Sunday, October 30, 2005

I Don't Even Like Scrabble

This is a list of two-letter words in English (compiled by the Scrabble people). Since they're trying to list only one (brief) definition for each word, some of their definitions are very funny: "do" isn't the present nominative form of "does" or "did" but "a note on the scale"; there's also "on: batsman's side of wicket" and "or: the heraldic color gold." On the other hand, "be: to have actuality" is quite philosophical, if probably only unintentionally.

I don't like Scrabble, or crossword puzzles either, at least very much, but I do love words, and I think I love very short words best. I think it's because they're really the closest to us, so close that we don't really understand what they mean. (See Heidegger, Wittgenstein.)

Here's a quiz (if you like, you can post in the comments): Pick your five favorite two-letter words.

Here are mine:

it
is
if
or
no
(Remember, I used to be a logician.)

If you're not into the whole connective thing, there are some great deictic tools -- "at," "on," "in," "by," "of" -- or pronouns: "me," "we," "he," "us." Or whatever floats your boat.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

A Trip Through the Strange: Eight Albums

I first heard Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea maybe three years ago, when I made my first trip through all the indie rock I'd missed in the nineties. I liked it right away: its "fuzz-folk" sound, acoustic guitar and raw vocal filtered through electric distortion, bleating (and sometimes poignant) horns, and noise tracks, and Jeff Mangum's deliberately odd, now-visceral and now-obscure lyrics. But then it's fair to say that I forgot about it for a while, bringing it back only every now and again to pick tracks for mix CDs or to recommend it to friends.

Recently I've taken to listening to it again and again, going deeper into its self-created mythology of repeated phrases, odd allusions, and lyrical preoccupations. It's hard to summarize briefly, but a good chunk of the album is devoted to Anne Frank, and her death and rebirth as a kind of Benjaminian angel of history. More than its specific content, access to the album's mythology gives it an emotional resonance that it might otherwise lack: for the forty minutes between the opening strums of "The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1" and the sound of Mangum shutting the door at the end of "Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2," we share Mangum's vision, its exuberant joys and tragic lows -- sometimes both together.

It's gotten me thinking about how some of my favorite albums have a similar kind of coherent, self-contained quality. It's not just "concept albums," or albums with a unique musical or instrumental quality (both of these seem to be necessary but not sufficient). Some albums aren't just musically distinct from others: they're also emotionally distinct, not just from other albums, but from other kinds of emotional states. This makes them profoundly personal on the one hand, but also intimately accessible: once you find the key, you're a member of the band's secret world, even if that world remains a fundamentally strange one.

It's also not surprising that these albums are usually divisive: either you go along with and accept the musical and emotional world the album creates, or you don't. Here's a short list of eight of these albums, which, at least in my experience, prove to be especially compelling:

1) Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
2) The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds
3) Van Morrison, Astral Weeks
4) Nick Drake, Pink Moon
5) My Bloody Valentine, Loveless
6) Joni Mitchell, Blue
7) Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs
8) Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville

These albums are pretty far from the greatest albums of all time (although at least a few of them would make my shortlist) which again raises the question of why so many of those albums (The Beatles', for example, or most of Dylan's -- Blood on the Tracks might be the great exception) don't do what these albums do, despite their greatness. I think the answer might be the absence of a certain closed quality -- albums like Revolver or Exile on Main St. let the whole world in, while these albums are concerned with shutting at least part of it out. That's why they're the favorites of the loners, people who like to listen to music in their bedrooms and muse on their own strangeness and emotional distress -- which is almost all of us, at least some of the time.

Techno-Lust Redux

We all went ga-ga over the new video iPod; how about this new Olive Symphony multifunction stereo written up in today's Times? With the iPod's stereo accessories being usually obscenely expensive, boring, and underwhelming in their audio performance, a genuine hi-fi stereo that can link (and load!) to an iPod but also read, compress, and burn CDs AND use its built-in-network to connect to your computer seems like everything I've ever wanted in digital music.

The big difference: at $200-400, the video iPod is expensive, but relatively within reach (at least, you know, if I didn't already have an old one that cost $400 just a year ago). $900-$1100, on the other hand, used to be car-money for a guy like me. These days, it's furniture-money, or wedding ring-money, or pay-off-credit-card-money. It's not likely to be music-money for me or anyone I know anytime soon. So techno-lust will just have to abate.

Go Sox

As a former (and still, in some sense, at heart) Chicagoan, it gives me a special and perverse kind of pleasure to see White Sox fans in the South Side and everywhere in the world tell the beloved Cubs to eat shit.

Go Sox.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Serendipity

I've been going for almost a year without cable, so I've been watching a lot of my favorite television shows through other means -- DVDs of Deadwood, Chapelle's Show, and Dead Like Me, and the occasional internet download. Since I try to stay on the good side of the law whenever I can, it's wonderful to find two hilarious, unpredictable shows whose downloads aren't just legal, but encouraged.

The first is the new Daily Show spinoff The Colbert Report, whose first week is available for bittorrent download at CommonBits. (Thanks to Boing Boing for the link.) The Colbert Report is just what it sounds like, and just as good -- a half and hour of Stephen Colbert's parodic, Bill O'Reilly-esque persona. In many ways, it's closer to the early days of Craig Kilborn's Daily Show, before Jon Stewart started exempting the anchor from self-parody. Colbert isn't as smooth or improvisational as Stewart -- he'll flub the occasional line or two -- but his humor is harsher, a little more abstract, and equally spot-on. My favorite segment is "THE W├śRD" -- when Colbert introduces a word (sometimes real, sometimes fake, like "truthiness"); they use a text sidebar to supplement/comment on Colbert's editorializing. If Colbert's talking about chugging "Crystal standing in the sunroof of a stretch hummer," the sidebar will flash to "How I roll." It's a lampoon of what O'Reilly does, but in its comic application, the closest predecessor is probably The Daily Show's use of headlines/graphics (think "Mess o' Potamia"), but more dynamic, less monologic, and without the puns. The comedy effect, sometimes a little bit delayed, is often excellent, and I think might wind up being a real contribution to television humor.

The other show I've been talking about almost non-stop lately is a little more homespun: a California DIY show Laura Portwood-Stacer turned me on to called Yacht Rock. The sh0w's title comes from a hitherto-unnamed subgenre of super-smooth adult contemporary pop from the late 70s and early 80s. The main characters on the show are Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, Christopher Cross, Hall and Oates, and the band Toto, along with their musical fellow-travelers. It's shot in the style of Boogie Nights, and has similar sense of humor about the moment. The premise of the show is to imagine how the lyrics for these lite rock staples -- The Doobie Brothers' "What A Fool Believes," Loggins and McDonald's "This Is It," Toto's "Rosanna" -- might have come out of the overdramatized trials and tribulations of a bunch of California musicians. That being said, the show is crazy -- one character gets impaled on a harpoon, Jim Messina throws up on Kenny Loggins, Rosanna Arquette aligns her chakra with Toto's lead singer. But it strikes just the right balance of irony and a measured dose of genuine appreciation. These songs are incredibly smooth, and catchy too: you won't be able to get them out of your head for weeks. Also, you'll finally be able to understand why Journey was considered "hard rock." Some of the phrases they introduce -- especially John Oates's "California vagina sailors" and "Get your dick out of your heart" -- are both totally vulgar and Strong Bad-imaginative. Just watch it -- you'll wish it would never stop.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Unconscious Knows No Negation

Via Arts & Letters Daily, Slavoj Zizek (aka the best Lacanian-Marxist film and cultural critic in the world) on New Orleans, the European Union, Bill Bennett, and "the other." If you didn't think psychoanalysis had anything relevant or accessible to say about the news, Zizek can prove you wrong; this is one of the smarter and more bracing political essays I've read in some time.

Monday, October 17, 2005

How the Future Is Done

From Boing Boing, A Time magazine article/group interview featuring Tim O'Reilly, Malcolm Gladwell, Clay Shirky, Mark Dery, Esther Dyson, David Brooks, and Moby. (The article doesn't say how they put this together -- were all these people in one room, or were they webcasting, or did they put this together from a bunch of little interviews, or what?)

There's some thoughtful stuff here, amidst some phrase-parroting ("wisdom of crowds," "social capital," "return of the real," "the long tail") and the most unfortunately tone-deaf use of the phrase "biting their pillows" I've ever seen. The big idea for me -- especially since I just wrote an e-mail missive to Leonard Ford's new listserv (bug him about it and get yourself added on to it) about how a decrease in transportation costs could change the country -- is Malcolm Gladwell's argument that decreased transportation costs have changed the country:

One of the most striking things in observing the evolution of American society is the rise of travel. If I had to name a single thing that has transformed our life, I would say the rise of JetBlue and Southwest Airlines. They have allowed us all to construct new geographical identities for ourselves. Many working people today travel who never could have in the past, for meetings and conferences and all kinds of things, and this is creating another identity for them.
There's plenty of other goodies here too -- a few too many to take on all at once. I'd love to hear what struck other people, or what they might find to argue about. (Also see the discussion of intelligent design, multiple identities, and the curious presence of Moby at Snarkmarket.)

Saturday, October 15, 2005

New Versions of Success

I just read an article from Sfgate.com (via Google News) on polls closing for the vote on the Iraqi Constitution. Here's where things seem to stand:

1) Even if the constitution is defeated, the high rate of Sunni turnout (which is where most of the "no" votes are coming from) would make this at least a small victory for democracy in Iraq. Even if the Sunnis (and others) think the whole constitutional process is an American-produced sham, at least they've accepted the mechanisms of deliberation and popular referendum through which a constitution might in principle be produced. We think.

2) A day when "insurgents attacked five of Baghdad's 1,200 polling stations with shootings and bombs, wounding seven voters" can be described as "the most peaceful in months."

I guess we'll take progress where we can get it. And we'll wait and see if this thing actually gets off the ground.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Adventures in Home Improvement

Eight months in to maintaining my own house, I've finally realized that the problem with being middlingly handy is that you know how to do a little bit of everything except what really needs to get done to make your house work -- plumbing, roofing, electricity -- so you spend a lot of time taking on tasks for which you possess all of the necessary skills but which still inevitably seem to go to wrong.

I'm not giving any examples because I don't want to add anything else to the night's frustration. It involves a drill, many screws, shims, and something from Pottery Barn -- just use your imagination. But trust me when I say that I know perfectly well what I'm doing. I've also selected only the finest in tools, fasteners, and home decor that I can afford. It's this damned house that won't cooperate with me. It conspires against me, foiling me at every turn, laying all my hopes and plans to waste.

Perhaps the bitterest pill of all is that I'm perpetually teased and taunted by the proposition that if I only knew a little more, if I only had this right tool or that right part, I might be able to conquer this magnificent but vile beast. Instead, I wind up dutifully patching half the holes I put in, when whatever goes wrong. I've gotten really good at patching things. Then Sylvia usually covers it with a painting.

Why can't fixing things and adding fixtures to my house be like putting together furniture? I'm terrifically good at that. It helps that (usually) all the holes are where they're supposed to be and there are good directions telling you what to do next. That's not all you need, though -- you need to know how to use a screwdriver, a hammer, an allen key, and sometimes a wrench. I'm great with all of those. I've even gotten good at deciphering the furniture directions that don't have any verbal instruction -- you know, so you and Sven and Jorge and Xiang can all enjoy the same Ikea dresser. I'm a veritable whiz.

So if you need something put together, I'm your man. I'd even probably be pretty good at helping you work on your house. I know the names of everything, and I'm good with manual and power tools. But my house? I'm only a danger to myself. Be forewarned.

(The above post was composed at a time of unusual personal and physical difficulty for the author, after much profane and ultimately uncalled-for language directed at himself and several inanimate objects. He is now going to take a nap, and when refreshed, he'll be sure to give the same sharp-witted treatments of politics, literature, music, and culture you've come to intermittently expect.)

(That is all.)

Friday, October 07, 2005

The Question No One Ever Asks

Here's something I've noticed: when I tell people I study literature and literary theory, people often ask me about my favorite authors, favorite novels, favorite poems or poets, favorite movies or directors, or even my favorite philosophers. No one ever asks me about my favorite literary critics.

On the one hand, this is entirely understandable -- I mean, when I'm really honest with myself, I'm way more interested in (and happiest and most comfortable taking about) literature or movies or philosophy too -- but on the other hand, it's a little disheartening, since it shows that literary criticism is really considered a specialist genre, something which professionals might find interesting but that most readers can do without.

For most people, criticism is most useful when the voice of the critic is mostly transparent or subservient to a work of literature -- like Cliffs Notes, or the annotations or introduction to a critical-historical edition. Then again, Harold Bloom's books are bestsellers and he's anything but that -- he's all personality and bombast, and decidedly so. But Bloom's books are popular in no small part because he mostly directs readers to recognizably great works of literature and spends the rest of his time bashing other literary critics.

Still, though, there are lots of great critics out there, past and present -- critics with insight and intelligence, who write beautiful and incisive prose, and who aren't afraid of injecting some of their own personality into their writing. It's possible that many people are looking for good criticism but don't know where to begin. I've mentioned a handful of terrific critics in these pages -- Stephen Greenblatt, Kenneth Burke, Jacques Derrida, and Louis Menand, among others. But there's oodles more.

For now, let me mention just one, my favorite critic of modern poetry -- Marjorie Perloff. Perloff has written so many seminal articles and books that I'll just mention a few: Wittgenstein's Ladder, Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters, The Futurist Moment, 21st Century Modernism. She's officially emeritus now at Stanford but still seems to crank out a half-dozen brilliant articles each year and a new book every other year. I think she's the best guide to avant-garde and experimental poetry out there; she also writes in a way that's eminently accessible but always complex, penetrating, discerning. She's a terrific advocate for particular poets and brands of poetry, similar to Bloom, but much more expansive and progressive in her tastes. If you've ever wondered what the big deal about difficult 20th century poetry was all about, Perloff's SUNY-Buffalo page (above) might be the best place to begin.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Oh, William

It may seem a little late to kick William Bennett one more time for his argument that "if you wanted to reduce crime, you could -- if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down," --- but some things just don't have a shelf life. Plus, there's at least one thing that I wanted to say about it that I haven't heard said.

I was pleased to read Steven Levitt's thoughtful post on Bennett's comments on his Freakonomics blog. (Levitt and Stephen Dubner's book Freakonomics is the source of the legal abortion -- > lower crime rates argument that Bennett has distortedly invoked.) But both he and the many commentors on that page and elsewhere missed something that I think is important.

Bennett argues that since he explicitly rejected the abortion of every black baby to reduce the crime rate as "impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible" -- note the order -- he should be let off the hook. Other people (including Levitt) have noted that once you control for economic data, black children aren't any more likely to be involved with crime than any other group. They've also pointed out that black people shockingly do other things besides commit crimes. But besides debating the "facts" to which Bennett appeals, I think we should also note the logic he invokes.

The claim Bennett rejects isn't a factual but a logical one: If A --> B. In this case the statement runs: If eliminating crime was your sole purpose, you could/[should] abort every black baby. Now admittedly, the context of the comment was the rejection/endorsement of abortion for economic reasons. You could argue that Bennett chose a particularly gruesome example to try to show the ridiculousness of the argument. But it still seems revealing that this was the first thing that came to his mind: it suggests that if Bennett wanted to reduce the crime rate, aborting every black baby would be the first thing he would do.

Bennett, like most conservatives, doesn't believe in the morality/legality of abortion, so it might seem like a purely rhetorical debate, but I don't think so. I wonder if Bennett would endorse the forced sterilization of criminals. Statistics suggest that the children of criminals are more likely to commit crimes than other citizens; furthermore, Bennett's ideology would suggest that he thinks much less of the civil rights of a criminal than he does a fetus. Sterilizing the prison population would be far from "impossible" or "ridiculous" -- the only question left is whether it's "morally reprehensible." I think so -- but does Bennett?