Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Poetry of Palin, as Interpreted by William Shatner

Now that I don't have a working television, I have to rely on the blogosphere to keep up with American culture and online video to watch. Thank the baby Jesus that some kind soul alerted me to this gem:


Friday, July 24, 2009

Quote of the Day: Composer Max Reger

"Sir: I am seated in the smallest room in the house. Your review is before me. Shortly it will be behind me."
That perfectly composed letter is attributed to the German composer Max Reger (1873-1916), in response to a critic. It's been cited by two British newspapers this month, The Telegraph and The Times, both in summaries of writer Alain de Botton's outraged responses to Caleb Crain's negative review in The New York Times.

Crain, in his review of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, writes that de Botton mocks working people, and calls his treatment of one of his book's subjects mean-spirited. He concludes:
"'The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work' succeeds as entertainment, if not as ­analysis, when de Botton allows himself to geek out, as when he flies to the Maldives to follow a tuna’s journey to a dinner table in Bristol, traipses after a painter who has devoted years to an oak in East Anglia or rummages through a graveyard of mothballed airplanes in the Mojave Desert. The misfires seem to come when he steps into an office. Whether that means he desperately wants to work in one or couldn’t abide to is for him and a career counselor to determine."
De Botton went ballistic. One response came in the comments of Crain's blog. Part of it reads:
"You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that. So that's two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900 word review. You present yourself as 'nice' in this blog (so much talk about your boyfriend, the dog etc). It's only fair for your readers (nice people like [other commenters] Joe Linker and trusting souls like PAB) to get a whiff that the truth may be more complex. I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude."
It gets even more interesting from there. One commenter expresses shock at de Botton's immaturity. Another questions whether or not authors should stay silent about bad reviews, given the possibilities of the Internet.

Another still points to a recent article on called Hey, authors, don't tweet in anger! Author Alice Hoffman used Twitter to call Boston Globe reviewer Roberta Silman a moron and an idiot. And then she tweated the reviewer's phone number and e-mail address, urging her followers to harrass Silman.

There are more great stories about authors going nuts. Salon mentions Stanley Crouch's encounter with reviewer Dale Peck in a NY restaurant. As fellow author ZZ Packer recalls, Crouch shook Peck's hand and...
"Then Stanley, who was still holding Peck’s hand in a frozen handshake, slapped Peck with his other hand, TWICE, on both cheeks, and said, 'Don’t you ever do that again. If you do you’ll get much worse.' Stanley let loose Peck’s hand and pointed at him, 'I should spit on you. Now, we can settle this outside . . . '
A moment later, he said he regretted it.

And then there's the time that Richard Ford spat on Colson Whitehead.

Labels: ,

My TV Blackout

I don't remember what the date was when my analog TV still worked, but it was a while ago. I've never had cable and I haven't bothered to use my $40 government coupons for a converter box yet.

As I ask myself whether or not I miss it, I think of Slate's News Junkie Smackdown, an on-going web series in which Michael Kinsley and others debate the effects of a self-imposed newspaper blackout. "I would hate to lose the newspapers," said Seth Stevenson. "But I'm pretty sure I could live a full and happy life without them."

Likewise television for me. If we're talking about the very existence of television -- as distinct or not from cable -- I am confident that I would be fine. The Internet is stepping up, and I've always gotten most of my news from radio and magazines anyway.

But this -- a world without TV -- isn't a realistic scenario. Me not having one that works, is. How do I cope? It's simple:
1. Although I love network TV, summer is the season of reality shows. I am missing nothing.

2. TV's national news, which generally lasts a shameful 22 minutes per evening, is and has long been a joke. The only real value it has is in making us feel like we're sharing a national experience.

3. TV's local news is filled with gimmicky human interest stories. And besides, reading local blogs gives me all of the NYC stories with links to video from local stations anyway.

4. Not automatically turning on the TV when I get home from work means I have to find other ways to unwind.

5. But I can always watch old shows and last season's shows on and

6. What am I really missing? I live in a big building that gets poor reception. My picture quality has always been bad, and there's no guarantee that it will be any better with a digital converter. In fact, from everything I've heard, the digital signal is even more unreliable than the analog one I've had so much trouble with.
I don't know why I haven't switched over. I think part the reason is that the whole thing seems like a ploy to get me to pay for cable TV, and I resent that. With the exception of networks like HBO and Showtime, cable networks still have ads. What am I paying for then? Infrastructure?

My government coupon for a converter box expires on September 16. The only reason I can think of to use it before September is to satisfy my curiosity and prove that the converter box won't give me a watchable picture.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Seth Godin is Wrong About Malcolm Gladwell Being Wrong About Chris Anderson

When I read Malcolm Gladwell's nasty review of Chris Anderson's new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, I found myself agreeing over and over again. "Does he mean that the New York Times should be staffed by volunteers, like Meals on Wheels?" Gladwell asks. "Yeah! Exactly!" I cheer. But then I'm a writer who gets paid very little. I have a stake in this, and I see my chances for maintaining a career in this thankless business withering away.

On the other hand, I'm a blogger and a guy who can't afford to get a daily newspaper delivered to my door.

Chris Anderson is the presumably well-paid editor of Wired Magazine and the probably very well-paid author of The Long Tail (the subtitle, "Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More," says it all). His new book argues that the future will be all about making money off of free shit. The problem with this is that it means all of us will be doing a lot of work for the love of it, and a few others will be making money off of our work. (But then doesn't this describe the work of a writer today anyway?)

Gladwell has a lot of good points:
“Information wants to be free,” Anderson tells us, “in the same way that life wants to spread and water wants to run downhill.” But information can’t actually want anything, can it? Amazon wants the information in the Dallas [Morning News] to be free, because that way Amazon makes more money. Why are the self-interested motives of powerful companies being elevated to a philosophical principle?
"Malcolm is Wrong," reads the title of a recent entry from superblogger Seth Godin. He's a little too reverent: "I've never written those three words before, but he's never disagreed with Chris Anderson before, so there you go." And a little too dismissive and self-satistfied, like a believer talking down to an atheist:
The first argument that makes no sense is, "should we want free to be the future?"

Who cares if we want it? It is.

The second argument that makes no sense is, "how will this new business model support the world as we know it today?"

Who cares if it does? It is. It's happening. The world will change around it, because the world has no choice. I'm sorry if that's inconvenient, but it's true.
Sure, the world is changing. But like the luxury retail business, there may be reckoning for the so-called Free Economy. Does Twitter make any money? YouTube, Gladwell points out, "will lose close to half a billion dollars this year."

Godin is right about what we'll pay for:
People will pay for content if it is so unique they can't get it anywhere else, so fast they benefit from getting it before anyone else, or so related to their tribe that paying for it brings them closer to other people. We'll always be willing to pay for souvenirs of news, as well, things to go on a shelf or badges of honor to share.

People will not pay for by-the-book rewrites of news that belongs to all of us. People will not pay for yesterday's news, driven to our house, delivered a day late, static, without connection or comments or relevance. Why should we? A good book review on Amazon is more reliable and easier to find than a paid-for professional review that used to run in your local newspaper, isn't it?
Wait, did he say that book reviews are more reliable on than in a newspaper? First, one has to wade through a lot of shit reviews ("I loved it!!!!") and a lot of ramblings. Second, what is it that Godin thinks book reviews do? If you're looking for an absence of negative comments to help you decide whether or not to buy a book, okay. Or if you want preactical advice ("This books was too long!"), fine.

But if you didn't know that a boxed set of all of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley series just came out, then it's nice to happen upon a copy of the New York Review of Book. Michael Dirda's review, "This Woman Is Dangerous," from the July 2 issue, is much more than a positive review and practical advice. It's an entertaining, well-crafted 4,500 word discussion about who Highsmith was, what her books were about, how they affected culture and their place in American literature. What hobbiest, what dilettante has the time to do that well? (And, I might add, what blogger or Amazon reviewer has an editor to proofread and tighten their prose?)

"When there are thousands of people writing about something," says Godin, "many will be willing to do it for free (like poets) and some of them might even be really good (like some poets). There is no poetry shortage."

No, there's not, goddammit. But maybe there should be. Ironically, because professional poetry answers only to an insular group of academics, precious little of it is palatable--or relevant--to our culture in general. Could it possibly be any better among casual, part-time poets?

But Godin is absolutely right in much of what he says here:
The reason that we needed paid contributors before was that there was only economic room for a few magazines, a few TV channels, a few pottery stores, a few of everything. In world where there is room for anyone to present their work, anyone will present their work. Editors become ever more powerful and valued, while the need for attention grows so acute that free may even be considered expensive.

Of course, it's ironic that sometimes people pay money for my books (I view them as souvenirs of content you could get less conveniently and less organized for free online if you chose to). And it's ironic that I read Malcolm's review for free. And ironic that you can read Chris's arguments the most cogently by paying for them.
Then an editor's role becomes organizer and focuser.

And yes, I am aware that I've been arguing with reviewers instead of reading the book. But what's the incentive to read the book? I'm not getting paid or anything.


Friday, July 10, 2009

Big Brooklyn

I just happened upon a story from January on the National Public Radio site about the perfume company Bond No. 9's fragrance, Brooklyn:
"Now you can get a whiff of Brooklyn — and we're not talking the smell of stale subway. A new perfume bears the name of New York City's second-largest borough. The fragrance, from a company called Bond No. 9, sells for $220 a bottle. The creators have blended the scents of grapefruit, cardamom, cypress, cedar and leather."
What's wrong with that story? Bond names most of their scents after parts of New York, so that's nothing special. The problem is that Brooklyn isn't "New York City's second-largest borough." It's the largest.

According to 2007 census data, Brooklyn is home to 2,539,206 of New York City's 8,272,607 people. Queens is the second largest borough, with 2,240,174. Manhattan is the third largest borough with 1,625,251 people. (and the Bronx has about 300,000 fewer then Manhattan, and Staten Island is about the size of Albuquerque.)

To put Brooklyn populations into perspective, the Canarsie (last stop on the L train) and Flatlands neighborhoods of Brooklyn, bordering Jamaica Bay, have a population larger than Salt Lake City's 180,651.

So why would NPR get it so wrong? No one outside of Brooklyn and Queens realizes how huge and dense these boroughs actually are. As I like to point out, Brooklyn is bigger than Houston and closer in size to Chicago. And if you took Brooklyn out of New York, the City would still be the largest in the country:

1. New York City: 5,733,401
2. Los Angeles: 3,834,340
3. Chicago: 2,836,658
4. Brooklyn: 2,539,206
5. Houston: 2,208,180

Interestingly, Brooklyn was bigger in 1950 than it is today. Back then it had 2,738,175 people. The shift from 1950 to today was even more dramatic in Minneapolis, from around 500,000 then to 377,392 now. Chicago, too: in 1950 it had 3,620,962 people. Why? The suburbs.


Quote of the Day: Levi Johnston

"I think she's a great lady, but after seeing what she did now, you know, leaving Alaska, I would have to say, 'no.' Obviously she's stressed out as governor. I mean moving up to the vice president or president is huge. I just don't think anymore that she's cut out for the job."
Well if Levi Johnston thinks Palin wasn't qualified... The 19 year old Johnston, the former fiancé and baby daddy of Sarah Palin's daughter, has been talking to the press this week, doing his darndest to further strain his relationship to the Palins. Young Levi thinks the former governor quit in order to cash in on book deals. He is also reportedly looking for modeling and acting work, and shopping his own book idea.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Obituary: Michael Jackson

I was just as surprised to see crowds mourning Michael Jackson outside the Apollo Theater in Harlem as I was to see Midwestern suburbanites mourning New Yorkers who died in the World Trade Center: in each case, I thought the mourners had already considered the deceased dead years before.

I know I did. But before I go on about how Michael Jackson stopped being a normal man years ago, or about how (like Prince) he hasn't really made music for more than a decade, I think it's important to draw the distinction between celebrity and individuality.

The celebrity is a public persona, a creation made for and by fandom, media and culture. The problem is when the celebrity, whether it's a Michael Jackson or a Britney Spears, becomes the person; when the personality inside begins to mimic the persona created by the culture.

This, I think, is part of why Michael Jackson mangled his face and his skin. In the end, the creature we once knew as Michael Jackson had more in common with this jungle cat (aka Jocelyn Wildenstein) than his earlier self. Wildenstein was a wealthy woman who slowly transformed herself into something she thought her husband would desire -- at least according to the famous story repeated in the press. She spent $4 million by some accounts, over 30 years. Who did Michael Jackson transform himself for?

Like Elvis, we’ll remember him the way we want to remember him. The crowds at the Apollo probably aren’t sad about the skull-faced apparition who’s been seen dangling an infant over balconies. (But then I have it on good authority that at least one tearful Apollo mourner was crying for the camera—not for Michael.)


Site Meter