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January 31, 2005

Loose Links (Monday)


¶ Late night treat: These postcards are a lot of fun, and I'm trying not to, what is the phrase, b - my w -. The small print reads: (Mustard vest) Yesterday I SHOT my WIFE, both KIDS, my MOTHER-IN-LAW and the AVON LADY!! (Red Vest) TERRIFIC, Marvin. But didn't you know... Mother-in-law season doesn't open till NEXT MONTH?


¶ If 2004 was the Year of the Blog, then 2005 ought to be the Year of the Needles. Everybody's knitting! And not just sweaters, either. How about the nasty little creature to the right? How, for the matter of that, about a knitted radiator (yes, it works). How about guerilla knitting, even? Kathleen used to laugh about flight security restrictions that prohibit metal knitting needles from carry-on luggage, but I'm wondering if her plastic needles are any less harmful? A person could knit a noose!

¶ Readers of the Times's Styles Section yesterday will have seen the gorgeous green eyes of Leta Armstrong, daughter of the author of Dooce. That would be Heather, who proves that if you can write well, it really doesn't matter what you write about. But the comment by Molly Jong-Fast, daughter of Erica Jong, reminds us of another literary truth: autobiographical writers, like novelists and short-story writers, are professionally engaged in the violation of their loved-ones' privacy. When Leta begins to remember things, Ms Armstrong may want a few guidelines.

¶ Have a look at Jack Shafer's attempt, in Slate, to puncture the balloon of Web lob triumphalism. I must say that agree with the point of his argument: it is silly to predict the marvels of a new technology. Much wiser to let them unpack their little surprises slowly. It's much too early to talk sensibly about the future of blogging; nobody begins to know enough.

A New Nicaea?

This post does not, strictly speaking, belong to the Augustinian Settlement thread, but it was prompted by JKM's thoughtful comment to last Friday's installment, "A Happy Fault?," so, speaking less than strictly, I'll file it here.


JKM writes,

But in any case, it seems to me (and perhaps this is not the norm), those of us who do not accept, lock, stock and barrel, the views of an organized religion are viewed by those who do as lost souls whose opinions are the product of, at best, ignorance, and, at worst, Satanic possession.

In my reply, I mentioned John Shelby Spong's Why Christianity Must Change or Die, an exciting work that has been heartily denounced by most organized religionists, all the moreso because the author was a bishop of the Episcopal Church. I can't seem to put my hands on the book right now, but as I recall, Bishop Spong addresses spiritual people who feel that they belong to organized religion but cannot accept the miracles and the bizarre metaphysics (such as the doctrine of the Trinity). It's not that these faithful people have theories about the Immaculate Conception that differ from the orthodox position; rather, they find the Immaculate Conception irrelevant and distracting. At the very least, they ask not to be quizzed about these sideshows. If they believe Jesus to be divine, and if they look forward to redemption through his teachings and his sacrifice (however they might construe these statements in their hearts, does that not entitle to worship alongside other Christians?

Why did orthodoxy become so important in the first place? I have written elsewhere about the difference between faith and religion: "Religion is the bond uniting people with the same focus of this kind; religion articulates the bond by prescribing the creeds and rules of conduct that constitute orthodoxy." But how detailed do the creeds and rules need to be? To answer this, we must open the lid on the Roman Empire under Constantine, and take note of a momentous decision that attended the emperor's enfranchisement and subsequent preference for Christianity. In his important study, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (Knopf, 2002), Charles Freeman shows that Constantine's adoption of Christianity was probably more practical than religious: "It was a mark of Constantine's political genius and flexibility that he realized it was better to utilize a religion that already had a well-established structure of authority as a prop to the imperial regime rather than exclude it as a hindrance." The problem was that Constantine knew very little about Christianity - he seems to have seen Jesus as a war god - and he had no idea of the doctrinal disputes that raged among the gamut of Christian sects, which had produced, as is natural when underground movements flourish, incompatible and contradictory understandings of the nature of God, the divinity of Christ, and other hot topics. Ignorant of these quarrels, but determined to put the Christian Church to work in the administration of the Empire, Constantine made a terrible mistake: he granted tax breaks to Christian clergy.

However [Mr Freeman writes], despite his balanced policy towards both pagan and Christian, nothing can obscure the scale of the commitment Constantine showed to Christianity. He started with the granting of special favours to Christian clergy, in particular exemption from the heavy burden of holding civic office and taxation. Earlier emperors had granted exemptions to specific groups (doctors, teachers, athletes are among those recorded), but never, outside the special circumstances of Egypt, to clergy. The exemption was, in Constantine's words, so that the clergy "shall not be drawn away by any deviation and sacrifice from the worship that is due to the divinity, but shall devote themselves without interference to their own laws ... for it seems that, rendering the greatest possible service to the deity, they most benefit the state."

The problem, which quickly arose, of course, was Who's Christian? Coming out into the open, the Christian sects brought all their rivalries with them, and probably would have raised a deafening ruckus anyway, but Constantine's exemptions served only to sharpen the knives. The exasperated Emperor commanded the bishops to convene at Nicaea (modern-day Iznik, where the beautiful tiles come from once again) and obliged them to reach a consensus about doctrine. As Charles Freeman painstakingly shows, the Nicene Creed was hardly an instant success. It never prevailed in the Eastern Church, and it won acceptance in the West only over the course of the Fourth Century. Now that secular historians are interesting themselves in the history of the Early Church, the pious just-so stories that the Roman Catholic Church has been telling for so many centuries that it's hard to think of doubting them stand exposed as just that: nursery tales. And the justification for highly-detailed, my-way-or-the-highway orthodoxy turns out to be - tax breaks.

I ought to stop here, and let what I've just said sink in. But I want to press home the possibility of a New Nicaea, an anti-Nicaea, a convention of moderate Christians committed to establishing a creed that professes the lowest common denominator of faith. Since tax breaks are no longer an issue, the rationale for orthodoxy is supported only by the collective need of worshipers to know what it is that their fellow-congregants believe. What is the least quantum of detail that you, a moderate Christian, insist that the fellow in the next pew agree with?

I believe Jesus to be divine, and I look forward to redemption through his teachings and his sacrifice.

Is that not wonderful enough? Can we not pray together now?


Technical Difficulties, emerging over the weekend, have taken the wind out of the sails. I want to go back to bed.

First, the service the tracks visits to the site appears to have an idiosyncratic understanding the of the word "Unique," because the list of "Unique Visitors" on any given day shows multiple listings for some addresses, worst of all, my own. It's as though I'm loading the site to inflate my stats! This is the very last thing that I would do (seriously), because I want the numbers to mean something. I could, presumably, write down all the IPs of daily visitors, scratch out the duplicates, and so arrive at a an accurate total, but I can't be the only one to regard this as the tracking service's job, not mine.

Second, there seem to be some problems in the Comments department. A visitor wrote to tell me that, when he clicked to post a comment, he was confronted by an admonitory screen that scolded him for having given offense in the past and that refused to accept further comments from him. This was nonsense; the comment went through. I believe that I know of one prior incident of this, but now I have to look into it. Time to open a ticket at MT. And, while we're talking about comments, I understand that the "Preview" option isn't WYSIWYG.

January 30, 2005

Sunday Special

All right, because a few of you asked. A souvenir from Iron Lady Days.


I see it now! The airlines went to hell when the stewardesses stopped wearing caps! ("There is truth in what you say, Kimo Sabe.")The small print reads, "This meal has been freeze-dried, hydrogenated, and emulsified - A MIRACLE of MODERN SCIENCE for YOUR enjoyment!"


Once upon a time, people didn't have such dirty minds. Or did they? Imagine the blizzard of protesting that a Chiquita ad with this little slice of innocence would stir up.


And finally, another sinister masterpiece from Astronette.


Bon weekend à toutes et à tous!

January 29, 2005

Weekend Special

Ain't we got fun!


Lord a'mighty! Even when I stumbled, yesterday, upon my cache of postcards, so assiduously collected in the early Eighties, the bulb didn't light up right away. It took until now, an ordinarily lazy Saturday morning cranked by broken records in the visitors stats, to hatch the devious plan. CAUTION: the cards below the fold may be offensive. Indeed, they will certainly be offensive! What's the weekend for?

From a kinder, gentler era...


...and from an earlier, crude period...


I believe that booklets such as the one that this reprint comes from were known as "Tijuana Bibles"; aside from the very graphic artwork (and this is pretty mild, believe me), their raciness stems from the use of popular mass media figures, such as (here) Oliver Hardy.

And, finally (for now), something from - what would you say? - more innocent? less innocent? times. There are doubtless a few chuckleheads out there who will point to this image to explain 9/11.


There are LOTS more where these came from, but you'll have to ask.

Hey, Mr Managerguy!

Spanky and Our Gang meets Shallow Grave.


We just make Sylvespa more mature, so that Delroy can play him.

January 28, 2005

A Happy Fault?


Like everyone else, I've been pondering the role that religion plays in American political life. For most of my lifetime, religion may be said to have exerted a powerful but tacit influence on politicians and voters alike, but that has changed in the past twenty years, and I attribute this change (throughout this as-yet short series) to what I call the Augustinian Settlement, a code of ethics concerning sexuality, gender, and original sin that was developed by St Augustine in the first quarter of the fifth century. I will discuss the background of the Settlement elsewhere; the point to bear in mind now is that Augustine's conclusions (which digested the thought of many earlier men of the church) quickly assumed the force of divine revelation, and its propositions, although never formally set out as such, went unquestioned (however inevitably transgressed) for a solid fifteen hundred years. Challenges to the Settlement's orthodoxy were never permitted to broaden, while deviancy was firmly linked to witchcraft and punished as such. Political and social storms raged century after century without disturbing the Settlement's authority about the respective roles of men and women in the world and the scope of permissible sexual behavior. Its authority was not even questioned. Those who disagreed with it or felt oppressed by it might manage to ignore it, but they must do so quietly. If you are over forty years of age, let me assure you that you know the key points of the Augustinian Settlement as well as you know your own name. Its vernacular expression today is encapsulated in the phrase, "moral values."

These are not the moral values of faith, hope and charity - not directly, anyway. They have nothing to do with metaphysical speculation about the nature and will of God. They are unconcerned with ritual and sacrament, or indeed with any explicitly religious behavior. Apart from crudely dividing the righteous redeemed from the eternally damned, the values of the Augustinian Settlement do not bear on ideas of the afterlife. These moral values prescribe acceptable sexual conduct, and, as an adjunct to that, appropriate gender-specific behavior. Marriage is for men and women. Sex outside of marriage - more strictly, any sexuality that does not enable reproduction - is bad. Men and women have altogether different roles to play in this world, and the confusion of these roles is evil. Homosexuality is simply unspeakable. More often than not, "moral values" rest on Augustine's conception of original sin: the sin of Adam that stains us all at the moment of conception. It is the inevitability of original sin that makes every man and woman, no matter how virtuous, a sinner in need of God's love and salvation. "Moral values" governed Western Europe from the twilight of the Roman Empire with the strength of Euclidian axioms.  

That changed after World War II. Why it changed - why the Settlement came to be questioned in open debate - is, again, a matter for separate inquiry. It is enough to acknowledge that the hookup of sexuality to religious principles was rejected by figures of influence, Dr Alfred Kinsey certainly the most notorious among them. For a generation, the debate remained just that, but as the Seventies drew to a close, dissidents began insisting on the right to manifest their defiance in public. Expectations about the domestic arrangements of other people, hitherto presumptive, were upended as homosexual couples began to demand the legal rights and recognition so long enjoyed by their heterosexual counterparts. Well over ten years ago, my wife and I submitted character affidavits in support of a lesbian's suit to adopt her partner's child; the adoption, in Washington, D.C., was authorized. Our participation was an honor, and we felt happily progressive, but I would be lying if I denied that we felt the initial oddness of our friend's request. Over the past twenty years, one stricture after another has fallen in the "standards and practices" departments of major media corporations; it is telling that full frontal male nudity retains an untouchable quality even where it is not prohibited. The Settlement is still with us.

While the debate remained rhetorical, so did the opposition - opposition not so much to the opponents of the Settlement as to the very idea of debating it - of religious conservatives, for whom the Settlement became an ever more salient object of faith. When the debate became practical - when employers had to decide what policies to adopt about the partners of ailing employees, for example - Christian opposition became both insistent and articulate. Homosexuality was spoken of as a choice, and then damned as a choice contrary to the will of God (as outlined by Augustine). It is commonplace today to associate "Christian religion" with the "moral values" that embody the Augustinian Settlement in modern terms.

Hanna Rosin, in the current issue of The Atlantic (January/February 2005) invites us to reconsider this association. Her essay, "Beyond Belief," is largely a report on the widening common ground that fundamentalists of all Christian faiths are sharing, despite traditional enmities such as that between Baptists and Catholics. Even conservative Jews are finding more comfort with conservative Christians than they do with Reform Jews.

For most of American history, of course, the important religious divides were between denominations - not just between Protestants and Catholics and Jews but between the Lutherans and Episcopalians and Southern Baptists and the other endlessly fine-tuned sects. But since the 1970s fundamental disagreements have emerged within all these denominations - over abortion, over gay rights, over modernity and religion's role in it. "There's a fault line running through American religion," [prominent Southern Baptist Richard] Land says. "And that fault line is running not between denominations but through them.

Ms Rosin's findings are not extraordinarily surprising; we saw during the last presidential campaign that Catholic bishops might be just as likely to oppose the Democratic candidate as Bob Jones III. What is interesting, though, is the implication that (Judaism aside, obviously) the philosophical divisions that splintered Christendom in the Reformation are no longer terribly important, for it is by those divisions that each denomination and sect defined itself. Even more interesting is the apparent fact that conservative factions are challenged in all of the traditional denominations; even the Baptists have suffered splits between moderates (admittedly not very moderate by Manhattan standards) and literalists. If, as I believe, the fault line of which Mr Land speaks is precisely a gulf between those who accept the Augustinian Settlement without question and those who don't, then one conclusion that I draw from Ms Rosin's report is this: what do moderates make of "moral values"? What, in short, is the likelihood of a developing American religious spirit that, while traditional in almost every doctrinal way, will consider replacing the Augustinian Settlement with some other understanding about sexuality and gender, and perhaps even abandoning the doctrine of original sin?

It's understandable that moderates haven't been making any noise about the metamorphosis of sexual deviancy into social diversity. But progressives everywhere, whether religious or not, should fight the surrender of American churches to fanatics obsessed with the not particularly Christian precepts of an uncertain and profoundly self-involved North African bishop who died in CE 430.

Loose Links (Friday)

¶ Before anyone mortified me, I caught the mistake myself. It's true that I wrote most of my piece on The Line of Beauty late last night, illuminated, as it were, by dry martinis. But the novel's author (and very great writer), is Alan Hollinghurst, not Alan Hollingsworth. I can only be grateful that Googling would not have adverted him to my sottise.

¶ Thank you Gothamist: Lawrence Reuter, head of the MTA and a member of the Dubyan Persuasion as regards clear speech, has been declared, by our MSB (Main Stream Blog), a "chucklehead." Photo included.

¶ If it's out in the country, there must be a tailgater somewhere. Dick Cheney's idea of appropriate dress for a Holocaust Memorial at Auschwitz.

¶ Fafblog explains the Social Security "crisis" as only Fafblog can - but quite precisely for all the laughs. 


¶ With my own Fuji FinePix, I could take a better picture of this unprepossessing scene, but I copied this from A9's Yellow Pages. As everybody knows, Amazon equipped a fleet of trucks with high-tech equipment and sent it through the city in order to amass a comprehensive library of images like this one. (There's a video showing how it was done.) It's a good thing that they didn't work on cook's night out, and capture me in my shorts, weather nothwithstanding, scurrying across the street into Tokubei for a late dinner with Kathleen

¶ In light of all the Personal sites that I added to the Blog Roster here yesterday (scroll down on the white sidebar), we ought probably to give further exploration a rest, and get to know our new friends, but as it happens there is an even bigger awards package in the works, the Bloggies. These, I suppose, are the Oscars™ of the Blogosphere, with a real-world ceremony at Austin's South by Southwest Interactive Festival, on 14 March. The prizes, though modest, are real, too.

It says something about me - yes it does - that I am familiar with many more of the candidates for Fistful's Satin Pajama Awards than I am with those up for the Bloggies. There's Miss Fish, who I believe is a neighbor of sorts, up for the top prize; if you neglected to clip her confessional from the Times last November, you can read it now, although you'll have to pay for the pleasure. (The piece had Kathleen tutting like a jackhammer; what are these kids thinking?). Although there are moments of great good fun in This Fish Needs a Bicycle (one of the best titles in the 'Sphere), I can't really follow Ms Hunter's journal, because it gives me the creepy feeling that I'm violating my own daughter's privacy. As it is, I have to do some deep breathing each time I read a story like today's, about a mugged and murdered actress on the Lower East Side - and then remind myself that Megan lives in the East Village, which is "totally different." Parental thinking for you, right? Did Nicole duFresne live at the corner of Clinton and Rivington Streets? No. She didn't even live in Manhattan.

In any case, I kept link-clicking to a minimum yesterday as I scrolled through the unfamiliar names of potential Bloggies winners. One site that I did check out, however, is one that I think you'll find irresistible. Perhaps only New Yorkers find eavesdropping is irresistible, but I don't think so: Overheard in New York.

¶ Only Susan Sontag could have given us the sharp-eyed, pungent cultural analysis of old cover art that the collection at Bizarre Records seems to cry out for. Is this where we came from? Do try to find the album of treats for "bathroom baritones and bathing beauties" that was a handout from "your American Standard plumbing contractor." Oh, well, it's not the "art" so much, just the very idea. (Thanks, JR)

The Line of Beauty


When the book came out, I decided against reading it, and I should probably have stuck to the resolution if I hadn't been seduced by unlikely circumstances. We were tracing our way through the Duty Free stile at Heathrow's Terminal Three, on the way home from Istanbul, when I spied a thickish paperback edition on display at one of the booksellers'. I was surprised that The Line of Beauty was out in paper already, and my pique was redoubled when, after lunch, I couldn't find the bookseller that had been touting the book. Caprice took over from here: I became determined to put my hands on a copy. (Insert image of Great White Duty Free Hunter; snort.) Of course there were other booksellers offering the very same EXCLUSIVE EDITION (ONLY AT THIS AIRPORT) - a new UK marketing gambit, evidently. I suspect that if I put my mind to it, I could make my purchase of The Line of Beauty sound as whimsical and self-contradictory as anything in the novel itself.

I didn't want to read The Line of Beauty because I didn't want to read another gay novel by Alan Hollinghurst. The Swimming Pool Library had been quite enough; not only was it self-absorbed, but Paul Golding's The Abomination covered much the same turf with far darker magic. As it happens, however, Beauty is not a gay novel. It is simply a novel. The protagonist's tastes - and for once we have a narrator who is the protagonist, not just an articulate observer of wild goings-on - are certainly homosexual. But Mr Hollinghurst writes as though we know all about what that means in general, and only tells us the few things that make Nicholas Guest, his hero for the nonce, different in particular. Nick is a "chocoholic," meaning that he is turned on by black men. There are worse afflictions, if indeed this is one. (And I suppose that it is, really, to have any preconceived idea of one's love, an affliction - an affliction suffered by almost every human being alive.) We are not even told, in so many words, that Nick is a "top" - we can figure that out for ourselves. Homosexuality in The Line of Beauty is an issue only because, in Margaret Thatcher's Britain, it is still disreputable.

Continue reading about The Line of Beauty at Portico.

January 27, 2005

Loose Links (Thursday)


¶ Today is Mozart's Birthday. He was born 249 years ago at Salzburg, a principality within the Holy Roman Empire. To celebrate, what you must do is to listen to the finale of Act I of Così fan tutte at least once. Listen as hard as you can to the orchestra, which acts as a chorus throughout this opera, usually mocking the four lovers' behavior. Listen also for dotted rhythms with a slight Spanish tinge: they're a source of the finale's hilarity. If you've got the libretto and know a little Italian, observe how very grand Lorenzo da Ponte's writing is, and how studded with snippets of chic Latin. Così ought to be the byword for operatic glamour and high good humor, but two centuries of analysis à la Ashcroft have stuck it with an NC-17 rating. This is perverse, because it is the definitive opera about adolescents in love.

¶ Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber tells a wonderful little joke about "self-esteem"; after you've had a chuckle, turn to the Los Angeles Times for a summing up of the self-esteem "movement" and the mounting criticism that debunks it. Finally, test your own self-esteem with a few basic puzzles: put the states where they belong, identify the states by their capitals, and connect the clues to the states. If you score below 90%, fold up your self-esteem and store it in the linen closet.


Web log awards contests are demanding. They make a Booker panelist out of everybody.

It was fun, at first, to run through the "Satin Pajama Awards" for best European blogs, at Fistful of Euros, because I recognized a few of the sites and was - d'oh - happy as a puppy to vote for them. Then it occurred to me that I was screwing up big time. The point of this exercise couldn't, after all, be to ratify my inexperience. By the time I "woke up," I was looking at the "Best Personal Weblog" category, definitely one that I'd want to take seriously. Oh, the hours! I still haven't been through all of the candidates.

Maybe people who haven't been blogging for six months ought to be disqualified.

But how to distinguish among the best personal bloggers? Let's start with Veuve Tarquine, of De bric et de blog. Mme Tarquine is a thirty-six year-old widow whose husband died of a brain tumor, leaving her with a couple of children and a massive loss of grand amour. How to compare this site with My Boyfriend is a Twat? The author here, Zoe, is fortyish child of diplomats who was born in Saigon and who has never been able to stand her "native" Britain. Her former husband lives within hailing distance of Brussels, Zoe's current domicile, so the three dhildren go back and forth, but always at home is "Quarsan," the boyfriend-who's-a-twat. Zoe looks rather like Helen Mirren, and seems to have many Tennysonian issues to match. Who's ahead here? More to the point, what are the criteria? Surely it can't be the throb-value of one's personal story; that would favor sensationalism. In fact, I would give top marks to the diarist who, without doing anything really remarkable, produced a steady flow of compelling entries. But what am I expecting here, great writing?

Then consider Mig at Metamorphosisim. Mig is an American guy currently living in Austria - he left the United States at about the age of twenty - and he appears to have an Austrian wife and two daughters, whom he calls Beta and Gamma. I have read what feels like a great deal of this site, both recent and dating back to its inception, but I still don't know quite what Mig's relationship with his wife is like (he rarely mentions her lately), and I don't know what Mig does for a living, although he is clearly musical and the pursuit of a musical career in Austria makes tremendous sense. Perhaps I simply haven't hit upon the posting that explains it all. That is always a problem with anonymous blogs. I doubt that their writers intend to mystify, but mystification is inevitable in a two year old blog that never names names. I wish Mr Mig every success in finding a French harp for Beta and a good cello for himself.

My vote, if it mattered, would go to Londonmark, a site that is not up for election in any category. I learned about it from the blogroster of My Boyfriend....; Zoe singled it out for its writing. The writing is very fine indeed, although perhaps a tad too studied. It is also ruefully funny. There seems to be a line in fictional sketches that may prove interesting to follow. But following these sites will require a certain investment in time, a diligence in keeping up - and a willingness to have all of one's first impressions junked. I still remember the shock of learning that Édouard, at Sale Bête, is not French at all.

Actually, I have learned many things from Édouard, among them the importance of crisp, uncluttered presentation. I always know exactly where I am when I visit Sale Bête, and I know what to look for. That's why, in the end, I cast my vote for La Coquette, the journal of a twenty-four year old American girl who is really French and who has returned to the land of her father(s). She lives across the hall from her cousin, Jeanne, in a flat in the Quartier latin, and in this post she has Jeanne sum up the new TV shows. In English.

And now that I've voted, I discover, without surprise, that Veuve Tarquine has a very strong lead and will probably win the award.

January 26, 2005

Loose Links (Wednesday, with Subway Special)

Then what happened: Thanks to Harper's, I have found a delightful new Web log, Query Letters I Love, in which "Managerguy" of Hollywood publishes some of the wacky pitches that he receives. Is there something in the water in this country that makes civilians believe that they're "creative" enough to come up with viable movie properties, just like that? The tale told by many of these unintentionally funny paragraphs is there are a lot of would-be writers among the never-been readers.

Every now and then, a pungently autobiographical note is struck:

The Singing Law Student commits suicide in his home. He was rejected by the woman he loved, his psychiatrist, mistreated in the asylum. A parapsychologist moves into the home to encounter his spirit. Researching the link between manic depression and creativity, she brings a guitar with her for him to play.She encounters his spirit and he sings his songs to her which she records. She releases the songs and The Singing Law Student becomes famous. His psychiatrist, the woman who rejected him, and the doctors at the asylum commit suicide upon hearing his voice and his songs throughout society

Who would dream up a suicidal singing law student except a suicidal singing law student with revenge fantasies involving his therapist?

¶ Which looks better on my little pooch, the Svarovski crystal tiara or the pavé charm collar? I'm a big fan of leaving things to the imagination, but in this case I'd love a few pictures.

¶The New York Times editorial is right to direct anger at the subway snafu away from the mayor and toward Governor Pataki, the smiley-faced clown behind most New York dysfunctions. A good governor would call for and effectuate an overhaul of the MTA's governance, with a view to making its management more directly accountable. I still demand the resignation of everybody, but I'll settle for seeing the end of MTA President Lawrence G. Reuter, whose mishandling of the publicity alone identifies him as an incapable civil servant. Sewell Chan and Andy Newman, Times reporters, let the man speak for himself, and he clucks.

Full functionality on both lines, including the ability to run trains in reverse, will still take three to five years to restore at a cost of $25 million to $60 million, Mr. Reuter said. He noted that repairs to the station at Bergen Street in Brooklyn, which was ravaged by a March 1999 fire, were not yet complete. But even when A and C service is revived, the restored signals will be only a refurbishment of the signaling system upon which the agency has relied since 1904. Upgrading and computerizing the entire signal system - as is already being done on one line - would cost billions, Mr. Reuter said.

How about full accountability? Explain, if you can, Mr Reuter, the huge restoration costs: $25 million dollars to repair a room full of switches? Explain why the repairs at the Bergen Street station have required more than five years to complete. Explain, in itemized detail, that idle bit of speculation of "billions." Trust us, we won't be bored.

The lack of a plan to modernize the subway's signal system is a plan to shut the system down.

¶ Wackosphere Update: This from an editorial in today's Wall Street Journal: the relay-switch fire was caused by liberal elites:

No one should expect even the C Train fiasco to cause New York to change; that won't happen until the local political class understands the problem that Messrs. MacMahon and Siegel describe. We do hope, however, that New York's woes will serve as a warning to other parts of the country in danger of succumbing to the same liberal political fate. Californians were descending into a similar mire a couple of years ago with a dysfunctional political class in Sacramento, but they were fortunate to have the initiative process that allowed them to elect an outsider like Arnold Schwarzenegger. New Yorkers are stuck waiting for the C Train.

As Thelma Ridder used to say, "Oh, brudda!" (Thanks, my dear.)

No to Gonzalez

Armando at Daily Kos has launched a petition opposing the confirmation of Alberto Gonzalez as Attorney General. It is hard to believe that the Bush Administration could come up with someone worse than John Ashcroft, but it is nonetheless true. If Mr Ashcroft was thickheadedly silly, Mr Gonzalez has shown himself to be mercurially sinister. Having accommodated his boss with SCOTUS-disapproved waffling about the meaning of the Geneva Convention, Mr Gonzalez, more than any other individual aside from the President himself, made the horrors of Abu Ghraib possible and perhaps inevitable.

With this nomination, we have arrived at a crossroads as a nation. Now is the time for all citizens of conscience to stand up and take responsibility for what the world saw, and, truly, much that we have not seen, at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. We oppose the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General of the United States, and we urge the Senate to reject him.

In addition to rejection by the Senate, Mr Gonzalez ought to suffer disbarment. 

A.. N. Wilson's London


A. N. Wilson's London: A History (Modern Library Chronicle Books, 2004) is an attractive little volume, packaged with a dreamy image of Big Ben, that promises pleasant reading. A history of London in fewer than two hundred small pages! And by A. N. Wilson, too! Now, Mr Wilson is a very subtle, very probing English writer whose books on Jesus, St Paul, and God's Funeral manage to be extremely interesting without ever quite disclosing the author's personal convictions. His novels, which often feature a parsonage, or manse, make for very good reading, although I must confess that it has been a while since I've read one. His big book of shortish chapters on the Victorians has been favorably addressed elsewhere.

The London book, it turns out, is really about Mr Wilson himself. Which is as it should be. How could a great city's past, from the Romans to Ken Livingstone, fit honorably in so short a space? Better that it should serve as a stimulus for Mr Wilson's very dry wit.

Continue reading about London on Portico.

January 25, 2005

Loose Links (Tuesday)

Kathleen is spending her evenings this week "at the printer." What does this mean, you ask? Securities lawyers in the United States spend many crucial hours (often quite wee) supervising the printing of prospectuses and other documents required by law. And not only required by law, but required by law to be utterly accurate. But they do not, as a rule, go anywhere near actual printing presses. In the virtual tour that follows, you will see the pleasant Midtown offices of Capital Printing. That's where you'll find the lawyers. The presses are in New Jersey. Take the tour now.

Fistful of Euros is hosting a "Best European Blogs" competition - only, they're calling it the "Silk Pajama Awards." There are nearly twenty categories, and when you vote for the best in any one of them, the choices are replaced with colorful bar graphs showing the results so far (this also makes it impossible to vote again). I wonder if I have any business voting, for I'm not familiar with most of the candidates. But the rosters will introduce you to many interesting sites (and eat up hours of your afternoon). My favorite blog title: The Glory of Carniola.

Just for fun: Photoshopped images from the Mars mission. Edward, of Obsidian Wings, is right: the one with the camel is the best.



What if the incident had occurred on the East Side? That's all we're thinking this morning.

It seems that a homeless person, trying to stay warm in a subway tunnel, started a fire that took out a relay room attached to the A and C subway lines; MTA officials expect the damage to take three to five years to repair. Service on the A line will be cut to a third of former volume, and the C line, which runs over the same tracks, will be retired indefinitely. Commuters from the Rockaways are going to be massively inconvenienced; commuters from the Upper West Side will have the the old IRT, which runs under Broadway, to fall back upon. Had the 4-5-6 line - which we still call "the Lex" - been similarly afflicted, Upper East Siders would have no alternatives to fall back upon. Officials from Gov. George "Teflon" Pataki on down are dithering about whether finally to pay for completion of the Second Avenue subway. The Second Avenue's tunnels have been bored, but nothing more has been done to replace the elevated lines that were demolished fifty years ago. Ironically, it was the demolition of the 'El' that unleashed a massive redevelopment of the Upper East Side east of Lexington Avenue, making ours the most densely-populated US Congressional District.

Everything about this story points to a deadly sclerosis in the public sector. What was a homeless person doing in a subway tunnel during a snowstorm? The obvious answer is the wrong answer. What is this "three-to-five years" nonsense? Why rebuild a facility that can't, it seems, be fireproofed in the first place? Why not rethink the relay-switch system?

Again, the obvious answer is the wrong one. I demand the resignation of everybody, complete with promises never to run for elected office again! Let's start fresh: I propose handing the operation of the A and C lines to a consortium of whiz kids from Bronx Science.

Duveen the Impresario


Joseph Duveen, the grandest of all the fine-arts dealers, enjoyed a career that he could probably not have had at any other time in history. Born in 1869, he came to maturity with the beginning of the Twentieth Century; he died on the eve of World War II, in 1939. It was during this time that a dozen or so very rich Americans traded mountains of cash for masterpieces of European art. Such a transfer could not occur today; there are laws everywhere that protect national patrimony from foreign plunder. Such masterpieces as remained behind, moreover, have wound up, like their American cousins, in great museums. Great museums, if they existed at all, were pale intimations of their present selves when Duveen got to work. Indeed, his clients would contribute the backbones of at least three major American museums' holdings - the Metropolitan, the Huntingdon, and, housed in a building designed by Duveen's favorite architect, the National Gallery in Washington. So, far from rivaling the museums, Duveen may be said to have created them, however indirectly. The works that passed through his hands make up an extraordinary catalogue; it is difficult not to see him as a grinning pirate, swimming in jewels and plate. A grinning pirate with little taste for possession, that is. Duveen kept only what his idea of his stature demanded. The rest he was only too delighted to sell, sometimes two or three times during his fabulous career. His principal ostentation, indeed, was in the prices that he paid for things - always top dollar. Simply by spending a small fortune on a painting, Duveen could make it a masterpiece.

Continue reading about Duveen at Portico

January 24, 2005

Loose Links (Monday)

Friends of Fafblog: Jesus' General, home of "Republican Jesus"; Tom Burka's Opinions You Should Have; and Arran's Alley, where HM the Queen is ready to take us errant Americans back. I ask myself, would Fafblog not be as funny if it got its look-and-feel act together? (The idea that it does have its look-and-feel act together exacerbates my eczema.)

Every once in a while, I have to visit the "Wonderful Woodies" page at Forgotten NY. I remember the rustic lamps that used to line the Bronx River Parkway (which I crossed every day when I was very little) with an unaccountable pang. They contributed to the illusion that the Parkway threaded through a wildnerness, or barely tamed landscape; in fact, of course, the verdure was not much deeper than a stage set. The ghastly cobras that replaced the Woodies are now on their way out, and it's not too much to hope that the Woodies will return in triumph.

In a comment yesterday, Max of The Biscuit Report alluded to a personal anecdote involving a successfully aborted mugging on Gellért Hill in Budapest. While we wait for Max to tell the whole story, here's the view from Gellért Hill.


At the risk of being ridden out of town on a rail, I have to say that I will not miss Johnny Carson. Indeed, I haven't missed him in years. He was one of the first to teach me, inadvertently of course, that watching television is an often pernicious waste of time.

Tribute writers at the Times speak of Carson's having been "gentle," "brilliant," and (on television only) likeable. What I saw instead was a leveling hostility to passion, particularly to the passion of intellectual engagement. Carson was a past master at ridiculing strong feelings and showing them up as laughably lunatic. His presentation, paradoxically for a widely-seen program, reflected a deep Midwestern mistrust of the outstanding. His set was a drab American living room in which everyone was required to be "fun" (not "funny") and "nice." It's worth noting that the core of Carson's style of humor was understatement and winking silence. 

In large part, the Tonight Show was an infomercial for entertainers, who typically appeared at Johnny Carson's desk whenever they were about to do something new, such as open in a Los Vegas hotel. The audience for these announcements was not the one sitting in the studio or the other one watching at home, it was the world of other entertainers and their agents, handlers, &c who could take note of the competition's success. For the vast majority of viewers who never made it to Las Vegas to see the new act, the entertainers who paraded across Tonight's screen were famous because that's where they were, on Johnny Carson. When the Tonight Show became the source of celebrity, it was clear that circuits of significance would inevitably close. There would be no need for broadcasters to report on or assess events occurring elsewhere when they could present televised events as inherently the most meaningful.

Johnny Carson's deadpan officiated at this interment of vitality. He took a show that was broadcast live from New York and transformed it into a routine that was taped in Burbank. I will agree with the encomia on one count: at whatever cost to the American imagination, Johnny Carson made himself very wealthy. 

January 23, 2005

I Believe In Miracles


This is the first photograph that I ever scanned on our new HP Officejet 95 - when it was new. I could not believe the quality of the copy. Who needed prints, if scans were this good?

This photograph of a temple in Singapore comes from Kathleen's trip around the world in 2001. October 2001. When everyone else was afraid to go downtown, Kathleen flew to Singapore and thence to Amsterdam. Because we were all still thinking that Heathrow was going to be the site of the next terrorist attack, Kathleen routed herself through Helsinki for the home stretch. Flying west all the way, she came home without having suffered jet lag. Or maybe it was this temple's beneficence.

Das Lied von der Erde at Carnegie Hall

Anne Sofie von Otter, the great Swedish mezzo-soprano who was brought up partly in London, the daughter of a diplomat, is in town getting ready for a Metropolitan Opera production of Debussy's Pélléas et Mélisande (performances begin next Saturday). So she was available to step in for schedule-conflicted Thomas Quasthoff at this afternoon's MET Orchestra concert, to sing Das Lied von der Erde. It is characteristic of the MET Orchestra series to provide replacements of Ms von Otter's caliber; I am perhaps not alone in saying that I was happier with the change, simply because I prefer to hear a woman sing the work's three songs for lower voice. Ms von Otter is perhaps a bit too fresh, scrubbed and youthful to invest this heartbreaking music with its full measure of pathos, but I quibble, and, in any case, I will never forget her way with the ending, an ever-softer repetition of ewig, "forever."

(UPDATE: It's a good thing that I don't even want to think of myself as a journalist. I neither read the insert tucked into the Program nor paid careful attention to my friend Michael when he explained that Ms von Otter was replacing not Thomas Quasthoff, who was never booked to sing Das Lied von der Erde, but Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who is suffering from a bad back. Mr Quasthoff was to have appeared at next weekend's concert; at the moment, the MET Orchestra has not engaged a replacement.)

Continue reading about this concert on Portico.

Lazy Quandary


The winter storm appears to have been milder than expected, and there have been hints of a sunny afternoon. Hints? Lets look out the window: the sky is blue. Life returns to normal. The weather will not provide an excuse for skipping this afternoon's MET Orchestra concert.

We missed the season's first concert two weeks ago for a very good reason: we were in Turkey.

We wouldn't have to show up on time. I can live without Weber's Oberon Overture, and I've no desire to sit through Elliott Carter's Variations for Orchestra. But missing Ben Heppner and Anne Sofie von Otter in Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde would be a mistake. Does anybody know how long the Variations are?

Kathleen is sound asleep. She is still recovering from Gold/Christmas/Istanbul. And where is Laura Harvey, Kathleen's cousin, who called yesterday to say that she's in town and would love to see us this afternoon, to which I, distracted and forgetful, replied that we'd be here all afternoon? Will we be here all afternoon?

UPDATE: As always, a great concert was heard by all. Further remarks to follow.

The New Timmy


Hello, I am Timmy, the Duke of Death. I live in Salem, Connecticut, where I am widely feared. Do not confuse me with that movie character played by Richard Harris, the Duck of Death. I am the true Duke, and Clint Eastwood wouldn't stand a chance with the likes of me! Grrr! I will make you plead for death, so incessant is the noise I produce!

Although I belong to the quiet race of Italian Greyhounds, and shouldn't bark at all, I was brought up with Max and Rex, a couple of German shepherds who liked to vocalize. Being the zed in this alpha pack, I learned to like vocalizing, too, and now I am capable of making you and your friends wish that you were stone deaf. I bark constantly, unremittingly, without surcease, and all the time - as long as my mistress is at home. She is the alpha dog now. When she leaves the house, even in the care of monstrous jerks such as the wanker who took this snapshot of me and who is probably libeling me on the Internet, I cower in the laundry closet and pray for her early return. The littler greyhounds who make up my pack have been trained, at great expense, not to bark as much as I do, but they cower too, so it's nice to know that hierarchy still has a place in America. Rah George!

All dogs are mortal; I am a dog; therefore my voice box is mortal.

January 22, 2005

On the Worstness of Democracy, Except for All the Other Forms of Government

Andrew Sullivan has published bits of email in which two of his readers attempt to calm him down about torture. (To his credit, Mr Sullivan can't be calmed.) It is very hard to read the snips without wishing that the people who wrote them had never been taught to read and write. What is the point of an education if it produces a mind capable of the following silliness - which would be silliness tout court if it were not attached to a voter's hand:

Since you want to continue to wallow in the Abu Ghraib "torture" allow me to point out a number of observations. Firstly, I pride myself on a skill that involves the dissection of pictures that would appear to portray certain things. I've looked carefully at the Abu Ghraib human "pyramid" and my assessment is that the prisoners in that particular picture are complicit in this so-called "torture". I see a scenario wherein the guards say; "Hey, lets have some fun, you guys get naked and get into a pile and we'll get some pictures". Some say absolutely not and do not participate. Others say "Okay but we need to hide our faces". Hence the pictures depict hooded prisoners

I'd love to know where this creep went to school. That he - almost certainly a "he" - hasn't been snapped up by the MSM for his "skill" at analyzing photographs must tax his little brain. "Firstly," "wherein," "Hence" - fancy, bogus usage that's as off as spoiled milk. The best part, of course, is the speculation about prisoners who refused to "participate": because there aren't any photographs of them, the entire romp was purely optional. Whee! Nothing short of encephalectomy will fix these circuits.

Exit Smiling

Found on Legal Fiction and traced back to its source - yesterday's edition of The Australian - Greg Sheridan's exit interview with Richard Armitage yields a nugget of candor that may give Lawrence Summers a rest:

Then, after a minute's pause, he adds a third regret: "The biggest regret is that we didn't stop 9/11. And then in the wake of 9/11, instead of redoubling what is our traditional export of hope and optimism we exported our fear and our anger. And presented a very intense and angry face to the world. I regret that a lot."

Liberals will seize this remark as proof that the Administration is on the wrong track and knows it. (You bet!) Pubs will denounce Mr Armitage, who, after all, is a career diplomat, not an ideologue, even if he was Colin Powell's No 2 at the State Department (or perhaps because of that). Eric (at Legal Fiction) has prepared an exhaustive list of Pub responses to the Armitage Acknowledgment. Hey, this might be fun to watch. Does anybody suspect that Mr Armitage was frank with a reporter from The Australian because he doesn't grasp what the Blogosphere has done to the concept of the Antipodes?

January 21, 2005

Loose Links (Friday)

Here's hoping: a new Quinnipiac College poll shows that voting New Yorkers oppose the construction of Jets Stadium by a twenty-four percent margin (58/34). The stadium idea is idiotic in many ways, particularly as regards traffic, but what I find deeply stupid about it is the luring of thousands of people to the banks of the North River only to turn their backs on the view.

Meet Harry Hutton, author of Chase Me Ladies, I'm in the Cavalry. He is an Englishman who has taught his native language around the world. Any teacher who wishes he could say to parents, "Your child is an illiterate cabbage," has my vote.

When the Summers kerfuffle has died down, I hope that it will have been established that, while men and women are different in lots of little ways, their differences do not add up in a way that proclaims one gender's superiority to the other. Indeed, new findings at the University of California, Irvine suggest that men and women would be lost without each other. Analysis of differences in the distribution of grey and white matter in brain, according to the researchers,

may help to explain why men tend to excel in tasks requiring more local processing (like mathematics), while women tend to excel at integrating and assimilating information from distributed gray-matter regions in the brain, such as required for language facility. These two very different neurological pathways and activity centers, however, result in equivalent overall performance on broad measures of cognitive ability, such as those found on intelligence tests.

I doubt that Mr Summers is involved in meetings at Harvard this weekend to deliberate standards and practices for the Blogosphere, but I hope that the panelists can come up with something interesting even without him. Adopting codes of ethics would certainly be premature, but it's not to soon to begin outlining some basics. Jessica Mintz writes in today's Wall Street Journal:

Jay Rosen, the New York University Journalism Department chairman who will kick off the conference, says that as bloggers move away from opinion writing and become a what he calls "citizen-journalists," they will inevitably struggle with the same ethics questions that traditional media did. "The blogger system is necessarily evolving and changing and will go through crises and problems and periods of invention, because it's new," he says.

The dictates of capitalism will no doubt begin affecting which blogs survive and which don't, but not yet. "Right now the currency is readership and respect, not money," says Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee who writes Instapundit.com, a well-read blog. "I don't think you can start reading a blog and immediately know who to trust." That relationship is built over time. Mr. Reynolds says he wouldn't knowingly publish or link to something false -- but as one guy at a computer, there's only so much fact-checking he can do.

For my part, I expect that the laws of fads and fashion will affect the survival of blogs long before capitalism does. Setting up a blog is (or can be) simplicity itself, and it's always fun to play with a new toy, tinkering with its design, announcing plans, and so forth. The follow-through, however, is usually more or less tedious; let's face it: writing is work, and most people find it difficult to compose anything more objective than a vent. Everybody's blog roster lists a few sites to which recent contributions have been few or none. And the option of running a blog for free won't last indefinitely. I decline to attribute the inevitable change to "capitalism," however.

Mode d'emploi

Everyone seems to agree that 2004 was the Year of the Web Log, or (you knew this?) the "Blog." 2005, therefore, will be the Year of How to Use a Blog. This means you. You think that you can come and go at will, read what you like while ignoring the rest, and forget to say "please" and "thank you." Well, think again. With my terrifyingly accurate tracking software, I can follow your every move -  or I could if I knew how the damn thing works. Ahem! In the spirit of the Second Bush Administration, I have created democratically-developed step-by-step instructions for interacting with this blog. Feel free to print them and tape them to your medicine cabinet, for daily consultation. In fact, don't feel free: just memorize and swallow.

I  Permalinks

Begin by writing an enthusiastic courriel about this blog to a friend, preferably a friend over forty. Don't send it just yet, though! Review it for grammar and spelling, and make sure that you have mentioned the Daily Blague by name. Set the courriel aside and open your browser. If your browser's default settings do not automatically open the Daily Blague, adjust them.

When the rush of admiration for my clever writing subsides, choose a post that your elderly friend would like to read. It doesn't really matter which one you select; they're all great, IMHO.

A "post" is a paragraph, or a more-or-less coherent series of paragraphs, appearing between a bold-faced header, such as "Loose Links," and the small-print line that begins with "Posted by..."

The first underlined item on the small-print line is a Permalink. There! I've just tinkered with the chassis and now it says so! See the "Permalink" in parentheses? This means that the "(Permalink)" is a Permalink. Your elderly correspondent may not know what a Permalink is, and it's possible that you don't know what a Permalink is, either, so I am going to tell you what a Permalink is, using the word (Permalink) in every clause of every sentence so that it will be impossible for anyone with a triple-digit IQ (yes, that means you, even if you're Permalink-challenged) not to learn exactly what a Permalink is. But before you can grasp what a Permalink is, you have to know something about Blogs. (There is always a Permalink catch.)

A Web log is a collection of posts that is organized as archives. The slightly confusing detail to seize on here is that Blog posts are archived immediately, not when they're a week old or something. What you see when you visit a blog  is its most recent archives - generally those posted during the past seven or fourteen days. The blogging software reviews the archives and presents the latest ones in an attractive setting. Every post is an independent Web page, and, like any Web page, it has its own URL, or address. In the Blogosphere, we call the URL of a post a "Permalink," because it is always the same. When a post becomes "too old" to appear in the Blog's "attractive setting," it doesn't go anywhere, it just doesn't show up. But it can be summoned by visitors. (This is all rather like the Jefferson Institute in Coma, if you know that film.) If you scroll down on the column to the left, you will eventually come to two lists, "Categories" and "Archives." The Archives, clearly enough, arrange posts by date, and Categories, equally clearly, I hope, arrange them by subject matter. Why don't you explore these lists for a few minutes while I see how breakfast is coming along.

Let's go back to the post that you've chosen to tell your friend about. Are we there? Good. Now, move your cursor to the Permalink. Yes - that's the underlined bit that states the time at which I wrote the post and, now, the actual word itself, "Permalink," in parentheses ["()"]. When you have made sure that the cursor is positioned over the Permalink, lift your eyes to the browser's Address box (marked "Address" on MSIE 6, but not on FireFox). See what it says there? "http://www.portifex.com/DailyBlague." Now, now, click the Permalink. Et voilà. If the post that you selected wasn't at the top of the Daily Blague page before, it is now. And check out the contents of the Address box. It is the Permalink for this post.

Optional observation for extra credit (do not read this if your brain is at all fogged): Blogs have not been around long enough for serious philosophical debate to consider whether a Permalink is (a) the underlined bit that you clicked on a minute ago or (b) the Blog post's individual URL. For our purposes today, it is both.

Now return to the courriel - which, by now, you will have understood to be an email; but we are not going to use that nasty word anymore, at least to describe what used to be called letters; we are going to adopt the recent French coinage, without italics, because it is quite easy to say in English - and find the spot where you've written "Daily Blague." Highlight these words and click whatever you have to click to insert a hyperlink. If you have never inserted a hyperlink in a letter, insert a pair of parentheses after "Daily Blague." Returning to your browser, select and copy the Permalink - the URL in the Address box. Back at the courriel, paste the Permalink either in the appropriate hyperlink box or between the parentheses (and perhaps within quotation marks). Your letter will look either like this:

Dear John,

I've found a great picture of Istanbul, and you can see it at the Daily Blague.



or like this:

Dear John,

I've found a great picture of Istanbul, and you can see it at the Daily Blague ("http://www.portifex.com/DailyBlague/archives/2005/01/why_i_am_ready.html").



It is only when you send this letter that the purpose of the Permalink will have been achieved. Indeed, the very purpose of the blog format itself. The whole point of a blog is to make it easy for you to direct your friends to pages that you think will interest them. Eventually, even distracted bond traders willl know this. At the moment, it still requires some spelling out.

II  Comments

The mechanics of posting comments on a blog are relatively self-evident. You need to give a name, not necessarily your own (right, PPOQ?); your email address and URL are optional. You will find that when other another commenter's name appears with an underline, it functions as a link, either to your email editor or to the commenter's own Web site or log. I need only remind you that the "Preview" button can be very handy. (If you don't know what using HTML tags for style means, don't worry - we'll get to that some other time.) Posting comments is easy. So do it.

You need not be witty, clever, profound, or in any way memorable. If you want to be those things, you ought to set up a blog of your own. You may, of course, infuse your comments with esprit and profondeur, but if you don't, nobody's going to mind. That's because the point of commenting is (a) to put in your own two cents and (b) to give the post on which you're commenting that lived-in look that we all find so inviting. Comments breed more comments.

But you are feeling shy; you have never commented and you want to make a good first impression. With that in mind, I have developed a foolproof drill or trial run. Click "Comments," below, and write "Thank you!" in the big comment box. (Then click on "Post") The virtue of this "Thank you!" is that it can be either sincere or ironic; it is sure to capture your feelings about this post.

Go ahead, comment! Come on, Judy, this means you, too!

January 20, 2005

Loose Links (Thursday)


It took me about minus ten seconds to decide to buy the NeatReceipts scanner. (It was written up the Times' "Circuits" section this morning.) I've been downloading American Express transactions into Quicken in lieu of typing in all those little bits of paper, but the downloads are rarely properly categorized - key to good budget planning - and I have to go through the register by hand. Diner's Club doesn't even have a download service, at least one that I can find.

Don't miss Maureen Dowd today. She wonders if Condoleezza Rice may be proof that Lawrence Summers was right to disparage the mathematical abilities of women. To me, Ms Rice will always be proof that creativity is not necessarily a blessing when it comes to the naming of children. If you take the first "e" in the concoction with which her parents saddled her, and replace it with a "c," you get the musical marking con dolcezza, "with sweetness." Now, "Condolcezza," pronounced properly (as always in Italian, the "c" before an "e" thickens into "ch"), would have been a very snazzy name, and it would have proclaimed Ms Rice's family's love of music. It would also have been literate, which "Condoleezza," with it's doubled "z," simply isn't. (Indeed, the spelling is often unconsciously "corrected" by writers who omit a "z.") With this in mind, and because "Condi" never fails to remind me (perversely) of "Heinz Ketchup," I propose that those of us who don't know the lady start calling her "Dolci." After all, she has promised to give diplomacy a try. "The time for diplomacy is now"?

The Spiridellis Brothers are back: see "Second Term" at Jib Jab. These guys are getting to be an institu-shee-on.

Meanwhile, at home... I'm stuck with the refrigerator today; it's got to be cleared out and cleaned. Quite a while ago, I thought I'd just wait until we got back from Istanbul to tackle this job, so ain't I got fun. A day in the kitchen, though, is a day watching, or at least listening to, DVDs. "Do you mind if I look at your armpits?" This is one of countless zany lines from David O Russell's Flirting with Disaster (1996), a movie that repeatedly penetrates the bland American exterior to mine its extraordinary loopiness. Mel Coplin's search for his birth parents takes a first-rate ensemble cast into the heart of our national eccentricity: family life. This is the film that made me fall in love with Téa Leoni; I've never quite gotten used to her as a blonde.

Theory vs Authority

As we endure the brassy triumphalism of the Inaugurals this week, it would be well to bear in mind Susan Jacoby's essay, "Caught Between Church and State," which appeared on the Times's Op-Ed page yesterday. We used to be triumphalist, too. We believed that Clarence Darrow settled the Creationists' hash once and for all in 1925, at the infamous Scopes "monkey trial." All he did, though, was to drive them underground, where they festered for the rest of the century, building their case. Now they're out in the open again, campaigning for the right to teach the Bible in public-school science classes, and even for the right to exclude science from the curriculum.

One of the Creationists' handiest argument is that nobody has yet seen evolution at work, at least among primates. All we have is a mess of old bones that are open to interpretation - and Darwinism is no better a line of speculation than Genesis is. The theory of evolution is just that, a theory. The Creationists' sleight of hand is in the tacit claim that creationism is a theory, too. But it isn't a theory. There is a body of rules governing theories - let's call it the "scientific method" - that the Bible does not begin to satisfy. Just for starters, theories begin with inquiry, and Scripture is the very opposite of that.

We come back, again and again, to the puzzling question: what makes creationism attractive to Creationists? The answer lies in making the question less puzzling. When Darwin's ideas were introduced, the shocking thing was the idea that man was descended from ape. This notion was not quite correct, and it was massively indigestible. Gilbert & Sullivan captured one of the bigger burps in an air from Princess Ida, "A Lady Fair, of Lineage High: Gentlemen might be descended from apes, but ladies certainly weren't. There was a lot of talk about the irreconcilability of human dignity with animal drive, but what was on everybody's horrified mind was the image of gorillas engaged in reproduction. That a society in which casual acknowledgment of sexual acts was taboo should have had to countenance such beastliness is one of history's high humorous ironies.

Men - and I mean males - are either closely related to apes or they are made in the image of God; they can't be both, not in the vernacular mind. And if men are descended from apes, the authority of God flies out the window. For if God did not create men in his image, then on what ground does he claim their love and obedience? Why should they believe that he cares about them - men - in particular? And on what ground can they in turn invoke God's authority in directing the conduct of society?

That's the not-so-puzzling question to ask.

January 19, 2005

Loose Links (Wednesday)


Kristin Scott Thomas has been made a chevalière of the Légion d'honneur. Hats off! I'm not counting, but she may have made more films in French than in (her native) English.

Leave it to Dartmouth to prepare an on-line manual for the repair of books - and call it "Simple". It is aimed at institutions, not home enthusiasts, but the material will be of interest to anybody who spends time with books (that would include readers), and the tools are undeniably neat.

JR at L'homme qui marche muses on the difference between temps de merde and temps de chiotte, and ponders the ancient riddle: why is it that newscasters around the world think that listeners give a damn about the Nikkei, the Japanese stock index? I used to wonder, too, but then one of our doormen turned out to be the only person we knew who caught Kathleen on her little financial television appearances last year. JR rightly observes that the weather in Paris, whether sunny or grey, is genuinely temperate. The weather in New York is temperate only on average.

Ah, youth. There's probably no way to say this without seeming to condescend, but Justin Hall's video clip of his "breakdown," apparently brought on by a failure to connect with people through the Internet, despite eleven years of publishing his diary, gives real backbone to the sentiment that Kathleen and I often express but don't really think about: nothing could get me to go back to being in my twenties. Ignorance is not bliss.

Borne Again

Because I was on the subway at the time, I didn't take good notes of the Eureka moment, but I saw, as the IRT rumbled northward yesterday, that the key to George W Bush's appeal (to those who find him appealing) may be that he is known to have experienced rebirth. At the age of forty (this would have been in 1986), the future president stopped drinking alcohol, an act of will that heralded his overall spiritual regeneration. The mean-spirited frat boy, best-known as an enforcer of loyalty to his father, became the very nice man we see today, with the help of Jesus and a loving wife.

What I grasped on the subway was not the truth of this fairy tale, but its urgency for millions of Americans - American men especially. The sacrament of rebirth, which would have been scoffed at by our grandfathers, has become a crucial part of the American way ever since Jimmy Carter confessed to lust in his heart. Nobody cared if he was saved, it's true, but his successor in the White House, Ronald Reagan, transmuted good old American reinvention into something more transcendental, at least in the eyes of his admirers. The traditional understanding of character, as a trait just as God-given and inalterable as one's height or one's gender, was junked for a more flexible model. Nowadays, character is little more than an opportunistic aptitude for recognizing and seizing second chances. And nobody has more of that than Mr Bush, who, after all, must have spent a good part of his youth trying to convince his elders that he would really behave this time.

From the rehabilitation of fraudulent, philandering televangelists to the other day's "accountability moment," America has been demonstrating for twenty-odd years now that it is besotted by faith in fresh starts. What Bush may have had over Kerry last fall was a reputation for whipping inner demons. Mr Kerry's inner demons, if he had any, were too polite, too prone to speak French during exorcisms. What Americans want just now is a former screw-up who can convince us that he will never screw up again.

Never screw up exactly how?

January 18, 2005

Happy Birthday, Dad


William Carroll Keefe, 1914-1985

Loose Links


The site's name is spooky enough: Bleach Eating Freaks, "Where science meets surreal." The wheels-within-wheels logo is somewhat disturbing, too. But there is nothing weird about the site's "Office Bricolage" competition. It will take you straight back to the Siberian boredom of sixth grade, from which the manufacture of any of the featured assault weapons, all of them made from simple materials that are ready to hand in any office, would certainly have led straight to expulsion. If you have any little boys in the house, you may think that it would be cool to share these inventions with them. Resist the urge. They don't have your judgment. Really!

A dab of English wit: ak13, an "online magazine that publishes incisive reportage, commentary and satire from the hidden corners of contemporary culture" - yes, yes, of course, yes, what else would it be? - dreams up ten droll arguments in support of several improbable theses, such as loving George W. Bush. There's a bright side to everything in grey old England, it seems. Here's the menu.

Chiche... Wanna play a new card game? Hone your strategy? "Mack some ho's"? Pardon?

What is fascism?

"Fascism" hasn't been much in currency since the late Sixties, when "fascist" was a sloppy epithet aimed at anyone who supported the Vietnamese misadventure or who opposed long-haired demonstrators. It was pretty clear that actual fascism was not in the offing. Now, however, I'm often afraid that it is, and I think that a good working definition is in order. I'd like to collect ideas, so please comment. We need to know what we're up against, and a liberal consensus on the subject would be very useful.

As I see it, fascism is a parapolitical reaction to secular socialism - and I think that it must be seen as a reaction; fear is a prime motivator. To its advocates, fascism is a mighty fortress where traditional values are safe and outsiders know their place. I call it "parapolitical" because it exploits the machinery of politics to achieve transpolitical aims; fascism envisions the end of politics. The president's remark about "an accountability moment" was perhaps the most purely fascist statement ever to issue from the White House. In Bush's view, an election becomes a ratification, annulling the need for further debate, or really for any kind of discussion.

Fascism harbors the dream of an apolitical democracy, where everything works harmoniously because everyone has the same outlook. "Diversity" is tolerated only to the extent that it is merely decorative. Disagreement and protest are forms of treason. 

Hysterical Blindness


Watching Woody Allen's Hollywood Ending, I'm reminded of Sleeper, one of the films that made Mr Allen famous. Hollywood Ending is basically the same movie. Miles Monroe (Sleeper) is a clerk in a vegetarian deli on the Upper West Side who awakens in the distant future - a future in which Margaret Keane's paintings of exophthalmic children are prized by the cognoscenti. Val Waxman (Hollywood Ending), an impossible movie director (read, vegetarian deli clerk), has been reduced to making bad commercials. He is saved by his ex-wife, Ellie (Téa Leoni), who is about to embark on a buff, Hollywood marriage with studio exec Hal (Treat Williams); she uses her position to lobby for a second, or last, chance for Val: "He was born to make this material." Val gets the job, and then repays Ellie, all too characteristically, by going hysterically blind. His little problem has to be concealed from everybody on the set, but most of the best jokes have nothing to do with his incapacity per se; rather, the screenplay is an endless sendup of Hollywood narcissicisms, where matters of no importance figure boldly ("Do you like the beige?") There is really no end of chuckles in Hollywood Ending, and there are two truly great set-pieces. In the first, Val and Ellie have a drink at the Carlyle's Bemelmans bar, right after Val nails the deal. Val alternates between bland business optimism and Medean vindicitiveness, the latter interrupting the former with all the insistence of really hot lava. The second set-piece is Val's interview with Hal at the Plaza; although he has been carefully coached on the stage directions by Ellie, Val can't remember where anything is, and it's a miracle that he doesn't sit down on the floor. Excuse me; he does sit down on the floor. This is the sort of thing that has been funny since movies were invented, and Mr Allen's exhaustive revival of old devices is sly but almost scholarly. The movie that Val is supposed to be making, of course, is a huge mess, but here's my favorite part: France to the rescue. France has all but adopted Val Waxman as a brilliant American auteur, and is only too happy to parlay his latest ouvrage into a three-picture deal. At the end, with all the tear-inducing magistry of a fairy-tale ending, Val and Ellie are driven off to JFK, to take wing to the life in Paris that they'd always dreamed of but for which Val confessed a lack of nerve. No need for nerve now. The wonderful little joke about the French adoring a movie shot by a blind cinema director is too far elegant to be insulting. We'll always have Jerry Lewis.

January 17, 2005

Knocked Out

While Kathleen ran some errands, I ordered a chef's salad from Burger Heaven. It was huge: tossed, it filled the mixing bowl that I use when I'm making Caesar Salad for four or more. Somehow, I managed to consume most of it. But even before I was finished, I began to feel heavy in my head. Within half an hour, I had changed back into my sleeping shorts and crawled into the bed, which I'd never got round to making because Kathleen took a nap after breakfast. Presently Kathleen came home, and the next thing you know, we were both on the verge of sleep. Now it's ten at night, and I don't know which end is up. Whenever I would come to, awaked by the telephone or by a delivery - five boxes from Fresh Direct had to wait over two hours to be unpacked - I'd be convinced that we were somehow still in Turkey, in an apartment cunningly like our own in New York but not actually the same. I wonder if I'll get to sleep tonight. I know that I needed the rest, and I can tell that it did some good, because almost all of the little ailments that plagued me from Friday until this morning have passed away, leaving only a fading rash: perhaps I did have a staph infection after all.

Of course, I made have been laid low by reentry into the world of current events, from which I took a brief but decided leave while in Istanbul. When Biscuit pointed out earlier today that the Washington Post has contributed $100,000 to the inaugural frolic, I felt that the very air had gone bad. (Biscuit provides a link to the list of power donors - check it out.) I couldn't help thinking about Joseph A. Ashley, the seaman who was killed in the undersea collision of the USS San Francisco with a mountain that that did not appear on Navy charts because the agency that prepares the charts lacks the resources to integrate satellite data. Hope everybody has a fun time in Washington. 



A few minutes ago, I was hoping, in a comment on Towleroad, that it would warm up a little before Christo's "Gates" was/were installed in Central Park; I hadn't even looked out the window. Imagine my &c! Neige sur les toits de New-York.

So far as I know, you can still smoke in your own New York apartment. So what's with this guy? Is he visiting his inamorata? If so, visits must be fairly regular, as he knows how to get up on the roof. That he is smoking and not sightseeing is emphasized by his standing so resolutely in front of the penthouse door. Poor wanker.

What a fab goof it would be if he turned out to be a regular reader of this site, and after his cig went back downstairs for a java and a quick look at the sites...


Never mind why (I didn't rent it), but we watched De-Lovely last night, the Cole Porter biopic starring Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd. I still don't know what Kathleen expected, but I was prepared to dislike it as much as Amadeus. Hollywood hasn't done very well by famous composers; the only interesting films with a serious-music edge are melodramas from the Forties like Humoresque and The Great Lie. Cole Porter probably had the most filmable biography of any composer. (Gershwin, as we were reminded in last week's New Yorker, was shunned by everybody for bad behavior until the doctors finally discovered a massive brain tumor a day or so before he died - who wants to sit through that?) His story would be interesting even if he'd never written a single hit. Given this second account of one of the truly fabulous American lives of the Twentieth Century, I've come to believe that it was the greatness of Porter's work that got in the way.

I don't intend to write a little review of the movie, which is, in the end, worth seeing, and which has many good points, not the least of which is Ms Judd's ailing Linda Lee toward the end. What angers me about De-Lovely is its falsification of the Porter marriage. In the movie, Cole Porter is an introspective fun-seeker who likes to go to bed with men, but whose heart belongs to a wonderful woman whose love, in return, allows him a very long leash. Perhaps the real Cole Porter would have been happy with this emotional arrangement, had it been available. But it wasn't. Porter was a gay man living in the beau monde who was lucky enough to find a woman of the world who also wanted to be married in the beau monde. Linda Lee was a friend, perhaps even a very close friend - I don't know - but she did not have any claims on Porter's heart, nor could she solace it. Porter didn't look anything like Kevin Kline (he was far shorter, far plainer, and his voice was totally tenor), and his love-life was the usual upper-crust cliché of brief, impossible romances. These inspired many of his songs, so it would have been edifying to see more of them, but in De-Lovely they're nothing but inconsequential flings, menacing nothing worse than the occasional logistic embarrassment. We're asked to applaud the film's bravery in so much as it acknowledges Porter's carnal circuitry, but we're denied the opportunity to see it in operation.

For a thousand, or perhaps only one or two, good reasons, Hollywood still has trouble with homosexuality, and, yes, it ought to be applauded for trying to cope. There are still millions and millions of Americans who, this year anyway,  are ready to believe that the normalization of "deviancy" is all Kinsey's fault, and to follow "experts" who deploy pseudo-scientific balderdash in the attempt to return to a world that even Norman Rockwell would have found falsely saccharine. That's why I think that the better course would have been simply not to make De-Lovely, to let the story wait for a better future. The high-concept aspects of the movie - great songs sung by hot, current artists, such as Mr and Mrs Elvis Costello and Sheryl Crow; the glamorous Gatsby-era sets and costumes - can't save this false-hearted version of an intriguing story; they only make it more meretricious, like brandy on top of bad fish. The screenplay is deeply untrue to Porter and to the sorrows of gay life at a particular moment in the past, but the movie itself is even worse, because it transforms Ashley Judd into a matron who could easily be Margaret Dumont's younger sister, without any redeeming camp effect. The capable cast and crew of De-Lovely have been grossly disserved by a marketable lie. Cole Porter, his music and his reputation will survive. But most gay people will have been moved back a couple of spaces on the board game of life. Perhaps I'm asking too much. Perhaps we ought to welcome the measure of social progress that will tolerate homosexual sex as long as loving wives are willing to do so.

January 16, 2005

Istanbul 2005

The contents of this page can be found at "A Week in Istanbul" at Portico.

Loose Links

Manhattan Utilities: If you live on my island, print this and mail it to all your out-of-town friends, (or at any rate the ones who don't make business trips here) along with a gentle reminder that your dwelling has about a fifth the square footage of theirs - a tenth, if you throw in garages, basements and attics.

Andrew Lord PoorMan has discovered a news item from last month about laborabory-farmed steak (yum!), but his framing words are too good to miss, so this link will take you to Dreamland.

Ownership society: If you've got 'em, you could earn $250,000! Yet more proof that there are lots of empty driver's seats among America's fast-moving vehicles. (Some patience required; guaranteed valoir la peine.)

Boycott Waterstone's! It's always amusing when booksellers practice prior restraint upon their own employees. Perhaps theirs will be the go-to industry for cyborg deployment.

January 15, 2005

Home Safe

The contents of this page can be found at "A Week in Istanbul" at Portico.

January 14, 2005

Why I Am Ready To Go Home

The contents of this page can be found at "A Week in Istanbul" at Portico.

Loose Ends, Live, from Istanbul

Fafblog tells a divine parable about, er, overconsumption. Make of it what you will, and try not to eat the table legs. And, speaking of overcomsumption, David Drezner looks into the Thickburger; don't miss the link to the "Fist Girl" spot!

This would be all I need. eXTReME Tracking is bad enough; with Geoloc, I'd sit mesmerized in front of the screen, and there would be NO visitors from TURKEY or anywhere else. Well, maybe later...

Feeling that your vocabulary needs a little edging? Here's last year's roster of winners of the American Dialect Society's awards. Watch out for the unexpected variant of "ridiculous; you may find that it unlocks your powers of invention. Jesse Sheidlower writes about this year's awards.

Not Meant To Be?

The contents of this page can be found at "A Week in Istanbul" at Portico.

January 13, 2005

Istiklal Street

The contents of this page can be found at "A Week in Istanbul" at Portico.

One-Way Blogging

The contents of this page can be found at "A Week in Istanbul" at Portico.

Le gratin financier

The contents of this page can be found at "A Week in Istanbul" at Portico.

January 12, 2005

St Saviour and the Great Bazaar

The contents of this page can be found at "A Week in Istanbul" at Portico.

Dolmabahçe Blues

The contents of this page can be found at "A Week in Istanbul" at Portico.

Can You Handle It

The contents of this page can be found at "A Week in Istanbul" at Portico.

January 11, 2005


The contents of this page can be found at "A Week in Istanbul" at Portico.

January 10, 2005

Uh Oh

The contents of this page can be found at "A Week in Istanbul" at Portico.

Constantinopolitan Timeline

The contents of this page can be found at "A Week in Istanbul" at Portico.

More Sights

The contents of this page can be found at "A Week in Istanbul" at Portico.

January 09, 2005

Mosques and Museums

The contents of this page can be found at "A Week in Istanbul" at Portico.

January 08, 2005

Hoş Geldiniz

The contents of this page can be found at "A Week in Istanbul" at Portico.

January 07, 2005

Too Good To Be True

The contents of this page can be found at "A Week in Istanbul" at Portico.

You'll Always Look Like That


I've been so grownup and serious for a while that you may have tuned out. Here I am, about to go to Byzantium for a week of yakking nonstop about mosaics - it's pukathetic, really. Happily, the Blogosphere has not let me down. The ongoing freak show never sleeps.

I can't decide which is the worst of the four photographs from which I chose the one here. It's an innocent, Sixties era ski mask, and, like so many Sixties artefacts, it's totally horrific. What might seem colorful to Betty Crocker's fans has, to a more discerning eye, the gasp of taboo transgressed. Exploded brains, for example. But if you think that an artful mask might keep you warm during the kind of serious blizzard that we haven't had in a while - or perhaps we have; I never get out - then here is your Lorelei.

If you think that that's bad, then don't check out my next canapé. It's truly gross, in conception if not execution, and anyone who has ever played the piano will assure you that there is a real limit to - well, they simply can't be doing what it looks like. Or can they? Male anxiety knows no end. This is a British splash if ever there was one. 

January 06, 2005

Happy Birthday (to me)


It's my birthday, and I'll do what I want to. And here's what I want to. I want to share a story that Kathleen has told me not to tell. I think it's the biggest fakeout story of all time. Kathleen, not without justice, sees off-putting show-off elements. You decide.

At a low point in my Houston years, I paid weekly visits to Dr Hilde Bruch, a member of the Baylor College of Medicine faculty and considered by many to be the leading researcher in the field of anorexia nervosa, which hardly anybody had ever heard of in the early Seventies. Perhaps because she was a chum of my first mother-in-law (a member of the same faculty), or perhaps because, formidable German psychiatrist that she was, the appearance of dislike was part of therapy. She told me, for example, that since I hadn't published anything yet (I was 24), I probably never would. She berated me for not having appropriate insurance. And she insisted that I stop drifting my hand across her white walls as I talked. This inspired me to take the daring step of sitting in an armchair opposite her.

Treatment had reached the armchair phase when Dr Bruch sent me to a psychologist in River Oaks for a battery of intelligence tests. After two days of that, I put the matter out of my mind, because I was brought up to believe that the Soviets would convert to capitalism before any professional examiner would inform an intelligence-test subject of the results. Apparently, I was brought up wrong, because, two weeks later, Dr Bruch surprised me by announcing that the results were in, and that they placed me in the Nth percentile of Americans. I haven't made up my mind whether I'm going to tell you the value of N, but consider it less than ten. "This is not uncommon among college graduates," she said, in a remark that I have never been able to comprehend, unless she meant that it is not uncommon among European graduates; then she lowered the boom. "I'm telling you this because I think it is high time you stopped carrying yourself as though you belonged in the first percentile." All this in a redoubtable and well-preserved German accent (Dr Bruch had been in the United States for nearly forty years). How can I help you?

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Sometimes.

January 05, 2005

If You Can't Read This, Contact Me!


It's hard to believe how bad I felt a half an hour or so ago, when this site was down along with its Web host, Hosting Matters. (I have no idea how long the blackout lasted, other than that it was fewer than four hours.) It was much worse than any prior interruption of service or inability to collect email. It was a signal of how seriously I'm taking this project. It's my career. How did that happen?

But enough about me. I direct your attention to a piece in today's Times by Graham Browley headlined "In British Popular Press, Folly's Home Is Brussels." It will probably seem very funny at first, but presently you will recognize discomfiting parallels with the media situation here. No major newspaper or broad/cable service would behave quite like the writers at the Sun, or whichever tabloid it was, that took an EU edict about beautifying highway bridges and ran with it - they ran with it all the way to surmising that henceforth a bust of then-President Jacques Delors would have to grace every new span in Europe. Whether British readers believe such nonsense is beside the point; we know that American readers believe it. And we know that American readers who believe it have done what the British writers are taking for granted, by conflating their own utter provincialism with patriotism. They have shrunk the latter to the dimensions of the former. This gives them the right, nay, the obligation, to cry out against cosmopolitan diversity.

The European Union has raised, and not begun to settle, important questions of sovereignty. What will be the future of its constituent nations as independent sovereigns? It is my hope that the big states, such as Germany, France and Spain, will dissolve into their larger provinces, such as Brittany, Bavaria, and Catalonia, and that these regions will be free to decide local social issues while larger economic and international issues (including defense) are run from a mobile capital. (I believe that information technology will make this work, provided that nobody hurries its developments.) Here in the United States, where the only arrangement that is even under discussion is the Electoral College, we have a system of government that gives grossly undue influence to rural areas. I share Jane Jacobs's view (set forth in Cities and the Wealth of Nations), that hinterlands ought to be subjected to the metropolitan areas that touch their borders. (My response to expansive property owners in the watersheds of New Yorker City's reservoirs is: Drop Dead.) But there are hinterlands in the United States so remote from any metropolitan area that might be allowed substantial autonomy. They would just have to get by without our subsidies.

Was I dreaming, or did I see a statistic suggesting that more eligible voters (some 72 million) didn't vote at all than voted for either candidate. I don't believe that voting ought to be made mandatory, but I do believe in shunning, ostracizing, and in general turning one's back on non-voters without very good excuses. It's unlikely that I'll have to put this policy to the test, and I'm not one of those impassioned people who prays to be tested, but I think I mean it. I may be wrong about the statistic, but I'm right about the policy. Yes I am.

Contact me anyway!

Hot Air

Despite the schmutzy weather, I've got errands and doctor visits today. I also had to pick up a lamp that had been repaired. On my way back from the hardware store, I stopped in for lunch at Burger Heaven, the recently-opened local branch of a chain that has been going since before I was born, apparently. It certainly takes me back to childhood. The look of the place is not exactly retro, but - perhaps it's just the cleanliness. I had a chef's salad (I'll ask that it be tossed in the kitchen next time), and read from Nobody's Perfect, Anthony Lane's collection of New Yorker pieces, an incomparable vademecum with the added (and important) attraction of lying flat when opened. It would have been perfect if Dubya's face hadn't been on the silent television mounted in the corner by the window. What's he doing on television, I wondered, anxiously. Why isn't he in Crawford, where he can't stir up trouble? When I got home, I called up a friend, and was told that the President is pontificating somewhere in the heartland about tort reform. Oh, well. But the image of that man on the screen remains very disturbing. (So far, there's nothing about this latest release of hot air at the Times Web site.)

January 04, 2005

Loose Ends

Édouard at Sale Bête has a nice post on yesterday's "Eagle and Coq" pair of Op-Ed pieces in the Times (see below). He makes his best observation in one of the comments: for John J. Miller to complain about French politics, but then to insist that France is unimportant, renders his prosy essay absurd.

It's Tuesday, which means that I have a French lesson in the late afternoon. This week, I have really buckled down and begun writing a paragraph on how to distinguish a Web log from an "ordinary" Web site (Thank you, Jordi Marcos). In French. After M Portes corrects it, I'll publish it here. For the record, let me say how nice it is (for a change, considering Microsoft) that Word is quick to recognize that I'm writing in French, and to begin underlining only the words that are misspelled in French. (A foreign language has to be selected as an alternate first, I should note.) I also like the fact that the software imposes French punctuation - as you'll see later today below.

Comment distinguer les blogs des sites Web ordinaires

Pour commencer, il faut qu’on sache ce qui c’est le site Web. Le site Web consiste premièrement d’un document, intitulé « l’index », écrit en HTML et classé au serveur d’un hôte Web. Cet index est la racine du site, sur laquelle tous les autres documents ramifient. Une fois téléchargé de l’Internet, chaque document est reconnu comme « page ». La langue HTML permet qu’on rajoute au texte des instructions invisibles au logiciel du browser concernant la navigation entre les pages du site et la présentation du texte.

Pour créer un site Web, on n’a besoin que d’un ordinateur, connecté à l’Internet et chargé d’un browser et d’un logiciel pour le téléchargement des dossiers, et d’une possession minimale de l’HTML. On écrit les pages et ensuite on les envoie vers l’Internet. C’est tout.

Le Web log c’est un genre de site Web qui de plus exige un logiciel consacré à l’opération des traits caractéristiques aux « blogs » (ou « carnets »), ce qui sont (a) l’organisation des archives, (b) la réception des aperçus qu’écrivent les lecteurs, et (c) les notifications reçues des autres sites Web et emmenés au sujet des nouvelles annonces. Les annonces du blog sont installés au fur et à mesure du téléchargement aux archives construites sous les rubriques mensuelles et catégoriques ; de plus, ils paraissent à la page principale du blog, pour une période déterminée par l’auteur. Au fin de cette période, l’annonce disparaît de la page principale, mais reste encore lisible aux archives préposées.

L’aperçu du visiteur c’est le trait le plus intéressant du blog (après l’ouvrage du propriétaire, bien sûr !). On ne sait jamais à quoi s’attendre. De plus, celui qui fait des aperçus peut inscrire l’adresse de son propre site Web, autant qu’on en ait un. Grâce au logiciel, l’adresse d’un visiteur paraît au blog en forme de lien, permettant qu’on lui rende des visites.

Je suis encore trop ignorant pour vous renseigner sur les notifications, mais je vous assure qu’elles sont très utiles aux experts.

Toutes ces merveilles arrivent sans que l’auteur ne fasse rien !


Instead of unloading the dishwasher, I've been wandering around some favorite blogs, finding improbable things, such as a roundup, from the San Francisco Chronicle, of Bay Area obituaries from 2004. Almost all the subjects died of some sort of cancer or of old age - mostly the latter - and there's no doubt that the selection is upbeat. But there's something grand about the very possibility of a bunch of upbeat death notices. This one is about Kenneth Hildebrand, a café pianist of whom the columnist Herb Caen was fond:

One night, when Mr. Hildebrand was playing at Masons in the Fairmont Hotel, Caen wrote, "feeling a heart attack coming on, he managed to get off a chorus of 'There Goes My Heart' before collapsing. He is now back at work, playing the best background piano in a town that is otherwise full of crash- bangers who think they're stars." Caen bestowed on Mr. Hildebrand an impromptu "Hemingway award for grace under pressure."

The Fairmont Hotel has a special pull for me, although I've never, in all my trips to San Francisco, been back. It was 1962, and I had just discovered The New Yorker. As something to read, that is. I would go down to the newstand every hour on the hour to see if the new issue had come out; the concept of "weekly" was slow to set in. I'd go back up to the room discontentedly and try to console myself with sketches for the New Yorker clone that I was going to publish someday, stealing all the typefaces and ingeniously entitled Quill.

And, since we're at loose ends, and everybody's so angry with me for publishing paragraphs in French that they won't even comment anymore, I'll tell a story from the Fairmont stay that the family used to find hilarious but that I now find simply revealing. My father was attending a natural gas convention (INGAA, I'm sure), and he had taken a suite in the then-newish Fairmont tower; our rooms looked toward the Bay Bridge. During one of the parties that my parents hosted, I got my sister to accompany me to the newsstand on one of my hunts (I wouldn't see a new New Yorker until days later, in, of all places, Clinton, Iowa, my father's hometown - where the barber, unaware that I was an adopted child, assured me that I would never go bald). When we got back into the elevator to return to the suite, the car was full of grownups whom we knew from the convention. They joked with us in the manner of the times, and when the elevator stopped, we all got off and walked down to the end the corridor, entered the suite and resumed passing hors d'oeuvres. (It was the middle of the afternoon, but I was wearing a jacket and tie and my sister wore a dress.) We would exchange pleasantries with guests whom we knew and move along. When I came to Bertha Sanders, the lovely wife of a man who was senior to my father, however, she asked me, "Robert, whatever are you doing here?" I chuckled politely and observed that I was passing hors d'oeuvres. That was very nice, she replied, but my parents and their suite were one floor upstairs. What I can't remember is whether we said anything to the occupants of the suite before we slipped out, went upstairs, and soon had everybody laughing.

January 03, 2005



Michael Frayn's Democracy is an outstanding play, but whether it is a great one, I can't begin to tell. To be sure, greatness is something that emerges over time, but I can't remember the last instance of a play that seemed so insistently to withhold its own future. Perhaps that's a sure sign that it will turn out to be great; plays that feel great at first encounter are probably too compromised by and with the Zeitgeist. This isn't to say that Democracy has an air of timelessness about it. Quite the contrary. It is very much a backward glance whose retrospective reach is totally distinctive: fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, fifteen years into the European transformations engendered by that fall and fifteen years into an unexpectedly troubled and confused international scene that still hasn't come to terms with the end of the Cold War, we look back on the brief Chancellorship of the man who did more than any other to undermine the Iron Curtain.

To many people today, Willy Brandt is no more than a name. To me, he will always be the Mayor of Berlin. I don't remember anything specific, but he was a dashing and attractive antidote to the colorlessness of the Cold War. To his Chancellorship I paid no attention whatever. I must have parroted AP copy when reading the news at the radio station, but nothing sticks; our own problems (Nixon, Vietnam) and new horizons (China) were more absorbing. In any case, it appears that Willy Brandt was not made of presidential timber, at least in Michael Frayn's portrait. Highly charismatic - he specialized in silent speeches that knocked everybody for a loop - and determined to make his mark on the greatest political problem of his day (the reunification of Germany) - Brandt seems to have had little interest in the undramatic realities of everyday parliamentary democracy. His success was attributable largely to his clean hands - he had fled Germany in 1933, when members of the Social Democratic Party became persona non in Hitlerland. His administration was, in the long view, a success, because the initial treaties of cooperation with the USSR, Poland, and, most of all, the DDR broke the logjam of mutual nonrecognition. But his supporters expected a longer run.

Continue reading about Democracy at Portico

The Eagle and the Coq

By this time today, I thought there would be more chat about the Times article about the Christmas Tsunami and the Blogosphere. Headlined "Myths Run Wild in Blog Tsunami Debate," John Schwartz's article proceeds to make a much more balanced assessment of how the Blogosphere handled its first whopping natural disaster. I don't know what to make of the oft-cited "tension" between bloggers and mainstream journalists, because while it would be naive or wrongheaded to deny that the 'Sphere is a source of news (witness, for example, Gothamist, which had much better photographs of the anti-Bush banner-at-the-Plaza stunt than did the Times - and more of them, too), I don't regard professional journalism as a model for what's going on at most of the blogs that interest me. I'm certainly not in the news business. (That's why I haven't done the newsreader thing yet. The very terminology put me off. Consider this a solicitation for recommendations: d'you know of a good service?) And at the "political" blogs there is often an air - a pong, really - of a high school corridor at lunch time, with everyone excited about something that nobody's going to remember next week. It's early days yet, so comparing and contrasting blogs and newspapers is bound to fall somewhere between the tentative and the premature.

The headline, though, looks like pretty clear proof of the mild hostility that many bloggers have attributed to newspaper editors. Further evidence is provided by the callout (subtitle), which might well have been used instead: "While chaotic, Web log discussion can be self-correcting." That, it turns out, is the actual gist of Mr Schwartz's story.

Then on the Op-Ed page, there is a pair of French-accented essays. The one on top is a silly argument by a writer for National Review, John J. Miller. He urges President Bush to deal with the French (and their opposition to the "war in Iraq") by - ignoring them.

Thinking otherwise [i.e., that the French are "important"] only buys into the Gaullist claim that France should occupy a place of reverence in the community of nations. But why should its views matter any more than, say, Italy, those population and economy are nearly the same size?

This is ahistorical claptrap. France and Italy may be similarly-sized nations today, but that's a very recent development, and, as for foreign affairs, no two countries could trace more antithetical histories. Italian politics - the politics of Italy's myriad historic autonomies - tends always toward the solipsistic; Italians are relatively uninterested in the other peoples of the world. The French, to be sure, are only slightly behind them when it comes to the conviction that it's regrettably unlucky to be born anywhere else, but the French are missionaries, proselytizing their grand culture and way of life to whomever will listen. That's why, as I remarked here yesterday, there are more people who speak French as a foreign language than there are native speakers. There's a real distinction between what I'll call la France profonde, that aspect of France that is accessible only to natives, and la mode française, which, beyond being available to anybody who sets foot on French soil, can even be exported with some success. The same distinction could be made between the American heartland and this country's "popular culture," but the French export is incontestably superior. My response to Mr Miller is that we ought to imitate Italy and stop trying to guide the peoples of the earth toward democracy or anything else. Like the Italians, we're insufficiently interested in foreigners to learn how to help them.

The other piece is by Antoine Audouard, a French writer who has recently moved to New York. He writes very sensibly about French-bashing in the media, about the association that Muddle-Minded people make between arrogance and the ability to speak French, and about the French delusion that alleges the equal value of each nation's contribution to the other's welfare. He rightly deplores the idea of disliking any given nationality.

Americans themselves are sometimes confronted with this kind of absurd hostility abroad. Of all nationalities, they should be the first to stay away from it. After all, diversity and respect for other cultures are among the core values on which America was founded - and by which Americans thrive.

Or so I thought, too, M Audouard, until I learned that the vast majority (apparently) of Americans don't have passports, and don't have much use for diversity, either.

I Promise


Happy New Year! We finally got to the caviar. Kathleen bought several ounces of sevruga on Friday afternoon, but we didn't get to it until nine o'clock this evening, as a snack before dinner. (For dinner we had mushroom and Brie omelettes, cranberries, and Durkee's French's onion rings. We were watching Letter to Three Wives, about which more later.) That's the kind of year we've had - 2004 still isn't over!

Here's an idea: let's concoct a chemical spray that drives enemy soldiers to rape one another! It's obviously a lot of fun to do weapons R & D, dreaming up truly kinky scenarios and then typing them up all-official-like, and it's hard to believe that the author(s) of subparagraph (3) at the top of page 2 consider(s) this "example" entirely distasteful. (Thanks to Andy Towle.)

And under the "Reckless and Incompetent" rubric, we can add this.

If I may make the occasional curmudgeonly request, can somebody please sequester the music download posts and sites? They are altogether too... precious. I'd say, "You have no idea how ridiculous these posts are going to look X years from now" if I didn't know that the blogs themselves aren't going to exist X years from now. But, still.

I have decided to appropriate the medical school term, Grand Rounds, for blogging, as my one New Year's Resolution. It means having a look at each and every one of the blogs on your roster. I will do Grand Rounds... tomorrow.

January 02, 2005

New Year's Manifesto

Despite being down with a virus, and taking care of a similarly afflicted child, Amy at The Biscuit Report has composed an ardent manifesto for dealing with the creeping pestilence of fascism in the United States. She was inspired by Milton Mayer's They Thought They Were Free of 1955. I have taken her five points and appended my own responses, but I urge you to read Amy first and then return here. Post any responses at both sites. 

1. First, and most importantly, we cannot wait to be certain before acting, and acting in a way that does put our own selves at risk.
While I agree with Biscuit's remarks dismissal of "waiting for certainty," I think it's easier to remark that we are already quite certain that the Administration is reckless and incompetent. There is no need here to argue that case. But we ought to be prepared to argue it, concisely as possible, to others. Which is why, upon consideration, I not only didn't remove the Blog Roster's link to Winning Arguments but wrote to its author, who has stopped adding posts, asking him not to remove the blog from the 'Sphere.

Another thing that we can be certain of is that the drift toward fascism will involve billions of small decisions - and hesitations - by millions of Americans. This is the tide that we must redirect wherever possible, with whomever possible.

2. We must not waste our time trying to convert those who now support this administration.
The Administration draws on many different sources of support, much of it negative. By this I mean to distinguish those who positively support Administration policies from those who fear the alternative. The latter, it seems to me, will in many cases be amenable to persuasion.

I share Biscuit's anger, and her determination to do the right thing even in situations where it's not "done." But I'm equally eager to keep my own bounding, sometimes hyperexpressive behavior from driving a possible ally fearfully away. Talking about the Administration can easily infuriate me. Now, one of the strongest appeals of fascism is its intolerance for low-grade violence. (People don't realize, until it's too late, that the peace and quiet that they thought they were voting for is actually an in-your-face police state, where the inquisition isn't far away at Gitmo or Abu Ghraib but right at your desk.) To the extent that we can keep anger and insult out of our behavior, offering instead a firm vision of the good society that we fear is endangered, we will optimize our persuasiveness.

3. Though we need not bother to try to convert the believers, we must tell everyone we meet that we are enemies of this Administration.
Biscuit's third point reminds me of how useless the mainstream media have been as critics of Bush. They believe, probably with reason, that in order to preserve their access to the White House they must remain on good terms, personally and otherwise, with the people in the White House. Where they're wrong, perhaps, is in believing that access to this White House is important. What do they expect to find out? This administration has no special regard for mainstream media; it doesn't need them. Karl Rove is a genius at outsourcing stories, and letting other people, people not in the White House, get the attention/take the heat. Just scroll through Talking Points Memo.

Now that the holidays are over, it's important to develop a polite policy for dealing with family members - one's own, one's spouse's, one's friends' - so that the news of our political orientation and activism does not come as a surprise. There can be no hard-and-fast rules here. But making a list might be helpful - or just going through this season's Christmas cards. What do the people who send them think about the President? Do you know? Do they? Many of them will no doubt not be visitors to the Blogosphere; perhaps we must all develop our own small "direct mail" campaigns, sending persuasive letters via snail mail. Most of us can probably print pretty spiffy exemplars; perhaps templates will emerge, complete with art and photos. 

4. We must not believe that education, that facts, will save us.
I have nothing to add here. When I see the political bloggers chasing the scandal that will for-sure bring the Administration down, I want to weep. What they're doing is important in many ways. But as to inflicting any kind of damage on the Administration, it's futile. The Bush Administration is living, lumbering-through-the-debris-Godzilla-style proof of the adage (which doesn't always apply!) that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

5. We must have the capacity for "calm, consistent insubordination."
To which I would only add the word, "engagement." We must be walking exemplars of the virtue and purposefulness of paying attention. The hidden enemy here is the idea of "news you can use."

You say "Palatious," I say "Palacios"

According to the latest Census, Anglos are no longer the majority ethnic group in Texas. Make that "Tejas" (TAY-hoss). Today's Times reports the latest round of skirmishing on the "We Say/Nosotros Digamos" front in the Lone Star State, where "surging" Hispanic populations see no reason not to restore the local nomenclature to its original pronunciation. "Juh-SIN-ta" or "Ha-SEEN-toe"? What caught my eye was the following pearl of provinciality, which appeared in a letter to the editors of the Houston Chronicle.

"I have no beef with whatever language people want to speak at home," wrote A. W. Mohle Jr. of Houston, "but if you're going to live here, then by speaking 'American' in public, you will have a much better opportunity of being accepted as American."

In the Sixties, red-state patriots of Mr Mohle's persuasion urged this country's native critics to "Love It or Leave It." Let's not have any more of that. To such lazy-minded patriots I reply: "Learn It or Drop It." You know perfectly well what the other guy is saying. This is a big country, remember? How do you pronounce "Houston"? Depends upon which eponym you're thinking of. Texan Sam, or New Yorker William?


The Anglophone habit of going out of one's way to murder the pronunciation of foreign languages (under the impression that the ostentatious display of ignorance is the mark of true superiority) has to be one of the greatest black marks against the culture of the Atlantic Isles.

In a conversely-related note, I learned from a table in The Economist yesterday that of the eleven major languages spoken on the planet, the number of people who speak French as a second language is greater than the number of those who are born to it. (Just in case you thought English was going global.) Far more people speak English, of course, but that's as a native language; the French work very hard to keep their language alive in former colonies and areas of influence, not, apparently, without success. For reasons that I will explain as the week goes on, I am wondering which language I might find more useful in Istanbul.

January 01, 2005

What, No Hangover?


We ran up onto the roof last night when we heard the fireworks. Someday, one of us will take a course in photographic fireworks - some day when Kathleen has time and I have a steady hand. Hand-eye coordination turned out to be faint to nonexistent.

The spots of light to the left of the starburst belong to the Carlyle. Bobby Short was (presumably) finishing up his last Café Carlyle gig as we snapped.