Gina Gionfriddo’s article on mourning Elliott Smith, published in the June 2004 issue of The Believer, is open-ended, well observed, emotionally vulnerable—a lovely essay on fandom, embarrassment, and falling in love with music. It’s hard to write about such things without seeming either insular or (much worse) condescending, and she pulls it off.

Derivative of n+1

If you’ve ever wondered why blogrolls are so long, all you need to do is quietly weed out the items in your blogroll that aren’t in fact blogs, haven’t changed in months, and are not edited by your boyfriend. Within twenty-four hours, you get email like this:

I was just about to write you a note thanking you for linking to us, until I went to your site and saw that you un-linked! Traitor!

Evidently the young turks behind the new literary journal n+1 have finished their first issue, which will soon be printed, and are consequently greedy of press. Subscribe, because they are as talented as they are ambitious. You want to be in on the ground floor. You don’t want to be fishing around on ebay for back issues later, in a desperate attempt to repair the holes in your collection. And you don’t want to be on their bad side. (I certainly don’t, anyway. The links of everyone, whether quiet or petulant, have been restored.)

Decemberists’ show

We saw the Decemberists last night at the Bowery Ballroom. They rock. They played “Sixteen Military Wives,” a new song, which proves that in addition to outsider-figures-in-historical-periods rock, they are masters at contemporary-political-protest rock. Are there any angry/ironic rock songs about the Iraq war one quarter as good? (Are there any other ones at all?) It’s my most fervent wish right now that they release it as a single in time for the election. (My next-most-fervent wish is that they accompany it with a B-side about Louis Napoleon, child of a famous political dynasty who spent his youth drinking and brawling and of whom little was expected, whose 1851 coup was facilitated by the deliberately created but misleading impression that he would be almost liberal or at least, well, compassionately conservative, but in fact led France into a few dozen years of imperialism.)


In a juxtaposition in the report in this morning’s New York Times of a news conference that Bush gave yesterday, was there a comment on Bush and Reagan’s legacy? The Times reported thus:

Despite the continuing tensions, Mr. Bush appeared relaxed and at times almost ebullient as he took questions for 40 minutes, ranging from reflections on Ronald Reagan’s presidency to the failure so far to find banned weapons in Iraq.

When the subject turned to the treatment of prisoners, Mr. Bush said he could not remember whether he had seen secret Pentagon and Justice Department legal opinions that concluded he had broad authority to determine what techniques could be used to interrogate unlawful combatants seized in Afghanistan.

Remembering, not remembering . . . Until this week’s snow of obituaries, I wouldn’t have associated Reagan with a line such as “Tear down this wall.” The phrase most closely linked to him in my memory was, rather, “I have no recollection of that.” Perhaps it was natural for Bush to move in conversation from recalling Reagan to not recalling the memos justifying torture.

He admits to being an attentive student of Reagan’s style. Famously, in two interviews that he granted to the Tower commission in January and February 1987, Reagan said that he “had no recollection” of telling his national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane in July 1985 to go ahead with a proposed arms-for-hostages deal in Iran. Asked whether he had approved the shipment of arms from Israel to Iran in August 1985 before or after the fact, Reagan wrote to the commission that “Try as I might, I cannot recall anything whatsoever.” Nor could he recall signing a 2 January 1986 order authorizing covert action, though he did recall signing a later version of the same order (New York Times, 28 February 1987). In February 1990, during the trial of John Poindexter, Reagan testified 124 times that he did not recall details of the Iran-contra scandal (UPI, 23 February 1990).

Autism, literacy, and natural selection

I stayed up past my bedtime last night, engrossed in Paul Colllins’s Not Even Wrong, which intercuts a memoir of his discovery of his son’s autism with a history of the condition. Collins is kind of a historical magpie. He puts into his book everything from the story of Peter the Wild Boy—found in the woods of Hamelin, Germany, in the eighteenth century and adopted by George I of England—to the nastiness and imposture of Bruno Bettelheim.

Some of the bright, shiny facts collected by Collins started me on a speculation. Autism comes in different levels of severity, and it seems to be heritable. In the 1943 article where he first described autism, Hans Asperger noted that “We have been able to discern related incipient traits in the parents or relatives in every single case” (p. 90). Collins inventories proto-autistic traits in himself, his wife, and their parents: enthusiastic list-making, fascination with texts and systems, attention so narrow that it causes “selective hearing.” He talks to researchers who have found a high incidence of autism in the children of engineers. When he gives a talk at Microsoft, Collins is surprised that many in the audience seem to be playing with their laptops instead of listening to him. It turns out they are listening to him but prefer to do it via the company’s internal webcast.

All this set me wondering. There’s been a lot of concern recently that the incidence of autism seems to be rising. Some have put the blame on the mercury-based preservatives in vaccines given to children, but a government panel last week found no link. (Collins hasn’t mentiioned this yet, but like I said, I’m only halfway through.) What if the cause is something else entirely? What if it’s assortative mating?

In other words, what if the premium that the information economy puts on cognitive skills and the advent of the two-career marriage has created a new situation, in which people with mild proto-autistic behaviors are more likely than ever to find each other and wed? This is a bit wacky as a hypothesis, because I’m suggesting more or less that the mind is evolving, observably, in response to extremely new conditions. But assortative mating is a powerful force. And actually, the premium on literacy (and the behaviors that enhance it, such as intense focus and comfort with solitude) has been in place for several centuries now.

College, in this light, would be a breeding ground for autism, because it encourages people who score well on standardized tests to socialize and mate with one another. So would places like Silicon Valley, Seattle, and the Greater Boston area, because the computer industry brings together people with proto-autistic traits in unprecedented concentrations.

I also wonder, sometimes, whether a high rate of depression in the modern world might be a side effect of a premium on literacy. Humans weren’t originally built to sit still for long periods of time while paying close attention to inanimate objects. They were built to pay close attention while pursuing their four-legged dinner, or while conversing with other humans. Some evolutionary psychologists think that depression was originally designed as a “shutdown” mode to detach a person from a task that looked as if it would be unsuccessful. What if it turned out to have an unforeseen second use in a literate world, because it made a person willing to sit still at length, in isolation? It could be that the genetic innovation that would isolate this boon from the other traits associated with depression (dysphoria, suicidal ideation, etc.) hasn’t yet arrived, and we’re stuck with a situation where people who like to read are also people prone to depression. Of course, it could be that the human temperament hasn’t changed at all, but that when humans are encouraged to sit still for long periods, they become prone to depression. (I think there’s a paper to be written by some enterprising experimental psychologist on the relation between webpage-loading time and perception of self-esteem. Between two people, a delay in response is usually perceived as a slight, and a human who’s browsing the internet must, at some precognitive level, perceive its responsiveness to him as a measure of his social status.)