Mildly Malevolent

"So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information." --George Orwell

"Anbody can make history. Only a great man can write it."--Oscar Wilde

contact info:

ecohn-at-uchicago-dot-edu

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Wednesday, February 11, 2004

On second thought, I've decided that I'll do essentially all of my blogging at Gnostical Turpitude for the foreseeable future. I can imagine updating this site with more personal entries from time to time; I may revive it when I spend a year in Russia, writing travel log entries describing my experiences in Moscow and the provinces. I've decided, however, that I prefer blogging at GT (with Movable Type) than blogging here. The format works much better and more smoothly, and I prefer writing short essay-style entries (which is easier outside of blogger). I've also found that I'm less likely to kill time looking for links when I only post an entry filled with links every day or two. (My usual modus operandi here was to sit at a computer, with some work to do, doing the work and occasionally browsing the web for interesting sites; I've been more effective at compartmentalizing my time since the switch to Gnostical Turpitude, since before the move I'd occasionally get stuck in a rut of looking for good links and not finding them.)

My plan at Gnostical Turpitude is to write an essay-style entry or two a day, with another entry (consisting of a set of links with very little commentary) every couple days. So if you come to my blog to look for links, that will continue. Should you not like my current plan, feel free to email me and say so--I don't think I'll change my mind, but I'll be interested in hearing.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

The Chronicle of Higher Education has published a useful run-down of the debate over a review board for government-funded area studies centers.

Monday, February 02, 2004

And now, at long last, the unveiling of the mysterious "project" I've mentioned: I've joined a new group blog of University of Chicago students called Gnostical Turpitude. The blog will focus on academia and things academic; its three co-bloggers are a high-energy physicist, a cancer biologist, and a Soviet history specialist (me). Most of my entries, not surprisingly, will deal with things like history, historiography, academia, books, and politics. Check it out!

I'm currently debating exactly how I'll be blogging in the future. One likely possibility is that I'll continue to maintain this site (with short entries providing links and commentary), with longer, essay-style entries at Gnostical Turpitude. It's also possible that I'll retire this site. Who knows? For the next couple weeks, I expect that I'll focus more on Gnostical Turpitude (in part to ensure that it gets off to a smooth start, and in part because it may take less time to work on the other blog while I'm finishing my dissertation proposal.) Do continue to visit this site, however: I'll definitely continue updating this site (though perhaps to a lesser extent.)

In case you're curious about the name of the new blog, we decided to pick a name from Nabokov. A friend of ours suggested that "Fire of My Loins" would be a good Nabokovian name, but somehow I couldn't convince Susan and Matt to agree with this suggestion!


How good is DNA evidence?


Expect an announcement here sometime soon--probably tomorrow or Wednesday.


The Guardian discusses the "hypnotic" way that Charles Dickens performed at public readings--and asks whether these performances shortened his life. (via ArtsJournal)

Sunday, February 01, 2004

An interesting Chicago Tribune article discusses a controversy here at the University of Chicago that I wasn't aware of: the university's Muslim students consider the swimming pool at the new athletic center unusable, since it's visible from outside (and therefore violates the Muslim religious tenet of modesty.)


A. O. Scott has written a fun retrospective on the history of New Testament cinema, beginning with Mel Gibson's Passion and going backwards in time.


The Economist discusses the only bookshop in the southern Sudan--and the circumstances under which an obscure Victorian comic novel became a bestseller there. (via ArtsJournal)


Sorry for the brevity of today's posts. As I mentioned earlier, blogging will be light until early this week, when another project of mine gets under way. (More details coming soon...) And then, of course, there's the pesky matter of my dissertation proposal!


How hard is it to fake your way into a mental institution? The Guardian reports. (Via Crooked Timber)


Sir Walter Raleigh was an interesting guy.


Rick Perlstein reviews Alonzo Hamby's new book on FDR.


The New York Times looks at the economics of the Superbowl. The Boston Globe looks at the statistics of the big game.

Also in The New York Times, Jeffrey Rosen looks at social bonding between presidents and Supreme Court justices.


Russell Baker looks at the career of Warren Harding in this New York Review essay on John Dean's new harding biography. (It's a decent overview of Harding's life and career, though I'd have liked more on the biography itself.)


From The Guardian:

  • Did Alfred Lord Tennyson plan to cut the most famous sections of "The Charge of the Light Brigade"?
  • Thomas Kenneally thinks he's written his best book yet, but this reviewer finds his new novel about a dictator "a mere slip of a thing."
  • A new book examines the motives of the artists who fell under the spell of the "true-crime heroine" Beatrice Cenci.

Fun stuff!


Michael Dirda discusses Sheridan Le Fanu's classic 1864 "romance of terror," Uncle Silas.


Massachusetts: the Stigma State?


Something I didn't know: the sociologist Robert Merton was responsible for the terms "self-fulfilling prophect," "role model," and "focus group." Now his book The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity is being published posthumously. (He's also the author of a really charming book called On The Shoulders of Giants, which is only noted in passing in the Boston Globe ideas article I've linked to.)

Also in the ideas section: this book on pseudonyms sounds cool.

Friday, January 30, 2004

Can we learn more about the bird flu by digging up a 1918 flu victim?

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Slate discusses how the chicken sandwich came to Kyrgyzstan.


The Washington Post has published an appreciation of Eddie Clontz:

I think every American journalist, with the possible exception of Bob Woodward, secretly envied Eddie Clontz. I know I did. Here was a man who simply refused, as a matter of principle, to allow truth to get in the way of a great story.

For those of you too lazy to read the article, Clontz was the editor of The Weekly World News. In this appreciation, Gene Weingarten tells a great story:

Journalists and their confidential sources have a special relationship, as inviolate as doctor and patient or priest and penitent. Woodward, for example, says he will wait for Deep Throat to die before disclosing his identity. Well, Eddie's death liberates me to reveal the time Dave Barry and I leaked a big story to Weekly World News.

It was 1993. Dave came up with the perfect tabloid concept -- the tabloid story to end tabloid stories: ELVIS DIES AT 58. We were so excited about this that I telephoned Eddie, to suggest that he write it.

Eddie patiently listened to my pitch, and was silent for a moment.

"You mean, he just died?"

"Right," I said, "like, yesterday. Of, um, a heart attack."

I could hear those oily wheels turning. Eddie knew this would end a tabloid cottage industry of Elvis-still-lives articles. My God, it would basically cripple the franchise.

But, man, what a story!

"Are you sure?" he said, at last.

"Absolutely!" I said.

"Well, we'll have to check into it," he said, not a hint of humor in his voice.

I'm sure he put his best people on it. Weeks went by. But sure enough, the story finally hit the stands: ELVIS DEAD AT 58. It was a huge scoop. WWN donated six pages to it, with many sidebars.

Of course, some weeks later WWN exclusively disclosed that prior reports of Elvis's death

May he rest in peace!


A bunch of famous writers came to this year's Davos economics forum:

For some, there was the whisper of another question: Were the authors, brought here by a program called Arts and Culture in Davos, merely acting as a diversion as big business schmoozed with big government in this temple of economic globalization? In these uncertain times, when the forum even devoted a session to debating conspiracy theories, who can tell?

For years now the World Economic Forum — five days of discussions and workshops, secret talks and public pronouncements — has been lambasted by its critics as a gathering that sets the capitalist agenda for an unsuspecting planet.

At this year's meeting, which ended on Sunday, that image was offset by the presence not only of Ms. Gordimer and Mr. Theroux, but also of Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of "The Remains of the Day"; the best-selling Brazilian writer Paolo Coelho; the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh; and the journalist Samantha Power, author of " `A Problem from Hell': America and the Age of Genocide

Does anyone really care what happens at Davos? Why did the writers bother going, anyway, given that they weren't paid? Why is The New York Times even reporting on this? Aren't there more important things going on in the world.

I did, however, enjoy this paragraph:

Not Mr. Theroux. "I write to be happy," he said. "I write for joy." Mind you, he went on, writers should not be expected to have answers to the world's problems and should not be seen as anything but dysfunctional people who would probably be very angry cabdrivers if they were deprived of the opportunity to write. "If you are happy and balanced, why would you be a writer?" he asked.

Theroux also said that "Writers don't get out a lot. This is a total novelty, spending whole days talking with other people" and pointed out that Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain was set at Davos. I didn't know that.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Eddie Clontz, who deserved to be one of the most legendary journalists of the twentieth century, has died at 56.


Common-Place, an online magazine on early American history, describes the case of the Springfield somnambulist (as well as mesmerism and "the end of the Enlightenment in America") and looks at the provincial cartography of James Wilson (who was probably the brother of an ancestor of mine.) Fun stuff!


Posting will be lighter than usual for the next week or so. I need to finish a partial draft of my dissertation proposal, and I have another project that will divert some of my energy from this blog.


The Melbourne Age discusses long books and pithy sayings.


Two political analysts from Boston, Dan Kennedy and Jon Keller, are debating the Kerry candidacy at The New Republic Online. Kennedy's a very good writer, and I enjoyed this comment he made about Kerry's inconsistent tone:

But if Kerry has acquired The Touch, it remains intermittent. Listening to the car radio on Tuesday morning while driving to Manchester to watch Kerry greet voters at a polling station, I was startled to hear the senator--in his most funereal tone--urging New Hampshire Democrats to "live free or die." Now, granted, it is the state motto, and the patriotic sentiment behind it is noble. But somehow I don't think it was a good idea for Kerry to associate a vote for him with death. The man has a tin ear, and I doubt that's going to change.

A lot of people respect John Kerry (including me), but most people have trouble warming up to him or really liking him. (Again, this includes me.) Part of me thinks that this is connected to something admirable--there's something, well, grown-up about a candidate who refuses to play along with the idea that the president should be the candidate we'd all be chummiest with. Then again, Kerry sometimes tries to be likeable and fails--and there's a fine line between a grown-up attitude that you don't need to be the most warm-and-fuzzy candidate in the field and an arrogant attitude that you're above the normal tasks associated with running for president.

Kerry's biggest weakness, I think, is a failure to articulate an overall vision for the future. He strikes me as an excellent example of a candidate whose successes are due to his resume--he doesn't win points for charisma or for vision, but his views are in line with most primary voters and his resume makes him seem like he'd be a capable (and imaginable) president. This is why analyses of Kerry's win that focus on his "electability" seem simplistic and unconvincing. There's a reason that people think he's more electable than the other candidates: he's more experienced than Edwards, more reliable (and sensible) than Clark, and more presidential than Dean. (The last point, I'll admit, isn't very specific. Dean looks more like a political activist or a union organizer than like an executive office-holder; Dean was a successful governor and is a skillful politician, but it's hard to emphasize those strengths--which are crucial to a would-be president--without changing his image and risking the loss of his base support.) People can imagine Kerry as president more easily than they can imagine any of his rivals in the White House, given his experience, his competence, and his record, but it will be harder for him to make the case to swing voters in November than to undecided Democrats in the primaries.

I'm glad that Kerry won, and disappointed that Edwards didn't do better. My hope is that, in the days ahead, Kerry will succeed in articulating a more compelling overall justification for his candidacy--and that Edwards, instead of merely telling voters that his campaign is optimistic and positive, will focus on the more substantive parts of his message. I worry that it's too late for a campaign that will force both these candidates to improve their message, but there's always hope, I guess!


Today's New York Times also discusses the wonderful world of poor spelling on ebay. It's a charming article:

Such is the eBay underworld of misspellers, where the clueless--and sometimes just careless--sell labtop computers, throwing knifes, Art Deko vases, camras, comferters and saphires.

They do get bidders, but rarely very many. Often the buyers are those who troll for spelling slip-ups, buying items on the cheap and selling them all over again on eBay, but with the right spelling and for the right price. John H. Green, a jeweler in Central Florida, is one of them.

Mr. Green once bought a box of gers for $2. They were gears for pocket watches, which he cleaned up and put back on the auction block with the right spelling. They sold for $200. "I've bought and sold stuff on eBay and Yahoo that I bought for next to nothing" because of poor spelling or vague descriptions, he said.

As someone who likes to think that his spelling is good (but who's undoubtedly provided plenty of evidence to the contrary on this blog), I love to see that good spelling can be profitable and that people too lazy to check their spelling can lose out!


The Russian government is trying to convince thousands of people to leave Siberia, including the descendants of people forced to move there in the 1930s. Plenty of Siberians, however, aren't very enthusiastic about the government's plans.


The Guardian searches for the story behind a photo found in Holocaust archives and museums all over the world.


Did bombers from Britain's Royal Air Force ignore Auschwitz and other concentration camps? That's what Bild, Germany's best-selling tabloid, is alleging now that British reconaissance photos are being made available for the first time. (via HNN)