Monday, November 24, 2008

Germans At Work

This has been a great publishing year for American fans of German modernism who can't get to Germany for a peek at their manuscript archives.

First, Walter Benjamin's Archive, a beautifully assembled book full of facsimile images and translated versions of WoBo's working notes. I bought this right when it came out, and it's great. I am a dork.

Now, a volume of Franz Kafka's Office Writings, which is even dorkier: it's Kafka's office correspondence from his insurance company in Prague. Michael Wood has a review:

[R]eading these office writings I began to wonder whether the Kafkaesque is not, as the OED tautologically says, the name of a ‘state of affairs or a state of mind described by Kafka’, but rather a form of strangeness that is more ordinary than we think. We call it strange because we want it to be strange. Kafka didn’t simply describe it, and he didn’t invent it. He blew its cover, and more important still, revealed its alarming frequency. It’s not for nothing that one of his weirdest, most wonderful stories is called ‘A Common Confusion’, literally ‘an everyday confusion’. In an afterword to The Office Writings, Jack Greenberg, a lawyer on the case, recalls the 1954 US Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education, which instructed school administrators to desegregate with ‘all deliberate speed’, that is, either as quickly as possible or as slowly as possible, take your pick. He also mentions a more recent district court opinion regarding the phrase ‘no longer enemy combatants’, used of people who may never have been enemy combatants at all...

Many of the cases Kafka encounters in his work tell just this story: the large posters listing safety regulations but used only to replace broken windows; the lift that a rooming-house owner (who doesn’t want to pay the premium for the insurance of its operators) first claims is powered by a generator nowhere near the house, then by a generator in the house but so thoroughly isolated that it might as well be elsewhere; an insurance assessment system that scarcely ever has access to ‘actual working conditions’; the proposition that at a certain quarry no undercutting goes on, not just because it doesn’t, but because it couldn’t; and a law that is not only inadequate but ‘inadequately interpreted as well’. These last items sound like one of Kafka’s escalating jokes. ‘To imagine even part of the road makes one tired,’ he writes in a story about distances in China, ‘and more than part one just cannot imagine.’
Great fun. I wrote about Kafka's desk here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

All Good Things Are Good Again

There's a new DVD edition of Buster Keaton's amazing The General. Slate's Gary Giddins likey:

Kino initially released a DVD of The General in 1999, which looks like every other version I've seen in theaters or at home—the focus is soft, and the tinted film stock is faded, scratched, and jumpy. The new edition, part of a two-disc set (most of the extras concern the historical basis for the story), is pristine, sharply focused, stable, and gorgeous.

Gorgeous is important, because The General is a peephole into history and by any definition an uncannily beautiful film. Indeed, for a first-time viewer, I would emphasize the beauty over the comedy. Many people are disappointed when they first see The General because they have heard that it is one of the funniest movies ever made. It isn't. Keaton made many films that are tours de force of hilarity, including Sherlock Jr., The Navigator, and Seven Chances (all available from Kino). The General is something else, a historical parody set during the Civil War.
I've always thought of it as a kind of anti-romantic answer to The Birth of a Nation myself. I really like Giddins's second take:
Keaton's best films function as a loving record of American town life, with its shops and picket fences and leisure pursuits, set against a splendor of mountains, gulches, rivers, and fields. Using Cottage Grove, Ore., as his main location, Keaton preserved two eras: the Civil War, re-created with daunting attention to detail, and 1926, as passers-by in Cottage Grove would have seen it—the costumes were of the 19th century, but the buildings and natural surroundings were little changed. Other Civil War films, not least The Great Locomotive Race, Walt Disney's dramatic 1956 telling of the same story (from the perspective of the Union raiders), invariably look like Hollywood pageants. Keaton's authenticity and comedic understatement make The General a surprisingly modern experience. The storytelling and the gags are free of sentimentality and knockabout clichés. The four-minute battle scene is simply one of the most gripping, and occasionally hilarious, ever filmed.
The Slate article has some pretty good clips, too.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

My Boy

September 1986/2008.

A Saltier Metaphor

Thomas Friedman:

Obama can’t wait until Jan. 20 to weigh in on this. If we don’t stimulate the global economy fast enough and big enough, some of Obama’s inaugural balls might be held in soup kitchens.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Two Questions, Same Answer

Maybe I'm just feeling like a reductive ol' pragmatist lately, but I feel like these two very problems both have the same answer.

  1. Daniel Drezner, "Public Intellectual 2.0": "In the current era, many more public intellectuals possess social-science rather than humanities backgrounds. In Richard Posner's infamous list of top public intellectuals, there are twice as many social scientists as humanities professors. In a recent ranking published by Foreign Policy magazine, economists and political scientists outnumber artists and novelists by a ratio of four to one. Economics has supplanted literary criticism as the universal methodology' of most public intellectuals. That fact in particular might explain the strong belief in literary circles that the public intellectual is dead or dying."
  2. Kevin Kelly, "Anachronistic Science": "I've been wondering why science took so long to appear. Why didn't China, which invented so many other things in the first millennial, just keep on going and invent science by 1000 AD? For that matter why didn't the Greeks invent the scientific method during their heyday? What were they missing?... But they could have been, even back then. Aristotle appears to have lacked no materials which would have prevented him from doing simple experiments and observations. There were many things he could not see without telescope and microscope, but there is still hundreds, thousands, if not millions of things he could have measured with tools he did have. But he did not because he didn't have the mindset."
The answer is: methodology and mindsets are both circumlocutions for a more basic notion -- what problems do you need to solve?

I have lots of ideas about public intellectuals. For one thing, the academy is, if anything, WAY MORE publicly accessible than it has ever been, and more artists, critics, poets, novelists than ever have a home in universities. Folks like Walter Benjamin and Ezra Pound were "public" intellectuals because they couldn't get work anywhere but newspapers and magazines.

But I think the more interesting question to ask, rather than why public intellectuals have faded or shifted or drifted or whatever, is this: what problems would/do we need public intellectuals to solve?

Ditto science. It's a bit like asking why Charles Babbage didn't develop a "computer" like ours, with a typewriter and a screen. The guy made a machine that could print calculation tables. That was the problem he needed to solve.

Maybe this is less of a razor than I think it is. Readers, please help.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

So Yummy, So Yummy

I've often said that the edge The Beatles have over Bob Dylan is that The Beatles made great children's music, and Bob never tried.

In the same vein, if you're not down with the wonderful music Mark Mothersbaugh makes for Yo Gabba Gabba, then I feel sorry for you. (And for whatever toddlers live in your home.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Young, Unmasked Man

Pauline Kael, on Orson Welles and Citizen Kane:

An additional quality that old movies acquire is that people can be seen as they once were. It is a pleasure we can’t get in theatre; we can only hear and read descriptions of past fabulous performances. But here in Kane is the young Welles, and he seems almost embarrassed to be exposed as so young. Perhaps he was embarrassed, and that’s why he so often hid in extravagant roles and behind those old-man false faces. He seems unsure of himself as the young Kane, and there’s something very engaging (and surprisingly human) about Welles unsure of himself; he’s a big, overgrown, heavy boy, and rather sheepish, one suspects, at being seen as he is. Many years later, Welles remarked, “Like most performers, I naturally prefer a live audience to that lie-detector full of celluloid.” Maybe his spoiled-baby face was just too nearly perfect for the role, and he knew it, and knew the hostile humor that lay behind Mankiewicz’s putting so much of him in the role of Hearst the braggart self-publicist and making Kane so infantile. That statement of principles that Jed sends back to Kane and that Kane then tears up must surely refer to the principles behind the co-founding of the Mercury Theatre by Welles and Houseman. Lines like Susan’s “You’re not a professional magician are you?” may have made Welles flinch. And it wasn’t just the writer who played games on him. There’s the scene of Welles eating in the newspaper office, which was obviously caught by the camera crew, and which, to be “a good sport,” he had to use. Welles is one of the most self-conscious of actors -- it’s part of his rapport with the audience —- and this is what is so nakedly revealed in this role, in which he’s playing a young man his own age and he’s insecure (and with some reason) about what’s coming through. Something of the young, unmasked man is revealed in these scenes —- to be closed off forever after.

Welles picks up assurance and flair as Kane in his thirties, and he’s also good when Kane is just a little older and jowly. I think there’s no doubt that he’s more sure of himself when he’s playing this somewhat older Kane, and this is the Kane we remember best from the first viewing—the brash, confident Kane of the pre-election-disaster period. He’s so fully -— classically —- American a showoff one almost regrets the change of title. But when I saw the movie again it was the younger Kane who stayed with me -— as if I had been looking through a photograph album and had come upon a group of pictures of an old friend, long dead, as he had been when I first met him. I had almost forgotten Welles in his youth, and here he is, smiling, eager, looking forward to the magnificent career that everyone expected him to have.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Economic Powell Doctrine

Paul Krugman writes about how FDR's caution in doling out economic stimulus in the mid-30s nearly undid the whole recovery from the Great Depression:

After winning a smashing election victory in 1936, the Roosevelt administration cut spending and raised taxes, precipitating an economic relapse that drove the unemployment rate back into double digits and led to a major defeat in the 1938 midterm elections.

What saved the economy, and the New Deal, was the enormous public works project known as World War II, which finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy’s needs.

In his blog, Krugman breaks it down:

Nearly every forecast now says that, in the absence of strong policy action, real GDP will fall far below potential output in the near future. In normal times, that would be a reason to cut interest rates. But interest rates can’t be cut in any meaningful sense. Fiscal policy is the only game in town.

Wait, there’s more. Ben Bernanke can’t push on a string – but he can pull, if necessary. Suppose fiscal policy ends up being too expansionary, so that real GDP “wants” to come in 2 percent above potential. In that case the Fed can tighten a bit, and no harm is done. But if fiscal policy is too contractionary, and real GDP comes in below potential, there’s no potential monetary offset. That means that fiscal policy should take risks in the direction of boldness.
After some sophisticated back-of-the-envelope calculations, Krugman comes up with a number of $600 billion. Short story is, if you go big early, you can squash it out -- if it works, you can always scale it back.

At WHYY's Y Decide, the great Dan Pohlig trumps Krugman's WWII-as-public-works gag for an even better take on the problem:
I wonder if there’s an analogy from recent history that even our conservative friends would agree with.  Since I can’t think of one, maybe I’ll make one up.

Let’s say you overthrow a horrible dictator because you claim that he had something to do with an attack on your country.  So that part goes pretty easily but then you find yourself with this pernicious and deadly insurgency because you forgot that rebuilding a country and providing security is far more difficult and resource intensive as blowing up a bunch of stuff and capturing one lone ex-dictator (which it turns out, is far easier than capturing one lone nomadic terrorist).  So you send a few troops over but you find that things continue to get worse.  Every time you stop one bit of the insurgency, it just retreats and attacks a different part of the country where your forces aren’t located.  Your troops are dying.  The people who live in the country are dying.  Infrastructure is being blown up just as quickly as it’s built.

So you decide, this little bit of time tactic just isn’t working and you decide to send a whole BUNCH of troops over at one time to stop all of the insurgents everywhere at once.  You could call it the “WAVE” or the “SWELLING” or maybe the “SURGE.”  After a few months, you find that by throwing a huge amount of resources over a short period of time, you can stop the insurgency for just enough time to let that nation’s own army come into line.  With things stabilizing, you can pull all of your troops out and call it Mission Accomplished… or something.
I'll go Dan one better, and make the hawkish liberal argument for both Iraq and the stimulus. The problem with the timing of the "surge," in both Iraq and (potentially) the economy, is that only by going big early can you really get a handle on the thing. Try to do it on the cheap, thinking you might be able to scale things up later, and you'll waste more blood and treasure (natch) putting out fires than you would spend in the first place by doing it right.

So we need to gather up our allies, get consensus, and do this thing with overwhelming force. We need to follow the Powell Doctrine for economic intervention.

Two quick notes. First -- why not Paul Krugman for Secretary of the Treasury? He hasn't always been kind to Obama, but not only is the dude awesome and liberal, he is a great communicator to the people, which is what we're going to need to get big-time buy-in from the American people for the big plans he'd want to support. Also, in case you hadn't heard, P-Krug just won the Nobel Prize.

Second -- a possible benefit of the gov't bailout of banks is that numbers in the hundreds of billions suddenly become feasible for economic projects in a way that they weren't even a year ago. You can say $600 billion for economic stimulus and not sound like you're overshooting it. You can push for universal health care, and the price tag doesn't seem overwhelming.

But we're also threatened by the fact that the bailout/stimulus becomes the default way we handle these problems. For instance, the Big Three's health care and pension plans are collapsing, a disaster that was bound to happen, and one which many commentators have said for years might create the political will for a move towards universal/socialized health care. But instead, it's happening while all this other mess is going on, so instead of changing the health care system, the Big Three will probably get some kind of gov't bailout, and still cut health care and pensions to retirees.

That is six kinds of suck. I'm with Dan and Paul and the gang. Obama should go big, long, and do the thing up right.

Lie Down Now and Remember the Forest

Susan Stewart has a new book of poetry out, but Ange Mlinko's lovely review in The Nation references many others, including my very favorite Stewart poem, Columbarium's "Apple":

If I could come back from the dead, I would come back
for an apple, and just for the first bite, the first
break, and the cold sweet grain
against the roof of the mouth, as plain
and clear as water.
Some apple names are almost forgotten
and the apples themselves are gone. The smokehouse,
winesap and York imperial, the striped
summer rambo and the winter banana, the little
Rome with its squat rotunda and the pound apple
that pulled the boughs to the ground.

By the way:
Columbarium took as its epigraph the passage in Plato's Theaetetus where the soul is compared to an aviary full of birds: "Now let us make in each soul a sort of aviary of all kinds of birds.... Then we must say that when we are children this receptacle is empty; and by the birds we must understand pieces of knowledge."

"Apple" is the first poem in an ABC of "shadow georgics." Stewart is the only contemporary poet I know of who can sound avant-garde and like Virgil at the same time.

She is also a wonderful teacher and friend. I continually miss her wise humor.

Via Silliman.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Populist Chic

Mark Lilla in the Wall Street Journal:

Back in the '70s, conservative intellectuals loved to talk about "radical chic," the well-known tendency of educated, often wealthy liberals to project their political fantasies onto brutal revolutionaries and street thugs, and romanticize their "struggles." But "populist chic" is just the inversion of "radical chic," and is no less absurd, comical or ominous. Traditional conservatives were always suspicious of populism, and they were right to be. They saw elites as a fact of political life, even of democratic life. What matters in democracy is that those elites acquire their positions through talent and experience, and that they be educated to serve the public good. But it also matters that they own up to their elite status and defend the need for elites. They must be friends of democracy while protecting it, and themselves, from the leveling and vulgarization all democracy tends toward.
At some point, there needs to be a serious critique of the term "elite," particularly with respect to democratic society. Under what conditions is a democratic elite possible, let alone desirable? I am not sure that Lilla has this right, or whether he's even off to the right start -- but it seems clear that we have all been attacking, defending, and discussing elites without really knowing what we are talking about.

Via Andrew Sullivan.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The New Typography

I've spent a good chunk of the last couple of days dipping into this amazing index of early-twentieth century German and Swiss books and magazines. For instance, check out the Archiv für Buchgewerbe und Gebrauchsgraphik, the house magazine for the association of German printers, complete with loose-leaf brochures and inserts. Or curator Felix Wiedler's fine commentary on Jan Tschichold's Die Neue Typographie:

this plain black cloth cover belongs to one of the most important typography books of the 20th century. after his manifesto "elementare typographie" (elemental typography) had been published as a special issue of the trade union's magazine "typographische mitteilungen" in 1925, jan tschichold (1902-1974) wrote this comprehensive book that adressed ideological and practical issues of the "new typography" movement.

tschichold designed the book in a very straightforward way: sans-serif type, black cloth cover with a silver-coloured spine title (often rubbed off, but still partly there on this copy). black endpapers seem to underline that this book is about "die schwarze kunst", the black art of printing. bold page numbers, fat lines, and footnotes marked by bullet points are typical for early "new typography" designs.

this book is much more ideologically charged than tschichold's later publications. his enthusiasm for sans-serif (and roman, to a certain degree) goes as far as to denounce all other typefaces and alphabets as "nationalism"– not only blackletter, but also "greek, cyrillic (=russian and bulgarian), turkish (=arabic), chinese (=japanese), indian and other exotic scripts (zulus, papuas, etc.)"! soon tschichold would revise this extremely euro-centric position and endorse a "good mix" of typefaces, and he actually turned into a great admirer of far eastern printing culture.
If you're at all into typography, book culture, or Weimar German-y, you should check it out. (p.s., that's Tschichold's hand writing "schrift" -- kleinschrift, natch -- over in my profile shot at left.)

via things magazine.

Democracy Trouble

The effect of Obama's election on world politics is yet to be determined. If you view it through the lens of the past eight years, a century of American hegemony, or the long-historical view of global colonialism, the consensus seems to be restoration of the U.S. image in the world and better opportunities for international collaboration -- generally, a move towards greater stability.

See Nick Kristof:

The outpouring [of global excitement for Obama] suggests that the United States will enjoy an Obama dividend of global good will in the coming months, a chance to hammer out progress on common threats. “Barack” means blessing in Swahili, and this election feels like America’s great chance to rejoin the world after eight years of self-exile.
Or Roger Cohen:
What I am sure of is this: an ever more interconnected world, where financial chain reactions spread with the virulence of plagues, thirsts for American renewal and a form of American leadership sensitive to humanity’s tied fate.
But if you look closer, at individual nations, with their own histories and troubles with democracy, ethnic conflict, and demographic change, then the example of Obama has a much more complex effect.

Rachel Leow:
What is Malaysia’s original sin? Or in other words, what is the singular injustice which we have wrought unto ourselves, and upon which we, too, should begin to build our own perfection?

Like America, our problems are also born out of racial discontent. We might rail against our colonial heritage, and say that it is solely because of people like Furnivall, Winstedt, Clementi and all our largely well-intentioned but racist British officers, that our society divided racially in the way that it did. Those who do will be led to the erroneous conclusion that we have already built our perfection with the flagstones of Merdeka; that Malaysia, freed from the British grip, is by definition already perfect. But I do not think it’s possible to abjure responsibility for the past fifty years, in which we have had our Merdeka, in which we been our own people, but during which we chose, and still choose to remain racially divided. In a way, I think, we too have been guilty of a kind of slavery, though not of the physical kind. We have enslaved ourselves to a false idea: that we can’t help casting each another as eternally divided (lesser) beings, because the ‘facts’ of linguistic, cultural and religious difference will not allow reconciliation; because the ‘reality’ of money politics condemns all hope of unity as naive; because this, because that, and fifty years of ‘just because’.
G. Pascal Zachary:
Obamania in Kenya has gone on for years now, but the hype isn’t just about the president-elect’s roots. Rather, Kenya’s Obama fixation seems to represent a kind of escapist fantasy for an African country beset by political dysfunctionality. Still raw with the memory of the electoral violence that left hundreds dead last spring, Kenya is thirsty for exactly the sort of change Obama represents. Indeed, the Illinois senator seems to possess everything that Kenya’s political leaders lack: youthfulness, a conciliatory image, and the hope of transcending narrow ethnic identities in favor of a common national interest.

To grasp why the Obama fascination in Kenya came to be, return to January of this year, when the country suffered through the worst post-election violence in its 45-year history. A political bargain ended the crisis but failed to address the enmity between rival factions and ethnic groups here. Current Prime Minister Raila Odinga garnered much of his support from the Luo ethnic group, which remains deeply suspicious of the country’s dominant Kikyu, led by President Mwai Kibaki. And the skepticism runs both ways.

In a country where most political elites are over 60 but half the population is under 20 years old, Obama’s youth and his message of unity has a strong appeal. As one writer to the East African newspaper observed Monday, the ‘old boys’ of Kenyan politics should be swept aside, replaced by a new generation. “Younger Kenyans,” wrote B. Amaya of Nairobi, “should emulate Obama in order to change the tribal nature of our politics.”
Shake 'em up.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Obama Selbst oder Mit Kinder

The two best places to find pictures of Obama are:

  1. The Big Picture
  2. Yes We Can (Hold Babies)
Exhibit A (from The Big Picture):

Exhibit B from Yes We Can (Hold Babies):

Both sites just go on and on and on with pictures like these. Dude just flat out has got game.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

An Arrow Into the Future

I mentioned on Monday that the news of Madelyn Dunham's death had made me weep. The reasons why are personal and complex, and I don't even fully understand them, but I'm clearly not the only one who found the whole sweep of the drama emotionally surprising.

Robin at Snarkmarket wrote about his brief panic of urgency: a hallucination of being turned awayat the polls, compounded with anxiety less for the outcome than for his personal responsibility to vote. And it seems as though moments of Obama-induced fright were not uncommon. Either this anxiety gets displaced, forming conspiracy theories -- "the polls are too good, the Republicans will find a way to steal it"; it rebounds on the person, as in Robin's case -- "Oh my god, what if I haven't done everything right?"; or it fixates on concern for Obama himself, especially his safety and well-being.

Obama's hair has started to turn gray this election season. (At the Al Smith dinner, Obama jokingly attributed his salt-and-pepper look to Hillary Clinton.) And each day and week have made him seem older.

There are certain characteristics of Obama's that I find deeply compelling -- his sensitivity, his psychological acuity -- which testify to his own slightly disassociated and lonely sense of himself. It is an unusually potent combination -- a man who can identify with the loneliness of others. Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings wrote about Obama's own sense of this in his autobiography:
He also seems to have an unusual personality for a politician: early on in Dreams From My Father, he writes: "I had grown too comfortable in my solitude, the safest place I knew." Immediately afterwards, he tells the story of an elderly man who lives in his building, who he sees sometimes, helps with the groceries, but who has never said a word to him. He thinks of the man as a kindred spirit. Later, the man is found dead; his apartment is "neat, almost empty", with money squirreled away throughout. It's clear, from the way he tells the story, that this seems to him to be one of his possible fates, and though his description of the man is kind throughout, it's also clear that Obama thinks: his fate is to be avoided.
Even more so than Bill Clinton, Obama's biography is characterized by loss, absence: the father he barely knew; the mother who lived for years on another continent and then died too young; the half-siblings and extended family whom (besides his sister Maya) he's barely known. A fierce attachment to Michelle and their daughters, but rarely seeing them, and hardly ever alone. His mother, her teenaged love for his father, her death of cancer, loomed as large over this election as anyone, not least when he chided reporters looking for a salacious story in Bristol Palin's pregnancy with an abrupt reminder that his mother, too, was a teen mom.

His grandmother was his last parent, his last tie to that childhood world of solitude. John McCain, in his seventies, still travels with his mother. To watch Barack Obama, a still-young man turning gray, and to feel that sense of loneliness, that slipping away of the past into the inescapable, is to sense something awesome in its melancholy, historic in its domesticity. To watch him square his shoulders against the future, to turn loss not into need but into action, is wondrous. Especially for those of us who too often nurture our solitude, who watch our selves dissipate rather than harden, and for that reason see in him someone we know.

I Agonized Over This. Really.

But this is the song that best summarizes how I feel.

Obama 2012.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

On the Way to the Paper Ballot

Jill LePore's history of American voting (which also manages to be a history of British and Australian voting) is amazing:

In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, eighty-nine Americans were killed at the polls during Election Day riots... The American adoption of the “Australian ballot”—and the radical idea that governments should provide ballots—was hard fought. It lies, if long forgotten, behind every argument about how we ought to vote now, from the 2002 Help America Vote Act’s promotion of paperless voting to the more recent backlash, favoring a paper trail. And it is also, like every other American election reform, a patch upon a patch...

The states, left to their own devices, adopted electoral methods best described as higgledy-piggledy, except that everyone agreed that Election Day ought to be a public holiday, involving plenty of stumping, debating, and parading. Some of the original state constitutions make mention of voting by ballot; some don’t... Early paper voting was, to say the least, a hassle. You had to bring your own ballot, a scrap of paper. You had to (a) remember and (b) know how to spell the name of every candidate and office. If “John Jones” was standing for election, and you wrote “Jon Jones,” your vote could be thrown out. (If you doubt how difficult this is, try it. I disenfranchise myself at “Comptroller.”) Shrewd partisans began bringing prewritten ballots to the polls, and handing them out with a coin or two. Doling out cash—the money came to be called “soap”—wasn’t illegal; it was getting out the vote...

A government-printed ballot that voters had, even minimally, to read made it much harder for immigrants, former slaves, and the uneducated poor to vote. Some precincts formally imposed and selectively administered literacy tests; others resorted to ranker chicanery. (In 1894, one Virginian congressional district printed its ballots in Gothic letters.) In the South, where black men had been granted suffrage in 1870, by the Fifteenth Amendment, it was fear of the black Republican majority that led many former Confederate states to adopt the reform in the first place. As a Democratic campaign song heard in Arkansas in 1892 put it:

The Australian ballot works like a charm,
It makes them think and scratch,
And when a Negro gets a ballot
He has certainly got his match.

The year after Arkansas passed its Australian-ballot law, the percentage of black men who managed to vote dropped from seventy-one to thirty-eight. By 1896, Americans in thirty-nine out of forty-five states cast secret, government-printed ballots. The turnout, nationwide? Eighty per cent, which was about what it had been since the eighteen-thirties. It has been falling, more or less steadily, ever since.
Reading, writing, paper, print, nineteenth-century hurlyburly. I'm in love. Can't believe I missed this in October.

The Fork, The Divining Rod

First, an announcement. Beginning shortly after the election, I will be dividing my blogging efforts between this site and Snarkmarket, longtime home of the brainiest and most earnest guys I know, Matt Thompson and Robin Sloan.

Snarkmarket can truthfully be said to be the parent of Short Schrift, as it was through Matt and Robin's efforts on that site that I became acquainted with the world of blogging and a good chunk of the technological, pop-cultural, and political concerns about print and digital media that evolved into common point of departure of both that site and this one. My way-too-long, way-too-engaged comments on Snarkmarket were the seeds from which Short Schrift was born, and links from Snarkmarket and readers of Snarkmarket created, along with my mom, the core audience of Short Schrift, now some thousand strong.

But Snarkmarket grew too, bigger and faster; Robin brought the parousia, Matt the skepsis, and in the comments or here on Short Schrift, I was the guy who used words like parousia and skepsis. And apparently, they decided that that was just what they needed.

I am excited, because frankly, I want to be the coolest assistant professor in the country, and there's no way to be cooler than to have a widely read blog that is not, largely, about being an assistant professor or the work that an assistant professor does. (I could be wrong, but I think I'll be the only one.)

I'm not going to check my brain, my library, or my experience at the door, but I need and want to remain rooted in the kind of writing and engagement that we find here -- a world filled neither with canny activists nor ironic professionals but with people who are interested in what is best and most important about what's happening now, and who really love to talk about it.

Short Schrift is going nowhere. I finally got my mom to learn one URL, and I'm not asking her to learn another. But it will be part of the greater Snarkmatrix, and will probably be more personal and academic-y. You might see the frequency of posts slow down a bit, but if anything, the total Tim-output will tick up a notch.

So, come on. I know a cool place where we can talk.

Walk On

I - ah - I - ah - I - I - I'm so tired

But I just can't lose my stride

Monday, November 03, 2008

He Called Her "Toot"

I'm crying like a dummy over the news that Madelyn Dunham, Barack Obama's grandmother, died today. Maybe tomorrow I can try to explain why.

True Signs of a Nation Healed

On the eve of Election Day, trust Steve Almond to see the bigger picture. In "Republicans I Have Loved" -- subtitled "They were moral. I was flexible." -- he remembers those golden days before absolute political clarity -- i.e., before Bush v. Gore -- when liberals and conservatives could unite, however briefly, to find love together.

I remember it well. It was a time when political differences seemed smaller, disagreements less iron-clad, recriminations less politically hurtful. Only your future together was doomed by your failure to see eye-to-eye (rather than chest-to-chest or thigh-to-thigh), not the future of the country itself. Gas cost 89 cents a gallon, credit was cheap and plentiful, and college dropouts could net dot-com jobs that paid for apartments in SoHo or SoMa. Truly, it was a paradise. Not least because of the interfaith intercourse.

We will know that Barack Obama has finally put the animating evil of bitter partisanship to rest when once again, young people of all political persuasions and cultural backgrounds can unite for trysts that are forbidden only by God's law and their own better judgment, not irreversible and implacable disagreements about the fundamental source of evil in our political universe.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Future Shock's photographer Brett Marty sees the future:

On November the 5th, FiveThirtyEight will shock the political world by turning into a porn site -- but a high quality one that continues to challenge conventional wisdom.
You go where the money is. Other goodies:
EV: Obama 396 -- Kerry states plus IA, NM, CO, VA, NV, FL, OH, MO, NC, IN, MT, ND, GA. The state Obama will win by the smallest margin will be Georgia, the closest state he'll lose will be West Virginia.

Book and Nonbook

"The Kindle acknowledges the Internet; it hears its clamorous demands. It just ignores those demands. For the user, this means the Kindle bestows on the contemporary reader the ultimate grace: it keeps the Internet at bay." Virginia Heffernan is anything but a Luddite, so her backhanded praise of the Kindle comes across as both absolutely sincere and technologically meaningful:

In short, you get absorbed when reading on the Kindle. You lose hours to reading novels in one sitting. You sit up straighter, energized by new ideas and new universes. You nod off, periodically, infatuated or entranced or spent. And yet the slight connection to the Web still permits the (false, probably, but nonetheless reassuring) sense that if the apocalypse came while you were shut away somewhere reading, the machine would get the news from and find a way to let you know. Anything short of that, though, the Kindle leaves you alone.

And alone is where I want to be, for now. It’s bliss. Emerge from the subway or alight from a flight, and the Kindle has no news for you. No missed calls. It’s ready only to be read. It’s like a good exercise machine that mysteriously incentivizes the pursuit of muscle pain while still making you feel cared for. The Kindle makes you want to read, and read hard, and read prolifically. It eventually makes me aware that, compared with reading a lush, inky book, checking e-mail is boring, workaday and lame.

But no sooner have I decided that, for now, I’ve discovered in the Kindle a way to tame the anxiety of the demanding digital world without totally abjuring its pleasures, when I find myself explaining the device to my seatmate on the plane. (He asked! I swear!) As I splutter on about it, I suddenly realize that the Kindle is, above all, uncool. I can see him furrowing his brow as I praise the Kindle’s uneasy relationship with the Internet. He looks at the gray screen and says, “That’s way too dim.”

To my discomfort, I struggle to return to my Robinson novel. But after 10 minutes of self-consciously reading and rereading the same pages, I get into it again. The shadowy hue of the “page” and the letters of digital ink become my whole world once more. And my seatmate, with his awesome 3G iPhone, has nothing more to say to me. My Kindle announces me as an oddball, a wallflower. A reader, then.
But when I read the tagline for Heffernan's story in my RSS reader -- "A good electronic reader is just the right mix of book and nonbook" -- I expected something a little bit different, probably because I would identify "the right mix" as something a little closer to the "nonbook" side than the Kindle, probably because despite my incurable bibliophilia, my own sense of what reading is skews much farther away from the traditional handheld codex printed book.

I do not know whether we can begin with the ideal hardware (or more broadly speaking, the interface) for reading or one of several possible ideal media forms for reading but it is clear that the two work together. A device optimized for the experience of reading a novel will be different from a device optimized to read a newspaper, and a device optimized to read web pages will be different from a device optimized to read children's books. All of these will be different again from devices optimized for email, for maps, for notes, for bank statements, for sheet music, for pictures, for calendars, for charts and graphs, for textual chatting, and so forth. We've developed different physical forms over the last few centuries for all of these, precisely because we recognize, even if only unconsciously, that reading is a complex and multifaceted individual experience and social phenomenon. We can't cut-and-paste one player in that ecosystem and act like none of the rest of it ever happened.

The most versatile reading and writing machine we've created to date is the laptop computer. (As I tell my students, the word "book" has meant many, many different things over its history, and there's a reason why they're all typing on MacBooks.) It's possible that either a pocket-sized device like the iPhone could compete with it as a reader or that a tablet-sized version not unlike the Kindle might be able to replicate either 1) enough of that versatility or 2) a handful of forms sufficiently well that versatility ceases to be a problem. But if anything, electronic reading is expanding the types and varieties of reading exponentially beyond the age of wood-pulp and industrial print. I want a reader that can at least keep up -- and preferably might drive some of that innovation itself.