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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Saturday, June 28, 2003

More substantive posts will come later this weekend. For now, here's an article about Kazakhstan from The National Post, everyone's favorite conservative Canadian newspaper.

Thursday, June 26, 2003

Strom Thurmond is dead. Before he was the frequent butt of bad jokes, he was a long-serving senator with an undistinguished record, a racist presidential candidate, and--according to one historian--South Carolina's second-best governor in the twentieth century. (He was also a physical fitness fanatic who, as governor, posed for a photographer for Life magazine while standing on his head.) If you want to see how much this country has changed since my parents were young, read Thurmond's speech accepting the 1948 States Rights Democratic presidential party nomination--and be glad that our country's leaders can no longer express such sentiments in public.


I feel a bit silly. Last night I went to the movies, and I didn't realize until the closing credits that one of the lead actors didn't speak most of his lines. I had a bit of an excuse, I think--the movie was in German and Swahili, and I was paying more attention to the subtitles than to the coordination of the actors' lip movements and speech--but I was stilled startled to learn that a major character's German lines were dubbed in.

The movie was called Nowhere in Africa, and I saw it at my town's local theater. (It's the weird kind of theater that's always showing a couple art-house films, a couple bad movies that are still showing in more popular theatres, and a couple movies that disappeared from the rest of the country months ago.) Nowhere in Africa tells the story of a Jewish family that fled Germany for Kenya in 1938. The father at first loves Africa and is happy to have escaped with his life, but eventually gets bored and joins the British army; his wife, at first a spoiled rich girl, becomes more independent and tolerant as she gets used to her stay in Africa; their daughter has the time of her life, playing with a baby antelope and mingling with the people of Kenya. I have a soft spot for movies that look good, and Nowhere in Africa was impressive visually; one scene, in which everyone tried to drive off an enormous swarm of locusts that were trying to wipe out a field of crops, looked fantastic.

The story, on the other hand, was just barely good enough to keep my attention for two hours. It seemed like the perfect movie for people who like to think of themselves as foreign film buffs, and who want a nice, inspiring story about how people can triumph over hardship and learn the value of tolerance and diversity. The native Kenyans were invariably wise and noble. The transformation of the wife's personality didn't seem terribly convincing to me--if she hadn't told the audience that she'd learned that diversity was a good thing, I'd have had no idea that she thought so. She and her husband even managed to patch up all the problems in their marriage before the movie ended, which was an extremely impressive feat.

Don't get me wrong: Nowhere in Africa is worth seeing. I just wish that its director had been interested in telling a more complex (and convincing) story, and had avoided the urge to provide predictable lessons about the human experience.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Perhaps I should read The New York Times more often. Today's science section had an article on cannibalism and a discussion of a mathematician's analysis of Supreme Court voting patterns. Fun stuff! What's more, Sunday's Week in Review section seemed unusually good. Geoffrey Nunberg wrote about the word "Orwellian," Natalie Angier discussed short men, and several charming items appeared in the reading file. The lead story was pretty lame, unfortunately, and I'll never much like an op ed page featuring the snarky Maureen Dowd and the glib and shallow Tom Friedman, but I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw of the section overall.

People are usually surprised to hear that I'm not a huge fan of the New York Times. I've been too lazy to read the print edition of the NYT the last couple years, and I'm never very diligent in reading the online version. (Readers of online newspapers supposedly click on more articles but read them in less depth, but the opposite is true for me: I read a smaller number of articles in full.) Maybe it's time for me to start rethinking my view of the newspaper. I've always been unusual in my lukewarm reaction to the Times: I know plenty of conservatives with an irrational dislike of it, and a lot of liberals who really like it but don't think much about what they read. I don't deny that the Times is clearly the best paper in the country (its foreign coverage, in particular, is unparalleled); I've just never found it very interesting. The Sunday book review is mediocre (many of the reviewers don't seem to know their subjects well), the magazine is overly slick (and has annoying features like William Safire's language column and Randy Cohen's ethics column), none of the columnists appeal to me much, and there are very few must-read writers on board (like Michael Dirda at The Washington Post or, until recently, David Shribman at The Boston Globe.) I wonder if one explanation for the (possible) improvement in the NYT's Week in Review is the appearance of the Globe's well-received ideas section (the NYT owns the Globe, after all, and isn't beyond copying a rival in any case.) I plan to keep on reading, time permitting.

Update: William Gibson has written another interesting NYT article. (Not to worry: this blog is not about to adopt a tedious "Wow! The NYT printed something interesting!" theme.)

Sunday, June 22, 2003

Sometime, when I'm not planning to invade one of Harvard's libraries or getting ready to buy plane tickets to Russia, I'll post a review of the new Harry Potter book. (The short version: it's one of the better books in the series, though it's not always as inventive as the best of its predecessors.) For those of you who've already read the book and need to get another Harry Potter fix, here's an article that might be amusing.