Thursday, December 31, 2009

Some possible sequels to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

1) Wuthering Heights and Werewolves

2) Wide Sargasso Sea Vikings

3) Nicholas Nickleby, Ninja

4) Last of the Mutant Mohicans

5) Vlad Dracula's Notes from the Underground

6) Jurassic Mansfield Park

Thursday, November 26, 2009

On a day such as this,
When surrounded by family and food,
A quaint moment might make one miss,
Dollhouse, and also some Ood*.

For them and for many things I am thankful,
For the Internet, as invented by Al Gore,
For socks that reach only one's ankle,
For warm weather in North Carolina, and more.

But most of all, when all is done and said,
When tryptophan works its biomolecular magic,
And the six cousins under 10 are finally in bed:

My thoughts do turn to those my friends, who make
my life worth more than coins in hand
and find that I am worth something to them.

But the quality of friendship is not
Strained like tears from Carolina fans when
Jason Williams drops almost forty points.
Instead it is like dollar bills when Pac-
Man Jones goes to the local Deja Vu's.

For that I love them and for more things than I can count
And also I should say I value them for reading this this far.**

But though the devil
May try and pry them from me
Like stone I resist.

Will I trade my friends away?

Will I trade them for a goat?
Will I trade them for a boat?
Will I trade them in Japan?
Will I trade them with The Man?
Will I trade them for some fame?
Will I trade them if they're lame?
Will I trade them at good rates?
Will I trade them inside crates?
Will I trade them during Red Rover?
Will I trade them if I'm sober?
Will I trade them in outer space?
Will I trade them for my friend's Mace?
Will I trade them for a job?***
Will I trade them for Carab[bas, a faux-Italian restaurant chain]

No!!!!!1!!!1 I say.

I will not trade them for a goat,
Or if you make me a fool in Bash.org quotes,
I will not trade them in Japan,
And you know I hate the Man,
I will not trade them for some fame,
I'm writing poetry on Thanksgiving- that's pretty lame,
I will not trade them if I'm drunk,
Or if you offer me the entire Alive 2007 album by Daft Punk,
I will not trade them for champaign,
I will not trade them for Colerain [comma A victory against]

Like diamonds, I will not trade them in the sub-Sahara,
I will not trade them for sauce of marinara,
I will not trade them for straight A's,
I will not trade them for some Lay's,
As my triglycerides are too high,
And in fact my doctor thought that I might die [someday],
They are worth far too much to me,
Like that fish from the Old Man and the Sea,
Your hypothetical bargain is just like Faust,
And my response is as long as Proust,
If Proust broke his hand and couldn't write past the first page.

For this Thanksgiving I am grateful,
That I have friends as precious as gems,
And not as sparkly or easily stolen.

Have a wonderful, Turkey-filled rest of your evening. I am proud, grateful and glad to call you my friends. Thank you for everything.

*Go watch the David Tennant Dr. Who series, you Philistine.
**Yeah, iambic pentameter is not my preferred form, even if "Jason Williams" is a perfect pair of feet.
***Let's face it, the economy is pretty bad.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Death List Five

If I were The Bride and wanted to murder five people for no particular reason, here's who I would pick:

1) Whoever put the "E" in "ESPN" and absolutely destroyed our ability to receive anything like unbiased sports coverage.
2) Marshall McLuhan: Because I had to read his stuff for two different classes.
3) Richard Dawkins: Self-explanatory.
4) The corporate executive at Halliburton who decided to buy CollegeBoard/ETS and turn it from a small, family-values based operation to a national bastion of evil.
5) John Calipari: Again, self-explanatory.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

WARNING: A Pun-Based Post

So, a hundred and eighty-five velociraptors walk into a bar, and the bartender says, "What'll it be?"

The velociraptors order 185 Budweisers.

While the bartender is busy trying to put together that many Buds, he starts grumbling about Belgian beers. The velociraptors ask, "What did you say?"

"Oh," says the bartender, "I'm just p'oed that the globalization movement has caused a beer that should rightly be made and drank and owned by Americans to be owned by the BELGIANS."

The velociraptors take a smooth sip, in unison. Then, one of them steps forward and says gently, "It's alright. Your fear of foreign-owned companies owning and operating traditionally American-themed products stems from an outdated mindset dating back to the 16th and 17th century idea of mercantilism, and the even more outdated mindset of the zero-sum game, which has been around since the dawn of mankind. But don't worry. Mercantilism said that there was only so much gold (value) in the world, and countries should trade only to gain more gold; after a while they wouldn't trade anymore. But capitalism, in its purest form, doesn't rely on gold, but the value created by the *trading* of gold. That's how a piss-poor island with funny accents and an inability to brush properly became the greatest empire the world has yet to forget about, and managed to crush the dreams of Napoleon and Hitler: trade, and motion. Motion is important. The motion of people from place to place and information from place to place is now the dominant modality of the global economy. It doesn't matter who owns the beer, only how it gets from place to place and who collects the money for it along the way. Everything is always in motion, my friend, the economy, and the future."

The bartender says, "Wow. That's really deep. You guys have a great perspective on things."

The velociraptors shrug and say, "What can we say? Our vision is based on movement."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Guest Column (by The Girlfriend)

Things around here have gotten quite dusty as of late, due to the ineptness of the Author, so I thought I could offer my thoughts on one of the most talked-about shows on the air right now, Fox's incomparable Glee.

Glee is a parody of High School Musical and all of its varied spinoffs, set at Canton McKinley High School in Ohio (although it claims to be in Lima, which is far away from Canton). Other major mishaps with the show: there is no mention whatsoever of the Massillon-McKinley rivalry, competitive cheerleading would never outshine football or basketball as the top sport (and would certainly not inspire a late-night local news segment featuring the Cheerios' coach- we have *actual* important things to report on late night news, like the latest race riots or "Taste of Cleveland"), the plot is so dependent on stick-thin stereotypes that they have each character wear the same clothes ALL THE TIME (gay kid wears fabulous, emo Asian kid wears black, cheerleader wears uniform, misunderstood but sensitive teacher wears misunderstood but sensitive cotton, etc.), and all of the male characters are either stupid, gay, evil, weak-willed, or stupid. However, the show balances tasteful and well-produced song-and-dance numbers with storylines featuring lying, teen pregnancy, drug abuse (oh the drugs!), infidelity, homosexuality, blackmail, and GLINDA THE GOOD WITCH!!!!! In other words, it's just like High School Musical, except it's good.

Oddly enough, and despite popular perception, this is a show that has music in it, rather than a musical show. Despite the increasing popularity of non-diegetic music and special effects in film as a device of deconstruction of the medium (see my earlier review of "Inglourious Basterds" and the whole ridiculous Hugo Stiglitz episode), Glee uses its central conceit (a group of overtalented high school singers) to allow completely diegetic music to spontaneously occur without breaking the ever-so-soft fourth wall. This is probably the only difference between the two films, as a close comparison reveals many similarities:

-In Glee, a fictitious dictator with Hitler-like powers and attitude is stymied by a small group of hardy students who recruit new members into their ranks from detention for marijuana use
-In Inglourious Basterds, a (arguably) fictitious dictator with Hitler-like powers and attitude is stymied by a small group of hardy soldiers who recruit new members into their ranks from detention for killing German officers.

-In Glee, a young Jewish overachiever with her own MySpace channel is the main character and messes with the head of the football field hero, who is in love with her.
-In Inglourious Basterds, a young Jewish overachiever with her own movie theater is the main character and messes with the head of the battlefield hero, who is in love with her.

-In Glee, the narration is provided by kids who wish they were as cool as Samuel L. Jackson.
-In Inglourious Basterds, the narration is provided by Jules Winfield, who is almost as cool as Samuel L. Jackson.

-In Glee, the show is stolen by GLINDA THE GOOD WITCH, whose amazing vocal range gets shown off to maximum extent.
-In Inglourious Basterds, the show is stolen by HANS THE JEW HUNTER, whose amazing linguistic range gets shown off to maximum extent.

-In Glee, the charismatic leader of the kids pushes a female character into a painful place: the school musical
-In Inglourious Basterds, the charismatic leader of the kids pushes a female character in a painful place: her leg wound

-Glee's best actor is known for dressing up as one of the Imperious Forces.
-Inglourious Basterds' best actor is known for dressing up as Santa.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

That Girl in the Green Dress

Sultry was the word I'd have used to describe that night, before I saw That Girl. She was trodding down the red-bricked sidewalk, slowly slumping lower and lower. Vanishing away were the elegant poise and graceful balance in heels that her mother drilled into her, almost as if her posture was melting in the drizzle overhead.

She was wearing a green dress, cute enough, the kind an aunt might have picked up at Macy's as a sweet sixteen gift, the kind she might have worn to her first prom with that freckly boy from her biology class who had asked her with a note, the kind she might have looked upon with fond nostalgia as it hung, unmourned, in the back of her closet. The kind she might have depended on as a good luck charm, a scrappy little player just clutch enough when the chips were down, not as fashionable or felicitous or just flat-out fine as those other dresses, but always reliable, always there when she needed it, and never resenting her desire for other dresses. The kind that had earned its place in her closet, never given anything, never asking for anything.

Sure, she could have blown the kitty on a three-hundred-dollar D&G number and the finest jewelry to boot, but she wasn't a flashy girl, never needing to be as glamorous as the others, just a good-hearted blue-collar girl from the countryside who would wear her favorite little dress to the last night of rush. She had written her name on the tag in plain but elegant black Sharpie, and it was that same name, same loopy handwriting that she had used on her PanHel-approved 3x5 card and plastic holder, now affixed to her strap by means of a simple pin. She didn't need to pretend to be anyone that night. They could take her as she was, or not at all.

When I saw her, two strangers passing in the night, the drizzle made the edges of the card curl a little in the holder, and the ink was starting to run. Those other girls, the ones soon to be inside the house sipping champagne and hugging girls they've just met as though they've been best friends since the sandlot, their cards were dressed up with glitter and cheap scent and curly d'Nealean trails laid down by expensive ink pens imported from France and Japan, and will be pinned to a cork board hung to a pink-shrouded wall in the future, with little multi-colored Post-It notes commemorating their success in a competition brutal to the extent Darwin could only dream off. And in their closets will be a dozen, or dozens, of beautiful slender dresses, purchased after endless deliberation and the confidences of entire entourages of worshipful friends, and not one of them will be from last season or before.

Her glance brushed against me, then away, not in snobbery or rejection, but rather, despair. How could I, a mere man, know the depths of despair she was plunging through? How could I, with my emotional depth like that of a puddle in a desert, possibly understand the turbulent storm of insecurity and fear and anger and stinging and numbness, endless, endless numbness raging across her? How could I know what it was like to come so close, and yet be left so far away?

I couldn't. So I passed her by. But I will always remember her, not as the victim she wanted to be, but the sleeping giant that will awaken someday, when the perms have come out and the wrinkles appear in the overtanned skins, when the sleek bodies give way to ennui and stress and stretch marks, when the season of life kicks off anew.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Small Miracles

Last night, a friend of mine got into an accident. He was driving along in a Vespa-type scooter and coasting down the road, and ran smack into a chain that was stretched across the entrance to the parking lot.

We were getting off a bus when we heard a screeching sound and turned around to see him absolutely laid out across the parking lot. For those who've never seen an accident, it's very sudden. No fireball, no slow-motion, no flying through the air. Just a long trail of debris, with a bike at one end and our friend at the other.

There's a pause, kind of, when your body is moving and you're saying things, but your mind is somewhere else completely. Three of us were reaching into our phones and trying to dial emergency response, some of us went to go to him, others ran to find a security guard or someone who could hail someone on the radio. This isn't the first time I've seen an accident, but just the same it might have well have been.

I believe in God. I believe in blessings. I believe in miracles. But even if you don't, something was different about that night. Here are the facts, as objective as I can remember them:

-Our friend was slowing down and coasting down the road, only hitting the chain at about 10-15 mph

-He was wearing a helmet. The helmet (at least the back part of it) crumpled and bits of it were strewn around.

-We were right there when it happened, along with other bystanders who called for help.

-A jogger was coming by with his dog. The jogger was trained in first aid. He had a pair of latex gloves with him, which he put on, got our friend to lie down straight, checked his pulse, made sure he could feel his extremities, kept him still, and recognized that there was blood coming from both a head and a neck injury.

-The police and student EMS squad arrived within a few moments of each other, and did everything right by the book.

-The ambulance took him away straightaway and there wasn't any triage process at the hospital, so he could go directly to the ER.

-The jogger took three of us to the hospital so we could see him right away. The rest of us got to the hospital later, and even found parking.

-No brain or spine damage.

-We were able to leave that night/morning and bring our friend back safely.

They only let three (and later two) of us in at a time to see him, so while a couple of us went in, I waited outside. God, as always, took care of the small details: I caught the last four minutes of the Baltimore-Carolina game (Troy, unfortunately, was not in) and also found a book called Imagined Worlds, a fascinating little tract by Freeman Dyson about the issues that science and research face that go beyond technical/scientific problems- ideology, money, politics, disinformation, etc.

When we got to go inside, our friend was basically fine, other than a giant gash on his head a few minor lacerations along his neck and back. We chatted with the physician and med student attending the case, and discussed the various implications of the presence of Organic Chemistry in pre-med undergraduate curricula (the physician was grumbling about how UT-Austin is removing it from pre-med requirements, arguing that it has too little to do with actual medicine). (Side note: I always knew UT fans were the best) (Double side note: proof God exists: my friend was treated by a 'Horns fan, and not a M*ch*g*n or Gators fan)

When I went back outside, I saw on the news that another teenager had been killed in a motorcycle accident on the freeway. I don't know what that meant. I do think, though, that we were blessed.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Some Things You'll Never See

-Protestant Vampire Hunters

-Fanboys begging for a shorter film

-Atheist youth groups helping out at a soup kitchen

-Engineers designing a Mac

-Cory Doctorow

-White people getting arrested for cocaine possession

-Korean movies about normal people

-SEC fans complaining about bowl game locations

-Obama being ripped for doing the exact same thing Bush tried to do five years ago

-XKCD not getting at least a chuckle

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Some More Summer Movie Reviews

The Hangover

"I was disappointed that it wasn't like Memento"- Fpendl.

The Hangover is a pretty typical man-comedy of the Judd Apatow school: seemingly simple plot, bizarre and often surreal occurrences, bromantic undertones, casual drug use, witty pop culture references, sharp one-liners, cardboard female characters, cameos from the extended Frat Pack/Jew Tang Clan. The storyline follows the previews almost exactly: bunch of guys wake up after a wild bachelor party, only to find that the bachelor is missing and there's a ton of weird stuff going on. Like a tiger in their shattered hotel room. And a baby.

As Judd Apatow comedies go, it's pretty good. There are a lot of zingers, mostly delivered by Zach Galifianakis as the creepy and inept brother-in-law-to-be. There are enough good sight gags (the baby, the ring, the tuxedo "delivery") to make up for the sea of terrible ones. There are the obligatory cameos (Jeffrey Tambor steals every scene he's in as the father-in-law). There are the offensive racial stereotypes.

I saw it in a packed theater with college students and it received a roaring laugh track, although not as much and not as consistent as Pineapple Express, and of course not touching Superbad, the greatest Judd Apatow film of all time. Yet perhaps because I've seen so many of them and the formula seems so worn- you know Ed Helms will dump his too-evil-to-be-anything-but-a-movie-girlfriend lady, you know the bride and groom will make up, etc. etc.- I felt a little jaded afterward. My sides hurt from laughing but more from visceral impact than anything else.

The Hangover is by far the best comedy I've seen this summer, but not in the same class as The 40 Year Old Virgin or Superbad. It's a "rent" movie.

4/5 overall

The Taking of Pelham 123


More remakes. I've never seen the original film; all I know about it is that it was the inspiration for the codenames in Reservoir Dogs. Tony Scott, the director, is obsessed with visual spectacle and iconic images, much like Zack Snyder and so what could be an otherwise decent technothriller-type film is ruined by lots of spinning cameras and slow-motion.

Denzel Washington, as always, gives a good performance as a slightly chubby Everyman having a really bad day; John Travolta looks like he's having fun for the first time in years. There are serviceable character actors in the rest of the roles, but they're servicing a script that is passable at best, and includes such howlers as the hijackers getting a wireless signal in a subway tunnel by putting a router outside the car, Denzel taking a bribe for a paltry amount of money, nobody knowing about the secret exit, and, of course, the final third of the movie, which turned a passable thriller into a laughable action film.

Not worth the time or the effort or the talent of everyone involved.

Overall 2/5

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Clay Shirky and the Spittle of God
(And other stories)

So I've been a little lax in blogging lately, but that's because I've been very busy. Here are just a few of the things I've done:

-Seen Niagra Falls
Although my original conception of Niagara Falls involved it being an idyllic lakeside summer campground with maybe a creepy motel or two in the background, it actually resembled nothing more than the Canadian Las Vegas, or maybe the Year Two intro to Grim Fandango. Giant hotels? Check. Giant (government-run) casinos? Check. Long lines of people waiting for healthcare? Sadly, no.

That reminds me: on the way back there was a huge backup of cars on the interstate as one of the lanes was closed for repair. My father grumbled about how Obama's stimulus plan was creating traffic and I retorted by saying "At least people will get some jobs". His reply? "Do you see anyone working?" We drove by about three miles of empty, closed-off road before we saw one lone highway worker sitting in a steamroller smoking a cigarette.

Anyways, when we were in Niagara we decided to take the Maiden Mist tour, and suddenly I'm on a boat going to sail, or paddle, or whatever nautically-themed verb is considered appropriate, to the very foot of the Falls. The SS Maiden Mist was actually a *Canadian*-chartered vessel, which means that in lieu of life vests or any kind of safety instructions we were instead given plastic ponchos that resembled transparent Jedi robes and directions to crowd as close to the front of the boat as possible. Or that's what it felt like, with 400 tourists pressing in around us, including a Korean group whose guide sneered at my family when we posed for pictures and said, (in loud, clear Korean that everyone in my family could understand) "Look at those dumb@$$ Japs who just want photo opportunities".

I will admit, being on a boat without any flotation devices despite the possible capsizing due to the thousands of tons of water crashing about seemed to be a little edgier, a little riskier. My father went on about how in Canada the lack of a litigious society produces such pure, unencumbered experiences as this; I was just amazed by the fact that THERE WERE NO FREAKING LIFE VESTS. Oh wait, there were; they were inside a large metal footlocker welded to the top deck that was marked "Life Vests: Use Only in Case of an Emergency". That was sealed. With a giant padlock. To make sure we would *only* use them in case of an emergency. Because we use them during other times too.

As the boat approaches the base of the Falls, the gentle touch of thousands of droplets of mist floating through the air and caressing your face becomes a feeling of brutish bashing from streams exploding outwards, like smashing your face into a wall made of water over and over again, except the water is solid as a rock and there's so much of it you're wondering if you can get George Clooney to play you in the Hollywood drama version.

It was pretty much a white-out of epic proportions that obscured vision and seemed to crush the very breath out of one's lungs. Also, it was wet.

-Picked Blueberries
I've always known that immigrant laborers in this country have it hard, but never this hard. I spent a few hours picking blueberries with a white paint bucket, because picking your own blueberries gives you a greater appreciation of where your food comes from. Also, you only pay $1.40 a pound as opposed to $1.90 a pound, a huge savings, which is why I was so surprised to see the pitying looks from the truck full of farm workers that passed me by halfway through my berry experience.

And it does get to you. Despite the fact that you can eat all the berries you want (mmmmm, berries), the pickin' gives you a lickin' after a while, mainly because the best clusters of berries are down on the lowest branches. So, ignoring years and years of my father's admonitions not to settle for the low-hanging fruit, I stoop down and grab handfuls of berries, testing a few to see if they're sour (an unseasonably cold and light-less summer in Michigan has led to many fruit being un-ripe). I feel I can confidently say that that particular farm is run by people with sweet yet slightly bitter dispositions, as by their fruits you shall know them. ZING!

-Seen Clay Shirky at a Conference
Clay Shirky is perhaps the second-most-famous "celebrity" I've seen this summer (and by "celebrity" I of course mean "public figure only I and Minh have heard of"). He is a new-media-social-networks guy who is very articulate and good with the whole sound-bytes thing, which is presumably why he does well in the media despite being antithetical to their biases, and, more importantly, he looks like a bald version of Tom Hanks. This second fact fascinated me to no end during his talk, which included mention of the Facebook group titled "The Consortium of Loose, Forward, Pub-Going Women" and their campaign of peaceful protest via the mailing of underpants (or "Chaddi") to an orthodox religious gorup. It was funny.

-Tried to Start Reading Mason & Dixon
On the recommendation of those who know I liked the encyclopediac novels of Neal Stephenson I went down to the library and got myself a brick-thick copy of Thomas Pynchon's epic eighteenth-century novel Mason & Dixon, which distinguishes itself from fiction normal people read by two defining characteristics:

1) The Novel Itself is written by the Author in Marvelous and Authentick Style, using the Germanic Overcapitalization of Nouns, the Spelling Concurrent to Grammatical Trends of the Period, the Use of Unrelated Authorial Assides and Digressions at Every Possible Opportunity (Which I believe to be Delightful yet Odorous to Readers with Little Time or Attention Spane, which is Why the Practice Should be limited only to Authors who can shew their Prodigious Skill at Witticisms and Rhetoric), and the Practice and Habitt of finding Excuses Galor to insert Clauses that further confuse the Gentle Reader who will have Lost Track of What the Beginning of the Sentence Said (because of the Flexible Nature of the English Language, which allows for Dreadful Splicing of Gerundical Phrases if the Author so Chuses) of the Time Period in Which It Is Set, which makes It both Delightful and a Major Paine in the Arse to be Read.

2) It doesn't have a Plot.

Surprisingly, Point #1 doesn't bother me as much as Point #2. Part of this is because I have ample experience reading other science fiction novels set in different time periods, and read or seen different sci-fi works with different languages in use. Point #2, though, is difficult for me to deal with. There is no plot. There are no character arcs (yet). There are very few characters who actually seem to matter (yet). It's picaresque but has no structure. It reads very much like stream-of-consciousness does, but seems to meander, with entire chapters and scenes having no purpose other than to show off the depth of the author's research, or his clever use of puns, or his (admittedly) well-versed command of the English language.

In other words, it's like James Joyce's work, except that it's (grudgingly) funny. I haven't decided whether it will be worth it or not.



Sunday, July 12, 2009

Some Summer Movie Reviews: Public Enemies, Star Trek,

(note: hopefully I will have more reviews for The Hangover and The Taking of Pelham 123 later)

Public Enemies
"Public Enemies" has fared in a most mediocre way with both critics and The Girlfriend, so of course I had low expectations going in, but was pleasantly surprised by it. To help clear up expectations, let me reiterate what it is not: it is not "Heat" in the 1930s. It is not "The Untouchables" writ small. And it is not "The Dark Knight". It is the (supposedly) true-to-life story of John Dilinger (Johnny Depp), a bank robber who gets caught, breaks out of jail, goes back and robs banks, and then gets caught and shot at the end. It is also, though, an interesting mediation on the media's influence on crime and police work, and a glimpse at the birth of the modern FBI.
Although he follows his standard cops-and-robbers plot structure, Michael Mann steps away a little from his typical existentialism vs. determinism vs. nihilism themes, although he can't help throwing in a few lines from John Dillinger about how "We're having such a good time today we can't think about tomorrow" and the free-as-a-bird myth that these gentlemen like Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson subscribe to. We see J. Edgar Hoover, played by an almost unrecognizable (and short!) Dr. Manhattan himself, trying to put together a saintly, Jesuit-educated interstate police force, which was a novelty at the time when bank robbers could cross a state line and become immune to everything. We see his right-hand man, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), becoming frustrated by the incompetence of the accountants and lawyers Hoover supplies him with, most of whom either get shot or commit acts of torture and other clear violations of suspect rights (although, to be fair, Miranda rights didn't exist until the 1960s, well after this movie was set).

And then we see Purvis requesting more experienced men, Texas Rangers, and getting his hands dirty. These two men are shown as being similar but not quite alike, and the performances of Bale and Depp reflect that. Depp, who is best known for playing slightly more flamboyant, off-kilter characters, creates a different persona here. Dillinger is portrayed as a brooding, intense, calculating individual. You can see it in his eyes during the prison break, or during the bank robbery as he checks and makes sure everything is going to plan. You can see it in his body language, his facial expressions as he plans his "takedown" of Billie Frechette, a girl he sees dancing at a club.

It is the introduction of Frechette (Marion Cotillard, in a nicely understated role) into his personal life, and Purvis into his professional life, that starts to break him down. Depp allows the briefest of smiles, of sighs, and smug half-grins to penetrate his facade of cold intensity once he is with Frechette, their duration and frequency increasing througouht the film, culminating with the moment towards the end of the film where he breaks down in the car and we watch a man struggle with long-repressed emotions in a silent, brilliantly-played moment. And the narrative reflects Dillinger's breakdown as well: his bank robberies become sloppier and more desperate; his gang is eliminated by Purvis' incompetent but relentless department; his friends, allies, and safe houses all shun him or betray him.

It's a shame we don't get any background on Dillinger other than his breathless twenty-second recounting of his life to Frechette, which only serves to highlight what an efficient criminal and human being he's become. With characters like Jack Sparrow, Depp layers various surface aspects- rougish charm, cockiness, craziness, quirkiness, selfishness- around a core of vulnerability and insecurity that makes the audience empathize; with Dillinger, we have only the suggestion of an inner persona, a well-portrayed suggestion but just a suggestion nonetheless.

Purvis, as Dillinger's foil, is similarly enigmatic. Bale doesn't show us doubt or fear, just professionalism; the professionalism to repeatedly and determinedly ask for better agents from Hoover, the professionalism to turn his back while someone is getting tortured in the background, the professionalism to stay silent and unmoved while Dillinger attempts to rattle his cage when they meet in prison. The movie's epilogue notes that Purvis left the FBI and killed himself in real life after capturing Dillinger; it's a shame the film doesn't give us any clue (other than a hint or two) as to why.

The film does, however, portray the way the media affects the chase, though all too briefly. In a wonderful scene in a movie theater, Dillinger and his associates see themselves onscreen as the MovieTone announcer tells everyone "They may be in this very room" (at which point one of them tries to leave). The way Hoover is constantly followed around by a publicist, rather than an agent or an administrator, and his constant playing to the cameras, is clearly pushed forward at the same time Dillinger is turning an arraignment and later a trial into a press conference and a lampoon, respectively. People more learned than me have suggested the influence that Clark Gable's gangster movie has on the film; I suggest you go talk to them about it. My only reflection on that aspect is that, like Reservoir Dogs, it appears that most of the thieves in the film (with the exception of Dillinger, the consummate professional) have learned their trade by watching movies of elaborate shootouts (see Baby-Face Nelson's exit) and tough-guy shop talk.

The cinematography, direction, effects, and costuming are all effective enough that you don't notice them and focus on what's going on, but are nothing particularly spectacular. This is partly because of Mann's tight-fisted direction; as opposed to opening with crane shots of the Depression-era set built for the film, we focus mostly on the people, standing out starkly even against a massively built Michigan City prison entrance set.

Public Enemies is an excellent "gangster movie" and a well-crafted piece of art, but it falls shy of the potential of the rich, made-for-the-screen people it tries to depict.

Overall, 4/5.


Star Trek

Never bet against J.J. Abrams, I have learned. As much as I love Lost and MI:3, I thought that the prospect of Abrams- a self-described "Star Wars guy" trying to reboot the Star Trek franchise was a bit...er...well, dumb. 40 years of cinema and television history isn't to be rebooted easily, and I kept hearing all these awful rumors: it would be a buddy flick set at the Academy. It would be a war movie. It would be a Romulan movie. It would be about James T. Kirk's dad. It would be an Enterprise movie.

It's none of that. It is, in fact, a great film, and a successful reboot.

Let's get the casting out of the way: yes, everyone looks about five to ten years younger than they should, with the except of Karl Urban's McCoy. Hardcore fans have already derided the show as "the Muppet Babies version of Star Trek", so I won't go there. And yes, Sylar (a.k.a. Zachary Quinto) as Spock is not up to par. It's truly unfortunate, because Quinto takes a very difficult part and does it very well, but the problem is about halfway through the movie (*spoiler alert*!!!) we meet Leonard Nimoy's Spock, and the moment he speaks Nimoy's gravitas completely annihilates Quinto's hormonal-teenage-Spock performance, and to make things worse, Abrams & co. then have Quinto-Spock and Nimoy-Spock meet face to face, which is about the dumbest thing they could have possibly done because it makes Quinto look whiny and hollow and unable to follow up on one of sci-fi TV's greatest actors (/*end spoiler*). And yes, to quote one reviewer, Zoe Saldana as Uhura is a "stone cold fox", but, in one of the Great Decisions of Cinema History, they gave her both a character *and* an important skill to apply to the plot, which poor Nichelle Nichols never got in the original series.

In a predictable yet delectable way, the writers structure the film to bring together all the main characters of the original series. The main Schtick is about Quinto's Spock and Chris Pine's Kirk going through their Campbellian hero's journeys and eventually becoming friends, but each of the supporting cast characters from the Original Series (McCoy, Uhura, John Cho's blunt Sulu, Simon Pegg's amusing Scotty, and Anton Yelchin's nerdy Chekhov) gets their own moment to shine. The always-solid critic Alexandra Dupont, of the website Aintitcool.com, notes how the producers try to slip a little nod to the idea of destiny in their parallel-lives of their rebooted universe, but if you don't know much about the Original Series you'll just have to dismiss a bunch of highly improbable coincidences/gaps in logic, smoothed over by enjoyable action and a fair amount of wit in the dialogue.

The atmosphere is what really sells it, though (as much as atmosphere can exist in the airless void of space). As much as I hate to be the nth person to rag on a show's poor production values, Abrams' film has great F/X, costuming, set design and so on, which really helps the suspension-of-disbelief factor, while the musical score and constant use of audio cues from the Original Series (elevators, radar pulses, transporters etc.) brings back nostalgic memories without the memories of how cheesy and cardboard the old show used to be. I mean, it's almost painful to watch the series (or any of the series') after seeing the movie.

And, as is typical for Abrams productions, there are a couple of set pieces that resonate emotionally without compromising the big-budget action values, most notably the opening ten minutes, which includes setting up the plot, two different heroic sacrifices, and the birth of Kirk, all mixed together with flashes of action and chilling shots, like how the sound suddenly cuts out as someone is sucked into the silent vacuum. Of course, my more logically-oriented friend asked after a few minutes, "Why the HELL is there a married couple on a warship...in fact, why is there a PREGNANT WOMAN on a warship!?!?" but that was after the damage was done.

The whole movie follows this pattern: enormous, gaping flaws in logic that are presented in such a way that you're too busy caring about the characters and the conflicts to notice until long after the impact has already hit you. You spend too much time admiring how dead-on Karl Urban looks, acts, and sounds like DeForest Kelley, while at the same time channeling his own peculiar Southern-country-doctor-mojo, or chuckling at all the classic lines they work in (usually) organically (the first time McCoy says "Damnit Jim" is especially good), or feeling the hair on the back of your head stand up while watching Kirk and Sulu and a redshirt (!) silently skydiving with just the sound of a sensor ping in the background, or feeling the delicate simmer Quinto places around Spock's emotions being expertly prodded by Pine's overtly smug Kirk, or , or , or , and you get the idea.

Hardcore fans who pick apart the flaws of the film (and it does have many flaws; the science, the continuity, the whole Academy-cheating-Kobayashi Maru section, and again, WHAT IS A PREGNANT WOMAN DOING ON A WARSHIP!?!?) are really missing the point. The Original Star Trek Series was never about having things like original plots or internally consistent ideas; instead, it was a vision of an optimistic future that was vastly different from the grim determinism of H.P. Lovecraft or Rod Sterling or the later cynicism of cyberpunk and deconstruction. Is the future of Star Trek shiny and unrealistically iPod-like? Yes. Do we want it that way? Yes.

Overall, 5/5

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Great Game of Golf
The other day my grandfather offered to take me to play golf "at 6:30", by which, of course, he meant AM, not PM. This is slightly earlier than my typical wake-up time, but for the sake of having some quality time with Grandpa, it was worth it.

I have to clarify some things about the situation. My grandfather is a great golf player, and still competes in local semi-pro tournaments (and not the senior citizen tournaments either). My knowledge of golf is limited to an infamous episode of "My Name is Earl" and films starring Adam Sandler. I have been to a driving range a couple of times, but never gone golfing-golfing, and was curious about how it might go.

Let's put it this way: it didn't go well. My Grandpa went and spent an obscene amount of money on brand-new golf shoes for me, and that day was the first time I was wearing them. Note to self: *always* break in new shoes before you go golfing. So between the early hour, the shoes cutting into my heel through the paper-thin socks I was wearing, the icy coldness of the predawn morning and then the oppressive 70-degree heat of the sun, and the fact that I ate a delicious Croissant-wich for breakfast, the situation was already bad enough.

Then we actually started playing golf, and my level of skillz can be quite easily implied through two different anecdotes:

-Grandpa told me I needed a "pitching wedge". I was able to identify the proper club, because it had a "P" on it. I think. I had originally assumed this was the "Pirate" club, but I didn't tell anyone.

-The scorecard read something like this:
Hole 1: Par 4
Grandpa: 5
The Author: 12

Hole 2: Par 4
Grandpa: 4
The Author: 15

Hole 3: Par 4
[left blank, like every other hole afterward, to save me from embarrassment]

After we had struggled through the most painful 9 holes since Curtis James Jackson got shot, my grandpa took me aside next to the James Bond Villain Henchman's electric golf cart we had rented and looked me in the eye. With broken but carefully measured English, he said, "I know you feel pressure, this is first time. But don't worry, don't worry. I am play golf for very long time, and I feel pressure too. Everyone feel pressure."

I smiled and suddenly everything was right again, even if it had taken me 10 strokes before I was able to get back on on the fairway.

Then we went to the 10th hole and another gentleman was waiting there with his golf cart, chomping on a large cigar and looking for all the world like Mike Ditka. My grandpa got out and started talking to him all friendly-like, then he waved over at me and asked if I was beating "my old man". I laughed and said no, and he laughed and told me I should be.

Grandpa said something along the lines of I was 18 years old and a student at $t.X, which is not entirely true. But the man's eyebrows went up slightly. Then my grandpa went, tee'd off, and hit a beautiful drive that arced through the air and landed like an artillery shell about a foot away from the big yellow flag stuck in the hole, on a little peninsula jutting into a water trap.

I dutifully took out my driver, which I assume is called a driver because it uses electromagnets to accelerate the mainly titanium ball. Unfortunately, futuristic technology or not, I still was terrible at hitting the thing into anything other than the ground directly in front of it. Arcs were a pipe dream- at this point, I would settle for the ball flying off the tee in a straight line, for ten or fifteen yards.

Behind me, the gentleman chomped his cigar some more and said something about being a Panthers fan, and I realized how high the stakes were on this hole. The chummy man had gone to my high school's biggest and ugliest rival. Oh dear Lord, please don't make me embarrass myself in front of an 3LD3R fan!!!

I have one chance to not screw this up.

I have to keep my head down.

I have to shift my weight.

I have to swing and follow through.

The club comes down like a pendulum and makes contact with a solid THWACK sound that rings in my ears as the ball flies upward, higher, higher, higher than I've ever hit it, a beautiful arc so perfect you could use it for a polynomial graph in an Algebra I textbook, an arc that ends inside the hole.

I just hit a hole in one. O M F G. My grandpa goes crazy in the background. The guy's cigar falls out of his mouth.

No, just kidding. The ball arcs beautifully, but it soars over the splotch of green and plunks into the water. I sigh, and my grandpa laughs, clapping me around the shoulders.

"Good shot, good shot."

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Little Trouble in BigTown #10: As If I Didn't Feel Bad Enough About My Programming Skills

An exchange that occurred about three months ago:

Me: So how's [legendarily difficult programming class] treating you?
The Roommate: It's really hard because it's not very well-defined; you have to use a lot of creative skills and big-picture thinking.
Me: Uh huh. Sounds pretty tough.
The Roommate: Actually, you'd be really good at it.
Me: Really?
The Roommate: Yeah, it doesn't require any programming skill.
FML

Then this happened:
On the way back home, I decided to reserve a cab for the one-hour trip to the airport rather than try to take a cheaper, and probably far more disastrous/entertaining, combination of trains, boats, and...uhhh...something that rhymes with "boats". My driver is a dark-skinned man, who shares "the most common first name on the planet, read a book why don't you" with a certain Islamic Prophet, but who I call Mr. Amin.

As our rollicking ride of return begins, I ask him a few questions about where he's from and he replies, in clear but highly accented English, that he is originally from Bengladesh but has lived in BigTown for 14 years. This is the entertaining part of taxi rides; I love hearing about different people's stories, from the Egyptian guy who let me know that Lebanese women are the most beautiful of all (and that the women of Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and all the other countries that tried to invade Israel in the '60's are only as beautiful as the amount of Lebanese blood in them) to the bearded grad student who thought I was from Chicago "because of yer accent" to the retired Intel engineer who was driving because he wanted to do something different.

Mr. Amin told me about how he had first come to America, leaving behind a wife and young son for four years (!) with no contact (!!!) before they could put together the proper papers for immigration. I mean, that's pretty hardcore. His son and daughter are now pretty much assimilated, with basically no memory of Bengladesh, but he still keeps up the old traditions, including singing and some form of chant/meditation called "rrackg" (sp?). From listening to him talk about the mixture of Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus in his country, you'd think everyone was some long-haired groovy hipster who sat around being mellow and chanting all day. (Mr. Amin was particularly adamant that "Muslims in Bengladesh not like Muslims in Pakistan. We are not extreme, not extreme, very calm, very happy")

He talked about his deep depression during his years alone in the US, and how he got through it with a combination of religious faith (unspecified), this rrackg chanting, and computer programming.

Say what!??!

"Yes, yes, I find computer programmer from India, he teach me See Plus Plus, I teach him how to drive."

After a combination of tutoring with his Indian neighbor, self-teaching from books and tapes, and sitting in on a few classes at a community college, Mr. Amin now is fluent in C++, C#, Java and JavaScript, php, and Perl. His goal is to learn Python this year, since he has heard it is miraculous. (According to xkcd, it is, but be careful)

We then proceeded to have a long and fascinating conversation about how people learn things and the best way to teach the precepts of programming. ("To understand recursion, you must first understand recursion").

It's funny the kinds of things you learn when you meet people.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Little Trouble in BigTown #9: A Day in the Life

My typical day in BigTown begins at 6:30 in them morning, when I jolt awake and feel a spike of adrenaline coursing through my body, from my scalp to my toes, like a bolt of lightning. Then I realize that I can sleep for another hour, and roll over to catch some more z's.

At 7:15 my first alarm goes off on my phone, whose screen displays one of two options: SNOOZE and DISABLE. Thankfully, the first (default) option is SNOOZE, as otherwise I would just hit DISABLE. This puts my phone into a coma for five minutes, after which it goes off again, prompting me to hit SNOOZE again. In this way, my world becomes a series of five-minute naps dotted with brief flashes of consciousness, like a strobe light occasionally sputtering in a Discotheque in the Soviet Union during a brownout. In my dreams, I engage in vigorous debate with a vodka-chugging Chekhov from Star Trek about the efficiency of state-controlled utilities.

At 7:42 my second alarm goes off on my phone, which also prompts a SNOOZE. This, however, is different because Alarm #2 also goes off every five minutes, albeit starting at a different interval. This shortens the period in which I can sleep, as now Alarm #1 will go off at 7:45, Alarm #2 will go off at 7:47, and so on and so forth. My world goes from the aforementioned Discotheque to an episode of Pokemon.

Usually around eight I can drag myself out of bed and into the shower, where I engage in ruminations that often last me as long as fifteen minutes, especially if I forget to bring my watch and end up thinking about Weighty Matters instead of lathering. Afterwards, dressing takes me a while because I don't have any sort of bathmat and am completely paranoid about letting my wet feet touch the icky carpet. So I lay out my clothes on the bed, sit down on it, and lean back, holding my legs out and feeling my shower slippers slide off, then dangle my feet a few inches above the floor while moving only my upper torso to put on an undershirt and collared golf shirt. Then I lean over to the dresser (still sitting on the bed with my feet out) and grab some short-neck cotton socks. I can use my sock drawer as a sort of carbon-dating system to figure out how long it's been since I've done my laundry, although it regresses linearly rather than logarithmically. The warning point is when I run out of cotton socks and am forced to use my stash Emergency Backup Socks (EBS), the heavy wool monstrosities that are meant for Day After Tomorrow-style crisis and clubbing at Soviet Discotheques.

Finally, by this point my feet are no longer wet but merely damp, and I am able to slide them through a pair of khaki slacks and into the socks. With a brown belt and some sneakers, I am dressed for work, or for a typical day at $t. X, depending on if the dress code has changed or not. My backpack gobbles up the computer and all the snaking peripherals that accompany it, and I'm out the door.

The walk to the Metro station is pleasant, usually just warm and humid enough to remind me it's summer, but not enough that my pants start to develop their own tropical ecosystem inside. The entrance to the underground metro station is basically a big hole in the ground with what seems like an endless escalator plumbing the depths. There's also a series of gritty, unshaven men in orange construction-worker vests selling newspapers and copies of Street Vibes (The Official Daily Newspaper of the Homeless), and of course a token homeless person or two wagging a styrofoam cup from 7-11 (or occasionally Five Guys and Fries).

Once you get into the Metro station proper, you find yourself in a tunnel with a curved roof of tiles that look like Pez blocks. On one side you'll see a bank of 80s-era vending machines to spit out tickets and train passes (seriously, all that's missing is a couple of reels of tape and Matthew Broderick trying to play Global Thermonuclear War with them), and on the other various billboard-type advertisements, many of which have a distinctly political/lobbying flavor to them, such as the one with a picture of a pig that said "Who's HOGGING Our Antibiotics?"

There's also a dot-matrix LED display that alternates between helpfully telling you the train you want isn't coming for another 20 minutes and helpfully telling you that you should have added an additional 30 minutes to your travel time. Thanks, buddy. Occasionally, if you're very lucky, you'll see a third announcement that says that "Routine Track Maintenance" is being performed.

Finally, the actual train platform is filled with scattered knots of people zoned out on iPods or Crackberries. Most are respectably-dressed businesspeople who look like they could be lawyers or polticians; a few are clusters of students wearing identical bright t-shirts and lanyards. The lanyards, of course, are the dead giveaway, even for older high school and college groups. These older groups all have names that include words like "National", "Presidential", and "Congressional", designed to make them sound huffy and official. But the students still get lanyards.

Once the train arrives, the doors slide open and we all rush forward like o-linemen trying to get a push on a goal-line stand. While it's nothing like the ridiculousness of Japanese trains and certainly less saturated with f-words than a NYC metro, BigTown still manages to pack 'em in pretty tight. The train doors beep and try to close, and then stop as they've been jammed by someone's arm, or purse, or child. There's some quiet grumbling and then the doors finally slide shut and we begin moving, only to stop about 15 feet later with the announcement "This train will be delayed for 90 seconds".

A little while (and during weekdays a long while) later we arrive at my stop and I get off the train. There are two different exits to the metro station, and between 5 and 10 turnstiles at any given exit. Like grocery lines, I always pick the one that is letting people through the slowest. For most normal people, they get in line, watch the person in front of them slip in their ticket or wave their pass over the card reader, and then they get to go. Inevitably, though, I will be caught behind someone whose RFID smart-card has jammed, or been passed through a giant magnet, or is actually a library card.

After that annoyance, it's up the escalator...and up the escalator...and up the escalator...and finally I emerge and realize I picked the wrong exit as well, and now have an additional two or three blocks to get to my workplace. But no matter. The sky is clear and blue, and the people are teeming and energetic, and the humidity has been ratcheted up a notch, and my legs are sprouting emergent, canopy, and understory layers.

Some interminable hours (it may have been minutes) later, I arrive at the proper building, which is bordered on one side by a Johnny Rocket's family-style restaurant and on the other by a sex shop. Inside is the elevator to the office, which is slow (some might say "ponderous") and leaves lots of time for peaceful contemplation. I usually use the metal door to check and see if there's anything stuck in my teeth, and admire the glowing circles above the door that indicate the floor we're on (the numbers have been Sharpie'd on). The actual office is generic and nondescript, although quite EPIC, I must say myself.

I greet Gerald, the administrative assistant/website master/temp worker/social organizer for the office. Gerald's current profession fits the description the Navy has ("It's not a job, it's an Adventure"). My typical first glance of Gerald involves me going to the kitchen to get some water and seeing everyone stand around as Gerald tries to do an EPIC job like "catch a mouse that's been sneaking in through the ceiling tile" or worse, get the server to work properly.

On any given day, there's a 50-50 chance that I'll see Melissa, the other intern at my organization, who is from Cleveland (O-H!). Unfortunately, she did go to Miami of Florida (of her own volition), and that requires shunning. She does crazy law-school-type stuff which is so far above my head it resembles the plot of Pirates of the Caribbean 3.

Then I reach my own office, which, according to the sticker on the phone, apparently once belonged to someone whose name started with "Guilerme". It is currently being used to store unwanted books and interns. I sit down, pull out my computer, and lock it to the desk, then go straight to work.

Work, in this case, refers to the unpleasant daily task I have of making breakfast (Poptarts done at 25 seconds per pastry), checking my email, and carefully analyzing the latest postings from my favorite sports blogs. At some indeterminate point later in the day, I begin my (unpaid) volunteer service of doing research.

About five minutes after that, it's time for lunch. The first week or so I ate lunch out, but being a part of Obama's stimulus package for local restaurants really got to me politically, so now I eat in my office, preparing gourmet Nutella sandwiches with the following recipe I created:

Nutella Sandwich
Makes 4 sandwiches. Prep time: 3 minutes.

1 Jar Nutella
8 Slices of Whole Wheat Bread*

1) Take two slices of whole wheat bread and place on napkin.

2) Open jar of Nutella and observe the topographical contours of the Nutella within. A brand-new jar will have no contours, just a smooth surface. A used jar should have Nutella scooped out along the walls of the jar, leaving behind streaks from the teeth of the knife that was used to scoop it out, with a central peak formed of Nutella. The central peak should also have the straight-line streaks.

3) Scoop out Nutella. Be careful not to make the peak in the center of the jar too thin, or it will collapse. To prevent this, lop off the top of the peak at regular intervals and reshape the peak.

4) Spread Nutella on one (not both) of the slices of bread. Even-coating and thickness of the spread are more important (for now) than distributing the Nutella over the entire slice. There's plenty more where that came from.

5) Repeat steps 2-4 until one of the slices is *completely* covered with Nutella.

6) Wipe knife off on the other slice of bread.

7) Take the other slice of bread and gently place it on top of the Nutella-bearing piece, being careful to align the "handles" of the bread.

8) Repeat for the other three sandwiches.

9) Realize you forgot to buy milk and run across the street to Rite-Aid to get it.

*White bread is not an acceptable substitute.

Then it's time for more work while I eat, then after lunch I go back to volunteering. Throughout this time, I am sure to check my email every hour or so to make sure I'm not missing anything from my boss, who has a tendency to A) not come into the office and B) send uncapitalized (though fully-punctuated) emails that start with phrases like "So I'm in brussels this week".

Finally, the magical hour of 5 pm rolls around, and I pack up and head out. Depending on the day, I have different engagements: dinner, meetings, performances, improv classes, wandering aimlessly around like a tourist, and watching Arrested Development.

When I finally arrive back at my dorm for the evening, I spend about five minutes trying to convince myself to blog, then decide instead to read Facebook or those same sports blogs, before getting ready for bed, reading a chapter of the Bible and a chapter of whatever novel I'm reading at the time (Eifelheim now, Cyrptonomicon earlier).

And that's where my fingers' been!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Little Trouble in BigTown #8: A Convention of Freaks, A Convention of Geeks

So this week I went to two different conventions, one hosted by Microsoft, and one hosted by Microsoft's Mirror Universe evil-goatee-wearing-counterpart, otherwise known as the privacy-free speech-open source people, otherwise known as "The Good Guys". Unless you're Microsoft. Or Apple, for that matter, but that's a whole different blog post entirely.

The Microsoft convention was, as you might expect, evil. It was also pleasant, air-conditioned, and crammed to the gills with so much cool stuff I wanted to cry for not being an electrical engineer or a computer programmer. In yet another parallel universe, I'm working for Microsoft on one of these neato projects:

-A search engine plug-in called Viveri, which automatically takes your Bing! query and compares it against a giant table of statistical data that tells it what search engine is most often used for that query. It will then shoot that same query off to the appropriate outside search engine. So for example, if you search for "Tom Clancy", it will give you a list of results and a sidebar that contains results from an Amazon.com search; if you search for "Tom Clancy movies" it will give you results and a sidebar that contains results from imdb.com. Of course, Dogpile did this sort of meta-search back in the 90s, but it's not as cool as Viveri. (Then again, it did hit the market *13 years* before Viveri will...ehh...maybe not so neato)

-A simple, lightweight (system-resource-wise), easy-to-use system of tags for documents, images, videos, executables, webpages, what have you that is integrated with Vista's desktop environment. Click on a tag, all the associated files open up; click it again, they all close. Email it to a friend, they click on the tag and (if they have the requisite files) the files open up/get synched up. This is the kind of thing Apple should be developing.

-Various types of statistical analysis to combat spammer accounts, build a system of recommendations for doctors, restaurants etc., preserve privacy of sensitive records when queried by researchers doing database searches, and distributing large programming tasks over a server farm or whatnot. Basically, boring but useful and geekily cool stuff. The point? I found out that Spammers beat CAPTCHA image-recognition traps by using the promise of, shall we say, risque images (SFW).

- A game called Kodu, which allows you to create your own game. It is also, secretly, an educational program that *teaches you the principles of coding* with cutesy animals and scripted commands represented as colored building blocks. It's so cool I have to link the CES demo for it. According to the demo guy who was showing it off, Kodu was originally tested with a group of 9-12 year old girls, who, as you know, aren't exactly the prime demographic for learning programming. It received rave reviews from them, and is being mainstreamed into some first world countries, like New Zealand, Finland, Australia, and Canada, and some not-so-first-world countries, like Russia, Brazil, and Michigan. (No, seriously). In these test cases almost 43% of the students who sign up for it are, you guessed it, 9-12 year old girls, which is a bit of a breakthrough. It's going to be downloadable next week for $5 on Xbox Live, and it looks fantabulously cool. Of course, I would be remiss in not pointing out that Carnegie Mellon did it first, but it's not as cool as Kodu.

-And finally, as the piece de la resistance, a dome (made of cardboard, natch) that contained two things: a hemispherical 360 projector to post the night sky against the inside of the dome (like what you would see at a planetarium) and a small infrared camera that recognized hand gestures so you could spin, zoom, and warp the night sky. This may not seem remarkable in and of itself, but when I specifically asked whether it was a prototype for Project Natal, they said no, and winked. Of course, I would be remiss in not pointing out that PreCrime did it first, but it's- does anyone else see a worrying pattern here?

Then it was time to meet up with what Microsoft might call it's Rogue's Gallery: a collection of Privacy brigands from every organization that rejected my application for an internship this summer. I had a series of really funny observations to make about them, but I can't read my handwriting in my notebook of the hilarious jokes they were making. Or maybe those were serious points about the FTC's inability to effectively regulate digital privacy. I can't be sure.

Tomorrow: a Day in the Life of the Author

Monday, June 22, 2009

Assorted Odds and Ends

Serious Stuff
-Here's an interesting article on the problems with the ways that UIs are depicted in movies like Minority Report and Independence Day (in essence: 90's Macs can talk to aliens. They can't talk to PCs).

-An interesting debate on the best way to articulate Shakespeare, who was notorious for not leaving good notes on the interpretation of his plays...

-This is sort of serious stuff...

Funny Stuff
-...but it also counts as Funny Stuff, (same link) if you know about passwords.

-That lesbian-themed sex shop? There was a tour group posing in front of it today. I thought that was a little weird, then they turned towards me and I saw they all had braces, acne, and freckles. I wanted to vomit a little bit.

-Wikipedia has an actual article dedicated to Reductio ad Hitlerium, which, in essence, means calling your opponent/his argument a Nazi. Last semester, in my European history class, I was going to write about how much Obama's kickoff rally looked like a Nazi rally, (from a purely propagandistic/crowd fervor standpoint, please don't get me wrong) but...well...anyways...just go read this XKCD comic...

-And speaking of Fascists, I mentioned to fPendl about the whole "This train will be delayed 90 seconds due to schedule changes", and he said we should get Benito Mussolini here...*shudder*

-Does this group of college partygoers and their hedonism look familiar to anyone?

-The House hearings, which I watched in Little Trouble in BigTown #7, are only available for online streaming in proprietary .wmv and .wav format. Why isn't Richard Stallman upset yet?

-Sigh...even Billy Mays hates Ohio State now...(although the line about "TIRED OF WATCHING JIM TRESSEL SMILE AND TALK ABOUT HOW YOU "PLAYED HARD" line *killed* me). On a more serious football note, he missed the part about "Have a ridiculous D-Line and make our O-Line look like clowns" (jk Alex, please don't kill me. Or get tased.)

-This story of people trying to learn hoops to play with Obama is absolutely true. Although, as was pointed out in an Epic Meal yesterday (at The Le Bistro Bistro (!)), Obama is never going to get hip-checked, hard-fouled, or have a foul called on him. How are you supposed to call a foul on POTUS anyways?

-This is the attitude of pretty much every girl, to pretty much ever guy, except maybe Sr. Efpendl.

-Tim Brewster's Motivational Tourette's is not going anywhere anytime soon.
Little Trouble in BigTown #7: Wherein The Author Discovers that American Political Discourse is So Stultifyingly Boring and Poorly Worded He Wishes He Was Watching Parliament on CSPAN-2 Instead

(Note: written while I was waiting in line to get into the Hearing Room)
The Hearing Room is similar to a courtroom or a movie-set backlot of the UN: plebes sit on one side in rickety wooden chairs, important people sit on the other side behind long, high judge's benches. The whole place is packed (there's a sign outside that says "Hearing Room Full"), with the seating arrangements reflecting might be termed a Betty Krockerian distribution: moist and fluffy lobbyists on the inside, dotted with a few hard activists here and there, all coated with a layer of sweet, pinkish interns standing around them, ready at any minute to get licked off by coffee- or printout-starved Congresspersons.

At the behest of an aide, I slip in and find the only available seat: a front row one with a hastily-photocopied sheet of paper that says "RESERVED". The assembled representatives are busy making their opening statements, capped at three minutes apiece by a digital shot clock mounted above the door. I half expected there to be a pair of LED score readouts on either side with the labels "HOME" and "REPUBLICAN", with corresponding markers for team fouls, T.O.'s, and Filibusters remaining etc.

There's also a pair of industrial-grade videocameras trained on whoever happens to be speaking at the moment, probably streaming via C-SPAN8 ("The Ocho"), and also being outputted to a pair of high-def TV's mounted on the walls. I am surprised to see Greg Siegel's theories on sporting events and hypermediacy being applied here: people are watching the viewscreens instead of the speakers who are 20 feet away. I too succumb to the temptation, as the second camera is angled so if I sit up strait you can see the back of my head and shoulders, rather like a third-person shooter (or Super Mario 64, if that's more your game). I amuse myself for a few minutes making dramatic turns of the head, until I realize I am one of the two people in the room who is not wearing a suit, and definitely the only one wearing dark jeans. (I am also the only one with a notebook instead of a Blackberry).

Although I feel inferior to the $300 tailored suits and I-Went-To-Wellesley-DOntcha-Know-That's-Where-Hillary-Went pantsuits and skirts, I remind myself that, in the words of an immortal South African, "Clothes should not be giving you status...you should be giving status to your clothes!" Which is just a fancy way for me to feel better about wearing a khaki sport coat my mom bought an an outlet mall (on sale, too). I try my hardest to do what I had learned to do as a small child to improve my self-esteem: I focuse on other people's flaws. Thankfully, there's an immediate target: a legislator from [State Redacted] who is sitting *directly behind* the lady giving her opening statement and casually deciding in the middle of the statement to flip open a magazine and read.

Oh, politics.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Little Trouble in BigTown #6 (The Ultra-Offensive MINORITIES Issue)

I was recently quite surprised when I realized, on the metro, that there were a large number of Afro-American people on the train. They were just...there, blending in. If I were in Atlanta, I wouldn't notice them because there would be so many of them that it would be instead the white people would stick out. If I were in Asia, I wouldn't notice them because there were so few of them they would disappear into the crowd. But here, they were everywhere, and nowhere, because they didn't clump together as racial minorities are wont to do. That's how we know the civil rights movement has come about full circle: we don't think about other races in terms of them being other races, but rather as being that businessman, that doctor, that mother, that student, that whatever in a crowd full of other businessmen and doctors and mothers and students.

But, alas, although Bill Simmons is busy saying "Ladies and Gentlemen, the OBAMA era!", there is still rampant racism out there. A few days ago I was sitting waiting for a train when an extremely drunk woman came wobbling down the escalator and plopped next to me, her somewhat tipsy husband following quick behind.

She had pale blonde hair and skin to match, which made me think Scandanavian at first, but her slurred accent made her sound like Chekhov from Star Trek.* She made some rude farting noises by pursing her lips and going bppppppppppppt (with those exact letters, like in Calvin and Hobbes). Then she proceeded to deliver the following monologue, which I am recounting as best as I can remember:

"Hey...hey you! Are you Korean? You are Korean. I am sorry, I very drunk right now, I make bad sounds like this *bpppppppppppt* because Koreans fart so much. Is true, I have friend, she is Korean, she is so beautiful and so smart because they build like that [in the background her husband is cradling his head in his hands and mumbling "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry" over and over again] But she is also very bossy because she came in and told us to take care of her kitty-kat for a week. For a WEEK!"

[She takes a breath as a train rumbles by. Her husband mumbled something about how their Korean friend had earlier taken care of their dog for a week and was just asking for a favor]

"Whatever, don't listen to him. I am very drunk right now. He, not so much. But yes, Koreans. They are beautiful and smart and bossy. [Me: So where are you from?] Poland, we are Polish Polish Polish, but not him *indicates her husband* he live here since he was fifteen. We eat cabbage a lot. Cabbage is bad for stomach, but good for soul. What did you do tonight? I got drunk"

[Another breath. Her husband can still be heard going "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry..."]

"What did you do tonight? [Me: I went out with my girlfriend] Oh you have girlfriend? Is she pretty? [Me: I'd like to think so] What did you do? [Saw a movie] What movie? Wait, don't tell me. You watched Star Trek, didn't you. All Koreans love Star Trek, they love it so much."

["I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry"]

"I like Star Trek too. I went in only because he wanted to, because he is geek. Huge geek. But I didn't expect to like it, but it was good. I couldn't decide who I would want first, blonde one or brown-haired one."

At this point (or thereabouts) my train arrived and I politely said goodnight, and even managed to make it into a subway car and behind the protection of a window before bursting out laughing.

More on Poles later...


*Star Trek IV has to be one of the most underrated and unintentionally hilarious films of all time.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Assorted Odds and Ends

I'm running behind because of the improv class I've been taking, so it will take a moment for me to catch up with a full blog post. In the meantime, here are some good links and short anecdotes I wrote up while on break at work:

Serious Stuff
-On the dearth of women in education, with some excellent comments on sexism and some...not so excellent comments

-I *definitely* saw this giant shark in the "extinct sea creatures" part of the Smithsonian...

-More good comments on Disney's latest princess movie, which strikes me as...ummm...well...maybe a little racist...but not this bad. Maybe this bad.

-The New Yorker has an interesting, if a bit bizarre article about creative writing classes and their relative effectiveness

Amusing Stuff
-From the Wikipedia entry on Hamlet:
"Some scholars have observed that revenge tragedies come from traditionally Catholic countries, such as Spain and Italy; and they present a contradiction, since according to Catholic doctrine the strongest duty is to God and family." Note that (according to the late, great Mr. P, God rest his soul), when the Medici's plotted assassinations in Florence, they would usually attack the target in a church, and would time the stabbing to commence with the raising of the chalice during Communion. To quote, "Only the Catholics could conceive of such a plot". (that single line is the one that convinced me to go to my high school)

-There is a girl named Lindsay in my improv class, who definitely fell asleep outside with a book on her face and no suntan lotion on her belly. Her lovely belly is now the rough color and texture of a boiled, prickly, aloe-vera'd lobster, which she spent about five minutes having to reveal to a bunch of medically curious young men in our class.

-I have to include an Emily story in this post to make sure she has more tags on my blog than Kaity does. On her time in London:
"I didn't really appreciate it...When I was a kid my parents had to bribe me to go to the British Museum by promising we'd eat at Friday's afterwards..."

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Little Trouble in BigTown #4
(Written from the convention center)

Today I went to a conference on Privacy and Security in the real world and on teh Intehwehb. It marked my very first Celebrity Sighting of the summer, as I saw a guy with a salt-and-pepper beard and a long ponytail who looked a lot like Bruce Schneier. In fact, it *WAS* Bruce Schneier, and I was so geeked out that I practically wanted to jump up and down. I didn't, unfortunately, although that would have been really cool.

In fact, Mr. Schneier sat down and talked to myself and several other young geeks who were watching a demonstration of TrueCrypt, which is a surprisingly robust (or "Ordo-like", if you've read Cryptonomicon") program for encrypting your sensitive data, if you think cryptography is cool, or if you're like Mr. Schneier and routinely start sentences with phrases like "So let's say you're being interrogated by the secret police..."

I then set up station at Geek Share, a little open table where geeks like me sat down with signs proclaiming what skills we had or programs we could teach people to use. It sits right outside the Grand Ballroom where the convention's panel and forum are being held, and probably more than a few Proms (for high school) or Semis (for college) as well.

From the various self-proclaimed privacy and security geeks (many of whom have the stylish long hair and ponytails), I learned about all kinds of things that made the Paranoiac in me cry, like the BlueTooth Sniper Rifle, which allows you to read all the passwords, contacts, and files off of a BlueTooth-enabled phone, or a bomb that will only detonate when someone with a specific RFID signature from a passport, Enhanced Driver's License etc.

-Edit: I also forgot there was a big screen in the ballroom that had a live Twitter feed of participants and audience members in the audience, displayed on a massive screen behind the panel participants. At first most of the Tweets were about what was going on ("#conference: moderator just said....") but then someone said "#conference: what do you geeks and lawyers think about Gay Marriage" and suddenly the on-topic tweets were obliterated under a blizzard of bored audience members tweeting their support of gay marriage. It would have been funny except the panelists couldn't see the Twitter feed and had no idea they were being upstaged by a couple of free-lovers.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Musical Interlude

...we interrupt your regularly scheduled Seraphim Dreams to bring you a piercing look at the regional culinary traditions of areas in the southeastern United States:


Monday, May 25, 2009

Little Trouble in BigTown #3

Yesterday we went to the Mall, and looked at some Art, as the crowds for Air and Space, Natural History, and American History were clogging up the place and interfering with the calm pace (some would say "elderly", but whatever) that we prefer when it comes to museums.

I was surprised by the amount of "name-brand" artists on display, with artists that even a philistine such as myself were able to recognize ("Pele-level" artists, in that you can refer to them by one name and everyone knows who you're talking about) such as Cezanne, Rembrandt, Titian (bit of confusion about how that one's supposed to be pronounced), and Raphael. (Raphael's work, by the way, is so cleaned up and brightly painted that it looks like it was done in Day-Glo compared to some of the darker, moodier-looking pieces on display). There were even a few that I was able to recognize on sight, as they had stolen by Carmen Sandiego.

A Note on Food:
The Streak ended yesterday, after roughly a week, when I went to meet Connie and some of her disc-whipping friends, who proceeded to sit down for a festive meal at Cici's Pizza, which is not only a restaurant I've heard of, but also one where I've spent many a time at with Fpendl and co. back home, learning the ins-and-outs of organized Ultimate. It was a valiant effort, undone by the fact that I kept eating at national chains without realizing it.

Looking at the stack of receipts, some of the culinary highlights I've been able to sample include:

-Cosi, a Panera-style sandwich shop with pretty decent bread (national chain d'OH!!!)
-Five Guys Burgers and Fries, an upscale greasy burger joint ('nother national chain d'OH!!)
-Chipotle (on the safe list)
-Grill Kabob, which proves my theory that the more generic-sounding a restaurant's name sounds, the more likely it is to have that genuine authentic-immigrant taste. Tandoori Lamb Shank with some sort of spice, rice, and salad made for an excellent lunch.
-Z Burger, yet another greasy burger-joint type place which looks suspiciously like a national chain, but does not have its own entry on Wikipedia, so clearly it can't be.
-Timberlake's, a dark and foreboding bar-and-grill sit-down restaurant that looks like there should be some Irish guys duking it out there (no, not those Irish guys), and whose only concession to modernity is a space-age jukebox with touchscreen and credit-card slot. Whether or not they are illegally trading on the name of a pop star has yet to be determined.
-Teaism, a clever play on the idea of "Taoism", except one of them has honey and one has tea.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Microblogging

So when I don't have time to do a full blog post, I will instead just update the "Random Notes" post below, and occasionally post a new Random Notes if the one below gets full up. Just a heads-up.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Some Random Notes from BigTown

-I passed a Chinese restaurant today that had the following sign in the window:

SPECIAL: Subm sandwhich 1/2 beef 1/2 cheseburger 1/2 turkey + Fries + Drink $6.99

Besides being a heckuva deal (3/2s of a sandwich for 6.99!?!?), it was also at a Chinese restaurant...

-I was taking a look at a company called Acxiom today, which might or might not be engaged in some shady activity, and discovered that they are headquartered in Little Rock, Arkansas. I think this proves that AK has conclusively dethroned Seattle as home of Evil Corporations; while Washington has Microsoft and Starbucks (and arguably, Seattle's Best Coffee, which I've seen as far away as Japan), Arkansas has Acxiom, but it also is the original home of the only real-life entity to appear as an evil conglomerate in both a James Bond movie *and* an Ayn Rand novel: Wal-Mart. But most importantly, Arkansas is home to the University of Arkansas Razorbacks, who have, bar none, the most evil fan base on the planet.

Note that while they are not as deluded as UK fans, or as snippy as Michigan fans, or as whiny as UNC fans, or as arrogant as Florida fans, or as....ummm....logically challenged as Auburn fans, they are most definitely the evil-est of them all, running out a successful football coach after repeatedly humiliating him, undercutting him, setting ridiculous expectations, and even using the Freedom of Information act against him.

May 20th:
-There is a First Church of Scientology/L Ron Hubbard Center for Dianetics across the street from where I work. YEESH!

-There was a gentleman in a nicely-tailored suit sitting on the metro today who was sitting there staring intensely at a packet of case law. I was impressed by his dedication to the legal arts, until I saw the title page which said "Tip Top Pants: Plaintiff...." Oh, Mock Trial....

May 21st:
-A shout-out to my good friend Minh, who is so baller he can create comments-within-comments. Minh runs a really funny blog called "Minh's Notes", and I tell people he invented the Vietnamese Wikipedia.

-The server that hosts the Epic content of the nonprofit working in the same office is currently running a program called SpamAssassin, which is not quite as cool as it sounds.

-There is definitely an Epic fundraiser dinner coming up which I have been invited to, and have the option of purchasing a number of different levels of tickets/donations, with the levels as follows:

$200: "Interest Advocates"
$1,000: "Friend"
$2,500: "Supporter"
$5,000: "Enthusiast" (must be an expensive hobby)
$7,500: "Champion"
$25,000: "ROCK STAR"

For $25,000, you get 10 tickets, "special recognition" (maybe they'll misspell your name on a trophy or something), and a VIP guest, "if available"....

Monday, May 18, 2009

Little Trouble in BigTown #2

Today is my first day at work. With my typical Type A mindset, I realize that the best way to make an impression on my new boss is to arrive at precisely 9 am, crisp, beaming, and ready to go.

With typical Authorian precision, I arrive at the plaza at 8:05, groan, and decide, after locating the office, to wander around the area a little. Dupont (is there another area called Dow? What about Maersk?) reminds me a little of downtown Barcelona- divergent architecture styles, traffic circles with lonely pedestrian islands dotting the ring, a mixture of buildings that look old but aren't supposed to, and buildings that don't look old but are supposed to, and buildings that are actually old. There are embassies, quirky bookshops, various grades of ethnic restaurant (including one named, and I am not making ths up, "Thaiphoon"), cafes, and a surprising number of stores that cater to BGLT interests, including one that is built into the basement of an old brownstone and has cast-iron grating over all the windows and the steps that lead down to it from the sidewalk.

I find myself entering the EuroCafe, which, as the sign proclaims, has coffee, net access, and magazines and newspapers from around the world. After an entirely-too-delightful cherry danish and cold milk, I wander around the racks of magazines and marvel at the sheer number and depth and obscurity of them- who knew there were this many magazines about long-distance running? Or tattoo artwork? Or Photoshop? There is a whole shelf dedicated to Vogue, with covers from Spain, Italy, Germany, France, Greece...

Then it's time to go to work. The nonprofit I work for shares an office with an organization that can only be described as epic, because, frankly speaking, that's the name of the organization. This leads to a number of truly terrible puns that make The Girlfriend wince when I tell her about it later: "I met some Epic people today..." "The place I work at is Epic..." "I feel like a cog in an Epic machine, sort of Geared up for War, if you get my drift" and so on and so forth. It was Unreal. (sorry!)

My particular space in the office was quiet, plush, and even had its own comfy, thronelike office chair. It took me about twenty minutes (38, actually) to finish setting up my computer, hooking it up to its various umbilicals, booting up, starting my complete set of applications, mentally claiming the office as my own Banana Republic, checking Facebook, etc., and when I was finished, they promptly kicked me out of the office, which I believe is a record for quickest disavowal of Office Sovereignty in the history (and I've been kicked out of more offices than you might imagine). I was reassigned to a tiny little table in the "boondocks" of a back room. As upset as I was about being deposed, my pain was quickly assuaged by the Cadbury's milk chocolates casually dropped off by the CIA in the break room.

After work, I head back on the Metro, but this time it's rush hour and the trains are crowded with people pushing on and off. Surprisingly, the people waiting to get on the trains split off into two lines to the side of each door to let other passengers get off, and look like bridesmaids/groomsmen while doing it: tired, well-dressed, and angry at someone else for getting the attention/right of way. Once on the train, I am pressed up close enough to other people to notice that one person is reading a book called "The Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England", one is playing Breakout on his cellphone but hasn't quite grasped the point that you're supposed to bounce the ball off the *bricks*, and one is playing Solitaire on his iPhone and listening to music on an iPod he also carries, sort of how most police officers carry a pistol plus a little derringer-type backup stuck in their socks. It's been a good day.

A note about eating:
I've decided while I'm here I'm going to support worthwhile businesses by trying to only eat at local or locally-based restaurants, and Chipotle, for as long as possible. Given my budget, this involves eating at a lot of greasy pizza joints. So far, my streak is limited to four meals, but I'm growing:
Yesterday: that Thai place, Angelino's Pizza
Today: cherry danish and milk from EuroCafe, leftover calzone from yesterday's dinner for lunch, and Italian chicken panini from some place called Pizza Autentica
Current streak: four meals in a row.

On tap for tomorrow: the AOPi story

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Little Trouble in BigTown #1

I stepped off the plane to BigTown U.S.A. and took a breath of the surprisingly chilly air. One year after my previous adventures in Smalltown, I was going domestic once again.

BigTown has an enormous and extremely well developed underground metro system, and though the Japanese, Germans, and British are all shaking with laughter, and though none of the trains run on time ("This train will be delayed 90 seconds due to schedule changes"), and though they all look like John Travolta and Denzel Washington should be having a face-off about them, and though if there is a nuclear attack we'd all be dead, they are nice little oddities in Autobahn America.

I come from a town that has talked about bringing in a "light rail" system basically forever. It won't happen, and many natives are naturally quite po'ed about it. I don't think much of it, since we like our highways just fine in the Author's hometown. But riding the Metro is slowly making me rethink that brush-off. It's clean, relatively efficient, makes you feel free and existentialist when you stand on the platform deciding which train to get on, and makes for some killer Fallout 3 levels.

On the other hand...

The warm air from one of these Metro stations puffs up into your face in a wave when you descend into the depths via escalator; it's an intentional reference to Hades by the station designers. In fact, the entire Metro is designed to reference Hell in many ways: the hot air/heat in general, the crowds, the underground location, signage over the door ("Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here" and "Support Local Radio"), paying Charon/the SmartTicket fare, and being stuck there forever ("This train will be delayed 90 seconds due to schedule changes").

Fortunately, I was able to get to where I was going: The Capitol.

You've either been there, or seen it in textbooks, or watched the travel channel special on it. It's worth it. I will write more on this later.