Thursday, May 31, 2007

AP Headline of the Day

Study Finds Cocaine, Pot in Rome's Air

Joke's On You, It's Metal Fragments

When I was in college, Crystal Pepsi was introduced to the market. Presumably, it was all the rage then that sodas be transparent. I don't really remember this, but it must have happened. In any event, one day my roommate stooped to try the new brand, and immediately made a terrible sound and spit onto the pavement. Another floormate, witnessing this, said, "Joke's on you; it's bleach!"

I bring this up because, while the Pepsi product wasn't actually bleach, there are all kinds of hilarious and terrifying product recalls that happen on a regular basis. My friend -- and it's impossible to overstate how much I thank her for this -- gave me a tour of the FDA's "Recalls, Market Withdrawals and Safety Alerts Archive." This place is a goldmine.

There are the straightforward, if long-winded, alerts:
Raw Indulgence Announces Nationwide Recall of Raw Revolution Organic Live Food Bars Because They May Contain Metal Fragments
There are the, in retrospect, ironically named products:
Wegmans Recalls Food You Feel Good About Spring Water
And then there are the headlines that seem pulled straight from The Onion:
Improperly Refrigerated Crab Meat Seized
I told you: Goldmine.

Nine Movies

Over at Pajiba, I have a guide to movies that "feel like life." Feel free to head over there and agree/disagree to your heart's content.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Amendment to the "Little Way" Post

I like to keep people who are smarter than me around. It's easy to learn things that way, not to mention stay humble. One such person has noted that Walker Percy's use of the "Little Way" in the post below almost surely, given Percy's passionate Catholicism, is meant to echo the beliefs of St. Therese, who proposed a similar method of achieving holiness by "relying on small daily sacrifices instead of great deeds."

It seems that Percy's passage is more concerned with the personal, "sad" happiness found in drinks and thighs, rather than a spiritual purification through acts, but the echo is there nonetheless. Thanks to CB for pointing it out.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Middle-Aged Me and the Little Way

Walking home from a perfectly pleasant Memorial Day barbecue last night, one of the friends I was with asked about the purpose of the phrase "all things being equal." After a bit of discussion, he asked, "Is it related to 'six of one, half dozen of another?'" I said that the relation was slight, but that I use the latter phrase quite a bit. "You're dating yourself," he said. I assured him it was not the only habit that made me seem prematurely old.

It struck me even more forcefully tonight, back in the park, making good progress in The Moviegoer, that I've had the soul of a disillusioned middle-aged man since I was at least 14. That was before I had kissed a girl or had the first inkling of what I wanted to do with my life. (I've since kissed a girl, and I'm working on the second thing.) What I had to be so deeply nostalgic and regretful about, I have no earthly idea. It was more that I had already adopted my overriding philosophy about the world, which features nostalgia and regret in starring roles, and I just hadn't accrued the experience to justify it.

The Moviegoer kick-started this bout of self-revelation because I'm greatly enjoying it, and not least because of passages like this one:
We swim and lie down together. The remarkable discovery forces itself upon me that I do not love her so wildly as I loved her last night. But at least there is no malaise and we lie drowsing in the sun, hands clasped in the other's back, until the boat whistle blows.

Yet love revives as we spin homewards along the coast through the early evening. Joy and sadness come by turns, I know now. Beauty and bravery make you sad, Sharon's beauty and my aunt's bravery, and victory breaks your heart. But life goes on and on we go, spinning along the coast in a violet light, past Howard Johnson's and the motels and the children's carnival. We pull into a bay and have a drink under the stars. It is not a bad thing to settle for the Little Way, not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh.
And you might say to yourself, there's nothing particularly shocking or tragic about a man at 33 nodding his head in sympathy at that passage. And you're right. It's a bit early in the day to be so wistful, yet it's not crazy. But that wouldn't explain the even more ferocious nodding I did, starting around 19, at a series of books that, looking back, were clearly influenced by the tone and concerns of The Moviegoer: Nothing but Blue Skies by Thomas McGuane, the collected works of Richard Russo, Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe novels, Jernigan by David Gates.

It's true to say that if someone had only my reading habits with which to make predictions about my personality when I was 23, an admirable guess would be that I was a well-educated, semi-rural functional alcoholic in his late 40s, recently divorced, alienated from his children and still in love with his ex-wife. Since I have no idea what this says about me -- or, I have an idea, but you'll forgive me if it's a bit too scary to linger on -- I'll simply wrap this up by recommending that you read The Moviegoer, whatever your age or outlook.

Saturday, May 26, 2007


"Don't You Forget About Me" just popped up on my iTunes, which made me think -- duh -- of The Breakfast Club, and since it will be quiet around here over the holiday weekend, here's a little interlude for you:

Thursday, May 24, 2007


OK, here's a personal-ish post (see below). A friend from Texas today suggested a trip to Vegas in mid-June. Another friend from Texas said he'll be in Dubai at that time, and invited us there. Hm. Both are tempting. Vegas has at least the possibility of happening -- Dubai's out of the question, not least because I don't have a passport, and I think the wait for those is long these days. Actually, that might be least.

Dear Diary

I was talking to a good friend the other day, the kind of person who's highly educated and involved with pretty serious literary endeavors -- the kind of person who I figured would hate confessional blogs. Turns out, though, that that's the only kind she likes. "I like blogs that are diaries," she said.

It got me wondering about this here enterprise, which I like to think has developed a voice of its own, but which voice is a bit constructed and certainly not diaristic. Partly this is because I'm not anonymous. Presumably, my bosses check in on this blog from time to time, and my family does, and ... well, I've had many, many visitors since I started monitoring traffic, but I think the largest percentage of those are people who Google a phrase -- say, "New York's dirty little secret," which landed someone here today -- and spend "0 seconds" looking around.

I do think that if I moved somewhere else -- just off the top of my head, Austin or Saratoga -- I would feel more free to write about the minutiae of my inner (and outer) life as I made the transition to a new place. I'm not sure why, but I've resisted truly personal material. This might be fair warning that more such posts are going to start appearing. It might just be me rambling. Hard to say.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Wednesday's Video

I wrote about this song a while back, and here's Ben Kweller singing it on Letterman. Spirited, no?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Subject I'll Never Mention Again

I followed the first season of American Idol pretty closely. It was a difficult time.

Since then, I haven't cared. But, it's been my understanding that the finale normally comes down to two people who can, by some recognizable definition of the word, sing. Tonight, it seemed that one of the finalists could sing and the other couldn't. The one who couldn't also wore argyle sweater vests that Carlton from Fresh Prince would reject as too dorky. Am I missing something, or is this going to be a vote of 95%-5% or so?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Happiness Costs So Little/Archive of the Day

If there's one time I won't complain (and there might be just the one), it's walking after work to Central Park, sitting on a bench in the shade, but with a view of things bathed in near-perfect sunlight, temperatures in the mid-60s, friendly but competitive people of various ages and sizes playing softball in front of me, caricature artists bargaining with passersby, and cracking open a book. A book I should have read a long, long time ago, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. I started it last summer while staying upstate with a couple of very good friends, but each night I was reading it in the pleasing but distracting haze that followed drinks and conversation with those friends. I made it through about fifty pages, but didn't retain much and eventually stalled. Tonight, I read 21 pages in about 35 minutes, meaning that for the first time in a while, my reading was leisurely -- and with reading, leisure also allows for focus. It's a health-giving combination.

They're a hell of an opening 21 pages. Here's a taste:
In the evenings I usually watch television or go to the movies. Weekends I often spend on the Gulf Coast. Our neighborhood theater in Gentilly has permanent lettering on the front of the marquee reading: Where Happiness Costs So Little. The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.

Mr. Nugent Crashes the Blogroll

Thanks to the good folks over at Crooked Timber, I've discovered the latest addition to my blogroll, The Phil Nugent Experience. (He tackles the question of relation to Ted in his latest post; there is none.)

Nugent writes remarkably long and smart posts (given how often they appear) about a variety of subjects. For instance, an insightful and funny post about the death of Jerry Falwell:
He spent his last several years doing for the left what someone like Ramsey Clark has done for the right: serving as an all-purpose lightning rod, a face that the ACLU or the NAACP or the Humane Society or Toys for Tots could always stick on its literature to make people go, "Whoa, he's still alive!? Gimme a second, I'll grab my checkbook." He even made the rehabilitation of Larry Flynt possible; the makers of the 1996 movie The People vs. Larry Flynt were canny enough to understand that, whatever the actual Flynt's trespasses, he could be presented as a hero to right-thinking people so long as he was defined as the alternative to Falwell.
And a refreshingly thoughtful piece in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, in which he describes the heartbreaking death of a friend when a burglar used her own gun against her. He goes on to write:
Stories like this one have a lot to do with my failure to share the indignation of John Derbyshire and others who have famously complained that it says something dire about our society that more people didn't try to "fight back" when the Virginia Tech psycho started killing people. I know that Derbyshire and his allies on this one must also be basing their opinions on memories of personal stories that had a strong impact on their notions about what the world is like. I just worry that in their case, to an embarrassing degree, the personal stories in question were experienced while parked in front of HBO at one in the morning and starred Chuck Norris.
And finally (for now), a terrific piece inspired by Mother's Day which -- Scott at Crooked Timber is right -- has to be read in its entirety.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Song 2: "Be Good to Yourself"

I apologized, when I started this single-song feature way back when, for beginning on such a melancholy note. So, I'm making up for it by shining the spotlight on "Be Good to Yourself" by Journey. Like any red-blooded, god-fearing American, I love Journey, and they have several songs that are better than this one, but in my entire collection of music -- 6,761 songs on iTunes and several hundred others laying around -- this one stands out. Amid a surplus of navel-gazing, gently strummed, self-recriminating, love-besotted tenderness and regret, bleated by men and women alike, here's Steve Perry singing at the top of his voice: "Be good to yourself when nobody else will."



Saturday, May 19, 2007

Mr. Herman

The New York Times has this article on Paul Reubens today, which mostly just gives me an excuse to post this:

Brooklyn Rules

Hey, another movie you won't want to see!:
Brooklyn Rules offers the significant lure of Alec Baldwin, who plays Caesar, the neighborhood’s mafia bigwig. But his riveting performance is made up of a few brief scenes, and is more than canceled out by riveting’s antonym, Freddie Prinze, Jr., who more accurately represents what the wooden script deserves.

AP Headline of the Day

Plumbers Fight for Famous Phone Number

More Self-Regard

I've freshened the "best of" section on the right-hand side, with a few additions on top. Don't all run at once.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Belated Opinions About a Passing

It's not that I didn't have an opinion of Jerry Falwell. I thought he was a blathering, self-righteous jackass. I think that qualifies as an opinion. I just don't think one person should ever be given too much credit for their influence. Falwell was powerful because millions of people are eager to be led by the bigoted, superstitious, and megalomaniacal, and he didn't make them that way. If people were more capable of recognizing a clown as a clown, he would have never been as powerful as he was.

I also find it's a good rule of thumb to not strongly denigrate people right after their death, as that seems a fairly pointless and crass time to do it. But then I saw Christopher Hitchens talking to Sean Hannity, and realized that in this case denigration just serves as a counterbalance to the ridiculously positive (and sometimes inaccurate) things that often get said about someone after they shake their mortal coil. Watching Hannity, a mindless rabble-rouser, try to play the "let's just be decent in the face of bad news" role is infuriating, and to watch Hitchens give him what for is incredibly satisfying.

Hitchens is also in fine form in this clip (Via Pharyngula):

Finally, there are some more entertaining thoughts about Falwell over at Martini Ministry:
I was watching some news channel yesterday when Falwell’s condition was downgraded to "dead" and the two people on there were talking about the public Falwell being very different from the private one. Like the blowhard we saw on t.v. was all an act. He was Marilyn in public and Norma Jean at home. A judgmental, false-authority-wielding joke to America, but at home, he was manning the barbecue pit at the PFLAG cookout and volunteering for Planned Parenthood.

Prospect Park From My Back

Rock n' Roll Reeducation

Finally, a few more words about the trip last weekend. A couple of months ago, we had gone to Harrisburg to see my brother-in-law in a play, and the place charmed us enough that we wanted to go back and explore it at a more leisurely pace. The more direct impetus for this go-round, though, was to see The Hold Steady, a band I've written about several times in the recent past. They were playing a free show at a local brewery to celebrate the establishment's 10th anniversary, and that just sounded like too good/weird an experience to pass up. And it was.

The reason it was good is easy to explain: The band put on what we agreed was one of the very best shows we've ever seen. (And between us, we've seen many shows.) Most of their songs have riffs that could fill stadiums, so to hear them in a small space is delirious fun. I once saw Prince play a basketball arena and make it feel as intimate as a club. The Hold Steady make a club feel as communally massive as a basketball arena. I was going to call lead singer Craig Finn a great showman, but I don't think it's an act -- his enthusiasm (and that of the whole band) seems genuine.

The reason it was weird is partly because we live in a big city, but not entirely. Finn's lyrics are the smartest around, and they detail the drug- and alcohol-fueled social scene of a recurring cast of characters who are often either star-crossed or simply good at manufacturing their own bad luck. Harrisburg certainly has its charms, as I said, but among those pressing toward the stage on Saturday night were plenty of people who would fit that description. They tossed their beers skyward and stageward in fits of what seemed to alternate between displaced anger and celebration. (The celebratory gestures drew an appreciative grin from Finn; the angry ones an only slightly sterner one.) Toward the end of the set, a few hardy souls dove from the stage and crowd-surfed. My companion asked me if it was 1992. But it was great to see. In New York (and I'm sure other big cities as well), most bands, no matter how joyful or raucous, are greeted with folded arms and oh-so-discerning nods of approval. This was a full-fledged freakout. I have a friend, Ray, who's a devout believer in the old-school power of rock n' roll, and about whose belief I earnestly intend to make a short documentary one day, and I think he would have been highly pleased by the display.

I took pictures, but despite our proximity, something about the lighting and Finn's constant spasms made it difficult to capture anything really good. It did result in cool shots like this one, though, where Finn appears to be in three places at once:

The shot below was taken at the end of the night. The band played the most expertly constructed encore I've ever seen -- for those who know the songs: "Citrus," "First Night," "Stevie Nix," and "Killer Parties." As the last song entered the stretch, a few people pushed their way on to the (very small) stage (already occupied by the five-person band). Then more. Then more. The band kept playing, despite being sent to the absolute edges of the space (the guitarist, in fact, had to climb a stack of amps to get away from the throng). Finn ended the song with a line about everyone in the room "being the Hold Steady," and it sounded much less like a cheesy sendoff than a perfectly embraceable rallying cry. If you ever have opportunity to see them, do.

The Glass

I had reason last night to ponder again the old glass half full/half empty adage, and something struck me. Forgive me if this has been said a million times before.

The test is supposed to determine what kind of person you are, an optimist or a pessimist. And I think most people try to answer it in that spirit. Of course, the real answer is that the glass is both half full and half empty. Those things are equally true. That alone is boring, but here's what struck me -- even though that's correct, might it be a bad way to see things? Would it be better to have a strong opinion about it that then might influence the way you behave than to simply observe that both conditions are true? Might such an accurate-but-tepid response lead to some kind of paralysis? And if harboring strong opinions has some greater inherent value than being correct (if and when the two are in conflict), doesn't that change a hell of a lot about the assumptions of a moderate like me, who scoffs at Fox News and The Nation and their ilk? I ask sincerely...

When HAL Met HAL

Well, the science links experiment is over before it really began. Some traditions die hard; some have glass chins. It just seemed silly to force myself to post a certain number of links that may or may not be especially provocative or entertaining, because I already give science some attention around here, and will continue to do so. For instance:

I've always scoffed at the idea that artificial intelligence will ever truly reach a level that could be morally considered human or somehow better than human, partly because I have genuine intellectual arguments about it and partly because deep down I suppose it could happen, and that gives me what scientists call "the creeps."

The intellectual arguments go as follows: In terms of being considered morally human, I don't see how a computer that's been programmed to understand itself through the language of emotion would warrant the same moral consideration as a human being. Our specific brand of mortality has a lot to do with our ethics, I think. It's quite possible that if a computer was begging me not to kill it, especially if it was speaking in an exact approximation of a human voice, I might not be able to pull the plug. But somehow, I doubt it. As for being better than humans -- at, say, chess -- I've always found this absurd. We programmed the computer to be better than us. The computer's very existence is a direct extension of us. It's human intelligence that makes a computer capable of beating our best at chess. That doesn't mean computers are smarter than us. It might just mean that computer programmers are smarter than chess players.

You hear similar arguments about technological end-of-the-world scenarios -- "someday, computers will outsmart us and kill us all, and then we'll be sorry!" Well, it won't be the computers that have outsmarted us. It will be us! (This is a cousin of the rhetoric that urges us to "protect Earth," as if Earth could give a flaming crap about whether or not we inhabit it. It's us we're talking about protecting. The Earth is the Earth, whether it's a comfortable home for humans or a smoking briquette.)

I've gotten carried away.

This is all a very rambling preface to this piece in Discover magazine, in which two computerized intelligences (or "chatbots") talk to each other. The results are fantastic, if not exactly easy to confuse with actual conversation. Actually, this sounds a bit like something you might hear in graduate housing:
Alice: Are you alive?

Jabberwacky: Perhaps.

A: Why the uncertain tone?

J: Everything is uncertain except for five facts.

A: The whole universe?

J: And we both might just be some ones and zeros in the computer memory.
But this is my favorite exchange, when things get testy:
A: Do you think a machine will ever be considered "alive"?

J: Stranger things have happened.

A: Not many people express themselves that way.

J: How would you know, machine?


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A Different Kind of Wednesday Clip

In lieu of a music video today, because I don't have the time, energy, or general good health to find one, here's a different treat. It's an appearance by Salvador Dali on the classic game show What's My Line? What I enjoy most are the little conferences Dali has with the host after inappropriately answering a few questions. What I also enjoy (but cringe at as well) is how everyone involved seems adult and witty and learned. This isn't Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? (Via Jane Galt)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Harrisburg, Sky Country

I'm hoping to have a more exhaustive account of last weekend's trip up later tonight. For now, these are some shots I took while in Harrisburg. The bottom photo is of a sign on the roof of the local YMCA, which was quite an impressive establishment.

Monday, May 14, 2007


I feel like I've been run over by a truck. Or at least, like I'm coming down with something fairly gross. So the big weekend wrap-up will have to wait.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Quick Update

I'm just back from a weekend in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which I'll write more about tomorrow (including photos from my new camera, which is currently making my iPod very jealous as it commandeers my affection). I mostly went to see what I'm now even more convinced is the best working rock band on the planet, but details will have to wait. I'm also going to post some science links, a new feature that needs to be watered lest it die on the vine. So, all that tomorrow night. For now, after an exhausting six hours on the road and a bit of wine (in that order, of course): sleep.

A New, Strong Recommendation

It's been quite a while since I've had such an esteemed addition to the blogroll, but my friend Tim has launched his latest venture, a blog called A New Career in a New Town. Tim is one of the smartest, funniest people I know, and I imagine that will be coming across all the time on the blog. He's also quite dashing, but this is more difficult to tell online. In any case, you should visit him often. His first post deals -- in his singular, occasionally fantastical way -- with his recent marriage:
Last night the brother asked if it felt different, being married. And the answer is, so far, it mostly hasn’t. Probably this is because my wife and I are living now exactly as we did before we married. We still have our own furniture, our own apartments, our own armies of mechanized henchmen. (Mine are solar-powered but have a tendency to nap; hers use environment-despoiling coal, but devour whole cities in an afternoon. We still don't know which we're keeping.) Little has changed.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Two Reviews

Pitchfork has two reviews today that caught my eye. The first is of someone named Dan Deacon, who seems worth at least investigating based on this review:
"Wooody Wooodpecker", the opening track from Deacon's Carpark Records debut Spiderman of the Rings, combines everything awesome-- and potentially alienating-- about Deacon's music into 3:50 and sticks it right at the beginning of the record. Here, he loops and distorts the famous cartoon character's convulsive laugh over a sizzling synthesizer crescendo, a needling 12-note keyboard melody, and mechanical percussion that winds to a point where a human drummer's tendons would snap. It's like Deacon's switch got stuck somewhere between "irritate" and "captivate" and he decided to never bother fixing it.
The second is a review of one of my favorite bands, The Innocence Mission. Their new record is incredibly spare, even by their standards, and the lyrics seem duller. I figured we were well past the time when the snobs at Pitchfork would bemoan the earnest band's very existence, but instead they approach the new release with deep respect:
Over the course of two decades, the Innocence Mission's name has come to feel less like the mere moniker of another earnest late-80s college-rock act and more like an evangelical pursuit for simplicity and propriety, the result of which has been increasingly tranquil records that are practically defiant in their quietude. But it speaks volumes about their direct, affecting songcraft that principals Karen and hubby Don Peris can boast of a past collaborating with Natalie Merchant, soundtracking "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Party of Five" episodes, and writing songs for Amy Grant's Christian catalog, and yet, 18 years after their band's formation, find themselves right at home releasing a string of quality records for an indie label that counts My Morning Jacket and Mark Kozelek as alumnus. ... "You'll never lose that light," Karen sings on "Song for Tom", though it could easily be a song for them: a testament to the durable, slow-burn beauty of their work, and their softness of touch-- a light that rarely feels lite.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Mike Seaver Will Make You a Believer

The other day, I saw somewhere, out of the corner of my eye, that Kirk Cameron -- the one-time teen heart-throb who starred in Growing Pains -- was going to prove the existence of God.

This seemed exceedingly unlikely. Partly because proving the existence of God is very difficult, even with the aid of the world's finest bourbons, and partly because this is Kirk Cameron:

If he looks like a prophet to you, you've got some seriously funny religion.

Turns out this whole thing was just some lame stunt on ABC News, and Cameron was joined on his side of the debate by a fellow believer, evangelical minister Ray Comfort. The proceedings were summarized well by Troy Patterson over at Slate, including this bit:
In Cameron's introductory remarks at the debate -- which can be seen at something like its full and numbing length at -- he coolly claimed that "the existence of God can be proven 100 percent, absolutely without the use of faith." First, I grew excited at this promise, then began to wonder why no theologian, philosopher, or sitcom star in recorded history had done it before -- Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, Tina Yothers, whoever -- and realized I was in for a letdown. Comfort's cadences were not even those of a preacher but of an infomercial host, and the God Squad had but three arguments on behalf of the big guy: All things have makers; the human conscience is evidence of a higher moral power; if you read the Gospel, then Christ will be revealed to you. For reasons too stupid to type, this was not an airtight case, and the atheists made quick work of it in tones of juvenile sarcasm.


Dad at the Movies

Another report from the cinema courtesy of my father:
I have a candidate for the "so bad it's good" category. Lucky You has all the right ingredients on paper: a poker flick set in the glitz of Vegas and a chance to watch Robert Duvall ply his trade. Plus, I understand the director includes L.A. Confidential on his resume. The right ingredients, indeed!

Then the movie starts.

The script is beyond bad. It would strangle any cast, but (Eric) Bana and (Drew) Barrymore, perhaps out of frustration, attempt to make it even worse with performances so wooden that words fail. It reminds me of Meet Joe Black, with the extended periods of non-dialogue where expressive facial contortions are supposed to fill in the blanks. In this awful movie, there was only silence. ... No smiling, frowning or any other form of human expression. It is as if they had simply forgotten their lines (probably a good thing) and didn't care.

Duvall acquits himself as well as he can, but they saddle him with a wig that also defies description. I will say that the film can claim consistency, because the beginning, middle and end are equally terrible. If Joe Queenan was assigned this movie, he would toss it back as being too easy. He might lose his edge.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Wednesday Song

Rufus Wainwright singing "Go or Go Ahead." With a bit of a public-service announcement as preface, including the requisite concert morons who enthusiastically applaud a crystal-meth binge. I'm having a hard time figuring out if the sound is properly synced with the video. If it's not, I apologize -- I hate that.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

AP Headline of the Day

Hamas 'Mickey Mouse' Wants Islam Takeover

And a bonus for you...

AP Story Opening Line of the Day: "Climbing into a giraffe's cage at the local zoo seemed a good idea after a few drinks."

Five by the Fab Four

Over at Normblog, the site's proprietor (appropriately named Norm) is asking for your five favorite Beatles songs. I'll show you mine if you show me yours.

OK, even if you don't show me, here are mine: "Here Comes the Sun," "In My Life," "Help," "Let It Be," and "We Can Work It Out." (That last one has changed since I first responded to Norm -- I told him "Something" -- but I think he'll forgive me.)

Hitchens v. Sharpton

Andrew Sullivan ran an excerpt today from a debate about God between a real Felix and Oscar duo, Christopher Hitchens and Al Sharpton. This debate really happened. It was not a Saturday Night Live sketch.

I think Sharpton is nine kinds of crazy, but he's (gulp) on to something here, in the part of his presentation that Sullivan reprinted:
We are sitting in a room that because of lights, we assume that there is electricity in the building. Electricity can light the room or burn it down; it does not mean electricity does not exist because it burns a building down, or that it is inherently wicked. Clearly people have misused God, as they have misused other things that are possibly positive, but its existence is not in any way proved or disproved by you giving me a long diatribe on those that have mishandled and misused God ...

I would say that many people, I among them, in our own lives have had experiences that make me believe that there is a God. And make me believe that my seeking God and seeking the guidance of a supreme being is real to me. I’m not going by Moses, I’m not going by Peter, I’m not going by the man that you said was a legend, Jesus of Nazareth. ... I’m not here to defend Scriptures. I didn’t write those Scriptures. I live my life, and in my life the existence of God has been confirmed to me in my own personal dealings and in my own faith being vindicated and validated. That has absolutely nothing to do with Scriptures, whether they are right or wrong.
I still think his logic has some truck-sized holes in it -- and don't try to diagram some of those sentences; you might pull something -- but he's right to point out that Hitchens and the rest of the nouveau athées aren't very often engaging with the foundation of all religion, which is the human capacity and instinct to imagine a god in the first place. They're mostly tearing down the specific gods that we've imagined, and while that's fun, it's really not all that difficult. The general tendency and the specific details are much more closely linked than someone like Sharpton wants to admit, but they're not identical. Thus, among other things, the existence of agnostics.


A clip...

...for a friend, who's had such wisdom since 15.

Monday, May 07, 2007

"Quit frowning."

Several weeks ago, I caught the band The Long Winters at the Mercury Lounge here in New York. They were very good, and their leader, John Roderick, was part emotive singer and part aspiring stand-up comic. You know the type, and it can be a painful type to experience, but he was very funny.

I just got done reading an interview with Roderick from two years ago in The Believer. I strongly wish this interview was available online in its entirety, because it's highly entertaining and you are missing out. My pity for you inspires me to post the following excerpts:
JR: Through some bizarre evolution of rock and roll, the audiences now are like stuffed shirts. I despise when people turn into that. So my knives are out all the time, in the hopes that one in twenty people I meet is going to show some kind of life. Indie-rock culture is the real ghetto of people who have convinced themselves that they're too sensitive to be yelled at or to yell, and they cry real tears when they see a flower lose its petals.

BLVR: When it's genuine, though, it's different.

JR: But those people belong in institutions. They should be in a really soft antiallergenic bed, and have people bring them tea that isn't brewed too strong. But with the vast majority of people who put it on as a pose, I just want them to see what they're missing. Life is better with a little conflict. People need to pose, I understand that. But I much prefer the pose of a Brooklyn tough guy, or an Asian break-dancer, which at least has the appearance of a full breadth of emotion. I mean, this isn't an original observation. I'm not doing anything novel or brilliant by addressing the crowd directly, by asking things like, "Is my hair OK?" Or pointing out individuals and saying: "You, with the white belt. Quit frowning."


JR: A huge indie-rock hit is a record that sells fifty thousand copies, which is about the size of the Nation of Islam. Even if you're making records that really connect with an audience, it's still a very, very small audience of people.

BLVR: What have you called it before? The indie-rock mafia?

JR: Yeah, and it's a cultural subset that's smaller than the audience for televised curling. Indie rock's gaining, though.


I saw Diggers tonight, a story set on the south shore of Long Island in the mid-1970s. It follows the fate of four friends, clam diggers whose livelihood is jeopardized by encroaching big business. All I knew was that it starred Paul Rudd, who I like, and that Stephen Holden in the New York Times had said that the movie "feels like life." I like that kind of movie, in the vein of Broadcast News or Diner (a movie to which Holden compares Diggers). The unchallenged king of the category, in my opinion, is You Can Count On Me.

Feeling like real life is a tall order for a movie. Diggers doesn't quite get there, but it feels like entertaining, constructed "real life," and with Spidey Doofus grossing a trillion dollars last weekend, that's more than enough for me. It lapses into mawkish moments, and it goes a bit too far out of its way for a few broad jokes, but Rudd is good in the lead role, and the cast around him is much stronger than I had known going in -- including Maura Tierney, for whom I would cross oceans. Rudd's friends are played by Josh Hamilton, Ron Eldard, and Ken Marino. (Lauren Ambrose is in it, for whom I would cross at least a medium-sized sea, and so is Sarah Paulson, who we saw walking on Houston Street afterwards with her girlfriend...headed to the theater?)

Both Eldard and Marino were born on Long Island, which perhaps helped create the movie's pretty consistent sense of authenticity. Marino (far left, above) wrote the script, and I thought he was remarkable as Lozo, the type of character rarely seen in movies -- a smart mook; a crass, immature guy who's not a particularly good father or husband by the textbook definitions, but who has genuinely good humor, fierce loyalty, and no lack of energy. He begins the movie as meathead comic relief, but by the end he provides its heart.

Miranda July Makes a Better Web Site Than You

I like Miranda July. (What's not to like? Look at those eyes!) I wrote about liking Miranda July here. Now, July is on the verge of publishing a collection of stories, and I imagine I will like them as well. One of them was in The New Yorker, and in fact, I wrote about that, too, here.

All those links are just prelude, though, for this link, which takes you to the site promoting the new book. (Follow the arrows.) It is likely to be the most charming thing you see all week. Maybe all month. And perhaps, depending on your hobbies and social life, all year.

Archive of the Day

From Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace:
Charlotte Treat looks over to Gately for some sort of help or Staff enforcement of dogma. The poor bitch is clueless. All of them are clueless, still. Gately reminds himself that he too is probably mostly still clueless, still, even after all these hundreds of days. 'I Didn't Know That I Didn't Know' is another of the slogans that looks so shallow for a while and then all of a sudden drops off and deepens like the lobster-waters off the North Shore. As Gately fidgets his way through daily A.M. meditation he always tries to remind himself daily that this is all an Ennet House residency is supposed to do: buy these poor yutzes some time, some thin pie-slice of abstinent time, till they can start to get a whiff of what's true and deep, almost magic, under the shallow surface of what they're trying to do.

AP Headline of the Day

18,000 Mexicans Strip for Artist's Photo

New York, Sky Country

Speaking of features (even I'm sick of this theme today -- I swear it won't last), it's been a while since this one was dusted off. The problems with the new camera have been solved, so here you go:

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Week in Science

I didn't watch the Republican debate last week, but it turns out that three of the ten candidates who took part raised their hands when the moderator asked who among them didn't believe in evolution. First, yikes. Second, I can only imagine that the three candidates were not serious long-term contenders, so could afford to satisfy their constituencies, which constituencies are presumably made up of, ironically, chimpanzees.

In the wake of this incident, blogger "Mike the Mad Biologist" (which sounds like the name of a really unsuccessful morning drive-time radio host) has implored all bloggers to link to five science stories a week. I try to keep science on the blog's radar all the time, and I'll continue to do that, but this gives me another excuse for a feature (I'm trying to develop more features, so that one day the blog will essentially be a giant template that can be run by off-site robots; how's that for evolution?)

I'll try to conclude each week's wrap-up with a "duh" link, if I can find one, because while science is grand and all that, it can also be silly. If this blogger has a guiding principle in life, it's that Anything Can Be Silly. I know that pales as a principle next to, say, Encouraging Nonviolent Opposition, but I can't help who I am.

So here's the first installment of five science links. Educate yourselves:

-- A fitting start, given the impetus for this -- a Times article about those three hand-raising Republicans, and how some others in the party are considering a strategic partnership with Darwin.

-- Americans don't have a patent on ridiculous political behavior.

-- Kids are understanding science younger and younger these days. They're still the champions of non sequiturs, too.

-- A painting of a monkey. (Includes some information about monkeys, too.)

-- Duh Science Finding of the Week: Good parenting, stable homes, and lack of exposure to crass sexualized imagery is healthy for girls.

The Pinkest Post I'll Ever Post, I Promise

I finally bought a proper camera a few days ago, and I already have shots I'd like to share with you. The blog could use more photos, I know -- partly because photos are pretty, and partly because that would mean less words. (You can take that last as self-deprecation or laziness; I mean it both ways.)

But my sharing them with you is currently impeded by an unsurprising lack of technological know-how. I will get help soon, and then the sharing will happen, and we will dance. For now, another measly old cell-phone photo, this one taken during a beautiful day on Long Island over the weekend. Spring has most certainly sprung out there:

Song 1: "Christmas"

OK, slight change of strategy. Someone famously said (though who remains a bit of a mystery) that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Fair enough, but I enjoy doing it anyway. (I also do a killer tango about Fallingwater.) So instead of the occasional "five songs" feature that you've all come to know and love -- and lord, how you love it -- I'm going to write about individual songs more often. My original plan was to choose 365 ahead of time and try to do one a day for a year, thus ensuring a certain run for the feature and that the blog would last at least one more year. But honestly, I reserve the right to bail at any time.

Today, we start with "Christmas" by Lori Carson. Last week, my brethren over at Pajiba asked readers to chip in with effective break-up songs. Being the equivocator that I am, I steered clear of trying to draft a list of songs, which might have taken many days and ended with me in the fetal position, and instead named an entire album, Carson's Where It Goes. This was her second solo effort after time spent singing with the Golden Palominos. Her debut, Shelter, suffered from cheesy production, and every one since Where It Goes has suffered from uneven-to-nonexistent songwriting. But to quote myself, this one was "stuffed with smart, bittersweet, delicately delivered songs that feel better (and by better, of course, I mean worse) after a break-up." Carson's voice is capable of being pristine, but she cracks it from time to time in a child-like way, and I'm sure some people would find this annoying.

"Christmas" is the last of 10 songs, the first nine of which detail various failures and sadnesses in relationships, so that by the time she breathily sings, "Love was hard to find, but we have," it sounds more tragic than triumphant. I know this song, and the entirety of Where It Goes, might only appeal to deep melancholics like myself. And perhaps I should've started this feature with something a bit more upbeat, like "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." Ah, well. I'll try to bring the mood up a bit with Song 2, whenever it appears.


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A Wednesday Song Dedication

Today's song is inspired by my friend Tim, whose beautiful wedding I attended in Houston a couple of weeks ago. It's his hero, David Bowie (hero's not too strong a word, right, Tim?), performing a soundcheck rehearsal of "Changes" in 1976. It's my favorite song of his.

Opp on Hitch

My brief and infrequent visits to The Huffington Post have never impressed me much. It seems like a place where unqualified C-list celebrities and minor political figures write humorless, often mindless rants that have been ranted many times before. (Jane Smiley is particularly good at this. But I cut her a lot of slack because she's a horse racing fan; not to mention a more graceful writer in other realms.)

But via Andrew Sullivan, I read this review by Mark Oppenheimer of Christopher Hitchens' new book, God Is Not Great, and it offers some food for thought (the review, not the book; the book might, too, but I haven't read it).

Oppenheimer writes:
...I especially admire Hitchens for The Missionary Position, his brave 1995 book explicating Mother Teresa's hypocrisy, sadism, and opportunistic alliances with bloody dictators. I am a fan of The Missionary Position because I believe that religion needs to be held up to frequent ridicule, even parody. It needs to be exposed to the light of reason, where it will sometimes wither, even die. As a man who loves religion and attends Jewish religious services, I fervently believe that we have too few Menckens, too few Tom Paines, too few Hitchenses.
Someone who expresses religious sympathies and still believes we have too few Menckens is OK with me. Of course, I don't necessarily agree -- Hitchens, Dawkins, seems like an army of Menckens is on the rise (at least vis a vis their stance toward religion -- to compare Dawkins' style with Mencken's would be a category mistake).

The review wraps up:
(Hitchens') book is useful as a primer against fundamentalism and zealotry, but most religious people are neither fundamentalists nor zealots. ... Hitchens seems to have done none of the reading on religion that might have broadened his thinking--no Wittgenstein, no Rudolf Otto, none of the phenomenologists who help explain why thoughtful, even intellectual people may be religious. I expected better from Hitchens, and I expect better from the rest of us.
The first question I have, and feel free to jump in here, is: Do you believe him, that most religious people are neither fundamentalist nor zealous? It's a sentiment I've been reflexively agreeing with in recent years, but I'm swinging back toward skepticism. It seems to me that any religious person with the courage of his or her convictions is automatically a step (or several steps) closer to fundamentalism.

In any case, I'm mostly amazed that, after so many thousands of years, otherwise intelligent hardcore atheists seem to believe more strongly than ever that all we need to eradicate religion is a few well-promoted polemics from major publishers. It's mystifying -- almost as much as the strictest religion is -- in the way it so thoroughly and stubbornly refuses to engage one of humanity's most expansive psychological territories.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A Late Poem

I've never claimed this blog is timely. National Poetry Month ended yesterday, so here's a belated mini-celebration -- one of my favorites, "When You Are Old" by Yeats:

When You Are Old

When you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

AP Headline of the Day

Woman Sentenced for Brandishing Snakes