Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Institute of Gladwell Studies

The Guardian UK has a review of Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics sporting an excellent first paragraph:

Very soon, there will be an Institute of Gladwell Studies. The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell, is the dean of a new school of social studies whose pedagogic method is the 'international bestseller'. Poised somewhere between hip journalism and mass observation, Gladwell Studies mixes business savvy with pop sociology and has now replaced cute monographs on north Atlantic seafood and the cocoa bean as formulaic routes to riches for author and publisher alike.
After that, it gets a little shrill, and a lot less sharp, but still, pretty pithy stuff.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Go Green! Go Ford!

Today's NY Times has an article titled "The Green Machine That Could Be Detroit"-- half serious op-ed, half never-gonna-happen gag. Daniel Akst, its author, argues that for Ford or GM, business-as-usual is a dead-end, and a plausible path to solvency would be reinvention as the first all-new-technology, fuel-efficient automaker.

This makeover would be half practical, half re-branding. Akst writes:

From a marketing perspective, you're in heaven. To the environmentally conscious, you sell the prospect of saving the earth even as you appeal to the class vanity of affluent customers who might otherwise never dream of buying an American car. Are there many of these people? You may be surprised. As a proxy, consider the number of National Public Radio listeners: 26 million. Your motto with this crowd is simple: "Do the right thing."

But the beauty of your venture is that it can also appeal to meat-eating S.U.V. owners. To them, you sell self-sufficiency, patriotism and the war on terror - the satisfaction of telling foreign oil producers to take their oil and drown in it. And your motto can still be "Do the right thing."

I don't see how building all-hybrid cars will help Ford or GM get out of their pension and health care commitments, or that it will magically help them design high-quality cars that people enjoy driving (unless the commitment to fuel-efficient technologies helps to attract an influx of new ideas and talent).

Akst may be right, though, in identifying much of the real battle at the high-mass end of the auto market: big diesel engines, pickup trucks. and fleet services. This isn't where the Big Three makes their biggest profit margins (that's SUVs) but it is their bread-and-butter, one of the few areas where their market share is still dominant and where a little bit of change could produce some big results.

The problem, though, just might be in convincing the American auto market -- especially its most loyal but most conservative buyers -- to trust something new and different, especially coming from the Big Three. If Ford were to shift to making inferior versions of other companies' hybrid vehicles, they'd only succeed in alienating their existing customer base. The bottom line is that to the extent that one of the Big Three is capable of making such a change (not at all self-evident) there are plausible reasons why they'd be afraid of doing so. The American autobuying public needs to be convinced, or forced even beyond two-and-a-half-dollar gas prices to recognize, that the game we've been playing is almost over. Until then, the Big Three will continue to deal our drug of choice -- big, inefficient, plush rides with an illusion of tradition and safety. We've yet to prove that we want or deserve anything else.

Monday, July 18, 2005

More New Music (Just A Little Hard-to-Find)

After I wrote my post on new music on the 13th, I decided to do a little more digging, to find out if there were some hot new albums I'd missed. As it turns out, there are two noteworthy albums released this year that have at least one thing in common -- you couldn't find either of them in stores about a week ago.

The first is Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, by the band of the same name. Great title for an album, not so great for a band. Anyway, I first read about CYHSY in Pitchfork a month or so ago, and downloaded a few mp3s from their web site, but forgot about them not long after. I remember thinking (and my brother confirming) that the chorus of "In This Home on Ice" sounded suspiciously like The Who's "The Kids Are Alright," and otherwise enjoying it, but that was it.

The thing about Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is that right now, they're an unsigned band. Their self-released album has gotten a lot of terrific press, and they've sold out of their first limited print run, but you can't exactly pop your head into a Best Buy and pick it up. On the other hand, though, this has helped fuel the word-of-mouth fervor and praise from the indie-rock chattering classes, so when they do sign to a major or indie label, I'm sure they'll do quite well.

Most reviewers (Pitchfork included) have compared the band to indie and alternative stalwarts My Bloody Valentine, Neutral Milk Hotel, Modest Mouse, and especially Talking Heads. In my opinion, they're actually musically closest to late Joy Division/early New Order; three or four songs sound to my ears like reworkings of "Temptation" or "Love Will Tear Us Apart." And their frontman's bleating voice sounds a lot like early David Byrne, crossed with Modest Mouse's Issak Brock and Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum. The best track on the album (and the one that won me over beyond the mp3s available on the web site) is "The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth": a gloriously up-tempo abstract rock/pop gem.

Some of the songs are throw-aways and others are underdeveloped. Occasionally the band just seems to run out of lyrics: the last verse of "Over and Over Again (Lost & Found)" begins, promisingly, "You look like David Bowie," but peters out before it can develop. But when the songs are there, they're really there, and that makes this album one of the noteworthy releases this year.

The second album I've finally gotten a chance to hear this week is Sufjan Stevens's Illinois. I was telling a friend the other day that my love of Stevens's albums might seem like special pleading: so far he's made two albums (Michigan and Illinois) about places I've lived.

Illinois, for better and worse, is less personal and more historical than Michigan: fewer heartbreaking ballads about down-on-their-luck midwesterners and more songs about Lincoln, Carl Sandburg, and Superman. In fact, the Superman references got Stevens and his Asthmatic Kitty label into a bit of trouble -- original pressings of Illinois had an image of the Man of Steel on the front cover, which was later airbrushed out over fears of copyright infringement. As it turned out, AK had been selling the album for some time through their web site, but pulled the album from store shelves right before it was slated for wider release, so people who'd been waiting to buy the album from their local store weren't always able to.

Furthermore, one of these people was a sucker who shall remain nameless, who often orders albums directly from indie labels, and had done so on several occasions from Asthmatic Kitty in particular, but this time, and for reasons known not even to him, decided to wait, like a sucker. So now my copy of Illinois is on the way, but in all likelihood is regrettably Superman-free.

Still, through the magic of peer-to-peer software, I was able to download and listen to the complete album, and it is excellent -- musically very similar to Michigan, but with a bigger, more horn-driven sound. The sound isn't the only thing that's huge -- the album is 22 tracks and 74 minutes long. There aren't exactly singles that jump out either, although I'm awfully fond of "Chicago," "Come On Feel the Illinoise," and "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." -- this really is album-based (if not oriented) rock.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Recommended Listening

I sometimes wish I wrote about music more in Short Schrift, but I'm always afraid that it'll degenerate into "Hey, I like this!" and "Hey, this is great too!" But what the hell. Here are some new albums that I really like. (Not including Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production of Eggs, which is still to my mind the album of the year.)

First, a recent but slightly belated discovery: In Case We Die by Architecture in Helsinki. AIH is a quirky, tight, and punchy Australian pop band. They sound a little bit like a cross between Beulah (and a lot of the other Elephant 6 bands), Saturday Looks Good To Me, The Fiery Furnaces, and Mates of State. Which is to say -- boy/girl vocals, glitchy analog synths, rolling horn-driven melodies, a solid touch of 60s-era whimsy, and multiple-movement song construction. What more could you ask for?

Two albums by old indie-rock favorites: Smog's A River Ain't Too Much to Love and Spoon's Gimme Fiction. I picked both of these up at the same time (along with the terrific Belle and Sebastian comp Push Barman to Open Old Wounds) and wound up listening to them both back-to-back so often that I just think of them as a unit by now. Both are a little on the subdued side for either artist, but have great moments, especially Smog's "I Feel Like the Mother of the World" and Spoon's "The Delicate Place," which has a great, slightly deliberate rhythm.

There are a lot of other great, if a touch uneven, new releases by some tried-and-true artists: Sam Prekop's Who's Your New Professor?, The Mountain Goats' The Sunset Tree, Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Matt Sweeney's Superwolf, Lou Barlow's Emoh, Brendan Benson's The Alternative to Love and Stephen Malkmus's Face the Truth.

So who's the best new artist? Besides Architecture in Helsinki -- which is new-ish, this being their sophomore release in their second year -- I really like Bloc Party's Silent Alarm. I think they have the best first track on any record released so far this year: the powerhouse "Like Eating Glass."

Readers of Short Schrift (if I still have any) -- can you think of anything that I've missed?

Monday, July 11, 2005


This week's New Yorker has two very good pieces of art criticism. The first, and probably the more valuable, is Calvin Tomkins's write-up of the Met's new Madonna, attributed to the early Renaissance master Duccio di Buoninsegna. Tomkins writes:

Small as it is, the painting has a powerful presence. It captures the eye from a distance, and commands, up close, something like complete attention. Holding the Christ child in her left arm, the Virgin looks beyond him with melancholy tenderness, while the child reaches out a tiny hand to brush aside her veil. Centuries of Byzantine rigidity and impersonal, hieratic forms are also brushed aside in this intimate gesture. We are at the beginning of what we think of as Western art; elements of the Byzantine style still linger—in the gold background, the Virgin’s boneless and elongated fingers, and the child’s unchildlike features—but the colors of their clothing are so miraculously preserved, and the sense of human interaction is so convincing, that the two figures seem to exist in a real space, and in real time. Candle burn marks on the frame, which is original, testify to the picture’s use as a private devotional image. It is dated circa 1300.
From here we get an account of the painting's not-always-certain provenance and how it came into the Met's hands. Tomkins gets additional kudos for giving a fairly dull and pro forma set of meetings and transactions a little of the dramatic urgency of a good spy movie.

The second of the two articles is perhaps more notable, however, if only for its vocabulary. I'm a pretty well-read guy and something of an armchair etymologist to boot, so I was impressed to see not one but four words in Peter Schjeldahl's "Two Views: CĂ©zanne vs. Pissarro" that sent me to the OED.

The four stumpers are as follows, listed with their definitions. (Note: Don't try following any of the links here -- they're just dead-ends.)

I. scintillant, a.


1737 M. GREEN Spleen 219 Who can view the pointed rays, That from black eyes scintillant blaze? 1790 R. KERR tr. Lavoisier's Elem. Chem. 497 Red scintilant zeolite from Edelfors. 1806 W. TURTON tr. Linn. Syst. Nat. VII. Expl. Terms, Scintillant, emitting sparks of fire when burnt. 1864 G. M. MUSGRAVE Ten Days in Fr. Parsonage II. ii. 53 Cloth of gold,, and other scintillant adornments. 1890 CLARK RUSSELL Shipmate Louise III. xli. 289 By this time the island had melted into the scintillant dusk of the sky.

b. Her. Emitting sparks.

1610 J. GUILLIM Heraldry III. iv. (1611) 95 He beareth seven Firebrands flammant and Scintillant proper. 1868 CUSSANS Handbk. Her. viii. (1893) 130.

c. fig.

1794 MRS. PIOZZI Brit. Synon. I. 400 Hudibras too, of all books perhaps most dazzling with scintillant brightness. 1828 D'ISRAELI Chas. I, viii. I. 249 His scintillant wit. 1880 RUSKIN Notes on Prout & Hunt 9 Genius..scintillant enough to be made more vivid by contraction.

II. echt, a.

Authentic, genuine, typical. Also as adv.

1916 G. B. SHAW in New Age 25 May, Many Englishmen who know Germany, and whose social opinions are echt Junker opinions, hail this war as a means of forcing England to adopt the Prussian system. 1917 E. POUND 19 Dec. in Lett. J. Joyce (1966) II. 414 The opening is echt Joice [sic]. 1934 C. LAMBERT Music Ho! iii. 173 England has never produced an artist so ‘echt-English’ as Mussorgsky is ‘echt-Russian’, or Renoir ‘echt-French’. 1950 D. GASCOYNE Vagrant 56 His endlessly varied echt-lyrical lute-ditties. 1956 Essays & Studies IX. 14 Those passages in his letters which are echt-Coleridge do not belong at all to letter-writing. 1962 N. FREELING Love in Amsterdam II. 70 ‘Are you married?’ he asked.., ‘I see your ring, but is that camouflage or echt?’

III. obstreperousness, n.

Originally: vociferousness, clamour, noisy behaviour. Now (chiefly): unruliness, aggressiveness, argumentativeness.

1655 T. FULLER Church-hist. Brit. VIII. i. §18 Things not being methodized with Scholasticall Formality, but managed with tumultuous Obstreperousnesse. 1657 T. REEVE God's Plea for Nineveh 37 This finding fault with God's actions, is called an obstreperousnesse against the Almighty. 1691 A. WOOD Athenæ Oxon. II. 450 A numerous crowd..seemed to be hugely taken and enamour'd with his obstreporousness and undecent cants. 1805 G. HUDDESFORD Les Champignons du Diable 106 Though of obstreperousness 'Nezzar Himself never gave better measure; Nor would have all his kinds of music Together half so soon made you sick. 1865 A. D. WHITNEY Gayworthys (1879) xxxiv. 330 Comporting herself with the utmost self assertion and obstreperousness. 1905 Amer. Jrnl. Sociol. 10 831 A period of organic instability, obstreperousness, and even semi-criminality is normal for all healthy boys. 1991 Renaissance Stud. 5 386 It was necessary to invoke the provisions of the constitution against obstreperousness and speaking out of turn.

IV. nugatory, a.

1. Trifling, negligible; of no intrinsic value or importance; worthless.

1603 P. HOLLAND tr. Plutarch Morals 1156 That we may not range too farre, nor use any superfluous and nugatory words. a1690 S. JEAKE {Lambda}{omicron}{gamma}{iota}{sigma}{tau}{iota}{kappa}{eta} {Lambda}{omicron}{gamma}{iota}{alpha} (1696) 613 The Equation is either Nugatory or Impossible. 1692 R. BENTLEY Boyle Lect. III. 32 Too much addicted to this nugatory Art. 1786 T. JEFFERSON Let. 26 Jan. in J. P. Boyd Jefferson Papers (1954) ix. 226, I have been a nugatory interference, merely to prevent the affairs of the United States from standing still. 1791 W. MAXWELL in J. Boswell Life Johnson I. 343 [quoting Maxwell, 1770] Lord Lyttelton's Dialogues, he deemed a nugatory performance. 1841 I. D'ISRAELI Amenities Lit. (1867) 299 The diligence of the editor has not been wasted on trivial researches or nugatory commentaries. 1858 T. CARLYLE Hist. Friedrich II of Prussia II. VIII. i. 295 These confused Prussian History-Books, opulent in nugatory pedantisms and learned marine-stores. 1879 W. THOMSON & P. G. TAIT Treat. Nat. Philos. I. I. §81 The construction fails..and the theorem becomes nugatory. 1948 E. WAUGH Loved One 57 Mr. Joyboy was not a handsome man... But these physical defects were nugatory when set against his moral earnestness and the compelling charm of his softly resonant voice. 1960 E. H. GOMBRICH Art & Illusion x. 355 To him who never drew from life, the study of ‘plein-air’ effects must have seemed nugatory. 2001 J. FRANZEN Corrections 370, I tried to explain to him that my white-blood-cell needs are entirely nugatory.

2. Invalid; inoperative; useless, futile, unavailing.

1605 BACON Of Aduancem. Learning II. sig. Gg3, Which assignation..may seeme to be Nugatorie and voide. 1648 W. PRYNNE Plea for Lords 27 Which Act will be..void and nugatory. 1772 Junius Lett. (1788) Pref. 19 As the fact is usually admitted,..the office of the petty jury is nugatory. 1786 S. HENLEY tr. W. Beckford Vathek 15 His reiterated attempts were all of them nugatory. 1838 W. H. PRESCOTT Hist. Reign Ferdinand & Isabella (1846) II. xvii. 128 Those provisions of the edict..were contrived so artfully as to be nearly nugatory. 1878 W. E. H. LECKY Hist. Eng. 18th Cent. I. ii. 306 The law..was evaded and made almost nugatory. 1910 Encycl. Brit. I. 231/2 Margarine manufacturers..have found an easy way of rendering the regulations quite nugatory: they add methyl-orange. 1991 P. JOHNSON Hist. Mod. World 406 Even if built and fired, its conventional payload would have rendered it nugatory.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

On London: The End/Beginning of the Everyday

On his Current blog, Robin Sloan notes the quality and quantity of citizen journalism generated around the London attacks: in particular, the use of cameraphones and first-person accounts to supplement or even replace traditional media sources.

Also, watching television and listening to NPR, I noticed that both the mayor of London and the President of Australia pointed out that the victims of the terrorist attacks were ordinary men and women of all ages, races, and social classes, but mostly working-class Londoners, just trying to ride their bus or catch a train.

At WorldChanging, Jamais Cascio's mood is oddly celebratory. I think he's right -- this is a revolutionary moment. But I wonder whether there's more than an accidental connection between the citizen-journalist and the citizen-target. The decentralization of authority may mean that anyone can make and record history, but to no small extent that process is both driven and overshadowed by the still-emerging reality than anyone can wind up on history's slaughter-bench. Hegel was right about history after all, only now heroism is democratized.