David Leonhardt has a good point about Lou Dobbs, one that applies to much of the talking-head community:

The most common complaint about him, at least from other journalists, is that his program combines factual reporting with editorializing. But I think this misses the point. Americans, as a rule, are smart enough to handle a program that mixes opinion and facts. The problem with Mr. Dobbs is that he mixes opinion and untruths.


Crazy Wikipedia stuff (blah blah blah series): Perhaps, like most people, you believe that the Church of Scientology is a dangerous cult that preys on the credulous and goes after its critics with a heavy hand. But what if, unlike most people, you also believe that the wacky sci-fi theology of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard is a valuable body of religious teachings? Well, you might find some like-minded friends in the Free Zone.


An open letter from The Office's B. J. Novak: "I bet I'll really like The Wire when I get around to watching it. It sounds great. In the meantime, please SHUT UP ABOUT HOW MUCH I AM GOING TO LOVE THE WIRE. I have a lot to do, and I have a long Netflix queue."

Crazy Wikipedia stuff (3rd in a series): How do people measure the comparative spiciness of different foods? Why, they use Wilbur Scoville's eponymous Scoville scale, of course.


There's a grammar thing that's been bothering me for a while now: sometimes people put commas between adjectives, and I know that the commas don't belong there but I can't explain why. A clear example is What a good, little boy! Most people would agree that comma is out of place. But why? We use commas in What a beautiful, complex, challenging book! It's one of those I-know-it-when-I-see-it things, and those always make me uneasy with grammar because what if my precious instincts are wrong?

The truth is more complicated and elegant than I had guessed: adjectives in English go in a precise order by category, which goes like this:

opinion :: size :: age :: shape :: color :: origin :: material :: purpose

and as long as the adjectives can be categorized you don't need commas between them. A discussion of the phenomenon is here; an explanatory chart is here.

What's amazing is that every native English speaker has absorbed this system and maybe one in a thousand could explain it.


Crazy stuff you can find on Wikipedia (second in a series): You have 1,679 binary digits in which to communicate with aliens. How much information can you convey? Probably not as much as the authors of the Arecibo message.


Al Gore: "It is simply no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse."

Crazy stuff you can find on Wikipedia (first in a series): Is 90 percent of all television actually set inside the mind of an autistic boy? Why yes it is, according to the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis.


Mark Pilgrim responds to Microsoft's patent-infringement assault on Linux with a bit of autobiography:

My name is on a software patent. It happened during my brief tenure at IBM.... No one had done this exact thing, in this exact way, for this exact purpose, before we did. The patent was original, it was innovative, and it was still shameful.
UPDATE: There's a good history of Microsoft's war on open-source at Roughly Drafted.

Who's stronger: Alan Moore or Grant Morrison?

A year ago, in response to a request from my erstwhile coauthor to comment on Alan Moore's spoiled-brat media tour, I posited an alternate-universe Moore:

Imagine if, instead of bouncing from publisher to publisher, he had followed a path through mainstream comics like that of Grant Morrison, who has alternated periods writing mainstream superhero books (New X-Men, JLA, and soon Batman) with work on his own creations for DC's mature-readers imprint Vertigo (The Invisibles, The Filth, We3 -- all of which Morrison owns outright). Imagine if, instead of writing Superman homages in Supreme and Tom Strong, Moore had spent a year writing Superman, or, instead of WildCATs, JLA. I suspect Moore's later work would be more satisfying, and mainstream comics would certainly be richer for his involvement.
In the year since I wrote those idle words, Grant Morrison has apparently been thinking about Moore's career this way too, to the point of embedding the idea in his recent Seven Soldiers series, and most recently issuing a subtle challenge to rival and bête noire Moore in an interview posted last week.

How all this works is going to take some explaining.

In 1990, Grant Morrison wrote himself into the DC Universe. Morrison was wrapping up his run on Animal Man, over the course of which the animal-powered protagonist had gradually gained metafictional self-awareness and begun to suspect that he was a character in a story being written by someone else. Comics are often preoccupied with different realities – parallel worlds, alternate futures. Morrison’s big idea was to play with the boundary between the fictional reality in which Animal Man uses his powers to fight crime and the apparently-less-fictional reality in which Grant Morrison sits in a flat in Glasgow writing Animal Man for DC Comics. (Morrison, who practices chaos magic and has taken a lot of drugs, would probably say that neither reality is any more fictional than the other.) In his final issue, he and the character had a long and mind-blowing conversation about all this.

Although no one had done such a deep pomo metafiction thing in superhero comics before, other DC writers and editors had appeared in the company’s comics, usually in cute little jokes like this 1985 issue of Superman, which was a 70th-birthday present for longtime editor Julius Schwartz.

Twenty years later Morrison wrote Seven Soldiers, a crazy, brilliant web of interlocking narrative that appeared as seven separate minseries about peripheral DC characters. On the fringes of 7S was a set of shadowy agents known sometimes as the Seven Unknown Men and at other times as the Time Tailors, who were seen performing surgery on the fabric of the story itself. These figures, Morrison said in interviews, were himself and Schwartz and the rest – the writers and editors who had appeared in DC comics in the past. Morrison recognized that he and the others, by breaching the wall between fiction and reality, had become citizens of the DC Universe, available to be deployed into stories just like any other minor DC character.

This idea of deploying is important. Any comic set in the DCU (or the Marvel Universe, or etc. etc.) is both a thing-in-itself and a single piece of a massive collaborative project that stretches back (in DC’s case) to 1938. (Name another kind of story being written today that’s connected to a story from seventy years earlier, not as a retelling or an appropriation but as a continuation.) When Grant Morrison writes a story about Animal Man, he’s making artistic use of a character made up by Dave Wood and Carmine Infantino in 1965 and amended by countless others. When he writes about Zatanna and Mr. Miracle and the Guardian in Seven Soldiers he’s grabbing whatever shiny things catch his eye from seventy years of storytelling and playing with them. And this deploying thing is not just the form or condition of Seven Soldiers – it is, in a way that will become clear in a few paragraphs, the theme.

The villains in Seven Soldiers are a bunch of evil time-travelling fairies called the Sheeda, who come to our present for something called the Harrowing. The Sheeda are an agricultural race, and what they farm is civilizations: they’ve given us 20,000 years to develop culture and technology and society, and now they’re coming to reap, to raze our civilization and feed off it, leaving a few humans alive to “seed the crop” for the next Harrowing in twenty millennia.

This is weird enough, maybe. But there’s more: the Sheeda were set in motion by one of those Seven Unknown Men, a renegade referred to as the Terrible Time Tailor. The real behind-the-scenes villain, in other words, is one of the DC writers/editors who has appeared in a comic at some point. And it’s pretty clear, from a bunch of clues in 7S that we won’t go into right now, that the villain in question is Alan Moore.

Moore than a feeling

Morrison’s enmity toward Moore is perhaps comics’ most outrageous instance of the Anxiety of Influence. Moore was the first British writer to come to prominence in American comics, and in his wake DC sent over recruiters to see if the British comics industry might have any more like him. Among others, they found a Scottish kid named Grant Morrison and let him write a Batman graphic novel and a book about a minor hero called Animal Man. That Batman story, and the first few issues of Animal Man, are very much in the style of Swamp Thing-era Alan Moore: serious, wordy, aiming to lend psychological and thematic and poetic depth to what are basically superhero stories. Within a year or so, though, Morrison was exuberantly throwing off the shackles of Moore-imitation and developing the riffs that mark his own work: surrealist humor, metanarrative game-playing, and the ambition to distill the least realistic, zaniest, most colorful aspects of Silver Age comics into dense, fast-paced stories packed with strangeness and surprise.

Alan Moore's best-known work is still Watchmen, the canonical new-wave superhero comic. The non-comics people who read Watchmen (and there are many: it was listed on Time’s top 100 novels of the twentieth century) probably don’t realize this, but the characters in Watchmen were based on a line of superheroes published by an also-ran company named Charlton Comics in the 1960s. The history goes like this: in the early ’80s DC acquired Charlton’s characters, superheroes like Captain Atom and the Blue Beetle. Alan Moore looked at the Charlton heroes and realized that, because they were so derivative of DC’s and Marvel’s characters, they comprised a complete set of superheroic archetypes – the superman with godlike powers, the gritty urban vigilante, the millionaire crimefighter with the crazy gadgets – and could thus be used to tell a very nice Ultimate Superhero Story. Moore pitched such a project to Dick Giordano, then DC’s executive editor. Giordano declined to hand Moore the reins to the Charlton characters, but encouraged him to create new superhero-archetype characters to use in their place. So Captain Atom became Dr. Manhattan, and the Question became Rorschach, and Moore wrote Watchmen and Dave Gibbons drew the pictures and the series sold huge and was one of the first comics to be collected in a mass-audience paperback and was in general an Event.

At some point after Watchmen’s release, Moore stopped working for DC. In an interview with the Comics Journal in 1990, Moore gave explained the split thus: After Watchmen was done, Moore was afraid DC would cheapen his work with spinoffs and sequels. During a meeting, one of the top editors told him that no such secondary works would be published as long as Moore maintained a good working relationship with DC. “I don’t respond well to threats,” Moore told the Journal, and so he walked. Still, DC hasn't done anything with the Watchmen characters in the twenty years since the end of Moore’s series – despite the fact that, say, a Rorschach solo book would have been a sure commercial bet.

This story, I think, reveals why Grant Morrison cast Alan Moore as the villain in Seven Soldiers. From a Morrisonian perspective, Moore, like the Sheeda, wants only to reap, never to sow: he took the Charlton characters, and Swamp Thing, and other DC properties, and he used them for his own purposes and refused to contribute anything to the common pool of ideas. (What characters or concepts in today’s DC Universe have their origin at the hand of Alan Moore? Well, there’s, uh, Mogo.) Morrison, by contrast, prides himself on giving as much as he takes. Part of his plan for Seven Soldiers, for instance, was to rehabilitate obscure characters for other writers to take over. So Jack Kirby creates Klarion the Witch-Boy in 1973, and Klarion mostly drops out of sight until Grant Morrison uses him in 2006 and provides him with a milieu and a supporting cast, and three months later he shows up in an issue of Robin written by Adam Beechen.

By Morrison’s lights, then, when Moore got protective of the Watchmen characters, he wasn’t just being precious and arty; he was being selfish. Worse, he was hoarding characters that had ultimately been invented by other hands. What Moore should have done (again, from Morrison’s perspective) is to say, “Yeah, we borrowed these characters, and changed them in certain ways, and we had a great time with them and got to tell our story. And now if anyone else wants to pick up anything we’ve done and run with it, well, that’ll just enrich the massive collaborative fictional tapestry that is the DCU.” Which is, of course, pretty much exactly the opposite of what he did.

Permission Granted

And so we come to this week’s interview. The occasion for the interview was the end of 52, a yearlong weekly DCU-spanning series on which Morrison was one of four writers. (One of the remarkable things about it was Morrison’s willingness to collaborate on an equal basis with three writers who have their talents but who are not artistically in his ballpark.) The end of the series featured something DC fans have wanted for a long time: the restitution of the multiverse. (In a nut: from 1961 until 1986, the DCU consisted of an infinite number of parallel earths; from 1986 until this month it consisted of just one earth; now it consists of parallel earths again, although only 52 of them.) In the final issue of 52 we saw glimpses of a few of those parallel earths, one of which appears to feature the Charlton heroes: Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, the Question, and the rest. Remember, these are the characters that Alan Moore adapted for Watchmen.

And in the interview, Morrison says "If you miss Vic Sage as the Question [Sage died of lung cancer in 52], you should be able to follow the adventures of Vic's counterpart on the Charlton/Watchmen world of Earth 4." Not the Charlton world -- the Charlton/Watchmen world.

Don’t think Morrison doesn’t know what he’s saying here. He’s saying, Those Watchmen characters don’t belong to Alan Moore, they belong to DC. He didn’t create them himself, he adapted them from other people's creations. They are on the table. They are in play. And his work is part of the soil that DC’s writers are tilling, even if he wishes it wasn’t.

Or, If you don’t play nice, if you don’t share with the other kids, we’re going to take your toys away from you.

Let me be clear: I don’t think the DC brass have some big plan to reclaim the Watchmen characters from Alan Moore (although you never know, especially with the Watchmen movie looking like it's finally a go). I think it's mostly just Morrison having some fun. I suspect that when he said "the Charlton/Watchmen world" he was grinning like the proverbial canary-eating cat, and the only thing compromising his happiness was the well-known fact that Alan Moore doesn’t have an internet connection.


RoBros gets results! From the LA Times:

Alan Moore book: An article in the April 29 Calendar section and a subsequent For the Record referred to the title of an Alan Moore graphic novel as The Watchman and The Watchmen. It is simply Watchmen.

The hat problem:

Three players enter a room and a red or blue hat is placed on each person's head. The color of each hat is determined by a coin toss, with the outcome of one coin toss having no effect on the others. Each person can see the other players' hats but not his own.

No communication of any sort is allowed, except for an initial strategy session before the game begins. Once they have had a chance to look at the other hats, the players must simultaneously guess the color of their own hats or pass. The group shares a hypothetical $3 million prize if at least one player guesses correctly and no players guess incorrectly.

Can you figure out how to win more than 50 percent of the time? A Berkeley math professor did.

Weirdly, this does not appear to be a joke:

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - Staff members of an elementary school staged a fictitious gun attack on students during a class trip, telling them it was not a drill as the children cried and hid under tables.


James Fallows on a tragic new twist to the U.S. Attorneys scandal: "If this is so, it is ... as low an act as any we have heard of in modern politics."


Fresh Air interview with Friday Night Lights exec-producer Peter Berg, which confirms two things I'd suspected about the show: (a) the actors are usually ad-libbing (something that's especially apparent in the scenes between Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, who make me think Yeah, this is how married people talk), and (b) the people making the show really, really care about what they're doing.


This is kind of crazy: Time needs a short essay on evolutionary biologist and atheism cheerleader Richard Dawkins for its annual 100 Most Influential People list. So who do they commission to write it? Michael Behe, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, which advocates for "intelligent design." Behe, predictably, writes a piece that's critical of Dawkins and his ideas. When Time runs it, though, they add all kinds of language that makes Behe sound more respectful of Dawkins than he really is. The following seems to have been made up from whole cloth by an editor at Time:

It is a measure of the artful way Dawkins ... tells a tale and the rigor he brings to his thinking that even those of us who profoundly disagree with what he has to say can tip our hats to the way he has invigorated the larger debate.
Behe's original contains nothing about "the artful way Dawkins ... tells a tale," or "the rigor he brings to his thinking" (in fact, he accuses Dawkins of sloppy argument). It doesn't credit him with invigorating anything. Behe's only words of admiration are for Dawkins's "energy and determination."

This is unfair to Behe, obviously, but I don't give a fuck about Michael Behe, and if he ever gets sick, I hope he insists on limiting his treatment options to creationist medicine. The real problem is that the editorial process on display here -- Hey, here's thinking outside the box: what if we get one of those intelligent design guys to write about Dawkins? / I love it! / Say, did you see that Dawkins piece? Needs to be toned down a little ... -- trivializes and misrepresents the issue and goes out of its way to cast a creationist-in-disguise as a reasonable, respectful adversary with a plausible case.

Last year the city of São Paolo, Brazil, passed a law banning all outdoor advertisements. A set of beautiful photos of cityscapes that aren't trying to convince you to buy something is here. Wanted: a major American city with the stones to do this. I'm looking at you, San Francisco....


Is Karl Rove the new Hegel? From the are-you-sure-that's-what-you-mean? department:

A White House official who has been intimately involved in shaping Bush's war dialectic said the president will continue to talk about the "global war on the terror," even if it "doesn't fit a political science definition."

Geek fact-checking department: We were surprised to see this correction in the LA Times:

Alan Moore book: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about comic-book artist Frank Miller referred to the graphic novel The Watchman by Alan Moore. The title is The Watchmen.
Well, no, actually -- the title is Watchmen. Still uncorrected are the assertions that Daredevil has no powers (he has preternatural senses, including radar, that compensate for his blindness) and that Miller is "the most important comic book artist of the last 25 years."


Shocking decline in literacy among moralizing newspaper columnists

Bad writing is everywhere, of course, but when it shows up in a piece bemoaning the death of reading, it's particularly enjoyable. The piece in question, by one Kathleen Parker, is from the Orlando Sentinel's website. The opening sentences have already been mocked by Bookslut, but they're worth mocking again here:

People who read books are different from other people. They're smarter for one thing. They're more sensual for another. They like to hold, touch and smell what they read.
That's funny for two reasons. (a) It's not true, or at least it's completely speculative. You can maybe infer that book-readers are smarter than average (although then you get into semantics about the word smarter), but you'd have to bring some data to substantiate the "more sensual" claim. (b) It's entirely off-point. If reading books is a good thing, that has nothing to do with what books feel like or smell like.

Then there's this funny thing Parker keeps doing where she uses hyperbole -- a legitimate linguistic device with a long pedigree -- and then turns around and apologizes for using it.
Soon, who knows? Maybe we'll be burning books in the town square chanting: We don't need no dadgum books. We got Innernet porn 'n' satellite TeeVee! OK, so maybe the end of civilization isn't nigh, but the systematic gutting of culture from newspapers is symptomatic of a broadening illiteracy that bodes ill for the republic. [Italics mine]
If you think a book-burning riff will help make your point, go for it. If you think it's a bit far-fetched and might undercut the seriousness of your argument, leave it out. (I'm with option B -- people don't burn things that they don't give a shit about -- but it's your call.) But why on earth would you include it and then dismiss it as unrealistic? Parker does something similar in the last graf:
The loss of yet another book editor and the homogenization (or possible loss) of another review section may not cause the Earth to shift on its axis, but it is symbolic of the devaluing of American letters.
Why raise the possibility of the Earth shifting on its axis only to dismiss it?

Parker's main point is that newspapers that are eliminating book-review sections are "apparent signatories to a suicide pact."
From a practical standpoint, [such cuts make] no sense. Clue: People who read newspapers are also likely book readers. So why do newspaper editors and publishers think that killing one of the few features that readers might -- big word here -- READ is a smart move in an era of newspaper decline?
Because the people who run newspapers have never thought about any of this even once in their lives, and they need Kathleen Parker to tell them which side their bread is buttered on.

Listen, Kathleen: I'm as anxious about the decline in book-reading as you are. (I am, after all, writing a book, and I'm hoping there will be people to buy it when I'm done.) I like book reviews too, maybe more than you do: when you say that Florence King, of the National Review's Misanthrope's Corner, "elevated book reviewing to a literary art form," it makes me wonder if a voracious reader like yourself has gotten around to Virginia Woolf or Edmund Wilson. But if there's one thing book-reading in America doesn't need, it's an illiterate newspaper columnist for a champion.


Of all the scary shit that has happened in the past seven and a half years -- the stolen election, the people crashing planes into buildings, the "suspension" of civil liberties, the trumped-up intelligence, the misbegotten war, the failure to plan for entirely foreseeable events, the insistence on "staying the course" when any hope of success is gone and on sacrificing human lives to avoid embarrassment, the contempt for international institutions, the illegal domestic spying, the politicization of every arm of the executive branch -- the one that I can never quite forget about while I'm watching The Office, the one that has turned into a persistent hum of terror at the back of my head, is the indefinite detention of hundreds of foreign nationals on little or no evidence without trial or appeal, also known as "Guantanamo Bay." I often find myself trying to avoid reading about it, it scares me so much.

Here's a Peabody Award-winning episode of This American Life, originally broadcast last year, about what happens at Guantanamo and how we got to this sorry pass. (I guess they're taking another break from documenting liberal upper-middle-class existence.) It includes interviews with two former detainees. (Ira Glass begins the program by pointing out how rarely we see interviews with ex-Guantanamo inmates on TV or in the paper.) You can download it to your iPod or read the transcript. It will make you think about Kafka's The Trial, and about Orwell's 1984, and about the stories we used to hear about the USSR, and about what the hell has happened to this country.

Have you, like me, been wondering: why the fuck is Alberto Gonzales still running the Department of Justice? It can't just be Bush's famous "loyalty," can it?

Well, it isn't. In an LA Times op-ed, Elizabeth Holtzman explains the real reason.