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

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Saturday, August 09, 2003

Remember that Boston Globe ideas section article about Israeli research on how you could recognize someone's gender from their writing? (I'm too lazy to look up the link in my archives, at least for now.) Charles McGrath makes light of that research in tomorrow's New York Times Magazine, which also provides readers with the Israeli researchers' test for a piece of writing.

The National Post reviews a new biography of Elizabeth Bentley, the famous American Communist. I'm not sure of the reviewer's attitude toward Joseph McCarthy--the article calls McCarthy a "pig" and a "monster" and refers to the people whose lives he destroyed, but also seems to think that he was sometimes on the right track--but the review is interesting enough.

Is it possible to predict the success of a marriage mathematically? Does the formula "w(t+1)=a+r1*w(t)+ihw[h(t)]" make sense?

The Unabomber wants his property back, it seems. He has pretty good taste in books: he's read everything from the Prose Edda to the Satires of Juvenal to How to Know the Wildflowers to a lot of books on Russian history. He'd be an interesting guy if he didn't like to kill people.

Tariq Ali explains recent Iranian history to policymakers who know nothing about it.

Is it time for "Stalin: The Musical"? (via Hit and Run)

Stalin was actually a big fan of movie musicals, if I'm not mistaken. His favorite movie was said to be a musical called Volga-Volga. I've always wanted to see it, though I'm told it's really bad.

Edmund White has written a historical novel about two British women named Fanny (Trollope and Wright.) Elaine Showalter likes it.

Here's a really fluffy profile of Arnold Beichman, a nonagenarian Cold Warrior. (via Arts and Letters Daily)

Has a Canadian scholar discovered the secret of Francis Drake's voyage?

Is this idea brilliant or stupid? (Probably somewhere in the middle...) Even so, I'm amused by the first line of the article: "The U.S. government has a message for young Arabs: Hi."

Pop culture can sometimes be kind of anti-American, though.

Are ex-convicts the ideal criminologists?

Friday, August 08, 2003

A charming article on a charming subject: The Guardian reviews a book about pirates:

One of the ironies of pirate history is that many of the great names that sent generations of small children diving under the bedcovers are either completely fictional or weren't proper pirates at all. Take Long John Silver, who gave my guts a genuine twist of fear as a nine-year-old: Stevenson said he was based on WE Henley, who is well-documented as having been a law-abiding citizen sans parrot. Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard? Nothing but a psychopathic loser who robbed fishing boats. Henry Morgan? A rum-sozzled soak better at torturing prisoners than capturing treasure. And Captain Kidd - the same frightful fiend who starred in such classics as the 1952 spellbinder Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd? Not quite.

It seems that Captain Kidd was a cool character. (And for what it's worth, I believe that Long John Silver was only partly based on Henley. Henley lost a leg in surgery, though Joseph Lister--of listerine fame--managed to save the other. Henley's lack of a leg is part of what inspired Long John Silver, but he's better known for his poem "Invictus": "It matters not how straight the gate, How charged with punishment the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul." I enjoy the thought of hearing that poem in pirate-speak.)

Barnes and Noble is a charming bookstore. On my family's exciting expedition there today, we discovered that:

  • Thomas Kinkade, the Painter of Light, isn't just an artist--he's an inspirational writer! If his books are half as good as his paintings, then the world is in for a real treat.
  • Barnes and Noble has teamed up with SparkNotes to produce a series of "conversational companions" to the country's latest novels and greatest classics. Want to look smart when you and your friends discuss A Brief History of Time or Guns, Germs, and Steel? Then buy a reader's companion! (Similar guides were available for various classic novels and current bestsellers, but I couldn't find them online.) I'm surprised that no one has thought of "Cliff's Notes for old people" before.
  • Barnes and Noble is a really helpful store. Not only do they direct you to the current bestsellers--they even had a section of former bestsellers! God forbid that you should have to find an interesting book on your own...

Anyway, that's enough sarcastic bitching for now, and I promise not to rant about bookstores for at least a week. On the bright side, I bought a Russia guide endorsed by Isabel Allende (?!) and found a really cool-looking book in the minuscule and unimpressive "folklore and mythology" section. (It tells you how to disarm a fox fairy, and how to recognize a kappa!)

This article paints Niall Ferguson in an interesting light. It also has something to say about the wonderful world of publishing, but I'm not sure exactly what. (via Bookslut)

Yar! Is book piracy about to become a problem?

Who was the greatest of the Germans? German TV wants to know, and won't let people vote for Hitler.

(People will be able to vote for Mozart, which has really infuriated the Austrian ambassador, since Mozart was from Salzburg. Other questionable "Germans" include Copernicus and Freud.)

I find the idea for this TV show intriguing, and I wonder how it would work in other countries. Winston Churchill came in first in a BBC poll, on a program that inspired the new German show. My hunch is that George Washington (or maybe Abraham Lincoln) would win on a similar American show, and I'd bet on Goethe to win in Germany. Is there a cultural divide between countries that would vote for political leaders and countries that would vote for cultural figures? (I'd bet on Russians to select Pushkin as their greatest citizen; I hope they wouldn't vote for Stalin! I have no idea how France, Italy, Australia, or anywhere else might vote.)

Then again, I never would have expected Isambard Kingdom Brunel to come in second in Britain. So what do I know?

Did the Beatles destroy the Soviet Union?

Ostalgie is growing among Berlin's youth.

SparkNotes: they have snob appeal, but are they any good?

I've just discovered the website ArtsJournal, which I highly recommend. The site linked to an article reporting students' lack of interest in history and an article declaring Ukraine "the land that fads forgot." (A companion piece to the Ukraine article suggests that fads are alive and well in the former USSR.)

Arnold Schwarzenegger: will he become the first Republican Kennedy in office?

Now here's a big surprise: the Bush administration manipulates scientific data to further its agenda!

The worst thing Bill Clinton ever did, I sometimes believe, was to lie so often about such inconsequential issues that when an even less honest administration took office, no one would notice. Jonathan Chait wrote a fantastic article about how Bush constantly lies about taxes and the budget, but it's only available online to New Republic subscribers. Chris Mooney has written about the administration's dishonest treatment of the stem cell debate, meanwhile, and we all know about the administration's misleading case for war in Iraq. I suspect that the current Bush presidency is the most dishonest administration on policy matters since World War II, but almost no one seems to care.

There's a population puzzle in the latest Iraqi census: where did all the men go? Saddam Hussein decided to make the census results a state secret...

Britain's first literary celebrity sounds kind of cool.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

Erin O'Connor comments on a New York Times article about a novel whose author doesn't know history as well as he thinks he does.

I'm always slightly wary of articles like this. (I have no opinion on the importance of the innacuracies in The Da Vinci Code, which I haven't read, but I think they sound fairly damning.) Someday, when I'm not feeling lazy, I'll write something long and involved about the extent to which novels and movies need to be historically accurate. As a historian-in-training, I'm in favor of close attention to historical detail, but critics of historical inaccuracy can sometimes be shrill and overbearing.

As food for thought, here's an article about the movie Thirteen Days by the historian Ernest May. I think he's a little too generous in his assessment of the movie as a drama, and I feel like the article could have had a little more nuance, but his article has a sensible (if uninspiring) conclusion: Historical novels and movies aren't substitutes for history, but they can teach us important historical lessons even when they're not completely accurate.

What's the history of American bestseller lists? How do we know exactly how well books sold in the nineteenth century? What was the best-selling American book before Uncle Tom's Cabin?

A recent Crescat Sententia post by Amanda Butler inspired me to ask those questions. I'd always been told that the nineteenth century's second most popular book was The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, an anti-Catholic novel first published in 1836. (I've seen wildly varying estimates for the book's sales on the web.) Amanda refers to Charlotte Temple, by Suzanna Rowson, as the century's #2 book. Now I'm oddly curious about America's pre-war bestsellers...

(Amanda's post, just so you know, is worth reading for its own sake, leaving aside my bizarre interest in nineteenth-century bestsellers. Any post that mentions both VeggieTales and Olodoah Equiano can't be bad.)

Tim Burke, one of my history professors at Swarthmore, has a long and interesting post about Pirates of the Caribbean, pop culture, and what makes a good TV show or movie. You should read it. His advice about grad school is also worth reading, even though I completely ignored it.

A few weeks ago, I described Pirates of the Caribbean as a cinematic masterpiece of the first order. I was only partly joking. What really made the movie a success, I would argue, was Johnny Depp's performance. What made that performance so effective, I believe, was the way it took itself completely seriously while remaining utterly ridiculous.

There's a lesson here for other film-makers. The first of the Star Wars prequels was a bad movie for a lot of reasons: the script was weak, the acting was wooden, the plot was dull, Jar-Jar Binks was annoying, and the backstory was changed to add midichlorians and other nonsense. But what bothered me most was that George Lucas clearly didn't take his own universe very seriously. I didn't hate Jar-Jar as much as nearly everyone else did, but did Lucas really need to make the entire Gungan race unbelievable? If I recall correctly, one Gungan general runs around saying "We're in deep doodoo" when the battle turns against him, and the Gungan leader randomly makes Jar-Jar a general despite his obvious incompetence. An alien race like this would die out within months, making their planet an infinitely less annoying place to live. The universe of the first Star Wars movies was a genuinely realized, fascinating place. The atmosphere of The Phantom Menace was juvenile and annoying; the movie made jokes at the expense of its characters and its own sense of reality. Why should Star Wars viewers believe in the story and its universe when George Lucas so obviously did not?

Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings project has, so far, been vastly better in this respect. Jackson's world has nothing like the depth featured in Tolkien's writing, but Jackson clearly takes his films seriously--most of the time. I found Merry and Pippin a little too silly, especially during their sudden appearance at the Council of Elrond. (Elrond--a badly miscast Hugo Weaving--just glared ineffectively at them when they announced that they were going to Morder, even though they didn't understand the point of the quest; any reasonable person or elf would have sent them home whimpering.) Similarly, I don't know why Jackson insists on including silly anachronisms and unamusing dwarf-tossing jokes in his films, but he I'm willing to overlook his occasional lapses because of how he handles his work overall.

In one sense, then, some of the film world's most successful movies are those that strike the right balance between taking themselves seriously and allowing humor and whimsy into the picture. This doesn't just apply to fantasy and scifi films--consider, for example, James Bond. In the best Bond movies, the plot is utterly ridiculous, but the characters all take it very seriously. The characters themselves--mainly Bond and the villain--are humorous, campy, and a little over-the-top, but never give off the impression that their work is "just a movie." They're consistent and true to the roles they play, realizing that those roles are supposed to be humorous, but that in the universe in which they appear, the situation is deadly serious.

One of the flaws in the latest James Bond movie, I would argue, was that the director didn't achieve quite the right balance. Had the right balance been struck, the characters would have taken the situation seriously, but the audience would have known both that the plot was really stupid and that the director was in on the joke. Instead, the movie's "science" was idiotic without being campy--characters could change identity through some bizarre DNA technology--and the main plot premise was an uncomfortable mixture of the crazy and the bland. (It involved a North Korean attempt to take over East Asia using a satellite that channeled the light of the sun into a powerful weapon.) Die Another Day seemed like a very well-executed action movie with a ridiculous plot, not like a well-done Bond movie. The movie would have been far better if the director had just camped it up a little--making the villain a little crazier and the enemy's plan a little campier, while adding subtle clues that the movie's makers respected the rules of the Bond universe and understood how it was different from our own.

Which brings me back to Pirates of the Caribbean. Johnny Depp's acting was marvelous: the character he played was completely ridiculous, but he played that character straight. The other characters recognized his eccentricity (and commented on it), but that didn't bother him--in fact, it only made him seem more real. The ghost pirates, meanwhile, incorporated just the right mixture of the campy and the credible. I never particularly liked the two unimportant pirates who kept appearing--you know, the one whose eye kept falling out and his friend--but they helped set the right atmosphere. The whole movie was entertaining and fun, which is more than can be said for most Hollywood movies these days.

Note: this post is really badly written, so I'll probably edit it tomorrow. This might make me a bad blogger, but I really don't care.

I was weirdly intrigued by this Tim Noah article about the relationship between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kurt Waldheim. (Waldheim has interesting taste in wedding presents; I'd much rather see Schwarzenegger as president of Austria than as governor of anything.) The last sentence struck me as pretty stupid, though: I don't think anyone in California is going to care about this.

Reason has published an online article about the recent "revelation" that Stalin ordered John Wayne's assassination. It's not a fantastic work of journalism, but it takes the right approach to the issue: when faced with a questionable-but-amusing revelation, write about it, but don't take it too seriously.

Newt Gingrich's Gettsyburg co-author talks about his approach to history. I wonder how Gingrich helped write the book, beyond providing "political insight." (via the History News Network, which also provides an excerpt of the Wall Street Journal's [subscribers-only] article on Shelby Foote)

What effect has St. Petersburg had on the literature set there? (link via Bookslut, who apparently likes Michael Dirda even more than I do)

Carlin Romano provides us with another take on St. Petersburg and writing.

Why exactly was Gouverneur Morris important? Reading this review of a new Richard Brookhiser biography of Morris, I'm really not sure. The review was fun to read, and listed a bunch of stuff he did and a lot of jobs he held, but never explained what he actually "accomplished". (It assures us that he accomplished a lot and "deserves to be celebrated," however.)

Perhaps H.W. Brands is right that the cult of the Founders has gone too far. (I'll comment on his Atlanticarticle making this argument next week, whether it goes online or not.) I like the idea of publishing biographies of little-known figures, and think that well-written history is almost always a good thing. But I'm not convinced that Richard Brookhiser is much of a historian, and I'm kind of puzzled by the fact that this review was written by "an editor for Sen. John Kyl." That's The Washington Times for you, I guess.

In Germany, controversy is surrounding an upcoming art exhibition on the "myth" of the Red Army Faction, a terrorist group that rocked the country during he 1970s.

In 1929, Henry Ford started a weird little museum loaded with "fascinating artifacts" from American history. (In the Henry Ford universe, "fascinating" seems to mean "trivial.") This Wall Street Journal article article seems to take the position that the museum billing itself as "America's Greatest History Attraction" is really cool, but it seems kind of silly to me. I guess I'm just an elitist history grad student.

Surprise, surprise! America's supposedly liberal media, it seems, are more tolerant of conservative arguments than the conservative media are of liberal ideas.

I don't think this will come as a shock to anyone who seriously follows journalism, but it's interesting to see this stuff semi-quantified.

Are the seven deadly sins still relevant?

Why are so many of the Chechen suicide bombers in Russia women?

What happens when computer matchmaking meets college roommate selection?

Sounds like a better idea than using the Myers-Briggs personality test, as Davidson College seems to do.

I wonder what's more likely to be successful: the roommate matchmaking service described by the NYT or this program described in The Christian Science Monitor. Probably the former, but who knows?

Here's what The New York Times has to say about The Chicago Manual of Style. The article seems like it's written for people with no interest in questions of style or usage, but who are still amused by hearing about people who are; even so, the article is kind of fun to read.

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Maybe I'm getting old and cranky. Maybe I've been spoiled by living in Hyde Park--which, whatever else you can say about the neighborhood, is a book buyer's mecca. Maybe my fond memories of the excellent bookstores in Harvard Square are exaggerated, and the book shopping there was never as good as I remember it. It's hard to say. My most startling realization of the summer, though, is that the bookstores of Cambridge are much worse than I'd expected.

Borderline leftist that I am, I blame corporate America. Several years ago, Barnes and Noble took over the management of the Harvard Coop, the main bookstore for Harvard students. (It's where class books are sold, for example.) The Coop isn't officially a Barnes and Noble store, but it's been changed for the worse: after all, the biggest difference between the current Coop and the old Coop was the addition of a large cafe (taking up old bookstore space). The selection is better than I'd feared, but the staff doesn't seem very helpful, as I learned today when I inquired about a book.

The biggest change, however, is that the Coop's competitors have fallen dramatically in quality. Wordsworth was once a really nice store, and I suppose it's still not bad in the grand scheme of things. (I'd much rather go there than go to a WaldenBooks.) In the good old days, you could find lots of semi-popular books there, as well as more academic books that wouldn't be reliably available at a Borders or a Barnes and Noble. Now the selection is far smaller. To name an example near to my heart, the section on Russian and Soviet history is gone--all the Russian books have been added to the European history section, which isn't much bigger than the old Russian section was! You can still find a lot of current books that aren't terribly popular but are widely reviewed in the press, but you can find those at any halfway decent store. The one bright spot at Wordsworth is the fantastic children's book section, which has become a store of its own.

Meanwhile, the Harvard Bookstore--a shop with no connection to the university--has a far more random selection than it had in the days of yore. It was always the most academic bookstore in the area, and you can still find some obscure-but-interesting books that aren't available at the Coop or Wordsworth there. Nevertheless, there are some gaping holes in its inventory. (There were no books by my adviser, Sheila Fizpatrick, in the store.)

Several years ago, I can remember reading a Boston Globe article on the likely impact of Barnes and Noble's take-over of the Coop. The article predicted that Wordsworth would have to sell more popular books and that the Harvard Bookstore would become still more academic. That's almost exactly what has happened--though the Harvard Bookstore seems to be going through something of an identity crisis. Harvard Square used to be a wonderful place to shop for books, but now I'd rather go to Davis Square's McIntyre and Moore. The good old days are truly over.

I recently linked to a Newsweek article arguing that Moscow was becoming a "normal" European city. In my limited experience, this is basically true--wandering around the city for a few days, you'll basically find that the city is just as "European" (and at least as cosmopolitan) as Athens or Rome, and almost as "European" as London or Berlin. Then, every so often, you'll come across a reminder that Russia is in some sense a different world--say, a pack of really mangy and unusually aggressive stray dogs, or a really poor-looking old woman begging for money. (Say what you will about the New Deal and the Great Society, but they've essentially eliminated poverty among senior citizens in America. Thank you, Medicare and Social Security!)

This Moscow Times article is another reminder that Moscow isn't quite like, say, New York or Stockholm. Just read the headline: A Plan for Year-Round Hot Water. Let's hope that I'm in a neighborhood with warm water when I go to Russia later this month!

What do the domestic lives of monarchs have to teach us? New studies of Napoleon, Henry VIII, and their wives try to answer that question:

On the gender sensitivity front, it is hard to think of two greater toads in history than Henry VIII and Napoleon. Both men started off relatively normal. I mean they emerged from wombs like the rest of us. They each had strong parental encouragement to excel. They each -- and this is really interesting -- had worthy women for first wives whom they loved and adored, but whom they also abandoned "for reasons of state" -- which, in both cases, actually meant personal vanity, since neither man saw any difference between himself and the state he controlled

David Starkey and Christopher Hibbert are both well-known historians I know nearly nothing about. Perhaps I should check out their books.

Mother Teresa's identity has become the subject of debate in the Balkans.

Has a British academic discovered the secret behind a T.S. Eliot poem?

Is The Chicago Manual of Style "perversely unhelpful" when it comes to grammar?

Yeah, probably. Like the author of this Slate article, I've always preferred Words into Type.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

To what extent was revenge a factor in the bombing of Hiroshima?

Why Lamar Alexander's bill on the teaching of history is based on questionable historical assumptions.

Fun from Slate:

  • I've always kind of wanted to read some Evelyn Waugh. (Elitist British cranks who write satire invariably sound fun, after all.) Judith Shulevitz and Christopher Caldwell are both writers I like, so I'll be very interested in this week's Slate book club, even if that feature varies wildly in quality. (I tend to dislike the feature's title this week, though: couldn't Waugh be both a loony conservative and a scathing prophet? False dichotomies are never fun.)
  • Fred Kaplan has a devastating take-down of the neo-cons' Iraqi nation-building policy. Choice quote:

    It seems, then, that the real problem with American nation-building is that American officials don't give it much thought, don't read up on its history, don't appear even to recognize that there is a history from which lessons can be learned. Paul Wolfowitz has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He's often portrayed as a deep thinker, the leader of a circle of national security intellectuals in and around the Bush administration. Their big mistake on postwar Iraq, it turns out, is that they failed to think.


    Kaplan also does a nice job describing the work of James Dobbins and discussing the lessons Wolfowitz and company should have learned from past attempts at nation-building.

Now they should just publish a little more David Greenberg...

Some say that the Colfax riot was "the bloodiest single instance of racial violence in the Reconstruction era in all of the United States," but unless you've been traveling in rural Louisiana, you've probably never heard of it.

Word geeks, rejoice!

Can the German occupation of France in World War II be described as "the good old days"?

A blow to Holocaust deniers: Harvard is posting 82,000 documents related to the Nuremberg trials on a new website. The Nuremberg Trials Project sounds like a fantastic resource for historians, and I hope that the digitization of more documents will follow.

Yesterday, as I was writing about Reason's disappointing take on fantasy literature and sci fi, I was reminded of an entertaining article that appeared in the online version of The Weekly Standard last year: The Case for the Empire. In that short article, the Standard's online editor argued that George Lucas had confused the good guys with the villains in Star Wars, and that the galactic empire was a far better place to live than either the republic or whatever followed the empire's collapse.

It's possible to quibble with the article, of course, but it's an entertaining read nonetheless. Which brings me to a bigger and more pressing question: what's happened to the online Weekly Standard? The print magazine may well have great stuff in it (I've always liked it better than the other conservative magazines, but I'm still too cheap to subscribe), but the online-only material has plummeted in quality. A year ago, I can remember being kind of entertained by a Daily Standard rant against the Olive Garden and another piece that lambasted Blockbuster Video for getting rid of a lot of its video stock, but now it seems like there's almost nothing worth reading there. (If I recall correctly, the author of the Blockbuster article sometimes tried to sound macho and ended up sounding stupid or creepy, but the article still wasn't bad.)

Now it seems like the only Daily Standard articles worth reading are those taken from the print magazine, and that the rest of the web-site's content was written by lame op-ed columnists or by people who couldn't get their articles into the real magazine. Which is too bad, since the Daily Standard was once an entertaining read.

John Wayne said that it was "the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life." But High Noon, it seems, has become the favorite film of U.S. presidents.

Who was Siegfried Sassoon? He was a military man who opposed the war, a fox hunter who loved wildlife, and a snobbish socialist. In other words, he was kind of cool--and very complicated.

A high school teacher who dislikes AP classes confronts the Washington Post's education reporter.

Lyme disease can be hard to diagnose. Just ask Amy Tan.

A collaboration between Der Spiegel and The New York Times has resulted in this article on the Leo-cons--followers of the philosopher Leo Strauss.

Monday, August 04, 2003

Reason has published a really long article on Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter.

Surprisingly enough, I usually like Reason--those crazy libertarians often have interesting stuff to say!--but this article was a disappointment. It contains glaring factual errors. (The last I heard, there were no plans for a third Star Wars trilogy.) It contains highly questionable interpretations of each series. (Does the hobbits' attitude toward the Shire really "exemplify the spirit of romantic rebellion against the modern bourgeois order"? Ha!) Still other comments aim for profundity but end up sounding shallow. ("Despite costumes freely adapted from the Flash Gordon serials and titles borrowed from Roman antiquity, the Empire represents a fusion of fascist and communist elements." Really? I don't see any signs of Communism in the empire--beyond the fact that the emperor is a nasty dictator--and the use of the word "fascism," in this article, seems completely divorced of its historical significance. Then again, perhaps people who know the series better than I do can enlighten me about the politics and economics of the Star Wars universe.)

Mostly, though, the article is just bland and boring. Its author may be the only person alive who believes that the Star Wars prequels are politically "subversive" (unless, of course, he comes from a universe where "subversive" means "boring"), but I can't--right off--think of another original thought in the article. Which is a shame, since Reason's standards are usually higher. Maybe they'll do better next time...

Now that John Poindexter's futures market idea has been scrapped, a group of academics has set up a futures market of its own. (The website of the American Action Market is located here.) Among the contracts available on the market will be:

  • the next White House lie to break into the news
  • the next country the White House will threaten, and when
  • the next foreign leader to move from the CIA payroll to White House "most wanted" list
  • the lifespan of various DARPA projects, such as Total Information Awareness and Babylon
  • the first White House staffer to resign in disgrace, and when

I'm not sure if this is an amusing idea or a parody, but either way, I enjoyed looking at the site.

If it's summer, it must be time for another Gettysburg reenactment.

Is medical journalism dominated by hype?

Cherie Blair, it seems, is a quite a singer.

The dreariest place I've ever been was East Berlin: the buildings all looked drab (and identical), there was a policeman on every corner, and the really cool museums there weren't exactly in mint condition. (It was entertaining to see East German policemen changing the speed limit signs on the way into town to catch Westerners for speeding, even after our bus fell into the trap.) Some people, though, are experiencing feelings of ostalgie--a longing for the good ol' East Germany. I'd kind of like to read the books and see the movie mentioned in this article.

Is the secret to leadership an ability to instill in your followers the suspension of "collective common sense"? Can a book with a bad central argument still be interesting? Kim Beazley asks questions like these in his review of an Andrew Roberts book on the parallels between Churchill and Hitler.

Another reviewer in the same Australian newspaper pretends to be reviewing two Orwell biographies, but instead writes a nice little essay about everyone's favorite British left-wing novelist and polemicist.

Here's yet another article on university rankings.

Someday, when I'm bored, I'll design my own ranking system. Factors I'll consider: number of MacArthur genius grant recipients per graduate, whether housing policy allows cats in dorm rooms, and the percentage of students who can explain the significance of a select group of people (say, P.D.Q. Bach, Rosalind Franklin, Robert Mugabe, Fernand Braudel, and Neville Longbottom. The list of people would, of course, change each year.)

The Unbearable Heaviness of Industry: a new exhibition of black-and-white photos shows the dark side of Chinese industrialization.

The Atlantic Monthly has a radical new idea: to make a profit! I worry that this won't work, and that, in a worst-case scenario, I'll be stuck reading Harper's. That will be a sad day.

Sunday, August 03, 2003

Today's New York Times features an article about the marketing of unhealthy food to children. Sometimes the article is kind of naive and simplistic--superintendents facing budget cuts might be quite reasonable to increase revenues by bringing in vending machines or fast food, after all--but it's a good summary of an important issue.

Nevertheless, I'm afraid I have to admit to some confusion: why would a kid want a "Play-Doh Lunchables play set" or a Barbie doll dressed up as a McDonald's check-out girl? The minds of children can be difficult to fathom...

The Evel Knievel of the 1800s, the bizarre mixture of medieval superstition and modern evidentiary procedures at a seventeenth-century trial, and the myth that the colonists earned military success when they imitated the Indians are all described in a review in today's Boston Globe.

The Weekly Standard's J. Bottum hails Gogol's Taras Bulba as the Cossacks' Iliad and a masterpiece of historical fiction in Books and Culture: A Christian Review.

John Lukacs doesn't like Wolfgang Schivelbusch's book on national trauma:

"The Culture of Defeat" is so learned, so admirably researched, with many kinds of sparkling little finds amid its mass of notes (that, for example, the Tour de France was named after a famous French children's book). But, it is also so speculative, often debouching into nonsense. Yes, there was Americanization in Germany after World War I, an imitation of things American in many ways, but is it fair to say that, "like the consolation prize, the Girl took the place of the goddess of victory in the postwar German psyche"? Yes, there were many girls in Berlin (fewer elsewhere) who circa 1926 dressed and cut their hair like American girls; they were not Brunhilds — but "goddesses"? My goodness: "The legs of the Tiller girls correspond to the working hands of the factory." And a few lines later: "The recontextualization of an enemy's defensive 'weapon' into a kind of trophy — in this case an article of women's fashion — follows the same lines as the social degradation of 'humiliation' of the dress of disempowered classes."

Lukacs likes his footnotes, though. Personally, I'm kind of bothered by Lukacs's tendency in the paragraph above to use the modifier "so..." in such an illiterate way.

How do you make a shofar?

Stephen Kinzer's All the Shah's Men sounds like a fascinating read: after all, how could any book featuring the pajama-clad Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadegh be bad?

Yet another reason to vote against Dennis Kucinich: he's been endorsed by Willie Nelson.

Reading today's New York Times Magazine, I can't help but wonder: what does a picture of the word "rampant" look like?

Update: Ah! I see that the article includes the picture that accompanies the word "rampant" in the new Merriam-Webster's Dictionary. (I had been picturing a different definition--as in, "run rampant." The OED's first definition, however, reads "1. Of beasts, esp. lions: Rearing or standing with the fore-paws in the air." Personally, I would rather have seen an illustration of the obsolete definition meaning "Lustful; vicious." That would have made my day.)

While reading Epstein's book on snobbery, I couldn't help but ask myself the following question: what are the best adulatory comments printed on the dust-jackets of books?

I'd nominate three contenders:

"What Joseph Epstein calls snobbery, I should much prefer to call useful, utterly necessary discriminations, the vastest multiplicity of which the world, poor ignorant beast, is ever in need. Still, Mr. Epstein is inconvenienced with a certain rough-hewed intelligence, which renders him a man on whom, I should say, not everything is lost." -- Henry James, on Snobbery, by Joseph Epstein (2002)

"I read [The Phantom Tollbooth] first when I was 10. I still have the book report I wrote, which began 'This is the best book ever.'"--Anna Quindlen, on The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster (1971) (I couldn't find the exact quote, but this is how it's quoted on

"This is the rare book that lives up to its dust-cover raves." --Andrew L. Kaufman (on Democracy and Distrust: A Theory of Judicial Review, by John Hart Ely (1981)

Oddly enough, I'm not sure which of these three books amused me the most: I could make a case for any of them. The third quotation, though, is my least favorite of the three. Any other nominations?

Long after he became a Nazi sympathizer, Charles Lindbergh led a secret double life with a German woman. The couple had three children, but Lindbergh's illicit relationship was a secret until a German newspaper revealed it this weekend.

Someday, somebody needs to write an interdisciplinary, cross-cultural history of cookbooks. Until that day, this book on dining in Georgian Britain will have to do.

An iambic fundamentalist defends the legacy of the bard.

Maybe the alliance of George W. Bush and Tony Blair isn't so surprising after all. Blair, it seems, is interested in placing religion at the center of British life.

There are days when I wonder whether I should have become an economist. Today is one of them: I just read this New York Times Magazine profile of Steven Levitt--the hero of Will Baude, the great nephew of the author of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and an award-winning economist who does really neat stuff.

I wonder what parallels there are between shifts in the field of economics toward what one might term "everyday economics"--Levitt's work, behavioral economics, some law and economics work--and the shift toward social history among historians. It would be easy to draw a simplistic, false parallel between these two intellectual changes. Let's just say that one of the reasons I find Levitt's work fascinating is that its seemingly microcosmic, everyday approach--an approach appealing to those of us who prefer researching social and cultural history to recounting high politics and petty political disputes.

Do placebos really work?

Joseph Epstein has a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece on the names of racehorses and other animals. As much as I usually enjoy Epstein's writing, I think he missed the chance to make an exceedingly important point: that certain racehorses are given cruelly idiotic names. (Hoop, Jr.? Jet Pilot? Spend a Buck? Strike the Gold? There should be an official body charged with ensuring that all racehorses are given appropriate names.) I also disagree with Epstein's opinions on the naming of cats. I guess this just goes to show that even my favorite conservative literary critic can't match the wisdom of T.S. Eliot when it comes to our feline friends.

A new Geoffrey Nunberg piece from The New York Times argues that business has replaced government as the most prominent perpetrator of hard-to-interpret jargon. (I suspect that academia could give business a run for its money, but the hallowed halls of our nation's universities are probably more isolated from the rest of America than the country's leading businesses are.) What intrigued me most, however, was his description of a computer program called Bullfighter, which flags business jargon in word-processing documents and then proposes more natural English alternatives. I'd like to know more about the program, which sounds oddly intriguing.

The topic of jargon reminded me of a passage I read yesterday in Joseph Epstein's charming book Snobbery: The American Version:

Edward Shils, who edited Minerva, a magazine devoted to science and higher learning, once accepted an article from a contributor with the proviso that he remove the heavy jargon from his writing. "Not a problem," said the man, "jargon or no jargon--I suppose it's only a matter of taste." "Quite right," Shils shot back. "It is only a matter of taste--good taste or bad. Remove the jargon."

That's a wonderful attitude. If only we had an equivalent of Bullfighter for academic prose: I'd love to run certain books through it, just to see what would come out.

Update: Matt Reece, intrepid web explorer, has discovered Bullfighter. You should give it a try.

When I was a first-year graduate student here at Chicago, I wrote a 124-page seminar paper about the role of the Russian merchantry at the All-Russian Industrial and Artistic Exhibition of 1896. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover a mention of one the merchants I profiled--Savva Mamontov--in an article on today's New York Times sports page.

The traditional Russian nesting doll (or matryoshka) was first designed in the 1890s at Mamontov's Abramtsevo estate, a center for traditional arts and crafts. And now, according to The New York Times, they're likely to become the next big collecting craze in sports--a successor to bobblehead dolls and baseball cards. Each layer of the nesting doll will feature a sports star in a different uniform from a team he played for, showing the trajectory of his career.

Dolls like this aren't uncommon in Moscow: travel to the Arbat or any other locale crowded with foreign tourists, and you'll see many varieties of nesting dolls on sale. You can find Harry Potter dolls, football player dolls, Star Wars character dolls, terrorist dolls (starting with Osama bin Laden), and many others. Western tourists love to buy these, often at exorbitant prices.

I was a little perplexed by the article, which referred to the dolls as "babooshkah" dolls. In Russian, babushka means "grandmother," and, by extension, is used as a colloquial term for an old woman. Why would a nesting doll featuring a sports figure by referred to by this name? I have no idea. I've heard the word "babushka" used in English for a traditional Russian head scarf (like the babushki wear); both the article and my English dictionary refer to this usage. But to refer to a sports figure doll as a "Babooshkah" (eccentric spelling and all) seems downright bizarre.

Perhaps, if I'm lucky, one of my readers can clarify the meanings of the word babushka (in English, mainly, since I think I have a handle on the Russian word's connotations.) I'm also unclear on the meaning of matryoshka: does it refer to any Russian nesting doll, or simply to those that feature women in traditional Russian garb? Inquiring minds are curious...

Update: The Guardian recently published an article about visiting the Abramtsevo estate, where the matryoshka was first designed.