ashthomas//blog: February 2005


Saturday, February 26, 2005

Daniel Handler Wrong About Sushi

Daniel Handler, the man behind Lemony Snicket, makes a pretty stupid (or I should probably say ignorant, because it is based on a false impression) comment about Australia in an online exclusive interview with Jack Black for The Believer:
DH: I’m not afraid of sushi.
JB: There was a time when there was a stigma attached to sushi that the only people who ate sushi were yuppie scum. Do you know what I mean?
DH: Yeah. Like they’ve spent far too much money on fancy, raw fish that secretly nobody likes. I believe that was the attitude.
JB: See, those times are gone. Now everyone agrees sushi is the most delicious food and the Japanese are onto something. It won’t be long before McSushi.
DH: I actually was in Australia not so long ago and sushi seemed to be the primary fast food.
JB: I like Australia. I have a good time there.

There might be more sushi bars in food courts than in San Francisco, where Handler lives (I can't say for sure, I have only spent about thirty-six hours in San Francisco), but there is no way that sushi is the primary fast food in Australia.

Certainly Asian foods have a big presence in Australian culture due to our position on the rim of South East Asia and our large Asian-immigrant population, but traditional burger joints like McDonald's and Hungry Jack's (Burger King by another name) and pizza (Pizza Hut, Domino's) are ubiquitous.

Australia's multi-cultural society means that foods from almost all cultures are represented in your average mall food court -- sushi next to yiros next pizza next to fried chicken next to thai. Handler must have noticed that sushi is more common here than in the US and jumped to a wrong conclusion.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Russian Democracy

In the last stop of his European "Let's Be Friends Again" tour, President Bush of the United States has met with President Putin of Russia.

The meeting was intended to help ease tensions that have arisen between the countries in the last few years: the US has had concerns regarding Russia's commitment to democracy and freedom, and Russia has had concerns about the growing interest that the US is taking in former-Soviet Eastern Europe. According to the BBC ("Bush pushes Putin on democracy"), the issue that Bush most wanted to address in the meeting was state of and future of Russian democracy:
"Democracies have certain things in common - a rule of law and protection of minorities and a free press and a viable political opposition," Mr Bush said. "I was able to share my concerns about Russia's commitment in fulfilling these universal principles."

Putin apparently takes the position that Russian democracy does not necessarily have to accord with American conceptions, citing examples from Russia's history of being ruled by authoritarian governents:
A senior administration official told journalists travelling with Mr Bush that Mr Putin had recently told the US president that the Russian people had a history of strong tsars, and that they were accustomed to government playing a strong role in their lives.

The official said President Bush had rejected that notion.

In an example of tu quoque, Putin is reported to have concerns about the current state of American democracy,as the New York Times reports:

Russian officials had also said that Mr. Putin might challenge Mr. Bush on his own concerns about the actions of the United States around the world and the American election system.

Bush administration officials had suggested that such concerns include the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the disputed 2000 election in which Mr. Bush became president by a single vote of the Supreme Court.

Whether or not each side's messages got through is not sure. After the meeting, Bush described it as "frank", however what he meant by that term is not entirely clear:

Mr. Bush did not say what he meant by "frank," but a senior administration official who briefed reporters on Mr. Bush's meeting with President Jacques Chirac of France this week said he did not want to describe that session as "frank" because "it usually means a euphemism for 'bad.'

Bush, after the event, took the time to note the rise of democracy in formerly authoritarian areas of the world, including a dubbing of the events of the recent Iraqi election as a revolution:

"In recent times," he said, "we have witnessed landmark events in the history of liberty, a Rose Revolution in Georgia, an Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and now, a Purple Revolution in Iraq."

Mr. Bush was recalling the 2003 revolution in Georgia in which the rose was the symbol of Mikhail Saakashvili's party, and last year's Orange Revolution in which orange was the symbolic color of Viktor A. Yushchenko's party.

The "Purple Revolution" has not been used by Iraqis to describe the recent events in their country; Mr. Bush appears to be the first person to have given voice to the term.

The term "Purple Revolution" is not a reference to Prince, but rather to the colour of the ink used on the Iraqi ballots. Apparently proud voters displayed purple ink-stained fingers outside polling booths.

In another NYTimes piece, Strobe Talbott (President of the Brookings Institution and former Dep Sec of State under Clinton) considers how not only the United States but also other major western powers, should deal with Putin's Russia. In "To Russia With Tough Love", Talbott considers the future of Russia's membership of the Group of 8:

Members of the group (Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan as well as Russia and the United States) are supposed to share a commitment to multiparty democracy, rule of law, freedom of the press, protection of human and civil rights, and respect for the sovereignty of their neighbors. Mr. Putin's concentration of power, his crackdown on the independent news media, his scorched-earth policy in Chechnya, and his bullying of Georgia and Ukraine have jeopardized Russia's membership in that club.

Rather than summarily evict Russia from the Group, as some members of Congress from both sides of the political divide have demanded, Talbott suggests a more moderate approach of subtly influencing Putin to address the Group's concerns through the threat of a public denouncement of Russia. This, Talbott wisely argues, would have a better chance of getting the desired result (Russian reform) than by the more final action of expulsion: you can't banish a man from the kingdom twice, and once he is in the wilderness, there are fewer ways to constrain him.

WSJ Online Content Policy

Adam L. Penenberg, in his Wired column, asks the important question, "Whither The Wall Street Journal?":
The Wall Street Journal is not only the best-written, most elegantly edited newspaper to cover business, it may be the best paper period.

Because of its immense clout and vast resources -- the Journal might assign half a dozen reporters to the telecommunications beat while The New York Times and Washington Post each have one -- publicists feed it exclusives, sources leak it information and corporate chieftains plead for the privilege of having their cartoon portraits grace Page 1. All of this helps the Journal maintain its competitive edge.

Given all of this, it might be hard to believe that The Wall Street Journal is in danger of becoming irrelevant, but it is.

The reason for the WSJ's growing irrelevency is its policy regarding online content. Unlike many (most, really) of the major U.S. newspapers, the Wall Street Journal does not allow free access online to its articles. This is the main reason that, save for the exceptional story that might be quoted heavily, the blogging community does not refer to the Journal. Despite excellent stories and great writers, the Journal's decision not to allow free access means that most bloggers do not link to its site or specific stories. I myself link only to the Journal's op-ed off-shoot site, Opinion Journal, in my side bar of recommended sites. Most bloggers, especially of the left or centrist persuasion, do not even do that, given the editorial pages of the Journal's reputation for a more conservative (or neo-conservative) leaning.

When I was in the U.S. last year, I picked up a print copy of the Wall Street Journal and read it enthusiastically (except the specifically business oriented stuff -- yes, I know that the business world is the Journal's primary audience, but there was plenty of interest for the general reader as well). I would love to be able to read the Journal online, but I won't pay to do so. For now, I will stick to the sites that provide quality news for free, and satisfy myself with the smattering of pieces that the Journal throws at us through Opinion Journal.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Star Wars Ep III spoilers

A page that probably won't be up for much longer if the lawyers find out about it-- someone has created a very detailed photo-based summary of Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith. It tells basically the whole story (minus some sub-plot elements) of the new movie, so if you want to be surprised, don't visit the link. But if you are an infophile like me who needs to know everything and know it right away, it is very interesting. Via Boing-Boing.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Gay Simpsons Character Revealed

It was one of the most heavily-guarded secrets in television, but last night in the U.S. saw the revelation of which Simpsons character is gay. Previously discussed here when it was announced that one of the regular characters was going to come out of the closet, the secret has finally been revealed. If you don't want to know the character, don't use your mouse to highlight the white space in the following quotation, which comes from the New York Times article on the episode:
In an episode titled 'There's Something About Marrying,' a longtime character on Fox's 15-year hit - it was Marge Simpson's sister Patty Bouvier, a closely held secret until the 8 p.m. broadcast - came out of the closet while Homer Simpson conducted dozens of same-sex weddings after small-town Springfield legalized the unions in a bid to increase tourism.

Hunter S. Thompson Suicide

There are just some things that don't make sense -- Hunter S. Thompson shooting himself is one of them. Take the time to read some of the tributes and remembrances being written about him at Eschaton and Metafilter as an example of the way he touched many in the (literary and political) world.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Odds for the Man Booker International Prize

The fellows at the Complete Review have attempted to figure out the odds for the first Man Booker International Prize (not to be confused with the Man Booker Prize, discussed in the previous post). The Man Booker International Prize seeks to differentiate itself from the regular Booker thus:
The Man Booker Prize represents the very best in contemporary fiction, and is awarded each year for a novel published in the previous twelve months. From 1969 until the present day the prize continues to be the pinnacle of ambition for every fiction writer and is one of the world's most prestigious awards.

Over the years the Man Booker Prize has shortlisted authors from all corners of the Commonwealth – from Africa to Australasia, the Americas to India – whose writing reflects the diversity and richness of their cultural background.

The Man Booker International Prize will complement the annual prize by recognising one writer's achievement in literature and their significant influence on writers and readers worldwide.

Eighteen authors were eventually shortlisted for the first International Prize -- it was originally announced that fifteen authors would be on the list, but I guess the judges found it too hard to whittle their list down. It should be remembered that the list is comprised of authors, not works, and the prize is to be given to an author only once ever -- like the Nobel, it is for a body of work, rather than a particular piece. The following authors made the cut:

Margaret Atwood
Saul Bellow
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Gunter Grass
Ismail Kadare
Milan Kundera
Stanislaw Lem
Doris Lessing
Ian McEwan
Naguib Mahfouz
Tomas Eloy Martinez
Kenzaburo Oe
Cynthia Ozick
Philip Roth
Muriel Spark
Antonio Tabucchi
John Updike
A.B. Yehoshua

Without doubt, there are some incredible authors on the list. Of them all, I would have to single out Milan Kundera, Philip Roth and Ian McEwan as personal favourites. The Complete Review has provided their own guide, Handicapping the Field: A Punter's Guide. Their picks for the front runners (I will list only the authors who they give odds of 15:1 or better):

Saul Bellow - 5:1
Gabriel Garcia Marquez - 5:1
Margaret Atwood - 10:1
Philip Roth - 11:1
A.B. Yehoshua - 12:1
Naguib Mahfouz - 14:1
Milan Kundera - 14:1

After giving their odds, the Complete Review-ers back up their pronouncements with an excellent "Why they will/won't win" section. If you have any interest in the prize, or the state of contemporary fiction in general, I highly recommend you check it out.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

New Ishiguro Novel

The London Times has a pre-release review of Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel, Never Let Me Go. This seems like it is going to be a fantastic year for literary fiction -- I am currently half way through Ian McEwan's Saturday, and the next book in my pile is Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore. Saturday is unlike McEwan's other books in that there are no pedophiles, obsessive stalkers or murderers (yet). However I am enthralled by his description of one day in the life of a London neuro-surgeon as he goes about the seemingly mundane everyday events of aSaturday -- shopping for dinner ingredients, squash with his buddy. Even a scene that might one might expect to be disappointed in -- a minor traffic accident and the following menacing encounter doesn't lead to a random act of unspeakable violence or terror at the hands of a psychopath -- is satisfying and rings true. It is understandably being touted as the favourite for the Booker Prize this year.

The Murakami novel is one that I am greatly looking forward to. The only reason I haven't read it yet is that I read Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle just after the new year started, and I find that if I devour an author's entire oevure in a row, my recollections of the novels bleed into one another (a problem that I had most acutely with Martin Amis's work). I did read another Murakami book, South of the Border, West of the Sun, not long after The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but those two are so different that there is no way I could ever confuse them in my memory.

Anyway, McEwan's front-runner status for the Booker Prize seems like it may be challenged by Ishiguro's new novel. The Times' reviewer finds it to be masterful and praises Ishiguro's adroitness in dealing with topics that could easily let an author fall into the traps of genre fiction. Both Ishiguro and McEwan have won the Booker before: the former in 1989 for The Remains of the Day, the latter in 1998 for Amsterdam (although I believe he should have won again in 2001 for Atonement). This year it looks like one of them will join Peter Carey and J.M. Coetzee as the only multiple winners of the Commonwealth's most distinguished literary prize.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Deep Throat Croaky

John Dean, White House Counsel under Nixon until he was forced to resign amidst the Watergate scandal, writes in the LA Times that the identity of the Watergate whistleblower Deep Throat may soon be revealed.
I have little doubt that one of my former Nixon White House colleagues is history's best-known anonymous source — Deep Throat. But I'll be damned if I can figure out exactly which one.

We'll all know one day very soon, however. Bob Woodward, a reporter on the team that covered the Watergate story, has advised his executive editor at the Washington Post that Throat is ill. And Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of the Post and one of the few people to whom Woodward confided his source's identity, has publicly acknowledged that he has written Throat's obituary.

Who Deep Throat was/is has been a mystery for modern historians for some time. Speculation on the Metafilter thread where I came across this article has included mention of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, while most other theories revolve around these seven candidates.