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!