Thursday, January 31, 2008

Quick Links

Gah! Too much to blog, but here are some links to interesting things I've read today.

"America’s Riveting Democracy," Roger Cohen, New York Times. Why are American elections so fascinating to the rest of the world?

One reason, of course, is that the convening of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist party or the selection of a European Commission president, big events in ascendant China and coalescing Europe, are hardly ready for prime time. A gaggle of guys in suits make soporific footage.

There’s nothing like bureaucracy to make democracy look thrilling. Beijing and Brussels won’t hold primaries soon. Nor will Moscow, with its Putin-to-Putin hand-over already scripted. “We the people” is a phrase alien to these capitals.

"Plan for independent store nets prize," Joyce Shelby, New York Daily News: Brooklyn is crazy. (Also, crazy delicious.)
"It's not impossible for an independent bookstore to survive, even when large chains are nearby," said Stockton-Bagnulo, 29, of Park Slope.... The [$15,000] grand prize means it will take a lot less time to open the business that Stockton-Bagnulo, who works as an events coordinator at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Manhattan, envisions - "a small bookstore with a cafe, a wine bar, lots of wood and lots of brick."

She's now looking for investors for a store in Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Windsor Terrace or Prospect Heights.

"I want to go to a neighborhood that needs a bookstore and can support one," she said.

"It's the Housing Market Deflation," William H. Gross, The Washington Post:
Our economic problem today resembles the Japanese property market crisis of the 1990s. What’s needed is not just $600 checks that will flow into Wal-Mart (and then to the Chinese) but an expanded Federal Housing Administration program offering below-market, 30-year mortgage refinancings with minimal down payments, which the private market and Bernanke cannot provide. Republican orthodoxy seems so intent on curtailing the past abuses of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that some politicians are looking past a government agency solution in their own back yard. Housing and our finance-based market mania got us into this mess. Housing and government-based financial solutions must begin to get us out of it.

"What a frankly political campaign ad might look like," Jeff Greenfield, Slate:
—I'm Janet Napolitano, Democratic governor of Arizona—a state Bush won twice.

—I'm Kathleen Sebelius, Democratic governor of Kansas—a state Bush won twice.

—I'm Claire McKaskill, Democratic Senator from Missouri—a state Bush won twice.

If Al Gore had won any of our states in 2000, there never would have been a Bush presidency. Instead, Democrats lost the last two presidential elections because our candidates couldn't compete in our states, and too many others.

Any Democrat can win in your deep blue state. But to win the White House, we need someone who can win our states, too. We believe that candidate is Barack Obama.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Give A Hoot, Read A Book

The digital world is all about the gift economy these days. From Facebook gifts to donationware to Wii Virtual Console games to political contributions, you can give what you want to give online. I don't know exactly what kind of ethnographic conclusions you can draw from this development, but it's big business: Facebook gifts alone gross $15 million annually from the company, a dollar a time.

Wowio is looking to get in on the action by allowing you to give e-books just like you send greeting cards. I wonder, though; what if there were a free, Project Gutenbergesque alternative? After all, the symbolic value of the gift economy is what gives it its force, not the exchange value. As it is, though, it's not bad. And who wouldn't rather send someone a book than an icon, or a singing bear? Now we just need the Facebook widget.

There's Analog, There's Digital, and Then...

Chris Meade at if:book:

Plug headphones into an iPod or XBox and you will be able to listen to one of a large but finite range of sounds. Plug headphones into a cardboard box and you can (not) hear anything you can possibly imagine. Travelling back through the years to my childhood, these machines allowed me to think across time and space, out of the (cardboard) box. They were also a means of engaging with the TV I loved, in a bygone era when no adult expressed any interest in the way I read my TV21 comic or consumed Thunderbirds and The Man From Uncle.

Unlike those friends who screwed together bits of meccanno to build working bridges, or fiddled with circuit boards until bulbs lit up, my games were all about interfaces.

I never worried for a moment about how these things might actually work. Now a lot of inventiveness is once again going into cutting and sticking, playing with FaceBook applications and YouTube clips like we used Corn Flake packets and sticky-backed plastic. Isn't it great, living here in the future?

Dens in Hyde Park

Will Wilkinson's got verve on the breach between libertarians and neocons:

I am more and more coming to the conclusion that National Greatness Conservatism, like all quasi-fascist movements, is based on a weird romantic teenager’s fantasies about what it means to be a grown up. The fundamental moral decency of liberal individualism seems, to the unserious mind that thinks itself serious, completely insipid next to very exciting big boy ideas about shared struggle, sacrifice, duty, glory, virtue, and (most of all) power. And reading Aristotle in Greek.

Blam, right? But then he goes ka-blam-o!
I sometimes think that liberal individualism is something like the intellectual and moral equivalent of the best modernist design — spare, elegant, functional — but hard to grasp or truly appreciate without a cultivated sense of style, without a little discerning maturity. National Greatness Conservatism is like a grotesque wood-paneled den stuffed with animal heads, mounted swords, garish carpets, and a giant roaring fire. Only the most vulgar tuck in next to that fire, light a fat cigar, and think they’ve really got it all figured out. But I’m afraid that’s pretty much the kind of thing you get at the Committee on Social Thought. If you declaim the importance of virtue loudly enough, you don’t have to actually think.

I went to the U of C, and I swear, in some rooms and with some crowds, that's totally what it was like.

(Via Andrew Sullivan.)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The 1990s as Musical Allegory

I like the wit of the first paragraph from this Pitchfork review of the Odelay re-release:

In Spin's 20 Years of Alternative Music, Beck is called "a generation's consolation prize after the death of Kurt Cobain." Chronologically, it's an apt assessment: Cobain killed himself on April 5, 1994; "Loser" peaked at #10 on the Billboard charts three weeks later. But back in the mid-90s, Beck was practically Cobain's polar opposite. Whereas Kurt exuded raw power with every phlegm-spewing roar, Beck rapped in monotone (when he wasn't crooning like a sleep-deprived folkie). Kurt hunched and staggered; Beck pranced, did splits, and mimicked robots. Kurt raged against a doomed world with a vitriolic mix of anger and sincerity; Beck took the piss out of a doomed world with a mix of irony and showmanship. Admittedly, they were both known to wear flannel shirts from time to time.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Real Estate in Cuba

There's a spike in value, from shortages and speculation that private property might return in a post-Castro Cuba. (Emigres in Florida and elsewhere are sending cash to relatives to buy houses in anticipation of return -- or to market.) Also, sales of private property are forbidden, but transfers are permitted, so there's a healthy black market in cash-compensated swaps, including bribes to officials to look the other way.

“You have your system and we have ours,” she said, identifying herself only by her first name, Alejandra. “I prefer our system. We don’t have mortgages and so we’re not facing foreclosure like so many of you are.”

Alejandra knows about the foreclosure crisis in the United States because her son lives in Florida and is struggling to make his house payments. “I worry about him,” she said. “If he loses his job, he’ll lose his home.”

Property is sometimes seized in Cuba as well, but by the government, not the bank. Property is taken from those who hop on boats to Florida, although most switch their houses to relatives’ names well before leaving. Those fleeing the island also frequently downgrade their accommodations before going into exile, trading big places for small ones and using the money exchanged on the side to pay for their voyages — the Cuban equivalent of a home equity loan.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Enough Said


Obama gets more white support than expected.

Over the past week, whatever limited support Barack Obama had in the white community started to slip away, according to a new poll from McCaltchy/MSNBC (PDF). The latest survey released yesterday reports that 10 percent of white respondents favored Obama. A week ago, that number was 20 percent. It seems Obama's gets more white support has drifted to John Edwards, who is challenging Hillary Clinton for second in several of the most recent polls. More white voters now support Edwards than Clinton, but he barely registers within the black community.expected.

[more ...]

The edits on the NYT article have also been interesting:
Obama Wins South Carolina Primary

Senator Barack Obama won Obama’s commanding victory over Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton sets the stage for a lopsided victory, drawing widespread support from a high turnout of black voters.state-by-state fight.

The first version of this story read like a romantic victory announcement for Obama; the second seemed to discount Obama's win by pointing to the predominantly black support; this version highlights the fairly large white support Obama received.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The McLuhan Galaxy

Nice essay on Marshall McLuhan in the LRC (literary review of canada), via Arts & Letters Daily.

One spark, often overlooked, but crucial, I found buried in The Gutenburg Galaxy, a book often passed over by those who prefer his later, more popular works. Philosophers have always asked what drives history. Is it revolutionary ideas, manifest destiny, great individuals, something called “the life force”? McLuhan denied none of these causes but, following one of his most influential mentors at U of T, Harold Innis, he asked: “How about tools?” We may think the end of the slave trade on the Atlantic was powered by humanitarians and abolitionists in England and America, and McLuhan would not disagree. But the main impetus, he would say, was the steam engine, a tool that reduced the need for muscle. This example is not one I have taken from McLuhan’s writings. As far as I know I arrived at it all by myself. But I would never have thought of it if I had not read McLuhan. That’s how his probes work.

The strangely under-read Gutenburg Galaxy has more to offer. King Lear, says McLuhan, has gone along with what Goneril and Regan say, and denied what he feels about Cordelia. He has broken what Shakespeare calls “the precious square of sense.” He has allowed the Renaissance emphasis on what the eye sees (appearance) to smother the earlier sense of felt reality (the fluent interplay of all the senses). Lear will suffer for it. It is not that the eye is inferior to the ear or vice versa. It is that the balanced “ratio of the senses” has become skewed by the tyranny of the visual ordering of experience brought on by print culture.

Like all original thinkers from Blake to Einstein, McLuhan was much misunderstood. He never promoted TV over books as popular accounts gave out. He never expressed a preference for tribal culture over individualism. He never said the patterns of perception imposed by the ear are superior to those of the eye. One small aphorism sticks with me: “When the globe becomes a single electronic web with all its languages and culture recorded on a single tribal drum, the fixed point of view of print culture becomes irrelevant, however precious.” However precious! Those are the operative words, about as far as McLuhan went in taking sides. But they also bring his innermost sympathies to the fore.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

History as Nightmare, Pt. 2

From Der Spiegel: the last German World War I veteran is believed to have died.

The last surviving German army veteran of World War I is reported to have died in Hanover, aged 107. No official confirmation was available nor is it ever likely to be. Germany keeps no official records on its veterans from the two world wars. Dr. Erich Kästner, who was born on March 10, 1900, died on January 1, 2008, according to an announcement posted by his family in the Hannoversche Allgemeine newspaper...

The death on Sunday of one France's last two surviving World War I veterans, Louis de Cazenave, made national and international news. De Cazenave, who took part in the Battle of the Somme, died aged 110 at his home in Brioude in central France, where he was buried on Tuesday.

"His death is an occasion for all of us to think of the 1.4 million French who sacrificed their lives during this conflict, for the 4.5 million wounded, for the 8.5 million mobilized," President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement.

Chiari said Germany's memory of World War I was tainted by the crimes of World War II. "Any form of commemoration of military events is seen as problematic here," he said. "Our veterans only take part in public ceremonies when they are invited abroad to join commemorative events with veterans from other countries. World War I is seen as part of a historical line that led to World War II. You can't equate the two but there is much debate about it."

See History as Nightmare, Pt. 1: the death of the last veteran of the Irish war of Independence.

Lose All Sense of Time

File under "Wow. Just. Wow." There's a bar/restaurant in London's Covent Garden section called "Detroit Bar."

a 'style bar' in london before the word 'style' had even been invented, detroit has always mixed the best cocktails, in the most relaxing yet vibrant atmosphere. without pretention we invite you to detroit bar and restaurant to enjoy our venue. hidden away in the most attractive part of covent garden (the seven dials) detroit incorporates a unique conceptual design with intimate, cosy alcoves where it is possible to lose all sense of time. no attitude. no pretention. just detroit.

("before the word 'style' had even been invented"?)

Also, Detroit is often without pretension -- excuse me, pretention -- but rarely without attitude.

Note: for the original "Detroit Bar," see here. Or here. Or here.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Impossibile Love

Sarah Vowell on King, Reagan, and the Sermon on the Mount:

So there was the president in the White House Rose Garden pretending to enjoy turning this drain on the Gross National Product into law. Perhaps he comforted himself that the American people, who can turn something as dead serious as Memorial Day into a clambake, would somehow find a way to use a football season Monday venerating a murder victim to sleep off their beer and nachos hangovers of the preceding afternoon.

Still, there's a pleasing symmetry in Reagan forking over a day to King. Both men owe their reputations to the Sermon on the Mount. The president's most enduring bequest might be a city-smiting drug war, but thanks to a nice smile and a biblical sound bite that's not how he's remembered. Reagan cribbed from the Gospel of Matthew via the Puritan John Winthrop to dream up his "shining city on a hill" legacy. And Americans in general and Republican presidential candidates in particular still believe in it, probably because they're not watching "The Wire."

Here's what King got out of the Sermon on the Mount. On Nov. 17, 1957, in Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he concluded the learned discourse that came to be known as the "loving your enemies" sermon this way: "So this morning, as I look into your eyes and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you: 'I love you. I would rather die than hate you.' "

Go ahead and re-read that. That is hands down the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical thing a human being can say. And it comes from reading the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical civics lesson ever taught, when Jesus of Nazareth went to a hill in Galilee and told his disciples, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you."

That's Right; Cuneiform

Huzzah! The Atlantic is pulling down its internet firewall -- not just on the new stuff, but on the 150 years of archives, too. James Fallows writes:

I no longer have to say, "Subscribers Only" about some articles. Still -- subscribe! The timeless story of media-and-technology is that as new "delivery vehicles" arrive, they create additional forms of receiving information; eliminate a few old forms, like the cuneiform tablet; but mainly expand the range of choices people have by leaving most old forms in place. Despite television, we still have radio; despite radio and television and the internet, we will have books; despite email we still have phone calls; and for quite a while despite the internet we will still have something physically like a book or magazine, just because there are so many times as places where it's the best way to see what you want to look at. (On my latest 13-hour plane flight, some of passengers mainly used laptops or iPods. Virtually all had some kind of book or magazine.) Magazine content, words and pictures, looks far far better in real magazines -- though the web version is indispensable.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Editing in Action

NetNewsWire, my newly free and historically awesome RSS reader, has a feature that allows you to track changes in a story's feed. In other words, if one feedlet is replaced by another with the same title, instead of displacing the older version, it makes a hybrid that shows the changes between the two. Here's an example below, from The New York Times.

As negotiations begin The big fight on an economic stimulus package, the big fight will be over whether to put extra more money in the hands of low-income families who paid little or no income tax last year.

Here's another one, from Snarkmarket's Comments feed. Since comments on the same thread have the same title, it jumbles them up all the time. This creates either word art or annoying confusion, I can't quite decide which.

Posted by: Peter Patrick on January 18, 2008 at 02:13 PM06:44 AM

I can't believe a posting on the Dream: The Story most recent Newberry Award winner, making reference to Mrs. Breslin's librarianship, without so much as an update on the status of Christopher Columbus like? Hard to imagine that being simultaneously factual and good. And of course hard factual basis is my main criterion for children's lit.

For the Caldecott Award.


Saturday, January 19, 2008

Lyndon and Martin

From the Guardian:

Carter also notes there's a cautionary moral hidden in Senator Clinton's appeal to the LBJ presidency. In coordinating research his son had lined up for a study of the Johnson presidency and the civil rights movement, Carter says, "I was going through all these transcripts of LBJ's White House tapes. And you know, he was truly committed, there was a real passion about this thing from LBJ. But as the years go by, he gets more and more angry when he has conflicts with black leaders. Because he's developed this view that he's made these sacrifices on their behalf - and by God, he thinks, 'They're mine. I'm entitled to these people. What do they mean by not being grateful to me?' "

King grew increasingly disappointed with Johnson, too -- especially about Vietnam. The price he paid for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was to keep his criticism of Johnson's war policy quiet, until finally enough was enough. Which begs the question -- why in the world would any political candidate in the middle of a quagmire like this one, especially a Democrat, want to identify with Johnson?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Themes for your Google Home Page

From Kevin Tom at the Official Google Blog:

Users and developers alike have been clamoring to know when they can develop themes for the iGoogle homepage, and we're happy to say that today is the day! Whether you like outer space, cartoons, dogs, or anything else, you can now create your own theme and help personalize iGoogle for millions of people.

The Themes API lets you customize many portions of the iGoogle page. Your theme can also update the page's design based on variables, such as the time of day or location. This makes it easy to create a narrative that unfolds throughout the day, a landscape that changes as the sun rises and sets, or an abstract image that becomes more complex.

Also, when did the Google Toolbar become awesome? I love how easy it is to create custom search engines from web pages, which conveniently become buttons that link to those pages -- way more efficient and cool-looking than traditional foldered bookmarks, and even better than most custom-built toolbars. (I run it on Flock, since I use Firefox 3 Beta, which is incompatible with the toolbar. But Flock + Zotero + Google Toolbar is one of the most sophisticated browsing systems possible.)

A Danged Good Point

Paul Boutin in Slate reviews the new MacBook Air and notes that "in many ways, phones are now more powerful than laptops":

Phone and laptop technology is converging. The iPhone and other smartphones have as much processing power as the desktop workstations of five years ago, and laptops are getting smaller and more portable. It's only natural to expect that the advances seen in laptops would come to phones, and vice versa. So, why has Apple failed to make foolproof, always-on Web access—the iPhone's killer feature—a standard component of its next generation of computers?

It's not like Apple is hesitant about getting its suppliers to engineer new parts—after all, the company coerced Intel to build a special, extra-small version of its Core 2 Duo processor that would fit inside the MacBook Air. It's possible that putting a cell phone inside the Air would mean lots of regulatory hurdles before the device could come to market. But it isn't a new idea. Lenovo, for one, has offered the option for years. And Apple has stuffed AT&T wireless access into 5 million iPhones, all of which are slimmer than the new MacBook. Would it really have been that hard to put a cell card inside the Air?

The new notebook is touted as the first computer designed from the ground up to be used wirelessly; but without 3G cellular or WiMax last-mile access, it's really just the first computer designed from the ground up to be used over Wi-Fi. Which makes it the ultraportable equivalent of the iPod touch.

That said, I doubt these limitations will last terribly long, and I also don't think the MacBook Air is really the ultraportable solution. I bet that in a few years, as the processor speeds at that size catch up, the MacBook Air -- or its innovations, like flash HD and a drop of the optical drive -- will simply replace the MacBook. There will be a different Pro desktop replacement laptop, and maybe some kind of third less expensive, portable device.

What am I saying? Steve Jobs is giving up on reading. Screw Apple.

Oh, You Disappointing Bastard

I like Steve Jobs, and I love Apple, but the guy sometimes just makes no sense at all.

Today he had a wide range of observations on the industry, including the Amazon Kindle book reader, which he said would go nowhere largely because Americans have stopped reading.

“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

Huh? What share of that forty percent are Apple users? Apple has to have some market research on their customers' broader media consumption, and I'm willing to bet that Mac owners are on the upper end of books read and purchased. Read and purchased from Amazon, mind you -- whose users also are more likely than average to read a bunch of books. What percentage of people in the U.S. used software to give a PowerPoint-style presentation last year, or used video conferencing? That doesn't stop Apple from selling that experience to users.

You may not be able to sell as many Kindles as you can iPods, or to put one in every household, but that doesn't mean that "the whole conception" of an electronic reader is flawed. I would rather say: "The problem with the Kindle is that people don't read the way that they used to; they read and view lots of documents, including web pages and email and photographs and movies, and they're used to a much more integrated and interactive experience. So if your goal is to try to recreate the book or the newspaper to the letter, you're fighting the wrong fight."

At any rate, if Jobs' vision of Apple is to make an increasingly large number of devices on which we can watch Zoolander, I find myself much less enthusiastic about that vision or that world.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Monday, January 14, 2008

Rambling Speculation about Macworld

Okay, wild guess stuff. My dream of dreams would be for a 8.5 by 5.5 iBook, a touchscreen subnotebook running a similar version of OS X to the iPhone that would work as a general document viewer and light editor -- email, video, audio, books, web, RSS, etc. You would be able to buy or subscribe to books, movies, music, podcasts, feeds, all wirelessly. It would sync with your PC like an iPod/iPhone, but it would also be usable as an ultraportable standalone device.

Since this is what I want, I will assume that it will be so. (This seems to be everyone else's working method.)

So what's this "something in the Air" business? Okay, this is what I think. The portable iBook will have a dock, just like the other Apple portables. But this dock will be different. For one thing, it'll be huge, about as big as an AirPort Extreme Base Station.


What if the new iBook's dock were also an Airport station -- with an ethernet in and out, USB and Firewire ports to connect to an external drive, another Mac, a keyboard, a printer, or a larger display? The goal, eventually, would be to phase out all wired connections in favor of wireless ones; so you have an AirPort hub where next to nothing actually "plugs in."

Essentially, then, you have a fully portable Mac that can, in turn, function as a full-featured, stand alone machine, without the need for an additional computer.

I can't imagine calling anything else an "AirBook" or "MacBook Air."

Just a thought. If I'm right, anyone who wants to can buy me drinks.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

As Education, It Might Beat Movies At Least

Matthew Phillips at Newsweek:

In the $10 billion videogame industry, war has always been marketable. But one war in particular has captured the imaginations of gamers: World War II. More than 100 titles are dedicated to the struggle between the Axis and the Allies, at least 70 of which have been made in the past five years. Medal of Honor: Airborne, the latest installment in Electronic Arts' WWII franchise, focuses on the close-range infantry combat of Operation Market Garden, part of the Allies' 11-month campaign across Europe to Berlin. It was "to a significant extent a rifleman's war," says historian Niall Ferguson. Soldiers "had to do a lot of ditch-to-ditch, house-to-house fighting—the perfect setting for first-person shooter games." Operation Market Garden features in at least 12 videogames, including four of the 14 Medal of Honor titles, and will be the focus of Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, due out early this year on the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. "More than any other conflict, World War II is an example of good conquering evil," says Col. John Antal, a retired Army specialist and consultant to the Brothers games. For many kids, the games may now be primary source material on the war.

Now we need a good game critic/historian to tell us just how accurate these games are -- not just to the first-person experience and moral sensibility, but to the details! There's no reason that these kids can't know the maps of Europe and Asia, and the history of what happened there, as well as buffs know the battles of the Civil War or kids from generation knew the world maps of Zelda or Metroid. Get some learn on when you get your game on!

Also -- why not a World War II game where you fight from all sides? Be a Russian soldier forced to retreat to Moscow or Leningrad, then a French general who defeats the Germans in a battle but watches the rest of the line crumble, then a North African soldier invading Italy. Games where perspectives suddenly shift, where you win battles but lose the war -- this might actually introduce some historical complexity into students' thoughts about the world.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Grand Vitesse

From Der Spiegel: High-Speed Trains Erode Europe's Borders.

The Eurostar now carries more than 70 percent of passenger traffic between London and Paris. And air service between Paris and Brussels has ended altogether now that trains connect those cities in 1 hour and 20 minutes.

It's faster (and cheaper, despite the dollar) to ride coach from London to Paris than from New York to Washington. And Europe's Railteam is making it easier to cross national borders and switch between rail systems, with the goal of seamless travel from Paris to Bratislava.

This, more than a common currency or labor market, could make Europe Europe.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Movie Critics Forgot, Then Remembered

Has anyone noticed the surge of interest paid by movie critics to David Fincher's spring-release film Zodiac?  First there was Manohla Dargis's subtle reading of the film in the New York Times, which headlines their Oscar Preview section. Now comes Elbert Ventura's analysis in Slate.

Zodiac really is a remarkable movie, one I've frequently recommended to friends as smart, stylish, and (at least until now) totally underrated. But now it almost seems as though the movie critics, sick and tired of hearing the TV critics extol the return of the also-great, also-underwatched police drama The Wire, wanted to write their own take on the subversive nature of a genuinely realistic, genuinely obsessive police procedural.

The Kids

Jon Favreau (not the actor) is Barack Obama's speechwriting partner. He's a veteran of the Kerry campaign, who was drafted into speechwriting before the Iowa caucus, when Kerry was running out of money, and everyone thought they would lose to Howard Dean.

He's 26 years old.

Favreau and Obama rapidly found a relatively direct way to work with one another. "What I do is to sit with him for half an hour," Favreau explains. "He talks and I type everything he says. I reshape it, I write. He writes, he reshapes it. That's how we get a
finished product.

"It's a great way to write speeches. A lot of times, you write something, you hand it in, it gets hacked by advisors, it gets to the candidate and then it gets sent back to you. This is a much more intimate way to work."

Some speeches are much more the product of the candidate himself. Obama emailed Favreau his draft of his announcement speech in Springfield, Illinois, at 4 a.m. on the morning of the campaign launch last February.

Now Favreau has his own team: Adam Frankel, a 26-year-old who worked with Ted Sorensen on his memoirs, and Ben Rhodes, a 30-year-old who worked with Lee Hamilton on the 9/11 commission's report.

Three guys on a speechwriting team, two of whom were born after 1980; the oldest was born in 1977. Is there any surprise that Obama is resonating with young people? Or that he talks so often about his disinterest in the political discourse of the past?

Forget the Sixties, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, even Clinton. The first time his speechwriters could vote for president, it was for Al Gore.

(Unless they voted Nader. Eep!)

Anyways, that group of guys might even be as smart and precocious as this one:

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Borges and the Absence of Context

The New York Times Books section has a story in today's paper by Noam Cohen titled "Borges and the Forseeable Future", which summarizes claims by Umberto Eco, Perla Sassón-Henry, and William Gibson that Borges's stories predicted the advent of the World Wide Web.

The trouble is that instead of including excerpts from and analyses of each author's argument, Cohen applies a method that should be even better: excerpts from three of Borges's stories (“Funes the Memorious,” “The Library of Babel” and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”) juxtaposed with Web 2.0 examples of Borgesian "prophecies fulfilled." These parallels are sometimes so tangential to the texts they describe, and invariably so distorting of the contexts from which Borges's quotes are taken, that the naive picture they give borders on uselessness.

For example, Borges's story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” does describe an encyclopedia that is hypothesized to have been written by many authors. This is vaguely like Wikipedia, but also vaguely like most print encyclopedias in Borges's day and ours. The reason why the fictional speculation that the text was penned not by a single author but by a secret society is that the encyclopedia entries are an elaborate hoax, and that Tlön is a planet that does not exist. This fact is not mentioned in Cohen's article. It's repeatedly mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on the story.

Ditto "The Library of Babel." Borges's imagined library does indeed imply that there is "no personal problem, no world problem, whose eloquent solution did not exist" in the library. The trouble, however -- as Wikipedia again nicely reminds us -- is that

because there are by definition all books, there are certainly also books of lies and falsehoods. For each copy of the codex to the library, there will be many copies of false codices, claiming some false books to be true and some true books to be false. In short, any room in the library could be the crimson hexagon.

Maybe there's a way to save all of this, by saying that Borges was prophetic not just of the web's possibilities, but also its shortcomings, especially the difficulty (as in all media) of distinguishing signal from noise. But maybe we should just let Borges be Borges, with his own decidedly pre-web preoccupations, and try to do our own thinking for ourselves.

Friday, January 04, 2008

iBook, iPlay, iSlate

Andy Ihnatko makes a prediction in Macworld:

Apple’s new platform: Look at the puzzle pieces. A sophisticated, gesture-based user interface. OS X running on nontraditional devices. A new developer environment and API for iDevices that was so tricky that Apple couldn’t release it or even hint at it until three months after the iPhone was released… and even then, only under duress. Features embedded in Mac OS that help you invisibly tether two OS X devices’ resources together, whether they’re in the same room or merely on the same planet. A movement from Apple to put the bulk of its energy into consumer products and not computer products.

I’m fairly sure that 2008 will see an entire new platform. The iPhone is a phone, and the iPod touch is an iPhone without the phone stuff. The next i-Suffix will be a totally new thing. Not a Mac… not really. An iPhone, kind of, but sort of not. Take the screen off a MacBook and slice it in two vertically. That’s the device. It’ll play media—including Office documents, PDFs, and e-books—from its 16GB of flash storage. It’ll have Wi-Fi and the Safari browser… maybe even 3G or EDGE, as with an iPhone. It will secure-tunnel back to your home Mac or PC, and you’ll be able to use this thing to access any resources you might have left behind. It will put every digital resource you have at your fingertips, in one compact black slate.

It will run native software, too. Curious, isn’t it, that in October Steve Jobs announced that Apple wouldn’t be taking the wrapper off the iPhone developers’ kit until February? It’s almost as if the resources that are plainly available in the SDK would have spilled the beans on the device Steve intends to unveil during his Macworld Expo keynote in January.

Maybe I’m spot-on with this. Maybe not. But I’ll make one prediction about Apple’s hot new product of 2008 that I’ll stand behind without any waffling: whatever it is, people will complain that it costs way too much money, and they’ll happily stand in line for a minimum of 18 hours to get one.