Sunday, August 29, 2004

New Yorker binge

So on my flight back to Berkeley, I tried to get through three August issues of the New Yorker (I hadn't gotten my mail forwarded for a while). As expected, I had missed a bunch of good stuff.
  • Nanook and Me: Louis Menand fills in some interesting background on the history of documentaries and how they came to have the reputation of being "a plotless, commentary-less, vérité-style record of life as it is," and places Fahrenheit 9/11 in this context.

  • The Gift: The story of a guy who earned millions in real estate, gave it all away, and then also gave away his kidney in a non-directed donation. I especially enjoyed the passages on giving relative values to human lives:
    Kravinsky considered the risks. Although Richard Herrick, who received the first kidney transplant, died eight years later, Ronald Herrick, his donor and twin brother, is still alive. As Herrick's example suggests, and medical research confirms, there are no health disadvantages to living with one kidney. One is enough-it grows a little bigger-and the notion that a spare should be packed for emergencies is misconceived: nearly all kidney disease affects both.
    The risks are in the operation. "I had a one-in-four-thousand chance of dying," Kravinsky told me. "But my recipient had a certain death facing her." To Kravinsky, this was straightforward: "I'd be valuing my life at four thousand times hers if I let consideration of mortality sway me."
    During one of our conversations, I asked Kravinsky to calculate a ratio between his love for his children and his love for unknown children. Many people would refuse to engage in this kind of thought experiment, but Kravinsky paused for only a moment. "I don't know where I'd set it, but I would not let many children die so my kids could live," he said. "I don't think that two kids should die so that one of my kids has comfort, and I don't know that two children should die so that one of my kids lives."
    Trying to think in this way, just as an experiment, is really worthwhile. I remember talking with my brother about the classic philosophical dilemma in which (roughly) you see a train speeding toward a group of five people, and you can save them by hitting a switch which will send the train crashing into a group of three people. We eventually started talking about things like how many near-death senior citizens would be needed to balance a healthy young adult. While I found this kind of thinking a bit uncomfortable (and I still do), I feel like it opened my mind a bit.

  • Speed (not online, August 23rd issue): A very cool article by a neurologist on how the brain perceives time, discussing things like how time seems to slow down for people in near-death experiences, the effects of drugs, and people with Parkinson's disease and Tourette's syndrome. One cool tidbit that I'll type up:
    Sometimes, as one is falling asleep, there may be a massive, involuntary jerk - a myoclonic jerk - of the body. Though such jerks are generated by primitive parts of the brain stem (they are, so to speak, brain-stem reflexes), and as such are without any intrinsic meaning or motive, they may be given meaning and context, turned into acts, by an instantly improvised dream. Thus the jerk may be associated witha dream of tripping, or stepping over a precipice, lunging forward to catch a ball, and so on. Such dreams may be extremeley vivid, and have several "scenes." Subjectively, they appear to start before the jerk, and yet presumably the entire dream mechanism is stimulated by the first, preconscious perception of the jerk. All of this elaborate restructuring of time occurs in a second or less.
    I've wondered for a long time how that worked. Also, I'm not a person that typically remembers dreams except when I'm awakened in the middle of one. I've always found it somewhat jarring that my experience of a dream is (presumably) unaffected by whether I'll remember it or not, which depends on the future event of the dream being interrupted.

  • The Unpolitical Animal: Another Louis Menand article, this one about the thinking of voters. Quotes on NewsDog.
One last thing: I was at a party last night celebrating the launch of a couple of web sites by my friend Dave, including Classical CD Guide. Check it out if you've been looking to get into classical music or if you're just looking for some new pieces to listen to.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Shut Up And Deal

Thoughts on the movies I saw and book I finished over the last couple of days:
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude: I couldn't get over this feeling that something significant was missing in the translation of this book. I don't know exactly why I felt this more than I did with other translated books, but at times the English prose just felt like it was trying to capture some quirk of the original Spanish but wasn't quite doing it. But, the book was still very enjoyable, with a lot of memorable moments and an ending that made me want to read the book again, knowing its rhythm and where it is heading.

  • The Manchurian Candidate (the remake): I thought this movie worked really well as a thriller. There are a lot of close-up shots with faces right in the center of the frame that are especially disturbing and effective. I felt like the political stuff was a little heavy-handed, but hey, at least it was on the right side :). All I remember about the original is that I liked it a lot, so I should probably see it again.

  • The Apartment: A great movie for the whole family! Seriously, I was looking to rent a movie that my parents and I would both enjoy, and this one worked well. The directing, Jack Lemmon's acting, and the screenplay are all great. Check it out if you're looking for a good comedy that won't have your mom commenting on its depravity every 5 minutes.

  • Before Sunrise: I've been trying to see more of Richard Linklater's movies because I absolutely love Dazed and Confused. This movie didn't quite meet that bar, but it was relaxing and feel-good in sort of the same way. Maybe it's because it also has a relatively consequence-free setting where the characters don't really have anything stressing them out. There was some annoying philosophizing that reminded me of Waking Life, which I couldn't even get through. But in the end I think Julie Delpy made up for it :).

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Lots on Ray

GreenCine Daily has a post with links to a bunch of good articles on Satyajit Ray, due to the 50 year anniversary of Pather Panchali. Time to get back on GreenCine and finish the Apu trilogy.

September Concerts

Continuing an old tradition of listing concerts of which I usually end up attending two at most, here are some shows I want to check out in September. At the symphony, I'll definitely see Mahler 9, and the Rite of Spring and Quasthoff concerts look good too. At the opera, Cosi Fan Tutte and La Traviata should both be really good. AJ tipped me off to The Pixies playing at Greek Theater, but it looks like their shows are sold out. With some help, I'll do better at getting to more non-classical concerts in the future. As always, if you know of some other good concert I should check out, or if you want to hit any of the above performances with me, let me know.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Pennsylvania Redistricting

I was at the India Society of Pittsburgh independence day picnic today. They're a pretty cool group trying to bring together the various Indian subcultures in the Pittsburgh area that tend to be kind of insular otherwise. Anyway, two US representatives, Mike Doyle (Democrat) and Timothy Murphy (Republican) were on hand to give speeches. I thought Doyle's speech was quite good, mostly encouraging the Indian community to be more politically active. Murphy served up a few platitudes and personal shout-outs, but nothing too inspiring. Since it's an election year, I looked up the congressional races for the relevant districts. Due to the 2002 redistricting in Pennsylvania, Doyle is running unopposed (after being forced to defeat another popular Democrat in the 2002 race), and Murphy is defending this lovely district that was essentially created for him. Yaaay, democracy! Here's a New Yorker article from a few months back that has some discussion of the Pennsylvania gerrymandering (which was upheld by the Supreme Court this year).

Note to self: 600 miles of driving followed by a red-eye in one day is no fun. Time for bed.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Caffeine Free Diet Coke

I didn't understand the purpose of this drink until a couple days ago. I was hesitating to drink another Diet Coke because the caffeine would keep me up late, so I grabbed a Caffeine Free Diet Coke just to try it. It tastes exactly like Diet Coke (at least to me), and that taste itself seems to make me feel more alert, as if I've tricked my brain into thinking it's getting some caffeine. Maybe decaf coffee works the same way? Maybe I'm just dense to not have realized this would happen before. Anyway, kind of cool, although my dependence on caffeine, while not that strong, is a bit frightening.

Incidentally, I've wondered what the deal is with the new Coke C2, which is advertised to have all the taste of regular Coke with half the carbs and calories. If this is true, why would anyone ever buy regular Coke? And while I like the taste of Diet Coke, which has no carbs or calories, isn't this an admission that most people think it tastes worse than regular Coke? A Google search shows that I'm definitely not the first to wonder about this. But, it looks like most people don't think C2 has all the taste anyway.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Obesity and Income

A well-done story from Morning Edition on the link between obesity and income. It seems that even on a low budget you could eat healthier than fast food, but I'll bet it's tough to prioritize that when you are stressing out about making ends meet.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Kinsley Again on Stem Cells

Michael Kinsley lays the smack down on Bush's latest spin of his stem cell research policy (mentioned briefly here). Kinsley has written nicely on this topic before (via Abstract Factory).

Errol Morris MoveOn ads

Here's a New Yorker article on the Errol Morris MoveOn ads. Some of the ads are really worth watching; this is one of my favorites.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

John Perry Barlow

Reason has an interview up with John Perry Barlow, a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that's definitely worth reading. On Kerry vs. Bush:
We have to re-engage in the political process we have. Democracy actually works. You could make the argument that it’s working too well in America -- people are really getting exactly the government that they want. That is to say, the people who bother to engage themselves in the really tedious work of being a political activist -- having meetings in church basements and putting signs on people’s lawns.

I have grave misgivings about John Kerry, but I certainly don’t have misgivings about Kerry that equal the terror I have about another four years of Bush. What he’s done to aspects of the Constitution that are there to assure individual rights is breathtakingly bad.
And on TV vs. the Internet for getting news:
You now have two distinct ways of gathering information beyond what you yourself can experience. One of them is less a medium than an environment -- the Internet -- with a huge multiplicity of points of view, lots of different ways to find out what’s going on in the world. Lots of people are tuned to that, and a million points of view have bloomed. It creates a cacophony of viewpoints that doesn’t have any political coherence at all, a beautiful melee, but it doesn’t have the capacity to create large blocs of belief.

The other medium, TV, has a much smaller share of viewers than at any time in the past, but those viewers get all their information there. They get turned into a very uniform belief block. TV in America created the most coherent reality distortion field that I’ve ever seen. Therein is the problem: People who vote watch TV, and they are hallucinating like a sonofabitch. Basically, what we have in this country is government by hallucinating mob.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Krugman vs. O'Reilly

An edited video (by an Outfoxed producer) and a transcript. I'm guessing Krugman didn't get his facts 100% right in the exchange either, but man, O'Reilly's thuggish behavior really rubs me the wrong way (along with some of his opinions, of course). And how does being a "traditionalist" (as O'Reilly labels himself) differ from being a conservative? This discussion is the best thing I found on Google, and it seems to imply that being traditionalist puts you on the more extreme side of conservatism.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

A Dog's Got Personality

Just finished reading this essay on the narrative structure of Pulp Fiction (via GreenCine Daily). If you're not a big fan of the movie, the essay probably isn't worth reading. The argument (as I understand it) is that in spite of its chronological leaps, the structure of the sequence of episodes in the film largely adheres to the conventions of a Hollywood-style narrative. The uses of classical narrative structure ground the film and allow it to more effectively comment on the passage of time in the characters' lives (emblematized by Butch's watch), a central thematic element. I think the argument is a bit of a stretch, but I've got some food for thought for the next time I watch the movie (just ordered the DVD).

Tuesday, August 10, 2004


Somewhat related to the Lebowski post, a book excerpt extolling laziness. Check this out:
Greatness and late rising are natural bedfellows. Late rising is for the independent of mind, the individual who refuses to become a slave to work, money, ambition. In his youth, the great poet of loafing, Walt Whitman, would arrive at the offices of the newspaper where he worked at around 11.30am, and leave at 12.30 for a two-hour lunch break. Another hour's work after lunch and then it was time to hit the town.
That sounds about right. Oh well, back to work.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Mark It, Dude

It seems that some people obsessively watch and quote The Big Lebowski. I guess I'm not privy to all the new shit. I actually saw a marmot earlier this summer at Rainier. Thanks to Vish for the link.

Friday, August 06, 2004


On Wednesday I saw Facing Windows, which won the best film award at the Seattle International Film Festival this year. The movie had good acting and cinematography, but nothing that made it great. But it did have a lot of close-ups of faces, including an extreme close-up under the end credits. I love reading faces and trying to figure out what they reveal, and I thought Massimo Girotti, who played a forgetful old man in the film (and apparently passed away soon after), did a great job of getting across a lot in his facial expressions.

It's weird, though, because I feel like a still face in a good photo is often more interesting than an animated face in a film. Maybe it's because I need to think more to figure out what's going on with the person in the still? In any case, I hadn't heard of Henri Cartier-Bresson before this week, but it seems that he had a knack for capturing faces at revealing moments. I especially like this picture of Gandhi breaking a fast. The woman in the background looks relieved and happy, but afraid to be too exuberant and somehow upset Gandhi and make him change his mind. It would be cool to actually see prints of some of Cartier-Bresson's pictures instead of just web-friendly digital versions and catch more of the details.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Technology and Football

Cool article on Brian Billick's use of technology in his football coaching career. Best quote:
By the time Billick was on the coaching staff at Utah State University in the late 1980's, he was working with some of the school's computer experts to process game information. As he put it: "When you go to computer science guys, they're so into the bells and whistles you get a lot more than you really need. But the guys in the business department, they know how to crunch numbers for a purpose."
Heh. Seriously, though, it's cool to see that Billick has does quite a bit with computers without himself being a hardcore computer geek. I was a bit disappointed that the article was not more specific about any competitive advantage Billick gained through using his programs to look at game footage. But, I imagine it does help, since he's still excited about using it and he seems pretty results-oriented.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

This Is Jesus, Kent

I had an evening that made me nostalgic in two different ways. We were having a discussion that somehow drifted to video games and unfair advantages in games, eg. Donkey Kong's superior top speed in Super Mario Kart. It reminded me of this article on the best video game athletes of all time (QB Eagles ruled!), which reminded me of the insane amount of time I spent playing Tecmo Super Bowl. It was so fun as a kid to spend literally days of my life playing a new game and trying to find its quirks. I guess I could have spent some of that time reading, and then I'd be able to write good now, but I don't regret it too much.

Then, we watched the classic Real Genius, which I hadn't seen in years. The movie is a bit dated but still pretty funny, and of course it reminded me of the undergrad days. The content of the movie specifically reminded me of my freshman year, when I worked way too hard like Mitch does at the beginning. But then I remembered that the last time I had seen the movie was also freshman year, a really fun evening with a friend. There's some kind of weird self-referential thing going on there, but I'm too tired to figure out a good way to describe it.

The Paper Paper

Josh Marshall discusses the difference between reading a physical newspaper and reading the articles on the web, and I completely agree. I also think that the free access to the articles on newspaper web sites leads to more focused reading; I think I'd feel an urge to do a more thorough job of reading the Times if I were paying to do so. But it still wouldn't be the same as having some random article catch my eye in a regular paper.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Great Directors

A cool collection of essays on great directors. It's kind of scary that there are so many names there that I don't recognize.