Friday, August 31, 2007

Data Under Your Mattress

Ben Vershbow takes this Economist article and perfects the Google-as-bank conceit:

In these first few generations of personal computing, we've operated with the "money in the mattress" model of data storage. Information assets are managed personally and locally—on your machine, disks or external drives. If the computer crashes, the drive breaks, it's as though the mattress has burned. You're pretty much up the creek. Today, though, we're transitioning to a more abstracted system of remote data banking, and Google and its competitors are the new banks.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Absence of Musical Memory

An experiment:

It wasn't that I suddenly hated the music I liked. It wasn't even thinking about each individual cassette or CD that made my heart itchy. I realized one evening how the blend of colors on their neatly ordered spines had become as familiar as wallpaper. I wanted to hear something new. I wanted to have heard nothing...

Do it now, actually. Close this window, put all your music onto an external hard drive, give it to someone you trust and tell them to use it as a paperweight until next September, or at any rate until you use your safe word. Or be braver than I was, and tell them it's an early birthday present...

The idea is to scramble your musical memory. Possibilities:

1. Explore new genres.
2. Become a time traveler ("Spend a month in 1975 or 1984 or whatever").
3. Listen to one artist (or one song/album) obsessively
4. Chance searches on blogs or P2P (e.g., the word "London").
5. Give yourself over to friends' recommendations.
6. "Pop World Cup" (pick a country).
7. Invent your own.

I've had to do this a handful of times because of hard-drive failures.

Sweet and Forthcoming, Part Two

Another hot read on the new book beat isn't so new. Joan Acocella has a fine review of Jean and Robert Hollander's new translation of Dante's Paradiso ("Cloud Nine," The New Yorker), which completes their version of the trilogy.

Acocella's writing is so smart that it makes what even the Hollanders admit might be the most boring book in the canon sound fascinating. For example, she draws out a great metaphor Dante uses for the pilgrim's vision of God (which she calls "the most stunning [Dante] ever made"):

My memory of that moment is more lost
than five and twenty centuries make dim that enterprise
when, in wonder, Neptune at the Argo’s shadow stared.

Thus all my mind, absorbed, was gazing . . .

Never mind what the image has been brought in to describe. (Scholars are still arguing about that.) Focus only on the image. Jason and the Argonauts, in the first ship ever made, are sailing across the ocean on a dangerous mission, to capture the Golden Fleece. Neptune, the god of the ocean, looks up from the seafloor. Through the fathomless depths, he sees a shadow—the boat—and stares at it in wonder. Though he is a god, he has never seen anything like this. Because of the context, we know that Dante is asking us to consider his amazement as he approaches the Godhead. But clearly something else, too, is going on here: Dante thinks he is cause for amazement. Like the Argo, the pilgrim is travelling across vast blue depths (Heaven) on a mission that no one has undertaken before. Similarly, no poet has ever made so ambitious a journey of the imagination as the Divine Comedy represents. Could Dante be suggesting that, like the ancient god seeing the little boat, the Christian God might be astonished to behold the poet’s flight? Such a thought is blasphemous—God isn’t surprised by anything, he foreordained it all—but Dante was an exceedingly confident artist. In any case, this may be the most wonderful act of wonder in Western poetry.

Acocella also includes some no-nonsense advice: if you want to read the Inferno, buy this translation, but the copious notes aren't for beginners. Also, compared to the cinematic concreteness of the Inferno, Paradiso is well, kind of dull -- an exercise in systematic theology. But as Acocella shows, it is also (like the rest of the Commedia) a great work of poetry, with blindingly brilliant moments of insight and lyrical wonder. Yum.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Sweet and Forthcoming

Snap -- David Leavitt's new novel, The Indian Clerk, takes on the relationship between Cambridge mathematicians G.H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan. And it's getting great reviews. (Keep an eye out for more.) And litblog The Elegant Variation has a whole week of posts on the book, including a fun-snarky turn from Leavitt himself. Sounds like a winner.

Also a nice buy, if you've got the scratch: the new Kubrick box set (c/o Daring Fireball). 2001, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut, for $56. American dollars. No Strangelove or Barry Lyndon, but if you're me, you've got those.

With the Lights Out

From the New York Times, on militias seizing the electrical grid in Iraq:

Because of the lack of functioning dispatch centers, Mr. Wahid said, ministry officials have been trying to control the flow of electricity from huge power plants in the south, north and west by calling local officials there and ordering them to physically flip switches.

But the officials refuse to follow those orders when the armed groups threaten their lives, he said, and the often isolated stations are abandoned at night and easily manipulated by whatever group controls the area.

This kind of manipulation can cause the entire system to collapse and bring nationwide blackouts, sometimes seriously damaging the generating plants that the United States has paid millions of dollars to repair.

Cities close to the generators refuse to share power -- payback for the Saddam era, when Baghdad lit up while the rest of the country was dark.

But in the metropolis, "with summer temperatures routinely exceeding 110 degrees, and demand soaring for air-conditioners and refrigerators, those blackouts deeply undermine an Iraqi government whose popular support is already weak."

Imagine any American city or region, in the middle of your fifth summer with no refrigeration, no A/C, no lights for most of the day. Imagine the dissatisfaction that would creep -- no, storm -- in, with the government, with the contractors, with the army, with the bastards across the country mqaking this happen.

Imagine trying to open a business, or operate a shopping district. Everything has to be in the daylight, and everything has to be open, to meet and buy, sell, goods, clothes, food, bread. These markets become targeted. Life during wartime. Was Vietnam like this?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

From Street Drugs to the Front Page

I am a crazy-go-nuts fanboy of The Wire, David Simon's HBO series (mostly) about drugs and cops in Baltimore. Since the end of The Sopranos earlier this year, The Wire is the undisputed king of cats in the TV drama universe, albeit a much more purely critical success than a popular one.

This is partly because The Sopranos, despite its indie-movie style and Scorsesean/Bunuelian artistic flourishes, was arguably more of a culmination of traditional entertainment television production than a total revolution within it. The Sopranos was equal parts sitcom and soap opera, and the social commentary and psychodrama grow out of that TV-DNA. The Wire is up to something different -- more like the nineteenth-century novel in some ways (e.g., its social concerns) but in others a more fully twenty-first century creation.

For one thing, it owes more of its fandom to on-demand downloads and DVD repeats than the event-driven episodes of The Sopranos or other successful HBO series. This doesn't seem like an accident. So many of the character and story arcs play out so gradually that they're difficult to follow within a single episode, or even two in a row. The show demands to be watched a disc or even a season at a time. At the same time, every episode has its own unity -- it's just that the unity is more thematic than dramatic, exploring a single idea or set of ideas more often than a single unified action. But the plot never slows down -- virtually everything is significant, and no episode can really stand entirely on its own.

Each season, too, has its own unity. While the first season explored the world of crime from both the side of the criminal and the police, with sympathy but (somehow) without sentiment, each following season adds a new sphere to explore: the worlds of work (a dockworkers' union), politics (a mayoral race), education (a middle school).
The goal -- which I think, so far, has been achieved -- is the most thorough and honest portrayal of contemporary life in an American city ever attempted in narrative fiction.

I recently found this great interview with Simon in Fader -- it's from December, when the fourth season was winding up. It gives a tremendous amount of insight into the creation of the show, and there are even some goodies for diehard fans in there. (News to me: an actor prominent in the third and fourth season as an AME church deacon had a previous life as a major drug dealer called Little Melvin.)

It also gives a great peek at the new world of the fifth (and probably last) season, shooting now -- newspapers. Simon got his start as a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun at the height of the crack epidemic in the 1980s, before writing Homicide: Life on the Street, which fellow Baltimorean Barry Levinson turned into a great network drama on NBC, and The Corner, which was also adapted for HBO. And when it comes to newspapers, Simon definitely has a lot to say:

A lot of my disenchantment with institutional America came from what out-of-town ownership did to the newspaper I was at. The Chicago Tribune has just about destroyed The Baltimore Sun.

How so?
The Baltimore Sun, when I first started working there, was family owned and in the mid-’80s it was sold to The LA Times or Times America, which was about as benign a newspaper chain there was at the time. We felt like we had ducked a bullet, but they in turn sold their newspapers to the Chicago Tribune Company. And the Chicago Tribune Company has been sucking the profits and the life out of every one of their out of town papers to prop up their stock price (I don’t think they’re even doing a good job of that). Where once [The Sun’s] newsroom had 500 people covering their city, now it’s got maybe 300. They’ve instituted buyout after buyout, they’ve closed the foreign bureaus, they’ve reduced the Washington bureau by half, they don’t give a shit. All they want is the profit. The civic responsibility of running a viable newspaper, of monitoring the government of Baltimore, of trying to improve the city, of creating an allegiance between the newspaper and the city, they couldn’t give a fuck. They’re in Chicago. And they are despised in Baltimore. There are people in the Able Foundation in Baltimore who are trying to buy the paper back, asking what they will sell it for, and they won’t sell. They’ll suck the last dollar out of the place while they destroy it.

The other Fader interviews are great (it's a four-part series in all); so is this NPR interview with co-creator (and former Baltimore cop/teacher) Ed Burns. But the real thing to do is get your hands on the first four seasons and watch the show. If you have things to get done, you can pace yourself a disc (or season) at a time, but trust me -- you won't regret the time spent.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Always Golden Rocks to Throw

A set of memories, perfect for the end of summer. (Via Pitchfork.)

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

This Side of the Blue

What is it about the sensibilities of the average indie rock fan that predisposes us to be smitten with that sound -- the high, conviction-filled, slightly odd but beautiful, folky but affected vocal delivery sported by so many female vocalists? Blame Joni Mitchell, Pati Smith, Kim Deal, or Bjork, depending on your favorite musical decade. (Heck, blame Joan Baez.) But there are any number of singers emerging right now who fit this bill -- and these four come to mind (and my "recently played" auto-playlist) immediately. They're all well worth checking out. And what's great about their songs is that they work equally well if you imagine them sung in Tom Waits's voice.

1) Mirah:

2) Marissa Nadler:

3) St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark):

4) Joanna Newsom:

Right now, St. Vincent's Marry Me would be my album of the year; "Sawdust and Diamonds" would win my vote for song of the decade; and those who know me can guess why I like Marissa Nadler's "Sylvia" so much.

That's right -- my years spent whaling. Nobody needs to hear those stories again.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Brain Drain

James Wood is moving from The New Republic to staff the book review beat at The New Yorker. I'm intrigued to see how this all turns out, since while Wood's a smart, sharp critic, besides being famous, he doesn't immediately jump out as the perfect book critic for The New Yorker. (The perfect book critic for the New Yorker? I don't know. Clive James, probably?)

But think fast -- what exactly is the New Yorker style for book criticism? The movies section has its own style that probably wouldn't pay off for books. Besides Jane Tompkins, or to a lesser extent Louis Menand, I can't think of a dedicated book reviewer. Even John Updike writes as often about art or culture as he does literature. And really, when I think of the New Yorker's books section, I think of great write-ups of biographies, the less-than-compelling briefly noted section, and longer, more journalistic profiles of authors. The best essays are hardly ever straight reviews of new(ish) books.

It's worth thinking about how publications create their own compartmentalized styles -- maybe driven first by strong personalities (with Pauline Kael being the best example) which then become institutionalized identities. How does that translate to a different author, a different audience -- even a different appearance, on text or screen? And how does that identity take off in the broader culture?

At least one person has a hilarious take on the whole thing:

Leon Wieseltier, literary editor at The New Republic, said that “The New Republic plays many significant roles in American culture, and one of them is to find and to develop writers with whom The New Yorker can eventually staff itself.”

Monday, August 06, 2007

Who's That Writing? (John the Revelator)

Revelator Press, run by the superb Gavin Craig, Brandon Kelley, and Meg Sparling, has a new e-chapbook available, The Bridge and the River. I was lucky enough to help out with this one. The production values for these books just keep getting better and better.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Soulmate, It's High Time

Charles Simic, American poet and critic, is the new Poet Laureate/consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress.