Daily Office:
Monday, 8 November 2010


¶ David Carr outlines the correct way of evaluating cable personality Keith Olbermann’s campaign contributions: the air time that he has given to Democratic Party candidates is vastly, vastly more valuable. MSNBC ought to re-instate the exile and put this embarrassment behind it. (Note: we have never seen Mr Olbermann’s show.)

Keith Olbermann was suspended for writing a check to support candidates. That was really dumb on Mr. Olbermann’s part. As a die-hard partisan, he had to know that his willingness to provide untrammeled airtime to liberal candidates was a form of in-kind contribution that his measly $7,200, given to three campaigns, could never match.

Then again, the man who suspended him, Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC News, threw down a gauntlet before the election in an interview with The New York Times: “Show me an example of us fund-raising.” Conservative bloggers happily obliged and came up with numerous examples, including Representative Alan Grayson, Democrat of Florida, pitching for dollars on MSNBC.

MSNBC is enforcing a set of standards meant to apply either to another entity — NBC News — or another era, when news people had to act as if they didn’t have political rooting interests. The game has changed, but the rules remain the same, at least at some media outlets.

MSNBC ended up in a fight that resembled nothing so much as a brawl within a political party, with the base — in this case the audience — pushing back against the leadership. While Mr. Olbermann is not talking to the media, he is using Twitter to reach his supporters: “Greetings From Exile! A quick, overwhelmed, stunned THANK YOU for support that feels like a global hug & obviously left me tweetless. XO.”

Before its decision, there were more than 275,000 signatures on a petition demanding the return of Mr. Olbermann. The language seems less like the keening of a group of television viewers and more like an outcry from the progressive wing of the MSNBC Party.


¶ Movie maven Jim Emerson tips us off to the blog of The Self-Styled Siren, who writes in a recent entry about having been allowed to watch anything old and black-and-white on television, but forbidden to see an R-fated movie until she was actually seventeen. This gave her an understanding of what good movies ought to be like that’s very familiar to us.

Result was that I grew up watching old movies and thinking this was the way movies were supposed to look, lush or spare, shadowy or sparkling, the camera lingering or gliding and no such thing as acne or pores. And this was how a movie was supposed to sound, resonant, highly individual voices speaking wonderful dialogue against the gentle sonic hiss of the soundtrack, a score trailing the action like a cloud of perfume. Without those things, I can still be enthralled. But sometimes the lack of them is a small barrier to intimacy. “I see you have pores. Gosh no darling, of course it doesn’t matter. I’ve seen them before. Is that a lamp on the side table, sweetness? You know, if we switch it on, we’ll have light coming from three points…”

As usual, I wind up going to my commenters for the real insight. There’s the friend who said simply, “There’s something in the rhythms of these movies that’s in tune with your own.” There’s David Ehrenstein, who maintains that “the 30s, not the 70s, was the great period for American commercial filmmaking,” citing James Whale, Dorothy Arzner and George Cukor as directors doing genuinely experimental work. And there’s Arthur S., who once remarked here that it isn’t nostalgia if what you’re watching is actually more daring and more radical than what’s playing at the multiplex. There’s an overarching style to classic cinema, but within it you can see astonishing variation and innovation, like poets ringing changes on sonnets or terza rima.

It is, essentially, an aesthetic preference like any other, one that was probably imprinted early by the circumstances of my childhood. Which brings me to my own children, now safely asleep. They watch a lot of Pixar, which is fine–Up and Wall*E? Brilliant. Spell-casters for sure. And heavily influenced by classic Hollywood. I haven’t watched that many old movies with my kids. At ages seven and four they are already more in tune with popular culture than Mom. That’s good in a lot of ways. Dragging Astaire and Rogers into everyday conversation didn’t exactly make me queen of the Alabama schoolyard. Maybe I should just let my brood continue like that.


¶ We had already come across the Erzinger hit-and-run story via MetaFilter when we saw that Felix Salmon had picked it up; as usual, we prefer to link to considered commentary than to regurgitate news items. Apparently on the theory that Denver money manager Joel Erzinger can make financial restitution to New York physician Stephen Milo, the District Attorney in whose jursidiction Vail lies has decided not to prosecute a felony charge. Income inequality has made greater (or more egregious) strides than we had imagined!

Erzinger immediately drove away from the scene of the crime, eventually stopping in a parking lot on the other side of town, where he called the Mercedes auto assistance service and asked that his car be towed.

This kind of egregious hit-and-run is, obviously, a very serious crime. Milo is incredulous at the suggestion from Erzinger’s attorneys “that Erzinger might have unknowingly suffered from sleep apnea”, and wants Erzinger to be charged with a felony. Justice must be served: the case “has always been about responsibility, not money”, he wrote to DA Mark Hurlbert.


In other words, Erzinger has bought his way out of a felony charge, over the strenuous objections of his victim; it’s very unlikely that online petitions will do any good at this point. Just another thing to add to the list of things that money can buy, I suppose.


¶ Peter Smith sensibly argues that the proper response to the scourge of Four Loko abuse is not a ban but a learning campaign that will teach adolescents how to drink instead of pretending that they don’t. (GOOD)

Perhaps what’s at stake are the larger cultural issues around drinking. As Frank Bruni wrote in The New York Times, “[Four Loko is] a malt liquor in confectionary drag … serving as the clearest possible reminder that many drinkers aren’t seeking any particular culinary or aesthetic enjoyment. They’re taking a drug. The more festively it’s dressed and the more vacuously it goes down, the better.”

Prohibition came and went for good reason. Still, kids who aren’t exposed to drinking in appropriate and safe settings make mistakes, some of which will make the local police blotter. It’s entirely possible to drink “blackout in a can” in a reasonable and prudent manner, so maybe a ban is not the answer. What is in order? A better conversation about drinking. In an earlier debate over provisional drinking licenses (essentially a learners’ permit for inexperienced drinkers), David J. Hanson offered this bit of advice in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “It’s time to open the doors to constructive debate and to teach through trust and potential rather than through blame, accusation, and guilt. It’s time to move beyond the forbidden-fruit syndrome—and its tragic consequences.”


¶ Jessanne Collins refers to her brief stint as a copy editor for Demand Publications as “ill-fated,” but we can’t agree; she got a very funny piece out of the experience — not to mention $10.50 in carfare remuneration. (The Awl)

My role, as a “copy editor,” was roughly akin to that of Lucy’s with the candy wrapper. I was to be an intermediary between the web at large and the raw, reliably weird substance that results from the unlikely union of algorithmically created topic assignments and writers of, shall we say, widely variable competence. The actual nuts and bolts of style consistency and tone were part of it, of course. But they seemed to be peripheral to what I was actually being asked to do, which was to quality-check each piece of content according to a set of generic yet meticulously detailed standards. It fell on my shoulders to ensure not just that no dangling modifiers marred any directories of Jacuzzi-having hotels, but that the piece wasn’t plagiarized, written off the top of some Jacuzzi-having hotel aficionado’s head, based on obvious or non-information, referencing other websites, or plagued by any of the other myriad atrocities that web content can be subject to these days.

The overarching theme of the trilogy of how-to manuals, as far as I could tell using my admittedly rusty elementary reading comprehension skills, was “cut fluff.” A straightforward enough mission, and obviously, a necessary one. I was to ensure that as many sentences as possible began with vivid, actionable verbs. And that I could clearly picture in my head the step a reader was being instructed to take. If a piece was a total mess, I wasn’t supposed to spend time rewriting. Instead, I was to make very specifically worded comments (there were so many notes on phrasing said comments constructively and politely, I could only assume that this had been a point of prior contention) back to the author. The author then had a few days to turn a rewrite around. I’d review it again, and then I could approve it for publication or reject it if it was still too fluffy or sucky. At the time of publication or rejection I’d also rank the veracity of the article on a numerical scale, and have the opportunity to make notes about the author for internal review.

And then? Then I would get paid $3.50.


¶ We don’t want to complain, but we do wish that President Obama had mentioned something besides automobiles in his Op-Ed piece about exports — trade suddenly being the subject of his mission to India and Korea — if only because we’d like to know what this country is still manufacturing for export. (NYT)

The great challenge of our time is to make sure that America is ready to compete for the jobs and industries of the future. It can be tempting, in times of economic difficulty, to turn inward, away from trade and commerce with other nations. But in our interconnected world, that is not a path to growth, and that is not a path to jobs. We cannot be shut out of these markets. Our government, together with American businesses and workers, must take steps to promote and sell our goods and services abroad — particularly in Asia. That’s how we’ll create jobs, prosperity and an economy that’s built on a stronger foundation.

If this concluding paragraph makes the United States sound like an emerging market, there’s a reason.


¶ At The Millions, Kevin Frazier flourishes a keeper review of Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary, with especial attention to the novel’s echoes of Don Quixote.

Emma is full of this alertness, a heady combination of physical, emotional, and intellectual responsiveness that makes her unique in Flaubert’s writing.  Though it’s common for critics to ignore her intelligence, she is by a wide margin the smartest and most perceptive of the novel’s main characters.  The world gives Don Quixote a beating for his romanticism, but he is usually in the honorable position of standing up for his convictions against external circumstances—circumstances that he amusingly chooses to reinterpret to his advantage.  Emma, in contrast, gives most of her beatings to herself.  She faces the difficult task of finding something to believe in when she must constantly fight her own mixed feelings.  She is far too fierce for the tame choices available to her, and far too wise to find fulfillment in the limits of her socially allotted slots as either a contented wife or a secret adulteress.

Often in the novel we join her at the window as she looks outside and struggles with the subtleties of her dissatisfaction.  She wonders how to “express an uneasiness so intangible, one that changes shape like a cloud, that changes direction like the wind…”  At times she works towards a tentative feminist critique, and ponders how much more freedom her hoped-for son might someday enjoy compared to her.  She sees quite clearly that much of her sense of confinement comes from the restraints placed on her as a woman, “always some desire luring her on, some convention holding her back.”  Soon the gap between what she actually thinks and what she can openly admit grows intolerable:

She was sometimes surprised at the shocking conjectures that entered her mind; and yet she had to keep smiling, hear herself say again and again that she was happy, pretend to be happy, let everyone believe it…


¶ Zadie Smith’s powerful meditation on Facebook (posing as a review of The Social Network) is the talk of the town. As the footnote that we’ve included suggests, old folks like us probably don’t get what’s most potent — and dangerously reductive — about Facebook in its current version.  (NYRB)

With Facebook, Zuckerberg seems to be trying to create something like a Noosphere, an Internet with one mind, a uniform environment in which it genuinely doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you make “choices” (which means, finally, purchases). If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out. One nation under a format. To ourselves, we are special people, documented in wonderful photos, and it also happens that we sometimes buy things. This latter fact is an incidental matter, to us. However, the advertising money that will rain down on Facebook—if and when Zuckerberg succeeds in encouraging 500 million people to take their Facebook identities onto the Internet at large—this money thinks of us the other way around. To the advertisers, we are our capacity to buy, attached to a few personal, irrelevant photos.

Is it possible that we have begun to think of ourselves that way? It seemed significant to me that on the way to the movie theater, while doing a small mental calculation (how old I was when at Harvard; how old I am now), I had a Person 1.0 panic attack. Soon I will be forty, then fifty, then soon after dead; I broke out in a Zuckerberg sweat, my heart went crazy, I had to stop and lean against a trashcan. Can you have that feeling, on Facebook? I’ve noticed—and been ashamed of noticing—that when a teenager is murdered, at least in Britain, her Facebook wall will often fill with messages that seem to not quite comprehend the gravity of what has occurred. You know the type of thing: Sorry babes! Missin’ you!!! Hopin’ u iz with the Angles. I remember the jokes we used to have LOL! PEACE XXXXX

When I read something like that, I have a little argument with myself: “It’s only poor education. They feel the same way as anyone would, they just don’t have the language to express it.” But another part of me has a darker, more frightening thought. Do they genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive? What’s the difference, after all, if all your contact was virtual?

We don’t know why, but the intriguing footnote at the end of this quote (#4) has been truncated online. The full footnote reads:

Perhaps the reason why there has not been more resistance to social networking among older people is because 1.0 people do not use Web 2.0 software in the way 2.0 people do. An analogous situation can be found in the way the two generations use cell phones. For me, text messaging is simply a new medium for an old form of communication: I write to my friends in heavily punctuated, fully expressive, standard English sentences—and they write back to me in the same way. Text-speak is unknown between us. Our relationship with the English language predates our relationships with our phones.

Not so for the 2.0 kids. When it comes to Facebook the same principle applies. For most users over thirty-five, Facebook represents only their e-mail accounts turned outward to face the world. A simple tool, not an avatar. We are not embedded in this software in the same way. 1.0 people still instinctively believe , as Lanier has it, that “what makes something fully real is that it is impossible to represent it to completion.” But what if 2.0 people fee their socially networked selves genuinely represent them to completion?

Have a Look

¶ A Jolly Day Out in London. (The Age of Uncertainty)

¶ Prank casserole. (The Awl)


¶ Essential books — in 1974. Where are they now? (Guardian; via 3 Quarks Daily)