May 29, 2004
I Broke Ya Nokia
Fifteen minutes into the movie Mean Girls, this woman strolls into the movie theatre, pressing an infant to her chest with one hand, and a cell phone to her ear with the other. She shuffles across an entire aisle full of people to get to her seat (which happens to be my aisle), crosses in front of me, then plops down right next to me to continue her conversation. The baby coos at me. I shoot a dirty look at it in the dark.
I could probably have tapped the woman on the shoulder and asked her to be quiet, ensuring two hours of mutual scowling awkwardness between us.
Or (I actually thought), if I wanted to do it guerilla-style, I could have discreetly turned on my SH066PL2A cell phone jamming device.
Sitting in the theater, I didn't know whether such devices were commercially available, but listening to the woman babble, I thought, "Wow. What a retail coup that would be! Cell phone jamming!"
Some quick Google-fu reveals that, although illegal in the U.S., jamming is pretty popular across the Atlantic. This Slate article says it won't stay underground for long, even here. (U.S. customers are the biggest foreign market for the personal jamming devices, according to the article.)
I think if I had access to such a technology, I couldn't bring myself to use it. But I wonder. And I wonder what society will do when our ability to intrude on the "private" spaces of total strangers gets even more virtual.
May 27, 2004
Politician With a Halo
This New Yorker article, essentially a hagiography of an Illinois politician, brought out in me a cynicism about the American political process I didn't even know I had. The politician in question, Barack Obama, is half-black, grew up in Middle America, rose from modest circumstances to become a star at Harvard and teach law at UChicago, and claims to want to practice clean, civil, on-the-issues politics. Why am I so skeptical of this guy? Some grafs:
Abner Mikva told me, “Barack is the most unique political talent I’ve run into in more than fifty years. I haven’t been this excited about a candidate since Adlai Stevenson first got me into politics.” As an illustration of Obama’s gifts, Mikva said, “I’ve seen him speak on Israel in front of a Jewish audience—a very, very tough crowd. And he was incredibly thoughtful, saying, basically, ‘There are a lot of people in that area, with lots of different interests and points of view, and they all have to be taken into consideration, and we can’t just rally around Sharon,’ and so on. And the crowd was just wowed. I’ve fluffed that question so many times myself—and I’m Jewish. Kerry fluffed it on ‘Meet the Press’ the other day. But Barack managed to make those people who disagreed with him feel comfortable with the disagreement.”
This is a regular theme with Obama: supporters who disagree with him. The two big Chicago daily papers both endorsed him enthusiastically in the primary, even though they disagreed with him on major issues—his opposition to the war in Iraq and, in the case of the Tribune, his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
This seems to be a pattern in Illinois. Paul Simon was the most respected political figure in the state for decades. He was a liberal Democrat who came from a conservative downstate region where his name remains political gold. The universal explanation for Simon’s near-universal popularity is “integrity,” and this spring I heard the word a lot from people discussing Obama.
It's page after page of this stuff. And here's another schoolgirlishly fawning offering from The New Republic.
The article ends with a segment about Obama's opponent in the race for the Illinois Senate, Jack Ryan. Ryan seems like a total blowhard -- pretty boy, silver spoon, hired the sleaziest campaign strategist ever, has swipes at Obama all over his site, supports the Federal Marriage Amendment -- in short, Worst Ever.
Still, all I can think of Saint Obama is, "Yeah, OK, whatever. I bet he's killing babies on the side or something." I'm just wondering if this reaction is
a) my rootless cynicism about all things political
b) a sad commentary on the state of democracy in America
c) a backlash against the article's relentless positivity about its subject
d) all of the above?
The Future Waits For No Blog
I know what you're thinking: "This is supposed to be a blog? It hasn't been updated since July 1997!"
Well, that's true.
But Matt and I have been busy plotting the very future of media itself!
So cut the Snarkmarketers some slack, huh?
May 20, 2004
The Good Ol' Days
I posted this to the Young Journalists listserv, and thought I'd ask you savvy, snarky young consumers of media as well:
Scroll through any of the numerous rants about the state of journalism you can easily find online, and it'll likely be peppered with barbs about journalism "nowadays," how the news media is "no longer" worthy of (fill in the unworthy thing). Search Google for the phrase "our media has become," and you'll see what I'm talking about.
Which is, to get to the point, that critics of the media reflexively conjure this golden age of journalism. If it exists, I'd love to know more about it. The uber-example of fantastic journalism that I always hear about is Watergate -- the publication of the Pentagon Papers, Woodie and Bernie, etc. But were those isolated examples indicative of an entirely different age or attitude in journalism? Were they surrounded by similar shining cases of media-as-watchdog? And I can't imagine that when the WaPo ran the Watergate series, millions of fans of Nixon weren't decrying how evil, monomaniacal, liberal, sensationalistic, what-have-you, the media had become.
Is "nowadays" just a figure of speech?
I don't think it can be argued that recent years have seen huge corporate consolidation among our traditional media outlets, and that journalism has in many ways suffered as a result, but it strikes me that the burgeoning power of non-traditional, independent media is beginning to act as a tremendous counterweight to that consolidation. (I don't JUST mean blogs, either.) We've gotten to the point where our individual readers, who claim fealty to no company, have appointed themselves watchdogs of individual journalists, and these independent meta-journalists actually accrue sizeable audiences of their own, in some cases bigger than the audiences of many mid-sized dailies.
In other words, newspapers and local tv stations are experiencing increasing corporate consolidation, yes, but they're also making up a smaller and smaller part of our media landscape, especially among our generation.
To push the question even further, can anyone point to ANY PRESS, in any country, at any point in history that truly fulfilled the ideal of the media as servant of the people, ethical watchdog, beacon of goodness, etc.? What is the ideal we're striving for?
In Norway, I'm told (might be Sweden, might be the Netherlands), news companies demand far smaller profit margins from their products than our companies do here in America, and their papers are much more widely read. Correlation, not causation, of course, but is it that the media in Norway produces journalism that's singularly excellent in all the world?
There are pockets of stunning media brilliance and bravado all over the world, in much more dangerous and corrupt quarters than America, where daring individuals publish their works on secret presses and distribute them under fear of death. But one can't deny that there are numerous examples of powerful, courageous journalism in the pockets of America, too.
That's "food for the soul" -- the inscription on Berlin's Royal Library.
I've always loved libraries. I was impressed by LA's Central Library last week, but whoah, it's a rusty bookmobile next to this: the Seattle Central Library. It's new. It's amazing.
The link above is to a photo gallery; you can also read about the library at The Seattle Times' website.
It was designed by Rem Koolhaas. (Here's a PDF with images of his other work.) Check out this great description of its distinctive look:
"It looks like a dictionary opening up the mind to the windows of the world," said a security guard at the Federal Courthouse.
As you may have heard, they found the Library of Alexandria... but really, who needs it? We're doing fine in the temple-of-knowledge department.
(Photo by Benjamin Benschneider of The Seattle Times.)
May 19, 2004
Less Math, More Myth
FoS* Matt Penniman is writing a new weblog about games and game design with a special emphasis on the precursors to all our fancy Final Fantasies: pen-and-paper role-playing games.
His latest entry talks about the prosaic ways that gods are handled in RPGs, e.g. as normal characters with really high "stats."
That practice has extended into the digital age. Final Fantasy games always end with a battle against a) someone who wants to be a god, b) someone pretending to be a god, or c) a god. And invariably -- even though these omnipotent foes have 45-zillion "hit points" (ah, the hit point: irreducible unit of life in RPGs) -- you end up killing them.
Reducing deities to game terms (which bear a striking resemble to legal language) is a sure way to suck all the life and mystery out of an encounter with the divine. For a certain style of play, this degree of specificity can be useful -- but I vastly prefer the approach that says, "The gods work in mysterious ways. Mortals cannot fathom their powers and practices."
What would a game with truly mysterious gods look like? Here's a notion: There'd be conversation, not combat. You wouldn't kill God; you'd trick Him, or make a deal with Her.
You know, like in Greek mythology. People were always yanking Zeus's chain, right? And setting up weird bets with Hades.... Read more ....
May 14, 2004
Young Readers, Old Souls
Why is it that the great children's book authors are so often so wise? (I'm not sure it's a property of all great authors; although I could be wrong.)
My allegiance to Phillip Pullman, author of "The Golden Compass," etc., is well-known.
I've never actually read the classic "A Wrinkle in Time." I know it's supposed to be great, though, and this interview with Madeleine L'Engle confirms that, true to form, she is brilliant and charming. And, like Pullman, a bit cantankerous.
The interview is pegged to the "Wrinkle in Time" TV movie that aired this week, so it starts like this:
So you’ve seen the movie?
I’ve glimpsed it.
And did it meet expectations?
Oh, yes. I expected it to be bad, and it is.
She goes on to talk about the important stuff: God and Harry Potter.
(Link via Scott McCloud's blog.)
From This to That
Was just IMing with a high school friend who's in Kathmandu.
And with a college friend, whose friend just returned from Bangladesh. (A degree of separation, it seems, but not really: All who have been to Bangladesh are part of a secret society.)
At a recent journalism conference, Doug McGill said: Anybody who's lived overseas has a different perspective on the world. They have certain insights, vocabularies.
That's probably not always true; much depends on the nature of your stay.
But for a positive example, I cite the latest entry in Jim Secreto's blog. (He's the aforementioned friend-in-Nepal.) It's well-observed, well-written, and well-titled: "The place where the world changes from this to that."
May 13, 2004
Meet the Designer
Here I am, checking out The New York Times' multimedia feature on garden furniture design, when I come across the following paragraph:
The classic garden bench has been reinvented. Stones, near right, by Maya Lin are made of fiberglass-reinforced concrete in three sizes, $356 to $1,156; from Knoll, www.knoll.com...
WTWWJDF??! Maya Lin, the legend, the 20 year-old second-generation American girl who probably did as much as any other artist to catapult this country into the age of modern art, the paragon of artistic integrity who etched sorrow into smooth black stone, Maya Lin is designing garden furniture?!?
Oh, but it's true. And it doesn't end there.
Lin's latest corporate work reflects the themes she has developed in her 20-year career. Her Winter Garden for American Express has a water wall that offers soothing sounds and a floor that undulates like a hillside meadow. The flowing spaces in her apartment for Peter Norton, founder of software maker Norton Utilities, can be zoned off with sliding partitions, much like a traditional Japanese house. Her wall in the lobby of the headquarters of the Principal Financial Group has a creek running through it, an open invitation to feel the flowing water.
Rolling hills inspired Lin's curvilinear lounge chair, which also conforms to the contours of the human body. Non-Western objects, such as Chinese porcelain pillows and African headrests, were models for Lin's collection for Knoll Inc., the office-furnishings maker. The collection, called Stones, consists of seats and a coffee table made of precast concrete.
Well, if I was a bit taken aback at first, I, for one, have already mellowed. The pictures of Lin's unembellished artistry, paired with the soothing words and phrases of Corporate America -- "Aveda," "Principal Financial Group," "curvilinear lounge chair" -- have proved an opiate to my disquiet. After all, artists must make money, right? And it's better, isn't it, that the corporatists should have rolling oceanic sculptures for their art than gawky metallic polluto-machines made from the fledglings of endangered species? And with her line of lawn chairs, Lin's art won't just be for the elite, but available to the masses, which is a plus, right? Right?
May 10, 2004
Too bad while Robin's in L.A. he won't be able to catch the sold out performance of selected works from the score of the Final Fantasy video game series, by the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
I've talked before about my love for Final Fantasy IV (II in US), but how could I get away without mentioning my love for its music? Before video games could signal emotion with actual, recognizable facial expressions (when "faces" were a few murky pixels on a 16-bit, or God forbid, 8-bit screen), the music heroically took the place of the visuals in directing us how to feel. This was usually a bad thing, of course -- those midi files always teetered on the edge of being cloying and obvious.
But especially with the music of Nobuo Uematsu from Final Fantasy, the themes often had a beautiful subtlety to them. And I think Uematsu did some of his best work in Final Fantasy IV. The game's story was so wonderfully over-the-top -- it was honestly the apotheosis of epic in 16 beautiful bits. Pick a theme, any theme, it's in there. The quest for ultimate knowledge -- Adam and Eve and the Manhattan Project ("I am become death, destroyer of worlds") -- played itself out in Tellah's quest for Meteo, the Spell to end all Spells, and the "King of Baron's" pursuit of the sacred crystals. Folly of the elderly leads to the death of the young? You know, Daedalus and Icarus, Romeo and Juliet -- look no further than Palom and Porom, the pint-size twin magicians who turn themselves to stone to save the other adventurers, or Anna and Edward, the young pair whose love is sacrificed to Tellah's fury. Oh, and there's a ton more -- the quest for self-redemption, avenging the death of a parent, you name it.
My point is that the music had to be pretty nimble to handle all this drama. Uematsu had to go from Wagner to Brahms in the blink of an eye ... and he did. Take, for example, what's probably my favorite piece of video game music ever -- the Red Wings theme. It's an anthemic military march -- in a minor key. Follow the melody as it crests and falls towards its sad, sweet high note, falls again into that ominous rat-tat-tat, then explodes into the dissonant, aggressive coda that doesn't really resolve so much as suffer a heart attack. Once you've got a handle on that melody, check out where Uematsu reprises it in "Suspicion" and the beginning of "Cry In Sorrow."
OK, I'm done showing you cheesy midi files. But clearly other people love Uematsu's stuff, too. This isn't the first time Nobuo Uematsu's work will be performed with instruments:
The first FINAL FANTASY symphony concert was held in Japan in February of 2002, performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. The sold-out concert led to a six-city, seven-show concert series titled "Tour de Japon - music from FINAL FANTASY -" which will be held this coming March and April throughout Japan. The Czech National Symphony Orchestra also performed some of Uematsu's compositions in the Symphonic Game Music Concert held in Leipzig, Germany in 2002.
In February 2003, Uematsu formed a group called "The Black Mages," producing a self-titled album composed of FINAL FANTASY battle music arranged in rock style. Uematsu himself performs as the keyboardist.
As video games have gotten better at feeding you emotions through graphics, sometimes even through rumble packs, the music tends more towards subtle tone-setting with occasional moments of pop/rock, which is probably the stuff the L.A. Philharmonic will be taking on.
Another example of undeniable masterpiece in video game music: the theme from the original Super Mario Bros.
LOS ANGELES -- Let me tell you, California is the new hotness. A lifelong flat-state fella (come on -- the one five-foot rise in St. Petersburg is called "Thrill Hill"), I am awed by this state's rolling geography. The hillsides, the crags of rock jutting out into the ocean (see how I just toss out "ocean" like it's no big deal?), the blue-gray silhouette of the mountains in the distance -- all together, it makes you feel like you're actually living on a planet. Like, if you ripped up all the houses and streets, there would still be something here. (Clearly, if you did that in Florida, the Gulf of Mexico would just rush in and cover the whole thing.)
The short of it: There is geography here. There are valleys and ridges and all those things I used to read about in kids' books but, I gotta be honest here, had a hard time imagining. It's not my fault. Some glacier scraped Michigan flat a long time ago. (And Florida? Man, don't even get me started. Even the pop in Florida is flat.)
I dipped my toe into the Pacific yesterday, but I suspect I won't get to the mountains on this too-short trip. I'll keep seeing 'em, though -- keep risking freeway disaster to gawk at them -- and every time I do, the world will get a little bit more interesting.
May 7, 2004
Our Latent Cruelty
If there's one story I can't imagine writing as a journalist, it's this -- the hounding-of-the-family-members-after-someone-commits-an-atrocity story:
In one image, Private England is clenching a cigarette between her teeth while giving a thumbs-up in front of naked Iraqi prisoners. In another that became public on Thursday, she is holding a leash attached to a naked prisoner's neck.
The photographs have left her family and friends aghast and searching for answers. They are convinced that she would never have thought up anything so cruel on her own and that she must have been following orders.
Of course they are. Few families walk around suspecting their own of harboring despotic tendencies. What are they going to say? "That Lynndie. She always tortured insects and small mammals as a kid. I knew no good would come of it."
Not a comforting thought, but we are all probably much more capable of atrocious behavior than we can imagine. Another article in today's NYT recalls a 30-year-old study:
In 1971 researchers at Stanford University created a simulated prison in the basement of the campus psychology building. They randomly assigned 24 students to be either prison guards or prisoners for two weeks.
Within days the "guards" had become swaggering and sadistic, to the point of placing bags over the prisoners' heads, forcing them to strip naked and encouraging them to perform sexual acts.
The landmark Stanford experiment and studies like it give insight into how ordinary people can, under the right circumstances, do horrible things — including the mistreatment of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
What is the distance between "normal" and "monster"? Can anyone become a torturer?
The answer to that last question, the article suggests, is "yes." We aren't all secret sadists, quietly wanting to inflict pain on our neighbors, but removed from our current frame of reference, quite a number of us -- we should probably assume all of us -- would do the worst.
Scary. Good to know?
May 6, 2004
2004 National Mag Award Finalists
Because I'm back, and having been away for a while I felt the need to do a public service to the world of the Internet, and I love magazine journalism, here are all the links I could find to the articles nominated for a National Magazine Award. (Compiled before I realized Cursor did the exact same thing, only not for all the categories. D'oh!) No link means I couldn't find it online; if you can, tell me. Whenever possible, I've linked to any free version I could find online (even the ghetto ones), but if it's in brackets, you need a subscription to view it.
Finalists (winners marked with asterisk)
- How safe is your hospital?
- Decoding your hospital bills
- A tale of 3 hearts
- 100 ways to live forever
- Death by exercise
- Living on purpose
- Healthy breasts for life!
Time Out New York
- Your new apartment: from hunting to housewarming
- Thanksgiving starts here
- Veterinary care without the bite
- The $20 theory of the universe (PDF)
National Geographic Adventure
- Ultimate America
- The 25 (essential) books for the well-read explorer
- Columbia's last flight
- [Misdirected brokerage]
The New Yorker
- The David Kelly affair
- The killer elite
- The sum of two evils
- The secret collaborators (PDF)
- [Life behind enemy lines]
The Atlantic Monthly
- The dark art of interrogation
- Is your job next?
- The rise of India
The New Yorker
- Lunch with the chairman
- Selective intelligence
- The stovepipe
- The $87 billion money pit
- Pharmacy fakes
The Washington Monthly
- Malpractice makes perfect
COLUMNS AND COMMENTARY:
- Devolution's double standard
- Republicans behaving badly
- Machine politics
New York Magazine
- Live from Doha
- My big fat question
- Al Jazeera's edge
The New Yorker
- Down to earth
- Building nations
- Rush in rehab
- Here's a bet for Mr. Rumsfeld
- And he's head of intelligence?
- No way to make friends
- Fear and clothing in Atlanta
- My big fat sports wedding
- [Yule be amazed]
REVIEWS AND CRITICISM:
The Atlantic Monthly
- The wifely duty
- Housewife confidential
- Let's call the whole thing off
- [Increasingly berserk developments]
- [Back to the Terminator]
- [Mr. Uncongeniality]
- [Paint it black]
- [Vision of the sublime]
- The abstract impressionist
The New Yorker
- The thin envelope (supposedly, doesn't work for me)
- The devil's disciples (again, supposedly)
- After the revolution (you know the drill)
- Glacier head
- Playing for immortality
- Borrowed culture
The Atlantic Monthly
- Happy hour
- We have a pope!
- Yao's chick
- What is visible
- [The red bow]
- [Rest stop]
The New Yorker
- A rich man
- The final solution
- Letter from the last bastion
- The phrenologist's dream
- The smoothest way is full of stones
- [The only meaning of the oil-wet water]
PHOTO PORTFOLIO/PHOTO ESSAY:
- 21st century slaves
- Inhuman profit (sample)
- Tigers of the snow
- [Cuts above]
- A soldier's life
- Alice in wonderland
- The Kate Moss portfolio
May 5, 2004
Because Really, Who Has a Toothed Wheel These Days?
Back in the day, you needed some pretty serious gear to measure the speed of light:
[Fizeau] shone a light between the teeth of a rapidly rotating toothed wheel. A mirror reflected the beam back between the same gap between the teeth of the wheel.
There were over a hundred teeth in the wheel. The wheel rotated at hundreds of times a second -- therefore thousandths of a second was easy to measure. Light was reflected from mirrors more than 5 miles apart. This also helped him making accurate measurements.
(That's from what-is-the-speed-of-light.com, your one-stop shop for speed-of-light related inquiries.)
Nowadays it's much easier: All you need is a microwave.
(Link via Boing Boing.)
Get Up Out Ya' Chair
Matt and I have discussed before the tremendous challenge that newspaper columnists face: They have to write something interesting and worthwhile, 800 words or so, twice a week. Most fail completely. And I mean, there's no shame in that (well, okay, there's a little shame); it's quite a task.
How then does Nicholas Kristof of the NYT write rad columns week after week?
Ah, yes. Reporting.
Kristof is in Iran this week.
By comparison, his page-mate William Safire is, er, imagining what Ariel Sharon is thinking. What? Is that even allowed?
Well, whatever. Kudos to Kristof for using the flexibility of the op-ed space not merely to pontificate, but also to post dispatches from the real world -- with a personal touch.
(And I'll point out, as I have before, that Kristof is traveling with Naka Nathaniel, an NYTimes.com photojournalist and web producer. So he scores points for that, too. Can you tell I basically want to be Nick Kristof?)
May 4, 2004
Gore TV, For Real
Why am I so obsessed with Al Gore's cable TV channel, which is finally a reality?
I think it's because of stuff like this -- and the hope that it's not just, well, quotes for press releases:
"We are launching an exciting television network for young men and women who want to know more about their world and who enjoy real-life stories created with, by and for their own generation," said Gore who, as Chairman of the Board, will devote the lion's share of his time to the venture. "We want to empower this dynamic generation with a network dedicated to them that has integrity and a commitment to excellence. This will not be a political network," Gore emphasized, adding, "These stories will be in a voice that young people recognize and from a point of view they identify as their own."