Monday, June 30, 2008

Taught me to sing the notes of woe

Ben's wife Kate asked her friends to send her favorite poems she could share with her students in the literature class she's teaching. More than one person sent in T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." When I read that poem, I always think of how my tenth grade math teacher told us he was going to record a country & western version of it. His slow, twangy version of it is the default voice (with dobro backing) I always hear when I read it: "let us go then, you and I / when the evening is spread out against the sky..."

My math teacher that year was a cool guy who didn't seem to mind that I was a terrible math student. He was very into lateral thinking as a way of life--he was also an inventor and a Buddhist and an outdoorsman--so he had us do writing assignments sometimes to show the different ways that math can work. Inspired by his C&W Eliot, I created a recurring character of a country chanteuse who was very good at intuiting scale problems; obviously, the country chanteuse part of it soon took up more effort than the actual solving math problems part...

For some other assignment, I created an imaginary metal band: Metal William Blake. From the band's grunge period, "The Sick Rose" (in the promo materials I created, Mark Romanek did the music video for this one. It was 1996 and Chris Carter's follow-up to The X-Files, Millennium, had just premiered with an episode about William Butler Yeats and strippers [of course]... I feel like the aesthetic was all over the place in the '90s):

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

And "London" fits into that period, too:

I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

Given the band members' introduction to Blake via Huxley, there's obviously a few psychedelic experiments in the band's catalog.

Then they made a questionable swerve into emo with "The Chimney-Sweeper":

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying! 'weep! weep!' in notes of woe!
'Where are thy father and mother? Say!' -
'They are both gone up to the church to pray.

'Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter's snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

'And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and His priest and king,
Who made up a heaven of our misery.'

(Really, "they clothed me in the clothes of death, / And taught me to sing the notes of woe" is as good as an encapsulation of metal as there could possibly be. Or emo. Yuck.)

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Blogger Ben on Tue Jul 01, 08:46:00 PM:
And are gone to praise God and His priest and king,
Who made up a heaven of our misery.


Now that's what I call Taking Back Sunday!
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Tue Jul 15, 12:31:00 AM:
Mr. Hause! My favorite!

-Hallie
 
Blogger Alice on Tue Jul 15, 05:50:00 PM:
My dad called the other day to point out that Leonard Cohen's "The Stranger Song" is in a similar meter to "J. Alfred Prufrock" and offered these lines as evidence:

"Well, I've been waiting, I was sure
we'd meet between the trains we're waiting for
I think it's time to board another
Please understand, I never had a secret chart
to get me to the heart of this
or any other matter
When he talks like this
you don't know what he's after
When he speaks like this,
you don't know what he's after."

That was a prescient suggestion because Leonard Cohen's is the voice I imagine singing the musical version (if it's not entirely C&W). Leonard Cohen and my math teacher are basically the same person, based on what I've seen from I'm Your Man.

I also reminded my dad that he really wants Robert Plant to cover Keats' "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"--he said maybe that should be on the next Plant/Alison Krauss collaboration.
 

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A wink amidst Turkmenistan's madness

Saparmurat Niyazov, aka "Turkmenbashi" ("Leader of Turkmens"), is the former dictator of Turkmenistan who died two years ago of natural causes (to everyone's surprise). His rule was characterized by autocratic decrees so ludicrous (banning opera, long beards and lip-synching) that they would be laughable, if he hadn't been simultaneously filling secret prisons and unmarked graves with journalists, aid workers and members of his own party who displeased him.

I think enough time has passed that I may share the following anecdote without stepping on any toes. When I worked as a consultant to the Presidential Administration of Georgia (the country), I organized a conference on energy policy. I invited energy ministers from dozens of nearby nations in Europe and Asia: Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, etc. But there was a problem when it came to Turkmenistan: no sooner would I identify a minister to invite than we would get word that he, along with other cabinet members, had recently been arrested and never heard from again. I finally couldn't invite anyone but Niyazov himself (who tended to shun conferences) because mailing a new invitation to Turkmenistan was so sure to take longer than a minister's posting would last--and, as you can imagine, Niyazov was having a hard time finding anybody left to promote.

Now, I understand that realpolitik require cordial and friendly outward relations between diplomatic corps, and I don't argue with the United States having embassies staffed with friendly ambassadors all over the place. Which is why I am surprised to see, on the website of the US Embassy in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, the following street address:
Street Address:
American Embassy
9 1984 Street (formerly Pushkin Street)
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
744000
It's a nugget of wit implanted in a mountain of intentional (and generally well-advised) blandness. To whoever is responsible, bravo.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

New York Review of Books: no other personal ads compare

Reason number one to subscribe to the New York Review of Books: the personals, which hide out on the last two pages but deserve to be read first.

Examples, all taken from a single recent issue:
Pleasure loving writer and intellectual; dark hair, nice slender shape. Academic with no time for the academic hooey; immoderately literary, unexpectedly sexy. Ardent, if unsophisticated, observer of rivers, trees, and tides.
As a friend pointed out when we were reading these, there are more semicolons in the New York Review of Books personals than balls in a gay bar.

Then there's this stunner:
UNUSUAL EUROPEAN

Scholar-adventurer, 60, former revolutionary, published author, fit, polyglot, lives half in Africa, half in Europe, married, seeks long term mistress or full second wife in complete agreement with first (an African academic). Requirements: 30-45, independent, adventurous, witty. Strong preference for dark lady (BLACK/ARAB/LATINA).
I'm speechless. After this personals ad, writing poetry is barbaric.

Finally, just after "SMART AND BEAUTIFUL. Yet unequivocally cute.", there is:
BRIGHT, BEAUTIFUL. Passionate, intellectual. Slender, adventurous, fun--full of happy surprises and delightful unexpected contrasts. Quietly confident with upbeat spirit and true heart. People person par excellence, anthropologist at heart. Cultured, sophisticated, yet down to earth--humanitarian, international change agent.
As my wife Kate points out, who doesn't want an international change agent full of happy surprises? Who is, I add, an anthropologist at heart, unlike all you superficial anthropologists.

She's not done, either:
...drawn to Positano, Lake Sevan, Kyoto, MoMA, Bilbao, Guggenheim. Loves film, theater, NGOs, papadums, fresh lichees....
More from Kate: "This woman sounds like she was born from that stuff white people love website." After all, that website is basically just a list of topics in The NYRB and The New Yorker.

My favorite run of adverb-adjective pairings, however, is the following:
sexually active, psychologically stable, politically informed, not religious or "spiritual."
Amen.

But the gem among gems is this one. Which word is not like the others?
soft-spoken, widow, spontaneous, and easy-going.
I hope she finds someone looking for an easy-going widow. Smart, easy-going widows everywhere truly deserve love, and for all my laughing I'm glad there's an cloyingly intellectual classifieds page where they can announce themselves.

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Blogger Meg on Wed Jun 25, 01:14:00 PM:
The first one sounds like Alice to me.
 
Anonymous Alice's mom on Wed Jun 25, 05:47:00 PM:
I have never heard Alice express an interest in tides, except those metaphorical tides of ideas that sweep over societies from time to time. And coming from Albuquerque, she might be a little river-challenged.
 
Blogger StevanPierce on Wed Jun 25, 06:00:00 PM:
The comment on the first personals listing was great; it had me smiling from ear to ear for quite some time!
 
Blogger Ben on Wed Jun 25, 06:03:00 PM:
I'm pretty sure Alice doesn't give a rat's ass about tides. It's like with tides, God basically buried the lede so far down that there isn't one.
 
Anonymous niz on Wed Jun 25, 06:07:00 PM:
I recently read Jane Juska's A Round-Heeled Woman , a memoir of dating adventures sparked by placing a personal ad in the NYRB... the really incredible thing about these ads is the author claims the cost was something like $4.50 per word, in 1995!
 
Blogger Alice on Wed Jun 25, 06:31:00 PM:
You caught me. I am unsophisticated in my ardor for tides, so unsophisticated that I didn't know those feelings existed. Thanks, NYRB, for revealing my future self.

The Juska book is interesting and sometimes overwhelmingly sad for her honesty and ambivalence about the project. The chapter about her work teaching writing in a Bay Area prison is a very good digression that's not related to the NYRB thing.
 
Blogger michael pulsford on Wed Jun 25, 06:48:00 PM:
Have you ever read the personals in the London Review of Books? Excellence abounds. Here's one from the current issue:

You can have the key to my heart! I’ll swap it for the combination to your gym locker. Yoga nazi (F, 43) plans on whipping you (dumpy, bland, moccasin-wearing M to 50) into shape with 18-week programme of sit-ups, circuits and emotionally-draining discussions about how pretty you really think I am.
box no. 13/06
 
Blogger michael pulsford on Wed Jun 25, 07:00:00 PM:
Or (last one, i promise),

Massive-breasted heiress, 38, seeks witty Nobel-awarded intellectual beef-cake gardener-chef-poet with stonking pecs. Like me, you are dynamic, hilarious, serious, ironic, passionate, practical, affectionate, kind, funny, have most of your own legs, and are startled to find yourself still cruising the aisles of the Lurve Bazaar. Unlike me, you don’t exist. Am I right? If so, will consider any M who can make conversation, sense, a living, friends, four cooked meals, hot love and me laugh. Box no. 07/01
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Jun 25, 07:43:00 PM:
I agree that the LRB has the best ads; the zeugma in that second one is just about the hottest thing I've ever seen in a personal ad. Yowza.
 
Blogger Ben on Wed Jun 25, 10:41:00 PM:
Wow, I agree, those LRB classifiers just sparkle. I didn't think a zeugma could make you hot and bothered, because I didn't know what one was. So I looked it up, reread the ad, and now I know exactly what you mean.
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Jun 25, 11:21:00 PM:
The LRB has published a book of its critically-claimed personals, and is now building on its success with a volume two.
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Jun 26, 02:25:00 PM:
Hi Alice,

I was happy to come across your site today. Looks great!

-jay
 

Monday, June 23, 2008

The disuse seems a worse evil

Paul Collins is my favorite skeptic of the decline narrative, and he's in good form in this Slate article about the decline of the semicolon:
Yet in 1848 Edgar Allan Poe declared himself "mortified" by printers once again using too many semicolons. Poe may have the distinction of being the last writer to complain of the semicolon's popularity. By 1865, grammarian Justin Brenan could boast of "The rejection of the eternal semicolons of our ancestors. ... The semicolon has been gradually disappearing, not only from newspapers, but from books—insomuch that I believe instances could now be produced, of entire pages without a single semicolon."

1865? But surely that's a century off: Isn't modern life to blame?

One of my favorite lesson plans for University Writing is to have the students diagnose their "compulsive sentences": what's the sentence structure that you over-use because you've gotten good results from it in the past? Everyone has to find an example of the structure which works well in a paper and an example of where it works less well. They also have to explain why they use it--not in some Freudian way, but just in a 'this is how my syntax reflects my thinking' kind of way.

The lesson always gets wonderful, rich results at all levels of sentence complexity. We've discussed the over-use of "in effect," "indeed," and "thus" as transition words which fake the work of actually explaining the connection between ideas. "Furthermore" is another usual suspect. One student noticed that she often began sentences in her conclusions with the phrase, "it is impossible to say" because she wasn't sure what types of statements actually belonged in conclusions. I asked another student why he joined unconnected clauses with semicolons in every paragraph. He said he had heard the semicolon was the way to look smart.

I like to tell them about my compulsive sentence from high school. My friend Paige and I were enamored of the 'clause; rather, clause' structure and tried to fit into all the papers we wrote. When we had to co-author a policy paper for Model UN, we labored over where to best set our jewel. In an inspired moment, we changed the font size for that single sentence to 12.5.

"I don't even know why we did that," I say, "because the sentence was so awesome that they would have noticed it anyway."

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Blogger Meg on Mon Jun 23, 09:18:00 PM:
As I'm sure you are aware, I need that lesson. "Even so..." "Even though...." Help!!

I think of you every single time I use a semi-colon because I remember how much you used to like them. I always wonder why I don't use them more, but the situation doesn't seem to present itself often. It is a lovely mark, though.
 
Blogger Ben on Tue Jun 24, 04:31:00 PM:
It says a lot whether the problem in your reading and writing is too many semicolons or too few. When I started reading Collins's article, I expected the mainstream narrative of semicolon debauchery to be an overabundance of vague thinking; the natural conclusion of the self-esteem era, where you needn't be concise or lucid if you are being real. But I guess if I peek over my New York Review of Books, there is a world of crappy writing where, I agree, thoughts are often not complicated enough to need semicolons.

My own pathological sentences are ones where my voice evaporates into vague smog, often by means of meaning-obfuscating semicolons. William Zinsser advises that using short sentences without copious semicolons encourages you to be clear in your thinking and makes your writing more enjoyable to read. If you're writing well in other ways, I think that's usually true. If not, short sentences won't help and copious semicolons won't hurt, right?
 
Anonymous k8 on Tue Jun 24, 08:56:00 PM:
When I tutor high school students for the SAT, which now includes a grammar section, I almost always devote a thorough teaching moment to the semicolon. I teach it so thoroughly because STUDENTS WANT ME TO. Most students have no idea how to use semicolons, but are genuinely curious about them. Subject-verb agreement, misplaced modifiers, parallel construction -- none of these command the same mystique. I teach semicolons alongside conjunctions. A semicolon is more like an "and" than like a comma; it's a link, a correlation strengthener. I have noticed with one student in particular that his fascination with this form of punctuation actually impedes his understanding of it. He's so trigger happy to put semicolons in his papers that he doesn't take the time to understand how to use them.

My dad's advice on this topic has always been to avoid semicolons, not because you don't know how to use them, but because no one else knows what the hell they mean. It's a fair point.

I'm waiting for our nerd soul-searching of the rhetorical hyphen--punctuation that, as far as I can tell, is a snappier comma. I abuse it shamelessly... and await Paul Collins'/Alice's remarks.

I like semi-colons because the trend towards short snappy sentences annoys me slightly. I think that the sassy, self-congratulatory tone of the short sentence is rarely backed by the insight the sentence proffers. Instead of feeling enlightened, or amused, or engaged in a fun conversation, I feel I'm stuck reading this stop. Start. Stop. Think about it. Be impressed with my boldness. writer's voice that sends me away from new fiction and back to my check list of 19th Century French writers I haven't gotten around to reading yet.

Or whatever. You get the idea. Or not.
 
Blogger Tove on Wed Jul 16, 06:39:00 PM:
I am a huge proponent of the semicolon, perhaps because I prefer the long-winded sentences to the concise "sound" bites. My father, when red-penciling my reports, was not such a fan, and it was (yet another) source of ongoing contention we had. Awww, memories.

There was also a brief article in the NYTimes on the semicolon(http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/18/nyregion/18semicolon.html?scp=1&sq=semicolon&st=cse), ending with the cute comment that the semicolon might be on its way out, but it will live on in emotocons within the texting community.
 

Friday, June 20, 2008

Slanting waves of optic horror

Tove's comment about Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" inspired me to check around to see how book jacket illustrators have rendered the "sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin." I did a Google image search and found these examples:


"It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide--plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.

"The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-burning sunlight.

"It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others."


It looks like most of the illustrators have picked up on the "sickly sulphur tint" rather than the "lurid orange"--the main color choice seems to be mustard or related hues. Gilman's short story is a good one for English classes because the examples of figurative language are plentiful--almost too plentiful, like the fungus that the pattern gets compared to in the second half of the story. You can do some good stuff with synesthesia (the "yellow smell") and even historical context (I heard a good lecture in college about Gilman's connection to the Yellow Peril discourse that was popular at the time).

"This paper looks to me as if it knew what vicious influence it had!

"There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck, and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down.

"I get positively angry with the impertinence of it, and the everlastingness. Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd unblinking eyes are everywhere. There is one place where the two breadths didn't match; and the eyes go all up and down the line, one a little higher than the other. I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression inanimate things have!"



I'm looking at a copy from the Barnard library--one of the few that's not in course reserves, which gives some indication of how popular the book is for classes--and it's funny to see so many different people's handwriting in the margins for so many different types of readings of the story. For example: feminist declaration... Freud's talking cure... bloat & addiction... *!!... wise... fat and blood... wise... Mitchell thought it was all physical as opp. to Freud's mental. "We all know how much expression inanimate things have" indeed!

"This wallpaper has a kind of subpattern in a different shade, a particularly irritating one, for you can only see it in certain lights, and not clearly then. But in the places where it isn't faded and where the sun is just so--I can see a strange provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design."

You know that question about writing descriptively--why is it that we reach for metaphors so often in description? And the answer is hard to articulate: because we worry that we can't approach accurate portrayal in plain language and so resort to approximations, which take the form of similes. Because it's easier to compare than to explain, because the brain likes comparisons in order to make sense of things. This story in some ways presents the opposite problem for portraying the wallpaper: you can't draw all the weird stuff that the narrator thinks she sees in it because it's in her head, but you have to be able to suggest that it could be there "skulk[ing] behind that silly and conspicuous front design." Is that why so many of these designs from different eras look similar?


"I know a little of the principles of design, and I know this thing was not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or anything else that i ever heard of.

"It is repeated, of course, by the breadths, but not otherwise.

"Looked at in one way each breadth stands alone, the bloated curves and flourishes--a kind of 'debased Romanesque' with
delirium tremens--go waddling up and down in isolated columns of fatuity.

"But, on the other hand, they connect diagonally, and the sprawling outlines run off in great slanting waves of optic horror, like a lot of wallowing seaweeds in full chase."



The exception to the diagonal patterns are these lovely limited edition collapgraph prints by Crystal Cawley, which I found on antiquarian book site. From the catalog description: "The frontispiece paste paper and 3 collagraphs are in yellow, the first two on acrylic-stained paper and the third on tracing paper collaged with acrylic medium, representing the narrator’s descent in madness. This is a handsome edition of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist classic – the first fictional treatment of post-partum depression."


It looks like the Feminist Press editions from different years (the ones with the afterword by Elaine R. Hedges) take two approaches: pattern vs. no pattern. The narrator has trouble following the pattern in the paper as she sees so many things in it, so any visual rendering of it would make some interpretation of where the paranoid pattern recognition stops and interior design begins:


"The whole thing goes horizontally, too, at least it seems so, and I exhaust myself in trying to distinguish the order of its going in that direction.

"They have used a horizontal breadth for a frieze, and that adds wonderfully to the confusion.

"There is one end of the room where it is almost intact, and there, when the crosslights fade and the low sun shines directly upon it, I can almost fancy radiation after all,--the interminable grotesque seem to form around a common centre and rush off in headlong plunges of equal distraction."


In the end, trying to determine whether there's a pattern leads to my favorite metaphor for being out of control, the comparison to fungus. Not only does it represent prodigious growth, it inspires more and more metaphors, so that the metaphor becomes like a fungus itself:

"In a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a certain lack of sequence, a defiance of law that is a constant irritant to a normal mind.

"The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.

"You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following it, turns back somersault and there you are! It slaps you in the face, knocks you down and tramples on you. It is like a bad dream. The outside pattern is a florid arabesque, reminding one of a fungus. If you can imagine a toadstool in joints, an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions--why that is something like it."


For good measure, the metaphor is repeated at the end, but even peeling away the wallpaper won't work:

"Then I peeled off all the paper I could reach standing on the floor. It sticks horribly. And the pattern just enjoys it. All those strangled heads and bulbous eyes and waddling fungus growths just shriek with derision!"

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The unbelievable Celtics

Teary, ecstatic Kevin Garnett said it from a place that transcends the physical realm: "Anything is possible. ANYTHING IS POSSIBLLLLLEEEEE!!!!!!!!"

By the Celtics as a team, one of the greatest basketball performances of all time. I've never seen half as many steals in any game. By Kevin Garnett, one of the greatest post-game freakouts of all time, complete with kissing strangers and the floor and hopping around like a madman 15 minutes after his teammates calmed down, and he's just getting started.

Plus they stopped Phil Jackson from passing Red Auerbach.I'm so happy I was wrong about Doc Rivers.

Plus a performance by Rajon Rondo that put to rest all doubt about who this championship team's point guard is. My sister texted me after his bajillionth steal and Kobe-esque layup, "How do you say 'Can I be your baby mama' in Elvish?"

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Blogger Alice on Thu Jun 19, 02:13:00 PM:
I'm protective of KG, and I'm glad he had a great Game 6. The Slate commentary on KG's post-game interview is funny:

"1:14: Garnett screams into the camera, 'I made it ma! Top of the world! TOP OF THE WORLD!' That's exactly what James Cagney's maniacal, cackling gangster character says at the end of White Heat as he dies in a fiery explosion atop a gigantic gas tank. This explains a lot about KG's self-image."
 

Monday, June 16, 2008

Lorrie Moore: Clinton campaign obit

Lorrie Moore, writing in New York magazine at the end of Hillary Clinton's campaign, confesses her obsession with watching Hillary:
In the animated Disney movie of Snow White it is the evil queen, like Shakespeare’s Richard III, who has all the screen presence. I once watched the film in a Greenwich Village art house in the seventies, and although Snow White wasn’t actually hissed, the jealous older queen got all the applause and cheers and audible moral support.
...
How does she do it? she perhaps was asked a lot.

And the answer, of course, is with mirrors.

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Blogger Alice on Mon Jun 16, 08:40:00 PM:
Basically, I think it's a bad idea to remind people in the middle of an essay that others have gotten tired of your obsession with saying mean things about Hillary Clinton, as Moore does in the New York magazine essay. The essay doesn't feel fresh or revelatory of something I hadn't thought of before; I just feel like I've listened to someone complain to me for longer than I felt like listening. I guess that's how Moore felt about the Clinton campaign.

I share some, even most, of her distaste for the Clinton campaign's tactics, but did the criticism really have to be based around an evil queen-raccoon-Richard III comparison? It often seemed like Clinton was trying on different personae to fit whatever audience she was speaking to. That strange blend of opportunism, desperation, and lack of focus led to some big problems such as the gas tax debacle which she defended long after economists told her it was a bad idea, the inability to decide about drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants when other states have shown that they work fine, or the numerous instances of "misspeaking" about RFK, Bosnia, etc. Evil people stay on message. And if you think Clinton was working with mirrors --and I'm not sure what Moore means exactly in that last line--then those mirrors weren't working the way they were supposed to. Attributing someone's bad qualities to evil or villainy takes away some of their responsibility. She made bad choices--call her on them, keep bringing up the war vote, but Moore spends more time on belaboring the raccoon thing which she isn't even sure works the first couple of times her son mentions it.

A few weeks ago in the New York Times Book Review, Moore recommended that Obama read Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady to see how a "virtuous orphan is plotted against by a charming, ruthless couple the orphan once trusted and admired." That comparison doesn't work for me either: Hillary Clinton isn't Madame Merle.

I love Lorrie Moore's sense of humor in her short stories and novels, and I'd be interested to see what she'll write about the Obama campaign. But please no more writing about villainesses.

I thought Katha Pollitt, Gail Collins, Bob Herbert, and Hendrik Hertzberg wrote more thoughtful pieces about some of the implications (both good and bad) of Clinton's campaign.
 
Blogger Ben on Tue Jun 17, 03:16:00 AM:
I agree that the raccoon analogy didn't add anything and was just nasty, and I think that whole NY Review of Books piece -- where writers recommended books to the candidates, but they all chose for maximum wittiness rather than the value of the books themselves -- was a colossal disappointment, starting from Lorrie Moore's leadoff strikeout.

But I don't agree that understanding Hillary means recognizing that she isn't evil. (That's how I'm interpreting your comment about responsibility, which I don't quite follow; how is a villain less responsible than a bad manager?) She is evil, which we know because she made so many choices that require evil to make. Here I'm talking about push polls, negative flyers, "as far as I know" B.O. is not a Muslim, etc. I'm willing to forgive anything I think might not have been intended in bad faith or which I might have said after months of sleep deprivation, including the RFK comment, the "fairy tale" comment, etc. She didn't defend the gas tax thing after disagreeing with economists; she knew it was 100% useless before she supported it, she knew that while she supported it, and she knew that when she tried to spin it into pigeonholing Obama as an elitist. She's no dummy; she never agreed with her own proposal, not for a minute.

Of course, Obama says things he doesn't believe too. I don't believe he really supports ethanol, or that he really opposes gay marriage. But the guy doesn't go on TV and rail against gay marriage and against scientists who point out that it takes more gasoline to produce ethanol than is replaced by ethanol at the pump; he's made his compromises for politics, and he's prudent about how hard he pretends to push them.

Early in the campaign Barack said something to the effect of "If I have to destroy my Democratic opponents to get the nomination, I don't want it." That to me is the fundamental difference between them; she clearly didn't believe this in the slightest.

I think Chris Hitchens's title "No One Left to Lie To" is apt. Dishonesty is such a fundamental part of how the Clintons operate that voters, including their supporters, do not even expect honesty of them anymore.

Don't you agree that the lies came in torrents? For my money, in terms of blatant, extended lies, the kind that are karmic black holes, that carve out new space in the depths of cravenness, you can't beat her speeches comparing the Florida and Michigan delegates issue to all history's struggles for franchisement.

No one died as a result of that lie, but I can't put it higher on the moral ladder than Bush's selling the Iraq war. He at least honestly thought that the war was going to improve the world and save lives in the long run, but lied to make the case appear strong to others with different metrics of justification from him. But she doesn't think for a second that seating the MI and FL delegates is objectively right.

The fact that she lost isn't evidence of her failure at her game. She got a massive number of primary votes, more, if I'm not mistaken, than any candidate from any party in history, except Obama. The game she failed at -- convincing voters hungry for a real, decent person that she is one, by acting like one, damn the consequences -- is one she never cared to play.
 
Blogger Katy on Tue Jun 17, 09:40:00 AM:
I understood Alice's comment about evil to mean that ascribing Clinton's actions to a supposedly evil nature is too easy. It doesn't force us to address the complications of the situations. That's why I object to calling terrorists or Saddam Hussein or Iran evil--saying that enables actions like the Iraq war because it brings us to hasty conclusions without real analysis.
 
Blogger Alice on Tue Jun 17, 10:32:00 AM:
'Evil' is a brickbat. It's a term that doesn't allow for complexity or analysis because the argument is based around stacking up judgments rather than taking apart a situation and seeing why it unfolded the way it did. I like Elizabeth Drew's term "molehill politics" from the New York Review of Books, which gets at many of the differences you've pointed out between the two campaigns:

"The Clinton campaign's false assumption—based on a 350-page, state-by-state study in the summer of 2007 by key strategist Mark Penn—that Clinton's victory was 'inevitable' led to a series of mistakes: (1) presenting herself as the "inevitable" nominee; (2) prematurely running a general election campaign; (3) assuming that the race would be over on February 5—Super Tuesday; and (4) believing that a number of small states that held caucuses could be skipped. And if Penn's strategy didn't work there was no Plan B. It's never a good idea to have a pollster in an important policy position in a campaign, since he or she can design the polling to get the answers he or she wants, as some believed Penn had done in the Clinton White House. (Hillary Clinton brought him in after the electoral disaster of 1994.) The Clinton campaign has been divided and sometimes almost paralyzed by internal feuding among outsized egos. By contrast, this hasn't happened in the Obama campaign: Obama deliberately picked congenial people and instructed his staff that he wanted 'no drama.'

"In early March, Clinton went from, in a debate, 'I'm honored...to be here with Barack Obama...absolutely honored' to, a day and a half later, angrily, shouting, 'Shame on you, Barack Obama.' In that instance, she was engaging in molehill politics: a flyer on trade that the Obama campaign had sent out quoted her as saying that the North American Free Trade Agreement had been a 'boon' to the United States' economy. The use of the word 'boon,' an accidental error, was taken from Newsday, which put in quotes the gist of her remarks. Obama replied calmly. 'Senator Clinton has...constantly sent out negative attacks on us, email, robo-calls, flyers, television ads, radio calls, and we haven't whined about it because I understand that is the nature of these campaigns.'"

In Drew's essay, "molehill politics" is a pretty good term for analyzing the specific examples of some of the egregious (and less egregious) things said in the campaign. This term is more appropriate than 'evil' because it's specific, it avoids moralizing language that can be deployed for less than savory uses, and it allows for historical analysis.
 
Blogger Ben on Tue Jun 24, 07:50:00 PM:
This question gets at several philosophical and political problems.

First, does evil exist? Katy, Alice and I would all have answers somewhere in the gray area between yes and no, but I gather I'd be closer to yes than they would be.

At the same time, I can appreciate the importance of resisting the easy classification of people we hate or oppose as "evil"; for me, as a liberal Jew, this comes up often when I feel compelled to disagree with those who argue that the Holocaust was exceptional, or that it occupies a special category of deliberate, genocidal evil greater than the evil we see in, say, Darfur, Yugoslavia, etc.

The truth of the matter is that most awful things are done by people who aren't constantly or extremely malicious. The evil of the Osama bin Laden we imagine is a sort of perverted reverse empathy that has become sadism; but Osama is a real live guy, and most awful things are done by people who are at least as apathetic and insensitive as sadistic. Osama in person probably seems mostly sane; it's a small part of him that lets him tune out the pain of others, but unfortunately that's all the evil it takes.

This is true even more of bureaucratic institutions, where people can collectively emit orders for executions and mass starvation without having a single individual person feel bloodlust. Evil multiplies so prolifically in institutions that all it takes is an absence of organizational values at the top to effectively be evil. Everyone has been at the butt end of institutional indifference, has felt that dreadful awe that comes with realizing the teller or bailiff has shut your pleas out completely and stands before you with a heart of coal. But some leaders forget what it's like to feel that indifference. Not to solicit feedback, not to encourage whistleblowing and institute transparency, requires an insensitivity that has a bit of evil at its core.

So I agree that blanket use of terms like 'evil' often come along with jingoism and blind nationalism. E.g., Saddam Hussein is evil, therefore a war to attack him is just and a good idea.

But just because our own American madman used 'evil' to set up an enemy to justify war, doesn't mean that Hussein wasn't actually evil.

Now, I don't mean to rope in Hillary with the real evil guys i mentioned above. I just think all of us have a spark of evil somewhere in us, and in her it seems to be bigger than in most.

It's always surprising to me that with some politicians, you have a constant stream of people coming forward and saying, that person screwed me over; and with others, you never hear that. Before 2000, there was a long history of people whose money George W. Bush lost for them, people who bailed him out of this or that, etc. Giuliani has driven more people away--including his own son--than we'll ever know; he did it on a weekly basis on his abusive radio show. Whereas, to McCain's credit, there's no one from McCain's life, army career and constituent politics who seems to hate him.

I know Obama hasn't been around long enough to attract a real coterie of haters, but you know when reporters ask around, they aren't finding anyone who'd talk bad of him, including his old Republican adversaries in the Illinois Senate. Hillary's been very exposed for two decades, and she has plenty of people who hate her for irrational, often sexist reasons, but she and Bill have lots of detractors who are former friends or campaigners or staffers. And from what I know of her campaign tactics, it looks like her staff understood that if she could get a few thousand votes by slandering a decent opponent, that was an exchange they were expected to make; and if they were in doubt, she made her directions clear by example. I know that's common. But that doesn't mean it's not, in a small but significant way, evil.
 

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Don't be koi

It's a design trend I'll never have enough wherewithal to manage, but I'm delighted by bizarre wallpaper and textile patterns. Mark Mothersbaugh, formerly of Devo, has turned his eye to designing wallpaper patterns (from LA Weekly, link via boing boing):
Mark Mothersbaugh wants to put snakes on your wall. Now that the Devo lead singer and composer of film, television and commercial soundtracks has conquered the world of fine rugs, he’s set his designs, literally, on wallpaper. One pattern he’s calling “Black Forest” is a mutated collage of a 19th-century image of a bird. Those who recoil at the idea of reptiles splayed 24/7 across the walls of their kitchen should steer clear of “Snakes in a Tree,” a pattern of snakes, in trees. The unenlightened might find this one creepy, but Mothersbaugh’s wife, Anita, pictures it in a kids’ playroom, to enhance a safari-adventure theme. On the other hand, “Don’t Be Koi,” with its cheerful orange fish patterns, would be lovely even in Martha Stewart’s bathroom.

The NY Times did a brief feature on Richard Saja, who embroiders extra details onto eighteenth-century textiles. His blog has some great examples, including a werewolf explorer and a bird-man (from the same pattern).

I loved Lois Lowry's Anastasia Krupnik books when I was little--it's a great series for obsessive list-makers and systematizers--and one of the details that stands out in my memory is that she wanted the wallpaper in her bedroom hung upside-down. From Anastasia Krupnik:
And she missed her old wallpaper. She had gotten to know the funny-looking bicycle riders on her old wallpaper quite well. She had given them names. The lady in the long skirt who rode a unicycle and played a violin was named Sibyl. The man on an old-fashioned racing bike who rode no-hands and played a flute was Stanley. Stanley had chased Sibyl around the walls of her old bedroom for years. She wanted them back.

When she tells her mother that she misses them, her mother remembers Stanley's "sexy little mustache." The upside is that in her new larger house, her bedroom is in a turret. Both wallpaper and turrets seemed so exotic to me as a young reader.

I was trying to make a list of other good children's book characters who had cool wallpaper--any ideas from older children's books when wallpaper was fashionable? For example, I did a Google search for references to wallpaper in Elizabeth Enright's books because I remember wishing that I could live among so many architectural and design quirks as her characters did. She describes wallpaper designs as "bunches of broccoli" in Gone-Away Lake and has the Melendy children peel away old wallpaper to find secrets in The Four-Story Mistake. The title house in that book had another detail I admired without quite knowing what one looked like in real life, a cupola. Google Books' list of keywords for Doublefields, a collection of short stories with lots of descriptions of old furniture and heavy draperies, gives some indication of Enright's taste for wonderful nouns: Place des Vosges, Woodmere, galoshes, parcheesi, gorgon, caterpillar, Mary Pickford, governess cart, Rupert Brooke, kobolds, Avalon, arpeggios, scrod, Bordighera, cocoon, moths, intaglio. And now I find that she was Frank Lloyd Wright's niece and that Thimble Summer was inspired by her trips to Taliesin. So that explains a lot!

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Blogger Tove on Tue Jun 17, 03:33:00 PM:
A wallpaper story that immediately pops into my mind is not a children's story, and it's actually kind of disturbing in a wallpaper-gone-bad kinda way.... The wall covering in "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1899) becomes the obsession and a horrible catalyst that drives the unstable and repressed protagonist over the edge:

"The paint and paper look as if a boys' school had used it. It is stripped off--the paper in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide--plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others. No wonder the children hated it!"

I love this story!!!
 
Blogger Ben on Tue Jun 17, 04:07:00 PM:
Yeah, one of the (more artsy) finance guys at my job made a reference to yellow wallpaper recently, implying that the working environment would drive us all out of our minds. It was kind of a secret code complaint that can't be understood by non-bookish bosses.
 

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Deborah Solomon makes good

If you point out when they suck, you gotta point out when they do well. On Sunday, Deborah Solomon's weekly NY Times Magazine interview was an excellent talk with Wnrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota known for his Susan Jacobs Jane Jacobs/Scandinavian vision of urban planning. Solomon's old method, of inserting snide remarks and different questions after the fact, is gone; we can thank Ira Glass and Amy Dickinson (Ann Landers's successor) for that, since they complained when she did it to them. But beyond that change, Solomon here just asks good, sensible questions of an interesting subject. If the interview is going to run 500-600 words, I'd much rather it be with someone I've never heard of than with Henry Kissinger or Al Gore.
I wouldn’t think that sidewalks are a top priority in developing countries. The last priority. Because the priority is to make highways and roads. We are designing cities for cars, cars, cars, cars, cars... We were building much more for cars’ mobility than children’s happiness.
...
As mayor of Bogotá, you reclaimed the sidewalks for pedestrians by banning sidewalk parking, your most famous achievement. The most famous and the most controversial. But we started by building bicycle paths, and now 5 percent of the population, more than 350,000 people, go to work by bicycle.

Why do you think you lost your most recent bid for mayor last year? I had some huge fights when I was mayor. I was almost impeached for getting the cars off the sidewalk.
...
Do you see yourself as a city planner or a politician? At heart what I really am is a Colombian politician, but a bad one because I lose elections.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Tue Jun 10, 09:43:00 PM:
Did you mean JANE Jacobs?
 
Blogger Ben on Wed Jun 11, 08:34:00 AM:
No, Susan Jacobs, who did music on Before Night Falls and Limbo.

Corrected.
 

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Flopahedron

Best detail ever in the NY Times story on the two men who scaled Renzo Piano's Times building on Thursday to raise awareness about global warming and malaria:
“He’s disrupting the city,” said Zee Mosher, 33, a graphic designer with a portrait of Buckminster Fuller tattooed on his neck. “He’s endangering his own life and the lives of other people.”

Really? You'd think a guy with a tattoo of Buckminster Fuller on his neck would be at least sort of OK with someone taking advantage of an architectural quirk.

I liked Elizabeth Kolbert's story in this week's New Yorker about Fuller's follies; it all seemed of a piece with the Times-scalers:
In “Bucky,” a biography-cum-meditation, published in 1973, the critic Hugh Kenner observed, “One of the ways I could arrange this book would make Fuller’s talk seem systematic. I could also make it look like a string of platitudes, or like a set of notions never entertained before, or like a delirium.” On the one hand, Fuller insisted that all the world’s problems—-from hunger and illiteracy to war-—could be solved by technology. “You may . . . want to ask me how we are going to resolve the ever-accelerating dangerous impasse of world-opposed politicians and ideological dogmas,” he observed at one point. “I answer, it will be resolved by the computer.” On the other hand, he rejected fundamental tenets of modern science, most notably evolution. “We arrived from elsewhere in Universe as complete human beings,” he maintained. He further insisted that humans had spread not from Africa but from Polynesia, and that dolphins were descended from these early, seafaring earthlings.

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Electoral vote breakdown, and the swift-boating of Obama

Take a look at this fascinating map from the New York Times, an excellent application of Edward Tufte's principles of the visual display of quantitative information (click to enlarge):



The map makes clear what Obama's electoral strengths and weaknesses are: he does well in the traditional liberal strongholds, cities and coasts, save Boston (for reasons I don't understand), LA (Latino-black division, we're told) and Clinton's New York. Look at Texas, for example: Dems have more or less won Austin, Dallas and Houston in the last few presidential elections, and lost the rural areas and the more conservative San Antonio; this mirrors the Obama-Clinton split shown on this map.

Obama does have some loyalty in the Chicago-orbiting Midwest, which means his chances of carrying swing states Iowa and Michigan are good, but it's going to be tough in Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Florida, and without two of these he's likely to lose.

On the other hand, his enormous support in the black-heavy South, together with the new Democratic registrations all over the country thanks to the hotly contested primary, might allow him to put some states in play that Bush won handily in 2000 and 2004.

Here's my electoral vote analysis, based on polling data from RealClearPolitics.com, electoral-vote.com, and intrade.com:

Obama very likely to win: 200 electoral votes
California: 55
Connecticut: 7
Delaware: 3
Hawaii: 4
Illinois: 21
Maine at large:* 2
Maine 1st district:* 1
Maine 2nd district:* 1
Maryland: 10
Massachusetts: 12
Minnesota: 10
New Jersey: 15
New York: 31
Oregon: 7
Rhode Island: 4
Vermont: 3
Washington: 11
Washington DC: 3
Swing states likely to go to Obama: 38
Iowa: 7
Pennsylvania: 21
Wisconsin: 10
McCain very likely to win: 149
Alabama 9
Alaska 3
Arizona 10
Georgia 15
Idaho 4
Kansas 6
Kentucky 8
Louisiana 9
Mississippi 6
Montana 3
Nebraska at large* 2
Nebraska 1st district* 1
Nebraska 2nd district* 1
Nebraska 3rd district* 1
North Dakota 3
Oklahoma 7
South Dakota 3
Tennessee 11
Texas 34
Utah 5
West Virginia: 5
Wyoming 3
Swing, likely McCain: 67 total
Arkansas: 6
Florida: 27
Indiana 11
North Carolina 15
South Carolina 8
* Maine and Nebraska give 2 votes to the statewide winner, and allow each congressional district to choose its elector independently. Nebraska is heavy Republican country, but Maine is mixed and may give 3 of its electoral votes to the statewide winner, and 1 to the loser.

Here's where it gets interesting:

Swing states impossible to call at this point: 84 votes total
Colorado: 9
Obama leads by the margin of error right now, but state went Republican in the last 3 elections, and Bush won by 5% in 2004.

Michigan: 17
Dems usually win here, but McCain leads in the polls by a hair.

Missouri: 11
Polls are a dead heat; Bush won in 2004 and 2008, but Clinton won in 1996 ('92, a three-way race with the conservative vote split, doesn't count for much), and Obama's Midwest credentials and Repub unpopularity this year puts it on the fence.

Nevada: 5
McCain leads in polls, and Repubs usually win, but Vegas has it at a dead heat.

New Hampshire: 4
Vote is extremely close here historically. Obama leads in polls by a hair.

New Mexico: 5
Same as NH.

Ohio: 20
Polls are a dead heat, and vote is extremely close historically. Vegas likes Obama, but there is a large undecided contingent in the polls, which may work in McCain's favor because Obama is more of an unknown.

Virginia 13
Republicans usually win handily here, but polls are a dead heat, though there is a large undecided contingent.
If you award each candidate all of the electoral votes from their likely states, plus an estimated half of the swing states' electoral votes:
Obama’s predicted total: 280
McCain’s predicted total: 258
Now let's look at a few scenarios. If 2/3 of the swing state votes go to Obama, he wins handily:
Obama’s predicted total: 294
McCain’s predicted total: 244
But if 2/3 of the swing state votes go to McCain (say, roughly, Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, Virginia), he wins by a hair:
Obama’s predicted total: 266
McCain’s predicted total: 272
So the election looks to be very close, with the advantage very slightly in Obama's favor. The question, in my opinion, is whether Obama can convince undecided voters that his promise outweighs their uncertainty about him due to his youth, inexperience, blackness, and liberalness. I think the much-vaunted conservative dislike for McCain will not play such a big role; he'll get slightly more votes then Bush in 2004 (which would indicate an even showing, since the number of voters has grown).

Meanwhile, there has been a huge increase in Democratic voter registration. I predict 68 million votes for Obama, 66 million votes for McCain, with Obama winning the electoral college 284-254.

Note that McCain needs at least 270 votes to win, while Obama only needs 269, because in a 269-269 tie (or any other situation in which no candidate gets a majority of the 538-member electoral college), the (Democratic) Congress resolves the dispute in a vote, and Obama wins.

With that optimistically said, my big fear as the general election campaign begins is an ad, run by a well-funded conservative group that's ostensibly independent of the McCain campaign, that would go like this:
[White woman in driver's seat of minivan; a daughter and son, 10 and 8 years old, in soccer uniforms, run away from minivan]

Kids: Bye, mom!

[She begins to drive away; camera shot is from passenger's seat, cinema verite-style, looking up from lap height]

Mom: [chuckles] Look at 'em go. You know, I have to keep reminding myself, this election isn't really about me. It's about them.

I like a charismatic speaker as much as anybody, and I like hearing Obama speak. But when it comes down to it, what do I really know about the guy? I never heard his name until last year. His campaign says it's no big deal that he went to a Muslim school. [Winces and shrugs] If they say so!

His minister, saying all those crazy, awful things? For years, and I'm supposed to believe Obama doesn't agree with any of it?

And the drugs... I thought that one was just a rumor. But I looked into it. I don't know how they hushed this up, but he's--he's admitted he used to do cocaine. Cocaine!

Look, [raises eyebrows and nods, forgiving viewers' guilt] I believe in giving people a chance, but I'm not gambling with my kids' future. Neither guy is perfect, but I need to know what I'm getting. For them.

[Fades out. Text: Paid for by The Veterans' Committee for Public Discourse.]
It's one of the most effective strategies for incumbents and conservatives in business and politics: exploit your image of being bland but reliable by sowing fear, uncertainty, and doubt about your upstart competition. (That phrase comes from a leaked Microsoft memo outlining a strategy for defeating the Linux operating system.)

Hillary tried this kind of thing, of course, but her attacks--while despicable--were milder than the Karl Rove generation of Republican ops, and part of why they didn't erode Obama's support more was that their audience was already committed Democrats.

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Blogger Katy on Mon Jun 09, 09:22:00 AM:
Boston.com had a really interesting map breaking down the primary results by town throughout the state (er, commonwealth). Massachusetts split along much the same lines as the rest of the country, and what seems to have pushed Clinton over the top were big wins in white working-class strongholds. Check out the strip just north of Boston and along the near North Shore where she took places like Everett, Revere, Malden, and Saugus by 40- and 50-point margins. Obama won the city of Boston by a decent margin, and he won Cambridge by a larger one and got a big strip of towns heading west along Route 2 as far out as Harvard or so as well as a large chunk of western Mass, but you need more than that to outweigh the Italian grandmothers of Medford and environs turning out at the polls in force.

My amateur analysis; I hope you like it.
 
Blogger Ben on Tue Jun 10, 07:08:00 AM:
I see what you mean. I didn't realize the population in Mass was so spread out--6 million people, but only 600k in Boston proper. So these middle of the road suburbanites are who Obama's losing? That's tough... in Mass, those are the voters who voted in Bill Weld and Mitt Romney, both very much in the McCain wing of the Republican party (well, until Romney's run to the right for the nomination).
 
Blogger Ben on Tue Jun 10, 07:26:00 AM:
An addendum: the Times's electoral map has Oregon, Washington and Minnesota in play, but Democrat-leaning, whereas I have them as Dem sure things. It's early, so I'm inclined to agree with them.

Note that Minnesota has gone for the Dems every presidential election since the Nixon landslide of 1972 (though, to be fair, they probably would have gone for Reagan if their native son hadn't been running against him). Gore and Kerry won by an average of 3% there.
 
Blogger Ben on Tue Jun 10, 12:56:00 PM:
I liked your fake ad script, which is believable, but there's already been viral e-mail campaigns to that effect that could just be intensified as the campaign goes on. Bill Moyers for VP!

Ben and Alex
 

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Predictions: VP edition

My intrade.com bets:

  • Bought Jim Webb for Dem VP (5:1 odds; bought at 20:1)
  • Shorting Hillary for Dem VP (she is at 6:1 odds, but I think even that is too high)
  • Buying Al Gore for Dem VP (20:1)
  • Buying Joe Biden for Dem VP (20:1)
  • Bought McCain for Pres (3:1 odds, way lower than his real chances I'm afraid)

Obama is the nominee. The armies of fear, uncertainty and doubt will now start their march.

Also - Lakers in six.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Ninja turtle theory

I forgot that there's a male corollary to Little Women Syndrome: Ninja Turtle Theory, in which every man secretly identifies with Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, or Michaelangelo.

I met the voice of Leonardo from the animated series at a party a few months ago and asked him what he thought of the idea. He either had given his character motivation a great deal of thought or was humoring me because we talked for some time about the theory and its practitioners.

Inside every man there is a ninja turtle but there are also ambiguities. For instance, Leonardo expends a lot of emotional energy convincing the others (and himself) that he is a great leader because he is insecure about his fighting skills. Maybe Donatello has similar worries, which he tries to fend off with his brilliance. Michaelangelo has no demons.

I called my brother the next day to tell him about it. He was five at the height of ninja turtle mania and the source of much of my information about the gang.

"Aren't you excited? Do you remember which ninja turtle you are?" I asked.

He didn't say anything.

"You're Raphael! Raphael!" I shouted into the phone. "You're the entire basis of Ninja Turtle Theory: you thought you were Raphael. You wanted us to call you Raphael."

In true Raphael fashion, he is a man of few words. "You weren't supposed to remember that," he said.

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