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Monday, March 31, 2008

Jack McCoy uses Westlaw

I am of the mistaken opinion that Westlaw, the online database for legal materials, is magical. My law-schooled friends and roommates tell me things like they get free things just for doing database searches. Or they can call up the service and have people give them advice on how to do the best search. I spend quite a bit of time fooling around on all sorts of databases and trying to figure out the best ways to use them. I'm interested in how the online database search service became normative for law students and lawyers in a way that, say, literature students have resisted to some extent. Most literature students know how to use JSTOR or ProQuest, but many people are resistant to other forms of searching other than retrieval of individual items. I guess I extrapolate from "normative" to "magical" when I say things like, "you don't think your consciousness is changing because you see connections in terms of hyperlinks instead of linear progressions...?"

And then my long-suffering friends and roommates are like, "Alice, that's so 1997."

Actually, they don't say that... because maybe it's a little abstract to ask people if their consciousness is changing. (But how would they know?!) Nevertheless, the change in the ways people think about research methods, links between sources, and retrieval of materials seems like a big deal for students in any field. Some of the differences in legal scholarship are represented in this split-screen, frame-designed article from 2000 about the differences between legal research in books and online--it's like a little time warp to web page design with clunky frames, but the distinctions are still relevant. There's clip art of a linear progression from LIBRARY to STACKS to INDEX TO DIGEST to KEY NUMBER to CASES on the book-based information side; the new method is represented by a dartboard. I started thinking about this subject last year when I read Adam Liptak's Sidebar article from last year about the function of law review articles an age of hyperlinks. I think that dartboard mode is relevant to fields other than law; I'm just interested in why legal studies embraced the online search in ways that others haven't--lots of money for those search services may be one of the reasons for the widespread adoption.

All of this is a long lead-up to my revelation from a few weeks ago: for the first time that I've ever noticed, Jack McCoy used Westlaw to retrieve something on Law & Order. Watching the re-runs of Law & Order is a real treat for seeing how New York has changed, and when they show older and newer episodes back to back in marathons, you can see the ways in which police work (the Order side) has changed with the advent of cell phones and the Internet. On the final episode of Jerry Orbach's long tenure as Lenny Briscoe, he shakes his head sadly about his partner's use of a department-issued Blackberry. The Law side of the equation pays some attention to web sites; there's a great scene in one episode where the otherwise worthless Serena Cantrememberherlastnamebecauseshewassoannoying informs McCoy that there's lots of information about him available on Google, including his love for the Clash.

So why no mentions of Lexis Nexis or Westlaw? They look up cases all the time, but they always seem to pull them out of thin air, or file folders. On a recent episode, McCoy made his paradigm shift when he needed a recent law review article and turned to his bookshelves to look for the volume. His new ADA, Josh Cutter (played by the magnificently morally ambivalent Linus Roache, who can't quite handle the accent), smirked at him and said Westlaw would be quicker. It was a small moment, but I was rapt. I should also note that this season has introduced a new stock camera angle into the L&O set of conventions: the shot of Cutter's white board, on which they make lists and plan strategies. McCoy never diagrammed his thought processes in this way in previous seasons, but this new convention is very interesting from the point of view of how their thought processes are telegraphed to the audience. The plots of L&O maintain the same conventions of splitting the hour and having significant twists at predictable places, only to have some sort of (perhaps ambivalent) resolution of law and order at the end. But have they added at least one more twist to each episode, which perhaps necessitates at least the gesture of diagramming for explanation? I could be reading too much here, but it seems like they're doing something interesting by foregrounding how one sorts out information in a highly conventional narrative mode.

You know what show doesn't do that? In the most frustrating and insanely convoluted way? Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. If Law & Order's best episodes are the ones where the methods of evidence retrieval or processing or legal presentation are put under pressure, SVU has no sense of skepticism about how the detectives know what they know. They use lie detector tests like they're valid forms of "detecting" truth and falsehood; they do all sorts of questionable uses of DNA- and brain-imaging testing and if there's ever any question about its applicability, it's for moral reasons, not actual evidentiary or epistemological ones. These tests are never done in the service of questioning the conventions of investigation--the raison d'etre of the crime procedural--and instead use the investigative procedures to go crazy with illogical twists and turns. I cannot watch the show anymore.

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Anonymous Meg on Mon Mar 31, 08:27:00 PM:
As I recall, you were too disturbed by SVU to watch (or be allowed to watch) anyway. So good riddance. Hey, did you ever get the second chapter I sent?
 
Blogger mark on Tue Apr 01, 12:06:00 PM:
Alice, your last paragraph reminds me of this great piece on David Fincher's Zodiac:
http://www.slate.com/id/2181343/pagenum/all/#page_start

Key quote:
"It's a Hollywood movie that champions due process. The movie meticulously depicts the exasperating rigamarole of a real-world investigation: Evidence and procedure trump gut feelings and brute force; suspects are hauled in and let go because the case isn't there. Zodiac emerges as a rebuke to the shoot-from-the-hip heroics of a show like 24. In a year of didactic, ripped-from-the-headlines movies, Zodiac's political critique was the most relevant of all, and hardly anybody noticed."

Also, Joey Slaughter once went on a long rant in a postcolonial lit seminar about how much he hates shows like CSI, where experts discuss DNA as if they're explaining it for the first time. Does an episodic detective show get to have a learning curve, or is there a presumption that an audience will never learn anything new?
 
Blogger Ben on Tue Apr 01, 04:27:00 PM:
It's fascinating how similar SVU is to the original L&O, but how much worse it is. It always feels clunky, artificial, overacted, overscripted, uninvolving and unconvincing. I gather it was an attempt to stake out some broadcast space as an effort at CSI containment... but is CSI as bad as SVU?
 
Blogger Katy on Wed Apr 02, 09:44:00 AM:
I wonder if the absence of Westlaw and other databases from L&O has to do with the writers' knowledge of how lawyers conduct research. Doesn't the show have legal advisers? Even so, I suspect it would be difficult to convey the complexity of legal research without that subsuming the show, no matter how interesting it would be to certain nerdy segments of the viewing population. Ahem. Legal reference is a really interesting field within librarianship. The people who do it are reallllly knowledgeable about the sources. You pretty much have to be, since it's such a specialized and complicated field.

I suspect that the embrace of databases by the legal profession has a lot to do with the kind of research that lawyers and legal scholars conduct, as well as the high cost of those databases. You can index a lot of the primary sources (cases, laws, etc.) in the legal profession, but you can't index the primary sources in history or literature quite as easily, and even if you could, there isn't the support or the funding for ridiculously expensive databases outside academia, whereas in the legal world, that kind of money is small potatoes for a lot of big law firms.
 
Blogger Adela on Wed Apr 02, 01:13:00 PM:
I was totally super excited by that moment as well and I also totally liked the moment when Serena googled McCoy and brought up his information in that scene. I've also noticed the use of the board, I think your ideas about it are interesting, and no, I don't personally think that you're reading too much into them. I've been thinking about it as a way to differentiate McCoy from Cutter, a way to create character. But I have to say that one disturbing element they've added which has a similar function is that stupid bat. I don't know why he has to use it every time he's thinking about something difficult. It seems especially disturbing when he's using it in front of Alana de la Garza who is a nice female character, although I think they could give her a little more depth. Not that these characters are meant to have depth, although as you say, Cutter is ambivalent and his character certainly feels a little deeper. So, bat + board = ? The bat bothers me because it seems like such a cliche: the tough, hyper-rational lawyer who uses a bat to feel strong when he's thinking? Or am I over-reading now?
I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on this.
By the way, I would like to add to the list of scenes the recent episode (last season or this season?) when Lupo uses his cellphone to download the Pyschoanalysts calendar from his blackberry. Remember how that led to a discussion about whether he infringed upon the doctor's privacy or not by downlaoding the calendar which was at plain site. I thought that was also a cool tecky moment.

And now to continue the discussion of who uses technology and how doesn't in research (that is, other than the laptop), I've noticed that in our field, using databases and using them beyond the google-search mode is something that can also be considered in terms of period. I think that eighteenth-century peeps are less resistant to use technology. I may be generalizing from my experience of our program and NYU folks but I think that maybe our subject matter alerts us to the advantages of exploiting these databases? Someone recently suggested in discussing this that 20th-C literary folks do not have as much material as we do on their databases because of copyright laws...so that brings another interesting issue to the fold. Thanks for this post, very exciting.
p.s. I detest SVU and I don't agree with Ben that it's like the original Law & Order or the old one (is that what you said?). I thin the first seasons of Law & Order are quite rich in terms of the discussions and the ambivalence that some characters like Chris Noth's showed in dealing with some issues whereas SVU is like soap opera attempting to be a crime drama.
 

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The stars were going out

Also from the Science Times today, and related to Ben's incredibly informative and thoughtful post on Arthur C. Clarke's legacy in science fiction, is a wonderful article about Clarke by Dennis Overbye. Overbye says that Clarke wrote great conclusions to his stories, and the last lines of his own article are really moving. I won't ruin the effect of the conclusion, but here's the intro:

On the night last week after Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction writer and space visionary, died at the ripe age of 90, it was cloudy and threatening rain in New York. I was frustrated because I wanted to go outside to see if the stars were still there.

In his short story “The Nine Billion Names of God,” published in 1953, Clarke wrote of a pair of computer programmers sent to a remote monastery in Tibet to help the monks there use a computer to compile a list of all the names of God. Once the list was complete, the monks believed, human and cosmic destiny would be fulfilled and the world would end.

The programmers are fleeing the mountain, hoping to escape the monks’ wrath when the program finishes and the world is still there, when one of them looks up.

“Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”

That was a typical Clarke ending, and it seemed only natural upon his death that nature might want to reciprocate.

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Dead bat flying

Here's a sad story from the Science Times about the mysterious deaths of hibernating bats in North America, but my favorite unlikely simile (dead bats to folded-up umbrellas) gets deployed:

Al Hicks was standing outside an old mine in the Adirondacks, the largest bat hibernaculum, or winter resting place, in New York State.

But bats dying from a mystery illness have been found in the snow in daylight hours.

It was broad daylight in the middle of winter, and bats flew out of the mine about one a minute. Some had fallen to the ground where they flailed around on the snow like tiny wind-broken umbrellas, using the thumbs at the top joint of their wings to gain their balance.

All would be dead by nightfall. Mr. Hicks, a mammal specialist with the state’s Environmental Conservation Department, said: “Bats don’t fly in the daytime, and bats don’t fly in the winter. Every bat you see out here is a ‘dead bat flying,’ so to speak.”

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Blogger Ben on Tue Apr 01, 04:21:00 PM:
I saw this, and was excited to email it to you -- I shouldn't have doubted that you'd see it too!
 

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Dilithium Ball: Can sci-fi still see the future?

Dave Itzkoff asks in the NY Times today whether today's science fiction writers can match the prescience of Arthur C. Clarke, who foresaw space stations, geosynchronous satellite orbit, and many other technologies that have come to be:
Mr. Clarke’s passing poses a challenge to the current generation of science-fiction writers: in a world where technology evolves so rapidly that the present already feels like the future, will a modern-day author ever inherit Mr. Clarke’s aura of prescience? Do any of his successors share his apparent talent for envisioning technological breakthroughs before they are realized?
The article mentions a few writers whose writing envisions where our current pace of innovation will take us in another generation or so, and attests to the viability of some of their predictions--it even mentions a group called Sigma, a "group of science-fiction writers who advise the Department of Homeland Security" (!).

Itzkoff should look at the sci-fi novels and stories of Cory Doctorow, who is more widely read in his posts on super-blog boingboing.net .

Doctorow's first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (free online in its entirety, like all of his writing that I mention here), takes place in a Disney World, several generations removed from ours, that has been taken over by volunteer hackers and ride designers. In place of the old monolithic structure of corporate management, there is a lean and mean marketplace of ideas, where an army of fans and bloggers instantly digest and react to every small change in a ride's design. This economy is possible because money has become so much more efficient at changing hands; if veteran fans disapprove of a change, they withhold the trickle of money that reflects their esteem and direct instead to a different ad-hoc team managing a different, more innovative ride. Teams that can't attract esteem for their design innovations dissolve as members head elsewhere to start over, and the team is soon replaced by a new ad-hoc team, made up by whoever acknowledges the opportunity in the vacuum.

Since the publication of Down and Out, fans and entrepreneurs have made several attempts to introduce a similar system of constant, instant, seamless payment, often named directly after Doctorow's system (the geekily silly "Whuffie"). His broader economic prediction of rapidly-shifting ad-hoc teams seems unlikely to come true, exactly, but elements of it are very much a part of the way business schools see current trends in the understanding of organizational health.

Enron, ironically, was described as having a similar internal system in Malcolm Gladwell's much-referenced article "The Talent Myth":
"Fluid movement is absolutely necessary in our company. And the type of people we hire enforces that," Skilling told the team from McKinsey. "Not only does this system help the excitement level for each manager, it shapes Enron's business in the direction that its managers find most exciting." Here is Skilling again: "If lots of [employees] are flocking to a new business unit, that's a good sign that the opportunity is a good one. . . . If a business unit can't attract people very easily, that's a good sign that it's a business Enron shouldn't be in."
We all know how that ended up. But beyond Enron, this sort of self-organizing, pseudo-anarchist, collective-spontaneous-decision-making model is being tried here and there.

Doctorow's short story I, Robot (purposely given the same title as an Isaac Asimov/Harlan Ellison screenplay in response to Ray Bradbury's silly legal threats against Fahrenheit 911 for its satire of his title Fahrenheit 451) also deals with near-future economic issues. It forsees an America where Digital Rights Management--the clunky technology that attempts to prevent you from, say, watching DVDs from Japan on your US DVD player--has been taken to its logical extreme by media corporations and the loyal legislators they own. While enormous economic resources in the US go towards preventing users from doing anything unexpected with their machines (and arresting them, when they inevitably break the restrictive controls), East Asia instead embraces open knowledge and innovation and races past us. This is future present.

His story "Anda's Game", whose title is also an homage to a sci-fi classic (Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game), follows a teenage girl who escapes from her adolescent frustrations by becoming a powerful leader in an online game reminiscent of World of Warcraft. But as she gains power in the virtual world, she learns that blowing off steam in the virtual world can have real-world consequences, in a twist that hints at the massive task ahead for legal systems of determining when real-world laws apply to virtual-world behavior.

And his unfinished novel Themepunks is all about a startup company run by a couple of hackers and financed by an Enronesque Kodak, which acknowledges its technology is obsolete and decides to cast its lot with hundreds of tiny new ventures. The hackers move into a high-tech junkyard and begin churning out dozens of products, some disruptive, some practical and others humanitarian; unexpected consequences abound.

Doctorow's prognostication is different from Clarke's, and from the traditional sci-fi of interstellar travel and alien attacks; his focus is on the implications for society of technology that might be around the corner. Down and Out describes a complex system of cloning and mindstate downloading, and many of his other stories deal in particular with the physical, and medical, implications of the increasing mastery we have over the flesh.

He's not the first to speculate along these lines. Spider Robinson's 1982 sci-fi novel Mindkiller described "wireheading", the use of plugs into the brain to stimulate the pleasure center more directly than any drug can. A central character in the novel is a young woman who has attempted suicide by permanent wireheading, the constant use of which overrides desires for food and drink. When the main character discovers her and turns off her machine, she is anything but grateful.

Mindkiller thus brings up the classic philosophical conundrum posed by Aldus Huxley and others: if all our work is in pursuit of happiness, would it be wrong to short-circuit the process and skip directly to happiness? With drugs, the familiar answer is that the effect wears off and users are left little better than before, though long-lasting therapeutic effects of MDMA/ecstasy have been reported by some psychiatrists. Robinson's wireheading trumps this drawback of drugs because, with enough wealth to pay for a lifetime of nutrient IV liquid and a secluded place to wire up, someone could exist in perfect pleasure for a lifetime.

Can you guess where I'm going with this? In Wired last year, Mary Graham reported on a treatment for depression that sounds straight out of Mindkiller:

In vagus nerve stimulation, or VNS, a two-inch diameter, .25 inch thick disk is surgically tucked under the skin near the left collarbone, then wired upward to the vagus nerve in the neck. The battery-operated disk delivers intermittent, rhythmic pulses to the nerve -- whose name means "wandering" in Latin -- that reaches a half dozen areas of the brain critical to treating depression, according to Dr. Darin Dougherty of Massachusetts General Hospital.

"Instead of prescribing milligrams I'm prescribing milliamps," Dougherty says. The implanted disc is programmed and reprogrammed with a wand held over the skin.
...
The technique won FDA approval as a depression treatment in July 2005. Since then, about 3,000 depression patients have been wired, according to Cyberonics, the Houston-based manufacturer of the device.
...
Researchers know the treatment stimulates norepinephrine and serotonin centers, now treated with pharma at a tepid success rate, and increases blood flow and neuron activity. But they candidly say they don't fully understand why VNS works.

Once healed from surgery, patients report their voices get gravelly during the pulse cycle, usually five of every 30 seconds. If that becomes a problem -- during public speaking, for example -- the device is designed with an off-switch: The patient can suspend the unit by placing a magnet over it, Dougherty says.

Thank god for the vagus nerve, which, crucially, transmits info separately from the spinal cord. The vagus nerve is what lets paralyzed people still feel sexual pleasure, and what transmits the signal to, say, get an erection. Thousands of paralyzed people in the world can still have orgasms they describe as "fucking awesome" and "orgasmic", even though they can't feel the physical stimulation causing it!

Our biology is as surprising as any technology, and as malleable, and Doctorow is on this beat as well. In his story "0wnz0red"--that's leetspeak for "owned", meaning controlled or bested--programmers hack their own brains to control their body and mental processes. From "0wnz0red":
Murray heard the zero and the zee in 0wnz. Hacker-speak for having total control. No one wants to be 0wnz0red by some teenaged script-kiddie who's found some fresh exploit and turned it loose on your computer.
...
Ever think about how all the really good shit in your body -- metabolism, immunoresponse, cognition -- it's all in Ring Minus One? Not user-accessible? I mean, why is it that something like wiggling your toes is under your volitional control, but your memory isn't?"
...
Exercise doesn't burn fat, exercise just satisfies the condition in which your body is prepared to burn fat off. It's like a computer that won't boot unless you restart it twice, switch off the monitor, open the CD drive and stand on one foot. If you're a luser, you do all this shit every time you want to boot your box, but if you're a leet hax0r like you and me, you just figure out what's wrong with the computer and fix it. You don't sacrifice a chicken twice a day, you 0wn the box, so you make it dance to your tune.

"But your meat, it's not under your control. You know you have to exercise for 20 minutes before you start burning any fat at all? In other words, the first twenty minutes are just a goddamned waste of time.
...
All the good stuff -- say, pain-control and universal antiviral hardening -- we'll make for free, viralize it. Once our stuff is in the market, the whole world's going to change, anyway. There'll be apps for happiness, cures for every disease, hibernation, limb-regeneration, whatever. Anything any human body has ever done, ever, you'll be able to do at-will. You think there's going to be anything recognizable as an economy once we're ubiquitous?"
Naturally, this work interests the organization most concerned with the limits of human ability: the Pentagon. Which makes me wonder: will vagus nerve stimulation ever be installed in soldiers? A soldier will be more valuable to military planners if he can overcome conflicting emotions and fear at the touch of a button, and pump up testosterone, adrenaline and seratonin.

As past predictions for the future get folded into the everyday, we've been discovering that dystopian scenarios of forced obedience are being replaced by voluntary compliance. The two-minutes' hate isn't government-enforced; it's a voluntary ritual at extremist, gay-hating churches. The Pentagon won't have to coerce recruits into letting them implant emotion-adjusters inside their brains; soldiers will volunteer for it.

(Another interesting tidbit about Robinson's Mindkiller trilogy--by law, a successful sci-fi novel must be turned into a "trilogy" of three or more books--is the list of aliases used by a con man character in the third book, Lifehouse. Slipped into the list is "James Tiptree, Jr.", a pen name Alice has written about. Tiptree was really sci-fi writer Alice Sheldon, and the reference to her gender-crossing pseudonym is doubly interesting when you consider that Spider's wife Jeanne Robinson has collaborated with him on many of his books, sometimes with credit and sometimes without.)

In fact, volunteers are already lining up, illegally when necessary, to make adjustments to their bodies that make "Ownz0red" sound either prescient or already dated. Gretchen Reynolds wrote about these experimenters in a NY Times Magazine piece called "Outlaw DNA" last year:
It was a single line from a longer e-mail message. But when read into the record by prosecutors at the drug trial last year of the German track coach Thomas Springstein, it caused a sensation. “The new Repoxygen is hard to get,” Springstein had written. “Please give me new instructions soon so that I can order the product before Christmas.”
...
Repoxygen works by worming a specialized gene into its host’s DNA. In the right circumstances, the gene directs cells to start making extra erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that drives the production of red blood cells. More red blood cells means more oxygen transported to muscles, which is why athletes have been known to inject themselves with synthetic EPO. By insinuating itself into an athlete’s genetic code, Repoxygen would theoretically produce a natural stream of the stuff.
...
In the United States, the first news media reports of gene doping appeared in the late 1990s, when word got out that “Schwarzenegger mice” were being produced in the lab of H. Lee Sweeney, a molecular physiologist at the University of Pennsylvania...
To this day, Sweeney receives overtures from would-be guinea pigs. “Every time there’s a story about our research or any research similar to ours, we get more calls,” he says. Patiently he’ll explain to the caller that, even when his therapy is ready for human testing — Sweeney says it will be years — there will be risks of infection, rejection, organ failure, possibly death. The callers will listen, he says, and then reply, “O.K., when can we start?”
Doctorow clearly has his finger on the pulse of tech trends that are barreling towards us. His accuracy is impressive, but his focus is often on the very near future--an easier thing to predict than the future of interstellar travel. Arthur Clarke was dealing with a different time scale; his innovations are the stuff of traditional science fiction, of ray guns and lightspeed travel and space docks.

But to his credit, Clarke didn't ignore the practical human elements of his futures. Where Gene Rodenberry's Star Trek employed transporter beams and such only so far as the plot required, in Clarke's future worlds the technology was not magic, but merely advanced. Technology in Clarke's futures had not lost its tendency to break down unexpectedly or otherwise insert itself into people's lives in inconvenient and tedious ways. For all the book's eventual metaphysics, Clarke's world of 2001: A Space Odyssey is one where first-time visitors to the moon's space station quickly realize, with the help of a broken rib or two, that while their weight is now near zero, their mass and momentum are unchanged.

Neither have the people of Clarke's future gained the utopian enlightenment and altruism so commonly seen in sci-fi visions of the future. Dave Bowman of 2001, we read, took a long-shot gamble in his science career and refused to specialize, which meant missing the good jobs but positioning himself with the shallow but wide knowledge needed for small-crew, long-range space flight--should such flights ever be resumed. A careerist who must take economics and office politics into account is very different than the philosopher-kings of "Star Trek" or Isaac Asimov's Foundation series.

But Clarke's best writing served a different essential purpose than Asimov's or Roddenberry's. Their future served as allegory, as visions not so much of what might one day happen, but rather as reflections of the human condition told using a tool--science fiction--whose power is that it allows the author to craft reality to serve the purposes of the story. This is especially clear in Roddenberry's case; he had battled with studio executives in a failed attempt to run an episode of his Army drama that addressed racial integration (his production company had to swallow the cost of producing the episode, and it was never allowed to air), and conceived Star Trek as a way to deal with issues of tolerance without scaring away suits or viewers. Attempts to explain the technology of "Star Trek" (there have been several books to that end) are a novelty, and treat themselves as such.

Asimov's writing is not so dismissive of the awkward details of technology, but it's clear that when he's identified something as irrelevant to the story, he's not afraid to breeze past it. Need a non-supernatural way for a dead leader to have seen the future? Invent an imaginary field of study that perfectly predicts the course of history. Asimov's stories are vividly imagined: a dysfunctional robot produces achingly beautiful art; rival inventors play a high-tech game of death on a pool table; a judge decides a time travel case with a headline-ready twist on an old adage. But these are set to the specifications of Asimov's wit, not set in motion on their own and allowed, to some degree, to chart their own course. Asimov's lovable and complex Bicentennial Man robot, with his hastily explained "positronic brain", is a world apart from Clarke's HAL, whose limited range of understanding and expression reflect real problems of artificial intelligence and, I think, make for a more compelling character.

I close with a mention of Philip K. Dick, whose genius was to dismiss space ships and such entirely as unimpressive, and to predict a future as unenlightened as the present. His 1968 book Ubik got the American Library treatment a few years ago and, to my surprise, is on Time Magazine's list of the 100 best English novels of the 20th century (along with Alan Moore's Watchmen and Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret). In it, the hero, Joe Chip, struggles with such future annoyances as his front door threatening to sue him when he jimmies it open, and his coffee machine demanding a toll for each morning's brew. In the end, it turns out that a commercial product has the importance of a god.

That one didn't take long, did it?

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Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Mar 27, 11:50:00 AM:
Larry Niven had "wireheads" in Ringworld (1970)--same term, same concept.
 

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Martha Plimpton

I have a lovely red and blue brocade coat with gold buttons that I found at a thrift store in Albuquerque for very little money. Yesterday, none other than Martha Plimpton admired it--silently, but she gave me an approving nod as we stood on the corner of 96th and Broadway.

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Blogger Marina on Sun Mar 16, 04:40:00 AM:
That's it - you've made it now. A glittering future awaits!
 
Blogger Ben on Mon Mar 24, 01:04:00 AM:
I think I am still be in love with Martha Plimpton from when I was 10.
 

Friday, March 14, 2008

Clunkpunk

I was perplexed by the New York Times's choice to run the "Internet is running out of space" article on the front page yesterday--the report they're citing is months old, and there are so many hedges to the provocative lead question that it's hard to say what the real story is. I mean, it seems like Robert Metcalfe, who famously predicted in 1995 that the Internet would collapse under too much information in 1996, gets the last word: The Internet is resilient. Add to that: technological innovation and media worry-mongering may occur at similar speeds... But maybe I'm oversimplifying with this skepticism, too.

The commenters' responses on Gawker made me laugh: "never forget Y2K," which reminded me that the first time I heard about Y2K was in the middle of a computer literacy exam administered at my high school. It was a weird experience because it was administered by the computer literacy teacher, who had been the typing teacher many, many years before. Mrs. Butterfield-Barney's job had changed along with the times, but it meant that her classes were composed of bits and pieces of many different forms of technological literacy: typing when I was in middle school, learning reference citations, mastering Hypercard, and so on until we had to do some very basic web page design at the end of high school. The final computer literacy exam was to write the first page of an essay about Y2K--but the content, in true Marshall McLuhan fashion, didn't matter as much as the form, which had to have pristine citation of Internet sources. For some reason, I hadn't ever heard the term before, so I did a web search on the topic of the essay as I was writing it. That mishmash of technological literacy--as well as the ghostly, nostalgic persistence of forms of obsolescent technology--has fascinated me ever since.

My favorite comment on the Gawker post is one about William Gibson that's in poor taste, I guess, but it reminds me that what I love about Gibson and cyberpunk in general are those moves back and forth between old and new technologies, especially when they're rendered in the future. Or especially in the past, hence my obsession with steampunk. My second-favorite Gibson novel (after Pattern Recognition) is The Difference Engine, which he co-wrote with Bruce Sterling. The novel is set in an alternate Victorian past when Charles Babbage's difference and analytical engines are functional. What I love about the book is the hyper-foregrounding of Victorian technolgies; that descriptive move that fits in well, obviously, in imagining future mediation technologies in cyberpunk, and I love love love the way they make the convention work in rendering an alternate past. Here are two illustrative passages from The Difference Engine:
To Mallory's left, a spanking new steam-gurney clanged in the gurney's prow, people scattering sulkily before the vehicle's advance. Above them, passengers lounged in velevet coach-seats, the folding spark-shield accordioned back to admit the sun. A grinning old swell in kid gloves sipped champagne with a pair of young misses, either daughters or mistresses. The gurney's door gleamed with a coat-of-arms, cog-wheel azure and crossed hammer argent. Some Rad's emblem unknown to Mallory, who knew the arms of every savant Lord--though he was weak on the capitalists.

He took the thing for a boat in the first instant of his surprise, its scarlet hull absurdly suspended between a pair of great wheels. Driving-wheels, he saw, stepping closer; the burnished piston-brasses vanished into smoothly flared openings in the insubstantial-looking shell or hull. Not a boat; it resembled a giant teardrop, or a giant tadpole. A third wheel, quite small and vaguely conical, was swivel-mounted at the end of the long-tapered tail. He made out the name painted in black and gilt across the bulbous prow, beneath a curved expanse of delicately leaded glass; Zephyr.

I saw a guy reading Spook Country on the subway a few weeks ago, so I tapped him on the shoulder and exclaimed, "Don't you love that book?" He was listening to his iPod, but he took out his earbuds and explained that it was one of the first Gibson books he had read in English, rather than in his native Polish. "You like cyberpunk?" he asked. "You like... Neal Stephenson?" He had read the Baroque Trilogy in Polish. I told him I had trouble getting through it in English, but I'm going to try again because I liked Cryptonomicon so much. Then I told him about steampunk, spelled it out because he didn't believe that such a genre existed, and gave him the URL for BoingBoing so he could see all of the amazing steampunk art they display on the site.

Wired magazine did a great cover story a few months ago about the cultural effects of Blade Runner and how retro-futuristic noir works as a genre in its sets of forward and backward referents. I may wait until IFC shows Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind, but I was interested in Dennis Lim's Times article about viewing that movie through the lens of current fascinations with a mishmash of technologies (see also: the YouTube videos of low-tech Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the amazing version of 24 set in the late 1990s, when Jack Bauer has to use dial-up for his data-mining; Jason Kottke's site also paid particular attention to this issue). I thought Anthony Lane got it partially wrong in his review of the movie in the New Yorker:
The rule seems to be that whenever he directs other people’s scripts—as he did with “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” written by Charlie Kaufman—he is able to negotiate a truce, or even a merger, between the logical and the fantastic, whereas when he writes his own material, as in “The Science of Sleep” and “Be Kind Rewind,” anything that smacks of common sense is rejected as a gross inconvenience. To take the most basic of objections: how many video-only stores do you know? It would hardly have stretched the budget to set the action in the late nineteen-eighties, when video was rampant; in fact, the new movie has the flimsiness of a comedy from that era (remember the robot in “Short Circuit,” touched off by a lightning strike?), and half of the films that Mike and Jerry seek to revitalize are of similar vintage. If you can think of nothing more hilarious than Jack Black strapping on used auto parts and pretending to be Robocop, then here is the movie you want.

The outcome is a strangely sundered one, torn between the claims of nostalgia and a desperate bid to seduce the YouTube generation. There are thousands of people doing what Mike and Jerry do, but few of them would even know what a video was, preferring to shoot on digital and post their spoofs online. This user-generated content, as it is called, marks either a long-overdue democratization of the arts or, if you prefer, a mass proliferation of the mediocre, and Gondry had the opportunity to rise above it by crafting a thoroughly professional fable about amateurs. He blew his chance, and most of “Be Kind Rewind” feels as silly and undisciplined as the mini-movies cooked up by its hapless heroes. These, incidentally, we are invited to view in their entirety by visiting the movie’s Web site. Thanks, but I’ll pass.

Given that nod to current trends, the film’s finale comes across as a willful throwback. One evening, Mike and Jerry’s last production is shown to the community: projected onto a screen, it grows visible through the window, and everyone throngs in the street to watch, perched on stoops like kids in an Andy Hardy picture. The moment is pinched, I suspect, from a scene in “Cinema Paradiso,” when Philippe Noiret projected an old movie onto a wall of a town square, but that was a miraculous visitation in a place adrift from the wide world, and it was beautifully spliced into the sentimental efficiency of the whole story. Twenty-first-century New Jersey, though, is another matter, and if Gondry really thinks that he can will his movie, not to mention his audience, back into a state of innocence, he’s kidding himself.

I'm in agreement with Lane about the intolerable whimsy of the movies Gondry writes himself, but I wonder if the question changes when you shift the terms around a little bit. Instead of "isn't Gondry naive for making on film what others do on YouTube?" and "isn't Gondry naive for staging a nostalgic version of the old form of public space for viewing movies when the Internet changes the way we think of public space?" you could ask, "what happens when you set older forms of technology into future visions--what's the appeal of the clunky format such as the video or the drive-in beyond mere nostalgia? Does it de-naturalize, in some ways, the ways we think about mediation and technology?" I'm not sure that Michel Gondry has a vision that's coherent enough to make an argument like the one Lane says he's making. Be Kind Rewind's attention to various obsolescent forms of the videotape, the robot from Short Circuit , and the nod to the simultaneous presence of future and past technology of proton packs and 1959 Cadillacs in Ghostbusters seem to be representative of some worry about/interest in what happens when these future and present technologies mix. I think I have more faith in the interesting gaps that Be Kind Rewind presents than in its actual execution--but maybe that's OK.

Indeed, it makes me think there should be some form of -punk writing and art that based around a fascination with recently obsolescent technologies--if there isn't already, and I suppose those YouTube videos would be good examples of it. I see the possibilities for clunkpunk most clearly in two movies from last year: Breach, starring Chris Cooper as spy Robert Hanssen, and The Hoax, starring Richard Gere as fake-Howard Hughes biographer Clifford Irving. Both of them are great to watch for the foregrounding of recently obsolescent clunky information technologies! (I know that's not going to go on a review blurb for either movie, but work with me here.)

The key moments of suspense in Breach are all set up around trading videocassettes, searching through a briefcase to find a computer disk of information, making drop-offs of important data in public places, and so on. There's even a great scene of Hanssen hectoring a woman at the FBI about getting rid of old computers (right? it's been a while since I've seen it). Because it's set at the end of an era and Hansen is shown to be a throwback threat, the movie is a reminder of how Cold War-era spy movies are set up around transfers of physical objects of secret information (disks, folders, print-outs). The Bourne movies are some of the first to actually show the possibilities of information moving outside of the object realm.

Likewise, The Hoax is a love letter to 1970s technology as the means to create inauthentic documents: reel-to-reel tape recorders, post-dated checks, passports forged with typewriters, entire false as-told-to autobiographies forged on typewriters, folders of clips about Howard Hughes, mysterious manuscripts which have to be photocopied quickly and then returned to their oblivious owner, voices disguised over old telephones, and other clunky fakes are all over the place in the movie. There's even a spectacular helicopter stunt which hinges around a pencil-drawn map with a transcription error. I'm interested in how these movies, along with Be Kind Rewind, use obsolescent technology as a way of representing worries about how writing and mediation technology as the means to create fakes, hoaxes, and swindles. Why is there this connection? Is it similar to the ways that the eighteenth-century Gothic novel deals with mysterious manuscripts in worrying about how to represent the real when everything is mediated in new forms such as the novel and the newspaper--that's a post for a different time, I guess.

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Blogger Levi Stahl on Sat Mar 15, 10:45:00 AM:
What a great post--lots of interesting avenues of thought here!

Thinking on changing technology and creativity reminds me of a moment back in college when I had what I thought at the time was a stunning revelation: that cell phones would make mystery and suspense novels nearly impossible. How worried could a reader be about a character who carried a constant lifeline? Of course I was wrong--writers adapted, just as they adapted to fingerprinting and Cesare Lombroso and polygraphs and psychology.

And I'm fascinated by what you've pointed out: that sometimes it's not the new tech that is imbued with worry, but the uneasy relationship that it creates with the old tech--as if we're worried that our very knowledge and skill, which we've been proud of, is no longer capable of holding its value
in this too-quickly changing world? You may be the one who finally convinces me to try William Gibson!
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Sat Mar 15, 12:32:00 PM:
I have long thought that old technologies become the stuff of horror movies -- there were a couple of movies from a few years ago (one starring Colin Farrell) featuring pay phone booths as terror-traps. Mary Shelley's monster made up out of corpses would be a key textual example of this kind of Gothic recycling.
 

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Thoughts (and SPOILERS) on Michael Clayton

I read the Michael Clayton script and finally saw the film. I agree with my budding screenwriter wife, Kate, that it's excellent, at least for a Hollywood film.

Thoughts, including MANY SPOILERS:
  • The father-son speech after the encounter with Uncle Timmy, especially the son's stoic reaction, is powerful. The son, Henry, is a well-written, well-directed and well-acted character--he seems like a real 10 year-old, in that he has his own life and personality, and does not merely exist to fit into his parents' plans (in contrast to, say, the son in Jaws, who also has a touching scene with his father but who, typically of Steven Spielberg's child characters, never shows signs of resistance, impatience or scatterbrainedness).

  • If you think about it, Uncle Timmy must have been sitting alone in his car, outside his brother's home, with all his siblings and his father inside celebrating his father's birthday, for hours. Scary. This should have been highlighted more clearly by the film.

  • The secret-agent killer pair show remarkable resourcefulness, care and precision in killing Arthur Edens. Why then does their plan to kill Michael involve something so crude and obviously murderous as a car bomb?

  • The agents' botched GPS-hacking/bomb-planting job seems to have essentially no consequences; sure, the killers have trouble tracking Michael, and have to guess at whether or not he's alone in his car, but since the plan was basically to trigger the car bomb anyway, it's hard to see how much better the job would have gone if it was not botched; the botching wasn't necessary to set up the movie magic of the horses/explosion moment.

  • I imagine that good, tightly-formed thriller stories must be hard to write; Tony Gilroy is clearly one of the best in the game, but in the end, Michael Clayton falls back on a big genre crutch: the sting that solves everything. But several elements don't make sense.
    1. First, Tilda Swinton's character (Karen Crowder) implies a very damning set of admissions (in particular, the attempted assassinations), but she doesn't explicitly make any admissions that would hold water in court (at least as far as my "Law and Order" watching informs me). (A much better reveal at the end could have been set up involving the film's McGuffin, the "Memo #229", which seems like it really would have the power that the film needs it to have for dramatic purposes.)
    2. Second, if a large number of police entered an office building without invitation from management, security would notify all the bigwigs at their big meeting, right? It just doesn't make sense that Karen Crowder would be so blindsided by Michael and tons of cops while she's in the office.
    3. Third and most glaring, why would anyone think that Michael is dead? Because his phone and watch are found in his burnt car? No one would report him dead until his car is found; and as soon as police find the car, won't they see that there is no body inside? I don't see why he'd be considered dead by the law firm, not to mention the professional killers, who presumably follow up on these things.

  • The cop brother's final speech to Michael (after he gets out of being held for entering the crime scene) doesn't make sense. Michael's problem is not that he's gaming the lawyers to believe he's like a cop (and he's not trying to fool himself), it's that he is bad with money, avoids thinking about who his work hurts, lets problems in his own life spiral long after he'd fix them if they were other people's problems, and chooses costly forms of showing loyalty (going into business with Timmy, paying expensive bribes) over cheap ones that would require him to let his guard down (actually listening to Arthur or Henry, spending time with his extended family). His mistakes with cops are just the result of desperation caused by these unrelated (to the police) problems. The film works so hard to build up complex tensions in his character, but when it has a chance to summarize its themes (in his brother's voice) they sound like they're lifted from a different movie.

  • The "Realm & Conquest" theme, which has so much potential, ultimately fails to matter beyond being used as an unconvincing plot point (recognizing the books helps Michael stumble onto Arther's photocopying receipt)

  • In the script, but cut from the film, there is a scene where Michael explains to a woman at the firm whom he's sleeping with about what it is, exactly, that he does. It gives a much fuller picture of the intense history Michael has within the firm than anything you see in the movie. The big fixer scene at the beginning of the film, in Westchester, is notable in the movie for how little effort Michael puts into his fixing--the point, once we see the scene the second time, is that his heart isn't in it anymore. Since in the film you never get the background that shows what Michael was like in his prime, this change is not as clear as it should be.

  • In the script, Tony Gilroy tries to move the plot forward without dwelling on details; for instance, he writes that the first time you see Tilda Swinton's character reading the McGuffin memo, the camera need not dwell on the memo but simply communicate the weight and danger she sees in it. Reading the script, I wondered how information this subtle could be communicated without going ahead and dwelling on the memo; and sure enough, in the film Gilroy decides to dwell on the memo after all. It's interesting that the screenwriter, as often happens, wants to reign in the director's impulse to write with direction what the screenwriter hasn't written with dialogue, and that the director, as often happens too, feels the screenplay isn't complete without his added writing in violation of the screenplay's instructions--and that both were the same man.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Sun Mar 09, 08:45:00 PM:
Another possible Law and Order-type procedural problem with the sting at the end is that Tilda Swinton is making these damning admissions to her lawyer. Aren't these protected as confidential communications? Or maybe they're not, because she's so far off the reservation, and his client is the company and not her personally. In any case, my confusion over whether she'd really given the game away took away from the impact of the scene.
 
Blogger Ben on Sun Mar 09, 11:16:00 PM:
Interesting, didn't think about that. Since threats of violence and other such matters are not covered by confidentiality agreements--that is, the state can at least compel a lawyer to say, under oath, whether his client is *currently* planning to hurt someone or herself, and can jail a lawyer who knew that information and didn't tell the police, I would imagine that confidentiality won't protect her. But the legality of the eavesdropping is suspect. And she has an entrapment argument and a physical duress argument, because he was intimidating her physically and verbally. So in terms of criminal charges, she, and the company, are not ruined. But since the burden of proof and of admission of evidence is far lower in civil cases, the indigent plaintiffs in the lawsuit can presumably use her confession and the memo to strengthen their chances of winning or negotiate a more favorable settlement.

Whew! Not quite the clear ending the movie tries to achieve.
 

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Vanity, ignorance, or loneliness

"OMG! You're a Janet Malcolm fan? I'm a Janet Malcolm fan! We're going to be BFFs!"

I'm not saying that I've ever uttered this exact sentence, but pretty close. I have several BFF-ships based around--or at least supported by--a mutual adoration for The Silent Woman and The Journalist and the Murderer. When I saw that she was reviewing the Gossip Girl books for the New Yorker, I was delighted to find her reveling in the deliciously out-there teen serial novels. Malcolm has a perfect ear to pick out the great passages in the Gossip Girl books. She gets great mileage out of this episode:
Ensconced at the Plaza, Blair calls Nate and tells him to “get your ass over here right now.” Nate agrees, but, because he is with friends getting stoned, he quickly forgets about the call. Blair waits and waits. She calls Nate and gets no reply. (He has wandered off to the Battery to sail his father’s boat to Bermuda and left his cell phone behind.) Blair is wearing black silk La Perla underwear and has ordered champagne and caviar on toast points. She eats a toast point, then another, and calls her father, Harold Waldorf, in the South of France, “where he’d been living since he and Eleanor split up over his gayness almost two years ago.” It is late at night in France, and “Blair could picture him perfectly, naked except for a pair of royal blue silk boxer shorts, his sleeping lover—François or Eduard or whatever his name was—snoring softly beside him.”

Malcolm makes clear in her review that she believes the CW television show bis a pale imitation of the literary bitchery in the serial novels. I get as much campy fun as I possibly can out of the television show: when there were new episodes, I'd dress up as Blair and try to convince my friends to dress up as Serena and Vanessa. This weekly costume party (of one--they usually begged out) led to such conversations as:

A.: (in a red satin brocade '50s sheath dress with matching short-sleeved jacket) Ta-da!
M.: That is (pause) a great dress for you to wear inside your apartment.
A.: It's pretty short, I guess.
M.: It's a little '80s.
A.: Fifties! The trends, they resurface... (tries to sit down) O-ho! It's a little tight to sit down in, too. It's just made for someone six inches shorter. I'll have to sit very still.

Back to Malcolm: she's such a great choice for the review because I can easily imagine Blair Waldorf uttering this famous first paragraph of The Journalist and the Murderer (bolded B. for Blair):
Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns--when the article or book appears--his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and 'the public's right to know'; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.

xoxo, gossip girl!

(Blair, one of those hard lessons would appear to be: don't do burlesque in front of the slimy Chuck Bass and then sleep with him in the back of his limo... as he will then sneeringly compare you to his father's ruined horses and call you a whore while he is wearing the most fabulous salmon-and-black houndstooth sweater cardigan ever made. Seriously, Starbury wore its blazer cousin last night.)

Indeed, Blair would probably identify more with the next paragraph in Malcolm's book: for she loves being the subject of conversation on the Gossip Girl blog network but wants the treachery to work on a one-way street:
The catastrophe suffered by the subject is no simple matter of an unflattering likeness or a misrepresentation of his views; what pains him, what rankles and sometimes drives him to extremes of vengefulness is the deception that has been practiced on him. On reading the article or book in question, he has to face the fact that the journalist--who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things--never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own. The disparity between what seems to be the intention of an interview as it is taking place and what it actually turns out to have been in aid of always comes as a shock to the subject.

Again, one could say the same thing about doing burlesque.

In those paragraphs--which I have heard from friends are photocopied and stapled up in a slightly self-serious way in many interns' offices at various newsweeklies, etc.--Malcolm is saying something that took Joan Didion only a sentence to say: "Writers are always selling someone out." Part of me wants to see Didion do Gossip Girl because she has a great eye for those details that Cecily von Ziegesar picks out and Malcolm repeats. Here, I'm going to pick out a couple of sentences and see if it'll work. I'll open up Play It As It Lays to a random chapter...
"I want a very large steak," she said to Les Goodwin in a restaurant on Melrose at eight o'clock that night. "And before the very large steak I want three drinks. And after the steak I want to g o somewhere with very loud music."
"Like where."
"I don't know where. You ought to know where. You know a lot of places with loud music."
"What's the matter with you."
"I am just very very tired of listening to you."

Too obvious? Run River is even easier:
...at one of Francie's parties last year, when Ryder Channing had announced belligerently that he owed money to five of the ten men in the room, it had occurred to Lily that she had been to bed with seven, and in four cases could not remember exactly when or where. They were all, now, one error in taste. Although she had not been to a river party in June, she could remember what had happened after that one with the distorted clarity that hung about the whole of June: it had not been the first party she had deserted for a hotel room, but it had been the first party she had deserted for a room at the Senator, which she had thought of, still, as her father's hotel. Her father had liked the Senator bar, and several times when she was small he had taken her there for lemonade with grenadine.

Fast-forward a few years with Blair--certainly not boring, dimwitted Serena--as she takes a job working on a campaign and got mixed up in Latin American politics? From my absolute favorite Didion novel, The Last Thing He Wanted:
Elena's apparently impenetrable performances in the various roles assigned her were achieved (I see now) only with considerable effort and at considerable cost. All that reinvention, all those fast walks and clean starts, all that had cost something. It had cost something to grow up watching her father come and go and do his deals without ever noticing what it was he dealt. Father's Occupation: Investor. It had cost something to talk to Melissa Simon on Westlake Career Day when all her attention was focused on the beam. ... It had cost something to remember the Fourth of July her father's friend brought fireworks up from the border and to confine the picture to the fat little sizzler rockets she had not liked and the sparklers that made fireflies in the hot desert twilight.
To limit what she heard to half a margarita and I'm already flying, who needs the goombahs, we got our own show right here.
To keep the name of her father's friend just outside the frame of what she remembered.

Now I see why I love Gossip Girl so much: I watch it through the lens of Joan Didion. That and the clothes.

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Blogger GS on Thu Mar 06, 11:19:00 PM:
I recently read "In the Freud Archives" - it was amazing.
 
Blogger Ben on Sun Mar 09, 04:00:00 PM:
I agree -- "In the Freud Archives" is one of the greatest bang-for-the-buck (measured in amazingness per hour spent reading/watching/doing) things ever! It's like a two-hour master class in the history of psychoanalysis, the nature of megalomania, and the intensity of struggles for power in obscure corners.
 

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Cookie empire crumbles

My friend Fred and I were walking out onto Broadway one afternoon when we were overwhelmed with the sickly sweet smell of roasted nuts. "They're never quite as good as they smell," he said. "That's what disappointment smells like to me."

Pepperidge Farm tastes like disappointment to me. Inevitably when I go into an grocery store or deli, I stand in front of the little white bags for a few minutes, fantasize about how good any of the varieties might be, let my mind wander to what the next city inspiration I'd choose for the next variety of Pepperidge Farm cookies (what would Oslo be? they could do something cool with St. Petersburg, right?), and then leave glumly because Pepperidge Farm cookies--save for the sublime Genevas--are not as good as they should be.

There was a Pepperidge Farm thrift store near the community theater rehearsal space when I was growing up. It was a weird place. It was called a thrift store because all the cookies and Goldfish were slightly past their sell-by date and thus discounted. Pepperidge Farm didn't seem so mediocre then--but even as a young Farmer I realized what a profoundly weird geographic schizophrenia the brand suffered from. It was evident in the fonts on the bags: that dinky home-style '50s font on the Sugar or Gingermen cookies looked provincial next to the cosmopolitan italics on the European hotspots chocolate varieties. The fantasy cities, which Margaret Rudkin developed in the 1950s after trips to Europe, were a genius marketing ploy; I still choose my varieties on the idea of the city--rather than which variety of chocolate or fruit tart. Here's the list, partly from the Pepperidge Farm web site and partly from Wikipedia and my own reconstruction:

Bordeaux (sugar cookies)
Brussels (plain and mint variety)
Chantilly (raspberry tarts with powdered sugar)
Geneva (dark chocolate pecan and peppermint variety)
Lido (shortbread and chocolate sandwiches)
Lisbon (chocolate-dipped chocolate chip cookies--the Wikipedia entry says these are orange cookies dipped in chocolate, but I haven't had those)
Marbella (chocolate cappucino, chocolate toffee)
Milano (plain, amaretto, double chocolate, french vanilla, milk chocolate, mint, orange, raspberry)
Montieri (peach, apple caramel, raspberry)
Rialto (chocolate amaretto, chocolate raspberry)
Seville (chocolate chip)
Tahiti (chocolate coconut)
Verona (apricot raspberry, strawberry, blueberry, apple caramel)

I didn't include the homestyle cookies on this list because they're less interesting. Someone brought a couple of bags of Chessmen to a party once, and I spent the evening silently judging him: Chessmen are the most boring Pepperidge Farm cookies ever. You know what? I was really judging myself. I had brought Milanos.

The Wikipedia entry lists some discontinued brands/ forgotten international hotspots such as Cardiff (helpfully described as "small wafers"), Melbourne (almond cookies), Naples (the original Milano cookie: these were packed as oval cookies with a layer of dark chocolate, but they stuck together in the package and Milanos were born), Orleans (chocolate wafers). I like the look back to Cardiff.

The Farm then turned its attention stateside to vacation getaways:

Chesapeake (dark chocolate chunk pecan)
Nantucket (dark chocolate chunk)
Sausalito (milk chocolate chunk macadamia)
Santa Cruz (oatmeal raisin)
Tahoe (white chocolate macadamia)

Maybe they're out of add-ins for these cookies--and the soft-baked varieties of them are gross--but I have big hopes for a Puget Sound cookie or a Galveston...

You can even take the "what kind of cookie are you today?" quiz. Today, I am Sausalito! Although I may want to try Geneva--believe me, I have! (The questions on this quiz are funny--to test out what kind of cookie you are, you also have to answer what kind of music you like and whether you'd prefer Ethiopian, French, or Italian food.)

I must say, I'm less enamored of the recent Pepperidge Farm colonies in Marbella (is that even a city, or just an evocation of something exotic?) and Rialto. I tried the Montieri peach variety and didn't taste much fruit; I'm afraid of the blueberry variety of Veronas since blueberry filling doesn't really taste like blueberries. Same with apple caramel.

Yet sometimes on Wednesday nights I return to the Pepperidge Farm Golden Orchard--home of the Chantilly, two different varieties of Verona, the Pirouette, and several other golden cookies without geographic titles. Sometimes Tyra Banks is there, or Pete Coors, and everything is... pretty good.

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Blogger SPG on Wed Mar 05, 05:04:00 PM:
Can we have an international P-Farm party where everyone brings a different (assigned) variety?

...which will end is us complaining about how they're just not very good. Then we go out for banana pudding at Sugar Sweet Sunshine.
 
Blogger Jeff'y on Wed Mar 05, 05:21:00 PM:
Sheryl and I went shopping with my mom this past weekend at one of the big suburban supermarkets that are found in southern Brooklyn (Stop & Shop on Ave Y). One of the checkout displays was for Pepperidge Farm scented candles, which, don't get too excited about that. There were a few varieties named after the corresponding cookie inspirations. I forget which flavors we smelled, but they were uniformly awful--even more so than you'd imagine.

The cookies only seem to exist at that one supermarket and in a picture at the very bottom of this apparently ridiculous AOL Journal entry. So good luck finding them, if you were actually interested.
 
Blogger Alice on Wed Mar 05, 07:03:00 PM:
That picture is of Chessmen-scented candles. Gross! I can't think of any that I'd think would make good scented candles, though.
 
Anonymous Meg on Wed Mar 05, 08:17:00 PM:
I also judge people who bring boring Farm cookies. I'm certainly a Brussels girl. FYI MArbella is a place. It's totally awesome there. Traditional white city on the Mediterranean shore. I spent a day with Brian reading on the beach under palm umbrellas on amazing lounge chairs reading Pride and Prejudice. It was perhaps the best day of my life.
 
Blogger Ben on Fri Mar 07, 01:31:00 AM:
I agree that Chessmen are a disappointment. They should be more shortbready, like Girl Scout shortbreak cookies, which are divine dipped in coffee.

As for Milano, Alice has no excuse. Somehow when you lop off half the Milano and add a couple nuts, the resulting Geneva is ten times better for it.

You have to credit Pepperidge Farm for making some of the best products you can reliably get at a supermarket (nothing disappears faster than Sausalitos served for dessert), along with Stoned Wheat Thins, Boursin cheese, Thomas's English muffins, Tostitos, Utz Sour Cream and Onion chips, Juicy Juice, and Vlasic kosher dill pickles. I still haven't found a reliably great, widely available salsa, root beer, ramen, or pasta sauce.
 
Blogger Katy on Fri Mar 07, 10:53:00 AM:
We had one of those Pepperidge Farm factory stores near us, too. It was on Route 111 in Hauppauge near Hauppauge High School, I'm pretty sure. We used to go there to buy Goldfish, which I still love (I have some sitting in a ziplock bag on my desk right now).

Why would someone name a cookie after Cardiff?
 
Blogger Sophia on Fri Mar 07, 11:35:00 AM:
You're feeling calm and mellow, and you're not in the mood for surprises. The Chessmen® is just what you're looking for: a classic butter cookie that's comforting and delicious, with the flavor you know and love.

huh. guess im boring and unsatisfying today.
 
Blogger Alice on Fri Mar 07, 02:41:00 PM:
I will now start pronouncing Marbella correctly.

Who knew Chessmen could be comforting and polarizing at the same time? The Girl Scout version of shortbread is indeed far superior, but every time I eat any variety of Girl Scout cookies, I'm a little unsure that anything should taste that good.

Aren't the questions on the Pepperidge Farm quiz strange? Does alternative rock still exist as a viable category with which one could determine... one's cookie identity? (And Sophia, if you're the person who I think you may be--and I could be wrong--did I not listen to my first alternative rock song with you when we were in elementary school?)
 
Blogger Sophia on Fri Mar 07, 05:21:00 PM:
Yes, I would be that Sophia. :)

ahh...alternative rock. What a lovely phase that was! You would be correct old friend. As to what song it was...I couldn't tell you that, but im sure it was mindblowing at the time.

ps. I check your site often. Its good to know you are alive and well, although I never had any dobuts. If i ever make it up to New York, you better buy me some coffee!
 
Blogger Ben on Fri Mar 07, 05:23:00 PM:
Dobuts are also good to dip in coffee.
 

Roger Lowenstein on Kay Graham and Warren Buffett

I just finished Roger Lowenstein's fun, anecdotal biography of Warren Buffett (Lowenstein is also known for his brief history of the 1998 Long Term Capital Management collapse, When Genius Failed). Some of the best bits are about Katharine Graham, whom Buffett befriended before, during, and after his acquisition of a large stake in the Washington Post. From one entertaining passage:
When Buffett talked Graham into visiting Omaha, he knew that she hadn't the faintest idea of where it was, and decided to poke some fun at her. When they got on the plane he asked her to draw a map of the United States, and to mark the location of Omaha. The map was so awful that he grabbed for it, intending to stash it as a keepsake, but Graham nimbly tore it to shreds.
...
At one VIP dinner, a birthday party for Graham, Malcolm Forbes, the publisher-cum-cultural connoisseur, brought a fancy wine that had been bottled the year she was born, and that he intimated had cost him plenty. When the waiter got to Buffett, the Pepsi drinker stopped him. "No thanks," he said, putting a hand over his glass. "I'll take the cash."

Graham told her cook to make hamburgers when Buffett was in town, and stocked her Manhattan apartment with Buffett's favorites--greasy peanuts and strawberry ice cream. "When he arrived," she said with reflexive snobbery, "it was only cheeseburgers and fried--what do you call them?--french fries, all of it doused with salt."

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