December 29, 2005

Will They Stop at Nothing?

The Bookshelves of Doom points out an article in Wired that reveals the Scientologian underpinnings of the Neopet phenomenon:

[Neopets CEO Doug] Dohring brought two things to the company: expertise in market research and a deep commitment to the principles of Scientology. After college, he spent four years in Toledo working for the church in "counseling and communications." In the writings of Scientology leader L. Ron Hubbard, Dohring discovered a business model that would later become the foundation of the Neopets operation.
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December 28, 2005

When the Truth is Poor Copy

I suppose this isn't exactly brand new news, but it was certainly new to me: according to this LA Times article, personal letters indicate that Upton Sinclair discovered that Sacco and Vanzetti were in fact guilty in the course of his research for Boston. Yet he decided not to let this knowledge influence his work, for tactical and strategic reasons:

"My wife is absolutely certain that if I tell what I believe, I will be called a traitor to the movement and may not live to finish the book," Sinclair wrote Robert Minor, a confidant at the Socialist Daily Worker in New York, in 1927.

"Of course," he added, "the next big case may be a frame-up, and my telling the truth about the Sacco-Vanzetti case will make things harder for the victims."

He also worried that revealing what he had been told would cost him readers. "It is much better copy as a naïve defense of Sacco and Vanzetti because this is what all my foreign readers expect, and they are 90% of my public," he wrote to Minor.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 06:30 PM | TrackBack

December 20, 2005

Uruk Hai

Stalin's half-man, half-ape super-warriors:

In the mid-1920s Russia's top animal breeding scientist, Ilya Ivanov, was ordered to turn his skills from horse and animal work to the quest for a super-warrior.

According to Moscow newspapers, Stalin told the scientist: "I want a new invincible human being, insensitive to pain, resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat."

In 1926 the Politburo in Moscow passed the request to the Academy of Science with the order to build a "living war machine".

The order came at a time when the Soviet Union was embarked on a crusade to turn the world upside down, with social engineering seen as a partner to industrialisation: new cities, architecture, and a new egalitarian society were being created.

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December 19, 2005

The Red and the Gold

Jah Jah Dub notes the location of Prague's Museum of Communism:


(via Harry's Place.)

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December 17, 2005


A moment of pure poetry:


(via Mickey Kaus.)

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December 15, 2005

Tech Support!

If any Mac users out there know the answer to this seemingly trivial question, I'd love to hear it.

I usually use Safari, but there is one situation that has just come up where I need to use Firefox. Firefox works fine for me, but I can't figure out how to resize the window. The "drag to resize" square that is usually at the lower right hand corner is hidden beneath the bottom edge of the monitor no matter what I do. The view menu only allows you to toggle between "full screen" and "not full screen." Both of these are too big. It's not a big deal, but it feels claustrophobic, like the browser is taking over my world, and I can't deal with it. For some reason, I need to see a bit of my desktop to feel safe and in control.

It's a 12" Powerbook, by the way.

UPDATE: Thanks, Kim! I should have tried downloading the latest version before whining in public. Version 1.5 is fully resizable, even for dummies like me. Never mind...

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December 14, 2005

All This, and Inflated Grades, Too

Anyone who has ever been in a "gifted and talented" program at school will probably recognize this classic AP scenario: a tea party, where the students dress as literary figures, presided over by a student dressed as Queen Victoria.

All the students helped out in bringing the varied assortment of luncheon food, including traditional English tea, cookies, mini-cupcakes, cream puffs, meats, cheese, bread, tomatoes, sandwiches and jam.
There is even talk of "possibly" reading some of the books, too.

(via Bookslut.)

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December 13, 2005

Thought for the Day

The truth was an incredibly hot commodity in 1974-75.
-- Lorne Michaels, reflecting on Richard Pryor's commercial appeal.
Posted by Dr. Frank at 03:42 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Welcome to the Love Capades

I hear ya, sister:

Mary-Kate Olsen says her heart is broken.

The 19-year-old sweet teen and multimillionaire mogul says she has taken a leave of absence from New York University to recover from losing her boyfriend, Stavros Niarchos, to her former friend Paris Hilton.

Speaking to fashion mag W, Mary-Kate says she's not talking to either Hilton or Niarchos.

"I've pretty much been with someone my whole life, so this is a hard time for me," she says.

She needs a breather.

"I need to ... read scripts and go on auditions, because that's what makes me happy. You know?

"Like, papers don't really make me happy."

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December 12, 2005

Clouds of Halfway Held Fugitive Opinions

Another Bit of Berman:

This Insta-linked article from Salon's Cary Tennis, offering advice on The Revolution to an academic who longs for the fulfilling days of '68 and the barricades and Foucault and the Maos and the Red Brigades and Chicago and Entebbe and so forth, reminded me of this quote from Paul Berman's recent review-essay on French anti-anti-Americanism:

Modern political life is a landscape befogged with mists and clouds of halfway held fugitive opinions--the kind of landscape that allows an intelligent and well-educated person to say with perfect sincerity, "George W. Bush is a fascist and the United States is on the brink of becoming Nazi Germany," and yet allow that same earnest person cheerfully to acknowledge, in the next breath, that, come January 2009, Bush and his entire fascist crew of Zionist conspirators are absolutely guaranteed to vacate the White House in favor of a new and popularly elected team, who might well be Bush's fiercest opponents.
OK, so the guy didn't actually mention Entebbe - that's an, er, extrapolation. Tennis's advice, essentially: the time to waste some pigs is not yet upon us. Till it comes, you can do your part by teaching Foucault, laying the groundwork for an imminent American Tiananmen Square.

(The TNR link is, I believe, subscription only, unfortunately.)

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And he wasn't even drunk. I asked.

And here, from the same source as the Cliff Richard quotation below, is a charming John Lennon story:

BACK in the 1970s, John Lennon met some aliens. Those aliens gave him a little brass egg. He gave that little brass egg to Uri Geller, who has kept it ever since. In his living room.

Come again? “I believe it,” says Geller, who has allowed the egg to go on show as part of a John Lennon shrine at the flagship Virgin Megastore in London. “John said he had been lying in bed, when a bright sphere of light appeared in one corner of his room. An alien hand came out of it, and gave him the egg. And he gave it to me. And he wasn’t even drunk. I asked.”

Geller, born in Israel, has just been abroad. He hugged a Palestinian and shook hands with a Syrian ambassador. “Call it coincidence if you like,” he says, “but John loved peace.”

I already posted this on SG, but I figured, what the hell, you only go around this crazy world once.

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The Case of the Pregnant Ellipsis

Sir Cliff Richard weighs in on the complaints about Narnia's sinister Christian message:

“It’s rubbish,” he raged. “Nobody would ever say anything like that about Islam or Hinduism, would they? I mean, Christians are the most loving people in the world! All we have ever done is... build hospitals.”
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Thank You, Jesus, For Giving Us These Wonderful Transit Workers

A pretty good stuck on the train story.

(via Damian Counsell.)

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Writing qua Writing

So I finally got around to reading Paul Berman's Power and the Idealists. It reproduces his 2001 New Republic essay "The Passion of Joschka Fischer," which I have long admired, and adds to it several chapters concerning the aftermath of the "Fischer Affair," and the experience and reaction of several other figures of the New Left to the Kosovo and Iraq wars. A note indicates that he wishes readers to regard it as a companion volume to his 1996 masterpiece of New Left cultural-political exegesis, A Tale of Two Utopias, and so it is. The maddeningly complicated contradiction-ridden process whereby "New Leftism became post-leftism" has never been so lucidly and keenly appreciated.

Actually, when I say "long admired," that's an understatement. The original essay basically blew my mind when I read it in the New Republic in September, 2001. It seems odd that the story of a German politician's scandal could illuminate my own experience as a post-counterculture California suburbanite, but so it did, or so I thought anyway. For the first time I understood something of the process whereby the complicated, weird shadows of the New Left in its period of unwitting decline were cast, in some way, though rarely clearly identified, on nearly every aspect of my life, from early childhood, through adolescence, punk rock, university and beyond. The following week, September 11th came along. Terror and Liberalism presently emerged, elucidating its complicated shadows in turn. He doesn't know it, but we've been through a lot together, Paul Berman and I.

I'm not going to review the book, or try to analyze or critique the argument, or anything like that. It stands on its own and you can judge its merits without any help from me. Right now I'm thinking of writing qua writing, and what follows is really more about me than Paul Berman. It's kind of weird to say, as his subject is terrorism and political violence, but Berman's writing is a joy to read. It really is, though.

Here's a bit that I thought was particularly brilliant. Berman is discussing a recent colloquy between Doctors Without Borders founder Dr. Bernard Kouchner and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, both noted European soixante-huitards who, he argues, exemplify revealing variations on the post-New Left experience. Kouchner mentions that many of his fellow activists have religious rather than orthodox left-wing backgrounds:

but, having made this observation, Kouchner had nothing else to say, and neither did Cohn-Bendit - quite as if the two of them, in contemplating the humanitarian enthusiasms of people from religious backgrounds, had tiptoed to the edge of their political understanding, and could only pause and wonder about what might lie beyond.
A simple, powerfully-imagined depiction of a familiar yet hard-to-describe state of mind. It's non-fiction, but, as the flap copy proclaims, it's also kind of like what you might find in a novel. By, say, Conrad or someone like that.

There are many such quotable Conrad-y chunks. Berman is easy to quote, but maddeningly difficult to summarize. The prose proceeds in a stately, leisurely, literate yet chatty manner, leaving the impression of lavish embellishment, prolixity, even. Yet when you try to condense any part of it into a meaningful abridgment, it turns out that your summary is longer than the original. This is because he tells stories within stories within stories; the relevance of these overlapping, intersecting personal narratives to each other and to his overall themes of totalitarianism, terror, reaction, and resistance are only gradually teased out. The fact that it all makes a kind of sense in the end comes as a sort of surprise, once you step back and realize what has happened. That's like a novel, too.

So Berman is a great writer by any measure. But there is one consistent peculiarity in his style, a petty observation, I know: he tends to break his paragraphs in the wrong place. What I mean is, quite often - not always, and not even more often than not, but often enough that you notice - quite often the final sentence of a paragraph will introduce a new topic, rather than sum up or "cap" the paragraph it is in. I don't want to tell him his job, but these "topic sentences" really should begin the succeeding paragraphs.

It's like this:

There were three reasons for X. The first was a. The second was b. And, perhaps most importantly, there was c. These were the three reasons for X. But what about the French?
The next paragraph will then explain about the French, but end with something like "Hannah Arendt saw things differently." And the next paragraph discusses how Hannah Arendt saw things but ends "meanwhile, in the Czech Republic, there were further developments." And so on. That's an exaggeration, but it's the kind of thing I mean.

It must be deliberate, since it happens so often and he is obviously a very careful writer. There is even (at least) one point where the opening line of a chapter finds itself, to the reader's surprise, tacked on to the final paragraph of the previous chapter.

Perhaps the technique is intended to heighten suspense, to draw the reader through, and I guess it does do that. But I find it disorienting. It weakens the "punchlines" or "money shots," of which there are many, by burying them, rushing past them without pausing for the audience to applaud or catch its breath. The effect is peculiar: while the argument is sharp and lucid and more clearly expressed than anything else you're likely to read on the subject; and while the writing is robust and incisive, and the insights deep and original and often quite moving; yet you get a slightly fuzzy, blurry feeling nonetheless, as though something is slightly out of focus.

When I read, I often like to pause from time to time after this or that paragraph, put the book down for a moment, and stare off into space, thinking what I like to imagine are deep, important thoughts about what I have just read. I realize now (and it's not by any means Paul Berman's fault, I know) that I subconsciously have relied on the little space at the end of one paragraph, and the indentation at the beginning of the next to signal the proper moment for this activity.

"Now Frank," the printed page is trying to tell me by means of little chunks of blank page amidst the printed parts, "if you want to pause to meditate upon the insight and majesty of the prose you have just read, now would be the perfect time; the author has told you everything you need to know, at this stage, in order to do this. When you are finished, please pick the book up once again and resume where you left off, and we will continue with the next chunk, which will follow logically from the previous one, to be sure, but which will, in its own small way, introduce and develop a further stage of the overall argument." The result of placing the indentation at capricious or illogical spots in the otherwise superbly organized flow of sentences is that it requires a degree of vigilance to make sure you know when you're supposed to put the book down and stare off into space to meditate on the insight and majesty of the prose. So in addition to the fuzzy feeling I described above, there is also a slight, yet clearly perceptible, sense of anxiety.

I've been reading Berman enthusiastically and exhaustively for years, and I've noticed this anxious, fuzzy feeling before, but it wasn't till now that I put my finger on the precise cause.

(Strangely, I've noticed a similar peculiarity in another New York writer whose work I love and whose overall outlook I find similarly congenial to mine: I mean Ron Rosenbaum, who, also like Berman incidentally, does not always shy away from sentence fragments the way you might expect him to. Perhaps it's a New York liberal hawk thing I'll never understand.)

Anyway, it's interesting that a simple organizational thing like the decision to break paragraphs according to an unconventional plan can affect one's mood to such an extent, even when you are enthusiastically with the program, so to speak. It does mine, anyhow. Your results may vary, of course, and probably will: I'm a bit weird.

That said, I cannot recommend this book highly enough, along with Terror and Liberalism and A Tale of Two Utopias. They are brilliant, the best of their kind, and there are few writers whose writing, qua writing, I enjoy more. Wonky paragraphs and all.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 12:43 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

December 11, 2005

The Evil Fruits of C. S. Lewis

John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley all died on the same day.

They all went to the same place.

Kennedy went to hell because he trusted in the Roman Whore.

Huxley went to hell because he trusted in himself alone and his hybrid Eastern mystic notions.

And, Lewis went to hell because he invented a new god, and he ended his life a Taoist.

We will prove it here.

That's the promise of this awesome anti-Catholic, anti-Narnia, King James Only-ist site, found by Cathy Seipp, who comments: "what we have here is a kind of strangely compelling American folk art that can't be faked."

That's for sure.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 02:49 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

December 09, 2005

Wish I Had Said That

A good one from Dave Barry, via one of Andrew Sullivan's correspondents:

The Democrats seem to be basically nicer people, but they have demonstrated time and again that they have the management skills of celery. They're the kind of people who'd stop to help you change a flat, but would somehow manage to set your car on fire. I would be reluctant to entrust them with a Cuisinart, let alone the economy. The Republicans, on the other hand, would know how to fix your tire, but they wouldn't bother to stop because they'd want to be on time for Ugly Pants Night at the country club.
Posted by Dr. Frank at 09:47 PM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

All of Them, All of Them Witches...

Another great Christmas gift idea:


(via Bookslut.)

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December 07, 2005

File Under: Things Sure Have Changed Since We Got Kicked Out of School

An eighth grader in Stronghurst, IL has been removed from school and faces criminal charges for compiling a list of people he found "annoying."

When I was a lad, there was no need to keep a list, as such a document would have included the entire student body, all the teachers and administrators, the government, the clergy, the police, the Boy Scouts of America, the Masons (yes, Masons, especially you) and indeed most of the population of the earth, with very few exceptions that would only serve to draw attention to the general rule.

An actual list would have been superfluous and impractical: thus was it easy enough to guess, but difficult to prove, the depths of my misanthropy. This is how you avoid Zero Tolerance attacks. Think big.

(via Overlawyered.)

UPDATE: also via Overlawyered:

File Under: On the Other Hand, Things Haven't Changed Much at All Since We Used to Have a Job

Two secretaries at the Atlantic City school district will share a $450,000 jackpot for having the good fortune to hear an administrator use the phrase "ride 'em hard and put 'em away wet." You can't win if you don't play.

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Yes, It is Possible to Mispronounce "Foghat"

The director of the King Dork audio book production called me last night to check on the pronunciation of various names and words in the book. It's a good thing, too; otherwise there might have been embarrassing errors in the pronunciation of "the Rezillos," "Wig Wam Bam," "Cretin Hop," and "Foghat." I'm "on call" if any further pronunciation questions arise. Otherwise, it's out of my hands and up to them.

The whole thing is even funnier if you know (as few do at this early date) that mispronunciations, accidental and deliberate, play a pretty big role in the story.

At any rate, it looks like they're starting the recording process today. I didn't recognize the reader's name, and I don't recall it now, but apparently he is "young-sounding."

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December 06, 2005

Video Killed the Video Star

Wil Wheaton comments on this story about HDTV, the beautiful people, and make up:

When I was heavily involved in promotional appearances for things like Star Trek, I was constantly amazed by the celebrities I'd meet in green rooms. Some of the most beautiful women on television were absolute gargoyles without the right lighting and make-up, and just about every leading man in the industry was much shorter, more balding, and closer to average than anyone would ever expect.
Posted by Dr. Frank at 02:11 AM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

And She Lived Happily Ever After

Here is a sweet account of a self-styled Musical Odyssey.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 12:48 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Christmas Gift Ideas

Plush toys of Cthulhu mythos entities, including Nyarlethotep, a Shuggoth, a Deep One, and these Cthulhu slippers:


(via boingboing.)

Posted by Dr. Frank at 12:37 AM | TrackBack

December 05, 2005

More from Our Narnia-addled Commentariat

Polly Toynbee melts down over a frustratingly popular allegorical lion.

Choice quotes:

Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls...

Here in Narnia is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America - that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right...

Toynbee concedes that our contemporary educational system has so successfully shielded recent generations from knowledge of history, literature, and culture that the often clunky and fairly obvious Christian allegorical content will be utterly unnoticed and incomprehensible to most of the new cohort of viewers and readers of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. That's a relief. Sometimes a lion is just a lion.

Yet Toynbee's faith in this benign process of deculturation wavers in the end, reflecting, I fancy, a fear that we as a society may yet fail to pass on to future generations our own hostility towards and embarrassment about Christendom and its history. What if our carefully secularized children, in the process of enjoying an exciting fairy tale about English children and a lion, happen inadvertently to sense something of the deeper, intensely troubling, drama of redemption at the root of the story? What if they "ask embarrassing questions?"

Well, let's hope they don't. With any luck, they won't.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 06:48 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

December 03, 2005

Words to Live By

So earlier this week I was down in L.A. recording acoustic versions of five songs that are referenced in King Dork, the book.

It was at the Books on Tape headquarters in Woodland Hills, CA. (The audio version of King Dork is going to be on Listening Library, but they're both Random House companies.) They record lots of audio books at this location. I looked in on a session for the audio version of a nonfiction book about the mystique of The Oyster. (That's not a little known Batman arch-villain gastropod - it's about actual oysters, and it was being read with great drama by a reader with a Craig McClure-esque Announcing Voice: "...the size of an oyster depends upon the quality of its food..." I fancy it's something like How the Oyster Changed the World and Saved Civilization or maybe simply The Romance of the Oyster, but I don't know for certain. What I heard was pretty gripping in any case.) You know how they have gold records? Well, there was a gold cassette tape on the wall, for the audio book of The Da Vinci Code.

Now I've listened to a lot of audio books in my day. I've got into the habit of listening to them while trying to fall asleep, which can be difficult for me; they really help. I get them from the library. One hilarious and annoying characteristic of the older Books on Tape books is that a huge chunk of side one is taken up by this lengthy explanation of what a cassette is, and instructions for what to do in case of cassette malfunction: "...take it in your hand, and rap it smartly against a table or desk..." Plus they read every single word, including the copyright notice and lots of other extraneous stuff. It's quite funny the first few times you hear it. I mentioned this to the producer of my audio book, and he said they have been in the process of editing out the "front end" of a lot these books, but that many of those still in libraries date back to the origins of the whole Books on Tape concept when it was felt that people had to be informed about the ins and outs of the then-novel cassette format, and where audio books were conceived of as audible replications of the text of books for a blind or illiterate audience. It's usually an elderly person simply reading the book out loud into a tape recorder, like your grandma reading you a bedtime story when you're five.

Nowadays, they think of audio books as dramatic performances in their own right, not just audible texts. The readers are "artists" who do voices for the characters and try to evoke the mood of the story. It's really quite different from a person reading a story out loud: the reader impersonates the narrator. They haven't yet chosen a reader for King Dork, but I'm pretty curious to see how they'll end up making it into an audio performance, because in my mind it's still a written text. I don't know why, but it feels slightly freaky to imagine someone "doing" Tom Henderson, the narrator.

Anyhow, the songs recorded were "King Dork," "Gooey Glasses," "I'm Still Not Done Loving You, Mama," "Thinking of Suicide," and "I Wanna Ramone You." Three of them will be on an advance promotional tschotske for booksellers; the full slate will be "bonus tracks" for the audio book.

Posted by Dr. Frank at 03:37 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

December 01, 2005

Save the World on Your Own Time, Mom

Kyrie O'Connor says that CS Lewis's The Horse and His Boy is too politically incorrect to be made into a movie without heavy bowdlerization. She's probably right, though my recollection is that the Saracen slurs run through the other books, too. (It's been awhile since I've read them, I admit.) At any rate, the passages she quotes seem pretty tame as such things go.

So what can you do if your kids want to read this book before Hollywood makes it safe for what we hope are their tender, unobjectionable sensibilities? Burn it! Just kidding. Here's what you tell them:

The man who wrote this book wrote a lot of great stories. But they were great when they were complicated and magical, when his imagination took him into places and stories that were close to his heart.

In his time, people thought it was amusing to make fun of other cultures. We don't. Read the stories, ask questions, and remember that the person who wrote this story was altogether too human.

Stop rolling your eyes, Junior. I mean it...

(via Bookslut.)

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