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Friday, February 23, 2007

The long and winding Beatles-Stones debate

The Beatles' January 1969 rooftop concert of songs from Let it Be--which wouldn't be released until May 1970, after Abbey Road and the band's breakup--are up on Youtube.

I love how rock films from the 60s show how novel and exciting an idea it was to be freaking out the squares, and for no one more so than the Beatles. (I wonder if that's a core Republican-Democrat cultural difference: when you see someone freaking out the squares, do you laugh or glower?) You can see how this has changed in Spike Jonze's two Fatboy Slim videos, "Rockafella Skank" and "Praise You"--he's still freaking people out, but he's not visibly proud of putting people off and the humor comes from his intense focus on the performance.

At a party last year, Alice mentioned debating with friends which of the Beatles and Rolling Stones are the superior band. I immediately blurted out "The Beatles!", and Alice told me that would put me in the minority.

Let it Be, and the rooftop concert in particular, is some of my favorite Beatles music (according to Wikipedia, the rooftop performances of "Dig a Pony", "I've Got a Feeling" and "1 after 909" were put on the final album). My favorite Stones music also comes from the same period: Let it Bleed in 1969 and Sticky Fingers in 1971 (more than Get Yer Ya-Yas Out and Exile on Main Street). In comparison, the white album, Let it Be and Abbey Road do feel sentimental and precious.

Earnestness is much of the Beatles' charm, but it's still charm and not really rock & roll. The Beatles expanded music in many directions, but they never found the sticky adult territory of "Under my Thumb" or "Brown Sugar". To listen straight through the Red and Blue albums (the official best-ofs) is to wait for a particular sort of breakthrough that never comes. If you're willing to be counterfactual, it's not hard to imagine that if the final Beatles album had been any of the Stones' four from 1969-72, it would be held above Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper's.

How about this: is Pearl Jam to Nirvana a good metaphor for Beatles to Stones? For simplicity, I'm talking about the best albums of each group, which makes the comparison easier because as I see it these are roughly contemporary in each case (sorry, No Code and Tattoo You fans). Ten and Vs. are syrupy next to Nirvana's three albums (it's hard to imagine Kurt Cobain crying out "Where do I stand?"), but then again I always listen to them in different ways: Pearl Jam and the Beatles by playing isolated songs, Nirvana and the Stones by playing whole albums. Hearing "The Long and Winding Road" after already hearing "Across the Universe" is a bit much, as is "Indifference" after "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" (even typing that makes me wince). But I'm never happier than when I play "Dissident" or "Rearview Mirror" (though preferably not in sequence), or "Dig a Pony" or "Oh! Darling". I don't feel the same way about any Stones or Nirvana songs, though I play Nevermind, In Utero and the two Stones albums I mentioned in heavier rotation than PJ or Beatles.

As for the singalong concept album stuff, I hardly ever listen to it anymore, but I'm glad it's there. Once, managing deliveries for a restaurant in the meatpacking district in Manhattan, someone started singing "Because" as a joke, and I swear that the entire delivery crew--with the exception of a few confused Dominicans--proceeded to sing the entire album side all the way through "The End".

A related memory: once, at the Columbia bar Cannon's, I put "Gimme Shelter" on the jukebox, but the volume was too low and that kills the song. As the opening wail came on, I got looks from people that said what the fuck is this? When the guitar, bass and drums came it, I started bobbing my head, thinking here we go, but no one was with me. I feel David Bowie's warning on the back of Ziggy Stardust: "To be played at maximum volume". "Dig a Pony" in particular shrivels up when played on a tinny. tiny system, but expands on a good and loud one.


Thursday, February 22, 2007

Writing about forgetting

There was a neat article about amnesia in the Science Times a few weeks ago that reminded me of The Vintage Book of Amnesia, edited by Jonathan Lethem. The introduction is one of my favorite Lethem essays:

A writer sat in a featureless white room trying to remember a genre which had never existed.

This book of literary amnesia began as an observation of certain resemblances in two or three novels I admired--a passing notion, a reader's list. I had no intention of editing a book, let alone identifying a genre. But amnesia turned up more the harder I thought about it. At first it was the obvious, gaudy cases, amnesia breaking out into an overt premise or plot symptom--there were more of these than I'd ever imagined (in fact, I'd written more than one myself). Elsewhere amnesia appeared pulsing just beneath the surface, an existential syndrome that seemed to nag at fictional characters with increasing frequency, a floating metaphor very much in the air. Amnesia, it turned out when I began to pay attention, is a modern mood, and a very American one.

Not that there's any question that literary amnesia has European grandfathers: Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. If it's usually felt that every compelling novel is in some sense a mystery, the examples of Kafka and Beckett suggest that amnesia can be seen as a basic condition for characters enmeshed in fiction's web. Conjured out of the void, by a thin thread of sentences, every fictional assertion exists as a speck on a background of consummate blankness. There's a joke among writing teachers that apprentice writers, at a loss for an idea, will usually commit some version of the story that begins: "A man woke alone in a room with bare white walls," unconsciously replicating their plight before the blank page and hoping that compositional momentum will garb the naked story in identity, meaning, and plot. Our hero might have blood on his hands, or answer a ringing phone, or find himself wiggling an antenna--we'll improvise as we go along.

Here is Sophie Harrison's review (from Sunday's New York Times Book Review) of Paul Auster's new book Travels in the Scriptorium:
Paul Auster is not so much a writer’s writer as a writer for people who long to be writers. His novels have a habit of unpacking themselves as they go, showing their workings with the gentle condescension of a creative writing tutor addressing a roomful of hopeful amateurs. His frankness about technique is complemented by the modesty of his sets. All you need is a bed, a chair, a notebook, a room — or perhaps Manhattan or Brooklyn, if you prefer some slightly bigger rooms — and you’re there, a modern postmodernist, like Beckett and Kafka, only cooler.

“Travels in the Scriptorium” even sounds like the title of a workshop, and the writing-school ambience takes a while to disperse. On Page 1 a man sits on a strange bed in a strange room. He has no idea where he is. He has amnesia. (Your reviewer confesses to sneaking a look at the end at this point, checking for the sentence “It had all been a dream.”) “Who is he? What is he doing here? When did he arrive and how long will he remain?” the narrator asks, closing his inquiry (Four Questions Every Screenwriter Should Answer!) with an unpromising hook. “With any luck, time will tell us all.” With any luck, Auster will tell us all. He doesn’t, of course. This is the democratic classroom of postmodernism: teacher gives the hints, students construct the sense. “For the moment, our only task is to study the pictures as attentively as we can and refrain from drawing any premature conclusions,” the unnamed narrator informs us somewhat priggishly.

It is, in fact, difficult to draw any conclusions at all, but a study of the text will enable the reader to find out this much. The man on the bed is known as Mr. Blank. He is dressed in a pair of pajamas. The first thing he notices is that all the objects in his room are identified by labels: TABLE, on the table; LAMP, on the lamp, and so forth, in a manner that is either deeply mystifying, or deeply cute, depending on one’s interpretation of course. There is a desk or a DESK nearby, with a stack of photographs and some pages of a manuscript. There is a window, but the shade is drawn. Importantly, Mr. Blank feels too anxious and weak to investigate the DOOR.

Returning back to the Science Times article, I had this odd feeling that actually, Auster might be on to something with his schematic descriptions. Here's the data that the scientists collected:
The men, urged to fill out the scenes with imagined detail, described what they could. The researchers analyzed transcripts of their answers, carefully scoring each one for personal touches: projected emotions, sensations and actions. They found that compared with similar descriptions produced by adults without brain injuries, the five men's imagined scenes were flat, barren of personal dimension.
The distinctions the brain makes between loose facts and the richer, wraparound ambience of an experience are important to understanding memory, because people with healthy brain function tend to recall the gist of experience, whereas those with hippocampus damage can often recollect discrete facts with more accuracy. The difference is partly reflected in the study participants' words.

When asked to envision an open-air market, one brain-injured man said: ''I see people, very many people. Most of all um not many men, all I see are young ladies. And basically they are all in a hurry.''

A participant without brain injury responded: ''Right, so on either side of me I've got stalls and it's noisy. We have a person on my right who is selling fruit and veg, and they're telling us that bananas are on special offer this week, and they're shouting about that.''

In an essay published this month in the journal Nature, two Harvard researchers, Daniel L. Schacter and Donna Rose Addis, contend that this ability to richly imagine scenes, whether entirely dependent on the hippocampus or not, is perhaps the most promising frontier for memory research.

Most of the authors collected in Lethem's Vintage Book of Amnesia have imagined amnesia to be much richer than this data suggests--and of course, as readers, we wouldn't want it any other way. (One of my favorite Shirley Jackson short stories, "Nightmare," is in there.) Lethem calls attention to this discrepancy in his description of the genre, where he keeps mentioning his own acts of discovering, making connections, reconsidering, recategorizing, and so on. He had "no intention" of collecting the stories but "the harder [he] thought about it," the more obvious the connections became; then he's able to reconstruct a past history of the genre in Beckett and Kafka, which is of course exactly what an amnesiac couldn't do; then he's able to theorize it and draw more connections; then he's able to tell you what he's doing and theorize it. It's a wonderful essay. Here's the paragraph about the problem of defining a genre of amnesia writing:
Obviously, I risk spilling my precious and only-recently-distilled vial of amnesia fiction into the broad streams of dystopian writing and cultural critique, but, well, that's what genres do under study: merge and disappear into others. (Noir, dystopia, theory, metafiction: watch amnesia swirl and be lost like James Stewart in Vertigo's dream sequence.) Anyway, any good dystopian tyrant knows the use of and value of controlled collective amnesia, or he loses his job.

These lyrical description of a brain injury reminds me of Siri Hustvedt's The Blindfold (any combination of Ben, Miriam, and me in a room discussing this book gets heated very quickly). Hustvedt, Auster's wife, makes a lot out of the migraine as a descriptive and structural device--the gaps in the narrative are like the black holes that appear in the main character's field of vision, stuff like that, and maybe it gets clunky fast. And yet, I think I can outline every single bizarre twist in the novel because it's so weirdly memorable, or at least I remember arguing with Ben and Miriam about it many times. I've always thought that the first section, where the main character is hired by a sinister old man to catalogue and tape-record her descriptions of creepy items in his apartment, is like a writing workshop piece--you know, describe these items in explicit detail as an exercise--with a very loose plot attached to it.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Wikipedia and new forms of citation

The history department at Middlebury has banned citing Wikipedia as a research source in term papers and exams. This is a neat article because the author notes some of the potential problems with using Wikipedia as a cited source--the history department recognizes that it's still useful (and ubiquitous) as a source for consultation--but he also talks to professors who have asked students to prepare entries for the site as assignments so that students can learn about what it's like to present information in such a genre. Both Jimmy Wales and a professor in the Middlebury history department make the point that encyclopedias don't make for good research citations in academic writing anyway, whether they're from a wiki, Britanica, or Encarta. Wales gets a predictably inflated comparison in there: telling the kids to stop consulting Wikipedia would be like telling them, 'don’t listen to rock ’n’ roll either.'"

When I've talked about Wikipedia as a source in classes in the past, I've framed it the discussion as one where we can talk what we're doing when we cite stuff and why it matters to assess the position, rhetorical stance, and limitations of sources. I'm interested in the odd cases where new sources of information do yield potentially useful directions for research. Do you cite Wikipedia on a "Works Consulted" list but not a "Works Cited" list? A few of my students have found Wikipedia entries useful for pointing to outside sources (one entry quoted a magazine article that she wouldn't have known about otherwise; it seemed important, then, to cite where she had found the reference to that article, as well as to find the magazine article and read it for a fuller context). Another student found several citations to news articles at, which doesn't have uniform citations but does provide outside links to online editions of print news sources sometimes. Again, that site was a good starting place--not an ending place--to look for information she wouldn't have found otherwise. Sometimes we make notes in footnotes if we've found a citation or a quotation in another print source, so how would it work with website citation?


Blogger Ben on Tue Mar 13, 11:24:00 PM:
But if you do consult Wikipedia for orientation, serendipitous connections and updates on any recent developments, isn't it dishonest not to cite it? After all, there are many sources that we cite without being sure of the accuracy of their content; whether we are citing properly is not a question of what work appears at the footnote, but of what context we place the reference in. What other reference could better accompany a sentence like "Popular opinion in public forums holds that the mysterious death of Zviad Gamsakhurdia was most likely a suicide"?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Irving Kristol: haters strike again

Ralph Fiennes recently had a mile-high tryst (or at least attempted one) with a flight attendant, and now she's in trouble. Why? Because humorless coworkers tattled on her. Here's the one thing Ayn Rand and I would agree on: this sort of schadenfreude is despicable.

Neoconservatives like Irving Kristol--who I'm reading a book of essays by--position themselves in the Nietzshe/Rand camp of people not afraid to declare that there are great men and great books, and that we're better off revering the great than harping on them to defend what Kristol calls "joyless equality" (when describing Denmark). But would Ralph and Lisa Robertson, emerging from the bathroom, elicit a wink from Kristol, or a formal complaint? It's clear from his anger towards hippies that it would be the latter. It's similar to Kristol's hostility towards multiculturalism: if people are enjoying themselves and it's not in his traditional ways, he can't stand it. You don't need to be black to see the universal value of studying Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, but you do need to not be Irving Kristol.

I like to think that liberalism has, at its core, an uncertainty that does not die; a faith that there's always a perspective that we do not yet have, always a new world to be discovered by wading into the plurality of languages and cultures. Liberal autobiography seems marked by events that break down certainty; in Kristol's autobiographical writing, a pillar of certainty (like Kristol's early Trotskyism) is only destroyed if a castle can be built in its place (like his later anti-communism, so strong it allows suspension of constitutional protections). On balance, I prize the unpredictable over the traditional, and I love the side of liberalism that does the same. Kristol very much does the opposite.

In the recent New Yorker profile of Christopher Hitchens, someone comments that while Hitchens rightly denounced Mother Theresa's hypocrisy, there is little doubt as to which person you would be wise to come to if you were cold and hungry. Kristol and co. are right about some things, including the ills of socialism. But if you were an embarassed flight attendant who'd just been--I'll split the difference between the various accounts of what happened--making out in a bathroom with The English Patient, would you rather that the witness be Kristol or Rosa Luxemburg?


Blogger Ben on Tue Feb 20, 12:27:00 AM:
Looking this over, I realize how incomprehensible and scatterbrained writing it is. Apologies. Reading Irving Kristol has scrambled my mind.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

I'd like to shank the Academy

Here are the bets I'm placing on the Oscars this year at I made a killing last year shorting Brokeback and I'm looking to repeat. (Note that these were the odds at the time I placed them and have changed by the time you read this, probably in my favor.)

Best Picture: The Departed (pays 2:1) is undervalued. It's a lock, despite Scorcese's recent win for The Aviator and my lonely belief that it sucked.

Director: Clint Eastwood (pays 12:1). Scorcese leads here, but Academy voters like to split their votes, and I think Clint has a chance especially considering the impressive successive release of two Oscar-level films in 12 months.

Actress: Helen Mirren is considered a sure thing, but I'm not so sure. How many Academy voters actually saw The Queen and know who she is? I wouldn't be surprised if Meryl Streep won by default, but I think Judy Dench and Kate Winslet have a chance, and now that Penelope Cruz has finally made a great movie, I'm shorting Mirren (pays 10:1 if any of them beat her).

Supporting Actor: Mark Wahlberg (30:1 odds). Sure, Eddie Murphy and Alan Arkin are more likely to win, but Marky Mark's wacky performance in The Departed is just the sort of thing Academy voters go for. 30:1 is a steal.

Supporting Actress: behind Jennifer Hudson (4:3 odds) is Rinko Kikuchi (12:1 odds). I think Hudson will win, but I'll take Kikuchi for the long shot.

Actor: Forest Whitaker is paying 5:4 odds, and I think that's actually a good buy, since none of the other nominees--with the possible exception of Leonardo DiCaprio--has a chance. But I think Leo is where voters' Departed fatigue will set in, and they'll skip this award for it.

By the way, Hillary is at 4:1 odds to win the presidency, and Al Gore is at 10:1 odds to win the nomination. Two overvalued possibilities; two shorting opportunities!


Blogger Scriblerus on Sun Feb 18, 06:14:00 PM:
From what I know of Academy voters--admittedly not much, but I do have firsthand knowledge of at least one who once let me fill in some of her ballot--they vote the buzz in the actor categories and tinker with Best Picture and Director. The odds on Helen Mirren make her an attractive short, but I'm fairly certain the voters know her very well and that it doesn't matter if they've seen The Queen. They haven't seen The Last King of Scotland either, but Forrest Whitaker has good chances. If anyone could beat him, I'd bet on Peter O'Toole rather than Leo.
Blogger Ben on Mon Feb 19, 01:14:00 PM:
Another point: Scorcese is so damn due. Eastwood swept with Million Dollar Baby two years ago. I predict Scorsese will win Picture and Director both (but I'll place long odds on Eastwood). And O'Toole doesn't have the cache to make it.

To be clear, my predictions are:
Deliver Us From Evil
Pan's Labyrinth
And for short fiction:
The Danish Poet (narrated by Liv Ullmann, and wonderful)
West Bank Story (Jews and Palestinians sing and dance and achieve forbidden love)
Blogger Alice on Wed Feb 21, 07:07:00 PM:
At least twice a week, I cite the sad, sad recent history of the Academy passing over four British actresses for an American (1993: Marisa Tomei beats Miranda Richardson, Joan Plowright, Vanessa Redgrave, and Judy Davis; 1998: Helen Hunt beats Julie Christie, Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, and Helena Bonham Carter). I weep as I type those names, particularly the last one. But I don't think it will happen this year--and, of course, Penelope Cruz is Spanish and was excellent in Volver--and I expect to see Helen Mirren win.
Blogger Ben on Fri Feb 23, 12:32:00 AM:
I think you'll be vindicated, but I can't help but notice the pull of Judi Dench and Meryl Streep, who will attract many of the same voters as Mirren. Academy voters have Hollywood careers and don't go to the movies; and Mirren could fall victim to a Crash-Brokeback-Capote-Munich-Good Luck 5-way race for actress.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The bells and barbarus of Seville

When the Christian forces of Castilla y Leon invaded Seville, Spain, they tore down the city's mosque and built a cathedral. They retained just a few parts of the mosque, including its minaret, which was later outfitted with a steeple containing a belfry and topped by a gold weathervane (giralda, which gives the popular name to both the vane and the tower) that became Seville's symbol.

My girlfriend Kate and I visited Seville last month and were mesmerized by the cathedral (a surprise, since visiting the local religious buildings is so often the dullest part of visiting a European city). Partly this was because of its grand scale; it's the largest Catholic cathedral in the world, an enormous scorpion of unusual buttresses looming over the city. But more so, it was impressive through no credit of its own, but because it is lucky enough to not have replaced this mosque entirely. With the exception of some spectacular vaulting, the Gothic stonework suffers next to the elegance of the Giralda minaret and the old Mosque's one remaining gate.

Kate wondered at the demolition of a structure that, judging by its remaining parts, was surely beautiful; did anyone balk at putting their hammer to its sublime stonework? Was there any sadness at this loss among the conquerors, or is that merely a hopeful projection by observers who can't possibly know the prejudices and devotions of the past?

(And while I'm asking questions, why does English change the spelling of some foreign names and not others? Thailand and Iran and Sri Lanka are no longer called Siam and Persia and Ceylon, but China and Egypt and Greece are known only by their English exonyms and not called by their endonyms Zhongguo, Masr and Hellas. Seville is more comfortably said in English than Sevilla, but we don't insist on Columbia and didn't refuse to start saying Beijing or Mumbai, though I admit we probably say them little more accurately than before. And then there's Georgia-the-country, which calls itself by the less confusable name Sakartvelo, but whose capital Tbilisi we transliterate faithfully though few English speakers can pronounce it and the Russian colonial Tiflis is available. The word barbarian comes from the impression among Greeks, who were accomplished renamers, that foreign tongues all sounded like mindless lolling: blah, blah, blah. Surely we're beyond that tradition and ready for Deutschland and Bharat? Alice, cue Fugazi's Reclamation.)

We climbed to the top of the minaret, a pleasant process because of its internal ramps, built so Sevillanos could ascend on horseback. (I wonder when this was last done, and who the riders were--tourists or police or locals enjoying a disappearing custom?) At the top there was a surprise that had escaped mention in my guidebook: a set of enormous bells pealed by a set of exposed motors, gears and chains.

The bells rang on schedule, but that didn't prepare their visitors for the skull-cracking shock of hearing a nearby bell strike--several times one that I, lost in my camera taking the pictures below, didn't realize I was standing under.

The city was wonderful, with narrow streets inherited from the medina and Andalucian tapas typical not just in their tastiness but in their precipitate and unceasing delivery. But the bells cast a spell on us, and after we left the cathedral we stopped for a drink on a nearby rooftop and listened to them ring, and found ourselves back there at night.

View from the minaret across the top of the massive cathedral; the stone floor here is not the ground but the roof. A quote from the planning of the cathedral, probably apocryphal, has someone involved vowing that "we shall have a church... of such a kind that those who see it built will think we were mad."

17th century wood and metal clockworks on display inside the minaret.

Below, the bells and their mechanical controllers.

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Blogger Kate on Fri Feb 16, 07:37:00 AM:
Ben used like 35 of our precious 117 pictures on the digital camera (117 for the WHOLE two week trip) on the bells at the top of this tower. We loved the bells for sure, but I think the ringing possessed him and made his mind both obsessed with them and impermeable to reason. Clearly these five capture the experience, but noooo....

I want my Victorian fainting couch to look like Sigmund Freud’s

I do love this query from The New York Times Home section: I want my Victorian fainting couch to look like Sigmund Freud’s. Where can I find upholstery fabric in Persian kilim patterns?

Often when I scan the Home section, I think, who writes in questions about home decor to The New York Times? They must be made up. But I can sort of imagine at least five people I know asking this question. The whole article is set up around this inevitable line: "Almost any Middle Eastern rug with a geometric pattern could serve as a Freudian slip."


Anonymous Anonymous on Mon Mar 26, 08:37:00 PM:
Since you mentioned Sigmund Freud, check out my exclusive interviews with him just the other day on my blog. I think you'll really enjoy it.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Long Now: the future of scientific methods

Kevin Kelly, editor-at-large of Wired, former publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, was invited by Stewart Brand's Long Now Foundation last year to give a talk in San Francisco. Brand, creator of Whole Earth and MIT Media Lab groupie, started Long Now in an effort to shift humanity's thinking to consider the impact of our actions now will have on the next 10,000 years. (It's Isaac Asimov's overrated Foundation series made real.)

From the talk, in which Kelly predicts changes in scientific methods we will see in the next hundred years [emphasis added]:

I'm willing to bet the scientific method 400 years from now will differ from today's understanding of science more than today's science method differs from the proto-science used 400 years ago... I offer the following as possible near-term advances in the evolution of the scientific method.

Triple Blind Experiments – In a double blind experiment neither researcher nor subject are aware of the controls, but both are aware of the experiment. In a triple blind experiment all participants are blind to the controls and to the very fact of the experiment itself.
Multiple Hypothesis Matrix – Instead of proposing a series of single hypothesis, in which each hypothesis is falsified and discarded until one theory finally passes and is verified, a matrix of many hypothesis scenarios are proposed and managed simultaneously. An experiment travels through the matrix of multiple hypothesis, some of which are partially right and partially wrong.
Wiki-Science – The average number of authors per paper continues to rise. With massive collaborations, the numbers will boom. Experiments involving thousands of investigators collaborating on a "paper" will commonplace. The paper is ongoing, and never finished... Responsibilities for errors will be hard to pin down. Wiki-science will often be the first word on a new area. Some researchers will specialize in refining ideas first proposed by wiki-science.


Blogger Kate on Fri Feb 16, 07:46:00 AM:
Don't the first two names of these predictions sound like they belong to the lexicon of the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies? And try to imagine what a wiki-relationship is, or better still, a wiki-marriage. Wiki-divorce settlement, anyone?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Ideas for the Drew Faust burger

Out with the Larry Summers burger at Harvard Square's Bartley's Burger Cottage, in with the Drew Faust burger. Both names are friendly to chefs looking for metaphor; Summers was served with honey mustard, which is both sweet--appropriate for his namesake season--and sour. Faust is less easily translated to food, but holds great potential. A few ideas:
  1. Burger is served with a sage reduction, in honor of Faust's Bryn Mawr, and presumably Wiccan, roots

  2. Faust is known at Harvard for her cost-cutting, and earned the nickname "Chainsaw Drew" when she brutally murdered one-quarter of the Radcliffe staff. (Other reports have her firing them instead.) Burger is served with extra ketchup, with one quarter chopped off.

  3. Burger is free, but if you ever cry out in pleasure at its taste, you are condemned to a PhD program where expectations for your thesis double each month

  4. A normal burger, but male diners who wish to order it must first calculate and recite the first seventeen digits of the Thue-Morse Sequence and explain the importance of the Higgs boson


Monday, February 12, 2007

A statue that would kick ass

An advertisement in the New York Review of Books this week reads:
He wrestled with Hemmingway. He wrote poems with Muhammed Ali. He took second place in an Apollo Theater talent show. [In headline type:] Where will we put the statue?

Should a statue of George Plimpton be erected? Yes, every good reader, Lions fan, and fireworks aficionado agrees that this singular man, who left us just over three years ago, merits a nice bronze statue complete with plaque and a solid stone pedestal (granite is fine; marble, too showy). Somewhere on the island of Manhattan we believe.
Is this a pressing matter? Yes. Time works in a funny way and people have a tendency to forget. Just look at Martin Tyler. Who is Martin Tyler, you ask? Good question.

Back to the statue, there is the awkward matter of exactly who will pay for it. As the editor of a small struggling literary review, George would have appreciated this dilemma. We imagine he would have thrown a party. So, as soon as we can rustle up a venue and get a sense of the guest list, we will howt a joyful celebration of George's excellent life. It will be a good time.

If you woud like to come to the party (do come!), let us know at ...and then come to the party and meet us. We'll be easy to spot, we're the ones with 38 bottles of scotch, one bottle of white wine and a bottle of Dubonnet.
At the bottom of the page, there is a quote from Hunter S. Thompson that begins "George Plimpton kicked ass."

Bruce Kayton, the excellent tour guide of radical New York history, points out that most statues in New York City are of men famous for killing people. In Tbilisi, Georgia, there are plenty of those, but also wonderful statues of writers, artists and actors installed around the central part of town: memoirists in overcoats, poets sitting in thought, and one memorably svelte dandy next to the opera house, dressed to the nines and ready for a night on the town. We could use a little of that mojo.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Translating Harry Potter

My father turned me on to an enjoyable way to improve at a foreign language: read Harry Potter in translation. I've read Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal and Harry Potter et le Prisonier D'Azkaban, and I got a lot of somewhat painless French and Spanish out of them. The plots and scenarios are familiar enough that I can pick up the gist of what is going on even if the grammar and vocabulary escape me; but after a few times reading about the impatient lechuza in Harry's room, I can't help but gather that it is not lettuce but an owl.

The most difficult part of reading these books, though, is figuring out which of the many unfamiliar words are made up (this usually means consulting several dictionaries before I realize my error), though the Spanish translators tend to stick closer to the spellings of the original.

Is that a better approach than the refashioning of J. K. Rowling's world of invented vocabulary? Daniel Hahn, writing in The Guardian on translating Harry Potter, doesn't think so:

Spanish readers will find most names and invented words unchanged ("¿Hagrid, qué es el quidditch?"), or translated literally. So the Spanish is faithful in one obvious sense - but while the names may be unchanged, does the name Quirrell really sound as nervous, stammery, querulous in Spanish? Does Hufflepuff sound as ineffectual, dumb and huggable as it does to English ears?


And then there's the wordplay, the prophecies and rhymes (like those of the sorting hat - the sombrero seleccionador). There are also the spells and the anagrams. (Tom Marvolo Riddle may be an anagram of "I am Lord Voldemort"; but it's not an anagram of "Je suis Voldemort", so in France he's Tom Elvis Jedusor.)

The article also mentions the extraordinary pressure imposed by the secrecy that keeps each new book under wraps until the moment sales begin, compounded by the presence of bootleg versions:
It's a race against publishers' deadlines, of course; in certain countries, where the quality of second-language English is very high, it's a race to get the book published in (say) Norwegian, or Danish, before your entire market decides not to bother waiting for the translation, and you find that you're trying to sell it to people who've already read the book in the original.

In some cases it's a race against unofficial translators, too; in China, where enforcement of international copyright law leaves something to be desired, IPR parasites churn out their quick and shoddy renegade versions more or less with impunity. These range from fan-produced translations published online, to brand-new books in the HP series sold on street corners, like the rather peculiar attempt at a book five that appeared while Rowling was in fact still hard at work in Edinburgh writing it (Rowling shares this distinction with Cervantes, who was understandably taken aback to find the second part of Don Quixote published unofficially before he'd had the chance to get round to writing it).
There's also a mention of a product of translation I have never considered: that each translation offers a glimpse from a new angle into the forces behind its choices:
Other fans have found that when they scour their translations they turn up valuable plot clues. Book six has a note mysteriously signed with the initials "RAB", which many readers have speculated may refer to someone in the Black family, a relative of Sirius Black (most likely his younger brother Regulus); the Dutch translation gives the initials on the note as RAZ - and if you know that in Dutch Harry's godfather is called Sirius Zwarts, this change suggests some interesting intelligence.
(Let me take this moment, by the way, to announce my faith in Severus Snape. He did what he did to earn standing and save Draco from committing a horrible crime himself. He will be vindicated!)

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Blogger Meg Lyman on Mon Feb 12, 10:17:00 AM:
Haha, you are to be sorely dissapointed, my friend. Severus Snape is EVIL (though I think he will end up butting heads with Voldemort in the end). You have given me another excuse to read Harry Potter. Practicing my Spanish!
Blogger Ben on Tue Feb 13, 09:39:00 PM:
Mark my words... Snape is a Black! That's why Sirius hated him so much...
Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Feb 15, 11:58:00 AM:
I love how the sorting hat is the "choixpeau" in the French translation. "Choix" means "choice" and a "chapeau" is a hat. The hat that chooses. This wordplay doesn't exist in the original.
Blogger PR on Thu Feb 15, 12:45:00 PM:
Laughed when I read this. The first book I read in Japanese was Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and also found it a very encouraging experience. The title was directly translated, but I was disturbed to discover "Half-Blood Prince" had been changed to the "Mysterious Prince".

My other tip for budding readers in a foreign language: erotic fiction. You'd think I'm joking, but sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to make it to the end of a story.
Blogger Philip on Thu Feb 15, 03:36:00 PM:
mr icon wrote about learning a foreign language using Harry Potter a couple of years ago. His article is on kuro5hin. He's learnt French and Chinese that way.
Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Feb 15, 07:16:00 PM:
I agree 100%! For me, part of the charm of the books themselves is the way Rowling plays with language to bring the Hogwarts world to life. Reading Harry Potter in French not only improved my language skills but also provided unexpected linguistic entertainment! (Like choixpeau.) Some of my favorites are Poufsouffle (for Hufflepuff), or that Voldemort, Malfoy and Lupin's names have added meaning in French. And reading the word "baguette" when someone uses his/her wand makes me smile every time.
Blogger H on Fri Feb 16, 04:11:00 AM:
I agree fully that losses in translation are huge. This almost discourages me from reading anything translated.

But I do think that reading a familiar text is a good way to practice a language in which one is not proficient. I have practiced German by reading The Little Prince in that language.
Blogger Kate on Fri Feb 16, 08:17:00 AM:
I have noticed that native French speakers sound bizarrely fluent in difficult English words, even when their mastery of English is only so-so. I am realizing that this is because "everyday" French words sound more like our fancier vocabulary words. I feel like French people are so much more like to translate their thoughts with words like 'manifestation', not result, or 'selection' instead of choice, maybe because those words are the cognates to the normal French words. I don't know, I don't speak French. Conversely, when I'm trying to speak Spanish, I feel that the language can sound stiff compared to English: a room is 'un habitacion,' to be wrong is 'equivocarse' (our equivocate), to belong is 'pertenecer' (our pertain). Maybe Spanish feels stiff because in English, we use Latin-derived words for more technical words, or at least for fancier vocabulary. We stick to German derivations for plain, everyday English. I wonder if part of what gets lost when you translate Harry Potter into a Romance language is what happens when raw Germanic English words give way to their Romantic counter-parts, which to our ear sound stuffy and antiseptic, even though to the Spanish or French ear, they do not.

On a side note, my grandmother used to correct people for using stuffy vocabulary words by saying with a note of scorn, "Oh don't resort to a Latin word when a good German one will do." My grandparents were also members of the Jane Austen society, and one lecture they attended spent the forty five minutes demonstrating that Austen uses German words to describe good guys, and Latin words to describe more questionable characters. I'm not expert, though, and I always forget to pay attention to that when I read another of her books. Anyway, the readership of this blog + Alice is as good a place as any to look for someone to confirm or dispel that observation.... Anyone?
Anonymous Anonymous on Sun Feb 18, 10:41:00 PM:
This post has inspired me to pick up a French translation of HP to improve my French reading skills. It also makes me think of Joseph Jacotot, a late 18th/early 19th c. French professor who taught French to his Flemish-speaking Belgian students by having them compare Fénelon's Télémaque with its Flemish translation. Jacotot apparently knew no Flemish at the time. He used this experience as the basis for his later ideas on "emancipatory" education.
Anonymous Anonymous on Fri Mar 09, 05:54:00 PM:
Fascinating article! Reminds me of what I've read about translating the Astérix comics. I've read "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" in German and French. While the losses in translation are undoubtedly there, the educational value is overwhelming (not to mention the entertainment value)!

Really interesting, too, what Kate has to say on Jane I want to go reread Pride and Prejudice!
Blogger Herodotus on Fri Aug 17, 03:47:00 PM:
I'm glad to find other people sharing my hobby of reading Harry Potter as a way to learn languages! I read the first two volumes in Italian, the third in Portuguese, the fourth in Greek, the fifth in Hebrew and the sixth in Korean. In each case it gave me the ability to read the language without a translation alongside. The plot just carries one along, and after five or six hundred pages ... voila!

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Everything bad is good for you

Slate's wonderful "Everyday Economics" columnist Steven E. Landsburg writes that internet porn reduces incidents of rape, and that violent movies reduce violent crimes:
What happens when more people view more [porn]? The rise of the Internet offers a gigantic natural experiment. Better yet, because Internet usage caught on at different times in different states, it offers 50 natural experiments.

The bottom line on these experiments is, "More Net access, less rape." A 10 percent increase in Net access yields about a 7.3 percent decrease in reported rapes.
OK, so we can at least tentatively conclude that Net access reduces rape. But that's a far cry from proving that porn access reduces rape. Maybe rape is down because the rapists are all indoors reading Slate or vandalizing Wikipedia. But [Clemson] professor [Todd] Kendall points out that there is no similar effect of Internet access on homicide. It's hard to see how Wikipedia can deter rape without deterring other violent crimes at the same time.
psychologists have found that male subjects, immediately after watching pornography, are more likely to express misogynistic attitudes. But as professor Kendall points out, we need to be clear on what those experiments are testing: They are testing the effects of watching pornography in a controlled laboratory setting under the eyes of a researcher. The experience of viewing porn on the Internet, in the privacy of one's own room, typically culminates in a slightly messier but far more satisfying experience—an experience that could plausibly tamp down some of the same aggressions that the pornus interruptus of the laboratory tends to stir up.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Sun Feb 11, 11:46:00 PM:
I wonder if the same correlation is found when you consider kiddie porn. Given that so much child sex abuse occurs within the family (and goes unreported), I would think that more kiddie porn might = more rape/sexual abuse.
Blogger Ben on Mon Feb 12, 06:53:00 AM:
Also the reason viewing child porn is illegal is that the market for it, and the resulting creation of it, is damaging to the children involved--very different from adult porn (though some would argue not) and from actors in a violent movie.

Also consider this article from the American Scientist. Would availability of porn and violent movies be an incitement or an escape valve?

Consider the Virginia man who at around age 40 became obsessed with child pornography and eventually molested his eight-year-old stepdaughter. He had no previous history of pedophilic inclinations, and his interest in child pornography completely disappeared with the surgical removal of a tumor of the frontolimbic system, which had invaded the hypothalamic area of his brain. Along with other appetites, sexual drive is regulated in the hypothalamus. Some months later, when the tumor grew back, his preoccupation with pornography returned, only to vanish again with repeat surgery. Because the waxing and waning of his sexual compulsions corresponded to the waxing and waning of the tumor, his was not a standard molestation case. So long as his limbic structures are tumor-free, it seems rather pointless to punish him for a pornographic pursuit that was alien to his character. Punishment would not make sense either as deterrence or as retribution.

Consider a more complicated discovery. In a landmark longitudinal study in New Zealand that followed the lives of about 500 men from infancy to about age 26, a significant subpopulation showed a strong and unmodifiable disposition to engage in antisocial behavior, including irrational and self-destructive violence. Genetic analysis revealed that most of the men in that subpopulation carried a mutation for a particular enzyme, monoamine oxydase A (MAOA). The enzyme metabolizes three neuromodulators (serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, all of which are relatively concentrated in prefrontal areas of cortex), thereby inactivating them. Environment was also a factor: In the group with the MAOA mutation, the criteria for adolescent conduct disorder (a measure of antisocial behavior) were met in about 85 percent of those who had been severely maltreated as children, in about 38 percent of those who had probably been maltreated and in only about 22 percent of those who had not been maltreated. Among those who did not carry the MAOA mutation but had been severely maltreated, only about 42 percent had the conduct disorder.
Blogger Alice on Wed Feb 21, 07:18:00 PM:
Kendall makes an important point when he says it's difficult to measure the variables of the tests about watching pornography under research supervision. I had a similar question about the Milgram experiment when you wrote about it in December. Perhaps Milgram or others have addressed this problem, but how do you know that research subjects weren't responding in part to participating in an experiment--although they believed they were participating under different circumstances and thought they were assisting testers, not being the subjects themselves? Could some of the reactions be due in part to the desire to be a good research participant, to provide their superior, the scientist, with data about how to test the shocks? Does this make sense as a question? I'm wary of applying the conclusions of the Milgram experiment to other situations of power and subordination for this reason, that I'm not sure the researcher-tester relationship is a model for other relationships of power.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Internet comes to town, internet leaves town

On the subject of open-source literature, which Alice discussed in yesterday's post about, among other things, Jonathan Lethem's release of many stories for adaptation into plays and films:

Sci-fi writer, former Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Europe chief and fecund blogger Cory Doctorow has posted most of his fiction online, and continues to sell his print books briskly (though I wonder sometimes how he'd do if he didn't have the exposure of his blog's hundreds of thousands of readers). He has opened most of his writing for free adaptation, and even allows the unrecompensated printing and sale of his books to anyone in a third world country.

I recommend his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and his story A Place So Foreign (both are free online). He writes lots of stories that reenvision or take off from other people's work in creative ways: Return to Pleasure Island (the island bad boys go to in Pinnochio) is one, and I, Robot (purposely given the same title as an Isaac Asimov/Harlan Ellison screenplay in response to Ray Bradbury's silly legal threats against Fahrenheit 911 for its satire of his title Fahrenheit 451) is another. He also has stories loosely based on Flowers for Algernon and Ender's Game.

Doctorow's writing has problems: his plots often fall flat in the end, and his characters somehow sound tinny and lifeless. But that is easy to ignore in light of his ability, as a writer of "speculative fiction", to conjure up alternate worlds. He is a prescient writer on science--not of high technology like space travel but of the changes in lifestyle created by the casual availability of new technology. Many of his near-future ideas have already come true.

In his unconventional (and free online) 2005 novel Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, the protagonist is both an independent public wi-fi guerilla and the son of a washing machine. At the time, the approach he described to blanketing a city with wireless internet access was seen as infeasible. But last week, a recent NY Times article by Randall Stross discussed a novel solution to the problem of spotty and expensive municipal wi-fi internet: sell people cheap repeater boxes to use in their homes, which chain together wirelessly right out of the box to share a distant high-speed DSL lines. (It seems Google's San Francicso/Mountain View free wi-fi experiment is having mixed results.)

I love this kind of solution, the kind that Errol Morris studied in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. It's also at work in the fabled $100 laptop project, now called the "Children's Machine", which will perform just the same sort of seamless and effortless networking described above and also run mostly open-source software.

The government of Georgia, which I worked for in 2006, is very interested in the $100 laptop project. In the meantime, Georgia is hard at work on a Georgian localization of Linux and a nation-wide project to set up computers in classrooms and train teachers in how to use them. It gives me a thrill to think that the day is not far off when the one-room schoolhouses in Georgia's mountain towns will be filled with buzzing little hackers.

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Blogger Ben on Fri Feb 09, 09:06:00 PM:
I should clarify that Google's experiment is different from the "cheap repeater boxes" idea. Google has mounted wireless base stations periodically on telephone poles, but people have found they need either to live right next to the wireless pole or have their computer in its line of sight--through the window--in order to get reliable service.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Archive fever: vol. 7: Art and appropriation

1. Last semester I gave my students one of my favorite essays of all time ("Forty-One False Starts") by one of my favorite writers of all time, Janet Malcolm. The essay is difficult to describe--basically, the essay consists of forty-one brief introductions to a profile of contemporary artist David Salle--but here's a good capsule of it in an unrelated piece in the NY Times:
ABOUT a decade ago, Janet Malcolm wrote a profile of David Salle entitled "Forty-One False Starts." It was just that: 41 short essays considering the artist. In each, Malcolm introduced Salle by his full name and, often, his occupation: "The artist David Salle." The effects of this repetition proceeded with Kübler-Ross precision: at first, Malcolm seemed to be indulging in a postmodern exercise, then to be mocking Salle's fame, then glorying in it. Finally, her "David Salle" incantation gave a certain poignancy to the whole exercise, as if, without Malcolm there to pin him down, he'd simply float away. Her tone was magisterial yet oddly sweet.

Salle's art in is based in collages of images appropriated from other sources, so Malcolm's essay mirrors her subject's work in that it's a pastiche of different forms of profile writing (adulatory, reserved, critical, and so on). It's a fantastic essay, and it's collected in Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker (ed. David Remnick). On that note, two of Malcolm's other amazing books have been about appropriating other people's stories, in one way or another: The Silent Woman is about biographers' trouble in writing about Sylvia Plath, and The Journalist and the Murderer is about how/whether a journalist controls a profile subject's story.

2. With Malcolm in mind, one of my former students recently gave me a copy of an article from the February issue of Harper's about appropriation and art. "On the Rights of Molotov Man" is a set of two brief essays by Joy Garnett and Susan Meiselas. In 1979, Meiselas took a photograph of a Nicaraguan rebel throwing a Molotov cocktail at the Somoza national guard garrison; the image became an iconic symbol of resistance not just in the Sandinista movement but in other contexts, as well. Garnett saw a reproduction of the photograph when she was putting together an exhibit about riots and demonstrations; she painted a six-foot-tall reproduction of part of the image and included it in a 2004 gallery show. Garnett then received notice that she had infringed on Meisela's copyright of the photograph, and she thus entered into a debate about the aesthetics, philosophy, and politics of appropriation. Other artists appropriated the disputed image and circulated "copyfight" images to further the debate about fair use and adaptation. An earlier version of Joy Garnett's essay was published in Cultural Politics in 2005. There are scanned reproductions of some of her appropriated work in the essay to give a sense of what she's doing. Here's an excerpt from Garnett's essay in Harper's:
In this swirl of creative agitprop and commentary, several questions came to the fore: Does the author of a documentary photograph--a document who mission is, in part, to provide the public with a record of events of social and historical value--have the right to control the content of this document for all time? Should artists be allowed to decide who can comment on their work and how? Can copyright law, as it stands, function in any way except as a gag order? These remain open questions for many people. It was a blogger named "nmazca," however, who posed what has, for me, become the central question in all of the activity surrounding Molotov. Referring to the lone figure of that Sandinista rebel, nmazca asked, "Who owns the rights to this man's struggle?"

Meiselas's response poses another way to think about that question because part of her concern comes from an interest in the subjectivity of the people she photographs. She gives numerous examples of how the image was reimagined and recontextualized over the next 20 years in Nicaragua.
No one can 'control' art, of course, but it is important to me--in fact, it is central to my work--that I do what I can to respect the individuality of the people I photograph, all of whom exist in specific times and places. Indeed, Joy's practice of decontextualizing an image as a painter is precisely the opposite of my own hope as a photographer to contextualize an image.
There is no denying in this digital age that images are increasingly dislocated and far more easily decontextualized. Technology allows us to do many things, but that does not mean we must do them. Indeed, it seems to me that if history is working against context, then we must, as artists, work all the harder to reclaim that context. We owe this debt of specificity not just to one another but to our subjects, with whom we have an implicit contract.

The more I think about it, the more I'm sure that The Journalist and the Murderer would be a great companion to these articles! I feel like both authors hit the moralizing button a little too hard--are there other ways to make the argument than to invoke the powerless? Or is that the big issue here?

3. Be sure to check out "The Ecstasy of Influence," by Jonathan Lethem in that same issue of Harper's. I cannot say much more about it because it repays a naive reading. The companion to the piece is the Promiscuous Materials Project, which sounds like an awesome idea:
I like art that comes from other art, and I like seeing my stories adapted into other forms. My writing has always been strongly sourced in other voices, and I'm a fan of adaptations, apropriations, collage, and sampling.

I recently explored some of these ideas in an essay for Harper's Magazine. As I researched that essay I came more and more to believe that artists should ideally find ways to make material free and available for reuse. This project is a (first) attempt to make my own art practice reflect that belief.

My thinking along these lines has been strongly influenced by Open Source theory and the Free Culture movement, and by Lewis Hyde's book, The Gift.

Ben, do you want to try it? Here are the stories that he's made available.

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Blogger Ben on Fri Feb 09, 06:50:00 AM:
Another uncanny co-blogging moment: I came to the blog today to post about... the exact same three articles. (It proves that my blogging about X-Men and Nintendo and your blogging about Oulipo and the Paris Review are just strands of the same thread.)

I strongly second your recommendation of Lethem's essay -- I predict it will be widely reproduced (wink) for college course reading.

(And I also want to put in a word for Janet Malcolm's fascinating book In the Freud Archives, in which she gets unwillingly sucked into the narrative, and which will forever put you off Freud and megalomaniacs in general)

The whole Harper's issue, in fact, shows a strong unity of theme. I just started subscribing to Harper's again; after years of reading it, I had been driven crazy by Lewis Lapham's choice of endless, catatonic essays. But this issue is brilliantly edited.

Random memory of Lapham: in the basement of Carman, a Columbia dormitory, where he defended tobacco advertising in Harper's by declaring "I love cigarettes, and I won't be a hypocrite."

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Innocents abroad

I can't stop thinking about the widely printed letter from Guantanamo Bay inmate Jumah al-Dossari:
I know that the soldiers who did bad things to me represent themselves, not the United States. And I have to say that not all American soldiers stationed in Cuba tortured us or mistreated us. There were soldiers who treated us very humanely. Some even cried when they witnessed our dire conditions. Once, in Camp Delta, a soldier apologized to me and offered me hot chocolate and cookies. When I thanked him, he said, "I do not need you to thank me." I include this because I do not want readers to think that I fault all Americans.
I would rather die than stay here forever, and I have tried to commit suicide many times. The purpose of Guantanamo is to destroy people, and I have been destroyed. I am hopeless because our voices are not heard from the depths of the detention center.

If I die, please remember that there was a human being named Jumah at Guantanamo whose beliefs, dignity and humanity were abused.
And this poem, by Marvin Bell from The New Yorker last month, which recalls the language of the Yom Kippur litany of martyrs:


The interrogation celebrated spikes and cuffs,
the inky blue that invades a blackened eye,
the eyeball that bulges like a radish,
that incarnadine only blood can create.
They asked the young taxi driver questions
he could not answer, and they beat his legs
until he could no longer kneel on their command.
They chained him by the wrists to the ceiling.
They may have admired the human form then,
stretched out, for the soldiers were also athletes
trained to shout in unison and be buddies.
By the time his legs had stiffened, a blood clot
was already tracing a vein into his heart.
They said he was dead when they cut him down,
but he was dead the day they arrested him.
Are they feeding the prisoners gravel now?
To make them skillful orators as they confess?
Here stands Demosthenes in the military court,
unable to form the words "my country". What
shall we do, we who are at war but are asked
to pretend we are not? Do we need another
naïve apologist to crown us with clichés
that would turn the grass brown above a grave?
They called the carcass Mr. Dilawar. They
believed he was innocent. Their orders were
to step on the necks of the prisoners, to
break their will, to make them say something
in a sleep-deprived delirium of fractures,
rising to the occasion, or, like Mr. Dilawar,
leaving his few possessions and his body.


Monday, February 05, 2007


I was riding the train home last night when I noticed that the guy across the aisle from me was reading Lorrie Moore's Anagrams. "That's a great book!" I said.

"Yeah, she really knows how to write," he replied. I noticed that he had only a few pages left, so I started watching to see when he'd get to the mind-blowing part. My mom still gets upset when she thinks about this turn in the book. I (think I) played it cool. I could see him exhale sadly when he got there.

But I had to change trains and I didn't get to talk about it with him. So I'm trying to re-engineer the experience with this blog post. Go read Lorrie Moore's Anagrams. It's really, really good!


Blogger HeyZeus! on Mon Feb 05, 11:15:00 PM:
We're reissuing at work! Out in March, I think...

Anonymous Anonymous on Mon Feb 05, 11:51:00 PM:
You do realize that these things happen to you, when I only think and/or narrate in my head the story about how they might happen to me.

That's just sweet.

Am still blown away by the Cryptic, btw. I may have to write the nation and find out how to do them. After all, one can only knit and read dead languages so much in a day...

Anonymous Anonymous on Tue Feb 06, 09:53:00 AM:
I think I threw the book across the room the first time I read and finished it. If it's Lorrie Moore re-reading season, I like _Frog Hospital_, too. There's a part at the end of that book that does it to me, too.


Sunday, February 04, 2007

Hedging my bets

I just finished my first two weeks at a new job, writing computer programs that analyze financial data for a hedge fund investment company I don't know how to categorize.

A good quote for the occasion:
Up to the age of thirty or beyond it, poetry of many kinds gave me great pleasure; and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that pictures formerly gave me considerable joy and music every great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry. I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts; but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive.

If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the part of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept alive through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness.

-- Charles Darwin, from his autobiography

Quote via the excellent


Friday, February 02, 2007

Writing a humor column for Ms. magazine always sounded like the punchline of a joke to me.

That's one of my favorite lines from Molly Ivins, who was one of my favorite columnists when I was growing up. My grandparents used to clip her column and send it to me. This is an excerpt of "A Texas Treasure: The Wit and Wisdom of Ann Richards" (from Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?). Richards was at the time the Texas state treasurer and had just given her famous speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention about George Bush's being born with a silver foot in his mouth. I thought of Ivins' work when Richards died earlier this year.

Richards' humor has several dimensions. She has the timing to do jokes well. She's a fine storyteller, with a particular gift for spotting what is ludicrously charateristic about people's behavior. She's also a good mimic, delivering memorable impersonations of Texas political personalities, and sometimes does characters of her own invention. Given a setting for a women's political group, Richards will occasionally don a rubber pig-nose, put a cigar in her mouth, and become Harry Porko, the classic Texas sexist. Harry heads Porko Electronics an has often observed, "I believe that the success of my bidness is because I have always been good to my girls. I say to my managers, 'Be good to your girls, give 'em a little praise and a pat on the fanny, they'll work like dogs.' We've done a lot for our girls at Porko Industries.... We were the first to give our girls real-hair hairnets and we started the Yellow Rose Award. Give years of work without an absence and you get a little yellow plastic rose on your polyester uniform. We were the first to put daily horoscopes on the bulletin board--'cause wimmin like stuff like that--little things mean more to them than all the money in the world.

"We've got a li'l motto in all our shops that says, 'When better wimmin are made, Porko Electronics will make them.' 'Course, part of the credit goes to my ball-and-chain, Gladys...." Harry can carry on like this for hours. He enjoys repartee with women candidates who come to Porko Electronics seeking his support: "What's a nice-lookin' woman like you want to do somethin' like this--you hate your father or somethin'?" I understand Porko once appeared in the halls of the Chase Manhattan Bank when the treasureer of Texas, who had come to New York on a multimilion-dollar deal, was left waiting for a long time.

Richards is one of those people who think of, on the spot, what it takes the rest of us two weeks to come up with. You sit bolt upright in bed, well after the fact, saying, "You know what I should have said?" Ann Richards always said it.

On that note, whenever I have gotten in mild, understandable trouble for running my mouth off, it's usually because I've conjured up Molly Ivins or Katha Pollitt and imagined them saying the same thing.


Thursday, February 01, 2007

Charles Kaiser on Molly Ivins

Charles Kaiser has written a farewell letter to Molly Ivins, posted on
But the Molly I'll miss the most is the magnificent human being I first met at The New York Times in 1976. As one of only two staffers who ever went shoeless there (Arthur Sulzberger Jr. was the other one -- until Abe Rosenthal told him not to come into his office anymore in his socks) Molly was the perfect antidote to Times stuffiness.
When I moved to Paris a couple of years ago, Molly happened to be in town. It was right after 9/11 and she insisted on meeting me outside my new apartment to help me get five huge suitcases and a bicycle up the stairs. After coffee at a nearby cafe, she issued me one sleeping pill and sent me to bed for six hours. Then I met her on the Ile de la Cité for the perfect Paris dinner. No one had had a warmer welcome since Americans troops reached the City of Light in 1944.

A year later Molly was back in Paris with her close pal Eden Lipson, and we brought our friends Naka and Meredith to dinner at the huge duplex apartment on the Ile St. Louis that one of her Texas-millionaire friends had lent her for a couple of weeks. Naka had just read this passage in the introduction to one of Molly's books:

"Texas has a lot of things suitable for export. The songs of the Flatlanders or the Dixie Chicks come to mind; ruby-red grapefruit from the Rio Grande Valley, boots from El Paso, sweet crude from Odessa, and brown shrimp from Corpus Christi. But public policy stamped MADE IN TEXAS is like Hungarian wine -- it does not travel well. In fact, it ought to be embargoed. Very few laws passed east of the Sabine River or south of the Red River are safe for national consumption."

When Naka greeted her with a bottle of Hungarian wine (whose label featured a contest to win a mini-van), Molly reacted with that gigantic Texas cackle which was her most beguiling trademark.


Blogger Ben on Sun Feb 04, 10:39:00 AM:
My (Austin-born) father points out that someone has mistaken "east" for "west" of the Sabine river, since the Sabine river separates Texas from Louisiana. He also is sure Molly did not make this mistake, but was mis-copied or edited later.