Goodbye LiveJournal

Aug. 16th, 2010 | 10:04 pm

Consider forever dead. I am leaving it up as an archive, essentially, but this will be my last post ever.

I've moved. Please do follow me at the new location.

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Budapest Coffeehouses, 1900

Jul. 28th, 2010 | 01:57 pm

In Budapest "every intelligent person had spent a part of his youth in the coffeehouse . . . without that, the education of a young man would be imperfect and incomplete." -Jenõ Rákosi, 1926.

And, of course, John Lukacs:

In the history of Budapest the part played by coffee may have had more in common with the practice of Mediterranean countries than with those of Central Europe: with Italy, for example, where the most important literary journal in the eighteenth century bore the name Il Caffé. In the nineteenth century many literary intrigues or even political conspiracies were hatched in the coffeehouses of Europe, but I know of only one instance when a great national revolution literally started from a coffeehouse, from the Café Pilvax in Pest on the morning of March 15, 1848, Hungarian Independence Day. [. . .]

During the ten years before 1900 the number of coffeehouses in Budapest grew even faster than that of restaurants and taverns. Coffeehouses were opened in new places and new districts of the capital. What they offered (or, equally important, represented) had become attractive and available to people whose social lives had previously concentrated in other kinds of public places, taverns, pubs. For entire families they could serve as respectable, and relatively inexpensive, places for relaxation. In this respect their social function resembled that of an English or Irish pub: a neighborhood meeting place for relaxation and conviviality. [. . .]

They were inexpensive. One could sit for hours over a cup of coffee, with a glass of cold water frequently replenished by a boy-waiter, and avail oneself of a variety of local and foreign newspapers and journals hanging on bamboo racks. One could send or receive messages and letters from the coffeehouse. Free paper, pen and ink were available there. In this way the Budapest coffeehouse was more of a club than a pub. [. . .] At a particular table–their reservation was sacrosanct–this or that group of journalists, playwrights, or sculptors and painters would congregate, usually presided over by one or two leading figures. Many writers and journalists found the atmosphere of their Budapest coffeehouse so congenial that they repaired there for work, rather than for relaxation (or at least for a combination of both). Entire newspaper articles, at times entire short stories, chapters of a novel and a large part of the theater criticism were composed at the tables of the noisy, crowded coffeehouses of Budapest. In those frequented by journalist and writers the headwaiters (some of whom were celebrated for their knowledge of literature) kept sheaves of long white sheets of paper (called "dogs' tongues') available to any writer who chose to compose his article or essay there. These headwaiters were also sources of tips of the turf, of useful gossip, and–more useful to writers–of extension of credit as well as of occasional loans of petty cash.

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Come now, let us reason together

Jul. 13th, 2010 | 11:00 am
music: "The Spirit of Giving" by the New Pornographers

Jesus' demands always seem a little more than reasonable. Honestly, if he wasn't the Son of God, he was a little unhinged. And not exactly in a "Jesus the Original Gangsta" kind of way. More in a "You've got to be kidding" kind of way.

If you just get angry with your brother, you've murdered him. If you lust after a woman, you've committed adultery. If you say, "You fool!" you're liable to hellfire. Turn the other cheek. Actively help assholes take advantage of you. Love your enemies. Actively work not to be noticed when you act charitably. (and all that's just from two chapters of Matthew)

"And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but [Jesus] was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, 'Save us, Lord; we are perishing.' And he said to them, 'Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?' "

Jesus! That's just not fair. They're afraid because they're fishermen who know the difference between a little blow and a death-dealing tempest, and they're about to die. Cut them some slack!

"Another of the disciples said to him, 'Lord, let me first go and bury my father.' And Jesus said to him, 'Follow me, and leave the dead to bury own dead."

Jeeeeeesus! That's cold! Or I guess it would be if he weren't, you know, the God of the Universe.

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The New Pornographers

Jul. 12th, 2010 | 06:00 pm

I've been listening to gobs of the New Pornographers the last month in anticipation of the upcoming Tucson show in eight days. The tour is, interestingly, skipping over Phoenix in lieu of Tucson.

And can I say that this band is just fantastic?

I started out by listening to the new album (Together). It's quite good. I actually think my favorite song overall is "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk," Kathryn Calder's first turn at songwriting for the band, but my favorite part is that lead guitar line in "A Bite Out of My Bed." That whining, saxophone-like "naa-na-naaa-naaaa, naa-na-naaa-naaa" just kills me! And when it frames Neko's "Oh my darling! Oh my darling! Oh my heart!" Ack! I love it so much!

Then I revisted Mass Romantic, which remains my favorite album by leaps and bounds. Every song on that album is kick-ass, as the kids say, in its own way. If I were making a "Best Of" album for the New Pornographers, it would be a two-disc set. Disc 1 would be Mass Romantic.

Then I rounded out Electric Version, of which I only had a handful of tracks. Also really fantastic, has an edge the other albums mostly lack. I downloaded Twin Cinema yesterday. I don't think I'd heard more than one or two tracks on it. I've only listened through it once, so "good" is about as far as I can go on that.

Right this moment I'm listening to Challengers, which I haven't listened to in a couple years (since it came out, really). I think I underrated this album. I thoroughly enjoyed for a month or so after it came out, then pretty much forgot about it. It seemed lacking something on repeated listens. I wouldn't say I was wrong about that, but I do enjoy it much more than I recall.


In any case, any of you who are or will be within the reasonable neighborhood of Tucson a week from tomorrow really ought to come. The Dodos are opening, and they are quite good too (the linked tracks were on my 2008 and 2009 Favorite Songs playlists, and their 2008 debut album was an "Honorable Mention" in my 2008 best albums list).

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Summer heat, a truck, music, and books

Jul. 2nd, 2010 | 06:05 pm
music: "Forest Families" by the Knife

June is brutal. Temperatures hit 90's in the mid-morning and are up around 105º by the afternoon. The heat in a parking lot is astonishing. It has been monsoon season for a few weeks, technically speaking. There will not be any serious rain or storms until mid-July. In the late afternoon it clouds over as though about to rain, but it never does. Instead of cooling anything, the cloud cover lends a mugginess to the day and prolongs the heat well past dark.

I drove home from work with the windows down. It felt as though a giant hair-dryer were blowing into the car. Even so, blasting the Knife from my speakers with the windows down on a sickly hot afternoon is cathartic, exhilarating, relaxing. I enjoy this truck of mine, which at Chase's suggestion I might name Caractacus in honor not of Thomas Jefferson or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang but of Tracy Jordan. Silent Shout is one of my favorite albums.

I am going to grab a snack, make some iced coffee, listen to Broken Social Scene, and read Rock Springs. Speaking of reading, I recently finished The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. It is a very Russian and very good (though ultimately a little disappointing) interweaving of the stories of Dr. Faust and Pontius Pilate. Afterwards I read Everyman by Philip Roth, which is essentially a long essay on illness and death. It is as depressing as you might imagine and more disturbing than I had expected. I read it in two or three nights. The night I finished I lay in bed awake for over an hour. It is an empty story–a life emptied of meaning, I should say, and the kind of thing Roth excels at writing.

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Some Albums from 2010 (so far)

Jun. 26th, 2010 | 05:02 pm
music: "Bloodbuzz Ohio" by the National

Jack Hittinger–journalist, sportswriter, and Sad Bear–and I have put together a list of fifteen albums we've been listening to this year.  More specifically: five from me, five from him, and five from both of us. It's not actually a "best of"–more like a non-comprehensive list of what we've listened to. Please go check it out at the Sad Bear blog. Listen to the linked songs, tell us what you think, what we've missed, what we shouldn't have listened to, and so on. I'll be deeply offended if you don't.

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Mos Def

Jun. 25th, 2010 | 11:46 am
music: music, live music, mos def, god

"Hip Hop" by Mos Def with Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (a pre-performance run-through... check out the album version too).

My favorite rapper, one of the most intelligent people in music, a very talented lyricist. I've been listening to him again lately because of his guest appearances on the new albums by Gorillaz and the Roots. He's also a very underrated actor (see the Woodsmen). Since his first album with Talib Kwali and then his 1998 solo debut Black on Both Sides, he's made a couple mediocre albums and developed some eccentric highly stupid beliefs (note that in the last video he and Hitchens are competing in stupidity [Hitchens' anti-religious crusade and his delusions about his own lack of religion are more zealous and irrational than anything James Dobson has ever said]). But then there are plenty of smart, well-meaning people who believe very stupid things. I consider him smart and well-meaning if a little deluded. And after all he's a rapper not a politician or journalist. And, in any case, Black and the Ecstatic are phenomenal albums.


As a sample of Mos Def's really sharp mind, some of lyrics to the opening track, "Fear Not of Man,"  on the former album:

A lot of things going on y'all. Twenty-first century is comin', twentieth century almost done. A lot of things have changed.  A lot of things have not–mainly us.  But we gonna get it together, right? I believe that. Listen:

People be asking me all the time, 'Yo Mos, what's getting ready to happen with hip hop?' I tell 'em, 'You know what's gonna happen with hip hop? Whatever's happening with us. If we smoked out, hip hop is gonna be smoked out. If we doin' alright, hip hop is going to be doin' alright. People talk about hip hop like it's some giant living in the hillside comin' down to visit the townspeople. We are hip hop. Me, you, everybody. We are hip hop. So hip hop is goin' where we're goin'. So the next time you ask yourself where hip hop is going, ask yourself, "Where am I goin'? How am I doin'?' till you get a clear idea.

So, if hip hop is about the people, and hip hop won't get better till the people get better, then how do people get better? Well, from my understanding people get better when they start to understand that they are valuable, and they're not valuable because they got a whole lot of money or cause somebody think they sexy, but they valuable cause they've been created by God. And God makes you valuable. And whether or not you recognize that value is one thing.

You got a lot of societies and governments trying to be God, wishing that they were God. They want to create satellites and cameras everywhere, make you think they got the all-seeing eye. Eh, I guess the Last Poets wasn't too far off when they said that certain people got a God complex. I believe it's true. I don't get phased out by none of that, none of that helicopters, the TV screens, the newscasters, the satellite dishes. They just wishin'. They can't never really do that. When they tell me to fear their law, when they tell me to try to have some fret in my heart behind the things that they do, this is what I think in my mind, and this is what I say to them, and this is what I'm saying to you, check it:

All over the world hearts pound with the rhythm / Fear not of men because men must die / Mind over matter and soul before flesh / Angels hold the pin keep a record in time / which is passin' and runnin' like a caravan trader / The world is overrun with the wealthy and the wicked / but God is sufficient in disposal of affairs. / Gunmen and stockholders try to merit my fear / but God is sufficient over plans they've prepared / Mos Def in the flesh / Where you at? Right here / on this place called earth...

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The Case for Asking Better Questions

Jun. 19th, 2010 | 02:54 pm

A rule of thumb in the study of history is that you usually find what you're looking for, and the questions you ask largely define the answers you get. I like the basic conclusion of Bryan Caplan's essay in the Wall Street Journal ("The Case for Having More Kids"). It's Caplan's basic premise that disturbs me.

Caplan is an economist at George Mason, and you can see the concept of self-interest splashed across his essay. He well displays why I revile extending economic arguments into all aspects of daily life and using economic theories as the basis for life decisions. The questions his article asks are extraordinarily selfish (enlightened self-interest here, as in many places, looking extraordinarily like brutish selfishness), and thus some of the conclusions of the article are strikingly inhumane and coldly deterministic.

He asks, will kids make you more happy? How much effort need you put into parenting? What kind of an economic payback can you expect from your children? The answers are in hilariously precise percentages: all things being equal, your first child is likely to reduce your chances of being "very happy" by 5.6%, but every child after that only reduces that by about 0.6%. Further, there tends to be very little "buyer's remorse" among parents (only 9%!).

Most parents' stress and misery, he suggests, stems directly from the idea that their parenting has a decisive effect on their children's success and happiness and decisions. As it turns out, he says, parenting has no such effect. Kids turn out the way they do regardless of nurture. In studies of separated twins and adopted children, different parenting techniques, neighborhoods, cultures, environments, etc. have negligible effects on a child's life-long happiness and success. In other words, since you can't really affect your child's life all that much, relax!

It's this last point that the article emphasizes most strongly, and it's also the one with a couple of horrifying implications. One of these he directly addresses. It is specifically related to child-rearing, and I'll mention it in a moment. But the basic concept also has a general implication about society as a whole, and about the differences between the wealthy and the poor, between the successful and the failures.

Q: Why is inner-city Baltimore a mess of poverty, drug abuse, broken families, and monumental, life-long losers?
A: Not environment, not culture, not socio-economic factors pressing in from above and outside. The answer is not that these neighborhoods are cancerous and corrupting, but that the residents in them are losers and drug-abusers. That's the way they are, and no one can change it, so drop your inner-city programs, forget housing developments or experimental education methods, forget church work, forget 12-steps. You can take the thug out of the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto out of the thug. Caplan more or less expresses the same logic as the most bigoted and racist comments underneath the Root's recent article on "black-on-black violence."

Bryan Caplan would no doubt protest that I'm taking his conclusions out of context or abusing them. I'm equally sure a bigot's response to Mr. Caplan would be "Too bad Caplan, the data says what is says, no matter how inconveniently. Your data supports those conclusions even if you never thought of them." Of course, the data doesn't say anything at all. Data has no inherent internal logic. It does not speak for itself. We give it voice, and Caplan's voice here is (unintentionally) horrifying.

The giveaway is this passage, in which he addresses the specific implications regarding parenting: "Critics often attack behavioral genetics with a reductio ad absurdum: 'If it doesn't matter how you raise your kids, why not lock them in a closet?' The answer is that twin and adoption studies measure the effect of parenting styles that people frequently use. Locking kids in closets fortunately isn't one of them."

The real answer, of course, is that the studies only studied commonly accepted parenting styles, and this is quite different from their claim to study frequently employed ones. Child abuse in varied forms occurs far more often than Caplan apparently realizes, but obviously chronic child abusers were not studied. In most states there are laws that require some people to report such abuse to the police, and I doubt these researchers were disinterestedly observing beatings or burnings or regular verbal abuse. So essentially they studied parents with more or less the same basic good intentions in parenting, yet they still think that this particular selection proves that parenting in general has a negligible effect on children.

Beyond that, the studies used relatively unusual circumstances (twins separated at birth and adoptions) to support much broader conclusions. The underlying assumption is that these particular examples provide valid proof for the general ratio of nature to nurture in human development. The truth of that assumption determines the validity of the research, but its truth cannot be argued with their data.

A still deeper assumption underlies not only this article but also the entire enterprise of expressing human behavior in scientific laws. Caplan asks, "Are we determined by genetics or environment?" Obviously he has never asked, "Are we determined?"

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"Texico Bitches" by Broken Social Scene

Jun. 17th, 2010 | 11:52 pm

On Fallon June 15.  Better than the album version, I say.  If you want to hear the second song, "Meet Me in the Basement," that's here.

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"Knowing the Future by Studying the Past"

Jun. 15th, 2010 | 02:49 pm
music: "Vanderlye Crybaby Geeks" by the National

That is the somewhat misleading motto of Delta Pi Ni, the American Studies Honorary at Hillsdale College, though in a different context it could also have come out of Glenn Beck's mouth. Of course, there are different ways of saying–or acting upon–that statement. One can mean, as I believe the DPN statement implies, that to have any idea about where you are going, you must know where you are, and to know where you are, you must know your history. Mark Twain is supposed to have said (and if he did say it, my great respect for him only increases), "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme." I completely agree with that rendering of the statement, and I largely agreed with DPN's purpose and mission.

Or one can, as Beck does and far too many people do, brutally force historical events into some sort of abstract model, some kind of case study, some kind of object lesson. This is the social sciences approach, the attempt to quantify and categorize the inherently uncategorizable. 

To turn a historical event into an abstraction, one must eliminate context, and once you've done that the thing you have in your mind is no longer a historical event. The problem with abstract lessons is that they aren't real. They might be helpful at times, and they often provide a comforting illusion of stability or predictability to our lives and our histories, but they aren't reality. They are merely models of reality, models invented by men and thus subject to man's fallibility.

As I have written here before, the past is not a rear-view mirror in our windshield of the future. It is, rather, all we see and all we know. You can't know the future. You can't predict it based on scientific reasoning. You can only project current trends into the future, and trends are subject to change. We live in a vale of ignorance as much as tears, and if that seems just the slightest bit terrifying, well, it should be.


Timothy Garton Ash writes:

In 1965 Konrad Adenauer chose to introduce his memoirs with a wry account of a conversation with an historian. This unnamed 'Professor of Modern History at a German University' was asked by Adenauer how he imagined things would develop. He replied that this was not his task. Historians were not prophets. Adenauer said that he had a different view of the historian's task. Historians should at least attempt to recognise in what direction history might be heading. They should point to probable developments, 'and perhaps warn.'

In the more than quarter-century since Adenauer wrote those lines, a few historians but far more political scientists, policy intellectuals and specialists in International Relations, Sovietology and Security Studies have taken up the challenge. On the whole, and with a few notable exceptions, their forecasts, predictions or models have not fared well in the light of what happened in Europe in the years 1989 to 1991. . . . For the end of Soviet communism and of the Cold War posed the largest questions to those disciplines, or branches of disciplines, that made some claim to quasi-scientific prediction.

Most historians make no such methodological claims. Some would agree with E.H. Carr that they should at least have in their bones the question 'whither?' as well as the question 'why?' Others would dispute even that. Yet in his wry way, Adenauer identified a real problem. It is surely reasonable and right for politicians to ask historians to make informed personal guesses–so long as everyone clearly recognises that they are just that: personal guesses. These guesses are related to the history they write, but separable from it. The history may be good but the guesses bad–or even vice versa. . . . [These guesses] can be overtaken by events in a way that the historical analysis cannot be.  For the one thing historians can confidently predict is surprises.

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