Friday, March 09, 2007

Failing his way to academic success at Georgetown

Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps of your own incompetence is a proven formula for success in Washington, and Timothy Noah reflects on a striking current example in Slate.
Like a vampire shielding himself from daylight, a government official publicly identified with a failed policy will do everything he can to avoid accepting responsibility. The vampire raises his cloak against the sun. The government official steers discussion away from the outcome and defends the process by which decisions got made. The current master is Douglas J. Feith.
Feith is the guy who ran the Pentagon's satellite kitchen for cooking intelligence (Office of Special Plans), the one that served up the half-baked lies used to sell the Iraq war. Tommy Franks famously called him "the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth." Now he's "visiting professor and distinguished practitioner in national security policy" at Georgetown. Neat trick, if you can manage it.
Feith may or may not be evil, but the salient point is that he was wrong. Iraq and al-Qaida weren't collaborating against their common enemy, the United States. Like his hero, Winston Churchill, Feith sounded the klaxons when others were silent. But today Churchill is lionized not because he was a lonely voice, but because he was right. Churchill was right to believe that war against Hitler was necessary. Feith was wrong to believe that war against Saddam was necessary. That's his true crime, and it's left blood on his hands.

Feith successfully obscures this vulnerability again and again by arguing that he was following proper procedures for a serious-minded policy-maker.
Noah documents that track record that offers further proof, if any were needed, of the old saying that "military intelligence is an oxymoron" -- especially if it's been cherry-picked by the Office of Special Plans.

Feith's career might be summed up in this simple formula: Fucking Stupidest Guy + Oxymoron = Visiting Professor and Distinguished Practitioner.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Marketing speed ovens to the reptile brain

The TurboChef speed oven runs $7,895 for the double oven model. Granted, it combines microwave, convection, steam and infrared technologies, which provides even cooking, moistness and browning, all at high speed. It's amazing, but also pricey. How do you stimulate demand? Appeal to the reptile brain, according to the NYT.
To turn the oven from a stainless steel box to a must-have appliance, TurboChef also had to manufacture desire. First, Mr. Beshara hired G. Clotaire Rapaille, an anthropologist-turned-marketing-guru known for his provocative contention that focus groups, key to modern market research, are largely worthless.

According to Dr. Rapaille, most buying decisions ultimately have nothing to do with practical needs or rational decision making. Instead, he said, such decisions are made by the “reptilian mind,” the preconscious part of the brain where archetypes and primitive associations are imprinted, mostly before the age of 7. (Companies like NestlĂ©, Boeing and Chrysler have used Dr. Rapaille’s work to come up with, for example, the distinctive rounded rump of the PT Cruiser.)
The rest is history. Here's some more information about Dr. Rapaille and his Jungian "archetype analysis." In 2004 he also took a stab at "archetyping the presidency." See Dr. R's blog.

The shadows on the walls of our media cave

Jonathan O’Hara Gallery

Roberta Smith in the NYT on the Robert Rauschenberg transfer drawings of the 1960s, which helped usher in a whole new way for artists to look at the artifacts of pop culture, and which are being shown at the Jonathan O’Hara Gallery in New York through St. Patty's Day (as befits a good Irish name like Rauschenberg).
The transfer technique, which he took up in 1958, had remarkably few moving parts. It involved soaking newspaper or magazine clippings in solvent, laying them face down on drawing paper and then hatching back and forth across them with a dry pen nib. The results dazzle; in a flickering, almost strobelike effect, images seem to rise to the surface like memories through a scrim — or through the static of a television set. The critic Lawrence Alloway likened the fluctuating motifs to “a postcard stand in a windstorm.”

Crossing cameraless photomontage with paperless collage in a manner both improvisatory and mechanical, the transfer technique perfectly suits the time-capsule character of these works. Process and subject become one. Each fragment acquires the sheen of age without sentimentality, the veneer of touch without traditional rendering.
Smith writes knowingly of the formal, painterly properties of these works (accented by white gouache, ink washes or watercolor) and how they relate to the other art of their time. and what she says is penetrating and insightful.

But I think the appeal of these drawings goes beyond their purely esthetic qualities. They have a poignance and emotional resonance that seems to capture something real and somehow unnerving about life in an age as dominated by media as ours. So much experience is second-hand, illusory and all too transitory. It passes us by like flickering shadows on the walls of an electronic cave even Plato could not imagine. Rauschenberg's faded images, which seem to emerge from the paper even while fading back into it at the same time, suggest the fleeting images on the wall of our media cave in all their evanescence.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Hanging out and procrastinating with a couple of other laggard Pynchon bloggers

It seems some of us who set out to scale the heights of Mt. Against the Day are falling behind. Granted, the Chumps of Choice are still flying briskly along, as if in their own private airship with a full crew (the "Convenience"?) with seemingly nothing but blue sky ahead. These intrepid Against the Day group bloggers are up to p.317 as of today. Their attention firmly fixed upon their goal, they're annotating and commenting up a storm, and Telluride is mentioned, as well as Butch Cassidy.

Some of us more solitary pilots of our own private craft seem to be lagging a bit. Moi, I haven't ATD-posted since Feb. 26, when I noted my bookmark was on p.49, though it's unclear how long it rested there.

"Recovering academic" SteelR at Blogging Pynchon has not posted since Jan. 29. (In the interim, I went to his profile and discovered two other blogs well worth your time: Limited Jest -- "talking back to CNN, NPR, the NYT..." -- and the self-explanatory Shaky: a Parkinson's blog. The latter contains only six posts over the last several months, but each spare, laconic entry is unforgettable, and the first, "Pay attention," is truly remarkable. Thank you, SteelR.)

Meanwhile, The Bedside Crow hadn't posted on ATD since Jan. 30. And after such a promising start, too. In Against the Day a page a day#4 he noted in passing a fear no doubt shared by many readers.
Blige, I almost dropped it down the toilet this morning. You want Cloakroom Classics? I'll give you hardcore Cloakroom Classics. Imagine calling out the plumber.
Have you any Idea what might be blocking your pan?

Yes, 1084 pages of prime Thomas Pynchon in the UK Jonathan Cape edition with the white cover that marks easily.
And then in his next post -- Against the Day a page a day#5 -- he expands on both the complexities of the book and his near miss, with accompanying photo that illustrates the hazard.
And suddenly I have the distinct, queasy feeling that I am in this way over my head. There are people here linking to people here who are reading ATD as a multi-dimensional inter-narrative of coinciding realities in differentiated time and space whilst, at best, I am talking about what might happen if you were to accidentally drop your copy into the crapper.
Presumably he continued to preserve his copy of ATD from disaster, but his Pynchon posts became infrequent and then stopped. I hardly noticed, because Bookseller Crow has so much other neat stuff on his blog about life, literature, bookselling and customer relations in his London bookstore. And then -- blimey! -- he reappears today after an absence of more than a month from the Pynchonian ranks with Against the Day a page a day #8.
Nikola Tesla pioneer of electrical engineering is working on a World-System for producing huge amounts of electrical power that anyone can tap into for free, anywhere in the world, because it uses the planet as an element in a gigantic resonant circuit.

Of course, it is the free bit that Vibe objects to. He asks Vanderjuice to invent a counter-transformer to nullify the effects of Tesla's invention.

Finance is arranged and the Professor is left to stare into the depths of his ancient hat, as if it were the vestiary expression of his present situation.
I welcome Crow back to the quest, even if he has only made it up to p.33 or thereabouts, and I am moved to offer my own birthday tribute to Tesla, which I posted last July 10 -- influenced, no doubt, by my future reading of ATD. That's the way things are in what Crow referred to as "a multi-dimensional inter-narrative of coinciding realities in differentiated time and space," or what I thought might be a chronosynclastic infundibulum, where time flows in both directions. Which is why, in the end, there's no real hurry to complete my journey -- against? up? through? -- Against the Day. It will happen in its own time.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Is this what Bush meant by a surge in Iraq?

Guess it's working: Surging U.S. casualties. Surging Iraqi casualties.

Did Libby's PowerPoint help convict him?

Guilty on four out of five counts: Now that the Libby verdict is in, people far more knowledgeable about the case than I -- including the entire amazing team at Firedoglake -- will be analyzing why the jury decided as it did. Clearly, many factors helped pave Libby's path to prison, but ever since the closing arguments I've been curious about the role PowerPoint might play, because of a passing observation posted by Pachacutec at Firedoglake.

As noted in an earlier post of mine, PowerPoint didn't do much for CentCom in planning the Iraq war. Perhaps it's poetic justice, given the role Scooter Libby played in the war as Dick Cheney's top aide, that PowerPoint apparently didn't do much for Libby's defense in the courtroom either, in contrast to the prosecution's effective use of this often abused tool -- as Pachacutec parenthetically pointed out in his post.
Side note: the government's argument was much better supported by its visuals, especially the recurring wheel of spokes and arrows depicting the outing of Valerie Plame, with Libby in the middle. The defense went bullet point crazy, jamming too much content into the visuals, and should have read this before assembling its slides.
Pachacutec's link goes to "Really Bad PowerPoint," a post at Seth Godin's blog. Godin, the author of Small Is the New Big: and 183 Other Riffs, Rants, and Remarkable Business Ideas, has a somewhat different take on PowerPoint than Edward J. Tufte's view referenced in the CentCom post above. Partly it's because they're talking about different applications. Tufte is talking about conveying information in settings like technical conferences. Godin is talking about communicating with emotion, using PowerPoint as a visual aid -- not a bad skill to have at your disposal in a courtroom.
PowerPoint could be the most powerful tool on your computer. But it’s not. Countless innovations fail because their champions use PowerPoint the way Microsoft wants them to, instead of the right way.

Communication is the transfer of emotion.

Communication is about getting others to adopt your point of view, to help them understand why you’re excited (or sad, or optimistic or whatever else you are.) If all you want to do is create a file of facts and figures, then cancel the meeting and send in a report.

Our brains have two sides. The right side is emotional, musical and moody. The left side is focused on dexterity, facts and hard data. When you show up to give a presentation, people want to use both parts of their brain. So they use the right side to judge the way you talk, the way you dress and your body language. Often, people come to a conclusion about your presentation by the time you’re on the second slide. After that, it’s often too late for your bullet points to do you much good.

You can wreck a communication process with lousy logic or unsupported facts, but you can’t complete it without emotion. Logic is not enough.
People rely on stories to enliven factual information with resonance and meaning. Packaging too much data as bullet points may confuse your audience. It may also convince them that you are trying to hide behind data, or that you are trying to manipulate them with bullet points because your story doesn't make any sense. Which, come to think of it, was probably true in Libby's case.

"A screaming comes across the sky," but what does it look like? Zak Smith drew a picture -- and 759 more.

Last year the American Book Review compiled a list of the 100 best first lines from novels. "A screaming comes across the sky," the opening line of Thomas Pynchon's 1973 novel, Gravity's Rainbow, was the first 20th century work on the list and third overall, right after Melville's "Call me Ishmael" and Jane Austen's "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

Artist Zak Smith illustrated the famous opening page of the novel -- and all the other pages, for a total of 760 drawings, paintings, photos, and other images. He explains his project on the website The Modern Word, which also has links to each of the 760 individual illustrations.
So I illustrated Gravity's Rainbow-- nobody asked me to, but I did it anyway. Most of the pictures are drawings-- ink on whatever paper was lying around, but there are also paintings (acrylic), photos I took, and experimental photographic processes. I tried to illustrate the passages as literally as possible-- if the book says there was a green Spitfire, I drew a green Spitfire. Mostly, I tried to make a series of pictures as dense, intricate, and rich as the prose in the book. The entire project was shown in the Whitney Museum's 2004 Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary Art and is now in the permanent collection of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
The page also contains links to reviews, as well as an index that links to the individual illustrations. If you'd like to go straight to "A screaming comes across the sky," click here.

The entire project has also been published in book form as Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow, available here at Amazon. Unlike the online version of the project, which has excerpts of text accompanying each illustration, the book has none. You'll have to view it guided only by your memory -- or a copy of Gravity's Rainbow.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Another word the Internet taught me: obnubilated

I was reading a followup story on the recent lunar eclipse at Playfuls, a science and technology site in the UK. It informed me that there will be another lunar eclipse viewable from America August 28, for those of us who missed the last one due to the vagaries of the clock or the weather. That was nice to know, but what made my day from a lexicographical point of view was encountering the following sentence in the story:
The eclipse from March 3 was the only one Britain inhabitants could watch without worrying about the weather. The last eclipse visible in the insular territory took place in 2004, but was obnubilated by heavy clouds.

My usual crutch, the American Heritage Dictionary, was absolutely no help. WordNet was. It's a lexical database for the English language at the Princeton University's Cognitive Science Laboratory. Here's the relevant part of their entry (the "S" stands for semantic relation).

S: (v) obscure, befog, becloud, obnubilate, haze over, fog, cloud, mist (make less visible or unclear) "The stars are obscured by the clouds"; "the big elm tree obscures our view of the valley"

S: (v) confuse, blur, obscure, obnubilate (make unclear, indistinct, or blurred) "Her remarks confused the debate"; "Their words obnubilate their intentions"
What would I do without the Internet? I can't wait for clouds to move in on August 28, so I can tell everyone I know, "I'd love to watch the eclipse of the moon tonight, but it looks as if the clouds will obnubilate it."

Under Milk Wood anniversary today

On this day in 1954, Under Milk Wood -- A Play for Voices by Dylan Thomas was published in England just 4 months after the poet's death in New York. Today in Literature has more, including the derivation of the name of the play's imaginary Welsh village of Llareggub.

You can read the text of the play and listen to streaming audio of the 1963 BBC performance recording at The Life and Work of Dylan Thomas. Click here.
Listen. It is night moving in the streets, the processional salt slow musical wind in Coronation Street and Cockle Row, it is the grass growing on Llareggub Hill, dew fall, star fall, the sleep of birds in Milk Wood.

Listen. It is night in the chill, squat chapel, hymning, in bonnet and brooch and bombazine black, butterfly choker and bootlace bow, coughing like nannygoats, sucking mintoes, fortywinking hallelujah; night in the four-ale, quiet as a domino; in Ocky Milkman's loft like a mouse with gloves; in Dai Bread's bakery flying like black flour. It is tonight in Donkey Street, trotting silent, with seaweed on its hooves, along the cockled cobbles, past curtained fernpot, text and trinket, harmonium, holy dresser, watercolours done by hand, china dog and rosy tin teacaddy. It is night neddying among the snuggeries of babies.

Look. It is night, dumbly, royally winding through the Coronation cherry trees; going through the graveyard of Bethesda with winds gloved and folded, and dew doffed; tumbling by the Sailors Arms.

Time passes. Listen. Time passes.
Indeed it does. Had he lived, Dylan Thomas would turn 93 this year.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Porsche's devolution into monster SUV

When this Porsche advertising supplement fell out of the Sunday New York Times, it caught my eye with its echo of the clean look and minimalist copy of the old Doyle Dayne Bernbach ads for the classic Volkswagen Beetle, whose upscale cousin was the original Porsche.

I used to love the idea of the Porsche, while never really wanting to own the actual car -- I lacked the skills and opportunity to drive it to its limit, the patience to maintain a finely tuned driving machine of this order, and last but not least, the means to acquire it. But to me, it always embodied a sort of Platonic ideal of the fusion of functional design, fine engineering and the lure of the open, preferably winding, road. The supplement unfolded to show the car's ancestry -- grandfather, father, and whatever modern wonder followed that -- and I opened it eagerly only to find...

The "new" Cayenne -- a big, honking SUV with a curb weight of 5,724-lb. for the top-of-the-line Turbo model, which belches 12.3 tons of emissions per year in average driving and is rated at 13 mpg (city) to 18 mpg (highway), though you're likely to do worse in real life driving conditions. Oh, and as the brochure mentions, its top track speed is 171 mph.

The car is not even new, and here they were, trying to flog the current cosmetic model change by using its illustrious lineage to pass it off as a sports car. The frontal view and blurry background suggest a sports car, but the reality is you're still driving a huge luxury SUV that weighs as much as a GMC Yukon XL.

It's an "inconvenient truth" that growing consciousness of global warming is starting to influence the luxury SUV market, just as Porsche embraced it to lessen its reliance on the fickle sports car market. The market is starting to switch over to hybrids. Porsche has talked about a hybrid version in the future, but nothing specific so far. They'd better get a move on. They probably won't be able to rely on smoke and mirrors like this brochure with the misleading teaser much longer.