Tuesday, January 30, 2007

One of the many, many, many reasons why I think cell phones are more of a nuisance than a benefit

Transcript of phone conversation last night:

Me: Greetings, Ms. Wonderifical!

The Missus: Hi! How was your plane ride?

Me: Not too bad. I think I might have caught something. The kid on the row in front of me had a cold and kept coughing and sneezing without covering his mouth. And all day today my throat has been kind of sore.

TM: You’re fading. I didn’t get anything after, “Not too bad.”

Me: (raising voice) I WAS SAYING THAT MY THROAT IS A LITTLE SORE. IT HURTS TO TALK.

TM: Yeah. Didn’t get that.

Me: (practically screaming) I AM NOT FEELING TOO HOT. IT HURTS TO TALK.

TM: What was that? You’re all crackling and staticy.

Me: (actually screaming) I HATE THIS PHONE. THIS IS THE THIRD CALL TODAY WHERE I’VE HAD TO SCREAM TO BE HEARD. THE PEOPLE IN THE HOTEL KEEP BANGING AGAINST MY WALL. I BET THEY THINK I’M SOME SORT OF PSYCHO LIKE JOHN GOODMAN IN THAT 'BARTON FINK' MOVIE. I JUST GOES INTO AN EMPTY HOTEL ROOM AND SCREAM AND SCREAM FOR HOURS ON END. THE NEXT KNOCK ON MY DOOR WILL NO DOUBT BE THE POLICE.

TM: I’m sorry, honey, but you’re not coming through at all. Do you want me to call back?

Me: WOULDN’T IT BE TRAGIC IF I HAD A HEART CONDITION NO ONE KNEW ABOUT AND ALL THE UNDUE STRESS FROM TALKING ON A CELL PHONE LET TO-

*sharp intake of air*

*silence*

*thudding noise*

TM: Hello? Hello? I think the call dropped.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Which Science Fiction Writer are You?

Looks like I have a new author to read up on, because I've never heard of the guy.

I am:
Hal Clement (Harry C. Stubbs)
A quiet and underrated master of "hard science" fiction who, among other things, foresaw integrated circuits back in the 1940s.


Which science fiction writer are you?

Racism and Regionalism

Everyone hates each other. And there is no one more hated than the people right next to you. It always fascinates me when people act like the world is divided into homogeneous groups (like Southerners, Conservative Christians, or Mac Users) when, in my experience, all of these “homogeneous groups” bicker and constantly threaten to tear themselves apart.

In college, I went to China, and one of the things that continually shocked me was the fact that everyone was so blatantly racist. The people from the Southern provinces hated the people from the Northern provinces. The people from the Northern Provinces hated the people from the Southern provinces. And EVERYONE hated the Japanese.

One of the Chinese nationals even told us how frustrated he was with our group because, after meeting us, he had no idea what a typical American looked like. In our group we had tall and short people, different facial structures, and at least four different types of hair color. It baffled him, because he prided himself on being able to tell you everything about a person based on how they looked. He would point out people on the street, telling our group what province each passerby was, saying things like “That person is Cantonese – he eats dirt and bugs! HAHAHAHA! Dirty, dirty Cantonese!”

And then he would spit.

I chose to find it a cute, almost endearing, idiosyncrasy instead of giving the guy a lecture about how it is what is on the inside that counts, and how you should judge a person not by the appearance, but by the content of character. I do remember this, though, whenever anyone refers to “Asians” as a homogeneous group.

My wife’s former boss is from Queens, and is very dismissive of everything South of the Mason-Dixon line. He is known to call states by the wrong name and follow it up with a, “Virginia, Georgia – what’s the difference?”

To which my wife usually responds, “Queens, Brooklyn - what’s the difference?”

And then she sits back and listens to a 90 minute rant about the difference between the radiant glory that is Queens compared to the festering hellhole that is Brooklyn. Sheesh, New Yorkers are all the same.

When traveling outside of Dallas, it always fascinates me how people think of Texans. (My favorite came from a 80-year-old grandmother of a friend who said to me, “I’ve never met a Texan before… Is it true you kill all your coloreds?” Old people do not have time to mince words, apparently.) Dallas has a relatively low cost of living, so a lot of people new to the country get their starts here. There is a thriving Romanian population and a Laotian population and strong Ethiopian population. This aspect of the city never seems to make it past the city limits.

Dallas isn’t the only city with this problem. I’ve been working in Detroit and found out that Detroit has the largest population of Middle Eastern people outside of the Middle East. Of course, I have not saddled up next to someone and talked about politics with someone, getting a Saudi perspective and comparing it to a Lebanese perspective, but I have had some truly excellent lamb dishes at some Hallal restaurants. And it is always interesting to see Army recruiting billboards written in Farsi.

I remember talking to someone one time about the strange quirk about racism in Dallas, and talking about how most of the bile I have seen seems to be directed towards the Black community and the Hispanic community. People from any other part of the world, tend to get treated nicer. (That’s the entire premise of Borat – people from Eastern Europe are treated very politely in the South, so people like Borat can take advantage of everyone’s good nature to ridicule them.)

“Why do you think that is?” the person asked me.

“The closest idea I can come up with is that we grew up with a certain ethnicity, so they’re like family. And there is no one we feel we can openly hate more than family. Everyone else, we have to treat like a guest.”

So there you go. Be kind to strangers, but hurt the one you love. Sounds like the moral of a South Park episode.

What is the big deal? They think you're a sucker, that is the big deal.

Parental groups are apparently upset about 13-year old Dakota Fanning getting raped in a new movie premiering at Sundance.

To which I respond, “A film about something sexually explicit and taboo? At Sundance? I am shocked - SHOCKED! – to see a film using an unsettling subject for free publicity.”

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but what parental group knows intimate details about a film before it premieres at Sundance? Do the hip, yet ultra-conservative, indie parents troll the internet for scripts from unsigned films? And how many children are there in the Cult of Dakota Fanning? Charlotte’s Web aside, this actress has not made a name for herself in children’s movies, but instead in movies filled with violent and disturbing imagery.

The real story is that this is a non-story. Everything I have heard from people who have actually seen the film is that it is not very good. So how do you sell a stinker of a movie to the public? Invent a controversy about it – get some vague “parental group” to get upset about it, get every media outlet to talk about it and fret about what new low our society has sunk to (despite the fact that it has been done before, several times in fact), and then get enough people to watch it, not to see a cute little prepubescent blonde girl get raped, but to see what the big deal about this movie.

The big deal is that they think they can trick you out of your money. Do the world a favor and prove them all wrong.

Friday, January 26, 2007

New York Comic Convention Finds a New Way to Advertise

I've shaken hands with at least one of these people. And, yes, if interviewed, I would sound just like this.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Sonic Adventures in a Rental Car

I’ve been traveling for work a lot recently, and one of the perks is that I get to try out a new car every week. And, not just a new car, but a new car stereo.

The car stereo is one of the worst things you can subject yourself to. Acoustics inside cars have never been great, and the hum of road noise just makes listening to musical subtleties even harder. I've seen people spend all sorts of money on a car stereo that still sounds crappier than music heard on a $20 pair of headphones.

I am one of those headphone-hugging iPod users, and, in spite of everyone telling me how dangerous it is, I listen to music on my headphones when I drive and forsake the car stereo all together. Those contraptions drive me nuts.

This week, though, I decided to lose some of the ear snobbery and buy some CDs for the rental car. I picked up Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere and the Flaming Lips’ album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. (Brief aside - if I needed proof of how behind-the-times-and-unhip I am musically, this is it. St. Elsewhere was last year’s album and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was from 2002.)

So the first thing I do is pop in St. Elsewhere into the car stereo, all excited at the prospect of new music with a great and interesting, challenging music.

And what do I get?

DOOOOM! DO-DOOOOOM!
DOOOOM! DO-DOOOOOM!
DOOOOM! DO-DOOOOOM!

Seriously, I could not understand a word or hear any of the instrumentation aside from the bass. Potential wrecks be damned, I started fiddling with the stereo settings on the highway, trying to mix down the bass so I could hear those lyrics about how cool it is to be crazy and sing falsetto.

And I couldn’t find a way to do it. The stereo only had a Volume knob. No treble/bass knob. No balance knob. Just Volume and Tuner. Road Rage usually comes when someone cuts you off, but this bout of Road Rage was directed toward all the market forces that made this crappy audio experience even conceivable.

So...

The first thing I did when I got to the office was use my laptop to rip the album to my iPod. Listening to it through headphones, I was pleased to know that DJ Danger Mouse is still a superb sound editor, and all the promise of The Grey Album is being fulfilled with each new release. What a good album.

And then I listened to Yoshimi through headphones. There are some albums designed to be heard with every other sound blocked out of existence and this is certainly one of those. The music creates its own world filled with sonic textures and fun little asides. (My favorite - the cheerleader-esque “Whooo”s on the title track right after the line, “She’s a black belt in karate.”)

Ok, everyone in the world who told me it was a great album – you were right and I was an idiot for not picking this up earlier. There are so many fun little things when you listen on headphones – noises jump from ear-to-ear, strange bits of dialogue float through the background, and crowds that can apparently scream on pitch.

It is easy to understand why people can get obsessed with music like this (or bands like this, for that matter). There is a solid texture to the music, and a strong narrative subtext throughout the entire album. (One Amazon.com review for the album suggest that the “Pink Robots” in the title track are cancer cells, and the whole album is about finding out you are dying – with the first track being about taking some sort of medical test and then all of the other songs documenting everything that follows from denial to anger to acceptance.) I’ve been listening to the album solid for about three days now, and it just keeps getting better and better.

Today, I thought I would plug it into the car stereo to see how this subtle, quirky, elegant landscape would sound when spilling out into my rented vehicle.

And do you know how it sounded?

DOOOOM! DO-DOOOOOM!
DOOOOM! DO-DOOOOOM!
DOOOOM! DO-DOOOOOM!

Love as a Concept You Can Eat

I was at a Sunday Brunch when, after taking our order, the waitress smiled at us and said, “I’ll be back in a second with some scones and fritters for you.”

Scones.
And.
Fritters.

I can always tell when something is good on a conceptual level because my entire being, my mind, my soul, and my body just lights up in anticipation. Scones and fritters, served in a combination on a Sunday morning spent in a restaurant overlooking the ocean, lend themselves to a certain state of bliss which no doubt would be heavily regulated in certain states.

Fritters in particular have a particular place in my heart, because they have a way to make even the most unappetizing childhood vegetable into something special. My grandmother is more than happy to share with us the time I ate a second helping of squash fritters, and how she got me to eat and enjoy a vegetable I deemed, “Barfaliscious.”

And scones lend the entire package that hint of class. We are not just eating piles of fried dough, here. We are having something vaguely British and hoity toity, yet still tasty. Add raspberry jam to the package and you have yourself a big pile of InstaBilss.

I am someone who works much better on the conceptual level than the real-world level, so it is always a pleasant surprise when something so tangible (edible, even) and so thoughtful combine into a single package.

It made my day.

It made my week.

It even made it into my blog.

You can’t get better than that.

Strange, Strange Educational Podcast

Here is the latest in the educational podcasts I produced for an art class. How many have we done so far? 8? 9? I can’t remember. I do remember that this is my favorite one for a lot.

We were into our second bottle of wine for the night at the point when this was recorded. And our Man of 1,000 Voices just started improvising and riffing at this point. There were some verbal gaffes, but we just plowed through them. In other words, this was recorded in one take.

I was looking for an excuse to experiment with some new Reggaeton loops, and this podcast provided me with a great opportunity. On a sonic level, I like how well the voice and music work together with the voice in the sonic foreground and the music in the sonic background. All the podcasts were edited with me listening to headphones, but I didn’t try them out on car stereos or CD players until after they were already sent along. Some of them aren’t as dynamic once you pump them through a non-headphone environment.

This one, however, still works. I really like it and will use it as a portfolio piece in case anyone wants me to produce more podcasts for them. It makes my wife cringe every time I say this, but I work cheap.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Your Corporate Overlords Have Spoken

I have complained about the wonderful MBNA credit card company being bought out by the evil Bank of America credit card company before. So if that post bored you, this one probably will, too. Except this post is shorter.

I got a letter from Bank of America saying that they’ve suspended the account due to ‘unauthorized access’ – all of our cards won’t work. We’re getting new cards with new account numbers, a new web login and password, and yadda yadda.

So my wife called them and it turns out that my hotel stay on a business trip in Detroit set off some sort of fraud alarm. Because flying to Detriot and staying a hotel for 10 straight days is the first thing credit card theives do, apparently. (Note to all the thieves in the world - if this is your plan, don't do it! That breakfast buffet is totally not worth it.)

The Bank of America folks said they tried to contact us (although both my wife and I do not have any voice mails or emails and certainly don’t remember getting any calls from B of A anytime recently), but, because they didn’t get a response, just went ahead with Plan B – shut down everything and reboot the account.

Here is their kicker – Their advice was from now on to call the Bank of America Fraud Department before we leave town if we want our credit cards to work while we’re on the road!!!

To quote my wife’s email to me on the subject:

>WTF????

Indeed.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Because Imitating Kip from Napoleon Dynamite NEVER GETS OLD!

More from the educational podcast exploits.

The Godfather Reads Poems

That is the theory, at least.

Here is a nice little poem called, "The Master."

And, yes, it is one more in the educational podcast series.

How much education can you fit into a podcast? How about one blog post?

One of the drawbacks about podcasting is that I haven't found a way to put more than one .mp3 file into a single blog entry. I am three entries behind in sharing the World Famous Photography Podcast with you, and instead of putting all three in one entry, I have to split it out into three. Otherwise the people subscribing to the podcast feed associated to this blog will miss out on two of them.

Yeah... I've probably bored you out of your mind. This will excite you, though:

Cubism!

I have been remiss in sharing all of my internet exploits!

The educational podcast continues!

And look! The students are getting their photos posted on the blog.

I also made it onto the Filmspotting year-end show, and the Filmspotting guys did a great job of giving me billing over Ira Glass. What is up with that?

If you want to hear just my little contribution to the podcast, it is here.

Note: Although I really liked Children of Men, it made my wife sick. The handheld camerawork made her nauseous and the violence was too much. So if you don’t like the movie, there is someone in the household who is on your side.

One more excellent mash up...

This one is good, too.

Strictly my opinion - this is the best thing to happen to John Travolta.... Ever!

As always, the best is last

The Best of Bootie 2006 website is up!

I’m slow to notice these things, but apparently there is an annual collection of musical mash ups that gets posted on the web.

Oh my, there are so many good songs in the 2006 edition.

But, as is usually the case, the best song in the mix is the last one.

Profound Sex and Violence

Years ago, I saw this interview with Ned Beatty about his career and acting in general that totally blew me away. He started talking about his infamous “Squeal like a pig” scene. He says that when there are only two characters on the screen in a violent scene, you are either relating to the aggressor or the victim. He has received a lot of fan letters from women complimenting him on his bravery acting in that sequence – women who definitely related to the role of the victim. He then said that most men don’t talk to him about the scene except to quote the “squeal like a pig” line – essentially showing that they are relating to the aggressor.

I always remember this when I see really visceral content in films, and I try to ask myself “Who am I relating to here?”

More often than not, I find myself not relating to anyone. The clearest example of this in my life was the scene in Pulp Fiction where Ving Rhames is getting aggressively sexually assaulted up the wazoo.

It is a pretty graphic sequence and my very first thought when I saw that was, “I wonder how they pulled that off.” The follow up thoughts were contemplations of camera angles and blocking and other technical details culminating in the voice of my conscious going, “The dude is GETTING RAPED and you’re getting technical. Where is your humanity, man?”

So that’s my defense in situations of extreme content: I remind myself it isn’t real.

This approach is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it makes it so I can sit through practically anything and discuss it at length afterwards. On the other hand, it makes it practically impossible for me to watch anything with my wife. I mention how symbolic, lovely, and haunting a film like The Pillow Book is, but then have to follow it up with, “But a dude’s corpse gets skinned, though.”

Digression

It always amazes me what sticks with people about movies and what doesn’t. For example, Kill Bill is a film that features a comatose woman getting gang raped. And whenever people say, “I like Kill Bill,” what I hear is, “I like watching comatose women getting gang raped.” But when I talk to people about the film, almost to a person everyone seems to forget the-gang-rape-of-the-woman-in-a-coma happened, and instead choose to remember the nicer, happier parts where dozens of people get beheaded and children get to watch their parents brutally die.

End Digression

When I hear about the extreme content of a film, I usually dismiss it as a marketing ploy, because the far end of the bell curve is the only thing that gets reported in our short-cut, bottom-line media. What do I know about the movie Irreversible? It has a 12-minute rape sequence in it. Do I know anything else about the plot, director, or cinematographer? No. The news attention zeroed in on the one sequence in the film, and not the 90 to 100 minutes that surround it. Was it a good film? Since I haven’t heard anything about it since the initial release, the chances are no.

And that is the only way to avoid unnecessarily wasting time on something that is definitely not worth it. Wait until you hear or read if it will be worth your time. And then wait for your wife to be out of town on business to watch the movies.

Which gets to the point of this blog entry –

I recently saw a double feature of Where the Truth Lies and Oldboy. Both films have very extreme content, sexually explicit and viscerally violent, and both films have sparked a lot of discussion since their initial release. Both merit discussing, although neither of them is in a category where I would recommend them. But I like some of the ideas in them, so I’ll write about them and you can discuss the films at parties without having to sit through them.

It was a happy coincidence I watched these as a double-feature, because both films share a central climax/twist. A protagonist is tricked into behaving like the antagonist right before the protagonist is given permission to render judgment on the antagonist. In one film, right before the main character discovers another character has had a homosexual relationship, the main character is tricked into a homosexual one night stand. In the other film, the same scenario happens except this time it is incest instead of homosexuality.

Setting aside the fact that both of these films rely on the myth of “accidental sex” happening (forced sex happens and seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time-but-only-now-do-I-realize-I-am-a-complete-idiot sex happens, but “accidental sex” – no way – it is a lie we tell ourselves akin to “accidental legislation”), both of the films are insistent that if someone, anyone, was in the same situation, he or she would make the same decision.

In essence, the villains of both these movies want you to know, “You are no better than I am. You have no right to judge me.”

Good drama is about self-discovery. And when essentially good people realize that they are capable of evil, it can be transcendent tragedy. Think of Good King Oedipus, who, when all is said and done, has no one to blame but himself.

And this is the flaw in both these films. The protagonist’s journey of self discovery is coupled with a grinning villain overseeing the downfall, and that kind of small minded gloating detracts from the personal struggle. What makes a tragedy like Oedipus transcendent is that there is no boogie man. The story doesn’t end with Creon lording over a sightless Oedipus, laughing at him with a, “You thought me sleeping with my sister was bad. But, dude… you slept with your mom!”

When this happens, the dramatic struggle moves from an inner one to an external one, and one that is easier to dismiss. Internal struggles are easier to internalize and reach the audience on a deeper level, while external struggles are easier to dismiss.

When extreme content is brought into a film, it distances the audience from the action. To be relating totally to a person getting tortured would be too much. To be distanced from it is the only way to get through the experience. So if a film does contain extreme content, it needs to have something intellectual or symbolic going on or it will be dismissed as sensationalistic garbage. Peter Greenway films always have some strange bit of extreme content in them, but the subtext is the stuff of doctorial theses. And even mainstream films can deal with sex and violence in a challenging, thoughtful way (look no further than A History of Violence).

Vladmir Nobokov once wrote that the truth is inherently distasteful, and people will always hate it. So when his works focuses on taboo subjects (i.e. the pedophilia in ‘Lolita’), he couples the extreme content with deep insights about human nature and lyrical prose. It is an amazing and difficult hat trick that he pulls off.

I say difficult because so many artists have taken the cheap and easy route of
"extreme content = profound truth". This is not the case. Extreme content coupled with profound truth can lead to some truly great artwork, but extreme content on its own quickly falls into bland sensationalism. In fact, extreme content coupled with moderately interesting intellectual ponderings results in a mish-mash of mediocre.

Which is ultimately why I don’t recommend either Oldboy or Where the Truth Lies. The extreme content distracts from the story and distances audience members. Once the audience is clinical and distanced from the content, there isn’t that much to think about or analyze. Ultimately, all that is left about these films that set them apart from everything else is the sex and the violence. Not the plot, not the characters, just the sensationalism of it all.

Bottom line: You don’t go into a film like Oldboy to see a person’s story of self discovery; you go because there is a scene where a dude cuts off his own tongue. (Note: If you are ever talking to me about how much you like Oldboy, what I will hear is, “I like watching dudes cut out their own tongues.”)

I enjoy challenging cinema. I enjoy profound cinema. Sadly, these pieces of extreme content weren’t challenging or profound enough for me.

Book Idea - My Favorite Waitress

The other day when I wrote a blog entry about Google Reader, I used the phrase "my favorite waitress." I thought it would be great to link to a website devoted to great waitresses of yore, but all I came up with is a bunch of blog entries rhapsodizing about "my favorite waitress" and a book on Amazon about what it is like to be a waitress.

So that made me think. Someone out there (maybe me) needs to collect a series of customer anecdotes about favorite waitresses and set them with pictures of food. Maybe one story per page with one photo opposite it.

And it would sell in Hallmark stores! Why this doesn't exist already is beyond me. If you steal this idea off this blog, please send me a copy of your book, because I would like to read it.