Levering sighed and shook his head. Lady was already anemic, asthmatic, and congenitally blind. She had been born on the streets of Wilmington four years earlier, and dropped at a local animal clinic at the age of six months. Soon after Levering and his wife adopted her, she became allergic to her own tooth enamel. "That was a weird thing," Levering said. "Never heard of that before." But he had willingly paid four hundred dollars to have all her teeth pulled. In retrospect, it seemed like a bargain.
Like everyone else, I read (way) more book reviews than books, and I occasionally feel bad about it. For me, reading literary criticism without having read much literature is the cultural equivalent of flossing; a Sisyphean task that feels so good because it hurts so much. If Catholics receive absolution by going to confession and Protestants by going to the dentist, I get it by reading The New York Review of Books.
If I am driven to read lit crit by cultural and vocational insecurities, I often come away from it feeling the self-loathing that comes from following too closely the antics of the House of Windsor: Are the dramas of these fundamentally alien people truly relevant to my existence? Having neither lived in New York nor read Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I am confronted with the sensation of being disqualified to comment on the writings of these people, yet I want to share their (apparent) conviction that Literature Matters. I’ve followed the work of Ana Marie Cox since her days at Suck, when the novelty of Internet publishing obscured the inconvenient reality that longevity as an online writer probably required some degree of meatspace proximity to actual culture or reporting. Cox has recently held a brief as gadfly for The Believer’s Snarkwatch, and a mission of her blog (currently guest-hosted but nonetheless on-message) has been to question the tenet of The Believer (and, by implication, of Believer-founder Eggers) that contemporary literary criticism (and, one supposes, literature) is unhelpfully fraught with "snarkiness." I’m trying (believe me) to get worked up about this, particularly because I’ve read at least of couple of the books mentioned and the thread seems open to laypersons. Then Clive James (who?) shows up in the New York Times with a Jon Stewart.
The tragic thing is, I actually read "Measuring the Jump" (it being A Browfurrowing Work of Reassuring Brevity). Having been exposed to both plauditory and snarky discussions of Eggers, I restrained every instinct to judge, lest I find myself too directly influenced by the opinions of others. Of course, this disaffected inability to judge is (reportedly) Eggers’s stock in trade, so I began to wonder if I weren’t having an "authentic" reaction to Eggers’s prose after all. In the end, I despaired of my patience. It was only seven magazine pages long; how could I slog through 496 paperback pages? I lost it after the protagonist Fish recalls being scammed for twenty bucks:
The thing is, Fish had just wanted to help the guy. He spent that first day thinking he had helped the man, believing in the community of souls, in Daly City or anywhere, and then that man took it away. He reached inside Fish and took that from him.
Anyway, if Powell succeeds in securing a Security Council resolution that both significantly reduces the military and financial burdens to the U.S. and increases the international investment in the reconstruction of Iraq, it will be an unquestionably good thing. I imagine it will also dramatically reduce the likelihood of Powell departing the Bush Administration prior to the 2004 election. There’s still quite a few months to go, however, and it’s "not too late" for Cheney and Rummy to indulge in a little payback. Add in the prospect of a Clark candidacy hammering on the Bush Administration’s military and diplomatic fecklessness, and Powell might yet grasp the greater part of valor.
Know anyone who’s hiring?
It’s more that when you start using the term "liar" promiscuously in public discourse, you make such discourse increasingly impossible. The term should be reser[ve]d only for a conscious and deliberate statement that you know is untrue as you s[pe]ak or write it. It’s rarer than you might think. That’s why calling someone a "liar" is forbidden in the House of Commons. It undermines the good faith necessary for democratic discussion. Which is a large part of what people like Al Franken are all about.
When Kerry disagrees with you, he makes you feel as though the disagreement is his problem. When Dean disagrees with you, he makes you feel as though it’s your problem.
A couple of weeks ago, Salam Pax reported
that a friend of his was unfairly detained and assaulted by U.S.
military personnel in Baghdad. A few Bush-apologist bloggers
picked it up, expressing the suspicion that it was an anomalous incident
and the hope that the American military authorities would take steps to
minimize such incidents in the future, "lest this develop into a
public relations problem for the U.S." Last week, U.S.
military personnel invaded the home of Salam Paxs family, acting
on a tip based on the suspicious comings and goings of the carpenters
renovating the kitchen. After helping themselves to Salam
Paxs fathers Johnny Walker, the Armies of One asked the Pax
family "several pointless questions," and then left.
Salam Pax posted his report
of the incident Thursday night Pacific Time, but as of this writing I
havent seen any of his former boosters mention it, let alone
comment on how it reflects on the wisdom of the Bush Administrations
occupation liberation policy.
I guess someone should have filled Salam Pax in on the American observance of Labor Day ("Its not in May?") and its effect on filing deadlines. Yeah, thats it.
The latest example: Rush Chairman Jonah
Goldberg is back with tales from his vacation in Alaska, on his way to
which he detoured through Vermont in order to collect hooks on which to hang a
at Howard Dean. Goldberg’s myopia isn’t limited to political
provincialism, however; he also finds time to bash
Vermont park rangers for failing to clairvoyantly divine that his disregard
for posted park regulations and traffic signage was driven by his child’s
and dog’s pressing metabolic needs. Knowing that all breeders suffer
the ill-will provoked by our more selfish fellow parents, I was moved to drop
Goldberg a note:
Date: Wednesday 20 August 2003, 09:40 PDT
To: Jonah Goldberg
From: Eric Scharf
Subject: The Birds and the Bees
Dear Mr. Goldberg,
Thank you for sharing piquant anecdotes from your vacation. Colorful caricatures of local denizens are essential to any travel memoir; they simultaneously provide educational justification for the journey while congratulating the traveler for having the good sense to live where he does. Permit me to welcome you back to a region unpopulated by people who communicate their shallow world-views through their appearance.
I am dismayed, however, by your unfair characterization of the motives of the Vermont state park employees who received your family at Thetford State Park. From your writing, I know you are keenly alert to instances of blind narcissism in all forms. As the parent of a small child myself, I have experienced countless occasions where I have let my child’s needs override any obligation I might have to respect either public ordinance or private property. On no occasion, however, have I had the self-absorption to expect others either to be aware of my child’s needs or to share my sensitivity to them. As a free-market conservative, surely you can appreciate the principle of bearing the costs of your decisions (in this case, taking a small child and dog on a long road trip) with grace and forbearance.
I’m glad you enjoyed Alaska. I have always wanted to visit it, but for some reason I’ve been concerned that Alaskans would refuse to rub my wife’s back after the long drive.
[C]omplaining that your political opponents have a propaganda machine is like complaining that the jockey youre riding against has a horse.
Of course. But the righties have gotten pretty far spurning such advice, and I dont see this changing so long as lefties continue to pay service to notions of journalistic objectivity.
But on the deceptively bright afternoon of 14 August 2003, that world disappeared forever. Televisions went black. Cell phones fizzled out. Hair dryers lost their wind. Even the Internet, that eternal chorus of joyful noises, fell mute. Millions were trapped in dark offices and silent homes, robbed of any meaningful diversion or purpose. Who can forget the astonishing footage (seen hours later) of the exodus of newly-conscripted pedestrians streaming out of Manhattan, bound for a world without CD players, automatic-ice machines, or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy?
Power may be restored in some areas, but we can never go back to our previous guileless experience. We know now that while electricity may be our servant, it will never be our friend. Our over-reliance on electrical appliances is our wired weakness, our Achilles Fuse. When the nation has recovered from the shock, we will finally realize that we are at war, and have been for some time. The forces of electrification have been at work for over a century, and our vigilance has been sapped by a climate-controlled lethargy.
We shall not despair; if we whine, the blackout will have won. This country was founded by brave, resourceful men, women, and children who knew how to thrive and prosper without clothes dryers or DVDs. It is on these inner resources that we shall draw in the coming struggle. As we recall the wisdom of our great-grandparents and re-learn to hand-wash our dishes, cook without microwaves, and communicate by U.S.P.S., we will be able to say that we, too, could be a greatest generation.
Remember 8/14: The Day That Ironing Died.
I suppose part of the reason for the large number of candidates is a phenomenon that helped make the recall possible in the first place: the low voter turnout for the November 2002 election. Had the turnout been higher, the greater number of signatures needed to launch the recall might have been too many for the recalls sponsors to gather (or might have deterred them from trying at all). The low turnout also gave the impression that Gray Davis won by being the biggest fish in a very boring pond, leading to the conclusion that name recognition and/or gimmicky novelty might have outweighed political acumen.
But it seems clear to me that the chief attraction for all these gubernatorial candidacies is their brevity. The candidates have less than two months to make their case to the single largest regional electorate in the nation. There is much less time to raise money, hire focus groups, produce ads (and counter-ads and counter-counter-ads), hold debates, and kiss babies. In a longer campaign, the costs of supporting all these activities gives the advantage to those candidates backed by established networks of volunteers, donors, and professionals. In this relatively short "lightning campaign," the pols are on a more level playing field with colorful amateurs.
However one feels about the recall, the candidates, or the ultimate victor in California, the 2003 recall election will almost certainly compare favorably with the spiritual death march of the 2004 presidential primary and general elections. While most election reform treads too heavily on freedom of speech for my comfort, I cant help longing for some way to shorten the campaign season, which for quadrennial elections has now reached eighteen months, which is longer than the most advanced hype for the next Harry Potter movie.
It seems that the brain can, in some cases, retain a visual faculty for processing images without visual input, drawing instead from other senses as well as the imagination. This, of course, provoked my epistemological paranoia; how would I know if (any of) my senses were subtly but significantly impaired, particularly if they had been so since childhood or earlier? (For more in this vein, see Sackss forthcoming study of this writer, The Man Who Mistook His Life For A Novel.)
The plasticity of the brain to adapt to new mental activities to which Sacks attributes the visual processing of blind people seems to jibe with (my understanding of) what we know about the development of the brain (as the father of a toddler, I am anxiously aware of Conventional Wisdom regarding how best to stimulate and mold childrens brains). Though trained as a scientist, Sacks inevitably turns to questions of philosophy when the limits of neurology have been reached. The result here is a guarded claim for self-actualization: the blind may retain their sight, if they truly want to.
More immediately provocative to me were the implications of one of the examples Sacks gives of varying capacities for visual processing:
I first became conscious that there could be huge variations in visual imagery and visual memory when I was fourteen or so. My mother was a surgeon and comparative anatomist, and I had brought her a lizards skeleton from school. She gazed at this intently for a minute, turning it around in her hands, then put it down and without looking at it again did a number of drawings of it, rotating it mentally by thirty degrees each time, so that she produced a series, the last drawing exactly the same as the first. I could not imagine how she had done this, and when she said that she could "see" the skeleton in her mind just as clearly and vividly as if she were looking at it, and that she simply rotated the image through a twelfth of a circle each time, I felt bewildered, and very stupid. I could hardly see anything with my minds eyeat most, faint, evanescent images over which I had no control.
Proponents of the infamous female inferiority in spatial relations may dismiss Sackss mother as a statistical outlier and may cling to evidence of the effects of early hormone exposure upon fetal brain development, but I cant help wondering if the plasticity demonstrated by blind people who "practice" visualization might not also avail people with predetermined (chromosomally or otherwise) deficiencies in certain mental faculties. As I consider how best to expose my child to a hyperstimulating world, these questions lose their ponderousness.
What raises this dislike from the level of petulant indifference to caustic denunciationother than having to publicly fund a for-profit baseball stadium, that isis the thuggish conflation of baseball mysticism with nostrums of national identity that deters one from applying too much analytical rigor to the history of baseball (and America) while at the same time makes one feel accursed for having missed its halcyon days.
It was therefore with grim delight that I discovered the field of sabermetrics, which purports to challenge traditional measures of skill in baseball. My discovery was occasioned by the recent publication of Moneyball, which studies the application of sabermetrics by the management of the Oakland Athletics. After reading about it in a critical discussion of Moneyball on Slate, sabermetrics struck me as nothing so much as how a min-maxing gamer would approach baseball. Indeed, a New Yorker profile of Bill James hails him as sabermetrics "founding nerd."
Detractors of sabermetrics lament that its widespread application would make baseball more technical and (somehow) less exciting. Walks are boring, stolen bases are fun, goes the argument. Perhaps. But if the geeks are right and empiricism comes to crowd out hoary notions of "the fundamentals," baseball fans who prefer their arguments untainted by scientific rigor are invited to follow a sport where no meaningful objective standard for comparing player performance exists and where discussions of player merit remain squarely in the realm of visceral froth.
If non-believers truly are such an oppressed minority, they might better serve their cause by sticking with irony, their first and best killer-app. Ive seen alternative suggestions for "doomed," "damned," and (as a kind of back-formation from the expropriation of "gay") "gloomy." This last captures, I think, the pride in stoicism necessary to distinguishing adamant non-believers, but it lacks a pop-culture cachet to really speed the meme on its way. I know! Lets call them "Eeyores":
"Thats right," said Eeyore. "Sing. A-le-le, a-le-loo. Here we go gathering Nuts and May. Enjoy yourself."
"I am," said Pooh.
"Some can," said Eeyore.
"Why, whats the matter?"
"Is anything the matter?"
"You seem so sad, Eeyore."
"Sad? Why should I be sad? Its Easter Sunday. The most miraculous day of the year."
"Easter Sunday?" said Pooh in great surprise.
"Of course it is. Cant you see? Look at all the miracles Ive experienced." He waved a foot from side to side. "Look at the Risen Christ. Salvation and life eternal."
Pooh lookedfirst to the right and then to the left.
"Miracles?" said Pooh. "Resurrection?" said Pooh. "Where?"
"Cant you see them?"
"No," said Pooh.
"Neither can I," said Eeyore. "Joke," he explained. "Ha ha!"
Or something like that.
One is tempted to advocate a policy similar to those of certain European countries which maintain lists of "acceptable" names from which parents must choose. Such governmental intervention in so personal a matter seems obscene to Americans, but it is part and parcel of societies that lack the American cultural fetishiziation of identity and contempt for governmental registration. In such societies, no one regards ones "official" name as having a significant connection to ones identity; your school records, passport, drivers license, and marriage certificate may all read "Jean-Luc," but everyone calls you "Yo-Yo." Like ones language, ethnicity, religion, and social class, ones name is considered part of the inevitable baggage for which one can hardly be accountable. In exercising control over the naming of children, governments in such societies not only standardize record-keeping but also claim to protect children from the stigma of capricious names. Despite declining marriage rates, European governments also affect a horror of the stigma of illegitimacy and so require children take their fathers surname (in the case of unmarried parents, a father wishing to pass on his surname is required to make a formal Declaration of Patrimony, both earning certain rights and incurring certain obligations).
In the United States, about the only tradition we still honor is self-re-invention. Accordingly, we make it relatively easy for anyone 18 years or older to legally change their name to anything composed of ASCII characters. Similarly, Americans have had little trouble accommodating (socially if not bureaucratically) hyphenated surnames for spouses and their offspring. Nevertheless, changing ones name is still most commonly associated with either marriage or an artistic career. Many professionals (typically females) who are accomplished before marriage feel obliged to keep their maiden surnames while their children take what, absent professional concerns, would be their married surnames.
As both an American and an information worker with a fetish for etiquette, Im not convinced that the "problems" of absurdly contrived first names or cumbersomely appended surnames require a "solution," least of all one imposed by the government. What I would like to see is a greater social recognition of the congruence between ones pre-majority name and ones unemancipated status as a minor. That is to say, Id like it to be more commonplace for 18-year-olds to seriously consider changing their names. I dont want it to be a requirement, of course, but it should be made as easy as possible, like Motor Voter Registration; on your 18th birthday, you receive a Name Change Form in the mail from your state. I imagine most people would keep the name their parents gave them, but many would not, resulting in greater acceptance of names as impermanent, and a concomitant accommodation for non-traditional names or children with names different from their parents. If it becomes a rite of passage for a child to be "re-christened" when he or she attains majority, it becomes less important what surname the child is given at birth, and therefore there is less consequence to what surname the parents adopt at marriage.
As a father, I am well aware of the social role played by surnames in establishing and enforcing paternity. I expect my proposal would be criticized by both fathers rights advocates and those who believe fathers need greater encouragement to support their families. When my French wife and I married, she replaced her birth surname (identical to her fathers surname) with my surname (identical to my fathers surname). This was entirely her choice, but of the reasons she gave for this decision the one I most easily supported was that her birth surname is (by both American and French norms) rather long and difficult to pronounce. Had she demonstrated any affection for her birth surname at all, I would have seriously considered hyphenating, combining, or exchanging surnames, or simply encouraging her to keep hers. As it was, she took my surname, and so there was little reason to give our son a different surname.
It would be foolish to pretend that I am completely indifferent to the fact that my son has the same surname as his father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, and his great-great-grandfather (thats as far back as Ive ever researched; before that, they could all be Schickelgrubers as far as Im concerned). I would like to think, however, that were he, upon his 18th birthday, to change his name to Raymond Luxury-Yacht, I wouldnt love him any less. Indeed, I would be proud of him for participating in a time-honored American tradition.
Hell have a hell of time with his French passport, though.
Setting the movie in Second-Amendment-less Britain was a smart move; berserk zombies arent nearly as frightening when one has access to Half-Life-levels of firearms.
Im always a sucker for Apocalypse movies, but the clincher was director Danny Boyle, he of Trainspotting fame. More compelling to me, however, is Boyles freshman feature Shallow Grave, a more deliciously claustrophobic update of Hitchcock you will never find. My roommates were lucky to get out when they did.
Regardless of where one comes down in this "debate," one aspect seems to have gone unnoticed. Advocates of the liberal bias theory have cited several instances where the appellation "conservative" has been attributed to speakers where their no-less-ideologically-driven opponents have been unlabeled, giving the impression that the liberal view is "normal" and the conservative view is "extreme." What I find at best curious and at worst disingenuous about these critics is their failure to recognize that this persistent labeling is the result of conservatives enormous success at branding themselves.
As liberals cast about for self-flattering explanations for the dearth of lefty equivalents of Rush Limbaugh and Bill OReilly, they would do better to attend to the astonishing discipline of Conservatives to stay "on message." Like all other political movements, conservatives vary in their degree of zealousness and orthodoxy. Just as some liberals disagree over fundamental issues, thoughtful conservatives differ over tactics, goals, and philosophies. Yet these conservative schisms rarely appear in national debate (a refreshing exception has been occasioned by the recent Supreme Court decision in Lawrence).
It didnt used to be this way, but in the last ten years or so (ever since a certain Presidential election), the Conservatives have aggressively expanded their brand awareness. In listening to the same Conservative pundits on panel shows over several months, I have been amazed that ostensibly intellectual people could maintain the same degree of passion in defending Conservative positions on every issue. This is not to say that there are no rigidly dogmatic liberals, or even that they are few in number. They just dont get booked on talk shows. Liberal pundits seem to care more about exhaustively qualifying their own positions than focusing on the core of contemporary media advocacy: disparaging the opponents position.
In an age of increasing media saturation, producers need reliable product to reach target demographics. Whether a conservative actually shares the Conservative positions in all instances is irrelevant; when he appears on Fox or Clear Channel, he puts on his game face and Exposes More Liberal Folly. A liberal pundit is more likely to try to demonstrate that he is still the Smartest Kid in the Class. Chris Kattans parody of Paul Begala on Hardball accurately (if hilariously) illustrates the fecklessness of liberals who agree to appear opposite Conservatives apparently without understanding how contemporary political discourse is presented. This trend has become so pronounced and liberals have become so outgunned that for a conservative to break into the Conservative big-time these days she has to recognize that her frontal lobes are professional liabilities and to adopt hindbrain positions.
In analyzing the effects of Conservative influence upon political media and of political medias influence upon the electorate, liberal journalists have let themselves become so bullied by charges of "liberal media bias" that they
appear to believe that criticism of Conservative statements must be muted in the name of maintaining "objectivity." This fails to recognize that political punditry has fallen into a Prisoners Dilemma, and the Conservatives have clearly defected. To paraphrase Justice Robert Jackson, objectivity is not a suicide pact. No censorship is so oppressive as self-censorship.
Update: Um, yeah.
The only other international sports event comparable to the Olympics is, of course, the World Cup. Though the (modern) Olympics are a few decades older than the World Cup, the host selection process for both events have long become so shot through with tediously sordid politics and corruption that it no one can honestly claim to be shocked by it anymore. Absent bribes and other tangible (if putatively illegal) criteria, the governing bodies must select hosts based on the often conflicting and certainly orthogonal principles of "infrastructure soundness" (who can afford to spring for the facilities) and "geographic equity" (who hasnt hosted in a while). The principle of "athletic tradition" waxes and wanes as new markets are imagined and disproved. Unlike the World Cup Organizing Committee, which (for reasons having less to do with minimizing the aforementioned problems and more to do with stadium logistics) selects a host country in which several cities participate, the International Olympic Committee bestows its favor upon an individual city (or, in practice, a metropolitan region). This creates the well-known paradox of Olympic bids: those cities which are best suited to hosting the Olympics are precisely those which least need the publicity and other ancillary benefits promised by Olympic boosters.
Apart from the construction and hospitality industries, I cannot see that a community reaps any lasting economic benefit from hosting the Olympics. In order to improve their chances, bid cities incur enormous public financial commitments "on spec," and considerations of whether the infrastructure or tax base can support such commitments are glossed over with appeals to "civic pride." A city with real civic pride would be able to soberly weigh the costs of hosting the Games and, if finding them prohibitive, say "No." After being lofted by the rise of Microsoft, Nirvana, Starbucks, and Amazon, Seattle somehow mustered the restraint at the peak of the 90s bubble to refuse to sign onto the developers Olympic bandwagon (paying for the House That Griffey Bilked might have played a factor, as well).
Of course, some of those 2012 boosters are now claiming that Seattle will derive some secondary tourism increase in February 2010, as if anyone will want to drive three hours to the border and wait almost as long at Blaine before trying to find parking near the Biathlon range. I think a more certain windfall is going to the wealthy skiers who own condos at Whistler, but hey, a rising glacier lifts all bobsleds, right? At least Vancouver probably stands a better chance of getting its federal government to chip in than we would with ours. So, good on you, Vancouver, and better you than us.
What’s that you say? The "new one"? Oh, you mean this 870-page doorstop sitting next to my mouse? Ah, yes. Haven’t so much as cracked it.
First, a word about hardbacks vs. paperbacks: historically, I’ve done a significant plurality if not a downright majority of my reading on buses. A further portion of my reading time comes in the interstices surrounding the activities (school, work) to and from which I ride the bus. These circumstances dictate not only that my books be easily portable but also that they suffer the abrasions of jostling in my satchel with a minimum of degradation. When you add the consideration of price, paperbacks are the clear winner in almost every case. On those rare occasions when my anticipation of a new release is so keen that I cannot wait for the paperback, I usually join the queue at one or both of my local library systems, which eventually (often more quickly than I expected) provide me with a hardback edition armored in about a kilo of cellophane, free of both charge and proprietary concern for depreciation.
So what am I doing with a copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix less than a week (or so) after its publication? Well, my kindly mother was at Amazon selecting Order of the Phoenix to read on holiday in Napa Valley, and she couldn’t resist upping ITEM QTY to 2 and bestowing the second copy on her favorite son. So why haven’t I dived in or even finished it by now? Well, the thing is, despite the fact that it’s been over two years since the hardback came out and almost a year since the paperback release, I hadn’t even acquired Goblet of Fire by this week, let alone finished it. Fortunately, my mother had a paperback edition of Goblet lying around (she must have escaped the hardback hype last time), which I duly borrowed.
Although its comparative length was not irrelevant, my reluctance to pick up Harry Potter #4 had more to do with my uneven satisfaction with #1-3. Like most geeks I have an enduring relationship with "children’s" fantasy fiction, but I was relatively ignorant of Harry until the publicity machine geared up for the hardback release of Goblet of Fire and the impending film adaptation of Sorcerer’s Stone. Of course, whatever curiosity I might have had was repelled by my distrust of the hype. If so many, well, Muggles were into Harry, how good could it be? My less reflexive friends, however, were unanimous in their praise of Harry, and so I scoured the used bookstores for paperback editions of the first three books. I plowed through all three in less than two weeks.
I suspect that I did Rowling no favors by compressing three iterations of her increasingly predictable formula into so tight a period. I quite enjoyed the drawn-out "awakening" process in Sorcerer’s Stone as Harry was tantalizingly introduced to the notion that he really didn’t belong with the Dursleys, but I was dismayed at the prospect of having to endure summer with the Dursleys at the beginning of every book. By Prisoner of Azkaban, I was grumbling for Harry to be adopted by the Weasleys already and have done with it. Similarly, the deus ex magica climaxes both undermine Harry as a protagonist and Rowling as a reliable narrator; the closing expositions are just too exhaustive (and exhausting).
An "ethical" mystery is one in which the reader, if she is attentive to all the clues dropped by the author, can reasonably be expected to puzzle out before the author spells it out. Whether Rowling’s predictable structure is her preferred form or an imposition by her publisher intended to insure a winning formula, it’s possible that Rowling might have tried to off-set this predictability by littering the narrative with apparent red herrings which don’t explain anything until the penultimate chapter when Dumbledore tells us how. This might be rewarding (if challenging) in a story set entirely in our Muggle world, but when Rowling introduces a brand new spell, artifact, or secret society in every other chapter, and when the characters (all adults, notably) Harry has had every reason to believe are trustworthy turn out to be shapeshifters or otherwise under Voldemort’s control, it’s hard for all but the most juvenile readers not to regard it as cheating.
Any fantasy geek will tell you that it’s not the characters that matter, it’s the world. To most kids our world is boring, and it only gets more boring the more you learn about it. It does, however, have the advantage of having rules which more or less apply all the time. Fantasy worlds are (hopefully) less boring, but it’s difficult to create consistent rules that will allow characters and readers to navigate such worlds meaningfully. As delightful as the examples of magic in the Potterverse are (and as impressive as they are rendered in their film adaptations), for me they are only as satisfying as they are consistent.
Now, I am perfectly open to the theory that Rowling’s project is the Education of Harry Potter who, like us, was raised by Muggles and is therefore ignorant of the wider magical ecology. Such a project would necessarily require that the "ways of the world" be revealed gradually, as Harry keeps bumping into assumptions and common knowledge held by the wizard-raised students. Unfortunately for this project, Lord Voldemort has been hunting Harry as part of his ambition to plunge the wizard world back into chaos since the very first book, and while many of the series’ characters turn a blind eye to this glaring fact, Dumbledore and the other authority figures in whom Rowling has reposed our trust do not. It would seem, then, that it behooves everyone who would resist Voldemort that Harry is brought up to speed on all the magical politics, personalities, and (duh!) assassination techniques known to wizardkind. Instead Harry is forced to rely upon partial conversations overheard at the Weasleys’ breakfast table and Hermione’s fitful research efforts. That Harry is excluded from Dumbledore’s strategy briefings and returned to the mind-numbing wretchedness of Privet Drive every summer might be Rowling’s plan to keep us in childlike wonder throught all seven books, but to me it cannot help but seeming like Rowling’s distrust of the reader to remain interested in an increasing immersion in a complex fantasy world, or her distrust of herself to provide it.
A prime example of Rowling’s "shifting goalposts" is her theory of evil and its reflections in the four Houses at Hogwarts. One might expect a children’s book to incorporate the perils of first impressions and misleading appearances. The Durselys and the Malfoys of the world may be vile but they aren’t necessarily murderers. Yet the whole ceremony of the Sorting Hat is given such a teleological finality (except for, of course, Harry) that we are encouraged to see House as destiny. I resisted this assumption by resorting to the argument: If Dumbledore permits the House of Slytherin to endure, it can’t be the hotbed of Death Eaters Rowling lets us think it is. Yet it turns out to be exactly that. When we have reached the end of the seventh book and Voldemort is finally dead, will the wizard world undergo some sort of post-Nuremburg deSlytherization? The Malfoy family exterminated, root and branch? How far does Rowling’s absolutism* extend?
As Harry’s first introduction to the magical realm, Hogwarts is at first presented as the center of the wizard universe. Oh, we hear about Arthur Weasley’s job at the Ministry, but as "incidents" increase and alumni meddle in Dumbledore’s affairs, Hogwarts seems less like Wrykyn and more like the Battle School. Then, just when we think we’ve got a handle on the school politics, rivalries, and family connections that will bring about or prevent Voldemort’s return, in Goblet of Fire we are introduced to the fact that there are other wizarding schools, the details of whose allegiance and resources are dribbled out at Rowling’s convenience. If, viewed over seven volumes, this shaggy owl story turns out to make for a satisfying epic, then Rowling will deserve our applause. Viewed from the 700-pages-every-other-year perspective, however, it’s hard not to regard each installment with the weariness usually reserved for the lopsided dramatic pacing of NBA games.
Of course, I’m critical of Rowling because I find so much in the Harry series that’s worthwhile, and I wish she’d minimize the ominous-yet-inscrutable omens and mysteries so that I might enjoy the oh-so-scrutable wonders and delights. The complex ecology of magical beasts and non-human races, the delicate balance of Muggle relations, the clever details of what a given spell will and will not do, and above all, the society-in-miniature that is Hogwarts; to me, these are what make Rowling’s world memorable to child and adult alike, and are what is threatened every time Rowling jiggers with The Rules as she’s written (or omitted to write) them.
So what are my plans for the weekend? Oh, nothing.
* I realize that the absolutism in Tolkien (to take a personally favored example) is no less pervasive and appearance-driven than in Rowling, but in Tolkien there are many occasions where characters (almost always Men or Hobbits, tellingly) either rise above or sink beneath expectations and appearances, and non-humans fill arche- or stereotypical roles. In the Potterverse, the non-humans (Dobby, Myrtle) are the ones to watch for character development, whereas if Ron Weasley or Draco Malfoy ever defy expectations it is certain to be the result of the Imperius curse or some unrevealed (and unhinted at) motivation.
If I shared many fans’ and critics’ misgivings about the anticipated sequel, it was due to the high expectations set by the first film and hard experience with sequels and "bridge movies." It’s been almost 30 years since the first summer blockbuster, and our jadedness is approaching the encrustation of the Great Barrier Reef. It’s hard to fault anyone from pre-concluding that a film so riddled with marketing strategies should have been necessarily hobbled in its ambitions for creative complexity or narrative consistency. And after Twin Peaks I have always been chary of series whose mythologies were episodic in conception rather than elaborated from a comprehensive vision which governs every chapter.
What I don’t have patience for are objections that there was too much exposition or too much time spent in dirty, boring Zion. Such gripes imply that the chief attraction of the first film—and, therefore, the reason why anyone would want to watch a sequel—was the masterfully-choreographed fight scenes and the attendant reality-bending special effects. Never mind that what distinguished The Matrix from every other action movie in the post-CGI 90s was its first-rate science fiction premise: Philip K. Dick meets The Terminator. Surely, goes the whinge, we should have less exposition in the sequel, not more. This is anti-intellectualism at its most breezy.
The Matrix movies are, after all, studies on the nature of motivation, so it’s probably helpful that some screen time is set aside for the characters to, you know, acquire some. Whether one feels that, when they finally did arrive, the action and effects sequences lived up to, surpassed, or disappointed the standards set by those of the first film, I am happy to report that they did not intolerably distract from or confuse the delicately layered conflicts between the various theories of Reality and Purpose offered by Neo’s many antagonists (and make no mistake, everyone’s an antagonist). The pacing problem alone was immense; the necessarily euphemistic Architect scene had to maintain tension, impart complex tone-shifting exposition while preserving the possibility that the Architect might be maliciously deceptive, and provide a germ of catharsis for an otherwise anti-climactic film. No wonder they decided they couldn’t wait longer than six months to release The Matrix Revolutions.
The Architect tells Neo that there is nothing new(neo) under the sun, and the same applies when science fiction dabbles in theology. Ken Mondschein does a fair job of explicating the classical religious roots of the cosmology constructed by les Frères Wachowski, and Martin Marprelate provides a logical framework for many nagging questions about motivations. What I find intriguing is that this may be the first version of the "world created by Satan" in which humans are Satan; we created the machines which created the Matrix, after all. This puts quite a different spin on those who, like Cypher (and, to be honest, many Matrix fans), would prefer to be plugged into the Matrix; if God let Satan create the deceptive material world to tempt us into sin, it is our duty to resist, but if we did it to ourselves, then the option to bliss out on the Matrix’s many pleasures loses some of its dishonor. (While it is probably inconsistent with what we know of and can expect from the Wachowskis’ plan for the (or this) One, I remain fascinated by the suggestion that the Merovingian is a previous incarnation of the One. Why such an entity would survive (or be preserved) after the last Reload of the Matrix is unclear, but the Architect moves in mysterious ways.)
Of course, I can’t help but note that my favorite detail of the Architect’s revelation is that Neo is the sixth incarnation of the One.
It was a really bad day, all right? Thousands died. Decent people who did nothing to deserve their fate. It was awful, just awful. Hate and scorn are the only emotions appropriate for the perpetrators, grief for the victims. But we cannot let ourselves be ruled by fear for the rest of our lives. It is not manly. It is not womanly. You would insist that your child face such fear down. Life is so much easier for the brave, let alone more dignified. Live and die like human beings or live and die like whipped dogs. We have that choice. We are making that choice, and at almost every juncture, making it wrong.
Read, as they say, the whole thing.
I’ve been reading Lileks’s Bleat for over a year now. It’s not a traditional blog, but it does function to compile a nigh-daily sampling of Lileks’s temperature and pressure, with the informal precipitation that comes from writing for free. Lileks’s basic mode is one of Midwestern rationalism. Rather than stridently fulminating from his pulpit, Lileks selects a bit of bloviation from our overheated discourse and proceeds to deflate it; usually not by direct rebuttal but instead by mocking extrapolation of the speaker’s logic. The effect is to create an impression of moderation, that the greatest sin is to become so enamored of your political beliefs that you become so hyperbolic that James Lileks will have to come along and put you down like a lame horse. It’s called satire, and it has a fine tradition. Yes, and I find Lileks to be quite adept at the form, even (or, I should say, particularly) when he targets a set of beliefs that has significant overlap with mine. I would much rather be dressed down by Lileks’s tangy irony (still not dead!) than wade through self-congratulatory sanctimony; the former reminds me to be judicious, the latter makes me dig in my heels.
It’s when Lileks abandons reason that he ceases to persuade. I have nothing against passion in debate, but Lilek’s common-sense rhetoric breaks down when subjected to the heat of his prejudices. In the stable of hobbyhorses that is the blogosphere, indulging in slippery logic is mostly harmless. When called into the service of rationalizing a national scandal, however, it deserves greater scrutiny.
Look, we were told that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, Saddam was a threat, Paul Wolfowitz rescued Jessica Lynch using a Jedi-Knight lightsaber. Lies! All lies! Storm the White House with pitchfork and torches, friends—it’s impeachment time!
Lileks’s patronizing whoa-take-a-deep-breath patter obscures the fact that his argument is no less motivated by a rabid leap of kneejerkism. We are assured that while bickering over the legalistic pretext used by the Bush Administration to package the war is mere partisan frippery, the dubiousness of supporting a military response to 9/11 by attacking a country with no demonstrated responsibility for 9/11 somehow burns away in a kiln of self-righteous fury, as if sifting through a crematorium were a grownup way to make foreign policy.
Lileks is not alone in supporting the war on terror, and he is not alone in ascribing his own motives to the Bush Administration. The neo-cons have their own ideas about remaking the Middle East, and they think the Bush Administration is behind the program 100%. Such people don’t seem to care that the Bush Administration didn’t give a fig about nuclear proliferation, international terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or totalitarian dictators until, after 9/11, it saw an electoral strategy in them.
Lileks’s appeal to reasonableness permits him to claim, with a reassuring dismissal of dissent, that the invasion of Iraq was all about 11 September 2001. His lack of reasonableness prevents him from seeing that it was probably more about 02 November 2004.
At the same time, I cannot deny that, for me at least, there will always be an illicit thrill inherent in the act of photography. Chris Marker put it thus:
Photography is like hunting, it’s the instinct of the hunt without the desire to kill. It’s the hunt of angels . . . One stalks, aims, shoots and—click! Rather than killing someone, one makes them eternal.
"Eternal," as in encased in amber; sounds to me like "assimilation" (arent we about due for a Godwins Law corollary for the Borg?). Unquestionably, there is satisfaction to be gained from perfecting one’s craft, and Ive been gratified by the reception others have given my work. But in both the act and the appreciation of photography there remain the irreducible elements of voyeur and voleur.
Anyway, if we’re going to let the Precambrian right use demographics to effectively outlaw the Democratic Party in Texas, perhaps out here on the upper Left Coast we can shore up our base a bit, too. While we’re at it, why stop at Congressional Districts? Let’s revisit House Resolution 348, which created the current border between Oregon and Washington. A simple glance at the precincts shows that the real divide should not be north and south but east and west. Accordingly, the border should be drawn not along the Columbia but through the Cascades. The western state will be called Cascadia, of course, with its capital at Vancouver. Let’s call the eastern state, oh, say, Eudaho, and its capital can be at The Dalles.
Put me down in the category of people who are, when opening a new CD, dismayed when no lyrics are provided. I rarely trust my ears, and as my vocal talents are limited, text is a much more portable referent. While it is clear that, like screenplays, song lyrics are literary works deserving of copyright, it is questionable whether they have artistic merit independent of the resulting song (or film). Certainly lyricists and screenwriters feel their work has value in of itself, but is that why anyone else values it? To my mind, no amount of "unlicensed" lyrics are going to approximate the effect of hearing the songs for which they were written; they will only make me want to listen to the songs again. Public lyric registries, like screenplay libraries and repositories of fan fiction, only increase the value of the original artists’ work.
Then there’s the corollary issue of the "accuracy" of published lyrics and shooting scripts. Even leaving aside the thorny problem of non-studio-recorded performances, even in studio recordings a singer will often modify (slightly or not so slightly) the words from the published lyrics. Which is the "true" lyric? Which has more meaning for the listener? Which is protected by copyright? Screenplays are in a similarly ambiguous state, particularly as so much more information (camera angles, scene descriptions) is subject to "corruption."
Of course, we simply have to get used to the idea that such works are no longer fixed but evolving (if agonizingly slow in certain cases). It’s been about 20 years since I first noticed "unseen" footage in a film re-edited for television broadcast, and not long after that I saw my first cinematic "restoration" or "director’s cut." When DVDs first came out, I quickly predicted the dissolution of the notion of "canonical" screenplays and even finished films; directors could now cut one film for theatrical release and another (or more) for the DVD. Were there Elves at Helm’s Deep or not? You be the judge, then RESUME FILM.
Considering that I don’t have and never considered acquiring anything resembling professional military experience, it is dismaying that no one in authority at the Pentagon seems to have remembered the role for which the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter was designed when planning its post-Cold War deployments. Every grognard knows that the Apaches were intended as defensive weapons platforms, ambushing Soviet tank columns as they raced toward the Fulda Gap. Yet the U.S. Army, often under tactically dubious political pressure, has repeatedly assigned Apaches to forward missions for which they are ill-suited.
Similarly, while the rest of Reagan’s America swooned over Tom Cruise in his Navy F-14 Tomcat, I much preferred the unmediated power of the Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt, affectionately known as the Warthog (it didn’t hurt that when I was a kid in Tucson, the father of one of my friends was an Arizona Air National Guardsman and a ‘Hog Driver, and I once got to sit in his cockpit). Anytime wargamers set NATO on the offensive, they were sure to have the Warthogs ready for close air support, and Desert Storm bore them out. Kaplan’s suggestion is spot on, and an ominous reminder of the far-reaching consequences of the seemingly tedious offenses of pork-barrel spending and inter-service rivalry.
Nevertheless, two instances of backseat-driving do, when taken together, require a response. In appropriately observing that unchecked American hubris played a large role in the Bush Administration’s march to war, some opponents of the war have indulged their bitterness at failing to stop the war by hoping that the U.S. is defeated or at least bloodily bogged down in Iraq. While I am the first person to devoutly hope that the Bush Administration pays the full political price for this misadventure, it is narcissistic, disloyal, and politically counter-productive to wish that harm come to U.S. servicemen and -women. I have heard many rationales for continuing to demonstrate against the war, most of which I find acceptable (even if I disagree with some of them). But to sincerely hope and work for a military defeat or an ignominious withdrawal shows an utter divorce from geopolitical reality. Anyone who believes the United States has a future as a positive force in the world had ought to hope for the swiftest and most complete U.S. victory possible.
The current criticism of Rumsfeld has gathered steam in part due to the hyper-attenuated attention span of the American media. However, the aforementioned caveat aside, the details of the American (mis)deployment are alarming. The very least that I expected of a policy supported by Colin Powell was a force commensurate with the security needs of American troops. If it is demonstrated that Rumsfeld and Co. short-changed both our strategic interests (by allowing—if only in appearance—our military prowess to be blunted) and our troops’ safety (by permitting greater casualties than necessary), I would expect even the most purblind supporters of the war to share my outrage and disgust.
Less than a week before the "100 Hour War" opened in February 1991, I flew to Europe (I have never flown cheaper), ostensibly to study in Austria but really to visit my French girlfriend. As I was being shopped around her family and friends, I noticed video of tanks racing across the desert, but my girlfriend refused to translate any of the news commentary. I had to wait until I was on the train back to Austria to grab a Trib to read the Agincourt allusions. Nevertheless, I had absorbed four weeks’ of air war coverage, enough to impress upon me the "video game briefing."
Last week I had the TV on pretty much all the time, flipping between CNN and MSNBC and Fox News, waiting for something definitive to happen. It must say I wasn’t at all impressed with the video from either Baghdad or the embedded journalists; it was mostly night-vision mush. I suppose that, to people who remember the delayed coverage of Vietnam and earlier conflicts, this realtime Pong show is exciting. To us post-Saving Private Ryan folk, this stuff is just poorly blocked and lacking in strategic context.
Finally, both sides in this conflict have prepared elaborate psy-ops strategies, turning the 24/7 television coverage into the primary theatre of the propaganda war. TV journalists don’t seem to acknowledge that governmental sources are not their allies in reporting the truth, and ever-shortening news cycles elevate rumors to the status of breaking news. On Friday 21 March 2003, all three cable news networks reported that the entire Iraqi 51st Infantry Division — 8000 men — had surrendered and that the coalition had captured Basra. As of this writing, the coalition is claiming a total Iraqi prisoner count of 2000 men, and a portion of the 51st Division is dug into Basra, awaiting a coalition assault.
So now I watch very little TV news. The ticker headlines are much more informative than the talking heads, and when the ticker cycles back to the beginning, I know I’ve exhausted the info value and switch the TV off. I find that checking an array of web news sources every six hours or so yields information that is much more measured and developed. More importantly, the sources are of course infinitely more varied. If I had satellite TV, I might approach the variety of web sources, but it would still be Short Attention Span Theater.
This is not to say that web news sources are unbiased, but at least they are up front with their bias, and I can mix the biases to taste. Today’s menu (revised daily):
Where is Raed?
Colby Cosh points out something that’s bothered me ever since I heard of "Operation Just (Be)Cause." Oh, well that explains it.
I first met George shortly after he established Scarecrow’s first location on Latona. My friend Mark lived close by and quickly discovered Scarecrow. It was the beginning of our aimless immediate post-college years, when we still thought "beer and some vids" was the best way to spend Friday night, especially if the vids were obscure and/or bizarre. I accompanied Mark to Scarecrow one evening and found this tall, lanky, motor-mouthed film geek behind the desk. George was the only employee back then, and he was open for 12 hours a day, seven days a week. I often found him snarfing a bit of pasta he had nuked in the microwave in back, but he always put it down to ask me what I was looking for or to tell me what he just got in. Scarecrow’s inventory is now the envy of the West Coast, but back then it was just a couple hundred titles, and its growth was often directed by customer request. It is with not a little pride that I can claim to be the proximal cause for Scarecrow’s acquisition of its VHS copy of The Wind and the Lion.
George occasionally took a paternalistic interest in what we rented. We had been known to select titles while visibly intoxicated, and while he never cut us off, he did bark exasperatedly once when we presented him with the cases for the first season of The Young Ones and Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. Another evening, Mark and I strolled in and challenged George: "The uncut version of Videodrome at the Neptune isn’t weird enough for us; whaddaya got for us instead?" George had hired some extra staff by then, and one of them rumbled, "Give ‘em Suspiria, George." George held his chin in his hand, gave us an arch look, then quickly nodded and said, "Suspiria it is. Remember you have two days to return it, guys; pace yourselves."
When my French girlfriend moved to Seattle, one of the first places I wanted to take her was Scarecrow’s Foreign section. When we got our first apartment together, a primary consideration was a location within easy walking distance of Scarecrow (about a year after we moved in, Scarecrow moved to its current location in the University District). The extra floor space permitted perusal of Scarecrow’s exploding inventory, and although I didn’t get to chat with George much anymore, I still made the pilgrimage when lesser venues might have been more convenient. It was a sad surprise, therefore, to read about George’s financial and medical difficulties. When the store was bought by a couple of Microsoft employees two years later, I was overjoyed. I stopped by the store shortly thereafter and found George discussing expansion plans with the new owners. He immediately halted his conversation and introduced me to his benefactors, who clearly had their hearts (and their wallets) in the right place. As the investors returned to exploring all the nooks and crannies where inventory might be crammed, I followed George over to the espresso stand at the front of the store. George moved much slower due to the effects of either his surgery or the radiation treatments. "So the new owners are Softies, eh?" I said. "Oh no," replied George, "they’re real smart!" That was the last time I saw George.
Aaron assures me that the "All-American (Greek) Diner" is a staple Back East, a tradition of fierce immigrant assimilation and proud service. George came to introverted Seattle and found a niche for an exhaustively (if lovingly) stocked video store that welcomed film geeks and film neophytes alike. I’ll miss George for the role that he played in the development of my film appreciation, but perhaps a greater gift was the pride and joy that comes from being able to recommend a merchant or a tradesman based on more than merely good value. Cafés, bookstores, and video arcades may come and go like the sun in April, but we’ll always have Scarecrow.