Sunday, September 28, 2008


McSweeney's Takes You To the Cleaners

I'll be reading this Wednesday night in Portland at The Cleaners -- yep, the space adjoining the Ace Hotel is a former dry cleaners -- with Deb Olin Unferth, Eli Horowitz, John Brandon, and with music by Two Beers.

No cover, though starch will cost you extra.

Saturday, September 27, 2008


The Housing Bubble Explained

(Via Dan Savage at The Stranger...)


Past Times

The Times of London has a brand-new blog up -- just two weeks old, and you can count the postings on one hand -- but it's an absolutely brilliant idea. The Times Archive Blog digs through their two centuries of digitized issues for whatever strikes their fancy, and the postings link directly into the original newspaper pages.

Their first post is particularly fascinating, on how Times classifieds were used by German (and then Austrian) Jews wanting to escape to Britain:

For much of 1938 and 1939, the columns were full of applications from mainland Europe for jobs as cooks, governesses, housekeepers, nannies, gardeners, chauffeurs and men of all work. Clearly, very many of the applicants were well-educated and over-qualified for these positions. Most say that they are Jewish, although some refer to themselves as "non-Aryan". Some even specify that they have one Christian parent.

European Jews who wished to escape persecution by emigrating were subject to restrictions on their eligibility to enter Britain. To protect the home labour market, Jewish immigrants had to prove that they would not be a liability on the state, either because they were bringing their own business with them, or by producing a letter from a prospective employer confirming that they were coming to work as domestic staff.

I hope the Times continues to push the development of this blog -- it really could become an extraordinary site, as well as a model for what other newspapers can do online with their archives.

Sunday, September 21, 2008



Paul Constant notes some Joseph Mitchell reissues over at The Stranger.

And -- an awesome (translated!) catch by Ed Park from the BBC Mundo interview with the widow of Jorge Luis Borges:

[Maria Kodama:] [Borges liked] fun things such as The Beatles, the
Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd.

[BBC:] Pink Floyd?

[MK:] Yes, he loved it. So much so that his birthday anthem was not
"Happy Birthday To You" but "The Wall."

[BBC:] How did he discover it?

[MK:] I don't know. The movie of "The Wall" is awful and we watched it
infinite times. At some point I think he knew the dialogue by heart.
He liked that kind of music because he said it was a thing of enormous
force, yet vital.

[BBC:] And the Rolling Stones?

[MK:] He loved them, he also said they had an incredible strength. One
day we were at the Palace hotel in Madrid, waiting to go out for
dinner, and I see Mick Jagger coming. He kneels, grabs Borges' hand
and tells him: "Maestro, I admire you."

Borges, a little astonished, couldn't see him well, and says, 'And who
are you, sir?' and he answers "I am Mick Jagger." Borges says, 'Ah,
one of the Rolling Stones.' Mick Jagger almost faints.



...Oh? Sorry, I was busy stuffing money into my mattress.

Pull up a chair!

Back in February, Harper's ran a piece by Eric Janszen (full text is up) that remains the most astute and useful analysis I've seen of this year's meltdown. It must have actually been written a year ago -- Harper's editing is not exactly swift of foot -- and that puts Janszen far, far ahead of the talking heads this last week. (Robert Reich's blog today is, at least, a voice of reason regarding the bum's rush around the bailout proposal.) Not only did Janszen call what's happening now, he's also the only person to make what strikes me as a good guess about what happens next.

Here's the crux of Janszen's piece, tucked in near the end.

The U.S. mortgage crisis has been labeled a “subprime mortgage crisis,” but subprime mortgages were only a sideshow that appeared late, as the housing-bubble credit machine ran out of creditworthy borrowers. The main event was the hyperinflation of home prices. Risks are embedded in price and lurk as defaults. Even after the faith that supported a bubble recedes, false beliefs continue to obscure cause and effect as the crisis unfolds....

As more and more risk pollution rises to the surface, credit will continue to contract, and the FIRE [Finance, Insurance, Real Estate] economy—which depends on the free flow of credit—will experience its first near-death experience since the sector rose to power in the early 1980s. Because all asset hyperinflations revert to the mean, we can expect housing prices to decline roughly 38 percent from their peak as they return to something closer to the historical rate of monetary inflation. If the rate of decline stabilizes at between 6 and 7 percent each year, the correction has about six years to go before things stabilize, leaving the FIRE economy in need of $12 trillion. Where will that money be found?...

There is one industry that fits the bill: alternative energy ... Supporting this alternative-energy bubble will be a boom in infrastructure—transportation and communications systems, water, and power.... Of course, alternative energy and the improvement of our infrastructure are both necessary for our national well-being; and therein lies the danger.
The good news, at least: we'll finally catch up to nineteenth century energy technology.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


A Man on the Moon

In 1989 I was in the MFA fiction program at U Arizona for about 5 minutes. I was 20 years old, sort of making me the Doogie Howser of the program -- which was cute until I discovered that being underaged in an MFA program is like getting locked out of the best classroom on campus. I soon left.

But while I was in Tucson, there were two names always spoken with reverence. The first was that of Edward Abbey, the program director who'd died just days before my first visit to the campus; the second was a guy named Dave Wallace. He'd come brilliantly alive: he'd finished the program recently, after publishing his first book while still in the program, and just that week had published his second collection. Understand that to MFA students, this achievement was like landing on the moon. We were in awe. Somewhere in the department office there was a display with a new copy of The Girl With Curious Hair, and when I'd walk past, it was like looking at a photo of Neil Armstrong.

Wow, I'd think. That man has walked on the moon.

And the thing is, he kept walking. When his Harper's nonfiction pieces ran in 1994 and 1996, you could see a genre being reborn. By then I was living in San Francisco, struggling hopelessly with a novel that a publisher was hemming and hawing over, and the moment I read those pieces it was like... Good god, you can do that with nonfiction? John Hodgman just put a lovely appreciation of Wallace and his cruise ship piece up on his blog, and I think he best expresses what many of us felt back then. Writers remember those Harper's issues the same way another generation recalls seeing Tom Wolfe in Esquire for the first time.

I still think you can date a literary era from those Harper's pieces. And while I won't claim that Wallace laid all the track for the amazingly inventive nonfiction of the last decade, I know this much: when we laid those articles side by side and put our ears to the rails, we could hear the train coming.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


David Foster Wallace

The news, if you haven't heard.

This is so terribly sad that I simply don't know what to say.

(Update: Please see the recollections of DFW up at McSweeney's.)

Sunday, September 07, 2008


There Can Be Only One!

From the Guardian: the world's oddest title has been decided upon.

The people have spoken and the oddest book title of the past 30 years has been selected: Greek Rural Postmen and their Cancellation Numbers. The impenetrable-sounding book, a comprehensive record of Greece's postal routes, is published by the Greek Hellenic Philatelic Society of Great Britain, which "exists to encourage the collection of Greek stamps and to promote their study".



Early this week in Slate I plumbed a rhetorical mystery: why does John McCain say "my friends" so much in his speeches?

"My friends," John McCain recently informed a crowd, "we spent $3 million of your money to study the DNA of bears in Montana."

McCain's meeting with parishioners at Rick Warren's Saddleback presidential forum certainly was a friendly one: He referred to "my friends" another 11 times. In the week leading up to Saddleback, the senator also friended, among others, a crowd in York, Pa., ("Two years ago, I traveled to South Ossetia, my friends"); workers at a locomotive factory in Erie, Pa., ("… my friends, look at the events that are transpiring in Georgia"); and Iowa state fairgoers ("My friends, I'm all in favor of inflating our tires, don't get me wrong ...").

John McCain's insistent recourse to "my friends" is easily the most mystifying verbal tic of any politician since Bob Dole's out-of-body presidential campaign of 1996, which featured Dole's not entirely reassuring promise that "Bob Dole is not some sort of fringe candidate." Like Dole's use of the dissociative third person—or illeism, a propensity also shared by Elmo and the Incredible Hulk—this year's obsessive invocations to friendship invite scrutiny.

My conclusion: blame William Jennings Bryan.

The Washington Post took up the story a few days later, noting that "McCain achieved what may have been a personal best at a town hall gathering in Lima, Ohio, using the phrase or some variation exactly 30 times."

Curiously, it only came up once in the transcript of his convention acceptance speech, though I think I caught one more slipped into the actual performance, which drops him down to the paltry level of a 1960 Nixon RNC speech. Pshaw!

To make up for this lapse, I now bring you the greatest MF'er in literary history: the Rev. Mr. Chadband, the religious hypocrite in Bleak House who preaches to the poor while helping himself to the larder:
"Can we fly, my friends? We cannot. Why can we not fly, my friends?.... Is it because we are calculated to walk? It is. Could we walk, my friends, without strength? We could not. What should we do without strength, my friends? Our legs would refuse to bear us, our knees would double up, our ankles would turn over, and we should come to the ground. Then from whence, my friends, in a human point of view, do we derive the strength that is necessary to our limbs? Is it,” says Chadband, glancing over the table, “from bread in various forms, from butter which is churned from the milk which is yielded unto us by the cow, from the eggs which are laid by the fowl, from ham, from tongue, from sausage, and from such like? It is. Then let us partake of the good things which are set before us!”


Buzzkilling Your Weekend

I'm on NPR Weekend Edition to talk with Scott Simon about my article in the new issue of The Believer -- Buzzkill: Picketing the 80th Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. (The full text is online.)

My fascination with the long history of spelling reform grew out of covering a picket line at last year's National Spelling Bee. (That's me with the press pass, reacting to a spelling pun.) For a historian interested in reform movements, it's like discovering The Lost World. The groups picketing -- including the Spelling Society and the American Literacy Council -- are the direct descendants of groups founded by such Victorian progressives as H.G. Wells and Melville Dewey . Though they only have perhaps a hundred active dues-paying members left, thanks to wise investments and bequests from those days of old, these groups still have the coffers to mount serious campaigns.

Imagine, say, if the Anti-Corset League had been so well funded that it still could organize protests.

It's a deeply idealistic cause -- many are retired educators frustrated at the difficulties English poses for immigrants and the learning disabled -- and it has survived essentially unchanged for over a century. My favorite discovery while researching it was a series of wartime letters to the Times of London by spelling enthusiast George Bernard Shaw:

Spelling-efficiency enthusiast George Bernard Shaw wrote to the Times of London in 1941 claiming that “by shortening a single common word instead of lengthening it we could save the cost of destroyers enough to make an impregnably guarded avenue for our trade with America.” Only a writer, I suppose, would believe the silent e was propping up Hitler’s regime. After the war, Shaw claimed instead that Shakespeare could have written more plays with a better alphabet.
One tidbit that didn't make it in: when Shaw died, he left potentially millions in royalties to the spelling movement. (Ironically, this was due in no small part to the screen success of My Fair Lady.) His executors challenged the will in court, and -- incredibly -- the judge agreed, despite Shaw's clear intentions, and cut the bequest down to a few thousand pounds. The mind boggles at the kind of protest you'd have seen mounted outside the Spelling Bee if they'd followed Shaw's will.

Another journalist with me, David Wolman, also has an account of the picket in his splendid upcoming book Righting the Mother Tongue -- a travelogue that also includes him tracking down and interviewing the inventor of Spellcheck!

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