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10 February 2010


Matins: Poverty comes to the suburbs, on the coattails of "the free market." (Fast Company; via The Infrastructurist)

Maybe the New Urbanists' greatest innovation is "SmartCode," their rigorous zoning manual for guaranteeing the integrity of a newly-built neighborhood. But its existence only underscores the fact that left to their own devices, market forces and their instruments--the developers--would never follow these precepts on their own. And why would they, when the system is aligned against it? Tax codes, zoning, community boards, and financing are a straitjacket on new types of development--they created a product that works, and they're preconditioned to produce more of it. (For an excellent account of how the suburban sausage gets made, read Witold Rybczynski's Last Harvest.)

We've got a copy of Mr Rybczynski's book here somewhere, but we're afraid to read it: too depressional!

Lauds: Here's something for the cockles of everyone who believes that the world in general and Western Civilization is Going To Hell in a Handbasket: "Dante's Inferno: Do Classic Poems Make Great Video Games." We don't mean just the concept; Jamin Brophy-Warren's interview with game designer Jonathan Knight is a Must Read. Oh, yeah.

Q Is there anything that you would have liked to include from the poem, but didnít work out?

A I would have liked to include a lot more back stories about some of the minor characters. Like in Treachery, he stumbles across Count Ugolino whoís trapped in the ice. Heís buried in eternity eating the head of his archenemy [Archbishop Ruggieri] and itís really arresting stuff. Thereís speculation too that he had to devour his own children.

But we canít tell players to stop and listen someone tell a story. Thatís not what games are about. A lot of the great language that comes from the story is definitely lost on the game. Thatís the nature of saying itís not literature. At the end of the day, itís a loose videogame version of the literature, but not a replacement. Itís not like you can play the game and you can do a book report.

Prime: Cringely plants his fist on exactly what is wrong with "productivity" in his column about the nation's hunger for start-ups.

According to a recent study by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, companies less than five years old generated nearly two-thirds of the new jobs created in the U. S. in 2007. But whatís even more important is that without these startups more jobs would be lost than created, the U. S. economy would permanently shrink and America would eventually lose its superpower status, simple as that.

This is because big companies grow by increasing scale and productivity, which is to say by reducing the number of jobs per unit of sales, while startups grow by inventing cool stuff. See the difference?

Tierce: Were we wondering why we hadn't given ChatRoulette a try? Not quite. But Jonah Lehrer has the answer: we can enjoy its attractions without enduring its drawbacks.

The other thing to say about ChatRoulette is that it reminded me of an urban subway. Like a dense city, the website mixes together strangers, forcing them to stare at each other for a few fleeting seconds. This momentary mixing, while often unpleasant and awkward, turns out to be a crucial function of cities. Jane Jacobs, in her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, argued that every healthy city was defined by its ability to facilitate social interaction. She saw the busy sidewalk as an improvisational "ballet," in which information freely flowed between city dwellers. Her book identified the specific urban ingredients from short city blocks to mixed-use neighborhoods that encouraged "the intricate mingling of diversity."

The subway is better, though, because the people using it already have something to do.

Sext: The extremely touching story of Timothy McSweeney.

Knowing that the journal bore the name of a real person who had endured years of struggle threw melancholy shadows over the enterprise. But the McSweeneys insisted that the use of the name was acceptable, even appropriate, given Timothy's background as an artist and search for connection and meaning through the written word. Since 2000 we've implicitly dedicated all issues to the real Timothy.

Nones: Even as schools all over the country are abandoning foreign-language instruction overall, an interest in learning Mandarin seems to be picking up. Will it last? Probably not. We agree with Norman Matloff

Americans have a bad rap in linguistics. Europeans relish speaking multiple languages, weíre told, while Americans simply arenít interested.

Unfair comparison. Most Europeans live within a couple hundred miles of another nation, so they speak multiple languages out of necessity.

In U.S. regions with similar necessity, interest in language learning is brisk. Walk into any chain bookstore in California and you will see tons of books on learning Spanish. Indeed, in many stores, Spanish has its own section, separate from Foreign Languages.

Vespers: Maud Newton writes about being intimidated by other writers' work, noting that Joan Didion had to stop reading Henry James because he was so overpowering. But we like Jack Pendarvis's comment:

When I was walking over to meet George Saunders for the first time, I kept thinking ďDonít tell him how much you steal from himÖ donít tell him how much you steal from himÖ Say anything except how much you steal from him.Ē His first words were, ďI was reading your book on the airplane. I feel like we were separated at birth.Ē And I said, ďThatís because I steal from you so much.Ē After that, I sent him like 1,000 emails trying to explain that I didnít REALLY steal from him, and what I REALLY meant, and Iím pretty sure I appeared to be a raving lunatic. He never once made me feel crazy or like a stalker, and was very gentlemanly and kind in his responses. So I guess to answer your question, itís like when Flannery OíConnor was asked if creative writing programs stifled young writers and she said, ďThey donít stifle enough of them.Ē In other words, thereís probably something to be said for intimidation, and I havenít been intimidated ENOUGH.

Compline: To while away the snow-bound after-dinner hours, follow Mike Deri Smith on an edifying tour of corruption around the world, from Russia to the Jersey Shore. Well, the conclusion is edifying, anyway. (The Morning News)

Donít confuse a recent rash of stories about corruption with more corruption. Perhaps itís the case that better reporting and better institutional efforts are catching the grafters. Organizations like Global Integrity and Transparency International are working hard to highlight corruption, help citizens combat it, and advise countries how much it can cost their economyócorruption costs Russia up to one third of its GDP. Itís no wonder China is taking such a hard line.

Frank Serpico continually blew the whistle on corruption in the New York police Department through the í60s and early í70s, but it wasnít until he got a bullet in the face that superiors paid attention and heard his testimony. Everyone above should bear in mind the words he recently spoke: ďI always said that no matter how big or how much corruption there is, itís never greater than the individual or the might of doing the right thing.Ē

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