Thursday, November 30, 2006

AP Silly Headline of the Day and AP Much-Less-Silly Headline of the Day

Army Scammed Into Buying Golf Balls

Man Allegedly Tries to Put Wife in Oven


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

We're Gonna Need a Bigger Budget

Admittedly, I'm a bit far behind on this one, but earlier this year Pajiba published its list of the 10 worst blockbusters of all time. And it's funny and smart. To take two examples:
Meet the Fockers may not represent the first time that two of the greatest actors of any generation -- Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro -- have shared screen time, but it’s certainly the worst, and that Barbra Streisand would trade in her Hollywood wattage for a role where she essentially plays Mrs. Roper with a psychology degree is just plain embarrassing.

Ultimately, not a single thing in Armageddon is emotionally honest, from the animal crackers to the melodramatic martyrdom. Bay’s close-ups of plaques honoring fallen Apollo astronauts are cheap echoes of a kind of nationalism he can never adequately sell; it’s almost like he wants to be Frank Capra, but he’s too cynical to know the difference between American sentiment and making a buck.
To narrow down the candidates, they used this chart of movies that have grossed more than $100 million at the domestic box office. It got me to thinking of my list, because I'd only seen three of their selections (Meet the Fockers, Titanic, and The Phantom Menace). So, without further ado, here are my selections, with only the top (or bottom) five ranked, with each film's box-office rank in parentheses.

Titanic (1)

The actual sinking of the ship provides a few thrilling moments and great visuals, but that doesn’t make up for the rest of the movie. One of the few times Kate Winslet couldn’t save something for me.

Twister (43)

I saw this with a few friends the night before our college graduation ceremony. A final exam in my toughest class couldn't have given me the kind of pounding headache the movie did.

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (65)

The first Austin Powers movie was funny (enough), but entirely because of the fish-out-of-water joke. In this sequel, though, the fish jumps back into the pool of the swinging ‘60s. Boredom ensues. Needless to say, I didn't see the additional sequel ("Goldmember"); you know the old adage inspired by the American movie industry: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me seventeen times, shame on me.

Back to the Future Part II

There are definitely worse movies (see below, for starters), but this one shattered my 15-year-old heart and taught me a hard lesson in how the world was capable of treating the things I loved. (I had a relatively cushy childhood.)

Vanilla Sky

Cameron Crowe has made some entertaining movies (Say Anything, Almost Famous). He's also used the silver screen the way a bad dog uses the new carpet. As he did in this case.

5. Hulk (192)

Ang Lee might as well have taken all of my vintage Hulk comic books, which represent one of the formative steps in my love of reading, piled them up in front of my eyes and set them on fire. In short, he made Hulk fans angry, and you wouldn't like us when we're angry.

4. Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (5)

It's bad enough that my generation feels compelled to go through life defending the pretty schlocky (in retrospect) original trilogy as if it were a work of total genius, but Lucas had to come back and spit in our faces. Sitting through this dull nightmare had only one thing to recommend it: It guaranteed I wouldn't sit through the next two.

3. The Break-Up (246)

This is easily one of the worst non-special effects/action/thriller movies I've ever paid to sit through. I might be ranking it so high just because my anger is fresh (it was the most recently released of all these choices), but I don't think so. In a world that's capable of producing scripts like The Philadelphia Story, Annie Hall, and Sideways, the writers of The Break-Up should be considered war criminals.

2. Forrest Gump (15)

I caught a few minutes of this on TV the other day, and it still amazes me that any sentient creature could take it seriously, much less so many sentient creatures. The fact that Hanks won an Oscar for it, instead of a Razzie, is a joke.

1. Con Air (339)

Taking into account all categories of suckitude -- comically bad plot twists, the differential between the talent of the cast and the humiliation of the material, and Nicolas Cage's accent -- this remains the worst movie I've seen in a theater. But it might be the reason I've avoided this kind of crap for the past nine years, so maybe I should be thankful. ... Nah.


There is the occasional good blockbuster, of course, so it's only fair to give you my favorite 10, too (only in order of box office rank, not my preference, and with much less commentary).

The Lord of the Rings trilogy (9, 13, 18)

All three movies were pretty high on the box office list, and I enjoyed all three, so I'll just combine them here. (The third was probably my least favorite; that last half hour was interminable...but it did provide fodder for some great MST-like riffing by my girlfriend's brother, who was with us, so there was that.)

Jaws (34)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (42)

Back to the Future (62)

Toy Story (77)

Saturday Night Fever (157)

Good Will Hunting (174)

The Godfather (185)

Doctor Zhivago (278)

The Graduate

And some honorable mentions. Some of these are guiltier pleasures than others, but I'll leave that for you to sort out (here's one hint: Mr. T) -- Monsters, Inc. (35), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (74), Grease (90), X-Men (130), The Silence of the Lambs (195), Rocky III (228), Terms of Endearment (292), Chicken Run (300), Kramer vs. Kramer (306), and Collateral (357)

So, feel free to visit the comments and let me (and my millions of international readers) know your favorite and least favorite blockbusters.


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Whatchoo Talkin' 'Bout, TV Land?

I can think of few people better qualified to tear into a list of the top 100 TV catch phrases than my old pal Jason over at the Bad Movie Club. And he does. If anything, he goes a bit easy on it (Jason can sometimes attack prey in a way that has him still flossing it out of his teeth months later). But I understand that -- it's a long, silly list, and rage is better saved up for more worthwhile targets.

As Jason points out, the list's crimes include the fact that a lot of entries aren't solid phrases. For instance, "heh heh" from Beavis and Butthead. If that's a phrase, technically, it's not a very satisfying one. It's more of a grunt. But it does give me an excuse to post a vintage clip from B&B:


Ohio State: Tops in hoops, football, and drunken futon accidents. . . . Instead of attending your high school reunion, would you rather just call out some of your ex-classmates' deep, dark secrets on a blog? If so, I have someone I'd like you to meet. . . . And now, a joke. This one transcribed from a performance by one of my favorite comedians, Todd Barry (it's a bit criminal to write one of his jokes, because his delivery is so important, but this is great anyway): "I saw this documentary on this band Fugazi...and they have a lot of integrity. They won't charge more than five bucks for their concerts. Five bucks! You know there's gotta be at least one guy in the band who ain't happy about this. The drummer is gonna snap at rehearsal and be like, 'Hey, fellas, can we stop a second? I had the craziest idea. How about...six bucks? Yeah, I was thinking that extra dollar times 800 people a night, times five shows a week, equals...I don't have a roommate when I'm 47.' "

'Tis the Season

In and Around Rockefeller Center, November 27

AP Headline of the Day

Driver Tries to Swallow Keys, Bites Cop

Monday, November 27, 2006

Remembrance of Horrible Lyrics Past

I guess it was late in 1991 when I first heard (and saw) the band Live on 120 Minutes. And despite the fact that the song was called "Operation Spirit (The Tyranny of Tradition)" and the album was called Mental Jewelry, I became a moderately admiring fan. I wish saying "Hey, it was the early 90s" explained things. It's truer to say that the band did a decent impression of the more earnest side of R.E.M., and that was pretty much all I needed at that time. The follow-up, Throwing Copper, continued to vocally and musically ape R.E.M. and U2 enough to make it enjoyable. So, having now, in the 21st century, allowed myself the dorky task of recreating much of my lifetime musical library with the help of iTunes, I went looking for my favorite songs off Throwing Copper to add to the tomb. And as much as they're not right up my alley anymore, they continue to they come from the alley across the street. We're not talking about Whitesnake levels of guilt here. We're not talking about the kind of guilt that makes one wish that one had never been a 13-year-old boy. The songs aren't that bad.

But I knew that at some point Live did become that bad -- that my natural move away from them was helped along by the band taking a massive turn for the worse. So I went one step further on my search, and took a (very) quick listen to some of Secret Samadhi -- the band's third album, and the one that couldn't be defended even by someone as stubbornly lame as me.

This brief trip into the past wouldn't have inspired a post, but my quest left me with something I always love sharing with you: terrible lyrics. Feast your eyes on a few of these...

From "Rattlesnake":
let's go hang out in a mall, or a morgue,
a smorgasbord
let's go hang out in a church
we'll go find Lurch

let's go hang out in a bar
it's not too far
we'll take my car
From "Graze":
people should not be afraid
the artist does figure eights
but will it stand the test of time
or will it rot like the mission that tried too hard
And finally, from "Century":
everybody's here
puke stinks like beer
this could be a city
this could be a graveyard
you stole my idea

everybody's anxious
for the coming of the crisis
the collapse of the justice
i can smell your armpits
you stole my idea
you stole my idea!
I'm pretty sure no one would be interested in stealing those "ideas."

I'm a big believer that what looks average on the page can be a good, smart lyric when interpreted by a singer, but this stuff is just awful, and nothing else on the record is any better. Of course, at this point I was 23, not 17, so I can't really pat myself on the back too hard for having realized at the time that it was trash.

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Perverted Rebellions TK

If, like I once did, you thought the aging hip had limits on how insufferable they would allow themselves to become, look no further than this article in the Times to join me on the next plateau of comprehension.

The story's got a great lead:
Casey Bonham Leto, age 5 months, wasn’t to blame. Neither were his parents. Right down to his rock ’n’ roll middle name -- a tribute to Led Zeppelin’s drummer, John Bonham -- everything had been done to bestow him with rock-kid credibility at the earliest possible age: On the floor of the puff-cheeked baby’s living room in Jersey City were toy guitars and a set of Metallica nesting dolls. On his powder-blue onesie pajamas, in gothic script, were the words "My crib rocks."
Let us take the opportunity, before we lose it, to simply pause for a silent moment and acknowledge the phrase "Metallica nesting dolls."

(Silent moment.)


Well, Casey's crib might rock, but his parents most evidently do not.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not above a little onesie signage. I even bought my nephew a onesie that says "I Might Barf."

(Yes, I'm done writing "onesie" now. I know it demeans all of us.)

But while I'm happy to poke fun at my nephew's gastrointestinal amateurism, I'm equally happy to concede that by the time he's listening to music with anything resembling individual taste, I will be an irrelevant dinosaur to him. I hope some of what I like will have stood the test of time, and that he'll enjoy it, but come on. Have these clueless yuppie parents learned nothing from their own experience? They were probably against authority as teens. Would they have looked kindly upon being culturally imprinted before they could control their own bowels?

Let kids have kid stuff. How hard is that? Metallica is not for kids, whether in nesting-doll form or otherwise. Kids like anything with a beat, not the Japanese noise rock you might listen to because it was the last outpost of cool that you hadn't colonized yet. Kids like characters made of felt who express some joy, not whatever impossibly dysfunctional troupe is traipsing its way through the Todd Solondz movie you just Netflixed. Hell, sometimes they just like styrofoam boxes.

In short, kids who haven't figured out how to walk aren't painfully self-conscious about defining themselves, unlike many parents of my generation, who remain this way alarmingly late in life. Toddlers aren't fashionably dejected and resigned to it. (There will be time for that.) They're not a cool site for you to bookmark, or a new band that no one else has heard. Pitchfork's not going to give your kid a 9.4.

My parents' record collection included Anne Murray and Johnny Mathis and Broadway show tunes. They got to the bus station too late for the rock revolution. No, strike that. I'm not convinced that's true. I think they may have chosen to stand on the curb shaking their fists in the air while the rock revolution drove by and spattered them head to toe in mud. They think even the most melodic rock band is "noise," and I'm pretty sure my father still thinks the Rolling Stones (who are damn near his age) are considered cutting-edge. And on some level, I can understand my parents' musical development. When they were young, rock was tied up in notions of radical social change, which I find ridiculous, being cranky and anti-utopian way before my time.

I was lucky to fall in love with popular music at a time when it could be fashionable in a different way -- a nerdy, asocial (not antisocial) way. I wanted my relationship to music to resemble my relationship to books, and I consider myself lucky that my teen years were spent trying to figure out what Michael Stipe was saying, not taking the brown acid and thinking it would somehow correct the world's course. It allows me to feel less shame. Not much less, but less.

Now, though, even that (quieter) entry point to rock's charms has been around for some time, and kids will find a way to rebel against it, especially if their parents are crowing about it being part of the curriculum. Kids are smart that way. I console myself with the fact that children raised by parents who want them to be cool will almost undoubtedly pay the effort back double with perverted, unimagined rebellions:
"We’re undergoing a change in what it means to be a traditional parent," said Mr. Salem. "But I read somewhere that the fastest way to turn your kid into a Republican is to dress him up in a Sex Pistols T-shirt. That’s probably true."

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Saturday, November 25, 2006

I'm Tall, I'm Thin, I Like Spicy Tea.

At the risk of turning this place into Overheard in New York, I give you this gem from Starbucks today, starring me (in a silent role) and a pack of disaffected teenagers:
Disaffected Teen #1: "What are you gonna get?"
Disaffected Teen #2: "I think I got a chai."
Disaffected Teen #3: "Chai is gay, dude."
Starbucks Barrista, placing my order on the pick-up table: "Grande Chai Latte!"

Friday, November 24, 2006

Not So Tenacious

Once again, please join me over on Pajiba:
Tenacious D originally appealed because it was dumb-but-smart. Here, it’s just dumb. This movie makes Wayne’s World look like Doctor Zhivago.

The Holiday Spirit, New York Style

I'll spare you the full context, but I think you'll get the gist. This is what I heard getting onto a very crowded Long Island Railroad train at about noon on Thanksgiving:
Older woman: Do you have to stand right there in the doorway?
Beefy guy: I've been standing here for 30 minutes.
Older woman: Jerk.
Beefy guy #2: Wow. We were all smiling before you got on. Happy Thanksgiving.
Random voice rising from the crowd: God, I should've gotten out of New York years ago.
Beefy guy #2's girlfriend: It's not New York. I hate the people.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Gobble Gobble

I'm not shutting down for the holiday, but things will probably be quieter than usual around here until Sunday night or so. I'll put up the occasional post, but not my usual Herculean output (you people owe me so, so much).

Today, I've put up some material from Dorothy Parker and Zadie Smith, who are vastly more insightful and entertaining than I could ever hope to be, so enjoy them. And, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

Getting to Know Mrs. Parker

One of the most equally joyful and frustrating things about being a reader is the sense that you can't get to everything. I imagine if you had the time, you could hear enough music or watch the number of movies necessary to feel like you had something approaching a comprehensive knowledge of your areas of interest in those media. But even if I devoted myself to reading for every hour of the rest of my life (which is impossible, of course, because of the occasional need to blog, or socialize, or watch a big North Carolina basketball game), I don't think I'd get to all the things I badly want to read.

Sometimes a new literary interest presents itself because someone you've been content to know as an iconic thumbnail sketch peeks up and says, "I was more than this, you rube." I have a feeling that's about to happen with Dorothy Parker. The other day, while writing this silly post, I needed to find something pithy, so I immediately Googled her quotations. This is what I mean by a thumbnail sketch -- I know enough about her life and work, generally, to throw her into a conversation or to seek her out for "pithy," but my specific knowledge is sorely lacking.

It wasn't finding the quotation, though, that spurred my interest. It was a second run-in with her (it's often this additional, coincidental prod that gets us moving in a direction, no?) Yesterday, I picked up a book of collected Paris Review interviews, the first of which is with Parker (from 1956). It includes some of the best stuff I've read in a while, and it sent me running to the cash register.

So, some excerpts for you. To begin, here she is on her first job, at Vogue:
I wrote captions. "This little pink dress will win you a beau," that sort of thing. Funny, they were plain women working at Vogue, not chic. They were decent, nice women -- the nicest women I ever met -- but they had no business on such a magazine. They wore funny little bonnets and in the pages of their magazine they virginized the models from tough babes into exquisite little loves. Now the editors are what they should be: all chic and worldly; most of the models are out of the mind of a Bram Stoker, and as for the caption writers -- my old job -- they're recommending mink covers at seventy-five dollars apiece for the wooden ends of golf clubs "--for the friend who has everything." Civilization is coming to an end, you understand.
On her early writing life:
I fell into writing, I suppose, being one of those awful children who wrote verses. I went to a convent in New York -- the Blessed Sacrament. Convents do the same things progressive schools do, only they don't know it. They don't teach you how to read; you have to find out for yourself. ... But as for helping me in the outside world, the convent taught me only that if you spit on a pencil eraser it will erase ink. And I remember the smell of oilcloth, the smell of nuns' garb. I was fired from there, finally, for a lot of things, among them my insistence that the Immaculate Conception was spontaneous combustion.
She's also good with an anecdote, as you might imagine. Here she is on Harold Ross, the editor of The New Yorker:
He was a professional lunatic, but I don't know if he was a great man. He had a profound ignorance. On one of Mr. Benchley's manuscripts he wrote in the margin opposite "Andromache," "Who he?" Mr. Benchley wrote back, "You keep out of this."

Thus Spake Zadie

I'm not very nationalistic, but there are certain artists who I weirdly wish were American, just because of how well they would reflect on us. One of these people is Zadie Smith. But of course, then she wouldn't have that great accent.

Smith's not only a terrific writer (if you're not hooked by the opening pages of White Teeth, seek help), but she's always eloquent, incisive, and charmingly self-effacing when she speaks.

I strongly recommend taking the time to listen to this interview with her (which I found via The Stranger).

My computer opens the file with a player that doesn't allow me to skip around within the program, so I can't easily transcribe some of my favorite parts, but they include a brilliant take on reading as analogous to amateur musicianship and a distrust of the notion that political affiliation is the most important or useful way to differentiate people.

One caveat: She's interviewed by Michael Silverblatt, who has evidently been praised by people like Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer. Still, he has (here, at least) that kind of smarmy, interfering tone that causes cultural interviewers to be parodied so easily. You have to make it past him (particularly the way he steps on Smith's analysis of David Foster Wallace, which I really wanted to hear without interruption), but trust me: Listen to the whole thing anyway.


Not-so-breaking news: George Saunders is funny. . . . My heart always sings when this happens. . . . I think it's fairly obvious that religion's not going anywhere in the immediate future, but this article includes a funny riff by physicist Steven Weinberg, who imagines religion as an old, eccentric aunt: “She tells lies, and she stirs up all sorts of mischief and she’s getting on, and she may not have that much life left in her, but she was beautiful once,” he lamented. “When she’s gone, we may miss her.”

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Market Faith

More from me when I have something to say. For now, I'll continue my reliance on other people. When those people are as smart as Richard Posner, the aforementioned reliance is probably all for the best. Here, from the blog he shares with Gary Becker, is Posner's take on the influential and recently deceased economist Milton Friedman:
I mention this example because I find slightly off-putting what I sensed to be a dogmatic streak in Milton Friedman. I think his belief in the superior efficiency of free markets to government as a means of resource allocation, though fruitful and largely correct, was embraced by him as an article of faith and not merely as a hypothesis. I think he considered it almost a personal affront that the Scandinavian nations, particularly Sweden, could achieve and maintain very high levels of economic output despite very high rates of taxation, an enormous public sector, and extensive wealth redistribution resulting in much greater economic equality than in the United States. I don't think his analytic apparatus could explain such an anomaly.

I also think that Friedman, again more as a matter of faith than of science, exaggerated the correlation between economic and political freedom. A country can be highly productive though it has an authoritarian political system, as in China, or democratic and impoverished, as was true for the first half century or so of India's democracy and remains true to a considerable extent, since India remains extremely poor though it has a large and thriving middle class--an expanding island in the sea of misery. What is true is that commercial values are in tension with aristocratic and militaristic values that support authoritarian government, and also that as people become economically independent they are less subservient, and so less willing to submit to control by politicians; and also that they become more concerned with the protection of property rights, which authoritarian government threatens. But Friedman seemed to share Friedrich Hayek's extreme and inaccurate view that socialism of the sort that Britain embraced under the old Labour Party was incompatible with democracy, and I don't think that there is a good theoretical or empirical basis for that view.
(Via, in a roundabout way, Cosmic Variance)

Monday, November 20, 2006

Co-AP Headline of the Day

Gingerbread Nazi Art Display Is Too Much

A Lose-Lose Problem

George Packer talks (grim) sense in this week's New Yorker. Read the whole thing (it's not long), but if not, here's the gist in four excerpts:
What America will gain in return for leaving Iraq, according to Murtha and other Democrats, will be the holy grail of realism: stability. "They have more confidence in their people than they do in ours," Murtha said of the Iraqis. "And I’m convinced there’ll be more stability, less chaos." Former Senator George S. McGovern recently laid out a plan, in an essay he co-wrote in Harper’s, that amounts to a series of non sequiturs: American withdrawal, followed by the evaporation of the insurgency, followed by an influx of foreign police, followed by American-funded reconstruction.

It is true that the presence of American troops is a source of great tension and violence in Iraq, and that overwhelming numbers of Iraqis want them to leave. But it is also true that wherever American troop levels have been reduced—in Falluja and Mosul in 2004, in Tal Afar in 2005, in Baghdad in 2006—security has deteriorated.

The argument that Iraq would be better off on its own is a self-serving illusion that seems to offer Americans a win-win solution to a lose-lose problem. Like so much about this war, it has more to do with politics here than reality there.

We may have to accept that the disintegration of Iraq is irreversible and America’s last remaining interest will be to leave. If so, we shouldn’t deepen the insult by pretending that we’re doing the Iraqis a favor. Even realism has an obligation to be realistic.
The issue also sports a somewhat depressing (but pretty) Thanksgiving-themed cover by Chris Ware:

Critics vs. Pynchon

Well, the first two major reviews of Thomas Pynchon's new novel are in (probably the most major, given the venues), and they're not kind.

First, Michiko in the Times:
Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, "Against the Day," reads like the sort of imitation of a Thomas Pynchon novel that a dogged but ungainly fan of this author’s might have written on quaaludes. It is a humongous, bloated jigsaw puzzle of a story, pretentious without being provocative, elliptical without being illuminating, complicated without being rewardingly complex.
And Mr. Menand in The New Yorker:
Thomas Pynchon is the apostle of imperfection, so it is arguably some sort of commendation to say that his new novel, "Against the Day," is a very imperfect book. Imperfect not in the sense of "Ambitious but flawed." Imperfect in the sense of "What was he thinking?" . . . Elaborately imagined characters and incidents, from a man who may or may not be transformed into a jelly doughnut to a city beneath the desert and a near-death experience in a mayonnaise factory, pop up and disappear after a few pages, so many raisins in the enormous loaf.

AP Headline of the Day

O.J. Simpson's Book and TV Specials Are Canceled

See? Sometimes common sense and decency prevail. They just need a little push from, you know, several days of national outrage.

Bus Karma

I was very entertained by this Jack Shafer piece on Slate when I read it last week (and it seems I wasn't the only one), but yeah, the timing could've been better. Damn.

Chain Chain Chain

In the new Atlantic Monthly (which isn’t online quite yet), Virginia Postrel has a short essay buried near the back called “In Praise of Chain Stores.”

She doesn’t have to do much to convince me. I’ve always been a bit confused by those who most adamantly hate chains. I guess there are two major arguments -- aesthetics and utility.

Aesthetically, I don’t think chains can overwhelm the environment they’re in. As Postrel writes, “Stores don’t give places their character. Terrain and weather and culture do.”

In Dallas, where I used to live (and where Postrel currently lives, if I’m not mistaken), it would take more than just the eradication of chains to alter the character of the place. There’s a stretch of Sixth Avenue in New York, in the teens and lower 20s, that includes an Old Navy, Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, and Bed, Bath & Beyond, not to mention other chain stores. But walking down the street, you wouldn’t be fooled into thinking you were in Dallas. Likewise, there are strip malls in Dallas that don’t just have chains -- they have local laundromats, stationery stores, etc. -- but they still feel a bit distant and sterile. In New York, you don’t have to drive to those places, so they’re arranged in a way that looks different, but the essential difference between the places remains one defined by driving vs. walking, not by some division of our relationship to shopping. New Yorkers experience community in another, more tightly packed way, but they aren’t somehow above materialism (ha ha) just because they partake of it in a way that’s landscaped differently.

As for utility, I still think chains, like most anything else, have to live or die based on their quality. Look at Blockbuster. I don’t know the business it’s currently doing, but I imagine it’s not overly impressive. Even in the 1990s, before the advent of Netflix and widespread on-demand services, Blockbuster’s stock left a lot to be desired. But chains that stay strong and well-supplied -- like B&N -- get no grief from me. Well, that’s not entirely true, but the less positive influences that behemoths like that can have on their industry are counterbalanced by the problems that would exist if they went under. I worked at a Borders store for a few months once, and I thought its stock was the best in Dallas. Without it, before and after I worked there, my browsing life would have been much poorer.

I’m not incapable of seeing the more insidious trends brought about by chains, but overall I’m a fan. And I haven’t even mentioned Denny’s yet.

To wrap this up, here's Postrel on how a lot of anti-chain sentiment doesn't take into account the benefits for people on the ground:
People who mostly stay put get to have experiences once available only to frequent travelers, and this loss of exclusivity is one reason why frequent travelers are the ones who complain. When Borders was a unique Ann Arbor institution, people in places like Chandler (Arizona) -- or, for that matter, Philadelphia and Los Angeles -- didn’t have much in the way of bookstores. Back in 1986, when California Pizza Kitchen was an innovative local restaurant about to open its second location, food writers at the L.A. Daily News declared it “the kind of place every neighborhood should have.” So what’s wrong if the country has 158 neighborhood CPKs instead of one or two?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Five Songs, Chapter Fifteen

I talked to a friend today about the logistics of putting up longer sound files, something like a podcast, but I'm not sure if it would technically be a podcast. I'd like to eventually post hourlong blocks of songs up here, fulfilling one of my lifelong dreams: to be a DJ. (Other lifelong dreams include owning a house with a screened-in porch, writing a novel, and becoming comfortable inside my own skin.)

For now, more words about songs:

"Revelator" by Gillian Welch

Late this past summer, I listened to this song with a few people outside a friend's cabin in the middle of nowhere in upstate New York. It was dark, the night was getting cold, and there was a decent-sized fire going. The song was playing from someone's car, since there's no electricity on the premises. Anyway, that's a very nice way to hear this song, but I'd recommend it in just about any setting. Except maybe halftime of a big football game. Not the right vibe.

"Don't Talk" by 10,000 Maniacs (Unplugged version)

A friend in college really liked this song, and despite the fact that I was a fan of the band, I wasn't crazy about it. Then I heard this version, and bingo.

"I Got Stripes" by Johnny Cash

The Folsom Prison version. A short little burst of a song about an inmate, sung to a bunch of applauding, whistling, very appreciative inmates. Good times.

"See A Little Light" by Bob Mould

If you know of a better-constructed pop song, please let me know.

"Back in Black" by AC/DC

There's your song for halftime.


Saturday, November 18, 2006

For Your Consideration

My second movie review for the boys over at Pajiba has been posted here.

They've also posted a brilliant review of the new James Bond movie.

How People Are Finding Me

I promise this blog won't become exclusively about analyzing its own traffic. But I can't promise it won't become partly about that, because it turns out the "site meter" offers levels of information that are pretty entertaining. I think you'll agree after reading this post.

One thing I can do now is find out what Google searches have ended up bringing people to the site. This is anonymous, of course -- if I was actually seeing who was conducting each search, I'd feel really creepy about it. (I'd still do it, but I'd feel creepy.)

Anyway, here are two of the most recent phrases entered into Google that pulled up my site, among others:
"does Lauren Bacall think she's pretty?"

"fear of octopuses"
I'm sure the people searching for those things didn't stay here long. If they did, for some reason, I hope they stick around despite the fact that Bacall and octopuses are, at best, only occasional subjects.

Friday, November 17, 2006

A Night at the Movies

I finally got around to seeing Little Miss Sunshine last night. It's easy to see why it was this year's word-of-mouth success. Despite an unforgivable screwball plot twist halfway through and some formulaic indie quirkiness throughout, it's charming, easily digestible (in a good way), and often very funny. The cast is phenomenal, too. Steve Carell is subtle and great, Toni Collette is reliable as ever, Greg Kinnear makes a potential jerk pretty sympathetic, Paul Dano manages to make a character vivid without speaking, and Alan Arkin is as funny as he was in Grosse Pointe Blank, but he gets more screen time here.

It's ten-year-old Abigail Breslin as Olive, though, who steals the show. The movie's most definitely a comedy, but there were two or three scenes where Breslin had me crying, and I'm not a big crier at the movies. It's the best performance by a child actor in many, many years. In fact, I see no reason why she shouldn't be nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

But that movie's old news, so I won't dwell on it. Let's dwell on the future, shall we? A future of dilapidated barns, presumably on other planets, watched over by Billy Bob Thornton. In an astronaut suit. On a horse.

Perhaps funnier than anything in Little Miss Sunshine (and that's saying something) was this movie poster, which I saw on my way into the theater (click on image to enlarge):


Thursday, November 16, 2006

Traffic Cop

I finally caved into the part of my ego that likes to be beaten to a pulp and posted a traffic meter on the blog. I was curious. And yep: it's just me.

Hi, me.

No, there seem to be a few of you out there, though possibly the same dozen people hitting refresh several times a day (I'm not really sure how the technology works).

So I suppose now it's time to focus on "building traffic." Ah, here are some friendly tips. Let's take a look at a few of them:

1. Use lists.

1. Done and
2. Done.

8. Announce news.

OK. The Dow finished up more than 54 points today. Milton Friedman died. The Pentagon has changed its classification of homosexuality from something like mental retardation to something like bed-wetting. (I guess they're saying that's better.)

You guys can't get that stuff anywhere else, right?

9. Write short, pithy posts.

"If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn't be a bit surprised." --Dorothy Parker

11. Don't write about your cat, your boyfriend or your kids.

Man, traffic-building is easy. I hate cats, I'm straight, and I can barely support myself, much less children.

13. Write about your kids.

I left out his Rule 12: Place contradictory pieces of advice within an eighth of an inch of each other.

15. Be sycophantic. Share linklove and expect some back.

OK, time to step up to the plate ESPN, Time, and YouTube. Love's a two-way street.

18. Coin a term or two.

Branky. Tarpulent.

21. Use photos. Salacious ones are best.

Easy enough:

22. Be anonymous.

Well, the horse has probably left the barn on this one.

27. Include comments so your blog becomes a virtual water cooler that feeds itself.

I still get a few comments, but I'm not sure the volume's large enough to count as one of those big water coolers. I like to think of them more as a can of Sprite that all of us have to share.

30. Point to useful but little-known resources.

Here you go.

35. Dress your blog (fonts and design) as well as you would dress yourself for a meeting with a stranger.

This one's just kind of creepy.

44. Don't interrupt your writing with a lot of links.

Once I figured out the link technology, I found this increasingly hard to do, but I'll give it another shot if he really thinks it will help.

46. Edit yourself. Ruthlessly.

This post got through the self-censor somehow, but otherwise I think I'm decent at this.

48. Be patient.

(tapping fingers)

(checking watch)



Bright (and Blue) Lights, Big City

AP Headlines That Tell a Story of the Day

Old People Dying From Falls More Often

New Factory for Preserving Corpses Opens

"Continue stocking!"

Readers, please meet Chad Vader, a dayshift manager at a grocery store who has the powers of Darth Vader but not the confidence to properly wield them. I think this is really funny. Considering that it's been viewed more than 440,000 times on YouTube, you may have seen it already, but I just discovered it (through Pop Candy). If you like it, there are more episodes in the series (about five minutes each) posted here.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Little Children

This is a much-delayed, tepidly felt, hastily written review of Little Children. Sound good? Let's go...

I read the book a few years ago, and despite being hyped by some reviewers as literary on the level of Flaubert, I found it pretty bland. There was nothing offensively bad about it (I know and respect several Tom Perrotta fans), but there wasn't a single sentence or paragraph I would have marked in order to one day find my way back to it. It read, in many ways, like a fleshed-out screenplay, so the existence of the movie isn't shocking.

The movie (which Perrotta helped write) has it all over the book, though a couple of glaring flaws keep it from soaring. It's sumptuously filmed, capturing suburbia in a slightly satiric way, but more interested in expertly capturing actual details (the change in the air before a thunderstorm, the distant sound of crickets at dusk that accompanies the power-walking conversation of two women in the middle of the street) than in turning the locale into a parody of itself. (I'm sure it's not, but wouldn't it be great if the lazy genre of Suburban Cartoonery was dead?)

OK, so it's sumptuous. As are its actors. You know you're dealing with a seriously attractive cast when Jennifer Connelly is playing the wife who’s being ignored. She’s being neglected for Kate Winslet, who everyone seems to agree you can find attractive while feeling virtuous, even though she is, empirically, hot.

Like the book, the movie suffers from fairly shallow themes (prosperous-but-vaguely-dissatisfied modern adults banging into each other, metaphorically and, in the case of one scene on a washing machine, not so metaphorically). Those themes are easier to put over in the movies, I think, with the right cinematography and the right talent, but while Little Children has both of those in spades, it’s saddled with one terrible choice, which is a third-person voice-over that occasionally narrates the action as if it were a novel.

This technique goes from annoyingly unnecessary (in the early scenes when Winslet meets Brad, the male lead played by Patrick Wilson) to actively problematic (it swoops in to annotate and destroy the more-than-sufficient work of the actors after a great moment in which Connelly begins to suss out what’s going on) to ludicrously bad (in the very final minute or two, which would make a list of the worst closing moments I’ve ever seen).

The second flaw is also a strength -- a subplot involving Ronald James McGorvey, a man recently released from prison (he served time for exposing himself to a minor), who moves in with his elderly mother in the neighborhood and is treated with grave suspicion by fearful local parents, and routinely harassed on a much more severe level by one man in particular.

That strand is a strength because both McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley) and his mother (Phyllis Somerville) are terrific, but the lessons it forces the characters to learn are heavy-handed. It’s indicative of the movie’s larger problem -- well acted, well shot, sometimes well written but essentially content to keep its characters two-dimensional, it devolves into a compressed series of pat epiphanies.


AP Headline of the Day

Three in Deep Guacamole in Avocado Case

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


You know, if they weren't going to convict O.J., the next best thing would have been to ban him from ever speaking in public again. . . . The discussion about Iraq doesn't get easier because of last Tuesday (see this brief post and the many comments that it spawned). . . . Speaking of last Tuesday, here's a fresh take on the proceedings. . . .The world could use more pieces like this one, for real:
The chapter check-lists the elements of a definitive bus-plunge story: Plunge should appear in the hed; the piece should be only a couple of sentences long; and it should "include the number feared dead, the identity of any group on board"—a soccer team, church choir, or students—"as well as the distance of the plunge from the capital city." The words ravine or gorge should appear.

Standing in the Path of the Bandwagon

I'll preface this by saying that I consider myself something of a comedy geek, and beyond that, it's almost impossible that I would fail to find something funny simply because it's offensive. I've obsessively hit all the major milestones, from Monty Python to The Simpsons to Mr. Show to Arrested Development and lots in between. I spend too much time searching for this stuff. But I've seen several clips of Borat on YouTube and elsewhere, and I just don't understand the raging appeal. In fact, I sort of can't imagine sitting through a feature-length movie. I understand what's supposed to be clever about it, and it's not that it makes me uncomfortable; it's just that I don't find asking a stranger to urgently use his bathroom funny, much less some kind of incisive commentary about the stranger. I also don't think there's anything revelatory about discovering that certain drunken frat guys will say misogynistic and racist things.

The whole thing seems to operate on two levels, both of which seem silly (and not in the good way) -- the scatological level, and the "pretending to act shocked at human behavior" level. Poo! And oh -- Borat has opened my eyes to the dark heart of people!

To me, making philosophical fools of yourself and others for laughs isn't all that different from inflicting physical harm on yourself, like the Jackass crew does, and not many people are analyzing what deeper lessons their antics teach us about the world. Not that it can't be occasionally funny, but in both cases it's mostly a feat of bravery, a kind of comic Fear Factor.

Christopher Hitchens has this to say on Slate today:
I knew this would happen. I pick up my copy of the New Statesman, London's leftist weekly, to find a review of Borat, bannered on the table of contents as "Sacha Baron Cohen's exposure of crass Americana" and on the review page itself with, "The Kazakh ace reporter uncovers uncomfortable truths about the US."

Oh, come on. Among the "cultural learnings of America for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan" is the discovery that Americans are almost pedantic in their hospitality and politesse. At a formal dinner in Birmingham, Ala., the guests discuss Borat while he's out of the room—-filling a bag with ordure in order to bring it back to the table, as it happens-—and agree what a nice young American he might make. And this is after he has called one guest a retard and grossly insulted the wife of another (and remember, it's "Americana" that is "crass"). ... The arrival of a mountainous black hooker does admittedly put an end to the evening, but if a swarthy stranger had pulled any of the foregoing at a liberal dinner party in England, I wouldn't give much for his chances.
And since almost nothing is less entertaining than dissecting comedy, I'll shut up now. Meanwhile, the kids over at Gawker are celebrating a recent Borat beat-down.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Humanoid Underground Dweller

I think I may have inadvertently created the perfect discordant experience earlier tonight. I was coming home from work, listening to the Allman Brothers. This alone is rare. The Allman Brothers recorded many, many songs, of which I have exactly two on my iPod (of the 5,814 songs I currently have on there; and no, that number isn’t my usual exaggeration for comical non-effect, it’s just the real number). The songs are “Melissa” and “Jessica,” and I only ever really listen to the former.

But this time, I was listening to “Jessica,” mostly because after staying at work until 8:00, wrestling with demonic Xerox machines when everyone else had been sensible enough to leave for home or perhaps to have minor surgery performed, I was too tired to pull the listening device out of my coat pocket and switch to a song that better suited my mood. If you’re not familiar with “Jessica,” it’s a long(ish), noodling, airy instrumental, with a main guitar figure that is arguably the perfect soundtrack for carefree motion. It could easily and appropriately accompany any of the following activities: driving on an open highway during a bright spring day; running after a frisbee between courses of a picnic in a park; running full stride among a pack of large, happy dogs.

What it does not appropriately accompany, and what made its presence so perversely enjoyable tonight, is sitting on the E train, with its doors open at the Penn Station stop, surrounded by glum, fallen faces like so many broken lamps.

In my search to locate the nexus of my recent (OK, yearlong) ennui, I’ve alighted on the subway. In its way, of course, it’s a marvel. It keeps me from making any kind of car payment, it is (despite the maddening exceptions) fairly reliable, and it is the world’s most dependable designated driver. (You never see the D train off in the corner doing a kegstand after it promised to be your ride home.)

But the commute (about 45 minutes each way every weekday) is taking its toll. Or, as a good friend who was in the city freelancing last week put it to me over lunch, with a smile on his face, “Yeah, I think if I’d been making that commute for the last five years, I would have killed myself by now.” Thanks, JF.

It’s been almost six years, actually.

For some reason, the approaching winter always makes the train population seem that much more...gross. People are splayed all over each other, children piled on top of children, the bass of neighboring headphones seems louder, the ching-ching of cell-phone video games replicates the noise of a Vegas casino floor, even the rats on the tracks seem more put out.

Tonight, on the D, there was a guy sitting in the far corner of the car. I think it was a guy. He was wearing a too-small knit cap pulled tight over his head, his bottom lip drooping down at a remarkable angle even for the sad sacks of Gotham, and he looked legitimately lost more than sad or hungry. He was of indeterminable ethnicity, and very small. If I had to guess, and I'm not joking, I'd say he was a Sherpa who had made a wrong turn somewhere west of Nepal. He was one of these people you see sometimes in the city, and I honestly don’t mean this to be needlessly cruel -- he didn’t appear nearly as destitute as many here do -- who seemed literally out of place, like someone was taking care of him and thought, “Hell, we’ll just throw him on a subway train in New York. No one will think it’s that weird.”

Normally they'd be right. But I’m starting to think things are that weird again. Can’t tell if this is a sign to leave, or a sign that it’s too late -- that I’d look to residents of other places much like that guy looked to me.

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General Cheese Grater Moxie

It's not rare to get the feeling that the kids over at Pitchfork are doing their best to carry on the legacy of Robert Christgau (meaning, the legacy of writing paragraph-long sentences that appear to be composed of words randomly chosen from a hat). Granted, I'm rapidly aging, so I need those kids, from time to time, to keep up with what's going on out there. But really. In just over 400 words (which makes this kind of impressive, really), today's review of a band called Annuals manages to unleash these three brain-melters:
The disco-waltz "Complete or Completing" submerges into a Steely Dan tide, then locks into a chant-groove that is triumphantly resumed on album closer "Sway", which dips the last few years of indie-rock's most-soiled dishes into a Ladysmith Black Mambazo rinse.

"Brother" is the album's riotous, massive standout, but almost everything's impressive: The purposeful shuffle of "Mama", the blurping bits of "Ida, My" that are as biomechanical as H.R. Giger's alien design, the general unforcedness, the open-air funhouse moxie, etc.

Even as these songs synthesize tones I thought I might never hear together-- those of Emerson Lake & Palmer, The Sea & Cake, and Ipecac's roster-- without licking Mars Volta's cheese grater, they ultimately upstage themselves.
I don't know if this review makes me want to buy the album, but it certainly produces a craving for Aspirin.

Progress in Disease Control, Not So Much in Spelling

For those of you, like our president, who believe in "competing theories" of certain scientific facts, perhaps you would have liked to live in the nineteenth century. I doubt it. Here's Steven Shapin, in last week's New Yorker, reviewing Steven Johnson's new book The Ghost Map, about the cholera epidemic in London:
At the time, the idea that cholera might be transmitted by a waterborne poison ran against the grain of medical opinion. Disease was not generally viewed as a "thing" -- a specific pathological entity caused by a specific external agency. Instead, it was common to suppose that diseases reflected an imbalance of the four humors (blood, phlegm, and yellow and black bile), an imbalance ascribed to a large range of behaviors and environmental factors. Moreover, epidemic disease -- literally, disease coming "upon the people" -- was then widely ascribed not to contagion but to atmospheric "miasmas." In the seventeenth century, the great English physician Thomas Sydenham had introduced the notion of an "epidemic constitution of the atmosphere." Something had contaminated the local air (possibly, he thought, noxious effluvia from "the bowels of the earth") in a way that unbalanced the humors. The occasional appearance of these effluvia accounted for the intermittent character of epidemic disease. The miasmal theory remained medical orthodoxy for about two centuries. ... The fact that the poor suffered most in many epidemics was readily accommodated by the miasmal theory: certain people -- those who lived in areas where the atmosphere was manifestly contaminated and who led a filthy and unwholesome way of life -- were "predisposed" to be afflicted.
That issue of the magazine also included a terrific piece about Noah Webster (Mr. Dictionary) by Jill Lepore. Speaking of our president, how's this for the-more-things-change...?
By the time Webster's massive, two-volume "American Dictionary of the American Language" was printed, in 1828, the Federalist Party was dead. So was almost everyone Webster had known in his youth, or even his middle age. Republicans from Virginia -- Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe -- had run the country for a quarter century. Republicanism was so ascendant that Andrew Jackson, who was not only a champion of the common man but also a notoriously bad speller (he spelled "government" with one "n"), had just been elected to President.

"Great faith in institutional absurdity."

Dan Carlson over at Slowly Going Bald points out a funny exchange between Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Rolling Stone magazine. It recalls a point I tried to make here, many moons ago.
RS: Your show has thrived during the Bush administration. Will you miss it?

I remember people used to say, "What are you gonna do when Clinton leaves?" And I'd say, "I'm really OK not having to make another intern blowjob joke in my life." And it'll be the same with these guys. I'd much prefer these guys to leave than to have to continue to make Lord Vader jokes about Cheney. I have great faith in institutional absurdity.

RS: But wouldn't, say, a President Obama be harder to make fun of than these guys?

STEWART: Are you kidding?

COLBERT and STEWART in unison:
His dad was a goat-herder!

STEWART: I'd rather make fun of somebody who is wearing their humble beginnings on their sleeve than somebody who has created a situation where casualties are involved. So the idea that somehow it's easier now -— it's not. Because right now it is a comic box lined with sadness.

Two Quick Questions...

...inspired by listening to the music in a pizza joint tonight.

1. When people first heard "True" by Spandau Ballet, do you think they said, "Oh, those guys are just ripping off Tears for Fears"? Because it hit me tonight, for the first time: that might have been what they were doing.

2. If you hear someone cover and butcher a good song, but then the good version is the one that sticks in your head after you hear it, should you be mad at that person? I wondered this after listening to Rod Stewart damn near euthanize CCR's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain."

(No, Rod wasn't performing in the pizza joint, but I imagine such gigs are not far off for him... Tonight at Joe's Pizza on 4th Avenue: Rod Stewart sings the Steve Perry songbook!)

OK, I guess a third question presents itself, this one not music-related:

3. Should I be concerned that my diet at this point is a solid fifty percent pepperoni?

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Swords vs. Machine Guns

(above, American flags in Rockefeller Center last Tuesday night)

I'll just say, for now, that I remain a political doubter. Being an existentialist (see: somewhere not too far below), I firmly believe that the most we can do is struggle to wade through the muck of human motivation and action. I've yet to come across a better summary of my broadest opinion than this passage from The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus, which I read in college: "If I see a man armed only with a sword attack a group of machine guns, I shall consider his act to be absurd. But it is so solely by virtue of the disproportion between his intention and the reality he will encounter, of the contradiction I notice between his true strength and the aim he has in view."

It's sad but true to say that I see that disproportion in many areas of life, both in mundane activities and grand schemes. I agree with many that this administration has been shameful. My greatest initial disappointment was not with the decision to go to war -- a decision I tepidly supported, perhaps partly because of the fog September 11 left me in, but for less hazy reasons as well -- but with the lack of eloquence in talking to us about that war as it unfolded. Early on, I satisfied myself with Tony Blair’s ability to speak to what was at stake. As time wore on, though, our country’s highest leaders went from just frustratingly inarticulate to arrogantly obscurant.

If he were capable of communicating his policies on even the simplest level or expressing even a shred of humility or accountability, I could manage some empathy for President Bush. After all, even among those who debate whether he’s the worst we’ve ever had, there’s very little discussion of context. The events of 2001 certainly made this one of the toughest moments in our history to be president. Not tougher than Lincoln’s time, but in some ways tougher than Roosevelt’s, because World War II was fought between clearly defined nations in a time of far less postmodern cynicism, with no fear of escalating weapons technology falling into the hands of the equivalent of Timothy McVeigh. In short, the current problems we face (even leaving aside the very large issue of Iraq and focusing on the problems that we faced before the invasion) are not new in nature, but almost certainly new in scale.

I still give little credit to theories about us having gone to war solely on behalf of certain corporations (as my father sometimes says, my cynicism has its limits), and I still maintain that the larger failures of the venture do more damage to idealistic liberal notions than to any traditional conservative theory. (We are only at war in Iraq now to the degree that Iraqis are at war with each other, and to see so many liberals essentially doubting the inherent ability of that country to manage itself -- and it’s hard to argue -- is a startling turnaround, philosophically.)

Mostly, the recent election proved little to me other than that Americans tend to be centrist and materialist at the end of the day, and to correct any very strong swings in ideological directions. (This is something I’ve been telling friends here for years, but some of them have a hard time realizing that even the most conservative strongholds in the U.S. are not easily drawn away from the center of debates, much less states with large moderate-to-liberal populations, of which there are many. That reality doesn’t jibe with the attitude many here like to have that they’re somehow holding up the pillars of civilization against the mouth-foaming insanity of the rest of the country.)

I’m happiest that we’ll now have divided government, because I think the majority opinions of the country -- especially in the younger generations -- are not reflected by the likes of Rick Santorum and others who seem to think less that Jesus’ law should rule the land than that they bodily represent Jesus in much the way Jesus claimed to represent God.

But do I buy all of the “new dawn” talk that’s making the rounds in New York (and elsewhere, I’m sure)? Please. Have any of you heard Nancy Pelosi? This is not Voltaire, people. Some things are bound to improve, from a blue perspective, but I don’t think our knottier global problems -- many of them, gasp, not lovingly crafted by W. -- are going anywhere. It will just be harder now to blame them on straw men. And that’s an improvement, too.

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Marathoners and Nutcakes

Last Sunday, I was heading out to Long Island to visit family and stumbled upon the Brooklyn leg of the New York City Marathon, something I should have sought out before in my six years here, but haven't. As much as I respect the discipline needed to compete (I feel achey after driving 26 miles), I never quite believed it would be thrilling to watch. But the couple of minutes I caught were pretty exhilarating. It looked something like this:

Additional entertainment was provided by this man, who took advantage of the race-induced street closures to stand in the middle of Flatbush Avenue with his sandwich board. The back:

The front:

In case you can't read it, that says:
is Coming

He probably means the Rapture, but in case he was hoping for something more earth-bound, I hope Tuesday's election results set him straight.

Battle of the Oldies

I probably don't have to tell you where I stand on this debate. I've always liked U2 a great deal, and The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby would both make a list of my very favorite records. (See?) But even though U2 makes great big music, and plays much better to the arena-size audiences that both bands eventually attracted, I’ve always thought REM’s catalog is more varied and occasionally achieves a quiet beauty in which U2 just isn’t interested -- even beautiful U2 songs, like “One” and “With or Without You,” sound like they’re being played for 60,000 people. By contrast, REM’s “Half a World Away,” to take one of many examples, sounds like it could barely survive a crowd of more than three.

The four original members of REM used to claim they would break up if any one of them left, and it's easy to think they should’ve kept that promise. Since drummer Bill Berry's departure after New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the band has lost its punch, releasing some solid songs, but none of the cohesive albums it used to produce year after year (with the lone exception, in my mind, of Monster). Meanwhile, everyone crows about how “relevant” U2 has remained in recent years, but I don’t know. I’m a big fan, and haven’t outgrown rock music, but Bono and company seem to be relevant only as a brand to me, like Starbucks or Target. They pump out reasonable facsimiles of their old hits, but I haven’t felt the need to buy a record of theirs this century. In other words, both bands, two of the greatest ever, are no longer clean-up hitters. Which is fine -- rock is a young person’s game. But if I had to choose, from 1983 to 1992, I’d take REM’s output, in a heartbeat.

Wait, that period ended fourteen years ago. That’s how many generations in popular music? Seven? Eight? Sweet, sweet lord, I’m old.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Rummy's Podium Antics

A flurry of work-related socializing has delayed any attempt at serious (or pseudo-serious, anyway) analysis of Tuesday's elections, but for now, this is good stuff:

(This particular clip via Andrew Sullivan, but I'd seen the bit before.)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

New York, Sky Country. And, a Bench.

Parsing a Thumping

More on the political headlines soon, but for now, I actually got a kick out of this excerpt from President Bush's press conference about the election and Rumsfeld's resignation. I think it shows that the guy would be charming in certain walks of life -- of course, Most Powerful Man on Earth still decidedly not one of those walks.
BUSH: Look, this is a close election. If you look at race by race, it was close. The cumulative effect, however, was not too close. It was a thumping.

But nevertheless, the people expect us to work together. That's what they expect. And as I said in my opening comments, you know, there comes responsibility with victory.

And that's what Nancy Pelosi told me this morning. She said in the phone call she wants to work together. And so do I. And so, that's how you deal with it.

QUESTION: You just described the election results as a thumping...

BUSH: I said the cumulative -- make sure. Who do you write for?

QUESTION: The New York Times, Mr. President.


BUSH: Oh, yes...


Let's make sure we get the facts. I said that the elections were close -- the cumulative effect...

QUESTION: Yes, is a thumping.

BUSH: Thumping.


QUESTION: But the results have been...

BUSH: It's a polite way of saying, you know -- anyway, go ahead.


Are You a Materialist? Are You Into Materialism? Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink.

It's been a long time since I posted a link to a quiz, but I like this one, because it proved all my self-preconceptions. Sweet. I've long been a fan of existentialism -- as much as you can be a fan of something that causes you to feel incredibly uncomfortable in the world -- and I've often told people that I'm not a postmodernist and I'm not an idealist. Now I've got the cold, hard numbers to back me up.

Take the quiz and let us know what you are in the comments section. What kind of souls lurk here?
You scored as Existentialist. Existentialism emphasizes human capability. There is no greater power interfering with life and thus it is up to us to make things happen. Sometimes considered a negative and depressing world view, your optimism towards human accomplishment is immense. Mankind is condemned to be free and must accept the responsibility.

Cultural Creative
















What is Your World View?
created with


Luckily, this stick figure is spared his cold fate:

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


A really good band is breaking up. Bummer. . . . I'm very angry that I didn't live-blog this. . . . It's time to get your political geekery on.

Feeding My Photographic Inferiority Complex

The latest entry in my "sky country" series is being delayed by technical difficulties. Which is probably for the best since these shots are of, uh, slightly higher quality. Via Cosmic Variance, here's a pretty stunning collection of the top 100 images from the Hubble Telescope.

You've got your garden-variety star clusters:

And this shot of the Horsehead nebula, which the site describes as "one of the most photographed objects in the sky." Oh, yeah -- this thing again. Bor-ing:

I don't know if it's just me, but this looks like the home planet of Donald Trump's hair:

And this one of Mars might be my favorite, not because it's beautiful (it is), but because it looks like it was taken by a doofus alien that left its finger in the frame. ("Nice going, Erglont!")

Monday, November 06, 2006

Archive of the Day

From Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis:
Finally, though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.

AP Headline of the Day

Hungarians Seize Fake Washing Powder

Parent-Friendly Clip

I got word from one of my parents -- I won't say which one -- that she wasn't appreciating the YouTube clips. I don't know why she isn't as entertained by grocery-store chase scenes and talking clay animals as I am. Could be a generational thing. Could be that I was dropped as a child. Anyway, since I wrote about this song the other day and I think she's a fan of the group, I offer as penance this clip of the Bee Gees singing "To Love Somebody" on TV in 1967. Well, they're lip synching, but that's fine. It was the thing to do back then. Plus, I love how undisguised it was -- they would go to great lengths to appear accurate, and then the songs would fade out. ("Wow, they're all singing a little bit more quietly in unison! And how are they playing their instruments softer?!")

Finally, check out that middle brother, who they wisely focus on for only a few seconds starting around :45. The brother on the left (I can't keep track of them -- Maurice? Robin? Englebert? Friedrich?) is pretty cool-looking, like a black-and-white Hugh Jackman or something. But that middle bro -- it looks like Austin Powers and Janice from the Muppets had a kid.

Haggard and the American Mind

I bet that last post had you believing that I'm fresh out of ideas for the blog. Wrong again. I just honestly thought it was worth sharing. (Which is, I admit, probably worse than being out of ideas.)

Before I head out to the night's work (which will involve leaving my apartment -- which I've already mentally vacated after just two months; don't move to New York, kids -- to do some reading, lots of editing, and some suppressing of a faint notion that I should be writing), I thought I'd share some thoughts on Ted Haggard. It's what every other blogger's been doing for the past 48 hours. I might as well catch up.

Before this week, I hadn't heard of Haggard. Or maybe I had, but the name didn't stick. Honestly, even now, I feel like all I can tell you is that he was the leader of one of those particularly scary groups of Christians (the kind I'm not defending around here when I start sounding friendly to religion), that he led this group in one of those aesthetically criminal churches that looks like a home for a semi-pro basketball team, and that he's probably nearing stage two of meth mouth. (Oh, please, don't click that last link. Really. I'm sorry I even put it up there.)

And now, he's been kicked out of his church, which has led to a message on his official site noting his dismissal and saying that the site is "in transition." (I'll say. "Come back soon, when Ted will be blogging live from the chillout tent.")

I recently told a friend that I didn't understand how one could vehemently defend President Clinton's behavior with a young intern and vehemently denounce Mark Foley's recent behavior, or vice versa. There were differences in the cases, for sure, but not so great that anything but political blindness could account for completely opposite reactions to them. (And yes, I'll italicize when I damn please.) Yet, of course, we got lots of opposite reaction from both sides of the aisle. U.S.A.!!

The case of Haggard is substantively different, of course, because he has used his pulpit to aggressively argue against the "sin" of homosexual behavior and even for legislation against it, which makes him not just self-loathing but pathologically hypocritical. Unsurprisingly, the church is already circling the wagons (sans Methy), and Haggard's secretive activities will allow his side to spin the whole episode as another sad example of how homosexuality causes dark, family- and self-destroying behavior, instead of coming to terms with the fact that no one is defending what he did, per se...just imagining what a world might be like where he didn't feel compelled to turn his self-hatred into a life that's one big lie.

It occurs to me, though, just now, that imagining a world like that assumes that social enlightenment on the issue would eradicate all cases of self-denial and shame. But there are clearly behaviors and needs that are widely embraced in the larger culture that still cause people to chastise themselves. If a hundred years from now, ninety-five percent of people view homosexuality as just an acceptable, naturally occurring percentage of sexual behavior, there will surely still be some who believe the received wisdom of certain books more than the wisdom of their own instincts. Human nature. Ain't it a bitch?

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The Magic of Incompetence

I was going to go into more detail about this, but won't -- not because it's gross, but just because I still have some lingering shred of respect for the value of your time. But I'll say this: My toilet's been acting up, and I'm almost certain that I've found a way of fixing it that has nothing to do with an actual solution. It involves me tinkering with it in a completely (even creatively) ineffectual way and then -- this is where you'll have to trust me -- the toilet inexplicably curing itself out of what I could swear is pity.

I never thought I'd use the word toilet twice (now three times) in the same post, but hey, live and learn.

Election Time

I don't write much about politics here because political discussions in this country tend to have all the depth and sense of a symposium on America's Next Top Model. But tomorrow's the big day for everyone's favorite sport, Hating the Other Side and Calling it a Thought.

One of the only reasonable things I've seen written about the whole shebang is here:
People in power simply can’t be trusted.

If we’re going to have a Republican executive branch, we need a Democratic legislature to hold its feet to the fire. And vice-versa.

So on Tuesday, I’m neither voting Democratic or Republican. I’m voting for the oldest party in the republic. Its name never appears on the ballot, but it’s always there and it has always served us well.

Divided government.
Sounds good to me.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

I Am an Overgrown Seven-Year-Old

One of the many reasons people might be embarrassed to be in social company with me is that I'm likely to blurt out something like, "Hey, that movie Flushed Away looks pretty good." I'm a sucker for animated things, as long as they're also smart and funny, and I also like Bill Nighy quite a bit. It seems he voices one of the movie's most entertaining characters. Plus, Aardman studios, which produced it, has done some great things in the past, including Chicken Run and all things Wallace and Gromit. Many moons ago, before the mainstream success of those efforts, I remember renting a video of Aardman shorts, which included claymation interviews with zoo animals, the most entertaining of whom was a lion. Thanks to YouTube, I found him again after all these years. Reunited and it feels so good:

Five Songs, Chapter Fourteen

"To Love Somebody" by The Bee Gees

A friend and I spent a few solid minutes at dinner the other night discussing the greatness of the Bee Gees. I suppose that's enough said about that.

"Lilac Wine" by Jeff Buckley

Buckley's biggest fans seem to have that crass increase in rock fervor that accompanies someone's early death, and I've always thought his stuff is wildly hit-or-miss. His take on Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is unimprovable and a total classic, and I love "Last Goodbye," especially in the moment when he sings "Did you say 'no, this can't happen to me.' " This song has a similarly great moment throughout, whenever he draws out "I feel unsteady." Hit or miss, yeah, but that voice was something.

"Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" by Joe Cocker

Because I remain fairly uneducated about classic rock, the first time I heard this song was in the final scene of Layer Cake, a pretty good movie. Growing up, I mostly knew the Joe Cocker of "love lifts us up where we belong," etc., and this is, mercifully and thrillingly, a different Joe Cocker.

"Whiskey Bottle" by Uncle Tupelo

A long way from happiness
In a three-hour-away town
Whiskey bottle over Jesus
Not forever, just for now

"Citrus" by The Hold Steady

Hey citrus, hey liquor, I love it when you touch each other
Hey whiskey, hey ginger, I come to you with rigid fingers
I see Judas in the hard eyes of the boys who worked in the corners
I feel Jesus in the clumsiness of young and awkward lovers