The Laboratorium
February 2006

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Black Swan Green

I hold in my hands a copy of the advance uncorrected proofs for David Mitchell’s forthcoming novel, Black Swan Green. It’s good.

David Mitchell is a great writer of set-pieces. He builds novels out of stories. Each story is written to an internal logic; each contains a narrative arc that could stand alone. Each novel is the confluence of the stories; their linkages follow a common structural pattern. The result is, more or less loosely, a novel with its own longer arc.

His three previous novels were trips into the fantastic, both thematically and formally. Cloud Atlas posited a disquieting future (or two, depending on your interpretation); there was definitely something supernatural moving about in Ghostwritten. Both these “novels,” however, featured different, almost unrelated protagonists for each chapter. There were literal connections (blink and you’d miss them), but sussing out the plot of the novel itself involved looking well beyond the experiences of any of the protagonists.

Number9Dream, on the other hand, turned out to be a modern-day tale about a young man looking for his father—once you looked beneath the wild narrative experiments. I’ve never been to Tokyo, but my sense is that the dislocation of constant genre shifts and wild mental elaboration fairly accurately captures the actual subjective experience of the place.

Basically, I like set pieces. I like the constraints that picking rules imposes. I like the pressure to take gambles and the constant subversion of genre. And I appreciate it particularly when a writer can actually wring novel emotions from one. The shock of the unexpected is, I find, a good way of making the expected more meaningful. Mitchell can do it. In fact, he can do it almost on cue.

Black Swan Green, then, is kind of a departure and kind of not. It’s a novel about a thirteen-year-old boy in a rural English village in 1982. Departure. The novel is broken down into one self-contained story of a chapter per month. Not a departure. Nothing unnatural happens and the narrative tone doesn’t shift radically from chapter to chapter. Departure. But the hero’s internal narrative does include occasional commentary from imaginary internal entities, aspects of his personality perhaps: Hangman, Maggot, Unborn Twin. Maybe not a departure, then.

We’re not talking unfamiliar territory. The trials and tribulations of the articulate, intelligent, self-aware young teen. Check. In an English school ruled by the popular boys through violence. Double check. The fears of a child watching, if not understanding, his parents collapsing marriage. Triple check.

Given his track record, I was expecting Mitchell to pull it off through some wild narrative additions. Perhaps secret agents are on the tail of his father, or perhaps he has an early encounter with ghosts. Or perhaps Jason thinks that secret agents are on the tail of his father, and so one chapter is written in the form of a spy thriller, and Jason thinks that there are ghosts in that house in the woods, so that another chapter is written as a ghost tale.

Nope. It really is a novel about a thirteen-year-old boy in a rural English village in 1982. That took me a while to get used to.

The other thing that had me worried was the cringeworthiness of the subject matter. The kinds of humiliations one expects thirteen-year-olds—particularly increasingly unpopular thirteen-year-olds—to experience in fiction are pretty unpleasant to read. You can’t actually close your eyes while reading a novel, but I did find myself glancing ahead a page or two at times, just to make sure that the absolute worst-case humiliation didn’t happen. (Or if it did, to be prepared for it.)

Again, I shouldn’t have gone in with such strong expectations. Mitchell has a light enough touch that I needn’t have worried. Jason goes through some rough parts, but Mitchell never draws out the excruciating bits into unpleasantness. Some scenes end well; others end with surprises; others end abruptly with a single line effectively conveying all the unpleasantness without putting the reader through it. I appreciated Mitchell’s taste and his touch.

These Bayesian demons aside, it’s a fun book. The narration is clever and brilliant in places. Mitchell’s trademark assemblage-of-stories device turns out to work quite well in conveying both Jason’s slowly developing maturity and the individual excitements of his daily life. The social dynamics of the third form are complex and Mitchell gets inside the daily calculations of who is friends with whom and how in some clever and striking ways. And when, in the final chapters, he starts to knock down the pins he’s been carefully setting up, the book comes to a satisfying conclusion, both closed and open, rich in all the right ways.

The book generated two echoes for me; I don’t know how universal either would be. Any book including English boys, bullying, and swans (even if only in the title) cannot help but summon up Roald Dahl’s “The Swan” (collected in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar). And any story about Englishness, teenagedom, and angst will probably remind me of Travis’s 20’. The tone of Black Swan Green has elements of both, but with more of Mitchell’s brio and wit.

Mitchell has been sustaining a pleasantly brisk novel-writing pace: one every two years and getting faster. Good. I await the next with equal impatience.

The Fuzzy Red Hat

I own a not particularly attractive red and black thick knit hat. Every time I wear it I am warmly reminded of my fiancée’s love. Whenever she sees me in it she tells me the only reason she lets me continue wearing it is because she loves me.

Long and Mostly Entertaining

The Peter Jackson remake of King Kong is what the Onion would call a “least essential” movie. It is entertaining, generally quite well-done, and entirely pointless. As I understand it, the original was a mixture of completely ridiculous hoke and occasional moments that achieved a resonance transcending camp. The remake offers the same loving tribute to both.

Some parts are pure popcorn fun. Kong has an extended fight with some dinosaurs that goes well beyond what the normal action blockbuster delivers. Kong is convincingly monkeyesque; the acting is generally top-shelf. These parts aren’t just good for their type; they actually are good.

Even more than that, some parts are genuinely memorable. The buildup to and arrival at Skull Island is truly creepy. Little bits of horror-director flair that showed up here and there in the Lord of the Rings movies get full treatment here. I enjoy unsettling movie-making but have limited patience for the feeling; I also very much dislike pure horror. King Kong gets the balance right—most of the time.

The problem is that these entertaining and more-than-entertaining parts are embedded in too much movie. Getting it down from three hours to two and a half would have been trivial. You’d have had pretty much the same movie, only without the lugubriousness. Reaching two hours would have involved some painful choices and would have produced a movie with a quite different overall sense, but wouldn’t have been entirely outside the realm of possibility.

Everyone has mentioned the stereotypical token kid and the stereotypical token black guy. You could do a Phantom Edit on their dialogue without affecting the rest of the movie at all. They’d both be stronger characters for it. The worm pit was too much and lingered far too long on the gruesome. (The only way I’ve been able to deal with one particularly unpleasant image is to think to myself, “flobberworms.”) Each and every of the action sequences had redundant subsections. There’s not really a need to show people running and being chased by someting N times, when N - 1 or N - 2 or maybe even N/2 times would do.

And oh, those long sequences of shots of people looking at stuff. I swear, when the ship runs aground, we get an individual five-second shot of every single person on board looking out into the mist in awe and fear. Once Kong enters the picture and the interspecies bonding picks up, it’s endless. Kong looks at Ann. Ann looks at Kong. Kong looks at Ann. Ann looks at Kong. Naomi Watts and the Andy Serkis-Weta Digital team are good, but not so good that they can carry this stuff that long without dialogue. I don’t know that anyone could.

Also, watching a movie such as this with a bunch of medical students is an interesting experience. The anatomy chatter was almost nonstop, especially for a movie with this many skulls. Also, falling from the top of the Empire State Building should have splattered any living creature that large, Ann Darrow must have no pain or temperature nerve fibers, and one of our company thought that she saw testicles on the dinosaurs. For my part, I noted that after Kong’s rampage, Carl Denham is going to be facing some pretty serious tort liabilty.

Samberg Versus Robot

How did I not know this? The monkey in Monkey Versus Robot was played by Andy Samberg of Chronic(what)cles of Narnia fame.

That provides a link between two great bizzare internet videos. I smell mashup potential.


Jason Kottke’s year of blogging supported by reader donations has concluded. He raised $39,900 (most of it in the initial fund drive), wound up treating the blog as a 9-to-5 job rather than as a startup, and concluded that the model wasn’t sustainable for him. His site/blog will go on the back burner for a while. The reaction from some quarters, perhaps unsurpringly I suppose, has been a bit negative.

I’ve posted some of my thoughts to the metafilter thread, and they seem to me to be worthy of wider distribution. (The irony that comments in the metafilter thread will be seen by at least an order of magnitude more people than posts here, notwithstanding my intuitive sense that the Lab is “wider distribution,” is not lost on me.) Here are the relevant ones:

I donated. I was disappointed that the free-time-to-blog that the donations bought Jason didn’t result in more of a leap in what he was able to do with his site. I don’t feel betrayed; I don’t feel upset at him. He’s a profoundly decent guy who put honest and honorable effort into his blog; it just didn’t work out.

Bloggers, like whales, take their sustenance from what they swim through. Free time can undercut the freshness of a blog just as much as the lack of free time can. Either way, the fruitful combination of fresh thoughts and reflections on those thoughts doesn’t exist. (It’s no surprise that so many genuinely successful bloggers are journalists and academics — both groups whose ‘day jobs’ expose them to new facts and ideas constantly.) Jason’s quirkiness couldn’t flourish as well without the influx of inspiration. His analyses of weblogs were useful, but in the end they weren’t thinks that only he could have done.

I took some time “off” once, largely on my own dime, in the hopes I’d become a more productive writer and have more time to concentrate. The opposite happened; indeed, it nearly killed my blog for good. I donated in the hopes that Jason would do better. He did, to some extent — in the micropatron year was better than what it had been. I liked some of what he posted, found some uninteresting, some wrongheaded. But his heart wasn’t really in it, in a way that it appears he realized during the year and is quite apparent in his end-of-micropatronage announcement.

I, for one, wish him well in whatever comes next, and hope it involves something new and interesting to do with blogging.

And when it comes to the sense that Jason Kottke isn’t good enough, interesting enough, productive enough, original enough, or what-have-you enough when compared with others to deserve $39,000 in donations to blog for a year …

He’s the one who tried it. We won’t ever know how he’d stack up with others in a head-to-head fundraising competition, because almost no one else tried what he tried. Anyone could have drawn a moustache on the Mona Lisa; Marcel Duchamp did. JK was entrepreneurial enough to try a micropatronage year. Good for him.

And if it really had worked out fabulously and been the obvious proof that the model worked and could be repeated, well, then, his micropatronage wouldn’t be crowding out anyone else’s, and many of those more putatively deserving folks would be doing exactly the same thing too. In that it worked for him for the year, but not sustainably so, he wasn’t really taking anything from any of them.

Some of the posts in this thread share a subtext that: “We, the Internet community, were extracting X posts/day from Kottke, of average quality Y before he stuck out the tin cup. All of you who gave $30 gut suckered, because he produced X’ posts/day of average quality Y’ afterwards, where X and X’ are nearly equal and Y and Y’ are nearly equal.” That may be, but bloggers aren’t just stones to be squeezed for maximum productivity.

As against a baseline of nottke (nothing at all), I was happy to pay the $30 for a year of kottke. My contribution was one part thanks for what he’d done in the past, one part encouragement for him to do the same for another year, and one part encouragement for his plan to do more. On that view, perhaps, I didn’t get so much out of the last $10, but the $20 before that was money well spent.

The experiment was a very nice attempt at finding a model in which the monetary support for what he was doing did not commoditize the blogging. There are social issues with straight-up paying for content and with receiving content accompanied by ads. The former can make every post implicitly a bit of a sale; the latter can create the sense that the creator is beholden to the advertisers. The experiment was an interesting attempt to frame the support in a way that made both what he did and we did feel like freely-given gifts. That it didn’t work out is a bit of sad news for everyone hoping that noncommercialized parts of the new information society can be supported without propertization.

Note to Mako

“The Acetabulum at the Acetarium” would be a good name for a party with dancing.


Two things I’ve learned from reading The Big Picture:

Actor Woody Harrelson (Cheers) is the son of Charles Harrelson, who murdered federal judge John H. Wood, Jr..

Director Doug Liman (Swingers, The Bourne Identity) is the son of lawyer Arthur Liman.

That Fine Line

How does one write a review of a book such as The Way of Four Spellbook: Working Magic with the Elements? If one is an unnamed Publishers Weekly reviewer, thusly:

… use[s] the four elements—air, fire, water, earth—as the primary foundations for beginning spell casters to learn and practice their art. A high priestess in the Gardnerian Wiccan tradition, Lipp likens this elementary spell book to a “cookbook,” and indeed, readers will find spells structured like recipes, with lists of “needed tools” replacing ingredients sections and clear sets of instructions for whipping up each spell… . While the book includes many essentials commonly found across the vast array of available spell books, it also offers less typical guidance, such as a helpful warning against practicing spells while pregnant. As well, readers are sure to enjoy some of the more unusually pleasurable spells, including a wonderful-sounding bath spell to alleviate writer’s block; cookie spells; sex spells; and many others.

The precise wording leaves me in awe. “to learn and practice their art” … “elementary” … “essentials” … . “helpful warning” … “sure to enjoy” … “wonderful-sounding.” The review gives every appearance of taking the book at face value, evaluating its practical utility. And yet, completely absent from the review is any investigation of whether the spells actually work. An inch to the left, and the review denigrates the entire subject of magic (however spelled) and is therefore worthless to its audience—those readers considering buying The Way of Four Spellbook without irony. But an inch to the right, and the review is demonstrably, provably false.

Neither alternative is good for the credibility of Publishers Weekly. Thus, the subtle, skillful equivocation, in which the review gives every apearance of informed objectivity while nonetheless evaluating only the aesthetic aspects of the book. To appreciate fully the artfulness of the reveiwer who can walk this line, imagine writing a review of a book on automobile repair in this style.

“As well, readers are sure to enjoy some of the more unusually pleasurable repairs, including a wonderful-sounding technique for using regular inspections to avoid brake failure … “

No News is New News

I’m surprised that Summers v. Tice, 33 Cal. 2d 80, 199 P.2d 1 (Cal. 1948), hasn’t been getting more attention this week, in light of the Vice President’s hunting accident. After all, pretty much every law student learns about quail hunters in first-semester Torts:

Plaintiff’s action was against both defendants for an injury to his right eye and face as the result of being struck by bird shot discharged from a shotgun. The case was tried by the court without a jury and the court found that on November 20, 1945, plaintiff and the two defendants were hunting quail on the open range. Each of the defendants was armed with a 12 gauge shotgun loaded with shells containing 7 1/2 size shot. Prior to going hunting plaintiff discussed the hunting procedure with defendants, indicating that they were to exercise care when shooting and to “keep in line.” In the course of hunting plaintiff proceeded up a hill, thus placing the hunters at the points of a triangle. The view of defendants with reference to plaintiff was unobstructed and they knew his location. Defendant Tice flushed a quail which rose in flight to a 10-foot elevation and flew between plaintiff and defendants. Both defendants shot at the quail, shooting in plaintiff’s direction. At that time defendants were 75 yards from plaintiff. One shot struck plaintiff in his eye and another in his upper lip. Finally it was found by the court that as the direct result of the shooting by defendants the shots struck plaintiff as above mentioned and that defendants were negligent in so shooting and plaintiff was not contributorily negligent.

When we consider the relative position of the parties and the results that would flow if plaintiff was required to pin the injury on one of the defendants only, a requirement that the burden of proof on that subject be shifted to defendants becomes manifest. They are both wrongdoers — both negligent toward plaintiff. They brought about a situation where the negligence of one of them injured the plaintiff, hence it should rest with them each to absolve himself if he can. The injured party has been placed by defendants in the unfair position of pointing to which defendant caused the harm. If one can escape the other may also and plaintiff is remediless.

Of course, the legal issue is probably irrelevant, given that Cheney was the only shooter and Whittington has not filed a civil suit for negligence. But I note that Whittington may well have gone to law school before Summers v. Tice, with its illustration of the dangers of hunting out of line, became part of the Torts canon. And they say you don’t learn anything in law school.

Virtual Borders Goes Live

My latest paper, “Virtual Borders,” (previously noted in this space) has been published at First Monday. It appears as part of a ten-year retrospective on “Law and Borders,” which remains one of the top all-time articles in cyberlaw. I’m thrilled by the venue. First Monday has run some great stuff through the years (starting with “Law and Borders” itself), and I’m very happy to be joining some quite august company.

My thanks to all who provided comments and suggestions. I incorporated only some in my revisions, but I learned from all.

The Dark Night of the Novelist

Helen DeWitt, author of the brilliant and wrenchingly original The Last Samurai, disappeared in May 2004 from her home in Staten Island after sending a suicidally despondent email to friends. She was found a few days later in Niagara Falls, to all accounts in good condition, and briefly hospitalized.

And then, this past summer, over a year later, DeWitt apparently went around to blogs linking on the story, posting brief accounts of the experience in the comments. (Well, DeWitt or someone making a significant effort to imitate her writing. Can’t rule that one out, either.) Here is one version:

Kafkaesque experience. NF cop says: If you don’t come voluntarily I have to take you in, but it’s better if you come voluntarily. Night nurse at NF psychiatric ward says: We can admit you voluntarily or involuntarily, but it’s better if you are admitted voluntarily. I don’t have all night. I’ll be back in 5 minutes. If this form isn’t signed I’ll admit you involuntarily.

I signed. ‘Under observation’ = something like torture lite. You’re deprived of sleep. One person after another asks the same questions. It’s important to be upbeat, sincere, spontaneous, thoughtful - sort of like a book tour, except they’re doing their damnedest to keep you away from the press. No minibar. Now I’m in Berlin. Trying to finish 3 books. Still dealing with too many bad people.

Read The Last Samurai. Read it now.

Not Your Usual Spam

Spam these days seems to be the province of sleazy phishing scams and full-time operations pushing the same damn products, again and again and again. eBay, pharmaceuticals, OEM software, PayPal, pharmaceuticals, online diplomas, Washington Mutual, eBay, pharmaceuticals, small-cap stocks, pharmaceuticals, mortgage refinancing, pharmaceuticals, pharmaceuticals, and more pharmaceuticals.

Then, every so often, I get an email that restores my faith in spam, that somewhere out there there are still poor deluded saps willing to do a one-off mailing in the belief that someone out there is genuinely interested. Thus, today:






Uh huh. Check. Bulk scissors exports. Got it.

16 Block Update

I was right. They were test-marketing trailers for 16 Blocks to be shown during the Super Bowl. And apparently my input mattered (or the input of people who answered as I did mattered) because they ran a different trailer than the one I saw and hated.

Not that the one they ran was much of an improvement, if you ask me. Now, insted of having no idea what the movie is about, I have a decent idea and know to a moral certainty that I’m not interested in seeing it.

Who Has Bad Security Practices? Chase Does!

Chase/BankOne/FirstUSA follow bad security practices. They send notification emails to credit cardholders using domains other than the obvious ones. (It’s bad enough that they do business under those three different URLs to begin with. A merger should either retain distinct brand identities and URLs or merge them, not expect consumers to remember which companies are parts of which other companies.)

The email comes from an address at and directs the cardholder to login there, as well. This is a bad idea, because this is exactly what phishers do. Financial institutions shouldn’t use other domains because doing so makes it harder to tell phish from real correspondence. It’s not sufficient that the email contains the cardholder’s name—in this epoch of internet scams, it’s not implausible that the scammers could have email addresses paired to names (or even to partial credit card numbers). An institution that doesn’t understand why it should have clear unforgeable lines of identity in its communications signals that it doesn’t really understand IT security.

This lapse in judgment doesn’t necessarily mean that Chase/BankOne/FirstUSA can’t be trusted. It’s just not a good sign.

Pastwatch Watch

My time-travel literature review continues with Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. It was, all in all, better than I was expecting, although at several points I feared it would be much worse. The pacing is off, the emotional arc stumbles, and Card’s trademark dialogues — veering clunkily between exposition and didacticism — remain eminently skimmable. But the plot is clever, the character of Columbus himself is vivid, and some of the ideas are quite striking.

In any event, if The Anubis Gates is the one kind of time-travel story — what Stanislaw Lem would call a “time loop” — Pastwatch is the other. As in the timeiverse of Back to the Future, mucking about in the past changes the “future,” so that different things happen. Only the time traveller is aware of these divergences, because only he or she remembers the original future. Indeed, thanks to the temporal rewriting, that original future is in a sense obliterated, replaced by the new future. The original now even exists only as a memory.

The thing that I like most about Pastwatch is that Card takes this latent paradox and mines it for its moral significance. On one level, time travel is thus a fairly obvious metaphor for playing God, a metaphor that Pastwatch takes slightly literally, if usually playfully. On another, the novel tees up some quite unsettling questions about the moral duties the time traveller owes to the residents of the two different timelines.

These questions are hard enough in a universe in which time flows n only one direction. Trying to resolve moral questions that involve potential people is extraordinarily difficult; as Derek Parfit has described, it forces us to confront quite possibily unresolvable issues about personal identity and morality through time. If I change the world slightly to delay a birth, is the baby born five minutes later the “same” moral agent as the one who would have been born five minutes earlier? Every action has the potential to cause some future people to exist and others not to exist. What moral principle can tell us how to balance one potential nonexistence against another? And in what sense is my moral duty towards other future people different from my moral duty towards my own future self? These questions are all real stumpers.

With future-altering time travel to the past, however, the problems just get worse. There are some oogly technical issues involving the time traveller’s own personal identity, issues like those involved in the teleportation hypotheticals. Since the point of the teleportation examples is supposed to be that of shedding some light on the problem of personal identity through time, one might think that time travel would be the simpler case. But a discontinuous movement through time, in the wrong direction, and which may causes the previous self not to have ever existed—well, that doesn’t satisfy very many of the traditional criteria for a stable identity. (For example, yes, the traveller has memories of his or her previous existence in the future, but those memories are now in a very real sense completely false, since that future, by hypothesis, will now never exist.)

Worse still are one’s moral duties to others from the futures. By travelling back to the past and changing it, you will arguably be causing the people who lived between the point of departure and the point of intervention never to have existed. Their timeline will be written out of existence and replaced with a new one. Have you harmed them? The problem is more complicated than one involving potential people in the future, because the innocents from the recent past whose existence you will obliterate by going back in time have already lived their lives. You are taking away not only the existence they might have, but the one they already had. Is that moral? Is it even possible? Does the difficulty of formulating the question suggest that “changing the past” will not actually undo those existences? If so, doesn’t that that undermine the whole project of going back in time to undo past suffering?

My brain is not designed to handle these questions. One might take this as an argument against the possibility of time travel of this second, future-rewriting sort. But then again, there are all sorts of things my brain is not designed to handle. Elliptic integrals, say, or the muscle movements involved in whistling. I don’t think I’d want to take my own bafflement as an argument against the possibility of either.