A Winter Morning and A Historian on Public Radio

Today is the last working day of 2007. It started to rain in SF around 1am.

The last couple of days have been so cold, that walking on the street of San francisco, under an overcast sky, and in the cold air reminded me of Beijing’s winter. Just a hint of it because Beijing is far colder right now. Beijing’s winter has always seemed romantic in my mind. The cold clear air was translucent, like ice cubes. The darkened northern sky, people bundled up in their long down coat, the white mist people breath out, and the warm interior of restaurants and bars with piles of coats that customer shed as they came in, and fogged up windows; all added to the romance of a northern city. Desolated landscape versus over heated social life indoors.

Driving to work in the late morning, I caught a pre-recorded session of “Your Call” from a local public radio station. The former Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham was interviewed about his view of today’s politics and the importance of history.

Lapham(72 years old) sounded like an interesting character. He was born into a shipping family in San Francisco. His grandfather was mayor of San Francisco in early 1940’s. He went to Yale and wanted to become a history professor but changed his mind after one year in Cambridge. He started his journalist career in San Francisco Chronicles copy room, then Examiner, then New York Herald Tribune. Later, he was the editor of Harpers for thirty years (1976-2006). Now he started his own magazine called Lapham’s QuarterlyThe journal that enlists the counsel of the dead. The first issue was just released this month.

His advocating of history being the guide for presence agrees with my point of view. His comment on Bush Administration also seems quite to the point: “The lack of curiosity is fatal.”

I dug up a few of his interviews, and also looked over his new magazine. He also wrote for a documentary that sounded strangely interesting. The American Ruling Class. There are not may reviews of this strange little movie. Even though i haven’t watched the movie, this review struck a cord in my mind, because it expressed the same impression I have of Lapham, so far. A bit on the cynical side, but i have to admit it rings true.

…those who like their left-wing politics muddled with avant-garde artistic pretensions.

Despite his “avant-garde artistic pretensions”, I actually agree with lots of his views. I wonder if that means I’m fond of “avant-garde artistic pretensions”, too. Probably.

Among the interviews i read of Lapham, i really like this one done by progressive.org May 2006. Lewis Lapham Interview, By Ruth Conniff.

Lapham: …I graduated from Yale in the 1950s, and the word “public” was still a good word. Public meant public health, public service, public school, commonwealth. And “private” suggested greed, selfishness, and so on. Those words have been turned around. That was the great triumph of the Reagan Revolution. By the time we hit the end of the Reagan Administration, “public” had become a dirty word, a synonym for slum, poor school, incompetent government, all things destructive. And “private” had become glorious: private club, private trout stream, private airplane.

Q: You say you recognize the particular kind of venality of this Administration because of your background. Can you explain what you mean?

Lapham: I know the ethos of the American oligarchy of which young Bush is a servant. It was a tempting subject for discussion and commentary. He’s an agent of the selfish greed that usually overtakes a fat and stupid oligarchy. Aristotle makes this point in his Politics. He has a circle. At one point you have an oligarchy, and it becomes rancid with its own wealth and stupidity. That in turn gives way to tyranny. Then, after a period of time, tyranny turns into anarchy, and out of that comes some form of democracy, which then deteriorates into oligarchy, and you go around the circle again.

I like to read history. I wouldn’t know how to make sense of the newspapers unless I had a sense of history, a sense of context. Let us say that all of us are embarked on the human story that starts however many thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia. And here we are in Chapter 498, and unless we know what happened in the first 497 chapters, we are at a loss. We then become subject to magical thinking.

You see that in the Bush Administration. This is a form of magical thinking: the idea that you can transform the Middle East and make the deserts of Iraq bloom with small New England towns built on the model of Greenwich, Connecticut. Anyone with a sense of history knows that was unlikely.

Q: We on the left have been admonished that Bush is not stupid, just intellectually incurious.

Lapham: Bush is clever, I assume, in a somewhat limited way. I mean he’s incompetent in a way that a lot of corporate CEOs are incompetent. You could put him in a class with Bernie Ebbers or Ken Lay. But he makes a virtue of his ignorance: Don’t confuse me with qualms or history; I have the will to change the world.

He wants power. Whereas somebody like Kerry doesn’t want power and wouldn’t know what to do with it if he got it. And Kerry does not have the strength of his own supposed convictions. That’s why Bush got elected. I knew a lot of people who disagreed with him but who voted for him. They said, “at least the man knows what he thinks, and he’s not afraid to act.” Whereas Kerry, who knows what he thinks? He’s somewhere on a surfboard in a plastic suit.

Lapham: Well, the true idea of democracy is that we learn from people with whom we don’t agree. Societies perish when they become afraid of differences of opinion. So it’s not personal with me. I’m perfectly happy to sit down at breakfast with Newt Gingrich and listen to him present himself as a teacher of civilization.

Q: You write a lot about class.

Lapham: America is about class. To pretend that it isn’t is very ignorant. No society has ever existed without some kind of a ruling class. I don’t care whether you’re in Athens in 400 BC or in France in the 1770s or in America in the 1920s. At Yale for 100 years the class rankings were based on the wealth of the student; the richest kid in the class was the first student in the class.

Q: Whom do you admire?

Lapham: I admire Ralph Nader. I wish in 2004 he had run for the Senate. His Presidential campaign was mistimed. But I admire almost anybody that tries to speak up for himself or herself. I admire writers.

Any political regeneration comes out of a better concern for the language. This is Orwell’s point in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” He says it is the foolish and awful and thoughtless use of language that allows us to not think. And unless we pay attention to the meaning of words, we are subject to dealers in quack religion and political chicane.

A few essays written by Lapham on Harper’s Magazine:
Drums along the Potomac, November 2001
Res republica, November 2001
The Road to Babylon, October 2002

I like his writing and his lucidity. Two months after 911! That’s admirable.

Coetzee’s New Book

I’m not a J. M. Coetzee fan. For precisely the reason iterated in the introduction paragraph of the new book review in the New Yorker.

There are people who think of J. M. Coetzee as a cold writer, and he might agree, or pretend to agree. “If he were a warmer person he would no doubt find it all easier: life, love, poetry,” he writes of himself in his memoir “Youth”: “But warmth is not in his nature.” …that his father surely thought him a selfish child “who has turned into a cold man.” His art, he laments, is “not great-souled.” It lacks “generosity, fails to celebrate life, lacks love.”

The only thing i managed to finish reading by Coetzee and actually liked is “Youth”. But this new book of his, The Diary of a Bad Year, sounds extremely interesting. Not only because it contains some “strong opinions” on current events: Bush Administration and Guantanamo, but also because it seems to be using an unique format in print:

“Diary of a Bad Year” takes a daring form: Señor C’s essays occupy the bulk of each page, more or less, but running beneath them, like the news crawl on a TV screen, are what read like short diary entries by Señor C and by Anya, which offer a running commentary on the developing relationship of employer and employee, and which convey the plot of the novel, such as it is. So a typical page is segmented like the back of a scarab beetle, and the reader must choose to read either one narrative strand at a time or one page at a time and thus two or three strands simultaneously. In practice, one does a bit of both—a gulp of essay, a snatch of diary—and the broken form usefully, but relatively painlessly, corrupts any easy relation to innocent continuity.

Last but not the least, the protagonist of the novel is a J. S. Bach fan!! This is new. Knowing this little fact alone seems to make me like Coetzee a little more. How cold can a person be if he loves Bach?

The second part of “Diary of a Bad Year” records the private ideas and responses of Señor C—what he calls his “gentler set of opinions.” These are more passionate, more fragmentary, and more irrational than his public utterances. One of them, “On J. S. Bach,” begins:

The best proof we have that life is good, and therefore that there may perhaps be a God after all, who has our welfare at heart, is that to each of us, on the day we are born, comes the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. It comes as a gift, unearned, unmerited, for free.

Squall Lines – J. M. Coetzee’s “Diary of a Bad Year.”, by James Wood. The New Yorker, Issue of December 24th, 2007.


I heard about quarterlife on NPR, when Terry Gross interviewed Marshall Herskovitz on Freshair. It caught my attention because it is the first production quality tv series only showing on the internet. Herskovitz was one of the creators who created Thirtysomethings and My So-Called Life. The reason he put it on-line was to protest the current corporate control of the creative process of making a TV show in the real networks. He said that. Apparently the network exec are interfering with script writing, stage design, and even dialogs, “But they weren’t trained to be the creative types.” “It is wrong.”

Herskovitz’s protest worked, the show was popular on-line (apparently, but i didn’t know about it till the NPR show), and NBC decided to run it on-air starting next season.

I started watching it tonight and it was not bad! I’m only two episode (it is called parts on the site) into the show. But i’m definitely going to follow it.

Viva Internet! 🙂

A Story from the Past

I’ve been making my way slowly through my old diaries, in reverse chronological order. Last week I reached my college years. Over the weekend, i took advantage of being at Mom’s and looked up my old boxes of letters/essays. Came upon an essay i wrote for my college English class of my two highschool classmates. I was surprised that half of the essay read like someone else’s story to me. I totally don’t remember quite a few details mentioned there (e.g. the Christmas card with photo cutouts.) I was also surprised at how well i could write then.

If anyone who reads this is from my class, be warned that i have taken liberty at making up things to make the story tidy. So even though the characters are real, the events might not be, even their personalities have had some fiction in them, too. 🙂 Enjoy.

Lee and Lin

What’s more interesting to me was at the time the instructor wrote a full page comments in longhand, which post a big challenge to me. I couldn’t decipher half of what she wrote. I even asked one of my classmates to help, and she penciled in some of the phrases next to the instructor’s. Even with those I still failed to understand some sentences. This time, i was able to understand it in full. phew. Not trying to gloat (okay, a little, I’m actually a little envious of my former self. 🙁 oh well), I transcribed her comments too.

Instructor’s Comments on Lee and Lin.

This essay got me started reading my diaries from high school years. I am now constantly amazed at how oblivious i was then. Comparing to my peers, I seemed to be living in some kind of foggy romantic version of the reality. On one hand, I’m glad I was so innocent, so devoid of vanity and was able to deal with things as they came competently, in my own quirky way. On the other hand, i wish i could have gotten hold of that little girl and made her see things as they really were.

It was like in Harry Potter, those kids who were born with magic powers but they didn’t know how to use it. They stumble along, clumsy. In a way, maybe all teenagers are like that. They are not aware of the power they had, the magic they could cast on other people. To fully tune that power, to make them aware of their power, could either make them a more powerful person with more self-awareness, or make them into monsters.

Maybe it had been a good thing afterall, that I have been oblivious all these years…

The New Yorker Issue of Dec. 17th, 2007

Starting this year, I either like every single article of a particular issue of the New Yorker, or none of it. I wonder if they alternate editors over there on the east coast?

Dec. 17th, 2007 is another issue that i love wholeheartedly.

I’ve only read 2.5 articles so far, all interesting.

James Flynn’s “What Is Intelligence?” and the debate over race and I.Q., by Malcolm Gladwell

I.Q.s around the world appeared to be rising by 0.3 points per year, or three points per decade, for as far back as the tests had been administered. For some reason, human beings seemed to be getting smarter.

…If an American born in the nineteen-thirties has an I.Q. of 100, the Flynn effect says that his children will have I.Q.s of 108, and his grandchildren I.Q.s of close to 120 more than a standard deviation higher. If we work in the opposite direction, the typical teen-ager of today, with an I.Q. of 100, would have had grandparents with average I.Q.s of 82 seemingly below the threshold necessary to graduate from high school. And, if we go back even farther, the Flynn effect puts the average I.Q.s of the schoolchildren of 1900 at around 70, which is to suggest, bizarrely, that a century ago the United States was populated largely by people who today would be considered mentally retarded.

Interesting, isn’t it? Wait, but there is more…

To say that Dutch I.Q. scores rose substantially between 1952 and 1982 was another way of saying that the Netherlands in 1982 was, in at least certain respects, much more cognitively demanding than the Netherlands in 1952. An I.Q., in other words, measures not so much how smart we are as how modern we are.

Okay, so what does “being modern” mean? The following is a fascinating example:

The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories. It can be argued that taxonomical categories are a developmental improvement, that is, that the Kpelle would be more likely to advance, technologically and scientifically, if they started to see the world that way. But to label them less intelligent than Westerners, on the basis of their performance on that test, is merely to state that they have different cognitive preferences and habits.

Journey Into Night, by David Sedaris. Flying to Paris is so much better in business class, you can do almost anything you like.
– Treasure Hunt not on-line. 🙁 by Hugh Eakin. How a rare statue of Aphrodite became the focus of the fight over antiquities, and led to the fall of a Getty Museum curator.


Director: Joe Wright
Writers: Ian McEwan (novel)/Christopher Hampton (screenplay)
Cast: James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, Keira Knightley, Vanessa Redgrave
Runtime: 130 min
Country: UK / France

Anthony Lane did an unfavorable review for “Atonement” in this week’s The New Yorker magazine. But there was something about his intro and the few scenes i saw in the trailer that caught my attention, drew me toward the movie.

Almost the first sound we hear in Joe Wright ‘Atonement’ is the tap of typewriter keys. Soon, the tapping becomes regular, like drumbeats, and it sets the tempo for the music that comes surging in. Later in the film, it rings out as loudly as gunshots. The implication is clear: words can stir us and set us dancing, but they can also kill. That mysterious double power infused Ian McEwan’s novel, published in 2001, and it lingers in Christopher Hampton’s screenplay, which displays immense ingenuity in facing a basic conundrum: how do you film a story about language and not leave it reeking of books?
– via “Conflicting Stories” by Anthony Lane
Issue of Dec. 10, 2007 The New Yorker

The soft light, warm color and the perfect composition of each scene reminded me a little of Pan’s Labyrinth, a sense of mystery, the perspective of a young girl, and something dark and sinister stirring in the background. (Of course, the story is very different from Pan’s Labyrinth. )

Based on Anthony Lane’s review and the trailer, it looked like, at least, a well made movie. And I was attracted to the story line and the power of words. So i convinced Gui to go and see it with me. She was skeptical. I wasn’t sure how it would turn out either.

We were both pleasantly surprised. Contrary to Anthony Lane’s predicament that this is a movie “with smoke and mirrors” and it has “no heart” (when i read this, i thought, could it be like A Very Long Engagement All shiny surface no inner life?) We were deeply moved by the story. Not sure why Anthony Lane got such a different impression than us. Maybe because he read the book first? Could it mean the book is even better? Now i’m curious.

Later Gui commented that it has been a long while since we last saw a good and moving romance movie.

Like Anthony Lane pointed out at the beginning, the music of the movie was amazing. The movie has no voice over. But often the music seems to have a life of its own, the music seems to be a character, or a voice over, to emphasize, to elaborate, to hint what is to come, to double back and take a second long look at what had happened, to mourn what is lost, to jump in joy for a love that’s reciprocated. It is such a rich voice, that goes so well with such a rich palette of the English country side, even with a cold morning of French country side during the war.

Anthony Lane said he “didn’t believe in Robbie. …didn’t believe in the force of his love for Cecilia, or of hers for him;” Well, he was right, Robbie didn’t believe it either when he met her again in London before he went to war. He said, “we’ve only spent a few minutes in the library three and half years ago!” But she tried to convince him otherwise. And during the war, when he tried getting back to England, with her letters tied together in a neat bundle safely stored inside his shirtpocket, he started to believe in it too. Isn’t that the proof of “the power of words”?

Dearest Cecilia, the story can resume. The one I had been planning on that evening walk. I can become again the man who once crossed the surrey park at dusk, in my best suit, swaggering on the promise of life. The man who, with the clarity of passion, made love to you in the library. The story can resume. I will return. Find you, love you, marry you and live without shame.

For me, what really made this movie great (not just good) was the unexpected yet so powerful an ending. The story touched me throughout the narrative, and i was smitten with the beautiful cinematography and music. But the ending, omg! Speaking of “the power of words”. Such simple sentences, Vanessa Redgrave (as the elderly Briony) delivered them with precision. They are clean and hard, rolled off her tongue, calm, but sharp like a knife. My heart ached, and tears started pouring out as the screen darkened, and cast names started to rise.

Sunny Morning

San Francisco in a sunny morning is always such a lovely sight. Everything sparkles, the little hills, the colorful houses lining the street, the park, the trees, even the homeless in the park. ha. Everything unfold in the sunlight, happy and relaxed, “the world was a song and the song was exciting. ”

sitting in the sun on our balcony, with cats purring next to me enjoying the warm sunshine, i read.