More on Google's quasi-Faustian deal with AOL: The NYT clarifies yesterday's story.

Google also agreed to provide technical assistance to AOL to help explain how to make its pages easier for Google - and other search engines - to find and include in its index of the Web. Google has provided similar information for other large Web sites, according to Kevin Lee, executive chairman of Did-it, a search marketing firm. In general, Google will offer an engineer who recites publicly available technical information on how Google's search engine evaluates Web sites.
This paragraph is not exactly a model of clarity but it seems that yesterday's assertion that "Google will ... provide technical assistance so AOL can create Web pages that will appear more prominently in the search results list" was inaccurate. There's a big difference between being included in Google's index (its database of billions of web pages) and learning to do well in its page rankings (the hierarchy that determines whether a particular web page appears at the top of Google search results or on the seventeenth page).

It's still annoying that we're going to have to see graphics ads on Google just so Google can prevent Microsoft from partnering with AOL.


From the NYT:
"Google will also provide technical assistance so AOL can create Web pages that will appear more prominently in the search results list."

In other words, Google is going to be consulting on how to game its own search rankings. Is it just me or does this completely violate everything Google is supposed to stand for?


Currently listening to Gold Sounds, the album of Pavement songs as performed by jazzmen James Carter, Cyrus Chestnut, Ali Jackson, and Reginald Veal, and I can't stop thinking: The first time Steve Malkmus heard this, he must've smiled so hard his ears fell off.


The trouble with creative writing programs

I recently read a chunk of manuscript by a woman in my novel-writing workshop. In her accompanying note, she explained that her novel-in-progress is narrated in alternating sections by five women: a grandmother, her two daughters, and her two granddaughters.

There is no rule against writing a novel along these lines. It's possible to imagine this turning out to be a very good novel. But if you were talking to a first-time novelist who told you this was her plan, you might want to say something like: "Wow, that's a lot of narrators! It sounds like it would be a real challenge for the reader to keep track of them, especially if they're all of the same gender and background. Have you thought about how you're going to deal with that? Are you 100% sure you need all five of them to narrate? Have you considered writing in third-person close, where you can shift from one character's point of view to another's without reassigning the "I" pronoun every time?"

And yet I have not met a single instructor who says things like this. Instead they tend to say things like, "Well, that sounds very interesting," and then focus the discussion on particular scenes or characters.

I suspect there are several reasons for this failure to talk about problems with the way students conceive their projects: the sincere belief that there are no fixed rules for fiction writing; respect for the experimental impulse; fear of pooh-poohing a contemporary Ulysses or To the Lighthouse; the wish to be encouraging. Those are all valid. But they're often accompanied by a certain wilful blindness to context. The author of this five-narrators novel doesn't see herself as writing experimental work; she admires mainstream North American realists like Alice Munro and Marilynne Robinson. She wants to write a transparent and affecting story about three generations of women for a literate popular audience. She's just starting out and, like all of us, she could use some help. And yet her teachers decline to tell her things that could save her months or years of work.

James Wood, my current #1 literary crush, recently wrote: "We have become fixated on one kind of intelligence -- the theoretical, the analytical, the cultural -- at the expense of other kinds.... Put it this way: I'll accept that Richard Powers is terrifically smart if you'll admit with me that Alice Munro is also terrifically smart." Wood's general point, that there are different kinds of intelligence that might be useful to a fiction writer, is well taken. But there is a third kind of intelligence, crucial to writing, that Richard Powers and Alice Munro share. I'm talking about a kind of meta-intelligence, an ability to accurately assess one's own powers and weaknesses and to find literary forms that play to these. It's not just that Alice Munro is smart because of her keen grasp of human thought and motive and Richard Powers is smart because of his gift for understanding cultural systems and the role of individuals within them; it's that they're both smart because they've found ways to translate their different kinds of intelligence into functioning novels and stories. It's this third kind of intelligence that creative writing instructors can reasonably aspire to teach, because teaching it wouldn't exclude anyone or cram anyone into someone else's mold. I wish they'd be a bit more aggressive about teaching it.

Jan Peters is a teenager from Holland who lists his interests as "DJ, music, party." His webpage contains a mesmerising animation showing the derivation of letter forms from the Phoenician alphabet through to modern Europe. Link from Mimi Lok, who writes, "If only all knowledge could be stored in my head in such a precise, elegant way."


Roth Brothers contest #1: Smurf or Dwarf?

  1. Sleepy
  2. Clumsy
  3. Brainy
  4. Smurfette
  5. Grumpy

Sense patrol!

I heard Young MC's "Bust a Move" on the radio the other day, and the following verse has not left my head since:

Your best friend Harry has a brother Larry;
In a week or two he will marry.
Try to make the wedding if you can
For at the ceremony you're to be the best man.

There is much here that doesn't add up. Every line suggests that the second-person protagonist's relationship to the groom is minor. In the first line he has to be informed of Larry's existence; in the second he is given only the vaguest possible information concerning the scheduled date of Larry's nuptials, and indeed learns of them only a few weeks prior to the event itself; he is not even urged forthrightly to attend, but only to try to attend if his schedule permits. And yet, we learn at the verse's conclusion: He is to be the best man? Does Larry have no friends of his own, forcing him to draft his brother's best friend? What about Harry himself? Have things between the brothers reached the point where Larry doesn't feel comfortable asking Harry to stand up for him? I can only hope that my social life and my relationship with my estimable coauthor never come simultaneously to such a pass that I find myself placing a long-distance call to Robin Mulder and saying, "Listen, there's something I wanted to ask you...."


Select Soccer Silliness Part Deux

There are, admittedly, worse people in the world than George Vecsey (Tom DeLay, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Conor Oberst) but he has now incurred my wrath for the second straight day. (Go here for the first installment of Roth vs. Vecsey.) In part, it's because he has been unfortunate enough, in today's dispatch from Leipzig [NYT Select subscription required, but you don't need to read it, I've pasted the relevant parts below], to stumble unwittingly onto the topic of a heated e-argument i've been carrying on for the last 24 hours with my friend Mike, to wit: Does the US have any reason to complain about not being a number 1 seed in today's World Cup Finals draw?

GV never actually works up the bollox to mount an actual explicit argument in America's favor, but he clearly wants to. So instead, he just makes vague, whiningly aggrieved observations like:

"The Yanks were quarterfinalists last time. That is no small thing. Yet the masters of world soccer saw fit to slip Mexico into the top group of eight in this year's World Cup seedings, and delegate the Americans to steerage, where they have been before."

Yeah, and South Korea were semi-finalists, which is an even less small thing, but you don't see GV arguing that they should have been in the top 8. And let's unpack this myth of American accomplishment in 2002: They beat a highly-regarded but, as it turned out, deeply-flawed Portugal team (a good win, admittedly), they drew with South Korea (not a good team in anyone's book, despite their fortunate finish) then lost 3-1(!) to Poland (a loss which Mike, whose mother is Polish, claims was only allowed to happen as "a favor" to him: "I got to 'have my cake and eat it too,'" he argues, "because I got to watch my land of heritage finish on a high note, while at the same time I got to watch my underdog homeland make it to the second round.") Then they beat an impotent Mexican team 1-0 (a win which GV hilariously calls a "drubbing") before losing 1-0 to a mediocre German team, in a game in which, for all their dominance of possession, they generated only two clear-cut chances. Color me unimpressed.

Also, we get:

"The experience of 2002 must be worth something, even if the seeding committee tended to overlook it. The United States had its fun for three years, qualifying for the World Cup easily, sometimes rated above the older powers in the monthly world rankings. But at this World Cup draw, reality (or politics) intruded."

Huh? Is there anyone who doesn't understand that the only reason the US qualified "easily" is because they play in the CONCACAF region, against the likes of Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, et al? Try putting them in an average European qualifying group, composed of, say, Italy, Norway, Romania, and two weak teams, and see how they do.

And what "politics" is he talking about? If GV thinks the US got stiffed because the world hates America he should say it. But he'd still be wrong.

In response to the good showing in 2002, GV tells us, "a player like DaMarcus Beasley had viability with PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands."

Ah yes, DaMarcus Beasley (or a player like him, anyway.) Striking fear into the hearts of defenders from Anderlecht to Feyenoord.

I'll grant that Mexico doesn't scare anyone, and the US outplayed them in 2002. But the ones who really should be aggrieved are the Dutch. Compare Keller, Donovan, Reyna, and Beasley, to Dutch players like Van der Saar, Van Nistelrooy, Davids, and Cocu. With the exception of Keller, the Americans just aren't in the same league.

I have a theory, as yet not very well thought-thru, that there is something deeply and structurally, even conceptually, wrong with American soccer, which will prevent it from ever realizing the potential offered by its vast talent pool. Which would be fine by me.


Select Soccer Silliness

Let us count the ways in which this (pasted below if you don't have Times Select) is silly:

1) It is silly that the NY Times makes you pay to read stories like these -- or any stories for that matter. It's hard to find anyone who doesn't think the NYT will come to regret this absurd and ill-conceived experiment. Paying for George Vecsey when you can get Rob Hughes for free is like buying Andy Rooney dinner in the hope that he'll sleep with you when Charlize Theron is already brushing her teeth in your bathroom. In a thong.

2) It is silly that George Vecsey has written this story, which he has clearly filed only because they've sent him over to Leipzig and he's got nothing else to write about until tomorrow when they actually do the draw. Sing the national anthem, don't, who cares? GV doesn't even convince us that he does. And who really gives a fock if Sepp Blatter tends to say things off the cuff? It's sort of refreshing, as a contrast to officials from American sports leagues who weigh every word like they're Scott friggin McLellan. I"m not seeing the harm here. What would GV have written about if it weren't for Blatter? The real problem is that Blatter, like all high-ranking FIFA officials, is irredeemably corrupt, but GV isn't really interested in that.

3) It is silly that GV thinks that playing the anthems lends "pomp and dignity" to sport, and that this is important. The dignity comes from the game itself, and how many people care about it. Fock the pomp.

4) It is silly that Blatter thinks that women should wear tighter outfits when they play soccer. Women, of course, should not be playing soccer at all.

kidding, kidding.

Blatter's Blather Besmirching Soccer

Published: December 8, 2005

Leipzig, Germany

ONE of the great rituals of sport is going to survive. For a few tense days recently, it seemed that the singing of the national anthems at all World Cup games was going to be booted toward oblivion, not only by the sport's resident hooligans but also by the free-associating major-domo of world soccer, Joseph S. Blatter.

After a nasty scene in Turkey, Blatter blurted to the Swiss weekly Schweizer Illustrierte: "I feel this whistling shows a great lack of respect and is disparaging to national pride. I wonder, therefore, whether it even makes sense to play these national anthems."

Blatter, who is known as Sepp, surely knows that anthems are an intrinsic part of the greatest sports event on the globe. The players march out, stand in line and move their lips as if they actually know the words to their national anthem. Some soccerphobes equate this ceremony with more ominous mass stirrings, like to tramping armies. George Orwell once labeled international matches "orgies of hatred," words often dusted off by the British news media.

I, however, see the soccer anthems as a touching gesture, matching the handshake line in the N.H.L. playoffs or the singing of "My Old Kentucky Home" at the Kentucky Derby.

For a few seconds, there is some pomp and dignity in sport, although quickly followed by the elbowing and the shoving, the name-calling and the gesturing - and that is the benign part - on the field. Sometimes in the stands or city streets, it gets worse.

Tomorrow night in this former East German city, the draw will be held for the 2006 World Cup. The German hosts have initiated a policy of selling tickets only to registered individuals, who must present their passports and have their identity checked by microchips in the ticket at every game. This will surely cut down on scalping, and perhaps also keep away the thousands of officially barred thugs.

In keeping with his long history of blurting out whatever is on his mind, Blatter, the president of FIFA, world soccer's governing body, suggested this week that this tracking process was too complicated, but the hosts insisted they would do it their way.

FIFA has other issues on its plate. The downfall of an allied marketing agency, International Sport and Leisure, in 2001, left a loss of millions of dollars. The police recently raided FIFA's headquarters in Zurich to recover records, a move that Blatter yesterday called "not correct."

Blatter also got into the anthem issue after the final playoff game between Switzerland and Turkey. In the first match, in Berne, Swiss fans hissed and jeered the Turkish anthem, so when the Swiss team flew to Istanbul for the return match, Turkish fans rocked the Swiss bus and spat and threw eggs at the players. Before the game, the Turkish fans reviled the Swiss anthem.

This display was a shame because Turkey had contributed lovely moments in 2002 in the last World Cup. After defeating one of the host teams, South Korea, in the third-place match, the Turkish players held hands with the South Korean players for a mutual victory lap. The Turkish fans were also a credit to their country.

On Nov. 16, however, when Switzerland qualified after the second game, players and coaches from both squads got physical on their way to the locker rooms. FIFA is currently investigating and could place serious sanctions on Turkey during qualification for the 2010 World Cup.

Blatter's comments about anthems created a stir around the world, making it seem he would try to ban the prematch ceremony.

When asked at his news conference yesterday, Blatter said: "We should keep the anthems, but I said we should put them into question. We should respect the anthems and educate people about them."

Blatter has been known to quickly engage his vocal cords, perhaps ahead of his reason. He once proposed holding the World Cup every two years instead of every four years, which would have watered down the anticipation that makes the World Cup so vital.

And who will forget the time he blurted out that female soccer players should wear tighter shorts that fit their shapes?

"In volleyball, the women also wear other uniforms than the men," Blatter told the Swiss newspaper SonntagsBlick. "Pretty women are playing football today. Excuse me for saying that." Needless to say, Merrie Kinge Sepp took some criticism for those public musings.

Currently, Blatter is dubious about modern technology, including electronic gadgets that may determine if a ball has crossed a goal line, a huge issue since England defeated West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final.

"The referee can make mistakes," Blatter said yesterday, adding, "For the next few years, we will not speak of goal-line technology."

But we will surely speak of many other things. Blatter's random comments are a part of soccer, right up there with the anthem ritual.


Wiki wack

John Seigenthaler has his underpants in a twist because the Wikipedia entry on him suggested he might be connected to John F. Kennedy's assassination. All it takes is one NYT story apparently, and Wikipedia is changing its contribution policy.

What I want to know is: Why didn't Seigenthaler just delete the offending sentences from Wikipedia himself?

Okay, Two Things

First, you're wrong to write that "excessive laughter" was the sin of which BJ's "dangerous crowd" was guilty. It was the volume of the laughter, not the quantity, that was imagined to be the problem -- a transgression on which many parents might well take a harder line, particularly if they were talking on the phone or something while the overly-loud laughter was taking place.

Second, I just listened to the sax solo on Thunder Road, and don't agree. Maybe it's only because, like all the best Clarence solos, it seems to re-capitulate -- and to make abstract -- all the longing and hope we've just heard spelled out very concretely in the body of the song (the far, far better example of this is on Jungleland). But whatever the reason, it just has more soul than any TV theme-song, 1000 jumping Japanese or no.

Gabe replies: Predictably, my eagerness to work in the bit about the 1,000 Japanese men has confused my point, which was not that the sax on "Thunder Road" is cheesy but that Mike Post is awesome. Have you listened to "Hill Street Blues" lately? Soul on a roll (but you treat it like soap on a rope).

More Bruce vs. Billy Joel

Another thought: your describing BJ's "musical scheme" as "like a Gilbert and Sullivan song or something, not like any kind of call to arms" is totally apt ... and yet, have you listened to the sax break in "Thunder Road" recently? (It starts around 3:51.) With the drums pulled back it could have been written by Mike Post as the theme to a prime-time dramedy about a bunch of recent college grads trying to make it in the big city c. 1986.

(This is in no way a dis to Springsteen, Clemens, or whoever else is responsible for that lovely piece of music: Mike Post is a genius. Remember: "to achieve the unique sound of the NYPD Blue theme ... he used, among other effects, 1,000 Japanese men jumping up and down on a wooden floor, a cheese grater, and a subway horn. All these ideas are largely inspired by the program's script." A lesser composer might have used Caucasian men, or settled for nine-hundred-some, but the NYPD Blue mis-en-scene demands exactly the sound of 1,000 Japanese men jumping up and down.)

Roth vs. Roth

Yeah, that's kind of what I meant when I made the (facile) Bruce comparison: a more spelled-out version would be "early Springsteen with the soulfulness and romance replaced by a kind of crude teenage-boy sexuality." You could argue that "Thunder Road" and "Only the Good Die Young" are the two faces of adolescence: the overweening and pretentious but basically lovable romanticism (Springsteen) and the boorish date-rapist horniness (Joel). Incidentally, probably the thing I love the most about early Bruce is that it puts me back in touch with those sweet teenage feelings. I should stop now before I start talking about the hope that stings like chlorine and Sasha Frere-Jones kicks my ass.

By the way: Billy Joel's Catholic-schoolgirl prey was named not Belinda but Virginia, an instance of symbolic naming that I bet Billy Joel was really pleased with.

Also, bear in mind that Joel's "dangerous crowd" was in fact guilty only of excessive laughter -- a form of delinquency that most parents could surely overlook.


Bruce vs. Billy Joel

It's interesting that you describe Only the Good Die Young as"kind of like early Springsteen with a massive, embarrassing boner." The critical difference between OTGDY and the obvious early-Bruce comparisons -- Rosalita and Thunder Road, I'd say -- is that in the Bruce ones, both in the music and the lyrics, there's a sense of breaking out, and escape (hardly an orginal Bruce-based insight, I know) that makes the song transcend the immediate situation. He makes it feel like if Rosie will just come out of her daddy's house, or if Mary will just, well, come out of her daddy's house, they'll not only get to have sex, but it'll open up a whole new set of possibilities for their lives. Not to be too cheese-ball here, but it's not just about trying to get a girl to sleep with you, it's about trying to get a girl to save you, pretentious Catholicism-based attempts to turn Bruce into CS Lewis or whatever not withstanding. OTGDY, by contrast, really is about Billy Joel's pathetic and probably failed attempts to get Belinda, or whatever her name is, to shag him -- and nothing else. Even the musical scheme, like all BJ's musical schemes, feels to this musical illiterate like a Gilbert and Sullivan song or something, not like any kind of call to arms.

The other thing is that any song in which Billy Joel declares "you might have heard I run with a dangerous crowd," is just hilarious on so many levels.


Best article about why Billy Joel sucks ever

We once had a conversation about exactly this topic, and it's almost like Rosen was listening in. This is so exactly right, and helps explain alot of stuff about music. Ultimately, you realize, it's just sort of a character problem more than anything, which Rosen doesn't quite make clear, but I think we covered. But he/she is so totally right that what he should have been was one of those Brill Building people who didn't realize they were making art. And about the Paul McCartney thing.

Gabe gloms onto Zack's post again: Yes, Slate is plagiarizing us twice in one week, except that this time they have plagiarized a private conversation. Next: Slate introduces a new section called "Today's Sexual Fantasies," which look disturbingly familiar to a certain pair of Anglo-Jewish siblings....

One excellent thing that Rosen's piece has that our conversation did not is a link to a soundclip of a reggae version of "Only the Good Die Young." I was of the opinion that "OTGDY" was BJ's most fully realized work, because it's such a funny conceit (a rock'n'roll song about trying to convince a Catholic girl to risk Hell and fuck you; kind of like early Springsteen with a massive, embarrassing boner) and because he makes the complicated rhyme scheme (A-A-A-B-C-C-C-B-B) seem easy. But knowing that BJ experimented with this absurd reggae version makes it clear that the song is in fact just as lame as every other Billy Joel song.



This Slate piece about a la carte cable, by Daniel Gross (who's really good, especially on the auto industry) recounts pretty much every argument I made in my Washington Monthly story on the same subject.

There's a reason for this, which is that there's pretty much a finite number of important points to cover here, and you can figure them out by talking to the right people. But still. Even the tagline on the Slate homepage -- "You Shouldn't Have to Pay for Oxygen to get ESPN" -- sounds weirdly like the subhed to my piece: "Parents Should be Able to Pay for Nickelodeon Without Having to Pony up for MTV." I am left feeling half annoyed and half proud.

Gabe adds: There's a convention for how to rip off someone's story like this: somewhere in your ripoff piece, you mention the original piece, even tangientially ("as Zack Roth wrote in the Washington Monthly..."), and link to it. Gross should have done this.