Sunday, February 27, 2011

Series of Related Events Considered Newsworthy

I'm not knocking the article, which I haven't read and which could be incredibly perceptive for all I know, but the New Haven Register caught my eye on the newsstand today with the magnificently generic headline SOCIETAL CHANGES DIVIDING NATION: SOME TOLERATE TRENDS OTHERS SEE AS HARMFUL. That would seem to sum up the general state of affairs, all right.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Cheese & Hockey Friday

Friday night plan in New Haven: out for after-work dinner with friends at Cheese Restaurant (obviously actually open for a while now), followed by a 7 pm hockey game at the university's estimable Saarinen rink. Dinner had me stuffed, yet surprisingly without lethargy or overeating-remorse. I can't remember the last time I was so blissed out on just being full. That feeling came courtesy of a high-end grilled cheese sandwich (on thick slices of homemade rye) with a little salad, some cheddared kale (oh yes, "cheddar" gets to be a verb), and fries we split among ourselves, plus a smooth and creamy Belgian amber ale.

The hockey game set the popular university home team against the squad from central New York's Colgate University. The Colgate crew played the scrappy underdogs and gutted out a 1–1 tie despite seeming less sharp the whole game. The tie feels a little anticlimactic, frankly. Someone from the home team missed an easy goal with about 1:30 left in regulation (the goalie a couple feet forward of where he should have been, but the shot flicked wide of the net to his side, from maybe four feet away)\. I have a hard time rooting against a scrappy underdog, though, so my affiliation had quietly reversed field by the middle of the first period.

It's the hockey atmospherics I enjoy more than anything, as ever: the excellent rink, the university-booster crowd, the pep band playing bits of top 40 and '80s pop. The tickets were free to employees last night, and you've got to take the perks they give you.

Friday, February 25, 2011

How I Could Just Kill A Man

I think O, Miami has hit the point where I'll essentially be working on it all the time now until it's over (it's over April 30). Which means there's some potential for overload blowback, whereby I do things like this, which is blog something that generally wouldn't surface on my usual scale of bloggability, but since I'm avoiding doing some other crucial piece of work, or, like, letting my brain rest a minute while it processes some piece of festival work.

So now you get to know that, despite the semi-populist modulations of O, Miami, I'm still as highbrow as ever, as evidenced by my being currently in a long-term project of reading James Joyce's Finnegans Wake with my friend Parker. We're doing some work to document our encounter with the book, and that's including some writing and some doodling. And I'm quite happy with our first doodle, which happened as a counterpoint to our first (written) dialogue. So here it is:

If you have to ask what it means, then you can't afford it.

Particularly, I'm pretty thrilled with the two little diagrams I made:

Shout-out to Kaja Silverman!

Here Comes Everyone!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

To-day's Ration of Oatmeal Blogging

The current most-emailed article on the NY Times website is a description of mounting civil war in Libya a Mark Bittman post unloading on how awful McDonald's oatmeal is, which is fun reading. McDonald's actually has taken one of the healthiest, easiest-to-prepare foods in existence and make it bad for you.

Interesting bloggo-processing of the post comes from Ta-Nehisi Coates, who highlights Bittman's making-oatmeal-is-simple argument:
Others will argue that the McDonald's version is more "convenient." [This is Bittman's quote here, not Coates'.] This is nonsense; in the time it takes to go into a McDonald's, stand in line, order, wait, pay and leave, you could make oatmeal for four while taking your vitamins, brushing your teeth and half-unloading the dishwasher. (If you're too busy to eat it before you leave the house, you could throw it in a container and microwave it at work. If you prefer so-called instant, flavored oatmeal, see this link, which will describe how to make your own).

If you don't want to bother with the stove at all, you could put some rolled oats (instant not necessary) in a glass or bowl, along with a teeny pinch of salt, sugar or maple syrup or honey, maybe some dried fruit. Add milk and let stand for a minute (or 10). Eat. Eat while you're walking around getting dressed. And then talk to me about convenience.
Coates finds a deeper "conscious"/"unconscious" behavioral question in whether you go to McDonald's or go DIY. Ezra Klein isolates a bit more exactly the key point of effort as opposed to time as being crucial to convenience. "Easy isn't the same as effortless" is a good point. It's an activity versus passivity thing.

It reminds me of the willpower thing again, how it takes actual resources for the brain to exercise the planning and control to carry out tasks. Presumably even small ones, like making oatmeal. Not that people shouldn't make the effort, but it's not really accurate to equate a short active task with a short passive one. Now how you might get people (not to mention, first, yourself) spending more of their day doing active tasks instead of giving in to accessible passive options, that's a question.

Anyway. Food for thought, and vice versa. I should specify (for full disclosure?) that I make my own oatmeal, although I may switch to bulgur wheat for a while, since I just bought some for an unrelated Mark Bittman recipe and there's an alarming quantity of it that I didn't use.

Completely unrelated but interesting: physicist Geoffrey West as quoted in the December 19, 2010, New York Times Weekend Magazine.
West illustrates the problem by translating human life into watts. “A human being at rest runs on 90 watts,” he says. “That’s how much power you need just to lie down. And if you’re a hunter-gatherer and you live in the Amazon, you’ll need about 250 watts. That’s how much energy it takes to run about and find food. So how much energy does our lifestyle [in America] require? Well, when you add up all our calories and then you add up the energy needed to run the computer and the air-conditioner, you get an incredibly large number, somewhere around 11,000 watts. Now you can ask yourself: What kind of animal requires 11,000 watts to live? And what you find is that we have created a lifestyle where we need more watts than a blue whale. We require more energy than the biggest animal that has ever existed. That is why our lifestyle is unsustainable. We can’t have seven billion blue whales on this planet. It’s not even clear that we can afford to have 300 million blue whales.”

Friday, February 18, 2011

That Festival I'm Co-Founding

is getting realer and realer. Here's an image of our ad that's now running on the digital display wall at the brand new Frank Gehry-designed New World Center, where our month-long festival culminates!

And, this may not survive the weekend, but this is awesome.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Your Brain: It May Be Outsmarting You Again

This NY Times column about willpower and brain chemistry is a couple of years old, but it's new to me. (See, discovering this kind of stuff can be the perk of an otherwise exasperating manuscript.) The takeaway is that willpower (which is to say, planning and self-control) is a scarce mental resource that can be tapped out from unrelated tasks that require it. On the plus side, exercising willpower gives you a bigger reserve of it in the future. Also, it's easier to exert willpower if your blood sugar is at a good level.

It's probably safe to assume that, being a popular report on brain chemistry, things are simplified and smoothed around the edges. But I'm struck by how unintuitive the broad answers here are. And this stuff matters to all of our lives in an immediate way!

Speaking of brain chemistry, this short YouTube video on the placebo effect isn't too information-dense, but it entertainingly conveys its theme (and it's narrated in an Australian accent, which, admit it, is fun). Read a fresh report about a kind of reverse placebo effect from the BBC here.

Ah, brains. Can't understand 'em.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day, Mr. Lincoln

Valentine's Day was really Saturday night for Maddie and me, for scheduling purposes, which seems fine for a holiday that's even more arbitrarily placed than usual. If that gives Valentine's Day date night top billing over Abraham Lincoln's birthday, so be it. No offense to Abe.

We had dinner at a nearby restaurant we've been to before and enjoyed. The main draw for me is the spicy pear vodka martini they serve, because my sweet tooth is something like 15 percent pear-specific. The drink was therefore excellent. I've started to realize that I almost never remember restaurant meals that I eat, so I'll briefly memorialize this one. (It took me three minutes to call it back to mind, and it's only two days later.) I had a couple of lamb back ribs, over some kind of non-rice cooked grain and what I want to say was broccoli rabe. I could be wrong about the details, but it was tasty. I forget what Maddie ate. We both started with a magnificently creamy butternut squash soup, with a few delicate yet robustly seasoned croutons floating therein. Our waiter, a likable guy named Mohamed who kept crossing himself on the way back to the kitchen, forgot about us once and confused us with two different tables. I think he might have been new.

Afterward we adjourned through the slicing night wind to a comfortable, very classy bar near the Kaufmann Astoria studios, where we stayed chatting until the wee hours, by which I mean 10:15. Ah, to be young!

Saturday morning I'd snuck out to the florist a few blocks down Broadway from Maddie's apartment, under the pretense of running to Rite Aid down the block to get more coffee. (I promise this wasn't last-minute, I just didn't want to schedule a delivery when we were going to be in and out all day.) The florist is a 1-800-FLOWERS store. They were great, and efficient, but it strikes me as odd to go to a physical location named after a phone number. (If I opened a franchise, I'd name it after their website, The tulips were lovely, and it looks like Maddie's flight schedule will allow them to not fall into immediate neglect, which is the risk run by flowers cared for by flight attendants. The important thing about flowers, anyway, is that I was not run over in a crosswalk on my way to get coffee, which is what Maddie had started to suspect when I disappeared for 35 minutes. Incidentally, Rite Aid house blend: still satisfactory.

Next weekend is when Nate and Kyle come out and we all go see Nixon in China at the Met Opera, so that'll be pretty great.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Aguilerian Anthemry

I would like to mention briefly that my first and only reaction to Christina Aguilera flubbing a line of the national anthem before the Super Bowl is to blame the national anthem itself, which is a terrible song. Really, did whatever she sang have significantly less meaning than "o'er the ramparts we watched"? Frankly, that she sounded good singing the tune puts her ahead of the pack. It's a terrible tune, and it's a terrible song.

I'd be in favor of scrapping the national anthem and replacing it with almost any other song that's not "God Bless America." Personally, and this is thinking outside the box a little, I think a great anthem would just be someone shouting "America!" and then a whipcrack and then the theme to Bonanza.

RIP Brian Jacques

We seem to mostly reserve our Rest in Peace posts for composers born in the 20th century, but I think Brian Jacques deserves a shout out, upon his death. So, rest in peace, Brian Jacques. I think this one is more particular to me than to the twins or Mike, but I read, quite rabidly, the first six or seven of the books in Jacques's Redwall series, a probably more-muddled-than-I-realized-at-the-time account of heroic mice fighting evil weasels (and snakes and shit!) in a medieval castles-and-monasteries setting (I eventually graduated to Narcissus and Goldmund (right after wasting several years of my reading life in the Dungeons-and-Dragons novelized spin-off waste-web of the Dragonlance books (and then quitting fantasy novels forever (right after reading a bunch of Orson Scott Card's non-Ender's Game American pioneer-era fantasy novels--I think I made it through the first four of these (and being excited to go to Northland Library when that fourth book in the series came out in 1995))))).

Unlike Ender's Game, which I re-read back in October, when my hosts in Helsinki (who happened to have a copy of the book (in English, not Finnish)) went to bed early before my flight pretty early the next morning and I had a night to kill, and I figured re-reading Ender's Game was as good a way as any to do that (some of the ideas still hold up, but the writing is quite shit, and there's way less to the book than I thought there was back when I was 12 (surprise, surprise)), there's very little chance that I decide to re-read the Redwall books. Mostly because, come on, there's no way they're gonna hold up, seriously... and I'm simply not that nostalgic for them. Books 4 through 7 (by publication date (I'm looking at the Wikipedia list of books)), I think I read as they came out. I recognize the title of The Bellmaker, so that's probably the last one I read, right before making the leap over to those damn Dragonlance books and, like, Dune.

But Brian Jacques kept right on writing. I like the title of one of the newer ones, Loamhedge. But, on behalf of the fragile emotions of my 8-12 year old self, so sucked into those worlds, thanks for the books, Mr. Jacques.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Steeler Bowl '11

Well, what can you do? I feel OK. That was a worthy, entertaining Super Bowl, and the Steelers' mistakes were honestly forced by the Packers. Turned out to be a great matchup. And good for the Packers: I've felt this entire two weeks that if I'd been neutral about the Steelers, I would have been pulling for the Packers, like most of the rest of America.

If your season's going to end in a loss, it may as well be on the final drive of the Super Bowl. I thought the team was going to go about 8–8 this year, so I can't complain about that. And I got to host a Super Bowl party again! You don't get to do that every year. Just, you know, every two years.

But You Don't Have to Take My Word for It . . .

In reply to Nate's mention of reading books written by women:

Absent any effort, I read very few books by women last year. I would have thought there would have been a couple more, but nope. So I don't have a ton of useful recommendations. I imagine you're already familiar with Alice Munro from studying storywriting, but I picked up her collection Friend of My Youth, which is from 1990, about a year ago, and it's excellent. Her characters have a solid presence, and she writes with the effortless realism that I prefer in short stories. Now and then she'll adopt an indirect narrative frame that really makes the writing pop -- the title story "Friend of My Youth" and "Meneseteung" especially, and her later "The Love of a Good Woman" (which, in three parts and with shifting narrative viewpoints, is evolved past what you normally would call a short story).

Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs is a late nineteenth-century portrait of a coastal village in Maine, related as a string of anecdotes by a visiting narrator. There's a refreshing absence of plot structure, with Jewett bringing the characters and scene-setting to the foreground. It's a modestly scaled, humane, and pleasurable read, and I felt a little disappointed when it ended, like I wanted it to go on.

I don't really remember when I acquired a copy of Cynthia Ozick's 1987 The Messiah of Stockholm (I think it must have been at The Strand right before I read it, although I may have had it kicking around a while), but it's short and sharply drawn and packs an intellectual punch. (Pete, I think you might like this, actually.) It's about a Jewish-Swedish literary critic who's obsessed with the work of a Polish writer who was (or wasn't) his father, encountering a manuscript of his lost magnum opus. It's rather overabsorbed into the literary world (and Ozick has her characters constantly name-dropping Eastern European writers), but there are some sharp teeth on the reality-vs.-fantasy theme, and the characters are quietly outrageous in a nicely calibrated way.

But, for what it's worth, I'd recommend all three of these.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Soul Sharing Redux

I just finished reading Willa Cather's novel My Ántonia. I've been a fan of her writing since Jack pseudo-randomly gave me a copy of her Death Comes for the Archbishop for our birthday several years ago and since then I've been slowly reading my way through her better known novels, maybe one about every two years. One of my ill-defined, never formalized resolutions for the new year was to spend three or six months or something reading only books by women -- I spent a lot of the end of last year reading popular nonfiction by men, and wanted to wash out some of the accumulated male-male authorial voice from my inner ear; plus I've been feeding like a baleen whale on NFL coverage for the Steelers' entire postseason run, which does not encourage mental gender balance -- and I figured one of the early ones should be more Cather. My Ántonia is a lovely book, more romantic in tone than the later books of hers that I've read (it was written in 1918, one of her earlier works), about unrequited early love, the strong-spirited women of the early Nebraska prairie settlements, and the bonds of shared experience and memory that bind people after decades of separation. Near the end, the story's narrator, Jim Burden, expresses his feelings for the titular friend of his childhood in terms that remind me of Douglas Hofstadter's concept of soul sharing:

Do you know, Ántonia, since I've been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister -- anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don't realize it. You really are a part of me.

I don't have much to add to that sense of ideas connecting, other than that it happens from time to time (I observed it with Michelangelo and Shostakovich; Pete, earlier, had seen it in the work of Jacques Roubaud) and to reinforce that in its basic outline it's an old concept. It still seems a philosophically (and some-day-cognitive-scientifically) viable concept to me, too, some years removed from reading I Am a Strange Loop. I increasingly suspect that Hofstadter believes self identity is too deeply coherent within the mind, too pure an emergence from whatever loopy mechanism produces conscious experience, but the ultimate result, that our minds can be others to some of the extent that they can be ourselves, still rings true.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Teevee Notes

When the Steelers made it into the Super Bowl, I decided I'd do the honorable thing and get a cable box again and host a Super Bowl party in my apartment, just as things should be, and just like two years ago. So for the time being, and I mean a very limited time being, I have TV again! I am celebrating by not watching any TV. The guy installed the cable box Sunday afternoon, and you know what was on? Professional golf and Bio-Dome.

I had to do some ironing, so I watched part of the Pro Bowl. You know the Pro Bowl is as awful as everyone says? For me, I enjoyed it a little on the level of "Hey teams who didn't get to the Super Bowl -- now your best players have to put on ridiculous-looking uniforms and run around."

What's on at the same time as the Pro Bowl? America's Funniest Home Videos. I would have thought YouTube would have killed that off by now, but, no, twenty years onward America is still in a place where it needs to identify and broadcast its funniest home videos. This reflects badly on all of us.

For a fresher perspective on television, Maddie and I spent part of our Tuesday by gingerly navigating the slushy Astoria sidewalks in the direction of the American Museum of the Moving Image, located next to the famed Kaufmann Astoria Studios. I'd somehow never made it over, and it's an interesting place to see -- kind of middlebrow, but definitely providing unexpected discoveries and putting things in a different light, which is what museums are supposed to do. Among their exhibitions:

--A couple of early hand-cranked, single-viewer flipbook machines (I forget what these are called) showing Charlie Chaplin gags or that famous short bit about shooting a rocket to the moon.
--Computer stations set up to let you make your own stop-motion animation shorts.
--A sound studio where, cheesily but entertainingly, you dub your own voice into a selection of movie scenes.
--Footage of a recent Mets game, simply enough shown with all 15 camera shots and footage of the TV crew, with one guy exhaustingly directing and cuing the shots. For all the hours I've watched baseball on TV, I've never once thought about how the broadcast is stitched together. Now I feel a little bad about taking that guy for granted.
--TV and movie costume and makeup paraphernalia, most of which didn't stick in my mind except for one of Bill Cosby's Dr. Huxtable sweaters, which is kind of awesome.
--A collection of TV sets ranging from 1950s radio-style cabinets to some notable 1970s models. These are so iconic it's immediately striking that you haven't seen them in a museum before. My favorite mind-blowing item: a huge $2300 set from 1975 (that's $2300 in 1975 dollars) combining a 19-inch screen with a built-in BetaMax recorder.
--Arcade game cabinets! Frustratingly, most of these were unplayable. More mindblowingly: an Atari 2600 and an 8-bit Nintendo. Yes, someone decided that your childhood now goes in a museum. But I feel a little vindicated that, eveen if Maddie can totally kick my ass at Wii boxing, I absolutely own her in Tank Battle.
--Upstairs, some interactive video art that didn't really match execution to concept.

Architecturally, the lower lobby area has a futuristic, curving, bright white layout that brought to mind the Wonkavision scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In short, I approve of all of this, much more than I approve of actual television.

It's French for "The Bohème"

Maddie's Christmas gift to me was a pair of tickets for Puccini's La Bohème at the Met Opera on Monday night, so I went down Monday night (taking Tuesday off work) for a kind of midweek weekend addendum. It was a lovely evening, naturally, as dressing up and hearing some well-rendered Puccini in a lavishly traditional staging is a thoroughly nice experience. By "dressed up," I mean Maddie dressed up, and I put on a tie and the one pair of slacks she tolerates me wearing in public. And it's nice being on an opera date, rather than geeking out on Britten or Janáček or Prokofiev or Ligeti alone.

I find the idea of describing La Bohème like the idea of describing crème brûlée -- musically and dramatically it just seems to exist in the world as a smooth, well-formed luxury thing, and I can't identify any meaningful reference points to characterize it, which would be beside the point anyway. La Bohème's story is a pretty straight-up reduction of lovers-interrupted-by-death, not really embedded in a theme so much as a colorful time-and-place substrate.

Speaking of which, I hesitate to make this observation, because I think opera as an art form gets an upper-crust rap it doesn't deserve, but experiencing a story of tragic, ostensible starving-artist types in a finely polished Met Opera milieu creates a little bit of a disconnect.

After the show we had fruity cocktails in a hotel bar 35 stories above Columbus Circle and the usual intoxicating nighttime skyline, then we took a cab back to Astoria. So, yeah, luxury all around. It's satisfying now and then!

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Elkphrasis Update

Clearly, being on the internet every day with, like, access to digital image-making is either a good thing or a bad thing for of mild content. But the Elkphrasis, it's getting there (see previous Elkphrasis post for comparison). Two more months to finish it up...

As of 2/1/2011