Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Evaluating last year’s New Year’s resolutions

On January 1, 2010, I posted a list of resolutions here. How did I do? Let's see.

Resolution: Learn a lot about tax policy, in reasonably fine detail
Progress: Pretty decent. What is “reasonably fine detail”? I certainly have more to learn. But I have learned a great deal about tax policy and fiscal policy generally in the past year.

Resolution: Read more books
Progress: Good! Joining a book club helped. Even outside of the book club, I read a decent amount of novels and nonfiction books this year. This one was a success.

Resolution: Drink less alcohol
Progress: Bad, then good, then bad, then good. Mixed.

Resolution: Get more freelance work
Progress: Poor. This will be a resolution for 2011, again.

Resolution: Make more audio stories
Progress: Poor, and I will have this resolution again in 2011. But the asterisk here is that I had a lot of fun podcasting in 2010, on the Insophisticate and for a couple of months on the Daily Herald Politics Podcast as well. So while I failed to make audio stories, I did enjoy audio broadcasting.

Resolution: Take more and better photographs
Progress: Sort of poor to mixed. I was taking some in the early part of the year, but largely stopped after my (fairly nice) work camera was stolen and all I had to take pictures with was the iphone camera.

Resolution: Use more pretentious French, German and Latin phrases in everyday speech. I already use some, but I believe I could use more.
Progress: Pretty good! Weltschmerz, Weltanschauung, Gotterdammerung, ceteris paribus, l’esprit d’escalier -- I have used them all and more!

Resolution: Lose weight
Progress: This one was going really badly, but just in the last month I’ve seen actual progress in the right direction. I’ve lost nearly 10 pounds since joining Weight Watchers online last month, and I am enjoying it.

Resolution: Wear a tie underneath sweaters
Progress: Done. Piece of cake. Actually my fashion choices lately have swung away from wearing ties underneath sweaters. But it’s still a weapon in my arsenal.

Resolution: Write a novel. (Seriously.)
Progess: Stalled. But after I stopped working on the novel -- which I may still return to! -- I started working on these very short stories that I have been really enjoying writing. Have even submitted some to literary magazines. So while I haven’t written a novel, I have been writing fiction regularly again, which pleases me.

Overall grades: 4 resolutions accomplished (taxes, reading, language, ties). 3 with mixed results (drinking, photographs, weight). 3 failures (freelance, novel, audio stories) -- but 2 of those (novel, audio stories) have asterisks. In my view only 1 (freelance) is an absolute unmitigated failure.

I can live with this.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Robert Mentzer's Certified Finest Musicks and Things, 2010 (Pt. II)

The saga continues...

Viral Videos

5. Tik Tok Star Trek
4. Phil Davison for Stark County Treasurer
3. Bed Intruder
2. Miracles
1. Trololo

Other video entertainment that was very good:
Nike World Cup commercial
People dropping cameras
Broken Bells video with Christina Hendricks as a cyborg

Best Facebook thread on my Facebook page:
"I need a catchphrase."

One of the funnest things I did:
Livetweeting the Lady Antebellum concert

Best poster:

Best blog posts by me

"Unified theory of Ke$ha," January 26, 2010

"Favorite tattoos," Feb. 26, 2010

"A shadow narrative of a 1960s when crooners were still king," April 13, 2010

"Mike Allen's productive weirdness," April 25, 2010

"Sleep-talking, May 23," May 23, 2010

"This was done by a 10-year-old autistic boy I met," June 9, 2010

"Live from inside the beating heart of popular American music," August 4, 2010

"Travel diary," November 21, 2010

My top 11 tweets of 2010:
Here here here here here here here here here here here.

Best magazine stories:

"Roger Ebert: The Essential Man," Chris Jones, Esquire

"The Mark of a Masterpiece," David Grann, The New Yorker

"Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds," Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair

"The Man the White House Wakes Up To," Mark Leibovich, New York Times Magazine

"V-va-va-voom!" Tad Friend, New Yorker

"Man of Many Hats," Kelefa Sanneh, New Yorker

"The Trouble with Maya," Nitsuh Abebe, Pitchfork

"Come Party with Lady Gaga," Caitlin Moran, The Sunday Times

DJ Screw remembrance," Jace Clayton, Frieze Magazine

Friday, December 24, 2010

Robert Mentzer's Certified Finest Musicks and Things, 2010 (Pt. I)


25. "Trillionaire," Bun-B
24. "Fuck You," Cee-Lo
23. "Queen of Lower Chelsea," Gaslight Anthem
22. "Roman's Revenge," Nicki Minaj feat. Eminem
21. "Written in Reverse," Spoon
20. "Love the Way You Lie," Eminem feat. Rihanna
19. "Trap Talk," Gucci Mane
18. "I Can't Feel," Matthew Dear
17. "Office Muzik," Lil Wayne/Theme song to "The Office" (Clockwork mash-up)
16. "Mine," Taylor Swift
15. "Hurricane J," The Hold Steady
14. "Laredo," Band of Horses
13. "What's My Name?" Rihanna feat. Drake
12. "Teenage Dream," Katy Perry
11. "The Ghost Inside," Broken Bells
10. "Pop the Trunk," Yelawolf
9. "All I Want," LCD Soundsystem
8. "Fo Yo Sorrows," Big Boi feat. George Clinton, Too $hort and Sam Chris
7. "Tik Tok," Ke$ha
6. "Monster," Kanye West feat. Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Bon Iver & Nicki Minaj
5. "Rill Rill," Sleigh Bells
4. "Dancing on My Own," Robyn
3. "Shutterbugg," Big Boi
2. "Need You Now," Lady Antebellum
1. "Runaway," Kanye West


15. Gaslight Anthem, American Slang

14. Band of Horses, Infinite Arms

13. Matthew Dear, Black City

12. Eminem, Recovery

11. Girl Talk, All Day
Still fun.

10. Rihanna, Loud
The light touch is a nice surprise after the quite dark (though terrific) Rated R last year. Sexy and a lot of fun.

9. Gucci Mane, The Appeal: Georgia's Most Wanted

8. Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid
A dazzling record, even if it is self-consciously going for "dazzling." It's a romp! She sings, she dances, she mashes genres together. Messy, overreaching, lots of fun.

7. Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me
Weird music tour de force.

6. Flying Lotus, Cosmogramma

5. LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening

4. Robyn, Body Talk

3. Sleigh Bells, Sleigh Bells

2. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

1. Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot... The Son of Chico Dusty
Absolute masterpiece. This album is so flawless that the skits are actually funny, and when is the last time you've said that about a rap record with skits? The beats are marvelously weird ("General Patton" is built on a church choir sample) and the rhymes are crisp like lettuce. Best rap record in years and the best album in any genre of 2010.


As always, my weakest category. I don't see many, and many that I see I don't care for. Also, I have odd tastes. (Also, I haven't seen Waiting for Superman or Inside Job, but given that both seem to be custom-made to fit my interests, I am pretty sure I will love them.) Anyway these movies were terrific this year:

5. Inception
4. Sweetgrass
3. Toy Story 3
2. The Social Network
1. Exit Through the Gift Shop


5. Wilson by Daniel Clowes
4. The End of Influence by J. Bradford DeLong and Stephen S. Cohen
3. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
2. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
1. The Big Short by Michael Lewis

Insophisticate does 2010

Part one here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Crossing Antarctica by Will Steger

Crossing AntarcticaCrossing Antarctica by Will Steger

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is not very good, but it is a chance to think about Antarctica and the limits of human experience for a little while, and so I read it one evening in the hotel room while Laura slept.

Antarctica! It is more like an abstraction than an actual continent. No one owns it, no one goes there save a handful of scientists, no one really knows -- really knows -- how cold and dark and unforgiving it can be.

At least, that is what everyone says, including the team of adventurers led by Will Steger who in 1989 became the first people to cross Antarctica by dogsled, traveling from the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, across the South Pole and all the way to Mirnyy Station on the Shackleton Ice Shelf. They made it, but still didn't unlock the continent's secrets. Not their fault! That's hard to do!

The book is structured like a diary of that journey and it gets sort of repetitive -- today we went 15 miles and the dogs are tired; today we couldn't go anywhere because of white-out conditions; rinse, repeat. Boy it sure is cold here.

"Antarctica's identity is starting to reveal itself to us, and it feels distinctly feminine," Steger writes on page 50. What does that mean? Who knows! He doesn't elaborate or return to the thought. Nor does he quite explain the math behind his conclusion that "Traveling in these conditions is 70 percent mental." When a member of the traveling party says he's having doubts about his decision to take the trip, Steger writes "That is the biggest difference between Jean-Louis and me ... I rarely question the path I've taken" and keeps things moving right along.

So, not a good book. Fine. Still, it is possible to step back from all that workaday sled-diary stuff and contemplate the incredible extremity of Antarctica. Temperatures of 80, 90, 100 degrees below zero. Blizzards and windstorms that come on in minutes and last for days or disappear in hours. Twenty-four-hour darkness followed by 24-hour light. Impossible. A place that for you or I exists only as an abstraction because we will never go there. A place that cannot exist and yet does.

View all my reviews

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Letters to the editor are my favorite

Yesterday night on Twitter I was making fun of crazy letters to the editor, such as the weird blast-fax screeds that make their way to my desk. Anyway it led me to a few further thoughts and I did a handful of tweets. Here they are unedited and in order in one place:
As much as I make fun of crazy letter-writers, I love letters to the editor, too. They were always my favorite part of newspaper growing up.

Still appreciate the way they are a) personal and b) public. And they get perspectives into the newspaper that otherwise wouldn’t be there.

My favorite thing is letters responding to other letters. I *like* that people take time to respond, wait for publication.

I am no luddite. But you know it is true: There’s a different character to this than posting a comment beneath a letter online.

Also good: Updates, like letter complaining of bird droppings at park, then (after a rainstorm) thanking person who cleaned up.

So, listen, I will always have fun with weird or nonsensical letters. Some are too funny or deranged not to share.

But for serious, part of what I like about them is they can throw you a curveball in a way the rest of the paper rarely does.

These have been some further thoughts about letters to the editor.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

In Sweetgrass, noisy sheep and frustrated cowboys are the stars

I wear clothing made of wool but I do not spend a lot of time around sheep, and I bet you $100 you are the same as me. But you need sheep to get wool, and people to take care of the sheep, and as a result there is a whole world, out west, of people whose job is to grow the sheep so they can grow the wool.

The business of wool is not the subject of Sweetgrass: the sheep are, and to some extent the people taking care of the sheep. Most of the movie follows two cowboys -- one old, lined-faced and taciturn, one young and more expressive -- as they herd the sheep through the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains in Montana and a little bit of Wyoming. It is a great movie and you should watch it on Netflix Watch Instantly as soon as you get a little time to devote to sheep.

Sweetgrass does its best work in close close-up or from incredibly far away: the tight shots of the sheep are fascinating but so are the mountain's-eye views of the herd as they're coaxed along and herded by the men on horses and their dogs. The landscape is beautiful, the pacing is deliberate, and there is more visual wit and flair than you might expect from a movie about herding sheep. (Though the digital film quality can be a little harsh at times -- for the majestic mountain vistas, you wish it were on Malickesque high-resolution 65 mm film. On the other hand it proves the point that a good eye and ability to go where the story are more important than technics.)

A great moment right at the beginning of the film: In close-up, a sheep idly chews cud. The bell around his neck rings a little as he moves his jaw. This goes on for awhile. Then he slowly turns his head, notices the camera and abruptly stops chewing, staring straight at us, head cocked to the side a little, waiting.

The sheep spread out some when they're grazing on the craggy face of a mountain, but when they move at least they really do seem to prefer to be together, in tight, tight herd. There is a poetry to the way they move, like a school of fish, although as we learn, getting them going is no effortless thing. And they are mad loud: The bleating seems to be constant.

Because there is no voiceover narration or any other form of exposition, really, to let us know where we are and what is happening, there are a bunch of questions that present themselves to the viewer. Here are a handful of answers, gleaned from Google: The herd the cowboys are working with comprises about 3,000 sheep. The drive that takes them out to pasture on a federal grazing permit was the last of its kind, and happened in 2001. The younger cowboy is named Pat Connolly and the older cowboy is named John Ahern.

In its second half, the story shifts from being mostly about sheep to being mostly about the cowboys. There is a striking scene where Connolly calls his mom from the top of a mountain and vents his frustrations with the long days, the toll on his body and his dog's body, the difficulty wrangling 3,000 ornery sheep and shooting at the black bears who come in the night to eat them.

"I'd rather enjoy these mountains than hate 'em," he says. "And it's getting to the point now that I hate 'em."

He's whining, yes, but you can understand where he's coming from, and it's a nice counterpoint to "home on the range" homily. Similarly, the scene where Connolly's mic captures him shouting all manner of nasty profanities at the sheep as he drives them up a mountain seems eminently understandable. You can see how the months-long drive could cause you to hate sheep, and hate mountains, and be ready to be home. Maybe that's why they cheer when they arrive in town at the end of that last drive, even though it means their jobs will no longer exist.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Pretty extraordinary novel. Meticulous about its historical setting -- Japan, 1799 -- but deeply deeply felt, intricately plotted, and in the end quite exciting. The first third is a bit of a slog but at some point there's a tipping point and the pages start to fly by. One thing it does pretty well is to leaven some of its more high-literary conceits with a handful of almost pulpy plotlines involving forbidden love and at least one super-evil villain who -- well, I'd better not say.

I have a lot of thoughts about this book but it is quite late at night so I am not going to write a whole bunch right now. I will say that of course the most impressive thing about this novel is how deeply it burrows into its historical setting, and I love how it embraces the full scale of the impersonal historical forces and massive-if-bygone social institutions at the same time that it captures the real interior experience of the individuals who populate them. The two things -- historical forces and individual actors -- aren't exactly opposed, but what I like here is not just the empathetically written characters but the (forgive me) historicity of the story. Terrific book.

View all my reviews

Friday, September 17, 2010

WDH politics podcast

Hey listen to this. I made this podcast with ace political reporter Katie Foody, talking about politics in Wisconsin's 7th Congressional District and some of the other races we're following. Check it out below:

Monday, August 16, 2010

Tinkers by Paul Harding

TinkersTinkers by Paul Harding

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Here is Paul Harding speaking, in a New York Times profile, about having his manuscript rejected:
"They (literary agents and editors) would lecture me about the pace of life today," Mr. Harding said last week over lunch at a diner in this college town, where he is now teaching at the workshop. "It was, 'Where are the car chases?'" he said, recalling the gist of the letters. "'Nobody wants to read a slow, contemplative, meditative, quiet book.'"
Question: Do we believe for one instant that literary agents were asking Harding "Where are the car chases?" Is that obviously made up, chest-beating self-aggrandizement or what? It is my opinion that this smug, self-congratulatory attitude tells us something fundamental about the author.

Next. This book has plenty of nice sentences, some nice scenes. What it has none of is a story arc, a sense of characters who grow and learn things and change over time. It has no plot! There is a scene in Tinkers where a character pulls a rotting tooth out of a hermit's mouth. It's spellbinding. And then what happens? Nothing! The relationship is never developed. The book just moves on to the next fragmentary segment without bothering to actually develop anyone's relationship to anyone else.

Here is the thing: Novels ought to be the very best medium for depicting the long-term change of characters over time. The problem is that lately, high-end TV has actually gotten very good at doing long-form storytelling. I am filled with dread at the prospect that, instead of reacting to this, novels will instead retreat into this sort of ponderous Tinkersesque plotless wanking, ceding the cultural ground of quality long-form storytelling to, like, Mad Men. That would be a giant disaster -- not because Mad Men is so terrible, but because THIS, this Tinkers, is just an especially blindered, limited vision of what the novel can be.

P.S. I listened to a bit of this dude's indie rock band and they are hideous, exactly as slow and boring and sexless as you'd expect them to be.

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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Radiolab, "Words"

I had my mind thoroughly blown by this entire amazing Radiolab episode called "Words," and I totally recommend it to everyone who has ever had even a passing interest in language.

Possibly the most mind-blowing segment of the show, to me at least, was this one about the way a language developed over the course of a couple of generations of deaf kids in Nicaragua. I guarantee you will be fascinated and surprised.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Let's Talk About Love by Carl Wilson

Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (33 1/3)Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The beauty of this book is that though it is all about Celine Dion, it also works if you swap in whoever happens to be the nadir of cool at any given moment. It is probably the only book-length exploration of what "uncool" actually means, and it turns out the subject is complicated and surprising and not totally flattering to the "cool" in-group accustomed to having all the cultural capital. I brought it along in my back pocket when I went to the Lady Antebellum concert at the Wisconsin Valley Fair, which is maybe a little bit on the nose but whatever.

The arguments are not brand new to anyone following the debates about rockism, but crucially "Let's Talk About Love" is not an anti-rockist polemic, it's an actual exploration of questions about taste, popularity and aesthetics.

Simply one of the greatest books about music ever written. Incredibly well argued and, in the end, deeply felt.

View all my reviews >>

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Live from inside the beating heart of popular American music

This was fun. I hung out at the fair all night tonight and wrote about the Lady Antebellum concert on my Twitter account. Here is the unedited transcript of my tweets, which I've rearranged into chronological order so you don't have to start at the bottom:
Reporting live from inside the beating heart of popular American music. Lady Antebellum, Wisconsin Valley Fair, 2010.


I wanted to keep it classy, so naturally I am dressed to the nines in a white linen suit and narrow tie.


Right now I am hiding behind the grandstand, where I may remain for the duration. Next to some drink vendors, also hiding.


What my view would look like if I were facing the right way.


And what it actually looks like.


My coworker friend Brian asked me what was the deal, I didn't seem like the type to like Lady Antebellum. "I contain multitudes," I replied.


The truth is the power ballad is a misunderstood art form. "Need You Now" is a terrific power ballad. Schmaltzy, shameless. But powerful!


"Schmaltz" btw is a technical term. The GREAT music crit book "Let's Talk About Love" by Carl Wilson traces schmaltz back to Italian opera!


Let's Talk Abt Love is required reading for all music snobs. All about exploring high/low music distinctions. Lady A vs Arcade Fire, say.


People still apparently filing in. I would describe it as "super crowded" but not yet "crushingly, inhumanely crowded." Head on down!


Ah, but this is no normal concert! RT @bradschjoth: Normal concerts don't require you to wait in line for 12 hours. Just sayin'. #Wausau


From the "used to be actually kind of cool" file: Rod Stewart's "Stay with Me" on the PA.


So, here's a question. If you are Lady Antebellum and you KNOW "Need You Now" is all anyone wants to hear, when do you play it? First? Last?


It would be funny if they just came out and played "Need You Now" like 10 times in a row and then said, "Goodnight everybody!"


RT @andylaub @robertmentzer everybody would be like BEST CONCERT EVAR


A cowboy with prosthetic legs is talking to a morbidly obese security guard.


.@bradschjoth honestly I imagine they cannot WAIT to get through these before-they-were huge county fair contracts they signed 10 mths ago.


.@bradschjoth They must be taking a BATH when you consider their going rate now.


Crowd confirms the often noticed fact that country music these days ain't particularly rural. It's suburban. Very well-heeled, these people.


"Middlebrow is the new lowbrow--mainstream taste the only taste for which you still have to say you're sorry. And there, taste seems less...

* aesthetic question than a social one. [...] The abiding mystery of mainstream culture is, 'Who the hell ARE those people?"


Do I even need to attribute that quote? "Let's Talk About Love" by Carl Wilson, of course.


I play a sort of visual game of whack-a-mole. Every so often, someone stands up to wave at friend going by.


RT @bradschjoth @robertmentzer I appreciate your reporting style, though. Dive right into the madness, THEN try to figure it all out. I love it.


UGHHHHH Skynard on PA. Cannot go there. Guy near me is psyched about it, though. "SKYNARD!!!!"


Hey it's Outkast on the PA. THERE WE GO!




Boring boring announcements. I did donate to 4H on my way in though, as everyone should. WHAT MORE DO YOU PEOPLE WANT FROM ME?


Clearly the people were called to get on their feet too early.


Totally lackadaisical smoke machine.


Freight train rolls by. Hey, they are starting. And the first song is ... not "Need You Now."


Best I can do.


Hey I can see WDH photographer Xai Kha down in the front. Hi, Xai! He is not staying.


There are some people watching through the fence or listening from down the hill. Some in folding chairs in parking lot. Not too many.


Guitar solo is straight out of some '80s pop metal. AND I LOVE IT.


Had to loosen my tie. Rockin' now. Not sure about subbing "Wausau" into lyrics of "Free Fallin'."


They are playing "the first song we ever wrote together." Luckily, they did get better at it.


It is not online but there is a terrific Kelefa Sanneh piece in new New Yorker about Brad Paisley. Makes point that contemporary country...

* largely contentment music. Songs about being in love with your wife, etc. May seem gauche but those feelings are real, too, after all.


"American Honey," nice tune.


Oh my. Thank you, dear. RT @shawncook: @robertmentzer this is for the record the best live tweet stream of a local event ever.


Wonder if one day Lady A will look back on time just after they got big but were still playing county fairs as a nice time in their career.


Dusk now. From back row, I can see glowing screens of everyone holding up their camera phones.


This "R-O-C-K in the U.S.A." business is pretty weak sauce. Crowd is eating it UP.


This is the part where they pretend they are going to leave without playing "Need You Now." Come back, Lady Antebellum, come back!




(Two bros in front of me just high-fived.)


Hey that was great.


Now they are closing out the night by playing "Hey Jude," I assume for the express purpose of making @bradschjoth's head explode in rage.


And now the lights come on, and we shuffle back to our cars and go home. THANKS EVERYONE! Good night.




Best feedback so far comes from a WDH commenter: "You geeks cant even watch a concert without getting on the net!" (continued!)


"What is wrong with this younger generation? The generation of pencil necked limp wristed pansy's" Nice, right? "pansy's" is a nice touch.

- I really, seriously cannot recommend "Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste" highly enough. One of the best books about music ever written.

- It is true that Kelefa Sanneh's New Yorker profile of Brad Paisley is not online. (Here's the abstract.) But there is a podcast that is definitely worth listening to.

- Also, for those who don't know Twitter terminology, "RT" = "retweet" = reposting something someone else has posted, sometimes with your own comments added. So it is a way of having a dialogue with somebody.

- There was plenty of good-natured reaction even from the Lady Antebellum haters, but a great deal of online reaction (in WDH comments and some other places) was predictably, depressingly closed-minded, which just confirms my overall view that "taste" in music is primarily about signaling, i.e. tribal, class-conscious social positioning. I certainly don't believe that everybody has to like Lady Antebellum (though I think several of their songs are excellent and most are good). But when there is a mad dash of people defining themselves as absolutely, positively NOT into Lady Antebellum, I have to ask what is really going on there. It is like, HOW TOTALLY DÉCLASSÉ that anyone would like such a thing. Yeah, yeah, good job everyone. Of course the whole point of going to the show and writing about it was partly to observe the phenomenon and to look into what so many people do like about the group, which seems like a legitimate project to me. But nevermind. This is an old story. Just noting: Rockism ain't dead, yet.

Sunday, August 01, 2010


Good stuff:
My favorite Franco art project, the one that best combines all of his interests (high/low, gay/straight, earnest/ironic) is his work on General Hospital. It started as a joke between Franco and his artist friend Carter, who were discussing a movie in which Franco would play a former soap star. It occurred to them that it would be funny if Franco actually showed up, sometime, on a real soap opera. This fit nicely into a constellation of ideas Franco had already been thinking about: the difference between high art and mass art, the space between performance and real life, the vagaries of taste. So Franco called General Hospital, one of TV’s most popular and longest-running soap operas. The result is a small, double-edged pop-culture masterpiece—a black hole of publicity in which everything works both within the frame of the show and as a commentary on Franco’s career.

Franco’s General Hospital character is a transparent soap-world portrait of Franco himself: a dashing multimedia artist (graffiti, photography, performance art) named “Franco” who sweeps into town and fascinates, angers, seduces, and generally confuses everyone around him. Like Franco, “Franco” is obsessed with art that crosses over into reality: He re-creates, in galleries, actual crime scenes—until eventually the people of Port Charles come to suspect that he might be a murderer himself.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


I was worried I would hate it, but I shouldn't have worried, because Christopher Nolan really is more than just a technician. Inception is good and I liked it.***

But I guess I do wonder why this movie, why now, which is something I always wonder whenever something becomes super-popular or a symbol of something or in some other sense a cultural event.

It makes sense that as real life becomes more information-saturated and we get better and more used to decoding a lot of information quickly, we'd ask for correspondingly more complex entertainments -- or at least entertainments with denser plots that have the appearance of being more complex. Inception is absolutely state of the art in this respect. And like previous state-of-the-art mega-hit The Matrix, it is also, at its core, basically a conventional action-thriller, though in this case a quite well-acted, well-constructed one where Matrix was always pretty schlocky.

The ideas Inception is working with -- reality, dream-reality, subjectivity -- are well-worn sci-fi movie tropes, to the point that it's sort of weird to me that this movie is seen as a mind-blower. (I think it's the density of the plot.) On the highbrow end, there is Solaris or Abre los ojos or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Lowbrow end would be The Matrix or Total Recall. There's Blade Runner, which is a bit of both. There are certainly dozens of others I haven't seen or am forgetting.

Film lends itself to what-is-reality mindfucks because on some level we always accept what we see on the screen as a "real" event. Inception makes a clever meta-reference to this in its own editing when a scene opens with Ellen Page and Leonardo Dicaprio sitting at a cafe, and the big reveal happens when Leo notes that dreams always begin in media res, then looks around and asks, "This cafe. How did we get here?" Good point: We're dreaming.

That's clever, but then again most of the movie is about vans going off bridges and people shooting at each other on skis and dudes running around the walls as gravity shifts. I think in some respects one of Inception's biggest accomplishments is that it does succeed at making the audience (me included) experience it as more original than it actually is.

The thing about what-is-reality stories -- at least the ones that become popular megahits -- is that what the audience really seems to want out of them is a kind of morality tale that reinforces the concreteness of the things around us. We want to be taken for a rollercoaster ride through many realities and then deposited safely back on terra firma, whether or not the characters are.

In The Matrix, the "real" world turns out to be fake, and what's really real is the crazy post-apocalyptic computers-vs.-humans wasteland. But reality itself is unimpeachable. And Inception -- which I really want to emphasize is better than The Matrix in virtually every way, it's just that the comparison presents itself -- is doing basically the same thing. If there is, in the course of the movie, a choice between real-reality and dream-reality, it's never presented as a particularly hard choice for its characters. You basically always want to go with what's real, the movies tell us. There is a real and a not-real and it's villainous to entertain thoughts otherwise. Just try not to get shot by the other dudes on skis so that you can be sure to get back to the real-real-real reality in time.

Hey, they're probably right! I don't really find fault with that message. But given that it's being delivered to us in the form of a movie, it does represent a weird type of movie-moralism: How dare you be so enchanted by these enchanting images?

***By the way, this does not contain any spoilers and is not really even a review. Also if you want Talmudic plot dissection you are better off elsewhere.

Monday, July 05, 2010

A veteran's story

I wrote a Fourth of July story about an Iraq veteran who lost his right leg and his left eye in a 2007 battle. He is just now getting home:
Dale Cherney remembers a flash of light.

After that, he remembers nothing for more than two months.

Cherney was walking out of the chow hall at Camp Victory, the complex of U.S. military bases near the Baghdad International Airport, when the insurgents' rocket exploded. It was Oct. 10, 2007. By Oct. 14, Cherney, an Army Reserve sergeant, was in the intensive care unit of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The 45-year-old rural Mosinee man has been in rehabilitation, in one form or another, ever since.

The damage the rocket did to his body was massive. He lost his right leg, which had to be amputated below the knee. He lost his left eye. His stomach and many of his internal organs were blown apart. His body is riddled with scars, and there are pins and rods holding his left leg together.

"This should have killed me, too, this scar here," he said, running his finger along the faint scar that runs from behind his ear down to his chest.
Read the whole story here. And definitely, definitely view the excellent photos taken by freelancer Butch McCartney for the Daily Herald at his blog here.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Cleanest Race by B.R. Myers

The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters by B.R. Myers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Probably the psychology of anyone in a totalitarian state is in some sense impenetrable, but the experience of actual North Koreans is nearer to unimaginable. Even a book like "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea," which does very important reporting on the facts of its subjects' lives, doesn't really get inside their heads.

This book gets us the closest yet, I think, by studying the propaganda and cultural product of North Korea for the messages they reinforce to the people there about themselves.

What it finds is a story that really doesn't jibe with outsiders' view of the state, which is that it is a brutal Stalinist dictatorship a la, say, Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe or any number of other places. The book's basic argument is that North Korea is more akin to a race-based fascist state than it is to a Stalinist one. And it's through that lens -- racial purity being all that matters -- that we can best understand its people's psychology.

Myers uncovers case after case of the North Korean texts that 1) regard their bloodline as the purest in the world, 2) feel that they are under constant threat of having that purity contaminated by assorted race traitors, and 3) view their leader as the single figure responsible for protecting that lineage. That is the story the regime tells North Koreans, and at least to a great extent it's the story North Koreans seem to tell themselves.

I'm especially convinced by Myers' evidence that Juche Thought is basically all B.S. and doesn't play much of a role in the North Korean psyche at all. I've seen a lot of writers look for the key in the so-called "self-reliance" doctrine of Juche, but Myers pretty devastatingly illustrates that it is basically just something the regime made up in the '60s to sound impressive, not anything that actually tells us about North Koreanness -- nor, even, something North Koreans think much about.

It is basically a pretty convincing case, and it certainly does a better job of explaining the behavior of both the regime and the citizens of North Korea than simple Stalinism. Of course this still leaves us pretty short on the question of what the U.S. government or any government can actually do about North Korea. But that may just be because there is no answer to that question.

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Singularity-heads and bodies

I have been somewhat fascinated by the idea of the singularity, but ultimately I guess it seems kind of, I don't know, naive and messianic. So this Bloggingheads episode between a dude who works at the Singularity Institute and a philosopher skeptical about that sort of thing is a good listen for me. It is a fairly philosophically technical discussion, but it's also punchy and good exchange and I recommend it.

The core of philosopher Massimo Pigliucci's skepticism, basically, is that the singularity-heads, for all their quantum theorizing and nanobots and whatever, tend to neglect some of the very brute facts of biology. They have an understanding of a human brain that is fully abstractable, and there's no reason to think that's the way it is.

Early in the dialogue, Pigliucci uses photosynthesis as an analogy. We have a very good understanding of photosynthesis, he says. We know exactly how it works on a cellular level. We can map it out in exquisite detail and put all that information onto a computer hard drive. What all that data can't do, of course, is produce sugar. Why should human consciousness be any different?

Pro-singularity guy Eliezer Yudkowsky's view throughout the dialogue is, basically, no, it is just a matter of getting the data and that is it.

Here's a particular point in the discussion where it comes down to this nub. They're talking about the possibility of uploading human consciousness, and whether if you did this and then left your old body behind, you'd be guilty of murdering your former self:

Yeah, that does not sound right to me, either.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Big Short by Michael Lewis

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
So this is a very good book. Michael Lewis is a wildly gifted writer of nonfiction narratives, and the word I want to use to describe the prose in The Big Short is "breezy." That is a particular accomplishment when your subject is mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations.

Here is the thing. At this point the book has sort of been outpaced by events. The SEC named one of the book's bit players, John Paulson, in its complaint against Goldman Sachs, and in general the notion that the short-sellers in the subprime market somehow have their hands clean in this whole mess seems less and less true each day.

The truth, so it seems right now anyway, is that the short traders played an indispensable role in inflating the bubble more than it otherwise would have been. This is basically Yves Smith's beef with the book in her lengthy, combative review -- which I think should be essential reading before reading "The Big Short," not after.

Also, this ProPublica/Planet Money/This American Life story about mega-short-seller Magnetar, which describes the same phenomena.

Lewis presents the short-sellers as sort of oddball heroes for taking Wall Street's received wisdom -- housing only goes up, CDOs are pretty safe -- and seeing it for the bullshit it was. And Smith makes the point -- and it's true -- that really, the shorts, too, were profiting from the many fictions of the subprime market. Fair point.

So, okay. But here is the other thing. Shorting the real estate market in 2006 still actually did take a particular kind of oddball character, and there weren't that many of them, and there is something inherently compelling about Lewis's cast of weirdos. There's a one-eyed genius investor with Asperger's syndrome, there's a self-promoting banker with bushy sideburns, there's a money manager who is rude and confrontational by Wall Street standards. And after all, these guys did bet right, and they did have that moment where they saw something that no one else was seeing. You don't have to buy the version where they're anti-market heroes of the little guy to find that a compelling story.

So the book is very good and it's probably good that it's the first thing a lot of people are reading about the crash. It really shouldn't be the last, but that is not something we can hold against Michael Lewis.

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mike Allen's productive weirdness

I realize I am predisposed to like this piece because I am a sometimes political journalist, though obviously not on anything like this level, but still let me recommend Mark Leibovich's profile in the New York Times Magazine of Politico's Mike Allen, he of the daily Playbook emails and the dozens upon dozens of scooplets and sometimes real scoops. It's a great piece of magazine writing and a great character study of a really odd and interesting character.

Mike Allen is famous in Washington, which is not the same as being famous-famous, but which still means that there are concentric circles of political junkies who know who he is and already knew many things about him even before this long piece. (I am one of these!)

Here is who he is, or seems to be. He is an extraordinarily successful political journalist. He sends out Politico's Playbook emails early-early each morning, seven days a week, and they are always very long and packed full of interesting/important/agenda-setting national news. He writes a ton of stories, goes on TV all the time and knows everybody in both political parties in Washington. He gets Washington stories that others don't get.

What makes this an interesting magazine profile is that he is also a person who has made professional virtues of every one of his many personal eccentricities: obsessive workaholism, hyper-sociability, total voraciousness toward political information, a desire to write thousands of words every week and no apparent need for regular sleep habits. He is a hoarder, an obsessive rememberer, and he works so much that the people around him routinely worry about is mental and physical well-being.

He is extraordinarily successful, in other words, in part because he is extraordinarily odd.

I see many of my own personal characteristics in this guy: I, too, have an obsessive, workaholic streak, I am more hyperactive and busier than I'd like because, for whatever reason, I am compelled to do what I do, despite certain costs to my personal life. Maybe you also can relate.

But you and I, we are only human. Sometimes we get tired, or we get annoyed, or we temporarily lose our motivation, or don't feel like attending that party or event that we really ought to attend, and we don't keep up those personal relationships that sooner or later will benefit us professionally. Not Mike Allen! Not ever! And look where it's gotten him!

At the same time, you read this piece and you ask yourself, could I ever be like this guy? What is even the point of being like this guy?

What makes this a fascinating profile is that Mike Allen is an absolute outlier in all of these personality traits that are actually fairly common among your driven, ambitious professionals. But in Allen they're maxed out, to the point that they are barely recognizable anymore as the type of standard-issue workaholism and obsessiveness that we lesser political junkies experience. And we are all lesser political junkies than Mike Allen.


A lot is made of the pernicious influence of Politico culture on political culture, and it's not all the way wrong. The scooplet-driven, constant conflict, who's-up-who's-down philosophy that Leibovich critiques does indeed have some big holes to it. Politico is annoying, in other words, and it's often shallow.

But I also think at least some of the criticism of Politico has to be seen as, you know, jealousy and highbrow snobbishness. The fact is that there are political junkies, and they do want to follow all the little ins and outs of the game in the same obsessive way that football fans freak about about the draft and baseball fans want to drill down on every little statistic. Politico, in other words, fills a genuine niche.

The bigger issue is whether who's-up-who's-down political coverage comes at a cost, and I think it's hard to argue that it doesn't. You need a news culture and a political culture that is able to see the bigger picture and not just the minutiae. But I am not sure there is anything mutually exclusive about having some people whose focus is on the minutiae while others are focused on bigger stuff. It makes sense to encourage big-picture thinking, but I am not sure that the existence of play-by-play guys like Mike Allen necessarily make that easier or harder to do. It's always going to be hard.

Good/bad, not art/not-art

We touched on this in the new Insophisticate podcast about Roger Ebert's trollish videogames post, but I don't feel like I explained this point very well, so I'm going to make another run at it.

I am against the aesthetic view that writes out of art the art that isn't very good. In other words, a movie like The Godfather is art while, you know, Little Man is not just bad art, it's actually not-art.

The reason I don't think that's right is that it is too narrow a view of art. If "art" only means "successful art," then 99.9999 percent of the creative product out there is excluded, and that doesn't seem right to me. I think the better way to look at this is just to allow for really broad categories of good and bad art.

I also happen to think that the "art/not-art" school of aesthetic classification places too much power into the hands of, well, critics and tastemakers. It's not exactly that quality is a subjective thing (it really isn't), it's that it's complex and has a lot of different aspects to it. And it changes over time, as stuff that was universally derided or dismissed turns out to be lauded later and vice versa.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"It's the home of cheese."

Check out this video I made for work:

Thanks Dino for help filming these.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A shadow narrative of a 1960s when crooners were still king

Or, "Pop Memories of the '60s" is arresting and perverse

So Laura and I were watching TV the other night and somehow she came upon this incredible extended infomercial hosted by a guy in an awesome mustache and a mock-turtleneck and a sort of bizarro Florence Henderson type, and it was advertising a 470-disc Time-Life box set called "Pop Memories of the '60s." This does not have the hosts, but it should give you a flavor:

Now, I am going to be honest and explain, this is the sort of thing I always like because I happen to believe that the dead center of the middle of the pop mainstream is almost always more revealing of culture than the stuff that is edgy or critically acclaimed or enjoyed by the fancy people and hipsters and therefore ends up being canonized in the long run.

And as you can clearly see above, "Pop Memories of the '60s" is nothing if not a portrait of the unhippest, boringest pop mainstream imaginable. But it's also somewhat arresting and, I don't know, kind of funny because of the ways that it seems to represent a kind of shadow narrative of 1960s music. In the same year that Hendrix played the national anthem at Woodstock, Glen Campbell released and recorded "Wichita Lineman." See what I mean?

So instead of the '60s being about the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Dylan and Hendrix, this box set it's about Bobby Vinton, Petula Clark, a little Dionne Warwick, some late-period Elvis and early-period Stevie Wonder

This is pop music that is still heavily influenced by the crooner era, and dominated by smooth, way-out-in-front vocals backed by a full orchestra. That's not so unusual -- Elvis and a lot of other early rock 'n rollers always took certain cues from crooners, at least in their slow songs. But there is still something striking about how totally alive and well the big-band, crooner, smoothed-out sound was deep into the '60s. I would have to think about this more, but maybe this is the last stand of the popular crooner, at least as a standard pop music figure.

Just to put my cards out on the table, with certain exceptions (Little Stevie Wonder!) this is not really anything I would actually, you know, listen to. I am not going to invest the $7,430.99 + $299.99 shipping and handling to purchase the full box set. But it's an interesting document all the same for anyone like me who is interested in the counter-narratives that are woven into popular culture. Your parents might have loved the Rolling Stones, but at the same time there were millions of American households who much preferred to spin some Roger Whittaker, thank you, and that is a true fact about that decade, too.

P.S. ... You know what else? This makes me view the Trololo guy as a little bit less weird. His manner and presentation are definitely run through a ridiculous Baltic-Lawrence-Welk filter. But he's not really so far away from a Glen Campbell or a Wayne Newton or somebody who would have been roughly his contemporaries.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Confederate History Month

Thank you, The Onion:
"Slavery shouldn't stop us from celebrating Confederate History Month anymore than terrorism stops us from celebrating Bin Laden’s Day."

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Whither whiteness?

For reasons I really don't need to get into here, I have had occasion to think a lot lately about whiteness -- not just who counts as white but what makes whiteness substantively different from blackness or brownness or whatever else, and indeed whether whiteness can even be considered a positive identity at all.

So I am interested to see this new New Yorker essay by Kelefa Sanneh, one of my favorite music writers since forever, examining whiteness and the dubious concept of "white culture" today. Ultimately I find that this essay is a bit gentler than it needs to be, but it gets some big things right and besides that deserves credit just for taking on the subject.

This is a relatively minor point in the essay, but it's well stated and hits directly on what I think is an increasingly common phenomenon. (Nevermind the mention of Glenn Beck in this graf, it is just one example.):
In fact, [Glenn] Beck's slippery concern with racism -- outrage over false charges of anti-black racism, combined with outrage over anti-white racism -- seems central to a certain kind of white-identity politics. This professedly anti-racist argument is about as close as anyone comes to articulating a mainstream political agenda that is explicitly pro-white.
Obviously it is perfectly logical and consistent to oppose anti-white racism as well as other forms of racism. But when it's combined with aggrieved suspicion and outright anger at virtually any mention of anti-black racism -- an example of this would be Andrew Breitbart's latest crusade -- it is hard to avoid the conclusion that concern with racism per se is not the real motivating factor in the matter. And again, this is something that has become very, very common.

I think that Sanneh's conclusion is interesting but perhaps a little too pat:
[I]t's getting easier to imagine an American whiteness that is less exceptional, less dominant, less imperial, and more conspicuous, an ethnicity more like the others. In the Obama era -- the Tea Party era -- whiteness is easier to see than ever before, which means it’s less readily taken for granted. If invisibility is power, then whiteness is a little less powerful than it used to be.
Is this true? Couldn't it also be the case that we're seeing the revival in the U.S. of some semi-dormant strain of genuine white supremacy? And that instead of receding into just another sort of soft tribalism, whiteness, fueled by its many narratives of victimization, will actually attempt to rise back up to reclaim its dominance? In short -- isn't there real reason to worry about the path we're headed down?

Saturday, April 03, 2010

"Che" is not about what you want it to be about

There is a moment deep into in the second half of the two-part, four-hour epic biopic "Che" when Che, in the middle of the jungle in the midst of his badly failing guerrilla campaign in Bolivia, turns to one of the other guerrillas and says, "I'll write Sartre and Bertrand Russell to establish a worldwide fund."

Of course, we know how the story turned out, and it wasn't good for Ernesto "Che" Guevara. And by that point in the movie, it's obvious that he is making a desperation move. But while it's a stray comment that the movie never revisits, it's also a very clear indication that Che, by this point in his life, had himself bought into the myth of Che. I'd argue that this is one of the central themes of the movie -- how Che came to believe in the same romanticized guerrilla-hero pap that has launched a million t-shirts and dorm-room posters. And, ultimately, how badly that myth served him and the other revolutionary fighters, and indeed the people of Bolivia and elsewhere.

A lot has been made about the fact that "Che" is a movie with virtually no emotional content, an "anti-biopic." And it's true -- in this respect it's the opposite of "The Motorcycle Diaries," in which Young Che was portrayed as an empathetic, sensitive champion of the peasant farmer whose travel experience as a young man launched him on the path to glorious revolution. I hated "The Motorcycle Diaries" more than I hate most biopics, but the basic problem is the same throughout the genre: over-reliance on facile psychological explanations for every single decision made later by the character. "Che" does none of that at all, and that's a good thing. It's much more concerned in the "what" and the "how" -- battle tactics, the military campaign's movement from place to place -- than it is with the "why."

The first part of the movie is the Cuban revolution, ending with victory over Batista; the second half is in Bolivia, ending with Che's execution. Its central purpose is to provide a study in contrasts between the two -- differences it underlines with differences in form between the two, in color schemes and even technical things like aspect ratio. But also in the facts it dramatizes: In Cuba, revolutionaries brokered deals among peasant groups and got their buy-in. Their forces grew, and their tactics won the day. The wind was at their backs. In Bolivia, meanwhile, everything that could go wrong did. Peasants rebuffed Che. The government forces were well-organized, and the CIA was involved. The guerrillas' numbers dwindled and Che died a failure.

But while the second half is simply a chronological the story of the campaign, the first half of the movie is intercut with scenes of Che's speech at the United Nations in 1964, and with his interviews in New York with fawning journalists asking questions about what it's like to be the personification of the revolutionary warrior, how it feels to be so awesome and so on. Those sections of the movie are about the creation of Che-the-myth. And in the movie's second half, we see the result of it.

Now to be sure, it does seem like director Steven Soderbergh, one of my favorites, and actor Benecio Del Toro, also an amazing actor, were playing a sort of double game in the promotions of the movie. Both of them said some stupid things about Che, and they held off from actually making moral judgments about Che. They promoted the movie heavily in Cuba and Latin America (including with a fairly disgusting meeting between Del Toro and Hugo Chavez), and especially given that the movie is in Spanish, you have to assume there was a bit of a commercial motivation for not coming out and saying, you know, "Che was a brutal murderer and no one should aspire to be like him." But who knows. Maybe they actually don't believe that.

And for anyone who would look to "Che" as some kind of comprehensive biography of the man, it must be said that there are some unforgivably large omissions. The defining characteristic of Che's character was sadistic brutality. As a revolutionary, he made his name and his reputation as an enforcer, a staunch Stalinist ideologue and, finally, an enthusiastic executioner of dissidents, political enemies and anyone in his way. This movie deals with that side of Che very little, and that's an understandable disappointment for people who want to see a film that grapples with the actual moral content of the man's life.

Still, there's a big difference between this movie and the pastel, romanticized Che of "The Motorcycle Diaries." That movie did take a strong moral stance and just happened to get it exactly wrong. No doubt some critics wanted to see something more like a corrective to that vision of Che, and Soderbergh's movie isn't that.

But then I think, would I really have wanted to see the movie that is all about the many summary executions Che oversaw, his ideological rigidity and his Soviet allegiance and narcissistic martyrdom complex? I am not sure I would. As opaque as it can be, this movie is actually in a lot of ways more compelling than that one would have been. And in some some subtle ways, this "Che" does depict the man who actively built his image as revolutionary hero, and who ultimately was brought down when he came to believe in it himself. That's a more complicated story than either the one that casts Che as a Christ-like hero, or the one that is all about what a villain he was. Che was not a good man, but "Che" is a good movie.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Monday, March 15, 2010

Joanna Newsom on Jimmy Fallon

A couple weeks old I guess, but new to me. I am loving "Have One On Me."