It is widely known that Byron Calame, the New York Times public editor, is the most boring person in the world. But today is a new low. In a column reporting that readers are, yes, posting comments on the Times's website, Calame offers this example of red-hot give-and-take between readership and staff:

“Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to all of us,” a Los Angeles reader wrote to Mr. LaForge in the afternoon. “It’s much appreciated.”


Signs and portents

The market for legal digital music downloads appears to be collapsing.
Strange things happen in your body when you drink a Coke.
The Coup needs your help.


FYI: My comments on New York magazine's Approval Matrix, and NY's editor's response, have been picked up by the mighty Gawker and by Entertainment Weekly's Popwatch blog.


I'm sure this has been reported in the press before its appearance today in James Baker's Iraq Study Group report, but ... there are 1,000 staffers at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. Guess how many of them speak fluent Arabic? Six.

Update: White House spokesman Tony Snow says, "You don't snap your fingers and have the Arabic speakers you need overnight."

Overnight. Right.


Here's the weird thing about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: not that it sucks; it's always possible for talented people to make something that sucks. What's weird is how much it feels like a show in the middle of its fourth season, when everyone's tired and all of the storylines that made the show worth doing have been done. Christmas episodes, office blackouts, characters confessing their love: these are the tropes of creative burnout and sagging ratings and desperation. Next week, Matt's eight-year-old cousin joins the writing staff and teaches everyone the true meaning of Hannukah.

Things that make us feel ashamed to be Jewish, part un

I'm now announcing the launch of what may or may not become a regular Roth Brothers feature, entitled, "Things that make us feel ashamed to be Jewish." Today's "Thing that makes us feel ashamed to be Jewish" is the existence of Joshua Rikon and Rebecca Benjamin, and their prominent position in the NYT's "Vows" section this weekend.

Here's the basic rundown: She's "director of matchmaker operations for two Jewish dating Web sites: SawYouAtSinai.com [hahahahahahahaha!!! - ed] and JRetroMatch.com." He's an associate at Goldstein, Goldstein, Rikon & Gottlieb [Do you think the two Goldsteins are related, or it's just a coincidence?]. They meet at a Jewish singles weekend at Club Getaway, a sports resort in Kent, Conn. He tells her that his sister Shoshanna runs a matchmaking service called "Shoshanna's Singles." Etc.

It gets better though. Unbeknownst to her, a short time earlier he had visited the home of his friend Larry Berger, "with whom he shares Jets season tickets and a passion for Buffalo wings, cheerleaders and sports." There, he had seen a picture of her with Berger and Dan Quayle. When he learned that she'd be at the upcoming singles weekend he "did some form of a touchdown dance," according to Berger.

And finally: "'I am a Jewish mother waiting to happen,' Ms. Benjamin said. 'I used to say that on dates, but guys didn’t like that [can you imagine? - ed]. For Josh, it doesn’t turn him away.'" Check the un-focking-believable picture if you doubt her. And be sure to note the look of demented glee on the faces of all four parents.

Jesus Christ, I feel like killing myself. In all seriousness, something has gone badly wrong with these people.

Comics gain cultural respectability update: Still A Ways To Go. Michiko Kakutani reviews Roz Chast's new collection today in the NYT. I like Chast's cartoons just fine, but Kakutani goes overboard when she says they "reinvent the cartoon form." In what way, exactly, does Chast "reinvent the cartoon form"? By, uh, combining doodly little pictures with hand-written dialogue? Think about what it would take for Kakutani to say of a prose writer that she "reinvents the novel form.


"Police shooting reunites circle of common loss": NYT followup to the Sean Bell shooting: apparently the families of people killed by police form an informal social and support network.


Trading places: Slate's Daniel Gross points out that the Democrats aren't the only party reverting to a protectionist agenda.

There's one final and very important Republican failure when it comes to free trade. Free trade is not simply getting cheap goods from China. It's about creating the social and political conditions favorable to the continued expansion of trade.... Rightly or wrongly, many Americans, even those who reap the gains of free trade daily, identify free trade and globalization with their declining financial security. And the response of President Bush and the congressional Republicans has essentially been, "tough."

Hip-hop's Ivy League hustler: Interesting profile of Ryan Leslie, who got a perfect 1600 on the SAT at 15, gave the class graduation speech at Harvard at 19, and is now a rising hip-hop producer. "Everywhere he goes, Leslie is filmed. This is because he pays someone to film him."


FYI: My post about New York magazine's Approval Matrix has drawn a thoughtful reply from the feature's editor in the comments thread.

The Nine (ABC, Wednesdays)
There was a girl in my MFA program whose novel-in-progress was constructed around a mystery, which went like this: Two teenage girls are living with their grandma. Their mom's dead. Out back of the house there's a yard, and buried in the yard is a box, and what's in the box is very, very important. But the grandma can't just show the girls what's in the box, or tell them what it is, because, she says, they're not ready to know yet. In order to get them to the point where they're ready to learn the mysterious secret of the box, the grandma has to tell them the story of their mother's tragic life.

I thought of this never-to-be-completed novel when I learned that ABC was cancelling The Nine. The Nine is one of the current crop of TV shows that, in an attempt to duplicate the success of Lost, tell a single story over the course of one or more seasons. Like my classmate's novel, both Lost and The Nine are structured around a mystery. But Lost is huge, and The Nine is axed, and The Novel About the Mysterious Box helps explain why.

The big problem with the what's-in-the-box framing device is this: Why doesn't grandma just tell the kids what's in the fucking box already? I don't just mean that the psychology ("they're not ready to know") is contrived. I mean that, if the reader is waiting to learn the solution to the mystery but the storytelling character already knows, the reader is going to get frustrated and impatient with the character for not just coming out with it already.

Which, multiplied by nine, was the problem with The Nine. The show followed the lives of nine people who had been caught in a bank heist gone horribly wrong. (I watched the show because the bank-heist-gone-horribly-wrong is perhaps my favorite genre of all time.) At the start of the pilot, the robbery got underway. One of the thieves said, "This'll all be over in five minutes." And then the caption "52 hours later" appeared, and people were taken away in ambulances. We don't know What Happened In There, but the nine people's lives are Not The Same. For instance: the young couple who went to the bank together on their lunch break, who are engaged and happy and in love. After the robbery she can't look him in the eye, and he says "It was a moment. Does it have to mean everything?" Apparently he did something very cowardly inside the bank, and we keep watching in order to find out what it was.

The problem is, the characters -- all nine of them -- know what happened. (Well, eight of them do, More on this later.) They make oblique references to it. But they won't just come out and tell us what's in the fucking box already. This forces us into an antagonistic relationship with all nine of the protagonists, wihch is not what ABC is hoping for.

In Lost, by contrast, the characters are for the most part as much in the dark as we are. Like them, we're in a mysterious landscape with all kinds of unexplained features that we have to learn about as we go along. As in a detective story, we find the clues along with the characters, and so we're naturally led into a sympathetic relationship with them.

Oddly, The Nine had a perfect vehicle to inspire some Lost-style identification. The youngest of the nine -- Felicia, the teenage daughter of the bank manager -- had post-traumatic amnesia: she couldn't remember what had happened in the bank either. If Felicia had been the show's protagonist -- if the story had revolved around her quest to find out What Happened In There, with the audience finding out at the same time she did -- The Nine might have worked. But The Nine was conceived as an ensemble drama, and Felicia was one of the less interesting characters. When she started investigating What Happened In There, the other eight all sat around a restaurant table and began to tell her ... at which point the camera pulled back and the closing theme came in to drown out the dialogue. That's not a mystery, that's a cheat.


Once bitten ...

From the New York Times:

The Internet firm BitTorrent, once a pariah for enabling vast unauthorized video file-sharing, plans to announce today that it has struck distribution deals with eight media partners, including 20th Century Fox, Paramount and MTV Networks.
It sounds like just another digital-content agreement, but the story doesn't add up.

The word BitTorrent refers to two different things. (OK, four, but we'll skip the other two.) The people at the company BitTorrent Inc. (one of the two things) seem to have used the confusion between those things to hoodwink the movie studios and the New York Times.

BitTorrent is the name of a method (or "protocol") for sharing files over the Internet. It was invented in 2001 by a programmer named Bram Cohen. (Fun fact: an estimated 40 percent of all Internet traffic consists of people sharing files using BitTorrent.) Napster had previously allowed people to share songs, but it was too slow and fragile for anything bigger than a three-minute single. BitTorrent allows people to share much larger files: four-CD box sets, games, movies. (The way it does this is clever and technically interesting but not germane to this discussion.) Napster and its successors wrecked the music industry's business model, and BitTorrent threatens to do the same to the movie industry by cannibalizing DVD sales.

BitTorrent Inc. is a company founded by Cohen and Ashwin Navin in 2004, long after people had started using BitTorrent to share movies. It's a small company that chiefly provides specialized software to businesses, and it's entirely peripheral to BitTorrent the protocol. Millions of people download movies using the protocol without ever coming into contact with the company.

So here's what seems to have happened: The movie-studio honchos are worried about piracy. They ask their 23-year-old assistants how the kids are downloading movies. The assistants say, "They use BitTorrent," referring to the protocol, and go back to spitting in their bosses' lattes. The executives say, "Ah, BitTorrent!" and return to their desks and Google "BitTorrent." They find a link to bittorrent.com, the homepage of BitTorrent Inc. And so they offer BitTorrent Inc. a nice chunk of change to sell movies from bittorrent.com, and BitTorrent Inc. offers to make sure there's no pirated material available on its site. Here's how the Times puts it:
The media companies are not only attracted to the large online audiences of companies like BitTorrent, but also want to enlist their support in eradicating unauthorized content. The media companies in the BitTorrent deal say that the Internet firm has pledged to police its network for illegal trading.

“They are making a big commitment to us to filter the site,” said Jamie McCabe, executive vice president at 20th Century Fox. “When anything is up there that is not legitimate, they’ve pledged to take it down.”

What a win for the studio execs! A brand new revenue stream, and no more BitTorrent piracy!

Here's what they missed: It's the protocol, stupid. People who want to download movies illegally don't go to bittorrent.com -- they go to hundreds of other sites, where they can use the BitTorrent protocol to download movies without the studios' consent. BitTorrent Inc. and bittorrent.com are entirely irrelevant to the piracy issue: if they both disappeared tomorrow, traffic in pirated movies wouldn't diminish in the slightest.

If the studios wanted, they could set up their own website and sell their own movies using BitTorrent (the protocol), and they wouldn't have to pay BitTorrent Inc. a dime. But they don't know what they're doing, and they're flailing around trying to keep their business together, and apparently the New York Times can't figure it out either.

[EDITED to remove a statistic that I couldn't source. EDITED again to add the quote about BitTorrent Inc.'s anti-piracy efforts.]

Brow beaten

It is time for the question to ring out: what's wrong with the Highbrow/Lowbrow rankings in New York's Approval Matrix?

If you're baffled: the Approval Matrix is a weekly feature that appears New York magazine, at the end of the culture section and before the listings. (By the way, this is a stupid location for a cool and popular single-page feature. Why isn't it on the back page? If I want to do a crossword, I've got the Times right here.) It consists of a four-quadrant Cartesian plane of which the horizontal axis represents the spectrum of quality from Brilliant (far right) to Despicable (far left) and the vertical axis represents the spectrum of, uh, browness, from Highbrow (top) to Lowbrow (bottom). Obviously this makes more sense when you're looking at an example.

Robert Fagles's new translation of The Aeneid is in the top right corner, because it's both the height of brilliance and the height of highbrowdom. The Lost board game, assailed for being "even more confusing than the show," is in the bottom left corner. Simple enough and, making allowances for value judgments, perfectly appropriate.

But look more closely at the intermediate items, and compare their vertical positions, i.e. the relative height of their brows. According to the AM linked above, "a Ricky Gervais–Stephen Merchant–penned episode of NBC's The Office" -- i.e. the creators of a BBC critical favorite returning to the milieu of their finest work -- is lower-browed than: (a) sports; (b) James Bond; (c) the new Christopher Guest movie.

It is almost enough to make one suspect that the editor in charge of the Approval Matrix is not taking his or her responsibility -- the responsibility of ranking everything comparably -- sufficiently seriously.

Altman redux

David Edelstein, maybe my favorite movie critic currently working, has this to say about Altman:

On the Internet last week, I read that Altman had changed American cinema, but I’ve always been saddened by how little influence his work actually had in an era of wall-to-wall storyboarding and computer-generated imagery.
This is true as far as it goes, although the current vogue for large-ensemble pileups like Crash and Babel certainly owes something to Nashville. But it may turn out that Altman's influence was most strongly felt on the small screen. Hill Street Blues, with its elaborate tracking shots and overlapping dialogue, was always described as "Altmanesque" (that's where I first heard the word). Add to that NYPD Blue, The West Wing, and most of all The Wire, which in its subtle sound mixing and its gyroscopic portrait of the connections between moments and systems is basically Altman filtered through a bunch of genius crime writers. (Altman would never have attempted The Wire's intricate and satisfying narrative setups and resolutions.) Plus remember that Tanner '88, the HBO series Altman made with Garry Trudeau, anticipated the look and feel of The Office and every other video-documentary-style sitcom. Altman left television in 1969 to make the remarkable and remarkably adult films that are his legacy. He may have done more than any other filmmaker to drag television into its adulthood too.


A Prairie Home Companion, Walter Reade Theater, 11/27/06

There's a moment in A Prairie Home Companion, the last movie Robert Altman made before he died last week, when someone says, 'The death of an old man is not a tragedy." When the movie was released last summer, before it was publicly known that Altman was dying of cancer, that was a bit of offhand philosophy. At last night's memorial screening it carried an extra charge: Hey -- he's talking to us! Altman got to speak at his own funeral.

At another point Meryl Streep says, "I just love a happy ending," and the line plays as irony, because the film makes clear that, if you keep the camera rolling long enough, there is no such thing as a happy ending. Altman was particularly good at strange, complicated endings -- A.O. Scott began his remembrance with a discussion of the shocking end of California Split, in which the mystical energy that has propelled the protagonists and powered the entire film suddenly and momentously dissipates, like the air whooshing out of a balloon, and then the credits roll.

Artists always struggle with endings, but they rarely get to struggle (in a conscious-artistic-intent way) with the ending of their careers. For some, death comes as a surprise; for others, the illness that makes it predictable also prevents them from making artistic use of it; others find their efforts thwarted by the waning of their artistic powers. Altman, it now turns out, is the rare exception; the only other serious example I can think of offhand is Shakespeare. For his last movie, Altman took a radio show whose appeal is its insistent timelessness, and he added the element of death and made it into a tragedy. At the end of the film, the show has been cancelled and the stars are sitting in a diner talking about a reunion tour the same way they sing about heaven: joyfully, sincerely, but not literally. It is, in a way, miraculous that a man who got to make so many movies and so few compromises should have been able to approach even his own ending this way: with a thorough understanding of his situation, with all his artistic faculties intact, and with a circle of brilliant collaborators to carry him out. It's almost a happy ending.


Obama apologizes for cockblocking: First read this, and then listen to this, and then tell me he wouldn't get your vote.


Sorry to disappoint ...

We are still in tedious agreement. What I was referring to was not the music itself, which has as you say gotten deeper and richer and more thoughtful even as it has lost some of its youthful urgency, but the onstage presentation, which bundles their entire career together achronously "as though there's no difference between the work they did at 25 and the work they're doing at 40." (Emphasis added.)

No, on their albums I think Superchunk are doing what Al Green did for Memphis soul in the late 1970s: refining and perfecting the form after everyone else has stopped caring.

The albums on which they transition from early Superchunk to late Superchunk, Foolish and Here's Where the Strings Come In, are still my favorites.

Disagreement! Controversy! Thrust and Counter-Thrust!

I'm surprised to find myself disagreeing with you so unreservedly on Superchunk -- an issue on which we have in the past been almost boringly in sync, to the point of my knowing with absolute certainty that you would, when I asked you, name "European Medicine" as the best song on Indoor Living.

I'll agree, up to a point, that lyrically, their later songs are no more "mature" than their early ones (although: "Phone Sex." "Art Class." "Silverleaf and Snowy Tears." Could you see any of these, just lyrics-wise, appearing on any album released before the mid-90s?) But I think it's pretty clear that their music has matured musically. Many of the early songs are little more than punk fragments, whose only obvious instrumentation is a few loud guitars and some drumming. Even the bass is barely audible. The guitars on the later albums -- I'm thinking of Here's Where the Strings Come in, Indoor Living, and Here's to Shutting Up -- feel way more textured, and you can hear the bass a lot better. Most important, there's a lot of keyboard-playing. And his voice is no longer screechy and indecipherable, but rather falsetto and quite precise.

This later style is not just different, it's more mature (and, I'd argue, better). It feels richer, more nuanced, more thoughtful, more serious. The albums feel like fully realized art works, rather than raw, tossed-off musings that they didn't have the patience to fully develop. These are all qualities that we associate with aging, and maturity.

Maybe you're talking more about style than substance here -- the jumping around, the jeans, the songs they choose to play live, etc. In which case, you know, fine. But I sense you're making a broader point...

The Daily Show: 10 F#@king Years, Irving Plaza

The comedy: Jon Stewart wasn't there, although it was supposedly his party. No Carell, Colbert, or Corddry either. The only alum was Ed Helms, who demonstrated that he can sing close harmony and play bluegrass acoustic guitar solos. As for the present crew: John Oliver, the British guy, is clearly the guy with breakout potential. John Hodgman, who probably has the most interesting resume in the entertainment world right now, did his "resident expert" character and displayed total, unblinking commitment -- you got the feeling that you could try out all kinds of CIA interrogation tactics on him and he'd never break. Rob Riggle may have been the funniest guy in his frat, but he doesn't belong on TV, and Jason Jones did the kind of parodic non-comedy that you do when you can't think of anything funny.

The music: Eef Barclay (a.k.a. Clem Snide) suffered for lack of a proper band, and John Darnielle (a.k.a. the Mountain Goats) kind of suffered from the presence of one. I think Darnielle's brilliant and psychotic songs are more suited to the solo-acoustic-boombox Mountain Goats than to the polite-little-pop-arrangements Mountain Goats; I hope he realizes this soon.

Here's what I realized during Superchunk's set: Superchunk is the ultimate grup band. They still wear T-shirts and jeans, and they still jump around like teenagers, and their shows draw evenly from throughout their sixteen-year career, as though there's no difference between the work they did at 25 and the work they're doing at 40: they played the early quasihits "Seed Toss" and "Precision Auto" plus lots of things from the great mid-period album Here's Where the Strings Come In (including the mighty "Detroit Has a Skyline"), plus "Hello Hawk." A useful counterexample is Yo La Tengo, who have spent two decades making records that explore marriage and maturation, and who have always represented a model for growing up with happiness and integrity. (This is why they are so beloved.) Superchunk, some of the members of which are married with children, represent growing up without growing up. They encored with "Slack Motherfucker," an early '90s slacker anthem (kind of redundant, really -- are their any slacker anthems from other eras?) about the very early-'90s trope of making art while on the clock at Kinko's. "I'm working / But I'm not working for you!" Mac McCaughan sang. About a hundred balding 35-year-old men in sneakers pumped their fists. As one of them posted on the Merge Records bulletin board before the show:

Any idea on the time Superchunk is suppose to hit the stage? The potential babysitter is giving me a hard time about not knowing the time.


So the town of Pahrump, Nevada, A) has a funny name, B) passed a law making it illegal to fly a foreign flag, unless it's clearly below the American flag, which is also funny. Could things possibly get any funnier, Pahrump-wise, you ask. They could:

The law passed as part of a package of measures that also declared English the official language of Pahrump and denies town benefits to illegal immigrants.

"We don't have any" benefits, town manager David Richards says. "If we ever have any, they'll be denied to illegal immigrants."

From the Times's story on yesterday's Senate hearings:

As Mr. Nelson questioned General Abizaid, the Arizona senator [John McCain] stood up to confer with Senator Susan M. Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine. At this, Mr. Lieberman got up and walked to the Republican side to join them in a brief, chuckling huddle, then ambled back to his party’s side with a glance at his colleagues as if to say, “You watching?”
Oh Jesus Christ, now we're in for two years of this bullshit.

Engadget's review of the Zune is here. It was pretty obvious that Microsoft's take on the iPod was going to look something like this.


Perhaps you, like me, have been waiting for a long profile of Rahm Emanuel. Well, here it is. Many interesting details, among them: You probably knew that R.E. was the inspiration for Josh Lyman on The West Wing. But did you know that his brother Ari was the model for Ari Gold on Entourage?


Taking liberties

Rapidly forming conventional wisdom says the new Democratic caucuses are split on social issues but hew to a protectionist line on economic issues. Michael Tomasky says that the new Dems (as opposed to the New Dems) make up "a freshman class more economically liberal than perhaps any since 1958." Ramesh Ponnuru says they "can be a lasting majority if they are an economically liberal party with socially conservative and socially liberal wings."

Both writers are using the word liberal to mean "taking positions traditionally associated with the Democratic Party." In that sense, liberal is a floating signifier, one that denotes a historically contingent set of things but that connotes nothing at all. This is problematic because liberal has a specific meaning, one that is often used with reference to economic policy: it means, roughly, favoring individual freedom. Applied to economic issues, liberalism prefers open borders and free markets and disdains tariffs and regulations. In other words, it means the exact opposite of what Tomasky and Ponnuru are using it to mean.

(Merriam Webster defines liberalism as "a theory in economics emphasizing individual freedom from restraint and usually based on free competition, the self-regulating market, and the gold standard." I think the gold standard part is probably out of date, but the point stands.)

Jacob Weisberg, good man, calls the consensus Democratic position economic nationalism, which makes much more sense.


Humiliated frat boys sue Borat

My first reaction when I saw this story was, of course, "haha, you stupid frat boys." But now that I think about it, they maybe sort of have a point. I have no idea how the law works here, but if it's true that they were told they were being filmed for a documentary that wouldn't air in the US, and that they were told that the release they were signing was about liability for being in the RV, then that is kind of deceptive and lame.

But more interesting than the legal and moral issues are the artistic ones. When Borat gets in the frat boys' RV, you assume that these are real frat boys traveling around the south in a real RV, drunk. You assume this because many aspects of Borat's encounters, both in the movie itself and in the TV shows which established our expectations for the movie, are real. Believing that this is something he just stumbled upon is pretty crucial to the humor -- not to mention to whatever merit the movie has a kind of journalistic capturing of American weirdness, which seemed to be part of the intention. That aura of fascinating authenticity, that sense that you're watching a documentary, doesn't work if you don't believe this is real, obviously.

But so now we find out that they just put those frat boys in the RV and got them drunk beforehand. Which suggests they probably staged a lot of other stuff too. So it seems like the filmmakers are using the fact that some parts of these interactions ocurred naturally, in order to make the audience assume that they all did. I don't think I'm being too literal-minded here. When much of the humor is premised on the belief that these situations occurred naturally, it's hard to laugh at it in the same way when you're now unsure of which ones did and which ones didn't.

But so now I'm questioning everything. Like, for instance, the black hooker he meets. I was wondering about this at the time. When she shows up in the movie, you're supposed to think that she too is real, in the sense that she thinks Borat is a real guy who she's going out with. That's why its both poignant and a bit cruel when he takes her home and they share kind of a sweet moment on the doorstep. You know she's being deceived a bit, and you feel bad for her. But then she shows up at the end back in Kazakhstan. So by this point you know she's in on the joke. So like, what's going on there? At what stage did she get let in on the joke? Was she in on it from the start? Was the tender scene on the porch just a conventional movie scene with two actors playing roles? Or what? I just feel like there's no conceptual framework governing the premise of the whole thing, which is in one way really interesting. But at the same time, it's only thru the existence of some kind of framework or premise or rules or something that anything can actually be funny, or interesting, or moving, or whatever. I feel like I'm not doing a very good job of explaining myself here, but I also feel strongly that I'm right. Writing is sometimes not as good for explaining these things as having a conversation, although maybe that's only if you're not very good at writing.


Anti-Microsoft conspiracy theories ahoy!

In the course of launching its iPod rival the Zune, Microsoft has made a weird deal with Universal Music. Universal was balking at allowing Microsoft to sell its music on the new Zune-compatible online music store, so Microsoft agreed to give Universal a percentage of the revenue from the Zune itself. Bear in mind: Universal will still get the revenues from the sales of its songs, but now it'll also get revenues from sales of the player.

Medialoper breaks it down:

Basically, what [Universal CEO Doug Morris] is saying is this:
  • Every single person who buys a portable media player is a thief and a pirate.
  • All music comes from Universal.
  • Therefore, you should pay extra for any device you use to store music, you fracking thief.
    John Gruber asks:
    I don't get it. Why would Microsoft do this?
    Why would they enter into a deal that will cost them money and potentially fuck up a market they're trying to enter? The answer, I think, is pretty simple: to the extent that they do fuck up the market, it will be Apple, which owns something like 88 percent of the market for legal music downloads and 75 percent of the market for digital music players, that suffers.

    Remember, for Apple the iTunes Store is almost a loss leader: after paying royalties to the record companies, Apple's profits on each 99-cent song are measly. But making most of the popular-music canon easily and cheaply available online sure helps them sell those iPods, which are high-margin items. Ever since this arrangement began, the record companies have been grumbling about having their product turned into a commodity to help Steve Jobs sell iPods, but they don't have much choice if they want any kind of revenue stream from music downloads to replace CD sales. (Remember CDs?) Microsoft is offering them a better deal, and setting a precedent for them to use in negotiations with Apple. (Right now "negotiations with Apple" consist of Steve telling the labels how it's going to work, and the labels saying "Thank you sir, can I have another?" But it won't always be that way.)

    The likelihood of this panning out for Microsoft is not huge. But the Zune was always a long-shot bet; the Universal deal is a way for Microsoft to diversify the potential upside a bit, by adding the possibility that they could mess with Apple's profits.

    Update: Other people have come to the same conclusion. Gruber disagrees, and I think he's probably right.

    And another thing...

    ...I was making exactly that same point about Lincoln Chafee last night in a conversation at DC's popular Wonderland Ballroom. Actually it wasn't really a conversation, it was me shouting "Fuck Lincoln Chafee" at my friend Mike. I may also have gone so far as to add, somewhat crazily, that I like Rick Santorum more than Lincoln Chafee, because at least he has the courage of his insane convictions or something. But I think I would like to take that back now that I've seen he dresses his daughter as a pilgrim.


    ...the great thing about this whole "big government Republicanism has failed" thing, which seems to be the response of choice among GOP leaders (looks like Mike Pence, the ultimate ideological small govt conservative, is gonna be their next House leader) is that it's gonna lead them to emphasize exactly those parts of the GOP agenda that are the least popular. Remember that whole thing where they tried to privatize Social Security? That was a big hit, wasn't it? And when they start talking about cutting Medicare that's gonna win them a lot of support too, right? It's not as if they'd have won on Tuesday if they'd only decided to cut more popular government programs. The thing they don't get is that most voters actually like these programs.

    If their response was to double down on talking about killing terrorists and vilifying gays, I'd be way more worried.

    This is no time to turn into a mensch

    Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn, a Republican who was not up for reelection yesterday, issued a statement today that said, essentially, We blew it.

    This election does not show that voters have abandoned their belief in limited government; it shows that the Republican Party has abandoned them. In fact, these results represent the total failure of big government Republicanism.... Our short-term, politically-expedient, bread and circus governing philosophy has failed.
    For about five minutes I thought, Hey, now there's an honorable man.

    Something similar happened vis-a-vis Lincoln Chafee, the Rhode Island senator who lost his seat yesterday. Chafee voted against the Iraq war resolution, unlike most of the Democrats. In 2004 he announced that he hadn't voted for George W. Bush's reelection, instead writing in the name of the president's father. In a very Democratic state, 66 percent of his constituents said he was doing a good job on the same day they voted decisively to replace him. For a little while, I felt kind of sorry for Lincoln Chafee.

    But y'know, I got over it. Chafee was one of the few genuinely moderate Republicans left. He may only have been a Republican at all because of family tradition. But he had six years of Bush-Cheney-Lott-Frist in which to do what his ally Jim Jeffords did: declare himself an independent and begin caucusing with the Democrats. His constituents would have loved him for it. Instead, at the beginning of every session, he voted to let the worst people in the country run his branch of government. It was the most important vote he cast, more important than the Iraq vote, and now he's paying the price for it, and so he should.

    Similarly: Tom Coburn is entitled to tell the American people how venal and opportunistic his party is, on the day after an election when they've lost control of Congress. But honorable would have been doing it the week before.

    Perhaps you are thinking, OK, I am certainly happy that that dick Rumsfeld is gone, but who is this Gates person who will be replacing him, and is there not a high chance that he is also a dick? That's what I was thinking, too. Fortunately, the underrated Fred Kaplan, who has been writing a knowledgeable and sensible column for Slate since this whole Iraq nightmare began, and who is no fan of Bush, Rumsfeld, or their misbegotten Middle Eastern adventure, says that he's a great choice.


    Crazy scary point just made by Paul Begala on CNN: Bush could have appointed Joe Lieberman to replace Donald Rumsfeld, which would have allowed Connecticut's Republican governor Jodi Rell to appoint a replacement to Lieberman's seat, putting the Senate back in the hands of Republicans. Thank fuck he didn't.

    Your favorite superhero's political affiliation:

    Green Lantern -- Republican
    A former test pilot and current galactic police officer, Green Lantern has always been a running dog for The Man. Dude carries a WMD on his ring finger and flies around reshaping reality according to his idea of The Way Things Should Be. Total neocon.

    Spider-Man -- Democrat
    "With great power comes great responsibility.” That’s 100% Democrat. Spidey grew up poor, watching his Aunt May trying to stretch her Social Security check each month and scrambling to make ends meet as a freelance photographer for that yellow rag The Daily Bugle. Nowadays he’s working as a teacher in a New York public school. Recently Spidey was duped by reactionary neocon superheroes into supporting their oppressive agenda in Marvel’s Civil War mini-series. Total Democrat.


    Next in what seems to be turning into a series on popular misperceptions about evolutionary theory: John Seabrook, in his otherwise terrific profile of Sims creator Will Wright, says this about Wright's forthcoming Spore:

    In order to create the best content for your style of play—“the right kind of ecosystem for your creature,” as Wright puts it—Spore builds a model of how you play the game, and searches for other players’ content that fits that model. If you create a hyper-aggressive Darwinian monster, for example, the game might download equally cutthroat opponents to test you.
    Seabrook is using the word Darwinian as a virtual synonym for "hyper-aggressive," to suggest "nature red in tooth and claw." Of course, strategies of hyper-aggressiveness are Darwinian in the sense that they evolved through natural selection. But as has been argued many times, the same could be said about strategies of cooperativeness or reciprocal altruism. The achievements of human cooperation -- cities, science, language, political structures, the World Series -- are as much a product of our evolutionary heritage as are bloodsports and rape, and to imagine otherwise is to suffer from lazy humanist metaphysics.

    Other than that it's a good piece, and Spore looks amazing:
    Wright hurtled through the levels, evolution moving at hyperspeed as his creature acquired houses, tools, weapons, vehicles, and cities. While he was narrating his creature’s adventures, Wright was also explaining how, in passing through the different levels of the game, the player would be progressing through the history of video games: from the arcade games, like Pac-Man, to Miyamoto’s Super Mario, to the first-person shooters. At the tribal level you are playing a Peter Molyneux-style God game, and at the global level you are playing Sid Meier’s Civilization.


    Matt Taibbi on the media's anti-Bush turn:

    It doesn't take much courage to book the Dixie Chicks when George Bush is sitting at thirty-nine percent in the polls and carrying 3,000 American bodies on his back every time he goes outside. It doesn't take much courage for MSNBC's Countdown to do a segment ripping the "Swift-Boating of Al Gore" in May 2006, or much gumption from Newsweek's Eleanor Clift to say that many people in the media "regret" the way Gore was attacked and ridiculed in 2000. We needed those people to act in the moment, not years later, when it's politically expedient. We needed TV news to reject "swift-boating" during the actual Swift Boat controversy, not two years later; we needed ABC and NBC to stand up to Clear Channel when that whole idiotic Dixie Chicks thing was happening, not years later; we needed the networks and the major dailies to actually cover the half-million-strong protests in Washington and New York before the war, instead of burying them in inside pages or describing the numbers as "thousands" or "at least 30,000," as many news outlets did at the time; and we needed David Letterman to have his war epiphany back when taking on Bill O'Reilly might actually have cost him real market share.


    Here's a fucking scandal: Voting machines in Miami are attributing votes to the wrong candidate.

    Broward Supervisor of Elections spokeswoman Mary Cooney said it's not uncommon for screens on heavily used machines to slip out of sync, making votes register incorrectly. Poll workers are trained to recalibrate them on the spot -- essentially, to realign the video screen with the electronics inside. The 15-step process is outlined in the poll-workers manual.
    If that's what it's like in early voting, just wait for election day.


    I have long thought that, pace Dworkin/MacKinnon/Canadian law, it's just as plausible that pornography prevents rape as it is that pornography causes rape. (Seriously, ask Kate Lewis Wright: I remember making this argument to her c. 1989.) Now it turns out that there is empirical data to support this view. Once again, I am right.

    LA Times reporter Patrick McDonnell covered Baghdad from 2003 to 2005. Then he was away for a year. This month, he went back and filed this horrifying piece on what life there is like now. You should read it.

    A city in which it was long taboo to ask, "Are you Sunni or Shiite?" has abruptly become defined by these very characteristics. Once-harmonious neighborhoods with mixed populations have become communal killing grounds....

    Even gathering the bodies of loved ones is an exercise fraught with hazards. A Shiite Muslim religious party controls the main morgue near downtown; its militiamen guard the entrance, keen to snatch kin of the dead, many of them Sunni Muslim Arabs. Unclaimed Sunni corpses pile up.

    Breaking News: Some gossip sites have less than unimpeachable journalistic standards

    So last week, I sent in the following tip to Wonkette:

    anyone there know if john negroponte has had a problem with booze? saw him picking up a 6-pack of o'douls last nite at the liquor store on calvert street.
    They reproduced it as:
    John Negroponte must have a problem with booze, cause I saw him picking up a 6-pack of O’douls last night [10/25] at the liquor store on Calvert street.
    Call me Andy Rooney or whatever, but this seems to me to change the meaning enough to be not really okay.


    Last year, Rupert Murdoch spent half a billion dollars to buy MySpace. Now, according to the WaPo, MySpace is totally over. Ha ha! What a chump you are, Rupe! If you can't trust the Washington Post to bring you all the latest information about what the kids are doing these days, who can you trust?

    Bonus fact about usage times, the average amount of time a user spends on a given site:

    Friendster, another older site, hit its first usage peak of 1 hour and 51 minutes in October 2003, and then hit another peak of 3 hours and 3 minutes in February 2006. But last month, the average user was on Friendster for a mere 7 minutes.


    Fun and addictive web game: how long can you keep both balls in the air? My record is 35.2 seconds. Nice physics plus when it gives you your score it insults you in French.

    Chump Sucker of the Week: Wired copy chief Tony Long

    The latest on the comics-have-cultural-cachet front: the backlash! Wired copy chief Tony Long is mad because Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese has been nominated for a National Book Award:

    If you've ever tried writing a real novel, you'll know where I'm coming from. To do it, and especially to do it well enough to be nominated for this award, the American equivalent of France's Prix Goncourt or Britain's Booker Prize, is exceedingly difficult.... Sorry, but no comic book, regardless of how cleverly executed, belongs in that class.

    Rather than respond myself (although as someone who has tried to write a "real novel" I am apparently qualified to speak on this issue, unlike most of you), I will paraphrase Zadie Smith, who has also tried writing a real novel, with more success, I would wager, than either myself or Wired copy chief Tony Long. I happened to see Smith field a question about graphic novels at a talk in New York earlier this month. She said, essentially, that the comics form is a different but not lesser form than prose, that she especially admired the work of Dan Clowes and Chris Ware, and that she is in awe of the amount of work that producing comics requires. She cited some figure about how long it takes Ware to draw a page -- I think it was something like two or three weeks.

    You are now welcome to decide who to trust on the difficulties of prose novels versus comics: Zadie Smith or Wired copy chief Tony Long. More interesting questions, like "Is degree-of-difficulty really the standard we should use to assess works of art?" and "Should there perhaps be a separate awards category for comics, since they are after all formally different from prose?" will not be addressed at this juncture.

    [Link via Bookslut]


    Rare, long, fascinating profile of Garry "Doonesbury" Trudeau from the Washington Post -- well worth reading. Topics covered include: Trudeau researching the strip by talking to injured Iraq War veterans; rumors that Trudeau does not draw the strip himself; Trudeau's wife Jane Pauley's mental breakdown.


    Jon Ronson interviews British TV host Noel Edmonds:

    "I wrote to the cosmos that I would like to meet a woman who'll make me laugh and make me happy," Noel tells me. "I wrote that I'd like a relationship that's not too heavy, with an attractive lady, and I'd like her to walk into my life by the end of September 2005. And she did!"

    There is a short silence.

    "She wasn't the person who sold her story to the Sunday People back in July, was she?" I ask.

    There's another silence.

    "Yes," says Noel.

    Marjan Simmons, The Sunday People, August 2006: "He was a very tender and lovely kisser. When I woke up with him the following morning, I felt completely at ease and his first words were, 'Cup of tea, darling?' He was a very giving man in all aspects and satisfied me in every way. Noel had his own special song for us. It was You're Beautiful by James Blunt. But once he was back at the top he didn't need me any more. I felt he just discarded me. He was a hypocrite who used me to make himself feel more positive about himself."

    "So that turned out to be not so good," I say. "Maybe if you'd written down, 'I want to meet somebody by the end of September and I don't want her selling her story to the Sunday People...'"

    "No, you can't do that," Noel interrupts, "because that is a negative. The cosmos will accept only positive orders. The word I probably missed out was 'trustworthy'."

    As the country heads into Obama fever, John Kerry is thoughtful enough to provide the world with a little reminder of why he's such a total douchebag. George Stephanopoulos asked him if he thought Obama was ready to be president. Kerry reminded viewers that he had tapped Obama to give his breakout speech before the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Then:

    I think he's a very interesting and very powerful communicator with a great deal of skill. I wouldn't have picked him if he didn't. And I'm really pleased to see the way in which the country is ratifying my judgment on that.

    And when Democrats nominate Obama as their presidential candidate in 2008 and Kerry comes in a distant fifth, this will be a further ratification of his judgment by the American people.


    New research: Does watching television in early childhood cause autism? Update: Stephen "Freakonomics" Levitt explains why he thinks the research doesn't hold up.


    My shocking tale of abuse

    This brought back some memories, and added to my general sense that the level of panic about "paedophilia" (which is obvioulsy the wrong word to apply to hitting on a 16 year old, by the way), child molestation etc. that Foley-gate exposed is really quite absurd. You see, I too was once molested on a rafting trip -- by a pasty, messily-coiffed man named Howard, who was accompanied (on the trip, not on the molestation part) by his adolescent nephew (or "nephew"?). I was 11, and a whole group of us was walking thru this dark cave near the river, when suddenly I felt this arm kind of brush over my (I think bare) chest. I could see Howard standing next to me. I figured it was just an accident or something, but then a little later it happened again. So I yelled "Stop groping me Howard!," really loud, and a couple other people turned around, and Howard kind of slunk away in humiliation. Had someone suggested that the FBI should launch an inquiry I think I would have been a bit confused.

    Well Gabe may be attending New York literary festivals and everything, but is he being given impressive-sounding titles on the sports blogs of prominent political magazines? I think not.

    Actually, lame self-promotion aside, something weird is going on in the relationship between mass entertainment and indie music. It has long been noted (or at least for like the last year or so) that prime-time TV shows have begun using music from relatively sophisticated and at-least-slightly obscure bands. Gray's Anatomy went with The Postal Service last year, and a friend of mine's sister, who's a NYC-based singer-songwriter, had a song on Six Degrees the other nite. But now it seems to be spreading beyond TV dramas with artistic pretensions, into the heretofore determinedly unartistic world of professional sports programming. In case you didn't follow the link above:

    Not only did FOX play Fugazi's "Waiting Room" last nite, they also played the intro to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's "My Yellow Country Teeth" before a commercial break. It was, frankly, fantastic.
    There's still a ways to go though: FOX also played "Do you really want to hurt me?" during a brief in-game segment on the Mets' injury woes -- after which the announcer felt compelled to add, his voice tinged with poorly concelaed homophobia: "I don't know why we have to listen to Culture Club, or Boy George."


    A funny bit of date sabotage at the New Yorker Festival by writer Christian Carmona:

    A couple sitting next to us saw people having drinks, so the man commented on how he would treat himself to one. The woman, deciding whether she wanted to splurge and purchase a martini, asked him to get her one as well. I waited in anticipation, truly curious whether he would return mentioning that the event was Open Bar. As expected, he did not. He noted that what she was drinking was called a "Festini," a kind of exotic martini.
    "You," she gushed, "are too sweet."
    "Anything for mah baby."
    I felt obligated to turn to my friend and tell him, a touch below a scream, "I CAN'T BELIEVE THIS EVENT WAS OPEN BAR" to which he screamed, "I KNOW. THESE MARTINIS ARE REALLY GOOD," he turned to face the couple, "CONSIDERING THAT THEY'RE FREE."


    Screechy-voiced lead singer Justin Hawkins has quit the Darkness after emerging from rehab. In a sentence that vies for the "least true sentence" award for 2006, the Sun writes: "The extent of his cocaine and booze problem will shock fans."

    Green with envy (haha!)

    So for the magazine this month I wrote a profile of a Democratic congressman (I'll send it around when it comes out in the next few days). I was pretty pleased with how it turned out. The whole thing basically engendered a feeling in me of "I can do this thing,", with "this thing" meaning writing long-form magazine journalism, and I guess in this case specifically political stories.

    But then I read Josh Green's profile of Hillary in The Atlantic. And it's not like I now doubt my ability to do this. It's more like I just am realizing that there's a whole further level of sophistication that it's possible to get to thru this form. And I guess it makes me want to get there, which is good I suppose.

    Jacob Weisberg should write more.

    Sasha Frere-Jones makes a nice point about Little Feat:

    While not mega-platinum, Little Feat were putatively a pop group in the 1970s. Now, you would only hear such drum sounds and flat recording style on an indie record, a fairly knowing one, or an alt country recording. Possibly a good one, though likely not as good as Little Feat.


    Other interesting factoids from the New Yorker Festival

    New Yorker staffers who, at separate events, made gratuitous references to the Gnarls Barkley song "Crazy": star reporter Malcolm Gladwell and features editor Daniel Zalewski.
    How Roger Angell pronounces the last name of the late Donald Barthelme: BARL-mee.
    How Zadie Smith pronounces it: BARTH-elm.

    If you still had the bones of an idol ...

    As part of my I live in New York now Cultural Events Campaign, I went to a bunch of New Yorker Festival events this weekend. The most intellectually thrilling thing I saw was Zadie Smith’s lecture on novel-writing, and the most emotionally thrilling was when the New Pornographers got to the last chorus of “The Bleeding Heart Show,” when Neko sings “We have arrived!” But the most personally reassuring part was Financial Page genius James Surowiecki, who interviewed the New Pornographers before they brought the rock.

    Suroweicki won me over immediately by being less good-looking than the photo on the jacket of his book, which is to say he’s only very good-looking, as opposed to intolerably good-looking. Then he had to interview the New Pornographers on stage. Onstage interviews are usually bad, because you can’t edit them, and musicians make particularly poor interview subjects because, with a few important exceptions (Springsteen, John Darnielle), they’re usually less articulate than they are intelligent. So interviewing seven musicians at once, onstage, would seem a tough gig, and so it proved. Carl Newman is funny, and Neko Case is clearly just as intelligent in real life as she is in my having-a-witty-conversation-with-Neko-Case fantasies, but, y’know, what are you going to ask the keyboard player?

    Surowiecki did about as well as you or I might have done in similarly challenging circumstances. He made the mistake of beginning with a question about how the band got its name. (All musicians hate being asked this, because the answer is always “We thought it sounded cool,” and no one wants to say that.) He also asked if they saw themselves as part of a power-pop movement, to which Newman asked, “What’s power-pop?”, putting Surowiecki in the absurd position of trying to explain power-pop to Carl Newman. (Neko bailed him out by addressing the original question. She’s so nice. I wonder if she wants to hear any of my songs.)

    But so then microphones were set up in the aisles and Surowiecki asked the audience for questions, and no one had any. There was kind of an awkward silence, and then there was a thing where a kid got up from his seat and it looked like he was going to ask a question, and Surowiecki said “I hope he’s got a question,” and then it turned out the kid was just going to the bar, and Newman said, “That was cold-blooded.” After that, obviously, no one was going to stand up and walk to the mic and say, “Uh, Mr. Newman, sir: the chorus to ‘Mass Romantic’? Did it just come to you in a flash, or did you have to sit there with a guitar and work it out?” And after a little more silence, Surowiecki said, “Do you guys just want to hear them play?”, to which everyone cheered loudly in order to identify themselves as people who enjoy awesome Rock as opposed to lame Questions.

    So the New Pornographers got up to go to the bathroom before playing, and the stage guys finished setting up the gear, and Surowiecki came and sat down next to (I’m assuming) his girlfriend, who turned out to be sitting directly behind me. As a result of this seating coincidence, I got to hear their post-interview conversation, which it turned out was the exact same conversation that you would have with your girlfriend if you found yourself in that situation and happened to have written The Wisdom of Crowds:

    HIM: So that went OK, right?
    HER: Yeah, no, it was good.
    HIM: Some of it was kind of awkward, but some of it was pretty good.
    HER: Yeah! He’s funny, A.C. Newman!
    HIM: I just wonder why no one had any questions.
    HER: Oh, I think it was that long pause, and then that thing with the guy getting up, and after that no one was going to get up and ask a question.
    HIM: [in a self-conscious voice that somehow conveyed “Yes, I am citing my own best-selling book, but I am also making fun of myself for citing it.”] Oh, right – information cascade!

    And then the New Pornographers came back on and went into “Sing Me Spanish Techno.”

    Spot the subtext

    Today's game: can you identify the subtext of this front-page NYT metro story, headlined "A History of Sex with Students, Unchallenged Over the Years"? Emphasis has been added; irrelevant (but juicy) details have been removed.

    BAYONNE, N.J. — Many in this gray, insular city are at a loss to explain why Diane Cherchio West was allowed to continue working in the public school system for two decades after she was caught in 1980 kissing and groping a 13-year-old student at an eighth-grade dance. Why, after her promotion to guidance counselor at Bayonne High School, no one alerted social services, school officials or the police when she became pregnant by an 11th grader she supervised, Steven West.... Or why, when that baby, Steven Jr., grew to be a teenager, no one balked as his 15-year-old friend moved in with Ms. West, who then seduced the friend ... and used her school authority to rearrange his classes around their secret trysts. [snip]

    Some blame small-town politics; Ms. West’s father is a prominent businessman here. [snip]

    Ms. West, now 52, was raised in one of the city’s more comfortable Italian sections, the daughter of John Cherchio, a regular on who’s who lists here, who ran a successful construction and waste-carting business. [snip]

    By 23, Diane Cherchio had graduated from college and was a special education teacher at Dr. Walter F. Robinson elementary school. Supervisors and colleagues ... told investigators decades later that they had been stunned to see her pawing at a 13-year-old student named Jorge at an eighth-grade dance.

    The school principal at the time, Daniel Doyle, swore in a statement to prosecutors ... that he wrote to the superintendent asking that Ms. Cherchio be fired, but was startled to learn, upon returning to school in the fall, that she had instead become a guidance counselor at the high school.

    “I accepted it as a political maneuver,” said Mr. Doyle, now retired, who grew up near the Cherchio family. He added that he suspected her father’s business and political connections allowed her to escape punishment.
    (For legal and health reasons, RothBrothers would like to specify that this website and its authors take no position with regard to the fairness or accuracy of any insinuations the reader may find in the New York Times article quoted above.)


    RoBros legal advisor Ty Alper is guest-blogging today at 4&20blackbirds, "a journal of Montana politics and culture." Since Ty lives in Berkeley and knows nothing whatsoever about Montana politics and culture, this could get interesting.


    Not to get all Andy Rooney but...

    ...the following two things that people say or write have really been getting on my tits lately:

    1) "Utilize." On the subway last night the announcer guy was like, "This is Dupont Circle. Please utilize all doors." I think people like train announcers, football coaches, and national-security bureaucrats like this word because it sounds sort of impressively technical, but it actually means nothing more than "use." So why not just say "use"? This over-technical quality is, I think, uniquely American, and is related to the creation of the verb "de-plane," which just means to get off the airplane.

    2) "Moms". In my exchange with Melinda Henneberger on the midterms blog (can't link coz she took it down!), she wrote: "Ask any 100 moms..." This is increasingly common, and it's literally infantilizing. "Mom" is what you call your own mother. When referring to mothers as a group, why not call them "mothers"? Maybe part of this is that "mother" got corrupted by it's being part of "motherfucker" (or even the abbreviated "mutha", meaning the same as "motherfucker," as commonly used by RothBrothers' own mutual and beloved grandfather), so now it can't help but carry the taint of that meaning. But I think there's something else going on too, which is that the "moms" usage is being driven by advertizing, both commercial and political (eg: the Million Mom March), which, for obvious reasons, is being written to produce in the viewer or reader a kind of empathy. So you can see how a company selling baby food or whatever might want to use the more accessible "moms" instead of "mothers," as a way of connecting with the side of women that they're trying to engage with. But for ordinary non-commerical writing, empathy isn't usually the point. And "moms" just sounds cloying and childish (like when adults say "poop", which I find 1000 times more obscene than the straightforward word "shit"). I feel like Oprah and the 90s bear some measure of responsibility here.

    Don Asmussen is much too brilliant to be in the San Francisco Chronicle.


    Wondering who the bravest Roth Brother is? Check out Zack's post on the Washington Monthly election blog and then get back to me.

    Less rare virtual appearance

    Internet area RoBros fans take note as well: Along with my Washington Monthly colleagues and various other "Beltway Insiders" (haha) I will be blogging the midterm elections at a new WM blog called Showdown '06. My first post, a rather incoherent semi-defense of Dennis Hastert, is up.

    Rare personal appearance

    New York area RoBros fans take note: I'm doing a reading in Park Slope on October 10 (a week today), under the auspices of the Brooklyn Writers Space. It's at Night and Day, on Fifth Avenue at President, with Jim Hanas and Dominic Preziosi. I'll probably read a few pages from the novel, plus maybe a restaurant review or something. That is all.


    Fun with the Hold Steady

    I'm assuming you were as excited as I was by the big front-of-the-arts-section writeup that the NYT's Kelefa Sanneh gave the Hold Steady yesterday. One of the many things that's cool about the Hold Steady, that the NYT seemed to get, was how many American place names, mostly city names, are in their songs, and how this generally works to create a very American sense of wonder about the sheer number of people out there doing things like going to parties and having sex and throwing up and stuff.

    There was a part at the end of the piece where Sanneh didn't make the point I thought he was gonna make, though. He writes:

    After the first chorus Mr. Finn reels off some whimsical directions. “Take Lyndale to the horizon,” he sings. 'Take Nicollet out to the ocean." And that’s the Hold Steady’s hometown: a singular city that goes on forever.
    What he doesn't point out is the obvious debt (in a good, non-plagiaristic way) this line owes to Bruce's "Blinded by the Light," whose protagonist receives the following driving directions: "Take a right at the light, keep on straight until night, and then boys, you're on your own."

    For more evidence of the influence of early Bruce on THS, how about: "She looks shallow but she's neck deep in the steamy dreams of the guys along the harbor bars." That, from "Certain Songs," sounds like it came straight off The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. And it's equally awesome. Or, to seal the deal:
    Tramps like us, and we like tramps,
    And Charlemagne's got something in his sweatpants
    (from the appropriately titled, "Charlemagne in Sweatpants").

    I have this ongoing debate that runs in my head, along the lines of Alan Moore or Grant Morrison? It turns out Gene Ha, who I think is the only artist to work on substantial projects with both writers, has thought about the differences and similarities too:

    Alan sends out his script a few pages at a time so he can't rewrite after he's done, but when you read the whole thing it still comes out feeling like he tweaked the beginning after writing the ending. It's scary that anyone can do that with a first draft. Grant’s plots are beautifully constructed, but they don't have the structural perfection of a Bach concerto. He's more of a Beethoven or a Thelonious Monk. He takes the theme and runs with it.
    In the end, I lean toward thinking that Moore's work suffers from his obsession with structural perfection -- even his most impressive stories end up feeling mechanical. Morrison, on the other hand, flirts with incoherence, but his best work (Doom Patrol, Flex Mentallo, New X-Men, the last JLA arc) moves me in a way that Watchmen never has.


    Good piece on why contemporary music (a) is so loud, and (b) often becomes kind of annoying a couple songs in. (Hint: it's the same reason.)

    Some things cannot be described. This is one of them. (Link via Kausfiles) Update: It seems the page has been taken down. (Your tax dollars at work.) An archived copy is here.

    Inane Criticism of the Week award goes to Denis Donoghue, writing in the NYRB [$], who takes Jonathan Franzen to task for what Donoghue calls "narrative ventriloquism." Franzen, he writes, "has to intervene on [his characters'] behalf, thinking, feeling, and expressing beyond their range." He gives an example from The Corrections:

    The disappointment on Enid's face was disproportionately large. It was an ancient disappointment with the refusal of the world in general and her children in particular to participate in her preferred enchantments.
    "'Preferred enchantments' is beautiful," Donoghue writes, "but it is not credible as a mark of Enid's mind."

    Donoghue is making up a rule and then docking Franzen points for failing to follow it. Far from a fault, this technique is one of the great strengths of the "third-person close" mode that Franzen uses: the narration has access both to the characters' internal experience and to the writer's expressive powers. To cite a famous example (or at least an example I've been reading recently), this is exactly what Updike does in the Rabbit books, throughout which the inner life of the unreflective, poorly educated, basically dull protagonist is credibly and movingly described in Updike's sinuous, philosophical, metaphor-laden prose. Open Rabbit Redux at random, as I've just done, and you'll find something like this, from a scene in which Rabbit and Jill are bathing:
    he cannot shake the contented impotence of his sensation that they are the ends of spotlight beams thrown on the clouds, that their role is to haunt this house like two bleached creatures on a television set entertaining an empty room.
    Is this language "credible" as a mark of the mind of Rabbit Angstrom -- typesetter, former car salesman, one-time high school basketball star? No, it's what happens when John Updike lends Rabbit Angstrom his writerly intelligence and turns the character's inner life into poetry. It's this contribution from author to character that makes Updike's portrayal of Rabbit, and Franzen's of Enid, feel so profoundly generous: the implication is that human experience -- even the experience of the unthoughtful or inarticulate -- is rich and complex and substantial enough for art. But apparently it's against the rules of fiction as laid down by Denis Donoghue and thus should be forbidden.


    Did everyone else know that Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) is awesome? Am I late to the party on this? Does he make speeches like this one on the Senate floor every day, speeches that clearly and unhysterically spell out exactly what is at stake with these lunatics running the show? Have I been missing them? Or did he just today for the first time manifest a serious case of the awesomeness? Either way: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), you are my new hero.

    But my wife....

    There seems to be something a bit odd going on with this whole Borat movie (or to give it its full title, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) business.

    Maybe I'm misreading this, but it seems like here, the New York Times implicitly criticizes the movie for its failure to accurately depict Kazakhstan culture etc. Writes Steven Lee Myers: "There is almost nothing, in short, remotely truthful in the satiric depiction of Kazakhstan popularized by Sacha Baron Cohen" and "Mr. Bayen...like all ethnic Kazakhs, bears no resemblance to Borat whatsoever." But part of the point of the original Borat concept was how absurd and unbelivable Borat is (for instance, "Where is cage for woman?") and therefore how gullible and ignorant people are that they can be taken in by it. In other words, the joke's on westerners, not Kazakhs. What possible interest, when you think about it, would Sacha Baron Cohen have in sending up Kazakhs?

    But this mistake seems like it's getting made because the Borat of the movie, unlike the Borat of The Ali G Show, isn't Sacha Baron Cohen going around pretending to be Borat to play jokes on the people who believe him. It's a conventional movie dynamic where an actor, in this case named Sacha Baron Cohen, plays an "outrageous" character called Borat, much like Will Ferrell plays an "outrageous" NASCAR driver called Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights -- in which Baron Cohen co-starred (and he was totally the best thing about it). And rather than being aware the whole time that this is a setup, the audience is supposed to do the whole conventional willed-suspension-of-disbelief thing and believe in the character.

    That seems to pretty clearly change the whole basis of the humor. It's still, for some reason, hilarious to hear someone say things like "Women can now travel inside of bus." But it's not as funny as hearing someone say that and then seeing a western person take them seriously. My understanding is that the movie does still make use of that same western gullibility dynamic in parts, but you can't do that nearly as successfully in the context of a conventional movie concept where you're supposed to actually believe in the protagonist as a character.

    Funny Matt Taibbi column on the stupidity of 9/11 conspiracy theories:

    CHENEY: Of course, just toppling the Twin Towers will never be enough. No one would give us the war mandate we need if we just blow up the Towers. Clearly, we also need to shoot a missile at a small corner of the Pentagon to create a mightily underpublicized additional symbol of international terrorism -- and then, obviously, we need to fake a plane crash in the middle of fucking nowhere in rural Pennsylvania.


    If Zack's post below has made you wonder, What is this Microsoft iPod killer: it's called the Zune, and the best thing I've seen on it so far is here.

    Breaking technolgy news

    (Not really, it's already been written about, but still... ) So my friend Dave helps run this indie music blog called Music for Robots, and recently Microsoft flew one of his co-bloggers (along with a bunch of other buzzmakers) out to Seattle to get a look at their long-awaited challenge to-the-iPod product. They apparently made a big deal out of how it didn't look anything like an iPod, but then it turned it out to look alot like an iPod, with a wheel and screen and everything. The screen is apparently somewhat bigger than the iPod screen, making it better designed for playing movies and TV shows or whatever. And the other big thing is that if you put two of them close to each other (I think like within a few feet or yards) you can "beam" stuff from one device to another wirelessly, but you only get access to it for 3 days or 3 plays, whichever comes first. And there are certain features that encourage you to download stuff from their Microsoft Music Store or whatever they call it, suggesting a broad challenge to the Apple music empire. Also it doesn't work yet so Microsoft couldn't give them any.

    Something else re: Studio 60: Why did Sorkin choose to move his SNL analog to Los Angeles? Maybe he wanted to have the network suits on hand for dramatic conflict, or maybe he wanted to distance it from the real SNL, or maybe he just likes living in LA and didn't want to move. But it's an impossible location for the show-within-the-show. Like SNL, Studio 60 supposedly runs from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. (In Monday's episode, Matthew Perry threatened to reduce Sarah Paulson's role to "waving goodnight at one in the morning.") SNL is performed at that time in New York, then tape-delayed in the rest of the country. A west coast version, like Sorkin's, would air live in New York at two in the morning.

    I'm sure they thought of this and decided not to give a fuck.

    Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC, Mondays)
    The first problem is, How do you make the audience care about the making of a sketch-comedy TV show? Sorkin solves this by (a) using the difference between edgy, funny sketch comedy and lame sketch comedy to represent the squandered potential and possibility for redemption of television itself; (b) putting the very appealing Amanda Peet's career at stake; (c) amping up the race-against-time aspect with a giant clock. Sorkin: 1, difficulties: 0.

    The second problem is, How do you follow The West Wing? Sorkin (and Schlamme) respond by replicating the feel of TWW in a consistently more grown-up vein: longer and more beautifully composed tracking shots, faster and more continuous and less cutesy dialogue, no benevolent-daddy-sorts-out-right-from-wrong at the end of each episode. Also, at the thematic core they replace race (embodied in TWW in the strangely moving father-son/master-slave relationship between Bartlett and Charlie) with religion, the hipper, sexier reason that Americans can't talk to each other. Sorkin: 2; difficulties: 0.

    The third problem is, If you make a show that posits a genuinely funny version of SNL, do you also have to be able to make a genuinely funny version of SNL as an existence proof? The first episode of Studio 60 suggested that Sorkin's answer to this question was no -- that we'd see the backstage machinations but take the quality of the finished product on trust. The difficulty here is that you can only be told that a person is brilliant at their job so many times before you want to see some evidence of it. The second episode took the other tack, showing us the big opening sketch that was supposed to set the tone for the rebirth of the show-within-the-show, exemplify the possibilities of sophisticated and daring and genuinely funny sketch comedy, and demonstrate the Matthew Perry character's genius. Perhaps Sorkin is incapable of writing sketch comedy, and, because he's good at writing dramatic comedy, doesn't know it. But this is really the best he can come up with: a Gilbert and Sullivan parody? Sorkin: 2; difficulties: 1,000,000.


    As you probably know, Apple recently started selling feature films through the iTunes Store (formerly known as the iTunes Music Store). Wal-Mart (a huge player in the DVD retail market) has reason to fear that this will cut into their bottom line. Now, the Post reports, studio executives say Wal-Mart has threatened to buy fewer DVDs from any studio that goes into business with Apple. Early adopter Disney has already received "cases and cases" of returned DVDs.

    Would someone who knows something about antitrust law please tell me this: If these allegations are true, isn't Wal-Mart opening itself up to an anticompetitive-practices lawsuit?

    Update: Wal-Mart disputes the Post's report.


    Weird syntax thing alert: There's a particular kind of sentence structure that's been bugging me a lot lately. I think it's an error. But it occurs in generally well-edited publications, and so I'm forced to wonder if I'm wrong. It was raised above the waterline of my conscious awareness by two examples in Michael Weiss's interesting-but-I-think-ultimately-wrongheaded John Hughes retrospective in Slate:

    Anyone who grew up in the '80s ... can probably remember high school as much for its unique misery as for the Breakfast Club references it evokes.

    Gen X nostalgia is as interesting for what it remembers as for what it chooses to ignore.
    Is it just me, or is each of these "as much for ... as for ..." constructions back-ass-wards? If you say "as much for X as for Y," aren't you putting the syntactic emphasis on X rather than Y, which I'm pretty sure is not Weiss's intention in either case? The first term should be the surprising one; the second should be the expected one. It's not surprising that you remember high school for its own qualities -- what's surprising is that you remember it because of associations with a John Hughes movie from 1985 -- so the sentences as Weiss writes them sound to my ears like truisms rather than arguments.

    If I were Weiss's editor, I would invert each of those sentences, like so:
    Anyone who grew up in the '80s can probably remember high school as much for the Breakfast Club references it evokes as for its unique misery.

    Gen X nostalgia is as interesting for what it chooses to ignore as for what it remembers.
    Is this just me? I am asking for real.

    Here's a brief and slightly off-topic report by Matthew Yglesias about the Wire screening event featuring David Simon in DC last night, in which Gabe had expressed interest.


    And speaking of that David Brooks column: Brooks describes Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain as "a breezy — maybe too breezy — summary of hundreds of studies on the neurological differences between men and women." That interjected criticism, "maybe too breezy": Did David fucking Brooks, of all people, really read The Female Brain and say, "Too breezy! Insufficiently technical!"? Or -- speculative alternate theory -- did he read Robin Marantz Henig's review of The Female Brain in last week's Times Book Review, in which Henig, who actually knows something about science, criticized Brizendine for offering "breezy generalizations" instead of factual detail?

    David Brooks's column yesterday provided more evidence that he's a total fathead. (You can read it here, if you get TimesSelect.) Summarizing Louann Brizendine’s new book The Female Brain, Brooks takes his readers on a whistle-stop tour of the current wisdom on the physiological basis of gender differences, which segues into a summary of evolutionary psychology:

    The prevailing view is that brain patterns were established during the millenniums when humans were hunters and gatherers, and we live with the consequences.... Happiness seems to consist of living in harmony with the patterns that nature and evolution laid down long, long ago.
    Where on earth did Brooks get the idea that evolution wants us to be happy? Evolution wants our genes to survive. To that end it has equipped us to be dissatisfied almost all the time, but to imagine that satisfaction is just around the corner if we can just find an attractive mate, eat some food, or improve our social status. (A creature that can easily make itself happy in a lasting way is an evolutionary dead end.) If we want to be happy, our best shot is to fight "the patterns that nature and evolution laid down long ago" as best we can.

    This is a classic fallacy of pseudoscientific thinking -- the idea that what is natural is by definition desirable. Why does this guy get to write about stuff he doesn't understand?

    It's not really a backlash if you don't talk about the show itself, you only talk about how annoying you find the chorus of praise for the show. Update: I missed this at the time, but the New Yorker's brilliant Alex Ross is a fan. And yes, I will continue linking the documentary evidence of the Wire groundswell until I get bored.