Tuesday, August 30, 2005

How about: (f) None of the above.

A. points out that the National Zoo is conducting a new contest to name their baby panda. My vote would be for "Bling Bling."

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Sharks are for suckers.

Courtesy of RT, here is some pretty impressive video for you octopus fans.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Meanwhile, in other fake news.

The Onion reports that "Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New 'Intelligent Falling' Theory."

(Thanks, C.)

Don Asmussen deserves the Nobel Prize for cartooning.

Banks Now Offering Zero Interest Financing For First-Time Gas Buyers.

(Link only good until Friday, when a new cartoon will go up and this won't make sense any more. Maybe then I'll post the actual cartoon instead, but if I do it now it'll screw up the links.)

More on Getting Lost.

This review of Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Anna Godbersen comes from Esquire, courtesy of Powell's:
There have been a lot of recent books cheekily titled, in old-timey, pseudo-scientific fashion, A Guide to, or A Natural History of, or The [Fill in the Blank] Notebooks, so you would be forgiven for not anticipating the glowing intelligence, the sublime quality, of historian Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Solnit's latest book has none of the gimmicky didacticism that its title might suggest; it is a loosely connected series of anecdotes, personal and historical, on the meaning of losing one's way. A Field Guide is too meanderingly rich a book to have a single, central tenet, although it can safely be said that it begins with a story in which the author, age eight, accidentally downs a little too much wine at Passover and senses some sort of mystery. From this experience she arrives at the lesson, "Leave the door open to the unknown, the door into the dark." And indeed, the work that follows seems to be ever passing through one door, pausing, and then finding another. Solnit talks to Borges and Benjamin, she visits with search-and-rescue teams, who "have made an art of finding and a science of how people get lost," she asks us to consider European explorers in the New World in an unorthodox way, as lost men who, in a few cases, gave up the familiar and stepped into a wholly different way of life.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost could be considered a very erudite sort of self-help book, dispensing, as it does, lessons such as, "fear of making mistakes can itself be a huge mistake." But it would be a shame to squeeze this book into a genre; it is a book brilliant in its connections and brave in its digressions. It is a book (of course it is) to get lost in.
Prior Field Guide posts collected here.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

The inexorable ascent of a Harvard man.

Garrison Keillor on the nomination of Judge Roberts:
Had the president nominated a bullet-headed troglodyte for the Supreme Court, Democrats were prepared to take to the phones, fire up the Web sites, and sic the dogs of direct mail on him, but when he brought forth a summa cum laude Harvard man, the crowd quieted down and the dogs crawled back under the porch. The gentleman, John G. Roberts, has a fine resume and did well at Harvard. Barring some unsavory revelation about close ties to the Gambino family or membership in a secret militia group, welcome to the Court, sir.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Magnetic Field(s): A review.

Although Ron Loewinsohn's Magnetic Field(s) was first published in the early 1980s, I had never heard of him or it until it mysteriously jumped off the bookstore shelf at me last week. (Insert a title-related pun here.) The book has been published by the Dalkey Archive Press, which appears to be in the business -- surely not a profitable one -- of reissuing good books gone out of print. They also publish several novels by Stanley Elkin, including the one mentioned recently by Ron Rosenbaum. Plate of Shrimp.

But about the book. I really liked the book. It starts from the viewpoint of the burglar, relating his thoughts about intruding in other people's houses -- how he does it, what he sees. There is an image of particular violence at the start, but it is not characteristic of what follows. The middle third of the novel transitions to the story of one of his victims, initially when they meet, but then that character spends the summer on the other side of the country, and we leave the burglar for his story, and that of the people from whom he is subletting. And yet we don't leave the first third of the novel behind, for images and themes recur. The third part finds character envisioning the secret life of one of his friends, and again there are resonances and ties to what has come before.

I can't quite say what this all reminds me of. In my experience, it's largely sui generis, although the tone and interests of the author sometimes remind me of Haruki Murakami, perhaps.

Since I finished the book, I keep asking people whether they've read it, and I have yet to find anyone who has. Alas, for I want to talk about. Please, someone, read it and tell me what you think in the comments.

I liked this passage when I read it enough to reproduce it here (although I hasten to warn that it hardly seems characteristic of the book):
After they had been expanding the train layout for a couple of years, the boy began staging elaborately planned collisions of the trains, at first involving only freight and tanker cars, but later including passenger trains like the silver Amtrak replica twenty cars long. He even designed and put together an engine that came apart in modules so that it could be "destroyed" in a crash and then reassembled. His father, who always watched the performance of the trains without any expression whatever, observed these crashes in the same way. Eventually, the boy stopped staging them, until Francois began coming up to the attic room. Mr. Mortimer had told his wife all about the wrecks, which were accompanied by all the appropriate sound effects, including the screams of the victims. They disturbed him, he said, and when she relayed this to the boy he said, "I thought so. Adult people are apt to be disturbed by representations of death."

His mother looked at him.
Magnetic Field(s) 110 (Dalkey Archive 2002).

Here's an interview with the author, from the summer of 2002, when Magnetic Field(s) was republished.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Per usual, this week's column by Ron Rosenbaum in the New York Observer (note: link will be good for only a week, two weeks tops) is full of intriguing recommendations of things I know I like -- e.g., Greil Marcus's The Old, Weird America (a/k/a Invisible Republic) -- and things I haven't yet discovered I like -- e.g., Stanley Elkin's The Dick Gibson Show, the movie Ghost World (already in the queue). Rosenbaum's search for Weird America has him listening to late-night AM radio -- something I used to do quite a bit. Those pesky kids get in the way.

Or, for a change of pace, you could read this.

Yet more Solnit.

This week's New Yorker includes this brief review of A Field Guide to Getting Lost:

This meditation on the pleasures and terrors of getting lost is -- as befits its subject -- less a coherent argument than a series of peregrinations, leading the reader to unexpected vistas. The word "lost," Solnit informs us, derives from the Old Norse for disbanding an army, and she extrapolates from this the idea of striking "a truce with the wide world." It's the wideness of the world that entices: a map of this deceptively slender volume would include hermit crabs, who live in scavenged shells; marauding conquistadors; an immigrant grandmother committed to an asylum; white frontier children kidnapped by Indians; and Hitchcock's "Vertigo." Solnit imagines a long-distance runner accumulating moments when neither foot is on the ground, "tiny fragments of levitation," and argues, by analogy, that in relinquishing certainty we approach, if only fleetingly, the divine.
August 8 & 15, 2005, p.93.

Previous Field Guide posts here and here, and here and here. Also in the New Yorker: a fine discussion of Edmund Wilson by Louis Menand, which occasioned this column by Jon Carroll in today's San Francisco Chronicle.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Do they speak for the trees?

A conservative economist gets his hands on The Lorax, and it's not pretty:

Viewing the tale of the Lorax through an institutional lens, ruin is not the result of corporate greed, but a lack of institutions. The truffula trees grow in an unowned commons. (The Lorax may speak for the trees, but he does not own them.) The Once-ler has no incentive to conserve the truffula trees for, as he notes to himself, if he doesn't cut them down someone else will. He's responding to the incentives created by a lack of property rights in the trees, and the inevitable tragedy results. Had the Once-ler owned the trees, his incentives would have been quite different -- and he would likely have acted accordingly -- even if he remained dismissive of the Lorax's environmental concerns.

The story ends with the Once-ler giving a young boy the last truffula seed. He tells him to plant it and treat it with care, and then maybe the Lorax will come back from there. The traditional interpretation is simply that we must all care more for the environment. If we only control corporate greed we can prevent environmental ruin. But perhaps it means something else. Perhaps the lesson is that this boy should plant his truffula trees, and act as their steward. Perhaps giving the boy the last seed is an act of transferring the truffula from the open-access commons to private stewardship. Indeed, the final image -- the ring of stones labeled with the word "unless" -- could well suggest that enclosure, and the creation of property rights to protect natural resources, is necessary for the Lorax to ever return.
(While there's nothing here that sounds wrong per se, it's not like it's a particularly interesting reading of the text. Like so much of law and economics, this is just applying a few basic ideas to somewhere they wouldn't seem to belong. It's just not that outre anymore.)

More Solnit.

It's August, and apparently that means all books, all the time. Further to my post about Rebecca Solnit's new book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Mark Sorkin interviewed Solnit at Salon (subscription or submission to a brief advertisement required*).

Some of what she says about Field Guide:

So the writing itself was an exercise in getting lost?

In some ways. Most of my books have been driven by a linear story. Muybridge was born and then he died, to give you the simplest possible narrative. "Wanderlust" is a moderately chronological survey of the cultural, political, social and spiritual functions of walking. This one was much more intuitive in that things connect to things that lead you to things. The final chapter begins with a dream in which I'm carrying a tortoise in my childhood home. And then it talks about desert tortoises, and then the mythology of desert tortoises by the Chemehuevi, one of the tribes down there in the Mojave, and then it goes on to contrast them with the Death Valley '49ers -- you get the picture. I thought of it as a certain kind of story I hear on the radio sometimes, or something you hear in music, where somebody kind of improvises and noodles around, and there's often a moment where you think, "Do they have any idea where they're going? This is so far from where we started out." And then the last bit falls into place, and you realize that you haven't just been plodding through the underbrush but you've actually been traversing a sort of elegant circle.

Generally speaking, is your approach to the past sentimental, elegiac, analytical?

Can I just say yes?

Sure, but then I'd have to rephrase the question.

I always think historically. The way to understand something is by knowing where it came from, what it was before, how it got there, this kind of time-based analysis. And that same historical impulse can apply to your own sense of self. I think everybody's personal past is important to them, although when I was in my 20s, my childhood was much more vivid and emotionally compelling than it is now. I'm in my early 40s, and it's much further away. You know, you lose your childhood in order to grow up, and this constant arrival is the present. The book is about being "lost" in both senses: "lost" as in no longer there and "lost" as in not knowing where you are. It's about finding in some way the beauty and melancholy in living with those losses, in coming to terms with uncertainty. You have to let go of a lot of stuff, including versions of yourself and beliefs and delusions that you were right, or you get stuck.

* The advertisement I watched was for a French wine, Red Bicyclette. I noticed that their wine is sold as a syrah (or chardonnay or merlot), not under the name of the growing areas of Maury and Minervois, as would be customary for French wine. Maybe this is what it takes to sell French wine in the U.S. now?

edited to add: Actually, a little more research suggests that this is what happens when a U.S. company sells French wine. Red Bicyclette is produced by E. & J. Gallo, from grapes grown in the Languedoc. They started selling it about a year ago, which just shows that I haven't been looking at their bottles too carefully. "Gallo aims to compete with similar American-produced French wines, such as the fast-growing Fat Bastard line from Seattle's Click Wine Group, which is also sourced from the Languedoc and similarly priced. More than 400,000 cases of Fat Bastard were sold in the United States last year."

It's magic.

Via John Quiggin, I see that Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell just won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel. OK, L., now you have another excuse to read it. (I liked it much more than past Hugo winners American Gods (2002), Neuromancer (1985) and Foundation's Edge (1983). To say nothing of Starship Troopers (1960).)

The book's site has some neat stuff on it. And it's out in paperback now:

Monday, August 08, 2005

Now playing on the AIP jukebox.

I recommend the new CD from the Brazilian Girls, called -- coincidentally enough -- Brazilian Girls. They're not Brazilian, and they're (mostly) not girls, but they're a good listen.

What is he smoking?

I'm as big a fan of Michael Kinsley as the next guy, but I saw this in the New York Review of Books (the link is actually to Brad DeLong quoting what I saw) and thought, is he on crack? Is it possible that even Kinsley is so caught up in the media's simulcrum of what actually goes on in Washington that he can no longer tell the difference? (I was going to add that Kinsley is in Los Angeles, but maybe that's the problem.)

All the news.

Judge Posner has a worthwhile piece in yesterday's NYT Book Review discussing liberal and conservative complaints about the major media, and explaining why both have their roots in economic phenomena.

Some of Posner's claims are a little odd. For example,
The mainstream media are predominantly liberal - in fact, more liberal than they used to be. But not because the politics of journalists have changed. Rather, because the rise of new media, itself mainly an economic rather than a political phenomenon, has caused polarization, pushing the already liberal media farther left.
What? What's the basis for the assertion that the mainstream media are more liberal than they used to be? More specifically, Posner asserts that in response to Fox News, CNN has moved to the left. This just seems wrong to me, and can only be the observation of a brain addled by too much exposure to Fox.

After I drafted the above, S.S. pointed me to Jack Shafer's critique of the Posner piece on Slate. Shafer rightly whacks Posner for making odd assertions without any support in fact, including the above example:
When Posner declares that media competition has pushed the established press to the left, he gives only one example: Fox News making CNN more liberal. Has Posner lost his cable connection? The success of Fox News convinced CNN of the opposite. CNN realized that the demographic that has the time and interest to watch a lot of cable news tends to be older and more conservative, as this Pew Research Center report indicates. If anything, the one-worldist CNN of founder Ted Turner has been vectoring right in recent years. Lou Dobbs, for one, now blabs a Buchananesque position on trade and immigration five nights a week.
True enough. However, Shafer doesn't give Posner enough credit for bringing something new to the table. Complaints about the media find explanation in economic changes in the media marketplace. E.g., with the internet and 24-hour cablecasting, deadlines are constant, not daily, resulting in a rush to publication that produces more errors, and places a premium on sensationalism. With so many more competing channels, any individual medium must work harder to stand out, and so a sober moderation is not as lucrative now as a distinctive (and even ideological) point of view.

Posner adds:

The argument that competition increases polarization assumes that liberals want to read liberal newspapers and conservatives conservative ones. Natural as that assumption is, it conflicts with one of the points on which left and right agree - that people consume news and opinion in order to become well informed about public issues. Were this true, liberals would read conservative newspapers, and conservatives liberal newspapers, just as scientists test their hypotheses by confronting them with data that may refute them. But that is not how ordinary people (or, for that matter, scientists) approach political and social issues. The issues are too numerous, uncertain and complex, and the benefit to an individual of becoming well informed about them too slight, to invite sustained, disinterested attention. Moreover, people don't like being in a state of doubt, so they look for information that will support rather than undermine their existing beliefs. They're also uncomfortable seeing their beliefs challenged on issues that are bound up with their economic welfare, physical safety or religious and moral views.

So why do people consume news and opinion? In part it is to learn of facts that bear directly and immediately on their lives - hence the greater attention paid to local than to national and international news. They also want to be entertained, and they find scandals, violence, crime, the foibles of celebrities and the antics of the powerful all mightily entertaining. And they want to be confirmed in their beliefs by seeing them echoed and elaborated by more articulate, authoritative and prestigious voices. So they accept, and many relish, a partisan press. Forty-three percent of the respondents in the poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center thought it "a good thing if some news organizations have a decidedly political point of view in their coverage of the news."

Being profit-driven, the media respond to the actual demands of their audience rather than to the idealized "thirst for knowledge" demand posited by public intellectuals and deans of journalism schools. They serve up what the consumer wants, and the more intense the competitive pressure, the better they do it. We see this in the media's coverage of political campaigns. Relatively little attention is paid to issues. Fundamental questions, like the actual difference in policies that might result if one candidate rather than the other won, get little play. The focus instead is on who's ahead, viewed as a function of campaign tactics, which are meticulously reported. Candidates' statements are evaluated not for their truth but for their adroitness; it is assumed, without a hint of embarrassment, that a political candidate who levels with voters disqualifies himself from being taken seriously, like a racehorse that tries to hug the outside of the track. News coverage of a political campaign is oriented to a public that enjoys competitive sports, not to one that is civic-minded.
This sounds right to, but it seems to lead directly to a few questions that Posner does not reach. If participants in the media market cannot be trusted to inform themselves, and instead seek out information that ratifies their pre-existing beliefs, are they to be trusted to do a sound job as citizens? Does this not suggest that there is some form of market failure, at least insofar as we rely on this market to ensure that our democracy functions? And when he discusses Fox and CNN, Posner appears to assume that CNN would move to the left because there's a viable market niche there. But what if the left doesn't have the money that advertisers want? Is there not a real risk that these markets will supply more of the information that the right demands than that which the left demands? These are tough questions.

But Posner does not want to go there, presumably because The New York Times Book Review was not paying him to do so.

On Bullfighting: A review.

One of this site's commentator's, M., lent me her copy of On Bullfighting, with the daunting recommendation that it was one of her favorites. It's quite good, really. Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy mixes some history collected through her own reading and reportage. Her own story intrudes as well, and an intrepid reader may draw a parallel between the bullfighter and this writer. If M. won't lend you her copy, get your own.

A Field Guide To Getting Lost: A review.

Rebecca Solnit is a font of all sorts of interesting ideas about California's cultural history, among other things. It took me a while to pick up on her work, but lately it's hard to pick up a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle without running into her thoughts on something or other -- she is prolific and ranges widely, and the Chronicle's editors do not tire of checking in with her. Her latest book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, is a collection of essays with a theme loosely running through them. Rather than write my own review, this one by the Chronicle's David Kipen captures my feelings well:

River of Shadows may still be Solnit's best book, if only because her resistance to the conventions of straightforward biography gave her something to measure herself against. In writing the life of the photographer who proved that all four of a horse's hooves leave the ground during a gallop, she could pursue the ideas that have always animated her thinking -- art history, natural history, environmental history -- while allowing Muybridge to keep her from free-associating out of all compass.

This book, by comparison, with a subject so slippery as sometimes to seem no subject at all, makes greater demands on a reader. The Muybridge bio was Solnit on the rocks with a twist; the new book is Solnit straight, no chaser. Some who loved the earlier volume may find the new whiskey's kick too strong, too unrelieved. But for those readers who admire the play of Solnit's intelligence across any landscape -- or no landscape at all -- just the fumes from A Field Guide to Getting Lost can disorient you for days.
I enjoyed reading this book very much, and yet it was something of a relief to finish. I'm looking forward to reading Solnit's book about Muybridge, which is lurking on the shelf. My pal G. recommends it highly.

Previous Field Guide posts here and here.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

All the world's a stage.

I have tried to explain to people in other cities how and why Northern Californians "stage" houses for sale, without a lot of success. People squint their eyes and nod their heads, and wonder whether I've spent too much time in the metaphorical tulips of the Bay Area real estate market. (Yes, I have.) In the SF Chronicle Magazine, Chris Colin takes a shot at explaining.

If he finds himself alone in the world, maybe there's a reason.

Jonathan Franzen, about what's he's reading this summer:

I’ve just finished reading the second issue of the new journal n+1 basically cover to cover—something I almost never do with any magazine. I especially enjoyed a novella-length, terrifically funny essay on Isaac Babel and modern Babel scholarship by a woman named Elif Batuman, and a smart, affecting riff on J.M. Coetzee by the smart, affecting young novelist Benjamin Kunkel. Just when you’re thinking you’re intellectually alone in the world, something like n+1 falls in your hands.
The New York Observer (link will expire someday soon).

And a reminder that there are some people in whose intellectual crowd Jonathan Franzen isn't hanging out. Frank Gehry, on what he's up to:

I’m also listening to The Iliad. I put all the books in my iPod. I have one iPod that has the complete works of Proust, and I take that with me—when I’m depressed, I listen to it. And I try not to read architecture books.

The Office.

I know I'm a few years behind the curve on this one, but lately I've really been enjoying The Office -- the BBC original, not the NBC version, which I've never seen but which I'm willing to believe is worthwhile. I could say much, much more about it, but why bother when BBC provides the definitive guide? If you want to see more -- and you do -- you can buy Season One, Season Two, or the concluding special individually, or just spring for a little more from the get-go to get all three together. (Or you can take your chances with Season One of the NBC version.) Good stuff.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

When dinner attacks.

Better to order the tako.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Happy bird news.

Though some scientists had disputed the claim that ivory-billed woodpeckers still survive, they have changed their tune after hearing new tape recordings.
Even the most skeptical ornithologists now agree. They say newly presented recordings show that at least two of the birds are living in Arkansas.

Richard O. Prum, an ornithologist at Yale University and one of several scientists who had challenged the most recently claimed rediscovery of the ivory bill, said Monday after listening to the tape recordings that he was now "strongly convinced that there is at least a pair of ivory bills out there."

Mark B. Robbins, an ornithologist at the University of Kansas, who had also been a skeptic, listened to the same recordings with a graduate student and said, "We were absolutely stunned."

Dr. Robbins said the recordings, provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, were "astounding." Of a paper questioning claims of the woodpecker's discovery that he, Dr. Prum and another scientist had submitted to the Public Library of Science, he said, "It's all moot at this point; the bird's here."

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