Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The End of Dutch Relativism?

Just how far can cultural relativism go? The Dutch have been famous for their tolerance and acceptance of diparate populations in the Netherlands, but after a series of infamous killings, fissures have emerged in Dutch popular opinion. The Pacific News Service has an article on one recent development that those interested in contemporary "culture wars" should put in the files.

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands--After a 19-year-old man of Moroccan descent was run down and killed in January by a Dutch woman driver trying to recover her stolen purse, mourners blamed Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk for the death.

Gathered at a makeshift memorial here earlier this winter, the mourners said Verdonk's tough immigration reforms have increased Dutch xenophobia against Muslims, spurring the woman's violent reaction against the alleged thief.

Yet some voices here say that it is, ironically, the famous Dutch tolerance -- euthanasia, gay marriage and soft-drug use are allowed here -- that may have laid the foundation for current ethnic tensions.

"The problem is we have been tolerant of the intolerant, and now we are paying the bill," says Bart Jan Spruyt, director of the conservative Edmund Burke Foundation in The Hague.

In a nation of 16 million, 1 million residents are Muslim. But according to Spruyt, cultural relativism has reigned so long that there has been little, if any, push to integrate immigrants from Morocco and Turkey into Dutch society.

Monday, March 28, 2005


No, this is not serious news, nor anthropological, in any normal sense of the term. But it is very, very funny on a Monday morning.

HOBART, Ind. (AP) -- While there's nothing special about U.S. Postal Service workers being terrorized by dogs, the size of one here is raising eyebrows.

Mail carriers said they were recently unable to deliver mail to homes along a section of Guyer Street in this northwestern Indiana city because of a 4.5-pound Chihuahua named Bobo.

"The little Chihuahua was 10-foot tall when he was on the street," said Florence Page of the Hobart Humane Society, which picked up the dog twice for running loose. "It's kind of comical, you know, but after a while it's not any more."

Hobart police officer Ron Schalk said he had no option but to cite Seber for allowing the dog to run loose.

"The biggest thing I was concerned with is there were a lot of residents that week who couldn't get their mail," he said. "The little Chihuahua was running around being aggressive and trying to bite people's ankles."

Monday, March 21, 2005

POTUS Reading Lists

Richard Norton Smith, conservative biographer and historian, writes about the reading interests of presidents past and present in the upcoming Weekly Standard. Now his spin is that what presidents read before occupying the White House doesn't translate into a "better" chief executive, his example being James Madison's mismanaged war record. But, when placed against the old portraits on the walls, GBII seems woefully sophomoric:

Like John Quincy Adams, Bush reads the Bible every morning on rising (alternating scripture with the inspirational writings of Oswald Chambers, the Scottish-born chaplain who died in 1917 at the age of 42). Bush, like Adams, emulates his mother more than his presidential father. There the similarities end. The second Adams wrote English with one hand while translating Greek with the other, and complained that his official duties deprived him of the companionship of old friends Cicero and Tacitus. As a former professor of oratory at Harvard, Adams was openly contemptuous of the unlettered Andrew Jackson. He was appalled to learn in 1833 that his beloved alma mater intended to bestow an honorary degree on the Tennessee frontiersman who personified the triumph of western democracy, "a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and could hardly spell his own name."

The Woes of a Best-Selling Author

The NYT reports that Dan Brown, author of best-selling phenomenon, "The Da Vinci Code," has gone into post-celebrity hiding, shocked at the fame - and money - his book has garnered. I can't say I have much sympathy with Mr. Brown, most authors struggle to make a living at the profession, often relegated to the midlist if they pass the rejection pile (for a noteworthy comparison, read this first-person account). So you write a book, go on the PR circus, and get beter than excellent results: Why are you fighting against the results of your efforts? (Or, in a more colloquial vein, "what where you thinking?")

He has given almost no interviews over the last year, immersing himself instead in researching and writing the follow-up to "The Da Vinci Code," which will again feature Robert Langdon, the familiar Harvard religious scholar, and will be set in Washington and focus on the secretive world of the Freemasons.

"I have no idea how real celebrities handle their fame," Mr. Brown, 40, said last week in a rare written response to questions submitted to him by e-mail message. "I'm just a guy who wrote a book, and it still can turn into a circus at times when I go out in public."

His retreat from the public eye comes as expectations for his next novel grow bigger every day, as do sales of "The Da Vinci Code," a thriller that long ago morphed from a best seller into a cultural phenomenon.

Since its release on March 18, 2003, "The Da Vinci Code," Mr. Brown's fourth novel, has sold roughly 25 million copies in 44 languages around the world, including nearly 10 million hardcover copies in the North America. That is 10 times the average sales of industry titans like John Grisham and Nora Roberts, making the book one of the fastest-selling adult novels of all time. While most books move into paperback within a year of their original publication in hardcover, Mr. Brown's publisher, Doubleday, still has not scheduled a paperback release of "The Da Vinci Code."

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Fancy Loos of LA

(For our British readers, who appreciate this sort of thing.) More weird news from LA today that seems germane to our fair region. A gas station owner in West Covina has found fame beyond affordable gas and packaged convenience foods. For the past 13 years his station has become reknown for its opulent lavatory, which is unheard of in the states (or elsewhere, for that matter).

Moghadan, 55, of San Dimas, decided to go beyond the basics. He asked his brother, architectural designer Nassar Moghadan of Hemet, to concoct something that motorists wouldn't forget.

Their creation is definitely a step above your average gas station restroom — some might say a little over the top. The walls are drenched in rich earth tones and blue stone tiles, giving the room a vaguely Tuscan — or maybe Vegas — feel. Although a few other gas stations have tried to class up their lavatories, Harryman and others said such creations were still highly unusual.

Over the last dozen years, Moghadan said, he has averaged 20 compliments a day about his facilities. "I have customers from Palm Springs and Las Vegas who make a point of stopping here. Some even bring in relatives to show them the bathroom," he said.

More Microsoft Gimmicks

Privacy? Microsoft? These two terms mix like water and oil. From MarketingVox.com:

After having introduced a series of also-ran technologies in the search engine market, Microsoft this morning said it planned to release a technology that neither Google nor Yahoo can yet offer: the ability for advertisers to filter the people exposed to their search ads by demographic information. Marketers will be able to target one ad to men, another to women, and use additional information such as age and location. Microsoft has been tracking this information for years through its various sites, including MSN, Hotmail and others, keeping a vast database on tens of millions of individuals, each assigned a user ID Microsofties refer to as a GUID, or global user ID. Past internal Microsoft plans to use the GUID have been shelved due to fears privacy advocates would set about characterizing the technology as a dangerous and invasive use of personal information.

Microsoft said it plans to offer advertisers break-outs of which types of audience members clicked on ads, versus merely saw them, allowing marketers to further refine creative and media choices. In the future, the company may be able to offer media on its non-search sites linked through the GUID to past search behavior, providing a form of simplistic behavioral targeting.
The initial demographic selection technology will roll out with Microsoft's much-heralded adCenter paid search advertising auction system to be initially tested in the next six months in just the tiny markets of France and Singapore. Microsoft's deal with Yahoo for its general search site is set to end a year after that time.


The latest London Review of Books is now online, and contains a review of Robert Sullivan's Rats: A Year with New York’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. The good news is that the LRB elected to review a book about an important public health problem in any large, urban city - and vermin can make even the most resolute readers slightly queasy. The bad news is that it was reviewed by Sean Wilsey, an editor at McSweeney's, so that the Anglophile readership of the LRB is subjected to the auto-confessional literary machination of the New American Baroque, like this:

Most of the live rats I’ve seen have been in the subway. Train workers call them ‘track rabbits’. Sullivan describes a subway station near Madison Square Garden:

People come down from the streets and throw the food that they have not eaten onto the tracks, along with newspapers and soda bottles . . . The rats eat freely from the waste and sit at the side of the little streams of creamy brown sewery water that flows between the rails. They sip the water the way rats do, either with their front paws or by scooping it up with their incisors.

Recently, a track worker called Manuel, who moonlights as a handyman, helped Daphne and me paint what would soon become our child’s room. Manuel painted in silence, until I asked if he ever encountered rats in the tunnels. ‘I see them all the time! They’re big, and they’re brave. They scare me. The other night I was spreading concrete when I looked up and there was one about a foot long, staring at me. When I waved my shovel at him he stood up on his hind legs and snarled.’

‘What did you do?’

‘I decided to go on a break.’

Women in Islam

Salon has a great interview with journalist Asra Nomani about her pilgramage to Mecca as documented in her recent book and her thoughts about women in Islam:

In her new book "Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam," Asra Nomani, formerly a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and an international correspondent for Salon, embarks on a demanding spiritual and physical quest to make peace with her Islamic identity and her place as a woman within the faith. Joined by three generations of her family -- including her newborn son, Shibli -- she journeys to Mecca to complete the hajj, the great pilgrimage required of all Muslims once in their lives.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Humanity Trifecta

Seems the posts today fall into three nice categories: The good; the bad, and now the ugly:

Bernard J. Ebbers, the former chief executive of WorldCom, was found guilty today on all nine counts of orchestrating a record $11 billion fraud that bankrupted his company.

Mr. Ebbers, 63, was convicted of securities fraud, conspiracy and seven counts of filing false reports with regulators. He now faces up to life in prison, with the convictions collectively carrying a maximum penalty of 85 years in jail. Sentencing was set for June 13. He remains free on bail.

Weapons of the Weak, Annoyed, and Angry

Glad to see anthropologist James Scott quoted in today's NYT article on the small, annoying things in life. But don't think that foot-dragging "weapons of the weak" was popularly accepted among all researchers when it came out in the 1970s. Small daily skirmishes with new power structures make bring some "relief" to the afflicted, but many researchers agree that such resistance without a coordinated political outlet will not structurally change the existing status quo.

Life can involve big hardships, like being fired or smashing up your car. There is only so much you can do about them. But far more prevalent - and perhaps in the long run just as insidious - are life's many little annoyances.

These, you can do something about.

To examine the little weapons people use for everyday survival is to be given a free guidebook on getting by, created by the millions who feel that they must. It is a case study in human inventiveness, with occasional juvenile and petty passages, and the originators of these tips are happy to share them.

"They're an integral part of how people cope," said Prof. James C. Scott, who teaches anthropology and political science at Yale University, and the author of "Weapons of the Weak," about the feigned ignorance, foot-dragging and other techniques Malaysian peasants used to avoid cooperating with the arrival of new technology in the 1970's. "All societies have them, but they're successful only to the extent that they avoid open confrontation."

Languages Around the World

A bit late, but the Guardian reviewed Nicholas Oster's Empires of the World: A Language History of the World, which should make interesting reading for the linguistic set. At least he gets the anthropological angle correct: language (and tool use) are probably the defining characteristic of our species, and therefore, humanity en sensu lato.

In defence of the centrality of language in human history, Ostler argues that it is language that enables people to form communities and to share a common history: indeed, by the very act of the old teaching the young to speak, language is also central to the establishment and reproduction of tradition. He describes very well how languages reflect and articulate the cultures and histories of different communities: indeed, unless you speak the vernacular, it is impossible properly to understand another people. From his rich picture of why major languages have waxed and waned, it is clear that there is no single model: on the contrary, while Ostler does his best to categorise and conceptualise, there are in fact almost as many models as there are languages. For all the hubris about the rise of English and how it will rule the world's tongues for ever, it is sobering to reflect on why languages that in their day seemed utterly irresistible in their dominance and prestige, spoken across large regions of the world for thousands of years, were eventually eclipsed.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Changing Jobs

Stephanie Hollmichel at So Many Books has an interview with MBA-ex-business exec Adam Fawer, whose first novel Improbable was published last month by HarperCollins. It includes his take on moving from the business world into writing, and fond memories of his friend Stephanie Williams.

You Write, Girl

International Women's Day was March 8, but a week later we learn who has been selected for Britain's Orange Prize in literature, via the Guardian.

Now in its 10th year, the Orange Prize is the UK's only annual book award for fiction written by a woman. Established in 1996 with the aim of celebrating and promoting fiction by female authors throughout the world, it is open to any woman of any nationality or age writing in English. The winner receives a cheque for £30,000.

And the Long List is:

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)

The Great Stink by Clare Clark (Viking)

Escape Routes for Beginners by Kira Cochrane (Simon & Schuster)

Billie Morgan by Joolz Denby (Serpent's Tail)

The Zigzag Way by Anita Desai (Chatto & Windus)

Hickey Tatty by Christine Dwyer (New Island)

It So Happens by Patricia Ferguson (Solidus)

Away From You by Melanie Finn (Penguin)

Old Filth by Jane Gardam (Chatto & Windus)

The Mysteries of Glass by Sue Gee (Review)

Nelson's Daughter by Miranda Hearn (Sceptre)

Ursula, Under by Ingrid Hill (Jonathan Cape)

The Mammoth Cheese by Sheri Holman (Virago)

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka (Viking)

Black Dirt by Nell Leyshon (Picador)

The Remedy by Michelle Lovric (Virago)

Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy (John Murray)

The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates (Fourth Estate)

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (Serpent's Tail)

The River by Tricia Wastvedt (Viking)

Blog On

A cursory read of the morning news led to two articles on different aspects of blogging: the personal (Ayelet Waldman confessing to "living outloud" on the net in Salon); and the social (a conference of liberal bloggers in the NYT).

Friday, March 11, 2005

Taking the SAT - Read The Following

Hey, high school kids, while you're sweating out the new SAT test in the coming weeks, you might want to read the following about your future job prospects in the "new economy" that rewards education, hard work, and intelligence (sic):

Long-term unemployment, defined as joblessness for six months or more, is at record rates. But there's an additional twist: An unusually large share of those chronically out of work are, like Gillespie, college graduates.

The increasing inability of educated workers to quickly return to the workforce reflects dramatic shifts in the economy, experts say. Even as overall hiring is picking up and economic growth remains strong, industries are transforming at a rapid pace as they adjust to intense competition, technological change and other pressures.

That means skilled jobs can quickly become obsolete, while others are outsourced. Educated workers are increasingly subject to the job insecurities and disruptions usually plaguing blue-collar laborers, but various factors make it even harder for some educated workers to get back into the workforce quickly. Though a college education is still one of a worker's best assets, it's no guarantee that a worker's skills will match demands of a shifting job market.

The advantages of a college degree "are being erased," said Marcus Courtenay, president of a branch of the Communications Workers of America that represents technology employees in the Seattle area. "The same thing that happened to non- college-educated employees during the last recession is now happening to college-educated employees."

Even with better-than-expected job growth, 373,000 people with college degrees quit job hunting and dropped out of the labor force last month, the Labor Department reported Friday.

The number of long-term unemployed who are college graduates has nearly tripled since the bursting of the tech bubble in 2000, statistics show. Nearly 1 in 5 of the long-term jobless are college graduates. If a degree holder loses a job, that worker is now more likely than a high school dropout to be chronically unemployed.

That change is occurring as it is getting harder for all jobless to get back into the workforce.

Friday Laugh Factory

Thanks to Kevin Drum over at the Washington Monthly, who posted this hilarious article yesterday, which I've only just read. It deserves to be read in its entirety:

WE ARE ALL JUST ATOMS IN A GAS....My thermodynamics professor at Caltech — who has gone on to bigger and better things since awarding me a C+ in his class 28 years ago — once regaled us with the following example of nerd humor:

The fundamental unit of study in electrodynamics is the photON, and the fundamental unit of study in atomic physics is the electrON. So I guess that means the fundamental unit of study in the social sciences is the persON.

That's some big yucks there, folks. I bring this up because, against all odds, it turns out that Prof. Goodstein may have been more insightful than he imagined. Apparently a breed of researchers who call themselves "econophysicists" have been studying income inequality and have come to the following conclusion:

They found that while the income distribution among the super-wealthy — about 3 per cent of the population — does follow Pareto's law, incomes for the remaining 97 per cent fitted a different curve — one that also describes the spread of energies of atoms in a gas.

....While economists' models traditionally regard humans as rational beings who always make intelligent decisions, econophysicists argue that in large systems the behaviour of each individual is influenced by so many factors that the net result is random, so it makes sense to treat people like atoms in a gas.

Indeed, treating 97% of the population like atoms in a gas bears a disturbing resemblance to orthodox Republican economics, doesn't it? (Admit it. You were waiting for the political spin on this, weren't you?) In fact, as macroeconomist Makoto Nirei puts it, the gas model "seems to me not like an economic exchange process, but more like a burglar process. People randomly meet and one just beats up the other and takes their money."

Nirei seems to think this is a defect of the model, but I'm not so sure. After watching the bankruptcy bill wend its way through Congress, I suspect this might actually be the reason the model seems to describe reality so well.


A Social Basis for Innovation

Arts Journal points us today to an online article from the Economist about companies harnessing their customers for new product ideas. Is this really new? When Scott Adam's "Dilbert" strip about corporate culture began syndication, he put his email between panels, allowing fans to send in their own experiences, creating a database of ideas that probably has years to go. And cognitive scientists have known for years that some mental tasks (say, naval navigation) are better accomplished as social activities.

LAST November, engineers in the healthcare division of General Electric unveiled something called the “LightSpeed VCT”, a scanner that can create a startlingly good three-dimensional image of a beating heart. This spring Staples, an American office-supplies retailer, will stock its shelves with a gadget called a “wordlock”, a padlock that uses words instead of numbers. In Munich, meanwhile, engineers at BMW have begun prototyping telematics (combining computing and telecoms) and online services for a new generation of luxury cars. The connection? In each case, the firm's customers have played a big part GE, BMW or the leading role (Staples) in designing the product.

How does innovation happen? The familiar story involves boffins in academic institutes and R&D labs. But lately, corporate practice has begun to challenge this old-fashioned notion. Open-source software development is already well-known. Less so is the fact that Bell, an American bicycle-helmet maker, has collected hundreds of ideas for new products from its customers, and is putting several of them into production. Or that Electronic Arts, a maker of computer games, ships programming tools to its customers, posts their modifications online and works their creations into new games. And so on. Not only is the customer king: now he is market-research head, chief and product-development manager, too.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Doctor Is Back

Attention old Dr. Who fans - the BBC series is back after a 15-year hiatus, but for many critics, the results are less-than-spectacular:

It is unfair to review a restaurant on opening night, but an event as important as the return of Doctor Who after a hiatus of 15 years (not counting the ill-fated 1996 US TV movie co-production, to which BBC executives have the same regard Stalin had for Trotsky) is of such importance to millions of fans around the world that instant judgments are required.

The good Doctor is most definitely back... and many traditionalists are going to greet this radical new version with utter dismay.

Let's start with the negatives - and there are many. This is Who for the attention deficit disorder generation. The wonderfully slow build-up of tension that was a hallmark of the series at its finest - think of the Hand of Fear creeping towards Sarah Jane! - was entirely absent from episode one, entitled Rose.

Touch Is Everything

The March 7 issue of the New Yorker has a small article by Tad Friend on two innovations in the pen industry (alas, not online - see pp.32-33). The one that caught my eye was on the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, and her seemingly new take on the important market of author signings:

Then, Margaret Atwood, the Canadian novelist, announced that she had invented a device that allows an author to remain at home while autographing books in faraway bookstores - a solution to the prennial problem of highbrow writers being mobbed by screaming fans. Her contraption is a kind of two-way video hookup with a robotic pen arm. An author can sit at the kitchen table in her pajamas and make a personalized inscription on an electronic screen, while, in a distant mall, the robotic pen replicates the message on the title page of a fan's propped-up book. Atwood came up with the idea last spring, during an expensive and exhausting three-week publicity tour for her novel "Oryx and Crake." She says that the invention, which will be manufactured by a new company called Unotchit ("You no touch it"), will increase both the safety of the writer-reader interaction - "My germs and my bio-material won't be in the same place as your germs and your bio-material" - and its profundity: "I'm more likely to be gazing deeply into your eyes as I'm signing on the screen."

Atwood seems to have forgotten that for many readers attending author signings, it's not just the "experience" of communicating with the author that is attractive, it is also getting a personalized book that has been touched - meaning signed - by the author. Interpersonal connection requires a bit of proximity and non-verbal communication: businesses invested heavily in video teleconferencing as an economical means to enhance corporate communication, but found that it still pays to have staff go out and meet accounts, shake hands, chat, and make sales calls. That human touch, especially with physical objects, imparts what anthropologists call "contagious magic," whereby the act of touching an object imparts some "being" or "essence" of an individual in that artifact. Much of the antiques trade is based this concept: the provenance of an antique showing it was owned and used by George Washington makes it much more valuable than a similar antique produced at the same time without such a connection. (And the ideological justification for the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy is the ritual of "laying on of hands" from Jesus, to Peter, to Paul, and all other subsequent popes and church elders.) Atwood can argue about her "bio-material" not touching her books for sale, but it will also lessen the experience for many readers, and potential customers. Perhaps she should rethink why book signings became so popular in the first place, and a critical aspect to most literary marketing campaigns.

Longer Hours, Threat of Unemployment - Welcome to IT

The NYT reports on Silicon Valley game programmers who are rethinking their place in the modern workplace. Long hours to complete projects, loss of benefits, and threats to relocate their careers overseas have raised the ire of employees, and caused some to ponder the effects of unionization. One Director of HR was quoted as saying that overtime pay will take employees, "out of a culture that emphasizes entrepreneurialism and ownership and into a clock-watching mentality," but the game industry itself is no longer the risk-rewarding entrepreneurial zone that needed bright and energetic programmers:

With few exceptions, industry executives and employees agree, crunching is part of a video game's life cycle - often a very painful part. Workers say they put in 60, 70, even 80 hours a week, with no days off, throwing themselves body and mind into the long march and in many cases fueled by caffeine or even stronger stimulants.

"It's soul crushing," said a senior executive at a small public video game company who has spent 10 years in the business. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said he had watched developers become increasingly disillusioned. "This is much more of a mass-market industry."

Such toil is not unique to the video game industry. Lawyers crunch on the eve of a trial, as do investment bankers in the midst of a deal. But lawyers and bankers tend to be better compensated for their efforts than $70,000-a-year game programmers.

Game developers, though, once worked in relatively small companies and took enormous pride in the products they created. Now, amid a consolidation that has put the video game business in the hands of a few big public companies like Electronic Arts and Activision, and in which best-selling titles can cost $10 million to $20 million to create, many developers say they feel like cogs in someone else's machine.

Monday, March 07, 2005

It's The Calories, Stupid!

Salon has a feature article on the food industry and the USDA's fears over trans fat. But again, the problem isn't what Americans are eating (the French love fatty foods and liters of red wine), but how much they are eating. Next time you order that burger and fries, remember that when your parents were young the "regular" size fries and drinks they consumed are now labeled "small," implying "less filling" and "less cost efficient," putting customers on the road to super-sized meals and waistlines.

However, nutritionists are not really worried about lesser levels of trans fat. "It's a bizarre labeling quirk," Nestle says. "If you don't eat too much of it, it doesn't matter much. It's not a poison." I guess I can put the Quaker Oats Chewy Granola bars back in my cupboard.

More troubling to Nestle is the twisted way that the fight against trans fat gives food companies something to do in the obesity epidemic that won't interfere with their bottom line, while the American waistline only grows bigger. She maintains that in a business that depends on cheap government-subsidized staples such as corn and soybeans, the food companies are under constant pressure to get customers to stuff more and more into their mouths.

"The real root of the problem is Wall Street," Nestle says. "You've got a situation in which every company is trying to grow and there's only so much people can eat." While valiantly working to take trans fat out of their food products -- and advertise that fact -- companies can look as though they're doing their part to improve Americans' health without cutting into profits: "In a sense, it's a bone thrown to the food industry: Here's something you can do to clean up your act that won't put you out of business," she says.

And the government neatly avoids antagonizing the food industry by never saying you shouldn't eat what they're selling. Imagine federal dietary standards that said, "Stop eating Big Macs, Doritos and Oreos," Simon, of the Center for Informed Food Choices, has written. "Those are recommendations that most Americans could understand, but not ones we are likely to hear."

Post 9-11 Literature

The same issue of the Times today also has a piece on post 9-11 literature, the better samples of which are just beginning to reach the market. But, to tell the truth, the AA was a bit surprised - I had thought that Joyce Carol Oates would have had the galleys corrected and resubmitted several months after the tragedy.

The events of Sept. 11 found their way into a variety of media immediately after the attacks. Country musicians released flag-waving songs within weeks, and other musical tributes, poems, plays, documentaries and nonfiction books soon followed, including Bruce Springsteen's elegy "The Rising" and Michael Moore's incendiary film "Fahrenheit 9/11."

And while the attacks have already found a place in a handful of mysteries, spy novels and other works of mass-market fiction, only now are books being published that some literary critics are saying take the substantial risks needed to give them staying power.

The delay of more than three years reflects both the logistics of producing a bound volume of a lengthy manuscript and the more subtle, complex process of creating a novel.

"Some art forms, like poems or the drawings of Art Spiegelman, lend themselves to a more immediate treatment of an event like 9/11," said James Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia University who has taught the "great books" curriculum there. "But a novel really has to do more. A novelist has to sustain a story that feels right to people who actually lived through the event, who have a sense of what really happened. It has to be more than just a recounting of the event."

By no means is that an easy task, of course. Joyce Carol Oates, the author and critic whose recent short story "The Mutants" dealt with a woman trapped in her Lower Manhattan apartment on 9/11, said novels might not be the art form best able to address the events of that day.

"This does seem to be about the right time for these novels to be coming out," Ms. Oates said. "But the greatest art form to deal with this might be film, because it can capture the hallucinatory nature of the long hours of that siege."

But Do They Read The Articles?

The NYT reports on a new magazine niche: publications for the super-wealthy. Following the trend-setting lead of the rich is nothing new, Thorstein Veblen wrote about it 116 years ago in The Theory of The Leisure Class, and coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption" in the process.

In an ever more fragmented media world, the rich are becoming their own niche. They may be diverse connoisseurs of fashion, yachting or jewelry, but they share one important trait: a seemingly bottomless supply of disposable income.

Not everyone in the magazine industry is convinced that this new market is as real as its promoters like to believe. Maer Roshan, editor in chief of Radar, a magazine that is being reintroduced in May and aimed not at the luxury crowd but at contemporary urban culture, said he saw the luxury magazines as escape hatches for a country weary of a post-9/11 reality.

"We're in a war and it's not exactly a boom time economy," he said. But the luxury magazines "have ceded reality, so what's left for them but to build their own fantasy worlds?"

Friday, March 04, 2005

Dueling Events in Pasadena Tonight

Lastly, I wanted to put this at the top of today's posts. For those in or around the Crown City, Pasadena will be hosting two cultural events tonight, leaving me conflicted about which to choose. Most of the arts and cultural institutions are open and free tonight from 6-10 PM to celebrate the annual Arts Night Pasadena. But at the same time, Walter Mosley is speaking at Caltech's Beckman Auditorium at 8 PM - also free.

Moby Dick in 9-1/2 Seconds

Missed this yesterday, but the CIA is now using a California-based company to scan and diagram sentences from electronic documents, turning chatter into structured data for further analysis. But how will they code for "Uhh," "Hmm," and "Doh," if they show up?

Attensity, based in Palo Alto, Calif., and financed in part by In-Q-Tel, the C.I.A.'s investment arm, has developed a method to parse electronic documents almost instantly, and diagram all of the sentences inside. ("Moby-Dick," for instance, took all of nine and a half seconds.) By labeling subjects and verbs and other parts of speech, Attensity's software gives the documents a definable structure, a way to fit into a database. And that helps turn day-to-day chatter into information that is relevant and usable.

"They take the language that people use every day and compile it in a way that a machine can use," Mr. Patience said. "And that allows people to start using this tremendous amount of intelligence which has gone untapped."

Tsunami Aid and Asian-Americans

The Pacific-News Service reports on a new poll showing linkages across Asian-American communities in California in response to the Dec. 26 tsunami. There are some interesting implication from this preliminary poll, namely, that linguistic barriers among Asian groups might not be a barrier to creating a new form of identity politics in California. Please take a look.

Asian Californians account for about 1 percent of the U.S. population, yet were responsible for more than 15 percent of overall donations. According to the poll, an estimated $200 million has come from the California Asian population out of the $1.2 billion in nationwide donations.

Most, like Patel, didn't know anyone affected by the disaster. According to the poll, only 8 percent of Asian Californians reported knowing someone directly impacted by the tsunami. Despite this, two out of three still donated to the relief effort.

"We have some evidence here that we may be seeing Asian groups coming together," says Sergio Bendixen, president of Bendixen and Associates, the firm that conducted the poll.

The poll surveyed 606 Asian Americans in California, both immigrant and U.S.-born, and 100 Indonesian Americans. It was conducted in six languages, between Feb. 8 and Feb. 18. Eighty-five percent of the people interviewed chose to speak in their native languages.

"Within a week of the tsunami catastrophe it was clear to us from conversations with our Asian media partners that Asian media was taking a leadership role in mobilizing relief," says Sandy Close, executive director of New California Media.

The nonprofit organization has created an exchange between hundreds of ethnic media outlets producing news in numerous languages across the country. Close partnered with interTrend Communications and various California foundations to conduct the poll after noticing the overwhelming call to action in many Asian papers following the tsunami.

Chinese-language, Vietnamese-language and Korean-language news outlets, among others, were urging readers to give to relief effort organizations, as well as donating funds themselves.

"This struck us as something, as a story that needed to be explored and told," Close says.

Neutral Restrooms

For those interested in gender politics and American social spaces, today's NYT has an interesting article on the problems faced by transgendered restroom users.

Ms. Dennis is one of 250 or so members of People in Search of Safe Restrooms, a group founded here three years ago. It reflects a small but active movement, mostly on college campuses but also in a few cities, in which the bathroom, that prosaic fixture of past battles against racial segregation and for the rights of the disabled, has become an emotional and at times deeply personal symbol of a cultural and political divide.

In fact, bathrooms have become a cultural "fault line," said Mary Anne Case, a law professor at the University of Chicago, where the Queer Action Campaign for Gender-Neutral Bathrooms recently got 10 single-use restrooms on campus designated gender neutral.

"Very few spaces in our society remain divided by sex," Professor Case said. "There's marriage and there's toilets, and very little else."

To young transgender people, especially college students, the issue has particular resonance.

The Doomsayers

Ur-symbolic anthropologist Clifford Geertz reviews the latest offerings by Jared Diamond and Richard Posner (which focus on disaster and social collapse) in the latest New York Review of Books. Leave it to the researcher with years of ethnographic experience to point out the shortcomings of encapsulated portraits of culture, leading to simplistic explanations of human behavior.

What is most striking about both Diamond's and Posner's views of human behavior is how sociologically thin and how lacking in psychological depth they are. Neither the one, who seems to regard societies as collective persons, minded super-beings intending, deciding, acting, choosing, nor the other, for whom there are only goal-seeking individuals, perceiving and calculating rational actors not always rational, has very much to say about the social and cultural contexts in which their disasters unfold. Either heedless and profligate populations "blunder" or "stumble" their way into self-destruction or strategizing utility maximizers fail to appreciate the true dimensions of the problems they face. What happens to them happens in locales and settings, not in culturally and politically configurated life-worlds—singular situations, immediate occasions, particular circumstances.

But it is within such life-worlds, situations, occasions, circumstances, that calamity, when it occurs, takes intelligible shape, and it is that shape that determines both the response to it and the effects that it has. However "natural," "physical," or "material" they may be, and however unpredictable or unintended, collapse and catastrophe are, like coups and recessions, riots and religious movements, social events.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

And This Is News?

The NYT it running a front page article on a new poll showing that Bush II's policy priorities are out-of-step with most Americans. Some surprise. Perhaps the pollsters should go back and query the voters who backed a second administration believing that there was a connection between Osama Bin Laden and that Iraq had WMD (and, as an aside, perhaps the poli sci crowd can now redefine "dummy variable" in voter models). Given the increasing volume of conservative dissonance, W appears to be burning his political-capital candle at both ends, and four months after marginally winning the general election is on the verge of becoming a lame duck with several years to go:

Americans say President Bush does not share the priorities of most of the country on either domestic or foreign issues, are increasingly resistant to his proposal to revamp Social Security and say they are uneasy with Mr. Bush's ability to make the right decisions about the retirement program, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

The poll underscores just how little headway Mr. Bush has made in his effort to build popular support as his proposal for overhauling Social Security struggles to gain footing in Congress. At the same time, there has been an increase in respondents who say that efforts to restore order in Iraq are going well, even as an overwhelming number of Americans say Mr. Bush has no clear plan for getting out of Iraq.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

McCrum Interview

Thanks to a heads up from Moorish Girl I found today's Robert Birnbaum interview with British author Robert McCrum in The Morning News. McCrum is a great talent, but Birnbaum awkwardly breaks the first rule of interviewing: Know your subject. Note the following:

RB: And you have had two children. And a weekly deadline with the Observer, which is a newspaper or a magazine?

RMcC: It has nothing to do with the Guardian, although we are in the same building and we are owned by the Guardian. And when you ring up the switch board they say, “Guardian-Observer.”

RB: I have never seen a hard copy.

RMcC: Well, it’s a Sunday paper and its entire raison d’ĂȘtre is that it comes out on Sunday and always has done. We say we are the original Sunday because we have been coming out on Sundays since 1791. A long time. So the paper has a long tradition. It’s quite Wodehousian in the sense that it appeals to a very mixed bag of readers. You can’t classify it as left or right. It’s independent in instinct and discretion. Vaguely libertarian. Vaguely left wing, at times. But equally quite capable of taking what you might think is a right-wing position. It was weirdly pro-Iraq [war].

RB: Where does it stand now?

RMcC: It’s modified its position a bit. It’s had a long tradition of literary journalism. Orwell worked for it. Cyril Connolly worked for it, Julian Barnes—it’s had some very good people over the years, and so it’s a place that one can feel very at home.

McCrum is the literary editor of an old, established publication with 200+ years of history and Birnbaum hasn't yet laid his hands on an issue? Nor, apparently, did he at least research whether it was magazine, broadsheet, or tabloid (important distictions in UK print media). Even in Pasadena I can lay my hands on a copy - it comes in on Mondays or Tuesdays at the Bungalow News on Colorado Blvd. and costs $6.00 USD. Show a bit more journalistic elbow-grease next time.

The News from Uruguay

Today is the inauguration of Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez, a supposedly "leftist" politician. Since it's rare to see news or commentary about Bolivia, Paraguay, or Uruguay, Latin Americanists should give some kudos to the editors of the LA Times opinion page, who printed a piece in today's edition arguing against lumping all progressive LA administrations into an undistinguished whole:

The differences among governments in Latin America are instructive. To merely lump it all together as leftism sweeping the region can easily blind outsiders — including U.S. officials — to nuances that matter a great deal.

There is a world of difference, for example, between Lula and Chavez. The former comes from a party that defied Brazil's military dictatorship; the latter was a lieutenant colonel who once attempted a military coup, and now he relies on the armed forces to rule Venezuela.


Prior to the election, I wrote that the priorities of the Bush II administration were a far cry from the halcyon days of the much-touted Reagan administration, replacing old conservative values with a new "reality-free" approach (i.e., imaginary WMD, imaginary budgets) advanced by the ascendant neoconservative movement. The old guard has taken note, and at an increasing pace we hear from conservatives who are becoming more vociferous in their opposition to the current administration.

I was not too surprised, then, to come across a commentary in today's CounterPunch by Paul Craig Roberts, whose conservative credentials are impeccable: a former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration, Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and Contributing Editor of National Review. His views of the Bush WH aren't too friendly:

A venal and self-important Washington establishment combined with a globalized corporate mentality have brought an end to America's rising living standards. America's days as a superpower are rapidly coming to an end. Isolated by the nationalistic unilateralism of the neoconservatives who control the Bush administration, the US can expect no sympathy or help from former allies and rising new powers.