Books | Art | Critical Theory | Music | New York

Does anyone want to split a subscription to TimesSelect with me? I've lost a hunk of good time-passing reading material for work when the New York Times stopped publishing the opinion columns for free online. Funny how the Internet makes one feel as if they have an intrinsic right to free access to any kind of information. In the end, it's a good thing, and why those authors suing Google for its mission of digitizing the world's libraries are, in my opinion, incorrect. While they say they're insulating the creativity of writers by protecting copyrights, aren't they really gouging the boundless opportunity of having one's writing available to anyone, at any time? Certainly there the question of how the writers will get paid. But it isn't as if Google is handing out all this information; they have a good system in place. Still, how long can this corporate system remain effective? There are now self-publishing houses, and bands that gain a wide listening audience and showing up on critics top ten lists, without even have a label. What would happen if those bands demanded that their music be removed from peoples' hands because they wanted to put it through some antiquated corporate system? Obviously, they'd rather have people listening. They'd rather have that information available to anyone.

It's mind-boggling to consider the possibilities of having all information centralized and accessible. Things like Google Earth make it possible for one to travel via satelite photographs anywhere in the world. Eventually the detail will be impeccable, and one will have the ability to virtual-travel anywhere in the world. At some point, all of this would cause us to run up against the basic fact of our physical bodies, our physical limits. If one can know anything and see anything virtually, the limits of perception and experience will come into relief. Our minds can't keep up, we can't know everything. Of course, people have always understood that, but there have always been limits to how we experience and record information. What if all that experience is available instantly? All information? It's like a parabola opening out exponentially into infinity--equally parts intoxicating and frightening. Nothing will ever replace our basic sensory experience, a conversation with somebody over tea and madeleine cookies. But with all of these blogs and podcasts and things, it does feel a bit like the world is exploding.

Sheesh. And all I wanted was to read was Paul Krugman.

The weather finally got cooler, and I'm amazed at my mood. I walked home and was genuinely happy, which has been hard to do when it's hot and I'm wearing a dress shirt. The novelty of wearing a tie has, by now, worn off.

I went to Bloomington, Indiana this past weekend to attend Lotus, the annual international music festival. Seu Jorge was the highlight, playing inventive and lively brazilian-inflected acoustic guitar music. You might recognize him from The Life Aquatic or City of God. He was also incredibly cool and spoke terrible English quite earnestly. At one point, he lodged his cigarette in the tuning pegs and played through an entire song.

There was a really excellent Trad Irish group called Teada, and a trio of Frenchman called Samarabalouf who played "gypsy jazz" with an upright bass, lead and rhythm guitars, and who played their intruments as if they were making love to them, in true Frenchman fashion. The bassist's human-sized instrument was especially accosted, and he ran his fingers and hands down the length of the strings while looking mischevious and creating really fascinating sounds. They also spoke English terribly and earnestly.

I have yet to unpack. My room is feeling quit small at the moment. On the bright side, I have to clean up a lot more often, i.e. I'm becoming a more fastidious person. Is this a bright side? For now, I'm reveling in the fact that I can open my window and it becomes cooler instead of hotter.

Nick and I just watched Crash and I am rubbing the bump on my head, which the place where the movie beat me repeatedly. Yes, it is about questioning our prejudices and staring them in the face and all irrefutable goals which one wouldn’t think to question, but I can’t begin to believe that the way to move past racism and prejudice is by making heavy-handed stories which are melodramatic and which make one feel exceedingly guilty. In fact, just the opposite: one needs a light heart and humor. I believe that the best way to discourage something is to refuse to indulge it, to pay it no attention, to act, if necessary, as if nothing about it is interesting at all, even if it’s not the case. In other words, look through the thing and see the much better thing beyond it, to illuminate that other thing. It’s a matter of focus, from scolding the bad thing to encouraging the good thing.

The film’s entire schematics rested on exaggerated racial tensions which were put into high relief against “post 9/11 Los Angeles” in a series of interconnecting stories. But this merely gives those tensions more room to exercise themselves, to grow and take shape. True, there were some compelling scenes and genuine relationships, notably between the black couple who get pulled over near the beginning. But in the end, exaggerating and forcing the racial tensions adds fuel to the fire, when we ought to be letting it wither and slip through the cracks.

The movie had good intentions, and I'm not suggesting that we repress latant or present racial prejudices. What I'm suggesting is that the way to deal with them requires more nuance, and more good humor.

I realized yesterday that it takes about 7 minutes to walk to Central Park from my apartment, and on any given Sunday you can expect lawns scattered with frolicking dogs, strollers with wheels that are increasingly absurdly large, smoking hipsters, earnest, frowning scholars, old men in brown hats, couples in canoes, athletic men hopping over each other like gymnasts for show, Sunday-times-reading businessmen, friends in circles at a picnic, sand volleyball players, religious ceremonies replete with sitar music, games of ultimate frisbee, engaged people from foreign countries taking their wedding photos, gray-haired men who play chess on stone tables, which look over into a park from a high-standing veranda, and quartets playing jazz for new families who want to educate their three-year-old son, so they hold his hands over his head and bounce him around like he’s dancing.

Really, it’s any day with Sun that inspires this symphony of behavior.

I sat on a sloped lawn in the partial shade and read a poorly-translated Japanese novel (the writing in English is barely serviceable and I know it’s a good book, so I’m inferring) by Banana Yoshimito called N.P., which stands for “North Point” and which is about young people who meet, discover their mutual, secret love for this rare book of stories (also titled N.P.), and metaphorically relive its legacy of secrecy and suicide, only to triumph in the healing message of the final story. Despite the translation, there is an almost adolescent happiness/sadness conjoinment to the writing that makes it perfect for a Sunday, in which one feels happy for the sun and melancholy for the nostalgia of a lost afternoon. On weekends one is unusually, closely aware of the passing of time, and in some instances it’s a feeling that the time is draining away. For me, it brings me back to the memory and nostalgia of adolescence, that “riotous country” from which there’s “a type of cultural news that can be delivered only by those who’ve recently crossed over”, as Jay McInery wrote in the times a while ago, describing Benjamin Kunkel’s novel Indecision. In any case, it’s fun to remember those days, and read about characters who still live with the up/down intensity of their gravity. When one’s emotional life and aesthetic concerns are the center of the world. I’ll never stop romanticizing that time, and it’s the reason why I am prone to sentimentality, and why I listen to Tilly and the Wall (who are a band that sing about teenage love and adventure, with a woman who tap dances for percussion), and find myself agreeing earnestly with the urgency of their affections (rather than merely observing them).

All of this to say in reminder to myself: get out of the apartment on the weekends and visit the most completely happy place in New York, because you live under ten minutes walk away; and, now is the time of life to pretend like you’re still seventeen. Because later, it’s going to seem a little bit absurd.

Max and I went to The Knitting Factory last night to see Feist, as apart of the CMJ festival. The first band that we saw play was called "Flipsyde", and I have been struggling to remember a time when I saw a worse band. They are, nevertheless, signed to Interscope. Comprised of an average DJ, a barely servicable rapper, a beefy crew cut guy who couldn't play guitar, and a guy who looked like Santana (and served the same purpose: mostly predictable lead guitar coming over the track and the most predictable times. Imagine "Smooth" all over again, but no talent). But the lyrics, you say, they must have saved it! The first song was called Flipsyde (a caveat: when a band mispells their own name on purpose, you can be fairly sure that such uninspired "cleverness" is going to be the extent of their innovation--see Puddle of Mudd, Staind, etc.), and was mostly pointless. Then the crew cut guy sang something called "Patroit" very earnestly, and kept poorly strumming the same boring chords. The next song was called "God Bless America" sung without a hint of irony, so we went back into the lobby to get another drink.

Next up was "The Lovemakers", who were better but not great. Your typical 80s ripoff drenched in dramatic sexualized energy, i.e. the two lead singers began making out onstage while playing a song, which was riveting but mostly gross. They felt like suburban kids who put on makeup and tried out S & M, and the girl singing kept dragging herself around the stage and making contorted faces and generally acting like she was in a constant state of orgasm. It became banal rather quickly. Also, Ty had something good to say about The Lovemakers' on-stage PDA:
"I mean, come on, The Strokes don't get up their and stroke themselves; The Killers don't live up to their name; The Walkmen; The Bravery; no one actually tries to do just what their name says...Bastards."

Everthing changed when Feist came on. The air was different. She was all mystery and suggestion, the opposite of the act before. She has bangs that start way back on her head and fall at the perfect length in front of her eyes, which are big and brown. She was clever and gently self-effacing, and used big words, and sang whimsical Parisian-sounding jazzy rock, and had a red eyemask around her neck like a pair of spectacles.

We were also privileged to hear a brand new Broken Social Scene song that she played, even though she wasn't "supposed to". She sang on their last record. I recommend picking up her release Let it Die. The first half are original songs, and the last half demonstrate an impeccable taste in covers. It's very well put together, a great album to put on in the afternoon as the sun is bronzing the sides of buildings or setting fire to the tops of trees, whatever the case may be where you happen to live. More to come of the CMJ festival.

I spent the day yesterday, which began when I woke up at 1:30, lying around with a general feeling of disuse and inoccupancy. As with the other variously empty Sundays of life, which I tried to fill with all manner of periodicals and books and food and browsing the Internet, I mostly felt like I needed to get out of my head (or apartment) and lose the self-centric perspective.

Even though half of what I read yesterday tangentially surrounded the four year anniversay of that incomprehensible morning, I managed to go until 11 or so at night before I realized how utterly unaware I was of the fact that it was, indeed, a day in which I ought to be doing a lot less thinking about my own emotions and a lot more thinking about what has happened in the last four years.

I don't have much to say because I feel without the right to say anything, but I did do some thinking about it today. When did this way change from a war against terrorism to a "war against terror"? In other words, when did we lose sight of an empirical, real battle against physical people and specific acts, and when did we get caught up in a battle which can never be demonstrated as won? When did we drop the -ism?

What I can't get away from is that we are in a country that is in a climate still dictated by fear, which is, of course, the method by which terrorism itself operates--to commit a violent act on a few which reverberates a feeling of terror to the rest. The way our media seems to operate, and indeed the way that the ideology of our administration propogates itself, is via a feeling of fear. We are fighting in Iraq as a statement against the terrorists, but Iraq has instead served to demonstrate the limits of America's power. It feels as if we lashed out, that it's misplaced, that we are throwing our whole weight into a quagmire of a war because we're afraid of terrorists who are hiding in caves, somewhere in the desert.

I went to a taping of The Daily Show last week, and I keep thinking about the guest, Marc Spiegel, who wrote a book called "False Alarm" about the way our media tends to elevate most situations to an overinflated degree of hype, which results in every risk being at the same high level, and therefore fear-inducing but meaningless. Jon Stewart brought up something that FDR was famous for saying, that "we have nothing to fear but fear itself." Is this the bold defiance something that we believe in now? Is it something our administration believes in? Consider that FDR was fighting Hitler, and Bush made clear immediatly after September 11th that these terrorists were the direct descendants of the murderous ideologies of the 20th century, despite a pretense to piety. He may be correct on some level. But the effect of this shaping the terrorists into a familiar enemy is, I think, to abstract them, to ideologize them. Of course, there must be ideology to some level. But it is the gap between rhetoric and reality that has always been disturbing about the way things have gone in Iraq.

Even as the terrorists are made to be mere echoes of a past enemy which has already been defeated, and even as Bush has led America into Iraq with bravado and fanfare, we nevertheless still live with some motivation of fear. We are fighting against terrorism, of course, but Bush has also declared war on terror itself, as an abstract concept, as apart of the goal of "eradicating the world of evil" in general. Can we fight terror and still be afraid without risking an absurd contradiction? Eradicating the world of evil is impossible, as is fighting an abstraction. How will we measure when this war is finished? When will we stop counting the anniversary years after Sept. 11, 2001?
Not the most eloquent or interesting, but can you believe this sort of thing is out there?

There is a society based in the UK which aims to reform the spelling of words in the English language, removing what they term as corruption of the “alphabetic principle.” Over time, the idea that letters out to directly correspond to sounds, that a language ought to be consistently phonetic, has been lost in the English language. Unlike, say, Spanish, a language in which a student can learn the sounds which correspond to a letter and then, once having that reputable base, go on to depend on those letters producing those sounds, in English the student is rather lost in a jungle of combinations of letters which, at times, seem disingenuously and unfairly misleading and suspicious.

The society was started in 1908 and presided over by subsequent professors from Cambridge, Oxford, and University College London, and it remains faithful to a vision of the English language in which all words are be updated into logical and undeviating spellings, in the interest of promoting ease of learning and economy in writing, and in general, increasing literacy. They maintain a spirit of this high-minded and idealistic goal of increasing literacy, of helping people (mostly young children) learn. In other words, they are not separatists and intentionally avoid snobbery: they want more people to read more words with more ease.

Nevertheless, part of this nobility comes from early in the society, when those at the head wanted to make it simpler for colonies of the British Empire to acquire a knowledge of English, and, perhaps to attract the entire world to a universal language:

“All who love our language and realize the responsibilities of our Empire will agree that every British citizen should be able to speak English. That is far from being the case at present. To take India alone, there are millions who do not know English. [...] It is our duty to educate these millions; the key to their education is the English language. We place great difficulties in their way by our irregular spelling. If it were reasonable they could almost teach themselves. [...] What a splendid prospect, that of a world in which all men can speak our tongue! What a vast audience for the writers and the speakers who use our splendid language! What a great step towards the brotherhood of man!”

The whole movement lost steam around the middle of the century, when various attempts to integrate a simplified spelling system into the educational system in Britain did not take hold, and were mainly rejected. Today the society has 146 members, 29 of which have not paid their subscription for this year, yet. The society also now realizes the rather obvious futility of changing the spelling of English by an institutional process (alterations in language occur naturally over time through an evolutionary process, and are almost never intentionally fashioned). Giving up the original aspiriations for “New Spelling” (is anyone eerily reminded of Orwellian “Newspeak”?), their best idea now is a concept called “CS”, an acronym for Cut Spelling, which assumes the process by which the brain reads is almost wholly dependent on the first and last letter of a word, while the letters in between can vary greatly without a loss of comprehension. Removing unnecessary letters which are redundant in the language, Cut Spelling is born: Most words ar unchanjed , and we hav th impression not of a totaly new riting systm, but of norml script with letrs misng here and ther. Th basic shape of most words, by wich we recognize them, is not fundmently altrd, and nearly al those that ar mor substantialy chanjed ar quikly decoded; very few ar truly puzlng.

Cut spelling is really a combination of removing letters as well as replacing phonetic letters for sounds--the phonetic “j”, for example, replaces the soft “g” in “changes.” It’s a trimming down of the makeup of words, a leaning up of things that supposedly makes this easier. I tried to find out more about it, but the rest of the paper was written in this gibberish, so I gave up.

The problem is, we’re robbing the language of its ancestry. Certainly there’s a good idea somewhere underneath all of this intention, but hacking away at words hardly seems like the right idea. The entire field of etymology would basically be hung out to dry, reduced to working like archaeologists piecing together bits and shards of a skeleton that was once a living, breathing thing. And language really is.

Nobody in the society has said anything (at least not publicly) about the tool that is right in front of them, a powerful venue by which language’s public and gradual process of change can be immensely sped up. Never before in history has there been such a rapid exchange of information on such a large scale: the Internet is a forum for how we write and think, reason and decide. There are places like the Urban Dictionary, whose sole purpose is to record in one place these new words which pop up. Things like blogs have allowed anybody to write whatever they’d like to, however they’d like to. In one sense, that whole notion of an institution as authority can be subverted: they don’t need to change the educational system, they don’t need to convince principals and educational boards that changing spelling is a good idea: they can just start writing in this new way, and watch it ripple out in to the ether the digital world, which, via the mass exchange of information, will certainly make its way into our everyday language.

Not that I think it’s a good idea, by the way. I like how weird English is. It means you’re surprised almost as much as you’re certain.

Today, for the first time, returning to New York felt like coming home. I couldn't imagine more beautiful weather, which brings everyone outside and creates an overall sense of camaraderie with everyone you meet. You can really feel it in the air--totally infectious. Coming from a visit to Philadelphia, I had a strange sense that New York is, paradoxically, a cozy city. Everything is packed in, and the variety between neighborhoods keeps it from feeling claustrophobic or depressing. Our apartment isn't big, but I like the feeling that I am using all of the space, that nothing is wasted, that there's a degree of intelligence with which everything is laid out.

The chinatown-to-chinatown bus is a cheap and wonderful (if rather disorganized) way to travel, if you can survive walking through chinky street vendors and sewage, of course. Round trip for twenty bucks, I visited Austin and Duncan who are settling into an apartment and post-bacculurate classes at UPenn. We had a night of utter ridiculousness and consternation: I climbed a tree and couldn't get down, we met a tall black man named "Country" who promised Austin protection in West Philly and claimed to have fathered seven children (which Nick then asked, concernedly, if he ever visited), we found our way into a party at a Beta OIT which Nick insisted on finding, Duncan refused to speak anything but a combination of French and Korean for what seemed like hours, we met two guys who read Pitchfork (which I apparently thought was the most incredulous coincidence one could ever imagine, evidenced by my shaking Nick and repeatedly yelling the news into his ear), Austin relieved himself on the tire of a Jeep on a busy road and also honored a lesson from Country on how to box effectively.

Philadelphia is a nice town with a goofy trolly car subway which feels like a ride at Disney Land. People were friendly and genuinely interested. The UPenn campus is fantastic and feels like a different world from the rest of the city--you walk in the gates and there is a sudden dead quiet. We visited the library and spent a half hour gawking at the size of it. I had an overwhelming feeling of smallness walking through the stacks, knowing that just one of the bookshelves was more than I could read in the rest of my lifetime. Seeing old novels from forgotten writers discouraged me, too--nobody reads them, and even if there is some permanence in a book's publication and printing, what's the use of it? People who wrote those books are immortal only in a theoretical sense, only if somebody pulls it off the shelf and cares about it. Too few people have read Moby Dick for it to matter.

I finally organized my bookshelf, which was a more difficult than I expected. For the first time I have most of my books with me, and I went from putting them together by author, then genre and author, then just genre, then by size, then by (would you believe it?) color scheme. I settled on genre followed by an equal balance of recentness of purchase, size, and approximate date of publication. I'm sure it will change soon enough.

I don't know what to say about Katrina, only that the best I can do is flood myself with pictures and video clips until they garner an emotional impact, because otherwise I feel totally isolated from it. The op-ed section of the Times has been really good. Everyone should take 10 minutes and donate to Red Cross on their website, use your credit card. I'm not normally preachy, but there's really no other option.

Not looking forward to work tomorrow, but I suppose it's only four days. And this weekend I'm not going anywhere, finally--just spending a weekend in the fourth largest city in the world, which, for the first time today, definitely felt like home.

About me

  • Blake
  • Chicago, IL, United States

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