27 February 2007

Lexico II

This word has been blipping on my word radar recently: problematic.

From CBC's 'Ideas' last night: "This formulation of a 'spirit-based' tolerance is problematic."

Overheard at a UBC bar: "He has a problematic relationship with alcohol."

It's a usable word, I suppose—as good as worrisome, uncertain, or dangerous. And if my ear is right, it's now in critical vogue. But there's something I don't like about it.

I think it's that it steers the sentence toward thick nouns and adjectives; the verb is almost certain to be mute.


(Alf, please skip.)

24 February 2007

On talking and torture

Sorry for the spotty posting: I'm close to the end of reading week, and waist-deep in assignments due in the coming days.

It's no great leap from schoolwork to torture, so let's take another nibble at the ball Jane Mayer started rolling (ahhh, a week away from metaphors...) in her Feb. 18 article "Whatever It Takes," an examination of the televison show '24.'

Here, on a YouTube talk that repays watching, Mayer (above left, with Jill Abramson) discusses torture and television, with clips from '24.'
"It used to be, before 9/11, that it was just the evil people who'd use torture, but at this point, many of them are heroes who are representing America or working for the American government, which is the case of Jack Bauer."
Mayer is doing some important work these days. (She helped bring to light the Americans' use of waterboarding [demonstrated here] at Guantanamo Bay.) Writers like Mayer relieve, if momentarily, my worry that my journalistic future will be one of penury, alcoholism, and fractured relationships. I might do something useful. Then again, I might end up like Heather Mallick.

Heather Mallick is a Canadian journalist well known for her barbed, astringent style. She wrote for the Globe and Mail until late 2005, and now does a twice-weekly column for cbc.ca. She has, according to her bio, "a nice old-fashioned M.A. in English literature from the University of Toronto." Isn't that charming?

Some of Mallick's jaunty thoughts on torture in '24':
"If it weren't for bathroom breaks and my concerned, appalled husband luring me away from the television with Valpolicella and osso bucco ("You can have all the marrows, here's your fork, I'll put it in your trembling hand shall I?"), I would still be sitting there [watching the show] bleeding from the eyeballs."

"U.S. TV audiences have trouble distinguishing between fact and fiction. They are gullible and easily led. They are literal. They are insular and do not try to view their country through the eyes of others."

"Americans tend to be literal. 'I saw it on 24 so it works.' (This is why I never watched The West Wing. It pained me to think Americans actually believed it plausible that a highly intelligent president had been elected.)"
Mallick goes on in this vein. The gist: Americans are stupid, Brits are cynical, and Canadians are a nice blend of the two, with superior access to doctors.
Stephen Connolly: "It’s difficult to know where to begin refuting this insulting drivel."
Sandwalk: "The column is wonderful."
Where you come down on Heather Mallick has to do, I suppose, with your feelings about writing. E. B. White, a patron saint of the Plain Style (and of the New Yorker) had sure feelings about it. In 1935 he commanded us: Do not affect a breezy manner.
The volume of writing is enormous, these days, and much of it has a sort of windiness about it, almost as though the author were in a state of euphoria. "Spontaneous me," sang Whitman, and, in his innocence, let loose the hordes of uninspired scribblers who would one day confuse spontaneity with genius.

The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day.

Heather Mallick makes a decent case against the redundant ticking-bomb plot of '24,' but, mired in nationalistic cliché and busy showing off, she is a poor advertisement for smart criticism.

Thank God that for smart criticism we have the comedian and Fox News analyst Dennis Miller, who once described his swerve to political conservatism this way: "You see, they give me these little pieces of paper with presidents' faces on them." Here are his thoughts on waterboarding, and, later, if you're still feeling him, his broader ideas about the war on terror.

23 February 2007

Happy Chinese New Year

Republic of China (Taiwan) flag: 255 x 175 pixels.

People's Republic of China flag: 256 x 174 pixels.

To my friends on both sides of the Taiwan Strait: Gong Xi Fa Cai.

20 February 2007

Another Day On Earth

Unlike my mother, I'm not in the habit of reading obituaries. The pursuit overtakes you at a certain age, I suppose, when you're reading the paper and munching Cheerios and wondering how many times you've done that, and how many times you might still.

The man who illustrated this cover, Joseph Low, died at his Massachusetts home on Feb. 12, at the age of 95. That's a pretty good age.

Low had a successful career; he won the 1981 Caldecott Medal, which is for children's-book illustrators. He was known, according to the New York Times, for using "wild pen gestures" to create "glyphlike characters meant for both adult and child that were both sophisticated and accessible."

Ever wonder about what song you want played at your funeral? I have three, but they've been changing lately.

This one's been on the list for a while now: Brian Eno's "And Then So Clear." In another foray into iMovie, I've put together a video for it. Tell me what you think.

What's your song?

(Alf, please skip.)

17 February 2007

Suckling, cigars, and state-sponsored torture

I feel bad to again mention Larissa MacFarquhar's recent philosophical excursion—filled as it was with endless paragraphs about the mind-body question and other quandaries you mulled in first-year arts, and, rightly, never again—but the piece did make me laugh, with this sentence on brain chemistry and sensation.
"Oxytocin is a peptide produced in the body during orgasm and breast-feeding; when it is sprayed into the nose of experimental subjects, they become more cooperative."
While on the subject of chemicals and cooperative subjects, let's make something clear: oxytocin is not OxyContin—aka 'hillbilly heroin'—the opioid painkiller that happens to be conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh's drug of choice.

Limbaugh (above) may or may not have been high while ranting about New Yorker writer Jane Mayer the other night on his show. (Listen to the audio and judge for yourself.) His bluster does have a druggy, dreamy savor, though; it's like jazz trumpet, with improvised phrases picked up, twisted, drawn out, and dropped. And, yes, it's also reliant on wind.

This, I gather, is Limbaugh's point: Mayer's Feb. 18 examination of the politics of '24' was an obvious attempt by the New Yorker to "discredit the military and shame the country." He goes on:
"There is an all-out assault on the US military. Inherent in this is some of the most righteous indignation among some of the most ignorant people about what happens in war. The idea that war is as highbrow and as clean-cut as a bridge game at the Harvard Club? Spare me!

And these people who are writing all this outraged, righteous indignation over torture haven't the slightest idea what is at stake on the battlefield with this particular enemy, and we never, we never hear about the torture they inflict."
Rush Limbaugh's close friend Joel Surnow (right) is the co-creator of '24.' "The military loves our show," says Surnow, whose office wall is draped with an American flag. "It's a patriotic show."

Mayer's central premise is that the show's frequent representations of torture (generally of 'bad guys' by government agents) may have injurious and genuine real-world effects.

Some important voices agree with her.

The dean of West Point Military Academy, Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, met with the '24' creative team to express his worry that "the show's central premise—that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country's security—was having a toxic effect."

And Tony Lagouranis, a former Army interrogator in the war in Iraq, says DVDs of shows such as '24' circulate widely among soldiers stationed in Iraq:
“People watch the shows, and then walk into the interrogation booths and do the same things they’ve just seen.”
Just to orient this in the current American cultural moment: Before Sept. 11, fewer than four acts of torture appeared on prime-time TV annually. Now there are more than a hundred. '24' averages one every other show.

Okay, this is a scattershot entry, I know. But let's try to draw it all together; I can't help but feel there's a beautiful summation to be made—Limbaugh, torture, early weaning, Freud, cigars, oxytocin...

I can't find the killing phrase. Ah, forget it. I'm going to bed.

16 February 2007

Hard-packed and stony

Pleasing bit of description in Larissa MacFarquhar's Feb. 12 profile of Pat and Paul Churchland, two Canadian philosophy professors who are, at the article's open, wandering at the California seaside:
"It's a little before six in the morning and quite cold on the beach. It's low tide, and the sand is wet and hard-packed and stony."
It's almost Hemingwayesque—terse and physical—but he'd have left out the "a little before" and the "quite." I'd prefer it that way, I think, but it still holds up. "Pack" is such a great word.

(Painting: Duane Murrin's "Low Tide.")
(Alf, please skip.)

15 February 2007

Word of the Day I

I picked up a new word, courtesy of Kia, who writes:
"Gopnik's writing about art in the New Yorker in the 1990s had an almost emetic effect on the boyfriend I was living with at the time."
According to the OED:
a. & n.
  1. Having power to produce vomiting. Also fig. sickening, mawkish.
  2. A medicine that excites vomiting.
I'm thinking emetic sentimentality, emetic public figures, my unhappily emetic response to getting cleated in the groin on a third base somewhere in Etobicoke, Ontario, in 1986.

And, you'll be happy to know, I'm making no mention of Adam Gopnik for at least two weeks. The effect would be, well, grody.

(Alf, please skip.)

14 February 2007

We heart the New Yorker

When I have a readership, I hope I think of things like this. At Emdashes, our prime source of New Yorkeralia, Emily Gordon has posted friends' virtual valentines to the magazine's contributors. See who gets a whip, who a standing invitation to dinner, and who the elixir of eternal life.

And, yes, you can see what I'm sending out, too.

(Illustration: Patricia Storms.)
(Alf, please skip.)

12 February 2007

Vows and covenants I

On another note entirely: Can we journalists all agree not to use the adjective 'hard-hitting' anymore?

(Alf, please skip.)

09 February 2007

Mailbag I

Unsolicited submission from a reader, who writes, "Hey journal-boy, what you make of this?"

"If I'd written all the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people including mewould be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.

Objective, professional journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be corrupt for so long."

-Hunter S. Thompson, gonzo journalist (1939 - 2005)
* * *
I'm just trying to figure out how many people would rot in jail for the truth I know. A couple of hundred, I reckon, give or take. I can probably pad my stats if I turn friends in for shoplifting. Let's say 220.

Hunter's arguing little circuitously, but it's probably the speedball's fault. If those corrupt people aren't rotting in prison, it is because he's an objective and professional journalist. But, if he has only fear and loathing for objectivity and professionalism, then doesn't he fail as a truthteller and a journalist?

Sorry, wrong verb tense.

Thompson's suicide note:
"No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won't hurt."
We love the flameouts, don't we?

(Alf, please skip.)

08 February 2007

Bringing sales back

Pop-music critic Sasha Frere-Jones returns this week to a favorite (and decidedly unmasculine) theme: making sure Justin Timberlake gets his due as an artist.
"Sales of CDs are sagging—pendulous, even—and in the Internet era anybody who can sell more than a million units is a superhero. Enter Captain Timberlake."
I used to think Sasha Frere-Jones was a woman, perhaps like the one above. I hoped for it; I rolled her name around in my mouth: "Sa-sha." It sounded feminine, I reasoned, and the hyphenated surname probably meant an unhappy marriage.

I scrutinized her columns for a giveaway "We gals...", all the while indulging a fantasy of sitting in her New York kitchen, sipping flavored coffee, our banter rife with razor-sharp similes. And when we fell onto the bed, it was beneath of fog of German electronica—sonorous, ambient, totally obscure. (Like this.)

Anyhoo, oops, nope, it turns out that, in addition to being the New Yorker's premiere music writer and possessor of Wikipedia's bleakest page, Sasha Frere-Jones (right) is a man. Moderntime was also confused and disappointed.

ZP from Hate will contest Frere-Jones's critical supremacy, I think, putting in a claim for Alex Ross, the classical-music critic. It's impossible, though: Ross makes me feel dumb, like I should have been paying closer attention to avant-garde Finnish composers, and what was I doing with my time anyway?

When you read Frere-Jones you think, Hey, it's okay I've been hitherto ignorant of this amazing hip-hop act because, well, there's Soulseek, and still time on the clock. When you read Ross you feel that someone is on a nearby rooftop, shooting sniper pellets of scorn into your shoulder blade.

Interesting: Frere-Jones, back in 2003, when he was writing for Slate, took Ross to task for exactly that—being a snot:
"Listen to Ross slag the kids in this efficient dig: Timberlake, for those who have let their subscription to Teen People lapse, is the blond, curly-haired twenty-two-year-old lead singer of 'N Sync."

"The New Yorker has a track record of approaching pop music with one hand holding its nose."
His defensiveness about Justin aside, Frere-Jones makes a compelling argument for the 'big tent' approach. This openness is his greatest virtue as a critic: he's certain that not all great music has happened already, no matter our desire to retreat to our room with our Brian Eno and forget about Janet Jackson's latest offering. Viewed the right way, the idea takes on existential implications.

(Top photo: Anggun, the Indonesian-French singer, who, herself viewed the right way, sounds all right.)

04 February 2007

Gladwell, Prego, and true happiness

Quick hit for you. I've gotta write a profile of a reporter for Newswriting, so I'm researching Malcolm Gladwell, his trademark hair, and his 'ideas' beat.

Just found this this ten-minute TEDtalk he gave in September, 2006.

This is how TEDwhich stands for Technology, Entertainment, Designdescribes itself:
TED is an event like no other.
It brings together more than 1000 thought leaders, movers and
...in Monterey, California every year...
...for four days of learning, laughter and inspiration.
Learning, laughter, and inspiration... Brrrr: the very recipe for a teeth-grinding first date. The site is cooler than it sounds, but the punctuation is yearbookish throughout. And they misspelled his name.

(Alf, please skip this one.)

03 February 2007

Irony is dead

Like a lassi after the vindaloo, impressionist Rich Little (right), who does a spot-on Dr. Phil, will take the podium this April at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner.

“I think his brand of humor will be perfect for the night," said WHCA president Steve Scully, noting that he'd reminded the comedian of his goal: "to singe, not burn."

The annual dinner hosts around 3,000 of the most powerful people in Washington, and, unless you've been on a media fast in the Gulf Islands with Raffi, you know what happened last year.

Stephen Colbert (left), Comedy Central host and that night's keynote speaker, crossed the line, was mean-spirited and unfunny, performed the greatest act of moral courage in the history of the universe, sarcastically destroyed both the media and its masters, or was f**king pathetic and depressing. Take your pick.

(You know you need to watch at least 6:50-13:30 again, all the while asking yourself, 'Is it possible for a comedian to kill and bomb at the same time?')

Whether he killed, or bombed, or both, depends on whom you ask. But most can agree that Colbert's ironic speech left many in the room clenched and squirming. And angry: Laura Bush refused Colbert's hand as he exited the dais, under thin applause.

And there were some watching C-SPAN that night who didn't quite get it. From self-described 'reasonable conservative' Jon Swift:
"I had never heard of Stephen Colbert before this event but he seems to be a very articulate and sincere conservative. Some are even saying he is courageous for facing down the liberal media the way he did. I'm not sure I would go that far. Have we sunk so low that merely having convictions makes one a hero?"
In this week's Talk of the Town, Jeffrey Goldberg doesn't talk up Colbert's convictions; he reckons the comedian committed the "sin of humor" with President Bush sitting only a few feet away.

Surely, though, beside the Sloth, Wrath, and Pride of the roastee, humor is a venial sin.

Ten Hail Marys and an Act of Contrition, my son, and on your way.

Now collecting votes for the 1) funniest, 2) wickedest, and 3) flattest Colbert lines.

(Edit: Holy Christmas! Rich Little is Canadian??)