Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A sleuth for our terms.

Wikipedia Brown and the Case of the Captured Koala.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Sebald's pictures.

When I've read W.G. Sebald's books, I've wondered about his use of photographs. Theresa Duncan found someone with more coherent thoughts on the topic.

New catalogues.

Nicholson Baker wrote some great stuff a few years ago about card catalogs, lamenting that libraries were discarding them in favor of computerized resources. But this puts those articles in a different light:
In 1995, Stanford founded the HighWire Press, which now provides electronic access to more than a thousand scholarly journals. A few years later, Stanford digitized most of its card catalogue, and circulation of its books increased by fifty per cent. "Once our students could sit in their dorm rooms and find out what we had in the library, they sought out more books," Michael Keller, the university librarian, says.
Jeffrey Toobin, "Google's Moon Shot," The New Yorker 30, 34 (Feb. 5, 2007).

Disreputable mountebanks, but dangerous.

Young Hitler, in Vienna:
From the wealth of new ideas to which he was exposed, he made a selection which he cobbled together to compose the philosophy of National Socialism. The pseudo-anthropology of Guido von List made a deep impression on him. . . .

Another of the charlatans under whose influence Hitler fell was Lanz von Liebenfels . . . . What Hitler knew of racial sciences and eugenics, and later imported into National Socialism policy, came not from scientific reading but filtered through popularizers and vulgarizers like Liebenfels.

All in all, the adventures of Adolf Hitler in the realm of ideas provide a cautionary tale against letting an impressionable young person loose to pursue his or her education in a state of total freedom. For seven years Hitler lived in a great European city in a time of ferment from which emerged some of the most exciting, most revolutionary thought of the new century. With an unerring eye he picked out not the best but the worst of the ideas around him. Because he was never a student, with lectures to attend and reading lists to follow and fellow students to argue with and assignments to complete and examinations to sit, the half-baked ideas he made his own were never properly challenged. The people he associated with were as ill-educated, volatile, and undisciplined as himself. No one in his circle had the intellectual command to put his chosen authorities in their place as what they were: disreputable and even comical mountebanks.
J.M. Coetzee, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Monster," New York Review of Books 8, 10 (Feb. 15, 2007) (a review of Norman Mailer's The Castle in the Forest).

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Esquimaux Exhibited.

Prof. Russell Potter explains:
In 1847, Captain John Parker brought an Eskimo couple from Cumberland Sound to the whaling port of Hull, England aboard his ship the 'Truelove.' Ostensibly brought to England to raise awareness of poor conditions in their homeland, the couple, Memiadluk and Uckaluk, were treated rather better than other such human zoo exhibits; Captain Parker placed them in the care of his ship's surgeon, who innoculated them for smallpox upon their arrival in England. Nonetheless, they were put on display in the Public Rooms beginning on 2 December, dressed in their sealskin clothes. They also appeared at the Mechanics Institute in Manchester, as well as at the lecture hall in Goodramgate, York (from which the above handbill survives).
Much more here. Or, fast forward 145 years.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Beautiful denial.

Seven years ago, Rob Walker had just moved to New Orleans:
I've been walking around our neighborhood a lot, just wandering back and forth to the grocery store or taking the dog out for a stroll. There's no logic to the architectural styles. But you notice two things. One is that the houses are built high, and often there's a big, massive, marvelous staircase of some sort leading up to a porch and a front door that might be three feet or even six feet off the ground. This, of course, is because it can flood here in a really serious way. The second thing you notice is that the yards, the steps, the porches, the areas in front of the house are often just covered with plant in big pots, and statues, and chairs, and things. Just strewn all over, as if they were indoors and protected, as if nothing could ever threaten them, not man or nature. These yards and porches are often incredibly beautiful. And in their way, they seem to me a pretty convincing manifestation of pure denial.
Rob Walker, Letters From New Orleans 19-20 (Garrett County Press 2005).

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Lo, Linden Labs' lawyers license. Via Eszter Hargittai.

Vichy-labeled surrender monkeys.

Robert O. Paxton says that the French military got a bad rap for 1940, especially vis-a-vis their British compeers:
. . . Morale was not the only reason for the French defeat, and perhaps not even the principal one. While French artillery and tanks were not inferior to the German, the French army had crucial defeats in communications, air cover, and reaction time. The wildly overoptimistic defense plan of the French commander in chief, General Maurice Gamelin, bears perhaps the heaviest responsibility. Far from proposing, as [Niall] Ferguson says, to "refight World War I along their heavily fortified Maginot Line," Gamelin sent his best units not just into Belgium but all the way to Breda, in southern Holland, in an effort to engage the advancing Germans as far northeast of French soil as possible. But since Belgium had declared its neutrality in 1936, this rush northeastward could not begin until the Germans had already attacked.

When the principal German attack force sliced unexpectedly across northern France from the Ardennes, the best French units were cut off further north. The absence of a strategic reserve, correctly noted as crucial by Ferguson, resulted from the perverse effects of Gamelin's dispatch of forces all the way to Holland. Contrary to the popular myth, therefore, the problem was not an overcautious French high command but a French maneuver embodying risks as breathtaking as General Manstein's Sichelschnitt through the Ardennes.

Recent scholars like [Ernest] May and [Karl-Heinz] Frieser have noted the acute anxiety within the German command that the Allies would cut off the long vulnerable German salient by attacking from both flanks. The defeat of France turns on the failure of repeated attacks by Gamelin and by his successor General Maxime Weygand, after May 20, to organize simultaneous attacks on the salient from north and south. The real issue, therefore, is not how bravely the British soldiers fought (as they did indeed when they were ordered to do so) but why Lord Gort, the British commander, either could not or would not engage the British Expeditionary Force after May 21 in Weygand's projected attack southward by French, British, and Belgian armies. Instead, Gort withdrew the BEF from Arras (northward to close the line in the British version of events, toward the Channel ports in the French version), pulling the rug out from under Weygand's perhaps already stillborn plan.

The tenacious notion that French defeat was mostly a matter of morale and the Third Republic's decadence has a curious history. It was first proclaimed by Marshal Petain soon after he took power in July 1940. It was a politically charged message. Petain was determined to exonerate the generals (except for the republican Gamelin) and to replace the Third Republic with a tradition-oriented authoritarianism. Long after almost everything else associated with the Vichy regime has been ignominiously swept away, Vichy's interpretation of the defeat of 1940 continues to hold sway.
Robert O. Paxton, "It Wasn't Just Morale," The New York Review of Books 59, 62 (Feb. 15, 2007) (Letters). Paxton's letter responds to this article by Niall Ferguson. On France's defeat in 1940, I enjoyed Ernest May's Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France, a book discussed by Brad DeLong and Josh Marshall in the middle of this archive page.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Not a fair fight.

In The New Republic, Jonathan Chait writes about Alan Reynolds, who stands at the very rear of the conservative movement's rearguard efforts to deny that income inequality has been rising:

If there is one trend in American life that most irks economic conservatives, it is probably rising inequality. It's not the inequality itself that bothers them, as most will happily admit. It is the perception of inequality and, worse, the constant discussion of inequality that is so irritating. It offends their view of capitalism, helps justify all sorts of nefarious government interventions, and makes the conservative economic agenda (most of which tends to increase inequality) appear unfair. They would very much like for it not to be true. Failing that, they would like for the public not to believe that it's true--or, at the very least, not to be sure whether it is true or not. This is where Alan Reynolds comes in.

A manager at J.C. Penney who attended graduate school at night, Reynolds was plucked from obscurity by William F. Buckley in the 1960s after writing a few pieces for The National Review. (He's still "a couple of classes" short of his masters degree in economics.) . . . Reynolds offers up conventional supply-side economic views; but his specialty is denying that income inequality has grown. He has been at this task for almost two decades, and, as the economic consensus that inequality is increasing has grown stronger and stronger, so, too, has his importance to the right.

Reynolds's crucial role within the conservative movement was on full display at a packed-house Cato forum last week in which he defended a paper--titled "Has U.S. Income Inequality Really Increased?"--he published earlier this month and summarized in a much-discussed Wall Street Journal op-ed. Reynolds was introduced by Chris Edwards, the director of tax policy studies at Cato, who began by noting that it is a matter of opinion whether income inequality matters at all. (In his opinion, it doesn't.) Nonetheless, he suggested, "Economists and reporters need to be extremely careful in looking at trends in income statistics over time. All sources of income data have various quirks and shortcomings." In other words, conservatives aren't sure whether inequality is rising, and they don't really care if it is. Their primary concern is that newspapers treat the question as a matter of dispute rather than a settled fact.

If this sounds like the conservative stance on global warming or evolution, it shouldn't come as a surprise. Like those two issues, the existence of rising inequality is beyond dispute among academics who study it. This applies even to conservative economists with strong Republican pedigrees. (Harvard economist and former Reagan adviser Martin Feldstein: "There has no doubt been a relatively greater increase in higher incomes in recent years in the United States." Columbia's R. Glenn Hubbard, a Bush alum: "We have an issue with emerging inequality in the country.") And so the ambition of the conservative counterestablishment in these areas is not to overturn the scholarly consensus but simply to make the topic appear so complicated that laypeople and the press don't know what to believe.

* * * * *

Reynolds's role is merely to point out that the data is imperfect. The skeptic challenging the expert consensus must be fluent enough in the language of the experts to nibble away at their data. (The evolution skeptic can find holes in the fossil record; the global-warming skeptic can find periods of global cooling.) But he need not--indeed, he must not--be fluent enough to assimilate all the data himself into a coherent alternative explanation. His point is that the truth is unknowable.
Brad DeLong has chronicled the problems with Reynolds's work: if you can stomach it, look here, here, here, here, here and here.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The new Mailer novel.

You could read Lee "sprezzatura" Siegel's ponderous review in today's New York Times Book Review -- me, I couldn't bear it -- or you could go by James Wolcott's take:
[A] third of the way through I knew that finishing the novel would be like trying to dig a tunnel with my bare hands, and that reviewing it would require tunneling back and submitting a piece that would betray the heavy slog of obligation.
Wolcott says his hopes were high, but unmet. That's enough for me.

How about the supply side?

David Lazarus writes a whole article on Fiji Water, the bottled water imported from Fiji, and never gets to (what is to me) the most interesting question: Is there any limit to the water that the bottlers can pull from the aquifer they use in Fiji? Many islands have shortages of potable water, but Fiji Water sold 180 million bottles last year, and expects sales to grow another 40 percent this year.

Book reviews we did not finish reading.

If I were a snob, a liar, a drunk, a philanderer, an anti-Semite, a violent bully, a poseur and a menace to the vulnerable, I would want Linda Hopkins to write my biography.
Amy Bloom, reviewing Hopkins' False Self in today's New York Times Book Review.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Down and out in America.

I posted at the book blog about David Shipler's The Working Poor: Invisible In America.

How to read Pynchon?

I haven't started Against the Day yet -- I spent two months reading Mason & Dixon last fall and I haven't been ready yet to do it again. I'm going to start this evening, because the Pynchon-L crowd is starting a group read this week, and I figure I'll get quite a bit out of participating, even if only passively. So I've been thinking about how I'm going to read the book. Steven Shaviro just finished it, and he gave the question some serious consideration:
It took me two months. I only read it in the late evening, just before going to bed. Sometimes I would only read for 15 minutes or so, sometimes for an hour and a half — it depended on how tired I was, and how late it was. But I read at least a few pages every single night.

The phenomenology of reading is important, when it comes to a novel that is 1085 pages long. (This makes it, I think, the third longest novel I have ever read cover to cover — after Proust, of course, and Marguerite Young’s Miss Macintosh, My Darling). With a very long novel, you need to sink into the rhythms of the prose; these rhythms have to insinuate their way into your dreams. If a long novel doesn’t put me into an altered state, there is no way I will ever finish it; but if it does, then I will go on reading it, in a sort of trance, and — when I finally reach the end — feel regret that there wasn’t even more. One way to read a great long novel is to take a vacation from the rest of your life — reading it all day, picking it up and putting it down, and picking it up again — doing nothing else in between the bouts of reading, except for household chores and physical exercise. There was no way I could do this with Against the Day, given how busy my life is at the moment — so the only alternative left was reading it at bedtime, when I was already starting to slip into an oneiric state, and when I could let all the concerns of the day just concluded slip away…

I started Mason & Dixon on vacation, so I read a big chunk of it all at once, but once I returned to my usual life I didn't want to pick it up if I was only going to be able to read a few pages, with the result that sometimes my interludes between my time with it ran to days. This time around, I'm going to work harder to carve out a chunk of time for it every evening -- closer to an hour and a half, I hope, than 15 minutes.

The best laid plans . . . .

Under cover.

The Evangelist goes under cover to host a party and to find out who's ripping off the breakdowns.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The wizard of Oz.

Mia Fineman profiles Robert Hughes.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

More is more.

Stanley Elkin, in a 1974 interview with The Paris Review, talks about his style:
My editor at Random House, Joe Fox, used to tell me, “Stanley, less is more.” He wanted to strike – oh, he had a marvelous eye for the “good” stuff – and that’s what he wanted to strike. I had to fight him tooth and nail in the better restaurants to maintain excess because I don’t believe that less is more. I believe that more is more. I believe that less is less, fat fat, thin thin and enough is enough. There’s a famous exchange between Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe in which Fitzgerald criticizes Wolfe for one of his novels. Fitzgerald tells him that Flaubert believed in the mot précis and that there are two kinds of writers – the putter-inners and the taker-outers. Wolfe, who probably was not as good as Fitzgerald but evidently wrote a better letter, said, “Flaubert me no Flauberts. Shakespeare was a putter-inner, Melville was a putter-inner.” I can’t remember who else was a putter-inner, but I’d rather be a putter-inner than a taker-outer.
(For the correct quotation from Flaubert, see the footnote at the bottom of page 5 of the interview.)

Monday, January 15, 2007

The several Americas.

Stanley Elkin evokes the Thomas Pynchon of The Crying Of Lot 49 or Mason & Dixon:
Despite change, much had remained the same – or else progressed sequentially that having known the beginning he might have anticipated what came afterward. Again he was struck by his old sense of the several Americas; he knew that lurking behind the uniformities of federal highway system and the green redundancy of enormous exit signs that made Sedalia seem as important as Chicago, and the blazing fifty-foot logotypes of the motels, and colonial A&P’s and Howard Johnsons’ like outposts of Eastern empire in west Texas’s scrub country, and teller’s cage Dairy Queens wantonly labeled as old steamer trunks, and enamelly service stations, and in back of all the franchised restaurants and department stores – there was a Macy’s in Kansas City – dance studios, taco stands, drugstores, motion picture theaters and even nightclubs, and to the side of the double arches of the hamburger drive-ins and the huge spinning chicken buckets canted from the perpendicular like an axis through true north. America atmospherically existed. It wasn’t the land; he had no mystic or patriot’s or even householder’s sense of the land at all. Region somehow persisted inside monolith. The Midwest threw a shadow as exotic as Spain’s. He believed in all of it. New Englanders were salty, Southerners proud, Westerners independent, Easterners sophisticated, Appalachians wise and taciturn and knew the old, authentic songs. And beneath all that, beneath all the clichés of region, he believed in further, ultimate disparities between rich and poor and lovely and ugly and quick and dull and strong and weak. And structuring even these, adumbrating difference like geologic layer, character, quirk, personality like a coat of arms, and below personality the unspoken, and below the unspoken the unspeakable, so that as he walked down Main Street he might just as well have been in Asia. It didn’t matter that the columnists were syndicated or that the rate of exchange was one hundred cents on the dollar; he felt a vague, xenophobic unease. He stared at people as at landmarks or battlegrounds or historic sites; he moved up and down the aisles of Rexall’s Drugstore as through someone else’s church, and picked at the Colonel’s fried chicken like some fastidious visitor to Easter Island pantomiming his way through a feast of guts.

Stanley Elkin, The Dick Gibson Show 250-51 (Dalkey Archive Press, 1998).

"What are you doing now?"

Japanese noodle king, dead at 96:
Momofuku Ando, who has died at the age of 96, was middle-aged when he invented instant chicken noodles, a Japanese concoction that has arguably worked its way into more stomachs worldwide than sushi, tempura and tofu combined.

His invention catapulted his company, Nissin Food products, from obscure Osaka noodlemaker to global leader with products sold in 70 countries. By the time of his death from heart failure, Nissin was reporting operating profits of Y32bn ($307m).

Ando's invention of Cup Noodles in 1972, at the age of 61, helped spark the popularity of instant noodles overseas. His inspiration had come from watching Americans eat noodles with a fork -- not chopsticks -- after breaking them in half, placing them in a cup and dousing them with hot water. Ando realised that a Styrofoam pot that narrowed at the bottom was the best vessel for holding the noodles and keeping them warm. Consuming them was as easy as opening the lid, adding water and waiting a bit. The simplicity, efficiency and low price of Cup Noodles transformed Nissin's fortunes.

Momofuku Anso was born in Taiwan in 1910, when the island was under Japanese rule. He moved to Kyoto at the age of 23 to study economics at Ritsumeikan University. After a series of failed business ventures, he founded his company in 1948.

A small, wiry man with an affinity for oversized sunglasses, Ando was a passionate golfer who apparently enjoyed a bowl of instant noodles nearly every day.

The book Momofuku Ando Speaks, which contains 155 of his quotations, is illuminating. While at Nissin, he would indiscriminately shout out, "What are you doing now?" to various employees. "Calling out to them in this way shocks them into re-evaluating what they're doing," he explained.

He is survived by his wife, Masako, two sons and a daughter.
Mariko Sanchanta, "Prime mover of the pot noodle," Financial Times 16 (Jan. 15, 2007).

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Fiction to make dogs dance in the streets.

Here's a very interesting essay by Zadie Smith about writing fiction, and about writers' failures and personalities. And then she also touches on the great successes:
A great piece of fiction can demand that you acknowledge the reality of its wildest proposition, no matter how alien it may be to you. It can also force you to concede the radical otherness lurking within things that appear most familiar. This is why the talented reader understands George Saunders to be as much a realist as Tolstoy, Henry James as much an experimentalist as George Perec. Great styles represent the interface of "world" and "I", and the very notion of such an interface being different in kind and quality from your own is where the power of fiction resides. Writers fail us when that interface is tailored to our needs, when it panders to the generalities of its day, when it offers us a world it knows we will accept having already seen it on the television. Bad writing does nothing, changes nothing, educates no emotions, rewires no inner circuitry - we close its covers with the same metaphysical confidence in the universality of our own interface as we did when we opened it. But great writing - great writing forces you to submit to its vision. You spend the morning reading Chekhov and in the afternoon, walking through your neighbourhood, the world has turned Chekhovian; the waitress in the cafe offers a non-sequitur, a dog dances in the street.
She has much more to say, so if you like this, read the rest.

It does seem warmer out here.

ExxonMobil has seen the light:

For the last few years, Exxon Mobil has been the biggest single source of support for global warming denialism, and has also exercised a lot of influence on the Bush Administration in its do-nothing stance. For a long while, Exxon was able to act through front groups like the Global Climate Coalition, but the corporation has been increasingly isolated and its activities have been exposed to public scrutiny, most notably with the open letter from the Royal Society last year.

Now Exxon has changed its position, recognising the inevitability of some sort of controls on CO2 emissions, and lobbying for a broad approach that will be relatively favourable to businesses like Exxon, rather than one tightly focused on the energy industry.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

How do you say "zeppelin" in Russian?

More Soviet zeppelin stamps here.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Call it resolve.

Matt Stoller finds Digby saying:
It has never been more clear that the people are irrelevant in our system of government than it is at this moment. Fully 70% of the public disapproves of president Bush's job performance. Even more disapprove of his Iraq policy and a large majority believe it was a mistake to invade and occupy Iraq in the first place. 88% do not want this war war to be escalated. His party just lost a large number of seats in both houses of congress over this issue.

And yet this 30% president with 12% support in the country is going to exactly the opposite of what the country wants him to do and he will get away with it. Democracy? Not so much.

Stoller adds:
It's very upsetting to have political elites so out of step with a public that just voted for change. The public says no. The Congress says no. And yet Bush is going to escalate the war, and possibly strike Iran as well.
Call it stubbornness, resolve, or a lack of imagination, this is George Bush. It's not a flaw in our system of democracy, in the sense that people voted for Bush and this is who he is. He takes great pride in sticking to his guns when people disapprove. The political elites keep hoping that he will care what they think, and they keep fooling themselves. They're as shut out of the decision-making as the public is.

Sometimes we get the government we deserve. I didn't vote for him.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Goodnight moon.

Theresa Duncan of the Los Angeles Lunar Society has a bedtime story for baby boomers.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Peter Rabbit's mother.

The Economist uses the arrival of a new biography to profile Beatrix Potter.
Potter grew up, not in the countryside—the scene for so many of her stories about rabbits and squirrels, ducks and frogs—but in London. Her family made their money building the biggest calico printing company in the world, but quickly left their roots behind. As first-generation immigrants to the capital, their social circle was restricted, certainly more so than it would have been if they had remained among their Unitarian relatives in Manchester. And Potter's chances of finding a husband were further reduced by her mother's snobbish insistence that she not marry into “trade”. Only a suitor with inherited land, and preferably also a title, would do.

Like many Victorian parents, the Potters did not believe in female education either, despite young Beatrix's obvious intelligence. With the aid of private tutors, she became fluent in French and German, showed an early talent for drawing which was encouraged by a family friend, Sir John Everett Millais, and eagerly pursued the passion of the day, natural history. She was a frequent visitor to the Natural History Museum near the family home in South Kensington, and devoted much of her time to drawing animals from life, principally her pets, whose antics she liked to turn into illustrated letters to the children of her nanny.
Inter alia, Potter was well served by remarkably good judgment in merchandising and hiring legal counsel.

Via The Elegant Variation, which is fast becoming one of my favorites.

Books as bricks.

Over at the book blog, I just posted a few words about (and a long excerpt from) The House Of Paper, by Carlos Maria Dominguez.

More Klein.

Joe Klein has a new post up on Swampland, revelling in the way he's already managed to piss off Left Blogosphere. He trots out one a tired right-wing cliche -- that lefties who oppose Bush's policies hate Bush more than they love their country, and presumptively want the United States to lose on the battlefield if that's what it takes to prove Bush wrong. Setting aside the Chomsky fringe, are there any lefties who actually think this? I've never seen one, and of course Klein just smears a majority of the country instead of backing it up.

Meanwhile, Klein reiterates his own opposition to the President's policies, as if someone was doubting him. (Maybe someone was; I wasn't.) I don't doubt that he disagrees with the White House on policy. The problem is that he seems to have decided that he won't be taken seriously if he doesn't criticize Democrats at the same time, and since he agrees with them on policy he goes after them in a much more personal way. So Pelosi is ill-informed, Krugman is a dilettante, and lefties generally are rooting for Al Qaida. He thinks he's proving that he's open-minded, but the effect is quite the opposite.

When you're Joe Klein, every Democratic politician looks like a nail.

Joe Klein is part of TIME's new group blog, which should provide a good opportunity to whether his has an undeserved reputation for axing Democrats and sparing Republicans. Yesterday he saw Nancy Pelosi on TV Sunday morning and concluded that she's ignorant:
[O]ver on Face the Nation, Nancy Pelosi tries to seem reasonable about Iraq, but then says that Bush should "change the mission" of the U.S. forces to training Iraqis, fighting terrorism, logistics and force protection...Which is exactly what the disastrous Bush policy HAS been for the past two years. I like Pelosi's new stateswomanlike demeanor, but--like too many Democrats--she simply doesn't know what she's talking about when it comes to the military operations in Iraq.
Klein says that she's right about the policy -- " it's too late for a surge," he announces -- but apparently the trick to sounding smart is to be authoritative without giving reasons, and it's more important to Klein that Pelosi gives the impression "simply doesn't know what she's talking about" than that she is right and Bush is wrong.

Meanwhile, the NYT reports that Bush's new Iraq policy will include benchmarks:
President Bush’s new Iraq policy will establish a series of goals that the Iraqi government will be expected to meet to try to ease sectarian tensions and stabilize the country politically and economically, senior administration officials said Sunday. Among these 'benchmarks' are steps that would draw more Sunnis into the political process, finalize a long-delayed measure on the distribution of oil revenue and ease the government’s policy toward former Baath Party members, the officials said.
Benchmarks! Sounds like a great idea! But as Matt Yglesias points out, it's what we've been trying (unsuccessfully) to do for years. Yglesias notes this piece by Thomas Ricks, covering a Bush press conference last October:
The president talked repeatedly about "benchmarks" for progress in Iraq, using that word 13 times. But he did not discuss the consequences of the Iraqi government missing those targets. Such a question, he said, was "hypothetical."

That response left unclear how the benchmarks would be different from previous times when the United States has set out intentions, only to back down. For example, the original war plan envisioned the U.S. troop presence in Iraq being cut to 30,000 by the fall of 2003. Last year, some top U.S. commanders thought they would be able to significantly cut the U.S. troop level in Iraq this year -- a hope now officially abandoned. More recently, the U.S. military all but withdrew from Baghdad, only to have to have to reenter the capital as security evaporated from its streets and Iraqi forces proved unable to restore calm by themselves.
So if Joe Klein is willing to say that the Speaker of the House of Representatives "simply doesn't know what she's talking about when it comes to the military operations in Iraq," what are the chances that he would say the same about the President?

Klein also saw Brent Scowcroft sounding stupid with George Stephanopoulos:
He tells Stephanopoulos that he might favor more troops in Iraq to stop ethnic cleansing in Baghdad...then says he thinks it's a bad idea for American troops to try to police a civil war--which means that he's for and against the same thing. When Stephanopoulos catches him on this, Scowcroft hems, haws and seems genuinely embarrassed. In fact, he's hemmed in by his loyalty to the old man: he doesn't want a surge, but doesn't want to slam dunk Junior, either.
Got it? Pelosi: doesn't know what she's talking about. Krugman: An "ill-informed dilettante." Scowcroft: loyal. Pelosi and Krugman advocate the position Klein agrees with, and he hammers them. Scowcroft doesn't, and he gets praise.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Outbreaks of the Hegelian mania.

Peter D. Kramer's December 24 review of George Prochnik's Putnam Camp in the New York Times Review of Books refers to
Susan Blow, a brilliant former patient with whom Putnam developed a deep personal relationship (well tolerated by Putnam's wife, herself an innovative social theorist). A founder of the American kindergarten movement and a Midwestern Idealist -- a mania for Hegel had swept St. Louis in the 1860s -- Blow believed that her intimate philosophical conversations with Putnam had helped her depression.
Jim Holt writes to the editor in today's edition:
. . . A similar Hegelian mania, it should perhaps be noted, also swept through the upper Bronx and large swaths of Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess counties, as attest the many vestigial Dialektischenpfosten ("dialectical posts") that still dot the landscape there.
Um, what?

Friday, January 05, 2007

Being Christopher Hitchens.

Pure genius. Via Thin Slice.

Tea leaves.

Pat Lang has a troubling notion:
An intelligence analyst makes judgments based on available data and interprets that data through a mental "filter" made up of experience, contextual knowledge, probabilities and sheer, unmerited, intuitive talent. Among the most valuable indicators of intentions are the appointments of senior people to fill leadership positions.

In that regard it must be said that the appointment of Admiral William Fallon the the post of Commander, US Central Command is surely indicative of intentions. This distinguished officer's career lay altogether within the field of naval aviation and latterly of joint staff and command functions. His official biography is posted below.

It makes very little sense that a person with this background should be appointed to be theater commander in a a theater in which two essentially "ground" wars are being fought unless it is intended to conduct yet another war which will be different in character.
As Brad DeLong notes, the implication is that the White House is preparing for an air war with Iran.

Are there worse things than isolationism?

Isaac Chotiner at The New Republic gazes briefly into the abyss:
The fact that this magazine turned against the war only when it started to go badly may not be a point in our favor.
Maybe not, eh?

Then he blinks:
But it's also a sign that the magazine is not isolationist. Moreover, if memory serves, TNR spent a significant amount of time calling those on the left isolationist and worse in the run-up to the invasion.
Phew! Call me anything, but don't call me isolationist!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Why might cops dislike lawyers?

Just another case of American blind justice, as Arlo Guthrie would say:
It was 8:30 A.M., and [New York lawyer Lauren] Asher was examining the summons of Olusegun Victor Samuel, a Nigerian cabbie who’d been issued a summons for running a stop sign at the corner of Spring and Washington. “It’s an unknown cop,” she said—meaning one unfamiliar to her, and thus, likely, with the clubby ways of the D.M.V. court—”which is great for me.” Suddenly, Asher ran down the hall, popping her head into a chamber designated Hearing Room 3. “I didn’t want the case to get pulled,” she explained.

A few minutes later, the trial commenced. Asher, the defendant (wearing a maroon puffy jacket), and the officer who wrote the ticket stood in front of the bench. The officer read aloud from his notes: “I was on the northwest corner travelling eastbound, when I observed a Ford yellow taxi coming southbound down Washington Street. I observed the vehicle go through a marked stop sign approximately ten feet before the crosswalk and proceeded to pull the motorist over.”

Asher made a motion to dismiss.


The officer apparently had not described the traffic signal in sufficient detail. “A stop sign’s an eight-sided red sign with the word ‘STOP’ on it, has to face oncoming traffic, has to be posted near the corner,” Asher said. “And he didn’t get any of that.”
Asher specializes in beating traffic tickets.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Check out Darby Dixon's list of 75 books he failed to read in 2006. Via Edward Champion.


The economy with which gesture reveals the prickly consciousness of social class reminds me of a story I heard about a German theater troupe rehearsing a scene in which a boss was supposed to hand a document to a worker in the plant. The actor playing the worker kept saying that he couldn't get the scene right, that something felt incorrect about the way that the worker was taking the document from his boss. At which point the director -- Bertolt Brecht, in the version I heard -- called in the theater's cleaning woman. Very politely, he said that they were having a problem. Could she help them and hold their document for a moment? The cleaning woman wiped her hands on her apron and only then reached for the paper, thus demonstrating for the actor what had been missing and what was required.
Francine Prose, Reading Like A Writer 219 (HarperCollins, 2006).

Get your money back.

Tim Noah has the goods on Amazon's secret 30-day price guarantee.

Also of note: Amazon's customer-service can be reached at (800) 201-7575, ext. 7.

Scenes from the incipient class war.

[T]he front-page story in The New York Times on Christmas Day about bonus-crazed traders vying for Ferraris and bonus-addled hedgers buying $5 million Manhattan condos for their kids . . . is “reporting” as propaganda: stuff that will inspire even people well disposed toward finance capitalism to run a thumb along the pikestaff blade and make sure the tumbrel wheels are greased.
Michael M. Thomas in the New York Observer.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Early Frayn.

Just posted at the book blog: A few thoughts on Michael Frayn's A Landing On The Sun. I didn't get much out of it.

I've got quite a backlog of books to get to over there, I'm afraid.

After Dark.

Says here that Haruki Murakami will have a new novel out (in the U.K., anyway) this June.

Other highlights on the list include The Unknown Terrorist, a new novel from Richard Flanagan, who wrote Gould's Book Of Fish, and The Yiddish Policeman's Union, a novel from Michael Chabon built on the premise that the Zionists found a homeland in 1940 in Alaska instead of Israel.

This week in art.

Plans for a geostationary banana over Texas. Via Pynchonoid.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Ticking time bombs.

Jim Henley at Reason is on the ball:
Let’s say you’ve caught a suspect and you’re sure he’s a terrorist, and you’re sure there’s a nuclear bomb somewhere in Manhattan, and you’re sure he knows where it is, and you’re sure this particular terrorist has been trained to resist torture just long enough that you could never get the true location of the bomb out of him in time. But you’re also sure this particular terrorist is a pervert! And he tells you that if you’ll rape your own child in front of him, he’ll tell you exactly where the bomb is and how to disarm it. And you’re sure that he will, because your intelligence is that good in exactly that way.

Wow! Fascinating hypothetical, huh? And it’s only slightly more far-fetched than the more familiar ticking time bomb scenario, in which you must torture the suspect to save all those innocent people. Both versions have to be laid out awfully precisely. In my scenario, I even assume the nuclear terrorist has been trained to resist torture for a time. Improbably, Alan Dershowitz—the torture enthusiast and original time bomb booster—does not.

So how come we hear so much about the torture quandary and nothing about mine? Why, according to Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay in a November 2005 Knight-Ridder report, has Dick Cheney adverted to the Alan Dershowitz version “several times” and mine never? Why does Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) tell the New York Daily News editorial board that various torture techniques “are very rare, but if they occur there has to be some lawful authority for pursuing that,” at least in “those instances where we have sufficient basis to believe that there is something imminent,” but never says anything about creating “some lawful authority” for emergency incest?

The answer is simple: State agents don’t have any ambition to rape their own children.

This is a clue to the real misdirection of the ticking bomb scenario. It’s always presented as a “What would you do?” dilemma, but in truth it has nothing to do with you. The proper question is: “What should we allow officials embedded in the security bureaucracy to do with impunity? What shall we let their bosses order without legal repercussion?”

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