Thursday, July 30, 2009

Teenage Wasteland

OK, I lied: Just one more post today. But tomorrow should bring at least one pretty good one, a response to someone who takes issue with some of my recent thoughts on "free."

But for now, the Wednesday song a day late. This is the Who doing "Baba O'Riley." Enjoy:


Against Naps

Boy, slow news day at the Times. This is the lead story online right now. I hate naps, because I always feel groggy and much less refreshed after them. I avoid them whenever possible. Of course, the blog has been napping lately, but a couple of posts will follow later today.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Imperatives of Youth

My girlfriend has been in my life for most of this blog's existence, but she rarely gets mentioned. Two reasons: She has a deep (and reasonable) skepticism of the online world, and I have an aversion to Mr. Latte-type constructions. But I'm forcing her to stand front and center today, because today is the publication date of her first book, Not That Kind of Girl.

The book begins with her evangelical upbringing in southern New Jersey. It begins, after a brief prologue:
My mother says she can't listen to love songs anymore. Whatever men and women have to say about love is meaningless, she says, when she thinks about all that God has done for us.

But when you go to a Goodwill and see all the Andy Williams records, and think "Who could have possibly owned these?" picture my mother...
After lovingly detailing her nervous childhood -- nervous, in part, because the church's focus on the apocalypse combined with the Cold War to produce a fear of imminent nuking -- Carlene moves on to write about her time as a good girl in college. Here, she's in her dorm room on a Saturday night:
At about twelve thirty, when I had just put the lights out, there was banging on the metal door. I sat up. Three boys burst in and turned the lights on. Polo shirts, swinging arms, shouts, the smell of alcohol. Anne came in behind them, telling them to please cut it out.

"Hey," one of them said, pointing at me. "Get out of bed. It's Saturday night."

"Oh, how sweet," said another. "She's in her nightgown." There were no ruffles or lace, but yes, I was in a nightgown. For a moment I thought they really might jump into the bed with me, and I pulled the sheets up against my chest in an involuntary spasm of modesty. I hate you, I told myself. . . .

There would be no mercy for girls neatly tucked away in bed by midnight on Saturday calming themselves to sleep with a book -- a book about a virgin queen, no less. I got it. I was digging my own grave here. They had come upon a scene of flagrant disregard for the imperatives of Youth.
Carlene is the kind of writer who works really hard to make the end result look effortless. She cares about how each sentence fits with the one before it and the one after it, a rare quality that makes for a rare book. From college, she ventures to New York, where she hopes to pay a lot more attention to those imperatives of Youth. She does, with not quite the results she was looking for. Meanwhile, her spiritual life continues to conflict with her secular side -- the side that worships Morrissey and Walker Percy. And Percy and other Catholic writers inspire her to convert, before she eventually loses her faith again.

Not That Kind of Girl is what a semi-crazy New Yorker at a reading for the book last night called "a classic American spiritual journey." But don't take it from crazy people. Walter Kirn likes it a lot, too:
[Bauer] seems to lose her bearings at times, then find them again, then lose them once more. Her blessed center can’t seem to hold. What does hold, sentence by sentence and page by page, is Bauer’s sure grip on our sympathies. Her style is light but not trivial — the laughs she wrings from her moral dilemmas are shaded with melancholy longing.
There are more glowing recommendations on the back of the book, the lovely cover of which was designed by Leanne Shapton.

So, to wrap up: I'm proud, I'm highly recommending this book, and now Carlene can return to her spot off-stage...

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Strong Pinch-Hitter

From his time guest-blogging at Andrew Sullivan for the past couple of weeks, I think Conor Friedersdorf is my kind of conservative. It's not that I agree with him all the time, but his tone is almost always reasonable: He defends colleagues on the other side of the aisle, praises NPR programming, wonders if the 2012 Republican candidate might be willing to apply some conservative insights, asks seemingly genuine open-minded questions about health care reform, and has a rare, worthwhile perspective on the Henry Louis Gates fiasco:
Wrongly arrest a black men who happens to be a Harvard professor, release him without filing charges, and the national press corps asks the president to comment. Wrongly imprison for years on end a black man who happens to be working class and without celebrity, and the national press corps continues to utterly ignore a criminal justice system that routinely convicts innocent people.
(By the way, has anyone thought to call it Gatesgate yet?)

A reader disagrees with Friedersdorf's analysis of the Gates situation, and while I see her point, I think his overall take is more convincing. I'm not even sure their takes have to be mutually exclusive.

Even More on Free

Following up again on my recent obsession with online payment models (or the lack thereof), the Columbia Journalism Review has several articles in its most recent issue about this very theme. It includes David Simon, who writes a piece with the anti-Reagan-to-Gorbachev headline of "Build the Wall." He addresses directly the heads of the New York Times and the Washington Post. ("If you do not find a way to make people pay for your product, then you are—if you choose to remain in this line of work—delusional.")

Then there's Michael Shapiro making "the case for a free/paid hybrid."

Conversation starters, anyway...

The Catch

Even non-sports fans among you have probably seen this, but it's too good not to post. In the history of Major League Baseball, there have been only 18 perfect games, in which the pitcher retires 27 hitters in a row. Three up, three down every inning -- no hits, no walks, no errors. I don't know exactly how many baseball games have been played since 1880, but the general answer is tons. So something that's happened only 18 times in that span is pretty special.

Yesterday, Mark Buehrle of the White Sox became the 18th to do it. And in great baseball fashion, the real story might be a 31-year-old journeyman outfielder named Dewayne Wise, who has a .211 lifetime batting average in less than 600 career at-bats in the big leagues. But Wise will rightfully be remembered for a long, long time for the catch he made in the ninth inning to preserve the perfect game. The clip below shows the entire last inning. Watch it for Wise's catch, off the first batter, at the very least. Unbelievable. Thanks to Buehrle's pace, the whole clip isn't very long. Anyone who thinks baseball drags too much must love Buehrle, who gets the ball, pitches, gets the ball, pitches, gets the ball, pitches. I heard on the radio yesterday that his total time on the mound for the game was 32 minutes. (More after the clip.)

The most famous non-perfect game in baseball history belongs to Harvey Haddix. In 1959, pitching for the Pirates, Haddix took a perfect game against the Braves into the 13th inning (!) before losing. The Baseball Project, a rock group that includes Peter Buck of R.E.M., have a funny song named after Haddix, which argues that his effort should be considered an official perfect game. (I disagree.) You can hear the song on the band's MySpace page. It's the second one listed on the player at right, so you have to click on it. Also, a rapper seems to have embedded his own clip to automatically play in the comments below, so you'll have to pause that before listening to "Harvey Haddix." Complicated enough?


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Virgil Caine is the name...

For Wednesday, a song I've been enjoying a lot lately. This is The Band, from the movie The Last Waltz, doing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." Levon Helm does a heck of a job singing while drumming. Enjoy:

President Cronkite

In 1981, Kurt Vonnegut wrote about Walter Cronkite for The Nation, soon after Cronkite had stepped down at CBS News. A piece:
I have seen Cronkite laugh like Father Christmas when he is told that he should run for President or Vice President or Senator. No one ever seems to mention a governorship or a seat in the House of Representatives. I have also noticed that nobody else laughs much at the joke, even when Cronkite explains it -- when he says that he is only a newsman, without any of the gifts and enthusiasms good leaders have. He intimated in a recent interview that he hadn't even aspired to be a big shot in television, that he would have been nearly as contented as he is today if he had remained what he was in the beginning -- a print journalist of no great fame. [...]

What makes it hard for others to laugh along with him is that this is the land of opportunity, and no one here is supposed to fail to snatch any opportunity that is unlucky enough to be caught in the open. Walter Cronkite could have been President of this country, just as George Washington in his own day could have become King. All he had to do was to lose his temper in public, and to pick a side:

"This is Walter Cronkite, born in Joplin, Missouri, and raised in Texas, and you all know me, and I am fed to the teeth with all the stupidity and greed I see in Washington. I can no longer sit by idly" and so on.
(Via Mark Athitakis)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Rick & Kurt

Chris Bodenner, guest blogging along with several others over at Andrew Sullivan's site, posts this with a one-word intro: "Genius."


More on Free

Following up on my recent post about online economic models, I point you to this by Levi Asher. Summation:
If the New York Times puts its web content behind a payment wall, that will be the end of my lifelong relationship with the New York Times.
And this:
...the New York Times was absolutely instrumental in the early popular discoveries of Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan. Can a newspaper with a cultural legacy like this continue to thrive behind a payment wall?
I know, I know, I'm 35 going on 95, but this still makes me shake my head. In the comments to the post, Katharine Weber writes this, which I think is succinct and totally sensible (emphasis mine):
But Levi. Could you have reasonably refused to read the NYT twenty years ago if you had to buy it at a newsstand or pay for home delivery instead of just having free copies handed to you on the street or dropped in your driveway? . . . Much has changed, yes. But has the economic rule which used to be as certain as the laws of gravity, the rule of paying for things of value, really begun to vanish? How is this not a zero sum game?
I'm still waiting for a substantive response to this line of thinking. There have been plenty of cultural developments that I love in the past 10 years: Netflix, iTunes, The Wire. One way or another, I pay for all of them.

(Via Conversational Reading)

Monday, July 20, 2009

America's Next Top Artist

Speaking of Q&A's, my friend Sarah recently conducted a series of funny interviews with artists aspiring to appear on an upcoming reality TV show. They were waiting in line to audition when Sarah caught up with them. A slide show of 13 entries starts here.

Sarah is very good at, among other things, incredulity, as in this funny exchange:
What is the most scandalous thing you've done in your life as an artist?

There was this museum in Second Life, a replica of the Louvre. They were late paying their rent to their landlord, and I heard about this and went to the landlord and said, "If that space is available, I want to get in there." And he ripped it out from under them. He didn't even give them an extra hour to pay! That's where I ended up setting up my first gallery.

Wait, this was all on Second Life?

Yes. And this led to international exhibitions and thousands of dollars' worth of art sales.

On Second Life?

Yes. I set up a gallery on Second Life.

Damn Yuppies

Yesterday, Deborah Solomon interviewed Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine and the author of a new book called Free: The Future of a Radical Price. I haven't read the book, but Anderson, like many cheerleaders of web culture, seems to think it's unfathomable that people would be charged for content online. Here's one exchange with Solomon:
Several critics have already pointed out flaws in your argument, citing YouTube as an example of a mass sensation that is losing enormous sums of money.

YouTube is owned by Google and today loses money. But Google has achieved something extraordinary, which is a network-television-size audience. The problem with YouTube is not that it costs too much to deliver that video but that we have not found a way to migrate television advertising as quickly as the television audience has migrated.
Three problems here: 1) What if advertising never fully migrates?; 2) Even if it does, unlike network TV, the web's audience is collectively massive and individually diffuse and harder to reach in any one place; and 3) Aren't there many, many examples of media that have advertising and still charge for content? If Anderson is basically saying that everything should be like CBS or the Village Voice, then I want off the island now. Another excerpt:
Why not just sell subscriptions, as in the HBO model, which proves that people are willing to pay for quality?

The original concept of the information superhighway from the early ’90s was going to be exactly that. We’re now 15 years past that, and the marketplace has spoken. The marketplace wants free. Consumers want free, and if you decide to set up a subscription service, then your competitor will make a free one.
"Consumers want free." To quote myself from childhood: "No duh." Of course consumers want free. I'm one of them. But I also think certain outlets are really, really dumb to give me free. A place the size of the New York Times has substantial costs that go into making its product. These costs have always been partly met through advertising. But the other part is charging people for the product.

Why this market philosophy should fundamentally change because something goes online makes no sense to me. Never has. And there is no doubt in my mind what a stubborn refusal to pay for things online will mean, over time: Less good stuff online. The Times, as well as any site you enjoy that requires resources . . . forget 'em. They won't exist. The primary problem with depending on advertising -- especially for places like the Times, which needs a lot of it -- is that advertising can be cheaper or free online, too. (See Craigslist and how it decimated publications that depended on classified ads.)

But here's where Solomon nails it, I think.
I wonder if all this is rooted in yuppie entitlement. What’s disturbing is that no one wants to pay for anything anymore, which is why we’re in the midst of an economic meltdown.

You do see a generation going online expecting things to be free, from their Facebook pages to their music downloads to their video games. I don’t think that’s driven by entitlement but by an innate understanding of the digital market.
I repeat, I haven't read Anderson's book. But it seems to me that this "innate understanding of the digital market" is nonsense. What they maybe understand is that they can get a lot of things for free online, but no one understands how to make free stuff...profitable. Facebook, YouTube, you name it -- have you heard any convincing way they can make (enough) money using their current model? That's why the Times is seriously considering a subscription model, and I hope it succeeds. Given how much I read the Times online (pretty much exclusively at this point), charging me for it is the only sensible thing to do. I would gladly pay. Either way, I'm pretty sure that the time will come when there's a choice: Pay for it or wave goodbye to it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My Bed Is Pullin' Me. Gravity.

Anyone who's visited this blog more than, oh, once, knows that when in doubt on Wednesday (and any other day, for that matter), I have a rule of thumb: Find an R.E.M. clip. Here's the band doing "Daysleeper" in 1998. For bonus Letterman coverage at the beginning, check this link, which is longer but of lower quality. Enjoy:


The Math of Rocking Faces

I swear I will figure out, come hell or high water, how to get this blog back into fighting shape while still pursuing my other dreams -- most notably, to make it to the major leagues and best the career numbers of Albert Pujols.

For now, I offer you a link to this blog post, which examines the "hermeneutical possibilities" of Bon Jovi's famous lyric, "I've seen a million faces and rocked them all." A sample:
[I]n 1986, Bon Jovi had performed primarily in New Jersey. [Jon Bon Jovi] learned to play guitar in 1975, at age 13. That means Jon had 11 years of face-rocking under his belt when Wanted Dead or Alive was written. That means he would have to average 90,909 faces rocked per year, or 1,748 faces per week. How likely is this? Let's take a look at his pre-Bon Jovi bands and recordings to determine.
(Via The Browser)

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Fired from the Canon

Over at the Second Pass, I just posted a feature that's been a while in the making. Several contributors chose acclaimed books and un-recommended them. The introduction to the piece:
If you’re looking for reading suggestions in bulk, you’re spoiled for choice. There are classics, like Clifton Fadiman’s Lifetime Reading Plan or Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. And in recent years, a cottage industry has sprung up of books that recommend books — The Top Ten, Book Lust (and its follow-up, More Book Lust), The Modern Library, etc., etc.

Some of these efforts are quite good and owned by the authors of this feature — but a problem arises: Such guides are presumably meant to save readers time by pointing them in the right direction, but the guides themselves amount to several months or years of reading. The books they recommend add up to several lifetimes. What starts as an attempt to save hours ends as a commitment to more hours than you probably have.

That’s where we come in. Below is a list of ten books that will be pressed into your hands by ardent fans. Resist these people. Life may not be too short (I’m only in my mid-30s, and already pretty bored), but it’s not endless.
Please read the whole thing. I think you'll enjoy it.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Do It Now or Grow Old

For Wednesday, here are the Shins doing "Australia." Enjoy:

Monday, July 06, 2009

An Intimate Sendoff

Three incredible things I learned in this article about the memorial service being held for Michael Jackson at the Staples Center in L.A. tomorrow:

1. 1.6 million people registered for tickets to the event. (17,500 tickets were given out.)

2. The circus will be at the Staples Arena starting the next day, and the elephants will have arrived at the arena by the time the memorial starts.

3. Elizabeth Taylor has a Twitter feed.

Robert S. McNamara, 1916-2009

Robert S. McNamara, U.S. defense secretary during critical, escalating phases of the Vietnam War, has died at 93.

If you haven't seen the documentary Fog of War, I highly recommend it. Here's the trailer, and here's a scene.

From the extensive obit posted to the New York Times web site this morning (which I also recommend):
The idea of the United States losing a war seemed impossible when Mr. McNamara came to the Pentagon in January 1961 as the nation’s eighth defense secretary. He was 44 and had been named president of the Ford Motor Company only 10 weeks before. He later said, half-seriously, that he could barely tell a nuclear warhead from a station wagon when he arrived in Washington.

“Mr. President, it’s absurd, I’m not qualified,” he remembered protesting when asked to serve. He said that Kennedy had replied, “Look, Bob, I don’t think there’s any school for presidents, either.”

Kennedy called him the smartest man he had ever met.
Also included in the obit is a reminder that even gravely dangerous actions can be accompanied by some hilarity. When Nikita Khrushchev began sending nuclear missiles to Cuba, the Soviet leader described the action as deciding “to throw a hedgehog at Uncle Sam’s pants.”

Vietnam remains the most defining American moment since 1945. It influenced the political outlook of future generations (including mine) before we were even born. And of course, its lessons continue to be grappled with not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but anytime the U.S. considers its role in global affairs. In a serious world, McNamara's passing would prompt at least as much prolonged coverage -- and reflection -- on the "serious" news channels as the death of Michael Jackson. Ha.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Farrah Almost Shrugged

The world, in case you hadn't noticed, is pretty strange. Today's evidence: Ayn Rand "never missed an episode of Charlie’s Angels." And she wanted to cast Farrah Fawcett in a movie version of Atlas Shrugged.

(Via Bookslut)

It Ain't Easy Livin' Like a Gypsy

I've been rediscovering some classic Aerosmith lately, so along those lines, for Wednesday here's the band doing "Mama Kin" in Houston in 1977. The picture joins the sound about 20 seconds in. Enjoy:

Here We Go Again

I'm just back from four days upstate, looking at a beautiful lake most of the time instead of a computer. I've returned to find that my friend Dez has thrown down another gauntlet. It was Dez who prompted the list of my 100 favorite albums. Now, he's turned to movies. He's counting down his top 50, and he's already off and running. The intro and first five movies are here; the second batch is here. So far, the list is very eclectic, befitting someone who would often sit down at the dining hall in college with spaghetti, a bowl of cereal and some ice cream on his tray. ("What? It's all going to the same place," he would say in response to looks of horror.)

Not one to back down from a challenge, I will be posting my favorite movies. At least 50 of them. But I can tell you that this will take a long time to compile. There is no way it will start very soon. Stay tuned...