Monday, November 30, 2009

Everything is about shame, including the Amazon Kindle

Katherine Eastland has pointed out a very good article on the Amazon Kindle by Stephen Marche, which reminds me that I wrote a little something on the subject for The American Conservative last month when this blog was still on hiatus. Enjoy it now, if you like:
There is no shame in owning a Kindle. Literally. Ink-and-paper books can be embarrassing. No one wants to be caught red-handed with The Debutante DivorcĂ©e. To get away with reading Gadamer in public would require dressing up like a college professor. And no one, not even a college professor, has enough credibility to read Finnegan’s Wake in broad daylight.

For $259, readers can finally have a little privacy. Books are delivered wirelessly, eliminating clerks from the equation—the Kindle Store will not roll its eyes at you for buying a lowbrow bestseller. And Kindle’s unchanging exterior won’t betray your reading material to the rest of the coffee shop. No wonder Harlequin romances are big sellers.

Kindle is the same size as a book, pages are the same gray as paper, and, for the limited number of titles available in digital format, a Kindle book is cheaper than a paperback. These are welcome developments. But when the old-fashioned codex goes, venerable reading traditions will go with it. What will be lost if readers make the switch to e-books?
Read on—Storm Thorgerson gets an out-of-left-field name-check!

A poem called "Short People" by one Jennifer L. Knox

When Emperor Hirohito told the Japanese people it was time to surrender, he never used the word surrender. Instead, he talked about how everyone had done their best, tried so hard, etc. His speech was broadcast over loudspeakers hung outside on electrical poles. People had never heard Hirohito’s voice before—they thought the Emperor was God. He spoke in the highest level of formality—using words so antiquated, ordinary people couldn’t understand a thing he was saying. So imagine: suddenly, one day, a disembodied voice we think is God’s starts talking to people in the streets in booming Shakespeare-speak. “What the heck’s God saying?” the people ask. A man wearing big glasses translates: “He’s saying we all did a really great job…” he pauses, furrows his brow, “but I think He wants us to give up.” This is what most of Randy Newman’s songs are about.
Via the Awl.

"Sad Panda is actually pretty sad."

The New York street act known as Sad Panda—a guy in a panda suit who earns tips from tourists for standing around glumly on Wall Street—is actually a 62-year-old Chinese man with a hard-luck story. He quit his restaurant job to go to China in order to make his mother's funeral arrangements, found he was too old to get hired anywhere when he got back to New York, and so became Sad Panda. His wife works seven days a week as a private nurse to make ends meet.

Gothamist has video, and don't skip the comments: "Thank God there's a real sad person behind those ears, and not some ironic hipster."

One commenter posted pictures of Sad Panda's alter-ego Spongebob (same sexagenarian, different suit) getting knocked over by hoodlums, then helped up by good Samaritans who "heard quiet sobbing from within the costume."

(This post is to honor Bulgaria's annual Bear's Day.)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tip O'Neill was such a girl

I don't mean it, of course, but you just try resisting the thought as you read the last line of this snippet from James A. Farrell's biography:
. . . He had even taken fifty pounds off his corpulent frame by attending Weight Watchers classes at Catholic University. He was the only man in the class, and most of the women didn't know he was a congressman. "Good for Thomas!" they said, when he had registered the loss of a few more pounds.


"Thank you very much for your letter of February 12," O'Neill wrote to one colleague. "I went off the Weight Watcher diet between Thanksgiving and Christmas and gained 18 pounds in two months. I have gone back on the diet this week and am attending my first Weight Watchers meeting tonight. I still have kept off 27 out of the 55 pounds I originally lost, but still feel disgusted with myself."

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Golden Age of Right-Wing Novelty Songs (is Obviously Over)

Of embarrassing right-wing rap videos there will be no end, and the latest one is simply awful. But this was not always so. To prove that there was a time when novelty songs could be conservative and non-terrible, here are five favorites.
1. "Tea Partay" [video]
Oh, the summer of 2006, when men were men and a "tea party" was something friendly! The WASP establishment was already dead, but no one told these guys. And everybody loves a shout out to the Main Line.
2. "Don't Mess with the Mayor" [video]
The Medflies pay tribute to Mayor Eastwood. "Now when I want to see a movie, something hard and fast, / I just go down to Carmel and watch Clint kick some ass."
3. "Let Them Eat Rock" [video]
Wikipedia's description of the Upper Crust gets to the heart of the matter: "The members adopt the personas of 18th century aristocratic fops and sing songs from that perspective. They use titles of nobility, wear powdered wigs and period costumes, and maintain a snobbish attitude while performing live and on their albums."
4. "Ukelele Blues" [video]
Martin Mull sings about his life experience. From the spoken intro: "I was brought up on the deltas of Lake Erie in Cleveland, so you obviously have a whole delta blues there, although it was, I'd have to say, a little more middle class than down in the South, where I understand a lot of blues came from." From the lyrics: Woke up this afternoon, saw both cars were gone / And I felt so low down deep inside / I threw my drink across the lawn.
5. "Magical Misery Tour" [video]
In picking something from National Lampoon, I could have gone with "The Middle-Class Liberal Well-Intentioned Blues," or that unmentionable Joan Baez parody at the end of Radio Dinner, or even "Papa was a Running Dog Lackey of the Bourgeoisie," which is a Motown version of the Communist Manifesto. But I love that "Magical Misery Tour" skewers John Lennon's narcissism using, mostly, direct quotes from his interviews.

Friday, November 27, 2009

No Mercy!

Nick catches an embarrassing slip-up:
OVERLY TECHNICAL CORRECTION OF THE DAY: The Chicago Tribune, writing about the soundtrack for An Education, praised its new songs "in the Mercy Beat" style. Which is great, except I have no idea what "Mercy Beat" is. Merseybeat is the style of music named after the River Mersey, which flows through Liverpool, whence most of the first wave of British invasion bands came.
The offending piece is here.

Bookblogging: The Headless Republic

Of all the blogs I've ever liked, not one has ever posted any poetry. But these are special circumstances. First of all, I read Jesse Goldhammer's The Headless Republic: Sacrificial Violence in Modern French Thought, and I liked it. Moreover, I want Mr. Goldhammer, when he Googles his name, to know that I liked it, since I see from the back flap that he is currently employed at "one of the world's leading scenario-planning consulting firms." I'm sure he enjoys his work, but consulting is miles away from writing your PhD thesis on sacrificial violence in modern French thought. He may miss it.

I wish I could register my satisfaction with this 180-page labor of love by picking a fight with it, since that's how I usually show my respect, but Goldhammer didn't say anything that bothered me. Nor did he summarize his thesis in a single pull-able paragraph that might benefit the public internets. He could have, maybe with a sentence like this: Violence achieves real revolutionary results exactly to the extent that it can plausibly claim to fit some traditional narrative or ritual of violence. (Or maybe he did, with Michael Walzer's line that a monarchy "can survive a thousand assassinations but not one execution," which means the same thing.)

Without either a complaint or a pull-quote to fill a post with, I can only share a poem written by Robespierre a few months before his execution, which is the one passage in The Headless Republic that I marked:
The sole torment of the just, at his last hour,
And the only one that will tear me apart,
It is to see, while dying, the pale and somber desire
To distill shame and infamy on my brow,
To die for the people and yet be abhorred for it.
I'd add a comment, but of course I don't need to tell Mr. Goldhammer about martyrdom. He's the one wasting a PhD on consulting.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A woman is a woman, but a good Speaker of the House is a smoker

From John A. Farrell's Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century:
When Whip Thomas Foley's wife and chief of staff, Heather, asked O'Neill to put out his cigar at a leadership meeting, O'Neill leveled her. "You know, we only tolerate you in these meetings," he said.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving is the perfect time to reduce the minimum wage. Wait, why are you laughing?

Sean, who ReadsTheNews, draws a holiday lesson from this Forbes article about programmers who give away their software for free because they're in it for sheer love of the pixels. Sean:
The result is an off-beat story about interesting people doing important work. I love stories that show there is no one right way to live your life. As we get ready for Thanksgiving it's important to give thanks for an economy that both produces and supports people's infinitely varied creative urges, even in this case when that support is non-traditional.
Which reminds me, somewhat tangentially, of this paragraph from Edward Banfield's "The Zoning of Enterprise." The essay explains why putting a state-of-the-art IBM factory in the middle of 1960s Bed-Stuy ended up doing very little to help the residents of that distressed area, the reason being that IBM didn't offer the kind of workplace they wanted. What kind did they want? Banfield explains:
The kind of firm that could succeed in a place like Bedford-Stuyvesant . . . is in almost all respects the opposite of IBM. Such a firm pays low wages (below the minimum when possible), offers no job security (like the workers it employs, it is here today and gone tomorrow), its rest rooms are dirty, its foremen are rough, it does not trouble itself about the health and safety of its workers (they can take their chances or get out), and it does not ask them to learn skills, take responsibility, or contribute to factory morale (its investment is a short-term one). This is the only kind of firm that can profitably hire the lower-class worker. It is also the only kind of firm that the typical unemployed male will work for. If he comes to work one day and not the next, nobody cares. If he comes late and half-drunk, nobody cares (although he may be told to stay away until he is sober). Firms of this sort were once common in the cities. They were driven out by laws and ordinances intended to improve working conditions (or, if one prefers, to eliminate "unfair" competition with firms operation more nearly in the IBM manner).
Let's leave aside for the moment whether Banfield's picture of the Bed-Stuy work ethic is fair or not. It doesn't matter that much anyway. His description may not have applied to everyone in that troubled neighborhood, but it certainly applied to the ones IBM was trying to help: the chronically unemployed, the ones whose joblessness created all the social problems that kept the Ford Foundation up at night.

So what's wrong with Banfield's picture of old-fashioned factory life? It had its dangers, but weren't they just the price of working for an employer who didn't care if his workers showed up drunk once in a while? We've all called in "sick" when we just didn't feel like going to work, and our employers (who, let's not kid ourselves, always knew) held it against us not so much because our labor that day would have made any vital difference but because that's not the kind of attitude they want to encourage in their employees. But what if our employers didn't give a damn, so long as we showed up nine times out of ten?

In other words, what is being able to drink on the job worth to you?

Everyone accepts that work isn't the most important thing in life, but a culture that took that platitude seriously would allow for the kind of firm Banfield describes. No one knows which trade-offs between long-term career advancement and short-term happiness are worth it; best to let everyone do the math for himself.

Or, as Graydon Carter said to Eric "Drinky Crow" Kaplan when Kaplan told him he could make more money as a typist than SPY was offering him as a staff writer: "Yes, and you can make $15 an hour digging graves." You better believe SPY writers drank on the clock.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Self-Promotion: "Average Janes: To save feminism, get rid of the lady-blogs"

I've got an article about women's blogs like XX Factor and Broadsheet in the current issue of Doublethink:
It’s possible to write interestingly about body image, sperm donation, or your foibles as a mother. Caitlin Flanagan and Virginia Postrel have done it, and one of these days Sandra Tsing-Loh might. The chance to offer a fresh take on these topics is probably what an author has in mind when she joins a women’s blog in the first place. After all, men have written great prose about fast cars. They have turned boxing, which is pretty dumb, into a metaphor for the human condition. It’s a stretch to take baseball as seriously as some writers do, and yet Bart Giamatti pulled it off beautifully. Why shouldn’t we give the same credit to women’s more mindless pursuits—even fashion and celebrity gossip?

No reason at all, yet women’s blogs never seem to pull it off.
I've already gotten some push-back on the piece:
I sort of agree with you that they aren't so good, but I'm just dubious that there's much more to it beyond "general interest group-blogs are lame," period.
There's some truth to that.

The Plight of the Condorf

It's pretty obvious what Conor Friedersdorf wants to do. He wants to be every pundit's conscience. In his perfect world, he'd be the guy who purged the propagandists from journalism's noble ranks in a grand final battle, maybe with a broadsword. Love it or hate it, that's his schtick.

I happen to be one of those who hate it. I think it's bloodless. I think he comes across as a self-satisfied scold. And I think that the commentary-on-commentary beat is the laziest niche in the blogosphere. "Culture war froth comes to the fore because it’s one thing we all feel competent to talk about" — how much more so meta-punditry!

But never mind my questions about the merits of Condorf's personal mission. It's not my business to trash his vocation unless I have something helpful to say. Well, today I do: Based on what he says in this Bloggingheads with Peter Suderman, I think Condorf should keep writing, if that's what he wants to do, just not about politics. From the transcript:
CONOR: You don't see a lot of journalists making money, but you do see that there's an easy way to sell out as a journalist. If you really want to maximize your dollars in the easiest way possible, the thing to do is to figure out who has a lot of money and who will pay for you to write a particular thing, and then you write that thing. There are ways to do that that are consistent with your beliefs, and I think that's fine, but I also think there are people who go back and forth between journalism and being PR people for political campaigns, or who get into a think tank that they don't actually agree with but sort of tow a line . . . I just think there are a lot of ways to sell out in this town, and a lot of the most successful people here have done that. I don't like the career trajectory ahead of a lot of people who stay here.

PETER: I mean, it sounds to me like you're just frustrated in a general way with the conjunction of money and influence and personal beliefs and personal ambitions -- but, like, that is politics. That's just what politics is. You either like it . . . I wonder how you can be so against that sort of thing, and so frustrated by it, and yet also be someone who's deeply interested in politics. Because that's all that politics is. How these interests and influences and personal ambitions and personal beliefs work together to create policy, and debates. It just sounds to me like you're frustrated with something that is essential and basic to the business of governance and politics.


CONOR: . . . I would be perfectly happy writing about any number of things other than politics for 90 percent of my time. There's a 10 percent itch of stuff about politics that I like to write about. I write about politics more than 10 percent of the time mostly because people who are buying writing right now are buying writing about politics. You see in the stuff that I write for free at the American Scene that I'm more interested in public discourse than I am about politics per se.
Let me put it this way: I think pacifism is wrong, but I wouldn't ever try to talk someone out of it; I'm glad that there are pacifists in the world, and I admire the commitment of the real pacifists I've met. But I wouldn't send one to cover World War Two. I wouldn't send a society matron to cover the NCAA playoffs. And I wouldn't assign a punctiliously honest, "enlightened discourse" loving, goo-goo throwback like Conor to cover politics.

No one has railed against mercenary journalism as fervently as Condorf. He always insists that you should never write something you don't believe simply because you can get paid to write it. But if sending Conor to cover politics is like sending Dorothy Day to cover the Battle of Normandy, then it's strange to hear him admit that money is the only reason he writes about politics so much. Remember, it's not just that Conor doesn't like writing about politics, or that it doesn't interest him. It's that his deep and powerful aversions to things like money, naked ambition, and team loyalty make him constitutionally ill-suited to political journalism. No crime there, but it does make his career seem masochistic.

What's My Name, Fool? Hint: Not "Mister T."

Dave Zirin proves that hippies hate sports:
I did a book talk for my first book, What’s My Name, Fool!, which has this big picture of Muhammad Ali on the cover, and I did it at a very left-wing anarchist bookstore with tons of antiwar stuff everywhere. I go into the bookstore to do the talk, and the manager of the store comes up to me and asks, "Can I help you?" and I say, "Yeah, I’m Dave Zirin." And they say, "What? But you’re white." And I say, "Yeah, I’m white, last I checked." And they say, "But your picture on the cover of the book . . ."

And I say, "No, that’s not me. That’s Muhammad Ali."


Later, at that same event, someone asked me—remember, the book is called What’s My Name, Fool!—why I decided to write about Mr. T.

I raise this not to take a potshot at some well-meaning lefties, but at this bookstore there’s antiwar stuff everywhere, they’re selling Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky—and they don’t know the history of Muhammad Ali. This to me is an act of political masochism. We’re amputating one of the most dynamic parts of our own history as activists.
A piece of advice for Zirin's interviewer: Your next question should have been, "That may be so, Dave, but when was the last time you wrote about hacky-sack?"

After all, it's not like politics and hacky-sack don't intersect: "Tina Aeberli is the best footbagger in the world in her category, freestyling. She's also a candidate for next year's city council elections in Zurich." Click through — there's video!

Future Senator Seeks Blogger; Must Be Willing to Time-Travel

Advertising for Love is the blog of a Rutgers PhD student who posts nineteenth-century personals, matrimonial ads, and missed connections. Some of the authors are reactionary teenage girls ("No abolitionists need apply"). Some are Republican Party operatives, maybe. Some are jolly young sea captains.

But this is a return-to-blogging post, if you haven't noticed, which suggests that my self-confidence is running high enough to start blogging again, so I will spotlight the old-timey ad that makes me, personally, feel most loved:
A young, able politician, capable of going to the United States Senate, desires a matrimonial alliance with a young, wealthy lady; a political writer preferred. Address Preston Firman, Boston, Mass.
It's nice to think that a young man on the path of success would want to saddle himself with an ink-stained wretch. On the other hand, there never was a Senator Preston Firman of Massachusetts.

Back in the present day, I have my own personal ad: "Penitent blog-neglecter seeks readers, antagonists; must love boxing, machine politics. Non-smokers need not apply."