"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
Saturday, November 08, 2003
In a new book reviewed by The Washington Times, David Herbert Donald discusses Abraham Lincoln and his friends.
Moscow, according to the BBC, is considering a ban on kissing in public.
A less fluffy BBC article discusses the problems facing Georgian leader Eduward Shevardnadze.
The New York Times profiles "the Zelig of Japanese diplomatic history," Toshikazu Kase:
The article has some other interesting tidbits as well.
The Leo Frank lynching is the subject of an excellent Washington Post book review.
The Washington Post Outlook section discusses the decline of American interest in Russia. The article's opening section:
I've heard mixed things about whether the decline in students studying Russian has now leveled off, but the picture certainly isn't good.
This American Prospect article on a new Errol Morris documentary about Robert McNamara is worth reading. I thought that the author--Sidney Schanberg--sometimes injected his own opinions into the piece in a slightly awkward way, but I found the article fascinating.
I hadn't known, for example, about McNamara's role in the firebombing of Tokyo:
Another interesting passage discusses how McNamara--one of the most prominent members of the "best and brightest"--constantly tried to describe how smart he was;
I was even intrigued by the technology of the documentary: Morris apparently uses a "modified Teleprompter" called the Interotron in his work, to establish eye contact between the interviewee and the audience. The review of this documentary is fascinating, and the movie itself sounds worth watching.
Anthony Grafton reviews a biography of Primo Levi.
Friday, November 07, 2003
Browsing books is fun.
Thursday, November 06, 2003
Why are American obituaries so bad?
On Sunday I linked to this extremely boring and mediocre AP obituary of the political scientist Richard Neustadt; it was printed in The New York Times, America's newspaper of record. I had hoped that the Times would eventually publish a more interesting obit, but the piece they published on Monday was only slightly better.
Today, however, I came across links to several British obituaries of Neustadt while browsing on the blog Sitting on a Fence. Compare the New York Times Neustadt obituary with this obituary from The London Telegraph and this obituary from The Independent. Both are far more informative--even though Neustadt was an American academic, not a prominent Briton. (He did live in England, and was married to a prominent British politician, but still...)
The Independent's obituary was stylistically very different from standard American obituaries:
Personally, I found the writing a little too flowery and would have preferred an obituary that spent more time repeating neat facts from Neustadt's life. (And I'm not just saying this because I enjoy nasty obituaries!) Even so, The Independent's obituary was vastly better than the one that appeared in The New York Times. Will Americans ever learn?
The Washington Post reports on a petition sent to the Smithsonian, protesting the institution's decision to display the Enola Gay at its new facility near Dulles Airport without discussing the number of casualties from the atomic bomb. The Smithsonian's current plan is to show a display that focuses on the plane's design with text that is "factual but not interpretive."
The petition (organized by a group of scholars, writers, and activists) is available on the web, but I'm still not sure what to make of it. The petitioners generally seem reasonable--they do not, for example, object to the display of the Enola Gay, but to the its failure to "initiate [a]desperately needed national conversation on nuclear arms policy." Is this really the proper role for the Smithsonian, however? I have the feeling that any discussion of nuclear policy that's supported by the petitioners would be an inappropriate role for an institution like the Smithsonian, whose mission should generally--I would argue--be more narrowly educational and less policy-oriented. Moreover, I'm not sure I agree fully with what the petition's "statement of principle" claims. The statement quotes two Japanese groups who've written that "The display rationalizes the bombing and as such it is absolutely unforgiveable....Atomic bombs massacre civilians indiscriminately and are weapons that cannot be justified in humanitarian terms. Even now, many victims continue to suffer the after-effects." The second part of this excerpt seems undeniable to me--but I'm not convinced that the display "rationalizes the bombing."
Nevertheless, the Smithsonian's exhibit strikes me as highly flawed. According to The Washington Post, "The text that will accompany the plane describes how it was an improvement over other bombers, such as its use of pressurized compartments for the crew. " Jack Dailey, the director of the museum, has announced that "We are displaying [the Enola Gay] in all of its glory as a magnificent technological achievement." But would the Smithsonian have any interest displaying the Enola Gay if it hadn't dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima? Is the plane significantly different from other bombers of the era? I'm skeptical.
What we're left with, then, strikes me as a flawed protest against a flawed museum exhibit. The ideal, I think, would be a historical exhibit on the Enola Gay like that which was planned for 1994--an interpretive exhibit that would explain the bombing and its historical context. The Smithsonian's proposed 1994 exhibit was flawed, but could have been salvaged, and its cancellation was in many ways an act of cowardice. Unfortunately, I don't think we're going to see anything like that exhibit again.
I had debated blogging about CBS's decision to cancel its Reagan mini-series, but two other writers have now said exactly what I would have written.
Here's the beginning of Josh Marshall's recent blog entry on the controversy:
Somehow I just can't get around to feeling too bad about the cancellation of a bad mini-series, even if it wasn't actually cancelled for the "right" reasons. (The phrase "bad mini-series" seems like an oxymoron, doesn't it?)
And here's the conclusion to Tim Noah's quite sensible take on the controversy:
The mini-series apparently would have spread the myth that Reagan ended the Cold War, which is another good reason that it was cancelled.
The Washington Post reports on the government's shortage of Arabic translators. The article has lots of interesting tidbits, like a reference to "computers that translate texts automatically or can sort through vast amounts of data to find the most telling passages."
Question of the day: what's the real cause of the "Hogwarts headache"?
Wednesday, November 05, 2003
What impact is Jean-Marie Le Pen's daughter having on France's National Front? The Spectator looks at the party's present and future.
Tuesday, November 04, 2003
As Margaret Talbot pointed out in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, a new report from the Brookings Institute challenges the widespread view that America's schoolchildren are doing more homework now than ever before. But why do so many people disagree with this finding? Talbot's answers are interesting...
An art installation at the Corcoran Gallery discusses the atomic bomb and recreates the Manhattan Project's Los Alamos lab. Is it art? Is it a threat to national security? I don't care much about the first question, and I think the answer to the second is no, but this sounds like a cool exhibit in any case.
(via Arts and Letters Daily) Skeptical Inquirer looks at the Rorschach test:
Last Friday, when I was too busy to read the New York Times op-ed page, Philip Pullman wrote a charming piece called "Why I Don't Believe in Ghosts." (I've now found it thanks to Bookslut.) The essay describes Pullman's attitudes on the supernatural, on fantasy literature, and on the process of writing. Check it out.
And, if you haven't read any of Pullman's books, go do that, too.
Monday, November 03, 2003
Today Slate features an article on Russia's new pulp writers. I don't necessarily agree with all the author's conclusions, but I don't have time to critique the piece right now... Go ahead and read it instead.
The Los Angeles Times has a fascinating profile of Under-Secretary of State John Bolton. Paul Wolfowitz isn't the only scary man in the administration, it seems!
If you're interested in politics, Ruy Teixera's weblog is a great place to go. Over the weekend, the site included two posts (here and here) on how Wesley Clark can win the Democratic nomination.
What interested me most was the site's link to this Washington Post article on the impact of "momentum" on presidential campaigns. The article cites some academic work with three surprising findings: money doesn't matter as much as most people think, front-runners often stumble but rarely blow their leads, and sudden changes in momentum rarely affect the outcome of a campaign.
One of my former American Prospect editors has written a Washington Post book review of Virginia Postrel's new book.
Younger and younger high school students are taking AP exams. This strikes me as a bad idea: in my experience, almost no AP courses are as good as real courses at good colleges, and giving college credit for them is--at best--highly questionable.
Sunday, November 02, 2003
What's the relationship between entertainment and the writing of history? Eric Hobsbawm discusses this question.
The Boston Globe ideas section has an interesting (if overly favorable) profile of Richard Pipes, the Harvard historian of Russia.
Another article in the section discusses a 1938 puff piece about Hitler in the British magazine Homes and Gardens.
Peter Jacon's Lord of the Rings movies have helped the New Zealand economy, it appears.
The political scientist Richard Neustadt has died at 84.
Where have all the women in New York politics gone?