I haven't been posting much recently for various reasons, and I can't honestly say whether that will change or not. But one thing I haven't done here recently is mention a few things I've read/seen/heard in 2009 that are worth recommending/commenting on. So here goes:
2666 by Roberto Bolaño
I read this earlier this year and was alternately floored and bored by it (mostly the former) -- which is not all that surprising for a 900-page novel split into five tonally unrelated parts. It's such a brutal book to read at times, especially the fourth part which describes in clinical detail the murder of hundreds of women in a Juárez-like city in northern Mexico. But it's been a long time since I've read a book that immediately after I've finished compelled to me to skim through the entire book again right there, even at that late hour. And I had to go on an Internet quest after finishing it as well, enjoying especially this Nation article which delves into Bolaño's real life obsession with the Juárez murders.
I missed this seven-episode miniseries when it aired on HBO last summer, partially unmotivated by its military subject matter. But I should have never underestimated David Simon and Ed Burns -- the team that brought us The Wire. The same keen dramatic eye they brought to the city of Baltimore is played out here in the more narrowly-focused world of military command, and with the sheer power of realism they have created some of the tensest war scenes I've seen. I probably don't have to add that there's some subtle and not-so-subtle political commentary as well.
The first season of this HBO series suffered from several flaws, including a half-hearted attempt to be a Mormon polygamist version of Desperate Housewives. It's still a flawed show, often teetering on the edge of contrivance (sort of like Six Feet Under), but the current season has gotten a lot darker, and more willing to explore the lesser known aspects of Mormon culture.
Real Time with Bill Maher
Sometimes this show has the best political commentary on TV (like the first episode this season with Chrystia Freeland, Tina Brown, and Rep. Maxine Waters on the panel) and sometimes it's painful to watch (like Friday's episode with Michael Eric Dyson and Andrew Breitbart). But on average, it makes even the best of cable news embarrassing to watch.
This is probably the least consistent show I've ever watched to completion. I can't wait to see the season finale this Friday so I never have to watch this show again.
On the other hand, Lost is really good! It faltered during seasons 2 and 3, but they've found their voice during the past two. This is the only solid sci-fi entertainment I can find right now. (Please, help!)
Those of you who have read my thoughts on Beowulf 3D know that I'm a big promoter of 3D cinema, and Coraline 3D just took it to another level. Since it was filmed with stop-motion animation, watching it felt like I was miniaturized and placed into its fascinating world. And the story and art design are very good, surpassing The Nightmare Before Christmas, I think.
I enjoyed many parts of this movie, but overall the experience was ruined for me by Zack Snyder's ham-handed directorial style, especially the musical selections and over-heightened sense of violence. Surprisingly, I thought the acting was solid, and the story was handled somewhat well. I'm afraid this is the type of movie which makes viewers less likely to read the source material, which is unfortunate as Alan Moore's comic book is a subtler read.
The Hazards of Love (The Decemberists)
I've heard some good music this year, but I want to comment only on this new album from The Decemberists for now. I absolutely loved The Crane Wife, partly for its operatic rock feel. I was disappointed with my first listen to The Hazards of Love, partially because I found the subject matter fairly uninteresting for a pseudo-rock opera, but it's really grown on me with several listens, particularly the parts with Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond singing the role of The Queen.
The New York Times has an article about how iPhones and Blackberries are causing problems with jury purity, triggering mistrials:
Jurors are not supposed to seek information outside of the courtroom. They are required to reach a verdict based only on the facts that the judge has decided are admissible, and they are not supposed to see evidence that has been excluded as prejudicial. But now, using their cellphones, they can look up the name of a defendant on the Web, or examine an intersection using Google Maps, violating the legal system’s complex rules of evidence.Evidence is a complex legal issue that I know very little about, but I wonder if we're going to have to start rethinking jury purity. We're kidding ourselves anyway if we don't believe that juries don't come in with loads of internal biases, and our current jury selection process is broken in such a way to heighten those biases. This is an interesting problem. (0) #3/17/2009
Today's a big day for David Foster Wallace in The New Yorker magazine. First, they have a long article about his struggles to complete his third novel, The Pale King, which apparently took place much in the accounting world. Second, they have a few pictures of manuscripts from that work, and a few pieces of art from his wife. Third, they published a previously unseen excerpt called "Wiggle Room." I haven't read these yet, but today is an airport day so I intend to do so soon. Check out The Howling Fantods for more information.
Earlier today, kottke.org linked to a neat music video from Chairlift that uses image compression artifacts for artistic purposes. A few hours later, Pitchfork posted the new Kanye video for "Welcome to Heartbreak" that uses pretty much the exact same effect. A music video trend? Or did the same shop create both?
Update: Thanks to flea's comment, I checked out Kanye's blog post about the video where he explains that they released the video early because of the Chairlift video. Perhaps the Kottke effect tipped Kanye's hand? (1) #2/17/2009
The Sonora Review is putting out a double issue with one half devoted to David Foster Wallace. Supplies are supposedly limited, but you can pre-order a copy by following the instructions on their site. Here are the contents of the Wallace volume, which includes contributions from his wife:
Including an uncollected story, Solomon Silverfish, and essays and reflections from Sven Birkerts, Michael Sheehan interviewing Tom Bissell, Charles Bock, Marshall Boswell, Greg Carlisle, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Ken Kalfus, Glenn Kenny, Lee Martin, Michael Martone, Rick Moody interviewing Michael Pietsch, and art and prose from Karen Green.(0) #2/12/2009
Last week, I read over on Talking Points Memo that Norm Coleman's legal team is trying to finagle an election do-over by arguing that the results of the recent Minnesota Senate race were within the margin of error. While I hope that he doesn't prevail for various reasons, I have to say that there's merit to this argument, whether or not they are indeed making it.
Why do we presume that after the recount and legal processes, close elections -- let's say those where there's less than .01% between two or more candidates -- can be determined with certainty? There is an inherent susceptibility to error during the complex election process, due to both humans and machines, and while some of this error can be reduced by redundancy in the recount process, it is perhaps impossible to remove it in entirety.
So in the case where an election falls within a tight margin of error, why don't we just flip a coin (or, in close races with x multiple candidates, roll an x-sided die) to determine the victor? After all, you're hardly losing any electoral efficiency either way -- it could even be argued that a close election shows indecision in the voting populace. And the major benefits of the coin flip would be that elections could be resolved earlier, and with much less cost -- it's February and we still don't have an official winner in the Minnesota race, and it's costing a bit of money.
There are some obvious problems with such an approach. For one, most voters, rationally or not, would likely protest that their vote has been thrown to the whims of chance. In general, an electoral process that relies on non-random processes should receive a high benefit of the doubt -- if one is going to introduce algorithmic randomness to the process, there better be a good reason. (This is also a strong argument against alternative voting methods that use sampling, even if they are likely to produce more accurate rankings.) Another issue is that there would still have to be a recourse for a recount or legal appeals that would take the results outside the determined margin of error (and coming up with that is yet another challenge). So, this would be a politically unpopular solution with debatable cost savings.
Still, there's something about it that appeals to me. Maybe it would just be fun to watch the actual coin flip -- a random event with results that could greatly affect the legislative process, especially in a situation like we have now, where the Democrats are hovering around a filibuster-proof majority. But is it really worth months of time and millions of dollars to determine an election with an edge of a few hundred votes?
For the lucky few of my readers who have visited my parents' childhood village in northeast Sicily, you might be interested to hear that the winding road through the coastal mountains that is the only paved route to the town had a little incident after recent rains:
Good thing it held up when that bus full of Americans attending my brother's wedding drove in. (via villaggiopezzolo.it) (3) #2/2/2009
Since my blog is oddly one of the top hits on Google for "Zowie Bowie" (due to this post about how David Bowie's son and a flashy Vegas duo share the same name), I might as well continue to keep you all updated about Duncan Jones (the name David Bowie's son now goes by): he directed a "science-fiction black comedy thriller film" titled Moon, which just debuted at Sundance and is about "a solitary lunar employee who finds that he may not be able to go home to Earth so easily." Wonder if it's inspired at all by The Man Who Fell to Earth.
(0) # 2/2/2009
The Obamas are more intimate in public than you thought. (via keith schofield)
(6) # 1/21/2009
The New York Times presents "Obama's People," a photo series by Nadav Kander made up of 52 portraits of "Barack Obama's top advisors, aides[,] and members of his incoming administration." Get to know who's taking over the federal government next week. (And turn it into a deck of cards?)
(2) # 1/16/2009
I'm late to the party, but man was Man on Wire an excellent film. On its face, it's a straightforward documentary about high-wire walker Philippe Petit and his 1974 walk between the tops of the Twin Towers, but the fact that he and his crew did so without alerting authorities -- at least until he was in the middle of the wire, a quarter mile above the ground -- makes the film that much more fun to watch. It comes off as part heist movie (How did they sneak in?) and part Mythbusters episode (How did they prepare and plan for it? What equipment did they use?), and it's edited proficiently. I'm still dealing with the slow trickle of 2008 films that comes with living in a 4th tier movie city, but this is one of the best I've seen from last year so far.
AICN's Harry Knowles, whose favorite movie of 2008 is Let the Right One In -- a Swedish film -- thinks that the rules for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award are broken (and I agree):
[B]ecause its country of origin didn't offer it up as the film representing its country, it will not even be considered for BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM, which at the very least... it is. This is why that award in the Academy Awards is broken. When you depend upon a host nation to offer up a film for consideration for BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM, you are forced to consider only the films that the nation in question feels artistically represent their country. As a result, films critical of their current country's policies and politics - won't be offered up.I haven't seen LTROI yet, but I've heard excellent things. (2) #1/13/2009
If you were jumping over a highway median while smoking a cigarette and brandishing a handgun towards a bunch of cops, following an armed robbery and a high-speed car chase, I'm pretty sure you couldn't look more badass than this. Of course, you'd also get shot and arrested. (via reddit)
(2) # 1/7/2009
This came up during a recent game of Trivial Pursuit (from memory): "How many of the 14 lines of David Shulman's sonnet 'Washington Crossing the Delaware' are anagrams of the title?" The answer? 14. Yes, it's a "14-line rhyming sonnet in which every line is an anagram of the title." Even Douglas Hofstadter is impressed.
(8) # 1/6/2009
This New Yorker profile on Will Oldham AKA Bonnie "Prince" Billy (who made my #4 album of last year) is an interesting read, and not just because I learned that he played the father of Baby Jessica in the TV movie about her fall into a well. (I had already seen him in John Sayle's Matewan anyway.) (via @Schenkenberg)
(1) # 1/5/2009
Nate from FiveThirtyEight.com gives a statistical explanation as to why there are no Black senators but there are 39 Black members of the House of Representatives. The superficial answer: Black congresspersons tend to be elected in Black majority districts and there are, of course, no Black majority states.
The question, of course, is why African-Americans aren't getting elected in [Black minority] districts. Racism is undoubtedly part of the answer, but it probably can't be a complete one now that the country has just elected Barack Obama to the White House.
He then goes on to make a few interesting but non-statistical guesses that have to do with political gerrymandering.
I suspect that a lot of the problem, however, is that as Congressional Districts have become more and more gerrymandered, leading to the creation of more and more majority-minority districts following the 1980 and 1990 censuses, the black political apparatus has become more and more 'ghettoized'.
Interesting how gerrymandering can affect the House and Senate so differently -- and it's not something I envision disappearing any time soon.