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Saturday, April 29, 2006

This book will save your life

A couple of weeks ago, I met with one of my advisers to talk about unfinished projects of the eighteenth century. "Have you considered the gender implications of this tendency not to finish projects?" he asked, noting the mania for Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther in continental Europe (this is a bizarre, delightful web site where you can sign up to receive e-mails from Werther).

"Wait, are we talking about the eighteenth century or today?" I asked.

So it turns out that there have been many periods in history when it's been popular to be a rambling man.

With Werther and especially Wilhelm Meister in mind, I'm recommeding Ken Dornstein's new book The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky. Ken Dornstein's brother, David, died in the Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. David Dornstein left behind boxes of notebooks, diaries, letters, and stories; it was also rumored that he was carrying the only draft of a great novel when the plane exploded. As Ken looks through "the Dave archive," he realizes that his brother had no finished projects but thousands of fragments, false starts, half-realized plans, boasts of future fame, notebook entries about his inability to write, letters to reach out to his friends and family, and other stuff. The notebook entries and letters show his brother's fits of mania and depression and his belief-anxiety that writing would be the way to channel that lack of control into something productive and creative. Ken's book is about his attempt to organize all this into something more than just ephemera.

The book takes a while to get going. David Dornstein's letters and notebook entries are difficult to read; if you wanted to diagnose the style, you could call it writer-based, rather than reader-based, prose. Ken includes letters he wrote to David's friends and former girlfriends at the time, and these, too, are so personal that they're remarkable only for their attempt at trying to communicate about loss and grief and finding only banalities or silence. I was worried that the whole book might be a collection of these letters, but Ken is able to do what his brother was not: he's able to turn these first tries into something coherent. Ken thanks A.M. Homes in the acknowledgements section: it would be a great idea to read this book and her new book, This Book Will Save Your Life, (a novel about a man who tries to change his life through good acts--I'm sure there's an edge somewhere) together.

David was obsessed with cataloguing and de-cataloguing his work; when he couldn't organize something, he'd assure his future readers that such inchoateness was intentional and the only way his work could be understood:
He had prepared his 'literary estate' for posterity, believing that a tragic early death would ensure his literary greatness. He wrote notes in the margins of his notebooks 'for the biographers'; he instructed his correspondents to 'save this letter or you'll be sorry.' He imagined scholars trying to figure out the riddle of his life in light of his untimely death. He suggested topics for graduate student theses: 'The Nature of Chance Violence in Dornsteinian Thought'; 'Dornstein and the Notebook Form of the Novel.' He pictured his friends poring over his pages to see what he had been working on for all those years, to look for their own names if nothing else. I felt stuck with the knowledge that no one ever came.
...
Inside, I found a page with this sentence written over and over:

Humorously, tragically, I really am starting to believe that the only way any of these notebooks will mean anything is if I die an early death.

David gave a lot of thought to the manner in which he would die, and he concluded that only a sudden, violent death would do. The title page of his Memoirs features a headline from The New York Times--DIES IN AIR CRASH--along with this caution to his imagined biographers: 'There is NOTHING accidental or random in any of Dornstein's work, especially in this early work.'

David's seeming anticipation of the circumstances would be a weird coincidence, but Ken's book comes together as he tries to explain David's obsession with leaving his legacy in fragments. In a creative writing class at Brown, David collected fragments of his diaries, letters, and stories, titled the project The Fall Journal, and presented them to his instructor, Robert Coover, for his comments. Ken includes Coover's written comments to David about the project:
When nothing else works, [the narrator] throws in some old story fragments, hoping for the best... The writing here, for all its variety of subject matter, culled from the popular press, dredged up from memory and fantasy, or borrowed from your diurnal rounds, has a tendency to sound somehow all the same, chewed up in your prodigious word-processing machine into a kind of even mash of hysteria and fatigue. What you look at, you turn away from. What you invent, you abandon or wreck....

As Ken discusses how his brother responded to Coover's comments on his writing--in his subsequent revisions to The Fall Journal David played up the fragmentary collection instead of making it more coherent--he makes a guess at understanding his brother's fantasies of leaving a literary estate of fragments and riddles. He'd take the criticism and make it into the explanation for his creativity, not the block holding it back. He's only half-joking about the graduate thesis on the notebook form of the novel.

That reversal becomes the organizing principle of Ken's book, too. What seemed like a set of disconnected false starts in the first section of the book--clippings of news stories about the bombing, a history of Pan Am airlines, a trip to Lockerbie, an ambivalent story about his connection with the woman David lived with before he died--are Ken Dornstein's own version of fragmentary composition. These early brief chapters are more readable than his brother's work, but they're included in the same spirit of keeping a record of all of one's attempts to make sense of something incoherent.

Ken Dornstein notes in the appendix that the title of the book comes from Auden's "Musee de Beaux Arts", and it's a lovely, sad connection to make between Icarus and David Dornstein. The other echo in the poem was in Coover's comment on David's work: "What you look at, you turn away from. What you invent, you abandon or wreck..." (Auden: "In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster"). The second half of the memoir is about Ken's own problems with turning away from people: he falls in love with David's former girlfriend but keeps turning away from her. So here, too, he at first identifies with his brother and then finds a way to give himself a second (and third, and fourth) chance.

I was reminded of Mikal Gilmore's amazing memoir of his brother's life and death, Shot in the Heart, (Ken Dornstein quotes a paragraph from Gilmore at the end of the book) and Ann Patchett's memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy, Truth and Beauty. I highly recommend all three of these memoirs.

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Blogger Xopo on Sat Apr 29, 08:41:00 PM:
Hey Alice, this is a wonderful post. The Werther site reminded me of Richardson's prefaces and his own epistolary exchange with his readers. It seems like these truncated exchanges keep haunting us...
Hope all is well,
Adela (excuse my inarticulate post but I'm taking a break in-between pre-oral questions!)
 
Blogger Jenny D on Sun Apr 30, 01:48:00 PM:
Yes, great post; I've been hearing about this book for a while, must get hold of a copy and take a look. (I love that Gilmore "Shot in the Heart," I must have bought four or five copies of it over the years to give away to people--one of the things it's best on is the way that even when you're full siblings the family you're in is a different one due to the passage of time.) Also haven't read the Patchett (or Grealy's own memoir), but was looking at "Autobiography of a Face" the other day in the bookstore & wondering whether I should get it.

Let us talk more about the unfinished/fragment/gender questions next time we meet in person! Interesting. I've got some sociological theories about 19th-century British culture that lead to an account of why women were less likely to be drawn to the prestige of the fragment/traumatized artist than men: sources include the Bronte family but also the very interesting chapters in the opening of Susan Pedersen's biography of Eleanor Rathbone, take a look & you will see.
 

Meaningoflife.tv

Slate has been running interviews with philosophers and scientists about the nature of consciousness in a section called meaningoflife.tv. Here's part of an interview with Daniel Dennett about belief:

Daniel Dennett: I don't like the term atheist because it usually means somebody who is going around upbraiding people and trying to force people to listen to his arguments as to why there is no God. I don't think there is a God so I am an atheist but I don't make a deal of it. It's not that I passionately believe there isn't a God, it's that, of course there isn't a God, but so what?
[Robert] Wright: So the difference in your mind is not one of how confident you are that there is not a God. You are 100% sure there is not a god.
Daniel Dennett: 100%? I'm not 100 sure of anything.
Wright: Ok.
Daniel Dennett: I'm of sure of it as I am of anything.
Wright: But not 100%?
Daniel Dennett: Right.
Wright: The reason I ask is that that version of atheist has always struck me as, in some technical sense, logically indefensible.
Daniel Dennett: You can't prove a negative.
Wright: Right.
Daniel Dennett: I think it was Bertrand Russell who once said that he couldn't prove that there was not a teapot orbiting Mars. So he's a teapot agnostic. I'm a teapot agnostic with regard to God, too. I can't prove that God doesn't exist.
...
Dennett: In fact I think that's a much more interesting question to ask most people or actually hard to ask them because they don't want to answer it. I have a feeling that not that many people actually believe in God. Many people believe in belief of God. That is, they think it's a good thing, and they try to believe in God, they hope to believe in God, they wish they could believe in God and they say they believe in God, they go through all the motions, they try very hard to be devout. Sometimes they succeed and for some periods of their life they actual do, in some sense, believe that there is a God and they think they are the better for it. Otherwise, they behave like people who probably don't believe in God. Very few people behave as if they really believe in God. A lot of people behave as if they believe they should believe in God.

The rest of the interview is also worth reading, especially the part where Dennett gets really annoyed about epiphenomenalism.

The interview with Steven Pinker is also good (the interviewer, Robert Wright, is much more involved in the conversation with Dennett than he is with Pinker. In the Pinker interview, he just says "right" most of the time...):
Steven Pinker: Right. I mean, one view is that there is actually a discipline devoted to topics that the human mind is incapable of understanding and that discipline is called philosophy...
Wright: Right.
Steven Pinker: ... and most philosophers hate that characterization but it was one of them, Colin McGinn, who suggested the philosophy is the subject is the study of problem that the human mind is incapable of understanding.
Wright: Yes.
Steven Pinker: But it has a natural affinity to religion and McGinn points out that virtually every problem in philosophy has had a religious explanation historically... free will, consciousness, morality, knowledge...
Wright: And often the specific religious explanations get debunked or are no longer tenable in light of science and yet the problem itself remains unsolved.
Steven Pinker: There's often some nugget, some kernel that remains unsolved. Yes.

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Blogger Ben on Mon May 01, 07:21:00 AM:
For the record, not everyone is "teapot agnostic."
 

Deus ex detective novel

Prospect Magazine recently ran a conversation about the existence of God. (The article costs money now, so I can't go back and check who I'm actually quoting below!) One discussant brings up the question of how valuable complexity and simplicity are in determining if a theory, such as that God exists, is true:
Certainly, one can always devise theories which "cohere" (in the sense of "are logically consistent") which will lead one to expect known phenomena; but it is very difficult to devise a simple theory which leads you to expect the known phenomena. If you can, that is very strong evidence that the theory is true. Another example to illustrate this point is a detective story, in which the detective learns all the evidence in the opening chapters, but only solves the crime by finding, in the last chapter, a simple explanation of all that evidence; and when he has got one, he doesn't need a new prediction to render his explanation probable.
There are several problems with this reasoning. First, assuming that it is true that the simplest theory that fits the evidence is the most likely true--more or less Occam's Razor--why do people think the theory that God exists is a simpler one than the theory that God does not exist? The job of explaining evidence that contradicts God's existence has gotten more and more taxing through the years, as defenders of religion have had to accomodate dinosaurs, evidence of the earth existing several billion years earlier than the Bible claims, textual evidence that the Bible had many different authors, and evidence that humans evolved from apes, whether divinely guided or not.

But the job of defending atheism has gotten easier. When opponents of evolution have pointed to difficult-to-explain phenomena like the human eye, researchers have found evidence of intermediary stages, such as ancestral creatures' proto-eyes, that makes the case against God stronger than ever. Whole universities are devoted to theological philosophy, in part because dealing logically with the existence of God is complicated; atheist philosophy dispenses much more quickly with the question of God's existence (just as it dispenses quickly with the question of other very unlikely things, like the Flying Spaghetti Monster).
But more importantly, are simple explanations necessarily better than complex ones? Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs and Steel (see the thorough Wikipedia page), writes:

We tend to seek easy, single-factor explanations of success. For most important things, though, success actually requires avoiding many separate causes of failure.
The unknown speaker of the Prospect quote might argue that too-simple explanations fail his own test too, because they cannot explain all of the effect. But his analogy to detective novels is illuminating. Detective novels, after all, are notorious for plot holes, but readers are generally happy to allow these to be papered over by an elegant, climactic explanation. (I am always irked in Harry Potter books, though, by Harry's convenient refusal to inform Dumbledore of this year's impending crisis, and then of Dumbledore's flimsy reasons for not having just revealed the whole situation to Harry.)

My father published a novel in 1974, called Easy Come, and it is a sort of anti-detective novel. It's not that the hero is an anti-hero; instead it's the author who is anti-detective-novel, actively resisting the urge to have everything come together nicely. When a clever explanation becomes available at the end of the book, the hero can't help but point out all of the incongruities that make it unsatisfying, and he wonders if the villains, who revealed their guilt by acting cornered, were actually guilty of a completely different crime, unknown to hero and author alike.

Perhaps the question of God's existence, then, really is like a detective novel--there are official explanations, which satisfy most people, but there are incongruities that bother others (even incongruities that bother atheists, such as transcendent experiences). If there is an author, he or she may have intended one explanation to be correct, but that doesn't mean the evidence supports it best, or that there is any correct explanation at all.

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Blogger Simon on Sat Apr 29, 05:11:00 AM:
There's no reason for me to believe in a god.

I happen to write stories for a living and I think that helps me see a work of fiction

Like Harry Potter, all the major religions have massive plot holes and big clues to indicate human design. Giving the people what they want to hear. Good story tellers know what presses peoples' buttons.

Is there stuff we don't understand? Duh, of course there is. There always will be.

But I'm not even going to consider a god idea as reality unless a real god makes himself available for questioning.

Your dad's book sounds good.
 
Blogger Anna on Sat Apr 29, 07:38:00 PM:
It's easy to defend atheism if you accept that it is the only alternative to fundamentalism and flabby logic. But theism doesn't require anyone to espouse half-assed schools of reasoning like intelligent design. In fact, it doesn't require you to think believing in God is better than disbelieving or than being open to either possibility. I would thoroughly disagree with Dennett's generalization as quoted two posts above as to whether or not most people are atheists. People who are raised with religion (which is still most people in the world) often find as adults that they can't "undo" believing in God. I count myself among them. I believe in God but, like Dennett, I don't think it's that big a deal. It's just something that's a part of me, like my accent or the knowledge that I will forever see the world from the perspective of 5'5". It doesn't mean I don't apply critical reasoning to my beliefs, I'm just not invested in what the outcome of that criticism will be. We all experience phenomena beyond our understanding and situations in which we are powerless, I just happen to personify it. I don't think that's a question of who has the soundest argument; reason isn't much use in those contexts by definition. See also Thomas Aquinas.

I also feel like pointing out that it's comparatively rare to find oneself in a position to choose one's relationship to a deity. That's a relatively new and specific phenomenon that by definition requires some doubt. Even in this country (US, not Georgia) I wouldn't say it's the norm. But I'm just speculating, of course, as is Dennett.
 

The scary kind of memories

Check out the creepy cover of Nick Flynn's memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City:


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Anonymous Katy on Mon May 01, 09:53:00 AM:
Have you read the book? It's interesting.
 

Bill Mudron, invisible artist


Bill Mudron is a great comic book artist and painter. So why can't I find a working website of his stuff?

A dream of mine is to open a website, connected to a physical gallery somewhere, that sells visual art in the couple-hundred-dollars range. (Prints make more sense than paintings at this price, unless the painters/illustrators live in third world countries like Georgia, in which case $250 is a fortune.) These operations already exist, most of the art is so bad that no one uses them.

See for example Etsy, a beautiful site with cool flash toys to search through the art, which is too bad because the art sucks.

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Docking with Mir in unlikely places

Alice (via bookslut) brought Daniel Kalder's book Lost Cosmonaut to my attention. It's a romp through the backwoods areas of the already backwoods former Soviet Union, with a great cover.
From the Guardian review:
The tone of Lost Cosmonaut is set on the first page, which consists of an extract from the Shymkent Declarations: the "resolutions passed at the first international congress of Anti-Tourists at the Shymkent Hotel, Shymkent". "As the world has become smaller," the declarations begin, "its wonders have diminished ... Consequently the true unknown frontiers lie elsewhere. In our over-explored world these must of necessity be wastelands, black holes, and grim urban blackspots: all the places which, ordinarily, people choose to avoid." Distancing himself as far as possible from the travel-writing staples of whimsical experiences and quirky locals, Kalder declares that the anti-tourist, among other things, "embraces hunger and hallucinations and shit hotels", "is interested only in hidden histories, in bad art", "scorns the bluster and bravado of the daredevil", and "holds that whatever travel does, it rarely broadens the mind."
Kalder then undertakes a haphazard tour of the empty, dreary and practically unheard of - even in Russia - republics of Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia. Sticking faithfully to the spirit of the declarations, he seeks out all that is dull and decaying, and embarks on a series of obscure quests. These include a search for Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the AK47 and Udmurtia's most famous son, a journey to a city dedicated to chess, and an attempt to remain in his hotel room for the entirety of one leg of his journey on the basis that "I figured no travel writer had ever done it before" (in the event, he lasted about two hours). Cocking a final snook at the traditional travel-writing genre, he also fully embraces the Shymkent Declarations' final item: "The anti-tourist loves truth, but he is also partial to lies. Especially his own." Readers spend a good part of the book trying to work out which of Kalder's bizarre tales are fact, and which are elaborate flights of fancy.
...
This peripatetic period came to an end when he and Joe came across an article about Chess City, a complex dedicated entirely to chess built by Kirsan Ilumzhinov, the head of the World Chess Federation and the President of Kalmykia. "It blew our minds," Kalder explains. "Then I found out Kalmykia itself was just an empty wasteland, and I became fascinated by its nothingness. No one in Russia knew where it was: Joe spent two hours phoning travel agents, and they kept telling him it was in another country. When we did go, we had to tell people we were journalists, because they were just baffled by the idea of people coming to visit. The only way to get there was to fly in this really crappy little plane, that looked like a waiting room for death. And when we got there, physically, it was just this endless, empty land. There was nobody there; nothing. It was an absolute void, which is what we were both looking for."

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Tbilisi gunshots

Fellow Tbilisi resident Sue on hearing a gunshot on her street:
By the time I got to my window, the neighbors were already coming out of doors, leaning out windows, angling for a peek. A young man was hobbling, gripping his leg, and screaming something that started with “your mother” and surely didn’t end politely. A girl next to him was on her phone, voice frantic and shaking, looking very scared. He was hobbling and cursing and trying to hide himself from view. Somehow he was bundled into a car and I saw him in the passenger seat giving into pain with a look of luxurious abandon that resembled relief, as if having to act brave and stoic on the street had been the worst part.

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Friday, April 28, 2006

I'm sorry, Mr. Jackson

9/11 conspiracists are pointing to a trick whereby a folded $20 bill depicts a burning Pentagon and World Trade Center. Sure beats making Washington look like a mushroom.

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Crypto-geeks and crypto-grampas, from Sicily to Langley campus

It's been a busy week in the world of amateur cryptography, especially for grown folks who never put away their Captain Crunch decoder rings.

First there is the British judge whose ruling in the Da Vinci Code copyright case included a surprise for careful readers. From the NY Times:

Justice Peter Smith's 71-page ruling in the recent "Da Vinci Code" copyright case here is notable for many things: the judge's occasional forays into literary criticism, his snippy remarks about witnesses on both sides, and his fluent knowledge not only of copyright law but also of more esoteric topics like the history of the Knights Templar.

But there is more to it than that.
...
The first clue that a puzzle exists lies in the typeface of the ruling. Most of the document is printed in regular roman letters, the way one would expect. But some letters in the first 13½ pages appear in boldface italics, jarringly, in the midst of all the normal words. Thus, in the first paragraph of the decision, which refers to Mr. Leigh and Mr. Baigent, the "s" in the word "claimants" is italicized and boldfaced.

If you pluck all the italicized letters out of the text, you find that the first 10 spell "Smithy Code," an apparent play on "Da Vinci Code." But the next series of letters, some 30 or so, are a jumble, and this is the mystery that needs to be solved to break the code.
...
It has been nearly three weeks since he handed down the ruling. Probably disappointingly for Justice Smith, nobody seemed to notice anything unusual about it when it was first released. But he alluded to the possibility that there was something more soon afterward as a throwaway line in an e-mail exchange with a reporter for The New York Times, saying, "Did you find the coded message in the judgment?"

If only the Mafia could emulate the master codesmithing of the Knights Templar. I was fascinated by a recent Discovery Channel News article on the Sicilian mafia's internal code for secret messages, not least of all because the code was so elementary. I even created a Wikipedia page on the topic, in the hopes that people with knowledge of the history of this tradition would contribute:*

Pizzini
...
Pizzini are small slips of paper that the Sicilian mafia uses for high-level communications. Sicilian mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano is among those best known for using pizzini, most notably in his instructions that underling Messina Denaro become his successor.

Provenzano used a version of the Julius Caesar code, supposedly used by Caesar in wartime communications. The Caesar code involves shifting each letter of the alphabet forward three places; Provenzano's pizzini code did the same, then replaced letters with numbers indicating their position in the alphabet. Thus "mia" might become "16124", since m=13+3=16, i=9+3=12, and a=1+3=4. (Note that the alphabet used is the Italian alphabet, which has a slightly different order and number of characters than the Latin alphabet.)

For example, one reported note by Provenzano read "I met 512151522 191212154 and we agreed that we will see each other after the holidays..." This name was decoded as "Binnu Riina".
...
A biographer of Provenzano also reports that Provenzano used a more complicated code, yet to be deciphered, which referenced selected words that Provenzano had underlined in his copy of the Bible.

Finally, there is a huge update to the story of the CIA's Kryptos sculpture, which plays a role in The Da Vinci Code. From the Wired News article:
For more than a decade, amateur and professional cryptographers have been trying to decipher an encrypted sculpture that sits on the grounds of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Three-fourths of the sculpture has already been solved.
...
Kryptos, which means "hidden" in Greek, sits outside a cafeteria on the CIA grounds and consists of a large block of petrified wood standing upright, with a copper plate scrolling out of the wood like a sheet of paper in the shape of an S. The sculpture contains approximately 1,800 letters carved out of the copper plate in four sections, some of which form an encryption table used for deciphering the rest of the sculpture.
So far, no problem.
But now Jim Sanborn, the artist who created the Kryptos sculpture, says he made a mistake... It all comes down to a letter that Sanborn left out of the sculpture. He only recently realized the omission was leading sleuths down a misguided path.
Ouch! That's got to hurt, especially if you're one of these guys:
In 1999, California computer scientist Jim Gillogly solved three of the four sections. A CIA analyst named David Stein reached the same solution for those sections a year earlier, but his work remained unknown to anyone outside the CIA until Gillogly came forward with his solution.

The first section of the sculpture was decrypted to a poetic phrase created by Sanborn. The second refers to something possibly buried on the CIA grounds: Does Langley know about this? They should: It's buried out there somewhere. The third section is text from archaeologist Howard Carter's diary describing the opening of a door in King Tut's tomb Nov. 26, 1922.

The fourth part has remained stubbornly unsolved. The sculpture received a lot of renewed interest last year after Wired News published a story discussing author Dan Brown's references to it in the book jacket for The Da Vinci Code. Since then, thousands of new sleuths have been obsessing over the code. Chris Hanson, co-moderator of the Yahoo group and a Colorado programmer who runs a 3-D landscape software company called 3D Nature, created a model of the CIA's building complex, complete with landscaped grounds, to study the sculpture's surroundings for clues. Another member of the group even reportedly quit his job to devote time to cracking the code.

These are the kind of people about whom Malcolm X wondered at the good they could achieve if they only applied themselves to productive pursuits.

 
* As of 2017, others have stepped in and added context and links to the Pizzini page, but I long for more!

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In a way, we're all heroes. In another, more accurate way, we're not.

It doesn't take long for a story to become separated from the event it depicts. The NY Times on Paul Greengrass making the film "Flight 93":
Not everyone could charge the cockpit along the narrow aisle of a 757 jetliner, family members concede. But they believe strongly that everyone did what he could in the face of horrific fear and certain death — consoling, encouraging, planning, praying.
...
"It's a very difficult situation," said Carole O'Hare, whose mother, Hilda Marcin, was a passenger. "You don't want to cause problems between families, but I don't understand the thinking that someone should be highly elevated from someone else. What is to be gained?"

Mr. Greengrass seemed to understand the delicacy of this issue acutely when he made his film and succeeded in depicting a group-inspired defiance, Mrs. O'Hare and relatives of other passengers said in telephone interviews. "I think they went out of their way to reinforce that it was 40 fantastic individuals who banded together to affect change in a drastic situation," said Gordon Felt, whose brother, Edward, was a passenger.
...
Mr. Greengrass was inclusive in his depiction of valor: Donald Greene announces to other passengers that he is a pilot and may be able to fly the jetliner if the hijackers can be overtaken. When they are, Mr. Nacke, a toy company executive with a weightlifter's physique, holds aloft a bomb wrestled from one of the terrorists and yells that it is a fake... Flight attendants try to calm the passengers and later boil water and hand out forks and knives as weapons.
So the film is largely a concession to sensitive viewers and to civic pride (whether patriotism or a broader pride), instead of the filmmaker's best guess as to what happened.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Columbia is so lazy, he thinks a two-income family is where Barnard has two jobs

Mark Slouka, who was denied tenure at Columbia's School of the Arts and is now chair of the creative writing program at the University of Chicago, has an opinion piece in the Columbia Spectator where he slams the School of the Arts, and Columbia in general, for low standards of academic rigor, teaching quality, administrative oversight, and neutrality of tenure procedures:
There is no point in being coy. Despite the presence of a small minority of talented and committed faculty members and an equally small core of serious, gifted students, what prevails at the writing division in the School of the Arts, and to some extent at the School of the Arts as a whole, is an institutionalized and self-perpetuating culture of mediocrity so out of step with the general climate of excellence for which Columbia is rightly known that most would be shocked to be apprised of the details.
...
Add the fact that when compared with its peer institutions the writing division at Columbia is an unconscionably bloated program which brings in more students every year—with the predictable effect on quality—while offering a minute amount of financial aid, what we have is something resembling a diploma mill hiding, unbelievably, under the Columbia name.
...
Having just completed three hires for the University of Chicago—which has asked me to institute precisely the kind of rigorous, text-based program so strenuously resisted at Columbia, and whose support for the arts is genuine and tangible—I know well that many candidates are aware of the mediocrity of Columbia’s program as well as the randomness of the tenure process, and they are going elsewhere despite the appeal of both the Columbia name and the advantages of living in New York City.
I agree with much of what Slouka says (and I have my own litany of complaints), except for the notion that the SoA is "out of step with the general climate of excellence for which Columbia is rightly known". What general climate of excellence? While I did work my ass off at Columbia for every grade I got in my computer science major, including C's, hard work was not necessary to get by in my other major, history. Does Slouka have any idea how easy it is to pass the average Columbia College humanities course with a C?

(Larry Summers was right about this one. Anyone think it would be tough to pass whatever undergrad lecture course Cornell West is now teaching at Princeton? Without bothering to attend any of the lectures or read any of the books?)

Reading Slouka's screed reminded me of an older piece, published in TIME in 2000, by Columbia creative writing assistant professor Ben Marcus:

I am also aware that the students' comments become the primary evidence of my abilities, a paper trail following me throughout my career. My dossier will swell with their statements about me, and when I come up for review, the promotion committee will examine my evaluations to determine just what kind of teacher I am.
...
There is, of course, nothing wrong with accountability. But this system assumes that what students need is the same as what they want. Reading my evaluations every semester has taught me otherwise. Many students' expectations for their courses have changed, reflecting, in part, the business model more universities are following. Classes are considered services, and parents are eager to get their money's worth from their children's education.
...
It might sound as though I am defending some bad evaluations. The problem is the reverse. I am admitting to good evaluations received sneakily... My record would reflect a smart, attentive, encouraging teacher. But I would argue that I taught these students little. They loved me because I agreed that writing should be easy.
...
Teaching, in such a light, amounted to flattery. Submitting students to the rigors of learning seemed only to incur the wrath of many of them, which entered the record as my teacherly shortcoming.
Of course, I am partially to blame for this, being one of the founders of the Culpa professor-review website. A side effect (but a huge side effect) of exposing Columbia lecturers to shared student scrutiny has been to encourage a race to the bottom, whereby teachers might gain popularity by easing up on the rigor and introducing distraction, character, and generous grading. (This is at least easier than somehow becoming a much better teacher.)

I once had an unsettling experience in a Prague nightclub. Two acquaintances, Columbia students studying abroad, asked me what I had done while at college besides study. I explained that I had run the course-review website. At this they cried out, bought me drinks, and thanked me—I still cringe at this—for "making college so easy" for them.

On the other hand, the Culpa site's list of 50 or so top-reviewed teachers are generally described by their adoring reviewers as tough, but rewarding. Whatever the relative difficulties of being an easy or challenging teacher, I don't envy the position of professors seeking tenure, who must focus on research and currying favor, and for whom attempting to be challenging-but-worth-it could be a dangerous gamble.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

When Gladwellitis attacks

Malcolm Gladwell's latest, a review of a book about the different types of reasons people employ, is a perfect example of his bad side: he gets lust for the power of an idea, then sees it everywhere. Anecdotes are lined up, but while they are entertaining, the big theory does little to explain them better than our existing understanding does.

Gladwell quotes author Charles Tilly's thesis that there are four types of reasons we give--conventions, stories, codes (procedural formalities devoid of meaning), and technical explanations.

Fine. But does categorizing these reasons help us better to understand, for example, the aftermath of Dick Cheney's quailgate? Gladwell insists that it does (emph'd):

Consider the orgy of reason-giving that followed Vice-President Dick Cheney's quail-hunting accident involving his friend Harry Whittington. Allies of the Vice-President insisted that the media were making way too much of it. "Accidents happen," they said, relying on a convention. Cheney, in a subsequent interview, looked penitently into the camera and said, "The image of him falling is something I'll never be able to get out of my mind. I fired, and there's Harry falling. And it was, I'd have to say, one of the worst days of my life." Cheney told a story. Some of Cheney's critics, meanwhile, focussed on whether he conformed to legal and ethical standards. Did he have a valid license? Was he too slow to notify the White House? They were interested in codes. Then came the response of hunting experts. They retold the narrative of Cheney's accident, using their specialized knowledge of hunting procedure. The Cheney party had three guns, and on a quail shoot, some of them said, you should never have more than two. Why did Whittington retrieve the downed bird? A dog should have done that. Had Cheney's shotgun been aimed more than thirty degrees from the ground, as it should have been? And what were they doing in the bush at five-thirty in the afternoon, when the light isn't nearly good enough for safe hunting? The experts gave a technical account.
But isn't "Careless at war, careless at home" as valid a convention as "Accidents happen?" And while Cheney's version of his story is indeed earnest and personalizing, couldn't other tellings of the story be damning of him? Last, it's unclear what the importance of the "codes" or "technical account" is, other than that, if you're trying to score points in a public scandal, or prevent them being scored, at some point you're going to mine the legal and procedural details for ammunition.

On some level, categorizing Tilly's reasons can give us context with which to process communication. But that's not enough for Gladwell, who must find insight, by hook or by crook. Here's a real-life application of Tilly's thesis, according to Gladwell--detecting if your spouse wants a divorce:

Reason-giving, Tilly says, reflects, establishes, repairs, and negotiates relationships. The husband who uses a story to explain his unhappiness to his wife—“Ever since I got my new job, I feel like I’ve just been so busy that I haven’t had time for us”—is attempting to salvage the relationship. But when he wants out of the marriage, he’ll say, “It’s not you—it’s me.” He switches to a convention.
Unless of course he doesn't, and is one of those people who uses stories to ease his guilt about separating, but who prefers conventions like "I'm fine" during the relationship.

But Gladwell, no matter how fixated on his own value as an interpreter (Blink! That's what my gut tells me, at least), always comes up with great anecdotes:

Two years ago, a young man named Anthony mugged a woman named Anne on a London street. Anthony was caught and convicted, and a few days before he was sentenced he sat down with Anne for a face-to-face meeting, as an exercise in what is known as "restorative justice." The meeting was videotaped by a criminal-justice research group, and to watch the video is to get an even deeper sense of the usefulness of Tilly's thinking.

"We're going to talk about what's happened," the policeman moderating the meeting begins. "Who's been affected, and how they've been affected, and see what we can do to make things better."
...
His story comes out painfully and haltingly. “It was a bit too much. All my friends I was asking to loan me a couple of pounds. They just couldn’t afford to give it to me. ... I don’t know what got into me. I just reached over and took your bag. And I’m really sorry for it. And if there is anything I can do to make up for it, I’m willing to do it. I know you probably don’t want me anywhere near you.”
...
Watching the conference is a strange experience, because it is utterly foreign to the criminal process of which it is ostensibly a part... They have a conversation, not a confrontation. They are telling stories, in Tilly's sense of that word: repairing their relationship by crafting a cause-and-effect account of what happened on the street.

I don't know if the value of talking to other people and apologizing can be ascribed to "the usefulness of Tilly's thinking", but it sure does seem healing.

And if we do have Tilly to thank, I hope he takes on the abortion debate next, which, Gladwell suggests, could be resolved if only the pro-choice would explain things from the perspective of the mother, or the pro-life side would detail what happens to a fetus during an abortion (if only claiming to support "life" were a convention!)

When we say that two parties in a conflict are "talking past each other," this is what we mean: that both sides have a legitimate attachment to mutually exclusive reasons. Proponents of abortion often rely on a convention (choice) and a technical account (concerning the viability of a fetus in the first trimester). Opponents of abortion turn the fate of each individual fetus into a story: a life created and then abruptly terminated. Is it any surprise that the issue has proved to be so intractable?
Blink! Gladwell needs a better editor.

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Bipedal/Vs./Yield the key/Ten (starters)

Bill Simmons calls this NBA playoffs a comeback for great basketball, pointing out that it is much like the upcoming Pearl Jam album, which is being billed as a comeback for great grunge. So Simmons uses Pearl Jam lyrics to describe the various characters and scenarios of the NBA postseason:
19.

She loved him, yeah ... she don't want to leave this way

She feeds him, yeah ... that's why she'll be back again
Can't find a better man

To the great Chauncey Billups, who's one more killer spring away from moving into the pantheon of Big Game Guards, along with Sam Jones, Jerry West, Dennis Johnson and Walt Frazier. Out of anyone in the playoffs other than Kobe, he's the one who can make the biggest leap historically. Well, unless Artest charges into the stands again.

(By the way, out of any Pearl Jam song, this is the one that gives me one of those party flashbacks -- you know, when you hear a moment in a song and it makes you remember standing in somebody's kitchen at 4:45 a.m., bombed to smithereens, holding a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, waiting for the guitar transition near the end to wrap up so everyone still awake could scream, "She loved him!" at the same time ... )

...
21.

On a weekah onawasta onawaya yeah.
And they called nine-a-said and I won't and they said
Andacalled out again
Anda reason on a levah gone buy no
I said I dunno wear on a bicycle back
Awaaaaaaaay hey! Can you see them?
Ow on the porch! Yeah, but they don't wait!

The most impossible-to-decipher Pearl Jam song ("Yellow Ledbetter," in which Eddie sounds like Jame Gumb for five straight minutes, although it's still one of their greatest songs, so you figure it out) goes to the most impossible-to-decipher Round 1 series: the Suns and the Lakers.

Is this one of the all-time goofiest matchups in playoff history? (I say yes.) ... Can Kobe break MJ's record for most points in a series? (I say yes). And can you see where I'm going here? (That's right: Lakers in six.)

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Blogger Alice on Tue Apr 25, 12:49:00 PM:
The best part of the Simmons piece is the sidebar by Kevin Jackson about what it was like to be a Sonics fan in the early '90s:

From there, my love for the Sonics and PJ became one affair. The "Slam Jam" poster featuring leaping images of Kemp and Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament, which was given away at the 1993 home opener, became the featured piece of art in my apartment.

Pearl Jam songs became the sound track for the Sonics' playoff runs in those years, and any Seattle fan worth his salt could close his eyes and tell you what was happening on the floor at the Seattle Center Coliseum by the tune being played during timeouts. "Even Flow" meant our boys had blown the game open, "Alive" meant they were waging a comeback, "Go" meant they had a big lead in the fourth quarter but the house was urging us to "not go on them now" and bolt for the exits.


Simmons' previous NBA breakdowns organized by popular quotes have worked well (especially the Top Gun installment), but this one seems to make clear that Pearl Jam is best quoted in fragments and not in blocks; or, rather, the lyrics are better sung by Eddie Vedder than quoted as semi-significant poetry. Simmons appears to know he's reaching for connections by the end, when he throws in the incomprehensible "Yellow Ledbetter" lyrics, but half of the items are reaches. He should have gotten something better out of the fragment he's quoted from "Nothingman": it's Vince Carter, obviously, or the absent Kevin Garnett. I'm with him on the "Black" lyrics, though I too have resigned myself to a Pistons-Spurs Finals.
 

Monday, April 24, 2006

Regularly the mind's works do not mount up

Here's one more selection for the online shrine to Samuel Johnson, Perfectionist. I really did cry a little as a I typed this out, so there may be some typos left.

Know Thyself
After Enlarging and Correcting the English Dictionary
(translated from Latin by John Wain, also found in the Oxford World Classics edition ofMajor Works of Samuel Johnson)

Scaliger, when with scant sense of achievement he had scrawled
his lexicon's last page, after prolonged toil, loathing
the mindless menial grind, the small problems piled into mountains,
in hate groaning, he gave his thought to guide grave judges
that the penal system should prescribe for all hard prisoners
found guilty of devilment, the drudgery of making a dictionary--
one punishment, for the most impenitent, all punishments compounding!

How right he was, that rare man, erudite, lofty, rigorous,
worthy of weightier work, better able to serve the world
by enchanting the ear with antique heroisms, or the bards' ecstasies;
the shifting sands of governance, the swirl of the shining spheres
his mind could read and unriddle, and the vast earth's revolving.

A large example is dangerous. The dunciad of learned dolts presume
to glare and grumble, presenting their case, princely Scaliger
as if it were yours, master. Let each mind his measure!
I, at least, have realised that to be your rival (in rage
or in knowledge) was never part of my nature. Who can know why?
Is it the lazy flow of my chill blood, or the long idle years that I lost?
or was I just bundled into the world with a bad brain?

As soon as your sterile work was over, and the stiff word-stubble
you had pushed through, peerless Wisdom the goddess into her pure
arcanum accepted you, while all the arts applauded,
and the world's words, their voices so long at variance,
now home from exile joyfully rang about you, gentle master, their joiner.

As for me, my task finished, I find myself still fettered to myself:
the dull doom of doing nothing, harsher than any drudgery,
stays with me, and the staleness of slow stagnation.
Cares beget cares, and a clamouring crowd of troubles
vex me, and vile dreams, the sour sleep of an empty mind.
What will refresh me? The rattle of all-night roisterers,
or the quiet of solitary spaces? Oh, sleep, sleep, I call,
lying where I fret at the lingering night, but fear day's cold finger.

Trembling, I trudge everywhere, peering, prying, into everything, trying
passionate to know if somewhere, anyhow, a path leads up to a more perfect pasture,
but glooming over grand schemes I never find my growing-point,
and am always forced finally to face myself, to own frankly
that my heart is illiterate, and my mind's strength an illusion
I labour to keep alive. Fool, a mind not fuelled by learning
slides into a morass. Stop the supply of marble
to Phidias our fertile sculptor, and where are his forms and faces?

Every endeavour, every avenue, ends in frustration always,
closed in by lack of cash, bound up by a costive mind.
Ah, when that mind reckons up its resources, the sheaves of reason
stacked high, matter for self-satisfaction, are conspicuously absent:
nor does creations' great king from his high castle
send down daily supplies to ensure its survival.

Regularly the years mount up, regularly the mind's works do not mount up:
as for the frills and the friendly honours, fruits of a useful life,
its own harsh judgment forbids it that harmless enjoyment.
Turning to survey its territory, that night-shadowed tundra,
the mind is full of fear--of ghosts, of the fleeting glimmer
of the thin shadows of nothing, the absence of shapes, the shimmer.

What then am I to do? Let my declining years go down to the dark?
Or get myself together, gather the last of my gall,
and hurl myself at some task huge enough for a hero?
And if that's too much, perhaps my friends might find me
some dull, decent job, undemanding: like making a dictionary....

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Idler or rambler?

I'm putting together a list of revised and unfinished projects from the long eighteenth century for my oral exam reading list (including Jonathan Swift's A Tale of a Tub ; Alexander Pope's preface to his translation of the Iliad and his satire on scholary editing, The Dunciad; Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy; the multiple editions of Shakespeare by Pope, Lewis Theobald, Samuel Johnson, and Edmund Malone; some Wordsworth; and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein). I'm reading these books as experiments in genre, attempts to reorganize knowledge in different forms like the novel or a scholarly reference work. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Francis Bacon attempted a great reorganization of knowledge (Instauratio Magna) and revised it in several different versions, but some sections remain as fragments or lists of what he planned to do. I thought of Bacon's fragments as I read this article about writer's block from the Sunday Morning Herald (link from the Elegant Variation). I wanted an antidote, or at least an alternative, to the psychological reading of writer's block offered in the article:
Yet the concept has been around for some time. Writers, like other artists, have probably always struggled with their work, but the notion that an inability to write might be a specific affliction dates back to the romantic period when the whole notion of writing changed. Before then, it was understood to be the product of effort and discipline, much like tanning hides or embroidery. The romantics, however, recast it as a gift bestowed in moments of inspiration, which had the corollary effect of making the writer less an agent and more a receptacle of a kind of divine grace. The failure to write thus became strangely externalised and largely beyond a writer's control. Before then, he or she simply wasn't working hard enough.

It fits, then, that the first great poet of writer's block was Wordsworth, whose Prelude is part of a paradoxically rich tradition of writing about the difficulty of writing. Wordsworth, like Keats, often battled with block, though neither was floored by it as spectacularly as Coleridge. The poems for which he is remembered, such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan (another classic of writing about the impossibility of writing), were all written when he was a young man. He remained a prolific letter writer and journalist for the rest of his life but he became increasingly unable to write what most mattered to him: poetry. He penned twice as many lines between the ages of 18 and 26 as in the following 36 years.

It is impossible to give across-the-board explanations for why writers get blocked. There are so many reasons for writing and, presumably, just as many for giving it up. Modern theories, such as that espoused by Bergler in his book, are often psychoanalytic and tend to emphasise factors in the personal past. But Coleridge, like many writers, saw himself as crippled by the weight of the artistic past, by what critic Harold Bloom would later call the anxiety of influence.

These psychological readings of Coleridge's blocked inspiration and the anxiety of influence aren't very productive in accounting for the revisions that Coleridge and Wordsworth made to the poems in Lyrical Ballads and other works over the years. Can we separate Coleridge's work from his self-presentation as an anguished poet, say in "Kubla Khan"?

There may be a reason I get sometimes fed up with the Romantics: the inspiration stuff just sounds too fuzzy. I'll nominate Samuel Johnson as my favorite author afflicted with writer's block. I quoted his preface about completing the dictionary in an earlier entry. Here's a section from Rasselas, a short novel about a prince who's unable to complete projects, in which Rasselas berates himself for his idleness:
The consciousness of his own folly pierced him deeply, and he was long before he could be reconciled to him self. 'The rest of my time,' said he, 'has been lost by the crime or folly of my ancestors, and the absurd institutions of my country; I remember it with disgust, yet without remorse: but the months that have passed since new light darted into my soul, since I formed a scheme of reasonable felicity, have been squandered by my own fault. I have lost that which can never be restored: I have seen the sun rise and set for twenty months, an idle gazer on the light of heaven. In this time the birds have left the nest of their mother, and committed themselves to the woods and to the skies: the kid has forsaken the teat, and learned by degrees to climb the rocks in quest of independent sustenance. I only have made no advances, but am still helpless and ignorant. The moon by more than twenty changes admonished me of the flux of life; the stream that rolled before my feet upbraided my inactivity. I sat feasting on intellectual luxury, regardless alike of the examples of the earth, and the instructions of the planets. Twenty months are past, who shall restore them!'

These sorrowful meditations fastened upon his mind; he passed four months in resolving to lose no more time in idle resolve, and was awakened to more vigorous exertion by hearing a maid who had broken a porcelain cup remark that what cannot be repaired is not to be regretted.

Rasselas then spends a paragraph regretting his regret, several weeks wondering how he'll escape from his present situation, and ten more months searching for an exit, "rejoicing that his endeavours, though yet unsccessful, had supplied him with a source of inexhaustible inquiry."

And here's a section from one of Johnson's Rambler essays, "The Need for Enterprise," (no. 129, June 11, 1751) in which he tries to prescribe a cure for idleness:
But whatever pleasure may be found in the review of distresses when art or courage has surmounted them, few will be persuaded to wish that they may be awakened by want or terror to the conviction of their own abilities. Every one should therefore endeavour to invigorate himself by reason and reflection, and determine to exert the latent force that nature may have reposited in him before the hour of exigence comes upon him, and compulsion shall torture him to diligence. It is below the dignity of a reasonable being to owe that strength to necessity which ought always to act at the call of choice, or to need any other motive to industry than the desire of performing his duty.

Reflections that may drive away despair cannot be wanting to him who considers how much life is now advanced beyond the state of naked, undisciplined, uninstructed nature. Whatever has been effected for convenience or elegance, while it was yet unknown, was believed impossible; and therefore would never have been attempted, had not some, more daring than the rest, adventured to bid defiance to prejudice and censure. Nor is there yet any reason to doubt that the same labour would be rewarded with the same success. There are qualities in the products of nature yet undiscovered, and combinations in the powers of art yet untried. It is the duty of every man to endeavour that something may be added by his industry to the hereditary aggregate of knowledge and happiness. To add much can indeed be the lot of few, but to add something, however little, every one may hope; and of every honest endeavour it is certain that, however unsuccessful, it will be at last rewarded.

I should take Johnson's advice and not be so slow about writing these blog entries. I've had this one in the queue for weeks.

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OK-47: Kalashnikovs preferred by US soldiers?

Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the AK-47 "Kalashnikov", bragged recently that his invention is so effective that US soldiers in Iraq prefer it to their Army-issued guns. From Reuters' misfiled "Oddly Enough" article:
Mikhail Kalashnikov, designer of the world's most popular assault rifle, says that U.S. soldiers in Iraq are using his invention in preference to their own weapons, proving that his gun is still the best.

"Even after lying in a swamp you can pick up this rifle, aim it and shoot. That's the best job description there is for a gun. Real soldiers know that and understand it," the 86-year-old gunmaker told a weekend news conference in Moscow.

"In Vietnam, American soldiers threw away their M-16 rifles and used (Kalashnikov) AK-47s from dead Vietnamese soldiers, with bullets they captured. That was because the climate is different to America, where M-16s may work properly," he said.

"Look what's happening now: every day on television we see that the Americans in Iraq have my machine guns and assault rifles in their armored vehicles. Even there American rifles don't work properly."

This doesn't sound like the same Mr. Kalashnikov who declared four years ago that he wished he'd invented a lawnmower instead. From a 2002 Guardian article:
"I'm proud of my invention, but I'm sad that it is used by terrorists," he said on a visit to Germany, adding: "I would prefer to have invented a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work - for example a lawnmower."
...
His comment, made to the German tabloid Bild, was reminiscent of Albert Einstein's remark reflecting on his role in the development of the atom bomb: "If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker."
...
In 1941 a fellow soldier asked him: "Why do our soldiers have only one rifle between three men, while the Germans have automatics?" "So I invented an automatic," he said.
Here's the frightening end of the Reuters article:
Kalashnikov designed his first weapon in 1947 and is still chief constructor at Izhmash arms factory in Izhevsk in the Urals mountains.

The factory's director Vladimir Grodetsky told the news conference that around a billion rifles had been produced around the world using parts of Kalashnikovs or based on the same design, only 10-12 percent of which were made in Russia.

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Archive fever, vol. 6

Here's an article about the feminist zine collection at the Barnard library (the author of the article, Lily Koppel, graduated in my class at Barnard). The reference page in the Barnard library system has a lot of fascinating links about how librarians put together zine collections. Here is a comparison of zines and blogs.

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Sox kicking ass

The Red Sox currently lead baseball in wins. Releiver/closer John Papelbon, officially a rookie, is 7 for 7 in saves, and hasn't allowed a run. Curt Schilling looks like he's 100%. And Hebrew hammer Kevin Youklis is 8th in the AL in on base percentage, and 12th in batting average.

Take that, Hitler Steinbrenner!

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Misreadings and misgivings

I can't imagine a more irresponsible article to be posted on the Poetry Foundation's web site for National Poetry Month than this one, subtitled "Did Kurt Cobain die because he misread a poem?"

The author analyzes a page from Cobain's journals as an example of how Cobain read poetry:
But Cobain didn’t read with an open mind. He sought what resonated with his fiercely puritanical disenchantment, and with his plan to get rich and famous “and kill myself like Jimi Hendrix,” which he announced to at least seven friends in junior high school.

We can study his poetical imagination at work by reading the only poem in his published journals, “A Young Woman, a Tree,” by award-winning poet Alicia Ostriker. Cobain’s response to Ostriker’s poem demonstrates that he died by a willful act of misreading.

What does the author mean by "puritanical disenchantment"? Is it reasonable to try to imagine someone's "poetical imagination" by guessing why he quoted a fragment of a poem in a drawing? Or then to extrapolate to an explanation for his suicide? I can't tell if this is clunky writing--that is, maybe the author tried to write a nut graf but ended up limiting his idea to a Semi-Outrageous Claim Supported with Proof by Myopic Close Reading type of essay--or if he really believes the claim. What happens next is not an interesting reading of the Ostriker poem, but a set of suppositions about why Cobain only quoted part of the poem and what he would have thought of the redemptive ending. I'm uneasy about these overdetermined readings of Cobain's public and private writings; it's hard to take Cobain at his word and one risks making him say exactly what one wants him to say. It's irresponsible to make these guesses, and I'm troubled by the heavy-handed message about the value of reading and writing poetry that's offered at the end:
Maybe Cobain would never have been able to read the redemptive message of the poem. His imagination was all about the moment of explosiveness, not the wisdom of reflection. He felt he had exhausted all creative possibilities: if you think his posthumously released tune “You Know You’re Right” sounds like the same old formula, he felt the same way. In his journals, he sarcastically envisions Nirvana as a washed-up oldies act.

But his biochemistry made him believe from the start that all hope was exhausted before he was born. He writes in his early journals that it’s all been done, there’s no point in music, and yet “it’s still fun to pretend” that his generation could find a living music of its own. As the forbidden page shows, he no longer had the spirit to keep up the pretense. He could not see that his restless questing, his gnawing hunger to create, and his ability to pour that frustration into art was in itself potentially his deepest gift.

(link from Rake's Progress, which has a couple of links about Courtney Love's use of Anne Sexton, the odd convergence between "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Thomas Pynchon, and a more interesting example of Cobain's reading taste in Patrick Suskind's Perfume.)

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Blogger Ben on Thu Apr 20, 05:36:00 AM:
If you want to work on better alternatives to poetryfoundation.org, you might consider going to work for poets.org, who is hiring an online coordinator.
 

Not quite Superman

Backwards City's Gerry Canavan praises Alan Moore's comic, Supreme:
It's nothing less than Moore's epic take on the Superman mythos, crammed with subtle and not-so-subtle references to Superman characters and continuity, including supremium (kryptonite), Suprema (Supergirl), Radar the Hound Supreme (Krypto), Darius Dax (Lex Luthor), Optilux (Braniac), Judy Jordan (Lana Lang), and Diana Dane (Lois Lane).
...
Moore's work on Supreme is unrepentently postmodern. After returning to Earth after a long absence, having failed to discover the meaning of life in the far reaches of space as he'd hoped he might, Supreme discovers the planet on the verge of a "revision" -- a shift in continuity as the character is retconned. He avoids danger by escaping into The Supremacy, a place where alternative versions of Supreme go to die whenever the series is reconned, revised, or cancelled.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Human Rights Watch hiring online director

Human Rights Watch is looking for a new online director:
The Online Director will head up HRW’s small web team, keeping the HRW website up-to-date and reflecting the latest work of the organization. S/he will be responsible for managing and enhancing existing content, and creating special features for emergency work or other key initiatives. The Online Director will also be responsible for coordinating all multimedia projects on HRW’s website.

The Online Director will work with HRW’s three-person web team, reporting to the Media Director. Additionally, s/he will work collaboratively with researchers, the publications director, the creative director, the development staff, consultants, and any other parts of the organization that are creating content for the web. The Online Director will also assist in the selection of new software and other upgrades to bolster the interactive reporting on HRW’s website.

Salary is unspecified.

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Georgia's parliamentarian refuseniks

Here in Georgia, opposition parliamentarians are boycotting parliament's general sessions. I am a consultant with the presidential administration of Georgia, but I don't think their complaints and demands are without justification (how's that for vague bureaucratic evasiveness?). Is there something I should do or say so that I'm not just sitting idly by?

From the report by Liz Fuller, the always excellent Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty news analyst:

The catalyst for the opposition boycott was the 31 March decision by the parliament majority to suspend the mandate of opposition deputy Valeri Gelashvili (Republican) on the grounds that parliamentarians are not permitted to engage in business activities. Gelashvili, a wealthy businessman, came under pressure from Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava in late March after a fire destroyed a school building in Tbilisi that Gelashvili hoped to acquire in order to construct a new school building on the same site.

Detailed lists published in various newspapers in recent weeks of businesses allegedly owned by government ministers and deputies from the majority United National Movement-Democrats faction suggest that the nominal ban on parliamentarians engaging in commercial activity is honored more in the breach than the observance. In that light, some might view the decision to strip Gelashvili of his deputy's mandate as vindictive or hypocritical, or both.

The opposition conditions for ending their boycott are:

  • changes to the election law that would give the opposition representation on election commissions and guarantee the secrecy of the ballot;
  • the introduction of direct elections for the post of mayor of Tbilisi and other major cities; the resignation of Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili;
  • the dismantling of the Interior Ministry's so-called "death squads";
  • and the creation of a special parliamentary commission to investigate crimes those death squads are suspected of having committed.

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Monday, April 17, 2006

The best taxi driver in Georgia

My fellow Tbilisian Jonathan Kulick sent out this email with the subject "the best taxi driver in Georgia":
...is in Los Angeles. After a 23-hour trip from Tbilisi, I get in a cab at LAX, and see that the driver is a -shvili. "Tu sheidzleba, Wilshire kucha," says I. The driver looked at me in amazement. He drove safely, knew the fastest route--and refused to take my money!

And a cautionary note. Should you be transitting Munich, I suggest not carrying a flask full of chacha [Georgian near-lethal, high-proof homemade alcohol] in your carry-on. I had to take a swig to show the hyper-alert airport security that it wasn't poison or rocket fuel, and even then they weren't convinced.

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Blogger DC Cab Rider on Sun Apr 23, 03:05:00 PM:
I've had chacha, and I'm not sure they weren't right to stop you for carrying rocket fuel onto the plane! ;)
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Jun 01, 02:17:00 AM:
I'd have picked you up. Where's the chacha.....or even the flask?
 

Paris vs. Achilles: Contre la Précarité

The recent protests in France have been, for me, a landmark event in the slow rightward drift of my politics since my days of hanging out with socialists in Boston. The French government’s proposal to make it easier for companies to fire recently-hired young employees seems fundamentally reasonable to me. If the reports of rampant unemployment and reluctant entrepreneurship are true, then it would seem that the degree of employment regulation is so burdensome that it counterproductively harms social stability.

In Slate, Elisabeth Eaves agrees with me:

This Contrat Première Embauche, or "first employment contract," which Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin introduced in February, makes it easier for large companies to dismiss people under the age of 26 who have been employed for less than two years. It is intended to make hiring young people a less frightening prospect for employers, who pay high social security charges on every worker and face an onerous and expensive process if they want to fire someone.
...
everywhere, on stickers, signs, and T-shirts, and shouted through bullhorns, the demonstrators declared themselves to be "contre la précarité!"

Against precariousness, instability, uncertainty. I'm trying for the kindest translation here, but even so, the sentiment is hard (for an Anglo-Saxon capitalist) to take seriously.
...
This echoed something a boy outside the McDonald's had told me, when I asked him what he thought should be done about unemployment. "It's the leaders' responsibility," he said. He wore a sticker that said, "Rêve Générale," a play on "Grève Générale." It means, instead of "general strike," "general dream."

This was dreamland all right... The leaders could figure out how to cope with economic reality—never mind that the CPE was their small attempt to do so.

Eaves’ rhetorical trick--get a stupid quote from a stupid marcher, and use it to condemn the march--is straight bush league, but her description of the “Reve Generale” stickers is unsettling to me. I like that spirit of hope and refusal to accept the limits of political economy, limits that we’re told are immutable. I have worn similar stickers. But at the same time, I agree with Eaves that it is childish to think that civilization, which has always been hindered by these limits, will benefit in any way from my hope.

Our societies need innovative takes on political economy, such as the Saturn-Patagonia-Ben & Jerry’s model of committed employment (and mixed success), the eBay economy, or the ability for English-proficient third world workers to do customer support for American companies using voice over IP. Most of these aren’t as sexy as microlending, but they allow people to make a living in ways they couldn’t before, ways that they prefer to the older options.

Generally free markets do foster a rat race, and all of the downsides of capitalism. And surely many things--old-age support, emergency health care, policing, education--are much better served by forced taxation and government oversight than by pure market approaches. David Galbraith quotes a Parisian student, Victor, explaining why he opposes the CPE: "It means that when I do get a job I will basically have to work as hard as I can to keep it." It’s an embarassing quote, but he’s got a point that that struggle comes at a cost--if not on net, then at least on gross. Stagnant economy or not, don’t the French balance work and life better than we do in the US?

In any case, we must basically be able to hire and fire, buy and sell, invest in yourself or others, and start a company to conduct business; Amartya Sen convincingly called these human rights in his book Development as Freedom.

In 1997, Paul Krugman attacked France’s social protections from the right, agreeing with conservative economists that these policies were counterproductive:

To an Anglo-Saxon economist, France's current problems do not seem particularly mysterious. Jobs in France are like apartments in New York City: Those who provide them are subject to detailed regulation by a government that is very solicitous of their occupants. A French employer must pay his workers well and provide generous benefits, and it is almost as hard to fire those workers as it is to evict a New York tenant. New York's pro-tenant policies have produced very good deals for some people, but they have also made it very hard for newcomers to find a place to live. France's policies have produced nice work if you can get it. But many people, especially the young, can't get it.
...
But what is mysterious about France is that as far as one can tell, absolutely nobody of consequence accepts the obvious diagnosis.
...
France, say its best-selling authors and most popular talking heads, is the victim of globalization--although adroit use of red tape has held imports from low-wage countries to a level far below that in the United States (or Britain, where the unemployment rate is now only half that of France). France, they say, is the victim of savage, unrestrained capitalism--although it has the largest government and the smallest private sector of any large advanced country.
In 1997, I marched at Columbia University with other students to protest the administration’s demands for the new clerical workers’ contract. These demands included the reintroduction of a small amount of merit pay, which had been removed years before after claims that it encouraged discrimination, because merit is hard to separate from racial and other prejudices.

I wouldn’t protest the same proposal today. In my experience working for both non-profit and for-profit organizations, there are so few competent people that discrimination isn’t powerful enough to keep down a valuable employee. For the sake of a small risk of discrimination, Columbia was forced to abandon its plan to reward excellent performance.

The productivity increase such a plan could have introduced is nothing to laugh at, if you believe recent studies that have documented success in merit pay. Austan Goolsbee, again in Slate:

Companies in Chile pay bus drivers one of two ways: either by the hour or by the passenger. Paying by the passenger leads to significantly shorter delays. Give them incentives, and drivers start acting like regular people do. They take shortcuts when the traffic is bad. They take shorter meal breaks and bathroom breaks. They want to get on the road and pick up more passengers as quickly as they can. In short, their productivity increases.

They also create new markets. At the bus stops in Chile, people known as sapos (frogs) literally hop on and off the buses that arrive, gathering information on how many people are traveling and telling the driver how many people were on the previous bus and how many minutes ago it sat at the station. Drivers pay the sapos for the information because it helps them improve their performance.
...
Some passengers also complain that the rides make them nauseated because the drivers stomp on the gas as soon as the last passenger gets on the bus. Yet when given the choice, people overwhelmingly choose the bus companies that get them where they're going on time.

Goolsbee argues that "You can't easily use incentive pay on art teachers or politicians, whose success is hard to measure." Incentives for teachers is a very old idea that has been tried in various forms over the years, and proposed most recently by Mitt Romney in Massachussetts, but the difficulty of measurement leads to some unfortunate results.

Nonetheless, Democrats who are trying to win back the initiative on policy from Republicans after 12 years on the defensive proposed a form of teacher incentives in a recent Heritage Foundation report. The teachers’ union in my hometown would have gone nuts, and once I would have agreed with them, even though I knew from experience that most were lousy teachers. I'm not sure if I'd defend them today.

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Sunday, April 16, 2006

Letters to a young xenophobe

Columbia Journalism professor Sam Freedman has an editorial in the Jerusalem Post about the immigration debate in the US. Freedman is also the author of Letters to a Young Journalist, part of Perseus Books' Art of Mentoring series that includes Chris Hitchens' Letters to a Young Contrarian:
She never wanted to come to America. She only did it to make money, enough money to bring over her five brothers and sisters. She waited 16 years before bothering to become a citizen, and took the step mostly to avoid being deported.

She never learned more than a few words of English, not even after decades in her ambivalently adopted land. She shopped in stores where she could use her native tongue, and she read newspapers that were written in it, and she attended plays whose actors spoke it.

...

He lied his way into America. He hid any record of his prison sentence and his jailbreak. He snuck past the border guards by carrying a stolen passport and using a false name. After just a few years in the United States, he was in jail again, suspected of being part of a terrorist gang.

He never married his female companion, just shacked up and had children. He sired four of them, and for a while he did not even enroll them in public school. The eldest, a daughter, took up at 18 with a boyfriend, and naturally they, too, had a son out of wedlock.

We all know, we Americans in the midst of a vitriolic national debate about immigration, just how abominably newcomers to our country behave - the way they take jobs from our own people, the way they refuse to assimilate, the way they flout our moral values and our criminal laws.

I certainly know, because the two undesirable immigrants I've described to you happen to be my grandparents.

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Friday, April 14, 2006

NBA East's contenders beaten before playoffs even start

It's always nice to chase one of Alice's wide-ranging tours of contemporary literature with a mindless look at grown men payed obscene amounts of money to play a children's game.

In that spirit, take a look at the NBA playoff probable matchups. I'm stunned: out of the 15 teams in the East, only four have a winning record. Has the conference of Larry Bird and Michael Jordan sunk so low? A middling Western team like Utah (currently 39-39 and second in their division) is pretty much out of the playoff race in the Western conference. If they were in the East, they could be the fifth seed!

The fact that half the teams who make the Eastern conference playoffs could have a losing record makes basketball fandom a different experience than baseball fandom. In baseball, each year lots of great teams don't make the playoffs--Cleveland and Oakland last year, for example.

In Major League Baseball, only either 29% (American League) or 25% (National League) of the teams make the playoffs; in the NBA, 53% do. (The NFL splits the difference, giving 38% of teams a playoff shot.) The two leagues in baseball seldom play each other during the regular season, so there isn't much opportunity for one league to boast higher average numbers of wins than the other; not so in basketball, where the matchups are more or less evenly spread. That's why the NBA West teams can have such better records than their East counterparts.

One result of the low number of playoff spots in baseball is that the division crown is a hugely important prize. Last year, San Diego won the Western NL division with an 82-80 record; five MLB teams who didn't make the playoffs at all had records that would have made them division champs--and playoff participants--if they were only in San Diego's division. Pity the poor Blue Jays, Orioles and Tampa Bay ("Devil Rays" is just stupid), who chase the Red Sox and Yankees every year for the division title.

In the NFL, of course, the real prize is having one of the top two records in your league, be it the NFC or AFC. This gets you a "bye", meaning you don't have to play in the first round of the playoffs at all. That's a big deal when you consider how wearing every football game is for players, and that any one game can go either way (as opposed to the series format of baseball and basketball playoffs, which favors the better team). Mark Cuban, flamboyant owner of the Dallas Mavericks, suggested last winter that the NFL increase the number of teams in the playoffs in each league from the current six to seven--and take away the second-place team's bye, thereby adding a playoff series and making the league winning record crown a more outstanding prize.

Maybe a similar format could work for baseball: add a second wildcard team to the playoffs (for a total of five playoff teams in each of the two leagues), and give each league's top team a first-round bye. And while I'm playing God, why not reduce the NBA playoffs to seven teams for each conference, and give each #1 team a bye? Then we'd have an MLB playoff admissions rate of 36%/31% and a more civilized NBA rate of 47%--plus the added excitement of the top-slot race at the end of each season.

Of course, that would mean that not every Sox-Yankees game of the regular season would be quite such a life-and-death battle.

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Blogger Alice on Sat Apr 15, 02:00:00 PM:
They don't call it the Leastern Conference for nothing.

My dream job is to be a sports statistician. I'm terrible at math, however, and thus I'm resigned to sit on the sidelines of the sidelines, nodding wistfully as my friends compare their fantasy teams and once in a while correcting Jayson Stark on the use of the term "factoid."
 

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Consolations of short stories

The Statistically Improbable Phrases generated by Amazon.com for George Saunders' Pastoralia are: lime crone, show your cock, attitudinal difficulties, heavy girl, and small bugs. Among the choice Capitalized Phrases are: Separate Area, Human Refuse, Big Slot, Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Form, Reserve Crackers, Inner Peace, Little Slot, Shit Fee, Wise Mountain Hermit, Client Vignette Evaluation, and Saying Positive. If you already know and love Saunders, you'll recognize most of those terms from the two best short stories in that collection, "Pastoralia" and "Sea Oak." If you haven't read Saunders, those data sets will still tell you infinitely more about Saunders' genius than Deborah Solomon's interview with the author in The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Your new collection of short stories, "In Persuasion Nation," presents America as a commerce-saturated but happy place where children go to live with market-research firms and giant Twinkies run through fields of flowers. Is it fair to call you an ecstatic appreciator of trash culture?
Excuse me. Can we require readers to read my books before they continue with this interview?
No, I am afraid not. What are you hoping they might gain?
When you read a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you. What I want is to have the reader come out just 6 percent more awake to the world.
But more awake to what, exactly? To talking Dorito chips, which play a part in the title story in your new collection?
Everything in the world is holy and unholy at the same time. If we didn't have that part of us that craved Doritos, then they wouldn't exist. I'm actually working on a story now that is all product names. There's not even a verb.

Part of me wants to say good for Saunders for not giving into Solomon's aggressive mediocrity, but the other part of me wants to assure people that his stories are a million times better than he himself describes them in this interview. There is absolutely no way you could convince me to read a story about a talking Dorito--unless you told me first that Saunders had written it. Even then I might be skeptical. Pastoralia is an uneven collection, and I haven't been thrilled by his recent work in the New Yorker. His first short story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, is really great (and Jeff's post about this topic has an inspired title).

I was struck by the language of consolation in the Times interview, when Solomon asks Saunders what he hopes readers will gain from his work, and he says he wants readers to be more in love with the world around them. Really? That's not what I want from a George Saunders short story. I want theme-park dystopias, repetitions of empty phrases rendered for comic effect, frustrated cavemen, ghosts who enact their own murders and play with Rubik's cubes, zombies who are impossible to please. No one else does it quite like Saunders. I'll look somewhere else to fall more in love with the world.

Writing about Mary Gaitskill in December, I copied out a paragraph from Lorin Stein's NYRB review of Veronica about the consolation/correction grain in Benjamin Kunkel's novel, Indecision, among others:
When Kunkel's narrator says 'I want to conclude with some vacuous statement we can all agree on,' when Lipsyte's narrator strings together a litany of garbled platitudes--'Volunteer in your community. Bathe the children in your neighborhood'--the writers are making similar jokes, not about class reunions, but about our desire for uplift, our demand that new novels model a slightly better world than the one we live in.

I asked which other contemporary American writers work against the consolation/correction grain besides Gaitskill. I think Saunders may be one possibility, although that's the only thing those two writers may have in common. Saunders is the kind of writer who makes you weep with laughter; Gaitskill is the one who makes you just plain weep. In Saunders, the litany of corporate-speak platitudes don't do any work of consolation; they're empty, false, and divisive (for example in "Pastoralia," when the male caveman actor has to fill out evaluation sheets of his partner, but these comments become markers of their obsolescence).

Until I read the latest issue of Bookforum, I might have put A.M. Homes on that anti-consolation list, too. Here's the brilliant lead of Darcy Cosper's review of Homes's new book:
In 1980, the New Statesman held a contest to determine the world's most improbable book title; the winning entry was "My Struggle by Martin Amis." The punch line was probably more amusing at the time than it is today, but even if the joke had lost none of its original impact, "This Book Will Save Your Life by A. M. Homes" might still provide formidable competition.

After all, Homes's work isn't exactly what one would call uplifting. She's made her name with dark, often very disturbing fiction-—ferociously intelligent, inky-black novels and stories rich in mordant humor that challenge convention, both literary and social. Her oeuvre includes The End of Alice, an eroticized portrait of a pedophilic murderer that manages to be authentically shocking rather than merely sensational; the thrilleresque In a Country of Mothers, in which a therapist and her client, who may also be birth mother and daughter, become obsessed with each other; and Music for Torching, Homes's renowned upending of genteel suburban literary tradition, featuring a pair of yuppie parents run amok. In a seditious rage against middle-class mores, the two try to burn their own house down, go on a crack binge, carry on scandalous affairs, and generally wreak havoc on the leafy sanctity of Wapshot country.

It would appear, then, that the title of Homes's latest novel is ironic, the first sally in another deft and savage assault on contemporary culture and those who succumb to its anesthetizing siren song. Except, as near as I can tell, it's not. And the book itself is . . . well, uplifting.

(Weird, true story about A.M. Homes and Amazon.com: I was looking up Music for Torching on the site one day, when I noticed a disturbing trend on Amazon's recommendation sidebar. I was using a public terminal and whoever had been using Amazon previously hadn't signed out. That person had viewed pages for books by Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter. The three recommended books were:
Who's Looking Out for You, by Bill O'Reilly
How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must), by Ann Coulter
The End of Alice, by A.M. Homes
Two things to take away: 1) the Amazon.com features are endlessly fun for producing trivia and non-meaningful coincidences, 2) O'Reilly and Coulter shouldn't find out about The End of Alice, or, say, "A Real Doll" in Homes's short story collection, The Safety of Objects.)

I'm not sure I need to read an uplifing book by A.M. Homes, but we'll see.

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Blogger a Reader on Thu Apr 13, 08:07:00 PM:
how can 'show your cock' ever be a statistically improbable phrase? I can't seem to go for a quiet drink with some friends without it being used multiple times.

Oh. Does that make my life sound bad?
 
Blogger Alice on Thu Apr 13, 10:32:00 PM:
Well, the phrase is less quotidian and more literary when it's being uttered by a belligerent zombie.
 
Blogger Ben on Fri Apr 14, 05:11:00 AM:
Oh, he's the CivilWarLand in Bad Decline guy! Now I want to read about a talking Dorito too.
 

Yagoda to Kakutani via Boone and Lewis: kill more adjectives!

Alice beat me to the punch by linking to Ben Yagoda's calm takedown of Michiko Kakutani in Slate.

I had planned to point out that it's not exactly a sporting challenge to trash Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times book reviewer who writes like she's taking a midterm exam for a class she's been sleeping through and needs to hide behind a sea of vocab words and vague metaphors. And that Yagoda wrote one of the big books about the New Yorker, as well as a scholarly paper called "Heavy Meta". He has a forthcoming book called If You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse, so I imagine the Slate editors who gave him the assignment were looking for a bit of hatchet in the job.

A highlight of his review:

In her world, books tend to be masterpieces or rubbish; in the real one, they're almost always somewhere in between. She also (characteristically) sets up a bogus dichotomy between [Nick Hornby's] A Long Way Down and the "good" Hornby books. In fact, an artist's works almost always have more similarities than differences; if the disjuncture here were really as big as she claims, it should be the main subject of her review. The core question is how the current piece fits into the oeuvre, and we expect reflective reviews to address it. In this case, I'd be curious to see a critic consider Hornby's oft-stated and almost obsessive pledge to write books that are entertaining and ultimately uplifting—and how such a project could be expected eventually to encounter artistic and philosophical difficulties.
Alice quoted Yagoda quoting CS Lewis. Here's the other CS Lewish quote he uses:
"If we are not careful criticism may become a mere excuse for taking revenge on books whose smell we dislike by erecting our temperamental antipathies into pseudo-moral judgments."
Of course, I am morally judging Kakutani based on tempermental antipathy too... Now might be a good time to end this post!

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Rubber stamp: PEDESTRIAN

Last week, we had a discussion in my writing instruction class about how to give good comments on student papers. The instructor asked everyone to write down the best and worst comments (we interpreted it as helpful and least helpful lest the exercise devolve into boasting and masochism) they ever received on their writing. She explained one of the all-time weirdest: a student several years ago reported receiving a graded paper with the word PEDESTRIAN rubber-stamped on it. That can't be true, can it?

Least helpful and strangest comments I've received:

*"Witty, well-written, thoughtful. It's better than I thought it would be."

*"Your work is a black diamond
beautiful
and rare"
(one of my professors used to write comments in free verse)

*(upon hearing I got annoyed and couldn't make it through Roland Barthes' Fragments of a Lovers' Discourse): "You just need to be slapped around ... [too, too long pause] by structuralism."

One of the most helpful comments I received in college was from a professor who drew up a diagram of what close-reading paragraphs tend to look like. My big ideas ended up at the ends of my paragraphs because I was developing them as I wrote--a fine generative process for first drafts--but I needed to make my arguments at the beginnings of paragraphs and use the close reading as evidence rather than build-up. I kept that diagram on my desk for years. The bigger-picture version of that tendency is the student who gets to the point in the final paragraphs of an essay (or column, when I was editing those).

I was thinking about the difference between "function" comments and "essence" comments--that is, the difference between noting, "this sentence works well here because..." and "good job"--when I read Ben Yagoda's Slate article about Michiko Kakutani's limited critical perspective in her book reviews. Yagoda cites C.S. Lewis's comments on Kenneth Tynan's work:
As a student at Oxford, the future drama critic Kenneth Tynan got back a paper with this comment: "Keep a strict eye on eulogistic & dyslogistic adjectives—They shd diagnose (not merely blame) & distinguish (not merely praise.)"

Not only is this useful advice for a critic, it's also valuable for teachers to remember in writing comments. Of course, no teacher tries to rack up style points in an essay comment the way a book critic does in a review, but I try to focus most of my comments on that work of distinguishing and diagnosing.

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Blogger Anna on Thu Apr 13, 12:46:00 AM:
I don't know about the rubber stamp, but my ma got a "Pedestrian: Take the Final" on a paper from Robert Belknap c. 1970.

My father-in-law on the other hand, when he was a TA, kept a rubber stamp in the shape of a trash can overflowing with garbage, for use on really poor student exams.