Saturday, January 20, 2007

Watching the Badgers beat the Illini on the road down at the Laurel Tavern in Madison

This was how it looked down at the Laurel to Non-Cable Guy as Kam Taylor stepped to the line with the game on the line -- 25.8 seconds to go and the Badgers leading, 67-64. Taylor drained two free throws to hold off the Illini and help the Badgers go on to win, 71-64, preserving the longest winning streak in college basketball this year and boosting their Big 10 undefeated record to 5-0. The win also gave the Badgers their first win in Champaign's Assembly Hall under coach Bo Ryan. And if this goes on, I'll just have to overcome my anti-cable prejudice just to keep my bar tab under control.

Survey: Telecommuting makes sense -- for people who are in no hurry to get promoted

Newsflash: A global survey of 1,300 executives by Los Angeles-based executive search firm Korn/Ferry International confirms the obvious.
Maybe Woody Allen was right, that 80% of life really is just about showing up.

At least that's what most executives seem to think about people who work from home.

Telecommuters are less likely to get promoted than peers who head into the office every day, according to a global survey of 1,300 executives released Tuesday by Los Angeles-based executive search firm Korn/Ferry International.

That's even though most of the executives consider telecommuters to be at least as productive as their desk-bound colleagues, according to the survey.
Yes, kids -- face time counts. Performance and productivity are not enough. It's hard to score points in the career game if the boss never sees you.

Friday, January 19, 2007

How fashion world gets along without IP rights enforcement, along with a question for Steve Jobs

You know those designer threads all the actresses like Penelope Cruz (Chanel) wear to the Golden Globes and other awards programs? I was watching one of the morning shows the other day, and they were doing a story on the knockoffs that were already on their way to retailers. How could that be, I wondered? Why weren't the manufacturers sued for violating the designers' intellectual property rights?

Turns out, the fashion industry is different. You cannot copyright a dress design. You can trademark a brand or a signature design detail, but you cannot copyright the design of an article of clothing. A post in the UUC Law Blog entitled "Fashion's Piracy Paradox" explains.
A brief doctrinal note: Why is fashion design mostly unprotected by IP law in the U.S.? Take a look at the paper for a full explanation, but in brief, although trademarks protect famous fashion industry marks (Gucci, Prada, etc.), copyright protection has been withheld in the U.S. from virtually all fashion designs due to the “useful articles” rule. The rule declares that copyright does not protect the aesthetic components of useful articles like apparel unless a particular garment’s aesthetic appeal is somehow “separable” from its usefulness in covering the human form. On this basis, courts have generally rebuffed plaintiffs’ claims of copyright infringement arising from fashion knockoffs.
The post and comments go on to discuss several related issues, mostly unique to the fashion industry, concerning innovation and intellectual property protection. It's worth a look. What it boils down to is that innovation in the fashion industry is so rapid, almost by definition, that few in the industry want the heavy hand of copyright protection slowing things down.

What I find intriguing about this is that advocates of strongly enforcing IP rights in such industries as the computer industry usually base their case on the idea that IP protection rewards and encourages innovation by protecting the rights of creators. Now, obviously, the fashion industry is not a model for any industry other than itself. But its experience does suggest the whole case for IP protection may not be quite as black-and-white as advocates claim. Apparently in at least one case, innovation and an open approach to IP rights coexist quite nicely.

In particular, I wonder about a company like Apple. They are very aggressive in protecting not only their technology but also their design features -- and got downright heavy-handed this week in enforcing their IP rights to the iPhone's graphic interface.
Savvy coders have developed iPhone "skins" that work with most smartphones based on the Windows Mobile and Palm operating systems. The issue has angered Apple to such an extent that it has sent its lawyers after a number of those involved - both directly and indirectly. The skins don't add any new functionality to the devices, but make use of the iPhone's copyrighted icons to create a UI that distinctly resembles Apple's hybrid mobile phone. Soon after the skins were uploaded to the Brighthand and Xda-developers internet message boards, Apple unleashed its legal team, who sent removal letters to at least one of the websites hosting the files.

Apple's lawyers also sent letters to journalists who simply reported on the fact that the skins were available.

"It has come to our attention that you have posted a screenshot of Apple's new iPhone and links that facilitate the installation of that screenshot on a PocketPC device," law firm O'Melveny & Myers LLP wrote to Paul O'Brien, who runs the MoDaCo website.
Question for Steve Jobs: If you're going to sell your products like fashion accessories, why shouldn't the fashion industry's less stringent approach to IP rights apply?

"Would you please please please please
please please please stop talking?"

The words are from Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," but they might as well have belonged to a frustrated Federal Aviation Administration, which has long been trying to crack down on idle chatter in the cockpit, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Less than seven months before Comair Flight 5191 crashed into a field near Blue Grass Airport, the National Transportation Safety Board -- responding to a commuter plane crash in Missouri that killed 13 -- recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration require airlines to crack down on extraneous cockpit conversations.

In response, the FAA put out a safety alert, instructing airlines to emphasize the importance of maintaining a "sterile cockpit" -- in other words, to remind pilots not to engage in the kind of casual chatter that the pilots on Comair 5191 engaged in.

According to NTSB transcripts of Flight 5191's cockpit voice recorder, released by the agency Wednesday, co-pilot James Polehinke and pilot Jeffrey Clay talked about kids, dogs and careers before taxiing onto the runway, and they continued their conversation as they prepared for takeoff.
The cockpit voice recorder transcript from Comair Flight 5191 dramatically illustrates how the runway to the tragedy was paved by mundane chatter.
Clay: (06:00:09) Both kids were sick though, they, well they all got colds. It was an interesting dinner last night.

Polehinke: (06:00:16) Really.

Clay: (06:00:16) Huh, oh gosh.

Polehinke (06:00:19) How old are they?

Clay: (06:00:20) Three months and two years old. Who was sneezing, either nose wiped, diaper change. I mean that's all we did all night long.

Polehinke: (06:00:31) Oh yeah, I'm sure.


Polehinke: (6:06:07) Set thrust, please.

Clay: (6:06:11) Thrust set.

Polehinke: (6:06:13) That is weird with no lights.

Clay: (6:06:18) Yeah. One-hundred knots.

Polehinke: (6:06:25) Checks.

Clay: (6:06:31) V-one rotate. Whoa.

(6:06:33) Sound of impact, unintelligible exclamation.
The copilot was the sole survivor of the August 27 crash in Lexington that killed 49 people after the plane tried to take off on the wrong runway, which was much too short. His lawyer was quick to point out that the chatter stopped well before the actual takeoff, and that there were other causes of the accident, ranging from an inattentive air traffic controller to confusing construction going on at the airport. Still, chatter often shows up in voice recorders from fatal accidents. The Lexington Herald-Leader had a sidebar featuring "other 'sterile-cockpit rule' crashes." An example:

What happened: Plane crashed 22 seconds after takeoff, after the crew failed to set the wing flaps properly. In the minutes before takeoff, crew members criticized Marilyn Quayle's looks; said of Jesse Jackson, "You know, it's scary that someone like him could get as far as he did"; and joked that a crash would make their cockpit conversation public, The Associated Press reported.
Currently, cockpit voice recorders are erased after flights with no incident. Some have suggested the FAA first make random checks of the the recordings to look for sterile cockpit rule violations. Or maybe they could just try saying "Please."

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Art Buchwald, 1925-2007

Nina Bramhall for The New York Times

We've lost one of our great national treasures, Art Buchwald. As recalled by AP writer Darlene Superville, his last year was both dramatic and inspiring.
Buchwald had refused dialysis treatments for his failing kidneys last year and was expected to die within weeks of moving to a hospice on Feb. 7. But he lived to return home and even write a book about his experiences. "The last year he had the opportunity for a victory lap and I think he was really grateful for it," Joel Buchwald said. "He had an opportunity to write his book about his experience and he went out the way he wanted to go, on his own terms."

Neither Buchwald nor his doctors could explain how he survived in such grave condition, and he didn't seem to mind. The unexpected lease on life gave Buchwald time for an extended and extraordinarily public goodbye, as he held court daily in a hospice salon with a procession of family, friends and acquaintances. "I'm going out the way very few people do," he told The Associated Press in April.

Buchwald said in numerous interviews after his decision became public that he was not afraid to die, that he was not depressed about his fate and that he was, in fact, having the time of his life.
He was an amazing writer, a marvelous comic voice, and a great, courageous spirit. This photo, and the accompanying NYT article written after he miraculously improved in the hospice against all odds and returned home and went on to write another book, is how I like to remember him -- finding such happiness with his family at the end of a long, achieving life that started with a very miserable childhood.

He appeared on the public radio talk show "On Point" just before Christmas. Check out the streaming audio on their website. One of the most incredible thing's I've ever heard -- especially after his old friend, nearly 90-year-old Mike Wallace, made a surprise visit. (Wallace, Buchwald and novelist William Styron had formed their own support group when all were struck by serious bouts of depression.)

I'll never forget it. There was weariness in Art's voice, and you could tell that he wasn't exactly in the peak of health. But every minute he was on the air, you could feel his sense of humor and his joy in life. And his spirit was indomitable.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Time to listen to Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking described climate change Wednesday as a greater threat to the planet than terrorism. AP Photo/Lewis Whyld, PA

In joint press conferences in London and Washington, scientists moved the Doomsday Clock ahead two minutes and set it at five minutes to midnight. For the first time, they added global warming to the threats that could annihilate civilization.
Professor Stephen Hawking - one of the sponsors - said: "Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no nuclear weapons have been used in war, though the world has come uncomfortably close to disaster on more than one occasion. But for good luck, we would all be dead."

He continued: "As we stand at the brink of a second nuclear age and a period of unprecedented climate change, scientists have a special responsibility once again to inform the public and advise leaders about the perils that humanity faces.

"We foresee great peril if governments and society do not take action now to render nuclear weapons obsolete and prevent further climate change."
And in this Reuters report, his Cambridge University colleague Martin Rees was even more blunt.
Cambridge astrophysicist Martin Rees added that while the Cold War confrontation between two nuclear-armed superpowers is over, the world is closer than ever to having nuclear bombs used in a localized war or by terrorists in a city center.

"A global village will have its village idiots," Rees said.
Wonder who he was talking about?

Street fashion blogs: Like watching the world go by from a park bench in the heart of the global village

When serendipity knocks, I often follow. That's how I ended up at The Clothes Project -- "Street Fashion Photography from Singapore" -- a blog which left a backlink on my Sitemeter when someone clicked Blogger's "Next Blog" button to end up at my place. That's how I discovered a whole new world of blogging that had previously been invisible to me -- street fashion blogging.

I'm no fashionista, far from it, but I like people and photography, and so I've developed a certain amount interest in street fashion through exposure to T's enthusiasm for the work of Bill Cunningham in the New York Times. That's why I clicked on the URL, and soon found myself surrounded by amateur Bill Cunninghams -- some very accomplished amateurs -- from all around the world. Check out the link for The Clothes Project. It has links to street fashion blogs all over the world, from Austin to Helsinki, from Tokyo to Berlin. And to scroll through their pages really is to feel as if you're in the heart of the global village, watching the passing parade.

I'll leave the analysis to others better qualified than I. Turns out, Slate had an article on the phenomenon last summer, with lots of links.
Whatever the reason for fashion's obsession with the street, keeping an eye on it has never been easy. Strolling around town is tough on the shoe leather, and only insiders know just where to look. The print media, meanwhile, has been of little help. Fashion editors are more likely to devote what pages they have to the fashion establishment (which pays for advertising) than to nameless but chic pedestrians (who don't).

Until now, the best-known exception has been the Sunday New York Times, which for more than 10 years has been running—at a small size, on lackluster newsprint in the Style section—Bill Cunningham's candid shots of stylish New Yorkers. But an exciting new development is making it easier than ever to follow the look of the man (and woman) on the street. Made possible by faster Internet access and cheaper digital photography, street-fashion blogs have sprung up all over the world, and they are quickly proliferating.

In my quick trip around the world, one of my favorites was StilinBerlin -- partly because I've always had a certain fondness for the city, and partly because the photography seemed to have a bit more panache than some of the others. I also liked the sidebar quote from Glenn O'Brien's blog at GQ.
The streets of Berlin, where grunge is a way of life. Funny, I've been thinking about checking out Berlin lately because it's supposed to be a little bit like New York was in the days of rock and wildness, and it has famously cheap rents. Well, if you check out StilinBerlin you'll see that they're not spending their surplus Euros on clothes. But there is a certain charm to the Berlin style. They appear to be totally unconcerned with designerism. Each person seems to be their own designer. They might be wearing things that came out of the trash, but these kids have their own look, and their threads were trashed and abraded and stained personally and not in some factory. That's the way it was in the old days. And that's what style is all about.
StilinBerlin also has an extensive blogroll. Check out the links and see the world.

Chinese brewhaha: Campaign to oust Starbucks from Beijing's Forbidden City is heating up

A controversy that has been brewing on the internet is threatening to oust Starbucks from the Forbidden City in Beijing. It began with Rui Chenggang, a popular television anchorman.
"All I want is for Starbucks to move out of the Forbidden City peacefully, quietly. And we'll continue enjoying Starbucks elsewhere in the city," said Rui Chenggang, a popular television anchorman who set off the drive.

By Tuesday, the issue hit the front page of the high-selling Beijing News, and Rui's personal blog on the matter drew a half-million page views and thousands of responses, many of them nationalistic calls for the removal of the Starbucks outlet.


Rui said he first spotted the Starbucks in the red-walled complex five years ago.

"I was showing some friends around the Forbidden City, and I saw the Starbucks logo. I thought, `Wow! Where did this come from?'" he recalled. "It's totally out of place. I see it as a pollution of the integrity of the Forbidden City, which is the epitome of Chinese culture."
Hard to imagine Starbucks fighting this too hard -- they have some 200 shops in China and expect it to eventually be their biggest market outside the U.S.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Whirligig of words: The more I think about this sentence, the more rapidly it makes my head spin

About artist Lester Hayes, a Post-Minimalist I never heard of:
Maybe he and his work, however uncelebratable, will get a dollar-glutted art world thinking in more complex and alternative ways than he, had he existed, could possibly know.
Holland Cotter in today's New York Times.

What peak oil? Did we invade Iraq to keep its oil in the ground? Is it deja vu all over again with Iran?

WTF? That was one startling headline in the Washington Post this morning -- Saudi says no need to panic over oil price drop. Yeah, that really would be distressing, wouldn't it -- oil prices going down? The article explains:
Saudi Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi said on Tuesday output cuts already agreed by OPEC had removed much of the world's excess supply and there was no need to panic over a steep fall in prices.


The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting countries decided in October to cut supply by 1.2 million barrels per day (bpd) from November and last month agreed a further reduction of 500,000 bpd to take effect from February 1.


A 15 percent price plunge since the start of 2007 has many OPEC producers deeply concerned and Venezuela calling for an emergency meeting to take a further 500,000 bpd off the market.
In short, all those stories about "peak oil" to the contrary, the world seems to be awash in oil -- so much so that producers are apparently having a hard time keeping production low enough to produce the prices they want. It's enough to make you wonder whether Greg Palast wasn't right after all, when he argued last summer that, yes, the Iraq war was about oil, but no, it was not about controlling it in order to sell it. It was about controlling it in order to keep it in the ground.
Did Dick Cheney send us in to seize the last dwindling supplies? Unlikely. Our world's petroleum reserves have doubled in just twenty-five years -- and it is in Shell's and the rest of the industry's interest that this doubling doesn't happen again. The neo-cons were hell-bent on raising Iraq's oil production. Big Oil's interest was in suppressing production, that is, keeping Iraq to its OPEC quota or less. This raises the question, did the petroleum industry, which had a direct, if hidden, hand, in promoting invasion, cheerlead for a takeover of Iraq to prevent overproduction?

It wouldn't be the first time. If oil is what we're looking for, there are, indeed, extra helpings in Iraq. On paper, Iraq, at 112 billion proven barrels, has the second largest reserves in OPEC after Saudi Arabia. That does not make Saudi Arabia happy. Even more important is that Iraq has fewer than three thousand operating wells... compared to one million in Texas.

That makes the Saudis even unhappier. It would take a decade or more, but start drilling in Iraq and its reserves will about double, bringing it within gallons of Saudi Arabia's own gargantuan pool. Should Iraq drill on that scale, the total, when combined with the Saudis', will drown the oil market. That wouldn't make the Texans too happy either. So Fadhil Chalabi's plan for Iraq to pump 12 million barrels a day, a million more than Saudi Arabia, is not, to use Bob Ebel's (Center fro Strategic and International Studies) terminology, "ridiculous" from a raw resource view, it is ridiculous politically. It would never be permitted. An international industry policy of suppressing Iraqi oil production has been in place since 1927. We need again to visit that imp called "history."
Read the rest at the link. You might never look at supply and demand in the oil industry in quite the same way.

The troubling question now is, what next? With Iraq in total chaos and much of its oil off the market, there still seems to be way too much oil slopping around in world oil markets. The trouble with OPEC is, everyone cheats. To get supply and demand back in a nice proper balance that keeps oil prices high, it would be nice if you could find another country whose entire oil supply you could just remove from the market.

Hey, what about finding a pretext to attack Iran? Yeah, that should do it.

Monday, January 15, 2007

"A time comes when silence is betrayal."

Ironically, the words from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1967 speech at Riverside Church in Manhattan that John Edwards quoted Sunday and made the central theme of his own speech were not King's own words. "A time comes when silence is betrayal," as King's opening made clear, were the words of his hosts, Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam.
I join you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together, Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam. The recent statements of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart, and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: "A time comes when silence is betrayal."
The phrase was ideally suited to set the tone of Edwards' speech.
And forty years ago, as others have said, a year to the day before he was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, he stood in this pulpit, in this house of God, and with the full force of his conscience, and his conviction and his love for peace, he denounced the War in Vietnam, calling it a tragedy, a national tragedy, that threatened to drag America down, to drag us to dust.

As he put it then, there comes a time--not just for Dr. King, but for all of us--when silence is betrayal--not just betrayal of your own personal convictions, not just betrayal of your country, but a betrayal of our--all of our joint responsibility to each other, to our brothers and sisters, not just in America, but all across the globe.
And it made a perfect phrase with which to taunt his two main rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination -- Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama -- on Hillary's home ground, yet.
If you're in Congress and you know that this war is going in the wrong direction, and you know that we should not escalate this War in Iraq, it is no longer okay to study your options and keep your own private counsel.

Silence is betrayal. Speak out, and stop this escalation now. You have the power, members of Congress, to prohibit this President from spending any money to escalate this War--use that power. Use it now. Do not allow this President to make another mistake and escalate this War in Iraq.
It led to an early, pre-campaign dustup between the Clinton and Edwards camps.

Today, on Martin Luther King Day, I have mixed feelings about the Edwards speech. I'm not happy about his using Dr. King's words from 40 years ago to score points against his political opponents. On the other hand, I like a lot of what Edwards says. And I was very happy to see him draw attention to Dr. King's Riverside speech, which -- unlike the better known "I Have a Dream" speech -- is often overlooked on this day when we celebrate Dr. King's birthday. No wonder. It was the first time he publicly connected the Vietnam war and the plight of America's poor people.
It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor -- both black and white -- through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
That's still powerful stuff. And just one year to the day before he was assassinated, he talked about the relationship between American capitalism, militarism and racism. This was the speech that lost him the support of most of America's white liberals, who lagged behind him in his understanding of the nature of the Vietnam war and began to see him as a dangerous radical -- which the Right, of course, always had. (I'd be a little more convinced that Edwards means what he says if he had quoted from this part of the speech, but again, I'm glad he helped shine a spotlight on it, however indirectly.)
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. [sustained applause]

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.
Four decades later, we still haven't learned. At the time Dr. King delivered this address, Johnson was escalating the Vietnam war and, due to the Cold War, nuclear annihilation always lurked around the edges. Today, Bush is escalating the Iraq war and persistent rumors keep surfacing that nuclear bunker busters will be used against Iran.
We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
That's still the challenge.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Bottle Notes: Eye in the sky

The duo appeared to be making for a nearby patch of woods, now and then casting apprehensive looks upward at the enormous gasbag of the descending Inconvenience, quite as if it were some giant eyeball, perhaps that of Society itself, ever scrutinizing from above, in a spirit of constructive censure. -- Against the Day, p. 13

In AtD this happens when the Chums of Chance drop in on the fabled "White City" of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. But I've also had a more recent experience of being observed by an enormous eye above the streets of Chicago. It was 1994, and the Art Institute of Chicago was showing their great "Odilon Redon: Prince of Dreams" exhibit. Redon's truncated head in the sky with its great eye staring down at a sailboat on a calm and placid sea ("Guardian Spirit of the Waters," charcoal, 1878) was reproduced on one of the exhibit banners, as illustrated in the rather dithery drawing I made at the time. It was like a logo, branding Redon (in keeping with the marketing metaphor, the reproduction of the original charcoal drawing was apparently colorized by an art director -- but, hey, if you own it, as the Art Institute does, I guess you can do whatever you want). Though it's out of print, used copies of the authoritative critical study and catalogue are still listed at Amazon, at prices ranging from $225 to $535 for the hardcover.

It was more than one eye -- it was many eyes, since the banners were hung along Michigan Avenue for a mile or so. The effect was haunting. Wherever you went, the all-seeing eye was following you. I wonder if Pynchon attended the exhibit. Wouldn't be surprised.

Chumps of Choice is a group blog by a number of people who are systematically working their way through AtD, with discussion moderated by a different host every week. They're far more comprehensive (and systematic) than I could possibly be. You may want to take a look at their blog and join the discussion. A good place to start is "Baloonacy," one of their earliest posts. It takes a look at Redon's interest in balloons and links to a couple of his works, including "Guardian," as well a drawing of a balloon in flight that does double duty as an enormous eye in the sky.

(To find other posts in this series, type "Bottle Notes" into the box at the top of the page and click "Search this Blog." Use quotes.)

Bottle Notes: AtD as aubade with utterands, chronosynclastic infundibulum, or both?

Recently I wrote that I would be mounting an expedition to ascend Thomas Pynchon's soaring mountain of a novel Against the Day (AtD to a growing band of fellow travelers and aficionados) and sending back the occasional note in a bottle from my peregrinations. I guess I can dispense with the bottle, what with the internets and all.

I'll start the titles of all my fragmentary dispatches with the keywords "bottle notes." I'm still nervous about upgrading to New Blogger, with its capability of appending searchable keyword tags to posts. This should provide a simple work-around for readers who want to find other posts in the series -- just type bottle notes in quotes into the search box up above, and when Blogger is in a good mood, that should bring up a listing of all the "Bottle Notes" posts.

Although I've started the book, I haven't gotten very far yet, and this has occasioned a certain amount of guilt-provoking commentary by Dr. Diablo, the commenter who appears to have appointed himself Superego and relentless taskmaster to my puny little reader's Id. I've been busy, but it's also true that I've been spending more time reading about Pynchon than reading Pynchon. As I noted before, I'm a tentative traveler and it may be a failing of mine to spend too much time mapping the terrain before I set out.

Be that as it may, I've found a fascinating community of bloggers and other commentators sharing their thoughts about Pynchon online. I have to admit that sometimes, both in reading Pynchon and in reading about him, I feel like a bit of a numbskull who has wandered into a class for the smart kids and feels completely out of his depth. But, hey, the company is good, and who knows -- maybe some of the smart kids also feel as if they wandered by mistake into the class for the smart kids.

I'll be linking to some of their discussions in future posts. But I did want to start out by sharing a review by one of the smartest of the smart kids, renowned science fiction critic John Clute. Thomas Pynchon probably knows more about science and the way it has shaped the modern world than any major novelist writing today, so it seems to make sense to listen to what the author of Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia and co-editor of both The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy has to say. He touches on a frequent criticism of the novel, that its characters are too numerous and underdeveloped. In his view, that's very much beside the point.
Against the Day—which begins intoxicatedly at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and terminates in the "terrible cloudlessness" of the aftermath years begat upon us by World War I—is an aubade against the coming of the 20th century. Like any aubade, it is written in the knowledge that, in the end, Time wins (Pynchon capitalizes Time a lot). When the novel stops, leaving a few survivors in alternate worlds to cultivate their gardens in peace as long as they do not come back, our bridges have all been burnt, and there is nothing more to tell.


But of course that is the point of this great grotesque swaybacked desiccating book about the victory of Time against our single sad Earth. The hundreds of figures who jam into Against the Day are not in fact characters at all, because Pynchon has evacuated his book of that degree of hope. They are utterands: people-shaped utterances who illuminate the stories of the old world that their Author has placed before us in funeral array; they are codes to spell his book with. That is why Pynchon has them break again and again into songs about the roles they play in the book: because they are being sung through. And because that book is about the death of the stories we used to tell, its utterands are bound to the stake of that telling. They are like lovers in the radium glare of dawn, singing the terminal verse of the aubade. Before we shut the last page, the day has blown them out.
You can read the entire review here. In case you're wondering, an aubade is poem about lovers separating at dawn. Sometimes the term takes on a broader meaning, as in Philip Larkin's haunting "Aubade," in which the lover is life.

I really like Clute's analysis, but something at the back of my mind makes me wonder if there isn't another way of looking at AtD. Maybe instead of an aubade, it's a chronosynclastic infundibulum.
Science-fiction fans may have come across the splendid phrase chronosynclastic infundibulum that was invented by Kurt Vonnegut in The Sirens of Titan, which he explained, perhaps less than helpfully, as being “those places ... where all the different kinds of truths fit together”.
The great thing about Pynchon's vast counterfactual alternate universe is that it can be both, and many other things as well.

A final note about my reading strategy: There's method to my slow pace. Readers of Letter from Here will have noted that the world in which George Bush is president and wreaking such havoc on both the people of Iraq and the people of the United States is a world that's driving me nuts. It's a world from which I need to escape.

AtD provides a perfect escape. Believe me, the Chums of Chance may be mere utterands, but I would rather be aboard the hydrogen airship Inconvenience with them than watching our increasingly wayward president stumbling toward the apocalypse. If I read just a few pages a day, I will have this escape hatch available for the rest of his presidency, and I can celebrate the finish of his incumbency by finishing the book.

Should we succeed in driving him from office before the end of his term, I can just read faster. Be happy to.