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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Gold leaf from Goldschlager

My friend Lily Binns co-authored a DIY-science-themed cookbook called The Hungry Scientist, which is featured in the NY Times dining section today. The photos and the story are wonderful. The book's blog is great. I especially loved this post and can't wait to read the full story in the book. The list of failed edible circuits is my favorite part:
One of the very first projects that we developed for our book was an electric candle cake. We tried several different materials and methods for creating edible circuitry: gold leaf (from Goldschlager), electrolyte-saturated sports-drink-powder, even nontoxic electrode pad gel (YUCK), then finally, edible silver foil. This atomically thin silver leaf is traditionally used as a decorative garnish on Indian sweets. We wrapped it around string licorice. We planted LEDs on top and they lit up! (It was a little more complicated than that—buy our book to find out just how much!)

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Blogger Unknown on Thu Oct 30, 10:59:00 AM:
Alice! I am working on our next project in your honor: edible paper and ink. xx

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Georgian Milosevic?

Alice asked me what I thought of a recent New York Review of Books article by Robert English about Georgian nationalism. My thinking about a response elicited the following letter:

To the Editors:

Robert English ("Georgia: the Ignored History", November 6 2008) rightly complains that historical context has been missing from analysis of the Russian-Georgian war, and he does readers a service by relating the horrible nationalism of Georgia's first post-Soviet president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Without this context, readers might indeed think that the Georgians in the initial post-Soviet period were entirely innocent victims of separatism and Russian imperialism.

But this history as explained by English is little better than the version he denounces; he too omits important context.

English is eloquent when describing the oppression of the ethnic Abkhaz end Ossetian minorities, including Gamsakhurdia's barring their political parties and taking over an Abkhaz university. But the past pain suffered by Georgians does not receive similar attention, despite this pain being no better known to casual readers.

We hear in detail of threats, sabre-rattling, denunciations, and destruction, all suffered by Abkhaz and Ossetians. Amidst all this, a reader might miss the brief words English devotes to the suffering of Georgians, when he mentions that Russian-supplied Abkhaz separatists "eventually forced over 200,000 ethnic Georgians from their homes".

Ponder that sentence fragment for a moment! English goes to great pains to ensure a reader will know some people's suffering, but not others. He even names Slobodan Milosevic twelve times in comparing him to Gamsakhurdia. But the hundreds of thousands of Georgian refugees are never compared to forcibly displaced Kosovars or Bosnians, and it is hard to believe English would not invoke ethnic cleansing if it had been Abkhaz or Ossetian who were forced out instead.

Per English, "civilian killings" are only killings of Abkhaz or Ossetians by Georgians, not Georgians by Abkhaz or Ossetians or Russians; whereas in reality both have happened, in significant numbers.

English presents quotes from Georgians from the time that are shrill, hateful and nationalistic--and he is absolutely right to point to the horror of this. The other side, in contrast, is represented by an unnamed Ossetian leader who tells English simply that "We could have left the [Soviet] Union together as brothers." This is an absurd juxtoposition. People need not be angels to deserve independence, of course, but the idea that Abkhaz and Ossetian separatists were forced by circumstance to evict hundreds of thousands of Georgians is ridiculous--no less so in this case than in so many other excuses for mass evictions and the suffering of thousands of families at gunpoint.

English also cherry picks events and quotes in order to suggest that Gamsakhurdia's views held, and hold, greater sway in Georgia than has been true. English would do well to mention that after his election, Gamsakhurdia was condemned as a dictator by much of Georgia's citizenry; that his own prime minister, and several ministers, resigned to protest his authoritarianism; that Eduard Shevardnadze's Georgian government which succeeded him, as well as, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia--four powers with quite a few disputes between them--all cooperated to oppose Gamsakhurdia's bid to return to power; and that he has not been championed by any significant party in Georgia for a decade.

Current president Mikhail Saakashvili did ceremoniously rehabilitate Gamsakhurdia in 2004, in the course of moving his remains, but Saakashvili's speech made clear his intention to close the book on a disgraceful part of the nation's past; the circumstances of Gamsakhurdia's apparent suicide had long been disputed and there were even lingering rumors that he was alive and still posing a threat.

I have worked as a consultant for the Saakashvili administration, and keep up with Georgian politics, and so I know what English surely knows, though he's not about to clue readers in--that the Saakashvili government has sharply departed from Gamsakhurdia's treatment of ethnic minorities. College entrance examinations are now being conducted in Russian, rather than just Georgian, so as to accommodate the many Russian speaking Armenians, Azeris, Abkhaz, Ossetians, and other minorities. New colleges are being opened in ethnic minority regions of Georgia, with affirmative action programs to ensure they serve the local communities. Much of Georgia's Millennium Challenge grant is being spent on infrastructure in the mostly ethnic Armenian south. Most Ossetians living in Georgia's territory actually live outside South Ossetia, in the rest of Georgia, and there is a very high rate of Georgian-Ossetian mixed families. And, most crucially, the Saakashvili government has long offered a peace settlement to both separatist regions that would give their ethnicities perpetual power over the Georgia majorities within their regions and local control of nearly all matters of government. This may not be an acceptable plan to Abkhaz or Ossetians, but it is a serious proposal that does much to recognize their need for protection and autonomy. The Georgians also have a standing offer to open talks with the separatists without preconditions; Russia has denounced such talks, and the breakaway regions have steadfastly refused to enter them. Meanwhile, the regions' economies have been in shambles for fifteen years, the poor organization of their pro-war governments has made them havens for international trafficking in arms and people, and hundreds of thousands of Georgian refugees continue to live displaced, facing bullets if they attempt to peacefully return to homes their families often built.

I imagine a reader of English's one-sided history begins to suspect that there is a litany of complaints and pleas for brotherhood that a Georgian can articulate as well. So why this strange document, straining so hard to spin history to a readership otherwise unfamiliar with the dates and names involved? I suspect the answer lies toward the ends of English's essay, when he suggests Russia's attack on Georgia was not offensive but defensive (even "preemptive"), because of Georgia's NATO aspirations and the American policy of "encircling" Russia (as if China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Estonia, Latvia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus were mere US client states, or Georgia's 5 million people an Asia-spanning mob). Make of that argument what you will; to me it smacks of apologia.

The worst part of this is that the region really is too nationalistic, Georgians included--too unwilling to appreciate the earnest ethnic national aspirations of others, and in need of wise counsel and international assistance to resolve their frozen conflicts. The United States has been inconsistent in playing this role in the wider region, to say the least, but our Georgia policy has been led by an eminently talented and widely trusted State Department team, who have traveled to the separatist regions numerous times, established working relationships with all sides, and certainly do not fit English's fantasy of "American officials who embrace this simplistic narrative" of "blindly follow[ing] the Georgian nationalist line in discounting Ossetian and Abkhazian grievances". No one presenting an evenhanded history of the region could compare United States policy to Russia's disastrous policy of proxy wars, not to mention recent non-proxy war.

-Benjamin Wheeler
Brooklyn, NY
Oct. 28, 2008

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Why blinking matters

Sam Harris in Newsweek articulates what's most disturbing to me about Sarah Palin:
What is so unnerving about the candidacy of Sarah Palin is the degree to which she represents—and her supporters celebrate—the joyful marriage of confidence and ignorance. Watching her deny to Gibson that she had ever harbored the slightest doubt about her readiness to take command of the world's only superpower, one got the feeling that Palin would gladly assume any responsibility on earth:

"Governor Palin, are you ready at this moment to perform surgery on this child's brain?"

"Of course, Charlie. I have several boys of my own, and I'm an avid hunter."


Ask yourself: how has "elitism" become a bad word in American politics? There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated. We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence.
I had an argument about Palin with a Republican friend who lives in Texas. She was offended by my criticizing Palin on the Wasilla rape kits issue, which in my opinion is a failure of management (not knowing the policies enacted by subordinates), of focus (crusading against library books instead), of information gathering (sounds like she missed the newspaper articles about the issue at the time), and of honesty and accountability (her campaign has refused to say whether or not she knew about the policy while she was mayor). She responded that "I will also say that my standards have not 'plummeted' and I proudly support Sarah Palin. I have always defended candidates that support my values and who I think will be best for this amazing country." My friend, like Palin, didn't pause for reflection before responding.

She also told my wife that among people she knows in Texas, few were excited about the McCain campaign until he selected Palin. What I read from this is that for people like my Texas friend, competence doesn't enter the picture at all when evaluating a candidate--her appeal is instead a matter of morals and identity.

Republicans don't have a monopoly here, of course. Trustworthiness matters, no matter how hard to measure, and it is part of why I greatly prefer Obama over Hillary Clinton, though they both tell blatant lies about their beliefs and I don't know much about either of them as people. Plenty of people who avidly support Obama could not, say, articulate differences between his and McCain's health care policies.

In fact I see a similar confusion of morals and competence in Democrats all the time, specifically the parents of the high school students I used to teach. Again and again, parents and students, indoctrinated by simplistic TV shows and teachers' lectures, would treat scholastic success as if it were an issue of moral choice (do I forbid my child to hang out on the street corner and get into trouble?) rather than the quality of their intellectual life (turning my child on to books at a young age, modeling a life-long relationship with learning). This produced a phenomenon that we generally assume doesn't exist: students who come home directly after school, never get in trouble, and do their homework, but get C's anyway at Brooklyn schools where all you need to pass is a pulse.

These parents and students faced the foreboding task of catching up to smarter peers and eventually competing against them for jobs; I can see the allure of an explanation that requires a moral decision rather than a reevaluation of how you work to bring knowledge into your day to day life. And that's much of the contrast between Palin and McCain's campaign incarnation on the one hand, and Obama/Biden on the other. It's not that Obama doesn't have his mantras--savings from preventive health care and ethanol subsidies are boondoggles. Liberals certainly have a tendency to ignore the destructive aspects of unions and our lawsuit-friendly legal system, under the almost religious banners of organized labor and access to courts for the little guy. But there is a difference between left and right, if you can take our recent presidential candidates as an indicator of the thoughtfulness of their supporters. There is a side of Obama that appears in the debates and in speeches, a side that he wishes out loud he could show more, which shuns sound bites and prefers informed debate. There is no indication that Palin has such a thoughtful side; in fact it is that very side that Palin and her supporters mock.

Remember that no president in the last generation is remembered as fondly as Ronald Reagan, and that Palin's performance in the vice-presidential debate was the most charisma a national politician has shown since Bill Clinton. If McCain loses, I fear we have not seen the last of Palin, for the same reason that so many parents who don't read books pride themselves on keeping their children off of the street: the world is more easily digestible if you see it as a battle between right and wrong than as a constant struggle to increase and apply competence.

I predict Palin will be elected president one day.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Sun Oct 19, 03:48:00 PM:
The new Sarah Palin For President in 2012 website is now online, with related news, headlines & links at

Monday, October 13, 2008

Flying, giant friction blast

I love this introduction to an article about metaphors used to describe the English language; Kenneally's question, "why do metaphors get mixed in odd ways or proliferate wildly?" is similar to what I'm working on in my dissertation about how eighteenth-century writers describe the spread of errors in texts (as being like smallpox, financial bubbles, unweeded gardens, etc.):
In the first nine pages of Henry Hitchings' The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, words can see. (They are "witnesses.") They are containers (with fossils in them). Language is a combination of earth and artifact. (It allows us to do archeology.) It is both abstract and communal. (It is a "social energy.") English is an object of trade. (It was "imported.") It is an animal. (It has a "pedigree.") It is a human professional. (It has a "career.") It is a space ("a place of strange meetings"). English vocabulary is a building (it has architecture), and English has sex, lots of it—it's not just "promiscuous"; it's a "whore."

Hitchings is an excellent writer, and if the list looks excessive when pulled from the page, it's only because English is a dizzying and manifold thing. In this year's many other books about the language, including John McWhorter's Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, Mark Abley's The Prodigal Tongue, and David Crystal's By Hook or by Crook, English is variously described as weird, kinky, oceanic, or a supernova. In Roy Blount Jr.'s Alphabet Juice and Ammon Shea's Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, its immensity is discussed with some degree of rapture. Overall, English is portrayed as either language triumphant or the scrappy linguistic underdog who came out on top.

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Performance, repetition, and imitation in the memoir

This NY Times article about John McCain's Faith of My Fathers should be required reading for studies in the memoir:
As he recounted his history to his speechwriter and co-author, Mark Salter, Mr. McCain echoed their stories; his memoir incorporated some of the defiance of Marlon Brando’s outlaws, the self-discovery of W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” and the stoicism of Ernest Hemingway’s dying hero in “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” (“You know he is a fictional character?” Mr. Salter said he once asked Mr. McCain, who replied, “I know, but he was influential!”)

Mr. Salter, taking a little literary license, assembled from Mr. McCain’s recollections a neat narrative that he had never before articulated. It became a best seller, a television movie and the first of five successful McCain-Salter volumes. And on the eve of Mr. McCain’s 2000 Republican primary run, its story line reshaped his political identity. In interviews and speeches, Mr. McCain has increasingly described his life in the book’s language and themes, and never more so than during his current campaign, which has turned back to the story of “Faith of My Fathers” for everything from its first television commercial to his speech at the Republican convention.

Politics was imitating art, said Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown who has studied Mr. McCain’s career and memoir. “It is almost as if McCain had described himself as a literary character,” Professor Wayne said, “and then he tried to be that person in real life.”

It would be instructive to read it along with sections from Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography to think about how one practices style by imitation, and how that imitation can take different forms that are more performative than authentic of some separate, actual self:
About this time I met with an odd Volume of the Spectator. It was the third. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the Writing excellent, & wish'd if possible to imitate it. With that View, I took some of the Papers, & making short Hints of the Sentiment in each Sentence, laid them by a few Days, and then without looking at the Book, try'd to complete the Papers again, by expressing each hinted Sentiment at length & as fully as it had been express'd before, in any suitable Words, that should come to hand.

Then I compar'd my Spectator with the Original, discover'd some of my Faults & corrected them. But I found I wanted Stock of Words or a Readiness in recollecting & using them, which I thought I should have acquir'd before that time, if I had gone on making Verses, since the continual Occasion for Words of the same Import but of different Length, to suit the Measure, or of different Sound for the Rhyme, would have laid me under a constant necessity of searching for Variety, and also have tended to fix that Variety in my Mind, & make me Master of it. Therefore I took some of the Tales & turn'd them into Verse: And after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the Prose, turn'd them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my Collections of Hints into Confusion, and after some Weeks, endeavor'd to reduce them into the best Order before I began to form the full Sentences, & complete the Paper. This was ot teach me Method in the Arrangement of Thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discover'd many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the Pleasure of Fancying that in certain Particulars of small Import, I had been lucky enough to improve the Method or the Language and this encourag'd me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English Writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.

(This isn't, of course, a comparison of Franklin and McCain; it's just interesting to think about how one goes about creating a style for presenting oneself and rehearses it in different contexts.) Franklin used this lesson of imitation in many forms, whether in his narrative personae in the Philadelphia press, in the Autobiography itself, or in his political career as a diplomat. Here's Adam Gopnik on Franklin's talent for theatrical scene-setting in his descriptions of his electricity experiments and his ability to make that talent work in diplomacy:
Franklin’s essentially ironic, distancing turn of mind, which was often so baffling to his literal-minded American colleagues—Isaacson’s funniest pages are supplied by John Adams’s stunned and alarmed accounts of Franklin’s nonchalant diplomacy on the Paris mission—gave him a kind of second sight into the minds of his hosts. There is little sham in French life, but a lot of show, a lot of rhetorical gesturing. Franklin understood the style instantly. He was pretending to be a naïf (he left his wig and powder, which he normally wore, back home in Philadelphia), which the French knew to be faux, and they were pretending to be worldly, which he knew to be an illusion.

Franklin was not just shrewder than he seemed, having the measure of his host very well down. He was also politically far more skillful. As Morgan points out, there was no necessity for the French to side with the Americans, whose cause looked like the longest of long shots and involved making league with a frankly king-hating new republic. Adams and the ornery Arthur Lee, another member of the French mission, were exasperated by Franklin’s attention to social trivia. Why didn’t he just bluntly insist on the power political formula that stared them in the face? America is the enemy of England, England is the enemy of France. Franklin understood that the “realistic” formula was essentially empty, and that there was, and is, no more maddeningly fatuous cliché than that nations have interests rather than affections. It was in France’s interest to supplant the British, against its interest to support a republic, in its interest to form an alliance with the Spanish and leave the Americans alone, and on and on. But the logic of power depends largely on the perceptions, and feelings, of the people who have it. Franklin understood that, above all, the good opinion of the French mattered. It paid to be liked and admired, and he made sure that he was. He knew that he could not make his country, and its needs, inescapable if he did not make himself, and his cause, irresistible.

And here's a piece in a similar vein from Jill Lepore about Poor Richard's Almanac and Franklin's imitations.

That Jay Gatsby's journal revealed that he imitated Franklin's Autobiography down to the lists of self-improvements makes for an interesting triangle of literary and political self-presentation.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Oct 16, 01:33:00 PM:
I read that McCain memoir article with interest, mostly because McCain seems to me to have failed colossally at transmitting a coherent, catchy life-story that brings him up to the present. I don't think that's a bad thing, mind you, but it's not an election-winning attribute. The prize generally goes to the best story. Both Clintons had a great story, Obama's got a great story, McCain had a great moment (being tortured in 'Nam) and a reputation as a Maverick that gets weaker every time his team repeats (screams) the word. I'm trying to pin point that failure on his part -- is it that he looks so weird when he talks? That he's focused on smearing Obama at the expense of positively presenting himself? That his effort to please the right-wing base seems (is) contrived? The main features of his caricature are being a) old, and b) too easily ruffled. But maybe I'm missing something. (I did swear off reading about the election for three months when I was trying to finish three scripts.) My mom, a self-described Washington DC independent, loves McCain and thinks he's very brave, but doesn't understand what he's doing with his campaign. My brother, a Navy guy, was inclined to support him until he picked Palin.

I think the same issue of the Times carried this article on political caricature -- -- which argues more or less that the most appealing cartoon wins the day, so campaigns are really in the business of inventing and upkeeping the best cartoon candidates. Slogans, sound-bites, and, most dangerously, political promises that can be packaged and sold as slogans and soundbites blaze the campaign trail, not efficacious policy or nuanced opinions.

So for me, the article describing how McCain has striven to grow into his memoir persona failed to meter one thing: does the public perceive him as that person, and if so, do they actually like that person?


PS -- Go Obama!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Madonna hates Sarah Palin

I saw Madonna play Madison Square Garden tonight, an incredible show.

The first highlight was a grinding punk version of "Borderline", by way of Iggy and the Stooges.

The second highlight was when Madonna, alone onstage towards the end of the show, spent a few minutes talking shit with/at the audience. She teasingly berated a man in the front row who she said looked bored, saying "Am I boring you? Because I'm working my ass off up here!" Next she demanded cheers, saying her ego needed them. And then she announced that the concert had been like a giant party. "You're all invited to my party," she shouted. "You know who's not invited to my party? Sarah fucking Palin. Get out of here, bitch!"

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Blogger Julian Ribinik Photography Blog on Tue Oct 07, 12:44:00 PM:
She was hillarious!!!

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Theatricality trumps authenticity

I'm just undone about this article on a first-year teacher's experience in New Orleans through the lens of Lil Wayne from The Oxford American (link from Sasha Frere-Jones' blog):
3. My picture should be in the dictionary
next to the definition of definition

Lil Wayne slurs, hollers, sings, sighs, bellows, whines, croons, wheezes, coughs, stutters, shouts. He reminds me, in different moments, of two dozen other rappers. In a genre that often demands keeping it real via being repetitive, Lil Wayne is a chameleon, rapping in different octaves, paces, and inflections. Sometimes he sounds like a bluesman, sometimes he sounds like a Muppet baby.

Lil Wayne does his share of gangsta posturing, but half the time he starts chuckling before he gets through a line. He’s a ham. He is heavy on pretense, and thank God. Like Dylan, theatricality trumps authenticity.

And yet—even as he tries on a new style for every other song, it is always unmistakably him. I think of Elvis’s famous boast, “I don’t sound like nobody.” I imagine Wayne would flip it: “Don’t nobody sound like me.”

and then:
8. Pain, since I’ve lost you—I’m lost too

Our students are afraid of rain. A heavy morning shower can cut attendance in half. I once had a student write an essay about her experience in the Superdome. She wrote, without explanation, that she lost her memory when she lost her grandmother in the storm. I was supposed to correct the grammar, so that she would be prepared for state testing in the spring.

Compare that essay, particularly the Lil Wayne "definition of definition" and inversion of Elvis to Daphne A. Brooks's recent essay about Amy Winehouse, "Tainted Love," from the Nation:
Last March, New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote that Winehouse's "inflections and phonemes don't add up to any known style." Her "mush-mouthed" phrasings on tracks such as "You Know I'm No Good" are, he wrote, her "real innovation," a "Winehouse signature" that stresses linguistic distortion and sounds heavy on the wine. This, to some, is the sonic allure of Amy Winehouse: her absolutely inscrutable delivery seemingly sets her apart from the legions of white artists who've hopped on the Don Cornelius soul train to find their niche.

Let's be real. These "mush-mouthed" phrasings are anything but new. Winehouse is drawing on a known style that's a hundred years old, rooted in a tradition of female minstrelsy. Think of the oft-overlooked blues recording pioneer Mamie Smith, the artist who, with songwriter Perry Bradford, laid down the first-ever blues recording by an African-American vocalist, "Crazy Blues," in 1920. Mamie Smith is hardly an iconic figure like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Her rep as "a vaudeville chanteuse" rather than a juke-joint vet all but guarantees her exclusion from the traditional blues canon. But it's this background that enabled Smith to draw on a range of styles crafted in part from watching and listening to white female performers like Sophie Tucker and, eventually, Mae West--white women who, as theater scholar Jayna Brown has written, often learned to "perform blackness" from the women who worked for them. It goes to show that there were plenty of women, black and white, who benefited from the minstrel craze.

So Frere-Jones is right on one count: Winehouse is indeed creating a pastiche of sounds. But this pastiche is a homage to old-school musical traditions, gone but not forgotten. Her rich combination of split vocal stylings recalls Mamie Smith's sly and oscillating phrasings--moving from Northeastern vaudeville intonations in one note to early Southern blues in the next. She's as much a modern-day Billie Holiday as a contemporary Sophie Tucker, the self-proclaimed "Last of the Red Hot Mamas" and an original Jewish "coon-shouter" who borrowed liberally from the singing style of blues pioneer Alberta Hunter and others. Smith and Tucker were women of the theater who dressed elegantly, fronted brass bands and performed lavish numbers. Though a century removed from Winehouse, these women clearly set a precedent for her high drama on and off the stage.

I'm never sure where the "who did it first?" question is supposed to lead, except to another claim about an earlier example. The everybody/nobody sounds like Lil Wayne section of the first essay takes up that generic convention of music-writing and then turns it into something smart about how co-optation, imitation, and ownership (particularly given the murkiness of copyright on mixtapes) are ideas that you can play with, not rigid boundaries.

The historical examples in Brooks's essay put the confusing racial politics of her co-optation of neo-soul into perspective. At the same time, though, the "let's be real" frame of the second paragraph I just quoted puts her in the strange position of claim that someone's theatricality is more authentic than someone else's. Or is that just a rhetorical flourish and the Sophie Tucker argument does let us see something new in the long history of bickering about the relationship between these two terms, particularly how race gets bound up in it? (For example, just in the Lil Wayne essay, you could have a pretty good discussion about Dylan and race, how that played out in I'm Not There, and even the "Elvis was a hero to most" line from Public Enemy...)

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Blogger Lady Z on Sun Oct 05, 02:51:00 PM:
Hi Alice! (This is Gena, Megan H's thesis advisor, who sat in the backseat playing with her iPhone as Megan drove us through Alabama after SEASECS last year.) I really enjoy your blog, and I'm delighted to see your take on David Ramsay's piece. He's a good friend of my fiance's -- in fact, Derek takes pride in being the one who put David's piece online for the Oxford American. If you're interested in seeing a short film Derek made about David's experience in the Recovery school district, email me at zugenia [at] gmail. It's not cleared for widespread circulation, but we share it with friends.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Bill Simmons and David Foster Wallace

Unless all Outside the Lines essays take liberties inside the margins, Bill Simmons' OTL piece on Manny Ramirez looks like a tribute to what he learned about writing from being a David Foster Wallace fan. You can see DFW's Tracy Austin essay and the Federer essay all over this piece--and that's not a criticism, regardless of what Simmons had to take back this summer re: his claim that Federer and tennis were boring. What stands out in the Manny essay is that, when they're put in the familiar DFW footnote format, many of Simmons' signature moves (digressions, tangents, pop culture references, lists) look like what he must have admired in DFW. The Manny essay trots out many of the same lines Simmons has been using for years--the repetition is a convention at this point--and it's interesting to see them in a format that he isn't quite used to writing in, so that some of the footnotes of old material work, and others don't. There are whole paragraphs in the essay that would have made better footnotes, but that's a quibble. I think I'd like to read an essay about what Simmons learned from Wallace.
Quick tangent: I don't know what the hell this means. If you want to win the old-school media guys, really, you only have to do six things: run out every ground ball, end up with a dirty uniform every once in a while, show up on time, give reporters whatever time they need, light up like a little kid if Willie Mays or Hank Aaron ever walks into the dugout, and smile broadly during games (so the announcers can talk about how you'd play this game for free, even though you just opted out of your contract and held your team hostage for a $100 million raise). Do those things and you earn an "I Respect The Game" card. We should also mention that ...

A. Boston won two titles with a Hall of Famer who didn't respect The Game (Manny) and zero titles with a Hall of Famer who did (Carl Yastrzemski).

B. Players considered "Respects The Game" guys in their primes include Pete Rose (convicted felon, baseball gambler), Roger Clemens (identified as a cheater in the Mitchell Report) and (fill in the names of at least 12-15 other major stars from the Steroids Era).

On Manny: I liked this essay from Slate this summer about the Boston media treatment of him.

On David Foster Wallace: I haven't known what to say about it. My dad and I traded favorite paragraphs for several days afterward, and if we're still using Simmons conventions, one of my favorite moments with my dad was when we watched the Charlie Rose interview together on YouTube this winter. It was obvious that my dad had watched the interview multiple times because he kept anticipating what was going to happen, cracking up, and making his own verbal footnotes to the video.

I taught "Tense Present," about dictionaries and descriptivism, to my University Writing class a few semesters ago, and the students wrote the most extraordinary essays inspired by it. The students didn't try out his stylistic moves so much as they picked up Wallace's generosity and curiosity about wide-ranging subjects. One of the students from that class came up to me on the street a few days after we heard about Wallace's death and asked, "I just wanted to make sure you were OK." Then he said he was a third of the way into Infinite Jest, and we figured that was as good a way as any to keep thinking about him.

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Blogger Jim on Sat Oct 04, 06:05:00 AM:
Weird. I didn't know that Simmons was a DFW fan, but when I read his piece I thought the same thing, particularly the footnotes. I almost blogged about it and then I'm like, "no, I've already written more than my fair share about DFW's death," then I found your blog post.

I still haven't read IJ, but it's high on my list of books to read before the close of 2008.
Blogger Shawn on Thu Oct 16, 11:45:00 AM:
In case you didn't see it, here is a note from the Sports Guy, from the Mailbag dated 10/10:

Q: Was your heavy use of footnotes in your Manny column a not-so-subtle (but still effective) memorial tribute to David Foster Wallace? He might have been the finest sportswriter-who-wasn't-actually-a-sportswriter who ever lived. His portrait of Roger Federer a few years back was stunning (and, as a New Englander, you've got to read "Consider The Lobster"). Incredible writer; he'll be missed.
-- Mike W., Westport, Conn.

SG: I wrote the first and second drafts of that column (with footnotes) before Wallace died. So it was a little surreal how that worked out. The only other time I ever used footnotes for something I wrote was with my book. Anyway, as brilliant as his Federer piece was, I'd rank his Michael Joyce piece higher -- I thought it was one of the single best sports pieces ever written, right there with "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu" (John Updike); "Gone for Good" (Roger Angell); "What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?" (Richard Ben Cramer); "Lawdy Lawdy He's Great" (Mark Kram); "The Silent Season of a Hero" (Gay Talese); "Ego" (Norman Mailer); and "Pure Heart" (William Nack). I love so many other sports pieces (Hunter Thompson's Kentucky Derby piece, George Plimpton's "Medora Goes to a Game," Angell's "Agincourt and After" and "Distance," Charlie Pierce's piece about a post-HIV Magic Johnson, Wright Thompson's piece about his father, John McPhee's "Centre Court," Frank Deford's Jimmy Connors profile, Talese's "The Loser," Wallace's Federer piece, Tony Kornheiser's Rick Barry profile, David Halberstam's piece about Jordan after the '98 Finals, Rick Reilly's profile of Bryant Gumbel, Gary Smith's profiles of Muhammad Ali and Jim Valvano, and so on and so on), but if you're picking a "Top 12 Greatest Sports Pieces Ever," those eight pieces have to be included. They just do.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

I won't say I'm blown away by this photo

Urban historian Mike Davis came to America's Next Top Model last night to devise the photo shoot: Los Angeles-related natural disasters. Tyra's girls had to personify earthquakes, rockslides, tidal waves, heat waves, the Santa Ana winds (hence Nigel's joke that gives this post its title), etc. while wearing 60s-inspired shift dresses and climbing around on a diorama. Fiercely. From Davis's 1992 Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, which starts with a table of the floods, earthquakes, fires, plus the Rodney King riots that took place from 1992-95:
It is still unclear, moreover, whether this vicious circle of disaster is coincidental or eschatological. Could the is merely be what statisticians wave away as the 'Joseph effect of fractal geometry: 'the common clustering of catastrophe'? Could these be the Last Days, as prefigured so often in the genre of Los Angeles disaster fiction and film (from Day of the Locust to Volcano)? Or is nature in Southern California simply waking up after a long nap? Whatever the case, millions of Angelenos have become genuinely terrified of their environment.

Paranoia about nature, of course, distracts attention from the obvious fact that Los Angeles has deliberately put itself in harm's way. For generations, market-driven urbanization has transgressed environmental common sense. Historic wildfire corridors have been turned into view-lot suburbs, wetland liquefaction zones into marinas, and floodplains into industrial districts and housing tracts. Monolithic public works have been substituted for regional planning and responsible land ethic. As a result, Southern California has reaped flood, fire, and earthquake tragedies that were as avoidable, as unnatural, as the beating of Rodney King and the ensuing explosion in the streets. In failing to conserve natural ecosystems it has also squandered much of its charm and beauty.

But the social construction of 'natural' disaster is largely hidden from view by way of thinking that simultaneously imposes false expectations on the environment and then explains the inevitable disappointments as proof of a malign and hostile nature. Pseudoscience, in the service of rampant greed, has warped perceptions of the regional landscape. Southern California, in the most profound sense, is suffering a crisis of identity.

I must have mentioned Davis ten times in the past few weeks: when we were talking in my writing class about how fear of the other gets turned into a monster (see Davis's great chapter on the chupacabra and immigration fears in the Southwest in Ecology of Fear. BTW, chupacabra sightings occasionally make the top story in the evening news in ABQ); whether I should give my writing class a chapter from City of Quartz because I remembered liking it so much in college; my nostalgia mixed with mild embarrassment to read my old copy of City of Quartz and see some adorable but uncritical marginalia; how Late Victorian Holocausts should be reprinted every hurricane season (El Nino year or not), and why he doesn't address the Galveston hurricane of 1900 in that book, though it fits into his thesis pretty well; and whether there could actually be tornados in Los Angeles.

Of course it's glib to see Mike Davis's influence on ANTM, but what if this photo shoot could be a great epilogue to a reissue of the book, to see how representations of LA eschatology have moved beyond film and science fiction novels into the very strange world of Tyra Banks's demented modeling schemes?

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