Saturday, December 22, 2007

These are a few of my favorite things

I don't expect people to listen to me. I babble a lot, I'm just a reporter at The Michigan Daily, I'm just a history major. Nothing special. I'm an insignificant little speck. No biggie.
I also don't expect people to share my interests (certain television shows that are really good if you give them a chance, The Bad Plus, The New Yorker, journalism in general, politics, quirkiness, food). They're not the traditional kind of hip thing most people like; they won't show up on Mtv. But within my little world when parts come together it adds a personal sweetness. In this case, David Remnick writes about The Bad Plus, a fantastic contemporary jazz band. I highly recommend them. Remnick praises some of their edgier songs: renditions of other famous songs like a techno-jazz version of Smells Like Teen Spirit. Those are okay, but at the first concert I went to my fellow fans and I agreed their original stuff is the best, like the wonderfully chaotic And Here We Test Our Abilities. Songs like that are a union of so many wonderful sounds into this fusion that's pleasurable to the ear, much like when things you like pat each other on the back.
Below is Our Abilities:

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Modest Mouse

Just got back from a Modest Mouse concert in Chicago. A few impressions and thoughts:

1. Concerts are entirely couples events. Me and my friend couldn't find a place that didn't have a couple hugging more than four feet away.
2. Talk about Narcs! Security regularly "ejected" (which is I think too kind a word) anyone smoking pot. It looked more like the guy in Florida during the John Kerry Q&A. The Mary Jane lover is cringing and struggling and the security people are wrestling -that's if they resist. Non-resisters are made to walk a sort of walk of shame with their hands over their heads while one of the guards flashes a light to make way. How humiliating.
3. Some songs are hard to play in concert fashion. Take Tiny Cities Made of Ashes, a highly technical song that just can't be performed well without extensive musical equipment.
4. Talk about extortion! I paid $5 for a bottle of sprite! And an even more embarrassingly insulting price for a hoodie...I definitely didn't need to buy the hoodie though...

The highlight of the night was either when they played Dashboard off of their latest album, We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank or 3rd Planet from The Moon and Antarctica. The band also played Float On which I hate but in concert didn't sound so bad.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Stem Cells and the fine print

During another agonizingly monotonous Thanksgiving dinner I asked my grandfather, a geneticist and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, about the recent Stem Cell breakthrough. The story is that a couple of scientists at the University of Wisconsin and Kyoto University have found a way to turn regular cells in mice into a stem cell equivalent. Stories have spanned major media outlets in the last week or so on this. In perfect character, my grandfather skipped all the exciting and beneficial aspects of the new discovery and went straight to the problem, fortunately for him it's a rather big problem. He went over to his study and came back with a manila folder. Inside the folder was a collection of stories in different publications. He pointed to a few of the articles about the finding which mentioned ever so briefly that "the new method includes potentially risky steps, like introducing a cancer gene," according to one article in The New York Times. Some other articles didn't even mention this rather large caveat. The discovery is being spun as a complete era-changing breakthrough. I doubt everyone would receive this stem cell news so warmly if the headline read "New Stem Cell Breakthrough May Also Cause Cancer."

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Star Goes South

Of interest to that curmudgeonly old guy who lives alone and scowls at all the kids who walk by but loves his community newspaper:

Come Sunday, the Daily Southtown and Star Newspapers will be no more. For those who don't know (which is almost everyone), these are two small, excellent, Chicago newspapers. The Daily Southtown is the more renowned of the two. It has a reputation for strong reporting, clever columnists, and general activism in the kind of public service role newspapers are meant to have. It's won a number of major awards, such as Newspaper of the Year by a suburban newspaper judging committee, the George Polk Award, and the Studs Terkel Award. Pulitzer Prize winners have worked there.
The Southtown also keeps an bureau at Chicago's city hall. Perhaps if the newspaper industry was in a better state, the Southtown could and definitely would surpass the Sun-Times and rival the Chicago Tribune.
The Star is a different kind of beast. It's a twice a week paper tending to a number of suburban middle class and blue collar regions of the Chicagoland area. Like the Southtown, the Star carries excellent journalists, and awards, who are familiar with the area -most have lived in Chicago or Illinois their entire lives. The Star's greatest success as a newspaper is its clear contribution to uniting the outlying suburban communities into one larger one.
Both the Southtown and the Star are historic newspapers that have seen major events in Chicago of the twentieth century. To save money, the two papers will unite into one this Sunday to be named the SouthtownStar. The reasoning is money and nothing else. The name change is to keep aspects of both brands alive and therefore avoid detracting complete change with people familiar with either newspaper. Part of its merging also means newsroom job cuts on both sides, a not so unusual event in the newspaper business these days.
Budget constraints are the worst part, no question about it. To a much lesser extent so is the death of both papers. So now two papers must die but did they have to merge? Could the Southtown have not kept its more prominent name and simply "acquired" -as it's called in the business- its sister paper? That might at least keep an appearance of strength. This is all secondary in importance to the real problem behind the merger though. The papers' parent company, the Sun-Times Media Group, would definitely rather just cut as many costs in its minor papers than keep entities that are going through tough times but clearly uphold the honorable jobs that newspapers were always meant for. Well, for the moment at least, it's good that some kind of south suburban community newspaper is around. The longer it lasts, the better.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Crystal Castles

Of interest to the electronica/noise-lover and retro video game fanatic:

Suburban parents everywhere fear that their precious pipsqueaks' corruption by video games will lead them to discover the bullets aisle at the local Wal-Mart. Crystal Castles, whose members are known only as Ethin and Alice, is the 8-bit sound track to their love affair with violence and technology. In songs with titles such as "Crimewave", this duo matches innocently bloopy electronic loops with eerie, often nonsensical lyrics.

In "Alice Practice," so named because it was recorded accidentally while lead singer Alice was practicing, their professed influences such as murder and knives are a bit more evident. Rough ripples and harsh, not-quite-screaming vocals add a layer of distress.

The track "xxzxczx me" (pronounced "Excuse Me"), while not my favorite track, is in my opinion their best. Its pace is faster than their usual dreamy adventures, reminiscent of a slightly coked-up version of the last level on your old favorite game, or the time the strobe lights and booze lowered your seizure threshold a little too far during that rave at the anime convention.

The sound flips to the other end of the spectrum on "Magic Spells", an empty lullaby. Lack of direction or content makes this lazy near-melody one repetitive, though not otherwise offensive, never-ending loop. Magic Spells is certainly a weak point for Crystal Castles, showcasing one of their biggest flaws: their lack of structure and movement. They create wonderful, hypnotizing beats and add adorably bizarre flourishes to a foundation of dark yet gentle noise, but their foundation isn't very firm. They need content. Drive. Their songs need a thesis, a raison d'etre. The tradition of hiding their faces in official photos mirrors the facelessness of their music. It's a delightful distraction that's at it's best in their skillful remixes, in which their 8-bit tweaks transform the originals into entirely new characters. Perhaps Crystal Castles can be best thought of as skillful future producers. That would certainly be an interesting role for them. But for the time being, they are an interesting sound that's different enough to justify its existence, even if it is still in its amateur stages.

Downloads (from Pitchfork Media):
Goodbooks - Leni (Crystal Castles Remix)
Crystal Castles - Air War
Crystal Castles vs. The Little Ones - Lovers Who Uncover
Crystal Castles - xxzxczx me
DJ Howlemonkey: "Crystal Castles Omnibus Mix"


Jews seeking spiritual renewal bowled over by sixth grader seeking ice cream

On a personal note:

I’ve been working for two weeks washing dishes at a Jewish retreat center and farm in Connecticut. We host a variety of programs throughout the year–this autumn an ecology-focused camp for Jewish 6th-graders called "Teva." The Teva counselors live onsite from September to December, and a new group of 6th graders comes every Monday and stays for a week, during which time they learn about the synthesis of Jewish and environmental values.

These campers are 11 or 12 years old, which means that in about a year each will have a "Bar Mitzvah," the Jewish rite of passage. In the ancient era (when the tradition was founded) this would have meant leaving their parents’ homes and becoming apprenticed to a master of a trade. In the 21st century, it means a big party and then return to life as normal.
This dichotomy is reflected intimately in my interactions with the campers. Talking individually to one of these young men is like talking to a small, inexperienced adult–but an adult nonetheless. We can chat back and forth about school, religion, vocation, girls, you name it. I have to remind myself not to offer him a beer. But put them in a group and a setting that reminds them of their status as children (as most activities at camp do) and they revert to animals, screaming and howling as they ricochet off me, each other, and my laboriously stacked dishes.

As they lay waste to the freshly mopped dining hall, I think to myself: "Who the hell thought it would be a good idea to put a hundred and fifty of these energetic, impressionable creatures in one room with only a dozen adults?" With that kind of ratio, the only means of supervision is crude crowd control: systems of shouting and singing that we normally reserve for groups of dogs. Back when kids this age were learning to be blacksmiths and bankers and scribes, there would have been two or three experienced workers for every apprentice, and the dominant culture would have been one of mutual maturity–not herd and herder. "That’s how these kids could really learn something," I think, "working in small groups under close supervision, doing essentially adult activities."

But hold time–we have a program exactly like that, going right now! It’s called "Adamah" (Hebrew for "the land") and runs quietly in the background of the more dynamic Teva. Fifteen "Adamahniks" live onsite, rotating in small groups between kitchen, housekeeping, maintenance, and farming tasks, always under the supervision of a professional. They get room and board in exchange for their work: a modern apprenticeship model.

So what’s the catch? The Adamahniks aren’t sixth graders–they’re mostly in their mid- to late-twenties, the same age as the Teva counselors. They come from wealthy families and hyper-successful university backgrounds, and aren’t sure what they want out of life or where they’re going next. So they’re here, learning the life of a socialist Jewish farmer crossed not-so-smoothly with the life of a capitalist Jewish retreat center (capitalist enough to charge almost $200 a night for guests not associated with a specific program).

So while we’re treating our twelve-year-olds like animals, we’re treating our twenty-somethings the way we used to treat twelve-year-olds. The phase of odyssey and search for vocation has been pushed back more than a decade, and the personal anachronisms are bizarre to witness: a biological adult bowling over his peers to get first dibs on ice cream, or a 28-year-old with a master’s degree reflecting that when this program ends he’ll probably go back and live with his parents. Even as children in the inner city learn to grow up faster, the larval stage of the upper middle intellectual class is getting longer...and longer...and longer.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: in biology successful organisms often have longer childhood phases (and even the most politically correct among us can’t deny the upper middle class intellectual is a successful organism). But it’s a strange thing, a little unprecedented, and I wonder what it bodes for upcoming generations. Will these post-adolescent wanderers settle down to careers in business and law sometime in their thirties, have children in their forties, and achieve full bourgeois-dom by the time they’re fifty? Or will they form networks of utopian spiritual communities that raise their children on campfire songs and compost bins? Or will the entire system implode with all the grandeur of Rome burning?

Needless to say: only time will tell.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Darjeeling isn't so Limited

Of interest to the Wes Anderson fanatic:

Wes Anderson is all about consistency. His movies are always masterfully filmed, draped in cheerful scenery and bright props, heavy on the sarcasm, and partially about death. His latest film, The Darjeeling Limited doesn't miss any of these elements. And it goes further. There's a glorious montage epitomizing Anderson's skill as a director on the train where the camera compartmentalizes minor characters in locomotive cars. The film also allows for major visible character development, a rare trait among his movies. A major theme of the film is growth, which Anderson may have experienced since his last work.
It starts out...well, actually it starts out with a welcome cameo of Bill Murray chasing a train. Murray misses the train but a lankier and faster Adrian Brody catches it and reunites with his two brothers who haven't spoken in years. The eldest is Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson) who's head is bandaged like those old leather football player helmets. Francis has organized a "spiritual" journey through India. He's organized it so well that every morning each brother receives a laminated itinerary detailing what at each minute the brothers will be doing. Francis has commissioned an assistant to shadow the brothers and plan the next day's events. It's clear early on that Francis feels a sense of responsibility to care for his younger brothers, who are both grown. Peter (Adrian Brody), the middle child, of course must rebel against authority, while the youngest Jack (Jason Schwartzman) tries to stay out of the quarreling brothers way. Jack's efforts prove fruitless as at one point he has to mace his siblings with a gigantic can he bought at a break-stop early on. There's a lot of pent up emotion among the three brothers, in addition to the jarring recent death of their father. The two oldest brothers are coping with their father's death in different ways. Francis it turns out, is micromanaging in the same way that his mother and probably his father did. Peter has begun wearing his father's glasses and shaving with his razor, and probably more. Jack may have taken on another symbolic trait but none is clearly revealed. His character is somewhat underdeveloped, ironically because he helped write the script along with Anderson. We know that Jack is at the very end of a disastrous relationship (with the ever annoyingly googlie eyed Natalie Portman) and is a writer whose stories are obviously just recounts of actual events. "The characters are all fictional," he presses, pathetically. Even Jack knows that Jack's writing is about Jack.
For the planned India trip, mostly bickering occurs between Francis and Peter as Francis struggles to keep to his unbearably strict schedule in the darkly humorous world of Anderson. Life's curve balls triumph in the end and the adventure really kicks into gear. As the Whitman brother's train goes further and further off the track (by then, the train they were actually riding on abandons the trio) we learn more about each sibling. It turns out Peter is going to be a father and has no idea what to do, Jack is really continuing his relationship of meaningless sex with Portman's character while trying to find love elsewhere, and Francis was more torn up -literally- about his father's death than it seemed. Perhaps the coming together of the three brothers combined with the various potholes in the road pushes them to come to terms with mortality and each other's unique problems. Whatever it is, by the end of the movie they mature and realize adulthood has finally arrived, and been there for some time.
You can't live life in chaos though so after confronting what each brother had worked hard to suppress they regain a semblance of control. Francis grew the most, even though he's the oldest, and the maturing shows in his contributions in the world. Thanks to his change, the trip is a bit more comfortable. It's a welcome advance, a lot like the progression of maturity in Anderson's movies, maybe he did some growing also. Maybe.
He meant for the characters to be fictional.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Knock knock. Who's there? Walt Mossberg? Come back later

On a personal note:

So I'm reading Walter Mossberg's always engaging Personal Technology Column the other day. This time he's comparing the latest Gateway PC to the latest iMac. Because I have the attention span of a gnat I'm almost always multitasking and so I sat down at an iMac in an attempt to sign on to AIM while reading the column. As I futilely pressed the AIM icon over and over again I read this line
The iMac has been a success, however, partly because it combines beauty and power.

Now, I understand that he was writing about an entirely different model of iMac. I also must stress that Mossberg is both an excellent writer and insightful voice; but really, as I struggled to run a simple program on an iMac, I had my doubts about Mossberg's "solution". After all, I have never been an Apple guy. Sure, I love my iPod and am starting to dream about an iPhone rather than my overrated Razr but when it comes to computers, what I really need is a sturdy workhorse (read Dell), not some chesty-blonde-show-her-off-to-the-guys kind of computer (gee, that was an odd analogy). In my experience iMacs are really just for show, so this week Walt, I won't take your advice. Don't misunderstand, I won't go near a Gateway computer! But I will stay with PCs for that much longer.
I'm sure he'll spend many a sleepless night wondering how this could have been avoided...

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Stephen Colbert's Op-Ed Column

Of Interest to the Colbert Nation:

Stephen Colbert struck again with his October 14 Op-Ed piece in the New York Times entitled I Am An Op-Ed Columnist! (And So Can You!). As usual, there are some great passages that arrive at sharp criticism through Bill O'Reilly's looking glass:

Well, suddenly an option is looming on the horizon. And I don’t mean Al Gore (though he’s a world-class loomer). First of all, I don’t think Nobel Prizes should go to people I was seated next to at the Emmys. Second, winning the Nobel Prize does not automatically qualify you to be commander in chief. I think George Bush has proved definitively that to be president, you don’t need to care about science, literature or peace.

And of course there's plenty of Colbert's signature comic word-play; he pushes his metaphors, like his conservative punditry, to their extreme but logical conclusions:
Our nation is at a Fork in the Road. Some say we should go Left; some say go Right. I say, “Doesn’t this thing have a reverse gear?” Let’s back this country up to a time before there were forks in the road — or even roads. Or forks, for that matter. I want to return to a simpler America where we ate our meat off the end of a sharpened stick.
Let me regurgitate: I know why you want me to run, and I hear your clamor. I share Americans’ nostalgia for an era when you not only could tell a man by the cut of his jib, but the jib industry hadn’t yet fled to Guangdong. And I don’t intend to tease you for weeks the way Newt Gingrich did, saying that if his supporters raised $30 million, he would run for president. I would run for 15 million. Cash.

All this comes as a telephone poll conducted by Rassmussen Reports shows that 13 percent of Americans would support Colbert if he were a third party candidate pitted against Hillary and Giuliani. A facebook group called "1,000,000 Strong For Colbert" has more than 1,000,000 members, while an equivalent Obama group has some 390,000.
All harmless fun, except for a bit of a snafu about campaign finance laws that may have had some bearing on Fred Thompson's campaign had it not been discovered that he is actually a toaster oven.
Still, what does this show about the electorate? Isn't 2008 supposed to be the year the Dems strike back, take the presidency and right our capsized ship of state? Aren't we liberals supposed to be angry and determined to find a political solution to horrendous political problems? Yet in the first poll that included Colbert 2.3 percent of Democrats said they would vote for the comedian in the primaries--more than for Dennis Kucinich or Mike Gavel.
You could say the polled Dems are just being ironic in that effete urban elitist way that conservative pundits, real and fake, love to hate. Or they just don't care that much about polls. But do you think that anyone in the 1968 election would have had enough time to be ironic when it was widely felt that the nation was off course? Actually, there was a comedian write-in candidate: Pat Paulsen, who ran in five presidential elections between 1968 and 1996 and actually got 200,000 votes in the 1968 election. It therefore can't be the seriousness of the times that deters people from voting for throwaways.
What can be the meaning of Paulsen and Colbert's numbers? People who voted for Paulsen and declare their support for Colbert can't be wholly joking. I think they are rather venting their frustration about the critical lack of choices in politics. And I tend to agree with them. It's way past time to seriously consider third party options. I simply don't think either party will deliver exactly what many people want.
On the upside, I'm pretty confident that we'll at least have a Democrat in the oval office, since the Christian Right appears splintered. With the loss of that major voting bloc, I don't think a Republican candidate has a serious chance. Any thoughts?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Say goodbye to a city's essence

Of interest to the nostalgic:

Chalk another one up for the computer war against city character traits. On Monday The New York Times ran an excellent story on the probable dissipation of the trading floor at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Chicago's Mercantile Exchange and also the former Chicago Board of Trade were landmarks of the city. Indeed, they were distinctive positive aspects of Chicago's renown. But with the merger of the Merc and Board of Trade and relocation
in May to a new trading floor at the board’s Art Deco headquarters. With the consolidation of the two exchanges, the pork belly pit, formerly emblematic of Chicago’s open-outcry commodity trading, will close and begin operating only by computer.

It's better for business, that's for sure; and crucial for the Merc to survive. Still, a major historical locale of the Windy City is being gobbled up by technological efficiency. Chicago is a city in transition. A lot is going on, being built, moved, changed, renewed, remodeled. Now there's Millennium Park with its gaudy Bean, both of which will probably become famous as a symbol of Chicago, unfortunately.
Everywhere the technological computer juggernaut is improving operations. In the journalism world not only have computers and the internet helped minimize spelling errors but also hasten the exchange of information for literal up-to-the-minute and up-to-the-second reporting. Updates are faster than they ever could be by phone. The other day a Michigan student explained how although there is a pleasure in reading newspapers, "I want to know that what I'm reading is the latest news." That limits the appeal of newspapers though and exposes where its capabilities fall short. Like so many other areas of society, newspapers and the traditional trading floor just can't keep the pace with faster computers.
The offices of these institutions are converging in similarity as well: the same desks, same computers, same white collar workers staring at them. That's the trade off, an infamous economic scene of Chicago for a set of computers.
It's more efficient.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Save This Movie

Of Interest to the Movie-Goer:

I title this entry "Save This Movie" because I'm really afraid that "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" will fall into the dustbin of movie history; perhaps it'll be picked up and replayed by a desultory college student or two, but that's it. I want to say that the film has so much to recommend it that it would be a travesty for it to fade into obscurity. Yes, it sports Fellini-sized self-indulgence, not terribly kosher for a sophomore director. Yes, it unashamedly exhibits time-lapse multiple points in the film's 2 hour and 40 minute duration. But this isn't a Malickian fancy, though there is something that conjures that eccentric cousin of American cinema in the juxtaposition of brutality and natural beauty. "Assassination" features one strong (Pitt) and one brilliant (Affleck) performance. As a psychological study it is incredibly sharp and revealing. Its portrayal of the American West is unique and strange. And while it doesn't ultimately develop its main theme--the interaction between myth and reality, or language and its object ("You can hide things in vocabulary," one character says early in the story)--to any sort of satisfactory conclusion, it's a rare sort of movie these days that tries to fit its head around these ideas at all.

I am a massive cockblock


I was walking through my dorm on a 4 a.m. ramble when I decided to take a look-see down in the basement. I had never actually visited our kitchen, for the use of which I had to contribute a hefty sum (a double sawbuck, or twenty dollars for you people who don't use Civil War slang in a pompous and self-conscious manner), so I decided now was as good a time as ever. I walked downstairs into the basement, through the hall and past the entranceway adorned with a sign pronouncing the kitchen's impending cameo in the sordid farce of my existence. The corridor between the entranceway and the kitchen was long, and the cooking area was darkened. I could barely make out the huge stainless steel refrigerator and island. I had just entered the kitchen proper when I simultaneously wheeled and heard from the direction to which I was turning a boy's voice say quickly and brusquely, "Hey dude." He walked past me and through the corridor; I noticed only his yellow tee shirt and the fact that he was holding his arm above his head, as if it were a periscope. To tell you the truth, I was pretty startled to see him there, and could barely manage a hello. For some reason, the image came into my head of some grizzled hillbilly reaching his hand out to a cornered, cowering wolf-cub as his (the hillbilly's) dirt-smeared little children watch in ecstatic terror. "Hell, he's scareder of us than we are 'a' him," the wise old Alvah Dunning says. But back to the story. As the international dude was walking by me, my sensitive eye caught something behind him, a flash, a flutter, a flit, no more than a brush stroke at the corner of the canvas, which disappeared behind the other doorway to the kitchen. It took me a second to figure out what was going on, and then I bounded after it like a happy hound. Of course, the female, for that was what the darting blot of brown ink was, had disappeared. I was a cockblock! Now I knew the shame. The shame and ignominy of the cockblocker.

"Kafka on the Shore": A Surrealist Fairy Tale

An old man talks to cats and makes fish fall from the sky, Johnnie Walker kills cats and eats their hearts, Colonel Sanders is a back-alley pimp with a knack for the supernatural, and a 15-year-old runaway finds shelter from a cross-gender hemophiliac while fulfilling an Oedipus prophecy. No, this isn’t a bad joke, and you’re not having the weirdest trip ever. You’re reading the latest Haruki Murakami novel, Kafka on the Shore.

Murakami’s “insistently metaphysical mind-bender” (John Updike’s observation) follows two distantly interwoven plotlines. In the first, 15-year-old “Kafka” Tamura (he has taken this pseudonym to avoid detection by the police) flees his sinister sculptor father in Tokyo and travels by bus to the relatively provincial Takamatsu. He wanders to the Komura Memorial Library, where he meets Oshima, a hyper-educated woman who identifies as a homosexual man, and Miss Saeki, an enigmatic older woman who hasn’t truly lived since her lover died when she was twenty. This bizarre cast of characters gives Kafka room and board at the library, ostensibly for his help as an assistant but mostly because they are interested in his spiritual journey.

Meanwhile, Satoru Nakata, an old man whose childhood trauma deprived him of his memory and conventional intelligence but allows him to talk to cats, follows a trail of clues in a metaphysical scavenger’s hunt that leads him ever closer to Kafka, Oshima, and Miss Saeki. Along the way he picks up Hoshino, a truck driver and ex-soldier, who is sufficiently intrigued by Nakata that he ditches his job and his truck and becomes the old man’s disciple and sidekick (and a devotee of Beethoven’s Archduke Trio).

But for all Murakami’s postmodern surrealism, his narrative structure hearkens back to traditional themes. Besides the overt references to Greek drama (bits and pieces of an Oedipus retelling, and a near fatal backwards-glance into the spirit world), Murakami plays off the most fundamental aspect of Greek tragedy: fate. None of the characters in Kafka on the Shore is as powerful as the forces of fate that drive them, and none even try to resist. They accept the bizarre developments of their world with the resignation of a Greek chorus.

But unlike a Greek chorus, characters in Kafka react to the supernatural events that direct their lives with stoicism and some good humor. And that’s where Murakami’s wit really comes to light: by blending the inevitability of a Greek tragedy with a healthy dose of lighthearted surrealism, he balances the monotony of both genres. The fate that dogs his characters is neither moralistic nor predictable, yet its fantastic manifestations never fade into the languid dreaminess that plagues some surrealist literature. In short: fate provides the momentum and surrealism gives us something to look at along the way.

However, Murakami’s elaborate juxtaposition comes at a price. Like in Greek drama, none of the characters are quite flesh-and-blood—I wouldn’t fancy driving across the country with any of them (except maybe Hoshino the truck driver, who despite a supporting role enjoys the most compelling character development in the book). And the plot drags at times, taking us down false leads or going nowhere at all. Nakata and Hoshino spend the second half of the book trying to speak to a stone, while Kafka Tamura is falling in love with a painting. Something tells me Murakami won’t be getting many movie deals.

But that’s okay, because he probably didn’t want them anyway. He wanted to create a fairy tale steeped in our profoundest narrative and philosophical traditions, and in that he succeeded charmingly. The characters don’t trouble themselves with expectations or analysis, and neither should we. Just take it in and accept it for what it is—always weird and introspective, sometimes funny, and occasionally moving—and you may enjoy this metaphysical romp.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Curiosity killed the chat

Of interest to the online talker:

AOL Instant Messager is dead, long live Google Chat. This didn't happen out of technological natural selection. There was nothing Darwinian here. It's just as more people use Gmail, more people use the instant messager that comes with it. That's not to say that there's nothing appealing about chatting on your email account. In line with everything else that is Google, Gchat archives every conversation so at any time you can look back and see how pompous you sound, furthering self consciousness and paranoia. It also emails messages if one of the talkers signs off.
Remember the days though? Remember the days when we all signed onto AIM. The days when people creatively -or crudely- thought of screen names, and then thought of new ones and then newer ones. Yeah, those days are over.
Then they "improved" AIM by adding the feature that tells you that the other person is typing. Today AIM has evolved to AIM Titan which seems to just be a smooth looking (but not actually) version of the instant messaging program. There's also no more uniqueness to choosing a screenname. Your identity is your email address, which these days tends to be incredibly boring (example: There was something wonderfully expressive about coming up with a nom de guerre with little aspects of your interests or personality. I can remember being Astralmage, silvertiger317, Odysseus03, ATimeforwolves, BeyondtheOceans and many more. There are also people I know with dozens of different names. It was just this fun way of choosing a persona.
But no more. Internet talk has "matured" to this ultra-casual medium where any slight silliness is immature and awkward. Then again, now there's a record of what's said, and that's kind of fun.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Chicago has everything!

Of interest to the Chicago farmer:

Did you know Chicago had a pumpkin patch? I sure didn't. Above is a picture of the beautiful and talented Terra in Chicago at one such jack-o-lantern garden. I've lived in that city for 19 years and I still don't know...most of it.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

UChicago Conversation

Listen to this:

Start of Ancient Philosophy Class, Thursday, 1:27 p.m.
A student is doodling in his notebook. Another student, dressed in the "international dude" style, approaches him and speaks.
Student 1: What up, bro? What's happening? It's fuckin' hot out!
Student 2: Please do not call me 'bro'.

[End of Conversation]

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Stranger

Of Interest to the Hidden Maniacs Among Us:

I was walking home, carrying a plastic bag that contained a can of soup, a tub of yogurt, and juice, and, as is my wont, I began to talk to myself. The night was my confidant; it seduced me into believing no one was there. I was tired and trusting. Events of the day had angered me, and so my murmurs and hushed exclamations were vitriolic. Perhaps my face was a little contorted. In short, I was a night-walking, self-talking lunatic with a shopping bag.

I was walking through an alley separated from a playground by a chain-link fence. It's the same old alley I've walked down since I was a child. I began to rehearse an apology I was to deliver to a friend. I had quietly resolved the angry dispute in my mind. Here, in the dark, I could do such things in peace and freedom. But just as I had reached some sort of tranquility of mind in the anonymity of the darkened street, I heard a voice come from the night. "Ben." I looked around. No one. I scanned the obscure playground through the fence. Nothing. The wooshing trees could imitate a voice. The rain-soaked streets echoed every sound. But I looked back, and saw, on top of the monkey bars, two people. I didn't recognize them, but one of them lifted its (her?) arm and waved widely. I stumbled for a greeting, but managed only, "Shit." Then another nail: "I didn't...uh...yeah." I walked away. Night had betrayed me. I had been found out, caught looking like a maniac, and I felt everything close in on me a little bit more. The name I heard in the street, my own, was a prison. I wondered if I looked the same to whomever those people were, whether my clothes fit the same. I was reminded of an Edward Hopper painting called "New York Office" that shows a woman frozen behind a huge window in an office building. The illusion of privacy, the illusion of a separation between private and public beings.

iPods and optimism

On a personal note:

I had what anyone would call a shitty day. I lost my iPod. That was one of the "high" (read low) points of the day. Besides the aggravating fact that I remember putting it in a safe place and thinking how wonderfully safe that place is, I realized it was lost in one of the most populated parts of Michigan's campus. Additionally, I'm a little stunned that I didn't notice this two-pound bar missing from my pocket.
My friends and acquaintances all have comforted me with "maybe it will turn up." If you found an iPod lying around would you spend an afternoon working to return it?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Sam Zell prescription

Of interest to the curious media freak:

Sam Zell, native Chicagoan, Real Estate god, philanthropist, may be exactly what Chicago media and media in general need, or he may be Rupert Murdoch for the Windy City.
Even in Chicago people are unfamiliar with the wealthy founder of Equity Group Investments. Indeed, unlike the ostentatious Murdoch, Zell's takeover of one of the largest newspaper companies in the United States has been relatively quiet. He's really only a tiny blip on the radar for anyone outside the real estate business (of which he is a major player) but he does have a record of generous donations to the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and Michigan's Ross School of Business. Make no mistake though, he's serious, and determined. About six months ago I heard him speak at the University of Missouri. Once Zell got the stage he scooped up all the attention in the room, going right into his theories, and opinions on the Real Estate market and the state of Real Estate. I didn't understand all of it but I could see that when cut-throat tactics were necessary, Zell didn't flinch. This is unremarkable for successful businessmen today. The unusual part of Zell is his purchase of Tribune Company in a time when the newspaper business isn't exactly a gold mine. Especially because he has no newspaper or media experience.
Zell's initial approach to Tribune Co., the owner of the L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune, among others, was met with the usual hostility and hesitant attention. The Chandler family, the owners of Tribune, and one of the four great newspaper steward families would really only give Zell their time if he offered something good, but they were receptive. After a great deal of negotiating, Zell won the family over and completed a buyout deal of Tribune Co. for $8.2 billion (Murdoch's takeover of Dow Jones was $6 billion). Despite a considerable drop in Tribune Company's stock value, Zell hasn't paused once in his decision to buy Tribune.
"I believe Tribune Company is reasserting itself as a national leader in news generation and distribution," Zell said in a statement.
To journalists and journalism critics (including Write No Evil) Zell's sudden media interest has been met with rolled eyes. Another bored billionaire who thinks it might be fun to own a newspaper? This won't end well.
Well, maybe. Actually, the Tribune and the Times haven't exactly been in excellent hands pre-Zell. Tribune and all its newspaper and media holdings have been governed by the Chandler family, which has been itching to escape difficult times in the journalism world and highly business oriented governing shareholders. Ken Auletta's article on the L.A. Times largely revealed the paper's problems coming from demands from Tribune Co. to turn a profit, whatever the cost. The costs have been pretty high, including a considerable portion of the Times' excellent newsroom -including magnificent editor Dean Baquet's- jobs. The paper has also reduced its foreign bureaus and minimized its distribution of the California area. All this thinning is partially from Tribune's demand to turn a profit, and a higher one than the last year. It's also a pride thing though. Corporate leadership at Tribune also feels that anything the Times can do, the Tribune should be able to do, and better. Thus the stripping of the Times' resources.
Zell's coming is actually reminiscent of another time of journalism. A time when the wealthy felt a calling to give back and serve the public. Katharine Graham, of the Graham family which owns The Washington Post Company wrote in her book Personal History about her father's calling to give back to the public:
In line with my father's "map of life," the time was right for him to turn his attention to public service...Even in the announcement about his ownership, there were several key statements that proved to be the underpinnings of Eugene Meyer's Post. It was his aim to improve the paper, and he would do so by making it an independent voice.

This is just one example of the good old days when not only was there a great profit in newspapers but also a greater respect of the role they played among the public. The same kind of calling that "Pinch" Sulzberger's ancestors and the Bancroft family's progenitors felt in owning the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Today newspapers aren't as profitable, some say they aren't at all -actually they are but shareholders demand a higher profit every year. So Zell's interest may not be in making money here. It may be a wonderful desire to support a historical newspaper in his native city.
Don't get too excited though. Word on the street is that when he visited the Times office he berated the paper for too much attention on foreign news. Zell is either no journalism saint or still new to the craft. Zell reportedly plans to sell the Chicago Cubs and a quarter of Tribune's ownership of Comcast SportsNet. He hasn't mentioned any plans to cut jobs. Zell's deal doesn't go into effect until later this year so it's yet to be seen what he does with the newspaper giant. It could be worse actually. Zell is a Chicagoan with no good fiscal reason for buying Tribune Co. He has a history of giving to excellent academic institutions and both the Republican and Democratic parties, which although it doesn't show strict objectivity, demonstrates a level of bipartisanship. He also hasn't mentioned any plans of putting pictures of naked women in the news section -a step above Murdoch.

What Generation Y does on the weekend

Of interest to the weekender:

Schedule for your average college student at a big, state university:


-Get out of class
-play whichever videogame platform has the best sports games
-pre-game, aka drink hard liqour until you can't your insecurities and actually like to stand around and play beer pong
-go to a party -preferably frat but house party will do, as long as there's plenty of booze and bad, loud rap music
-stumble home with your buddies, don't talk about that feel you took of your friend's package

-Get up with a hangover
-Put on every piece of college football gear you have
-heal your hangover with more booze
-go to the game and root for the team
-frat house/house party again. More booze, beer pong, and general debauchery

-wake up with a hangover
-go back to sleep
-wake up again
-go back to sleep
-crawl to the nearest dining hall with your friends
-do about 20 min. of homework while studying your facebook
-go to bed and right before sleeping, reflect how awesome the weekend was

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Will Obama and Edwards ever learn? Doesn't look like it

Of interest to the observant voter:

The New York Times, The Detroit Free Press, Reuters...ah hell, everyone, reported that four major democrats have decided not to campaign in Michigan. This does not include Clinton! Obama and Edwards and the rest (but who cares really about the others) better have a good reason other than principles. Principles and honor don't win elections these days, as Clinton has demonstrated repeatedly. It's conceivable that Obama and Edwards feel it's a lost cause and that Hillary has won Michigan or that winning Michigan really won't make a difference over all but if this ethical choice to boycott a state full of dissent and hunger for change is based on Michigan jumping over the February 5 voting day, then it's literally their loss.
Look, it's not really the time to demonstrate moral character, it's the time to win. Of course Hillary is going to take every opportunity she can to win. That's what she's been doing all along. There is no surprise on that end. The surprise is that Obama and Edwards may not have considered this. They may have thought that Hillary was above pettiness and greed. If that's the case, Hillary deserves to campaign in Michigan, rally unemployed workers in Detroit and college students to her side, and go on to win the Midwestern state's vote.
There is no more appropriate situation for the saying, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." We were all fooled into thinking that Hillary had a higher level of decency than she's shown. That was the first time. This is the second time.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Playboy Beat

On a personal note:

In today's Michigan Daily, there's a story about Playboy Magazine scouts coming to campus. Originally, I was assigned to write the story. I was more than a little willing to bear such a grim burden but the editors decided that a male reporter covering the event would probably bias him. On top of that I'm single, so arguably that would further work against my objectivity. In the end a female writer got the story. Was this sexist? Yes. Was this the correct journalistic call? I think so. Still though, it sounded like fun...

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Hired Gun

Of interest to the excessively aspiring privatizer:

As a former Navy SEAL, Erik Prince should know the difference between the U.S. military and the U.S. postal system. But apparently he doesn't.

"We're trying to do for the national security apparatus what Fed Ex did for the postal service," explained Prince, founder and CEO of the private military contractor Blackwater USA, in a congressional hearing Tuesday. "They did many of the same services that the postal service did--better, cheaper, smarter, and faster."

Prince was trying to justify his company's involvement in Iraq, which according to the International Herald Tribune now consists of about 850 security workers (also known as mercenaries) on the ground and over $1 billion in State Department contracts. Prince and his company have been under a steady stream of media fire since the September 16th incident in which eleven Iraqis were killed, and their record of aggressive incidents in Iraq dates back to 2004.

Such were the accusations (including the drunken murder of an Iraqi security guard Christmas Eve) against which Erik Prince defended himself for three hours on Tuesday. His consistent theme was Blackwater's status as a private company, and its excellent record of achieving objectives with maximum speed and minimum price.

But it's not Blackwater's efficiency that's on trial, it's their collateral damage. Prince's defense betrays his deepest misunderstanding: a complex military campaign can't run on privatized contracts, because its objectives do not exist in isolation. In the postal service, when the package is delivered the job is done, and no one worries what other effects have been set in motion in the course of delivery. But in the military--especially in a volatile and complex occupation like Iraq--immediate objectives are means to ultimate mission objectives. When short-term objectives are met at the expense of long-term ones, the military is failing.

That's why privatization has worked for the postal system but not for the military. In Prince's self-acclaimed "corporate mantra," you hire a contractor to do a specific job, and when the job is done he gets paid. It's not his business or his problem how that job fits into your ultimate goals. Thus Erik Prince can boast that no official under Blackwater protection has ever been killed, without considering the damage his mercenaries have done to the ultimate mission in Iraq--a mission stated very clearly in COBRA II (the original U.S. war plan) as "regime change."

It is true, as Prince asserts, that his company has met all the obligations of a private contractor--but Machiavelli didn't call mercenaries "useless and dangerous" because they're fast or cheap; he called them "disunited" and "without discipline." The money the State Department saves in short-term objectives by employing Blackwater is paid back in American lives when our failure to achieve long-term objectives--like a functioning, Western-friendly regime in Iraq--comes home to roost.

2500 years ago the great Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu instructed generals to "induce the people to have the same aim as the leadership, so that they will share death and share life." Do Blackwater mercenaries share life and death with the US. army? Probably not unless it's specified in their contract.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Bellowing in Chicago

Of Interest to Activists Looking for a Nice Little Civic Cause:

Yesterday an article in the Chicago Tribune reported on the rejection of a request by former U of C english prof Richard Stern to the city of Chicago to name a street, a school, or a statue in honor of Saul Bellow. Stern and Bellow were friends when Bellow headed the Committee on Social Thought. Stern claims he received a letter from 4th Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinckle (requisitions of this kind must be made through the alderman in which the supplicant lives) that denied the request on the grounds that Saul Bellow had made some unseemly remarks about race in his works, particularly about the changing racial composition of Hyde Park and the Northwest side community he grew up in. This despite the fact that Balbo Drive is named after an Italian fascist.

"Who is the Proust of the Zulus? The Tolstoy of the Papuans? I'd be glad to read them."
-Saul Bellow, New York Times Magazine Interview

"I had read widely in the field, and immediately after the telephone interview I remembered that there was a Zulu novel after all: "Chaka" by Thomas Mofolo, published in the early 30's"
-Saul Bellow, in a New York Times Op-Ed apologia of the above comment. He works himself into a nice lather about the "Stalinist" "thought-police" and how "Righteousness and rage threaten the independence of our souls." Left: Italo Balbo.

Machiavelli on the Volga

Of Interest to the Kremlin's Censor:

One of the issues on the table of tonight's "McLaughlin Group" was Putin's recent move to consolidate power by announcing that he will run for--let's face it, he will be--prime minister. Putin will probably have his faceless crony Zubkov have the presidency, then appropriate his powers, or, maybe, have him meet with a "little accident". The prime minister is next in line should the president be incapacitated.

McLaughlin framed the debate on Putin thus: "Is Putin good for Russia?" Chrystia Freedland put up a bit of defense for the negative position, but everyone else, even the supposedly liberal Eleanor Clift, sang the praises of proto-czar. Pat Buchanan and Tom Blankley spoke like good Kremlin officials, lauding Putin for preserving stability and fostering prosperity. An especially effective piece of rhetoric was the constant repetition of Putin's high approval ratings-"In the 70s!" McLaughlin intoned like Homer giving an encomium for Achilles. If the people support him, he must have democratic credibility. Putin's authoritarianism was brushed aside with sophistic moral equivalences: how can we censure him for setting up a one-man dynasty when Hillary might be our next president? This dubious statement was made by Eleanor Clift, who was so adamant a supporter of the Clintons in the 90s she was referred to as "Eleanor Rodham Clifton" by the other panelists. Buchanan followed his typical paleo-conservative line, questioning why we should have a hand in others' affairs, particularly as Russia could be a valuable ally in the war on Islamic fundamentalism.

Putin is held in favor by the Russian people, by and large. But you can understand that if you look at Russians. The country has the lowest male life expectancy in Europe, crushing poverty (usually exacerbated by poor infrastructure) and poverty-related disease, a secret but growing AIDS epidemic, alcoholism, depression, and rabid ethnic nationalism. You also have to understand the chaos and uncertainty that accompanied the breakup of the Soviet Union, the humiliation felt by Russians as a consequence of that event, and the incredible mismanagement of the transition from Communist rule to democracy.

In this context, even modest gains in prosperity and security are like manna from heaven for most Russians. And it's true that Putin has provided these. Putin has also, to some extent, made being Russian a source of pride again. Although we don't have a reliable membership count, it seems the state-sponsored nationalist youth groups that have emerged in the past few years are quite popular.

It's standard to rattle off the litany of anti-democratic measures for which Putin is responsible, so I won't. They are already well known. But will the relative prosperity Russia is enjoying now last? The key to Russia's growth has been its oil and gas industries, but with the energy supply now in the hands of party insiders, it's doubtful it will be competently managed. These men aren't businessmen, they're intelligence officers. The result of poor management in a resource-rich country can be seen in Myanmar.

Putin may have invoked the "war on terrorism" to legitimize Chechnya, but no one should be fooled. Chechnya is a festering sore of Russia's own creation. As Matthew Evangelista points out, the international media has reframed the conflict in terms of religious terrorism, but that is hardly all that is going on there. Islam was on no one's mind when Russia invaded in 1994. Pat Buchanan and George Bush are wrong to think Russia is really an ally in the war against Islamic terrorism.

America now has so little credibility as the embodiment of liberal values that even Putin can call us a "wolf" in foreign affairs. Conservatives rightly point out that there are few acceptable alternatives to Putin at this point. There's little we can do to promote democracy in Russia itself. Yet if we do not condemn Putin and support the fledgling democracies Putin seems to want to strong-arm back in line, Ukraine and Georgia, we are not only hypocrites but have simply given up on trying to be a principled country. We don't need to be Bushean conquistadors, holding out freedom at the end of a sword. Nor do we have to be indifferent isolationists. At some point Russia will become dissatisfied with Putin and his kleptocracy.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Journalists of note

Of interest to the media hungry cynic lover:

Last night Jack Cafferty was the guest on Jon Stewart. To those who don't know, Cafferty is a crabby old man with a small window of time on CNN. He's a controversial figure, but allowed great leeway. Despite a long-living (and still alive) career of insolent and partisan remarks, Cafferty has only had to go back on the air and retract one statement.
He is everything a good columnist should be: Controversial, witty, cynical, energetic, and born in Chicago!

Jack Cafferty, Write No Evil salutes you!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

I Feel Good

Of interest to the readers of the last post:

The latest Newsweek poll shows that likely Democratic Caucus-goers would support Obama if they had to vote today, although Clinton had stronger support. The heat is on.

Check out this doozy about Hillary from Frank Rich.

Let's not forget Obama, especially when he's in Greenwich Village

Of interest to the young and politically savvy:

Some said 4,000 college students, some said 30,000, some just said a shit load. Whatever the exact number, "a shit load" is as good a description as any for the number of people gathered in Greenwich Village for the Barack Obama rally -which is being called a mini political Woodstock. On top of that, the "shit load" was in Hillary's backyard. Moments like that make it hard to believe that she's so far ahead in the polls. One has to wonder, are the polls accounting for Generation Y?
Today's college student -Generation Y- is no different than any other age group of voters, at least on the Democratic side. There are Obama supporters, Hillary supporters, and Edwards supporters -even a few Kucinich fans. They're also similar in that a large amount of them feel a dead tortoise is better than Hillary (except the Hillary fans). But if that's the case, how is it that she's so far ahead in the polls? All three of the leading candidates have their appealing qualities. Edwards is the handsome populist, Obama the sparkling newcomer, and Hillary the wizened leader -or that's what she wants us to think. Gail Collins pointed out in her latest column that Hillary capitalizes on generalities. She waits to let everyone else declare a side and then just promises that what she has to offer is the best idea, even though her "idea" is commonly yet to be revealed -not always though. Hillary is sneaky like that. She's trying to gain the nomination not by her own opinions or merits -which can be perilous- but by denouncing the other candidates. According to the polls, hers is an effective strategy. Her appeal is experience and a "maturity" above those other flawed politicians who have "platforms" (snicker) and plans for what they'd do in the White House.
Well, Generation Y, at least, is visibly skeptical. That crafty defensive stance of advertising an opponent's failures works, as it did in the last election, but also says something about the candidate.To her credit, Hillary has shared her own policy plans but has spent less time on that compared to the hours she's put in candidate bashing. It's a good way to get to the White House, George will tell you. The polls indicate that a lot of Democrats either don't realize that Hillary's doing this or don't care. That may be true, but a few Greenwich Village goers will tell you that they aren't fooled twice.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Can't Tell Me Nothing

Of interest to the learned scholar:

Today in my Greece to 201 B.C. class we spent the entire time watching the movie 300. Clearly I'm getting every penny's worth of my $40,000 a year tuition...

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Reuters cuts loose

Of interest to the honky who keeps a Playboy in his desk drawer:

Straight from Reuters (yes, Reuters PLC Group!). 1,010 girls attended a shoot on Sydney, Australia's Bondi beach during an attempt to break the record for the world's biggest swimsuit shoot. Only like 300 were expected to be there but plenty volunteered, according to the news service.

Who says the financial news wire is boring?

Chicago gets an upgrade!

Of interest to the bourgeois:

It's always nice to hear that home is getting better in some way. It's even nicer when that's true. So Chicagoans (myelf included) may like that we're getting a whole bunch of expensive new toys.
For one, there's the Chicago spire being built by Santiago Calatrava which he hopes to be the tallest building in the nation. The Wall Street Journal also reported today that Michael Reschke is trying to build some super expensive hotel units and residences downtown. Lastly, under the name Xohm, Motorola is finally trying to blanket the city in a broadband wireless network so you can sign on to the internet -through paying for Xohm's wireless- anywhere in the city. Efforts to go wireless have been tried in a few cities but have mostly ended in failure. No surprise that the latest attempt is from the private sector instead of the city government. At least it's going to happen, hopefully.
The only real qualm with all these ventures is who in the world would pay for any or all of this?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

"The Kingdom": Idiot Man-Child's "Syriana"

“The Kingdom,” a Middle-Eastern flavored thriller starring Jamie Foxx, is a true testament to the magic of cinema. It transforms an appallingly complex, morally ambiguous political situation into a thrilling, verité-style, almost guilt-free tale of good versus evil. Although set in Saudi Arabia, “The Kingdom” is about a million miles away from what some have called the “problem” of the Middle East.

Jamie Foxx plays an FBI Special Agent who, along with a crack team (Jennifer Gardner, Chris Cooper, and Jason Bateman), negotiates a secret week-long investigation of a recent terrorist attack in Riyadh while Washington pussy-foots. They are quickly able, with the help of a sympathetic police colonel (Ashraf Barhom), to circumvent the restrictions placed on them by the Saudi prince and begin investigating in earnest. But the tables turn when one of their own is kidnapped. They must fight to free him and find the perpetrator of the attacks at the same time.

The film begins with a stylized history of Saudi Arabia’s relationship with American oil companies, as if to imply that it is firmly buried in real-world politics and the important issues of our day. But no one could be fooled. “The Kingdom” is “Dirty Harry” in desert camo, with a quasi-vigilante protagonist motivated as much by vengeance as by a genuine desire to solve the crime. Yet unlike Harry, Foxx’s no-nonsense, bureaucracy-spurning tough guy is squeaky clean, morally speaking. Despite the buckets of blood spilled, Foxx and his crew never have a drop on their hands. Maybe that’s because for FBI agents they are seriously thin-skinned, crying over dying victims and trembling when they watch a video of a suicide bombing. The audience is constantly reminded that because everyone has families, we can’t be all that different, as if it’s a surprise that Muslim parents love their offspring.

The opening scenes play out like what some Americans wanted September 11th to have been like. Foxx is—you guessed it—entertaining a classroom full of toddlers when he receives the call that a horrific attack has occurred. He does not sit squirming in his chair helplessly, but jumps up, gives a touching farewell to his son, and heads out the door. In place of the blundering, politically compromised CIA Americans have come to know so well, the movie shows a supremely knowledgeable and alert FBI, ready to strike and frustrated by Washington’s reluctance to take action (!). Once on the ground, the mission is clear: solve the crime, kill the baddie and go home with all our guys alive. No mention of oil is ever made after the opening short history.

The acting is nothing to speak of, but that’s not what matters in a movie like this. Relative newcomer Peter Berg has directed a heart-thumping thriller which transposes a classic American trope, the vigilante cop and his pursuit of justice, onto the shimmering white cities of Arabia. The movie ends on a surprisingly sour note, which to me suggests an inkling that the problems in Saudi Arabia are way over its head. Too bad the film is so willing to exist in a state of ignorance.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Secular Humanist Paul Krugman on the Warpath

Of Interest to the Grand Old Party:

Paul Krugman came out with an article yesterday connecting the Jena Six incident with Republican politics via Southern racists and their prominent position in the Republican "base." He points out the historical pandering to Southern racism among presidential candidates: Reagan making his speech about "state's rights" in Mississippi at the dawn of his 1980 campaign, Bush going to Bob Jones University in 2000, and now the Republican presidential candidates shunning a debate on minority issues at an historically black college that would have aired on PBS next week.
Krugman ends his article with this ominous prognostication: " looks as if the Republican Party is about to start paying a price for its history of exploiting racial antagonism. If that happens, it will be deeply ironic. But it will also be poetic justice."

Fuck him. The Republican Party will be politically viable for a thousand years. Heil Rudy.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Buddhist Monks Protest in Myanmar

Of Interest to the Cynic:

Today saw the largest protest in two decades in Myanmar. Over 20,000 monks and 40,000 civilians (perhaps as many as 100,000 in all) marched through the streets of Yangon, formerly Rangoon, the country's capitol. This is the sixth day of protests in that country, triggered by the beating of monks in Pakokku on September 5, as well as a 500 percent rise in fuel prices. Buddhist monks are uniquely sensitive to the changing fortunes of the country, because they are fed, clothed, and sheltered by alms from the people. Some of the monks visited the house of quarantined democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi. Anxiety is mounting as the junta's options for dealing with these rapidly spreading, well organized, peaceful protests narrow. Will this be a repeat of the bloody repression of the 1988 protests, in which 3,000 civilians died? Or will the moral authority of the Buddhist monks prevent it? What the outcome of this movement will be no one can tell, but many, including the Financial Times and the Irrawaddy news are calling this pre-revolutionary or a "Yellow Revolution." A crucial question, too, is the extent of China's influence on the generals. China has invested heavily in Myanmar. So far, its comments have seemed to support this growing movement. It could be that even China can't prevent the generals from losing it.

The Irrawady News has the best coverage.

Also worth looking at is the New Mandala blog

This isn't the first time Buddhists have spearheaded political change. Read this article by Bruce Matthews to learn more about the tradition of protest within Buddhism.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Kanye West's "Can't Tell Me Nothing" Video with Zach Galifianakis

Of interest to the hip:

Check out this bizarre, hilarious music video for Kanye West's "Can't Tell Me Nothing," conceived as a home video by North Carolina hillbillies. Then see the real video. Compare. Contrast. Write a 3 page essay on which has greater social significance. Michael Bliedan, the director behind The Claw Productions, also filmed Comedy Central's "Comedians of Comedy."

The Bad Plus Trade Fours at the Old Town School of Folk Music

Of interest to the hipster:
Dan and I went to the The Bad Plus, a piano trio from New York hailed by some as the saviors of jazz and derided by jazz purists for their covers of rock songs, in particular Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." They've just released a new album, "Prog," with unapologetic covers of Bowie's "Life on Mars," among others.

The Old Town is a great, intimate venue, and the audience didn't need to be warmed up.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Purpose of the Humanities

Of Interest to the Academic:

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind," a book that electrified the debate about the extirpation of the so-called 'Great Books' canon in the American university in favor of a multi-cultural collocation of texts. The canon debate raged through the 90s, with some admirably self-righteous performances from politicians from both the right and left, like Jesse "Hymietown" Jackson who, on the Stanford campus in 1988, led a rally against a required Western civ course. The protest chant was, "Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture's got to go!"

A new essay on Bloom's fiery work and legacy by Rachel Donadio, editor of the New York Times Book Review, came out in the 9/16 issue. She traces the contours of the evolving debate over the liberal arts education, showing that it now has as much to do with a widespread concern over the decline in the number of liberal arts baccalaureates as about what a liberal arts major should be taught. I don't know if the numbers bear this out, but I will say that it seems obvious the perpetually increasing cost of higher education could discourage people from less lucrative majors.

But I think Donadio, like Bloom, does not separate two different subjects: the quality of the education of liberal arts majors, and the dissolution of the core curriculum offering survey courses for undergrads. She talks about the "invasion of politics" in the humanities, particularly the literature curriculum. But she also interviews Tony Judt, who speaks of undergrads fresh from high school who want broad survey courses that are not offered anymore. Louis Menand gives one of the more striking statements: "The big question for humanists is, How do we explain why what we do it important for people who aren't humanists? That's been really, really tough."

Bloom focused mainly on liberal arts majors, saying they no longer were intellectually curious; were being taught politically correct, but not enlightening texts; were the products of divorce, which made them cynical but less questioning; and were more interested in shallow but accessible cultural forms like movies and rock. Also, apparently the loosening of sexual mores deflated the desire to learn in some way (by apparently removing the 'erotic'--according to Plato, mind you--mystery of and longing for knowledge).

All of this may or may not be or have been true, but what is important, I think, is demanding a basic (Great Books) foundation for all students, not just liberal arts majors. This means reinstating the core curriculum. In order to back up this assertion, I need to 1) Prove the worth of the humanities in general and 2) Prove the worth of the Great Books as the best embodiment of the humanities.

I will allow Tolstoy to give us the reason why the humanities are important: "Science is meaningless because it has no answer to the only questions that matter to us: 'What should we do? How shall we live?'" In other words, science (and I may add business), is only good as a means to an end, as the tool of political and social action. But science cannot give us the reason for doing anything; it cannot tell us how to live as a nation or as individuals. Our political and social institutions, as well as our lives, must run smoothly, with as little disturbance from nature as possible. This is science's function. But we must know, as individuals, how to make decisions. This requires us to have an ethical framework for evaluating life. The richer, the more well-considered this framework, the better our decisions as individuals, and the better our political and social institutions, will be. For the ends of institutions are determined by individuals, and are ultimately moral ends. Some are content with living by the values of their parents, but for those who want to make up their own minds, the only way to attain an Archimedean point from which a person can examine his own values critically is education.

The humanities are the best source of this ethical framework of life. This is because, unlike religious sources, the humanities do not present one, immutable answer to all ethical problems. Reading the Great Books of history challenges you to consider critically many different moral systems. Similarly, in life we are presented with greatly varying alternatives when called upon to act, and must choose the one we consider the best. The power to critically examine alternatives, as well as the moral criteria for choosing a certain way to act, are provided by the humanities. And in a democracy, where everyone needs to make moral judgments not just for themselves but for the nation, these abilities are absolutely critical. I need hardly argue with those who claim that novels or histories do not, like books of moral philosophy, encourage people to weigh differing moral choices. Most fictional works, from Sense and Sensibility to The Little Engine That Could, hinge upon some moral crisis depicted with varying degrees of subtlety. And as Barbara Tuchman said, "To take no sides in history would be as false as to take no sides in life." Because all people, not just liberal arts majors, must be moral agents, it is only right that all students should be required to take a survey course in the humanities.

Now, as to the importance of the Great Books over more recent works by women or minorities, I make the bold claim that by and large the so called Great Texts--The Bible, Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Ethics, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Kant's ethics, Jane Austen, the list goes on--address human questions on a far deeper level than many of the more recent writers, both black and white, both male and female. This is not necessarily because the writers of old were "better." They had a different goal when setting out to write; a grander vision of the purpose of literature. What I mean by this is that writers of today, especially those that address gender and racial issues but not exclusively these, strive to develop an original voice. They want to contribute to the plurality of distinct expressions. This is, by far, their greatest preoccupation. This is noble. But writers of old, and not just Western ones, wrote as if they were writing for mankind, or at least for a civilization. This may be an arrogant presumption, but its fruits cannot be denied. Dante knew he was writing the greatest poem in the Italian language. Shakespeare wanted to present the problems of mankind, conflicts of ideas and personalities with universal resonance. The great writers had not a more ambitious, but certainly a more panoramic approach to literature. Nevertheless, there are some modern writers who should be taught because they are great, and even some modern writers who are purely interesting for their ethnic or sex "identity" value. But this value should not be a criterion for deciding what books should be taught to all students in a core curriculum. And since by and large nothing can replace the older texts in their deep, rich illumination of the fundamental problems that plague all human beings, including poverty (look at the Bible, Aristotle's Ethics, Shakespeare...) and ethnicity (Merchant of Venice and Othello, anyone?), they cannot and should not be replaced.

Some may complain that my given reason for the value of the humanities is too utilitarian, that it vulgarizes the very books I'm defending. I couldn't disagree more. I'm not saying that these books are didactic (although the Bible, if not approached as a work of literature, is) or sententious or morally simplistic. In fact, they are valuable precisely because they are morally interrogative, not prescriptive. They make us think. This is not vulgar. But it is true that I don't need everyone to appreciate the beauty of Homer's verse or Plato's logical flights of fancy. I want them to derive from the books a framework for considering the problems of human life, and a suggestion of the answers.

I think my ethical argument applies for liberal arts majors as well as general survey courses, although to a lesser degree in some cases. I have neither the time nor the inclination to give a full argument about the value of every branch of humanities study.

As for Allan Bloom's analysis, I think his incisiveness was marred by the superfluous elements he was ideologically inclined to include. The loosening of sexual mores has nothing to do with the thirst for knowledge. Many of the great Greek thinkers were not exactly models of sobriety and abstemiousness. Judging from his sonnets, Shakespeare had a penchant for letting his cod out of his piece and had few scruples about it. Above all, Homer's world-view exalts pleasure and wealth. There are innumerable other examples of sexually active, even perverse intellectuals and artists who had few moral qualms about their own sex lives. Although the legacy of the Victorian era causes us to believe sexual mores were never so indulgent as in our own time, in fact in many parts of the world at many times sexuality has been as open as it is now.

That the divorce rate produces less inquisitive liberal arts students is also an entirely conjectural claim. I believe divorces, which indeed have increased over the years, have a variable affect on children, which can't be adequately summed up by pat generalizations, at least ones asserted without study of the subject. The same goes for all "alternative" family arrangements.

I believe that liberal arts majors should be free to pursue their interest in ethnic studies or gay literature or whatever, as long as the atmosphere of study is not politicized, as Allan Bloom lamented. I don't think the question is "Great Books or Race Books?" If liberal arts majors were required to take two years of core, introducing them to the Great Books, I have no problem with them moving on to more esoteric pursuits. In fact, American literature, which does not have a well-established canon, can only be improved by the inclusion of works by minorities and women. After all, African-Americans gave us our only uniquely American music, jazz, and most of what distinguishes our language from England's. It is only natural, with such an accomplished history despite everything, that they should turn out to give the most harrowing, insightful and original accounts of American life in literature as well.

But I'm not going to mince words. To be a better human being, a person has to read the Great Books. I have no problem adding Confucius or some other Eastern thinker (in fact I think a Hindu text would be very good). I'm not saying that you can't improve yourself by other means, but you must have recourse to something that engages you as a human being, and not as a black woman, a gay man, or whatever. I hope that we haven't reached the point where we cannot acknowledge that human beings all have similar ends, although we disagree about the means.