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Brookline, MA, United States
I'll post rants here, and musings; articles and thoughts about articles. I'll keep it quite complex and yet astoundingly simple: whatever it is I am interested in at any given moment.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Luckily, He Didn't Have to Survive a Spelling Bee

On our inaugural road trip (down to Deerfield Beach to visit Tamar's grandmother), me and the future Mrs. spent some time in Raleigh and Durham, including a brief pilgrimage to the shrine known as Cameron Indoor Stadium (and a picture of me standing outside like a not-so-little puppy dog).

Luckily (evidently), we did not spend an extended period of time in Krzyzewskiville (like this poor sot), or else we might have, you know, caught meningitis.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

It's not ...

If you accept (even enjoy?) the via negativa - theologically or otherwise - you might enjoy this poetic approach to defining poetry.

Wish Charles had been at Penn while I was there.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Shout Out to Google

To be honest, I like the Yankees. And the Patriots. And I liked the Braves in their calm dominance (but never the Bills). I like the idea of greatness, of (non-genealogical) dynasty, of record-breakers. This makes me, I sense, somewhat un-American in most people's eyes, though it's worth noting that my America is the triumphant America, the America that is flexible and grows to adapt and to maintain itself on its great perch. (Such is why the thoughts of Rome I've been having are so disconcerting.)

In therapy I came up with one hypothesis why I love the (merit-based) favorite - because I see that person as me. Such is the source of the tension in debates about the better Ramah camper - the one who was always going to be a Rabbi (MJP) or the one whose experience at camp brought them closer to Judaism and gave them, likely, a meaningful Jewish life they never would have had (BG). Or, similarly, on what the greatest Wexner fellow is, or other such debates. I have a second suggestion, one I think that Dr. Jackson (no, not this one) would find compelling as well (and, for all I know, she thought about it at the moment): dynasty is a doubly-meaningful approach to immortality, to never growing old (and thus the love for Peter Pan and James T. Kirk). For dynasty means both a reign stretching forward forever (as if Posada, Rivera, Jeter, and Williams could be replaced), aided by adaptability and sheer brilliance (see: Belicheck and Cassel, 2008) and putting yourself in the record books so that people speak about you long after you're gone (Lombardi; Julio-Claudians).

This post, however, is neither about sports nor my introspective psychoanalysis. Rather, it's about one of the new kids on the block, someone that, I imagine, my children or grandchildren might see as the "Evil Empire" or as at least as outdated as we today look on in scorn at Ford, Lehman Brothers, et c.: Google.

I've been an apostle of the brilliance of GMail since I first encountered it, in August of 2004. It's simply the best, and, as JBR pointed out to me today, it just got better. For Google has now introduced, in addition to the multiple account function (still looking for differentiated signatures, et c., however), the calendar (would like to change time zones without changing the timing of everything I've ever done), the archiving (God's gift to packrats), practically unlimited storage space (who needs web space when you have GMail, Na'aleh 2008?), and document sharing (still not realized in its full greatness, but that's, I think, more my fault than theirs), they've now added an off-line feature that allows you to write, search, and archive off-line (not everything, but the last six months is pretty great - plus some tabs in their entirety) - one of the great motherloads. Add to that their constantly improving interface, other labs ranging from goofy to unbelievably helpful (like the "tasks" function) and I am just so happy to use their product.

May Google go from strength to strength.

Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold ...

... and 243 other Klingon proverbs.

I do not speak Klingon. I know only a few vague phrases from General Chang in VI.

This guy, however, I bet he's working on his dissertation about Klingon Linguistics.

Decadence, anyone?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Presidential Libraries and Imperial Temples

I've been thinking a lot about Rome lately - the Empire, not the miniseries (though I could watch episodes on my Continental flights). I've been toying around with an old, old idea I had (sometime in Middle School) about the nature of large empires to go through relatively predictable cycles on their path through history towards their ultimate demise. This was, as far as I can remember (and prepare the eye roll dear friends), the first idea I had for a Ph.D. dissertation, sometime around 8th grade. The idea was to track the great (Western) civilizations - Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Rome, some combination of France and Germany, Spain, England - and make sweeping generalized comparisons (as is my wont), ultimately to shed light on thoughts about American strategy for today and our collective future. It was an idea, I realized a little later (I think - not so sure on causality on this one) that Asimov had played with in the Foundation novels - a fun little parlor trick.

As I think about Rome, I imagine Rome c. 200 CE, moving away from the Pax Romana and towards a long decline, highlighted by prosperity and occasional imperial pride but defined by decadence. I wonder if the Muslim world - as it was for Rome's inheritors, the Byzantines - will be our Germanic tribes poring over the Alps and laying waste to our countryside. I wonder if, centuries from now, the Eastern Coast of the United States will fall, but the West Coast, once a colonial backwater, will thrive for another millennium before succumbing to a different enemy. For however much hope I have in Obama - and, let's be honest, the news makes the excitement of Election Day feel like a lot more than three months ago - it's hard not to feel like the stakes are too great, that charting our path between the straits might be too difficult. I, of course, lack any historical perspective on how it feels to move through crisis, and must remind myself that even the great period of Roman hegemony was defined by one sick and demented emperor after the next, that Nero makes GWB look good and Caligula makes Clinton look like a prude.

But it was on this note, as I was lying in bed this morning reading this fascinating and generative article in TIME about Bush and other Presidents post-presidency, that the parallel struck me. The article mentions, almost in passing:
But it is the rare modern President who retires to his farm and his library, unless by library we mean a multimillion-dollar monument to his vital role in world history.
After Julius Caesar's death he was deified by the Senate - literally, turned into a god. Tamar and I visited the ruins of one of his temples, placed prominently in the Roman forum near the sacred hearth of the Vestal Virgins (כאילו - להדיל - קדש הקדשים). But as the name Caesar shifted in meaning, from a last name to a title that would be in usage still two millennia into the future, so too did the act of deifying the emperor after his death, an act that, to the dying Republic, was anathema. Becoming a god in the Roman pantheon upon one's death brought Rome close to the theocracy of Egypt, yes, but it did something far more dangerous - it assumed that, merely by having acceded to the purple robe of the imperium, one was somehow merited to greatness. Kind of like a Presidential library, implying somehow that you are worthy of a museum, of a body of thought, of an archive by succeeding in a process to get to a position, not by the degree to which you navigated that position well. Once, American Presidents were defined by their actions and history was allowed to play a role in our judgments. Once, if you merely guided the nation through four or eight years of decent prosperity without any major historical hiccups that are, for the most part, outside of our control, then you were sent off into the rest of your career as a Roman consul during the heyday of the Republic. This was a world where Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun were, perhaps, more famous and important than the man who sat in the Oval Office. But that world is gone, a victim of our national success and phenomenal wealth.

And so I wonder if, someday, the ruins of presidential libraries will be like the ruins of imperial temples - testaments to futile attempts at immortalizing the mortal, at lending credence and import to an office instead of the actions of its holder.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Chiseling Away at the Middle

The notion of the disappearing middle ground has become a bit of a cliche in discussions about religion, culture, and politics. I think people - real people - still inhabit the middle, but the media of discourse have shifted the conversation to the extremes (thus, Rush Limbaugh is the de facto spokesperson for the Republican Party, as James Carville rants). I think that was part of Karl Rove's grand plan - one that functioned for the better part of thirty years, from "government is bad" to the death spasms of the (second) Bush presidency.

Part of Obama's freshness is a tilt towards pragmatic centrism - something indicative of a broader American phenomenon. It seems that the United States' amygdala is reactionary and conservative (as perhaps it should be), and so a conservative age is defined by a push to the extremes. The essence of the nation, however, is its liberalism - a slow and deliberate move away from a monarchic system and an oligarchy of the landed white male gentry towards expansion of civil rights and active input on governance to all. One way to understand this is that, at some fixed point in time after a given wave of immigration, those immigrants come to feel equal and assume power. See, for example, Jackson's ascent to the highest office of the land after a Virginian faux-monarchy and Kennedy's ascent after practically uninterrupted Protestant hegemony. Slavery - that most "peculiar" of institutions and one that faced generations of American leaders with a stunning, recalcitrant tension between ideals and realities, between morality and economy - may have ultimately made African-Americans the exception that proves the rule (note the sentiment that Obama's lack of American baggage - read: anger and memory - enabled him to achieve what others could not [link to be added shortly]), although a different way of understanding Obama's election is as the ascendancy of the post-WW II immigrants from every corner of the world who came to the intellectual superpower as graduate students or professionals. In this model, Obama primarily does not represent black America, per se, but the upper-middle class engineers, doctors, and scientists who flooded the country from southeast Asia and elsewhere in the last two+ generations. But I digress.

What the liberal victory of a new segment of the population finding itself emphatically represented in the Oval Office indicates, I would suggest, is a return to national pride and pragmatism. Having been so recently an outsider, this type of leader is less concerned with "culture wars" (which we can find in discussions of eugenics, evolution, and more stretching back to Reconstruction if not well before) than with effective governance - pragmatic centrism with a liberal foundation. This combination, then, allows us to move forward - always slowly - in ways that playing the "extreme liberal" card never would. It is, I might suggest, a "punctuated equilibrium" approach to American political movements.

The best example of this phenomenon I've seen is a powerful graphic the guys at 538 put together to show the shift in congressional districts in the past few election cycles. What you'll see is that the ideological middle very much exists, and that, somehow (and Obama himself should not be credited fully for this shift, though he is likely the best example of a positive force in this direction), these middle districts have moved quite quickly from electing Republicans, in general, to Democrats. The districts themselves have not changed so quickly, but somehow the combination of the generational end of Rove-Atwaterism and the emergence of Obama to fill the vacuum have calmed their fear centers and allowed the American signature - liberalism - to emerge.

I'll add that, throughout writing this, I've been tempted to add the religious parallels as well. Such is the move away from Conservative Judaism by a small zealous crowd towards orthopraxy and by the larger, behaviorally defined segment of the populations towards the Reform. The middle ground, I'd suggest, still exists, and has not changed much (forty years ago most members of Conservative congregations, I suggest, were no more believes in JTS's Conservative Judaism than members are today). Et c. Et c.