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.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Microsoft gets scolded but Google is around so who cares?

Of Interest to the businessman:

The European Courts ruled against Microsoft, claiming the company held a monopoly through its Windows Media player and that it withheld confidential computer code further restraining competitors from using Microsoft technology with their own. In an effort to avoid a ruling like this, Microsoft provided a line of computers in Europe without the new Vista operating system, so no trade-secrets were needed and computers could still be purchased. That didn't go so well. Nobody wanted second rate systems. So the hammer fell, and Microsoft is being punished. It must provide a Windows Media Player free version of Windows, disclose confidential computer code, and pay some 497 million euros or $689.4 million. The decision also makes it more difficult for Microsoft to put a mix of new features into products. If competitors complain, authorities will listen and enforce.
Ok, well, what's done is done. It's over. One interesting part is how the media approached this story. In the The New York Times, the story's angle focused on how this will affect other technology giants like Apple and Google:

"Software and legal experts said the European ruling might signal problems for companies like Apple, Intel and Qualcomm, whose market dominance in online music downloads, computer chips and mobile phone technology is also being scrutinized by the European Commission."

While in the Financial Times, the actual ruling and Microsoft's grievances felt more attention. An editorial in the FT read:

"Despite the Commission's ruling, Windows Media Player dominates its market, and though Microsoft was forced to provide a version of Windows without Media Player it had little effect because there was no price different between the two."

Basically the FT believes the ruling was a good start but not really the appropriate medicine. That may be true, but to stateside folk, it all seems slightly meaningless. Recently, Google bought a NASA landing strip that wasn't for sale. The search-engine juggernaut also has numerous other projects in virtually every area of innovation -it just announced a moon-landing competition. To those who share a home continent with Apple and Google, it's easy to see which ones are the new young hot shots on the scene and which are the old, impotent ones. The truth is Microsoft is fading away. More and more of its products are second rate compared to Apple and Google. Sure this may be the beginning of a general taming of super-companies but to Americans, it's a slow start. Microsoft has been fighting a losing battle with Apple. When penalties come down on Apple or Google or major telecommunications companies, then we'll talk.

Worried about Hillary's Health?

Of Interest to the sickly:

Hillary Clinton recently proposed a health insurance plan based on the "individual mandate" idea, which requires individuals to get health care or face a penalty. Also, employers would be forced to give their employees health insurance. Lower income people would receive federal support to pay for the health premiums, and the most impoverished would pay virtually nothing. Edwards supports an individual mandate plan that is somewhat altered, Obama doesn't support the individual mandate idea, but the only politician with experience in this area is Republican Mitt Romney, who as governor of Massachusetts helped pass a bipartisan health insurance "individual mandate" bill in April, 2006. As of July, 2007 all residents of Massachusetts were required to have health insurance by law, a step beyond other universal coverage schemes in Hawaii or Maine. The system is complex and not fully worked out. It doesn't seem as if anyone knows exactly what will happen if this centrist policy were implemented. The attraction of the plan is that it appeals to both banks of the Seine: the left will like it because it uses subsidies to help poorer folk, and the right wingers like it because it relieves the state of the cost of "health care moochers" who make taxpayers foot the bill for their emergency room adventures. Of course the Cato Institute says it's a slippery slope to full government health care, but is that true? States require all residents to have auto insurance, but there is no state-run auto insurance provider. We have to wait for more data from Massachusetts, I think. One other question is whether it would raise health insurance premiums because poorer people don't have to pay the full amount. That might be true.

And it doesn't solve the problem of those who are insured but are denied adequate care.

Article on Massachusetts Health Care

Campus Police Harass Student

Of Interest to the Patriot:

Some Fucked Up Shit

Word is spreading fast about the violation of free speech during a question and answer session at a campus forum with John Kerry. The incident was captured on camera by at least two observers, both of whose videos are now being bandied about the web. If you notice in the video, the cops grab Andrew Meyer, who is incidentally a student in Journalism and Communications (one wonders if this minor scrap won't make him consider plying his trade in some other, less repressive country) as he's just standing there, seconds after delivering his question about the skull and crossbones and his mic is cut. He does not become upset before the cops manhandle him, as UF spokesman Steve Orlando seems to imply in his statement to the press. Three disturbing, minor things: the audience actually applauds the assault on this guy's person, John Kerry seems completely befuddled (that's not a complete surprise, though), and I think I detect a smile on some of the faces of those nearest the police as they restrain Andrew Meyer and taser him. I don't really seriously think this is indicative of some larger trend of police brutality (we of course are tolerant of a certain constant, low level of it...) but what the fuck? Why are there police hovering around the mic in the first place? And why are the students cheering on this violent removal, even if it is warranted, even if he did become violent and unruly, which he clearly didn't?

The Renaissance Society

Of interest to the critic:

The Renaissance Society, a gallery at the University of Chicago (in the interest of full disclosure, I work there) opened its new exhibition on Sunday. Entitled "Gravesend" after a town in Kent, England that is also the starting point of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," the visually wondrous 17 minute film by British artist Steve McQueen documents the process of turning raw coltan, a metallic ore mined in the Congo, Australia, Brazil, etc, into a component of capacitors in electronic devices. The mineral is in high demand thanks to the ever-growing market for cell phones and computers. It has fueled the civil war in Congo, which has claimed the lives of 3.8 million.

A subject like this conjures up in my mind the horrific images of Darwin's Nightmare, the documentary about Nile Perch that was nominated for an Oscar in 2005. But what immediately strikes you about the film is that it contains no humanizing elements, no commentary. It is just a series of images and short scenes, with a narrative of sorts following the coltan from the mines where it is extracted by pick-axe from rock faces to space-age refineries where machines eerily do their strange work without any human presence. There are beautiful shots of the jungle, of the geometric shapes in the refineries, of steel blades breaking rocks apart, of the play of light on water. There is a long shot of a sunset over an industrial landscape, and an animated sequence following the contours of the Congo River.

All very beautiful, yeah. But doesn't this subject require a moral stance? Doesn't Conrad, though in every sense a novelist's novelist, also allow his moral indignation to seep onto the pages of "Heart of Darkness"? I don't mean McQueen has to flash Marxist slogans across the screen, only that he depict for the human cost; that he show suffering or at least humanize the workers. The more I thought about it, though, the more I thought it possible that I simply missed some of the moral implications of McQueen's film.

For example, he made the deliberate decision of not showing the faces of any of the workers, leaving them indistinguishable, mere tools of an economy. He then juxtaposes the images of the workers with footage of real machines in refineries. Herein is the barbarism of the coltan trade: workers lose their individuality and become no more than machines. Without showing overt suffering of any kind, McQueen points out the essential cost of any brutal industrial process. The juxtaposition of what looks like a grave being dug out (or it may not be a grave) in the jungle with the setting sun over a factory also suggests the human toll of the process, while this last image's allusion to the first lines in Conrad's novel brings into relief the similarities between the 1890s exploitation of the Congo and modern corporate ventures.

On the other hand, the allusion to Conrad could have a different meaning. It's true that McQueen makes overt homages to the Heart of Darkness, but it does not follow that he is criticizing empire or neo-colonialism as such. He could be saying that like Conrad, he is using an historical example of immorality as a starting point, but not the focus, of his work of art. After all, Conrad's book does not primarily document the injustice of colonialism by focusing on the victims, as Sinclair's The Jungle did in its treatment of stockyard workers, but uses colonialism as an avenue to explore evil, passing quickly and perhaps heedlessly from the historical to the universal. McQueen could similarly be moving quickly beyond the social and political realities to the aesthetic value of the coltan trade.

McQueen, I think, struggles with how to make a film about something as morally loaded as the coltan trade without turning it into a documentary or a polemic. He wants to produce pure art, pure film, but his subjects require a moral stance. Can an artist extract a small bit of a subject (its visual beauty), like a miner working in the shafts, and not worry about the rest? What is art's place in a world where even nature is politicized? Are the demands of art and the demands of conscience in conflict? I guess Conrad had to think about these questions, too. McQueen has created a remarkable film, but it sits a little uneasily with me. Its images are too seductive. Brutality shouldn't be this beautiful. But that probably isn't McQueen's fault.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Supermassive Blackhole

The show Californication had problems from the start. One, it was about a writer (how original, deemed one perspective fan). Two, besides semi-clever quips mainly from David Duchovny (X-Files) the dialog -which the show clings to for dear life- is pretty bland. And finally, three: It's pretty clear that the direction of the show is unclear. As deadline approached the writers probably said "what the hell, we're good-looking, interesting, funny, and sexually in-demand, let's go to the screen!" As sincere as they may have been in this hypothetical situation, none of this is true. But! The show's most endearing quality is that it's taking shape. Our hero, Hank, is overcoming his severe writer's block and scribbling down something onto a blog, in between sexual encounters with gorgeous women which he picks up like rocks at a quarry. It's obnoxious. We get it. He's sexy, charming, smart, and everything else every guy would like to know he is.
Back to Californication's endearing quality. The show has a stellar but under-appreciated cast: Natasha McElhone and Evan Handler among others.
In the latest episode Hank (Duchovny) rants on Public Radio about the degradation of the English lexicon after his girlfriend says "LOL" in real life (IRL). He takes his disgust and blogs about it and then explains how he feels on the radio:
"Just the fact that people seem to be getting dumber and dumber, you know? I mean we have all this amazing technology and yet computers have turned us into four-finger wank machines. The internet was supposed to set us free, democratize us but all it's really given us is Howard Dean's aborted candidacy and 24 hour access to kiddy porn. People don't write anymore. They blog. Instead of talking, they text. No punctuation, no grammar. You know, it just seems to me that it's just a bunch of stupid people tsudo-communicating with a bunch of other stupid people instead of using the King's English."
Oh but Hank, what are we both doing? "Hence my self-loathing," he says. Hank Moody has just spoken the rationale for this blog.
Anyway, there are also other pluses. Besides a decidedly dull plot -mediocre at best, there are plenty of pop references and chuckle-worthy moments. And the show's irreverence for the corruption of all literary works through film and the internet is admirable. At least Californication's heart is in the right place.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


I'm swamped with school. I'm behind on my work and am overloaded at the Michigan Daily; still, I manage to squeeze in a little leisure time, which I spend reading. I'm thoroughly engaged in Jeffrey Frank's latest novel Trudy Hopedale. Want complexity, a sprinkling of humor, an engrossing story, and interesting, unique characters in a realistic environment? Then Frank's latest novel is your dream come true! I highly recommend it. Not going to spoil anything though.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

What is said on the CTA

On a personal note:

It went like this, two guys were on a city bus. One turned to the other:
Guy 1: You know what the difference is between Chicago and New York?
Guy 2: No, what?
Guy 1: In New York, on the train, people will be reading like The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Economist, The New Yorker, et cetera. In Chicago, there's none of that. People are always reading self-help books on the train. I mean, I won't even have to see the title, I'll just see some of the text and it'll be like "And if you take your anger, and really question, the root of that anger, your life will not only grow in joy, but also lessen in sorrow." It's ridiculous. That's why Chicagoans aren't as aware of the world as New Yorkers, and why Chicago media is such crap.
Guy 2, who's smiling, pauses: You're one of those crazy people on the buses ranting about something totally irrelevant.
Guy 1: What? No! This is important.
Guy 2 starts laughing and hugs his stomach with mirth.
Not far away, a girl on the phone says to whoever's on the other end "...Hey, so I'm on the bus, yeah, ha ha, funny. There are these two hilarious guys on the bus. They're so funny. One of them started talking about reading on the train in New York and, well I'll have to tell you later. I think they miss New York or something.

That was me and my friend Ben.

Monday, September 3, 2007


Police officers in Colorado Springs have found the root of all crime, at least at home: music. The New York Times reported today that police officers in Colorado attribute rising gang violence to the growing hiphop and rap scene:
“We don’t want to broad-brush hip-hop music altogether,” said Lt. Skip Arms, a police spokesman, “but we’re looking at a subcomponent that typically glorifies, promotes criminal behavior and demeans women.”

Ok, first off, Skip Arms? Is that your name? Seriously? Secondly, Skip, based on your data, you might want to watch out for anyone listening to The Velvet Underground (the potential perpetrators/listeners are probably of your generation). Consider Heroin from the former rock sensation:
I don't know just where I'm going
But I'm gonna try for the kingdom, if I can
cause it makes me feel like I'm a man
When I put a spike into my vein
And Ill tell ya, things aren't quite the same
When I'm rushing on my run
And I feel just like jesus son
And I guess that I just dont know

Clearly, that's a totally different situation though, right? They're only singing about putting a highly addictive and mind altering substance into the bloodstream. That's totally legal... And after listening to the VU, there surely wasn't anyone curious about heroin.
Skip's colleague had this to say:
“When you have music that says it’s basically O.K. to treat women poorly, to steal things and to confront and shoot police officers,” said Lt. Harris, “you’ll attract a small percentage of the population that wants to lead the thug life.”

Right on Harris! You've got it. The key word is small. As in, if Colorado Spingers were listening to opera and the lyrics involved throwing massive amounts of tea into the bay, the idea would cross a fractional number of listeners' mind. Whether they acted on it or not is up to them, not the music. The point here is that there's always been edgy music exploring taboo subjects, it doesn't make people want to kill or whatever. In fact, it's probably better than just suppressing the ideas until there's some kind of eruptive meltdown and all hell -which until then had been retained- bursts out causing chaos. But you're probably right. So go ahead, blare the siren when Tupac is on the radio, Alex and his droogs must definitely be on the street. It's all in a day's work for Colorado's finest.