Friday, May 20, 2005

Frank Gorshin, R.I.P. (1933-2005)

The Frank Gorshin -- a.k.a., the Riddler -- is dead.

Over at Hit & Run, Jeff Taylor observes:

I'm not certain, but I think Frank Gorshin introduced me to idea of actors as real people. My little 4 or 5-year-old brain vividly seized upon the fact that the guy who was the Riddler on the 60s Batman TV series seemed to be the same guy in the wild black-white face make-up in that Star Trek show -- and boy was Bele sweaty!

Oddly enough, Gorshin played a role in my movie education -- an awareness of costume design.

In the 1966 Batman movie, Frank Gorshin wore the most awesome-looking suit I'd ever seen -- it's what Gorshin's wearing on the front page of his web site. Nothing Jim Carrey wore in Batman Forever comes close to it. The moment I saw Gorshin cavorting around in it, I didn't want to be Batman anymore -- the Riddler was the guy for me.

Reading the obits, I was delighted to find out in Joal Ryan's E! Online story that Gorshin's co-star loved the costume as well:

Outfit in the archvillain's question-mark-covered green body-stocking, Gorshin bedeviled Gotham City's finest--Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin, respectively--with a manic energy, a hyena laugh and assorted tranquilizer guns....

Gorshin appeared in eight episodes, encompassing four cliffhanger storylines broadcast on back-to-back nights, in Batman's first breakout season. Then he picked up an Emmy nomination. Then he did the movie, teaming up with Bat enemies Cesar Romero (the Joker), Burgess Meredith (the Penguin) and Meriwether (Catwoman).

Then Gorshin got a little worn out on the costume.

"He didn't like the tights--I know that," Meriwether remembered Wednesday. "Back then, they were cotton and they [only] had a little bit of stretch in them...[In the movie], they gave him a gorgeous suit to wear--oh, it was wonderful."

The Riddler is dead.... or is he???????????

posted by Dan at 03:16 PM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, May 19, 2005

An open question about anti-Americanism

The Newsweek controversy doesn't really interest me that much -- Jack Shafer's take sounds about right to me. I'm more interested in the point Anne Applebaum made yesterday in the Washington Post:

But surely the larger point is not the story itself but that it was so eminently plausible, in Pakistan, Afghanistan and everywhere else. And it was plausible precisely because interrogation techniques designed to be offensive to Muslims were used in Iraq and Guantanamo, as administration and military officials have also confirmed.

This resonates with a question Susanne Nossel asked here last week:

Does the rise in anti-Americanism concern you? If so, do you link it to the Bush Administration’s policies? Even if you don’t think it’s a major issue that should be guiding policy choices, do you think it matters at the margins and can make it tougher to build support for U.S. goals?

Let me put this more bluntly: assume that the Newsweek goof was of the maximal variety -- i.e., despite Gitmo prisoner claims, it turns out that no Qu'ran was ever flushed down any toilet. Should it nevertheless be considered a major foreign policy problem that this report triggered significant protests in Afghanistan, a populace with good reasons to support the United States? In today's New York Times, David Brooks is right to point out the blogosphere's misplaced foci, and suggests that "radical clerics in Afghanistan" used the story to trigger outrage. What bothers me is that it was too damn easy for the clerics to whip up anti-American sentiment.

I leave it to my readers: am I overly concerned about this?

posted by Dan at 04:26 PM | Comments (98) | Trackbacks (2)

Pssst.... religious conservatives... here's some red meat

CBS chairman Leslie Moonves has revamped his Friday lineup. According to this MSN Entertainment story, both his decision and his explanation is likely to rile up religious conservatives:

CBS canceled "Judging Amy," "Joan of Arcadia" and the Wednesday spinoff of "60 Minutes" while adding Jennifer Love Hewitt to its prime-time lineup — all in search of a more youthful appeal....

CBS is convinced it can draw more younger viewers on Friday, where "Joan of Arcadia" had a puzzling decline in its sophomore season and "JAG" finished its last year. It will try two new supernatural stories: "Threshold" features a team of experts called in when the Navy discovers aliens have landed in the Atlantic Ocean. Hewitt's "Ghost Whisperer" finds her talking to dead people.

"I think talking to ghosts may skew younger than talking to God," Moonves said. (emphasis added)

The Reuters account makes it clear that Moonves said this in jest, but religious conservatives might not get the joke... plus, they'll be too angry about the cancellation of "Joan" to make way for a Jennifer Love Hewitt vehicle.... particularly if Hewitt's wardrobe conforms to her stereotype.

UPDATE: Yep -- Drudge has the story. Again, it's worth stressing the Reuters account ("'I think talking to ghosts may skew younger than talking to God,' Moonves joked at a news conference before the upfront presentation).

I suspect this is a case where reading the quote in cold print strikes a dramatically different chord than the effect of hearing Moonves say it.

posted by Dan at 12:38 PM | Comments (27) | Trackbacks (0)

Contradictory signals on the dollar

Two reports today send conflicting signals about what's going to happen to the dollar in the near term.

In the Chicago Tribune, Bill Barnhart reports that one longstanding bear thinks Bretton Woods 2 is going to last a while:

The good news was compounded by a bullish commentary by legendary bond-market bear Bill Gross, chief investment officer of Pimco.

In remarks released Wednesday, Gross, who has been well known for years for his gloomy predictions about interest rates, said a political bargain between officials of the United States and Asian nations, notably China, should keep U.S. inflation and interest rates low for several more years....

In his commentary, available at, Gross said the 10-year yield could drop to 3 percent within five years.

Professional bond traders are overwhelmingly bearish on interest rates, expecting the 10-year yield to climb this year toward 5 percent.

But Gross argued that a political bargain between U.S. and Asian officials means "a range of 3 percent to 4.5 percent for 10-year nominal Treasuries will prevail."

Gross said U.S. and Asian nations seem to have entered a political pact, whereby Americans can consume cheap imported goods and afford houses, while Asians can protect their economies, create jobs and maintain competitive currency values.

The refusal of the Bush administration on Tuesday to label China as a currency manipulator for pegging its currency to the dollar contributes to the "bargain" theory.

"America's growth has been stitched together more from the iron fist of government policies than the invisible hand of a dynamic free enterprise economy," Gross wrote.

In his January commentary, Gross had predicted that China would revalue its currency higher in 2005, a move that likely would send the U.S. dollar lower and U.S. inflation and interest rates higher. At that time, he urged investors to hold assets in cash.

On the other hand, Anna Fifield and Chris Giles report in the Financial Times that South Korea is about to roil these waters:

South Korea's central bank will not intervene any further in foreign exchange markets, the governor of the Bank of Korea said on Wednesday in comments likely to unsettle financial markets.

“I believe that we now have sufficient reserves to secure our sovereign credibility, so I do not anticipate increasing the amount of foreign reserves further,” Park Seung told the Financial Times. South Korea's foreign currency reserves stand at $206bn the fourth largest in the world.

Mr Park said: “We now need to take more consideration of profitability, and I think we're at a stage where we need to manage our reserves in a more useful way.”

Although he made no explicit comment on the won, Mr Park's remarks imply that South Korea is now unwilling to undertake the intervention required to stem its currency's rise....

With Japan, China and South Korea which together hold at least a third of the world's central bank foreign exchange reserves each likely to suffer if one moves first to lessen their exposure to the dollar, some economists believe there is scope for more regional co-operation.

Mr Park said: “I think that the economic co-operation of these three nations and the co-operation of their central banks is necessary to promote the growth and development of the global economy.”

But the banks were working together only to maintain financial stability and were not doing anything that might “affect” international markets, he said.

Click here to see what happened the last time South Korea said anything about its dollar purchases.


UPDATE: Brad Setser links to a Financial Times follow-up by Anna Fifield on the Bank of Korea decision, in which the Bank walked back furiously from Park's comments:

The Bank of Korea on Thursday backtracked on its comments that it did not plan to intervene further in the foreign exchange markets, after precipitating a sharp fall in the US dollar overnight.

Currency traders said it appeared that the central bank in fact bought dollar-denominated assets on Thursday morning, less than 24 hours after Park Seung, the governor, told the Financial Times that he did not “anticipate” doing so....

Mr Park’s comments pushed the won up sharply against the dollar in US trading on Wednesday, and it hit 999.5 immediately after the local market opened on Thursday but shortly fell back below the psychologically-important 1,000 mark to close at 1,005.

The central bank on Thursday confirmed that Mr Park had been quoted accurately but it nevertheless released a statement saying that he had been “misunderstood.”

“The Bank of Korea will take necessary measures whenever the currency markets are unstable. Especially, we will not sit idly by if speculative funds come in to exploit a groundless news report,” it said....

Even Han Duck-soo, finance minister, last month said that reserves of about $200bn “may be adequate” for South Korea. But on Thursday Mr Han said Korean authorities would continue taking action when the foreign exchange market showed any instability.

“When we see speculative forces and excessive volatility, we will act together with the Bank of Korea through smoothing operations,” he told reporters on the sidelines of a conference in Seoul.

Here's a link to the original FT interview with Park.

As Setser points out:

It sure seems like the Bank of Korea (the central bank) and the Ministry of Finance (if not the entire government) are in somewhat different places. The Finance Ministry is worried about any slowdown in growth, and Korea's export growth seems to be slowing. This policy dispute just played out in a very public way.

I concur -- there's no way, especially after the February episode, that Park didn't know what the effect of his interview would be on the currency markets.

posted by Dan at 11:13 AM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Treasury reports on China

Yesterday, I saw Edmund Andrews' New York Times summary of the U.S. Treasury report to Congress on whether any country is manipulating its exchange rate policy in order to gain an unfair competitive advantage. I naturally thought about blogging it, but then realized all I had to do was wait for Brad Setser to blog about it and link to him.

Which is what I'm doing.

posted by Dan at 02:07 PM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Suicide terrorism -- it's not just for Islamic extremists

My colleague Robert Pape, author of the soon-to-be-released Dying to Win from Random House, has an informative op-ed today in the New York Times about the strategic logic of suicide terrorism. The key fact is Pape's finding that suicide terrorism has more to do with foreign occupation than Islamic fundamentalism:

Over the past two years, I have compiled a database of every suicide bombing and attack around the globe from 1980 through 2003 - 315 in all. This includes every episode in which at least one terrorist killed himself or herself while trying to kill others, but excludes attacks authorized by a national government (like those by North Korean agents against South Korea). The data show that there is far less of a connection between suicide terrorism and religious fundamentalism than most people think.

The leading instigator of suicide attacks is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion. This group committed 76 of the 315 incidents, more than Hamas (54) or Islamic Jihad (27). Even among Muslims, secular groups like the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Al Aksa Martyr Brigades account for more than a third of suicide attacks.

What nearly all suicide terrorist attacks actually have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations in recruiting and in seeking aid from abroad, but is rarely the root cause.

This doesn't mean religion is irrelevant -- religious differences between an occupying force and the residents of an occupying country are a key means through which extremists can recruit suicide terrorists.

Read the whole thing.

posted by Dan at 12:18 PM | Comments (56) | Trackbacks (4)

Why I love geek culture

Go read either James Lileks on the end (for now) of the Star Trek franchise or Harry Brighouse on taking his daughter to see The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and you will know what it means to truly adore a work of popular culture.

posted by Dan at 01:49 AM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

How do you code Uzbekistan?

Is the recent unrest in Uzbekistan an example of the Uzbeks yearning to join the burgeoning fourth wave of democratization, or is it something else altogether, an example of Islamic extremists threatening a secular state? I'm still not completely sure, but my hunch is that it's the former.

The BBC provides a very useful timeline of events. The triggering event was an attack on the Andijan prison, where 23 local businessmen were held, accused of being Islamic extremists.

Rustam Iskhakov's first-person account of the prison-break in the Guardian cuts against the fourth wave thesis -- this looks violent and brutal:

I live five to 10 metres away from the jail [in Andijan] and saw it being stormed. At 11.10pm on Thursday people in civilian clothes came in 15 cars from the direction of the Kyrgyz city of Osh.

They were Uzbek, as far as I know. These men attacked the prison guards and drove an Ural 130 truck into the gates. They freed everybody in the jail. About 2,000 prisoners escaped. The guards were not ready for the attack - they did not even have bullets in their magazines.

The mob were about 100- strong with automatic weapons, sniper sights and Makarov pistols. They knew the guards did not have ammunition as they drove right up to the door.

They shot all 52 guards, including two women operating the telephone system. One guard survived by hiding in a watchtower.

However, this report on the official Uzbek response suggests that the authorities have bullets in some of their magazines:

Troops opened fire on thousands of demonstrators in the Uzbek city of Andijan on May13, bringing a bloody climax to protests sparked by a trial of local businessmen accused of being Islamic radicals.

As thousands of people including many women and children took part in a rally in the centre of the city, located in the east of the Fergana Valley, two columns of armoured cars moved in on the crowds and fired on civilians apparently indiscriminately.

IWPR’s country director Galima Bukharbaeva saw at least five blood-covered bodies lying on the ground, and many other people were injured.

Some protesters who had earlier seized Kalashnikovs and other weapons from a military base returned fire at the security forces.

The Weekly Standard's Stephen Schwartz argues that Andijan is an example of a fourth wave protest:

This turmoil is unrelated to radical Islam, and Islamist extremists were unable to capitalize on it. Nor is it motivated by desperate poverty; rather, it is an expression of rising expectations. The democratizing revolution in Kyrgyzstan, which lies on the border near Andijan, electrified the Ferghana Valley. The unsettled Uzbeks now have, next door, a successful example of direct action against unjust rule.

The crisis accelerated six weeks ago when citizens in the town of Andijan began peaceful demonstrations against the imprisonment of 23 young, local businessmen. The 23 were accused of belonging to an "Islamist conspiracy" called Akramiyya, which in reality seems to have been nothing more than a local spiritual and charitable circle. The Uzbek authorities and Russian and foreign news agencies and blogs have together accused Akramiyya of affiliation with Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT--the Liberation party), an extremist, neo-Wahhabi organization which is banned in several countries.

But Sheikh Muhammad Sadiq Muhammad Yusuf, the 52-year-old, former grand mufti, or chief Muslim cleric for Central Asia, whom I interviewed at length in December, and who is notably pro-American, denies the charge that Akramiyya is connected to HuT. According to him (as reported by the Jamestown Foundation), Akramiyya "has nothing in common with Hizb-ut-Tahrir and other radical political Islamic organizations."

Martha Brill Olcott, knower of all things Central Asian, makes a similar assessment in the Financial Times.

The limited amount of background research I did on Uzbekistan for The Sanctions Paradox suggests that Islam Karimov has been using the spectre of Islamic fundamentalism as an excuse to crack down on any and all opposition for the past thirteen years.

The fact that reporters have been kicked out of Andijan is also a decent sign that Karimov is dealing with more than terrorists. As Reporters Without Borders points out, "When the authorities keep journalists away from a conflict zone it is most often to hide abuses committed there."

Be sure to check out blog for further updates -- it's the source of many of the links contained in this post.

UPDATE: Greg Djerejian is back at Belgravia Dispatch and has some thoughts on the what the Bush administration has done and should do.

Meanwhile, the New York Times' C.J. Chivers reports that the Uzbek government now admits more people were killed in the suppression of the Andijan protests than they originally acknowledged. And the AP's Burt Herman reports that an Islamic rebel in Uzbekistan has declared he controls a border town:

The government of President Islam Karimov quickly shrugged off Bakhtiyor Rakhimov's claims as "nonsense,'' but the rebel leader asserted that his forces controlled Korasuv, a town of 20,000 on the Kyrgyz border, and were ready to fight any government troops that came to crush his rebellion. The rebels claimed to control 5,000 activists.

"We will be building an Islamic state here in accordance with the Quran,'' Rakhimov said in an interview with The Associated Press. "People are tired of slavery.''

The BBC has more on Rakhimov's aims.

FINAL UPDATE: Paul Reynolds provides some useful analysis for the BBC.

posted by Dan at 06:03 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (1)

The NYT op-ed shakedown

I don't have a great deal to offer on the New York Times' decision to charge for some its content (including the op-ed page) starting in September that Virginia Postrel and Matthew Yglesias haven't already made.

I do, however, have a research question that I bet some communications grad student has written a paper about -- to what extent does having a fee-for-content regime inhibit a web site's popularity/traffic/links? For example, most people I know consider the reportage of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are papers of comparable quality (or maybe the Journal has a slight lead). However, the Times has an Alexa traffic rank of 107, while the Journal has a traffic rank of 540. Even USA Today, an inferior newspaper to the Journal, has a higher Alexa traffic rank. So it looks like free news sites attract a higher traffic level even if the quality of information is not as good.

I'm sure someone out there has done a more systematic study of this question. Please post a link to useful research if you can find it.

UPDATE: Hmm.... Mickey Kaus suggests that maybe I've been too hasty in judging the New York Times proposal.

posted by Dan at 02:35 PM | Comments (16) | Trackbacks (1)

So how do Mexicans view African-Americans?

While Latino critics in the United States have their hands full combating discrimination in the Star Wars movies (link via Glenn Reynolds), Latinos south of the border have a slightly bigger problem.... dealing with their own racial prejudices. Traci Carl explains for the Associated Press:

President Vicente Fox reversed course Monday and apologized for saying that Mexicans in the United States do the work that blacks won't.

Despite growing criticism that included a stern U.S. response, Fox had refused repeatedly to back away from the comment he made Friday, saying his remark had been misinterpreted.

But in phone conversations with Jesse Jackson Sr. and Al Sharpton, Fox said he "regretted" the statement....

Fox agreed to set up a visit to Mexico by Jackson, Sharpton and a group of American black leaders.

Many Mexicans hadn't considered Fox's remark Friday offensive.

Blackface comedy is considered funny here, and many people hand out nicknames based on skin color.

"The president was just telling the truth," said Celedonio Gonzalez, a 35-year-old carpenter who worked illegally in Dallas for six months in 2001. "Mexicans go to the United States because they have to. Blacks want to earn better wages, and the Mexican--because he is illegal--takes what they pay him."

But Lisa Catanzarite, a sociologist at Washington State University, disputed Fox's assertion. She said there is intense competition for lucrative working-class jobs like construction and that employers usually prefer to hire immigrants who don't know their rights.

"What Vicente Fox called a willingness to work ... translates into extreme exploitability," she said.

Fox made the comment at an appearance in Puerto Vallarta: "There's no doubt that Mexican men and women--full of dignity, willpower and a capacity for work--are doing the work that not even blacks want to do in the United States."

The issue reflected Fox's growing frustration with U.S. immigration policy.

Even Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, the archbishop of Mexico City, had defended Fox's comments: "The declaration had nothing to do with racism. It is a reality in the United States that anyone can prove."

....While Mexico has a few, isolated black communities, the population is dominated by the country's native Indians and descendants of its Spanish colonizers. Comments that generally would be considered openly racist in the United States generate little attention here.

One afternoon television program regularly features a comedian in blackface chasing actresses in skimpy outfits while an advertisement for a small, chocolate pastry called the "negrito"--or little black man--shows a white boy sprouting an afro as he eats the sweet.

An intriguing angle about this story is the ability of Jackson and Sharpton to go global with.... that thing they do (though in this case they have a pretty valid point).

Readers are heartily encouraged to predict the next world leader who will be required to mau-mau kowtow to Jackson and Sharpton for something they say. I think it's a toss-up between Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin.

[What about the "extreme exploitability" meme the sociologist is pushing?--ed. Some blogs are stressing that this is the important takeaway message from this story. But Tyler Cowen links to a paper by Berkeley economist David Card that concludes:

Does immigration reduce the labor market opportunities of less-skilled natives?.... Looking across major cities, differential immigrant inflows are strongly correlated with the relative supply of high school dropouts. Nevertheless, data from the 2000 Census shows that relative wages of native dropouts are uncorrelated with the relative supply of less-educated workers, as they were in earlier years. At the aggregate level, the wage gap between dropouts and high school graduates has remained nearly constant since 1980, despite supply pressure from immigration and the rise of other education-related wage gaps. Overall, evidence that immigrants have harmed the opportunities of less educated natives is scant.

Card also provides evidence that contradicts the Huntington thesis on Hispanic assimilation.]

UPDATE: Brad DeLong objects to this post without saying why he objects. From his comments section, I gather it was my use of the phrase "mau-mau," which some argue is a racially offensive term.

Wikipedia backs them up (though they treat it as a noun and I used it as a verb) -- so let me take the opportunity to apologize for using the term.

posted by Dan at 10:51 AM | Comments (23) | Trackbacks (3)

Monday, May 16, 2005

Follow-up on Yalta

I missed the whole Yalta brouhaha last week, but I thought it was worth linking and quoting Elisabeth Bumiller's White House letter in the New York Times that articulates the thinking that went behind the Yalta mention in Latvia:

Mr. Bush has criticized Yalta at least six other times publicly, usually in Eastern Europe, but never so harshly. In the dust kicked up by the quarreling, the central questions for White House watchers are these: How did the unexpected attack on Yalta get in the president's speech? What drove his thinking? Did the White House expect the fallout?....

At the White House, Mr. Bush's speech was written by Michael Gerson, the assistant to the president for policy and strategic planning and the former chief speechwriter who still has a big hand in Mr. Bush's major addresses. The language in Mr. Gerson's Latvia speech that Yalta, in an "attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability" left a continent "divided and unstable," built on steadily intensifying language over the previous four years.

In June 2001 in Warsaw, Mr. Bush said, "Yalta did not ratify a natural divide, it divided a living civilization." In November 2002 in Lithuania, he declared that there would be "no more Munichs, no more Yaltas." In May 2003 in Krakow, he said, "Europe must finally overturn the bitter legacy of Yalta." This February in Brussels, Mr. Bush said, "The so-called stability of Yalta was a constant source of injustice and fear."

An administration official said on Friday that in the discussions about Mr. Bush's address - the president typically gives his speechwriters big-picture thematic direction and then has a heavy hand in the editing - the goal was to make the point that "countries need to look at their pasts." In this case, the White House wanted to make the point that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Mr. Bush's host the following day, should apologize for the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which led to the Soviet annexation of Latvia and the other Baltic states.

So Mr. Bush's assertion of American failure at Yalta was viewed at the White House as a model for what Mr. Putin should - but did not - do. It was also a poke in the eye to the Russians, salve to Mr. Bush's Baltic hosts and an effort to contrast what Mr. Bush promotes as his uncompromising vision for democracy in the Middle East with what he sees as the expedience of the past.

Read the whole thing. This would appear to support Jacob Levy's assertion that the audience for the speech was not the remnants of the John Birch Society, but the former Warsaw Pact countries. [But clearly what Bush said pleased Pat Buchanan and his ilk--ed. Yes -- which means Bush has pleased Buchanan with about two percent of his foreign policy pronouncements.]

Was Bush's statement historically accurate? Here I'll side with the quoted historians in the piece (John Lewis Gaddis, Robert Dallek, David M. Kennedy) and agree that while Yalta didn't help matters, the counterfactual would still likely have been Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Furthermore, if Yalta was the abject capitulation that some have described it, then why were the Soviets so desperate for the 1975 Helsinki Accords?

However.... Bill Clinton never met an apology he didn't like on the international stage, in part because he knew that admissions of past error -- even if slightly exaggerated -- played well abroad. If Bush picks up this trope from Clinton -- and doesn't abuse it -- then liberals are protesting about this way too much.

UPDATE: For more evidence supporting the Bush officials' explanation of its motives, read these comments from last week by NSC adviser Stephen Hadley.

posted by Dan at 05:43 PM | Comments (19) | Trackbacks (0)

The confessions of George Lucas

For me, coming out of a vacation news vacuum is like moving from still water to a class ten rapid in thirty seconds -- there's just too much to catch up on. [Didn't you read anything while you were gone?--ed. Honestly, I didn't surf the web at all and the only thing I read in a newspaper that caught my eye was a reprint of this Victor David Hanson essay blasting the concept of tenure.]

Later on in the week I'll try to deal with violence in Uzbekistan, the explosive situation in Afghanistan (and Newsweek's monumental f@#$-up that triggered the problem), but to start post-vacation blogging, let's get to something really important... like George Lucas confessing his moviemaking sins.

In an Entertainment Weekly cover story by Jeff Jensen (sorry, the story is mysteriously absent from EW's Star Wars index page -- which is one of many things wrong with EW's web site, but that's off-topic), we get this little tidbit from George Lucas about how he feels about the prequel trilogy:

[I]n discussing the process that birthed the prequels, Lucas finally seems capable of being candid. one are the If it made $400 million then it must have been good and The kids loved it! rationalizations (both of which can be strongly supported) that he peddled while promoting Clones. Now he volunteers that his prequel story line -- derived from material he'd brainstormed over 30 years ago to inform his writing of Star Wars -- was "thin.... It was not written as a movie. It's basically a character study and exhibition piece about politics--two things that are not dramatic. [Not like] the dramatic story that was constructed for Star Wars. But I wanted to be faithful to it, so I didn't construct other stories. It is what it is."

Nor did he want to consolidate Menace and Clones, either. Lucas felt that exploring "the full range of Anakin's personality" made sense if three films addressed him at three different ages. And he wanted no hint of the dark side in Skywalker until Sith. "He has to start good and turn evil," says Lucas. "You can't have a monster turning into a monster. That's not a story."

Lucas believes that his biggest gamble was starting the saga with Jake Lloyd's gee-whiz kid in Menace. Even his marketing team was skeptical. "That's a little bit why it got overhyped. People [here] were nervous if it was going to break even," says Lucas of Menace's notorious promotional push. "I didn't care. I said, 'This is the story. I know I'm going to need to use Hamburger Helper to get it to two hours, but that's what I want to do.'"

By Lucas' own calculation, 60 percent of the prequel plot he dreamed up decades earlier takes place in Sith. The remaining 40 percent he split evenly between Menace and Clones, meaning each film contained a lot of...filler. Or, in Lucas parlance, "jazz riffs... things that I enjoy... just doodle around a lot."

I'm glad to hear that Lucas agrees with me about the quality of his last two films... except that Lucas didn't cop to this when Episodes I and II came out. And the promotional campaign for Episode III has been just as heavy as the roll-out for Episode I. So I'm not getting close to a movie house for this one unless there's multiple independent confirmations that the movie is good. [But in the Jensen story the Star Wars-obsessed Kevin Smith is quoted saying, "Sith will not only enthrall the faithful, but it'll pull the haters back from the Dark Side."--ed. Two words: Jersey Girl.]

To date I've been able to resist the siren song of Revenge of the Sith. Reading Jensen's story and thinking about Lucas' execrable "Hamburger Helper" will make it even harder to turn me to the dark side.

[You'll see it at some point. It is your.... destiny--ed. Oh, go do promos for CNN or something.]

UPDATE: Well, A.O. Scott praises the movie in the New York Times, but has this ominous line: "Mr. Lucas's indifference to two fairly important aspects of moviemaking - acting and writing - is remarkable." Meanwhile, Kelli nicely encapsulates my attitude towards Lucas -- and asks an interesting question: "whether to take the kids." Sith is rated PG-13. Discuss away!!

posted by Dan at 02:03 AM | Comments (32) | Trackbacks (3)

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Hello, bemused New York Times readers

I'd like to thank Suzanne Nossel and David Greeberg for holding down the fort here at while I was away at my brother's wedding. Contrary to David's fears, their tag-team of insightful and provocative posts kept my traffic levels at very respectable levels. UPDATE: You can read David's final thoughts by clicking here.

Furthermore, I see that David made the most of his experience by writing about his guest-blogging stint in the New York Times.

"You should have a blog."

Apparently I push my opinions on my friends rather aggressively, because I often hear this remark.

Last week, I had my chance. My wife and I agreed to be "guest bloggers" - the online equivalent of what David Brenner used to do for Johnny Carson - for Dan Drezner, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, who runs a popular libertarian-conservative blog,

How hard could blogging be? You roll out of bed, turn on your computer, scan the headlines, think up some clever analysis while brushing your teeth, type it onto your site and you're off.

But as I discovered, blogging is no longer for amateurs or the faint of heart. Blogging - if it's done well - has evolved into an all-consuming art....

I did have sympathy for the audience. They expected their usual diet of conservative commentary. Instead, they got a liberal foreign policy expert (Suzanne) and a liberal historian linking to Arts & Letters Daily ( and the History News Network (

One Dreznerite vilified me for linking to a piece by the liberal journalist Joe Conason ("Why on earth would you think that gutter-dwelling hack would have any credibility on this blog?").

At one point, Dan took time out from real surfing in Hawaii to post a note informing readers that he had two liberals subbing for him. He must have been watching the train wreck on his beloved blog with horror....

I wasn't the only newcomer to blogging last week. On the ballyhooed "Huffington Post," Gary Hart, Walter Cronkite and David Mamet dipped their toes in the blogosphere as well.

I don't know how they'll fare, but I doubt that celebrity will attract readers for long. To succeed in blogging you need to understand it's a craft, with its own tricks of the trade. You need a thick skin. And you must put your life on hold to feed an electronic black hole.

What else did I learn by sitting in for Dan Drezner? That I'm not cut out for blogging.

Some reactions to this piece from Ann Althouse, Sheila O'Malley, Bill Quick, QandO, Steven Taylor, Tom Maguire, and Pejman Yousefzadeh. My own jet-lagged thoughts:

1) Some useful links: Here's my explanation for why I invited Greenberg and Nossel to guest-blog. Click here to read Greenberg's Yalta article in Slate, and here to read Greenberg's follow-on post which contains the "moral cretin" comment. Having been in Hawaii and blissfully oblivious to the whole speech, I'm not prepared to comment on it one way or another -- but go read my colleague Jacob Levy's rejoinder to Greenberg and other critics of the Yalta reference in The New Republic Online.

2) For the record: I checked in on the blog/e-mail only once while in Maui (David, I was snorkeling, not surfing), and posted the public service message because I received a few e-mails from readers who were confused about exactly who was blogging. UPDATE: CNN got confused too.

3) My lovely wife, after reading Greenberg's essay, turned to me and asked puzzledly, "there are Dreznerites?" I'll leave it to the commenters themselves to answer that question [If the answer is yes, could you ask them if they'd be interested in buying wildly overpriced merchandise?--ed.]

4) I hate to break it to Greenberg, but in my writing experience, the worst invective I've ever received hasn't been from blogging, but from.... this Slate essay on Bush's management of foreign policy. Click here for some of the more amusing responses.

5) And c'mon, David -- my readers are quite familiar with Arts & Letters Daily and the History News Network (neither of which to my knowledge has an explicit or implicit political bias). And I've had a few conservatives question whether I provide a "usual diet of conservative commentary" in my posts (again, see that Slate piece of mine).

5) Finally, I would encourage David not to give up on blogging for the wrong reasons. I agree that blogging is a craft, but not one that requires hobbyhorses, shticks or catchphrases. In my experience, successful political/policy blogging does require an unusual mix of skills:

a) The self-confidence to post about anything and everything;

b) The willingness to post admissions of error after screwing up;

c) Having the courage to walk away from a half-baked post when you recognize that your thoughts are too inchoate to press "Publish.";

d) A very, very good internal editing mechanism [Thank you!--ed];

e) A recognition that blogging is like almost everything else in life -- a skill that improves with plenty of practice;

g) A saintly spouse.

Of course, Greenberg is a fellow untenured academic, which presents some perfectly valid reasons for not blogging -- but that's the topic of another post entirely.

LAST UPDATE: Suzanne Nossel posts her thoughts about blogging at here. And David Greenberg has asked me to pass on the following missive (after the jump):

I’ve just found a free moment. Because you said you’d be back Monday [It's true, I did--DD], I thought I’d do a final post today (Sunday). I was planning to flag the Times piece and say thanks and farewell. But now you’re back before I made my final post. So I was wondering if you might put up a few last thoughts from me. (In fact, please include this graf, because I want readers to know I meant to notify them of the Times piece.) So herewith:

(1) A big, big thanks again to you and to your readers. (“Dreznerites” was Suzanne’s coinage, meant as a term of endearment.) For all the harried moments I focused on in my Times piece, I really had a lot of fun doing it. Of course, I know full well that your readers aren’t monolithically conservative, or disproportionately mean-spirited; those were just the ones who chose to mix it up with me -- as is their prerogative, nay, their duty. Above all I was grateful for not just your readers’ indulgence but for their intelligent comments. As with the Yalta piece, they led me to clarify my arguments.

(2) I hope you and your readers realize that the Times piece was meant above all as a statement of my newfound appreciation for what blogging entails. I think reader Dustin Ryan Ridgeway is right to say that other bloggers’ commentary may have colored the reception of my piece. [He has a point--Glenn Reynolds took the story in the vein Greenberg intended--DD.] My god, I certainly wasn’t trying to “sniff condescendingly,” as another reader put it. My key point in the Times piece: good blogging “requires as much talent as sculpting a magazine feature or a taut op-ed piece.” I meant that sincerely.

(3) We may differ on the precise ingredients that make a good blog. But I should make clear that I don’t see hobbyhorses, schticks or catchphrases as bad at all. I like these things! Also, like you, I found that having a saintly spouse came in handy.

(4) I think most readers did appreciate that my Times piece was tongue-in-cheek. But for those who didn’t: No, I wasn’t really all that shaken by Dan’s quite sensible “public service message.” Nor did I really presume readers ignorant of my favorite sites -- though I own up to ignorance of a lot of blogs out there. And I’m a bit thicker skinned than perhaps I suggested (talk about schtick!). Sorry if my humor was lost on some.

(5) I certainly did not wish to imply that harsh discourse exists only in the blogosphere. The Internet as a whole facilitates hasty and intemperate posting and e-mailing -- something we’ve known since those discussions of “flaming” ten years ago. Slate constantly struggles to maintain a high-quality “Fray” that balances civility with freewheeling debates. And as I wanted to say in my Times piece (lines were cut for space): talk-radio and shout-TV, not to mention many of the books dominating the best-seller lists these days, prove that no medium has a monopoly on shrillness.

(6) Your own jet-lagged, tossed-off thoughts are remarkably eloquent and sharp. Another reason I admire you and other top bloggers. It really is hard to do well.

So -- and I think I can speak for Suzanne on this last note -- thanks again, and farewell. I hope to see you in bricks-and-mortar land sometime. And if you need a tenure letter, I’m there.

Warmest regards,


All emphases in original.

posted by Dan at 11:29 AM | Comments (30) | Trackbacks (3)

A public service message

For those who only click onto every once in a while -- this week I've outsourced the blog to David Greenberg and Suzanne Nossel. Click here to see their bios.

Regular blogging by yours truly will commence on Monday, May 16th.

posted by Dan at 06:30 AM