Thursday, September 29, 2011


I mentioned just the other post that I read a 1926 edition of Growth of the Soil recently, a 1917 novel that garnered the Nobel Prize for its author, Knut Hamsun. I picked up the book at Berkeley's Shakespeare & Co. Books, on Telegraph Avenue, an across-the-street neighbor of Moe's Books. Moe's -- which I've patronized since I was a university student -- is the source of, conservatively guesstimating, half the books I own.

I hope publishing-industry professionals will cover their eyes as I type this: I still buy a lot of books used.

Publishing people don't especially like the used book market, for reasons that are pretty obvious once you stop to think about it. The profit in the used book trade doesn't go to publishers, editors, agents, or even authors. It goes to readers who recycle their libraries, and to workers at and owners of used book stores. Used bookstores do leave customers with a bit of disposable income that may or may not find it's way into the coffers of a major publishing house. Probably not. Maybe a little.

I have no objection to buying new books, mind you. And I've bought a fair few, nearly every one from an independently-owned store.

Buying from an independent bookseller used to be a whole lot easier in my part of the world, when Cody's was still going strong. Cody's was a legendary bookstore that once did business in the same block of Telegraph Ave. as Moe's and Shakespeare & Co., three blocks south of the UC Berkeley campus. We're serious readers here in Berkeley, no surprise there. Thank heaven for Mrs. Dalloway's and Diesel and University Press Books and Books Inc.

But let's not gloss over Cody's. Why was Cody's legendary, anyway?

Well, leaving aside a magazine section of international scope and dazzling depth and obscurity; the shelves of literary magazines; the shelf-yards of poetry; a technical and technology section unmatched by any bookstore I ever saw anywhere; an enormous selection of travel books; more dictionaries than even a dictionary-fetishist like yours truly could possibly take home and consult; deep benches in history, sociology, and philosophy; cookbooks for every cuisine you'd never heard of; a spectacular spread of kids' books; and on, and on, and on ... leaving aside all that, there was the legendary second floor.

Upstairs is where Cody's hosted readings, many each week. There was a big room with bookshelves-on-wheels that were pushed to the walls when authors read. Hung high on the walls of this room were photos, a gallery above the bookshelves, all the way around. The photographs were portraits of well-known authors. Not random portraits of well-known authors. These were portraits of well-known authors who had given readings at Cody's. Tom Robbins, Norman Mailer, Bill Clinton, Ken Kesey, Jimmy Carter, Maurice Sendak, Allen Ginsberg, Alice Walker, Joseph Heller. Salman Rushdie dropped by once. You'd look around at the portraits and the hair would stand up on the back of your neck ... the ghosts of all those minds in that one place.
I once passed by Cody's on my way home to find lines around the block waiting to get into a reading. Hundreds of people. Maybe thousands, that's what the news articles said later. So who the heck was reading and signing books that day in 1990? I happened to come by as the revered author was being dropped off at the curb and escorted into the store. I looked. I did a double take. I nearly dropped my teeth: it was Muhammed Ali, the legend himself.

The last reading I attended at Cody's was Leslie Larson's, when she signed copies of her first novel, Slipstream. Leslie is a neighbor, she lives down the street. Andy Ross, the fellow who owned and ran Cody's from 1977 until 2006, is an agent now. I pitched my own novel manuscript to him at the SF Writers Conference last year, after thanking him for all the books he sold me. Nice guy. He passed on the chance to represent Consequence.

When Cody's closed, The New York Times reported it.

Is it obvious by now that I have a very very soft spot for bookstores?

Feeling as I do, what was I supposed to make of a colleague's bombastic comment earlier this month that he hates bookstores? Or, to be fair, he hates what bookstores have become.

This colleague went so far as to say he hopes they all close. All they are now is coffee shops, he said. And he's not even a tiny bit interested in buying a "new" book over which somebody else has already spilled coffee. This colleague is an avid reader, sharp as a razor. He reads technology books because he's a top-notch software engineer and reading technology books is what it takes to keep up one's game in that space. He reads history and economics because he's voraciously curious. So what does he do for books if he so loathes bookstores?

Two vowels: the A-word and an i-Thing. Yep. Amazon and an iPad.

O brave new world, that has such readers in't.

Do you like bookstores? Did you ever? Do you like them still? Do you still like them well enough to buy books there?

Thanks to Galaxy fm for the photo of Muhammad Ali signing an autograph for Pope John Paul II, shared via Flickr.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Japan vs. United States in squishy numbers

There's an international network of newspapers and web sites spawned by practitioners of Falun Gong (a.k.a. Falun Dafa), a much-persecuted community in China. Falun Gong is a system of meditation and slow-moving exercise (qigong), but the Chinese government got its authoritarian panties in a bunch during the late 1990s when practitioners grew numerous (tens of millions) and showed signs of resisting government strictures on their practice and organization. It got ugly -- death and imprisonment ugly -- and it remains illegal and dangerous to practice Falun Gong in China today.

The organization and its affiliated newspapers and web sites fight back, criticizing and satirizing the Chinese government relentlessly. Some of these papers and sites seem closely-linked to the Falun Gong organization itself; others take similarly critical positions toward the P.R.C. but are less shrill in promoting Falun Gong and in encouraging Chinese citizens to leave that nation's Communist Party.

Are these papers reliable as news sources? Not so much, I don't think. Not that they hide the fact, wearing an agenda very prominently on their metaphorical sleeves. But sometimes they're pretty entertaining. The Chinese government earns a very large proportion of the criticism aimed its way.

I don't recognize more than a few characters of Chinese myself, but am close to a newshound who is fluent. Last week he passed along a link to the Chinese-language website of the newspaper Kan Zhong Guo in which comparisons are drawn (in pretty hilarious graphics) between the United States and Japan. Kan Zhong Guo is a newspaper in the category that is less closely linked to Falun Gong: it is critical of the Chinese government in similar veins to those of newspapers that are clearly a part of the Falun Gong organization, suggesting it might be too; but the link is less pronounced, perhaps less direct. The difference, in my view, amounts to the number of grains of salt with which one ought to take their published claims if they're not confirmed by a more trusted source.

In the article, as you might expect, Americans are found on average to be taller, heavier, and live fewer years than Japanese. Americans have higher incomes by 16% but pay 266% the Japanese average in annual medical care costs. Drinking? Americans drink more alcohol (it's actually a near tie when adjusted for average weight); but we each drink 216 liters of soft drinks per year compared to Japan's per capita annual average of 22 -- a claimed difference that approaches an order of magnitude! We watch 2.25 times the number of hours of television each day that Japanese do. Our average IQ is lower (98 compared to 105). We consume nearly twice as much energy per capita.

Not so flattering, eh? Well, the article does claim that Americans share household chores more equally between the sexes. Japanese guys skate by doing 17% of household chores, according to Kan Zhong Guo, while American fellas shoulder 42% of the burden.

Are these reliable numbers? Well, as I implied above, I don't trust much that's published in what our household fondly refers to as "the Falun Gong newspapers." So I cross-checked the easiest numbers to find -- lifespan. Interestingly, I found they were pretty close to sources I trusted better.

Here's data from the United Nations Statistics Division on life expectancy at birth compared with the Kan Zhong Guo data:

UN: life expectancy (male): 76 (U.S.) vs. 80 (Japan)
Kan Zhong Guo: life expectancy (male): 76 (U.S.) vs. 78 (Japan)

UN: life expectancy (female): 81 (U.S.) vs. 87 (Japan)
Kan Zhong Guo
: life expectancy (female): 81 (U.S.) vs. 86 (Japan)

Okay. That earns a bit of cred. So I dug some more. From UN Data, Gross National Income per capita for the U.S. and Japan: $45,835 vs. $39,853, a difference of about 15% (compared to Kan Zhong Guo's 16%).

The Economist posted OECD data from 2007 (dated, but free) that compares average daily TV viewing among a number of countries, including the U.S. (at a bit over 8 hours) and Japan (a bit more than 3.5 hours). Looks to me like OECD might have been the source of Kan Zhong Guo's statistics in this case.

Soft drink consumption? Adweek cited Beverage Digest figures for the U.S. in 2009: 736 8 oz servings, which multiplies out to 174 liters -- about 80% of the quantity cited by Kan Zhong Guo. Hmmmm...wonder what that much more significant difference is about.

The real point here is that in an age of information overload it takes a lot of work to dig into questions of reliability. Who do you trust? How do you fairly and reasonably compare analysis of apples to analysis of oranges? Where the heck did they hide that table on the Gravenstein harvest?

Information glut is often touted as an aid to citizenship, and it can be that; but availability of information by the petabyte hardly implies that citizenship is easy, whether one practices a system of meditation and slow exercise or not.

It's easy to understand why a lot of folks would rather just laugh at the funny pictures.

What have you done lately to verify information you found on the intertubes?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Old books, new insights

The Nobel Prize for literature in 1920 was awarded "to the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun for his work, Markens Grøde (1917) [Growth of the Soil]," as Harald Hjärne, Chairman of the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy, put it on December 10, 1920. My reading group just met to discuss the novel last weekend. The copy I found in a used bookstore was printed in 1926. Talk about late to the party ...

Speaking of parties, between the time Hamsun took home the 200g gold medal (worth about $12,000 today for the shiny yellow stuff alone) and the time I bought a used copy of his novel for six bucks at Berkeley's Shakespeare & Co. Books, Hamsun took a shine to the Nazis. Matter of fact, he sent his Nobel medal to Joseph Goebbels as a gift. I only found out about Hamsun's Nazi sympathies at our meeting ... I hadn't looked into the author's history before we talked about the book (for a summary and links, see Hamsun's entry on Wikipedia).

His biography on the Nobel Prize website summarizes beliefs that underlie Hamsun's work, and certainly undergirds the novel my reading group just discussed:
Hamsun's work is determined by a deep aversion to civilization and the belief that man's only fulfilment lies with the soil. This primitivism (and its concomitant distrust of all things modern) found its fullest expression in Hamsun's masterpiece Markens Grøde (1917) [Growth of the Soil]. [a]

The novel's distance from anything I might think to write today seemed remarkable to me as I read it, even though my generally pessimistic outlook has some relation to Hamsun's primitivism -- I too think that, give-or-take, modernity and its technologies will be the end of human civilization as we know it.

One remarkable distance from more recent fiction was psychological. Though the author carefully controls and paces the novel's action to sharpen focus and meaning of the slow and subtle development of events, his characters are almost entirely devoid of self-consciousness, let alone introspective insight. Isak, the novel's hero, is "a barge of a man," closer in temperament to his ruminant livestock than to the modern city-dwellers among whom I live, and who populate much of current litscape. His wife, Inger, is similarly insensate ... at least until she spends five years in prison for infanticide, where she is taught to read and to sew as part of her rehabilitation.

Hamsun must and does therefore rely entirely on external observation to paint Isak, Inger, their children, and the neighbors who surround Sellanraa, the homestead Isak has claimed from the Norwegian wild. None of his characters speaks directly of feelings or psychological state. Even the narrator is sparing in his exegesis. Quoting directly, "It was not the way at Sellanraa to show one's feelings overmuch..."

Nothing much happens. No kings are supplanted. Love in mid-19th century Norway is practical, not romantic. Even the novel's infanticides -- there are two of them -- are reported as incidents that tell of circumstances and social dynamics rather than indicate moral state.

Crops grow. Buildings are built. Flocks flourish. Copper is discovered and land is mined, which has no effect more pronounced than disruption of the slow, brute, yet (to the protagonist Isak, and his younger son Silvert) profoundly satisfying work of turning wild land to the service of human need. Toward the middle of the novel Isak acquires a mowing machine, a frightening assemblage, "a heap of teeth and a heap of knives, with joints and arms and screws and wheels." I turned the pages tensed with dread, certain that Isak or his wife or one of his sons would lose a limb or worse to this mechanical helpmeet. Nope. No drama there either: the machinery worked, broke, was fixed again, taking its place and contributing its part to the slow transformation of Isak's landholding.

The miracle here? In my reading it was pretty eye-opening to see that this subtlety and indirection is both compelling and touching. Here, from the Project Gutenberg text of the novel, is a passage in which Inger apologizes to Isak for her adulterous fling with Gustaf, a sweet-voiced Swede who came into the district as a miner, and stayed for a time at Sellanraa after the mining operation is shut down. Isak and Inger are lying together in bed:

"What is it?" says Isak.

"Are you awake?"


"Nay, 'twas nothing," says Inger. "But I've not been all as I ought."

"What?" says Isak. Ay, so much he said, and rose up on his elbow in turn.

They lay there, and went on talking. Inger is a matchless woman, after all; and with a full heart, "I've not been as I ought towards you," she says, "and I'm that sorry about it."

The simple words move him; this barge of a man is touched, ay, he wants to comfort her, knowing nothing of what is the matter, but only that there is none like her. "Naught to cry about, my dear," says Isak. "There's none of us can be as we ought."

"Nay, 'tis true," she answers gratefully. Oh, Isak had a strong, sound way of taking things; straightened them out, he did, when they turned crooked. "None of us can be as we ought." Ay, he was right.

Does it work in isolation? Having immersed myself in Isak and Inger's world for hundreds of pages by the time I came to this passage I can't be an impartial judge. When I read it the first time through this barge of a novel I nearly wept, for all the passage's understatement.

Sometimes it's worth reading an old novel, in a categorically different style from what one might write today, just to be reminded that there's more than one way to skin a story.

What have you read recently that's out of your usual habit but that knocked your socks off?

[a] From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969

Thanks to Nasjonalbiblioteket, the National Library of Norway for the image oF Knut Hamsun in 1895, shared via Flickr.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Shakespeare, power, theme in literature

In ninth grade, my English teacher, Miss Barbara Ballou, required each of her students to memorize a soliloquy from one of William Shakespeare's plays. I don't remember if we all had to choose a soliloquy from Julius Caesar, but in any case I chose a key passage from that play, out of Act II. Scene I., in which Brutus talks himself into the need to murder Caesar as an act of altruism, of loyalty to republican Rome:

It must be by his death: and for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. He would be crown'd:
How that might change his nature, there's the question.

I read the soliloquy aloud the other night (memory failed me after pretty-darn-many years), inspired by the happenstance that my partner is reading Henry IV, Part Two in my copy of The Riverside Shakespeare. That nearly-2000-page tome has a sentimental resonance for me: I bought it for a long-ago university course, and it is awash in my scribbled marginalia.

The introductory notes to Julius Caesar in the Riverside (first) edition, authored by Frank Kermode, treat Brutus' soliloquy at length. Early in his essay he notes:

It has long been commonplace that Brutus is a kind of sketch for Hamlet; but now it is almost equally commonplace that Shakespeare, who had just finished a long series of political studies in English history, could hardly have brought to his play about the great crisis of Roman history and institutions a mind void of political interests.

It would have come as no surprise, then, to the late Professor Kermode, that my thoughts leapt to Henry IV, Part Two as I read the following lines from Brutus' speech. (Never mind that the leap was primed by the fact that the Riverside had come off its venerable place on our bookshelves to be opened to 2 Henry IV.) Again Brutus, from Julius Caesar:
[...] But 'tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition's ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round.
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. [...]

And from there, the leap:

For me, as its author probably intended, the most stirring, spine-tingling, heart-rending, and chilling moment in Henry IV, Part Two occurs in its final scene. Here, the young Prince Hal's companion in ribaldry calls out to his old drinking buddy, now crowned as Henry V, in a street near Westminster Abbey.


    God save thee, my sweet boy!


    My lord chief-justice, speak to that vain man.


    Have you your wits? know you what 'tis to speak?


    My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!


    I know thee not, old man. fall to thy prayers;
    How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
    I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
    So surfeit-swell'd, so old and so profane;
    But, being awak'd, I do despise my dream.

The two plays were composed in close proximity. Henry IV, Part Two is dated to 1598, and Julius Caesar to the following year. It wasn't until a half-dozen years after I memorized Brutus' soliloquy for Miss Ballou's class that I explored Shakespeare's histories as a student at Berkeley. The link between the two plays, plain when one sees it, didn't occur to me until last week, when I circled back to Julius Caesar after oh-so-many years.

It is just the gesture Brutus fears -- unto the ladder turns his back, / Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees / By which he did ascend -- that plays out when the newly-crowned Henry V spurns the companion of his profligate youth: I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers.

Herschel Baker wrote the essay in The Riverside Shakespeare that introduces the two Henry IV plays. Of this scene, the late Harvard scholar concludes, "It is the price that greatness pays for power."

Shakespeare's Brutus, for his part, does not treat 'greatness' so benevolently.

And there's the crux of what excited me to find this small link between two of the bard's plays, an excitement in no way lessened by the fact that countless readers have undoubtedly found it before. Theme is to literature what mycelia are to mushrooms: the pervasive substrate in the soil of human experience from which works of literature bloom and fruit.

I have a friend who used to insist that books, music, or art is only interesting to the extent that it's new. I disagreed then, and disagree still.

That corruption is power's handmaiden -- and that we know and fear its effects -- appears over and over and over again in human life and literature, whether set in the Roman republic or Plantagenet England, in Joseph Conrad's Indonesian archipelago (Lord Jim) or Robert Penn Warren's Louisiana (All the King's Men) or Jorge Amado's Brazil (Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon) or even, if you will, Kazuo Ishiguro's future (Never Let Me Go). Repeat appearances do nothing to diminish fascination with this theme in its countless literary variants.

What we recognize in themes we've seen before -- the ones that make our spines tingle -- is experience, reflected. Caesar, Henry V, Jim, Willie Stark ... it's not as if the types of historical leaders fictionalized by Shakespeare, Conrad, and Warren no longer occupy positions of power. It's not as if wealth and well-being no longer lure those who have and can to grasp for advantage at the expense of those who haven't and can't.

When life or literature reveals the mycelial threads that link one manifestation of a deep theme of human experience to another, we light up to see and understand -- if only for a moment, if only in part, if only a bit better than before -- how the world's great, slippery, imprecise machinery works.

It happens that both Julius Caesar and Henry IV, Part Two are on this year's playbill at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in Ashland. Thanks to Lincolnian (Brian) for his image of the bard from "the sign outside the Shakespear[e] pub at the southern end of Lincoln's High Street"; to wallyg (Wally Gobetz) for his image of Nicolas Coustou's sculpture of Julius Caesar from the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris; and to goron (Adrian Milliner) for his image of the tomb of Henry IV from Canterbury Cathedral -- all three images shared via Flickr.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Raising a glass to Miss Ballou
Dystopias in fiction
Sarah Palin, you're no William Shakespeare

Thursday, September 15, 2011

What do people mean by "it's just politics"?

I've always found it puzzling that people use the disparaging phrase "it's politics" or "it's just politics" so freely. I do understand what they usually mean: people acting to gain advantage (money, position, power) while pretending their actions are motivated by some less selfish principle. This sort of hypocrisy is dispiriting at best. More often it's wretched.

I think that politics is optimally about attempting to effect something one believes is in the interest of people as individuals or a community.

When the beneficiaries of the thing being effected are a large and broad group, and effecting it doesn't involve that group's gain to the unjust disadvantage of another ... well, in those cases "it's politics" is merely a description of how we go about organizing ourselves as a society.

Is organizing ourselves as a society (as opposed to organizing ourselves solely as individuals, families, or tribes) a bad thing?

I don't think so. Neither did "the founders," as the authors of the U.S. Constitution are fondly called by modern politicians who have serious reservations about organizing ourselves as a society.

E.J. Dionne had a sharp piece in Insight Magazine in this past Sunday's SF Chronicle, Modern political landscape fundamentally changed. In it, he describes "a Republican Party that [has been] taken over by a new sensibility linking radical individualism with a loathing for government." Check it out:

The president's speech to Congress and the Republican presidential debate last week should have taught us that we are no longer in the world of civics textbooks in which our political parties split their differences and arrive at imperfect but reasonably satisfactory solutions. Now we face a fundamental divide over the most basic questions: Is government good or bad? Can public action make the private economy work better, or are all efforts to alter the market's course -- by Congress, the president, the Federal Reserve -- doomed to failure?

I haven't been blogging much about politics lately, Monday's vitriolic post being an exception. I guess I've been dispirited. About two weeks ago, in Republican Candidates Turn Attacks on One Another by Jeff Zeleny of the NY Times, we have this:

Gov. Rick Perry is privately being coached to come across as more presidential -- cautious in his comments, deliberate in defending his Texas record -- while building on his fast start in the race for the nomination by trying to consolidate support across the Republican spectrum, from the Tea Party and evangelicals to the party establishment.

Note that this is not what's actually happening in the campaign of Governor Ponzi Scheme. Interestingly, this article first crossed my radar in the SF Chronicle, retitled GOP presidential hopefuls polish strategy. In any case, if that pullout doesn't exemplify "it's politics" in spades -- "privately being coached to come across as more presidential" -- I'm not sure anything does.

It's enough to jade a political junkie.

Check out former U.S. Labor Secretary and current UC Berkeley professor Robert Reich debunking lies at the Summit for a Fair Economy in Minneapolis last Saturday. In his takedown of Lie #2, "shrink government to create jobs" (from 1'00" to 2'16") Reich takes the air out of the canard that 'government always gets in the way.' The whole video is worth its eight and a half minutes: a salutory dose of reality in an unreal time. Thanks to UpTakeVideo for posting it to YouTube.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
If a lie sells, shout it loud 
G.O.P proposes a death panel plan for health care
Tea Party Infusofascism?
Debased discourse
Sarah Palin, you're no William Shakespeare
Counterfactual thinking

Monday, September 12, 2011

If a lie sells, shout it loud

U.S. politics: are they wackier than ever?

I'm not an historian, my perspective is probably limited, but ... sometimes I look at the news and am gobsmacked at just how broken this country seems to be.

You followed the so-called "birther movement," right?

That was last year's news, and the year before that. I think we're done with Orly Taitz. And yet...

Nowadays the G.O.P. can't make up its mind which new-and-devolved wack-attack they like better: science as a grand conspiracy, or Social Security as a Ponzi scheme. If you read the SF Chronicle you might have seen local right-wing wacko pundit Debra J. Saunders, who asked last week, Are scientists becoming the new priests? Here's her lede:

"I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy," GOP presidential hopeful and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman recently tweeted. You've got to hand it to Huntsman - he sure knows how to endear himself to folks who won't vote in the Republican primary.

The rest of the piece is a typical mishmash of misdirection, double-talk, and sleight-of-hand. I'm not recommending it. What's remarkable is Saunders' acknowledgement that if you're a Republican you are unlikely to believe in evolution, or that the overwhelming super-duper-majority of scientific evaluation of global warming (no, I did not write "opinion") suggests anything truthful about How Things Work. Cf., for example, the Washington Post's "four Pinocchios" rating of presidential aspirant Rick Perry's blathering on the topic.

(Of course, if we're talking about the 'science' of trickle-down economics, of tax breaks for 'job creators' being the only credible solution to employment woes faced by U.S. workers ... well ... now that's science in which Republicans can believe. Never mind that the so called "Bush tax cuts" have still not been sunsetted, and with these tax breaks in effect for nigh on a decade, unemployment rates remain sky-high.)

Back to Texas Governor Rick Perry, currently at the head of the pack of G.O.P. candidates for the party's 2012 presidential nomination. This week's news is that Perry's as proud as a peacock to be quoted calling Social Security "a Ponzi scheme." Even Dick Cheney thinks he's nuts for saying this. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would someday agree with Dick Cheney. About anything. I'm just saying.

So what do you think that elephant has been smoking?

In the SF Chronicle on Saturday, the front page carried a story, differently-titled in the print edition, Rick Perry's fans like his straight-talking style. Here's the lede of that article:

Texas Gov. Rick Perry attracted new supporters during his first presidential campaign road trip through California with the provocative talk that enrages his opponents, such as his description of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme. Perry's blunt language on Social Security is "absolutely part of his appeal," Floyd Kvamme, a venture capitalist and former adviser to President Ronald Reagan, said Friday outside an East Palo Alto fundraiser. "It's plain-spokenness. It's his realism. The fact of the matter is ... it's broken."

I was thinking about Perry's rhetoric while swimming laps the day that article was published. Seems to me that Social Security is "a Ponzi scheme" in the same sense families that organize themselves so that younger generations take care of their elders as they age is "a Ponzi scheme." Is that what Perry thinks? That 'family values' are "a Ponzi scheme"?


(And in case you didn't click through above: Rick Perry's made-up 'facts' about climate change, 18 Aug 2011, The Washington Post.)

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
G.O.P proposes a death panel plan for health care
Tea Party Infusofascism?
Debased discourse
Sarah Palin, you're no William Shakespeare
Counterfactual thinking

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Google's new Blogger interface

The problem

When I began to blog regularly here on Blogger, I favored Google Docs to draft & organize posts. The native Blogger editing interface was cramped, permitting one to view only a fraction of even a short piece as one edited.

Google Docs, on the other hand, was well-suited to developing pieces that were destined for publication as medium-length blog posts. The editing pane gave a work-area that filled most of a browser window, and simple formatting controls yielded straightforward HTML markup 'under the hood.' The Google Docs content could be copied to Blogger and edited in its GUI or HTML interface, and/or the HTML could be tweaked in a simple text editor (the latter, for example, vis-à-vis cross-posting elsewhere). Better still, documents that took a long and winding path to completion are protected in Google Docs by functionality that permits recovery of any previously-saved version of a post-in-development -- a "revision history" in the parlance of the cloud-based application.

Google Docs began to evolve in April 2010 toward a model meant to better support rich formatting functionality found in desktop word-processing applications, and augmented that support by making it possible for multiple parties to edit a document in real-time. As Olga Belomestnykh put it in A rebuilt, more real time Google documents, a Google Docs blog post dated 15 April 2010:
But we didn’t want to just bring you traditional word processing features. We also wanted to extend collaboration capabilities in documents. We added a sidebar that lets you see who else is editing at the same time, and, if you click the sidebar, you can chat with collaborators right next to the document. And when other editors type, you can now see their edits as they happen character-by-character.

Cool stuff.

But with the advance in collaboration capability, Google Docs lost simplicity that was much-valued by those who used the application to draft documents destined for the web. Documents drafted in Google Docs acquired a tangle of div and span baggage when opened in an HTML editor, with no added value to those drafting what were intended to be simply-formatted documents.

On the same day that the new Google Docs features were announced, editowl began a thread on the Google Docs help forum titled Why no "Edit HTML & CSS" in new Google Docs? It was one of multiple venues in which Google Docs users railed fruitlessly against the loss of Google Docs HTML-friendly functionality (this blog included, cf. It's new, but is it improved?, 5 July 2010).

I continued to use Google Docs to draft my blog posts because -- like most improvements Google rolls out -- the new interface was optional for quite some time. I chose to stick with the old interface and document format, and thus hung onto the simplicity I wanted from the app. That worked for quite a few months -- I repeatedly declined to 'upgrade' to the new editor.

Some months ago Google yanked users' option to create and edit new documents using the old style interface and format. Bummer, I thought. But I quickly realized it was still possible to force the old-style by pasting a certain URL in one's browser instead of relying on the menu in the application interface.

That dodge stopped working, maybe about a month ago. Yes, there's still a workaround: one can still make a copy of an "old format" document to create a new doc in the old style -- then just change the document's name and body, and click when offered a chance to use "the latest version of the editor."

This'll only last for a short while, I'm guessing. ("Gill," who is ranked a Google Docs Guru in the app's help forum, made the same prediction fifteen months ago in a discussion thread titled The new google docs SUCKS big time!!!!! Comparatively speaking, my complaints are pretty darn mild, eh?)

The solution

So now we get to the good news, and the real topic of this post:

On 31 August Chang Kim posted Blogger's fresh new look on Blogger Buzz. Yes indeed, a new Blogger interface rolled out just last week.

The new interface includes a new editor for bloggers who post on Google's platform. One of the excellent updates to the interface fixes a problem that made the old Blogger editor effectively useless. As Kim put it, "the post editor has been expanded and simplified to give you a larger canvas for drafting and previewing your work."

Amen to that.

I won't comment (yet) on the nifty new navigation and blogging functionality features of the new interface. I think I'm going to like most of them, but it'll take a bit of use over time to reveal whether they are improvements or impediments -- I won't declare myself before I have something solid to say.

Hands down, though, the new editor on Blogger blows away the cramped screens Google-hosted bloggers have been living with for years. The real-estate given over to one's post is generous, the GUI editor boasts a sensibly small number of HTML-friendly formatting features, and it's easy to switch between composition (GUI) and HTML mode. When one does look at the HTML it's not as awful a snarl of divs and spans as those emitted by desktop word processing programs or the new(ish) Google Docs app.

Looking at broader elements of functionality: it's easy to apply labels, scheduling a post for future publication is a snap, and -- now that the web is all about GIS -- you can even associate a post easily with a geographic location, using a handily-familiar Google Maps interface.

Well done, Google.

The caveats


Two aspects of using Google Docs as a separate app for drafting are going to be hard for this blogger to give up.

The first is revision history. I really don't want to 'accidentally' delete paragraphs that I spent loads of time drafting and polishing, then have no way to recover them. But the Blogger editor lacks this feature (which is offered by Google Docs, and has been for some time).

The second is another sort of accident-protection. Like many bloggers, I often stack up a fair few proto-posts in advance: candidates for blogs that begin life as a disorganized jumble of notes and half-baked ideas -- material that is far from ready to see the light of the public intertubes. Some of these candidates never do see publication. Some of them are flat-out bad ideas; or I lose interest in them; or the moment just, well, passes. That's what cutting room floors are for. I would hate to see those posts go live just because I accidentally click the button on Blogger's editing interface. Yeah, I could un-publish, pulling the post back into draft post-haste, but those who subscribes to One Finger Typing via RSS or e-mail would be treated to an eyeful of not-ready-for-prime-time draft and there wouldn't be a thing I could do about it.

I haven't figured out what to do about the lack of revision history. A recent forum thread on this topic, I Must Be Missing Something. Surely There is a Way to Recover Text Mistakenly Edited From a Post, garnered a quick reply from gatsby, a member of Google's Blogger team, who suggested, "If this is an issue which you are especially concerned with, you might want to compose your posts in Docs first, which supports revision history." Not so helpful from my point of view. See prior paragraphs.

On the second sort of accident-protection I've implemented a crude sort of fix: I've created a private blog, one that is visible only to me, so that even if I accidentally publish a post no one can see it other than yours truly. I can draft my posts in that private Blogger space, stacking up as many half-baked ideas as I like and organizing them to my heart's content using labels (tags) applied to the posts. I think that'll work; it's been working thus far.

Despite these reservations, my early call is that Google got this one right: a usable editor for a publication platform, I can't complain about that.

Have you tried the new Blogger interface? What do you think?

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Breaking technology: Google's Blogger outage
Moving one's life to the cloud
It's new, but is it improved?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Tolstoy on 'hidden histories'

I mentioned in a May 26th post that I was then about 1/3 of the way through Tolstoy's War and Peace, behind schedule if I was to have any chance of finishing this classic work in a year -- which was my intention when I began it at the tail end of 2010.

Well, I'm still reading. I've slipped a little further behind, but mon dieu ... what an amazing work of fiction.

I'm now immersed in the opening pages of Volume III, that is, in Tolstoy's meditations on great movements of history in relation to the motives and ambitions of humanity's rank and file. It's odd and wonderful to be reading Tolstoy's observations on this topic little more than a week after I wrote of Hidden histories here on One Finger Typing, with no way to know what was coming next in War and Peace.

I would never presume to compare myself to an author whose work towers over all literature, as Tolstoy's does; I only shiver a bit to read words vaulted out of the mid-19th century and see that what mattered to the great Russian novelist then still matters 142 years after he published them.

I do not share Tolstoy's view of the inevitability of history, of "fatalism in history" as Pevar and Volokhonsky translated his words. But here, from Tolstoy's description of the forces leading to the French invasion of Russia in 1812 -- III.1.i, p605 in the edition I'm reading -- is what I meant to get at in my post of 26 May:

The actions of Napoleon and Alexander, on whose word it seems to have depended whether the event took place or not, were as little willed as the action of each soldier who went into the campaign by lot or by conscription. This could not be otherwise, because for the will of Napoleon and Alexander (the men on whom the event seemed to depend) to be fulfilled, the coincidence of countless circumstances was necessary, without any one of which the event could not have taken place. It was necessary that millions of men, in whose hands the actual power lay, the soldiers who shot, transported provisions and cannon -- it was necessary that they agree to fulfill this will of isolated and weak men and be brought to that by a countless number of complex, diverse causes.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this sprawling novel is one of which I am conscious precisely because I am reading it slowly, in fits and starts, interleaved between other novels, magazine articles, and all manner of miscellaneous reading. It is this: no matter if I've set War and Peace aside for a day, a week, or even a month, whenever I return to the story I am instantly immersed again in the flow of the story and the lives of the characters. Each chapter, each page, is rendered so fully, in such rich and true and quintessentially human focus, that returning to this novel is like taking up a life I had been living myself when I last visited its pages. Of course I remember where I was in the story ... because that is where I was. Right there in the room with Pierre, and Natasha, and Prince Bolkonsky.

At this rate it's going to take me sixteen months to make my way through War and Peace. I can tell already that on the day I come to the last page I'm going to be sad to leave this novel behind.

Thanks to Tschäff for an image of Ilya Repin's painting, "Leo Tolstoy in His Study," 1891, The State Literature Museum, Moscow, Russia.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A lost midwestern pizza opportunity

Ian's Pizza by the Slice is an institution in Madison, Wisconsin -- or so it seems from half a continent away. In February, Ian's sent a stack of free pizzas to the State Capitol where citizens of Wisconsin were starting a long and dramatic siege. The issue? Governor Scott Walker's move to break labor unions through a budget proposal that eviscerated collective bargaining rights. The pizza joint's feed-the-masses gesture was live-blogged at 3:26 am on Wednesday, 16 February on The Huffington Post, and the news was heard 'round the world. An avalanche of orders came pouring into Ian's over the following weeks, called in from around the U.S. and beyond. Ian's was suddenly the conduit for 43 states and 10 countries to show support to the protestors (these numbers reported by The Huffington Post on 21 February).

I'm not going to recap Wisconsin's fight between organized labor and the G.O.P., we all got plenty of that in February and since. Full disclosure, though: I will show my own colors, in case readers are in any doubt. I'll do so by quoting Paul Krugman's column, Wisconsin Power Play, of 20 Feb 2011:

For what’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t about the state budget, despite Mr. Walker’s pretense that he’s just trying to be fiscally responsible. It is, instead, about power. What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin -- and eventually, America -- less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy.

Follow the link if you'd like to know why Krugman thinks that. But the fact that he's right isn't the subject of this blog post. Neither is the fact that a couple of American oligarchs were major contributors to Gov. Walker's election campaign.

Why not? Because the thing that really caught my eye when I learned about Ian's Pizza is this: their best-selling slice is Mac n'Cheese. You read that right. Mac n'Cheese pizza.

Holy cholesterol, Batman!

I'd never dreamed of such a thing, let alone heard of it, never mind had it recommended by a decade of college-town customers voting with their pizza orders.

When I learned in July that work would take me to Madison in August I knew right where I was going for pizza while visiting. Regular readers will recall my Chicago deep-dish pizza post of several weeks ago. I suppose it's been a summer for Pizzas of the Midwest, and I was ready to step up for more.

I especially wanted to go to Ian's on State, the employee-owned branch of the enterprise that supplied the protestors this past winter. Like many, I'd been following the news closely, and I'd really really really meant to order a pizza or three as an act of solidarity. I'm chagrined to admit I didn't get around to it. With apologies to my U. Wisconsin colleagues, and in my feeble defense, I did send a donation to support Democratic Party efforts to turn the oligarchic tide. But I cannot tell a lie. I didn't order even a single solidarity pizza, Mac n'Cheese or otherwise.

Still. I wanted to make that pilgrimage.

So it turned out that the hotel I stayed at last week was right around the corner from the original Ian's, on Frances St. Not the one on State, but there it was, right on the way to Grainger Hall where I met in front of a whiteboard with fellow propeller-heads for three days of Identity and Access Management software-designing fun. It was a busy few days. We defined our terms and proposed our use cases, articulated conceptual models and drew diagrams and arrows and tables and sequence diagrams on our whiteboard. We photographed our whiteboard and posted the images to our wiki. We drank a lot of coffee. Before I knew it, it was time to run for the airport.

Yup. You see what's coming, right?

I blew it.

By the time I trotted back to the hotel for the last time on Friday afternoon, it was twenty minutes until the west coast contingent of our meeting was due to catch a shuttle to the Dane County Regional Airport. I looked longingly across the street as I passed Ian's on Frances. We'd just scarfed down ordered-in sandwiches so we could draw a last few diagrams on the whiteboard, discuss them, dissect them, annotate them, draw arrows between boxes and circles, photograph them, and post the images to our wiki.

I had a choice.

Either I could stop at Ian's and inhale a slice of Mac n'Cheese pizza, or I could triage a half-dozen critical e-mails from my Berkeley colleagues over the hotel's internet connection before unplugging for the journey home.





I'd brainwashed myself those last three days. Oh yes I had. I'd been staring at that whiteboard for so long I was convinced that nothing, not even a slice of Mac n'Cheese pizza, was more important than Identity and Access Management.

Is that why I did the so-called responsible thing? Perhaps. Whatever the misguided reason, I walked by Ian's and answered e-mail for a quarter of an hour, then boarded the hotel shuttle. I boarded that shuttle even though I was wholly unsatisfied with respect to Mac n'Cheese pizza, which remains an unrealized dream, a chimeral fantasy, for this one-time visitor to Madison.

But you can guess what that means.

As California's own oligarch-friendly ex-Governator has been known to say: I'll be back.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Chicago deep-dish pizza
Eating insects

Thanks to John Kannenberg for the Mac n'Cheese pizza slice image from his Flickr photostream.