Archive for the ‘Against Television’ Category

Gotham Diary:
3 July 2012

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

The first thing that I read when I got this week’s New Yorker up to the apartment was  Nathan Heller’s “Listen and Learn,” a report on TED. If you don’t know what TED is, I am not going to help you. (Not here. If I ever make more considered use of this entry’s material, I will at least throw in a link.) It just seems that explaining TED in a blog entry, at this moment in time, is much like reminding you to turn on your computer. 

I haven’t watched much in the way of TED talks, partly because the ones that I did see were powerful contributors to my decision to resist all visual aids in the development of my fach. Aside from the photographs that decorate this site, and that have nothing to do with the written contents, perhaps even offering a haven of carefree purposelessness from the sea of memory and interrogation that pours out of me — aside from them, nothing. I’m like The New Yorker itself in the old days: no photographs and few drawings (aside, of course, from the “drawings”). That’s because I believe that visual display is profoundly distracting from the enterprise of sharing and parsing ideas. To grasp an idea, you must close your eyes — close your eyes, that is, in the act commonly known as “reading.” You must, in the course of bringing words to life in your brain, imagine an environment other than the one in which you’re reading. Sometimes it’s fun; often it’s hard work. There is reason to believe that there is a correlation between hard work and real learning. Learning is put to the test by doing. Where ideas are considered, writing is doing. As you’re no doubt aware, writing is even harder work than serious reading.

Watching someone tell an interesting story (which can be about anything in the world) is never going to be hard work. There is only one thing to learn from a TED talk: that you did or did not enjoy yourself while it lasted. As with sex, learning is slightly beside the point.


Heller is brilliant about TED.

The TED talk is today a sentimental form. Once, searching for transport, people might have read Charles Dickens, rushed the dance floor, watched the Oscars, biked Mount Tamalpais, put on Rachmaninoff, put on the Smiths, played Frisbee, poured wine until someone started reciting “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond.” Now there is TED.

Transport. Yes. No thanks.


My disaffection with TED talks began long before I ever saw one, back in the mid-early days of The New Yorker Festival. Over three years, I attended ever more events, beginning with one and ending with six. Most of the events were literary in nature — or were billed as such. The first that I attended was a reading Edward T Jones (and was Jonathan Lethem there, too? I don’t remember.) At the last one, John Ashbery read some of his poems. It was at the New York Public Library, shortly before the Ashbery reading, that I came to the end of my Festival line. The hall was packed — not that this was a discomfort — and someone was interviewing Calvin Trillin, who of course was making the audience laugh a lot. (I remember a string of jokes about the “wily and parsimonious Victor Navasky,” then the publisher of The Nation.) Something about the laughter began to put me off. I was as entertained as anyone, but was the search for entertainment what had gotten me out of the house early on a weekend morning? Did I regard Calvin Trillin as an entertainer? No, as it happens, I didn’t, and I don’t. He is a writer — a very amusing one, certainly — whose presence adds little to the zing of his written words.

If I am going to see Calvin Trillin, then I want to meet Calvin Trillin, to sit down and talk with him. I realized two things at the Library. First, much as I enjoyed Trillin’s writing, I did not feel an urge to know him better. Jonathan Franzen — now there’s someone I’d like to talk to. I think. I have always wanted to have a conversation with Sigourney Weaver — about her father, perhaps the most deeply disappointed man in the history of television. (That is my inference, at least. I’d like to hear what she thinks, and what she saw growing up.) I did once have a sensationally fun conversation with Kate Christensen; I was able to tell her that I’d read all her books because my daughter and her first editor were college chums. In the aftermath of Netherland, I’m afraid that Joseph O’Neill might have come to fear that I was stalking him, but he very graciously granted my eccentric request for a signature on page 135 of my copy of his novel. And I cannot deny that bandying a word or two with Colm Tóibín has colored my reading of his work; it most certainly has done, and I’m grateful. I no New Critic, determined to reject any and all information about an artist extrinsic to the artwork itself. Heavens, no! But in each of the foregoing instances (all of them retailed pretty much the next morning, long ago in these pages), there was a personal encounter in which the writer, however forgettably, met me. The exchange was two-way, and we are the only two people who had it. The twinkle of that kind of memory was entirely absent from the experience of watching Calvin Trillin be witty.


I completely agree with Sir Ken Robinson’s views on public education. “I think you’d have to conclude that the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors.” Education, as it’s dished out today, almost anywhere, is wasted upon most of its reluctant recipients, and the university professors aren’t going to notice or care. Functionally, public education amounts to little more than day care for older children. A school that provides more than day care, and provides it consistently even to a quarter of its students, is a marvel. I may look up Sir Ken; I’ll certainly look out for signs of his impact on public education. But I am not going to look at his TED talk, which Heller says is “the most-viewed TED talk of all time.” I’m not in need of transport.


It appears (see yesterday’s entry) that I am not going the way of Nora Ephron, whatever the state of my platelets. Not yet. I’m slightly abashed about having brought the visit up at all, and I’ll try not to say anything about next week’s (routine) colonoscopy.

Daily Office: Wednesday

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009


¶ Matins: Monica Howe writes about a problem that appears to be on the increase: drive-by porn and its variants. You’re sitting in some sort of traffic, minding your own business, when the guy next to you…. (Washington Post; via The Morning News)

¶ Lauds: Yasmina Reza, in town to promote her directorial début, Chicas, with Emmanuelle Seignier — and to catch the first cast’s final performance of God of Carnage — talks to Speakeasy about all of that, and her friendship with Ms Seignier’s husband, Roman Polanski.

¶ Prime: Felix Salmon continues the debt-bias discussion, evaluating two reasons not to tax interest payments, and, not surprisingly, dismissing them even when he agrees with supporting arguments. (That’s what makes this discussion so interesting.)

¶ Tierce: The extraordinary Mandelbulb. We’ve been so hynotized by the latest in fractals that we’ve neglected to share.

¶ Sext: What to read next? Well, you could let your dreams determine the title — if you were Philip K Dick and strong enough to read “the dullest book in the world.” (Letters of Note)

¶ Nones: With a grim sort of relief, we note that intransigence is still the prevailing note in Honduran politics. (BBC News)

¶ Vespers: Terry Teachout encounters a stack of his new book(s), Pops, at the Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side. He registers his reaction as closer to Mencken than to Hindemith. (About Last Night)

¶ Compline: Two lawyers from the Genomics Law Report consider the “intriguing question” of how personal DNA data might be handled in the event (an event in Iceland) of a direct-to-consumer’s genomics company’s going bankrupt. (Genetic Future; via Short Sharp Science)

Daily Office: Thursday

Thursday, October 1st, 2009


¶ Matins: Jebediah Reed complains about some insidiously sexy energy ads, at The Infrastructurist.

¶ Lauds: Jon Henley considers the French tradition of treating artists as out-of-the-ordinary — à propos Roman Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland.

¶ Prime: Oops! Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand appears to have hidden the Prisoner’s Dilemma — from Alan Greenspan, at least. John Cassidy at The New Yorker.

¶ Tierce: A library/staircase, in London, at Apartment Therapy. (via

¶ Sext: How to make… (are you sitting down?)… Bacon Mayonnaise. And we don’t mean mayonnaise with bits of bacon broken up in it. We mean mayonnaise made with over a cup of bacon fat! (At How to Cook Like Your Grandmother.)

¶ Nones: Honduras’ Geneeral Romeo Vasquez thinks that it’s time  to come to terms. As the man who oversaw the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya, he may be listened to.

¶ Vespers: Patrick Kurp connects two great Italian modernists, Giorgio Morandi and Eugenio Montale.

¶ Compline: Arthur Krystal’s essay, “When Writers Speak,” reminded us that, even though we can make no properly scientific claims in our support, everything that Steven Pinker says about language seems not so much wrong as tone-deaf.  


Daily Office: Friday

Friday, July 31st, 2009


¶ Matins: The Urban Mole won second prize; I’d have made it the first-prizewinner. (via Good)

¶ Lauds: A forgotten instrument from a famous score has been re-invented (one hopes!): the steel glockenspiel that Mozart had in mind for The Magic Flute.

¶ Prime: One of the biggest problems in the way we do business — literally — is the slapdash way in which we do or don’t clean up after ourselves: “When Auto Plants Close, Only White Elephants Remain.”

¶ Tierce: Unexpected but inevitable: what happens when lightweight Smart Cars are parked near canals. (via Infrastructurist)

¶ Sext: How To Cook Like Your Grandmother. (via  MetaFilter)

¶ Nones: After more than six years of expense, it has come to this:

“If there ever was a window where the seeds of a professional military culture could have been implanted, it is now long past. U.S. combat forces will not be here long enough or with sufficient influence to change it,” wrote [Col Timothy R Reese]. “The military culture of the Baathist-Soviet model under Saddam Hussein remains entrenched and will not change. The senior leadership of the I.S.F. is incapable of change in the current environment.”

¶ Vespers: Will Blythe writes up the new new Thomas Pynchon novel — a noir detective story — at The Second Pass.

¶ Compline: At the Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer discusses some recent findings about television as a balm for loneliness.

¶ Bon weekend à tous!


Daily Office: Tuesday

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009


¶ Matins: Ross Douthat writes lucidly about the the problem posed by someone like Sarah Palin to American politics. It has a lot to do with that problem that Americans don’t like to admit that we have: class distinctions.  

¶ Lauds: Plans to house Gap founder Don Fisher’s modern art collection in San Francisco’s Presidio have been gored by a combination of  NIMBYism and very mistaken preservationism. (via Arts Journal)

¶ Prime: Felix Salmon argues very persuasively against subjecting credit default swaps to regulation by state insurance commissioners. Although slightly daunting at the start, Mr Salmon’s entry is definitely worth the effort.

¶ Tierce: They wanted to put Cecille Villacorta away for a long time. But her lawyer, Joe Tacopina (get his card, now!)  convinced the judge that the Saks saleslady had been trained to increase her commissions by sending kickbacks to favorite customers.

“Basically, Cecille’s saying, ‘You told me to do this. You trained me to do this. I made you $27 million. And I became a defendant,” Tacopina said after court yesterday.

¶ Sext: In case you’ve ever coveted one of those Gill Sans “Keep Calm and Carry On” T shirts (complete with crown), Megan Hustad’s write-up may cure you, at The Awl.

¶ Nones: The death of Robert McNamara occasions a great deal of reflection — if only we can find the time.

¶ Vespers: Hey! See action in war-torn quarters of the globe while engaging in serious literary discussions with brainy fellow warriors! Join the Junior Officers’ Reading Club today!

¶ Compline: According to Psychology Today [yes, we know that we ought to stop right there], parks occupy an astonishing 25.7% of New York City’s surface area! That’s what density makes possible. (more…)

Daily Office: Tuesday

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009


¶ Matins: According to Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL Technologies, an Indian IT services vendor, American college grads are “unemployable.” They don’t know anything (global history, languages) and they hate to be bored. (via  reddit)

¶ Lauds: Kodachrome comes to an end. Michael Johnston develops the picture.

¶ Prime: What email at Enron can tell us about predicting  big-company chaos/collapse.

¶ Tierce: In what one hopes will be the resolution of a ghastly situation, Anthony Marshall collapsed again (this time from the after-effects of a fall), and his wife, Charlene, attributed his last collapse, two weeks ago, to “a stroke that has resulted in a headache and blurred vision.”

¶ Sext: Department of Crossed Purposes: Philadelphia’s Parking Authority’s venture into reality television, Parking Wars, has complicated life for the city’s marketers.

¶ Nones: Hats off to Tony Judt for saying what needs to be said about the West Bank “settlements,” and for speaking as someone who can remember genuine Israeli settlements. 

¶ Vespers: Cristina Nehring rumbles the contemporary American essay, pronouncing it “middle-aged.” So that’s why you can’t be bothered to read through those worth Best American Essay anthologies!

¶ Compline: Hands on the table! When someone else is talking to you, it’s rude (at best) to check out smartphones, Blackberries, &c, even if “the etiquette debate seems to be tilting in the favor of smartphone use.”


Daily Office: Thursday

Thursday, May 28th, 2009


¶ Matins: As the twentieth anniversary of “Tiananmen” approaches, it appears that most younger Chinese don’t have any idea that there’s an anniversary to mark. (via Brainiac)

¶ Lauds: I’m pretty sure that I don’t really want to see Steven Soderbergh’s new film, The Girlfriend Experience, but I’m fascinated by the wildly divergent responses that it has elicited at The Rumpus, from Stephen Elliott (pro) and Andrew Altschul (con).

¶ Prime: A story from last week that I missed: “A Vibrant US Train Industry Would Emply More People than Car Makers Do Now,” at Infrastructurist.

¶ Tierce: The testimony of Henry Christensen, the Sullivan & Cromwell attorney who served as Brooke Astor’s trusts and estates lawyer from 1991 to 2003, may have its greatest impact upon his own career. 

Update: Imagine what it must be like to read the following bit of news about yourself: “Though Mr Christensen is not charged with a crime...”

¶ Sext: Something fun from — “Down Under”? (Maybe that was the problem.) Balk balks.

¶ Nones: Little Elise André has been put in the position of a human ping-pong ball, as her parents — Russian mother, French father — secure conflicting custody awards from their respective home courts.

¶ Vespers: Dwight Garner gives Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human a very enthusiastic review; not the least of the book’s attractions is its brevity (207 pages!).

¶ Compline: Here’s an item to add to the checklist: bring the guys (and gals) who actually build/make things into the Green conversation. (How can I see Greening Southie?)

¶ Bon weekend à tous!


Daily Office: Monday

Monday, April 20th, 2009


¶ Matins: In case you’re still opposed to Federal nationalization of troubled banks, let former IMF economist Simon Johnson explain the advice that his outfit would give.

¶ Lauds: It dates from March, but I just heard about it at Things Magazine: truly punchy graphic art commissioned by Swiss pharma giant Geigy (now part of Novartis).

¶ Prime: Jean Ruaud has retooled Mnémoglyphes — which has to be the most news-deprived statement that I can think of. Jean changes the look and feel of his sites all the time! This is more substantive, though: Mnémoglyphes has become a Daily Blogue.

¶ Tierce: David Carr considers the confected nature of last week’s “tea party” tax protests, which were not so much covered by the cable news networks as cultivated by them.

¶ Sext: Would you help out a robot? If you live in Greenwich Village, you might not give it a second thought: Of course you would help out a robot! (via  The Morning News)

¶ Nones: The Italian government has finally recognized its humanitarian responsibility and begun deboarding 140 migrants from a stranded tanker. To understand the kerfuffle with Malta, though, you may need to look at a map.

¶ Vespers: In the current Harper’s, Francine Prose reviews an odd but irresistible new book with a faux-catalogue title as long as your arm: the account of a fictional breakup as told in terms of pictures at an exhibition — pictures of lamps, postcards, and pictures.

¶ Compline: The post office as a profit center? What a concept! It works in Switzerland…


Daily Office: Monday

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008


¶ Matins: It’s hard to cry real tears over the bankruptcy filing of Tribune Corp, the media empire that, among other things, has imperilled the integrity of the Los Angeles Times.

¶ Prime: At yesterday, Jason Kottke took a look at his own early stabs at Web sites. I hope that someone will undertake a comprehensive overview of Web design history, because I’m sure that the lessons taught by evolution would be useful to know. 

¶ Tierce: What’s this? Riots in Greece? Sparked by the police shooting of a fifteen year-old boy? Okaaay… But wait. Why did you say they are rioting in Greece?

¶ Sext: Timely advice from Debrett’s/Telegraph on how to behave at the office Christmas Party. Nothing you didn’t know — which is why you ought to write it out on the palm of your hand.


Chinese Bells

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

“Today, I want to do it on the table!”

Miss Frances. Frances Rappaport Horwich, star — if that’s the word — of Ding Dong School. A show that I watched with recollected docility in the early Fifties. Perhaps the best way to think of Miss Frances is as Mr Rogers’s fairy godmother,  by way of Joe Jervis — qua Ruth Draper’s Mrs Grimmer, of Doctors and Diets, a routine that Joe can recite by rote. (Cue it, Joe!)

A show from this popular series is included in the DVD set, Hiya, Kids!!, which takes its name from another old favorite, Andy’s Gang (“Plunk your magic twanger, Froggie.”). On the one hand, these shows are amazingly innocent of all TV allure. Production values are sub-nil. On the other hand, it is impossible to watch them without imagining their hosts being led away in chains, by federal marshals.

You think I’m joking? Consider this wholesome activity.


The ew factor of this image sent Kathleen into paroxyms of revulsion. I knew that she’d react unfavorably to Ding Dong School, but the extent to which she did so surprised even me.

The commercialization can only be called Nudist. It is that frank. There are two ads for Kix. Both of them feature serving suggestions of which this is the most naive:


There is, strangely, no mention whatsoever of milk, or cream, or water, or any liquid. I suppose that liquid would dampen the crunchiness, which is billed as lasting until “the last spoonful.” The last spoonful in the box, that is. (In those days, nobody worried about how that was managed.) Every time Miss Frances mentions the “crunchy corn” deliciousness of “Kix,” all I can think of is Mrs Grimmer’s trying to squeeze out “the juice of eleven lemons.”

In addition to blowing bubbles, Miss Frances recites poems (by Vachel Lindsay and Robert Louis Stevenson), folds handkerchiefs, and bounces a ball.


I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a child requiring instruction in bouncing a ball.

After all of this edification, Miss Frances summons the parents and/or guardians, bustles the kids out of the room, talks up the handkerchief trick, plugs Kix all over again, and then — this is why you have to buy the DVD — urges her listeners to teach their little ones to “evaluate plans.” Stalinist or anti-Communist? It’s hard to tell.

The good news is that Kathleen has all sorts of new nightmare material, what with Miss Frances and watching Toy Story right afterward.

As for the title of this entry: it refers to a prepubescent joke that I was telling within five or six years of watching Ding Dong School. In those days, five or six years made a completely different man of me; now it only means that I have lived to benefit from more effective medication. Sadly, I still think that this is one of the funniest jokes that I have ever heard. The fun is in the setup, not the punchline. (Actually, the fun is in the souvenir of boyishly imagining that a grown man might conceivably mistake X (Chinese bells) for Y (read on.) That darn keyhole: curse or blessing? If you’re up for some childishness, click on through.


Daily Office: Wednesday

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008


¶ Matins: Roger Ebert’s complaint about the “CelebCult” — the news about “divorces, addiction, disease, success, failure, death watches, tirades, arrests, hissy fits, scandals” that is killing contemporary journalism at the speed of liver cancer — is remarkable for the quality of comments that it has attracted, most of which are (dauntingly!) worth reading, especially the ones that Mr Ebert has answered.

But when I read Jason Kottke’s entry about the post — Mr Kottke shares Mr Ebert’s dismay — I thought: all very well, but what are we to do? This led me to wonder if a misguided interest in gossip is really the problem.

¶ Tierce: This morning’s Times brings a nice column by David Leonhardt, “Budgets Behaving Badly,” that extends the hope that Barack Obama will staff his administration with behavioral economists. He has already nominated one, Peter Orszag, for budget director.

¶ Compline: Now that the Episcopal Church is finally splitting, with the conservatives abandoning the mother ship for their shriveled-up future, one can only wonder how long it will take American Catholics of conscience to break with Rome in the name of true Christian values.


Daily Office: Thursday

Thursday, November 13th, 2008


¶ Matins: I have not had the pleasure of meeting Andy Towle in person, but I understand that he is not a tall man. It now appears that everybody understands that he is not a tall man. So well that the little surprise at the end of this clip of Rick and Steve needs no explanation. If I were Andy, I’d slap me silly for laughing so hard. As I said in a recent entry, I’m pretty mixed up these days, but that’s no excuse. (Thanks, Joe.)

¶ Tierce: Something in Brent Bowers’s story about executive coaching, small businesses, and overcoming understandable anxiety caught my eye. It has to do with a state-change that, inevitably it seems, faces entrepreneurs as their enterprises grow.

¶ Nones: The brains of bullies appear to be wired differently, according to fMRI studies. Tara Parker-Pope reports.

While the study is small, the striking differences shown in the brain scans suggests that bullies may have major differences in how their brains process information compared to non-bullies. Dr. Decety said the aggressive adolescents showed a strong activation of the amygdala and ventral striatum, areas of the brain that respond to feeling rewarded. The finding “suggested that they enjoyed watching pain,” he said. Notably, the control group of youths who weren’t prone to aggressive behavior showed a response in the medial prefrontal cortex and the temporoparietal junction, areas of the brain involved in self regulation.

This comes as no surprise, and yet it seems to add some urgency to the question of how we deal with such information.

¶ Vespers: Amazingly, this doesn’t happen more often: “American Idol reject found dead near Paula Abdul’s home.” Although I would not outlaw it, I can’t see reality television as anything but debased, debasing, and utterly inhumane.


Mad Men Note: Beyond Reclamation

Sunday, August 24th, 2008


You should have seen Kathleen’s face when, fifteen seconds after I said it, the guy the with musical zipper announced, “It’s Mozart!”

Rapping the opening bars of Eine kleine Nachtmusik convinced her.

I guess I had to have been there.

Daily Office: Thursday

Thursday, July 17th, 2008



¶ Waste: The story is so depressing that I can barely bring myself to read it, much less post about it; but there’s no getting round its importance: In what I hope will turn out to have been the grossest civic failure of this decade, Seattle has scrapped its pay-toilet system.


¶ Yeastless: Catch up on all the new slang from Sloane Square.

¶ Rope: Jon Stewart’s montage of Talking Heads denouncing The New Yorker cover (you know which one) as tasteless, offensive, &c &c, ought to be enough, my friends, to convince you that watching any news program other than his own is bad for your brain.

¶ Department of Ahem: Just the other day, Perry Falwell of Booksaga, the Internet’s favorite bookselling blogger, solicited guest entries. It seems that “solicited” was the key word, as the last word in the entry’s first paragraph makes clear.


¶ Tacet: What’s interesting about Rachel Cathcart’s story in the Times, “Donation to Same-Sex Marriage Foes Brings Boycott Calls” — aside from the story itself, which is, in the end, depressingly not-so-interesting — is the newspaper’s colossal discretion: the hotels that would be the object of the boycott are not named. Nor is a link provided. Anyone who wants to act on this story is going to have to do a little Googling.


Daily Office Thursday

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

The same skyline, but with a bit more of Queens, and a lot closer to Penn Station.

¶ Matins: Last night, I went to a reading at The Drawing Center. I’d been invited, by one of the writers. Who could turn that down?

¶ Sext: No sooner do I finish slogging my way through Michael Banks’s semi-moronic Blogging Heroes (in the Morning Read) than the Times comes along with a half-page summary, “So You Want to Be a Blogging Star?

¶ Vespers:  It’s hard to tell just where this Web site, VVork, is domiciled, but this bit of conceptual art suggests Further Fun. (Thanks, (more…)

Daily Office Tuesday

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

On 57th Street

¶ Matins: I’ve got my physical at 9:30 this morning. I remember when a “physical” was something that you got when you were drafted.

¶ Prime: This just in: The Earth is round, and, also, by the way, putting a television set in your child’s bedroom is not a great idea. (They might pick up the wrong values from Real Housewives of New York City.) 

¶ Nones: Today, on Ew! Factor: Koran Flushing. What’s with the community service? They ought to throw the bum out of school!

¶ Vespers: A few words about Tom Meglioranza’s cabaret recital at Weill Recital Hall last week.