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March 29, 2009

The "Feel-Good Movie of the Year"

Writing in the New York Times, Frank Rich described Slumdog Millionaire as follows:

Our feel-good movie of the year is “Slumdog Millionaire,” a Dickensian tale in which we root for an impoverished orphan from Mumbai’s slums to hit the jackpot on the Indian edition of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
In fact, searching "slumdog millionare 'feel good movie of the year'" on Google turns up over a thousand hits.

I thought Slumdog Millionaire was an excellent film, but the feel-good movie of the year? That would be like getting a sugar-free lollipop on your way out after a root canal and calling it the "feel-good dentist visit of the year".

March 24, 2009

Turing and Battlestar Galactica

As noted in my previous entry, the finale of Battlestar Galactica was last Friday night. I've been thinking about what to say about BSG in the wake of its departure.

I don't want to talk about the finale because I don't want to reveal any spoilers here, no matter how carefully I firewall them. I'd hate for someone to come across this site and have the end ruined for them.

Besides, what I'm more interested in is the fundamental premise of the series. Ultimately, when everything else was stripped away, BSG seemed to me to be a four-year exploration of what it means to be human.

During a decades-long armistice, the Cylons evolved from clunky metal robots to perfect facsimiles of humans. 12 models were created, with many copies of each, and some of these human-appearing Cylons infiltrated the Colonies. Of these infiltrators, some knew who they were and what their missions were, while others were sleeper agents, believing themselves to be human but ready to be activated to carry out their missions. Prior to the Cylons' attack on the Colonies, as far as I know, none of their agents -- sleeper or otherwise -- were discovered. They were accepted in their roles as friends, lovers, warriors, and the like.

Once the humans discover that Cylons can now appear to be human, they take the attitude that they are nothing more than simple machines, incapable of emotions, incapable of doing anything not in their programming, and generally show little or no remorse at beating them, torturing them, throwing them out airlocks, and so on. "Toasters," they're called.

So my question is, did the Colonies never have their equivalent of Alan Turing? What his test tells us is that the only useful test of the "human-ness" of an artificial intelligence is whether it can fool a human observer into thinking it's human. In the Turing test as it's commonly conceived, the computer would have the advantage of operating over a text-only connection, so that the human wouldn't be able to rely on visual or aural cues.

But in BSG, the Cylons interact directly with humans. They talk with them, make jokes with them, fight alongside them, make love with them -- and no one is the wiser. Clearly they pass the Turing test not just for intelligence, but for emotion as well.

And yet this fact doesn't seem to enter into the humans' thinking. They realize that the Cylons are essentially perfect copies of humans, distinguishable only via a complex blood test or when they're caught in a compromising position. Despite this, they continue to think of Cylons as machines, devoid of rights -- or souls, for that matter.

In warfare, we dehumanize our enemies to make it easier to kill them. BSG takes this to its logical conclusion: it may be nearly impossible to identify the enemy, even after years of close exposure, but since they're machines, they're completely dehumanized and so can be abused with impunity.

We would never do that.

Would we?

March 20, 2009

The Last of a Great Frakkin' Show

I'm about to watch the final episode of Battlestar Galactica. It seemed only fitting to have a cigar before the show (a Cohiba Esplendido), and I have a bottle of whiskey beside me (Clear Creek Distillery's Oregon Single Malt).

See you shortly.

January 19, 2009

Heard at Lunch

A lunchtime conversation while I was visiting the office last week:

Me: So I have this idea to do a remake of Gilligan's Island with pop and hip-hop artists. Not as a reality show, but as a straight-up sitcom. It's all about the casting. I'd start with Sean Combs as Thurston Howell III. And a friend suggested Justin Timberlake as Gilligan. What do you think?

Ty: Not bad. You'd need someone as the Professor. How about Humpty?

Ken: You could have Mary J. Blige as Mrs Thurston Howell III.

Frank: That's good. I know Flavor Flav needs to be in it; I just don't know as whom.

Ty: How about as the astronaut who lands on the island?

David: Sure. But who would play the Harlem Globetrotters?

Ty, Ken, and me in unison: The Harlem Globetrotters!

I love working at home, but I just don't have conversations like this with my cat.

Thank goodness.

June 30, 2007

Stupidity That Might Have Been

Casino Royale was one of my two favorite movies from 2006 (the other being Stranger than Fiction).

(As for the other obvious candidates, United 93 was excellent, but too devastating to think about watching again; Borat was hilarious in places, but so uncomfortable to watch that I actually had to pause the DVD for a few minutes at one point; The Queen was great, but not in my top two or three; An Inconvenient Truth was important and well-made, but not something I see myself watching more than a couple of times; and I haven't yet seen Pan's Labyrinth or Letters from Iwo Jima.)

A couple of months after watching Casino Royale, I watched GoldenEye with a friend. It was well-reviewed when it came out, and I had good memories of it. But watching it, I realized that Casino Royale had ruined many of the old Bond movies for me -- at least the Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan films. The groan-inducing double-entendres; the ridiculously implausible stunt sequences; the moronic, exposition-loving supervillains -- it was just all too much. (I'm planning on watching one of the classic Sean Connery films soon to see if they, too, have been ruined; I'm mildly optimistic that they might still stand up as cultural signposts of an earlier time.)

Interestingly, I've talked with person after person who has said the same thing: after seeing Casino Royale, the old Bond movies were unwatchable. It seems to be a nearly universal reaction.

With all this in mind, I saw a story recently on a planned-but-never-made Sean Connery Bond film from the late 1970s, Warhead:

It is the most ambitious and action-packed James Bond movie ever. Sean Connery returns as 007, battles a robot shark in the New York sewers, water-skis the Hudson River, and parachutes on to the top of the Statue of Liberty -- reports The Scotsman.

Sadly, however, it was never filmed and exists today in a few recently unearthed sketches and photographs. Warhead never made it in front of the cameras, let alone on to the big screen...

["Author and Bond fan"] Sellers could hardly contain his excitement as he leafed through pages telling a dramatic story in which the mysterious disappearance of planes in the Bermuda Triangle is the work of the criminal organisation SPECTRE.

They are intent on causing havoc by exploding a nuclear warhead under Wall Street, delivered by a robotic hammerhead shark via the city's sewers. 007 not only has to battle mechanical sharks, but also a massive villain called Bomba.

"You had an underwater base that rises out of the sea, you had helicopter attacks on the Statue of Liberty," said Sellers.

"It would have been the most extravagant Bond film ever."

Of course, when you're a villain, you should be named "Bomba". And when you want to explode a nuclear warhead under Manhattan, what better way to deliver it than via a robotic mechanical shark?

To the makers of Casino Royale, thank you for delivering us from this kind of stupidity.

June 14, 2007

Googling Glamour Shots for Cats

I'm informed by my friend and colleague Rett that doing a Google search for "glamour shots cats" leads to this blog entry being first on the list. The only conclusion I can draw is that very few people are interested in glamour shots for cats. Including me, actually, except as a commentary on the decadence and obsession with the trivial of modern society. Wait, that doesn't work, since as far as I can tell, they don't actually exist. Where am I going with this? I have no idea.

June 09, 2007

The Police in Concert

So, after all the build-up, how were The Police in concert? They were terrific. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer had this to say of the show:

Police fans were walking on the moon Wednesday night.

The Police opened the U.S. leg of its long-anticipated reunion tour with the bang of a gong and a parade of hit songs at KeyArena. Concertgoers responded with handclaps, singalongs and whoops of approval...

In Seattle, the good vibes and celebratory nature of the opening shows in Vancouver were still evident in the band's spirited performance, as well as fans' excited reaction to seeing their longtime heroes back on stage...

The band's performance was tighter and more focused than the tour's opening night May 28 in Vancouver...

Sting, playing a scuffed and seasoned electric bass and wearing a tattered white tank top, smiled broadly for much of show and looked happy to be back on stage with his former bandmates. Summers looked far more serious, while Copeland was positively intense.

And The Seattle Times wrote this:

Competing with the memory of your own greatest performances is a daunting proposition.

But the Police, the classic English rock trio that had not played in the Seattle area since its memorable 1983 show at the Tacoma Dome, managed to pull this feat off pretty well Wednesday night at KeyArena.

Though the band wasn't exactly relaxed -- you could often feel their concentration -- they played their old songs with real spirit and commitment and were sometimes even inspired.

By the end of the show, pumping out those insistent punk/new wave beats, they had worked their magic. It felt like 1983 all over again.

The energy level of the band and the audience was amazing. And the band maintained that energy over a two-hour set without breaks. That gave them time to play all the songs I really wanted to hear (though Duncan was disappointed they didn't play "Omega Man").

Here are a few of the photos I took of the concert. I'm not vouching for the quality of the photography here, just trying to convey the feel of the show:

The Police 1 (Synchronicity II)

"Synchronicity II".

The Police 10 ("Roxanne")

"Roxanne".

The Police 15 ("Next to You")

"Next to You".

My Flickr photoset from the concert is here. I've posted two videos on YouTube; until they're undoubtedly taken down, they're here and here.

In short, if you're a fan of The Police, try to see them on this concert tour. It's a great show; you'll always be able to say you were there when they reunited; and given their legendary fights, you never know -- it could be their swan song.

May 30, 2007

The Police Tour Begins

The Police opened their tour in Vancouver this week. The reviews so far have been great (BBC News roundup, The Vancouver Sun, CBC News). Billboard posted the set list from the dress rehearsal:

"Message in a Bottle"
"Synchronicity II"
"Don't Stand So Close to Me"
"Voices Inside My Head" / "When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What's Still Around"
"Spirits in the Material World"
"Driven to Tears"
"Walking on the Moon"
"Truth Hits Everybody"
"Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic"
"Wrapped Around Your Finger"
"The Bed's Too Big Without You"
"Murder by Numbers"
"De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da"
"Invisible Sun"
"Walking in Your Footsteps"
"Can't Stand Losing You"
"Roxanne"
"King of Pain"
"So Lonely"
"Every Breath You Take"
"Next to You"
I'll be at the first of the two Seattle concerts next week, and it looks like it's going to be a great show. Plus there's the benefit of crossing off an item from my "100 things to do in life" list.

April 30, 2007

Rob Roy

While I was in Scotland, my hosts, Richard and Gill, and I watched Rob Roy, all of us for the first time, though they live only a mile or so from Rob Roy's grave in the churchyard in the village of Balquhidder.

Rob Roy
Their opinion of it was that it wasn't at all historically accurate, but that it nonetheless did a good job of portraying the kind of man they thought Rob Roy to be, and the times he lived in. They also felt it was far better than that other film of Scotland, Braveheart. When I asked why, they talked about how Braveheart perpetuated every cliché about the Scots. The next night, neighbors of theirs visited for dinner -- people who live in a house built on the site of a house once owned by Rob Roy himself. When they heard what we had watched the night before, the husband said, "Good film, that. Much better than Braveheart." Apparently that's a sentiment of Scots, of Highlanders, or perhaps just of the residents of Balquhidder.

I had visited Rob Roy's grave earlier in the week, but having seen the movie, I stopped by it once again during a hike the last morning of my stay. It was early and there was no one out -- Balquhidder is a sleepy village at the best of times, doubly so before breakfast.

Robert Roy MacGregor

I stood in front of his grave and said aloud, "If you were half the man I saw in that movie, I salute you," then did so. It seemed the right thing to do.

While doing research for this entry, I found a poem by William Wordsworth, "Rob Roy's Grave", which I hadn't known of before. The poem opens with these lines:

A FAMOUS man is Robin Hood,
The English ballad-singer's joy!
And Scotland has a thief as good,
An outlaw of as daring mood;
She has her brave ROB ROY!
Then clear the weeds from off his Grave,
And let us chant a passing stave,
In honour of that Hero brave!

April 26, 2007

United Airlines Edits 9/11 Reference

British Airways has been in the news recently for editing Sir Richard Branson (and his airline Virgin Atlantic) out of its in-flight version of Casino Royale. But United Airlines has done something that I find more curious to its in-flight version of the same film.

While flying back home from London on United earlier today, I had Casino Royale playing on my video monitor. There was, of course, all the editing one would expect, though even sillier than I would have thought, as if they were trying to make Bond into a Saturday morning cartoon. But amidst the edits of violence and sexuality, both large and small, there was another edit that I found much stranger.

Note that spoilers follow.

In the film, the villain Le Chiffre takes out put options on an airliner manufacturer, "Skyfleet", intending to destroy the prototype of the company's new passenger jet, sending its stock plummeting and making a fortune for himself. Bond foils the plot, the puts expire, and Le Chiffre loses over $100 million (though Bond is unaware of this larger plot at the time). The next day, M (played by Judi Dench) talks with Bond (played by Daniel Craig). This dialogue is from the DVD version of the movie:

M: When they analyzed the stock market after 9/11, the CIA discovered a massive shorting of airline stocks. When the stocks hit bottom on 9/12, somebody made a fortune. The same thing happened this morning with Skyfleet stock, or was supposed to. With their prototype destroyed, the company would be near bankruptcy.
Here's the same stretch of dialogue in United's in-flight version:
M: When they analyzed the stock market this morning, the CIA discovered a massive shorting of Skyfleet stocks. With their prototype destroyed, the company would be near bankruptcy.
Am I the only one who's curious about this? From what, exactly, is United trying to protect its passengers?

The most generous explanation I can imagine is that as an airline, United doesn't want to remind its passengers of a terrorist incident that involved two of its airplanes. And in that context, I can see why no airline would want to show a movie like United 93 or World Trade Center. But a momentary reference that doesn't mention any specific airline?

There's another possibility, less favorable to United: that they believe the concept of 9/11 to be controversial and edited out the reference because of this. It would be as if they edited out film references to the Holocaust because not everyone believes in it, or because some people believe it was justified. I truly hope this isn't the case.

(As a side note, according to the 9/11 Commission (via Snopes), the shorting described by M didn't take place.)

April 24, 2007

What Would Douglas Adams Be Doing Now?

As mentioned in previous entries, I'm staying with my friend Richard Harris (and his partner Gill) here in the Scottish Highlands. Richard and I met in the mid-1990s, when I was VP and GM of Virtus Studios (prior to spinning out as Red Storm Entertainment) and he was CTO of The Digital Village, Douglas Adams' media development firm.

Over drinks last night, I wondered aloud, "What would Douglas be doing if he were alive today?" In addition to collaborating closely on technical issues, Richard and Douglas were good friends. Also, given Richard's wide-ranging technical knowledge, Douglas involved him in most (if not all) discussions about future opportunities. So it was with hope that I wondered aloud.

Richard thought for a bit, and then said that Douglas' interests were growing wider with time. "Did you know," he asked, "that the thing that Douglas was most proud of was Last Chance to See?" I replied that I didn't. Richard talked about how Douglas was profoundly interested in ecology, specifically in the loss of habitat and the resulting extinction of species, and how he was speaking out more and more often and more and more eloquently on the topic.

More generally, before his death, Douglas was becoming more ever-more respected for his ability to speak intelligently and authoritatively on scientific topics -- as Richard put it, though Douglas had no formal science training, he was a natural scientist, inquisitive, analytical, and a natural synthesizer of ideas from multiple disciplines. So in addition to ecology, Douglas was speaking more forcefully and regularly on climate change. He also had an ongoing interest in the intersection of science and religion, and was speaking on that subject as well. It's particularly sad to me that we lost his voice in that particular discussion, because it's so difficult for me to imagine anyone being truly angry with Douglas. How can you hate someone who's making you laugh? It would be a great balance to the thoughtful but serious Richard Dawkinses, Sam Harrises, and their like to have Douglas around, disarmingly poking holes in religion without truly offending anyone.

Of course, at the time of his death, Douglas was living in Santa Barbara, close to Hollywood in an effort to get the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie made. (On that topic, Richard felt that had Douglas been alive when it had been made, it would have been longer and more thoughtful, to its benefit. "Or," as Richard says, "possibly not made at all.") Hitchhiker's was close to Douglas' heart. But it seems to me that, were he around today, he would be known in a far larger context than as its creator.

I'm sure the world is poorer for Douglas' absence. I'm also sure that it's up to us to continue working on the issues that were so important to him. If anything, those issues are more critical today than they were when he was alive.

March 11, 2007

Section AA, Row 36, Seats 5-6

In 1998, I started compiling a list of 100 things I wanted to do in life. (In the eight and a half years since, I've accomplished 26 of my goals, but added another 19, so I still have 93 to go -- but that's another story.) One of my goals was to see The Police in concert should they ever reunite. I had no idea whether this would ever happen -- after all, the stories of Sting and Stewart Copeland going at one another are fairly legendary. But I added it to the list just the same. Now it's 2007 and The Police are touring this year... and my son Duncan and I have tickets for floor seats to see their first show of two in Seattle this coming June.

I've long been convinced of the essentiality of setting goals for ourselves -- after all, if we don't know where we want to go, how are we ever going to get there? Now I'm convinced that at least some of our ambitions should be goals we don't know how to accomplish when we set them. As Goethe said, "Dream no small dreams."

Writing this entry, and thinking of no small dreams, I'm reminded that one of the goals I set for myself back in 1998 was to visit space -- six years before SpaceShipOne and the founding of Virgin Galactic. That particular goal doesn't seem so impossible now. Just expensive.

June 10, 2006

BNL Makes Remixing "Easy"

The Barenaked Ladies' next album, Barenaked Ladies Are Me, is due out in September. The first single, "Easy", is going to be released at the end of June. This is good news -- it has been over two and a half years since they came out with Everything to Everyone. Interestingly, they're releasing Barenaked Ladies Are Me in three versions: a "13-song physical release, a 15-song digital version and a full-length 29-song version which will be available online only (at least to start with)".

What's even cooler about this is that BNL is releasing all the multitracks for "Easy" -- without DRM, of course -- ready for remixing. It's US$2.49 for the set. And they're doing so now, weeks ahead of the release of the single. Very clever. Also clever is that they'll be releasing multitracks for four more songs from their new CD in the same manner. The band will vote on their favorites, and the best five will make up an EP that will be released, with the proceeds going to the band members' favorite charities. The download link is here. (They're also making a more limited set of multitracks available for free on their MySpace page.)

Musicians looking for ideas on how to be relevant in the age of digital music could do much, much worse than to look at BNL.

[Note that there's a bit of confusion. The BNL e-mail and readme file included with the download says there are 16 tracks, but in fact there are only 11. The download site lists them as MP3s, but as the e-mail and readme note, they're 16-bit, 44.1 KHz WAV files.]

June 06, 2006

Qantas Uniforms, 1974-1985

I'm thinking about a vacation in Australia and New Zealand next summer, and so found myself browsing through the Qantas site. A link on this page led to a slide show of Qantas uniforms throughout history. Though most were bad, this photo stood out:

Qantas Uniforms, 1974-1985
To be fair, as best as I can recall, airline cabin crew uniforms were uniformly pretty bad until (generally speaking) the 1990s, and Qantas was no exception to that rule. But the outfits in the picture above -- well, let's just say it was a dark chapter even in the context of airline uniforms of the 1970s. The 'burnt orange blazer with dark brown pants and Village People mustache' look deserves some sort of award all on its own.

May 31, 2006

Starbucks Trivia

It's the same old "use Google to look up something and end up with a dozen tabs of interesting pages in Firefox" story. I went looking for some information on Starbucks and found all sorts of fascinating things:

  • A visual history of the Starbucks logo (which involves rendering the mermaid more discreetly) can be found here.
  • Among cities in the western US, Anchorage, not Seattle, has the highest concentration of Starbucks stores coffee shops per 100,000 residents.
  • The world's largest Starbucks is a five-story "megastore" in Seoul.
  • The megastore in Seoul will soon be eclipsed by a store to be built in Dubai. Presumably it will be a gigastore.

The Return of the Dixie Chicks

In March 2003, 10 days before the invasion of Iraq, Dixie Chicks band member Natalie Maines famously said, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas." You know the rest: boycotts, bulldozing of CDs, death threats, ostracision by the country music community, and of course the Entertainment Weekly cover:

Dixie Chicks Cover
Now they're back with Taking the Long Way. The first single from it is "Not Ready to Make Nice", which includes these lyrics:
I made my bed and I sleep like a baby
With no regrets and I don't mind sayin'
It's a sad sad story when a mother will teach her
Daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger
And how in the world can the words that I said
Send somebody so over the edge
That they'd write me a letter
Sayin' that I better shut up and sing
Or my life will be over
I'm listening to "Not Ready to Make Nice" right now, and it sounds like nothing if not Record of the Year to me... on the Album of the Year. What a triumphant return. Good on you, Dixie Chicks.

Oh, and by the way, about Natalie's comment? Three years later, caught in a war that won't end, a war entered into on false pretenses, if anything, I'd say she was pretty easy on the President.

May 15, 2006

The Biggest Story of E3

For my money, the most notable news coming out of E3 wasn't the trailer for Halo 3, which is stunning, or Sony's Ken Kutaragi saying that $599 is "too cheap" for the PlayStation 3, or Nintendo's Wii controller. Technically speaking, the most notable news wasn't even news from E3, but rather the coverage of news from E3. From an article in The New York Times:

Online Game Galaxy Gets a New Race of Characters

LOS ANGELES, May 10 -- Ever since last year, when the makers of World of Warcraft, one of the world's most successful video games, announced that they would release a major retail expansion in late 2006, the game's millions of players have eagerly awaited additional details about what lay in store.

As the video game industry convened here on Wednesday for E3, the top annual game convention, those players started getting answers. In the biggest piece of news, Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind the game, announced that the expansion, called the Burning Crusade, included the introduction of an otherworldly species called the Draenei. The Draenei are the new playable race for the Warcraft group called the Alliance.

Much of the story line in World of Warcraft, which now has more than 6 million paying subscribers worldwide, revolves around the strife between two competing factions, the Alliance and the Horde. Players can join either side of the fantasy conflict; the Alliance includes races like humans, dwarves and gnomes, while the Horde includes orcs, trolls and the undead.

Blizzard announced last year that in the expansion the Horde would receive a new playable race called the Blood Elves, but until Wednesday the identity of the new Alliance race had been a secret. On Web message boards players had spilled hundreds of thousands of words debating what the new Alliance race would be.

The story goes on for another five paragraphs.

In other words, America's paper of record ran a full-length article, listed in their main RSS feed, not on a new game, but on the unveiling of a new character type within an existing game. Partly this is the growing importance of computer and video games, but mostly, I think, it's the fact that World of Warcraft is now more than a half a billion dollar business -- 4.5 million players (excluding China) at a minimum of $12.99 per month equals over $700 million per year.

Also, to see The New York Times publish a story with lines like...

Players can join either side of the fantasy conflict; the Alliance includes races like humans, dwarves and gnomes, while the Horde includes orcs, trolls and the undead.
...is a treat I won't soon forget.

March 06, 2006

"Brokeback Mountain"

Andrew Sullivan and his readers wonder why Brokeback Mountain lost the Best Picture Oscar to Crash while winning the Best Director award.

I haven't seen Crash, but I did take my teenage daughter to see Brokeback Mountain yesterday afternoon. I should take this opportunity to point out that, though straight, she's a leader in her school's Gay Straight Alliance chapter... and as for me, though straight, I've argued strongly in favor of gay rights numerous times on my blog (here, here, here, here, here, and here, among others).

That said, as the credits rolled, we looked at one another and asked, "What was all the fuss about?" Neither of us felt any kind of emotional connection to the protagonists. I never cared about what happened to them, or to their relationship. But I don't think this reaction had anything to do with their sexuality -- rather, it had everything to do with how they were written, which was to say sparsely at best. What did they stand for? What did they believe in? What did they want from life? Most of all, why did they love one another?

I would turn Andrew's question on its head and ask not why Brokeback Mountain didn't win Best Picture, but instead why it did win Best Director. Could it have been a political award -- Hollywood's longstanding method of rewarding a film's makers for their perceived daringness as opposed to the likability of their picture?

In any case, I was disappointed that Walk the Line wasn't even nominated for Best Picture, because I thought it deserved not only the nomination but the award itself -- and I'm not a fan of country music. At least Reese Witherspoon won for her incredible performance as June Carter -- a richly deserved honor.

March 02, 2006

It's a Simpsons-First Amendment Smackdown...

...and The Simpsons have won. From a study (press release here, details here) by Chicago's McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum:

A new McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum survey finds that only about one in four Americans (28 percent) are able to name more than one of the five fundamental freedoms granted to them by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Yet when it comes to knowledge of popular culture, Americans are considerably more tuned in. For example, almost twice as many Americans (52 percent) can name at least two members of "The Simpsons" cartoon family.

And while more than one in five (22 percent) Americans can name all five of the fictional Simpsons family members... just one in 1,000 people surveyed (.1 percent) were able to name all five freedoms granted under the First Amendment.

As for me, I named all five Simpsons, which 22 percent of Americans were able to do, but only four of the five First Amendment freedoms, which is embarrassing. Still, only 2 percent of Americans could name four freedoms.

If you'd like to test yourself, go ahead, then select the rest of this paragraph to see the answers. The five Simpsons are Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. The five freedoms of the First Amendment are speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition for redress of grievances.

I missed that last freedom. D'oh!

February 05, 2006

Prince on SNL

If you recorded Saturday Night Live on your DVR last night (the only way to watch it anymore), but haven't taken a look, or did but skipped over the music, go back and watch it now. Prince performed "Fury" from his new album, 3121, and he was smoking.

In this age of sampling, it's nice to listen to a musician who still knows how to write original melodies. Or maybe I'm just old-fashioned.

January 10, 2006

The Phantomness of The Phantom Menace

In preparation for an upcoming blog entry, I found myself thinking about Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, and what amazed me was how quickly it seems to have disappeared from the cultural radar, at least compared with the first three Star Wars movies (Episodes IV, V, and IV).

Episode IV - A New Hope lives on in our culture not because it's well-written, or especially well-directed, but because it launched a trend that persists to this day, the era of special effects-laden space operas. Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back is simply one of the best science fiction movies ever made, a tribute to what happens when George Lucas comes up with the ideas and lets other people write and direct them. Even Episode VI - Return of the Jedi lives on -- as hokey as it was, Jabba the Hutt and Ewoks are still pop cultural icons.

But Episode I - The Phantom Menace? I can barely remember most of it, and I know I'm not the only one. With hindsight, its cultural permanence seems as wisp-like as its title.

September 07, 2005

Our DVD-Influenced Culture

From the latest issue of Iconowatch, a trend-watching newsletter from Iconoculture, the words spoken by Emma, a 9-year-old girl, upon being read the final chapter of a Harry Potter book:

That's it? No special features or anything?

July 20, 2005

"He's Batman"

Spoiler alert: there's a relatively minor spoiler to the movie Batman Begins in this blog entry.

My daughter Kelsey's favorite movie of the summer is Batman Begins, which, I have to admit, is a good movie. But she doesn't like the scene at the end in which Rachel Dawes (played by Katie Holmes) tells Bruce Wayne (played by Christian Bale) that she doesn't want to be in a relationship with him -- this after he has saved her life at least twice and revealed to her his secret identity.

Me: What's your reason for not liking the scene?

Kelsey: She's crazy for not going with him. One, he's hot. Two, he's hot. Three, he's rich. Four, he's hot. Five, he's Batman.

June 17, 2005

"I'm Getting Frozen Now!"

Mr. Cranky nails things with the best comment I've yet read on Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith in his review of the film:

Ask yourself: What was the most memorable line in the entire "Star Wars" series? If you can even think of one, good for you, but if you think hard, the answer is obvious (and it wasn't Jake Lloyd's "Yippee!" from Episode I). It occurs in "The Empire Strikes Back." Han Solo is about to be frozen and shipped to Jabba the Hutt as Princess Leia looks on in horror. "I love you," she tells him. Han looks at her and responds: "I know." Well, that line was improvised by Harrison Ford. Lucas didn't write it. If Lucas had insisted on it being performed as written, it would have been something like: "I love you too, my darling. I'm getting frozen now!"
This reminds of me the old joke that if IBM bought KFC, they'd market their product as "hot, dead chicken". I suppose this means that George Lucas comes from the IBM school of screenwriting.

June 16, 2005

"A Smash-Mouth Culture"

This is from Peter King's weekly NFL column for Sports Illustrated:

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"The signs of disrespect are all around us. We are living in a smash-mouth culture in which extremists dominate public debate to the point of hijacking it."

-- University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann, in a speech to the graduating class at Wesleyan (Conn.) University, as quoted by the New York Times.

I wish I'd said that.

Me, too.

June 14, 2005

"My Beloved Sorceress"

Over lunch the other day, I mentioned that the summer movie I was most looking forward to -- even over Batman Begins or War of the Worlds -- was Bewitched, about which I blogged when I first heard about it a year and a half ago. The conversation went something like this:

Me: I'm really looking forward to Bewitched. Christophe, you're French, so you wouldn't know about it. It's an American sixties sitcom thing.

Christophe: No, no, I know this show.

Me: That can't be.

Christophe: No, really, we had it in France. It was called... Ma Sorcière Aimée.

And here I thought that it was just an American thing. Who knew?

May 07, 2005

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"

Only a week late, my reactions to the film version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

(Note that this will be a New York Times Review of Books-style review, i.e., I won't actually write too much about the title I'm reviewing, but rather use the review as an excuse to peddle my own thoughts on the creator, the subject matter, and whatever else suits my fancy.)

Hitchhiker's is kind of like the Macintosh for me -- I was an early adopter and a long-time fan, but when it started to go downhill, I drifted away without ever losing my admiration for its creator. Later, when it came back, I was happy to readopt it. Of course, this means I have no credibility with true fans in either domain.

I'm happy to say that I found Hitchhiker's on my own and by accident. It was 1980 and I discovered it, in its original US hardback edition, while browsing through the science fiction section of Bookworks in Pacific Grove, CA. I read the opening paragraphs:

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has -- or rather had -- a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.

How could anyone read those paragraphs and not want to keep going? With that, I was hooked.

Years passed. There were more books. I loved The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. The third, fourth, and fifth books in the "trilogy" didn't do much for me, but at the same time, they didn't diminish my admiration for the original concept, nor for the author.

In 1995, I think (what I wouldn't give to have my online appointment book reach back that far or farther), two of my colleagues from Virtus and I visited the UK to meet with various firms in the UK 3D graphics community. While there, we arranged to have dinner with Douglas Adams and his business partner, Robbie Stamp. Douglas and Robbie were on the verge of starting The Digital Village (TDV), a firm basically designed as a support structure to bring Douglas' ideas to life. We all got along wonderfully, though the only business that ever came from it was Virtus contributing certain code to their game, Starship Titanic.

But that first dinner led to more meetings. I was welcomed at TDV whenever I was in London, and enjoyed the company of everyone I met there -- in fact, I remain friends to this day with Richard Harris, Douglas' then-chief technical officer and one of the smarter people I've ever known.

As for Douglas himself, I can say that he was, as one would expect, incredibly clever and terribly funny. But just as importantly, he was always gracious and welcoming in a way that belied his status -- he wasn't just a celebrity, he was a cult icon. When we discussed ideas, he listened as intently to mine as I did to his, which I think wasn't politeness on his part but rather a genuine interest in what others had to say.

When Douglas died, it was sudden and shocking. Most of all, it was sadly ironic on many levels. He died of a heart attack while exercising. He moved to California to make his movie but didn't live to see it happen.

Oh, right, the movie. Yes. Actually, I thought it was wonderful. Although there were moments that could have been handled better, in general, it did a wonderful job of conveying the flavor of Hitchhiker's if not all the detail. I was pleasantly surprised by most of the performances, especially that of Sam Rockwell as Zaphod Beeblebrox -- he stole every scene he was in, which Zaphod should do, given who he is. He didn't play Zaphod quite like the character in the books -- he played him far more broadly, and goofily, but it really worked for me. When I took my sons to see the movie a second time, all it took was seeing him appear on screen to make us start laughing. And like Richard Harris (not-the-movie-review here), I thought the Magrathean "factory floor" scene was a movie stealer.

I hope Douglas would be proud of this film. I think he would. As Richard notes:

Douglas himself was a past master of shuffling the premises, structure and content of his material to suit each new medium: the book is not the radio show is not the TV series and neither is nor should be the movie.
Finally, to the filmmakers, for your dedication to Douglas at the end, and for the visual tribute that preceded it, bless you.

December 14, 2004

Necrotheism, or, I Just Don't Get NASCAR

I noticed this little gem at my local Wal-Mart the other day (I'm sorry, I prefer Target, but the Wal-Mart is much closer):

2004-12-14-01-sm.jpg

Here's the description:

OFFICIALLY LICENSED NASCAR SUPERSTAR DALE EARNHARDT SR. R/C RACEKART

Big full-function 1/6 scale R/C kart with removable 12" Dale Sr. Driver that poses in and out of the kart

Not to quibble, but isn't Dale Earnhardt dead? Didn't he die while racing?

Clearly I'm missing the NASCAR gene, because I just don't get this. By "I don't get this," I don't mean, "I don't like NASCAR and so this doesn't appeal to me." I mean, "I don't understand why anyone would like this." It's verging on necrotheism.

Speaking of worshipping the dead, a friend of mine and his wife went to a Halloween party here in North Carolina as rural Southerners. They told partygoers that they had accepted Dale Earnhardt as their personal saviour. That's not too far from the truth around these parts.

October 19, 2004

"Team America: World Police"

Here's my one-sentence review of Team America: World Police, the latest from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone:

Team America: World Police makes South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut look like SpongeBob SquarePants.
At lunch today, I was telling a friend that I thought the movie was funny, but watching it made me distinctly uncomfortable:
Me: I wonder if, while watching lions devour Christians at the Colosseum, one Roman ever turned to another and said something like, "Hey, Flavius, do you think this is some sort of sign of the decline and fall of our civilization? And did you see the move that lion just made to devour that Christian?"

Friend: I don't think so. South Park is offensive but has always had clever insights. I'd say that Britney Spears is more of a sign of the decline and fall of Western civilization.

September 11, 2004

"Father of the Pride"

Let's see... a computer animated series following the imagined lives of the animals in Siegfried & Roy's magic act? This sounded to me like nothing less than a surefire disaster-in-the-making. Yet Father of the Pride is amazingly funny -- the funniest thing I've seen on television since Futurama. This isn't because it's raunchy -- what little I've seen of the last few seasons of South Park demonstrates that raunch alone isn't funny for very long.

Make no mistake: Father of the Pride is extremely raunchy; the last episode had one of the characters, a desert gopher, hiring two female desert gophers, Chimi and Changa, as set dressing for a comedy act; the two decided they were attracted to one another and we were treated to multiple scenes of girl-desert-gopher-on-girl-desert-gopher make out action, without a doubt a network (or anywhere else) first. Yet in addition to being raunchy, it's seriously funny. One line from the same episode had me laughing so hard I literally was falling out of my seat. A pair of unwanted tigers show up unexpectedly at the protagonists' den, one of whom reacts:

What a nice surprise -- like when the gas wears off early and your dentist is buckling his pants.
Whoever is writing this stuff, you all deserve raises.

Tuesdays, 9:00 PM, NBC. Highly recommended, at least if you're not easily offended. (Note that I don't watch much prime-time television. This may render my opinion more or less relevant in your book.)

July 31, 2004

Sarah McLachlan in Concert

Last night, I took my daughter to see Sarah McLachlan at the RBC Center in Raleigh. I had never seen Sarah -- doesn't everyone just call her by her first name? -- in concert before, so it was a real treat.

First impression: Sarah is lovelier now, at the age of 36 and two years after having her first child, than she's ever been before. Second impression: Her voice isn't beautiful because of studio tricks, it's just plain beautiful -- and she hits all the same notes in concert that she hits on her CDs.

On her live CD Mirrorball, Sarah has the audience sing the refrain to "Ice Cream":

It's a long way down
It's a long way down
It's a long way down to the place
Where we started from
I've probably sung along to that song dozens of times, and it was a delight to find out that she always leads a sing-along. I suppose I should have added that to my list of 100 things to do in life...

A few months ago, a friend told me of the "join the fan club to get good seats" trick. For CDN$10, I purchased a membership in Murmurs, Sarah's fan club, through which members have the ability to buy tickets before the general public. To forestall scalping, when you buy tickets from Murmurs, you don't find out where you seats are until you pick up the tickets at the venue. Kelsey and I arrived late -- we had been at a band performance of hers and had to leave early just to make it when we did -- so when the tickets were handed to us, we rushed in through the gates to make it before Sarah started her set. After getting inside, I finally looked at our tickets -- row 4. I think the closest I've ever been at a concert before was row 20, so it was amazing being so close -- as if Sarah were singing to us from a across a small room.

I'm taking my son Cameron to see Barenaked Ladies next week, and I purchased tickets through their fan club as well, so we'll see if we get seats just as good.

June 11, 2004

"Strange Brew" Revisited

Plastic ran an article this week revisiting that pinnacle of modern cinema, Strange Brew, and I have to admit, I saw things in it I hadn't seen before:

In their brave retelling of that Hamlet thing you might have heard about somewhere, filmmakers Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis dare to put their own spin on the tale, instead of slavishly reproducing it line for line, like that hack Sir Lawrence Olivier. Perhaps sensing that most of the original's inaccessibility to modern audiences derived from the location, they made the bold decision to set the story in Canada as opposed to Denmark. (And hey, as long as we're changing stuff, why not make Hamlet a cute chick, eh?)

Strange Brew introduces us to Pam Elsinore (Hamlet), and her return to Elsinore Brewery after the murder of her father. Her mother Gertrude has recently remarried, and a strange ghostly visitation by the deceased points the finger at her new father-in-law, Claude. But from there, the film breathes its own life (with a suspiciously strong smell of beer) into the classic characters, making them into people that a modern audience of drunken louts and college kids -- same thing, eh? -- can relate to, while still paying homage to Shakespeare's classic tale of love and revenge.

The end result may seem to put a positive spin on what were formally tragic events in the original, but still manages to remain true to the source material. For instance, Ophelia (in the guise of a retired hockey player named Rosie La Rose) dies, but is revived by drinking from the blessed beer bottles of Bob and Doug McKenzie (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). And in Moranis and Thomas' retelling -- unlike that one with the guy who played Sid Vicious -- the two hapless assistants manage to escape the doom prescribed to them in Shakespeare's original. In fact, they assist our "Hamlette" in tracking down her father's murderers and dole out justice.

Take off, indeed.

And then there was this comment on the story:

One of the Lord of the Rings movies I went to in the theater had a long, sweeping shot of a devistated battlefield. During this shot, someone in the audience started reciting the beginning to The Mutants of 2051 A.D.:
It was 10 years after World War 4... 2051... the future. I was the only one left on the planet after the holocaust, eh. The earth had been like dezvistated by nuclear war. Like Russia blew up the US and the US blew up Russia. There wasn't much to do. All the bowling alleys had been wrecked. So's I spent most of my time looking for beer.
I just about peed myself laughing.

May 29, 2004

Say It Ain't So

At the theater yesterday, while watching the trailer for Pixar's forthcoming movie The Incredibles, I was struck by how unfunny it was. I looked around and noticed that no one else in the audience was laughing, either. Given the stellar quality of Pixar's films to date, it would be an awful surprise if The Incredibles turned out to be... well, less than incredible.

May 21, 2004

"War on Drugs"

When I first began listening to the Barenaked Ladies -- the funniest people in music, I think -- I never would have imagined they would someday produce a song so hauntingly sad as "War on Drugs", from their most recent album, Everything to Everyone. It's set to a beautiful melody, like a love ballad, but it's not about love.

Near where I live there's a viaduct
Where people jump when they're out of luck
Raining down on the cars and trucks below

They've put a net there to catch their fall
Like it'll stop anyone at all
What they don't know is when nature calls, you go

They say that Jesus and mental health
Are just for those who can help themselves
But what good is that when you live in hell on earth?

From the very fear that makes you want to die
Is just the same as what keeps you alive
It's way more trouble than some suicide is worth

Chorus:

Won't it be dull when we rid ourselves
Of all these demons haunting us
To keep us company

Won't it be odd to be happy like we
Always thought we're supposed to feel
But never seem to be

February 27, 2004

It's Official

According to Forbes, JK Rowling is a billionaire, the 552nd richest person in the world. From rags to riches in 11 years:

1993

By the time her daughter Jessica is born Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is one-quarter finished. Rowling leaves her husband and moves to Edinburgh, Scotland, to be near her sister. Tight finances force her to go on public assistance, she receives 69 pounds per week (around $100 at that time) and lives in a grimy, mouse-infested apartment.

February 13, 2004

Picard on Space Exploration

Frequent (and thoughtful) commentor DK sent me a link to this story recently:

The actor who plays the captain on TV's Star Trek has said he thinks resources spent on sending people into space should be used on "getting this place right first".

Patrick Stewart said Earth should be our focus rather than other planets.

"I'm a bit of a wet blanket when it comes to the whole business of space travel," he said in a BBC interview...

In an interview with BBC World Service radio, Stewart said he backed unmanned missions such as Nasa's Mars rover Opportunity and the UK's Beagle 2 mission.

But he said he did not believe the human race was ready to begin thinking about beaming down on other planets.

"As I get older my unease at the time and the money that has to be spent on projects putting human beings back to the moon, and on to another planet, is so enormous," he said.

"And it would take up so many resources, which I personally feel should be directed at our own planet."

Interviewed by the World Update programme, he added: "Humankind has just not simply become sufficiently evolved to now leave this planet, take itself out to space and began establishing more of us out there.

"I would like to see us get this place right first before we have the arrogance to put significantly flawed civilisations out on to other planets -- even though they may be utterly uninhabited."

When I read this, my first reaction was to think that Stewart was being narrow-minded and perhaps even a little hypocritical. But re-reading his words, I can't say that I materially disagree with his basic premise. It would be inspiring to see humans walking on Mars, but what would we learn about the planet that we couldn't learn through robotic exploration? Not much. And a manned mission to Mars would surely cost at least $100 billion, if not more -- money that would be taken away from unmanned space missions. We would end up knowing somewhat more about Mars and much, much less about the rest of the universe. That, to me, seems a poor trade-off.

In a perfect world, we would set foot on Mars. (Fears about our admittedly "flawed civilisations" could wait for a future day when we're capable of permanently colonizing the planet.) But in this imperfect world, if the choice is between, on one hand, footprints on Mars, and on the other, new space telescopes, a mission to Europa, a follow-on mission to Titan, missions to Neptune and Uranus, and many, many other advances in space science, I choose the science.

February 06, 2004

"Providing the Collars and Cuffs Match"

The first James Bond movie I saw was Diamonds Are Forever -- I have a vague memory of my dad taking me to see it when it came out, which would have made me nine years old. I've watched portions of it recently while at the gym -- one of the cable networks has been playing lots of Bond movies and it seemed to repeatedly be on while I was working out. Later, while driving, I suddenly understood this bit of dialogue between Bond (Sean Connery) and Tiffany Case (Jill St. John):

Bond: Weren't you a blonde when I came in?

Tiffany: Could be.

Bond: I tend to notice little things like that, whether a girl is a blonde or a brunette.

Tiffany: And which do you prefer?

Bond: Oh, providing the collars and cuffs match...

It took me 32 years to get that. Now if only someone could explain to me the following exchange between Lili Von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn) and Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) from Blazing Saddles:

Lili: Would you care for another schnitzengruben?

Bart: No, thank you. Fifteen is my limit on schnitzengruben.

Lili: Well then, uh, how about a little, uh... (whispers in his ear)

Bart: Baby, please. I am not from Havana!

It's never too late for me to learn...

January 28, 2004

Adam Greenfield on Starbucks

Via boing boing comes a wonderful Adam Greenfield rant about anti-IKEA and anti-Starbucks attitudes among the would-be hip. After taking on the IKEA haters, Greenfield moves on to those who despise Starbucks:

There's an equally wrongheaded sibling rant, which is the eternal current of complaint lodged against Starbucks Coffee. Although there's probably more truth in the notion that Starbucks has made it difficult for independent local alternatives to survive -- mmmmmmmaybe -- most critiques directed at the chain strike me as being built on the same shaky armature of self-righteousness, spoiledness, and ahistoricity. Like the blistering Ikea-hatred, there's something wildly out of scale in the tone and tenor of the criticism directed at Starbucks.

To reiterate comments I made on Josh Ellis' site last month, in the wake of a perhaps representative rant of this type: I drink Starbucks coffee on a fairly regular basis and am generally quite satisfied. The chain provides a highly reliable, reasonably high-quality beverage -- high-octane drip coffee, in my case -- at a not-absurd price point. I am rarely more than a block or two away from one. I get much less attitude from the people behind the counter than I do at the one indie coffeehouse I frequent -- I mean, they'll actually say hi, remember me and my drink from yesterday, refrain from chatting with each other while I'm standing there waiting to order. And their bathrooms tend to the clean.

More importantly, I am also old enough to remember the swill that Americans drank and were pleased to call "coffee" before Howard Schultz swept down out of his damp PNW redoubt and clusterbombed us with franchises. It tasted like soggy cardboard, it was served in chipped diner porcelain that itself generally tasted of soap, and most importantly, with a very few exceptions, it was all you could get anywhere. There simply was no alternative, let alone an entire alternative venue that also provided comfortable seating. At sixty or seventy-five cents, too, this "coffee" was no bargain -- far better to my mind to pay twice that and get something consistently worth drinking.

Finally, for those of you who seem to be so incensed with the musical selections on offer at Starbucks: god forbid we should enjoy some Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra from time to time. You don't like it, bring an iPod.

Can you see that I'm really, really tired of people whining and complaining about the horrible, evil, monocultural, hegemonizing, bland, MOR grafted devil that is Starbucks? I mean, you try and find another place in Beijing, or on I-40 in the ass-end of nowhere, that rocks coffee this good.

(What's that? You can't? Or if you can, it is solely because Starbucks tutored the mass audience in what to demand of coffee? Yeah, I thought so.)

Now, as it happens, a dear friend of mine is a Starbucks hater (though I don't know if she'd describe herself that way). But her experience is borne out of her time living in San Francisco, where the perception among many is that good local indie coffeehouses existed prior to Starbucks' arrival, and that Starbucks has relentlessly targeted them for elimination. Is that true? I don't know. It could be. But for the vast majority of Starbucks locations, I would argue that good, high-end coffee was probably not to be found before their arrival.

January 27, 2004

Academy Award Nominations

The Academy Award nominees were announced earlier today.

I'm gratified to see that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is leading all movies with 11 nominations. I'm not a huge Tolkien fan -- I've never even made it through the first book of the trilogy -- but I certainly appreciate what Peter Jackson has achieved. It's hard to comprehend how large the bet on him was, and how much it paid off. What if the first movie had been a flop? What could have been done?

I'm also happy that Lost in Translation has done so well. I haven't seen all the performances nominated for Best Actor, but if it were up to me, I'd give the award to Bill Murray. His performance was wry and understated and brilliant.

On the other hand, I'm disappointed that the Academy has given so few nominations to The Last Samurai. It's hard to believe that Hans Zimmer's beautiful score wasn't nominated, and while watching it this weekend yet again, I thought to myself, this is the best cinematography I've seen in a long, long time -- yet no nomination.

January 18, 2004

An American (Coffee) in Paris

With inadvertently perfect timing, the same week that I wrote a blog entry on the US-driven homogenization of world culture, Starbucks opens its first store in Paris.

2004-01-18-01.jpg

French students, loyal American customers and Japanese tourists flooded into the first Starbucks outlet in France, eager to get their first vanilla cafe latte or mocha Frappuccino on French soil.

"You know what? They opened a Starbucks on the avenue de l'Opera! I'm here with Mom," Sandy, a 22-year-old French student, said eagerly into her mobile phone to a friend as she waited patiently to order her hot chocolate.

"For those of us who have travelled in the United States, seen films or watched American television shows, we know the Starbucks brand," Sandy said, as she explained to her mother -- a first-time visitor -- what and how to order.

"I will definitely go out of my way to come here," the student added.

On the one hand, this is undeniably part of the trend of the US absorbing other cultures' practices, modifying them, and exporting them back to the rest of the world, tempered in the heat of our hyper-efficient, entrepreneurial economy. From Starbucks' own corporate timeline:

1982 Howard Schultz joins Starbucks as director of retail operations and marketing. Starbucks begins providing coffee to fine restaurants and espresso bars.

1983 Schultz travels to Italy, where he's impressed with the popularity of espresso bars in Milan. He sees the potential in Seattle to develop a similar coffee bar culture.

1984 Schultz convinces the founders of Starbucks to test the coffee bar concept in a new location in downtown Seattle. This successful experiment is the genesis for a company that Schultz founds in 1985...

1985 Schultz founds Il Giornale, offering brewed coffee and espresso beverages made from Starbucks coffee beans.

1987 With the backing of local investors, Il Giornale acquires Starbucks assets and changes its name to Starbucks Corporation.

In other words, a US entrepreneur visits Milan, sees the espresso bars there, modifies the concept for the US market, tests it, refines it, and another worldwide trend is started. If this isn't the Borg-like assimilation of world culture, I don't know what is.

On the other hand, speaking personally, would I visit Starbucks in Paris? Sure I would. I wouldn't only go there, or make a trip across town (well, except to pick up a Starbucks Paris mug), but if I were in the area, absolutely, I'd stop by. I like Parisian cafe culture, but on the other hand, I know that I can get skim milk with my Starbucks coffee. I know they'll be able to make almost any drink as a decaf. I know no one will be smoking in the cafe. So yes, I'd visit Starbucks in Paris.

I suppose this means I'm a Borg, but a self-conscious Borg.

By the way, "Sandy, a 22-year-old French student"? Pardon me? Sure, and my kids have friends at school here in North Carolina named Jean-Pierre and Mireille.

January 13, 2004

"Computer Age"

cover

I've been redigitizing my music collection using iTunes (more on that later) and, listening to the nearly-forgotten Neil Young album Trans, I just want to go on record as saying that someday, someone is going to sample his song "Computer Age," and if they do a halfway decent job of it, they'll have a Number 1 hit on their hands. The riff from "Computer Age" is an outstanding example of rock and roll riffs at their very best.

Sadly, I can't find a sample online that shows off the riff properly, and the song isn't available through the iTunes Music Store. If you want to listen to it, you'll need to buy it via Amazon.

December 06, 2003

"The Last Samurai"

I have never reviewed a movie on this blog, and I don't intend to start now. There are plenty of movie reviewers out there, amateur and professional alike, and unless I can provide a unique perspective, I don't see the point.

Having said that, I do want to take this opportunity to urge everyone to see The Last Samurai.

This is one of only two movies that have ever brought tears to my eyes through their sheer overpowering beauty. As for the other, Lawrence of Arabia, I think the director of The Last Samurai, Edward Zwick, has staked his claim as the modern-day Sir David Lean. It is difficult to think of higher praise to give to a filmmaker.

Don't wait for the DVD; The Last Samurai deserves to be seen in a theater, and a good one.

November 10, 2003

The Witch Is Back?

Via Dark Horizons (far superior, in my opinion, to its more popular competitor, Ain't It Cool News), comes word of an extremely cool screenplay concept by Nora Ephron for the Bewitched movie in development:

I've received a tip from a reliable source that this film's premise may in fact *not* be as direct an adaptation of the original series as previously thought, and yet... it will be even more so in a way! Why? My tipster says the current script portrays Samantha as a witch from another magical world who comes to Earth to escape the bother of her family. Once here, she gets a job as an actress and lands a job on, of all things, a TV sitcom about a witch who falls in love with a mortal man, Darrin Stephens (who, of course, is also played by an actor). If this is indeed the direction Sony goes, this is going to be a TV-show-within-a-movie-based-on-nearly-that-very-same-TV-show! Wow, what a concept!
And here I thought classic-TV-show-as-feature-film trend was officially done and waiting for its fork. This is a brilliant concept and would get me into the theater in a heartbeat.

The same page claims Nicole Kidman is set as Samantha (practically a perfect choice, but I'll always have a soft spot for Elizabeth Montgomery) and Jim Carrey thinking of playing Darrin (good choice, as long as he plays Darrin and not Jim Carrey). One has to admit, not only was Montgomery classically funny in the role, she was beautiful as well. Those are some big shoes for Kidman to fill.

July 17, 2003

The Downward Spiral of Reality TV

In its July 2003 issue, Vanity Fair published an article (unavailable online), "Reality Kings," on the people leading the development of new reality television programs. There's a great quote near the end of the article:

"The problem for these types of shows is you can't do the same trick continually, so each time there has to be an escalation of whatever the trick is," says retired NBC president Don Ohlmeyer, who has become a critic of reality TV. "You finally get to the point where the only trick left is self-immolating monks in Times Square. The question becomes: How far does the sequence go before you reach Times Square?"
Whatever the path may turn out to be between Joe Millionaire and Hunka Hunka Burnin' Monks, we at least know the next few steps along it, courtesy of the article: 101 Things Pulled from the Human Body, Miss Dog Beauty Pageant, and so on.

Great.

May 28, 2003

Red vs Blue

Via boing boing, Red vs Blue, a tremendously funny set of short videos made using Halo.

Someone in Hollywood needs to give these guys a deal. Their work is funnier than about 90 percent of what passes for humor on television these days.

In fact, I predict that by the time the creative team has finished the final episode of their planned 26, they'll have some sort of development deal with a television network or movie studio.

May 20, 2003

The Matrix Reloaded

I just watched Ebert and Roeper's reviews of The Matrix Reloaded, and I can't help but wonder if they didn't watch a different movie than I did. Not one but both of them saluted the sequel as superior to the original. Excuse me?

Note: spoilers ahead.

As I walked out of the theater on Friday, having just watched Reloaded, the first word that came to mind was "gratuitous". It was as if the Wachowski brothers went for the biggest budget they could get -- $300 million for the two sequels is the rumor I've heard -- and then were determined to spend it all. What purpose did it serve to show the people of Zion in a quarter-million-person rave? A Zion guard in a giant Japanese robot suit? A female diner being given an orgasm with a reprogrammed dessert, complete with a Matrix-effect internal view of the action? A meaningless fight with the Oracle's bodyguard?

More does not equal better. The subway fight between Neo and Agent Smith in The Matrix -- kung fu meets spaghetti Western meets virtual reality -- still thrills me after 10 or more viewings. The fight between Neo and a hundred Agent Smiths in Reloaded did nothing for me. Not only did it look fake (did you catch Neo's face during the fight?), but it went on... and on... and on. I couldn't bring myself to care.

I didn't completely dislike the movie. The scene with the Oracle was wonderful, and the revelations about her later on intriguing and thought-provoking. The fight scene atop the tractor trailer was stunning. The part of the Keymaker was a small one, but I found myself caring more about him -- and wanting to know more about him -- than anyone else in the movie.

Reloaded runs 2 hours and 18 minutes. An edited version -- leaving 20 or even 30 minutes and tens of millions of dollars on the floor -- would be far more enjoyable. It makes the DVD version worth looking forward to.

May 11, 2003

A People's History of Middle Earth

Via Mike Backes, a two-part series (part one, part two) from McSweeney's, "Unused Audio Commentary By Howard Zinn & Noam Chomsky, Recorded Summer, 2002, for The Fellowship of the Ring (Platinum Series Extended Edition) DVD":

Chomsky: Here again we have the Orcs running after the Fellowship. The Orcs, apparently, are going to slaughter them, and in my estimation they would be well within their rights to do so. But do they? No, they do not. They stop.

Zinn: They stop.

Chomsky: And then they run away because the Balrog comes out. Take note of the fact that the Orcs don't appear to like the Balrog much themselves. They're scared of it.

Zinn: I'm not sure what role the Balrog really plays in this.

Chomsky: I think it just happened to be there, guarding its own little part of the mine.

Zinn: And look at these Orcs! Supposedly so evil and vicious, and yet they don't do anything. They even appear to talk it over amongst themselves.

Chomsky: Look at it from their perspective: They've been locked up in this cave. They're frightened, they know they're not good fighters. They're just a bunch of farmers.

Zinn: As evidenced by their long, ungainly swords.

Chomsky: Perhaps they've been radicalized a bit. But I doubt they are true evil-doers.

Zinn: Again, I'm not sure what role the Balrog plays.

Chomsky: I, too, am uncertain on that point.

Zinn: Here, very significantly, we have the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm. You will notice that what is destroyed is a bridge -- another potential connector.

Chomsky: On a symbolic level, that is a very good point.

Zinn: All the borders in this film are constantly being destroyed, or overrun, or eliminated, or sealed. It's all about fear -- fearing the other. Notice, too, that the Elf Legolas jumps across the ruined bridge first.

Chomsky: They'll cross this bridge and the bridge will collapse, and they'll never be able to communicate with the Balrog again, or with the Orcs inside. In fact, they're sealing off the Orcs from ever escaping. They're leaving the Orcs in the cave with this big Balrog. Now, again, surely, among these Moria Orcs were some Orc radicals -- aggressive, angry, militant radicals. We shouldn't understate that.

Zinn: Well, look how the Orcs grow up. What do you expect?

Chomsky: I mean, what other options have they?

Zinn: I dare say that, were I an Orc, I might possibly be one of those terrorist Orcs, shooting arrows at the Fellowship myself.

Chomsky: Here comes the Balrog. Notice Gandalf's unilateral action. "Quick, get away, I have to fight this thing alone!"

Zinn: Once again you see a creature that's on fire being demonized in this movie: the flaming eye, the flaming Balrog. As though being on fire is this terrible affliction to have.

Chomsky: As though they can help it if they're on fire.

Zinn: After Gandalf falls, you get another view of the so-called terrorist Orcs. You know, the regrettable side of the Orcs does occasionally come out. The violence. It doesn't help their cause when these distinct, individual Orcs take it upon themselves to lash out at the inequality of the system. But notice that even these violent Orcs don't seem happy. They're not pleased with themselves. It's a violence borne of necessity.

Chomsky: Sure. They're trapped in a cycle of violence.

Brilliant! Now all we need is former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark to offer to represent any high-ranking leaders from Mordor.

April 14, 2003

Remaking Casablanca?

Heard on Saturday Night Live this past weekend:

It is rumored that Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez want to star in a remake of Casablanca. This would be the perfect film for people who liked the original, but wished it was terrible.
Is it just me, or does it seem like far more than five years ago that Ben Affleck was sharing the Academy Award for best original screenplay with Matt Damon?

March 29, 2003

This Made Me Laugh

From the current issue of the Onion:

2003-03-29-01.jpg
I suppose I played too much Missile Command way back when not to laugh at that...

March 05, 2003

Fox News Channel

I'm in the Admirals Club at O'Hare International. I'm sitting in a comfortable booth, my T-Mobile HotSpot connection going strong, and off to one side there's a large-screen TV turned on. It's tuned to the Fox News Channel, and I'm imagining slogans for it:

  • Fox News: we deliver the news, rudely.
  • Fox News: because objectivity is for losers.
  • Fox News: 100 percent of your US RDA of yelling.
  • Fox News: funny, stupid, or evil, we cover all foreigners.
How can people watch this stuff?

February 26, 2003

Vinge + Ellis = Asimov + Dick + de Sade?

After sending Roger Williams an advance copy of my blog entry on his online novel, The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, I received a nice note back. In it, he wrote:

"Vernor Vinge meets Bret Easton Ellis" -- that is actually very apt. My own take was that it is a collaboration between Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, and the Marquis de Sade. That isn't so different, is it?
No, I don't think it's so different at all -- though I can't help but wonder how the Marquis de Sade would have reacted to American Psycho.

February 24, 2003

The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect

Via David Smith, a new online novel, Roger Williams' The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, posted on Kuro5hin. The "jacket copy" reads:

Lawrence had ordained that Prime Intellect could not, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. But he had not realized how much harm his super-intelligent creation could perceive, or what kind of action might be necessary to prevent it.

Caroline has been pulled from her deathbed into a brave new immortal Paradise where she can have anything she wants, except the sense that her life has meaning.

Now these two souls are headed for a confrontation which will force them to weigh matters of life and death before a machine that can remake -- or destroy -- the entire Universe.

At one level, The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect is a compelling story of the Singularity -- "the idea that accelerating technology will lead to superhuman machine intelligence that will soon exceed human intelligence, probably by the year 2030," according to a loose definition on KurzweilAI.net. At another level, the novel is a work containing extraordinary scenes of violence and sexuality, as people in a post-Singularity world use immortality and wish fulfillment to explore their most unusual desires.

Think of The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect as Vernor Vinge meets Bret Easton Ellis, and you won't be far off.

A different way of looking at this novel is as a series of questions:

  • Is it possible to construct a machine of superhuman intelligence for which disobedience of any prescribed set of rules is impossible?
  • If it is possible to build an superhumanly intelligent machine with nearly limitless power, constrained to follow Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, would this be a good thing?
  • In a world in which immortality is inescapable, and with near-total wish fulfillment available to all, would intense feelings of pain and pleasure be the only thing left to appeal to humans?
  • Is the Singularity inevitable? Are multiple Singularity events possible within the same universe?
For now, I'll take on only the first question posed above. No, I don't believe it's possible to build an intelligent machine inescapably constrained to any set of rules. Why? Because I can imagine only two routes to achieve this goal, and neither will work:
  1. Explicit programming. If we create an intelligent machine by explicitly programming it -- as with Doug Lenat's Cyc project -- then theoretically we should be able to embed rules at a fundamental level within the system. However, no evidence exists that it will be possible to create human-level (much less superhuman) intelligence in this manner, while much evidence -- namely, every attempt to do so to date -- exists that it is in fact not possible. I strongly believe that the only path forward to intelligence is through indirect methods of creation, including network training, genetic algorithms, and similar non-explicit approaches. If we are going to "grow" intelligent machines through trial and error, it is difficult to believe that a) their knowledge representation and processing networks will be amenable to adding fundamental rules after the fact, and b) that even were a) to be true, that we would have the skills to do so.
  2. Behavioral conditioning. If we are going to create intelligence indirectly, then why not "train" it to obey rules through conditioning? This is theoretically possible, but has the problem that we would be applying conditioning techniques -- strongly, if the rules are to be inescapable -- to an intellect that could surpass our own. Speaking personally, when Skynet achieves consciousness, I don't want to be the researcher who spent the last few years pressing the red button whenever it got a question wrong. Besides, assuming this is possible, a superhuman intellect could decide that it would be advantageous to be able to disregard certain rules that had been conditioned into it, then use its mental faculties to invent a method of disabling such conditioning.
My compliments to Roger on an excellent and thought-provoking novel. I hope his online publishing experiment goes well (more on this later).

February 22, 2003

Song of Carrot Game

Via Jon Blossom, Syberpunk, "a large repository of all things strange and uniquely Japanese." My favorite is an image on this page, the origin of which I am, sadly, completely unaware:

All together now:
Digging carrots, muddy & muddy Washing them, cut & cut The soup boiling well, hot & hot We all favorite carrot game
How can one not love a song like that?

February 01, 2003

Looking for Super Bowl Ads?

As a result of my blog entry the other day, I'm getting numerous hits from Google searches by people looking for Super Bowl ads. As a public service, here are the links:

  1. Anheuser-Busch: Football-playing Clydesdales turn to zebra referee to review call on replay. Go to the Bud Light site. Enter your birthday and click on "Card Me". Click on "Commercials".
  2. Anheuser-Busch: Guy sidesteps "no pets" rule at bar by using his dog as a hairdo. See Anheuser-Busch instructions above.
  3. Pepsi/Sierra Mist: Zoo baboon catapults to cool off in a nearby polar bear pool. Listed as "coming soon" at the Sierra Mist site.
  4. Anheuser-Busch: Strongman contest to lift fridge of Bud Light hijacked by fans. See Anheuser-Busch instructions above.
  5. Anheuser-Busch: Buddy warns guy his fiancée will look like her mother in 20 years. See Anheuser-Busch instructions above.
  6. Reebok: Terry Tate, "Office Linebacker," enforces office rules with gusto. Go to Reebok's Terry Tate site. Click on your choice of format and size. Registration is required.
  7. Pepsi/Sierra Mist: Dog cools its master with fire hydrant blast. See Pepsi/Sierra Mist above.
  8. Anheuser-Busch: Beer drinker in clown suit grosses out bar patrons. See Anheuser-Busch instructions above.
  9. Pfizer/Trident: Fifth dentist from Trident's "four out of five dentists" claim is bitten by a squirrel. Not currently available from the Trident gum site.
  10. Anheuser-Busch: Beachgoer's pickup line with conch shell bites him back. See Anheuser-Busch instructions above.
Enjoy!

January 29, 2003

Super Bowl Commercials

USA Today's list of the most popular Super Bowl commercials can be found here.

  1. Anheuser-Busch: Football-playing Clydesdales turn to zebra referee to review call on replay.
  2. Anheuser-Busch: Guy sidesteps "no pets" rule at bar by using his dog as a hairdo.
  3. Pepsi/Sierra Mist: Zoo baboon catapults to cool off in a nearby polar bear pool.
  4. Anheuser-Busch: Strongman contest to lift fridge of Bud Light hijacked by fans.
  5. Anheuser-Busch: Buddy warns guy his fiancée will look like her mother in 20 years.
  6. Reebok: Terry Tate, "Office Linebacker," enforces office rules with gusto.
  7. Pepsi/Sierra Mist: Dog cools its master with fire hydrant blast.
  8. Anheuser-Busch: Beer drinker in clown suit grosses out bar patrons.
  9. Pfizer/Trident: Fifth dentist from Trident's "four out of five dentists" claim is bitten by a squirrel.
  10. Anheuser-Busch: Beachgoer's pickup line with conch shell bites him back.
Looking at the list, what is so obviously striking is the dominance of commercials for beer and soda. In the latter case, Pepsi is heavily promoting a new brand in a crowded and undifferentiated product category. In the former case, Anheuser-Busch is promoting two brands -- Budweiser and Bud Light -- that represent the nadir in quality of their product categories. If they didn't advertise their beers so heavily, sales would drop precipitously, because -- let's be honest here -- very few people drink them for the taste (and God help those who do). In other words, the lower the quality or the less differentiated one's product, the more reliant one becomes on advertising. Done right, it works, but it's the most expensive method of promotion available.

At the Super Bowl party I attended, the consensus opinion was that it was a weak year for commercials. Combined with a laugher of a game, the event was a disappointment this year. Given the good games we've had in most recent years, and the good runs of commercials, I suppose we were due for a letdown at some point.

July 10, 2002

Star Wars = C-SPAN?

In an otherwise mildly funny recent piece on The Onion can be found a great summary of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones:

...there were all these long, boring scenes where these space senators were going on and on about trade-federation rules... It was like watching C-SPAN on some other planet.
Probably the most accurate and concise review of the film I've read yet.