31 December 2005

While we're on the topic of the New Year, does anyone have any good resolutions? I'm kind of dreading having the weight room full of people for the month of January, so I haven't been too eager to make resolutions myself.

Perhaps a good one for me might be "sweep more often, so your fiancee doesn't kill you."
Speaking of incomprehensible reading, I've decided that I'm going to read the entire Bible this year. (And before Sharon asks, I'm not going to try reading it in Greek, as tempting as that may be—and I'm not learning Hebrew just yet, either. I expect that I'll invest in one of those daily reading editions, which rearrange the Bible so that each day consists of something Old, something New, and a Proverb and a Psalm or two.) Looking back at my experience with reading all of Shakespeare, I wish I'd blogged more about it while it was happening, so you can look forward to a bunch of exegetical, possibly heretical postings in 2006. Happy New Year!

30 December 2005

I have a confession to make. When I first read The Great Gatsby in high school, it was one of the least enjoyable books I had ever read. I found it nearly incomprehensible - the sentences all sounded nice, but their meaning was somehow beyond my grasp. (Coincidentally, I had the same experience with most of the poetry I read in high school.)

I'm re-reading Gatsby now and I'm delighted that it actually makes sense. I'm not sure how much of it is my understanding of Fitzgerald's cultural references, how much is my underlying familiarity with the text, and how much is the fact that I've read a lot since high school. Whatever it is, it gives me hope that someday I'll be able to enjoy poetry.

22 December 2005

I'll come right out and say it: Brokeback Mountain can be pretty silly. But it's cosmically silly, and beautiful, in the way that the great Lars von Trier movies usually are—and, I guess, in the way that life sometimes is. Von Trier would have turned it into a sick joke, but Ang Lee does something with it that isn't easy to pin down. Even now, I'm not quite sure how I feel about it. However, I'm not embarrassed to say that Heath Ledger turns in one of the best performances I've ever seen. I haven't seen Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote yet, but at this point, I'd say that the Oscar is Ledger's to lose. It's funny, but between this movie and Monster, I'm halfway convinced that every pretty face in Hollywood has a great performance locked up somewhere inside—but that can't be true, can it?
I just finished Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, and it left my head swimming like few books have before. Some thoughts:

1. Why didn't anyone ever tell me this book was about electroshock therapy? I would have read it years ago instead of viewing it as some standard new-agey text on self-awareness.

2. I think they mention zen about twice in passing in the whole book. My guess is that the only reason the word zen is in the title is because they feared they wouldn't sell any copies if it was entitled Insanity and the Quality of Motorcycle Maintenance or How Plato Stole Your Soul and How to Win it Back.

3. Some classicists may be able to help me on this, but has anyone else ever advanced the thesis that Plato is singlehandedly responsible for shoddy neon signs?

4. What makes this book great is that it perfects the two-books-in-one style. It consists of a philosophy text and a human drama, and over the course of the book the philosophy sections grow and grow while the human sections get shorter and shorter, using human suspense to drive you through the dense philosophy. All the other books that I've seen that use such a technique throw the ideas out the window in the last third of the book to focus on the human suspense, but Pirsig just builds suspense by talking about something else. It's wonderful.

21 December 2005

Thoughts on the transit strike:

1. Working from home is really fun—on the first day. You're in your PJs, you've got The Simpsons playing in the background, you're even more productive than usual because you're not distracted by your friends. But it gets old really fast. Tonight I'm crashing at my brother's place in Greenwich Village, and walking up to work early tomorrow morning. Why? I just got lonely.

2. Walking across the Manhattan Bridge is surprisingly scary. It's high, for one thing. I also found myself walking in the bicycle lane by mistake (the pedestrian lane is on the other side of the bridge), and found myself the target of occasional jeers from passing bicyclists.

I made it, though, and now I'm blogging happily from my brother's computer. Outside, in the street, the horns are blaring angrily. Not everyone in New York is full of good feelings.
How are our loyal bloggers and readers in New York City weathering the transit strike?
While holiday shopping, I noticed that there are a lot of new specialty Trivial Pursuit games. The ones I saw on the shelf were Saturday Night Live, 90's pop culture, Star Wars, Book Lovers, and Lord of the Rings. I read the sample questions on the back of the boxes and came to the following conclusions:

1) I know far too much Star Wars trivia.
2) The Book Lovers game is impossible for everyone except for Alec and people who know something about science fiction, classical literature, and everything in between.
3) I really worry about the people who do well at the SNL game and how much time they've spent watching and memorizing old episodes.
4) The LOTR game is the most tragic because it's based on the movies and not on the books.

In all, these games are not an improvement. You're better off buying someone Puerto Rico (which, incidentally, they didn't carry at Toys R Us).
On the domestic wiretaps issue, if anyone is interested in some technical legal arguments about whether the administration broke the law, there are some analyses here and here. Note that Orin Kerr, the person who wrote the second one, is generally right-of-center. The other analysis is by Lyle Denniston, a veteran legal journalist with no particular axe to grind. They both are pretty skeptical of the administration's legal justification for its actions, albeit for different reasons. And both admit that the technicality of FISA might affect their conclusions. For a left-of center analysis that's not as complete, try here.

15 December 2005

One of the best things about King Kong is that it makes you look at New York with fresh eyes. Roger Ebert writes: "The third act returns to Manhattan, which looks uncannily evocative and atmospheric. It isn't precisely realistic, but more of a dreamed city in which key elements swim in and out of view." Well, I'm looking out my office window as I write this, and you know what? That's how New York looks to me.

14 December 2005

T.S. and I just snuck out to see King Kong, and I've got to say, you certainly get your money's worth. You probably don't need my encouragement to see this movie, of course, but maybe I can give you an additional nudge towards the multiplex. Like Casablanca or A Matter of Life and Death, this is one of those films that comes very close to summing up the whole experience of going to the movies. When people go to the movies, I have a feeling that this is the movie they're always secretly hoping to see. Well, here it is. The ultimate feeling is one of gratitude at the film's generosity. It's incredible that they're giving this movie away to anybody who has ten bucks.

12 December 2005

Philip Seymour Hoffman as a supervillain? Sweet. The rest of the trailer is, uh, pretty good, too.
I haven't been following the Stanley "Tookie" Williams execution timeline, but I want to comment on Governor Schwarzenegger's statement denying clemency.

I've said before that I feel lucky to never have had to help make a decision in a death penalty case. The advocates arguing both sides are irreconcilable, and the emotions are incredibly intense. And the hardest part of all is deciding whether you want to kill someone. Ugh.

Schwarzenegger's statement is polished and well written, replete with footnotes (!) and details from the case. It appears, on its face, to reveal a strong and thorough clemency review. But on a closer look, I am less impressed. Read carefully, Schwarzenegger's argument is that there is no reason to closely review all of the court proceedings in the case, since all the judges have upheld the jury's sentence. But this misses the point. When you are deciding whether a person should die, you should review all of the proceedings closely, whether or not you have a clear reason to do so. This is, as far as I'm concerned, part of the executive's duty in the faithful execution of his clemency powers. I am concerned that the executive did not do so in this case. Does that mean Williams shouldn't be executed? I can't say. But I would feel better if I had better indication that the Governor's staff was making sure the system works properly.

Incidentally, while one might differ with the dismissal of Williams's claim of redemption, at least the Governor claims to have read his writings, which to me is also necessary to make an informed decision.
Speaking of Saul Bass, this site provides an elegant overview of his work as a designer of movie titles. It isn't quite the same thing as seeing the opening credits for Psycho slash across the big screen, but as an introduction to the work of this authentic genius, it's really well done. (However, it doesn't include my favorite drawing by Saul Bass, which can be found here.)

11 December 2005

Notes from the future:

I recently finished reading The Singularity is Near, the new book by Ray Kurzweil, the inventor and futurist best known (outside of technological circles) for believing that human beings will soon become effectively immortal through genetics and nanotechnology. Kurzweil's argument is a simple one: the reverse engineering of the human brain, combined with the explosive growth of computational power, will lead to the development of a superhuman artificial intelligence within the next three decades. Because this superhuman intelligence will, among other things, be able to design computers that are even faster and smarter than itself, the pace of technological innovation will grow exponentially until our region of the solar system is completely saturated with intelligence, after which it will proceed to colonize the rest of the universe. Meanwhile, technology will rapidly solve mankind's remaining problems, until we're immortal and omnipotent. This technological singularity will mark both the beginning and the end of human history. And this will all take place within our lifetime.

Obviously, Kurzweil is an optimist, and his vision of the future is open to a number of objections (which, to his credit, he anticipates and tries to address). Still, he makes a convincing case. Too bad his book isn't a better read: it's one-third spellbinding, one-third tedious, and one-third vaguely embarrassing. (His chapters alternate with short dialogues that are so poorly written that they serve as a reminder of how good Douglas Hofstadter is at this sort of thing.) And yet this is an important book. Everyone should, at least, try to read pages 342-366, in which Kurzweil explains why we're probably alone in our corner of the galaxy, and why it might be our destiny to bring consciousness to the entire universe. If he's right—and his argument, once you peel away the hype, is elegant and almost irrefutable—obviously the stakes are very high. As he writes:
A common view is that science has consistently been correcting our overly inflated view of our own significance. Stephen Jay Gould said, "The most important scientific revolutions all include, as their only common feature, the dethronement of human arrogance from one pedestal after another of previous convictions about our centrality in the cosmos."

But it turns out that we are central, after all.
All in all, I'd be feeling pretty optimistic about the future if it weren't for another book I bought this week: Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library. I like Chris Ware a lot, and think that his graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth is the best novel of any kind published in my lifetime. But God, this book is depressing. It's a collection of gorgeous full-page comic strips of astonishing bitterness and pessimism, in which the punchline almost always involves the main character dying alone—or, in one case, becoming immortal and alone. One recurring feature, Tales of Tomorrow, shows a pudgy man in a spacesuit sitting alone on a park bench, doing his laundry, watching television, and crying bitterly. Other strips are even more bitter, even hateful. All in all, they serve as a savage rebuttal to Kurzweil's considerably more rosy vision, and suggest that even after the singularity, we'll just be a bunch of lonely, unfulfilled, suicidal gods. Which version is more accurate? Well, I guess we'll find out soon enough.

09 December 2005

This is going to sound lame, but I'm mad that they've changed the AT&T logo. I know that this is supposed to symbolize "the new AT&T," but I'm going to miss the brilliant old logo, which was designed by Saul Bass, one of my heroes. Now it looks all cutesy, like a child's beach ball. Shouldn't it really look like the Death Star?

08 December 2005

Word on the street is that a securities trader in Japan just placed an order to sell 600,000 shares of stock for one yen, when in fact he meant to sell one share of stock for 600,000 yen. The result? His company lost $200 million and the Japanese stock market is down 2%. Sort of puts things in perspective, doesn't it?

07 December 2005

If you happened to read this article about the ripoff that is the bar preparation industry, you may have been left with a simple question: why are lawyers, an otherwise saavy and shrewd group, so easily scammed into paying so much for bar exam classes?

Right on cue, the Wall Street Journal responded with a story about Kathleen Sullivan, a leading Consitutional Law scholar, failing the California bar. I don't have a free link, but here are excerpts from the article:
Kathleen Sullivan is a noted constitutional scholar who has argued cases before the Supreme Court. Until recently, she was dean of Stanford Law School. In legal circles, she has been talked about as a potential Democratic nominee for the Supreme Court. But Ms. Sullivan recently became the latest prominent victim of California's notoriously difficult bar exam. Last month, the state sent out the results of its July test to 8,343 aspiring and already-practicing lawyers. More than half failed -- including Ms. Sullivan.

Although she is licensed to practice law in New York and Massachusetts, Ms. Sullivan was taking the California exam for the first time after joining a Los Angeles-based firm as an appellate specialist.
Aundrea Newsome, an attorney in Hermosa Beach, Calif., who passed the July test, limited her prep time to two months, but she worked eight to 10 hours a day, every day, during that stretch. "That is standard," she says. "You make a deal with the devil and give up two months of your life to pass."

Ms. Newsome, who graduated from the University of Southern California Law School in May, says preparing for the exam requires studying so many different legal fields, including such arcane topics as 18th-century criminal common law, that practical knowledge or even mastery of several legal subjects is not enough.
Former Gov. Wilson describes his need to take the bar exam four times as "frustrating." He blames his difficulties on his penmanship, which he says was not messy, but very slow. "To put it in the simplest terms, if I had not learned to type, I would never have passed it," says Mr. Wilson.

A spokesman for former Gov. Brown, who is currently mayor of Oakland, Calif., says several of his classmates from Yale also failed the exam, some of whom went on to be judges and prominent lawyers.

A native of New York City, Ms. Sullivan has an undergraduate degree from Cornell University and a law degree from Harvard University. She taught at both Stanford and Harvard before becoming dean of Stanford's law school in 1999. The author of a leading constitutional-law casebook, Ms. Sullivan has argued several cases before the Supreme Court. Earlier this spring, the nation's highest court ruled in favor of one of her clients, a California winegrowers' group, striking down state laws that restricted direct sales from vineyards to consumers.

Last year, after announcing she would step down from her Stanford post, Ms. Sullivan joined the Silicon Valley office of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart to head a new appellate practice.

Ms. Sullivan is unlikely to need as many attempts as Maxcy Dean Filer, who may hold the California bar endurance record, having passed in 1991 after 47 unsuccessful tries. The Compton, Calif., man, who says he'll practice any kind of law that "comes through the door -- except probate and bankruptcy," says he always tried to psych himself up before taking the test by repeating, "I didn't fail the bar, the bar failed me."
This system is out of control. Why should this woman have to sacrifice two months of her life to learn stupid rules about areas of the law she doesn't need to know for her practice? Medicine at least has recognized specialties.

On the lighter side, you can only admire that guy Maxcy Filer. Maybe this article will give him some business - as long as it's not probate or bankruptcy, of course.
Nick and Jessica may have split up, but Eminem and Kim are back together. Eh, it's the circle of life.

06 December 2005

One of my guilty pleasures is lottery winner Schaudenfreude. The best example is this guy, but yesterday's New York Times contained a particularly grim example.

04 December 2005

In response to the question from T.S., I absolutely believe that all of Shakespeare's plays were written by the man from Stratford. The argument against Shakespeare's authorship boils down to an argument from quality—and really, from the quality of a handful of the plays, not of all thirty-seven. Here, as before, context helps. Few people would have a problem believing that Henry VI, Part I or even Richard III could be written by a man of Shakespeare's background and education. When you read all of the plays in order, the gradual development from Richard III to King John to Richard II to the incredible flowering of Henry IV is completely comprehensible. To misquote Harold Bloom yet again, Shakespeare had the Blessing, but it took years of apprenticeship and hard work before it could show itself. The plays didn't come up out of the rocks. They're the product of a man's life, and that man's life was Shakespeare's.
A recent New York Times article about the branding of child stars includes the following statement by teen star Shia LaBeouf:
"I think people don't just go to the movies any more because Clive Owen is a good actor," he said. "If that was the case, he'd be the new 007."
I've been starting at this quote for two minutes now, and I still have no idea what it means.

03 December 2005

This morning I finished reading Shakespeare's Sonnets, which means that I've technically read all of Shakespeare (although how much I've retained is, of course, open to debate). At this point, I'm not sure what this means. At the very least, I've given myself the opportunity for a lifetime of rereading, which I expect will pay off in ways that I can't even begin to anticipate. After you've closely read a book, even if you forget most of it, at least you have intellectual and emotional access to it for the rest of your life. My hunch, or hope, is that having intellectual and emotional access to Shakespeare will make me a better, more complete person. (If it happens, I'll make sure to blog about it.)

In any case, it took eight months of close reading, but I've finally resolved my lifetime ambivalence towards Shakespeare. Previously, my major issue with Shakespeare was that he did not provide me with a role model in the way that, say, Dante, Goethe, or Proust did. Based on reading a sampling of his plays in no particular order, I had concluded that he had no method or carefully constructed personality. I had no image of Shakespeare in the way I had a cherished image of the young Dante (based more on the fictional Dante the Pilgrim than on the historical poet). In any case, I was wrong. I've discovered that it is indeed possible to know Shakespeare, or at least to know something of how he wrote and thought, and the best way to do this is to read the plays in the approximate order of their composition.

In a way, I think that Shakespeare's essential achievement consists of Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth, but even these plays are incomplete and perhaps misleading (and certainly too depressing) when taken out of context. To take things one step further, I would argue that the most convincing reason to read all of the plays in chronological order is to encounter Hamlet where it belongs, as a kind of rift in the literature of the world. There's nothing that prepares you for Hamlet when you encounter it after the laughter of As You Like It and Twelfth Night, and coming across Hamlet in the context of Shakespeare's development as an artist restores something of its original strangeness. To quote Harold Bloom:
It is a peculiarity of Shakespearean triumphalism that the most original literary work in Western literature, perhaps in the world's literature, has now become so familiar that we seem to have read it before, even when we encounter it for the first time.
Reading this over now, it occurs to me that if reading all of Shakespeare is the only way to understand Hamlet, perhaps reading the entire Bible is the only way to understand Jesus. (Well, there's always next year.) Anyway, reading all of Shakespeare is something that everyone should do, I think, but has more in common with other critical life events than with other works of literary or aesthetic experience. Everyone "ought to" read Dante and Proust and see The Red Shoes and internalize Abbey Road, but people "ought to" read all of Shakespeare the way they "ought to" fall in love and raise children. Not everyone will have a chance to do these things, of course, but for me, at least, there's a nagging sense that life without them is somehow incomplete.
The second-sweetest phrase in the English language has to be "Two for Chungking Express, please." (The sweetest phrase, I imagine, must be "Two for The Red Shoes, please." But I haven't had a chance to say that one yet.)
I know everyone's been waiting for the result of the UNM-Cal showdown so without further ado:

UNM won 1-0 in sudden-death overtime. It was a pretty even match, with UNM getting perhaps a few more good chances.

The most interesting angle of the match isn't mentioned in the article, however. If someone was watching on TV, they probably noticed that the teams seemed to be playing on dirt. Our athletic department preferred to call the surface "short Bermuda grass," but I think that's just a fancy name for dead grass/dirt. The team has been playing on this surface all season, and they wanted to keep playing on this field, instead of in the football stadium (which actually has living grass). After watching them play, I know why they like this surface - they're faster and quicker than most teams, and they can take advantage of their speed if the ball is skidding across the field and not being slowed down by grass. There's an analogy with the St. Louis Rams and artificial turf.

Alas, there's no more homefield advantage. The final four is in North Carolina, which will probably have real grass. But we'll win anyway. Go Lobos!

01 December 2005

This month, the Brooklyn Academy of Music is screening a welcome retrospective of the movies of Tony Leung, who, as I've noted before, is my favorite movie star. (Well, almost.) Tonight the festival kicked off with Leung and Faye Wong in Chinese Odyssey, a merciless Airplane!-style parody of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and other art house wire-fu movies, not to mention most of the films of Wong Kar-Wai (who serves as executive producer). It falls flat more often than it works, but there's still something fascinating (and unsettling) about seeing Leung and Wong—who starred together in Chungking Express and 2046—parodying themselves onscreen. It's the weirdest cinematic reunion since Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak starred in Bell, Book, and Candle.

Anyway, there are a lot of great movies coming up at BAM. The Red Shoes may have taken up permanent residence at the top of my list of favorite movies, but I've got to admit that no movie fills me with as much bliss as the last hour of Chungking Express. It's uninhibited Wong Kar-Wai, it's the most joyful movie ever made, and it's playing at BAM on Saturday. If you've never seen it, what's your excuse?
Since we all went to college together, we normally don't get to engage in any trash talking about our respective schools. (Alec, what's the plural of alma mater?)

Now, we finally have something to argue about: New Mexico is hosting Cal in the quarterfinals of the NCAA soccer tournament tomorrow night. The winner will be showered with glory, and the loser (to paraphrase Homer Simpson) will be ridiculed until my throat gets hoarse.

UNM is the higher seed, so that's why we're the host. Unfortunately it won't be too cold for the Californians (45-50 degrees), but I'm hoping that the altitude and the er, rowdy fans will still give us a homefield advantage.

Go Lobos!

30 November 2005

Haiwen sent me a link to this article with the comment, "You're sure to see this eventually, so let me just get it out of the way now." What do you think he meant by that?

29 November 2005

Apparently the hedge fund where I work is now a megamanager. (To paraphrase Jon Stewart, I can't be the only one frightened when my company sounds like it could take on Godzilla.)

28 November 2005

Well, if those high-voiced actors can't cut it on stage, how else are they going to make a living?

Maybe they could get into the lucrative field of being prescription drug representatives. As the NY Times reveals, the main qualifications for being a drug rep seem to be attractiveness and...experience as a cheerleader! With more and more female doctors these days, I'm sure Matt Damon could make a lot of sales.

After reading the article, I'm left with this question: why are drug reps legal at all? What possible public good could come from salespeople bugging doctors to prescribe expensive drugs? Yes, yes, the drug companies will say that they're "educating" the doctors, but what can a cheerleader with no scientific knowledge tell a doctor that s/he can't find in two seconds on the internet?

27 November 2005

This weekend I finished reading Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, which I've just discovered is reputedly the longest novel ever written in the English language. If I'd known this earlier, I'm not sure I would have begun. Psychologically speaking, it's one thing to start reading a 1,349-page novel, and quite another to be told that it's the longest novel of all time. Don't I have other things I should be doing?

Luckily for me, A Suitable Boy isn't just the longest novel ever written in English; it's also one of the best.
Thinking a bit more about Matt Damon's problems as an actor, I've come to the conclusion that he just doesn't know how to use his voice. Neither, really, do Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, Edward Norton, or any of the young actors whom we're now supposed to accept as leading men, despite their thin, high voices. Is it simply because these guys were trained in television and independent film, not on the stage? Watching—and hearing—a classically trained actor like Christopher Plummer in Syriana, you think to yourself: Damn. But what's Ben Affleck going to sound like when he's eighty years old?

These guys aren't untalented, of course, and some of them are excellent actors. But I'd be interested to see if anyone can nominate an American actor under the age of forty whom you'd be glad to hear, rather than see. (Johnny Depp's forty-two, by the way.)
I just got back from seeing Syriana, and I'm wondering whether I should wait a couple of days before trying to record my thoughts. At a coffee shop conversation immediately afterwards, I was probably too hard on the movie. It's the sort of film that ought to provide viewers with an optional flow chart to keep track of characters and relationships, and most of the discussions I overheard outside the theater were of the "What was that guy doing in Beirut?" variety. It's unclear whether this confusion is because of justifiable complexity or lapses in narrative technique. Moreover, the motivations of several important characters remain mysterious, even after the movie is over. Is this an attempt at realistic understatement, or the result of trying to condense a potential miniseries into a two-hour running time? Probably both.

There are also more fundamental problems. Most of what happens in the third act, with George Clooney driving frantically across the desert to prevent an assassination, is completely implausible. A subplot about a couple of suicide bombers starts promisingly, but ends up feeling like a failure of imagination. And finally, it just isn't clear that a thriller—or a movie, for that matter—is the best vehicle for what the director is trying to accomplish. It can't name real names or drill very deep, and it's occasionally reduced to using Matt Damon as a mouthpiece for editorial comment. (I kept wanting a character to turn to him and say, "Who are you, the narrator?") Probably the worst thing you can say about Syriana is that it uses its veneer of authenticity and relevance to get away with narrative compromises that wouldn't pass muster in The Bourne Supremacy.

On the other hand, this is mostly a very interesting, ambitious, well-crafted movie that works as a thriller almost in spite of itself. It has a nice feel for location and behavior, and is occasionally very suspenseful on an intellectual and visceral level, if rarely on an emotional one. The last act is full of problems, but it comes together nicely in a way that, say, Traffic did not. In general, it's masterfully edited and assembled. While you're watching it, you're entertained and engaged, and it's only afterwards that you start to question what you've seen. I have a hunch that Syriana is a film that I'll like more and more as time goes on, unlike most movies, which I tend to like less and less. It represents the work of a lot of people operating near the peak of their ability to bring off an almost impossible project, and for that reason alone, it's worth seeing.

After the movie was over, my friend and I found ourselves walking down a street in SoHo, commenting loudly on Matt Damon's limited range as an actor. Of course, I quickly glanced over my shoulder first, to make sure that he wasn't walking behind us.

26 November 2005


Let's say you play for a professional basketball team in one game and don't get paid anything. Could you call yourself a professional basketball player?

I know this might not sound like a very interesting question. But there are all sorts of second- and third- tier basketball leagues popping up these days, and Santa Fe actually has its own pro team now, called the New Mexico Style. Chris tried out for the team but took himself out of the running because he wasn't willing to quit his day job. Well, the coach called him Thursday night and said that they were having roster issues and asked him if he could suit up for a couple of games. Chris said yes, and he suited up last night for a game against the Gallup Talons. He got into the game for 35 seconds at the end. He got a "trillion," meaning he registered no stats other than minutes played (so his stat line would be a 1 followed by 12 zeros). The final score was 149-116, Gallup, which may explain why Chris got into the game.

23 November 2005

Until a few hours ago, the only movies to ever make me cry were Saving Private Ryan and The Last Temptation of Christ. Well, I cried all the way through Ballets Russes, an amazing new documentary about two dueling ballet companies in the years leading up to World War II. My eyes literally welled up with tears within the first minute, and I spent the rest of the movie alternately laughing, choking up, and staring in astonishment at the screen. This is a great documentary about dance, but it's also one of the best movies about youth and old age I've ever seen, and the juxtaposition of archive dance footage—which is often incredible in itself—with the faces of the dancers fifty years later is incredibly moving, almost miraculous. I know that I recommend a lot of movies on this blog, sometimes with mixed results, but really, if you're in New York or anywhere else that Ballets Russes is playing, you owe it to yourself to see it. And then, what the hell, you should rent The Red Shoes, too.
I just got a lot more interested in watching the Macy's parade tomorrow. As the New York Times reports, there will be high winds tomorrow. That means the giant balloons might blow away and wreak havoc, like the Cat and the Hat did in 1997.

What's more, there are allegations that the parade organizers have slacked off on training balloon handlers this year. Instead, many volunteers have simply been given pamphlets explaining the basics, including this helpful tip: "Please do not inhale helium escaping from the balloon." (One might ask how much training is really necessary for balloon handling. But then, we've never tried controlling a Cat in the Hat big enough to eat a whale.)

22 November 2005

My company's holiday party is always slightly ridiculous, and this year should be no exception. The invitation reads: "The evening will feature great food and drink, music, and performances by Cirque du Soleil." Sounds like the fall of the Roman Empire, doesn't it?

17 November 2005

Just to show that it's possible to be critical and clear-eyed about C.S. Lewis without sounding like an idiot, check out Adam Gopnick's rather excellent article in this week's New Yorker. I particularly appreciate this paragraph:
Yet a central point of the Gospel story is that Jesus is not the lion of the faith but the lamb of God, while his other symbolic animal is, specifically, the lowly and bedraggled donkey. The moral force of the Christian story is that the lions are all on the other side. If we had, say, a donkey, a seemingly uninspiring animal from an obscure corner of Narnia, raised as an uncouth and low-caste beast of burden, rallying the mice and rats and weasels and vultures and all the other unclean animals, and then being killed by the lions in as humiliating a manner as possible—a donkey who reëmerges, to the shock even of his disciples and devotees, as the king of all creation—now, that would be a Christian allegory. A powerful lion, starting life at the top of the food chain, adored by all his subjects and filled with temporal power, killed by a despised evil witch for his power and then reborn to rule, is a Mithraic, not a Christian, myth.
Now that's criticism: a thoughtful, interesting observation that actually engages Lewis on his own terms. Is this sort of thing even allowed?

16 November 2005

Typical New York moment:

A friend and I were going for lunch today when we saw a bunch of trailers and catering trucks parked along the street outside the office, which made it look like a movie was being shot in our neighborhood. As we were speculating about which movie it might be, we walked past a co-worker of ours, who waved as we went by.

Later that afternoon, the co-worker came up to me and said: "I don't know if you noticed this, but Matt Damon was walking right behind you...."
Don't freak out if the blog starts getting some hits from Kuwait or Iraq pretty soon.

My little brother has been deployed, hopefully to return sometime early next year. I don't have an address for sending cookies and body armor just yet.

15 November 2005

From the current Vanity Fair cover story about Kate Moss, that beautiful space alien:
In January...she sued the Sunday Mirror, which printed allegations that she had passed out on cocaine. [A friend] says that Moss was actually with Nelson Mandela at the time she was supposed to be lying in a drug-induced stupor—and that there were many witnesses to prove it.
Best alibi ever.

14 November 2005

I wonder sometimes whether watching movies in Berkeley theaters gives me an unusual perspective on films. Slate has a fascinating article on Sarah Silverman which says about the most memorable moment in cinema this year: "Instead of laughing, we were all stuck trying to decide whether this was some new species of joke or just plain old slander."

What theater was that journalist in?? The 80 year old women next to us were laughing in Berkeley.

Speaking of Berkeley locales and funny perspectives, I was shocked to discover when voting that the person next to me on the voter roll is a republican! Only on one the page. There was also a poll worker explaining to us our choice of paper ballot or machine ballot who was able to quickly explain not just what the difference was, but which company made both the electronic voting machines (Diebold) and which company made the machine which scans the optical ballots (which I've forgotten).

Oh yeah, all the above took place in the local Hare Krishna temple where we all vote.
As the release date of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe approaches, I'm becoming increasingly annoyed, not at the movie itself, but at the treatment of C.S. Lewis by, er, well, the liberal media, which insists upon tarring Lewis with the same brush that it uses for American evangelical Christians. The current nadir of this trend is this article in Sunday's New York Times, which may be the meanest, most ill-spirited thing the Times has published since it tried to eviscerate Woody Allen three years ago. The article is ostensibly about the difficulty of balancing the Christian and commercial aspects in the upcoming Narnia movie—and really, hasn't this angle been beaten to death already?—but it's really an excuse for a lot of snarky ad hominem jokes at Lewis's expense. Writes author Charles McGrath:
The exact nature of [the relationship between Lewis and Minto Moore] is something that many of Lewis's biographers would prefer to tiptoe around. But Lewis was far from a sexual innocent, and the evidence strongly suggests that, at least until he got religion, there was an erotic component to his life with Minto. Did they actually sleep together, this earnest, scholarly young man, conventional in almost every other way, and a woman 26 years his senior? Walter Hooper, the editor of Lewis's "Collected Letters," thinks it "not improbable." A.N. Wilson, the best and most persuasive of Lewis's biographers, argues that there's no reason at all to think they didn't, leaving us with the baffling and disquieting psychological picture of C.S. Lewis, the great scholar and writer and Christian apologist-to-be, pedaling off on his bicycle, his academic gown flapping in the wind, to have a nooner with Mum.
Actually, Charles McGrath is the one who has left us with this "baffling and disquieting psychological picture," which he so lovingly limns, even when the "strongly suggestive" evidence boils down to "Hey, there's no reason to think they didn't." (I really hope that my biographer takes the same approach someday, and concludes that there's no reason to think that I didn't make out with Natalie Portman one night at the Signet.) McGrath goes on to note that "Lewis was a progressive in nothing except his choice of women to sleep with," calls Aslan "Jesus in a Bert Lahr suit," and also claims that the Narnia books are "not nearly as well written as either the Potter or the Dark Materials books." You don't need to be Harold Bloom to find that last judgment more than slightly questionable.

Really, though, I shouldn't blame the Times, but the American evangelicals who have persuaded a bunch of otherwise reasonable people that if something expresses even a hint of Christian allegory, we ought to attack it, boycott it, or—worst of all—condescend to it, as if there were no distinction between The Divine Comedy and the Left Behind series. In all seriousness, we aren't too far from a point where people will confuse Dante with Jerry Falwell, and assume that he must have been a questionable moron. C.S. Lewis was no Dante, but he was no Jerry Falwell, either, and we all lose out, culturally speaking, if we can't make the distinction. This may be one of the worst aspects of the American evangelical legacy: with their sanctimoniousness and occasional stupidity, they've alienated a lot of really smart people from some really good books.

13 November 2005

Goethe on Shakespeare: "He is even too rich and powerful. A productive nature ought not to read more than one of his dramas in a year, if it would not be wrecked entirely." Oops.
Yesterday I got a letter from the IRS. Usually one isn't too happy to get a letter from the IRS, but this one was a little different:

We do not have a record of receiving your 2005 Form 1040ES third quarter payment. If you mailed your Form 1040ES payment to an IRS post office box in San Francisco between September 1 and September 11, 2005, it may have been lost or destroyed during transport.

On Sunday, September 11, 2005 an accident occurred on the San Mateo Bridge near San Francisco, California involving a courier transporting payments to an IRS Payment Processing Site. A truck carrying tax payments overturned, causing approximately 30,000 Form 1040ES quarterly tax payments to be ejected into the San Francisco Bay.

If you sent a payment during that time and the check has not cleared your bank, please send us a replacement check...

It's nice to know that someone at the IRS has a sense of humour.
Here's the dumbest thing I've done in a while. The following is an actual exchange from a party last night:
Me: It's amazing how much of my inner life has been shaped by the Pet Shop Boys.
Attractive Girl: Really? Me too!
And I didn't get her phone number. Sometimes I think I must subconsciously want to be alone...
One big surprise is that after Shakespeare's four major tragedies and the first part of Henry IV, the play that means the most to me is Cymbeline, a work that can fairly be described as neglected. (Quick—is Cymbeline a man or a woman?) Much of it is wonderful parody—it gleefully flings together most of the conventions of Elizabethan comedy in an unbelievably intricate plot—but it's exuberant, encyclopedic parody in the vein of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which the parody transcends and surpasses its source material.

Because of his obvious affection for his sources, I feel very close to Shakespeare when I read Cymbeline, which I think represents his true farewell to the theater, much more so than The Tempest. It also has his best song ("Fear no more the heat o' the sun") and what I would venture to call his greatest role for a young woman. In fact, I now want to name my first daughter Imogen, which has led some people to assume that I'm a big fan of the band Frou Frou, and others to assume that I'm nuts.

11 November 2005

As some of you already know, one of my goals for the year was to carefully read all of Shakespeare, mostly on the subway. Today I finished reading Henry VIII, and with that, I've now read all of the plays. (Well, fine, there's still The Two Noble Kinsman, but it isn't included in my 40-volume Yale Shakespeare set.) It took me about six months, since I started in mid-April, and the Sonnets and other poems should take me through the end of November. I'll probably blog more about this over the next few days, but the bottom line is that I should have done this years ago. In particular, if I'd read Shakespeare seriously during my freshman year at college, I might have majored in English and ended up in graduate school.

First, though, a minor complaint. The book that I'd really hoped would be my guide to Shakespeare, Marjorie Garber's acclaimed Shakespeare After All, ended up being a disappointment, a flat, boring book that reads like a sold B+ term paper stretched out over a thousand pages. The problem, I think, is that it tries to be objective about an author who defies objectivity, and who demands a personal, idiosyncratic response from his critics. Shakespearean criticism, like all good criticism, really needs to be written in the first person, and there isn't a moment in this huge book when Garber speaks as herself. The result reads like an epic set of Cliffs Notes:
Significantly, in this deposition scene, Richard deposes himself.

King Lear focuses at once on partiarchy and paternity, on the interaction between the role of the king and the role of the father.

In the fifth act of Macbeth, the language of disease is everywhere.
None of this is at all wrong, of course, but it's a series of observations without opinions or insights. Compare the previous three sentences, chosen basically at random, with an equally random plucking from Harold Bloom:
If your Cleopatra is an aging whore, and her Antony a would-be Alexander in his dotage, then we know a touch more about you and rather less about them than we should.
All else aside, which of these two critics would you rather read? You could argue, of course, that the focus of these books should be Shakespeare, not Garber or Bloom. But if there's anything I've learned over the past six months, it's that everyone has his or her own Shakespeare, and part of the interest of good Shakespearean criticism is following the personal engagement of a strong critical mind with a mind that is even stronger and less knowable. Without that engagement, you might as well just stick to the plays, which don't benefit from a cautious critical approach. It's a shame, because elsewhere, Garber can be smart and provocative and sort of crazy. Unfortunately, in trying to write the "indispensible" book about Shakespeare, she ends up being completely dispensible—everything and nothing. It's like reading a Shakespearean essay by Harriet Miers.

10 November 2005

You know, I used to wish that I could have stayed in college forever. Then I heard about this guy.

09 November 2005

Longtime readers of this blog might remember that I once complained about excessive usage of the phrase "sea change," only to be greeted by a tidal wave of skepticism from all of my friends, none of whom could remember ever seeing it in print. (The Beck album of the same name hadn't been released at this point, which should give you an idea of how long ago this was.)

Anyway, this led to a brief flurry of "sea change" mania, and Noah blogged about it here. Now, more than three years later, I've finally found the reference that got me to thinking about this phrase. It's on page 382 of Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence:
In academic writings as in journalism, [Rousseau's] name and the adjective Rousseauian are used to characterize opinions that he never held. These statements contrary to fact are repeated by rote when certain subjects arise, just as Shakespeare's phrase "sea change" is set down when the writer thinks of change.
There you go. And guess what? Apparently Microsoft, of all things, is in the middle of a sea change, too.

07 November 2005

John Fowles died on Saturday. He was one of the best.

05 November 2005

You know, the more I think about it, the more indignant I feel at the way most critics have treated Elizabethtown. I'm usually quite forgiving of these guys, and I know that there's nothing worse than dismissing a bunch of movie critics—who are, for the most part, decent, passionate people—just because you happen to disagree with them. But sometimes, well, they just smell blood in the water, and pummel a interesting movie because it would be too much trouble to defend. (The classic example is Gigli, a flawed but reasonably likeable movie that is nowhere near as bad as anyone suggests.)

Elizabethtown is no Gigli, but it did have a disastrous premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, and maybe a lot of critics were fed up with Cameron Crowe and his mix tape soundtracks and repeated attempts to insert catchphrases into the popular consciousness. Fair enough. But a lot of critics are treating this movie as a career-ender, and if Elizabethtown is any indication, this is not a career that deserves to end. Maybe it's a failure, or even a fiasco, but it's a beautiful one.
I also caught Domino recently, which I enjoyed, although I do wish that the director had allowed the audience to focus on some of those extraordinary images—in particular, those involving Keira Knightley—for more than three seconds at a time, and without any jump cuts, flare outs, or jittery camera moves. There's a great movie called Domino somewhere on Tony Scott's cutting room floor, and it occasionally appears onscreen, in moments that are like a mash-up of my own subconscious—with Keira Knightley, Christopher Walken, Mickey Rourke, Mena Suvari, and Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green occupying the frame simultaneously. Unless I'm very much mistaken, Tom Waits also shows up at one point, somewhere in the desert, looking very, very grizzled.

04 November 2005

Somewhat to my surprise, I really, really liked Elizabethtown. I liked it even more when I saw it last year, and it was called Garden State.

Honestly, this is a flawed movie, but it's heartfelt, lovingly crafted, full of good ideas, and completely unbelievable. Fine. Maybe I'm just at a point in my life where I respond to movies about emotionally repressed young men who are inexplicably saved by Natalie Portman or Kirsten Dunst. If so, they can keep making this movie every year. I'll keep going to see it—until it happens to me, I guess.
I had no idea that Claude Lévi-Strauss was still alive. (I owe this information to the Wikipedia article on the Prospect Top 100 Intellectuals Poll.) Feels like some sort of mistake to me...

31 October 2005

I guess Bush isn't so averse to rewarding bad behavior after all. First, he pays off the North Koreans after promising not to, and now he rewards the Right's unabashed smear attacks on his personal friend and lawyer by giving them exactly what they wanted.

If I were NARAL or MoveOn, I would already be cutting ads to start airing ASAP, preferably today, to paint this guy as a fascist wacko. I think the top thing they can get him on is his opposition to the Family and Medical Leave Act (the Planned Parenthood decision is what riles up the base, but notification laws are popular with a lot of people).

I have to say, though, that I don't think they're going to get him on his court decisions alone. He's conservative, but his decisions aren't so crazy that it's worth destroying the Senate to block him. They need to find wacky speeches/articles and/or personal dirt if they want to win this thing.

28 October 2005

Today's pop cultural updates: King Kong is three hours long, and George Takei is gay.
I miss the academic life. I especially regret the fact that I may never edit an annotated version of a famous work of literature, which is basically what I was born to do. As Nabokov and the editor of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes already know, sometimes a great work of art isn't complete without a trenchant critical comment in the footnotes. Yesterday I found such a moment in my Yale edition of Shakespeare's Cymbeline:
I did not take my leave of him, but had
Most pretty things to say; ere I could tell him
How I would think on him at certain hours
Such thoughts and such, or I could make him swear
The shes of Italy should not betray
Mine interest and his honour, or have charg'd him
At the sixth hour of morn, at noon, at midnight,
To encounter me with orisons, for then
I am in heaven for him; or ere I could
Give him that parting kiss which I had set
Betwixt two charming words, comes in my father,
And like the tyrannous breathing of the north
Shakes all our buds from growing.
And then, this priceless note from editor Samuel B. Hemingway: "Utterly worthless are the guesses of editors as to what Imogen's two charming words would have been."

27 October 2005

I'm going to miss Miers. The reason I enjoyed this whole spectacle, I've realized, is that this was the first blunder by President Bush that I could wholeheartedly enjoy—where nobody died, for one thing. It's hard to take satisfaction in the mess surrounding Iraq or Katrina, but with the Miers nomination, nothing was hurt except for a lot of conservative feelings.

25 October 2005

Maybe the White House counsel staff really was distracted the week Harriet Miers was tapped by the President for the Supreme Court.

No, they weren't distracted by grand jury testimony or questions about the Hurricane response. They were too busy accusing the Onion of using the Presidential Seal as an implicit endorsement of their newspaper. (Never mind that the seal is used on a page that makes fun of the President every week.) I'm glad the Commander-in-Chief's crack legal team jumped right on this one. Anybody with more time than me and some familiarity with Wayback want to see how long they were using the Seal before the White House noticed?

24 October 2005

This list of the best movies of all time is refreshingly goofy, if nothing else:
1. Goodfellas
2. Vertigo
3. Jaws
4. Fight Club
5. The Godfather Part II
6. Citizen Kane
7. Tokyo Story
8. The Empire Strikes Back
9. The Lord of the Rings
10. His Girl Friday
Press reports refer casually to the list as a "critics' poll," and say that it was created by "a panel of experts," which, unless I'm wrong, consists entirely of the editorial staff of Total Film magazine. Oh well. Not a bad list, all in all, but one of those choices really bugs me. Can you guess which one?

23 October 2005

The dictionary entry for "damn with faint praise" ought to include a link to this page from the official Harriet Miers site. Really, it needs to be seen to be believed.

My favorite quote: "She has a tremendous amount of respect for the rule of law..." (To paraphrase Jon Stewart: "Hey, everybody! The woman who wants to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court believes in laws! I wonder what the Secretary of Commerce thinks about capitalism!")

21 October 2005

It's marathon season, and the NY Times has dragged up the bogeyman of too much water. They ran this exact same story last year, as I recall.

Here's my two cents: I'm running in a marathon relay this weekend (I'm only going 10K). You can be sure that the last thing I'm going to worry about is drinking too much water. For races 10K and longer, if you're going reasonably fast (faster than 9 minute miles, I'd say), you WILL lose water if it's over 60 degrees, and you WILL NOT be able to replenish water as quickly as you lose it.

The victims of hyponatremia cited in this article are probably going very slowly (so they're not losing water) and are ignoring all of their body's natural signs that they have enough water in them. (The need to urinate is pretty darn reliable in this regard.) If this article helps to educate those people that they don't need to gorge themselves on water, fine.

But, it's simply irresponsible to say that no one has ever died from dehydration while running. This guy is the most famous victim, and there are other football players like him who die every year from dehydration and related causes (like heart failure and heat stroke). Short of dying, there are a lot of bad things that can happen to you if you don't drink enough water - you can pass out or become ill, and your race performance will certainly suffer.

Lastly, the article suggests that sports drinks are no different from water. That's not true - it's much easier to absorb sports drinks when you're dehydrated and sweating and your electrolytes are out of balance.

20 October 2005

The editors of IMDb have posted their personal choices for the top fifteen movies of the past fifteen years. For the record, here's my list, although this ranking hasn't really stabilized yet:
1. Chungking Express
2. Eyes Wide Shut
3. L.A. Confidential
4. Spellbound
5. Dancer in the Dark
6. Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2
7. The Silence of the Lambs
8. Crumb
9. Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control
10. High Fidelity
11. Spirited Away
12. Miller's Crossing
13. Pulp Fiction
14. Memento
15. Vanilla Sky
I wish I could have found room for The Limey and The Winslow Boy, not to mention The Usual Suspects, but when you think about it, fifteen slots aren't nearly enough.

19 October 2005

Today's fun list is Prospect's ranking of the top 100 public intellectuals in the world. Chomsky is at the top, although, really, shouldn't the obvious choice be Vaclav Havel? More weirdness: Arundhati Roy, Howard Zinn, Cornell West, and Harold Bloom weren't even on the short list, apparently, but Elaine Scarry was—even though Scarry's major qualification, it seems, is her goofy theory about airplane crashes. And where the *$%& is Mailer?
Another reason why I need to get cable: Rachael Ray now has four shows running in regular rotation on the Food Network. She's also putting together an afternoon talk show and a magazine. "The only thing that seemed worrisome," says the magazine's former design editor, "is that Rachael wanted a magazine of basically everything she thought was great." Sounds a lot like this blog, doesn't it?

18 October 2005

Wow, the Times is fast: they've already responded to my question about the net worth of Harriet Miers. But really, I'm left with more questions than before. The article attributes her moderate holdings to generous giving, care of her elderly mother, and "working for a government salary since 2001." But she earned $577,000 in 2000, and currently makes $161,000 a year at the White House. At that level, a net worth of $675,000—and only $295,000 in investible assets—isn't just surprising, it's shocking.

Let me spell this out: Harriet Miers invested her money in a remarkably thoughtless way. Even if we take the most generous assumption and say that she gave away almost everything she made, she would be in a position to give away a lot more today if she'd been more careful about her finances even fifteen or twenty years ago. Again, I don't have a huge point to press here, but $295,000 in cash and bonds is a weird portfolio, given that Miers is supposed to be a remarkably astute, detail-oriented, brilliant corporate lawyer. Based on the evidence, she's given less thought to her own finances than to Meyer v. Nebraska, and that's saying something.
Wikipedia's recent featured article about the Derek and the Dominos song "Layla" got me to thinking about an underappreciated musical convention: the coda or outro, in which an otherwise self-contained pop song segues into a closing section that is unrelated to the main body of the song—and presumably often cut for radio play—but which inexplicably makes the entire song more moving, mysterious, or universal. "Hey Jude" probably has the greatest coda in all of pop music, but "Layla," which moves from jaw-dropping guitar work to a transcendent piano close, is arguably even more perfect. (Are there degrees of perfection? Probably not. Oh well.)

In any case, I've recently realized that a lot of my favorite songs, ranging from "Dry the Rain" by the Beta Band to "English Beefcake" by James, have one thing in common: great, weird, mysterious, transcendent codas. Clearly, the rational thing would be to look for more. Anyone out there have a favorite coda or two?
Here's a question that hasn't been raised yet: If Harriet Miers is so smart, why isn't she rich? Based on her personal financial disclosure statement, her investible net worth is $545,000, tops. This might seem respectable, but think about it: she's sixty years old, unmarried, no kids, one of the top lawyers in the country, former partner at her law firm, and a Republican, for chrissake. Shouldn't she be a millionaire by now? I mean, I was disappointed that John Roberts didn't own any index funds, but compared to Miers—who owns one stock, a lot of cash in a money market fund, some Treasury bonds, and some oil and gas interests—he's Warren Buffett.

Apparently the business community thinks that Miers is just great. What are they thinking?

17 October 2005

At this point, I'm inclined to think that Harriet Miers is doomed. Here's the clincher: John Fund of the Wall Street Journal reports that the White House arranged for a conference call on October 3 between a group of prominent religious conservatives and two of Mier's close friends—including Justice Nathan Hecht—who basically guaranteed that Miers would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Obviously, this is pretty sleazy, but consider the practical consequences. If this turns out to be true, it will be politically impossible for any Democrat to vote for Miers. This means that she won't even get out of committee. The senate Judiciary Committee has eight Democrats and ten Republicans, which means that only a couple of Republican nays will swing the vote against her—and I'd be really surprised if she got nine or ten Republican votes. After that, even if she gets to the full Senate, it will be easy for conservative Republicans to vote against Miers without political consequences—which is exactly what will happen.

Anyway, it's going to be a really, really interesting couple of months. I've become a Miers junkie, and those guys at the National Review are just feeding my habit.

14 October 2005

More on Harriet Miers...

I haven't seen this wholly articulated anywhere, so I don't have any links. But it seems to me that this nomination might turn out to be the biggest mistake of the Bush Presidency, in terms of electoral consequences.

As best outlined in What's the Matter With Kansas, the Republican Party has ridden to electoral victory over the past decade by fanning the flames of outrage among evangelical Christians. The number one accelerant is abortion, and the number one source of outrage for abortion activists is Roe v. Wade. These people are willing to die to overturn Roe v. Wade. We all heard Bush promise to appoint Scalia-Thomas types to the Supreme Court, and we all heard the plaintive cries from both sides that the next president would get to appoint four nominees to the Supreme Court.

Well, this president hasn't gotten his four nominees, although given the ages of some of the sitting justices, he might still get one or two more. But he's gotten two nominees, and he's punted on both of them - and in doing so, he broke his promise to the Right, and he deprived abortion activists of a long-awaited righteous battle between Good and Evil, between a Christian justice and the Hated Left.

Ok, so he pissed off his base by breaking his campaign promise. Why should that matter so much? Clinton pissed off his base all the time. The difference here is, evangelical Christians aren't activists you can take for granted. They could just as soon hold their noses and walk away from the political process altogether, just like they did back in the seventies and eighties. Remember Karl Rove's 4 million missing evangelical voters in the 2000 election? They could go missing again if, after all their work and sacrifice in getting a conservative into the White House, they come away empty-handed on the one issue that matters the most. If the White House mishandles this thing, I think it could break the political will, semi-permanently, of many rank-and-file members of the Christian right.

This goes way beyond the 2006 elections. It could arguably have a much greater impact on the 2008 presidential election, when Christians are wondering whether it's worth their while to work for another presidential candidate who promises them the world. That said, the White House and the Republican party aren't stupid, and they'll do all they can to keep evangelicals on board - maybe by rescinding Miers, maybe by bringing up some other issue, like gay marriage, to crusade against.
Do Supreme Court justices get more liberal on the Court? If so, why?

On the first question, the pro position is here, and the anti position is here. I personally think that the evidence on Justice Stevens is that he clearly turned more liberal on the court, and Souter probably did as well; but in general, the Supreme Court is a pretty conservative body and O'Conner and Kennedy are simply not liberals. They disappoint conservatives because they're not ideologues.

On the second question, there are several possible explanations for why a justice might shift positions, and I've seen each of these explanations being used at various times by commentators (The comments section of the Volokh post above does a good job laying these out):

1. Liberal arguments are better. (Unless you're prepared to deal with those tricky and seductive liberal arguments, you're likely to be taken in. This seems silly to me, but as a liberal-leaning kind of guy, I have to chuckle whenever I hear its variants, especially coming from conservatives. And frankly, given the options laid out below, it might just be the best explanation out there.)

2. The "Georgetown cocktail set" works its magic on the nominee. (This is a variation on the first position, adding an element of social pressure on the judges. Even sillier than the first reason.)

3. Power corrupts, and so the weaker-minded judges will be more likely to throw off the shackles of judicial restraint than will the stout conservatives. (This at least has some plausibility to it - but you cannot convince me that Scalia, Thomas, and Rehnquist are (were) not very activist. Bush v. Gore is exhibit A. These guys do engage in judicial activism when it suits their ideology. The Rehnquist move to overturn a lot of Congressional laws on the basis of "states' rights" was itself a move to insert the court into policy-making; it would have certainly been more "restrained" to refuse to hear constitutional challenges to federal laws.)

My conclusion: I see no reason why people should get reliably more liberal or more conservative once they get on the bench. I don't know why Stevens and Souter did turn more liberal, except that maybe the court gave them a new perspective on issues that they didn't have before. An inexperience nominiee might be confused and make bad decisions if they don't already have an articulated philosophy, but that is different from an ideological shift.

13 October 2005

I still really want to see Elizabethtown, an apparently lousy movie which has already inspired at least one great snide review:
This isn't drama; it's asking people to fork over nine bucks to hear what's on your iPod.
But really, the movie to see this weekend has got to be Domino. Keira Knightley and Christopher Walken and Mickey Rourke and Lucy Liu in a Tony Scott action movie written by Donnie Darko? Holy mother of God. Haiwen, what are you doing on Saturday?
When I'm reading or writing or doing chores at home, I like to have something playing in the background, which often means that I'll watch a movie with the sound turned down. I'm also lazy, which means that I'll usually just play whatever is in the DVD player. As a result, I sometimes watch the same movie five or six times over the course of a week—although my mind is usually elsewhere, of course. Scarface was the movie of choice over the weekend, but at some point I got tired of it, and switched to a reliable standby, The Red Shoes.

Regular readers of this blog know that I've watched The Red Shoes more than a few times. In fact, it may currently hold the record for the movie I've watched the most (although I suspect that Blue Velvet may still be the champion). I'm still firmly convinced, as I was earlier this year, that it's the best movie ever made, and it's so rich in incident and detail that I always notice something new whenever I watch it. (You could easily spend the entire movie just watching what's happening in the background.) However, at some point this week, I realized something that left me flabbergasted. Are you ready for it? You sure?

The dancing in this movie is amazing.

This is arguably the dumbest thing I've ever blogged. Of course the dancing in The Red Shoes is amazing. But for some reason, I've always been drawn to other things—the story, the acting, the incredible visual imagination—and never really thought about the dancing itself. Now, watching it with the sound off, I finally understand. It's like watching Casablanca as a thriller, and then suddenly discovering the love story. Watching Moira Shearer pirouette and seeing it, really seeing it, makes the entire movie more meaningful. How could anyone not fall in love with this woman?
Apparently cigarette smoking may lower your IQ. Tell that to Edward R. Murrow.
Harold Pinter has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Cool. With every year that passes, however, I find myself asking one question: What about Mailer? The question has become even more urgent over the past couple of years. I began reading Norman Mailer when I was in my early teens, and always took him for granted. It's only recently that I've begun to realize how unique the guy was—a great novelist of powerful language and ideas who was also a public intellectual, a journalist, a critic, a rabble-rouser, and a bully. There's nobody else like Mailer in America today, and even worldwide, only Arundhati Roy comes immediately to mind—and Roy seems to have given up fiction for good. Yes, Mailer was profoundly self-destructive, and yes, he stabbed his wife and chewed off Rip Torn's ear, but unlike other self-destructive writers, he never totally imploded, and managed to remain a major force in letters for sixty-five consecutive years. That's awe-inspiring.

There seems to be a lot of nostalgia for the dead breed of the supercritic, as witnessed by the recent outpouring of material on Edmund Wilson. Mailer, in many ways, was—and is—more extraordinary. Awarding him the Nobel Prize would highlight his amazing career, and bring attention to the fact that writers like Mailer have ceased to exist, right when the world needs them most. We need more monsters like this guy.

12 October 2005

Is Harvard's admissions procedure the way it is because the university needs to protect its brand image?

11 October 2005

And here's the kicker. While researching Caryn James online, I realized that she was the author of one of the dumbest pieces that the Times ever published, an article on last year's National Book Awards, in which she complained that "the judges apparently went out of their way to nominate books that have scarcely been noticed," and "by trying to strong-arm readers' taste, the judges are guaranteeing that their prize remains marginal." In other words, big ambitious movies are lame because they're too mainstream, and "woozy and poetic" novels are lame because they aren't mainstream enough. Clearly, this critic needs her own blog.
I'm usually pretty forgiving of pop cultural criticism written on deadline (I mean, it's hard, for one thing), but this piece from the New York Times strikes me as unforgivably shoddy. Headlined "The Trouble With Films That Try to Think," it dismisses "big idea" movies like Good Night, and Good Luck and the forthcoming All the King's Men as "timid films with portentous-sounding themes, works that offer prepackaged schoolroom lessons or canned debates." Here are a few of the piece's insights:
1. The fact that many such films take place in the past (or seem "hyperreal," as in the case of A History of Violence) is "a symptom of this timidity."

2. All the King's Men can be "easily dismissed" because "the film's subject is self-contained." (Does anybody even know what this means?)

3. A History of Violence concludes that "violence is everywhere and in everyone," which is "not a thoughtful probing of the question" and "a spurious and facile statement." (It's also a spurious and facile statement that the movie never makes, which should be obvious to anyone who saw the movie and thought about it for more than a minute.)

4. Good Night, and Good Luck is damned with faint praise, with the critic noting that "the film's beautiful direction and acting deflects attention from its lack of context."

5. Million Dollar Baby showed that you could make "a tough subject like euthanasia palatable," which strikes me as a weird comment for a number of reasons. (Is "euthanasia" really the subject of Million Dollar Baby? Is "palatable" the first word anyone would use to describe that movie's final scenes? I'd argue that Million Dollar Baby is about euthanasia to roughly the same degree as Dancer in the Dark is about capital punishment.)
Most incredibly, the article provides no counterexamples (apparently, there has never been a successful movie that tackled a big issue in an acceptable manner) and offers no suggestions as to how Hollywood could break out of its circle of timidity. This sort of non-article would be embarrassing enough on any subject, but to accuse a handful of interesting, ambitious movies of "timidity" because they fail to meet this critic's underdeveloped and unstated criteria of significance is, quite simply, shameful. I can't believe that the Times even published this.

Maybe I'm just mad because I saw Good Night, and Good Luck last night, and would argue that it is one of the strongest American movies of the year. Caryn James, of course, trashes it by noting that its story "is too simple and nostalgic" to apply to contemporary events. Really? How? She doesn't elaborate. On the other hand, she credits George Clooney for "using his clout to edge Hollywood toward movies that think, even if they rarely come through with Deep Thoughts." That's the last sentence of this embarrassing article, which fails to offer a single deep thought of its own, either primarily or secondhand. This is supposed to be criticism?

10 October 2005

UNICEF bombs the Smurfs.

08 October 2005

Speaking of someone who knows the West, this posting at the National Review describes Victor Davis Hanson as "the brilliant classicist, military historian, scholar, author and essayist." Aren't those all the same thing?
Senator Conrad Burns has praised Harriet Miers for her "knowledge of the West." You know, that's something I've always wanted someone to say about me. Unfortunately, I'm not sure we're talking about the same thing here. Are we talking sagebrush or Sophocles?

07 October 2005

Dave emerges from the depths for a moment to talk about a subject near and dear to his heart: baseball. Call me a fair-weather fan, or maybe I just didn't live there long enough, but I'm not rooting for Boston to win it all this year. You might recall that their recently ended title drought was merely the third-longest in history -- and the other two are still going. So they really ought to give one of those Chicago teams a chance. My order of preference for AL pennant: 1. Chicago, 2. Anybody but the Yankees.

In the other league, it's a toss-up. Houston and San Diego have streaks even longer than Chicago's -- infinity years. Granted, they weren't playing baseball for all those years, but they still make a case that their time is due. St. Louis is a classy outfit and they haven't won it all since 1982, and the Braves deserve more than their one puny title for 14 years of dominance. Personally, I think that even though I now have a personal connection to San Diego, a team that finished above .500 only by winning its last game doesn't deserve to win a pennant. My anti-Texas bias results in my choice of: 1. St. Louis, 2. Atlanta, 3. Houston, 4. San Diego.

White Sox in 6 in the Series.
This article by the New Republic, which lists the top 15 hacks in the Bush Administration, is a little unfair, but fun to read. It's also depressing. Why am I slaving away in the private sector, when I could be on the fast track for a sweet job in the Department of Health and Human Services?
Does anyone with a bit of a background in campaign finance law/nonprofit organization law know if this website is illegal?

I saw the website advertised on a sidebar of a conservative blog, so it means there's advertising money behind it. I don't know why, but it seems creepy that a nonprofit can set up a website for, advertise, and promote the president's supreme court nominee. I mean, if they were doing political ads for the president they would fall under McCain-Feingold and they'd have to abide by certain limits on content and fundraising (which I can't really enumerate because I don't know them). This might be argued to be policy-based, not political, but I don't know if that's a meaningful distinction.

I do note that the organization calls itself "nonpartisan." Isn't promotion of the administration, by definition, "partisan"?
Harvard's endowment surges past $25 billion ($10 billion more than Yale's). As Harvey Mansfield puts it, "It's nice to be rich."
Boy, the subway was awfully empty this morning. I actually got a seat!

06 October 2005

I'm not sure why this never occurred to me before, but Jenny Lewis, the singer who single-handedly walks away with the song "Nothing Better" by the Postal Service ("I feel I must interject here / You're getting carried away feeling sorry for yourself..."), has her own band, Rilo Kiley. It's, uh, pretty great. In fact, it makes me a little dizzy, which means that it would probably kill Noah.

It turns out that Jenny Lewis also played the girl in The Wizard, which means that she's been on my radar for a lot longer than I would have guessed.
Why isn't anybody else blogging these days? Is it because you all have girlfriends?
I recently told the ex-Pegasus that I've always wanted to write a sociological study of Chinese restaurants, especially the small lunch counters that appear on every block in Brooklyn, not to mention Helsinki and Saugatuck, Michigan. Where do they come from? How do they find their staff? Where does the guy with the scooter sleep?

This article in the Times (by former Crimson writer Jennifer 8. Lee, whose inexplicable byline is fondly remembered by quite a few Harvard students) goes a long way towards answering these questions. Apparently there's a cluster of Chinatown employment agencies under the Manhattan bridge that send chefs and staff (including "deliverymen who can drive" and "deliverymen who don't need to drive") to Chinese restaurants from Queens to South Carolina:
For workers who cannot read the names of their destinations in English, area codes serve as the restaurants' main geographical identifiers. The workers do not see America as a series of cities or even states, but as a collection of area codes, almost all with dozens upon dozens of Chinese restaurants looking for help. Maps in every Chinese agency break down the country by area code, with recently introduced area codes scribbled in by hand.
Jobs beyond commuting distance of New York include free room and board in restaurant-provided dorms. (Workers commute on the Chinatown bus, of course.)

Anyway, the article confirms what I've always suspected: if you're at a Chinese restaurant that employs non-Chinese workers, watch out. Something just ain't right.
Great line from Peggy Noonan's column on why Bush chose Harriet Miers:
Old standard answer: In time of war he didn't want to pick a fight with Congress that he didn't have to pick. Obvious reply: So in time of war he picks a fight with his base?
I know you're probably all tired of Miers postings, but I just can't help myself. Maybe the President's secret plan is to get me addicted to the conservative blogosphere.

05 October 2005

If I were living in Los Angeles, I'd be strongly tempted to check out the second Liberty Film Festival later this month, which is being billed as "Hollywood's conservative film festival." Festival highlights include a screening of The Searchers, several Ayn Rand tributes, and Fellowship 9/11, a spoof of...well, you can probably guess. (Not sure how funny the movie itself would be, but the title makes me smile.) Guest speakers include David Horowitz, Michael Medved—and Joel Surnow, creater of 24. (Yikes. I mean, I know that President Palmer is probably a Republican, but still...)
In more important news, the transmission of Tom Cruise's genetic material has been a complete success. All right!
Sorry, I can't resist: here's Jon Stewart on Harriet Miers.
George Will's column on Harriet Miers ("Can This Nomination Be Justified?") is well worth reading. My favorite paragraph is probably the mildest:
The wisdom of presumptive opposition to Miers's confirmation flows from the fact that constitutional reasoning is a talent—a skill acquired, as intellectual skills are, by years of practice sustained by intense interest. It is not usually acquired in the normal course of even a fine lawyer's career. The burden is on Miers to demonstrate such talents, and on senators to compel such a demonstration or reject the nomination.
All in all, the best reporting and commentary on the Miers nomination is coming, not surprisingly, from the right. The National Review has a lot of good stuff, especially on David Frum's blog. Frum also deserves credit for raising Miers's name as early as July 4, although, he now concedes, he was "mostly joking."
Not to get political or anything, but here's President Bush on the possible avian flu pandemic:
I am concerned about avian flu. I'm concerned about what an avian flu outbreak could mean for the United States and the world. I have thought through the scenarios of what an avian flu outbreak could mean. I tried to get a better handle on what the decision-making process would be by reading Mr. Barry's book on the influenza outbreak in 1918. I would recommend it.

The policy decisions for a president in dealing with an avian flu outbreak are difficult. One example: If we had an outbreak somewhere in the United States, do we not then quarantine that part of the country? And how do you, then, enforce a quarantine? It's one thing to shut down airplanes. It's another thing to prevent people from coming in to get exposed to the avian flu.

And who best to be able to effect a quarantine?

One option is the use of a military that's able to plan and move. So that's why I put it on the table. I think it's an important debate for Congress to have.
Hmmm...right. Meanwhile, in order to pay for Katrina relief without raising taxes (or calling off tax cuts, for that matter), the new budget proposed by House Republicans includes a $1.8 billion funding cut for—can you guess?—the Centers for Disease Control.

04 October 2005

Malcolm Gladwell checks in with a fascinating review of a new book called The Chosen, a history of the admissions process at Ivy League universities. Harvard does not emerge unscathed.
Apparently direct-to-video sequels are experiencing something of a renaissance these days, with upcoming DVDs including sequels to Carlito's Way, American Pie, and—get ready for it, Nat—8 Seconds.

01 October 2005

Currently in theaters are two very interesting, flawed thrillers, The Constant Gardener and A History of Violence. The two movies couldn't be more different, of course: one is by a director who looks outward into international themes and huge casts of characters, while the other is by a director whose gaze is decidedly inward—sometimes to bone, tissue, and raw tendon.

My major criticism of The Constant Gardener is that I wish it had been an hour longer. There's a lot of interesting stuff going on here, but sometimes we seem to be watching a brilliantly edited trailer for an epic miniseries. I really wish I knew more about those hateful British civil servants, for one thing, and the possibly gay African doctor, and the wife's helpful cousin, and the venal pharmaceutical executives—more about every character, actually, many of whom are fascinating but only half-glimpsed. I hear that the original cut of this film was over three hours long, though, which gives me hope for an extended edition on DVD. (On the other hand, I'm still waiting for the four-hour version of Kill Bill.)

As for A History of Violence, it's the sort of movie that ought to play better on a second viewing, if only because the first viewing is too tense to offer anything resembling a good time. At least with a second viewing, you'd know when to cover your eyes—and there are a few moments here that are worthier of eye-covering than anything since they found the girl's body in the closet in The Ring. As a result, you spend most of the movie waiting for the next shocking effect, which which tends to distract from the generally fine performances and direction. (The, er, facial prosthetics are pretty good, too.) The movie also suffers from a very strange shift in tone: the first ninety minutes are best described as Shaymalanesque, with occasional flashes of ultraviolence, and then suddenly we're in Miller's Crossing. It lets us off the hook, in short—which is not something that I would have expected from the director who once showed us Geena Davis giving birth to a giant maggot.
As usual, I'm about a year behind the times, but I feel compelled to state the obvious: if you haven't bought—or at least borrowed—the album Funeral by the Arcade Fire, you really ought to do something about that. I was apparently in some sort of coma circa 1997, when OK Computer first came out, but I imagine that the feeling of discovery, or recognition, or whatever, must have been similar. This is the album that I've always wanted to find, without quite knowing what I was looking for. It's sort of like Berlin-era Bowie, but not really, and sort of like Radiohead, but only to the extent that every band is sort of like Radiohead, depending on which Radiohead you mean. (In fact, I've found that the "sort of like Radiohead" observation, which has been applied to bands as diverse as Keane, Coldplay, and Sigur Ros, is a great cop-out whenever I'm asked my opinion of an artist that I know nothing about. As long as the listener doesn't try to pin me down to a particular phase in Radiohead's career, I'm rarely, if ever, wrong.)

Anyway, this is a great album that you all should buy. (This means you, A.D.) It's hard to single out particular songs here, but I'm particuarly fond of "The Backseat," which I find really moving, and also expressive of what Pitchfork calls "a common phenomenon—a love of backseat window-gazing, inextricably linked to an intense fear of driving—that ultimately suggests a conclusive optimism through ongoing self-examination." Well, right. It's always nice when a hip music website tells you something about yourself that you didn't know before.

30 September 2005

This has already been mentioned on a billion other sites, but I can't resist. Here's the heartwarming trailer for Shining.
Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Michael Powell, whom I immodestly continue to champion as the greatest director of all time—a flabbergastingly intelligent craftsman who does for thoughtful adults what Disney does for kids. Your assignment for tonight is to watch The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I Know Where I'm Going, or A Canterbury Tale (if you can find it). Or, failing that, at least check out this page prepared by the British Film Institute, which has a lot of great stuff.

29 September 2005

They're making a sequel to The Dark Crystal?

25 September 2005

Currently on my iPod is Brad Mehldau's wonderful piano cover of "Paranoid Android" by Radiohead. Like a lot of people, I automatically associate a certain style of jazz piano with the work of Vince Guaraldi, so walking around with this song in my head makes me feel like I'm in a very twisted, very scary Peanuts special: When I Am King, You Will Be First Against the Wall, Charlie Brown! Good stuff.
I realized yesterday that when you play the three-minute coda to the Beta Band's "Dry the Rain" (which is still the song at the top of the "Most Played" list on my iPod, with more than twice the number of plays as the runner-up), you can sing "Nah...nah...nah...na-na-na-nah...na-na-na-nah...Hey Jude..." to it in almost perfect time. I thought that this was an amazing insight, but it turns out that this blogger already figured it out. Still, I sense the opportunity for a great MP3 mash-up, if any of our readers is good at this sort of thing.

24 September 2005

This article in the New York Times is the most useful piece I've ever seen on buying vs. renting a home. It also has specific facts and figures for both New York and San Francisco, which makes this piece especially relevant to a majority of our bloggers (and regular readers). I'd been debating whether to get my first mortgage next year, but this article has made up my mind for me: the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of renting, especially if, like me, you aren't sure where you're going to be in four or five years. So I guess I'll be staying put for now.

22 September 2005

On another note, I joined the ABA today. I have to join if I want to take part in a negotiation competition. I'm already a member of AAA, so now all that's left for me is AARP, but they probably won't let me in anytime soon.

(As an aside, the negotiation competition is the only big competition open to 1Ls, at least at our school. It's being handled through the Alternative Dispute Resolution Club, of which I was involuntarily elected Secretary last week. This competition seems to be the biggest selling point of this club, which makes for nice irony: overly competitive 1Ls who can't wait to compete at something go and join the ADR club, whose purpose is supposedly to foster a less combative approach to the legal profession in general.)