Thursday, December 29, 2005

My Mix CDs for 2005

Last year, I got a Best of 2004 mix CD exchange going with some of my music loving friends (and friends of friends). This was hot on the heels of a period when I was making mix CDs all of the time. I had a regular monthly exchange going with one friend (now sadly defunct) and was randomly making CDs for friends and family, for holidays, moving, whatever. I had made an early and imperfect Best of 2003 mix CD -- which, I think, was actually burned only once, and only one person besides my girlfriend has ever heard -- and I figured having a kind of CD exchange with friends would be a good way to ensure quality and share lots of new songs, albums, and bands. And it was.

But a funny thing happened in 2005. Apart from a few aborted attempts, I stopped making mix CDs. This was especially strange, since I finally had a car, where CD-length mixes really do come in handy. But I'd stopped exchanging with friends, and I had less and less success coming up with new ideas for mixes. Most of my 2004 mix CDs were concept- or genre-driven: a two-disc post-rock primer, or an album loosely structured around a theme taken from a song lyric or title. Besides a good tweak of my 2004 freak-folk mix ("The Hard-to-Find Stations on the AM Band," after a lyric in The Mountain Goats's "Jaipur"), I was coming up dry.

Instead, and not long into the year, I was listening to lots of new music and filing away songs for my 2005 mix. I had no theme or musical style in mind -- limiting an album to songs released in a calendar year is usually enough of a constraint to get started. But in September -- about two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast -- I had it.

Entirely by accident, or with the benefit of hindsight -- take your pick -- I had been putting together an album of songs from 2005, all released before Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath -- that seemed to be about the hurricane. Lines in songs I'd listened to a dozen times and ignored now had new relevance.

"I've lost my house. You've lost your house.
I don't suppose it matters which way we go.
This great society is going smash."
(The Books, "Be Good to Them Always")

"It's so cold in this house
The open mouth swallowing us.
The children sent home from school --
One won't stop crying.
And I know that you're busy too,
But do I know that you care?
You got your finger on the pulse,
You got your eyes everywhere,
And it hurts all the time when you don't return my calls
And you haven't got the time to remember how it was."
(Bloc Party, "Like Eating Glass")

"Sit down, honey, let's hang around.
We'll wreck their precious, their perfect town."
(Sleater-Kinney, "What's Mine Is Yours")

"She got screwed up by her vision,
It was scary when she saw him;
She didn't tell a single person
About the camps on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Lord, to be seventeen forever."
(The Hold Steady, "Stevie Nix")

The most uncanny of all was Archer Prewitt's "Way of the Sun." Prewitt's album Wilderness came out in January, and I had been listening to it semi-regularly for most of the year. I thought that "Way of the Sun," the first track, was the most beautiful on the album, a soft and shimmering gem with haunting but (I thought) fairly abstract imagery. Here are the lyrics:

Hello, my sweetheart
Hold still until they pass by
No, don't let them see you
They'll take what's left of our lives

Too late for the cameras
Everything's right
All the people are hiding,
Burn through the night
Please, what's the reason?
Say goodbye
All our lives are all on burning paper

We can get by on the candles
We can survive if we ration it right
It's the last of the candles
Let me take one more look at your eyes

We awoke in the morning
Caught by surprise
A helicopter was hovering
Up in the sky
Please, please believe me
I'd give my life

(Ave Maria)

I feel that it's over
We can go by the way of the sun
We can go by the way of the sun
I feel that it's over
We can go by the way of the sun
In the weeks after Katrina, it seemed less like a song than a first-person account. And other songs that didn't seem to reference Katrina at all had a new resonance. The Decemberists' "On the Bus Mall" was about two hustler/prostitutes... from New Orleans. Feist's "Mushaboom," with its idyllic wintry vision of children, suddenly seemed more poignant and insecure: its "rented house" and wait for "dreams to match up with my pay" came from a family relocated to Utah. What was really bizarre was that the music was changing the way I thought about Katrina -- I cared less about the storm itself, how the media covered it, or which awful politicians to deserved the most blame. Music written before the hurricane ever happened was giving me a better appreciation of the full human drama of thousands of people who'd lost their homes, who were angry, tired, but still hopeful to rebuild.

Once I had the theme, then it was easy to decide which songs to keep and which to let go. But the hurricane wasn't the only story I had found in the music. I'll tell the next story... in my next post.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Best Albums of 2005

Not long after Pitchfork came out with their Top 50 Albums of 2005, I started working on my own list. Well, actually, I just put it together in the last ten minutes. So I don't know if I will wind up absolutely standing by the particular rankings I've made. But mostly, I can't entirely believe that I bought, borrowed, streamed and/or downloaded this many albums this year.

In case long-term readers of Short Schrift are wondering, I'm sticking with my premature claim that Andrew Bird's The Mysterious Production of Eggs is the album of the year. Bird got ignored by Pitchfork and lots of other critics' list this year, and if nothing else, that convinced me to come down heavy in his favor. It really is a phenomenal album, and I lived with it this year like nothing else I heard.

In general, I think albums released early in the year -- particularly albums released to some fanfare (although on this count, I don't think Bird qualifies) -- tend to slide farther down the lists than they'd appear if they were released later in the year. For example, if Bloc Party's Silent Alarm had been released in October instead of January, I think it would have been in more top tens instead of 25s, and would definitely have beaten less potent releases by Franz Ferdinand and Maximo Park. Franz Ferdinand actually had the same problem in 2004.

Not only is there a problem with eventual critical backlash, but I think critics tend to get tired of listening to some albums, and musical trends that seemed vital at one moment begin to wear thin later. If anything, my list has the opposite prejudice. Albums released in the last four months of the year had a harder time breaking into my rotation of favorites, both because earlier albums had already secured their places and because I just had less time to concentrate (and money to spend) on music, at least until the very end of the year. (Plus, I made my first best-of-2005 mix CD way early, which locked out albums released later.) So albums like Animal Collective's Feels and even Kanye West's Late Registration (which I heard in entirety on release but didn't pick up until much later) are probably lower on this list than they deserve to be, or at least as they would if I listened to them on repeat four or five more times.

But I don't pretend that this list is anything but subjective. Its quirks and vagaries are mine, too.

1 Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs - Andrew Bird
2 Illinois - Sufjan Stevens
3 Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
4 Silent Alarm - Bloc Party
5 In Case We Die - Architecture in Helsinki
6 Gimme Fiction - Spoon
7 A River Ain't Too Much to Love - Smog
8 The Sunset Tree - The Mountain Goats
9 Apologies to the Queen Mary - Wolf Parade
10 Separation Sunday - The Hold Steady
11 Twin Cinema - The New Pornographers
12 Late Registration - Kanye West
13 Broken Social Scene - Broken Social Scene
14 Feels - Animal Collective
15 Picaresque - The Decemberists
16 The Woods - Sleater-Kinney
17 Tender Buttons - Broadcast
18 Strange Geometry - The Clientele
19 I Am A Bird Now - Antony and the Johnsons
20 Alligator - The National
21 Bang Bang Rock n' Roll - Art Brut
22 Pixel Revolt - John Vanderslice
23 You Could Have It So Much Better - Franz Ferdinand
24 Arular - M.I.A.
25 Z - My Morning Jacket
26 LCD Soundsystem - LCD Soundsystem
27 Let It Die - Feist
28 Lost and Safe - The Books
29 Transistor Radio - M. Ward
30 Get Behind Me Satan - The White Stripes
31 Oh You're So Silent Jens - Jens Lekman
32 Cripple Crow - Devendra Banhart
33 Superwolf - Bonnie Prince Billy and Matt Sweeney
34 Chaos and Creation in the Backyard - Paul McCartney
35 Face the Truth - Stephen Malkmus
36 A Certain Trigger - Maximo Park
37 EP - The Fiery Furnaces
38 Thunder Lightning Strike - The Go! Team
39 The Best Party Ever - The Boy Least Likely To
40 Wilderness - Archer Prewitt
41 Nice and Nicely Done - The Spinto Band
42 Extraordinary Machine - Fiona Apple
43 Set Yourself on Fire - Stars
44 The Magic Numbers - The Magic Numbers
45 Plans - Death Cab for Cutie
46 Who's Your New Professor - Sam Prekop
47 The Runners Four - Deerhoof
48 Year of Meteors - Laura Veirs
49 The Alternative to Love - Brendan Benson
50 Guero - Beck

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

News and Genre

Newspapers have genres (e.g., student, entertainment, state fair, socialist) and journalism has genres (not just food, entertainment, and op-ed, but also things like reportage, analysis, and punditry). Soon, though cable news may be developing its own system of genre as codified, well-worn, and viewer-driven as anything in broadcast television drama.

The latest? Planes in trouble, says Reuters. They're the new high-speed car chase.

Northwestern University Professor of Journalism George Harmon writes: "My personal theory is that some stories on TV beget similar stories: Shark attacks, wildfires and missing blond girls ... the format has been established."

The twin keys to emerging news genres seems to be 1) similarity to other preexisting dramatic genres (soap operas, cop shows, movies about war/politics) and 2) the photo- or videogenic quality of the story. In other words, TV news likes stories that make good television.

One speculative point I'd like to raise, aside from just demonizing the degradation of television news, etc.: I wonder whether we're moving away from a culture of the media event (coronations, funerals, weddings, and other rituals; the Moon Landing; one-off scripted live events, like the Academy Awards; sports championships) and more deeply into a culture of unscripted but serial media (political scandals, murder investigation and trials, Terry Schiavo). This might say something not just about changes in the way we digest news and politics, but also in how we treat media as such, and the interaction between this and our changing lives and mediascape. But I'm not entirely sure.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Even SNL Brings the Funny

If you haven't seen it yet, the Chronicles of Narnia video-rap sketch (aka "Lazy Sunday") from this past week's Saturday Night Live is worth checking out. It's available at YouTube and on the SNL site above. Boing Boing also has a post with some background on Lonely Island, the comedy team that wrote and produced the sketch w/Chris Parnell (which also includes Andy Samberg, the other star of the sketch and now a featured player on SNL. Andy Samberg is apparently also sometimes called "Ardy" -- which is neither here nor there, but confused the hell out of me).

Before hooking up w/SNL, Lonely Island started out as a Creative Commons-licensed comedy group who wrote primarily web shorts. One of these was The 'Bu, an insane parody of The O.C. produced for Channel 101 -- later home to the beloved Yacht Rock. (Thanks again, LPS.)

I don't know what any of this says about the continued rise of decentered digital entertainment, and its inevitability or freak-occurence nature of its synthesis with traditional media and entertainment gatekeepers. It is, however, a curious triangulation of new, clever, and often very funny stuff.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Triangle in Green (and Orange)

What's the best way to tell that the United States is a politically backwards place? It's not that our President thinks torture and open-ended warrant-free surveillance aren't just useful but also legal -- but hey, good guess.

No, it's that today, Northern Ireland began recognizing gay unions. Northern Ireland? Homosexuality wasn't even legal in Northern Ireland 25 years ago. In the Catholic parts, contraception is still frowned upon. Not that the Protestants are much better -- as the AP writer notes, "Here, Roman Catholics and Protestants sometimes overcome their political hostility to protest jointly on traditional family issues." These people don't overcome their hostility to one another to celebrate Christmas.

Northern Ireland -- despite all of its problems, divisions, and fierce religious and moral opposition -- somehow figured out how to make unions for gay couples work. And despite what seemed like a brief and hopeful window for Americans a few years ago, we're not even close.

Excuse me.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

How Can Media Change Politics?

I recently came across a new and (I think) noteworthy web site covering the 2007 Philadelphia mayoral election: The Next Mayor. It's a well-edited multimedia site with stories from WHYY (the local public radio/public television station) and the Philadelphia Daily News, the region's #2 news paper, after the Inquirer, both of which are owned -- at least for now -- by Knight Ridder. The two papers also share a building and an integrated online presence at

The third player behind The Next Mayor is a group called The Committee of 70, a watchdog/501 (c)3 group now headed up by Zack Stalberg, who used to run the daily News. Here's a selection from their new mission statement:

Seventy is best known as the city’s dependable watchdog during election time. Although we will continue to focus on trustworthy elections, we are actively branching out into direct advocacy, aggressive research efforts and large-scale civic education programs. Recently, for instance, Seventy has focused on legislation aimed at curtailing the contract awarding practice known as “pay-to-play,” on openness in government and on changing the random and sometimes corrupt process by which Philadelphians select judges.

At critical moments over the last 101 years, the Committee of Seventy has stepped forward to stimulate reform and help drive Philadelphia ahead. We are at it again.
The Next Mayor seems to be an important part of that. I also like the "Help Wanted" sign at that web page: "Fifth-largest city in the nation seeks motivated cheerleader type for mayor... Inspiring leadership, unquestioned integrity, knowledge of the issues, vision for the future and solutions for all of the city's problems are preferred."

The last line lets you know that they're being a little tongue-in-cheek, but I'm not entirely sure which of these "preferred" qualities is the most implausible. Philadelphia has a notorious problem with pay-to-play, and seething anger over real and perceived corruption in the government has been building up in the region for years. Some of that erupted in the still-rolling mayoral office wiretap scandal (which had the somewhat bizarre effect of rocketing current mayor John Street's poll numbers in the 2003 election) along with the indictments of various City Hall officials and people who do business with the city. That, along with some new ethics bills (sponsored by councilman and mayoral hopeful Michael Nutter) has everyone talking ethics for the upcoming election.

Along with being a classic NPR/political journalist issue, ethics is part of the Committee of 70's mandate -- but so is promoting governmental cooperation and economic development in the Greater Philadelphia region. I don't think it's accidental that two of the top stories on the Next Mayor site include a WHYY radio show on "The Next Mayor" project which really focuses on how local politics have turned the city and suburbs against one another, and a Daily News story about Chicago's attempts under Mayor Daley to better integrate local government with an eye towards economic success. The lesson is that Philadelphia could and should be a regional leader if corrupt and/or the shallow, self-serving politics of division (on both sides, but especially by Philadelphia against the suburbs) didn't get in the way.

In some ways, The Next Mayor resembles the vision of discussed at Snarkmarket and elsewhere: a genuine multimedia site that offers helpful and comprehensive political information with a real ethical energy behind it. In other ways, though, it's totally a child of the traditional media: it's basically a web partnership for two of the big traditional media sources in the region (with no stories from any other sources, and no user comments or discussion board), edited by a newspaperman turned head of a partisan advocacy group, albeit one with a noble mission.

Even the notion of regional cooperation to a strong degree stems from the site being a partnership of a newspaper and radio station -- the region is really just the audience, reformed and reborn. Media companies don't think in terms of political boundaries -- they think in terms of media markets. They always have to operate with both the city and suburbs in mind, and suburbanites who work, shop, and may have grown up in the city -- in other words, commuters -- are easily the most natural consumers of newspapers and radio.

Personally, I agree that regional cooperation is essential -- look at the recent SEPTA workers strike, when the local governments did virtually nothing, and Gov. Ed Rendell had to come in to get an agreement on the table -- and I've often talked about Chicago as a practical model for how a large city/metropole should be run. I guess what I'm trying to argue/understand is the ways in which the shape of the media affects not just political coverage, but an attempt at political change itself. Admittedly, there are lots of other players involved -- the board of the Committee of 70 is filled with representatives from universities and oil companies and regional and national businesses, and lots of people outside of the media. But I wonder what something like The Next Mayor would look like if it were less like NPR and more like, and what kind of political change it could indicate, precipitate, or advocate -- if it could do anything of that kind at all.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Sorting and Serendipity

Since I passed my second qualifying exam last Thursday, I've been trying to organize myself better. So I've been making small changes to my living space -- say, moving my microwave from one part of the counter to the other -- but today I finally quit the easy stuff and tried to tackle all of my media: books, movies, CDs, and documents ranging from this months' bills to boxes filled with old tax information, foreign currency and love notes. Of course, I haven't made anything resembling the ghost of a hint of a dent -- but it's been an interesting day.

Some of my boxes have things I haven't looked at in years: wallet-sized photos I exchanged with my classmates in 1997, my college graduation tassels and (inexplicably) two dean's medals from the MSU College of Arts & Letters, an Irish ten-pound note featuring a portrait of James Joyce that disturbingly resembles my grandmother. I decided to keep the love note from my girlfriend (from before she became my girlfriend) and re-read one of the last love notes from an ex-girlfriend (just after she became my ex) before deciding to throw it away. Not many regrets there.

I found two old ID cards -- one, my Michigan State ID, is from July 1997. The other, an International Student ID card, is from 1999. The technology of ID cards has progressed remarkably in the last decade. My original driver's license (1995) was basically a tiny laminated photo glued to a piece of paper with a watermark on it. I once watched my cousin open one up and slide a new photo inside -- the easiest way to make a fake ID. (The ISID was made basically the same way.) My MSU ID was the first generation of computer-generated cards and (if I remember correctly) was the last year when they were printed in black-and-white. All of my student and state IDs since have been beautiful, full-color, and nigh tamper-proof.

The coup de grace, though, has been the box of computer hardware I've kept tucked away for about two and a half years. Most of it -- an old 128 kb memory strip, a modem, plus some other junk -- I threw away, but I paused when I unwrapped what turned out to be my old hard drive.

The original hard drive that shipped with my computer -- still going strong at four years old, after having made lots of modifications and swapped out most of the parts apart from the processor, motherboard, floppy drive, and case -- crashed in June 2003, at the end of my first year at Penn, taking with it most of my just-budding collection of music downloads and (more dramatically) almost all of the writing I'd done that year. It also kept me from using my computer for a couple of weeks while I tried, with utter futility, to fix the problem myself, with help from friends, and finally wasting 50 bucks to hire a North Philly company who didn't do anything but pick up the computer, verify that it failed at startup, and offer to format the hard drive for another $100. No thanks, I said. I can do that myself.

I didn't format the hard drive, though -- I just bought a new one (bigger and better), reinstalled Windows, ripped the handful of music files and docs I had backed up, and vowed to do things better this time. And I put my old hard drive away -- too sad to throw it away, but too angry that it had failed me to think about what else to do.

When I found it today, though, I nearly did throw it away. The music collection, which I'd always thought irreplaceable, I'd managed to replace, along with all of the programs, which were now in updated and re-updated versions. What stopped me -- apart from the fear of digging any deeper into the piles of boxes and papers I'd accumulated in the other room -- was the writing. Now, my first year at Penn was, at least personally, one of the worst years of my life -- someday, maybe I'll tell the entire story, but that's definitely for another post -- but it was probably my most productive year of school in my life. I was learning lots of new material and new ways of analyzing it and making new arguments, had probably the best set of teachers I'm ever going to have, and was doing very well by throwing myself completely into both the material and a certain kind of performance in the classroom: fluid, critical, knowledgable, with a kind of pedagogical intent -- I had figured out that the best way I could understand something was through trying to explain it. Which is the way I've tried to operate ever since.

I'd lost nearly all of the papers I wrote that year when my disk crashed, except for a few I'd saved to floppies, plus drafts that I would e-mail to myself so I could work on them on campus. At least one of these papers I had thought could make a good basis for a dissertation chapter -- when I finally gave up on my hard drive, I was inconsolable.

And it was in anger that I nearly threw away the drive again. I backed out of it by increments. First I agreed (with myself) that I would at least save the quick-release clips attached to the side of the hard-drive. When you buy a new drive, sometimes these come with it, and sometimes they don't -- it's always handy to have extras. (Don't ask me how this reasoning jibes with the only-what's-necessary heuristic I was using to get rid of my other old stuff.)

Then I remembered -- I had never tried using the drive after I had re-installed Windows on my new hard drive to see if I could salvage any files from it. The computer guy I'd hired had told me that he'd done it -- but he had been entirely full of shit from the beginning.

I hooked up the old hard drive to the power source and to my new disk array. I was such a novice then -- I didn't even want to open up the case -- and I was surprised at what an old hand I was at it now. Now I've installed a hard drive, extra memory, two DVD-RW drives, an Ethernet card, and extra USB/Firewire card. Computer hardware is so much easier to get your hands into then anyone would have you believe. I wish my car were like my PC.

After a few false starts, I got it -- with the new hard drive booting Windows, not only did it recognize the hard drive, it was able to complete the scandisk utility it had always gotten stalled at before (on the rare occasion it had started up at all). As it turned out, the file sectors with Windows on it had been corrupt -- which kept it from booting, or at least booting properly -- but the drive itself was fine, and virtually all of my media was in good shape.

Here were the real finds -- my old term papers, guides I'd written for myself in preparation for the Theory exam, an old mix CD given by a friend that I'd thought was lost forever. Letters I'd written, never sent, and forgotten about. Everything else was worthless, but I could copy what I needed and format the rest. Clean, closed, and done -- finally.

My mother asked me recently what I wanted for Christmas -- that isn't on your Amazon wish list, she said. Besides books, music, or movies. I don't remember what I said, but I remember thinking -- besides books, music, or movies, I don't have anything else -- I don't do anything else. My memory, my actions, my thoughts, are made from boxes within boxes, lost files on forgotten disks with written arguments on books I'd read, or a song I'd heard and saved away for later. I don't want anything else, I've never wanted or needed anything else -- just to recover what I've lost among the things I wanted -- and to throw the rest away.

Friday, December 09, 2005

This Is It, Folks

That's right -- the end of the world, where we all collapse beneath the weight of our own obstinacy, stupidity, hypocrisy, and greed.

At least, that's what I thought after reading this quote:

"If you want to talk about global consciousness, I'd say there's one country that is focused on action, that is focused on dialogue, that is focused on cooperation, and that is focused on helping the developing world, and that's the United States," [State Department spokesman Adam] Ereli said.

... right after the U.S. delegation walked out of climate control talks in Montreal today.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Lord Have Mercy

Grrrggh... Can't blog... Must read constantly for qualifying exam on history of English literature... What's the relevance of The Canterbury Tales for the Victorian novel... Track the representation of "the Jew" in African-American modernism with reference to Dubois, Toomer, and Baldwin... Who are Ahab's mates and their harpooners and what is their significance... RAARRRGH!! HULK SMASH!!

To paraphrase Mr. Show w/ Bob and David: "You come here with your heads filled with soup... and when you leave, your mind will be like a steel trap... with the bloody foot of literature inside it!"

So, no posts till Friday.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Philadelphia Bee

Via Attytood, my new favorite Philadelphia blog: reports that McClatchy, the family-run newspaper group that owns (among other papers) the Sacramento and Fresno Bees, is considering purchasing Knight Ridder (owner of the much-belaguered Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News). Attytood's Will Bunch has a longer and better-informed take on this and other Inky and PDN-related news in his post, so 'nuff said by me.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Fonts Ahoy!

There's a good article (print-only) in this week's New Yorker on Matthew Carter, inventor of Verdana and sixty-two other font families -- probably more than anybody. (I would have thought that the font nerds over at Snarkmarket would have already jumped on this, but I guess I read [and blogged] it first.) Here are some highlights.

One of Carter's current projects:

The Times wanted for its magazine an alphabet of the face it uses to print its name. All the paper had were the letters that spell "The New York Times."
On his expertise:
Another time, at an antique auction, [Carter] saw a poster announcing the sale of slaves, which was being offered as genuine. He noticed that some of the writing was in a typeface invented in the nineteen-fifties. He thought it was strange that someone would take so much trouble to forge a document and then be sloppy about the typeface, but people tend to think that typefaces have always existed.
Memories of childhood:
To teach him to read, his mother cut an alphabet for him from linoleum. "Gill Sans," he says, "a popular typeface of the time."
His apprenticeship during the 1950s at Enschedé en Zonen, a printing company in the Netherlands:
Since the late ninteenth century, type has been made by machine, but Enschedé made type by hand, using techniques that hadn't changed for four hundred years. Carter was apprenticed to a cutter of type called P.H. Rädisch, who was eccentric and secretive. Enschedé had bought a machine to manufacture type. Each night, Rädisch removed part of the machine and on his way home dropped it into a canal. Eventually, the machine disappeared entirely. Rädisch had for years refused to train anyone to succeed him but had lately taken on an assistant. The assistant was "willing to tolerate an amateur," Carter says. Carter sat between the two men, and though Rädisch said very little to him, the assistant was helpful. Carter was one of the last men in Europe trained to cut type by hand."
Reordering the alphabet:
[D]esigners don't regard the alphabet as a linear sequence. Instead they tend to see round letters ("O," "G," "C," "Q"), square letters ("H," "F," "L," "T"), and diagonal ones ("A," "W," "X," "Z"). The classic approach to type design is to begin with the capital "H" and "O"... [Carter] prefers to start with the lowercase "h" and "o." He proceeds carefully, because any misjudgment multiplies its effect as he continues. He does a "p" and a "d" next, because they include elements of the "h" and the "o" and are also inversions of each other. "If something looks awful with your 'p' and your 'd,'" he says, "you know something's wrong with your 'h' and 'o,' and you revise them." Next he might draw a "v," because it involves new considerations.
The quirks of the eye and the drama of design:
Perfect geometry appears to form the basis for many typefaces, [type designer Tobias] Frere-Jones says, "but in fact the eye will become confused if it sees pure geometry. The forms will seem stiff and labored." Designing type involves a kind of stagecraft -- "organized cheating," Frere-Jones calls it -- so that the eye will accept as symmetrical forms that are actually imperfect.
On avant-garde typography:
It is all but universally agreed that type is intended to convey ideas and should not aggressively draw attention to itself, except in advertisements or signs or trademarks--what is called display typography--or perhaps in fine printing. Avant-garde typographers whose intention, according to the designer Jonathan Hoefler, is "to do with type design what Joyce did with words and Stravinsky did with music" print texts that are meant to be difficult to read, to be deciphered like a code...
For the other side, on the illusion of invisibility:
That type should be serviceable and undemonstrative was stated, nearly as a manifesto, by a critic named Beatrice Warde, in 1932... In "Printing should be invisible," an address delivered to the British Typographers Guild, and later collected in "The Crystal Goblet," Warde said, "The book typographer has the job of erecting a window between the reader inside the room and that landscape which is the author's words." He might build a stained-glass window that is beautiful to look at, she says, but a failure as a window... "There is nothing simple or dull in achieving the transparent page."
Something I've always wondered -- why we call fonts "roman" or "italic":
The alphabet was organized into capital and small letters around 800. The capital letters derived from inscriptions on Roman monuments, and the smaller letters from handwriting. Initially, all printing imitated handwriting. The first book that could be easily carried around was printed in Venice in 1501. It was called a pocket book. It was printed in italic, which was thinner than the other styles of type, and was said to be an imitation of Petrarch's handwriting.
On how John Coltrane convinced Carter to stay in New York:
In the spring of 1960, the John Coltrane quartet played its first engagement. Carter was in the audience. Over several weeks, he heard them three or four times. "Sometimes they played the same songs in the second set as they played in the first," he says. "Not because they were lazy but because they wanted to surpass themselves, or find something in the music that they hadn't found earlier in the evening. They were that acute."
All in all, an excellent read. Especially if you're a great big dork.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Alzheimer's, One More Time

It was strange, starting that earlier post on caring for parents with Alzheimer's before Thanksgiving. Not long after I posted the aborted version, I heard a show on NPR on the disease that first scared the hell out of me, then gave me much-needed hope.

There's no good online text that says everything I heard on the radio show, so I'll have to reconstitute it from memory. First, the bad news: Alzheimer's is on the rise. There are two main factors driving this: 1) the aging, monolithic baby-boomer generation and 2) increases in longevity. Since more people are getting older (and a lot older) than ever before, many more people are showing signs of Alzheimer's or other senility/dementia. One expert on the show said that we could soon face the prospect of society being divided into two groups: the people with Alzheimer's, and the people who take care of them.

Second, the good news: scientists at Thomas Jefferson University (right here in Philadelphia, employer of my s.o., the lovely and talented Sylvia) might be on the right track to slow, prevent, and/or cure the disease in 5 to 10 years.

It's not so easy. Basically what they've been able to do is study the 10% of people with Alzheimer's whom they believe contracted the disease genetically. What happens in Alzheimer's -- they think -- is that amyloids, made from proteins that are normally found throughout the body, become folded on themselves ("like a bobby pin," Dr. Gandy said) in such a way as to become extrmely gooey, forming plaques which, in turn, are poisonous to brain cells. Researchers are trying to find ways to help the body break down amyloids, through aggressive drug treatment, vaccination, etc. Gandy's team at Jefferson, using this theory of causation and treatment, has been able to induce effects similar to Alzheimer's in a mouse, and then cure the mouse with the appropriate medication to remove the plaques. And just yesterday a Korean team announced that they'd isolated the protein that causes amyloid plaques in Alzheimer's: ERK1/2. If they're right, this could be a big step towards a cure. Gandy says that we might be able to get to the point where we treat Alzheimer's the way we treat high cholesterol.

So what's the problem? Well, there are several. First of all, Alzheimer's might not be caused by amyloids at all, but by some other cause. That's a biggie.

Also, researchers are assuming that genetic and nongenetic Alzheimer's are similar in their mechanical if not ultimate causes and effects. It's possible that genetic and nongenetic Alzheimer's might have slightly different proximal causes (say, a different kind of protein) or respond differently to the same kind of treatment.

Another issue is that because Alzheimer's progresses so slowly, any clinical trials of a new medication would need to run for around a year or so to see if they're having a significant effect in retarding the disease's progress. It's these lengthy trial runs that primarily account for the 5-10 year projection offered by the Jefferson team.

Finally, people aren't mice. The effect of Alzheimer's can be delicate, subtle, and subjective. It's especially unclear how and whether treatment might help the short- and long-term recovery of cognitive abilities, memories, etc. In the worst-case scenario, Alzheimer's medication might be able to clear away the plaques, but the poisoning of the brain cells, once begun, continues unabated.

All in all, it's signs for cautious optimism. I only hope that progress doesn't come too late -- for millions of people, it already has, and for millions more, it certainly will.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Beginnings of Aborted Posts

Sometimes when you write, you're finished from the start. Here's two I've started this week. The first is a reaction to a Times article on middle-aged career women quitting their jobs to take care of their indigent parents. The second is a review of the new Harry Potter movie.

In today's New York Times, there's an article titled "Forget the Career, My Parents Need Me At Home." The first two paragraphs tell the story:

WASHINGTON, Mich. - Until last February, Mary Ellen Geist was the archetypal career woman, a radio news anchor with a six-figure salary and a suitcase always packed for the next adventure, whether a third-world coup, a weekend of wine tasting or a job in a bigger market.

But now, Ms. Geist, 49, has a life that would be unrecognizable to colleagues and friends in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City. She has returned to her family home near Detroit to care for her parents, one lost to dementia and the other to sorrow.
The problem is that the first two paragraphs really do tell the story. The rest of the article is devoted to typical east-coast bashing of the midwest -- how this woman can't get white balsamic vinegar anymore, but still drives her Mercedes, etc. Who cares that this lady lives in one of Detroit's poshest suburbs -- it was even in Money Magazine as a "contender" for one of the best places to live in the country. Not New York or San Francisco, ergo the sticks. What sacrifice.

Here's my Harry Potter review:

Just let me indulge myself. I saw the new Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, on Friday. I like the Harry Potter movies, and I've seen all four so far at the theatre. I haven't read and have no immediate plans to read any of the books, so I just get to enjoy a new chapter every year or so, without any need (or ability) to compare films to books favorably or unfavorably. I especially enjoyed the first movie (cute and fun with a refreshing and thoroughly British odd charm) and the third (a real film, with a real story and young characters who come off the screen), but all of the movies have been good.

Jesus, I bored myself just cutting and pasting that over here. Too many parentheses, too much hedging and digression, and just too much crap about nothing anyone might care about. To write well you have to approach language as a fencer, or better yet, a prizefighter. The beauty of language is really evidence of a kind of skill, in the form of speed, force, and rhythm. If your ideas aren't able to take the shape of any of those, who cares what they are? You're never going to get them out.

In this case my big idea was that the movie was okay, but what especially struck me -- apart from the speed, force, and rhythm of Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort -- was how James and Oliver Phelps, the actors who played Ron Weasley's older brothers Fred and George, have turned from gangly teens into really quite beautiful young men. Especially James. Rrarrr.

I was also smitten by Cho Chang, Harry's super-cute would-be girly-friend. Particularly her Scottish accent. Cho is played by Katie Leung, who apparently was born as late as 1987. So I don't know which of the two is less appropriate.

My original title for this review was "Harry Potter: T&A Edition."

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Right Crumb, Without the Bird

From the NYTimes: Ruth M. Siems, Inventor of Stuffing, Dies at 74. Well, strictly speaking, Ms. Siems didn't invent stuffing -- she co-invented Stove Top brand stuffing. Which, apparently, has only been available for about thirty years.

This is a weird article. It's hard to tell whether it's an obituary or a seasonal puff piece. Siems died on Nov. 13, so presumably the Times has had more than a week to sit on this. The author, Margalit Fox, put the time to good use, interviewing various food historians and pegging Stove Top's peculiar essence and appeal:

Stove Top's premise is threefold. First, it offers speed.

Second, it divorces the stuffing from the bird, sparing cooks the nasty business of having to root around in the clammy interior of an animal.

Third, it frees stuffing from the yoke of Thanksgiving; it can be cooked and eaten on a moment's notice any day of the year.

I can imagine people wanting to be freed from "the yoke of Thanksgiving," but who knew that this applied to stuffing too? Nevertheless, Stove Top wanted some things about its stuffing to be tied down: Siems' design for the bread crumb (called "Instant Stuffing Mix") is covered under United States Patent No. 3,870,803. "The nature of the cell structure and overall texture of the dried bread crumb employed in this invention is of great importance if a stuffing which will hydrate in a matter of minutes to the proper texture and mouthfeel is to be prepared."

In related news, my new noise-rock band Mouthfeel will be touring the southwest in the spring.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

A Mixed Bag If Ever There Was One

Hey! I wrote a year ago about how Camden passed up Detroit as the country's most dangerous city -- at least according to the slightly dubious but apparently authoritative Morgan Quitno. Which is kinda spooky, since I used to live right across 8 Mile Rd Detroit and now live right across the Delaware River from Camden.

Well, I live farther from Camden now, but Camden is still No. 1. Get this, though: The Detroit-Livonia-Dearborn belt is now considered the most dangerous metropolitan area in the country. So whatever Detroit's problems are, it doesn't look like they have much to do with me. And apparently, Philly's safe enough to balance out Livonia, for whatever that's worth.

Probably not as much as chargin' folks $50 to buy recycled FBI data. "Morgan Quitno." Assholes.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Repeat Steps 2-4, Alternating Feet

God bless the BBC: a random Google search turned up this guide to walking silently. Other guides in the h2g2 series ("an unconventional guide to life, the universe, and everything") are more wikipedia-ish, just informational entries. But genuine guides that teach you using expert advice how to do something difficult but pretty quotidian? I could really ride that horse.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

I Heart NY/MI

My big sister Kelly has been visiting the east coast this week, spending time with her little bro here in Philly and scouring for apartments and jobs in NYC. I'm starting to put together a New York-themed mix CD on the order of the Michigan-->California disc I made for LPS and RoSlo a few years back. Here are some of the songs I'm working with at the moment:

John Lennon - New York City [Demo]
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth
Paul Simon - Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard
A Tribe Called Quest - Check the Rhyme
Curtis Mayfield - Superfly
Bob Dylan - Talking World War III Blues
The Decemberists - Song for Myla Goldberg
The Good Life - Album of the Year (April)
The Modern Lovers - Pablo Picasso
Talking Heads - The Big Country
The Strokes - Hard to Explain
Miles Davis - Blue in Green
Rufus Wainwright - Poses
Interpol - NYC
Tom Waits - Downtown Train
John Coltrane - Naima
The Velvet Underground - Sweet Jane
The Pogues/The Dubliners - The Irish Rover

but I'd love to hear suggestions/alternatives from the music/New York savvy readership.

Monday, November 14, 2005

A Post For No One Else

The McSweeney's web page is now publishing some poetry, but only sestinas, an elaborate 39-line form (originally and most successfully used in French) featuring six stanzas of six lines each, one stanza of three. The doozy is that six ending words are repeated and recycled in a fixed permutation from stanza to stanza.

The best sestinas, in my opinion, play with (and to a certain extent, outright evade) the strict restrictions of the form, which both helps the poem be a real poem (and not just a boring or nonsensical repetition of a few words or images) and serves as a kind of self-commentary, both on the sestina as form and on the poem as process. There's one pretty good one just posted on the McSweeney's site that does just this: "One Long Sentence and a Few Short Ones, or 39 Lines by Frank Gehry: Guggenheim, Bilbao," by James Harms. Harms pulls off a nice trick here, both by breaking the sestina into nine stanzas of four lines plus one of three (while keeping the six-word permutation scheme) and by treating one of the words as a variable, cycling seven different Spanish cities into the same slot.

But though I grant this much license, I was surprisingly pissed off when I read "Pound-Eliot Sestina" by Alfred Corn. (If McSweeney's is sincere about its anti-pseudonym policy, I don't know where these douchebags get their last names.) The first stanza of Corn's poem goes like this:

T.S. Eliot never wrote a sestina.
I guess he was afraid of copying Pound;
Or else doubted his metrical finesse. If
We rate poets according to form, he blew.
With Old Possum, it's like free verse all the way.
Yet, except for "Sestina: Altaforte"
And it goes on like this, with "sestina," "Pound," "If," "blew," "way," and "Altaforte" recurring according to form. The poem never gets much better, either in its prosody or its content, but I found myself waiting for a clever joke at the end that inexplicably never came.

The problem is that Eliot did write a sestina -- or at least, he used the sestina form -- in one of his very best poems, Four Quartets. It's the first half of part two of "The Dry Salvages":

Where is there an end of it, the soundless wailing,
The silent withering of autumn flowers
Dropping their petals and remaining motionless;
Where is there and end to the drifting wreckage,
The prayer of the bone on the beach, the unprayable
Prayer at the calamitous annunciation?

There is no end, but addition: the trailing
Consequence of further days and hours,
While emotion takes to itself the emotionless
Years of living among the breakage
Of what was believed in as the most reliable—
And therefore the fittest for renunciation.

There is the final addition, the failing
Pride or resentment at failing powers,
The unattached devotion which might pass for devotionless,
In a drifting boat with a slow leakage,
The silent listening to the undeniable
Clamour of the bell of the last annunciation.

Where is the end of them, the fishermen sailing
Into the wind's tail, where the fog cowers?
We cannot think of a time that is oceanless
Or of an ocean not littered with wastage
Or of a future that is not liable
Like the past, to have no destination.

We have to think of them as forever bailing,
Setting and hauling, while the North East lowers
Over shallow banks unchanging and erosionless
Or drawing their money, drying sails at dockage;
Not as making a trip that will be unpayable
For a haul that will not bear examination.

There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing,
No end to the withering of withered flowers,
To the movement of pain that is painless and motionless,
To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage,
The bone's prayer to Death its God. Only the hardly, barely prayable
Prayer of the one Annunciation.
Some caveats: 1) there's no three-line mini-stanza; 2) the words don't permute from stanza to stanza, and 3) Eliot opts to use rhyme rather than repetition (except for the sixth stanza -- the ending words there are identical to those in the first stanza, which makes them a kind of negative image of one another), but this is unquestionably a sestina. In a class on Eliot back at Chicago, I called it "a half-hearted sestina," but was eventually convinced that once Eliot opted for rhyme rather than repetition -- a seemingly slight but crucial variation -- the other changes followed accordingly. (I wish I had some manuscript evidence to back this up.)

It's not exactly Eliot's best work, but it (and all of Four Quartets, where he engages in these kind of games with literary form over and over again) prove that he was certainly up to Pound's (and Yeats's, and Swinburne's) challenge with formal meter, and that even if Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats blows, it has nothing to do with Eliot's poetry at the height of his powers.


Recalling an Ambassador

I remember when "recalling an ambassador" was just idiosyncratic slang for ending an ill-considered romance, but it turns out Mexico and Venezuela are doing just that. Recalling their ambassadors, I mean.

BBC News's handy sidebar of related (and genuinely relevant) stories, "Venezuela Under Chavez," paints him, as the Brits might say, as a bit of a nutter. He's ejecting US missionaries from the inland tribal regions, accelerating controversial "land reforms" where "idle" ranches and firms can be seized by the government, revoking immunity for U.S. drug agents in his country, and preparing civilian militias/"loyal reserve" to defend his government against a U.S. backed invasion or coup. Admittedly, there's no "Mexico Under Fox" sidebar for us to go tit-for-unstable-tat, but I'm willing to bet that Chavez might be the one who's stepped over the line on this one.

If only we could buy our gasoline from Canada. I mean, do oil wealth and paranoid, totalitarian insanity just go hand-in-hand, or is it only a historical accident?

(A: If anything, paranoid totalitarian insanity far outstrips oil wealth, so by the sheer weight of odds, the world's oil fields were bound to end up in the hands of kooks.)

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Film and the Archive

When I first saw this article (via Arts & Letters Daily), "Scenes of a Revolution," on the new DVD culture, I thought it was going to be mostly wry observations boiling down to "Isn't it funny that we all have lots of DVDs now?"

But it's actually more thoughtful than that: Norman Lebrecht, its author, meditates on how classic films -- which we used to be able to see (again) in art-house or popular revivals, or chopped or squeezed to bits on regular TV and Cable, if at all -- has become curiously, if "urgently present (perhaps the perfect present)." "The eternally elusive turns up in plastic boxes," Lebrecht writes.

And it's true: I probably could never have become a serious student of film if it weren't for DVD: primarily for its loving resurrection of the history of classic international cinema, but also how, as Lebrecht says, DVD "
both presents film and describes it, content and context together, a bilateralism in tune with post-modern philosophies." Sometimes DVD extras wind up being spectacular (but slightly empty) bells-and-whistles, sometimes more packaged bullshit, sometimes Commentary Tracks of the Damned; but at their very best, they give a glimpse into the making, the meaning, and the relevance of film that can be genuinely revelatory.

"Film," Lebrecht argues,

has become fact on DVD. It has left the cinema and joined us for drinks, an emancipatory moment for the last of the great western art forms. Books and music have always furnished our rooms, but to have film as a point of home reference, like Oxford English Dictionary and the complete works of Shakespeare, signals a revolution in cultural reception and, inevitably, creation.
Lebrecht speculates (in a refreshingly sensible, non-utopian, non-alarmist way) on how DVD technology (and experience) might affect our experience in other media, e.g. television (TV needs to pick it up) and books (that technology's beaten off tougher challenges before). It does seem to be of a piece with the digital turn towards autonomous media: how we want what we want, when we want it, instantly and easily available at our fingertips.

I'm also struck by how this lines up with some of the things on which I've been working with Ezra Pound. Pound, kook that he was, had some really remarkable ideas about archives for texts, and alternate technologies for books, in the teens, twenties, and thirties. (See "How to Read," and especially the ABC of Reading.) The problem of the archive -- how to make sense of all of this information, and its new configurations -- seems to be with us for at least the next century, as it has been with us all along for nearly 100 years already.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

What You Want When You Want It (For A Price)

This is kinda cool... USA Today (via Yahoo) reports that CBS and NBC have agreed to sell prime-time shows to Comcast and DirecTV customers on-demand for 99 cents a pop. (InformationWeek notes that it's actually NBC who has a deal with DirecTV and CBS who has a deal with Comcast, not both on both.)

"Dramas will be available only until the next new episode airs, but viewers with digital video recorders (DVR) can save copies." Which, if they aren't DRM-ed to death, means that viewers (at least those semi-sophisticates who can get their DVRs and computers to talk to each other) can probably watch those episodes on their iPods.

I think Apple's deal with ABC is actually more revolutionary than the networks' deal with cable: it bypasses the ordinary television channels entirely, doesn't require a subscription -- it's a pure, one-show for one-price point-of-sale transaction. But maybe what's emerging here is a kind of intermedia synergy where entertainment, not information or commerce, is leading the way. And to be sure, since entertainment has always been at the intersection of commerce, the other two would be stupid not to follow.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The World Wide Web, Our Precious Teenager

The Financial Times has a good article by James Boyle, a Duke law professor and member of the Creative Commons board, on the birth and development of the World Wide Web, which turns 15 this month. As might be expected, he attributes most of the web's success -- or, perhaps more to the point, its singular characteristics -- to its openness, especially the use of open protocols and decentralized networks from the outset.

Boyle imagines a thoughtful counterfactual:

Why might we not create the web today? The web became hugely popular too quickly to control. The lawyers and policymakers and copyright holders were not there at the time of its conception. What would they have said, had they been? What would a web designed by the World Intellectual Property Organisation or the Disney Corporation have looked like? It would have looked more like pay-television, or Minitel, the French computer network. Beforehand, the logic of control always makes sense. “Allow anyone to connect to the network? Anyone to decide what content to put up? That is a recipe for piracy and pornography.”

And of course it is. But it is also much, much more.

Cities, Again

I was disappointed with Chicago when I went there last December: it was freezing cold, Hyde Park was practically empty with U of C out of session, and I was only there for about 9 hours before heading to Michigan (which was even colder). But this time, I remembered why I loved Chicago again: riding the L from O'Hare through Mexican neighborhoods and Wicker Park to downtown, then north past Wrigley Field to Lakeview, where I was staying at a friend's apartment. He'd sent me the key in the mail beforehand and was out of town, so for a couple of days it was like I had my own place. I called a couple of friends who were living there this year, and to my own surprise, I still knew the city better than they did. We went to a great, low-key bar just a block away from my friend's apartment, I drank Fuller's ESB and was generally having the time of my life.

The next day I went downtown, and I didn't even mind so much that 1) I was alone for my birthday, and 2) the conference predictably kinda sucked -- it didn't even seem to matter that much. The weather was beautiful in Chicago -- I was sweating nearly to death carrying my bag, a big bag of books ("Hey! University press discounts!") and still wearing my wool jacket, which I needed to store my camera, phone and iPod. But the downtown was full and happening, and I got to eat Chicago-style pizza at Giordano's and go to a few of the places I really liked. I cut out on the conference early after giving my paper and met up with another friend later that night for dinner. Then my brothers picked me up to take me back to Michigan.

Lansing was more hectic than I thought it would be: my brother Sean was coaching his football team in the state playoffs that Friday night, so my mom came into town and we went to the game. Originally I thought we might just spend the weekend in Lansing, but my dad had hurt his hip, so we planned a trip to Detroit, which turned into a big extravaganza at my aunt's house with the whole extended family. I must have only spent an hour, at most, at my parents' house the entire trip: I don't think I even sat down. I barely got in time visit with Gavin and Danielle and play with their daughter, and to talk with my friend Kelly Hoover at my parents' place.

My aunt's was even more chaotic than usual: when we got there, my cousin Julie was putting out a fire she'd accidentally started by starting the gas grill without opening it: the grill tools were all inside, and quickly caught fire (and caught the grill on fire too). So it was boiled hot dogs and Chicken Shack chicken. My cousin Mike had a baby just a couple of months ago: Chase looks just like Mike, but with a slightly more froggy, amorphous face. I got to see my grandma, and talk with my Uncle Chris (who had just turned forty two days before my birthday -- my mom turned fifty-four the day before).

At some point, we all started talking about Detroit. Both sides of my family have lived in Detroit (and later, its suburbs) for a few generations, and very few of us have gone very far. My sister and cousin live in Ann Arbor, and my brother in Lansing. When my uncle moved back from Cleveland, I was the only one within first-cousin status or better who lived more than an hour away from the city. So my family's fate has been tied to Detroit's for some time: my great-grandparents moved their families there in the thirties and forties in search of jobs, my parents' generation grew up in the city through the golden-age fifties, turbulent sixties, and free-fall decline in the seventies, eventually all moving in to the Oakland and Macomb county suburbs. After a few moments of hope and opportunity in the nineties, Detroit is pretty much headed into the toilet again, and all of us were interested in why this had happened and what if anything could be done to turn it around.

My dad in particular, who's worked for local government in Detroit for almost thirty-five years, has especially upset: he can see the city falling apart first-hand, as the roads decay, the people turn to drugs and prostitution (this in particular I think bothers my dad) and the city embarks on one half-assed scheme after another to try to turn things around, while a few well-connected people get richer and richer.

My uncle John talked about how he and my aunt had tried to buy a house in Detroit in the seventies, but discovered that the banks had red-lined practically the entire city: they foresaw long-term decline, and weren't willing to extend mortgages on properties they thought were likely to go down in value. And lo and behold, they were right, although it's hard to argue that the banks didn't help things long. (This is part of the story of white flight that hardly ever gets told; it also explains why my parents wound up living in my grandparents' house before our family moved to the suburbs.)

We talked about Cleveland, where my uncle lived until recently, and how they were able to seemingly turn things around until reality caught up and the bottom dropped out. (Who's really going to the Rock-n'-Roll Hall of Fame more than once?) And we talked about Philadelphia, which has some of the same problems as Detroit (deteriorating infrastructure, political corruption, lots of poverty and racial conflict) but has been undergoing a strong boom thanks to a handful of things Detroit doesn't have (and is unlikely to get): a great location in the mid-Atlantic where we can scoop up people priced out of NYC, lots of colleges, major players in the pharmaceutical and telecommunications industries, and built-in tourism in the Liberty Bell and Independence Mall. The last one I think may in the last instance be decisive: industries can move, and you can always have a convention or party somewhere else, but historical, profitable, one-of-a-kind landmarks aren't going anywhere. And as much as I love Joe Louis's fist, Detroit is sans any of that.

What's the model? my uncle John asked. How do you get people to come back? My uncle Chris offered up Seattle, which sounded great until we all conceded that we'd never actually been there. I put forward Chicago as the great city of realists: it's not especially concerned with perfection, or stamping out corruption, partly because its aldermen and public services fight for neighborhoods and execute beautifully. You have to fix the schools, someone said. My brother said that it's impossible to "fix" an entire school district the size of Detroit's: it's like fixing every school in the entire western part of the state! He thinks (and I agree) that if Detroit broke up its district into smaller pieces, it might be able to turn a handful of schools around at a time, which is a more realistic approach to change.

I offered up the argument that you don't actually want lots of families in your city -- they hog tax resources and don't spend money. What you want -- self-consciously parroting the "cool cities" argument -- are childless, income-having taxpayers, whether young or old, gay or straight. The problem of course, is that this strategy is a recipe for population decline: you can support an expensive, exclusive, and relatively low-population city like San Francisco or Boston with a makeup like this, but not a city of a million-plus people like Philadelphia or the old Detroit. You need major industries: and particularly in Detroit (if anywhere in the US at all) those kinds of industries just aren't coming back.

This dovetails nicely into two new news/magazine articles on cities: the Times's "Saying Goodbye California Sun, Hello Midwest," which is about how priced-out Californians are beginning to leave for less fabulous (but larger and cheaper digs), and "Uncool Cities," a new shot in the gut from Joel Kotkin.

I've written on Kotkin's position before, and I still think he makes everything too much of an either-or: either you invest in infrastructure or you invest in culture, either you attract singles or you attract families, etc. I'll say it again: everyone rides the subway. You can't attract the creative class into high-crime areas with dilapidated roads and nonexistent public transit or services either. Even the bohemians will eventually pack up and leave: I can't remember meeting an artist who had a loft in Camden. The creative class vs. traditional cities argument is really about jobs and marketing: it seems ridiculous to pretend that our older cities don't have an image problem, or to act as though if we were to just fix everything that's broken, things might be the way they were.

In my own thinking, I don't see most of Kotkin's points as being incompatible with that of Richard Florida and co., and insofar as Kotkin shows how some cities have hoodwinked themselves by thinking that they can put in a casino, sports-stadium, or arts theatre and wish the rest of their problems away, he performs a great service. But I can't shake the suspicion that his arguments are really a stalking-horse for plain old conservatism: a prescription to cut taxes, cut through your union contracts, cut down on crime, and cut out the whole nonstarter "tolerance" thing. Then close your eyes and wish the rest of your problems away.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

A Haircut Before Flying


And After...

I'm going to be out of town until next Sunday, first at the MSA in Chicago, then visiting family and friends in Michigan. No Schrift until I get back, but you'd best believe that when it returns, it will be as clean and sharp as my new locks. A bientôt.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

I Don't Even Like Scrabble

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

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

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

Here are mine:

(Remember, I used to be a logician.)

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

Thursday, October 27, 2005

A Trip Through the Strange: Eight Albums

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

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

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

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

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

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

Techno-Lust Redux

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

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

Go Sox

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

Go Sox.

Monday, October 24, 2005


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

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

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

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Unconscious Knows No Negation

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

Monday, October 17, 2005

How the Future Is Done

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

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

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

Saturday, October 15, 2005

New Versions of Success

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Adventures in Home Improvement

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

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

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

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

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

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

(That is all.)

Friday, October 07, 2005

The Question No One Ever Asks

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 03, 2005

Oh, William

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 26, 2005

Dylan, the Ventriloquist

If you don't know already, Martin Scorsese's new documentary on Bob Dylan, titled No Direction Home, comes to PBS's American Masters series this week in two parts airing tonight and tomorrow. Being a huge fan of both Dylan and Scorsese, I've been waiting for this for a long time. What's unusual is that the documentary, in addition to being screened to packed audiences at various clubs and movie theaters, has already been released on DVD. This means that I've already had a couple of chances to see it and that if you haven't seen it already, I'm available to tell you why you should.

The film charts the beginning of Dylan's career, from his childhood in Minnesota to the 1966 motorcycle crash that briefly but decisively sidelined him at the height of his fame. Scorsese, who in addition to his feature films also had a hand in the Woodstock documentary, The Band's The Last Waltz, and PBS's recent series of documentaries on the blues, uses a light but expert hand, blending old footage and photos with interviews with Dylan and his contemporaries.

Part 1 does a particularly good job at establishing the musical context of Dylan's early career, from the country, folk, blues, and rock records that he listened to as a child and young teen to the NYC folk and arts scene he landed in while still a teenager. It ends with Dylan having written his first (and revolutionary) batch of original "protest" songs, hailed by the press, publishing on Columbia, in love with Joan Baez, and seemingly ready to take the mantle as the musical and political voice of his generation.

Part 2 begins with Dylan taking a decisive turn away from that path at an event I had heard of but knew little about: his acceptance speech for an award he was given by the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, where he surprised and blasted the tony and older but progressive crowd on behalf of the virtues of youth, artistic freedom, and moving up and away from the world of politics. It's the first in a series of moves whereby Dylan pushed back against both his popular image and the terms of his own success. From 1964 to 1966, he develops an increasingly abstract, contrary and difficult public persona while likewise fusing more abstract and symbol-driven lyrics with raucous electric guitar-driven rock and roll. Fans of his earlier music and the frustrated press turn on him, feeling musically and politically betrayed, and become likewise confrontational, culminating in his infamous 1966 European tour. By the end of the second part of No Direction Home, Dylan is clearly exhausted: "I just want to go home," he pleads, a subtle play on the title and Dylan's own intent on self-creation. "I felt like I had no history, no past at all," he says in Part 1, explaining changing his name to Dylan from Zimmerman. For six years, Dylan deals in ruses, misdirections and outright lies, and very nearly becomes an entirely self-invented creature. Then he crashes.

A common way of explaining Dylan's turn from topical songwriting -- a central topic of No Direction Home -- uses the language of Romantic self-expression to contrast Dylan's personal and poetic songs from his earlier political work. On this story, Dylan refuses to serve the political and artistic demands placed on him by others to pursue his own artistic vision. This documentary nicely avoids that schema. For one thing, while some of Dylan's later songwriting is obviously personal (for example, at least some of the songs on Desire and Blood on the Tracks), his songs from the mid-60s aren't. There's nothing personal, in any straightforward way, in "Mr. Tambourine Man" or "Maggie's Farm," "Ballad of a Thin Man" or "Desolation Row."

Instead, what you see is Dylan trying on different masks -- personal, musical -- in a kind of evasion or evacuation of personality, of the sort that T.S. Eliot describes in "Tradition and the Individual Talent." He invents personae, narrative and lyrical subjects, tells abstract stories that go nowhere, kiss-offs like "Positively Fourth Street" or "Like A Rolling Stone," and generally engages in a lot of play. His press conferences are nearly as fun (and frustrating) to watch as his concert performances, because Dylan is always interrogating the terms of the questions asked him rather than give an expected answer. "Who said that?" is a favorite counter-question; "What do you think?" is another, or "How can I answer that if you've got the nerve to ask me?" Other times he empties or plays up the absurdity of categories: "All my songs are protest songs." "I consider myself a song-and-dance man."

A friend of mine asked me the other day what Dylan's predominant discursive mode was (you see the kind of friends I have) and I answered "ventriloquism." It's a bit of a toss-off answer but I think it's revealing. One of the things that Dylan understood about the folk tradition is that it has nothing to do with sincere self-expression and everything to do with making up stories speaking through someone else's voice, what Greil Marcus called "the weird old America": whether it's a down-on-his-luck moonshiner, a girl ruined by a New Orleans house, or a hobo dreaming of a big rock candy mountain. It's fascinating to watch Dylan refuse one kind of ventriloquism -- letting himself be the medium for a generation, a political program, or any other impersonal force -- and savor the fun and a little of the dread of becoming, as Allen Ginsberg put it, "a column of air."