Sunday, September 30, 2007

Bigger Than The Sound

Robin at Snarkmarket loves Radio Lab. Chris Dahlen at Pitchfork loves Radio Lab. And I love Radio Lab. Won't you love Radio Lab, too?

All WNYC's Nova-meets-This American Life radio show on the vagaries and mysteries of science, for a more-philosophical-than-scientific audience, wants to do is inform and entertain you to within an inch of your life.

This week's podcast installation (from an April 2006 broadcast), on Musical Language, is the best I've heard from Jad and Robert. The topic lets the show's producers completely flex and stretch their audio muscles. And the content gives the most consistent material yet.

From the way repetition can turn ordinary language to a musical phrase, why speakers of nontonal languages can lose perfect pitch, and the physics and psychology of sound, to a thoroughly entertaining account of the reception to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Radio Lab brings the goods, sounding like nothing else on the radio (but feeling a little bit like everything you already love). Check it out.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Last One To Leave

Back-to-back punches to the face for my old hometown (and I'm not talking about Ron Silliman impugning the honor of Lou Whitaker): In Salon, "Turn out the lights, Michigan," and in the NYT, "Dismantling Detroit." Things are getting ugly.

Poetry and the Expansion Draft

The Phillies moved into a tie for first place in the NL East last night with the NY Mets. Philadelphia is going a little cuckoo this morning. But the events have prompted Ron Silliman to meditate on the relationship between baseball and poetry, without mentioning Bull Durham even once:

Baseball & poetry have a long, complementary history in the United States. Baseball is almost the official sport of poets, dating back at least to the writing of William Carlos Williams, if not to Whitman. Jack Spicer’s baseball poems are among his very best, and even Tom Clark has written eloquently of the late Roberto Clemente. Baseball’s sense of tradition for tradition’s sake even closely rhymes with the impulses of the School of Quietude, content forever to replicate this 19th century past-time. When change has come, it has largely been through expansion. Where I grew up with 16 major league teams, there are now over 30. 450+ creative writing programs have churned out thousands of MFAs. The lone publication in Ploughshares and a single small press volume is the poetry equivalent of the September call-up in baseball, when teams expand their rosters after the end of the minor league seasons around Labor Day. For more than a few ballplayers (and for more than a few poets), that’s a career.

The rest of the post is pure baseball -- Silliman's memories of learning the game with his grandfather and watching the Giants from across the bay in Oakland, and how the Phillies have great bats but no pitching.

However, when Silliman (indirectly) calls Chase Utley "the best second baseman in baseball, the best really since Joe Morgan was still a Red," my inner Walt from The Squid and the Whale shouts, "That's way off-base, Ron. That's way off-base." Ron may have grown up watching Willie Mays, and Chase Utley certainly is pretty, but anyone who grew up in Detroit in the 1980s would know that the best second baseman since Joe Morgan was, and is, Lou Whitaker. Nobody made ninety feet off of his back foot look so easy.

Monday, September 24, 2007

All Things Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson is releasing a thirteen-minute prequel to his new film The Darjeeling Limited, titled Hotel Chevalier -- first as a short film in NYC premiering Tuesday, and then as a free download in iTunes.

It's a cool idea, and particularly since it reportedly stars a very nude Natalie Portman, will undoubtedly attract more attention than any of the rolling promos would have. Also, I love movie shorts -- I wish more stars and star directors would do them.

Also, The Onion has the dirt on the new feature-length movie:

Fans who attended a sneak preview Monday of critically acclaimed director Wes Anderson's newest project, The Darjeeling Limited, were surprised to learn that the film features a deadpan comedic tone, highly stylized production design, and a plot centering around unresolved family issues.

I was especially touched by the last sentence in this spoof-story: In a recent review, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott also expressed surprise at the film's cutting-edge soundtrack, which features a Rolling Stones song and three different tracks by the Kinks.

Technically, Anderson's soundtracks have always been Stones-heavy, and have featured Kinks-sounding bands more than the Kinks. But really, it's all true, and I love him in spite of (because of?) it.

Update:Here is the iTunes link for Hotel Chevalier.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Discourse of the Master

Something that's always struck me as odd in my readings in philosophy and intellectual history is how some authors get more truth-scrutiny than others. Nobody, at least in this century, asks whether Spinoza's writings are true, tries to refute them, assumes that they're false, or thinks that they would be worthless if their claims could be discredited. And if you think about most of the big and small figures in the history of philosophy, from Leibniz to Wittgenstein, or even social and political thought, from Machiavelli to Max Weber, this is generally the mode in which they're received.

There are exceptions, of course, and two of the big ones are two of the most important writers of the last two centuries -- Marx and Freud. A lot of people love Marx and Freud -- Michel Foucault wrote that the two "founders of discourse" had somehow managed to "author" even texts in their tradition that disagreed with them -- but even more hate their German-speaking guts. Attacks on Marx and Freud often rest implicitly on this expand notion of "authorship," in Foucault's sense of political/intellectual responsibility: Marx and Freud aren't just responsible for their thought but its consequences. And trashing Karl and Sigmund is so commonplace, the attacks so often repeated, that the assumption is that the two have each been consigned to the dustbin of quacks and frauds, more like phrenologists or astrologists than German philosophers.

So the beginning of this NYT op-ed by UVA lit prof Mark Edmundson on the 68th anniversary on Freud's death reads a little like some of the essays about Jack Kerouac in the last few weeks:

SIGMUND Freud died 68 years ago today, and it remains uncertain whether he is what W. H. Auden called him, “a whole climate of opinion / Under whom we conduct our differing lives,” or whether he is completely passé. It’s still not clear whether Freud was the genius of the 20th century, a comprehensive absurdity or something in between.

But if you keep reading, it's actually a nice take on what Freud and later psychoanalysis was/is all about. Consider this observation on Freudian "transference," where a patient transfers his/her submerged or idealized feelings onto the analyst:
Frequently they sought from him what they’d sought from their parents when they were children. They wanted perfect love, and even more fervently, it seems, they wanted perfect truth. They became obsessed with Freud as what Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalytic theorist, liked to call “the subject who is supposed to know.” Patients saw Freud as an all-knowing figure who had the wisdom to solve all their problems and make them genuinely happy and whole.

Freud’s objective as a therapist was to help his patients dismantle their idealized image of him. He taught them to see how the love they demanded from him was love that they had once demanded (and of course never received) from fathers and mothers and other figures of authority. Over time, the patients might come to view the doctor — Freud — as another suffering, striving mortal, not unlike themselves.

Part of this dismantling includes (as Edmundson points out) recognizing that Freud had his own issues with authority -- that is, he really liked having it -- and that his relationships with colleagues were fraught with exactly these same problems. But if you expect someone to always be a master, i.e., "a subject who knows," than all that person can do is disappoint. His fall will be like the fall of a God.

The Bottle Gives Birth to the Cup

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


One photo + text blog that I love is the "Bookporn" section of A Historian's Craft. There's stunning photos of books and libraries that make any book lover shiver with longing.

Well, over at Curious Expeditions, there's a motherlode of white-hot photos of the world's libraries. It's one bibliophiliac money shot after another.

That's the Peabody, in Baltimore. Baltimore, kids!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Analog God With Artificial Limbs

Anthony Lane, in his superb essay on the Leica 35mm camera, hits on a definition of something I've always found difficult to express. After calling Leica cameras "the most beautiful mechanical objects in the world," he writes:

Many people would disagree. Bugatti fans, for instance, would direct your attention to the Type 57 Atlantic, the only car I know that appears to have been designed by masseuses. Personally, I would consider it a privilege to die at the wheel of a Lamborghini Miura—not difficult, when you’re nudging a hundred and seventy m.p.h. and waving at passersby. But automobiles need gas, whereas the truest mechanisms run on nothing but themselves. What is required is a machine constructed with such skill that it renders every user—from the pro to the banana-fingered fumbler—more skillful as a result. We need it to refine and lubricate, rather than block or coarsen, our means of engagement with the world: we want to look not just at it, however admiringly, but through it. In that case, we need a Leica.

The money line, for me, is the one about mechanical gadgets that I've bolded here. I would add that the perfect device has mechanisms that are all (in principle) visible, so that their workings themselves can acquire their own beauty. The beginning of the twentieth century was a great moment for such devices -- besides the handheld camera, there's the typewriter, the bicycle, and hordes of small, handheld, nonelectric gadgets, like Duchamp's chocolate grinder (above).

Our moment is the digital one, but the one that I and most people alive today were born into is the intervening one dominated by predigital electrical and fuel-powered appliances -- the refrigerator, the automobile, the blender, the electric typewriter, the blow dryer, the lawnmower, etc. But I love anything mechanical that endures from that pre-electrical epoch (or which doesn't partake of it) -- the water handle and the flush toilet, can openers, hand-cranked mixers, etc. There's a fantastic scene in Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D that centers around a girl, a cat, a match, and a coffee grinder -- it has to be seen to be believed. Track it down.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Three Pixels

Cabel Sasser, co-founder of Panic Software, talks about developing Panic's Coda web editor. They couldn't get the toolbar to do what they wanted it to do, so they designed it from scratch... and circuitously, managed to get their toolbar mod picked up for Mac's Leopard. (Via Daring Fireball.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Get Off Of My Cloud

"Cloud" or web-based apps are all the rage, in part because your data can be retrieved anywhere, anytime, and can't be lost as easily as on a fallible local hard drive. But what if all of those things -- retrievability, access, durability -- are liabilities rather than assets?

QuickBooks, the popular accounting software, has apparently bumped into this problem. Making the app available online would be great, say, at tax time. But business customers see it differently.

Rather, Cook says, his customers want to know where their data is at all times, since in many cases, they're keeping somewhat fictional accounts for their tax reports. Should the IRS come knocking, Cook says, "Format C:..."

Oh, dang.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Fun With GarageBand

Like all converts, I'm a zealot for Apple products. But I have to confess, until recently, besides iTunes and iPhoto, I hadn't had much use for iLife. iDVD and iMovie aren't as useful as Toast, and iWeb doesn't hold a candle to a genuine web creation app like Dreamweaver or even a simple but powerful text editor like Taco.

Lately, though, I've been having fun with GarageBand. Despite the glaring omissions in its instrument library (um, solo violin? solo horns? banjo? glockenspiel?), the loop collection isn't bad, and it's a fun program to make music on.

I've made a couple of songs so far, and this is the one I'm happiest with -- a pastiche of Magnetic Fields/Mark Mothersbaugh electro-chamber pop. It's called "Orkney Street," after a friend who used to live there. Alas, it's in m4a, not mp3, but it'll play in iTunes just fine (ha ha). I hope you like it.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Sentient Harpsichord

Denis Diderot, 1769:

The philosopher instrument is sentient; he’s at the same time the musician and the instrument. Sentient, he has a momentary consciousness of the sound he is rendering; animal, he remembers it; memory, the organic faculty, by connecting the sounds inside itself, at the same time produces and retains the melody. Imagine that the harpsichord possesses both sentience and memory, and tell me if it won’t know and replay by itself the tunes you have played on its keys. We are instruments endowed with sentience and memory. Our senses are like keys plucked by the environment which surrounds us, and that often pluck themselves; and there, in my judgment, you have everything that takes place in a harpsichord constructed like you and me.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Pop Life

I do not know anything about Tim Lane so I will not write an essay about Tim Lane. Yet there are several things (besides his first name) that make me highly sympathetic to his new book of poetry, Pure Pop, just out from Revelator.

1) Tim Lane really, really likes Frank O'Hara. (Tim, if you haven't picked up a copy of the Collected Poems yet, let Gavin know and I will send you one.)
2) Tim Lane really likes Coca-Cola.
3) Tim Lane's poems, while bouncy and fast and biographical and fun, are also deliciously and lyrically just a little pervy.

I think my favorite line comes early, in "We Have Yet to Ride on a Roller Coaster Together":

I like to watch you stepping into a sandal, the agreeable way the insole and it meet

which is really the best way to build intimacy in poetry, to acquaint the reader with your small strangenesses and make it seem odd and familiar and yours and theirs at once.

I'm also sympathetic when Lane (who is always slightly meta- in his poetic voice) wonders whether he's sad "because [his] poems lack the sophistication of an Ivy League education," not least because he rhymes "Ivy League education" with "English League soccer." It's half a joke, but it's always worth remembering that in poetry,
You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, "Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep."
Which, coming from a Harvard grad and Navy man, has always been among the most reassuring inspirations.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Ride The Dairy Train

Global expansion of the middle class has created an explosion in demand for cow's milk:

It turns out that, along with zippy cars and flat-panel TVs, milk is the mark of new money, a significant source of protein that factors into much of any affluent person’s diet. Milk goes into infant formulas, chocolate, ice cream and cheese. Most baked goods contain butter, and coffee chains like Starbucks sell more milk than coffee.

That's a surprise, but the best part of this NYT article is the timing of its more pedestrian observations. After noting that the expansion in demand "will require the addition each year of the equivalent of New Zealand’s entire annual milk output," Wayne Arnold deadpans, "That is a lot of milk." Also: "This is not good if you are in the market for milk." Both of those sentences begin paragraphs. Genius.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Elektrische Schreibmaschine

"Goodbye, cruel word: A personal history of electronic writing." Like myself, Guardian journalist/author Steven Poole is a fan of Scrivener on the Mac. He also uses WriteRoom; I also use NeoOffice. But Scrivener is particularly good for organizing notes and multiple documents under a single project, which makes it good for research-heavy writing, books, and (as in my case) dissertations.

I recently came across the Firefox extension Zotero, which has a similar interface to Scrivener and may be even better for online research, both because of its browser integration and instant-screen capture capacity. Now all it needs is the ability to export and import from Scrivener, and my writing/research workflow will be a snap.