The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Monday, June 30, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: The August/September issue of Reason includes two brief articles by me: one about prison rape, in the Citings section, and one about communist art, in the Culture & Reviews section. There's also an exchange between Jack Kemp and yrs. truly in the Letters column.

posted by Jesse 6:16 PM
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MY READERS SPEAK: A fellow named Chris Thompson responds to my
column on the sodomy decision:

"I guess your opinion is all that really matters. So, go ahead, celebrate. You are finally able to put it where you have always wanted it and no one can say anything to make you feel guilty about being a freak of nature. I'm happy for you and your kind. May every evil of your preference be granted you, with my blessings."

I thanked him for telling me that my sexual preference is evil and informed him I would change my ways immediately: From now on, it's nothing but gay buggery for me. The Christian Right has made another convert!

posted by Jesse 3:55 PM
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Friday, June 27, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: My new Reason column is about

posted by Jesse 4:40 PM
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STROM THURMOND, RIP: If he had died just a year earlier, Trent Lott wouldn't have had all these problems.

posted by Jesse 6:46 AM
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PABST BLUE RIBBON ON MY MIND: Miscmedia's Clark Humphrey has a
different take on the revival of Pabst Blue Ribbon:

Recent articles in the NY Times, the Wall St. Journal, and elsewhere have noticed the apparently sudden resurgence of Pabst Blue Ribbon in the national beer marketplace. The articles all credit PBR's comeback to an apparently instantaneous spike in the product's young-adult hipness factor, or to a stealth-marketing campaign to create such a hipness factor. None of the articles tells the real story:

In the '80s, both Pabst and Stroh bought up dozens of second-tier mass market beers across the country. They included Heilman's, Lone Star, Iron City, Hamm's, Schmidt, former national powerhouse Schlitz, and all of the Northwest's onetime Big Five (Olympia, Rainier, Heidelberg, Lucky Lager, and Blitz-Weinhard). Pabst bought Stroh in 1998 and decided to retire or de-emphasize all these legendary names. The plan was to use the strong distribution networks of these local beers to relaunch Pabst Blue Ribbon as a national major. Bars and taverns were given deep discounts and promotional incentives to switch from Pabst-acquired local brands and make PBR their principal swill on tap.

With the former Olympia brewery, the last of the Big Five, having closed last week, it's clear at least around here that PBR's comeback has little to do with street cred and nothing to do with the movie Blue Velvet. It has everything to do with the familiar themes of corporate consolidation and the homogenization of regional cultural landmarks.

Clark is being a bit myopic here: The boom in microbrews is an important countertrend, and while Iron City may be symbolically important to Pittsburgh and Lone Star to Texas, the fact remains that both beers taste like donkey piss. Still, if Humphrey's tale is true, it's amazing that none of the mainstream reporters covering the story picked up on it.

posted by Jesse 6:37 AM
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Tuesday, June 24, 2003
ISLE OF THE ROSES: One last note on
Rimini, from the Footnotes to History website: "In the early 1960s, engineering professor Giorgio Rosa constructed a platform eight miles offshore from the Italian city of Rimini. After a storm swamped the platform, another was erected in 1965. The 4,000 square foot platform boasted several businesses. The Italian authorities took little notice of the platform, since it was in international waters at the time, until May 1, 1968, when Rosa declared the platform an independent nation. Two months later, the platform was illegally occupied by the Italian Navy, who then illegally removed Rosa and proceeded to illegally destroy the entire country with dynamite. The Isle of the Roses is therefore, along with Carthage and New Atlantis, one of the few nations to be utterly removed from the face of the earth by military action."

Rosas then returned to the mainland where, according to Erwin Strauss' invaluable How to Start Your Own Country (Loompanics, 1979), he took to darkly declaring, "This country is all Mafia."

posted by Jesse 8:20 PM
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SELF-PROMOTION: In the Summer 2003 issue of The Independent Review, I
praise Gerd Horten's Radio Goes to War: The Cultural Politics of Propaganda During World War II.

posted by Jesse 4:58 PM
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WHAT I MISSED: An excerpt from one of several hundred unsolicited e-mails that piled up during my vacation: "The debates about the issue of creationism vs. evolution keep popping up, often in local public school board meetings....Creationism and evolution are actually both partly right, BUT BOTH MOSTLY WRONG! There is a 3RD ALTERNATIVE that is being systematically ignored and suppressed: SEEDING BY SPACE ALIENS! The TRUE ORIGIN for humans is the six-planet solar system that we call Vega, which is now the main headquarters for the REAL Galactic Federation that will soon be formally greeting us with a First Contact mass UFO landing."

Reminds me of when I came home from a different trip, many years ago, and promptly attempted to entertain my friends with a series of comments intended to be funny. "I can't believe," one soon declared, "that I actually missed this while he was away."

posted by Jesse 12:42 PM
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Monday, June 23, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: Shortly before I left for Italy, the editors of CounterPunch asked me and several other writers to list our favorite novels written in English since 1900. The results are now

Also: my recent review of All the Rave has apparently been reprinted in the Houston Chronicle, the Pittsburgh weekly Pulp, and a paper in Virginia Beach. And possibly other places, too; please let me know if you spot it someplace new.

posted by Jesse 9:09 PM
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BACK IN THE U.S.A.: I love Italy. I love America. I hate airports.

posted by Jesse 8:43 PM
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Sunday, June 22, 2003
REPORT FROM RIMINI: Five and a half centuries ago, Rimini was ruled by a crypto-pagan aristocrat called Sigismundo Malatesta, the only man consigned directly to hell upon his death by papal decree. He's left his marks all over this Adriatic city, most notably in the Tempio Malatesta, a bizarre and lovely cathedral, still in use, that we visited our first afternoon in town. Ezra Pound adored Malatesta -- partly, some have suggested, because he reminded the poet of his poorly chosen modern hero, Benito Mussolini -- and Sigismundo dominates a long stretch of Ezra's
Cantos. Pound fan Robert Anton Wilson then inserted Malatesta into the background of his very enjoyable novel The Earth Will Shake, as an ancestor of the protagonist. Who, in turn, visited the same temple we did:

The Tempio Malatesta had been built, in fact, to honor the last and best loved of Sigismundo's mistresses, Ixotta degli Atti, whom he had finally married. It had not one Christian icon in it, but contained a monument proclaiming Divae Ixottae sacrum -- sacred to the Divine Ixotta. When Ixotta died, Sigismundo Malatesta entombed her there, under a plaque saying "Ixotta of Rimini, in beauty and virtue the glory of Italy." The rest of the temple was dedicated entirely to the gods of ancient Rome.

If you can imagine a Barbary ape with pepper up his nose, Uncle Pietro said, you can imagine how Pope Pius II, the reigning pontiff, jumped and howled and screamed when he found out about this heathen temple....

"[Malatesta] supervised every tiny detail, even writing long letters to the artists when he was away serving as mercenary general to other princes, when he wanted to raise more money to make the tempio even more outrageously stupendous," Uncle Pietro said. "All the tracery, you will notice, consist of variations on the intertwining of his initials with hers -- S and I."

Sigismundo loves Ixotta: it resonated from every lovely statue and erotic painting to every soaring arch and illuminated column.

Wilson is taking some artistic license here. Everything he writes above could be true, was widely believed to be true in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but is not necessarily regarded as true by most historians today. The entwined S and I, for example -- it looks like a dollar sign, and to some eyes might suggest a church built by a mad Objectivist -- does not likely refer to Sigismundo's love for Ixotta, if only because her name was usually spelled Ysotta or Yxotta while she was alive. Wilson has picked the historical interpretation that worked best for his novel, a perfectly legitimate thing to do -- but misleading if you're given to taking things literally. Lord knows (and maybe Ixotta does too) that the people who come to the temple to worship today do so in the name of Jesus, not some long-forgotten mistress to a Renaissance warlord.

Rimini is also a short bus ride from San Marino, a city-state bounded on all sides by the Republic of Italy. Long ago, it had to fend off Malatesta's armies; today it remains independent while Rimini is a demilitarized beach town.

For the most part, San Marino is an ordinary city surrounded by ordinary sprawl, notable mostly for an overabundance of car dealerships, but at the center of the statelet is a trio of stone towers, surrounded by shops, museums, mediocre restaurants, and modern-but-medieval government buildings. There's a Grand Fenwick quality to the place that I like, reinforced by the admirably low-key plaques in the museums. A set of archeological finds are described as "more or less important." Artifacts from a monastery are "not very high quality objects." And then there's this charming sentence: "No one knows what the original building actually looked like, but it must have been somewhat different to this." Someone in San Marino is either very honest or very bitter.

posted by Jesse 3:44 AM
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Friday, June 20, 2003
VENETIAN BLIND: From my aunt's apartment in Florence we took a train to Venice. It's quite a town: one part rickety Disneyland attraction, one part Italian Mall of America. Yes, there's good reasons to visit Canal City -- a great selection of modern art at the Guggenheim, the graves of Ezra Pound and Igor Stravinsky at an outlying island, a wonderful dinner my second night in town, a vague sense that at some point this was a real city rather than a vast tourist attraction. But it's definitely the most overrated stop on our trip, and I'm happy to have left it behind.

Now we're in Rimini, a pleasant little beach town with some interesting if largely forgotten history. More on this later...

posted by Jesse 4:14 PM
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Wednesday, June 18, 2003
THE ANARCHIST'S VILLA: Sergio the anarchist, my cousin Lisa's father-in-law, lives in a lovely villa in Antella, a small town near Florence. Seven of us are sitting in his dining room, drinking wine and eating vegetables grown just outside the door. Lisa and R. and I are due back in Florence, but it's pouring outside: There's been a heat wave since R. and I came to the city, and now it's been broken by a torrent of rain and hail. It isn't quite safe yet to drive down the hill to the city.

We're speaking a mixture of Italian, English, French, and Spanish that no one completely understands. Lisa comprehends the most of it, so she ends up playing translator a lot. You should come back in September, when we pick the grapes for our wine, Sergio tells us through her, and stay through November, when we pick the olives for our oil. September is the key month: Sergio's anarchist group will be holding an international bookfair then, in a space -- I don't think I got this part right, but I report it anyway -- donated by the city.

More often, Tuscan revolutionaries just take the space they need. The night before, Lisa and Sergio's daughter Leslie -- she's there too, drinking wine with us in the villa -- took R. and me to Il Centro Popolare Autogestito, the Self-Managed Popular Center: an abandoned elementary school that had been taken over by squatters and transformed into one of the Social Centers that dot the Italian landscape. There they provide free housing, especially for immigrants; a free kindergarten for the neighborhood; concerts; classes in cooking, dancing, and Linux. There are two such centers in Florence -- the city shut another down recently, while yet another was legalized, transformed from a squat into something more formal. "They do the only real social work in the city," I'm told by Lisa, who doesn't share their politics but likes what they do. (She's exaggerating, of course, but I take her point.) It sounds very inspiring, but my inner ideologue is disappointed when we arrive there and see, not a dinner or a concert, but a meeting in "solidarity" with Castro's ratbag dictatorship in Cuba.

I had
read that communists as well as anarchists were involved in the social center movement, but I had assumed that these were eccentric communists -- "autonomists," say, or maybe some Rosa Luxembourg types -- not Stalinoids. Nope. There's even a picture of Lenin inside, in place of the Gaudi-like art that apparently decorates other social centers around Italy. ("Betrayer of the revolution," Leslie mutters when she sees old Vlad's portrait on the wall.) This particular project was once more philosophically diverse, I'm told, but the communists eventually kicked the anarchists out. One consequence is the Castroites gathered outside. Another is that the squat is now self-managing in name only.

I could see why anarchists would want to build D.I.Y. alternatives to the welfare state. But why communists? Seems there's a tradition in this country of civic virtue among the Reds. Antella contains a casa del popolo, a community center sponsored by the group previously known as the Communist Party. The party's name and politics are now more social-democratic, but the casa is still there. Young people see concerts and movies there; old folks come to play cards.

We were going to get a tour as well of Controradio, a formerly (and maybe still?) unlicensed radio station that I'd written about in my book Rebels on the Air. But this fell through: I walked by the station, took a couple pictures of the front door, but never got to go inside.

I don't mind that. Back at the villa, the electricity flickers off and on. People light candles, pour wine, pass around tomatoes and bread and Pringles. ("Even revolutionaries like Pringles.") The rain slows and we climb into the car; and then, with water and mud, we slide down the road to Florence.

posted by Jesse 2:38 AM
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Sunday, June 15, 2003
EMPIRES, AND THEIR OPPOSITE: Everyone should spend time in a country where they don't speak the language, if only to learn what it feels like to be retarded.

We've been in Italy for nearly a week now, dividing our time thus far between Rome and Florence. Rome, famously, is imperial. Florence is the reverse. One city is filled with the beautiful remnants of a not especially beautiful past: enormous, imposing monuments to the bloody empire Caesar started. The other has a history no less bloody, but it was bloodshed on a much more human scale: a tiny republic whose constant feuds and revolutions produced a cultural legacy arguably as notable as Ancient Rome's.

Do I sound like a guidebook? Maybe a little on the pompous side? Sorry -- I don't know the last time I went this long without writing anything. Leads to bad habits. To ridiculous overgeneralizations, owing less to my actual experiences here than to my distaste for empires and my memories of Kropotkin's perhaps overly generous analysis of the medieval free cities. But there is a real difference between those Roman ruins, so giant and awe-inspiring and unlovable, and these narrow Florentine streets. This is a place for localism, for craft, for loving or killing your neighbor, but not for empire. I quote Mary McCarthy's excellent The Stones of Florence: "The popolo minuto or working class of Florence, excluded from representation in the big middle-class guilds, was nevertheless highly developed politically. The people of Florence were, in fact, too articulate, politically, for government to be possible at all; the threat of direct democracy or piazza rule was always present, and no matter how short the period of elective office (sometimes six months), it generally seemed too long. Nearly every form of government was tried out in Florence." The spirit of ancient Rome, minus the talent for conquest, was present under Mussolini. Italy's more recent history -- regional and political splinters, constantly falling governments, lively and sometimes violent anti-authoritarian revolts -- owes more to Florence.

Not that Rome is all that imperial these days either. All cities include de facto autonomous zones, but only Rome recognizes two of them as sovereign nations. There is the Vatican and -- less famously, and even smaller -- there are the
Knights of Malta, whose two noncontiguous Rome buildings are a full-fledged independent country with stamps, a flag, and diplomatic relations. R. and I stopped at one of their properties a few days ago, persuaded one of the Knights to open the gates, then snapped each other's pictures. I think this was the smaller of the order's two territories, leading me to wonder whether the Knights at the other building regarded this one as the sticks, a poor country cousin to the real heart of their nation, and if young Knights in the smaller structure dream of moving to the bigger some day and making their way in the world.

posted by Jesse 6:06 PM
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Monday, June 09, 2003
HOUSEKEEPING: I take off tomorrow for Italy. Internet access will be scarce for much of the trip, and even when I do have a computer at my disposal I won't necessarily use it. (This is supposed to be a vacation, dammit.) I do plan, somewhat vaguely, to keep a journal, and if any of the results are worth sharing I'll post them here -- if not while I'm actually abroad, then when I return. Maybe.

posted by Jesse 8:07 PM
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Sunday, June 08, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: Today in The Washington Post, I
review Joseph Menn's book All the Rave.

Also: a piece I wrote a few months back has been translated into Japanese.

posted by Jesse 3:23 PM
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NOT-QUITE-POPULIST COMEDIES: Bill Cosby once attacked the reigning style of black-oriented sitcoms, arguing that the characters on those shows are all stereotypes and fools. He had a point, but I'm not sure this is a racial issue: Has Cosby watched any sitcoms about white people lately? Black America, Middle America, bohemia, the professional world -- as Richard Nixon might say, we are all cliches now.

In that spirit,
Christopher Lasch, the Bill Cosby of dead populist historians, once complained that the culture industry always seems to approach Middle American characters with contempt. Sometimes, he said, it deploys the kindly condescension of "compassion." Other times it's more directly contemptuous, depicting the professional elite as noble and cultured and inland Americans as ignorant boobs.

On the surface, Waiting for Guffman, Christopher Guest's mock documentary about a small-town play, fits Lasch's second category. The townsfolk of Blane, Missouri, don't just lack talent, sophistication, and the ability to grasp what stands directly in front of their noses. They are convinced that they do possess these qualities, and, laboring under that delusion, they make public fools of themselves. One might accuse the movie of cruelty as well as contempt. It is, Lasch could declare, a mean-spirited invitation to sneer at Missouri's wretched booboisie.

It is also one of the funniest films of the last 10 years, and along with the brilliant This Is Spinal Tap it set the template for Guest's subsequent comedies. However condescending it may be toward its subjects, Waiting for Guffman treats its audience with nothing but respect. Guest and his collaborators understand that many gags are funnier when they are allowed to lurk in the background, and they trust us to spot them there. There are no insulting efforts here to hammer home what's already obvious -- just constantly witty acting, writing, and direction.

And there is something more to this movie, a quality that defies the Laschian critique. Waiting for Guffman is as venomous as a good satire has to be. Yet there is an affection to it -- a sweetness, even -- that is anything but contemptuous. Blane actually seems like a rather nice place to live. The townsfolk enjoy the play as a pleasant diversion, and they don't mind (or even notice) that their neighbors aren't especially talented. When the players aren't rehearsing, they return to their ordinary professions: dentistry, travel-agentry, labor at the local DQ. At no point does the film suggest that these people are bad at their jobs.

In short: As corrosive as this movie is, it respects its characters' lives. It may lampoon them for being small-minded small-town people, but it only attacks them for pretending they aren't.

As the story progresses, an idea overtakes the troupe: the insane notion -- at first funny, soon almost tragic -- that their show will go to Broadway. A theatrical agent named Guffman has promised to attend their performance. He will "discover" them, the players hope, and turn them into stars. When this doesn't happen, they leave town anyway, all but one joining the lowest rungs of the entertainment industry. We see them in the film's closing scenes, a funny but unpleasant sequence that lacks the sweet affection that preceded it. What was charming in Blane becomes grotesque outside it. Our would-be entertainers have left behind their real livelihoods, not to mention the only appreciative audiences they'll ever find, to pursue the dream of celebrity.

You can argue that the filmmakers, successful entertainers all, are merely directing a calculated sneer at any ordinary American who aspires to join them in the limelight. One can find evidence for this in the slogan that adorned Guffman's posters: "There's a reason why some talent never gets discovered." Like so many movie ad campaigns, this is exactly wrong: The small-town players in Waiting for Guffman cannot act, dance, or sing, but none is less talented than, say, David Spade or Carrot Top.

But consider what the filmmakers have accomplished here. It's hard to launch a credible assault on the culture industry from that same industry's commanding heights. Many movies have tried; most, whatever their other qualities, are sanctimonious and hypocritical. (Witness Quiz Show and Natural Born Killers.) The pictures that pull off the trick are those that actively refuse to idealize the people who stand outside the center of media attention, from the would-be Broadway stars of Waiting for Guffman to the would-be bowling champs of Kingpin. Fulminate all you want that these movies are cruel or crude -- at least they're funny, and at least they aren't cliches. In Hollywood, those are substantial accomplishments.

posted by Jesse 3:01 PM
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Friday, June 06, 2003
column is about ghosts and jars.

posted by Jesse 3:37 PM
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NEW MEDIA NOTES: Could bloggers compete with The New York Times? Well, Ira Stoll isn't doing a very good job of it.

Think about that. When Stoll ran a little website called, he was a sometimes useful corrective to the Gray Lady. Now he runs a daily paper called The New York Sun. I'm sure it pays better, but it has neither readers nor content worth reading. If blogs are part of a media revolution -- and yeah, I think they are -- it's not because the people who write them could beat the Times at reporting, editing, or even opining. Some probably could. But most definitely can't.

In fact, blogger triumphalism aside, I'm not sure most of us could even fact-check better than the Times. I mean, it's not like we caught Jayson Blair. It's nice that the warblogging crowd has pointed out so many errors in the BBC's report on the rescue of Jessica Lynch. Good work, folks. But I get the impression that a lot of you are less interested in setting the record straight than in changing the subject: There were plenty of reports debunking the official story of the Lynch rescue before the British Broadcasting Corporation weighed in, and none of them included the BBC's nonsense about soldiers firing blanks. Yet those blanks are all you seem to be talking about. Why spend so much time taking the BBC to task and almost none probing the folks who might have gotten the first version of the story wrong, too? Could it be because one dubious report challenges your prejudices, while the other one confirms them?

Bloggers are at least as fallible as the Times or the BBC, usually more so. It's just that we dwell in this big electronic soup, where everyone's axes grind up against everyone else's and all those fallibilities cancel each other out. On an individual level, we've all got our heads up our asses, just like the unlamented Howell Raines. It's just that there's so many of us, and our asses come in such different shapes and sizes. It's so much more obvious when we're adjusting the facts to fit our faiths; and somehow, maybe, that makes it more obvious when the Big Media guys do it as well. Screw the emperor -- none of us are wearing any clothes.

posted by Jesse 12:30 PM
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Thursday, June 05, 2003
SANCTIMONY: IT'S WHAT'S FOR DINNER: The American Film Institute's movie lists get sillier every year.
This time they purport to count down the cinema's greatest heroes and villains. Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird tops the first list, while the biggest bad guy is supposed to be Hannibal Lector.

"Hero" and "villain" are relative terms. Am I the only one who'd like to see Anthony Hopkins kill and eat Gregory Peck?

posted by Jesse 10:55 AM
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Wednesday, June 04, 2003
column for Reason Online is up: "The Doper's Guide to Europe."

posted by Jesse 4:15 PM
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JANE JACOBS ON PROGRESS AND PLEASURE: "The first successful railroad in the world was an amusement ride in London. Many of us can remember when plastics were used for little except toys and kitchen gadgets, and for piano keys as a lower-cost replacement for ivory. Tennis rackets, golf clubs and fishing rods afforded the first uses of strong, lightweight composites of plastics reinforced with fibers of glass, boron and carbon; now those composites are starting to replace metals in some construction products, some types of springs, pipelines, and aircraft and automobile parts. Computer games preceded personal computers for workaday use. For years before artificial voices were being incorporated into computerized work tools to call out the temperatures of equipment or to sound explanatory warnings, they were being used in computerized toys and gimmickry for children (e.g., 'Speak and Spell') and were being prematurely written off by 'serious' developers and users of computers as cute but useless. In my own city today I notice that solar heating is largely a passion of hobbyists, as is drip irrigation, which conserves labor, fertilizer, water and space in home vegetable gardening.

"'All big things grow from little things,' [Cyril Stanley] Smith comments, 'but new little things are destroyed by their environments unless they are cherished for reasons more like esthetic appreciation than practical utility.'"

Cities and the Wealth of Nations, 1984)

posted by Jesse 3:19 PM
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Monday, June 02, 2003

She: Do you like Howard Dean?

Me: No, of course not. I don't like any of them.

She: Well, which one do you dislike the least?

Me: I dunno. Maybe Al Sharpton.

She: You don't really think that.

Me: I guess I don't. But he pisses off the right people. And he makes me laugh.

She: Well, who do you think is the worst?

Me: Christ, I don't know. They're all pretty bad. Maybe Carol Mosely-Braun?

She: Oh, is she running?

Me: Yeah. She's an idiot and a crook.

She: I didn't know she was a crook.

Me: Well, I'm pretty sure she was in some sort of scandal. (pause) Then again, she was against the war. I suppose I should give her credit for that.

She: What about Joe Lieberman?

Me: Lieberman! Right. He's got to be the worst.

She: What about John Edwards?

Me: Oh, man. I forgot about Edwards. I hate that guy. Yeah, he's the worst.

She: Not Lieberman?

Me: OK, maybe Lieberman.

posted by Jesse 10:59 PM
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Sunday, June 01, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: The July issue of Reason is out. It includes a short article I wrote about video games and censorship, plus two even shorter pieces in the Citings section.

posted by Jesse 6:19 PM
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RETURN OF THE WIRE: I caught the first season of The Wire in reruns, after
Oz left the air earlier this year. What a wonderful TV show, or mini-series, or 13-hour film -- however you like to look at it -- a detailed and far from formulaic police procedural with well-drawn characters, a good ear for dialogue, a strong sense of place, and a skeptical attitude toward the drug war and toward all large, hierarchical institutions. (It wasn't above the occasional in-joke either, like throwing a line from a Steve Earle song into a criminal's mouth in one of the episodes where Earle played a recovering junkie. Or giving Baltimore's real-life police commissioner, Ed Norris, a bit role as a low-level detective.)

The second season/series/story arc starts tonight. I can't wait to see it.

posted by Jesse 6:07 PM
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