31 July 2006

Today's trivia question: How many Presidents of the United States have ever belonged to a union?

30 July 2006

Hasn't this kid seen Citizen Kane? Jared Kushner, the Harvard-educated 25-year-old son of a disgraced New Jersey real estate magnate, has just bought a majority stake in the New York Observer for $10 million. "I own the New York Observer," he said yesterday. What he should have said, of course, was "I think it would be fun to run a newspaper."

29 July 2006

Can we pass some Constitutional Amendment automatically removing Members of Congress when they send out god-awful letters at taxpayer expense?

Almea sent a postcard to our Congresswoman, Heather Wilson, asking that a treasured piece of national forest be protected from drilling. In response, Wilson sent Almea a long-winded, three page letter replete with typos and prose like this:
Almea there are some places that have outstanding recreational, scenic, and wildlife value. The Valle Vidal is one of these places. I look forward to continuing to work to see the Valle Vidal protected.
And this:
With my support, the House recently passed a refinery permitting bill that would require all of the permits that are currently required, but make the process shorter by doing a lot of things simultaneously.
Ah, that clears things up for me. Thanks, Congress!
Apparently Iran has banned its people from using 2000 foreign words that have crept into common usage. Helpfully, they've given people an alternative phrase in Farsi. Pizza becomes "elastic loaves," for instance. Thinking up those new words was probably a fun job for all those workers over at the Ministry of Truth.
Two years ago, when Collateral first came out, I blogged that it was the work of an incredibly ambitious director "working on a studiously modest scale," and that I vaguely wished that he had "tackled something of more epic dimensions." Judging from Miami Vice, it seems that Michael Mann, clearly a faithful reader of this blog, took my advice to heart. The New York Times review helpfully points out that the total operating budget for the Miami police department last year was approximately $50 million less than the production costs of Miami Vice. Oddly enough, with all the money being spent on speedboats and gunfights and explosions, it appears that the producers could only afford one beard, which was duly divided between Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell. (Or, as Haiwen puts it, their facial hair is "complementary.")

In any case, it's clear that Miami Vice marks the conclusion of a certain stage in Michael Mann's career. It's impossible to imagine how he could ever advance beyond this movie, which takes all of his obsessions with violence, video, and men at work and blows them to smithereens. The result may not be the best movie I've seen this year, but it's certainly the most fascinating. It takes coolness to the level of a pathology. In this version, Crockett and Tubbs barely even notice one another, and seem weirdly disengaged from the task at hand. At times, the effect can be alienating, especially in the movie's opening scenes, which seem deliberately designed to confuse and frustrate the audience. Then again, there are times (when Colin Farrell takes Gong Li on a speedboat cruise with Moby blaring in the background, for example) when we're closer to the throbbing heart of pulp than any movie has taken us in years. It's all completely gratuitous, of course. But I have a hunch that I'll be seeing it again.

28 July 2006

"In the room the women come and go / Talking of DiCaprio."

Wow. I'll say it again. Wow.
My apologies for the prolonged absence. I've been, er, occupied for most of the last month, and then I got waylaid by a tomato. I hate those things.

Anyhow, for reasons that aren't relevant here, I've been alerted to the existence of Skype, a VOIP that lets me call, say, Zambia for a fraction of what calling cards charge. I don't know if anyone else on the blog wants to call Zambia, but it's a pretty good deal.

Anyhow, I just signed up, and it looks like calls to any phone in the US are free for the rest of the year. This is also a pretty good deal. On top of that, Internet-to-internet calls to other Skype users are always free. This has the potential to radically alter my telecommunications posture.

One thing that's funny is they have warnings all over the place that they're not a phone company and you can't make emergency calls through them. Apparently there are laws out there mandating that phone companies provide emergency calling services (i.e. 911), and VOIPs don't want to do it because it costs money (and because if they admit they're phone companies it would open them up to tons of other taxes and regulations). It'll be interesting to see how long they'll be able to skirt the law.

25 July 2006

Don't ask me why, but even though it's a beautiful day outside, I've spent the entire afternoon indoors, watching videos of William F. Buckley, Jr. In fact, Buckley circa 1968 may have overtaken Kevin Spacey in the ranks of my inexplicable obsessions. (At least Buckley can't be blamed for Superman Returns.) Buckley's recent comments criticizing the Iraq war were what got me into this mess, but even better is this video of Buckley debating Noam Chomsky in 1969, which is just as much fun as it sounds. (One priceless Buckley moment: "Say you're a farmer, and you come to me for fertilizer...") And then there's Buckley's debate with Gore Vidal at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, in which Vidal calls Buckley a "crypto-Nazi," and Buckley says...well, maybe you'd better see it for yourself.

Anyway, I've been watching this guy for hours, and now I can't get that incredible North Atlantic faux English accent out of my head. Maybe if I listen to some Eminem...

24 July 2006

Speaking of feeling old, the average student (or "camper" as they call them here) at Mathcamp was born in the 90's.

My last year in graduate school the incoming freshman to whom I will likely be teaching calculus, will also have been born in the 90's.

23 July 2006

I'm quite tickled by the video for "I'm With Stupid," the new single by the Pet Shop Boys. But who are those two old queens at the very end?
Has it really been almost a decade since Thomas Pynchon's last novel came out? Jesus, I feel old. (Not that I actually finished Mason & Dixon, but still...) Anyway, Pynchon's own blurb for Against the Day on Amazon.com has me drooling with anticipation:
Spanning the period between the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and the years just after World War I, this novel moves from the labor troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-century New York, to London and Gottingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska Event, Mexico during the Revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all.

With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred.

The sizable cast of characters includes anarchists, balloonists, gamblers, corporate tycoons, drug enthusiasts, innocents and decadents, mathematicians, mad scientists, shamans, psychics, and stage magicians, spies, detectives, adventuresses, and hired guns. There are cameo appearances by Nikola Tesla, Bela Lugosi, and Groucho Marx.

As an era of certainty comes crashing down around their ears and an unpredictable future commences, these folks are mostly just trying to pursue their lives. Sometimes they manage to catch up; sometimes it's their lives that pursue them.

Meanwhile, the author is up to his usual business. Characters stop what they're doing to sing what are for the most part stupid songs. Strange sexual practices take place. Obscure languages are spoken, not always idiomatically. Contrary-to-the-fact occurrences occur. If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction.

Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck.
Hey, wait a minute. That sounds just like my novel!

21 July 2006

Joel Siegel doesn't know what he's missing. Yes, there were a couple of times when I wanted to puke, but, rather unexpectedly, Clerks II is the best time I've had at the movies all summer. If I were you, I'd rush out to see it this weekend, because it's best experienced with a theater full of Kevin Smith fans, who will respond on cue to every Star Wars riff and cringe-inducing sexual reference. With the wrong audience, this movie would be unbearable. With the right one, it's a party.

Smith has grown considerably as a director, by the way. He effortlessly handles a large cast of old friends, a rich soundtrack, and an impromptu musical number, and you know what? He'll never admit it, but he clearly learned a lot from Magnolia.

20 July 2006

Morgen fahren Torrey und ich nach Deutschland ab! Vielleicht werde ich in Berlin bloggen, aber Torrey wird unbedingt jeden Tag bloggen. Clickt bei ihrem Blog, zu finden was ich mache!

19 July 2006

By the way, I love the trailer for The Prestige. David Bowie is Nikola Tesla!

18 July 2006

A few days ago, Mrs. Toub and I caught a performance of Hot Feet, which, as I've blogged previously, is an Earth, Wind and Fire jukebox musical transparently based on The Red Shoes, my favorite movie. I'm actually rather curious as to the legal status of this remake. The official program doesn't credit the movie, but it's clearly a character-by-character takeoff on The Red Shoes, complete with cribbed dialogue and plot points. (The actors are, however, noticeably shy about saying the words "red shoes" onstage. This leads to a number of awkward moments, including the lead character's death scene. Instead of saying "Take off the red shoes," she's reduced to yelling, "Take them off! Take them off!")

Anyway, it's a lousy musical with some good dancing. It's closing on Sunday, and it sure looks like a flop to me. The New York Times begs to differ, however. According to Transamerica, the insurance company that financed the show, it was a great investment—because it's all about branding. In the long run, when it comes to building brand awareness, spending $8 million to sponsor a musical may make more sense than spending the same amount of money on television commercials. I'm not sure if I buy the argument, but more importantly, Transamerica has deep pockets. If I were Emeric Pressburger's grandson, I'd be looking into my legal options. Clearly, somebody at Transamerica took the words "Take off The Red Shoes" much too literally.

17 July 2006

I must be having a silly day. For my novel, I've been doing some online research on fireworks in India. When you type "india fireworks" into Google, however, this is the first site that comes up. Hey, it makes me laugh.

14 July 2006

I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one wondering about that Shamu article in the New York Times. Slate does a decent job of trying to figure out what the hell is going on here.

12 July 2006

Three thoughts on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest:

1. Years ago, even before the first Pirates movie came out, I predicted on this blog that Gore Verbinski would win an Oscar for Best Director sometime in the next twenty years. Dead Man's Chest, which is, truth be told, a rather shapeless and mediocre movie, only confirms it. Hollywood tends to reward directors who are masters of organization, rather than artists, and Verbinksi is a peerless director of traffic. In a few years, he'll be up there with Peter Jackson. (If you don't believe me, take a look at Jackson's filmography prior to The Fellowship of the Ring, and tell me which of the two looks more impressive.) After all, there are mediocrities and then there are mediocrities, and one overstuffed reel of Dead Man's Chest has more atmosphere and zest than anything that, say, Ron Howard has ever done.

2. If you look at other movies that generated tremendous opening weekends in the past, you'll notice one thing: very few of these movies are driven by an actor's performance. In fact, I don't think that any of the top ten even list an actor's name above the title. Pirates is the lone exception. I have mixed feelings about Jack Sparrow, but I'm always pleased when audiences actually show up at a movie to watch something resembling a human being, rather than a digital special effect.

3. Speaking of which, the special effects here are really, really good. So good, in fact, that I didn't even realize that one major character is entirely digital. (It's like taking Gollum for granted.) If that isn't a landmark in movie history, I don't know what is—even if the guy is mostly tentacles.
The other day, I was talking with Haiwen about the original Superman, and, in particular, Marlon Brando's portrayal of Jor-El. I noted that Brando, who was paid $3 million for ten minutes of screen time, was clearly reading from cue cards.

"Christopher Walken would have done a better job," Haiwen said. "Now there's a scary thought. Can you imagine if Chrisopher Walken were the last sane man on a dying planet?"

My reply: "Well, maybe he is."
Most of you have probably heard about the building that blew up in New York the other day. The best part, of course, is the fact that the property has now gone up in value. I love New York real estate.

05 July 2006

I'm working on a long post about Superman Returns, but in the meantime, you might enjoy seeing how they created the best performance in the movie.

(Oh, and some other stuff also happened this weekend. However, I'm not sure I should be the first one to blog about it...)