Monday, December 15, 2008






Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Lost Years & Last Days Of David Foster Wallace

Finally printed in full on the internet, for all us slackers.

"He said when you're writing well, you establish a voice in your head, and it shuts up the other voices. The ones that are saying, 'You're not good enough, you're a fraud."

Perfect Sentence

Karl Rove, appearing as a convention panelist, was accosted on stage by a drunken hippie who tried to arrest him for treason.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The problem with anecdote

Anecdote is one of those things that we use to understand the world. But there's a problem, because while anecdote can help us understand stuff on the minor scale of our personal lives (to prove that a particular person is flighty, for example, we don't expect any more than one story of that person canceling a date*) anecdotes suck about things any larger than our own small circle of friends and relatives. There's always going to be an anecdote to prove both sides of any issue. More than that, it's just kinda an inane way of understanding the world when you get down to it, telling illustrative stories. Check out the latest Brooks column to see anecdote at its worst. The anecdote doesn't add any insight into the situation, and is, well, just kinda weird.

*We can believe something, of course, almost in spite of all evidence if we'd want to. Though we might decide a person's flighty after hearing a single story about them, it might take us three or four or ten or twenty instances of flightiness (or a whole three months' worth of flightiness) in our own experience to come to the same conclusion, because we are wedded to the idea that this particular person is much less than flighty, indeed that they are especially kind, we think, and very concerned about our well-being.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

McCain Begins

After reading this New Yorker story about how Palin became McCain's VP pick, it struck me that Palin was kinda like Batman-Begins-era-Katie-Holmes. I mean you've got this product--McCain and the movie--and the product is trying its best to make its case for itself, but then on the sideline you've got someone charismatic, who the media loves, whojust keeps on sucking the juice from the main story. Coverage of Batman Begins was overshadowed by Holmes' 'association' with the sofa-jumping Tom Cruise. Coverage of McCain is similarly overshadowed by his bright-as-a-penny Tina Fey impersonator.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Boring Stories

You know when you're hanging out with one of those profoundly lonely people and they start telling you a story, only it's about this ridiculously inane thing because they actually have no stories since they're so lonely? Like they start telling you about how they met a man once, right, at a bar, and he we really drunk. And then you're sitting there, waiting for the story-like information, the novelty to hit, but it never hits--that's it?

The worst part about being lonely is that you have the nagging suspicion that when a person spends time with you they will judge you to be just about as miserable as you feel. Like with teen-age self-hatred, the sad part is that this sentiment is, more often than not, justified.

Such as: That rosy-colored distorting lens

Ideology makes us biased. That's pretty easy to admit. We read newspapers that confirm our opinion, we focus on the stories that do not test our beliefs, and we presume the idiocy of anyone who is the other side of an idea. And while we're very comfortable affirming this truth abstractly, I am loathe to admit it personally. I know I read biased sources of information and that I read 'unbiased' information through the distorting lens of my own bias. But I think that I'm above the indignity of being wrong.

Now that's all fine and good . If we second-guessed our every interpretation for signs of bias we'd be closer to going crazy than we'd be closer to the Truth. But it's surprising the extent to which our ideology distorts our views of the world. And it's good to confront this distortion for two reasons. First, ideology's distortion of evidence can explain why reasonable people can so sharply differ in their opinions. The fact that people can believe in the sanctity of a religion or the free market, the sagacity of a particular politician and the saintliness of another , the mystical benefits of Tibetan Buddhism contra the Secret--it's always a bit of a puzzle to me. But such gulfs in opinion are not proof of maliciousness of stupidity (or need not be proof of maliciousness or stupidity), it's proof only that when you believe something you are more likely to see it confirmed. If you believe that prayer can heal diseases, you are that much more likely to read the newspaper story about the healing power of prayer. If you believe that Obama is a vampiremuslimterroristabortionist then you are going to treat news stories about Ayers and Wright differently than if you believe Obama is already President but for the graceful and ineluctable election. That's the first reason why it might be good to admit the distortion of our own ideology.

The second reason is more uncomfortable. Admitting the distortion of ideology we admit we are wrong. And when we are proven wrong we will be as stubborn and as bull-headed and as frustrating as those people who drive SUVs and proudly affirm that global warming doesn't exist. Their problem isn't that they are assholes. (They might be assholes.) Their problem is that they're human. And when you tell a human being they're wrong they are not going to admit they are wrong, as a first reaction--they're going to tell you why you're wrong, slopjob.

What got me started thinking this way was reading a piece by Camille Paglia. This thing stood out to me as one of the most obvious examples of ideologically distorted thought I've ever seen.

As someone whose first seven years were spent among Italian-American immigrants (I never met an elderly person who spoke English until we moved from Endicott to rural Oxford, New York, when I was in first grade), I am very used to understanding meaning through what might seem to others to be outlandish or fractured variations on standard English. Furthermore, I have spent virtually my entire teaching career (nearly four decades) in arts colleges, where the expressiveness of highly talented students in dance, music and the visual arts takes a hundred different forms. Finally, as a lover of poetry (my last book was about that), I savor every kind of experimentation with standard English -- beginning with Shakespeare, who was the greatest improviser of them all at a time when there were no grammar rules.

Many others listening to Sarah Palin at her debate went into conniptions about what they assailed as her incoherence or incompetence. I was never in doubt about what she intended at any given moment. On the contrary, I was admiring not only her always shapely and syncopated syllables but the innate structures of her discourse -- which did seem to fly by in fragments at times but are plainly ready to be filled with deeper policy knowledge, as she gains it (hopefully over the next eight years of the Obama presidencies). This is a tremendously talented politician whose moment has not yet come. That she holds views completely opposed to mine is irrelevant. [Emphasis mine.]

(And here to admit my own susceptibility to distortion, when I first read this I skimmed over the bits where Paglia supports Obama, and thought that she was just another conservative. When drafting this essay, I thought of Paglia in that mode, too, even though she is more complicated, certainly. I faced disconfirmation of my belief, and instead of throwing up my hands and admitting ignorance--I ploughed on.)

Now. I'm wondering now whether to mount a frontal attack on the meat of this quote, or to go from behind. First, the frontal attack, as quickly as I can make it. Sarah Palin's ineloquence isn't striking just because it's hilarious; it's striking because it reveals a lack of detailed thought filled--not with policy knowledge of a deep or shallow variety--but with sound bites. Shakespeare's English wasn't great because it was experimental, but because it more perfectly communicated the human condition. Sarah Palin didn't communicate anything. Her ineloquence is a secondary problem, just as Shakespeare's eloquence is only secondary to his charm.

Now the attack from behind, which is more amenable to my thesis. Paglia approached the debate from the angle that Sarah Palin was "as powerful new [symbol] of a revived contemporary feminism." From that lens, what looks to me as Palin's idiocy looks to Paglia as Palin's brave stabs at unconventional communication. Now I don't get paid to express an opinion, which leaves me in an envious position compared with Paglia. I don't need to have an opinion, and if I do have an opinion, nobody really cares whether it's interesting or not. Paglia gets paid to have opinions that people care about, and so she cannot rest in the middle ground, this led her to servery misinterpret Palin's public performance.

Differences in interpretation are going to be so vast because we select which data to notice based on our beliefs, and so different people will be more or less likely to notice different information. Paglia's gush about Palin is akin to the review we would expect from the parents of Miss Teen South Carolina. Where we see indubitable failure, they, through those rosy-colored distorting lenses of affection, see excuse, interpretation--certainly they don't see a witless bimbo but a charming and nervous girl struggling through a stupid question--they pick out the evidence which supports their love.

Not that I'm ragging on just Paglia. No doubt I have committed far graver epistemic sins, only I'm lucky or unlucky enough not to have those sins survive in print. We all are guilty. If you have a crush on a girl you're much more likely to focus on the things she does which convinces you that your feelings are reciprocated. If you like a sports team you are going to think that their chances in a given season are so much higher than they really are.

The question is, when it comes time for us to face the moment when our beliefs do not match reality, will we go to the tribunal of experience kicking and screaming , or will we go bravely under the cowl of our own ignorance. It is far easier to kick and scream, and better for the ego. It is my personal hope, though, that when it comes my time I will be brave about it, bite my tongue, and agree that I can be every bit an idiot.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Problem of Synecdoche

Poll question that popped up on my screen watching the MySpace coverage of the presidential debates (paraphrase):

Do you think that another 9/11 will happen on US soil?

I sure hope so. Every year, right after September 1oth.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ponder this:

Why is it that when you're on a date, suddenly everything seems cheaper? Like two scoops of ice cream at Baskin Robbins is something like three bucks, which I'd never ever spend on my own. But suddenly I'm on a date and three bucks is nothing. Go wild! Put whipped cream and nuts on that shit if you want. I'll pick up the tab for everyone. Then when I'm alone again I will think long and hard about shelling out sixty cents for a candy bar.

The world is vast...

Question asked to me today at lunch:

"At what age do American students start to use mechanical pencils?"

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


A Fact About Our Bodies

Victims of Havenffeld-Snarksburg Syndrome, a congenital neurological disorder, are unable to understand or display self-deception. Otherwise normal HSS patients find simple statements like "Be honest with yourself..." or "He's pulled the wool over his own eyes," completely incomprehensible. Oddly enough, HSS seems to coincide with deep depressive tendencies. Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRIs) neuro-scientists studying HSS are trying to pin-point the part of the brain devoted to self-deception. Hopefully they will develop a drug to help those of us who are wholly or partially unable to slip into states of pleasant self-delusion.

Monday, September 22, 2008

My Financial Plan

Well, US 'Mericans, it's been a bad couple of weeks. DFW's dead, the stock market has officially come unloosed from any tethers that once held it to the Beachhead Of Empirical Evidence causing stock prices to do a fairly good visual impression of my emotional maturity level at a high falootin' party (unpredictable huge rises and falls, with a severe downward trend), and added on top of that people don't seem to want to buy books, which makes my dream of eating with the money people paid me for my books seem unrealistic, so there's little left to do these days but wait for the upcoming season of 30 Rock.

Given these circumstances, US 'Mericans, I give you my Brendan Mackie-Brand Financial Plan. If John McCain wins the election, that's it, I'm short selling the US. You heard me right. Naked short selling, too.

I'll put my short order in naked. Take that, disappointing 2008!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Snip From The New Yorker

The happy effect that Babar has on us, and our imaginations, comes from this knowledge—from the child’s strong sense that, while it is a very good thing to be an elephant, still, the life of an elephant is dangerous, wild, and painful. It is therefore a safer thing to be an elephant in a house near a park.



Okay, reading the Times' comparison of the campaigns' stances on science issues presented a moment which illustrates the frustration of this presidential election cycle. They compare McCain and Obama's climate change policies thusly:

In terms of 1990 levels of carbon emissions, Mr. McCain would ultimately have the nation’s output drop by 60 percent and Mr. Obama by 80 percent.

BUT THEY NEVER MENTION THE MECHANISM FOR CONTROLLING THESE CARBON EMISSIONS. Which is, of course, you know, KINDA IMPORTANT. And the candidates have very different plans. McCain, for one, favors the public auction of carbon credits, which, as I understand it, is just a huge money giveaway which won't actually help reduce emissions at all, in comparison to an actual cap and trade scheme.

It's not like explaining anything like this would take more than ten words. It seems disingenuous at best to compare the two candidates and yet somehow escape any actual comparisons between the two. Perhaps, when you get a detailed enough comparison of policies so that people can actually judge the merits of them it violates journalistic objectivity or something. Because the facts would obviously favor one side. How else do we explain the continued belief that Alaskan oil drilling would have any effect at all on domestic gas prices?

UPDATE 10/6: Umm , it seems that I got confused about the differences between McCain and Obama's plan. Obama does favor the auctioning of carbon credits. I know that there are substantive differences between the two plans, only I am, unfortunatly, unclear as to what those differences are. Also, somewhat lazily, I will use this ignorance to further bolster my original point: we need more policy information in our news sources.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace Dead

As far as public figures go, this death feels personal to an embarrassing extent. Usually I am somewhat callous towards death, especially about the death of people who one does not actually know personally. But it's not just insensitivity to the public lamentations around Heath Ledger and Princes Di--barring it befalling close friends and family members, death fails to move me. Throw a friend in my lap, inconsolable that her sister's best friend died, and I'll look at them with the condescending incomprehension fitting the observation of forgotten and ecstatic religious rites of some minor deity of the Roman pantheon. But then I read that this author has died, David Foster Wallace--who I have never met and who I have had only the most tangential personal relationship with--I can't do anything but fall to my bed.

Enough of this personal stuff. Well, one more thing. In my senior year of college when I was worrying whether or not I should try to "make it as a writer" I wrote David Foster Wallace with a story of mine. I got a postcard back a couple months later, and he said that my style was "clear and unpretentious" (I can remember that) and he wished me luck in a way that I interpreted as meaning that he saw some promise in me. My number two most recurring fantasy about my novel (number one is having ex-girlfriends and -crushes call me and tell me how my they like me) is that I would get it published and sent it off to DFW and he'd read it and appreciate it and we could become friends.

Of course that's not going to happen.

But that brief brush with the man himself is not enough to warrant my feeling upset by his death. Even taking into account the place that DFW's writing held in my own personal story, his death is not enough to make me fall on my bed and not want to get up and, at a Korean Thanksgiving I was attending, invited by the Tae Bo teacher I have a ridiculous crush on, his death should not make me nearly sob over the tiggim that "My favorite author has just killed himself"--a sentence which elicited nothing but bemused glances from my dining companions, English- and non-English-speaking alike.

The thing that makes Wallace's death so poignant is that it shouldn't of happened. First, we all wanted more. Wallace's was the kind of writing that was perfectly compulsive. The loss of his voice, of the chance of another novel, that's baffling to me.

But there's more, and here's where we might have to get a bit more personal again. Wallace seemed to have struggled with the demons that come with being a smart, sensitive person in the world. And he'd seemed to really conquer them. An aside that will make sense further in this paragraph: You know how you can tell the difference between someone who gets Wallace and someone who doesn't? Someone who doesn't get him will talk about his verbal acuity (or, pretentiousness) those footnotes, that flair. Someone who gets him will talk about his observational acuity. How he seemed to be able to frankly talk about the dark corners of life with such off-putting, shocking accuracy. Like he just peered into your secret, crazy thoughts, described them just right, and told you what to do about it. And so he peered into those crazy thoughts, understood them, and didn't like what he saw.

Is it a cliche to say that the choice of our lives is whether to live or whether to off ourselves? It's something I've thought about. Does the periodic bed-bound wordless sadness that sometimes strikes me--is it worth sitting through to get to the other bits? To get to those times that rank with eating chocolate cake or hearing that your friend gets promoted or sitting at Korean Thanksgiving and having the Tae Bo instructor who may or may not want to date you hold your hand. Does the banal difficulty of life merit the pleasures? Now, sometimes I haven't dared think about that reckoning. But most times I think, pretty solidly, that the pleasures by far outweigh the indignities.

But Wallace, who I respect, who I understand, who I thought got this stuff better than most people out there--he thought otherwise. He thought that life was just too painful to keep going.

And so Wallace's suicide makes me afraid!

I'm not angry at him. I'm not going to throw around any pablum about how it's grossly selfish to kill yourself or anything like that and I'm not going to try to call him crazy for doing what he did. Because if you can't understand why he'd do it, then you're not trying hard enough. And even though those things are true, that suicide is selfish and never the right answer, just saying that doesn't make sense of his death, it doesn't give any sort of comfort.

The tough part is thinking that with all his sensitivity and intelligence, this was his answer. Not another book, no more courses teaching students, not even an easy life reading somewhere eating cake. A rope around his neck. That was his answer. And it's that answer which hurts. Like if you hiked up a huge mountain to meet an enlightened master and asked him what you should do with your life and he turned his eyes towards you and slowly, proudly, asked you what brand shoes you wore.

Monday, September 1, 2008


What's Liz Lemon doing with Colonel Tigh?

... Oh wait.

UPDATE: Huh? (via waxy).

Thursday, August 28, 2008

How Training A Dog Is Like Teaching A Korean Schoolgirl

Check out this cool video from the perma-cool TED talks about... dog training. Not the most interesting subject ever, I know, but this must be the most genius dog trainer you'll see. Ian Dunbar, the dog trainer in question, has a really neat perspective on canine discipline. It's pretty simple, like all great things are. You have to make the dog's desires line up with yours.

This is great because I think we can take everything he says about dog training and apply it to the rest of our lives, translating the advice about teaching "sit puppy" to "now learn some English." So many times in the classroom do I find myself making the mistakes Dunbar ascribes to bad dog owners. I punish the kids by yelling at them. I fail to understand why the kids want to talk with each other instead of listening to me patter on in a foreign tongue. Dunbar's strategy is all about empathy--about seeing 'bad' behaviour as something logical and understandable, not as evidence of metaphysical malfeasance. This requires making a greater-than-usual effort to understand another being's perspective, but the pay-off is huge: instead of seeing my students as THE ENEMY who I must forge into a disciplined English-learning machine, I can see them as creatures with their own desires and needs--I just have to somehow shoehorn English learning in there. If he can understand why a puppy acts up, then I can understand why my students want to talk with each other instead of studying English.

Now, what's the practical upswing of all this rarefied theoretical bullshit? My biggest discipline problem teaching is that my (all-girl) students often want to gossip to each other in Korean. So if I can take their relentless social urge and somehow filter it into English learning, then my classes will be significantly easier, and more fun. The great thing about teaching a language which you won't get from teaching math or literature, is that language-learning is hard-wired in our brains. It is as natural as eating. The pay-off is instantly satisfying: communication. Now how to harness that communication, that's the hard part, but I suppose I will spend the better part of my weekend thinking this through.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Happy Happy Joy Joy

One of the reasons why I am the odd critter I am has to be hours of my most impressionable youth wasted soaking up Ren and Stimpy. I was always a little disappointed that real life was nothing like Ren and Stimpy.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


Horse-raceish campaign coverage reminds me of a guy tasked to cover the summer swimming hole who wastes his word count dragging his fat big toe through the water skittishly reporting "The water here at the swimming hole is still cold"--but who never actually girds his swimmers and swims, refusing to grace his exasperated readers with even the most cursory splash.

Times for a Quote

More alarmingly, a 20-year-old British tourist partied with her sister and a friend into the early hours in Malia also in July, then returned to her hotel room and — although she had denied being pregnant — gave birth.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Octopus Love

It's sweet. And no, I'm not thinking of the Dream of the Fishmonger's Wife.

(via Drawn.)

Friday, August 8, 2008


I asked what he did for a living. He said he was a housepainter. He asked me the same question about myself.

“I manufacture opinions,” I said.

“Really?” he asked. “How do you know if you’re any good at that?”

“By the number of people who strongly agree or strongly disagree with me,” I said. “If a large number of strangers seem to think one of my opinions is especially true or wildly inaccurate, there is somehow a perception that I am being successful."

-via Fimoculous

Richard Nixon's gremlin.

From the obviously-beloved Museum of Hoaxes comes this story of Dick Tuck, a man who--for reasons which go unmentioned in the article, but will be readily imagined by anyone with a prime-time-television understanding of American history--decided to make Richard Nixon's life miserable and so dogged the pol with simperingly quiescent pranks. My favorite prank: a whole nursery of pregnant women, bellies bulging, holding signs outside a campaign appearance saying "Nixon's the one".

We should totally Tuck McCain.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Who is more dangerous? Bin Laden's driver? Or the guy on the corner smoking crack.

Today Osama bin Laden's driver was sentenced to spend the next five months in prison (he's already served about five years waiting for a trial.) Now this is big, front page news because it's a nice and tidy important judicial victory that comes tantalizingly close to global fear-or-ist number one himself. But one huge glooming thing stretches over this conviction for me. The man is being sentenced, really, for his proximity to bin Laden. The actual charge-this guy is now a war criminal for this-is "providing material support to a terrorist organization." This man was no terrorist mastermind, no idelogical firebrand. He was a driver.

But there's a double-take-worthy sort of twilight justice going on here. On the one hand, the courts declared this guy a war criminal. On the other hand, they don't see his war crimes as eliciting any more than five years in prison. Just to put that into perspective, that's the mandatory minimum sentence for the possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine. In fact, the average sentence for someone convicted of first-time trafficking of crack cocaine is ten years. So your local rock-slinger is TWICE as dangerous as Osama bin Laden's driver. Who is a war criminal. Isn't that a bit strange?

Friday, August 1, 2008

"Thought Experiment"

What if there was a gangster mystique about selling cookware instead of crack?

Monday, July 28, 2008

What Book Are You Ashamed Of Not Having Read?

A bunch of cultured Brits answer that question in this amusing video. How is it that while these people are proclaiming their ignorance about the classics of Western Thought I still feel like they are infinity more cultured, intelligent, and dinner-party-worthy than your current humble bog writer?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Wednesday Morning Video Blogging

First, I totally have an internet crush on the delightful cooking-puppet-crazy TV show FOOD PARTY, the Christmas episode is embedded below.

The second mixes one of my true loves--bluegrass--with one of my kinda loves--indie music--HERE WE GO:

Charming links, right? Well they're both from Metafilter. Which explains why Metafilter is more popular than this here blog.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Scratched the surface of the treasure trove.

I have a strange hobby. Now, it's less of a hobby and more a potential for a hobby-an interest I have which I've only surreptitiously and half-heartedly started to follow. I love vintage music. Especially pop music. Hearing the worn-out strains of 1920s popular songs on my iPod is such a magnificent confusion. The songs seem so immediately familiar in their usual poppiness, but they sound like pop from another world, from a distant America, which is true, they're from a completely different America, one we can never know, a passed, strange America which wore hats.

All this is an introduction to today's find: two large treasure troves of vintage music (via WFMU's Beware of the Blog).

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Like any sensible man, I've been thinking about Henry Timrod this morning, the poet laureate of the Confederacy--reading his poems shows just how batshit crazy the Civil War was. Here's a particular gem:


Ho! woodsmen of the mountain side!
Ho! dwellers in the vales!
Ho! ye who by the chafing tide
Have roughened in the gales!

Leave barn and byre, leave kin and cot,
Lay by the bloodless spade;
Let desk, and case, and counter rot,
And burn your books of trade.

The despot roves your fairest lands;
And till he flies or fears,
Your fields must grow but armed bands,
Your sheaves be sheaves of spears!
Give up to mildew and to rust
The useless tools of gain;
And feed your country's sacred dust
With floods of crimson rain!

Come, with the weapons at your call -
With musket, pike, or knife;
He wields the deadliest blade of all
Who lightest holds his life.
The arm that drives its unbought blows
With all a patriot's scorn,
Might brain a tyrant with a rose,
Or stab him with a thorn.

Does any falter? let him turn
To some brave maiden's eyes,
And catch the holy fires that burn
In those sublunar skies.
Oh! could you like your women feel
And in their spirit march,
A day might see your lines of steel
Beneath the victor's arch.

Let's conversate in this space.

To the stakeholders of the Super Naarkatron project,

We need to touch base about this offline, but in order to pre-prepare and get some forward planning as we are going forward together, from the get-go we’d better not let the grass grow too long on this one and get all of our ducks in a row, we need to start actioning 110% of our human capital if we don’t want to have egg on our face because we didn’t pick the low-hanging fruit when we have the chance and we ended up being stuck at the close of play without even looking under the bonnet to conversate about how we could solve the challenges we faced: the fact is that we are in negative territory in this space; we need to have some 360-degree thinking idea showers because we all know you can't turn a tanker around with a speed boat change—I assure you I have a holistic, cradle-to-grave approach on my radar but my door is still open with respect to this—but let’s loop back on this: the fact is that you can't have your cake and eat it too, so you have to step up to the plate and face the music; I know that there have been rumors to the effect that we don’t have enough bandwidth to come to the party and really live the values of our company, but at the end of the day that’s a way to wrongside the demographic—why don’t you take a business 2.0 approach to that and learn to sprinkle some magic on our challenges and incentivise our paradigm shifts?—also in addition if anyone wants to get their fingers down the throat of the organization of that nodule tell them you’ve got leverage it was auspiced by me, Rupert Naark: to feed it back, not only do we need to become project evangelists we must capture our colleagues and hope for the strategic staircase will cascade into the target demographic, but I digress; taking a high-altitude view I assure you the business is still a really cool train set, and we continue to be optimistic things will feed through the sales and delivery pipeline, but despite drilling down, we must make drastic reductions in our workforce in this space.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,

Rupert S. Naark, CEO-at-large, Nark Industries

This sentence has every single one of the BBC News' 50 office speak phrases you love to hate.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A. O. Scott, you are my favorite person in the world.

Seriously, A. O. Scott. I would really like to be you. Reading an A. O. Scott review is like eating chocolate--WHILE READING AN A. O. SCOTT REVIEW. It's so good, it's fucking recursively good. Check out this gem from his review of "The Love Guru"

No, “The Love Guru” is downright antifunny, an experience that makes you wonder if you will ever laugh again.
And here's another one:

I’m not opposed to infantile, regressive, scatological humor. Indeed, I consider myself something of a connoisseur. Or maybe a glutton. So it’s not that I object to the idea of, say, witnessing elephants copulate on the ice in the middle of a Stanley Cup hockey match, or seeing a dwarf sent flying over the same ice by the shock of defibrillator paddles. But it will never be enough simply to do such things. They must be done well.

A. O. Scott, can we be friends?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

How To Nap

We humans make everything more complicated than it needs to be. Just to expend our excess brain power, I suppose. In that proud tradition, here's a handy infographic on how to nap. I encourage you to practice at work today.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Signs That You've Been Bit By The Travel Bug

If you read this list of tourist spots Americans can't visit (via Kottke) and you begin to plan how, indeed, you could visit them all.

I think that Kumgangsan is a bit within my reach, right?

Sunday, June 8, 2008

This Time, The Times

The recipe didn’t run in the magazine. Nor do ones that call for glove boning, which is a way to turn a bird inside out to bone it without cutting into the skin.

“It’s a marvelous technique, but who is going to do that?” Ms. Minifie asked.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

In South Korea, Students Study So Hard They Have To Leave South Korea

The New York Times reports on the curious phenomenon of South Koreans sending their kids to English-speaking countries to study English. Don't think for a second when you're reading this that this is at all rare. In every single class I teach there is at least one student who has lived in Australia or Canada or New Zealand (usually Canada). Sometimes there are two or three. And these students have a definite edge over the other kids, at least when it comes to English.

The demand for English education in Korea is huge. There are about 300,000 of us native English teachers here (keep that number in mind when you read that Lee Myun Bak wants to add an additional 10,000). And part of the reason why the demand is so great is that there exists a sort of low-level desperation about English. Everybody knows that it's important, and everybody studies very very hard, but learning good English, the sort of English expressed on test scores, seems almost Sisyphean.

And the problem I see is that the high cost of education is driving a wedge between rich and poor. After-school kids are expected to go to private academies (which cost a lot of money) and these kids will do better in class. And so in the public school classroom, the bar is raised a little higher--perhaps so high that the kids whose families cannot afford academies or private tutors or trips to Australia will fall behind. I know in my classroom sometimes the only kids who can understand me are those who have been to America, go to two English academies a day.

And it's not like the kids who can do well are enjoying themselves. My students--middle school students--study so much that when I ask them questions like "What are your hobbies?" they tell me "Sleep." "Video games." Indeed, after the last vacation I asked my students: "What did you do?" and many told me "I went to Bangkok."---This is Korean slang for staying in the house all day. (Bang means room, and I think Ko means corner [I'm not sure.]) Anyway. The kids are being educated ragged. Without the freedom to let their minds play, get creative, rebel, create themselves.... Just so they can speak good English. Damn.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Korean Food: A Crash Course

Today at an impromptu teacher's lunch/dinner (the proceedings stretched continuously from about eleven thirty in the morning until five in the evening) I ate the following, in order.


Korean lunch-box (including pork cutlet, rice, soup, and a variety of other things whose name I do not know.)
Coffee-flavored cookies.

THIRD SNACK (speared by the P.E. teacher as he waded into the ocean in a SCUBA suit--literally killed by the P.E. teacher not more than three minutes prior to the food sliding into our mouths--did I mention that we were eating this all right on the beach?)
Fresh sea cucumber.
Assorted fish.

Mussel soup.

Live! Sea! Cucumber!
Live penis fish. (I do not know what this is in English, but it looks like a penis, and it's most certainly an invertebrate, because even after you kill it and chop it up it continues to writhe in agony suggesting it has no central nervous system. It looks pretty much exactly like a penis.)
Live octopus.
Some sort of crustacean that tastes like sea water that we certainly do not eat in America.

Fresh scallops (still moving) cooked on a table-mounted barbecue. (The first cooked thing we ate all day!)
Some other sort of fresh shell-fish.

Eel. (Now, there were many things I ate which the Korean teachers suggested would give me 'stamina', basically all the phallic fish which you ate still alive fall into this category, for obvious reason, but the very most potent stamina-boosting food was the spine of the eel, served separately from the rest of the eel, and I ate about ten of them, these spines, and though you might think that the whole stamina thing is bullshit, I'm having heart palpitations right now, and I blame it squarely on my eel-induced male power.

I managed to get home somehow but some of the P.E. teachers want me to come out and drink with them. But I can barely move.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

And I thought I haven't had any action for a while.

The bdelloid rotifer, a tiny transparent puddle-dwelling animal, hasn't had sex for 85 million years.

You know, if celibacy was really god's will, these little creatures are guaranteed to be the divine's chosen animal.

Monday, June 2, 2008

In South Korea, It Never Ends

The it meaning work. My humble host nation topped the list of the hardest working countries. The average South Korean works six and a half hours a day EVERY DAY OF THEIR LIVES.

Thankfully, this workaholism does not transfer to the large English-teaching population. Although if you counted my literary pursuits as 'work' I am probably pretty high up there, as far as total hours spent in work each day.

Just to emphasize something that they mentioned in the article, here you are often given a title depending on your job. Instead of Mr. Mackie I am Mackie-Teacher, or, in proper South Korean, Mackie San Sang Nim.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Back in the days before the internet...

I had a zine. I would sell this zine on the street after school. The zine was mildly successful, and having consistent and direct communication with people who would read--and enjoy!--my writing was really the biggest encouragement I ever got to take up writing as my vocation. The most frustrating thing about working on my novel is that while I am writing it nobody else sees it. Until I finally get it written and edited enough to be fit for human consumption, it's mark in the lives of the people around me comes simply through me being absent because I am working on the novel. I can't come out tonight because I have to write. I am staying in Busan these holidays because I have to write. I post on the blog irregularly because I have to write the novel. I wish that I could post every day's work here and have you all fawn over it--and there's a lot of words that I've written--but writing a novel I am consistently aware that what I am making at the moment is crap that will need the polishing of three or four intensive revisions before being at all fit for other people to read. All of this is a really long introduction to this discovery I just made. Some of my old zines are cataloged in the Australian National Library!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Great Leap Go Straight One Block

Oh China, you've tried a bunch of crazy shit in the past seventy years. So many naively ambitious projects that end up, you know, causing mass famine. I don't reckon for a second that you're latest unrealistic goal will kill anyone, but it will certainly make life awkward.

China is trying to get 30% of all Chinese to speak English in time for the Olympics.

This means that there are a thousand flowers of EFL teachers blooming in China. But the only problem is that the Asian style of learning language, often focused on rote repetition, can be a poor way of teaching English. Check out this article from the Times about the trials of teaching English in China to see what I'm talking about. It's similar in Korea, but without the pervasive nationalism.

I am lucky. When I teach I'm able to give my students activities where they actually use English, where they talk with each other, construct sentences, and struggle to impart some sort of English-language meaning. But they also have to memorize stacks of semi-obscure vocabulary every week (one particularly improbable vocab word--for a middle school girl--was child restraining belt). English is not only a subject to study so that one may speak with foreigners and participate in the global economy, it is an activity for itself often, an abstract mark of success counted by TOFEL scores, grades, and proficiency tests. But then the kids who communicate with me the best, they're often not the kids with the best English, they're the kids who are the bravest, the most willing to make a mistake. So I want to do two things when I teach. I want to help them construct proper sentences telling me how they're feeling and how to find the post office; but I also want them to test their bravery.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Quotes From The Times

“Either he’s absolutely demonic or stupid or crazy,” Mr. Neal concluded.

About R. Kelly. But is Mr. Neal talking about Mr. Kelly's new album or about his penchant for pubescent urolagnia?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Internet Times Four

I was looking through Slate's procrastination packet [via Fimoculous] which includes a cool round-up of how different professions waste time. The whole list is great, but one stood out for me: the CIA-agent talking about how he wastes time surfing the CIA's databases. Here's a snip:
It was always pretty shocking to me just how deep the abyss of information actually was. It’s like the Internet times four.
Just think of that. Four internets worth of information. I wonder what they've got on us!

Monday, May 12, 2008


As is probably painfully obvious to my readers, I haven't really been posting for the last month or so. My writing energies have been focused elsewhere: I'm cranking out a novel, so all the words stored up in my head are going towards that novel for the moment. But let's see if I can't post a little more regularly from here on out.

For your pleasure, here's a quick game. We'll play: Guess which thing about Korea is a blatant lie. Put your answers in the comments.

1) While Western cultures have Valentines day, Korea goes one step better-it has a Valentines day on the 14th of every single month. The 14th of February is Red Valentine's day, where women give candy to the men they like. The 14th of March is White Valentine's Day, where it's the guy's turn to stimulate the greeting card industry. The 14th of April is called Black Valentine's Day, where singles eat a black Chinese noodle called Jaja Myun which mirrors the blackness of their hearts. There are other color-coded Valentines for the other months, but nobody really remembers what the rest of them are.

2) In Korean restaurants you will often be served a dish of hot peppers. You are meant to take these hot peppers and then dip them into hot pepper sauce.

3) There are no less than two Korean TV channels devoted to the 1998 video-game Starcraft.

4) A popular after-work activity is going to a Noraebang, or singing room, where you and your workmates can go get drunk and sing karaoke. Often, these singing rooms will come with an added feature: you can rent companion women! Whether these women are actively prostitutes or not is an open question, but men will pay them to sit with them and drown them in compliments.

5) Around half of South Korean women get plastic surgery, usually to make their appearance more 'western'. The subways are festooned with signs reading "Big eyes, lovely breasts" which pretty much sums up the South Korean aesthetic ideal.

I'll post the answer in a week.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Things That I Probably Should Do, But Don't, Because I Live Alone

Living as a single man with almost no prospects of having any women up in his apartment ever is great. Just check out this list of things I no longer need to do:

1) Clean the dishes.

2) Sweep.

3) Clean anything in the bathroom. (Toilets and showers are self-cleaning, duh!)

4) Fold / sort / iron clothes.

5) Wear clothes.

Wow. Ain't life great? Of course, now there will come a time when I have to readjust to living with other human beings. That won't be easy. Oh no.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Check out the swag!

I got this T-shirt. The tag says you can find more at I couldn't find the shirt there, though. Curious?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Passing Moment

A small thing: walking to school this morning, I was practicing reading Korean, and I couldn't remember whether ㄱ meant N or G--and I used to know this, and know it rather confidently, as recently as last night even. This shocked me. This small forgetting seemed a prelude for a a much larger forgetting. I will, I realized, someday forget how to read Korean. One day, the things that make up the cloth against which the my days are woven will be--nothing. I will be left with scraps, pieces of torn up and tattered text: what did my room look like? I will wonder. How did I feel when I woke up? Who were my friends?

I cast my memory back to high school and middle school, to elementary school and preschool, and the longer in time my memory reaches, my more blurry the shape that it grabs, the fewer details can I sift from the muddy wreckage of my thought. I am still shocked when I try to remember the names of my friends from Middle school--even though I am friends with all of them on Facebook--and I can't. One day, will I forget them all? Will I forget myself?

But even the best memories will be baffled by death.

And then, walking up the hill to my school, I tried to think of what was happening right then in front of me, because surly I couldn't forget that. It was raining, I was seeing the rain, the gathering of rainclouds against the hills, the school looming in front of me, the tired parade of students walking up the hill in the rain--the play of light against my eyes: and then I thought to my self, what I was feeling; and I thought, well, I can forget this, too. even this is not the moment itself. I take these sensations and process them, so that when they are cast against the screen of my memory, they are already old, they are already past. So I turned my attention to something more basic, the sensation of being alive. But I could not even find that, and hold it, and know that it was now, that it would nto slip away! There I thought I would have hit bedrock, have found a stable place that I could not forget, that I could not lose. But even there, I thought, dizzily, even there you can forget yourself, even there you can lose the sense of being alive. Even there, when you pay attention, the present is constantly slipping away from you: you cannot see it passing, this moment, you can only watch the wake that it leaves behind it.

And I didn't know what else to do, so I kept on walking.

The Grey Lady has been tagged in an album.

On the status line at the top of his page, Mr. Zeschuk employed the modern vernacular as he said recently, “Greg thinks Professor Layton is pretty rad.”

Friday, March 28, 2008

What Do 400 Sleep-Deprived School Girls Look Like?

Check out the new photos if you're curious. And be sure to read the descriptions, I've told a lot of the story there.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Things Taste Strange, Things Are Strange

Image from Shorpy.

You would easily expect food to be different in Korea. And you're right. You will notice of course the very obvious differences--but those differences you expect, you expect the Koreans to eat live octopus and kim chee But it are those more subtle, less superficial differences in taste that end up shocking you. I have two examples of this. Both of them come from the workplace casual of the staff-room.

A couple hours ago I was offered what the Koreans call a japjari tomato. This is a green tomato that you eat raw and whole, like an apple. Now, we're all used to tomatoes in our sauces and on our salads and on our sandwiches or over our pasta or on our pizza, but I think this was one of the first times when I just had a tomato--just a lone tomato. And the taste was a tart explosion of a vinegary pulp with a ringing bite of brine, with a slight fog of unami hanging as an aftertaste, with a mouthfeel like a squishy apple. Sure, it tasted like a tomato. But here, out of context, even the taste of a tomato can taste utterly foreign, a revelation.

And then I was just chatting to a fellow teacher when she handed me a stub of a microwaved sweet potato. "Here," she said. And I ate it. Just like you'd eat some chips.

Sweet potatoes as a snack? Tomatoes eaten like an apple? Strange food isn't just a matter of mixing strange ingredients, but a matter of thinking about ingredients differently. Indeed, so much of our cooking--like so much of our culture--is simply contingent, arbitrary, and meaningless, the epiphenomena of history, and yet we tie food so tightly around our sense of self, it sometimes still baffles me how meaningful it all seems.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Photos are up!

See a pictorial representation of my first week or so in Korea. Need to pick up one of those adapter-things to begin to chronicle the next leg of my journey, but at least for now there are a handful of piccies for you all to gander at!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I'm Looking Over A Four-Leafed Clover

From Slate, via Bookforum - a story about the Clover. The best coffee machine in the universe. Or at least the most expensive.

The Problem With Political Blogs

Now I'm a blog junkie, a blog convert, a blog evangelizer, a blog fanatic, I've joined the club, drunk the kool-aid and jumped the shark. I especially like political blogs. I reckon I get a livelier and more honestly informed take on politics from blogs than from newspapers. (I nearly wrote "better informed" but I think the crucial difference between a blogger and a reporter is that a blogger is allowed to write to a better informed audience, the reporter himself may actually be better informed but just can't get that information on the page.) But I thought of a problem with political blogs that hadn't touched my mind before.

There's a certain balkanization of subject matter on blogs. You come to trust particular bloggers, some of whom you return to day after day, but those particular bloggers are only good at a handful of subjects. But let's say something incredibly important happens in the world--say, some obscure crisis in the financial markets, or a some small state that nobody's ever heard of causing a large-scale diplomatic blow-up. Well then the bloggers that I rely on might not be able to deliver the goods on those weird weird subjects. So what am I to do.\?

Now, what I think happens in those situations is this: bloggers read more blogs than anybody else. If they don't know what's up, they're likely to know somebody who knows something, and thus will put up a nice snip and a nice link. But as a reader, this is the moment when I turn my eyes back to the newspapers and news magazines. They're more likely to have a broader range of good material than blogs. Sorry, bloggers!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Coffees I Have Known And Loved

I have had a half a dozen utterly unimpeachable, perfect cups of coffee--maybe fewer. These cups have become my measure of coffee, the ideals that all other coffees are held to. The best cup of my recent memory I had at Kopplin's Coffee in the Twin Cities. Kopplins, using some ridiculously expensive coffee machine called a Clover and employing baristas with upper-level research degrees in coffee preparation, makes a perfectly smooth and welcome cup of coffee that presents the taste of coffee beans with the same deceptively easy grace with which a great chef presents the taste of a cut of steak: the art is not in disguising, mixing, or melding the taste of the thing at hand, but in drawing the taste out, forcing you to taste the essential flavors. The next best cup of coffee I remember came from a neighborhood cafe in Seinna. The cafe was a loud, sweaty, congenial place, and I was a bit of a regular. I remember one lunch rush I tried to pay with a large bill and the barista yelled at me and waved me away, giving me the coffee on the house because he had no time to make me change. It was a cappuccino. I must've been about fifteen. And I remember that first sip as the taste that I am always looking for when I get coffee, the perfect coffee moment, tinged with equal parts embarrassment and joy.

What I have realized over the past week or so, though, is that even the mediocre, daily coffee that I have been used to is really actually very good, on the grand world-wide continuum of good and bad coffee. For all America's venality and shittiness, it sure can make a good cup of coffee. Here in Korea, when you ask for coffee you get, not some concoction brewed from ground coffee beans, but instant coffee, with lots of sugar and fake cream. This is everywhere you go, from fancy restaurants to places that are presumably cafes to the local gas station. And it is not some nation-wide monoculture of bad coffee, either: there is a lot of variation into the kind of bad coffee, I imagine whole industries devoted to the perversion and desecration of my favorite drink. The most common offense comes in the form of little plastic sachets, individually portioned with a mixture of sugar instant coffee and fake cream, that you empty into a cup of hot water, leading to a thin, joyless caffeine and fat delivery system. But I have also, in this brief week, sampled coffee partitioned out into tea bags and left to steep for five minutes, making a bitter, joyless coffee tea, and I have encountered brewed coffee left to heat for half an hour or more, resulting in a thick, joyless, coffee-like sludge, which is the closest to real coffee I have come; I have also swallowed my pride and bought--from the local supermarket--a joyless and unholy cup of Starbucks-branded 'espresso' that tastes closer to a cocktails of bitterness and capitalism than it tastes to the fare of my local and beloved cafes back in America.

But addiction is addiction, and still I buy coffee. And still, that inaugural sip first thing in the morning, that sip that coalesces reality around me, that ushers in every subsequent productive and un-productive moment, the sip that tells me that I am indeed alive--even when it's bad coffee, it's still the single most lovely part of my day.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Jason Kotke is the quintessential web denizen - the unimpeachable everyman of the web and his blog, more than any other site, sums up the learned culture of the internet. Why do I lavish this praise on the already much-read, much-beloved, and much-written-about Mr. Kottke? Because, in addition to the posts he did on birds eating toxic waste to get dates, in addition to competitive crossword puzzle mavens, he turned me on to Kitty Wigs. Which has to be the most internetty thing in the whole universe. (All in the past 24 hours!)

Monday, March 3, 2008

First day at school!

A morning mist settled over Busan, grey and crisp, but as the day wore on the mist refused to lift, cuddling its langorous tails around mountains and buildings until late in the evening, leaving a dusty, acrid stink. What had looked like a pleasant meterological phenomena was nothing of the sort. The mist was almost as much of politics as of percipitation: a wholly un-benign Chinese import: smog. When the wind blows right, Busan fills its lungs full of Chinese air. Elementary school children are given the day off school. It's too dangerous for them to go outside.

It was my first day at school - and I could think of it as one of the more awkward moments of my life, if I wanted to. Everything I do here, I do for the first time. Everything I do, I'm baffled. One of the only ways I have of drawing a line of sense through all the sensations that come my way is through complaining. Because when I complain--that the food is strange, that I cannot get anywhere by myself, that I feel overwhelmed--my life becomes arranged around the concept of some idealized life in which all the food was familiar, in which I could communicate easily with everyone around me, and in which I lived a life of ease. Instead, letting go of complaints, I have to admit my life for what it is: essentially meaningless; or rather, a life whose meaning has been closed off for me, obscured, rubbed out, confused. I get to school, I stand in the right places, I smile and I nod and I try to be helpful, but at this point I think I am more a symbol. I am a symbol that has not yet been reckoned, added, subtracted, divided, multiplied, or plumbed.

The taxi driver who took me to the school this morning didn't know where the school actually was so we drove around aimlessly for a little while before, a couple cel phone calls later, after asking random school-girls on the street, we made it to the big red-brick building that is the reason why I flew across an ocean to teach. The big bulk of my day was spent overcomign odd technical difficulties that I would at this point rather forget. But in the remainder of my day I was intorduced to the whole school through the school's CCTV, Iand to the other teachers, and I had a bunch of students come up to me to pracise their english and tell me I looked handsome. Aw shucks! If only the actual teaching part was that easy. But even though I didn't do too much, there was so much newness that I made it back to my apartment exausted, and, after a bit of a dining adventure I'll write about once I can get my photos up on Flickr, I settled into a thick, dreamless, half-day sleep.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

First Meal In Korea!

I'm typing this through a cloud of jetlag and confusion. It's so very strange to be a foreigner, but the strangeness eases me. I feel at home in airports, food courts, empty malls; there I have no responsibility other than to wait, to walk to the right gate, to board the right plane and sit in place, to eat. The ubiquitous novelty of foreignness feels easy. I have no responsibility but to look, to take in, to move.

More later. In the meantime, check out the photos.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Guess Who Got A Flickr Account?

Give up yet? It's me! Now that I set off for some travels, you can check my photos here.

New York Times + Cephalopods = Global Media Conspiracy?

New York Times video on a scientist researching cephalopod camouflage.

Same guy who did the legendary octopus video, embedded below.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Fact About Chicago

Image from Shorpy!

It seems that the adoption of the bowl would be a fairly straightforward process, but not in Chicago. Most of urban Chicago didn’t use bowls until the early 1930s. The social reformer Jane Addams called Chicago’s lack of adequate bowls “a disgrace of governance and civic will,” but it took a riot—the famed soup riots of 1933—to make the bowl a common addition to Chicago dinner tables.

The problem was simple: the various department stores in Chicago all got their flatware from a single supplier, S. N. Arch and sons and Silas N. Arch didn’t think there was much demand for bowls because of Chicago’s famed distaste for soup. “Steak, potatoes, that’s all a man needs,” the secretive Arch is reported to have said whenever the subject of bowls came up. “Bowls are for sniveling weaklings and the lesser races.”

Some families would have heirloom bowls, or bowls sent over from relatives, but surprisingly the majority of Chicagoans survived without the bowl for generations. Some were even proud of Chicago’s lack of bowls. “No soup here!” was the sign in the window of a prominent downtown café: soup, Chicagoans thought, was the food of the poor.

But during the Great Depression, charities set up to distribute food—mostly in the form of thin soups or gruel—found that they lacked the necessary bowls to get food to the stomachs of the hungry masses. On a dismal January night in 1933 after being denied food because of a lack of bowls, a horde of dispossessed young men stormed to the front of prominent department stores, demanding the missing piece of flatware. Police were called in, and twelve lives ended that cold night.

Silently, bowls entered the department stores—and kitchens— of Chicago and have stayed there ever since!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Random Facts, Anyone?

Mental Floss has just made a Random Fact Generator. People can make their own facts and send them in! Unfortunately, the facts have to be true. For a second there I thought I had a new career.

The last post was my 100th post on Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters, by the way!

Help me celebrate?

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Quotes From The Times

No longer the bloody avatar of wounded American pride, he seems more inclined toward humanitarian intervention — a one-man N.G.O. with a machete. Will he show up in Darfur next?
“In the past, Britain was something that just happened,” he said. “You didn’t have to think about it."
Each slice was perched on a round of Italian bread, but most of the men ate only the meat and stacked the bread slices in front of them, tallying their gluttony like poker players amassing chips.
A single woman, courted by two eligible men, will be drawn toward the man who is superficially right but ontologically wrong for her before choosing, in the final 20 minutes, the man with the opposite qualities.

Hoax Time, Please!

Mental_Floss runs down four of history's best hoaxes. They're a bit predictable, though, so here are a couple of my favorites to supplement:

The Trojan Horse has to be the boldest hoax in history. The premise--that the Greeks would offer the Trojans a gift of a huge wooden horse--is just weird.. What sort of gift is a huge wooden horse, anyway? Scholars will tell you this is because the Trojans really liked horses. This explanation explains nothing. But it makes for a great hoax, mixing equal amounts audacity, cleverness, and misdirection.

Sadly for the Trojans, there was no candy inside. Only pissed-off Greeks.

The Count Saint German made his way through 18th Century Europe scamming courtiers, spreading rumors of his mystic prowess (including his miraculous ability to never die), and issuing a stream of prattle so wondrous it lightens the heart. Here's Cassanova on Saint Germain (who knows about the accuracy - it's from Wikipedia):
The most enjoyable dinner I had was with Madame de Gergi, who came with the famous adventurer, known by the name of the Count de St. Germain. This individual, instead of eating, talked from the beginning of the meal to the end, and I followed his example in one respect as I did not eat, but listened to him with the greatest attention. It may safely be said that as a conversationalist he was unequalled.

The greatest part of the story of Saint Germain is that even now--hundreds of years later--impressionable young occultists will swallow the Count's stories like they were peer-reviewed scientific truth. Poor creatures.

In the annals of hoaxing, chapters and chapters--whole volumes!--should be devoted to the Australians. Something about the climate makes tall tales a near Olympic sport. Maybe it's the climate of free-flowing beer. If you're ever out camping with a group of Australians, inevitably one will tell you about the deadly Dropbear, a carnivorous version of the cuddlesome Koala. The Dropbear's most favorite snack is a tourist. It drops on them. And eats them up. And it doesn't exist. It's just a story to scare poor confused Americans.
The Dropbear in its natural environment.

Even the cream of Australian culture can't help but engage in a little lying now and then. Pissed off about the utter nonsense of modernist poetry, two conservative poets sent in a series of meaningless poems to Australia's premier modernist poetry rag and signed them by the name Ern Malley. The hoax ended with the magazine's young editor Max Harris getting charged with obscenity for some reason. The funny thing about Ern Malley is that, well, even though his poems are meaningless twaddle, everybody likes them. I like them. Here's the first in the Ern Malley cycle:

Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495

I had often, cowled in the slumberous heavy air,
Closed my inanimate lids to find it real,
As I knew it would be, the colourful spires
And painted roofs, the high snows glimpsed at the back,
All reversed in the quiet reflecting waters
Not knowing then that Dürer perceived it too.
Now I find that once more I have shrunk
To an interloper, robber of dead men’s dream,
I had read in books that art is not easy
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
the black swan of trespass on alien waters.
I love those last four lines. Bonus points for this story is that back in my career as an up-and-coming young Australian writer I swept the youth section of the Max Harris literary awards. Hurrah.

Ern Malley was a great poet. Shame he didn't exist.

The Japanese have really been very innovative about hoaxing, exaggerating, contorting, and refining the technique the with the same aplomb that turned robots into GIANT ROBOTS. Now, to set the scene: poodles are all the rage in Japan, costing upwards of a thousand dollars. A Japanese celebrity is on a talk show, chatting about her poodle when she complained that her poodle didn't bark and refused to eat dog food. Turns out the poodle was a lamb and some scam artist was selling lambs as poodles. And it also turned out that the whole widely-reported story was a hoax. How's that for innovation, kids?

Pet Squid!

When I settle down I am going to get an aquarium and buy some pet squid.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

What Do You Think Of The New Color Scheme?

I was thinking that the whole white-text-on-blue-background might be hard to read. So I changed it. What do you think?

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Days In Brendan Mackie!

This is it, folks! The last full week of Brendan at Utne! There will still be some Utne blogging, although it's unclear how much there will be.... But that means this here blog will be a little bit better maintained. Which means you (and by you I mean the internet) should start reading it. Come on! I'm a semi-professional writer now!

Media Lies Both Political And Scientific
From The Stacks: King-Cat Comix
The Not-So-Great Race
Fiction 2.0
London Times Caught Cheating Social Networking Sites
This New House

Drop a comment in this comment thread for fun! I would like to have contests up here, but I don't know if I have the critical mass to have contests. I probably don't. But as a game - a fun little game - if you read this, drop a comment in the comment box: and maybe I can write you your own personal squid fact. For free! Yeah, howabout that. If you drop me a comment in the comment box I will write you your very own personalized squid fact. So do it. So I know that you're out there.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Beefsteak: A Tradition I Can Live With

In today's Times there was a charming article on the Beefsteak, a sort of beef-orgy that started in New York around the turn of the century then drifted over to New Jersey when it got bored of New York. The idea of the Beefsteak is simple. All the beef you can eat served on rolls. And beer. And you don't eat the rolls, you just set them aside. Like counters. To prove how much meat you just ate. Here's the original 1939 New Yorker article, and here's a quote:

I went to the kitchen door and looked out. A waiter would go to a table and lay a loaded platter in the middle of it. Hands would reach out and the platter would be emptied. A few minutes later another platter would arrive and eager, greasy hands would reach out again. At beefsteaks, waiters are required to keep on bringing platters until every gullet is satisfied; on some beefsteak menus there is a notice: ``2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc., portions permitted and invited.'' Every three trips or so the waiter would bring a pitcher of beer. And every time they finished a platter, the people would rub their hands on their aprons. Sometimes a man would pour a little beer in one palm and rub his hands together briskly. At a table near the kitchen door I heard a woman say to another, ``Here, don't be bashful. Have a steak.'' ``I just et six,'' her friend replied. The first woman said, ``Wasn't you hungry? Why, you eat like a bird.'' Then they threw their heads back and laughed. It was pleasant to watch the happy, unrestrained beefsteak-eaters. While the platters kept coming they did little talking except to urge each other to eat more.

``Geez,'' said a man. ``These steaks are like peanuts. Eat one, and you can't stop. Have another.'' Presently the waiters began to tote out platters of thick lamb chops.

Doesn't that just sound perfect? The New Yorker wrote another piece on the eighty-five buck revival of the esteemed Beefsteak in 2001. The best part is when the assorted diners strike up an impromptu version of God Bless America, showing once and for all that patriotism is directly correlated to beef consumption. Now, dear readers, I have something to live for!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

It Feels Like Spring In Minneapolis

Unseasonal heat struck us today, melting the ice and driving people to the fresh, snowy streets. I went out running and it was the perfect goodbye to the city I've learned to love. I'd run this route around the lake countless times in the summer, and had wondered whether I'd ever see it again. And today I got to do the run one last time, watching all my fellow runners and the skaters and cross-country skiers who'd taken to the lake. But the best part was when somebody yelled at me (I was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, in the middle of winter) "Thats a real Minnesotan!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

One Quarter Of A Month With Brendan Mackie

You know the drill, clickity click. Next week is my last full week as an Utne intern--oh no! But that means that my blogging energy will be siphoned off onto this little blog. I'm thinking of keeping up with the Utne-style blogging, with stuff that's more to my personal tastes, but I'm still up for suggestions, if you'd like to drop any comments.

Your Guide To Weirdness On The Web
Sesame Street Goes Online (I'm internet famous yet?)
Striking Writers Discover The Joys Of Blogging
Science And Art: The Blind Date
Fighting Myanmar's Junta With Humour
Iran Fights For Its Write To Party
Growing The Green Biz
Chinese Buddhism Reincarnated

Thursday, January 24, 2008

I Wanna Be Evil

I was listening to Hermitude's album Rare Sightings--and I kept on listening to this song called Nightsgade... it reminds me of this bit of Patti Smith babble when she's at the beginning of recording a track, and the band takes a hit at the first chord, but Patti stops them and murmurs all somnambulist-like: "Keep it really sexy, and like dark... like in a really damp cave." (It's Chicklets, off the albumRadio Ethiopia) and I never really understood what she meant, I just thought of something akin to an opiate high. But this song Nightshade was exactly that: sexy like a really damp cave--if you can believe that. What really haunted me was the vocal sample, a woman sings: "I wanna be evil... I wanna tell lies" and her voice, her longing desperate human voice echoes in that really damp sexy cave of a track and it sounds so lonesome you can't really do anything about it but put the track back to the beginning and listen again. With the beauty of the internet I found the source of that sample. Here it is:

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Image by me.

Kind readers of this blog will know that I am fond of a good hoax--or perhaps they have felt the tickle of suspicion once or twice? or maybe they live in the kind comfort of the doubtless. Anyway. I stumbled on a New Yorker essay on Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's almanac and--as befitting a book you can't likely talk about without mentioning two authors meant to have written it--it seems that the book was one in the long line of literary hoaxes perpetuated by Franklin. Maybe the literary hoax appeals so much to men like Franklin because, when you find yourself agreeable to people, able to hold yourself in conversation, able to spin a story with the ease other people breathe, you get great pleasure in lying. But when you lie to real-life people, you get hurt, and you hurt others. In print, about things people barely care about, it's a different matter. Twain was much the same way. When he and his friends got together he'd always gush and talk about how much they lied. Good old Twain. Good old Franklin. Those scoundrels in all their disseminating dishonest glory represent the best of this country: the lively, entrepreneurial, brash sort. We need more of them.

Found through Fimoculous.