Thursday, September 29, 2011

Tab Dump

As always, interesting articles and posts that i've read but haven't had the time to intelligently comment on.
  • Yogasm? Really? For women only, alas.
  • How to best deal with the inevitable fact that we're going to die someday? Denial! Or, more specifically Courageous Denial:
    "If all our character is a lie, created to keep us from recognizing the circumstances of our existence, then we can choose our own course.  We can choose to love, live, work, and play because those things matter to us.  We need not be bound to scorn, or to roll the Sisyphean rock at all.  We can altogether forget about the absurdity and live happy, well-adjusted lives.  And what’s more courageous than that?"
  • Why it's important to log out of facebook, and clear your cookies, to avoid the social media monster tracking your movements elsewhere on the web.
  • I, too, dig female voices with my indie rock. And Metric kicks it for me every time.
  • The first step towards "reproducing the movies inside our heads that no one else sees, such as dreams and memories"
  • Is love an Art? Yes, methinks.
  • Amanda Alinehan points us to the Joy of Desire. Money quote:
  • "If you’ve ever been in a power struggle with a 5 year old, you know the lengths that kids will go to in order to get what they want.  Children are much more closely connected with their desires than adults are, and have no shame in trying to fulfill them.
    What if you could connect with your desires that way?  To know what you wanted and to have no shame in wanting to fulfill it.  That would make you a powerful force in the world – for yourself and for others."
  • An overview of the Transcendental Meditation resurgence, as led by the David Lynch Foundation. Yes, that David Lynch. Never tried it myself, but i'm intrigued.
Last but not least, we visit the tired "9/11 changed everything" department, where we find John Freeman pronouncing the death of the "'Systems Novel' - a novel [that] bulges and hums with a theory of how the world is run: the market economy and the economy of language - the twin broadcast networks of global power." He writes that these types of books from Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo and DFW "create what Fredric Jameson described as ''the spectacle of a world from which nature as such has been eliminated, a world saturated with messages and information, whose intricate commodity network may be seen as the very prototype of a system of signs.'' Freeman claims that "In one hour, Osama bin Laden proved that a spectacle could be more powerful than any narrative, especially in a world in which signs and symbols traveled much faster than words and stories."

It's an interesting claim, I guess, and might explain why there's been a dearth of "big novels" recently, but I do need to point out that DeLillo himself explicitly made this same point in Mao II where he claims that the novelist is being supplanted by the terrorist. To me, this type of hair splitting is meaningless: people will always continue to write in order to make sense of the world, terrorists or not. Whether or not people read them or not is another matter. People may for the moment be paying attention to the terrorist, but i'd be shocked if narrative didn't make a mainstream comeback in the future.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Earth from Orbit

The view from the International Space Station. A stunning video.

Wharton's Writing

TNC has been writing recently about how great Edith Wharton's prose is. Specifically, he's enamored with The Age of Innocence, which I read in college back before I knew anything about life. I should read it again at some point, but his writings were fresh in my head when I encountered a copy of her novel Twilight Sleep novel at the local library sale, inspiring me to toss down the 50 cents for the softcover.

While i'm only three chapters in, I  already wouldn't characterize it as a great book - the mere fact that it's about the upper-crust of NYC society in the Jazz Age means that it's basically antithetical to what I look for in a book - but my oh my has she presented some great turns of phrase so far. To wit:

"But she had had glimpses enough of the scene: of the audience of bright elderly women, with snowy hair, eurhythmic movements, and finely-wrinkled over-massaged faces on which a smile of glassy benevolence sat like their rimless prince-nez. They were all inexorably earnest, aimlessly kind and fathomlessly pure; and all rather too well-dressed, except the “prominent woman” of the occasion, who usually wore dowdy clothes, and had steel-rimmed spectacles and straggling wisps of hair. Whatever the question dealt with, these ladies always seemed to be the same, and always advocated with equal zeal Birth Control and unlimited maternity, free love or the return to the traditions of the American home; and neither they nor Mrs. Manford seemed aware that there was anything contradictory in these doctrines. All they knew was that they were determined to force certain persons to do things that those persons preferred not to do. Nona, glancing down the surried list, recalled a saying of her mother’s former husband, Arthur Wyant: 'your mother and her friends would like to teach the whole world how to say its prayers and brush its teeth.'" p. 11

"Poor Arthur—from the first he had been one of her failures. She had a little cemetery of them—a very small one—planted over with quick-growing things, so that you might have walked all through her life and not noticed there were any graves in it." p. 25

I'm not sure i'm going to make it all the way through this one, but I've sure enjoyed what I've read so far. What more do you want out of a book?

Cross-posted at Reading, Running and Red Sox.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Separate Internet

The New Yorker reports on where Facebook is going:
The longtime goal of Facebook, and of founder Mark Zuckerberg... has been to build a separate Internet. ... In the minds of people who work at Facebook, there’s the cold, confusing, open Internet that is managed by Google and its algorithms. You go there and you never quite know what you’re going to get. And then there’s the Facebook sub-Internet, where everything is kinder and organized by your friends.
... if Facebook gets its way, it’ll be where you read your news, find new songs, and watch video. It will have eaten a big chunk of the rest of the Internet.
Personally, I don't have any interest in this. Other than catching up and sharing tidbits about my life with friends, I find myself becoming increasingly tired of Facebook, especially its hard to use mobile interface.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Watching "The Girl..." Movies


Over the last few weeks, I watched the Swedish versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire. Excellent, captivating movies! I found the lack of qualities that are present in most American blockbusters refreshing, mainly the absence of bombastic music in favor of subdued mood music with downtempo stylings, and the complete lack of violence glorification.

I recommend both movies highly, but must warn you: both of them are damned dark. One of the major themes of the trilogy of books and movies is that "everyone has secrets." This is certainly true enough, but in this world  "secrets" involve murder, violent rape, sex trafficking, theft, and other assorted evil and venial crimes. I'm not sure if this says something about Sweden, or the mindset of Stieg Larsson (the author, who was a newspaper reporter and thus probably saw his fair share of awful situations), but I was struck how few positive notes were struck throughout the movies. The few moments of positivity that shone through were hard fought and short living. Other then that caviat, these well constructed flicks are well worth your time.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Milky Way from 15,000 Feet

The Milky Way by  Anton Jankovoy c. Caters
An incredible picture of the Milky Way, taken by Ukranian photographer Anton Jankovoy in Nepal. More of his pictures here. So see the larger version - the picture here really doesn't do it justice.

The Social Contract

The current political climate needs more truth speakers like Elizabeth Warren:
I hear all this, you know, “Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever.”—No!
There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.
You built a factory out there—good for you! But I want to be clear.
You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for.
You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate.
You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for.
You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.
Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea—God bless. Keep a big hunk of it.
But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

RIP R.E.M.

R.E.M. is calling it quits after 31 years:
To our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening.
I have no doubt that the end is long overdue, since i've been unimpressed with what i've heard over the last decade, but this event is cause to remember that in their prime Bill Berry years, R.E.M. was one of the best bands of the 80s and early 90s. The power pop of Life's Rich Pageant and Green played nonstop in the cassette player of the cars I borrowed off of my parents, and I still listen to and enjoy Murmur, Automatic for the People, and New Adventures in Hi-Fi. They took basic folk-influenced rock n' roll and made it sound fresh again. My musical landscape would be poorer if they had not existed. And i'll be listening to "Sweetness Follows" tonight.

Hunter's Songs

For the last month, Hunter has been singing phrases from three songs nonstop. These are:

  1. "Who are you? Who who, who who?" - from The Who's Who Are You.
  2. "Let my love open the door" - from Pete Townshend's Empty Glass.
  3. "Got a Devil's Haircut... in my mind" - from Beck's Odelay.
I'm psyched that he's turning out to have really good taste, regardless of his affinity for the Fresh Beat Band.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

NFL Rant

The Situation: Bills vs. Raiders, this past Sunday. Buffalo has the ball with ~14 seconds left on the clock, fourth-and-1 from the Oakland 6. Ryan Fitzpatrick goes back to pass and... the network pulls away from the game. To show the Pats/Chargers game. But that game hadn't yet started, so TV viewers on the edge of their seat, watching arguably the most exciting game of the young season, were subjected to 5 minutes of ads before being sent to the pregame - the pregame! - of the local game.

What did we miss? Only a 6 yard pass to David Nelson to put the Bills up three points. Oh, and a Da'Norris Searcy interception in the Bills end zone that ended the game

The NFL: Spending millions of millions of dollars to put out a top-notch product, but making it as hard as possible for the average fan to watch the games that they want to watch.

Collegiate Revolution

Matt Yglesias thinks that the College industry is due for a price correction similar to one that's currently rocking the Newspaper industry. It makes sense because the current pricing inflation seems unsustainable. I just hope it happens before I have to start paying for my kids to go to college!

Reality TV as Gossip

The Dish quotes some folks who believe that the popularity of reality is that it's replacing neighborhood gossip, with this caveat: "Reality TV and tabloids provide all the entertaining judging of gossip but very little of the empathizing."

Friday, September 16, 2011

How to Focus in the Age of Distraction

Source: Learning Fundamentals via The Big Picture

Journalistic Hyperbole

Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run is a fun, fast paced, dramatic story about a lost tribe of super runners. It’s incredibly entertaining and thought provoking, but has been criticized by many people for including too much “gonzo” journalism, for letting exuberance overwhelm the facts, as seen by Ed Ayres detailed criticism, summarized as “The first [of the book’s] two stories are somewhat misguided and misinformed, though entertaining.  The third is well researched and, I think, profoundly important. I don't know if I have ever before read a book that is so wrong and so right between the same two covers.”

Peter Richmond’s article on Ryan Fitzpatrick is similar. An interesting portrait of a thoughtful man, it nonetheless includes such pronouncements such at this: “It kind of makes you wonder if, in a graphic-novel alternate universe, Fitzpatrick has been predestined to visit failing American post-industrial towns until one of them recognizes his mission as Savior and anoints him.” The Goose’s Roost – a thinking man’s Buffalo Sports blog – takes him down by pointing out the ambiguities behind the hyperbole.

These two writings shine a light on an interesting question: What exactly should be the relationship between telling an entertaining story and being faithful to the facts? I don’t have the answer, but like everything, the answer falls somewhere in between. On one side, you have someone that tells a story with no regard for the truth, aiming for nothing more that entertainment. On the other hand, you have someone who strives for the most accurate representation of reality as possible with no regard for storytelling. (This along with incomprehensible jargon is why so many academic papers are so unreadably bad – they have no concern with telling a story.)

Personally, I find the prevalence of hyperbole these days to be mildly disturbing, simply because we negate the power of words if we don’t use them for their intended purpose. For example: it’s entertaining to use the word “epic” as a synonym for “great” (as in “That was an epic game, man!”) but what it means is that you now don’t have a word to use when you want to say something was truly epic (by definition “heroic; majestic; impressively great”) I’m as guilty as the next person of doing this, BTW, and I’m not sure it’s going to go away anytime soon .

As for representing nothing but the truth in text, well, the truth is always more complex than any narrative you can create. The mere tactic of picking and choosing facts and presenting them in a certain order by definition leaves things out and thus doesn't paint a complete picture of a thing. It’s like the old story about the only accurate map having a 1:1 scale that includes everything you could ever want – like something out of a Borges tale. So if you accept this fact, why not make your story entertaining? Why not stay as accurate to the truth as you can, but have some fun along the way?

And so in the end, I fall on the side of the entertainers, with the caveat that a little bit of hyperbole can go a long way. What do you think?

Quote of the Day

“One of the reasons why so few of us ever act, instead of react, is because we are continually stifling our deepest impulses.”
- Henry Miller

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Fathers and Sons

A lot of the visual entertainment I’ve seen over the years involves sons dealing with the examples that their fathers have set. Typically, these fathers are absent, and the son struggles to come to terms with the (usually heroic) example that they have set. I’m thinking of the Harry Potter movies, Sons of Anarchy, Dexter, Six Feet Under, and I’m sure I could come up with many, many, many more if I sat down and really thought about it. Hell, even Cowboys vs. Aliens served up a big ol’ dish of this!

I've read a number of theories over the last year or so as to why this is the case. In most instances, the theory is that the role of a man in modern society has changed and these works are a way of working through male anxiety over their new role. In other words, comparing the modern “kindler and gentler” man with the more rugged men of our past. (I’m only talking about American culture here. I have no idea if other cultures are experiencing the same phenomenon.) I thought of this when I read William Saletan’s essay in Slate that a recent study on testosterone levels in fathers being lower than other males is being used in the same way:
Testosterone affects and is affected by many things. It probably does adjust to environmental cues as men become mates and then fathers. But we're just beginning to explore how and why this happens. The new evolutionary-psychology theory we're being fed has less to do with earth-shattering evidence than with changes in our economy and culture. Women are gaining more respect and consideration. Wages have shrunk, so both parents have to work for pay. Men have to help out more at home, and they can't get away with cheating the way they used to. For a bunch of reasons, we need a more domestic and egalitarian theory of masculinity. And we're using this study to sell it.
I can’t really speak to the accuracy of this, other than to say it certainly sounds like it could be true. Personally, it would be nice if shows would give this theme a rest in favor of focusing on having these guys handle their masculinity on their own terms would be nice!

Vermont Flooding

This incredible resource shows some stunning pictures of the damage from the flooding in Vermont from Hurricane Irene. The most impressive to me are the ones of Route 4 between Killington and Mendon, VT where, as the captions state, huge chunks of highway had turned into 20' cliffs.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Canal Diggers 2011

The results from the Canal Diggers 2011 5K are in. Here's what I was able to accomplish:
Time: 19:24.7
Pace: 6:16
Place: 21
Division: 6 out of 100
I'm obviously pretty happy with the results. Might try doing some speed work before my next 5K to see if I can't improve on that. I'd say that I'd see if I could improve in my division - the top three finishers make some money after all! - but the 5th place 30-39 year old finished in 17:45. That's faster than I was able to run a 5K when I was 17, when I ran a 17:58 in the VT XC State Championship. Yikes!

Cross Posted at Reading, Running and Red Sox

Quote of the Day

"Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction."
- William James, as chosen by Scott Jurek as the Young Gun's unofficial creed as detailed on Born to Run, p. 112

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Song for Yesterday

Did you see last night's absurdly large full Harvest Moon? Always reminds me of this classic tune:

Come a little bit closer
Hear what I have to say
Just like children sleepin'
We could dream this night away.

But there's a full moon risin'
Let's go dancin' in the light
We know where the music's playin'
Let's go out and feel the night.

Because I'm still in love with you
I want to see you dance again
Because I'm still in love with you
On this harvest moon.

- Neil Young, "Harvest Moon" off the album of the same name

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Quote of the Day

"My life is not worth more than any other—not less, not more. Nor am I an innocent child. I have lived long enough to know that I, too, am an accomplice of the evil that seems to prevail in the world around, even that which might lash out blindly at me. If the moment comes, I would hope to have the presence of mind, and the time, to ask for God’s pardon and for that of my fellowman, and, at the same time, to pardon in all sincerity he who would attack me."
Dom Christian de Chergé. H/t The Dish.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Media Objectivity

It's been a while since i've thought any media was objective, and putting the truth to the lie has been one of the greatest things about the internet. But the notion that objectivity is possible is still prevalent, unfortunately, leading to a lot of bad writing in the major media outlets. I like how the guy from hardballtalk.com spells out the problem:
I grow very tired of reading an article about politics in which 987 people believe X to be the case and 13 loons believe Y to be the case and the reporter — in the name of objectivity –says “there is disagreement, however.”  Fine. There’s disagreement. But put it in context and, even if your story is not on the op-ed page, feel free to call a loon a loon. Or if that’s too much, at least provide facts which put lie to what those 13 loons are saying. If you fail to do that you’ve distorted the matter even more. All in the name of objectivity! Blah.
Truth.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Football

The NFL season started tonight. I'm finding it hard to get excited about this season because once again my team is going to be below par.

I predict a 6-10 season for the Buffalo Bills. I can't even muster the energy to give an analysis about the season. I'll say this: Stevie Johnson will not match his season from last year, DE Marcell Dareus will be a beast if he can stay healthy but the defense will still be poor, and the Bills will be competitive in many games but will lose most of them.

The Buffalo Bills: the team that redefined mediocrity!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Quote of the Day

"Brushing my teeth in the bathroom, I studied my face in the mirror. For over two months now, since quitting my job, I had rarely entered the "outside world." ... And in all that time, I had hardly seen anyone. ... It was a narrow world, a world that was standing still. But the narrower it became, and the more it betook of stillness, the more this world that enveloped me seemed to overflow with things and people that could only be called strange. They had been there all the while, it seemed, waiting in the shadows for me to stop moving. And every time the wind-up bird came to my yard to wind its spring, the world descended more deeply into chaos."
- Haruki Murakami, p 125 The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (t. by Jay Rubin)

How to "Fix" the USPS

I've been hearing a lot recently about how insolvent the USPS is, and how to fix the problem. Most of these solutions have run along the usual conservative lines: slash retirement benefits!

Why isn't this a viable solution? Simply stop charging so little for corporate and junk mailing. Better for the environment - less paper waste! - and more money for the USPS.

I suspect the only reason  this wouldn't work is that congress is unduly influenced by the money and lobbyists that the junk mailers throw at them.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What Makes Murakami Addicting?

I was in a weird mood the other night, and so didn't want to continue reading You Don't Love Me Yet (Lethem's excellent rock and art and love novel), so, in anticipation of IQ84, I blew the dust off of Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and lost myself in the first two chapters. I mean, seriously lost myself: I stayed up way too late because I got lost in that Murakami groove.

This morning, I pondered: what is it about his writing that is so mesmerizing? I mean, it's not like his prose is anything unique; on the contrary, some of the descriptions are so bland that they verge on cliche. For instance:
"An old, brown, withered Christmas tree stood in the corner of one garden. Another had become the dumping ground for every toy known to man, the apparent leavings of several childhoods. There were tricycles and toss rings and plastic swords and rubber dolls and tortoise dolls and little baseball bats. One garden had a basketball hoop, and another had fine lawn chairs surrounding a ceramic table." p.13
There are portions of his novels that just go on and on like this. In fact, to me his uninspiring novels (I'm looking at you, Dance Dance Dance) border on boring for this very reason. What I think it is is that this familiarity of prose (can't think of a better way to put it) really puts you in the mindset of his typical protagonist, a "boring" male in his 30s who is a bit of a stranger to himself, into routines, etc. This sucks you into a certain ordered mindset, and the bizarre events start occurring - and they do! - the juxtaposition is that much more jarring. You see this in great effect in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, where the "normal" chapters are interspersed with the "fantasy" chapters and while they tell completely different stories, the manner of telling is exactly the same.

This is a long way of saying that to me, it's really the plot of his novels that is so engaging. Bizarre occurrences and complete normality live side by side with no real explanation and after a while just start to make sense in a strange way. Think "Johnny Walker" and "Colonel Sanders" in Kafka on the Shore and how they fit into the novel. Critics writing about Murakami bandy about labels like "dream-like" and "magical realism" (which always makes me think of "Latin" authors (think Gabriel García Márquez) but I think what Murakami is trying to do is different - it's more subtle, subconscious, and ironic. And I just can't get enough of it!

In just the first chapter of TWUBC, the narrator is called multiple times by someone who wants to talk dirty to him and exclaims that "Ten minutes... is all we need to understand each other." He makes spaghetti and listens to Rossini and tells us about his lost cat and boring job. He falls asleep in the yard of a 16-year old girl who puts him to sleep by whispering about "the lump of death... something round and squishy, like a softball, with a hard little core of dead nerves. I want to take it out of a dead person and cut it open and look inside. I always wonder what it's like." p. 20

This type of writing combines the boring and cliche with the bizarre and unlikely, and presents it all equivalently. Most of his writing is ambiguous, as if the author himself wasn't entirely sure what it all means. To foax like me, who loves to try and fill in the blanks, it's a heady brew.

Cross Posted at Reading, Running and Red Sox.

Quote of the Day

If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.
- Lau Tzu

Saturday, September 3, 2011

First Lines of "You Don't Love Me Yet"

They met at a museum to end it. There, wandering through high barren rooms full of conceptual art, alone on a Thursday afternoon, Lucinda Hoekke and Matthew Planget felt certain that they wouldn't be tempted to do more than talk.
- Jonathan Lethem, You Don't Love Me Yet