Friday, July 31, 2009

The Most Boring James Bond

Sherman Oaks, California

Thankfully, he wasn't cast.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

It's Blond British Singer Week At Knife Tricks

Sherman Oaks, California

Her name is Isobel Campbell. She sang in Belle & Sebastian, and her personal project was called The Gentle Waves. This is the song "Falling From Grace" from the album Swansong For You.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Sherman Oaks, California

I'm still swamped with work, but here's two facts everybody should know:

Bob Stanley, Peter Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell are Saint Etienne.

As Brits, they're allowed to film music videos in Cuba.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Dido on Craigers

Sherman Oaks, California

I'm swamped with paying work (which is a good thing). So here's Dido acting ever-so-fetching five years ago:

Sunday, July 19, 2009

My Favorite Clip On All of YouTube

Sherman Oaks, California

Young men with talent to burn, David included.

Unfortunately, the band burned through it all. David still has his days.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Oxford University Not As Old As It Pretends To Be. Still Old, Though.

Sherman Oaks, California

When I was reviewing Jan Morris' book Oxford, I noted that, in the words of the University of Oxford's web page, "teaching existed at Oxford in some form in 1096" -- wording that seemed too slippery to be entirely accurate.

It's not.

The 1096 date is bogus, according to historian R.W. Southern, whose essay "From Schools to University" appeared in the multi-volume The History of Oxford University.

A man named Theobald of Etampes was the principal schoolmaster in Oxford from 1095 to 1125. But his endeavor was far more in the tradition of an elementary or high school than a college or university.

The reality, according to Prof. Southern, is that the university grew organically over the course of the twelfth century as an offshoot of the ecclesiastical courts which were located in town. Parishes in the English Midlands repeatedly sued each other over property and tithes; the lawsuits attracted lawyers, who set up shop and made extra money by tutoring law students and apprentices. Thus, the Faculty of Law is the oldest component of the university.

The 1190s were the key decade. Emo of Friesland was the first foreign student and arrived in 1190, while Nicholas of Hungary was the second and arrived in 1193. The same year, war erupted between England and France, cutting off would-be scholars from the prestigious University of Paris. The English were forced to build their own institutions for the instruction of arts and theology, and they expanded upon the existing legal teaching infrastructure in Oxford. By 1200, there were perhaps 200 to 300 students in the city, a large number by the standards of the day.

About December 1209, a student killed his local mistress, and inflamed citizens hanged two of the student's roommates in revenge. Riots ensued, and most of the teachers and students fled. (Some decided to found a new university to the east, at a safer spot where a bridge spanned the River Cam.)

The Pope sent a delegate to negotiate a truce, and the settlement of June 20, 1214, is the first formal recognition of the university. By the terms of the agreement, the local merchants agreed to price controls for student rents and meals, the payment of certain fees to finance scholarships for the poor, and to offer penance at the graves of the two hanged students. Perhaps most importantly, the Bishop of Lincoln was granted the authority to appoint a Chancellor, who had nominal control over the entire affair.

The University of Oxford was born -- but not as early as the university likes to hint it was.

Pictured: Another ambiguity. The dining hall at Merton College, Oxford, was built in 1277, making it the oldest academic building in the city, but it has been rebuilt so many times there might be little to nothing left of the original structure.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Please Comment About This Instead of Sarah Palin. Thank you.

Sherman Oaks, California

Some people say that Agnetha was just a pretty face, who couldn't really sing, who relied on Benny's melodies and Bjorn's production.

They're wrong.

A Little Help From . . . .

Sherman Oaks, California

Renovations have commenced on my house.

The carpenters are playing a tape that should be titled "The Beatles' Most Annoying, Overplayed Songs" or "Tunes No One Need Ever Hear Again."

In punk righteousness, I should smash the boom box.

Alas, I need doors framed and drywall hung.

Rock on, Fabs!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Review of Oxford by Jan Morris

Oxford by Jan Morris (Oxford University Press 1965, revised 1978 and 1987).

We think of borders as sharp lines, but most are hazy mists.

There’s a mark on the map where the color changes from yellow to pink, but that’s a fiction. The delineated and reinforced borders – North from South Korea, Israel from the Palestinian Authority – are the exceptions. On the ground, most borders are fluid, porous and little more than nuisances to the people who live and work near them. Somewhere on Borneo, for example, Indonesia becomes Malaysia, but the jungle doesn’t care.

For the travel writer, an ambiguous border is a greater opportunity than a distinct one. When the boundary between here and there is obvious, the only dramatic tension is whether the authorities will let you cross. Vague borders raise more intriguing questions: What is a border? Where are the sides? Why are there sides, since so many people disregard them? Once you’ve crossed a faint border, does it matter?

Oxford, the university town in southern England, is a case study in nebulous borders. No one can say with certainty where the university ends and the town begins. There is no defined campus or ceremonial core, only hundreds of academic buildings – sometimes in clusters, sometimes alone -- owned or operated by a bewildering number of trusts, colleges, corporations, associations, foundations and venerable societies for the pious advancement of learning.

Not even the date of the university’s foundation – the border between existence and non-existence – is known. As related by the incomparable travel writer Jan Morris in her book Oxford, the legend that Alfred the Great sponsored the university in the 800s is an unsubstantiated myth. The university claims that the earliest evidence of “teaching at Oxford” dates to 1096, with an explosion of growth in 1167, when King Henry II banned Englishmen from studying at the University of Paris.

“Whatever its origins, colonies of masters and students appeared here in the Middle Ages, gradually evolving their own guilds and privileges, establishing themselves in halls of residence, coalescing by the end of the twelfth century into a full-blown Universitas Magistrorum et Scholarium,” Morris wrote. “Oxford’s first students were often poor, dirty and obstreperous, and the city understandably resented their arrival. There were bloody battles between Town and Gown, quarrels between northerners and southerners, assaults upon the Jews, lawsuits, petitions, papal interdictions. Through it all learning fitfully flourished.”

Medieval Oxford was characterized by the halls of residence, private institutions which housed and fed the students and enjoyed names such as Ape Hall, Perilous Hall and Worm Hall. Over time, some of the halls hired tutors, attracted benefactors and successfully applied for charters, transforming themselves into colleges.

The strange relationship between Oxford University and its colleges is perhaps the hardest concept to grasp. In the United States (and in most places, I assume), a college is an inseparable part of a university. For example, the College of Communication is a part of Boston University; it may enjoy a certain academic or financial autonomy, but COM (as it’s known) has to abide by the rules and directions and, ultimately, the ownership of the university, the same way that a line agency like the State Department has to abide by the orders of the president. COM can’t decide to pick up, move across the Charles River and become part of M.I.T.

Not so the 44 Oxford colleges. Each college is an independent entity, with its own income, property and endowment. Each college selects its own students, hires tutors and administrators, and decides whether or not it wants to become, or remain, a constituent of Oxford University. Colleges have their own personas, histories and stereotypes; Balliol is full of leftist government types, Jesus is the Welsh college, Oriel is for Tories, and The Queen’s College traditionally recruits from northern England.

At the undergraduate level, much of the teaching is done “in college,” and undergrads often consider themselves to be students of Brasenose, Trinity or St. Catherine’s more than of Oxford University. And, in a ripe head-scratcher, the university is a public (i.e., government-funded) institution, although the colleges of which it is composed are private corporations.

Everywhere, the borders are messy. The colleges are not confined to their quadrangles; they own properties all over town, and a few have multiple sites. Students live next to locals in the neighborhoods of Jericho, Summertown and Cowley Road. Charities, like Oxfam, set up shop in the city. So do various think tanks, some of which become “Recognized Independent Centres of the University,” further confusing the issue. Students at nearby educational institutions, such as Oxford Brookes University (a regional polytechnic) and Ruskin College (for students lacking traditional qualifications), have the right to attend Oxford University lectures and to use the libraries. Con men take advantage of the blurred lines by creating wholly unaffiliated colleges, which are marketed to naïve students who think they’re paying to attend Christ Church.

Morris’ approach is heavy on facts, a cascade of specifics used to impart the complexity and longevity of the place, but she retains her wit. In this paragraph, she discusses one of my favorite topics:

For Oxford is built upon books – books being read, books being written, books being published, books in the dozen bookshops of the city, books littered through a labyrinth of libraries. The Clarendon Building, now the headquarters of the University, was actually built with the royalties from the Earl of Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion -- the author is portrayed in a statue on the west wall, contemplating with satisfaction what I have always enviously assumed to be his sales reports.

Morris, who wrote an excellent book on Hong Kong, does not have a central human character or arc on which to peg her story, understandable in a book that spans a thousand years. Instead, her chapters are thematic and arranged in a roughly chronological order. All feature her shimmering, graceful prose, which informs and entertains in equal measure.

If the book were to be revised again today, there might be a central storyline, that of the rise and decline of the Oxford colleges. In the past decades, these once fiercely independent institutions have been ceding power to the university. Many colleges are now glorified dorms. The cost of equipment and laboratories has pushed medical, science and engineering instruction out of the colleges and into the university. College life is largely irrelevant to the university’s thousands of graduate students, who work in their departments or in the Bodleian Library.

A trait that made Oxford University special – that the barely governable whole was greater than the sum of its many incongruous parts – may be slipping away. In another 50 years, it might be just another centralized university, N.Y.U. with Gothic architecture. The borders are shifting.

Pictured: High Street, Oxford, in the 1890s.

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Sarah Palin Story: Meritocrats Beat Democrats

Sherman Oaks, California

I have a feeling another shoe in the Sarah Palin story is about to drop, but Ross Douthat's NYT column makes the good point that much of the vitriol aimed at Palin was because she was from the wrong class.

Our president represents the meritocratic ideal — that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal — that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard. . . . .

Here are lessons of the Sarah Palin experience, for any aspiring politician who shares her background and her sex. Your children will go through the tabloid wringer. Your religion will be mocked and misrepresented. Your political record will be distorted, to better parody your family and your faith. (And no, gentle reader, Palin did not insist on abstinence-only sex education, slash funds for special-needs children or inject creationism into public schools.)

Male commentators will attack you for parading your children. Female commentators will attack you for not staying home with them. You’ll be sneered at for how you talk and how many colleges you attended. You’ll endure gibes about your “slutty” looks and your “white trash concupiscence,” while a prominent female academic declares that your “greatest hypocrisy” is the “pretense” that you’re a woman. And eight months after the election, the professionals who pressed you into the service of a gimmicky, dreary, idea-free campaign will still be blaming you for their defeat.

All of this had something to do with ordinary partisan politics. But it had everything to do with Palin’s gender and her social class.

Journalists are composed principally of people who are either from the meritocratic class or have decided to ape their manners. Someone like Palin -- who did not concentrate on elite education, who had five children while many women were delaying childbirth, who did not marry a man with sterling academic credentials -- offends their sensibility. There's the temptation to call her a loser, but that term doesn't fit a popular governor selected to be the vice presidential nominee. So a different line of invective was chosen.

The "democratic ideal," to quote the article, is also a direct threat to the meritocratic ideal. Meritocrats push hard for their children to be credentialed by a series of ever-more elite academic and professional institutions. The kids' promotion through the mandarin ranks would be destroyed if too many people could claim a space at the elite institutions (and that includes the top tier of national politics) through dint of talent alone.

People who spent their entire post-pubescence executing an intricate plan to attend a highly selective college, attend a top ten graduate school and obtain an entry-level job at a prestigious organization don't want competition from people who didn't punch the same tickets.

So the Sarah Palins of the world need to be shouted down if they might get in the way.

Palin may, in the end, prove herself unworthy of high office. But journalists have made it clear that they are quite willing to smear a person who's "not our class, dear."

Friday, July 03, 2009

When Government Wants To Do Something Quickly, It Can

Sherman Oaks, California

On Thursday morning, I mailed the bankrupt state of California a check to pay some taxes. By Tuesday morning, the check had posted to my account.

Try getting the government to do anything else that quickly.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Karl Malden

Sherman Oaks, California

A real actor died today. This scene from The West Wing is melodramatic -- President Bartlet feels guilty about his refusal to commute a prisoner's impending death sentence -- but I love watching old, experienced actors working together. This is reportedly Karl Malden's last scene.