The Null Device
As gender relations in France come up for examination (previously), the French government has moved to deprecate the honorific “Mademoiselle” ("miss") from official forms. As French has no equivalent of “Ms.”, “Madame”, which until now referred exclusively to married women, will refer to women of any marital status, allowing women to avoid disclosing their marital status.
Japanese culture places a lot of value on attention to detail. One result of this has been a generation of Japanese artisans taking artefacts from elsewhere, from clothing to coffee, and improving them:
"My boss won't let me make espressos," says the barista. "I need a year more, maybe two, before he's ready to let customers drink my shots undiluted by milk. And I'll need another whole year of practice after that if I want to be able to froth milk for cappuccinos." Only after 18 years as a barista in New York did his boss, the cafe's owner, feel qualified to return home to show off his coffee-making skills. Now, at Bear Pond's main branch, he stops making espressos at an early hour each day, claiming that the spike on the power grid after that time precludes drawing the voltage required for optimal pressure.
As a result of this quest, Japan has become the most culturally cosmopolitan country on Earth, a place where you can lunch at a bistro that serves 22 types of delicious and thoroughly Gallic terrines, shop for Ivy League–style menswear at a store that puts to shame the old-school shops of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and spend the evening sipping rare single malts in a serene space that boasts a collection of 12,000 jazz, blues and soul albums. The best of everything can be found here, and is now often made here: American-style fashion, haute French cuisine, classic cocktails, modern luxury hotels. It might seem perverse for a traveler to Tokyo to skip sukiyaki in favor of Neapolitan pizza, but just wait until he tastes that crust.The article also mentions, among other things, Real McCoy, a boutique which makes and sells expensive, high-quality clothing made on vintage American lines, and a tapas bar which went to the trouble of importing waxy, nigh-unusable paper napkins from Spain just to recreate the authentic experience of eating tapas in a packed Spanish bar.
The USA, the usual cliché goes, is the country without a political Left. The leftmost party in its duopoly, the Democrats, are somewhere vaguely to the right of the Tories/Christian Democrats in European terms; a universal welfare state is dismissed as immoral lunacy, state-funded universal health care is unthinkable and even public transport is treated in much of the country as a stigmatised welfare system for the unworthy poor. There are various theories about why this is so; from the US having been founded by that anomalous subset of people bold and/or crazy enough to leave their countries and travel to an unknown land and tough and/or lucky enough to have survived through to speculations about cultural transmission. John Steinbeck, author of the Depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath, once stated that socialism never took hold in America because there the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires, and given how many of the American working poor are vehemently against measures that would materially benefit them (though might cramp the style of their future wealthy selves), there could be some truth in that.
Now, however, it seems that the US progressive movement, unconstrained as it is by having any sort of established record to stand on, may be leapfrogging the more established European Left, taking advantage of the decentralised, network-oriented mindset of the internet age.
In December, a poll by the Pew Research Center found support for socialism now outweighs support for capitalism among a younger generation of Americans. In 2012 so far, in a spectacular series of victories, American progressives have taken on big oil, Hollywood and (some people's version of) God, winning every time.(Mind you, the renewed popularity of “socialism” might not so much suggest Americans embracing Marx and thinking that a five-year plan might not be so bad after all as the Republican Party, Fox News and right-wing talk radio having defined any reasonably humane idea, from universal health care to questioning whether hedge-fund managers really are our betters, as “socialism”.)
Today's American left is where the old world of community organising and the new world of social media meet. The dismal official European left, by contrast, has neither invested in their past, nor in their future, discarding their history, ignoring new technology. Our only hope, if Obama, as looks likely, is re-elected, is that he might perhaps consider a new Marshall plan, to rebuild a left in Europe that's everywhere in ruins.
Common characteristics of bad books, in this case popular pseudohistory/woo (think The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Chariots Of The Gods, and anything else conjuring up a sweepingly epic, hitherto hidden and irresistibly compelling secret history of the world out of fragments of anecdote, conjecture and hand-waving:
The Second Characteristic of Bad Books: overenthusiastic prefaces by autodidacts. The front matter in bad books usually includes a preface with the following characteristics: the author has had his eyes suddenly opened to the existence of a mystery in a field in which he is not an expert (although he may be an expert in other fields) and the author has discovered the key to unravelling this mystery, a key that has been overlooked, disregarded or suppressed by experts. The introduction to Gavin Menzies' 1421: The Year China Discovered America (2002) opens with the sentence, "Over ten years ago I stumbled upon an incredible discovery, a clue hidden in an ancient map which, though it did not lead to buried treasure, suggested that the history of the world as it has been known and handed down for centuries would have to be radically revised." Menzies, by the way, is a retired naval officer.
A persistent rhetorical sequence in bad books is "assumption creep". Things described in early chapters as speculation or conjecture soon become likely, and are then taken as established facts. The question "Could the Cathar 'treasure' like the 'treasure' Sauniere discovered, have consisted primarily of a secret? Could that secret have been related in some unimaginable way to something that became known as the Holy Grail?" in chapter two has become by chapter nine "For if the Templars are indeed guardians of the Grail...the Grail existed not only in Arthurian times, but also during the Crusades."
But why do people seem to prefer books peddling snake oil to books peddling antibiotics? My guess is that it is exactly those rhetorical features signalling the books' "badness" that account for their popularity. Copious bibliographies and footnotes provide credentials for the author's gravitas. Breathlessly enthusiastic prefaces and claims of unveiling secrets make the reader look for further exciting revelations; and "outsider" status, somewhat paradoxically, can be taken as evidence of the writer's lack of bias. Assumption creep seems to be understood as the writer's growing confidence in his conclusions rather than as the definitional sleight of hand it actually is. Unfulfilled promises of information-to-come in later chapters move the narrative forward while obscuring weaknesses in data, although half-comparisons and the failure to apply Occam's razor probably ought to be red flags to almost anybody.