Friday, February 27, 2009

Black and White and Touched All Over

No sooner did the "cutting-edge" Kindle 2 set the new threshold for black and white, unipurpose slabs of plastic than rumors are a-leakin' about the utterly revolutionary and groundbreaking Kindle 3, mocked-up here (via Engadget).

Kindle 3: NOW WITH TOUCH SCREEN (finally).

Still in trusty, utilitarian, don't-frighten-the-villagers black and white though. Nice work!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mr. Lincoln's Baltimore Adventure

And now, a short piece I wrote about Abe's lousy trip to Baltimore in 1861 for US News and World Report's If only he'd had Moon Baltimore!

I am a cross-promotional whore extraordinaire.

Hanging Romania's Dictator

In thee New York Times: The history behind the new exhibit at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest: “Overcoming Dictatorship.”

"[S]ycophants kept a virtual army of state-approved artists busy painting portraits of [Nicolae] Ceausescu and his wife, thousands of them. These ended up in public buildings and in the various homes of the dictator, who loved to receive as birthday gifts pictures of himself showing how much the Romanian people loved him. Ceausescu constructed a whole building to store these portraits.

Big, brightly colored scenes of Communist kitsch, they showed the dictator and his wife smiling before reverent mobs of workers, receiving flowers from ruddy-cheeked female soldiers, and wearing white 1970s leisure suits that, like the peaked winter hat Ceausescu made de rigeur for all loyal apparatchiks, became the height of Romanian fashion once upon a time."

Photo: Cristian Movila for The New York Times

Monday, February 23, 2009

The People's Plasma Shields?

So, say it's 1990, and you're Danny Stillman, director of the technical intelligence division at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and you're visiting the Shanghai Institute of Nuclear Research (SINR) in China, and some of the friendly chaps there hand you some 35mm photos that show huge weird domes of light blossoming over northern China, near Soviet missile ranges. And they ask you "So, Danny, what do you think these are?"

The correct answer is: "I have no freaking idea."

One not-improbable answer: plasma shields (a CCCP fave) or even Tesla Domes ; much like the jolly Nazi scientific strides (ICBMs, jet fighters, etc.) made in the closing act of World War Deux, the Soviet military machine was undertaking some pretty fantastic work at the end of the Cold War (to keep up with American awesomosity).

The caption for the above photo, from Physics Today and Stillman's laugh-a-minute book The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and its Proliferation:

Such domes expanded very rapidly, at around 3 km/s, with the centers remaining quite transparent. They stopped appearing in mid-1991. Could the light domes have been related to testing a defense system against incoming missiles? Could they result from self-destruct mechanisms on the missiles? To this day the origins of the domes of light are classified top secret in Russia. Outsiders know only two things for certain: The dome phenomena happened, and no one in the West really knows why.

Sleep tight!

Thanks Pa

Saturday, February 21, 2009

"Moronic and Meaningless"

Thee New York Times Book Review has, wonderfully, enlisted the skilled Walter Kirn (who, at the ripe age of 32, totally married Maggie McGuane, Margot Kidder's 19-year-old daughter! Score! Note that this will become even more awesome at the end of this post) to review the idiotic tome of stupidity and misinformed thought that is David Denby's "Snark" (no link provided by me, ever, for this turd).

Things get off to a swell start as Kirn writes:
"And that, sir, is snark, society’s arch­enemy — making light fun of vulgar criminal robber barons who steal more in a month than Capone stole in a decade."

Kirn then goes to work on Denby's insipid misinterpretation of snark with the skill of a 17th-century Spanish rapier master de-skinning a particularly loathsome opponent.

To wit:

"He wants to correct and restrain, using scholarship and logic, perhaps the keenest, most reflexive, prehistoric and anarchic of simple human pleasures, short of eating or achieving orgasm. The act of laughter, this would be."

"As a species of vicious contemporary humor, it is defined by Denby in many ways — so many, in fact, that the creature never materializes as anything more than a shadow on a wall that Denby keeps shooting at yet never hits."

"Denby then engineers an accusation that’s even more moronic and meaningless."

Was it completely fair for the NYT Book Review to enlist Kirn, a former Spy mag staffer, to review a book that singles out that treasured tome for particular scorn, as it somehow offended the rich people it was, um, offending, which (according to Denby) is somehow more offensive than making fun of poor people? No. Is it, instead, awesome that they did that? Yes.

I think Denby has this weird gamma-dog relationship to powerful and rich people; see his totally weird arrangement with his ex-wife Cathleen Schine. In an attempt to keep his seven-room Upper West Side apartment, he invested $325,000 during the heyday (2000) of the NASDAQ boom. Somehow, he managed to lose $1,000,000. Read about this entire fiasco here. And here.

It is also worth noting that Denby's judgment has, apparently, always been completely poor: Schine, his wife of 18 years, left him for another woman. Get it? Yes, I just called Denby a woman. ZING.

Nice scarf, honey.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Laser Pants's Product-less Product Review: The Kindle 2

Welcome to the first installment of Laser Pants's Product-Less Product Review.

Today, let's take a look at Amazon's new Kindle 2. It costs $359 US.

And here it is:
The Kindle 2

Check it out.

It's white plastic.

Got a little keyboard.

Some buttons on the side.

And . . . we're done.

For a quick comparison to another popular handheld electronic device, here's a photo of Apple's iPhone.

I'd have to say that the first and most obvious shortcoming of the Kindle is the IT'S STILL IN FUCKING BLACK AND WHITE, not unlike the Franklin Executive Desk Companion DCN-290.

Here is an image of the Franklin Executive Desk Companion DCN-290. I couldn't find a picture of a human hand actually holding this fucking thing, because I guess all the hand models were like "Touch it? TOUCH it?!?!? Are you fucking insane? I'd rather do bestiality hand porn."

Wait, do you see what I see? It looks like this goddamn thing has a touch screen. UNLIKE THE KINDLE.

And you know what? That's pretty much the end of this review. With an a) like "It's in black and white and doesn't have a touch screen," you don't need a b). We shan't even get into the lack of video, photo, music, telephony, camera, e-mail, GPS, etc. etc. etc. Yes, I understand that those aren't the job of the Kindle. The job of the Kindle is, apparently, to be a really shitty book. With a keyboard.

And a black and white screen.

Here's another image of it.

Look, there's President Obama, on the front page of Thee New York Times.

Which, the last time I checked, WAS PRINTED ON NEWSPRINT IN FUCKING COLOR.

I am totally fucking perplexed as to why anyone would look at this boring black and white affront to humanity and go, "Oh sure, I'll pay $359 for black and white and no telephone or music. Sign me up. Fuck it, I'll take two. I'm going to give one to my domestic help, for whom I pay no taxes."

Oh . . . wait . . . I was peeping the hawt specs on this and just noticed that the Kindle 2 now boasts "20% faster page turns."

Whoa . . . TWENTY percent?

Well, OK then.

Let's Get Drinking, America!

The brilliant Nate "FiveThirtyEight" Silver points out (in an article that's really about the decline in expensive drinking or something) that we should all be drinking locally-made American microbeers, because every single macrobeer maker is now owned by scheming, socialist foreigners.

Which is probably not the best thing for the economy, but point taken.

But never drink Coors, no matter what.

Tale of Content

Slate's Jack Shafer on the maybe-future-look of paid Intertubes content.

"If the commercial Internet didn't get going until 1995, then we're only 13 or 14 years into the Web era. When television was 13 or 14, practically no pay-TV operations existed outside of a relatively few cable television operations. Starting the 1970s and then in the 1980s, paid TV in the form of HBO and other premium stations started to take root. Radio, born in the early 1920s, didn't arrive in a paid form until just early in this century."

"We don’t know anything"

Well, the New Yorker's Anthony Lane sure digs the film adaptation of Gomorrah.

"The movie ends on a beach, every bit as haunting as those deserted strands unveiled by Antonioni in 'The Girlfriends' and 'Beyond the Clouds.' We could, in short, be watching the loveliest of art-house films, were it not for the dead bodies being scooped off the sand by a digger."

Illustration by Frank Stockton

Monday, February 16, 2009

Never Get Out Of The Boat

Island Creek, NC

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Mr. Beef, the popular Italian beef sandwich restaurant serving River North for 30 years, is facing a foreclosure lawsuit filed by a bank seeking more than $600,000.

All may not be lost, however:
"Jay Fritz, Midwest Bank's chief executive, said his bank does not comment on clients' accounts. But he said he 'loves' Mr. Beef's food."
(Thanks to Furious Bob Fox)

Tribune photo/ Antonio Perez

"The Amish bring us new ideas every day."

"But the Amish have not traditionally been celebrated for their space heaters."

Well I, for one, think it's about time they were!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Man Is Keeping You Down

With his bogus and fascist-as-hell Handcrank Electrofishing rules and regulations. Smash the System!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Norilsk City Party People

Photos by Alexander Sorin of Norilsk.

"Why on earth do you take my picture?" he said, panting. "I am not a bloody Marilyn Monroe."

Found at the always intoxicating English Russia.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Lostpediapoetry: The Little Prince

The following are taken from theories posted to Lostpedia for the episode "The Little Prince." Note that the page will probably be cleaned up soon.


Jin and Time Traveling
  • There is the link between the time traveling and 4-8-15-16-23-42. If you consider the Island's time was 1996, when you subtract number '42' from the island's year, than the year changes to 1954, which was the exact year Locke met Richard. And when you subtract '4', the year changes to 1992, which was the year Ben annihilated the DHARMA Initiative. I kept doing this and found significant coincidence. Here's what I found out: 1996 - 42 = 1954 'Locke meet Richard in S5E03', 1996 - 4 = 1992 'Ben killed the DHARMA Initiative, 1996 - 8 = 1988 'Jin meet Danielle Rousseau', 1996 + 8 = 2004 'The Losties arrive on the Island', 1996 - 15 = 1981 'The Year the Swan(Or Pearl) DHARMA Video was filmed', 1996 - 16 = 1980 'The Year the Pearl(Or Swan - Sorry Iam confused here) DHARMA video was filmed'. I will try to keep the other relationships Up-To-Date
  • I Is very frustrating hearing people repeatedly make the mistake of comparing Jin's interaction with Danielle with Daniel's interaction with Desmond. it was EXPLICITLY stated that Desmond's case is unique and that in all other cases the memory of the person in the past would not be altered. Please stop making this comparison as a theory because it has already been dismantled in the canon of the show
    • No, Faraday did not EXPLICITLY state that Desmond's case is unique and that in all other cases the memory of the person in the past would not be altered. He simply told Sawyer that 2001 Desmond wouldn't recognize 2004 Sawyer because they hadn't met yet.
    • No, it hasn't. The only thing we heard was Daniel calling Desmond 'special', but Daniel himself might be far from understanding everything that's going on on the Island. Or even simpler - he might have told that to Des just to emphasize his point. Daniel has lied before - e.g., telling Jack they came to the Island to rescue everybody.
    • We heard Daniel tell Desmond explicitly that the rules don't apply to him:

DESMOND: Do I know you?

FARADAY: Yeah... in a way. But listen, that's not important. What is important, Desmond, is what I'm about to say to you. I need you to listen. You're the only person who can help us because, Desmond... the rules... the rules don't apply to you. You're special. You're uniquely and miraculously special.

DESMOND: What are you talking about?


Not-so-random Time Shifts
  • The Island is "remembering" its greatest hits and Locke & friends are just along for the ride.
  • The jumps are CAUSING the greatest hits . . .French science team wouldn't have been shipwrecked if the island had not show up when it did. Island is "re-appearing" in each jump on an ocean that was empty beforehand . . .
    • So is the time travel causing the storm? Because if the island was not there, wouldn't the storm have just drowned them all? If that is the case, how are they traveling to calm, sunny days?
    • Not sure what the point is about the storm...but I completely agree that the island jumping around is causing these collisions. The beachcraft, the French science explorers, even 815 all were merrily traveling along when the island more or less hit THEM. The Blackrock is the next obvious "hit."
    • Yes, they appear to move to times other people crashed on the island or incidents occurred. This may correspond to times when the island moved in space. The Beechcraft left from Africa, and the Black Rock wasn't in the Pacific.
    • Or it would make for boring television if they went to a time when nothing happened


People shooting at Sawyer, Daniel, Charlotte, Juliet, and Miles

The Oceanic Six who are returning to the island. They were aboard an Ajira flight when it crashed.
  • Why would the returning Oceanic 6 be firing on random strangers that they can't identify? Because obviously if they could identify them they wouldn't be shooting.
    • Why does Ben do any of the things he does. I assume even in the future he has his reasons.
    • Lost characters are rather notorious for aiming at and firing upon people they barely know or can't see. This would be no different.
    • Maybe they were shooting at them because their boat was stolen.
    • Why would the returning O6 be so caring of a stolen boat instead of being interested if the people who took the boat were their friends?
  • If it was the O6 who was firing on USS Locke maybe they thought they were an as yet unseen threatening group. From that distance you couldn't make out faces
  • First thought while watching: it's the same canoe, with Juliet, Sawyer et al., after a later "flash" that brings them further into the past. So you end up with the future canoe crew coming up on a distant canoe from the past, but they assume it's simply another group that had been firing on them earlier, and Juliet begins firing at herself. But in hindsight that seems too convoluted.
    • No, it can't be so. If the present Juliet shot someone from the same canoe in the past, then this person should be dead by now.
    • How many canoes were on the beach?
  • The theory that the canoe 'others' as well as the Ajira castaways are the O6 has merit. If they were firing blindly at the boat thieves, it is safe to assume that the O6 still have enemies in pursuit and would have assumed the boat thieves were these enemies. That's why they fired at them. Widmore follows them...that rascal!
    • Yes, but the Others mainly have bows and arrows, right? I thought that they only had the few guns they got from the soldiers.
  • Maybe the people firing at the survivors all had only four toes! Maybe they built the ruins, or are from the Black Rock. This does not explain how the Ajira bottle was in the canoe, but it's a good theory!
    • I have to discredit this. The statue was old looking, and the Black Rock was a ship pre-modern weaponry. How can you explain people pre-modern weaponry having guns?

    • IV.

      The Sickness

      Daniel's not English. He doesn't even have a trace of an English accent. France is closer to half-dozen other countires than it is to England.

      • France is a large country - if you are in NW France you are closer to England than any other country. Also, factor in communities - expat areas of either country or 'muddled' islands (Jersey etc.). Finally, don't dismiss a French person learning English - I think you'd be rather suprised how many French people speak excellent English (often far better than the English spoken by some of us Brits!), so I don't think this criticism is justified. As to Daniel's accent - Daniel moved to America with his Father....??! And not all English people have 'English' accents - e.g. Greg Rusedski plays tennis for Britain, yet has a strong Canadian accent. Any number of possibilities here.
    • OIt does seem odd that 1988 [corrected] Rousseau speaks better, unaccented English than 2004 Rousseau.
    • different actress...there's nothing more to it. Plus, older Danilelle is played by a hungarian anyway!
    • It was actually 1988 and I would guess that not practicing a foreign language for 16 years would make your rusty. I had two years of German in high school, can't speak a word of it now.
    • If you didn't used to have an accent, you probably wouldn't acquire one, even if you'd forgotten German vocabulary.
    • Good point
    • I am going to stick with the 'different actress' theory. As good at casting as the producers are, they can't do everything perfectly everytime.


    Not-so-random Time Shifts

    • The time-jumping Survivors are shifting to specific points of time in the Island's history when important events occurred. These events are often an arrival to the Island.
    • The Black Rock's arrival has not yet been presented.
    • The origin of the four-toed statue has not yet been presented.
    • The Island, if in fact it is conscious, is remembering its most significant events hits: Locke and the others in his party are along for the ride.
    • The jumps cause the events.
    • The jumps do not necessarily occur at the instant of the event; the Island go to the next point and waits. It may do things, such as broadcast a radio signal with six seemingly unrelated numbers.


    Rose and Bernard

    • The couple has not been seen since "The Lie".
    • Rose & Bernard, unlike the other Survivors who ran into the tree line to rendezvous at the creek, took the Zodiac and left for an undetermined destination.
    • They're not young and hot, so TPTB are ignoring them, and not many watching care.
    • After the flaming arrow attack, they went to hide in the caves (this was previously an ideal, safe place to live). There, they live together happily, oblivious to the time jumping and other things going on, and become Adam & Eve.
      • Assuming they're still jumping in tandem with everyone else, this isn't possible. They would've jumped to a time when the survivors were living in the caves. Awkward!



    • The canoes with the Ajira water bottles were left there by the Oceanic 6 upon their return.
    • Then shouldn't that stop the time skipping? It is the theme of this season that the return of the 6 will "normalize things".

    Ms. Hawkings says there is only 70 hours left or else they cant reach the Island, do you really think they got the time to travel to the island by sea, BY HAND!? no way. They got their either by another plane or 10 times faster boat, or another timetraveling machine of some sort. Maby the machine mrs. hawkings is using!? we still dont know that her machine does entierly?

    • A second plane crash.
      • The Oceanic 6, plus Ben, plus dead Locke - return via an Ajira flight; once they are there, they build the canoes to travel the island more quickly (or between the two islands).
        • Or the Others were expecting their return and had these boats ready and waiting.
        • Build the canoes?
        • Once they are where?
    • It's after the Oceanic 6 return, along with Ben. Charles Widmore has now discovered that Ben and/or the other survivors are on the island again/still, and has sent a larger team in, instructing them to kill everyone on the island.
    • The Ajira water bottle does not mean an Ajira plane is anywhere in the vicinity of the Island. The bottle means that someone who knew there was a need for drinking water used an available resource to carry it.
    • Yes. ABC has created a front website, created TV Ads, inserted a water bottle into an episode all because an Ajira water bottle was the nearest available container.


    Why are Charlotte, Miles, and Juliet the only ones affected by "the sickness" so far

    • Miles and Charlotte have not found constants due to the short stay, Juliet has only connected with her sister, and Goodwin who is dead. Save conversation for discussion pages.
    • Now that they are all unstuck in time the people who have lived on the island the longest are affected most by the temporal displacement. Charlotte and Miles were both presumably born on the island. Charlotte lived there the longest then Miles (who is Marvin Candle's son) and then Juliet who has only been on the island three years. It's easier for the people from 815 to cope with the temporal displacement because they haven't spent large stretches of time on the island only being there for a few months. It's harder and harder to deal with the displacement the longer you have been on the island.
    • I guess Charlotte could be the daughter of Horace Goodspeed, who brought her to the island when the Dharma Initiative settled there. She also looks quite similar to him! That's the reason why she's the first of them who gets the sickness. Miles arrived/was born on the island a few years later when his father (Marvin Candle) starts his work there. Juliet should be the next...
      • Charlotte is younger than Miles. Miles would have had to have been born first considering Marvin Candle was filming the Dharma video and some of the Dharma Stations were not built yet. This is at least a few years before the Initiative begins.
        • Miles could have left the island sooner than Charlotte, despite being older. There definitely seems to be something to Daniel's theory that the longer you've spent on the island, the faster it effects you. It's also possible that Charlotte was born on the island some time in the future, and spent a great deal of time there during a period we're not even aware of yet.
      • Juliet is next; her nose started bleeding in last night's episode. If Charlotte and Miles were on the island with DHARMA, how/why did they get off it before the purge? And how exactly does Charlotte look anything like Horace?



    • "CANTON-RAINIER" (on the side of the carpet-cleaning van that Ben and Jack were driving in) is an anagram for "reincarnation." The immediate assumption is that this is a reference to Locke coming back to life, but technically, that is re-animation, not reincarnation. Note that when the time-travelers flashed to their own time on the island, Locke pointed out that it was "the day that Boone died," and Sawyer witnessed Claire giving birth to Aaron, happening at pretty much the exact same time. I have no idea WHY we have any reason for Boone to be reincarnated into Aaron, but it's awfully curious that those were the specific two (and ONLY two) events referenced. (Locke once said he believed Boone was a "sacrifice the island demanded" -- perhaps to allow Claire to give birth?) (And to bring this into the realm of the completely absurd, "Aaron Boone" happens to be the New York Yankee who broke Red Sox' fans hearts in the 2003 post-season -- and we do know that the producers like to throw around Red Sox references.)
    • You had me until the Aaron Boone reference. But I do think there is a possible link between the life-extension project and the fertility problem. Maybe someone does, in fact, have to die in order to open up a spot for another to be born on the island. May also explain why people are so eager to kill newcomers to the island. Maybe the island has a maximum occupancy?
    • You forgot Aaron Boone's middle name.
  • Thursday, February 5, 2009

    From the Quill of Kool Mo Dee

    Before I even get started! Doug E Fresh created the beat box! Doug E Fresh created the beat box! There was no such thing as the human beat box until Doug E Fresh created it! Just think about that for a minute! Keep thinking! OK!

    First in an occasional series of passages from Kool Mo Dee's
    There's a God on the Mic: The True 50 Greatest MCs.

    Tuesday, February 3, 2009

    Goings On From Around The Town

    Fire breaks out at Dundalk bikini strip club

    By Gus G. Sentementes, Baltimore Sun
    7:46 AM EST, February 3, 2009

    Baltimore County firefighters were battling a blaze at a Dundalk bikini club, where fire broke out about 5 a.m. today, authorities said.

    Firefighters called for a second alarm, bringing more emergency units to Bustos, a nightclub for adults featuring women dancing in bikinis. The club is in the 4000 block of North Point Blvd., authorities said.

    Blaze Starr in her living room, 1964, by Diane Arbus

    The Laser Pants Books Of The Month Club Revue: January

    Each month in 2009, I am reading two books (minimum), and posting reviews. One of these books must be "real," in that it cannot be about zombies or musicians.

    I will rank the books on a zero to five Laser Pants Bookie Icon scale, zero being the nadir of the written word.

    This month: Bad Money by Kevin Phillips, and State by State, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey.
    Look for an independent bookstore at which to purchase these tomes here. I like Atomic Books in Baltimore best.

    Bad Money
    Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism
    256 pages
    by Kevin Phillips

    Laser Pants Bookie Rating (0 to 5):

    As you may have heard, the American economy is in El Shitter, as they say. What Kevin Phillips--ex-Nixon staffer, conservative economic shaman, and pontificator extraordinaire--has to say about it is sobering, fascinating and (potentially) pants-shittingly terrifying.

    Before I get to his econo-doomsaying, I gotta call him out on one prediction: Phillips claimed that the rise on the right of empty-headed Jesus freaks would ruin this earth; thankfully, that didn't pan out, proving that people are not totally retarded (mostly), and he somewhat takes the foul on that call. But that inability of analysts and economists to predict just what crazy shit people will do and believe, especially over time, does provide a reason to take all this with a grain of salt.

    Still, the rest of his grim predictions--backed up with lots of unnerving facts and analyses that frankly I wish I had neglected to ever be reminded of--have come true, appartently (a fact he is more than happy to reinforce, a bit too often).

    So, basically, we're dead, and it all has something to do with going off the gold standard, which Nixon did, so . . . is this Phillips' fault? I got lost. Frankly, economics is vicious territory for me (think pasty-northern European in southeast Asia vicious), and has always seemed too much like alchemy + algebra + psychology, which seems like an inherently doomed endeavor.

    There are a lot of augurs of doom here that ring nauseatingly true; I won't go into them all, but suffice it to say that going off the gold standard, plus getting OPEC nations to peg their sales to the U.S. greenback, plus the U.S. banking industry going into the debt reshuffling business rather than the banking business, plus the dearth of manufacturing, plus stupid people, plus Europeans going along with it, plus some other shit, all means that we = fucked. And things should get grimmer, barring massive change of the sort that never happens. Even President Hopey Obama and his gang of hopeful idea-kateers probably won't be able to change the course of this doomed luxury liner.

    Still, though Phillips has a grimly admirable track record for waving the red flag before the financial bloodlettings of the past, I can't completely agree with some of the linkages he makes. For instance, he makes strong cases that the American Oil-Dependent Dominance (my term) is bound to fail, just as the Dutch Wind-Dependent Dominance and the British Coal-Dependence did, each brought down by the next Resource-Dependent regime (the Dutch succumbed to the British who succumbed to the Americans).

    Somehow, I just can't get behind this idea, mostly because the "next" resource (nuclear cars? solar container ships?) will never exist, I think. Also, the weird linked-ness of everything these days (without getting all Thomas Freidman-y--and hey, here's his ginormous house!), I am not sure that things have not changed enough to make this historical trend a bit less of a sure-thing. Does he make the case that a Chinese Oil-Dependent Dominance can come to pass? Yes, but that doesn't jibe with his theory, exactly, because they are still using oil (which they are totally grabbing as fast as they can). And the inherent artificiality of the Chinese (and the Russkie) economic systems is something that I'd like to read more about, because I think the false pretenses of the Potemkin Economies they set up--ones where, at the whim of the Politburo or Putinburo, white can be declared black, loss can be declared profit, and companies can be giveth and takethen away on a whim--can't last as long as the awesome American one. Doing business with those sorts of economies drives real economies (and the EU) crazy. Though the Germans and Eastern Europeans have to put up with this churlish crap for now, I don't think this sort of weirdness can last. Or maybe it can. I am one bet-hedging bastard these days, huh?

    Anyway, read this excerpt, then pour a bourbon and get your glum on.


    State by State
    A Panoramic Portrait of America: 50 Writers on 50 States
    608 pages
    Edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey

    Laser Pants Bookie Rating (0 to 5):

    There's a link here to Bad Money: Back during the last Giant Fetid Economic Turd Time, thee Great Depression, one of the things the WPA did in the 1930s was to send writers to the (then 48) states and write about them, their people, their amusing parochial quirks and ticks (like lynching and inbreeding), and then publish these studies. It was called the WPA American Guide series, and it was pretty swell, and some 6,000 writers and designers and artists churned out the resulting tomes. This new book is an updated version of that idea; though done with much less firepower; two editors and fifty writers. There are also some photos, all supplied by the writers, one for each state. Hey, times are tight now!

    Overall, this thing is a pretty big success, and is so because not only do the expected writers hit the home runs you expect them to, but some weird and surprising utility players come off the bench and knock a few out of the park. Sometimes, the essay does nothing to dissolve presuppositions of a state, but is so good it doesn't matter; other times, the writer grabbed a great idea that might not have been totally obvious and did such a great job with it that it works unexpectedly. The few stumbles are also, unsurprisingly, from some name writers, and also from some states which would seem to be destined to produce great pieces but which instead offer up something less than satisfying.

    The expected All-Stars and related name players here who earn their reps are California, by William T. Vollman (which is as thick with words and ideas as you would expect); Connecticut, by Rick Moody (great stories of Ice Storm-era CT); Georgia, by Ha Jin (one of the many good "America through the eyes of a non-American" pieces); Massachusetts, by John Hodgman (funny in expected and unexpected ways); Michigan, by Mohammed Naseehu Ali (another great piece with clarity provided by foreignness); Nebraksa, by Alexander Payne (a secret Greek!); New Jersey, by Anthony Bourdain (like a beloved cheesesteak, it is what it is); New York, by Johnathan Franzen (a concept that could have been gag-inducing that instead came off nicely); North Carolina, by Randall Kenan (hogs); Rhode Island, by Jhumpa Lahiri (good because it is both through the prism of Indian family life and also New England-savvy eyes); South Carolina, by Jack Hitt (completely Charleston-centric but aware of the folly of it); South Dakota, by Said Sayrafiezadeh (I hated this one at first--hapless vegan LES Manhattanites head to South Dakota on a whim to go fishing and camping? Ugh--and then loved it when they, without pretense, loved South Dakota); Virginia, by Tony Horwitz (Virginia is for lovers, and is also a Civil War charnel house), and Wyoming, by Alexandra Fuller (which contains the wisdom given by a cowboy on a cattle drive tripping his balls off). Of that lengthy list, my favorites were by Moody, Ali, Payne, Kenan, Lahiri, Hitt, and Sayrafiezadeh--all great pieces in very different ways, from no-nonsense (Kenan) to full-nonsense (Sayrafiezadeh).

    There were only a few deflating pieces; these include those by big-name authors who really seemed to just dial it in (Ohio, Susan Orlean) and regurgitate too much of the old WPA write-ups; those who seemed too cranky for the job (Mississippi, Barry Hannah); and those who told personal tales that were just not that interesting (West Virginia, Jayne Anne Phillips; Wisconsin, Daphne Beal). Hannah's begrudgingly-scrawled Mississippi tale was but seven pages; Phillips' West Virginia family epic dragged on for 14.

    The book also has 30 tables at the end, ranking the states in everything from incarceration to roller coasters per capita and suicide rate; these make for good ammo for arguments with relations and friends in, say, Florida, which ranks #48 in "Classic Movie Theaters and Drive-Ins per capita" (Maryland is #32, so nyah).

    My only other complaint with this book--and it's probably going to be congenital in something like this--is that too many of the authors grew up in the safe boring suburbs of a state's major city, and did little to transcend that narrow experience by, say, returning to the state for some research. Some writers had great material from that past; others did not and used it anyway.

    But, all in all, it's a winner, and worth reading.

    Monday, February 2, 2009