October 13, 2009

Don't Rain On My Parade

Today, another early first rain. At least this time it tries to be convincing, but it's never rain enough to match the media hype, the scrolling "Stormwatch!" crawls on the TV newscasts, and the breathless live news reports of sundry battening-down and sandbagging across the region after the long dry season. But at least it did rain, and while (as always) there was no "storm" in any sense recognisable outside coastal California usage, there was a bit of wind and low cloud with the rain, and the puddles were fun to walk through. In my experience early first rains tend to presage a dry wet season; we've had three or four dry seasons in a row, and if I have to go through another rainless wet season with people cheerily commenting on the "beautiful weather" again, I think I'll scream. Water crisis? What water crisis?

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September 15, 2009

Who He?

Today's San Francisco Chronicle made front (business) page news out of local company Chevron's Gorgon venture off Western Australia with an above-the-fold article and a photo of "Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd" and a Chevron functionary in hard hats looking at plans on-site. But they identified the wrong guy in the pic as Rudd, an easy error in a newspaper that probably doesn't have a single editor or staff writer who'd know what the Australian Prime Minister actually looks like. But as always, why should the Chron know something like that? Maybe that other Australian, our Governator, might care, but to the rest of the US, it's all a bit of a puzzle, I guess.

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September 12, 2009

It's All About US (Refrain)

In an otherwise mostly well-aimed and thoughtful NYT OpEd article a few days ago about Afghanistan, Bob Herbert writes "It's obscene what we're doing to the [US] men and women who have volunteered for the armed forces [...]".

Well, yes; but the real obscenity is what's being done to the men and women (and children) of Afghanistan, often enough in the name of the US. It's diagnostic that Herbert — a voice of what passes for the soft left here in the US — couches his jeremiad almost entirely in terms of the financial, moral, and human costs of the war to the US. As with the Vietnam war (the war he uses as a cautionary comparison), where US commentators (and movies, books, etc.) so often completely left out the Vietnamese, and the later debates on the Iraq war which did the same, in US debates on the Afghan war the Afghanis seem little more than ghostly abstractions if they're mentioned at all.

Like it or not, the US and allies chose to invade Afghanistan, and have a responsibility to the Afghan people that transcends pure self-interest; as with Iraq earlier, though, more and more the public calculus on the Afghan war is being discussed purely in terms of what's best for the US. Foreign war as continuation of domestic politics, I guess (yes, I've said that before, too).

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August 01, 2009

The Rest Of The Story

Corazon Aquino dies, and the front page tributes and obits in the US media rightly stress the courage and integrity she showed in her struggle against the Marcos regime. But what these US sources almost universally don't mention — except in throwaway phrases at the end of the piece or hints here and there — is that that struggle was against a US-backed and US-armed regime that had US support until its last dying moments. As a mark of respect, it'd be nice if the US media had the courage to get the bigger story out there as well…

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April 13, 2009


Today's Google news is reporting Peter Zumthor's Pritzker Prize in its entertainment section — alongside such gems as Woody Harrelson's zombie attack and Billy Bob Thornton's latest contretemps. This is as it should be, I guess.

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December 16, 2008

That Kennedy Thing (Again)

In a recent HuffPost article, the reliably loopy Michael Carmichael seems to want to claim the Obama Moment for aging Boomers:
"The image of a US Senate graced by two Kennedys both bearing the flame of JFK and conjuring the era of Camelot presents a potent concoction of political magic at a critical juncture in American history now seemingly on the threshold of a resurgence of progressive energy and the promise of positive change in the Obama Era."
Yeah, that's real change, that is.

I wish I could say that the idea of Caroline Kennedy being anointed Senator for New York mostly because she's, well, a Kennedy, surprises me, but it doesn't, of course. And I wish I could say that my initial impression that Carmichael's article was a wicked parody rather than a starry-eyed eulogy for a privileged upbringing and an easily-come-by constellation of useful contacts was right, but I don't think it was. That endless clueless sense of entitlement is probably the biggest legacy the American Boomers will leave the world (or, rather, the environmental, financial, political, and cultural collateral damage caused by that sense of entitlement will be the biggest legacies).

"America is transfixed. The world is transfixed. The Kennedy legend promises to open another chapter." Riiiiight

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October 04, 2008

Waiting For Rain

Another early first rain, even earlier than the previous earliest I can remember, the first rain at all in at least six months. Big news: it topped the local broadcast TV news last night with dramatic scrolling "Stormwatch" graphics and even beat out the Bailout for the first five minutes. As always, there was no storm, just some light overnight rain; but we need every bit we can get, and self-absorption tends to be its own reward. Early first rains here tend to be harbingers of dry years; we shall see….

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July 27, 2008

That's Entertainment

In a recent Grauniad blog posting on the Murat affair Roy Greenslade asks:
How come newspapers with highly-paid legal teams were so blatantly allowed to libel these people? Did every lawyer in every paper fail to note that the stories were libellous? If they did notice, did editors ignore their legal eagles' advice?

That is one of the enduring mysteries about this sad episode, the failure of so many experienced journalists and in-house lawyers to stop and ask themselves what they were doing. Can anyone tell us why?
I can't tell if he's being disingenuous or naive (or both), but surely the reason they keep on doing this is because it works: it pays. The (at most) £100,000 each paper will pay is surely considered just a reasonable cost of doing business, a small price to pay over time for giving readers and potential readers a good dose of self-righteousness and voyeurism. How better to attract readers and advertisers? That's entertainment (which is after all the business most newspapers are in).

(Note: I know little about the justice or otherwise of the Murat case itself, given my fairly low level of interest in the whole McCann Thing).

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May 05, 2008

Here And There

Thousands — maybe tens of thousands — of people are dead after a typhoon runs rampage in Burma; food riots break out in Sudan, Bolivia, and sundry other places; Zimbabwe's deadly electoral contortions continue…. But that's all there. Here, by contrast, the first thirty minutes of the broadcast TV news this evening is about a small local chemical spill, sundry acts of local violence, a new airline luggage checkin policy, and the inevitable Cinco de Mayo celebrations. It's another world Out There. Who knew? Who knows?

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April 02, 2008

Brooklyn West

Last Sunday's NYT had a typically lightweight and slightly twee piece on the cultural and social parallels between Brooklyn and the East Bay (especially, funnily enough, Lovely Industrial East Oakland), and even the personal connections between the two. I've long claimed that Oakland plays Newark to San Francisco's Manhattan, but Brooklyn's a more positive role model, no? The truth is, pretty much only rich kids or Boomer Grownups who got in early can afford to live productively in either Manhattan or San Francisco now (with the emphasis on "productively"), and while people looked at me a little strangely all those years ago when I first started rabbiting on about Oakland being the new art centre of the Bay Area, no one seems to think it's odd now. I don't so much feel vindicated as apprehensive: when your neighbourhood gets mentioned favourably in an NYT Styles section article, and the phrase "Arts District" gets bandied around unironically, you just know you won't be able to afford the rent in a few years' time, and you'll join the long (and already started) exodus of artists in search of new pastures further afield.

San Leandro, here I come….

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January 18, 2008

Busy, Busy, Busy...

"LONDON, Jan 18 (Reuters) - London's Heathrow airport, the busiest international airport in the world, struggled to return to normal on Friday, one day after a Boeing 777 crash-landed, causing travel chaos but only minor injuries". (in a recent Reuters news article).

When I lived in London, there wasn't a Londoner on earth who didn't "know" that Heathrow was the busiest airport in the world. In Britain it's a "fact" that's repeated casually in news stories, conversations, documentaries, etc. over and over without the slightest doubt that it's true. But Heathrow isn't the busiest airport — or even international airport — in the world, not by a long shot (that would be Atlanta, followed by Chicago and sundry other US airports; even — sacre bleu! — Paris's Charles de Gaulle is usually busier). Sure, Heathrow might have the most international flights or passengers, but that's only because you really can't fly more than a short distance from Heathrow without crossing an international boundary. For a short while in the late 1990's even the airport I learned to fly at (Oakland International) was busier in terms of aircraft landing and taking off (etc.) than Heathrow (flying a small Cessna on busy approaches shared by 747s, 777s, etc. surely gave me a rather warped perspective on GA flying, but it's served me well over the years).

(I passively collect bogus instances of the "biggest | busiest | fastest | etc." things I see around me like this; the whole obsession started when, within a month or two, I passed signs advertising "the biggest IMAX screen in the world!" for cinemas in, respectively, LA, Sydney, New York, Denver, and Atlanta (if I remember correctly). My guess is they were all exactly the same size…).

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December 27, 2007

The Big Question

As half the world seems to know by now, a day or two ago a Siberian tiger escaped from its cage in San Francisco zoo and killed a visitor before it was itself killed by police (it also badly injured two other visitors). Even today the local media is full of stories asking what almost every commentator calls the puzzling question: how did the tiger get out of its cage, cross the moat separating its pen from the larger zoo, and break through various fences to get to its victims? But the real puzzle is why on earth anyone would cage an animal like this in a zoo like that (or anywhere as cramped and cold as San Francisco). Zoos are some of the most depressing places in earth for me; I usually can't bear to visit them.

In other news, several people were killed by guns around the Bay. They were barely noticed.

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November 16, 2007

St. Herbert

Herbert Muschamp died recently. I can't top Michael Bierut's article on him in Design Observer: he was required reading, but not always for the reasons he wanted to be read, all those "outré movie references, inappropriate sexually-charged metaphors, sweeping incontrovertible declarations, and, of course, the requisite roll call of the moment's hottest names" (as Bierut puts it). I think I've always much preferred Paul Goldberger as an architectural critic.

About the only thing that surprised me in the various obits was Muschamp's age: hardly young (59), but much younger than I'd mentally pegged him as. He seemed to be a holdover from the Europe of the immediate post-War, if not maybe even Weimar; my mental image of him was of some sort of cravatted roue in his eighties or even nineties, holding forth to the entranced younguns about pre-War European Modernist pioneers and artists. Yes, too cruel, I know; but nothing I say here can detract from his overall influence or effect, and hell I enjoyed his writing (if not always his message).

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November 05, 2007

In Local News…

Leave it to The Grauniad to do a thorough, unsensationalist piece on the Chauncey Bailey killing, a piece of one of Oakland's dirtier little secrets, a long-running story that too many around here wouldn't touch with a bargepole until there was one death too many….

The talk 'round here, though, is that the OPD botched the initial interrogations and investigations badly enough that there may never be any real convictions in this or the broader cases (or, as the Grauniad piece hints, the OPD are themselves implicated in some way in all this anyway). If that happens, the revenge killings and recriminations won't be pretty, even by Oaktown's standards….

(Not sure how long the Grauniad link will be valid for…).

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September 20, 2007

That Bin Laden Thing

"Bin Laden has created a situation in which the U.S. occupation in Iraq is viewed as entirely 'illegitimate' and therefore any violence there by Sunni jihadists against American or Iraqi civilians is considered entirely legitimate 'resistance'" — Thomas Friedman in a recent NYT Op-Ed piece.

Without taking anything away from Friedman's main point in the article as a whole, it's a little odd to claim that Bin Laden created this situation. Bin Laden didn't invade Iraq on transparently-false pretenses, and Bin Laden didn't then preside over a deeply-destructive occupation of lethal missteps and incompetent ad hoc decisions. And Bin Laden as he currently exists is at least partly a creation of ruthlessly-stupid and deeply hypocritical American foreign policy decisions, both recent and over the decades. And of media and administration attempts to portray him as much larger than life.

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September 08, 2007

No One Reads Newspapers Anymore…

I got a short letter to the public editor published (under my real name) in last Sunday's New York Times and no one noticed. Humph.

But that doesn't surprise me at all — who really reads newspapers anymore? Who even skims them? For years now my main sources of news have been online (I mostly use Google's news aggregator), and my subscription to the paper version of the NYT is mostly for reading in the Milano over weekend breakfasts, or late at night, long after the front page became yesterday's news (I've been subscribing pretty much as long as it's possible to have been a subscriber in Northern California; I read the analysis and longer background articles only, and maybe try to keep up with the local news from New York). Long before the web (from the early 1980's up until about 2000), my main source of science and technology news and gossip (and, oddly, classical music theory and criticism) had been Usenet, now just a backwater of spam and endless flamewars (I keep thinking of those mythical rivers that caught fire due to the amount of toxic waste dumped into them). So I don't really read coherently (or otherwise) edited newspapers (in print or on the net) so much as I read a melange of articles from disparate sources; the little pictures don't always quite cohere as a Big Picture.

Unlike a lot of people I know, I'm just not nostalgic for newspapers as such, though — I don't think I'd mourn the passing of the print edition of the NYT at all, as long as I had something a little less irritating than my laptop to read the online version with while on BART or sitting at a cramped table in Berkeley, or lounging around in my studio. It'll happen; and sooner rather than later, I hope. And then I'll be able to complain crankily that no one reads at all, any more.

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July 15, 2007


In a recent Grauniad Johnathan Freedland mulls rather haplessly over what the web might do to politics and political communities, and concludes that it "risks shattering what was once a collective mass. That could undermine the power of people to act as a counterweight to governments and big corporations. If we are all broken into small units — 'parties of one', as a web guru puts it — we will lose that combined strength".

True enough, in its own way, but it misses the point that what the web does is more radical than that — we don't lose mass movements because of it, we in fact gain mass movements; but they're usually evanescent mass movements based on much less stable alliances and rather different ways of (mis)communicating shared grievances, identities, and ideologies than the old models… and there's several orders of magnitude more of them. Here today, gone tomorrow, flash mob mass politics: this might be unsettling to politics in the Modern mould, but (for good or for bad) thoroughly recognisable to that dated cliche, the Postmodern mind (the net is postmodernity without the twee irony; yes, I've said that before…).

The web doesn't destroy community, it creates the means to belong to an infinite variety of communities, based not so much on location or physical attributes as virtual, arbitrary, or even (quite literally) imaginary attributes; ditto for mass movements. Whether these are real or authentic communities or mass movements is an interesting question for someone, but not a question that's going to get in the way of anything much out there in the real virtual world.

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July 01, 2007

All About Art

There's an amusing (but potentially fairly ugly) little kerfuffle going on in the New York art world between the established (uhuh…) street artists / graffitiists (think "Banksy" and epigones) and a bunch of so-far mostly faceless defacers and disruptors. As reported by that newspaper-with-its-pulse-on-what's-happening-on-the-street, the NYT, "One manifesto declared street art 'a bourgeois-sponsored rebellion,' politically impotent, facilitiating gentrification". (Michael Kimmleman, "Splashing the Art World With Anger and Questions", NYT 30/6/07).

Well, yes. Maybe. Does anyone really think that the street art that's being talked about there is any sort of rebellion, let alone a bourgeois-sponsored rebellion, nowadays? It's an industry, a cog in the production of the Spectacle (it is a spectacle), a product with a carefully-nurtured market and an associated party set.

Later, ending Kimmelman's article: "Minus the incendiary devices, this latest little flap is proof that art can still matter". But it's not about art, is it?

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June 19, 2007


In an op-ed piece in Sunday's NYT, Frank Rich points out that "it's [...] revealing that the only 'casualty of a war' Mr. Ajami's conscience prompts him to mention [in a typically-overheated WSJ op-ed article] is Mr. Libby, a figurative casualty rather than a literal one".

It's even more revealing that in Rich's op-ed piece the only casualties of war mentioned besides Scooter Libby are US soldiers. Not a word on the Iraqis, by far the major casualties of the war so far. Even for Rich (whose op-ed bits I typically enjoy), the war's so often All About US.

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June 09, 2007

Burying The Lede

Talk about burying the lede: in the last few paragraphs of a long NYT front-page story and rumination on the meaning of Paris Hilton's reincarceration, there's a comparison with Scooter Libby's sentence; buried in those few paragraphs is the real meat: the (conservative, Bush-appointed) Libby trial judge's sarcastic rejoinder to those worthies (including Alan Dershowitz and Robert Bork) who filed a supporting brief for Libby urging a lenient sentence:
"The court trusts […]" that the brief "is a reflection of these eminent academics' willingness in the future to step up to the plate and provide like assistance in cases involving any of the numerous litigants, both in this court and throughout the courts of our nation, who lack the financial means to fully and properly articulate the merits of their legal positions."

"The court", he added, "will certainly not hesitate to call for such assistance from these luminaries."
Wish I'd said that.

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April 15, 2007

Andrew Sullivan's Soul

"Sullivan splashes excitedly around like a dog in a mud puddle, snarling ferociously at any other dog who challenges his position du jour. He's less a skeptic than a mercurial, and somewhat flirtatious, born believer" — Jonathan Raban reviewing Andrew Sullivan's "The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back" in a recent NYRB.

Sullivan's a smart, complex, tragic, and (for me, at least) rather attractive and exemplary figure (for all the wrong reasons), a man who seems to struggle mightily with having to bear a whole bunch of crosses, not least of which is that he's a True Believer trying desperately to belong in the skeptical house of Oakeshott, and he's the sort of person (common enough in academia and politics) whose rhetorical abilities far outstrip his self-knowledge. Like many True Believers, he seems defined by his need for True Enemies (rather than the True Enemies themselves), someone who navigates by a constantly changing constellation of intellectual enemies.

"For the fundamentalist ... there is one moment of real conscience, the moment when he makes the decision to conform his mind and will to an external authority. After that, his sole task is obedience [...]". (Sullivan dissing fundamentalists, as quoted by Raban).

Sullivan's real tragedy, though, bubbling below the surface, is that he failed the greatest moral and philosophical test of his life, throwing himself in uncritically with the quite plainly Rationalist (in Oakeshott's usage of the term) Bush project immediately after 9/11 (and especially with the Iraq invasion). He became fundamentalist at the crucial moment; or, rather, he seems to be a serial fundamentalist who latched on to another True Belief in the heat of the moment. His latter-day reflections on quite why he behaved that way seem disingenuous or quite unable to get to the heart of the matter: we weren't all fooled, we didn't all Believe in the way he did.

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January 09, 2007


This is iconically self-absorbed: "What's clear is the enormous price our nation is paying for President Bush's character flaws" — Paul Krugman, in an OpEd piece ("Quagmire of The Vanities") about Iraq in Monday's NYT. Gee, Paul, do you think the price their nation — you know, Iraq, the nation that didn't democratically decide as a nation to visit "freedom" on another country under utterly false pretenses — do you think they might not be paying a much bigger price? It's iconic that in the entire piece (a piece I otherwise enjoyed reading) the focus is on what's best for the US, not for Iraq. And it's iconic in blaming it all on a single person's character flaws — as if the US populace as a whole were really blameless good-hearted level-headed innocents, and that we can just blame it all on Bad Man Bush and (perhaps) a few of his crazier cronies.

And this is likely to become even more iconic in the near future: "It seems increasingly clear to me that the bame for the violence in Iraq, and for its frenzied recoil from what Fouad Ajami hopefully called 'the foreigner's gift', belongs to the Iraqis. [...] For three and a half years the Iraqis have been a free people. What have they done with their freedom? [...] After we invaded Iraq, Iraq invaded itself" (Leon Wieseltier, quoted in the LRB, 4/1/07). That last bit is sharp and insightful in a nicely soundbiteish sort of way, and I'm sure it was deeply satisfying to write. But the patronising tone of the rest of it and that well-honed ability to excuse the US by blaming Iraq for being ungrateful or unworthy for the US's gift of … well, just what exactly? … is the road to the future for both the Right and bits of the Left in US politics, I suspect. Poor old America, always being picked on by an ungrateful world.

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