Wednesday, January 16th, 2013
17

The Questions Following Aaron Swartz's Death

The suicide of Aaron Swartz last week has brought attention to a lot of things in need of immediate and substantial change: the unchecked power of ambitious, self-serving federal prosecutors; the curious disconnect between the ferocity with which those prosecutors hunted down a 20-something political activist, and their respectful reluctance to disturb the potentates of Wall Street; the absurdity of our current copyright laws; ditto, the outmoded laws still on the books with respect to "hacking."

There's also an important point to reiterate. I've seen a number of angry commenters on Twitter and elsewhere claiming that JSTOR "has blood on its hands." This is false. JSTOR declined involvement in [...]

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32

The Question

Anybody who supposes himself wise is already demonstrating the reverse. Therefore the cleverest, most beneficial advice must always come disguised as something else. Because who can ever really believe that he knows better? I didn't even recognize the best advice I ever got for what it was until many years after it was given to me, and I don't flatter myself that I get it, even yet.

In the mists of antiquity I embarked on what would prove to be a mortifyingly checkered academic career at St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was a very idealistic, very deluded kid. Ambitious, too. There was no such thing [...]

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22

Irony Is Wonderful, Terrific, Fantastic!

An op-ed appeared in The Times a couple of weeks ago, called "How to Live Without Irony," and it tore around the Internets like a brush fire. In this essay Christy Wampole, an assistant French professor at Princeton, complained and complained about the hipster, or "urban harlequin" as she styles him. He is "our archetype of ironic living," who "harvests awkwardness and self-consciousness."

So what are we supposed to act like, Prof. Wampole, if we do not want to act like an ironical hipster? A four-year-old, it emerges! Or a tree.

Observe a 4-year-old child going through her daily life. You will not find the slightest bit of [...]

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41

Assets & Liabilities: Understanding The Rolling Jubilee Project

Strike Debt, an offshoot of the Occupy movement, recently launched a project called the Rolling Jubilee, which has raised over $350K as I write; the money will be used to buy, and then forgive, around $7 million worth of distressed medical debt. That's what a "jubilee" meant, in Old Testament times: a period for cancelling debts, and for the manumission of slaves, that came around every five decades: "And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubile unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every [...]

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10

The Truth About Voting Machines: What's Real And What's A Nutty Election Fraud Conspiracy

Earlier in the week I casually retweeted a note from the activist Bob Fitrakis. He'd posted a story about secret new software patches that had been rolled out to Ohio voting machines, with dark suggestions of shenanigans afoot in the counting of the votes there. Election maniacs may recall Fitrakis from the Ohio debacle of 2004, when he worked with Cliff Arnebeck to try to prove election fraud. (The questionability of the 2004 results is not quite in tinfoil territory; many not-outwardly-foaming observers do still believe that the Kerry-Bush election was stolen in Ohio.)

Soon a response came from one @JoeBeOne:

Please don't spread shaky voting machine [...]

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12

Portrait Of A Witch

Part of a series about monsters and other scary things happening here through Halloween.

My grandmother was a witch: a species of santera from Havana, to be more exact. Not like she was decapitating chickens all over the place or anything, but she did speak in tongues and believe in demons, and in hell and especially, in the Devil, who held a good deal more sway over her beliefs and activities than God or Jesus ever did, as it still seems to me. Only now do I see the intensity of her superstitions, her prayers and novenas, her gloomy foretelling of the future, her brooding certainty about every damn [...]

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9

The Hollywood Life Of Walter Mitty

News that "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is being made into a big new movie starring Ben Stiller is somewhat worrying, and I say this as one whose favorite movie may well be Zoolander. Tad Friend's recent New Yorker profile of Stiller, "Funny is Money" (subscription-only) is full of disquieting (and fascinating) details about the project; apparently there's a comic shark attack involved. It's a mystery how Thurber's 1939 story of an ordinary man's daydreams, so small in scale, so evanescently brief (just 2,200 words), and so deceptively modest in its message, should have attracted the notice of so many producers of large and noisy entertainments. But it [...]

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3

The First Video That Meant Something To Me: Seona Dancing's "Bitter Heart"

Part of a series for the new Awl Music app.

For me it was "Bitter Heart" by Seona Dancing, feat. a slender, Bowiefied Ricky Gervais singing the lead vocal ca. 1984. Such a shock he was really quite lovely in that dandified way boys had about them in those long-ago days. I, then a callow goth, was partial to this exact varietal, and should certainly have been setting my turban at M. Gervais had the opportunity presented itself. At the Batcave in London or at the Camden Palace I accidentally went in the men's room once to find the most ravishing sight, some fifteen boys crowded along a [...]

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12

Robert Hughes, 1938-2012

The Australian art critic and historian Robert Studley Forrest Hughes died yesterday at the age of just 74. He'd withstood such a lot, coming back after weeks in a coma following a terrible car accident in Australia in 1999. I thought he was so strong that he would still live to be 100. Part of his name, even, was 'Studley'! And that is just what he was.

What is the best thing Hughes ever did? How to choose from this embarrassment of riches? The obvious answer would be his stately, gorgeously comprehensive history of the convict settlement of Australia, The Fatal Shore (1987). Equally obvious: the 1980 TV [...]

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7

The Perils Of Storytelling As A Stranger: A Chat With Tom Scocca

Tom Scocca's Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future has just come out in paperback. This distinctive American's-eye-view of China's capital is bracingly cerebral without didacticism, intimate and touching without the slightest trace of "self-realization." I loved it.

Maria Bustillos: There is so much I want to know about your book, and about China. How long has it been since you were last there? How has the book been received? How old is [your son] Mack, [who was born in China], now?

Tom Scocca: We haven't been back since I was doing the epilogue, in May 2010. The book's been received pretty well, I think. Or [...]

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79

How Can We Get Artists Paid On The Internet? A Chat With David Lowery

Little did I realize, when I popped over to the Urth Cafe on Beverly a few days ago to talk with the musician David Lowery about artist compensation in the music business, that within the week he would be at the center of one of those "Media Firestorms." Founder of the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, Lowery is a big, charming, voluble, bearded ginger who natters as fast as I do; he also has a mathematics and programming background and knows a lot about amateur radio, and is a big dork. We had a marvelous talk about the above-named topics over coffee. I'd become interested in his recent work [...]

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28

Our Billionaire Philanthropists

I.

In June of 1889, Andrew Carnegie published his essay "Wealth" in the North American Review: a famous document, as remarkable for the author’s delusional self-regard as it is for the case he makes for private philanthropy. The steel baron launched his argument with the dumbfounding claim that until "the past few hundred years [of human history] there was little difference between the dwelling, dress, food, environment of the chief and those of his retainers." He then sails blithely along to insist that we should all welcome the changes in society that make violent wealth inequality inevitable, because the benefits of wealth must inevitably trickle down to the least [...]

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9

The Vexed Posthumous Life of Oscar Wilde

In 1914 Max Beerbohm wrote to Vyvyan Holland, the younger son of Oscar and Constance Wilde, on the occasion of Holland's wedding. Beerbohm sent his regrets for not having been able to attend the wedding, together with a present.

It has the advantage of being easily breakable if you don't like it. The glasses are (you will be relieved to hear) of British manufacture, but I can't tell you just when they were made. I asked the old man in the shop to tell me the date of them. Whereat he stroked his chin and, looking at me over his spectacles, said "Well, Sir, what would you say to [...]

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6

Here Comes OpenLeaks: How It Won't Be WikiLeaks

Almost exactly a year ago I spoke via email with ex-WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg. He and the four or five others who'd defected from WikiLeaks in September of 2010 were already at work on OpenLeaks, a successor organization with the same basic goal: to maintain a secure platform where sensitive documents of interest to the public can be uploaded by whistleblowers and anonymously distributed to the press.

Now OpenLeaks is just about ready to launch. Domscheit-Berg gave a presentation on the project some days ago at the Share 2 conference in Belgrade, and I just had to get over there to hear it. (I don't know! All [...]

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51

What Is The Real-Real Thing?

"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."—Oscar Wilde, "The Critic as Artist"

An old friend once told me a story about her son Edison and this other kid he grew up with, Brendan. It seems that when they were really little, like six or so, the boys were on a soccer team, they were playing soccer and Edison fell and was hurt. And everybody clustered round and was all ooh, ahh, to make sure he was okay. Straightaway, Brendan totally faked an injury of his own, thumped to earth and started wailing, so that [...]

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13

Enjoying Orientalism

If I could award a prize for the best chapter title ever given in a work of fiction, I would bestow it at once on British author Ernest Bramah for the title of Chapter III of Kai Lung's Golden Hours (1922): "The Degraded Persistence of the Effete Ming-Shu." Bramah is better known for his blind detective, Max Carrados, but to my mind the comic tales of Kai Lung (most of them free on Project Gutenberg) are his best. They are sublime, particularly if you enjoy a rococo, antiquated, kooky imitation-Chinese English style:

"It has been said," he began at length, withdrawing his eyes reluctantly from an unusually large [...]

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41

The Poetry Of Ally Sheedy: A Look Back

February marked the twenty-first anniversary of the publication of a book of poems by the gifted actor Ally Sheedy. It was called Yesterday I Saw the Sun, and she was famously excoriated for it. Sheedy was then 28 years old and coming off a very bad patch, including a stint at Hazelden; she had picked up an addiction to Halcion during an ill-fated fling with Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora, and her friend Demi Moore is said to have scooped up the remains of Sheedy and posted them to rehab by way of an intervention. Terrible business, but the braying press went after her anyway. "Ally Sheedy from bad to [...]

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23

'The Artist' And What Makes A Movie 'Foreign'

In early 2003, when evidence emerged that plans for war against Iraq were not merely afoot, but were looking more and more like a fait accompli, the French advised the luridly stupid and prevaricating administration of Bush II against an invasion. This sound suggestion was roundly condemned by nearly every Republican who could get in front of a microphone, culminating in possibly the dumbest episode of the run-up to the war: the announcement of Representatives Robert W. Ney and Walter B. Jones, Jr. that thenceforth the various House restaurants would be serving "freedom fries," rather than French fries. "This action today is a small but symbolic effort to show [...]

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58

Romance Novels, The Last Great Bastion Of Underground Writing

Romance fiction is widely reckoned to be a very low form of literature. Maybe the lowest, if we're not counting the writing at Groupon, or on Splenda packets. Romance fiction: probably the worst! An addictive, absurd, unintellectual literature, literature for nonreaders, literature for stupid people—literature for women! Books Just For Her!

Low or not, romance is by far the most popular and lucrative genre in American publishing, with over $1.35 billion in revenues estimated in 2010. That is a little less than twice the size of the mystery genre, almost exactly twice that of science fiction/fantasy, and nearly three times the size of the market for classic/literary fiction, according to [...]

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45

The Evil Economics Of Judging Teachers

The Times and a host of other publications heralded last week's new study extolling the lifelong money-earning benefits of having a good primary/middle-school teacher. Oh, yay! Let's do what these economists from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggest, right?

Actually, ugh, no. What economists Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman of Harvard and Jonah Rockoff of Columbia want to do, apparently, is to identify and fire "weaker" teachers, for the sake of a barely perceptible increase in students' "lifetime income." Nobody has actually tried this yet; the report doesn't describe an experiment. It's just the conclusion they draw from their analysis of massive amounts [...]

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