Saturday, December 27, 2008

May we all bless one another

This evening I rewatched one of my favorite films of the last few years. Joyeux Noël is a fictionalized account of the WWI Christmas Truce on the western front in 1914, and it is a very touching film. Sometimes we all need to be reminded that whatever differences we may have, even the ones that lead to anger, are very small in comparison to all that we have in common as human beings.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Injustice forgotten is injustice committed

President-elect Obama has said that he will close down the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.

That is a great thing, but it is not enough. All Americans should feel ashamed of the horrific things that have been done in our name, and we must make sure that what happened at Guantanamo is preserved as a lesson for future generations.

Please check out Remember Guantanamo.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Things to read on the internets

I like reading Bill Simmons' writing.

He also has a podcast.

The B.S. Report led me to this blog.

I read the whole thing and enjoyed it very much.

In other news from the series of tubes:

Saturday, November 15, 2008

There's more to life than annotated bibliographies

Once again, major thanks are due to Molly for providing just the right video to get my head back in the right place on a day when Foucault was on the verge of souring me on this whole thesis.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Guantanamo: We must learn the truth and remember it always

Barack Obama has declared that he will close down the detainee facilities at Guantanamo Bay, but that long-overdue act will mean very little if we never find out what occurred there or if we are allowed to forget.

The place and the records must be preserved so that future generations may be reminded of a time when America strayed from its ideals. Justice demands that we cry out, "Never again!" We owe it to our children to preserve what we would prefer to deny, so that the lessons of the past will never be forgotten.

Our next president has asked us to all take part in the work of changing this country for the better. He has invited everyone to share their input here: http://www.change.gov/yourvision

I just sent him the following message, and I would encourage everyone who feels the same way to add your voices.

Dear President-Elect Obama,

Everything about the situation at Guantanamo Bay makes it one of the most shameful things in American history, and I do not doubt that you will restore justice and human rights to our nation by ending that disgrace. What I would ask is that when you close the down the prison camp at Guantanamo you do not let it be erased from our history. End the unlawful detention of the men held there, reaffirm the rule of law by giving them due process and fair trials, and close down that legal black hole, but do not bulldoze the prisons, do not allow the records of what happened there to be destroyed, and give the American people a chance to the know the truth about what was done in our name.

Although it is painful, the world benefits from being forced to remember such tragedies and constantly declare "Never again." It was only through the hard work of the survivors of the Nazi concentration camps that those sites were persevered to be memorials. Although its location makes it unlikely that schoolchildren will ever be able to walk those grounds and learn first-hand the lessons of one of the dark moments of American history, it is your responsibility to preserve as much as possible and allow the American people to know the truth of what happened there, no matter how much we would prefer to deny our sins.

This country is in great need of change, but it will be a great injustice if the restoration of this nation's dignity involves denial of the errors that made that change necessary.

Thank you

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Yes We Can... Be Inspired

As I mentioned in an earlier entry, I have been working on Lord Byron's poem "Darkness" for one of my grad school courses, and it has been on my mind so much that I've internalized it to a degree. Over the last few days I have occasionally found myself reshaping Byron's apocalyptic vision into a vision of Obama-inspired hope, and then I decided to just go ahead and actually write something. I drew heavily on Byron's poem and composed this re-imagining of "Darkness":

Light Returns

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
Eight years of darkness ended, and the stars
That had been mere pinprick spots of Hope,
Brightened, and grew, and the icy prospects
Of our country were thawed by Change in the air;
Morn came and the people brought about a new day,
And men remembered their passions and their dreams
Of this their country; and all hearts
Were warmed into a hopeful prayer for Change:
And they did live that change--and the desks,
The offices of the powerful—the homes,
The many homes at risk of being lost,
Were turned into beacons; cities were inspired,
And men who had gathered to cast their votes
Looked once more into each other's face;
Happy were those who'd felt eight years
Of fear invoked to trample down their rights:
A glowing Hope was all the world contained;
Jobs were still in danger—and hour by hour
They fell and faded--and the banking firms
Extinguished with a crash—but there was Hope.
The brows of men by the growing light
Wore the marks of their troubles, as they worked
To make the country whole again; they'd not lie down
And hide their eyes and weep; and some did rest
A moment to see what they had done, and smiled;
And others hurried to and fro, and backed
Their words with deeds, and looked out
With resolute Hope on the wounded land,
The pall of the past eight years; and then again
With passion cast them back into the work
For healthcare and a living wage: the right-wing shrieked,
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And spout their useless hate; the red states
Came together with the blue; and they united
And twined themselves to form one country,
No longer hopeless—they were America again.
And the war, which had done so much ill,
Was finally brought to an end;—the mistake was bought
With blood, and each sat and remembered
The brave who had been thus misled into gloom;
All earth was but one thought—and that was Hope,
Immediate and in the future; and the pang
Of the past fed their drive for Change—men
Would work to end the tragedy in which
The meager for the rich were devoured,
The country had assailed its people, all were wronged,
And none could trust that secrecy which kept
The press and anyone with questions at bay,
Till they gave up, and thus their actions had
Disdained all laws; himself sought no consensus,
But with a vicious and perpetual drive,
And a will to unchecked power, spurning Congress
Which answered not with censure—he was done.
The crowd was angered by degrees; but two
Republicans did present themselves,
And they were desperate: they met beside
The boardrooms and ill-used altar-places
Where had been heaped a mass of fear
For their usage; they raked up hatred,
And angrily flung their most divisive words at those
Who wanted change, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame
Which was a mockery; then the people lifted up
Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld
That Hope was real—saw, and turned away—
Even of their savage attacks they lost,
Unknowing that the people were tired of hearing men
Who called each other Fiend. The world was energized,
The populous and the powerful would unite,
Thoughtful, careful, truthful, purposeful, hopeful—
A land of Hope—the Change we needed.
The radio, TV, and papers all were still,
And for a moment all was silent thought;
The sun rose over the White House,
And a new government took shape: as it changed
The country's reputation surged—
Guantanamo was closed; the soldiers were brought home,
The mission they should have been on was achieved;
The country had security and civil rights,
And the economy recovered; Obama led the Change
They needed—Hope restored America.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Hope is real

When Barack Obama announced his candidacy, my first thought was, "He would make a great president. What a shame that the system is stacked against him."

When he won the Iowa caucuses, I was overjoyed and filled with enthusiasm, thinking that politics and dreams might not be irreconcilable.

After the New Hampshire primary, I felt the status quo reasserting itself, and my spark of hope was almost extinguished by the cynicism that I had learned from seeing politics work as a machine for crushing dreams for my entire adult life.

I kept that spark of hope alive, and on Super Tuesday I caucused for Obama. The sight of dozens of Obama supporters filling that room was the fuel that brought that gave that spark a chance to take hold. I volunteered and was selected to be one of the alternate delegates for Obama to the county convention.

I left for my trip to Europe in August full of pride and confidence that Change was on its way.

I returned shortly after the RNC to discover that the selection of Sarah Palin had incomprehensibly shift the polls toward McCain. The ghosts of the last two elections came back to haunt me, and I felt a gnawing fear that our democracy would once again disappoint me.

I resolved to resist my pessimism and trust that the American people would eventually see through the illusion of Sarah Palin as a legitimate candidate.

As Election Day drew near, I felt a fear of the TV election coverage that had its roots in the traumatic memories of two previous November evenings. The thought of watching states turn colors on a computer generated map made my stomach clench. The two states where I have lived (Colorado and Indiana) were both states that I had only ever seen turn red on those maps. Although victory could be achieved without either, the memories of watching the networks call them for Bush made me sick with dread.

There was no nightmare, and my hope was vindicated. I embraced the best friend with whom I had discussed every twist and turn of the campaign, lifting him up when he grew fearful and drawing on his passion when my own hope grew faint. I even shed a couple of tears of joy and relief while I watched Obama address that crowd that seemed to stretch forever.

Smiles keep coming to my face unbidden, goosebumps of excitement rise on my arms without warning, and my heart feels warm. This is what it feels like when a dream comes true, and I hope that we can make this feeling last forever.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

"Darkness" by Lord Byron

I'm working on a presentation about one of my favorite poems, Lord Byron's "Darkness." It's popularity was such that there were a few paintings based on it, and I had hoped to find at least one of those images to use in a handout, but I haven't have any luck with that search. One thing I did find was this video, which I probably won't use in my presentation, but I'm going to share it here:

Sometimes words are not necessary

This was exactly what I needed to break up my recent cloudy mood and brighten my spirits:



Many thanks to Molly.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Philly fans put their booing skills to good use



Well done Flyers fans. The sport of hockey has enough problems without being tainted by a parasite like her.

Update: I replaced the video with a different one with better sound.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

I get to choose "my friends," and I pick "that one."

The media loves soundbites, and the three debates so far have not provided them with much of a fix, which is why I expect that we'll be hearing a lot of "that one" references in the coming weeks. It's silly because that is far from the most uncivil thing that John McCain has said about Obama, but expecting rationality to apply to American politics is a sure-fire path to disappointment. The media is already disillusioned by the shift from the reporter-friendly, independent-minded McCain of 2000 to the new disciple of Rovian political manipulation and media-bashing, and the many headlines and other mentions of the "that one" moment make it clear that the media is not going to resist the allure of a lovely soundbite just because it is unfair to 2008 McCain.

In an otherwise boring debate, that brief cringe-worthy moment will be the only thing that is remembered. John McCain has established the soundbite that will cling to him as he struggles over the next four weeks to overcome the growing support for Obama, and the words that will be ringing in his ears as his campaign goes down in defeat will be "that one."

Of course, it doesn't help that the record that John McCain is constantly crowing about shows that he does not support breasts:


I think the whole McCain campaign's problem is summed up pretty well by this picture that my Aunt Laura sent me:






















Who needs a thousand words when you've got trains?

Friday, October 3, 2008

Sarah Palin Saves her Career

The debate last night was every bit as meaningless as I thought it would be from the moment that I found out that the joke of a debate format would allow Palin to spout canned responses for 90 seconds without ever being forced to deal with a follow-up question. Her strategy is presented very clearly in this flow chart from Aden Nak (via Boing Boing):


















It's a shame for Joe Biden that this debate was framed by recent events in such a way that it was all about Palin, as the only way that his performance would be noticed was if he had put his foot in his mouth or had gotten Palin to self-destruct (which the format made almost impossible). Joe Biden presented himself very well to those who didn't know him, and more importantly he showed the people, myself included, who thought we knew him, that he's not just a good vice-presidential pick, he's outstanding.

Biden gets a win for presenting himself to the nation and showing us how lucky we are to have had him as a public servant for the last few decades. Palin gets a win for salvaging her collapsing image by exceeding the subterraneanly low expectations for her, thus avoiding becoming a national joke and a shoo-in scapegoat for a McCain loss. The loser in this debate was John McCain, who got ripped to shreds by Biden and who gains very little from Palin stopping the bleeding about her disastrous interviews because his campaign still has a sucking chest would in the form of his inescapable connection to the Republican policies that have led us into an inexcusable war and a spiraling economic crisis.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Whole New World

I'm still not sure what to make of the presidential debate (a draw?), so instead I'd rather share something posted by a friend on facebook. It's good to be reminded that amazing beauty does exist in this messed-up world.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The World is a Mess, and I Just Need to Flee It

I have been watching clips of Sarah Palin's interview with Katie Couric (very dangerous if you're already feeling depressed about humanity), but this is the most messed up thing I've seen today.

I may never uncross my legs, but thank goodness for Sarah Silverman:

The Great Schlep from The Great Schlep on Vimeo.

Letterman smells what McCain is cooking, and it ain't good


Unlike the Palin Hail Mary, it doesn't look like the latest McCain gamble is going to pay off. How much of his once-stellar reputation will be left by Election Day?

From Jess:

jaredm: claudia: cajunboy:

Not sure how this got leaked to YouTube almost three hours before the broadcast, but here’s Letterman ripping into McCain for canceling an appearance on his show tonight. The best part comes at about the seven minute mark when Dave gets wind of the fact that McCain is actually down the street being interviewed by Katie Couric and they cut in live as McCain is having his makeup done.

(via spiegelman)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Play along if you'd like (and please link back if you do)

I was traveling for several weeks (Germany & the Czech Republic are fantastic), and since I've been back I've been up to my eyeballs with work and school, so it takes a game to get me to start posting again. I'm following along from Shawn's post.

Take a picture of yourself right now.
Don’t change your clothes, don’t fix your hair…just take a picture.
Post that picture with NO editing.
Post these instructions with your picture.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

More Fun with Word Clouds

As you can now see on the left-hand side of this page, I've added tag cloud for this blog. It was a piece of cake thanks to these great directions.

That cloud is only made up of the labels that I've selected for each post, but I've also been playing around with a site that generates clouds like the ones in my previous post that are based on the frequency of words in a given body of text. Wordle is far and away the most attractive one that I've been able to find. If you enter a link it will only generate a cloud based on whatever is on the front page, but with a little bit of copying and pasting I was able to produce this word cloud out of all of my posts:

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Obama does well in the clouds

Since I started playing around with Goodreads, I've been exploring the odd aesthetics of tag clouds (aka word clouds), and I'm still debating whether I want to add one to this site.

This morning I came across an interesting meta-data experiment conducted by the Washington Post in which they generated word clouds based on the two presidential candidate's campaign blogs. The one on the left if Obama's and McCain's is on the right.

If you've got sharp eyes, you may actually be able to find the "McCain" tag.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

I'll be taking Zombie Lit as an elective for my PhD in Horribleness

Haiku are easy
Unless your brains were eaten
By the living dead.


From Boing Boing (with an additional recommendation from my fellow zombophile Aunt Laura)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Losing Love's Labor on the Eastern Front

Last night I went up to Boulder to see the Colorado Shakespeare Festival perform Love's Labour's Lost. I had read the play previous to seeing it, and I was sure that they would make significant changes because the original text relies heavily on topical humor and wordplay that a contemporary audience simply won't get when it is performed. Also, it would be quite long if it was performed without any cuts, and it's quite tough to get audiences to sit through anything that goes over three hours. One consequence of the cuts (I suspect I was the only person in the audience to even notice) was that they chopped up some of the sonnets and made a mess of the iambic pentameter. I know that the typical audience member would struggle to even notice it, and I would have forgiven them that change if they hadn't made other choices that were far more questionable.

I knew ahead of time that they had chosen to set it in America in 1917, and I gather that the decision to set it on the verge of one of the two world wars is relatively common for 20th century productions, and it provides a useful way of framing the ending, which turns the traditional ending for a comedy on its head. I didn't object to the decision to change the setting, but I was quite curious to see what they would do about the scene in which the four lords disguise themselves as Russians to come woo the ladies, only to have the women outwit them and make them the butt of the joke.

It's no problem in an Elizabethan setting to play the young men in Russian garb as straightforward ridiculous comedy, but I was curious to see what the director would do about the fact that image of Russians in 1917 was something quite different from simply being goofy foreigners. To my great disappointment, they did nothing to address that issue, trusting that the historical ignorance of a typical audience would allow them to get away with it. Judging from the laughter of the rest of the audience when they came out in fur caps and did the stereotypical Russian dance, the director didn't pay a price for dodging the hard questions raised by that choice of setting, which made it all the more disappointing.

The other element of this production that I had a real problem with was that the cuts ended up taking much of the life out of the role of Rosaline. Their Rosaline was an actress with auburn hair, and rather than put her in a black wig or have her dye her hair, the director completely cut everything about "black" Rosaline. In and of itself those cuts didn't disrupt the plot, but together with some of the other, smaller cuts to her wordplay with Berowne, the result was that her role was reduced to the point that she no longer stood on the same level with him. Among the lovers, the King, the Princess, Rosaline, and Berowne are clearly the primary characters, but the balance of the play falters when one becomes secondary to the other three.

On the whole I did enjoy it and didn't regret going, but that was largely because of the fine job that the actors did (the actors who played Costard and Moth were especially good), and in spite of the poor choices the director made.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Introverts and separations

The realization that my summer is rapidly drawing to a close has resulted in a lot of aimless wandering through the goody-filled halls of the Internet, and today I came across an old article from The Atlantic that does a better job of expressing what it means to be an introvert than anything else I've ever read on the subject. Now if only there were a way to make extroverts realize how true it is...

I've also been following the horrified responses to recently upheld law in South Dakota that forces doctors to read a scripted statement (which was written by the legislature and has an only tangential relationship to science and reality). Even before you get to the free speech problems and the garbage science it is based on, the statement has a serious problem with basic logical coherence. As pointed out in the Human Nature blog on Slate, if a fetus is "a whole, separate, unique, living human being" then nobody needs to worry about getting an abortion, which the state defines as "the use of any means to intentionally terminate the pregnancy of a woman known to be pregnant with knowledge that the termination with those means will, with reasonable likelihood, cause the death of the fetus." If the fetus is already whole and separate, then who could think that there's a reasonable likelihood that removing it from the womb would cause its death?

Friday, July 18, 2008

I love books (and hilarious online video thingies)

I've been meaning to check out Goodreads for a while now, and this evening I finally got around to it (along with discovering the delightful online series The Guild). It would be madness to try to go back and write reviews for all of my favorite books, but there are a some books that are too dear to me for a simple star rating to suffice, and I'll cross post them here (I'm also filling in some of them with past posts from here in which I talked about books I'd read).

Ender's Game (Ender's Saga, Book 1) Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card


My review


rating: 5 of 5 stars
Ender's Game captured elements of my childhood that no other work of fiction (or anything in any other medium) has ever presented in a way that felt believable. There have been countless works in which I sympathize with the protagonist, but the character of Ender captured something about me that I probably couldn't even have articulated before I read the book.


Dune (Dune Chronicles #1) Dune by Frank Herbert


My review


rating: 5 of 5 stars
The sublime is a pretty elusive quality, but my definition has always been closely tied to a sense of transport. A truly sublime work of art is that which transports me out of myself, and Dune is one of the few books that achieves that rare feat. The rush of ideas in the passage describing Paul's emergence into his power managed to produce in me a visceral sense of vertigo. It's hard to imagine a more compelling example of the power of fiction.


Paradise Lost (Penguin Classics) Paradise Lost by John Milton


My review


rating: 5 of 5 stars
Milton's masterpiece is not only the greatest epic ever written in English verse, it has actually had significant influence on the way that people think about the Christian mythology. In my conversations with mainstream Christians, the things that they say about things like angels and Satan are much more consistent with the way that those concepts are depicted in Paradise Lost than how they a represented in the Bible.


His Dark Materials Trilogy (The Golden Compass; The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass) His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman


My review


rating: 5 of 5 stars
This trilogy starts off as a seemingly simple jaunt into the realm of adventurous fantasy, but the intellectual depth quickly reveals itself. Few books even attempt capture the agony of the conflict between romance and responsibility, and of the few that try, it's rare to see an author avoid the slippery slope of melodrama. The worlds that Pullman conjures are magnificent in and of themselves, but his true achievement is that he captures the joy and pain of growing up without romanticizing childhood or looking down on it.


View all my reviews.



Also, if you haven't checked out Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, what are you waiting for? Act II is up now (and is even more super-awesome than Act I). Even my friend Ben, who hates musicals, loved it, so nobody who is reading this has any excuse for not checking it out this weekend while it's still available for free (magic word!). I'll be done with my MA soon, so you'd better take my advice lest you find yourself on the wrong side of a guy with a PhD in Horribleness (I hear Duke offers five years of funding).

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Dr. Horrible!



Watch it.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Geeking out on the work of pre-theoretical knuckle-draggers



I started reading Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash this weekend and finished it earlier this afternoon. Part of what I enjoyed about it was that it played around in the territory of genres like cyberpunk without setting down its roots in them.

Because of that interesting feature of the novel, I was all the more intrigued when I came across a post on Boing Boing with this video of a recent lecture by Stephenson on the topic of literary genres.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Learning from movies

This afternoon I went to see WALL-E, and I was quite pleased that it managed to live up to the elevated expectations that I had as result of all the good reviews and positive word of mouth. To make a movie about a trash robot, and to do it without any dialogue for 90% of the movie is an unimaginably bold move for a Hollywood film of any sort, but Pixar has proven their brilliance once again by crafting a touching and thoughtful film that is a stellar example craftsmanship in cinema.

It's not giving anything away to say that it has a surprisingly subversive message about how our wasteful consumer culture is destroying both the planet and the human race. The movie makes its point seamlessly, without any blunt didacticism, and it's hard to imagine a more compelling way to communicate concepts of conservation and good stewardship of the Earth. Unfortunately, the power of the film's impact on me made it that much more depressing to see that it did not penetrate the minds of my fellow movie patrons, who engaged in the typical movie theater behavior of leaving all of their scattered trash behind for someone else to clean up. If a film like WALL-E couldn't get people to change their behavior, it leaves me with little hope that we'll be able to achieve a happy ending of our own.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Speaking more than one language? How un-American!

In an especially idiotic expression of xenophobia, a school-board member in Louisiana objected to the use of a few sentences of Vietnamese directed towards their parents by the co-valedictorians in their graduation speech. He has also put forward a policy proposal to forbid the use of any language other than English in graduation speeches.

That sort of foolishness is appalling no matter where it comes from, but it's especially ridiculous when it comes from a part of the country that was originally settled by French-speakers. But wait, there's more! Not only does the location have French roots, but the school-board member in question has that decidedly non-English last name of Pitre (for extra bonus fun, look up what that translates to in English).

There is one possible bright side to such a policy, as it would save audiences from any more commencement addresses peppered with little bits of Latin. Anyway, who would ever want to graduate Magna Cum Laude when you could graduate Mega Super Awesome instead?

Monday, June 23, 2008

The world is bit less awesome

RIP George Carlin

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Can't Anybody Tackle Bo Jackson?!?

The unstoppable force that was Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl has already been written about, but now he lives again!

I upgraded to Firefox 3.0 today, and I discovered a truly magnificent add-on. FireNes lets you play all of the games from the original NES system, including Tecmo Bowl and all of the other classics of my childhood.

Needless to say, I've been busy making sure that not even super-human Bo Jackson can defeat my beloved Broncos. Bo knows... defeat: 42-27!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Words are pretty



















Kudos to Jess for introducing me to Visuwords, a graphical dictionary/thesaurus. I found it very relaxing to type in the first word that came to mind and then free associate based on the results to find new words that might yield interesting results.

These words gave my favorite results so far:
Character
Jerk
Heart
Bust

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

There's a reason why the Second Amendment has all that "well-regulated militia" stuff



Can someone please invent a gun that you fire from your crotch? The gene pool is in danger, and these are clearly not the sort of people who will use conventional birth control.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Coronation to Yes We Can in 517 seconds

Slate has a great video summing up the entire Democratic primary in just eight minutes. It says a lot about how much happened since last fall that even going at warp speed it takes them that long to get through it all.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Snuffing out other people's candles to make yours look brighter

Finals are still going on, so I'll keep this to some quick links. A larger post on the long-awaited conclusion of the Democratic primary contest is forthcoming.

ESPN.com has some news that Tiger Woods is apparently unaware of how boring his sport is to watch on television, so he's dissing hockey.

There's an interesting piece in Slate about how Eugene McCarthy's stubborn unwillingness to reconcile with the Kennedy supporters weakened the party in the months after RFK's assassination. In addition to the obvious political interest, there's also a fascinating bit about how McCarthy insulted the state of Indiana (which supported Kennedy) because they hadn't produced a poet to rival his friend Robert Lowell. It's amazing how much things have changed since 1968.

To finish, the Onion has an especially funny piece poking fun at John Grisham.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Happy Mothers' Day

ESPN.com has a great article for Mothers' Day about the impressive achievement of the women who have become mothers without giving up their athletic careers as members of the US women's soccer team.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

I Can't Believe My Ears

I'm generally up for pretty much any kind of theatre, but I considered skipping this evening's free day performance of 3 Mo' Divas at the DCPA. Initially I thought it was a musical of some sort, but then I saw that it would just be three women singing a bunch of different songs.

A lot of singing and no trace of a plot? Not usually my cup of tea, but I feel very glad that I didn't miss this show.

This was amazing three women singing everything from La Bohème to His Eye is on the Sparrow, with stuff like Defying Gravity (from Wicked, one of my favorite musicals), Summertime, and even It's Raining Men in between. I didn't recognize the majority of the songs, but even a musical imbecile like me couldn't help but appreciate the unbelievable skill that it took to weave together so many different styles of music.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Hi, I'm an ad campaign... And I'm a parody.

I find the Mac/PC ads (and television ads in general) pretty annoying, which means that I'm generally not too receptive to the massive number of parodies of them, but as someone who enjoys comics and has followed the buzz for the two big comic-book films that are coming out this summer, this one actually tickled my fancy:

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Blaaa! I am a colossal squid from the sea!

A thousand pounds of 26 foot long squidtastic awesomeness. With eyes the size of beach balls!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

How to Use a Sledgehammer

I just got home from a performance of the The Laramie Project by the graduating MFA students of the National Theatre Conservatory. One of the great challenges of art is dealing with intense emotions without descending into melodrama, and in many ways it can be harder to avoid that pitfall when the material is drawn from reality, as opposed to a purely fictional situation. The great achievement of this play and the triumph of these actors was that they were able to reach the most dramatic peaks of emotional intensity without ever sacrificing the intellectual thrust of the narrative.

Back in January I saw and commented on the play Lydia, and it failed where the Laramie Project succeeds. This play reached the same levels of emotional intensity, but that visceral impact never felt like a gratuitous or manipulative action on the part of the actors, director, or playwright. On the contrary, the play was brilliant because it took the great aesthetic risk of having a purpose. It was neither didactic nor melodramatic, and yet it contained an almost frightening emotional intensity.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Subverting conventions

A few weeks ago I went to see the film Run Fat Boy Run, and although it wasn't bad, I left the theater feeling disappointed. Simon Pegg had won me over with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and I went into this one expecting to see it do for the inspirational sports movie what the other two had done for zombie gore-fests and buddy cop action flicks. Unfortunately, what I discovered is that as stale as the cliches of the sports movie genre have grown, it has yet to reach the point where a film could get away with reversing them. Just think what would happen if you tried to make a sports movie in which the hero triumphs by quiting in the face of adversity. Perhaps someday it will happen, but this film didn't even try.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

What a cinematic painting! It's so much better than that theatrical novel.

Robert Pinsky has a piece about poetry in Slate today that I couldn't let pass without comment. Why Don't Modern Poems Rhyme? is set up as a casual FAQ about poetry, and he makes some interesting points, but some of his responses are oddly lacking in analysis for a piece that is supposed to be answering questions. "Read this" is a rather unsatisfying answer when one has a legitimate question. He also makes a great point about the false nostalgia that imagines that there was some kind of Golden Age in which poetry was "easy to understand and great".

What I really wished he had addressed in more detail was the question of song lyrics as poetry. Ben (who is a musician) and I have debated this point on a few occasions, and the point I always come back to is that they are two different forms of art that work in different ways. One of the flaws that turns me off to a lot of contemporary music is that each song is so packed with lyrics that the balance between the emotional content of the words and the emotional content of the sound is thrown completely out of whack. The claim that song lyrics are poetry implies that music cannot stand on its own merits, that it needs to draw upon poetry because the medium lacks artistic validity.

It's a back-handed compliment when an artistic work is compared to another medium in a way that implies that the other medium is inherently superior. It reminds me of a recent class discussion about what it means to say that Henry James has an "Impressionist" style of writing. A novel is not a painting, and it is demeaning to the writer's craft to give up on trying to understand a piece of writing on its own terms by clumsily applying the language of a different artistic discipline.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Congratulations! Here's your aluminum-alloy medal.

While watching the latest edition of the always entertaining Zero Punctuation reviews, I noticed them encouraging people to vote for them in the Webby Awards. I'm quite happy to support the sites a like when all it costs me is a few minutes of my time, so followed the link and prepared to cast my vote. What I didn't count on was having to wade through literally hundreds of nominees to find the one that I wanted to vote for. With scores of different categories and five nominees in each one, it looks like a Webby is about as difficult to win as the prize in a Cracker Jack.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Television in the Wild Wild Far East

It's fun to watch clips of Japanese television, as they tend to be either delightfully inventive or mind-bendingly weird. Jess recently pointed me in the direction of this lovely example of the first variety:

I love this as the premise for a game show, and they keep it interesting by having misleading openings that force the contestants to think beyond the body arrangement suggested by the shape. Plus, it never hurts to include some uncomplicated physical comedy.

That video reminded me of another one that I came across several weeks ago.

I'm still at a loss for words.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

What goes up must come down, but it's rarely this much fun.

My anti-television stance has been softening recently under the influence of cool things being produced by different shows. One of the things that I love is that they can do dangerous and/or expensive things and then I get to enjoy watching the results.

In the same vein as my earlier post on the Mythbusters cutting down a tree with a machine gun, I came across this brilliant clip not long ago. It's from the program Top Gear, and they're using old cars in place of clay pigeons, with increasingly heavy weaponry being employed against the flying automobiles.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Hello television. We meet again.

It's going to be very tough waiting until Friday.

Frak you Ben.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Crazy week of activities (Having a social life is hard work!)

Because the first week of classes is usually pretty mild, I decided that I would catch up on having a social life, as well as trying to get a head start on my coursework. Since Wednesday I have done the following:

  • Gave a big presentation on Madame Bovary for my graduate seminar on Modernism (and came up with vague notion for a possible thesis topic)
  • Watched the first disc of Battlestar Galactica Season Three with my friend Ben as we try to get caught up so that we can watch Season Four on TV (with a few more marathon sessions scheduled for the coming week because the first episode airs this Friday night)
  • Went to see an excellent touring production of My Fair Lady (the first time I had ever seen that show)
  • Went to a Saturday matinee of the play Gee's Bend and got an idea for how I might write one of my story ideas as a play
  • Cheered on the Nuggets in a thrilling victory over the Golden State Warriors in the first live basketball game I've been able to attend in years
  • Drank a few beers with my buddy Frank and had the first non-depressing conversation about academia that I've had in far too long
Now I must get back to all the reading that I neglected while I was having so much fun.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Wishes and Memories

I recently received an email through my grad school list for a project that is collecting anonymous wishes and memories: www.nowisnotenough.com
This looks pretty interesting, and I regret that I no longer live close enough to Louisville to go see it when it goes on display.

Monday, March 24, 2008

It's getting eerie, what's this cheery singing all about?

I find it odd that while I lack any passion for music, to a degree that I've wondered at times if there's something wrong with me, I do have a clear fondness for musicals. Part of it is my general enjoyment of the theatre, but there's also element of escapist longing to live in a different world where emotions can be expressed by bursting into song. In short, I sometimes wish my life was a musical.

A few weeks ago my Aunt Laura emailed me a link to what is now one of the my all-time favorite online videos, in which a group of people stage a seemingly spontaneous musical in the food court of a shopping mall.

Words cannot express how much I envy those people.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Some Guy Who Beat Duke for Governor!

It's March, so it must be time to loathe the student-athletes of Duke University.

It is an interesting question whether there is a genuine competitive advantage to being hated and feared as a sports team. It certainly helps your players' confidence, and it is possible that it makes it easier to intimidate opponents, but it also means that no one overlooks you and you always get your opponents' best shot. The Duke men's basketball team has actively cultivated that sentiment, and they are far and away the most universally disliked team in college basketball.

I have no particular reason to dislike Duke as a school, but along with the rivals of the two schools I've attended and any school that's ever rejected me, they are one of the few teams that I actively root against in the NCAA tournament. I was disappointed on Thursday when they narrowly escaped being the victim of a gigantic upset at the hands of the lowly Belmont Bruins, and I happily followed all of the action today as they were beaten solidly by West Virginia in their second round game.

Beating Duke is an achievement that will probably be remembered far more fondly than anything else they achieve in this tournament. I couldn't help smiling when one of the CBS commentators shouted, "He's gonna get votes for governor!" after the second of a couple of key plays by a West Virginia player to seal Duke's defeat.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Mmm... sack.

When it comes to seeing plays, they tend to come in streaks for me, and thus last night I went to see the Denver Center Theatre Company's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. The DTC generally does a good job with Shakespeare, and I was looking forward to it because I'd never seen this play performed before. Unfortunately, while the play wasn't bad, it was wasn't great either. It was moderately funny, and they didn't fall into the trap of playing it solely for cheap laughs, but it didn't live up to my expectations because they failed to present a coherent treatment of Falstaff.

I had the privilege of seeing Michael Gambon as Falstaff in both parts of Henry IV in London a few years ago, and I certainly wasn't expecting to see a performance like that here, but I was disappointed by the fact that this production seemed uncertain about whether or not Falstaff should be a sympathetic character. Part of his popularity is that he is such a likable character even though the audience recognizes that he is a villain, but they seemed to be treating Falstaff as a genuinely unsympathetic character.

It's not enough simply to declare him a villain and spend the whole play abusing him. According to my ideal interpretation of the play, Falstaff should be a sympathetic character who is eclipsed by the greater sympathy that the audience develops for the wives, but in this production that was not the case. The wives were a bit too malicious for me to share their joy in Falstaff's suffering, and the end result was a comedy that drew chuckles instead of laughter.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Interesting may make life worth living, but sometimes it also makes me sad

Last night I went to see my friend Jenna perform in her class project, the play Mad Forest: A Play From Romania. She is a friend from my undergrad years at Evansville, and now she is in grad school for theatre here in Denver. She is an outstanding actress, enough so that I would happily watch anything that she's doing, even a play about the Romanian revolution, which I actually knew enough about beforehand (thank you history degree and international studies minor!) to question whether it would be a good subject for a play.

As it turned out, the setting and subject did suit the play, providing good raw material for the energy and vitality that can only be fully expressed in chaos. When used effectively, confusion can be a powerful emotional tool, and the fact that it was difficult to tease out the humor and pathos made those elements more intense.

It was a very interesting play, and it succeeded largely because the performers brought a profound energy to what might have been a sluggish mutant of political satire and surreal theatre. That said, I can't say that I liked the play. It was interesting in the same sense of the word as the old curse "May you live in interesting times" and it makes me sad to think about how so much of the energy of life is the product of confusion and chaos.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Stop playing cards and start talking about our problems

Over the last few days, I've been catching up on the some of the things I wanted to write about during finals, and one of the topics on my list was to examine the state of the race for the Democratic nomination. In particular, I wanted to post my belated responses to the results of the Wyoming caucuses and Mississippi primaries, and I figured I would wait for the the next big development in the race to talk about the long march to Pennsylvania and Obama's steadily growing lead in the delegate count.

The inflammatory sermons of Obama's pastor have been the main political topic of the last few days, and I figured that as the scandal du jour played itself out, it would give me a chance to write about the unhealthy dynamic that has developed between the two campaigns wherein supporters on one side or the other periodically say something they shouldn't, followed by a quick dismissal and a round of distancing (or rejecting and denouncing).

What I didn't count on was Obama delivering a brilliant speech on race in America that throws those political games out the window.


Like many people, I have often believed that the United States would always have racial tension, that it was an issue that might be improved but never wholly eliminated. I still don't believe that the dream of a truly colorblind America will happen in my lifetime, but after watching Obama exceed my expectations once again, I now have hope that it is possible.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Failing a saving throw against health problems and old age

The news is a couple of weeks old now (and thus has already been on Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me), but I have to post something on the passing of Gary Gygax. In case there was any doubt about my nerd credentials, I am also a big fan of Dungeons & Dragons. The necessity of having a group was always a limiting factor, but I could fill in the gaps with computer versions like the excellent Baldur's Gate games. The only reason I'm not still playing it now is that the friends I played as an undergrad all graduated and went to different places.

I actually my first exposure to D&D in the form of Gygax's first edition of the rules, a set that had been left in our basement by my half-brother many years before. It is difficult to recall that many of the fundamental concepts of the entire genre of role-playing games were invented by just one man. It's disappointing that the business side of things and the various legal battles cast a shadow over the last few decades of his career, but he will be remembered for creating a game that made the trials of awkward youth a little less painful.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Food Fight

An enthralling video from the excellent blahg of Shawn:



One might think that watching food act out an American-focused summary of major conflicts from WWII to the present would be funny, but it's even with such non-human actors, it's still a bit disturbing. I felt very impressed with myself that I was able to recognize pretty much all of the foods and all of the battles they were fighting.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

When you treat English as a shiv, everyone sounds like a blackguard



This video cracked me up when I finally had time to watch it earlier today. Beyond just being funny, it directs its mockery at one of my chief pet peeves, the attitude that "Our job is not to offer people the words they do use, but the words they should use."

Friday, March 14, 2008

It shreds stuff AND lights it on fire? Tell me more...

While celebrating the end of the winter quarter with some classmates in a bar last night, the drunken conversation somehow ended up on the colossal geekiness of my teenage years (and all the nonexistent dates that ensued because of it).

I had consumed enough at that point that I told a story from my time playing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles role-playing game, in which my character (a teenage mutant ninja moose) defeated the heavily-armored villain who was standing on a shipping container full of Styrofoam packing peanuts by firing a machine gun at the container until the peanuts burst into flames.

The point of sharing that story is that it reminded me of the following unspeakably awesome video clip I watched a few weeks ago from the show Mythbusters, in which they demonstrate that you can in fact cut a tree down with a Gatling gun.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tell me what you eat, and I'll smile and nod

I have finally made it through the my winter quarter finals, having just barely finished both term papers in time. During that time I had to impose strict limits on myself in terms of how much I would sample the endless treats that the Internet dangles in front of me, and part of my method of self-control was to write down each nifty website and video I came across so that I can come back to it later. Now that I'm basking in the light at the end of the tunnel, I'll have time to check those things out and post about the cool ones on here.

My self-imposed Internet diet was necessitated by the fact that last week I wasted a bunch of time exploring the joy of Iron Chef clips on YouTube.

It all began with a presentation in my Style class on the writer M.F.K. Fisher, who wrote about food and the experience of eating in a way that deeply resonated with me. I hadn't heard of her before, but I'm now planning to read more of her work as soon as I have the chance, which may not be until this summer.

The class discussion ranged all over the topic of food, and eventually the subject turned to the original series of Iron Chef. At the time I classed it among the many interesting television shows that I might someday check out if I spot the DVDs in the library, but that changed when one of my classmates passed along this clip.

Of course I had to watch the next part, which led to watching the whole episode, and it went downhill from there.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Sad Day


I read Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace for the first time last night, and then I found out about his death this afternoon. I fell in love with the way that Williams debunked the invented rules that grammarians use to bludgeon writers and rant about the death of the English language. I don't agree with everything he said, but his book is the first style manual I've ever read that I would have no qualms about suggesting to others.


Saturday, March 1, 2008

Leap Day

Yesterday was Leap Day (2/29), and when a day comes along so rarely it deserves a bit of reflection (as pointed out by my friend Britannie). This was my sixth Leap Day (fourth that I was old enough to remember), and I spent the day basking in the 60° sunny weather and the evening having wine and brie with brilliant people at a house reading of poetry and fiction.

That's quite the contrast from the previous Leap Day in 2004, which I spent watching Leeds United struggle valiantly before losing at home to Liverpool on their way toward relegation in a tragic rise and fall from which they have still not recovered (they were relegated again last season and are currently laboring under a 15 point penalty).

It was my first time watching a live Premiership match, and I had a blast even though they lost. The atmosphere in the stadium for the entire match was charged with energy to a degree that I've rarely seen in American sports.

I think the idea of only having a birthday once every four years is fascinating, and someday I hope to make friends with someone who was born on a Leap Day so I can talk to them about it.

Friday, February 29, 2008

A muddy airport of linguistics

Important news from The Onion: Idiom Shortage Leaves Nation All Sewed Up In Horse Pies

It's a tough situation, but this the price we pay for having had Dan Rather cover so many elections over the years. If he was still around for this race, our idiom deficit would be jumping like a one-legged iceberg.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Comedy Is War

Although I've only watched the Jimmy Kimmel Show three times, that was enough for me to be familiar with his running joke about bumping Matt Damon. I fully enjoyed this hilarious "revenge" video he made with Jimmy's girlfriend Sarah Silverman:


That video was funny and hugely popular, which called out for a response. I was not surprised to see this video with Jimmy and Ben Affleck come out, but I wasn't expecting them to raise the bar this high:


I can only hope that they will continue to spur each other on to produce equally brilliant counter-attacks, though I don't know what anyone could do that would top this one.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The great American pastime- watching famous people do dumb things!

I don't watch television or read the celebrity magazines, but that hasn't saved me from developing a knowledge of tabloid culture.

Yesterday I had the odd experience of having a writing tutoring session with Heidi Montag's brother, which was especially bizarre because a character sketch of his sister was a part of the descriptive essay he was working on.

It's disconcerting to hear a brother's glowing description of the sister he admires when you already have a clear mental picture of that same person as a vapid, reality-television quasi-celebrity with big fake breasts and a horrible music video. It's probably a good thing to be reminded that even the most unpleasant public figures can still have families who love them.

* * *

In a similar vein, Lindsay Lohan has taken the lead in poor decision-making with her brilliant decision to recreate a nude Marilyn Monroe photo shoot in New York Magazine. It is pretty much a given that to become a movie star or other major celebrity, one must possess an intense desire for attention, and Lohan is one of several celebs who clearly moved from intense to pathological.

I am firmly in favor of nudity that comes from a healthy attitude about sex and confidence about ones body, but it is much less appealing when it's a desperate cry for attention. It also doesn't help that, even though I'm a breast man who finds freckles oddly alluring, she looks only mildly attractive because of how poorly she has treated her body over the last few years.

* * *

I came across this funny video a couple days ago of a man getting rejected after making the foolish decision to propose at half-time of an NBA game, and before I got around to posting it here, I sent a message about it to ESPN's Bill Simmons, who included it in his weekly links page today (towards the bottom of the page). The best part of the video is Tracy McGrady's amused reaction to it as he takes the court to start the second half.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Obama gets fouled and scores anyway

Immediately after Super Tuesday, the Clinton campaign started saying that nothing would be decided until March 4th, and it looks like that was the right strategy for managing expectations now that Obama has reeled off a string of ten impressive victories.

The result in Wisconsin makes it clear that he can win blue-collar workers, and it also serves as a clear response that the negative political games of the last few days are not going to be effective. The whole plagiarism claim was ridiculous even as the desperate attack of a floundering campaign, and while it doesn't seem to have made much impact on the voters at all, it is interesting to see how dismissive the media pundits have been.

Now the question remains whether Hillary will recognize the failure of going negative, or if she will conclude that the problem was that she didn't attack fiercely enough. I really hope it isn't the latter, because even though that would probably sink her campaign for good, having an influential member of the party like her slagging off the eventual nominee would only be good for McCain.

This video isn't about Obama, but it does present a rare instance of an influential sports icon displaying genuine conviction about substantive political issues. Charles Barkley's playing career ended before I had developed much of an interest in basketball, and I can't say that I'm a fan of his work as an analyst of the game, but his willingness to call out the hypocrisy of the religious right and declare his support of equal marriage rights and women's reproductive rights has made me a huge fan.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Breathing room

The last few days have been quite busy and stressful, with back-to-back presentations in both of my grad school classes. I think they both went well, and now I'll be catching up on the last few days.

I had the odd feeling of having missed a lot when I heard the news this morning about Castro stepping down (by letter) and Kosovo declaring its independence (and having it recognized by the US and the major EU countries). The news from Cuba has a lot of symbolic significance, but considering that the transfer of power actually took place a year and half ago, it doesn't look like much will change. It would be nice to be able to legally visit Havana in the near future, but I won't hold my breath.

The situation in Kosovo looks much more complicated than it might seem, and I hope that we don't end up with a situation in which Russia decides to flex its muscles while the US is distracted by the election. It does strike me as very interesting that this most recent result of Milosovic's attempts to create a strong nationalist Serbia out of Yugoslavia is that an independent Kosovo has received immediate international recognition that would have been unthinkable if they'd made the same declaration twenty years ago.

* * *

When I saw this story in the New York Times about the use a semicolon in a subway placard, my initial reaction was to be pleased that it was used well in such an unexpected situation, but I ended up feeling discouraged that it became such a big deal. I also can't help feeling dubious when the story makes the following claim without providing any examples:
People have lost fortunes and even been put to death because of imprecise punctuation involving semicolons in legal papers.
I'd rather have a newspaper screw up a semicolon than to make huge unsupported claims about people being executed because of a punctuation mark.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Things suddenly get uncomfortably close

I was having dinner in a bar and watching some college basketball last night when they switched over to the breaking news about the shooting at Northern Illinois University. At the time I registered it as another tragic event in the numbing litany of death and destruction that human beings are constantly inflicting on each other, but that detached emotional response was shattered this afternoon.

I've been working to reactivate the chapter of the English honor society Sigma Tau Delta here at DU, and this afternoon I was meeting with the treasurer to open a checking account for the chapter. As is often the case with that sort of seemingly simple task, we hit a roadblock when they needed a faxed confirmation from the society's central office. It should have been a simple enough thing to call them up and have them fax it over, but no one answered the phone when we called. It seemed odd, but we left a message and then tried to continue preparing to open the account. We got everything else in order, and they hadn't called back, so we were about to try again when I had a flash of realization.

As you may have already guessed, the central office of Sigma Tau Delta is in the English department at Northern Illinois University, which I'd known all along, but it wasn't until that moment that I put two and two together. The realization that the people suffering on television last night were the same ones I was talking to on the phone just a couple days ago was an unexpected shock. All of a sudden what had been a distant tragedy was brought uncomfortably close.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Shmashmentine's Day

Mega-kudos to Jess for having the radical good taste to rock my mailbox with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles card, and for this site that expresses my general feelings about February 14th with things like this:

It's funny to think that all of the atrocities against poetry that are committed on this day can be traced back to Chaucer. If it weren't for him, this day's saint would be just another Roman Catholic bishop who died a horrible death. Nothing says martyrdom like lingerie and chocolates!

In the same vein of bitterness, I really like this video that I found a couple days ago:

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Obama Sweeps the Potomac

Barack Obama's win in the Potomac Primaries is impressive, giving him eight victories in a row, but the bigger news is that he won among those who were supposed to belong to Hillary. Regardless of what the pundits say, the whole momentum factor remains minor because it takes effect when voters perceive that they would be throwing their votes away if they went against the momentum, and at this stage there's no way that Clinton supporters are going to conclude that she's a lost cause. Barring an a reversal in Wisconsin or Hawaii, Barack will be heading into the contests on March 4th (Texas, Ohio, Vermont, and Rhode Island) with a substantial delegate lead and victories in half of the states in the nation. So far, Huckabee has delayed McCain's nomination on the Republican side, but McCain's narrow victories in today's primaries will probably hasten Huckabee's withdrawal. Hopefully Obama can win both Ohio (looking increasingly plausible) and Texas (still doubtful, but winning among Latinos in Virginia gives hope), which would allow him to get the full force of the party behind him and start preparing for the general election.

* * *

I also came across a delightfully geeky website this evening. If you've ever wondered how a Star Destroyer and the Enterprise would look next to each other (or the relative sizes of any other science-fiction vehicles), this site has the answers. It's particularly nifty that he provides some real-world examples too. I like that Serenity is almost as big as a 747, and comparing things to the Empire State Building is far more fun than you'd think...

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Driving in the middle of a two-way street

As if our foreign policy wasn't dysfunctional enough already, the Bush Administration is trying to use visa-free travel to the United States to bludgeon the European Union into accepting new "security" measures. It's one thing when American citizens are frightened enough to exchange their privacy for the illusion of security, but pitting the EU member-states against each other in order to extract their citizens' personal information (including details about people who aren't even entering the US) is a good way to add to the already impressive quantity of ill-will that exists towards the United States.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Science gets head-butted

One of the highlights of my visit to New York was the American Museum of Natural History, which was amazing for both its size and the quality of its collections. Some of my fondest memories from my childhood are of wandering through the Natural History Museum here in Denver (recently renamed the Denver Museum of Nature & Science), and my experience in New York was quite similar but on a much larger scale.

As I've gotten older, I've gotten into the habit of carrying a notebook with me when I go to museums, and I find that in addition to the actual items on display, the informational panels describing them are often a rich source of inspiration for my own writing. As I was exploring the dinosaurs and occasionally noting little gems of interest, I came across something that reminded me just far-reaching the conservative war on science has become.
It was a standard informational panel explaining the different theories about how pachycephalosaurs might have used their thick skull-caps, starting with the theory that they would have used them to establish dominance by butting heads like bighorn sheep, followed by an explanation that more recent research had indicated that their neck vertebra were too fragile for them to survive head-to-head combat and that they may instead have established dominance by butting a rival in the flanks. What saddened me was that underneath that information there was added placard reminding people in the familiar language of the anti-evolution movement that we cannot be sure about anything when it comes to extinct animals because those theories cannot be tested. It's sad enough that there are people who cannot tolerate scientific progress if it might threaten their fragile beliefs, but to see that sort of language creeping into such an important scientific institution raises frightening questions about the place of intellectual development in this country.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Germany and Prague via Broadway

During my New York trip I set aside all of Saturday afternoon and evening for Broadway shows. I had several shows that I was interested in seeing, so I made my decision based on the availability of cheap student tickets, and I ended up get tickets to a matinée of Spring Awakening and an evening show of Rock 'n' Roll. Although I hadn't planned it that way, it worked out perfectly to give me a taste of both sides of the spectrum, with Spring Awakening representing the enthusiastic energy of the musical and Rock 'n' Roll was a thought-provoking drama.

Although it was clearly a Broadway musical, one of the things that I really enjoyed about Spring Awakening was that it did make some ambitious and unexpected choices. Using rock music to express the angst of 19th century German teenagers might have seemed painfully anachronistic, but the music helped the show to tap into the highs and lows of adolescence in a way that contemporary audiences can relate to quite readily. My primary impression of the show was its incredible energy. The actors had a very believable youthful enthusiasm, and the show did a great job of presenting the difficulty of achieving a balanced sense of self when your whole world is being distorted by the changes of puberty.

Unfortunately, the show's energy could not make up for the fact that all of the music meant there wasn't enough time to give significant psychological depth to the characters. I'm not familiar with the play on which it is based, but I suspect that the broad strokes are the result of trying to translate the emotional depth of a play into the medium of a musical. In spite of its weaknesses, Spring Awakening had more than enough passion and vitality to keep me thoroughly engaged and entertained.

Rock 'n' Roll had a very different feel, which makes sense considering that it came to New York from London and still has most of the original West-End cast. As I have learned to expect from a Tom Stoppard play, it was thought-provoking and had real heft, but it also had an emotional side to balance the intellectual discussions of the mind, music, and communism. Unfortunately, it also felt like a play more suited to a British rather than American audience, and I could tell that some of the audience members were almost angry at the fact that communism was being discussed by sympathetic characters who were not painting it as an ideology of pure evil.

My perception may have been skewed by the fact that on this night I had the misfortune to be in the most poorly behaved audience I have ever seen. People were getting up and trying to move to better seats during much of the first act, in some cases not even waiting for a scene break to do so, and at one point a cell phone started ringing and just kept ringing until after about the third or fourth ring, the actors simply paused the action, at which point the offender finally realized what a disruption it was and silenced it. It was real shame to have such an awful audience, because the play itself was remarkable in its subtlety and the depth of its passionate characters.