Friday, December 19, 2008

Ars Amatoria

I have a soft spot for Nerve's "Dating Advice From..." column, especially when it's advice from nerds. This week it's "classics majors." Why not "classicists"? Apparently, actual classicists date no one.

Anyways, it's filled with bad Mel Brooks-style jokes -- "Is that a scroll under your toga or are you just happy to see me?" could only be salvaged if it were made extra-nerdy ("Senator, is that a hardwood scroll under your tunica laticlavia, or is this symposium turning into an orgy?").

But some of them are actually pretty good, especially from the people who seem to remember their reading. Bekah, 27, looks to Ovid: "Although some of his moves are a little creepy, at least he has suggestions on what to do while watching gladiators. Hint: pretend her skirt is dirty, bend down to pick it up, then take a peak at her goods. If she doesn't slap you, you're in." And my favorite is Alex, 22:

What has being a Classics major taught you about dating?
Probably that some people are meant to be together. There's a story in the Theogony about it. Pretty touching, romantic stuff. Oh, and that women are evil and to be careful of their tricks.
Yes, I've always felt that The Odyssey was more of a how-to than anything else. That's why whenever I go anywhere where I might be tempted to do something I shouldn't, I bring binding rope, wax for my ears, and a crew of stout sailors to bind me to the mast of our ship. It's cut my nacho consumption by at least one third.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Cup Runneth Over

Some of these links have been cocooned in my RSS reader for over a month, waiting for their posts to spring forth, like infant alien monsters from John Hurt's chest.

  • Al Filreis, "whence the snark?"-  Eight years of an awful presidency has generated the super-skepticism - the hypersatirical state of public political (and to some significant extent cultural) commentary - and that, in the most general way, makes sense. Harding and Coolidge certainly created, or at least contributed to, Roaring Twenties ironic hilarity, flapperistic farce. But this era of snark happened to coincide with the emergence of the web, the proliferation of voices, the radical democratization of the commentariat, 1000 blogs blooming, social networking in which your "Friends" are your ready audience for daily expressions of your "status," podcasts made in the breakfast room recorded on a Radio Shack microphone plugged into a $600 computer. Bush + web 2.0 = snark.
  • Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, "Group Think" - The boom in online research may actually have a "narrowing" effect on scholarship. James Evans, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, analyzed a database of 34 million articles in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, and determined that as more journal issues came online, new papers referenced a relatively smaller pool of articles, which tended to be more recent, at the expense of older and more obscure work. Overall, Evans says, published research has expanded, due to a proliferation of journals, authors, and conferences. But the paper, which appeared in July in the journal Science, concludes that the Internet's influence is to tighten consensus, posing the risk that good ideas may be ignored and lost - the opposite of the Internet's promise.
  • Ken Johnson's (unbelievably belated) obituary of Fluxus artist George Brecht: In the mid-1950s, following the lead of Jackson Pollock, Mr. Brecht produced paintings using chance operations and materials like bed sheets, ink and marbles. In 1958-59, he attended a class in experimental music composition taught by John Cage at what was then the New School for Social Research in New York. Soon he was producing compositions even more radical than those of Mr. Cage. In the early 1960s, Mr. Brecht taught in what was then the unusually progressive art department of Rutgers University, along with Mr. Hendricks, Allan Kaprow (who became known as an inventor of the “happening”) and Robert Watts, who also became a Fluxus artist. Mr. Brecht’s first solo exhibition, “Toward Events: An Arrangement,” was at Reuben Gallery in New York in 1959. During the next five years, he participated in many group exhibitions and performances in New York. His work “Repository” (1961), a wall cabinet containing a pocket watch, a thermometer, rubber balls, toothbrushes and other objects, was included in “The Art of Assemblage,” the famous 1961 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and the museum later bought it. Nine years later, Mr. Brecht was included in “Information,” another landmark show at the Modern.
  • Tim Blanning, "Facing the Music": For composers, too, copyright protection is very much a creation of modern times. Until deep into the 19th century, piracy of the most flagrant kind was the norm. As soon as a score was published, it was liable to be copied right across Europe without any kind of payment to its creator. Moreover, unscrupulous publishers often borrowed the identity of prestigious composers to add allure to slow-selling catalogue items. In Paris, in 1789, the Bohemian composer Adalbert Gyrowetz went to a concert to hear a symphony advertised as being by Haydn - and found himself having to sit through one of his own com positions. Two years earlier, one of the more respectable publishing houses, Breitkopf & Härtel of Leipzig, advertised for sale 96 symphonies by Haydn, even though at that time he had written fewer than 80. If modern copyright protection had been in place in Germany in the middle of the 19th century, Richard Wagner would have been a rich man. As his biographer Ernest Newman pointed out, it was the system that made him a beggar - and then condemned him for being a debtor.
  • Neal Pollack, "What If LeBron James and Wolverine Joined the New York Knicks": After LeBron's November visit to Madison Square Garden, the New York tabloids responded predictably, with headlines like "LeBron Likes What Knicks Are Doing" and "LeBron James' Pal Claims Knicks Are Favorites." It's like New Yorkers are waiting for LeBron to invite them to homecoming. The rest of the basketball punditocracy, meanwhile, has become so obsessed with next-decade scenarios that it's like this NBA season doesn't exist. Hear ESPN.com's Bill Simmons, the voice of today's fan: "The NBA's off-court subplots, in many ways, have become just as fun as anything happening on the court. Because of the Internet, sports radio, team blogs, better information guys and everything else, the whole trade/draft/free-agent market has practically evolved into its own sport to follow. ... The Summer of 2010 (it sounds like a blockbuster movie) ties everything we love about that goofy underbelly into one neat package." In other words, basketball-land has become a real-life Marvel Comics "What If" book.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Brief Encounter

So I'm at the Wawa to use the ATM, and on the way out a guy asks me for change.

I say "no, sorry," and walk past.

As I'm a few yards down the street, he says, "You know that redheads are going extinct."

I say, "yeah, that's what I hear."

Then, as I'm almost to the subway to catch the trolley, he yells, "nice to meet you!"

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Monochrome Charm of the Inner Ring

Best line in a movie review this year (at least for me) is from Stephanie Zacharek's review of Clint Eastwood's Gran Turino:

Even for a movie set in the Detroit suburbs, "Gran Torino" has too much of a drab, listless look.
Oh, man; I rolled on the floor at that one.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, Gran Turino was shot (and quite possibly set) in Highland Park.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Wire In German

Man, talk about being right up the middle of this blog's plate: on translating The Wire into German. Kottke already nabbed the best excerpt, so I won't reprint here.

Monday, December 08, 2008

University Tuition and Economic Sanity

This Wall Street Journal op-ed railing against high tuition costs at American universities is hilarious. Let me count the ways:

  1. The author, Eric Gibson, thinks problem #1 is that university presidents' compensation is "in the stratosphere." Now there's a lot to be said about this -- the corporatization of the university, the move towards a "strong executive" model, and comparative priorities. But it's awfully hard to take seriously if you're not going to advance any kind of broader criticism of executive compensation. Universities are huge concerns, employing thousands of people (and managing thousands more), and it's hard to imagine any other economic body as complicated by involvement in as many different kinds of business. Still, if you compare what university presidents make to CEOs of comparably sized companies, their pay is pretty modest.

  2. Gibson also thinks students today have it too good: "I've been wide-eyed on some of my visits, struck by the extent to which being a student today resembles living at Versailles, where Louis XIV's every whim was so thoroughly accommodated that there was even a Superintendent of the King's Furniture. One college tour guide proudly informed us that upon arrival every freshman is issued a brand-new laptop. Even if the students already have one? Why, yes, the guide replied." And: "Facilities like libraries and gyms are open around the clock. Computer services are available at all hours, too. One college we visited must keep its tech support team doped up on amphetamines. Accidentally dump a cup of coffee into your laptop? No problem! They'll have it back to you in full working order in a day -- something no private-sector IT department could afford to offer." So the problem with higher education is that all this money spent by parents and students actually translates into tangible benefits and services.

  3. Gibson portrays parents and students as helpless victims of these universities' desires to provide these goodies: "Private higher education has it better than an actual welfare state. Politicians are answerable to the electorate. In theory their efforts to take a larger slice of your paycheck can be thwarted at the polls. Not private higher education. There's nothing to put a brake on their fiscal expansiveness. Colleges have something close to a monopoly; they can charge what they like because they have a captive audience."
Let me tell ya, Mr Gibson -- not every college is like Versailles. I'm willing to bet your local regional public university would be more than happy to have your son or daughter, who can commute from home, or share a dive apartment with three of their friends, getting by on mac and cheese. There are eighteen and nineteen year olds doing it every day.

What frustrates me most about the upper middle class today is the false constriction of choice, especially with respect to education. They're "forced" to buy a huge house in a posh suburb that they can't really afford to get access to the local elite school district. Then "forced" to spend thousands of dollars to get their kids into an elite college, where they're "forced" to spend even more money to put their kids up like kings.

It's always someone else's problem, someone else's greed, someone else whose behavior is ridiculous.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

A New Sexy Document, Every Day

I think I'm in love: the blog Milestone Documents offers a new primary document from American history every day, plus analysis. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine! Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress! The Gettysburg Address! Yum, yum, yum.

Via Cliopatria's Blogroll, where Short Schrift is filed under "Historians Who Write About Many Things." I wouldn't have it any other way.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Slow Century

  1. I find it very hard to explain my strong attachment to the band Pavement. 
  2. I'm not sure that the Slow Century documentary explains it any better. 
  3. But it is available to stream now for free at Pitchfork TV.
  4. So if you feel at all like I do, or if you're wondering why anyone would, you should watch it.
  5. That is all.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Germans At Work

This has been a great publishing year for American fans of German modernism who can't get to Germany for a peek at their manuscript archives.

First, Walter Benjamin's Archive, a beautifully assembled book full of facsimile images and translated versions of WoBo's working notes. I bought this right when it came out, and it's great. I am a dork.

Now, a volume of Franz Kafka's Office Writings, which is even dorkier: it's Kafka's office correspondence from his insurance company in Prague. Michael Wood has a review:

[R]eading these office writings I began to wonder whether the Kafkaesque is not, as the OED tautologically says, the name of a ‘state of affairs or a state of mind described by Kafka’, but rather a form of strangeness that is more ordinary than we think. We call it strange because we want it to be strange. Kafka didn’t simply describe it, and he didn’t invent it. He blew its cover, and more important still, revealed its alarming frequency. It’s not for nothing that one of his weirdest, most wonderful stories is called ‘A Common Confusion’, literally ‘an everyday confusion’. In an afterword to The Office Writings, Jack Greenberg, a lawyer on the case, recalls the 1954 US Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education, which instructed school administrators to desegregate with ‘all deliberate speed’, that is, either as quickly as possible or as slowly as possible, take your pick. He also mentions a more recent district court opinion regarding the phrase ‘no longer enemy combatants’, used of people who may never have been enemy combatants at all...

Many of the cases Kafka encounters in his work tell just this story: the large posters listing safety regulations but used only to replace broken windows; the lift that a rooming-house owner (who doesn’t want to pay the premium for the insurance of its operators) first claims is powered by a generator nowhere near the house, then by a generator in the house but so thoroughly isolated that it might as well be elsewhere; an insurance assessment system that scarcely ever has access to ‘actual working conditions’; the proposition that at a certain quarry no undercutting goes on, not just because it doesn’t, but because it couldn’t; and a law that is not only inadequate but ‘inadequately interpreted as well’. These last items sound like one of Kafka’s escalating jokes. ‘To imagine even part of the road makes one tired,’ he writes in a story about distances in China, ‘and more than part one just cannot imagine.’
Great fun. I wrote about Kafka's desk here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

All Good Things Are Good Again

There's a new DVD edition of Buster Keaton's amazing The General. Slate's Gary Giddins likey:

Kino initially released a DVD of The General in 1999, which looks like every other version I've seen in theaters or at home—the focus is soft, and the tinted film stock is faded, scratched, and jumpy. The new edition, part of a two-disc set (most of the extras concern the historical basis for the story), is pristine, sharply focused, stable, and gorgeous.

Gorgeous is important, because The General is a peephole into history and by any definition an uncannily beautiful film. Indeed, for a first-time viewer, I would emphasize the beauty over the comedy. Many people are disappointed when they first see The General because they have heard that it is one of the funniest movies ever made. It isn't. Keaton made many films that are tours de force of hilarity, including Sherlock Jr., The Navigator, and Seven Chances (all available from Kino). The General is something else, a historical parody set during the Civil War.
I've always thought of it as a kind of anti-romantic answer to The Birth of a Nation myself. I really like Giddins's second take:
Keaton's best films function as a loving record of American town life, with its shops and picket fences and leisure pursuits, set against a splendor of mountains, gulches, rivers, and fields. Using Cottage Grove, Ore., as his main location, Keaton preserved two eras: the Civil War, re-created with daunting attention to detail, and 1926, as passers-by in Cottage Grove would have seen it—the costumes were of the 19th century, but the buildings and natural surroundings were little changed. Other Civil War films, not least The Great Locomotive Race, Walt Disney's dramatic 1956 telling of the same story (from the perspective of the Union raiders), invariably look like Hollywood pageants. Keaton's authenticity and comedic understatement make The General a surprisingly modern experience. The storytelling and the gags are free of sentimentality and knockabout clichés. The four-minute battle scene is simply one of the most gripping, and occasionally hilarious, ever filmed.
The Slate article has some pretty good clips, too.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

My Boy

September 1986/2008.

A Saltier Metaphor

Thomas Friedman:

Obama can’t wait until Jan. 20 to weigh in on this. If we don’t stimulate the global economy fast enough and big enough, some of Obama’s inaugural balls might be held in soup kitchens.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Two Questions, Same Answer

Maybe I'm just feeling like a reductive ol' pragmatist lately, but I feel like these two very problems both have the same answer.

  1. Daniel Drezner, "Public Intellectual 2.0": "In the current era, many more public intellectuals possess social-science rather than humanities backgrounds. In Richard Posner's infamous list of top public intellectuals, there are twice as many social scientists as humanities professors. In a recent ranking published by Foreign Policy magazine, economists and political scientists outnumber artists and novelists by a ratio of four to one. Economics has supplanted literary criticism as the universal methodology' of most public intellectuals. That fact in particular might explain the strong belief in literary circles that the public intellectual is dead or dying."
  2. Kevin Kelly, "Anachronistic Science": "I've been wondering why science took so long to appear. Why didn't China, which invented so many other things in the first millennial, just keep on going and invent science by 1000 AD? For that matter why didn't the Greeks invent the scientific method during their heyday? What were they missing?... But they could have been, even back then. Aristotle appears to have lacked no materials which would have prevented him from doing simple experiments and observations. There were many things he could not see without telescope and microscope, but there is still hundreds, thousands, if not millions of things he could have measured with tools he did have. But he did not because he didn't have the mindset."
The answer is: methodology and mindsets are both circumlocutions for a more basic notion -- what problems do you need to solve?

I have lots of ideas about public intellectuals. For one thing, the academy is, if anything, WAY MORE publicly accessible than it has ever been, and more artists, critics, poets, novelists than ever have a home in universities. Folks like Walter Benjamin and Ezra Pound were "public" intellectuals because they couldn't get work anywhere but newspapers and magazines.

But I think the more interesting question to ask, rather than why public intellectuals have faded or shifted or drifted or whatever, is this: what problems would/do we need public intellectuals to solve?

Ditto science. It's a bit like asking why Charles Babbage didn't develop a "computer" like ours, with a typewriter and a screen. The guy made a machine that could print calculation tables. That was the problem he needed to solve.

Maybe this is less of a razor than I think it is. Readers, please help.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

So Yummy, So Yummy

I've often said that the edge The Beatles have over Bob Dylan is that The Beatles made great children's music, and Bob never tried.

In the same vein, if you're not down with the wonderful music Mark Mothersbaugh makes for Yo Gabba Gabba, then I feel sorry for you. (And for whatever toddlers live in your home.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Young, Unmasked Man

Pauline Kael, on Orson Welles and Citizen Kane:

An additional quality that old movies acquire is that people can be seen as they once were. It is a pleasure we can’t get in theatre; we can only hear and read descriptions of past fabulous performances. But here in Kane is the young Welles, and he seems almost embarrassed to be exposed as so young. Perhaps he was embarrassed, and that’s why he so often hid in extravagant roles and behind those old-man false faces. He seems unsure of himself as the young Kane, and there’s something very engaging (and surprisingly human) about Welles unsure of himself; he’s a big, overgrown, heavy boy, and rather sheepish, one suspects, at being seen as he is. Many years later, Welles remarked, “Like most performers, I naturally prefer a live audience to that lie-detector full of celluloid.” Maybe his spoiled-baby face was just too nearly perfect for the role, and he knew it, and knew the hostile humor that lay behind Mankiewicz’s putting so much of him in the role of Hearst the braggart self-publicist and making Kane so infantile. That statement of principles that Jed sends back to Kane and that Kane then tears up must surely refer to the principles behind the co-founding of the Mercury Theatre by Welles and Houseman. Lines like Susan’s “You’re not a professional magician are you?” may have made Welles flinch. And it wasn’t just the writer who played games on him. There’s the scene of Welles eating in the newspaper office, which was obviously caught by the camera crew, and which, to be “a good sport,” he had to use. Welles is one of the most self-conscious of actors -- it’s part of his rapport with the audience —- and this is what is so nakedly revealed in this role, in which he’s playing a young man his own age and he’s insecure (and with some reason) about what’s coming through. Something of the young, unmasked man is revealed in these scenes —- to be closed off forever after.

Welles picks up assurance and flair as Kane in his thirties, and he’s also good when Kane is just a little older and jowly. I think there’s no doubt that he’s more sure of himself when he’s playing this somewhat older Kane, and this is the Kane we remember best from the first viewing—the brash, confident Kane of the pre-election-disaster period. He’s so fully -— classically —- American a showoff one almost regrets the change of title. But when I saw the movie again it was the younger Kane who stayed with me -— as if I had been looking through a photograph album and had come upon a group of pictures of an old friend, long dead, as he had been when I first met him. I had almost forgotten Welles in his youth, and here he is, smiling, eager, looking forward to the magnificent career that everyone expected him to have.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Economic Powell Doctrine

Paul Krugman writes about how FDR's caution in doling out economic stimulus in the mid-30s nearly undid the whole recovery from the Great Depression:

After winning a smashing election victory in 1936, the Roosevelt administration cut spending and raised taxes, precipitating an economic relapse that drove the unemployment rate back into double digits and led to a major defeat in the 1938 midterm elections.

What saved the economy, and the New Deal, was the enormous public works project known as World War II, which finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy’s needs.

In his blog, Krugman breaks it down:

Nearly every forecast now says that, in the absence of strong policy action, real GDP will fall far below potential output in the near future. In normal times, that would be a reason to cut interest rates. But interest rates can’t be cut in any meaningful sense. Fiscal policy is the only game in town.

Wait, there’s more. Ben Bernanke can’t push on a string – but he can pull, if necessary. Suppose fiscal policy ends up being too expansionary, so that real GDP “wants” to come in 2 percent above potential. In that case the Fed can tighten a bit, and no harm is done. But if fiscal policy is too contractionary, and real GDP comes in below potential, there’s no potential monetary offset. That means that fiscal policy should take risks in the direction of boldness.
After some sophisticated back-of-the-envelope calculations, Krugman comes up with a number of $600 billion. Short story is, if you go big early, you can squash it out -- if it works, you can always scale it back.

At WHYY's Y Decide, the great Dan Pohlig trumps Krugman's WWII-as-public-works gag for an even better take on the problem:
I wonder if there’s an analogy from recent history that even our conservative friends would agree with.  Since I can’t think of one, maybe I’ll make one up.

Let’s say you overthrow a horrible dictator because you claim that he had something to do with an attack on your country.  So that part goes pretty easily but then you find yourself with this pernicious and deadly insurgency because you forgot that rebuilding a country and providing security is far more difficult and resource intensive as blowing up a bunch of stuff and capturing one lone ex-dictator (which it turns out, is far easier than capturing one lone nomadic terrorist).  So you send a few troops over but you find that things continue to get worse.  Every time you stop one bit of the insurgency, it just retreats and attacks a different part of the country where your forces aren’t located.  Your troops are dying.  The people who live in the country are dying.  Infrastructure is being blown up just as quickly as it’s built.

So you decide, this little bit of time tactic just isn’t working and you decide to send a whole BUNCH of troops over at one time to stop all of the insurgents everywhere at once.  You could call it the “WAVE” or the “SWELLING” or maybe the “SURGE.”  After a few months, you find that by throwing a huge amount of resources over a short period of time, you can stop the insurgency for just enough time to let that nation’s own army come into line.  With things stabilizing, you can pull all of your troops out and call it Mission Accomplished… or something.
I'll go Dan one better, and make the hawkish liberal argument for both Iraq and the stimulus. The problem with the timing of the "surge," in both Iraq and (potentially) the economy, is that only by going big early can you really get a handle on the thing. Try to do it on the cheap, thinking you might be able to scale things up later, and you'll waste more blood and treasure (natch) putting out fires than you would spend in the first place by doing it right.

So we need to gather up our allies, get consensus, and do this thing with overwhelming force. We need to follow the Powell Doctrine for economic intervention.

Two quick notes. First -- why not Paul Krugman for Secretary of the Treasury? He hasn't always been kind to Obama, but not only is the dude awesome and liberal, he is a great communicator to the people, which is what we're going to need to get big-time buy-in from the American people for the big plans he'd want to support. Also, in case you hadn't heard, P-Krug just won the Nobel Prize.

Second -- a possible benefit of the gov't bailout of banks is that numbers in the hundreds of billions suddenly become feasible for economic projects in a way that they weren't even a year ago. You can say $600 billion for economic stimulus and not sound like you're overshooting it. You can push for universal health care, and the price tag doesn't seem overwhelming.

But we're also threatened by the fact that the bailout/stimulus becomes the default way we handle these problems. For instance, the Big Three's health care and pension plans are collapsing, a disaster that was bound to happen, and one which many commentators have said for years might create the political will for a move towards universal/socialized health care. But instead, it's happening while all this other mess is going on, so instead of changing the health care system, the Big Three will probably get some kind of gov't bailout, and still cut health care and pensions to retirees.

That is six kinds of suck. I'm with Dan and Paul and the gang. Obama should go big, long, and do the thing up right.

Lie Down Now and Remember the Forest

Susan Stewart has a new book of poetry out, but Ange Mlinko's lovely review in The Nation references many others, including my very favorite Stewart poem, Columbarium's "Apple":

If I could come back from the dead, I would come back
for an apple, and just for the first bite, the first
break, and the cold sweet grain
against the roof of the mouth, as plain
and clear as water.
Some apple names are almost forgotten
and the apples themselves are gone. The smokehouse,
winesap and York imperial, the striped
summer rambo and the winter banana, the little
Rome with its squat rotunda and the pound apple
that pulled the boughs to the ground.

By the way:
Columbarium took as its epigraph the passage in Plato's Theaetetus where the soul is compared to an aviary full of birds: "Now let us make in each soul a sort of aviary of all kinds of birds.... Then we must say that when we are children this receptacle is empty; and by the birds we must understand pieces of knowledge."

"Apple" is the first poem in an ABC of "shadow georgics." Stewart is the only contemporary poet I know of who can sound avant-garde and like Virgil at the same time.

She is also a wonderful teacher and friend. I continually miss her wise humor.

Via Silliman.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Populist Chic

Mark Lilla in the Wall Street Journal:

Back in the '70s, conservative intellectuals loved to talk about "radical chic," the well-known tendency of educated, often wealthy liberals to project their political fantasies onto brutal revolutionaries and street thugs, and romanticize their "struggles." But "populist chic" is just the inversion of "radical chic," and is no less absurd, comical or ominous. Traditional conservatives were always suspicious of populism, and they were right to be. They saw elites as a fact of political life, even of democratic life. What matters in democracy is that those elites acquire their positions through talent and experience, and that they be educated to serve the public good. But it also matters that they own up to their elite status and defend the need for elites. They must be friends of democracy while protecting it, and themselves, from the leveling and vulgarization all democracy tends toward.
At some point, there needs to be a serious critique of the term "elite," particularly with respect to democratic society. Under what conditions is a democratic elite possible, let alone desirable? I am not sure that Lilla has this right, or whether he's even off to the right start -- but it seems clear that we have all been attacking, defending, and discussing elites without really knowing what we are talking about.

Via Andrew Sullivan.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The New Typography

I've spent a good chunk of the last couple of days dipping into this amazing index of early-twentieth century German and Swiss books and magazines. For instance, check out the Archiv für Buchgewerbe und Gebrauchsgraphik, the house magazine for the association of German printers, complete with loose-leaf brochures and inserts. Or curator Felix Wiedler's fine commentary on Jan Tschichold's Die Neue Typographie:

this plain black cloth cover belongs to one of the most important typography books of the 20th century. after his manifesto "elementare typographie" (elemental typography) had been published as a special issue of the trade union's magazine "typographische mitteilungen" in 1925, jan tschichold (1902-1974) wrote this comprehensive book that adressed ideological and practical issues of the "new typography" movement.

tschichold designed the book in a very straightforward way: sans-serif type, black cloth cover with a silver-coloured spine title (often rubbed off, but still partly there on this copy). black endpapers seem to underline that this book is about "die schwarze kunst", the black art of printing. bold page numbers, fat lines, and footnotes marked by bullet points are typical for early "new typography" designs.

this book is much more ideologically charged than tschichold's later publications. his enthusiasm for sans-serif (and roman, to a certain degree) goes as far as to denounce all other typefaces and alphabets as "nationalism"– not only blackletter, but also "greek, cyrillic (=russian and bulgarian), turkish (=arabic), chinese (=japanese), indian and other exotic scripts (zulus, papuas, etc.)"! soon tschichold would revise this extremely euro-centric position and endorse a "good mix" of typefaces, and he actually turned into a great admirer of far eastern printing culture.
If you're at all into typography, book culture, or Weimar German-y, you should check it out. (p.s., that's Tschichold's hand writing "schrift" -- kleinschrift, natch -- over in my profile shot at left.)

via things magazine.

Democracy Trouble

The effect of Obama's election on world politics is yet to be determined. If you view it through the lens of the past eight years, a century of American hegemony, or the long-historical view of global colonialism, the consensus seems to be restoration of the U.S. image in the world and better opportunities for international collaboration -- generally, a move towards greater stability.

See Nick Kristof:

The outpouring [of global excitement for Obama] suggests that the United States will enjoy an Obama dividend of global good will in the coming months, a chance to hammer out progress on common threats. “Barack” means blessing in Swahili, and this election feels like America’s great chance to rejoin the world after eight years of self-exile.
Or Roger Cohen:
What I am sure of is this: an ever more interconnected world, where financial chain reactions spread with the virulence of plagues, thirsts for American renewal and a form of American leadership sensitive to humanity’s tied fate.
But if you look closer, at individual nations, with their own histories and troubles with democracy, ethnic conflict, and demographic change, then the example of Obama has a much more complex effect.

Rachel Leow:
What is Malaysia’s original sin? Or in other words, what is the singular injustice which we have wrought unto ourselves, and upon which we, too, should begin to build our own perfection?

Like America, our problems are also born out of racial discontent. We might rail against our colonial heritage, and say that it is solely because of people like Furnivall, Winstedt, Clementi and all our largely well-intentioned but racist British officers, that our society divided racially in the way that it did. Those who do will be led to the erroneous conclusion that we have already built our perfection with the flagstones of Merdeka; that Malaysia, freed from the British grip, is by definition already perfect. But I do not think it’s possible to abjure responsibility for the past fifty years, in which we have had our Merdeka, in which we been our own people, but during which we chose, and still choose to remain racially divided. In a way, I think, we too have been guilty of a kind of slavery, though not of the physical kind. We have enslaved ourselves to a false idea: that we can’t help casting each another as eternally divided (lesser) beings, because the ‘facts’ of linguistic, cultural and religious difference will not allow reconciliation; because the ‘reality’ of money politics condemns all hope of unity as naive; because this, because that, and fifty years of ‘just because’.
G. Pascal Zachary:
Obamania in Kenya has gone on for years now, but the hype isn’t just about the president-elect’s roots. Rather, Kenya’s Obama fixation seems to represent a kind of escapist fantasy for an African country beset by political dysfunctionality. Still raw with the memory of the electoral violence that left hundreds dead last spring, Kenya is thirsty for exactly the sort of change Obama represents. Indeed, the Illinois senator seems to possess everything that Kenya’s political leaders lack: youthfulness, a conciliatory image, and the hope of transcending narrow ethnic identities in favor of a common national interest.

To grasp why the Obama fascination in Kenya came to be, return to January of this year, when the country suffered through the worst post-election violence in its 45-year history. A political bargain ended the crisis but failed to address the enmity between rival factions and ethnic groups here. Current Prime Minister Raila Odinga garnered much of his support from the Luo ethnic group, which remains deeply suspicious of the country’s dominant Kikyu, led by President Mwai Kibaki. And the skepticism runs both ways.

In a country where most political elites are over 60 but half the population is under 20 years old, Obama’s youth and his message of unity has a strong appeal. As one writer to the East African newspaper observed Monday, the ‘old boys’ of Kenyan politics should be swept aside, replaced by a new generation. “Younger Kenyans,” wrote B. Amaya of Nairobi, “should emulate Obama in order to change the tribal nature of our politics.”
Shake 'em up.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Obama Selbst oder Mit Kinder

The two best places to find pictures of Obama are:

  1. The Big Picture
  2. Yes We Can (Hold Babies)
Exhibit A (from The Big Picture):


Exhibit B from Yes We Can (Hold Babies):


Both sites just go on and on and on with pictures like these. Dude just flat out has got game.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

An Arrow Into the Future


I mentioned on Monday that the news of Madelyn Dunham's death had made me weep. The reasons why are personal and complex, and I don't even fully understand them, but I'm clearly not the only one who found the whole sweep of the drama emotionally surprising.

Robin at Snarkmarket wrote about his brief panic of urgency: a hallucination of being turned awayat the polls, compounded with anxiety less for the outcome than for his personal responsibility to vote. And it seems as though moments of Obama-induced fright were not uncommon. Either this anxiety gets displaced, forming conspiracy theories -- "the polls are too good, the Republicans will find a way to steal it"; it rebounds on the person, as in Robin's case -- "Oh my god, what if I haven't done everything right?"; or it fixates on concern for Obama himself, especially his safety and well-being.

Obama's hair has started to turn gray this election season. (At the Al Smith dinner, Obama jokingly attributed his salt-and-pepper look to Hillary Clinton.) And each day and week have made him seem older.

There are certain characteristics of Obama's that I find deeply compelling -- his sensitivity, his psychological acuity -- which testify to his own slightly disassociated and lonely sense of himself. It is an unusually potent combination -- a man who can identify with the loneliness of others. Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings wrote about Obama's own sense of this in his autobiography:
He also seems to have an unusual personality for a politician: early on in Dreams From My Father, he writes: "I had grown too comfortable in my solitude, the safest place I knew." Immediately afterwards, he tells the story of an elderly man who lives in his building, who he sees sometimes, helps with the groceries, but who has never said a word to him. He thinks of the man as a kindred spirit. Later, the man is found dead; his apartment is "neat, almost empty", with money squirreled away throughout. It's clear, from the way he tells the story, that this seems to him to be one of his possible fates, and though his description of the man is kind throughout, it's also clear that Obama thinks: his fate is to be avoided.
Even more so than Bill Clinton, Obama's biography is characterized by loss, absence: the father he barely knew; the mother who lived for years on another continent and then died too young; the half-siblings and extended family whom (besides his sister Maya) he's barely known. A fierce attachment to Michelle and their daughters, but rarely seeing them, and hardly ever alone. His mother, her teenaged love for his father, her death of cancer, loomed as large over this election as anyone, not least when he chided reporters looking for a salacious story in Bristol Palin's pregnancy with an abrupt reminder that his mother, too, was a teen mom.

His grandmother was his last parent, his last tie to that childhood world of solitude. John McCain, in his seventies, still travels with his mother. To watch Barack Obama, a still-young man turning gray, and to feel that sense of loneliness, that slipping away of the past into the inescapable, is to sense something awesome in its melancholy, historic in its domesticity. To watch him square his shoulders against the future, to turn loss not into need but into action, is wondrous. Especially for those of us who too often nurture our solitude, who watch our selves dissipate rather than harden, and for that reason see in him someone we know.

I Agonized Over This. Really.

But this is the song that best summarizes how I feel.



Obama 2012.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

On the Way to the Paper Ballot

Jill LePore's history of American voting (which also manages to be a history of British and Australian voting) is amazing:

In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, eighty-nine Americans were killed at the polls during Election Day riots... The American adoption of the “Australian ballot”—and the radical idea that governments should provide ballots—was hard fought. It lies, if long forgotten, behind every argument about how we ought to vote now, from the 2002 Help America Vote Act’s promotion of paperless voting to the more recent backlash, favoring a paper trail. And it is also, like every other American election reform, a patch upon a patch...

The states, left to their own devices, adopted electoral methods best described as higgledy-piggledy, except that everyone agreed that Election Day ought to be a public holiday, involving plenty of stumping, debating, and parading. Some of the original state constitutions make mention of voting by ballot; some don’t... Early paper voting was, to say the least, a hassle. You had to bring your own ballot, a scrap of paper. You had to (a) remember and (b) know how to spell the name of every candidate and office. If “John Jones” was standing for election, and you wrote “Jon Jones,” your vote could be thrown out. (If you doubt how difficult this is, try it. I disenfranchise myself at “Comptroller.”) Shrewd partisans began bringing prewritten ballots to the polls, and handing them out with a coin or two. Doling out cash—the money came to be called “soap”—wasn’t illegal; it was getting out the vote...

A government-printed ballot that voters had, even minimally, to read made it much harder for immigrants, former slaves, and the uneducated poor to vote. Some precincts formally imposed and selectively administered literacy tests; others resorted to ranker chicanery. (In 1894, one Virginian congressional district printed its ballots in Gothic letters.) In the South, where black men had been granted suffrage in 1870, by the Fifteenth Amendment, it was fear of the black Republican majority that led many former Confederate states to adopt the reform in the first place. As a Democratic campaign song heard in Arkansas in 1892 put it:

The Australian ballot works like a charm,
It makes them think and scratch,
And when a Negro gets a ballot
He has certainly got his match.


The year after Arkansas passed its Australian-ballot law, the percentage of black men who managed to vote dropped from seventy-one to thirty-eight. By 1896, Americans in thirty-nine out of forty-five states cast secret, government-printed ballots. The turnout, nationwide? Eighty per cent, which was about what it had been since the eighteen-thirties. It has been falling, more or less steadily, ever since.
Reading, writing, paper, print, nineteenth-century hurlyburly. I'm in love. Can't believe I missed this in October.

The Fork, The Divining Rod

First, an announcement. Beginning shortly after the election, I will be dividing my blogging efforts between this site and Snarkmarket, longtime home of the brainiest and most earnest guys I know, Matt Thompson and Robin Sloan.

Snarkmarket can truthfully be said to be the parent of Short Schrift, as it was through Matt and Robin's efforts on that site that I became acquainted with the world of blogging and a good chunk of the technological, pop-cultural, and political concerns about print and digital media that evolved into common point of departure of both that site and this one. My way-too-long, way-too-engaged comments on Snarkmarket were the seeds from which Short Schrift was born, and links from Snarkmarket and readers of Snarkmarket created, along with my mom, the core audience of Short Schrift, now some thousand strong.


But Snarkmarket grew too, bigger and faster; Robin brought the parousia, Matt the skepsis, and in the comments or here on Short Schrift, I was the guy who used words like parousia and skepsis. And apparently, they decided that that was just what they needed.


I am excited, because frankly, I want to be the coolest assistant professor in the country, and there's no way to be cooler than to have a widely read blog that is not, largely, about being an assistant professor or the work that an assistant professor does. (I could be wrong, but I think I'll be the only one.)

I'm not going to check my brain, my library, or my experience at the door, but I need and want to remain rooted in the kind of writing and engagement that we find here -- a world filled neither with canny activists nor ironic professionals but with people who are interested in what is best and most important about what's happening now, and who really love to talk about it.

Short Schrift is going nowhere. I finally got my mom to learn one URL, and I'm not asking her to learn another. But it will be part of the greater Snarkmatrix, and will probably be more personal and academic-y. You might see the frequency of posts slow down a bit, but if anything, the total Tim-output will tick up a notch.

So, come on. I know a cool place where we can talk.

Walk On

I - ah - I - ah - I - I - I'm so tired

But I just can't lose my stride

Monday, November 03, 2008

He Called Her "Toot"

I'm crying like a dummy over the news that Madelyn Dunham, Barack Obama's grandmother, died today. Maybe tomorrow I can try to explain why.

True Signs of a Nation Healed

On the eve of Election Day, trust Steve Almond to see the bigger picture. In "Republicans I Have Loved" -- subtitled "They were moral. I was flexible." -- he remembers those golden days before absolute political clarity -- i.e., before Bush v. Gore -- when liberals and conservatives could unite, however briefly, to find love together.

I remember it well. It was a time when political differences seemed smaller, disagreements less iron-clad, recriminations less politically hurtful. Only your future together was doomed by your failure to see eye-to-eye (rather than chest-to-chest or thigh-to-thigh), not the future of the country itself. Gas cost 89 cents a gallon, credit was cheap and plentiful, and college dropouts could net dot-com jobs that paid for apartments in SoHo or SoMa. Truly, it was a paradise. Not least because of the interfaith intercourse.

We will know that Barack Obama has finally put the animating evil of bitter partisanship to rest when once again, young people of all political persuasions and cultural backgrounds can unite for trysts that are forbidden only by God's law and their own better judgment, not irreversible and implacable disagreements about the fundamental source of evil in our political universe.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Future Shock

FiveThirtyEight.com's photographer Brett Marty sees the future:

On November the 5th, FiveThirtyEight will shock the political world by turning into a porn site -- but a high quality one that continues to challenge conventional wisdom.
You go where the money is. Other goodies:
EV: Obama 396 -- Kerry states plus IA, NM, CO, VA, NV, FL, OH, MO, NC, IN, MT, ND, GA. The state Obama will win by the smallest margin will be Georgia, the closest state he'll lose will be West Virginia.

Book and Nonbook

"The Kindle acknowledges the Internet; it hears its clamorous demands. It just ignores those demands. For the user, this means the Kindle bestows on the contemporary reader the ultimate grace: it keeps the Internet at bay." Virginia Heffernan is anything but a Luddite, so her backhanded praise of the Kindle comes across as both absolutely sincere and technologically meaningful:

In short, you get absorbed when reading on the Kindle. You lose hours to reading novels in one sitting. You sit up straighter, energized by new ideas and new universes. You nod off, periodically, infatuated or entranced or spent. And yet the slight connection to the Web still permits the (false, probably, but nonetheless reassuring) sense that if the apocalypse came while you were shut away somewhere reading, the machine would get the news from Amazon.com and find a way to let you know. Anything short of that, though, the Kindle leaves you alone.

And alone is where I want to be, for now. It’s bliss. Emerge from the subway or alight from a flight, and the Kindle has no news for you. No missed calls. It’s ready only to be read. It’s like a good exercise machine that mysteriously incentivizes the pursuit of muscle pain while still making you feel cared for. The Kindle makes you want to read, and read hard, and read prolifically. It eventually makes me aware that, compared with reading a lush, inky book, checking e-mail is boring, workaday and lame.

But no sooner have I decided that, for now, I’ve discovered in the Kindle a way to tame the anxiety of the demanding digital world without totally abjuring its pleasures, when I find myself explaining the device to my seatmate on the plane. (He asked! I swear!) As I splutter on about it, I suddenly realize that the Kindle is, above all, uncool. I can see him furrowing his brow as I praise the Kindle’s uneasy relationship with the Internet. He looks at the gray screen and says, “That’s way too dim.”

To my discomfort, I struggle to return to my Robinson novel. But after 10 minutes of self-consciously reading and rereading the same pages, I get into it again. The shadowy hue of the “page” and the letters of digital ink become my whole world once more. And my seatmate, with his awesome 3G iPhone, has nothing more to say to me. My Kindle announces me as an oddball, a wallflower. A reader, then.
But when I read the tagline for Heffernan's story in my RSS reader -- "A good electronic reader is just the right mix of book and nonbook" -- I expected something a little bit different, probably because I would identify "the right mix" as something a little closer to the "nonbook" side than the Kindle, probably because despite my incurable bibliophilia, my own sense of what reading is skews much farther away from the traditional handheld codex printed book.

I do not know whether we can begin with the ideal hardware (or more broadly speaking, the interface) for reading or one of several possible ideal media forms for reading but it is clear that the two work together. A device optimized for the experience of reading a novel will be different from a device optimized to read a newspaper, and a device optimized to read web pages will be different from a device optimized to read children's books. All of these will be different again from devices optimized for email, for maps, for notes, for bank statements, for sheet music, for pictures, for calendars, for charts and graphs, for textual chatting, and so forth. We've developed different physical forms over the last few centuries for all of these, precisely because we recognize, even if only unconsciously, that reading is a complex and multifaceted individual experience and social phenomenon. We can't cut-and-paste one player in that ecosystem and act like none of the rest of it ever happened.

The most versatile reading and writing machine we've created to date is the laptop computer. (As I tell my students, the word "book" has meant many, many different things over its history, and there's a reason why they're all typing on MacBooks.) It's possible that either a pocket-sized device like the iPhone could compete with it as a reader or that a tablet-sized version not unlike the Kindle might be able to replicate either 1) enough of that versatility or 2) a handful of forms sufficiently well that versatility ceases to be a problem. But if anything, electronic reading is expanding the types and varieties of reading exponentially beyond the age of wood-pulp and industrial print. I want a reader that can at least keep up -- and preferably might drive some of that innovation itself.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Politics on the Small Screen

Virginia Heffernan on the thirty-minute Obamaspot (she calls it an Obamamercial):

I don’t mean to divide this nation, just as we’ve all sat down to watch TV together in the form of Barack Obama’s infomercial, but let’s take some time to watch it separately and fragmented, alone at our lonely little screens.
Worth reading the whole thing -- more questions and scattered observations than fully-reasoned answers, but perhaps the germ of a discussion of the changing nature of politics and the public w/r/t media.

Monster Stories

Exhibit A: A new edition of Frankenstein.

It remains impossible to know – though interesting to speculate – how many of Percy Shelley’s alterations to the manuscript were prompted by discussions with Mary, or indeed how much her words and ideas owed to conversations participated in or overheard between herself, Shelley and other members of their circle. The real merit of Robinson’s edition, however, is to make it possible for scholars to trace for the first time how extensive his involvement actually was. From his careful analysis of the draft manuscript, Robinson estimates that Percy Shelley “contributed at least 4,000 to 5,000 words” to the 72,000-word novel. These revisions and additions take a number of forms. Some replace colloquialisms with more formal, Latinate language: “ghost story” with “tale of superstition”; “go to the university” with “become a student at the university”; “it was safe” with “the danger of infection was past”. Others clarify motivation and set up the events that Frankenstein’s insatiable curiosity will unleash. For example, the following comparison between Frankenstein and his future wife, Elizabeth Lavenza. In the draft, Mary Shelley’s “my [ie, Frankenstein’s] amusements were studying old books of chemistry and natural magic; those of Elizabeth were drawing & music” is expanded and changed by Percy Shelley to: “I delighted in investigating the facts relating to the actual world – she busied herself in following the aerial creations of the poets. The world was to me a secret which I desired to discover – to her it was a vacancy which she sought to people with imaginations of her own”. The revisions amplify the difference between the two characters, and establish the curiosity which Frankenstein will later pursue to fatal effect, a curiosity which leads to Elizabeth’s death at the hands of the creature...

Robinson observes that “Most but not all of Percy Shelley’s changes . . . are for the better”. Yet it is important not to reduce the “original” Frankenstein to a discussion of literary value. To be preoccupied with whether Percy’s additions are “better” than what they replace is to miss larger points about collaboration and authorship, both in the Romantic period and beyond. What emerges from the first draft of Frankenstein is a sense of the collaborative energy that helped to forge the novel. The image, vividly evoked in Robinson’s introduction, of Mary and Percy passing the manuscript draft between them, each responding to the ideas of the other, is a powerful reminder that the popular myth of the Romantic author as an isolated, creative genius is just that – a myth. The Shelleys were part of a complex cultural network, involved in literary collaborations and (as the connections between Frankenstein and early nineteenth-century scientific debates illustrate) responsive to contemporary issues.
Exhibit B: The new Swedish horror film Let the Right One In.
Pale and strange: with his light blond hair and alabaster skin, the 12-year-old Oskar appears not quite of this world, an alienation of body and spirit that causes him enormous pain but proves his salvation. The seemingly friendless only son of divorced, emotionally remote parents, he is also an outcast at school. The other children taunt him, particularly a pint-size sadist who grows crueler the more Oskar retreats into himself. But there are few other places he can go, which is how he ends up alone at night outside his apartment building thrusting a knife into a tree as if stabbing his tormentor. It’s an uneasy revenge fantasy that attracts the notice of a girl even paler than he is, Eli (Lina Leandersson), an outcast of a deadlier kind.

The bedraggled Eli drops into Oskar’s life like a blessing, though initially she seems more like a curse. Mr. Alfredson has an elevated sense of visual beauty, but he knows how to deliver the splattery goods. One of the earliest scenes features Eli’s guardian or slave (it’s never clear which), a defeated-looking middle-aged man named Hakan (Per Ragnar), headed into the night with a little black kit, the contents of which — a knife, a plastic container, a funnel (ick) — are soon put to deadly use on a strung-up victim. The ensuing stream of red is all the more gruesome for being so matter-of-fact, though the sudden and comical appearance of an inquisitive poodle quickly eased at least one violently churning stomach.

There are other interested animals in this story, and many more unsettling excuses to laugh. Yet while Mr. Alfredson takes a darkly amused attitude toward the little world he has fashioned with such care, he also takes the morbid unhappiness of his young characters seriously. Both are achingly alone, and it is the ordinary fact of their loneliness rather than their extraordinary circumstances that makes the film more than the sum of its chills and estimable technique. Eli seizes on Oskar immediately, slipping her hand under his, writing him notes, becoming his protector, baring her fangs. “Are you a vampire?” he asks tremulously at one point. Her answer may surprise you, but it’s another of his questions — “Will you be my girlfriend?” — that will floor you.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

World Champions In The House

Phillies Win.

Convergence of an Infinite Series

Or maybe even a better kind of convergence: Alberto Manguel (author of the marvelous A History of Reading) reviews a mathematician's new book on Jorge Luis Borges's "The Library of Babel."

(Via A&L Daily.)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Now We Know Better

Mark Greif aims to take down Mad Men:

Mad Men is an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better. We watch and know better about male chauvinism, homophobia, anti-semitism, workplace harassment, housewives’ depression, nutrition and smoking. We wait for the show’s advertising men or their secretaries and wives to make another gaffe for us to snigger over. ‘Have we ever hired any Jews?’ – ‘Not on my watch.’ ‘Try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology; it looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.’ It’s only a short further wait until a pregnant mother inhales a tumbler of whisky and lights up a Chesterfield; or a heart attack victim complains that he can’t understand what happened: ‘All these years I thought it would be the ulcer. Did everything they told me. Drank the cream, ate the butter. And I get hit by a coronary.’ We’re meant to save a little snort, too, for the ad agency’s closeted gay art director as he dismisses psychological research: ‘We’re supposed to believe that people are living one way, and secretly thinking the exact opposite? . . . Ridiculous!’ – a line delivered with a limp-wristed wave. Mad Men is currently said to be the best and ‘smartest’ show on American TV. We’re doomed.
I think Greif is right to skewer these little winks to the audience, almost all of which appear in the show's pilot. The first episode of Mad Men is inspired, but astonishingly uncertain of what the show wants to be: comedy or drama, period piece or character study, indulgent or critical, idolizing or satirizing. There are odd act breaks with musical cues, as if Lucky Strike was about to come on as the show's sponsor instead of cutting to commercial. I don't think the network or its creator quite knew what to do with it. It's a little like watching the pilot of Deadwood, which almost unravels its latent genius because of its bad lighting and obviously fake mustaches.

Mad Men, like Deadwood, takes an episode or two to figure out what kind of show it can be, which parts work and which parts don't. Over the course of the first season, the writing and directing get tighter, and both the character and period studies become more focused. The stereotypes get unraveled, which even Greif confesses:
The only really moving parts of Mad Men, curiously, have to do with the further reaches of its most annoying feature: its knowingness about how everything right today was wrong back then, which could be expected to become most sanctimonious when it addresses sexual orientation. (The show barely considers race, perhaps because one can hardly say that there everything has turned out ‘all right’ in America over fifty years.) Every so often we get to see a gay or lesbian character begin to act on impulse, rather than suffering in silence or mouldering in confusion. The art director, Salvatore, meets a male client from out of town who takes him to drinks, then dinner, then offers to show him the darkened view of Central Park from his hotel room. The office sexpot, Joan Holloway, hears her old roommate confess a deep, non-Platonic love as they stand before a mirror in Joan’s bedroom: ‘Think of me as a boy,’ the woman begs. The roommate is rebuffed. The art director, too, goes away, but not before cueing us in to the fact that, though closeted, he is not utterly unaware: ‘I have thought about it. I know what I want. I know what I want to do – and that is nothing.’ ‘What are you afraid of?’ his suitor asks. Salvatore: ‘Are you joking?’ What had been condescending becomes, momentarily, tragic. Then another precisely dated song is played, and the credits roll, and we are back by the next episode to the historical-dramatic irony which is the most the show can treat us to and, finally, not enough.
I would definitely agree with Greif that there aren't enough moments in Mad Men like that, but most of what passes for good television doesn't get anywhere close to that. It seems odd to fault a show (as The Sopranos and The Wire continually were) for failing to consistently achieve its best moments.

The biggest problem of The Wire was its absence of psychological realism. For every character who was a recognizably conflicted human being, like Bubs or D'Angelo, you had a cardboard cutout, including most of the stars and nearly all of the women. The Wire had the violence and the sex and the social criticism of The Sopranos, but it generally left serious questions about character motivations outside the door.

Mad Men is what's left of The Sopranos when you cut The Wire away: it's all shadowy intimations, frayed relationships, and overcompensated trauma. There are serious problems with the conceit that we can understand a decade by watching our main character screw his way into its multiple worlds (suburbia, bohemia, Jewish department storia). But I think it does try to put some psychological depth behind those stereotypes, to understand why those men and women acted the way they did, by showing what they wanted and especially what they were afraid of. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, yes, now we know better than they did, because they are what we know.

If you want to take down Mad Men, you can't just knock off the low-hanging fruit, the jokes that don't quite work or the characters that clearly do objectionable things. You have to fiercely attack its strongest moments and show that there's something profoundly mistaken about them. With the end of The Wire and The Sopranos, Mad Men is king of cats.

Overfished Derivative Waters

Jonah Lehrer on the failure of financial markets and the Grand Banks fisheries:

In the 1970's, the government instituted strict regulations that limited the total catch to just 16 percent of the total cod population. The tricky part, of course, was coming up with the population estimates in the first place. It's hard to know how many fish to catch if you don't know how many fish there are. But fishery scientists were confident that their sophisticated models were accurate. They had randomly selected areas of the ocean to sample and then, through the use of a complicated algorithm, arrived at their total estimate of the cod population. They predicted that the new regulations would allow the cod stock to steadily increase. Fish and the fishing industry would both thrive.

The models were all wrong. The cod population never grew. By the late 1980's, even the trawlers couldn't find cod. It was now clear that the scientists had made some grievous errors. The fishermen hadn't been catching 16 percent of the cod population; they had been catching 60 percent of the cod population. The models were off by a factor of four. "For the cod fishery," write Orrin Pilkey and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, in their excellent book Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can't Predict the Future, "as for most of earth's surface systems, whether biological or geological, the complex interaction of huge numbers of parameters make mathematical modeling on a scale of predictive accuracy that would be useful to fishers a virtual impossibility."

People love models, especially when they're big, complex and quantitative. Models make us feel safe. They take the uncertainty of the future and break it down into neat, bite-sized equations. But here's the problem with models, which is really a problem with the human mind. We become so focused on the predictions of the model - be it the cod population, or the risk of mortgage derivatives - that we stop questioning the basic assumptions of the model. (Instead, the confirmation bias seeps in and we devote way too much mental energy to proving the model true.) It's not just about black swans or random outliers. After all, there was no black swan event that triggered this most recent financial mess. There was simply an exquisite model, churning out extremely profitable predictions, that happened to be based on a false premise. Hopefully, the markets will recover quicker than the Atlantic cod.

Miltonic Politics

Stanley Fish, on McCain's anger and Obama's cool:

What’s going on here? I find an answer in a most unlikely place, John Milton’s “Paradise Regained,” a four-book poem in which a very busy and agitated Satan dances around a preternaturally still Jesus until, driven half-crazy by the response he’s not getting, the arch-rebel (i.e., maverick) loses it, crying in exasperation, “What dost thou in this world?”

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that McCain is the devil or that Obama is the Messiah (although some of his supporters think of him that way), just that the rhetorical strategies the two literary figures employ match up with the strategies employed by the two candidates. What Satan wants to do is draw Jesus out, provoke him to an unwisely exasperated response, get him to claim too much for his own powers. What Jesus does is reply with an equanimity conveyed by the adjectives and adverbs that preface his words: “unaltered,” “temperately,” “patiently,” “calmly,” “unmoved,” “sagely,” “in brief.”

In response, Satan gets ever more desperate; he conjures up rain and wind storms (in the midst of which Jesus sits “unappalled in calm”); he tempts him with the riches of poetry and philosophy (which Jesus is careful neither to reject nor deify); and finally, having run out of schemes and scares and “swollen with rage,” he resorts to physical violence (McCain has not gone so far, although some of his supporters clearly want to), picking Jesus up bodily and depositing him on the spire of the temple in the hope that he will either fall to his death or turn into Superman and undermine the entire point of his 40-day trial in the wilderness. He doesn’t do either. He does nothing, and Satan, “smitten with amazement” — even this hasn’t worked — “fell.”
Hat tip to AVG.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, The Nation's Electoral Vote Handler

Al Giordano, on why Chicago is the greatest -- er, most electorally important -- city on Earth:

Chicago may just be the best city in the country to base your presidential campaign - in terms of the Electoral College - if you count with a cadre of well-trained organizers and volunteers ready to travel a short ways to register voters, knock on doors and help get out the vote in the neighboring swing states: Add 39 contiguous Electoral Votes in play and another 27 in battleground states close enough for day trips, and the region holds a whopping electoral prize of 87 EVs. That's more than the 73 on the West Coast or the 74 in Greater NY (with PA, NJ and CT).

As a native New Yorker, doing this math has been a humbling experience!

During the caucuses and primaries, Obama's organization under-performed the polling numbers in some regions, but in the key states surrounding Illinois it over-performed: Before the Iowa caucuses on January 3, the Pollster.com average had Senator Clinton leading by 1.4 percent (Obama held a slim 1.6 percent lead in the final five polls), yet Obama conquered there with 38 percent to 29 (that included second choice votes from supporters of also-rans); the entrance poll had it Obama 35, Clinton 27, an increase in the polling lead by 6.4 points...

In each of these key primaries and caucus, the difference between the polling results and the voting results was the field organization: that which was natively grown but also the waves of volunteers and organizers from Illinois that flooded into each of those states, including many doing it in single-day or weekend trips.

I love it; political organization is like a game of Risk! "With your troops in Chicago, you can strike anywhere in the Upper Midwest. And then you can raid Colorado and Virginia."

And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.


Via Sullivan.

Absolute Bedlam

It will be absolute bedlam. It will be one of the craziest places on Earth. It's kind of scary to imagine. -- Ryan Howard, Phillies First Baseman



You can't stop this train.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Whither Experience?

John Judis draws lessons from Clinton's and McCain's efforts to fight Obama's change message by stressing experience:

I don’t think Hillary Clinton lost to Obama because she stressed experience versus change. She lost because, initially, she didn’t offer anything else – like a strong economic message – and because her campaign made huge tactical errors in handling the caucus states and in planning for a protracted campaign. When Clinton’s campaign got going in the big states (where the economy superseded the Iraq war among voters), her experience was an important factor in her victories...That’s why McCain’s nomination of Sarah Palin has proven so fatal to his campaign. Voters aren’t stupid. They eventually take the question of experience seriously.

Would McCain be poised to win if he had chosen someone else? He would be doing better in the swing states if he had chosen Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty or former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge or Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (even if the nuts on the right would have created an uproar at the convention), but he would probably still be trailing Obama, because he has not shown himself capable to talking about the economy. His daffy performance in September during the start of the financial cancelled out his own “experience message,’ while Obama’s response and his steady performance in the debates (like Ronald Reagan’s performance in the single debate in 1980) convinced voters that he could do the job.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Satisfaction Of What's To Come

Footage from the Phillies party last night in Clark Park:

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

If It Ain't the Mets, It's Us

Chris Wilson, on fans of the Phillies:

Of the many dubious achievements that Philadelphia sports fans have notched over the years—throwing snowballs at Santa Claus, batteries at J.D. Drew, etc., etc.—perhaps the most telling is that they once forced Mike Schmidt to trot onto the field wearing sunglasses and a wig. Schmidt was one of the many Philadelphia athletes who never forged a good working relationship with the city's fans. His frustration culminated in 1985 when he described the Philly crowd to the Montreal Gazette as "a mob scene" that was "beyond help." Only the stunt with the wig—which Schmidt borrowed from Larry Andersen, who apparently kept a wig on hand in the clubhouse for such occasions—could save him from the torrential booing that awaited in Veterans Stadium. It's to the credit of the Philly faithful that they saw the humor in the wig stunt, cheering the third baseman for his ingenuity.
I submit that in the last 50 years, the Philadelphia Phillies' only bona fide rival has been the Philadelphia Phillies. Philadelphia's brand of sports navel-gazing—or rather, navel-scowling—is punishing to players across all the city's franchises. (See Donovan McNabb.) Nothing is more frustrating than watching a promising young player fail to click with the fans, get all dyspeptic about it, and leave the team—only to launch a phenomenal career elsewhere. Scott Rolen comes to mind. The third baseman was drafted by the Phillies in 1993 and won the Rookie of the Year award four years later. As his numbers flagged over four losing seasons in the majors, his once enthusiastic fans soured, and after the 2001 season, he declined to sign a long-term contract with the team. He was traded to the Cardinals in 2002, where he won a championship ring in 2006. For the duration of his time with the Cards, he was enthusiastically booed in Philadelphia...
For a time this season, though, Philly seemed on the precipice of returning to its old ways. In August, as the team was struggling, [Phillies shortstop Jimmy] Rollins indicted Phillies fans on the Best Damn Sports Show Period. "When you're doing good, they're on your side," he said. "When you're doing bad, they're completely against you." In the short term, Rollins earned the usual helping of abuse, more or less confirming his sentiments. But in the long run, though, the comment was as strategically wise as the "team to beat" quote, both for Rollins and the franchise. Philly fans "like someone who occasionally speaks his mind," Westcott says. "They like to see a guy stick his neck out." They also like to see a guy who wins: Rollins played his best baseball of the season in September, and the Phils once again passed the Mets to make the playoffs.
Sometimes I describe it this way: sports fans in Philadelphia treat every player on virtually every team the way Detroit fans treat the Red Wings' goalies. It's pretty nuts, but like everything else, Philadelphia is Detroit on a grand scale, albeit with a little more upside.

Wait, Which Part of the Office Suite Is That?

I like to read academicky conservative blogs -- Daniel Larison's Eunomia is the gold standard -- so when I saw that Culture 11 had a multiparty blog titled "Postmodern Conservative," I RSSed it tout de suite. But, yick, every post I've read so far is awfully dumb -- not stupid, but just kinda dumb -- and awfully self-assured in its half-informed dumbness. 

Consider "PowerPoint and Philosophy," which should be awesome:

The hidden premise beneath the proliferation of PowerPoint in university instruction is that there is nothing but data to share with students — that everything of practical, defensible value that can be taught can ultimately be captured by some quantitative measure. All else that remains, we are told, is smoke and mirrors. The obsession with data and information — versus ideas and human experience — has managed at a stroke to render university curriculua both excessively abstract and excruciatingly particular.

We now often exclude accounts of human life that take the big ideas seriously — ideas irreducible to discrete observable parts or explanations, which begin with lived political experience fundamentally resistant to mathematical representation. Our students are obviously hungry not just for knowledge but also the mentorship that cultivates their immature but powerful desires for meaning and purpose. Instead, we provide them with an avalanche of empirical data and a four year tutorial in job seeking. The widespread acceptance of PowerPoint is only the most recent and glaring example of the growing commodification of higher education. Tragically, universities have become factories of career accreditation, too sensitive to the moods of its customers and not sensitive enough to the demands of their souls.
Love the sentiment here, but hey, um... PowerPoint is a presentation application. There's nothing quantitative about it. I think you're thinking of Excel, which is sometimes used with PowerPoint, but generally not in humanities courses. You can say that PowerPoint can cut off the intellectual give-and-take that philosophy demands, but then you might as well denounce the chalkboard and the lecture. In fact, when you use it right, PowerPoint actually lets teachers and students engage with ideas in vivo voce speech more than traditional technologies, because you don't have to turn your back to write on the board.

This is actually something you can debate. But whatever PowerPoint's problems, an excess of quantitive data usually isn't one of them. This paragraph is too quick to jump to the big ideas, when taking them seriously requires being sensitive enough to the demands of getting details right.

Generally, I would say the problem with The Postmodern Conservative is that everything is tragic, without a clear or nuanced sense of what tragic means. Take a gander at "Socrates Belongs to the Red States":
Larison, as a Christian, understands this universe to be a tragic one because of the Fall (feel free to substitute some secular description of human nature’s brokenness, if you prefer), a condition which applies in all time zones. My "Red Socrates" thesis depends on the claim that cultural libertarianism is ill-equipped to make sense of a tragic universe. Tragedy involves looking at human suffering and saying that it was not only unavoidable but, more importantly, in some sense just and proper. Loyalties come into conflict and people get hurt, but that’s what’s supposed to happen when loyalties conflict!
Contrast this tragic sensibility with this definition of the purpose of politics (from a description of liberalism in an old Pomocon post I can’t find): "to reveal and institutionalize the needlessness of human suffering." I don’t mean to straw-man the Left, but it seems to me that liberalism/libertarianism has to attribute all human suffering to things like irrational cruelty, material scarcity, haste, poor judgment, and incomplete knowledge of the data set. They might be able to admit that some suffering is necessary because of the limited amount of stuff in the world, or the fact that human beings don’t have perfect knowledge, or the fact that instincts like selfishness are ineradicable. However, they can’t describe a universe in which suffering is morally necessary. This may be a particular prejudice of mine, but I believe moral philosophy rests on that fact. After all, if you’re just studying the most efficient way to allocate pleasure, isn’t that called economics?
Two points here. First, has Helen Rittelmeyer read the Oresteia? Aeschylus really did think that tragic suffering had the potential to be brought to a conclusion, as we set aside old blood feuds, revenge plots, tyranny, and torture in favor of Athenian justice, democracy, and a public and bloodless resolution of conflict. Orestes has conflicting loyalties, to his father and mother, and appears to deserve both suffering and praise, but the Athenian jury sorts that conflict out, the Erinyes/Furies become the Eumenides, and peace comes to both Athens and Thebes. That's what tragedy says. It's also what Hegel says, which is where this whole tragedy = competing moral claims business comes from.

Second, the issue is not whether the universe is or isn't a tragic one; it's which aspects of that tragic universe demand intervention by politics that conservatives and liberals usually disagree about. Conservatives generally have few qualms about the state stepping into matters of personal morality, while liberals don't flee in terror at the state addressing concentration of wealth and power. Authoritarian conservatism sees the resolution of all conflicts as the collapsing of the distinction between the logic of morality and the logic of the state; liberals are the one keeping that Aeschylean dream alive.

Cleaning Up the National Mess


Photographer Callie Shell:
I loved that he cleaned up after himself before leaving an ice cream shop in Wapello, Iowa. He didn't have to. The event was over and the press had left. He is used to taking care of things himself and I think this is one of the qualities that makes Obama different from so many other political candidates I've encountered.
More great pics here. Via Many.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Alternate Universe

At least two journalists have pointed to the unusual parallels between Colin Powell and John McCain as context for Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama (and repudiation of John McCain and the current configuration of the Republican party).

James Fallows:

Close contemporaries, born eight months apart; both headed toward military careers, but from very different starting points -- immigrants' son, versus son and grandson of admirals. Lives changed by the Vietnam War, including ultimately putting both on the track to top-level politics.

Powell declining to take what could have been a promising path to the Republican nomination in 2000; McCain trying hard for that nomination but losing out to a slime-rich campaign by GW Bush and Karl Rove. It was during a debate in this campaign that McCain delivered his famous and withering line directly to Bush's face, about his campaign's character-assassination ads. The line, spat out with more contempt than anything McCain later displayed toward Obama, was "You should be ashamed" -- and, when Bush tried to answer, "You should be ashamed."

After that, diverging arcs: Powell providing cover and legitimacy for the Bush-Cheney WMD argument in favor of the Iraq war, and despite acclaim for his record as Secretary of State clearly understanding how his historical standing had been diminished. McCain increasing his "maverick" reputation, before that term became a joke, right through his defense of John Kerry against the Bush-Rove Swift Boat ads in 2004.

And now the arcs reverse again. Powell, with his endorsement of Obama, taking a cleansing step not because he is endorsing a Democrat or the person who, instead of him, has a chance to become the first black President. But rather because Powell is at last free to say the many "Cut the crap!" things that his fealty to the Administration had kept him from saying publicly while in office or until now, ranging from the perverse effects of anti-Muslim hysteria to the dangers of scorched earth political campaigns.

The Economist:
Mr Powell's endorsement says more about John McCain than it does the Republican Party.

Mr Powell's explanation of his endorsement will be familiar to Democracy in America readers, but the source matters. Colin Powell, alone among Republicans, holds non-partisan and military credibility to match John McCain's. Like Mr McCain, Mr Powell's reputation suffered due to his association with George W Bush. Watching Mr Powell this morning, one can imagine it is Mr McCain's conscience critiquing the campaign.

Expect Republican commentators to focus on Mr Powell's stated concern for Mr McCain's judicial appointments as evidence of his estrangement. But as Mr McCain's nearest analog in American politics, Mr Powell's endorsement measures how far Mr McCain has strayed.
As Fallows notes:
Powell, tainted by his association with the Bush Administration, choosing at age 71 to restore his reputation for recognition of higher principles. McCain, who earlier opposed Bush tactics, choosing at age 72 a path that in the end is likely to bring him both defeat and dishonor. Maybe we need a Shakespeare to do this story justice.
I'm reminded a little of something poignant Michael Dukakis said earlier this year: "Look, I owe the American people an apology. If I had beaten the old man you’d have never heard of the kid and you wouldn’t be in this mess. So it’s all my fault and I feel that very, very strongly."

How does Colin Powell feel? John McCain couldn't beat back GWB and Karl Rove in 2000. It's conceivable that Powell might have. Instead, he legitimized Bush by agreeing to serve in his cabinet, then legitimized his push for war in Iraq by agreeing to make the case to the United Nations (which, by proxy, helped to make the case to moderates at home). If he hadn't helped the old man get into and out of the first Gulf War, and then helped the kid get into (but not out of) the second, we wouldn't be in this mess.

How would Colin Powell have responded to the events of September 11th? I don't know whether he asks himself that question. It's quite possible that he didn't run for President because he never wanted to ask himself a question like that. But he knows that it has all been a mistake. John McCain drew the opposite lesson, first with the war and then with the politics. Powell looks at McCain and sees the parts of himself he would rather never, ever see.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Life Going Nowhere, Somebody Help Me

Somebody help me, yeah:

"Stayin' Alive" might be more true to its name than the Bee Gees ever could have guessed: At 103 beats per minute, the old disco song has almost the perfect rhythm to help jump-start a stopped heart.

And in a small but intriguing study from the University of Illinois medical school, doctors and students maintained close to the ideal number of chest compressions doing CPR while listening to the catchy, sung-in-falsetto tune from the 1977 movie "Saturday Night Fever."

The American Heart Association recommends 100 chest compressions per minute, far more than most people realize, study author Dr. David Matlock of the school's Peoria, Ill., campus said Thursday.

And while CPR can triple cardiac arrest survival rates when properly performed, many people hesitate to do it because they're not sure about keeping the proper rhythm, Matlock said.
Via Kottke.