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Friday, August 31, 2007

Printerum est errare

Two recent columns from the NY Times public editor about misspellings and archiving corrections have been really interesting. Or, rather, they've been interesting because they show how difficult it is to talk about error correction as more than a set of anecdotes about particular mistakes. I'm interested in why Hoyt chose to focus on the misspellings as the errors to be concerned about. No doubt, misspellings are embarrassing because they evince carelessness, for they are the errors that readers can identify--and identify with committing. This is only a guess, but I wonder if numerical errors are as common, or even more common. The web site Regret the Error, which collects corrections from newspapers worldwide, finds this type of error so often that there's a whole category for them (Fuzzy numbers, etc.). Numerical errors--or geographical errors, or chronology errors, or there are plenty of error types to fit into a taxonomy of mistakes--may be less obviously galling than spelling errors, so maybe that's why they weren't sexy enough to fit into Hoyt's column.

Jack Shafer responded to both columns: first, he noted a press accuracy survey about the frequency of mistakes in national newspapers--and the relative infrequency of corrections-- and then he wondered if Clark Hoyt may be exaggerating the effect of a Googled Times story on a reputation. Shafer also linked to another critique of Hoyt's piece about misspellings on Hitsville.org, where Bill Wyman noted that Hoyt's suggestions concern individuals (write a note of apology to the person whose name you misspelled, etc.) but copy-editing is about systems:
All of which… is why a paper has copy editors, who are supposed to catch errors before they go into the paper. And why it has managers of copy desks, who are supposed to institute procedures to minimize those errors. It's not that hard to send out a list of commonly misspelled names and penalize the editors on the copy desk who don't catch them. Hoyt's coy proposal is to have reporter's have to write letters of apology when they make mistakes. If anyone, the copy editors should have to do that. Actually, the copy chief should, or, even better, the editor of the freakin' paper, who is supposed to make sure his subordinates are doing their jobs well.

Again, this is a management issue. Journalism is hard. Writing is hard, writing for publication is harder, and writing for publication on the level the Times does each day is hardest of all. There aren't a number of tiny little steps you follow to change the world, the way journalism at its best can. There's one big step you have to take: reporting the story, nailing it, and then bringing it back home to have it published in the best possible way. And that last part—-publishing good work in the best possible way—-is the job of the people who usher all that stuff into print, or onto the air.

Hoyt doesn't talk about management issues because … it's hard. Much easier to pull anecdotes from… the person in the bed next to you...

What follows is a jab at Hoyt citing his wife's suggestion for correcting those who err frequently, and it's a little mean-spirited, as some of his commenters point out--but what interests me more is, again, Hoyt's choice of relying on anecdotes in a column about a systematic problem. That is, citing an egregious mistake is probably a good way to draw attention to an issue, but the underlying problem isn't the egregiousness of the single error, it's the repetition of minute errors. And it's harder to write about pinpricks than about big gashes, just as it's harder to fix them.

I think Benjamin Franklin was conscious of this tendency when he wrote a letter to the editor of a rival Philadelphia paper about misspellings and readers' reactions to the mistakes. As Franklin and his friends correct the printer's errors, their conversation turns to funny anecdotes about other mistakes:
To the Publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette.

Printerum est errare.

SIR,

As your last Paper was reading in some Company where I was present, these Words were taken Notice of in the Article concerning Governor Belcher, [After which his Excellency, with the Gentlemen trading to New-England, died elegantly at Pontack's]. The Word died should doubtless have been dined, Pontack's being a noted Tavern and Eating-house in London for Gentlemen of Condition; but this Omission of the letter (n) in that Word, gave us as much Entertainment as any Part of your Paper. One took the Opportunity of telling us, that in a certain Edition of the Bible, the Printer had, where David says I am fearfully and wonderfully made, omitted the Letter (e) in the last Word, so that it was, I am fearfully and wonderfully mad; which occasion'd an ignorant Preacher, who took that Text, to harangue his Audience for half an hour on the Subject of Spiritual Madness. Another related to us, that when the Company of Stationers in England had the Printing of the Bible in their Hands, the Word (not) was left out in the Seventh Commandment, and the whole Edition was printed off with Thou shalt commit Adultery, instead of Thou shalt not, &c. This material Erratum induc'd the Crown to take the Patent from them which is now held by the King's Printer. The Spectator's Remark upon this Story is, that he doubts many of our modern Gentlemen have this faulty Edition by 'em, and are not made sensible of the Mistake. A Third Person in the Company acquainted us with an unlucky Fault that went through a whole Impression of Common-Prayer-Books; in the Funeral Service, where these Words are, We shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an Eye, &c. the Printer had omitted the (c) in changed, and it read thus, We shall all be hanged, &c.
...
Upon the whole you came off with the more favourable Censure, because your Paper is most commonly very correct, and yet you were never known to triumph upon it, by publickly ridiculing and exposing the continual Blunders of your Contemporary. Which Observation was concluded by a good old Gentleman in Company, with this general just Remark, That whoever accustoms himself to pass over in Silence the Faults of his Neighbours, shall meet with much better Quarter from the World when he happens to fall into a Mistake himself; for the Satyrical and Censorious, whose Hand is against every Man, shall upon such Occasions have every Man's Hand against him.

What stands out to me in Franklin's letter is how the anecdote is the main constitutive element of the essay that gets repeated over and over again--until the last paragraph, when he wonders about the efficacy of such mean-spiritedness, as though the delight in others' errors produces good conversation, but not necessarily good printing practice.

Hoyt's second column about how errors can be inadvertently preserved and disseminated in newspaper archives reminds me of this quotation from Samuel Johnson: "Nothing but experience could evince the frequency of false information, or enable any man to conceive that so many groundless reports should be propagated, as every man of eminence may hear of himself. Some men relate what they think, as what they know; some men of confused memories and habitual inaccuracy, ascribe to one man what belongs to another; and some talk on, without thought or care. A few men are sufficient to broach falsehoods, which are afterwards innocently diffused by successive relaters."

The afterlife and reproduction of this quotation fascinates me: it's from Johnson's review Joseph Warton's Essay on Pope, and Johnson is discussing how Warton, in his review of Pope's Essay on Criticism, makes a claim that Johnson is unsure about. Here's the passage:
"He comes next to the Essay on Criticism, the stupendous performance of a youth, not yet twenty years old; and, after having detailed the felicities of condition, to which he imagines Pope to have owed his wonderful prematurity of mind, he tells us, that he is well informed this essay was first written in prose. There is nothing improbable in the report, nothing, indeed, but what is more likely than the contrary; yet I cannot forbear to hint to this writer, and all others, the danger and weakness of trusting too readily to information. [I've already quoted the next sentences in the paragraph about the problem of reproducing false information].

"He proceeds on, examining passage after passage of this essay; but we must pass over all these criticisms, to which we have not something to add or to object, or where this author does not differ from the general voice of mankind."

There's four levels of commentary about how to write criticism in this passage:
First, in the Essay on Criticism Pope is writing about how critics can delight too much in wielding the poison pen and correcting minute errors:
'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging ill,
But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense:
Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,
Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss;
A Fool might once himself alone expose,
Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.

Second, Warton is commenting on Pope's skill at writing about criticism. Third, Johnson is writing about how an anecdote gets disseminated in Warton's review. Fourth, Johnson zooms out to consider the value of Warton's minute criticisms that do "not differ from the general voice of mankind." It's like these iterations just keep repeating themselves, even as the authors voice concern about repetition of minute corrections or errors that will make criticism dull.

So this problem seems similar to what occurred in the Franklin essay: anecdotes and corrections are both types of writing that require repetition and reiteration in order to function. But it's hard to write about that repetition without mirroring it, as I've written about before.

Boswell repeats the quotation in his Life of Johnson, and it's reproduced all over the place after that, including in Robert Southey's commonplace book. I first saw the quotation as the epigram to Discarded Science: Ideas That Seemed Good at the Time--a book that spends too much space debunking easy targets such as creationism and alien autopsies and not enough space considering why alchemy, for example, yielded so much knowledge yet was later displaced by other explanations. (The really great book about alchemy and knowledge production is James Morrow's novel The Last Witchfinder, in which the main character tries to emulate Isaac Newton's alchemical work in order to disprove the existence of witches in seventeenth-century England and America. The best part of the book is when she falls in love with none other than Benjamin Franklin, and he has to break the news to her that alchemical proofs aren't sufficient in the age of Royal Society science.) Anyway, it's a good epigram for such a book...but--and this is slightly catty, but relevant to this post about error correction--there's a typo in the epigram.

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Anonymous Alice's Mom on Fri Sep 14, 01:08:00 PM:
You want to avoid making what Yogi Berra called "the wrong mistake"--the mistake with more serious consequences.

"Wrong mistakes" are typically not caused by a single error or a single person. Instead they arise from systems that are not adequately designed to minimize the effect of cascade of errors, with each error in itself not serious but aligning to produce a disaster. Very often a communication problem is part of that alignment of error, as the Challenger analyses, for example, have shown us.

The other part of error is about how to maintain ongoing high standards of performance. It's hard, and the only answer is double-checking and building systems that automatically require double-checking, every time. Incentives, team spirit, posted reminders--studies in the "Quality Management" world have shown that these sorts of measures work for about a week, and then performance dips.

So. Yes, make the writers write letters of apology for misspelled names. A misspelled name is a "wrong mistake" in a newspaper. For copy mistakes, keep employing copy editors. Seeing a problem in spelling, grammar, or punctuation quickly is a talent, and it's not a talent that writers necessarily need to have. Furthermore, it is a talent that is honed by practice. My students used to be amazed that I could look at their papers and in less than a second say "fix that and that and that before you turn this in."

Copy editors are valuable.
 

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Labyrinth Books changes to Book Culture

Labyrinth Books has become Book Culture. Here's selections from the letter to the members:
From Chris Doeblin,
co-founder of Labyrinth Books and now proprietor of Book Culture.

To all members of our community,

Having negotiated our independence and dissolved the partnership that founded Labyrinth Books on 112th St, we have changed our name to Book Culture. The outward indications of this change will appear one by one in an effort to make a gradual transition. I and all the staff here are extremely proud and happy to be 100% local and 100% independent.

Our commitment to being a great academic bookstore is still paramount to our mission. We’re going to try even harder to be the most interesting, complete and valuable bookstore possible, while trying to be more of a neighborhood store as well, carrying more magazines, mass market titles, and travel guides; generally becoming a more attractive and comfortable place to browse and visit.
...
So much has changed in the 22 years I’ve been selling books in this neighborhood, in bookselling, in America, in all of us as we change as people and as a community. One change that’s relevant to us is the disappearance of local and small businesses, particularly bookstores. More than ever, stores like ours and the relationship that we have with each of you deserve support. Independent bookselling is essential for a healthy, developing, progressive community and of course Independent bookstores are essential to literature, writing and scholarship, which make you essential to us.
...
-Some historical notes and more on why we have to make this change.

My partner and I began working together in the early 80’s at BookForum which was in the space next to Ollie’s on Broadway. We became junior partners there and eventually left to found our own company in the mid 90’s. That company, Great Jones Books, was founded to buy and sell academic remainders with a vision of opening our own store back in the Columbia Neighborhood.

Jonathan Cole, Columbia’s Provost at that time, shared our interest in having a great bookstore at Columbia and with the written and vocal support of many, including in particular Edward Said who lived around the corner from the shop my partner and I ran, a space was finally offered to us in 1996. The post office was being moved from its space on Amsterdam for the new building and the new location seemed to have enough space upstairs to offer a great bookstore. Ten years later, and we are still here.

The partnership had run its course long ago however. For my part I had tried to find a path to independence for many years. After a time of disagreements we were able finally to agree on one more thing, that it was time to split up. Giving up the name was part of the cost.

My former partners continue to operate a store in New Haven called Labyrinth Books and a catalog and the website that also use that name. This store, Book Culture, is in no way related to any of those businesses any longer.

The new web site is www.bookculture.com

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Blogger Xopo on Fri Aug 31, 06:41:00 PM:
I think I believe him. I read over the email twice when I received it...trying to decide whether this was good or bad news. And I would consider it goodish news if it wasn't for the name... the name... by gad...the name... BOOK CULTURE??? Is that the best they could do?
 

Saturday, August 25, 2007

In theaters now

It's easy to forget in the face of Hollywood's dreck that there are lots of great movies worth seeing. Some current and upcoming releases that I'm excited to see:

The Nines
The Signal
Deep Water
Persepolis
Live-in Maid
This is England
Crossing the Line
Waitress
Blame it on Fidel

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Anagram menu

Frank Bruni reviewed Rayuela yesterday in the New York Times. It's unlikely that I'll ever go there, but I was delighted by one of Bruni's parenthetical asides about the menu: "I’ll say this about its long list of brightly hued special cocktails, its sprawling roster of festively tinged ceviches, its rethought paellas and retooled empanadas (a skate one as well as a steak one, as if the menu were driven by anagrams) — they won’t bore you."

An anagram menu? I'm not even a very good sandwich-maker or water-boiler, but I do love anagrams. My first attempt yielded only simple dishes you could devise from a couple of rounds of Boggle:

roast taros
a pear and rape appetizer (rape is a member of the mustard family). I think this might be pretty good because I love whole grain mustard, and the texture would go well with the graininess of the pears.
a skate and steak duo
melon and lemon sorbet for dessert

I wasn't satisfied with this slight menu, so I fooled around with the Internet Anagram Generator and came up with some experimental dishes that sound mostly awful, but they're not much weirder than some of the dishes from Top Chef (Hung's white chocolate and cauliflower ice cream and many of the exotic surf and turf dishes from the first episode come to mind):

Kalamata olives --> Tamales via Kola (a Russian-Mexican fusion?)
Broccoli rabe --> Cool crab brie (this would probably be gross)
Blue corn enchiladas --> A Chinese collard bun (I don't think this would be out of place on a dim sum cart)
Poached salmon with mustard --> Shadow-tint rum peach dolmas (I don't know what shadow-tint rum would be, but I'm imagining it as a dark rum)
Turtle cheesecake --> Sheer lettuce cakes (certainly not an improvement on the original, but how can you outdo turtle cheesecake? There's also Tech's leek tea cure, which would go well with the lettuce cakes--if you were doing something like the cabbage soup diet)
Veal saltimbocca yielded Vilest Cacao lamb, so I tried
Chicken saltimbocca --> Chic clambake tonics and Nick's catacomb chile

Here's Bruni's assessment of Rayuela: "It’s a beautiful, fascinating, frustrating place, its cosmetic showiness echoed by dishes that are also all over the map, in terms of their appeal as well as their geographic and ethnic tethers, and in the way they throw ingredient upon ingredient and seasoning after seasoning at you."

So maybe some of these anagram dishes might work there!

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Blogger Writer, Rejected on Thu Aug 23, 09:52:00 PM:
These are fabulous. I fell in love with anagrams when I realized in college that Vladimir Nabokov had a shady, odd character in Lolita named Vivian Darkbloom. What a thrill! Anyway, love your blog. Mine is all about literary rejections, which may or may not be up your alley, but check it out anyway, if you're in the mood.

www.literaryrejectionsondisplay.blogspot.com
 
Blogger Ben on Fri Aug 24, 12:12:00 AM:
I'm glad you too follow the merrily bonkers Mr. Bruni, Alice. Did you notice the ad addressed to him in the Times last week, from equally entertaining restauranteur Jeffrey Chodorow? (It followed his one-star review of Wild Salmon, in which he complained that he couldn't find the penguin figure which used to adorn the Baked Alaska...)
 
Anonymous Katy on Fri Aug 24, 09:24:00 AM:
Alice, this is great! I would love to try the chic clambake tonics.

Do you read Frank Bruni's blog? It's so great. The post about mechanical-bull cuisine was very entertaining, especially since I am a secret fan of Urban Cowboy.
 
Blogger Xopo on Fri Aug 24, 03:50:00 PM:
If these never became gourmet recipes they do make for a delicious read! I'm wondering if the anagram menu holds any reference to Julio Cortazar, the author of Rayuela, who loved anagrams and constantly deployed them in his narratives...it's a cool idea but it also seems like somebody's trying too hard.
 

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A nation of haters

In the NY Times today, Benedict Carey describes the case of a Northwestern University psychology professor who has become the subject of an intense academic debate.

When strong opinions clash and a scholar becomes known for controversy, is that a "witch hunt"? Is it only a witch hunt if the scholar is correct? What if he's been a bit of an insensitive jerk, but has views worth listening to? Is it wrong for those who read his book and despise it to campaign against him?

Here are the nutshell paragraphs:

The hostilities began in the spring of 2003, when Dr. [J. Michael] Bailey published a book, “The Man Who Would Be Queen,” intended to explain the biology of sexual orientation and gender to a general audience.

“The next two years,” Dr. Bailey said in an interview, “were the hardest of my life.”

Many sex researchers who have worked with Dr. Bailey say that he is a solid scientist and collaborator, who by his own admission enjoys violating intellectual taboos.

In his book, he argued that some people born male who want to cross genders are driven primarily by an erotic fascination with themselves as women. This idea runs counter to the belief, held by many men who decide to live as women, that they are the victims of a biological mistake — in essence, women trapped in men’s bodies. Dr. Bailey described the alternate theory, which is based on Canadian studies done in the 1980s and 1990s, in part by telling the stories of several transgender women he met through a mutual acquaintance. In the book, he gave them pseudonyms, like “Alma” and “Juanita.”

Much of the rancor in response was directed at the book's content, and not at the author's methods or integrity. Others, including two professors at other schools, condemned him for academic dishonesty:
Dr. Conway and Dr. McCloskey also wrote letters to Northwestern, accusing Dr. Bailey of grossly violating scientific standards “by conducting intimate research observations on human subjects without telling them that they were objects of the study.”
That, of course, is just the sort of ridiculous accusation that screams of ex post facto indignation. It's not unethical to write about unidentified people you talk to or interview without explaining your plans. Even newspapers, which have reputations to protect on top of ethical concerns, don't forbid it; op-ed pages, for example, are filled with this. If Bailey's book agreed with these professors instead, they would not have written their outraged letter.

Bailey was looking for controversy; should we worry that he found it? The accusations of ethical violations are extreme, but they can be judged on their own merits. It looks like Northwestern, after dithering reminiscent of Columbia University's investigation of Middle Eastern studies professors, decided they were unfounded. The article also discusses at length an independent investigation that clears Bailey of wrongdoing. We could see the episode as a simple matter of heated argument, with the truth outing itself for anyone who cares to read up on the details.

But there are consequences to drawing such intense controversy, even if no clear fault is found:

The inquiry, which lasted almost a year, brought research to a near standstill in Dr. Bailey’s laboratory, and clouded his name among some other researchers, according to people who worked with the psychologist.

...

Others who remained loyal said doing so had a cost: two researchers said they were advised by a government grant officer that they should distance themselves from Dr. Bailey to improve their chances of receiving financing.

Of course, this is not all bad; it may be that academics with controversial ideas will take more care to be balanced and up front with their intentions. While I defended the Columbia Middle East studies professors, I imagine that the drama has made at least one of them, Joseph Massad--whose course, when I took it, suffered from its narrow scope--value more highly the idea of airing dissenting opinions. I haven't read Bailey's book, but perhaps he too has grown by listening to his opponents.

But on balance, it seems damage has been done here, as it was in the Columbia case. Academics with controversial ideas will be more wary now of writing and speaking freely. And yet, no specific crime of stifling speech was committed; rather, the problem is that our intellectual culture leans so readily toward outrage and Schadenfreude, and that there is so little shame in overstating one's case.

Advertisements and reporting tell us that we can leverage a bit of blameless victimhood into windfall lawsuits (and two members of my family have been victims of lawsuits that I, independent of their views, consider not just frivolous but abusively so). Politicians win when polls find they are "strong leaders" and "decisive" and not intelligent or open-minded. And controversy is seldom followed up by sincere attempts at understanding.

We give little encouragement to be considerate, and even less reward. We're a nation of haters, petty gossipers and harpys (of both genders).

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

But when a young lady is to be a heroine...

...Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way. (Northanger Abbey)

My friends and I went to see Becoming Jane the other day. It was fine. We weren't hugely disappointed because we didn't expect much from it. The matinee showing did produce one of my favorite movie-going moments ever, though: when Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy are about to kiss in the garden, a woman sitting behind us called out, "No!"

It seems she wanted something from the movie that she wasn't going to get.

I tried to keep my own objections at the level of a few skeptical coughs and sighs, particularly in the ridiculous library scene in which Tom tells Jane she cannot write about love unless she's known it. This scene is the key to the movie and the justification for imagining a fictional romance for Austen (and here's Deidre Lynch on why that move is so tempting). This review from the Portland Oregonian gets at the fallacy of these attempts to make all creative output the product of (filmable) biographical events:
But if the notion that Austen was more reactive than creative in her writing is troubling, so is the idea that she needed Lefroy to make her into a great writer. "Experience is vital," he tells her. We should be glad this guy never got his paws on Emily Dickinson.

It seems like a particularly weird thing to do with Jane Austen because it means that the characters can't have the more likely drawing room discussion of the day: whether novels themselves could lead a woman to improper experience. The movie versions of Tom and Jane seem to be arguing the opposite of this idea, just so that the biographical fantasy can be fulfilled and justified.

That problem left me wondering howNorthanger Abbey, which takes up satirical elements of the novels-and-experience debates, fits into the movie's imagination (I know this is a silly question, like imagining what the movie would be like if it were completely different... and real... and written by me... I will only say that Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice do show up in the movie's imagination, so I'm not asking for something completely outside the purview of the film). The movie's writers clearly know something about Northanger Abbey, as they throw in a scene in which Tom takes Jane to visit Ann Radcliffe, the author of Mysteries of Udolpho. Radcliffe's novel is the source of Emily's enthusiastic reading experiences in Northanger Abbey to very funny effect, but in Becoming Jane the novel is used as another justification of the biographical fantasy, for Radcliffe looks stricken as she discusses the difficulties of being a married female writer. Northanger Abbey and Austen's early satires of late 18c. romances are all funny in their awareness about generic conventions, but the character in Becoming Jane can't be shown to be funny because she has to remain wide-eyed and earnest about all this experience Tom Lefroy is talking about.

So I know it's asking too much to expect the weirdness of Northanger Abbey's genre send-ups to be reflected onscreen--the book's unfilmable, right?--but I was struck in Becoming Jane how the filmmakers' intentions and the novelist's concerns seemed exactly at odds, if we're thinking about what role reading plays in affecting a heroine's life. Why include these scenes about their reading experiences, only to collapse them into a rejection of reading in favor of some vague idea of personal "experience"? Ah, well, it's easier to capture the latter on film.

If we're naming favorite filmed Austen adaptations--and why not do that?--I'm going to go with the Amanda Root-Ciaran Hinds version of Persuasion (it's also my favorite of the novels--except for Northanger Abbey, which I like for its weirdness... though I'm sure that's not clear at all from this post.)

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Anonymous Meg on Thu Aug 09, 10:31:00 AM:
I would have a hard time choosing my favorite film adaptation. I'm a sucker for anything romance, and especially Austen. My favorite book, though, is Emma. I know P&P is supposed to be the best, but I love the flawed character of Emma and I am in love with Mr. Knightley. Northanger Abbey was certainly weird, but it was fun to see her experiement with the gothic novel and making fun of it.
 
Blogger Xopo on Thu Aug 09, 01:21:00 PM:
I'm not sure I'll be able to sit through *Becoming Jane* although I've been sworn into going with a friend at the end of the month. Not.really.looking.forward.
I like the BBC adaptations, not for their creative license, but for the dialogue. In general I have to say I'm somewhat of a prude when it comes to Austen and no movie really ever satisfies me at all.
My favorites? *Northanger Abbey* and, I'm torn between *Mansfield Park* and *Persuasion.* I love everything about P but there's something about that Fanny Price that just intrigues me. I think she's one of the best Austen characters.
 
Blogger Brette on Fri Aug 10, 12:27:00 PM:
It's a truth universally acknowlegded that Persuasion is indeed the best of the bunch. I think Captain Wentworth is a more interesting character than Darcy and all of his 10,000 pounds a year. Though I will confess only to you few here on the world wide web that I did attend multiple viewings of the Keira Knightley P&P.

And Alice, I thought for sure you were going to say your most favorite moment (not for dramatic intesity but rather the hilarity) was when Jane asks what Lefroy is looking at and he responds drippily "you." Acckkk!!!!!
 

Monday, August 06, 2007

Don't worry, it happens to a lot of papers

The Times has been running this notice for the last week:
Starting Monday [August 6, 2007], The Times will reduce the width of its pages by an inch and a half, to the national newspaper 12-inch standard. The move will cut newsprint expenses, and, in some printing press locations, will make special configurations unnecessary. Slight modifications in design will preserve the look and texture of The Times, with all existing features and sections and somewhat fewer words per page.
That's a lot of "standard" and "national" and "unnecessary" and "somewhat", and just a tiny mention of "cut... expenses".

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Anonymous Katy on Wed Aug 08, 09:28:00 AM:
I haven't laid eyes on a hard copy of the Times since the paper switch, but did you notice that they have reduced space for letters in the print edition as a result of the change? I'm a little irked by that.
 

Sunday, August 05, 2007

4 stars, Fish and coffee, maple's syrupy, and hippie jam

It seldom gets better than these recent NY Times articles:

Frank Bruni on abysmal behavior at astronomically expensive restaurants:

“During the course of the night he drinks maybe five or six bottles,” Mr. [Eric] Ripert said, explaining that the man nonetheless manages to remain vertical because he is “probably 6-foot-5, and he’s probably 400 pounds. I mean, he’s a monster. He’s huge.”

And on his most recent birthday, after many of those bottles had been drained, he teetered downstairs in his chef’s whites, commenced a showy promenade through the main dining room and accepted compliments from the people there, who understandably took him for one of the kitchen staff.

This much he’d done before, but he broke new ground with his next trick, which was to instruct servers to bring caviar over to this table, Champagne over to that one. And Mr. Ripert said that Le Bernardin ate the cost of these haute freebies, because the tanked titan is such a good customer, and his heart is as big as the rest of him.

...

That’s not to say Philadelphia can’t compete. According to news reports, it was there, at Le Bec-Fin, that a well-lubricated, pot-bellied patron traded taunts with foie gras protesters on the sidewalk outside by leaping up and down, which presumably caused considerable jiggling, and bellowing, “This is what foie gras did to me!”

Holland Cotter, on Bread & Puppet Theater:
Bread and Puppet gave me the single most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen in a theater.
...
As the fire burned, a half-dozen great white gulls or cranes — muslin kites carried on sticks by runners — soared up from the horizon and started flying in our direction. They came right to the flames and soared over them as if looking for signs of life. Then they circled back across the field, melting into darkness. It was fantastic. Only when they were out of sight did I see that night had fallen and stars were out. It felt like an impossible trick of stagecraft, a miracle. I had been simultaneously transported and pulled back to earth.
And Canadian poli sci prof-turned-MP Michael Ignatieff, who I guess is the politician I admire most, writes in today's Times Magazine of his mistake in supporting the Iraq war:

We might test judgment by asking, on the issue of Iraq, who best anticipated how events turned out. But many of those who correctly anticipated catastrophe did so not by exercising judgment but by indulging in ideology. They opposed the invasion because they believed the president was only after the oil or because they believed America is always and in every situation wrong.

The people who truly showed good judgment on Iraq predicted the consequences that actually ensued but also rightly evaluated the motives that led to the action. They did not necessarily possess more knowledge than the rest of us. They labored, as everyone did, with the same faulty intelligence and lack of knowledge of Iraq’s fissured sectarian history. What they didn’t do was take wishes for reality. They didn’t suppose, as President Bush did, that because they believed in the integrity of their own motives everyone else in the region would believe in it, too. They didn’t suppose that a free state could arise on the foundations of 35 years of police terror. They didn’t suppose that America had the power to shape political outcomes in a faraway country of which most Americans knew little. They didn’t believe that because America defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo it had to be doing so in Iraq. They avoided all these mistakes.

I made some of these mistakes and then a few of my own. The lesson I draw for the future is to be less influenced by the passions of people I admire — Iraqi exiles, for example — and to be less swayed by my emotions. I went to northern Iraq in 1992. I saw what Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds. From that moment forward, I believed he had to go. My convictions had all the authority of personal experience, but for that very reason, I let emotion carry me past the hard questions, like: Can Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites hold together in peace what Saddam Hussein held together by terror?
Finally, today's Times also ran one of the worst columns I've ever read, a Stanley Fish rant against the Starbucks age that repeats the stale complaints that have been columnist fodder for 15 years. Look past the Times Style Guide-mandated list of Starbucks adjectives and you'll see a set of complaints straight out of the DSM entry on social disorders:
It turns out to be hard. First you have to get in line, and you may have one or two people in front of you who are ordering a drink with more parts than an internal combustion engine, something about “double shot,” “skinny,” “breve,” “grande,” “au lait” and a lot of other words that never pass my lips. If you are patient and stay in line (no bathroom breaks), you get to put in your order, but then you have to find a place to stand while you wait for it. There is no such place. So you shift your body, first here and then there, trying not to get in the way of those you can’t help get in the way of.

Finally, the coffee arrives.

But then your real problems begin when you turn, holding your prize, and make your way to where the accessories — things you put in, on and around your coffee — are to be found. There is a staggering array of them, and the order of their placement seems random in relation to the order of your needs. There is no “right” place to start, so you lunge after one thing and then after another with awkward reaches.

Unfortunately, two or three other people are doing the same thing, and each is doing it in a different sequence. So there is an endless round of “excuse me,” “no, excuse me,” as if you were in an old Steve Martin routine.

But no amount of politeness and care is enough.
This from a man who is both a University Professor and a law professor and who has written ten books. This should convince Charles Murray and the IQ-supremacists once and for all that there really are different types of intelligence.

Seriously, you'd think the guy's never heard of Denny's. My grandfather is 96 and thinks Nancy Pelosi and Theresa Heinz are his girlfriends, but he manages to order coffee and pie using two words and without ever having to negotiate social contact with another human being.

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Spelunking the Columbia tunnels

The NY Times's Ben Gibberd wrote last week about urban explorers, who spelunk in sewers, sub-basements, abandoned buildings and aqueducts.

Alice and I went to Columbia, where there is an enormous and mysterious network of underground tunnels and chambers filled with machinery of unknown purpose and provenance. A Wired article years ago discussed the tunnels and the artifacts they contain.

Personal accounts, rumors and maps (see right) have been collected by anonymous, collaborative adventurers over the years; I host a copy of this repository. (There's also a general list of information on tunnels at various campuses, at least until Tripod finally goes out of business.) Its notes on history, are fascinating particularly the use of tunnels by protesters and police in 1968. The advice is by turns practical and maddening, for example this list of tips:

A few hints for amateur explorers of the Morningside tunnels, though.
1) Find a real map (try in Low Library); don't trust all
the bullshit everyone's saying about tunnels that don't exist.
2) Check that none of the doors you open lock behind you.
3) Most of the alarms in the north campus buildings are
silent on the floor where they are tripped. Don't get caught.
4) If you find yourself in an asbestos shaft between certain of the
north campus buildings and you find some graffiti that says 'for God's
sake don't look around this corner,' don't look around the corner.

I explored the tunnels some in my day, and enjoyed taking the shortcut between Hamilton and Kent Halls when it wasn't blocked off. I also once snuck into a corridor deep in Mudd Hall where, through a window, I could see a seemingly unused cylindrical piece of machinery, over a story tall, with an aging log book and dusty coffee cup sitting on top.

Unluckily, in my exploring I never came across Miru Kim (right), who the article explains is a former student who photographs herself naked in such strikingly inorganic surroundings as Columbia's Manhattan Project chambers.

From the article, on the atomic adventures of Steve Duncan, also formerly of Columbia:

Mr. Duncan's greatest coup came when he wiggled through a vent in the ceiling and emerged from a door on the other side of a room. A quick step through the door and across the corridor outside led to a densely cluttered room, piled high with cases of ancient electrical machinery.

This, Mr. Duncan announced, was the original Pupin Laboratory, where the university's physics department built a particle accelerator and split the atom in 1939, in an early stage of what would be known as the Manhattan Project. Mr. Duncan said he believed that in 1987 he became the first urban explorer to discover it, although others followed suit, as attested by the graffiti around the room.

The particle accelerator -- a circular green mass in the center of the room that resembles nothing more alarming than an enormous food processor -- was too heavy and too dangerous to safely remove after the project moved to Chicago, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, he said, so the university decided to keep it here, ''in their mildly radioactive junk storage room.''

The discovery left him jubilant.

''It's just a great example of how you peel back one layer and you get to old coal hoppers,'' he said. ''You peel back another layer and you find the foundations of an asylum when this area was all grass and farmlands. You peel back another layer, and here's the building where the atom was split.''

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Allen Shawn: lost soul swimming in a fishbowl

In February, the wonderful Janet Malcolm reviewed Allen Shawn's memoir, Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life:
When Allen Shawn writes of what he calls his father's "additional partner", he is letting out no family secret. The secret was let out by the partner herself, Lillian Ross, in 1998, when she published a memoir, Here but Not Here. The book came as a shock to many people who had known Wiliam Shawn. Shawn guarded his privacy as if it were his most precious possession, and Ross's heedless chronicle of their forty-year-long affair (with photographs to buttress her words in case anyone doubted them) seemed an especially brutal violation of trust. Today, fourteen years after Shawn's death, the book reads differently.
...
Writing of the double life, Allen pauses to quietly remark, "It was only double viewed from the outside, of course. To him it was just his life." This capacity for entering into the subjectivity of another (the word "empathy" doesn't convey the difficulty and generosity) separates Wish I Could Be There from the usual accusatory memoir of troubled childhood. Allen Shawn writes of his father not as the callous agent of his sufferings but as a fellow sufferer, to be no less tenderly treated by the attending narrator-physician than he treats himself. He writes of his father's adultery not as a transgression but as an attempt to cure a loneliness so extreme that no one woman could fill it.
Note the similarity in Allen Shawn's title and his father's mistress's. Malcolm highlights this excerpt:
Before I left for music camp at thirteen, my father told me that I might encounter an activity called masturbation while I was there, but he looked as if he might be about to commit suicide after our conversation... I know now that he must have been afraid of handling it the wrong way and scarring me for life. He was incapable of saying, "I have done this myself"; it had to be "we" or "it" or "one" ("It's perfectly normal...") In an effort to be tactful, he managed to imply that the concept of masturbation was sure to be new to me. This reinforced my shame about pleasures already taken.
(That's all I could transcribe, as the article isn't free. As with most media outlets, the NYRB charges far more for a single article than makes any business sense. Who would be foolish enough to be a frequent purchaser of individual articles, if they are $3 a pop? No drug dealer would set the barrier to entry so relatively high.)

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Blogger Jenny Davidson on Thu Aug 02, 08:00:00 AM:
My frustration with the NYRB on this count is that the electronic subscription isn't included with the paper one. I can't see my way to paying an additional fee on top of the regular subscription fee, even for the sake of being able to blog articles more easily. Nowadays I can get the full version through the Columbia site, but it took a lot of irritable e-mails from me for the library to work out its electronic subscription also. I have occasionally amused myself by wondering how many people they have found to purchase the electronic subscription on top of the other--10? 25? 30?!? It would be interesting to find out!
 
Blogger Ben on Thu Aug 02, 09:19:00 AM:
Probably about as many as have purchased an individual NY Times article... though it looks like TimesSelect is pulling in $10 million a year now.
 
Blogger Jenny Davidson on Thu Aug 02, 11:37:00 AM:
I have now and again purchased an individual NYT article in the heat of the moment. Usually something I read a few weeks earlier and belatedly want to e-mail to someone else.