January 2009

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On Tuesday I got my first good look into the coal mines of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. This is literally where the deer and the antelope played, until the human appetite for power began eating it up. Featured are the Jacobs Ranch and Black Thunder Mines. The latter is featured in John McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers. Great reading. Go get it. (The chapters appeared first in The New Yorker.) Black Thunder (that’s it, above) is the world’s largest coal mine. It’s owned by Arch Coal. About its Powder River mines, Arch says,

Arch had sales volume of 99 million tons of coal in 2007 in the southern Powder River Basin in Wyoming, the nation’s largest coal-supply region. This tonnage is produced at Thunder Basin’s Black Thunder and Coal Creek mines. Arch controls approximately 1.75 billion tons of reserves in the PRB.

I also shot Coal Creek, which is on the other side of another huge mine, Jacobs Ranch. Got many shots of that one too. In fact, I have all these shots in RAW, in case anybody wants a high-quality copy.

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Yes

This review was helpful to me.

Hat tip.

John Updike was a writer of astonishing gifts, discipline and scope. The sum of his work — novels, essays, poetry, criticism — is enormous. Besides his sixty-one books (including 23 novels), for more han half a century he was a reliably frequent byline in The New Yorker. Sourcing the magazine, USA today says Updike contributed “862 pieces, including 154 poems, 170 short stories and 327 book reviews.” His latest book, The Widows of Eastwick, came out last October in hardcover and still graces tables by the front doors of bookstores. I’ve picked it up and read parts of it several times, declining to buy it because I’d rather read its prequel, The Witches of Eastwick, first. I’ll guess I’ve read at least half of his novels, but neither of those two.

I picked Widows up again last night while paying a visit to Kepler’s Bookstore with JP Rangaswami (a book lover of the first water) and Martin Geddes. As usual with books in stores, I opened to several sections at random, just to sample the writing. And, as always with Updike, I could hardly stop, no matter where I turned. His descriptive precision, the forward motion of his dialogue, the troubled yet charming depth of his characters — blew my mind, and made me grateful that he was with us so long. And yet I’m also pissed that he’s gone at just seventy-six years old, and in apparent full vitality before a lung cancer diagnosis in November.

He died in a hospice, not far from where we live in Massacusetts. Both these facts bothered me. A hospice is so anticlimactic, so plotless. (Did he write in those last two months? Did he record his thoughts in full knowledge that he was due to expire soon? He must have. I cannot believe otherwise. He wrote too well and long about death.) And I had always wanted to meet him.

How odd that lung cancer is what got him. The assumption, naturally, is that he was a lifelong smoker, like so many in his generation, especially writers. The picture in his Wikipedia entry, from 1955, when he was twenty-three years old, shows a skinny kid with a thoughtful expression, sitting on a bench, a burned-down cigarette between the fingers of his left hand. In Self Consciousness, a memoir published in 1989, he recalls with amazement that he had been a smoker as a young man, and how he barely remembered what that was like.

And yet he could describe anything, regardless of whether not he had experienced it first-hand. In The Coup and Brazil, he inhabited the minds of casually murderous protagonists utterly unlike himself — or most readers — with a veracity bright as daylight.

Most of Updike’s characters had strong libidos, or so it seems in retrospect. Of all his sexual passages, one line stands out: “Masturbation! Thou saving grace note upon the baffled chord of self.” From A Month of Sundays. (I got that quote here. I remembered it as “… thou grace note on the tortured chord of self.” Not sure which is right.)

The depth of his understanding probed constantly and sometimes creepily toward the absolute. Look at the opening of The Widows of Eastwick. The first paragraph ends with “Wicked methods make weak products. Satan counterfeits creation, yes, but with inferior goods.” And then continues, “Alexandra, the oldest in age, the broadest in body, and the nearest in character to normal, generous-spirited humanity, was the first to become a widow. Her instinct, as with so many a wife suddenly liberated into solitude, was to travel — as if the world at large, by way of flimsy boarding cards and tedious airport delays and the faint but undeniable risk of flight in a time of rising fuel costs, airline bankruptcy, suicidal terrorists, and accumulating metal fatigue, could be compelled to yield the fruitful aggravation of having a mate.”

Strunk and White advise us to put the emphatic words at the ends of sentences, and to make “every word tell.”

Goods. Mate.

Omit needless words, they also advise. “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Ah, but Shakespeare was no hack, and Rembrandt was no cartoonist. If the machine does complex work, you build a complex machine. Updike, trained originally as an artist, did that. His books, his stories, his paragraphs, were all machines of precision and force. And yet they were not machines. They were, and remain, living things.

I only have two literary heroes, both Johns. Updike is one. McPhee is another. Both are, or were, about the same age. And fixtures at The New Yorker. I hope to read the rest of both before I rest myself. I’ve read eighteen of McPhee’s twenty-nine books, including all the most recent ten.

As with Updike, I read McPhee partly for the joy of running great writing through my mind, and partly because I always feel improved and enlarged by it.

It’s a small thing, but I still hold a small hope of one day meeting McPhee. Meeting Updike will have to wait, hopefully for as long as possible.

Here’s a collection of brief posts about Updike by other writers, at The New Yorker. Great stuff.

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Comment du jour

I dunno if this is a spam or not, but I got a chuckle out of it, so I let it fly.

Quotes du jour

“If you just want to write and not re-write, blog.” That was uttered by Anne Thompson, deputy editor of Variety, moderating a panel of screenwriters at the . Another: “What’s the point of living but to love one another?” That’s from Andrew Stanton, who wrote Wall-E. Both quotes from a report by George, who was there. By dark coincidence, Anne has been laid off. Will she continue to blog at Variety? What will happen to her blog archives there? Just wondering.

My sources in Santa Barbara tell me “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times”, a new documentary by Peter Jones, is an amazing piece of work — partly because of its quality as a picture, but especially because of its subject: the brilliant and dysfunctional Otis and Chandler families, who did more to build Los Angeles than Hollywood or even William Mulholland (he of Chinatown and Cadillac Desert).

They did it with a newspaper: The Los Angeles Times.

I’ll leave the details up to Lisa Knox Burns (in Edhat), The Independent, Patrick Goldstein (of the LATimes), Collier Grimm, Kevin Roderick, the California Documentary Project, Nikki Finke, Kristopher Tapley, ThompsonOnHollywood (in Variety) and others.

What matters is that the story of a great newspaper was the story of a family.

So also are the stories of nearly all the great newspapers in the U.S. You can’t visit the subject of daily newspaper journalism without paying respect, if not homage, to the Ochs and Sulzbergers, the Chandlers, the Annenbergs, the Loebs, the McCormicks, the Gannetts, the Grahams, the Knights, the McClatchys, the Storkes.

These people at their best weren’t in it just for the money, or even the influence (though both were serious motivators). They were in it for the good of their cities. They carried out a public service. They ran great civic institutions that served both public and private interests.

Most of those families have sold out or died off. A few remain, but the gig is mostly up. Papers will remain, in some form, but as companions to new civic institutions, also with charters that combine public responsibilities and private ambitions. These institutions are only starting to be built.

Newspaper Families were creatures of the Industrial Age during a peak that lasted so long we might call it a plateau. As that age phases out, and the Information Age phases in, it’s fair to say we won’t be seeing the likes of these families again. Certainly not as a class, or a category.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is that we can’t leave the role of these families out of any consideration, much less study, of the Great Institution of Daily Journalism. They were involved.

What does

– this graphic mean? That we do better under Democrats (Reagan excepted) than Republicans? That the times are reflected in their leaders? Neither? Both?

I gotta say that I’m torn. My inner Libertarian agrees with Peter Schiff, who saw the crash coming, warned everybody about it, says

  We have an economy that’s based on the same principles as Bernie Madoff’s investments… It’s a Ponzi economy. It’s not real. We don’t save and we don’t produce anything anymore. We simply borrow from the rest of the world, and then we spend it. We’ve had a giant party. We bought all these plasma TVs and iPods. We remodeled our houses and took vacations. But you know what? The bills are coming in.”

He’s right. We partied on easy credit, and we’ve got a helluva hangover. But what about Schiff’s plans? As Fortune puts it (at the last link), those are — Shrink the government radically, cancel all bailouts immediately, take plenty of tough medicine, and let the free market do its job – however harsh it may be for, say, autoworkers in the meantime.

Meanwhile my inner Democrat (fwiw, I’m a registered Independent) can’t dismiss Paul Krugman either. Krugman wants Obama to cancel the tax cuts and spend more. Some dismiss Krugman’s Nobel prize, but I think it makes him worth listening to.

One of my concerns about Big Spending by the feds is what inducements to corruption it produces. Will there be earmarks out the wazoo? Betcha. (Hillary is no longer in a position to produce them, but she was sure good at it. Check progress on that last link here.)

Anyway, just wanted to blab that.

Check out David Bergman‘s 1,474-Megapixel GigaPan picture of the 2 gigaperson presidential inauguration last Tuesday. You can all but look in the noses of the people there.

What impresses me most is how many cameras with extremely long lenses were there. Yow. Canon and Nikon were cleaning up.

Hat tip to Sheila Lennon.

Filling out this

yielded this:

Barack Obama’s Inauguration Speech
My fellow Americans, today is a fibrous day. You have shown the world that “hope” is not just another word for “chair”, and that “change” is not only something we can believe in again, but something we can actually annihilate.

Today we celebrate, but let there be no mistake – America faces unavoidable and level challenges like never before. Our economy is spiffy. Americans can barely afford their mortgages, let alone have enough money left over for monsters. Our healthcare system is plapulous. If your ulvula is sick and you don’t have insurance, you might as well call a sheet-metal worker. And America’s image overseas is tarnished like a trocar newspaper. But pressing together we can right this ship, and set a course for Kansas.

Finally, I must thank my sideways family, my flatulent campaign volunteers, but most of all, I want to thank munchkins for making this historic occasion possible. Of course, I must also thank you, President Bush, for years of drooling the American people. Without your flaccid efforts, none of this would have been possible.

Post your brilliant speech in our community message forum and it might get featured on Atom.com.

Your flappage may vary.

Hat tip to Adriana Lukas.

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I’m pretty good at getting buzz when I want it. The irony of running ProjectVRM, however, is that I don’t want much of that. Not yet, anyway. About a year ago I did promote it a bit, got a lot of great response, and also spent a lot of time debugging bad understandings of what VRM is and what’s going on with it.

Since then I’ve kept a pretty low profile with it, and encouraged others to do the same. That way we get fewer people showing up, but a better chance that they’re the right people.

But still, the buzz is out there. And, since it’s a new and as yet unproven idea, it attracts detractors as well. Here’s one that lays out “four fallacies” of VRM, all based on wrong understandings of what it is, and what its roles will be. So, I just tried to debug those understandings with this post here.

As I said there, I urge folks to hold off on their judgement until we’ve got working code and actual stuff that does what VRM is supposed to do. Trust me, it’ll come.

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