This copyright notice, from Journalista, has been a long time coming:

Panels from the first page of the original Superman story that appeared in Action Comics #1, ©1938 Detective Comics, Inc. and the Estate of Jerome Siegel. Hot damn, that was fun to type! Let’s do it again: ©1938 Detective Comics, Inc. and the Estate of Jerome Siegel. God bless America.


Return of the return of crazy Wikipedia stuff: "The conflicts, in which vendors raided one another's vans and fired shotguns into one another's windscreens, were more violent than might be expected of turf wars among ice-cream vendors."

Happy birthday, Chuck Taylor!
WaPo: "It is not an angry shoe. It was never that kind of rebellion. It's the shoe of slacker ambivalence, indecision."

Jezebel: "This is getting indulgent, even for me, which I guess explains my reluctance to discuss Chuck Taylors, a three-year-old pair of which I happened to be wearing a minute ago before I realized I was wearing shoes while blogging. And that I would be more comfortable without them on. This thought does not occur to me nearly enough; the night before last I passed out still wearing them. Not that they are particularly comfortable. They are just not uncomfortable."


Yes, I can see how that would work: "By distributing fliers — '10 Reasons to Wait' — outside of a freshman safe-sex seminar, he instantly gained 'a public image' for abstinence, he said, which has helped him to remain chaste ever since." [NYT Mag]

Seven story ideas about Batman

Batman is having doubts about Robin. At 13, Robin is small and weak, and he wears a bright red vest that makes him an easy target. So Batman sends Robin away to military academy and starts recruiting a new partner. He’s thinking a black guy would be good, like in the movies – the white guy and his quiet, dignified black sidekick. He tries out a couple of black guys, but they don’t have Robin’s blind devotion and disregard for his own life. He pulls Robin out of school and the Dynamic Duo is reunited.

A priceless jewel-encrusted bird statue is to be exhibited at the Gotham Museum. Everyone expects the Penguin to try to steal it, and the museum directors are counting on Batman to foil his plans. Batman realizes that he’s created a situation of moral hazard. “Let the Penguin steal the fucking thing,” Batman says. “If they insist on exhibiting these fucking bird statues all the time, it’s their problem.”

A liberal city council member runs for mayor of Gotham City, advocating a “harm reduction” policy for drug offenses. Batman’s not about to let this wimp go soft on crime in his town. Fortunately, Wayne Enterprises has a very profitable line in voting-machine software.

Batman is intrigued by the idea of S&M roleplaying, and spends an hour looking at websites that feature photos of men tied up and abused by women in elaborate leather costumes. He’s careful to clear the browser cache and history when he’s finished.

Wayne Enterprises takes a big hit in the telecommunications collapse of 2001. Batman, in his secret identity of Bruce Wayne, lays off thousands of employees. He also fires much of his senior management team, including Lucius Fox. “You’re dead weight, old man,” Batman says.

Batman’s Justice League teammates get sick of him barking orders through their telepathic link. “I’m sick of that maniac yelling in my brain,” says Green Lantern to Superman. “I have a power ring that manifests my will in physical form, and you’re invulnerable, and he’s just an asshole in a costume. Why do we let him talk to us like that?”
“Shhh! Shhh!” Superman says. “He’ll hear you!”

As of today, Batman hasn’t cried for his parents in 9,211 days.
Previously: 13 story ideas featuring Green Lantern.

Disagreeing with Paul Graham

Paul Graham has provided a primer on types of disagreement, from name-calling through ad hominem to refutation. This is helpful, because I disagree with something he wrote recently, and I want to do it properly.

(Interjection for non-initiates: Paul Graham is a computer programmer who sold a startup to Yahoo in 1998. Now he's an investor with Y Combinator, which provides seed funding for startups. I recommend his essays on programming to curious laypeople; here are three good ones.)

I'm certainly not qualified to disagree with Graham on the subjects of computers, programming languages, or startup companies. (Graham would accuse me of directing an ad hominem attack against myself: "Saying that an author lacks the authority to write about a topic is a variant of ad hominem—and a particularly useless sort, because good ideas often come from outsiders." But this case points to one of the legitimate uses of ad hominem judgments: as a timesaving filter. The number of possible criticisms of anything is infinite, and we need quick ways to weed some of them out. One good way to do that is to ignore arguments from people who are patently unqualified to speak on a subject. This is how physics professors avoid wasting their lives refuting specious arguments from cranks. Using ad hominem judgments this way doesn't really count as disagreeing, though.)

I'm going to disagree with an essay on a more general topic: "You Weren't Meant to Have a Boss."

"The most powerful form of disagreement is to refute someone's central point," Graham tells us. "And that means one has to commit explicitly to what the central point is." The central point of "You Weren't Meant to Have a Boss" is, "It will always suck to work for large organizations, and the larger the organization, the more it will suck," because "humans weren't meant to work in such large groups."

How does Graham back up this contention? With direct observation, and with an argument from evolution.

Direct observation first: Graham saw some big-company programmers in a café, and they looked less alive than the startup founders he works with. (He doesn't directly say they look less alive; he says it indirectly: "Lions in the wild seem about ten times more alive [than lions in a zoo]. And seeing those guys on their scavenger hunt was like seeing lions in a zoo after spending several years watching them in the wild.")

One problem with direct observation is that it's hard to get a representative sample. It can be done, but you have to make it a deliberate project and put some time and thought into it, rather than just stumbling on a bunch of programmers in a café. And an unrepresentative sample is prone to distortion. There's no way to tell what's signal and what's noise. The programmers Graham saw in Palo Alto might all have a boss who's an asshole. They might be working on a particularly boring project. Maybe the correct conclusion to draw from them is "People who work for an asshole look less alive," or "People who work on boring projects look less alive."

Another problem with direct observation is that humans have a tendency to see their biases confirmed everywhere they look. (That's the definition of a bias: something that keeps you from seeing straight.) Graham is a startup founder and an advocate for the founding of startups. He goes to a café, and he sees some non-founders, and he thinks they look less alive than the founders he knows. The fact that this observation confirms his preexisting belief in the worthiness of startups makes it less credible than if the same observation were made by someone who had no particular interest in startups.

(This is a case where an ad hominem argument is relevant and valid. When a writer uses his own observations as evidence, it's legitimate to question his observational ability. It's the equivalent of me saying, "This elephant only weighs 20lb," and you saying, "The scale you're using to weigh it is broken.")

Besdies his experience in the café, Graham cites unnamed written sources and unspecified personal experiences, which he uses to bring evolution into his argument: "what I've read about hunter-gatherers accords with research on organizations and my own experience to suggest roughly what the ideal size is: groups of 8 work well; by 20 they're getting hard to manage; and a group of 50 is really unwieldy." It's notable how thin this citation is. But let's stipulate that his reading is correct, and that our forebears did their hunting and gathering in groups of eight or so.

When you break it down, Graham's argument from evolution goes like this: our ancestors worked in groups of eight or so, therefore humans evolved to work in groups of eight or so, therefore contemporary humans will be more alive and fulfilled working in groups of eight or so.

In a general sense, this is the logical fallacy known as the "appeal to nature" -- the idea that what's natural is ipso facto good or right. There is no reason to believe this: plenty of natural things are neither good nor right.

More specifically, it's a popular contemporary version of the appeal to nature: the idea that living in ways that fit with our evolutionary design will make us happy. (Graham describes startup founders and wild lions as "both more worried and happier at the same time.") This is a superficially convincing notion, but there's no reason to think it's true. Evolution has no particular interest in our happiness. A creature that's perpetually dissatisfied, always striving for advantage, wins out over a creature that's happy. (This is why Buddhist monks, who try to eliminate striving and attain happiness, spend decades performing meditations that to most people seem unbearably tedious and effortful: they're trying to override their brains' natural tendencies to striving and unhappiness, and that takes a lot of work.) There's no reason to think that primitive hunter-gatherers were any happier than we are, and even less reason to imagine we'll be happier if we imitate their management practices.

But rather than pointing out fallacies, a better way to refute Graham's evolutionary argument is by reductio ad absurdum. His argument goes like this: our ancestors worked in groups of eight or so, therefore humans evolved to work in groups of eight or so, therefore contemporary humans will be more alive and fulfilled working in groups of eight or so. What else follows from that argument?

Well, our ancestors worked in hunting and gathering. They didn't work as computer programmers. Therefore humans evolved to work as hunter-gatherers; therefore contemporary humans are more alive when they're foraging for food than when they're programming computers. (Suggested title for Graham's next essay: "You Weren't Meant to Have a Chair.") Our ancestors lived in a world that was shrouded in darkness half the day, therefore we would be happier without electric lights.

One difficulty with disagreeing with people is that you have to present their argument and your argument, and so your essay ends up being longer than theirs.

Earnest? Really? "Much the way Hollywood people have shuttled between Los Angeles and Manhattan for decades, or academics commute on the Acela between Morningside Heights and Cambridge, Mass., there is a young, earnest population that is beating a path between artsy, gentrifying neighborhoods in Brooklyn and their counterparts in the Bay Area." [NYT]


Hillary Clinton, today: "We need a president who is ready on day one to be Commander-in-Chief of our economy."

Does anyone else think it's weird to refer to the U.S. economy as a command structure with a single executive at the top? We need a president who will be a capable manager of the federal government in its role as largest economic actor, certainly. Obviously it's less punchy when you put it like that. But isn't Clinton's formulation both a distortion of reality and creepily militaristic?

Jim Henley reports from a parallel universe:

So many publications have expressed such overwhelming interest in the perspectives of those of us who opposed the Iraq War when it had a chance of doing good that I have had to permit mutliple publication of this article in most of the nation’s elite media venues - collecting, I am almost embarrassed to admit, a separate fee from each. Everyone recognizes that the opinions of those of us who were right about Iraq then are crucial to formulating sane, just policy now.

Stanley Fish on what's wrong with the campaign:

This denouncing and renouncing game is simply not serious. It is a media-staged theater, produced not in response to genuine concerns – no one thinks that Obama is unpatriotic or that Clinton is a racist or that McCain is a right-wing bigot – but in response to the needs of a news cycle. First you do the outrage (did you see what X said?), then you put the question to the candidate (do you hereby denounce and renounce?), then you have a debate on the answer (Did he go far enough? Has she shut her husband up?), and then you do endless polls that quickly become the basis of a new round.

Meanwhile, the things the candidates themselves are saying about really important matters – war, the economy, health care, the environment – are put on the back-burner until the side show is over, though the odds are that a new one will start up immediately.


Call for a new literary category

Jack Shafer's debunking of a Malcolm Gladwell riff demonstrates only that Gladwell is a talented bullshit artist and Shafer is a scold, both of which we already knew. (An obvious point Shafer misses: when a guy tells a funny story about sneaking humorous fabrications into a newspaper, doesn't the story itself hint that the guy is not to be trusted?)

Gladwell has apparently told the "new and troubling questions" story at dinner parties for ten years. My guess is that it has gotten funnier, and less strictly veridical, over that time. Anyone who heard him tell it at a dinner party would identify it immediately as a hybrid of fact and fiction, just like any other successful dinner-party anecdote. And then it gets played on This American Life, and Shafer spends 3,000 words pointing out that it doesn't stand up to fact-checking.

Why don't we just have a category called "anecdote," to accommodate stories rooted in autobiography but containing exaggerations and emendations for comic or dramatic effect? The ones in magazines like the New Yorker would typically be humorous, but Reader's Digest could use the rubric for those moralistic little fables that illustrate how Jesus is always there when you're not expecting him. Let's stipulate that an anecdote must be relatively short (when it reaches book length, it's a novel), and that it's bad form to use anecdotal license for self-glamorization, just as it would be at a dinner party (Margaret Jones, throw your hands in the air). And then let's stick the word "anecdote" at the top of the page where it used to say "personal history," and Rodney Rothman can write for the New Yorker again, and David Sedaris won't get special treatment, and Shafer can stop stating the obvious.

This post's title notwithstanding, the anecdote -- the tale told around a fire, presented as true but not entirely verifiable -- has a much longer history than the clearly labelled fiction or the thoroughly researched news story. (Homer: [stands up, clears throat] "This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles....") It's no wonder that it keeps returning even when we don't make room for it.


Pedantic writing thing: Responding to Obama's speech, everyone's-favorite-smart-conservative Ross Douthat writes:

[B]y using the Wright controversy as an opportunity to play up their candidate's strengths - as an orator, but more importantly as the rare politician who can deliver a thoughtful, nuanced speech and make you feel like he means it - the Obama campaign made some sweet-tasting lemonade out of some bitter-tasting lemons.
This is both a very good point, and also, in its final clause, one of the most irritating writerly tics in existence. To avoid the cliche of saying that Obama made lemonade out of lemons, Douthat says that the lemonade was sweet-tasting and the lemons were bitter-tasting. But of course the lemonade was sweet-tasting and the lemons were bitter-tasting! That's the whole point of the lemonade-out-of-lemons cliche! Making the meaning of the cliche explicit is designed to fool people into thinking you've somehow gone beyond the cliche, when you haven't.

Not that there's anything wrong with the cliche in this case -- it's a pretty apt way of expressing the point. Just don't pretend you're not using a cliche when you are.

Just wanted to point that out. You'll hear from me again in another few months, probably.

Thirteen story ideas featuring Green Lantern

Green Lantern puts his power ring down somewhere and can’t remember where he put it. As luck would have it, all kinds of supernatural outer-space crap starts happening right then. Fortunately he finds his power ring and smashes them.

Green Lantern gets jealous of Superman for being more famous than he is and challenges him to a big fight. Superman declines. Green Lantern goes to find Superman to kick his ass, but right when he gets there some thieves are trying to rob a bank. Superman and Green Lantern team up to stop the robbery, and Green Lantern’s envy is mollified. But then the next day the newspaper says “Superman, Green Arrow foil bank robbery,” and Green Lantern is really mad.

Green Lantern’s girlfriend complains that he doesn’t do enough household chores. Green Lantern tries to use his power ring to do the chores, but he makes a terrible mess.

Green Lantern goes on vacation to the Carribean to forget about saving the world and stopping crime for a while. But while he’s there people keep coming up to him and asking him to help them solve their problems, and he returns to the United States even more tired and stressed than he was before.

Green Lantern messes up and aliens take over the world.

Green Lantern invites all the other superheroes to his birthday party, but they’re all busy.

Green Lantern’s brother calls and asks Green Lantern if he (the brother) can borrow some money. Green Lantern is in sort of a quandry, because he knows the brother lost all his money playing blackjack. He tells the brother he’ll give him the money if the brother demonstrates that he’s making an effort to address his gambling problem, e.g. by going to Gambler’s Anonymous meetings. The brother gets huffy and resentful and asks Green Lantern who he (Green Lantern) thinks he is to be telling the brother how to live his (the brother’s) life. “You’re not Dad, you know!” Green Lantern’s brother says. After that they don’t talk for a long time.

Some of the people who Green Lantern used to work with in his secret identity see pictures of him in his Green Lantern costume and recognize him. They call him up and take him out for a beer and tell him that his secret is safe with them. But one of them in particular has always been jealous of Green Lantern (even before he discovered that he was Green Lantern), and Green Lantern fears that this jealous ex-coworker is going to go to the newspapers with the information about Green Lantern’s secret identity. So Green Lantern has to deal with this somehow. Maybe he digs up some dirt on the guy and says, If you reveal my secret, I’ll reveal yours. Although that wouldn’t be very heroic.

Green Lantern starts taking piano lessons. It’s just something he’s always wanted to do.

Green Lantern realizes that he’s been doing things the hard way. He tells his power ring to figure out which are the most important situations that need to be addressed, and then just deal with them itself. The power ring turns out to be better at dealing with crime etc. than Green Lantern himself, and this makes Green Lantern depressed.

Green Lantern starts betting on sporting events, and he gets pretty deep into debt with a shady bookie. He wagers it all on one big sporting event, then uses his power ring to ensure victory for the team he bet on. It’s not clear how this one ends – if Green Lantern’s scheme is successful or not.

Green Lantern starts to think that, because he’s dependent on a power ring, he’s less of a man than Batman. So Green Lantern starts going out on patrol without his power ring, to see if he can succeed as a superhero with only his wits and his natural strength.

Green Lantern gets a high-speed Internet connection in his home for the first time. He becomes an avid reader of political blogs, and as a result his crimefighting suffers.


Anne Applebaum: "Tibet is to China what Algeria once was to France, what India once was to imperial Britain, what Poland was to czarist Russia: the most unreliable, the most intransigent, and at the same time the most symbolically significant province of the empire."


Fact-checking top music critics' assertions about digital audio file formats, second in a series: Sasha Frere-Jones writes:

I am using these posts to lead into a topic that I am going to beat senseless this year: the fidelity of digital files.... For instance, songs are burned onto traditional CDs in a format called AIFF.
This, I'm afraid, is totally false. Songs are burned onto traditional CDs in a format called Red Book. When those songs are extracted, losslessly, onto Mac computers (or a few others, such as Silicon Graphics workstations), they may take the form of AIFF files. Sasha: perhaps you should study up a little before starting in with the senseless-beating.


Talented comics people seem to be dying off faster than sympathetic corner boys on The Wire. Now comes word that Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens has died of leukemia, aged 52. Stevens was a craftsman of a kind they don't make much anymore: in love with his own idealized physical world and beautifully drawn line. As a teenage boy I had this poster up on my wall, for obvious reasons.


Quick hit of nostalgia: David Plotz lists his thirteen favorite scenes from The Wire. My all-time fave is number 11, but I'm not going to quote it here because it's a spoiler for season three. In the next post, Jeffery Goldberg adds "Clay Davis' magnificent turn on the witness stand earlier this season," which was indeed awesome.

Stuff White People Like weighs in:

If you need to impress a white person, tell them you are from Baltimore. They will immediately ask you about The Wire and how accurate it is. You should confirm that it is “like a documentary of the streets,” the white person will then slowly shake their head and say “man” or “wow.”
Entertainment Weekly has its own list of best moments. Slate links to recent radio interviews with cast members. And NYMag's Vulture blog has a shot-by-shot recap of the final montage.


Hendrik Hertzberg on how Obama should have responded to the Samantha Power "monstergate" flap:

Before people judge her I suggest they take a look at her book ‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide. It deserved the prizes it won—the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Arthur Ross Prize for the best book in U.S. foreign policy. You can’t read her firsthand reports on the horrors in Darfur without realizing that this is a woman of great moral and physical courage. She may be quick to anger, but here’s a news flash: nobody’s perfect. Samantha’s skills and expertise are a potentially valuable resource not just for this campaign but for our country. I’m not about to cast her into the outer darkness because of a single naïve and stupid instance of bad judgment.

Long, satisfying Terri Gross interview with The Wire's David Simon (web, iTunes). Spoilers for season five and previous seasons, but not for tonight's final episode.



Samantha Power is a Pulitzer Prize winning author, and a brilliant and original thinker and advocate for the intelligent deployment of American power in order to build a more just and humane world. But she's supporting Barack Obama, she made a gaffe, she promptly and rightly apologized, and then she resigned. And now this afternoon, the Clinton campaign has continued to push out Power-bashing material in order to prove, I guess, that there's nothing and nobody they won't try to destroy if they think that will provide them with some slender additional shot at getting themselves and their clique back in power.


I'm sure I'm not the first to make this point, but: Both of the campaign advisors who have caused trouble for Obama lately, Austan Goolsbee and Samantha Power, are young academics rather than seasoned political pros. I think it's great that Obama is bringing in new thinking on economics and foreign policy, and Goolsbee and Power are two of the smartest people alive. But can you imagine Robert Rubin or Madeleine Albright getting into one of these distracting messes?

Fun fact I learned from Goolsbee's Wikipedia page: he and Slate's Dahlia Lithwick were debate partners at Yale, and were national runners-up in 1990.


Parodies of David Foster Wallace are usually unsuccessful. Here is an exception. Scroll down to the bottom of the first page. [via Gawker]

James Fallows, who I think of as a pretty cool customer, is clearly furious at Hillary Clinton.

Today's best point about the fact that this primary campaign is going to go on forever comes from Matthew Yglesias:

Yesterday Josh Marshall had a complaint: "Let's note that Sen. McCain has decided to hang tough with his embrace of anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic Pastor John Hagee. And the major papers and cable news outlets have decided to give him a pass."

I've been Hagee-bashing since before it was cool, so this pisses me off, too. But realistically it's not the press and the cable networks that gave McCain a pass, it was Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. They gave him a pass because, of course, they were arguing with each other. For a little while during the Wisconsin-Texas interregnum, Obama did pivot in the direction of McCain and it gave Clinton the opportunity to smack him over the head with a frying pan. I assume neither campaign is going to make that mistake again until this thing is actually wrapped up. But that means that there'll be nobody effectively pressing the media with anti-McCain talking points. It also means that Clinton will continue re-enforcing whatever good lines of attack McCain comes up with against Obama, and if McCain starts delivering good anti-Clinton lines, Obama will probably start re-enforcing those, too.
In fact, of course, the primary campaign is not endless; it just feels that way.

Wikipedia edit of the day: Nicholson Baker's mom is a wikipedian as well.

Gary Gygax, the cocreator of Dungeons and Dragons, is dead. The obituaries seem to be identifying the game genre he invented as "a bridge between the noninteractive world of books and films and the exploding interactive video game industry," as the NYT put it, and that may be right from a historical perspective, but I don't think it captures the man's achievement.

For non-initiates it's hard to see past the sword-and-sorcery surface, but at its core D&D and the other role-playing games that followed are vehicles for imaginative play. Kids make up stories together all the time. Thanks to Gygax, my friends and I did it into our teens. I miss it.


TNR's Noam Scheiber, citing former Texas congressman Martin Frost, makes two points that suggest Texas is looking better for Obama than polls suggest. The first is this:

1.) Don't overlook early voting, which has been significant here. (More than one million people voted early in Texas, versus only 800,000 who voted here overall in 2004.) Unlike the February 5 states, the demographics of early voting seem to favor Obama. That means a chunk of his now-vanished lead in the polls has been locked in.
The same argument was made about Clinton before some of the earlier primaries, and it's based on a misunderstanding of how polls work. Pollsters take account of early voting by asking, "Who are you planning to vote for on Tuesday or, if you've already voted, who did you vote for?" So early voting doesn't change the math, and the later polls are more reliable predictors than earlier ones.

Scheiber's second point is a bit more cheering.


Nicholson Baker on "The Charms of Wikipedia."

Is Philip Roth having cybersex? Surely that's the implication of these remarks, from an interview with Der Spiegel:

SPIEGEL: You have email and don't use it?
Roth: I use it with one person, one person only, because I don't... I don't want to be bothered.
SPIEGEL: May we ask who the one person is?
Roth: One person. I have to have some fun.


William F. Buckley Jr., 1925-2008

More strange new respect for Bill Buckley, this time from James Kirchick at the Plank. Kirchick cites Buckley's famous riposte to Gore Vidal -- "Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered” -- in order, rather oddly, to praise Buckley for refraining from personal insults except in that one uncharacteristic instance.

I leave it to the reader to measure the distance between "you queer ... I'll sock you in your goddam face" and the remark I quoted yesterday: "I wonder how these self-conscious boulevardiers of protest would have fared if a platoon of American soldiers who have seen gore in South Vietnam had parachuted down into their mincing ranks?"

I'm sure Buckley was nice to black people too, even as he wrote things like this, in 1957:

The central question that emerges ... is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.
Buckley later said he regretted opposing civil rights legislation, and supported the establishment of a national holiday on the birthday of Martin Luther King. He changed his mind, in other words, after the battle had been fought, with him on the wrong side, just in time to be in the right on a matter of pure symbolism. He was by all accounts a charming and generous man, and he propagated a worldview that consisted largely of sympathy for the overdog. He was certainly more amusing and less odious than Sean Hannity or Dick Cheney, but that's a judgment that leaves a lot of room for odium. Now he's dead, and his decency and fairness are gone with him. What survives is the movement he built, which reflects not his personal manner but the actions he took and the positions he chose, and which stands athwart America, shouting Fuck you, you queers and blacks and poors! in language that Buckley used only in occasional slips but that expresses his meaning more than adequately.