Thursday, December 31, 2009

An Interview with Lorrie Moore

I'm reading—and loving!—Lorrie Moore's Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? right now. Her mastery of dialogue, her deep understanding of awkwardness, her with and humor never cease to blow me over page after page. I'll forever envy Nate for studying with her in Madison.

Here's a nice little interview with the editor of The New York Times Book Review, Sam Tanenhaus, about her latest novel, A Gate at the Stairs...

Monday, December 28, 2009

Ø≈ → ≈Ø

Remembering Vic Chesnutt: 1964–2009

Vic Chesnutt died on Christmas day in Athens, GA. He left behind a solid body of work that reveals with heartbreaking honesty—and, often, comic clarity—the most daunting melancholia (with which he was all too familiar), but also the tremendous wonders of life. He had a vital perspective and a singular voice that transcended an understandable cynicism. As his friend Michael Stipe said, "We have lost one of our great ones."

Monday, December 21, 2009

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"Shagged by a rare parrot"

Learning from Leaves

Here's another fascinating report from our friend Lauren Sommer for Quest Radio in California.

"At UC Berkeley, scientists studying how to feed our growing need for energy have turned to a surprising source. As Lauren Sommer reports, researchers there are trying to produce the next generation of green power by mimicking something every weekend gardener works to clean up."

QUEST on KQED Public Media.

Learn more HERE.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

New Order Live in NYC in 1981

I was just about three months old when these videos were recorded. Ian Curtis had died a year and a half earlier.

There are more at the wonderful self-titled magazine site! (Thanks for the tip, Shannon!)

Kudos to Cecil Bothwell and his "Solemn Affirmation"

This story is encouraging in that an atheist was elected to public office; it is discouraging because of...well, watch for yourself...

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The octopus found a coconut, he used it like a tool...

This coconut-carrying octopus off the coast of Indonesia is the first invertebrate in which such intelligent tool use has been observed. Read about the discovery of this surprising behavior here.
"Tool use was once thought to be an exclusively human skill, but this behaviour has now been observed in a growing list of primates, mammals and birds.

The researchers say their study suggests that these coconut-grabbing octopuses should now be added to these ranks.

National Geographic has another good article on the clever cephalopods.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"It's sentimental I know..."

On the heels of that big post about religion, here's a clever (and surprisingly poignant) Christmas song from British/Australian comedian Tim Minchin, which offers a nice humanistic alternative to the vapid sentimentality and "dodgy" lyrics of most of the Christmas repertoire...though I do, along with Minchin, quite like the songs. He even references Dawkins, and has some lines about everything from the tax-exempt status of churches to moral absolutism! Ultimately, though, it's a song about family. It's sentimental, I know, but I just really like it...

Here are the lyrics to "White Wine in the Sun" (aka "The Christmas Song") by Tim Minchin:
I really like Christmas
It's sentimental I know
But I just really like it

I am hardly religious
I’d rather break bread with Dawkins than Desmond Tutu
To be honest

And yes I have all of the usual objections to consumerism
To the commercialization of an ancient religion
To the westernization of a dead Palestinian
Press-ganged into selling Playstations and beer
But I still really like it

I'm looking forward to Christmas
Though I'm not expecting
A visit from Jesus

I'll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They'll be drinking white wine in the sun
I'll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They'll be drinking white wine in the sun

I don't go in for ancient wisdom
I dont believe just cos ideas are tenacious
It means that they're worthy

I get freaked out by churches
Some of the hymns that they sing have nice chords
But the lyrics are dodgy

And yes I have all of the usual objections to the miseducation
Of children who in tax-exempt institutions are taught to externalize blame
And to feel ashamed and to judge things as plain right or wrong
But I quite like the songs

I'm not expecting big presents
The old combination of socks, jocks, and chocolates
Is just fine by me

Cos I’ll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They'll be drinking white wine in the sun
I'll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They'll be drinking white wine in the sun

And you, my baby girl
My jetlagged infant daughter
You'll be handed round the room
Like a puppy at a primary school

And you won't understand
But you will learn some day
That wherever you are and whatever you face
These are the people
Who'll make you feel safe in this world
My sweet blue-eyed girl

And if my baby girl
When you're twenty-one or thirty-one
And Christmas comes around
And you find yourself 9000 miles from home
You’ll know whatever comes
Your brothers and sisters and me and your mum
Will be waiting for you in the sun

Whenever you come
Your brothers and sisters
Your aunts and your uncles
Your grandparents, cousins
And me and your mum
Will be waiting for you in the sun
Drinking white wine in the sun

Darling when Christmas comes
We'll be waiting for you in the sun
Drinking white wine in the sun
Waiting for you in the sun
Waiting for you

I really like Christmas
It’s sentimental I know

And as an added treat for the holidays, here's another gem from this new discovery of mine:

Plantastic! (Stinky Gingko Trees)

Gingko Biloba from Jeffrey Man on Vimeo.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Some thoughts regarding religion, and two songs...

A Song

Let's begin with a song. It's a good one....
Some Thoughts Regarding Religion

I'll be moving to Greenpoint soon, so I thought I'd share some thoughts that have been swimming around my head since reading some lectures by a Polish novelist and playwright...

Witold Gombrowicz, in encapsulating Marxist philosophy, said that "the profound and unique meaning of religion is quite simply to transfer justice to another world," thereby deeming it unnecessary in this one. This is one way that organized, institutional religions have come to exploit people, particularly those less fortunate. By subjecting a group of people to a "moral" ideological order, especially a metaphysical one proclaimed to be handed down from unseen (but assuredly existent) powers, appears expressively designed, as Gobrowicz says, to "[maintain] the right of ownership and [impose] bourgeois morality on the proletariat... to mystify and to keep the slave in his bondage."

What is interesting (or, at least one thing that's curious) is that one of the most dominant religious institutions—one certainly prone to allegations of exploitation and manipulative control of the masses—Christianity was founded by exploited slaves rebelling against a dominant regime. These hypocrisies are well-understood, as is the corruptive influence of ideological authority.

What I find odd here is the irony of the "moral relativism" slurs so often thrown by the faithful at non-believers. Without a god, they argue, humans are cast adrift in ethical ambiguity with no way to determine right from wrong. The implication here, which I find pretty horrendous, is that religious folks make ethical decisions guided purely by rules. We don't need to get into the trouble with selective and ever-evolving interpretations of religious texts (once held up to justify slavery, for instance; then conveniently reinterpreted to disavow inequality). More importantly, I think, this line of thinking treats human beings as pretty pathetic and infantile when it comes to our capacity for rationality, reason, empathy, and compassion.

Moral Relativism is predicated on the proposition that there are no simple, objective, absolute truths when it comes to morality. It advances the notion that a moral judgement requires an understanding of context. It also involves an acknowledgement of exceptions to strict black/white rules of conduct (listen to THIS for a good example) and the recognition of grey areas between the moral extremes of obvious right and wrong rarely observed with the idealistic clarity of children's cartoons. There are definite difficulties with Moral or Cultural Relativism, however. For instance, if we must accept cultural contexts as the backgrounds against which we assess ethical dilemmas, there is a hurdle in our way toward arriving at objective agreements about certain acts that we deem unjust. The subjugation of women in certain societies, for instance...

I'm definitely glossing over relativism here, so feel free to elaborate or argue with my summary...

What I'm unclear about is how the faithful claim a moral high-ground when it comes to their stance against Moral Relativism.

Why is it implied that an atheist by essence must be a moral relativist? Why would blind obedience to a metaphysical ideology (however shifting and progressive) bring one closer to objective ethical truths than humanistic reason?

Richard Dawkins has some good points regarding this issue. He is a strident atheist but also a harsh critic of Moral Relativism. He believes in objective, attainable ethics. He explains that cultural differences on ethical issues are surpassable, and that a common, humanistic morality is a realistic and essential goal. And religion is not likely to be the path toward this universal morality. If a man simply chooses not to kill because he is told that he will be punished if he does, then his is a flimsy morality.

Acknowledging cultural differences is not necessarily the same as accepting them as justifications for inequality or injustice. In fact, most of the cultural and societal structures that foster and perpetuate exploitation, repression, genocide, and other unethical atrocities are, like religion, concerned primarily (even if unknowingly) with maintaining power. To me, the notion of an afterlife—whether it's the heaven beyond the pearly gates for Christians or Houri for Muslims—is inevitably detrimental to (demands for and obligations to) justice and equality on this shared earth on which we presently find ourselves.

I'm throwing these thoughts out pretty haphazardly, so hopefully you will chime in. Please tell me what you think. Or, better yet, argue with me.

Another Song

To end things on a lighter note, here's a song I'm listening to right now...

By Its Cover: New Nabokov Editions

Art director John Gall was tasked with designing a series of covers for the new editions of 18 of Vladimir Nabokov's seminal works, to coincide with the release of his unfinished (and controversially published) final novel, The Original of Laura. Gall gathered an impressive roster of designers to help with the project, and cleverly chose to give the series consistency by honoring Nabokov's passion for lepidopterology.

From Gall:
Nabokov was a passionate butterfly collector, a theme that has cropped up on some of his past covers. My idea was also a play on this concept. Each cover consists of a photograph of a specimen box, the kind used by collectors like Nabokov to display insects. Each box would be filled with paper, ephemera, and insect pins, selected to somehow evoke the book's content. And to make it more interesting for readers — and less daunting for me — I thought it would be fun to ask a group of talented designers to help create the boxes.

Among those he asked were esteemed book designer Chip Kidd, author and McSweeney's main-man Dave Eggers, Pentagram designer Michael Bierut, and Appetite Engineers head honcho Martin Venezky.

Here are a few of our favorites:

(clockwise from top left: Speak, Memory by Michael Bierut; Pale Fire by Stephen Doyle; Glory by Martin Venezky; ; The Eye by John Gall; King, Queen, Knave by Peter Mendelsund; The Gift by Rodrigo Corral)

You can see the entire series HERE.

Friday, December 11, 2009

To be fair, Kristian Matsson is pretty tall.

NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts are consistently good. This one, by The Tallest Man on Earth (Kristian Matsson), is as straightforward and bare as they come, and after a year of listening to a lot of really solid rock albums, this feels really refreshing and right somehow.

"What Is Love?"

Man in a Chicken suit plays "What is Love" on Pianica from Ring Mod on Vimeo.

∆ … ∆

Thursday, December 10, 2009


I have a review of the brand-new John Ashbery collection in the latest issue of The L Magazine. You can read the unabridged version HERE.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Rotating Kitchen

The Rotating Kitchen by Zeger Reyers is part of the exhibition Eating the Universe at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in Germany. It began rotating last Friday and will continue through February 28th, 2010.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

I, Too, Would Like a Panda

From Marianne Moore's essay "Feeling and Precision" (1944):

"Voltaire objected to those who said in enigmas what others had said naturally, and we agree; yet we must have the courage of our peculiarities. What would become of Ogden Nash, his benign vocabulary and fearless rhymes, if he wrote only in accordance with the principles set forth by our manuals of composition?

I love the Baby Giant Panda
I'd welcome one to my veranda.
I never worry, wondering maybe
Whether it isn't Giant Baby;
I leave such matters to the scientists—
The Giant Baby—and Baby Giantists.
I simply want a veranda, and a
Giant Baby Giant Panda.

This, it seems to me, is not so far removed from George Wither's motto: "I grow and wither both together.""

"The Last Horse on the Sand"

Let's start December off right with some Dirty Three, a band that despite hailing from the warm isle of convicts has always conveyed wintry climes to my ears. This ditty, recorded in a hotel room at ATP NY, features the esteemed Nick Cave on keys!