Hey, there's this other thing. [mp3]
It started out with one idea but became something wholly unrelated.
It's for headphones.
Hey, there's this other thing. [mp3]
It started out with one idea but became something wholly unrelated.
It's for headphones.
Leaving the Harvard Book Store empty-handed.
Read about him here, here, and here. The short: hired to look for security flaws in Cisco routers (the vertebrae o' the Internet). Finds a serious one. Reports it to Cisco. Cisco buries the news. Then...
Cisco threatened legal action to stop the conference's organizers from allowing a 24-year-old researcher for a rival tech firm to discuss how he says hackers could seize control of Cisco's Internet routers, which dominate the market. Cisco also instructed workers to tear 20 pages outlining the presentation from the conference program and ordered 2,000 CDs containing the presentation destroyed.
In the end, the researcher, Michael Lynn, went ahead with a presentation, describing flaws in Cisco's software that he said could allow hackers to take over corporate and government networks and the Internet, intercepting and misdirecting data communications. Mr. Lynn, wearing a white hat emblazoned with the word "Good," spoke after quitting his job at Internet Security Systems Inc. Wednesday. Mr. Lynn said he resigned because ISS executives had insisted he strike key portions of his presentation.
From the Wired story:
Lynn closed his talk by directing the audience to his resume and asking if anyone could give him a job.
"In large part I had to quit to give this presentation because ISS and Cisco would rather the world be at risk, I guess," Lynn said. "They had to do what's right for their shareholders; I understand that. But I figured I needed to do what's right for the country and for the national critical infrastructure."
I admire his integrity. Michael Lynn, I toast you! Let's see if you've succeeded in killing the whole Internet though. :)
Steven Berlin Johnson - author of Everything Bad Is Good For You - just wrote an open letter to Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) being all like, 'Yo woman don't be stupid!' He says things like:
Many juvenile crimes — such as the carjacking that is so central to "Grand Theft Auto" — are conventionally described as "thrill-seeking" crimes. Isn't it possible that kids no longer need real-world environments to get those thrills, now that the games simulate them so vividly? The national carjacking rate has dropped substantially since "Grand Theft Auto" came out. Isn't it conceivable that the would-be carjackers are now getting their thrills on the screen instead of the street?
Is this guy serious? Does 'isn't it possible' pass for argument now? Is there anything behind this paragraph except hand-waving and hot air? (You can guess my answer.) The 'release valve' theory of violent entertainment is undercooked, unproven, and dodges a lot of real questions (e.g. isn't it better to tie this release of physical/violent energies to a real-world environment with equally visceral consequences? Is this how chickenhawks are born, dealing from a young age with deeply felt physical/emotional needs and only imagined/virtual satisfactions?).
No one who cites The Sims uncritically should be taken without a grain of salt. The Sims is nothing more than a soap opera itself - only without drama. Indeed, insofar as 'drama' is inextricably tied up with the creative delay, displacement, troubling, and even refusal of satisfaction, we can reasonably say that many of our bestselling games have nothing whatsoever to do with drama. This is, however, a category that many technologists and critics are ill-equipped to talk about. (I make no counterclaims about myself at this point.)
This would be the time to pull out MIT Admissions dean Marilee Jones's article on the Millennials, I think. I'm not certain it's a good article but it's interesting, and it serves as something of a counterweight to all this hand-waving and rhetoric.
I'll respond to the rest of the letter with a series of bullet points listing vocabulary words, extraordinary and magnificent notions, and snide comments that might be useful to someone reading it...
Friends like these, etc. The worst part: stupid half-arguments like these actually might work on the idiots in power. Sigh.
Weird experience. It was a really intense, nail-biting movie (even though I knew what was coming), but I don't think I'll remember anything about it even tomorrow. The reviewers are right: it's heavy on the allegory, a very old-fashioned sci-fi movie. 'Terrorists' are mentioned explicitly a couple of times, but 9/11 is all over the film from the opening voice-over.
Dakota Fanning terrifies me. She was funny and interesting, but I have this feeling she's going to grow up completely bonkers, useless to the world. I don't get that sense from Haley Joel Osment, for what it's worth.
The older kid was good. Tom Cruise did just fine, though I find him increasingly opaque lately (this was very effective in Collateral but I think Mann is just Cruise's style). John Williams's music was unmemorable.
I don't know, it was a long day. Even the music I did today seems hazy, as if spied through a thick fog.
Who gives a shit, anyhow?
The weekend's spoils, musically speaking:
All in mp3 format for your aural pleasure! There was also another tune, but I'm holding onto it for the moment, because it's a very note-for-note cover and I'd like to do something more interesting with it. Fall fast, fall free, fall with me.
Late-night reading has included Susan Faludi's Stiffed, which is an ambitious bit of anecdotes-as-social-history but doesn't resonate with my personal experience the way it does for others. Faludi has some fascinating things to say about masculinity as a civic virtue (father as caretaker, the Ernie Pyle image of the G.I.) among the 'Greatest Generation', and how the promise of security and masculine ritual ascendancy made to Vietnam-vet-age male children was broken in the 60's. The book is an indictment of the male-dominated culture that sent boys off to Vietnam, but Faludi also roundly criticizes the (male) Vietnam generation for basically being totally absent in the eyes of its male children.
The thing is, my dad is 71 years old, and I'm 26; my parents were not particularly 'permissive' (in the Dr Spock sense) but they sure as hell weren't abusive or overly repressive, and I've never doubted my father's devotion and connection to our family. He isn't violent or distant, and though I've never really connected to his stiff-upper-lip British Catholic vision of manhood, I think I've come to more or less understand it. That is to say: I don't need therapy to talk about how Daddy Didn't Love Me, which feels a lot of the time like Faludi's big theme. The peculiarly American phenomena she describes seem familiar, but not as viscerally present for me as (presumably) for her other readers.
On the T in the morning, I've been dipping into Samantha Power's "A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide. No, it's not the America-as-Great-Satan Chomskyite rant that it might sound like, you cynical bastard. Rather, it's a history of 20th century genocides and the U.S.'s total indifference to them. It's too intense a book to be read in large chunks; the section on Saddam Hussein gassing the Kurds will likely give me nightmares, as will the fact that people in the U.S. didn't believe the Holocaust was occurring until the end of WWII.
And for something 'breezier' at work, it's been Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism, which is a challenging (to me) book with a provocative premise (Islamist extremism is an outgrowth and inheritor of a nihilist tradition that runs through European fascism, which finds fertile ground in some Islamic traditions but is fundamentally an anti-liberal-democratic movement, a death cult). The book reads in places like Christopher Hitchens without the pigheadedness, and the comments about the Bush administration's turn from Nixonian political 'realism' (read: naked capitalist greed and lust for power) to a weird militaristic Wilsonian idealism are complicated enough to dodge the 'apologist' label. There's a long attack on Noam Chomsky at the end of the book, and though I dislike Chomsky there've been some pretty stinging online/print rebukes to Berman's claims about him, even though Berman scores some serious (and in retrospect, obvious) points.
It's nice to read a book that takes the role of the public intellectual seriously without being just another Great Man history of the White West.
Oh yeah, and the sixth Harry Potter book, but that's been talked about already. Plus the occasional visit to the humid chthonic pagan mystery of Baby Camille's Sexual Personae.
And that's what I'm reading lately. Thanks for asking.
Dashed down I-95 for an evening trip to NYC, without cell phone(!), to see Night Rally et al. at the Lit Lounge. The words 'East Village' still conjure up the boho primal scene, some midget ancestor of the hipster ('We're the Fugawi').
The show was excellent. Heard three new Rally tunes, liked them. My notebook contains evidence of extreme mental decay, starting early (we went to Burger King en route). It now also contains quite possibly the most cynical thing I've ever written down: I figure it was around 10pm, a fine time for cynicism.
I suspect that the East Village is the closest thing today's Bostonian has to Mos Eisley Cantina.
Uhhhh, nope. But it's a nice try anyhow.
In the first Austin Powers movie, Dr Evil gets in a great jab at the shaggy secret agent: 'There's nothing so pathetic as an aging hipster,' he says, and the crowd laughs along: Pavlovian. Mike Myers is resolutely unhip (look at his 'hip' character in So I Married An Axe Murderer for evidence of this), and that barbed comment seems unironic coming from him - Austin is obviously wounded to hear it, and can barely come back with, 'Shut your cake hole, baldy.'
Let's amend Myer's bit of wisdom, though: there's nothing as pathetic as a hipster, full fucking stop.
As a result, I read this n+1 article, on filmmaker/collector of oddities Wes Anderson, with a mixture of glee, agreement, and sheer head-shaking disgust. It's a cry from the heart of a wounded, betrayed NYC hipster, and though it's superficially a self-lacerating piece of anti-hipster film/social criticism, there's something smug and pathetic about it, because after all it's a short essay in n+1 written specifically for a hipster audience.
Great art and criticism aspire to an audience beyond the author's friends and fellow-travelers. Being a 'hipster', near as I can tell, is nothing more than making a classist fashion statement or two, and resenting that only your friends seem to give a shit about the 'Gender and Performance in East Asian Film' class you took in college. Even a tongue-in-cheek piece like the Anderson essay up above (which, by the way, is well-written and in places really sharp) takes itself and its fashion undeservedly seriously. You get the sense that the author hates The goddamn Rapture - but has been to a few shows.
Shame, really. Because there are passages like this -
...Lost in Translation succeeded mostly as a sustained mood piece—Williamsburg goes to Tokyo, holes up in a fancy hotel, feels sorry for itself, hangs around in its underwear, then bumps into Bill Murray drinking himself to sleep at the bar. The dialogue was an exercise in inanity, except in a couple of hilarious scenes when Murray comes up against those wacky Japanese people who can’t tell their r’s from their l’s.
- which are dead-on, even when they needlessly equivocate ('succeeded mostly'? It's a joyless bourgeois remake of In the Mood for Love without the social context! Just say it for Christ's sake!). Yes I'm guilty of the same things. No I don't think the 'glass houses' injunction is particularly applicable in this case - I just want to help.
Christian Lorentzen, free thyself! Stop checking MySpace.com every ten minutes and step up to the serious art, which waits for your (thy?) pen, and by the way shouldn't there be ironic quotes around the word 'hilarious' up there?
Steven Johnson inadvertently illustrates his new book's main idea by providing the verbal equivalent of a video game player's experience. If games are, as he says, repetitive and often frustrating, and if they make up for monotony by offering infrequent but exciting rewards, the same can be said for his book, ''Everything Bad Is Good for You.''
The reader rattles around within the book's narrow universe and repeatedly bumps into the same thing: reiterations of Mr. Johnson's one big idea. Yes, X (fill in the name of a video game, reality television show or intricately plotted series like ''24'') may appear to be (pick one: mindless, stupid or violent). But X actually inculcates important survival skills. X shows how to test ideas, figure out which ones work and grasp the full sequence of steps that must be taken to achieve a certain goal. X makes you mentally alert, even if you appear to be slack-jawed and glassy-eyed. X makes you smarter.
Unfortunately, much popular nonfiction fits this mold: I'm thinking in particular of Malcolm Gladwell, though a number of books I've read might charitably be described as the literary equivalent of college-student soup: take whatever's handy, chop it up into a bowl, add enough of your favourite flavour to overpower every constituent taste. If you like that one flavour you may well like the soup whether it's crap or not.
Such books are less 'synthesizing' than 'synthetic', with all the pejorative implications of that word. Our 'Big Thoughts' get smaller by the day - like every age, this is an age of lowered expectations (and isn't that a common subtext of much of the discussion around Johnson's book?).
Sigh, sigh, sigh. Why personal annoyance at this book and its fairly rosy reception? I have an idea but would rather not share it. I'll share this instead: better books on similar subjects are surely coming, hopefully soon, and they will be written by people with Johnson's popularizing instinct and deeper, more serious interest in the implications of new media. They're out there.
Our boy Farhad Manjoo, incidentally, glossed right over one of the most glaring insipidities of the book's media coverage (and presumably the book itself) in his Salon review:
"For decades, we've worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a steadily declining path towards lowest-common-denominator standards," Johnson writes. "But in fact, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more intellectually demanding, not less." Johnson labels the trend "the Sleeper Curve," after the 1973 Woody Allen film that jokes that in the future, more advanced societies will come to understand the nutritional benefits of deep fat, cream pies and hot fudge.
If Annie Hall or Sleeper came out today, would anyone watch them? Would they even get wide release? I doubt it. And it's not because they're 'behind the times' in form or content. It's because today's movie audience simply will not tolerate the kind of serious emotional interrogation of Woody Allen's best films (and I recognize that Sleeper is not one of his best films). Johnson uses the term 'Sleeper curve' (a gag on 'Laffer Curve', in part?) to talk to and about an audience that will not catch the reference - it's like talking about 'Slothrop's Malady' or describing someone as 'faded like Dolores Haze'. The culture isn't getting smarter, it's just that our cultural shit is getting more complicated.
Complication is not merit. Complexity can have merit, but does anyone really think that Survivor is 'complex' in any sense other than logistically? Only the kind of people who edit digital-culture magazines. Even the people who make the show don't harbor that delusion, I'd wager.
And incidentally, the 'lowest-common-denominator standards' claim of Johnson's is something of a straw man: it's now commonly accepted that fragmentation and individualization threaten any sense of 'common culture', enabling fannish involvement with ever more segmented mini cultures and subcultures. 'Mass culture' is a problematic notion these days in ways that are (apparently!) hard to sum up easily in a one-page op-ed or 200-page polemic. But we shouldn't let such elisions slide when popularizers carry so much responsibility (if temporary!) for the state of the ongoing cultural conversation. I know these are throwaway sentences, but when an argument rests on a throwaway claim that isn't actually true, that's a problem for the argument, not its critics.
...is absolutely beautiful at night. It's 8:24pm, I've been in the office just shy of 12 hours (and have been doing work or sitting in meetings most of that time), and right now the Charles River and the buildings along its banks are the most beautiful things of all. It's so lonely and soulless up here, nighttime and daytime alike, but the streets turn to jeweled electric necklaces when the sun goes down, and brave children of all ages come out to play. The buildings themselves seem to relax a bit. Sailboats in loose formation head for the dock at MIT.
I grew up elsewhere, but I find that I continue to grow up here. I imagine I'll grow up in the next place as well, if the fates are willing.
At 10am I have a presentation for which I am ill-prepared.
My favourite kind.
Over in the WaPo, a snarky and unsubstantive response to Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You in the form of an interview (I'm glad I wasn't there for this particular 'exchange'!). Once the BPL gets its copies back I'll read one, I think, because the descriptions are so maddening, and the reviews so limited and goggle-eyed. Here's the WaPo guy:
So how about the addiction thing?
"Everything Bad" sets out to explain why gamers willingly spend hours on tasks that seem, at least to a non-gamer, intensely boring. "The power of games to captivate involves their ability to tap into the brain's natural reward circuitry," Johnson writes. A bit later he acknowledges a small problem. "You might reasonably object that I have merely demonstrated that video games are the digital equivalent of crack cocaine."
Well, yeah, you bet, but when you do object, here comes that positive story line again.
Can't constantly gaming kids become addicted? "Absolutely. No question about it," Johnson agrees. But he says the brain's craving for rewards, like the Force in "Star Wars," can be used for good as well: "You can get them to do things much more challenging mentally than what I was doing when I was sitting around watching TV" as a kid.
Aah, the good old game-addiction hobbyhorse. Don't 'media commentators' have anything else to talk and think about? Johnson's right to imply that addiction per se isn't necessarily bad, though nowhere have I seen him offer a more complex rebuttal than 'maybe it isn't necessarily bad'. Presumably that's in the book. If you're curious about the topic, the book Changing Minds by Andrea DiSessa is a brilliant high-level look at learning and digital media from a colleague of Seymour Papert's. DiSessa was a major source of inspiration as I wrote my Masters thesis, and his notion of 'generativity' prompted me to a couple of the (probably very few) insights in that bedraggled, benighted little document.
Incidentally, the following is just flat-out stupid:
Give him credit for consistency: Johnson doesn't stop at saying these widely praised, long-form TV dramas are more challenging than they used to be. Even reality television, he maintains, is better for viewers than old-time game shows or "Mork & Mindy." Why? Because it enhances the viewers' emotional intelligence by getting them to "analyze and recall the full range of social relationships in a large group."
Oh, please! Wouldn't they learn faster by turning off the tube and interacting with actual human beings ?
"Yes. Right. Exactly right," he says calmly. But if you assume "people are going to spend some amount of their time in front of screens . . ."
Survivor, as viewers know, is only nominally a game show. Johnson is being terribly disingenuous when he talks about 'enhancing viewers' emotional intelligence' with 'reality TV', because he's simply discounting any sense of emotional depth or seriousness that doesn't fit his thesis. The moral lessons, such as they are, of 'reality TV' shows are as shallow and unmemorable as anything from pulp novels or, indeed, Mork and Mindy. Praise of these shows springs, it seems to me, in no small part from the desire to explain our love of unchallenging, cookie-cutter entertainment.
Which is to say: maybe we should be worried that a scholarly apparatus is required by our society to justify its adults' desire to be childish.
As I said earlier this weekend: from what I've read (of his writing and responses to it), EBIGFY is right in its observation that pop culture is comparatively technically sophisticated, and probably right (e.g.) in its assessment that, compared to early TV, today's TV is more complex, and exists in an aesthetic universe that would be extremely difficult for previous generations to follow. But his other cultural-critical claims, about benefits to society and a hand-waving notion of 'cognitive exercise', seem either trivially true (students multitask more both at home and in school), meaningless (students multitask 'better' - yet they massively less happy and, we are told, less distinguishable to college admissions staffs, and that is presumably not explored in the book, though that link is surely as important as loose-limbed claims about 'emotional intelligence'), or flat-out dumb (from his oft-repeated claim that the number of tasks to complete in a Zelda game is in any way related to its complexity and subtlety, to his implicit equation of 'amount of information' with 'seriousness').
Sharpest bit in the WaPo article, BTW:
"Everything Bad Is Good for You" was deliberately written as a polemic, Johnson says, and he knows perfectly well it's one-sided. He could have written a longer, more balanced book that said, "Here's an overall assessment of the entire state of today's culture," he says, "but that's the kind of book that nobody listens to."
People have been listening to his, at least to judge from the continuing flow of media requests: He's been doing interviews for weeks, and as he speaks, in early June, he's about to go on "The Daily Show" and Jim Lehrer's "NewsHour." What's more -- despite his fears, and present company excepted -- he's been surprised at how positive the responses have been.
Ah, but you've got a theory of why that is.
Call it the Red Wine Syndrome. Take something that's known to be wildly destructive when taken in excess: something that can wreck your liver, destroy your family, create bloody mayhem on the highway and turn you into a pathetic, falling-down wretch. Then have some scientists announce that, taken in moderation , this thing can . . . prevent cancer!
If you're a drinker who's sick and tired of being scolded, you're going to be pretty excited about this news.
It's a silly and unprofessional interview overall, to my eyes, but that last bit - in its cheek - is nonetheless a pretty stinging rebuttal to SBJ on a level that has nothing to do with his argument. The 'wisdom of crowds' might indicate that EBIGFY is hitting a nerve, but 'the wisdom of crowds' is itself little more than a marketer's excuse: the interviewer, snarking away, has hit upon something a bit deeper, something our culture of celebrity and faux-nonconformity would do well to note well.
The Insider is second only to Heat among Michael Mann's films; it surpasses Mann's cops and robbers epic in scope, but instead of Heat's mythic pairing of antihero and sympathetic villain in a hyperreal Los Angeles (or the miniature two-conflicted-men morality play of Collateral, The Insider turns the microscope on the day-to-day doings of journalism (gussied up a bit for dramatic impact), and tells a more conventional story of Noble Men fighting a Corrupt System - like the risible Erin Brockovich, but less black-and-white.
The Insider is interestingly structured: it goes from the story of a haunted whistleblower to a broader (and more broadly painted) tale of corporate wrangling and the co-opting of news by business, and the tone and focus of the movie shift as well, from Russell Crowe's marvelous, understated portrayal of tobacco exec Jeffrey Wigand to Al Pacino's whirlwind turn as a crusading journalist. The change of tone means more speechifying in the second half, which is nonetheless totally redeemed and troubled by Christopher Plummer's merciless turn as 60 Minutes anchor Mike Wallace.
Plummer's Wallace is like a conscience-free version of William Holden's TV producer in Network, and his every line is beautifully metered somewhere between aged integrity and pure reptilian cunning (I couldn't stop thinking of his sleazy pornographer-priest in the ludicrous film adaptation of Dragnet either, which probably says more about me than about Plummer's performance). He and Crowe's Wigand embody the film's interest in the way that muddy, even petty personal motivations (family, money, fame) combine and conflict with the demands of the faceless institutions to which society's goodwill and concern seem increasingly (unavoidably?) directed.
As usual, Mann and his ace collaborators deliver gorgeous cinematography, strong writing, intensely serious Big Acting (there might be two laughs in the whole 150-minute affair), and an atmospheric score that's redolent of the 100% synthetic Miami Vice but without that show's willful cheesiness. By film's end the Good Guys have scored a nominal victory, and text cards before the credits remind us that Big Tobacco ended up settling lawsuits for a quarter of a trillion dollars. But the best thing about Mann's film is that, with the exception of Pacino's lefty muckraker (who now teaches at Berkeley, natch), every character is shot through with doubt and distrust, and no one's motivations are uncomplicated or innocent.
In other words, The Insider is an adult movie: though it carries a moral message, it's not simply two and a half hours of moralizing (though I've got to point out that no one lights a single cigarette in this long movie about Big Tobacco - an odd atmospheric choice by Mann). We should be grateful for grownup artists who take on subjects worthy of their talent.
Been listening to Poe's Haunted for a couple of days. It's a musical companion to her brother Mark Danielewski's (wonderful) book House of Leaves, but it also stands on its own as a long, weird letter to their father, a documentarian who left behind a collection of audio letters recorded over the course of the children's lives - and yes, he shows up throughout the album, as do mom and mom's answering machine. Does the conceit hold up? Absolutely. The little children's voices that weave in and out of the songs feel gimmicky, but the voice of her dead father is surprisingly touching, and Poe's strong yet dusky singing never sounds as generic angsty-girl as it might.
What's good? Lush arrangements (track 16 actually deserves the word 'Beatlesque' to describe its sound - which is just this side of plagiarism but it's so exciting you won't care); vocals that range from embarrassingly confessional to winningly badass/macho but always show both strength and intelligence in equal doses; a rich sonic palette that fairly drips Pro Tools but maintains a creepy cohesiveness even when the songcraft falters a little bit; the overall séance/funhouse/late-nite-bedroom vibe, which reaches its disturbing apex with the bonus track, a remix of 'Hey Pretty' featuring her brother MZD reading an uncomfortably sexy passage from the book between Poe's c'mon-let's-fuck choruses. (They're close. Like Simon & River Tam close. It's nice in a non-Catholic way.)
What's less good? The 'ode to dead dad' stuff veers into kinda maudlin territory toward album's end, and it's a long album indeed - it works as a whole, but there's a slight air of calculation to the confessional stuff. You might say it just sounds overproduced at those moments - for comparison, throw in that old copy of Little Earthquakes and listen to 'Me and a Gun' again - painful, innit? - and precisely because it's so naked. Poe's psychic excursions never quite grab your insides that way, and the conversations-with-dead-people aspect is striking but has been done better (of course, so has everything, right?).
In addition, the production on the father/daughter duet seems a little choppy, the back-and-forth rhythm almost trite - Wilco's use of the Conet Project shortwave recordings on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, or Mark De Gli Antoni's sampler-keyboard mastery with Soul Coughing, are more skilled demonstrations of the kind of journeyman work Poe is doing in the production booth. As for the hard/soft dance-pop act, the freakishly talented Fiona Apple and the somewhat less talented Alanis Morrisette already covered some of this ground (and there's some Shirley Manson in here for spice), and though Poe makes very good pop music, the big leap forward with Haunted is the concept, the scope, the alternately literary and therapeutic vibe of the proceedings.
I like the album a lot (and the book is sensational): it might've been a self-indulgent piece of hackwork, or an assortment of pop confections, but it's an enjoyable and at times startling sustained creative project, enriched with spooky biography and actually achieving, at least partially, what most pop singers never bother trying to attain.
Oh, and speaking of Fiona Apple: she's rerecording her unreleased third album, Extraordinary Machine, supposedly because she's unhappy with Jon Brion's production work. In fairness, the thing does sound at times like a Jon Brion project with Fiona Apple on vocals, a long long way from her R-rated debut album. But even if the album doesn't quite sound how she wants it, it should be said: it sounds awesome, a memorable blend of carnivalesque cabaret, chamber music, and dense pop sounds. If you haven't already grabbed the leaked album online, do so - it's too good and too bizarre for pop radio, and far better than her sophomore album, When the Pawn...
A few more things about the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas 'porn' mini-tempest that only a few thousand Internet-dwelling geeks seem to care about:
Farhad Manjoo's dull piece in Salon misses, as usual, the point:
Here's the interesting thing about [the lead character in GTA:SA], though: He's not real. He's just an agglomeration of innocent polygons, mathematically rendered colors and shapes in the three-dimensional video game world of "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas."
No one who gets paid to write about technology should be allowed to pen sentences so insipid. 'Innocent' polygons? This is lame rhetorical baiting, but it's also uncritical and faux-naïve. It's not 'just a game' anymore than Fahrenheit 9/11 is 'just a movie' and Lolita is 'just a book': these are aesthetic objects, and our experiences of them have meaning and weight long after they're 'finished'. Manjoo describes the sex scene, and laughs it off:
If this sounds silly, that's because it is.
But then he turns around to praise the game:
"Grand Theft Auto" is remarkably popular, and you don't have to be a churl to find it fun. Indeed, the game's sublime. To be sure, it's surpassingly violent, vulgar and disturbing. To the extent that there is a point to the festivities -- a goal -- it is to steal stuff, beat and kill people (including cops and soldiers), and to live to tell the tale. Yet one also finds a real psychological fix in the game, an escapist thrill. "Grand Theft Auto" is resplendently open-ended. You can walk, run, drive, swim or boat anywhere. As Steven Johnson points out in "Everything Bad Is Good for You," a fine contrarian defense of pop culture, the pleasure in video games comes in pushing them to their limits, in looking for new stuff to do and finding, amazingly, that you can do it. "Grand Theft Auto" takes that fun to new heights; it's one of the most addictive games I've ever played.
And as usual, a Salon columnist writes a bland center-left boilerplate complaint about someone's politicking (praising Hillary's politics with faint damnation) with a very thin veneer of 'intellectual' context to give it the appearance of a miniature 'essay'. Evidence of the thinness here: citing Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You as an authoritative book. (Johnson is a popularizer akin to Malcolm Gladwell; as near as I can tell, the biggest problem with Johnson's arguments about pop culture is that, in their most superficial form, they're trivially correct, yet taken seriously - i.e. treated as rigorous cultural analysis - they're either irrelevant or wrong. His claims work as apologia but don't look particularly substantive.)
Let's retread this familiar space, shall we? A game in which you don't need to do anything is not 'open-ended' - no more so than, say, the original Final Fantasy, which featured a world as expansive and full of Bad Guys as GTA:SA, but without the giggle-inducing cops 'n' robbers/sex/violence/racial-identity-play fluff. 'Open-endedness' in this context is usually little more than an excuse for building a space far too big for its limited dramatic interest. Being able to 'walk anywhere' isn't 'resplendent', it's a bare minimum for an effective 3D game. And indeed, you can't 'walk anywhere' in the game, it's just that players allow the vicarious amoral thrills of the game to compensate for the shocking, aggravating, fiction-damaging limitations of the game engine and city design. Like everyone else addicted to the context-free violence and schoolboy power fantasies of the GTA games, Manjoo is using 'critical' terminology to dress up a nothing claim about a game that's an 'achievement' only in its triumph of scale over substance.
Praising the open-endedness of Grand Theft Auto is like praising Steven King for the length of his books.
Manjoo uses the word 'psychological' but he doesn't mean it (because it doesn't mean anything). Referring to 'the thrill' in games is like talking about 'the pleasure' in novels - what, only one? What about the thrill of Space Invaders? Or Zork? Or for that matter, Super Monkey Ball? As is all too common in the faux-critical discourse surrounding games, the common descriptions of their pleasures are generally bent to fit theories of how games are supposed to 'work' - rather than things being the other way around. (Hey, it worked for literary theory, economics, and political science...we can do it too!) Reread what Manjoo's saying here:
To be sure, it's surpassingly violent, vulgar and disturbing. [...] Yet...
Yet nothing. Past the mere visceral thrills of GTA games there's nothing going on. Once you're desensitized to the 'cartoon' violence, the only real thrill left in the game is staging spectacles of speed, size, and scale using virtual actors (e.g. by trying to bring down as much police heat as possible by committing crimes, and going out Scarface-style in a hail of bullets). You could possibly make an argument that a game like GTA functions something like a filmmaker's pre-viz setup, but I've never seen such an argument, and in case we're talking about a game nowhere near that open-ended.
That single-line quote from Manjoo sums up the major critical response to GTA: 'It's essentially pornographic violence, with strong overtones of homophobia and misogyny (not justified by 'character development', such as it is), but it's just so cool!!' Gamers crow about the game's technical achievements, but as I said, its main achievement is scale - it's the equivalent of Angband, a Rogue-like computer game that's like the idiotic cousin of the more hermetic, well-wrought Nethack. Angband is huge and superficially similar to Nethack, but each individual prop or location in Nethack is imbued with an astounding depth of interactivity. For comparison, just try and do something with a car in Grand Theft Auto other than drive it or kick it.
Go on. I'll wait.
No one has ever shown that games like "GTA" corrupt kids' minds; most such assertions are leveled by people who've never played.
The first bit is true but hard to support; the second bit is irrelevant and weakens the claim, because it's not as if Manjoo has anything to say about gameplay at all. (And if this seems like a lot of complaining for such a fluffy column, rest assured that this is important. It's not merely that I dislike Manjoo's writing in general, though I don't really care for it - he just doesn't have much to say, and there are worse problems I suppose - rather, it's that both the game industry and the broader culture need massive changes in perspective about games, and every column like this makes that goal harder to achieve.) We don't know whether games like GTA corrupt kids' minds, in part because the notion of 'corrupting minds' is so culturally contingent and politically expedient as to be meaningless, and in part because the studies on the subject are generally ridiculous and/or inconclusive. (Meta-studies of the media effects literature bear out this claim.)
The same thing can happen again: Video games aren't played just by freaks and geeks. They make more money than movies. If Clinton wants to win the White House in 2008, she'll need to get young people to the polls. Maybe she'd be wiser to focus on issues that matter to these people -- say, the fighting and dying in Iraq -- than on the fighting and the dying in the fake, fun world of "Grand Theft Auto."
[Update: The 'more money than movies' claim is actually a deliberate, common misreading of statistics - if memory serves, the truth is that games pull in more than the domestic box office gross of Hollywood films - but make no mistake, that's only a single piece of the Hollywood money pie.]
This is actually kind of a nice sentiment from Manjoo, though not one worthy of a serious essay: if you ask me (and yes, I'm well aware that you didn't), instead of ignoring the 'fake, fun world' of video games in favour of the transcendental Real of the Iraq War (or whatever it is Manjoo thinks he finds in the Guardian every day), we should take seriously the people who are saying challenging things about the links between these two worlds, and take lessons from the long, long history of media assimilation and faux-moral overreaction to new media/narrative forms so that we don't (y'know) throw out the cultural baby with the digital bathwater.
In the latest Rove article in the NYTimes, yesterday:
People who have been briefed on the case said that the White House officials, Karl Rove and I. Lewis Libby Jr., were helping to prepare what became the administration's primary response to criticism that a flawed phrase about the nuclear materials in Africa had been included in Mr. Bush's State of the Union address six months earlier....
I have highlighted, for your amusement and disgust, a single sentence in the above paragraph. Can you guess why it has been highlighted?
That's right!! Because it's a piece of evasive, dissembling trash!
Given that Bush and Co. knew that what they were saying was false (thanks in part to Ambassador Wilson's Africa trip), and included it anyway for political-ballast reasons, the boldfaced text might reasonably be replaced with the phrase pack of astounding lies designed to mislead the public. The aluminum tubes, the yellowcake story...all proved to be rubbish.
The right wing's masturbatory persecution fantasy of the So-Called Liberal Media continues unabated, of course, in the face of overwhelming evidence that the news media is no such thing.
It's like a nationwide rape fantasy expressed in political/cultural terms - which sublimation makes sense, given the hostile attitude our conservative media takes toward sex and that particularly male feeling of chic disenfranchisement - Don't walk down that alley alone at night, Rush! You know this is a liberal part of town! - And yet if he doesn't want it, why does he insist on dressing that way?
The ESRB - dimwitted video game equivalent of Jack Valenti's dimwitted, depraved MPAA - has changed the rating of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas to 'AO', the game equivalent of 'NC-17', months after the game's release. Why? A hidden code in the game unlocks a softcore sex scene not accessible without that code.
(And let's mention what hasn't been mentioned in any of the very little press I've read: it's an interracial sex scene to boot.)
Personally I don't really care what this does for Rockstar's bottom line; I doubt it will make any difference for them, balancing the loss of Wal-Mart sales with a huge bump in publicity (then again, everyone who would've bought this game presumably already has it, right?). More important to me is the by-now-played-out cultural 'furor' around sex in media.
This has already been roundly discussed, but it bears repeating: Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman (two 'moderate Democrats', pro-war and pro-'family values') are calling for federal investigations into the game industry yet again. Their interest in the matter is 100% cynical politicking; their knowledge of games amounts to roughly nothing, and their sense of contemporary children's media experiences is (improbably!) even less. The ESRB has already demonstrated its hypocrisy with its grossly pandering overreaction (because for Christ's sake it's a Grand Theft Auto game, if the nihilist violence of that series doesn't mark it as 'adults only' we definitely don't have the right to get up in arms about a little bit of consensual sex between digital adults), but the esteemed Senators stand to make matters worse by mobilizing a small but fanatical army of ignorant overprotective parents who want to censor or destroy one of the most creative sectors of the media industry (such as 'it' is).
I don't care for the GTA series, but they contain nothing more grotesque or 'morally shocking' than the Iliad - and provide kids, through extra-game discussion, with a shared social space that the Iliad no longer can. Many parents instinctively defend old texts on the grounds that they're...well, old; additionally there's the usual noise about how reading engages the imagination in ways that 'looking at a screen' just can't (try and ignore the ignorance and condescension implied by that description of gameplay). Consider only that, to continue with that bizarre piece of terminology, the '18th Century imagination' doesn't appear to have been richer or more expansive than that of today's kids. Nor did the 19th's. Nor - let's be frank here - the 20th's. Clinton et al. don't want rich childhood imaginations - they want for their children, by and large, the same repression and moralism they experienced as kids, because it's what they know, and more importantly it's what they can control. Fine, fine, 'parental prerogative' and all that. But this is the wrong place to exercise such power. GTA3 and its ilk are straw men. This isn't a battle worth fighting - because in any case who's the enemy?
Game makers, for better or worse, are artists. Recast this silly debate in terms of 'attack on the creative freedom of the artist' and you have rather a different political situation - or you would, if the American public (you might say 'people in general' I suppose) wasn't so happy to be sheep-herded along whenever someone presses the blinking red 'morality' button. Put it flatly: Hillary Clinton doesn't want to 'protect' anyone (nor does Brownback, nor Santorum, nor the loathsome Tom DeLay): she wants to shore up support. She doesn't understand games, she doesn't know how to approach them as art or as commerce or as social fixture, so she feels the need to lash out. These clowns are mothers and fathers, but distinctly not the type of parents who've ever spent much time in the home. As usual, in the rush to censure (and presumably move on?) we see played out the same old generational drama, this time with career-oriented boomers trying long after the fact to reach out to their children-by-proxy under the cover of 'the urge to protect' - which is to say, the urge to control, but that particular love shouldn't speak its name.
Parenting has to be a display of power - I accept that and embrace it ('permissive parenting' is a display of power as well - but trying to be your children's 'friend' seems to me like an abdication of authority). But the hypocritical moralizing that goes on around representations of sex (the violence-in-media trope doesn't play as well anymore because by now everyone's used to seeing this violence everywhere: go from Channel 13 News to The Passion of the Christ and you're guaranteed the limits of depravity, even if the villains are exclusively black, Jewish, left-wing, etc.) might find its origin in a parental impulse, but really it's more cultural wagon-circling. The older you get, the less likely you are to understand anything at all about how children learn, read, watch, play, imagine - because the less likely you are to remember, and to have seen firsthand the new form(s) of children's culture. Lawmakers in this country are prey to a potent mix: the myth of the innocent child, the need to appease moralizing fringe elements (such as the tiny number of Evangelicals in this country), and a shocking ignorance of the rich galaxy children's media forms.
All of which takes us back to GTA:SA - it's a sex scene. You control the character - I'll say it again to underscore a sublimated concern here - a black gangbanger fucking a white girl in a series of positions and with a level of nudity no different from what's on HBO (e.g. no genitals are visible in the scene, and the player character doesn't even undress - further evidence of how primitive this technology is, at heart). The sex is consensual and apparently pleasurable for both characters, and even if the dialogue is inane porn-posturing, that's OK - or if you like, no less OK than everything else on TV, in the movies...
People fuck! And they dig it! I don't know why we lead children to believe that that's not true, but it is, and we do (or we're supposed to). The ESRB seems to think this deception should continue - that parents can't be counted on to actually raise their kids, so the ratings board should do it for them by 'prohibiting' the sale of the game to minors (yeah and I've got a bridge I want to sell you). Porn is another thing, but if the violence in GTA isn't pornographic, then there's no way the sex is. (I would claim that for most players the brutality and murder is pornographic - but that marks me as a moralist, oddly enough, and in any case I play the game and to a limited degree enjoy it, so does that make me, um, relaxed?)
Funny thing: I think I've put as much thought into this blog post as Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman and their Puritanical colleagues across the aisle have put into knowing what video gaming is really like for kids. By all means let us shield our children from harm, but let's not make that an excuse for reflexively hiding them from what we don't understand and can't be bothered to learn about.
[Quick note: there's a separate concern here, namely the massive sexism, homophobia, and provincial stereotyping that are Rockstar Games's stock-in-trade. The sex scene (video here) is tacky and lame, yet another version of the adolescent male fantasy that "all a girl needs is some deep dickin', and I'm just the stud to give it to her." We should be more concerned about the content of children's sexual education than its mere fact - but that's not the kind of inquiry Congressional subcommittees are able to make without embarrassing themselves.]
Best thing about this ridiculous animation, set to TMBG's shuffle-mode classic 'Fingertips'? The finale, set to a live version of 'I Walk Along Darkened Corridors' worthy of Queen (which incidentally sounds like a blend of 'Fingertips' and 'Space Suit' in its way).
From the generally pretty risible 'Spiked' online cultural-criticism magazine, an article from a few years ago about Harry Potter, containing the following disappointing, distressing sentence:
A good children's story - good in the page-turning, as opposed to the literary, sense - will have a similar kind of appeal. (I challenge any self-confessed Potter reader to resist the charms of Enid Blyton's Malory Towers and Famous Five - although you would need to read those in secret.) When it comes to gripping, unchallenging brain candy, the main difference with the boy wizard is that you can read about him in public, smug in the knowledge that you are part of an accepted cultural trend. In today's infantile culture, it's okay to aspire to be childlike.
That's some bullshit right there. 'Childlike' and 'childish' are not the same thing, and aspiring to a childlike state is not unique to 'today's infantile culture', whatever the hell that is. Escape to the innocence/unfettered joy of childhood will always be important. What's equally important is sustained serious reflection, fine. I'm pretty sure even Harry Potter readers can grasp something so...profound. But the inability to feel childlike pleasure and abandon is not something to be proud of.
Look, I'm usually the first to criticize art for aspiring solely to visceral thrills, or worse - aspiring to be 'thought-provoking' and ending up rehearsing only the usual self-serving platitudes of the cultural moment. But the books aren't 'banal' simply because their depictions of Good and Evil are starkly defined (read the damn books, you'll find that's less the case with each passing volume).
Anyhow it's not worth prattling on about any further. But let's be frank: this is not a serious criticism of the Harry Potter series, nor of its cultural milieu. It's the sour grapes of the self-satisfied moralist, the fashionable cynic. Nothing more, I'm afraid.
Not an exhaustive list, no order implied.
There should be a place there for DFW's essay on Michael Joyce, Lord of the Rings, Neruda's love sonnets, some e.e. cummings, Seinfeld - but if I go listing all the other stuff that belongs there, I'll never finish. (Where's Mingus at Antibes though? Damn!). Anyhow it's a start.
[The following is somewhat spoilerific - if you intend to read the Harry Potter novels, just turn away and do without knowing what's to come. They're mystery stories, and much of the pleasure of the series will be lost if you know what's coming. Your best bet: take a week off work and just read the whole series. You deserve it.]
As I mentioned yesterday, the newest book from J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, is an entertaining and chilling book, the most portentous and world-changing in the series thus far. If you're planning on reading it, then you're surely have read the others in the series - it simply won't make any sense at all otherwise - and the emotional payoffs will range from euphoric ('I love you, Hermione') to crushing (the final chapter's title is 'The White Tomb'). If all you want to know is whether the book is good, rest assured: it's quite good. Rowling's prose is more nimble than ever, and with a couple of bizarre exceptions, her choices as a storyteller are always sure-footed and surprising.
To talk about the story in any more detail requires the use of the ol' spoiler shield. I avoid spoiling any of the very biggest surprises hereafter (and let's be honest - a few of them you can definitely see coming), but a few big details are let slip, so continue at your own risk. I promise not to spoil the delicious surprise of who teaches Defense Against the Dark Arts in year six...
Just finished Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Really engrossing book, as the other five were. Laughed aloud a few times, came near tears (you'll know why when you read it). Some big, big, big revelations in this one. Rowling has an extraordinary talent for expanding her fictional world and flicking back and forth between the cosmic and the intensely personal - a talent that (for better or worse) far outstrips her skills as prose stylist. And of all things, she has the audacity to take the most momentous event of the series so far and undercut it in a truly shocking, confusing, fascinating way.
My one complaint? Between two of the best chapters she's written, right at the book's end, she shoehorns a long expository passage that, in the hands of someone like Joss Whedon, would have been the emotional high-point of the series, but which emerges from Rowling's typewriter overstuffed with unsubtle talk.
The mandate for the seventh novel is clear, interesting, exciting.
Oh: and one character says to another character the three longest-awaited words in the whole Potter series, and they're played off as just an aside. In a sometimes massively unsubtle book, it's a moment of subtle beauty.
Standing in line at midnight? Totally, totally worth it.
[Update: Just posted this comment over at Crooked Timber, and was pleased with a couple of phrases, so I wanted to keep a record of it over here.
Take heart! The sixth book is definitely stronger than the fifth. I admit, rereading your 'Implausible Plot Device' post, I've not really thought about that aspect of the books - but as far as I'm concerned that's a measure of how engaging the books are as much as anything else. Improvements from volume five: less whining, less lame romance (and more cheeky romance), much plot-thread-gathering-and-weaving, and 150 thrilling pages at the end during which a couple of the biggest mysteries in the book are solved and then replaced with other, almost as intriguing mysteries.
Everything that's wrong with her books is probably still wrong with them, but the majority of the negative reactions to the book seem to be little more than confessions of lamentable literary anhedonia - the most fashionable of disorders among the cognoscenti, I'm afraid, to which I remain proudly immune - and so I confess that, except for the incessant doom'n'gloom of volume five, I've been ecstatically happy every second of each volume.
Michiko Kakutani's right about one thing: with the possible exception of book one, Rowling has never been shooting from the hip with these books. A lot of care has gone into the organization of the big story, and when her technical facility falls short, her empathy and infectious love of what she's talking about keep the books afloat. In this regard she's a lot like George Lucas - though his empathy has shifted to Anakin, which is a little spooky if you ask me.
Joel: what do you think adults see in the books? Themselves as they'd like to be. A world they'd like to visit. Magic, fer Chrissakes, from castles to airborne cupcakes to wounds that heal instantly and King's Cross whole and safe. (cf. comments about anhedonia!!) You might ask, what do adults see in Thomas Pynchon, no?
I need to know what happened to my Anthony. He's the love of my life. My first son, my first son, 26. He tells me one day, "Mummy, I don't want to die, I don't want to die. I want to live, I want to take care of you, I will do great things for you, I will look after you, you will see what I will achieve for you. I will make you happy.' And he was making me happy. I am proud of him, I am still very proud of him but I need to now where he is, I need to know what happened to him. I grieve, I am sad, I am distraught, I am destroyed.
The author of the Guardian article, Tim Collins, delivered this speech to his troops before they entered Iraq in March 2003. When the man talks about the greatness of the mother's speech, he knows whereof he speaks.
(I do apologise for these post titles, but the easy puns certainly save me some labour.)
(Oh Christ when did my spelling get so overwhelmingly...British?)
Via the never better (and 7-years-old!!) MetaFilter, the latest AP story on Rove says that he claims now to have found out about Plame from...The Prince of Darkness himself.
Presidential confidant Karl Rove testified to a grand jury that he learned the identity of a CIA operative originally from journalists, then informally discussed the information with a Time magazine reporter days before the story broke, according to a person briefed on the testimony.
Of course, the value of MeFi is in the piss-taking wisdom of the MeFite wags, whose incredulity is well justified:
So--Novak gets immunity for agreeing to testify, then Novak takes the fall for the leak and can't be touched. Brilliant!
I remember when some cat named Scooter was the presumptive bad guy and the story was getting precious little play (could it have been because no one wants a scandal with a goddamn villain named 'Scooter'? I mean seriously here). Are we about to go running off because Turdblossom is willing to perjure himself?
I'm with the commenter above. Here's my bet: Novak's getting some huge favours from Rove (or else Rove is calling in a mess of old favours) in exchange for colluding with Rove on a pretty thin cover story. Sure seems like Novak's more or less untouchable at this point in the investigation, else they'd be burning that fucker down, no? So he provides a perfect cover for Baby Karl to misdirect however he'd like.
Oh, it's so much fun (semi-)idly speculating.
While you're over at MeFi, have a look at this priceless thread from Dunvegan. The current buzz (I heard about this from Juan Cole but the MeFi thread is a great distillation of much info, primarily from the increasingly-RAWesome AmericaBlog) is that the Bush administration's mostly-overlooked outing of a British undercover intelligence asset formerly infiltrating Al Qaeda might have had direct bearing on the recent London bombings. That this is coming out at the same time as the Rove skullduggery isn't just poetic justice - it's the mainstream media finally paying attention (God willing!) to a pattern of political abuse that's gone on, with widespread tacit approval from both press and voters, for several years now.
OK either you know this, pretend not to, or don't care, and in any of those three cases there's no point in me prattling on further today about this. Who's with me on Harry Potter in Harvard Square tonight?! I'll be the balding guy with the flask of Beam.
[More cool shit: vidcaps!!]
Try not to drool all over yourself, binky. But ohmygosh is that ever sexy.
Oh man, some days I just hate humanity.
Among right-wing bloggers the Unbelievable and Yet Somehow Real Meme of the Day is - as near as I can understand this amazing gibberish - that since Joseph Wilson isn't a Republican hack, Karl Rove's quite-possibly-treasonous behaviour is not only justified but worthy of reward. (Indeed I just watched a Fox News editorial in which the faux-journalist claimed Rove deserves a medal - it wasn't clear why, but when you're making up stuff like that it needn't make sense, it need only sound good.)
OK, help me out here.
1) Joseph Wilson was dispatched to Africa by the administration, and both he and the two fact-finders who followed him confirmed that the Saddam-sought-uranium-from-Africa story was bullshit.
2) The administration went ahead and presented those lies as if they were true in the State of the Union address.
3) Wilson outed these liars.
4) Karl Rove leaked his wife's status as an undercover CIA operative to the press, as part of a 'pushback' operation against Wilson (it's character assassination and thuggery, but this is the language our So-Called Liberal Media uses, so let's ride that pony on out).
5) Wilson gets torn to pieces in the press in a coordinated attack from the GOP, through the always-friendly SCLM.
6) We go to war, some shit happens over in the Middle East, lots more lying and make-believe from the White House, blah blah blah. Millions pretend not to hear the torrent of bad news coming from Iraq. (Seriously: it's like believing in Bigfoot.)
And now we have people apologising for Rove and his nominal 'boss' - who, don't forget, was/is also being investigated for knowing about this possibly-treasonous act in advance and either doing nothing or sanctioning it. Are we in Wonderland, Oddworld, the Twilight Zone?
Let's be clear, of course: I don't think most left-of-center Americans have much love for the CIA or for laws protecting its membership. But what you're hearing is the sound of millions of people pointing a finger, calling Bullshit, and totally justifiably demanding honesty from a presidential administration whose grasp on reality has been awfully tenuous these last few years. No cry of 'Look what Clinton did!' will make this go away. No more attacks on Wilson will unmake this story. A special prosecutor is going to burn down the most powerful man in Washington, and the 'party of the common man' or whatever the GOP is pretending to be today is crying as if someone had cancelled Christmas.
No matter how cynical I get about politics, I am blessed with the existence of a group of men and women more than happy to shoot right past my low expectations on the way to the total debasement of our nation's highest offices.
Ha! All this and Rehnquist in ill health too. It all gives me an itchy feeling, like we're hurtling toward Act Five and haven't yet realised we're dead.
Above him lift girders old as an iron queen, and glass somewhere far above that would let the light of day through. But it's night. He's afraid of the way the glass will fall--soon--it will be a spectacle: the fall of a crystal palace. But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light only great invisible crashing....Inside the carriage, which is built on several levels, he sits in velveteen darkness, with nothing to smoke, feeling metal nearer and farther rub and connect, steam escaping in puffs, a vibration in the carriage's frame, a poising, an uneasiness, all the others pressed in around, feeble ones, second sheep, all out of luck and time: drunks, old veterans still in shock from ordnance 20 years obsolete, hustlers in city clothes, derelicts, exhausted women with more children than it seems could belong to anyone, stacked about among the rest of the things to be carried out to salvation. Only the nearer faces are visible at all, and at that only as half-silvered images in a view finder, green-stained VIP faces remembered behind bulletproof windows speeding through the city. . . .
(It's easy to forget that while Pynchon has a superhuman talent for prose, an all-encompassing intelligence, and a wicked sense of humour, he writes historical fiction as well as anyone we've got.)
Some nice writing as well from the Rude Pundit, on Tony Blair.
Blair evoked the 'blitz spirit' that bore Londoners through the (literal and figurative) darkness of the Second World War. I remember going to the war museum in London and entering some kind of Blitz 'simulator' or 'experience'; it occurs to me that it was one of the first transfiguring aesthetic experiences I've had, one of the first 'adult' moments of empathy I can recall. I came out crying, as did my mom (sorry Folubay - don't remember your reaction). My father is from Manchester (go you devils) and was born in 1934, and WWII shadows all his childhood memories. Being inside of that little room, in the dark, with only the sounds of human suffering all around and nothing to suggest it would ever stop until the end of the world...I was in a museum display and I was sure I would die.
I don't know how my father survived. I suspect a part of him didn't, though traces of a joyful child resurface at times (talking of the people and rituals dearest to him, for instance).
I'm listening to a sappy love song right now: the swell of gospel voices behind intertwining guitars. The song is 'Tender', by Brit-pop band Blur. Right now, flickering images of last week's London bombings darkening my vision, I think it is the saddest song I have ever heard.
Tender is the night
Lying by your side
Tender is the touch
Of someone that you love too much
Tender is the day
The demons go away
Lord I need to find
Someone who can heal my mind
Come on come on come on, get through it
Love's the greatest thing that we have
(I'm waiting for that feeling to come)
Oh my baby
The British seem to have a way with a certain emotion that the American shared psyche never quite comes to grips with. (See The Office for a healthy dose of what I can't seem to name.) They've been at it a while, of course. The following lyric is not, in case there was a question, by Blur, and perhaps this is only my idiosyncrasy talking, but to me the feeling, if only for a moment, the same:
They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms.
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
Some places are sacred and shouldn't be profaned with mundane affairs of work and politicking. And of some places - like this office - precisely the opposite is true.
This was Sully's Quote of the Day yesterday, I believe:
We are not legislating, honorable members, for people far away and not known by us. We are enlarging the opportunity for happiness to our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends and, our families: at the same time we are making a more decent society, because a decent society is one that does not humiliate its members... Today, the Spanish society answers to a group of people who, during many years have, been humiliated, whose rights have been ignored, whose dignity has been offended, their identity denied, and their liberty oppressed. Today the Spanish society grants them the respect they deserve, recognizes their rights, restores their dignity, affirms their identity, and restores their liberty. It is true that they are only a minority, but their triumph is everyone's triumph. It is also the triumph of those who oppose this law, even though they do not know this yet: because it is the triumph of Liberty.
Their victory makes all of us (even those who oppose the law) better people, it makes our society better. Honorable members, There is no damage to marriage or to the concept of family in allowing two people of the same sex to get married. To the contrary, what happens is this class of Spanish citizens get the potential to organize their lives with the rights and privileges of marriage and family. There is no danger to the institution of marriage, but precisely the opposite: this law enhances and respects marriage." - Spanish prime minister Luis Zapatero, hailing the inclusion of homosexual couples in his country's marital laws.
I'm jealous of those led by men and women capable of such generosity and expansiveness of spirit.
The people you care about: take stock of them. Right? OK. You've got a list now of the people who mean something to you in this assbasket of a world. Well done. Think about their siblings. Yes. They are related to people, from the same generation as people. You may have met some of them.
OK you have this list, and you're thinking about the siblings of people on that list. Now you are talking to someone from the list - i.e. one of the people you care about. Yeah? And you're talking to them about one of the siblings. Get shit straight! You're with me?
Let's say hypothetically you're talking about the brother of the person to whom you're talking. Dig?
Do not under any circumstances utter the following sentence:
Your brother's a cunt.
See, because even if you think it's funny - and yes, the vodka and Coke in your hand probably helps on that score - even if you're laughing your ass off ON THE INSIDE at your own verbal dexterity blah blah blah, and even if the brother is actually to one or another degree, even only for the moment, a cunt, it is important that you realize that the list-member to whom you're speaking doesn't want to hear that shit.
[See it's funny because my brother is definitely not a cunt, but if someone said it to him he'd be forced, by his immense integrity and robust sense of humour and (let's face it) the facts, to concede the point. Right, Folubay?]
I'M HERE TO HELP YOU, READER(S). And to this hypothetical, i.e. imaginary, listmember: I meant it when I apologised.
Fascinating, disgusting. And - this is the worst part, really - overall pretty run-of-the-mill stuff for today's White House. This is old news, BTW, but I missed it, and it's suddenly become a lot more relevant:
Witnesses told a federal grand jury President George W. Bush knew about, and took no action to stop, the release of a covert CIA operative's name to a journalist in an attempt to discredit her husband, a critic of administration policy in Iraq.
Amazing when you think about it. (Happens all the time, presumably, but the political center tends not to worry about it.)
Think also about the possibility that Karl Rove might go from puppet master to fall guy over this.
Then, enjoy this bit of conspiracy-theory magic that might just be on people's lips again in coming months/weeks. I love this stuff as recreation, but lots of serious people seem to think there are more than a few nuggets of scary truth in the following:
The criminal investigation of the Plame leak was investigated after a September 2003 formal request from the CIA, approved by George Tenet.
Not only was Plame's cover blown, so was that of her cover company, Brewster, Jennings & Associates. With the public exposure of Plame, intelligence agencies all over the world started searching data bases for any references to her (TIME Magazine). Damage control was immediate, as the CIA asserted that her mission had been connected to weapons of mass destruction.
However, it was not long before stories from the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal tied Brewster, Jennings & Associates to energy, oil and the Saudi-owned Arabian American Oil Company, or ARAMCO. Brewster Jennings had been a founder of Mobil Oil company, one of Aramco's principal founders.
According to additional sources interviewed by Wayne Madsen, Brewster Jennings was, in fact, a well-established CIA proprietary company, linked for many years to ARAMCO. The demise of Brewster Jennings was also guaranteed the moment Plame was outed.
According to an April 29, 2002 report in Britain's Guardian, ARAMCO constitutes 12% of the world's total oil production; a figure which has certainly increased as other countries have progressed deeper into irreversible decline.
According to a New York Times report on March 8th of this year, ARAMCO is planning to make a 25% investment in a new and badly needed refinery to produce gasoline. The remaining 75% ownership of the refinery will go to the only nation that is quickly becoming America's major world competitor for ever-diminishing supplies of oil: China.
Almost the entire Bush administration has an interest in ARAMCO.
And so forth. There's some stuff in there about Chalabi, Iran, and the like, but I was reminded strongly of Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 9/11 - remember that flick? The film has been 'discredited' by wingers aplenty, but I don't think it was attacked because of a 'lack of patriotism'. If you believe even 10% of what Ruppert is writing about in this article, it's more likely that the full-on assault on Moore was more about oil and the Saudis - in other words, the actual content of the film, as opposed to its latent 'America-hating' content (let's not waste our time on that pabulum). I don't think Bill O'Reilly knows or cares about Peak Oil talk; I'm fairly certain that Dick Cheney does. And the source of the Bush family fortune is pretty well-known (no, I'm not talking about the Nazi profiteering stuff, which is reprehensible but irrelevant to this topic).
There's a link to James Howard Kunstler's blog on the left-hand side of this page. If you haven't ever done so, give it a click. He's a ball of righteous anger but as James Wolcott points out, he's actually a lucid and coldly rational writer at the heart of it all.
OK, enough of that!! My files are ready to be shuffled around again.
Occasionally I get emails from Washington folks who work on the Hill claiming to possess juicy insider digs on our public servants and their corporate paymasters. I usually delete said emails, as I don't want to be responsible for propagating dirty rumors or false information that can't be corroborated. I'd rather let Judith Miller and the New York Times do that. Nonetheless, in the past 24 hours I have been contacted by three separate Congressional Democrats in Washington, and a Justice Department official, first by email and later phone, who all say the same thing: Karl Rove is about to be indicted.
A letter from a Londoner to the bombers:
And if, as your MO indicates, you're an al-Qaeda group, then you're out of your tiny minds.
Because if this is a message to Tony Blair, we've got news for you. We don't much like our government ourselves, or what they do in our name. But, listen very clearly. We'll deal with that ourselves. We're London, and we've got our own way of doing things, and it doesn't involve tossing bombs around where innocent people are going about their lives.
And that's because we're better than you. Everyone is better than you. Our city works. We rather like it. And we're going to go about our lives. We're going to take care of the lives you ruined. And then we're going to work. And we're going down the pub.
London is a city in England. It is the capital of England and of the United Kingdom, such as it is. It is home to many, many people. It will play host to the Summer Olympics in a few years, 20xx or sometime. There is a Tower there (occasionally they'd lock up the wrong guy), and an ostentatious clock (also in a tower), and a Bridge (named after a tower) or two. It is so far away I can hardly believe it's real, though I've been there. I have pretty much nothing to say about London.
I read about people dying in large numbers and I feel helpless. I think about the phrase 'Bring it on' and something called the 'flypaper theory' and I figure I must be going a little nuts, or else someone else is. I think about the hate that fills the people who planted several bombs on the London mass transit system today, the emptiness that seems paradoxically to fill them, and I think I see why people need God so badly.
But all I could think of to write about today was 'writer's block'.
I heard myself say this to a coworker this afternoon: No matter how dark my view of human nature is, no matter how much viciousness and anger I expect from people, there is another kind of evil that I can't even conceive of, though I'm reminded of its existence - even its commonness - daily.
Writer's block: when you run out of things to say. There's nothing stuck inside of you as in the popular conception of the problem, there's only an empty space where the wellspring of your creativity and humanity should be - where it normally is. It is possible to exhaust your faculties. However you might replenish them, you must do so. You can do so.
Worlds like normal and evil and humanity seem so freighted most days, but they have the power to give succor. Words are extraordinary that way.
Dunno whether this is 'correct' from a cognitive standpoint, but Ann Lamott, in Bird By Bird, reminds us that 'writer's block' isn't a result of being stopped up with excess stuff, it's about being empty of inspiration, which is to say, empty of things to say. The thing to do isn't exercises, trying to force yourself somehow past a 'block'; the thing to do is to go out and fill yourself with other sensory input. Go outside, do some knitting. Get away from the frustration. It's like drawing panicked breaths in a tight space - back out, calm down, do something else.
Seems sensible to me.
Arrive work: 9:30am Monday.
Leave work: 9:45pm Monday.
I dreamt about spreadsheets last night, how I was failing to maintain goddamn spreadsheets for some project that had invaded my life. There was no 'latent content' to the dream: it was what it is.
When I said I'd fill in for XXXX at work on top of my regular duties, I don't think I actually meant I'd do one workday and then another entire workday. Then again, overtime is a tasty $25.50/hr.
The best part will be Thursday/Friday, when YYYYYY is out and I'm doing his work on top of XXXX's and my own.
Watch this space for updates on the ensuing homicides, low speed chase, and suicide!
Beautiful post here from Amandagon, on the American Dream:
I suppose it's traditional on the 4th of July to write about Freedom and Liberty, but I write about Freedom and Liberty every damn day, especially when I write about what gets ghettoized as "women's issues". So I think I'd rather write about what the American Dream is, since that dream is as central to the ideals of America as any platitudes about freedom. It was certainly central to our founders, who fought the American Revolution for freedom because freedom was the means to an end for them, that end being the pursuit of happiness, a value that modern conservatives would rather not discuss.
The local veterans' group came by on Friday and stuck a little flag in every yard in the neighborhood and I have to admit, my first instinct was irritation, because that flag has been so thoroughly reclaimed by the idiots who want it to stand for the value of might makes right and exclusion, racism, and hatred. But I left it there, because to take it out would be nothing but giving into those who want to ruin everything good and right about this country. I was touched by the gesture--the veterans' group wasn't going to vet each household to make sure we somehow deserve the flag. It's ours because we live here and that's all they needed to know.
And I look up and down my street and everyone here has left their little flag flying, even though I know that many of my neighbors are quietly getting screwed by intolerance and class warfare that wraps itself in the same flag every day. And it's because to have that little flag stuck in your yard without question is heartening--yes, many of your fellow Americans haven't grasped yet the importance of inclusion, but that quiet gesture of one yard, one flag means that inclusion still is a value that we believe in, even if we are still failing at the ultimate goal.
As the bl0ggers say: read the whole thing.
I gotta say, Amanda's post made me feel better about the July 4th celebration (so did Yglesias's post about peace, though I'm too lazy to link to that youthful bastard!). Like I said in the comments: 'dissatisfaction without disaffection'. If I may toot my own horn for a moment, not a bad description. Something to aspire to, I think.
The 3-year moving average of HowMuchILikeFireWorks has decreased monotonically since I was a kid. Insofar as I can be said to be politically aware at all, since the dawn of my political awareness (basically college - when I noticed that politicking was something that people my age did, as opposed to thinking it the activity of people much older and untouchable) I've found them almost soporofic. Last night for Boston's famous 4th of July fireworks display I celebrated with a bottle of bourbon and the company of plenty of friends, but here's what the fireworks left me thinking, and yes these are perhaps old jokes by now but whatever:
And to the police and the state of Massachusetts with their strict enforcement of puritanical, draconian laws fundamentally antithetical to the spirit of yesterday's 'celebration': to hell with you. Thanks for the fire, I suppose, and the people of Cambridge and Boston who did not quite make it to the show on account of working, not having a home, etc. ... well, they thank you for the fire as well. You can't feed it to your kids but still everybody knows it's so goddamn awesome.
Josh Marshall has been on the trail of the forged yellowcake documents and the Valerie Plame debacle for a long, long time. As usual, he pulls something interesting from between the lines of recent news coverage:
What's implicit in [the new Newsweek piece on Rove/Plame]...is that the special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald is after Rove for some felony arising out of the case (perjury after the fact? conspiracy?) but not the immediate and original act of leaking the name.
The least accountable man in Washington might just get dropkicked by a special prosecutor, just as his nominal boss faces his lowest approval ratings yet from an unprecedentedly cynical American public.
Got your schadenfreude swingin' here!!
This looks fun:
Now that Time Inc. has turned over documents to federal court, presumably revealing who its reporter, Matt Cooper, identified as his source in the Valerie Plame/CIA case, speculation runs rampant on the name of that source, and what might happen to him or her. Friday night, on the syndicated McLaughlin Group political talk show, Lawrence O'Donnell, senior MSNBC political analyst, claimed to know that name--and it is, according to him, top White House mastermind Karl Rove.
It's only a claim, but I sincerely hope Joe Wilson is savouring a hundred-dollar Cuban cigar on his balcony right now and laughing his ass off. Frankly, I hope Rove did it. It'll make the next few months so much more interesting. But I gotta say: what are the chances of someone so (they say) savvy doing something so dangerous, stupid, and illegal on his own? I mean they've been talking about charges of treason. I know I've been praying for the theocons to grossly overstep their bounds and sabotage their 2006 chances, but is it really likely that Turdblossom - GWB's name for Rove - would carry out this op with his own two hands?
(Next step: lock up that despicable snake Bob Novak.)
Oh man, I've been spouting lines from this poem, 'Bleezer's Ice Cream', at random intervals for years and years, on streets, in crowds, at work. The words are etched in my brain (out of order, as it turns out). It's by Jack Prelutsky, from his book of children's poetry The New Kid on the Block ('There's a new kid on the block / and boy that kid is tough / that new kid hits real hard / that new kid plays real rough' etc.). It was the first book I ever had autographed, as a little kid in Texas. I'm sure I've got it lying around my room in New York somewhere.
Anyhow I wanted to sing something goofy that rolled off the tongue. I recorded this weird rhyme of mine about frogs, logs, and scurvy dogs, but Audacity decided that was a good time to crash again. Sigh. In keeping with policy, I let it go (I consider this a good and beneficial spiritual exercise).
I didn't even bother writing down the chord progression, so it gets choppy at times because, let's face it, I almost never have any idea at all what the hell I'm doing, and this time is no different my friends.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my wholly misguided musical setting (such as it is) of 'Bleezer's Ice Cream' [mp3] by Jack Prelutsky. If you enjoy listening to it even a thousandth as much as I did recording it (which yeah those numbers sound about right!) then it will be better than unexpected dental work for you. Fa!