America, America

A very positive review of Ethan's new book appears in the Washington Post.


Atlantic article on the Googlizing of our brains

Continuing with this summer's theme of how the Internet is ruining reading and writing and publishing and everything we all liked about the good old days of yesteryear, Nicholas Carr has an interesting piece, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" that updates the age-old story about how tools shape the user of the tool -- in this case, it's the Googlization of the brain and the end of the ability to read books. I liked the article, though it promises more than it delivers, biting into a compelling subject and then swiftly choking it down instead of chewing it the proper 33 times. Maybe that was part of the point. Then again, it seems like it might be part of -- irony alert -- a book.

After relating anecdotes from friends and colleagues who find their ability to read books or even long blog posts rapidly deteriorating, Carr asks why this is happening. And it's because our brains are becoming more machine-like. Here's a sample passage:

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web -— the more links we click and pages we view -— the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link —- the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

Books and the Innertubes have two different purposes: the book is for leisure, it disconnects you from everything -- a book becomes its own Google, the only God-damned Google you need, and it balloons into everything else besides, holding the universe including, most importantly, you the reader, in its generous mind hug. Google, on the other hand, offers a chintzy path to every sparkling sidetrack detail about every single thing you could think of and a great deal you never would have thought to think of, all the while carefully placing billboards alongside you on your journey to, as it usually turns out, noplace in particular.

Yesterday I Googled "cutting dog whiskers" (because our dog groomer did this to our dog and I was worried) and ten minutes later I was reading about the French president's wife. You may surf the Web, but you Scuba dive a book. Cranial Googlizing is about getting you to trade in your air tank and flippers for bleached bangs and a boogieboard (all due respect to the actual sport of surfing).

The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.
Well ... deep reading is possible because somebody else did the deep thinking for you and set it down so you could follow. Which is wonderful -- probably the most wonderful thing humans ever did, as far as I'm concerned. What I worry about is, yes, okay, the Internet may be mutating our minds to become easily distracted and unable to focus on one thing for long -- but what about the other end of it? What about writing? Yes, yes, "It's great for research!" Face it, though. Research is for details. In most cases, research is that perfect doorknob. It ain't the house.

Charles Dickens did not spend hours a day chuckling at Youtube clips or sailing off on an Andrew Sullivan link. Instead, he sat in his attic and wrote. With pen and paper. His children would come upstairs to tell him it was time for dinner and catch him acting out his characters' dialog in front of a mirror. I just think the kind of material that comes from such meditation and isolation is probably gone forever. I mean, there's no denying I spend more time dicking around on the Internets than I do writing my book (see this post). The totally tubular Tubes may be lobotomizing readers, but it's also surely chipping away at the ability to create the things readers can't seem to read anymore anyway.

P.S. You can cut a dog's whiskers, but not a cat's.

Russia 3, Netherlands 1

It sure was a heartbreaker. No score in the first half, but Russia was clearly outhustling Holland. In the second half, the Russkies struck first, and there followed some truly agonizing dozens of minutes until with a mere 4 minutes left, van Nistelrooy nodded in a goal that brought sweet relief and ushered in an overtime situation. It was nice to be able to breathe again, and to hear screaming.

Then Russia just plain kicked Holland's ass, including a goal that sailed right between Van der Sar's knees. ("He didn't deserve that," someone said.) Watch that kid Andrei Arshavin in the Russia-Spain match on Thursday. Holy God what a rosy-cheeked scrapper! He was everywhere. The only consolation for the Dutch seemed to be pride in the legendary Guus Hiddink, the Dutch mastermind coach who is now coaching for Russia. Hiddink took a nobody South Korean team to the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup, and then Australia to the knock-out round in 2006. "He is smiling because of the ten million euros in his bank account," said a bystander. "After Russia, if Uganda says 'we will pay you 10 million euros,' then he will take Uganda to the 2014 World Cup Final."

Not sure whom to root for now. I was way impressed by Russia, by their tenacity and spirit (it's better to be beaten than to lose, if you know what I mean), and they have that Dutch coach... I'd love to see Turkey go all the way, as they've been the most exciting, and incredibly lucky, pulling from behind in every match so far, and there are so many Turks here struggling for money and respect, and they serve me so many kebabs, it would be fun to see them on top of anything for once. Spain... I guess I speak a little Spanish. Germany... I really like their beer. I suppose I'm rooting for Russia and Turkey to make it to the finals. And then I'll root for both.


Paper Trail

If the flood efforts were any reflection of cultural priorities, the locals here proclaimed a tie between byte-based and paper-based knowledge: thousands simultaneously bulwarked the university's electronic brain in the Lindquest Center and fire-brigaded books from the UI Main Library's basement. (Good show, IC!)

It seems like forever that I've been hearing the bound, printed book is sure to die and be surpassed by e-books and blogs and other electronic media. The reasons offered are legion: Ease of delivery, business margins, print-on-demand savings, democracy of publishing, environmental concerns. . . . . So, why hasn't it happened yet? I used to think that the world of book buyers and bibliophiles - despite loving the feel of a book in the hands - were just waiting for the right delivery device. Now, some say the wait is over with the Kindle. So, again, the drum of doom begins to beat.

Does this changing of the guard have to happen? There was a fascinating article on Slate recently about the mechanics and efficiencies of online reading. It cited two types of reading: a kind of salience-only, short-attention-span reading that skims and selectively reads a website, a news story, or white paper for the usable information; and then "pleasure reading," which scientists call "ludic reading," isolationist, self-detaching, and spellcast (i.e., relatively effortless). At the end of the article, when the author is being his most ludic, he adds:
We'll do more and more reading on screens, but they won't replace paper—never mind what your friend with a Kindle tells you. Rather, paper seems to be the new Prozac. A balm for the distracted mind. It's contained, offline, tactile. William Powers writes about this elegantly in his essay "Hamlet's BlackBerry: Why Paper Is Eternal." He describes the white stuff as "a still point, an anchor for the consciousness."
I recommend the Powers' essay. It's long, but quick, and heartening, and balanced in key ways that, say, McLuhan never was. Wouldn't it be nice to think that books may actually stick around?


Beekeeping, anyone?

If you happen to be a keeper of bees or know someone who is, please give a shout. I need an expert to review a manuscript. (earthgoat at gmail dot com)


Also, "hup, Oranje," for all you followers of the Euro 2008 tournament.


Iowa City Flooding Update

People have been seriously sandbagging since last Thursday. The latest predictions are for levels above 1993. The spillway will be topped as soon as tonight, with the reservoir and river levels expected to keep rising despite the overflow. More rain is forecast. The arts campus (Hancher, the old art building, the museum) has got a fight on its hands. Riverside Shakespeare, after conducting rehearsals with water to the park drive and a loud chorus of bullfrogs drowning "A Comedy of Errors,' has had to retreat to City High. The lowest-lying areas are evacuated, and the next floor up, such as Mosquito Flats and the animal shelter, could be in for several weeks of canoeing. The water supply is said to be safe.

Somehow this has snuck up on everyone, and some peope are asking why, with high snowfall and strong spring rains, the reservoir run-off wasn't better managed. The answer (to prevent flooding way downstream along the Mississippi) won't be much consolation to those hit hard.

Good Growth or NIMBY?

Coralville's new project, the successor to the ill-conceived and ill-proposed earth park. [Disclaimer: I was on the steering committee to get this new project through the "vision" stage.] If you get a chance to look through the dreaded (as my second favorite blog calls it) pdf of the vision book, it would be great to hear your thoughts. This is a big-ticket item, and the stakeholders want (and need) feedback.

Netherlands 2, Romania 0

There's not much to say about this game. It started slow, the Dutch fielded their B team, and yet the magic roused itself in the second half, and the Dutch carried themselves to victory yet again. The match literally didn't matter to the Dutch, who had won the group already and earned the right to advance. But it was do or die for the Romanians. The day before the match, some Romanian journalists showed up at the Dutch training camp holding signs that said, "Please let us win!" Fielding the second string was as nice a gesture toward that as you could make, but alas the team from Dracula's country still fell short.

Netherlands 4 France 1
It took a mere 8 minutes for the Dutch to strike again, and they never looked back, with four different players contributing to the lopsided domination. Another brilliant victory for the Orange Onslaught, who now look to be the tournament favorites playing on a different level than anyone else.

"The days of total football are back," proclaimed our friend Piet, who explained he is too young to remember the last time the Dutch dominated like this, which was the 1970s. He left briefly to call his father in Dubai. "My father's thing is, like, criticism and skepticism. His most famous attitude is 'eighty percent of the world is fucking retarded.' That sounds even harsher in Dutch. If we win a match 2-0, he'll spend the night explaining to my brother and me what they did wrong. Anyway, he's ecstatic."

My favorite moment was when the Dutch keeper -- the towering six-and-a-half-foot Edwin Van der Sar, who in his professional life keeps balls out of Manchester United's nets and inspires his own songs by his play -- batted away a would-be French goal as a bear might swat an annoying bee. The match was on a Friday, which meant the partying was much more intense, with cheesy songs bellowing from every open doorway and the streets wild with careening revellers. People are supremely confident now. "The whole country thinks we've already won the tournament," said a bystander. The win assures that Holland advances to the quarterfinals. Next up: Romania on Tuesday.

Netherlands 3, Italy 0

Lucius Van Pelt moves the ball just as Carlo Brownolio attempts to kick it

(This post has been transported back in time to give preference to the flooding issue.) If you're like me, you couldn't give a flying rat's ass about soccer -- or any spectator sport for that matter. The main gripe about soccer is that it's slow. A typical match might produce one goal, or three, or none, yet a "nil-nil" match might well be described to you, by a true fan with a straight face, as "exciting." Let's go to Kent Brockman in the skybox:
Halfback passes to the center.  Back to the wing.
Back to the center. Center holds it. Holds it.
Holds it. Holds it...
And there is only one ad break during the entire 90 minutes, which is the real reason it will never catch on in America. That's right, Taco Bell and AT&T, you're welcome to put up a small sign in the stadium, but otherwise keep your multimillions to yourselves.

However, if you live in Europe, there's just no way around it -- you have to deal with futbol one way or another. Whether it's dodging kids' street games while trying to ride your bike or simply sticking to the surface of the earth during a professional or international match, you cannot avoid the fact that the game is everywhere, all the time. On the other hand, it's really the only popular sport, which is a mercy. (Unless you're into rugby, cricket, or Gaelic football, in which case you need to seriously give me a break.)

The more matches you are forced to watch because there's nothing else to do, though, the more the game grows on you. You start admiring the beauty of passes, for example, or the shocking distance a man can send a ball with his head, or the latent theatrical talent that can turn a slight brush against a player's leg into something that apparently felt like amputation with a rusty saw. Perhaps the greatest things about soccer are the events on its periphery -- mainly the colorful pub commentary ("Fuck off, ya TWAT!" or "Christ's sake, GET ON WITH IT, WANKERS!"), and the admiring disbelief with which the game's followers regard transactions such as Ronaldo's $200 million transfer from Manchester United to Madrid -- and, of course, the senseless violence on the part of the drunken public. On Sunday, for instance, 157 people were arrested for brawling after the Germany-Poland match. What the Germans and Poles have to be so sore about I guess I'll never understand.

At any rate, it's European Championship time, the every-four-years tournament that leap frogs with the World Cup. For the next couple weeks, the great and not-so-great teams will battle for bragging rights. The Dutch squad, from what I gather, is rather middling in talent and success, and in the first round they drew the absolute worst possible opponents for their first two matches: Italy, winner of the last World Cup, and France, whom Italy barely defeated in that World Cup thanks to penalty kicks, the lamest method of breaking a tie game that has ever been conceived.

Last night was the Holland-Italy match. In preparation, the entire country spent the day and indeed the preceding weekend dressing in the most flagrant orange, hanging banners over anything and everything, and driving around recklessly on $8 a gallon gas honking and flapping little flags from their cars and scooters. This in defiance of the certain knowledge they were going to lose and lose badly. I watched the contest in our living room, by which I mean the Irish pub down the street, which due to its strategic location was nearly surrounded by riot police (who came in and ordered Cokes). Traca was on her way back from a family visit in Ireland and was trying to get there before the kickoff, having landed a half hour before and dragged her suitcase through the eerily empty luggage-rattling cobblestone streets, with the only indications of human habitation being the roars emitted periodically by the orange-festooned houses. The pub was teeming with brave folks ready to grit their teeth, swill beer to ease the pain, and go home disappointed as always, fact being Holland had not defeated Italy in 30 years. About five seconds into the match, someone looked up from his paper and cried out, "Has Italy won yet?"

A neighbor's house

Then suddenly Holland scored, and cries of exuberance jiggled orange rooftop tiles all across the nation. Then they scored again, and a prolonged cheer went up to heaven, swelling the air with the pure energy of simple joy. Italy could do nothing right. Holland could do nothing wrong. In the second half they scored yet again and ended up handing Italy not only their asses on a plate, but their worst tournament defeat in 38 years. (Highlight clips.) There followed plenty of jubilation as expected, but as far as I know the riot police went home disappointed, without bloodstains. It was only the first of three scheduled matches for Holland. And Italians haven't invaded this country since the Roman Empire. And after all, we're talking about the sober and practical Dutch people on a Monday night.

However, the match against France is on a Friday. Next Friday. France who tied Romania yesterday in a riveting match . . . 0-0.

Bonus: the words to "Hup Holland," a popular voetbal song, translated a tad too literally into English:

Go Holland Go
Don’t let yourself be stripped of your vest
Go Holland Go
Don’t put slippers on the beast
Go Holland Go
Stay undaunted
Because a lion on football boots
Can beat the whole world


Nam syndrome

Man, Nam Le's book The Boat is getting a heck of a lot of attention. Now it's the lead review in the NYTBR. Hari Kunzru's review itself is both positive and critical, ruminating on the perils of "ethnic lit" and concluding: "Le is starting to grapple with the subtleties of authenticity, but one comes away feeling that it’s not really his subject, that he has a future as a very different kind of writer." Anyone here read it? By the way, way to go Nam.


Oliver Stone Rules!

This is the teaser poster for his new W. biopic. Granted, his track record has its lowpoints, but I can't wait to see this. When I was in law school, he came to speak (why, I'm not entirely sure), and I must say, it was one of the more inspiring talks I ever saw (the gist -- grow a spine, and don't take guff from anyone). At least it was until the RTF nerds started tossing scripts at him.

Get your Friday started proper

I've been to the beach, and here are some shells I found.

Antoine put up this one a little while ago:

traca pciked this one up outside a drive-thru:

New Wearable Feedbags Let Americans Eat More, Move Less


Speculation: Vice

Now that the primary season is winding down, I invite you all to speculate as to the VP picks for Obama and McCain.

In your comments, please speculate about the following scenarios and any others you wish to consider:

1. VP picks in an ideal world (whatever that means to you)
2. Most likely actual VP picks (and why)
3. Who the VP picks would be if everyone involved went insane
4. VP picks so crazy that they might just be brilliant


Reasons for the Internet (Besides porn and lolcats)

This is a website that turns novels and whatnot into Powerpoint presentations, so you can act like you're doing something useful at work while you read them. The particularly cool part is that they actually insert graphs and stock photos to add to the realism. Check it out.