Monday, December 31, 2007

Quote for the Day

If by a "Liberal" they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people - their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties - someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad; if that is what they mean by a "Liberal," then I'm proud to say I'm a "Liberal."
- John F. Kennedy

In Memoriam

Kudos to The New York Times for mourning the loss of a great nation: the United States of America. The editors confess that often they don't recognize their own country:
It was not the first time in recent years we’ve felt this horror, this sorrowful sense of estrangement, not nearly. This sort of lawless behavior has become standard practice since Sept. 11, 2001.

The country and much of the world was rightly and profoundly frightened by the single-minded hatred and ingenuity displayed by this new enemy. But there is no excuse for how President Bush and his advisers panicked — how they forgot that it is their responsibility to protect American lives and American ideals, that there really is no safety for Americans or their country when those ideals are sacrificed.

Out of panic and ideology, President Bush squandered America’s position of moral and political leadership, swept aside international institutions and treaties, sullied America’s global image, and trampled on the constitutional pillars that have supported our democracy through the most terrifying and challenging times. These policies have fed the world’s anger and alienation and have not made any of us safer.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Lifestyle Choices

Bill Maher makes a great point about Larry Craig, et al:
Don't people like Larry Craig and Ted Haggard and Mark Foley prove that being gay really is a hard-wired thing — not, as the conservatives always claim, a "lifestyle choice"? If anyone could choose not to have gay sex, it would be these guys, since their whole careers are built on not having gay sex.

Auto-Waterboarding

They used to call it 'water torture'

Writing on the Straight Dope boards, "Scylla" tells how he waterboarded himself - up to a point before having to call it off due to the horror he endured. His description of the climactic results:
The water fills the hole in the saran wrap so that there is either water or vacuum in your mouth. The water pours into your sinuses and throat. You struggle to expel water periodically by building enough pressure in your lungs. With the saran wrap though each time I expelled water, I was able to draw in less air. Finally the lungs can no longer expel water and you begin to draw it up into your respiratory tract.

It seems that there is a point that is hardwired in us. When we draw water into our respiratory tract to this point we are no longer in control. All hell breaks loose. Instinct tells us we are dying.

I have never been more panicked in my whole life. Once your lungs are empty and collapsed and they start to draw fluid it is simply all over. You know you are dead and it's too late. Involuntary and total panic.

There is absolutely nothing you can do about it. It would be like telling you not to blink while I stuck a hot needle in your eye.

At the time my lungs emptied and I began to draw water, I would have sold my children to escape. There was no choice, or chance, and willpower was not involved.

I never felt anything like it, and this was self-inflicted with a watering can, where I was in total control and never in any danger.

And I understood.

Waterboarding gets you to the point where you draw water up your respiratory tract triggering the drowning reflex. Once that happens, it's all over. No question. ...

So, is it torture?

I'll put it this way. If I had the choice of being waterboarded by a third party or having my fingers smashed one at a time by a sledgehammer, I'd take the fingers, no question.

It's horrible, terrible, inhuman torture. I can hardly imagine worse. I'd prefer permanent damage and disability to experiencing it again. I'd give up anything, say anything, do anything.

The Spanish Inquisition knew this. It was one of their favorite methods.

It's torture. No question. Terrible terrible torture. To experience it and understand it and then do it to another human being is to leave the realm of sanity and humanity forever.
And later on in the same thread:
It's not simulating drowning, it is drowning. It felt like dying. I can't put it any other way.
Some folks are OK with this, of course. They posit their ludicrous doomsday scenarios and tell us we need to have this sort of option in case we need to torture one person to save a million. Whatever. Their scenario's highly unlikely to occur - and they're not going to be convinced otherwise. They really have no problem with brutality and they're trying to justify it. Others, however, are still trying to convince themselves that waterboarding isn't torture. Folks like Missouri Senator Kit Bond, who says waterboarding is "like swimming, freestyle, backstroke." Right Senator, that's why they offering waterboarding at the Y, along with spinning and pilates. The Senator and others need to be directed to this thread, so they can snap out of it.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Congratulations Huckabee!

You have a Y chromosome. And anyone who votes for the President on the grounds of his ability to hunt for defenseless wild game deserves the President they get.

Additionally, how exactly does a highly-publicized hunt - scrutinized by journalists and photographers, illuminated by TV camera lights and flash photography - illustrate any sort of "authenticity"?

Next up, Huckabee drinks Schlitz and scratches navel while watching football.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Starck Reality

Who knew Philippe Starck was such a comedian? And so self-deprecating. Check out this TED talk he gave on design and god.



Just one of many great TED talks.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Tens

Bardem as Anton Chigurh

My contribution to the end-of-year top-10 navel-gazing. With everything in one post for the sake of sheer laziness. Reserving the right to make adjustments between now and December 31st. The year ain't over yet! Not necessarily in order of preference (I have to be difficult), though the number ones are my favorite picks.

Movies

Anton Chigurh: What's the most you ever lost on a coin toss.
Gas Station Owner: Sir?
Anton Chigurh: The most. You ever lost. On a coin toss.
Gas Station Owner: I don't know. I couldn't say.

- No Country for Old Men
  1. No Country for Old Men - just when I thought maybe the Coen brothers were starting to flag, they come back with this astonishing piece of work
  2. No End in Sight & Taxi to the Dark Side - saw the latter at TriBeCa Film Festival, so its wide release is 2008; ideally both films would be shown back-to-back on primetime television
  3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - *added 12/27
  4. Michael Clayton - "I am Shiva, the god of death!"
  5. Red Road - which I almost forgot about, but which was excellent, if harrowing
  6. The Savages - alternately excruciating and hilarious
  7. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead - banner year for Phillip Seymour Hoffman
  8. After the Wedding
  9. This Is England - nobody went to see this - it was sensational
  10. Helvetica - forgot this gem of documentary - *added 12/27
Update: Knocked out of the top 10
  • Superbad - maybe Knocked Up if I'd seen it
  • Lars and the Real Girl - better than advertised
Plus these 5 special mentions:
  1. Lives of Others - actually an easy selection for near the top of the list, but, technically, I saw it last year
  2. Blade Runner - The Final Cut - one of my favorite movies of all time - a sci-fi Casablanca - seeing it in the theater for the first time was a real treat
  3. The Bourne Ultimatum - just because the trilogy is such a riot
  4. Zodiac - I loved it, but it just didn't stay with me
  5. The Wind That Shakes the Barley - as above
Plus these 5 I'm sure I'd love if I'd seen them:
  1. Persepolis - looks gorgeous and I enjoyed the book
  2. Rescue Dawn - Werner Herzog can do no wrong
  3. Eastern Promises - neither can Cronenberg
  4. Diving Bell & the Butterfly - nor Schnabel (Update: see above)
  5. Control - how did I not get around to seeing Anton Corbijn's debut as a director?
Albums
Make up something to believe in your heart of hearts
so you have something to wear on your sleeve of sleeves
so you swear you just saw a feathery woman
carry a blindfolded man through the trees
showered and blue-blazered, fill yourself with quarters
showered and blue-blazered, fill yourself with quarters

- The National, "Mistaken for Strangers" from Boxer
  1. The National - Boxer - sorry, but LCD Soundsystem's had a couple of actual groaners; Boxer only had a song or two that were simply less beautiful than the others
  2. Joan as Policewoman - Real Life (apparently, this came out last year; feel like this year to me); ravishingly good
  3. Cinematic Orchestra - Ma Fleur
  4. Radiohead - In Rainbows
  5. Andrew Bird - Armchair Apocrypha
  6. LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver (well, it was really good)
  7. Feist - The Reminder
  8. Grinderman
  9. Blonde Redhead - 23
  10. Saul Williams - The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!
3 more definitely worth your time:
  1. Patrick Wolf - The Magic Position
  2. NIN - Year Zero (partly for it's amazing viral marketing campaign; trust me, I never thought I'd see NIN in any list of mine either)
  3. Atlas Sound - actually not out until next year; expect great things
5 I haven't gotten, but apparently need to:
  1. M.I.A.- Kala
  2. St. Vincent - Marry Me
  3. Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
  4. Kanye West - Graduation
  5. Of Montreal - Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
Massively over-rated:
  • The Good, The Bad, & The Queen
Books
Since I make no particular effort to read what's on current best seller lists, this is a list of the top 10 books I read this year, regardless of when they were published.
Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing direction. You change direction, but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you, something inside you. So all you can do is to give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand does not get in, and walk through it, step by step. There is no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverised bones.

- Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
  1. Kafka on the Shore - Haruki Murakami
  2. The Road - Cormac McCarthy
  3. Remainder - Tom McCarthy
  4. Martin Amis - House of Meetings
  5. Moth Smoke - Mohsin Hamid
  6. Out - Natsuo Kirino
  7. Motherless Brooklyn - Jonathan Lethem
  8. The Swallows of Kabul - Yasmina Khadra
  9. Survivor - Chuck Palahniuk
  10. The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell - John Crawford
Tell me your favorites in the comments. I wouldn't want to miss anything.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

loldex

loldex

Tonight's the night. And it's going to happen again, and again. It has to happen. Nice night. - Dexter Morgan

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Virgin America Flight

Boarding Pass

A week or so ago, I had the pleasure of taking one of the new Virgin America flights from L.A. to N.Y.C. If you're a designer, you'll understand why I was excited to try out some of the new amenities these flights feature, especially the interactive touch screens in the back of each seat. I've created a photoset on Flickr with some select pics from my trip.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Calming the Plague of Tics

In this engaging video, the jovial DrPoodle explains how YouTube's "Tourette's Blocking System" calms his tics each time he makes a video. He's grateful to YouTube for actually changing his life. For most of us it's an entertaining distraction. For him, it's a highly anticipated 10-minute relief. I imagine it must work because of the concentration involved much as surgery did - or flying a plane - for the surgeon with Tourette syndrome in Oliver Sacks's, An Anthropologist on Mars.

I'm reading Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, which features the Tourettic detective, Lionel Essrog, and I wondered if YouTube features any documentary clips about the disorder. It does, but the videos contributed by individual people are often more compelling.

Related:

Monday, November 19, 2007

Kindle: Fire or Fizzle?

Amazon's Kindle reading device launched today and Newsweek has a huge writeup on it. But why wouldn't you just buy an iPhone if it incorporated the same features? And why carry multiple devices? Plus, sorry, but the design looks clunky, especially compared to, um, the iPhone.

More on Amazon. Of course, if it gets more people reading, I'm all for it. Just can't see it competing when it costs more than an iPhone (400 smackeroos) with far less functionality. And I don't even own an iPhone.

Update: Forbes agrees in spades.

Cruel & Unusual

Another man dies today after getting tased: How many dead people does it take before Tasers are recognized as cruel and unsual punishment? Amnesty International reports there have been 150 deaths since 2001 in the United States due to the use of police stun guns.

Amnesty International submitted this October report to the U.S. Justice Department, which actually says over 290 people have died via Tasers since 2001. I'm not sure why there's a discrepancy, though it does include 15 deaths in Canada as well.

In the report, AI also says that of all the deaths, insofar as they could determine, only 25 of the individuals tased were bearing any sort of weapon.

Related:

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Head in the Sand Department

I stopped reading Instapundit a long time ago, when I realized much of what Glenn Reynolds said didn't make a lick of sense. So I happened across this post today where he mentions that the war in Iraq "seems to be drawing to a successful close." Successful close? Violence is down in Iraq, so that means the war is drawing to a successful close? Has Reynold spoken with anyone who's actually been to Iraq for any length of time? I recently saw a panel of journalists at Columbia University, including the NYT's Anne Barnard, NPR's Deborah Amos, CBS's Elizabeth Palmer, and Ali Fadhil, an Iraqi interpreter and physician. They described what they believe Iraq will be like if American troops withdraw and were unanimous in their thoughts on the subject. So, if by "successful close" you mean our troops come home and Iraq falls into calamitous disarray and civil war, then, yes, I suppose the end is nigh.

Seriously, though, does Reynolds really fail to see this simple this simple equation: when the surge ends, incidents of violence will again rise in Iraq. Kevin Drum agrees.

Tying into this subject, here are some more notes I took away from the informative "Reporting Iraq" panel, which I meant to blog at the time:

Anne Barnard
: It's more "terrifying" to be in Baghdad now than after the fall of Saddam.

Ali Fadhil: We need to show what it's like for Iraqis now, trying to survive from day to day. He said he is limited in his ability to move around as an Iraqi - even from East to West Baghdad. Due to ethnic cleansing, people with Shia names can't go to Mosur, and since his is a mixed family, two of his own brothers can't go.

Fadhil has visited morgues where bodies are piled up in the hallways. Not all of the dead are counted either, since bodies are sometimes removed from the hospital by family members, and if no name was provided, they're not counted.

The corrupt government is involved in lynching, kidnapping and ethnic cleansing.

Elizabeth Palmer: Young people have both Sunni and Shia badges and pictures on their cell phones, which they swap out according to who's at any checkpoint they're passing through.

If you try to take photos of contractors, "they shoot us," which is one reason TV hadn't covered contractors more before the Blackwater story erupted.

Ali Fadhil: you learn to avoid the streets with black SUVs on them because contractors drive them.

And Fadhil is advising his family to leave Iraq by April, 2008 since he doesn't believe the surge will work in the long term.

Yeah, Glenn, sounds like we've about got this whole thing wrapped up, huh?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Quote for the Day

Sometimes the appropriate response to reality is to go insane.
- Philip K. Dick

The Gift of Language

Pat Conroy writes a great rant to The Charleston Gazette. Local parents recently tried to ban his books from a public high school. Near the end, he rhapsodizes about all that books have done for him:
The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in “Lonesome Dove” and had nightmares about slavery in “Beloved” and walked the streets of Dublin in “Ulysses” and made up a hundred stories in the Arabian nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” I’ve been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give. I cherish and praise them and thank them for finding me when I was a boy and presenting me with the precious gift of the English language.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Thank You for Your Support, Senator Craig

I just saw Senator Larry Craig complain to Matt Lauer that he fell prey to police profiling, when he was arrested in a Minneapolis restroom earlier this year.
Matt Lauer: So, again, the fact these motions seem to replicate a well-established sequence of signals for soliciting anonymous sex, it's a coincidence?

Larry Craig: I now know that this cop is-- this officer is a profiler. He said looking into a stall was one of it. And then a hand gesture or a foot tap is another one … Now I know all about profiling. I know what people feel like when they're profiled. When innocent people get caught up in what I was caught in as an innocent person, it's very angering at times.
That sounds like a pretty explicit criticism of profiling to me, don't you think?

Question is, will Craig (and other conservatives) now come out (so to speak) as strong opponents of profiling? And not just gay-sex-in-public-restrooms profiling, but racial profiling? Terrorist profiling? Will he become an outspoken critic of the Patriot Act?

If so, maybe some of my friends will actually be able to pass through an airport in the future without getting pulled aside every time for special attention just because, say, they were born in Afghanistan or their parents were born in India. (Never mind that no one from either country attacked us on 9/11. Never mind the fact that India's not even a Muslim country.)

Oh, and I expect Craig to remain a strong critic of this sort of bathroom profiling/entrapment, whether he believes homosexuality itself to be immoral or not. Because he'll want to remain ethically consistent. Right?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Benevolent Bibliophile? BookMooch Beckons.

Here's a great site for book lovers: BookMooch lets you post books you're willing to part with. People can then ask for them and you send them the books they want. Free. Out of the kindness of your heart. Well, you do get something out of it, of course. As you give books away, you earn points, and then you can ask for (or "buy") books from folks who are giving them away, too. Brilliant, eh? 40,000 members, too, so there's plenty to choose from. I'm wondering if I can get European paperbacks before they come out over here. Mwah-hah-hah!

Here's a NYT writeup, too. According to the article, BookMooch ain't the first to do this. Just the most neighborly. You can give away your points to other folks if you're feeling extra generous. Or you can donate them to worthy causes, like New Orleans libraries.

Making Mercenaries Contractors Accountable

Act for Change provides this form for you to ask your Senator to enact the Security Contractor Accountability Act of 2007.
The Security Contractor Accountability Act of 2007 would:
(a) Extend and clarify that U.S. courts have jurisdiction over contractors of all U.S. agencies working near a 'contingency operation' area
(b) Require the Justice Department to report on complaints received and the status of investigations
(c) Establish an on-site FBI unit to investigate reported incidents of excessive use of force.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Terrorists, OK. Gays, No Way!

Did you know you can make a terrorist threat and still join the U.S. Army? Did you know that people convicted of homicide can obtain a waiver allowing them to join the U.S. military? But openly gay folks are not allowed to serve. Reading Equality, a magazine produced by the Human Rights Campaign, I learned:
Studies show that from 2003 through 2006, the military allowed 4,230 convicted felons to enlist under the "moral waivers" program.
The Palm Center (formerly the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military) provides additional details:
43,977 individuals convicted of serious misdemeanors such as assault were permitted to enlist under the moral waivers program during that period, as were 58,561 illegal drug abusers. In the Army, allowable offenses include making terrorist threats, murder, and kidnapping.
Michael Boucai, a researcher for the Palm Center, concludes:
The problem is not that the Armed Forces are letting in ex-offenders -- most of these recruits become fine service members, and military service often has a strong rehabilitative effect. The real problem is that, increasingly, the military fails to also recruit the best and the brightest.
Of course, I were gay, I don't think I'd want a "moral waiver," which allowed me to serve in the military. I'd want acknowledgment that I'm not presumed to be an immoral human being just because I was gay.

HRC also created Legacy of Service, a site detailing the national tour against "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sex or Violence?

Like a lot of people, I've long thought our culture rather hypocritical in its approach to sex versus violence. For example, in the arena of entertainment, an errant nipple will get you an R rating in a movie (or a huge fine on TV), but you can show scores of people getting killed through violent means and still rate a PG-13.

The vandalism of Andres Serrano's photo exhibit in the little Swedish town of Lund is a transcendent expression of this hypocrisy. It's apparently, emphatically not OK for adults to see depictions of sexual behavior in an orderly fashion, in an enclosed space, but it is OK to destroy other people's property and even to threaten other human beings to prevent them from seeing that material. It's not OK to voluntarily place yourself before such imagery as an adult; but it is OK to subject people involuntarily to violence to make your political point. Violence, it seems to these folks, is morally superior to nudity. Bloodshed better than sex.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Text Mapping Martin Amis



I went over to Many Eyes, which is a cool data visualization site provided (for free) by IBM, and I dropped in the text from Amis's recent essay "9/11 and the Cult of Death." I then created a couple of visualizations folks might enjoy manipulating:
You can manipulate the text in different ways, which may reveal various things about his writing. I learned about this fantastic site last week when I attended the IDEA Conference here in NYC, and Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg from IBM's Visual Communication Lab demoed the site for us.

Tangentially, it would seem I've written a lot about Amis recently. Here's a screen shot of a tag cloud of this blog from Technorati:

Hitched to Everything Tag Cloud from Technorati

Bush beats him out, though. Doh!

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Tear It Down

Guantánamo Bay

Amnesty International invites us to Tear Down Guantánamo Bay one pixel at a time. Over 70,000 people have so far. Why should you care?
The detainees at Guantánamo Bay are human beings who haven’t seen their homes or families for years and have faced torture, abuse and ill-treatment in a system from which many have no hope of ever leaving, regardless of their innocence.
The site provides many more details. It's well-known that demonstrably innocent individuals have been imprisoned at Guantánamo. You only have to watch Michael Winterbottom's excellent film Road to Guantánamo to see how they got there.

Biking the Concrete Prairies

David Byrne with Hal Ruzal
Hal Ruzal shows David Byrne how easy it is to steal a bike

Concrete prairies. That's Calvin Trillin's metaphor, not mine. It's how he describes riding his bike around Manhattan. Get rid of the buildings, he said, and that's what you'd have left: flat concrete prairies. I saw him last night at "How New Yorkers Ride Bikes," a wonderful program hosted by David Byrne at the New Yorker Festival. Byrne opened the program with video of his ride (via helmet cam) through Times Square to City Hall, then he rode onto the stage and locked up his bike, which was then promptly "stolen" Hal Ruzal from Bicycle Habitat in a demonstration of just how easy it is to steal a bike. His advice for the only way to avoid getting your bike stolen in NYC? Buy the most expensive lock and chain you can - and the cheapest bike.

Other highlights (and there were many) included Copenhagen architect Jan Gehl describing how biking has transformed his hometown over the past 40 years, a new bike helmet design for fashion-conscious New Yorkers from fuseproject (creators of the $100 computer) and Massachusett's choir The Young@Heart Chorus (no current member is under 73) singing Queen's "Bicycle Race" and Byrne's "Heaven." Byrne joined the group to close out the program to sing a spine-tinglingly beautiful new song, "One Fine Day." There was also plenty of information from dedicated city and non-profit folk who are doing a lot to make New York safer for cyclists.

New helmet design from fuseproject
Yves Behar & Josh Morenstein of fuseproject reveal new helmet design

Now, where can I get one of those helmets? They feature interchangeable components in different colors suitable for different seasons.

Also part of the fun: I rode my bike there, as the event provided free valet parking.

Related:
  • David Byrne's own recap of the event
  • NYC Bike Maps - great mashup with Google maps; "accurate maps, relevent information, and up to date news to facilitate a safe and enjoyable biking experience in the New York metro area."
  • TreeHugger - "The Bike Thief: Video Exposes Cyclist's Vulnerability, and Public's Complicity"
  • StreetFilms - "Hal Grades Your Bike Locking" - Hal Ruzal strolls around SoHo/NoLita grading folks on their bike-locking abilities (or lack thereof); most fail miserably
  • Transportation Alternatives - a 5500-member NYC-area non-profit citizens group working for better bicycling, walking and public transit, and fewer cars.
  • NYT - "Indie Rock's Patron Saint Inspires a New Flock of Followers"

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Banned Books Week

It's Banned Books Week, so why not make a statement for freedom and buy or read a banned book.

Here's a few ideas. Some of them may surprise you, but these are the "Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century" (yes, that's the 21st century - so far):

1. Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
2. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
3. Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
4. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
5. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
6. Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
7. It's Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris
8. Scary Stories series by Alvin Schwartz
9. Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey
10. Forever by Judy Blume

Of course, you'll note that the majority of those are children's books. Seems some folks really don't appreciate it when you try to expose their children to anything other than what they've been brainwashing them with from birth. Some other books which folks have tried to ban in the past include Jack London's Call of the Wild, F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and, rather ironically, 1984 by George Orwell.

Commonality

A Hitched to Everything quote if ever there were one:
For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children's futures, and we are all mortal.

- John F. Kennedy, speech at The American University, Washington, D.C., June 10, 1963

Monday, October 01, 2007

Radiohead Passes the Hat Around

Via New York Times blog The Lede: You decide how much you want to pay (or not) for Radiohead's next album online. Click on the question mark next to the empty price fields in your basket and a message says, "It's up to you." Interesting ramifications for online music sales and distribution. Will they actually make *more* money than if they'd sold it through iTunes? Or as one commenter suggests will everyone decide to take it for free, as with Stephen King's experiment with e-books.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Strangelove Watch

Dr. Strangelove

A new feature wherein we draw attention to conservatives* salivating over the prospect of preemptive missile strikes against Iran. Let's begin with not one, but two recent contributions:
All the damaging consequences of all the blunders the President has committed to date in Iraq are reversible in 48 to 72 hours - the time it will take to destroy Iran's fragile nuclear supply chain from the air. And since the job gets done using mostly stand-off weapons and stealth bombers, not one American soldier, sailor or airman need suffer as much as a bruised foot. - Dan Friedman on American Thinker (Via Andrew Sullivan)
If we were to bomb the Iranians as I hope and pray we will, we’ll unleash a wave of anti-Americanism all over the world that will make the anti-Americanism we’ve experienced so far look like a lovefest. - Norman Podhoretz
Thank God these guys aren't running the country, right? Oh, right, Podhoretz is an advisor to Bush and senior foreign policy advisor to Rudy Giuliani.

*happy to throw in any moderates or liberals who fit the profile, too

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Hometown Heroes

Heroes

These two ladies are my new heroes:
On September 24, 2007, Kate Burns and Sheila Schroeder of Englewood, Colo., were arrested and removed in police custody from the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Building. The couple had entered the Denver Clerk and Recorder Office to demand a marriage license. After requesting an application and being denied on the basis of state and federal law, Burns and Schroeder refused to leave, insisting that marriage laws which deny full equality to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are an example of religion-based oppression and undermine America's tradition of religious pluralism protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Now, that there's a great example of civil disobedience. Standing up - or sitting down, in this case - for human rights.

Aside: what does it say about our culture that "transgender" shows up as a spelling mistake in spellcheck?

Update: We certainly do have a long way to go in the acceptance of transgender people. The Democrats just removed language from another civil rights bill, which would protect transgender individuals from job discrimination because they feared the bill would lose Republican support. Among those responsible for the move? Openly gay Senators Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin. I understand the pragmatism behind their decision. Still, It'd be great to see some consistency. I couldn't sleep at night if I'd made that decision.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Negative Eureka

Writing in the Times on September 11th, Martin Amis made some excellent points about radical Islam, points which I think apply to many groups inclined towards extremism.

First, he points out the distaste such extremists have for reason:
Thanatism derives its real energy, its fever and its magic, from something far more radical. And here we approach a pathology that may in the end be unassimilable to the nonbelieving mind. I mean the rejection of reason – the rejection of the sequitur, of cause and effect, of two plus two. Strikingly, in their written works and their table talk, Hitler and Stalin (and Lenin) seldom let the abstract noun reason go by without assigning a scornful adjective to it: worthless reason, craven reason, cowardly reason. When those sanguinary yokels, the Taleban, chant their slogan, “Throw reason to the dogs”, they are making the same kind of Faustian gamble: crush reason, kill reason, and anything and everything seems possible – the restored Caliphate, for instance, presiding over a planetary empire cleansed of all infidels. To transcend reason is of course to transcend the confines of moral law; it is to enter the illimitable world of insanity and death.

This dual negation is for a while intensely propulsive. It gives the death cult its needed momentum – its escape velocity. On the other hand, for our part, the high value we assign to human life is not a matter of illusion or sentimentality or “hypocrisy”; it is not the “Papist-Quaker babble” derided by Trotsky. Reason, moreover, is one of our synonyms for realism, and indeed for reality; without it, as Islamism will soon find, the ground turns to mire beneath your feet. Death cults are in the end obedient to their own illogic: what they do is die.
I find the comparison among Hitler, Stalin and Lenin especially relevant. Some Western radicals would like to pin the atrocities of those three men on disbelief and even science. But as Amis points out, it's their disdain for reason, which all parties have in common. So, too, in fundamentalist Christian sermons, I couldn't tell you how many times I have heard pastors and teachers refer to reason with something verging on contempt. It's as if at some level they realize that reason dismantles much of foundation their sinking edifices are built upon. Which ties in directly to Amis's finally point. He believes something that I've come to believe since 9/11 (apologies for employing that construction, Mr. Amis): as religion shrinks further in an increasingly secular world, doubt and fear will propel the most radically religious to engage in increasing acts of violence. Amis explains the equation and why radical Islam has been provoked to doubt their God:
Much of our analysis, perhaps, has been wholly inapposite, because we keep trying to construe Islamism in terms of the ratiocinative. How does it look when we construe it in terms of the emotions? Familiar emotional states (hurt, hatred, fury, shame, dishonour, and, above all, humiliation), but at unfamiliar intensities – intensities that secular democracy, and the rules of law and civil society, will always tend to neutralise. There is religious passion too, of course, but even the bruited, the roared fanaticism seems unrobust. It may even be that what we are witnessing is not spiritual certainty so much as spiritual insecurity and spiritual doubt.

Islamism has been with us for the lion’s share of a century. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928, and within a decade there was an offshoot in what would soon become Pakistan. But the emotionally shaping event, one is forced to deduce, was the establishment of the Jewish Homeland. In the war fought to bring that about, Israel, occupying 0.6 per cent of Arab lands and with a proportional population, defeated the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Trans-Jordan, together with the supplementary forces of Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

In the other 99.4 per cent of Arab lands, this event is known as al-nakba: the catastrophe. And that epithet hardly overstates the case. The “godless” Soviet Union, after a comparable reverse, might have fallen into troubled self-scrutiny; but what does it mean for peoples who sincerely believe that an omnipotent deity is minutely attentive to their desires and deserts? Having endured several centuries of Christian prosperity, global power and reach, and eventual empire, the Islamic nations were vanquished by a province the size of New Jersey. In the Koran, the Jews are portrayed as cunning and dangerous, yet they are never portrayed as strong: “Children of Israel . . . Dread My might.” We in the West have ceased to understand the meaning of the word “humiliation”, and we use it, in descriptions of our daily struggles, with the lilt of comic hyperbole. Now we must further imagine how it feels to be humiliated, not only by history, but also by God.

This was surely a negative eureka for the Muslim idea. Following the defeat of 1948, and following the defeat (in six days) of 1967, Islam, or its militant vanguard, was finding that it had arrived at a crossroads – or a T-junction. The way to the left was marked Less Religion, and meant a journey to the future. The way to the right was marked More Religion (Islam is the Solution), and meant a journey to the past. Which direction would lead to the return of God’s favour? On their left, a stretch of oily macadam, perhaps resembling one of the unlovelier sections of the London orbital, scattered with windblown trash, and, of course, choked and throttled with traffic. On their right, something like a garden path at the Alhambra, cleaner, simpler and – thanks to the holy warriors and their "smiting of necks" – much, much emptier. In Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern, John Gray reminds us that Islamism, in both its techniques and its pathologies, is on the crest of the contemporary. But the emotions all point the other way; they speak of retrogression and revanchism; they speak of a vehement and desperate nostalgia.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Shock Treatment

Every now and then, somebody writes a book, which really pinpoints some principle effectively. The writer (or writers) haven't invetned the principle per se; they've just codified it. Gladwell's Tipping Point is certainly an example, but it seems a terribly obvious discovery. Besides, he just populairzed the idea, which had been described in the '60s. Herman and Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent is a better example. Whether you like Chomsky or not, you'd have to admit that the idea of manufactured consent is readily verifiable. If you hadn't noticed it yourself, as soon as it's explained to you, you can seize upon it and recognize it unfolding around you. Unfortunately, recognition of this particular principle may be accompanied by a chill or two (or probably should be), as you recognize the deleterious impact of this principle reverberating through our society on any given day. Just go check out the home page of CNN right now if you like.

Well, darned if Naomi Klein hasn't hit on a doozy. It's every bit as chill-worthy as the principle of manufactured consent and just as readily identifiable. For a quick introduction, check out this Alfonso Cuarón-directed video promoting Klein's new book The Shock Doctrine. The New York Times describes her thesis thusly: "That unconstrained free-market policies go hand in hand with undemocratic political policies."
In her book she argues that the shock therapy prescribed by Western economists during the last 30 years could not have been imposed without political shock therapy, namely brutal repression and a suspension of democratic rights. Western countries, along with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, essentially exploited disasters — hyperinflation, the tsunami, the war in Iraq — to force through radical changes like privatization, deregulation and severe cuts in social spending. These policies, imposed by foreign and American disciples of the laissez-faire economist Milton Friedman, she maintains, caused grinding poverty and hardship for millions while often permitting multinationals to buy up a country’s most valuable assets for going-out-of-business prices.

Even the shock of 9/11, she said in an interview, was “harnessed by leaders to end the discussion of global justice.”
In short then, political leaders either incite shocking events or take advantage of them to defeat ideas and to install the policies they wish to. Blindingly obvious in a way, isn't it? Lest anyone it, though, Klein quotes thought leaders, who have been quite explicit in prescribing this modus operandi.
Economist John Williamson in 1993: “One will have to ask whether it could conceivably make sense to think of deliberately provoking a crisis so as to remove the political logjam to reform.”
But the most damning quote comes in the video and it's from that darling of the conservatives, Milton Friedman. She describes his advice of advancing economic policy while people were still reeling from a disaster, a method he himself called "economic shock treatment." Says Friedman, "Only a crisis actual or perceived produces real change."

The video explicitly details some of the changes, which have been implemented immediately following various recent crises. Consider also, of course, more broadly, this principle, aside from economics: the U.S. doctrine of pre-emptive strikes, which has been incorporated post-9/11, as well as the creation of the Office of Homeland Security, the Patriot Act. As Klein says,
A terrorist attack puts us all into a state of shock. And in the aftermath, like the prisoner in the interrogation chamber, we too become childlike, more inclined to follow leaders who claim to protect us.
It's what many of us have thought since 9/11. How the Bush administration has taken advantage of our national shock treatment. Klein's pretty effectively codified it here. Depressing, huh?

She does end the video with some hope:
Shock wares off. It is by definition a temporary state. And the best way to stay oriented, to resist shock, is to know what is happening to you and why.
Amen, sister.

Excerpts from her book on the Guardian's site

Monday, September 17, 2007

Helvetica!

Helvetica

I love documentaries which focus on obsessions or which focus on one thing to the point of obsession (think Grizzly Man or Fast, Cheap and Out of Control), so I knew I was bound to love Helvetica. This enormously absorbing and amusing documentary traces the history and impact of the Helvetica font, interviewing both fans and caustic critics. It's surprisingly funny and features a great soundtrack, to boot.

I read an article a year or so ago about the psychological reasons behind why men wear khaki pants, and it occurred to me during the film that Helvetica is the khaki pants of fonts. It's a work horse, yes, but it's also eminently safe, it blends in doesn't take any chances. Which explains both why it's become so ubiquitous, but also why some designers despise it. There's a sense in which it's elegant in its simplicity, but it's also a default, when you don't want to ruffle any feathers - or, perhaps, when you aren't creative enough to use more elaborate fonts with confidence. A slew of designers make these points in the film, though, and in far more articulate a fashion than me. They also point out that designers can take using Helvetica as a challenge, taking the limitations it imposes and seeing how they can create something creative within them.

Great points on both sides of the argument. And a documentary well worth your attention if you're a writer, a designer, or a font aficionado.

Our Long National Nightmare Is Over

Well, not quite. But hopefully next November. However, the New York Times has confirmed that it will do away with Times Select, so all of their content, even their archives, will be free. Hooray!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Life in the EVil

Regulars at the Mars Bar in the East Village

This informative New York Times article about the East Village mentions that Claes Oldenburg once had a studio in my apartment building. I know that Quentin Crisp, about whom Sting wrote the song "Englishman in New York," also lived in my building. We occasionally still get mail for him, though he died in 1999. We also occasionally get misplaced mail for Phillip Glass, who lives across the street, and who I often see when I'm trudging bleary-eyed to the subway weekday mornings. If we ever become acquainted, I want to ask him if he's ever heard "Glass Breaks" by DJ BC, which is a mashup of Glass's music with the various hip-hop artist's lyrics. Actually, if you click on the first of those two links, it would appear they've met.

Photo of East Village regulars outside the infamous Mars Bar a couple of blocks away. More New York photos on my Flickr site.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Dehumanizing the Enemy

"One group denies the humanity of the other group. Members of it are equated with animals, vermin, insects or diseases."
- from The Eight Stages of Genocide described by Gregory H. Stanton, founder of Genocide Watch

"We must kill the Tutsi cockroaches" - Hutu Power Radio
As someone interested in Iranian culture, I'm pretty revolted by this Michael Ramirez cartoon, which depicts the entire country of Iran as a sewer with cockroaches teeming out of it. You know who depicted humans as roaches, Ramirez? The Nazis. The Hutus.

Never mind that there's a thriving secular society in Iran. Never mind that there are millions of good, decent people living in Iran, trying to provide for their families, striving to create a free-er Iran, all while living under a repressive regime. Never mind that some of the most humanistic and life-affirming films I've seen in recent years have come from Iranian directors like Abbas Kiarostami and Bahman Ghobadi. No, to Ramirez, they all just roaches.

If we're ever to survive as a species, we have to stop this primitive urge to classify all of a nation's inhabitants according to the actions and beliefs of their religious leaders and politicians.

As a newspaper operating within the United States, The Columbus Dispatch has the freedom to print whatever it sees fit. And I would avidly defend that right. But when they choose to print vulgar propaganda like this, it does reveal the simplistic nature of the paper’s worldview, as well as the stench of Ramirez’s.

*A version of this post was sent to the Columbus Dispatch and to Ramirez himself

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

American Taliban Watch

American Taliban

Parading about with your boxers boxers on display may be a tacky fashion statement, but it hardly warrants Atlanta enacting a law:
Baggy pants that show boxer shorts or thongs would be illegal under a proposed amendment to Atlanta's indecency laws. The amendment, sponsored by city councilman C.T. Martin, states that sagging pants are an "epidemic" that is becoming a "major concern" around the country.

"Little children see it and want to adopt it, thinking it's the in thing," Martin said Wednesday. "I don't want young people thinking that half-dressing is the way to go. I want them to think about their future."

The proposed ordinance would also bar women from showing the strap of a thong beneath their pants. They would also be prohibited from wearing jogging bras in public or show a bra strap, said Debbie Seagraves, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.
How about a burqua Mr. Martin? That'd certainly cover those women up. They actually want to prevent women from showing bra straps? The spaghetti straps on women's clothing are slimmer and therefore more revealing than bra straps - perhaps they shouldn't be allowed to wear those either? Or is it just that Martin and his ilk associate bra straps with sexuality and sex, for them, is dirty?

How far removed is this from the Victorian practice of dressing furniture legs in skirts to avoid indecency?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Thou Shalt Not

With smaller font, he could've added some nuance

I came across this amusing update on the Ten Commandments today and was inspired to share a few thou shall nots of my own. Arguably some of these are more deserving of appearing in the Decalogue than the successful finalists:
Thou shalt not read Ayn Rand or take her acolytes seriously

Thou shalt not worship sitting Presidents or Presidential candidates of either party

Thou shalt not mistreat children

Thou shalt not stop short on the sidewalk

Thou shalt not watch Desperate Housewives, Entourage, Cops or Fox News

Thou shalt not be afraid to call Scientology a cult

Thou shalt not drink Budweiser, Miller or PBR

Thou shalt not embrace the label "hipster"

Thou shalt not discourage doubting or dissent

Thou shalt not wear clothing which advertises ostentatiously for Abercrombie & Fitch, Polo by Ralph Lauren, Dolce & Gabbana or other such designers lacking in taste and subtlety without accepting due payment from the designer for said advertising
Feel free to add your own in comments.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Empire in Decline

Watching FOX's Cops seems to be the 21st Century American equivalent of sitting in a Roman Coliseum watching the condemned be executed in various dramatic fashions for the crowd's entertainment. Not exactly a step forward in societal evolution.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Debunking 9/11 Myths

Will all the folks who believe the U.S. government played an active role in 9/11 please read this Popular Mechanics article? Please? There are actual real-world problems worth protesting in Union Square. (Yeah, I know that folks who believe conspiracy theories have a pathological drive to avoid evidence which counters what they believe and to seek only that "evidence," which reinforces what they already believe*, but ... a man can hope, can't he?)

There's also an excellent NOVA documentary which details exactly how the WTC towers fell - without being demolished. And please let's dispense with the "no building in the history of architecture had ever collapsed this way" argument, shall we? No building had ever had a jetliner full of jet fuel crash into one of its upper stories, creating the pancaking effect, which NOVA's documentary describes in explicit detail. It doesn't take a degree in physics to understand what happened.

*I feel like there's a whole doctoral thesis waiting to be written on this subject, only someone's probably already done it. The principle applies in general to human beliefs, I think, not just conspiracy theories.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Great New York Moments

Casablanca at Bryant Park

Casablanca at Bryant Park last night. Despite all the lawn jockeying (folks arrive before 5 for a movie that begins at 8:30 or later), it was tons of fun. Everyone claps at the classic lines and at one line in particular, everyone cheers like mad:
There are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade.

- Rick Blaine in Casablanca

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Navigating Evil

I am not a pessimist: to perceive evil where it exists is, in my opinion, a form of optimism.

- Roberto Rosselini
He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

- Friedrich Nietzsche
We ought always to deal justly, not only with those who are just to us, but likewise to those who endeavor to injure us; and this, for fear lest by rendering them evil for evil, we should fall into the same vice.

- Hierocles

Monday, August 06, 2007

A Boot Stamping on a Human Face

Always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

- 1984 by George Orwell
Rather than returning our liberties, the Bush administration has just curtailed them some more:
First, the law requires telecommunications companies to make their facilities available for government wiretaps, and it grants them immunity from lawsuits for complying. Under the old program, such companies participated only voluntarily – and some were sued for allegedly violating their customers' privacy.
Second, Bush has said his original surveillance program was restricted to calls and e-mails involving a suspected terrorist, but the new law has no such limit. Instead, it allows executive-branch agencies to conduct oversight-free surveillance of all international calls and e-mails, including those with Americans on the line, with the sole requirement that the intelligence-gathering is "directed at a person reasonably believed to be located outside the United States." There is no requirement that either caller be a suspected terrorist, spy, or criminal.
There's a scene early on in The Bourne Ultimatum where a reporter says the word "blackbriar" during a cell phone conversation in Europe and it triggers surveillance at the CIA within the United States.

It's chilling because it's not science fiction. It's current fact.

And how ironic that a (hugely entertaining) blockbuster about an individual combating big-government surveillance (and rendition) should come out the very weekend our real-life government has quantifiably extended its reach. It's a surreal world we live in when our diminishing freedoms are accompanied by Hollywood commentary and its attendant profits.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Darwin's Nightmare

Still from Kisangani Diary

In an interview on the Darwin's Nightmare DVD ,director Hubert Sauper explains the power of the documentary:
We are so full of information ... but we don't have the right type of information in a way ...

What does it mean 5 million dead in the Congo? It's just a number ... You say, OK that's a lot of people. It's far away. It's so many people that you can't imagine. In the east of the Congo is a war since 7 or 8 years that every day as many people die as on the 11th of September in New York. Every day. So September the 11th is happening every day in the east of the Congo. It's so beyond anything you can describe or imagine. ... Most people don't even know the number, but it's not enough to know the number. We need this other type of information which is very processed, which is communicated through art a lot.

Ironically, the art of cinema communicates things that we knew already, but we didn't quite understand, didn't have consciousness. There's this huge gap, this huge missing link between knowledge and understanding ... and real awareness. So cinema can make you aware of something that you knew for 25 years. And suddenly it totally strikes you. And suddenly you go, Jesus, this is something I should have known or this is something I never thought of, but I knew it already.

It's very necessary to have this other type of more subtle and more processed and more poetic information. I think you need the power of poetry to understand the tragedy of our time or the complexity of our time.
Darwin's Nightmare is an excellent, though highly disturbing documentary about how planes fly empty to Lake Victoria in Tanzania only to fly tonnes of fish, perch specifically, out every day for Europeans and Americans who can afford to buy them--this while the villagers in the same area starve. Only sometimes, Sauper reports, those same planes deliver weapons to supply the wars in the same area.

Sauper's earlier documentary Kisangani Diary also appears on the DVD and it includes some of the most devastating imagery of starvation I've ever seen. human beings who appear dead, buried in rubbish, who are only recognized as alive when they open their eyes or move their limbs ever so slightly, too weak to extricate themselves. Horrifically shrunken babies abandoned by their parents, Rwandese refugees who fled the avenging Tutsis.

One can only hope more people will see these documentaries and others like them, dark as their subject matter may be, in the hope that we humans will move collectively, as Sauper suggests, beyond casual knowledge into active understanding, into consciousness.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Hillary Takes DC

Hillary Claiming DC

Look what my brother hath wrought. Nice details: The Presidential Seal as saintly halo is brilliant. There are t-shirts, too!

I Am Not an Animal!

The BBC reports that scientists have found the gene that causes left-handedness, so now people will have to stop considering us lefties to be freaks. The downside: lefties may be at a (marginally)increased risk for schizophrenia. On the plus side: we think more quickly (but you knew that), think differently, and we're better fighters. Next up, the study that proves that lefties are better lovers.

And to think my uncle used to get his hand smacked in school for writing left-handed. The horror!

Related: It's Left Hander's Day soon - Monday, August 13th.

50's 2 Cents

George Bush has a talent: He has less compassion than the average human being. By all means, I don't aspire to be like George Bush.

- Rapper 50 Cent in an New York interview about his influences.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Not Up to Snuff

This recent Sunday Telegraph article details the rise of what New York magazine's David Edelstein dubbed torture porn. You know the recent proliferation of flicks like Saw (1,2,3), Hostel (1,2), Cabin Fever, The Hills Have Eyes remake (1,2), Wolf Creek, The Devil's Rejects, and Captivity. (Edelstein rightly suggests The Passion of Christ also.)

The Telegraph's Jenny McCartney grew up in Ulster and is disgusted with the genre. She suggests:
We might begin by questioning if we ever have the moral right to watch terrorist victims such as Daniel Pearl or Nick Berg being beheaded. I do not think we have, because the argument that has always prohibited the watching of child pornography - that the helpless victim was unable to give or withhold consent to the act or the filming - applies equally to al-Qa'eda's home-made snuff films.
That probably nails why I couldn't bring myself to watch, say, the beheading of Daniel Pearl, the hanging of Saddam, or this hanging in Iran Andrew Sullivan recently felt compelled to post.

But those movies are just fiction, right, so what's the problem? I agree with McCartney's conclusions:
The cinematic child of voyeurism and terror, 'torture porn' is a genre that gorges on the world's horrors and regurgitates them, but learns nothing from them.

The more of it audiences consume, the less they understand. In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four the panicked hero, Winston Smith, describes a nightmarish night at the flicks, as the audience relishes the sight of a boatload of enemy refugees being bombed, and roars with laughter at a mother's hapless struggles to protect her small boy from death.

We are not so very far away from that now. There must come a point at which audiences ask a different question from what will the torturer do next to his victims on screen? We must ask what watching him is doing to us.
I think we'd be a little creeped out by someone who enjoyed watching films, which simply featured scene after scene of rape for two hours. So why are we OK with watching flicks which consist solely of scene after scene of amputation, mutilation, maiming, dismemberment, disfiguring, butchering, impalement, and torture?

Monday, July 23, 2007

It Takes a Nation of 6-Year-Olds

How refreshing to hear a Republican, Ron Paul, speak candidly about why Osama bin Laden attacked the U.S. on 9/11. Of course, Giuliani immediately has to reach for the old canard that pointing out the reasons is the same as saying we deserved what we got. This clip finishes with a great quote from David Cross, which also speaks the truth with even greater candor:
If the terrorists hated freedom then the Netherlands would be fucking dust. As would Denmark and Sweden, and Switzerland and New Zealand and Canada and every other country that's truly freer than we are.

I don't think Osama bin Laden sent those planes to attack us because he hated our freedom. I think he did it because of our support for Israel, and our ties with the Saudi family and all our military bases in Saudi Arabia. You know why I think that? Because that's what he fucking said! Are we a nation of 6-year-olds? Answer: yes.

"Why did the bad man put the plane in the building?"

"Cos he hated freedom."

"Oh, cos I went to the Lexis Nexis database, and there's over fourteen hundred articles that actually explain wha..."

"Shhhh. He hated freedom. Have a cookie. Get him in the back yard! Show him the outdoor pool!"
Giuliani, you listening? Of course, even if he were, I doubt he'd change his tune. Not when mendacious criticism plays so well with the base. As usual, the jester speaks more honestly than the courtier. Maybe Ron Paul will prove an influential exception. We need folks who get it on both sides of the political divide.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Sliding Down the Surface of Things

I'm watching a few minutes of this Paula Abdul show on Bravo (I know, I know, bear with me) and it's showing her in New York preparing to do Letterman. She's worried about her impending performance on the show, so she flies in a stylist and a consultant to advise her what to say - this in addition to her usual entourage. She talks about how she wants to the interview to be fun, but is in tears as she rides in her limousine to the Ed Sullivan Theater, her consultant still coaching her on the way. So part of me feels sorry for her - that every appearance is such an ordeal, such a project - but part of me is also dismayed at how celebrities are seldom themselves in these appearances, how they're a carefully-packaged, illusory, market-driven advertisement for themselves.

"It's so simple," she says at one point. "Let me do what I do." If only. There's nothing remotely simple, nothing natural or organic about the manufactured celebrity lifecycle.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Not My Bag

So, I'm sliding onto the 2nd Ave subway this morning when I see this huge line snaking outside of the new Whole Foods on Bowery all the way around the corner, and I think to myself, "Wow, they're all waiting for Whole Foods to open" and promptly descend into the sweaty hell that is the F train and I don't give it another moment's thought. Turns out these folks were in line to buy a $15 limited edition shopping bag. And, now, I think, "What suckers." These bags apparently caused riots in Taiwan, where 30 people were hospitalized (I kid you not) and similar melees in Hong Kong and elsewhere. And you thought standing around for hours for an iPhone was lame! And, by the way, these bags are selling for over $300 on eBay, which probably reveals the real reason a lot of folks were in line. You can buy similar canvas bags (without the holier-than-thou slogan) at other NY supermarkets for like, a buck. Oh, and I understand people left carrying their canvas bags ... in a Whole Foods plastic bag.

Now, as the NYT article above describes, the gazillion plastic bags we've unleashed on the environment are a serious problem. I witnessed a remarkable display of this traveling by train through Morocco and would see huge fields stretching for acres upon acres - probably square miles - littered, blacked with hundred, probably thousands of these black plastic bags they place fruit and veggies in within the medina. It was as clear an example of the Tragedy of the Commons as I've seen.

Related:
  • Apparently, the bags are made in China using cheap labor.
  • And look, Trader Joe's are way cooler anyway.
  • There's a satirical version of said bag, of course.
  • Globototes look like a handsome and much cheaper alternative, too.
  • Gothamist story from which I ripped off some of these links. This guy in the comments proves even more cynical about this whole event than me:
    I waited in this line, bought three bags, and now have an extra $300+ in my pocket that I will use to pay down some credit card debt. This whole operation was a joke - the "I'm NOT a plastic bag" bags were given to me inside a Whole Foods plastic bag. I don't feel bad in the slightest for taking advantage of the "it's hip to be eco-friendly" girls that I sold these bags to. We're all powerless to stop this rampant consumerism that plagues this country anyway.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Grinderman

Grinderman CD Cover

GRINDERMAN
Grinderman (CD) – Anti

As Nick Cave nears 50, he engages his new band Grinderman to bequeath us with some of his most bracing and profane work yet. Cave grouses, growls and grumbles his way through this lacerating little effort. About what? Well, ostensibly women, but you’ll eventually conclude it’s the velocity of life he has a beef with. Throughout, on tracks like the fuzzy "Electric Alice," the grinding "Depth Charge Ethel," and the bluesy "Go Tell the Women," the fairer sex dominates the proceedings, and a visceral sexuality seeps into everything from the light-hearted buzz of "Honey Bee (Let’s Fly to Mars)" to the more acidic, but comical "No Pussy Blues." Cave isn’t really berating women; he’s mocking himself, his own predilections, archly tracking his own mid-life crises. Compare Grinderman’s cover with its content: Is it a coincidence that the grinder monkey on the cover appears to be cowering, its tiny fists protecting its genitals? The tongue-in-cheek emasculation on "No Pussy Blues" epitomizes the theme here, as Cave complains about the contortions he engages in to secure some booty – even petting his lover’s "revolting little Chihuahua" – all to no avail. "My face is finished, my body’s gone," he laments. Life is flitting by and any desired words of wisdom can be reduced to the mantra repeated on the disk’s opening track: "Get It On." - Robert Stribley

www.grinderman.com

This review was originally published in Skyscraper Magazine, Issue 25 (Summer 2007)

Feist - The Reminder

FEIST
The Reminder (CD) – Cherrytree/Interscope

The danger in anyone’s covering the traditional "See-Line Woman" is that one can’t help but compare the results with Nina Simone's incantatory cover of the song, but on her rewarding new album The Reminder, Leslie Feist clears that hurdle with a great version. Spelled "Sealion” here, the song is based on a field recording from the 30s and its spelling has varied ever since. Feist’s version folds her skipping vocals into a convincing mélange of handclaps, minimalist glitch keys, country guitar and eventually throbbing rock. She further cements her considerable abilities throughout this, her third release, with compelling performances of her own material, such as “I Feel It All” and her gorgeous duet with Eirik Glambek Bøe (Kings of Convenience) on “How my Heart Behaves.” Feist’s voice is both strong and sensual, and she employs both of those traits to great effect on the pounding, propulsive “My Moon, My Man” and amidst her sighing vocals on the seductive "Honey Honey." The Reminder also features some superlative collaborative work, notably “Limit to your Love,” which Feist wrote with Jason Charles Beck and “1 2 3 4,” which she wrote with Australia’s Sally Seltmann. With fellow-Canadian Ron Sexsmith, she produces “Brandy Alexander,” which begins as a simple pretty tune, but eventually dissolves into gorgeous twinkling vocal fragments. - Robert Stribley

http://www.listentofeist.com

This review was originally published in Skyscraper Magazine, Issue 25 (Summer 2007)

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Impeach Is Not a Dirty Word

The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism.

In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.

- Umberto Eco
There was a time when I thought the idea of impeaching Bush was a little radical. After all, we get the government we deserve. But now that it's clear that his administration is likely the most inept and deceptive one we've had in my lifetime, I'll happily acquiesce to the idea. Forgetting about the war in Iraq, just within the last couple of weeks:
  • Former Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona describes how he was asked to ignore science in order to propagate a political agenda:

    "The administration, Dr. Carmona said, would not allow him to speak or issue reports about stem cells, emergency contraception, sex education, or prison, mental and global health issues. Top officials delayed for years and tried to 'water down' a landmark report on secondhand smoke, he said. Released last year, the report concluded that even brief exposure to cigarette smoke could cause immediate harm.

    Dr. Carmona said he was ordered to mention President Bush three times on every page of his speeches. He also said he was asked to make speeches to support Republican political candidates and to attend political briefings.

    And administration officials even discouraged him from attending the Special Olympics because, he said, of that charitable organization’s longtime ties to a 'prominent family' that he refused to name.

    'I was specifically told by a senior person, "Why would you want to help those people?"' Dr. Carmona said.

    The Special Olympics is one of the nation’s premier charitable organizations to benefit disabled people, and the Kennedys have long been deeply involved in it."

    All indignant emphasis mine.
  • Bush commutes the sentence of a crony, Scooter Libby, who may have implicated people further up the food chain in his administration.

  • Bush exerts executive privilege, telling Sara Taylor she need not testify openly before Congress on matters, which might also implicate his administration. (What do you have to hide, W?)

  • Bush tells Harriet Miers not to show up for questioning before Congress, an action which may lead to contempt charges against Miers. (Keeping in mind that neither Taylor nor Miers even work for Bush any more.)

Conservatives don't like you to throw the "f" word (not to mention the "d" word) around, and, sure it does sound a little intemperate, but these four recent actions being just part of a long litany of similar action under this administration, doesn't the term "Ur-fascism" begin to apply?

If I sound a little obstreperous at this point, please consider giving Umberto Eco's "14 Ways of Looking at a Brown Shirt" a read. His short piece ends thusly:
Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier for us if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, "I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Blackshirts to parade again in the Italian squares." Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances — every day, in every part of the world. Franklin Roosevelt's words of November 4, 1938, are worth recalling: "If American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land." Freedom and liberation are an unending task.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Manhattanhenge

Alas, I will miss Manhattanhenge tonight, as I will be in Brooklyn (seeing David Cross though!), and I'm not aware of any Brooklynhenge. Too bad, since the view from right outside our office would likely be fantastic. Tonight at 8:27.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Elbow - Grace Under Pressure

When I first heard Elbow's debut disk Asleep in the Back, I quickly discovered another favorite band to add to list that already included several British bands. This video shows Elbow on the road and in the studio as they perform "Grace Under Pressure," a song which sounds a lot like a hymn, but ends with a punch if you listen carefully. Lead singer Guy Garvey often sounds like Peter Gabriel and he has song-writing chops to match.

Pick the Notes You Really Mean

One of my favorite writers and all round cool guy Haruki Murakami writes in the NYT about how he would never have become a writer if it weren't for his love of jazz:
One of my all-time favorite jazz pianists is Thelonious Monk. Once, when someone asked him how he managed to get a certain special sound out of the piano, Monk pointed to the keyboard and said: “It can’t be any new note. When you look at the keyboard, all the notes are there already. But if you mean a note enough, it will sound different. You got to pick the notes you really mean!”

I often recall these words when I am writing, and I think to myself, “It’s true. There aren’t any new words. Our job is to give new meanings and special overtones to absolutely ordinary words.” I find the thought reassuring. It means that vast, unknown stretches still lie before us, fertile territories just waiting for us to cultivate them.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Killing In the Name Of

Mohsin Hamid's Moth Smoke is one of those books I've had sitting on a shelf for ages before I finally decided to delve into it. And it's excellent. Anyone who has little idea about what's going in modern-day Pakistan (i.e. most of us) should really pick it up to see just how dramatically life there differs from how you'd probably expect. For one thing pot and ecstasy use figures heavily in the plot. And the default position for feelings towards religious fundamentalism among the novel's inhabitants is disdain. From the reviews I'd read, I expected Moth Smoke to be an engaging read; I didn't expect it to be a cross between Rashomon and Chuck Palahniuk. I've already bought Hamid's latest, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Though it's only a single thread in this remarkable novel, I found the following passage about murder particularly provocative:
You can always justify killing animals on the grounds that you want to eat them, or wear them, or that they smell bad, look funny, bother you, threaten you, and have the bad luck of being in your way. What about killing humans? Well, aside from a few die-hard individualists on the fringe, the general consensus among people these days seems to be that eating and wearing other people is just not on. Wearing a suit which costs as much as a farmer will make in his lifetime is acceptable, but actually putting his eyeballs on a string a letting them dangle above tastefully exposed cleavage is bad form.

That said, killing someone because of the other reasons we mentioned above (smell, looks, bother, threat, or bad luck) is quite acceptable. You want deoderants, you know that one in 6.87 million will die from a violent allergic reaction, you shrug and churn the stuff out, and some poor fellow suffers a pain in the armpit beyond imagining and dies, and that's that: acceptable. You drive cars, knowing eventually you will probably kill someone or be killed, but "Hurry up, I don't want to be late for my threading," and you're off. No regrets. Or someone who has never been to your farm and seen the cute dimples your youngest daughter is already showing when she smiles decides a line on a piece of paper should be a little to the left, and in the name of God and all that is right, to war boys: kill, kill, kill! Yours not to reason why, but damn it hurts when a land mine blows off your leg.
What an excellent, angry passage.

The ideas of acceptable risk and "collateral damage" are nothing new, of course, but at what point do we become uncomfortable with the results? If a cell phone explodes and someone's burnt to death, you can bet that will make the news and that one person's death may actually result in changes to the product's construction. But how many dead bodies do we have to see (given the opportunity to actually be exposed to them, of course) before we accept significant increases in the price of, oh, petroleum, shall we say? I'd venture, it's far, far more than one.

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