Monthly Archives: November 2004

Red and Blue TV

Paul Farhi of The Washington Post wonders, where has all the red state television gone?

It is, rather, about place. For the past three
decades, network television has gradually eliminated depictions of
regions we’ve come to think of as "red": southern, midwestern,
mountainous, rural, exurban. Over the same period, TV shows have become
"bluer" — populated by people and stories set in locations identical
to those that voted Democratic on Nov. 2.

TV dramas and sitcoms for years have extolled
blue-city living, and marginalized, condescended to or simply ignored
just about everywhere else. Even the fact that TV shows are made in Los
Angeles and the business of network TV is conducted in a few square
blocks of Manhattan does not explain the blue-centric nature of
entertainment television.

And is Jessica Simpson the right choice to be the new Daisy Duke?


Central Park and The Gates

Gates_ori_ref_052The 15,000 steel bases for 7,500
gates, part of an art project, will arrive in Central Park on
Wednesday, according to The Los Angeles Times. The bases are part of The Gates (Making of The Gates), a "massive outdoor" art project by Christo and Jeanne-Claude Benepe.

"Saffron-colored fabric panels being
prepared at a Queens warehouse will adorn the gates throughout the
843-acre park," says The Los Angeles Times. "The effect, the artists say, will be like ‘a golden
river appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the

Top VOIP Bloggers

Jeff Pulver lists his picks for the Top VOIP (voice over IP) Bloggers of 2004.

Searchable Literary DNA

I have always though that reading writer and artist reviews was among the best ways of learning about art and craft. The Paris Review and Bomb magazine are two literary journals that regularly publish memorable interviews. I remember poring over The Paris Review’s Writers at Work series, the magazine’s hardback anthologies of its interviews, in the stacks of the Thomas Cooper Library. The fifth series, with its interviews of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, is my favorite.

USA Today and GregBlog  gives a heads up that The Paris Review is now making some of its old interviews available online in a feature the magazine is calling The DNA of Literature. The searchable database will eventually make more than 50 years of interviews available online for free.

Founder and former Editor George Plimpton dreamed of a day when
anyone—a struggling writer in Texas, an English teacher in Amsterdam,
even a subscriber in Central Asia—could easily access this vast
literary resource; with the establishment of this online archive that
day has finally come.

Navigating Newspapers

The Washington Post is losing 4,000 subscribers a month, most of them young readers, according to the Washington City Paper.

The news from the focus groups formed by The Post to figure out the reason for the losses was eye opening, says GregBlog:

Some of the participants treated
the physical paper like a foreign object, asking, "Why is it so big?"
They expressed concerns about old papers piling up around the house.
They worried about recycling and the environment. Some said they
wouldn’t accept even a complimentary subscription to the newspaper. The Post was learning a recent truism the hard way: Young people look to the Internet for their news, and they expect it to be free. ( gets 14 million pageviews a month, second only to

Young readers also said that the (phyiscal) newspaper needed more "navigation aids."

Leaving a Trace

If we are all leaving searchable trails on the Internet, wonders Steve Hall, how is that going to affect social behavior in the future? Are you going to be more careful knowing that anything you do might turn up easily on the Internet?

For example, let’s say someone (not me, of course) has a minor run-in with the law such as running a red light, etc. In the past, one would simply pay the fine and the event is then swept under the rug of bureaucratic history. Today, it is not unimaginable to think of all sorts of instances such as this that might be captured, distributed and archived providing a publicly searchable trail of data on people throughout their lives. (Now that I think about it, I suppose this very blog entry will be searchable and attributed to me even 50 years from now). With information exposure and preservation increasingly becoming the norm rather than the exception, will individuals actually begin to positively modify their behavior based on this unitended system of check and balance?

As evidence, he points not just to the search engines, but a firm called Elyion that aggregates corporate-related biographical information. It’s eerie how much information about us is out there; to this day, there are decade-old messages I have left on message boards that turn up on Internet searches. Doing a search on myself through Lexis/Nexis or CapitalIQ, which pulls much of its information from SEC documents, is also somewhat eerie.

We have already seen the impact of such traceability on journalism and politics. It is much easier to search for an article by a particular journalist–or word uttered in public by a politician. Every word they have ever written or said can potentially come back to haunt them. How is that for reputation forming? (Can you say "flip flop," anyone?)

I wonder how it is going to specifically affect literary careers Many of my writing friends submit their stories to both print and online venues. It is a legacy of the traditional publishing that many print journals remain the most prestigious, partly since appearing in paper form seems less ephemeral to the young writer quixotically seeking immortality. Print publications have the feel of the real about them: you can see, touch–if you want, taste, the story that had been printed on paper. You can show them to your friends to prove that you are a "real" writer. Online publications have the potential to reach more people, though, as Jason Sanford has argued in Story South.

Most literary magazines just can’t compete against the reach and long-term exposure of online magazines. Want to read a back issue of storySouth—no problem, just go to our back issues page. Want to read a back issue of the New England Review—best of luck finding a copy. In fact, I suspect this is why many mid-list literary magazines are in trouble. Some are switching to dual online and print publications. Those that can’t, or are unwilling, such as the respected journal Crazyhorse, simply cease publication.

It also means, however, that both your best–and worst fiction, stays in circulation much longer than it formerly did. If a typical writer or artist does not hit his peak until he is in his 30s, how do we judge the output that came before and after? Before, it used to be fairly easy to deepsix your early work. You let it languish in the remaindered bins, or if you were particularly paranoid and independently wealthy, you snapped up any remaining copies. Bad writing fell out of print. Embarassing journals could be burned. Instead, these days your journals are called blogs, and you share them as publicly as you can. They, and your short stories, might stay online forever.

On the other hand, the web might provide an interesting way for you to look at the career of a writer in totality. You can read through a succession of Honore Balzac’s novels of WIlliam Shakespeare’s plays through Project Gutenberg , or look at manuscript collections online (like the F. Scott Fitzgerald online exhibition at the University of South Carolina).

Which doesn’t deal with the central issue that Hall brings up: how to keep yourself from becoming infamous. Graham Greene’s family has taken exception with the latest volume of Norman Sherry’s biography of the great writer. They say that they portray him as an over-sexed man. Notably, Sherry was given permission to review private letters. What about the very public journals that some of us now write? You might choose to keep some of your musings more private and be more judicious in your actions. Or at least, don’t let your indiscretions get onto the Internet.

A Book of Poetry

The New York Times Book Review  asked a group of poets and critics one of those toughest of questions: "What book of poetry, published in the last 25 years, has meant the
most to you personally — the book you have found yourself returning to
again and again?"

Jim Harrison explained why he explores and goes back to explore certain poetry.

Now that I am older and am sliding into home base, I’ve become aware
that I’ve read some poetry nearly every day for the past 50 years for
basically nutritional reasons. It is a survival tactic, this soul food,
a need to assuage the sense of incomprehension that I have lived with
daily since I was a desperate and vulnerable boy. Just last week on a
French book tour when I felt like a stray dog struck by a car and
biting at its wounds in a ditch I stopped into a bookstore to fortify
myself with a few pages of Rimbaud and Rene Char.

The persons and their picks?

10,000 Monkeys Typing

How soon will it be before computers can write novels? In "Computers as Authors? Literary Luddites Unite!" (NYT) Daniel Akst says that "They are perfectly capable of nonfiction prose, and while the reputation of Henry James is not yet threatened, computers can even generate brief outbursts of fiction that are probably superior to what many humans could turn out – even those not in master of fine arts programs."

Fortunately, flesh-and-blood writers are nowhere near having to hang up their turtlenecks. When I called Steven Pinker, the Harvard University psychologist whose research focuses on language and cognition, he pointed out that the human brain consists of 100 trillion synapses that are subjected to a lifetime of real-world experience. While it is conceivable that computers will eventually write novels, Dr. Pinker says, "I doubt they’d be very good novels by human standards."

Computers are just as subject as humans to Simon’s "bounded rationality." Computers cannot create narratives by using brute computational force to mindlessly try every alternative. It may be fun to think that 10,000 monkeys typing for 10,000 years will sooner or later randomly produce "Paradise Lost," but evidently this is no more plausible for silicon than simians. Computers don’t even play chess this way, Dr. Pinker told me, having noted elsewhere that the number of possible sentences of 20 words or less that the average person can understand is perhaps a hundred million trillion, or many times the number of seconds since the universe was born. "The possibilities boggle the mind very quickly," he says.

The article mentions Selmer Bringsjord and David Ferrucci’s Brutus 1 project (check out their paper "Artificial Intelligence and Literary Creativity" [pdf]) and Charles Callaway and James Lester’s StoryBook, a "narrative prose generator" (see these papers on natural language generation).

Where Does the Buck Stop?

Investor’s Business Daily cavalierly dismisses worries about America’s twin deficits and declining dollar.  IBD is not bothered that even the normally more sanguine Alan Greenspan has chimed in with a warning that the deficits "cannot continue to increase forever."

With all due respect to the
"maestro," he really shouldn’t worry. And neither should you.

IBD’s explanation is likewise cavalier.

One, the Fed has held real interest rates below zero for a prolonged
period. It has printed money to keep the economic expansion on track.
Two, the dollar isn’t plunging against all currencies; it’s mostly
falling against the euro.

Exactly. Interest rates were held low because the economy had slowed and needed stimulating (don’t forget that policymakers at one pointed even feared deflation). Low interest rates were a necessity, but implying that they characterize economic strength is a bit much. Now the pendulum is beginning to swing the other way, and Greenspan and company are having to think about what happens in a more inflationary environment. The weakening dollar also weighs on the minds of traders worried about inflationary forces on the U.S. economy.

And why has the U.S. dollar mostly fallen against the Euro and not against the Asian currencies? Well, as we have stated before, the Asian countries continue to help prop the U.S. dollar through their purchases of our Treasuries and other securities; they do so because they need us to keep buying their products. As long as they stay comfortable doing so, IBD can keep happily peddling its bullish scenarios in its newspaper. But if some of these net buyers of our securities finally start becoming a little more anxious about our country’s fiscal health, there could be a problem, says Bloomberg’s Andy Mukherjee:      

There’s another important reason why Bretton Woods II may
have to be dumped. Nouriel Roubini, a professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business, says that the current global financial system can be sustained only if Asian central banks act as a cartel and keep their existing and future reserves in U.S. dollars.

There is, however, no formal cartel. As a result, every Asian central bank will want to protect itself against an erosion in the value of its assets from a decline in the dollar. In other words, what’s in the interest of one Asian central bank isn’t for all. Social scientists have a name for this phenomenon: “Tragedy of the Commons.” [Actually, "prisoner’s dilemma." –Wayne]

“All central banks may be better off if no bank tries to diversify its reserve holdings,” Roubini says, “but as the risks of dollar depreciation grows, each central bank has an incentive to defect and to try to protect itself from losses.” Losses could indeed be large. Asian central banks own more than $2.2 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves out of a global total of $3.4 trillion.

When a Spade is More than a Spade

My high school freshman English teacher David Knight gave our class an essay exam on each of the parts of speech and the major forms of punctuation. Don’t blame him if you find me grammatically incorrect. (To PC or not PC is another issue entirely.) So it was with a feeling of deja vu that I stumbled onto this blog entry from CSM’s Ruth Walker. In "Mass Confusion You Can Count On," Walker explains the difference  between "mass" nouns and "count" nouns.

It’s sometimes enough to prompt a twinge of envy
within me at people laboring in fields where the tools have simpler
names, like "rake" or "hoe" or "shovel" or even "spade." It’s always
great to be able to call a spade a spade. And so I was thrilled a few years ago to discover that fellow wordsmiths use the simple straightforward terms "mass noun" and "count noun" to distinguish between, well – to distinguish between "stuff" and "things."

If that is not enough wordsmithing for you, check out her blog Verbal Energy, which features her Punctuation Boot Camp.