Fessing Up
An email conversation about the news of the day.
May 7 2002 11:03 AM


Dear Alex,


You are correct about my stated reasons for being in Paris. The one about making the documentary was a lie. Actually, the trio semiotics, grief-management, and UNESCO came to me one day when I was trying to bore myself to death. On the other hand, Paris does have many excellent pingpong parlors, and I am an ardent pongiste.

Several readers of Monday's "Breakfast Table" posted (in the Fray) very sophisticated rebuttals of my claim that an 18th-century Frenchman named Jean Charles de Borda invented an optimally rational voting scheme. The so-called "Borda count"—in which each voter rates all candidates, giving 0 points to the least-favored, 1 to the next, and so on up to their preferred candidate—does get rid of many voting pathologies. For example, it eliminates cyclical preferences, in which the voters collectively prefer candidate A to B, candidate B to C, and candidate C to A. But it is susceptible to manipulation by insincere voters. "My scheme is only intended for honest men," said Monsieur Borda, with charming naivete. Perhaps that is why it is used only in New Zealand.

As for Woody Allen, I think you have a cultural obligation to pay your $7 (I paid $10 in Manhattan) to see Hollywood Ending. It is a good antidote to watching Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher performing fellatio and then vomiting. Besides, Allen should be rewarded for making a good film after the dreadful Celebrity, Small Time Crooks, and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. If it is a commercial bomb, he might just abandon New York for Paris (as his character does at the end of the new film). That is what Brian De Palma has done. Now residing in an apartment near the Avenue Kleber, De Palma tells gullible French journalists that Americans failed to appreciate the artistic nuances of films like The Bonfire of the Vanities and Mission to Mars. Why can't he just grin and admit he made a couple of stinkers?

As for the ghettos that ring Paris and other French cities, these have become a national obsession. Televised images of Chirac being spat on by Arab boys as he toured one project, and of presidential candidate Francois Bayrou being pickpocketed on camera while touring another (Bayrou turned around and slapped the kid), probably added a few hundred thousand voters to the Le Pen total. As bad as the French projects can be, they are superior to their American counterparts in that they at least have some landscaping and architectural merit. (The projects at Marne la Vallee, outside Paris, were designed by Ricardo Bofill and used as the set for the movie Brazil.) The only way France could happily assimilate its Arab population, I think, is through affirmative action. But the French won't buy that, because 1) they refuse to classify their citizens by race/ethnicity; and 2) they are fiercely meritocratic.

I rejoiced in yesterday's news that Phyllis Diller is finally quitting the Las Vegas stage at the age of 85. There is enough sadness in the world without Phyllis Diller performing into her 90s.


Jim Holt writes the "Egghead" column for Slate. He also writes for The New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine. Alexander Star is a writer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. This fall, he will begin editing the "Ideas" section of the Boston Globe.



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