Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Technology, or Not

As I contemplate transforming a traditional, classroom-based history course into an online course, I was impressed by this op-ed on technology in the humanities from the Chronicle of Higher Education. It's not programmatic, but it is fairly thoughtful and more importantly it adopts, vis a vis technology, the optimistic skepticismthat I think should form the core of a humanist's intellectual life - and which distinguishes us from "them," those who unapologetically and unreflectively advocate technology as the be-all and end-all.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Box Office? Try the Liability Office

Amazing: Edward Jay Epstein's look at the behind-the-scenes impact of insurance on movie-making. Nicole Kidman, for instance, is almost uninsurable due to her bum knee:
Kidman injured her right knee during the filming of Moulin Rouge in Australia in 2000, which resulted in two claims for delays and a $3 million insurance loss. In 2001, she quit Panic Room after three weeks of shooting because of her knee, a decision that almost resulted in the entire production being canceled and a $54 million insurance claim. Fortunately for the insurer, the producers decided to continue with a replacement actress, Jodie Foster. Still, they had to pay $7 million for the delay and additional expenses. As a result of all these claims, Kidman's acting career was in limbo.
(The book from which this piece was drawn sounds fascinating, too: The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood.)

What really interests me, in the Slate piece, is the power exerted by private firms - the insurers - over the behavior of other firms (the movie companies) and individuals (the actors, among others). Though movie-making is clearly an extraordinary case of corporate power at work, it points in the direction of a topic which I think is woefully underexamined in contemporary culture: the invasive powers enjoyed by companies over citizens. I'd argue that companies are far more dangerous to our civil liberties than any government, even the federal. Getting crossed up by the feds is unlikely, for the average Joe or Jane. Being harmed by, say, a credit agency, an insurer, a credit-card vendor, or the phone-cable-internet company is not only more likely, but very difficult to effectively rectify. Surveillance by the FBI: unlikely. Surveillance by mall security: certain.

(Article tip from Gulfstream.)


Mmm, pretty: an exhibition of Marimekko fabrics and such at the Rochester Art Center. No word on whether any of the items are Marimekko scrubs for the Mayo Clinic doctors. (More on Marimekko, including some great examples of the company's stuff.)

Market Creep

Two skirmishes on the anti-commercialism front:

1. The rise and purpose of "sourcing" magazines like Lucky, Cargo, and Domino, members of the immensely profitable and popular "magalog" category which is concerned "shamelessly, unapologetically, how-to-buy; it’s stuffed with 'actionable' suggestions, to use a term that marketers swiped from the legal profession. In the magalog, the how-to-buy and the aspiration merge."

2. The non-profit organization Commercial Alert's attempt to get broadcasters to inform us when shows are so heavily laden with product placements that they are, in fact, actually advertisements. In a move which will surely be followed by attemps to get him shitcanned, a member of the Federal Communication Commission has endorsed CA's initiative.

Menage a Fraud

Minneapolis and St. Paul are endowed with amazing histories, almost on a par with Chicago or New York. With a year off, I'd read everything I could on the Twin Cities (and, yes, the parasitical suburbs) and write a short history of 'em. The story of Louis Menage, real-estate developer and swindler, would be a prominent part of the section on the City of Lakes in the Gilded Age. Thank god nothing so unseemly happens nowadays here in the Mill City. Right, Mr. Pohlad? Right?

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Chicken's Tsao General

In the corner of the Chinese food restaurant where I had lunch, a sign asks customers to take only as many utensils and condiments as they will use. "This will ensure [the sign says] that the low prices and quality of our food will continue."


Scholarship Causing Politics

Instead of Rightist notions about hippie crypto-communists flocking to the academy to subvert our youth, it may be that the act of scholarly inquiry encourages thinking liberally. For the historian Jeffrey L. Pasley, studying the origins and functions of Social Security has led him to more vigorously support it as an institution and a pillar of our society, largely because "Social Security was phenomenally successful in making the formerly chronic problem of widespread dependence and indigence among the elderly a distant memory for most Americans." It's an inspiring piece of writing, one which by rights should have a heavy impact on the current debates about academic freedom and the politics of scholarship.

Back from the Blogosphere Dead

With some recent scholarly activity now over and done, I can get back to blogging. Whew.

I'll lead off with this piece of trivia that Claude Monet, after having cataract surgery when he was 82, may have been able to see ultraviolet light. It's a rare condition in humans, but one which can occur after damage to or replacement of the lens, which filters UV light before it reaches the pupil.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

21st Century, Here I Come!

With this post, I have officially joined the Real Internet World: I now have broadband access to the Internets. It's DSL, not cable, but still... It's much faster than dial-up! Was I the only person to be downloading iTunes tracks over a 56k modem? I was?

Monday, May 16, 2005

Go to Hel - vetica

I love reading about obscure topics which inspire deeply-felt emotion and careful reasoning. Like, for instance, fonts. Apparently Arial is a sucky font, much the inferior of Helvetica. I didn't know this, but now I do. And I will not use Arial again. Except in blogs, where I have to do so.

Saturday, May 14, 2005


We met some friends for coffee at a cafe on Grand Avenue in St. Paul this aftenroon, and they pointed out that the storefront which had until recently been the home of Ruminator Books was apparently being remodeled to serve as a Patagonia outdoor-equipment store. Progress, I guess. As the Hungry Mind, Ruminator was the place where I discovered Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon's books, bought virtually every one of my hundreds of course books over my four years at Macalester, went on one of my first dates with Shannon, and spent hundreds of hours browsing then-copiously stocked shelves. Alas and alack. Maybe Patagonia will comp me a nice polarfleece as partial compensation for the memories...

Red Bull(sh*t?)

I came across this account of Red Bull's anti-marketing marketing while trying to convince myself to buy a can of the apparently disgusting beverage. The research didn't have that effect, but I did learn a quite a bit about the secretive, highly successful company. Rob Walker, who writes great stuff for the New York Times every week, is great at pointing out the paradoxes and inner emptiness of much modern marketing, and those skills come in handy when examining an elixir like Red Bull. As I read, I thought that Red Bulls sounds less and less like a contemporary product - Coke, Fords, Levis, whatever: a good with a kernel of real value and a halo of notional ones - and more and more like some exotic item coveted by a 16th-century burgher who had no real knowledge of its characteristics - say, coffee, which was considered a medicine, a stimulant, an aphrodisiac, and a poison. Everything old is new again? Perhaps. Or maybe just a demonstration that trade has always depended as much on myth and hearsay as on actual knowledge of the good, economistic notions of rational consumers or perfect information aside.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Funny Stuff

My friend and co-blogger over at After School Snack just got a humor piece published on McSweeney's - no small accomplishment! Congratulations, Matt! Today, McSweeney's, tomorrow UPN!

How Lynne Cheney Might Critique My Infant Daughter's Book Collection, part 3

The Rainbow Fish
A disgusting aqautic parable about the putative value of socialistic "sharing." Intended to erode faith in the real and psychological worth of private property and engender hatred of the affluent. Wealth-redistribution scheme hatched by shadowy octopus mastermind.

Kitten for a Day
Uses a puppy's mistaken capers with kittens to provide a refreshing reminder of the inherent strength of natural orders. At climax of narrative, puppy's stay-at-home mother provides strong moral guidance for young dog.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar
A charmingly illustrated, pleasingly concise paean to the transformative power of free and open consumption. Description of fifth day's feast appropriately cautionary, but denouement of story reaffirms the value of consumption. Redeems author for Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Blog Music Quiz, pt. 2

D. A Couple Artists I Think More People Should Listen To
1. The Shins. I know they're semi-big now with the Garden State soundtrack and all that, but they should be bigger. Bigger than Jesus, even.
2. The Bad Plus. As previous items may have indicated, I have a small degree of attraction to this incredible jazz band. Just download a couple of their songs from the iTunes Music Store and see how good they are.

E. Four Albums You Must Hear From Start to Finish
1. Radiohead, OK Computer. This is almost the last time I'll mention this one. If you don't listen to it, well, this is my final fit. My final bellyache.
2. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. Ditto.
3. Charles Mingus, Mingus Ah Um. Oh, boy. You better get hit in yo' soul.
4. Wilco, Summerteeth. "There's something in my veins/That's bloodier than blood." Maybe it's heroin, or maybe it's the most cohesive Wilco album.

F. Top Five Musical Heroes
1. Kurt Cobain. The Byron of my generation, only without the going-to-war part. Just about anything on In Utero gives me shivers now that he's dead dead dead.
2. Janne Sibelius. A great Finn and a great composer, if not on the Beethoven level.
3. Charles Mingus. A powerful personality, a fantastic composer, and an iconoclast worth emulating - especially w/r/t musical grunts.
4. Radiohead. A group that defies every trend they care to and makes my favorite rock music. They hate George Bush, too.
5. I have to save one spot for someone to emerge in the future, right? Plus, I don't know enough about Dylan.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

How Lynne Cheney Might Critique My Infant Daughter's Book Collection, part 2

Baa! I'm a Sheep
A dull, predictable exercise in liberal identity politics, devoid of any sense that the cow is a member of a natural hierarchy and owes ultimate allegiance to larger nation of barnyard animals. Sheep squeaks (not baas) when pressed.

Moo! I'm a Cow
Ibidem. Includes drawings of pink sheep, clearly intended to advance the homosexual ovine agenda.

Oink! I'm a Pig
Ibidem, albeit with blatant anti-semitic overtones.

Neigh! I'm a Pony
Not read. Title suggests that book may propose knee-jerk contrarianism even in the face of widespread pastoral consensus around the president's goals.

Blog Music Quiz, pt. 1

Along with Elise, I've been tagged by Travis at Now More Than Ever to play the blog music quiz (thanks!), which is more like an opinion poll than a quiz but still. Elise will presumably play at After School Snack. My choices, all of which are utterly unquestionable and in eminently good taste will follow in this and other posts.

A. Top Five Lyrics that Move Your Heart
1.Uncle Tupelo, "Watch Me Fall," from Still Feel Gone
For when you're pissed off and/or disenheartened. Like after grad school.

"Some folks find that their role in life
Is to fail at everything they try
While other folks see
But not like me
There's one thing that they're damn good at
Gather around you all
Come around and see
Those who stand tall
Why don't you please watch me fall"

2. Radiohead, "No Surprises," from OK Computer
For when you're really pissed off and/or disenheartened and/or sad. For some reason, this is the first song I listened to when celebrating passing my dissertation defense.

"I'll take a quiet life
A handshake of carbon monoxide
With no alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises please"

3. Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto, "Girl from Ipanema," from Getz/Gilberto
There's no better musical interpretation of longing and lust. Astrud Gilberto's voice and phrasing are so tropically unrequited.

"Tall and tan and young and lovely
The girl from Ipanema goes walking
And when she passes he smiles
But she doesn't see.
She just doesn't see.
No, she doesn't see..."

4. Liz Phair, "Stratford-on-Guy," from Liz Phair
This brilliantly and beautifully captures the weird here-but-nowhere sense I get when flying - and I've flown into Chicago at night quite a bit.

"I was flying into Chicago at night
Watching the lake turn the sky into blue-green smoke
The sun was setting to the left of the plane
And the cabin was filled with an unearthly glow
The stewardess came back and checked on my drink
In the last strings of sunlight, a Bridgette Bardot
There's a hat on my headphones
Along with those eyes that you get
When your circumstance is movie size"

5. Hank Williams, "Lonesome Whistle (I Heard That)"
Maybe Hank's most maudlin and even melodramatic song, but still - the man could sing.

"All alone I bear the shame
I'm a number not a name
I heard that lonesome whistle blow
All I do is sit and cry
When the ev'nin' train goes by
I heard that lonesome whistle blow."

B. Top 5 Instrumentals
As a jazz fan, this one's easy:
1. Miles Davis, "So What," from Kind of Blue. The best jazz song ever.
2. Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach, "Wig Wise," from Money Jungle. The second-best jazz song ever.
3. Bill Evans "Autumn Leaves [Take 1]," from Portrait in Jazz. My all-time favorite trio playing at its best. (See my take on this tune about midway down this long archived post.)
4. Brad Mehldau, "Song Song," from Art of the Trio: Songs, vol. 3. A devastatingly slow and melancholy song.
5. Charles Mingus, "Peggy's Blue Skylight," from Oh Yeah. Features an unforgettable riff.

Rather than an instrumental per se, my last choice is a tie between two fantastic rock-to-end-the-world guitar solos:
6. Uncle Tupelo, "Chickamauga," from Anodyne
6. Wilco, "At Least That's What You Said," from A Ghost Is Born

C. Top 5 Live Musical Experiences
I haven't seen that much live music in my day, really, but here are four shows I think about quite a bit and two headphones-on experiences:

1. Uncle Tupelo at First Avenue in Minneapolis, 1994/1995 (?). A great show on their last tour, supporting Anodyne. I watched part of the opening act standing an arm's length from Jay Farrar, whom I worshipped as a god.

2. Brad Mehldau Trio at Dakota Bar at Grill in St. Paul, 2002. The first set, which my friend Kris and I paid to see, was really great, and then they let us sit in the back of the restaurant to listen to the second set for free. Well, if we bought drinks, which wasn't exactly a crushing burden. Watching the trio interact was the best part of the night, which is saying something since the music was out of this world.

3. The Bad Plus at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, 2004. I had to go to this show by myself, but it turned out I was about ten feet away from Ethan Iverson's piano and Dave King's drumkit. Watching King play one song with the antennae of two turned-on baby monitors was the highlight, but hearing them rip shit up with songs like "And Here We Test Our Powers Of Observation" was pretty choice, as Elise might say.

4. Wilco at Navy Pier in Chicago, 1995 (?). They were playing as part of a beer festival, so the crowd was plenty soused, and it turned out we could have gotten in for free, but they played a hell of a show even if Tweedy largely ignored his Uncle Tupelo output in favor of increasingly weird Wilco stuff.

5. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, and Radiohead, OK Computer. Two great late-night/headphones-on albums that will make you feel real, real funny inside.

Monday, May 09, 2005

How Lynne Cheney Might Critique My Infant Daughter's Book Collection, part 1

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
A trite, liberal attempt to demonstrate the value of outmoded 20th century relativism. Lacks any sense of the importance of hierarchy and a natural order, though even a child understand that teachers ought to have control over students, humans over animals, and white dogs over purple cats. Titular animal well-known as symbol of evil Russian/communist empire.

Olivia's Opposites
A primer on liberal obstructionism and reflexively oppositional thinking. Porcine protagonist also emobodies virulent anti-semitism. When she is not wearing hammer-and-sickle red, she also frequently appears lewdly underclad or obscenely unclad. Author also works for cryto-communist magazine, the New Yorker.

Love and Kisses
Truly nauseating argument in favor of free love, especially between species. By tracing chain of kisses from "you" to "your cat" through a series of animals (giggling goose, horse, surprised dog) and back to "you," suggests that promiscuity will have positive outcomes: "Smooch and smack/You'll have your love and kisses back." Con: No mention of STDs. Pro: no mention of birth control.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Sealed Up

Life's intercessions have caused the light blogging lately here (though check out After School Snack), but in some travel guides to Finland, I discovered Finland's native species of seal, the Saimaa ringed seal, which merits blogging for sheer weirdness and for cool coloration. Slowing backing away from the brink of extinction in the Saimaa chain of lakes in southeast Finland, the Saimaa seals have been living inland for 8000 years, since water connections between the Saimaa lakes and the Baltic Sea were lost after the last Ice Age. They're pretty remarkable creatures, and full of that Finnish sisu - they'd have to be, to give birth every February in a den on the ice...

Friday, May 06, 2005

You can't spell "essay" without "easy"

It appears that the much-vaunted essay on the new SAT is pretty much useless as far as assessing writing or critical-thinking skills. According to an MIT researcher, the longer the essay, the higher the score, even when the longer essay contains factual errors. I can't wait to try and teach writing to students whose previous exposure to expository writing was entirely oriented to writing SAT essays.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005


Grade-grubbing by undergrads is one springtime tradition I don't miss. It's so unpleasant and so fraught with larger issues - the student's inability to accomplish the assigned course tasks, my own ambivalence about my standards and skills, the sheer discomfort caused by another's begging (or threatening)... Much of this is captured in this meditation on the subject.