Sunday, December 03, 2006

Crichton's Latest

Frankly, Michael Crichton is not a writer one turns to for rich characterization & intricate plots. His characters are often two-dimensional (the sinister industrialist, the idealistic scientist, the bored wealthy heiress who sleeps with her tennis instructor). People read Crichton because his novels are interwoven with the latest science developments. Reading his novels is like picking up Technology Trends for Dummies.

His latest offering Next returns to the subject of biotechnology, a topic he hit gold with in what must be his bestselling books Jurassic Park and The Lost World. In Next, Crichton weaves various narratives about characters whose lifes are affected by the latest breakthroughs in biotechnology. A young woman confirms her suspicion about her parentage when she obtains cell tissue from the corpse of the man she was told was her father. Tourists to an ape sanctuary in Indonesia encounter an orangutuan who curses in Dutch and French. A cuckolded husband in a bitter divorce proceeding requires blood tests from his soon-to-be ex-wife to confirm that genetically she may be an unfit mother.

I'm still reading. I'll keep posting as I read further.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Marc Gellman Get's it Wrong

Normally, I'm a big fan of Rabbi Marc Gellman's column in Newsweek. He's funny, humane, and insightful--just the qualities we all hope for in a professional God guy.

However, This week's fulmination against his fellow Jews for having the temerity to vote against Joe Lieberman has greatly disappointed me for reasons I set forth in the following e-mail which I posted to Newsweek:

Dear Rabbi Gellman,

As a fan of your column, I must nevertheless express some dismay at the view you put forth in your latest essay, "Joe and the Jews" in which you assert that being a good Jew required voting for Joe Lieberman.

While, as you point out, Catholics voted for Kennedy in record numbers, religious allegiance did not completely trump political views. I suspect William F. Buckley, a devout Irish Catholic, voted for Nixon. I imagine that Buckley looked at the candidates’ positions and decided which man would best serve the interests of his country.

Many American Jews do not share your belief that the Iraq War has served the interests of either the United States or Israel. Consequently, those who are registered democrats in Connecticut should not be made ashamed of their decision to help turn Senator Lieberman out of office. A candidate's position and competence should be the deciding factor, not his ethnic/religious affiliation.

In ordinary times, Senator Lieberman's tendency to veer to the political right would have caused mere grumbling among the Democratic Party followers in Connecticut. As you well know, these are not ordinary times. Today, he is seen by many as one who has served as an enabler to catastrophically bad policies.

What is especially disturbing is how you conjure the simplistic dichotomy of the Tribal Jews vs. the Cosmopolitan Jews--and then imply that the tribal view is superior and that the cosmopolitans veer dangerously close to being race traitors. I would hesitate embracing tribal politics given that so many of world's problems--particularly those in the Middle East--are rooted in blind tribalistic loyalties.

Finally, I would remind you that one of the greatest role models for Jews and Non-Jews is Baruch Spinoza who broke with his co-religionists because he belived that the search for truth represented a greater obligation than adherence to orthodox opinion and tribal loyalty. Perhaps Senator Lieberman's position in time will be vindicated. If so, then he will enjoy the status of a contemporary Spinoza, for having the courage to break ranks with his political tribe.

In any event, his fellow American Jews deserve the same consideration--the right to risk being wrong.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Monday, July 31, 2006

The Wisdom of Auden

One of the most depressing aspects of the current war between Hezbullah and Israel is the way in which it has caused the promising dialogue between Israeli and Arab bloggers to all but collapse. Moderate Arab bloggers who once despised the machinations of Hezbullah now reserve their hatred for Israel.

I was compelled to re-read Auden's melancholy masterpiece, "September 1st, 1939" written at the beginning of the Second World War. My eyes fell upon the following passage, which seems to speak to Arab and Israeli bloggers across the decades...

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
Keep talking to one another. To survive, keep talking...

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Remembering Spinoza

Given the latest round of ethnic/religious violence wracking the Middle East, I applaud the NYT times for acknowledging one of the people who reminded us that the ultimate source of wisdom lies in humanity's capacity for reason.

350 years ago Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated by his fellow Jews. He then went on to shock the rest of Europe with his ideas:

Spinoza argued that no group or religion could rightly claim infallible knowledge of the Creator’s partiality to its beliefs and ways. After the excommunication, he spent the rest of his life — he died in 1677 at the age of 44 — studying the varieties of religious intolerance. The conclusions he drew are still of dismaying relevance.

Read the whole article here.

Was Nietzsche Right?

Recently, it came to my attention that Jordanian national television does not broadcast "The Simpsons" but does carry "The View."

In a recent press release, the International Association of Atheists have asserted that this is conclusive proof that there is no God.

Said group spokesman Pierre Duvenal, "The idea of a compassionate and just deity having control over the universe is not compatible with the fact that an already overstressed Arab population is denied the comic relief of Bart Simpson, but must endure the blatherings of a coven of witless bitches."

This is Not News

Lance Bass of 'N Sync has come out of the closet and it is being covered extensively by the global media.

I submit that this does not meet the crtieria for "news" anymore than a plane landing on time qualifies as news. Mr. Bass is a member of a "boy band" a group of young men who wear make-up and prance around on stage.

If such a group was composed solely of heterosexuals, that would constitute news.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The War Next Door

I've called my latest post "The War Next Door" despite the fact that the conflict I'm referring to, the as yet unnamed Israel-Hezbullah miniwar, is half a world away because, in that neighborhood of cyberspace known as the blogosphere, the anguish of fellow bloggers initmately involved can be heard as if they were in the next room.

My own involvement has been limited to checking on the status of friends and, when I can contribute/facilitate continued discussion among bloggers affected by this tragedy. It is, as Lisa Goldman puts it, the first truly blogged war.

Will that make any difference I wonder?

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The World Cup Phenomenom, or the World and the U.S. Take a Break

World Cup star Fabio Cannavaro Normally the U.S. is distinguished from the rest of the World by the its superpower status. Ever four years, however, the international football federation* reminds us that there is a second point of separation--the World Cup. While football (soccer) fans from Bueno Aires to Marrakesh to Riyadh to Osaka go nuts, obsessing about their favorite teams, the U.S. glances over at the hullabaloo and shrugs. As comedian Denis Leary put it, from an American perspective, if you can't use your hands, it ain't really a sport.

Traditionally, this has been a source of regret for some Americans, who see participation in the World Cup as a way to connect with the rest of the world in a way that doesn't involve a) war, b) oil, or c) McDonalds. For a long time, I shared this opinion, even though I have never been a sports enthusiast. Lately though, with global tensions brought on the Iraq War (and the special combination of hubris and incompetence brought on by the Bush administration,) I have concluded that it is a good thing that the World Cup gives the world something to think about other than its grievances with America.

Understand, I'm not engaging in America bashing. I am acknowledging that whatever our intentions are towards our fellow man, our actions--both right and wrong--often cause us to be resented even by our allies. Thus, the American low profile at the World Cup, I think, is a good thing. It gives the rest of the planet some breathing room and an opportunity to blow off steam in a safe, constructive way (unless you are a soccer hooligan).

*I have no idea what the proper name of the football world organization is. After all, I'm an American. :)

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Movie Critic has an Important Epiphany's film critic acquires self-knowledge at Cannes. Would that the late Pauline Kael had been so insightful.

"As another monotonously gorgeous day broke the next morning in the eastern sky over Nice, I woke up with the idea that the celebrity panel had made the critics and reporters uncomfortable because they reminded us too much of regular viewers. Former New York Times critic Vincent Canby observed years ago that the film critic's pose of being an ordinary moviegoer is just that. You can't watch 100 or 150 or 200 films a year and be an ordinary moviegoer; you become a specialist with a defined aesthetic and rarefied tastes in some direction or other. Whether that direction lies in Thai kickboxing films or Tarkovsky-esque meditations on the soul is purely a question of temperament."

Read the full article here.

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Dangers of Blogging about the Workplace

The NYT has an article indicating that being a blogger might be hazardous to your career.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Human Rights Watch Report on Internet Access in the Middle East

Good reading for anyone concerned with positive, non-violent social change in the Middle East.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Cyborg Planet, Part 2: Friendships in Cyberspace

The late, great media ecologist Neil Postman urged people to pause before adopting any new technology and to ponder all the possible consequences, good and bad, that the technology brings with it.

This precept, that all technology has unintended consequences, should be known as "Postman's Law." Postman's favorite example of this was television. Television, he pointed out, favors pictures over text. Since we respond to images viscerally, we don't evaluate the information television presents with the same critical consideration that we would give to written information. Translation? Television has made us dumber.

I've been thinking of Postman lately, as I pondered the phenomenom of internet friendships. An internet friend, or "cyberpal" is someone with whom you have formed a personal bond through the exchange of ideas and discussion of mutual interests via internet-based communication (i.e., e-mail & blogs). That is to say, interaction is almost exclusively computer-mediated. The two parties involved rarely (if at all) meet face to face.

Although such relationships have been around since the creation of the internet in the late sixties, it has in recent years become a mass phenomenom through the popularity of such websites as "My Space" and the ever-burgeoning blogsphere. As "cyberpaling" continues to grow, it is a good opportunity ponder the implications of Postman's law.

The difficulty of making friends after the end of one's schooldays is a well-known problem. In the pre-television days, people often spent their free time at social clubs and gatherings were they could make friends with people of similar interests. In America, mass media & suburbization has helped to erode that once vast network of communal activities (see Robert D. Putnam's Bowling Alone).

This poverty of friendships coupled with the rise of internet helped bring about the Cyberpal Phenomenom.

The impulse to connect with other people has been a powerful spur in internet use. But (and here the voice of Postman intrudes) doesn't this form of interaction lack the tactile appeal of face to face interaction? Do we not lose the vast, wordless communication that is conveyed by gesture and expression? The pitch of voice? The feeling of hand touching cheek?

The short answer is yes, which is why cyberpaling should never be a substitute for real time, physical interaction. However, before we sentimentalize such encounters, we would do well to remember that much of what we share in public meetings tends to be trivial, small talk. It is the meeting which is the message. Looking back on some of my own friendships, it amazes me how little of real consequence I've shared with other people during the occasional hurried lunch meeting or weekend outing.

By comparision, sharing thoughts over the internet is preceded by private time where the writer has the opportunity to give more care to the content and form of his or her thoughts. Because of this, i suspect some bloggers have shared more with their online readers in terms of true feelings, fears, and hopes than they have with people they see on a regular basis.

One form or another of friendship should not predominate. As we continue to give new shape to human interaction in the 21st century, we should avoid the extreme of either/or but seek the best of both worlds.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Planet of the Cyborgs?

Recently I conversed with my favorite Arab philosopher Tololy about the idea that modern humans qualify as virtual cyborgs given that so much of their interaction with the world is mediated through machines.

This is not a new idea. I remember being exposed to it in graduate school in the late 90's. But the blogger phenomenom has given a new urgency to the idea. As a telecommuter, I communicate with my colleagues through e-mail and phone conversations. I don't live near any of my friends and even if I did, my schedule would rarely allow me time to set-up face to face meetings. Only with my wife and son do I have any meaningful encounters in the course of a regular day.

What does this signify for human relations? What is the upside? What is the downside? Let me think...

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Literary Quote for May 11th, 2006

Sigh no more ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.

Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny, nonny, nonny.

Sing no more ditties, sing no more
Of dumps so dull and heavy,
The fraud of men was ever so,
Since summer first was leafy.

Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny, nonny, nonny.

Then sigh not so,
but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny, nonny, nonny.

William Shakespeare Much Ado about Nothing

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Free Egyptian Bloggers!

Sandmonkey, one of the leaders of the Arab blogsphere, has issued a call to bloggers to protest the Egyptian government's imprisonment of 48 people (including several Egyptian bloggers such as Alaa, who has a well known blog with his wife Manal) who were arrested after a peaceful protest promoting the independence of the Egyptian judiciary. In SM's own words:

Alaa and those arrested with him are now arrested for 15 days "pending investigation", which could be renewed indefinitely if the state so wishes. Him and the men were sent to the infamous Torah Prison and the girls to the Qanatir prison for the duration. This makes them hardly safe, because stuff that goes on in egyptian prisons on the hands of the jailors: beatings, sexual assaults, torture of all kinds. This is why we aim to get them out of there as soon as possible, so that even if they do end up serving the entire 15 days- which they won't have to if the government gets pressured- they ndon;t end up serving an extra day after that. No one deserves this happening to them, especially for exercising their right to free speech.

Please contact your representative and voice your objection. Just as good--let the Egyptian government know that they can not get away with this repression (important fact: the Egyptian government gets $2 billion in U.S. aid each year. Remember--That's my money and your money.)

Here is an e-mail address:

A Heroine for Our Times

While much of the world's press focuses on the Middle East in the struggle between secularism and radical relgiousity, Christopher Hitchens reminds us of the personal cost paid by the bravest and most vulnerable advocates for human rights. In this case, Dutch parlimentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

One of the problems I have with European liberalism is that while they often boast about having model societies , there appears to be a strong undercurrent of tribalism and racism embedded in them. True liberalism requires a civic nationalism rather than an ethnic nationalism. Once fear sets in, an old sense of tribal/racial identity appears to reassert itself among native Europeans, who often refuse to see immigrants as authentic members of their nations. In a recent Newsweek article, "To Become an American," Fareed Zakaria talks about a German plan to recruit Indian high tech workers to help improve Germany's economy:

I told the German official at the time that I was sure the initiative would fail. It's not that I had any particular expertise in immigration policy, but I understood something about green cards, because I had one (the American version). The German Green Card was misnamed, I argued, because it never, under any circumstances, translated into German citizenship. The U.S. green card, by contrast, is an almost automatic path to becoming American (after five years and a clean record). The official dismissed my objection, saying that there was no way Germany was going to offer these people citizenship. "We need young tech workers," he said. "That's what this program is all about." So Germany was asking bright young professionals to leave their country, culture and families, move thousands of miles away, learn a new language and work in a strange land—but without any prospect of ever being part of their new home. Germany was sending a signal, one that was accurately received in India and other countries, and also by Germany's own immigrant community.

The idea of that "volk"--the heriditary members of a nation--have primacy is antithetical to the ideal of the polyglot democracy which is highest political ideal of our century. Let's hope we all find our way to a solution before this century comes to a close.

"There is no such thing as the State/And no one exists alone;/Hunger allows no choice/To the citizen or the police;/We must love one another or die." - W.H. Auden

Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Art of Renting a DVD

It is a truth that must be universally acknowledged that video rental stores are stocked with rubbish.

I don't mean to sound like a snob. I know that every book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble isn't holy writ or deathless prose. Still, I marvel when I hear stories about how difficult it is to "greenlight" a film project, how only a few scripts out of thousands actually get produced.

And then I go to Blockbuster and see the walls lined with movies whose existence offers compelling evidence that the devil exists--and he has a producing gig with a major studio.

Having spent a fair amount of time wandering from desultory shelf to shelf, each of which is stocked withs scores of DVDs which serve as a chilling testament to the decay of art of storytelling. I herewith offer a few guidelines for the increasingly difficult search for a quality film:

1. Avoid anything with a half-naked woman on the cover. Overt sexiness is the most common tactic to distract from what David Putnam once called "the poverty of ideas."

2. A film that is foreign made is not necessarily a mark of excellence (has anyone ever seen a German comedy? What an oxymoron). Still, the fact that it made it to an American video store suggests that enough people liked it to convince cautious film distributors to show it to an audience not known for their love of subtitles.

3. If something strikes your fancy, write down the name, go home and do a web search. Somebody out in the blogsphere probably has seen it already and offered an opinion.

Any other recommended guidelines?

Friday, April 28, 2006

Literary Quote of the Week

For soldiers and their sweethearts.

"Touch her soft mouth, and march."
William Shakespeare Henry V

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Florida Living: Purchasing Your Sprummer Wardrobe

Florida does not have four seasons. It has two, which I will refer to as "sprummer" and "falter" which the verbally adept among you will quickly recognize as amalgams of spring/summer and fall/winter.

"Falter" which usually encompasses the months from early November to early/mid February is the shorter of the two seasons--and getting shorter it seems each year. This season is distinguished not so much by the presence of cool (let alone) cold weather, but rather by the absence of the humidity usually so abundant in Florida--and which causes Floridians to look soaked if they stand outside for at least 90 seconds.

Shopping for sprummerware is more of matter of having a discerning touch than eye. One must, upon feeling the fabric of the clothing in question, sense that it is sufficiently porous to allow the passage of air easily while being substantive enough to absorb several hours worth of heavy perspiration. Many t-shirts sold by national clothing chains, for example, are made of a fabric too heavy to be accomodating in subtropical weather. Personally, I find 50% cotten/50% polyester to be a good combination.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Terror of Being a Parent

"Grief is the price we pay for loving." - Queen Elizabeth II

Recently, the New York Times reported the tragic death of a toddler in New York who was killed by a stray bullet while his mother was taking him to visit relatives for Easter. The child was not walking or sitting in a carriage, but was instead strapped into a child safety seat inside the family van, which was in motion when the bullet struck.

The bullet was the result of the usual moronic street argument between a couple of evolutionary throwbacks who saw gunfire as a means of resolving a dispute.

In the past (pre-parenthood), upon hearing such awful news, I would experience a wave of sympathy for the grieving parents. Since becoming a father, my response to such tragedies has changed. Sympathy has been replaced by a stab of empathetic pain.

There is a terrible irony in the way this child died. Family vans & safety chairs are supposed to be special shields of invulnerability, weapons devised by our modern ingenuity to help us avoid or diminish the ominpresent dangers of this too imperfect and frequently sinister world. With this latest catastrophe, it's as if evil itself evolved, like a virus, to circumvent our latest defenses.

When you become a parent, you realize the world is ruled by rough magic--that small, wonderful infuriating creatures actually do exist, but that they can be snatched away at any time by forces dark and malevolent. The tools at your disposal--small bottles of mashed, carefully cooked food, the plugs for electrical outlets, the protective latch on the car seat--are like charms used to ward off evil spirits.

Yet despite, the dark and scary wood one must traverse as a parent, I do not regret setting out on it. Come what may, my life is the richer for it.

The Three Elements of Stagecraft

In an NPR interview, Anna Deveare Smith alluded to three areas of knowledge that a successful playwright must have

1. Creative Intuition (or "talent" as she put it)
2. Knowledge of craft
3. Knowledge of the business

2 and 3 can be taught.

She also posed the question: "Do you want to be in the arts to have your name well known or do you want to show the world something through your eyes?"

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Downside of Blogging for the Would-Be Book Writer

An article on Slate suggests that blogging might undermine a writer's career.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Cornell Method of Notetaking

The Cornell method of notetaking is as follows:

1. Record what is said on the right side of the paper;

2. Reduce the information into fewer words or headings on the left side of the paper;

3. Recite the information to be remembered, covering the information on the right side of the paper and using the headings as prompts;

4. Reflect on the material and incorporate it into previous knowledge; and

5. Review the information periodically to facilitate its permanent storage into memory.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

My First Blog!

Hello and welcome.

In the late 1990's, I was a participant in a graduate course about the relationship between writing and computers. Interestingly enough, I don't recall the subject of "web logs" coming up. If it did, it failed to make a significant dent in my consciousness. The hot topic of the moment was how hypertext as represented by HTML and the WWW was going to change the writing game.

As budding scholars (in my case a scholar-poseur) we were all eager to identify what the coming things were in computer-based writing so we could go off and write articles, dissertations, conference papers, and maybe even a book or two. We weren't obtuse--we recognized that the web was a a means of democratizing writing, allowing people to publish their ideas so that anyone in the world with a computer and an internet connection could read them. It just didn't occur to us that the web would allow thousands of people to become daily/weekly columnists without being connected to an online magazine or newspaper. Oh well, so much for our careers as trend setters.

Now, almost ten years later, I find myself a frequent reader of blogs. Why? Because as someone who promoted journal writing as a college composition teacher, I love hearing the "voices" of people. There is something in each of us which only comes out when we are writing as opposed to speaking.

Today I move from observer to participant. I do so for several reasons: one, it is a wonderful way to practice my writing skills; two, I found myself writing in a journal which I saved online and began to wonder whether some of the things I wrote were worth sharing with others; three, as someone whose day job is concerned with communication and technology, it doesn't hurt to be active in the blogsphere; and four, it's a cool thing to list on your resume. :)