Thursday, March 20, 2014

Tweet without Twitter

Has anyone commented on the fact that, 13 years after 9/11, we are doing a better job surveilling ordinary U.S. citizens than large aircraft? What's up with that?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Commonplace Book: Why Philosophers Don't Succeed in Business and Politics

For [Viscount Halifax] always saw passing events, not in the point of view in which they commonly appear to one who bears a part in them, but in the point of view in which, after the lapse of many years, they appear to the philosophic historian. With such a turn of mind he could not long continue to act cordially with any body of men.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, The History of England 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Finds: February 8, 2014

At the terrific New Books Network, which offers substantial audio interviews with the authors of new books of intellectual interest, a talk with Karen G. Weiss about her Party School: Crime, Campus, and Community:

This is such an inportant topic, and Professor Weiss speaks about it so engagingly, that one would hope that the book would come in for extensive media attention, but a Google search doesn't suggest that it has.

At Amazon, Craig Brandon offers an insightful comment:

Faculty, college administrators, students and people who live around these schools should do themselves a favor and read this well-researched, no holds barred account. Weiss teaches at West Virginia University and the school she writes about is called Party University. Is there a connection? Weiss lays the cards out on the table. Kids go to these schools to party and don't really care if they learn anything or not. And college administrators are aware of this and use it in their promotion materials. If you want to have the time of your life, they say, this is the place!

Students who come to the Party School to study are questioned by the 16 percent of students who are "extreme partiers" with the question: You knew this was a party school. If you didn't want to party, why did you come here? Good question. The non-partiers and residents who live near the party schools pay a heavy price. These 16 percent come to class as infrequently as possible.

Using quotes from student surveys, Weiss described the problem in the students' own words. Very revealing and actually pretty scary when you understand these students are signing for loans in the $28,000 for this party, an amount they will be paying for decades, mortgaging their future to pay for a few years of fun.

An important work, not to be missed!

Matthew Walther, "Tory Nihilist," on the British historian Maurice Cowling (1926-2005), at The American Conservative:

I love profiles like this. Although Cowling sounds like an old fart, there is always something irresistibly appealing to me about figures who hold a minor place in intellectual history and who wrote huge books such as Cowling's three-volume Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. Naturally I want to read those books, although there is always a question of finding the time to do it, and in some cases of getting one's hands on the texts. None of the three volumes of Cowlin's magnum opus is available through Amazon, new or used, for less than $49.44.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Finds: February 6, 2014

Martin Schneider, "The Hilariously Deadpan TV Commercials of Chris Burden" at Dangerous Minds:

A must for anyone interested in conceptual art of the Seventies. I did not know about these commercials; like most people, I am mainly aware of Chris Burden for his life-threatening art projects, like having himself shot at close range, or crucified on the hood of a Volkswagen.
RIP French ballet dancer Jean Babilee (1823-2014):

To the world of ballet he became legendary above all as the original protagonist of a vivid ballet-drama of 1946, Roland Petit’s Le Jeune homme et la mort, which has drawn the world’s greatest male dancers to it ever since. Wearing dungarees rather than a princely jerkin, Babilée played a moody young painter who is visited in his garret by a mysterious woman, and seduced by her into hanging himself...In the first-night enactment of the suicide, which was somewhat experimentally staged, Babilée had to find the strength to dangle on the noose for a full minute in public view. Later he confessed that it terrified him, as he felt himself choking. The death position and scenery were then adapted for a safer outcome.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Emerson Describes 2014

Amidst the downward tendency and proneness of things, when every voice is raised for a new road or another statue, or a subscription of stock, for an improvement in dress, or in dentistry, for a new house or a larger business, for a political party, or the division of an estate - will you not tolerate one or two solitary voices in the land, speaking for thoughts and principles not marketable and perishable?

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Transcendentalist" (1841)

One is reminded of Nietzsche's moving comment that he could scarcely begin to speak of Emerson because his words are "too close to me."

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Finds: February 2, 2014

How could you not love the fact that the website of Radio Bulgaria runs a series of English-language blog posts called Intense Literature? This particular entry focuses on three important poets who were dead by age 30 - Dimcho Debelyanov, Hristo Smirnenski, Geo Milev. Nor are they the only early casualties in Bulgarian literature - one could add Hristo Botev (28), Peyo Yavorov (37), Petko Todorov (37), Nikola Vaptsarov (32). It's not just intense being a gifted Bulgarian writer - apparently, it's lethal!

Friday, January 31, 2014

Finds: January 31, 2014

"Soviet travel brochures from the 1930s" at The-Charnel House:
"Underground Critics" of the 1960s" at Woody Haut's Blog, focusing on Donald Phelps and Gilbert Sorrentino:
Kimberly J. Bright, "Curious 'Psychoanalysis' Comics of the 1950s" (from E.C. Comics' New Directions line) at Dangerous Minds:

Online Communities, Not

Michelle Goldberg, "Feminism's Toxic Twitter Wars" at The Nation:

I have become increasingly skeptical of the benefits of online "communities" devoted to particular issues or interests, and this funny-terrifying article cements that skepticism. I like the commenter who speaks of vicious infighting among people who actually have no effect on anything. Carry on folks, for all the difference it makes! (A good rule of thumb is, if you find yourself in a situation that could be so described - depart.)

Some revealing quotations from the article:

“I fear being cast suddenly as one of the ‘bad guys’ for being insufficiently radical, too nuanced or too forgiving, or for simply writing something whose offensive dimensions would be unknown to me at the time of publication,” [Katherine Cross] wrote.
...there’s a norm that intention doesn’t matter—indeed, if you offend someone and then try to explain that you were misunderstood, this is seen as compounding the original injury. Again, there’s a significant insight here: people often behave in bigoted ways without meaning to, and their benign intention doesn’t make the prejudice less painful for those subjected to it. However, “that became a rule where you say intentions never matter; there is no added value to understanding the intentions of the speaker,” Cross says.
...the expectation that feminists should always be ready to berate themselves for even the most minor transgressions...creates an environment of perpetual psychodrama, particularly when coupled with the refusal to ever question the expression of an oppressed person’s anger.
In a revolution-eats-its-own irony, some online feminists have even deemed the word “vagina” problematic. In January, the actress and activist Martha Plimpton tweeted about a benefit for Texas abortion funds called “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas,” sponsored by A Is For, a reproductive rights organization she’s involved with. Plimpton was surprised when some offended Internet feminists urged people to stay away, arguing that emphasizing “vaginas” hurts trans men who don’t want their reproductive organs coded as female. “Given the constant genital policing, you can’t expect trans folks to feel included by an event title focused on a policed, binary genital,” tweeted @DrJaneChi, an abortion and transgender health provider. (She mentioned “internal genitals” as an alternative.) When Plimpton insisted that she would continue to say “vagina,” her feed filled up with indignation. “So you’re really committed to doubling down on using a term that you’ve been told many times is exclusionary & harmful?” asked one self-described intersectional feminist blogger.
*** [Mikki] Kendall well knows, many consider her a bully, though few want to say so out loud. “I kind of have a reputation for being mean,” she says. On the phone, Kendall isn’t mean. She seems warm and engaging, but also obsessed—she talks at length about slights made in the comment threads of blogs more than five years ago.

If I ever cite a comment from a blog post of five years ago, please shoot me.

An interesting reaction to Goldberg's piece here:

Although I like to think that I am well up on things, I had to look up what "cis" and "cisgendered" mean:

The opposite of transgendered, someone who is cisgendered has a gender identity that agrees with their societally recognized sex. Many transgender people prefer "cisgender" to "biological", "genetic", or "real" male or female because of the implications of those words.

I'm not against adding more nuance and sensitivity to language, and I get that "normal" and "real" in this context are potentially offensive, but this term strikes me as being located precisely at the spot where politically correct language shades into Orwellian Doublespeak. I agree with a comment I spotted about it: "It seems quite politically loaded to me, ie it's a word that tells you the person using it is seriously into gender politics."

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Finds: January 26, 2014

Karl Shuker, "Look Out for the Invisible Catfish!" at ShukerNature:

A survey of cryptozoological accounts of "invisible fish." Delightful, as Dr. Shuker's posts invariably are.
Joshua Keating, " 'Like David Lynch Directed a Remake of Office Space' " at Slate:

"A site that perfectly captures the existential despair of the conference call": yes.
Mark O'Connell, "Ten Paragraphs about Lists You Need in Your Life Right Now" at the New Yorker's Page-Turner:

I have been making a real effort, albeit with incomplete success, NOT to click on "listicles."

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Finds: January 23, 2014

David Dale, "Small-town secrets in Mystery Road," at the Sydney Morning Herald:

A nice overview of Aussie film noir. I'm not sure that Jonathan Teplitzky's Gettin' Square (2003) qualifies as noir, since it's more of a comic heist movie. I tire of heist movies sometimes, but what brightens this one is a fresh, original visual scheme based on the sunshine-and-sky look of the Australian coast.
Ed Fuentes, "Surveying the Link Between Modernist Mexican Painting and Murals" at Writing on the Wall:

Compared to Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Rufino Tamayo, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Siqueiros, the Mexican Modernist painter Alfredo Ramos Martinez (1871-1946) doesn't come in for much attention. But he definitely seems interesting, and is now the subject of a retrospective at the Pasadena Museum of California Art:
Jake Hinson, "The Dark Collaborations: Japanese Noir from [writer] Seicho Matsumoto and [director] Yoshitaro Nomura" at

The dependably sharp Jake Hinson makes these films sound great! I haven't seen much Japanese noir, only the well-known Kurosawa titles: Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, The Bad Sleep Well, and High and Low, all great films (and Scandal, nearly as good, has some noir elements).
"Exhibit Celebrates Pioneers of St. Louis Modernism" at Dwell:

Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch towers over St. Louis, but the city’s suburban landscape is dotted with midcentury modern monuments of a more modest sort in the form of elegant, low-slung houses with high-vaulted ceilings and ample windows. 

The husband-and-wife architectural team of Ralph and Mary Jane Fournier deserve much of the credit for the St. Louis area’s enduring reputation as a hothouse of midcentury modernism for the masses—but it has tended to elude them, affixing itself instead to the likes of William Bernoudy, Harris Armstrong, and a few others.

For visual documentation, check out these two links. Awesome homes - I'd live in one happily.
Peter Ludlow, "Fifty States of Fear" at the New York Times Opinionator:

Ludlow makes good points about the manipulative uses of fear in contemporary politics:

One way in which our fears can be manipulated by the government is to lead us to fear the lesser danger. Schneier provides a simple example of this: 9/11 caused people to irrationally fear air travel and led them to the much more dangerous route of traveling in automobiles.

Another such example of this misdirection of fear took place in the case of the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, in which the Boston Police Department effectively imposed martial law and seized control of people’s homes and used them as command posts in their effort to apprehend the perpetrators. The bombings were terrible (three people died and more than 260 were injured), but just two days later another terrible thing happened: a giant explosion in a fertilizer plant in Texas killed at least 14 people and injured more than 160. For a moment we held our collective breath. Could it have been terrorists?

When we learned that it was probably an accident caused by the ignition of stored ammonium nitrate, a collective sigh of relief was heard, and then not another word about the event. But why? And what if the explosion in that factory was part of a larger problem of industrial safety? In fact, according to a report by the United States Congressional Research Service, thousands of industrial facilities across the country risk similar harm to nearby populations.

Meanwhile, 300,000 residents of West Virginia were without safe drinking water last week after 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol leaked into the Elk River from an industrial storage tank at a plant owned by a company called Freedom Industries. Few, if any, of the Sunday TV talk shows discussed the matter, but imagine the fear that would have been pedaled on those shows if terrorists had poisoned the water of those 300,000 Americans. Of course the danger is the same whether the cause is terrorism or corporate indifference and malfeasance.

(Underlining mine.) Sure enough, here is a news piece from earlier this week, "Separate plant blasts kill 4 people in Nebraska, Oklahoma":

This sort of incident happens all the time, but doesn't get much sustained attention. The media always make decisions as to what to emphasize. Remember that Chilean mine disaster in 2010 in which, happily, all 33 trapped men eventually did survive? Sure you do. How about the New Zealand mine disaster that occurred just one month after the Chile incident ended? In that one, all 29 trapped men died.

No, I didn't think you had heard about that one. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Reading Many Books at Once

Through some trick of brain wiring, I am able to keep track of a lot of things at once. So reading many books at the same time, and not having them bleed into each other in my mind, and being able to pick a book up after a couple weeks away and remember exactly what is going on, are all second nature to me, and I’ve been at it forever. Typically, I have a couple of dozen titles in progress, of all types and genres, all sizes and styles, ebooks and hard copies. Every week, I am finishing books and starting others. There are certain titles that I tend to read at particular places and times – on the bus, over dinner, before sacking out at night.

One result of this approach to reading is that my active “friendship” with a long book can last quite a while as I slowly make my way through it. And I do think of the books as friends, and sometimes I am a little sad at the thought of finally finishing with one – although there will always be new friends to “hang out with.”

Some of my “big reads’ at the moment are Joyce’s Ulysses (almost done), The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, William Cobbett’s Rural Rides (I’m now into the second of the two volumes in the Everyman edition), Karl Marx’s Capital, the Letters of Pliny the Younger (the Loeb edition in two volumes, of which I’m halfway through the first), and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (more than halfway home). Thomas Babington Macaulay’s History of England takes up five volumes; with the first currently on my iPad, I can see that this project will take years. But that’s OK.  I get very used to these voices – Marx stern and brooking no self-doubt, Macaulay majestically analytical, Tocqueville patient and sensible, Cobbett gruff and at times borderline unpleasant, but then he starts talking about the view of the countryside from his horse, and it’s transfixing.

Cao Xueqin’s classic 18th Century Chinese novel The Story of the Stone (translated by David Hawkes in five volumes for Penguin) is another multi-year endeavor (I’m well into Volume 2). More Western readers should undertake this journey; it’s incredibly rewarding. Talk about immersion in a world! - in this case, the Manchu aristocracy of Cao’s era. With hundreds of characters to keep tabs on, this is one of the more challenging items in my current portfolio, although it reads like a dream on a chapter-by-chapter level.

One friend I will be sorry to part with soon is Richard J. Bush’s 1871 Siberian travel narrative Reindeer, Dogs, and Snow-Shoes – who could resist that title? – which I discovered through the British Library’s ebooks program. Bush, like so many travel and adventure writers of that time, is a wonderful and companionable describer, and whenever I’m feeling just too hot here in Mexico, I dip into a couple of chapters, and pretty soon I’ve cooled down a bit. Fortunately, I bought access to a whole Arctic library through the British Library’s partner Biblioboards, so even when the Reindeer have moved out of sight, I’ll still be able to use this temperature-regulation-though-reading trick.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Finds: January 19, 2014

The blog Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill! looks at Andrew Leavold's documentary The Search for Weng Weng, about the Filipino dwarf actor (2'9") who starred in a series of Eighties spy spoofs:

Here is Leavold's own blog, Bamboo Gods and Bionic Boys, "An evolving history of genre filmmaking in the Philippines":
The fine blog Television Obscurities rediscovers a television comedy in five-minute episodes from the year 1949, Ruthie on the Telephone, which aired on CBS every night except Wednesday (and later Sunday) from 7:55 to 8:00 P.M. Unusual!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Finds: January 17, 2014

Florencia Carabias Martin, "Threat of Plagues: Panic in the Streets (1950)" at the Journal of Medicine and Movies:

In a journal I did not even know existed, a neat medical analysis of an excellent film noir about a potential plague outbreak in New Orleans, directed on location by Elia Kazan. The article contains one of the few references I've seen to the film's connection with Albert Camus' novel The Plague, which had appeared in France in 1947 and in English translation in 1948:

In Panic in the Streets we can find some subtle references to the novel by Camus. Members of the crew declare that both the murdered sailor and another stowaway, who died of plague during the course of the voyage, went on board in the city of Oran, the same city where the action of Camus’ novel takes place. Interestingly, Camus was born in Algeria.

When I saw Panic in the Streets for the first time about a decade ago, I wasn't aware of this connection going in, but I caught it immediately when Oran was mentioned in the film, and thought to myself, "Now, THAT is neat!" I hadn't yet read The Plague, a truly great novel, at that time, but I was aware of where it was set.
Sylvie Bigar, "Beneath Martinique's Beauty, Guided by a Poet" at the New York Times:

A nice piece that looks at the relationship between the great Franco-Caribbean poet Aime Cesaire (1913-2008) and his home island of Martinique. At their Learning Network, the Times pairs this article with a poem by Cesaire's protegee Lucie Thesee:

I wish that I might have visited more Caribbean islands by now, but I am lucky to have made it to St. Martin with a side jaunt to nearby Anguilla a few years ago. Respecting Martinique, I have read La Catastrophe, Alwyn Scarth's fine account of the 1902 eruption of Mount Pelee that completely destroyed the then-capital city of St. Pierre and killed its 30,000 inhabitants, leaving but three survivors, one of them a prisoner ironically protected by the thick walls of his prison.
A great selection of photographs from John Thomson's 1878 classic Street Life in London at the Daily Mail:

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Finds: January 16, 2014

Amaury Lovin, "Blood and Spirit: Reading beyond Orwell for a glimpse of British Burma" at Myanmar Times:

Things have loosened up in Myanmar/Burma; a few years ago, this piece probably could not have been published. It's a look at the British writer Maurice Collis (1889-1973), who lived in Burma over a twenty-year period, and wrote many books, both fiction and non-fiction, about that country and other subjects.

A few years back I read George Orwell's terribly sad novel Burmese Days, which reflects his time posted in the colony, and followed up with the pseudonymous Emma Larkin's excellent Finding George Orwell in Burma, where Collis shows up in the bibliography. It sounds as if Collis had some of the same issues with the the British colonial administration as Orwell had.

It would be interesting to read some of Collis's output. There is not much in print, and nothing is available in ebook formats (at least not that I have been able to find). This points up one of the limitations of ebooks, that if a work is not yet in the public domain (it's post-1920s, in other words), but is also of limited current commercial interest, the chances of it showing up as an ebook are at the moment rather slim. That situation might improve over time. But I think I'll always be going to second-hand dealers for hard copies of titles that are somewhere in this chasm of lost books (it's much more than a "crack"). This is not completely a hardship, since even though I am very happy with my e-reader (an iPad), I'll never abandon my romance with physical books.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Interesting Comparison between Countries

As an American educator, I noticed too many times to count that American high school and college students tend to have a knee-jerk negative response to "high culture," older culture, and unfamiliar culture. This is simply not true in Mexico. If I play classical music or opera or silent film for my students here, they don't jeer, they don't get fidgety or act bored; they don't ever complain that something is old or old-fashioned or out-of-date. They are respectful, they are interested, and they make good discussion. In this European-based culture, high culture is something to be valued. (The same is true in East Asia.) I had two sessions today of my art history / literature course, and since it's the first week, I'm dealing with basic theory. In a section on abstract painting, I used examples by Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and, for the first time, Barnett Newman:

My students are always interested in Pollock, but what really surprised me was how they latched onto Newman. They were open to his "zip" paintings and interested to discuss what they might "mean." (I raised one of the standard interpretations, which is that the zips represent a kind of super-stylized vertical human figure. Newman himself kept mum about whether he had that in mind.) One quick student pointed out that Tony Stark / Iron Man owns a Newman, and sure enough, in Iron Man 2, Newman is shouted out at some length.

The students were equally responsive to such subjects as symbolism - I put the question into play, what does the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings stand for, if anything? - and high culture-pop culture hybrids. They quickened noticeably at the analysis I offered that a song such as The Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony" is really more of a modern orchestral pop song than a rock song, the proof of that pudding being that it would be much easier to approximate the sound of the recording in a live symphony concert (all those strings!) than in a rock band concert. They really like such topics.

Teaching culture in the United States, an instructor has to spend half her time persuading students that it would be worth their while to pay attention, and even then, receptiveness often fails to take hold. In Mexico, no such problems. The attitude towards culture is pronouncedly more open and less insular, and, it strikes me, much healthier. It is quite possible to be a pop culture aficionado (as most of my students are) without inhabiting a defensive silo. This seems worthy of notice.

POSTSCRIPT: A friend wondered whether the difference I describe might primarily be due to my students in Mexico being mostly upper-middle and upper class. There is definitely some question of social status involved, but I do not think that in itself it is determinative.

I have taught U.S. students at many more strata - charter schools, suburban schools, inner city schools, prep and boarding schools, community colleges, etc. - than I have Mexican students. But I never encountered the cultural openness that I find among my undoubtedly privileged Mexican students at any "level" of U.S. students whatsoever. Nothing remotely close to it. And correspondents who teach in more purely middle class Mexican schools tell me that their students are more respectful and attentive than the privileged ones. 

My impression based on my first-hand experience of Mexico, and my second-hand reading knowledge of the rest of Latin America, is that Latin America is far more like Europe, in this and other ways, than it is like the United States. More like Asia, too. Respect for "higher" things, respect for intellectual life, respect for the past.

Americans, even from the upper socio-economic levels, are terrified to seem to be "putting on airs," which is one reason why politicians are practically required to play "I'm just an ordinary guy" card, or meet the voter's "I'd like to have a beer with him" test. None of that seems especially relevant to my international experiences so far. There are other problems, sure, but not THAT problem.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Farrows vs. Woody Allen

Mia and Ronan Farrow's comments trashing Woody Allen and accusing him of molesting his adopted daughter Dylan have been consistent over the years. I have never had any idea what to think about all that. Allen's behavior with respect to his quasi- but not legal stepdaughter Soon-Yi Previn is a matter of record, so he can be criticized readily on that score (although one notes, they are still married and by all accounts, have been happily together for more than 20 years). The rest of it is very muddy. It is interesting that Mia now admits that Ronan might actually be her ex Frank Sinatra's son, which I take to be an admission that in fact he IS. Ronan looks amazingly like a young Sinatra, and nothing at all like Allen.

If I'm Ronan Farrow, an extraordinarily ambitious young man, I might give it a rest before I'm primarily thought of as the guy who always disses his "dad" on Twitter.

Although Woody Allen isn't, even on the best construction, any gift to morality, I have also tended to look askance at Mia Farrow's "collecting" of children - four biological, 11 adopted. It seems excessive, as if she were the subject of a "hoarding" show on A&E or something. She adopted six (six!) of those children between 1992 and 1995, precisely the period of her personal and legal battles with Allen. Children as comfort food?

It is also interesting that Farrow's losing Allen to Soon-Yi Previn mirrors Dory Previn's losing her husband Andre to Farrow circa 1970, a subject about which Dory wrote a song, "Beware of Young Girls." What goes around comes around?

The humor website Cracked really lets Mia have it - not for the easily offended, or anyone who credits the Dylan Farrow accusations:

After making several mediocre films, Farrow went on a hunger strike to bring attention to herself and human rights problems in Darfur. The hunger strike didn't really work out and why should it? She weighs no more than a few pounds. Mia Farrow going on a hunger strike is like Kirstie Alley entering a Hot Dog Eating Contest. Wow, such sacrifice!

POSTSCRIPT: You can tell that I'm a bit of a Woodyologist. I never bought the idea of a post-Eighties Allen career swoon. He has continued to make great films, good films, and near-misses in about the same proportions as ever.

Mia did most of her best acting under Allen's direction. I think her two best non-Allen films are Rosemary's Baby (of course) and Joseph Losey's majestically nutty Secret Ceremony, co-starring with Elizabeth Taylor. (A film that Camille Paglia goes into raptures over, and I completely understand why.)

You know what's a great book? Eric Lax's Conversations with Woody Allen. Extremely thoughtful and fascinating from the first page to the last.