Tuesday, September 30, 2008

That wacky Nobel committee

The Nobel Prize in Literature may or may not be announced a week from Thursday. (We never really know, as it's tradition to keep the date of the announcement a secret until 48 hours ahead of time.)

Nobel permanent secretary Horace Engdahl says that it's unlikely the winner will be an American:
Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world ... not the United States.

Nine of the last 13 Nobel Laureates have been European writers.

New Yorker editor David Remnick responds with a red, white, and blue bitch slap:
You would think that the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce, and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lectures.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Some recent Shakespeare films

I'm off to see The Taming of the Shrew at the Stratford Festival in Canada this weekend, and the plan on the bus is to watch the ever enjoyable 1999 film 10 Things I Hate About You, which is, of course, an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew.

Because I like lists, I've compiled a short, admittedly far-from-complete list of recent film adaptations of Shakespeare. (Please feel free to add films in the the comments, but note that there's a whole lot before 1989 that I've not even tried to touch, and I've likewise totally neglected international films.)

Re-imaginings (adaptations)
  • 10 Things I Hate About You—1999
    The Taming of the Shrew as a teen comedy
    Gil Junger, director
    Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger

  • Titus—1999
    Titus Andronicus as, um, yeah
    Julie Taymor, director
    Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange

  • O—2001
    Othello as a teen basketball tragedy
    Tim Blake Nelson, director
    Julia Stiles, Josh Hartnett, Mekhi Phifer

  • Scotland, Pa—2002
    Macbeth as the owner of a small-town diner
    Billy Morrissette, director
    Christopher Walken, Maura Tierney

  • She's the Man—2006
    Twelfth Night as a teen comedy
    Andy Fickman, director
    Amanda Bynes

  • Richard III—1995
    Richard III as a British fascist in the 1930s
    Richard Loncraine, director
    Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Robert Downey Jr.

  • Romeo+Juliet—1996
    Shakespeare with guns and Hawaiian shirts
    Baz Luhrmann, director
    Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes

  • A Midsummer Night's Dream—1999
    Fin de si├Ęcle impishness in Italy
    Michael Hoffman, director
    Rupert Everett, Calista Flockhart

  • Hamlet—2000
    Hamlet as an indie filmmaker
    Michael Almereyda, director
    Ethan Hawke, Julia Stiles

Other strangeness
  • Looking for Richard—1996
    Al Pacino documentary on staging Richard III

  • Shakespeare in Love—1998
    You all know this one, right?

Kenneth Branagh
  • Henry V—1989

  • Much Ado About Nothing—1993

  • Othello—1995 (Oliver Parker, director)

  • Hamlet—1996

  • Love's Labour's Lost—2000

  • As You Like It—2006

Monday, September 22, 2008

In search of lost caped crusaders

D.D. Guttenplan on comic books in The Nation:

For a long time I used to go to bed early. Unbidden by my parents I'd hurry up the stairs to my room, turn out the light, burrow beneath the covers, reach under the bed for the flashlight and then, safe where I'd left it the night before, the latest issue of Superman or Batman. Proust can keep his madeleines. For me, nothing brings back that childhood sensation of safety, or the inky smell of clandestine pleasure, quite like Batman No. 166.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The audacity of hope (in the face of the Joker)

Novelist and superhero aficionado Jonathan Lethem on The Dark Knight:

In its narrative gaps, its false depths leading nowhere in particular, its bogus grief over stakeless destruction and faked death, “The Dark Knight” echoes a civil discourse strained to helplessness by panic, overreaction and cultivated grievance. I began to feel this Batman wears his mask because he fears he’s a fake — and the story of his inauthenticity, the possibility of his unmasking, counts for more than any hope he offers of deliverance from evil. The Joker, on the other hand, exhibits his real face, his only face, and his origins are irrelevant, his presence as much a given as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or Fear Itself.

The Joker’s paradox, of course, is the same as that of 9/11 and its long aftermath: audacious transgression ought to call out of us an equal and adamant passion for love of truth and freedom, yet the fear he inspires instead drives us deep into passivity and silence.

(For context see: "Is Batman a conservative?" at Counterfictionals)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Sarah Palin=Kwame Kilpatrick

Members of Governor Sarah Palin's staff and her husband, Todd Palin, who is not employed by the State of Alaska, have declared that they will not comply with subpoenas to testify before a State Legislature investigation into allegations that Palin wrongfully terminated the state public safety commissioner. Failure to comply with a State Legislature subpoena is a crime in Alaska punishable by a fine up to $500 and up to six months in jail.

That's right. Palin's husband and her staff members, at her encouragement, are committing a crime.

Glenn Greenwald:
It ought to be striking to read an article that reports this:

(a) X is illegal under the law, punishable with fines and prison;

(b) Political official P just announced that s/he will do X;

(c) The reason is that P knows there will be no consequences for X.

That's the elimination of the rule of law and core democratic processes expressed in elementary logical terms, and that's what the AP just reported yesterday about the Palins' refusal to comply with subpoenas, and what media outlets have been reporting for years about what Bush officials have done. But it's not striking. It's now the standard way our lawless government functions.

Reasonable people can disagree about Troopergate, and whether an investigation should in itself disqualify someone from running for public office. The fact remains, however, that whether or not Palin committed a crime in firing Walt Monegan, she is currently engaged in the commission of a crime by obstructing the State Legislature's investigation and by telling her staff to do the same.

It's striking that McCain would select as his Vice-Presidential nominee a person who was under active investigation for misconduct in office. It is unforgivable (even if his own campaign is not behind efforts to actively interfere with the investigation) that he lets her remain on the ticket.

Answer me this one question:

Read Rush Limabugh's op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal. Play close attention to the quotes of his that he claims that the Obama campaign has taken out of context in a Spanish-language ad:

"Stupid and unskilled Mexicans" and "You shut your mouth or you get out!"

Then read the extended quotes that Limbaugh [himself!] provides to place these statements in context:

"If you are unskilled and uneducated, your job is going south. Skilled workers, educated people are going to do fine 'cause those are the kinds of jobs Nafta is going to create. If we are going to start rewarding no skills and stupid people, I'm serious, let the unskilled jobs that take absolutely no knowledge whatsoever to do -- let stupid and unskilled Mexicans do that work."


"And another thing: You don't have the right to protest. You're allowed no demonstrations, no foreign flag waving, no political organizing, no bad-mouthing our president or his policies. You're a foreigner: shut your mouth or get out! And if you come here illegally, you're going to jail."

Question: Are these quotes more inflammatory in or out of context?

(Follow up question: How are we to evaluate Limbaugh's claim that "There was no racial connotation to [these remarks] and no one thought there was at the time"? Is it fair to ask Limbaugh for substantiation of this claim? Who exactly does he mean by "no one"? No one in his studio? No one listening to his show? No one in 1993? No one anywhere, ever?)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

One of the qualities of a good writer is that their work generates good writing

David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

I will continue to add to this list as I come across additional writing.

DFW writing available online



Obits and responses to DFW's death

Other lists of DFW links

Monday, September 15, 2008

Finally, a reasonable counter-argument

Intellectual property lawyer Paul Rapp argues against J.K. Rowling's victory in her lawsuit against the Harry Potter Lexicon.

Fair use cases have increasingly turned on whether the new work (here, Vander Ark’s book) is transformational of the first work. Here, the judge ruled that the encyclopedia was indeed transformational, just not transformational enough. The 62-page decision contains endless examples of “similarities” between Vander Ark’s book and the Harry Potter series—a painful thing to read, and when you think about it, kind of silly. It’s an encyclopedia, for crying out loud; it shouldn’t be a huge surprise to discover that it contains similarities to the thing that it’s, well, encyclopedia-ing. But the judge was bothered by Vander Ark’s verbatim copying, which he seemed to think was excessive, leading to the bothersome conclusion that had Vander Ark jumped through a bunch of needless hoops and had simply done more paraphrasing, he would have been alright.

The judge also put, in my view, way too much emphasis on the obvious facts that the Harry Potter books were fiction and that Vander Ark’s work was a profit-making endeavor in finding that there was no fair use of Rowling’s works. I think the judge also put too much stock in a couple aged decisions denying fair use in similar situations, one involving a Seinfeld trivia book and another involving a Twin Peaks fan book, both of which I think would be decided differently today given some more recent cases that have opened up the concept of fair use to be more consistent with today’s exploding remix culture.

There seem to be two big points here: 1. verbatim quotes are exactly what one would expect in an encyclopedia and 2. the precedents the judge cites are out-of-date in contemporary "remix culture." As you might gather from my earlier post, I'm in closer agreement on the second than the first. Rapp is dismissive of paraphrasing, but it's exactly that non-quoted "original commentary" that would have given Vander Ark an argument that he was adding something instead of rehashing the text. In this case, it's clear that extensive quoting is the untenable middle ground between what I would call "indexing"—providing a list of locations in Rowling's text for each entry, but not quoting the text itself—and analysis or "original commentary" that would have discussed Rowling's ideas and placed them within the text.

It's worth noting, if you read Rapp's full commentary, or most of the other coverage of this case, that it really doesn't matter that Rowling has a whole bunch of money and Vander Ark was a middle school librarian, or that Rowling claims that the lawsuit has given her writer's block. These are the dramatic details, but they are legally immaterial.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

DFW: 1962-2008

David Foster Wallace was found dead in his home on Friday. (Update 9/16/08: I've changed this link to the NYT obit. The original NYT news item on DFW's death is here.)

I'm at a loss. At his best, Wallace was one of our best and most intelligent, and most interesting contemporary writers.

Update: 12:29pm: Michiko Kakutani on DFW

Update: 6:09pm: Laura Miller on DFW

Update: 9/15/08, 11:29am: The NYT's Paper Cuts Blog on DFW

Update: 9/15/08, 1:21pm: DFW's 2005 Commencement Address at Kenyon College (text)

Update: 9/15/08, 4:17pm: DFW on Charlie Rose and DFW, Jonathan Franzen, and Mark Leyner on Charlie Rose

Update: 9/17/08, 7:29am: Testimonials on McSweeney's.net

Update: 9/17/08, 1:16pm: I've posted a new and more extensive list of DFW links

Friday, September 12, 2008

Even a stopped clock. . .

I have had a strong and a long relationship on national security. I've been involved in every national crisis that this nation has faced since Beirut. I understand the issues, I understand and appreciate the enormity of the challenge we face from radical Islamic extremism. I am prepared. I am prepared. I need no on-the-job training. I wasn't a mayor for a short period of time. I wasn't a governor for a short period of time.

Senator John McCain, October, 2007

Keep in mind that in this context that the mayor that McCain is referring to is Rudy Giuliani, who was mayor of New York City for eight years, and the governor is Mitt Romney, who was governor of Massachusetts for four years. Sarah Palin was mayor of Wasilla for six years, and has been governor of Alaska for a year and nine months.

(Quote via Andrew Sullivan, video via Sam Stein on the Huffington Post.)

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

I think it's the right judgment, but that doesn't make me happy about it

J.K. Rowling has won her lawsuit to prevent publication of Steven Jan Vander Ark's Harry Potter Lexicon.

In not unrelated news, the online Harry Potter Lexicon is gone. Even the domain name appears to be available. I think this is a sad outcome even if, by my understanding of current copyright law, it's the right one. Rowling owns her characters, and most (printed) reference works dealing with copyrighted fictional characters are undertaken with the permission of and payment to the copyright holder. There are a number of gray areas, such as collectible memorabilia, where fair use holds, but at least in my mind, there is a huge difference, for example, between a photo guide to Mickey Mouse toys, or even an examination of the character of Mickey Mouse through an historical evaluation of variations in specific cartoons over time, and a book that provides "biographies" of Disney cartoon characters. (This is a simplified analogy, but Vander Ark seems to have lost his case because he was unable to demonstrate sufficient original commentary in his Lexicon to merit fair use protection of its publication.)

It's a shame that Rowling's victory seems to mean the end of the online Lexicon and not just the printed book, but in terms of maintaining the copyright, it may have been necessary. Vander Ark is correct that it is difficult to draw a meaningful line between the online Lexicon, which existed with Rowling's at-least-tacit approval, and even took in some basic level of revenue through advertising, and a printed edition. As a wanna-be author, I can understand the difference between allowing a tribute site to exist, and even take in enough money to pay for its server space, and between letting someone print and sell their own book using your characters, but, legally, copyright only exists if it is asserted and protected by the author. (This is the same reason that Band-Aid always includes the word "bandages" in their advertising. If "Band-Aid" were to be legally established as a generic term for what the British call a plaster, then everyone can call their products band-aids.)

Most people who construct sites like the Lexicon, including Vander Ark, include some sort of acknowledgment of the copyright holder and a disclaimer to the effect that the site exists because the copyright holder hasn't asked that it be taken down (along with implicit gratitude for the copyright holder's indulgence or benign ignorance). I don't know that this is the best of all possible worlds. In particular, some artists, like Prince, hold a tight grip on their material, perhaps even in excess of his legal rights. But absent legislation or tort precedent clearly delineating online copyright and fair use boundaries, we may have to continue to behave as if it were a print world.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Puck you

A few thoughts after some time to digest the Republican convention:
  1. Wouldn't you think it a bit off-putting to have a number of your major arguments not only based in ignorance, but actually depending upon the celebration of ignorance in order to be effective? I'm thinking of the denigration of the term "community organizer" in particular. Is there a more clear signal of the Republicans' ignorance of and disdain for the inner-cities than their ridicule of that title?

  2. I didn't watch Palin's speech, but listened to portions of it on the radio. After having watched film of her actual delivery, I'm far less impressed than I was initially. She has a gift for sounding natural, but her unwavering stare into camera 1 is an unmistakable sign of someone who is reading a teleprompter as if her life depended on it.

  3. Is no one else weirded-out over the appeal of the "hockey mom" image, or is this another pseudo-folksy appeal that depends on the ignorance of the audience? It's clearly meant to be an Alaskan twist on the common "soccer mom" trope, but having grown up in Hockeytown, there's a clear designation in my mind: the families whose kids were on the hockey teams were the more affluent families—the ones who could afford the equipment.

  4. I would have missed this one if the Detroit Free Press hasn't highlighted it as McCain's single mention of Michigan: "I fight for Bill and Sue Nebe from Farmington Hills, Michigan, who lost their real estate investments in the bad housing market." Isn't it tone-deaf for McCain to express concern for real estate investors after facing criticism for not knowing how many houses he owns?

  5. What does it say when nearly everyone, both for and against you, has more to say about your vice-presidential pick than they have to say about you?

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

What was that about foreign policy experience?

Somehow I missed this first time around:

Ms. Palin appears to have traveled very little outside the United States. In July 2007, she had to get a passport before she visited members of the Alaska National Guard stationed in Kuwait, according to her deputy communications director, Sharon Leighow. She also visited wounded troops in Germany during that trip. (emphasis mine)

Granted, even now it's technically possible to travel between the U.S. and Canada without a passport. At the very least, she had to fly over Canada when she attended the governors' conference in Texas this year and flew home while in labor with her son, Trig, and that has to count for something. But she doesn't even have a passport before last year? Come on.

Here's what commentary of more substance would look like


John McCain and Sarah Palin don't believe women have a right to choose. It's absolutely absurd for the campaign to emphasize the fact that Bristol "made this decision," and then push for policies that take away that choice.

In reality, Bristol's actual "choice" was probably not whether to terminate the pregnancy or carry it to term, but whether raise the child herself or put it up for adoption. But the reason that the McCain campaign chose to emphasize Bristol's agency in this decision was to reassure the public that this pregnancy is not coercive. They know the public wants to feel secure in the knowledge that it was Bristol's choice to keep the pregnancy. And coming from the McCain campaign, which opposes a woman's right to choose, that statement is disgusting.

The sort of political commentary you should expect from Wordwright

I have come to a decision. After reading the headlines and vetting the blogs and considering all the ramifications, I love Sarah Palin. Not because of her background or qualifications, which, let's be honest, no one really cares about, but because of the way that she keeps me drooling over every headline for some little tidbit of additional information. I love her because of the way that as her life gets dragged through the mud, she seems to think that more dirt is the solution. I love her because she gives Obama the opportunity to pull himself out of the fray even while he's unable to put a stop to it. I love her because James Dobson is willing to fight for her, and that means that he's afraid. I love her because of the way that she makes people squirm on both sides of the aisle.

Yes, I'll admit it. I have a huge political crush on her, and I want her to stick around.

What have we learned about her?

  1. In the late 80's, Palin was a TV sports reporter.

  2. Palin's husband, Todd, was a member of the Alaskan Independence Party, which desires a referendum on Alaskan secession from the United States. Palin herself attended an AIP convention in 2000 and sent a video address in 2008. (Palin states that she attended the 2000 convention "as a courtesy" since she was mayor of the town where it was held.)

  3. She is either very creative or very uncreative in naming her children. Her oldest son Track is named after the sport or track & field. Really. Todd Palin: Sarah's parents were coaches and the whole family was involved in track and I was an athlete in high school, so with our first-born, I was, like, 'Track!'

  4. She is under investigation for firing Alaska's public safety commissioner, allegedly because he refused to fire an Alaska State Trooper who divorced Palin's sister.

  5. Palin responded to rumors that her 4-month-old son, Trig, is actually her 17-year-old daughter Bristol's child by announcing that Bristol is currently 5 months pregnant. This one is a doozy, in part because the denial is implicit and not explicit, and in part because hiding her daughter's pregnancy is actually the less weird explanation of Palin's behavior around Trig's birth, which included not announcing that she was expecting until she was 7 months along (which isn't weird except that no one had already guessed. At 7 months.) and getting on an 8-hour flight from Texas to Alaska (which included a layover in Seattle) after her water broke. Salon sums it up:
    Why, in refuting those original rumors, did Palin present as evidence the news that her daughter was pregnant, rather than simply handing over hospital documents and a birth certificate for Trig? Answer: It's a mystery! Why did she get on a long plane ride to Alaska after her water broke a month early in Texas? Answer: It's a mystery! Why was her staff surprised to learn that the governor was pregnant one month before she gave birth? Answer: It's a mystery!

I'm going to leave the serious commentary to others, and gleefully concede that only #4 from my list above has any real impact on Palin's ability to serve as Vice President of the United States of America. It is, however, blissfully entertaining, and leaves us with what, as Andrew Sullivan points out, is the most pertinent question of all. Did McCain not vet this person before offering her the job? And why on earth did she say yes?

Update 9/9/08: Item #2 originally cited an ABC news report that Palin was a member of the Alaskan Independence Party from 1994-1996. This report was based on an erroneous claim by the AIP's membership officer, and both the AIP and ABC have since issued corrections. I'm not sure that anyone actually reads my blog, but it behooves me to do the same.