Thursday, December 31, 2009

Up With People

I always manage to catch a movie or two over the holidays, and this year was no exception. Avatar and Up were this year's selections. I was pleasantly surprised by Avatar and very pleased that Up surpassed my already high expectations.

Avatar didn't blow me away, but it surpassed my admittedly meager expectations. Even though I don't get too excited about CGI effects, seeing it in 3D definitely made the experience more immersive and enjoyable. Avatar may have been the first movie I've ever seen in 3D. It's probable that I saw at least one 3D movie as a kid, but I can't think of any off of the top of my head. The story in Avatar isn't much to write home about, though it's not completely by-the-numbers. I was surprised to see how unsympathetically the paramilitary organization protecting the mining interests of the humans on Pandora was portrayed, given that they were a very thinly veiled stand-in for the American armed forces. This recent AV Club posting goes into more detail about the politics of the film. There's not much nuance, but it's a less conventional than I would have expected.

While I'm on the topic, did anyone else who saw Avatar find Sam Worthington's accent horrible? I'd never heard of the guy before seeing the movie, but an IMDB lookup confirms that he's from England and started his acting career in Australia. His Anglo and/or Aussie roots were very apparent, at least to me, during several of his dialogue sequences. You'd think for $250 million they could have gotten a decent accent coach for him so his character could have a believable middle American accent to go along with his working-class vocabulary.

Up is one of the most enjoyable movies I've seen in a while. I also liked Pixar's last outing, Wall-E, but I thought Up was even better. While Up is animated, it is not a kid's movie, but I'm sure that I would have loved it as a kid. I really enjoyed the period details and Carl, the main character, reminded me of my grandfather a little bit, but it's still a really good movie even if neither of those things hold true for you.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dakar

We tried Dakar, a new Senegalese restaurant in Central Falls last Friday before going to see The SantaLand Diaries at the Gamm Theater. There aren't a lot of dining choices near the Gamm, so Dakar is a nice addition to the area. We had the place to ourselves once the couple that was dining when we arrived left, which is never a good sign for a restaurant on Friday night (or any other night), but the food and the service was good. Our waiter (who was also the host, bus boy, and possibly, the chef) greeted us by asking if we had ever been the Senegal. It was nice that he didn't assume we had never visited his home country (though we haven't), even though it's a place that most Americans have never even heard of.

As for the food, I really liked the ginger juice. It was very strong, but I love ginger and ginger-based drinks especially. I also enjoyed the Naem appetizer that we tried. They are Senegalese-style egg rolls and according to our waiter, they were brought back to Senegal by soldiers who fought for their colonial power (France) in Vietnam. Regardless of how you feel about colonialism, we can all agree that is has given us some great fusion cuisine. I had the Lamb Yassa for dinner. The lamb was a bit on the dry side, but the dish still had a lot of flavor.

I haven't eaten much African cuisine, but my meal at Dakar was one of my favorites. Hopefully the next time we eat there, we won't be the only patrons.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bonus

I liked today's Dilbert. It reminded me of this story NPR did a few months ago.



The story looked into how people in various occupations are compensated and contrasted it with the huge bonus culture on Wall St. that has been all over the news for the past year. Most jobs don't pay out large performance-based bonuses because it would be counter-productive. I'd argue that it's also been quite counter-productive on Wall St., but that's another story. Since most people think that they are above average (I know I am), close to half the of the office would be pretty disappointed if a large percentage of their compensation was tied to individual performance. The other big problem, which this cartoon illustrates perfectly, is that if individual performance is the only thing that is considered when paying bonuses, interoffice cooperation is seriously devalued and employees start behaving like freelancers at best and competitors at worst.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Madness

This ad has been up for for several months now, but it raises an important question - is Mad Men no longer cool now that's it's being referenced in a Cardi's Furniture advertisement?


Thursday, December 03, 2009

Fox News

We saw Fantastic Mr. Fox last weekend. Ever since watching it, I've been trying to decide if I actually like Wes Anderson movies. I've seen most of them (though this was my first since The Life Aquatic) and enjoyed all of them to a certain degree. It has become somewhat fashionable to dislike Wes Anderson's work as of late, just as it used to be fashionable to enjoy it, but I don't think I'm getting caught up in the backlash. Mr. Fox wasn't a bad movie, I just never really got into the story. Part of the problem was I felt that George Clooney (who provided the voice for the titular character) turned Mr. Fox into an animated vulpine charactiture of his stock character. I'm going through something of a George Clooney backlash right now because I feel like he always plays the same character. Perhaps I should study a foreign language so I can watch a dubbed version of Mr. Fox to see if I enjoy it more with someone other than George Clooney voicing the main character.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Not-So-Great Wall



Like many a student before me, I assume, one of my social studies assignments in September of 1989 was to take a map of Europe and color all of the Soviet bloc countries in red. Unlike my predecessors, by the time the school year was over, the map that I colored at the beginning of the term was mostly obsolete. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in November, I knew enough to understand why it was important, but the whirlwind nature of my cold war education left a lot of gaps in my knowledge. When your social studies class happens to be in sync with the most important news story in a generation (if not more), it makes the material more engaging, but being a witness to history can give you a false sense of understanding. It wasn't until I visited Berlin several years later that I started to understand the events leading up to that night 20 years ago. Former Newsweek correspondent Michael Meyer has a new book called The Year that Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall. I haven't read the book, but I heard him discuss it on On Point a few weeks ago and it brought back a lot of memories from both my social studies class and my trip to Berlin.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Eureka

The AV Club featured a good interview with Jim O'Rourke yesterday. I've been aware of O'Rourke for a long time, but I never really gave any of his work a good listen until I picked up a copy of Eureka earlier this year (at Jive Time Records, a store that's joined Jazz Record Mart and Downtown Music Gallery as the record store that I visit whenever I'm in Seattle, Chicago, or New York, respectively) and I've really been enjoying it. Even though O'Rourke says in this interview that Eureka is "the one record I can’t fucking stand", I still think it's worth a listen or 20.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Where Men Win Glory

I received a copy of Where Men Win Glory, Jon Krakauer's latest book, and I read the whole thing in a single day while traveling back home from the southwest. The book chronicles the life and death of Pat Tillman, the iconoclastic professional football player who enlisted in the Army shortly after 9/11 and whose death by friendly fire in 2004 was shamefully covered up by the military. The book isn't just about Tillman, it's also one of the best analyses of America's involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq that I've ever read. I never paid as much attention to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as I should have, largely because I became so disillusioned by the Bush administration's mismanagement of them. Of course, the Bush administration is gone and the wars aren't over, so I don't have any excuses now. It's only been a week or so, but I have been paying much closer attention to the news from Iraq and Afghanistan than I was before reading this book. I'm not sure if Krakauer could have covered the wars in real-time as well as he did in this book, but more insightful press coverage certainly would have been nice in the earlier days of the wars.

There wasn't a lot of new information about Tillman in this book, but it did include excerpts from various journals that he kept during most of his adult life. The book focuses on Tillman's dual natures, how he was both an extroverted elite athlete turned soldier as well as an introspective intellectual war critic. When I first learned about Tillman after his death, he immediately struck me as someone who would have been vilified by many of the people who were holding him up as a war hero had they actually known him due to his unconventional and outspoken nature. After reading the book, I get the feeling that hating Pat Tillman would be nearly impossible for all but the most myopic partisans.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Thursday, October 15, 2009

¡hispanic!


I snapped this picture at my local Shaw's supermarket. They put these helpful exclamatory signs on each door in the freezer section. It's kind of fun to walk down the aisles reading the signs with the proper emphasis (breakfast! ice cream! kosher!), but I think they should have gone all out and included an inverted exclamation point on the hispanic foods sign.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Commuted Sentence

The bicycle commuting season has more or less drawn to a close. The morning temperature has dropped below my minimum riding threshold of 40 degrees. Even if we get a warm spell or I get some warmer gear, there's really not enough daylight left at the end of the day to ride home safely. Back in April, I stated that I wanted to replace the equivalent of 1000 driving miles with biking. I knew that goal was aggressive, but as the season unfolded, I realized that it was impossible. I still managed to have a successful biking season. I crossed the 1000 mile threshold and completed a century ride for the first time in a decade. Over the roughly six months I spent bicycle commuting, I completed 44 round trips and commuted a total of 735 miles, which was roughly equivalent to 600 miles of driving.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Exercise in Futility

I've had stock options at four of the companies I've worked for, but I've never made any money off of them... until now. Stock options are supposed to be a great tool for aligning employee interests with the bottom line, but in reality, they're more like a lottery ticket. In my case, they were more like a scratch and win lottery ticket, because I'll be lucky if my gain after taxes is $200. I'm not complaining since these options were set to expire in a couple of weeks and they had been underwater since May.

This experience was reinforced my belief that I don't have the stomach for active stock market investing. I like to make informed decisions, but even if I studied the markets all day and knew how to decipher a balance sheet, over a two-week time span, any individual stock can tank or go though the roof for reasons that no one could have anticipated. I finally decided to just pick a price that looked reasonable but was still high enough that it made me feel like I was still making some money and submitted a limit order. It executed yesterday afternoon near the intraday high and after today's 2.3% drop, the stock is now trading just barely above my strike price, so as it stands, I'm looking like something of a Wall Street genius right now. Unlike a compulsive gambler, instead of feeling a rush from all of this, I'm just glad that it's over and that I have a little bit of extra cash in my pocket.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Broken Dreams

A few months back, I raved about a newish band on the scene called Alberta Cross. I just finished listening to Broken Side of Time, their first full-length album, on lala and my enthusiasm has waned considerably. The album is thoroughly overproduced, robbing them of the hard-edged blues rock sound that drew me in to their music. Another downside of all that studio polish is that I never found their song lyrics very good, but it was pretty hard to decipher a lot of them on their debut EP. No such luck on Broken Side of Time. I still really enjoy their debut EP and I suspect that they might put on a pretty good live show.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Bad Goys

I just finished reading The Yiddish Policemen's Union, and I can honestly say that it has changed my life. Not because it's a great book, because I really didn't enjoy it that much. I just couldn't really get into it. For one, I'm not a huge fan of murder mysteries. I enjoyed the dialog and I didn't really find the Chabon's use of Yiddish too distracting, I just felt that the story never really developed enough momentum. The story is organized into relatively short chapters that all end with a punchy one-liner, which was amusing at first, but by the end, it started to feel like Chabon was putting more effort into his chapter endings than the overall plot.

So how did this slightly above average alternate history murder mystery change my life? For one, it's made me finally realize that there's no point in trying to read a novel if I'm not going to be able to be able to finish it in 2-3 weeks. I lose too much of the story if I try and read a novel 10 pages at a time. The other thing it has made me realize is that it's better to seek out books that I really want to read instead of reading whatever happens to fall in my lap. I've been meaning to read Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay for a long time, but every time I look for it at the library, it's checked out. I don't tend to buy a lot of new books, and while you can often find gems at the used book stores that I love so much, you're unlikely to find specific titles. I picked up Yiddish Policemen's Union from the remaindered rack at Barnes & Noble, which can also occasionally yield gems, but if you take the money I've wasted on second-rate discount titles over the years, I could have bought a small library of decent books instead. Or better yet, I could just request the titles that I'm interested in from the library and read them free of charge.

One final note, according to this article from last year, the Coen brothers are working on a film adaptation of The Yiddish Policeman's Union.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Fantasy Island

On the recommendation of a friend, I started following Rainn Wilson's Twitter feed recently. Normally, I don't have any interest in celebrity self-promotion, but Wilson's Twitter is often interesting, funny, or poignant. I loved this tweet from yesterday where he solicits advice for his upcoming fantasy football draft. It seems that the staff of The Office has an "office" fantasy football league. I'm not sure if they formed the league because they enjoy fantasy football or it's some sort of method acting technique they use to get into their average office worker characters, but either way, I love it.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Double Trouble

I've seen this commercial for KFC's latest menu item a few times so I assumed that it was taking American by storm. I learned today that this new culinary creation is currently being test marketed in Providence and Omaha, so I'm one of the lucky few able to experience the deliciousness of the Double Down, which is ostensibly a bacon and cheese sandwich with a bun made out of boneless pieces of fried chicken. For the record, I have yet to try one and have no plans to do so. My lack of interest may lead directly to the Double Down not testing well enough to merit a nationwide release, but it's a chance I'm willing take.

Normally, this is where I would go into full snark mode, but after The AV Club called it "the Reichstag fire of health care reform", I don't think there's anything else that can be said. I hope that I have an opportunity to use that analogy somewhere else, though. But is the Double Down really that bad? The concept seems a little dated. The bun-less sandwich sounds like something straight out of the Atkins craze of a few years back. The bacon seems forced, and I feel like the current incarnation of the add bacon to everything craze is starting to fizzle out. Other than that, I don't see how this is much different than other items on the menus of America's fast food restaurants. Don't get me wrong, the Double Down is kind of disgusting and definitely not something you should eat on a regular basis if you care about your health, but it isn't a new low in the field of culinary arts.

Case in point, last night I dined on some deep-friend clam-infused dough balls. Clam cakes, as they're usually known in these parts, are a Southeastern New England institution and a staple of seaside seafood shacks. Clam cakes have a better name than the Double Down and a simplicity that makes the Double Down look even more thrown together by comparison, but are they really all that different? If clam cakes can be considered a classic comfort food cherished across generations, can the Double Down really be considered a harbinger of the end of the times?

Restaurants need to innovate in order to attract customers. For fast food restaurants, that means either offering more calories per dollar than their competitors or combining a limited set of ingredients in new ways. Most innovations across the food service industry will be forgotten as quickly as they appear. A select few will become part of humanity's culinary lexicon for a few years, a few generations, or, if they're really good, forever. I'm not predicting that every greasy spoon will someday serve a version of the Double Down, I'm just saying that the difference between a beloved culinary institution and an affront to good taste on a plate is smaller than we think.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Newport News

More thoughts from the Newport Jazz Festival.

I was disappointed to see that RIPTA has discontinued their seasonal bus service from the Newport Visitors Center for Fort Adams. Even in these times of challenging state budgets, it's an embarrassment for city like Newport that relies so heavily on tourism to lack a public transport option from its downtown to one of its most popular attractions.

That being said, the water taxi that I wound up taking from Perrotti Park to Fort Adams was quite nice.

This was my first visit to Fort Adams, and I was really impressed with it. I'll definitely be going back some weekend when it's not playing host to a music festival to check it out.

There was no shortage of booths selling handicrafts at the festival, but I didn't see any selling recordings. Jazz fans are notorious record collectors so I was surprised to see that there wasn't even a tent selling recordings of the featured musicians.

My favorite show other than the V5 was the Christian McBride trio, which kind of surprised me. It wasn't anything earth-shattering, just really good and straight-ahead jazz. I was looking forward to Vijay Iyer's show, but with the exception of their last number, I couldn't really get into any of their tunes.

NPR music was at the festival and has made many of the concerts available for download (not the V5's set, unfortunately)

The ProJo mentioned the V5's set in their review today:
The Vandermark 5, a group of young Chicagoans, started the process with a mix of wailing horns, cello and bowed acoustic bass, completing the demolition on their final song as the second-stage crowd roared. “Some people probably hated it,” said cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, “and some people have told us it was their favorite thing of the festival so far.”


Ken's take on the V5's set, via twitter.

Here's a link to some pictures that I took of the V5 before their set.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

New Thing at Newport

Vandermark 5
Newport Jazz Festival - Fort Adams State Park - Newport, RI
Saturday, August 8th

I've never bothered making the trip down to Newport for its iconic jazz festival because, like most big jazz festivals, it tends to feature lowest common denominator acts that play the same old tunes year after year. Newport Jazz impresario George Wein decided to do something about that this year, as this article from the Boston Globe back explains. This year's line-up is fairly impressive, but the Vandermark 5 alone was worth the price of admission for me. Alas, I was not disappointed.

One of the great things about Vandermark is he never talks down to his audience. When I saw him play with School Days at SXSW in 2001, they played a couple of old Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd songs and he dutifully announced the song titles and composers to the crowd despite the fact that most of them were there for the punk rock act that followed them and most certainly had never heard of Shepp or Rudd (or Vandermark, for that matter). The Vandermark 5, as far as I know, only plays original tunes, so there was no free jazz history lesson going on, but their song selection was in no way pandering to the audience in Newport.

Simply put, their set rocked - literally and figuratively. I don't think I've ever heard them play a set as hard-hitting as the one they played in Newport. The first number that they did started out on a rocking note with Fred Lonberg-Holm playing a great serpentine cello solo against the bass and drums before Vandermark and Rempis joined in on tenor and alto saxes, respectively. Vandermark played tenor for most of the set. He occasionally picked up the clarinet, but his bari was not on stage. His most impressive solo was during the most subdued number of the set, Early Color, but all of his solos were strong. The band sounded really tight. It probably helped that most of the songs were from their forthcoming album, but still, it's pretty amazing to watch a band playing music that is both highly improvised and very precise at a breakneck pace stick together as well as they did.

I was quite impressed with the crowd; at its peak, it was standing room only. Vandermark appeared to share my sentiments, as he spent most of his time between numbers thanking the crowd and George Wein himself, who was on hand for most of their set. The biggest crowd pleaser of the day was Cement, a cacophonous song that was let off by Tim Daisy and featured some devastating hooks in addition to a Vandermark-Rempis tenor sax tête-à-tête.

The few times I've seen Vandermark play in front of a so-called crossover audience, he's been incredibly well-received and this show was no exception. While it's never going to be considered mainstream, this is music that adventurous ears are ready for, even if they aren't particularly attuned to jazz. Hopefully, the Vandermark 5's first US jazz festival appearance won't be their last.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mr. PC

I recently finished reading More Information Than You Require, the second volume in John Hodgman's three-volume almanac of made-up facts. Was I unwise to start with this volume instead of going back and reading the first book? I don't really think it matters, and I've read enough of The Areas of My Expertise in bookstores to know what I was getting into.

The genius of Hodgman's books is that he doesn't just make up things for the sake of being absurd. There's a kernel of truth at the center of all good jokes and while everything nearly Hodgman describes in his books is not true, much of it is rooted in the truth.

After an outstanding start that includes a listing of all US Presidents and important details about their lives (including whether or not they had a hook for a hand), More Information Than You Require starts to drag early in the second half when Hodgman gets stuck talking about how he fell ass-backwards into fame on the success of his first book and the subsequent acting roles to which it led. It's written in a fish-out-of-water tone, but he goes on and on about it for so long that I'm not sure if all of the fame has gone to his head or he's impersonating a writer who stumbled into fame and let it go to his head.

Once he gets off that digression, the book has its moments, but it never really recovers. I was looking forward to the chapter on mole-men, but it wasn't very funny or poignant. The list of 700 mole-man names was tedious reeked of the self-indulgence of the earlier chapters about Hodgman's life as a minor celebrity.

I should go back and read The Areas of My Expertise someday, since it was written before Hodgman became a minor celebrity and probably doesn't have as many digressions into his personal life, but I'm not going to rush out to pick up volume three whenever it arrives.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

All in the Family

This interview with Jeff Sharlet is a couple weeks old, but it's a really interesting look at a religious right group known as The Family. I consider myself fairly well informed on matter of church/state and culture war issues, but I had never heard of them before. Their secretive, trickle-down prosperity gospel is brazen, even by religious right standards. Sharlet's book about The Family sounds like an excellent read.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Friday, June 26, 2009

Wire Service

We recently watched Man on Wire, and we both enjoyed it. During the movie, I couldn't help but think how such a feat would be nearly impossible to pull off today, even if the twin towers were still standing. Some would argue that though security and litigation, we've effectively banished from our lives the kind of wonder and beauty that people like Philipe Petit provide. I think there is some truth to this view, but I think it overly romanticizes the past and shortchanges the artists of today. All memorable art is subversive in some way, and there's never been, nor will there ever be, a shortage of beliefs and assumptions that someone will feel the need to challenge though artistic expression.

The film itself is quite beautiful, thanks to a wealth of archival photographs and video. If you're afraid of heights, you will definitely feel a bit uncomfortable watching this movie, even though most of the images of the wire walk are stills. While a wire walk between the two (at the time) tallest buildings in the world seems insane, there is a certain logic to it. You're unlikely to survive a fall from anything much taller than a two story building. Since no one would really care if you walked across a wire strung between the 8th floors of the twin towers, you might as well go all the way to the top. In either scenario, you'll be just as dead if you fall, but if you survive at the top, you'll become a legend.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Monday, June 22, 2009

Chinese-Americana

We went to check out a small exhibit chronicling the early history of Chinese restaurants in Providence at the Johnson & Wales Culinary Arts Museum. The three restaurants profiled were all long gone before I arrived in Rhode Island, so I don't have any memories of dining at them, or any other old time Chinese-American restaurants for that matter. Still, it was an interesting exhibit. My favorite part was an old newspaper ad from one of the three restaurants (Mee Hong, I believe). There wasn't a date on the clipping but it appeared to be from the 1960s. The ad was targeting local college students and listed each of the local schools along with a selling point for the students at that institution. I don't remember each of the selling points verbatim, but they boiled down to the following:
  • Brown: Authenticity
  • RISD: Decor
  • URI: Value
  • PC: Alcohol
  • Bryant: American-Style Food
  • RIC: Highchairs
40+ years later, the ad probably still resonates pretty well with its intended audiences.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

People Who Eat People (Are the Luckiest People in the World)

I just finished reading Max Brooks' World War Z. It's not the kind of book that I would usually read, but I decided to give it a shot on the recommendation of my brother-in-law-in-law. It's an easy read, but it didn't do a lot for me. It's set in the not-too-distant future and chronicles the zombie war though interviews with the people who survived it.

The zombie myth is so pervasive and well-understood in modern culture that this book doesn't really need to spend much time explaining what zombies are and how they work, though I found the way that Brooks delicately examined nearly every tactical aspect of what a war against the undead would look like one of the most compelling parts of the story. I did a little research of my own after reading the book, and I was surprised to learn how modern the zombie myth is. While it's origins are somewhat unclear, it's likely derived from Haitian Vodou and was introduced into popular culture almost single-handedly by the films of George Romero.

In film and literature, zombies are generally used stand-ins for the fears that are gnawing at society at the time. I'm not sure what, if anything, the zombies are supposed to represent in this book. The war on terror is an obvious choice. I think Brooks leaves the story loose enough to allow the reader to provide his own stand-in.

Brooks applies the same precision to the geopolitical aspects of World War Z that he does to the technical aspects of zombie combat, and that's where the book really falls short. I found the politics of the story far too predictable. The nations that fared best in the war were, for the most part, fortress societies. Nations with authoritarian streaks used the war to consolidate their power. Without going into too much detail, the chapters dealing with wartime Japan were so stereotyped that it almost read like a pamphlet written by far-right Japanese nationalists as a cautionary call to arms. Brooks definitely did his homework, but there's a real lack of imagination in the geopolitical parts of the story.

I generally avoid stories built around dialogue because it's really hard to write compelling dialogue. World War Z is far from the worst book I've ever read in this department, but the dialogue isn't great. Since it's written in interview form, there really isn't any time to do much character development.

I hear that the book is being made into a movie. I think it could be pretty good as a film, especially if they can whittle the story down to a few compelling characters.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Whole Wheat

I received a beer of the month club subscription for Christmas last year. So far, my two favorite selections have been wheat beers, which has come as something of a surprise since they usually aren't my thing. The first one I tried was Woody's Wheat from the Sand Creed Brewing Company in Wisconsin. It's got a lot of flavor, though it's not overpowering, and has a crisper taste than most wheat beers. The second was an orange infused wheat beer from Four+ Brewing in Utah called Rype. I was initially skeptical of an orange flavored beer, but I really shouldn't have worried, as the flavor was very subtle and I'm a fan of a number of fruit flavored ales.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Star Search

We caught the new Star Trek movie this weekend. I've never been a big Star Trek fan, and this movie didn't convert me. It was enjoyable from a summer blockbuster point-of-view, but the story was pretty weak and most of the character development was devoted to laying out the back stories for Spock and Kirk and felt more perfunctory than anything else. Perhaps now that they've gotten that out of the way, the next installment of the franchise can do something a little bit more interesting.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Graffiti Bridge

The ruins of the old Michigan Central Train Depot is probably one of the most iconic symbols of Detroit's decline. Still, I had to chuckle a big when I saw my family name graffito tagged in front of the buildings crumbling facade.


It caught my brother's eye while looking through this photo gallery from the Detroit Free Press. He claims to have no idea how our name wound up spray painted in front of the depot. I've looked into his alibi, and it seems to check out.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Frequently Asked Questions

I feel like I've spent enough time crammed into an aluminum tube at 35,000 ft. to call myself a seasoned traveler, so I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that until a couple days ago, I had no idea how easy it is to prevent frequent flier miles from expiring without even having to go to the airport (thanks, Mahalo). I had a bunch of miles on American Airlines that were about to expire. American doesn't even fly out of Providence anymore, so the chances of me being able to use the miles or keep them active by booking an American Airlines flight were looking pretty slim. I started looking into donating the balance when I discovered that most airlines will keep your miles active as long as you do something before they expire. That could be as little as donating 500 miles to a charity or buying a $5 item from one of the airline's partners to earn yourself a couple frequent flier miles and keeping your mileage balance active in the process. I donated a pittance to American's Miles for Kids in Need program to see if it worked - and it did. I'll probably just wind up donating the rest of the miles anyway, since I'm unlikely to fly anywhere with American Airlines in the next 18 months, but it's nice to have options.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Rhododendron


May 10 | 6:05 pm | My Front Yard

Monday, May 11, 2009

Beethoven's Last Symphony

Taken out of context, this panel from today's Hi and Lois is probably the funniest thing that has come out of that comics page institution in decades.


h/t: The Comics Curmudgeon

Saturday, May 09, 2009

In Which I Agree With Same-Sex Marriage Opponents

Here's a quote from today's ProJo cover story from Christopher Plante, director of Rhode Island's chapter of the National Organization for against (same-sex) Marriage. It's a great quote because it works no matter how you feel about marriage equality.
“It is amazing that four centuries after Roger Williams founded this great state on liberty and individualism, Rhode Island again stands alone in New England, holding back a tide of cultural revolution and belief that would radically change our families and communities"
I agree that it is amazing that Rhode Island is honoring its heritage of liberty by denying equal marriage rights to all of its citizens - amazingly bad. I also agree that granting same-sex marriage rights would definitely change our families and communities - for the better.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Bloody Good


You get a new mug for every gallon of blood you donate. I think it's kind of funny to make a drinking vessel branded with a blood donation center's logo, but maybe that's just me. I think I'll take mine to work, mix some water, corn starch, and red food coloring in it, and leave it on my desk.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Medieval Times

I recently finished reading a couple of books that wound up complimenting each other pretty well. The first was Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered. I wanted to read a book about the middle ages and this one seemed well received. It's short and a quick read, but I didn't find it very enlightening. Part of the problem is that a lot of the book is dedicated to examining archaeological records, which can get really dry. My main problem with the book, however, is the author's assertion that the people of the middle ages shouldn't be considered less civilized than the Romans even though they were largely illiterate and their architectural, artistic, and engineering accomplishments paled in comparison to the Romans. I agree that these so-called barbarians have gotten something of a bad rap; their more civilized contemporaries and even their modern descendants were and are all to willing to commit acts of great brutality when it suits their purposes. That doesn't absolve them of their barbaric behavior, nor does it change the fact that they failed to achieve the level of sophistication of the Romans.

The second book, A Short History of Byzantium, is a condensed version of John Julius Norwich's three volume history of the Byzantine Empire. It covers the entire history of the Byzantine Empire, so it starts in roughly the same time period as the first book but continues all the way to the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century. It's a narrative, not an academic history, and Norwich is prone to making sensational statements without providing any real justification, but it's an interesting read. My only real complaint is that the condensed version goes for breadth instead of depth. It mentions ever single monarch to sit on the throne in Constantinople. Some of the lesser emperors only got a couple pages and the greats only got a chapter. It was difficult to follow all of the names as a casual reader. One of the few things that I remembered about the Byzantine Empire from history class was the great schism of 1054, so I naturally assumed it was a big deal. I was surprised to learn that it wasn't much different than one of the many previous doctrinal disputes between Rome and Constantinople. It's tempting to look at moments in history as sharp dividing lines where nothing in the world after that moment is the same as it was prior to it, but that's generally not how things happen.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Pear Tree Redux


April 29 | 7:22 pm | My Backyard

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Radio on the Big Screen

We went out to see This American Life - Live! on Thursday night. I got into TAL early into its run and over the past decade, I've bounced between listening to the show religiously to barely tuning in at all, but I've always enjoyed the show immensely. My listenership is currently back on the upswing thanks to podcasts.

We both really enjoyed the movie. I was surprised by how little the movie deviated from the radio show's format. I'm sure that part of the reason was so they can air a condensed version of the movie on the radio, but I'd like to think that it had more to do with giving the fans the experience of being in the studio when the show is being recorded. Like nearly every episode I've ever heard of the radio show, the movie ended before I was ready. There was a good crowd on hand, though I don't know why the only theater in RI that screened the movie was the Showcase in Warwick. I would've thought that at least one of the art house theaters in Providence or Newport would've been all over this. If you missed the movie, there's going to be a nationwide encore screening on May 7th.

Polenta Surprise

The weather was so nice today that grilling was a given. I pulled out my grilling bible and found a couple new recipes that I decided to modify and put together. Such culinary ingenuity can be a dangerous proposition, but it turned out really well today. The first recipe was for penne pasta and grilled duck breast with tomatoes and mushrooms. I took a lot of liberties with this one, substituting chicken thighs for the duck breast, nothing for the mushrooms, and the second recipe for the penne. The second recipe was for grilled parmesan polenta crostini. I did this one by the book, though I omitted the cheese since I didn't have any. This was my first time grilling polenta, and I was very impressed with the way it came out. The grilled polenta also made an excellent pasta substitute. The dish looked a little ridiculous, circular slices of grilled polenta on the bottom of the plate topped with a chunky tomato sauce and large pieces of grilled chicken thigh, but it tasted excellent.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Name Calling

Ever wonder how common your name is? Here's a list of the 1000 most common surnames in the US. The sum of the total occurrences of the top 1000 surnames in this list is just under 110,000,000, or about 36% of the total US population. I've pulled the list into a spreadsheet, in case you want to crunch the numbers for yourself.

(h/t: Hermano)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Little Engine That Could?

Now that Google has added Java support to the App Engine, I decided to finally give it a try. I decided to go the Eclipse plug-in route since I already use Eclipse, but the plug-in didn't seem to include the development server (as the docs lead me to believe), so I couldn't test the sample application locally. Rather than try and figure out what was wrong, I downloaded the standalone App Engine SDK and installed that as well. I got a bunch of errors when I started the development server because it requires Java 6 and I'm running Mac OS X 10.4, which doesn't have an official Java 6 SDK (remind me again why I thought switching to Mac was a great idea for Java development?). I tried the ancient pre-release Java 6 JDK that Apple put out a few years ago but it failed with a bunch of weird XML parser errors, so I tried SoyLatte JDK 6 1.0.3 and that finally worked. I logged into App Engine to register my account (which can only be done via SMS) and entered my mobile #, but I have I yet to receive my activation code text message so I'm stuck for the time being. From what I've read, others appear to have had more luck with it, so as always YMMV.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Cross Product

For those who weren't aware, the SXSW festival has been kind enough to take a ton of music from the artists who play at the festival and make it available for download (all gratis). Some kind souls have collected all of the downloads and packaged them into multi-gigabyte torrents for easy downloading. I've been slowly digesting the first torrent from this year. I was so impressed with one of the bands included in the torrent that I picked up their debut album and continue to be impressed by it. The band is Alberta Cross and they hail from Sweden and the UK. Those of you who have been burned by my music recommendations in the past take note, these guys are a serious blues rock outfit, not some kind of weird experimental noise unit. I've been making a conscious effort to listen to more accessible music recently because while I still like free improvised music, listening to it can be somewhat demanding and even I am not always in the mood to be challenged by the music I'm listening to. Check these guys out if you get a chance. They're slated to play at a number of festivals this year, including Coachella and Bonnaroo.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

After the Gold Rush

A lot of people have been talking about what American's spending habits are going to look like when (if?) the economy starts to improve. Some think consumers are going to back to their old habits while others think that consumers are going to be a bit more thrifty. The most persuasive argument I've seen in favor of the latter is this recent piece from the Economist.

While consumer spending habits reached ridiculously unsustainable levels or the past five years or so, it seems like people have been talking about American's propensity for living beyond their means for much longer than that. Given this, it seems kind of strange to hear people characterizing a return to mid-1980s or even mid-1990s levels of personal spending and savings as a return to fiscal discipline. Still, while the Americans of 10-20 years ago weren't exactly pinching pennies, you could still argue that their consumption habits were still within the realm of fiscal sustainability.

The magnitude of the reset is going to be determined by how much wealth is ultimately destroyed and the kinds of new financial regulations that are enacted. If, as I write this, we're closer to the end of this mess than the beginning and some new controls are added to at least address the known causes of our current financial predicament, we'll probably see a modest return to thrift once the dust settles. It would probably take another great depression and world war to turn Americans into fanatical savers. Hopefully, we can avoid that scenario.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Unknown Legend

Rachel Getting Married is a movie that I never would have considered watching had I not read a bunch of great reviews. While I believe that truly great art is by definition accessible to almost everyone, there's a lot of good art that is only accessible to those equipped with the tools to truly understand it on multiple levels. Rachel Getting Married may fall into that category, or it may be a self-indulgent piece of trash, or it might just not be my kind of film. Roger Ebert's review, which I did not read until after watching the movie, is particularly interesting. He loved the movie, but his review barely even talks about the story. That may be because there isn't much of a story being told, and that was my biggest problem with the film. The viewers of the movie are essentially guests at Rachel's wedding weekend. We watch it unfold and get some details from the past through conversations that the characters have with each other, but that's about it.

I found it funny that B-movie legend Roger Corman played one of the guests at the wedding and that there was a thank you note to him in the credits, but after I reading his bio, I learned that in addition to making lots of cheesy movies, he also gave a ton of big-name Hollywood types their start in the show business, including Jonathan Demme, the director of Rachel Getting Married.

I also had no idea that the groom's character was played by the lead singer of the band TV on the Radio. I know little about the beyond beyond being aware of their existence, so it's not surprising that I didn't recognize their lead singer. This information does help explain his acapella rendition of Unknown Legend during the wedding vows (perhaps my favorite part of the movie). The funny thing is that had I not decided to log onto the internet and register my disgust, I never would have learned about Roger Corman's contributions to the more respectable side of Hollywood or Tunde Adebimpe's (the aforementioned groom) acting career, both of which made the appreciate the movie a little bit more.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Back in the Saddle

I biked to work for the first time this year on Friday. It turned out to be a great day to bike to work since it was sunny and relatively warm (low 40s) in the morning and there was no traffic since it was Good Friday. The ride home wasn't quite as nice since it was threatening to rain the whole way, but I made it back without getting wet. My goal for this year is to bike the equivalent of 1000 driving miles to and from work. My round-trip commute is 13.6 miles by car, but it's a bit longer by bike (between 16.5 and 17.5 miles), so I'll need to bike about 1250 miles to cover the equivalent of 1000 driving miles. It's doable, but it's a pretty aggressive goal.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

All the Tea in China

As you may know, I tend to read food labels fairly thoroughly. Recently, I've come across some highly suspicious information on some food packages. For starters, I was reading the description on a box of Trader Joe's Earl Gray tea and read the following

The earliest recorded evidence of the cultivation of tea plants comes from China in the 14th century...

This is, of course, completely wrong. Tea has been an important part of Chinese culture for millenia. According to Wikipedia, records of tea consumption in China date back to the 10th century BC. The earliest record I could find for recorded evidence of tea cultivation, not just consumption, is a work from the late 8th century called The Classic of Tea by Lu Yu, so Trader Joe's is off by at least 500 years.

Keeping with the China theme, I was standing in line at my local Chinese grocery store when I noticed some good-sized bags of whole black and white peppercorns. I knew we were running low, I grabbed one of each. At $2.50 for a 7oz bag, it's at least 4 times cheaper than pepper at the regular grocery store. When I got home and cracked into one of bags, I noticed something strange on the nutrition facts label.


According to the label, one serving of pepper contains 12.3% of your daily fat allowance! I read the label a little closer and noticed that the serving size is 3.5 oz. I know the Chinese like their food a little spicier than Americans, but 3.5 oz is more than an entire grocery store-sized spice container (the bottle of Spice Islands whole white pepper that this package replaced is 2.7 oz). As if that wasn't bad enough, the 7 oz package lists that it contains four 3.5 oz servings. Still, you can't beat those prices.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Vegging Out

We dined at the Garden Grille [warning - audio link] for the first time on Friday. I was quite impressed with my meal, the Mixed Grille. I've had dinners that were entirely comprised of meat and I once had a dinner in Kyoto that was comprised almost entirely of tofu, but I think Friday was the first time I've ever had a dinner that was entirely comprised of vegetables. I had a plate asparagus, eggplant, sweet potato, onions, peppers, squash, and mushrooms all grilled to perfection. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

All Aboard the Dictatorship

It turns out that I was wrong, Parade Magazine did publish their annual survey of the world's worst dictators this year. This is, of course, the first worst dictators survey of the Obama administration. The whole enterprise of ranking the world's worst tyrants in a general interest newspaper insert magazine seemed to make a modicum of sense during the Bush years. I can't say that I would be surprised if it is eventually revealed that the former President used the survey when making key foreign policy decisions. We'll see if this enterprise continues as the US hopefully returns to a more nuanced approach to foreign policy.

While much has changed in Washington, not much has changed in the annual dictator rankings. Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe rocketed up to the top spot from sixth place last year. My money was on Sudan's Omar al-Bashir capturing the top spot on the strength of his recent ICC arrest warrant, but he had to settle for second place once again. The only newcomers to the top 10 list this year were Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, who moved from 11th place to 10th, and Turkmenistan's Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov, who debuted on the list in 9th place this year.

Parade cited Zimbabwe's hyperinflation, cholera epidemic, and ZANU-PF thuggery as the reasons for Mugabe's rise to the top of the list. With the exception of the cholera epidemic, all of those things were true last year when Mugabe was deemed only the sixth-worst dictator in the world (and I'm guessing that Zimbabwe was hardly a public health success story even before the cholera epidemic). If anything, Mugabe improved his behavior in 2008 by agreeing in principle to a power-sharing government (though, as Parade correctly points out, he has not honored either the spirit or the letter of the agreement).

The inclusion of Berdymuhammedov is another head-scratcher. You may remember that he took over power in 2006 after the death of Saparmurat Niazov, a fixture on any survey of the world's worst dictators. Berdymuhammedov has been in power for only a couple of years and while Turkmenistan has not become a beacon of peace and freedom in Central Asia, I can't imagine why he would be ranked higher than some of his neighbors, including Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov (11th place in this year's survey).

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Cover Story


Today's Providence Journal ran a story about Rhode Island's quest to grow its knowledge-based economy and included a photo of yours truly from last week's Providence Geeks meeting on the front page. This marks the second time that my picture has shown up in a geeks-related news story. So far, I've managed to avoid letting all of this fame go to my head, but I can't guarantee that I won't turn into an insufferable prima donna if this keeps up.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Flirting with Disaster

This is a really old story, but I heard about it for the first time at tonight's geek night and thought it was interesting. It's about how young Saudi's use bluetooth discovery on their mobile devices to flirt without running afoul of the religious police. Yet another example of how technologies get used in ways their creators never dreamed of.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Baby, You Got a Stew Goin'!

I've been doing a lot of cooking this week. I made another batch of Ming Tsai's Red Rendang so I had to use it up. One of the dishes that I used it on was a lamb stew that I did in a slow cooker. When I opened up the cooker after letting it stew, I was overwhelmed by the smell of lemongrass. The lemongrass flavor was barely noticeable in the paste and I wasn't overwhelmed by it while eating the stew, only while smelling it. Lemongrass and fish sauce, both Southeast Asian standbys, are ingredients that I find tasty but can't really stand the smell of when they get too strong. I'm told that even people who enjoy the taste of the durian feel the same way about it, so maybe it's just a characteristic of Southeast Asian food.

I've also been enjoying some Trader Joe's English Cheddar with Caramelized Onions. Some friends of ours introduced us to it recently. It's probably something I never would have picked out on my own, but the two tastes go together so well that I'm surprised all cheddar cheeses (and possibly, all cheeses) aren't alloyed with caramelized onions.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Block Expressions

I discovered a weird Java collection initialization idiom whilst reading this post a couple days ago.


List<String> l = new ArrayList<String>() {{
add("A");
add("B");
add("C");
}};


It took me a minute to figure out what was going on. For those who haven't seen this before, the first and last curly brace define an anonymous inner class. The inner curly braces and the code therein comprise an instance initialization block for the anonymous inner class. So this code effectively create a subclass of ArrayList that adds three elements ("A", "B", and "C") to itself upon creation. It's kind of interesting, but I'm not sure how useful it is. The only place I could see using something like this would be in a class that needs a wrapped static final collection. Using this pattern would eliminate the need to build and populate a temporary collection in a static initializer and then wrap it and assign it to the static final member.

As it turns out, one of the proposals on the table for Java 7 is something called Block Expressions, which would allow you to define temporary local variables within expressions. One of the use case given for this feature is identical to the use case I outlined above.


public static final Map<Integer,Integer> primes = (
Map<Integer,Integer> t = new HashMap<Integer,Integer>();
t.put(1, 2);
t.put(2, 3);
t.put(3, 5);
t.put(4, 7);
Collections.UnmodifiableMap(t));


Block expressions have other uses beyond this so it may be a good idea to add them to the language, but I'm actually partial to the anonymous inner class with instance initializer approach in this situation.


public static final Map<Integer,Integer> primes = Collections.unmodifiableMap(
new HashMap<Integer,Integer>() {{
put(1,2);
put(2,3);
put(3,5);
put(4,7);
}});

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Falun Gong Show

We caught the Divine Performing Arts show when it came to Providence last week. It's billed as a celebration of Chinese cultural heritage through music and dance. What's not mentioned is the Falun Gong proselytization that pervades most of the show. While I don't support the Chinese government's suppression of Falun Gong practitioners, I also don't like how the Divine Performing Arts troupe isn't upfront about their ties to Falun Gong in their promotional materials. Of course, even if you stripped all of the Falun Gong material out of the show, I still wouldn't have enjoyed it very much. The music was bland and the sets were awful. The entire show was performed in front of a giant screen that had cheesy renderings of Chinese landscapes projected onto it. The format was incredibly tedious as well, with the emcees coming on stage between every single number and talking about the next one.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

America's Finest Editorial Cartoons

How is it possible that I just found out about The Onion's weekly editorial cartoon today? Here are some of my favorites.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Hangover Cure

Here's a round-up of recent chatter about one of my favorite subjects, the life and death of cities. First, there's Richard Florida's piece from The Atlantic and his discussion of that piece on On Point (listen for the Providence shout-out around the 39 minute mark). Finally, some dueling viewpoints grabbed from the NYT Op-Ed page.

I think Florida could clear up a lot of confusion about his ideas if he stopped using the words 'city' and 'suburb', because those terms are so loaded that it's easy to stop listening to him once he says something that conflicts with your interpretation of those words. Florida is often criticized by people who think he's saying that everyone needs to trade in their 4 bedroom suburban home on a 2 acre lot for a 500 sq ft apartment in a high-rise. I don't think that's what he believes and I think he finally articulates his vision at the end of the On Point interview when he says Americans need more efficient ways of living and moving around. Efficient in terms of energy, but also in terms of time and effort. Innovation requires a critical mass of human capital that can interact in seamless and chaotic ways. If everyone is stuck in traffic for an hour and a half on their way to an office park in the middle of nowhere, time is being wasted and opportunities for innovation and collaboration are being squandered (not to mention the big decrease in quality of life).

Obviously there are a lot of people who are happy with the status quo and will continue to abide by it even in the face of multi-hour car commutes and $4+ gas. That's fine, but I think what Florida is saying is that there are a lot of people who would like some saner options for balancing life and work and areas that can provide these options will likely fare better than those that don't.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Good and Bad

The first no-hitter than I experienced was the no-hitter that the Tigers' Jack Morris pitched in 1984. It was the first no-hitter pitched by a Tiger since Jim Bunning hurled a no-no in 1958. Being a young Tigers fan, I filed this piece of information somewhere in my brain and didn't think about it again for a while. At some point in my adult life, I learned Jim Bunning had gotten into politics after hanging up his spikes. More recently, I've learned that he's kind of a jerk. I don't have anything interesting to say here, it's just funny how I have a one highly positive and one highly negative data point about Jim Bunning, separated by about 25 years.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Deposed

Sadly, it appears that Parade Magazine has decided to discontinue their annual survey of the world's worst dictators. It's possible that they've decided to move the feature from its usual mid-February spot, but the World's Most Wanted cover story that they ran a couple weeks ago seems a lot like a replacement for the worst dictators feature.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Stream of Consciousness

I've been taking a look at functional programming languages in general and Scala in particular as of late. Partially because I've been sucked up into the hype surrounding FP & Scala and partially because I've never really done any FP. I read this post about infinite lists in Scala a couple months ago and decided that I wanted to try and do something similar with files. My goal was to create a function that takes a directory and returns a lazily evaluated list that can be used to recurse through every file and directory under the directory. Here's what I came up with:


import java.io.File

def makeFilestream(filelist: Stream[File]) : Stream[File] = {
if (!filelist.isEmpty) {
val file = filelist.head
if (file.isDirectory) {
Stream.cons(file, makeFilestream(file.listFiles.toStream.append(filelist drop 1)))
} else {
Stream.cons(file, makeFilestream(filelist drop 1))
}
} else {
Stream.empty
}
}

def filestream(root: File) : Stream[File] = {
val filelist:Stream[File] = root.listFiles.toStream
makeFilestream(filelist)
}

So what's the point of all this? By using Scala's Stream class, the list is lazily evaluated so it doesn't have to scan the entire directory tree before returning the first element. Furthermore, since Stream behaves like any other Collection class, all of the normal Collection operations like foreach, map, reduceLeft/Right, etc. are supported, eliminating the need to load the directory tree into memory and storing it in a List before operating on it.

Here are some examples of the cool things you can do with a file stream

Print everything in the directory /tmp

val tmpdir = filestream(new File("/tmp"))
tmpdir.foreach(println)

Print the first 10 directories under ~

val homedir = filestream(new File("/Users/username"))
homedir.filter(f => f.isDirectory).take(10).foreach(println)

Find the largest file under ~

val homedir = filestream(new File("/Users/username"))
val biggestFile = homedir.reduceLeft(
(a, b) => if (a.length > b.length) a else b)

Find the first Java source file under ~

val homedir = filestream(new File("/Users/username"))
val firstJavaFile = homedir.find(f => f.getName().endsWith(".java"))


Pretty much any file searching, selecting, or transformation operation you can think of can be expressed as a one-liner or chain of one-liners and thanks to the Stream, any operation that doesn't need to scan the entire directory tree is fast and efficient.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Roof is on Fire

We saw Fiddler on the Roof at PPAC last night. It was my first time seeing Fiddler. My family went to see the local high school's production of it when I was 13, but I had no desire to see a musical or hang out with my parents and I managed to weasel my way out. Since then, I've developed more of an appreciation for musical theater (as well as being seen in public with my family). I went into the show with high expectations and I wasn't disappointed. Compared to most musicals that I'm familiar with, Fiddler on the Roof is more understated and dark. I enjoyed that and I also enjoyed seeing Chaim Topol playing the role that he's played for the past 40 years. I've always wondered how actors can play the same role night after night. It seems like it would get boring after a while. If Topol is tired of playing Tevye, it didn't show on stage. You could really tell that he was enjoying himself up there and his performance exuded a lived-in kind of quality that an actor who has only been playing the Tevye for six months (or even six years) wouldn't have.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Who Wants to be a Best Picture?

We recently made it out to see what all the hype surrounding Slumdog Millionaire was about. It's an enjoyable film, but neither of were really blown away by it. Visually, it's quite gorgeous and the story is endearing, though predictable. It's a good movie, but we probably wouldn't have nominated it for 10 Oscars had the academy asked us.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Larger Than Life


If you're like me, this picture instantly jogs your memory back to the moment in your childhood when you first picked up a copy of the Guinness Book of World Records. I found myself wondering whatever became of the world's heaviest twins a few days ago. It turns out that one of them (Billy) died several years before I even learned of their existence from injuries sustained while performing a motorcycle stunt. It turns out the brothers were minor celebrities in the 1970s, traveling the world with their tag-team wrestling and stunt show. Benny passed away in 2001 at the age of 54 from heart failure. These guys may eventually lose their world record, but I don't know if we'll ever see another set of corpulent twins gain such widespread notoriety.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Your Window To Weight Gain

You know those articles about the worst possible things you can order while dining out? I'm as addicted to those articles as many Americans are to the artery-clogging entrees being peddled by our beloved chain restaurants. Men's Health recently did an Academy Awards-style review, giving out a worst thing to eat award in 20 different categories. Chili's and On The Border each walked away with three awards. Chili's had the Worst Starter, Worst Chicken Entree, and Worst Dessert, while On The Border had the Worst Nachos, Worst Fish Entree, and Worst Salad. Of course, as bad as some of these dishes are, none of them are anywhere near as bad for you as the Bacon Explosion (assuming you eat the entire roll yourself).

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Sporting Chance

I realize that season 3 of Mad Men isn't really on anyone's radar screen yet (and yes, it looks like season 3 is happening), but I wanted to go on record with this observation now, since I haven't heard anyone say anything about it yet. I find it really interesting that the show has never dealt with professional sports in any way. No one has ever left work early to go to the ballgame (I guess they're too busy having affairs) and there has never been any idle chatter around the water cooler about last night's game or last week's fight. I'm sure that this is deliberate (since every freakin' detail of the show is deliberate) and I'm guessing it is pretty accurate since professional sports weren't as a big of a deal back then and they were probably a bit too gauche for Sterling-Cooper men anyway, but if nothing else, Mad Men is about how the times, they are a-changin', so I'm guessing the subject is eventually going to be broached. I predict that they're going to go for a two-fer and cover race and sport at the same time with a story that includes one of the Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston fights.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Musician

I received a copy of the documentary film Musician for Christmas and I finally got around to watching it. As I mentioned before, it profiles Ken Vandermark, my favorite musician currently on the scene. The movie is shot in a very direct style; there are no interviews or narration. It begins with Vandermark alone in his basement composing and working through some writer's block and ends with concert footage of him playing a solo show at an art museum (or possibly an art gallery). In between, it's an unvarnished look at the day-to-day life of a musician operating well outside of the mainstream of commercial music. The entire film is summarized in the final scene. It begins with a close-up of him addressing the crowd, his humility and humanity on full display, before launching into a Japp Blonk-inspired solo. As he starts to play, the camera pans back to just beyond and above the audience, revealing the modest crowd. The camera holds that shot until the song ends, and the movie fades out with the applause. It shows the loneliness, sacrifice, humility, creativity, strength, and elation that the uncompromising artist must endure, posses, and hopefully, receive.

I've always felt that Vandermark was an amazingly humble artist. Every time I've seen him play, he always seems genuinely touched that people bothered to pay money to listen to his music. That humility is on display in Musician, and while a lot of it is just his personality, the occupation that he has chosen certainly reinforces his humility. As a fan of his music, I really enjoyed the concert segments and I also enjoyed the way that they were shot. The rehearsal segments were even more interesting, both for the behind the scenes look that they offered and for the insight they offered into Vandermark as a composer and bandleader.

Musician is obviously a must-see for fans of Vandermark's music, but it's also a movie for anyone who is interested in watching the creative process in action.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

I finally finished reading Infinite Jest. I picked it up for the first time nearly eight years ago but didn't make it very far. I bought a copy nearly seven years ago and made it about a quarter of the way through before giving up again. I finally decided to give it a third try this past September, shortly after the death of its author, David Foster Wallace. I'm not afraid to stop reading a book that I no longer find interesting, so the fact that I made it through all 981 pages (and 97 pages of footnotes) means that it at least held my interest. It's an entertaining story filled with some of the most intriguing characters that I've ever encountered in literature. While I definitely enjoyed the book on a superficial level, especially in the middle portion where most of the characters had been developed but before it became clear that the story was not going to resolve itself in the end, I never really figured out what the story is actually about. After reading the book, the blurbs on the back cover sound plausible, but I certainly wouldn't have arrived at any of those conclusions on my own. I'm sure a lot of this my on fault; I probably should have been reading the book with a dictionary in hand since it had a lot of words I've never heard or seen in print (not to mention quite a bit of Québécois), and I ideally should have tried to finish it in less than four months since it's pretty hard to keep a story fresh in your mind spreading it out over such a long time. So while I agree with the pull quote from the Seattle Times on the front cover of my copy that proclaims Infinite Jest to be "surprisingly readable", don't kid yourself into thinking that you're going to get a lot out of this book without really committing to a serious study of it.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Cran-tastic

I noticed that Taqueria Pacifica is now offering Narragansett Cranberry Ale on tap. I had never heard of this variety (it's not even mentioned on Narragansett's website), and the only evidence of it I can find online is this discussion on Beer Advocate (their servers appear to be down right now, so I haven't had a chance to read it). I didn't expect much, but I had to give it a try. It failed to live up to my admittedly low expectations. It's sort of a New England take on a Berliner Weisse mit Schuss (and tastes about as good). The cranberry flavor is so overwhelming that you can barely taste the beer. I'd advise steering clear of this brew, unless you consider yourself a connoisseur of wine coolers.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Twit

I recently decided to give Twitter a shot. In light of my recent sort-of rants against location-based meeting services and text messaging, my interest in Twitter may strike you as odd and/or hypocritical. When I first heard about Twitter, I was highly skeptical, but I've warmed up to it. Perhaps it was Shaq's Twitter account that did it for me. I don't expect to be tweeting all that often, but I thought it would be nice to have the option. Follow me if you're so inclined.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

01.20.09


When all of the 01.20.09 - Bush's Last Day swag started showing up a couple years ago, I got a little worried. I wasn't worried that Bush was going to amend the Constitution and run for a third term or declare himself President-for-Life or anything like that. I was worried that by tempting fate, we'd wind up trading Bush for someone even worse (President Rush Limbaugh, anyone?). History is full of examples where one bad leader was deposed only to be replaced by someone who was even worse. To be fair, most of those examples involve revolutions and coups d'état, not orderly changes of power after free and fair elections. Still, I'm glad that we managed to dodge that bullet. I suppose it's possible for Obama to turn out to be even worse than Bush, but I feel like it would require Obama to submit himself to some sort of new brain-altering technology that is unlikely to be developed within the next four years.

Monday, January 19, 2009

On Frozen Pond

How I managed to live this long and never play pond hockey is beyond me. After playing for about three hours on a frozen lake in New Hampshire last weekend, I'm incredibly sore and still coming down from the adrenaline rush.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A True Underdog Story

I learned of Dodgeball's demise today through the esteemed Will Leitch. In case you never heard of Dodgeball, it's a mobile social networking application that allows you to tell all of your friends (and their friends) where you are at any given time. If you remember this iPhone commercial demonstrating the Loopt application, it's kind of more primitive version of the same idea. I find both applications somewhat horrifying, and I don't necessarily think it's totally a generational thing. I can't imagine that the next generation's batch of introverted nerds is all that geeked about these apps, but I guess I could be wrong. I'm sure that eventually, applications like these are going to be commonplace and I'll eventually be forced to use one of them and may even enjoy it, but I'm remaining skeptical for now.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

New Zealand. Like Lord of the Rings

The Flight of the Conchords season 2 media blitz began in earnest todaty, with this spot on NPR and this interview with the A.V. Club. I'm still working through season 1 on DVD and don't have HBO, so I don't know when and if I'll get a chance to check out season 2. I like the show, but so far, I've liked the acting more than the music. Don't get me wrong, the videos are great and lyrics are hilarious, it's just that parody songs don't reach their full comedic potential until you have a chance to reference them in everyday life, and I haven't reach that point quite yet.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Glass Musuem

We went to the newly renovated RISD Museum today to check out the Dale Chihuly exhibit. Chihuly is a pioneer in the field of glass art, and most of the pieces on display in this exhibit were glass sculptures and installations. One of the challenges of modern art appreciation is dealing with all of the non-traditional media and structures used by contemporary artists. Paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts have been around forever and it's easier to comprehend modern approaches to these artistic traditions even when they veer into abstraction. When looking at works that use different forms and media, it's sometimes hard to figure out what you're looking at.

Chihuly's work seems to fall into the second category in that it's not a literal representation of the physical world and it's in a non-traditional medium (at least, for sculpture), but it's still quite accessible. All of the pieces in the exhibition were very organic; they either used or suggested natural forms, such as flowers, plants, and trees. If nothing else, his bold use of color gives most of his works a strong enough visceral appeal that a thorough study of 20th century art is not required to form an opinion about his works. In addition to the installations, the museum also had works from several of Chihuly's students and contemporaries on display. I really liked that and think it's a good idea for art exhibitions in general because it's a good way to see how artists influence each other.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Analyze This!

I installed Google Analytics on datajanitor in early 2008 because I thought it would be fun to see how many people were reading this blog, where they were coming from, and how they were getting here. Now that I have close to a year's worth of data, here are the results for 2008.

2,641 Visitors
3,797 Visits
5,378 Page Views

Most of the people who visited probably wound up here by accident, as the 80.35% bounce rate indicates. 77.93% of the visits came from the US, the remaining 22.07% of the visits were spread across 74 foreign countries. The UK came in second with 172 visits (4.53%). The most frequent non-English speaking country was Germany, who finished fourth overall with 111 visits (2.92%). 23 of the 74 foreign countries had only a single visit. Not surprisingly, Australia was the most frequent visitor in Oceania, finishing in 6th place overall with 35 visits (0.92%). The top visitor in Asia was The Philippines, who came in 8th overall with 14 visits (0.37%). In South America, Brazil was tops with 10 visits (0.26%), good enough for 14th overall. In another big shocker, South Africa was the top visitor in Africa, finishing in 32nd place overall with 4 visits (0.11%).

I had visitors from every state in the union. Three states only made a single visit (MT, MS, and WY). Excluding my home state of RI, CO was responsible for the most visits (thanks, Dusty). Once again excluding myself, the city of Boulder, CO had the most visits for any city and London, England was tops among all foreign cities.

The most viewed page in 2008 was this little gem that I posted way back in 2005, which was visited an astonishing 296 times. The most visited page that was posted in 2008 was this one, which was visited 157 times.

As far as search engine traffic goes, the top search term that brought people to this blog was alice at night, with 63 hits. A close second was joann sklarski, with 60 hits. 7 of the top 25 search terms are somehow related to the Sklarski sisters, Kirk Gibson, or Dave Rozema. It's pretty amazing that my blog has become something of a clearinghouse for information on the Sklarski sisters, seeing as I never actually wrote anything about them - all of the information about them is contained in comments on Honeymoon('s Over) in Vegas, my most viewed post.