Friday, February 29, 2008

Vayama

I came across a relatively new travel website this week. It's called Vayama and it's targeted for international travelers. It seems to have some pretty good deals. We just booked a trip to Europe for early June and saved about 20% off of the prices we were seeing on other air travel websites. The interface could be better, but it's very web 2.0. They have a 3D seat selector that nearly brought my relatively powerful laptop to its knees, but it looks very cool. My other gripe is that, at least for our trip, there was about a 24 hour delay between clicking 'buy' and the itinerary getting ticketed. If you're planning some overseas travel and you don't mind playing the waiting game for a little while after selecting your trip, Vayama might be worth a look.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

I Pity The Fool

We went out to AS220 on Tuesday night to catch a screening of I Pity the Fool, a film that explores the ruins of the city of Detroit. For as long as I can remember, Detroit has been like a car accident to me, I know that something horrible has happened but I can't take my eyes off of it. I didn't have really high hopes for the film, but I knew that I had to go see it.

Brent Coughenor, the director, was on hand to introduce the film and presumably answer questions after the screening. I say presumably because we left about 10-15 minutes before it ended. After reading this interview with Coughenor, I feel like we share a similar connection to and fascination with Detroit. We both grew up in the suburbs of Detroit in the 1980s, arguably the nadir of Detroit's long and continuing decline. Unfortunately, the movie didn't really strike a chord with me. It's neither a documentary nor a conventional narrative film. There's almost no dialog and no real characters. It's really more of a filmmakers film, though I have my doubts as to how compelling the cinematography really was.

Even though this film was shot on what I can only assume was a minuscule budget, there was a certain laziness about it that bothered me. There are a number of scenes that take place on sidewalks that were filmed from the other side of the street so passing cars go in and out of the frame throughout the scene. I realize that this project didn't have the kind of money or connections that it takes to get streets cordoned off, but I think that if I were a filmmaker working on a shoestring budget, I would have found a better way to get that shot. There's a sequence about half of the way through the film where one of the "characters" is suddenly at Cedar Point (an amusement park in Ohio, in case you weren't aware). As a once frequent visitor to Cedar Point, that scene had a lot of sentimental value for me, but I don't know how it was supposed to fit in to the film.

If it had only been a visual homage to the ruins of Detroit, I still would have enjoyed it, but it really wasn't all that interesting from a visual or architectural standpoint. The only scene that I really enjoyed is the one that is pictured in the Sifflbog interview. In that scene, a man leaves his house and begins riding his bike down the street. The camera follows him in profile as he rides along what starts out as a pretty nice looking neighborhood by Detroit standards. Soon, the neat row of houses fades away into a more typical Detroit scene of abandoned residential and industrial lots and empty streets. Finally, the man reaches the Michigan Central Station. As he rides around this gigantic hulk of building that is completely devoid of life and activity, you can really feel the isolation and decay that is so pervasive in Detroit.

I can only recommend this film to people like me who obsess over Detroit or people who have never seen the ruins of Detroit first-hand. It's hard for people who have never seen Detroit to fathom the scale of urban decay that has gone on nearly unchecked for the past half century. I had the opposite problem; it wasn't until I had a chance to visit some other big cities as a young man that I realized that not all urban centers were in a state of constant decay. If you want an introduction to Detroit and can't make it there for a visit, I think 8 Mile is a better choice, but if you want to support independent film, you may learn something about Detroit from I Pity The Fool.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Almost Famous

Today's Boston Globe had a story about Rhode Island's nascent high technology economy. There's not a lot of new information in this article, but it was nice to see the Providence Geeks get plenty of mentions. As I type, the picture on the front page of the Globe's technology section, which was taken at last week's geek dinner, features a nice view of my midsection (I'm wearing a blue shirt and holding a 16oz can of 'Gansett in my right hand).

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Global Citizen

Back in the day, a friend and I wrote a series of absurd stories about a family that found themselves in ridiculous situations the world over. We would generally think of a ridiculous premise and give it an equally absurd setting. When we decided that one of the characters was to get gravely injured because he fell asleep in one of the cars that was to be destroyed at a demolition derby, we consulted an atlas to find what we thought was an unlikely place for this event and found a city in Romania named Cluj-Napoca. We had a good laugh and I never gave Cluj-Napoca a second thought, until today. I was doing some work and uncovered what appeared to be a bug in an open source library that I was using. I posted a description of the issue to the discussion forum for said piece of software and I soon received confirmation from one of the developers. When I saw in his profile that he was based in Cluj-Napoca, it jogged my memory and brought me back to the story I wrote a good 15 years ago. That's the great thing about the Internet - it gives you a chance to interact with people from the places around the world that you made fun of when you were a kid because you thought they had funny sounding names.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die, Bye-Bye

While it's hard to listen to classic rock and oldies on the radio for too long without hearing a song by The Eagles, one Eagles song that you don't hear everyday is James Dean. It's off of their On the Border album, and I've probably only heard it a handful of times, but it's always been one of my favorite Eagles tunes. I heard it in the car yesterday and decided to see what else I could find out about the song and came across this loving James Dean tribute slideshow set to the tune.





It's just a really fun song. You don't have to be an Eagles fan or a James Dean fan to enjoy the tune.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Queen of Mean



Today's installment of Mother Goose & Grimm is too strange not to comment on. After reading today's cartoon, I went back and read all of this week's strips to see if this was a one-off gag or the culmination of a plot that had been building all week. As I had suspected, it was a one-off, and my failure to find it funny had nothing to do with a lack of context. The strangeness of this strip begins by building a joke around Leona Helmsley. This might be the least timely comic strip ever penned. Helmsley was convicted of tax evasion back in 1992 and she died last year. Why did Mike Peters wait until now to joke about it?

As I've mentioned before, comic strip writers often times resort to tortured setups in order to cram a desired punchline into the final panel. Peters is going for an Exorcist/repossessed-possessed play on words joke, which is bad enough in and of itself, but using a reference to Leona Helmsley's putative dog to make that joke is stretching artistic license well beyond the breaking point. As if all that wasn't bad enough, the sloppy grammar in the first panel introduces an ambiguity regarding whose car was repossessed by the IRS. I realize that dogs can't own cars, but neither can the deceased. It's not like this joke would make any more sense if it was clear who the car belonged to. It's just another piece of evidence to suggest that Peters really mailed it in on this strip.

License to Drive

Growing up in the Detroit area, I thought I pretty much had seen it all when it came to people being obsessed with their cars. It wasn't until I moved out east that I learned about an automotive obsession that for whatever reason, never seemed to take hold in the motor city. The obsession I'm speaking of is the desire to have the smallest possible license plate number. I thought it was specific to Rhode Island, where license plate numbers can be (and often are) passed on to your descendants, but it's even more popular in Delaware, the only state that allows for easy license plate number transferals. Delaware license plate #6 just fetched $675,000 at auction, the most a license plate has ever sold for in the US. That may sound like a lot of money to pay for a license plate, but when you consider that Abu Dhabi's #1 license plate sold for the equivalent of $14.2 million last week, it seems like quite the steal.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Back to the Future

This post is probably the most interesting thing I've read about Kosovo's recent declaration of independence from Serbia. It's just one man's opinion, but often times, news stories gain a lot more poignancy when viewed through the lens of actual human experience instead of history, politics, economics, etc. More than anything else, his post reminded me of one of the things I like most about life in America. For the most part, we don't have to deal with these deep-seated ethnic and sectarian grudges. Our history is short and we're generally pretty ignorant of whatever history we have. While many a hand has been wrung over America's historical forgetfulness and incessant focus on the future, I think that overall, it's better to be too forward looking than too mired in the past.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Look Sharp

In case you haven't heard, The Sharper Image filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Tuesday. My initial thought upon hearing this news was it's about damn time. For as long as I can remember, I've had nothing but contempt for The Sharper Image. I'm not entirely sure why. Could I really have been sophisticated enough as a 12 year old to realize that they sold a lot of overpriced junk to people who equated paying a lot of money for useless products with status? I guess so, and it's only taken the rest of America 20 years or so to catch up with me. I knew a guy in college who used to work at a Sharper Image store, but had to quit after he could no longer maintain the fiction that the products they carried were in any way useful and/or worth the price that they were charging. If only all of his co-workers had been so wise.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Exploding Star Orchestra

I just found out about the Exploding Star Orchestra, Rob Mazurek's new, for lack of a better term, avant jazz supergroup. Not to be confused with the Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra, the Exploding Star Orchestra is a a collection of Chicago-affiliated improvisers. The band includes musicians from just about every band in Chicago that I've been listening to over the past ten years. I've found that bands like this are never greater than the sum of their parts, because the sum of their parts is so incredibly large, but I am pretty impressed what little I've heard of the Exploding Star Orchestra so far.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Dictated but not Led

It's the middle of February again, which can only mean one thing. It's time for Parade magazine's annual survey of the world's worst dictators. I've come to accept the sheer absurdity of a magazine that only tangentially covers anything that could be considered world news the other 51 weeks of the year publishing an annual ranking of the world's worst dictators, so I don't have any additional criticism to offer about the concept. As for the results, let's take a look at the top 10.

1. Kim Jong-Il, North Korea: Kim finally grabbed the number one spot after finishing second the past two years. I can't really argue with this choice. In addition to his pure dictatorial bona fides, he's the only dictator who has a control group against which to compare his misrule. It's hard to say how much better (or worse) most countries would be without their current dictator, but it's pretty safe to say that had the Korean peninsula not been cleaved in two following World War II, the northern section of it would look a lot more like today's South Korea than today's North Korea.

2. Omar Al-Bashir, Sudan: No surprises here as well. I find it strange that Parade decided to mention that the Clinton administration imposed trade sanctions on Sudan in 1997 but exempted gum arabic (of which the US imports 4000 tons annually from Sudan). Are they trying to pin the blame for the Darfur genocide on the Clinton administration? Will leading right-wing websites pick up on this and start selling "No Blood for Gum Arabic" bumper stickers?

3. Than Shwe, Myanmar: He was the biggest mover in the top 5 (up 3 spots from last year's 6th place finish). I was kind of surprised, I figured he would have moved up even higher after last year's violent crushing of the saffron revolution.

4. King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia and 5. Hu Jintao, China: Abdullah and Hu swapped places in this year's poll. I still think Hu is somewhat out of place on this list. He's more of a caretaker than a dictator. Of course, he's the caretaker of a government that brutalizes its own people so he obviously is not without fault, but he will step down when his time comes and be replaced by someone else who will probably maintain the status quo, but it at least gives China a mechanism to gradually ease its way into becoming a freer society, which is more than most of the other people on this list can say.

6. Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe: Mugabe moved up from 7th place last year. In terms of sheer venality, Mugabe should probably be in first place.

7. Sayyid Ali Khamenei, Iran: Khamenei wins the most improved dictator award, falling from third place last year all the way to seventh. This is obviously a result of the minor cooling off in the US versus Iran brinksmanship, but I'm still surprised to see Iran fall this far on the list.

8. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan: Musharraf cracked the top 10 once again after finishing a distant 15th last year. Musharraf is another strange selection. Though he did gain power through a bloodless coup, his regime has gained a modicum of electoral legitimacy and he did resign his military post at the end of last year. Musharraf is very middle-of-the-road as a dictator; Pakistan's instability and geostrategic importance are the reasons for his inclusion on this list.

9. Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan: Karimov moved down one spot from last year's poll, presumably because nothing good enough or bad enough to report happened in Uzbekistan last year.

10. Isayas Afewerki, Eritrea: Afekerki is the biggest surprise of this year's top 10, moving up from 13th last year. His ascension is probably due to Ethiopia's incursion into Somalia last year, which led to accusations of Eritrean support for the vanquished Islamist regime in Mogadishu (under the enemy of my enemy is my friend doctrine) and the resulting flare up in tensions along the volatile Ethiopia-Eritrea border.

The Rookie of the year was Cuba's Raul Castro, who finished 18th in his first full year behind the helm in Cuba. This highlights the key failing of this survey. The Castro regime is every bit as repressive as China, yet China finished 13 places ahead of Cuba. The difference, of course, is that China has the potential to harm the US economically and/or militarily, while Cuba does not. As I've said before, this list needs to decide what it wants to be, a ranking of the worst dictators in the world or a ranking of the worst dictators whose misrule could potentially impact the US.

Some other notable mentions include Belarus' Aleksandr Lukashenka, who at 16th place is Europe's only top 20 finisher, and the world's last reigning absolute monarch, King Mswati III of Swaziland. As if finishing 14th wasn't already bad enough, Parade incorrectly named Mswati the ruler of the nonexistent country of Equatorial Swaziland.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Red Bullshit

One thing I've seen a lot of while traveling abroad but never in the US is television screens on subway trains. I'm sure we'll eventually get them over here, but I'm in no hurry. I haven't minded them on my travels since it's always neat to notice the little differences between your home country and the place you are visiting and, more importantly, I've never been exposed to public transit broadcasting in an English-speaking country, so I couldn't really understand what was being said on TV anyway.

That being said, most public transit programming is commercials, so it's not that hard to understand. While riding the KCR in Hong Kong last November, we saw the following Red Bull commercial.



A few weeks ago, we saw the same commercial on American television. The US version features a different ending, as you can see here.



Michelle and I immediately noticed this difference. I assumed it was yet another example of American reactionary puritanism - bodily functions are sinful and evil but violence is ok. After reading the YouTube comments (hardly an authoritative source, I know), it sounds like Red Bull may have retooled the commercial between when we viewed it on the train in Hong Kong and on our couch in the US.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Roscoe

There's a squirrel named Roscoe who lives in our backyard. How do we know his name is Roscoe? We named him. How do we know that he's a boy? Wild guess. How do we know that it's him in our backyard and not some other squirrel that happened to wander over? No clue. I will note, however, that there is rarely more than one squirrel in our yard at any given time. If there are two, one of them is usually chasing the other away. It at least seems plausible that a squirrel's territory is roughly the size of our backyard (if squirrels are in fact territorial animals) and that we're usually seeing the same squirrel when we look out back.

I went into the garage one evening a few weeks ago and thought I heard an animal scurrying around. A few days later, Michelle discovered some piles of leaves arranged into a nest-like formation in the garage when she was taking out the trash. On Tuesday, she went into the garage and saw Roscoe and one of his friends inside. They ran to the back of the garage and either hid behind some sheeting or exited through some unknown crack in the wall or tunnel.

As cute as Roscoe is when he steals unripened pears from our pear trees and discards their remains in the grass after taking one squirrel-sized bite out of them, we don't really want him to use the garage as his crash pad. At the same time, I don't want this to turn into a man vs. rodent battle of Caddyshackian proportions. Attempting to squirrel-proof the garage is now on our list of President's Day weekend activities. The joys of homeownership.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Take it Easy

I've always heard that Easy Rider is masterpiece of American cinema. The AFI even went as far as naming it the 88th greatest movie of the 20th century. I watched it this weekend, and I'll have to respectfully disagree with the AFI on this one. I'll defer to fellow Netflix subscriber WR 323380, whose sentiments about the movie matched mine almost exactly. Maybe it was a great movie for its time, but I don't think it has aged very well at all.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Book Report

I like the A.V. Club, but it does have a lot of content that I wind up skipping over because I don't find it all that interesting. Two of the features that I never skip, however, are the weekly Ask the A.V. Club column and The Box of Paperbacks Book Club. Ask the A.V. Club is kind of like the Straight Dope, only entirely focused on obscure pop culture. People write in with vague descriptions of a movie they may have seen part of 25 years ago and the A.V. Club comes back with a detailed description of the movie. The Box of Paperbacks Book Club is a series of book reviews from A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps, who purchased a box of vintage paperbacks and has been reading them one at a time and writing reviews. He has yet to review a book that I've ever read, but being a used book store connoisseur, I have come across many tomes that remind me of the books he's been reading. I've always thought it would be kind of fun to read bad pulp and science fiction novels from the 1950s, but it's not an endeavor that I'm really willing to commit any time to, so it's nice that someone else is willing to do all of that reading for me and give me a snarky review. I've created a couple of Yahoo! Pipes feeds specifically for these features (see the links earlier in this post) if I've piqued your interested but you don't want to deal with sifting through all of the A.V. Club's daily content.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Dear Sister

I don't how popular last season's Dear Sister SNL digital short was. It didn't seem to generate much buzz, but maybe I completely missed it. We saw it when it aired last season and thought it was hilarious. Check it out here if you missed it the first time. I didn't know this until I searched for it online, but I guess it's a parody of The O.C.. Don't let that prevent you from enjoying it.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Sex, Eyes, and Videotape

I caught a few minutes of the Today Show this morning while I was in the waiting room with Michelle before she went in to get her other eye zapped. They interviewed Eli Manning and Michael Strahan, and I thought Matt Lauer got a good question in when he asked Strahan if he was going to bring a camera to the Superbowl parade. Strahan replied that he was going to bring a video camera and added that he rarely video tapes anything besides his children. If it was the Jerry Springer show instead of the Today Show, this is the point where Strahan's ex-sister-in-law would have come onto the field cursing at Strahan while swinging a chair or perhaps a potted plant, but it wasn't so Lauer didn't pursue that line of questioning any further. For those of you who are not up-to-date on sports gossip, Strahan recently went through a messy divorce where accusations surfaced that he, among other things, secretly video taped his ex-wife's sister while she was undressing.

As for the eye surgery, it went very well once again. She's still recovering, but she's already seen a dramatic improvement.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Spam

We went to see Spamalot at PPAC last week. Neither of us found it to be all that funny. It wasn't horrible, but after seeing it, I can't really see what all of the fuss is about. I think my biggest problem was that while I've never been a huge fan of Monty Python, I've known a lot of people who found the troupe quite amusing and often interjected quotes from their skits and movies into conversations. A lifetime of this has exposed me to most of the jokes that were included in Spamalot, but since I never got to experience those jokes on my own terms, I really didn't appreciate seeing them done on stage set to music. Even worse, I've had the misfortune of meeting several Monty Python fans who happened to be rather annoying (imagine that), so the numbers that they did on stage sometimes reminded me of those people, which did nothing to enhance my appreciation of the performance. If you're a big Python fan, you'll probably enjoy it and you might like it if you've never really been exposed to their humour before. Otherwise, it's probably best to save your money. If you are on the fence, perhaps this timely article from the A.V. Club that names 20 pop culture obsessions ever geekier than Monty Python will help you put things in perspective.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

It's my money, and I need it now

I am a connoisseur of the commercials that law firms (mostly personal injury outfits) run on local TV. Their flair for the dramatic and their production details put them in a league that local car dealers and merchants can only dream of. One of my current favorites is J.G. Wentworth's "It's my money, and I need it now!" campaign, currently in heavy rotation in Rhode Island. There's an article in today's ProJo about how some state judges are refusing to approve the lump sum payment for structured settlement deals that firms like J.G. Wentworth broker. The reasoning behind these decisions is that the companies are preying on the financially desperate by offering them lump sum payouts that can be as low as 40% of the total value of the settlement.

I'm certainly not shocked to find out that companies like J.G. Wentworth charge a fairly large premium for their services. It's hard to say whether or not what they're doing borders on usury, but it's obvious to anyone with a bit of economic sense that you're going to have to pay some sort of a premium if you really need your money right now. I don't really envy companies that provide financial services to the poor. While it's true that there are business built on the idea of fleecing the poor and desperate out of what little they have, there are plenty of legitimate business who have to face down charges of exploiting the poor because they need to account for the additional risk they are taking on in their fee structures. If companies are forced to provide financial services to marginal customers at the same rates as other customers, they will probably choose not to do business with poorer customers, and in the end, that hurts poor consumers more than it helps them.

While it's likely that many of the people who appear before Judge Vogel are not acting in their own financial best interest when they choose to convert a structured settlement into a lump sum payout, I don't think that the government should be in the business of preventing people from making bad financial decisions. I'll ignore the irony of the State of Rhode Island lecturing someone about their finances and point out that the state doesn't seem all that concerned about poor people wasting their money on the state lottery or at the state-sanctioned gaming houses in Newport and Lincoln.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Not My Job

This week's installment of Not My Job of NPR's news quiz show Wait Wait Don't Tell Me featured NFL quarterback and NPR listener Joey Harrington. Joey definitely cements his reputation as one of the NFL's more cerebral jocks with his appearance on the show. It's actually a pretty fun interview. You should definitely listen to it, if for no other reason than to hear Carl Kassell say "Joey's a winner" at the end of the show. It'll probably be a long time before someone utters those words again in the national media.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Superbowl of Blogging

Three of my favorite sports bloggers are at the Superbowl right now. That's great news for them and great news for bloggers in general, I suppose. At first, I was somewhat disappointed, since everyone was writing about the same stuff, none of which was all that interesting to me. The blogging soon became a lot more interesting. MJD and Will have mostly focused on slice-of-life Superbowl stories and outsider observations of the Superbowl media circus. MDS has taken a different approach and has apparently been attending every single press conference he has been able to get into and written some really interesting stuff about the Superbowl, the Hall of Fame, the player's union, and even next season. I've really enjoyed the variety of perspectives offered by these three bloggers, from MDS' investigative journalism to MJD's epic bowling matches against Matt Leinart and Derek Anderson, to Will's thoughts on media day. I hope the actual game is as interesting.