Monday, June 30, 2008

Old Money Still Good Money (But Worth Less Money)

Collobrières, a village in Provence (southeast Mediterranean France), has authorized the use of the French franc en lieu du Euro for everyday purchases. The idea came from the town baker, Nathalie Lepeltier. According to Lepeltier, "The euro has made life more expensive; prices are much higher... people have lost the concept of the value of money with the euro." But: "People remember the price in francs, and they're shocked now when they use francs at how much more everything costs."

FP Passport's Katie Hunter writes that "the franc's reintroduction has helped the villagers of Collobrières strengthen one value -- their French identity." If only the U.S. had switched over to the Euro ten years ago, then we could feel nostalgic for our hyperinflated currency, instead of, you know, using it.

I tell this story a lot, but I first visited France when I was 20 in March 2000. France and Germany and a handful of other "strong currency" nations were deliberately devaluing their currency before switching to the Euro, for monetary policy reasons I don't completely understand. Anyways, the U.S. government was solvent and reasonably beloved and the dollar was robust, so we were buying unbelievable food at six francs to the dollar, full course prix fixe dinners for ten or fifteen bucks each, including wine. I never ate or loved Europe so well again. That's a bit of French identity that I would love to regain.

The Jazz Age Internet

No, not the telegraph (aka "the Victorian internet") or even the telephone. Instead, Virginia Heffernan reports on a message board for moms that takes it there:

* DH ["Dear Husband"] is a mobster. Will this hurt DC’s ability to get into preschool?
o no, all the school administration have ties

* Doctor told me I should take up smoking to help with my cough. Should I switch MDs?
o why would you switch? sounds reasonable to me
o No, a cigarette a day, keeps the Dr. away. DUH!
o I love a cigarette after a brisk walk in my high heels up a small hill

* Cole Porter is SUCH an invert!
o You know there IS a Mrs Cole Porter. What do you make of THAT, Smarty-cat?

* Have you seen Marlene Dietrich in the new Photoplay? Can you say mannish? Ew.
o ita, Man Ray is so into her. So is dh. Does that mean dh is a homosexual?
+ My DH is swoony for Louise. I can’t decide whether that makes him more or less of an invert.
# I think both of our dh’s might be inverts

Books Going One Way, Music Another

In the fourth season of The Wire, the drug dealer Bodie and his friend Poot have a conversation about global warming and the increasing violence on Baltimore's streets. Poot's observation ("world going one way, people another"), like a lot of The Wire's vernacular philosophy, gets stuck in my head a lot.

So when I read Daniel Hall's "Indie Rock Wizards," at The Economist's Free Exchange blog, all I could think of was the title above.

WHILE conversing with friends this weekend I realised that I hold two beliefs about pop culture that initially sound incompatible: 1. There will never again be a musical act that attains the popularity and cultural permeation of the Beatles. 2. It is nigh inevitable that a book or book series will one day achieve or surpass the popularity and cultural permeation of Harry Potter...

One of my friends proposed a theory I find compelling: Our cultural consumption exists on a spectrum from "individual" to "collective". Technology has shifted the balance for both books and music. Digital distrbitution and the iPod have made music consumption much more individualistic, while the internet and global branding have made book consumption increasingly collective.

If this is so, it is interesting to consider the likely impacts on other cultural forms. For movies, while it is hard to imagine the summer blockbuster ever entirely disappearing, I think the net effect is likely to be increasing fragmentation. Museum art is harder to predict. Will global branding allow a few artists to attain rock star status? Or will niche artists flourish by using the internet to raise awareness and create alternative art experiences? I find myself hoping it's the latter. In my experience the areas where technology is causing significant fragmentation—not only music but areas like news media—have become far richer and more interesting to me as a result.

As a side note, I was shopping for diapers, paper towels, and rotisserie chicken at a warehouse club today and was astounded by the piles and piles of best-sellers, mass-market, and discounted books laid out on a table in the middle of the store (not, like at Borders, near the front, but wedged between office supplies and underwear). There is a weird, almost ultra-pop market for books, music, and movies that the Costcos and Sam's Clubs of the world deliver, one where bibles, NYT bestsellers, James Frey, Oprah books, Malcolm Gladwell, and archaeological detective fiction commingle with box sets of John Wayne movies, straight-to-DVD Disney cartoons, The Sopranos, Billie Holliday, Hannah Montana, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. It is a weird, weird world, much weirder than the middlebrow boutique that is your average Borders or Barnes and Noble, which really do provide a fairly coherent world.

With that in mind, I would actually look to the vastly different physical retail experience of books and music today, rather than the best-sellers/Top 40 lists -- or rather, as a function of the best-sellers/Top 40. We used to have honest-to-goodness music stores: chains like Tower Records, Harmony House, or Sam Goody, or smaller places that weren't niche stores. That's where you would go to buy a record or tape or CD, in the same way that you now go to Borders or Barnes & Noble to buy a book. As a result, even if you were going there to pick up Sonic Youth or Public Enemy or something not quite mainstream (but mainstream enough to find in a mall) you would at the very least be aware of Michael Jackson or Peter Gabriel or Whitney Houston or whomever and might even grab a copy of their records as well. Just as now, readers from multiple niches (children's, fantasy, literary fiction, whatever) will stop by the Harry Potter display and add it to the pile.

In other words, it's the accumulation of niche audiences with low-interest mass audiences that create genuine blockbusters, like Harry Potter or the Beatles, and that phenomenon is best facilitated by a particular retail structure. If books are an afterthought in a generic shopping experience, the way music is now, then the niche audience goes elsewhere and you get low-interest, low-memory, low-sales blockbusters: albums that go single platinum (but no more) which nobody remembers (even if everyone occasionally heard them).

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Flat Champagne

I don't usually mind William Logan's poetry reviews for the New York Times -- he dislikes most of the past and contemporary poets I dislike, albeit for different reasons. Over a year ago Brian Henry at Verse hit on the main problems with Logan (he doesn't review anything that isn't from a trade press, his ressentiment towards current scholarship in English, his Maureen Dowd-like "cocktail wag" persona). There isn't much to add to that.

But this week's, Logan's got a review, and a generally positive review, of Frank O'Hara's new Selected Poems. Logan likes O'Hara's stuff, and he may even be right that a Selected rather than the Collected is more digestible. It troubles me, though, to see a critic taking so much of O'Hara's self-built mythology at face value: the poems are easy, he writes about whatever happens to him, he doesn't want you to care about them, they go nowhere, etc. So the review winds up being as dismissive as it is favorable.

Still, Frank O'Hara is Frank O'Hara, and there's a lot quoted in Logan's review, so it's not all bad.

Short Schrift at Five

Look at those eyes, blue and hawkish. Look at that angular jaw! That redhead is up to no good.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Real (Punctual) Franz K

Zadie Smith reviews a new biography of Kafka:

How to describe Kafka, the man? Like this, perhaps:

It is as if he had spent his entire life wondering what he looked like, without ever discovering there are such things as mirrors.

A naked man among a multitude who are dressed.

A mind living in sin with the soul of Abraham.

Franz was a saint.

Or then again, using details of his life, as found in Louis Begley's refreshingly factual The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head: Franz Kafka: A Biographical Essay: over six feet tall, handsome, elegantly dressed; an unexceptional student, a strong swimmer, an aerobics enthusiast, a vegetarian; a frequent visitor to movie houses, cabarets, all-night cafes, literary soirees and brothels; the published author of seven books during his brief lifetime; engaged three times (twice to the same woman); valued by his employers, promoted at work.

But this last Kafka is as difficult to keep in mind as the Pynchon who grocery-shops and attends baseball games, the Salinger who grew old and raised a family in Cornish, New Hampshire. Readers are incurable fabulists. Kafka's case, though, extends beyond literary mystique. He is more than a man of mystery—he's metaphysical. Readers who are particularly attached to this supra-Kafka find the introduction of a quotidian Kafka hard to swallow. And vice versa. I spoke once at a Jewish literary society on the subject of time in Kafka, an exploration of the idea—as the critic Michael Hofmann has it—that "it is almost always too late in Kafka." Afterward a spry woman in her nineties, with a thick Old World accent, hurried across the room and tugged my sleeve: "But you're quite wrong! I knew Mr. Kafka in Prague—and he was never late."

I love the first footnote, too: "[1] Respectively, Walter Benjamin, Milena Jesenská, Erich Heller, and Felice Bauer." What a list!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

History as Nightmare, Pt. 3

Homeless and beaten political refugees in Zimbabwe have gathered at the South African embassy to plead for help.

One woman at a church in Harare held an 11-month-old baby with casts on his tiny legs. After her husband, an opposition organizer, went into hiding she said she got word that governing party supporters were looking for her too. She fled with the boy, returning home the next day.

That is when "the youth," as foot soldiers of Zimbabwe's governing party are often called, came looking for her, she said. Her baby boy was snatched up from the bed and hurled onto the concrete floor, she said, shattering his legs.

Afterwards, she stayed at home all day with her screaming baby, too terrified to move. At night, when all was quiet, she set out, only able to carry her distraught child, for Harvest House, headquarters of the opposition. The 12 mile walk took most of the night.

The building was bursting with refugees, but she made it to a hospital. Now his little legs stick out at an odd angle below his blue romper suit, encased in too-tight plaster of Paris.

Her blanket stolen, surviving on one meal a day, her thin skirt and jacket hang on her. Her impossibly thin legs look as if they too will snap.

Is it any wonder her milk has dried up? When she looks at her baby, her strained face softens and becomes beautiful again. He has had only water for three days, she says.

"I hate Zimbabwe," she said. "I want to leave."

Impossible Politics

My response to Rachel at IdleThink, who asks "what can historians do to matter?"


What can historians do to matter? — It seems to be more than simply paring away academic jargon like ‘discourse’ and ‘deconstruction’ from one’s speech and writing, although as one of the authors was determined to hammer home, this was a good and necessary start. And how much can historians actually do? Where is the point where it ceases to be a matter of the historian’s sense of civic obligation and becomes a matter of the citizen’s apathy? or the point where the historian’s ability to write clearly ends and the citizen’s lack of education begins? Between these things there is a chasm that surely the historian can only do so much to bridge…

My default answer is the answer Malcolm X gave when a young white woman asked him what white people could do to help black people: “Nothing.”

The caveat, however, is that this only answers the question “What can historians do to matter as historians?” And luckily for you, the vocation “historian” does not exhaust your identity, your usefulness, or your possibilities.

Intellectuals are easily trapped by the competence fallacy. We invest so much in becoming competent in and qualified to speak for our corner of academic scholarship that we presume that speaking (or writing or acting) in any other context is governed by the same norms of competence. Since we are not qualified to speak to (or especially for) the farmer, the schoolchild, or the illiterate in the same sense that we are qualified to speak to our for our specialized discipline, we assume that such speech is impossible.

In fact, we have to speak and act, but for the most part not as historians: as critics, certainly, as journalists, possibly, and when a political claim rests on some fraught, mistaken, or mendacious claim to history, those roles can be invested with the weight of scholarly training. But above all, we can speak and act as citizens.

This is why I would (here and for this audience) deconstruct the authors’ goal to bypass the specialist and speak to the citizen, since it appears to preserve the very distinction that the authors wish (or should wish) to break. When one writes as one citizen to another, speaks and listens as one member of the polis with another, that is the very nature of the political. Politics cannot exist as a dialogue between the knowing and the ignorant, or between the authentic and the fake. That may be an untenable form of liberal democratic idealism, but that is where we are and where we must begin. The abandonment of the security one seeks in competence, and the fiction (if it is a fiction) that all citizens are made equal is the condition of possibility (or impossibility) of politics.

Me Too Or Not Me Too (For Yahoo)

Plenty of other sites (in my reading, Daring Fireball and Kottke) have linked to Dave Pell's advice for Yahoo! (Don't worry about search, focus on news), but they haven't quoted the best bits. Here are some of them.

When I am in my email, give me news. When I make a homepage, give me more news choices and tools. Don’t settle for first place. Crush everyone. Be the place I browse for news, search for news, share news, annotate news, IM news, SMS news, listen to and watch news, eat and drink news, shoot news into my veins, snort news off the tits of more news. News goddammit, news. And while I’m there, give me entertainment too. Be the portal. There I said it. Be so dominant as the web’s start page that you can give me the choice of search engines.

Search is, for better or worse, your me too feature. You’ve got a damn exclamation point in your logo. Let Google keep the question mark. That battle is over. Don’t bring chains to a fight if you’re better with knives. Bring extra knives. News, entertainment and information is what you’re great at. You’re old enough to know that.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Circulation Problem

Inside Higher Ed reports that Princeton University Press is making its first book available for Amazon's Kindle e-book reader, joining Oxford and California and a couple other UPs.

This makes a lot of sense to me; some of the virtues of the Kindle (instant access, note-taking, ability to carry a whole lotta bunch of books around with you at once) are especially appealing to brainslaves like me who work with a lot of academic books. Since academic press books aren't regularly available in average bookstores, and ship times are often stiff, instant electronic delivery is also a big plus.

But the prices! Three dollar discounts on paperbacks! I get better than that just by being a member of the MLA!

It would be marvelous* if some intrepid UP or academic startup started experimenting with variable pricing -- $10 for students, $15 for everybody else, less than a CD, let's say -- and see what happens.

*By "marvelous" I mostly mean "marvelous for me" -- although I do think some experimentation with pricing, delivery, book length, etc., might be warranted given the changing economics of academic pricing.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Un-Futile Jamming

Andrew Bird describes his two (!) new records. On the second one, which is (for now) instrumental:

I’ve been meaning to mention that I’ve been working on another record at the same time as this one. It’s supposed to be an instrumental record and I’ve been switching between sessions of the “song” record and this more indulgent ambient experimental record. I recently spent another week at the Wilco loft playing with percussionist Glenn Kotche of Wilco and Todd Sickafoose, a brilliant upright bass player from Brooklyn. I just thought, let’s put us all in a room and see what happens. These guys are some of the most virtuosic, thoughtful musicians I know, in keeping with my vow to only make music with really good people...

So this instrumental record is full of homeless melodies, polyrhythmic pizzicato, Debussy-like, minimalistic string passages thrown from a rotating speaker, and lots of really inventive percussion. I just want to make sure it’s engaging enough to warrant the packaging involved in a separate record. I’ve admitted to myself that it may only be an idea reservoir — a place to breed future songs and also catch some of the overflow of ideas from the “song record.” That’s sort of what I did with “Weather Systems,” a record that preceded “The Mysterious Production of Eggs”; it was only invented as a way to take the pressure of too many ideas off of the latter record. I think this record will be different, though; it’s going to rely more on the subtle textures of sound and resist the verse-chorus shape.

I’m trying to get over this mental block I have against the validity of instrumental music. I think this tension between craft and experimental, improvisatory indulgence is healthy. My wariness toward “jamming” is based on years playing in listless jazz combos where everyone pulls out their real books and plays “Song for my Father” or “Equinox” for the umpteenth time. That feeling of futility just became too much for me to bear. After getting tendonitis in the summer of my 22nd year playing jigs and reels for Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts as they waited in line for the privy at a southern Wisconsin Renaissance Faire, I swore I wouldn’t associate that sort of futility with music again. A decade later, I’m loosening those reigns a bit.

I am so there.

No Good (or All Things Good) Can Come Of This

Tom Ewing reviews My Bloody Valentine's reunion show at the Roundhouse:

Everything My Bloody Valentine played on Friday night was old material: It didn't matter-- none of it was familiar. In Pitchfork's Top 100 Albums of the 1990s feature, Mark Richardson talked about the vain and frustrating search for something that was "Like Loveless, but more". Here it was: There were moments-- the totalizing crush of "Slow", an unrecognizably venomous "Thorn"-- when texture and volume hit perfect balance and MBV's hallowed recordings seemed like genteel postcards from the corona of this vast solar sound.

Also in Pitchfork today, Exile in Guyville, 15 years later:
The cover shot nipple, "I want to be your blow job queen," the outro of "Fuck and Run" ("...even when I was 12")-- this stuff was startling at the time, but I'm guessing it won't register with any teenagers who discover this today. You can get Savage Love right on your cell phone, and young adults today can browse mainstream blogs and read about machines that will fuck you. Sad to say that at the time, it was shocking to talk about non-missionary sex with the girl you could take home to mom, but today, on "Flower"-- the one about blow jobs-- the line that surprises is her Dungeons & Dragons-like reference to "minions.” (On the original, she said she'd fuck the guy's girlfriend.)

Also hard to explain would be the sound, which is grey and wedged entirely in the midrange. When a "remastered" edition was announced, I had to wonder if the remasterer had actually heard the thing before taking the job-- but hearing it now, the treatment works: the rhythm section, when there is one, has more punch, and Phair's vocals come a little closer to your earlobe. The package also comes with a poorly-made DVD of interviews that Phair conducted with people from Chicago who knew her when-- Steve Albini, Ira Glass, the Urge Overkill guys. It makes a scene that fancied itself "the next Seattle" seem exactly as insular and provincial as it really was.

George Carlin, 1937-2008

"His comedic sensibility revolved around a central theme: humanity is a cursed, doomed species."

Friday, June 20, 2008

Post-Partisan vs. Post-Ideological

The American Scene's James Poulous lays out what I think is the key distinction:

Atop other impressive one-liners, Gerson produces this classic: “Perhaps Obama is just conventionally liberal.” Well, duh. It’s stunning to see Gerson, of all people, confuse post-partisan politics with post-ideological politics, but he does it consistently with Obama. Obama never vowed to transcend Liberalism. He repeatedly vows instead to abandon permanently mobilized, rigid, say-anything, do-anything party warfare. It’s fanciful to insinuate as Gerson does that Obama voted against John Roberts because he’s a partisan hack.

Liberals, too, continue to misunderstand this, and assume that whenever Obama talks about moving past partisan politics that he's just going to give everything away to the Democrats. See, for example, Paul Krugman:
My biggest concern about an Obama administration is that, in the end, he won’t make universal health care a priority. My second biggest concern is that “Unity” means never having to say you’re sorry: that in the name of putting past partisanship behind us, the next administration will sweep the abuses of the past 8 years under the rug, the same way Bill Clinton did in 1993; the result of that decision was that the very same people responsible for Iran-Contra showed up subverting our democracy all over again.

If you want to know the real difference between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, this is it. Clinton was a partisan moderate -- he fought like hell against the Republicans, but also co-opted their ideas and moved his own party towards the center in order to gain the White House and later, to stop the bleeding. But in the process he left a mixed legacy with both blue-collar Democrats (free trade, welfare reform, etc.) and cultural progressives (the Defense of Marriage Act, Don't Ask Don't Tell, etc.).

Obama, on the other hand, could be called a post-partisan liberal. This doesn't mean he isn't a political animal -- he absolutely is. But ideologically, he is much farther left than Bill Clinton, and probably Hillary too.


Paul Collins at Slate on the rise and fall of the semicolon; killed first at the hands of the Romantic dash and buried by the "Victorian Internet," the telegraph.

Best part of the article: while Collins explains the early 18th-century interpretation of the semi-colon as a two-breath pause, he never delineates when, why, and where a semicolon is used in current usage (whether high-waistcoat-grammatical or base common popular). All the more fitting; the semicolon is the punctuation mark whose use nobody seems certain about.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Depths Where Sun Never Shone

A lovely and strange animated video (courtesy of Lisa Barcy) for Andrew Bird's strange and lovely Daytrotter reworking of the lovely and strange Weather Systems masterpiece "Lull." There may be nobody in contemporary music I love and appreciate (strangely) more.

Via Pitchfork TV.


Derek Powazek: "If you can make a PDF, you can now publish a magazine."

The web has changed our thinking about media in ways we’re still figuring out. Now we can make media without the bother of putting ink to paper. We can distribute it planet-wide in an instant. And the content can be customized to your tastes, personalized for each reader. It’s so obvious now, but it’s important to remember what a revolution this has been.

But there’s still something about paper. It’s not just because screens suck to read on (they do, but that hasn’t kept us from doing it all day). There is an intimacy about a good book, a pleasure to the glossy pages of magazines, and, ironically, a permanence to paper. (How many times has a website you really loved simply disappeared?)

So what if we could combine the best parts of the web (no waste, personalized content, open to all) with the best parts of print (sexy print quality, permanence, no batteries required)?

For the last year, I’ve been working on a project with HP Labs called MagCloud. The idea is simple, really. MagCloud enables anyone to start a magazine - a real printed magazine - with no giant pile.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Meaningful Juxtaposition

Al Filreis recently commented on the anti-modernist critic Robert Hillyer and his arrangement of his poetry books by alphabet rather than chronology. Filreis writes, half-in-character, "The alphabetical arrangement of poetry permits him to see and derive pleasure from the ahistorical juxtaposition of poets such as Matthew Arnold and Conrad Aiken, such as William Plomer and Ezra Pound. William Plomer and Ezra Pound!? Say what?"

The gag, of course, being that for Pound, poetry is not timeless, yet neither is it provincial, either by chronology or language or by alphabet. Pound is a poet (and critic) of the luminous particular, the piths and the gists. His way to sort poetry would involve neo-Dantean categories like "solidity" or whether some poet's verse was "upholstered." The juxtapositions would be unexpected, but never random, and certainly according to nothing so vulgar as the alphabet.

It so happens that there's another set of chaotic juxtapositions in which Pound looms large: the latest installation of what's now a really cooking theory of American generations, penned by the Boston Globe's Joshua Glenn. In case you're getting up to speed, Glenn splits generations by ten year increments rather than the more typical twenty, which allows for a finer analysis and forgoes "generation creep." And he also looks at decades on the bias of the -4 to -3, rather than starting everything at zero. (Hence "the sixties," for example, were really 1964 to 1973.) He also keeps some of the traditional identifiers ("Generation X" is trimmed to "Original Generation X," "Baby Boomers" remain) and adds some clever new ones ("Net Generation," "The New Gods," "Hardboileds," and others).

Here Glenn looks at the generation born between 1884 to 1893 -- Pound's generation -- and in honor of Pound, he forgoes "The Lost Generation" and calls them "The New Kids," as in "Make it NEW":

Liberalism was regarded by the New Kids as a grown-up, all-too-grownup shibboleth. Illiberal New Kids in Europe and America alike were determined to retain their youthful illiberalism as they matured. In Zurich, the Cabaret Voltaire gave birth to Dada, whose founders and notable members -- Raoul Hausmann, Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Jean/Hans Arp, Richard Huelsenbeck, Arthur Cravan, Max Ernst, Georg Grosz, Hannah Höch, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Kurt Schwitters -- were all born between 1884-93. In England, D.H. Lawrence (1885) urged his friends to help him found an island commune, but to no avail; perhaps this was because his friends were either too old (E.M. Forster, Bertrand Russell) or too young (Aldous Huxley) to be New Kids. In America, meanwhile, New Kids like Floyd Dell, John Reed, Maxwell Bodenheim, and Eugene O'Neill formed an illiberal, non-repressive social order of sorts in New York's Greenwich Village.

The best part, though, are the lists of notable figures of this generation, sorted by year. It's all chance, but yields some great pairs placed side by side. I've cherry-picked the best in each year:
1885: Ezra Pound, Leadbelly

Ma Rainey, H.D. [1886]

Le Corbusier, Marcus Garvey [1887]

1888: T.S. Eliot, Irving Berlin

Adolf Hitler, Charlie Chaplin, Ludwig Wittgenstein [1889]

1890: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Man Ray &
Fritz Lang, Charles de Gaulle

1891: Henry Miller, Cole Porter &
Sergei Prokofiev, Erwin Rommel

Walter Benjamin, Ernst Lubitsch [1892]

Mao Zedong, Edward G. Robinson [1893]

Someone with a different set of preoccupations would certainly make different choices. So go for it! Pick your own, or browse the archive to find a more surprising/insightful set.

Agency Problem

Matt Yglesias, on the problem (well, one of them) with the McCain campaign:

The issue, basically, is that the odds are that McCain will lose. But thanks to realignment and so forth, the odds are very strongly against a true blowout. Consequently, McCain needs to choose between playing it safe and piloting himself to landing at 47 percent of the vote, or doing some outside-the-box that risks blowing up his coalition and leaving him with only 40 percent but also provides an outside chance that the gamble will pay off. The rational choice is for McCain to play to win. But his problem is that his campaign is going to be run by professional political operatives. If these guys run a respectable campaign and lose at 47, nobody's going to blame them -- McCain was facing an ultra-charismatic opponent in an adverse political climate. But if they run an outside-the-box campaign and wind up losing in a landslide, then their reputations might be badly hurt.

"Agency Problem," from A Glossary of Political Economy Terms:
Also sometimes referred to as the principal-agent problem. The difficult but extremely important and recurrent organizational design problem of how organizations can structure incentives so that people (“agents”) who are placed in control over resources that are not their own with a contractual obligation to use these resources in the interests of some other person or group of people actually will perform this obligation as promised — instead of using their delegated authority over other people's resources to feather their own nests at the expense of those whose interests they are supposed to be serving (their “principals”). Enforcing such contracts will involve transaction costs (often referred to as agency costs), and these costs may sometimes be very high indeed.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Law of the Father

Via Sullivan, Ian (Sandy) Frazier's 1997 "Lamentations of the Father":

When you chew your food, keep your mouth closed until you have swallowed, and do not open it to show your brother or your sister what is within; I say to you, do not so, even if your brother or your sister has done the same to you. Eat your food only; do not eat that which is not food; neither seize the table between your jaws, nor use the raiment of the table to wipe your lips. I say again to you, do not touch it, but leave it as it is. And though your stick of carrot does indeed resemble a marker, draw not with it upon the table, even in pretend, for we do not do that, that is why. And though the pieces of broccoli are very like small trees, do not stand them upright to make a forest, because we do not do that, that is why. Sit just as I have told you, and do not lean to one side or the other, nor slide down until you are nearly slid away. Heed me; for if you sit like that, your hair will go into the syrup. And now behold, even as I have said, it has come to pass.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Incunabulum, A Marvel

Kottke's got the goods on the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili -- an outstanding example of a late 15th-century printed text with an extraordinarily readable typeface rendering of impenetrable polyglot prose.

Hurray For Mathematicians

Over at (a great site for political poll junkies) Nate Silver laid down this challenge:

I was asked this question by a highly-respected political writer and couldn't come up with any convenient way to provide him with an answer. Nor does there appear to be any guidance on Google. So let me pose it to the collective:

How many unique ways are there to acquire at least 270 electoral votes without any excess?

For example, one combination would be to win California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin. That would be equal to 272 electoral votes (not coincidentally, these are the John Kerry states plus Ohio).

The first precise and mathematically most elegant solution was given by Isabel Lugo, PhD student in mathematics at our very own University of Pennsylvania.

As you can see, my solution involves a rather large polynomial. The big numbers are confusing, so let's consider a smaller example. Let there be a nation in which there are three states, which have three, four, and five electoral votes respectively. (For the sake of giving things names, I'll call these states Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah respectively.) This nation corresponds to the polynomial

(1 + x^3) (1 + x^4) (1 + x^5)

in an obvious way. Multiplying this out gives

1 + x^3 + x^4 + x^5 + x^7 + x^8 + x^9 + x^12

which tells us that there is one way to pick a set of those states that has zero electoral votes (namely, picking none of them), one way to pick a set which has 3 EV (Wyoming only), etc.

Now, the fact that no set is counted twice here just comes out of the way the multiplication process works. We could write this as

(1 + WY) (1 + ID) (1 + UT)

and then the product is

1 + WY + ID + UT + WY*ID + WY*UT + ID*UT + WY*ID*UT

and if we replace each state's name with x raised to the power of its number of electoral votes, we get back the old polynomial. But you see that WY*ID, for example, occurs only once -- we don't also get ID*WY. The reason for that is because in order to expand the product, we pick either the 1 or the WY from the first factor, either the 1 or the ID from the second factor, and either the 1 or the UT from the third factor.

The actual 51-state solution has the same property, just on a larger scale.

The answer: 51,199,463,116,367, or the sum of the coefficients of x^270, x^271, etc. in a series of similarly constructed polynomials. The real trick is accounting for all of the different classes of cases -- i.e., solutions where the smallest state has three electoral votes, solutions where the smallest state has four, up to and including fifteen (the Georgia, New Jersey, and North Carolina solution).

Update:'s Nate Silver is now cross-posting at TNR's The Plank, with this heartening distillation:
Overall, our simulations give Obama a 54.4 percent chance of winning the election; this is his highest figure since March 18. As new polling begins to roll in from states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, that lead is likely to get larger before it gets smaller.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Community, Not an ATM Machine

There are a lot of gems in this Vanity Fair oral history of the Internet (1958-2008), but my very favorite comment is Howard Dean's:

The thing is, I was introduced to the Net in ways most politicians are not introduced to the Net. I was introduced to the Net as a community, which it is. Very few politicians have understood that it’s not an A.T.M. machine. It’s a community of people. It’s the beginning of two-way campaigns.

The Internet is the most important democratizing invention since the printing press, 500 years ago. The Internet is remaking American politics, and the Republicans are in big trouble because of this. American politics is no longer a top-down command-and-control business, which people in Washington can’t get over. But it’s true. If young people want to get something done, they go on the Net. They find out some information. They find an affinity group—or if they don’t have one, they start an affinity group.

And so when we started all this stuff, we hired a bunch of really smart 25-year-olds who I think slept under their desks. The real key is trusting people in local areas to do the right thing and giving them the resources to do their job.

The same theme comes up in history again and again. Google didn't invent the "Don't Be Evil" ethic; they just understood better than most how and why it worked.

A Riddle For Historians

What is history then other than the way in which the spirit of man takes in the events which are impenetrable to him, something in which only God knows whether there is a relationship holding it together, in which that spirit replaces an incomprehensible thing with something comprehensible, underwrites with his ideas of external purposefulness a totality which really can be known only from within, and also assumes chance events, where a thousand small causes were at work. At any one time everyone has his own individual necessity so that millions of trends run next to each other in parallel, crooked, and straight lines, intersect each other, help, hinder, flow forward and backwards, thus taking on in relation to each other the character of chance and, to say nothing of the effects of natural events, thus render it impossible to prove a compelling, all-encompassing necessity for events.

-- Franz Grillparzer

Return of the Sneakernet

A broad look at the future of copyright from Rasmus Fleischer at Cato Unbound contains this nugget:

One early darknet has been termed the “sneakernet”: walking by foot to your friend carrying video cassettes or floppy discs. Nor is the sneakernet purely a technology of the past. The capacity of portable storage devices is increasing exponentially, much faster than Internet bandwidth, according to a principle known as “Kryder’s Law.” The information in our pockets yesterday was measured in megabytes, today in gigabytes, tomorrow in terabytes and in a few years probably in petabytes (an incredible amount of data). Within 10-15 years a cheap pocket-size media player will probably be able to store all recorded music that has ever been released — ready for direct copying to another person’s device.

In other words: The sneakernet will come back if needed. “I believe this is a ‘wild card’ that most people in the music industry are not seeing at all,” writes Swedish filesharing researcher Daniel Johansson. “When music fans can say, ‘I have all the music from 1950-2010, do you want a copy?’ — what kind of business models will be viable in such a reality?”

We already have access to more film, music, text and images than we can possibly incorporate into our lives. Retreating from this paradigm of abundance to the old paradigm of scarcity is simply not an alternative. Adding more “content” will strictly speaking produce no value — whether culturally or economically. What’s valuable is supplying a context where people can come together to create meaning out of abundance.

"Meaning Out Of Abundance" could be a great title for a book about the 21st century. Then again, it could also make a great title for a book about the 19th century, especially when I think of one of my favorite passages by Nietzsche:
"Incidentally, I despise everything which merely instructs me without increasing or immediately enlivening my activity." These are Goethe's words. With them, as with a heartfelt expression of Ceterum censeo [I judge otherwise], our consideration of the worth and the worthlessness of history may begin. For this work is to set down why, in the spirit of Goethe's saying, we must seriously despise instruction without vitality, knowledge which enervates activity, and history as an expensive surplus of knowledge and a luxury, because we lack what is still most essential to us and because what is superfluous is hostile to what is essential. To be sure, we need history. But we need it in a manner different from the way in which the spoilt idler in the garden of knowledge uses it, no matter how elegantly he may look down on our coarse and graceless needs and distresses. That is, we need it for life and action, not for a comfortable turning away from life and action or merely for glossing over the egotistical life and the cowardly bad act. We wish to use history only insofar as it serves living. But there is a degree of doing history and a valuing of it through which life atrophies and degenerates. To bring this phenomenon to light as a remarkable symptom of our time is every bit as necessary as it may be painful.

Fleischer's essay is via Will Wilkinson.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Double Bind of Articulateness, Pt. Infinity

A year and a half ago, I wrote about "The Double Bind of Articulateness," i.e., the faint praise of African-American politicians as great speakers. The most common reading of the "articulate" compliment is that it denigrates the majority of blacks as inarticulate or unintelligent. The reading I advanced is that praising a black politician's speaking style is a way of reinforcing a certain limit on black politicians' roles, boxing them in as the moral prophet or racial spokesman while denying them positions of national leadership.

Since then, we've seen that frame at work over and over again, most notoriously in Hillary Clinton's characterization of the roles of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Johnson in pushing through Civil Rights Legislation: King was a powerful speaker and moral force, but "it took a President to get it done."

Now, maybe, I'm touchy, but does anyone else see this operating in the opening graf of Paul Krugman's op-ed in today's NYT?

Fervent supporters of Barack Obama like to say that putting him in the White House would transform America. With all due respect to the candidate, that gets it backward. Mr. Obama is an impressive speaker who has run a brilliant campaign — but if he wins in November, it will be because our country has already been transformed.

Now it's true that some supporters of Obama like to reflect on the symbolic value of his election: what it would signal for our country's progress or how it could motivate further racial soul-searching, motivate a generation of young black children, and so forth. But, I think when most of them say an Obama presidency would transform America, they are at least also thinking about a set of policies that he would enact, from ending the war to health care (even granting that this is the source of Krugman's Obama Derangement Syndrome). In fact, this is what Clinton spent most of her time dwelling on in her concession speech, despite the ink devoted to the symbolism of both her and Obama's campaigns.

I think we need to get over the idea that we need a black man to be our moral bellweather, and get used to the idea that we may very well soon have Barack Obama as our President.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Douched World

The New York Times on Charlotte Roche's Wetlands:

With her jaunty dissection of the sex life and the private grooming habits of the novel’s 18-year-old narrator, Helen Memel, Ms. Roche has turned the previously unspeakable into the national conversation in Germany. Since its debut in February, the novel (“Feuchtgebiete,” in German) has sold more than 680,000 copies, becoming the only German book to top’s global best-seller list.

The book, which will be published next year in the United States, is a headlong dash through every crevice and byproduct, physical and psychological, of its narrator’s body and mind. It is difficult to overstate the raunchiness of the novel, and hard to describe in a family newspaper.

“Wetlands” opens in a hospital room after an intimate shaving accident. It gives a detailed topography of Helen’s hemorrhoids, continues into the subject of anal intercourse and only gains momentum from there, eventually reaching avocado pits as objects of female sexual satisfaction and — here is where the debate kicks in — just possibly female empowerment.

Granta had an interview with Roche in May:
I’m convinced that in contemporary society a lot of women have a very messed-up attitude to their own bodies. We’re obsessed with cleanliness, with getting rid of our natural excretions and our body hair. So I wanted to write about the ugly parts of the human body. The smelly bits. The juices of the female body. Smegma. In order to tell that story, I created a heroine that has a totally creative attitude towards her body – someone who has never even heard that women are supposedly smelly between their legs. A real free spirit.

From the way you talk about Feuchtgebiete, it sounds more like a manifesto than a novel. Is it fair to say that there are two books competing against each other in one?

Yes, I think that’s right. Originally I wanted to write a non-fiction book. At the heart of it was always a general feeling: I was really jealous of the fact that men have this whole range of different names for their sexual organs – beautifully detailing what state of arousal they’re in – while us women still don’t really have a language for our lust. For example, I think a lot of women still don’t masturbate, simply because they don’t know how to talk about it.

I wanted to write in a creative way about the female body: exploring it, but also making it strange. I used to shut my eyes when I wrote, trying to shut out all that worn-out vocabulary we have about our physicality and come up with new words for each body part. ‘Cauliflower’ for Helen’s haemorrhoids, ‘pearl trunk’ for her clitoris, and so on. Someone had to do it!

Peak Data

The end of cheap oil means the end of cheap electricity, and raises the prospect that all this awesome digital information will be lost. At least, so argues Debra Sloan, who sees a renewed role for libraries:

Librarians will have to locate and provide information about local resources for food, medicine, travel, and shelter. They will be required to identify local talent and experts and list plants native to the area. They will carry information about the environmental needs of the region, its transportation and the source of the community's water, and whether it is healthy. Libraries will have to maintain current travel information (walking, bus, car, golf cart, etc.) and knowledge about local land use. Librarians will also identify and address barriers to information access. They will facilitate local access to people developing alternative means of transportation, energy, and more. They will keep track of available housing and whether there is enough of it. Armed with data about the resources that make communities function, librarians can begin to develop an information, communication, and referral system that addresses the unique needs and assets of their region.

See also Adrian Atkinson, Cities After Oil:
Most of what today is considered to be 'information' will disappear—for three reasons. Firstly, much information today is only available electronically and with the failure of electrical systems this will disappear through the illegibility of electronic memories. Secondly, most of what is deemed to be useful today by way of knowledge and information will lose its relevance and so be abandoned. And finally, making a living through developing and processing knowledge will become a luxury in so far as most human time will return to manual work in fields and workshops. One can imagine, if there is some planning for an energy- (and knowledge-) parsimonious future, that some centres (universities or whatever) will survive and these will rescue and store information and go on to recover or re-learn knowledge relevant to the emergent circumstances

Both quotes (with links to full articles) appear in the blog CityStates, via LISNews.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

"Uncle Barack's Cabin"

That's the headline of the German left newspaper Die Tageszeitung, or Taz for short. The editors claim that it's satirical. But Der Spiegel notes that Taz has played the "Uncle Tom" card before:

Back in 2004, the paper ran a story about Condoleezza Rice's appointment as US secretary of state under the headline "Uncle Tom's Rice."
The Taz has even sparked diplomatic incidents with its irreverent approach. Its depiction in 2006 of the Kaczynski twins, who were then prime minister and president of Poland, as potatoes caused a tiff between Poland and Germany (more...).

Although "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is well-known in Germany, ordinary Germans are not always aware of the controversy which surrounds the book. Visitors to Berlin are often surprised to find there is even a subway station in the city called Onkel Toms Hütte, after a residential district which was named in tribute to the novel.

I actually think the "Uncle Tom" insult is overused and misunderstood. In its original sense, which hews closer to the Stowe novel, an "Uncle Tom" isn't an accomodationist or sellout, but someone who is willing to endure suffering without complaint or resistance, neutered of any threatening capacity for violence, sexuality, or thought. James Baldwin's "Everybody's Protest Novel" (even though it's really more of an attack on Native Son than Uncle Tom's Cabin) remains the essential text. In fact, if you haven't read all of James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, you need to clear a day and hit your local library immediately.

If any other European papers are looking for a rare, mid-19th-century way to caricature Barack Obama, I'd suggest George Harris -- Eliza's idealized, too-good-to-be-true, light-skinned (of course) husband.

Next Year in Jer--er, George Mason

I really wish I could have attended THATCamp, the (un)conference on digital humanities at George Mason this past weekend. Rob MacDougall at Cliopatria has an insightful recap:

There seemed to be more exciting and promising tools at the conference than there were obvious problems to apply them to. That's not a dismissal. I think "more tools than problems" is a great position to be in. I just thought many sessions were stronger on "here's what you can do with these tools" than on "here's why you'll want to do it." Case in point: the NEH's Office of Digital Humanities is seeking ideas for humanities supercomputing. Supercomputing! They want to give historians and other humanists access to supercomputers! But there's an unfortunate dearth of historians who need a trillion calculations done in one second. This is what I really want and need to put my brain to. Not supercomputing, but the whole "OK, so what should we do with these tools" question. We really need some canonical projects that anybody can point to and say, "oh, so that's why this stuff is valuable to the humanities." It's going to happen soon--like I said, there are some very smart people thinking very hard about it. Once it does, we'll probably stop calling this endeavor "digital history" at all. It will just be "history", part of how it's done.

My favorite metaphor that I've come up with for thinking about digital content, especially in the humanities, is a multifunction printer, one that copies, scans, prints, and faxes. Digital media, as Kevin Kelly likes to say, increasingly sends the price of copies to zero, whether it's music mp3s or chunks of a blog post I just cut-and-pasted into my own. There are millions of people scanning content, whether literally or figuratively, porting material from the non-digital world into the digital, or from one set of conversations (programmers) to another (historians). And Web 2.0 has made it easier than ever to fax/broadcast your content digitally to the world. But we need to be able to print -- not necessarily literally, but to create things, new documents and projects that harness all of that power to make something new and useful.

I really like these people, the ones tearing down walls between the two Cold War cultures of science and the humanities. You could say there's an element of preaching to the choir at any meeting like this. Nobody at THATCamp was unsympathetic to the project of digital humanities. But so what? Choirs need to get together, to practice and to sing. A big reason to go to any conference is for validation--the formation in physical space of a community linked more by outlook and interest than geography. As I said before, these people feel like my tribe. So even if I don't crack the digital humanities riddle, I'm going to keep turning up for things like THATCamp as long as they'll have me.

Polemical note: I think the digital humanists are sooooo much more interesting right now than the third culture humanists celebrated at places like Edge (as smart as they are). It doesn't make any sense to turn your back on a very traditional culture of the "literary intellectual" if you're going to miss out on how that culture is itself getting transformed and permuted by new developments in science and technology. And even these two very different strands have a great deal to say to one another, which means there's hope. (Don't even get me started on those brain-dead reactionaries calling themselves evolutionary literary critics. Grrr.)

Maybe it's my own intellectual make-up, but I want my Joyce and my Godel, my Herodotus and my Python scripts, my Derrida, my De Sica, my Duchamp, and my television all together. Is that too much to ask?

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Xerxes, De Quincey, and the Mortality of Books

Conrad Roth at Varieties of Unreligious Experience offers a beautiful quote from Thomas De Quincey today:

In my youthful days, I never entered a great library, suppose of one hundred thousand volumes, but my predominant feeling was one of pain and disturbance of mind—not much unlike that which drew tears from Xerxes, on viewing his immense army, and reflecting that in one hundred years not one soul would remain alive. To me, with respect to the books, the same effect would be brought about by my own death. Here, said I, are one hundred thousand books, the worst of them capable of giving me some pleasure and instruction; and before I have had time to extract the honey from one-twentieth of this hive, in all likelihood I shall be summoned away.

Furthermore, I had myself ascertained that to read a duodecimo volume, in prose, of four hundred pages—all skipping being barred, and the rapid reading which belongs to the vulgar interest of a novel—was a very sufficient work for one day. Consequently, three hundred and sixty-five per annum—that is (with a very small allowance for the claims of life on one's own account and that of one's friends), one thousand for every triennium; that is, ten thousand for thirty years—will be as much as a man who lives for that only can hope to accomplish. From the age of twenty to eighty, therefore—if a man were so unhappy as to live to eighty—the utmost he could hope to travel through would be twenty thousand volumes,—a number not, perhaps, above five per cent* of what the mere current literature of Europe would accumulate in that period of years. Now, from this amount of twenty thousand make a deduction on account of books of larger size, books to be studied and books to be read slowly and many times over (as all works in which the composition is a principal part of their pretensions)—allow a fair discount for such deductions, and the twenty thousand will perhaps shrink to eight or five thousand.

— Thomas de Quincey, 'On Languages' (1823)

China's SATs

I've recently been trying to find out more about how colleges and universities work in other countries, and I moonlight as an SAT tutor, so I was fascinated by (although slightly frustrated with) Manuela Zoninsein's profile in Slate of the gaokao, China's national college entrance exam:

Kao means test, and gao, which means high, indicates the test's perceived level of difficulty—and its ability to intimidate. It is China's SAT—if the SAT lasted two days, covered everything learned since kindergarten, and had the power to determine one's entire professional trajectory.

"Covered everything learned since kindergarten"? Does that mean non-cumulatively -- for example, questions about simple multiplication, telling time, or identifying colors? I wish there were some sample test questions -- I would love to see the range, and the kinds of content that Chinese students are expected to learn.
The test is supposed to be uniform nationally, but in reality, the gaokao is modified by each province to accommodate the quality of local education. Among students, it is widely held that Tibet and Xinjiang have the easiest versions, Beijing and Shanghai the most difficult. Each university also sets provincial quotas to guarantee minimum enrollment by minorities and students from poorer provinces and to ensure a lopsided number of local entrants (this is the Chinese strategy for maintaining amicable town-gown relations).

It's the same all over. Interesting solution, though. I suppose our state universities something similar through price-subsidies for in-state students, and private universities (at least the more prestigious ones) for regional/international balance.
Scores determine one's major as much as alma mater. Tsinghua, "the MIT of China," has an internationally renowned engineering program, so gaokao minimums are out of this world. To enter Tsinghua's software engineering department in 2007, students needed a score of at least 680, out of top scores in the low 700s, depending on the province. (Consider that in Shandong Province, the highest 2007 score was 675.) The software engineering program at Xibei Sciences University, in Xi'an Province, demanded just 442.

So does it determine your major, or doesn't it? Are software engineers from Xibei unemployable?

Another point the article doesn't address is whether political influence or cronyism affects college entrance -- it gives the impression that the system is purely meritocratic, and that (in any rate) there are few doubts as to its legitimacy. Give me more, Slate!

In Praise of Cheese

Hunter from DiBruno Bros., Philly's best cheese shop, on the history/biotechnology of cheese:

The cursory step of separating the curd from the whey is one of the original forms of biotechnology. This basic step, transforming a liquid to a solid (and a thinner liquid – whey - as a byproduct) allowed civilizations to exist in environments not bountiful enough to consistently supply adequate protein sources. In an era predating refrigeration, cheese was a means of storing milk weeks, months, even years. Not bad compared to the day or two a resident of the Fertile Crescent could expect from unaltered milk.

Cheese making techniques had come a long way by the time of the Romans. Accounts of cheeses with a suspicious resemblance to Parmaggiano were being described in the areas to the north of previous Etruscan territories. (Parmaggiano wasn’t actually referred to as such until the time of the Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. Surely at that point, it had been produced for more centuries than one could count on their fingers.) Hard durable cheeses such as Parmaggiano - or to name another cheese of many, the sheep cheeses of Tuscany that predated the Roman era, and certainly were quite similar to the Pecorino Tuscano of today – were a means of nourishment a soldier could travel with for months in the hot Mediterranean climate. Soldiers were freed from the worry of foraging for fresh food. Cheese was antiquities version of an MRE!

Also, short, counterintuitive advice for cheese storage:
Real cheese is alive. Suffocation is the enemy. Plastic wrap, plastic bags, and other airtight containers should be avoided in all cases except the previously mentioned fresh cheeses. These storage methods trap in stale air, as well as prohibiting the cheese from venting moisture and other byproducts. Once a soggy oxygen deprived environment develops, anaerobic bacteria present themselves. This is a bad thing. This is spoilage. Butcher paper, parchment paper, and wax paper avoid this problem.

The Art of Art

I only met Anne D'Harnoncourt once, but it was magical. I was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on a Sunday, touring the arms and armor exhibit with a three-year-old boy who was wearing a full knight's costume: dragon-emblazoned tunic, mesh faux-chain-mail shirt, pants, and hood. Ms. D'Harnoncourt came around the corner, saw him, and gushed. She identified herself as the director of the museum, complimented his outfit, said she'd never seen someone wear armor to the arms exhibit, lamented that she didn't have a camera, and spoke to him for a few minutes, asked him all about the exhibit and what he knew about knights. She had a presence about her, an ease with herself, with other people, and the things around her, that closed distances without feeling obtrusive or forward. Ms. D'Harnoncourt died on Sunday, at 64. The early reports signaled that she'd had a stroke, but more recent announcements have all been reticent about the cause of death.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Too Good To Not Be True

At some point, somebody needs to make the R. Kelly trial into a movie. It's at least as good as "Trapped In the Closet." This aside from Slate's Josh Levin is magical:

[Prosecution witness Lisa] Van Allen's fiancée Yul Brown, like onetime paramour Damon Pryor, has been convicted of federal fraud charges. And for what it's worth, Brown is wearing the most amazing outfit I've ever seen: an iridescent blue-green five-button suit that shifts color every time he takes a step, sort of like a hybrid between a Hypercolor T-shirt and a Magic Eye puzzle.

His lead paragraph is also cinematic:
Grant Fredericks, the prosecution's forensic video analyst, testified last Thursday that to do a convincing job of morphing a 27-minute, 100,000-frame video—tweaking the shadows, matching the eye blinks—would take 44 years of steady work. Since Kelly is 41 years old, the architects of such a cut-and-paste job would have needed incredible foresight, or access to a flux capacitor. Fredericks also matched knots in the wood of Kelly's log cabin to those seen in the sex tape's log cabin. And despite the defense's contention that Kelly's distinctive mole could not be seen on the tape, the video analyst pointed out a quite comparable dark spot on Sex Tape Man's back. Unless Kelly's attorneys can conjure a forensic dermatologist, a forensic lumberjack, and a forensic Wayans brother, I'd say the tape is looking pretty unassailable.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Hawaiian Shirt and the Mouse Ears

This NYT article on Disney and Pixar, ostensibly about how the two recently joined companies are total BFFs, is unintentionally funny and sad in equal measure. Brooks Barnes quickly slides past pre-merger worries that "either Disney would trample Pixar’s esprit de corps (turning Mr. Lasseter into a drone, chanting “Hi Ho” en route to Mickey’s animation mines) or that Pixar animators would act like spoiled brats and rebuke their new owner." Then he reveals how "Pixar has matured, allowing its strategic thinking to evolve inside a sprawling corporation":

For instance, some of the studio’s executives once resisted sequels and direct-to-DVD efforts, arguing that quality and the brand could suffer. While sequels were not out of the question, they said Pixar’s hot streak hinged on pushing boundaries with original material.

But at Mr. Lasseter’s presentation in April, Disney’s first such event in 10 years, he announced “Cars 2,” a 2012 sequel that will take Lightning McQueen and his pals on a tour of foreign countries. Also in the works are four direct-to-DVD movies built around Tinker Bell...

And the Pixar team, which also has oversight of Walt Disney Animation Studios and the DVD-focused DisneyToon Studios, decided that it was O.K. to outsource some direct-to-DVD animation to an Indian company, a departure from its rigid stance that outside animators could not deliver the necessary quality. (Mr. Lasseter will still closely monitor the efforts, however.)

What were those ne'er-do-wells worried about? That Disney would strongarm Pixar into the same short-term profit-extracting strategies that ultimately crushed both the art and the profit from its own once-mighty animation studio? How "immature."

At least Pixar has managed to extract some key concessions from its parent company:
[I]n the Pixar acquisition, Disney, despite its legendary corporate identity and strong will, held back. Pixar kept its e-mail system. Nobody was shipped to Walt Disney World in Florida to work a shift, part of the initiation that other executives must endure. No switchboard operators at Pixar were asked to end telephone calls with the words “Have a magical day,” as they do elsewhere in the company.

And, of course, Mr. Lasseter continued to wear whatever he wanted, Hawaiian shirts and all.

Let's keep our eyes on what's really important, after all.

The Best Use of "Blood and Treasure" Yet


The defense department is recruiting thousands of new machines for a surge of robots (really). Robert Farley notes that these measures mostly seem "shift the cost of war from the blood side of the ledger to the treasure side."

More from Farley:
This doesn't necessarily make wars a better idea; paying from the treasure side means higher taxes, fewer hospitals, etc., but it does have an impact on the political interpretation of a war, since the deaths of soldiers are far more salient than the destruction of robots.

For the record, my favorite non-literary use of the blood and treasure motif is Lincoln's Second Inaugural:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

The words John Lilburne puts in Cromwell's mouth are a close second:
I tell you, Sir, you have no other way to deal with these men, but to break them in pieces; and thumping upon the Council table again, he said, Sir, let me tell you that which is true, if you do not break them, they will break you; yea and bring all the guilt of the blood and treasure shed and spent in this kingdom upon your head and shoulders; and frustrate and make void all that work, that with so many years' industry, toil and pains you have done, and so render you to all rational men in the world as the most contemptiblest generation of silly, low-spirited men in the earth, to be broken and routed by such a despicable, contemptible generation of men as they are; and therefore, Sir, I tell you again, you are necessitated to break them.

History as Stand-Up

A new history of jokes in the Communist bloc. There are some good ones cited in Ben Lewis's review. Some of the best are jokes about jokes:

Ceausescu is very angry because he is not hearing any jokes about him. So he orders a huge mass meeting, and he announces, ‘From now on you are going to work without pay.’ And nobody says anything. ‘Okay,’ he continues, ‘and from now on you are all going to work for me.’ Nobody says anything. ‘Tomorrow everybody is condemned to death by hanging,’ he adds. Nobody says anything. ‘Hey,’ he says, ‘are you crazy? Don’t you people have anything to say? Aren’t you going to protest?’ There’s one tiny guy who says, ‘Mr President, I have a question: do we bring our own rope or is the trade union going to give it to us?’

A clerk hears laughing behind the door of a courtroom. He opens the door. At the other end of the room the judge is sitting on the podium convulsed in laughter.

“What’s so funny?” asks the clerk.

“I’ve just heard the funniest joke of my life,” says the judge.

“Tell it to me.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I just sentenced someone to five years’ hard labour for doing that.”

On the other hand, this is chilling:
“I would like to express the wish that by the end of the third Five-Year Plan the need for satire will have disappeared in the Soviet Union,” said Romanov, “leaving only a great need for humour, for cheerful laughter.” The Soviet state would inculcate in the “New Man” of communism, a new sense of humour.

“In the land of the Soviets,” continued Romanov, “a new type of comedy is being created – a comedy of positive heroes. A comedy that does not mock its heroes but depicts them so cheerfully, emphasises their positive qualities with such love and sympathy that the laughter of the audience is joyful and the members of the audience want to emulate the heroes of the comedy, to tackle life’s problems with equal ease and optimism...”

Via Ralph Luker at Cliopatria/HNN.