Monday, December 07, 2009

A cooperative interviewer puts quotes in your mouth

Deborah Soloman interviews Jeff Bezos:
"Barnes & Noble claims on its Web site that the Nook has several advantages over the Kindle — for one thing, a Nook book can be lent to friends. You can forward the text to another user.

The current thing being talked about is extremely limited. You can lend to one friend. One time. You can’t pick two friends, not even serially, so once you’ve loaned one book to one friend, that’s it.

You have to pick just one person? What are you saying? It’s like “Sophie’s Choice”?

It is “Sophie’s Choice.” Very nicely done."

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Is Maureen Dowd on drugs?

Or does she have ADD? Or does the New York Times not have an editor? Read her latest column. It is, as far as I could see, a bundle of disjointed sentences, with no coherent connection between them.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Quote of the day:

Christopher Orr on 2012:
At this point, I’m not sure which has become more tiresome: Roland Emmerich’s penchant for emotionally overwrought end-of-the-world pictures or his penchant for giving said pictures time-specific titles. With the exception of Godzilla, which advertised its subject with forthright specificity, his titles have exhibited a peculiar insistence on emphasizing the when at the expense of the what: Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and now 2012. (Even his relatively Armageddon-free caveman film--humankind evidently hadn’t yet built enough to bother annihilating--was called 10,000 B.C.) I shudder at the thought of such potential future projects as A Week from Thursday, Maybe Sometime in the New Year?, and Whenever.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The problem (so far) with Flash Forward

A couple of my friends recommended Flash Forward to me, and as I watched its second episode today (yay for on-demand TV!), I realized why Flash Forward had bugged me so far (the two episodes I've watched, that is). (Remember this is a strictly provisional opinion subject to change any time as I watch more.) So why am I not impressed?

(1) The almost complete absence of any danger:
So imagine this. For approximately two minutes, everyone in the world experiences a black-out for two minutes. Yes, they all become unconscious -- and if the series is to be believed, this leads to a spectacular disaster, on an unimagined scale. Airplanes crashing into buildings, cars running over people and crashing into buildings; the possibilities are endless. And yet, I get no sense from the series that anything serious has happened -- there's no destruction and everything seems to be right on track. WTF? Don't you remember the days after 9/11? Hell, I do, and I was in India and not even in the US -- it was probably what one could euphemistically call a very tense time. And this is a 100, a 1000 times worse -- and still nothing seems to have happened!

Which is why the investigation to find out how and why the flash forward happens (led by Joseph Fiennnes' character) seems to have no force at all. Why should we care really? Another flash forward happening would be just fine, it seems to me. And everyone can have even more cuddly little visions about their own future: what's not to like?

The super-success of Lost has brought on many Lost-like clones and Flash Forward is clearly one of them -- a wacky, vaguely sci-fi concept with a nice stereotypical array of characters. But if I remember anything from the beginning of Lost (the first few episodes of the first season are all I have seen of it), it's that there's a vivid sense of danger there: what's on the island? why are these people here? What's going to happen? I get no such feeling in Flash Forward -- but maybe that will change.

(2) And oh yes, the metaphysical bullshit: I mean, yes, it's fun to see the future, etc. and think what that means. Do we have free will or not? Are we in charge of our futures or are our futures in charge of us? But it's all bullshit (and absurdly pretentious) if I don't have a concrete sense of the stakes involved (see point (1) above, about Danger, lack of)

Friday, October 30, 2009

Line of the day

Pedro Almodovar on the kinds of movies he likes to make:
“No biopics,” he said firmly. “No biopics, no prequels, no sequels, no hero movies, no antihero movies, and definitely no superhero movies. Anything else I can handle.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sentence of the Day

James Wood on Richard Powers:
The fiction of Richard Powers sometimes resembles a dying satyr—above the waist is a mind full of serious thought, philosophical reflection, deep exploration of music and science; below, a pair of spindly legs strain to support the great weight of the ambitious brain.
Wood is (predictably) hard on Powers but the review is worth a read, just the same. See also this essay by William Deresiewicz.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sigh, story of my life, part 2

I was skimming through Scott Rosenberg's Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming and Why It Matters this evening and in this passage -- about the perils of using RSS to read the news, pg. 339 -- he might very well be talking about me:
The story of RSS is an illustrative case. The opportunity to subscribe to a list of bloggers whose work you wanted to follow seemed like a perfect solution to the problem of blog indigestion. Instead, users took it as an invitation to load themselves up with an unmanageable influx of reading material. Each day they found their RSS reader confronting them with an intimidating message: You have even more unread messages today than you had yesterday. You will never catch up. Kill yourself now! Dave Winer, who'd done more than anyone else to popularize RSS, urged users to stop treating RSS feeds like a pile of incoming email -- with each message representing a task you had to deal with -- but rather as a "river of news." Your feeds gave you a flow of interesting stuff; you could dip into the stream at will, and drop out of it as needed. In a video that briefly made the tech-blogosphere rounds in 2007, Robert Scoble cheerily explained how he keeps up with more than six hundred feeds -- and showed exactly how the river-of-news approach works. But few heeded the advice.
I have 118 subscriptions -- and yet as of today, I have a pile of more than 2 thousand items still to read. A year or two ago, that would have driven me nuts, today I do use the river-of-news approach and dip into it as I see fit. It isn't that I read about this approach or anything, it's just an emotional/psychological adjustment that comes to you slowly, if you want to keep using RSS and not go insane. Sort of like life, when you realize that you can only do -- and be -- so many things at the same time.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Oh, Netflix

Today, Netflix gave me this:

Didn't get it? Well, it knows I like scary movies (or at least, browsing scary movies, as opposed to watching them) and recommends me a few. Among them is Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky In Our Times.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The longest point in pro-tennis and the longest match

You'd think the longest match in tennis would be some kind of memorable classic, right? Well, wrong. A not-altogether-unintentionally hilarious NYT piece:

Twenty-five years ago, on Sept. 24, 1984, Nelson and Jean Hepner, who were ranked No. 93 and No. 172 in the world, engaged in a 29-minute, 643-shot rally that remains the longest point played in a professional tennis match.

For comparison, during a match last month, Andy Murray and Julien Benneteau had a rally that lasted 53 shots, and it was the longest either of them could remember playing in competition.

The rally between Nelson and Hepner occurred in the first round of the $50,000 Virginia Slims-sponsored Ginny tournament at the Raintree Swim and Racquet Club in Richmond, Va., with Nelson finally prevailing, 6-4, 7-6 (11).

The 6-hour-31-minute marathon was itself the longest match in tennis history for nearly 20 years and remains the longest match completed on a single day.
And then some great lines:
Both Nelson and Hepner seem vaguely embarrassed that their names are in the record books.
Er, yes - I would be too!

The rally that put Nelson-Dunbar and Hepner in the record books came at set point for Hepner, who was ahead, 11-10, in the second-set tie breaker, which lasted 1:47 on its own.

“There was tons of lobbing,” Nelson-Dunbar said. “I would try to come in and she’d lob me again.”

After winning the point, Nelson-Dunbar collapsed with cramps in her legs. The chair umpire, who apparently maintained consciousness throughout the 643-stroke point, actually called a time-violation warning, but Nelson-Dunbar pulled it together and got back to the baseline to begin the next point.

How does a point go on for 29 minutes before one player or the other hits a winner or makes a mistake?

“We were both pretty much standing on the baseline lobbing,” Nelson-Dunbar said.

Hepner recalled, “I was just really concentrating and was very consistent.”

Two points later, Nelson-Dunbar closed out the match and apologized to the lines officials for its length.

“I felt so bad for them,” she said. “They were sitting out there so long, and they must have been falling asleep.”
But imagine this...
Among the astonishing elements to the match was this: If Hepner had won the epic rally, she would have forced a third set, and who knows how long the match might have lasted.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Line of the day

From The Onion:

Experts predict that the penultimate catastrophe will occur at approximately 7:15 p.m. Thursday night, when the social networking tool Twitter will be used to communicate a series of ideas so banal they will instantaneously negate the three centuries of the Renaissance.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Line of the day

David Edelstein on Jane Campion's Bright Star, about the doomed love affair between John Keats and Fanny Brawne:
Even if you set aside Schneider, Bright Star is remarkably evocative. It is our postmodern, ironic way to picture Romantic poets as lyrical fops lolling under gray English skies, their musings interrupted by bronchial spasms aimed at tastefully blood-spotted handkerchiefs.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole

May I just say that this sounds like a terrible idea to me?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Andrew Keen is one confused man

Listen to Paul Duguid eviscerate Andrew Keen's arguments in this podcast. I almost fell sorry for him - he seemed so out of his league.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

From the annals of incomprehensible academic writing

Via Culture Matters:

Transforming Cultures is pleased to announce that this year the TfC Annual Lecture will be presented by:

Professor Kathleen Stewart (Dept. of Anthropology, University of Texas, Austin).

Atmospheric Atunements

Thursday 20th August 2009, 6:00-8:00 pm
University of Technology in Sydney Gallery Function Centre, Level 6, UTS Tower Building.

Something throws itself together. Or sags, shifts tone, or fails. Invisible airs quicken around nascent forms, rinding up like the skin of an orange. Circulating forces waver and pulse, visceralizing the sheer sense of something happening. The ordinary hums with the background noise of all that takes place in moments, scenes, objects, resonances, rhythms. The atmospheric attunes to the sentience of things passing in and out of existence, to the expressivity of what Giorgio Agamben calls ‘whatever being’. This sensing out that attends is itself a labor of worlding, an effort to inhabit a flighty ground.

This writing asks what it takes to live out the worlding of forces rinding up and dissipating. But it also wonders about the significance of accretion itself. The way that an atmosphere accretes for senses in sync with it (or sort it) and the worlding that accrues partially or fully, quickly or slowly, for a time, with habit or shock, in practices or daydreams. A worlding – an attunement – that can be sloughed off, realized, imagined, brought to bear or just born.

Yeaaaaahhhhhh. It's writing like this that gives postmodernism a bad name.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Duncan Watts and Harrison White

I've been reading Duncan Watts' Six Degrees and it's a very engaging book but this sentence stopped me stone cold:
Harrison is famous not only for his irascible manner and impenetrable writing but also for his profound generosity, astounding breadth of interest, and occasionally startling insight.
Occasionally startling insight? Only "occasionally"? Is this supposed to be a compliment? A backhanded compliment? An outright insult? Hmmmmm.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Questions for the Hive Mind

I have been preparing for the GRE the past few days. The new analytical writing section does present problems for evaluation: how does one know one is doing an ok job? It just struck me today that perhaps I could use the hive mind to see how I am doing. So I'm going to paste below the two essays I wrote today. Could you, gentle readers, give me feedback about my language? Examples: too long! Cut out the dross! Make your sentences shorter and less pompous! Cut to the chase! Etc. Feedback on my writing style would be much appreciated (feedback on the content would be great too).


Issues topic. 45 minutes. Both the development of technological tools and the uses to which humanity has put them have created modern civilizations in which loneliness is ever increasing.


In this essay, I am going to offer a historical narrative to back up the claim that our modern technological innovations, along with the way of life they helped usher (or in other words, the way we used them), have made us lonelier than we were before. To do this, I will sketch briefly how life was before, and immediately after, the Industrial Revolution. I will then sketch how modern life is today and bring out the trade-offs that this change in the way we live has entailed.

Two hundred years ago, before the Industrial Revolution began in Europe, most of the world’s population lived in villages, in what can be described as closely-knit communities. The number of occupations were limited: one could be a farmer or an artisian of some sort (like a carpenter, or a blacksmith) or a trader who sold certain goods. Families were bigger and extended families lived closer together. Occupations were, more often than not, heriditary. A carpenter's son was most likely to first be an apprentice to his father, and then become a carpenter himself, staying on in the same village and becoming a part of the same community where he grew up. (He could not, for instance, opt to become a blacksmith.) Women probably helped in the occupations as well but officially did not work at all. They also performed all the housework, which was much more back-breaking then and presumably got married into one or the other of the local families in the community. There were hardly any new arrivals in the community which meant that a community tended to be static: as older people died, their descendents succeeded them.

Most importantly, there was no difference between one's work life and one's personal life, as there is in the modern world. One's "colleagues" at work were also one's family and friends. The customers were also people one knew, perhaps even by name. There was, in other words, an overlap into what today one could call the private sphere and the work sphere. Transactions were social rather than market-based. Life was less impersonal than it is now. This society had a lot less freedom when it came to choosing occupations or in doing something different from one's family - and yet, there was also a concrete sense of belonging, of being rooted in the present and in tradition. One knew exactly what one's place in the community was. There was less loneliness.

The Industrial Revolution changed all that. The establishment of factories meant that rural populations moved away from rural areas into the now-burgeoning urban areas. They did this because this offered them a way of avoiding the poverty and the number of limited jobs in rural areas. To be sure, the conditions in rural areas were not the best: overcrowding, bad sanitation, and pollution was rampant, the conditions in factories were horrible and often dangerous -- yet it was a marginal improvement.

Yet the new arrivals in the cities found themselves ungrounded -- they lived in impersonal communities where they did not know many people. There was hardly any family around. When they bought things, it was often from people they did not know. They changed jobs often and so their work "colleagues" changed often too. All of this contributed to a sense of dislocation -- a sense that one did not know what one was doing, what one's place in this world was, or in other words, loneliness.

Things are not so much different today. In the West, conditions in factories are now much better and the number of white collar or "services" jobs have increased. Pollution has gone down. Yet the conditions that the Industrial Revolution gave birth to have only intensified. We maintain a strict separation between our work life and our personal life. Our transactions are impersonal, market-based. We buy our daily groceries at an impersonal supermarket rather than from soemone we're friends with. We rarely talk to our neighbors, many times because we spend most of our time working and the rest, catching up with our family. The size of the family has decreased; the connection to one's extended family -- cousins, aunts, uncles -- have decreased too. We may be more free today in terms of the occupations we choose, or the rights we enjoy - but we lack the grounding that our ancestors enjoyed, their sense of rootedness and place.

To conclude, all major social changes involve trade-offs. The technological innovations of the past two hundred-odd years have improved our lives substantially. In the West, at least, the number of people who live in back-breaking poverty are few. New technologies have made us efficient at work and made many new things possible: air travel, space travel, satellites, television, the internet. They've also increased an individual's freedom and today an individual is free to choose his occupation, his mate, his faith or his place of residence. But in doing all this, they've cut us off from the rootedness and the sense of place that our ancestors had. We're more lonely today, we search more for our place in this world. Most of us would also argue though that this is only a fair trade-off.

Analysis of argument essay (30 minutes). Six months ago the region of Forestville increased the speed limit for vehicles traveling on the region's highways by ten miles per hour. Since that change took effect, the number of automobile accidents in that region has increased by 15 percent. But the speed limit in Elmsford, a region neighboring Forestville, remained unchanged, and automobile accidents declined slightly during the same six-month period. Therefore, if the citizens of Forestville want to reduce the number of automobile accidents on the region's highways, they should campaign to reduce Forestville's speed limit to what it was before the increase.


In the passage, the author makes the argument that the increased rate of accidents in Forestville is caused by the increase in speed limit that the town enacted six months ago. The claim is closely argued but could be considerably strengthened if the author provided more data. In the essay that follows, I will outline some of the deficiencies in the argument and also what the author could do to fix them.

First, let us consider the merits of the argument. The author compares the accident rate of Forestville to that of the neighboring town of Elmsford and finds that the rate in Elmsford decreased slightly over the same time period that the rate in Forrestville increased by 15%. This is a good point. Forestville and Elmsford are reasonably close which means that their traffic is roughly similar (the same cars pass through both towns) and they presumably have many similarities in terms of climate and road conditions. It is certainly possible that the accident rate in Forrestville increased while that in Elmsford fell because the speed limits in Forrestville were raised six months ago.

That said, this is hardly a water-tight argument. First the six month window is too small to reach any definitive conclusions. It is possible that this jump in the accident rate is just statistical noise and that the accident rate will fall back to where it was before and stay there. Or it is possible that that the with the speed limit raised, drivers had a problem adjusting to the limit. Once they are used to it, the accident rate could fall to the same level as before the speed limit was raised.

Secondly, the author seems to have ignored other factors that could have been responsible for the increase in the accident rate in Forestville. For instance, is it not possible that certain roads passing through Forestville were closed in those six months, leading to increased traffic on certain other roads and hence an increased accident rate? Or could it be that the snowstorms that occured in the last 6 months could be the cause of the the increased accident rate? Could it be that the roads passing through Forestville are more winding and curved (reflecting perhaps that it is situated at a higher altitude) that is responsible for the accidents? To some extent, the fact that Elmsford did not experience an increase in its accident rate mitigates these points. But a more thorough investigation is needed on this score to eliminate other factors that could have been responsible for the increase.

To summarize, the author's argument definitely has a certain plausibility. But he needs to eliminate other possibilities and provide more data before a categorical case can be made that Forestville's rising accident rate is caused by its recently-increased speed limits.

Friday, July 17, 2009


This line from Christopher Durang (via David Edelstein) is probably the finest, most concise dissection of Equus:
“You’re afraid of feeling, of emotion. That’s wrong, Prudence, because then you have no passion. Did you see Equus? The Doctor felt it was better to blind eight horses in a stable with a metal spike than to have no passion. In my life I’m not going to be afraid to blind the horses, Prudence.”
Ha. Now, unlike the plodding movie starring Richard Burton, I should mention that reading Equus was a thrilling experience although I missed watching the one that played in New York recently (and yes, starred Harry Potter).

Thursday, July 09, 2009

A. O. Scott on Bruno

I've always thought that the Sacha Baron-Cohen brand of humor, in which we get to both, laugh at his antics (which we know, are exaggerated) and at the people who get taken in by them (to whom, of course, we also feel superior to) was not as funny as people seemed to think it was*. But read A. O. Scott on Bruno since he expresses these thoughts so much more elegantly.

* And no, I never did get to see Borat, but don't really think I missed much by seeing it.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

inamorata, anyone?

A. O. Scott shows off his vocabulary today. Inamorata, anyone?
As in the previous installment (also directed by Carlos Saldanha), one element of “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” manages to be authentically charming, and also to make moderately ingenious use of the 3-D techniques that otherwise just add to the jostle and noise. I’m referring, of course, to the dialogue-free sequences, unrelated to the main plot, that involve a plucky proto-squirrel known as Scrat and his quixotic pursuit of an acorn. This time Scrat is distracted by love, and he and his inamorata, who is also his rival for possession of that acorn, breath whimsical, inventive life into the movie.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Quote of the day

Matt Yglesias:
Nobody will ever be able to tell friends he’s hiking on the Appalachian Trail again.
That's right.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sigh, the story of my life

The story of my life, via Noah Millman (suitably modified, of course, for my life, but I'll let you fill in the gaps):

When I got out of school, my ambition was to write. And I started a novel, as yet unfinished.

I worked on the book for a number of years, but increasingly my “day job” – that is to say, my career – got in the way. But that’s not really a fair way to put it: it’s fairer to say that my career was an escape, a kind of grand procrastination scheme.

Then, as my career advanced, my writer’s itch returned. I started blogging, in part to scratch that itch, but also as a way of procrastinating from the responsibilities of my career.

Now, lately, I’ve been finding it harder and harder to blog. Sometimes I really want to write about A, and wind up blogging about B as a way of procrastinating from writing about what I want to write about. Sometimes I just kill time.

And when I take the next step, and find ways of procrastinating from killing time to avoid blogging to escape my job to forget my novelistic ambitions . . .

(But perhaps I’ve just done it?)

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Life Imitating Art or Vice Versa

Question: Does this not remind you of something?
Court Eases Rules on Questioning Suspects - "The ruling Tuesday was in the case of Jesse Montejo, who was sentenced to death for the murder and robbery of Louis Ferrari in September 2002. Mr. Montejo was arrested a day after Mr. Ferrari was found dead in his home in Slidell, La. Suspicion focused on Mr. Montejo because he was known to associate with a disgruntled former employee of Mr. Ferrari’s dry-cleaning business.

Mr. Montejo was read his Miranda rights, arising from the landmark 1966 Supreme Court ruling that a defendant must be told of his right to remain silent and to have a lawyer present virtually from the moment he is taken into custody. Under questioning, Mr. Montejo repeatedly changed his story, at first blaming the former employee, then admitting that he had shot the victim during a botched burglary.

At a preliminary hearing, a judge ordered that a public defender be appointed. The timing is in dispute, but at some point Mr. Montejo was read his Miranda rights again and agreed to accompany detectives to locate the murder weapon, which he had indicated that he had thrown into a lake.

During the trip, he wrote a letter of apology to the victim’s widow, using paper and pen provided by the detectives. Only upon his return did Mr. Montejo meet with his lawyer, who was furious that his client had been questioned in his absence, and was further incensed when the letter was admitted as evidence at trial.

Mr. Montejo’s conviction was upheld by the Louisiana Supreme Court, which reasoned in part that the protections of the 1986 Michigan case should not apply to him because, in Louisiana as in many other states, lawyers are assigned automatically to indigent defendants, removing any question of whether Mr. Montejo specifically “requested” counsel at his arraignment."

Answer: The second episode of The Wire where Bunk and McNulty pressurize D'Angelo Barksdale:
Meanwhile, McNulty and Bunk show up at the low rise projects to intimidate D'Angelo. They take him downtown to interview him but first Daniels insists that Greggs participate. McNulty resists, but slowly realizes she is a smart cop. They play to D'Angelo's vulnerabilities, convincing him that the dead witness Gant was a church-going family man whose wife is dead and whose three children — showings him a picture of Bunk's three kids to corroborate this — now have no parents. D'Angelo is clearly moved, and agrees to write a letter to the three kids, telling them he is sorry their father was murdered. As he finishes the letter, his uncle's attorney Maurice Levy shows up and berates him for writing or saying anything at all.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


I've been hearing on and off about Glee in the past few days -- the new Fox series that had its premiere recently. Nothing that made me go watch it, of course. But today, as I was surfing the web, I was inspired to Google it (click here, then here for why, if you can figure it out -- a perfect example of how surfing the web takes you off in all kinds of tangents) which led me to this EW page, where I discovered that the lovely Lea Michele stars in Glee (A quick check confirmed that this was indeed the case).

As some of you may know, I thought that Michele's Wendla Bergman was the best thing in the lovely Spring Awakening (and I loved the play and thought most of the actors were spot-on but she still stood out). I think I am going to watch that episode of Glee when I go home tonight.

UPDATE: I am watching it, I should note, not because I expect great things from it (far from it) but because I am curious to see how Michele's soulful stage singing and performance translate on television.

UPDATE 2: Watched it. Sigh, what on earth was I expecting? Stale dialogue that the actors try to redeem as much as they can. Stereotypes. More stereotypes. A few funny moments. A tone that jumps between knowing smirky humor ("chicks don't have prostates") and sickly sweet earnestness ("I want to lead a life of passion"). I suppose the only reason for the show's existence are the songs -- and I should admit that the songs were fun.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Claire Messud on Colm Toibin

I loved Claire Messud's review of Colm Toibin's Brooklyn in the latest New York Review of Books although, because of some kink of the NYRB's website I can't seem to be able to link to it on here.

Monday, April 13, 2009


Brad Delong writes by way of Plato:

Agathon: "Under appropriate conditions of perfect competition, non-increasing returns, and the absence of externalities the market's decisions about the production and allocation of goods and services attain a point on the Pareto frontier. Every point on the Pareto frontier maximizes some social welfare function."

Glaukon: "Yes, of course."

Agathon: "Therefore the market, considered as a collective mechanism for making social decisions, chooses to maximize a particular social welfare function. It is instructive to consider what that social welfare function is."

Glaukon: "I resent the tone in which you are talking down to me."

Agathon: "You do not. This part of this conversation never took place in even approximate form in the real world. It is interpolated in order to bring readers of this weblog up to speed. Since I never said my last speech to you, you could not have resented it."

Glaukon: "And I want readers of this weblog to know that I am considerably smarter and more clued-in than he is letting me appear to be."

Agathon: "Are you quite finished?"

Glaukon: "Plato at least worked harder to make his information dumps fit more gracefully into the conversation. I want a better author.

Agathon: "Are you quite finished?"

Glaukon: "Yes."

Read the whole thing!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Good Critic, Bad Critic

I am often asked why I like to read book reviews, and what it is that they really do. I mean: why not read the original book, for God's sake? It's a hard question and the best answer is, as it often is , the pragmatic one. With non-fiction, book reviews often serve as a substitute for the book itself. With fiction, it is harder to justify. But life is short, so is time and when one has a pile of books to read, it only makes sense to be judicious when adding to it.

I bring this up because I read three reviews of a book recently and taken together, they all bring out the fine line between book reviews that function as, well, just book reviews and book reviews that manage to be works of genuine criticism.

The book in question is the latest sensation from France: Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones.

For a book review that is truly nothing more than book review, see Michiko Kakutani's review in the New York Times.

For a review that rises to the level of criticism, see Daniel Mendelsohn's fine, searching analysis in the New York Review of Books.

And for a review that is written in the spirit of criticism but doesn't quite make it primarily because it follows the fairly predictable arc of the New Republic takedown, see Ruth Franklin's review for the New Republic. (I knew what she was going to say even before I started reading the first paragraph and true to form, she didn't disappoint.)

(Interestingly, both Franklin and Mendelsohn make some of the same points, but they both take them in different directions. In Kakutani's defence, she has to summarize the book and evaluate it in just 2 pages so she really doesn't have that much space to produce genuine criticism.)

[X-posted at Crack a Book.]

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Old Joy

A line from Jon Raymond's Livability that has been playing in my mind since I finished reading the story:
What is sorrow? I thought. What is sorrow but old, worn-out joy?

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Articles without a point?

I've never understood the purpose of articles like this (now at the top of the NYT "Most Emailed" list).

I understand the purpose is to be funny and wacky but to my mind, this one goes way off the mark. The overwrought hysterical tone doesn't help although I suppose some find it funny. Now if you want something really funny about technology, then check out this video (the embedding is disabled, sorry): the tone is perfect, IMHO. Learn something from it, Virginia!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Best line I read today

There's a nice Q&A with Q & A (now Slumdog Millionaire) author Vikas Swarup in the Times. I say nice because I developed a liking for the man just by reading it. After all how can you not like someone who says:

You’ve described the book-to-film process as giving away one’s daughter in marriage. But you consulted with Simon Beaufoy over a couple of preliminary drafts. Did you have major input on the screenplay?

I only made a few suggestions. They had $20 million riding on this film. My comfort level was high. If I tinkered with it too much and the film didn’t do well, they might say, “You scuppered our chances.” Simon told me he loved the novel and would remain faithful to the soul of the book. But when somebody tells you they will be faithful to the soul, you know the body will get mangled.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


Someone give Clive Owen an award -- because he really REALLY deserves one.

I first saw Owen in Robert Altman's Gosford Park. And even though I watched it in a dark dorm room, on a tiny, stained, computer screen, from a pirated VCD with dark visuals and bad sound that rendered most dialogue incomprehensible, he was still a vivid presence. Gosford Park defined the way I've always looked at Owen since: as the brooding, swarthy, lethal guy, someone you don't want to cross. This is pretty much the persona he projected in his other roles: in Spike Lee's Inside Man and above all, in Mike Nichols Closer.

In Duplicity, which reunites Owen with Closer co-star Julia Roberts, Owen manages the feat of appearing dangerous, competent and goofy, all at the same time. His character, Ray, is a spy (or whatever it is that CIA operatives are supposed to be); a very competent one, we're given to understand, who, unfortunately, goes weak in the knees when he comes face-to-face with a certain woman. And since that certain woman is played by Julia Roberts, perhaps the star of our time, I found it entirely believable. No, actually, let me change that. Owen and Roberts make it entirely believable.

This time the roles from Closer are reversed: she is pretty much in charge and he is understandably smitten by her. (Or is he? It is a testament to Owen's brooding image that I expected him to pull one over her at the last moment -- after all, no one crosses Clive Owen like that!) Writer-director Gilroy gives them lines that ricochet off each other and Roberts and Owen make the most of it. Their banter is perhaps not quite of the same intensity as Hepburn and Grant's in The Philadelphia Story. The difference -- and this is what makes Duplicity a lesser movie -- is that the barbs they trade are for fairly low stakes: they are for our enjoyment and not so that the characters come to a better understanding of each other.

Which, I should add, is clearly intentional. Duplicity is not meant to be a comedy of remarriage. It is a sparkling romance, a nimble comedy, a delicious send-up of the corporate world and a fairly tense thriller (the next-to-last scene had me at the edge of my seat), all at the same time. All this means that you may not quite get your fill of Clive and Julia (I certainly didn't). But no matter: every actor in Duplicity is brilliantly funny (and someone please give the deadpan Paul Giamatti an award too!).

All in all, Duplicity is a wonderful movie, better, in my mind, than Gilroy's last (although Michael Clayton was pretty good too). I am not sure how Clive Owen does what he does, how he manages to be competent, and goofy and besotted with Roberts, all at the same time. And while it may not be fair to say that he is the reason the movie works so well -- it is definitely an ensemble piece, and Gilroy's script and the editing are all fabulous -- I will say this: I wish he'd gotten to do Bond. Daniel Craig has certainly re-invented Bond but he's taken all the fun out of it: it's now all deadly serious. Perhaps only Clive Owen could have made Bond more menacing and more fun. Sigh.

Duplicity is smashing fun!

I saw Clive Owen-Julia Roberts starrer Duplicity tonight: the most enjoyable romp I've had this year at the movies. I'll have more to say about it later but let's just say that I've added Julia and Clive to my list of romantic leads who had that mysterious thing called chemistry.

Here it is, just in case:

Julia Roberts and Clive Owen in Duplicity.

Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge.

Kristin Scott-Thomas and Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient.

Ione Skye and John Cussack in Say Anything.

Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story.

Rachel Macadams and Owen Wilson in The Wedding Crashers.

Kate Winslet and Joachim Phoenix in Quills.

Isla Fisher and Ryan Reynolds in last year's Definitely, Maybe.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


This has got to be the most outlandish news item I've read in a while. The most remarkable graf meanwhile has to be this:
The malware is remarkable both for its sweep — in computer jargon, it has not been merely “phishing” for random consumers’ information, but “whaling” for particular important targets — and for its Big Brother-style capacities. It can, for example, turn on the camera and audio-recording functions of an infected computer, enabling monitors to see and hear what goes on in a room. The investigators say they do not know if this facet has been employed.
And this:
Still going strong, the operation continues to invade and monitor more than a dozen new computers a week, the researchers said in their report, “Tracking ‘GhostNet’: Investigating a Cyber Espionage Network.” They said they had found no evidence that United States government offices had been infiltrated, although a NATO computer was monitored by the spies for half a day and computers of the Indian Embassy in Washington were infiltrated.
I wonder what the Indian Embassy's response is going to be.

The Chinese response, meanwhile, is short and swift:
A spokesman for the Chinese Consulate in New York dismissed the idea that China was involved. “These are old stories and they are nonsense,” the spokesman, Wenqi Gao, said. “The Chinese government is opposed to and strictly forbids any cybercrime.”
Also don't forget to check out the accompanying photograph of the Toronto researchers, dressed up as if they were taking part in a photo shoot for a Robert Ludlum novel:

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Amazon gives in

Sad, sad, sad day indeed.

Good movies coming out this weekend

A. O. Scott says Duplicity is "superior entertainment, the most elegantly pleasurable movie of its kind to come around in a very long time." Yay.

And David Edelstein says "Paul Rudd and Jason Segel redeem the bro-comedy in the hilariously inverted I Love You, Man." So what should I go watch this weekend?

On the other hand Christopher Orr hints that he found Duplicity "fairly disappointing" (his review doesn't appear until tomorrow).

Oh - and here's a profile of Tony Gilroy in the New Yorker (director of Duplicity and before that -- Michael Clayton).


I am not sure if this is the right place to ask this question -- but hell, I need to ask somebody and I might as well ask it here.

I suddenly started receiving weekly issues of Time Out New York -- turns out someone had deemed me eligible for a free subscription. But the issue wasn't addressed to me. Sure - it had my correct address on it but the name was a mixture, let's just say that the first name wasn't mine.

But anyway. I moved 3 weeks ago and like a good citizen updated my address at the post office, which then immediately started delivering my magazines to my new place. Today I finally looked at the 3 issues of Time Out that had piled up and decided to take pity on the PO; I would update my address at Time Out. So I went to the website and clicked on "Subscriber Services", put in my subscriber number -- and what do I see? My new address was right there! Where do these guys get the data from? (I have updated my address at the few essential services I do need: my banks,, etc so clearly its from one of those sources.)

But still -- isn't it strange that a magazine I didn't even subscribe to, that I started receiving out of the blue and which even spells my name wrongly, has a perfect information repository in place wherein they even update my address automatically? Whereas the magazine(s) I do subscribe to -- ha, now that's a whole new story.

Still - any guesses? What's Time Out's secret? Conspiracy theories welcome.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Random thoughts

So I moved to Summit, in North New Jersey from Red Bank and yesterday I went to the Summit Public Library to get an account. It all went fine but as I as going in I noticed that the library wasn't just called the "Summit Public Library" like the Red Bank Public Library or, more famously, the New York Public Library. Instead it was called the "Summit Free Public Library". Hmmm, I am not sure why the use of the word "free" upset me a little. I mean, the whole idea behind having a public library is that it is free. Public means it's a public resource, like a park, potentially open to everyone, with perhaps special privileges for residents of that town. Why would a town insert the word "free" into the name of its public library? One explanation could be perhaps that it wants to attract more people and one way to do that is to say that something is free - e.g. in schools and colleges, events are marketed by saying there's free pizza -- it's a situation we've all experienced. Perhaps this way more young adults, teenagers etc. feel like coming to the library. Or perhaps it's a way of attracting more poor people, who may be persuaded by the word "free". All good things, in my opinion. But it seems to me a worrying indicator that the fact that a public library is free needs to be mentioned. It seems to somehow signify a breakdown in the norms governing the public sphere, that a public library is public, open to anyone free of cost. (Plus it just sounds tacky.) Thoughts, comments, anyone?

On to other things.

I talked about Paul Tough's long piece in the New York Times before. If you haven't read it, go read it now -- it really is a well-written piece about that all-pervasive problem of equality, how do you minimize the gap between middle-class children and poorer children so that both have an equal chance of succeeding in life? After all, as Tough points out, the formative years that determine whether a child succeeds or not are the formative ones, before and during elementary school and middle-class children by virtue of having parents who coach them, tutor them, engage them, almost always get a head-start. Which is why I found this interesting:
At Sixth Street we do not assign homework. Research shows that homework does not increase student achievement at the elementary level. Since many of our parents do not speak English and have had only limited schooling, we believe that assigning homework is an issue of equity. If students require additional practice to master a standard, they should have the opportunity to practice it under the watchful eye of the classroom coach who can provide feedback and reteaching immediately when it is needed.
That seems right to me although I wonder why I hadn't thought of it before. No homework means middle-class children will have less chance of asking their parents for help. I wonder if middle-class parents of the "nurturing" type will like this though.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Jindal's speech

I went to bed early so I didn't catch Bobby Jindal's response to Barack Obama's speech.

But the first thing my Google Reader showed me was Matthew Yglesias saying
Bobby Jindal apparently believes it’s appropriate to address the citizens of the United States in a tone that suggests we’re all nine years old.
And I thought: wtf? So I went over to Youtube to watch the speech? And you know what? It's true! -- he talks like he's recording an audiobook for children (as commenter Helena says).

Obviously I sympathize with Jindal. It was his first big (I think?) opportunity to speak on the national stage -- and I am guessing he wanted to speak the way most Americans spoke, with the proper accent and all. Unfortunately he seems to have tried too hard and Indians tend to slip into the sing-song rhythm easily when they get self-conscious (I speak from first-hand experience...) and I think that's what happened.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Slumdog again

I think A. O. Scott makes an important point here [emphasis mine]:
The wins that “Slumdog” has racked up in some of the less glamorous categories— editing, cinematography and score — may be the most significant, since they recognize some of the film’s novelty. Its look, its pacing and its sound are not like the competition, and indeed not like a lot of commercial American movies. And yet it is an entirely accessible movie, not so much self-consciously exotic as effortlessly, eagerly eclectic. So the fast editing, the eye-popping colors and textures, the songs and the music may be, to some audiences and Academy voters, a bit unfamiliar, but they obviously work, extending the vocabulary of what we sometimes parochially think of as mainstream moviemaking in some exciting new directions.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Random thoughts on the Oscars

Clearly having Hugh Jackman host was a big mistake. Enough said.

The best moment? When James Franco and Seth Rogen giggled unabashedly at Kate Winslet's German accented dialogues in The Reader. (Not that I think Winslet was bad or anything but just that someone needs to make fun of The Reader).

Friday, February 13, 2009

What do you think?

I posted something on my other blog: what do you think?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

PhD Comics question

So do we interpret from this that Tajel is actually Indian?

Because I always thought that she was from, I don't know, Lebanon.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Attack dog Obama

So you thought from his debates with John McCain that Obama couldn't be aggressive? Here he is, giving it to the Republicans - what a performance!

My favorite line: "Well, what do you think a stimulus is?"

Netflix read my mind

The chick-flick He's just not that into you opened today at the box office. Since I loved Drew Barrymore's technology monologue in the trailer, I was interested in knowing whether the movie was any good. (Well, from the reviews, it turns out that the Barrymore monologue is pretty much the highlight of the movie, see, e.g., Roger Ebert -- so I guess I'm watching it on DVD).

But anyway -- after reading Manohla Dargis' withering take in the NYT, I wanted to see what some other critics thought of it -- so I went over from metacritic to Owen Gleiberman's review in Entertainment Weekly. The review mentioned John Hughes' Some Kind of Wonderful ("always underrated", says Gleiberman):
But then I realized why Gigi and Alex really do seem like characters out of Some Kind of Wonderful. There's nothing to their relationship — nothing at all — but the thin, Hughesian predicament the two happen to be in.
I popped over to Netflix to put it in my queue and guess what? Check this out:

There it was, Some Kind of Wonderful, staring right back at me -- I didn't even have to go and search for it.

I guess the stars aligned for Netflix today -- if more stuff like this happens, people are going to believe that the folks at Netflix are wizards or something. (Or maybe their algorithm mines our thoughtstreams. Ha.)

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road is a very good movie but I often wished as I was watching it that it had been directed by someone other than Sam Mendes. The problem is not, as Manohla Dargis thinks, that Mendes is too distanced, but that he is too intent on driving home the point of the story, rather than just letting his brilliant actors do it for us.

But I digress. The movie hits home, especially among us 20 and 30 somethings and I think Jason Bellamy brings out the reason why:
Revolutionary Road is a conviction of the Wheelers. Their crime? Denial. Yes, Mendes’ film, from a screenplay by Justin Haythe, makes good on opportunities to mock suburban living, but this is mere decoration, like the tiny plants Kathy Bates’ matriarchic Helen gives to Winslet’s April to fill in the “messy patch” at the end of the driveway. Suburbia doesn’t make the Wheelers miserable. Instead suburbia is the mirror by which they recognize their long-denied unhappiness. Characters turning 30, April and Frank are for the first time realizing that they have emotional wrinkles. As much as anything, Revolutionary Road is about that transitional period of life when your identity stops being about what you are “going to be” and starts being about what you “are.” [Via The House Next Door]
TNR ran a review of the book which again makes an important point:
But if Mendes's new film is to do Revolutionary Road justice, it will transcend the easy anti-suburban categorization. While Yates's depiction of suburban life is nightmarish enough to exceed the worst fears of Jane Jacobs's devotees, Revolutionary Road is far more than a complacent takedown of the 'burbs. It is in fact less an anti-suburban novel than a novel about people who blame their unhappiness on the suburbs. [Link]
Also check out James Wood on Richard Yates.

Monday, February 02, 2009


I was too tired to stay up and watch the Australian Open final live but I did manage to get up just in time to watch the prize distribution ceremony -- live. And boy oh boy, what a ceremony it turned out to be. For those who don't follow tennis, Federer, who lost to Nadal, burst into tears during his speech and couldn't speak for a while. While he recovered, the trophy was presented to Nadal, who then, to his credit, walked over to Federer and put an arm around him. Federer twisted away, said he would speak first since he didn't want to have the last word, rattled off a few words, posed red-eyed alongside Nadal with his runners-up trophy and then ran away as fast as he could.

It was the most touching moment I've seen -- not to mention the most emotional -- since Jana Novotna, sobbing away, rested her head on the on the Duchess of Kent's shoulder at Wimbledon in 1993.

Here, for your comparison are the two videos. Watch how Federer tries to speak jauntily at first, and how suddenly he starts crying:

Kevin Drum puts into words my own feelings about Nadal:
When I first saw Nadal play a few years ago, he was a kid with stringy black hair, a sneer on his lips, always dressed in a muscle shirt, and hitting the absolute stuffing out of the ball. "This guy's a thug!" I thought, a tennis-playing Terminator — but of course nothing could be further from the truth. As I quickly learned, Nadal may very well be the nicest, sweetest, most generous tennis machine on the planet. He's almost too nice. It's hard to convince people that this is one of the great sport rivalries of all time when they spend more time hugging each other than trash talking.
That said, I wonder if having your opponent, the one you just lost to, come over and put his arm around you is such a good thing after all. I am pretty sure that I would twist away from any embrace, howsoever well-intended, just as Federer did. And there was something rather incongruous about the 22-year old Nadal telling the 27-year old Federer that he was a great champion. This is, after all, exactly what a veteran champion tells the ousted up-and-coming challenger (Graf said almost this exactly after beating Hingis in their bad-tempered 1999 French Open final). To have the newly crowned king tell his predecessor that he will always be considered great is probably equivalent to telling him that he is over the hill (this is my own twisted interpretation, I am sure Nadal meant it only in the nicest way possible).

All that said, I think all talk of Federer not winning any more Grand Slams is a little premature. I think he almost certainly will surpass Sampras ' record and win a few more Grand Slams. What seems less likely now is the possibility of his winning the French and becoming the first man since Agassi to have won all four Grand Slams. And of course, the possibility that Nadal will be that man has risen. Of course, one can hope both will go on to win all four majors -- wouldn't that be great? Here's hoping ...

Friday, January 30, 2009

Kate Winslet - goddess

I must say that I agree with Dana Stevens:
For Kate Winslet is indeed a goddess, one whose special power is to descend among us in manifold human forms. Even in this hopelessly silly role—half dominatrix, half victim, devoid of legible motivation—she finds moments of truth. (On a bike excursion with Michael, you can see Hanna trying, and failing, to rediscover her carefree prewar self.) Yes, Kate is grubbing for an Oscar this year with the near-simultaneous release of two Important Dramas (this and Revolutionary Road). But she may be the finest actress of her generation, and (unlike her only real competitor, the other Cate) she's also a five-time nominee who's never won. I say give her the gold guy already, Academy, if it means so much to her. Maybe it will free her up to stop acting in movies like this.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Via Kieran Healy:
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies -- Pride and Prejudice and Zombies features the original text of Jane Austen's beloved novel with all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie action. As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton—and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she's soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers—and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield as Elizabeth wages war against hordes of flesh-eating undead. Complete with 20 illustrations in the style of C. E. Brock (the original illustrator of Pride and Prejudice), this insanely funny expanded edition will introduce Jane Austen's classic novel to new legions of fans. [Link]

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Jamie Bell is Tintin - and other assorted things

I have to say that the news that Jamie Bell has been selected to give voice (and movements) to Tintin in the new Spielberg-directed movie is oddly heartening. For some reason, I can almost picture Bell as Tintin, with the tuft of hair and all.

The article had one other surprise for me:
The Secret of the Unicorn is the most popular of the 24 Tintin books written by Georges Remi, the Belgian cartoonist who wrote under the name HergĂ©. It is the first of a two-part story written in 1943 that concerns the clashes between Sir Francis Haddock, Captain Haddock’s ancestor, and Red Rackham, a seaman of low moral fibre.
I did not know that! My own favorite has always been the Land of Black Gold -- although Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure are both very good. Does anyone has any theories about why Unicorn is the most popular of the Tintin books?

And when I clicked over to imdb, I found that Steven Moffat (writer and creator of Coupling, as good a farce as they come) is the screenwriter (note the "the", he's not one of the screenwriters, he's the sole screenwriter!). Interesting! I'm not sure what this means really but just putting it out there.