Sunday, December 31, 2006

Man and Truthiness at Harvard

There's a nice video piece -- hard to call it a clip, since it's over an hour long -- of Stephen Colbert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He drifts in and out of character, flirts with people in the audience, presents the school a large portrait of Bill O'Reilly, and talks seriously about the show and its lack of political intent/influence.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Crossing Over, Moving On

Until I went to college in 1997, I had rarely (and never seriously) used a computer. This is partly a matter of timing and partly one of circumstance. My family didn't have one. My aunt's could do word processing and print signs and banners -- at least, that's all I knew how to make it do. The required computing class in high school was a glorified typing class on an old version of MS Works for DOS. The internet and email were toys; most of the computers at school weren't wired anyways. So the tech boom was something that occured somewhere at the horizon of my knowledge and interests. Something was going on, and some people knew a little bit about it.

I had the good fortune to have a roommate in college who (among his other virtues) both had a computer and knew a little bit about it. Our dorm was one of the first on MSU's campus to be wired with an ethernet connection. Soon, Chad's computer was indispensable to me. I typed all my papers (I had handwritten almost everything for high school, including my college application essays), I searched the corners of the internet, I wrote long daily rants and emailed them to everyone I knew (this is probably before blogging was invented), I stayed up late nights emailing back-and-forth with the girl I loved (I never really glommed onto IMing until it was incorporated into Gmail), and I figured out how to play old Nintendo games and how to beat the expert level of Minesweeper in less than two minutes. (All-time best: 69 seconds.) The discovery of the computer was like so many things that happened to me when I went to college: empowering, individuating, maturing, yet full of irresponsible energy.

I'd had use of a hand-me-down for two years prior, but I finally bought my own computer when I went to graduate school in 2001. I moved to Chicago, leaving family, friends, and bank account behind. My Dell was one of the first computers to ship with Windows XP. I got into mp3s and freeware -- again a little late, but better than never. This was when I first started using the internet to connect with the world -- reading the New York Times online, following Pitchfork and Arts & Letters Daily, doing my banking, paying my bills. More and more, I crossed over into the virtual world, where more and more of what I did for work and play was dependent on computing and the internet. To a certain degree, this happened to everyone -- but in retrospect, my own change feels sharper than most. This was when I also learned more about the guts of the computer and started modifying it -- adding memory, swapping hard drives, network and USB cards, a DVD burner. I created my first, second, and third web pages. I started using Amazon to send Christmas gifts home.

Through all of this, I've been a Windows user and almost always worked at a Desktop. But when I'd finally had it with the limitations of what I could do with a five-year-old desktop. I recently bought a new MacBook Pro laptop. I don't know whether it's the fact that it's a new machine, the superiority of Mac over Windows, the rewards and challenges of learning the ins and outs of a new system (even after all these years of school, there's nothing I like better than to learn something new), or the freedom of being able to lay on my stomach or sit at my couch and type.

But it's fantastic again.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Half Man and Half a-’Tee

Since I moved and lost cable, there are only a few TV shows I still watch regularly: "Simpsons" and "Seinfeld" reruns in syndication, "Meet the Press" on Sunday mornings, "The View" (what can I say -- I almost always have an hour to kill before noon, and I like Rosie O'Donnell), the surprisingly good kids' cartoon "Jacob Two-Two," and, a mainstay since I started college in 1997, "Late Night with Conan O'Brien."

Which brings me to www.hornymanatee.com.

If you haven't heard about it by now, here's the story: Conan does a sketch on bizarre college mascots. One of them is FSU's "Webcam Manatee," featuring a guy in a manatee suit dancing around parodically-provocatively. Conan makes an offhand, ad-libbed reference to the Webcam Manatee appearing on a then-fictitious website called hornymanatee.com.

The next night on air, Conan reveals the aftermath. When the sketch aired, NBC freaks out. What if there's a real "horny manatee" site that Conan inadvertently promoted on air? Even if the site doesn't already exist, someone could register the domain and put inappropriate material on it -- Conan/NBC could still be held liable, in terms of bad press if nothing else.

The standard move would have been to cut or mute the reference to hornymanatee.com in post-production. No harm, no foul. Instead, NBC aired the episode as is, bought the rights to hornymanatee.com, threw up some porn-parody content -- and got over 3 million hits after Conan advertised the site (for real this time) on the air.

NYT has a nice recounting of the story here. And you can always see for yourself.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Statistics I Thought I'd Never See

From the AP sports wire:

" [Vinny] Testaverde, who turned 43 Monday, was the first overall pick by Tampa Bay in the 1987 draft. He has played 19 NFL seasons and has 269 touchdown passes, eighth in NFL history, and is sixth with 45,252 yards passing."

I started following football as a kid in the mid-to-late 1980s. I was seven years old when Vinny Testaverde came into the league, and he was already a joke. He made a lot of money, threw a lot of interceptions, and played for a team that wore bright orange that never won.

The only team that was worse wore pink, and they were the New England Patriots. Which happens to be Testaverde's new team.

Testaverde had a brilliant college career at the University of Miami. But Miami quarterbacks had mixed success in the pros, and each generation seemed like a parody of the one before: Jim Kelly --> Bernie Kosar --> Vinny Testaverde?

It's stunning to me that Drew Bledsoe, who I still think of as a young quarterback, has now been in the NFL for thirteen years. But it's downright astonishing that Testaverde has now been to two Pro Bowls, and has become -- statistically, if nothing else -- one of the best quarterbacks of his generation.

I turned 27 a few weeks ago. Is it strange that I find myself most affected by both how many professional sports athletes are younger than I am -- and just how old athletes not much older than myself are beginning to seem?

Behind the Times

South Africa, folks: Apartheid to gay marriage in less than twenty years.

South Africa: where the minister of health tells people AIDS can be cured with garlic and beetroot.

South Africa: where, until the 1990s, sexual contact between members of different races was prohibited by law. (Sodomy and miscegenation laws were overturned around the same time.)

We have got to get with it.

Friday, November 03, 2006

A Randomly Beautiful Sentence

File under random whimsy. From Gmail:

"All messages marked spam have been deleted forever."

There's something about the balance and weight of it, that just feels right. Not just techno-speak. It tells the truth.

On the other hand, it's unexpectedly funny. The purported finality is absurd. If your email account is anything like mine, you're going to have to delete all messages marked spam "forever" in about five minutes. (And indeed, I've got more spam in my box since I began typing.) You could take the "forever" not as literal truth (that deleted spam messages are unrecoverable -- is this true? Where do they go?) but as ironic commentary on our deepest desires - that is, our deepest email desires - that we be done, once and for all, with messages we will not read, that we no longer wish to receive. We want spam to be deleted forever -- like a theological salvation, we want to be delivered from spam -- yet spam, like sin, is constantly renewed, something from which we find only momentary relief, if any at all.

Like all good lapsed Catholics, I believe in sin but not salvation. Likewise, I believe in spam. You could say that I only believe in spam. The "spam" folder gives us the assurance - perhaps false - that our other messages are NOT spam, that they demand at least reading and sorting, if not a reply. We can believe that the message for which we've been waiting, the good news, is on its way, because we have a sure means of detecting false prophets. (If anyone calls you to the desert or the inner rooms with promises of blemish-free skin, low mortgage rates, and sexual enhancements, do not believe it, for even the elect can be deceived.) But deliverance remains, perhaps always, only an outstanding promise, a possibility. Spam, and falsehood, is the reality.

Electronic letters, waiting for deliverance, and upon deliverance, acceptance, deleted, forever. Irretrievable. What never existed, had only little reality if any reality at all, shall exist even less. The power of purgation, of liberation or nullification. And what is done, is done -- the foregoing of the possibility of retrieval, that what was lost can be found again, regardless of our decisions, wherever it might hide, is what we bind ourselves to -- that here, if nowhere else, is certainty, finality; that these messages, if no others, I will never see again. Yet of course you will -- in fact, only these messages will stay constant, as jobs change, as friends, as online retailers shift and sway and fold, as email addresses and online profiles become defunct. Spam endures.

It's a negative theology. Only spam, by having no positive characteristics that we can attribute to any genuine earthly message, is real. Only spam is always at the top of your inbox -- present in this absence. We believe in spam precisely because we delete it. We ride its wave, and the wave rides us in return.

Eh, maybe not.

Monday, September 25, 2006

By Contrast...

Last week, the New York Times ran an article about Detroit's mildly successful body collection industry, which prompted my first Short Schrift post in months.

This week, there's an article about a New York divorcee who recently moved from Westchester into a one-bedroom apartment in midtown Manhattan.

Let's take a look.
1) "It’s very touristy. This is a neighborhood where they sell single bananas in the food stores."

2) When her marriage came to an abrupt end two years ago, she found this apartment, a condo she sublets for just under $3,000 a month and which she described as “dangerously close to Bergdorf’s.”

3) “On the Upper West Side, everyone knew everyone,” she said of her early years there. “It was too much! I thought: ‘I’ve got a lot of friends. I don’t want to fill my friend list right now. I want to go someplace where I don’t know anyone.’ I wanted to land on a different planet.”

4) Ms. Pierson, executive creative director at 141 Worldwide, a subsidiary of Ogilvy & Mather, is also a writer and has completed her fourth book, “Males, Nails, and Sample Sales: Everything a Woman Must Know to be Smarter, Savvier, Saner Sooner,” now available from Simon & Schuster.

5) Snowy days and thunderstorms did her in. “Once we lost power right before the Tonys, and I wanted to kill myself,” she said.

6) "I get to know the carriage horses. Just seeing them everyday and saying hi is fabulous.”

7) So delighted is she to be back in the city, in fact, that she even rhapsodizes about the garbage trucks that crowd onto her street every night. Perhaps it helps that the trash comes from the particularly well-heeled, out the back doors of the Plaza and Ritz-Carlton.

8) “White people kill themselves. Black people kill each other. Chinese people don’t die.”
Hint: one of the sentences actually comes from the article about Detroit.

Note: if I had one wish, it would be that everything were different. Starting with myself.

Monday, September 18, 2006

One Better

Who reads Short Schrift anymore? Unless you've left it on your RSS reader for sentimental reasons, or you're wondering whether its author has dropped off the face of the planet, nobody. That's what happens when you don't write for months on end.

I've had good excuses. I moved house twice, for complicated reasons better left unsaid. I fell into a deep dank hole of depression that turned out to be probably food poisoning. (Still coming out of that one.) I started classes again and became busier than I'd been in a couple of years.

So you'd think that a renewal in posts would be the result of some happy event that caused me to change my mind, refresh my point of view, renew my sense of sharing and togetherness with the world.

Wrong wrong wrong.

I'm blogging because as miserable as I feel these days, as little hope as I sometimes have for the world in which we live, I have one thing to be thankful for.

I don't live in Detroit.

How could a city like Detroit get worse? It's almost hard to believe. But there are so many nuggets in this bizarre New York Times article -- who wrote this? why'd it get printed? does anyone in New York or anywhere in the world care anymore about Detroit? or do they just like to kick it when it's down -- that have to be shared, with anyone who knows, or might know.

Like: "80 percent of people die naked and 70 percent die in the toilet. That means most people die naked in the toilet. I can’t explain it."

Or: “White people kill themselves. Black people kill each other. Chinese people don’t die.”

Possibly the best: "It was the height of summer and people were supposed to be outside and killing each other, dropping dead from sunstroke, etc. Mr. Thomas wondered how he was going to feed his children the next week."

My god. What's happened to us?

Friday, June 30, 2006

Football Politics

James Forsythe's recent post at FP Passport about the effect on Germany's World Cup wins on Angela Merkel's government belatedly reminded me of his similar earlier post titled "Tony Blair's World Cup Dream." (What's more, Forsythe predicted Merkel's success in a post titled "Kicking Off.")

Some highlights:

The good news for Blair is that for every day England are in the competition, there will be less space in the media for—and less interest in—news of the failure to deport foreign criminals, internal struggles, incompetence in the NHS, and the like. Equally the PM can expect to be the indirect beneficiary of any feel good factor and economic bounce created by a strong English performance...

Not only is Merkel getting great publicity with every Germany game (the TV cuts to her even more than it does to Posh Spice aka Mrs Beckham during England games), but she is also using the tournament to push through a series of controversial measures. The Times of London had a great article a few days ago about all the bills that Merkel is sneaking through while the public is captivated by the heroics of Ballack, Lehman et al.

These measures aren't small beer. The other day, she got parliament to endorse a 3 percent increase in sales tax. My friend Andrew Curry, who wrote the World Cup brothels piece for us and lives in Germany, tells me that this is the biggest tax increase since 1949. But there was hardly a whimper of public protest as everyone was too busy watching the football.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Everything Changes. Don't Be Afraid.

It's what has to be the most unexpected (and disappointing) band breakup since The Dismemberment Plan. Sleater-Kinney says goodbye. [Pitchfork]

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Joyces and Joyceans

After two schriftless weeks, where's Short Schrift been? I've been teachin' the children -- the ways of Algebra II, the SAT and its subject tests, essay writing, and the history of western civilization. Out on Philadelphia's Main Line suburbs. It's not a lot of hours, but I'm finally getting well compensated for all this useless knowledge. Plus, I've been painting my bathroom, visiting some of my favorite redheads, and well, if you don't know any other big news, give me a call some time. (I've been trying to take Short Schrift semi-anonymous -- so some of the big personal news will just have to remain, for the moment, conspicuous in its absence.)

But I was snapped out of my stupor by a really good New Yorker article on Stephen James Joyce -- grandson of James, probably my all-time favorite writer, and caretaker of the Joyce estate. Scholars need approval from the younger Joyce (now in his seventies) to include quotation of more than a few short passages of James Joyce's published works or any quotations at all from the unpublished writings. SJ Joyce has made this very difficult -- not only for academic writers, but also for fans of the works who want to stage readings, hold festivals, and the like. One of the interesting things about the article are all the general questions it raises: extensions of copyright, the relationship between academics, authors, and publishers, what constitutes fair use, and likewise, what constitutes an invasion of privacy.

Stephen Joyce sometimes has very sympathetic reasons for becoming an obstacle to scholars looking to pry into the lives of the Joyce family. But as Max's article makes clear, he seems to enjoy making the community of Joyce scholars kiss the ring and exercising his will arbitrarily (e.g., a letter he wrote to a scholar at Purdue explaining his refusal for publication permissions by the vulgarity of "Boilermakers," Purdue's mascot) as much as any genuine desire to maintain his family's privacy. He's been quick to sue authors and publishers -- and publishers, especially, have been loathe to fight the lawsuits, even when there's a prima facie case for fair use. Lately, Joyce scholars have started to rebel -- the International James Joyce foundation has begun an inquiry into SJ Joyce's behavior, and Lawrence Lessig at Stanford has mounted a suit on behalf of the Joycean Carol Schloss against the estate, arguing that SJ Joyce's interference constitutes an abuse of copyright.

Between this story on Joyce, Louis Menand's periodic forays, and Janet Malcolm's essays on Gertrude Stein, The New Yorker's gotten very good at covering scholarship of modernism. One interesting point of confluence -- Malcolm's 2005 essay, "Someone Says Yes to It: Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and The Making of Americans" included a profile of another "interfering" figure in modernist scholarship, this one a scholar who has (to date) refused to make public his interviews with Alice B. Toklas.

There's something very funny about scholarship on modernism because of this -- because we're at the margins of copyright expirations, because so many people still living control access to the documents, and because there are, in fact, so many documents that some still haven't been fully explored, the archive work is all over the map. If you're a classicist, or even a Renaissance scholar, you have an entirely different set of problems when you work on a well-known author -- even the manuscript material is (for the most part) entirely available -- you just need the linguistic skills, the critical acumen, and the travel money to get to it and do your thing. One day you might turn up that long-lost manuscript in the stacks somewhere, but I doubt it. As a modernist scholar, it's an entirely different set of negotiations to get your hands on the archive in the first place -- and then you need to figure out what the hell to do with it.

And as the Stein example shows, scholars aren't all great innocents, operating in the public interest. You can make a decent amount of money by editing an author's unpublished writings and putting it out with a trade or university press -- but if you can hold off on that process and keep the archive a (relative) secret until you've milked it for all you can, you can make a name for yourself -- or at least get tenure.

And sometimes, the motivations aren't even as simple as that. Stephen J Joyce and the guy who interviewed Toklas for his dissertation all those years ago (I've googled to death and can't find his name) both somewhat snarkily turned their back on the academic world entirely, turning their sole, self-appointed right to be caretaker of the legacy into a point of honor. It's one crazy world when simple greed doesn't seem to explain it all.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Fun With WMP

Unlike virtually everyone else I've ever met, I primarily use Windows Media Player to organize and listen to my digital music collection. I've got iTunes, too, and I use that maybe 20% of the time, mostly to burn CDs and sync with my iPod. But I've been stuck with WMP since 2001, before iTunes even came out for Windows -- partly because of the whole learning effects thing (I know how to use it) and partly because WMP works uncommonly well at organizing a large music collection. In particular, my collection spans multiple hard drives -- which iTunes just doesn't do as well. (At least, I don't know how to make it do it as well).

As it turns out, Windows Media Player 11 Beta has recently been released. There are things about it that drive me nuts -- for example, the "monitor folders" feature has improved, but it's impossible to easily add just one file or folder to your library. Instead, it scans your entire collection to see if you've added one new track. Eventually, I figured out a fix -- you have to disable the monitor folders feature for most of your folders. Which is sort of like shooting your horse so you can get in the saddle. But I digress.

What WMP 11 does particularly well -- once you figure out the meant-to-be-intuitive-but-really-isn't interface -- is give you multiple views on your music. For example, you can choose to view by album, album artist, contributing artist, year released, etc. -- then re-sort within each grouping. The sorting doesn't just change the order, but also groups each category entry together. So, for example, if I sort by Artist, then select "The Flaming Lips," then sort by year, it'll group all of the entries according to the year released, with little subheadlines for each category: "2003," "2004," etc.

So recently, I selected "Artist," then sorted by total number of tracks -- so I can see which artists take up the most space (at least by track number -- I could also do it by total file size). Some of the results in my top 20 were a little surprising:

1) Various Artists -- 1706 tracks. (Duh. This includes compilations, box sets, etc.)
2) Bob Dylan -- 450
3) The Beach Boys -- 298
4) The Beatles -- 294
5) The Rolling Stones -- 248
6) The Mountain Goats -- 224
7) Pavement -- 194
8) The Flaming Lips -- 190
9) Talking Heads -- 179
10) Yo La Tengo -- 178
11) Dylan Thomas -- 173
(I downloaded a free box set of Dylan Thomas recordings about a year ago.)
12) Johnny Cash -- 172
13) The Who -- 165
14) David Bowie -- 159
15) The Kinks -- 154
16) Guided By Voices -- 152
17 [tie]) John Lennon -- 149
17 [tie]) Magnetic Fields -- 149
19 [tie]) Original Soundtrack -- 143
19 [tie]) Smog -- 143
The Mountain Goats at #6 were the big surprise for me -- I mean, yeah, John Darnielle and co. are prolific, and I have most of their stuff, but it's mostly attributable to the fact that (like Guided By Voices) The Mountain Goats write really short songs. If you re-sort by total time, they drop below the top 20, while John Coltrane and Miles Davis shoot to near the top. Guided By Voices' 152 tracks only wind up being about 5 1/2 hours of music -- Jim O'Rourke covers almost an hour more with only 36 tracks.

Likewise, I was surprised by The Beach Boys -- I'm a huge fan, but not a completist of theirs at all, and I don't think I have more than three of their studio albums. It's buttressed by a couple of box sets and the complete bootleg sessions for Smile and Pet Sounds. But I still would have thought that Dylan would have blown them away by much more than he did.

Surprises at the low end -- only twelve tracks each from The Breeders and The Sex Pistols -- which, when I was a teenager, I thought were two of the greatest bands ever. (I've got a cassette of Last Splash around here somewhere.) And only six from Ornette Coleman (The Shape of Jazz to Come), eight from Rod Stewart (Every Picture Tells A Story -- a criminally underrated album by an artist who, when he was good, was very, very good), and just thirteen from Paul McCartney. Apparently I don't have any of Sir Paul's solo stuff except Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, which came out last year. A situation I shall have to remedy.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

More Music: Songs about NYC

Alright, kids; I've got another mix CD for any and all interested. This one I made over the past six months for my sister Kelly, who moved to New York City late last year. It's called All Directions at the Same Time, and it's chock full of songs about New York -- mostly songs about moving to New York. I also tried to stay away from some of the tried-and-true pop standards (Sinatra, etc.). Also, to make it manageable, I picked (again) a generic focus on indie and classic rock, plus some soul and disco sides.

This one also includes an album cover, in the form of a Microsoft Excel file I made, which you can print up if you dig it and want to make your own CD.

Lastly, I would love to hear what anyone who downloads these albums thinks about them -- feel free to comment, criticize, suggest alternatives, etc.

Tracklist:

1. "New York City" (Home Recording) -- John Lennon
2. "Marching Bands of Manhattan" -- Death Cab for Cutie
3. "The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth" -- Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
4. "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard" -- Paul Simon
5. "Song for Myla Goldberg" -- The Decemberists
6. "Living for the City" -- Stevie Wonder
7. "Stayin' Alive" -- The Bee Gees
8. "The Big Country" -- Talking Heads
9. "Hard to Explain" -- The Strokes
10. "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side" -- Magnetic Fields
11. "Chicago" -- Sufjan Stevens
12. "Poses" -- Rufus Wainwright
13. "We've Been Had" -- The Walkmen
14. "NYC" -- Interpol
15. "Waltzing Matilda" (Short Version) -- Lou Reed
16. "When You Got to New York" -- Saturday Looks Good to Me
17. "The Irish Rover" -- The Pogues/The Dubliners
18. "100,000 Fireflies" -- Magnetic Fields
19. "After Hours" -- The Velvet Underground

Monday, May 15, 2006

Surprise

Surprise is the title of the new Paul Simon record -- just released Tuesday -- and it is freakin' great. Stephen Thomas Erlewine at All Music Guide has two nice write-ups of the album: an enthusiastic review and a timeline comparison of Simon's career with that of his surprising collaborator on Surprise, legendary glam-to-prog-to-punk-to-ambient-to-producing U2 electronics innovator Brian Eno.

I don't know if anyone in the history of pop music has been as consistently good for as long over the course of a career as Paul Simon. All of the other long-career greats -- Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Johnny Cash, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Madonna, Prince, David Bowie -- had stretches or at least whole albums that even most diehard fans would rather forget. In 35 years as a solo artist, Paul Simon has released ten albums. None are bad, and if you strike Songs From the Capeman and One Trick Pony, songs associated with a musical and movie, respectively, you have eight albums that nearly everyone acknowledges to be great, and at least three -- Paul Simon, There Goes Rhymin' Simon, and Graceland -- widely considered to be among the very best of their era, even outright masterpieces.

I think Surprise needs to be considered in those same terms. I don't know whether everyone will like it. You have to get over a few things. Most of the album doesn't really jump way over the line in terms of sonic experimentation -- the closest parallels I can think of to its overall sound are Dylan's two albums with Daniel Lanois (Oh Mercy, Time Out Of Mind), albeit leaning towards Eno's production work on Talking Heads's Remain In Light or U2's Achtung Baby. It's listener-friendly, perfect for the slightly graying progressive audience already warmed up by indie composers like Sufjan Stevens on NPR. When I first heard the opening riffs of "Outrageous" (Track #3), the implausibility of the nearly 65-year old Simon sassy-skatting over punk-funk guitar took me aback. But by the time you get to the classic-Simon chorus (I predict that virtually everyone will call this song "Who's Gonna Love You When Your Looks Are Gone?"), all is forgiven. The push-pull between Eno and Simon is like that over the whole album: two aging superstars stretching their limits and showing the kids how it's done. I told some friends the other day that it was like going to a family wedding and watching your parents get up, go to the dance floor, and start to break dance. You just can't entirely believe it.

Simon's always occasionally dipped into the well of funk, albeit more often Spanish-inflected grooves than Parliament-Funkadelic. But the music on this album, while as sweet and wry and smart as anything that's come before, has an overt aggression that Simon's almost always masked. The drums, electronics, and guitar that kicks in at the end of standout "How Can You Live in the Northeast?" sounds closer to Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks" or The Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?" than anyone could have expected to hear. Yet the album still has the same lyrical and intellectual preoccupations: aging, relationships, God, history, escape, family, America. Simon's always had a sharp edge in his lyrics that people often miss -- here the razor just sticks out a little farther from the candy wrapper. There's a terrific line on another great track, "Once Upon A Time There Was an Ocean," that sums it all up:

I figure that once upon a time I was an ocean.
But now I'm a mountain range.
Something unstoppable set into motion.
Nothing is different, yet everything's changed.
That's Paul Simon, and that's this album. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Hot Naked Greek Brotherly Love

More in Philly-gazing news: the Philadelphia Daily News's cover story is on Philly's not inconsiderable chances of winning the bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

From the article:

Let's play ball: Who can argue with a region where so much is already in place? The sports complex offers a great opportunity to consolidate, and the Navy Yard offers the kinds of acreage that could handle an Olympic Village and track and field stadium. Then there's Franklin Field and the Palestra, a number of universities with new facilities, plus the Convention Center and Fairmount Park. And what better test of an Olympic cyclist or triathlete than the Manayunk Wall?

A TV network's dream: With sites recently in Nagano, Sydney, Athens and Turin, and bound for Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012, Olympics viewers have learned to do two things: Buy TiVo or learn to enjoy events on taped delay. An East Coast venue would do wonders for live TV and a subsequently bigger audience.

Tolerable summers: OK, so the temperature does occasionally creep into the 90s. But what's the last hot spell you remember? Overall, you can't argue with a climate that's accommodating to everything from soccer to cycling to track and field.

Great track record: OK, it's not quite on the grand scale of the Olympics, but supporters obviously were cheered by the overall grades the city received for handling Live 8 and the Republican National Convention. Both serve as a springboard to this interest in a bid for the Summer Games.

It's Philly's time: With the 2012 Games going to London and the 2020 and the 2024 Games seemingly bound for cities in Africa and South America, the 2016 Games seem to be the USA's to lose.

So why not Philly? Will Bunch knows why:
(I)t is the rest of the world that will decide whether Philly gets the 2016 Olympics.

And the rest of the world hates America today, and probably won't like us much better when the votes are cast in 2009.

Our Olympic hopes are dead on arrival -- and for once it's not even Philadelphia's fault. It's those clowns 130 miles to the south of us.
But even still, let's look at the bright side -- Philadelphia hasn't had this kind of optimism since Ed Rendell was mayor back in the 1990s -- and then, it was really an optimism of last resort. When Philadelphia doesn't feel itself to be personally hated by the rest of the world, and when Philadelphians, including the Philly's snarkiest news blogger, can't even really muster up the energy to hate themselves, you know things are looking up... Or the end is near.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

This, Too, May Come Into the Light

The first two paragraphs of this NYT story ("Rove Is Using Threat of Loss to Stir G.O.P. ") took me by surprise:

WASHINGTON, May 5 — To anyone who doubts the stakes for the White House in this year's midterm Congressional elections, consider that Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the Democrat who would become chairman of the Judiciary Committee if his party recaptured the House, has called for an inquiry into the possible impeachment of President Bush over the war in Iraq.

Or listen to Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, who would run the Senate Judiciary Committee if the Democrats took the Senate. Mr. Leahy vowed in a recent interview to subpoena top administration officials, if he got the chance, to answer more questions about their secret eavesdropping program and what he considers faulty prewar intelligence.

My reaction was -- of course fear of these things will motivate the Republican base. But I wonder whether the Democrats could/should use this -- in direct mail, if nowhere else -- as a positive motivation to turn out Dems and others disgusted with the Bush White House.

Tired of the Bush administration stonewalling questions about warrantless eavesdropping or the war in Iraq? Support your local Democrats in the 2006 election.
Then we just might be able to get some answers -- and some real accountability.

Mix CD #1: The Book I Read

Longtime readers of Short Schrift know that I sometimes blog about music, but that this has never been a music blog. This week and periodically hereafter, I'm going to try to mix things up a little bit by including links to some of the mix CDs I occasionally tinker with and distribute to friends. The first project is my most recent completed mix, but one I've been fooling around with for a long time: a collection of my favorite songs about books.

The Book I Read -- named after a favorite song by Talking Heads (included here) -- mostly foregoes songs referencing individual books ("Romeo and Juliet," etc.) in favor of songs that contain notable but passing references to books, writing, or reading. I'm especially fond of songs that physically describe reading or use books (or a book, or reading) as a well-framed/-phrased conceit to describe or make an analogy to something else.

Also, there are two songs on this version of the album that don't use the word "book" or mention books at all in the lyrics. One is "Read, Eat, Sleep" by The Books. (How "books" figure here is I think self-explanatory.) The other is one of the New York demo versions of Bob Dylan's "Idiot Wind." The album version features the line "I can't feel you anymore, I can't even touch the books you've read." It isn't included in the demo, but you can imagine that line here as present in its absence, keeping close company with "Someone's got it in for me, they're planting stories in the press" and "Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves." Ah, intertextuality. Gotta love it.

Of course, the disc skews towards my musical likes -- virtually all of my favorite bands and artists are represented, and some of my favorite songs. There's blues, soul, folk, and some acoustic-electronic stuff, but it's mostly filled with classic pop and indie rock. I broke mix CD form a little bit by including two Beatles tracks, but they have two different primary singers, and c'mon -- it's The Beatles. Not including more than one Belle and Sebastian track was tough -- I think they have more songs mentioning books or with the word "book" in the title than any other band -- but in the end, it was easy to choose "Put the Book Back on the Shelf" as both the B&S selection and album closer.

An earlier version also had The Decemberists' "Song for Myla Goldberg" -- I struck it in favor of Joanna Newsom's "This Side of the Blue" both because I was including "Myla Goldberg" on another disc I've recently completed all about New York City, and because my good friend Brandon Kelley reminded me that Newsom's line about Camus was better than I remembered it being.

Tracklist:

1) "John the Revelator" -- Son House
2) "The Book of Love" -- The Monotones
3) "The Book I Read" -- Talking Heads
4) "The Way You Do the Things You Do" -- The Temptations
5) "Picture Book" -- The Kinks
6) "My Book" -- The Beautiful South
7) "Everyday I Write the Book" -- Elvis Costello
8) "Paperback Writer" -- The Beatles
9) "Cemetry Gates" -- The Smiths
10) "The Obvious Child" -- Paul Simon
11) "This Side of the Blue" -- Joanna Newsom
12) "Read, Eat, Sleep" -- The Books
13) "The Book Lovers" -- Broadcast
14) "A Day in the Life" -- The Beatles
15) "Some Kinda Love" -- The Velvet Underground
16) "Idiot Wind" -- Bob Dylan
17) "Pink Bullets" -- The Shins
18) "Poor Places" -- Wilco
19) "The Book of Love" -- Magnetic Fields
20) "Put the Book Back on the Shelf" -- Belle and Sebastian
Most of you are probably familiar with how RapidShare works, but in case you aren't:
1) follow the link above,
2) Scroll down and click the button marked "Free",
3) Wait around 60 seconds for a download-ticket to clear,
4) Enter the three-character security code,
5) Download and unzip the compressed file,
6) Listen on your computer, mp3 player, or roll your own ~80-min CD.
Also note: I believe the file for "Some Kinda Love" lists the artist as "W.E.B. Dubois" instead of "The Velvet Underground." It's an easy fix; I was, uh, thinking of something else. Enjoy.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Language and the Erotic Body

Saturday (May 6) is Sigmund Freud's 150th birthday, and Marty Moss-Coane -- Philadelphia's stalwart Charlie Rose-meets-granola-mom NPR/PBS interviewer -- hosted two professors of mine, Liliane Weissberg and Jean-Michel Rabaté, for an hour to talk about Freud's thought, its influence, etc., in an academic way for a non-academic audience.

So if you're at all interested in "the deep eroticism of everyday life," how "Freud does not equal Freud," why The Interpretation of Dreams is both "Freud's autobiography" and "the book of the 20th century," how Freud may or may not have invented neuropsychology, or just wondering why in the world anyone in literature departments is still interested in Freud, I heartily encourage you to check it out.

And since this is partly tied into people who figure in my academic career, I have footnotes.

Notes:

1) Moss-Coane mispronounces Liliane's name: it's actually "Lily-Ahnna."

2) You can see that Liliane and Jean-Michel are as noteworthy for their accents as the acuteness of their wits. I'm especially fond of Jean-Michel's "Yes!" and Liliane's "Well..." You can tell a lot about their personalities from their two favorite interjections.

3) Every Penn undergrad talks and sounds exactly like the first telephone caller.


"Godsploitation"

It's short, but this Reuters article ("Hollywood wonders, 'what would Jesus direct?'") is one of the better analyses I've seen of the trend towards Christian-friendly (and from Christian-friendly to Christian-targeting) movies from Hollywood. And it includes a coinage -- "godsploitation" -- that I am hoping and praying to Jesus will take root among the moviegoing and moviemaking culture.

Two highlights, both from Jonathan Bock, head of the marketing company Grace Hill Media:

On Sunday, 43 percent of America was in church... For studios to not recognize that [Christians are] an audience is like them saying, 'We're not marketing movies to men'...

There were these 'blaxploitation' films made for very small budgets, then (it went) through maybe you can make a buddy comedy, and (then you) get to the point where stories of African-Americans could be out there... There have been movies made that were low budget, lets call them 'Godsploitation films.' If they make money, they'll try more...

Hollywood, meet Christianity; Christianity, Hollywood. We know the two of you've had your differences in the past, but we hope the two of you will bond -- if nothing else, over your aspirations to universality and your lapses into shallow-minded cynicism.

Now, play nice -- or at least nicer than either of you did with science. Look at him, he's crying. Go apologize.

Update: Talk about shallow-minded cynicism -- go look at this douchebag. Right down to the soulpatch.

You know who else rocked the soulpatch? Satan himself. Since then it's been the mark of assholes everywhere. So we may know them by their ridiculous faces. And people think we should be afraid of Opus Dei or scientology. This is the guy who's going to fuck up our universe -- him and the teeming millions just like him.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Roll, Roll, Roll and Go

I just came out of what was really a quite good neighborhood group meeting, and I'm feeling charged. Now normally, neighborhood group meetings are now as they always have been -- awful. Even when they're productive, they're awful: people want to talk longer than they should, everyone has long-standing feuds, and they usually degenerate into incommensurate expectations. One person wants to talk about encouraging an increase property values while another is worried about increasing property taxes. One person wants to increase parking, and another wants to save every tree, shrub, and flower. If somebody wants to examine a copy of the group charter and apply for nonprofit status, the other complains that no one sent her neighbor a card while she was sick. And so it goes.

But there's a lot of excitement in our corner of Philadelphia -- home prices are going way, way up, homes are being renovated and kept or sold, younger people are moving in, including more white people and gay people than anyone's ever seen. At the same time, however, the older and established residents of our neighborhood, especially those who own their homes, are open, welcoming, and inclusive -- partly because it's long been an established middle-class neighborhood (if once but no longer an inexpensive one) and home values aren't shooting up so fast that they're creating vast inequalities in wealth and income, or radically changing the neighborhood's racial makeup -- as many middle-class black families are moving in as white ones. Also, the size and spacing of our houses is sufficient such that three houses turning over on a single block in the course of a year can make a big impact without being (as in some blocks of Center City Philadelphia) an unmanageable deluge. We seem to be pulling off a surge in development without full-fledged gentrification, which is kind of like economic growth without inflation -- as elusive as it is precious.

There's also political excitement in Philadelphia, too, with a full-blown mayoral race. Well, actually, it's not really full-blown. There's no Republican candidate in sight, and none of the Democratic candidates have officially declared their candidacy, due to an interpretation of Philly's new campaign finance reform bill that says its provisions only apply to "declared" candidates for mayor. Hence, the mayoral candidates are all "exploring" a mayoral run until the deadline to declare. Likewise, declared mayoral candidates have to resign from city council positions -- hence my favorite councilman Michael Nutter, who is obeying the donation limits set by the campaign law -- and is party to a lawsuit suing the other candidates to do the same -- isn't an officially declared candidate either. Welcome to Philadelphia.

There's been lots of political infighting, too. Essentially, there are three -- well, at least three -- Democratic parties in Philadelphia.

1) There are the labor guys, mostly white, who usually represent South Philadelphia and the Northeast. John Dougherty (aka "Johnny Doc") is the mayoral candidate from this group. Rick Mariano, a city council member who was recently convicted and jailed on corruption charges (he traded a plug for Erie Steel for a ~$25,000 loan to pay off credit card debts), was also big with the electrician's union and had close ties to Dougherty.

2) There's the established and mostly black political elite, mostly established in the Northwest part of the city where I live. It's all about committee members, ward bosses, relationships between state, local, and federal representatives, the city council's office, and the mayor -- everyone knows each other, and they run it very much like an old-fashioned political party, deciding on candidates, who will run, who will win -- at least until recently. Kia Gregory in a March issue of Philadelphia Weekly had a great write-up about Philly's Northwest Alliance and their feud with the third Democratic party in Philadelphia, which is...

3) The independent but increasingly powerful independent political operation in West Philadelphia run by U.S. Representative (and current Mayor John Street-anointed) Chaka Fattah. Fattah's people have their own networks, hire and support their own staffers, and increasingly compete with the Northwest Dems for turf. And there's probably a fourth Democratic party -- every once in a while the well-moneyed and well-educated white people in Chestnut Hill or Center City field a candidate independent of the major power bases of the party. Like Tom Knox, for instance. Although most of the people I know from this group support Nutter, who's reform-minded and pro-business; it's just that Nutter's scruples have both kept him from raising serious bank and alienated him from the political kingmakers whose support he'll ultimately need.

Anyways, that's what's happening around here. I remember in 2002 telling some friends that it was an exciting time to be living in Philadelphia, and an especially an exciting time to be on my South Philly street, which at the time was in the birth pangs of gentrification and is almost unrecognizable today. In 2003, Republican Sam Katz and John Street squared off, and Street ultimately swept to victory when it was determined that his office had been secretly wiretapped in he course of a federal corruption investigation. Anti-Republican paranoia and the feeling that someone was playing dirty politics -- hell, everyone already knew that Street was dirty -- turned turnout tumescent among the Dems, and we got John Street -- who really is the Democratic city equivalent of George W. Bush, a nice guy who's not very effective and doesn't always seem too bright, and who's up to his eyeballs in crooked shit that you can't ever really stick him with -- for four more years. Four years after I moved to Philly, going into 2007, the times have changed, and my street has changed, but I still feel just as excited to be living here.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Like she's Clarence Darrow

Best New York Times headline ever:

Anna Nicole Smith Wins Supreme Court Case


Need I say more?

Friday, April 28, 2006

I don't know where to begin in saying why or how much I enjoy this note (photographed in place, about ten feet from the scene of the crime):



Sigh. I love this woman.

Tremulous With Longing

Powell's Books' Review-a-Day is so often so very, very good that it's a scandal that it doesn't have an RSS feed. Instead, I wait for Arts & Letters Daily to graciously reprise the best bits -- and feel momentarily distressed, both that I may have missed out on something even better and like I can't even farm my own goods myself.

Exhibit A: Terry Castle's Atlantic Monthly write-up of Elsie de Wolfe's classic book on interior decoration The House in Good Taste. (Since the Atlantic Monthly has gone offline, Powell's often functions as a surrogate for that source as well.) It may start as a review of the book, but it turns into a witty, literary meditation on the appeal of all guides, new and old, to decoration; the auto-erotic and anti-maternal pleasures of glossy catalogues and "shelter mags"; and the author's own charming Anglophilic lesbianism. This whole thing may not necessarily be your bag -- speaking for myself, I'm an avowed consumer of "furniture porn" -- but you'll find something in here that I think you'll like.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Not Too Easy, I Hope

Here is a link to an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, juxtaposing professor salaries with standards-of-living in various cities. I had a long and, at times, brilliant analysis of this article and its significance for academia, cities, the middle and creative classes, and, indeed, the world.

However, this post was coldly and cruelly eaten.

So, you get this link instead -- and can make your own speculations.

Good day.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Hooray!... Oh.... Damn.

A smart post (one of several, but this one I'll quote in full) on Passport, the new Foreign Policy blog:

Mon, 04/24/2006 - 1:09pm.

The most recent Pew poll isn’t likely to put a spring in President Bush’s step. Democrats, though, will delight in trolling through the data: 50 percent of voters now have an unfavorable view of Republicans, Democrats have a 52-28 advantage on the crucial question of which party is “concerned with people like me,” 51 percent of independents are leaning towards voting Blue in ’06, and a on a generic national ballot they have a whopping 51 to 41 advantage.

So, we should get ready for a Democratic president? No. The survey suggests that the Republicans have a distinct advantage in that fight. They have three potential candidates—Rudy, Condi, and McCain—who have 50 percent plus approval rating among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. No Democratic ’08 er achieves this trifecta. Indeed, these three figures are all powerful enough brands in themselves to throw off the negativity that currently surrounds the GOP. If the Republican ticket is comprised of two from these three it would be awesomely strong and probably able to ride out any anti-Bush/anti-Republican backlash.

James Forsyth

Sunday, April 23, 2006

It's Because He's a Concerned and Reasonable Man


I don't know if I'm sure precisely why, but today's Doonesbury strip reminded me exactly -- exactly -- of one Gavin Craig.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Put Some on the Handle, Redux

I'm a facial hair and shaving enthusiast -- most of which stems from the fact that my Irish ancestry has left me little in the way of lip volume, but luckily, the hair on my face grows fast and thick (mostly courtesy of my mother's family). And this bleeds through into Short Schrift. There's my recent post/link about beards. You've seen my beard (a little on the scruffy side, but in a nice way) here. And most of you probably remember my post on the curiously Onion-echoing Gillette Fusion razor.

It's less well known, however, that I also have a professional interest in shaving, in my job as a literary critic. One of my favorite essays I've written so far in graduate school is about Buck Mulligan's mirror in James Joyce's Ulysses, which triangulates some lit-theory discourses on the mirror and representation with a cultural history of shaving. I'm also interested in barbers, valets, and the transition between the barber shop and self-shaving that occured in the late Enlightenment but only really solidified in the early 20th century. (Ben Franklin was a notable early adopter and proponent.)

There are plenty of great moments in literature and film that focus on shaving -- from the masked ritual violence in Melville's "Benito Cereno" to the psychological drama of the Hernando Téllez short story "Just Lather, That's All," which I think I read in high school but (like Faulkner's "Barn Burning," Elie Wiesel's Night, and every Shakespeare and Sophocles play, but unlike Johnny Tremaine or The Red Badge of Courage) has always stuck with me. Sometimes, there's a comic effect -- all of the male guests at Emma Bovary's wedding have terrible cuts on their faces from shaving in bad light. Or in A Hard Day's Night, when George is teaching Shake how to use a safety razor, Shake has a great punchline: "It's not my fault. I come from a long line of electricians." The best shaving scenes aren't just about isolation (although some very good ones in movies are -- e.g. the parallel montage in Schindler's List or the attempted suicide in The Royal Tenenbaums). They're about moments of intimacy, danger, and the threat of violence -- usually between two men.

So -- while I'm not nearly as much of a shave cook as some -- I read this article, titled "The Best A Man Can Get" [Books & Culture, via Arts & Letters Daily], with relish -- like Leopold Bloom eating a kidney. It's mostly about Corey Greenberg, technology shill for "The Today Show," who's become a passionate advocate for traditional shaving:

In the Today Show studio, Greenberg lathered up his face with English shaving cream and a badger brush, whipped out a vintage double-edge razor, and made a passionate case that the multi-billion-dollar shaving industry has been deceiving its customers ever since 1971, when Gillette (no small advertiser on network television) introduced the twin-blade razor. Everything you need for a fantastically close and comfortable shave, Greenberg said, was perfected by the early 20th century.
Then, however, the author (Andy Crouch, who has serious chops, but about whom I know nothing) takes over, and the essay turns into this nearly lyrical hymn to the art of shaving, and the gap between electric and cartridge shaving and the straight or traditional safety razor:
In the logic of high technology, the fundamental premise is our incapacity. We are tired, fuzzy (in mind and face), and in need of a simple, safe, efficient solution. Gillette's army of engineers go to work, and place in our hand "the best a man can get." But there is another kind of logic—call it the logic of the blade. The double-edged razor blade, of course, is technology too, of quite an advanced kind. But the blade does not exist to underwrite our fuzzy, lazy, half-asleep lives. It requires something of us—discipline, skill, patience. The fundamental premise of the blade is that we can learn to handle fearsome things in delicate ways.
And this remarkable reading of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey:
Homer's heroes bathe because they feast: no scene of feasting in the great halls of an Achaean king is complete without the visit to the bathchamber before the meal. The Iliad, the book of war on the shores of Troy, has almost no such scenes. Its men are at war, and too busy to bathe. But the Odyssey, though not without its adventures and battles, is a book that celebrates the man at home—the pleasure of the bath, the board, and the bed. Just offstage and never forgotten in the poem is the murderous bath Clytemnestra and her lover Aigisthus prepare for Agamemnon, a cautionary tale that reminds the heroes that baths can be dangerous and vulnerable places, and that the home requires, in its own way, as much valor and steadfastness from both husband and wife as the battlefield.
I'm not nearly as far gone as some of these guys, but I really do geek out on all of this stuff -- the poetry as well as the razors. I currently use a combination of electric devices and blades to keep my beard tight. You need at least as much precision to keep up a beard as you do to regularly shave it off, and they haven't made a straight razor yet that can reliably trim a beard. (Hell, even the electric trimmers don't do a very good job -- most of the time, I wind up using scissors.) Still, the enthusiasm driving these guys -- and the sweet, sweet allure of early 20th-century technology -- almost makes me want to convert.

Different Dreams Running Together

The Flaming Lips with Bob Dylan in Kilkenny, Ireland?
Man, my subconscious must be all turned around. [Pitchfork]

P.S.: No, it's true. [Aiken Productions]

I wonder if the Lips are going to act as Dylan's backup band, like they did for Beck. Or if the kids in the animal suits are going to join Mr. Zimmerman on stage. (I can imagine Dylan, now, growling in his best old-man-neighbor voice: "Put that beach ball away!")

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Speak, Memory

Last night, I went to a reading at UPenn by author and New Yorker staff writer Ian Frazier. Frazier has written some of the smartest and funniest pieces in The New Yorker in recent years, including "Invaders," which I plug endlessly.

There's a videorecording of the reading available at the Kelly Writers House's Ian Frazier page. (You have to click "streaming.") There's probably one or two too many introductions (they played better if you were there), but Frazier picks up around the 16 minute mark.

Frazier read his award-winning 2005 essay "If Memory Doesn't Serve," from the Atlantic Monthly, and a couple of strong pieces about fishing. As you can tell from the background noise, it was a really cracking, funny read. Well worth it, especially if you've got the time.

From Beau Brummels to The Zombies

My brother Sean recently directed me to a terrific music blog called Past Tense Music. The blog itself is in Brazilian, but it covers a wide range of American and British music -- mostly late '60s garage-rock psychedelia, but today they just posted some 1977 material by The Jam.

There's fantastic stuff on here: The Kinks, The Who, The Zombies, Love, Os Mutantes, and The Sonics, along with more obscure Brazilian and American psych bands. ("Black Monk Time" by The Monks -- an "anti-Beatles" proto-punk group of tonsured American GIs stationed in Germany -- is a special treat.) If you ever fell in love with oldies radio, or the incomparable Nuggets anthology, it's well worth checking out.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Casualization, What?

According to Money Magazine,"college professor" is the 2nd best job in America, right after software engineer.

2. College professor
Why it's great While competition for tenure-track jobs will always be stiff, enrollment is rising in professional programs, community colleges and technical schools -- which means higher demand for faculty.

It's easier to break in at this level, and often you can teach with a master's and professional experience. Demand is especially strong in fields that compete with the private sector (health science and business, for example).

The category includes moonlighting adjuncts, graduate TAs and college administrators.

What's cool Professors have near-total flexibility in their schedules. Creative thinking is the coin of the realm. No dress code!

What's not The tick-tick-tick of the tenure clock; grading papers; salaries at the low end are indeed low.

Top-paying job University presidents' pay can hit $550,000 or more, but most make about half that.

Education Master's or professional degree; Ph.D. for most tenured jobs.
As the detailed view indicates, the problem with the professoriate is that there are readily available jobs and high-paying jobs, but the two don't really meet. Being a professor is more like being an actor than an engineer -- if you're good enough, there's work available, but only a small but visible handful of people are getting the press and accolades and really raking it in.

Still, though, as Dan McQuade notes at Philadelphia Will Do, "blogger" isn't anywhere on the list.

(Yet.)

Thursday, April 13, 2006

A Philadelphia Story, Pt. 2

I swear, part of me knew it -- Philadelphia's CityPaper reports that the 12th St. Gym protests I wrote about yesterday were cooked up by supporters of Bob Casey, Jr. -- a.k.a. the Democratic challenger to Rick Santorum's senate seat in PA.

You can follow the whole unfolding story -- I did -- via Philebrity, a.k.a. Philadelphia's very best indie-rock-reject wannabe-Gawker blog.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

A Philadelphia Story

Philadelphia's largest gay neighborhood is called -- if you've never heard this, I swear I'm not making it up -- "The Gayborhood." As a Philly vacation and travel service site notes, "Philadelphia's queer enclave overlaps with the officially designated Washington Square West neighborhood. The Gayborhood is most strongly associated with 12th and 13th streets, especially from Pine in the south to Walnut in the north, but spills out to the surrounding areas. It includes such institutions as Woody's (a gay bar), Sisters (a lesbian bar), 12th Air Command and Pure (gay clubs), Giovanni's Room (an LGBT bookstore), and the William Way Community Center. All of these establishments, as well as most straight-owned Gayborhood businesses, are friendly to queer and straight alike regardless of orientation. "

Well, even "friendly" has its limits, especially when that friendliness turns out to be two-faced. The 12th Street Gym -- which, even more than Woody's or Giovanni's Room has been a central institution and meeting place for LGBQ Philadelphians -- recently faced a very public protest and near-total boycott by the gay community. The reason? Bob Guzzardi, one of the co-owners of the gym, turned out to be a major financial and political supporter of PA Senator Rick Santorum. Yes, that Rick Santorum; the man-on-dog guy, among many other less headline-busting but equally reactionary positions.

This was one of those stories that you just knew would drag on for weeks and weeks, not just because of the political entrenchment on both sides, but because absolutely nothing in Philadelphia happens at more than a glacial pace unless the right people are getting paid off. It was stunning, then, to see that on the same day that the boycott was set to begin, Guzzardi agreed to sell his shares in the gym to co-owner/manager Rick Piper. The protest turned into a victory party -- as Tom Fitzgerald wrote in the Inky, "(t)hey won the battle without firing a shot."

I don't really have much in the way of comment on this story; it might be a harbinger of change, it might be a blip on the radar. Heck, maybe it'll turn out the whole thing was orchestrated by
the one owner just to get his partner to cash out cheap. But it made me feel good to hear that at least in some cases, people won't stand for you make your living off of them while supporting people who hate their guts. What if that were always true?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

While You Are Not Safe I Am Not Safe

From the NYT Book Review: rock-star music and cultural critic Greil Marcus reviewing stories about Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" at 50.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Emotional Physics

On the lighter, more life-affirming side of things, there's an excellent interview in today's Pitchfork with Neko Case, my favorite uber-sexy alt-country vocal star and superlative indie New Pornographer, whose new album "Fox Confessor Brings The Flood" might be my favorite of the year so far.

She's not afraid to get snarky, taking stars to task for their use of autotune and crappy, crappy songwriting -- neither inventive nor classic. Who does she love? Her bandmates, Jackie Wilson, Roy Orbison, Feist, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Kanye West, and Brian Eno and Roxy Music. The only problem with the interview (as well as the album) is that it ends way too soon.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

“The Most Worrisome Thing"

I don't exactly know how Xeni Jardin at Boing Boing figured out how to get her hands on it a day before it was even officially posted on the web, but in this week's New Yorker, Seymour Hersh has an article on the Bush administration's not-entirely-secret-but-nevertheless-shocking plans for nuclear war -- with Iran. (It's also worth re-reading Hersh's earlier article on "The Coming Wars.")

Okay. My first thought is that something is going to go down inside or because of Iran in the near future, and that something will probably not be very good. Americans -- and I mean all Americans, from voters and non-voters to Congress -- need to get serious about finding out more about Iran, its people, its history, its domestic and regional politics, its military capabilities, everything. We should know more about Iran than we did about Russia or China during the cold war, and know way more about Iran than we know about Iraq in either of the gulf wars. Sometimes I wonder if part of the reason so many of the American people were so convinced that Saddam Hussein had helped plan the attacks on Sept. 11 and posed an immediate threat to the U.S. was that everyone had stopped paying attention after the first Gulf war. If the only cultural memory of Iran in America is of the 1979 revolution, the taking of American hostages, the WWF wrestler "The Iron Sheik," and fatwas against Salman Rushdie, we're all in very serious trouble. Again.

Have you noticed that -- with the exception of Laura Secor's article last November, also from The New Yorker -- you never see news or magazines stories that talk about Iran's domestic politics any more? There's a line in Hersh's essay that's almost a throwaway: “The Iranian economy is in bad shape, and Ahmadinejad is in bad shape politically,” a European intelligence official tells Hersh. Why don't we hear about that more often on "Hardball" or "Meet the Press"? Why do we always assume that a bad political leader of a country either has full support of his people or has totally suppressed and dominated them? Is it hard to imagine a world where the average Iranian citizen might say something like "I don't like this Ahmadinejad guy. But at least he's tough, and he didn't raise my taxes." That seems to be the way a lot of American voters feel about our own resident nutcases hell-bent on bringing disaster on everyone's heads.

Speaking of which -- there is something almost ennobling about Bush's belief in the transformative power of democracy, and the stance of near-tragic resolve he takes up in wanting to address unpopular problems during his Administration that no future President, Republican or Democrat, will likely be able to face. After all, Lincoln probably could have negotiated with the Confederacy, saved a lot of bloodshed and held off on any immediate military threat to the Union, despite the attack on Fort Sumter. Instead, we had the Civil War.

But every reasonable observer (not to mention common sense) seems to say that just like with Iraq, the Bush administration is totally fucking deluding themselves about what will happen if we hit Iran with a bunker-busting nuke. The actual use (as opposed to the threat) of conventional bombs and nuclear weapons have never worked as a deterrent to the breakout of open war. The bombing of military and civilians in Germany and firebombing and exploding nuclear weapons on the population in Japan only worked at the end of a costly conventional war, when neither country had any allies left. The models we have for what we're proposing: initial bombing, followed possibly by conventional war with well-allied nations with the goal of regime change -- are really limited to the Blitz and Vietnam. Neither of which had the expected outcome. If we bomb Iran, no one -- neither Iran, the insurgency in Iraq, Hezbollah, or Al-Qaeda -- will back down. Which is a problem for us, since the immediate threat to the United States isn't from Iran-launched nuclear weapons, but from international terrorism.

And really, while we all need to worry about an Iranian nuclear power, the countries that really need to worry about it are Iran's neighbors -- above all, Israel. I wouldn't rule out the possibility that the United States is at least partially trying to intimidate Iran into negotiations from a position of strength, especially to protect Israel. It's a crazy act of brinksmanship, but it's not unreasonable. It really just remains to be seen whether or not the Iranian civil government and religious oligarchy are deterrable. I also wouldn't be surprised to see us play a back up role (either covertly, with intelligence and tactical help, or with some public and/or material asssistance) in a unilateral attack by Israel on Iran's nuclear facilities, à la their 1981 attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor in Osirak. In many ways, Israel is a more natural agent against Iran than the United States, because they have more to lose in the event Iran goes nuclear and less to lose than we do in terms of exposure to terrorism, if only because it sometimes seems like everyone who really wants to commit acts of terrorism in Israel is already taking steps to make that happen.

But this brings us back to Bush, and his messianic hopes -- "the most worrisome thing," according to the U.S. rep who spoke with Sy Hersh. When Israel attacked Osirak, it had every reason to support regime change in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was totally awful, and the only thing he had in common with the neighboring Muslim regimes was a hatred of Israel, coupled with a unique willingness to use WMDs in warfare. Israel is willing to target foreign and terrorist leaders, and it wouldn't have been surprising for them to mount an attempt against Hussein and the Ba'ath hierarchy. But Israel was a lot smarter in 1981 then we were in 2003 -- it knew that any attempt it made to try to shake up Iraq, espcially through force of arms, would have totally rallied the Iraqi people against them. Instead, they destroyed the reactor. The message was clear, but limited: we will not tolerate a hostile nuclear power. The only problem with the Israelis attacking Iran's facilities in a similar fashion is that there's a chance that conventional bombing won't do the trick, and a nuclear attack by Israel on Iran would break loose very nearly the same amount of hell as a nuclear attack by the United States. More, possibly -- since Israel isn't a recognized nuclear power.

I believe that Iran cannot be allowed to have nuclear weapons. (I don't really think North Korea, India, Pakistan, China, Russia, or Israel should have nuclear weapons either, but whatever.) If our options are exhausted, and it requires a military strike to make that happen, fine. Our best hope is that Iran is years away from the bomb, that negotiations can hold off the immediate threat, and that the long-term political transformation of Iran is shifting in our favor. (Isn't it the Bush administration that's always stressing taking the long view of history?)

But we -- all of us -- need to be prepared for the shitstorm that follows if anyone takes military action against Iran. This is the real thing, and it is as worrisome as hell itself. Pay attention.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The National Interest

Hmmm.

Here's what I'm thinking -- and forgive me if someone else has already gotten there yet. President Bush has the authority to declassify documents like the National Security Estimate. This is what probably keeps what he and V.P. Cheney did from being criminal, at least if they fell short of knowingly blowing Valerie Plame's cover.

But is there a particular procedure in place -- say, a document that needs to be filed and signed -- in order for the President to make something declassified? He can't just wake up one morning, wave his hand over the NSE, and make it public information? Or can he?

If not, then this document is going to come out, if not during the course of Libby's criminal trial, then through political pressure. And it will be a political disaster -- the president's signature authorizing the declassification of national security information for no reason other than to silence and punish a critic. And there will be subpoenas for other documents and testimony as well -- especially regarding whether Bush, Cheney, or both did, in fact, knowingly disclose Valerie Plame's identity.

This is where the Bush administration may finally have to choose between denying what it may have done or making a full disclosure in the assertion of the legality of its actions, and those of its former aides. To date, they've almost always maintained a middle position, asserting their fundamental (bordering on definitional) innocence and refusing to give any evidence supporting that assertion. It's a way of claiming the bare minimum of adhering to the law while simulataneously presenting oneself as above it. Well, the clock is ticking: that time might finally be over.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Friday, March 31, 2006

High and Low

Over at Snarkmarket, there's a comment thread on the origin of the phrase "blood and treasure" that I spent way too much time on. You have to scroll all the way through to see it all.

And lest you think I spend the entire day with my head up the crevices of the 17th century, check out this unbelievably awesome commercial I saw this morning, watching Fargo on Bravo, of all things.

If you need further enticement, just know that the phrase "APPETITE FOR URINE" is featured prominently. Along with "SCIENTIFIC BLACKLIGHT."

Monday, March 27, 2006

Oh, Sigmund

For all the times I've gotten all brainy and booky in this blog, it's probably not super-clear what my positions are vis-a-vis some of the big intellectual thinkers and movements of our time. Now, for most people, this probably isn't very important, but in the academy, and especially in literary studies, most people expect you to have a pretty well-staked intellectual position. In addition to giving you a critical modus operandi, it also relates you to other people's work, whether living or dead. Sometimes this comes with a full-fledged label and a whole intellectual and/or political program, but for most of us, it boils down to something like the answer you'd give if you were in a rock band and someone asked you who your influences were.

Most of my influences, for one reason or another, speak German. I really like Nietzsche, and have since my freshman year of college. I also am a big fan of Walter Benjamin, whom I would probably give as my answer if you ever asked me to name my favorite literary critic. (Marjorie Perloff is my favorite living poetry critic, in case you were wondering.) Other favorite Germans include Max Weber (my most quoted sociologist), Martin Heidegger (next to Heisenberg, the world's smartest Nazi), Immanuel Kant (reads a little drier, but that's only because he's smarter than you), G.W.F. Hegel (mostly for his arguments against immediacy and the ideal of his commitment to criticism, leavened with a healthy dose of pragmatism), and Georg Simmel (another eccentric philosopher/sociologist who wrote the wonderful "The Metropolis and Mental Life", along with The Philosophy of Money).

But another German-speaker whom I like a whole lot, and who's taken almost as much of a drubbing as Heidegger, is Sigmund Freud. Now Freud is one of those guys who, despite the occasional dip into pedantry, quotes really well -- only his quotes often don't reflect very well on him. As propositions, some of his positions don't look like they hold up; and considering him either as a doctor or as a scientist, neither do some of his ethical judgments.

But when you read Freud's books -- especially The Interpretation of Dreams, along with Beyond the Pleasure Principle or Civilization and its Discontents -- you get a sense of the enormous weight and power of this man's thought, the struggle that brings it forth, and the simultaneous depth and freedom of the intellect behind it all. When you consider this paradox, only Nietzsche is really comparable to Freud. And despite all of the criticisms you could make of him, I think that Freud is basically right: that conscious prohibitions often lead to unconscious behavior -- here the German is (un)bewusst, which really means (un) aware -- manifesting themselves in symptoms, which in turn have meaning.

There a couple of pretty good articles on Freud that have popped up recently, which prompted this whole line of thinking. The first, by Jerry Adler -- not, presumably, the actor from "The Sopranos" and "Mad About You" -- is from Newsweek, which I'd stopped reading in high school, but I picked up at the gym today when I saw SF on the cover. It has a terrific first paragraph:

We stand now at a critical moment in the history of our civilization, which is usually the case: beset by enemies who irrationally embrace their own destruction along with ours, our fate in the hands of leaders who make a virtue of avoiding reflection, our culture hijacked by charlatans who aren't nearly as depraved as they pretend in their best-selling memoirs. As we turn from the author sniveling on Oprah's couch, our gaze is caught by a familiar figure in the shadows, sardonic and grave, his brow furrowed in weariness. So, he seems to be saying, you would like this to be easy. You want to stick your head in a machine, to swallow a pill, to confess on television and be cured before the last commercial. But you don't even know what your disease is.
The other, by Jenny Diski for the London Review of Books, is written in an equally jaunty style but has an even more mixed assessment. It's mostly a review of a new biography of Freud's wife Martha, who by all accounts was a pretty tame and well-adjusted (if in an eerie, excessively submissive way) hausfrau. There are some nice moments here, too:
Imagine if Freudian analysis had gone quite another way and the master had studied the normality he apparently had so close to home instead of its deformation. What was it that Emmeline (whose bossiness and self-absorption Freud hated) and Berman Bernays did so right? How could he not have been in a rage to know? But what intellectual innovator would want to give up interesting for ordinary, especially when ordinary, if left to its own devices and sublimation of desires, arranged such a comfortable life for him?
The two come together, however, in this section of Adler's article, on Freud's technique of word association:

You can see this clearly in his 1901 book "Psychopathology of Everyday Life." Here, Freud discusses an encounter with a young man who cannot recall the Latin word "aliquis" ("someone") in a passage from Virgil. To Freud, such moments are never without significance, and the very obscurity of the slip gave it added interest. Freud wouldn't waste couch time on a slip that was obvious to the person who uttered it. He employs his trademark technique of "free association" ("tell me the first thing that comes into your mind ... ") to uncover a link to "liquid," then to "blood," and through several other steps to the revelation that the young man was worried that a woman with whom he had been intimate had missed her period. What a tour de force for psychoanalysis!

Does it detract from our appreciation of his genius that the freelance historian Peter Swales has shown that there most probably was no such young man, that the memory lapse was probably committed by Freud himself and that the woman he was worried about was Minna Bernays, the sister of Freud's own wife?

Sunday, March 26, 2006

In Profile

I think this is one of my better recent photographs. (Taken this afternoon by the lovely Sylvia.)

Friday, March 24, 2006

Another Reading Assignment

To keep running with the demographics/gender/unintended consequences thread, here's another oldie but goodie (even though sadly, it makes very few references to the Mongol war machine). It's Caitlin Flanagan's seminal (in my opinion) article from the March 2004 "Nanny Wars": "How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement."

Compared to this, all of Flanagan's writing at The New Yorker has been (however capable) a terrible disappointment. From this article, I really thought she was going to be a conservative lady Gladwell, like David Brooks crossed with Barbara Ehrenreich. And who knows? Given enough time, she just might.

(Update: interested parties e-mail me for a PDF of the Flanagan article.)

Barbarians at the Gate

Over at Snarkmarket they've got a post on changing demographics in the 21st century, referencing a Foreign Policy article on "The Return of Patriarchy" I shot to LPS a while back, prompted by a New York Times Op-Ed on gender imbalances in college applications that had been flagged earlier. So, like cities last year, demographics and population seem to be the thing everyone in our little virtual salon is thinking about at the moment.

But wait! They're totally related! Here's my original comment on Robin's Snarkmarket post:

That Foreign Policy article on patriarchy reminds me of an even more awesome article by Ian Frazier that appeared last year in The New Yorker, about Genghis Khan.

The gist of both of them seems to be this: cities and advanced civilizations, with their culture, commerce, safety, and pluralism are wonderful things. But sooner or later, the barbarians will come to the gate, and with their axes, horses, draft animals, will either burn your cities to the ground or force you to open your gates, and two centuries from now, all of your children will look like them and speak their language.

When I was in high school, I had a formula for this (it was actually about European languages): "Sooner or later, everyone gets fucked by a Viking."

To modernize it a bit, "the creative class" inevitably gets outdone by "the procreative class": new urbanites are no match for the procreative power of exurban conservatives or the immigrant and indigent urban populations they seem to be displacing.

To some degree, this is really Joel Kotkin's argument against Richard Florida in a nutshell. Kotkin wants cities to stop trying flashy gimmicks to draw in the childless older, gay, and young professional populations, and invest in infrastructure, schools, and the other things that will keep and attract families. We've also been down this road with the cities-schools thread that bounced back and forth on Short Schrift and Snarkmarket last year.

Now I've argued with Kotkin before, and I still think this demographic sword cuts both ways. An aging and childless population, however wealthy, is a terrifying prospect for nations, because it requires huge expenditures in health care, pensions, etc., without a corresponding increase in revenues. For cities and local governments, though, it's a different story, because their revenues and expenditures are balanced in almost entirely the opposite direction. Having a population of the old, gay, and childless is guaranteed property tax revenue without a corresponding expenditure on schools, transit (to some extent), etc.

So we have a demographic contradiction -- cities have strong incentives to get rid of kids, while nations have strong incentives to encourage children and childrearing. (School districts are different -- they want school-age children, or more to the point, they want the money associated with children. But the governments of cities and counties don't, at least, not really.)

Maybe this is an aspect we need to bring to the forefront in our discussions of cities and communities, as it's already been brought to the forefront in most discussions of health care. The policies we make now really have to address the question of what kind of population we want to have, the unintended consequences of well-intended changes, and the unimaginable: how to correct the mistakes of the present without repeating the sins of the past.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

This, Apparently, Is What People on the West Coast Think Philadelphia Is Like

Via Philebrity and YouTube, a commercial for Jack-in-the-Box's new "Philly" cheese steak.

Meanwhile, according to Elle Decor -- which has a slightly different sensibility -- Philadelphia is "a kind of Madrid on the Delaware River." (Liz Spikol/Philadelphia Weekly/Philadelphia Will Do.)

Talk about the two Philadelphias.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

That's a Lot of Escarole

Over at Snarkmarket, they're talking about various ways you could peg consumption to the cost of oil. But this wire story I read today gave me another idea for a mind-boggling metric: the federal debt ceiling.

The U.S. Senate just voted to raise it to nearly $9 trillion. ($8,965,000,000,000 to be exact.) Richard Cowan, the author of the Reuters article, notes that even the senators themselves can't quite wrap their head around that many zeroes, let alone most citizens.

John Nolan, a mathematics professor at American University in Washington, said that a trillion is "not a big number at all" for some theoretical problems. "But in terms of practical numbers it's just overwhelming."

So he conjured up a spending spree, something Americans might be able to relate to. "If you spent a million dollars a day for a million days (2,739 years)," you'd hit $1 trillion, Nolan observed.

To spend $1 trillion in the average American life span of 77 years, you'd have to be on a lifetime spending spree of about $35,580,857 and change every day from birth.

So here's my idea: instead of indexing something relative to its cost of a barrel of oil (which is only going to go lower and probably become less meaningful as the price of oil goes up), let's take the cost of the item, multiply it by a million, and figure out how many years you'd have to buy a million of that item every day to reach the debt ceiling.

60 GB Video iPod ($399 + tax) @ one million iPods per day: 57.53 years
Leather Armchair ($2090 + tax) @ one million chairs per day: 10.98 years
Two Bedroom Condo in NYC (Upper West Side) ($1.2 million) @ one thousand units per day (let's not be greedy!) : 20.49 years
One year's graduate tuition at Princeton University ($32,450) @ one million students per year: 276.27 years
One million barrels of oil per day ($60.75/barrel): 404.30 years
Twenty million barrels of oil per day (about the rate of U.S. oil consumption): 20.22 years

This is where oil consumption/prices and the national debt show themselves to be mutually terrifying. The only consulation is that we will just might run out of money before we run out of oil. If we're lucky.