... would be a silly title, you're right, Chris, especially because it might appear that the Globe had just heard about this Web 2.0 business for the first time. On the other hand, eventually I plan to rename this sucker "Brainiac 5," and you have to start somewhere.
But seriously: Chris and Jan, it's been a pleasure and a privilege sharing this space with you. (Evan and John, if you're still reading Brainiac, the same goes for you.) Hopefully I won't run this blog into the ground too quickly. And we'll still be rubbing elbows on Sundays, in the Ideas section, right?
Leo Marx, an octogenarian emeritus professor of American culture at M.I.T., author of the landmark book "The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America," took Louis Menand to school in the Oct. 22 issue of the New Yorker.
Menand, a Harvard professor of English and New Yorker book critic, had recently reviewed the latest edition of "On the Road," based on Kerouac's famous "scroll" manuscript.
In the letters section, Marx wrote:
Kerouac surely does not deserve credit for [making] America a subject for literary fiction," and thus "de-Europeaniz[ing] the novel for American writers," as Menand writes. That honor, as Ernest Hemingway famously observed, belongs to Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," and Menand actually helps us recognize the extent to which Kerouac's novel is an automotive-era update of Twain's masterwork -- with the highway in the role of the river. He notes that the Beats' car (like Huck and Jim's raft) is a distinctively "male space" -- a conveyance that permits its occupants "to be together without the need to answer questions about why they want to be together." Menand all but names the crucial affinity between the two novels when he describes Kerouac's excited discovery, in a letter written by his pal Neal Cassady, of just the style for a road novel -- a style maked by the "vernacular directness and narrative propulsion he was looking for." It is a version of the de-Europeanized style that Mark Twain created with one inspired stroke when he chose an illiterate fourteen-year-old boy, the son of the town drunk, as the narrator of his own road novel.
Makes you want to read more Marx, doesn't it? ("The Machine in the Garden" has been on my to-read list for too long.) As the New Yorker beefs up its books section, maybe the editors could throw an assignment or two Marx's way.
Home-front news: starting Monday, Brainiac will complete a shift that careful readers may have noticed has been in the works for a while. It will no longer be a group blog, but rather a "multimedia column" by Josh, bridging the print and online editions of the Globe.
Josh and Jan, it's been a pleasure and an honor; Evan Hughes deserves thanks and credit, too, for helping get Brainiac off the ground. (John Swansburg, too, the former deputy editor of Ideas and sometime Brainiac.) We're all looking forward to the new iteration, which I will not refer to as Brainiac 2.0, because that would be a ridiculous multimedia cliche.
Break a leg, Josh! Or, more appropriately, garble some html code ...
Getcha Rudy Giuliani 2008 presidential campaign commemorative gear while it's hot! Like, ferinstance, this $79.95 autographed Louisville Slugger bat, for sale now at Giuliani's campaign website.
Sorta weird commemorative item, don'tcha think? What might a baseball bat symbolize to Giuliani, exactly? Earlier this week, the Globe's Alex Beam speculated that it's a reminder of the candidate's "'Giuliani time' crime-fighting escapades in the 1990s." But let's not forget that back in the 1930s Rudy's father, Harold Giuliani, was a bartender who worked as muscle for his brother-in-law, a loan shark. What tool did Harold use to deal with recalcitrant clients, in both his day and night jobs?
There was a funny item on the Boston-based blog Shamrag, yesterday. It was sparked by Charles McGrath's love letter to Ben Affleck in The New York Times this past Sunday. Affleck took McGrath on a tour of Southie, Dorchester, and Roxbury to help publicize "Gone Baby Gone," his directorial debut.
The tour gambit seems to have wowed McGrath, who doesn't even correct Affleck when the actor-director says, of the Boston locations he used in his movie: "I wanted something raw and authentic and even a little scuffed up. People go to the movies to see something they can't get otherwise, and I thought this was a chance to take you somewhere that you couldn't otherwise get to -- the Boston you never see in the movies."
This is, of course, absurd. Although movies shot in Boston might use the Back Bay or Beacon Hill as an ersatz Paris, almost every single movie that's actually set in Boston -- from "The Brink's Job" to "The Departed," and including "Good Will Hunting," "Celtic Pride," and "Mystic River" -- aims to be "authentic," a word that should make us suspicious. Affleck, who I'm sure has many fine qualities, is no more a representative of some "authentic" Boston than is the odious "Boston Rob," the Sox cap-sporting reality-TV repeat offender. Who hails from Canton.
The Boston that Affleck says you never see in movies
Anyway! Written in dialect, Shamrag's Lily Von Schtoop post seeks to correct the impression, created intentionally or unintentionally by Affleck and unchallenged by the impressionable McGrath, that Affleck hails from -- and therefore truly understands -- one of Boston's working-class neighborhoods. Von Schtoop says:
Ben Affleck is NAWT from DAWT. No mattah what the Noo Yawk Times implies. Seri-usly. He's nawt. He was born in California and raised in the People's Republic of Cambridge.
But Von Schtoop is forgiving. She adds: "But whatevah. I am still gonna go see Gone Baby Gone -- represent yo!"
I mentioned yesterday that Ethan Zuckerman, a friend and former colleague of mine, not to mention cofounder of Global Voices, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and a sometime contributor to Ideas, is currently blogging from Pop!Tech, the annual three-day gathering of scientists, inventors, geeks, philosophers, and thinkers in coastal Maine.
One presenter at Pop!Tech this year is Boston-based architect and product designer Sheila Kennedy, who is working on simple, reliable, durable, lightweight, and adaptable lighting for the developing world. Her inspiration? The firefly, which might be thought of as a portable, self-sustained "light engine."
Kennedy, who grew up in Woods Hole, is trying to adapt existing technologies to serve her purpose. Zuckerman reports: "The system she's created uses white LEDs, like those found in traffic signs; sealed plastic switches from dishwashers; Lithium ion batteries from mobile phones. The power source for the lights is a flexible solar cell, more similar to a non-woven fabric than a traditional solar panel.... Wrapped around the light is a soft fabric shell that diffuses and reflects the light."
The prototype device, pictured above, produces 100 lumens (more than enough to read by), using a 3.7 volt battery at 1.8 amps. It takes about three hours to charge in full sunlight, and provides 10 hours of light, or 5-6 hours with two lights. The devices currently cost about $40-50 to build in batches of 500.
"Kennedy wonders whether these devices could revolutionize education and the mobile phone industry in the developing world," Zuckerman notes, before concluding on a rather snarky note: "I wonder whether a team of hackers and makers could make a slightly less visually impressive version of this for about a quarter of the price."
Ethan Zuckerman, who sometimes writes for Ideas, is my favorite conference blogger. Right now he's at Pop!Tech, the annual three-day gathering of scientists, inventors, geeks, philosophers and thinkers in coastal Maine. This year's theme: The Human Impact.
Poor Lee Siegel. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the critic who took down Dave Eggers so resoundingly, this past spring, in his review of Eggers's "What Is the What." Immortal excerpt:
The essence of Eggers's fictionalized memoir lies in the words spread across the book's cover: "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." The extravagantly self-mocking title asks to be indulged as an innocent egotism born of great pain. At the same time, having derided its artistic ambition into a nullity, the title also asks that this modest, self-mocking decency be celebrated as a kind of art. Children possess the same effective instinct for deprecating what they truly (tearfully) want. The book's dynamic is almost dialectical: Eggers asserts his sadness, deflects it with trivializing ironic digressions, and then makes this defensive ironizing of pain into an irreproachable new aesthetic. And the whole thing is topped off by the coup-de-theatre of generously acknowledging the manipulativeness of it all. In other words, you have to be in on the joke to get the pain, but you have to share the pain to be in on the joke. Then you can join the exclusive egalitarian club known as McSweeney's.
So true! But I can't say that I've enjoyed much else that Siegel has written -- and the guy publishes frequently. Too frequently. Reading and writing at such a blinding speed actually got Siegel into trouble last August, when his New Republic blog was shut down -- and he was suspended from the magazine -- after he was accused of sock-puppeting, or replying pseudonymously to snarky comments made about his own blog posts.
Now, Siegel's speed-reading and -writing habits may have embarrassed him, not to mention yet another august periodical, once again. Earlier today, the book-publishing-industry blog GalleyCat pointed out that Siegel's review of "The Almost Moon," Alice Sebold's new novel, in this weekend's NY Times Book Review, contains an error so glaring that one might suspect that the reviewer only skimmed the book.
Siegel doesn't think much of "The Almost Moon," in which a woman who, no longer able to cope with her elderly mother's dementia, kills her, then drags the corpse to the basement meat freezer. Why doesn't like the book? One reason, Siegel writes, is "the juvenile contrivance of Mom in the freezer." The NYTBR illustrated Siegel's point:
There's just one problem. Although Helen considers cutting up her mother's corpse so it will fit into the freezer, she can't bring herself to do it. Realizing that she cannot chop up her mother's body, she instead chops off her mother's long braided hair, and puts it -- the hair, not the corpse -- into a freezer bag. (NB: I have not read the book. I'm trusting GalleyCat and several reviews I've seen.)
"The error isn't like getting a character's hair color wrong," says a GalleyCat reader. "It's more along the lines of saying Desdemona is a whore because she slept with Iago." Despite her heinous crime, according to this line of reasoning, the fact that Helen can't bring herself to dismember her mother demonstrates that she is not completely evil or insane. In other words, if Siegel's version of the plot were true, it wouldn't be possible to sympathize with the protagonist; but it is possible. So Siegel screwed up royally!
I say, cut the guy some slack. After all, several other critics made the exact same error.
In the current issue of New York Magazine, Sam Anderson reviews "The Almost Moon," and writes: "The rest of the novel slogs through the aftermath: Helen puts her mom's corpse in the freezer, fantasizes about dismembering it (Sebold, it is clear, has spent a creepy amount of time thinking about the disposal of dead bodies)...."
A review of "The Almost Moon" in the current issue of The New Yorker agrees: "In the course of twenty-four feverish hours, after suffocating her mother and depositing the body in an old meat freezer in the basement, she recaps the hellish landscape of domestic turmoil and mental illness that is her family history."
In the October 14 issue of The New York Daily News, we read: "[Sebold] certainly front-loads the new novel with nasty, provocative incidents. Helen, who has long tended to her aged mother -- now in the throes of dementia -- first attempts to wash her clean of feces after an accident. When that proves impossible, she smothers her with towels and puts the corpse in the freezer."
Susan Salter Reynolds's October 14 review of "The Almost Moon" in The Los Angeles Times: "What to do with the body? First, Helen chops off the long braid -- she loves her mother's hair.... Then she throws the body down the basement stairs and puts it in the meat freezer. "
I wouldn't argue that Sebold is a great writer -- I tried to start "Lovely Bones" but couldn't get past the first chapter. However, this time around she appears to have written a scene so unique that it's caused professional critics to blow a fuse and willfully misread it. Having a character stuff a corpse into a meat freezer may indeed be a "juvenile contrivance." But having a character not do so -- after getting the body down to the basement -- might be, dare I say it? A truly brilliant contrivance.
CLARIFICATION: A Brainiac item in the Oct. 21 Ideas section argued that Lee Siegel made a "careless error" in a New York Times book review of Alice Sebold's "The Almost Moon." The item noted that Siegel wrote of the "juvenile contrivance of a Mom in the freezer" when the plot does not have a mother being put into a freezer. The book, however, does contain a conversation about the possibility of putting mom in a freezer. Siegel's review discussed that conversation but did not say whether or not the mother's body was put in the freezer.
John Podhoretz, son of the well-known ex-leftist Norman "Making It" Podhoretz, ex-Reagan speechwriter, and co-founder of the conservative Weekly Standard, has been named to succeed Neal Kozodoy as editor of Commentary in 2009.
In the meantime, according to Commentary's press release, Podhoretz will "assume particular responsibility for the development and expansion of our online editorial activities" -- meaning, it seems, Commentary's blogs: Contentions, Connecting the Dots, and The Horizon.
Podhoretz already writes books, newspaper and magazine columns, and appears on Fox News regularly. Now, he's dabbling in the blogosphere. We'll have to keep an eye on him.
"Proust Was a Neuroscientist" showcases the exuberant intelligence of Jonah Lehrer -- an editor at large of Seed magazine who also blogs at the Frontal Cortex -- as he explores the ways in which writers, painters, and other artists around the turn of the twentieth century anticipated the discoveries of modern neuroscience.