Tuesday, July 31, 2007

AP Headline of the Day

Kurdish Gangs Emerge in Nashville

Eugenics Debate

If you're in the mood for a heated back and forth about an emotional subject -- and who isn't on a sunny Tuesday afternoon? -- then these posts by Ezra Klein and Ross Douthat (and their commenters) should do the trick.

Enjoy, and play nice.

Mascot Outcast

Jason W., a good friend and my source for almost all late-breaking mascot news, points me to this thread at a Chicago Cubs message board. (Scroll down just a bit for the story.)

It seems there's someone in Chicago trying to become the official mascot of the Cubs, but Wrigley Field doesn't allow costumed persons to enter the stadium. (What if there's a riot and Batman needs to get in to break it up?) According to the sympathetic fan who posted the message:
He has spent thousands of dollars on this costume (which is equipped with a complete cooling system). He has been let into Miller Park (in Milwaukee) with the costume, but is NOT allowed in Wrigley.
So this guy walks around outside the stadium during games, taking pictures with fans and pleading his case. He also has a web site, where you can sign a petition urging his official recognition. The site also features, um, a back story for "Billy Cub":
Billy Cub lives in the magical land of Belonore Ivy. One day Billy is out playing catch with his father and a lost dog walks by looking for his ball. Billy decides he will help Walter, the lost dog, find his ball. The task seams easy as Billy gathers many of his friends to help. The young animals discover that the evil Shadow Crows have taken Walter’s ball. The Shadow Crows are feared by all animals of Belonore Ivy. The evil Shadow Crows threaten the peaceful animals way of life. They continue to destroy the magical berries that the animals of Belonore Ivy depend on for their food source.
Errrr.... Maybe Wrigley has the right idea here.


Monday, July 30, 2007

AP Headline of the Day

Hollywood Pigeons to Be Put on the Pill

Two Links, and More Rest

OK, I'm going to stay (relatively) quiet again today, because I think we're still catching our breath. There have been complaints.

For now, I point you in two directions: To Paper Cuts, where there's a long excerpt of Woody Allen's 1988 review of Ingmar Bergman's autobiography, well worth reading. Bergman died today. He was 89.

And to Norm Geras, where a friend of mine has submitted her second entry for the short-short story series.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

State of the Blog

The posts are getting a bit wordy. Or, as someone recently put it, I'm "pouring it on." OK, so my free time has been a growth hormone for the blog. Since the next post that's almost ready is even wordier, I'll hold off posting it until Monday so we can catch our breath. In the meantime, my friend Tim recommends a poet.

Archive of the Day

From a profile by David Owen in The New Yorker (in 2000) of George Meyer, a writer for The Simpsons:
The credits in recent years have listed (Meyer) as one of several executive producers, but no title could adequately describe his role. He has so thoroughly shaped the program that by now the comedic sensibility of "The Simpsons" could be viewed as mostly his. ... I recalled a story that Mike Scully had told me earlier, about the most intense laughter he had ever heard in the rewrite room. The incident had occurred several years before, on a day when the staff was working on a subplot in which Homer, at a police auction, buys an impounded muscle car that formerly belonged to the town's resident criminal, Snake. Snake wants the car back, so he escapes from jail and contrives a recovery scheme worthy of Wile E. Coyote: he stretches a wire across a road in the hope of decapitating Homer as he drives by. The wire misses Homer, but his car is followed closely by another.

"The driver of the second car is holding a sandwich at a ridiculous angle high up over his head and saying, 'I told that idiot to slice my sandwich,' " Scully explained. "That's where we were going with the joke. But then George suddenly said, 'What if the wire cuts off his arm?' That made the people in the room laugh so hard that they were coughing - they were literally choking - because the joke was so unexpected. It was a shocked kind of laugh, and it just started rolling, one of those laughs that build the more they reverberate through you."

The Precarious Move to the Big Screen

To begin discussing The Simpsons Movie, it would be tough to beat the first lines of A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times:
I have long been of the opinion that the entire history of American popular culture — maybe even of Western civilization — amounts to little more than a long prelude to "The Simpsons." I don't think I'm alone in this belief.
He's not alone in that belief. I share it, and I'm sure many others do, too. I know a few of them.

Like so many fans of the show, I find myself quoting it often. I know how dorky this is (and how annoying to those who don't share the belief outlined above, though I don't care as much about them, since they're so wrong) -- but I'm convinced the habit is more defensible than attending Star Trek conventions or even quoting other funny enterprises, like Monty Python. Most hardcore fans of other cultural phenomenons gather together or recite well-known phrases to each other because the phenomenon represents another universe, a world away from our world. The language between them is a secret one. Quotes and scenes from "The Simpsons," though, frequently come to mind because some real-life situation has been perfectly mirrored/satirized/predicted by the show. I sometimes find myself describing a scene to someone who's not even a fan because of how well it illustrates (and comments on) something we’ve just experienced together. Do these people want to slap me? Of course they do. That's not the point.

The point is that "The Simpsons" has had something trenchant and hilarious to say about almost everything: conservatism, liberalism, religion, atheism, political corruption, political ineptitude, greed, charity, neighborliness, city life, suburban anomie, suburban consolations, parenting, schooling, work life, race relations, alcoholism, aging, the absurdity of newscasts, the absurdity of television, entrepreneurialism, laziness, immigration, assimilation, celebrity worship, young love, stale love, enduring love, the cruelty of children, environmentalism, gambling, vegetarianism, and space exploration. To name a few. This is to say nothing of the creativity the show brings to bear on those issues -- the expert parodies, the visual gags, the sprawling-but-contained-and-knowable universe of Springfield.

Here I have to admit I'm of the school (the majority school, I'm almost certain) that believes the show lost some of its power after Season 8. Partly this is because genius is difficult to maintain, especially when you’re burning through subjects/targets on a weekly basis. (What’s incredible is that the show’s peak lasted so long, for something like six seasons, with Season 4 representing a high mark for pop culture from which we’ll probably just keep plummeting.) Also, I think the show, however unconsciously, was influenced by the appearance of shows like "Family Guy," which piled on pop-cultural allusions and sight gags at a breakneck pace with little subtlety. At its best, the pace of "The Simpsons" was fast, but not reckless. It may have lost that perfect pitch, but it's still vastly superior to its competition.

As A.O. Scott goes on to say in that first paragraph:
But it does not follow that The Simpsons Movie represents a creative peak toward which the show’s 18 seasons and 400 episodes have been a long, slow climb. Let's keep things in perspective. "The Simpsons" is an inexhaustible repository of humor, invention and insight, an achievement without precedent or peer in the history of broadcast television, perhaps the purest distillation of our glories and failings as a nation ever conceived. The Simpsons Movie is, well, a movie.
True enough. The movie is fun, and a must-see for anyone who's ever worshipped the show, for however long. There are plenty of laughs, though a few groan-inducing moments, too (like an overlong scene in which Homer is swung back and forth on a wrecking ball between a giant rock and a bar called “A Hard Place”), which the show almost never had until the middle of its run. The plot is similar to a few episodes, involving the environmental degradation of Springfield (there’s a multi-eyed squirrel that recalls the three-eyed fish in the second season) and the eventual quarantining of the town. Other familiar elements include the straining of Marge and Homer's marriage due to the latter's carelessness, Ned Flanders' concern for the Simpsons children, and a desperate attempt to avoid the total destruction of Springfield. It's funnier than just about everything Hollywood tries to pass off as comedy these days, but it wouldn't make a list of the best 40 episodes of the TV show. It also gives minor characters a few lines, but there's something inevitably unsatisfying about the juggling of the cast, whereas the show was often strongest when it focused a story’s arc on one supporting player in particular, like when Apu wanted to become a U.S. citizen.

Over the years, the show has spent a lot of energy on show-stopping scenes like this one:

Ironically, on the big screen, it doesn't aim quite that high. The visuals are rich, and occasionally arresting, but the structure of the story and the nature of the jokes are modest, average by the show's standards. Luckily, average for this clan is superlative for almost everyone else.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Weekend

I saw The Simpsons Movie this afternoon, but the review will have to wait. I also have more words than you could possibly be interested in about The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. I hope to post both things sometime over the weekend. Man your computers.

For now, enjoy the screed below...it's what you get for reading a blog run by someone with his share of recreational-gambling experience.

No One at the New York Times Understands Gambling

In his entertaining memoir, Betting On Myself, Harvard-educated horse-racing writer Steven Crist tells of an incident early in his journalism career, when he asked Abe Rosenthal at the New York Times for permission to move from the op-ed page to the racing beat:
So I went to him, apologized profusely, and sought his blessing. He gave it conditionally: He would be very disappointed if I didn't get bored with racing within three years and come back to the newsroom. At 24, he said, I was still young enough to become a metro reporter at 27 and move on to Washington or Prague and eventually back to the newsroom as an editor. Racing could be a great beat for a young writer, he allowed, but it was a terrible world because of the gambling -- he knew because his father had been involved with bookmakers. If I stayed around the track for more than three years, he said, it meant I was a gambler and not a writer.
I imagine the Times would treat someone like Crist similarly today, and it's a shame, because they could use someone who knows a thing about gambling. Based on this op-ed piece, which I found through Jane Galt, they don't have such a person now. It has to be one of the most confounding things I've read in a major newspaper.

In it, Justin Wolfers, a professor at the very prestigious Wharton School, addresses the NBA gambling scandal, and believes there are ways to avoid similar situations in the future. I'm going to quote the piece at length, which means you'll probably spot all the logical errors before I point them out. Here we go:
...sports betting scandals are fairly common. They are the result of persistent economic incentives that can be traced to the structure of sports gambling markets. And these incentives can be changed.

The activity known as "point shaving" gets at the heart of the problem: a corrupt player or official is rarely asked to throw a game to one team or the other. Instead he is asked to influence something rather immaterial, like the winning margin. This is profitable because gamblers typically bet on whether a team will exceed some point differential — the "Vegas Spread" — rather than whether a certain team will win.

The common thread in each (scandal) has been the existence of large-scale betting on immaterial outcomes, like the point spread, or how many combined points the two teams will score... Not all gambling leads as easily to corruption. For instance, if betting were allowed only on which team would win a game or a series, then corrupt gamblers would find it much more difficult to get referees or players to cooperate with them. The Black Sox players are famous precisely because they are rare.
In terms of gambling, the spread is not "immaterial." The spread is everything. It's a number that's painstakingly reached to ensure equal action on each side of a proposition. Those who handle both legal and illegal bets make their money on a percentage they charge for their services (the vigorish, or the "vig"). They're most vulnerable when one side is heavily bet over another. You can bet on either team to "just win," as Wolfers suggests, but this requires odds (which replace the point spread), and greatly affects the money that's paid out. Let's use a non-sports example. Let's say Hillary Clinton represents a very strong team (the Spurs) and Dennis Kucinich represents a significantly weaker one (the Hawks). If you want to bet just that Clinton will garner more votes than Kucinich in the primaries -- if anyone would even take the bet -- you'd have to do something like put up $500 to win a buck. Likewise, if you wanted to wager that Kucinich would best Clinton at the polls, you would simply remove the rainbow-colored colander from your head and put down a dollar to potentially win $500. See how that works? (I know this is simple, but the Times ran this piece! I'm taking nothing for granted.) Now. I acknowledge that scenario is an extreme example of imbalance, but those bets aren't appealing to many people. Kucinich would only attract desperate Lottery-type players, and Clinton wouldn't offer enough money back to make it worth anyone's investment. So, how to handle this situation? A point spread! You decide, given all the relevant information, that Clinton is likely to get, say, 16 million more votes than Kucinich in the primaries. You establish the spread at 16 million, and voila -- you're likely to get a reasonably equal number of bets on both sides (if you don't, you've miscalculated the spread).

This is just to establish the fact that point spreads are essential to football and basketball betting. Without them, the markets would largely dry up. More from the op-ed:
If David Stern wants to reduce gambling-related corruption in the N.B.A., he should try to find a way to encourage the types of bets that do not promote corruption. When faced with a betting scandal, a sports league usually hardens its anti-gambling stance. But that doesn’t work. A smarter approach would be to become more tolerant of some kinds of gambling in an effort to crowd out the bets that create incentives for scoreboard manipulation.

That’s right: Legalizing wagering on which team wins or loses a particular game, while banning all bets on immaterial outcomes like point spreads, would destroy the market for illegal bookmakers and make sporting events less corruptible by gamblers.

Point-shaving is a crime of opportunity, and the opportunity comes from the structure of sports betting markets. The commissioners of the major sports need to address these systemic issues.
We've jumped the rails. First, Wolfers has the creation story backwards in what I bolded above. The illegal gambling market doesn't exist because bookies make point spreads; bookies make point spreads because the illegal gambling market exists.

Secondly, I have no idea why Wolfers believes that Stern, or any other commissioner, has any effect on what gambling propositions are or aren't allowed. So when he writes that Stern should "try to find a way to encourage the types of bets that do not promote corruption," he can only rationally mean Stern should encourage players, refs, and other league employees to make different kinds of bets, but of course, he can't mean that. He somehow thinks illegal sports gambling -- by far the majority of sports gambling -- will be influenced by a league's anger or needs. It won't. It's up to the league to avoid corruption. Point spreads aren't going anywhere. They remain as material, for the gambler, as the chair I'm sitting on.

"Go back to Russia!"

Just to get everyone in the mood, a long clip from a great episode:

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Homer, Not Harry

I haven't read a word of the Harry Potter books, so I'm not joining the rest of the known universe in responding to the finale. I don't have anything against the series (again, having not read a word), I'm just not interested.

I am quite eager for the Simpsons to hit the big screen, though, and I'm hoping to go early tomorrow and have something posted by the end of the day. In fact, there will be a few posts devoted to the show and the movie over the weekend. The first review I've seen is from The New York Sun, and even though it's mixed, I took comfort in this:
..."The Simpsons Movie" must tread a tricky path between satisfying an encyclopedically equipped fan base and a general audience. Even among devotees, there are several camps deeply dug in at different milestones along the 18-season spectrum. And the filmmakers implicitly stake a claim by drawing the staff of 11 writers from earlier eras of the show.

The 'Burbs

This science blogger asks, earnestly, "What's so good about the suburbs?" and gets a few interesting answers, including from someone in Huntsville, Alabama, who argues for their home as a city (of sorts). I was a suburban creature until I moved to New York when I was almost 27, so I feel like I know both experiences pretty well. Big-city living has two major advantages -- access to culture and public transportation (though even many cities are weak on that second part). I'd score most of the rest for the suburbs (living space, noise levels, cleanliness, grocery stores, etc.), but the wild card is socializing. City life creates more opportunities for it, and I think also attracts the kind of people who want to socialize more frequently. I'm not someone who wants the typical picket-fence set-up, but if I had good friends around, I wouldn't have a problem with the 'burbs. Of course, there are some that seem too creepy for words.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Ain't Love Grand?

I don't feel as bad about posting videos when I'm keeping up a reasonable pace with other material. It feels less like cheating. So here's another, this one too stylish and charming not to share. (Via Moreover)

AP Headline of the Day

Volunteers Sought to Be Stung by Jellyfish

Better Yourself: Read This Blog

I recently added a link to the blogroll without explanation, waiting for permission to post what's below before I made the big introduction. The blog is called The List of Betterment, and it's maintained (sporadically, but brilliantly) by Andy Miller, a British writer and former book editor who has been reading classics (both ancient and modern) and sharing his opinions. His quest to catch up on these books -- many of which he's falsely claimed to have read (at cocktail parties, etc.) -- will be chronicled in his own book, out next year. I was to be the book's U.S. editor, and leaving it behind caused me no small amount of grief. It's going to be a must-read.

Miller has graciously allowed me to share the following post with you. It's about The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the first known works of literature. It predates the Iliad by a millennium. (What's the opposite of "anxiety of influence"?)

Here's Miller. Check out his blog for lots more:
Its historical significance is undeniable but The Epic of Gilgamesh was also the favourite book of a man I used to work with at a bookshop in the early 1990s. His name was David and he was, and still is, an artist – I heard him on Radio 4 a few months ago, discussing a new piece of his work, a collaborative project with old people suffering from senile dementia, and utilizing the same lifelike politeness he used to practise on customers. When I knew him he bought the art books and laboured in the shop’s unpacking room. He was both charismatic and rather intimidating. In addition to Gilgamesh, he was also a fan of, variously: high-quality black t-shirts from boutiques (as opposed to crappy ones from Camden market, as worn by me); pilfered medical slides, showing real hermaphrodites, amputees etc., which he would giggle over during tea-breaks; Laurie Anderson’s concept albums; the art of Joel-Peter Witkin, whose photographic portraits were comprised of severed body parts, fat women knocking nails into their own heads etc.; occasional recreational drug use; Polaroid photographs of ironing boards, in use or propped up in repose, which he intended to publish in a book, a high quality cloth-bound limited edition of one (I hope he did it); and Moby-Dick.

David liked Moby-Dick a lot. Did I first try to read it to get in with him? Probably. Our bookshop co-worker Mike read it at around the same time. Mike was the singer in a band called the Becketts. Whereas I couldn’t get past the first hundred pages, Mike was so bowled over by Moby-Dick he wrote a song about it called ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’, which the Becketts recorded for their second album Myth – 600 pages condensed to three indie-rock minutes. It was quite catchy. The chorus went:

“Ship to shore!
What Ahab saw
Before it drooowned him!”

Short but ingenious.

Anyway, Gilgamesh. I don’t remember exactly what it was David – never Dave – liked so much about the story, but I know it was the first time I had ever heard of it; reading the tale fifteen years later is probably another belated attempt to get in with him. Well, David, this time I’ve actually read it. And if I were to condense it in song, the chorus would go like this:

God or flesh
You’re only huuuuman!

(Which, if you know what happens in the book, is really clever, trust me...)

In his introduction, the translator-poet Stephen Mitchell hammers the parallels between the ancient text and the current situation in Iraq (Gilgamesh = Bush), but he’s got a book to sell, so let’s ignore him. This is a great big rollicking story of gods and superheroes, with plenty of sex, violence, tests and quests, a Noah-like flood, a clever, textually-aware ending and a suitable comeuppance for the order-defying hero. It easily survives the translation from clay tablet to page, and from the second millennium BC to the 21st century AD.

For the lesson of Gilgamesh is this. It teaches us not just that power corrupts (yes, Stephen Mitchell, WE GET IT!) but more importantly it shows us that, whether in ancient Mesopotamia, historic Earls Court or contemporary Kent, people will always want to read about acts of insane bravery, sexually rapacious priestesses and men chopping the heads off monsters. But only a few people want to read about ironing boards. And those are the ones I like.

Wednesday Song

I'm sure I've written this here before, but I think Neil Finn is a greatly underrated songwriter. Crowded House recently released a new record, but in 1996, they held a farewell concert outside the Sydney Opera House. As you can see from this clip of "Fall At Your Feet," the band, which formed in Australia, has a healthy number of fans there. Enjoy:

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Archive of the Day

From Marcus Aurelius' Meditations:
Nothing can happen to any human being outside the experience which is natural to humans -- an ox too experiences nothing foreign to the nature of oxen, a vine nothing foreign to the nature of vines, a stone nothing outside the property of a stone. So if each thing experiences what is usual and natural for it, why should you complain? Universal nature has brought you nothing you can't endure.

Albert Ellis, 1913-2007

Albert Ellis has died. Ellis was a massively influential psychotherapist who thought Freud was full of it (in short) and helped pioneer cognitive behavioral therapy. The New York Times obit includes this:
If his ideas broke with conventions, so did his manner of imparting them. Irreverent, charismatic, he was called the Lenny Bruce of psychotherapy. In popular Friday evening seminars that ran for decades, he counseled, prodded, provoked and entertained groups of 100 or more students, psychologists and others looking for answers, often lacing his comments with obscenities for effect.
In addition to talking to a few people about Ellis' methods lately, I've always remembered a great short piece about him that Adam Green published in The New Yorker in 2003. Among other things, it backs up the obscenity claim:
Ellis started out as a psychoanalyst, in 1947, but soon decided that exploring his patients’ childhood traumas had “nothing to do with the price of spinach.” By the mid-fifties, he had devised his own method, based on the premise, set forth by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, that people are disturbed not by what happens to them but by their view of what happens to them, and also on his personal observation that, as he said the other day, “all humans are out of their fucking minds—every single one of them.”

Two Josephs

I'm finally reading Joe Gould's Secret by Joseph Mitchell. Actually, the book is composed of two classic essays, "Professor Sea Gull" and "Joe Gould's Secret," published twenty-two years apart in The New Yorker (1942 and 1964). The first essay is shorter by far. It's a profile of Gould, an eccentric, Harvard-educated homeless man in Greenwich Village, and one of the best things I've read in a while. It details, among other things, Gould's ongoing attempt to complete a massive oral history of modern times, his distaste for possessions ("If Mr. Chrysler tried to make me a present of the Chrysler Building, I'd damn near break my neck fleeing from him. I wouldn't own it; it'd own me."), and his spirited imitations of sea gulls at refined cocktail parties.

Here's a taste:
As long as he can remember, Gould has been perplexed by his own personality. There are a number of autobiographical essays in the Oral History, and he says that all of them are attempts to explain himself to himself. In one, "Why I Am Unable To Adjust Myself To Civilization, Such As It Is, or Do, Don't, Do, Don't, A Hell Of A Note," he came to the conclusion that his shyness was responsible for everything. "I am introvert and extrovert all rolled in one," he wrote, "a warring mixture of the recluse and the Sixth Avenue auctioneer. One foot says do, the other says don't. One foot says shut your mouth, the other says bellow like a bull. I am painfully shy, but try not to let people know it. They would take advantage of me." Gould keeps his shyness well hidden. It is evident only when he is cold sober. In that state he is silent, suspicious, and constrained, but a couple of beers or a single jigger of gin will untie his tongue and put a leer on his face. He is extraordinarily responsive to alcohol. "On a hot night," he says, "I can walk up and down in front of a gin mill for ten minutes, breathing real deep, and get a jag on."
The second piece, also fascinating, was published after Gould's death and sheds light on the previous essay.

Years ago, I owned Up in the Old Hotel, a collection of Mitchell's writing, but never really dove in. Technically, that copy might still be among my possessions -- in a parent's garage or a long-buried box or on the shelf of a friend who borrowed it and never returned it -- but I felt compelled to buy another copy today. I recently had lunch with a friend, who said, "It's amazing reading him now how clear his writing is, but also how obvious it is that he made lots of stuff up."

Joe Gould's Secret features a quote from Vogue on the cover that calls Mitchell "the great artist/reporter of our century." What a great slash that is. Not everyone agrees -- though my friend and I do -- that in some cases fudging of the facts can be forgiven if in the service of great artistry. Jack Shafer at Slate published this piece in 2003 about the reporters -- Mitchell, A. J. Liebling, H. L. Mencken -- whose legacy preceded Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and other recent "fabulists."
...Joseph Mitchell...also diluted fact with fib. In the mid-'40s, he wrote three New Yorker pieces about New York's Fulton Fish Market, which were presented as fact. Only when the stories were collected as a book, Old Mr. Flood, in 1948 did Mitchell offer this disclaimer: "Mr. Flood is not one man; combined in him are aspects of several old men who work or hang out in Fulton Fish Market, or who did in the past." In a 1992 article, the New Criterion catalogs a few of his embellishments: Mitchell assigned Flood his own birthday, July 27; his "gustatory predilections"; his love for the Bible; his high regard for Mark Twain; his taste for columnist Heywood Broun; and his affection for all things old.
For this reason and many others, it seems Mitchell was just as rich a subject as the city denizens he regularly chronicled. According to Wikipedia:
Mitchell's account of Gould's extravagantly disguised case of writer's block...presaged the last decades of Mitchell's own life. From 1964 until his death in 1996, Mitchell would go to work at his office on a daily basis, but he never published anything significant again. In a remembrance of Mitchell printed in the June 10, 1996, issue of The New Yorker, his colleague Roger Angell wrote: "Each morning, he stepped out of the elevator with a preoccupied air, nodded wordlessly if you were just coming down the hall, and closed himself in his office. He emerged at lunchtime, always wearing his natty brown fedora (in summer, a straw one) and a tan raincoat; an hour and a half later, he reversed the process, again closing the door. Not much typing was heard from within, and people who called on Joe reported that his desktop was empty of everything but paper and pencils. When the end of the day came, he went home. Sometimes, in the evening elevator, I heard him emit a small sigh, but he never complained, never explained."

"A dreadful hoax."

The creators of "South Park" made this animation set to the words of Alan Watts, and I find it funny and poignant. Perhaps it's the way-too-early mid-life crisis that I'm working on, or maybe it's just that the drawings are truly funny and Watts' words are truly poignant. Enjoy:

(Via Andrew Sullivan)

Monday, July 23, 2007

Abbott's Openers

A few months ago, I bought a copy of All Things, All At Once: New and Selected Stories by Lee K. Abbott. It was one of the countless impulsive book purchases that eventually make moving such a royal pain for me. Oh, and gives me a nice library, too, so I'm not complaining.

I'd only vaguely heard of Abbott, but Richard Ford, William Kennedy, and others spoke highly of him on the jacket, and I was on a mission to read more short stories as part of my effort to write more of them. I haven't started the collection yet, but flipping through it today, I noticed that Abbott doesn't waste much time getting out of the gate. Here are some of his first sentences:
She was Betty Porter, a being as much of magic as of muscle, and I who I ever am -- Heath "Pokey" Howell (Junior), banker, Luna County commissioner and, as events will prove, the dimmest of sinners, male type.

Several years ago, about the time my wife Vicki began talking about suing me for divorce, my best friend, Newt Grider -- who had to him all the virtues you expect from men in middle age -- told me he believed in UFOs.

Though I am still called Bubba by some I do and do not like, my real name is Cecil Fitzgerald Toomer, and this adventure that's happened to me starts with the idea, no doubt loony to ordinary citizens in the big world, that what I know about love comes not from falling in it once, but from watching, years and years ago now, nearly one thousand yards of Super-8 movie in the cinder-block film room at the University of New Mexico and seeing something in football that, by the end of it, had me quietly, well, weeping over the 265 pounds I was.

As I Was Saying

A quick follow-up to the post below. Andrew Sullivan just linked to this post by James Fallows, and particularly this paragraph:
The pattern is too strong to be ignored: traditional conservatives (Heritage) and libertarians (Cato) have done a better job of thinking about how a free society can defend itself without giving up its freedom than the Democratic or Republican establishment has. Unlike Democrats, they're not so worried about looking "weak" that they have to posture about every conceivable threat. Unlike the Administration -- well, they're sane.

Ron Paul, Iraq, and the Political Future

Over drinks on Saturday night (perhaps too many to make the conversation illuminating), friends and I were discussing the long-term impact of the war in Iraq. I remain of the opinion -- more than ever, in fact -- that the more the war is seen as a disaster, the more it will help traditional conservative thinking. As an independent, I'm not much concerned about the fate of either major party, but I think Democratic strategists would be wise to focus on the first three letters in "neocon." If it's true that current policy can be attributed to the ascendancy of a group of Republicans (Cheney, Wolfowitz, et al.) who subvert traditional conservative thinking (regarding interventionism, nation-building, etc.), then it's by no means certain that a reaction to that necessitates voting for Democrats. In fact, the long-term fallout might just benefit stricter, more traditional conservatism. And perhaps more to my point, the fallout also makes liberals sound a lot more like isolationists, which is a fascinating turnaround.

As the profile of him in yesterday's New York Times Magazine argues, Ron Paul almost certainly won't be the next president. But as the candidate himself smartly says, "Politicians don’t amount to much, but ideas do.” And his campaign says a lot about the shifting ground of political ideas and allegiances. Take this:
(Paul) is particularly popular among the young and the wired. Except for Barack Obama, he is the most-viewed candidate on YouTube. He is the most “friended” Republican on MySpace.com.
This is the strange bedfellows part. It seems unlikely that a libertarian from Texas would be connecting with so many young people if his opposition to the war didn't provide him with a large issue to distract from many of his more radical views.

But more than the youth angle, Paul's popularity, no matter how fleeting it might prove, reflects the ways in which philosophical conservatism (the kind that Andrew Sullivan writes about daily) will likely benefit from the Bush administration. Maybe not in '08, but eventually. Again, from the Times article by Christopher Caldwell:
Paul represents a different Republican Party from the one that Iraq, deficits and corruption have soured the country on. In late June, despite a life of antitax agitation and churchgoing, he was excluded from a Republican forum sponsored by Iowa antitax and Christian groups. His school of Republicanism, which had its last serious national airing in the Goldwater campaign of 1964, stands for a certain idea of the Constitution — the idea that much of the power asserted by modern presidents has been usurped from Congress, and that much of the power asserted by Congress has been usurped from the states. Though Paul acknowledges flaws in both the Constitution (it included slavery) and the Bill of Rights (it doesn’t go far enough), he still thinks a comprehensive array of positions can be drawn from them: Against gun control. For the sovereignty of states. And against foreign-policy adventures.
Remember when Bush was emphasizing his stance against nation-building during the 2000 debates? At the time, based on broad truths about the major parties, that made perfect sense. He's since turned that sense on its head (and dunked it in the toilet and stolen its lunch money), which makes the future of American politics more complicated, not less, even if the current (dis)approval ratings make things look crystal clear.

Five Songs, Chapter Twenty-One

Yes, this feature is back. Writing about one song at a time just didn't do it for me. More accurately, it was fine, but I just didn't remember to do it as often as I remember to do five at a time. So, even though no one seems particularly fond of this, deal with it.

"Springfield, IL" by Slobberbone

"I've always said that if we ever overcome the stigma of our name, we'll know that we've truly arrived." That's singer Brent Best, who headed Slobberbone, named for the item that a dog perpetually chews. The band formed in Denton, Texas, and they were something a bit stranger than alt-country. Their best heartfelt, slower songs are very much in the mold of that genre, but they also melded punk rock and hillbilly rock, and weren't afraid to pen some pretty silly lyrics if a line or two might be worth a laugh. This song, off the band's final album, Slippage, is repetitive in the lyrics department, but like so much of the group's work, it rocks.

"Lullaby" by Loudon Wainwright III

Wainwright (Rufus' daddy) recorded songs for the movie Knocked Up. I only remember a couple of them being featured ("Grey in L.A." and "Daughter," both good and both at the end of the movie), but the whole album of music "from and inspired by" the flick is pretty good. "Lullaby" is evidently a new version of an older song of his. It sounds like something Lyle Lovett might record, which is a big compliment.

Various unknown songs by Band of Horses

I saw Band of Horses play a free show at a park in Brooklyn yesterday afternoon, and though I don't know any titles, they played a handful of new songs off their forthcoming album. I think it's going to be a very good one.

"Too Young to Fall in Love" by Motley Crue

I felt old at the Band of Horses show. Not old, really, but just terribly cranky. The words "hipster scum" kept running through my brain as I surveyed the crowd. This wasn't a surprise; the concert was in Williamsburg, the exit point of the city's Hipster Drainage Pipe. I saw at least three people wearing old Motley Crue T-shirts. The back of one read, "The Crue is back, and they've brought the doctor." I assume that's Dr. Feelgood of the Mayo Clinic. In any case, "Too Young to Fall in Love" is a good song.

"Sorry" by Youth Group

A certain someone is rolling her eyes at this one. But while I try to determine where this band falls on the guilty pleasure scale, I'm just enjoying the fact that "Sorry" sounds like a really good James out-take. (OK, that's not going to help the eye-rolling.)


Late Start

I have a few things to post today, and meant to get started earlier, but watching television while eating my breakfast, I accidentally stumbled onto "The View," where the ladies were earnestly discussing the death of Tammy Faye Bakker, and the experience left me with 12 fewer IQ points and, more to the point, a temporary lack of desire to blog, read, plan my day, or generally rejoin the human project.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


If you're ready for a vicarious thrill, check out (via Metafilter) some landings of airplanes at Princess Juliana Airport on the island of Saint Martin. First, some background, from Wikipedia:
The airport is famous for its short landing strip — only 7,152 ft which is barely enough for heavy jets. Because of this, the planes approach the island flying extremely low, right over Maho Beach. Countless photos of large jets flying at 10-20 m/30-60 ft over relaxing tourists at the beach have been dismissed as photoshopped many times, but are nevertheless real. For this reason as well it has become a favourite for planespotters.
Now, check out one of the videos. Yikes:

Procreation Without End

I haven't come across many people, on the street or online, who believe that unceasing population growth is a good thing for the planet, but Michael over at 2 Blowhards evidently has, and he's written a funny post about it:
Honestly, I'm not sure what to make of people who applaud and advocate population-growth-without-end. What kind of future do they envision, after all? Colonizing outer space perhaps? OK, let's see ... Rocket ships transporting people to Mars ... Hmmm. With world population going up 80 million every year ... If we were able to launch 300 people per rocket ... Carry the three .... OK, if I'm dividing right -- and please doublecheck me here -- it would take something like 250,000 launchings a year -- or around 750 successful rocket launches per day -- to rid the earth of just one year's worth of extra people. That scenario seems to me a wee bit farfetched. Call me a cultural pessimist, I don't care.
I find really dense populations exhausting and endlessly irritating myself. You might think someone like that wouldn't live in New York, but here I am.

A Thought for Today

"The majority of men are subjective towards themselves and objective towards all others, terribly objective sometimes -- but the real task is in fact to be objective towards oneself and subjective towards all others." --Kierkegaard

Norm, Meet Norm

Norm Geras was once kind enough to include me in his blogger profile series. For his 200th entry, he has the good idea to interview himself.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Worst Lyrics Ever?

Don't ask me how I know this (OK, I know it because an NPR-addicted friend just heard something about it), but country star Brad Paisley has a song called "Ticks." Check out some of these lyrics:
And in the small there of your back
your jeans are playing peek a boo
I'd like to see the other half
of your butterfly tattoo
I know the perfect little path
out in these woods I used to hunt
Don't worry babe I've got your back
and I've also got your front
But those are nothing (nothing!) compared to the chorus:
'Cause I'd like to see you out in the moonlight
I'd like to kiss you way back in the sticks
I'd like to walk you through a field of wildflowers
and I'd like to check you for ticks
I don't think even Jane Goodall would find that romantic.

And I just learned this on Wikipedia: "Physical contact is the only method of transportation for ticks. Ticks do not jump or fly, although they may drop from their perch and fall onto a host." What a strange phrase that first sentence makes. I wonder if it's true of Paisley, too, like he just has to stand there at the end of a concert until a roadie passes and he can reach out for a piggyback or grab on to a sock.

Madison v. Marbury, Plessy v. Ferguson, Edwards v. Poverty

Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards, whose complexion strangely resembles that of the original Oompa-Loompas, recently embarked on a "poverty tour," a 12-city opportunity to stress the strength of his belief that addressing poverty should be a top concern in this country. Actually, this NPR story phrases it more strongly than that, saying that Edwards "has pinned his campaign largely on ending poverty in America." (Emphasis mine.) The story goes on to say, "The journey mirrors the famous 1968 tour of impoverished areas by then-senator and presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy." Ah, yes, the '68 tour that ended poverty in America, only to see it return in 1975.

Has Edwards also promised to end sadness? Rain?

(I see that The Onion, not surprisingly, has beaten me to the punch. And a friend of mine made this funny video.)

Edwards is smart, but my problem with him has always been that he comes across as (Bill) Clinton Lite, with his smarmy grin and a bit too much "feeling of pain" for my taste. When I hear Barack Obama speak, I feel like he's trying to engage me in an adult conversation, whereas I feel like Edwards is trying to convince me that -- well, that he can do things like end poverty. (This is all opposed to Hillary. When she speaks, I feel like she's straining to send her invisible rays into my brain; the ones that will compel me to immediately find the nearest polling booth and pull the lever to make her The Most Powerful Person in the World. Then she will crush me into a fine powder and dust me into her bottle of Gatorade.)

But if you're eager for the end of the Bush administration (and I think that roughly translates these days to "if you're American, or just sentient, or are tied up to some machines and have a remaining flicker of brain activity"), then the most infuriating thing about Edwards must be his inability to capitalize on the country's current mood. Edwards voted to authorize Bush to start the war in Iraq, so you can understand his reticence to focus too much on the issue, but we're a forgiving people. Instead, the NPR interview makes clear that he's happy to have Iraq serve as one of many issues that will fuel his campaign. Intellectually, this seems admirable and right. But strategically, it might be a bit soft. But cut-throat strategy hasn't been a problem recently for Democrats, has it?



AP Headline of the Day

Bon Jovi Objects to Name of Energy Drink

On Poetry and Caption-Writing

I enjoyed this post at Paper Cuts, in which a poet talks to Dwight Garner about winning the cartoon caption contest at The New Yorker.

Elliott, a Day Late

The last couple of Wednesdays have been spent away from the computer, so no songs. Here's one from the dearly departed:

Two Friends of Mine

One friend has a short-short story up over at Norm Geras' site, and the other is recounting a week of dining around Brooklyn for The Economist.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Mascot Beat Down

Deadspin directs us to this entertaining video of Lou Seal, a Giants mascot, getting shoved by a fan after shooting silly string into the crowd. I'll just point out two things, and then let you enjoy the fan's temper and ejection from the stadium. First, it seems like the fan is preparing to go after the mascot even before he's hit with silly string. He's just spoiling for a fight with any old foam dude. Secondly, with about 33 seconds remaining, the mascot flips his sunglasses back off his face, as if to say, "It. Is. On." That is a great moment.

Supporting Material

Over at the newest addition to my nascent blog empire, Existent Light, you can see some more photos from the past week.

On the bookshelves at the lake house, I found a vintage copy of The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. In it, Peale recounts an anecdote about a stressed-out businessman who's told by a preacher to spend a decent amount of time each week in a cemetery, to remind himself that the wheels of business will keep turning without him. To remind himself that he's not only dispensable, but will inevitably be dispensed with. As it happened, our friend recommended we see a cemetery just up the hill from the other house we stayed in. The humble space features some recent graves, but many from the 1800's, and some as far back as the late 1700's. I don't know the etiquette of taking photos in such a place is, but I took some, and posted a few here.

In a more spontaneous moment, on our way to Saratoga Springs for dinner one night, we pulled off the road to admire a hulking old structure that was probably used to manufacture one of the many things that used to support the upstate economy but no longer do. Some shots of that are here.

Archive of the Day

From Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow:
Despite such experiences Houdini never developed what we think of as a political consciousness. He could not reason from his own hurt feelings. To the end he would be almost totally unaware of the design of his career, the great map of revolution laid out by his life. He was a Jew. His real name was Erich Weiss. He was passionately in love with his ancient mother whom he had installed in his brownstone home on West 113th Street. In fact Sigmund Freud had just arrived in America to give a series of lectures at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and so Houdini was destined to be, with Al Jolson, the last of the great shameless mother lovers, a nineteenth-century movement that included such men as Poe, John Brown, Lincoln and James McNeill Whistler. Of course Freud's immediate reception in America was not auspicious. A few professional alienists understood his importance, but to most of the public he appeared as some kind of German sexologist, an exponent of free love who used big words to talk about dirty things. At least a decade would have to pass before Freud would have his revenge and see his ideas begin to destroy sex in America forever.

Ah, Books

While away, I was reintroduced to the act of reading. This is when you make your way through a book (usually in its entirety), set it down, pick up another, and make your way through that one. Rinse and repeat.

I read The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, and some of The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton, which I'm still reading (and which is deeply strange). Chesterton seems to have started his adult life as a normal-looking fellow before getting a perm and morphing into some kind of diabolical walrus.

Longer posts on all of these books will follow.

Back to Batless Life

Greetings from sweltering Brooklyn. Where the hell did all the chipmunks go?

Forgive any testiness. For all of my borough's strengths, including a world-class public park, it doesn't quite have this:

Brooklyn, for me, also has its share of what is commonly known as "real life" -- career issues, residency issues, issues issues. Of course, one thing Brooklyn doesn't have, at least not in a way I've had to confront, is bats. In our last night at a lake house upstate (we spent a few more days after that at a non-lake house), it was just about shut-eye time. Seconds before I was going to put down my book and turn off the light, a UFO entered the bedroom and circled it, gently fluttering, two or three times. We, not so gently, got the hell out of there. Of course, my exit would have been even less gentle (and here I picture George Costanza violently pushing past children and the elderly to escape a fire in a classic episode of "Seinfeld") if I had initially realized it was a bat and not a robin or sparrow. It was only after we secured the bedroom door and reached the living room to strategize that I thought about things: like, the bats we had seen swarming around a distant streetlight a couple of nights before, feasting on the bugs there; or one of our gracious hosts, who we had visited the day before, mentioning a problem with bats at the family's more rural houses.

Rather than boring you with the protracted story of how we got the critter out, I'll simply break it down to its essential details: patience, cowardice, standing outside in a light drizzle looking in at the bat, planning/stalling, darting into the room to open glass windowpanes, poking at the bat with a broom through a screen (aka "more cowardice"), popping open window screens from outside the house, patience, talking to the bat (mostly repeating things like "Fly out the open window, you idiot," and "You're disgusting.")

Eventually, he left. And after having watched him, at one point, crawl along the foot of the bed, we slept in the house's other bedroom. Because in conclusion, I'd like to say that bats are really, really gross. I gaze down at rats scurrying across subway tracks on a nearly daily basis (life in New York is just so damn pleasant), and bats have them beat. They're hairy and creepy like rats, but they also squeak in a chilling way, they have webbed wings that they poke around like stunted arms from hell, and they can fly at you. Game, set, match.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Death by Leisure

It seems you've been visiting with something resembling regularity while I'm away, which is nice of you. Of course, as one friend put it, "I checked the blog this morning to see if you had gotten your shit together to post anything," and that's less nice. I do wish I rewarded your loyalty with greater frequency. I wish many things.

Leisure is getting the better of us up here, not in the sense that we want it to end, but in the sense that we're running out of leisure activities. We've gone on a walk through a nature conservancy; we've spent time in a lake; we've grilled food, we've fried food, we've eaten raw food; we've flicked large beetles off each other; we've dealt with a bat in a house (much more on that when I return for real in a day or two); we've read sitting on a deck, on a screened-in porch, on a recliner; we've watched several episodes of Veronica Mars (more on that soon, too); we've had a fair share of ice cream and wine; we've gazed at fireflies, bunny rabbits, and chipmunks; we've driven over sun-dappled farm roads and through ferocious rainstorms; we've spent time in Albany and Saratoga in addition to the smaller towns in which we've been generously housed; we've been mostly staying offline and unplugged; and we've been wondering -- or at least I have -- exactly how this re-entry to city life is going to work. Twenty-four hours till we find out.

I hope everyone is well. Some pictures and longer stories from the trip will go up here over the next few days, but I also have plenty of material for posts that don't exclusively concern my recreational life. More soon.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Why I'm Not Here, If I'm Not Here

I'm out of here in the morning, heading up to beautiful, semi-rural (fully rural compared to Brooklyn) environs outside of Albany for 10 days, and can't make any promises about finding the time, inspiration, or Internet-capability to blog while I'm gone. I know how painful it is to contemplate a week without me yawning before you. I'll see what I can do.

Despite the jokes, it's mostly painful for me -- too many consecutive days of abstinence and I get a case of the blog DTs. So, with luck, brief updates throughout the week. Without luck, see you on the 16th.

New York, Sky Country

Against Dawkins/Engaging Freud

David Sloan Wilson, despite being a fellow atheist, doesn't much care for Richard Dawkins' treatment of the subject. His explanation of why is long and science-wonky, but worth reading. (Via Andrew Sullivan; actually, I'm not sure that link I gave is working properly, so you can get to it through Sullivan if needed.)

While I was upstate celebrating the Fourth, I picked up my host's copy of Civilization and Its Discontents by Freud, and found this passage on the very first page:
There are a few men from whom their contemporaries do not withhold admiration, although their greatness rests on attributes and achievements which are completely foreign to the aims and ideals of the multitude. One might easily be inclined to suppose that it is after all only a minority which appreciates these great men, while the large majority cares nothing for them. But things are probably not as simple as that, thanks to the discrepancies between people's thoughts and their actions, and to the diversity of their wishful impulses.

One of these exceptional few calls himself my friend in his letters to me. I had sent him my small book that treats religion as an illusion, and he answered that he entirely agreed with my judgment upon religion, but that he was sorry I had not properly appreciated the true source of religious sentiments. This, he says, consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of 'eternity', a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded -- as it were, 'oceanic'. This feeling, he adds, is a purely subjective fact, not an article of faith; it brings with it no assurance of personal immortality, but it is the source of the religious energy which is seized upon by the various Churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels, and doubtless also exhausted by them. One may, he thinks, rightly call oneself religious on the ground of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one rejects every belief and every illusion.
I like his friend's sentiment quite a bit. Of course, before long Freud takes issue, ascribing the oceanic feeling to "...the infant's helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it..." Which, like so many psychological arguments, is interesting but not finally convincing to me. If the oceanic feeling is mostly in response to feeling helpless, might it follow that people should feel it most potently when they feel most helpless? (I ask earnestly.) Yet that oceanic feeling has occasionally come over me in moments of great security and comfort -- this, too, can be explained psychologically, but I'm not sure in the same way Freud intends. He probably gets around to that. I'll have to read the rest of the book and write a less embarrassing follow-up post. I'm bringing it on vacation with me, but forgive me if it proves a bit too heady for the leisurely getaway I'm seeking.

Very Short Story

For the second year in a row, Norm Geras is posting short-short stories (250 words or less) on his site. For the second year in a row, I've contributed one. For the second year in a row, it's something I've sloppily excised from a longer work in progress, which I hope Norm doesn't mind.

Besieged Mascot Turns to Abby

Dear Abby fields a question from a mascot this week. Well, he's less of a mascot than a "professional costume wearer." And it's less of a question than just an imploration to stop beating the crap out of him:
I am in costume for about an hour or so before I can take breaks. It gets hot and sweaty inside these costumes. I have a limited field of vision and can't see many of the oncoming attacks. Even if I saw each one, I would not be able to say anything to stop or deflect these random attacks. What I do is have a paid "helper" walk beside me. This is now discouraging such actions by adults and children.
(Tip of the hat to friend JW for the link.)


Anthony and Louis

Two must-reads in The New Yorker this week by my two favorite staff writers: Anthony Lane's review of Transformers, and Louis Menand's review of The Myth of the Rational Voter.

Setting Lane loose on Michael Bay is almost unfair -- well, no, it is unfair, but so entertaining that who cares about fairness? A taste:
The film that ensues is acrylically bright, and the only way to match its median sound level would be to blow up a trombone factory...

Long ago, when the impact of “Star Wars” was beefed up by a line of merchandise, some of us noticed that the five-inch Lukes and Leias possessed a depth and mobility that was denied to their onscreen counterparts, and, decades later, we have reached the reductio ad absurdum of that rivalry: rather than spin the toys off from the movie, why not build the movie from the toys?...

In previous movies, Michael Bay dabbled wearily in Homo sapiens. At last he has summoned the courage to admit that he has an exclusive crush on machines, and I congratulate him on creating, in “Transformers,” his first truly honest work of art.
Menand, meanwhile, is brilliant (as usual) in summing up and then arguing against the thesis of the book under review. I would excerpt it, but that wouldn't do it justice. Go and read it.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A Song for Wednesday the 4th

Simon & Garfunkel singing about today's birthday girl in Central Park:

Monday, July 02, 2007

Pixar and the J Word

I saw Ratatouille tonight, and I (mostly) won't bore you with a specific review and plot details, because you can get excellent examples of all those things here and here and here, to name only three places. It was made by Brad Bird, who was responsible for The Incredibles and The Iron Giant. If you've seen either or both of those, you should have just stopped reading to go stand in line for a ticket. (For my money, The Iron Giant is a bona fide classic, and if you don't cry when it's over, you are stone-cold dead inside.)

Ratatouille was terrific, which has come to be expected from Pixar. The only movie I haven't seen from the studio is Cars, and the only one I've been disappointed in is A Bug's Life. Otherwise, Pixar turns out the most reliably high-quality product in Hollywood right now. And while I have more than a few friends who are mystified by my enthusiasm for these movies, I'm much more mystified by their reluctance to dive in and enjoy them, given the following strengths:

One friend complains about all the pop-culture references in "hip" animated movies these days, but she's thinking of Shrek and the like. Pixar's efforts are almost completely devoid of nudge-nudge, wink-wink jokes -- there's slapstick for the kids, certainly, but that's no different than any other classic cartoon. They mostly rely on original storylines and jokes, and that's no small thing when we're offered The Dukes of Hazzard, not one but two Hulk movies (the second one is coming, starring Ed Norton, and it better not defile my favorite childhood comic quite the way Ang Lee's mess did), and Daddy Day Camp -- a preview of which I was unfortunate enough to see tonight. It stars Cuba Gooding, Jr., and is from "the studio that brought you Daddy Day Care." Shouldn't we bring this studio something in return, like a summons to appear at The Hague?

Consistency: Also, no small thing. Yes, I can (and do) patiently wait for new individual talents to pop up from time to time. I saw Bottle Rocket three or four times in the theater, and loved Rushmore, too. But ever since, Wes Anderson has turned into the world's most famous set designer and costumer, much more interested with how his movies look than how they read. Animation studios are machines, true, but a well-oiled machine is sometimes preferable to a wildly uneven auteur.

Beauty: I'm a sucker for hand-drawn animation, but the warmth Pixar manages to draw from computers is astonishing. And smart -- the humans in Ratatouille are believable but cartoonish, whereas the rats are just believable, putting the most important emotional component of the movie in the foreground. And some scenes are jaw-dropping, like the one that follows Remy (the rat protagonist) up from the sewer, scurrying along a series of pipes and terraces until he reaches a rooftop and we pan with him onto the glittering Paris skyline.

As others have remarked, Ratatouille features a food critic (voiced by Peter O'Toole), and two scenes involving him toward the end are great by any standard. One takes the form of a masterful flashback (which manages to both satirize and lovingly summarize what critics are really seeking) and the other a voiceover about the relationship between critics and artists. When I say intelligence, I mean moments like those, but also the overall choices of talent, like O'Toole and the comedian Patton Oswalt, who voices Remy -- not to mention the freedom given to a genius like Bird to orchestrate the whole thing.

I'm not an animation geek. I don't keep up on anime. I don't read comic books anymore. You couldn't get me to watch Shrek unless you showed it on a really long airplane ride. But good animation is one of my favorite things in the world. Like many people of my generation, I think my renewed love for it came from The Simpsons. That show, and Pixar's movies, and Tom and Jerry...they all contain, even alongside sarcasm and irony, another thing that can be difficult to find in real life, but is worth seeking out: Joy.

Run Off the Pain

Starting tomorrow afternoon, I'll be north of the city for two days to celebrate our magnificent country's independence. Then, Friday afternoon I'll be driving further upstate for 10 days of relative solitude (the rarely-mentioned girlfriend will be with me) and ease.

On the second trip, I hope to bring my running sneakers. Like most sentient creatures without weight issues (other than my occasional need to gain more of it), I try to avoid exercising, but I've always found it persuasive when people say it has an effect on getting rid of depression. Now I read today (via Andrew Sullivan) that rats who run are more likely to fend off the blues. I'll give it a shot and report back with the results.

In the meantime, though, the blog will remain operational. In fact, before the big second trip, I'm going to post about Cormac McCarthy, an animated rat (not relating to depression), and my shorter getaway for the Fourth. Even during the second trip, I'm going to try to find a day or two (and a wired place or two) to post.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

AP Headline of the Day

Man attacks unlucky peacock at Burger King
The sub-head's not bad, either:
N.Y. resident insisted bird was a vampire; animal had to be euthanized

Song 4: "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)"

If you can find a song that starts more vocally soulful than this one -- when Etta James sings, "A cigarette that bears lipstick traces..." -- please direct me to it. (I'll name "I've Been Loving You Too Long" by Otis Redding as another contender, but that's the only one that seems to compete off the top of my head.)

Still Tasty

The Onion really keeps chugging along. If you'd told me eight years ago that it would still seem fresh and funny today, I (insert creative way of saying I would have disbelieved you).

This week's headlines include "James Gandolfini Shot By Closure-Seeking Fan" and "New Sealy Mattress Recreates Feeling Of Falling Asleep On Bus."

Then there's this, which made me laugh really hard.

My Rating

I found a place where you can rate your site. Mine came back as PG-13. Makes some sense. I did mention onanism the other day. I thought maybe the fancy word would have been mistaken for something family-friendly, like bird watching.

The program said it took offense at my use of the words "dead," "crack," and "stab." Please, shield your 12-year-old's eyes.

Debating Sicko

I watched Bowling for Columbine in a theater near Lincoln Center, one of my favorite areas in New York. When the credits rolled, the crowd burst into applause, which made me a bit sick -- and I'm a staunch proponent of gun control. But I can't think of someone who I'd less rather have defending a cause of mine than Michael Moore. The guy's techniques are so transparently...untransparent that I think it's only possible to admire him as a propagandist. Of course, propaganda is something those around Lincoln Center are happy to see, if it takes up their side.

Even aside from his treatment of facts, though -- or perhaps this is an inherent part of any work that treats facts the way his does -- I'm most turned off by Moore's condescension to his subjects. I'm happy to ridicule people if they're presented neutrally more or less as they are (here I think of American Movie, Chris Smith's brilliant documentary about a young horror filmmaker in Wisconsin, who's easy both to laugh at and to love), but Moore sets himself up as a champion of the common man. Yet, I have never seen him pass up an opportunity to sneer at the common man for a cheap laugh.

I also haven't seen Sicko, Moore's latest, but I've been following the reaction to it with interest. I imagine there are many things that can be done to improve the American health care system. I'm not sure "change it to the exact system used by Canada or France" is a worthwhile, or even feasible, response. Jane Galt, as always, talks interesting economics that I don't fully understand. Andrew Sullivan points to a brief film that takes the opposite side of Moore's argument, and he also tries to balance the portrait of current American care.

Of course, like all hot-button issues, this one brings out the extremists, like this comment left on Matthew Yglesias' blog:
Sullivan might be right on some issues, but let's not forget he's a diehard capitalist on this issue and would rather see dead children than a broke CEO.
I wouldn't draw attention to such an insanely unfair summary of someone's philosophy if it wasn't fairly common. This is the leftist equivalent of all the righties who say liberals want terrorists to win. Despite the obvious existence of corrupt CEOs, etc., I think the majority of people who believe in the power of the free market do so because they think it can lead to good. Or at least, more good than other solutions. It's wise to debate them on the merits of the arguments. Saying they're rooting for children to die is not just ridiculous but counterproductive.