the limits of détente

29 September 2008

I get the impression that Marshall McLuhan was not impressed with the first Ford-Carter debate (in Philadelphia) (via):

The rebellion of the medium against the message he refers to was the breakdown of the audio part of the broadcast near the end of the debate. When the candidates learned that they could not be heard on tv, they apparently just stood there and waited for the problem to be fixed. For 27 minutes.

Years later, Carter and Ford talked about the experience for a PBS documentary (video here, starting at 3:52):

JIM LEHRER: Everyone in America who was watching, you know, was very – couldn’t figure out – this was unreal. What was it like standing there?

PRESIDENT CARTER: I watched that tape afterwards and it was embarrassing to me that both President Ford and I stood there almost like robots. We didn’t move around, we didn’t walk over and shake hands with each other. We just stood there.

PRESIDENT FORD: I suspect both of us would have liked to sit down and relax while the technicians were fixing the system, but I think both of us were hesitant to make any gesture that might look like we weren’t physically or mentally able to handle a problem like this.

JIM LEHRER: The delay continued for 27 minutes before the technicians were able to trace the problem to a blown transformer and replace it.

PRESIDENT CARTER: So I don’t know who was more ill at ease, me or President Ford.

JIM LEHRER: It looked like a tie to me.

PRESIDENT CARTER: It was a tie. Neither one of us was at ease, there’s no doubt about that. Those events, I think, to some degree let the American public size up the candidates, and I don’t think either one of us made any points on that deal.

If they could not have stood up to the audio, could they have stood up to the Soviets?


grandmother clause

26 September 2008

My Swiss-born grandmother came to the US in the 1920s when she was a kid. Some of her relatives were already in the US; not all of them stayed for their entire lives. She went back to Europe at least once, possibly twice in the late 1920s/early 1930s to visit relatives. As far as I know, she did not leave the US again until the 1970s when she discovered, after applying for a US passport, that she was not a citizen. She had been voting since the 1930s. She was able to get naturalized without too many problems.

A few weeks ago, I was looking at the Ellis Island ship manifests, which I recently learned have been made available online, and I found what seems to be the only manifest for my grandmother on file. I say “seems to be” because it says she arrived in 1921 at 11, but I remembered hearing that she came in 1922 at the age of 12. I probably remembered wrong. The ship is the Olympic, which is the ship she said she arrived on; she’s listed in first class, and she used to say that if she hadn’t been in first class her eye infection might have caused problems with the immigration agents; and Charles Schwab was on the same ship – I found his manifest – and she used to tell a story about meeting him on deck. Also, the passengers accompanying her happen to have her mother’s and one of her sisters’ names, they were coming from Switzerland (via Southampton), they listed the name of one of her brothers as their destination, and the address for that brother is in the city he lived in. So it must be her. Her later Atlantic crossings must have been either through other ports or after the Ellis Island/Port of New York procedures changed; at least, I couldn’t find them in the database. Her mother is listed once before, in 1914, and that listing has information that matches some things I know about my great-grandmother.

The funny thing is that the listing also indicates that my grandmother, her mother, and her sister intended to return to their home country. “Length of time alien intends to reside in the United States” for all three is listed as “6 mths.”* And there’s a stamp on each of the lines containing their information that appears to read “NON IMMIGRANT ALIEN.”

It’s possible that this was true to their intentions. When I told my dad about this he was surprised to learn that the sister listed, who was in her late 20s at the time, ever came to the US. Decades later my great-grandmother also returned to Switzerland, where a few relatives, probably including that sister, were still living. And of course I already know that my grandmother herself crossed the Atlantic more than once.

So maybe she and some of her relatives just overstayed their [historically appropriate equivalent of a visa] and no one noticed until the 1970s.** It’s also possible that her family really wanted to immigrate – I remember hearing that they put a substantial amount of their resources into being able to cross in first class – and thought this was the best, if not the most legal, way to do it. What I do know is that by the mid-1920s she was living in Wisconsin and learning English from nuns at a boarding school who, though they knew German, would not speak it with their students.

_____

*Technically, it reads “6 mths” for her mother and “do” – which I take to mean “ditto” – for my grandmother and her sister.

**I should look up that brother’s records some day, but haven’t yet. I believe he was the first of the family to immigrate and it might not have been intentional. At the same time, he must have arrived when immigration laws were less restrictive. There’s a story that he gambled himself out of a position with a traveling symphony while in the US. Probably shouldn’t have bet his violin.


stop the presses

25 September 2008

Unless someone objects, I’m going to stop doing Tribune Thursday for a while.


a matter of opinion

23 September 2008

Some time ago Alyssa Rosenberg (filling in for Ezra Klein) linked to a piece by Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal about authors’ voices and authorial voice. I didn’t particularly like the piece, but Teachout brought up Raymond Chandler and I like Chandler and I have an anthology of Chandler’s letters lying around that I’ve been meaning to read since college. So I decided to pick it up and I’ve been reading a few letters at a time, every now and then, for the past few weeks.

Last week Ari posted an exchange of letters (printed in a recent Harper’s) between a restaurant critic and his editors on the subject of word choice, among other things. Yesterday, I was reminded of that critic’s rant when I read a letter from Chandler to Charles Morton, then Associate Editor of The Atlantic Monthly, dated 12 Dec 1945, containing the following complaint (which I have broken up into two paragraphs for on-screen readability):

In case you are still planning to use this article in your anthology, I should like, if there is time, to point out a few errors. They are not very important, but we might as well get the thing right. Whom do I address? Some of them are probably actual typographical errors of a sort. There is one I should like to mention, because it is the kind of thing I never can understand. It is the 9th line from the end of the piece. It reads: “and not examine the artistic result too critically. The.” What I wrote was; “and not too critically examine the artistic result.” I believe, but am not certain, that it was this last way in the original proofs, perhaps not in the revised proof.

[paragraph break added]

It is obvious that somebody, for no reason save that he thought he was improving the style, changed the order of the words. The length is the same, therefore that could not enter into it. I confess myself completely flabbergasted by the literary attitude this expresses. Because it is the attitude that gets me, the assumption on the part of some editorial hireling that he can write better than the man who sent the stuff in, that he knows more about phrase and cadence and the placing of words, and that he actually thinks that a clause with a strong (stressed) syllable at the end, which was put there because it was strong, is improved by changing the order so that the clause ends in a weak adverbial termination. I don’t mind the guy being wrong about this. That’s nothing. It could even, within limits, be a matter of opinion, although I do not agree. But here is somebody who apparently decided in his own mind that Chandler was using a rhetorical word order, which he was, and that he didn’t know what the hell he was doing, didn’t even know he was being rhetorical, and that he, Joe Doakes with the fat red pencil, is the boy to show him how wrong he is, by changing it back to the way the editor of the Weehawken County Gazeteer would have written it in his weekly editorial about the use of steel floss to clean chicken dirt off Grade AA eggs. Christ!

Morton’s reply, if there was one, is not included in the anthology. But you can find the article on the Atlantic‘s website. The offending edit appears at the end of the second page (oddly not linked from the article first page). Here is the entire paragraph with the edit in bold:

I have kept the best hope of all for the last. In spite of all I have said, the writers of Hollywood are winning their battle for prestige. More and more of them are becoming showmen in their own right, producers and directors of their own screenplays. Let us be glad for their additional importance and power, and not examine the artistic result too critically. The boys make good (and some of them might even make good pictures). Let us rejoice together, for the tendency to become showmen is well in the acceptable tradition of the literary art as practiced among the cameras.

Here it is as Chandler wanted it:

I have kept the best hope of all for the last. In spite of all I have said, the writers of Hollywood are winning their battle for prestige. More and more of them are becoming showmen in their own right, producers and directors of their own screenplays. Let us be glad for their additional importance and power, and not too critically examine the artistic result. The boys make good (and some of them might even make good pictures). Let us rejoice together, for the tendency to become showmen is well in the acceptable tradition of the literary art as practiced among the cameras.

I’m not sure Chandler was right. To me, “artistic result” sounds better than “artistic result too critically” but “not examine” sounds better than “not too critically examine.” Would I have thought the same in 1945? I don’t know. Word order conventions with the times change.


safe investments

22 September 2008

Those who have seen Boiler Room, which I just watched last night, can see the irony in this:

But systemic corruption—and that is the right word—has been unveiled at lenders across the board. Two of the most revealing stories on the culture that overtook the lending industry were published early—February 4 and March 28, 2005—by the Los Angeles Times. Reporters Mike Hudson and E. Scott Reckard found court records and former employees who described the boiler-room culture that pervaded Ameriquest—hard-sell, scripted sales pitches, complete with the “art department” in Tampa. Ex-employees confirmed, as did Lisa Taylor, the loan agent quoted at the top of this story, that copies of Boiler Room, the movie about ethically challenged stockbrokers, was indeed passed around as an Ameriquest training tape.

[Ex-employees] described 10- and 12-hour days punctuated by ‘power hours’—nonstop cold-calling sessions to lists of prospects burdened with credit card bills; the goal was to persuade these people to roll their debts into new mortgages on their homes.

Power hours. And if the power-hour culture pervaded the market leaders, what of smaller lenders and mortgage brokers? Here is Glen Pizzolorusso, a young sales manager at WMC Mortgage, an upstate New York brokerage, who earned—get this—$75,000 to $100,000 a month:

What is that movie? Boiler Room? That’s what it’s like. I mean, it’s the [coolest] thing ever. Cubicle, cubicle, cubicle for 150,000 square feet. The ceilings were probably 25 or 30 feet high. The elevator had a big graffiti painting. Big open space. And it was awesome. We lived mortgage. That’s all we did. This deal, that deal. How we gonna get it funded? What’s the problem with this one? That’s all everyone’s talking about . . .

We looked at loans. These people didn’t have a pot to piss in. They can barely make car payments and we’re giving them a 300, 400 thousand dollar house.

To business reporters of a certain age, boiler rooms are associated with the notorious stock swindlers of the late nineties—A. R. Baron, Stratton Oakmont—criminal enterprises all. But all the elements of the bucket shops of the past—the cold calling, the hard sell, the bamboozling of over-their-head civilians, not to mention the outright lying, forgery, and fraud in its purest form—were carried out on a massive scale and as a matter of corporate policy by name-brand lenders: IndyMac, Countrywide, Citi, Ameriquest.


I could spoil everything

22 September 2008

Many people who know me know that I don’t like the way the idea of the SPOILER affects discussions of movies. They know this because I reveal the ending of every film I’ve ever seen in the least polite way possible. It’s a single speech whose delivery lasts as long as there are people remaining in the room. Actually, no, that’s not what I do.

When I end up talking about SPOILERS it usually happens in one of two ways:

  1. Someone is talking about a movie but doesn’t want to give away the end.
  2. I want to say something about a movie, but I first I ask to make sure I won’t “spoil” it.

I never “spoil” a film if someone doesn’t want me to, but I rarely ask someone not to “spoil” one for me. I’m not sure why I don’t mind. I suppose partly it’s related to my interest in history: I’m used to being interested in things while knowing how they turn out. And partly it’s because for me a really good movie is a movie I still like after seeing it more than once or twice.* Sometimes I miss out on enjoying the unexpected, but I rarely feel like the whole experience has been ruined. And when I do, it’s often because the surprise is the best thing about the film. And that’s the kind of movie I don’t usually watch more than once anyway.

Managing SPOILERS isn’t very difficult in in-person or voice conversation. As long as no one blurts things out, all you have to do is first agree to reveal or not to reveal the SPOILERS before continuing. Online – at least in an open-readership blog and comments format – it’s a different story. You can’t really tell if everyone has seen a particular film, or how much they’ve seen, or how much they’ve heard, or if they mind or don’t mind learning SPOILER information. So you’re left with the choice of leaving things out that you really want to talk about or putting up big SPOILER warnings and trying to hide the discussion while keeping it available for those who want to see it.

This can lead to what I think of as unfortunate outcomes, such as:

  • a posting about reviews of a movie I won’t name in which the author expressed disagreement with one reviewer’s assessment of a particular part of the movie (among other things), and then said they wouldn’t discuss that point because it was a SPOILER and SPOILERS must not be revealed. As it happens, I’d seen that movie and knew that that plot point was a total SPOILER. So I could see why the author left it out. But it was a huge part of the conversation I had with other people who saw the movie with me, and if I were writing about the film, I’d hate to prevent myself or the occasional reader from talking about it at all.
  • In a comment thread, someone recommended a movie whose name I will not reveal but which is a procedural based on a true story in which a famous actor plays a journalist investigating someone’s wrongful conviction. I’ve seen this movie and thought it was known as “that movie in which a famous actor plays [see above description]” – in other words, I thought its outcome was part of what it was known for. But another person strongly objected to the recommendation as being itself a spoiler. This is a film from over 50 years ago.

People who’ve “known” me online for a while are no doubt familiar with my attitude towards SPOILERS, as I’ve brought it up before. I’m repeating it here because I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately – this is where my time previously spent blogging has gone in the last few weeks – and I’m going to start posting about them. I won’t include SPOILERS just for the heck of it, and there might be posts where I purposely leave them out for effect.** But while I’ll provide warnings and use the “below the fold” feature – unfortunately not very effective for those on RSS – I’m not going to leave something out if it’s part of what I want to discuss.

_____

*I once held the view that I need to see something three times before I know how much I like it. The first time it’s as new as it can be to me; the second time I’m under the influence of my expectations from the first time; the third time I have more perspective and am ready to start thinking about it “as it is.”

**But I’ll answer if anyone really wants to know.