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March 27, 2006

Congratulations, Scoplaw!

Congratulations to fellow law school blogger Scoplaw whose first full length book of poetry, “Ice Sculpture of Mermaid with Cigar,” is now available for pre-order!

Scoplaw (aka, RJ McCaffery) will also be reading from his book next Monday, April 3, at Georgetown law. His blog currently says the reading will be next Tuesday, but I'm sure he'll be updating that soon.

Posted 09:41 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 21, 2006

Paine's Faith

For my birthday a few months back my sister gave me a book I've long wanted to read: Hope Dies Last by Studs Terkel. It's a book of interviews with social activists that reminds us that even when the state of the world appears to be impossibly bleak, people can still act to make a difference. In the first few pages, I find this quotation from Thomas Paine in 1791:

Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing. . . . In such a situation, man becomes what he ought. He sees his species, not with the inhuman idea of a natural enemy, but as a kindred.

When I first read this I thought, “Amen, brother,” especially with regard to the slavery of fear. But at the same time I wondered about Paine's faith in “truth” and whether such faith is possible or wise today. I want to believe, I really do, but...

Maybe the rest of the book will convince me...

Posted 10:55 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

September 29, 2005

Getting Green

The polar ice caps are melting, and that only speeds global warming. We're running out of oil and even Yubbledew is asking people to conserve. (I'm still in shock about that one.) We've got problems, people.

That's why one of the highlights for me at the D.C. Green Festival on Sunday was listening to Lester Brown, director of the Earth Policy Institute, and author of Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. The following are just some notes I jotted down while listening to him speak.

First, the Earth Policy Institute recently learned that for the first time China is now consuming more than the U.S. in four of five basic resources—grain, meat, coal, and steel. The only thing the U.S. still leads in is oil. (Surprise.) That's total consumption. If China catches up to us in per capita terms, which it will do by 2031 at its current rate of growth, China will need: 2/3 of the current global grain harvest, 300 million tons of paper/year (world output today is only 156 million tons/year), and 99 million barrels of oil/day (total world output today is only 81 million barrels/day). If Chinese citizens owned cars at the rate Americans own them, China would have a fleet of 1.1 billion cars; the current world car fleet is only 800 million cars.

The point of this is that the western economic model will not work for China. It won't work for India, which will have more people than China by 2031. It won't work for most of the world, and it can no longer work for us. We're running out of resources and the results are going to be catostrophic if we don't do something. (Speaking to this point, Brown also recommends Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond.

So what do we do? Plan B.

If everyone who owns a car in the U.S. owned a Prius we would cut daily fuel consumption by half. If we added a second battery to those Priuses and added a charging plug so we could plug them in at night (so they could run longer on electric only w/out the gas engine kicking in), the vast majority of daily driving in the U.S. could be powered by electricity alone. And if we invested massively in wind power, all of that electricity would be generated w/out polluting the environment or using up some non-renewable resource.

Biodiesel figures in somehow—comes from soybeans. Ethanol from sugar cane could also replace lots of our oil consumption. Brazil currently gets 40% of its automotive fuel from cane ethanol and it may soon get much more.

By 2020, 50-100% of European households could get their electricity from wind power, depending on how quickly Europe continues to invest in this resource. Just three states (North Dakota, Texas, and third I missed) have enough wind and land to build wind farms available to provide all U.S. energy needs via wind power. We just have to build the wind farms! (No need for the “nukuler” energy Bush wants to invest in.)

Brown said he's not discouraged about the future because often social change comes very quickly and we can't anticipate it. For example, look at what happened in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. One day it was the communist bloc, the next it was a bunch of democracies. Or look at December 6, 1941. If you had polled Americans on December 5, 1941 about whether the U.S. should get involved in WWII, the answer would have been a resounding “No.” But after December 6, that turned around completely. We also followed that by restructuring the economy almost overnight to produce all the ships, tanks, aircraft, guns, and ammo required for the war. How did we do that? We made the sale of private automobiles illegal and converted auto factories into munitions factories. So we've revolutionized our economy before on short notice; we can and need to do it again.

One way to make this happen is to force the market to be honest about the cost of our actions. For example, the cost to society of smoking is about $7/pack. The production cost of cigarettes is about $2/pack. So the total cost of a pack of cigarettes really should be $9/pack. In another example, the cost to society of burning a gallon of gas is about $9, so added to the current price at the pump, a gallon of gas should cost about $12/gal.

To convert our economy and our lifestyles to sustainable methods would cost money. But put it in perspective. The U.S. budget for Iraq is $400-500 billion and climbing. That's roughly equal to the total annual spending of the rest of the world combined. To do everything called for in Plan B would cost about $150 billion worldwide of additional spending.

And we need to do this. Terrorism is a threat to our future, but not as big a threat as climate change, population growth, water scarcity, or the lack of planning to deal with these issues. The key solution is grassroots political action. Saving civilization is not a spectator sport; we all have to be involved.

Posted 10:41 AM | TrackBack

July 23, 2005

Potterhead Report

What are Harry Potter fans called? Are they potheads? Potterheads? Or do they not have a name?

Anyhoo, I finished The Half-Blood Prince the other day and although I was giving the Unreasonable Man a hard time for saying it was the best book of the series, now that I've finished it I think I see what he means. By midway through, I felt like it wasn't moving very quickly and that not much was actually happening; the form was starting to feel a little stale and it almost seemed like it was just the outline of a book. But things did start to pick up from there and I realized that part of why I might have felt that way was that I was just reading it all much faster than I had read the other books so it all seemed more compressed and flattened by the speed. By the final 50 pages or so things really speed to a rousing conclusion and it left me with a very satisfying yet bettersweet feeling. Of course, I can't wait for the final book.

Speaking of the Unreasonable Man, he found a funny (but, um, shall we say, ribald?) comparison between Hogwarts and law school from Law & Alcoholism. My favorite bit:

3. Watch out for professors that have Dark Wizards growing out of the back of their heads. They tend to have tough curves.

I also know what he means about finishing the book quickly and feeling a sort of hangover afterwards—it's like post-Potter depression.

Meanwhile, Andrew Raff is also applying his legal education to the book by analyzing whether a certain bequest violates the rule against perpetuities. (Very slight spoiler there as to the parties involved in the bequest, so don't go if you don't want to know.)

Since I tend to take books perhaps more seriously than I should (esp. when we're talking about “young adult” books), below are some comments that you might not want to read if you haven't read the book—you know, light spoilery stuff. Don't click for “more” if you don't want to read that sort of thing!

To no one's surprise, I'm ambivalent about Harry Potter the character. On the one hand, I like the way Rowling continues to make Harry sort of bumbling and only competent in bursts so that he has to rely on his friends to pull him through and keep their little world moving in the right direction. That's refreshing because it means Harry's not some dominating hero type and is therefore more believable. However, I don't feel Harry has developed or matured very much as a character. Sure, he's possibly less impulsive now than he was in past books, but not much (if at all). Worse, his hair-trigger temper and his weakness for being blinded by anger remain distinguishing characteristics and there is little sign that he's aware of how devastating these weaknesses are. Also, the fact that he continues to sort of blow off school and not take learning magic seriously means that it's not very plausible that he's supposedly a great wizard who is going to be able to defeat moldy Voldy. Even the magic battles in which he engages in this book are a little surprising; he never practices or pays attention to anyone, yet we're supposed to believe he can hold his own against powerful wizard and witches? I just feel like its time he became more serious about developing his powers even as he becomes more serious about fulfilling the role he supposedly must fill.

Parallel to this is the continued frustration that no one seems to listen to Harry, despite the fact that the past books showed time and again that his hunches were more or less right. Of course, perhaps these things go hand in hand—why would they take him seriously when he just doesn't act very serious most of the time?

Other, really minor things I quibbled inwardly about or really liked while reading:

  • The use of another “found” book to move the plot forward. It was a little too reminiscent of Book 2 and Tom Riddle's diary.
  • Likewise, although it's a brilliant idea, the constant use of the pensieve for backstory seemed a little deus ex machina -esque. I don't know how else she could have done it, and it worked well, so I'm not really complaining, just saying. I guess that's the advantage of writing fantasy like this—if you need some mechanism to talk about the past other than a dream or a plain old flashback, you just invent a pensieve. In that light, it works well b/c it adds the challenge of forcing the characters to actually “acquire” the required memories in the first place.
  • I don't know what to make the of idea that Voldemort appears to come basically from a family of dissipated wealth and prestige. Rowling certainly made the Gaunts out to be the most vile, inbred sort of social trash and I'm not sure why that was necessary or what she's trying to say by that.
  • I really enjoyed the idea that Fred and George Weasley have a “security line” of magic products. It certainly rings true in light of current events where people are constantly searching for ways to be more “secure” and the “security industry” is making money hand over fist.
So, no deep thoughts, just thoughts. It was a terrific read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Like everyone else, I can't wait for the next and final installment, although I do hope to see a Harry that's a bit more, well, heroic in the end.

Posted 01:14 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 19, 2005

Heat Is On On On?

When I wrote yesterday I really had no plans to stay home and read Harry Potter. However, I was waiting for the plumber/HVAC guy to arrive so I was going to be late for work. Not surprisingly, the expert took much longer to arrive than expected, only to show up and tell me that the problem is that our landlords have had their heat on all summer! They have hot water heat (steam radiators) and the boiler is downstairs in our apartment. I was wondering why the darn thing was always so hot and now I know. But why would they have their freaking heat on when the weather around here has been insanely hot (and wet) for weeks?

Anyhoo, I'm halfway through book six and am very entertained. I don't want to say much b/c I don't want to spoil anything for those who have not been able to dig in yet.

If you're not a fan of the kid wizards, you may find something more to your like at Blawg Review #15 (aka, “the multiple personalities of George”).

Posted 06:57 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

July 18, 2005

Potter Monday

So who would rather stay home and read Harry Potter than go to work today? Oh yeah, that would be me. Thanks to L.'s sister, I scored a copy but I haven't been able to start it because I've been catching up on what I'd forgotten about book 5. If you're like me and you'd like to refresh your memory about the Order of the Phoenix, check out David Harris' chapter summaries. He only made it to chapter 30, but you can get summaries of the last few chapters from Sparknotes.

Oh, and to those of you who are studying for the bar and will have to wait to read the new book until after you've passed, well, um, it's something to look forward to, right? ;-)

Posted 06:37 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 01, 2005

The Stick

I think The Scoplaw has about given up on me, but long ago he hit me with the stick. I was busy, so I let the stick bounce off of me and clatter to the ground where it sat sad and forlorn, probably developing all kinds of complex abandonment issues and other complications that will haunt it for the rest of its days, including the problem of where it can go from here, now that the stick has made many rounds about. Still, I'm very much part of the better late than never stick school, so here goes.

Stick Stuff:

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

Although it would be a big task, I'd be one or both of the Tropics—of Cancer and Capricorn, by Henry Miller. I read both books while biking through Europe and found them inspirational and liberating in ways that are hard to describe. For a long while I tried to write like Miller, but it never really worked. He had a unique voice—like Kerouac might have been if he'd gotten out more—and a fascinating life.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Too many to count or, unfortunately, remember. Maybe that means the crushes were never really too serious.

The last book you bought is:

I don't think I've bought any books since these. I was in a bookstore yesterday and there were many books that looked great, but I don't want to get my hopes up too high about all the books I'd like to read this summer. There's never as much summer reading time as I think there's going to be...

The last book you read:

Life, the Universe, and Everything by Douglas Adams. I was preparing for watching the Hitchhiker's Guide movie, but now I'm not sure I want to see it. I just can't get excited about it for some reason.

What are you currently reading?

I just started Galapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut, but I'm not sure how far I'll get with it. I'm supposedly participating in a book club that is now reading None to Accompany Me by Nadine Gordimer, but I haven't obtained a copy yet. I'd also like to move Gideon's Trumpet up on my reading list—I just studied Gideon v. Wainwright in Crim Pro and it's basically the case that made my future career possible, so it seems like a logical choice.

Five books you would take to a deserted island:
This is very hard. There are only about two books I've read more than once, so there are no books that come to mind that I'd just love to read over and over again. That said, if I was shipping out today, I'd probably grab:

  1. Neuromancer by William Gibson.
  2. The Portable Thoreau, which is the only thing I think I ever stole—(ssh!) I had a school copy in high school and never gave it back, kind of on purpose. That was me being civilly disobedient.
  3. Maybe Snowcrash by Neil Stephenson, but that might be in competition with Neuromancer for a sci-fi pick.
  4. I might cheat a little and take the Norton Anthology of American Literature single volume version because it has so many classics that I'd want to have for reference and reminders of America's good intentions, broken promises, and blatant hypocrisy.
  5. Finally, I'd probably grab Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I really would like to reread that and it would keep me busy for a looong time.

Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons)? And Why?
  1. Jose, because he leads a fascinating life of travel and adventure and is always reading and/or thinking something interesting.
  2. Evan, because he also leads a fascinating life, reads a lot, and clearly does not have enough other things to blog about. ;-)
  3. Steve, because I think he's almost done with finals and there's really no better time than that to pick up the stick.

Posted 08:24 PM | Comments (3)

April 09, 2005

Wisdom of Adams

Chapter 28 of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams reads:
The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them. To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso fact, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem. And so this is the situation we find: a succession of Galactic Presidents who so much enjoy the fun and palaver of being in power that they very rarely notice that they're not. And somewhere in the shadows behind them—who? Who can possibly rule if no one who wants to do it can be allowed to?
Is it just me, or is this a pretty good summary of the summary of American politics in the last, oh, couple of decades? And related to the issue of how power circulates and the almost unimaginably awful consequences of the fact that it's never as it seems, The Long Emergency, a brief synopsis of where the world is at in terms of energy resources and consumption, is about the scariest thing I've read in a long time. If true, we're screwed. Sometimes I really wish I had a Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matic (more here) so I could just hitch a ride to another planet or something.

Posted 02:01 PM | Comments (4)

March 13, 2005

Hitchhiker's Guide Best Bits

Hitchguide I read (reread, actually) only one measly little book while on break, but it was a good one: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Because this is such a widely-read book, I'll just comment on my favorite parts. First, it struck me on this reading that Adams' characterization of the role of the President of the Galaxy was eerily accurate:
The President in particular is very much a figurehead—he wields no real power whatsoever. He is apparently chosen by the government, but the qualities he is required to display are not those of leadership but those of finely-judged outrage. For this reason the President is always a controversial choice, always an infuriating but fascinating character. His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it. . . . Very very few people realize that the President and the Government have virtually no power at all, and of these few people only six know whence ultimate political power is wielded.
Does that sound anything like another President/Government you know? Is it possible we all watch the actions of our figurehead and elected officials intently as if they had some meaning, when really the true power in our society is at work elsewhere? NAFTA Chapter 11 comes immediately to mind, as well as the FTAA, both of which transfer authority over all sorts of government regulatory functions into the hands of multinational conglomerates. Perhaps the President's job is to make a lot of noise somewhere (like, oh, maybe, Iraq and neighboring countries), while the real power brokers slowly work their nefarious magic. Could it be? You think? Wars are generally extremely effective in drawing attention away from other things.... Another favorite idea is that the mice have been running the show all along. While humans have been thinking we were doing experiments on mice, the mice were actually doing experiments on us. The idea almost makes Hitchhiker's Guide a forerunner of “The Matrix” (the mice have you!), which is something I'd never considered before. Finally, the little bit with Majikthise and Vroomfondel at the end. These two representatives from the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Thinking Persons are outraged that a computer might solve the greatest mysteries of the universe and leave them with nothing to do:
“You just let the machines get on with the adding up,” warned Majikthise, “and we'll take care of the eternal verities, thank you ver much. You want to check your legal position, you do, mate. Under law the Qeust for Ultimate Truth is quite clearly the inalienable prerogative of your working thingkers. Any bloody machine goes and actually finds it and we're straight out of a job, aren't we? I mean, what's the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machien only goes and gives you his bleeding phone number the next morning?” “That's right,” shouted Vroomfondel, “we demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”
Anyone familiar with the bureaucratic politics of Humanities departments in large American universities will have to chuckle at this. It can also be read as a fun jab at luddites and at the general revolt against “modernity” and the rise of science in the late 19th century, all of which continues to figure today in, for example, battles over whether to teach evolution in public schools. Bottom line: The Hitchhiker's Guide is a fun, fast, light read that remains entertaining, engaging, and highly relevant even 25 years after its initial publication. The movie should be fun, too. Over the next few weeks perhaps I'll take a quick bite at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. p.s.: If you're a Marvin the morose robot fan, check out his songs here.

Posted 12:16 PM

March 07, 2005

New Used Books

It's spring break so it's time to pretend I have time in my life for things other than school, work, and blogs. To that end, L. and I went to a big used book sale at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School yesterday because what we really really need in our lives is more books. (Note to self: Take picture of the half dozen completely overloaded and sagging bookshelves in our tiny apartment.) But you know, when good books are going for $1/each, how can you say no? Yesterday's picks for me were:
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (because it was a dollar and it's been so long since I read it that I've basically forgotten the whole thing and the movie is coming and, well, I don't want to see the movie w/out knowing where my towel is, you know?)
  • The Restaurant at the End of The Universe (see above)
  • Life, The Universe and Everything (and again)
  • Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut (because he's great and I haven't read it)
  • Galapagos (same as above)
  • Jailbird (again)
  • The Trial by Franz Kafka (because I sadly must admit I've never read it and I know it should b/c just about every piece of literary criticism or theory I've read and loved has relied upon The Trial in some way or another)
  • The Recognitions by William Gaddis (because the Wallace List talks about it all the time so maybe I'd like it
  • Science Fiction: A Historical Anthology, edited by Eric S. Rabkin (because it contains some classic sci-fi short stories that I've never read)
In all, a great haul of books that I may never read and which I will move countless times before I admit that I will never read them, at which point I will donate them to another charity book sale where they will be sold again for $1/each, only to begin the whole cycle again. Or maybe I will read them since they're mostly tiny paperbacks that won't take that long to read and which will be easy to carry w/me on the train this summer. We'll see. Any thoughts on any of these books? Faves? Dislikes?

Posted 02:08 PM | Comments (6)

February 21, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson, R.I.P.

Gonzo journalist and author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas apparently shot himself yesterday. Salon has a good selection of interviews with and articles about Thompson that cover fairly well the contributions he made to journalism and public perception in the last 30-40 years. Personally, I read Fear and Loathing early in college and it completely blew my mind. I'd dig up my copy but I long ago loaned it to someone and never got it back. This brief excerpt pretty well captures the flavor of it—stream of consciousness with a dark comic edge, Jack Kerouac flung headlong and screaming into the 1970s. I hope I never forget the scene in the book where Duke is sitting at a bar in a casino, high as a kite, and he becomes convinced the place is crawling with lizards. There's a bit of it here:
Right next to me a huge reptile was gnawing on a woman’s neck, the carpet was a blood-soaked sponge-impossible to walk on it, no footing at all. “Order some golf shoes,” I whispered. “Otherwise, we’ll never get out of this place alive. You notice these lizards don’t have any trouble moving around in this muck—that’s because they have claws on their feet.”
Trust me, in its proper context that bit will make you howl with laughter. If you haven't read the book, I highly recommend it. I thought the movie was all right, as well. See also: The complete script from the 1998 film version of the book.

Posted 07:08 AM | Comments (3)

January 10, 2005

Norrell & Strange, Unfortunate Events Into the Forest of Middlesex

Since school starts again today (oh yay), I figure this is my last chance to recount the wonders of my vacation reading, after I got so much good input on it before break began. Click below for more on Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrel, some Lemony Snicket books, Into the Forest,and Middlesex. (There's a spoiler, but it comes with a warning so you should be able to avoid it if you want.) My vacation reading started with a bang, but technically it wasn't reading at all. First, I was just about ready to start Middlesex as we were leaving, but L's sister and her SO kindly gave me a wonderful gift with orders to open it just before we left. It turned out to be Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell—on cd! So we started listening to that almost as soon as we hit the road and the magical intrigues of Susanna Clarke's excellent first novel kept us pretty well riveted all the way to Michigan. The book is not small, so the cd version occupies a full 26 discs. Counting both directions of our drive, we got nearly halfway—to the middle of disc 11. It took nearly that long for the two magicians to meet, so now I'm dying to learn what becomes of them in the rest of the book. I'm still trying to figure out how (and when) to listen to the rest of it, but what I've heard so far is plenty to allow me to recommend it. (Thanks, M & P!) The book struck both me and L. as very much trying to evoke the style of a 19th century British novel (i.e. Jane Eyre), but its narrator has a much more contemporary sensibility, and its supernatural subject matter creates an interesting contrast with the 19th century style. The characters are painstakingly drawn (almost too painstakingly, at times), and the matter-of-fact treatment of magic keeps things interesting. The book's vision of magic (along with its liberal use of footnotes which enhance the impression that every bit of it is serious and true) is both dark and whimsical, and therefore believable. This is serious stuff these characters are playing with, and that seriousness adds a nice edge that makes you always want to know what happens next. Also, even halfway through the book I can't really figure out who I'm supposed to be rooting for, or who I'm even supposed to like. It takes skill to do that, and Clarke has done it well here. Once we were out of the car, I turned to books I'd read instead of listen to. My sister has been enjoying the Lemony Snicket books, so she kindly brought the first five or so and allowed me to read the first three in about as many days. I was pleasantly surprised to find them to be very fun mind-candy. Because they're kid's books they read quickly, and it's fun to imagine what it must be like to read them as a younger person. The Unfortunate Events books actually contain some great insights, I found. For example, the first book, The Bad Beginning, takes some nice digs at the law. This excerpt displays one of them, but it also shows Snicket's distinctive tone:
There are many, many types of books in the world, which makes good sense, because there are many, many, types of people, and everybody wants to read something different. For instance, people who hate stories in which terrible things happen to small children should put this book down immediately. But one type of book that practically no one likes to read is a book about the law. Books about the law are notorious for being very long, very dull, and very difficult to read. This is one reason many lawyers make heaps of money. The money is an incentive—the word “incentive” here means “an offered reward to persuade you to do something you don't want to do”—to read long, dull, and difficult books. (83-4)
How true! The tone and the little stylistic traits of a) warning the reader repeatedly that this is a horrible story in which terrible things happen to small children, and b) defining a word Snicket thinks his young readers may not recognize, are endearing trademarks of the whole series. But while I found most of the three books I read to be very well-written, I had to quibble with the the resolution of the first one. --- Caution: Spoiler ahead! --- If you haven't read this book and would like to, please skip the next three paragraphs! Also, if you haven't seen the movie and plan to, I'm guessing the following might give something away about that, too. The resolution of The Bad Beginning's central dilemma turns on what Klaus learns from reading these awful law books because it allows him and the other Baudelaire children to convince Justice Strauss to annul Violet's wedding to Count Olaf. By the judge's reasoning, the law requires a party to a wedding to sign a wedding document “in her own hand,” but since Violet is right-handed and she signed the document with her left, then she didn't sign in “her own hand,” and therefore the wedding is invalid. Obviously, this is a fairly weak and unsatisfying resolution to the problem, and Snicket seemed to feel that way, too, because he tries to explain it away:
Unless you are a lawyer, it will probably strike you as odd that Count Olaf's plan was defeated by Violet signing with her left hand instead of her right. But the law is an odd thing. For instance, one country in Europe has a law that requires all its bakers to sell bread at the exact same price. A certain island has a law that forbids anyone from removing its fruit. And a town not too far from where you live has a law that bars me from coming within five miles of its borders. Had Violet signed the marriage contract with her right hand, the law would have made her a miserable contessa, but because she signed it with her left, she remained, to her relief, a miserable orphan.
Um, really? I mean, sure, many things in the law turn on technicalities, but would the law really say that a person's “own hand” is only the dominant hand with which he/she generally signs his/her name? Maybe, but it still seemed weak to me. Maybe I've just spent too long in law school, or maybe not long enough. --- End Spoiler --- But even if the Lemony Snicket books may only get law mostly right (and who am I to say?), they still might teach young readers a good deal, especially in the way they attempt to expand their readers' vocabulary by defining words like “incentive” and putting them into context. One word I learned from the second book is “brummagem,” which “is such a rare word for 'fake' that even Klaus didn't know what it meant” (91). Did you? After three volumes of the Unfortunate Events in a row, I decided to take a little breather from the series. After all, the movie is only supposed to cover the first three books, so now if I end up seeing it, the books won't be spoiled for me. L. kindly gave me Into the Forest for Christmas, so I read that next, and as promised, it was a quick read with a somewhat Atwoodian feel. It's like The Handmaid's Tale in that it envisions a near-future where human folly has nearly made life as we know it impossible, but it's unlike that book in its lack of real concern for or attention to the larger causes of the future changes it predicts. Hegland's book feels less political, and more personal. But, like Handmaid it's centrally concerned with the relationships of women with women, women with men, and how culture can damage those relationships. I'd say it takes an idea of female solidarity and independence perhaps a little farther than Atwood does in Handmaid, and for that reason it's perhaps even darker than Handmaid, at least in a way. I'll say no more, but if you liked The Handmaid's Tale, I do think you'd like Into the Forest, plus it's a much faster read. Finally, I ended the break where I intended to begin—with Middlesex. There's enough to say about this book that I'm not sure where to begin, but first, thank you to everyone who recommended it so highly—it really was all that and a bag of chips. I mean, this is one great novel. It's a historical novel, it's a political novel, it's a domestic novel, it's a gender and sexuality novel. It's a little-bit-of-everything novel and that's why it's so good. I particularly liked the playful narrator, a sort of omniscient first person voice who explains his omniscience through the clever device of genetics and the idea that we're all omniscient before we're born. I liked the historical details about Smyrna and the Turks and the Greeks and Detroit and Henry Ford and the riots in the 60s and the sad decay of the “motor city.” I liked the careful and well-developed characters and the way they spanned generations, retaining a delightful family consistency and plausibility over the years. And, of course, I loved the way the gender and sexuality issues are woven throughout, and finally more or less resolved. In fact, maybe the only thing I didn't like so much was that I got the feeling at times that the author, Eugenides, knew exactly how good his book was, and was sort of showing off a little. I felt this most when our gene-crossed narrator admits that he once aspired to be a great novelist, but had resigned himself only to telling his story as plainly and completely as possible once he'd realized he simply had no talent for writing. Yeah, right, buddy. And yeah, I know the narrator is not the author, but still, to have your narrator say such a thing in the middle of a novel that's clearly going to be a big literary statement, it just seemed a teensy bit over the top. But only a teensy bit, because if there's any gloat in that moment on Eugenides' part, it's well-deserved, as far as I'm concerned. In short, this is just a great book. Again, I don't want to say anything that might reduce your pleasure in reading it by spoiling anything (although, while this book is about a big secret, it's an open secret from about page one, so I'm not sure what I could spoil), but suffice to say I'd recommend moving it to the top of your list.

Posted 07:39 AM | Comments (5)

December 16, 2004

Break Reading 2

One more potential pleasure read for the upcoming break is “John Henry Days” by Colson Whitehead. I started it over the summer but only got about 50 pages into it when I had to put it down for some reason. I think that reason had something to do with class, but I'm not sure. Has anyone read the book? I really loved “The Intuitionist”, so I'm certainly prepared to enjoy “John Henry,” as well, and what I read was a great start.

Posted 11:43 AM | Comments (2)

December 12, 2004

10 Best Books 2004?

The NY Times has released its list of the 10 best books of 2004 in both fiction and non. Funny, none of the books on my potential reading list are on the Times' list. I think I'll stick with my list, along with the suggestions you all have made. So far it seems like Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is winning the race, although I do very much like Care's advice to read Into the Forest first, then try to get to something else. Or maybe Jonathan Strange. . . or I'm still into The Baroque Cycle. I mean, I want to read it someday, for sure, but is now the time to start? Hmm... Isn't thinking about reading great fiction so much more fun than studying for finals? Yeah, it definitely is. In addition to reading, I'd like to catalog all the books L. and I own so we can see what we have. I have a CueCat barcode scanner, I have the free and very impressive Books for Mac OS X software, and I have the books to scan in—I just don't have the time. L. thinks I'm a big fat geek for even wanting to do this, but once you've got them all cataloged, you can do cool things like find them when you want them. You can also do something like putting a list of your books online, which could be useful somehow, I think. Anyway, it sure would be better than studying corporations. But then, the bar for that is really, really low.

Posted 08:45 AM | Comments (6)

December 09, 2004

Pleasure Reading Poll

With another final coming up Friday (tomorrow!), I need to study again, or still. Therefore, I leave you with this question: What should I read over the upcoming holiday break? The choices currently on my list of possibles (recommended by friends or reviews I've run across, or just things that I've wanted to read for a long time):

“Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 1)” (Neal Stephenson)

“Girl With Curious Hair (Norton Paperback Fiction)” (David Foster Wallace)

“Checkpoint: A Novel” (Nicholson Baker)

“Into the Forest” (JEAN HEGLAND)

“Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel” (Susanna Clarke)

Please share any thoughts, comments, or additional recommendations. Thanks! Note: This post, including all links to Amazon, the images, etc., was created in about two minutes using ecto's new Amazon functionality. While I wish it allowed me to choose some other database (like Powell's, for example), it's still very very cool.

Posted 08:40 AM | Comments (15)

October 03, 2004

Getting It Up

A good friend of mine just published a new book about Viagra. Wanna know why you're always getting so much viagra spam? The short story is because men are insecure and the pharmaceutical industry is working hard to keep them that way by making them think they need drugs to be “normal” men. The long story is The Rise of Viagra: How the Little Blue Pill Changed Sex in America. Here's a great interview w/the author. Of course I think everyone should buy this book, not just because Meika is a friend, but also because what's happened w/Viagra affects us all. Those effects go beyond “sexual dysfunction” to how the profit-motive encourages big pharma to focus its research and resources on lifestyle drugs, which means less research and fewer resources for cancer drugs or AIDS drugs or low-cost treatments for diseases and viruses that continue to kill hundreds and thousands of people every year around the world. You think there's nothing wrong w/for-profit health care? Read this book; you might just think again. I'm pretty sure a condemnation of for-profit health care is not the book's real point (I haven't read it yet), but it's a logical extension of the book's explanation of the lengths to which drug-makers are willing to go just to make a buck.

Posted 03:52 PM

September 16, 2004

Separate But Not At Peace

According to the Writer‘s Almanac:
[Today is] the birthday of American novelist John Knowles, born in Fairmont, West Virginia (1926). He is best known for his novel A Separate Peace (1959), based in part on Knowles’ experiences at Phillips Exeter Academy. It the story of two friends, Gene and Phineas, one an intellectual and the other an athlete, and their summer together at an expensive American prep school during the early years of World War II. A Separate Peace is one of the most widely read postwar American novels. It is frequently compared critically to J. D. Salinger‘s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). It was in its sixty-fourth Bantam paperback run in March 1986, with more than seven million copies in print. In 1960, Knowles won the first William Faulkner Foundation Award for this notable first novel.
Great. I read A Separate Peace in junior high school. I bet you did, too. And now I want to know why. Why did we read that? What was the point? What makes this a good little novel? I haven’t the foggiest idea. In fact, I‘d completely forgotten about until I saw a snippet of the movie version the other night on tv. What I saw was pretty bad. And it didn’t really bring back the novel. My memory is so terrible. So do you remember the novel? And do you have any idea why every American schoolkid (or lots of them, anyway) has to read it? Do kids still read this today? p.s.: If things seem random around ai recently, that may be because they are. I don‘t know which way is up these days, but it seems some part of me is fighting doggedly not to allow the rest of me to happily fall back into student mode. Please bear with me while my multiple personalities engage in mortal combat. To the victor will go the spoils. p.p.s.: The Writer’s Almanac online version is like a blog, but it‘s not a blog. The index page shows you the current day, and entries are archived by week, but there’s no way to link to just one day‘s entry. It should just be a blog. An audioblog, even. Yeah, it should. You can sign up to get it in your inbox every morning, and that’s nice, but, well, why not do it via RSS?

Posted 03:49 PM | Comments (6)

July 20, 2004

Bad Novel Beginnings: BLFC

We have another winner in the world's premier bad writing contest:

Since 1982 the English Department at San Jose State University has sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.

And the winner of 2004 is Dave Zobel who submitted the following:

She resolved to end the love affair with Ramon tonight . . . summarily, like Martha Stewart ripping the sand vein out of a shrimp's tail . . . though the term "love affair" now struck her as a ridiculous euphemism . . . not unlike "sand vein," which is after all an intestine, not a vein . . . and that tarry substance inside certainly isn't sand . . . and that brought her back to Ramon.

The ellipses must have clinched it, I'm thinking.

The rest of the honorable mentions and runners up and winners in various categories are all well worth reading. There's so much terrific badness there I can't imagine how the judges choose the winner every year.

Posted 06:35 AM

July 17, 2004

Pathological Pursuit of Profit

After reading the book a couple of weeks ago, we saw the documentary film version of The Corporation last night. Of the two, I recommend the book. It's a quick read, very accessible, and it's packed with terrific nuggets of information. By comparison the movie seemed overly long, depressing, and at times downright boring. To be fair, I'm probably being harsh on the movie both because I've read the book and because I had such high hopes. After reading the book, I hoped the movie would be a pithy, riveting, incisive distillation of the book, a highly accessible and even entertaining vehicle that would carry the book's main message—corporations are, by definition, anti-democratic and antisocial—to a wide popular audience. And while the movie is great and I highly recommend it, I fear it's a little too much on the spinach side of cinema to really reach or convince large numbers of people.

The filmmakers have provided an excellent summary of the movie so you can get the gist of what it's about if it's not coming to your area. (It's only in very limited release right now.) The movie is long almost by necessity; the negative effects of the modern corporation reach so many aspects of the world and of society that even at over two hours long the movie could only skim the surface of a few of them. Because it was so packed with information, it's hard to pick out highlights. Still, one scene stands out in my memory as a compelling reason to pay attention to the issue of the pathological pursuit of profit that is the sole reason for the corporation's existence. That reason comes from Ray Anderson, the Chairman of Interface, Inc. (a carpet company). He compares our current situation to the early stages of human flight where people would stand on the edge of a cliff with some wings strapped to their backs and jump off, hoping they could fly. If the cliff was high enough, the jumper might initially think he was flying, but really he was just in freefall, rushing to his death. According to Anderson, the world is in just such a position today, except we're all the jumper, and when we gave corporations the rights of a person we jumped off a huge cliff. Our wings are the corporate/capitalist system that we think is flying, but really we're in freefall. It's easy to think we're still flying because the cliff was so high, but some people can see farther ahead and they see the ground rushing up to meet us and they know we're plummeting to our destruction. Those are the people (like the makers of this film) who are shouting warnings and working to wake people up to the fact that the corporate takeover of life on earth is not sustainable. In fact, the pathological pursuit of profit is rushing us headlong to the end of life as we know it.

I guess I'm a sucker for extended metaphors.

But like I said, the book is better than the movie. It covers much the same ground, but adds more depth, such as describing how the dominant position of the corporation in society has created an entirely new kind of person:

"The corporation has essentially replaced the church in terms of who you are," says Edison Schools financier Michael Moe. It wants the same thing as the church, he says: "obedient constituents that . . . pay [their] dues and follow the rules." Human nature is neither static nor universal. It tends to reflect the social orders people inhabit. Throughout history, dominant institutions have established roles and identities for their subjects that meshed with their own institutional natures, needs and interests: God-fearing subjects for the church, lords and serfs for feudal orders, citizens for democratic governments (134).

And what kind of subjects does the corporation want? Subjects like itself: "purely self-interested, incapable of concern for others, amoral, and without conscience" (134). Sounds a lot like those Enron traders caught on tape (also here), doesn't it?

The book also contains a great indictment of one of the darling little ploys of business— "deregulation":

Deregulation . . . rests on the suspect premise that corporations will respect social and environmental interests without being compelled by government to do so. No one would seriously suggest that individuals should regulate themselves, that laws against murder, assault, and theft are unnecessary because people are socially responsible. Yet oddly, we are asked to believe that corporate persons—institutional psychopaths who lack any sense of moral conviction and who have the power and motivation to cause harm and devastation in the world—should be left free to govern themselves (110-111).

Corporations further argue that they should be free to govern themselves because they're already just helpless pawns in the hands of the all-powerful control of "the market." They say, "don't regulate us; the market will tell us what we can and can't do because if we behave badly then people won't buy our stuff." And while this sounds very nice and many people are taken in by it, it's really an argument for selling democracy to the highest bidder.

One premise of democracy is that, as citizens, all people are equal, at least within the political sphere. Everyone has one vote, regardless of his or her wealth or social position, and that means, in relation to corporations, that every citizen has an equal say about how these powerful entities must behave. Moving regulation of corporations from government to the market immunizes them to the effects of citizens' participation in the political process and leaves their control to an institution where one dollar—not one person—equals one vote. "At least in democracy each person is formally equally," says political economist Elaine Bernard, executive director of the Trade Union Program at Harvard University. "The humblest citizen, the most prestigious citizen still only has one vote. But when we move that power over to the marketplace, the humblest and the wealthiest are totally asymmetrical. And one has such immense power that they can literally crush the other completely and utterly and fully. So that's one of the reasons historically we've always felt the need to regulate markets." (145-6).

Something to think about the next time the FCC tries to decrease regulations on media ownership, for example.

Both the book and the movie end with gestures of hope that active citizens who care and are paying attention have some ability to take their society and the world back from corporation control, and return it to citizen control. And that's really the bottom line of these pieces: Corporations are, by definition and by law, antisocial. They have become frighteningly powerful. However, they are not unstoppable, and we are not helpless against them. I hope that last part is true, because if we're rushing headlong to disaster, the ground seems to be getting closer everyday.

Posted 12:10 PM | Comments (5)

June 28, 2004

Book Research?

NaNoWriMo 2004 is still four months away, but it's not too early to start thinking about what you're going to write. The rules say you can't write anything before midnight, November 1, but that doesn't mean you can't think about it. Last year I spewed out some 28,000 words and none of them were very good except possibly some bits about a character I was calling a "professional finder." The idea, roughly, was that in the future, some people might make a profession out of finding things from the past, then selling those things to collectors. Of course, people do this already, but think "Nth" degree. This week's City Paper features a new non-fiction work about "finders" who seem to find to live or live to find. It's called Mongo: Adventures In Trash, by Ted Botha. It could be good research for a "professional finder" character, or it might just be a good read. (Thanks to L for pointing this out.)

Posted 09:32 PM

June 16, 2004

Happy Bloomsday

Today is the day:

For millions of people, June 16 is an extraordinary day. On that day in 1904, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom each took their epic journeys through Dublin in James Joyce's Ulysses, the world's most highly acclaimed modern novel. “Bloomsday”, as it is now known, has become a tradition for Joyce enthusiasts all over the world.

If you'd like to be an "enthusiast," you can celebrate with a glass of burgundy and a Gorgonzola sandwich for lunch! (Yuck!)

I've never made it through Ulysses, although I've never tried. I guess I'm not an enthusiast. Perhaps someday when I have a lot more time.

Posted 05:15 AM | Comments (3)

June 11, 2004

Bel Canto: Opera Will Save Us

In the ongoing project to catch up on long-overdue reading, last weekend I finished Bel Canto after two weeks of trying. My progress through the book was slowed in the second week by the fact that I began commuting to work by bike rather than by train, removing 1-2 hours of reading time from my workdays. However, I found the book to be very slow and not very compelling until about page 275 (of approx. 325 pages). That's my quick review: Very slow and overwrought for the first 3/4 or more, followed by 30-50 pages of rising action, all of which comes to a chain-yanking conclusion in the final 5 pages. In other words, after reading this book, I felt a little used. I read 275 pages of overwrought description only to be kicked in the stomach and patted on the head in the end?

(If you haven't read the book but would like to, don't read on—spoilers ahead.)

Plot summary: Group of international business and governmental elites gathers at the home of the Vice President of an unnamed "developing" nation to celebrate the birthday of the CEO of a multinational Japanese electronics corporation by listening to a private performance of Roxanne Coss, one of the world's most famous and accomplished opera sopranos. At the end of the performance, the house is invaded by approximately 20 "terrorists" who have come to kidnap the president of this developing nation, only to find the president couldn't make it to the party because he didn't want to miss his favorite television soap opera. (Apparently, the president has never heard of a VCR.) Instead of kidnapping the president, the "terrorists" decide to hold the whole room hostage; they soon relent and set free all the women, sick and old men, and house workers (the "terrorists" claim their goal is to liberate "the workers"; the 3rd-person narrator wonders what they mean by "liberate" and "workers," but never returns to these questions—this is one of the book's great flaws).

Skip ahead two weeks and the "terrorists" and hostages have settled into routines and begun to make friends with each other. They sit around, waiting for something to happen, and have lots of time to think about whatever the author, Ann Patchett, wants to put into their heads. This could be interesting, but mostly isn't since the thoughts Patchett chooses to catalog are mostly trivialities along the lines of, "gee, I really do care about my wife" (from an elite european hostage). Some of the thoughts are slightly more interesting. For example, the Vice President of the developing nation is a hostage and we learn that he grew up in something like poverty and never dreamt he'd ever live in a house that had a machine in the kitchen dedicated solely to making ice. He also becomes obsessed with maintaining this house and begins taking over the cooking and cleaning and gardening that he'd previously paid servants to do for him. The Vice President's discovery of all the work his servants had done for him—all the labor he'd taken for granted that had made his life so nice—is a highlight of the book. If more characters had had epiphanies like this, the book would have been much more impressive. But even the Vice President doesn't do much with his newfound knowledge; he doesn't even express thanks (that I recall) for the labor his servants have always done, but instead becomes obsessed with doing it himself in order to maintain his material possessions in the best possible manner. So instead of readers getting a character who develops some consciousness of the economic inequalities of his world, we get a character who obsessed and controlled by his material possessions. Yawn.

After 4.5 months (and a couple hundred pages) of this, a few characters have fallen in love and everyone is captivated by the singing of the famous Soprano. This singing—opera, of all things—is what seems to bring everyone together; it's what set the scene in motion (the reason everyone was in this house in the first place), and what makes everyone look forward to their next day as a hostage or "terrorist" in this little drama. In this way the book is highly romantic, preaching an ideal of Western European culture as a sort of universal language that can soften even the hardened hearts of "terrorists." This music makes language irrelevant—the fact that the songs the soprano sings are in languages neither she nor her listeners understand does not matter because the music touches them all and never fails to put them into a dreamy state of bliss. The book verges on magical realism in this regard, but it doesn't quite go that far. Perhaps it should have.

The relationships between the hostages and the "terrorists" seem to raise some sort of argument about how we're all just people and no matter how deep our political differences, we can all get along quite well if we try (and, um, if we can just unite around the universal language of Western European music!). This could also be a redeeming theme of the book, but its execution here comes off as too simplistic to be more than a superficial gesture, a la Rodney King's plea, "Can't we all just get along?"

In the end... Well, I won't tell you the end because that's really the only reason to read the book, but for me it ended up not seeming like a very good reason. In fact, at the end of the book, I felt a little used, like I'd been tricked. I read all of this, for that? But rather than ruining it completely for those who've not yet read the novel, suffice to say the ending returns to the book's central theme that Western European culture, and specifically opera, is the only thing that can make this crazy world tolerable for civilized people. One of the main characters summarizes that theme in his final lines (speaking of Roxanne, the Soprano):

When I hear Roxane sing I am still able to think well of the world," Gen said. "This is a world in which someone could have written such music, a world in which she can still sing that music with so much compassion. That's proof of something, isn't it? I don't think I would last a day without that now."

Oh yes, opera makes life worth living. If the book were written differently, it might be possible to read this as a larger argument that, rather than building armies and trying to resolve conflicts with bullets, we'd be better off trying to encourage art and artistic expression around the world. That argument might have potential, but it's not really in this book. The novel sets up a situation—a sort of microcosm of "globalization"—where the characters could gain some real insight into their own lives and the larger world they live in; it does an excellent job of setting a scene where these potentially fascinating characters could experience real growth. But instead of allowing them to grow or learn at all, the novel spends far too much time talking about the magical powers of opera, making its characters little more than a passive audience for the beautiful music.

Why do the "terrorists" want to kidnap a president? As mentioned above, we don't know, and the book belittles the "terrorists" by making them seem like they don't really know, either. Would a small group of "terrorists" attempt a kidnapping like this without good and deeply-believed reasons? No. But the book never explores any of that, nor does it explore the possible participation of its hostages—these global business and governmental elites—in whatever events or injustices the "terrorists" might be be trying to address. Instead, the novel seems to assume its readers won't care about these things, because the music is what's important. Who cares what motivates "terrorists"? Play that beautiful opera, please!

Bel Canto won the "Orange Prize"* and the Pen Faulkner Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The only explanation I can see for so much critical adulation is that the critical establishment is a sucker for romantic peans to European culture. Perhaps after Sept. 11, 2001 (the book was published in 2001, so I assume many critics were reading it in the context of that day's aftermath), many critics also enjoyed a novel that didn't ask them to think too deeply, if at all, about what might motivate a "terrorist," or about their own relationship to those motivations. There will always be an audience for escapist fantasy, I suppose, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. I only found the book disappointing because its characters and setting suggest it's going to be much more than the "fantasia of guns and Puccini and Red Cross negotiations" promised by the book jacket blurb (from The New Yorker). But no, a fantasia is exactly what it is.

* Side note: congratulations to Andrea Levy, the winner of the Orange Prize for 2004 for her novel, Small Island.

Posted 08:30 AM | Comments (2)

May 23, 2004

Save us from the innocent and good

On L's recommendation, and because it's small and easy to read on the train, I picked up The Quiet American by Graham Greene last week. Set in 1950s Vietnam, it's a short but complex novel that resonates eerily today. The major theme is neatly summarized in the first chapter by the narrator's response to Vigot upon learning that Pyle is dead: "'God save us always,' I said, 'from the innocent and the good.'"

And why do we need to be saved from the innocent and the good? Perhaps because "innocence" is too often a polite description of what could less charitably be called "stupidity." Take our current president, for example. Many people believe he and his buddies have a sincere desire to do good in the world; supporters argue that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was intended to make the world a better, more peaceful place. That may be true; innocents often have only the best of intentions (not that I would accept the notion that Bush, Cheney, et al, are the least bit innocent, but they do pretend to be "good.") However, good intentions are small consolation to the families of all the people—soldier and civilian—who have died in this war, and great intentions do little to repair our shattered relationships with many countries around the world. If we grant that Bush and Co. thought they were doing good by invading Iraq, it's easy to see why Greene's narrator invokes God's protection from people like them.

The "quiet American" of the book's title is Pyle, a young, "innocent" American sent to Vietnam on an "economic" mission. Describing Pyle in Vietnam, the narrator gives would could also be a fair description of G.W. Bush as President:

He looked more than ever out of place: he should have stayed at home. I saw him in a family snapshot album, riding on a dude ranch, bathing on Long Island, photographed with his colleagues in some apartment on the twenty-third floor. He belonged to the skyscraper and the express elevator, the ice-cream and the dry Martinis, milk at lunch, and chicken sandwiches on the Merchant Limited.

Of course, Pyle the "innocent" doesn't care if he's out of place—he has big plans to do "good"! While in Vietnam, Pyle secretly works to prop up a local "gang" leader to be a "third force" to combat the Communists. Of course, Pyle's efforts have horrific effects right from the beginning, and although Greene wrote the book in 1955 and couldn't have known he was being so prophetic, the disaster that is Pyle's plan to involve American forces and ideas in Vietnam foreshadows the much larger disaster that American involvement in the region would become in the next 20 years. It also eerily foreshadows current events, with U.S. forces again meddling where they're not wanted.

That's the simple, superficial stuff that resonated with me as I read, but there's much more to this novel. It's so prescient because it's so smart about colonialism. Academics probably call it a postcolonial novel because it's already cynically critical of the "new" colonialism we see today (e.g. in Afghanistan and now Iraq and countless other countries where the U.S. and other wealthy (mostly Western) nations have propped up warlords in the hope of making them puppets). It's somewhat in the tradition of Heart of Darkness, but as L said it doesn't dehumanize the colonized people like Conrad does. Instead, it problematizes that kind of colonist tendency-to-dehumanize by having its narrator struggle over his own relationship with the Vietnamese people with whom he lives, as well as the Vietnamese woman with whom he falls in love. In fact, one of the subplots is a contest between the narrator and Pyle over Phuong, a Vietnamese woman whom both the men "love." L could provide a fascinating account of how this relationship struggle symbolizes the colonial/post-colonial relationship with the colonized, but I'll let her explain that for you, if she so desires.

(I've been trying to get L to start her own blog so she can at least share her brilliant readings of books and movies with the world, but so far, no dice. Unless she has a blog and she's just not telling me, which is always possible....)

UPDATE: In a short article entitled "History's Fools," Jack Beatty echoes the gist of what I've said above, comparing our current crop of neo-conservatives (esp. Paul Wolfowitz) with the type of "innocent" we see in Pyle, the so-called "quiet American":

Paradoxically, the very scale of the debacle in Iraq may yield one long-term good: the repudiation of neo-conservative "democratic imperialism." The Americans killed in Iraq will not have died in vain if their sacrifice keeps other Americans from dying in neo-con wars to "remediate" Syria, Iran, or North Korea. After Iraq, "neo-conservative" may achieve the resonance of "isolationist" after World War II—a term of opprobrium for a discredited approach to foreign policy, shorthand for dangerous innocence about world realities. Like the isolationists, the neo-cons are history's fools. The strategy they championed was the wrongest possible strategy for the wrongest possible moment in the wrongest possible region of the world.

It's possible the so-called "innocence" of people like Wolfowitz could more accurately be described as willful ignorance verging on sociopathy, but the result is the same when people like this get a bit of power: danger for the rest of the world.

Posted 05:51 PM | Comments (3)

January 12, 2004

Book Revolution?

NPR's Morning Edition is running a story on the Fastback Book Binder from Powis Parker, Inc.. The story's teaser is that, with this new, simple, low-cost book binder, there's no reason for any book to ever go out of print again. Why? How?

This booklover's utopia would happen like this: Publishers would put their book catalogs online (probably within a subscription-only database). Bookstores would own Fastback book binders. When you want a book that's not in your library, you'd go to the bookstore. If they don't have the book on the shelf, they could go to the online catalog of books, download the one you want, and print and bind a copy for you in a matter of minutes and at a cost of a few dollars. How awesome would that be?

But even if we don't reach that point right away, how cool would it be to replace all your three-ring binders and plastic-spiral bound photo-copied packets of paper with real bound books? It could happen:

Though Parker is still interested in expanding his firm's geographic reach, these days he's also using technological breakthroughs to enter new areas—most notably the rapidly growing on-demand publishing market. Later this year, he plans to unveil a new digital machine, called Model 8, that can be used to create documents and books from a desktop environment.

The digital version of Fastback will be able to bind documents up to 350 pages in the time it takes to walk to the water cooler.

"Right now, 98 percent of these kinds of documents created in offices or homes are bound with punch holes and rings," Parker said. "That gives you a pretty good idea of the size of the market we can go after."

I believe the NPR story pegged the price of these new digital machines at only $1300/ea. Cool.

Posted 05:57 AM

June 30, 2003

No More Secrets?

William Gibson, author of Neuromancer and many other sci-fi classics (including Idoru, which I'm currently reading), wrote a fascinating yet odd little essay last week in the NYT. In "Road to Oceana" [link via Scripting News], Gibson looks back at George Orwell's 1984 and argues that its dystopic world was based on a now outdated paradigm. Whereas Orwell was afraid of the power broadcast media could give fascist governments to brainwash and control their populace, Gibson says today we've moved beyond broadcast to virtual media via the internet. This means that we no longer need to fear the propagandistic power of broadcast media, or even so much the surveilling power of government- or corporate-controlled networks of cameras. According to Gibson, we need not fear these things because information is now hyperlinked and massively ubiquitous, with the end result being that "It is becoming unprecedentedly difficult for anyone, anyone at all, to keep a secret."

Gibson's track record as an almost prophetic visionary is incredible, so I'm reluctant to disagree with his conclusion. Still, I'm skeptical. For example, the Bush administration has come up with the "military tribunal" and the status of the "enemy combatant" as new and improved ways to throw a thick blanket of secrecy over important government and military actions, not to mention the many Bush executive orders to lock down presidential records and who knows what else. And perhaps Gibson hasn't yet read Lessig's The Future of Ideas, which argues that networked information may only be as free as those who own the networks want it to be.

In the long run, Gibson is undoubtedly correct: The truth will eventually come out. Unfortunately, that truth may come too late to help address the problems of today or tomorrow. Yet, Gibson's conclusion rings remarkably true and demonstrates again why he's such a great writer and visionary. Gibson writes:

"1984" remains one of the quickest and most succinct routes to the core realities of 1948. If you wish to know an era, study its most lucid nightmares. In the mirrors of our darkest fears, much will be revealed. But don't mistake those mirrors for road maps to the future, or even to the present.

We've missed the train to Oceania, and live today with stranger problems.

Indeed. (I hope to get a chance to say a few things about Idoru when I'm finished with it...)

Posted 11:04 AM

May 17, 2003


Books on which The Matrix was based, according to "The Matrix Revisted" dvd:

Laurence Fishburn on "The Matrix":

I've said to a lot of people that a movie this smart—it's amazing that it got made because it is so smart.

Posted 10:49 AM

May 12, 2003

Summer Reading II

Thanks to jd2b for the link to my questions about summer reading. Only one kind reader offered a suggestion (it sounds like a good one), but I (and other pre-1Ls, I imagine) would welcome more discussion of pre-1L summer reading, what to do before law school, etc. Or you could just read this great joke from a law professor at the U of Iowa. Of course, you could always offer discussion and read the joke....

Posted 12:11 PM | Comments (5)

May 09, 2003

Summer Reading

Although I won't be ready to start this for a few weeks at least, on the advice of Jaremy Blachman [link via jd2b—who still needs permalinks!] I'm thinking about what to read this summer. Any ideas?

I'm thinking about some of the books on this list, but then, there's GW's list. The first list has the advantage of being shorter and being recommended by a law student. The second list has the advantage of coming from the school I'll be attending this fall, for whatever that's worth. (Should it bother me that GW recommends A Mattter of Interpretation by Justice Antonin Scalia?)

Any suggestions?

At the top of my list will be Getting to Maybe because so many people (including especially Sue) have recommended it. I've also heard good things about Law School Insider, primarily that it's supposed to be better than Law School Confidential, which I already have. And, of course, I'd like to read One L, mostly for fun.

Another option for fun would be Brush With the Law, which sounds, um, entertaining, to say the least. Could it be that the best-kept secret of the legal profession is that law school isn't really that hard? [1

What about Planet Law School? Is it worth a look? Does it contain anything the other "know before you go" books don't?

Then there's the venerable Bramble Bush, but I'm just not sure that would be any fun. (Fun is important to this reading list. This is a summer reading list, after all.)

What else should I be thinking about? Introductions to logic? U.S. history? A good novel or two? Study guides for Contracts, Civil Procedure, Torts, or criminal law? If any of these are a good idea, specific recommendations would be great.

(I realize that only a few weeks ago I was surprised to see people starting to read (and buy school supplies) in preparation for law school this fall, but now it seems I've caught the bug. Why waste the enthusiasm of starting something new?)

[1] ] According to this review , Frank Abagnale Jr.—the subject of last year's move, "Catch Me If You Can"—really did pass the Louisiana bar w/out any legal training. (Here's more on the accuracy/inaccuracy of the film.) Perhaps this is why the ABA works so hard to make sure people can't practice law w/out first getting a J.D. from an ABA-accredited school. It's a cartel, but then, you knew that, didn't you?

Posted 07:20 AM | Comments (2)

May 07, 2003


Man Walking in Field finds new Harry Potter—and then gives it away! Sometimes what seems like being nice ends up just being stupid.

I can't believe I just said that.

Posted 06:32 AM

April 28, 2003


Fans of David Foster Wallace should not miss his interview with Paul Brownfield for the LA Times. Wallace is the author of Inifinite Jest, which Brownfield fairly accurately (if reductively) summarizes as:

a 1,079-page, obsessively footnoted, high-comic novel -- that made Wallace a literary cause celebre. The book is set in a near future in which years are not numbered but corporate-sponsored ("Year of the Trial-Sized Dove Bar," etc.), and within its world are a junior tennis academy, a band of Quebecois separatists and addicts of various stripes and substances.

Wallace is something of a recluse so this interview is a rather rare look into his life at the moment. The interview touches on his new life in CA (he's the "Roy Edward Disney Professor of Creative Writing" at Pomona College), and on the whole Franzen/Oprah fiasco, about which this quintessentially DFW excursion:

[Wallace] expressed "admiration mixed with a mild contempt for the increasingly savvy way" Franzen handled the controversy that ensued when he spurned Winfrey's selection of "The Corrections" for her book club. He said the Franzen incident illustrates the trouble with whirlwind book tours, wherein the author moves in a state of surreal fatigue from airport to hotel room.

"There's something very uncomfortable about the whole thing, and yet on the other hand, what kind of prima donna says, 'Thank you, major corporation, for your advance, but now you're not allowed to use your marketing tools to try to recoup your investment'? You know, the head just goes around and around and around."


"There's a weird illogic about it, because the less important literary fiction gets to the culture, the harder those corporations who for whatever reason keep wanting to publish it, have to market it. So in order to keep it alive, you have to murder it to save it."

"Shall I say something so obvious that you just won't even put it in the article?" Wallace said. "A book is also a product. At least the books that we're talking about.... Even a book that's about living in a culture that relentlessly turns everything into a product is a product. There are not very complicated ironies built into that situation. But you know that happens maybe four or five times a year. There are these legions of very smart, nice, usually Seven Sisters-educated young publicists for all the different publishing houses whose entire job is networking and lunching and hanging out with the book reviewers and opinion makers again and again ... hoping the cultural and marketing motor will catch, which one out of 200 times it does.

"At a certain point," Wallace said finally, "I just stopped thinking about it."

If you didn't find that both fascinating and funny, don't read Wallace.

Posted 08:11 PM

March 01, 2003

Ideas of Safety

From High and Mighty by Keith Bradsher comes this insight into a key difference between the U.S. and Europe and Asia:

Nissan has found that drivers in Europe and Asia typically have very different attitudes toward vehicle safety from American drivers. Europeans and Asians tend to associate safety with a nimble vehicle with excellent brakes that can swerve or stop quickly so as to avoid an accident entirely, said Jerry P. Hirshberg, Nissan's recently retired president of North American design. Americans tend to have less confidence in their driving skills and assume that crashes are inevitable, so they have gravitated instead to tanklike vehicles that will protect occupants even if they plow into another vehicle. Buyers of sport utilities seem to be especially American in this regard, Hirshberg added (107).

Of course, Nissan's findings are well supported by the different cars driven by Americans vs. Euros and Asians. In the U.S., we drive tanks; in most of the rest of the world they drive safe, little anti-tanks. Now apply this difference to foreign policy and we get:

[People] in Europe and Asia typically have very different attitudes toward [national and global] safety from American people. Europeans and Asians tend to associate safety with a nimble [foreign policy] with excellent brakes that can swerve or stop quickly so as to avoid an accident entirely. Americans tend to have less confidence in their [diplomatic] skills and assume that crashes are inevitable, so they have gravitated instead to tanklike [policies] that will protect [them] even if [the country] plows into another [country]. The Bush Administration seems to be especially American in this regard.

Hence, the problem we face today: The U.S. just wants to plow through (using bombs as its plow) any obstacle to its vision of the world, while the rest of the world is saying, "Hey, why don't we avoid this problem instead of just trying to minimize the number of deaths on our side?" It's the difference between a world governed by force and violence (the SUV/American imperialist camp), vs. a world governed by preventive diplomacy and cooperation (the anti-tank/international and multilateral camp).

This is why Bradsher's book is so great -- the problems he identifies with SUVs are really metaphors for a vast number of the other problems we face today. The same selfish, anti-social, and wasteful people who buy SUVs also support selfish, anti-social, and wasteful policies with regard to foreign policy, education, health care, and all other social services. We don't live in a nicely divided world where our choice of transportation has zero to do with out position on home schooling, but that's the fantasy we really wish were true. (I don't have time at the moment to explain how/why SUV owners relate to home schooling, but if you don't see the connection, let me know and I'll give the explanation a try.)

Posted 10:25 AM | Comments (6)

February 25, 2003

SUV Factoid

I finally got to take a look at High and Mighty SUVs -- the World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way by Keith Bradsher. As I slowly work my way through the book (very slowly -- reading time will have to come after many other more pressing things), I'll try to mention the most mentionable bits.

Here's one for starters:

The Sierra Club likes to point out that driving a full-size SUV for a year instead of a midsize car burns as much extra energy as leaving a refrigerator door open for six years. SUVs also spew up to 5.5 times as much smog-causing gases per mile as cars.

Transcript of the kind of one-sided conversation that happens every day in a parallel universe: Oh, honey, have you seen the keys to the Explorer? I feel the need to work off some more of my utter disregard for the wellbeing of everyone else on the planet. Oh, thanks, I'll see you in a few hours after I've enlarged the hole in the ozone layer enough to satisfy my pathological tendencies toward genocide. Yeah, love you, too. Bye bye.

Posted 06:15 PM

February 23, 2003

Pattern Recognition

Speaking of paranoia and conspiracy, I just finished reading William Gibson's latest, Pattern Recognition, thanks to my Valentine, who thoughtfully gifted me a copy for that day. I'm a huge Gibson fan; Neuromancer blew the top right off my head. How could you not be a fan of the book that envisioned an Internet on steroids before the Internet even existed? Ok, so ARPANET began in 1969, but even by 1984 when Neuromancer was published the "net" was nothing like what we know today. Sure, it's the job of Sci-Fi to be ahead of its time; part of what makes sci-fi fun is its ability to play with future worlds and show us the possible places we might go and things we might do. But Gibson brought a vibrant subgenre?cyberpunk?to the wider public, and it's hard to underestimate the impact of that subgenre on the sci-fi of the last 20 years. [1] Would there have been a "Matrix" if there had not first been a Neuromancer? Hard to say. And I'll shut up about this before I get further out of my depth as a sci-fi expert. I know if I start getting into claims about who was first with what idea or who inspired what, I'll be treading on super-thin ice in about one more step.

And but so anyway, as the title suggests, Gibson's new book deals with paranoia, conspiracy, the stories behind what we think we see. The novel focuses on Cayce Pollard and her quest to find the maker and the meaning of "the footage," a mysterious series of film clips that appear randomly on the Web. At the moment Cayce finally begins to see the patterns (or some of them) converge, Gibson writes:

There must always be room for conicidence, Win [Cayce's father] had maintained. When there's not, you're probably well into apophenia, each thing then perceived as part of an overarching pattern of consipracy. And while comforting yourself with the symmetry of it all, he'd believed, you stood all too real a chance of missing the genuine threat, which was invariably less symmetrical, less perfect. But which he always, [Cayce] knew, took for granted was there (293-4).

Win's advice is perfect for this time we're living in. Is every bad thing that happens somehow connected to terrorism? Probably not?some of them may be coincidences. More specifically, does the fact that Saddam Hussien is a brutal despot mean he is also closely?or even loosely?connected with Al Queda and terrorism? Possibly, but again, these bad things may not go together. Finally, is the war on Iraq all about oil? Probably not; the reasons people claim for going to war are "invariably less symmetrical, less perfect" than that. The world is a complex place with forces and patterns and trends and histories converging and diverging all the time. How we read these convergences will make all the difference to our future.

With that in mind, I'll leave you with one of the best lines in the book. Cayce has met up with Stella, a Russian woman. While reminiscing about Russia's recent transition from the soviet to the capitalist model, Stella says:

Now we say that everything Lenin taught us of communism was false, and everything he taught us of capitalism was true (303).

We're all vaguely but often almost viscerally familiar with the patterns behind the first half of Stella's sentence (communism = evil), but why do so many of us give so little attention to the patterns that give rise to the second half?

[1] For a quick into to cyberpunk, this list contains the most notorious examples. I've read the top 10 and recommend them all. (In fact, I like Neal Stephenson better than Gibson, but I don't think I'm supposed to say that, so don't tell.)

Posted 08:51 AM

January 16, 2003

Free Books

Check out Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, a new sci-fi novel by first-time novelist Cory Doctorow. Under one of the new licenses from Creative Commons, the complete book is available to download absolutely free in a variety of forms. You can even print a copy for yourself, if you so desire. Of course, you can also buy a copy of the real thingan actual, dead-tree, bound book. It's an interesting and refreshing experiment, especially in light of the Supreme Court's awful decision yesterday against the public domain. Copyfight has just about all the news that's fit to click regarding the decision. [link via Scripting News, which also links today to more inside scoop from Lessig on the decision.]

Instead of getting all morbid and ranting about what a huge step backward this is for freedom and creativity and American culture, I'll just ask: Is Cory Doctorow related in anyway to E.L. Doctorow of Ragtime fame?

Posted 12:47 PM

December 03, 2002


Give yourself a 30-minute gift today and go read "Literary Devices," a new short story by Richard Powers. According to Scott Rosenberg, the story will only be available for one more week, so get it while you can. Could the "age of the rich, self-telling, process-authored, post-human, platform-independent story" almost be here? And why can't I come up with cool ideas like that? Ok, don't answer that, just enjoy the story.

Posted 04:10 PM

October 02, 2002


It's back... almost. November is National Novel Writing Month, which means NaNoWriMo is just around the corner. Want to write a novel in a month? (A "novel" is considered complete at 50,000 words, for purposes of NaNoWriMo.) It's grrrreat fun! I only made it to 30,000 words or so last year, but it was the most fun I'd had with words in a long time—and that's saying something, really, considering all the reading and writing I do. Besides, would you rather:

  1. Listen to a pompous windbag tell you not to write a novel? or....

  2. Listen to a quirky writer tell you that anyone can write a novel?

Choice 2 please. And why wait? Sign up now! You weren't planning anything for November, anyway, were you?

Posted 03:36 PM | Comments (2)

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