Wednesday, April 27, 2005


In the May 2, 2005 issue of The New Yorker: a new short story by Haruki Murakami.


Via Underbelly, the Bangladesh Independant gives travelers this advice about Sarawak, Malaysia:
In Sarawak the day begins not with the humdrum sound of the cockerel crowing, but with the haunting melody of the gibbons in the jungle singing to the dawn. From that moment, every minute brings a fresh wonder. A single hectare of the ancient forest contains more varieties of trees than a thousand different types of insect. High up in the green canopy exists a unique world with a wide variety of different species of monkeys, flying lizards, spiders which eat birds (harmless if you don’t happen to be a bird), and all sorts of unlikely things that fly, including squirrels, lizards and frogs… Admittedly, they don’t actually ‘fly’; they glide by using flaps of skin linking their front and back legs. As Somerset Maugham once said, things are just different in Sarawak.

So many things in Sarawak are either the biggest or the smallest in the world. You’ll even find a tiny owl only six inches tall. Some of the butterflies are bigger than that. Other animals just vie for the title of plain oddest. We have all seen pigs before but in Sarawak they sport beards and swim across rivers! Some of these unique bearded pigs have been known to reach into the lower branches of the cocoa trees to steal the fruit. No less unusual are the termites which farm mushrooms by depositing chewed leaves on the roofs of their dwellings. As the vegetation decomposes, tiny mushrooms sprout to provide the termites with a ready supply of food.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Spooky wells.

Wind-Up Bird Chronicle makes a little more sense in light of this:
"The well is a very animistic thing. It is a hole to another world, to ghosts and spirits. A Japanese viewer sees that well and immediately understands that this will be a story about spirits."
Peter Carey's friend Kenji, a Japanese architect, explaining My Neighbor Totoro, quoting on page 133 of Wrong About Japan: A Father's Journey With His Son.

"The suit is back."

One of many "truths" we owe to PR. Appalling stuff, really. It seems we get the press we pay for, or deserve, or something like that.

"You can't see the fingerprints of PR firms all over the articles, as you can in so many print publications-- which is one of the reasons, though they may not consciously realize it, that readers trust bloggers more than Business Week."

True dat.

Like many good things in life, via Unfogged.

How to use government to undermine religion.

In an interesting piece about two schools of conservatism, Andrew Sullivan touches on the increasing entanglement between the government and religion:
Compare President George H.W. Bush's praise for "a thousand points of light" as a critical voluntary complement to the welfare state with George W. Bush's channeling of public money into religious social programs.... [T]he new conservatism seems to believe that faith communities cannot do their work adequately without government help. It has less faith in faith than conservatives of doubt do.
This seems to me exactly right, and telling. Certainly there are religious groups who abide in their faith and who maintain a distance from civic involvement, at least with the larger society. Think, for example, of the Amish. At least some who advocate for a separation of church and state do so out of a desire to preserve religion from government, rather than vice versa. Politics entails compromise, and a pragmatism that -- on some level -- threatens faith. To say nothing of the money. A big part of what government does is move money around, and this corrupts. So, best to keep politics away from religion, some say. I don't think you need to be Amish to believe this, whether you approach it from a political or religious viewpoint.

For whatever reasons, I think many cultural conservatives are blind to this. My family had a friend a few years back, a local college student who came from a small town on Mountain Time. She was Catholic, but of fundamentalist convictions closer to James Dobson's than most Catholics in this country. She was planning to go to law school, and so one day we got to talking about the Establishment Clause. She rejected the principle of separation of church and state, and rather than argue with her on that score, I tried to suggest that religion is stronger if it is separate from government. Perhaps I didn't explain the idea as well as I'm trying to here, but I utterly failed to register with her. And why not? If you're ruling the world -- and, let's face it, the conservatives are playing the part of the Wehrmacht to the liberals' Polish cavalry lately -- government can be another way to spread your religious views. Or, to put it fairly, if your beliefs lead you to the conviction that there is no position of neutrality on important moral questions, better to be right than wrong.

Fundamentalism is a modern phenomena, a reaction to change rather than an effort to simply preserve what came before. The religious groups that are the most involved in conservative politics today were, only a few decades ago, apolitical. Dan Morgan chronicled this shift in Rising in the West, an account of an "Okie" family from the 1930s to the 1980s. To my recollection, he identified a couple of key factors prompting this shift in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including reaction to the election of Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist, and disappointment with his tenure, and the controversy over a tax exemption for Bob Jones University. Whatever the immediate causes, fundamentalism has been a gathering force around the world in recent decades, from Arabia to Alabama.

Seeing fundamentalists enter politics, the rest of us worry that they will succeed in importing their brand of absolutism into government, but the cultural conservatives ought to worry more that their churches and religion will be changed, corrupted. If political rallies look like religious services, then religious services increasingly resemble political rallies. And some of the figures prominent at this intersection of religion and politics suggest the problem to come. In What's the Matter with Kansas, Tom Franks pointedly suggests that some cultural conservatives are political opportunists who identified a niche in the market of American politics and moved to exploit it. (Whether Franks was right in those cases is probably a question reserved to devotees of Kansas politics.) I don't think I've heard it suggested that Ralph Reed is merely an opportunist, but he too has shown us these pitfalls.

We are all so busy worrying about the intrusion of religion into politics, that we're missing the The April 28 issue of The New York Review of Books has a fine account by Helen Epstein about the intersection of AIDS policy with fundamentalist religious politics in this country and Uganda. Epstein convincingly suggests that the increasing involvement of religious conservatives (in both countries) has led to the adoption of less effective AIDS-prevention policy. Left implicit is the thought that competition for $1 billion in abstinence-only programs will have some effect on the religious groups entering that market.

The juxtaposition of modern problems and appeals to tradition is so mundane now that it barely registers. Take the stem-cell debate. Or, in Uganda, "leaders of the Karimojong tribe have called for a ban on miniskirts, though Karimojong people traditionally wear no clothes at all." Fundamentalism is all about the way these traditions find new meaning in changed times.

Surely, an excess of certainty could be overcompensation for doubt about living in a complex and changing world. Why do the fundamentalists care so much what the government does? Because they feel threatened by modernity. Gay marriage illustrates this. We've all heard that traditional marriage is under attack, which can only make you wonder how it can be so threatened. Anything needing government support can't be faring too well on the open market, right? The fundamentalists perhaps perceive this better than the rest of us.

So it is inevitable that politics will corrupt religion. And yet the foibles of Ralph Reeds can look like a story about one man's failings, not the fate of a movement; the movement goes on. One of the salient traits of the new cultural conservative is in its penchant for seeing and portraying political questions in the rubric of individual characters instead of policy issues, Teri Schiavo's drama being only the most recent example. Like termites, the transformation of religious groups will be hard to see until it's far along. But it must be happening.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words: a review.

Jay Rubin, a professor of Japanese literature at Harvard University and one of Haruki Murakami's translators, has written this overview of Murakami's work, from the early novels not available in English translation through After the Quake and Underground. (Kafka on the Shore was published after this book came out in 2002.) I can't imagine wanting to read it if you've have read much of Murakami's work, but this fan thought it was wonderful. Rubin relates themes across his short stories and novels, and gives a glimpse of the man. I've repeated a few items here, and these were certainly not the only choice bits.

Amazon doesn't have any copies, but as I write it's in stock at Powell's -- buy it there.

Wrong About Japan: a review.

With all the posting hereabouts on Haruki Murakami of late, you might conclude that the reason I picked up Peter Carey's Wrong About Japan: A Father's Journey With His Son is that I'm on a Japan kick. While there's some truth to that, Peter Carey is one of a relatively short list of authors whose latest I will invariably acquire. Murakami is another, as are Thomas Pynchon and Alan Furst. Rick Bass used to be this list, but his polemics depress me, as much as I agree with him.

Carey built his reputation with his fiction, but this is the second time in the last few years that he has published something more like travel writing. His earlier book of this sort, 30 Days in Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account, was an expat's particular view of his old home town (Carey lives in New York City now). It was idiosyncratic and informed, and I quite enjoyed it. Wrong About Japan is as slender as that book was, but it finds Carey on unfamiliar turf, and with less to say as our guide.

Carey's twelve-year-old son is a fan of anime and manga, and so the two of them hatch a plan to travel to Tokyo for some cartoon tourism. By the end of the book, the elder Carey has learned enough to flesh out a magazine article, say -- make that a magazine article for those of us who don't know much about anime, either. Carey travels to Japan with his own preoccupations -- swords, Kabuki and WWII -- and much of the book marches from those to the inevitable realization that anime is just as worthy a prism through which to glimpse Japan as these better-known tropes. To my surprise, Carey is not the reporter to make much out of the sources and places he finds -- too often, he laments that his notes are indecipherable, or that he forgot someone's name. As a variant of the "Mysterious East" genre, this is surely inoffensive, but hardly very satisfying. The most compelling character, Takashi, a teen-aged anime fan befriended on-line by Carey's son, turns out to be a fictional creation, according to an interview Carey gave to Publisher's Weekly (via Powell's).

Wrong About Japan ends with a touch of grace, but I still found it not just slender, but slight. I wished Carey had shown us even more of Takashi, so I guess I await his return to longer fiction.

(Not that I've likely inspired you to purchase Wrong About Japan, but if you follow the links in the titles above to Amazon, you can help defray the costs of this site by purchasing Carey's books there.)

Sunday, April 24, 2005

I'll stick to the California reds, thanks.

Speaking of falling pianos....

Some neat photos, apparently of Japanese air conditioners.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

The fall of classical music?

According to, on the final day for dropping classes MIT students traditionally drop a piano from the seventh floor of a dormitory.

True also of many posts on this blog.

Jay Rubin again, from page 276 of his Appendix A ("Translating Murakami") to Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words:
The more you look into it and into the question of revision, the more you realize there is no single authoritative version of any Murakami work: he reserves the right to tinker with everything long after it has found its way into print. I once heard that Willem de Kooning would occasionally follow a painting of his to the gallery and revise it on the wall.
As a truly alert reader might have noticed, I often continue to revise posts here after publishing them.

More Jay Rubin on Haruki Murakami.

Jay Rubin, the author of Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, gave a lecture called "How NOT to Write a Book on Haruki Murakami" at Indiana University in April 2003. You can listen to it here.

Bird flu is out there and it's not going away.

Paradoxically, the news that avian flu is growing less deadly is not good for those of us who fear a pandemic, since it makes transmission more likely.
If a disease quickly kills almost everyone it infects, it has little chance of spreading very far, according to international health experts. The less lethal bird flu becomes, they say, the more likely it is to develop into the global pandemic they fear, potentially killing tens of millions of people....

Health researchers believe that nearly all the 52 people known to have died of bird flu in Southeast Asia caught the virus from infected poultry. But with more clusters of cases among families reported in Vietnam this year ... experts say they are growing increasingly suspicious that the disease has begun passing from one human to another.

Also worrying is the discovery of at least five cases ... in which people tested positive for bird flu but showed no symptoms. This could make it more difficult to contain an epidemic because people could transmit the disease without anyone realizing it."

Friday, April 22, 2005


"Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you a Thomas Friedman metaphor, a set of upside-down antlers with four thousand points: the icing on your uber-steroid-flattener-cake!" If you're going to read just one review of Tom Friedman's new book, make it this one. Just don't drink while you're reading it.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Something I did not know about the Mongols.

"Marco Polo, who travelled among them in the years 1275-92, wrote that they ate hamsters, which were plentiful on the steppes."

Ian Frazier, "Invaders," The New Yorker 49 (April 25, 2005).

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The military and moral value of strategic bombing.

In his review in the NYRB of Max Hastings's Armageddon, which prompted my posts yesterday on the Geneva Convention, Freeman Dyson -- who served in the RAF's Bomber Command during WWII -- has this to say about the bombing of Germany:

There is overwhelming evidence that the bombing of cities strengthened rather than weakened the determination of the Germans to fight the war to the bitter end. The notion that bombing would cause a breakdown of civilian morale turned out to be a fantasy. After a devastating attack on a factory, the Germans were able to repair the machinery and resume full production in an average time of six weeks. We could not hope to attack the important factories frequently enough to keep them out of action. We learned after the war that, in spite of the bombing, German weapons production increased steadily up to September 1944. In the last few months of the war, bombing of oil refineries caused the German armies to run out of oil, but they never ran out of weapons. Putting together what I saw at Bomber Command with the testimony of Hastings's witnesses, I conclude that the contribution of the bombing of cities to military victory was too small to provide any moral justification for the bombing.

Unfortunately, the offical statements of the British government always claimed that bombing was militarily effective and therefore morally justified. As a result of their ideological commitment to bombing as a war-winning strategy, the leaders of the government were deluding themselves and also deluding the British public. Hastings says that in the last phase of the war "the moral cost of killing German civilians in unprecedented numbers outweighed any possible strategic advantage." I would make a stronger statement. I would say that quite apart from moral considerations, the military cost of killing German civilians outweighed any possible strategic advantage.
One very minor quibble: I thought that sustained efforts to bomb oil refineries were abandoned as too costly, and would have attributed the Allies' success at stopping the production of oil to the Soviet Union's advance into Rumania.

The claims made by the proponents of strategic bombing often don't hold up. There is a popular perception that our use of air power in Iraq was devastating, but I suspect that has more to do with the repeated airing of a few very impressive video clips from precision-guided munitions than with their results. "Shock and awe" sounded good in those first few days of the most recent war, but mostly because we wanted to believe that the Iraqis would stop fighting. Here we are, two years later.

Raymond Carver's shoes, in Japan.

Haruki Murakami translated Raymond Carver's work into Japanese, even before he was well known as a novelist in his own right. As Jay Rubin describes in Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, at pages 98-100, Murakami and his wife visited Carver and his wife, Tess Gallagher, on a visit to the United States in 1984:

Carver was deeply involved in a writing project, but he was determined to make time for Murakami, so honoured was he to think that a translator would come all the way from Japan to meet him. Tess Gallagher reports that "Ray was eager, almost childlike with delight, to meet Murakami, to see who he was and why Ray's writing had brought them together on the planet." Haruki and Yoko arrived in the early afternoon and were served a simple snack of tea and smoked salmon and crackers.

In his account of the meeting, Murakami notes that it took place after Carver had overcome his drinking problem.

In the waning of that quiet afternoon, I remember with what distaste he was sipping black tea. Holding the teacup in his hand, he looked as though he was doing the wrong thing in the wrong place. Sometimes he would get up from his seat and go outside to smoke. From the window of Tess Gallagher's Sky House in Port Angeles, I could make out a ferryboat on its way to Canada.
Out on the deck of the hilltop house together, they lamented the death of small birds that had been crashing into a glass windbreak. They discussed why Carver's work should be so popular in Japan, and Murakami suggested it might be owing to Carver's theme of the many small humiliations in life, something to which Japanese people could readily respond. The discussion triggered just such memories in Carver, who later wrote the poem "The Projectile", dedicating it to Murakami:

We sipped tea. Politely musing
on possible reasons for the success
of my books in your country. Slipped
into talk of pain and humiliation
you find occurring, and reoccurring,
in my stories. And that element
of sheer chance. How all this translates
in terms of sales.
I looked into a corner of the room.
And for a minute I was 16 again,
careening around in the snow
in a '50 Dodge sedan with five or six
bozos. Giving the finger
to some other bozos ....

A snowball fight ensues, and "dumb luck" sends one projectile "into the side / of my head so hard it broke my eardrum", the intense pain drawing tears of humiliation in front of his friends. The victorious "bozo" drove off and probably never gave the incident
another thought. And why should he?
So much else to think about always.
Why remember that stupid car sliding
down the road, then turning the corner
and disappearing?
We politely raise our teacups in the room.
A room that for a minute something else entered.

...Tess Gallagher recalls that Murakami presented himself only as a translator, and that his still relatively untested spoken English led to some silences, but that "he was obviously very moved to be in Ray's presence". Afterwards, she and Carver agreed that they had just met an extraordinary couple to whom they felt somehow connected.

Three years later, the Murakamis looked forward to hosting Carver in Japan, and had a large bed frame built into their new home, but Carver was too ill to make the trip, and died of cancer the following year. "[A]ware of how much Carver meant to Murakami," Tess Gallagher "sent him a pair of Carver's shoes as a memento."

Monday, April 18, 2005

More Geneva.

Further to this post, and to the comments prompted by it and on Lawtalkers, one can fairly ask why the fighting on the Eastern Front and in the Pacific was more brutal than the fighting on the Western Front. Certainly the Germans and the Americans regarded the Russians and Japanese, respectively, as something less than fully human, although that is hardly a satisfying explanation, since the brutality was reciprocal. And, as Iris Chang wrote about, Japanese conduct towards Americans continued a pattern of brutality seen in Japan's fighting in China in the years before 1941. On this view, maybe the better question is, why did the fighting on the Western Front not generally reach the depths seen elsewhere around the world at that time. Surely the Geneva Conventions had something to do with it.

More Murakami.

Here is a worthwhile piece about Murakami and several of his novels by Francie Lin, from The Threepenny Review.

While the smoke is black, we can think about the papal coverage some more.

Murky Thoughts (incidentally, another blog with an excellent aesthetic sensibility) asks, "Did the Pope have a soul and where is it now?"

I mean, wasn't the official statement of the Catholic Church in Poland upon the death of John Paul II something to the effect that he'd devoted himself to the message of "eternal life"? What a scandal if it turns out that the man is simply dead! Talk about dereliction of journalistic duty: How about a little investigation and fact checking here guys?
I think the problem is that the journalists aren't willing to do what's necessary to follow this story -- they just don't want to go there. It seems to me that this situation calls for a sort of thematic sequel to Little Buddha and/or The Matrix, with Keanu playing John Paul II.

Or not, but that last bit was fun to write.

Why the Geneva Conventions matter.

Freeman Dyson, reviewing Max Hastings's Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945 in The New York Review of Books (April 28, 2005) (subscribers-only link here):

The history of World War II teaches us . . . the immense importance of the Geneva Conventions on humane treatment of prisoners in mitigating the human costs of war. All through Hastings's narrative, we see a stark contrast between two kinds of war, the war in the West following the Geneva rules and the war in the East fought without rules. A large number of witnesses of the western war, German as well as British and American, owe their lives to the Geneva conventions. In the western war, soldiers fought as long as fighting made sense, and surrendered when fighting did not make sense, with a good chance of being treated decently as prisoners of war. Many of the prisoners on both sides were killed in the heat of battle before reaching prison camps, but most of them survived. Those who reached prison camps were treated in a civilized fashion, with some supervision by delegates of the International Red Cross. They were neither starved nor tortured.

At the same time, on the eastern side of the war, brutality was the rule and the International Red Cross had no voice. Civilians were routinely raped and murdered, and prisoners of war were starved. Soldiers were expected to fight to the death, and most of them did, since they had litle hope of survival as prisoners. It is not possible to calculate the numbers of lives saved in the West and lost in the East by following and not following the Geneva rules. The numbers certainly amount to hundreds of thousands in the West and millions in the East.
Dyson concludes, "Americans who are trying today to weaken or evade the Geneva rules are acting shortsightedly as well as immorally." (For more about Dyson, see this and this.)

The war in the Pacific had much the same character as the fighting in Eastern Europe, though we Americans like to attribute the savagery to the Japanese. John Dower's War Without Mercy is sustained treatment of this topic (and one I recommend enthusiastically); a short glimpse comes in this San Francisco Chronicle obituary for Hugh F. Harnsberger, a WWII veteran who passed away earlier this month:

Mr. Harnsberger landed on Iwo Jima on the Pacific island's D-Day, Feb. 19, 1945. In his effort find some code books, Mr. Harnsberger joined up with front line companies in the 5th Marine Division, showing Marines a sample Japanese code and telling them, "If you guys find any weird stuff that looks like this sample, please get it to me."

"But even with their help," he wrote in his diary, "I never found any Japanese code materials! Nothing! No code messages, no codebooks, no code machines." One morning, after he had spent a month at this fruitless effort, Mr. Harnsberger was ordered to help interrogate a Japanese prisoner.

The prisoner kept saying, "I don't know" when asked by the U.S. company commander about the positions of Japanese army units. Finally, the exasperated captain told Mr. Harnsberger, "He is worthless. He is yours."

Mr. Harnsberger was told to check the prisoner in at battalion headquarters. During their walk, they became acquainted. When Mr. Harnsberger asked him, "what did you do in the Japanese army," the man said, "I ran the code room of the Japanese Army headquarters on Iwo Jima."

From then on, because no one else appeared willing to be responsible, Mr. Harnsberger took over the care and feeding of the young man, enlisting him, one day, to help Mr. Harnsberger coax some Japanese soldiers from a tunnel.

Shouting deep into the tunnel that U.S. forces would "repatriate you to your homeland in Japan as soon as this war is over," Mr. Harnsberger wrote, "I said over and over, 'We do not kill prisoners!' I can still remember how unsure I was in saying that, for I had observed several times Japanese being shot when they attempted to surrender. Iwo Jima was very close to a 'take-no- prisoners battle.' "

Sitting next to him, the Japanese code expert was equally cajoling, imploring his comrades, "The U.S. lieutenant (Mr. Harnsberger) tells the truth! He saved my life! And he can save yours!"

When the nine soldiers eventually emerged, "the U.S. Marines shot them all dead immediately...", Mr. Harnsberger wrote in his diary.

Eventually, he added, "the Japanese code-POW and I became friends." Mr. Harnsberger, in an effort to keep his POW alive, brought him back to 5th Marine Division headquarters and convinced the colonel that he had a highly valuable prisoner with him. The Navy flew the POW to Hawaii for interrogation and Mr. Harnsberger lost contact with him.

It's not clear that Harnsberger scored an intel coup, but he did succeed in keeping his prisoner alive, a small good thing..

This is well put.

"Murakami's great accomplishment is to have sensed the mystery and distance of an ordinary brain looking out at the world." Jay Rubin, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words 40 (London 2002).

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Moral clarity.

It would be easier to take our foreign policy at face value if we weren't smiling on gatherings of terrorists near the White House and the flagrant abuse of democracy in Mexico.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Kuhaku: a review.

At Green Apple Books in San Francisco, I picked up a book called Kuhaku, the first (and only, thus far) book published by Chin Music Press, out of Seattle. It's a collection of a variety of short pieces about Japan, often about the experience of American expats there. The topics and styles range widely -- sometimes jarring, but more rewarding than the sort of obvious choices that a larger publisher would make. It's an eclectic mix. I particularly appreciated the art, and a piece describing Japanese dog owners.
Once we had Boss, my wife began booking us at "pet pensions," inns that cater to guests with pets (they should actually be called "dog pensions." I have yet to see someone bring a raccoon or an arachnid). At these inns, your pet can go everywhere you go, including the dining room. At the first pet pension we went to, there were small anchors in the dining room to which you could hook your dog's lead. Everybody eats a French dinner and their dogs lie at their feet. The dogs are not allowed to eat in the dining room; they are merely permitted to help reproduce a Norman Rockwell-like setting. Well, Norman Rockwell in kaleidoscope, because there are fifteen couples and fifteen dogs.
Much more about the book can be found here at Chin Music's site. The preface, by editor/publisher/impresario Bruce Rutledge, is here.

The book itself was printed in Iceland, by Oddi Printing, and without confirming this I'm going to surmise that they're the same folks who have printed McSweeney's -- how many Icelandic printers can be willing to take on jobs of this sort? It's a lovely little book, if you are about such things. I don't know the proper term in the trade, but it's got a string or ribbon sewn to the binding that you can use as a bookmark, a small touch that I appreciated. More information than you perhaps want to know about the cover is here.

From the Glossary:


Buy it by clicking the very first link above, and Amazon will give me a cut. Or buy it direct from Chin Music Press.

A Wild Sheep Chase: A sort of review.

I've finished Haruki Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase, one of his earliest novels, and once again I'm hard-pressed to articulate why I find Murakami so compelling. It's not that he draws characters particularly skillfully, and it's not that you get to take a little trip to Japan -- although his characters are deeper than they first appear, and you do get some sense of Japan. For this reader, Murakami comes at you from a different vector than anyone else, and that in itself is a reward. The book jackets variously compare him to Phillip K. Dick, or Don DeLillo, or Thomas Pynchon, but I don't buy it. (I don't buy DeLillo or Pynchon -- I haven't read enough Dick to say, but since it's only the early novels that draw this comparison, I gather the publishers have dropped that comparison.) He's coming from an entirely different place.

Every so often, I remember that I want to write a novel. Murakami makes me want to write a novel.

Book questions

Taking on the latest blog meme thingy, something I haven't done before:

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

Not having read Fahrenheit 451, I don't really understand the premise of this question.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

I don't think so, but the narrator of Keri Hulme's The Bone People, for one, seems crushable.

What are you currently reading?

This should come as no surprise to anyone who's been reading this blog lately: Haruki Murakami's Dance, Dance, Dance. I think I've read a couple of Murakami books that I haven't posted about here.

The last book you bought is:

Jonathan Raban's Passage to Juneau. I've been meaning to read this for years; I really liked his Bad Land. I thought I bought a paperback copy a couple of years ago, but I haven't been able to find it in the house. Stacey's is selling hardback remaindered copies for $6.99.

The last book you read:

Chin Music Press's Kohaku. I'll post about this soon, I promise.

Five books you would take with you to a deserted island:

I love big sprawling, encyclopedic novels that you can get lost in and reread, so let's say:

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow
Miguel Cervantes, Don Quixote
James Joyce, Ulysses
The Bible
And can I count all of the volumes of Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu as one book? Or is that cheating?

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

For my money, the ne plus ultra of recent Vatican coverage.

At Unfogged, the lovely* and talented** Alameida writes:

I know what you're thinking. "Where does Unfogged stand on the crucial 'the Pope is still dead' issue?" I hear you. The recent weeks' wall-to-wall Pope alla time coverage has given me the chance I needed to reflect on what I personally found most important about Pope John Paul II. It was hard to narrow it down here, but I've done my best.

1. The Pope could fly. Come on, chausables and albs wafting in the breeze, little Papish feet shod in Italian leather hanging down. How cool was that? Seriously, the Pope can't be faded. The Patriarch of the Orthodox Church only wishes he had the power to fly.

2. Magic laser eye beams that could defeat Communism. Where would some commmited union leaders and a bunch of absurdist playwright dissidents have been without vital air support from the Pope's laser eyebeams? The basement of Lubyanka, that's where.

What else is there to say?

* I'm guessing.

** Obviously.

The power of the world-wide web, part LVI.

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Horatio Hornblower is spinning in his fictional grave.

In The Atlantic Monthly's review of The Command of the Ocean: A Novel History of Britain, 1649-1815, by N. A. M. Rodger, Benjamin Schwarz discovers that conditions asea in the British Navy in those years were not as they have been portrayed since:

Women and children, he reveals, were common aboard ship (evidence suggests that one warship carried as many as a hundred wives), and were not infrequently killed in action (when one seaman and his wife died in combat, the wardroom goat suckled their three-week-old orphan). The vast number of people and wide variety of skills that war at sea demanded made the navy an astonishingly open institution: a senior petty officer during the Napoleonic Wars, for instance, was both black and a woman (though the latter fact was discovered only after she'd already served eleven years).

Monday, April 11, 2005

But will there be Daleks?

One of our correspondents (hi A.!) writes:

I'm not sure if you noticed, but Doctor Who is back
in the U.K. If you remember it lasted 26 years, from
1963 to 1989, with the high point being Tom Baker's
reign from 1974-1981. . Well after a 15 year hiatus,
(punctuated by a really bad american TV movie of
Doctor Who) the Doctor is back. Christopher Eccleston,
a popular British actor plays a younger doctor (who
wears a leather jacket), and Billie Piper plays his
companion Rose. He's the 9th doctor, by the way. The
show has been modernized, but the TARDIS is the same
old blue police box and some of the doctors familar
enemies are returning, including the Daleks. The good
thing is that the special effects are MUCH better and
Rose is a much stronger companion, she doesn't just
scream and get captured.

The reason why the show hasn't been covered much in
the US is that it isn't airing over here yet, only up
in Canada. The good news is that it is wildly popular
over in the UK, 10+ million people watched the first
episode, and it is gotten lots of critical acclaim.
The BBC has already renewed it for a second season.

If you want to learn more, Outpost Gallifrey is the
best Doctor Who fansite out there:

Click on the various doctor's portraits at the top
of the page to go to pages about each doctor. They
really do a good job of summarizing the different

The main BBC website also has trailers and other

....This new doctor looks pretty good and it's great to see the show back
on the air and so popular.

Democrats -- the responsible party.

Working from statistics in the 2005 Economic Report of the President dating back to 1959, Michael Kinsley debunks the myth that Republicans take better care of the fisc:

Federal spending (aka "big government"): It has gone up an average of about $50 billion a year under presidents of both parties. But that breaks down as $35 billion a year under Democratic presidents and $60 billion under Republicans. If you assume that it takes a year for a president's policies to take effect, Democrats have raised spending by $40 billion a year and Republicans by $55 billion.

Leaning over backward even farther, let's start our measurement in 1981, the date when many Republicans believe that life as we know it began. The result: Democrats still have a better record at smaller government. Republican presidents added more government spending for each year they served, whether you credit them with the actual years they served or with the year that followed.

Federal revenue (aka taxes): You can't take it away from them: Republicans do cut taxes. Or rather, tax revenue goes up under both parties but about half as fast under Republicans. It's the only test of Republican economics that the Republicans win.

That is, they win if you consider lower federal revenue to be a victory. Sometimes Republicans say that cutting taxes will raise government revenue by stimulating the economy. And sometimes they say that lower revenue is good because it will lead (by some mysterious process) to lower spending.

The numbers in the Economic Report of the President undermine both theories. Spending goes up faster under Republican presidents than under Democratic ones. And the economy grows faster under Democrats than Republicans. What grows faster under Republicans is debt.

Under Republican presidents since 1960, the federal deficit has averaged $131 billion a year. Under Democrats, that figure is $30 billion. In an average Republican year, the deficit has grown by $36 billion. In the average Democratic year it has shrunk by $25 billion. The national debt has gone up more than $200 billion a year under Republican presidents and less than $100 billion a year under Democrats.

As for measures of general prosperity, each president inherits the economy. What counts is what happens next. Let's take just two measures, although they all show the same thing: Democrats do better under every variation. From 1960 to 2005 the gross domestic product measured in year-2000 dollars rose an average of $165 billion a year under Republican presidents and $212 billon a year under Democrats. Measured from 1989, or measured with a one-year delay, or both, the results are similar. And how about this one? The average annual rise in real per capita income -- that's the statistic that puts money in your pocket. Democrats score about 30 percent higher.

Democratic presidents have a better record on inflation (averaging 3.13 percent compared with 3.89 percent for Republicans) and on unemployment (5.33 percent versus 6.38 percent). Unemployment went down in the average Democratic year, up in the average Republican one.

Almost forgot: If you start in 1981 and if you factor in a year's delay, Republican presidents edge out Democratic ones on inflation, 4.57 to 4.36.

Friday, April 08, 2005

They will think we're dinosaurs.

Dwight Meredith over at Wampum:

Just before leaving, my 11 year old and I were reviewing houses on the net in preparation for the trip. He saw one that had a third floor loft with a bedroom, a private bath, and a playroom. He immediately thought about having that space as his own private reserve. "I like that one," he said. "Click the button to put it in the shopping cart."

It is a new world.

Saul Bellow.

"When I was young and I chose my way in life, I knew that society would be against me. However, I also knew that I would win. And that it would be a small victory."
Quoted by Norman Manea in Slate.

We need more guitars.

"This machine kills fascists."

Moving on the bubble.

Robert Shiller looks back to the Southern California housing market of 1887 for parallels to our current situation. And Angry Bear explains the economics of the role of speculation in a bubble.

I've become increasingly convinced in recent months that we are at the end of a run-up in this market -- Angry Bear points out that "housing 'bubbles' typically do not 'pop, rather prices deflate slowly in real terms, over several years" -- but am not sure what to do about it. If I were moving anyway, and looking for new housing in one of the coastal cities where the market has been crazy, I might look to rent for a while instead of buying again.

I try not to frequent NRO, but this sounds right.

Cog calls Jonah Goldberg "an expert in the ape-man grunts that constitute current conservatarian ideology ('Private sector good! Academia bad! Money good! Liberal bad! Oook ook!')."

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Perhaps his opening bid was too low?

A Harvard economics professor is in trouble for stealing a truckload of manure from a nearby farm:

Stable manager Phillip Casey says Martin Weitzman, Harvard University's Ernest E. Monrad Professor of Economics, has been stealing manure from Charlie Lane's Rockport farm for years.

Police said said Casey found Weitzman on the property last Friday, so he blocked in Weitzman's pickup truck and called police. Weitzman got angry, Casey said, then offered to pay for the manure he'd already taken. But Casey said he wouldn't budge because he wanted the thefts to stop.

''He offered me $20 for it and then $40 for it,'' Casey said.

Casey said the land was marked private property and Weitzman, 63, had been warned before.

''He's been doing it for years,'' Casey told the Gloucester Daily Times.

The farm sells the manure for $35 a truckload and also uses it to fertilize a pasture.

Rockport police officer Michael Marino said Weitzman, who lives in neighboring Gloucester, is charged with larceny under $250, trespassing, and malicious destruction of property for tearing up some land with his tires.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

One encomium.

Tired of all the men bloviating about John Paul II? Anne Applebaum writes about the Pope's part in the downfall of Communism.

When I lived in Poland in the late 1980s, I was told that if I wanted to know what was going on, I'd have to go every week to a particular Warsaw church and pick up a copy of the city's weekly underground newspaper. Equally, if I wanted to see an exhibition of paintings that were not the work of the regime's artists, or a play that was not approved by the regime's censors, I could go to an exhibition or a performance in a church basement. The priests didn't write the newspapers, or paint the paintings, or act in the plays -- none of which were necessarily religious -- but they made their space and resources available for the people who did. And in helping to create what we now call "civil society," these priests were following the example of the pope who, as a young man in Nazi-occupied Poland, secretly studied for the priesthood and also founded an underground theater.

* * * * *

[T]his pope also made an impact thanks to his unusual ability -- derived from charisma and celebrity as well as faith -- to get people out on the streets. As Natan Sharansky and others have written, communist regimes achieved their greatest successes when they were able to atomize people, to keep them apart and keep them afraid. But when the pope first visited Poland in 1979, he was greeted not by a handful of little old ladies, as the country's leaders predicted, but by millions of people of all ages. My husband, 16 years old at the time, remembers climbing a tree on the outskirts of an airfield near Gniezno where the pope was saying Mass and seeing an endless crowd, "three kilometers in every direction." The regime -- its leaders, its police -- were nowhere visible: "There were so many of us, and so few of them." That was also the trip in which the pope kept repeating, "Don't be afraid."

Tired of all the praise for John Paul II?

With the wall-to-wall encomia for John Paul II's good works, it's good that there are contrarians willing to sound different notes.

Christopher Hitchens points out that "[a] few years ago, it seemed quite probable that Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston would have to face trial for his appalling collusion in the child-rape racket that his diocese had been running. The man had knowingly reassigned dangerous and sadistic criminals to positions where they would be able to exploit the defenseless. He had withheld evidence and made himself an accomplice, before and after the fact, in the one offense that people of all faiths and of none have most united in condemning." Now (the ironically named) Law has taken refuge from Massachusetts law in a sinecure in Vatican City, beyond the reach of extradition treaties. (Let us not also forget Hitchens' smack-down from a few years back of the beatification of Mother Teresa, whom he called "a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud.")

And Harold Meyerson laments that the Catholic Church has abandoned the "vibrant intellectualism of the Vatican II era" in favor of a doctrinaire orthodoxy on issues such as abortion and birth control. "Where once the Catholic Church had such engaged and vigorous leaders as Chicago's Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, today it is suffused with John Paul's party-line hacks."

Medieval libraries.

Blogs are wonderful things. Thanks to Brad DeLong's blog (and an e-mail to him from Ben Weiss, a curator at MIT's rare books library), I now know about medieval libraries:

In the early Middle Ages libraries really were the province of "kings, sovereign princes, and abbots", but there was a steady increase in both literacy and the number of books in circulation during the later Middle Ages. This was especially true in cities: notably in Northern Italy, but also in France and what would become Germany. By the late fourteenth century, a bureaucrat with literary tastes like Machiavelli would almost certainly have had personal copies of a large number of his favorite books, and, if he were wealthy enough, possibly even a little study (a "studiolo") in which to read them.

Over the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the book trade underwent a dramatic shift as the primary center of manuscript copying moved from monastic houses to commercial scriptoria, often in university towns. (Richard and Mary Rouse have written a very important, if slightly exhausting, two-volume history of the commercial book trade in Paris: Manuscripts and their makers: commercial book producers in medieval Paris, 1200-1500 (Turnhout, 2000).) This was both fostered by and, in turn, fostered an increase in demand for personal copies of university texts. In Paris, as in places like Vienna, Padova, and Krakow, there was an active market in both new and used manuscripts, and, in addition, many scholars (especially in Italy) copied texts out themselves.

But perhaps the most important piece of evidence of the increasing demand for books before Gutenberg is the invention of printing itself. Gutenberg was not just experimenting for the sake of experiment. He was responding to, if not an explicit demand, to a perceived opportunity. It's important to remember that the printing press was not devote to making a new type of object --- early printed books are exactly the same in form and layout to manuscripts --- but to make more of a commodity that already existed.
The information was out there before, but it is more accessible now, and this sort of conversation among experts happens so much more easily.

And the rest of us get to watch. DeLong's prior post, to which Weiss was responding, ended with this anecdote:

I remember... it must have been 1984, some evening, when I was sitting in one of the cushy chairs in the middle of the NBER's third-floor offices. Larry Summers was coming in while Paul Krugman was going out. And they stopped each other.

"Paul," said Larry.

"Yes?" said Paul.

"In our basic model, the U.S. is running a trade deficit because demand is greater than production, and especially because demand for non-tradeables is high, and so workers are pulled out of jobs making tradeables into jobs making non-tradeables, and so domestic production of tradeables is insufficient to satisfy demand, and so we import," said Larry.

"So?" said Paul.

"Why, then, are workers in tradeable-goods industries in the Midwest experiencing this not as being pulled into higher-wage jobs in the non-tradeables sector, but as being pushed by foreign competition into lower-wage jobs in the non-tradeables sector?" said Larry.

And they were off. For a good half hour or so they argued the issues back and forth. More graduate students gathered to watch what was a fascinating pickup debate and discussion about just why there were so many losers from the trade deficits of the 1980s, when the first-cut full-employment model suggested that it should have been win-win.

You have to be in the right place at the right time to get the peak intellectual experience of watching two minds of such extraordinary caliber together wrestle with each other and with important problems. Actually, you don't. You just have to pick up the right book.
Or you can type the right url. (And it took many years for books to become as cheap as they are now, but computers have become commoditized much faster.)

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Maybe they're just saying what they're thinking.

At the end of a typically fine column about the recent judge-bashing by Sen. Cornyn and Rep. DeLay, Dahlia Lithwick wonders why conservatives are hitting judges so hard:

How do Republicans possibly benefit politically from these broadsides against the judiciary as a whole? The narrowly targeted attacks on "liberal activist judges" were playing well all year; polls showed that the public really bought the idea. The suggestion that judges appointed by Democrats were all unprincipled laid the perfect groundwork for unleashing the "nuclear option" in the Senate. So, what possible purpose is there to these 11th-hour attacks on the entire bench? Why would anyone support doing away with the filibuster if all judges—and not just the liberal ones—are inherently corrupt and evil?

A few speculative possibilities: Perhaps, now that they control Congress and the presidency, the only target left to the right-wingers really is the judiciary. They feed on outrage, after all, and that was running somewhat dry. Or perhaps they truly feel that they can't control the judicial branch—since even staunchly Republican judges got it "wrong" in both the Schiavo cases and in Roper. In other words, it's no longer enough to pack the courts with Republican appointees; they are already packed that way. This latter fact sets up the argument that only the most extreme right-wing ideologues can ever be confirmed in the future; since even moderate Republicans are all eventually corrupted on the bench.

Or maybe the plan all along was to simply subordinate the judicial branch to the popular will; using a cocktail of court-stripping legislation, impeachment threats, and term limits to ensure that the co-equal independent judiciary is only co-equal and independent when it comes to reviewing a handful of disputes over federal fishing law. If that really is the long game, it's awfully shortsighted. Crippling the whole judiciary will, in the long run, create a lot more problems than it resolves.
A couple of other possibilities: Maybe the cultural conservatives know something from Frist that we don't -- that he doesn't have the votes to eliminate the veto -- and so are escalating the victimization rhetoric in anticipation of losing that battle. Or maybe they just don't like the courts.

Meanwhile, Sen. Shelby [memo to Republicans: you guys can keep him] is back with another delightful proposal to rein in the courts:

Constitution Restoration Act of 2005 - Amends the Federal judicial code to prohibit the U.S. Supreme Court and the Federal district courts from exercising jurisdiction over any matter in which relief is sought against an entity of Federal, State, or local government or an officer or agent of such government concerning that entity's, officer's, or agent's acknowledgment of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government.
From 100 monkeys typing, via RT. Per fringey, the bill (S. 520) also "[p]rovides that any Supreme Court justice or Federal court judge who exceeds the jurisdictional limitations of this Act shall be deemed to have committed an offense for which the justice or judge may be removed, and to have violated the standard of good behavior required of Article III judges by the Constitution." Dee-lightful.

I don't think they talked to each other about this.

An odd juxtaposition on the Op-Ed page of today's New York Times. David Brooks and Paul Krugman both use their columns to explain why the other side has been outthought in the war of ideas. Brooks argues that during their long spell in the wilderness, conservatives spent good time getting in touch with their deeper philosophy:
When modern conservatism became aware of itself, conservatives were so far out of power it wasn't even worth thinking about policy prescriptions. They argued about the order of the universe, and how the social order should reflect the moral order. Different factions looked back to different philosophers - Burke, Aquinas, Hayek, Hamilton, Jefferson - to define what a just society should look like.

Conservatives fell into the habit of being acutely conscious of their intellectual forebears and had big debates about public philosophy. That turned out to be important: nobody joins a movement because of admiration for its entitlement reform plan. People join up because they think that movement's views about human nature and society are true.

Krugman says that conservatives are underrepresented in the academy -- even in philosophy departments, one supposes -- because they prefer their ideology to what research tells us the world is like:
Scientific American may think that evolution is supported by mountains of evidence, but President Bush declares that "the jury is still out." Senator James Inhofe dismisses the vast body of research supporting the scientific consensus on climate change as a "gigantic hoax." And conservative pundits like George Will write approvingly about Michael Crichton's anti-environmentalist fantasies.

Think of the message this sends: today's Republican Party - increasingly dominated by people who believe truth should be determined by revelation, not research - doesn't respect science, or scholarship in general. It shouldn't be surprising that scholars have returned the favor by losing respect for the Republican Party.
Maybe conservatives are underrepresented in academia because they're all too busy thinking about the morality of the social order to excel in other fields?

Monday, April 04, 2005

What breed of terrier is this?

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Little Engines Can Do Big Things: A review.

So many things to say about this slender book, so I will limit myself to three observations:

(1) Would it have killed Thomas Inc. to have invested in slightly better computer-generated illustrations?

(2) We know from Chekov that for a gun to go off in Act III, we need to see it first in Act I. So we really should hear about "the special coal from the Island of Sodor" before it gets Lady steaming again.

(3) In a work that explores the tension between the rationalization of the Industrial Revolution, as exemplified by Thomas and his various steam- and diesel-powered friends, and the mysteries of an earlier England, as exemplified by the seductive and apparently drugged Lady and the unseen portal to the Magic Railroad (itself anticipating the magic by-ways of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell), it only undercuts the latter to conclude with Thomas' assertion that by rescuing Lady and the Magic Railroad (which encapsulates the bizarre combination of the industrial and magical at play in this book) he has shown that "Little engines can do big things." More magic, please.

Give me the Old 97's and John LeCarre instead.

I like road trips as much, if not more, than the next fellow, but I'm not sure I could handle a twelve-hour drive through the desert with a soundtrack of Milton, Emerson, and country music. Some years ago, I had the chance to listen to several unabridged John LeCarre novels while enjoying the federal interstate system. Alas, I take fewer road trips these days.

After The Quake: A non-review.

Continuing the Murakami thing, After The Quake is a collection of six stories that Murakami wrote after the Kobe earthquake, an event that shook (figuratively) Japanese somewhat in the same way that Americans far from New York City and Northern Virginia felt affected by 9/11. A few years ago, I read another collection of Murakami's stories, The Elephant Vanishes, and while I liked some of them, I found them too electic -- too varied in style and effect -- to really enjoy them. With the stories in After The Quake, though, this isn't true at all. All have a certain ominous or disconcerting undertone that ties them together. Once again, I find it very difficult to articulate what I found compelling about Murakami's work, but I would recommend these stories without reservation.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World: A non-review.

I've been on quite the Murakami kick lately, spurred initially by his new book, Kafka On The Shore. I don't know why I picked Hard-Boiled Wonderland to read next, since it's one of his earlier books, but in retrospect the comparison with Kafka is an interesting one. The two books have parallel structures, with alternating chapters relating two strands of the plot, which come together by the end of each book. Both books find some allure in a retreat from the world to an abstract mental dimension, superficially like ours, promising an escape from many of the quotidian problems of life, but ultimately sterile. Although the reviews of Kafka all suggest that Murakami has topped himself with his most recent book, this begins to sound to me like obligatory puffery -- I prefer Hard-Boiled Wonderland. Kafka's protagonist -- Kafka -- is a 15-year-old boy, but his voice struck me as mature beyond those years, and suspending disbelief in his persona and situation was harder for me than it was with Wonderland.

Time to catch up.

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