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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Little Women syndrome

Of course there's a Sex and the City promotional campaign by a vodka company that features designer mixed drinks themed to each character, so if you're a Charlotte you can have this obnoxiously sweet mixed drink, and if you're a Carrie you can have that obnoxiously sweet mixed drink. If you're a Miranda you can have this slightly less sweet mixed drink. I knew plenty of people in college who identified with one of the four characters on the show; I once insisted to one my students who asked that everyone at Barnard identified most with Miranda, even though both of us knew that was a lie. I didn't watch the show until after college and find it irredeemably sad unless I'm watching it with other people... other Mirandas, I guess. She's the only one I find sympathetic. And actually I enjoy the show sometimes.

I had my own 19th-century version of the which-character-are-you game: Little Women Syndrome, in which every time I'm in a group of four women, I cast us into the roles of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The affliction struck me when I was fourteen and saw the amazing Gillian Armstrong film with my three cousins, and the four of us fit pretty well into the four characters. I'm always Jo. There can be more than one of each character present.

My college roommate, who remains one of my closest friends, was a Beth. In a good way. She got really mad when she found out--or as mad as a Beth can get--and retaliated by coming up with The Robber Bride game, in which she cast us into the roles of the wronged women of Margaret Atwood's novel. She got to be the shy, brilliant war historian Tony and made me Roz, the blowzy businesswoman. We knew a Zenia and a Charis, too. I was kind of bitter about it until I realized that Roz and I had more in common than I thought. There's a funny scene in the novel where Roz hears Tony use the phrase "crossing the Rubicon" and imagines a lipstick line based on names for rivers:
Then it comes to Roz in a flash of light--what a great lipstick name! A great series of names, names of rivers that have been crossed, crossed fatefully; a mix of the forbidden, and of courage, of daring, a dash of karma. Rubicon, a bright holly-berry. Jordan, a rich grape-tinged red. Delaware, a cerise with a hint of blue--though perhaps the word itself is too prissy. Saint Lawrence--a fire-and-ice hot pink--no, no, out of the question, saints won't do. Ganges, a blazing orange. Zambezi, a succulent maroon. Volga, that eerie purple that was the only shade of lipstick those poor deprived Russian women could lay their hands on for decades,--but Roz can see a future for it now, it will become avant-retro, a collector's item, like the statues of Stalin.

Roz carries on with the conversation, but in her head she's furiously planning. She can see the shots of the models, how she wants them to be seductive, naturally, but challenging too, a sort of meet-your-destiny stare. What was it Napoleon crossed? Only the Alps, no memorable rivers, worse luck. Maybe a few snippets from historical paintings in the background, someone waving a gusty, shredded flag, on a hill--it's always a hill, never for instance a swamp--with smoke and flames boiling around. Yes! It's right! This will go like hotcakes! And there's one final shade needed, to complete the palette: a sultry, brown, with a smouldering, roiling undernote. What's the right river for that?

Styx. It couldn't be anything else.

I have two eyeliners, black and brown, and am tearfully inept when it comes to any other makeup--which ruins the eyeliner--but I do love to look at the names of the lipsticks at Duane Reade. I found a whole lip gloss line based around islands (Bali, Curacao, Madeira) one day, and dances (cha cha, foxtrot, salsa) another time. Then I found out something even more important: lip gloss is vile.

I love how Atwood kicks up the 1980s feminist critique of the L'Oreal intersection of consumerism and imperialism to the satire of imagining a campaign based on full-fledged military battles: We are trafficking in exoticism; the colonial past is the present in the names of all the reds such as Indochine Red and Caribbean Pink. What's the relationship between quashing Third World revolutions and the militaristic language of skincare "regimes" and eliminating "free radicals"? OMG this stuff is amazing and I used believe all of it. If you gave Tyra Banks The Robber Bride, she'd do Rubicon-Delaware-Styx as an ANTM photo shoot in a second.

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Blogger Ben on Mon Jun 02, 04:58:00 PM:
Styx, or Lethe, as the damn Friday Times puzzle pointed out.
Blogger Alice on Mon Jun 02, 05:19:00 PM:
I've seen a Thames nail polish in metallic green, and they've hit on a Rule Britannia marketing campaign for it.
Blogger Sophia on Tue Jun 03, 02:43:00 PM:
*goes to buy The Robber Bride*

*fondly looks back on 10 years of AMTM*

*gives Alice a hug*

*has no idea what Sex in the City/Little Women character she most resembles*
Anonymous Anonymous on Tue Jun 17, 08:49:00 AM:
Elegant theme. This blog talks in reference of a small lady. This blog talks about different consequences suffered by the girl with small height ,This blog also tells different way to increase height .

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The architecture of Santiago Calatrava

A few weeks ago I visited Chicago for the first time, and loved its variety of architecture and the ease of viewing the city from its branching river. (You can take an excellent boat tour with an architecture historian.)

Apparently the big story in Chicago architecture now is Santiago Calatrava's Chicago Spire, which will be North America's tallest building at 150 floors -- almost all of them residential.

The design follows most closely Calatrava's "Turning Torso" tower in Malmo, Sweden, so-called because he based it on his abstract sculptures of twisting male torsos. (Read the always-excellent architecture critic Paul Goldberger's piece on the building.)

The sculpture:

The tower:

The lower section of the Chicago Spire will resemble the Turning Torso very closely:

...while the top, originally designed with a separate, thin spire...

...will instead come to a twisting point reminiscent of fractals or occurrences of Fibonacci sequence in natural forms like pine cones:

The tower also, unmistakably and unfortunately (fortunately?) resembles a giant dildo, and 10,000+ Google results think so too:

He's also at work on another apartment building based on another of his sculptures of a torso:

Note the sculpture's clear suggestion of genetalia at the bottom, which was omitted from the tower's design:

This building will be in lower Manhattan, and I bet it'll become iconic -- I hope more so than the disappointingly dull Freedom Tower.

Let's keep going.

In the early 1990s Calatrava designed the "City of Arts and Sciences" in Valencia, Spain. (I've written before that Valencia is one of my favorite places on earth, not least of all because its dry riverbed has been turned into a miles-long park filled with soccer fields, Calatrava's museums, and a playground where kids climb all over a giant, tied-down Lemuel Gulliver.)

Calatrava's eye-shaped building houses the Planetarium for the Museum of Science. This iconic building is called L'Hemisfèric (if that sounds more French than Spanish to you, remember that this the official local language is Valenciano, aka Catalan):

Looking up from the nearby walkway, L'Umbracle (which, like the english umbrella, means something like "provider of shade"), a tree-lined promenade which nicely covers and hides the parking lot beneath it.

As I discovered when I stumbled onto them while chain-smoking my way through Valencia, this building and its environs make for magical strolling. It's hard to get a sense of how nicely the complex nestles in the city's riverbed from all the side view photos. This aerial view from Google Maps gives you some sense of the project's large size, yet perfect fit within the riverbed (the light blue parts are reflecting pools):

Close up, the buildings have design details that surprise me, because they shift at times from the sort of clean utopian industrial look that Calatrava has been making so popular to other, very different forms. For instance, this photo of Calatrava's main museum building reminds me strongly of Gaudi, whose effort to create a Catalunyan style I imagine Calatrava meant to pay homage to:

But not all Calatrava work fits its environment so well. A very recent His Milwaukee Art Museum design is, in my opinion, just the sort of design that looks light and new in renderings but heavy and overwrought and cumbersome in reality, like much of the 1970s architecture scattered around Cambridge, Mass, my hometown.

Inside the building, though, the architecture creates some magical spaces:

I'm also not so hot for the overall look of hisTenerife Opera House in the Canary Islands:

I appreciate the echoing of Jorn Utzon's Sydney Opera House, but that overhanging leaf (or helmet plume, or Darth Vader chamber hatch) feels forced to me. (Then again, maybe I should shut up until I have the chance to see these in person.)

Whether or not the outside works, again, there is undeniable beauty inside. Here is a shot of the auditorium:

The curtain that is folded above the stage is a semi-solid wall; it borrows on his design eight years earlier of loading doors at the Ernsting Warehouse in Coesfeld, Germany. Here is one of those doors, in three stages of opening:

I appreciate about this, among much of Calatrava's work, that its brilliance is an accessible one that a child could understand, not one that requires justification with theory and verbiage. You can imagine, for example, a child's imagination lighting up at Calatrava's forthcoming (I believe) Woodall Rodgers Extension Bridge in Dallas:

Even when the structure's form is not so easily digestible, this playfulness is present. Below are shots of the Calatrava's Bodegas Ysios in Laguardia, Spain. This is a building about which I cannot pretend to form an opinion without seeing firsthand, which is exciting:

His Oriente Station in Lisbon is thematically similar to the City of Arts and Sciences:

Of his design tropes, I am least interested in the style he used for the Milwaukee Museum, but I think it succeeds in his design of three similar bridges near each other that pass over the Hoofdvaart river in the Netherlands (one is shown here):

He is also using a blend of this sort of spiny motif and the steel arches from the City of Arts and Sciences in his design for the new World Trade Center transportation hub entrance. Mockups make it seem it won't look as good as his signature ribbing at the BCE Place Galeria in Toronto:

If you're interested in seeing other contemporary designs of completed buildings, take a quick look at the excellent page of important new works in architecture put together by Triton College architecture prof Frank Heitzman.

And I can't help but include this design of a Volkswagon prototype, the "Viseo", by Marc Kirsch, which he says was inspired by Calatrava's designs:

Frankly, if a few ripples frozen in aluminum are all it takes to make something an homage to Calatrava, make mine the much-maligned BMW Z4:

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Mysterious manuscrpts, vol. 3: Riverside relics

My Barnard classmate, Lily Koppel, published a book this spring called The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life through the Pages of a Lost Journal. I've only met Lily once, at the English majors reception at graduation, but I was surprised to find out in the preface to this book that, for our first apartments after college, we both rented rooms from eccentric older women on Riverside Drive. She lived at Riverside and 82nd in a fabulous old building famed for its literary occupants. Her elderly roommate greeted her with Brie, crackers, and grapes, which she served with silver Victorian grape scissors. I had no idea such things ever existed until I read the book yesterday--now I can't think of any kitchen utensil I want more in the entire world. And don't need. One day, she walked out of the marble lobby of the building to find that the building was throwing out several old steamer trunks which had been left in storage for many years. She opened the trunks to find old flapper dresses, men's hats, delicate antique purses, and other amazing items. She retrieved an old diary from the trunks and began to investigate the life of its author, a young woman who had recorded all the important details of her life as a teenager and young adult in 1930s New York. The Red Leather Diary is part detective story of how Koppel tracked down the author, Florence Wolfson, but it is mostly a retelling of the entries in the diary with details added in to make a biography of Florence's early life.

I'm kind of jealous. The only things ever harvested from the trash at my apartment building on Riverside and 137th were the wine bottles and other large glass containers that my elderly landlady collected, cleaned, and filled with boiling water every single day. She stockpiled them in the living room. She killed mice by pouring boiling water on them. She collected clown dolls. She had a crush on Howard Hughes (they had the same birthday and a shared obsession with cleaning, not that pouring water and bleach on every surface every day is a good method...) and Muammar al-Qaddafi ("he's a very handsome man").

Oh, those 82nd Street Victorian grape scissors. It's not impossible that Alba had such a thing amid the clutter of old bottles and clowns. Koppel has a nice eye not only for saving wonderful relics from the trash, but also for writing about them. I was especially taken with the description of the "tangerine boucle coat with a flared skirt and single Bakelite button. 'Bergdorf Goodman on the Plaza' read the label sewn into its iridescent lining." She sends the coat to the cleaners and wears it out to 21st-century society events she attends as a gossip writer for the New York Times. She notes wryly that she and the diary's author are not so far apart in wearing the same items to the same sorts of parties seventy years apart.

Nevertheless, Koppel's ability to pick out these evocative small details isn't always matched with a consistently sure narrative mode and tone. Florence's diary is a catalog of a young woman's social calendar and emotional "firsts"--crushes, obsessions, disappointments, desires--told in wonderfully dashed out sentence fragments. Koppel quotes from the diary extensively, but she surrounds them with narrative descriptions of those events. Sometimes these scenes feel more like summaries of events than compelling stories about them, as though the diary were expanded but not selectively edited. The result is that the narration is like a video on fast-forward of all the events of a particular season, but then it's occasionally paused at a particular moment, and sometimes it seems like the pauses are chosen less for the necessity of illuminating a telling moment and more because that's where she has the most information.

The seams show when she has to integrate individual memories of events with contextualizing details. Florence's salon with New York literati sounds amazing: as a graduate student at Columbia, she hung out with Mark Van Doren, Delmore Schwartz, and various other writers, playwrights, and essayists. But the description of the evenings doesn't do a good job of moving between narration, description, and context:
As Florence bent to light the fire in the fireplace, she unpinned her long hair and let it cascade seductively onto her shoulders as her guests pondered Aristotle's Art of Poetry and the life of Sir Thomas Aquinas.
The twenty-one year-old poet Delmore Schwartz was the golden boy of the circle. Gesturing wildly in front of the fireplace, his dark blond hair damp with perspiration, Delmore preached the relevance of the classical philosophers to their own lives. Equally at home with baseball stats and the canon, he was the group's orator. Florence leaned against the mantel, mesmerized by his torrent of words. Looking around the room, sketching her friends in her mind, Florence wondered about each one's fate.

In paragraphs like these, the biographical conventions of telling about someone's life doesn't mix very well with a narration of imagining a particular scene (hence the cliched language of hair cascading and sketching her friends in her mind), which in turn doesn't mix well with biographical information about Delmore Schwartz.

This problem interests me more than it bothers me. These seams are where you see the writing problem of working in multiple forms of storytelling. The Red Leather Diary becomes an interesting example of an attempt to work in the self-conscious style of contemporary personal memoir (of Koppel's investigation and work at the New York Times) while at the same time deploying some of the conventions (often in cliched language) of traditional biographies which are less self-conscious about the author's relationship with source materials and explaining research methods. I kept thinking of Paul Collins' book The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine because he does a delightful job of moving between descriptions of historical events and contemporary discussions of why he's obsessed with the subject, the books he's reading to help him find out about side projects semi-related to the subject, the problems he runs into as he's working out the narration or the research. The book is a compelling set of digressions about the nature of historical research itself. Collins noted this problem of narrating source material on his blog:
This actually goes to the heart of the reductionism and the deterministic interpretation of source material -- this is the material I have, therefore this is what my subject must have been like -- that I fear in biographical writing. (And not least, I might add, in my own.) ... The longer I write biography, the more hesitant I become to use standard bio segues like "He was a broken man now." Broken to who?... To you? ... To him? Is he broken every minute of the day? The formulation is a specious one.

The other thing I wanted to do when I read The Red Leather Diary was to imagine what the stories would look like if they were cast as fiction by Francesca Lia Block. I've written before that I suffer from some combination of candy-stomachache and nostalgia when I read her books now (you can get a sense of this feeling with the Statistically Improbable Phrases from the books: witch baby, slinkster dog, niña bruja, lanky lizards, goat pants, tilty eyes, goat guys, toenail scissors, curly toes, fur pants, globe lamp, witch babies, witch child, genie lamp). I'm sure Block would love the details about the tangerine boucle coat, the pink flapper dress Koppel wears to a top-secret Matthew Barney Cremaster party, and the crumbling diary's sentence fragment lists of obsessions, purchases, and emotions. It's like a mixture of Weetzie Bat's fashion sense and Witch Baby's obsession with archives--set in New York, not LA, but Block switched coasts well in Missing Angel Juan.

I think Block actually addressed the candy-stomachache-nostalgia problem in her 2006 book Necklace of Kisses, in which Weetzie Bat takes stock of her life and wonders if all her passions have been worthwhile; the book is genuinely sad in many parts as she tries to do all the things that would have worked in previous books (go shopping, kiss a mermaid, eat umeboshi plums, kiss a drag queen...) only to find that they don't work anymore. One of the last chapters is a wonderful history of fashion, according to Weetzie Bat, about all the Vivienne Westwood and Pucci and Salvation Army and home-sewn clothes she's ever worn. I think Block is really in her element in lists of items like these, and she manages to imbue this particular list with a moving sense of belatedness, nostalgia, and forward-looking creativity.

I wonder what the Block treatment could do for Koppel's narration when the sense of belatedness sets in and she uses too many cliches of nostalgic writing:
A diary is about change. Florence's New York and mine couldn't be more night and day. Florence's metropolis was a vast theater, like one of the lost wonders of the world. It was alive with writers, painters, playwrights, and jazz. Ideas and art mattered. People rushed to the city because the mere thought of it burned a hole in their souls. My New York seemed out of tune, on its way to becoming a strip mall filled with Paris Hilton lookalikes.

The island of Manhattan sinks a foot every thousand years. We are sinking now. Who will one day swim through the Washington Square Arch and around the silver Chrysler Building? What will they think as they circle the Empire State Building, that once fearful mass of steel and hard-edged stone weathered to blond? Our colossal spires are no longer seen as great lighthouses for the triumph of the human spirit but as dusty old stage sets, the backdrop of chain stores.

Maybe this is self-conscious excess, but it doesn't work for me--especially if it's self-conscious because that would be a cheap trick. I think Koppel corrects herself when she discusses all the amazing stories she reported for the New York Times about mysterious Manhattan literary societies, the zine library at Barnard, an antique typewriter store, and so on (many of which are right up Collins' alley). Clearly there are plenty of ways to exercise the mind in New York, so are there ways to write about nostalgia or belatedness that don't look so hoary? It's another mixed-genre problem, perhaps, of moving between biography of Florence and personal memoir. That's why I think a shot of Block would be interesting as an alternative style that would work well with (forgive me, one last time) those amazing silver Victorian grape scissors and that coat with an iridescent lining.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Sat May 31, 12:25:00 PM:
Hm! I remember reading about her discovery of the journal in a NYT article from about four years ago (don't remember the exact date but I know it was early in grad school). There some videos, I think, in the online version of her talking to the owner of the diary, no? Or is she dead. Anyways, I love your review of the book. Although now I don't know what to do at first you made me want to read it. Now, I'm not so sure. It seems like it might be better to imagine what kind of book it could've been.
Blogger Alice on Sat May 31, 02:29:00 PM:
Yes, she did write an article about the journal in 2006, and there's a video of their conversation linked to the article.
Blogger Unknown on Wed Jun 11, 04:09:00 PM:
Your most revealing comment in this turgid rant, "I'm kind of jealous."

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"Why I'm going to kill the president" *

I am Richard III of England, and the president killed my father. I was drunk and it seemed so easy to hit him with a stone. He vetoed the bill to establish the Second Bank of the United States. He attacked the South, ended slavery and gave the vote to blacks. He ignored my crucial campaign pamphlet and would not grant me an ambassadorship to Paris, and then God commanded me to kill him. I wanted to follow the lead of Gaetano Bresci, an anarchist who took matters into his own hands by killing King Umberto I of Italy. The ghost of William McKinley told me to do it, but I had nothing against the president--it was a warning to any president who seeks a third term. The president supernaturally caused my gall bladder adhesions, appendicitis and farting, so I vow to kill all kings, presidents, and capitalists. Killing him will draw world attention to the subjugation of Puerto Rico. His family bought their way into the presidency. He's a fascist, leftists don't want anything to do with me, and the Cubans and Russians won't take me back. He betrayed me by backing Israel in the Six-Day War--at least I think that's why. I want to do something bold and dramatic, a statement of my manhood for the world to see. I will be a hero for destroying the master conspirator against the poor. He doesn't understand the plight of the redwoods. He's continuing Nixon's war against the left, and killing him will spark the chaos we need. I am the Messiah. I was shot before anyone could learn what I planned to do at the White House with a lead pipe. I was hired to shoot blanks to create a distraction while Mexicans shot him. It is blasphemous to place 'In God We Trust' on currency. I will impress Jodie Foster like Travis Bickle did. Our president ordered us to kill him. I have emotional problems. My wife just died of cancer and I don't want to live. He restricted assault weapons, and also there's a dangerous alien mist at the White House connected by an umbilical cord to an alien in the Colorado mountains. I have never revealed my motives.

* In case there's any confusion, this is a restatement of why other people wanted to kill various presidents and presidential candidates. I wish the president a long, happy life.

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Monday, May 26, 2008

The Phantom of Justice

Last week I had the kind of experience that can only happen in New York.

I was leaving a doctor's appointment in the fashion district at 6:30 in the evening and I was to meet my stepmother at 7:45 in Times Square to see the musical Gypsy, which we'd both wanted to see for some time. That left me much more than the twenty minutes it would take to walk uptown, so I was thinking of stopping into a bar wait out the downtime. Passing by Madison Square Garden on my way to one of its nearby sports bars, I saw twenty or so black men and women standing vigil for Sean Bell.

I won't get into the details of the Sean Bell case here. Let me just say that I'd been going through it in my mind and I couldn't see the difference between the reckless endangerment by Blackwater mercenaries in Iraq, the reckless endangerment by John White on Long Island (instead of calling the police, he brought a loaded gun out to confront a car full of boys who came to harass or beat up his son, and shot a boy when he swatted at the gun), and the reckless endangerment by police officers in Queens whose first response was to start shooting and who even, in the face of no return fire, reloaded and keep shooting dozens more bullets, putting one in a nearby living room, and one in a nearby monorail station. None of these people got up in the morning saying "why not shoot someone innocent today", and I hope I never have to face the wrenching momentum of a violent, life-or-death situation, but each was ready to use deadly force before employing a modicum of caution, and none granted their victims any benefit of the doubt before putting them in harm's way.

At the same time, I have my reservations. I can't say confidently that I would act differently than those police did. I hope I would, but what do I know about that level of violence, that place of tension and panic? And while that's not enough to absolve a private citizen who kills after being unnecessarily confrontative, it may be enough to absolve police. After all, we ask police to enter harm's way and to perform a duty that our society needs fundamentally, but which few of us are willing to do. If, having been asked by us to stand in our place, to be the ones who face bullets and must dispense justice, they prove not malicious but maybe irresponsible or negligent, how thoroughly can we blame them? My answer is: a little, not a lot.

That little bit, on the great scale of so brutal and ceaseless and haphazard a failure, is large enough for me to joined a protest. So I did, noticing that I was the only white person in it. We each held a sign with a different number between one and fifty, representing the number of bullets the police fired at Sean Bell and friends.

After ten minutes or so of this the organizers announced that we would be walking up Eighth Avenue. I didn't realize until we turned up Eighth that this meant not the sidewalk but the street itself. So we walked uptown, a very loose five abreast, occupying one lane of traffic during rush hour while people on the sidewalks stopped and stared, sometimes cheered (especially workers in the stores we passed), and occasionally joined us, and plain-clothes police officers shouted in alarm into their walkie-talkies. I didn't have work the next day so the thought crossed my mind that being arrested wouldn't be so bad, though I realized with alarm that it would mean I'd miss Gypsy. (It's Tony Awards season, when all the good tickets go to Tony voters, so finding tickets to the hottest show on Broadway is like finding a Knicks fan who still likes Isiah Thomas.)

But arrest was unlikely; I don't think the police were interested in exacerbating the city-wide tension by arresting black protesters, and besides, I didn't want the only white guy in the march to duck out as soon as things got serious. So, surprised to find myself in this situation, I marched up Eighth Avenue with the other protesters, blocking traffic, trying to stand between the passing buses and a woman with two small children who had stepped out from the crowd to join us.

Finally we reached the intersection of Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street, and the the organizers at the head turned as if we were going to walk West down 42nd Street. Suddenly I realized we were instead being formed into a big circle and -- good God -- we were blocking 42nd Street and Eighth, one of the busiest intersections in the city. This was something I had hardly thought possible, but there I was blocking traffic in front of Port Authority, listening to the maddest cabbies I've ever heard lean on a horn, and feeling relief that no public buses were trying to get through (civil disobedience in New York City always sucks the worst for people on the buses).

After standing and listening to the increasing chatter coming out of the police walkie-talkies for a several minutes, we finally picked up and resumed our march northward on Eighth Avenue, and I finally exhaled. After a few blocks we started to turn east, and what did I see but the very block I'd been heading for in the first place, the block where Gypsy was playing. This being prime Broadway real estate, the show right across from Gypsy is Phantom of the Opera, and in fact the organizers stopped right between Gypsy and Phantom, blocked one of the street's two lanes and called for all of us to face the theater showing Phantom of the Opera.

Several hundred European and American tourists and what seemed like a few dozen New Yorkers were already crowded on either side of the block, waiting for the shows to open, and with nothing else at all to do, all of them fixed their eyes on us and gaped. This, it would turn out, was precisely what the organizers had anticipated, and the lead organizer took the bullhorn and began a very unlikely prepared address -- not only an address to the tourists, but an address to the Phantom.

"Oh great Phantom of the Opera," he began, "you who call so many to travel far to visit our city, tonight you give us the gift of your famous entertainment."

At this point I glanced around, to see if anyone else felt this had been an extraordinary opening, but the mouths didn't seem to be gaping any differently than before.

"But I ask you, before you begin your amazing show, please give your theatergoers a moment to learn about a grave injustice, about a young man who was shot and killed by the police on his wedding day. Yes, on his wedding day. All you who have a great treat in store for you tonight at this great Phantom of the Opera, when you go home to your loved ones, and tell them about this wonderful Phantom of the Opera, tell them also that before the show began, you had a moment of conscious, a moment when you said, 'I learned that a man was killed, and I learned that that man could have been me. And I want to know, who was this man, Sean Bell?' Because it isn't about race. This young man, Sean Bell, could have been any of us -- white or black, rich or poor. So look up his story on the internet. Read about Sean Bell. Now enjoy this amazing Phantom of the Opera show, but don't forget that an innocent young man is dead and that when there's no justice there's no peace. Thank you."

He put down the bullhorn and I suddenly realized that after the protest broke up, I would be stepping right into line behind the people who had been staring at me for fifteen minutes. And after we formed a quick prayer circle and were instructed to disperse, that's exactly what I did. With many eyes on me, I took my place outside the entrance of Gypsy, nodded to staring people standing on either side of me, and waited for my stepmother to arrive with the tickets. I had walked precisely the route I would have walked anyways, and I had found a very unexpected way to make it last just long enough.

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Blogger Alice on Tue May 27, 05:04:00 PM:
Ben, this is such a wonderful story, and you've told it so well.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Larissa Kelly, my Jeopardy love

I have a crush on Larissa Kelly of El Cerrito, CA, who has been tearing things up on Jeopardy for the last three days. I know this because Jeopardy on the treadmill is the only thing that gets me to go to the gym.

Her first day, she finished Double Jeopardy with so much money that if she had bet it all on final Jeopardy and answered correctly, she would have set the all-time record for single-episode winnings. Well, she answered correctly, but she wagered conservatively, which is no surprise because she is entirely phlegmatic and unperturbable. But with this calm comes intrigue: she hardly ever cracks a smile, and never rewards Alex Trebek's flattery in the slightest.

Today's game was incredibly close; she entered Double Jeopardy behind, was in third place for part of it, and only pulled into a slight lead with the last few questions, and the final Jeopardy question was especially hard. And even then, when she won, she only let herself smile for an instant before pulling herself together.

Larissa is a PhD candidate studying 19th century Latin American history and archaeology. Her focus, she explained in the meet-the-contestants opener yesterday, is not about sites like Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza directly, but rather about the social constructs that Mexican archaeology rests on, and the project of building narratives of archaeology that serve purposes of nationalism, revolution, or imperialism. To put her explanation in context, I watched an episode last week where a contestant's introductory story was that once she and her sister had to run across four lanes of traffic at a toll stop to pee.

In a wonderful moment, Larissa singlehandedly polished off an entire category on opera yesterday, and the audience broke out in extended applause. She appreciated this with a smile whose brevity would make a hummingbird feel sluggish.

I also appreciate Larissa's exposing some of the workings of the game. From what I know of Jeopardy, much of winning is in your buzzer timing, since many of the questions could be answered correctly by two or all of the contestants. The buzzers are not activated until Alex finishes reading the question, and every press that comes too early disables your buzzer for some small amount of time. Usually, contestants keep their buzzers too low behind the podium for television viewers to see, but Larissa pulls hers up and waves it dramatically as she presses it, and you can see her wince when someone beats her to the punch.

Here are Larissa's first three Final Jeopardy questions. Video of the first two are available online at the time of this writing; for the third, see

May 20th:
Category: Children's Authors
"In 1896 he said his mother had lost her childhood at 8; he "knew a time would come when I also must give up the games."

May 21st:
Category: World History
"One of history's largest refugee migrations, about 15 million people, took place 1947-1951 between these 2 countries."

May 22nd:
Category: Early 20th Century Plays
"In the preface to this play, the author writes 'The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it.'"

I got only the first one, and that was practically a freebie, judging by Trebek's ususual, offhand prediction that Larisa would surely get it right. Larisa, needless to say, is three for three.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Fri May 23, 06:48:00 PM:
Both members of my household have expressed their fondness for Larissa, even furtively googling her. Both also agree that Alex is acting faintly pervy towawrds her.

Back off, Trebek!

Blogger Jeff'y on Tue May 27, 12:01:00 AM:
Paraphrasing Alex: So why is it that your husband can't find release?

I think that qualifies are more than faintly pervy.

Anyway, the members of the Posnick household are Larissa fans as well.
Blogger SPG on Wed May 28, 10:05:00 PM:
And tonight, the night when our Larissa self-destructed, Alex told her she was, "Gettin' off a lot here!"

We're going to miss her.
Anonymous Anonymous on Mon Oct 13, 10:24:00 PM:
Larrissa is a sort of super woman who i can't help but watch and fall in love with.
Anonymous Anonymous on Mon Mar 23, 07:26:00 PM:
Jeopardy is awesome, but larisa has got to go. She sucks. When she pushes the buzzer it seems as if she is having a seizure. I can't wait until her reign is up. You all are weird.
Anonymous Anonymous on Fri Sep 04, 06:37:00 PM:
Larissa may have a good memory and seem fairly intelligent, but her personality more than overshadows any of those accolades. Her mannerisms and behavior more than indicate the presence of a superiority complex, among other psychological disorders. A prime example is the blatant pouting she displayed at the end of the 2009 Jeopardy Tournament of Champions. I am not impressed by her, and also found myself quite annoyed by her performance.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Pitcher-lifting skills



Blogger Brette on Wed May 21, 10:06:00 PM:
Blogger Alice on Thu May 22, 03:01:00 PM:

Monday, May 19, 2008

Tyranny of the discrete

1. Anne Applebaum reviewed Nicholson Baker's new book Human Smoke for the New Republic last week. She takes issue with Baker's narrative method of writing short disconnected accounts of various people associated with the path to world war during the late 1930s. In Baker's book, these accounts are no more than a few hundred words long; his method is to let them aggregate into an implicit argument against World War II as a "good war." I'm not in a historian's position to assess Baker's argument about good wars or bad wars--other than to say that I don't think implicit (contrarian) arguments made by aggregation are the best way to write history. Applebaum doesn't think so either. One way of beginning such a critique would be to notice that Human Smoke looks similar Baker's other works. They proceed by minute repetitions of a narrative tic to create fractals of obsessiveness. By testing a perhaps untestable claim on so much primary source data, Baker gets an artifact of a repeated procedure with no good way to check the assumptions or what the repetition of the procedure is actually generating. That might be the way I'd look at the book.

Instead, Applebaum makes, I think, a bad move in connecting Baker to some larger zeitgeist of worrying about the decline of context and the rise of small chunks of unrelated data. She underscores her argument by mimicking Baker's box-car structure of discrete items which should, in Applebaum's mind, aggregate to show the folly of such a post-Gawker, post-Wikipedia arrangement of and attitude toward facts. Applebaum writes of Baker's short accounts:
Presumably, these items were selected because Baker finds them important, or perhaps because, like a Gawker post, they are meant to "turn conventional wisdom on its head." But ripped from their respective contexts, each item has the same weight as the next. There is no hierarchy, no sense that one enigmatic anecdote might be more important than the next equally enigmatic anecdote, or that one source might be more reliable than the next.

The entire last half of the article extends this argument to semi-ridiculous comparisons:
Yet the dull truth is that we arrived at the topic of Nicholson Baker not because we were talking about the war, but because we were talking about the contemporary cult of the non-expert, or rather the anti-expert: the bloggers who assume that the "mainstream media" is always wrong, the Wikipedia readers who think that a compilation of random anecdotes is always preferable to a learned study, and of course the college students who nowadays prefer to get their news in emails from friends because it is too bothersome to read a newspaper. And the even duller truth is that Human Smoke belongs to this cult, and not to the more exotic outer reaches of the historiography of World War II. One cannot properly understand Baker's book by comparing it to, say, Martin Gilbert's Auschwitz and the Allies or to the latest work on the fire-bombing of Dresden. To understand Human Smoke properly, one needs to read Gawker, Wikipedia, and above all The Da Vinci Code. The latter comparison might sound odd, but the resemblance is actually quite striking. Like Baker, the author of The Da Vinci Code is not a historian. And also like Baker, Dan Brown is a man apparently obsessed by his belief in the existence of a widespread historical conspiracy. (For those lucky enough to be unfamiliar with it, Brown's theory goes like this: the church hierarchy, along with the world's religious historians, art historians, and church historians, have been hiding the fact of Jesus's wedding to Mary Magdalene, as well as his subsequent children, from the public for centuries, using a massive cover-up perpetuated by Opus Dei, and so on, and on, and on.)

2. I first read about George W.S. Trow in his Gawker obituary, which noted that his most work, an extended essay published in the New Yorker in 1980 called "Within the Context of No Context," was their raison d'etre, in a weird way: "Trow's major thesis, that mass media and a cultural obsession with celebrity were ruining society as we know it," the editors at Gawker wrote, "is borne out pretty much each day on this website and every other." Trow's essay is an aggregation of discrete comments about television, print, and decline-decline-decline. ( The New Yorker has an excerpt available online which gives an idea of how the structure works.) The style was nothing weird for the New Yorker in those days; that Trow's work from 1980 about the decline of history looks so similar to what Applebaum is criticizing is one clue that decline narratives have the generic tendency to look to newer forms of technology as a reason for the decline. Trow names his reason for decline:
The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chornicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and chronicle it.

I became obsessed with Trow's essay because I think the eighteenth century is a great century to think about context--in literary miscellanies, newspapers, animadversions where quotations are assessed in new contexts of critique and selectivity, and novels, and secret histories of gossip removed from context (gossip is another favorite subject in Trow's work: "Gossip is small, shameless history. It sets out to tell the trivial about the great or about those connected to the great. It thrives on awkwardness--because it assumes dignity somewhere: 'Somewhere else, you're getting another story,' gossip says with a knowing look, 'but this is what you wanted to know.'"). How does the genre of the secret history in the eighteenth century look similar to or different from the conspiracy novel as Applebaum is describing it in Dan Brown?

But different forms of mediation have their own, unique issues of context, so I wanted to see what kinds of claims I could make about technological change and worries about decontextualization. Print, television, and digital media have different ways of creating and recreating context. Applebaum seems to ignore this issue of mediation in making such a leap between Baker's book form and her criticism of Gawker as medium for the short attention span.

That is, I think Applebaum is right that the Internet has changed the way that people think about doing research--indeed, how people think in general--but I don't see it as the same decline narrative as she does. Nor do I think Human Smoke, a booky book about print archives if there ever was one, is the best text to try out that argument about technology and thinking.

3. Indeed, Trow does historicize his essay in the introduction to the book version of Within the Context of No Context, in which he discusses his family's "demographic history" in establishing the first address directories in New York, the Trow directories. His family had always been in the print business:
I first encountered the world of printing in 1952 in New York City in the City Room of the New York Post, where my father worked... As to the City Room of the Post, I found it unimaginably powerful, unimaginably netherworld in its implications, and I felt it belonged to me... In the Composing Room, a man from a Friendly Hell sat at a dangerous machine and turned my father's text into a metal object. It was a process ancient and modern both. Back in the City Room, I could feel a vibration in the floor. My father took me, then, to see the presses which in their violent turning set the whole building ahum. Those were rotary printing presses; the rotary printing presses had made the modern daily newspaper possible.
...I realize now that I am a man from a broken tradition who was convinced by the theater of a moment that his tradition was unbroken and that he was heir to it. Working as though from an unbroken tradition I have made sense of my life by developing an ability to analyze Mainstream American Cultural Artifact, and this I also urge my fellow citizens to do.

4. I have some affection for Nicholson Baker. Not the phone sex, the John Updike stuff, the shoelaces, but he did write one of my favorite New Yorker short stories ever, "Subsoil," a horror tale set at a potato museum. When I read his essay about Wikipedia in the New York Review of Books this spring, I was really charmed. I thought, There is no one else who should be editing Wikipedia but Nicholson Baker. Here is someone whose temperament is directly suited to such a task: the obsessive attention to additions and deletions, the mind that can range over the very weirdest things and home in on small details, only to repeat that procedure at another entry minutes later. It works on Wikipedia! Anne Applebaum may be the only person who read that article and wasn't won over.

I also like him because he likes newspaper archives. Too much, perhaps, and he doesn't see the possibilities of digitization of printed material. Or maybe he would like it better than microfilm--anything's better than microfilm. Discussing his previous book project, The Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, he told a reporter at the New York Times that he had perhaps applied his obsessive personality to an unmanageable project when he decided to buy the collections of late 19th and early 20th century American newspapers which were being deaccessioned in favor of microfilm or digitization.

5. With Trow and The Double Fold in mind, I think the better explanation for Baker's project is not Wikipedia or Gawker-based thinking, but his belief that print, specifically newsprint, is a medium for documenting history may be on its way out. Or at least challenged in the hierarchy of mediation. The project originated from his time in newspaper archives working on projects related to The Double Fold. He writes of his research methods for Human Smoke in the afterword:
This book ends on December 31, 1941. Most of the people who died in the Second World War were at that moment still alive. Was it a good war? Did waging it help anyone who needed help? Those were the basic questions that I hoped to answer when I began writing. I've relied on newspaper articles, diaries, memos, memoirs, and public proclamations, each tied as much as possible to a particular date, because they helped me understand the grain of events better than the secondary sources did.

He elaborates on his research methods and hopes for reader responses in an interview with Baker in the Nation:
It's up to you to rescue it! Let's see. I left out a good deal of what happened in Russia and what happened in France. And even in the draft that I had, when my wife read it, she reached her limit with bloodthirsty statements from Winston Churchill. She actually was in a kind of rage, and she said, "This page has to go!" She was so right. But I think that anybody who wrote a book like this would do it a different way. People used to have books rebound, and they would double in size, and they'd put a blank page between each page. And then they'd put in their own things. This book is all written using libraries. It's not using any secret sources, anything unpublished. Anybody who wants to go ahead and fill in pages between my pages or cross out my pages should, because I think that a war this important to the history of humanity needs lots of amateur historians.

6. There are some interesting assumptions in Baker's afterword: Is it possible to write a history with those two questions as the framework? Why would looking at newspaper articles in aggregate help answer those questions? I hope it's enough to say that asking them reflects my deep skepticism for the project. I'm thinking of the taxonomy of errors--from moralizing history, to histories of "how x was a good thing," to overly selective research base--that David Hackett Fischer set out in his classic book from 1970, Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. For one thing, what if a journalist's sense of periodization can serve as its own form of context-of-no-context in a larger work of history:
Another kind of periodization error is one in which the historiographical medium provides the method. A classic example is that species of quasi-historical writing which appears in newspapers and newsmagazines. Academic historians are often contemptuous of the historical interpretations of journalists--and properly so. Those failings are attributable not tho the cultural barbarism of the fourth estate, but rather to the scheme of periodization which is forced upon it. Time, for a newspaperman, is measured in the intervals between editions. His often desperate effort to find some significant happening in each of these periods explains his shallowness, rather than ignorance or illiteracy or the company he keeps.

(No one escapes unharmed from Fischer's putdowns--but I think it's an interesting possibility to consider in light of Applebaum's charge about blog-thought: I remember writing plenty of history papers in college which were structured around reading print runs of newspapers and doing close-readings of the changes from week to week or year to year. I never really thought about any other way of doing it, and anyway I was obsessed with whether the next day's issue of the Spectator would actually get done.)

7. There's also an interesting question of mediation in Baker's evocation of old forms of books which allowed readers to recombine materials into new forms. Indeed, if Baker has delightfully embraced Web 2.0 Wikipedia, he still evinces many more habits of a print archivist from The Double Fold. The story of books and reading that he's telling in the Nation interview is an archivist's fantasy of recombining printed materials into new forms, finding new pieces of paper, and ordering them in a book. It's just not the same form of mediation as the Internet--nor is it really the same as the conspiracy novel as Applebaum described it. So you could ask, what does the Internet do to our procedures for checking facts, but I don't think Baker was doing his research on Wikipedia--he was doing it with a hedgehog's focus on a very small set of print archives.

Baker's relationship with his research base is constituted on repeating the same procedure of constructing a brief account--which owes something in its construction to a news clipping (not a blog post). J.D. Marshall makes a similar point to Fischer about research bases in his attack on local histories in England, The Tyranny of the Discrete:
If the student remains absorbed in original sources, he or she will be content to reproduce information from these sources, which he or she will regard as having special historical validity. In other words the information itself will be come a substitute for history; the discrete fact itself becomes pseudo-history.
Students ... are more likely to develop the notion that crucial or important historical information comes from manuscript sources only. This leaves them unable to appreciate an argument which uses a variety of different sources to provide evidence. They are also prone to develop a prejudice to the effect that facts are more important than arguments, and the verification of facts represents almost the sum total of local historical activity. ... Local history, like any other kind of history is meaningless without coherent, immediate, imaginative and above all telling context, an it is precisely this which is lacking in many museum collections and their presentations.

8. The thing that was striking to me about Baker's book was that the majority of the anecdotes began with the name of a person. His interest is always at the local level. That seems like a comfortable level for someone who's interested in iterations of small procedures, but what if one zoomed out to see the fractal pattern at a different scale? I recently read about Lewis Fry Richardson, an English Quaker mathematician from the mid-20th century who devoted the second half of his career to developing statistical models to study arms races and world conflicts. He had started his career as a mathematician at the British Meteorological Service and founded the field of computational weather prediction. In his book, After Thought: The Computer Challenge to Human Intelligence, James Bailey spends several pages discussing Richardson's vision for statistical modeling of data which had never been crunched at high volumes before. For example, to develop mathematical formula for weather forecasting, he search through volumes and volumes of weather information from the nineteenth century in order to compile enough information to refine his statistical measures. He then moved on to study world conflicts from the nineteenth century in Generalized Foreign Politics: A Study in Group Psychology. In the introduction, he rejects the day-to-day level of analysis in favor of a much larger scale:
Foreign affairs as they appear day by day in the newspaper: the text of the despatch, the facial expression of the ambassador as he comes away from the important interview, the movement of warships, these may be likened to the eddying view of the wind. Whereas the theory here presented may be likened to an account of the general circulation of the earth's atmosphere.

So that's another way to write a pacifist history, although Bailey notes that Fry's attempts to crunch everything into prediction curves on graphs was not entirely successful and failed to predict situations such as the Arab-Israeli arms race or the fall of the Soviet Union. Elsewhere in Historians' Fallacies, Fischer has many words for cliometrics and politico-metrics of the sort that Fry wanted to innovate. But what interests me about Fry's work is that commitment to a too-large scale; he's like the bizarro version of Baker.

9. So one returns to scale, between the discrete and the demographic, as the problem in the context of no context, exactly as Trow imagined it:
That movement, from wonder to the wonder that a country should be so big, to the wonder that a building could be so big, to the last, small wonder, that a marketplace could be so big—-that was the movement of history. Then there was a change. The direction of the movement paused, sat silent for a moment, and reversed. From that moment, vastness was the start, not the finish. The movement now began with the fact of two hundred million, and the movement was toward a unit of one, alone. Groups of more than one were now united not by a common history but by common characteristics. History became the history of demographics, the history of no-history.

History had been the record of growth, conflict, and destruction.

The New History was the record of the expression of demographically significant preferences: the lunge of demography here as opposed to there.

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Blogger Unknown on Thu May 22, 12:47:00 AM:
Great post. But -- small detail -- "Double Fold", not "The Double Fold".

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Kristof pens a classic, Penn classes haters

Nick Kristof, whom I usually like to rail against at the breakfast table, had a recent piece in the NY Times that I loved:
To understand your feelings about Wednesday night’s debate, consider the Dartmouth-Princeton football game in 1951. That bitterly fought contest was the subject of a landmark study about how our biases shape our understanding of reality.

Psychologists showed a film clip of the football game to groups of students at each college and asked them to act as unbiased referees and note every instance of cheating. The results were striking. Each group, watching the same clip, was convinced that the other side had cheated worse — and this was not deliberate bias or just for show.

“Their eyes were taking in the same game, but their brains seemed to be processing the events in two distinct ways,” Farhad Manjoo writes in his terrific new book, “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.”
Mr. Manjoo cites a more recent study by Stanford University psychologists of students who either favored or opposed capital punishment. The students were shown the same two studies: one suggested that executions have a deterrent effect that reduces subsequent murders, and the other doubted that.
A fair reading of the two studies might have led the students to question whether any strong conclusions could be drawn about deterrence, and thus to tone down their views on the death penalty. But the opposite happened. Students on each side accepted the evidence that conformed to their original views while rejecting the contrary evidence — and so afterward students on both sides were more passionate and confident than ever of their views.
This topic--how we form explanations for our beliefs ex post facto, and how we protect our beliefs from contamination by evidence or empathy--was my favorite back when Alice edited my columns at the Columbia Daily Spectator. Cf "Casting Stones but Missing the Point", "My Gift to Nat Hentoff", and "Dissed and Dismissed".

Another recent favorite from the paper: Sean Penn and Marjane Satrapi (author and director of Persepolis) light up indoors at Cannes, in an act of sexy French defiance (well, Penn is honorarily French at least):

Penn, the head of the jury that will pick the best films, pulled out a cigarette and puffed on it at a press conference with fellow jury members, in defiance of laws in place since January that ban smoking in public enclosed spaces.

He only took a couple of drags before putting it aside and getting back to answering reporters' questions.

But jury member Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian director clearly inspired by her colleague's defiance, then asked to much laughter if anyone minded if she smoked "for medical reasons."

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Black tie

127th Spec editorial page editor Ben Kenigsberg convinced Time Out Chicago to send him to Cannes, and he's writing a blog about it. In my favorite entry thus far, Ben tries to dress for success:
By their very nature, film critics tend to be casual dressers. (If I may presume to speak for the profession, journalism in general breeds a certain degree of sartorial laziness, and this is especially so of a kind of journalism that frequently involves sitting in the dark, and refusing to socialize with one’s colleagues.) At the opening of this year’s Chicago International Film Festival, I wore a tie and jacket and felt damn classy. Parties at Toronto generally call for only standard film festival garb—i.e., whatever’s at the top of one’s suitcase. The New York Film Festival’s opening-night party is at least nominally black tie, but the times I’ve gone, even the hosts ignored that rule, and the half-dozen attendees who wore tuxes wound up looking like assholes.

All of this is a long way of explaining why I’m less than super-prepared for the dress code police at Cannes, where the evening premiere screenings require black tie. This rule is strictly observed, sort of, and I’ve gotten wildly divergent advice on how to handle it, from "Don’t worry, critics mostly stick to press screenings because tickets for official premieres are hard to come by" to "No one brings a tux and you’re nuts for even asking" to "A tux is well worth bringing and a good investment besides" and, of course, the immortal "Bring a dark suit, tie a scarf around your stomach and pretend it’s a cummerbund." I’m kind of partial to the last one.

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Blogger Katy on Tue May 20, 10:40:00 AM:
Alice, do you remember the time Ben came to the office in a jacket and tie and announced that he was wearing a suit? An argument ensued over whether a jacket and non-matching pants counted as a suit. I said no and still say no.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Molasses and alienation

From, a link to The Black Oven, a black metal baking blog:
As far as I am concerned, brownies are one of the truest manifestations of metal in the scope of baking.
Nestled inside their dark, viscous hearts lies a sickening world of decadence.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Maybe we're not all going to Hell after all

From today's Times, a story they should have put on the front page:

As Philippe Quint spent half an hour playing five selections, the cabbies clapped and whistled. They danced in the aisles, hips gyrating like tipsy belly dancers. “Magic fingers, magic fingers,” one called out. Another grabbed the hand of Mr. Quint’s publicist and did what looked like a merengue across the front of the “stage.”

Afterward, the virtuoso was mobbed by drivers seeking his autograph on dollar bills, napkins and cab receipts.

“It was so pleasing to see people dancing — that never happens,” said Mr. Quint, 34, a Grammy-nominated classical violinist. “These people, they work so hard, I doubt they get a chance to get out to Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center.”

So Mr. Quint took Carnegie Hall to them, in a miniconcert that was his way of expressing a simple sentiment: Thank you.

On April 21, Mr. Quint accidentally left a Stradivarius violin, valued at $4 million, in the back seat of a cab that he took from the airport to Manhattan on his return from a performance in Dallas. After several frantic hours, the Newark police told him the violin had been found and was at the airport taxi stand with the cabdriver who had taken him home. The two connected, and the violin was returned.

“Anybody out here would have done the same thing,” said the driver, Mohammed Khalil, waving a hand at his laughing, dancing colleagues.


As he signed autographs, he retold the story of his lost violin and its triumphant return.

“He saw how distressed I was,” Mr. Quint said of Mr. Khalil. “He just gave it back to me and he noticed I was in no condition to go home by myself. So he said, ‘Why don’t I give you a ride home?’ I said, ‘No, no, it’s OK, I’ll take a bus, I’ll take another taxi. He said, ‘No, I’m happy to give you a ride back, because you’re my last customer.’”

As he had planned for months, Mr. Khalil retired from driving a cab the day he took Mr. Quint home.

See also the Times's excellent sidebar on known cases of valuables left in New York City cabs, including Yo-yo Ma, a 30-cent tip, and a Muslim answering the prayers of an Orthodox Jew.

My wife Kate once had the chance to intercept and play a Stradivarius, and the sound brought tears to her eyes.

The puzzle of what makes Stradivarius instruments sound so great is compelling. I'm almost sorry that one of the top researchers to tackle the subject seems to have solved it; one of his new violins, which run in the $15,000 range, beat a Stradivarius in a blind competition, as judged by dozens of professional musicians.

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Is this to be an empathy test?

The case of the missing Philip K. Dick head receives an entertaining decision from Judge Andrew Guilford, also a prof at UCLA Law: (emphasis mine)
Perhaps because he had just woken up, Plaintiff lacked the total recall to remember to retrieve the Head from the overhead bin.
Philip K. Dick and other science fiction luminaries have often explored whether robots might eventually evolve to exercise freedom of choice. See, e.g., 2001: A Space Odyssey (a HAL 9000 exercises his freedom of choice to make some bad decisions). But there is no doubt that humans have the freedom of choice to bind themselves in mutually advantageous contractual relationships. When Plaintiff chose to enter the Contract of Carriage with Defendant he agreed, among other things, to limit Defendant’s liability for lost baggage. Failing to show that he is entitled to relief from
that agreement, Plaintiff is bound by the terms of that contract, which bars his state law claims.
The Court must GRANT Defendant’s Motion. But it does so hoping that the android head of Mr. Dick is someday found, perhaps in an Elysian field of Orange County, Dick’s homeland, choosing to dream of electric sheep.
I appreciate a judge having fun with a decision, although I imagine the humor is not appreciated by the plaintiff. You have to wonder whether the urge to make certain jokes in the decision had any influence on the decision itself.

There's an Isaac Asimov short story where a criminal named Stein uses a time machine to travel into the future, past the end of the statute of limitations. He is arrested, and the District Attorney argues that the crime can be charged because the statute of limitations seeks to free the guilty from an unreasonably long limbo; thus Stein, who had only a few days of freedom before his capture, can be charged. Asimov writes that when the decision is read, the state howls that the urge to make a pun surely influenced the decision, for the decision reads, in full, "A niche in time saves Stein."

Likewise, I can't pass up the opportunity to write any post that I can conceivably title "See you at the party, Richter!", "They don't advertise for killers in the newspaper", or any of several other clunky one-liners from Philip K. Dick movies.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Alignments of random points

Last week, Gawker had some fun with the conspiracy theory ramblings OF Mobb Deep rapper Prodigy he posted on his personal web site (in ALL CAPS, LIKE THAT ENTIRE YEAR I FIRST HAD MY DINKY NOKIA CELL PHONE AND HAD NO IDEA THAT LOWER CASE EVEN EXISTED FOR TEXT-MESSAGING). On his web site, Prodigy wanted to let everyone know about the "NATURAL ENERGY LINES THAT CRISS-CROSS THE ENTIRE PLANET," not realizing that there are competing conspiracy theories about these phenomena. Yeah, yeah, all conspiracy theories have to have competition so that they can spread by means of response to counter-claims (we see them show up as comments to random posts on this blog sometimes). The real revelation of the alternative world order came in the comments section, when someone linked to the Wikipedia article on Ley Lines to joke about the robustness of the lines-links-connections trope in conspiracy theory language. I love the explanation of the popularity of the pseudo-archaeology myth from the Wikipedia entry:
Some skeptics have suggested that ley lines do not exist, and are a product of human fancy. Watkins' discovery happened at a time when Ordnance Survey maps were being marketed for the leisure market, making them reasonably easy and cheap to obtain; this may have been a contributing factor to the popularity of ley line theories.

One suggestion is that, given the high density of historic and prehistoric sites in Britain and other parts of Europe, finding straight lines that "connect" sites (usually selected to make them "fit") is trivial, and may be easily ascribed to coincidence. The diagram to the right shows an example of lines that pass very near to a set of random points: for all practical purposes, they can be regarded as nearly "exact" alignments. Naturally, it is debated whether all ley lines can be accounted for in this way, or whether there are more such lines than would be expected by chance. (For a mathematical treatment of this topic, see alignments of random points.)

The lines-links-connections trope is a weird literalization of how conspiracy theories work: the way to assert one's belief that there's a possible (thought-based) connection between x and y is to show that there's an actual, mappable link between x and y. Preferably with a map to illustrate this literalization. The evidence for these explanations looks similar to what Luc Pauwels has called artifacts of instrumentation: "objects and effects that are generated by the representation processes themselves and that do not refer to anything in the outside world or at least not to the phenomena under scrutiny," except that they assert that the lack of obvious reference is evidence of the conspiracy. I love pseudo-archaeology (including the goofy National Treasure franchise) for just these reasons--a too strong belief in the de-naturalizing effects of mediation and the power of reading to discover them!

It's not just a twentieth-century phenomenon. In Bring Out Your Dead: The Past As Revelation, Anthony Grafton has written some great articles about conspiracy theories among Renaissance antiquarians--everything is a Popish plot--and "polyhistors." It's as though the genre of historical writing can be tweaked just so--by adding in shadowy agents or asserting "energy" connections between past and present--and the attempt to explain past events in a chronology or an argument-driven narrative of rises and falls starts to look really weird.

In the eighteenth century, Massachusetts colonial governor and founder of the Antiquarian Society Thomas Pownall was inspired by Isaac Newton's System of the World to write A treatise on the study of antiquities as the commentary to historical learning, sketching out a general line of research in the Newtonian mode to establish a grand system of history. In his introduction, he shows future imaginative systematizers how it's done:
Did we follow the seductions of fancy, and quitting the sober steps of experience, hastily adopt system; and then form a dotage on our own phantoms, dress such system out in the rags and remnants of antiquity, we should only make work to mock ourselves: or were we on the other hand to persevere in making unmeaning endless collections without scope or view, we should be the dupes of our futility, and become in either case ridiculous. The upstart fungus of system is poison to the mind; and an unintrusive mass of learning may create and indulge a false appetite, but never can feed the mind. ... All the learning in the world, if it stops short and rests on particulars, never will become knowledge. To avoid then these extreams of self-delusion on one hand, or of the false conceptions of barren folly on the other, we should keep our minds constantly fixed on the PRINCIPLE and END of our institution.

Prodigy, Fox Mulder, take note. Here's where the capital letters start to proliferate:
Nor must this analysis be made from any theoretick abstract view of things in general; but by closely following step by step the path in which nature acting leads; and by a strict induction of her laws as found in her actions. ... In this line of research conducted by this principle, he may hope to arrive at the true end of learning, THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE SYSTEM OF HIS EXISTENCE; AND AT EXPERIENCE IN THE USE AND APPLICATION OF HIS POWER TO THE RIGHT POSSESSION AND ENJOYMENT OF IT.

Following the steps of inductive investigation is the key here, for the procedure starts to eclipse the actual things being studied in Pownall's explanation of the importance of this line of study. Indeed, he insists too much that the study is based on observable phenomena and not on mere imaginative extension of Newtonian language of "cause and effect" and "power" to arbitrary objects. That insistence starts to sound mighty labored:
If there was no ground as a basis for these experiments in assorting the scattered fragments and reliques of antiquity to a Reinstauration of (at least) the knowledge of the system to which they belong; the labours of learning would be but the building (as our proverb expresses it) castles in the air: if there was no certain decided and defined course in the movements and operations of nature, all theory on which these experiments could be instituted, would originate in caprice, and must end in empiricism: but there is in nature, a system by which every being is defined in its own essence, and in its relative existence; by which that being hath a certain energy and defined extent of power, by which the direction, which those powers in motion take, is determined. This system consists of a series of causes and effects, linked together by that golden chain which descends from heaven. If then this system exists by such a series in nature, there must be in the power of man a clue, by which reason in the patient spirit of investigation may retrace back the links of this chain to the primary, if not the very first principles on which the whole depends.

The particular examples he wants to connect in a "golden chain" from the past to the present are elements of speech; origins of written language in pictures, hieroglyphics, and elementary language; ships of ancient cultures; and chariots of ancient cultures. In these particular chapters of study, there's a fascinating self-consciousness on Pownall's part about how changes in the forms and circulation of information lead to changes in past human consciousness. He's up-front about the connection between his own writing process and the possibly-hard-to-believe claims he's making about the processes of human connections in the past:
It is as whimsical as it is true, that an Author sees his work, as well in the matter as to the manner, in a different view, when he reads it in print, from that in which it appears when he reads it in his own hand-writing: he rather thinks over than reads the latter, or, if he reads, does it rather with the mind's eye than with that of the body: he reads it with reference to an accompaniment of ideas, which the copy does not actually contain: which yet the author thinks he has so explained as to accompany his reasoning. To these circumstances, not only literal errors and grammatical inaccuracies, but even some obscurities are imputable: some such the Author has found in some of the first sheets of this treatise, which have been printed a year ago, which he could wish to have corrected, but the copies were worked off, and it was too late.

The different degree of accuracy in the reasoning, with which different parts of this work are conducted, the unequal spirit of composition, in which different parts are written, are owing to the degree of painful abstraction with which the mind was at times drawn off from its subject, or to the degree of attention which it was able to exert upon it at different moments of the period above referred to.

There remains one point on which he wishes to make an apology to serious people. The ideas hazarded in some parts of this treatise may perhaps cross upon those Forms, with which serious people have been accustomed to cloath their opinions: yet as to Things, the author is, as he thinks it the duty of every good citizen to be, as serious about them, as the most zealous professor.

So perhaps the propensity of conspiracy theorists to work most colorfully in typos, koans, and caps lock is on the same wavelength as Pownall's admittedly scattershot explanation of the system of human history. The features of these types of writing repeat themselves in new forms of print, again and again, as if in some golden chain...

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Blogger Katy on Wed May 07, 10:43:00 AM:
Aww, Alice, I was a fan of your all caps text messages! Bring 'em back!
Blogger Alice on Wed May 07, 03:09:00 PM:
In honor of Terry Francona's praise of the Captain, "that C should be bigger," I shall from here on compose all of my text messages about Jason Varitek in CAPS LOCK.
Blogger Katy on Thu May 08, 09:19:00 AM:

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Book table at 97th and Bway

I always check out the book table at 97th and Bway because it has the oddest assortment of books--usually ones I either own or end up buying. Of course, there are books that are more likely to be on these tables--hardcover romance novels, Dummies books, mass market editions of nineteenth-century novels, the collected John Cheever (I see this one at least once a day), and so on. But the 97th St. table has some weird, good ones. This week's notables:

Music for Torching, by A.M. Homes (great novel, I already bought a copy from the same table a few years ago)
The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London, by Lisa Jardine (I want to know how this book ended up being discarded; it's a very specific interest)
The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, by Ray Kurzweil (the previous owner realized that either the singularity is near... or it isn't)
Sister Wolf, by Ann Arensberg (a weird novel, but not bad)

What are some of the best, least likely novels you've seen for sale on these tables? Years ago, in the W. 100s, I saw a hardback copy of Up Against an Ivy Wall, the Spectator's account of the 1968 uprising at Columbia. I still regret not picking it up.

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