Monday, June 29, 2009

Prison Breaks

Wired has the 10 best prison breaks in history. But what about the ten best prison breaks in literature? Hmmm. 

A couple Stephen Kings come to mind: "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption," The Eyes of the Dragon. Possibly the two best things Stephen King ever wrote.

There was John Cheever's Falconer, although the facts of that novel's prison break were kind of obscure, as I recall; it was more metaphorical.

"Rain," the first poem in Mary Oliver's 1993 New and Selected Poems, features a prison break, with men climbing barbed wire.

Don't some of those Alexandre Dumas novels have prison breaks in them? The Count of Monte Cristo? The Man in the Iron Mask? And then, of course, that reminds me of Tom Sawyer's idiotic plan, inspired by stories like Dumas', to break Jim out of slavery at the end of Huck Finn.

Cool Hand Luke. That was based on a novel. I tried to read it once but didn't get very far. I guess they weren't technically in prison, but still... For that matter, what about O Brother, Where Art Thou? It's a movie, of course, but it's also published as a screenplay....

Watership Down sort of features a prison break. And there's The Hobbit, when Bilbo figures out how to get the dwarves out of that castle. And The Odyssey, in a way, when Odysseus schemes a way out of the cave of the Cyclops.

Any other ideas? 

Isn't It Neat?

An interesting passage from an interesting review of what sounds like an interesting book, Robert Wright's The Evolution of God

Wright tentatively explores another claim, that the history of religion actually affirms “the existence of something you can meaningfully call divinity.” He emphasizes that he is not arguing that you need divine intervention to account for moral improvement, which can be explained by a “mercilessly scientific account” involving the biological evolution of the human mind and the game-theoretic nature of social interaction. But he wonders why the universe is so constituted that moral progress takes place. “If history naturally pushes people toward moral improvement, toward moral truth, and their God, as they conceive their God, grows accordingly, becoming morally richer, then maybe this growth is evidence of some higher purpose, and maybe — conceivably — the source of that purpose is worthy of the name divinity.”

It is not just moral progress that raises these sorts of issues. I don’t doubt that the explanation for consciousness will arise from the mercilessly scientific account of psychology and neuroscience, but, still, isn’t it neat that the universe is such that it gave rise to conscious beings like you and me? And that these minds — which evolved in a world of plants and birds and rocks and things — have the capacity to transcend this ­everyday world and generate philosophy, theology, art and science?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

I Walked; Iran

The other day I walked up to the library near my house. On the way back, I walked past a guy I've seen in the neighborhood for years. He owns a couple of flats in the area and is known as a loose cannon. 

Unprompted, he started talking to me about Michael Jackson, and the ridiculousness, as he saw it, of a big deal being made out of his death, when important scientists and doctors die every day without fanfare. From there, he segued into a rather crazy rant about Michael's having tried to change his skin color, and then to his belief that only Africans are native to this planet. Other races arrived via asteroid.

I remarked that this view was similar to what the Nation of Islam believes (or used to, anyway, according to David Remnick's book about Muhammad Ali). 

From there, somehow, he eventually started talking about Iran, and the United States' history of meddling in its politics. He himself is a Shiite Muslim. He railed against the American media, in particular Fox News, for never offering a historical perspective on the current events in Iran. 

He told me I needed to tell my friends and neighbors about the U.S.'s role in deposing, in 1953, Mohammed Mossadeq, a Harvard-educated, moderate leader who had sought to bring Iran's oil production under Iranian, instead of British and American, control. If America hadn't done that, he asserted, Iran would not be in the position it was in now.

Here's another version of what my neighbor was saying, from

By 1953, General Eisenhower had become president of the US. Anti-communist hysteria was reaching its peak. An Iranian general offered to help in overthrow Mosaddeq, and the British were able to persuade the American CIA to go ahead with the coup in August. With very scant resources and a shoe-string operational plan, the CIA set out to remove Mosaddeq. The plan almost failed, and the Shah, never very resolute, had fled to Baghdad and had to be enticed to continue playing his part from there. The army was loyal to the Shah and Mosaddeq was overthrown and arrested. This coup earned the USA and Britain the lasting hatred of large sectors of Iranian public opinion, uniting communists, nationalists and Shi'ite clericalists behind enmity to foreign meddling. Mosaddeq became a folk hero of Iranian nationalism.

And here's

In 1951 Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh was elected prime minister. As prime minister, Mossadegh became enormously popular in Iran after he nationalized Iran's oil reserves. In response, Britain embargoed Iranian oil and, amidst Cold War fears, invited the United States to join in a plot to depose Mossadegh, and in 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized Operation Ajax. The operation was successful, and Mossadegh was arrested on 19 August 1953. After Operation Ajax, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's rule became increasingly autocratic. With American support, the Shah was able to rapidly modernize Iranian infrastructure, but he simultaneously crushed all forms of political opposition with his intelligence agency, SAVAK. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became an active critic of the Shah's White Revolution and publicly denounced the government. Khomeini was arrested and imprisoned for 18 months. After his release in 1964 Khomeini publicly criticized the United States government. The Shah was persuaded to send him into exile by General Hassan Pakravan. Khomeini was sent first to Turkey, then to Iraq and finally to France. While in exile, he continued to denounce the Shah.

At a time when, indeed, the death of Michael Jackson seems to have distracted many Americans from paying attention to unfolding events in Iran, I actually appreciated my neighbor's reminder, even if it came packaged in a nutty rant.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Possible Family Tree

From Steven Augustine's very enjoyable essay about Nicholson Baker and The Mezzanine

An impertinent sketch of a possible family tree might put Joyce as a great uncle, Nabokov as grandfather, Updike as dad and Baker as eldest son, insofar as we may trace Updike, in his apprenticeship, to pathologically-descriptive mentor Nabokov, and Baker, in turn, to Updike via Baker’s admiration for Updike’s Nabokovian attributes...

David Foster Wallace’s “trademark” footnote-mania as on display in
Infinite Jest is sometimes (though Baker is by far the less-famous of the two writers) reckoned as a steal from Baker (The Mezzanine preceding Infinite Jest by about a decade), but neither writer invented the use of footnotes in fiction. It isn’t hard, though, to imagine Wallace reading The Mezzanine and wishing he’d written it, or thinking to himself that he could do better by bringing an epic, humanist plot to the formal (and possibly elitist) apparent barrenness of Baker’s twee-but-envy-seedingly original work. It’s not a stretch to see Wallace as the tragic little brother to Baker’s eldest son in this genealogy of a lacquered intensity of style.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Mom and Pop

From a review of a new book about Masters and Johnson:

“The greatest form of sex education,” Dr. Masters told Time, “is Pop walking past Mom in the kitchen and patting her on the fanny, and Mom obviously liking it. The kids take a look at this action and think, ‘Boy, that’s for me.’ ”

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Niceness and Goodness

At the New Yorker's Book Club, Jon Lee Anderson, discussing various charming dictators he's interviewed over the years, makes an interesting point about the difference between niceness and goodness:

It seems to me that niceness is a social tool, while goodness is a matter of conscience. Neither are innate, but are taught—ideally, early in life. The two are not necessarily related, however; i.e., you can be good without being nice, and vice-versa.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I Don't Wanna Be Jon

From my cousin-in-law Jeff at NewsFuturist, a vision that is eerily reminiscent of George Saunders's great, great story "Jon," in which the title character's view of the world is occluded by a constant stream of advertisements pre-loaded onto a hard drive installed in the back of his head:

The future will bring us heads-up displays that project our Internet data stream onto our view of the world. The location-aware data will be viewed on top of the actual location. It sounds like goofy sci-fi today, but so did the cell phone in the early 1990s. Devices to do this already exist, and will become cheaper and more accessible (and stylish) as technology improves and the mobile/data trends discussed above simultaneously create the demand for them. Short-term, this will likely happen through special eyeglasses or contact lenses. Eventually, we may have ability to feed the data overlay directly to the retina.

Please, God, don't let it come to this. (Sorry, Jeff.) I'm addicted enough as it is.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Obama and Hoover?

At Harper's, Kevin Baker compares Barack Obama to Herbert Hoover, whom he sees as an intelligent and experienced leader whose timidity led him to a disastrously inadequate response to national crisis.

It seems a bit early to take such a grim view of Obama's presidency, though in my experience Harper's has rarely presented a measured view of things. 

In any case, here's Baker's conclusion:

Obama will have to directly attack the fortified bastions of the newest “new class”—the makers of the paper economy in which he came of age—if he is to accomplish anything. These interests did not spend fifty years shipping the greatest industrial economy in the history of the world overseas only to be challenged by a newly empowered, green-economy working class. They did not spend much of the past two decades gobbling up previously public sectors such as health care, education, and transportation only to have to compete with a reinvigorated public sector. They mean, even now, to use the bailout to make the government their helpless junior partner, and if they can they will devour every federal dollar available to recoup their own losses, and thereby preclude the use of any monies for the rest of Barack Obama’s splendid vision.

Franklin Roosevelt also took office imagining that he could bring all classes of Americans together in some big, mushy, cooperative scheme. Quickly disabused of this notion, he threw himself into the bumptious give-and-take of practical politics; lying, deceiving, manipulating, arraying one group after another on his side—a transit encapsulated by how, at the end of his first term, his outraged opponents were calling him a “traitor to his class” and he was gleefully inveighing against “economic royalists” and announcing, “They are unanimous in their hatred for me—and I welcome their hatred.”

Obama should not deceive himself into thinking that such interest-group politics can be banished any more than can the cycles of Wall Street. It is not too late for him to change direction and seize the radical moment at hand. But for the moment, just like another very good man, Barack Obama is moving prudently, carefully, reasonably toward disaster.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

What Work Is

Kelefa Sanneh's review-essay about Matthew B. Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work is one of the more enjoyable pieces I've read in the New Yorker lately. 

Crawford's book calls for the following, in Sanneh's words:
...a return to real work—a return, in other words, to activities more tangible (and, it was hoped, less perilous) than complex swaps of abstract financial products. Crawford means his book to be a philosophical manifesto for a dawning age: an ode to old-fashioned hard work, and an argument that localism can help cure our spiritual and economic woes.
Sanneh goes on to complicate the issue, making this trenchant point:
Really, he likes engines and building things and fixing things; his dedication to his shop is rooted in his admiration for his clients and for what he calls the “kingly sport” of motorcycle riding. In other words, his work is “useful” only insofar as it enables men to ride motorcycles—an activity that might fairly be described as useless. 
Tim Gautreaux's fine story "Idols," in the same issue, is also about the meaning and value of working with one's hands, building and fixing things. In this story, which has strong echoes of Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy, a Memphis typewriter repairman inherits his ancestral manse, a huge old house on a former slave plantation in Mississippi. After having the sheriff evict the squatters who've been dwelling there, he moves in and plans to renovate the place, though his savings are meager. He hopes to find someone down on his luck whom he can get to do the work cheaply. 

He discusses this plan with a wry storekeeper, who's straight out of McCarthy:
“You say you want this worker to live out there with you? What on earth for? You’ll have to feed him, and he’ll have lots of chances to bum money. After a few months on the place, he’ll be the same as a brother-in-law.”
“I want an employee, not a relative.”
Mr. Poxley flapped his limp hand at him. “You want a sharecropper, son. Them days is over, gone to history.”
Nevertheless, he eventually finds the man he wants, a jack of all trades named Obadiah Parker who's in the process of getting his many tattoos lasered off in order to win back his super-religious wife, who calls the tats "idols." (Parker's last name is a clear reference to the tattooed protagonist of O'Connor's story "Parker's Back.")

The typewriter repairman, whose name is Julian (also the name of a famous O'Connor protagonist, from "Everything That Rises Must Converge"), exploits Parker for all he's worth, until eventually Parker has his final tattoo removed and leaves without a word, leaving Julian alone in a decrepit house, heading into winter, with no handyman's skills of his own:
He could fix a typewriter, but nothing else in the world, and he didn’t know if he could continue living in the old mansion, unable as he was to keep it nailed together.
For all of Sanneh's dead-on critique of Crawford's macho motorcycle-repair chest-thumping, there is something real and important about being able to fix things around your house. It's a cause of some deep anxiety and insecurity on my part, for instance, that I'm mostly hopeless when it comes to replacing the guts of a toilet or remodeling my basement. By the same token, I felt absurdly proud yesterday when I took a closer look at the bedroom door that had been catching in the corner of its frame and realized that the hinge plate was pulling away and simply needed to be screwed back into place. 

Julian Smith, hoping to restore a mansion that was built on the backs of slaves, wants to change his last name to Godhigh, the name of his slave-owning ancestors. But the story suggests that godliness, of course, lies not in holding oneself above the world (as in the glassed-in belvedere on the roof of Julian's mansion that overlooks the entire plantation), but rather in enduring pain for the love of others and in working with the things of this world. 

At the end of the story, as darkly comical disaster befalls Julian, he sees his future:
Julian felt house and history shrink to nothing beneath him—a void replaced by a vision of himself, dressed in borrowed clothes and defeat, spirited away that very evening on a lurching bus bound for Memphis and sitting next to some untaught, impoverished person, perhaps even another long-suffering and moralizing carpenter.
A "long-suffering and moralizing carpenter"—a perfect phrase to evoke Julian's blindness to the Christlike qualities of the man he's taken advantage of. And also, perhaps, a reminder that Jesus himself was a handyman.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Beverly Cleary Revisited

A while ago I was thinking that it's time to start reading my daughters (5 and 3) some longer books at bedtime. I went up to the attic and pulled out a trunk in which I've saved a heap of books from my childhood—lots of Hardy Boys and Beverly Cleary.

I started dipping into the Ramona books and reading to the girls parts that I remembered. When Ramona squeezes out the whole tube of toothpaste into the sink, for instance. When she throws up in class. When she and Beezus are in their aunt's wedding to Ramona's friend Howie's uncle. When Ramona gets her hair cut and it looks like a little heart framing her face. The girls seemed to like the stories.

I dipped into some of Beverly Cleary's earlier books that had Ramona in them. Beezus and Ramona, in which a bunch of boys at the playground start chanting, "Jesus, Beezus," and "Beezus, Jesus." That was probably a mistake, since my oldest daughter started repeating it out on the front sidewalk in front of the neighbors.

But then I read them a part from Henry and the Clubhouse that I remembered, in which Henry gets locked into his clubhouse and only Ramona can get him out. (He's got to get out so he can deliver papers on his route.) The clubhouse is "no girls allowed," and there's a secret chant the clubhouse boys know as a kind of password for admittance:
Fadatta, fadatta, fadatta,
Beepum, boopum, bah!
Ratta datta boom sh-h
Ahfah deedee bobo.
The girls got a kick out of repeating that. Eventually, in order to get out, Henry has to teach the chant to Ramona and apologize to Beezus for excluding her. What struck me as I read this passage was how out of date, at least for my daughters, the whole gender-exclusive clubhouse idea is. Their best friend on the street is Sammy, who's constantly borrowing their dollies to take home for himself. The boys a couple doors down play with them happily, even their oldest, who is especially sweet with our youngest daughter. 

It seems to me, dipping into these books, that Beverly Cleary evolved significantly over the course of her career. Henry and the Clubhouse, a lighthearted tale of suburban boyhood, was published in 1962. By Ramona Quimby, Age 8 in 1981, Cleary is writing intensely realistic novels about a working-class family, exploring a young girl's anxieties, relationships, dreams, and faltering understanding of the world around her. 

Cleary has become a kind of Raymond Carver for children. At the beginning of Ramona Quimby, Age 8, Ramona's father has quit his job as a grocery store checker in order to go back to school to get certified as an art teacher. In the meantime, he'll be working the frozen-food warehouse of Shop-Rite to help the family make ends meet, and "he would have to wear heavy padded clothing to keep himself from freezing." It's a job right out of Carver. Indeed, Cleary's novels, set in Oregon, are not too far from Carver country in Washington state. 

In the final chapter of Ramona Quimby, Age 8, "Rainy Sunday," the Quimbys are in a rough place, grumpy with each other, frustrated with the difficulties of their lives. Then Mr. Quimby suggests that they splurge and go out for dinner—to the Whopperburger. Even such a modest splurge is cause for worry; Mr. Quimby has to reassure his wife that over Thanksgiving he'll be putting in overtime.

While they're there, an eccentric but dignified old man is charmed by Ramona, and he ends up paying for their meal surreptitiously before he leaves, telling the waitress that they were a nice family. And, leaving the restaurant, the Quimbys feel good about themselves, reinvigorated to face the challenges of their lives. Sharing food, eating together, as in Carver's famous story (published a year after this novel), has been "a small, good thing." 

And the novel ends on a very Carver note, its hopefulness checked by a realistic awareness of life's difficulties:
"That man paying for our dinner was sort of like a happy ending," remarked Beezus, as the family, snug in their car, drove through the rain and the dark toward Klickitat Street.

"A happy ending for today," corrected Ramona. Tomorrow they would begin all over again.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Pinchin' Off Pynchon

At Mark Athitakis' American Fiction Notes, a reprint of Robert Goolrick's 1978 article about Thomas Pynchon:

Pynchon’s is a picture of the world as the shaky construction of a fanatical paranoid, but a construction that must be made in order to stave off the final admission that nothing is of any meaning; and meaning, if it existed, would have no value.

The brilliance of the book is that it becomes the thing it talks about. Its endless detail, its childish and maddening insistency on coincidence, its structuring of the world around an irrelevant hollow, all cause
V., to paraphrase Archibald MacLeish, not to mean but to be. You could explicate it for years, and come away from all that drudgery with a hell of a lot of useless arcana, and no more, really, than the same vaguely disquieting feeling the book gave you on first reading—the feeling that something is wrong but you can’t quite put your finger on it, that something is missing but you haven’t the faintest idea where to look.

And that, in easy-to-digest pill form, is what all of Pynchon is about.

And that is why I'm content, at least for now, to have read only Pynchon's short novel The Crying of Lot 49. It may be a vulgar stance for me to take (Goolrick goes on to praise Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow as one of the least read important masterpieces, and here Harold Bloom says if he had to select a single work of sublime fiction from the last century, he'd probably choose Pynchon's Mason & Dixon), but right now I'd rather read masterpieces that aren't postmodern games about pieces that will never fit together. 

Anna Karenina, for instance (or Anna Karenininininininin...., as Greg Brown called it in a song I heard him play at the Off Broadway some years back but which he's never released on record). It may be long, but it's so psychologically astute and fascinating that it's hard to put down.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Ambiguities

Over at St. Louis Magazine's Editor's Room blog, there's an interview with a Webster U. sociologist. She's talking about sexuality, and the topic of babies born with ambiguous genitalia comes up in this way:

Q: The serious question is more extreme, though: whether to perform surgery on an intersexed newborn to give it more typical sexual characteristics.

A: Recent stats say 1 in every 2,000 children is born intersexed. I think that's low. The American Pediatric Association still recommends that surgery happen within 48 hours, but last I heard, the American Medical Association was moving to restrict those surgeries, delay them until a young person can consent.

Reading this, I was reminded of a long debate I got into last summer in the comments section of St. Louis Catholic, a very conservative blog that I almost always disagree with but used to check just to stoke the fires of my rage. We started with the topic of whether God were male and somehow eventually got into the issue of people born with ambiguous genitalia.

Writing as much as I did, I clearly had way too much time on my hands, but I actually found it a meaningful exercise to work out my thoughts in that forum. And my interlocutor turned out to be a pretty decent human being. Before the conversation gets earnest and serious, though, I do get told by another commenter to "stop smoking up the original Christian faith" and to go worship my mother God someplace else.

If you're interested in reading the exchange, my comments start here.

Monday, June 8, 2009

On DFW's Work

This piece by Jon Baskin in The Point Magazine is maybe the best thing on David Foster Wallace's work that I've read since his death. It's definitely the best reading of Infinite Jest

Here's what might be considered the nut of the essay:

By depicting various figures attempting to argue their way out of fraudulence, Wallace brings his readers to what might be a depressing realization: “true authenticity” can always be forged. His writing has value, specifically for us, because it actualizes and confirms our suspicion that, across the categories of American culture—in social life, television, politics, art and criticism—our obsession with fraudulence and authenticity has acquired the configuration of neurosis. The more fervently we demand authentic expression, the less capable we are of identifying it. We can no longer agree on standards, or whether we should have standards. Postmodernism has not succeeded in eradicating the distinction between what is real and what is fake, but it may have deprived us of any vocabulary for speaking meaningfully about that distinction. Irony, satire and ridicule, masked as coping mechanisms, become the ongoing symptoms and restatements of our condition. Wallace draws a line from the Frankfurt School to the metafictionists to The Simpsons to The Daily Show. He drives us to acknowledge the AA maxim that not just our worst, but also our “Best Thinking” got us here, where we are free to say anything but what we mean.

I also thought this was an interesting remark, especially since I'm preparing to read Tolstoy's Anna Karenina this summer:

Wallace was often accused of fashionable postmodern pretension, which inverts his potential vulnerability. Critics could more accurately fault Wallace for the kind of reactionary dogmatism associated with the late Tolstoy, whose turn to folk Christianity had a similar structure and motivation as Wallace’s valorization of AA.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Poking Holes in Gladwell

This seems to happen regularly with Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker articles: I read them, think "Wow, that's really amazing and fascinating," and then a couple weeks later readers write in and tear his ideas to pieces.

Most recently, it was Gladwell's article about David vs. Goliath situations. Focusing on a mediocre girls basketball team that succeeded because they always used the full-court press, Gladwell built a series of reflections about how underdogs can win if they refuse to play in the conventional way. Gladwell compares the girls to Lawrence of Arabia and his Bedouins' successful guerrilla tactics against the Ottoman Empire.  

The team takes some flak for their tactics: "There was a sense that Redwood City wasn’t playing fair—that it wasn’t right to use the full-court press against twelve-year-old girls, who were just beginning to grasp the rudiments of the game. The point of basketball, the dissenting chorus said, was to learn basketball skills." But Gladwell counters: "Of course, you could as easily argue that in playing the press a twelve-year-old girl learned something much more valuable—that effort can trump ability and that conventions are made to be challenged."

The article was thought-provoking, seemed pretty solid. Yet in this week's issue three letters shoot major holes in Gladwell's theories:

First of all, it turns out the full-court press isn't really a secret weapon of the underdogs:

Contrary to Malcolm Gladwell’s thesis, a full-court press in basketball is more likely to be employed by the Goliaths than by the Davids. This is why some junior leagues have a rule that requires a pressing team to drop the press once that team gains a ten-point lead. On the college level, John Wooden used the press to help talent-laden U.C.L.A. win several national championships in the nineteen-sixties.

Secondly, Lawrence of Arabia and the Bedouins weren't really underdogs:

Lawrence’s Bedouins were armed and paid by the world’s industrial and military superpower, the British, and served as just one piece of a global strategy that the Ottomans could not dream of matching. The British had the capability to pour huge, technologically sophisticated armies deep into the heartlands of the Ottoman state. And, while the Bedouins’ role in ripping up some rail lines should not go without mention, neither should Britain’s vast armies, including the hundreds of thousands of Indian and other non-British troops, who were the real reason the Ottomans lost. We must take into account as well Britain’s Navy, the world’s most formidable, which was able to channel resources to the Ottomans’ western border, allowing Lawrence’s Arabs to be resupplied without the possibility of Ottoman interference. It is rather a case of an Ottoman David versus a British Goliath, except that the British added their own David to keep things interesting.

And finally, the girls' strategy really does kind of ruin the game:

Real innovation lies not in David-like strategies but in recognizing the right contexts in which to use them. We must hope such contexts are the exception and not the rule. I recently watched a youth soccer league in Florida where several of the coaches guaranteed victory by having three players stand stock still in front of the small pop-up goals, completely blocking the net for the entire forty-minute game. The players were six years old. The coaches might be considered innovative, but by any measure the game was destroyed for those three players, and arguably for everyone else as well.

After all that, what's left of Gladwell's article?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

An Inability to Log Off

At n+1, Benjamin Kunkel has an insightful and measured essay about the Internet and the changes it has wrought on reading, writing, and the way we spend our leisure time. Much of it resonated strongly with me, including these two passages:

We don't feel as if we had freely chosen our online practices. We feel instead that they are habits we have helplessly picked up or that history has enforced, that we are not distributing our attention as we intend or even like to. The experience of being online has at least as much to do with compulsiveness as with liberty....

An inability to log off is hardly the most destructive habit you could acquire, but it seems unlikely there is any more widespread compulsion among the professional middle-class and their children than lingering online.


And this one too:

I have noticed that it's of no great use telling myself, when I go online, that I should muster my willpower against the sirens of amusement, distraction, and curiosity. I do better at not spending too much time at my computer if I remind myself how comparatively shallow and irregular my enjoyment of the internet is. The truth is that we are often bored to death by what we find online—but this is boredom on the installment plan, one click a time, and therefore imperceptible. 

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Nature of Cities

A nice post about Paul McKee's plan for the North side from Robert Powers at the Built St. Louis blog. An excerpt:

Anybody who's studied their Jane Jacobs—or taken a stroll down a functioning urban street like Delmar Avenue or Cherokee Street—knows that the best city environments are highly complex and largely organic. They grow and thrive much like a living creature. Small cells appear—businesses, houses, apartment buildings. They divide, they grow, they endure, and each adds its complexity to the whole, creating something greater than the mere sum of its parts. These small parts are crafted at the scale of human beings, and they create lovely, pleasant, desirable places to live. Just as a complex ecology resists being wiped out by a catastrophe, so too is a complex city resistant to the vagaries of economy, fashion, and time.

So why does this project need to be so huge? Why does it need to happen all at once? We need to ask such questions, because such a vast scale implies a monoculture, and it implies a broad brush, and it implies a non-human scale, and it implies sledgehammer solutions to problems that require a scalpel.

In fact, it sounds a lot like old-style mid-century urban renewal—the kind that wiped out big swaths of Soulard, that nearly claimed Lafayette Square, that obliterated the Mill Creek Valley, that gave us phenomenal successes like Darst-Webbe and Pruitt-Igoe. The kind we're still cleaning up from over fifty years later.

To insist that redevelopment can only be done on a vast scale shows a profound lack of understanding of the nature of cities.