Sep 272003

Don’t you hate it when people tell you to read something, when what you really need is less to read, not more? This blog, as ever, is at your service.

First stop reading the newspaper. My grievances against Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes are many and serious, but I have always admired his steadfast refusal to read the paper. If yesterday’s paper is good for nothing but wrapping fish, what does this say about what you’ve retained from yesterday’s paper? Besides, the news is depressing.

I know people who have read five times as many introductions to works of classic literature as works of classic literature. Don’t be one of them. Forewords and afterwords are to be treated like dessert: read, if at all, after the book, never before, lest you read through the eyes of Professor So-and-So instead of your own. Professor So-and-So tends to natter pointlessly anyway.

Biographies are the scandal sheets of the literate. Great geniuses have the shortest biographies, said Emerson, incorrectly. Great geniuses now have 800-page doorstops memorializing what they ate for breakfast. If you are interested in a novelist, read the novels; in a jurist, the opinions; in a philosopher, the philosophy; in a painter, look at the pictures. Biography is gossip. Worse, it is disingenuous gossip, which you can read in the guise of acquiring an education. Kelly Jane Torrance, among others, beat me to pointing this out; bully for her.

As I grow older I find more wisdom in Ezra Pound’s stricture that the best reading program is to know a dozen good books extremely well. (Not that ol’ Ez followed his own advice.) If your experience is anything like mine you will reliably forget most of any good book the first couple of times you read it, and misunderstand the rest. Then when you return to it you will be astonished at what an idiot you were. Which is an education in itself.

You can cut down on blogs substantially. Female bloggers, for instance. Not all of them, of course: I read several, ranging from the marvelously surly Andrea Harris to the effervescent Sasha Castel to the brilliant Megan McArdle. They have one thing in common: to my knowledge, they are childless. Mother bloggers inevitably start writing about how the school bully is picking on little Eustace or how little Tiffany has been punished for posting nastiness in someone else’s comments section and it was really her who wrote it, not me, no matter what you think, and how dare you call social services on me, and you must be deranged to imagine that I would do something like that. Follow the links if you must. The point is, you need not.

The biggest spread on Wall Street is reputed to be between your current job and your next one. The biggest spread in the universe, mothers, is between your own and everyone else’s interest in the doings of your precious darling. As for the Father of all Mother Bloggers, am I the only one who skips the Gnat parts?

Finally, stop reading the ingredients on the cereal package. Yes, you. If you’ve reached ascorbic acid and trisodium phosphate you’ve gone much, much too far.

(Update: George Wallace dubs excessive child-blogging Lilexia. I like it. Rick Coencas co-sponsors Lilexia. It’s a meme! It’s a viral meme! Brian Micklethwait comments.)

Sep 192003

What goes around comes around. Carleton College, which tossed me unceremoniously twenty years ago, now wants to cash in on my international fame by interviewing me about blogging for their alumni magazine. Fine. I can afford to be magnanimous about these things. Here’s the Q&A.

1. I notice that your archives go back to June 2002. When did you begin reading blogs? Whom do you read? When did it occur to you to start your own? Did you model yourself on anyone in particular?

I began reading blogs three or four months before I started mine. It occurred to me immediately that I might be able to do that too; the lag was sheer sloth. At the time I was also making a scant living designing websites, and I thought setting up my own web server would be a useful exercise. I still run the whole enterprise, if that is the word, from a Linux server in my living room.

The people I read are the ones on my blogroll, which is more a convenience than an honor roll. Some are famous bloggers, some not. Bloggers who deserve a wider readership include Evan Kirchhoff of 101-280, Tom of Agenda Bender, JW of Forager23, and Eddie Thomas of One Good Turn. Like all bloggers, I have a particular weakness for people who read me.

2. Has anything about blogging surprised you? For instance, were there certain assumptions you made before you started—about audience, say, or time commitment—that turned out not to be true?

I was pleasantly surprised, and still am, by the number of highly intelligent and knowledgeable people in the world I’d never heard of. Many of the best bloggers are well-known in their fields — Eugene Volokh in law, Chris Bertram in philosophy, Dan Drezner and Jacob Levy in political science — but who, before blogs, knew of Steven Den Beste, Megan McArdle, or Colby Cosh? Of course most of blogging, like most of anything, is white noise. There are several million blogs in the world, of which maybe a couple thousand are worth reading. That’s still about eighteen hundred more than I’m ever likely to get to.

I’ve also been impressed by how far out of their way even famous bloggers go to make themselves accessible. I can personally testify that Eugene Volokh and Andrew Sullivan answer their email, pretty promptly. I wrote a piece recently taking Terry Teachout, a deservedly famous critic, to task, not very politely either, and he replied, in detail, on his blog. Before blogs talking to Teachout in this unmediated way was basically impossible. I’d have had to write a letter to the editor at Commentary or The New Criterion or wherever and hope for the best. If you write something worth reading, it will be read, and by the people you want to read it. That just amazes me.

3. On average, how much time do you devote to blogging? Do you find it rewarding?

I am embarrassed to admit the amount of time I devote to blogging, considering my paltry output. I find writing absurdly difficult.

I probably spend ten or fifteen hours a week actually sitting at the computer and writing, but at least twice that to thinking about what I’m going to say. Once you catch the bug everything becomes grist for the blogmill. At dinner I will often orate about something or other, and my girlfriend will listen for a while and say, “I think I just heard tomorrow’s post.” And so she has. This habit makes me unacceptable in polite company. Fortunately all my friends are impolite.

4. Do you have any thoughts on how blogging, as a form, might come to influence the outside world (i.e. the non-online world)? For instance, some bloggers have given themselves credit for bringing down a) Trent Lott, b) Howell Raines, c) various flawed academics. Jeff Jarvis is busy encouraging the rise of blogs in Iran. Some Congressman once read James Lileks on the House floor to underscore a point he was making. My editors are particularly interested in how the rise of blogs might influence established a) media, b) politics, c) academia, d) digital culture—and so on. What do you hear from others and what are your own opinions?

Whither blogs? I have no idea. What Mickey Kaus calls blogger triumphalism, the orgy of self-congratulation that ensued at the fall of Trent Lott and Howell Raines, sets off my bullshit detector. I know from reefer logs that by far the most loyal audience for blogs is bloggers. Still, other influential people read them too, and Michael Bellisiles, to take a famous example, would have gotten away with very sloppy work if bloggers hadn’t caught him out. In fact he did get away with it, for years. Mainstream journalists are lazy enough to piggyback happily on research that a blogger does for free. They often don’t credit that research, but that’s another story.

Blogs are a sort of Zeitgeist-accelerator. You find out what everyone is thinking, and thinking about, except right now instead of next week or next month. They also radicalize the discourse, partly because having comparatively radical opinions is what inspires many people to blog in the first place, and partly because there’s a lot you can say on a blog that you can’t say on The New York Times op-ed page.

All of this pertains strictly to the polibloggers. Belletristic bloggers like me have no hope of influencing the world. We don’t try, really.

I wish Jeff Jarvis all the luck in the world in his quest to free Iran through blogging, but I suspect the rise of blogging in Iran stems from the mullahs beginning to lose control of the country, not the converse. The Congressional speech that quoted James Lileks had, I am sure, as profound an effect on policy as any other Congressional speech.

More important, some genius will eventually figure out how to make money from blogs. If you happen to run into him, please give him my phone number.

5. Tell me about your life outside of blogging. You live in New York, I see. What do you do for work? For fun? When did you graduate from Carleton, and do you ever correspond with other Carls online?

I was thrown out of Carleton in 1982, my junior year. This was due entirely to my inadequacies as a student and is no reflection on the school, which is perfectly fine as liberal arts colleges go, although so left-wing that it made my teeth hurt. Or maybe that was the weather. Memory blurs.

I maintain no connections from school, virtually or otherwise, because I find the term “Carl” indescribably embarrassing. The last time I spoke to a Carleton alumnus, so far as I know, was about five years ago, when I had dinner with a friend of mine from school. He had become a partner at McKinsey, the management consultants, and grown rich, sleek, and dull.

By trade I write computer software. For fun I play games. It used to be pool — the one activity in which I distinguished myself at Carleton, where I was the straight pool champion two years running — now it is bridge. Recently I captained a team that defeated a world championship team from Poland in an online match, which was a pretty big thrill. That should give you some idea of what a thrilling life I lead. I live in Chelsea with my long-time girlfriend and an old, surly cat with a pronounced overbite.

(Update: Agenda Bender comments.)

Sep 062003

I have at long last become a blogparent, courtesy of Forager23, a promising youth who is already listed in the blogroll. Congratulations are also in order for my co-parents The Blowhards, giving Forager, technically, three mommies. They are incidentally chock-full of excellent reading as usual, especially Michael’s two-part interview with intrepid sonneteer Mike Snider and Friedrich’s ruminations about IQ.

Forager’s proprietor, the mysterious JW, writes from Burlington, Vermont, literately and prolifically, on art high and low, with an emphasis on comic books and a sideline in NASCAR, of all things. His greatest hits include:

  • Letter from a Townie. Mind the fence.
  • Comics and opera, which have more in common than you might imagine. I can’t be the only person in the world who was introduced to Rossini by “Rabbit of Seville.”
  • The Couch Rule, and its political implications.
  • A running series on his 25 favorite comic strips. He’s only done four, which obliges him, I hope, to stick around for a while. Dick Tracy is my favorite of his favorites so far.
Aug 032003

No posts of “crystalline beauty” (–Greg Hlatky, who must be making some kind of chemistry joke) seem to be materializing. Try these instead.

Evan Kirchhoff rips Andrew Sullivan a new, er, one, on the subject of “gay bears.” Have I mentioned that Evan Kirchhoff is a genius? Why yes. Yes I have.

Floyd McWilliams, the scourge of the San Jose Mercury News letters page, on fact checking for me but not for thee.

Eve Tushnet, discussing Marvel comics, gets around to the purpose of literature, in her scattered but endearing way. I will post some thoughts on this, my stomping grounds, when I locate my crystalline-beauty-tron again.

Modern education: what is to be done? Friedrich von Blowhard reaches some dubious conclusions but provides a lot of great history along the way.

Christopher DeRosa on why no one evaluates Derek Jeter rationally, except him.

Jerome du Bois on art-sadist Santiago Sierra. It is lengthy, but if you read only one, read this one. (Via Andrea Harris.)

Jul 312003

How do two arty Manhattan types like Michael Blowhard and me amuse ourselves when shorn of the wives for an evening? We go see Bad Boys 2, what else?

One can admire the movie, at a safe distance from the theater, for its systematic assault on the critical faculties. It ranges in volume from deafening to ear-bleeding, noise being well understood to interfere with thinking. The director, Michael Bay, a Simpson-Bruckheimer protegé, Michael helpfully informed me — who could have guessed? — favors a garish palette. Miami, once a pastel paradise, has apparently become the City of Primary Colors. Bay also sees to it that of every ten lines of dialogue (and never more than five at a time) at least one is a catch-phrase along the lines of “let’s roll” or “go! go! go!” or “bring the noise.” The villain is a Cuban Ecstasy dealer. Being Cuban, he is of course supplying Castro with drug money. For a touch of realism, we are treated to a gratuitous scene of a youth “overdosing” on Ecstasy; the gutters of Manhattan are littered with Ex casualties, I’m telling you.

In the first five minutes Bay burns a cross and shoots a few Klansmen. Then he blows some shit up, crashes a bunch of cars (and a boat), blows more shit up, crashes a bunch more cars, blows more shit up, dices up a Russian mobster, plows a jeep through a shantytown (miraculously killing no one), and blows still more shit up. The interludes, though short, are long enough to make you eager to see more shit blown up. Spoiler: at the end a whole lot of really big shit gets blown up.

Afterwards Michael and I killed a couple bottles of Israeli Sauvignon Blanc (obviously we were still addled) and settled several pressing questions. First, fifty people blog about politics for every one who blogs about culture not because people are more interested in politics than culture, but because, in a sense, they are less interested: one’s taste is a little too personal. There is also a well-established vocabulary for political writing; not for art. Second, Reason magazine has really started to suck since Gillespie took over. Third, great as Human Action is, the von Mises book for everyone is The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality. And finally, the best writer in the blogosphere is not the vastly overrated Lileks, who can do quite a bit with nothing on his mind and usually does, not the equally underrated Alice Bachini, not Evan Kirchhoff, although he’s coming up fast on the outside and has been awesome of late, and certainly not Michael or me. It’s Colby Cosh. That this man is unemployed is as stunning a tribute to the impenetrable stupidity of big media as I can possibly imagine.

(Update: Colby Cosh is understandably embarrassed. And no, the National Post, excellent though it is, doesn’t count as Big Media down here. David Artemiw comments. George Wallace comments. Alice Bachini comments, inimitably.)

Jul 262003

“To generalize is to be an idiot,” William Blake famously generalized. Blake has sympathizers at Crooked Timber, where Brian Weatherson and Henry Farrell, rake Randy Barnett over the coals for his j’accuse to “the Left,” which has apparently been “living a lie,” en masse, and now more than ever:

Since the 2000 election, however, I have begun to realize for the first time that the Left really and truly lives in a socially constructed world — a world where “truth” is their own construction. In their world:

Al Gore was elected president. Bush was selected. The Supreme Court “decided the election” (rather than reversed a rogue Southern state Supreme Court and restore the rulings of local, mainly democratic [sic], election officials). Bush is in the pocket of the oil companies. Dick Cheney really runs the country. Bush’s energy plan would destroy the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

I could go on and on. These are not disagreements about “values” or ends, but disagreements about facts. Once you notice this phenomenon, you see it everywhere. Now the Left is lying about Bush to make him appear to be a liar because they cannot catch him in any actual lies.

Henry, in reply, takes a meta-approach:

Big Dumb Generalizations like Barnett’s have two dead give-aways. First of all, they talk in grand terms about the Left (or the Right) as if it were some sort of groupthink monolith, where all speak for one, and one speaks for all. This rhetorical trick allows them to take some fringe notion advanced by an Indymedia crackpot as incontrovertible evidence that everyone to the left of Barry Goldwater is living on Pluto. Second, as Kieran [Healy] makes clear, their tendentious generalizations are usually reversible so that its trivially easy to swap around the good Right and the bad Left. For example, a leftie could just as easily write an agitprop article about how the Right was living in a dream world in which the administration hadnt made false claims about Iraqs nukes and al Qaeda links, Bush had won a majority of the popular vote, John Lott had real figures to prove that more guns equal less violence, &c &c.

Henry first objects to “Big Dumb Generalizations.” Barnett’s is Big, certainly; Dumb, possibly, although neither Henry nor Brian deigns to say why; but mostly the trouble seems to be that it’s a Generalization. The objection is to generalization as such. One wonders exactly what kind of generalizations, if any, about “the Left” and “liberals,” or “conservatives” and “the Right” for that matter, Brian and Henry would consider valid.

If I were to claim that the Left supports more business regulation than the Right, I would seem to be on solid ground. Yet Marx, for one, vigorously opposed business regulation, which he thought would meliorate the harsh effects of laissez-faire, lull the proletariat into false consciousness, and postpone the glorious day of the socialist revolution. Have I, too, entered the Land of the Big Dumb Generalization?

And yes, such generalizations, like playground taunts, are reversible, in the I’m-rubber-and-you’re-glue sense. It does not follow, however, that their reverse is equally true. Randy says that “the Left” claims that Gore was elected and Bush was selected. You can quibble over how much of the Left is implied in “the Left,” but anyone who reads blog comments knows that some of the left claims exactly that. But if a leftie, by Henry’s hypothesis, wrote a mirror-article in which he claimed that “the Right” believes that Bush had won a majority of the popular vote, he would be laughed at, because no one, to my knowledge, has ever said any such thing.

Barnett has a real argument, which Brian and Henry do not bother to extract, that runs as follows: Leftists are apter to believe in “socially constructed” reality. (This much strikes me as obvious. Of course not all leftists believe in “social construction,” but everyone who does is a leftist.) People who believe that all reality is “constructed” are apter to construct their own. QED.

One could answer by claiming that few people on the left believe Barnett’s litany; this, alas, requires recourse to grubby facts. Or one could answer that “Left” and “Right” are essentially meaningless terms and ought to be retired, the way Jacques Barzun tried to retire “classic,” “romantic,” and “modern.” I’d sympathize with either approach. But to object to a generalization on the grounds that it’s a generalization — what are you guys trying to do, put us bloggers out of business?

Jul 212003

(With apologies to Flaubert.)

< ...>: A form of emphasis employed by bloggers who wish to show that they understand HTML. The ellipses are usually replaced by “SARCASM” or “RANT” but anything will serve. Rendered as […][/…] by bloggers who do not understand how to escape characters in HTML.

â„¢: May be appended to anything except an actual trademark.

call your office: A directive not intended to be followed addressed to someone who will never read it.

cool kids: Other people.

crickets chirping: A colorful synonym for “silence.” Often set off in its own paragraph for extra color.

even the: Always succeeded by “liberal,” if you are conservative, or “conservative,” if you are liberal.

fascist: See idiotarian.

heh: The soul of brevity is to use one word where none will do.

idiotarian: A particularly dull-witted commentator, and thus deserving of special attention, who disagrees with you. Thunder against.

indeed: See heh.

literally: Figuratively.

meme: Anything that anyone else has ever referred to on the Internet.

read the whole thing: Always preceded by “As they say,” or “To coin a phrase.”

shocked: Always succeeded by (shocked!).

the “Q” word: Quixotic.

Jul 202003

I finally tired of my blogroll and thrashed it, with the results you see on your left. The “Now” category consists of people I check every day — which doesn’t necessarily mean they write every day, although it helps — while everybody in “And Then” I check at least once a week. I will say in defense of this scheme only that it’s an improvement.

To the nice questions of blogroll politics I have no satisfactory answers. If someone links to you, should you link back? It seems only fair that you should, somehow, and I’ve created a Hall of Reciprocity for this purpose. This will not quite do; it’s like inviting someone to the wedding ceremony but not the reception. But I can think of nothing better.

My blogroll exists for my convenience and your curiosity. The oft-seen enormous blogroll defeats both purposes. No one this side of Instantman reads 200 blogs regularly. Yet I understand how it happens. A link, once established, tends to linger like a British houseguest.

When it comes to cleaning house, big bloggers are no problem. I grew bored with Andrew Sullivan and Mickey Kaus, where it’s all Times all the time, but they will not notice, let alone mourn, their sudden absence. Smaller bloggers are a different matter, and only a few, most of whom have posted so irregularly of late that their blogs are effectively moribund, have been demoted. I have also, at long last, buried the dead.

What to do, finally, about the blogs of your real-life friends? The usual solution, a “friends” category, smacks of favoritism. You may as well call it “Dude, your blog sucks, but you did bail me out of jail that one time, so here’s a link for you. Remember it the next time I call you at 3 AM,” except that’s a bit too long to fit nicely in the sidebar. Well, from now on my friends get the same treatment here as everybody else, and I’ll just have to raise my own bail money.