This is Good Night

Turning out the lights on the old Fray.

Tomorrow, May 31st, is the old Fray’s last day of service. On Monday, we should be back—with entirely new and significantly improved software and interface.

Transitions are a melancholy time: One looks back with nostalgia and ahead with apprehension.

It’s easy to observe that the Fray is “just a chatboard.” It’s equally obvious that most human relationships are “just chatter.” We bond through talk, and the Fray is nothing but talk.

Over the years, Fraysters have formed genuine friendships and rivalries. The software going into retirement tomorrow has united lovers in matrimony, mourners in loss, friends in laughter, and critical thinkers in lively debate.

Over the course of today, we invite you to The Best of the Fray and ask you to add your words to this version’s closing chapter. Click this link to read the discussion.

Please do join us next week for the inauguration of our new Fray. We’ll be passing out a free cookie with each new account. GA10:30pm PDT

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Secret, a wildly successful self-help book-turned-infomercial (or is it the other way around?), is the object of a severe critique by John Gravois in last week’s Culturebox. Prodded by some recent backpedalling from Oprah (who had previously endorsed The Secret on her show), Gravois fanned the flames of a nascent backlash against this latest cultural fad. (Note: due to a recent server outage on Slate, the links to some of these messages may no longer be functional.)

For Ellendiffrnet, positive thinking is no substitute for a solid work ethic.

curiousgemini goes a step further, blaming the cult of positive thinking for everything from lotteries, unemployed actors in Hollywood, and the Iraq war.

According to Sarvis, the American psyche is inclined to deny failure, whereas “other more mature (more cynical) cultures” take into account “fatalism and nihilism” in their philosophical worldview.

Inquisitor14 takes the perspective of a financial planner:

I find that a large portion of my job is getting people to plan for situations that are difficult to think about. I find that people are quite resistant to this because generally people avoid discomfort. The real secret is to have the courage to look at life and honestly assess the risks and opportunities therein. Clearly this is very difficult which is one of the reasons I have a job.

While acknowledging that The Secret is perhaps not the most articulate work, Earlybird is, for one, a believer in a crowd of cynics:

The reality is that before any action is taken, any decision is made, whether the most dramatic or mundane, we first visualize what outcome will result from it. We all do this basically unconsciously.

But when you use this tool consciously and with effort to “create” what you really want, it is wonderfully powerful and even “spooky.” Understanding how to use this can seem at times like you have a genie in your head. Actually you have an amazing, vastly powerful tool which we can do our best to master and which science hasn’t even come close to unraveling.

Elsewhere in the Art Fray, Christopher Benfey’s reportage on the astonishing sale price of $73 million for a Rockefeller-owned Rothko inspired Utek1’s thoughtful musings on the visual power of the artist’s style:

Georges Seurat once theorized that horizontal lines produced a feeling of calmness. You can see what he was talking about in the horizontal rectangles floating in Rothko’s classic canvases…At first Rothko drew his horizontal lines completely across his canvases, like stripes or geological strata. It was only when he put fuzzy edges around the layers did he really hit mystical paydirt. That’s because if you stare intently at a blank wall, you will notice that the roundness of your eyeball means that there is a fuzzy ring around the image, where your peripheral vision is out of focus. The fuzzy border around Rothko’s color fields augments this effect, giving the flat rectangles a more three-dimensional feeling, as if they were floating above the colored ground. It also increases the visionary sense of something being deeply stared into—perhaps the mystic void itself—that lends the pictures their spiritual kick.

Accusing the reviewer of “conflating the art and the artist,” randy-khan passionately defends Rothko’s legacy:

Rothko was a mess, no doubt about it, but his art was not. Like so many others (and the list is so long as to be cliched), his art ecliplses his untidy life, and in the end the mess he made of that life has nothing to do with our assessment of the quality of his work. The best Rothko paintings, and even many that aren’t his best, have a numinous quality that’s missing from a lot of modern art, and that’s why they draw you in and why they are transcendent.

The notion that “Rothko’s status has slipped” because he killed himself makes no sense at all. The art is the art, and nothing else. Jackson Pollack’s art wasn’t changed by his drunk driving death, any more than Andy Warhol’s was changed by his habit of wearing a wig. (In that case, the influence probably went the other way.) It’s silly to think that Rothko became any worse - or better - because of the way he died. In the end, and particularly 30 years after his death, the work stands by itself, and in this case it stands up awfully well.

The Rothko Chapel in Houston is great online resource for those wishing to contemplate the spiritual, “transcendent” qualities of the artist’s paintings.

Some interesting chatter in Foreigners too on the cyberwar between Estonia and Russia involving a scheme to overwhelm crucial government Web sites with astronomical levels of traffic. The Fray should be so lucky. AC1:21pm PDT

Friday, May 11, 2007

In honor of Mother’s Day here at Slate, Emily Bazelon investigated whether today’s parents, through misguided praise, have inadvertently raised a generation of pampered, incompetent brats. Apparently, children may be better served by praise directed at the quality of their efforts rather than at the quality of their innate attributes. As the uncle of six technically perfect small children, I can’t really relate to the article’s premise. But, I wouldn’t be surprised if your kids need to be cut down a peg or two.

While there’s no shortage in the Fray of contempt for today’s youth, respondents are surprisingly ambivalent towards Bazelon’s seemingly reasonable advice. Degsme takes issue with effort-oriented praise on theological grounds:

What’s wrong with head patting? What’s wrong with feeling good? Sorry, but this is yet another go round of calvinistic reactionism.

[According to the article:] “We tell them that they’re smart or athletic or musically gifted, when what we should be praising is hard work and effort.”

Yeah, [only] if you want them to become worker drones with no real definition of self other than work.

Einstein is attributed as having said, “all the hard work in the world won’t make up for a touch of genius.” Benjamin Franklin pointed out, “Hard work may not kill you - but why take the chance.”

Praising only work praises the outcome and not the person. It is precisely the sort of dehumanization that allows the Guanatanamos, the “boot in their ass”, and the RagHead/Towelhead comments to flourish.

It is the Calvinist mythos at its worst.

I can’t agree that Calvinism is the problem, but if concentrated exposure to a good dose of Catholic dogma doesn’t scare the excessive self-love out of your child, I don’t know what else could. Speaking of doctrine, Degsme also offers an interesting treatise on praise-ratios, that’s worth checking out.

Hi shares the concern that focus on effective praise—of any kind—can reduce our kids to someone else’s tools:

One of the main themes in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” was that the tyranny of the future would use positive reinforcement in lieu of negative.

When my kids were small I would go to the zoo and watch a bird show were they showed the power of positive reinforcement on birds. Do you think this training was in the interest of the bird?

[I] see young people who are newly hired struggle in the work environment, more because they feel entitled [than] because they lack experience. They expect to get what they want simply by asking for it. They fail to realize that other people may want something also. […]

They have a harder time achieving what they want in life because they never get any realistic feedback. Most people just tell them what they want to hear, so they can get what they want from them right now.

From bright_virago’s perspective, praise is simply a good idea—even when it is silly:

Of course you provide praise to those workers who are overcoming an obstacle - whether that’s timely arrival or poor spelling or learning a new software program or anything else by which their job performance is judged. When I needed my twenty-something assistant to act more independently, I told her that she needed to inventory and re-order supplies without reminders from me. When she did that on a regular basis, I provided positive feedback on her job evaluation.

And, of course you tell your kid that she did a great job cleaning up those toys or her painting has amazing colors or you tell your spouse that the dinner he cooked tastes great or you appreciate that basketful of clean laundry. Those kinds of messages mean I am grateful for the gift of you, a complement to the oft-spoken I love you.

Vague praise is like vague anything else - sometimes funny  but mostly useless, or whatever and junk.

Is this whole hunt for a better parenting technique chasing the wrong fox? While thought doesn’t have many kind words to spare for today’s youth, he blames more than just parents:

Our 20 somethings have grown up during a fairly bleak time in our society–in their lifetimes: two wars, a five year long fear of terrorism, economic downturns, pension scandals, etc…I watch parents give over the top praise to their often poorly mannered children. It disgusts me, and I know it isn’t helpful. However, this is not the only reason that we have a seemingly lazy, unmotivated young work force. We have bigger problems.

Come not to harry the self-sure, but to better praise them in our Family Fray. Oh, and from the gang at Fraywatch, a belated “Happy Mother’s Day,” too.  GA1:45am PST

Friday, May 4, 2007

Have political opinions become our generation’s buggy-whips? Whether the venue is a congressional committee, a presidential debate, or even our system of courts, it appears that good sense has become an evolutionary liability in today’s political environment. Why not save yourself some money on the Maalox and stop thinking about politics altogether? Fred Kaplan dares to hope that the American government’s latest maneuversin the Iraq war, the Battle of Capitol Hill, might actually be that vanishing animal of American politics—a good idea. According to the_slasher14, such hope is sorely misguided:

If our war aim is a stable Iraq, and there can be no stability (because of the inability of the Iraqis to create a political system that will be stable), then there IS no military solution – short of […] governing it as a military fiefdom. But that, we now know, will require an increase in troop strength, which would surely mean cataclysmic budget revisions and a draft. [A]in’t gonna happen.

All of the above wouldn’t matter if the war were about Iraq, but it hasn’t been about Iraq – in the United States – for a long time. The war was begun on the assumption that it would be over quickly, and in plenty of time to ensure a Republican landslide victory in 2004. Then, with the large Congressional majorities that would attend this triumph, the Bushies could ensconce themselves, and the principles they stand for, in power for generations to come.

The war was against the Democrats every bit as much as it was against Saddam. Oh yes, there were non-political reasons for the war, and if it had been the cakewalk Bush/Cheney and the neocons thought it would be, [those reasons] would have come to the fore. But the predictions of “mission accomplished” in a few short weeks were wrong, and once that was clear, it changed everything.

Once it became clear that the war would NOT be over quickly, the Bushies faced a choice: drastically increase the level of troops involved, or face the prospect of depending upon the Iraqi political scene to rationalize itself.

Drastically increasing the troops was exactly what Bush/Cheney/Rove did NOT want to do in 2004. Not only would they have to run for office while instituting a draft, but they would have had to do so while increasing taxes to pay for all of this. Therefore, the only solution left was to rely on the Iraqi politicians to get their act together. This was a dicey prospect even in the best of times, given that Iraq’s population has deep natural divisions. But it was especially dicey given that there had not BEEN any Iraqi politics for a generation under Saddam’s rule.

Still, the illusion that it was possible held together long enough to get Bush re-elected, and with a Republican Congress as well. That was the good news; the bad news was that the Iraqis had learned something from 2004 – to wit, the American commitment to their country was limited to what would retain the hold of the Republican Party on power. There would NEVER be a troop increase of a size large enough to pacify the country once and for all. The most they would get would be “surges” (there was one right after election day, remember). Bush/Cheney had no intention of jeopardizing their political victory with a draft and with the massive tax increases that would attend a serious attempt at victory.

On the other hand, Bush/Cheney could ALSO not withdraw troops short of an obvious victory, because that would mean they [had] started a war that they failed to win, and would have forfeited the Republican claim to being “tough on defense.” This locked them into their present position for the next four years, and any Iraqi capable of understanding politics could see that.

Which in turn meant two things: the various Iraqi factions who, as Kaplan points out, really DO hate each other, now had no incentive to settle their differences, since the world in which they’d have to hash them out on a long-term basis wouldn’t exist until 2009 at the earliest.

Second, of course, it meant that the only political advantage which remained to Bush/Cheney was to prepare for the elections of 2012 and the future, when they could blame the “loss” of Iraq on the Democrats. This too, of course, means the war must be continued into 2009, when Hillary (or whoever) can sweep into office in time to be blamed for taking the only logical step – withdrawal.

The Iraqis understand what most Americans do not – that for Bush/Cheney the war is no longer against anyone in the Middle East, but against the Democrats.
Less fatalistically, travelinMike sees a withdrawal date in view—the day dogs walk backward:
The Administration, in its desperate effort to buy more time to fix the Iraq that they broke, have been heavily dependant on the misguided calculation that “withdrawal = defeat”. This was an effective short term strategy to enforce the “stay-the-course” mentality. Any attempt to stray from the definitive course of the “decider” would suffer the consequence of being indelibly identified with the politically toxic slur…”defeatist”.

For an Administration afflicted with a case of terminal short-sightedness, what they failed to realize was that they (or some future Administration) would, at some point, be making the judgment that it was indeed time to leave Iraq. By their own definition, that they persistently pounded into the American and International psyches, they have made it virtually impossible to ever withdraw from Iraq, under any circumstances, without it “appearing” to be a defeat.

While it is far overdue, the Administration needs to start redefining “withdrawal”. They need to infuse into this new definition the many and varied accomplishments that we have achieved over the last 4 years. They need to be every bit as single-minded about the positive re-definition of “withdrawal” as they were about the uncompromising negativity they originally assigned to the term.

It is purely a perception game, but it is a game where the enemy has had the overwhelming advantage from the moment we failed to translate our regime change success into a equally determined and focused reconciliation strategy.

In the end, withdrawal will not define our defeat. Our tragic failure to immediately reign in the forces of lawlessness and chaos sealed our fate in the first weeks following the invasion.

If you want to discuss Iraq, by all means join us in the War Stories Fray. But if you want my advice, the real action is in our Frays on American Idol and The Sopranos. You can wash down those fried brain cells with a refreshing glass of bubbly pop, and call it a summery spring day well-wasted.  GA2:55am PST

Friday, May 4, 2007

Torie Bosch’s latest documented case of Hillary Clinton’s “drawl on demand”—her curious reversion to a Southern accent in campaign speeches and appearances, presumably from the years spent in Arkansas—provided easy fodder for those who already consider the candidate inauthentic and opportunistic, while others admitted to being themselves guilty as charged of the occasional linguistic “code shift.” Such attention has not been heaped upon a dialect change perhaps since Madonna’s assumption of a faux British accent prompted criticism that the Material Girl was somehow repudiating “ her gritty family past in lower-middle-class metropolitan Detroit.”For JEN-10, Hillary’s multiple accents are no big deal: “I have lived in a lot of different places from Europe to Hawaii and Alaska…….and I notice my accent subtly shifting depending upon who I am talking to. And I’m not doing it on purpose, it just happens.” candoxx agrees.landmine sees the shift as political pandering at its most blatant. Defending Ms. Clinton, Borboleta says it’s natural for displaced Southerners to lapse back into their accent of origin: “Hillary may be using this accented speech to her advantage, but in my mind there is little doubt that it’s the real deal.”Boasting an international background, necoharbour considers himself further proof that accents do change over time:

I’ve seen this happen frequently with friends who have moved and worked elsewhere and after a year have picked up the local accent (but not the dialect). They will revert back to their original accent if you talk to them for a while. Those who actually do master a dialect are able to switch immediately depending on who they are talking too.
EarlyBird confesses to being “a natural mimic … since I was a little kid” and does a rather amusing riff on Hillary’s “nauseatingly pandering, and embarrassing” performance in front of black audiences. TheRanger acts as flamethrower in the debate, criticizing the “ absolutely bogus” rationale for Hillary’s “code shift,” given her upbringing “in the Chicago area” and college years in New England during the most critical period of her accent formation.vasinger detects a subtle undercurrent of anti-Southern bias in our fixation on Hillary’s chameleon-like speech patterns. Indeed, far from being the mark of “ hick” provincialism, certain Southern accents “are so refined they rival that of the English Aristocracy (most of southern planters were cousins of them). The upper crust speech of 18th century London and the African slaves probably influenced southern speech more than anything else.”More can be found in The Explainer. AC12:09pm PST

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Motivated by her own history with anorexia, Kate Taylor’s fascinating foray into the world of CRONies—practitioners of a fringe dietary movement to restrict caloric intake—brought forth a spate of self-revealing testimonials in the Fray. (Full disclosure: Taylor was a classmate of mine at Harvard whose previous writings on the subject I admire and have discussed with her in the past.)

San discusses the defining traits of male anorexia as “someone who eats about 1,400-1,500 calories a day while my age/activity rate should have me eat about 2,200.” gdmedia defends the CR movement with her own testimonial, and accuses Taylor of ignoring the regime’s emphasis on “optimal nutrition.” A self-described writer and poet, Zonemind-PDX contributes this intimate account of self-starvation:

I’m 6’4” or so. I am male. When I was in my early twenties I weighed one hundred twenty pounds, or thereabouts (it fluctuated a bit). I ate only occasionally. I didn’t like to eat in the first place (the sensation of fullness was uncomfortable to me), but I also had little wish to live.

The bit in the CR article about having a narrower focus brought a sharp jolt of recognition.

My life when I was not eating was a twelve by twelve room, spotlessly cleaned an ordered, the walls entirely bare. I had a desk with a lamp, a collection of pens, a few reams of graph paper, and a large picture window I kept curtained. My only interest was in the meticulous ordering of syllables. I wrote poetry. Mostly I wrote sonnets, because they were so difficult.

One night I was writing in my journal, and I noted that if there was true love in the world, I wanted to find it. Shortly after that, also at night, I put all my possessions in the trunk of my car, and drove away from my room. In retrospect, that was irresponsible. Although I don’t think many people noticed, and fewer cared, I left behind no indication that I had not simply gone off and completed abruptly the job of killing myself that I had been doing so slowly up until then.

But while it was irresponsible, it also had a certain beauty to it. Its finality was undeniable. Likewise, I am sometimes disturbed by the beauty of the things I wrote then. Things were so much CLEARER then. Hopeless, but clear. The walls were spotless white. The bed could double as a an engineer’s square. The lines on the paper went just so, in an unbroken rhythm of pale green, all the way down and all the way across the page.

I couldn’t go back. For one thing, I found true love. But there is a part of me that wants to go back, that remembers the perfect order, the lack of distraction, the sense of self-satisfaction that came with zealous self-denial. That part scares me.

Mara5525 detects a possible gender bias in our attitudes toward calorie restriction:

I can’t help wondering if the fact that most (but not all) Anorexia sufferers are female, [and] many who practice Calorie Restriction are male (but not all), might not impact on how these two are treated by doctors and researchers.

The Anorexic clearly has an illness and that is not something I would question. Yet there is favorable press about how “scientific” Calorie Restriction is even as the similarities between Calorie Restriction and Anorexia are obvious to anyone who has taken the time to observe both…Since male bias is still very prevalent in this world, I would venture to guess that, unconsciously, doctors and researchers automatically put much more trust in what Calorie Restriction purports to do.

After all, how laudable to want to extend life (and/or improve quality of life) through diet. We have a long history of such dietary “miracles” being practiced by zealouts who are sure they have the proverbial “key to life”.

noisette7 points out the religious precedent in practices of self-starvation: “people in the middle ages (primarily women, but not exclusively) used extreme calorie restriction as part of constructing a holy identity. In other words, starving yourself was a good first step (or marker) in becoming a saint.”

You too can aspire to Slate sainthood (or at least a checkmark) in Medical Examiner Fray. AC7:00pm PDT