Friday, May 28, 2010

Peggy Noonan Is Disappointed

"But Mr. Obama was supposed to be competent."

Let's wind the clock back to early 2008. You're taking the measure of Sen. Obama, trying to figure out what kind of president he might make. Try coming up with three accomplishments of his that would suggest he was a competent manager. No? Okay, try two? Still nothing?

Fine, let's shift the emphasis off managerial competence and just look for general, professional achievements. Aside from getting new jobs, had the young senator ever actually accomplished anything?

Well, there was that best-selling book, I suppose. Although the story of how it got written doesn't indicate an awesome amount of competence.

Shemale Scheiss Überrashung

While some conservative ninnies get all bent out of shape about pornography, I'm prepared to defend porn. Especially in the workplace.

Via cleft stick.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Billy Cerveny's Donnelly Carter Payne

Billy Cerveny is one of my favorite singer-songwriters--he's up there in the pantheon with Aimee Mann. After a long, long wait, he has finally released a new album (do the kids still call them albums?)--Donnelly Carter Payne. You can sample it on iTunes here.

I really can't recommend it highly enough.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Goodbye to Law & Order

I have a short piece over at In Character about "What Law & Order Taught Us." You may disagree with some of the lessons, or have better ones yourself.

True story: I met Dick Wolf at a party once and used the opportunity to lobby for more of the gray V-neck tops for Angie Harmon. You know the one I'm talking about.

I wasn't even drunk.


Finally caught up with the Fringe season-ender over the weekend and was very happy with it. Fringe has gone from being an X-Files clone to being a top-notch sci-fi genre piece with a great core idea. I don't know who deserve the credit for this transformation. I wouldn't be surprised if the show's direction firmed up once J.J. Abrams moved on--Abrams is great at building mythology (and lots of other things) but he's not at his best when it comes to thematic coherence and narrative drive.

In particular, I was kind of blown away by how elegant the writing was in the Thomas Yatsuko-penned "White Tulip" (ep. 2.18). I couldn't think of a genre-piece that slow-played its hand so well, had such a pained, beautiful antagonist--and simultaneously did serious heavy-lifting for character motivations in the larger series.

The season ending episode "Over There pt 2" (2.23) was written by the crazy over-rated Akiva Goldsman wasn't as sublime, but it did one thing exceptionally well. By positing that it was Walter Bishop himself who asked Bell to cut out parts of his brain, Goldsman (1) Explains a central riddle of the series; (2) Resolves the relationship between Bell and Bishop; (3) Backfills the motivation for pre-series Walter and explains how this daffy, but sweet, man could have done and created such horrible things; (4) Creates all sorts of space for Earth 2 Walter to be the heavy. All of that with about 8 lines of dialogue. Very nice stuff.

There was also a wonderful Easter egg in Peter's apartment on Earth 2: The framed Earth 2 comic book covers on the wall. There's a post about them here. Not only are they kind of delightful, but it's gratifying that they used DC books, since Fringe owes it's multiverse to DC. (And also gratifying that they included a Crisis on Infinite Earths cover.)

The only slight complaint is about the Justice League alt cover. Note that Jonah Hex has been substituted for Green Lantern. Why? Hex doesn't exist at all within the mythological (or chronological) confines of the JLA books. No, it's there as a self-serving hiccup from Goldsman, who wrote the up-coming Jonah Hex adaptation flop, which promises to be one of the worst (and most underperforming) comic book film adaptations yet.

Ukulele-Based Geek Rock and The French Open

A year or so ago The Pig put me on to Dent May's fantastic tune "God Loves You Michael Chang." It's Ukulele centered tennis-geek rock. In honor of the start of the French, here it is:

PS: Best geek-rock band ever: They Might Be Giants or Bare Naked Ladies?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

First Things, First

As a rule, all change is bad. This rule holds particularly fast when it comes to graphic design and print media. It's hard to think of many magazine or newspaper redesigns which do not substantially diminish their product. Which is why I was so nervous when I heard that First Things was working on a complete redesign of the magazine.

Regular readers know the esteem in which I hold First Things--it's one of my three desert island magazines, and has been for many years. Its old design was so austere as to achieve a certain elegance, a little like '80s era Volvos. I was immensely fond of it.

The redesigned First Things is out now. This link will show you a TOC, but give you no sense of what the physical magazine looks like. I haven't lived with the new book long enough to pass a final judgment, but my first and second impressions are both that the redesign is a near-total triumph, in both the aesthetic and the strategic sense.

The internet poses a different challenge to magazines than it does to newspapers. Newspapers are largely utilitarian tools. A good magazine is more of a sensual pleasure. As they confront the internet, magazines must find ways to leverage the physical virtues. I wasn't in the room as First Things thought through their redesign, but I'd bet that this goal was their lodestar.

For starters, the new First Things is beautiful. The new paper stock is soft and easy on the eyes. The fonts are absolutely gorgeous. (Font whores--you know who you are--will really enjoy the work put in on the design end here.) Everything about the foundation of the layout--the columns, the breaks, the drop caps--is elegant and inviting. The book now has art, which is done tastefully. You never think you're reading Time. (Though for whatever it's worth, my own personal preference would be for fewer photographs and more drawings, in the mode of the old WSJ.) The only real quirk is the decision to switch paper stock in the middle of the book, where you briefly have essays on the old FT paper. Some people will like this; some won't. I haven't lived with it long enough to know what I think.

Aside from the artistic virtues, First Things is now doing more of what can't--or at least, isn't--readily available on internet platforms: poetry and very long-form essays. For a variety of reasons, beginning with how we interact with our computer screens, people don't read 15,000 word essays on the internet. Ditto short poems, I think. These forms are by turns too long and too short to be good fits for the web browser.

Finally--and this is a small, but important addition--First Things has added a crossword. I'm not a crossword lover. Actually, I detest them almost as much as I do Scrabble. But lots of people like them. And while technically you can do crosswords on the internet, I can't think of any crossword lovers who do. The crossword adds an element of interaction with the physical book. It asks you to read with a pen in hand, to mark it up and work with it.

When she launched the short-lived Talk magazine, Tina Brown said that her goal for the book was to create an artifact--something to be picked up, folded, shoved into a computer bag, carried around, and lived with for a couple weeks as it was consumed. Talk didn't live up to that ideal. But while Tina Brown may be many things, stupid about magazines she isn't. Her idea for Talk has always struck me as the most viable model for magazines going forward.

The new First Things is, I think, the first magazine to accomplish what The Tina set out to do. You don't simply thumb through, read two essays, and toss it. You want to carry it around, to enjoy and savor it. It's a great success and if you're not already a subscriber, now is a good time to come aboard.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

I Like Ike

Most memorable speeches are eventually abstracted to the point where what is remembered has little relation to the speech. The best-known example of this problem is Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech, in which he never used the word "malaise."

Eisenhower's farewell address is another case. We remember it for his warning about the "military industrial complex." But listening to it the other day I was struck how poorly this tag fits on what is a seriously impressive speech.

Eisenhower chose to address two large historical and philosophical--not political--subjects in his farewell. The first was the "military industrial complex." He was not, however, simply "warning" his fellow citizens about it. He was, instead, making a large and complicated observation: That prior to the World Wars, America did not have a permanent arms industry. That America's pre-eminent position in the world now necessitated a large-scale arms industry. That such an industry would have transformative effects on a country which was now, for the first time, seeing itself as an important actor on the world stage. Some of these effects would be good, others would not. Eisenhower's point, was that we should enter this new era with our eyes open. Here's Ike:

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States cooperations -- corporations.
Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet, we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society.
History has shown him to be quite correct. But following his warning about the MIC was another warning, which has been altogether forgotten: the consequences of how invention and research were evolving in the new technical age.
Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present -- and is gravely to be regarded.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.
It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system -- ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.

Again, Eisenhower proved quite prescient. But more amazing than his wisdom is the fact that these were the topics he chose for his farewell. They were philosophical and historical. They had nothing to do with politics or Eisenhower himself or his presidency. It is impossible to imagine a president today speaking with such deep wisdom. It's a stark reminder of how very small the men who govern us have become.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A is for Awesome

Courtesy of Galley Friend AK-47, the nerd's illustrated alphabet. Don't miss it. Sample letter:

Monday, May 17, 2010

Miss USA Is Not Miss America (And how to win Your Miss America pool.)

A lot of people are up in arms about the crowning of the "gaffetastic" Miss Michigan Rima Fakih as Miss USA. I suspect many of those in a state of concern may be conflating the Miss USA pageant with Miss America. Miss America is the preeminent "scholarship program" and as such holds itself out as having some objective standards. Miss USA is a Donald Trump production. It's an entertainment vehicle. Its "standards" are the standards of reality television. So you can only really get worked up about the injustice of Ms. Fakih's victory if you're the kind of person who'd also be willing to be outraged by the results on Dancing with the Stars.

None of that, however, is particularly important. The questions about the "judging" at Miss USA are just an excuse for me to point out a wonderful and often overlooked book: William Goldman's Hype and Glory. (Don't be the sucker to pay $132 for the paperback version on Amazon.)

Goldman wrote Hype and Glory after a year in which he sat as a judge for both Miss America and Cannes. He had plenty of good stories to tell.

What always interested me most, however, was his deciphering of the Miss America voting. Goldman claimed that the judges were instructed on what to look for in a Miss America, and that with those guidelines, it was instantly clear to the entire judging panel who the winner was. He reports that from the first moment, there was never any question among the judges who the winner would be. What were they looking for? I'll paraphrase, because I don't have my copy near at hand: The Miss America judges were told to look for the woman who would best represent the Miss America organization at public and private appearances throughout the year. That meant a woman who was calm, unflappable, articulate, and politic. In other words, they wanted the young woman who most represented a polished, TV news head.

Nothing else, Goldman wrote, mattered. Not the swimsuit, not the talent. And once you know that that's the quality the Miss America pageant is looking for, most of the time the winner is obvious.

Thanks, James Cameron

Just what the world needs: a 3D remastered Battle Royale.

In Praise of Walter Russell Mead, Again

A fantastic post about the IPCC and the climate change movement that incorporates this show-stopper line:

Movement toward conservation, renewable and alternative fuels, and a decreasing reliance on hydrocarbon fuels per unit of GDP will continue and, I think, accelerate in most of the world’s most important advanced and developing economies.  This will happen whether or not the IPCC issues another report, because it is in the interests of the major economies to cut fuel use to be economically competitive and to increase their national security.  Efforts to establish comprehensive monitoring of CO2 emissions around the world will also continue — if for no other reason than that agencies like the CIA, organizations like the IMF and corporations like hedge funds and investment banks would like to have faster access to reliable data on shifts in global economic activity.  The sheer blind bureaucratic lust for power that drives the culture of the United Nations and the world’s governments will also ensure continuing efforts to give politicians and their appointees the last word on regulating as much economic activity as possible.
In other words, the review panel in Amsterdam, like the IPCC itself, is something of a sideshow.  To use the kind of simile that might appeal to an author of Dr. Pachauri’s ambitions, the IPCC and the review panel are like the piano in a house of ill repute: useful for establishing atmosphere, but playing no substantive role in the core operations of the firm.
I'm already planning to steal that. 

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Steve Jobs vs. the New Yorker

Fake Steve Jobs, that is. Seems that he decided to alter the developer agreement for the iPad to ban the dieresis. And David Remnick's people are pissed. The confrontation begins here and then continues here and finally concludes here:

"Who am I? I’m Steve fucking Jobs, bitch. I invented the friggin iPod. And the iPhone. And the iPad. And I’m not changing the language. I’m making it better."

PS: Also from Fake Steve is a link to this fantastic anti-Facebook rant. Do not miss it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Notes from the Great Recession

Two interesting pieces today. First, John Judis:
Brenner’s analysis of the current downturn can be boiled down to a fairly simple point: that the underlying cause of the current downturn lies in the “real” economy of private goods and service production rather than in the financial sector, and that the current remedies—from government spending and tax cuts to financial regulation—will not lead to the kind of robust growth and employment that the United States enjoyed after World War II and fleetingly in the late 1990s. These remedies won’t succeed because they won’t get at what has caused the slowdown in the real economy: global overcapacity in tradeable goods production. . . .
Paul Volcker summed up the situation thusly: “The fate of the world economy is now totally dependent on the growth of the U.S. economy, which is dependent on the stock market, whose growth is dependent upon about 50 stocks, half of which have never reported any earnings.”
And then, Robert Samuelson:

The normal mechanics of the business cycle signal recovery, while deeper economic weaknesses threaten it. In late 2008 and early 2009, fear and hysteria were almost palpable, especially in the United States. Consumers and companies cut spending anywhere they could. From September 2008 to June 2009, the U.S. economy lost 6 million payroll jobs. In 2009, American car sales were almost 40 percent lower than in 2007. Governments' frenetic interventions stabilized confidence. People and firms are opening their wallets again, here and abroad. The world economy will grow almost 4.3 percent in 2010 and 2011, with the United States expanding at an average of nearly 3 percent, reckons the International Monetary Fund.
But the deep-seated problems remain. Three stand out: first, the weight of the welfare state and aging populations; second, the burden of huge private debts (mortgages and consumer loans in America and elsewhere); and finally, huge imbalances in global trade, with some countries -- notably China -- running massive surpluses and others -- notably the United States -- having large deficits. Each threatens a vigorous recovery that could conceivably plunge the world back into a protracted slump.

"Homophobic" Is the New "Neocon"

Which is to say, it simply means "something I do not like."

Ryan Murphy, the Glee showrunner, is angry at Newsweek for running a piece about gay actors playing straight characters. Murphy doesn't just disagree with the essay--he says it's "homophobic."

The only problem is that the piece's author is gay. So he may be wrong or stupid or loathsome or evil, but he probably isn't "homophobic." If he was, he wouldn't be very good at being gay.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

David Bradley: Out-Thinking the Market!

The NY Observer has a big story on David Bradley's audacious plan to merge the forces of Hotline, National Journal, and Congress Daily to fight Politico.

Will someone remind me how Bradley got rich in the first place?

Nothing against Politico--it's a great product and I generally admire it. But unless I'm completely mistaken, Politico is not a money-making machine. In fact, it's rumored to be quite the opposite. Bradley's three crown properties, on the other hand, have always been spectacularly profitable. Unless their business model has gone completely upside down in the last 36 months, I can't imagine that they lose less money than Politico. They probably out-earn it by quite a lot.

So how is it that Bradley wants to "compete" with Politico? For what, page views? There was a wonderful moment in 1999 where for just a few minutes people remembered that actual dollars are worth more than digital pennies; that was not the future; that business was predicated on profitability and not press clippings and Technorati scores. Even in the midst of a Great Recession, that moment has clearly passed.

Imagine if Comcast had decided to re-order its business to compete with NetZero. That's the closest parallel I can think of to what Bradley is doing with his DC-based mint. For some people, making money consistently over a prolonged period isn't enough. They want to be trendy, too.

It could have been "anything"?

Michael Bloomberg has come in for deserved criticism from the right for this idiotic comment:

"If I had to guess, twenty five cents, this would be exactly that," Bloomberg said. "Homegrown maybe a mentally deranged person or someone with a political agenda that doesn't like the health care bill or something. It could be anything."

People tend to focus on the "health care bill" part--which is ridiculous enough. But the really offensive portion is Bloomberg saying that the attempted bombing "could be anything." Because of course, there are plenty of groups it absolutely could not have been.

For instance, how many terrorist incidents have there been in the last 20 years from Unitarian groups? Episcopalians? Tibetans? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

If Mayor Mike doesn't want to be candid about the obvious--that the overwhelmingly likelihood of the involvement of Islam with this terror incident, that's fine. You could cobble together a rationale for such a demurral. But to affirmatively construct the idea that it could have been lots of groups who absolutely could not have been behind the incident is worse than dishonest.

At some point America is going to get over its multi-culti sensitivities regarding Islam's alarming rate of coincidence with violence. And it won't be a happy day.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Joe Sarno, RIP

Joe Sarno--who may or may not have been the real-life Jack Horner--died last week. The NYT, funnily enough, carried a lengthy obit. A particularly dedicated Times watcher might be able to pinpoint the exact moment with the New York Times became the kind of paper that would run a 900-word obit on a semi-obscure soft-core porn director. My non-educated guess would be some time around July 1975. Whatever the case, here's a taste:

His early films were straightforwardly, even single-mindedly erotic, although flashes of nudity came only intermittently and the sex act took place outside the frame. Shot in a self-consciously artistic style, films like “Red Roses of Passion” (1966) and “Odd Triangle” (1968) explored the anxiety-haunted, tentative steps toward sexual liberation of middle-class suburbanites born too early to experience the uninhibited self-expression of the baby-boom generation.
“He was one of the pioneers of the American sexploitation film and a driving force in the sexual revolution of the 1960s,” Mr. Bowen said. “The films were gritty, down to earth, with a very distinctive style. At their best they were very dirty — they just did not have explicit sex.”
Mind you, I'm not judging. Sarno had one of those only-in-America lives:
Joseph William Sarno was born on March 15, 1921, in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, and grew up on Long Island in Amityville. His father was a bootlegger, and his mother was a socialist labor organizer. He enrolled in New York University but dropped out immediately after Pearl Harbor to enlist in the Navy. As an airman, he saw action in the South Pacific. . . .
After the war Mr. Sarno found work as an advertising copywriter and sold ripping-yarn feature stories to digest magazines like Coronet. His film career began when the Navy, mistakenly believing that he had filmed bombing runs during the war, asked him to direct training films. He accepted the offer and then headed off to buy a book on cinematography.
Over the next several years he made dozens of training films for the Navy and industrial films for military contractors. His first venture into feature films came when an independent producer approached him to write the screenplay for an erotic film, “Nude in Charcoal,” which was released in 1961 and shown, like all of Mr. Sarno’s films, in grind-house theaters.
Mr. Sarno wrote the screenplays for all 75 of the 35-millimeter films he made over the next 15 years, and for his subsequent hard-core films. The first film for which he received sole directing credit, “Lash of Lust” (1962), was never released. Atypically, it was an erotic costume drama about Gaul in the time of the Romans, shot in the forests of upstate New York.
Despite what the obit says, I'd like to think that he never shot on videotape.

Update: While we're talking porn, AICN has this trailer up for Vivid's Batman XXX. (Totally SFW, btw.) How excellent does it look? Very! 

Among the many questions it raises, however, is whether or not Vivid can hide behind the "parody" label and its legal protections against copyright infringement. 

More Greek Tragedy

Walter Russell Mead has another long, interesting essay. The key take-away:

The three countries who did the most to build the modern global, liberal, capitalist and democratic world order (the Netherlands, Britain and the United States) were blessed by both the geography fairy and the culture fairy.  Geographically they were placed where they were relatively free to develop on their own without being the playthings of foreign interests.  Culturally they were the products of a history which gave them a set of attitudes and values that promoted their success as capitalist countries. The combination of favorably geography and success in capitalism helped to propel each of these countries to global power in their day, and further gave them the power to reshape the world to their liking.
Other countries and cultures like capitalism less and for a variety of reasons are not as good at it.  Some, like China and India, gradually get the hang of it and start to gain power and influence in the world system.  Others, like Egypt, have a harder time.
For many Greeks, capitalism still feels wrong.  The substitution of market forces for traditional social relations undermines aspects of Greek life that are very dear to many people; the inequality that so often results from capitalism offends deeply held social ideas about fairness.  More, since the rising powers whose policies and interventions have done so much to shape Greek history have been capitalist, Greeks associate institutions like the IMF and the ECB (European Central Bank) with foreign meddling and unjust usurpation.  And the successful capitalist countries (and the foreign multinational corporations who come with it) have never scrupled to press their advantages in less developed or weaker countries like Greece.
In many parts of the world it is easy to spot a vicious cycle at work.  Because a country or a culture missed the visit of either or both of the two modernization good fairies (geography and culture) it starts out handicapped in the race to master capitalism and control their own destiny.  As a result, they fall behind, and lose power and control to other, faster rivals.  Capitalism becomes ever less popular, ever more associated in the public mind with a world system felt to be wrong and unfair.  Those feelings of alienation make it steadily harder for the country to adopt and follow the policies that could reverse the cycle and bring it success.  And so it goes.
On a global scale, the Greeks are not doing so badly.  They belong to three of the rich world’s most exclusive clubs: the OECD, the European Union, and NATO.  Their per capita GDP, while low by west European standards, puts them ahead of places like Hong Kong, Israel and South Korea.  Yet the feeling of being victims, manipulated by powerful interests who do not have their best interests at heart, and locked into an economic system that violates some of their most deeply felt values is very real.
Greece has a history of muddling through, if not always very happily.  It is likely though not certain that this crisis too will pass, leaving Greece still in the eurozone, still linked to a prosperous EU and still relatively well placed in the global order.  This is certainly what I hope, and given the debt of gratitude the whole world owes Greece for its extraordinary and unparalleled contributions to global culture it is the outcome that we all ought to seek.
But whatever happens in Greece, we need to remember that its problems are not unique, and the clash between those who like the world that capitalism has made and those who hate it is not going away.  The global capitalist revolution offers the best and indeed the only hope that I see for the relief of poverty, the advance of human rights and the protection of the environment worldwide.  Like all great revolutionary movements, however, it creates divisions, inequalities and resistance.  Revolts against the liberal capitalist world system — fascism and communism above all — shaped the history of the twentieth century and inflicted unprecedented misery and harm until they were defeated.  The radical terrorist movement led by Islamic renegades has more recently inflicted grave harm in many places and its violent course has not yet come to an end; we are likely to see more crises and conflict in the twenty first century as the anti-capitalist counter-revolution finds new forms and new allies.
The Greek tragedy now taking place offers us an opportunity to study the forces at work in our world, reflect on the human dilemmas and difficulties that lead to social and economic strife, and perhaps think more wisely about how we can advance the capitalist revolution in ways that make this global transformation a little easier to bear for those who are caught up in it and who feel that their lives are being overturned by hostile and immoral hidden hands.