February 26, 2006

from Underground

Filed under: books — ted @ 3:37 pm

Last night I finished Doestoevsky’s Notes from Underground. Notes has always been my favorite of Fyodor’s, and I’ve read it a number of times, but I wanted to read the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I know nothing about translating from Russian to English, but I know this version reads very well and I like the tone and force of it. In particular, I loved this passage from the last page, which had never made much of an impression of me before. This time, it floored me:

We don’t even know where the living lives now, or what it is, or what it’s called! Leave us to ourselves, without a book, and we’ll immediately get confused, lost—we won’t know what to join, what to hold to, what to love and what to hate, what to respect and what to despise. It’s a burden for us even to be men—men with real, our own bodies and blood; we’re ashamed of it, we consider it a disgrace, and keep trying to be some unprecedented omni-men. We’re stillborn, and have long ceased to be born of living fathers, and we like this more and more. We’re acquiring a taste for it. Soon we’ll contrive to be born somehow from an idea.


February 25, 2006

Color Me Excited

Filed under: movies — ted @ 8:20 pm

The first Spiderman 3 movie poster came out today:

(click to enlarge)

February 22, 2006


Filed under: culture — ted @ 9:11 pm

Although I’ve yet to read Blink, I’ve become a devotee of Malcolm Gladwell, mostly from reading the excellent articles he pens for the New Yorker. His piece in the latest issue, “Million Dollar Murray,” is my favorite yet. The tagline, “Why problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than to manage” summarizes the subject matter nicely.

Gladwell, using both individual stories and data analysis, writes brilliantly on a topic of paramount importance. The point in question is a “power-law” theory of homelessness, which explains how a small percentage of homeless people receive an unseemly amount of attention and care, which both skews our perception of homelessness and keeps cities and groups from helping people effectively. Here’s a sample:

Homelessness doesn’t have a normal distribution, it turned out. It has a power-law distribution. “We found that eighty per cent of the homeless were in and out really quickly,” he said. “In Philadelphia, the most common length of time that someone is homeless is one day. And the second most common length is two days. And they never come back. Anyone who ever has to stay in a shelter involuntarily knows that all you think about is how to make sure you never come back.”

The next ten per cent were what Culhane calls episodic users. They would come for three weeks at a time, and return periodically, particularly in the winter. They were quite young, and they were often heavy drug users. It was the last ten per cent—the group at the farthest edge of the curve—that interested Culhane the most. They were the chronically homeless, who lived in the shelters, sometimes for years at a time. They were older. Many were mentally ill or physically disabled, and when we think about homelessness as a social problem—the people sleeping on the sidewalk, aggressively panhandling, lying drunk in doorways, huddled on subway grates and under bridges—it’s this group that we have in mind. In the early nineteen-nineties, Culhane’s database suggested that New York City had a quarter of a million people who were homeless at some point in the previous half decade —which was a surprisingly high number. But only about twenty-five hundred were chronically homeless.

“Million Dollar Murray” is named after one of the “chronic” users who, according to the estimate of a Nevada state official, cost the state close to one million dollars to “do nothing about.” In short, it’s one of the best things I’ve read in the New Yorker recently, and an article I’ll thing about for some time.

There’s also a host of miscellaneous things I really want to blog about. Let’s just do it in list form:

1. A “Pop Quiz on Marriage” from Sunday’s Times, and the cool diagram that came with it.

I like reports like this which attempt to “fly in the face of convention:” it’s good to remember that most of us don’t really know what we’re talking about (if data like this is any indication). It’s a pleasant change of pace when data is shocking, but not incendiary. If the article came with sources, I would like it even more (as is, I remain somewhat skeptical, but glad I read this.)

2. Robert Shields of Dayton, Washington, who wrote “The World’s Longest Diary.” You can see a sample page here.

Can you imagine? I believe Mr. Shields spent most of his life recording what he did with his life. Not sure why, but I would pay a high price for a copy of this piece…

3. Brokeman Mountain in Lego. Here’s a sample:

The latest reason why I love the Internet more and more every day. Someone spent an unbelievable amount of time setting this up, and now their effort is worthwhile–thousands of people are loving this right now.

4. Painting abandoned houses in Detroit bright orange:

Read about it–it’s even better than I originally thought.

February 15, 2006

Valentine’s Day Reading

Filed under: animals, culture — ted @ 7:09 pm

As could be expected, the Net produced plenty of appropriate reading today for those who long for appropriate yet lightly engaging reading material on this most commercial of days.

The good folks at Slate weighed in on a subject long confusing to me, the origin and meaning of the heart symbol. I’ve always wondered where it came from, and how it came to mean what it means. (My favorite explanation had to do with old Sumerian cunieform symbol for woman, and what it “directly represents.”) Turns out the answer is far from straightforward. Here’s one interesting theory:

The Catholic Church contends that the modern heart shape did not come along until the 17th century, when Saint Margaret Mary Alocoque had a vision of it surrounded by thorns. This symbol became known as the Sacred Heart of Jesus and was associated with love and devotion; it began popping up often in stained-glass windows and other church iconography. But while the Sacred Heart may have popularized the shape, most scholars agree that it existed much earlier than the 1600s.

At the New York Times, there’s a fun Op-Ed about kissing, why we do it, and why it’s so awesome:

If kissing is not universal, then someone must have invented it. Vaughn Bryant, an anthropologist at Texas A&M, has traced the first recorded kiss back to India, somewhere around 1500 B.C., when early Vedic scriptures start to mention people “sniffing” with their mouths, and later texts describe lovers “setting mouth to mouth.” From there, he hypothesizes, the kiss spread westward when Alexander the Great conquered the Punjab in 326 B.C.

Thank you, India.

On a completely different note, some really serious reading showed up on Boing Boing today. Most interesting is a linked-to article entitled “Never Poke a Dragon While It’s Eating,” containing some fine ruminations on the Internet in China, inspired by the bad press Google and Yahoo have been getting of late.

Also, if you’ve got plenty of time, there’s this essay about Google Book Search and why it’s so wonderful.

February 14, 2006

Saint Valentine

Filed under: culture — ted @ 7:47 pm

So yes, tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. As far as I see it, there are only two good ways to spend Valentine’s Day:

  1. Use it as an excuse to love your lover just a little bit more than you usually do.
  2. Mock the entire thing.

A few very poor ways to spend the day include: buying something, moping about something, demanding something, or placing undue expectations upon someone.

And if you’re going to give Valentines, please do so with at least some degree of irony. Here’s my contribution:

(There are more of these here, and they’re all incredible.)

But seriously, there is a superb article in the new Atlantic, which unfortunately is only available to subscribers (for those fortunate few, here’s the article online.) The cover features a close up of that epic Robert Doisneau photo, and the feature article is about online dating and the science behind it. The question posed is: “In the subjective realm of love, can cold, hard science help?”

As much as I dislike the thought, it seems the answer – to an extent – is “yes.” These folks (eHarmony.com, Chemistry.com, and PerfectMatch.com are all given extensive coverage) are really serious about what they do, and the have lots of stats to prove their worth:

“We’re using science in an area most people think of as inherently unscientific,” Gonzaga [from eHarmony] said. So far, the data are promising: a recent Harris Interactive poll found that between September of 2004 and September of 2005, eHarmony facilitated the marriages of more than 33,000 members—an average of forty-six marriages a day. And a 2004 in-house study of nearly 300 married couples showed that people who met through eHarmony report more marital satisfaction than those who met by other means. The company is now replicating that study in a larger sample.

Well, isn’t that something. But of course, the other folks think their formulas are better, and they’re certainly different – and it all makes for fascinating reading. The wisest words are spoken by Dr. Pepper Schwartz of PerfectMatch.com:

The advantage to scientific matching, she says, isn’t to come up with some foolproof formula for romantic connection. Instead, the science serves as a reality check, as a way of not letting that initial rush of attraction cloud your judgment when it comes to compatibility.

Now that doesn’t sound so bad. Unless, of course, you’re not into love–then I would recommend these folks.

February 12, 2006

My Top Ten Movies of the Year

Filed under: movies — ted @ 12:08 pm

1. The New World, Terrence Malick

Malick is a strong but oft forgotten contender, along with Coppola, Scorcese, and Allen, for the title of “Best Director in the World.” What separates him from this discussion is the fact that Malick had only made three major films – all of them masterpieces (Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line.) The New World is a fine example of what makes a Malick movie so magical: gorgeous locations, massive camera angles, a swelling score, and musingly beautiful landscapes. Many of the shots and scenes in The New World are so stunning that I found it difficult to breathe. In an age where most directors film in prose, Malick’s work is poetry.

2. Capote, Bennett Miller

All of this season’s talk concerning Capote has surrounded Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s dynamite portrayal of Truman Capote. Hoffman deserves all of the accolades he has received, and will certainly win this year’s Best Actor Oscar. But even though Hoffman carried Capote, and the movie would likely have fallen on its face without his even-tempered, rock-solid presence, I believe the credit rests equally on the shoulders of Bennett Miller. Capote is a delicate yet heartbreaking study into the deep waters of the writer/subject relationship. Never does the film fall from its steady pace and profound sentiment.

3. Sin City, Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller

Sin City is, quite simply, a revolution in filmmaking. For years, directors have used green screen special effects to fill their movies with phony effects and cartoon landscapes, with varying degrees of success (thank you, Mr. Lucas). Sin City, which was filmed entirely digitally, uses the technology to transform three of Frank Miller’s breathtaking Sin City graphic novels into a motion picture. The result is a living, talking, moving comic book. Scenes, dialog, and even camera angles were ripped directly from Miller’s books. Sin City, more than a technological marvel, is a sleekly rugged, gut-wrenching film. I can only rejoice in the fact that Rodriquez and Miller have two more Sin City movies in production, and hope more directors follow their lead.

4. Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee

Not since the late nineties has one of the year’s best movies actually won the Academy’s Best Picture award. Unless something ridiculous happens, Brokeback Mountain will end this streak a month from now. Although it has been swamped, both pre and post-release, in the muck of politics and cultural warfare, Brokeback Mountain is a legitimately great film, boasting the year’s best story and characters and a handful of great performances. What a pity for Heath Ledger, to give such a brilliant performance the same year Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who has long been an industry favorite, delivered the performance of a lifetime. But I have a hunch that when we look back in years to come, and compare Hoffman and Ledger’s acting, Ledger’s will better stand the test of time. Even more upsetting is the fact that the difficult questions raised by the film’s distinctly gay characters has been hidden behind platitudes describing it as, for example, “a deeply felt, emotional love story [where] the two lovers here just happen to be men.” (For more about this disappointing trend, and for a better place from which to view the film, read this exceptional review.)

5. The Constant Gardener, Fernando Meirelles

Yet another film from the past year which features great acting, gripping storytelling, and gorgeous cinematography. Director Fernando Meirelles exploded onto the scene three years ago with Cidade de Deus, which stands in my mind as one of the best films in recent memory. The Constant Gardener is a superb follow-up which confirms Meirelles greatness, once again demonstrating his poetic sensibility, and, what’s more impressive in my mind, his ability to maintain a breakneck pace while still filling the screen with beautiful compositions – a balance few directors are able to maintain. As an added bonus, The Constant Gardener gives viewers a fascinating glimpse into the horrifying practices of drug companies.

6. The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach

The year’s funniest movie, with a heartbreakingly earnest performance by Jeff Daniels, The Squid and the Whale conjures unavoidable comparison’s to Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. Since the former two are among my favorite movies in the entire world, my reaction to The Squid and the Whale was predictable. Fortunately, the film itself squirms sufficiently, making it difficult to pin down, and possesses a delightful charm. Slightly more earnest that Anderson’s movies, The Squid and the Whale is consistently winsome, and leaves a lasting tint of pleasing remembrance in the viewer’s mind.

7. Good Night, and Good Luck., George Clooney

One of the most important tasks of scholastic philosophy, and Aquinas’s Summa Theologica in particular, was proving the perfection of God. In our slightly more heretical age, a more interesting proof for a philosopher might be the perfection of George Clooney. Granted, there was that Batman & Robin disaster, but the case could be made that Clooney’s recent willingness to straight-up mock this career choice proves that, while Clooney may not always have been perfect, he is well on his way to becoming so. Good Night, and Good Luck is the latest in a long line of examples: not only is the film’s black and white cinematography a sight to behold, but David Straithairn’s portrayal of Edward Murrow equals this year’s best. In a year rife with political, and made-out-to-be-political, films, Good Night, and Good Luck proves that a movie does not need to make a statement to be poignant.

8. Hauru no ugoku shiro (Howl’s Moving Castle), Hayao Miyazaki

Anime is as hot as ever, but Hayao Miyazaki has been making great films for over twenty years. While Howl’s Moving Castle is not equal to his best output (c.f. Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away), it is a fine example of his style: magnificent, otherworldly anime with a touch of magical realism and cyberpunk. There are few moviemakers better than Miyazaki, and none who more consistently fill audiences with pure unadulterated awe. (Note: please, if you’re going to watch the movie, choose the subtitled version, not the Disneyfied dubbed disaster.)

9. No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese

The only non-fiction movie to make my list is also distinct in that it was not released in theaters, but instead debuted on PBS and on DVD in September. With two of media’s greatest living artists, Dylan and Scorcese, coming together, the result was predestined. Scorcese makes the excellent choice of focusing on the most fascinating part of Dylan’s career: the time between his arrival on the folk scene and his career-altering motorcycle accident. The result is a thought-provoking consideration of how a great artist becomes an icon, and why Dylan, by breaking out of the molds forced on him by others and concentrating solely on making great music, transcended the persona he helped to create. For a period of roughly two years, Dylan could do no wrong, and created three of the century’s best records. No Direction Home sheds great insight into how and why this happened.

10. Munich, Steven Spielberg

Even though he’s taken a serious beating from left and right as a result of making this film, it’s difficult to feel sorry for Steven Spielberg. Your best bet is to ignore the faux-controversy circling Munich, and enjoy it for what it is: a finely spun, deeply moving film made by a master. Munich, while not the most balanced of films, features a host of excellent dilemmas, conversations, and an steady, believable performance by Eric Bana. Bana carries the film with his magnetism, providing a point of focus and an excellent lens from which to view the film’s difficulties.

February 9, 2006

Mohammed Cartoons

Filed under: culture — ted @ 2:02 am

I’ve been reading quite a bit about the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, and find myself on the side of the Danish papers and others who have since republished the cartoons (including, in a rare moment of cultural arbitration, our own Philadelphia Inquirer).


My favorite piece so far is Christopher Hitchens’ incensed article in Slate, “Cartoon Debate: The case for mocking religion.” In typical style, Hitchens not only rips into radical Islam, but takes shots at most other forms of organized religion while he’s on the subject:

The babyish rumor-fueled tantrums that erupt all the time, especially in the Islamic world, show yet again that faith belongs to the spoiled and selfish childhood of our species.

For a more detached, yet equally stirring, take on the matter, there’s an article in Wednesday’s New York Times, “A Startling New Lesson in the Power of Imagery.” The article considers other instances where an image or art object has caused a religious or cultural backlash, and reflects on the meaning of all of this. Excellent reading.

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