too much, because that is double the work. I write pretty fast, and I know what to omit. But that's okay. Because afterward, at the office, our Arabic fact checker - a very talented Lebanese-American woman - will call Sheikh Rajoub and go over it with him, fact after fact. She will ask, 'You said that you will never recognize Israel - is that true?' And he will confirm or refute. 'Is it true that you were born in 1948?' 'Is it true that you have three children?' Every fact found in my article is checked and confirmed. As editor of the magazine, it is embarrassing to be caught with mistakes, and I hope that there will not be any, but I feel very good when I know there is someone checking up after me."
...
The New Yorker's fact-checkers - "about 20 young employees in their twenties, who specialize in a variety of fields and who care" - make the magazine unique as it relates to what has recently become a burning issue in American journalism: over-reliance on unnamed sources, a hot subject in the wake of The New York Time's failure in its coverage of the war in Iraq, due to reliance on unnamed administration sources who claimed that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction.

"Seymour Hersh writes about intelligence for us," says Remnick, "and he often quotes from sources without attribution. But as editor, I know exactly who each of these sources is. And the fact-checkers will speak with the sources and will ascertain that they stand behind the words. When Hersh speaks with a source, he will ask him if he is willing to speak with the fact-checkers."

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Friday, March 24, 2006

AP is blogging from Belarus

Three AP reporters have been blogging from Belarus during the presidential election and opposition protests. My mother's family is from northeastern Belarus, and a friend of mine was jailed for a week last year in Minsk on false charges.
March 20, 2 a.m. local

VICTORY SQUARE, MINSK, Belarus

If the police were going to attack or arrest the protesters who defied a ban on rallies, Victory Square would have been the perfect place.

The crowd of some 10,000 had initially gathered on another square, Oktyabrskaya, October Square, a vast, open expanse from which you could flee in many directions. Then they marched to Victory Square and the logistics looked more ominous.

The square, where a memorial column and eternal flame commemorate the soldiers who died in WWII, sits in the middle of a six-lane street and is accessible only by underground passageways. Once demonstrators crowded into the small island in the midst of heavy traffic, police could have blocked them off with a relatively small number of officers.

It looked like trouble and a lot of the marchers seemed to sense it. They had been lively and chanting on the march toward the square, but became much quieter as they neared. Thousands of them hung back on the sidewalk.

But others headed straight into the labyrinth subterranean passages and emerged on the square. A few laid flowers at the flame, others gathered around it for warmth - physical or emotional.

The square is one of Minsk's most solemn spots, a reminder of the fighting that destroyed much of the city six decades ago. It's a place to contemplate the awesome issues of sacrifice and suffering.

So much blood was shed in Minsk in the war. No one, apparently, wanted to see more flow tonight.

- By Jim Heintz

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

An anti-Kristof reader

Why do I dislike NY Times writer Nicholas Kristof? (I'll put aside the whole Stephen Hatfill anthrax letter libel suit, from which Kristof has been dropped.) Because Kristof is the worst kind of shill for the status quo -- a smart person and good writer who too often uses his skill not to expose holes in moderate American political opinions, but to paper over them. When I get angry at the glaring omissions in a seemingly liberal Times op-ed or a news story, Kristof is often the writer.

Here is the only letter I ever got printed in the Times:

Nicholas D. Kristof ("Let Them Sweat," 6/25) warns the anti-sweatshop movement that by opposing sweatshops, we threaten the livelihood of millions who are grateful to have a job at all.

Sweatshop workers who[m] I have spoken with need their jobs desperately, but they also have a litany of complaints. They want what any worker wants: fair treatment under the law, reasonable compensation, the right to organize a union without being fired. Sweatshop workplaces have actually been improving in these areas worldwide--to the benefit of all parties involved--thanks to anti-sweat pressure and attention in the first world.

Anti-sweat activists don't seek to destroy sweatshops. We seek to improve them, and we are doing so.

Benjamin Wheeler
Columbia Students Against Sweatshops
New York

(I should note that I caught some flak from other CSAS members because I used the group's name and other members didn't like my conciliatory wording. To my knowledge, no members held leadership positions in the mildly anarchist-leaning group, and I figured it would be a good plug for CSAS.)

(To digress much further, do you think that American Heritage's (informal) definition (after their primary, military definition) of "flak" is off? It's not as extreme or direct as "1) Excessive or abusive criticism". Their "2) Dissension; opposition" is more appropriately vague, but I think allies and colleagues are just as often the principal sources of flak as are opponents. I would use something like "Criticism, often knee-jerk and short-lived, in response to a specific perceived error or overstep". Bill O'Reilly doesn't "catch flak" for being generally conservative and pompous, he "cathes flak" for hypocritally harassing female employees, berating 9/11 victims' family members, etc. He also "cathes flak" for calling Kristof a Christmas-attacking "left-wing idealogue", but luckily for him, Kristof's column challenging O'Reilly to honor the message of Jesus by accompany him to Darfur is shut away in the TimesSelect ghetto. Hillary Clinton doesn't "catch flak" for being a calculating poll-motivated fence-sitter, she "catches flak" for calling for a pro-choice condemnation of abortion, for heading up the health care initiative, etc. Finally, why do dictionaries not mention extremely common idioms, such as "to catch flak" and "to take flak", alongside more noun definitions? They do it with verbs; see American Heritage on "cut", though it skips "cut it out" in favor of the presumably common southern phrase "cut a fat hog".)

Back to Kristof. Here's a column I wrote for the Columbia Daily Spectator, after the 2000 election in Taiwan that finally ousted the party of Chiang Kai-Shek, in which Kristof figures prominently. I didn't know of Kristof at the time, but he went on to write more in the same rosy neo-liberal vein:

Our Cozy History with Taiwan's Ousted Party
by Ben Wheeler
May 2000

Whenever we are struck by a political event out of the blue, like we were by Saturday's election of a reform president in Taiwan, we uninformed Americans rely on our news outlets to fill us in on the situation.

To help us out, The New York Times ran a piece Sunday called "Decision in Taiwan: The Nationalists," providing a history of the storied Nationalist Party started by Sun Yat-sen and made powerful by General Chiang Kai-Shek. This party and its army, the Kuomintang (often abbreviated in English as the KMT), ruled China from roughly the fall of the last dynasty in 1912 to the Communist revolution in 1949.

"While they had a good deal of support from Americans," The Times' Nicholas D. Kristof wrote, "the Nationalists became detested in China because of their corruption, brutality and failure to fight the Japanese invaders. In 1949, the Communists under Mao Zedong defeated the Nationalists and forced them to flee."

At this point, Kristof continued, they were forced to "move their seat of government to the offshore island of Taiwan, which had just been recovered from Japan in 1945." Kristof dutifully recited the evils of the Nationalist regime in Taiwan. These included "massacring local people during upheavals that began on Feb. 28, 1947," having "little ideology other than self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment," and that they "imposed their ideas and language on Taiwan. . . [dragging] away critics of the regime." "Initially," said Kristof, "[dissidents] were often killed immediately; later they tended to face torture and sham trials."

This is a fine summary of a complicated period in history, and the context is useful for understanding what it means that Taiwanese voters rejected the Nationalist candidate. But it would have been nice to see an expanded explanation of the "good deal of support from Americans" that the KMT received.

Two books by journalists who covered the region, William Corson's "The Armies of Ignorance" and David Wise's "The Invisible Government," tell of a period of United States support for KMT activities that has managed to avoid cluttering our history [text]books. The CIA, declassified documents tell us, waged a long covert war against the Chinese Communist government of Mao Zedong. The KMT, who wanted to reclaim its rule of China, was a natural choice for US support in opposition to Mao.

In 1949, while the Nationalist leadership retreated to Taiwan, 10,000 KMT troops relocated to northern Burma under General Li Mi to prepare incursions into China's Hunan province. Li needed steady funding, and the greatest currency of the region then--as now--was the poppy-extracted drugs, opium and heroin. The Golden Triangle, the area of Southeast Asia covering Laos, Burma and Thailand where the active KMT took root, produces approximately 80% of the world's heroin and opium even today.

As General Tuan Shi-wen later told a reporter for the London Weekly Telegraph, "Necessity knows no law. We have to continue to fight the evil of communism, and to fight you must have an army and an army must have guns and to buy guns you must have money. In these mountains the only money is opium."

In its quest to fight communism, the CIA saw no problem in helping the KMT to develop its own sources of income--even if this meant drug trafficking. Thanks to the use of CIA airplanes and airfields controlled by the CIA front company Civil Air Transport (CAT), the KMT flourished in its control of opium. Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that CAT flew weapons and supplies from the CIA base in Bangkok, Thailand to a network of emerging KMT strongholds. On return runs, CAT planes would transport whatever cargo the KMT wanted shipped, with no questions asked.

By 1975, the KMT controlled four-fifths of the opium grown in the Golden Triangle, greatly supporting its regime in Taiwan. This naturally did not sit well with the US's Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Explaining that the CIA and the region's great drug traffickers were "natural allies," DEA agents interviewed in journalist Elaine Shannon's book "Desperados" reported that they "frequently discovered that they were tracking heroin smugglers who were on the CIA payroll." DEA agent General Joseph Stilwell complained to Washington--but the fight against communism was deemed more important than the fight against drugs.

"For more than a decade," The New York Times reported Monday, "Washington has urged Taiwan to let true democracy flower."

How nice of us. Democracy might have come sooner had the United States been able to see beyond the crusade of anti-communism to the brutality of the KMT.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Celebrity bookshelves

How can I contain my glee that Hugh Laurie and I share one of the same favorite books?!!!! He says of Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea:
Dennett looks at Darwin's idea of evolution in a philosophical and logical framework instead of a biological one. The book points out that if we truly wish to know what we are in the scheme of things, Darwin is the place to start. You think you can grasp the magnitude of Darwin's leap and its implications for all human life and thought. And then Dennett shows you that you're only on the ground floor of a majestic skyscraper. Beautiful.

This discovery almost makes up for my disappointment that House will be pre-empted by American Idol for the next few weeks.

The sublime Mr. Laurie's bookshelf is available on Oprah's Book Club, one of my favorite procrastination stations. I've checked through many celebrity bookshelves on the site, partially unwilling to believe that the books were selected and summarized by their publicists. I figured I'd have the most in common with Emma Thompson, but it turned out to be Amanda Peet, of all people. She includes Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays and Lorrie Moore's Self-Help, as well as a common favorite, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (the SIPs for that book are shit field, true war story, and water buffalo).

This week, New York magazine has a great interview with Colson Whitehead about five books picked at random from his bookcase (link from Bookslut). It's supposed to be a new feature, and I'm very excited about it. It may turn out to be a good way to select for diversity and honesty of picks.

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Anonymous brette on Wed Mar 22, 04:16:00 PM:
nigella lawson and i agree that persuasion is the best of austen. that made my day. and i don't want to hear any derogating.
 
Blogger Meg Lyman on Wed Mar 22, 04:56:00 PM:
My deep, deep love for J. K. Rowling was only intensified when I saw that she loves Emma. I think it is my favorite of Austen's because I, too, love Mr. Knightley. He's my favorite Austen love interest.
 
Blogger Anna on Thu Mar 23, 01:36:00 AM:
Amanda Peet went to Columbia.
 

Vodka bottles encased in flower-filled blocks of ice

Erica Jong's memoir, Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life, is due out soon. Today Books has published an excerpt about Jong's one-night stand with Martha Stewart's then-husband, Andy Stewart. The story is unsurprising, awful, and strangely compelling. My favorite detail is Andy Stewart's apparent frustration at Martha's impeccable home; the detail about the "vodka bottles encased in flower-filled blocks of ice" is fantastic! (thanks to Heather for the link)

I think Jong has been relying on the same two writerly moves--detailed descriptions of ambivalent sex followed by sweeping examples of her love for literature--over and over again in her career. The excerpt of her memoir is good evidence for that hypothesis:
If I could take this incident back, I would. My regret is Dantean--and not just because Martha keeps telling tabloid journalists about this twenty-six-year-old gaffe and denouncing me as if she had no faults herself. But I accept the blame. I was always besotted by books and anyone who made them. Remember the story of Paolo and Francesca in Dante’s Inferno?

Galeotto fu il libro e chi lo scrisse

That book was our panderer
and him that made it ...

Beware of books. They are more than innocent assemblages of paper and ink and string and glue. If they are any good, they have the spirit of the author within. Authors are rogues and ruffians and easy lays. They are gluttons for sweets and savories. They devour life and always want more. They have sap, spirit, sex. Books are panderers. The Jews are not wrong to worship books. A real book has pheromones and sprouts grass through its cover.

In the next two paragraphs of the excerpt, she includes a conversation with her editor--is this ever a good sign in a memoir, that self-involvement could be so pervasive that even her editing process makes it into the final draft?

When I was at Barnard, I was selected as one of the lucky financial aid students who would attend Barnard's annual fundraising dinner at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. The Office of Special Events offered the students the chance to help with the set-up on the afternoon of the affair. I spent the afternoon assembling gift bags for the guests and then changed into my cocktail dress in one of the hotel rooms. As one of the guests of honor, Martha had insisted on overseeing some of the planning that's usually left up to the event planners and the hotel, so she had flown in thousands of full-blown Ecuadorian roses in every color to be placed on all the dinner tables. After dinner and dessert, we had to go help set up the table for the gift bags in the ballroom next door. We started to arrange the gift bags, but one of Martha's people stopped us: "Martha wants the bags arranged in a herringbone pattern."

I knew what a herringbone pattern looks like, but I was confused about how to execute it in such little time.

"Just alternate the different-colored bags, with rows of pale cucumber and light sage," the organizer told me.

I had been making these bags all afternoon, and it hadn't occurred to me that there were two different colors of light green. I probably would have been able to distinguish between pale cucumber and light sage--these bags were more like light sage and light kale--and it was very dim in the ballroom because we weren't supposed to disturb the guests. We put them out in no pattern at all, but the guests were so eager to grab Martha's gift bags that they didn't notice the random assortment of two very similar colors. This was the kind of thing that would have gotten me kicked off "The Apprentice," which Priscilla and I watched every Wednesday night out of Barnard solidarity. I'm partly on Martha's side here: it would have done better without Trump's show as competition, but I think she needed sidekicks with better personality.

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Anonymous Katy on Tue Mar 21, 09:07:00 PM:
ALICE! You neglected to mention what was IN the gift bags you arranged. Day-of-the-week tea towels!!
 
Blogger a Reader on Wed Mar 22, 02:17:00 PM:
I can't believe I gave in and followed the link to Oprah's eerie collection of filmstars and authors.. it sucked away nearly an hour! I'm not suprised that A.S.Byatt mentioned Middlemarch (which would make it into my top 5 books-I'll-die-happy-to-have-read), but I bounced up and down and shouted 'yesssssss!' to see that Zadie Smith had chosen Middlemarch AND Larkin's High Windows. Larkin's Collected Poems was the most exciting book I read while I was at school.

I'm not that big a fan of Zadie Smith's writing, but I love the fact that she's collected the two books together in some fashion, because I think there's a link, there, somewhere.
marina
 
Blogger Mike on Thu Mar 23, 01:15:00 AM:
Anna's father once met Erica Jong at a party and described her as "The ugliest retarded woman he had ever met."
 

Jackie on Oleg Cassini

Journalist and good friend of mine Charles Kaiser sent me this clip from the NY Times, plus a quote on the subject from a conversation with Jackie O:
CRK: My first book was about the '60's.

JKO: Well, I suppose, if you were a dressmaker or something, like Cassini, the '60's were fun.

But I never miss the '60's at all.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Minds and brains

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger has announced a $200 million grant to build a science center on the proposed Manhattanville campus.

Gothamist linked to this page about the proposed center, with this odd diagram about how the role of the neuroscience center in the other disciplines of the University.

I think there's a lot to be done with
The Center will provide an unparalleled opportunity for linking research in the neurosciences to Columbia’s existing strengths in other scientific disciplines, notably physics, chemistry, engineering, and psychology. In addition, it will have a catalytic role in forging closer ties between the brain sciences, the programs of the business and law schools, and the many schools of the humanities. Through the integration of these programs, the Jerome L. Greene Science Center will ensure Columbia’s continued leadership in the modern study of brain and mind.

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Illuminated manuscripts and handguns

In one of my seminars today, a professor pointed us to an obituary of his former colleague, Madeleine Cosman from yesterday's edition of The New York Times. Cosman was a medievalist who took the subject very seriously:
Ms. Cosman took her work seriously. She could sing madrigals, play the lute and eat with her fingers off a trencher in the proper medieval style. Her house in suburban New Jersey was appointed with ornately carved period furniture. Arms and armor lay about, the walls were hung with Flemish tapestries, and the cellar was stocked with mead.

On special occasions, visitors might find Ms. Cosman, wearing a flowing velvet gown, presiding over an elegant table that could include blankmangere en doucette (chicken cooked with cumin and cream, served in pastry) and lentil mawmenye (a lamb and lentil stew). Utensils were not supplied.

Apart from medieval food and birthday cake, the only thing Ms. Cosman knew how to cook was hamburger, a dish that took her nearly 15 years to master. Her family was fond of hamburger, which was always served by candlelight.

Later in life, she became active in anti-immigration groups in California. The final sentence of the obituary is brilliant:
Ms. Cosman also leaves behind a vast library of illuminated manuscripts and a large collection of handguns.

I can only hope that my glass-encased dead bat (bats? maybe I'll collect more) makes an appearance in my obituary.

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Anonymous Christine on Tue Mar 21, 11:38:00 AM:
of course this crazy lady totally went to barnard. hilarious.
 
Blogger a Reader on Tue Mar 21, 05:05:00 PM:
I'm going to have to start collecting something suitably eccentric so that my obituary writer has something to comment on. But what? I don't have an encased stuffed mammal, and until today I've never felt the lack.
 

My worst nightmare

Anonymous Anonymous on Mon Mar 20, 11:25:00 PM:
what's wrong with Nicky K? he seems like an alright guy.
 
Blogger Ben on Tue Mar 21, 09:27:00 AM:
I'll put together something to make my case against Nicholas D.
 
Blogger Jeff'y on Tue Mar 28, 10:15:00 PM:
From the link:
Read a letter from Nick Kristof to learn more about what he's looking for: "I'm looking for a masochist..."

Yeah. I'm all over that.
 

Patenting ideas

Michael Crichton in today's NY Times (he doesn't just write loose-ended books!):
• The Earth revolves around the Sun.

• The speed of light is a constant.

• Apples fall to earth because of gravity.

...

• Elevated homocysteine is linked to B-12 deficiency, so doctors should test homocysteine levels to see whether the patient needs vitamins.

ACTUALLY, I can't make that last statement. A corporation has patented that fact, and demands a royalty for its use. Anyone who makes the fact public and encourages doctors to test for the condition and treat it can be sued for royalty fees. Any doctor who reads a patient's test results and even thinks of vitamin deficiency infringes the patent. A federal circuit court held that mere thinking violates the patent.
This case reminds me of the cease-and-desist letter the band "The Planets" received from lawyers demanding that they stop selling their album because of a 60-second track that supposedly copied another artist's music in full.

The unbelievable thing was that the 60 seconds in question was completely silent, and the angry lawyers were representing the estate of John Cage, composer of the silent piece 4'33".

Mike Batt of The Planets responded by demanding that the lawyers specify which 60 seconds of their client's composition had been lifted (!). The case was settled out of court for a six-figure sum.

Batt said "Mine is a much better silent piece. I have been able to say in one minute what Cage could only say in four minutes and 33 seconds."

Time to join the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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Strange fire: the lightning chasers

Meteorologists have been hunting down several new kinds of lightning that they still don't understand well. They seem to be related in part to the earth's planet-wide magnetic field. For example, a "sprite", shown at right, occurs far above normal lightning and can reach from the ground all the way into the edge of space, where there is nothing besides the magnetic field to exchange such a large discharge of electrons.

Livescience.com has a lightning slide show, as well as a series of articles on the subject. From the first article:

Back in the 1980s, airline pilots were told they must have been seeing things when they reported flashes of light shooting toward space atop thunderstorms.

But in recent years, scientists have photographed the mysterious flashes and come up with interesting names for them: elves, blue jets, tigers and sprites. The flashes are associated with thunderstorms, and each type is incredibly brief and behaves differently.
...
The observations show that sprites normally start nearly 50 miles high. Streamers rain down from the bottom of an initial, diffuse halo. The streamers branch out on the way down. As all this is unfolding in the blink of an eye, a bright column of light expands vertically from the starting point, reaching toward both Earth and space.

A blue jet, photographed at high speed
These new kinds of lightning, if that is what they are, are being grouped together under the term "transient luminous events", or TLEs, though it doesn't seem clear how related to each other they really are.

The "tiger" type mentioned in the excerpt above has only been recorded once, by the crew of the space shuttle Columbia shortly before it was destroyed. "TIGER" stands for "Transient Ionospheric Glow Emission in Red", an acronym that seems cleverly worded to fit the fact that it was observed over the Indian Ocean.

More on chasing sprites:

To date, the fastest images ever taken of sprites have been at a speed of 1,000 frames per second. From those and previous studies, scientists had some insights into these so-called transient luminous events that burst and fade out faster than the blink of a human eye.

For example, they knew that sprites occurred 20 to 50 miles above powerful thunderstorms; that they happened after unusually strong lightning strikes; that they had a branching structure; and that they were often characterized by intense bright spots that persisted seconds after the sprite disappeared.

[Duke professor Steven Cummer] and his team rented a camera typically used to film such high-speed action as crash tests, rocket launches, and explosions. They turned its lens on several thunderstorms in Fort Collins, Colo., over a six-week period in the summer of 2005.
...
According to Cummer, the tips of some of the branches of some of the sprites are attracted by electromagnetic forces to the channels left behind by branching that occurred just milliseconds earlier.

The intense brightness indicates some kind of interesting chemistry that is still unknown.

Off-topic pic: lightning striking near the space shuttle at Cape Canaveral, Florida

Livescience.com also reports that scientists recently succeeded in inducing artificial aurora borealis, which probably did not look much like these two amazing aurora borealis pics:

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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Roe v. Wade for Men?

There's a good roundup of news and blog commentary regarding "Roe v. Wade for men" proponents, who call for laws to allow men to terminate their legal fatherhood of a child during the first trimester of pregnancy:

"There's such a spectrum of choice that women have -- it's her body, her pregnancy and she has the ultimate right to make decisions," said Mel Feit, director of the [National Center for Men]. "I'm trying to find a way for a man also to have some say over decisions that affect his life profoundly."

Feit's organization has been trying since the early 1990s to pursue such a lawsuit, and finally found a suitable plaintiff in Matt Dubay of Saginaw, Mich.

Dubay says he has been ordered to pay $500 a month in child support for a girl born last year to his ex-girlfriend. He contends that the woman knew he didn't want to have a child with her and assured him repeatedly that -- because of a physical condition -- she could not get pregnant.

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Mega Mega Man

Painter Ryan Hennessey will put on canvas any Nintendo screen shot you send him, for a reasonable price. I love his Mega Man 2 select screen notych (below; what else would you call a 9-canvas painting?):The select screen is the essential focus of Mega Man games, because of the series' nonlinear structure. There are usually 8 main stages in every game (the first had 6, and a later entry in the series had only 4), which can be played in any order. Beating each stage's boss, who lends his name to the stage, earns you a new weapon or tool based on his nature; these can then be used on other levels to exploit the weaknesses of enemies and bosses, or to access routes or areas that are usually out of reach or blocked.

Playing the levels in different orders can alter the challenge of the game and even change the type of experience each level provides; it's the prototypical video game version of Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch. (Pablo Neruda said "People who do not read Cortazar are doomed. Not to read him is a serious invisible disease." I feel the same way about Mega Man 2.)

So after learning of the Mega Man 2 paintings, I got to wondering, does one of the other Mega Man games have an even better select screen? Or should I mix and match the bosses? Only a review of all the select screens could provide the answer.

Below are the select screens of all of the Nintendo and Super Nintendo Mega Man games:

The original Mega Man, before they invented design.


By the way, you can't judge a book by its cover. It's unclear to me whether the "artist" here ever even saw the game in question being played.


Mega Man 2, perhaps the greatest video game of all time


The passable Mega Man 3, where you can see the series is about to turn a corner


Things fall apart: Mega Man 4. Dust Man?!


MM5


Mega Man 6, the last on the old Nintendo system. Even allowing for "Yamato Man" as a failure of translation from the Japanese, it's hard to believe that "Wind Man" and "Flame Man" went unused in the previous games, which had such strong candidates for replacement as "Napalm Man". (Any number of better-sounding synonyms for "fire" would have also worked.)

There's also a new contender for the title of least-intimidating boss ever: Plant Man, who gives real competition to Mega Man 4's much-maligned Ring Man.



Mega Man 7 ushers in the 16-bit era of Mega Man on the Super Nintendo system. Notice that the designers have given up on providing the bosses with names. Nonetheless, it starts innocently enough, with some imagination...


...and quickly disintegrates into flashy fluff. Mega Man X, an attempt to reinvent the series. In case you're wondering, playing this awful game makes you feel just like the boss on the top-right.


The cryptically named Mega Man X2 continues the downward spiral, though the dragon boss does look pretty cool


Mega Man X3: throw $20 bucks at a hungry Pratt student and you'll have 8 more compelling bosses by lunchtime


Mega Man Soccer brings back some old favorites, as well as some guy called "Enker". Notice how none of the bosses from Mega Mans 5, 6, 7, X, X2, or X3 seem to have gained a foothold in players' imaginations.


A giant mosaic of all the 8-bit NES Mega Man select screens. Note the use of the Mega Man 2 border and background graphics. It'll be a cold day in Heat Man stage when a fan cares enough about the Mega Man Xx bosses to bother making a mosaic of them.

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Blogger Jeff'y on Sun Mar 19, 02:27:00 PM:
Do you remember the contest Nintendo Power held to design a Mega Man boss? I thought it was during the Mega Man 3 timeframe, but apparently it was for Mega Man 6. I can't quite remember what my entry was, but needless to say it lost. (Knight Man and Wind Man were the winners.) That contest experience steeled me against the weekly disappointment I would otherwise experience upon discovering that my New Yorker cartoon catpion contest entries didn't make the cut.
 
Blogger Ben on Sun Mar 19, 03:03:00 PM:
I never caught the Mega Man contest. I think by that time I had allowed my subscription to lapse. Nintendo Power never had the wide-eyed wonder and nerd intensity of its predecessor, the Nintendo Fun Club News, which you received if you were a member of the Nintendo Fun Club, as my friends and I all were. When Nintendo announced the launch of Nintendo Power and added that NFCN would be closing its doors, all of us commiserated.

I remember how often Nintendo would explain to the magazine's readers that they should not send in ideas for videogames, because the risk of lawsuit from coincidentally similar ideas prevented Nintendo from considering submitted ideas at all.

They finally did do a game idea contest once, but they picked a generic Ghouls 'n' Ghosts-type sidescroller instead of my idea, which was for a pared-down RPG that had something to do with being abducted by aliens and having to negotiate your relationship with them. Will you be an emissary of peace? Will you sabotage their ship and sacrifice yourself? Will you go native, rename yourself Tanya, condemn your human publisher father, and turn to violent struggle against the human race? I still fantasize about making that game.
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Mar 14, 10:12:00 AM:
mega man x was bad?! seemed pretty good to me. if fact, out of the x series, the first was one of the best. x2 was ok, but just not the same, then pretty much from 3 to whatever(8 i think, excluding command mission or whatever other stuff they've made), it died.
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Sat Sep 20, 06:33:00 PM:
Y'know the Mega Man 1 boss mugshots exist. Finish MM3 to see them, Rock, Roll's and Protoman's. They must be on SPRITES inc or some other fan site
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Sun Nov 02, 10:26:00 AM:
I know I'm really late on this posting, but Mega Man X was totally awesome. The animal characters, albeit cheesy, allowed the designers to create a wide selection of interesting characters and battles that didn't remind any of us that at one time we were fighting "Top Man". But even with those odd characteristics of the series set aside, the gameplay was perfectly in line with the evolution of how Mega Man was always played. (Rush abilities, Sliding, Charge-up shots, etc.)

That, and you clearly haven't played them as you think that boss on the bottom of MegaMan X2 is a dragon.
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Fri Dec 19, 10:52:00 AM:
the mega man x games were awesome!!! and wheel gator wasn't a dragon which also leads one to believe that the writer has never even played any of these games......
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Fri Feb 06, 08:44:00 PM:
YOU shouldn't judge a book by it's cover. Obviously, you haven't played any of the X+ games.
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Fri Mar 06, 10:53:00 PM:
megaman 7 bosses had names.c'mon it's like they wrote the review based on the screen shots alone. all the games are essentially the same. how can you say most of them suck
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Tue Mar 31, 03:06:00 PM:
he -DID- write the review off of the screenshots, because he referenced a mega man game having only 4 boss characters; the screen shot from Mega Man 7. I'm guessing he's never tried googling the boss lists, either.

And I'm just going to re-affirm that his guy has no clue regarding the X series at all.
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Apr 01, 03:36:00 AM:
Enker was the next to final boss from the Gameboy game. His ability had something to do with a barrier that reflected your attacks back at you.
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Tue Apr 14, 01:35:00 AM:
Mega Man X? Man...Ouch.

I have been a Mega Man even since I was a kid, and trust me sir, Mega Man X was incredible.

Did I miss "Old School" Mega Man? Of course. But Mega Man X (The first in the X series) had so many things going for it: A new villian (Sigma), FINALLY a different-ish storyline (Robots going maverick, and hunters are tracking them down), we have the introduction of Zero and Vile (In all his Boba Fett glory), and an EXCELLENT soundtrack.

The graphics for the game were also awesome. I loved the armor improvement system with the capsules and the holographic Dr. Light. And who can forget getting the hidden "Haddoken" power up?!

Sorry man, but from one fan to another, just because it isn't "old school" doesn't mean it doesn't.....

....rock. (I made a funny.)
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Mon Mar 01, 12:02:00 AM:
Capcom still makes Terrible covers for megaman (look at protoman on the megaman 10 cover) the best boss is flashman (megaman 2) worst boss is centaur man (Megaman 6) why didnt they do something more fearsome from greek mythology like a Minatuar!!!
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Apr 15, 05:08:00 PM:
You're a mega man noob. You obviosuly never played the mega man x series, and don't seem to understand the storyline differences from the original NES series and the SNES X Series. Thats why no X characters were featured in Mega Man soccer.
 
Anonymous Savannius on Wed Mar 02, 11:57:00 PM:
Cool Mosaic.
I actually did like Mega Man III as much I did II, but mostly for the upgrades (sliding, controllable Rush Jet & Marine)

On Mega Man X: X1 & X2 came out before VII (which was released alongside X3). X1's biggest complaint is that it was too short (compared to III-VI).

On Mega Man VII: People preferred the classic design better than they did the newer "X" format. VII has 8 Robot Masters, but does like Game Boy's Mega Man 4 and 5, revealing them four at a time (with a tough mini-boss battle in the middle). Burst Man (bottom), Cloud Man (left), Junk Man (right), and Freeze Man (top) are joined by Turbo Man (Dr. Wily's answer to the Stunticons), Shade Man (a robot vampire), Slash Man (Dr. Wily's answer to Wolverine), and Spring Man.

On Mega Man Soccer: This game was based on the Classic-verse, which includes the Game Boy versions. Enker is a 9th Robot Master from Mega Man in Dr. Wily's Revenge. The following four Game Boy Titles produced Quintet, Punk, Ballade, and Terra (Earth) as their 9th Robot Masters, and MM5 had the nuclear-powered Sunstar as a 10th Robot Master.

On Mega Man VI: I'm ashamed to say that I forgot to send in my robots to the NP Robot Master contest. Had I done so, I would have produced 9 entries, including a "-Woman" based on Circuit Breaker from the Transformers comic. (Rap Man was a last-minute 9th. He threw CDs.)
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Fri Mar 25, 09:45:00 PM:
DUDE....if you don't get you information right you should not make articles like this. if you were a master robot you would be called "noob man" XD well idk some of the bosses in this article, and thats why i don't right about them. my faviroite master robot is quick man, if that intrests anyone...well i don't say all other robot masters stink, as you said all the robot masters you hated stunk. cruil.
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Jun 02, 08:09:00 PM:
i happen to love all the mega man games out there that follow the original game-play (action shooter) because you can't find a game like this that's good! i don't care what the bosses are named or give you but you failed to mention 9/10 for wii ware which brought back nostalgia from the old 8-bit days. overall mega man platformers are fun in general and i suggest playing megamanX series and the megaman series for nes/snes/wiiware. also, whoever wrote this has never played any mega man at all
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Feb 21, 08:40:00 PM:
Mega Man X = The best MM game on SNES!
For me, X2 and X3 disintigrated into their added unnecessary gimmicks and lackluster design. MM7 is okay, but left me feeling that something was lacking.
 

Friday, March 17, 2006

Joe Sacco: anti-cartoon cartoonist?

From the Nation's dialogue with cartoonists Art Spiegelman and Joe Sacco:
SACCO: My initial reaction was, "What a bunch of idiots those Danes were for printing those things." Did they not think that there was going to be some sort of backlash? Cartoons like that are simply meant as a provocation... frankly, I'd say it's enough to just describe them. Putting the cartoon itself out--what's the value of it?
...
Are these editorial cartoonists going to rush to the defense of anti-Semitic cartoons? I doubt it, frankly.

SPIEGELMAN: This notion that the images can just be described leaves me firmly on the side of showing images. The banal quality of the cartoons that gave insult is hard to believe until they are seen. We live in a culture where images rule ...

The public has been infantilized by the press... The answer to speech, in my religion, is more speech, a lot of yakking--and a lot of drawing. And if a picture is worth a thousand words, very often it requires 2,000 words more to talk about the picture, but you can't replace that thousand words with another thousand words.
...
Where I've had to do my soul-searching is articulating how I feel about the anti-Semitic cartoons that keep coming out of government-supported newspapers in Syria and beyond. And, basically, I am insulted. But so what? These visual insults are the symptom of the problem rather than the cause.

I couldn't agree with Spiegelman more. Several of the Danish cartoons, far from being patently offensive, make fun not of Muhammad, but of the tough situation the artist is in. One has the author sheepishly holding a stick figure drawn on a piece of paper, an image that asks if even this minimal gesture will earn opprobrium--which, astonishingly, it has, to the level of death threats and a fatwa. Another depicts an artist nervously and fearfully hunched over his drafting board, sketching out a picture but looking over his shoulder. If these aren't legitimate intellectual statements, I don't know what is.

Images of Muhammad have not been consistently forbidden across the Islamic world, and
in the past it has been far from clear that images of Muhammad are offensive for there mere existence, rather than forbidden for Muslims as an issue of correct focus of worship (as graven images are for Jews). There are numerous examples of images of Muhammad in Muslim art over the last millenium. Muhammad standing in the desert leading a camel, as depicted in one of the Danish drawings, might not have drawn ire at all if the image had been presented in a different context.

If legitimate commentary is an issue of life and death, then bringing this fact to light, at personal risk is at least in part a noble action--whether or not it's smart or kind on balance. Sacco should know this better than most. He's been called "provocative", in the positive sense, in more than one location (1, 2), but I imagine there are plenty of Zionists who would dismiss Sacco's excellent graphic novel Palestine by arguing the equivalent of "cartoons like that are simply meant as a provocation." Provocation is part of the value of the Danish cartoons, just like it's part of the value of Palestine.

And by the way, it's high time the European Union got rid of all these ridiculous anti-Nazi laws. A neo-Nazi must feel far more important meeting in a secret location with his cell than he would marching in the street with old ladies spitting at him.

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Anonymous kate on Tue Mar 21, 11:47:00 AM:
How about the cartoon which shows Muhammad reading a statement from a piece of paper: "Easy my friends, when it comes to the point, it is only a statement made by a non-believing Dane." I mean, that's the long and short of it, no? But people looking to pick a fight don't need a valid reason.

But let's provide a little balance, because I don't think free speech is the only issue here. In the cartoon I just mentioned, Muhammad is reading this statement to a calm down a bunch of blood-thirsty, sword-wielding followers. And there's the one of Muhammad with his head as a bomb, and, uh, yeah, that's the whole cartoon. That is, I think, a pretty shitty thing to run, when you remember that it's a drawing of the messiah of the 99.9999% of Muslims who are god-fearing and not blowing shit up. And this racist, inflamitory image is in service of WHAT valuable point exactly?

Some of the cartoons were good, as in poignant, or else funny, albeit in a kinda fucked up way (suicide bombers getting to heaven, but stopped at the gate because "there aren't any virgins left!" ...ummm not exactly haha funny...but maybe that's just me). But, really, some of them were bad, as in shallow and in very poor taste. Some of them did little else besides strengthen the already very strong association in the West between Islam and terrorism. Just because free speech is valuable--integral--to our press, doesn't mean an editor should run every inflamatory, not funny, not politically poignant cartoon just because he or she has the free right to run it. I'm not defending censorship, but I am defending quality, and not all of those cartoons had it. How'd you like it if one of the U.S.'s fancy papers started running a bunch of cartoons where the only point was: black men are violent? Jews are greedy? They have a right to run it, but if there's no other message than the reinforcement of ugly stereotypes, why do it? Just because you can?
 
Blogger Ben on Tue Mar 21, 05:12:00 PM:
What about a cartoon of Jesus, the voice of peace and love, dressed up as a Jesus-praising, immigrant-hating Texas militiaman? Or Solomon, the wise judge, saying of a Palestinian home, "Let's cut it in half with a separation wall and see who cries louder"? Or Moses the shepherd drafted at 18 and decked out in IDF gear, staring at a burning Palestinian home to see it it is being consumed?

These would all be as offensive as the Muhammad-with-a-bomb-in-his-turban cartoon, but they would have value by pointing to the tragic irony of the modern connection. Or at least that's how I'd read them. I read the turban cartoon as a simple pointing out of the connection in the public eye between Islam's essence and terrorist violence, something that can be responded to with opprobrium, lament, sarcasm, anger, or glee. The eye of much of this stuff is in the beholder.

The issue of quality is difficult because it is so vague, but I think one proxy for it can be the question, is the cartoonist being cheap? That is, is he being exploitative of incorrect assumptions or inconsequential facts, or is he dealing with something essentially real? Could someone have a new thought of some value from reading the cartoon? Do they put things in a new light?

I thought that the "no virgins left" comic, which brought great indemnity on its illustrator, was awful and valueless when I first read it. I hadn't heard of the virgins-in-heaven thing, and it seemed like an obscenely racist thing to say that Islamic fundamentalists would believe such medieval bunk.

A little googling later, I learned that the virgins were not at all the invention of racist white Americans. The comic was focusing on an absurd and sick tenet of radical Islamism--one that seems to be believed literally by a significant number of Muslims, not just a tiny minority, to the huge detriment of the human race--and mocking it. Is that so valueless?
 

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Poverty, happiness, and the first world

The Economist compares a black African man with a white American man with a comparable income:
Why juxtapose the lives of a poor man in a rich country and a relatively well-off man in a poor one? The exercise is useful for two reasons. First, it puts the rich world's wealth into context. A Congolese doctor, a man most other Congolese would consider wealthy, is worse off materially than most poor people in America. That, in itself, is striking.

The second purpose of the exercise is to shed light on some ticklish questions. What is the relationship between wealth and happiness? And what is the significance of relative poverty? Mr Banks makes $521 a month in a country where median male earnings are $3,400 a month. Dr Kabamba earns $600 a month in a country where most people grow their own food and hardly ever see a bank note. The two men's experiences could hardly be less similar. But which of the two would one expect to be happier?
...
It is hard to gauge the pain of relative poverty because no one knows how to measure happiness. Simply asking people “Are you happy?” only gets you so far. The answers people give depend in part on cultural factors. Few English or Japanese will offer anything more ecstatic than a “mustn't grumble”, but that does not necessarily mean they are glummer than say, Americans, 86% of whom told Gallup this year that they were “completely” or “somewhat satisfied” with their jobs.

Indirect evidence of unhappiness is equally hard to gather, since so many potential proxies, such as drug abuse and wife-beating, are hushed up. Nonetheless, for what it is worth, when your correspondent asked Ms Woolum and three of her local social-worker colleagues to share their life stories, those stories shared a common thread.

All four women had been beaten by husbands or boyfriends, most of whom had problems with drink or drugs.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

"God is my assignment editor"

I'm disappointed by Marilyn Johnson's book about obituaries and obituarists, The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, though perhaps the overwritten, too-clever-by-three-quarters title provided ample warning. It's a frustrating book. The anecdotes, personalities, and information is fascinating, but the writing is terrible. Johnson writes obituaries for celebrities, so maybe she thought a book might be a place to try out a more free-wheeling style, but the cleverness is distracting.

Two better resources for obituary obsessions are Mark Singer's wonderful article about the International Association of Obituarists conference in the New Yorker. The conference is now held in one of my favorite towns, Las Vegas, New Mexico, but it used to be held in Archer City, Texas--more evidence that the town is the Nostalgia Capital of West Texas. At the end of the article, Singer introduces Steve Miller, a New Yorker who whiled away his hours at a banking job writing a brilliant, sardonic zine called GoodBye!: The Journal of Contemporary Obituaries until September 11, 2001, when his office in the World Trade Center was hit by a hijacked plane. He escaped the building and became an obituarist for the New York Sun. Miller gave a speech about obituaries and his experience on September 11 at the 2002 conference:
I am thinking now about the difficulties of making a really convincing [or true?] narrative about a person's life. If a few minutes of my own life, moments of irredeemable clarity that spanned at most a couple of hours, are so difficult to get right, how much harder is it to present a truly accurate version of an entire life in a 20 or 30 newspaper inches?

Telling his unlikely story about his new career hasn't hurt Miller's sense of humor. The archives of GoodBye! are still available; my favorite issue is October 2002, which features obituaries of Stephen Ambrose, Demogogic Historian; Henry Chauncey, Father of the SAT and a Really Bad Influence; Raymond McNally, Faux Dracula Scholar; Allen Walker Read, Philologist who Studied "OK" and "Fuck"; Joe Strummer: Anti-Rock Star of the Clash; To Huu, A Lousy Vietnamese Poet; and Armand Zildjian, Maker of Cymbals.

Johnson has some fun with Miller in The Dead Beat when they visit Arthur Miller's funeral and riff on the line from Death of a Salesman: "Attention must be paid." Another odd obituarist, Richard Pearson, wrote for the Washington Post until his death in 2002 and, according to Johnson, kept "a list of cowboys and thier horses' names in his desk drawer and was always writing the Associated Press wire-service editors to correct the horses' names." He described his job, "God is my assignment editor."

Johnson does a great job interviewing American and Britiish obituarists, but she tends to insert herself too often into the stories. I wanted to read more about them and much less about her. Though she mentions that overwritten obituaries are painful to read, most of her own prose is overwritten and banal. Even that delightful detail about Pearson's cowboy-horse obsession is rendered imprecisely: how often did Pearson find it necessary to correct the horses' names? The Associated Press doesn't "always" write stories with that information. The review of the book in The New York Times is positive and cites Johnson's attention to writing style, but her description of her reading practice is terrible:
Mundane obligation informs the obituary writer's craft. Certain things must be told, and in expected order. But as with the sonnet or haiku, the form can be a challenge that inspires creativity. Johnson believes a good obituary is a "tight little coil of biography" that "reminds us of a poem" and "contains the most creative writing in journalism." Her delight in the subject is unabashed, as when she travels to London (which she deems the world's "obituary capital") and holes up in her rented room with the obituary pages of The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian and The Times, savoring the "visceral pleasures of blackening my fingers, seeing the pages in full stretch with their telling photos and varied typefaces while I scrawled underlines and exclamation points and circles around the text."

Johnson is so busy being enthusiastic and irreverent that she neglects the somber side of the profession. The chapter about Portraits of Grief from The New York Times is interesting, as is Steve Miller's take on the series in his speech (he's changed his mind and now sees them as a ritualistic act of mourning). I joined the managing board of the Columbia Daily Spectator the year after the paper had covered multiple student suicides at Columbia; watching older editors deal with that much loss made us think seriously about how to cover tragedies on campus and in the city after September 11. We felt we had to write staff editorials after student deaths but were never sure what to say, what would be appropriate to say about the effects on campus. We also struggled with how to run corrections on mistakes in obituaries, how to provide adequate support to students reporting on student deaths, how to cover deaths that were not clearly suicides, and how to work with the police department.

Other obituary stuff:

Who's Who in Hell is a middling book about a British obituary writer (the obituaries are the best part of the book); it's episodic and the characters are more interesting than the story--much like American obituaries. British obituaries are much more fun than American ones, and the British papers have developed a rivalry to see who can write the weirdest, most irreverent pieces. This collection from the Daily Telegraph is a good introduction to a distinctly British genre.

52 McGs: The Best Obituaries from Legendary New York Times Writer Robert McG. Thomas, Jr is a great collection of obituaries about ordinary people.

Steve Miller names Jessica Mitford "the spirit of GoodBye! magazine" in a 1996 obituary. The American Way of Death is a really cool book about the funeral industry.

Death Is a Lonely Business is my favorite Ray Bradbury title (a close contest). It's about a hack writer, not an obituarist, but it's close enough.

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