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Jonathan Lethem and Joseph O’Neill on the death of John Updike and fathers

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Jonathan Lethem and Joseph O’Neill both have essays in the current issue of Granta on photographs of their fathers. They spoke about these pieces and, more generally, fathers with Granta’s American editor, John Freeman at Housing Works tonight. The conversation started with reflections on John Updike, who died at 76 today. Lethem told a moving story about how he rushed to a local hotel to give blood on 9/11. The blood donations had been a false rumor and driven several Brooklynites to the same hotel. Updike was one of them; Lethem noted his presence and said nothing to him. Download an MP3 of the event.

I would pay $100 for the NYTimes iPhone app

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I recently received an iPod Touch and have been playing around with some of the applications available through the iTunes app store. I think the platform and device are excellent, and I’ll post a list of my favorite apps soon. The one that I use the most use is the New York Times app. I think every publication should have something like this available. It works by downloading the entire day’s paper on my iPod, which takes about three minutes or so over Wi-Fi. I can then read full-length stories wherever I am on the Touch. The interface is easy to navigate, and, in some ways, it’s even easier to swipe through the paperon screen  than to flip through the paper edition. Supposedly, the app will save the previous seven days of news on your iPhone or Touch, but I’ve only been able to get it to save the current day’s news, despite enabling more days of saved stories through the Settings menu. 

What troubles me about this application is that it’s free. Every day I get the entire paper delivered to my iPod Touch for free. And there’s just a little NYTimes.com banner ad at the bottom of each article. This seems wildly unsustainable when I consider the state the newspaper industry is in and how much I used to pay for the convenience that this application gives me. 

I started reading the Times on a regular basis when I was a freshman in college. I bought the paper almost every day for $1 and on Sunday for even more. (I think the Sunday price was $4 or $4.50 then.) I found the NYTimes.com website acceptable, but relatively inefficient to navigate, especially if you wanted to see all the headlines and all the stories of the day. When, during my sophomore year of college, I lived in France, I even paid much more to get the Times Sunday print edition because I found it so much more accessible than the website. 

I’ve subscribed to the Times on a daily basis for months at a time since then, but usually ended up canceling because I wasn’t reading enough of the paper to justify the cost to myself or because I lived in apartments where someone would steal my paper 50% of the time before I could get to it in the morning. Each time I subscribed, I usually paid $20-$40 or so per month to receive delivery of the paper, depending on how many days a week I got it and what sort of deal I received. 

Now, I get all the same content for free on the Times website or via the iPhone app. There’s something wrong here. Sure, the cost of publishing online is cheaper than that of printing a physical paper, but there’s still a huge gap. I’m not paying for something that I used to pay for, and advertising certainly isn’t paying for it either. If you’re going to move a readership online from print, someone is going to have to foot the bill. Unfortunately, we’ve become accustomed to the idea that online content is somehow simultaneously valuable and worthless at the same time. We consume it like crazy, spending hours a day reading websites, blogs, RSS feeds, etc. And yet we pay nothing for it except our isolation and attention deficit. 

So, I come to the headline of this post. I don’t know what other people’s willingness to pay for the iPhone app is, but mine is probably around $100. That’s with a few feature additions to the current app: 

  • Allow users to save stories permanently on their devices and export them to their computers in PDF or text format. For longer stories, I want a way to get them back on paper before I read them. 
  • Allow users to email stories to others. This feature should be in the current version. It seems like a no-brainer if the Times wants to increase readership. 
  • Let users read more than just the current day’s news. I know this is supposedly in the current version, but it still doesn’t work for me. 
  • Include a way for users to annotate, highlight and save snippets from articles they read. 

I don’t like subscriptions, so I would much prefer to pay some initial fee to purchase the application and have it available to me for the foreseeable future, a future that will only exist if the Times stops giving away its content for free.

Postmortem on Cody’s Books

Okay, so they really called it an Autopsy. Whatever, it’s the same thing. Business Week has an article chronicling the rise and fall of Cody’s Books in Berkeley. I loved this store when I was in college and thought it was the best new bookstore in the Bay Area. Their selection of literary journals was unmatched, except, perhaps, by Gotham Bookmart in New York. Oh yeah, Gotham is now out of business too. When Cody’s owner Andy Ross opened his San Francisco store on Stockton, I sort of knew intuitively that it was a huge risk and a bad idea, but I remember wanting to see it as a triumph of Cody’s. In this article, Ross calls the opening of the San Francisco store his “fatal mistake.”

Cody’s did many things right. They kept an excellent stock, made new and unheralded books discoverable and desirable to their customers, and held great author events. I believe that they happened to be in a bad location on Telegraph and in a business that, with such slim margins, doesn’t do a particularly good job of weathering long downturns. When business and the weekend tourists abandoned Telegraph Avenue during the late 1990s and into this decade, so went the fate of Cody’s. I only spent a couple years living in Berkeley, but I went to Cody’s almost every day that I did live there, and I miss it terribly. In the BusinessWeek article Ross cites the figure that 10% of all copies of Walter Banjamin’s Illuminations sold in the United States were sold at Cody’s. This isn’t evidence of Benjamin’s obscurity, but rather the display of Cody’s brilliance in attracting its customers to a certain type of highbrow criticism. It’s that sort of intellectual rigor or forcefulness that you’ll never find at a store like Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Sure, they both carry Illuminations, but neither cares or pretends to care if you buy it or the latest Stephanie Meyer novel. And, in case you’re wondering, my copy of Illuminations came from Cody’s on Telegraph in 2002—Where else?

Jonathan Franzen on the social novel

The 5th Estate has some excerpts from an interview with Jonathan Franzen that is running in boundary 2. A lengthy snippet follows:

We may just be little specks. As a percentage of the total world population, we’re ever smaller specks, and what we are is ever more mediated by the structures we’ve created for ourselves to live in. And yet, as you go through life, you still hit these points of crisis where something genuine is happening.  A choice is being made, or a life is being destroyed, or hope is being regained, or control is being relinquished, or control is being achieved. These moments may be utterly insignificant historically, but they’re still hugely meaningful to the person experiencing them as meaningful as everything else in the world put together. To try to connect with what might formerly have been called the soul, and what I might now describe as some interior locus of privacy and reflection where moments of personal significance are experienced: this, I think, is the job of the fiction writer. As great as our various glowing screens may be at capturing vividness and complexity, you’re still always on the outside and just looking at them. You’re never within. Even if you were to construct a very fine virtual reality device, you would be literally insane if you mistook a manufactured and mass-produced experience for a moment of genuine human importance. If you could believe in the simulacrum enough to think you were having a moment of genuine personal meaning, it would mean you were insane.

Only written media, and maybe to some extent live theatre, can break down the wall between in and out. You’re not looking at your feeling from within. An Alice Munro story rushes you along in about 25 minutes to a point where you’re imaginatively going through a moment of deep crisis and significance in another person’s life. I know I’m expressing this in very vague terms, but I think these epiphanic moments have a social and political valence as well, because they’re what we mean when we talk about being a person, about being an individual, about having an identity. Identity is precisely not what consumer culture says it is. It’s not the playlist on your iPod. It’s not your personal preference in denim washes. The moment you become an individual is the moment when all that consumer stuff falls away and you’re left with the narrativity of your own life. All the things that would become impossible politically, emotionally, culturally, psychologically if people ever were to become simply the sum of their consumer choices: this is, indirectly, what the novel is trying to preserve and fight in favour of.

A death in the family

In a line from Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary that has stuck with me for the past 15 years, the actor Billy Crystal says that the Dodgers move away from Brooklyn felt like “a death in the family.” So, I took notice when a traveler quoted in this week’s New Yorker reprised the analogy in the context of the financial crisis: “It’s like a member of the family has died, and it’s name is Money.” That seems about right.

30% off at Posman Books

People usually don’t mention Posman among the best bookstores in Manhattan; it’s an omission that the store doesn’t deserve just because it’s located in Grand Central Terminal. And what better time to discover it than now when they’re having a sale on everyhing in the store, which ends tomorrow. So, stop in and browse if you happen to be passing through on Metro North or the Lexington Avenue subway line.

Also spotted at Grand Central: a Target ad that allows you to plug in your headphones and hear Christina Aguilera’s new single.

Launching the iPhone version of RickyOpaterny.com

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Point your iPhone to RickyOpaterny.com, and you’ll automatically be redirected to our iPhone compatible version. It’s much easier to navigate, than the site’s full version, though, of course, lacks any Flash-based elements that I include in my posts. Setting this mobile version up took me about five minutes using the excellent WPtouch plug-in for WordPress along with the iPhoney application for OS X to simulate the iPhone browser on my Mac (for previewing purposes). If you use WordPress, WPtouch seems like a no-brainer.

Meat is the new bread

I recently started watching 30 Rock on Netflix. I know, I know, I’m very late to the game on this one, but I’m still enjoying the show quite a bit. I think this show and Friday Night Lights, which is surprisingly amazing, are the best TV shows currently available through the Watch Instantly feature on Netflix.

Madden ’92 Ambulance

Madden ’92 for Sega Genesis has to be one of my favorite games of all time. The best part, of course, comes when a player is injured and the ambulance comes on the field to retrieve them, running over all other players in its way.

Xbox Live upgrade and upgrading your hard drive

I just downloaded the new Xbox Live update, and it brings some significant updates. Most important for me are the ability to stream Netflix on demand movies through the Xbox 360 to a TV and the ability to copy games to the hard drive for faster loading times. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like there’s a way to browse and add movies from Netflix on the console. You need to add movies to your watch instantly queue using your Netflix account on a computer.

As for playing games from the hard drive, a limiting factor is that my hard drive is only large enough to hold one game. Therefore, I’m looking into ways to upgrade. If you have a desktop PC that supports SATA hard drives, it looks to be a pretty easy job. Full instructions are available at PC World.

The iPhone is the new radar detector

The Times technology blog has a story about a couple new iPhone apps that help you beat police speed traps by having users report their locations. Of course, the success of such an application depends on network externalities, i.e. having enough people reporting speed traps to increase the number of users who. . . etc. Nonetheless, this seems like a very cool use for the phone for those of you who drive.

McCain’s leaker is a hoax

The McCain aide who leaked the line about Sarah Palin thinking Africa was a country is not a McCain aide and he’s not really anything that he claimed to be. I think this is awesome. The guys who created this character should definitely get some more work. Read the full story at NYTimes.com.

Google is the answer to the problem we didn’t have

Jason Zengerie has a very good profile of Malcolm Gladwell in this week’s New York Magazine. Gladwell has been receiving a lot of press lately in advance of the publication of his new book, Outliers. Most of it is as fluffy as the critics who assail Gladwell. But Zengerie’s piece is actually well-written and pulls some excellent lines out of Gladwell. My favorite one is the following:

Google is the answer to the problem we didn’t have. It doesn’t tell you what’s interesting or what’s important. There’s still more in the library than there is on Google.

Michael Lewis on the end of Wall Street

I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I’m certain that Michael Lewis’s article in the current issue of Portfolio, The End of Wall Street’s Boom, is worth your while.

In the two decades since [I wrote Liar's Poker], I had been waiting for the end of Wall Street. The outrageous bonuses, the slender returns to shareholders, the never-ending scandals, the bursting of the internet bubble, the crisis following the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management: Over and over again, the big Wall Street investment banks would be, in some narrow way, discredited. Yet they just kept on growing, along with the sums of money that they doled out to 26-year-olds to perform tasks of no obvious social utility. The rebellion by American youth against the money culture never happened. Why bother to overturn your parents’ world when you can buy it, slice it up into tranches, and sell off the pieces?

iTunes and Netflix are like books

As Tuesday’s publication of 2666 nears, New York Magazine has a piece about the continued importance of big, Pynchonian books, comparing their flexibility to that of current digital media. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch, but still…

It bears remembering that a book, no matter how long and complicated, doesn’t require you to read it all in one go, nor does it force you to watch commercials. In this respect, other media are becoming more booklike, not the other way around. TiVo, Netflix, and iTunes enable you to consume what you want, when you want it, in or out of sequence. Take a break if you like — but only if you like. Watch a whole season of Lost in a weekend — or every morning on the subway. A longer, more intense experience — whether it’s a ten-show Mad Men block or a 100-song iPod playlist — at least gives you the option to stretch. And nothing does it better than a big, multifaceted novel. Take a year to read it, or one stormy weekend (well, several — we’re hoping for a long, cold winter).

Or just adapt your existing habits and read it every Sunday evening for an hour: Mad Men’s over and Entourage sucks, anyway.

Jonathan Lethem on Roberto Bolaño, or the best novel of the year?

In this weekend’s New York Times Book Review Jonathan Lethem offers high praise for Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, which comes out in the U.S. on Tuesday. Based on the review, it looks like 2666 will vie with Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland for the title of the best book of 2008. Lethem writes: 

“2666” is as consummate a performance as any 900-page novel dare hope to be: Bolaño won the race to the finish line in writing what he plainly intended, in his self-interrogating way, as a master statement. Indeed, he produced not only a supreme capstone to his own vaulting ambition, but a landmark in what’s possible for the novel as a form in our increasingly, and terrifyingly, post-national world. “The Savage Detectives” looks positively hermetic beside it.

. . . .

A novel like “2666” is its own preserving machine, delivering itself into our hearts, sentence by questing, unassuming sentence; it also becomes a preserving machine for the lives its words fall upon like a forgiving rain, fictional characters and the secret selves hidden behind and enshrined within them: hapless academic critics and a hapless Mexican boxer, the unavenged bodies deposited in shallow graves. By writing across the grain of his doubts about what literature can do, how much it can discover or dare pronounce the names of our world’s disasters, Bolaño has proven it can do anything, and for an instant, at least, given a name to the unnamable.

Now throw your hats in the air.

Even the design of 2666 is getting coverage from New York Magazine. I opted, at least initially, for the for three-paperback boxed set. You?

Jeffrey Sachs on the financial crisis

In a recent post on the Financial Times site, Columbia University Jeffrey Sachs economist proposes some steps that the international community can take to limit the damage: 

First, the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan should extend swap lines to all main emerging markets, including Brazil, Hungary, Poland and Turkey, to prevent a drain of reserves.

Second, the International Monetary Fund should extend low-conditionality loans to all countries that request it, starting with Pakistan.

Third, the US and European central banks and bank regulators should work with their big banks to discourage them from abruptly withdrawing credit lines from overseas operations. Spain has a role to play with its banks in Latin America.

Fourth, China, Japan and South Korea should undertake a co-ordinated macroeconomic expansion. In China, this would mean raising spending on public housing and infrastructure. In Japan, this would mean a boost in infrastructure but also in loans to developing nations in Asia and Africa to finance projects built by Japanese and local companies. Development financing can be a powerful macroeonomic stabiliser. China, Japan and South Korea should work with other regional central banks to bolster expansionary policies backed by government-to-government loans.

Fifth, the Middle East, flush with cash, should fund investment projects in emerging markets and low-income countries. Moreover, it should keep up domestic spending despite a fall in oil prices. Indeed, the faster a global macroeconomic expansion is in place the sooner oil prices will recover.

Sixth, the US and Europe should expand export credits for low and middle-income developing countries, not only to meet their unfulfilled aid promises but also as a counter-cyclical stimulus. It would be a tragedy for big infrastructure companies to suffer when the developing world is crying out for infrastructure investment.

Finally, there is scope for expansionary fiscal policy in the US and Europe, despite large budget deficits. The US expansion should focus on infrastructure and transfers to cash-strapped state governments, not tax cuts. This package will not stop a recession in the US and parts of Europe, but could stop a recession in Asia and the developing countries. At the least it would put a floor on the global contraction that is rapidly gaining strength.

Lit crit and the financial crisis

This week’s issue of the New Yorker has a piece by John Lanchester about books related to the financial crisis. He is the only journalist, so far, to draw an analogy between developments in the financial markets and philosophy and cultural criticism. For that, I take my hat off. In the high point (for English majors) of his piece Lanchester writes:

If the invention of derivatives was the financial world’s modernist dawn, the current crisis is unsettlingly like the birth of postmodernism. For anyone who studied literature in college in the past few decades, there is a weird familiarity about the current crisis: value, in the realm of finance capital, evokes the elusive nature of meaning in deconstructionism. According to Jacques Derrida, the doyen of the school, meaning can never be precisely located; instead, it is always “deferred,” moved elsewhere, located in other meanings, which refer and defer to other meanings—a snake permanently and necessarily eating its own tail. This process is fluid and constant, but at moments the perpetual process of deferral stalls and collapses in on itself. Derrida called this moment an “aporia,” from a Greek term meaning “impasse.” There is something both amusing and appalling about seeing his theories acted out in the world markets to such cataclysmic effect. Anyone invited to attend a meeting of the G-8 financial ministers would be well advised not to draw their attention to this.

The result of our era of financial deconstruction has been a decades-long free-for-all of deregulation and (for the most part) bull markets, ending in partial nationalization.