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.

In Your Life Or Any Other

I loved John McCain at the Al Smith dinner. Well worth watching to see a solid dose of generous humanity from a candidate whose campaign has often been anything but.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

All the Animals Together

I'm so sorry. That wasn't footage of my Phillies celebration party at all, but a concert James Brown gave in Paris in 1976. Here are the goods:

Get Up and Jam

In honor of the Phillies' majestic win over the Dodgers last night, which finished LA and sent the Phils into the World Series, I had an impromptu party in my dining room for friends and neighbors at around one in the morning. My upstairs neighbor Brian had a Flip video camera and took some footage. Enjoy.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Rose Is Obsolete

I replaced my first-gen MacBook Pro in August out of necessity. I colluded with a munchkin to break it, me by leaving it on the floor and him by throwing the alarm clock down on top of it, ruining the monitor. It's hooked up to my HDTV now, the most expensive (but also most capable) Apple TV ever made.

Since I was stuck, I had to spend $2G I didn't have to replace my existing lappy. I wasn't able to hold out for the new models that were by all accounts coming down the pike. But that wasn't so bad. I got a bump to Leopard, to a much bigger hard drive and faster Core 2 Duo processor, and dual-layer DVD burning. My accessories -- especially my protective leather case -- all still fit.

And when I finally heard what the deal was with the new models, I was unimpressed. I like the current MacBook Pro's keyboard. I like a physical button. A black bezel is fine, but who cares?

This, however, is incredibly cool:


Look at that gorgeous, gorgeous seamless edge.

each petal ends in
an edge, the double facet
cementing the grooved
columns of air--The edge
cuts without cutting
meets--nothing--renews
itself in metal or porcelain--
...

From the petal's edge a line starts
that being of steel
infinitely fine, infinitely
rigid penetrates
the Milky Way
without contact--lifting
from it--neither hanging
nor pushing--

The fragility of the flower
unbruised
penetrates space
-- William Carlos Williams

Monday, October 13, 2008

Locations Are Strategies

From Nobel winner Paul Krugman's 1998 summary of trends in economic geography [PDF]:

EVOLUTION. Interesting stories about economic geography often seem to imply multiple equilibria. Suppose, for example, that producers want to locate where other producers choose to locate; this immediately suggests some arbitrariness about where they actually end up. But which equilibrium does the economy select?

New economic geography models typically assume an ad hoc process of adjustment, in which factors of production move gradually toward locations that offer higher current real returns. This sort of dynamic process was initially proposed apologetically, since it neglects the role of expectations.

But it is possible to regard models of geography as games in which actors choose locations rather than strategies—or rather, in which locations are strategies—in which case one is engaged not in old-fashioned static expectations analysis but rather in state-of-the-art evolutionary game theory!

(To middle-brow modelers like myself, it sometimes seems that the main contribution of evolutionary game theory has been to relegitimize those little arrows we always wanted to draw on our diagrams.)
This is one paragraph in the original document; I added the extra breaks, to make it read a little more like one of Krugman's NYT columns.

The broader concerns of the article itself are fascinating:
In the case of high transport costs, there is relatively little interregional trade. So the wages workers can earn depend mainly on the amount of local competition and are thus decreasing in the number of other workers in the same region. On the other hand, when transport costs are low, a typical firm sells extensively in both regions. But since it has better access to markets if it is located in the region with the larger population, it can afford to pay higher wages—and the purchasing power of these wages is also higher because workers have better access to consumer goods. So in that case real wages are increasing in a region’s population...

[O]ne of the appealing features of the new economic geography: it easily allows
one to work through interesting “imaginary histories.” Suppose, for example, that we imagine an economy that starts with high transport costs and therefore with an even division of manufacturing between regions, a situation illustrated by the point labelled A. Then suppose that transport costs were gradually to fall. When the economy reached B, it would begin a cumulative process, in which a growing concentration of manufacturing in one region would lead to a still larger concentration of manufacturing in that region. That is, the economy would spontaneously organize itself into a core-periphery geography.

Nicht Ohne Du Vin

In the new New Yorker, Louis Menand brings his trademark Menandiness to text-messaging.

Look: frankly, it's impossible for anyone to really say who the audience of the New Yorker is. It appears to be mostly insecure middle-aged urban intelligentsia who would make fun of Iron Man if they hadn't once had a great conversation with Robert Downey Jr. Oh, and huge R. Kelly fans.

So, texting, maybe they do it all the time, and maybe this is one of those not-quite-newfangled things that they'd like to know enough about to make fun of with some kind of knowledge, or pretend to make fun of it so they can secretly indulge in their interest in the not-so-secret language of teenagers.

Either way, Menand splits the difference. So he cracks wise:

In some respects, texting is a giant leap backward in the science of communication. It’s more efficient than semaphore, maybe, but how much more efficient is it than Morse code? With Morse code, to make an “s” you needed only three key presses. Sending a text message with a numeric keypad feels primitive and improvisational—like the way prisoners speak to each other by tapping on the walls of their cells in “Darkness at Noon,” or the way the guy in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” writes a book. And, as Crystal points out, although cell phones keep getting smaller, thumbs do not.
(Hey, if semaphore or morse code were live options, I'd give 'em a whirl.)

Then he puts it in his historical context:
Most of the shortcuts used in texting are either self-evident (@ for “at” and “b” for “be”) or new initialisms on the model of the old “A.S.A.P.,” “R.S.V.P.,” and “B.Y.O.B.”: “imho” for “in my humble opinion,” and so on... “People were playing with language in this way long before mobile phones were invented,” [David Crystal] points out. “Texting may be using a new technology, but its linguistic processes are centuries old.” Acronyms, contractions, abbreviations, and shortened words (“phone” for “telephone,” and so forth) are just part of the language. Even back in the days when the dinosaurs roamed the earth and men wrote with typewriters, the language of the office memo was studded with abbreviations: “re:,” “cc.,” “F.Y.I.” “Luv” for “love” dates from 1898; “thanx” was first used in 1936. “Wassup,” Crystal notes, originally appeared in a Budweiser commercial. @(------ is something that E. E. Cummings might have come up with.
(In fact, "wassup" was first popularized by the show "Martin," where it was spelled "WZUP," after the titular character's radio call letters.)

God, weren't the twenties awesome? Finally, he adds some titillating foreign ethnography for experts true and vicarious:
A trillion of anything has to make some change in cultural weather patterns. Texting is international. It may have come late to the United States because personal computers became a routine part of life much earlier here than in other countries, and so people could e-mail and Instant Message (which shares a lot of texting lingo)... In the Czech Republic, for example, “hosipa” is used for “Hovno si pamatuju”: “I can’t remember anything.” One can imagine a wide range of contexts in which Czech texters might have recourse to that sentiment. French texters have devised “ght2v1,” which means “J’ai acheté du vin.” In Germany, “nok” is an efficient solution to the problem of how to explain “Nicht ohne Kondom”—“not without condom.” If you receive a text reading “aun” from the fine Finnish lady you met in the airport lounge, she is telling you “Älä unta nää”—in English, “Dream on.”
It's Marcel Duchamp in blue jeans! lhooq! ght2v1! rroseselavy! We should all either give up now or type only in French acro-puns. The French are just better at this than we are.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Achilles, That Splendid Splinter

John Updike, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu" (Oct 1960):

The affair between Boston and Ted Williams has been no mere summer romance; it has been a marriage, composed of spats, mutual disappointments, and, toward the end, a mellowing hoard of shared memories. It falls into three stages, which may be termed Youth, Maturity, and Age; or Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis; or Jason, Achilles, and Nestor.

First, there was the by now legendary epoch when the young bridegroom came out of the West, announced "All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.' " The dowagers of local journalism attempted to give elementary deportment lessons to this child who spake as a god, and to their horror were themselves rebuked. Thus began the long exchange of backbiting, bat-flipping, booing, and spitting that has distinguished Williams' public relations. The spitting incidents of 1957 and 1958 and the similar dockside courtesies that Williams has now and then extended to the grandstand should be judged against this background: the left-field stands at Fenway for twenty years have held a large number of customers who have bought their way in primarily for the privilege of showering abuse on Williams. Greatness necessarily attracts debunkers, but in Williams' case the hostility has been systematic and unappeasable. His basic offense against the fans has been to wish that they weren't there. Seeking a perfectionist's vacuum, he has quixotically desired to sever the game from the ground of paid spectatorship and publicity that supports it. Hence his refusal to tip his cap to the crowd or turn the other cheek to newsmen. It has been a costly theory—it has probably cost him, among other evidences of good will, two Most Valuable Player awards, which are voted by reporters—but he has held to it from his rookie year on. While his critics, oral and literary, remained beyond the reach of his discipline, the opposing pitchers were accessible, and he spanked them to the tune of .406 in 1941. He slumped to .356 in 1942 and went off to war.

In 1946, Williams returned from three years as a Marine pilot to the second of his baseball avatars, that of Achilles, the hero of incomparable prowess and beauty who nevertheless was to be found sulking in his tent while the Trojans (mostly Yankees) fought through to the ships. Yawkey, a timber and mining maharajah, had surrounded his central jewel with many gems of slightly lesser water, such as Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, Rudy York, Birdie Tebbetts, and Johnny Pesky. Throughout the late forties, the Red Sox were the best paper team in baseball, yet they had little three-dimensional to show for it, and if this was a tragedy, Williams was Hamlet...

By the time I went to college, near Boston, the lesser stars Yawkey had assembled around Williams had faded, and his craftsmanship, his rigorous pride, had become itself a kind of heroism. This brittle and temperamental player developed an unexpected quality of persistence. He was always coming back—back from Korea, back from a broken collarbone, a shattered elbow, a bruised heel, back from drastic bouts of flu and ptomaine poisoning. Hardly a season went by without some enfeebling mishap, yet he always came back, and always looked like himself. The delicate mechanism of timing and power seemed locked, shockproof, in some case outside his body. In addition to injuries, there were a heavily publicized divorce, and the usual storms with the press, and the Williams Shift—the maneuver, custom-built by Lou Boudreau, of the Cleveland Indians, whereby three infielders were concentrated on the right side of the infield, where a left-handed pull hitter like Williams generally hits the ball. Williams could easily have learned to punch singles through the vacancy on his left and fattened his average hugely. This was what Ty Cobb, the Einstein of average, told him to do. But the game had changed since Cobb; Williams believed that his value to the club and to the game was as a slugger, so he went on pulling the ball, trying to blast it through three men, and paid the price of perhaps fifteen points of lifetime average. Like Ruth before him, he bought the occasional home run at the cost of many directed singles—a calculated sacrifice certainly not, in the case of a hitter as average-minded as Williams, entirely selfish.


Updike's essay also may or may not be the locus classicus of the great Williams myth -- that Williams was robbed of career batting titles due to his two military tours of duty, putting lesser men ahead of him through a mistake of statistics -- but it offers the most graceful summary of it I've ever read:
But if we allow him merely average seasons for the four-plus seasons he lost to two wars, and add another season for the months he lost to injuries, we get a man who in all the power totals would be second, and not a very distant second, to Ruth. And if we further allow that these years would have been not merely average but prime years, if we allow for all the months when Williams was playing in sub-par condition, if we permit his early and later years in baseball to be some sort of index of what the middle years could have been, if we give him a right-field fence that is not, like Fenway's, one of the most distant in the league, and if—the least excusable "if"—we imagine him condescending to outsmart the Williams Shift, we can defensibly assemble, like a colossus induced from the sizable fragments that do remain, a statistical figure not incommensurate with his grandiose ambition.


via Bill Simmons, The Millions, and Kottke.

For My Baby

Jeff Mangum, on the small child's fascination with touching mouths and faces:

Now, how I remember you
How I would push my fingers through your mouth
To make those muscles move
That made your voice so smooth and sweet
-- "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea"

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Whitewashing History's Dustbins


Roger Ebert looks at the new Bette Davis stamp and asks about her missing cigarette:
Depriving Bette Davis of her cigarette reminds me of Soviet revisionism, when disgraced party officials disappeared from official photographs. Might as well strip away the toupees of Fred Astaire and Jimmy Stewart. I was first alerted to this travesty by a reader, Wendell Openshaw of San Diego, who wrote me: "Do you share my revulsion for this attempt to revise history and distort a great screen persona for political purposes? It is political correctness and revisionist history run amok. Next it will be John Wayne holding a bouquet instead of a Winchester!"

The great Chicago photographer Victor Skrebneski took one of the most famous portraits of Davis. I showed him the stamp. His response: "I have been with Bette for years and I have never seen her without a cigarette! No cigarette! Who is this imposter?"[...]

Look, I hate smoking. It took my parents from me, my father with lung cancer, my mother with emphysema. They both liked Luckies. When my dad's cancer was diagnosed, they played it safe and switched to Winstons. When my mother was breathing oxygen through a tube, she'd take out the tube, turn off the oxygen, and light up. I avoid smokers. It isn't allowed in our house. When I see someone smoking, it feels like I'm watching them bleed themselves, one drip at a time.

So we've got that established. On the other hand, I have never objected to smoking in the movies, especially when it is necessary to establish a period or a personality... Two of the most wonderful props in film noir were cigarettes and hats.
I likewise object, but I also can't believe that (so long as they were Photoshopping) they didn't change the pose of Davis's hand. It wouldn't have been hard to do just her face and fur coat. I'm guessing some higher-up had a last-minute crisis of courage, else they would have picked a different portrait or done a retouch that makes sense before sending the stamp to print.

When Colleges Can't Make Payroll

At Snarkmarket, Robin asks, "How has the stock market’s precipitous plunge affected college endowments, especially the titanic ones, e.g. Harvard and Yale? Will it affect their scholarship programs — many of which are generous and new? Or did Harvard’s legendary money managers somehow manage to beat the market again?"

As a partial answer, the Chronicle of Higher Education has an article in the current issue on budget-tightening efforts by the President of Emory University:

Emory’s administrative budgets are not expected to increase for the 2010 fiscal year, he says. Because the university wants to continue to offer faculty raises and competitive salaries, its schools and departments need to think about other areas they can trim now to offset those expenditures in the next budget.

Mr. Wagner suggests departments could let empty positions stay open and cut back on special events or travel expenses. He also suggests reducing paper usage, even forgoing holiday cards, “though abundant good cheer is necessary,” he says.
I thought this last note was a very sunny-side-up way to look at things:
Emory has no plans to slow down the $1.6-billion fund-raising campaign that kicked off its public phase last month and has raised $838-million in the past three years, Mr. Wagner says.

“If anything,” he writes, “now is the time to redouble our efforts to secure private funding for our future and to offer opportunities for donors to invest in ways that produce dividends of the sort not available in financial markets.”
Although it's pretty obvious that when a financial crisis reduces wealth and tightens credit, it tightens philanthropy too.

Again, huge numbers aside, it may not be the Harvards and Yales who are the real story here, but the institutions trying to compete with them with much smaller endowments who have felt pressured to step up their fundraising, spending, and financial aid packages to stay in the mix. For example, see another good article from The Chronicle: "Bank Freeze Leaves Hundreds of Colleges Cut Off From Short-Term Funds":
Wachovia Bank has frozen the accounts of nearly 1,000 colleges, leaving institutions unable to access billions of dollars they depend on for salaries, campus construction, and debt payments.

The move could cause other ripples, as Moody's Investors Service announced it would review the credit impact of the bank's decision on the many rated institutions participating in Wachovia's short-term investment fund.

The freeze has some colleges worried that they won't be able to make payroll this period, said Verne O. Sedlacek, president and chief executive of Commonfund, which manages investments for nonprofit institutions and directed colleges' money to the Wachovia fund. Many colleges use the bank's short-term investment fund for operating expenses, "almost as a checking account," he said.

As of late last month, Wachovia managed approximately $9.3-billion in assets for 900 colleges and about 100 private schools through its Common Fund for Short-Term Investments.
In particular, the hit taken by smaller colleges may have encouraged Congressmen in affected districts to switch their votes on the bailout plan:
The Wachovia freeze could have the biggest effect on smaller institutions like Bethany College, in Kansas, which has $700,000 invested in the fund. President Edward F. Leonard III said his institution has enough money to cover costs for now because students just paid tuition, but he is worried about the second semester, when the college typically dips into its short-term funds to pay for a variety of operating expenses.

"All colleges ride a cash roller coaster," he said. "But the smaller colleges, like Bethany, we feel those bumps more than others do."
After the bank froze its assets, Mr. Leonard wrote to his congressman, Rep. Jerry Moran, a Republican, to urge him to support federal legislation intended to rescue the financial sector. Mr. Moran voted against the $700-billion bailout bill, which had been backed by the Bush administration.

"I just e-mailed his legislative assistant saying, 'Hey, it's starting to hit home,'" he said. "If you think this is something confined to New York City and Washington, D.C., it's already hit one of your campuses in Kansas.
"

Thursday, October 09, 2008

From Megamovie to the Digital Novel

Jason Kottke follows Vincent Canby in lauding "the megamovie," works like Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz or the first season of David Chase's The Sopranos, the extended movie as mini-series.

Here's Canby:

''Berlin Alexanderplatz,'' ''The Singing Detective'' and ''The Sopranos'' are something more than mini-series. Packed with characters and events of Dickensian dimension and color, their time and place observed with satiric exactitude, each has the kind of cohesive dramatic arc that defines a work complete unto itself. No matter what they are labeled or what they become, they are not open-ended series, or even mini-series.
Here's Kottke:
Megamovies take television seriously as a medium. They have dramatic arcs that last longer than single episodes or seasons. Megamovies often explore themes and ideas relevant to contemporary society -- there's more going on than just the plot -- without resorting to very special episodes. Repeat viewing and close scrutiny is rewarded with a deeper understanding of the material and its themes. They're shot cinematically and utilize good actors. Plot details sprawl out over multiple episodes, with viewers sometimes having to wait weeks to fit what might have seemed a throwaway line into the larger narrative puzzle.
But "repeat viewing" and marathon sessions don't take television seriously as a medium -- at least broadcast television. And a single thirteen-hour season of The Sopranos is very different from 6 or 7 (depending on how you count them). As I've argued before, The Sopranos participates in something new:
It doesn't just whack the novel; it whacks television, by gathering up all its tropes and genres, demolishing them in the process. And it does it in a genuinely new form. That tagline, "It's not TV, it's HBO" isn't just good marketing. The Sopranos has very little to do with broadcast television or even the movies. It's long-form, subscription-supported (i.e. no commercials), no censorship, no laugh track, no traditional "seasons" dictated by the calendar (each nominative season is in fact a distinct series). It's shot with a movie camera, shown in 16:9 on digital cable, digital video discs, or digital downloads on digital television and computer screens. There are generic predecessors, from the network miniseries to the BBC, but this is really new.

Shows like The Wire almost seem to work against their broadcast format -- until you realize that the show is watched almost as much on DVD, in a digital download, or on cable On Demand as it is by viewers who dutifully sit on the couch every week. It's a show designed to be watched a disc at a time rather than an hour at a time; the one-hour divisions are just convenient chapter breaks, giving you a chance to take a breath and get a drink before you sit back down and click ahead to the next one. (Also, like the novel's chapter and page, it gives you a convenient way to reference moments in episodes when you're talking about them.) Lost gives you cliffhangers; The Wire gives you catharsis.

The serial form gives you the space you need to explore character and milieu, and the uninterrupted length and cinema-style production give you the forms you need to explore them with seriousness. But this already implies that there are at least two digital cultures at work, and maybe working at cross purposes; the culture of the large screen and the culture of the small screen. In your living room, on your HDTV, you watch the digital cable novel; on your computer at work, or on your iPod in transit, you gobble up your viral YouTube videos, catch up on The Daily Show, or wring your hands over the newest Obama commercial. My favorite five-year-old likes to call YouTube videos "commercials," and indeed, that's what they're like -- that's how they're constructed, as the logical culmination of broadcast television. One is intensive: we obsess over our serials, their characters, the turns and twists of plot. The other is extensive: we can watch a hundred different YouTube videos a day, all from different sources, forward them to our friends or upload them to our blogs, and never return to them again.
Canby's already on to this in 1999:
I saw ''The Sopranos'' not as it was initially broadcast at the rate of one segment per week, but at my own pace on cassettes supplied by HBO. Once I watched four together, another time three, but always at least two. This gives the critic an edge over the general public. Momentum builds. Small but important details that might otherwise be forgotten from one week to the next, or simply overlooked while one is attending to the plot, remain vivid...

How we respond to television fare depends on the manner in which we see it. Commercial-free premium cable channels, as good as they are, still lock one into someone else's scheduling. Cassettes are ideal, but there aren't that many mini-series or megamovies at the corner video shop.
Cassettes!

In the first episode of The Sopranos, Carmela and Father Phil debate the merits of The Godfather on laserdisc. (Tony likes the second film, especially the part where Vito goes back to Italy.) In the second episode, Chris and his sloppy, meth-addicted friend Brandon hijack a trailer truck of DVD players, and Tony, Brandon, and Paulie Walnuts go back and forth about the availability of titles, picture and sound quality, and so forth. Anthony Jr. finds out his Dad in this mafia when his sister shows him a web site she pulls up on AOL.

A year later, Vincent Canby is still watching VHS tapes and talking about commercial television. But the Sopranos -- the show and the family -- have already moved on.

Breaking Fasts

Al Filreis points to a 2006 article in the Jerusalem Post on the first Yom Kippur after the end of World War II.

The paper interviewed Holocaust survivors in Kiryat Sanz who had spent the holiday in the American-run camps for liberated prisoners in Feldafing, Germany.

In the Feldafing DP camp, 40-year-old Rabbi Yekutiel Halberstam, the Klausenberg Rebbe from the Sanz dynasty, had already emerged as a leader. With no time to mourn the deaths of his wife and 11 children, he had thrown himself into rehabilitating the other survivors.

On the eve of his first post-Holocaust Yom Kippur in 1945, his preparations were slow and deliberate, including study and meditation in isolation. Edith Cohen remembers knocking at his door and entering, pleading: "My father died in the camps. I have no one to bless me." He graciously complied, put a handkerchief over her head and blessed her.

Soon there was another knock, and a second orphaned girl was ushered in. "Please bless me, Rebbe." Again, he obliged sympathetically. Then another knock, and another. Soon a line of several dozen girls had formed, each one receiving individual attention until it was time for Kol Nidre. The Klausenberger missed out on his contemplative pre-Yom Kippur meditation, but he served as surrogate father for dozens of orphans.


There are also stories of the German camps:
Edith Cohen recalls her hunger pangs in a sealed cattle car on the way to Auschwitz from her home in Hungary. When her food ran out she chewed on one piece of chicken skin for four days just to keep something in her mouth. She was liberated by the Russians in spring 1945, so that by the time Yom Kippur came she had regained some strength and added a little weight to her 20 kilograms. Having "fasted" often during the Holocaust, she was unperturbed by the prospect of a 25-hour fast.

What Cohen describes isn't a fast, but almost an anti-fast: instead of forgoing food knowing that the fast will come to a conclusion at sundown, she never stops eating, since otherwise the fast would have no end.

Despite the initial question posed by the article ("How is the Yom Kippur fast of Holocaust survivors different from everyone else's?"), there is no real discussion of how survivors think about the Holy Days differently now, or in the time since the Holocaust. For Israeli holocaust survivors, who may have experienced not only the 1945 Yom Kippur in Germany, but the 1973 Yom Kippur War, what does it mean to recite on Erev Yom Kippur, "“May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst, for all the people are in fault”?

Thomas Paine Brushes His Shoulders Off

The Onion retrieves an essay from its archives.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Oh, The Longing!

My. Sweet. God.


Jay Walker's beautiful, idiosyncratic collector's library is turning my skin into soft green felt. All the more so because it actually looks like a nice place to sit, read, and think.

(Via Kottke)

Monday, October 06, 2008

I Got Flarf On Me!

That hoax poetry anthology Ron Silliman wrote about yesterday? I'm in it. So are a bunch of my friends, including AVG. And her poem's still better than mine.

If I had planned this hoax, I would have allowed authors to swap the crappy fake poems for their own work, turning a fake anthology into a real one.

I also would have made no distinction between writers who availed themselves of the right to swap and those who didn't, making it impossible to tell the real poems from the fake.

The Virtues of Conservative Cinema

Roger Ebert explains why he's a film conservative (in the small-c sense of "cautious about change or innovation"):

For some time past I've realized I am profoundly conservative. No, not in my politics. In my thinking about the movies, and particularly about how best to experience them. This may be a character flaw, but I cherish it, and believe it helps my criticism. I adhere to the notion that the best way to see a movie is by light projected through celluloid onto a large screen in front of a sizable audience that gives it their full attention. The key words here are projected, celluloid, large screen and attention.
His best explanations are for the first two terms:
Projected. I somehow feel it is right for the movie to originate behind me. In a strange way, it seems to be originating inside my mind and expressing itself on the screen, rather than originating on the screen and approaching me.

Celluloid. Film carries more color and tone gradations than the eye can perceive. It has characteristics such as a nearly imperceptible jiggle that I suspect makes deep areas of my brain more active in interpreting it. Those characteristics somehow make the movie seem to be going on instead of simply existing.
I like how he also touches on a note of doubt:
Now we have the reality of HD in the home, and very high quality video projection in theaters. I held out against video projection for years, when it really was pretty shabby. Now I acknowledge it is pretty damned good. I prefer to see a movie in a theatrical setting but love my home setup. It kept me in business when I was getting up speed after my illness. Is my preference for celluloid only sentimental? Partly. I no longer instantly know if a movie is being projected digitally. My subconscious may be losing something, as I suggested, but consciously I'm not aware of missing much. That said, it is still true that no digital projection can match 70mm, and I continue to yearn for the dream of MaxiVision 48, which exists in an altogether higher realm.

Digital video vs. celluloid film finds its obvious analogue (as Ebert points out) between digital text vs. paper books. Still, I'm more interested in Ebert's pinpointing of projection, screen size, and attention as qualities essential to the cinematic experience. (This also helps show why the term "cinema" is often preferable to the admittedly sexy "film.") The physicality of a medium isn't just in how it's recorded and transferred, but in how it's viewed, touched, or heard.

What assumptions about presenting text, images, music, and video are shifting under our feet, helped along by the digital revolution, but in some sense independent from it? That's what I'd like to know.

Counterhistories and the Judgment of History

An interview with Howard Zinn and Robert Birnbaum, from Identity Theory:

HZ: I am waiting for somebody to write a book about the American Revolution questioning the justice of the American Revolution. In another words, asking, "Was this really a justified war?" There are there holy wars in American History—the Revolutionary, the Civil War and World War II. People are willing to say that the Mexican War was imperialist—

RB: Now they are.

HZ: That's right. And the Spanish American War and Vietnam. But there are holy wars. Untouchable, you know. Ken Burns does the Civil War and then he does the WWII.

RB: Called it The War.

HZ: And there is nothing revisionist about that. I think it is worth questioning the justice of those wars. It’s a complicated moral issue. You might say Vietnam is easy. Iraq is easy. And the Mexican War is easy. And there are no wars which are more morally complicated. But the fact that there are morally complicated wars shouldn’t stop us from examining them. And the American Revolution, in terms of casualties, the bloodiest of wars. A lot of people don’t recognize that. There were only three million people in the colonies at that time. I’ll put it another way. It ranks with the Civil War as—

RB: Percentage of casualties against the total population.

HZ: Yes, and the question is as questions in all of these holy wars: Could the same objective have been accomplished, independence from England, ending slavery, defeating Fascism—could those have been accomplished at less than the bloody toll that was taken and without corrupting the moral values of the victors in the war? And with better outcomes? Those are questions worth asking. The American Revolution won independence from England at the expense of the Indians, at the expense of the Native Americans. What it did, the English had set a line, the Proclamation of 1763, you couldn’t go beyond it, into Indian territory. They didn’t want trouble with the Indians. Independence from England takes place, the Proclamation of 1763 is wiped out. The settlers are free to move into Indian territory. Black People—most of them joined the British side rather than the American side. It was not a revolution for them. And the question I haven’t seen asked... Canada won its independence from England without a bloody war... Conceivable? It’s like asking the question about the nature of the Civil War. Slavery was abolished in all of the countries of Latin America by 1833. Without a bloody civil war. Now, of course, all those situations are different. And complicated. All that I am saying is that I think there are questions about history that so far have been untouched and untouchable and should at least be opened up.
It seems like there are (at least) two different issues here. One is the counterhistorical: how and under what conditions could these problems have been resolved differently? Let's add the assumption that under "differently," we're only concerned with "peacefully." That would be worth exploring and costing out.

The other is the issue of judgment. Let's suppose that we find some plausible scenarios that solve the first question. Does that then imply that we can fault the moral judgment that led to those wars? And if so, whose moral judgment? In the case of the Revolutionary War, should the British or American colonists be held responsible, or both? Should particular leaders? Ditto the U.S. Civil War, with the North and the South, Lincoln and Davis and generals. You would also have to look at conditions leading up to the crisis: it's quite possible that the blame for the Civil War (as Zinn himself suggests) lies with the decisions made during and immediately after the American Revolution.

Also, clearly the interests of the opposed parties are not the same. If your question, say, regarding the Civil War is whether we could have eliminated slavery without a bloody and costly war, then that paradoxically seems to place the "blame" for the war solely on one part of one side, since not everyone fighting for Union sought to achieve that cause, while virtually everyone fighting for the Confederacy sought to prevent that achievement. Essentially you've precluded the question of whether the goals of the Confederacy could have been achieved without war, even if you stipulate that at some point, slavery needs to be abolished.

To me, it seems like throwing moral blame around is generally a much dicier proposition than Zinn thinks. What you really need is some argument that, not to borrow too much from game theory, presents an alternate equilibrium, where both sides could have achieved 1) what they wanted or at least 2) what was best for them if they had both pursued a different strategy.

For example, let's suppose that the U.S., Europe, Russia, and China had agreed to pursue regime change by negotiating with Saddam Hussein to step down as head of state in Iraq and to leave the country. He's allowed to go into exile in, I don't know, Egypt, with a good sum of money, his sons, and assurances that he won't be prosecuted for war crimes or crimes against humanity. That certainly would have been better for Saddam, almost definitely would have been better for Iraq, and arguably would have allowed us to achieve our objectives in Iraq and the Middle East by overseeing a stable transfer of power and slow but certain democratization.

As it was, we left Saddam nowhere to go but into hiding, the Sunnis nothing to do but to violently oppose the occupation, and the Shiites no friends but Iran. That's a bad equilibrium for everyone, but a natural one given the way the choices were presented.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Logic of Collective Action

Publius at Obsidian Wings on the underlying problem with McCain's health care proposals:

One of my biggest gripes with conservative economic policy is its tendency to ignore disparities in bargaining power.

The romantic myth of individualism is powerful, but it ultimately just doesn’t work in many contexts. Health care is one of them. Look, it would be great to have a world where individuals had the time and expertise to shop around and negotiate for better policies. But they don’t. However rhetorically compelling “individualism” may be, the reality of an individual market is quite different — as Klein notes.

But it’s more than health care policy. The failure to give much weight to bargaining power disparities is at the heart of many a conservative/liberal economic disputes. Take unions for instance, or federal labor protections more generally. The standard conservative argument is that if employers act bad, employees can leave. Or, if they don’t pay enough, employees can just bargain. After all, everyone loves bargaining! (“Bargain” was a semi-erotic word for my old law and econ professors). These romantic visions, however, assume that individual employees have a lot more information, resources, and bargaining power than they actually have.
I definitely agree, although I'd prefer to focus more on the capabilities of collectives than on the incapabilities of individuals. This is why individuals in these contexts, when given the choice, will overwhelmingly choose to unionize and bargain collectively. It's also why they prefer employer-based health care to individually purchased care, despite the tremendous restrictions it imposes on labor mobility. Last, it's why state-run plans like SCHIP and Medicare are so successful.

Because -- get this -- individuals and smaller collectives binding together to produce goods and services that it is costly or impractical to produce individually is the fundamental reason why we have government at all.

I continue to believe this despite my occasional pessimism that government has existed and continues to exist only to provide legitimacy to already existing relationships of domination and to provide support to a parasitic class of clerics.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Cathartic Syphilis

A nominee for the "Catharsis" section of The Money Meltdown:

Even Stephen

Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt faces off with Stephen Colbert on the Presidential candidates' resemblance to Shakespearean characters.



Highlights:

  • "Sure, MacBeth murdered his friend the king, but that just makes him a McMaverick."
  • "I think you've got a weak trochee in there."
  • "I think Shakespeare thought all his life about precisely military heroism and whether it c0uld translate into leadership... and of course, he thought, it almost never did... A total catastrophe, and not only a total catastrophe, but a horrible exchange of honor for power and power exercised terribly."
  • Also, the glorious exchange of quotations at the end.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Presidential Humor

If you're a weekly satirist like the guys and girls at Saturday Night Live, how do you crack a problem like Obama? Fred Armisen is fine, but he's physically implausible as Obama, as much for his build and the shape of his head as his uneven makeup. And unlike Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, Obama doesn't lend himself to instant caricature.

If Obama wins and SNL has to take on Obama on a regular basis, I think they need something as unexpected and inspired as Phil Hartman's take on Reagan:



I don't know what the corresponding conceit for Obama would be, but I would love to hear suggestions.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Redefining "Gotcha"

Daniel Larison:

The classic ”gotcha” structure works something like this: “Governor, on such and such a day, you said that you supported X, but last week you said A, which many experts claim implies support for Y. Are you in favor of Y, and have you been misleading us all this time?” Say yes, and you’re a fraud; say no, and you’re an idiot. The questioner then sits back and watches the candidate tap dance his way out of the trap. The good dancers are considered competent, and the clumsy ones are considered unfit. There is some debate about whether this is useful, and there are reasons to find fault with it as a substitute for more serious questions, but on the whole it tends to keep pols on their toes and makes them slightly more accountable. But now we are declaring questions that are simply queries for information: “what do you think about X?” or “are there other Court rulings with which you disagree?” This is not a trick.
One day, I'd really like to read a book written by Larison -- whether about Byzantine history or American/global politics, I don't really care which.

Obama, Politician as Writer

Joe Klein:

Part of Obama's steadiness is born of necessity: An angry, or flashy, black man isn't going to be elected President. But I've also gotten the sense, in the times I've interviewed and chatted with him, that calm is Obama's natural default position. He is friendly, informal, accessible...and a mystery, hard to get to know. He doesn't give away much, doesn't — unlike Bill Clinton — have that desperate need to make you like him. His brilliant, at times excessive, oratory is an outlier — the only over-the-top, Technicolor quality he has.
Andrew Sullivan adds that "Obama's little secret is that he isn't that cool. He's just a nerd with natural Xanax in his blood."

I have a different theory: Obama, like few Presidents since Lincoln or Jefferson, is a writer. Jefferson was personally cool and non-oratorical; Lincoln was calm, folksy, and easy to underestimate. Jefferson ripped his opponents' guts out, but could reflect about and moderate that impulse; Lincoln brought his opponents into the fold, as is well known now through the multiple invocations of Doris Kearns Goodwin's book A Team of Rivals. They both radiated charisma.

The common thread is the their ability to see beyond themselves, to observe the world around them and to see all sides of it. Obama discusses his books and his speeches -- especially his signature speeches -- as often as his legislative proposals. He ia an author, and while authors are not always multifaceted and observant, our best political writers have nearly always been.

New Additions to Blogroll

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Ominous Question Mark

Goaded -- mostly by himself, but I helped a little -- into making a web site that concisely explains the financial crisis, Matt Thompson presents "The Money Meltdown: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE GLOBAL MONEY CRISIS OF 2007-?."

So now, even though you don't understand WTF is going on, you can look smart by telling your friends, "you know, there's this one web site that summarizes it all so perfectly..."

Hold the Phone

I'm all for criticizing Sarah Palin -- her scanty qualifications to serve as V.P., her extreme positions on many social issues, her habit of hunting wolves from airplanes or helicopters (not really sure which, but either way, doesn't seem like an 'Average Joe' pastime).

But I have some difficulty piling on her Supreme Court decision gaffe. I finally saw the text of what she said a few minutes ago, and here it goes:

COURIC: What other Supreme Court decisions do you disagree with?

PALIN: Well, let's see. There's --of course --in the great history of America rulings there have been rulings, that's never going to be absolute consensus by every American. And there are--those issues, again, like Roe v Wade where I believe are best held on a state level and addressed there. So you know--going through the history of America, there would be others but--

COURIC: Can you think of any?

PALIN: Well, I could think of--of any again, that could be best dealt with on a more local level. Maybe I would take issue with. But you know, as mayor, and then as governor and even as a Vice President, if I'm so privileged to serve, wouldn't be in a position of changing those things but in supporting the law of the land as it reads today.
Maybe I'm nuts, but it seems pretty clear to me that what Sarah Palin couldn't name, apart from Roe v. Wade, wasn't another Supreme Court decision, but another Supreme Court decision that she disagreed with. And that's a horse of a different color. I could rattle off a lot of Supreme Court decisions, but not very many that weren't reversed that I really disagree with. (Bush v. Gore is the obvious one, but I don't think Palin would say she disagreed with how that came out. I mean that would be interesting. But I doubt it.)

You could argue that this is just as bad; surely Palin doesn't agree with Plessy v. Ferguson! Breaking: Palin praises Taney's opinion on Dred Scott! But again, I think Palin was trying to think of active legal issues -- and trying to jump to the reassuring point, which is the same point that helped win her election in Alaska, that her personal views don't trump her sense that her role is to support he law of the land. Which is actually a very grown-up position to take.

The two big decisions that she could have / should have mentioned were:

1) Exxon v. Baker, a Supreme Court decision reducing the award paid by Exxon to Alaskan fishermen, which as you might expect, Palin strongly opposed as governor;
2) This year's Boumediene decision, which gave prisoners in the war on terror habeas corpus rights. This one, I actually hope Palin doesn't agree with, or at least doesn't have feelings about it as strong as her running mate, who called it one of the worst in the court's history. It's bad enough that McCain is willing, even eager, to let people sit in a cell indefinitely without the right to challenge the charges against them. Sometimes, opposition to physical torture just isn't enough.

But again, quick, quick, quick -- what's a SCOTUS decision that shapes active law besides Bush v. Gore that you disagree with? Do you think that everyone likely knows about it?

If Palin had implied that she was opposed to Marbury v. Madison, now THAT would be a story.

P.S.: Besides, everyone knows that the classiest way to mock Palin is to diagram her sentences.