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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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)

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Does anyone else find it odd that Slate is describing the profession of the author of its current diary as a "writer and orientalist"? I thought that term had kind of gone out of fashion...

Update: Now Smith is listed as an "apprentice orientalist." That's even more charming!

In In These Times, David Moberg looks at Nelson Lichtenstein's new book on U.S. labor history.

Hans Christian Andersen, it seems, was an interesting guy:

More amusingly, he was a world-class hypochondriac, beset by phobias of every imaginable kind. He kept dreaming that his teeth were falling out and he lived in constant fear of being buried alive. Often he had a small note next to his bed, saying "I only appear to be dead." And when once by accident he had borrowed somebody else's hat, he immediately started worrying about having caught some horrendous skin disease. In anger, he knocked a few dents into the hat.


He planned his foreign conquests like a field marshal. He received honors and decorations from the courts of Europe, including the order of Eagle of the Third Class, bestowed on him by King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia (he would no doubt have preferred a first class), and he met the great men of his age: Heinrich Heine, Franz Liszt, Honoré de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, and Richard Wagner.

Upon his return to Copenhagen, he would constantly remind the Danes how the outside world appreciated him more than they did--indeed, he was not above planting items in the foreign press about himself which he would then recycle at home.

In Britain, he met Charles Dickens, which he describes as one of the highlights of his life. He felt they had so much in common. Both had unhappy childhoods and both had been able to triumph over adversity. Andersen first met Dickens on the 1847 trip to London, and he met the English author a second time ten years later when Andersen came to stay at Gad's Hill, Dickens's summer residence.

ANDERSEN was supposed to stay for a week. He ended up staying for five. His English was totally incomprehensible and his behavior was certainly unusual. One morning Dickens's wife found him prostrate on the lawn, howling with tears and clutching a newspaper.

It turned out to be an unfavorable review of one of his books. Dickens had to console him and advise him never to bother with reviews...

When Andersen finally left, Dickens put up a small card on the guest bedroom mirror: "Hans Christian Andersen slept in this room for five weeks which seemed to the family ages."


Are historians entering a digital dark age in which important electronic documents will be destroyed before they can be examined by scholars? Will other documents be inaccessible to scholars because of their format? Will historians have trouble plowing through millions of uninteresting emails to find one kernel of signficant information? The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

Update Will Baude at Crescat Sententia has been blogging on a related subject today. He links to this Reuters article (which says that Bill Clinton's presidential library will have nearly 4 million emails sent to Clinton) and this old New York Times article, which describes an email George W. Bush sent to 42 "dear friends" several days before his inauguration:

"My lawyers tell me that all correspondence by e-mail is subject to open record requests," Mr. Bush wrote to the group, which included top aides and business people. "Since I do not want my private conversations looked at by those out to embarrass, the only course of action is not to correspond in cyberspace. This saddens me. I have enjoyed conversing with each of you."

Until that moment, when Mr. Bush wrote that "sadly I sign off," he kept in contact with these people through often daily e-mail messages, which he would usually dash off early in the morning before embarking on the campaign trail. (The missives were generally to the point -- a sentence or so. Mr. Bush preferred all lower-case letters and little punctuation except dashes between thoughts, and would usually sign off, simply, "gwb.")

I'll refrain from commenting on what Bush's style of writing emails says about his personality...

Another issue, touched on only briefly in the Chronicle article, is the possibility that officials will fabricate documents. I'm not sure how realistic a fear this is. I've heard a claim that one or more officials in the Kissinger State Department used to type up multiple versions of policy recommendations (taking different positions in each document), and then destroyed the less promising one later on in order to look like they'd been on the right side of history; I've never been able to corroborate this claim, but such activity would presumably be easier with the computerization of record-keeping. Then again, there's no reason why someone couldn't do this earlier in history (and I don't know of any real evidence that anyone has to a significant degree), and computerized records could--in some ways--make this harder. Who knows?

In any case, I'm fascinated by the issues facing historians resulting from the spread of electronic documents in government.

In The Guardian, Neal Ascherson reviews Tzvetan Todorov's new book on the horrors of the twentieth century.

Monday, January 26, 2004

The Christian Science Monitor reports on Chinese education reform.

How well do the presidential candidates speak Spanish? The Washington Post reports.

The San Francisco Chronicle describes the feud between Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Olga Andreyev Carlisle, a woman who once helped him publish his novels in the West. (via AL Daily)

In The New Yorker, Josh Marshall discusses the theory of empire (and of American empire.)

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Exciting acquisition of the evening: I've just been watching "The Battle of Russia," from Frank Capra's Why We Fight series of propaganda films. (Or "propoganda" [sic] films, as the packaging proudly declares; I bought the DVD for $5.99 at Walgreen's, since it looked even more exciting than The Omega Code 2, one of the other fine films for sale there.) It's kind of neat to see all the old newsreel footage, and it's oddly entertaining to see the film's portrayal of Russian history. ("Germany's spirit of aggression," it seems, "has been passed down from generation to generation." You'd think from the film that all of Russian history has involved fighting off German invasions, from Aleksandr Nevskii's war with the Teutonic Knights to Hitler's 1941 invasion.) I haven't finished watching yet, but so far I'm pretty disappointed not to have seen any footage of Stalin speaking. Oh, well.

My computer won't let me visit the website of the Errol Morris documentary The Fog of War, but film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum argues that the site is "in some ways... more useful than the film-- maybe because there's less to meditate on and more to think about." Rosenbaum isn't a huge fan of the movie--he refers to both Morris's and Robert McNamara's "capacity to say as little as possible while giving the impression of saying a great deal" and suggests that all we have to gain from The Fog of War is "the satisfaction that we're somehow taking care of business when we're actually fast asleep":

I used to be a big fan of Glass's music when I heard it performed live, largely because of its meditative qualities. But one might question the use of meditating on Robert McNamara as opposed to thinking analytically and critically about him. If we meditate on charts and figures or feel existential dread about them without even knowing what they say, there's a danger that we'll think we're doing something serious just by gaping at what's in front of us. The same thing applies to gaping at McNamara even when we know what he's saying, in part because of the high gloss of that chugging Glass music. It's almost as if Morris were characterizing McNamara's discourse as "Glassy" (rather than simply gassy), the same way Oliver Stone and Anthony Hopkins tried to make Richard M. Nixon seem Shakespearean.

Despite Rosenbaum's doubts, I still plan to see The Fog of War sometime.

Was the success of the Blitzkrieg in World War II just a myth? A new book by a military historian says so, but he hasn't convinced The Washington Times's reviewer.

"Like medicine or pornography, Uzbekistan is a subject in which a person is either deeply versed or utterly ignorant." This line comes from a new novel about Uzbekistan, which sounds kind of interesting but which I have no burning desire to read. The Boston Globe's reviewer listed the sentence above as one of many that could have used an editor:

That's clever and funny at first glance, sure, but a moment's reflection reveals it to be utter nonsense. Neither medicine nor pornography really breaks down to an either-or split between expertise and total ignorance.

Then there's this on Page 343: "Constructed by the Uzbek government in 1998 for the explicit purpose of containing the ballooning number of Muslims convicted of illegal religious activity, the Jaslyk prison camp was widely viewed as one of the most spectacular neoplasms upon an already tumor-ridden body politic."

"Widely viewed" as such? Who besides a certain metaphor-obsessed author would think to employ overwrought medical terminology like "neoplasm" and "tumor-ridden body politic" in describing a prison? Wasn't it Bissell himself who posited the theory that all who aren't experts in medicine are utterly ignorant of the subject? And how many people outside Uzbekistan have ever heard of the Jaslyk prison camp?

Snarky reviews are always fun, though the reviewer of this book generally seemed to like it. Personally, I wish the review had commented more on the content of the book.

Via Tapped: an enterprising Connecticut company is now selling a Howard Dean action figure ("Mean Dean," with a voice chip of the post-caucus scream.)

If you're unfamiliar with the work of children's fantasy writer Philip Pullman, this New York Times article is a good introduction.

Casanova was cool. So are books that involve him.

Other books that sound like fun include a "biography" of the year 1968 by Mark Kurlansky (the author of neat books on salt and the Basques) and Yasmina Khadra's crime novel set in 1990s Algeria.

Is juggling good for the brain? A recent study says so, and today's New York Times adds a little more context:

The finding, which was reported in the current issue of the journal Nature, is similar to one in a study of London cab drivers four years ago. Unlike their colleagues in New York, London cabbies must memorize the entirety of their city's streets. If some Sunday morning in London you should see a group of men on bicycles, maps balanced on the handlebars, those are apprentice cabbies, acquiring "the knowledge," as the two-year memorization of London's many small, winding streets is called. The 2000 study, also done with M.R.I. scanners, found a change in the shape of the cabbies' hippocampus, the brain module where new memories of place are stored.

Both studies show how malleable the brain is under training, a finding already hinted at by the brain's own internal representation, or mapping, of body parts. In monkeys trained to use their fingertips for some task, the areas of the brain devoted to mapping the fingertips will enlarge, suggesting that the brain's various maps of the body are "plastic," in the parlance of neurology, not hard-wired

I wonder how immersion in quizbowl affects the brain...

The Boston Globe ideas section describes the rise of Western-style gated communities in India. The paper also features an interview with the author of a history of smiles, discussing a series of high-profile smiles in the news. (The art historian being interviewed apparently didn't see this photo before commenting on John Kerry's smile.)