Sunday, August 31, 2008

Lexis-Nexis: Palin AND Murkowski AND Primary

Washington Post, May 26, 2006:

After intense speculation, Alaska Gov. Frank H. Murkowski (R) announced Friday he would seek a second term to continue work on a natural gas pipeline that could become the largest construction effort in the nation.

"There's an unfinished job to do," Murkowski, 73, said, according to the Associated Press. "We've got the momentum, and I want to see it through."

But Murkowski, a 22-year veteran of the U.S. Senate, will face a two-pronged primary challenge in August from Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin and businessman John Binkley of Fairbanks. The winner of the GOP primary will face either Democratic state Rep. Ethan Berkowitz or Democratic state Rep. Eric Croft in a race the Cook Political Report calls a toss-up.

Murkowski has come under fire for budget cuts early in his term and for appointing his daughter, Lisa Murkowski, to his Senate seat.

"Building the gas line is certainly the No. 1 priority of my administration," Murkowski said Friday, according to the AP.

August 21, 2006:
A defeat on Tuesday would make him the fourth incumbent to lose a primary election this month. On Aug. 8, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and Rep. John J.H. "Joe" Schwarz (R-Mich.) were defeated in primaries. Murkowski, who has been running third in recent public polls, may be headed for the same fate...

Despite the power of incumbency, Murkowski has struggled to raise money and has trailed former Wasilla mayor Sarah Palin and former state senator John Binkley in the battle for the Republican nomination.

Palin has positioned herself as the change candidate. Jean Craciun, an independent pollster, said Palin is drawing support from moderate and independent voters. Binkley, who is largely financing his own campaign, has spent more than $1 million on the primary and has more support from the Republican establishment.

Public polls in July by Craciun and on Aug. 14 by David Dittman, a former Murkowski adviser who quit the campaign several weeks ago, have shown Palin leading, with Binkley second and Murkowski third. Nonetheless, Scott said he thinks Murkowski can win. "What we've got essentially is a horserace," he said.

New York Times, August 23:

Gov. Frank H. Murkowski was decisively defeated in a Republican primary on Tuesday, a loss the governor interpreted as a rejection of his leadership style but one that also echoed an anti-incumbent mood elsewhere in the country.

Mr. Murkowski, 73, a former United States senator who left Washington in his fourth term to run for governor in 2002, won 19 percent of the vote in his bid for a second term, placing third in a three-way race, according to partial results released Wednesday.

42, a former mayor of the little town of Wasilla who rose to prominence as a whistle-blower uncovering ethical misconduct in state government, won the nomination for governor with 51 percent of the vote.

So, a few thoughts:
  1. Even though Palin was in a three-way race, she won with 51 percent against two well-funded candidates, which suggests that she's a strong campaigner. (You don't crack a pure majority just by being likable and new, let alone pull away from a tightly grouped pack with institutional weight behind it.)
  2. The natural gas pipeline, which she often gets credit for supporting against the interests of the oil companies, was Murkowski's project, and well underway. Moreover, she supported it in her campaign. It may have been tough to turn her backs on her supporters in the oil companies, but it would have been even tougher if she hadn't. Alaska voters had already tossed one governor out on his ear.
  3. The news media and the Obama campaign would be wise to look at exactly how Palin won this primary and the subsequent election.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Here's A Thought

John McCain picked Sarah Palin because he needed something to 1) change the narrative, 2) make it harder for Democrats to take the ticket, 3) do anything, anything to avoid choosing Mitt Romney, and 4) turn a probable small loss into a possible win / possible big loss.

Again, if McCain is smart, he will convince the Republican party to open things up so he can freely criticize the Bush administration and Congress, and position himself and Palin as the mavericks who can reform the party by bringing it back to conservative principles: small government, unapologetic foreign policy, family values, and personal honor. You absolutely castigate Bush/Rumsfeld for not listening to you earlier on troop levels, and you make the strongest case you can against torture. You throw in a few new moves, to challenge the party to move forward on global warming and energy conservation, and maybe, MAYBE, even on immigration, and try to show that even while individual Republicans have fouled things up, the Democrats don't have any new ideas other than to raise taxes, enlarge government, and castrate our military. That's how you win independents; not through tokenist appeals. The advantage of Palin is that she made her bones calling out fellow Republicans too, and she has no ties to the past administration. In fact, her only advantage besides her personal likability is her credentials as a reformer (which is why Troopergate is such a horrible blemish).

But I doubt the Republican establishment will free him up to do that, and here's why. First, once you start throwing blame around, it's hard to stop, and a lot of people have a lot invested in the Bush administration. McCain would regain his friends in the press and the conservative magazines would no doubt be thrilled, but to most of the people who actually work in politics, he'd be confirming their worst suspicions about him, that he will burn them to the ground if it enhances his stature.

The second point is that the group most excited about Palin as VP candidate isn't moderate women, it's anti-abortion conservatives -- and I imagine they will still be pretty excited even if McCain can't beat Obama this time around. Here's why. Instantly, Sarah Palin becomes one of the best known Republicans in the country. Presumably, she retains her likability even if people don't think she's ready to be in that office.

She instantly becomes the new face and voice for the anti-abortion movement. Quick -- who speaks for the anti-abortion movement now? A lot of white, unlikable preachers, batshit House Republicans, and crazy-ass Supreme Court justices. And in high-level government, the old face was Rick Santorum. Rick, man-on-dog, bigoted, rip-your-throat out, named a disgusting sex byproduct after him Santorum, who was easiest to villify when he would say things like "birth control is degrading to women." Now it's Sarah Palin, a likable, tough, career woman who actually probably has at least been presented with the choice to have an abortion, and who refused.

That's how you get your movement jump-started again, and that's how you stop the bleeding of young Christian women out of the Republican party. Even if McCain loses, they have a direction again.

Ad Time

Eric Kleefield at Talking Points Memo has a proposal for campaigning against McCain/Palin:

A one-minute spot featuring Hillary Clinton herself, talking to the camera and laying into Palin on the issues, her complete lack of qualifications, and the temerity of the McCain campaign to think they could get away with this. Then she urges anyone watching who might have supported her to get out there and support Barack Obama.

Then it closes simply with Obama walking on to the set to shake Hillary's hand: "I'm Barack Obama, and I approved this message."
I definitely think Hillary makes a strong surrogate against Sarah Palin. But I think the ad would actually be stronger if it were less direct and more of an ensemble piece.

Here's my idea. You have an ad featuring five to seven women. They include some subset of Hillary Clinton, Amy Klobuchar, Kathleen Sebelius, and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. They also include a schoolteacher, a firefighter, a mayor/city council president of a small but reasonably well-known town, and a woman who owns and runs her own business. Each is behind a different backdrop -- a wood-paneled office, on the streets of a busy city, in the middle of a wheat field, and so on. You have each of them tell part of their stories, with a title line identifying each, how they got started in their careers or in politics. And then you have each of them attack McCain and Palin -- not just Palin -- on a single issue. The business owner attacks them on the economy or health care, another attacks on choice, another on national security, another on social security, another on Iraq, and so on.

Faster and faster cuts, so that each appears to be finishing the last sentences. It builds to a refrain: "John McCain and Sarah Palin don't know how to fix our economy / they don't know how to make our country safer / they don't know how to educate our children," and so on. Then each of them urges America to vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Finally "I'm Barack Obama, and I approved this message" is heard, over a black-and-white candid picture of Barack Obama with his wife and two daughters.

Finally, after America is reintroduced to each of these women through the ad, you send each of them -- the politicians, anyway -- out on cable news, Meet the Press, and the stump to rip the Republican ticket's guts out. You raise the profile of all the up-and-coming women in the Democratic party, especially in the midwest, and diminish Sarah Palin by comparison. But you never attack her directly. You tie her to McCain, and you tie them both to the Bush administration, corrupt Republican politics, and the conservative media machine. Bush, Cheney, Rove, and their cronies continue to be the millstone around John McCain's neck, and you leave no air in Sarah Palin to be his life jacket.

She becomes a nonentity, a cipher. She becomes Jack Kemp -- sure, she can throw a football, but the old man she's running with, despite his war record and years in the senate, has no clue how to solve our problems, nor does she have a clue how to help him.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Racist Barbecue

Even a diehard barbecue fan has to admit that something is up: "This most American of foods is precisely so American because Europeans adopted the cooking technology from the Indians they exterminated while giving the job of chef to the slaves they brought from Africa."

Listen Anew

Jeremy McCarter on the versatility of Obama's gift:

Someone should invite Barack Obama to give an explanation of particle physics while wrestling a gator. Short of that, I don't what could make him give a flat or faltering speech. The oratorical challenges that life has thrown at him over the last four years—the 2004 convention, the race speech, Berlin—have given chance after chance to flop, but the man seems incapable of doing so. Thursday night's challenge was one of the tallest: bringing the Democratic National Convention to a crescendo without providing fodder for those who think him a preening, grandiose celebrity. So he took his inside voice with him to the cavernous Invesco Field, and used it to deliver what might be the most intimate talk ever offered to a crowd of 80,000.

Obama described the speech as "workmanlike." That's true, in the sense that it didn't have the rhetorical flights of some of his previous talks. But it also implies a level of strain, of visible effort, nowhere in evidence. (It sounded workmanlike only in the way that Tiger Woods going eight under for the round is workmanlike.)

He needed all his gifts for this one, beginning with the agile, dynamic voice—an instrument that lets him, like a singer with a four-octave range, hit notes and make tonal shifts unavailable to the rest of us. "What the naysayers don't understand is that this election has never been about me," he said, using a pianissimo note to draw people closer, before booming: "It's about you." There's also the sheer quality of the writing, not just the arc and the rhythmic drive of the overall speech, but little flecks of language, as when he described the promise of a democracy "where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort." Grace, the unexpectedly delicate word, recasts the whole sentence, makes you listen anew.
McCarter's essay (which goes on to some sharp criticism of the convention as a whole) is a Newsweek "web exclusive"; it clearly belongs in the magazine.

Let's Geek Out

Okay, enough politics for a minute. Engadget's got a patent filing from Apple for an oversized touchscreen tablet. Oh, this boy can dream.

The Way Forward

Okay, here's how you continue to hit McCain with Palin on the ticket.

As of the end of July, Alaska has 6.8% unemployment, tied for 46th in the nation: only California, Mississippi, Rhode Island, and Michigan have a higher unemployment rate. Its per capita income is 29,600 per year, 40th in the nation.

So John McCain has already said that he doesn't understand economics; he can't remember how many houses he owns; and he wants to continue the Bush tax and economic plan, even though he could see in 2001 and 2002 that the tax and budget plans were reckless.

And as his Vice President, he's chosen someone with only two years of executive experience in a state with a tiny population whose only industries are oil, tourism, fishing, timber, mining, and agriculture, a state with no sales or income tax revenue -- they've benefitted greatly by adding a windfall oil profits tax -- with one of the worst rates of employment and per-capita income in the country.

These are the people you would trust to lead the U.S. economy into the 21st-century?

Change Comes From The Bottom Up

No way for the AP wire to spin this:

NEW YORK (AP) - Barack Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention was seen by more than 38 million people.

Nielsen Media Research said more people watched Obama speak than watched the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing, the final "American Idol" or the Academy Awards this year. Obama talked before a live audience of 80,000 people in Denver.

His TV audience nearly doubled the amount of people who watched John Kerry accept the Democratic nomination to run against President Bush four years ago. Kerry's speech was seen by just over 20 million people.

Obama's audience might be higher, since Nielsen didn't have an estimate for how many people watched Obama on PBS or C-SPAN Thursday night.

So -- 40 million? Maybe more? In prime time, when TV's stars come out to shine?

More people than voted in the Democratic primaries and caucuses. 2/3 of the number of people who voted in the 2004 Presidential election.

It's harder to get people out to vote than it is to get them to turn on the television. But if McCain's people thought that by announcing their VP pick this afternoon, that most people wouldn't catch the speech and that nobody would be talking or thinking about the convention any more, they were dead wrong.

Mrs Palin

I didn't know who Sarah Palin was before this morning -- but it seems like a smart pick for McCain in a lot of ways.

McCain's biggest obstacle is his ties to George Bush and the Republican administration of the past eight years. His best bet is to go to the convention calling for a return to Republican virtue, like Brutus going to the Senate to kill Caesar. Cast himself as Teddy Roosevelt, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan, coming to return his party from the wilderness of excessive spending, incompetent war management, torture, and corruption. Palin, who has no ties at all to the Bush administration or even the Republican establishment in Alaska, lets him do that. He can be the conservative insurgent against an unconservative administration -- and appeal to the disaffected conservatives who think that the mistake of the Bush administration is that it wasn't conservative enough.

Essentially he has to argue that while the Republicans have erred, the Democrats haven't developed anything new to offer the American people. Their platform is the same the Democrats have always run on; higher taxes, bigger government programs, protectionism, throwing up the border, trying to legislate against family values. He has to do what Al Gore did, in running against his predecessor -- except there's a lot more meat for McCain to do it.

Barack Obama showed everyone with his speech last night that he is a dangerous man, serious and ready to bring the fight. Sarah Palin, frankly, doesn't come off that way, but maybe she doesn't need to. She can be the Reaganesque "Morning in America" optimist, looking to the future, to the American West, to the new economy workers of Colorado and Nevada, the blue-collar "hockey moms" of Minnesota and the Dakotas, the "feminists for life" represented by Elizabeth Hasselbeck on The View.

If the Democrats win, it will be -- in part -- because they come across as the serious campaign against the sideshow, the cranky old man and the lightweight. It will also be because Americans really do want to get out of Iraq, that they really are looking for new solutions to our energy crisis, and they no longer trust Republicans, any Republicans, to run the government. It was also be because Barack Obama is big time, and McCain/Palin really isn't. Obama's called out the Republicans for making big elections about small things, and if that's the standard that everyone holds both parties to, I think the Democrats will win. But make no mistake -- this will be a different election from the one we thought we might get.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Short Convention Notes

  1. My God, I've never seen Al Gore talk so fast.
  2. You know Barack Obama came to adulthood in the eighties, because Michael freaking McDonald is singing. Singing "America the Beautiful" like Ray Charles's untalented supporting act.
  3. Roy Gross from the Detroit Teamsters Local just got up and said "Things were pretty good for working-class families in Detroit until the Bush administration." Not that he didn't make things work, but...
  4. My miracle walking baby is asleep, so now I can watch every minute. Until the delivery guy from Mandarin Garden shows up.
  5. The man himself walks on stage. Still no duck.
  6. This stadium is amazing. And Barack's is the first voice that seems to fill the room.
  7. "We are better than these last eight years." Let's count the seconds until Bill Kristol or Brit Hume spins this one.
  8. "I don't know about you, but I'm not ready to take a ten percent chance on change." Put this against Kerry's "Ninety percent of George Bush is more than we can take."
  9. "I don't believe McCain doesn't care.... I believe he doesn't know." Another great meme.
  10. "They call this the ownership society, but what it really means is that you're on your own... Well, it's time for them to own their failure."
  11. MMM. Duck.
  12. I don't remember equal pay for equal work being a big theme in the primaries, but it's a nice drum to beat -- rallies the older female Hilary supporters, paints McCain as against fairness and as a relic of the past.
  13. Amazing slow-play of MLK.
  14. Therefore, my brothers, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great high priest over the household of God, let us continue to come near with sincere hearts in the full assurance that faith provides, because our hearts have been sprinkled clean from a guilty conscience, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. Let us continue to hold firmly to the hope that we confess without wavering, for the one who made the promise is faithful. And let us continue to consider how to motivate one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another even more as you see the day of the Lord coming nearer. For if we choose to go on sinning we learned the full truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but only a terrifying prospect of judgment and a raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. (Hebrews 10: 19-27)
  15. I just switched from CSPAN to PBS to catch some commentary, and David Brooks was pretty tough on Obama -- Brooks wasn't wowed, Obama didn't show enough emotion, it was a mistake to go outside and separate himself from the crowd. And compared to Joe Biden's speech, Obama's was quite a bit cooler. I actually wonder whether Obama and Biden are actually going to continue to play against type in this campaign. The CW says that Obama will be the young, charismatic idealist while Biden will be the hard-headed policy wonk and attack dog. And Biden might hit back tougher than Obama will -- I love the "go out and bloody their nose so you can walk down the street" ethic. But at least so far, Joe Biden has been the beating heart of the ticket, looser, warmer, emotionally resonant, while Obama is becoming -- by reason of necessity and reversing the narrative, but also I think out of his preparation and his own process of putting on his game face -- firmer, more directed, tougher, less a painting of a dream of the future than an arrow shooting forward into it. If he's going to win, he's got to take a shot at the title, and he knows it.
  16. Also, Obama's rhetoric is being and will be judged on an incredible curve here. Anytime someone describes Hilary Clinton's speech as "incandescent" and Obama's as "a disappointment" (as Julianne Malveaux just did) is leaning on the scales.
  17. It's also becoming clear as I watch Tavis Smiley that a sizable chunk of the black intelligentsia -- particularly of the baby boom generation -- is by necessity going to be hypercritical of Obama as he by necessity is going to have to keep his distance from them. I'm looking at you, Dr. West.
  18. As a speechwriter and speaker, Obama is particularly good at avoiding cliches. He could have quoted the same verse of Romans 1 Corinthians that we hear at every wedding on faith, hope, and love; he quoted Hebrews instead, and this was a Hebrews speech -- intricate and tightly argued, aimed at persuading the toughest-minded critics that Obama is the real thing. Likewise, he could have trotted out any of the familiar lines of Dr. King's "I Have A Dream Speech," but instead he opted for "We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back." Julianne Malveaux took a shot at Obama for referring to King as "a young preacher from Georgia" -- "he wouldn't even say Dr. King's name!" -- but I think what Obama was trying to do is to reinforce the notion he invoked at the beginning of the speech and again at the end that "at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn't come from Washington. Change comes to Washington." Dr. King doesn't become the unassailable icon, the leader any politician, no matter how conservative, can invoke for his opposition to violence or his "content of character." He becomes another one of the ordinary people doing extraordinary things, a man for his moment, a focal point for the energies and imaginations of millions of Americans. We cannot walk alone, we shall always march ahead, we cannot turn back. I'll spell out what Obama didn't: Change is marching on Washington. Parse that both ways.

The Senator and the Candidate

Some of these convention speeches have been wiffle ball (gawd, can you believe Mark Warner was an early favorite in this thing?). But John Kerry is through messing around:

"Talk about being for it before you were against it!"

Seriously; talk about Senator _____ vs. Candidate _____ --> whether McCain or Kerry.

Kerry had one brilliant moment as a campaigner, in his first debate with George W Bush on foreign policy. (I wrote a very early blog post about it.) He brought that kind of game again to this speech. When Dukakis lost in 1988, he basically went away. Thank goodness that John Kerry and Al Gore haven't gone away.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

How Did We Get Here?

I totally agree with Andrew Sullivan:

So far, only Michelle Obama has rescued this convention from being dreary and distracted. Maybe they are waiting for Biden and Obama. But watching this convention so far, I don't get the feeling that these people have lived through the same eight years as I have. I may have aired more anti-Bush passion on this blog - written by someone who endorsed the guy in 2000 - than I have heard from these speakers so far. Unless you understand how terrible the wounds of the last eight years have been, you do not understand the urgency of the Obama candidacy. I worry that that hasn't been put across forcefully enough so far. Clinton didn't do it. She did the minimum, adequately. I just don't know if it was enough.
There's a weird way in which the Democrats seem to be stuck in the past (with their "I'm for the little guy," "chicken-in-every-pot" economic rhetoric) but also fixated on the problems of the last few months -- high gas prices, house foreclosures, the divisive primary. It's not that those issues aren't important. But we need to ask: how did we get here? and where are we going?

Let's take a look at 2000 -- peace, prosperity, surpluses. Then explain that the reason why that was the case was because we had a President and cabinet who understood the changes that were happening in the world -- economic, political, cultural -- and could react to them.

Then talk about everything that's changed since 2000: the crystallization of the threat of global terrorism, the collapse of the inital dot-com economy, the rise of China, the return of Russia to autocracy, a tremendous rise in oil and energy prices, devaluation of the dollar, international consensus on global warming, continued development in telecommunications, continued increase in the price of health care, an economy where knowledge workers continue to pull away from manufacturing., global changes in infrastructure and education. Just lay into it.

And then talk about the failures of the Republican administration to respond to any of those things. One by one by one. With the economy, tax cuts for the rich, record deficits, anemic growth with wage stagnation and lots of people dropping out of the market. In foreign policy, belligerence and a lot of tough talk, with the only results being a failed war in Iraq, a failed state in Afghanistan, nuclear capabilities in Iran and North Korea, inability to work with China and Russia or even Europe. And no Osama bin Laden! This man killed thousands of Americans! He's helped to kill thousands more of our allies and supports those who kill our soldiers in Iraq. And the Republicans have the nerve to say they've kept us safe?

And the environment. Our infrastructure. Our health care. Our education. It's a littany of Republican failures. It is a legacy that their party is committed to. It is a ship that John McCain cannot right, even if it were the John McCain who ran against George W. Bush in 2000, or who nearly ran with John Kerry in 2004. And that is not the John McCain who is running in 2008.

Americans need to know what is happening to them: why gas prices are the way they are, why the credit market is screwed up in the way it is, why their health care premiums and pensions and job security aren't what they thought they would be. It has not been an accident. Americans have a long memory, when they are encouraged to remember. And they need to know what the future is bringing, and why they cannot trust their future to the Republican party.

If Al Gore were to give this speech, if he gives this speech, if he makes us forget this Obama-Clinton bullshit and the preoccupation with proving that Dems aren't elitist, and he reminds us what a tragedy this has all been, what a catastrophe we have lived through, and how it could have been so very different, if Al Gore stands up in Denver and shows us how we have fallen behind and how much there still is to do, if Al Gore stands up, Al Gore who won the popular vote, Al Gore who only the Supreme Court kept out of the White House, when Al Gore stands up, when he stands, and when we stand, when Al Gore gives this speech, I will weep.

The T Word

I'm watching convention coverage, usually on CSPAN, but flipping back to MSNBC every once in a while. After Mark Warner's speech, everyone was laying into the Democrats, Rachel Maddow and Pat Buchanan alike, for playing it too soft. I mean, the media wants red meat wherever it can get it, but yeesh.

Gene Robinson from the WaPo said it best. "I want someone to get up on the stage and say 'torture.' I want someone to get up on stage and say 'Iraq'." It seems like everyone has decided that a positive vision on the economy is the way to go, but everyone knows that the Democrats will be on the lookout for the people suffering in the economy. If this party wants to reclaim any kind of hold on foreign policy, they need to paint the Republicans not just as rich fat cats but as dangerous and immoral torturers and international belligerents.

The war in Iraq, corruption, wiretapping, all helped the Democrats win back the House and the Senate. If those things aren't on Americans' mind any more, the Democrats need to remind them. Otherwise we're just rerunning the 2000 election: tax cuts or no tax cuts, the environment or laissez-faire, abortions or no abortions. That's not the world we live in anymore.

One day on foreign policy is not enough. Zero mentions of moral failure are not nearly enough. The Republicans aren't going to shirk from talking about terrorism or Iraq. The Democrats need to own this issue now. Right now.

That Book Is A... What Is It Again?

Andy Ihnatko makes the well-worn case that Apple should sell e-books: definitely for its iPod Touch and iPhone, presumably for its computers, and maybe for an oversize iPod touch.

Not much new here, but it definitely all still makes sense, and Ihnatko is plenty funny and smart in making it. I do think his dream of Apple working with Amazon is pretty much a pipe dream:

I realize that the idea of putting a thousand-year-old tradition of book publishing out to pasture with a free iPhone book reader app is completely crazy. But it could be done. And even better than Apple competing against Amazon: what if the two companies worked together? Let Amazon build and fortify relationships with publishers. Let Apple create the relationships with the consumer. Add a Kindle-compatible reader to the App Store. The result could be a revolution.
Yeah, not a bad idea, but Apple doesn't really partner with people quite like that.

It does suggest, though, that a hurdle Apple would have to jump is establishing relationships with publishers like it has been able to with music publishers, movie studios, and TV networks. Amazon has leverage and history with book publishers that Apple doesn't. Nobody really knows how Apple was able to negotiate its music deals initially; it certainly caught Microsoft by surprise. And its relationship with video content providers, even from a position of strength, has been rocky. So that might be one thing holding the mighty Apple tablet reader back. Besides all of the other things.

The Baby and the Bathwater

Jennifer 8. Lee on urban development in Shenzhen and NYC:

Despite its frenetic growth, Mr. Yaro notes, the city is remarkably well serviced by modern roads, rail lines and parks, and appears to be quite livable. The Chinese government has invested heavily in the development of Shenzhen and other cities in the surrounding Pearl River Delta region, with a commitment of $50 billion in new high-speed passenger rail and transportation networks over a five-year period...

The scale of these undertakings in Shenzhen recalls the early part of the last century in America, when the country was confidently pointed toward the future, Mr. Ouroussoff explains. But it would be unimaginable in New York today, where, in the face of shrinking state and city budgets, expanding a single subway line can seem like a heroic act.

Have we lost our ability to carry out ambitious infrastructure projects? New York has a long history of embracing change, after all. We have Robert Moses to thank for Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, the Triborough Bridge, the Grand Central Parkway, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, Staten Island Expressway, Orchard Beach, Co-op City, Riverside Park, Lincoln Center and the New York Coliseum, to name just a few projects. (Of course, even now debate rages about whether Moses was the creator of indispensable public works or an anti-democratic, anti-urban despot who bent government to his will.)
At the end of the entry, J8L asks, "Is it time for another Robert Moses?" Obviously, fans of Jane Jacobs would say, it ain't time for that guy. But it may be time for another big vision for the metropolis, one that pieces together the large-scale utopia and the small-scale rootedness of our neighborhoods and our cities. Moses's vision -- which wasn't just his -- of criss-crossing our cities with expressways is a loser. But mass transit connecting metropoles + pedestrian-friendly towns and neighborhoods is a winner. And this will require a big vision and a big investment.

Monday, August 25, 2008

One Less Than Five, One More Than Three

Feist (featuring four chickens back from the shore):

Looks like the new season of Sesame Street is doing some new things with the camera. It looks 1) great and 2) like nothing else on children's television.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

We Could Have Had A Shrine

One thing the political press hasn't reported is that Joe Biden was actually reluctant to take the VP slot on the ticket. In truth, he thought it was bad luck. John Edwards saw his career get destroyed with an affair, Joe Lieberman had gone crazy, lost a primary and left the party, Dick Cheney had had multiple heart attacks and accidentally shot at least one person. Even Al Gore had to go through the Clinton impeachment, the Florida recount, and losing the election.

My sources have provided me with this secret, volatile clip showing a key east-coast power-broker in the Democratic party convincing Biden to take the job.

At least we know that Biden's Catholicism is sincere.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Novel in the Digital Age

When The Sopranos ended a year ago, John Freeman wrote an article in The Guardian asking whether Tony Soprano had "whacked the American novel." The Sopranos, Freeman says, "developed characters to a degree unparalleled in American television, save that other current HBO drama, The Wire, which is, in fact, occasionally written by a novelist, George Pelecanos"; like The Corrections, it wrestled with great novelistic themes in its exploration of how each generation attempts to correct the mistakes made by the generation before; and it's written in a quintessentially American vernacular language.

But more than that, The Sopranos seems perfect for its media culture. Not only do we live in a world saturated by old movies like The Godfather, old music like Springsteen's or Van Morrison's, and television ads promising the American dream, but we spend our lives looking at screens rather than reading books:

More and more Americans spend their day waking up, checking their email, travelling to work, clicking through their Blackberries, sitting at cubicles, staring into a monitor, and then coming home, to look - once again - at a screen: the television. The eye has been trained to scan, and to receive, and less and less to read.

It feels somewhat ungrateful to complain in today's television environment, with so many well-written, superbly acted shows available, that the screen is destroying the page. But it's true, especially if you pause to consider that reading fiction is something that requires time, time away from a screen. More and more, though, Americans don't have the time to think, let alone to read. They are working harder and less efficiently than ever (and in many cases, for less money than ever). In this environment, there is no better delivery system than the image for themes which transport - because that's how our eyes work the rest of the day. The Sopranos does the imagining; our eyes need only follow.
This seems important not least because, as Virginia Heffernan points out in the Times, web-based serials that consciously imitate television (or gads, the novel) appear to be foundering:
Time will tell, but right now Web serials — no matter how revealing, provocative or moving — seem to be a misstep in the evolution of online video. Introduced with fanfare again and again only to miss big viewerships, shows like “Satacracy 88” and “Cataclysmo” have emerged as the slow, conservative, overpriced cousins to the wildly Web-friendly “viral videos” that also arrived around 2005, when bandwidth-happy Web users began to circulate scrap video and comedy clips as if they were chain letters or strep. Top virals — “I Got a Crush . . . on Obama,” “Don’t Tase Me, Bro!” “Chocolate Rain” — never plod. They come off like brush fires, outbursts, accidents, flashes of sudden unmistakable truth.

By contrast, Web serials smack of planning and budgets and all that vestigial Hollywood stuff. The earliest ones were interludes in existing fiction franchises like “Battlestar Galactica” and “The Office.” The natural audience members for serials are obedient and obsessive — the John Edwards supporter who just has to know everything about him, the “Battlestar” viewer who can’t stand a few months’ hiatus from the show. From Charles Dickens’s “Old Curiosity Shop” to radio’s “Shadow” to Fox’s “24,” serials have always attracted completists. Serial fans don’t trawl YouTube for crazy junk they’ve never seen before; they turn to reputable sites for “more information” on their beloved franchises. They’ve seen one installment and feel dutybound to see what comes next.
So we have three terms here: the novel, television, and the internet, each of which seem to be vying for attention as the literary-cultural forms of the day (or maybe of yesterday). Add to this mix Clay Shirky's "Gin, Television, and Social Surplus" and its opposition of television to digital culture:
Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened--rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before--free time.

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan's Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.

And it's only now, as we're waking up from that collective bender, that we're starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis. We're seeing things being designed to take advantage of that surplus, to deploy it in ways more engaging than just having a TV in everybody's basement.
As an explanation of where people find the time to blog, comment, and edit Wikipedia articles, Shirky's disjunction is great; as a positive disjunction between television culture and digital culture, it's miserable. Clearly, a good portion of the content of the web originally comes from television, from fan forums and YouTube clips to movie reviews and analysis of political ads. The best and often the most successful TV shows -- The Sopranos, The Wire, Lost, The Simpsons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica -- create a virtuous circle between television and the web, as viewers watch the show, go online for previews and spoilers, check back to summaries of old episodes, debate their merits, upload early screeners, and so on. It's an entire digital ecosystem.

And this is why I think The Sopranos is so important. It doesn't just whack the novel; it whacks television, by gathering up all its tropes and genres, demolishing them in the process. And it does it in a genuinely new form. That tagline, "It's not TV, it's HBO" isn't just good marketing. The Sopranos has very little to do with broadcast television or even the movies. It's long-form, subscription-supported (i.e. no commercials), no censorship, no laugh track, no traditional "seasons" dictated by the calendar (each nominative season is in fact a distinct series). It's shot with a movie camera, shown in 16:9 on digital cable, digital video discs, or digital downloads on digital television and computer screens. There are generic predecessors, from the network miniseries to the BBC, but this is really new.

Shows like The Wire almost seem to work against their broadcast format -- until you realize that the show is watched almost as much on DVD, in a digital download, or on cable On Demand as it is by viewers who dutifully sit on the couch every week. It's a show designed to be watched a disc at a time rather than an hour at a time; the one-hour divisions are just convenient chapter breaks, giving you a chance to take a breath and get a drink before you sit back down and click ahead to the next one. (Also, like the novel's chapter and page, it gives you a convenient way to reference moments in episodes when you're talking about them.) Lost gives you cliffhangers; The Wire gives you catharsis.

The serial form gives you the space you need to explore character and milieu, and the uninterrupted length and cinema-style production give you the forms you need to explore them with seriousness. But this already implies that there are at least two digital cultures at work, and maybe working at cross purposes; the culture of the large screen and the culture of the small screen. In your living room, on your HDTV, you watch the digital cable novel; on your computer at work, or on your iPod in transit, you gobble up your viral YouTube videos, catch up on The Daily Show, or wring your hands over the newest Obama commercial. My favorite five-year-old likes to call YouTube videos "commercials," and indeed, that's what they're like -- that's how they're constructed, as the logical culmination of broadcast television. One is intensive: we obsess over our serials, their characters, the turns and twists of plot. The other is extensive: we can watch a hundred different YouTube videos a day, all from different sources, forward them to our friends or upload them to our blogs, and never return to them again.

I don't want to throw up a firm value or even genre distinction between one form or the other, but it seems important that we seem to be compartmentalizing our consumption in this way. It also suggests that as the screens continue to change -- as laptops get smaller, or handheld devices get more video-savvy -- we might see new forms start to emerge.

The page is a screen, kids. We've got our novels and we've got our pulp newspapers. What I'm waiting for is our avant-garde poems, our explosive neo-dada videos that scramble all of this up; maybe even our digital Ulysses.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Irish Paulie Walnuts

You be the judge:

He's a little old, a little cranky, and he might talk out of school, but that's a guy who can get things done.

Postscript to Beating McCain

  • The fact that the US and Iraq have a draft deal in place to withdraw troops by 2011 gives Obama an opening here to paint McCain as more extreme than Bush in his foreign policy. "At the end of this disastrous administration, cooler heads have begun to prevail in the White House. The only hothead left is John McCain."
  • Part of the reason why I think I like Joe Biden so much -- not just as a potential VP -- is that he looks a little like an Irish Paulie Walnuts. And Paulie Walnuts is exactly who Obama needs.

How Obama Beats McCain

This ad blasting McCain's inability to count all his houses is a good start. But here's my five-point plan.

  1. Give a speech specifically about McCain. Attack everything that voters think they know about him, every perceived strength. Begin by telling America, "If you think you're voting for John McCain who ran for President against George Bush in 2000, you're wrong." Detail every backtrack McCain has made, every position he's reversed himself on, every move he's made to cozy up with the Bush administration, the Republican-led congress, and the base of his party. Attribute it to a combination of ambition and delusion. Call him by his first name whenever possible.
  2. Refer to his attacks on you and say "John McCain is lying." "Apparently I'm a flip-flopper who's too stubborn to change his mind." "He can't win by attacking my real positions and my real record, so he invents one." Tilt him. Tilt him hard and watch him sputter.
  3. McCain doesn't know anything about economics, he is insulated from real Americans, and his economic plan would lead to budgetary and employment ruin. "Until a few years ago, Michelle and I made ____. We just paid our student loans. So we know what it's like to work in this economy, and we know what the American people need!" Education, infrastructure, etc.
  4. Emphasize how dangerous McCain is. Go mushroom cloud on him. Say he wants to pick a fight with anyone and everyone without a thought to the consequences for the country or the ability of the military to stretch itself any thinner. Point out that it's been seven years since September 11th, but besides tough talk McCain can't offer anything new to capture Osama Bin Laden. Tell the American people that you think a McCain administration would be a disaster.
  5. At this point, note that you're breaking with Democratic party precedent now and for the rest of the campaign. "In the past, Republicans and their operatives have used these kind of smears, these attempts to frighten the American people, in lieu of real ideas and serious solutions. And Democrats have politely asked them to stop, privately gotten indignant, and hoped the American people wouldn't notice. Well that's not me. I'm skinny but I'm tough. I'm through asking John McCain to tell the truth about my record, about my patriotism, and about our plan for the country's future. He can say whatever he wants. But I'm going to tell the truth. And every time he does it again (and he will do it again) we're going to say, 'John is lying.'"
At this point, leave it alone. Let the cable networks show it over and over again, along with McCain and the Republicans' furious reaction. Let them get rabid, let all of their worst attributes come out.

Then you send Joe Biden out to continue the attack, to get in the pit and fight them every time they say a word. Let Bill and Hillary Clinton get in a fight that they understand against an enemy they hate. Turn McCain into an angry old man, George H.W. Bush with his son's temper and limited attention span.

You spend the rest of the election cycle offering a positive vision of the country's future under an Obama administration. You make it a referendum about McCain's capacity versus yours.

And we win.

(Knock on wood.)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

What Makes That Good Blog So Good

Merlin Mann has a provisional list:

  1. Good blogs have a voice. 
  2. Good blogs reflect focused obsessions. 
  3. Good blogs are the product of “Attention times Interest.” 
  4. Good blog posts are made of paragraphs. 
  5. Good “non-post” blogs have style and curation. 
  6. Good blogs are weird. 
  7. Good blogs make you want to start your own blog. 
  8. Good blogs try. 
  9. Good blogs know when to break their own rules.
My favorite of these is number two, which I think (along with talent + work) is the motor that drives the other eight. Here's what Mann has to say about it:
People start real blogs because they think about something a lot. Maybe even five things. But, their brain so overflows with curiosity about a family of topics that they can’t stop reading and writing about it. They make and consume smart forebrain porn. So: where do this person’s obsessions take them?
"Forebrain porn" instantly makes me think of a historian's craft, but this "focused obsession" formula also holds true for all of my favorite blogs: Sullivan, Silliman, Al Filreis's 1960 blog, if:book back when Ben Vershbow was in the house, Snarkmarket when it's really cooking, FiveThirtyEight, Mark Ambinder, In the Middle, Obsidian Wings.  There are other blogs that go beyond this to become simultaneously curatorial and informational: Lifehacker, Kottke, Arts & Letters Daily, Talking Points Memo, all of which I think of more as bloggy news services than "personal" blogs as such. There are also the diaries of my friends, which I don't expect everyone else to read, but which more often than not turn up something as interesting as I read anywhere else.

The tenth criteria I would add: "Good blogs are humble." I can't stand Boing Boing, The Huffington Post, DailyKos, Gawker and its ilk, plus most well-regarded author/journalist blogs in no small part because they are all clearly too impressed with themselves. You have to have a sense that the blog is about the person's interest in ___x___, not their own role in ___y___, and it's because of x and not y that personality gets into the mix. If you make that substitution, or if there was nothing to substitute to begin with, it's all just death.

Since I started writing Short Schrift, I've always tried to accomplish 1-9 -- number four in particular was and remains important to me, even if I've gotten over my early reluctance just to include a video or link without lengthy commentary. And I'm delighted to have my 500-odd readers. Your taste is excellent -- not because you've chosen to read me, but because you want to read what I want to read too.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Nothing But Tears

Speaks for itself. [The Onion]

Writerly Roundup

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Beat That Mahogany God

It's a shame that Tyson Gay didn't make the finals for the 100-meter dash, but it is totally awesome that the gold medalist and world record holder is a Jamaican named Usain Bolt. BOLT!

Look at him! He's 6'5", and he ran 100 m in less than 9.7 seconds! And he even looks like Futurama's Barbados Slim:

Colbert Was Really Cooking On Thursday

Here's the proof:

Friday, August 15, 2008

McCain's Reticence

Hilzoy's post at Obsidian Wings on the contested claim that McCain is reluctant to speak about his experience in Vietnam reminds that reporters really mean two different things by this, and it's a distinction worth remembering.

First, it's clear that McCain is not at all adverse to talking at length about his military service; on that record he's based his congressional, Senate and Presidential campaigns, multiple books, positions on issues, etc. Nor does he refrain at all from referring to or joking about the well-known fact that he was a POW in Vietnam. This is all well-documented.

What McCain is generally reluctant to do is to describe in detail what happened to him while he was a POW; in particular, being tortured and attempting suicide to escape that torture. That's the story that journalists who've befriended him and heard many, many stories from him on and off the record want -- the gory, cinematic details.

Actually, McCain's refrain from describing his own torture is a net positive for him in many ways. For one, it helps quash rumors that McCain was driven crazy by his tormentors. It also keeps the public's mind off of the fact that US personnel have been and most likely still are engaged in torture of enemy combatants.

Ironically, McCain's firm opposition to torture and permanent detention at Guantanamo during the primary won him the plurality of decent-minded Republican and Independent voters, since it provided a clear moral contrast between him and Mitt "double Guantanamo" Romney, totalitarian Rudy Giuliani, and the Bush Administration to boot. Now that McCain is holding together the fraying Republican coalition, he has to downplay his opposition to torture and turn the unconstitutionality of indefinite detention into a point of conflict between himself and Obama. He has to rely on the cognitive dissonance of the American voter, who will somehow associate him with the nobility of his positions even as he liquidates the positions that actually lent him some nobility.

As Josh Green's postmortem of the Clinton campaign continues to rightfully attract attention, I can only hope that three months from now someone, anyone, will be looking at the McCain campaign and wondering what might have been. I think that's the only way for the Republican Party to pull itself back from the disgusting, self-destructive edge to which it's slithered. If they just chalk it up to bad luck and not a fundamental failure of ethical standards and political strategy, they will learn precisely nothing.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Anniversario Felice

I have little in the tank for Short Schrift this week, but I did want to wish a happy seventh anniversary to Gavin at Wordwright and his wunderbar wife.

As I told Gavin this week, if one of you were a Hebrew slave, you'd be free by now.

[And maybe even you'd have been free for a year already. In which case, I'd still say, "Happy Anniversary!"]

Monday, August 11, 2008

Sparkling Wits

William Carlos Williams, The Autobiography:

There was a story current in Paris at the time of the rival partisans of Joyce and Proust, who had arranged a meeting at a reception one evening between the two great men. Two chairs were placed side by side in the middle of the room. There the heroes were seated while the partisans ranged themselves right and left, waiting for the wits to sparkle and flash.

Joyce said, "I've got headaches every day. My eyes are terrible."

Proust replied, "My poor stomach. What am I going to do? It's killing me. In fact, I must leave at once."

"I'm in the same situation," replied Joyce, "if I can find someone to take me by the arm. Good-bye."

"Charmé," said Proust, "oh, my stomach, my stomach."

There Are Prudes And There Are Prudes

Ooh, look at me! I found Kafka's stash of porn! "Academics have pretended it did not exist.... The Kafka industry doesn’t want to know such things about its idol." They're all sure gonna be shocked now! Porny porn porn! My "book seeks to explode important myths surrounding the literary icon, a 'quasi-saintly' image which hardly fits with the dark and shocking pictures contained in these banned journals." Not a saint? Nobody's ever thought of THIS before! I'll show them all!

And can you believe Kafka kept it at his parents' house! Under lock and key! And Franz's dad Hermann wasn't such a bad guy. He hardly hit him at all. Why's Franzie so sensitive about it? It's almost like he's psychologically disposed to key in to the hidden cruelty of small slights and humiliations, and spatial constrictions with the ever-present threat of physical force. I bet he never really turned into a monstrous vermin either. Except when he was reading that stash of porn.

Oh, those horrible prudes all venerating their saintly idol! How I hate them all! Just look at how enlightened and mature I am for talking about this really vile, contemptuous, and really kind of ugggghhhh stuff in this archive. "These are not naughty postcards from the beach. They are undoubtedly porn, pure and simple. Some of it is quite dark, with animals committing fellatio and girl-on-girl action... It's quite unpleasant."


Look, I don't know what's in those ellipses that the TLS wouldn't print. Maybe there's something in there that's really truly shocking. But "girl-on-girl action... It's quite unpleasant"? How old are you? Have you actually read any other modernist literature? I mean Bataille, Genet, Joyce or Henry Miller even? Have you ever read Sade? Have you ever, I don't know, read pornography that wasn't a softcore Harlequin romance?

What a joke. Unless you're going to put the whole series of the porn Kafka subscribed to into print, stop wasting my time.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Why the Celebrity Attack Works

Sean at FiveThirtyEight asks why the "Obama is a celebrity" attack doesn't wither in the contradictory face of the "Obama is a closet ____" attack or vice versa.

How can someone being portrayed as "the biggest celebrity in the world" also be painted as radical and out of the mainstream? Either Obama is like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton: a fluffy, substanceless, mass-consumed but empty celebrity-for-celebrity’s sake, or he is an unfamiliar and dangerous other with a hidden anti-American agenda.

It’s hard to reconcile the two. By trumpeting Obama's popularity, McCain is calling him – by definition – a safe, easily digestible consumer product, broadly acceptable in the mainstream. Thus, McCain boxes himself into a corner when he wants to make the argument not to elect Obama because he’s so far outside the mainstream.
And Andrew Sullivan concurs:
When these kinds of attacks contradict each other, it's a good bet that both are being made not because the McCain camp actually thinks they're true, but because they're just trying to find anything to bring the guy down. You throw it all until something sticks. Just like the Clintons did. And that worked out great for the Clintons, didn't it?
But I don't see these two claims as contradictory at all; in fact, they're more damaging taken together than separately.

First there's what I'll call the negative unity of the two attacks. Both attack Obama not for what he is but what he is not: a regular hardworking traditional American with traditional hardworking regular American values, like John McCain, and like you, gentle television viewer.

Second, there's the positive unity. Americans don't freak out over celebrities who are vapid and digestible. They freak out over celebrities who are a total mess, who turn out (or are whispered) to be secret drug addicts, Scientologists, homosexuals, criminals, wife beaters, wife murderers, adulterers, or child abusers, who break each others' hearts to have affairs with each other or who believe in reincarnation or Kabbala or (yes) Scientology.

Remember that other nice young talented black man with a beautiful voice, phenomenal talents and positive message whom white America welcomed into their hearts?

John McCain isn't saying Obama is Britney Spears. John McCain is saying that Barack Obama is Michael Jackson.

Like A Thunderbolt

The most sublime and terrifying moment in parenting is when, after a day of dealing with tantrums and beauty and idiosyncrasies and discoveries and danger and moments of quiet, you lay your child down to sleep, pause a moment to stroke the back of their head and watch their quiet breathing, and glimpse a tiny fragment of the impossible knowledge of what it must be like to love yourself.

Aspects of Writing (For Teaching, Research, Writing)

Always remember:

  • Writing is / Writings are.
  • Writing is a language.
  • Writing is a document, a recording.
  • Writing is a technology. (Writings are technologies.)
  • Writing is visible and visual.
  • Writing is an art.
  • Writing is a metaphor.
  • Writing is physical.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

A Funky Introduction of How Nice I Am

Much like I did when I was a young man, the junior member of our household loves A Tribe Called Quest, so in his honor:

Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty

Pitchfork TV has a documentary about The Smiths' The Queen Is Dead (available for one week only). I am an enthusiastic if comparatively casual Smiths fan but I think it is mighty good.

That Rarest Of Infielders

I just caught this at UbuWeb:

"Ron Silliman was once a slow left-handed second baseman. Now he lives in a faux forest in what was once the Biddle Estate."

Poet-blogger extrasupraordinary Silliman selected some featured material from UbuWeb's archives in June; UbuWeb is awesome, and Silliman's choices are a good a place as any to start.

1. Frank Film (1973), Frank and Caroline Mouris
2.  The Name (1973), Robert Creeley
3.  Recollections of Grande Apachería (1973), Edward Dorn
4.  Reading at Goddard College (1973), Robert Creeley
5. Carnival The First Panel: 1967-1970 (1973), Steve McCaffery
6.  Black Tarantula Crossword Gathas (excerpt) (1973), Jackson Mac Low
7.  A Vocabulary for Sharon Belle Matlin (1973), Jackson Mac Low
8.  Heavy Aspirations (1973), Charles Amirkhanian
9. Armand Schwerner (1973), Phil Niblock (real video .rm file)
10. High Kukus (1973), James Broughton
Also, while we're thinking about Ubu, here's a song from Pere Ubu (which is my son's unofficial anthem -- "I have desires!") and the text of Alfred Jarry's play Ubu Roi.

Shame Of A City

Many but not all of my readers know that I'm a native Detroiter, and so have more than a passing interest in the jailing of Hizzoner Kwame Kilpatrick, but really, the most I'm willing to say about it for anyone interested is to refer you to this fine Cliffs Notes version of the story at Wordwright.

Byrne Racks

David Byrne has designed new bike racks for New York City, nine of which are being put up all over town:

In recent years [Byrne's] interest in bicycles has expanded from riding them to thinking seriously about the role they play in urban life, as he has started making connections with politicians and international design consultants keen to keep cars from taking over the city. So when the Department of Transportation asked him to help judge a design competition for the city’s new bike racks, he eagerly agreed — so eagerly, in fact, that he sent in his own designs as well.

They were simple shapes to define different neighborhoods around the city: a dollar sign for Wall Street; an electric guitar for Williamsburg, Brooklyn; a car — “The Jersey” — for the area near the Lincoln Tunnel. “I said, ‘Well, this disqualifies me as a judge,’ ” he recalled, “but I just doodled them out and sent them in.” He figured maybe they’d be used to decorate the contest Web site,

Instead, much as when George W. Bush asked Dick Cheney to find him a vice president, Mr. Byrne ended up landing the job for which he was leading the search team. Well, almost: the competition for new standard racks is still on, but on Friday nine racks made from his own whimsical designs were installed around the city. “They immediately responded, saying, ‘If you can get these made, we’ll put them through,’ “ he recalled. “I was kind of shocked.”

He’s not just being modest: for his previous installation, “Playing the Building,” still on display at the Battery Maritime Building in Lower Manhattan, he said he had to battle red tape for two years before even getting permission to look inside. This time around the agency agreed pretty much on the spot to his designs and all the proposed locations. That’s when it dawned on him: “I said: ‘Oh, that’s right, the city owns the sidewalks. They don’t have to get permission to move a stop sign.’ “
In one of those New York mysteries I will never understand, the racks will only be up for 364 days. I guess so that you run out right away to see all nine.

The best part of this article is that nowhere in it is Byrne identified as anything other than "an installation artist, author, blogger, recording executive, photographer, film director and PowerPoint enthusiast." No "Best known for his groundbreaking tenure fronting the new wave group Talking Heads, David Byrne's solo work, while not as successful, is no less adventurous, encroaching upon such diverse media as world music, filmmaking, and performance art." Just "He’s even been known to dabble in music."

Gosh, I love bicyclists.

Friday, August 08, 2008

The Music of Broken Bats

For AVG -- Popular Woodworking on the mystery of increased rates of broken bats in the MLB.

Surprisingly, neither maple nor ash but aluminum is squarely to blame.

Via Kottke.

A Parable For Librarians

Efficiency Without Function. The goal of the archive is to preserve an object for future use without prejudging its usefulness. You must simultaneously collect and preserve while maximizing the potential future usefulness of the object with the knowledge that it may not actually circulate at all.

The same is true for art: literature is simultaneously the least functional of all writing and the most efficient, where every word, page, thought, letter, mark, and space has to be selected and treated with the utmost care yet without the certain knowledge that it will be seen or penetrated by a single reader.

This formula -- purposiveness without purpose -- is what Kant calls the beautiful.

Jon Chait's Strategy to Tilt McCain

Jonathan Chait at The Plank has two very sharp posts on McCain's "tire gauge lie."

In exhibit A, he takes Time reporter Michael Scherer to task for writing: "In its new hardball mode, McCain's team distributed tire gauges labeled OBAMA ENERGY PLAN, underlining the campaign's contention that Obama offered nothing but more air":

Look, this isn't just a contention, it's a lie. McCain is saying, day after day, that Barack Obama's "energy plan" consists of urging Americans to inflate their tires. That's the entire reason why he keeps saying it. It's just a simple lie. Obama has an energy plan that does not consist of urging people to inflate their tires. Agree with it or not, he has one.

I don't want to pick on Mike, because most reporters are in the habit of repeatign campaign contentions without informing their readers whether or not they have any truth to them. That's journalistic standard operating procedure. It's exactly this practice that makes lying such a successful and common strategy.
In exhibit B, he suggests that Obama call McCain on it:
I'm wondering why Barack Obama doesn't just outright call McCain a liar. All politicians spin, some more agresssively than others, but McCain's claim that Obama's energy policy consists of urging people to inflate their tires is way beyond spin. can't Obama flat-out say, "John McCain is lying. He'll obviously say anything to get elected president. American can't afford another president who has no regard for truth or the facts."

McCain is only hanging in close in the polls because he's seen as a straight-talking maverick. But he's just lying about Obama's energy plan every single day. He did it again today. Doesn't this say something important about McCain's character? Don't the last eight years show us what happens when you campaign in the Rove style and then try to govern? It seems to me that Obama can do something that's both politically valuable and extremely salient to the choice voters face.
I can think of something else that would happen if Obama said McCain was lying -- the honor-obsessed McCain would totally lose it. McCain and his camp really seem to hate Obama's guts now. If Obama called McCain a liar, McCain's contempt for Obama would be impossible to conceal or control. He would look like an angry old man barely in possession of himself. And that could be good for cool-as-ice Obama.

The problem is, personal villification has never been Obama's style. The closest I think we're likely to get is "John McCain isn't telling the truth," which while semantically nearly identical is a good deal short of saying "McCain is lying" or especially "McCain is a liar." From there, McCain, if he's got a brain in his body at all, will say that he knows the real truth about the American people, that the truth hurts, that Obama wouldn't know honesty if it was staring him in the face, etc.

Why Krugman Can Write

It's sentences like these: "The politics of stupidity didn't just appeal to the poorly informed."

Krugman works because he's continually outraged at how idiotic the public discussion is.

Sometimes he's so preoccupied with this that he loses it -- like, in my opinion, when he turned Obama's recognition of the problem with mandates to purchase health care (juxtaposed with Krugman's knowledge that mandates will probably be necessary to ensure universal coverage and bring costs down) to a full-blown conspiracy theory about Obama being a crypto-conservative cynically "attacking from the right."

But when it works, it's glorious.

Oh, If Only

Finally, a show my friends and I can get behind:

1) I love Dr. K's frosted hair.

2) To be both pedantic and perjorative, it's pronounced "Vittgenshtein."

3) Marvelous ref to "cryptozoology"; likewise, "The Peeb," "Girls Gone Wilde," and "Gettin' Head!: History's Most Famous Decapitations."

4) Nobody calls it "argumentum ad hominem"; it's always just "ad hominem." You've gotta be up on the hip kids' abbreviations, 'Lexies! (e.g., Lexy = Sexy intellectual; Lexy-Nexy = The new, super-sexy intellectual.)

5) I can't tell whether they're using "penultimate" correctly or incorrectly, or if they know. (Penultimate = second to last.) Funnier if you suppose it's used correctly.

6) The other references are relatively trendy and smart-sounding, but Hume? That's just cool.

Wow, I have crossed over into some strange geeky universe that I now call my life.

Via Kottke.

Small Pleasures

Beat Happening, "Indian Summer":

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Book To Come

This digital variorum edition of Emily Dickinson rocks. [Sophie Reader required.]

You can read the poem, click through alternate drafts, and see images of the manuscript or a published version of the text. Also space for comments, etc. There are points to quibble with, but it's such a nice, clean start that they're really not worth bringing up.

Individual projects are nice, but I think scholarly e-books could really take off if we had 1) semi-standardized formats and 2) no-brainer GUIs to plug information into those formats, both of which would help scholars and readers coordinate their expectations and understand the navigational grammar. There are thousands if not tens or hundreds of thousands of people who will take this kind of information and put it together if you don't have to overcoming coding and additional time hurdles to do it.

"Give users tools to visualize their own data." Still the first commandment for digital scholarship.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The New Kremlinology

Gabriel Sherman at The Plank:

Earlier today, Vanity Fair’s Bruce Feirstein pointed out a humorous and somewhat bizarre reader survey conducted by the New York Times last week. The survey, a pop-up on the Times website, solicited feedback from readers on their opinions on the Times, which isn't that unusual. But the poll's references to recent newsroom controversies including Jayson Blair, Judith Miller, MoveOn's "General Betray-Us" ad, and the NSA wiretapping exposé, were downright shocking for Times Kremlinologists, for whom the survey seemed to offer an unlikely window onto the paper’s Id. The list of topics on which readers were polled potentially indicated which incidents insiders considered the most damaging to the paper's reputation. And there are other oddities. The paper's infamous, artfully-worded 2004 Editor's Note-cum-mea culpa explaining the flawed W.M.D coverage didn’t name names. But the online survey bluntly states that Judith Miller’s Iraq stories “turned out to be wrong.” The survey also misspelled Jayson Blair’s name, referring to the Times fabulist as “Jason Blair.”
I don't care about Jayson/Jason Blair or Judith Miller, and I don't even really care that much about the Times (which frankly surprises me). What I care about is that there are "Times Kremlinologists" -- expert outsiders who try to study the paper or the company based partly on sources and gossip but largely on careful interpretation of public statements and documents.

You see, I think "Kremlinology" is one of the great metaphors of our times. Google the word and you get the obvious references to Soviet and Russian politics, but also Microsoft Kremlinology, Facebook Kremlinology, Clinton Kremlinology; we could easily add Apple Kremlinology, Supreme Court Kremlinology, Federal Reserve Kremlinology, Papal Kremlinology, Vice-Presidential Kremlinology, and many others.

In fact, the one thing that we're really short on is "Kremlinology" of closed and hostile or semi-hostile states. There's still a residual class of Kremlinologists of China and Russia, but none of it really tells us what we want to know. War hawks now are fundamentally uninterested in the internal workings of states of interest, to the point that John McCain refuses to acknowledge (for example) that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad doesn't actually control Iranian nuclear policy. Not only are they uninterested, but they're committed to obfuscating the issues.

In The Fog of War, Robert McNamara compares the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Vietnam War. The difference, McNamara says, is that during the missile crisis and throughout the Cold War, US policy makers were able to empathize with their enemy; they knew them, in some cases personally, and understood their motivations and decision processes. With Vietnam on the other hand, the US was never able to make the same leap of empathy, and fundamentally misunderstood what the Vietnamese wanted and what they were willing to do (including what kind of losses they were willing to accept) in order to do it. My fear is that we continue to make the same mistake.

But hey -- have you seen those pics of the new MacBooks?

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Big and Small Pictures

Liz Gunnison at Portfolio dusts off a "what's the Kindle good for?" piece that, except for the figures on Kindle sales so far (240,000 sold, about $100 million in revenue), could have been written when it launched. But it still seems to make several glaring mistakes when looking at the fundamentals.

For example:

The game in question is reading, after all—not exactly a growth industry, as Simon & Schuster and Random House will tell you....

It's not difficult to imagine that, thanks to its aggressive Kindle marketing push (such as prime advertising space in the middle of Amazon's homepage), those 240,000 units represent a good portion of the total market for the device out there...

Then there's the question of financial means. Only the top 18 percent of households make $100,000 or more, which seems like a reasonable cutoff for figuring out who would spend $359 (down from $399) during a recession on a highly discretionary device, even given a love for reading...

Count out the technophobes and Luddites, a demographic for which e-readers like the Kindle tragically self-select. The 2007 A.P.-Ipsos survey showed that the heaviest readers are female and over 50, while conversely, tech users skew young and male...

To top it off, one can imagine a single device (and Amazon account) being used by an entire household. And we're talking only about those that choose a Kindle, of course, rather than a competing device such as Sony's portable reader...

So, all things considered, how many Kindles does that work out to? Two million? One million? Five hundred thousand?
1) The market for reading is not now nor has it ever been identical to the market for trade book publishing. A device whose primary purpose is reading and viewing documents of many different kinds has a very broad content field to work with, as Gunnison well knows. She's about to talk about newspapers and magazines in a second, and textbooks later on. The fact that the Kindle already allows you to read text and PDF documents of many different kinds, play music, etc., shows you that the "e-book reader" to come will do more than display books on its screen.

2) Certainly, 240,000 represents a "good portion" (half?) of the total market for the device out there -- in its current configuration and at this price point. Not everyone is an early adopter. How many people bought VCRs or DVD players in the first eight months they were out? Also, wait until 1) back to school and 2) Christmas.

3) Dude, $100,000/more is the cutoff? Have you seen who buys an iPhone? Are you forgetting about those college students with discretionary income that you mention in about a minute?

4) If you're a total technophobe -- say, if you're John McCain -- you're not an Amazon customer anyways. You buy used and new paperbacks from your favorite store that you've been going to for years. An electronic bookseller is most likely never going to reach you.

5) Throughout the essay, Gunnison "forgets" that Amazon isn't only making money off of sales from the Kindle; it's making a big chunk from the content for the Kindle. So it doesn't matter whether one person in the family buys a device if everyone in the family is buying books. Most families only buy one refrigerator, one microwave, one toaster, but they buy food to go in them for everyone.

You sell the razor, and then you sell the blades. When push comes to shove, nobody else was blazing a path out there with e-book readers that Amazon could then get in on. It had to get out in that market in a big way in order to create an ecosystem where it could sell that content at all. And just like Apple was able to create a strongest MP3 player because it wasn't an electronics company but made great software, Amazon was able to make the strongest e-book reader because it wasn't an electronics company but knew how to sell books.

I say "forgets" because with all of this stuff, Gunnison "remembers" that the fundamentals for the Kindle actually look much better, because Amazon makes a ton of money from selling books, and college kids read a lot and buy gadgets. She then gets to sound like a genius for saying "one way Amazon could make it better is..."

The thing is, there's a germ of a decent argument there. If you're going to expand the market for reading, you have to think about reading itself in an expanded field. If you're going to change the way that people buy, read, and store media, you have to make that more attractive for the early adopters/cool hunters who start generational trends. It means that you need a full-throttled document viewer, something small and portable and versatile, capable of displaying most of the kinds of electronic content we can now view on a computer screen, and possibly driving whatever will come next.

Monday, August 04, 2008

A Short History of Paper and Film

Before the mid-nineteenth century, paper was primarily made from discarded rags, especially cotton and linen. The production of linen from flax already partially transforms the fiber into a high-cellulose material, and cellulose is the fundamental ingredient of paper. The cloth was broken down into a pulp, mixed with water, recast and dried. Wood-pulp paper is made through a similar process, but the wood first has to be chemically treated in order to produce a similarly high-cellulose product. Sulfur and caustic alkaline sodas can transform pulped wood into a cellulose mix nearly as good as linen. And there is a much larger supply of wood and plant cellulose than linen or cotton. In the nineteenth century, wood appeared to be a virtually unlimited natural resource; in this respect, the shift from linen to woodpulp is similar to the shift from whale oils to petroleum.

In the early nineteenth century, chemists and papermakers experimented with a wide range of materials in search of a substitute for rags. Not only was the supply of good quality cloth limited, but reuse of rags also had the drawback of spreading disease, especially cholera and tuberculosis. In the nineteenth century too, the lifting of excise tariffs and production regulations made paper production and circulation much less expensive, putting more demand on an alternative to rag paper. Joel Munsell's history of papermaking (first published in 1857, before woodpulping became popular) lists 110 different candidates (mostly unsuccessful) for paper, from animal substances and asbestos to white wood and wool, including banana leaves, cabbage stumps, hornets' nests, leather cuttings, manures, plaintains, and saw dust. Experimentation with cellulose and various chemical treatments led to the production of the first polymer plastics, and eventually to collodion wet-plate photography and finally to flexible celluloid film.

Photography, too, simultaneously evolved from daguerrotype images on metal plates (which could not be reproduced and so retained some of the auratic quality of traditional artwork), wet collodion-on-glass and dry gelatin treatments before eventually arriving at the continuous flexible film similar to what we know today. Eastman Kodak, the company credited with the introduction of flexible film (and the supplier of continuous film rolls for Thomas Edison's early motion pictures), had originally used a chemical treatment on ordinary paper in their famous camera. Users could take multiple pictures, send their camera (including the paper film) to be developed by the office. This radically democratized photography. But the regular paper stock produced poor quality negative images and positive prints, so they quickly switched to the paper-based celluloid polymer. In The Manufacture of Paper, R.W. Sindall classifies photographic film with carbon and parchment paper as merely another form of "special paper" treated with a substance to produce a special effect.

But there's another way in which film borrows from nineteenth-century developments in paper production, which is the high-volume industrial production of continuous sheets. Woodpulp paper solved the problems peculiar to linen, and with the lifting of taxes, the mid-nineteenth century saw an explosion of paper documents: not only books, but newspapers, advertisements, leaflets and manifestoes. Along with wastepaper wrappers, cardboard, and other nondocumentary uses, paper formed much of what we'd recognize today as the visual and material culture of modernity. And the seat of the most important innovations was probably the newspaper, which combined literary and political writing with advertisements, photography, and other "new" arts, and which contributed the most to technological advances in print and papermaking. Continuous printing, linotype and phototype, transform printing in exactly the same way from the single-page, handset letterpress as celluloid film (and eventually the cinema) transform photography from the single-shot daguerrotype and glass plate.

Friday, August 01, 2008

History Never Happened

Unlike almost every other liberal I know, I really like David Brooks. Really. I do. He's smart and funny and seems to have a heart and a mind and he's good on TV, and I liked reading Bobos In Paradise, and I like to watch him when he's on NBC or PBS and I like to read his column in the New York Times.

But his column today -- which otherwise has all the hallmarks of one of his better columns, like big ideas set against a sense of history and a certain wry synthesis of pragmatism and idealism -- just feels so, well, wrong, that it's a little embarassing. It's almost like he forgot what he was writing about when he was halfway through and never bothered to see whether one paragraph made any sense when put next to another, so it winds up arguing against itself.

Here's the core of the argument:

We’re about to enter our 19th consecutive year of Truman-envy. Ever since the Berlin Wall fell, people have looked at the way Harry Truman, George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson and others created forward-looking global institutions after World War II, and they’ve asked: Why can’t we rally that kind of international cooperation to confront terrorism, global warming, nuclear proliferation and the rest of today’s problems?

The answer is that, in the late 1940s, global power was concentrated. The victory over fascism meant the mantle of global leadership rested firmly on the Atlantic alliance. The United States accounted for roughly half of world economic output. Within the U.S., power was wielded by a small, bipartisan, permanent governing class — men like Acheson, W. Averell Harriman, John McCloy and Robert Lovett.

Today power is dispersed. There is no permanent bipartisan governing class in Washington. Globally, power has gone multipolar, with the rise of China, India, Brazil and the rest.

This dispersion should, in theory, be a good thing, but in practice, multipolarity means that more groups have effective veto power over collective action. In practice, this new pluralistic world has given rise to globosclerosis, an inability to solve problem after problem.
Okay, this sounds pretty good, and pretty smart. But then you stop to think for a little while about the Cold War. And then it doesn't sound very good at all.

For one thing, Brooks makes it sound like the U.S. was the only global power after World War II, and we weren't. We might have been the biggest game in town, and we still are. But Russia and China, then as now, were big drags on the ability of the rest of the world community to get very much done, especially in the way of crisis intervention, human rights, and global agreements. We just didn't notice those things so much, because we were so worried about killing each other most of the time.

It's true that the Marshall plan was a great effort at global institution building aiming to solve real problems. But what happened when we tried to extend it eastward? Russia said no, and we didn't have the power to force it. So Eastern Europe kinda got screwed. And that was an effort where we were giving money away to rebuild nations, with very few strings attached.
Just think about the UN in 1945, with its 51 member nations, and the UN of today, with 192. That's not a move from unipolarity to multipolarity. That's just pure political fragmentation. And it occurred before the Berlin Wall fall, largely as a result of revolutions and partitions freeing different nations from colonial powers. The concentrated powers couldn't do much to project stability then, largely because they were actively taking sides, even when they weren't the colonial power being forced out.

The UN and its resolutions ultimately couldn't do very much to stop apartheid in South Africa, resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, bring any kind of permanent resolution to the war between North and South Korea, prevent bloodshed in the partition of India and Pakistan (or the partition between Pakistan and Bangladesh), prevent mass killings in Cambodia or dozens of other places, or the seizure of territory like Tibet and parts of present-day Israel. It's possible that the global community by way of its norms and institutions, carrots and sticks has done a better job of keeping a lid on such conflicts, but it's not like it was one unmitigated success after another until we suddenly forgot how to act.

You could make the argument that conflicts then were framed as ideological ones, clashes between competing world systems, while now they're nakedly functions of parochial self-interest. But I don't know whether this is really a new phenomenon either. Local interests have always been pretty parochial. Again, I think we just didn't notice so much before.

You could also make the argument that it's harder now even for friends and allies with common ideological assumptions to work together beyond simple self-interest. If France has contracts with the Iraqis, they're never going to support an invasion, even if they "should" agree with its principles. But if that's the case, then Brooks is suffering from a fatal lack of self-consciousness. After all, it's the U.S. that's the elephant in the tea room, not anybody else out there in the multipolar universe. The rest of the world has been able to put together some important agreements on climate change, or on international law and human rights. It's the so-called leader of the free world that won't go along with any of it, because of our narrowly parochial self-interest. And we weren't always so good at getting countries with common values to play along. France pulled out of NATO, most of the rest of the world was deeply ambivalent about American power, and any attempt to lock in US strategic advantage (which is what a lot of those institutions and agreements were all about).

And if this is the argument, that interest trumps shared values, then it doesn't seem at all like a "league of democracies" will do anything to ameliorate the problem. And here Brooks nails shut his own coffin. He begins his story by noting that the "Doha round [of free trade talks] collapsed, despite broad international support, because India’s Congress Party did not want to offend small farmers in the run up to the next elections." But then he ends it by endorsing a League of Democracies. "Nations with similar forms of government do seem to share cohering values."

That may be -- but they also share similar economic realities and democratic pressures, and when those pressures say "don't get rid of the farm subsidies, especially for a free trade agreement that we don't understand and makes us anxious," serious democracies have to respond to them. There is no reason at all why democracies, let alone a league of democracies, will have any greater success at overcoming inertia and doing good things in the world. In fact, there are good reasons (and Brooks names several of them) to believe the opposite.

Unless you think China and Russia are the problem, and that you can isolate them and cut them out of the loop to get things done. In which case, welcome back. The Cold War missed you. History never happened.