Dec 30, 2008

Great being number two

A British writer for the LA times attempts to explain to American readers the benefits of fading power:—
The fact is that when you're No. 1, you always get blamed for everything. When you're No. 3, or No. 5 -- or No. 135 -- you can put your hands in your pockets and whistle tunelessly with a "Who, me?" look on your face, and no one ever asks any questions.... If Britain's experience is anything to go by, Americans will soon find more satisfaction by trying to break pointless world records or writing absurdist comedy, or recovering from apocalyptic, three-gin-and-tonic lunchtime hangovers.
It echoes a recurrent conversation I have with my wife, wherein I try and console her that's its okay getting knocked from the top spot. Look at the British and the Italians and the lugubrious sense of humour that comes from losing an empire, I explain, but then I dry up. I can't think of much else besides "your sense of humour gets more ironic." Public transport gets better? Not necessarily. People like you more? As she pointed out to me the other night, "if its so great being number two, why are you always on at me about how great it is."

Dec 23, 2008

She wishes she'd done more interviews

GIZZI: What was the biggest mistake made in the ’08 campaign?

PALIN: The biggest mistake made was that I could have called more shots on this: the opportunities that were not seized to speak to more Americans via media.
I wish she had called more shots on opportunities that were not seized to speak to more Americans via media, too. Her televised interviews are among my most vivid memories of 2008. That she wishes she had made more of them gets very close to the heart of her appeal. It seems a shame that only Alaskans get to see her on a regular basis. Maybe a live webcast would be a good idea — like those webcasts they have of Panda bears in China?

Cheney gets high

WALLACE: Highest moment the last eight years?

CHENEY: Hmmm. Highest moment in the last eight years? Well, I think the most important, the most compelling, was 9/11 itself — Fox News
Okay, so he adjusted "compelling" for "highest" but still: someone asked him for the highest moment of the last 8 years and 9/11 came to mind. What sort of person, asked to name a high point, a bright spot, a ray of light in the encroaching gloom, even thinks of the single bloodiest civilian slaughter the Unites States has yet endured? Answer: someone for whom that slaughter only confirms the Bosch-like onslaught going on inside his head. Asked, "If the president during war decides to do something to protect the country, is it legal?" Cheney answered, "General proposition, I'd say yes." An astonishing admision. The "war on terror", like the "war on drugs" is, of course, a war without end. Therefore anything the president decides to do is legal, "as a general proposition."

And the winner is

Dec 19, 2008

“What we got was pabulum"

According to a former senior C.I.A. official, who read all the interrogation reports on K.S.M., “90 percent of it was total fucking bullshit.” A former Pentagon analyst adds: “K.S.M. produced no actionable intelligence. He was trying to tell us how stupid we were.” Inside the C.I.A., says a retired senior officer who was privy to the agency’s internal debate, there was hardly any argument about the value of coercive methods: “Nobody in intelligence believes in the ticking bomb. It’s just a way of framing the debate for public consumption. That is not an intelligence reality."

At the F.B.I., says a seasoned counterterrorist agent, following false leads generated through torture has caused waste and exhaustion. “At least 30 percent of the F.B.I.’s time, maybe 50 percent, in counterterrorism has been spent chasing leads that were bullshit... You get burned out, you get jaded. And you think, Why am I chasing all this stuff that isn’t true? That leads to a greater problem—that you’ll miss the one that is true. The job is 24-7 anyway. It’s not like a bank job. But torture has made it harder.”

Several of those I interviewed point out the dearth of specific claims the administration has proffered. “The proponents of torture say, ‘Look at the body of information that has been obtained by these methods.’ But if K.S.M. and Abu Zubaydah did give up stuff, we would have heard the details,” says Cloonan. “What we got was pabulum.”

I ask Robert Mueller: So far as he is aware, have any attacks on America been disrupted thanks to intelligence obtained through what the administration still calls “enhanced techniques”? “I’m really reluctant to answer that,” Mueller says. He pauses, looks at an aide, and then says quietly, declining to elaborate: “I don’t believe that has been the case.” — Vanity Fair

Dec 18, 2008

A self-devouring flame

A fascinating new book, Gotz Al's Hitler's Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State, has a look at the Nazi system of governance. Basically, they didn't have one: they had a system of invading other countries and sucking the money out of them and then using that to balance the budget. One Reichsbank study estimated that the first year of occupation cost Holland 180 percent of its normal state revenues, Belgium 200 percent, France 211 percent, and Norway 242 percent.
After every military victory, no matter how quick and relatively painless for German forces, the same problems with finances and food supplies kept cropping up ... [this] meant that the Nazi leaders had to push ahead with further military expansionism. Any hesitancy would have led to the end of the regime.
This confirms what I have long suspected about Nazism: that it was suicidal. Not just that it ended in suicide, although it did for all those in the bunker, but that it was self-destructive in essence. War didn't interrupt their plans: they had no plans for what they might like to do when they weren't invading people. Invading people was what they did, all the time. As such, it was doomed to failure, from the word go. When people say: what might life for us have looked like under Nazi rule, they are posing a non-sensensical hypothesis. Nazism was a self-devouring flame.

I feel the same way about Al Qaeda. We are regularly told that they want a worldwide Celiphate, but if you look at their statements, they have no plans for what to do, were this unlikely event to occur. They have no minister of agriculture. No opinion on taxation. No preference for which day is best to collect the garbage. They have no system of governance. Their chances of implementing it are therefore, and perhaps unsurprisingly, zero.

Something wild

Every now and again I have a strange and unlikely thought: a black man is going to be president of the United States. Holy Shit. I used to get this thought a lot, and there was one night when I got it all at once. Since then it's lost some of its frequency, but none of its ability to inspire the purest marvel, if only because now it comes out of nowhere — watching the TV, or seeing a black kid on the street and wondering what he makes of it all. But I got it again today while looking through these new pictures of Obama in Time. Holy Shit.

The year of Button

It's going to be Benjamin Button's year at the Oscars. I saw the movie last night and don't want to ruin it for anyone, save to say that it is every bit and strange and beautiful as any David Fincher fan might have wished. It's an adult Gump. It deserves to win best film, best director and best special effects and maybe best adapted screenplay. Which leaves the actings gongs for Kate and Leo Revolutionary Road, unless Senn Penn causes any upsets. I'd hard to see what else Milk can get apart from best screenplay, but I feel that may got to Slumdog Millionaire. Hmm.

That covers it

I've finally got these two covers to choose between for my novel — a comedy about alcoholism. My editor and I like different ones. Does anyone have an opinion?

Dec 13, 2008

The line from Bush to Abu Ghraib...

... has never been clearer, according to the new Senate Armed Services Committee Inquiry Into The Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody:
Conclusion 1: On February 7, 2002, President George W. Bush made a written determination that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which would have afforded minimum standards for humane treatment, did not apply to al Qaeda or Taliban detainees. Following the President’s determination, techniques such as waterboarding, nudity, and stress positions, used in SERE training to simulate tactics used by enemies that refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions, were authorized for use in interrogations of detainees in U.S. custody.

Conclusion 2: Members of the President’s Cabinet and other senior officials participated in meetings inside the White House in 2002 and 2003 where specific interrogation techniques were discussed. National Security Council Principals reviewed the CIA’s interrogation program during that period.

Conclusion 13: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques for use at Guantanamo Bay was a direct cause of detainee abuse there. Secretary Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 approval of Mr. Haynes’s recommendation that most of the techniques contained in GTMO’s October 11, 2002 request be authorized, influenced and contributed to the use of abusive techniques, including military working dogs, forced nudity, and stress positions, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Conclusion 19: The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at GTMO. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.

Dec 12, 2008

Golden Globe nominations

The Golden Globes positively stiffed Milk, nominating only Sean Penn. (We expect this to be rectified by Oscar Time). We feel safe in ignoring most of the nominations given to Frost / Nixon The Reader or Doubt, except for Amy Adams who we think could win Best Supporting Actress. The main awards should got to Benjamin Button and Revolutionary Road (film, director, best actor, actress respectively). Best comedy should be Happy-Go-Lucky. Screenplay could go to Slumdog Millionaire, to give it something. Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger. Best comic actor: Brendan Gleeson or James Franco. Best comic actress: Rebecca Hall.

Dec 9, 2008

Watch out Poland

Last Thursday on “The O’Reilly Factor,” comments made by Newt Gingrich fueled a battle between host Bill O’Reilly and New Yorker writer Hendrik Hertzberg. Ginfrich defended his comments thus:

If you go back and look at what I said, it was a very narrowly focused reference to people who were invading churches and in one case surrounding a 65-year-old person and harassing her about wearing a cross. Now, in my judgment, people who do that are fascists. And whether they are fascists on the right or fascists on the left, they’re fascists, because they believe in imposing their views on you.
I love that "narrowly focussed reference." I'd love to know what Gingrich thinks the central tens of fascism are and why Prop 8 demostrators strike him as embodying them. A preference for the petite-bourgois? The primacy placed on ties of blood and nation? A foreign policy based on radical belligerence? A totalitarian cult of personality surrounding their non-democratically appointed leader? Gingrich means none of these things, of course. He is simply using "fascist" to mean "argumentative". Sigh.

In Mickey Rourke's defence

It's not often that I feel like coming to Mickey Rourke's defence. But the snide account of his childhood in the New York Times offers an opportunity that is hard to pass up.

The piece disputes Rourke's mistreatment at the hands of his step father, Eugene Addis. “He never spoke the truth in his life,” Addis is quoted as saying, pointing out that he never abused him or his brothers “because they never needed manhandling. Mickey was the best kid I had. I had no reason to abuse him... Listen! Right now I’m in better shape than Mickey Rourke ever was. If I wanted to kick his ass I could. But I never did.”

To review. He never beat Mickey because Mickey was well behaved. And if he had chosen to beat him, he would have licked him, but he never did, because Mickey was 'the best kid I had.' Yikes.

Best TV shows 2008

Top Chef finally overtook Project Runway in our household. Tim Russert was sorely missed, although the rise of Rachel Maddow at MSNBC was splendid. The match-up between Jon Stewart's anguish and George Bush's blitheness continued to be one of the great comic marriages of our time. It will be mourned. The best performance of the year was Alec Baldwin in 30 Rock. Best Wire-replacement: The First 48.

Dec 8, 2008

Best Books 2008

I had a high-fibre year — not much fiction, a lot of history and politics, although Rick Perlstein's Nixonland felt like fiction, as did Nicholson Baker's pointillist-peacenik WWII history Human Smoke, both of which I loved. Thurston Clarke's The Last Campaign about Bobby Kennedy, was great election-year popcorn. I read The Dark Side, Jane Mayer's grave, humane book about Bush's torture program, in one horrified sitting, and subsequently found myself unable to recommend it to anyone. Russell Brand's My Booky Wook made me laugh and then exhausted me, much like the man. David Carr's Night of the Gun turned the addiction memoir genre on its head. The best biography I read was David Michaelis's Schulz & Peanuts closely followed by Neal Gabler's Disney. The Schulz gets my book of the year, though — a brilliant human being, brilliantly rendered. 

Waiting for the man

Between March and November, 2006, richard Howe photographed each and every one of Manhattan roughly 11,000 street corners.

The percentages of happiness

"Knowing someone who is happy makes you 15.3% more likely to be happy yourself, the study found. A happy friend of a friend increases your odds of happiness by 9.8%, and even your neighbor's sister's friend can give you a 5.6% boost... A happy friend who lives within a half-mile makes you 42% more likely to be happy yourself. If that same friend lives two miles away, his impact drops to 22%... Happy spouses provide an 8% boost -- if they live under the same roof. Next-door neighbors who are happy make you 34% more likely to be happy too, but no other neighbors have an effect, even if they live on the same block."— British Medical Journal

Dec 7, 2008

Best films of 2008

I didn't see many movies this year, but I don't think I missed any of the good ones. (There's not much randomness to my filmgoing these days, which is micro-targeted with unnerving and slightly joyless precision). My favorite shot of the year showed Keith Richards spitting out a lit cigarette in Shine A Light. Best bad guy was Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. Best good guy was Daniel Craig in Quantum of Solace. Crunchiest blockbuster was Iron Man. My favorite performances came from Rebecca Hall in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Anna Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married, and Sean Penn in Milk. My favorite films were Milk and WALL-E. Between those two movies, you've pretty much got the main food groups covered.

Dec 6, 2008

Who's worse: Bush or Nixon?

The other night in Washington, after a screening of Frost/Nixon, there was an impassioned debate about whether George W. Bush’s presidency was on a par with or worse than Richard Nixon’s. It prompted an angry outburst from Chris Wallace of Fox News, who scolded the panellists, "I think to compare what Nixon did, and the abuses of power for pure political self-preservation, to George W. Bush trying to protect this country – even if you disagree with rendition or water-boarding – it seems to me is both a gross misreading of history."

You could argue that Wallace has actually hit on the reason Nixon's crimes are the lesser of the two men. Bugging the 1972 Democratic party convention is nowhere near as big a deal as ordering the torture of innocent men (which is what the torture of suspects must logically entail). Yes Bush thought that in so doing he was protecting America but Nixon, too, acted to stop America from falling into the hands of commie-sympathisers during a time of war — a quite noble aim, on the face of it, and no more or less deluded than Bush's notion that torture keeps America safe. How far did Nixon really believe his own internal logic? Being the smarter of the two men, he probably didn't, which means his crimes were the more cynical. Wallace is guessing that Bush bought into his own rationale with greater gusto, which renders his acts the more wretched. He tortured by mistake.

Why Dostoevsky would have loved OJ

It's hard not to feel satisfaction over the recent sentencing of O J Simpson for armed robbery. Not because it shows us the power of the law — the whole thing has the air of getting Al Caopone in income tax evasion ‚— but because it shows us the opposite: what happens when bad deeds go unpunished. You want to know what the life of someone who gets away with double homicide looks like? It looks like Simpson's, which is to say, a slow but steady descent into bad business deals thuggery, and theft. Dostoevesky would have loved OJ for the evidence he provides of a moral law at work which surpasses our man-made legal one. Torturers suffer similar fates, although not, as far as I can see, those who perform or undergo abortions — as good an argument as any that the pro-life argument is essentially man-made. I have yet to meet anyone who has had an abortion whose life has gone off the rails in similar fashion. Sadness, grief, regret maybe, but nothing of the miserable, misbegotten quality of someone who has 'gotten away with' murder.

Nerd-Elect Obama

The blogosphere is shocked by a report that the president-elect uses the least cool MP3 player on the market. "He walked majestically across the gym floor in his track pants and sweat shirt. He hopped on the machine next to me and broke a mean sweat while reading a copy of USA Today and listening to his Zune." USA Today!? A Zune!? "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO," cried one user at the popular blog Engadget. "I want my vote back!"

When are people going to wake up to the fact that Obama is not the cool kid in class. He is the nerd who has spent so long looking at the cool kids in class that he can imitate them perfectly — but never quite join in. That is the basic story behind Dreams of My Father: Taking coke but not developing a habit. Playing basketball but too tactically to be a star. Going to Chicago because he wanted to strengthen his roots, but never quite being 'black' enough. He is the only black man I have ever seen who dances with a white man's overbite. It's one of his the most appealing qualities, in my book: the sense you get of a nerdy observer, watching and absorbing, but too ambivalent to integrate, fully.

Dec 4, 2008

The pain-free comedians

“I don’t enjoy any kind of danger or volatility. I don’t have that kind of ‘I love the bad guys’ thing. No, no thank you. I like nice people.” When I ask her if she ever gets the urge to straighten out Lindsay Lohan, who starred in Fey’s movie Mean Girls, or to counsel Tracy Morgan or Alec Baldwin when they hit tempestuous passages in their personal lives, she says, “I have no enabler bone in my body—not one. I’m sort of like, ‘Oh, are you going crazy? I’ll be back in an hour.’?” — Tina Fey, interviewed in Vanity Fair
Together with Jerry Seinfeld, Fey is part of a new super-breed of American entertainer: the entirely non-destructive comedian. There's pain there, but so expertly harvested, and turned into great gags so efficiently, that it takes you a while to work out what's missing, exactly. Nancy Franklin gets close when she calls Fey's style on 30 Rock "managerial" ("Fey’s intelligence comes across, of course, but it’s a kind of managerial intelligence, a high level of competence"). She indulges her female neuroses (age, kids, food) rather like the kid in class who joins in the ritualised moaning about exams only to ace every test. A fake self-depracator! With moderate to high self-esteem! Don't get me wrong. I love Fey on the show but I love her most when she's dealing with Alec Baldwin, behind whose gimlet eyes lie fathomless pools of pain.

Quote of the day

Never forget. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The Establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. The professors are the enemy. Write that on the blackboard 100 times.” — Richard Nixon, in conversation with Henry Kissinger, in newly released tapes. Also gems on break-ins, blacks, Eastern elites, Ivy league presidents and jews. A perfect Christmas gift!

Dec 3, 2008

Obamafy yourself

Someone has devised some software which morphs you into the famous Shepard Fairey poster of Obama. Just what I wanted for Christmas. Unfortunately, it appears to have turned me into the Unabomber. Hope, it appears, cannot change everything.

Dec 2, 2008

In The Rooms: the CD

I'm going to be burning CDs for those that want them. Here is the track listing:—

Novel Writing
— Monty Python (Matching Tie & Handkerchief)
The Slow Descent into Alcoholism — The New Pornographers (Mass Romantic: Remastered)
Just Because I Can — Prefab Sprout (B side)
The Absence of God — Rilo Riley (More Adventurous)
Blue — Cat Power Jukebox (Deluxe Edition)
The Pills Won't Help You Now — The Chemical Brothers (We Are the Night)
Too Young — Phoenix (United)
I Don't Know What It Is — Rufus Wainwright (Want One)
Crash Into Me — Dave Matthews Band (Fatboy Slim Remix)
Love Is Blindness — Cassandra Wilson (New Moon Daughter)
Trouble Man — Marvin Gaye (Anthology Series: The Best of Marvin Gaye)
I Am The Walrus — The Beatles (Love)
Useless Desires — Patty Griffin (Impossible Dream)
I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free — Nina Simone (Nina Simone: Anthology)
The Things We Do for Love — 10cc (The Best of 10cc)
It Looks Like Love — Josh Rouse (Subtitulo)
Girls In Their Summer Clothes — Bruce Springsteen (Magic)
Signed, Sealed, Delivered (DJ Smash Essential Funk Mix) — Stevie Wonder (Motown Remixed)
Lola (Live) — The Kinks

The end of irony (again)

"Again and again, perfectly sentient adults cited the clinching arguments made on the candidate's behalf by their children. Again and again we were told that this was a generational thing, we couldn't understand. In a flash, we were back in high school, and we couldn't sit with the popular kids, we didn't get it. The Style section of The New York Times, on the Sunday after the election, mentioned the Obama T-shirt that "makes irony look old." Irony was now out. Naiveté, translated into "hope," was now in. Innocence, even when it looked like ignorance, was now prized."— Joan Didion NYRB
The last time America was supposed to have lost its sense of irony was 9/11. It's hard to know what people meant exactly. It's nor as if the nation's wits, so used to ironising mass slaughter, went: okay not this time. The same with elections. It's a pretty prosaic either-or kind of deal: you go into a booth and you pull a lever. Pretty hard to do that ironically. You could of course try and argue that your support for a candidiate was only ironic, but the joke would be on you, surely? I could be wrong. Maybe all the people who voted for Bush were being ironic about it, but if so then it didn't make the blind bit of difference. All of which is a round about way of saying that Didion sounds cranky as hell. Hope? Bah humbug.

Stuff I've learned

So I'm in the final furlong of my book. Since I've never written a novel before I thought it might be something to list the things I've learned.

1) I always know when I am wrong but it takes a while to admit it. That feeling — knowing-I'm-wrong-but-taking-my-time-to-admit-it — is suspiciously close to the feeling I get when I have a good idea.
2) I cannot write a character whom I don't, in some sense, love.
3) Making the reader fall in love with someone is impossible.
4) Problems that I am convinced are completely insolvable, without becoming someone else entirely — a much better writer, say — are invariably quite solvable, if only I do the thing I don't want to do.
5) Conversations can be about anything.
6) Themes are deadly. (Actually I already knew this, but not so well that I didn't have to find it out again).
Scenery can be a good thing but only if someone is doing something.
8) Final chapters can be a bit like parties where you drink too much and embarrass yourself.
9) Not knowing whether you've written a good book or a bad book is not just the way it works, but the way it should be.
10) Taking a walk is never a bad idea.