Saturday, May 31, 2008

Trying Their Hardest to Lose

If you've been following the "action" over at the Democratic Party today, do you feel the same wave of nausea that I do? It's actually no longer about Hillary for me. As I've said recently, it's become a litmus test. If you think what she's been up to is OK, that's as much an intellectual problem as a political one. Math, just one of the intellectual guests invited to this bash, used to be lingering outside the room, tapping its foot, but now it's stormed in and is staring you in the face from across the punch bowl. When it's done staring, it asks: If you're trying to cheat your way (while claiming to be cheated) into a scenario in which you still lose, what does that say? I now consider this woman emblematic of what it means to be on Clinton's team. I'm happy -- no, relieved and proud -- to be standing on the other sideline.

(OK, maybe it's also about Hillary.)

But really it's this: Barack Obama has made me care about the Democrats, and it may be the one thing for which I can never forgive him. I've always believed the major parties were equally ridiculous, but I held out hope that it wasn't always going to be for stereotypical reasons, that they might find some fresh way of degrading themselves. But if the Republicans have been living up to their caricature of fat-cat-helping, fake-God-fearing warmongers, aren't the Democrats at least holding up their end of the bargain by behaving as illogical, limp, fractious children? I mean, sweet heaven, they're trying to convince us to allow them to lead us, are they not? I wouldn't let them walk my dog.

Right now, my only question about defining the party as a whole is whether to add "spineless" in front of "raving lunatics."

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Five Songs, Chapter Twenty-Eight (Special Edition)

Over at his blog, my friend Strath responds to someone’s request for five favorite Morrissey songs (either solo or with The Smiths). This was tough, but here goes:

1. Panic

This is still tops for me. Even though it’s not his fullest lyric, and lyrics are such a key to his appeal, this is a perfect burst of a song. And unlike Blur’s “Song 2,” which is similarly brief but relies mostly on shouts of “Whoo-hoo!,” Morrissey does manage to squeeze in a sense of place (“the Leeds side-streets that you slip down / the provincial towns you jog ‘round”). The chants of “hang the DJ” that close out the song (“because the music that they constantly play / it says nothing to me about my life”) are infectious even the millionth time you hear them.

2. Half a Person

A lot of my favorite Morrissey songs are actually upbeat, musically, despite his reputation as a mope. But in this song, he’s got the mope switch set to stun -- he’s “clumsy,” “shy,” “morbid,” and “pale,” self-loathing and obsessed with someone else, and that’s “the story of (his) life.” But he makes misery sound so good.

3. Last of the Famous International Playboys

Maybe my favorite vocal moment of his is when he sings: “I never wanted to kill, I am not naturally evil. Such things I do just to make myself more attractive to you. Have I failed?”

4. The Boy With the Thorn in His Side

“How can they look into my eyes and still they don’t believe me?” We don't know, Morrissey. If anyone knew, I'm sure they would send it to you in a fan letter.

5. The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get

This is a great song overall, but it also has one of his most clever moments, when, as an unrequited lover/stalker, he sings, “I’ve made up your mind.” Brilliant.

And now the honorable mentions, since only Panic above has a spot guaranteed on the list from day to day: Girlfriend in a Coma, Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, Now My Heart is Full, Interesting Drug, Glamorous Glue, We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful, Sheila Take a Bow, and Please, Please, Please...


Monkeys Begin Conquest of Earth

Hey, was anyone else taken aback by this headline in yesterday's New York Times?
Monkeys Control a Robot Arm With Their Thoughts
It turns out the truth is only slightly less hair-raising. The monkeys controlled a robot arm that was attached to sensors on their brain:
After several days, the monkeys needed no help. They sat stationary in a chair, repeatedly manipulating the arm with their brain to reach out and grab grapes, marshmallows and other tasty nuggets dangled in front of them.
I bet this would have really creeped out Charlton Heston.

AP Headline of the Day

Man Is Fined For Throwing Hedgehog At Teen

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Passion of the Christ Look-alike

For Wednesday, Ray LaMontagne ripping through "Three More Days," below. I'm off to enjoy a truly gorgeous day here in New York. More later.

Aphorisms of the Week

"Up to a certain point every man is what he thinks he is." --F.H. Bradley

"Tell me what you think you are and I will tell you what you are not." --Amiel


Tuesday, May 27, 2008


A few weeks ago, I briefly wrote about personal libraries over at Loud, Please. Soon after that, my colleagues there beat me to a follow-up punch by linking to a piece about the same subject by Alberto Manguel in the New York Times.

Manguel has an entire barn in France devoted to his books. Given my more modest space here in Brooklyn (the photos in this post show a few of my stacks, some more haphazard than others), I've lost the ability to hang on to stinkers, but I appreciated this line from Manguel: "I have dozens of very bad books that I don’t throw away in case I ever need an example of a book I think is bad."

(Manguel's latest work, The Library at Night, just arrived from Amazon today. It's an illustrated book about his and other libraries, and I feel safe recommending it after just once flipping through the pages.)

I also liked this paragraph in the Times piece, though I don't strongly relate to its conclusion:
I can’t remember a time in which I didn’t have a library of some sort. The present one is a sort of multilayered autobiography, each book holding the moment in which I opened it for the first time. The scribbles on the margins, the occasional date on the flyleaf, the faded bus ticket marking a page for a reason today mysterious, all try to remind me of who I was then. For the most part, they fail. My memory is less interested in me than in my books, and I find it easier to remember the story read once than the young man who then read it.
For better or worse, I think I have a better grasp of the younger man than the stories. I remember plenty of stories reasonably well, but if I take a random book that I read, say, ten years ago, and which didn't leave a lasting impression (even if I enjoyed it), chances are the story escapes me. I'll go grab a book to see if I'm right...

Here's Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies. There are markings throughout. The back cover tells me it's "the story of Connor 'Gil' Gilmartin," who "catches his wife in flagrante with the Sniffer, his onetime colleague and now his murderer. But murder is only the first of the indignities that Gil must suffer. He lingers on as a ghost, and ... gets to view the exploits and failures of his ancestors, from the forerunners who sailed up the Hudson to Canada during the American Revolution to his university-professor parents."

Yeah, I don't remember any of that.

But on page 254, I underlined the following sentences:
Of course he's never really lived here. Not in his heart, he hasn't. It's always Wales. The Land of Lost Content. Does everybody have one?
I don't remember singling them out, but it doesn't take much to realize why I did. I still have a nostalgic streak, and a belief, which I've written about before, that life -- my life -- is always happening somewhere else.

Those sentences from Davies are fine. (By which I mean, of course, fine for what they say about me; Robertson Davies' prose doesn't need my approval.) I'm still happy that I underlined most of what I have over the years, not to sound like I'm 90. There are certainly things I've tagged that now make me shudder, but I'm shuddering because I've been found out. It's easy to laugh about an old haircut or pair of eyeglasses, to chalk them up to the style of the time. It's something else to confront old feelings and old ways of seeing. No, "old" is too certain. They might be current ways of feeling -- most likely, they are -- but you wouldn't look for their reflection in precisely the same sentences or paragraphs. To wit, I thought I'd find the most recent thing I've bracketed. It's this excerpt from Pack My Bag, a memoir by Henry Green published in 1940:
When I said goodbye in the South of France they all gathered round and told the journey's fortune in cards, arguing over the way one card turned or fell next to the other with as much passion as they ever used towards their politicians. They foretold a railway accident I should be in on the way home. It came to pass but shall find no place here, it was no different from what might have been expected, and was an uninteresting trick to have been played. I did not like to leave France.

It must be the greatest lump of all in dying if our condition is that we are conscious of it at the time. Regret, remorse, the broken bottles our lives are. The French, so practical, cry readily at parting, the Russians, and we were reading Tchekov then, have a minute's silence before the journey. It may be they have this custom because when they travel they have so far to go but when the time comes there cannot be a distance greater than death takes us nor, as I had come to think, one so final. Every farewell, as the French have it, is to die a little. Calling these to mind now may be in a way to die a little less.

"Let's go burn down the observatory so this will never happen again."

People (like my friend "Dezmond") are rightfully excited about the photos that are starting to come back from Mars. Like anyone with a faint pulse and a rudimentary imagination (and I like to think I have a little more than that), I'm fascinated by deep space.

Exploring Mars is the fun part. In this month's Atlantic, Gregg Easterbrook writes about the scary part: The discovery of an increased likelihood that a comet or meteor could explode on or near our planet's surface, causing catastrophic damage. Or, as the Incredible Hulk might put it, the chances that rock smash Earth.

The whole piece is worth reading, if you're interested in this kind of thing; meaning, if you're interested in your survival. Easterbrook writes:
These standard assumptions—that remaining space rocks are few, and that encounters with planets were mainly confined to the past—are being upended. On March 18, 2004, for instance, a 30-meter asteroid designated 2004 FH—a hunk potentially large enough to obliterate a city—shot past Earth, not far above the orbit occupied by telecommunications satellites.
As is made clear, this was not a big asteroid, and obliterating a single city would be lucky compared to other potential outcomes. You can see a brief video of that asteroid (on a loop) by going here. (A meteor zooms by toward the end, trying to steal the show. Don't encourage it.)

As you might imagine, Easterbrook thinks the lack of funding and research for this sort of thing -- against a renewed fever for getting back to the moon -- is misguided. In any case, the piece is a good reminder of how unfathomably large the universe is:
As for extending our presence, a manned mission to Mars is at least decades away, and human travel to the outer planets is not seriously discussed by even the most zealous advocates of space exploration. Sending people “beyond” the solar system is inconceivable with any technology that can reasonably be foreseen; an interstellar spaceship traveling at the fastest speed ever achieved in space flight would take 60,000 years to reach the next-closest star system.

Graduation Was, Like, Awesome

Best-selling and prize-winning author David McCullough spoke at Boston College's commencement ceremony last week, and he offered this advice to the graduates:
"Please, please do what you can to cure the verbal virus that seems increasingly rampant among your generation," McCullough implored...

He said he's particularly troubled by the "relentless, wearisome use of words" such as like, awesome and actually.
He then angrily urged the youngsters to not play Wiffle ball against his garage door.

(Link courtesy of Manny, who has two beautiful children, and recently told me that his son's first word was "taco.")

Sunday, May 25, 2008

You think she's gone? She's not gone. That's the whole point! She's never gone!

This is now officially on the superdelegates. Clinton can't get further off the rails than she already is. Her comments were taken "entirely out of context"? No, they weren't. "...Her aides said on Sunday that the campaign of Senator Barack Obama was partly responsible for fanning the flames"? Pass the Pepto. I had seen dozens of lengthy, outraged reactions online before I even heard the brief statement put out by the Obama campaign. And of course, this all distracts from the fact that the other half of her statement -- the one about Bill's campaign in 1992 -- is not analogous to this year at all.

Superdelegates? Care to make your case for sitting on your hands? This ridiculous party doesn't deserve a candidate like Obama. He should choose a moderate Republican as his VP and run as an independent. Let her and the party go down in flames, no fanning necessary.

(If you need help with the headline reference, click here.)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

An Audition

It's so much easier to fill in the gaps of your film education than your literary education. It might take me a couple of months to read War and Peace, and much longer if it's not translated, because I don't know Russian. Yet, it took me less than two hours tonight to watch The 400 Blows, which was incroyable.

I won't go on and on about the movie, because it's embarrassing enough that I hadn't seen it before now.

The DVD I watched included bonus footage of the remarkable lead actor, Jean-Pierre Léaud, when he tried out for the part. I'm including the clip below. The initial section, featuring Léaud alone, is priceless, and a conversation between him and Patrick Auffay, who would be cast as his friend in truancy, is also great. Stick around for the second half, which features Richard Kanayan. He ended up being cast as another student. (If you've seen the movie, he's the one who ruins his notebook page by page with ink blots.) His voice and overall aspect in the audition are both charming and sad. He's visibly nervous, and though he'd go on to a role in Truffaut's next movie, Tirez Sur Le Pianiste, I'm disappointed to see he didn't have a longer career.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Is This Still a Campaign, or Would She Admit It's Now Performance Art?

Oh, how I wish I could stop posting about her. Truly.

In case you missed this whopper from Hillary earlier today:
“People have been trying to push me out of this ever since Iowa,” where she came in third, behind Mr. Obama and former Senator John Edwards, Mrs. Clinton said. When asked why that would be she said she did not know; primaries sometimes go on a long time and there was no reason she should give up hers prematurely.

“My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. I don’t understand it,” Mrs. Clinton said, dismissing the idea of dropping out.
She's since apologized (to the Kennedys, not Obama), but even if there's nothing historically inaccurate about what she says, the subtext is barely even sub-: Hey, he could get assassinated. Why shouldn't I stay in?

This is, in a word, gross. As Andrew Sullivan writes:
Since some seem unwilling to point out why this remark was more than unfortunate, it is worth remembering that we have the first black candidate for president. You only have to spend a few minutes talking with African-Americans about this campaign to discover that the fear that Obama could be assassinated is very much on their minds. It is in everyone's subconscious, especially Michelle Obama's. To refer to the June assassination of Bobby Kennedy in the context of reasons to stay in this interminable race against Barack Obama is therefore catastrophically inappropriate. Coming after her pitch for "white votes", it is reckless.
I honestly think it's becoming a litmus test for sanity, whether or not you think Clinton has been stepping over lines in her quest for the presidency. If she said so many things that demanded immediate apology about a Republican, she'd look like a loose-cannon candidate. To say them about a black Democrat...

Just as she's electoral poison generally, Clinton -- with her army of increasingly unhinged apologists -- has predictably poisoned her own party. If her supporters refuse to back Obama in the fall, after nearly every crass division has been exploited by her, not him, they will go down in history. Books will be written about them. They'll make the Nader supporters of 2000 look like a shining example of voter integrity and brilliance.

Gallery 15

Boys entering the chapel at Winchester College,
an aristocratic boarding school, 1951, by Cornell Capa


That's How, but What About Why?

In this month's Harper's, Gary Greenberg reviews five books about neuroscience in a piece called "A Mind of Its Own: Resisting the tyranny of the brain." It's a good piece, and I recommend reading the whole thing. Here's a taste:
When neuroscientists tell us where storytelling comes from, or why we can't tickle ourselves (our cerebellum, stimulated when we move our own hands, cancels the tickle signal from the somatosensory cortex -- something we know because scientists have tickled people in MRI machines), or how "mirror neurons" -- brain cells that are activated both when we perform an action and when we witness someone else performing it -- account for empathy, it's hard to understand what difference that explanation makes. What exactly do we know that we didn't know before? . . . For all their fascination and revelation, these books may not do much more than tell us about our pipes and wires, about the infrastructure of personhood, about the necessary, but not the sufficient, conditions of being a self.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

All the Narcissism That's Fit to Print

Oh, my.



The cover article of the next issue of the New York Times Magazine is by Emily Gould, and it's now online. At first, I wasn't going to post about this, because that seems like aiding and abetting. But I had to at least point it out, in the way that I might alert you to a tornado forming behind your back.

Gould formerly wrote for Gawker, the site that thrillingly proves how ineffectively certain New Yorkers can cloak insecurity and a bottomless need for attention with bad jokes and disaffection. I skimmed through all of the nearly 8,000 words of the magazine piece, just to make sure it was as uneventful as it promised to be.

This early paragraph gives a pretty good idea of the whole thing:
Henry, seemingly alone among our generation, went out of his way to keep his online presence minimal. Now that we’ve broken up, I appreciate this about him — it’s pretty much impossible to torture myself by Google-stalking him. But back then, what this meant was that he was never particularly thrilled to be written about. Sometimes he was enraged.
As one of hundreds of commenters has already responded:
At first, I thought I was reading the sophomore page of the student newspaper at Harding High in Yokelville, Ohio. Then I realized that it was the New York Times.
Or, as another, more precise reader put it:

Aphorism of the Week

"Of all lies, art is the least untrue." --Flaubert


The Rest is Noise

One reader (hi, Jule) was surprised by my posting a part of Stabat Mater last week, but then she realized it had been referenced in the previous post. That was the most direct inspiration for it, but I had been meaning to put up a piece of religious music for a while. (I'd also highly recommend Spem in alium as performed by the Tallis Scholars.)

I've embarked (slowly) on building my classical/choral music collection, and one invaluable resource is Alex Ross' blog, The Rest is Noise. It shares its title with Ross' recently published and highly acclaimed book about twentieth-century music. When I went searching for Ross' thoughts on Stabat Mater, I discovered that he often writes annotated playlists on his site, and creates them on iTunes so you can download them in their entirety. A great idea.

I had already been a fan of The Rest is Noise for its general interest (and it's now belatedly on my blogroll at right), as in Ross' most recent post, in which he writes about the diaries of Prokofiev. He shares this excerpt that Prokofiev wrote about being interrogated by American immigrant authorities in San Francisco around 1918:
"What is this?"
"Did you write it yourself?"
"I did, on board ship."
"Can you play it?"
"I can."
"Play it, then."
On the piano in the ship's saloon, I played the main theme of the Violin Sonata on its own, without accompaniment. It was not appreciated.
"Can you play Chopin?"
"What would you like me to play?"
"The Funeral March."
I played four bars. The official evidently enjoyed it.
"Very good," he said, with feeling.
"Did you know for whose death it was composed?"
"His dog's."

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Songs on a Theme

For this Wednesday, two songs following from the post below this one. First, Lyle Lovett doing "L.A. County." Then, the Avett Brothers covering "That's How I Got to Memphis." It's a Tom T. Hall song, and Kelly Willis contributed a great version to a tribute record; but I couldn't find a live performance of hers online. I like this version, too.

Both songs are about following people to a certain place, but with...different intentions.

Country Favorites

Norm Geras, a country music fan, points us to another blogger who’s asking for people’s 10 favorite country artists. I’m a big fan of a lot of country-inflected stuff, but I’ve left off my list anything that I consider more appropriately in the pop/rock category (Richard Buckner, Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, The Jayhawks, The Be Good Tanyas, Ron Sexsmith, The Notorious B.I.G., etc.)

Here’s my final cut:

1. Lyle Lovett
2. Hank Williams
3. Kelly Willis
4. Alison Krauss
5. Iris DeMent
6. George Jones
7. Laura Cantrell
8. Johnny Cash
9. Dixie Chicks
10. Dolly Parton

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Simpsons, Season Four

Over at Pajiba, they've been running a series about the 15 best seasons of TV from the past 20 years -- fifteen different shows, one season each. For me, this was a no-brainer, so I was very happy when no one chose "The Simpsons" before me. My post about its fourth season is up today. Here's how it starts:
For a rabid fan of "The Simpsons" such as myself, writing about the show’s fourth season is a bit like a baseball historian considering the ‘27 Yankees, or a European scholar trying to sum up the Renaissance, or a toothless hillbilly struggling to express the soul-rattling edification he feels sitting in the glow of "Blue Collar TV." In short, it’s overwhelming.

This is the best I can do at summation: "The Simpsons" is the best show in television history, and the fourth season was its peak.

End of the Drought?

Through the first two legs of the Triple Crown, Big Brown has been toying with the other horses. The question is, are the other horses toys? In both the Kentucky Derby and last weekend’s Preakness Stakes, jockey Kent Desormeaux barely had to ask Big Brown to run. He nudges him at the top of the stretch, and that’s it. In the Preakness, Desormeaux looked behind him a couple of times to make sure no one was in striking distance, and never went to the whip.

Both races have been incredibly impressive performances, and Big Brown can't help who his competition is, but this batch of 3-year-olds doesn’t seem particularly strong. Still, a win in the Belmont would make him the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years, and that speaks for itself. At least one racing expert believes any carping about the horse's accomplishments is silly.

Two things to watch for in the Belmont Stakes on June 7:

1. Casino Drive. This horse didn't run in the Derby or the Preakness, but he looked really good winning a big race at Belmont earlier this month. (His jockey in that race was Desormeaux, who will, of course, stay on Big Brown for the Triple Crown try.)

2. Long shots. Real long shots. Since 1999, three of the four horses who lost the Belmont after winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown lost to horses who were 30-1 or more. (In 2002, winner Sarava went off at 70-1.)

AP Headline of the Day

Ohio Students' Hotel Room Doors Duct-Taped Shut

Monday, May 19, 2008

The On-Deck Circle

According to Site Meter, it's not like there are droves waiting for this news, but the four quiet days around here don't mean anything. The volume will increase starting tomorrow. Here's a taste of what's ahead this week, in the form of a list of names that will make appearances: Homer Simpson, triple-crown hopeful Big Brown, music critic Alex Ross, British novelist Henry Green, and Flavor Flav.

Buckle up.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


A rambling but pleasant reminiscence of a friendship with the philosopher Richard Rorty (via Crooked Timber). . . . Maud Newton requested a custom-made cartoon, and it's funny. . . . Photos of TV. Don't think about it. Just visit here, and enjoy. (Via Pacific Standard). . . . I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords.

Chile, Sky Country

A volcano in Chile began erupting last week for the first time in 9,000 years, and lightning is evidently (stunningly) attracted to the plume:

There are lots more to see -- photos by Carlos Gutierrez for UPI.

(Via the terrific BLDG BLOG, and a tip from Nick.)

Two Voices for Wednesday/Thursday

The Wednesday song, a day late. (Yesterday was spent mostly away from the computer). Katia Ricciarelli and Lucia Valentini singing the first movement of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Long-Lost Lunches

In this lengthy interview with veteran book editor Pat Strachan (which I believe I found through Maud Newton's site), the anecdotes shared conjure up another world. The publishing biz is still full to overflowing with lunch dates, but it's safe to say moments like this one are fewer and farther between:
Another (memorable meeting) was with Joseph Brodsky, when he learned at lunch that I didn’t know much about classical music. He was really horrified. After lunch, he took me to a record store and bought me a basic set: Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary, Brahams’s Third Symphony. A few basics to get me started.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Iron Man, or: How I Learned to Stop Trusting the Military and Worry

Last Friday was inhospitable here, windy and rainy, so I did what any loyal American does in the face of bad weather: I went to the movies.

My choice was Iron Man, and it was a good one. Even though I grew up reading comic books -- and Iron Man was among them, if not on the A-list with Spider-Man, X-Men, and The Incredible Hulk -- almost all superhero movies have fallen short of my expectations, which have been pretty low going in. (I’m not 8 anymore.) And it’s not like Iron Man changed my life, but it changed my rainy Friday afternoon.

As everyone on the planet has said by now, Downey rips through the title role, which isn’t really shocking. The supporting cast is up to the task of dancing with him, and the movie deftly moves between the feel of a comic book and a story for grown-ups (well, immature grown-ups).

The movie’s political context could be the fodder for term papers. I’m not usually one to read too much into a silly movie. (It was good, but these movies are inherently silly, no? I mean, it features people fighting each other in giant metal suits.) But it’s hard to avoid some reaction to the movie’s dual setting which is: the halls of the American military-industrial complex and Afghanistan. This politicized mood is not unique to the movie. As I found out during a rigorous research session in the dusty depths of the Library of Congress . . . OK, on Wikipedia: “In his premiere (comic in 1963), Iron Man was an anti-communist hero, defeating various Vietnamese agents; (Stan) Lee later regretted this early focus.” I read somewhere that, politically, the movie will satisfy both poles: If you’re a leftist, you’ll see plenty of American culpability in Iron Man; if you’re on the right, you get a healthy serving of American-produced might (eventually) righting wrongs.

I agree more with A.O. Scott of the New York Times, who wrote, “the patina of geopolitical relevance is worn thin and eventually discarded...” But that’s not to say there isn’t a philosophy at the core of this movie. It is -- gulp -- the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

Tony Stark (the billionaire who becomes Iron Man) isn’t a self-made success when the movie begins. At least financially. Yes, he’s a genius who blazed through MIT the way he blazes through women and liquor -- Doogie Howser meets Bill Gates meets . . . well, Robert Downey, Jr. -- but he’s also a child of privilege. He has inherited Stark Industries, a very high-end weapons manufacturer, from his father.

The movie tracks Tony’s realization that weapons have fallen into the hands of some really bad Bad Guys, which is what inspires him to create the metallic outfit that allows him to fly to Afghanistan at greater than the speed of sound, etc. The core conflict, though, is between Tony and the military, which wants to use his inventions for their own purposes.

Sound familiar? The classic Rand set-up has a strong individual battling to keep his creations from being co-opted by society. In The Fountainhead, published in 1943, twenty years before the birth of Iron Man, that individual is architect Howard Roark. (Does the rhythm of that name sound familiar? And Tony Stark’s father was named Howard Stark.)

As in Rand’s universe, the deck in Iron Man is stacked. Groups are evil, and Tony, the (literally) gleaming individual, is noble. And as when I was 16 and geeking out about The Fountainhead, there’s an appeal to this. (I remain closer to a libertarian than a socialist, but don’t like the idea of actually winding up in either camp.) You can see, though, why the movie’s conclusion is a bit scary. It’s true that placing justice in the hands of a nefarious bureaucracy is not ideal (as the great saying has it, a camel is a horse designed by a committee; and that saying is just about committees, not actively evil committees). But the alternative, in Iron Man, is to put justice in the hands of one erratic guy with a drinking problem who can destroy tanks by pointing in their direction.

Uhhh, excuse me if I wait to see the option behind door number three.

But really, Objectivist analysis aside, it’s an entertaining movie. You should see it, especially if it’s raining.

Now, let’s take a trip back in time, to the mid-1960s, when a television version of Iron Man featured the amazing theme music in the clip below. (If you want more, here's the Hulk and here's Captain America. Priceless stuff.)

Five Months

Realizing that I put up this post on December 17 of last year, all I can say is: Please. Make. It. Stop.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Titlepage Turns Five (Episodes)

The fifth episode of Titlepage went up today. It features four authors born outside the U.S. -- Simon Winchester, Aleksandar Hemon, Rabih Alameddine, and Nam Le. Each of these writers has a fascinating background and a great story to tell. And after they're done discussing their latest books, they have a spirited discussion about what it means to write about other cultures for an American audience. Enjoy:

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Peter Scissorhands

Maud Newton recently showcased the stunning work of Peter Callesen. As she wrote, the works "have been floating around the Internet for a while, but they’re new to me." I think my favorite is one that Maud also featured on her blog:

But there's plenty more to choose from, like the one below. I guess I'm partial to the smaller paper-cuts, but the large-scale work is also impressive.


I have to agree with this, written to Andrew Sullivan by a reader of his:
Hillary's hanging on to the contest dramatically proves to me that she is unfit to be our president. It is so Bush-like, is it not? It's her Iraq. She has obviously failed, yet she keeps on just to prove she's not a quitter. Where have we heard that lately? How can we depend on her? Like Bush, she cannot admit a mistake. She can't admit failure. She is not rational. She'll take us down with her.

We need a rational president so badly. One who makes decisions based on careful consideration of all the facts and understands the real risks and likelihood of success. Hillary is running her campaign into the ground financially. Is that what we want in a president? Someone who uses fear and divisiveness to appeal to people?

Her campaign alone is a reason to vote against her.

Running in Kentucky

To follow up on the Derby once more...

In case you haven't figured out a fairly ripe political metaphor for the events at Churchill Downs last weekend, Robert Wright and Ana Marie Cox discuss it here.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Steampunk: Your Guess Is As Good As Mine

If you can read this article about "steampunk" and make any damn sense of it, please let me know. It seems like grown people of all genders, races, and interests pretending to live in Victorian times. Or pretending that submarines haven't been invented yet. Or wanting to live in the past but thinking all modern technology is OK if it has brass trim. Or just watching a certain kind of not-particularly-obscure movie together.

I'm truly confounded.

But that might be the point:
“Part of the reason it seems so popular is the very difficulty of pinning down what it is,” Mr. von Slatt added. “That’s a marketer’s dream.”

The VP Issue

More on last night's primaries later, but for now, I entirely agree with this from Matthew Yglesias:
I'm seeing Harold Ford, Jr. on television talking about how maybe an Obama-Clinton ticket would be the best way for Obama to appeal to white working class voters. I think there's no doubt that enhancing his appeal to white working class voters should be an important considering in thinking about a VP choice. But when you consider all the possibilities, does anyone seriously think that Clinton is the politician with the most appeal to white working class voters? I think the evidence is clear that she has more appeal to them than Barack Obama does but she hardly seems like the best possible choice.
This is a subset of an illogical argument that infects a lot of primary talk. It can also be seen when Clinton supporters trumpet her victories in places like New York as somehow meaningful for the general election. People deciding between Democrats has only so much to do with how they'll choose between Either Democrat and a Republican.

Obama might rightfully be concerned about the female vote, though, so if he's looking to secure that as well as working class whites, my suggestion for VP is Roseanne Barr. Hell, she was allowed to guest-edit an issue of The New Yorker once. Why not?

Jazz for Wednesday

Bill Evans performing "Beautiful Love" with drummer Alan Dawson and bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. (In Berlin, 1965.) Enjoy:

The High-End Lost and Found

A great article in the Times today about a world-class violinist, Philippe Quint, playing a concert for 50 cab drivers at Newark Airport.

The concert was inspired by one driver in particular, Mohammed Khalil:
On April 21, Mr. Quint accidentally left a Stradivarius violin, valued at $4 million, in the back seat of a cab that he took from the airport to Manhattan on his return from a performance in Dallas. After several frantic hours, the Newark police told him the violin had been found and was at the airport taxi stand with the cabdriver who had taken him home. The two connected, and the violin was returned.
You know where I'm going with this, but please allow me to anyway. Granted, I've got a strain of OCD in me, but there are times when I check two or three times for a paperback as I'm getting out of a cab. How is it that one forgets they're traveling with a $4 million Stradivarius? Amazing.

(There's an audio slide show that accompanies the article; worth checking out.)

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Thoughts on the Derby

I'll get to the tragic news in a second.

First, Big Brown looked terrific winning the Kentucky Derby, and since, by consensus, it's a weak year for three-year-olds, 2008 might finally mark the end of the Triple Crown drought.

I discovered how cold a comfort loyalty can be: I bet Monba, simply because I had bet him in the Blue Grass Stakes, which he won. In the Derby, he finished 20th (that would be last) by 59 lengths.

Of course, the biggest news out of the race was that Eight Belles, the only filly running that day (she finished second), broke both her ankles after crossing the finish line and had to be euthanized. This has, understandably, reignited debate about the safety measures taken in horse racing. I thought Megan McArdle had a pretty balanced take on the issue.

Where to Start and How to Let Go

The latest issue of The Believer features an interview with Richard Price, which is available in its entirety online. (Price was also famously featured on the first episode of Titlepage.)

Early in the interview, Price says of his new novel, Lush Life:
For me—for this book—the Lower East Side is the main character. The whole point was: how do I write about the Lower East Side in a way that hasn’t been done before? I mean, you can’t write about it historically. It’s probably the most well-documented literary-historical neighborhood in the world. Guys got off the boat, the first thing they did was write a novel about getting off the boat.
Later, he talks about the process of letting the manuscript go:
With this book, I saved the editor for the end, but when I had to turn it in, it wasn’t a submission, it was an intervention. He had to come to the house and it was there on my computer and he had to sit next to me and talk very softly, like, “Come on, just push the send button, just push the send button,” and I’m like, “But I don’t understand the transition between the cop and the synagogue….” “Oh, that’s OK, we’ll work on it, come on, just push the send button.”
In between, he talks about the difference between writing novels and screenplays, procrastination, and the joys of good dialogue. Read the whole thing.

Friday, May 02, 2008

AP Headline of the Day

Ohio Judge to Decide Man's Fate for Sharing Snack Cake

True Alternatives to Fake Blockbusters

To get a jump on disparaging the summer film season -- not that I won't see Iron Man; oh, I will -- Pajiba put together a list of some of the staff's favorite documentaries. These are things you can rent instead of going to see Indiana Jones XVIII or STD: Las Vegas or Miley Cyrus Poses Provocatively Across the Hood of Herbie the Love Bug or whatever other trash is emerging from southern California these days. I contributed a few brief thoughts about Sherman's March, my all-time favorite doc.

Others recommended the creepy Grey Gardens (which I wrote about here) and the even creepier Crumb (which I wrote about here), both excellent choices. Other docs I loved that made the list are The Thin Blue Line, Hoop Dreams, and Spellbound.

A few I'd highly recommend that didn't make the cut are, Grizzly Man, and American Movie (for entertaining clips of that last one, see this previous post).

And of course, the commenters chip in with suggestions, helpfully reminding me of several I want to see: Dark Days, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and Capturing the Friedmans, to name three.

Several people mention Tarnation. That movie irritated me.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Around D.C.

Springtime for Zealots

When the Pope was in town recently, I was trying to visit my sister on the upper east side and got stuck in a throng of pedestrians. They were gathered to wait for the big guy's arrival at a church across the street. There was no particular look to the crowd -- just average people, some little girls with hand-drawn signs. Then, a bit further down the block, barricaded into their own small section, were protesters. They were chanting loudly, and held signs that mostly said terrible things about gay people -- not child molesters, mind you; gay people -- and how the Pope would be going to hell for supporting them.

Clearly, these people were religious fanatics. Secular New Yorkers angry at the church's sex scandals wouldn't be degrading all gay people. These were the kind of despicable nut jobs who show up at soldiers' funerals holding up signs about fags and damnation. I overheard one soft-spoken old lady, stooped over, telling a neighbor on the street, "I told them they should be ashamed of themselves." But like most zealots, it didn't appear that shame was in their repertoire.

The real reason I bring this up is because I'm not Catholic. I'm not even religious. But the idea that religion leads to evil and stupidity is making less and less sense to me as I get older. The group of detractors on the street that day were crazed first -- they were attaching themselves, like angry barnacles, to the underside of religion, but if religion weren't around, they'd be red-faced about skin color or gender or the use of the designated hitter in the American League. I'm not giving religion a pass on its more nefarious side -- which exists in spades. Just the idea that people were so excited to see the Pope, this frail man, as if he himself was God, makes me shake my head in wonder. But I still think human nature is the bigger problem, not religion. Not the easiest problem to address, I know, but a bigger one.

South Dakota Will Not Be Denied!!

I just caught up with a good essay by Jonathan Chait in The New Republic titled "No Really, You Should Go." Guess who it's about?

Near the top, he addresses a basic principle:
The persistent weakness of American liberalism is its fixation with rights and procedures at any cost to efficiency and common sense. Democrats' reluctance to push Clinton out of the race is the perfect expression of that delicate sensibility.
Then he addresses the superdelegates issue:
Depending on how the remaining primaries go, Clinton will need about two-thirds of the uncommitted ones to break her way. Problem is, over the last month, superdelegates have broken to Obama by 78 percent to 22 percent. And the supers who haven't endorsed are even less likely to side with Clinton. Numerous reports on uncommitted superdelegates have made clear that they have remained on the sideline out of an exquisite fear of stepping on the results of the voters. As my colleague Noam Scheiber reported, "Just about every superdelegate and party operative I spoke with endorsed Nancy Pelosi's recent suggestion that pledged delegates should matter most."
But I liked this most of all, because it's so true:
A related justification is the "Think of the Puerto Ricans" defense. As a Clinton campaign memo insists, "the citizens in Pennsylvania, Guam, North Carolina, Indiana, West Virginia, Oregon, Kentucky, Puerto Rico, Montana and South Dakota have not yet had the opportunity to exercise that fundamental right." Of course, if Clinton suspended her campaign, those states could still vote for her if they wanted. It's true that their vote wouldn't matter, but that's the way it usually works most of the time anyway. A few months ago, everybody expected the race to be decided after New Hampshire. Now we can't bear to face the fact that the race has been decided after merely 80 percent of the states have weighed in.