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The Blaguives

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Summer 2004

Friday 27 August The protests have already begun here in New York, but so far they're rather more interesting than usual. A bunch of rappellers unfurled a huge anti-Bush banner on the façade of the Plaza Hotel, and when I saw the photo on Gothamist yesterday I jumped. A group of Act Up members held up traffic on Eighth Avenue for a few minutes when they stripped in the middle of a crosswalk. There was also an 'event' at Union Square. Twenty-one people were arrested in all, but no one was injured.

In yesterday's travels, I also came across an essay by Jonathan Alter, of Newsweek. It was supposed to be about why politicians destroy their careers through with sexual misconduct. This is a question that Mr Alter acknowledges that he can't answer, but the middle paragraphs of his essay pursue a more interesting observation: more and more Americans are leading the public lives known formerly only to politicians.

And because Americans frequently change jobs, they are constantly selling themselves—just like politicians. And undergoing image makeovers—just like politicians. Much of this outer direction is fine; the coiled ambition helps productivity and brings at least some people the sense of connection they crave in their lives. But these are different lives than led by earlier generations—stretched thin between outer and inner selves, self-absorbed without being self-knowing.

The distinction between self-absorption and self-knowledge is worth pondering.

Perspicacious readers may have noticed that I began the Daily Blague just before the great August vacation, which I discovered not to be a French exclusive. Day after day I would return to newly-encountered interesting sites, only to find that their authors were still away. Now it's my turn. I made up my mind to escape the Republican convention late last winter, and I'm heading off for a week of bucolic stillness in Eastern Connecticut at a house without a high-speed online connection. We'll see what that means for this column, which will, however, resume on Labor Day.

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Thursday 26 August Cable service was restored - up here, anyway - around one o'clock yesterday afternoon, and my mood lifted immediately. No sooner was I back on my netboard than I discovered Flak Magazine, where the satire is so understated that I wasn't quite sure that it was satire. Consider Dekes for Truth. (And while you're there, look for the piece by "Courier New.")

Then I rolled up my sleeves and wrote about Custards. By the end of the afternoon, I had given the Culinarion branch of this site some definition. I forget when and for how long, but I removed Culinarion entirely for a while; pages about cooking simply didn't seem to go with the rest of site. They still don't, but it doesn't matter anymore, because I whenever I write about cooking I make myself laugh. You, too, I hope. One thing led to another, anyway, and I found myself writing about Soufflés as well.

What do François Ozon's The Swimming Pool and Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up have in common? Two things: each is its director's first film in English, but rather more interesting than that factoid is the sound of verdant branches tossing in uncertain breezes. The two films go very well together, as we found out last night. Ever wonder which London park was used as a location in Blow Up? Wonder no more: It's Maryon Park in Woolwich.

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Wednesday 25 August For well over twelve hours, since sometime late yesterday afternoon, TimeWarner Cable's high-speed cable service to three large swaths of Manhattan has been interrupted. One of these areas covers the East Side from 40th Street to 86th. They're working on it, and dial-up still works, although understandably increased demand has certainly slowed it down. If it weren't for the approaching Republican Party convention, I'd just be annoyed, but instead I'm very, very jittery. And why hasn't the Times picked up the problem? Perhaps the newsboys believe that everybody on the Upper East Side is out of town, if not for August, then for the convention.

No matter what Mayor Bloomberg does in the remainder of his term, he has permanently lost my vote. Allowing the Republican Party to exploit physical and temporal proximities to Ground Zero was a mortal political sin, and responsibility for any disruption next week ought to fall primarily upon the mayor's shoulders. That he has completely mishandled the logistics of protest is a grave disappointment, but not an altogether unforeseeable one. Better it would have been to throw the Party elsewhere.

The subject of George W. Bush's character remains stale, flat, and unprofitable, but thanks to Édouard at Sale Bête, I found what might very at least be the definitive Apostle's Screed, so suitable for commitment to memory that one would never have to think about the man again. Josh Marshall says it, says it again, and keeps on saying it: Mr Bush is a moral coward.

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Tuesday 24 August The Science Section of today's Times features several articles about aspects of stem-cell research. Because this research, while promising, has yielded no medical benefits as of yet, I don't pay much attention, but news of an official UK Stem Cell Bank caught my eye. Tightly regulated but shielded from the right-to-life debate (which is not very lively in Britain), the Bank is an inadvertent symbol of slippage in US science. Bush Administration policies, cut to the order of the religious right, have effectively banished stem-cell research from American universities. Privately-supported research is not illegal, but it is not regulated, either, and its fruits, if and when they mature, are sure to be very costly. Which means that rich people like the Bush & Co entourage will be able to take advantage of stem-cell breakthroughs while appearing to support those powerful but misguided souls who confuse week-old blastocysts with human beings.

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Monday 23 August Since I do all the cooking around here, I don't wonder what's for dinner. I don't wonder how fresh and clean the ingredients will have been. I know. What the other people at the table don't know won't hurt them - amazingly! They don't want to hear about the time I retrieved some wilted but still quite green celery from the composter - do they? After all, nobody got sick.

Whether or not Marina Andriynannikova got sick after she bit into a fingertip in her beet salad is not disclosed by the New York Post story that Gothamist picked up; presumably she suffered all the mental distress that tort law requires. My only question is this: what can have become of Exhibit A in the year, almost to the day, that elapsed between the incident and the filing of suit?

The good news is that in this city of many, many second-rate restaurants, we can all cross a name off the list for good.

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Friday Update If it weren't the day before the weekend (which I'm resolved to take off), I'd let this wait until Monday. But you need it now. Via Gothamist. A new meaning (entirely!) for 'AWOL.'

Friday 20 August A week ago yesterday, I reported that I'd seen some curious ads in the Times that led me to a curious Web site, both playing 'retro' images against 'metro' ones. Yesterday, the curious site was replaced by something more substantial. So substantial, in fact, that you can download an entire, 235 page book. For free. You can also order the paperback from Amazon (its exclusive seller) for forty dollars - a price that seems ridiculous until you see how much visual information there is in The Great Divide, as the book is called.

The nominal author of The Great Divide is  83 year-old John Sperling, the founder of the University of Phoenix, a sort of vocational school that offers education at a distance, but the book appears to be a team effort, bringing a lot of economic and demographic research to support the thesis that the United States is, in fact, two countries. The portions of the pdf files that I've read suggest that The Great Divide makes its case. (Because the argument of each chapter is neatly synopsized on the book's home page, and because I've made a bore of myself saying most of the same things myself, I leave it to you to survey the material - a matter of three minutes or less.) The problem is one of organization. The last chapter, which ought to summarize and recapitulate the proposals that accompany the barrage of blue and red maps throughout the book, is spectacularly anticlimactic, if you'll forgive the oxymoron. 

One idea implicit in the material that I did read is that the Democratic Party ought to be dissolved into something new, the Metro Party. This has the merit of being something I hadn't thought of. Both dominant parties are burdened with unpleasant histories; both have, at different times, opposed progressive development. Both are still disturbed by the tremendous flip of the Johnson and Nixon years, when Southern Democrats such as Johnson seriously promoted civil rights and, in return, the party of Abraham Lincoln abandoned black voters. A Metro Party, reflecting the objectives of the majority of Americans that lives in metropolitan areas, might very well reform the American way of governing.

Over the next couple of weeks, if not days, we'll be told by the experts just how amateur a project The Great Divide is. But don't wait for them. Let me know what you think.

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  Thursday 19 August Jaded travelers everywhere will soon be flocking to a castle in the mountains of Saxony with a working dungeon! Why, you can be suspended over a dank pool, submerged to the waist, for - as long as you like. After that refreshment, you can retire to your cell! Sounds better than Tibet, even.

But wait. The castle, a former Stasi prison for women, isn't taking reservations yet. It seems that some former inmates object to the trivialization, as they see it, of their incarceration. Annemarie Krause, who is 72 and who was arrested in 1948 for having an affair with a Russian soldier, makes the intelligent point that the new owner of Schloss Hoheneck "would never have been allowed to convert a Nazi concentration camp like Buchenwald into a hotel."

Hotel? I don't think so. It's still a prison; the only change is that you can pay to enjoy its amenities. Which are pretty unamenable. The same old beds, the same old awful food, "that irresistible jailhouse feeling."

What a great big wonderful world this is! Something for everybody.

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Wednesday 18 August Late last night, snooping around for something interesting, I came across the kind of story in the Times that used to generate a modest increase in blood levels of optimism. An army sergeant is challenging the legality of the Defense Department's 'stop-loss' program of unilaterally extending tours of duty. The theory is because that the war in Iraq is a necessary component of the war on terrorism, the military can reduce volunteers to peonage, and as a matter of fact it ought to be easy to refute. But who knows what will happen in the courts, or how long it will take. My nephew would undoubtedly regard me as a naive idiot for thinking that a lawsuit such as this one could slow down, much less trip up, the crazy ignorant juggernaut that ordinary Americans' fear of terrorism has propelled into action.

What is it with Harper's Magazine? Its Web site is still playing the August issue as the current one. It may be August, but magazines always live at least one month in the future, and Harper's is no exception. Editor Lewis Lapham has written a mini-history of the growth of the right-wing 'propaganda mill' that traces everything back to the terrors of capitalists who thought, in the summer of 1968, that they were under siege. The Boomer Curse: it's all about the Sixties. The article is worth the price of the print copy. Harper's 'Readings' section, in case you haven't encountered it, always is.

In case on of the listings on my 'blogroll' opposite gives you pause - if you can't see any such list, click on any multicolored link to Portico - you should know that 'sale bête' is not a lurid French phrase but merely a way of saying 'damned nuisance.' The author of Sale Bête is anything but a nuisance. Even if your French is rusty, you'll enjoy his photographs of New York and the environs. And I've got to thank him for this.

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Tuesday 17 August Okay, chilluns, today we have a little fun. All summer long, it seems, my nephew and his copine have been dancing around his flat in imitation of The Nutshells, an animated group of elephant rappers that has been flogging a new snack treat from Skippy Peanut Butter. Lord knows how long this spot has been on the air; it's the sort of thing that I'd never hear about if it weren't for the Internet (which I think I'll continue to capitalize, Wired's ukase notwithstanding).

An article in Slate wonders if this ad 'targets stoners.' That's just another sign of media ineptitude. Sure, the elephants are outfitted like Rastafarians. But who cares what they're wearing? Just look at their eyes and their trunks! They're octopuses with legs! There's a message here about the Republican Party that is too gruesome to consider!

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Monday 16 August In the wake of Julia Child's death last Thursday, a remarkable document has percolated through the Blogosphere. It is the letter that Ms Child wrote, on March 12, 1954, to Aloise Buckley Heath (sister of William F. and James) to protest the latter's anti-Communist snooping at Smith College, of which both women were alumnae. The letter appears in Andrew Carroll's 2001 collection, War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars, which must be why it has been posted on the Web by America in Uniform, the organization that commissioned the collection. How long the letter will remain available is of course uncertain, so don't take your time getting around to reading it.

Aloise Heath had organized a 'Committee for Discrimination in Giving' to alert Smith alumnae to the so-called fact that the college harbored several Communist sympathizers within its faculty. Julia Child's objection to the Committee's activities, quite soundly, was procedural, resting on the actual fact that the Committee was a self-appointed watchdog intended to circumvent Smith's Board of Trustees, which was both authorized and obliged to safeguard the college. The Committee asked alumnae to withhold contributions until it could conduct a housecleaning to its liking. Julia Child's letter concludes with a resounding 'no':

I am sending to Smith College in this same mail, along with a copy of this letter, a check to duplicate my annual contribution to the Alumnae Fund. I am confident that our Trustees and our President know what they are doing. They are only too well aware of the dangers of totalitarianism, as it is always the great institutions of learning that are attacked first in any police state. For the colleges harbor the "dangerous" people, the people who know how to think, whose minds are free.

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Friday 13 August Three days shy of her ninety-second birthday, Julia Child died yesterday. She was a remarkable American. An extraordinarily effective writer, she fought xenophobia and provincialism from the start of her career. Insisting that anybody could cook good French food anywhere, she pointed implicitly to the difference between tradition and nationality: to adopt aspects of a foreign tradition is not to forsake one's patriotism.

Andrew Sullivan has adopted the French tradition of going en vacances for the month of août. I should have thought that Mr Sullivan would have a lot to say about a sitting governor who, buffeted by scandals involving the peculations of associates, suddenly resigns (as of a date three months hence) and who gives as his reason the fact that he is gay; who apologizes for having an adulterous affair with another man, but who does not add that the copain in question drew a $110,000 salary as the state's homeland security director without having credentials appropriate to the post; and who neglects to mention that this interesting Israeli - the former boyfriend - has threatened a sexual-harassment suit against him - the governor. Earth to paradis: Andrew, get out your laptop!

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Thursday 12 August A nice feature of this column is that I always know what day of the month it is. Now, if I could only count...

Ads in the today's Times for something called Retro vs Metro, opposing photos of Michael Moore and Hillary Clinton to photos of Mel Gibson and Newt Gingrich, certainly caught my interest, so the first thing I did when I got back from fetching an fixed computer from the West Side was to check it out. Do the same. You'll notice that it's only when you place your cursor over one of the images (which immediately pales behind a pane of text) that a 'Next' button appears. Despite a certain animus toward the right, I wouldn't worry about the site's being technically malign - not with those ads in the Times. The final screen rather ominously promises that something called 'The Great Divide' is coming in six days. Of course I signed up, but I have to say that given its title, it won't be particularly welcome.

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Wednesday 11 August From the Schadenfreude Department: The Donald's casinos are "sailing into bankruptcy," and Mr Trump will have to come up with $55 million to hold onto a quarter-share interest in them. He says he's got the money - you were expecting candor, maybe? A choice of stories in the Times: estimating Mr Trump's net worth, and searching in vain for tears on the cheeks of his Atlantic City patrons. Hee-hee.

Thank heavens for those stories! Otherwise, what a downer today's paper was. Also from the Schadenfreude Department - just not that of any New Yorker - was a particularly grisly Op-Ed column by Nicholas D. Kristof about stray ten-kiloton nuclear devices. Mr Kristof promises that, in his next column, he'll offer some good advice about what to do about the threat of rogue detonation, so perhaps you'll want to wait a few days and see the bright side. On the other hand, pinning hopes on a columnist's advice is just the kind of naive behavior that Mr Kristof deplores.

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Tuesday 10 August As expected by pessimists, the voting-machine scandal of 2000 has not inspired much of a cleanup. Why? Voting, like education, is a local matter. The Constitution leaves election procedures to the States but reserves Congressional power to interfere (Article I, Section 4), and the States appear to do much the same with respect to counties. Election officials are often partisan hacks who have little or no interest in anything (such as an upset) that might alter the status quo. I am not going to say that the Constitution lets us down here, because Federal intervention oughtn't to be the necessary enforcer of basic equities in every case. The problem is really with the voters themselves - ourselves - who are too often inattentive. There would be no place for hacks in a robust democracy. The election of 2004, in any case, may be even less reflective of the popular will than its predecessor.

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Monday 9 August After Friday's dinner party, Kathleen and I had a very quiet weekend. Kathleen researched knitting patterns for an afghan (she also did plenty of actual knitting) while I watched movies (Saturday) and went through magazines (Sunday). I learned nothing of much interest except the fact that William Hurt speaks fluent French, and has even made a movie with Cathérine Deneuve! Yet another reason to respond to that ad in France-Amérique for a DVD player that has had its region thingy neutered.

At the dinner party, an old friend lamented that his Wall Street firm won't pay him gazillions of dollars to make job-creation predictions that are 85% wrong. Someone else gets the gazillions for doing just that.

One of the movies that I watched on Saturday (between dishwasher loads) was The Ring, which may or may not be a good movie. I'm still not sure. But when I came across it on Showtime, I went straight to the on-demand channel that my dear daughter taught me about, and watched the movie from the beginning - which may or may not have made it less confusing. But it did explain why TiVo is having problems

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Friday 6 August I've just finished writing the piece in the adjacent frame and I've got to start cooking and cleaning up for a dinner party - nous serons sept. So I'm going hand over today's inspiration to an English graphic designer who has come up with tips for being creative in a non-creative world. Have a great weekend!

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Thursday 5 August Swing it, Bruce! Breaking a longstanding silence on political matters, Bruce Springsteen has decided that "the stakes have risen too high to sit this election out." He will join Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne in a coalition of pop musicians called "Vote for Change" that has scheduled about thirty-four concerts to be given in nine swing states come October. Today's New York Times carries both a story about Vote for Change and an Op-Ed piece by Mr Springsteen himself. (Curiously, there doesn't seem to be a Vote for Change Web site yet.)

Oh, I forgot to say that the 'point' of the tour, aside from good music, is to urge concertgoers to get Bush & Co. out of the White House.

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Wednesday 4 August Yesterday, I had my first three-hour French lesson. I'd been having two hour-long sessions each week since January, and from these I had learned that I was really getting going when they were over. Needing to keep my Fridays free, I proposed one big lesson a week, and my patient, amicable, and most excellent teacher, M Gilbert Portes, readily agreed.

If our experience yesterday was any indication, the change was a smart move. I still couldn't remember that empêcher is French for to prevent, because in the crush of conversation my brain habitually looks for a word beginning in pré and gets stuck on prévenir, which even it knows is wrong. I couldn't remember divertissements or au début, although I knew that such words lay somewhere, momentarily inaccessible, within. I understand 97% of what Gilbert says, but I'm still prone to think in English when it's time for me to say something. But I committed fewer sottises than usual, and even managed to pick up new words from our conversation.

As always, I enjoyed Gilbert's stories, but there was one that I must pass on. Gilbert had an uncle who lived somewhere in the Gard (I believe), and Gilbert's family used to stop off on the way from Nice, where they lived, to their country house in the Aveyron. The uncle occupied half of a house that he shared with a distant cousin with whom relations were so poor that one of them had built a wall projecting four meters from the middle of the façade. The distant cousin had a vineyard, the produce of which he would take to a local cooperative for fermentation. One Sunday, he decided to see how the latest batch was brewing. Letting himself into the abandoned facility, he climbed the latter to the top of his vat and opened the lid. Or so one must surmise. His body was found in the vat the next day. Overcome, apparently, by the fumes - fermenting wine, or even beer, all but boils with activity - he lost his balance and tumbled in.

The above may very well be a confection of three completely different stories, but I know that someone did fall into a vat of his own wine and drown. An interesting death, to say the least. To make up for potential inaccuracies, I scoured the Web for a site relating to winemaking cooperatives in Provence, but the only really attractive page that I came across was all about the Pont du Gard.

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Tuesday 3 August According to a Reuters story published on the Times Web site this morning long after the print edition arrived on our doorstep, American allies are handling the terror-alert business quite differently. Consider our staunchest ally:

Britain, which honed its approach over decades of combating Irish militants, made its position clear by what it did not do.
News reports said intelligence seized in Pakistan that prompted the U.S. clampdown had also referred to targets in Britain. But while armed squads took to the streets in New York, British police took no public steps.
"There is no change to the deployment. We haven't put hundreds of police officers on the streets,'' a security source told Reuters.
Instead, comments by British officials reinforced the differences between the British and American approaches, emphasizing that Britain avoids public statements about security threats unless it can tell people exactly how to respond.

This makes sense to me. Unfortunately, the American approach also makes sense, because it accords with what one already knows of the blustering, blundering, and authoritarian style so favored by public executives these days. The incompetent but conspicuous exercise of power may be completely ineffective, or, worse, counterproductive, but it always looks manly, and appeals to forgiving people capable of subscribing to the slogan, "My Country, Right or Wrong." Right and Wrong make a better set of choices than Right and Left.

And what a lot of fun it must be, from the comfort of their padded, motorcading environments, to screw up daily life for all the ordinary people.

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Monday 2 August The weather here in New York is flat, stale, and unprofitable, the climate anxious and jittery. Important financial buildings are patrolled by armed men. Vans and trucks are ipso facto suspicious. The candidates are trying to figure out how to reconcile their optimism about America with the heightened menace of terror.

According to Bob Herbert, in the Times, however, nobody's paying attention to the real problems. Mr Herbert can be a scold, and some days I wish he'd lighten up a little, but I was with him all the way today. Today's column balances a trio of overwhelming problems - the two wars (we're beginning to lose in Afghanistan, or may already have lost) and employment - against the obstinate unwillingness of voters to hear anything really unpleasant. What voters want, apparently, is reassurance today's problems will disappear, and they reward candidates who offer the desired article. Worse, they're not very critical about the quality or soundness of the reassurance. Both candidates are cheered for positive attitudes, not positive ideas.

The voters may deserve better, but there's a real question about whether they want better. It may well be that candidates can't tell voters the truth and still win. If that's so, then democracy American-style may be a lot more dysfunctional than even the last four years has indicated.

My only complaint with the column is Mr Herbert's omission of energy issues, which to my mind outweigh the wars and unemployment combined. If there was ever an social problem that required long-term thinking and calibrated preparation, it is our dependence on dwindling supplies of fossil fuels at a time when the emerging economies of India and China are using so much more of the stuff themselves that they may rival our consumption. But I don't want to sound like a scold.

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Friday 30 July I've spent a lot of the past week in the Blogosphere, searching out interesting sites, or, rather, sites that interest me. I started off, as I've already noted, from the very stylish Towleroad. It was entirely a matter of linking from one blog to another, and for a long time I felt trapped in a ghetto of gay-themed blogs. In one of these, the author sensibly advised his readers that "being gay is, and should be, the least important thing about you," but for a number of reasons, all suggested by the blogs themselves, being gay appears to be the criterion for linking. Eventually - I really can't remember how - I stumbled on to a gay French blog, the impish Scripta Manent, and from here the scope opened widely. I soon found myself at the agreeably intelligent Douze Lunes, and not longer after that I was overwhelmed by the narrative of a resoundingly heterosexual American (i.e., married with children) site, Broad At Bat.

I also learned the importance of comments posted by visitors. It is pretty clearly not the comments themselves, but rather the links that open up when commentators' usernames are highlighted. How I will manage to simulate this aspect of Web log structure I've no idea at the moment, so for the time being I'm going to open up an unedited visitors' URL column. Stay tuned for that.

On my Internautical safari, I didn't take the time to notice whether anybody else does what I'm going to do, which is to insert a screen tip containing a rough description of each site. As always, I count on my readers to let me know of interesting sites that they've come across.

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Thursday 29 July Question: if Bill Clinton actually had a blog, would it have permalinks? Unfortunately, the faux Clinton blog does not, so I can't link you straight to any of its fun entries, such as the one in which Bill accompanies Kevin Spacey to a Soho gay bar, where "I did my John Travolta imitation. You know the dance with the pointing finger." (This just a few days after pronouncing Mr Spacey's boyfriend "an excellent cook.") There are many running gags, so to speak, involving Roger Clinton, Chelsea's boyfriend (a preppy referred to as "Curly" and "the mongoose"), and Bobbi Lamoon, a "publicist's assistant" who winds up accompanying Bill on his book tour. (Hmmm.) The blog appears to be structured on the tour's calendar, which appears at the head of each posting, and, like almost all diary blogs, there's the awkwardness of beginning at the present and reading backwards. Question: is Bill reading? If he is, I'm sure he's chuckling.

Something that The New Yorker does have online is Hendrik Hertzberg's generally admiring review of My Life, which from what I can tell is better written but no less voluminous than an actual blog-of-Bill would be. I always liked President Clinton, and I detest the legislators whose mission it was to throw tacks in the road ahead of him. As Mr Hertzberg points out, it's not easy to be a liberal politician today. Leaders who pursue liberal agendas are not going to be leaders for very long, and if you think that that's a sign of spinelessness, then consider the alternative.

I'm not going to read My Life. I might buy it, to help the Clintons with their mortgages, but I make it a rule not to read the ostensible memoirs of active politicians. Do, however, check out one of the sparkles of Mr Hertzberg's review, an assessment of the impact of her career upon his authorial options. "Exquisite" revenge.

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Wednesday 28 July Serves me right: I keep saying that this site is, for many technical reasons, 'not a blog,' and the Web is only too happy to support my claim. Real Web logs (from what I can tell) do not discuss written material that can't be linked to; linking really is the raison d'être of blogging. The New Yorker publishes some of its current material online, but not everything - not, for example, John Cassidy's fine essay addressing free trade and outsourcing. ("Winners and Losers: The truth about free trade," Aug. 2, 2004, p. 26.) So I can't link to it. But I can highlight two important points.

The first is that the foundational works of classical economics, by Adam Smith and David Ricardo, were written in a very different world. Both men believed that nations ought to specialize in the goods that they can produce more cheaply than others, and their argument is used to defend the outsourcing of service-sector jobs to India and elsewhere. (Colonialism may have been regrettable, but India owes its growing economy to a long British occupation that gave the Subcontinent its 'comparative advantage' over other emerging nations, in the form of the English language, which is India's version of Mandarin.) If Indian radiologists can evaluate X-rays more cheaply than American doctors, then, according to Smith, Ricardo, and almost all economists, they ought to have the work. But perhaps Smith and Ricardo might have thought differently today.

Ricardo was writing about economies dominated by agriculture and rudimentary manufacturing, where a favorable climate and the ready availability of raw materials were vital. These days, the keys to economic success are a well-educated workforce, technical know-how, high levels of capital investment, and entrepreneurial zeal - all of which countries can acquire with the help of supportive governments, multinational firms, and international investors.

The classical argument, in short, no longer stands. Mr Cassidy follows this observation with a quick look at one field in which the United States is supposed to have 'comparative advantages,' only to note that the American lead in science is falling precipitously. Assuring that this country keeps its lead as a powerhouse of innovation is not going to be easy, and it is certainly not going to happen without outside help. That this help can't take the form of protectionism we all know. (Although I do support Japan's very expensive rice subsidies; it would be folly for any nation, and especially for a rich one, to allow most of its food to be imported, whatever the cost.) But is protectionism the only kind of intervention? Mr Cassidy rightly thinks not.

A truly enlightened trade policy would involve increasing federal support for science at all levels of the education system; creating financial incentives for firms to pursue technological innovation; building up pre-school and mentoring initiatives that reduce dropout rates; expanding scholarships and visas to attract able foreign students and entrepreneurs to these shores; and encouraging the development of the arts.

That bit about the arts is far from gratuitous: fields involving copyright, such as music and the movies, may comprise the largest sector of our economy as it is. But while I wholeheartedly share Mr Cassidy's agenda, I'm not sure how much good it would do. It cannot address the fact that the jobs likely to remain are jobs requiring higher-than-average IQs. No country, not even this one, is going to have a 'comparative advantage' in IQs for the foreseeable future, no matter how much money is poured into education. What about jobs for people of ordinary intelligence? Do we deny them jobs simply because their counterparts elsewhere work for less? Not if we intend to maintain a healthy body politic, that's for sure.

As for blogging, here's something that I can link to: a fantastically funny, if highly vernacular, send-up of a proper French resume. 'Chamonix-aux-Flots' indeed.

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Tuesday 27 July Why does this always happen? The minute my resolve to let a subscription lapse - because I happen to be a slowish reader (I do a lot of stopping to think), I will never be able to get through the number of magazines currently coming in -  coincides with actual expiration, the periodical in question comes out with unusually interesting material. So it is now with The Wilson Quarterly, the Summer issue of which arrived the other day with a warning that this would be my last copy unless I renewed soon. Fine with me, I thought, but then I picked up the oddly-shaped publication and started reading. Do smarts rule?

The question is supposed to cover three very different essays. James B. Twitchell provides a dismaying glance at the commercialization of the modern university, and, without mentioning Japan, suggests that a an old Japanese problem has come to call: for too many students, what goes on between acceptance by a good college and admission to a good graduate school has little if any importance. More on that some other time. Steven Lagerfield deplores the elevation, rampant in the business world, of raw intelligence over traditionally important character traits such as honesty. (As the Enron scandal makes clear, intelligence without virtue leads to long-term folly.) The essay that caught my attention, and that still holds it, is by Linda S. Gottfredson, of the University of Delaware. Ms Gottfredson summarizes the best current thinking about the nature and operation of measurable intelligence, a quality known in the trade simply as g. In short, you can forget about the different kinds of intelligence postulated by Howard Gardner's Frames of Mind. There appears to be only one kind, the kind measured by IQ tests.

Until I read this essay ("Schools and the g Factor), I assumed that IQ-intelligence was like RAM: add more memory, and the computing happens more quickly and efficiently. But while there's only one kind of intelligence, it expresses itself very differently at the extreme ends of the bell curve. "Slow" people, with IQs below 90, aren't just slow; they're almost incapable of critical thinking. Ms Gottfredson writes,

The "complete" instruction that is most helpful for low-g learners is dysfunctional for these high-g individuals. The latter easily fill in gaps in instruction on their own and benefit most from abstract, self-directed, incomplete instruction that allows them to assemble new knowledge and reassemble old knowledge in idiosyncratic ways [i.e., to think critically]. But such forms of instruction are dysfunctional for low-g learners, who are more likely to be confused than stimulated by its incompleteness, abstractness, and requirements for self-direction.

Ms Gottfredson's brief is that the multiple-intelligence theory has muddied public education; it's unproductive to put kids of wildly disparate intelligence in the same classroom. Standing back from that issue, however, it's easy to see that inequality of intelligence is one of the Problems of Democracy, and possibly the biggest.

The Wilson Quarterly does not publish its contents online, but I've included the link so that you can see what it looks like, as well as the Table of Contents. I guess I'll be renewing.

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Monday 26 July Boy, am I out of the loop. I had to read about it in today's Times: 3.7 million visitors downloaded This Land, a dandy animated parody of Woody Guthrie's song that stars cutouts of Messrs Bush, Kerry and numerous others, last Friday alone. The spoof has been up since the beginning of July. Memo to nephew: if you knew about this, my dear Tim, but were too busy writing papers to pass it on, it will be a long time before your next steak chez nous. This Land is a big file (3.7 MB - curious coincidence, numerically), and I had watched it four times via cable connection before the other computer completed the download via phone line. But it's well worth the wait.

The Times's Great Summer Read resumes today, with Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate. Sadly, the paper's Web site does not carry the installments.

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Friday 23 July It's gloomy and wet here in Manhattan, and not at all cool - yet. Every once in a while, a relatively feeble spark of lightning is followed by a low, distant rumble. It is too sultry for even the weather to get it together. Remembering how I'd feel on such days last year, I'm given yet another reminder of how extensively Remicade has muted the impact of my several spondyloarthropathies. (There's a word for a spelling bee.) Initially developed (I believe) as a cancer medicine, Remicade was found to be effective for people with rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's Disease. I don't have either of those, but I do suffer from two other autoimmune diseases, ankylosing spondylitis and ulcerative colitis, the latter of which kept me housebound for a good part of last year and much of this year as well. Doctors are in the process of discovering that Remicade works for people like me, too. Curiously, perhaps, I don't carry the genetic marker, HLA-B27 that appears in 90% of AS sufferer.

Remicade is delivered in infusions that can last from two to six hours. I had my fourth infusion, two more or less quiet hours spent at the infusion unit at the Hospital for Special Surgery. The excellent nurses there painlessly insert a small needle in the back of one of my hands, and attach its rear end to a tube that runs from a clear sac containing the medication, which, Kathleen tells me, involves freshly-harvested cells from mice. (They don't concoct the brew until I've checked in.) Because the flow of the infusion is regulated by a pump, it would be incorrect to refer to the procedure as a 'drip.' Almost all the patients in the unit seem to be suffering far more than I am, and I feel a bit guilty as an outward picture of health.

I wanted to provide a link to novelist Marilynne Robinson's extraordinarily moving testament to liberalism in the new issue of Harper's, but the magazine's Web site hasn't caught up with reality; it's still listing July's issue as the most recent. Ms Robinson's essay is actually an extract from Social Research that Harper's has put at the head of its Readings section. Entitled "The Tyranny of Petty Coercion," the essay concerns "the capitulation of liberalism to illiberalism," offering a compelling definition of the liberal outlook. But a stunning insight toward the end has echoed in my mind for days:

The present dominance of aspersion and ridicule in American public life is a reflex of the fact that we are assumed to want, and in many cases perhaps do want, attitude much more than information. If an unhealthy percentage of the population gets its news from Jay Leno or Rush Limbaugh, it is because they are arbiters of attitude. They instruct viewers as to what, within their affinity groups, it is safe to say and cool to think. That is, they short-circuit the functions of individual judgment and obviate the exercise of individual conscience.

What this passage invites is an investigation of the resemblance of attitude to ideology. The connection between cool and short-circuited personal judgment is not so difficult to see, but because for most the last century 'ideology' was the cornerstone of two brutally style-less cultures, any likening of cool to ideology still strikes us as paradoxical. I suppose we had better look again. I'm also grateful to Ms Robinson for putting attitude and information in such stark juxtaposition. Stay tuned for a link.

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Thursday 22 July I hope that everybody likes green. I spent most of yesterday, well into the evening, reformatting pages - more pages than I thought one could get through in a day. I hadn't meant to do so; I thought that I'd just concentrate on one branch of the site (see menu above) at a time. But along the way, I made a rash decision to change my style sheet, or default settings, and the immediate result was that dozens of pages became unreadable, because their text and background were suddenly the same color: white. If you come across an all-white page - and there are still quite a few - or a page with a heading and a few oddly-distributed words, that's the reason. I'll get to it soon. The good thing about having to upgrade a Web site all at once is the grasp it conveys of the general sprawl.  But I am running a little bit late today. Doctors call it 'pooped.'

Two stories in today's Times caught my attention. The first concerned a report by the Brennan Justice Center at NYU that ranks New York's as the nation's most dysfunctional state legislature. This comes as no surprise after months, if not years, of editorials aimed at "Fixing Albany." If the editorials outnumber the news story, that's because not much happens in Albany, and when it does, the same three people are the ones who do it.  As a geopolitical division, New York state doesn't make a lot of sense, but the torpor in Albany has a more sinister root: the concerted emasculation of democratic legislation. Consider Senator Joseph L Bruno's dismissal of the report as 'pure nonsense,' and the shocking analogy in this explanation of his leadership role:

"Talk to the C.E.O. of any company," Mr. Bruno said. "If you want to act on something, and the company has 212 employees, what are you going to do, have a discussion and let 212 employees do whatever the agenda is? Is that what you do? So you have 212 different agendas. And that is just chaotic, doesn't work. That is Third-World-country stuff."

Give me the third world any time.

The other story was about middle-aged, abandoned husbands. Why did their wives up and leave them? They don't really know. But would you stay in a marriage with a person who had this to say about your - I don't want to say 'relationship' - friendship?

"It's like Muzak," said Mr. Klopper, 58, a landlord on the Upper West Side. "Sometimes it has no meaning. Sometimes you're not even listening. But it's there all the time, and I miss it."

If it's like Muzak, Mr K, buy a radio.

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Wednesday 21 July To qualify for the Darwin Awards, is it necessary to die? Or is it enough simply to take yourself out of the gene pool? The case of David Walker, of Sheffield, England, poses this tricky question. A rash 28 year-old, he has very likely put paid to his reproductive future (by stuffing a loaded shotgun into his jeans during a drunken stupor), but at least he's alive enough to serve a minimum statutory sentence for the unlawful possession of firearms. Let's say, then, that he has earned the right to an award , but will have to wait until his lifestyle becomes more - posthumous to receive it.

I must not be a nice person. Culling from a bookshelf, I came across two books that had to go, but not before I said mean things about them. Doing so was great fun. I've gotten good at avoiding books that will strike me as ridiculous, so the opportunity to write in shredder mode doesn't arise very often. But these two guides to classical music struck a nerve, reminding me of flunking my first paper at prep school. I had to write about The Iceman Cometh, which I found too numbingly dull to get through. The paper came back with this comment: "This paper is a tissue of circumlocution." Ouch!

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Tuesday 20 July We had an early dinner on Sunday, and at 9:30 I tuned into HBO to watch "Entourage," which I'd read about in the Times. It didn't start until ten, but I'm so completely out of the habit of paying attention to show times that I couldn't be sure. Anybody who watched "Six Feet Under" will know what was in store for me when the screen lit up. David, the gay undertaker, picked up an apparently distressed motorist who turned out to be a psychopath. (Making the encounter doubly awful was David's little fantasy, before the ugliness, of his passenger's coming on to him - you could see "I deserve this" all over Michael C. Hall's face.) The action got so harrowing that Kathleen asked me to turn down the sound.

Then, yesterday, I got round to writing a few words about Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death Revisited. And now, this morning, there's a link from Towleroad to a new blog, The Hearse, run by an anonymous Angeleno who, yes, drives a hearse.

I hope that that's it for death this week. Like Andy Towle, the driver writes very well. Towleroad, by the way, is the first intelligent blog that I've come across. It happens to be gay-themed.

"Entourage" turned out to be great fun. It could be a very dark show, and perhaps over time it will live up to its story's grim possibilities. The Hollywood days and nights of a rising movie star, surrounded by the three old friends from Queens who buffer the outside world for him without particularly liking one another, could easily take the Sunset Boulevard route, but for the time being all four characters are so dazzled by sheer possibility that they try to get along. (This reminds me of the article in a recent Sunday Times Magazine about therapy for rock bands.) The last line of the episode, "Let's hope you're right, pizza boy," was amazingly poignant (for television).

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