Today the New York Times, in its role as the paper of record, investigates one of the most pressing questions of this point in history: the etiquette of deleting people from your Facebook friends. This seems to be prompted by Burger King's recent promotion wherein the fast food chain invited Facebook users to remove ten friends in exchange for a free Whopper. Contrary to normal Facebook procedure, but better for spreading the promotion, the ex-friends would be notified that they had been dropped for 10% of a burger.
Personally, I thought this was awesome, and was halfway tempted to do it even though I had no interest in actually eating at Burger King. However, apparently the Whopper Sacrifice has been axed by Facebook, who seem intent on keeping the act of unfriending as silent as possible.
So the correct approach, apparently, is to quietly drop people from our lists and hope they don't notice. This works until it's brought to their attention by, say, a mutual acquaintance using the "suggest a friend" option. This actually happened to me (as the unfriendee, not the unfriender), although rather than being offended by the realization I just laughed at the fact that someone had made the suggestion—this was a case where it was pretty clear why I had been unfriended.
On the other hand, in some situations a message about the reason for the removal may be justified, and even helpful. This is the case for one of the best reasons for deletion: irritating status messages. These come in many forms: the all-caps shout with twelve exclamation marks; the incredibly pedestrian messages that get updated every five minutes; the message that gets reposted every day but is essentially the same. If you unfriend someone because of their status messages, be sure to tell them why so they might stop annoying the rest of their friends. I was impressed by the person in the Times article who said this:
"I believe it was based on a passive-aggressive update of yours to which I sighed, kinda shook my head and pressed 'delete from friends,' " she confessed by e-mail. "I find negativity a bit tiresome and don't have the patience for it."
Wait, no, this is the internet. Here, an armed society is the Hobbesian war of all against all. Maybe Facebook's quiet deletion policy really is for the best...
Lisa Katayama's recent guest posts at Boing Boing have been great; they should kick out the Bigfoot guy and take her on as a permanent blogger in his place. Nevertheless, this is kind of abusing the word "natural":
For his upcoming exhibit in Tokyo, designer Tokujin Yoshioka is making a natural crystal chair from scratch. He'll do this by submerging a nucleation-inducing fiber structure in four giant tanks of water, and then letting visitors watch as crystals form and the chair grows into its natural shape. (This image shows the artist working on a prototype.) The exhibit kicks off on October 17, and features other cool artsy objects made entirely out of nature.
(This post is spoiler-free.)
I saw Forbidden Kingdom yesterday: it's a decent movie, with entertaining fight scenes; if you go in hoping to see Jackie Chan and Jet Li perform some entertaining kung fu, you won't be disappointed.
However, it's actually a movie about hanging out with Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and consequently the main character isn't (despite the movie posters) either of the two Hong Kong stars, but a teenager played by Michael Angarano. I'm sure there's a strong constituency for the "going on adventures with Jackie Chan and Jet Li" story, but for those of us who just want to see people get kicked in the face, Angarano's character only gets in the way. On the other hand, there's plenty of good fighting so it's not a big disappointment, and having a broader audience helps movies like this get made, so I can't really complain.
Unfortunately, this aspect of the film is made infinitely worse through the egregious use of one of my least favorite plot devices: the ordinary teenager from the real world who gets transported to a fantasy kingdom (which he then must save before returning home). As far as I'm concerned, any narrative that employs this lame plot is digging itself a huge hole right at the start, and will have to be exceedingly brilliant to make up for it. There are lots of good reasons to avoid this plot, and especially the implementation in Forbidden Kingdom:
Now, I don't want to say that this plot can never be done well, but it takes some excellent writing to save it. The anime Fushigi Yuugi is one example where this trope succeeds, due mostly to strong plotting and characterization. The film of The NeverEnding Story does a good job but keeps the real-world protagonist at a distance from the fantasy world for most of the narrative. On the other hand, one of the several flaws of The Chronicles of Narnia is its repeated use of this device.
More generally, I think the approach of inserting ordinary, relatable characters into a story about legendary heroes is way overused. In the fantasy genre, I much prefer stories without an obvious audience stand-in but with heroes who may have extraordinary abilities but have complex and human personalities. My favorite Chinese fantasy films—Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the underrated House of Flying Daggers—take the latter approach.
Going back to Forbidden Kingdom for a moment, I've just spent a lot of time trashing its plot, but of course in a movie like this the story is secondary to the spectacle. So this shouldn't be considered a pan of the movie as a whole; however, this glaring flaw in the story does detract a bit from the experience.
I'm off to New York this week to look for housing; to put me in the right frame of mind, I'd like to hear suggestions of iconic portrayals of NYC (particularly Manhattan) in fiction. Accuracy of the portrayal is less important than style, but if it captures the spirit of the city in some sense that's a bonus. In any case the city shouldn't just be the setting (Wikipedia has a whole category devoted to this); New York should be somehow central to the story or thematically important. Some ideas (just off the top of my head):
Please suggest more, and I will check out the ones I haven't seen/read so as to be up to speed on the cultural connections to my new location.
Bonus round: iconic portrayals of Wall Street or the finance industry in particular, such as the Oliver Stone film Wall Street.
I must confess that I don't share Cory Doctorow's intense interest in all things Disney-related, and as a result I tend to skip past the (many, many) Boing Boing posts on this subject. However, his co-blogger Mark Frauenfelder posted one today that caught my eye, about planned changes to the classic "It's a Small World" ride:
[T]he gorgeous New Guinea rainforest scene, replete with some of Mary Blair’s most whimsical character creations (a crocodile with an umbrella, colorful birds hatching from eggs) and her drummer children with Tiki Masks on the opposite shore will be replaced with a Hooray for U.S.A sequence.
In conclusion, reality has excellent, immersive visuals and sound, but terrible writing. I give it two stars out of five.
The Speakeasy is a theater in Oakland (there's also one in El Cerrito) that recently started doing monthly Joss Whedon nights, alternating between Buffy and Firefly on the big screen. Last night was a Buffy night with a decent selection of episodes, so I went to check it out. Some observations:
While traveling with my Chinese satchel, I learned that Cameron Diaz apparently has the same bag. Which is fine—I was into Communist chic before it was cool. However, then she went and used it to spark an international incident, Peru being understandably touchy about their Maoist guerrillas. So now I find myself having conversations with TSA agents while they search my (other) luggage about how, yes, this is the same bag Cameron Diaz had to apologize to an entire nation for. Luckily they did not infer from this any membership in the Shining Path; otherwise my trip home might have been rather delayed.
I will console myself by imagining that I made the bag trendy by wearing it to Coachella, even if it was probably mistaken for a Rage Against the Machine bag.
Like the opposite of Amazon book recommendations, LibraryThing's UnSuggester lists books that are unlikely to be found in the same library as a given title. I entered one of my favorite books, Haruki Murakami's masterpiece of surrealist fiction The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and was amused to get a list of mostly Christian devotional books. It's not that Wind-Up Bird is anti-religious in any way, so I imagine it's a result of demographics more than anything else. (Via Unfogged.)
Last.fm should do a version of this for music.
Something that annoys me to an irrational extent is the use of diminutives on certain words that I've been seeing recently. The latest, but by no means only, offender is Cory Doctorow, who recently wrote,
The forthcoming Logitech Alto laptop stand is a nice compromise between a dock and just plunking your lappie down on your desk.
[Alibi Networks will] also buy and ship prezzies for your lover, provide untraceable phone numbers and manage the rest of your sneaky double-life.
Stylus presents a compilation of music videos re-enacted in Lego.
This was on BoingBoing about a week ago, but I didn't see it then—the Pacific Film Archive at UC Berkeley is having a pirate film festival through September and October. Not pirated films, but films about piracy, mostly the arrr, matey! kind (the last installment is an exception). Inconveniently for me, the movies are being shown on Wednesday nights.
I picked up the latest Onion this morning and noted the front-page story:
Scratch 'N Win Ballots To Debut In November
WASHINGTON, DC—In an effort to increase voter participation while generating additional revenue, several state election boards announced plans Monday to introduce new Scratch 'N Win ballots in November, giving citizens the chance to win the right to vote in the 2006 elections.
The ballots, which will retail for $1 and go on sale the morning of Nov. 7, are small three- by two-inch cards with a "prize area" obscured by a thin silver coating. Voters will scratch off this area and can win by matching three vote amounts, which will range from one to 1 million.
Voting for dollars?
North of the border one of Mexico's U.S. neighbors is weighing a novel way to get more citizens to participate in the democratic process: Offer them a chance at winning $1 million.
In an effort to improve voter turnout in Arizona, Tucson political activist Mark Osterloh gathered more than 185,000 signatures to put his Arizona Voter Reward Act on the state ballot this November as Proposition 200.
If Arizona's voters approved, one lucky voter would win a million bucks, financed by unclaimed prize money from the state's existing lottery. Citizens would qualify by voting in the primary or general election; vote in both and they'd be entered twice. Osterloh's slogan: "Who wants to be a millionaire? Vote."
When he's not getting advice from Bush on how to emulate the free and stable democracy of Iraq, Vladimir Putin is addressing the important issues of the day:
Asked about the possible awakening of the giant mythical octopus Cthulhu, the fourth-most popular question among the more than 150,000 sent to Putin, he said that he believed something more serious was behind the question. Cthulhu was invented by novelist H.P. Lovecraft and was said to be sleeping beneath the Pacific Ocean.
Putin said he viewed mysterious forces with suspicion and advised those who took them seriously to read the Bible, Koran or other religious books.
The time has come to change the quote at the top of the blog. I still like the Milton quote, but it hasn't seemed as relevant lately. I'm on the lookout for something worthy to replace it. Suggestions are welcome for quotes that capture the spirit of this blog and look good at the top of the page. (This is probably also a good opportunity for subtle mockery.)
In the meantime, I will continue looking through classic literature and song lyrics.
(This is obvious filler while I finish getting the new site ready. I hope to move things over tonight, where "tonight" may technically end up being "tomorrow". But there have been lots of distractions the last few days.)
What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy--a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the every-day practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival....
Fellow-citizens, I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing and a byword to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your union. It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement; the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice....
Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country.... While drawing encouragement from the "Declaration of Independence," the great principles it contains and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference.... A change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe.... Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other.... No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.
I skipped the open thread this week, but you can consider this a general media thread. Some links, none of which are complimentary of the subject material:
I can't believe I haven't linked Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog yet. This is definitely the funniest Middle English blog out there. In a recent post, he rewrites the opening of The Da Vinci Code in the style of the Canterbury Tales. An excerpt:
So Sauyniere lyk Sinon storye tolde
False as the devil, and seyde yt forth ful bolde
For he hadde yt rehersd many a yeer
(Ye notice, o myn gentil rederes deere,
Ich telle yow nat of what thys ‘thyng’ might be-
Yt ys a tricke poetic vsid by me
To kepe yow yn confusioun most plesynge
Thurgh alle thys vague and nonspecific tesyng).
The above was the title of a slide in Jorge Cham's talk yesterday (discussed below). The slide cited four films: The Seniors (1978), Real Genius (1985) [this one prompted cheering from the audience], A Beautiful Mind (2001), and Hulk (2003). This is a pretty good list already, but I suspect there are more, and it seems like a good topic for a Friday thread. Make suggestions in the comments. No need to stick to film, either: it was at least implied that Fred was previously a physics grad student in Angel, and there are probably plenty of novels with grad student characters (some of them not written by Neal Stephenson).
For that matter, there are lots of mad scientists but rarely do you see their grad students. It's hard to imagine they're doing all that mad science themselves. Sure, Dr. Frankenstein had Igor, but Igor seems like more of a postdoc. And Frankenstein operates the apparatus himself—what kind of PI does that? A more realistic portrayal would be something like:
[Dr. Frankenstein's group meeting. Igor, exhausted from taking data all night, presents a graph.]
Igor: So the data clearly indicate increased mobility of the subject.
Frankenstein: IT'S ALIVE! [pause] Start writing it up, I want to submit this to Physical Reanimation Letters by next week.
So far today I've seen:
Via Pharyngula, these tryouts for Stan Lee's new superhero reality show remind me of nothing so much as the hero recruitment drive in Mystery Men. Perhaps I could use my quantum coherence research to develop a superhero persona, but my powers would only work if no one observes them. (Maybe this is just a secret identity requirement.) However, the field is probably rife with potential supervillainy.
Slate has a piece on why lacrosse players are an especially obnoxious breed of jock. Those of you who went to high school with me already know this; I was in one of those communities in the Northeast where lacrosse was a big sport, and indeed several guys from my school went on to play lacrosse for Duke. (I have no idea whether any NCHS alums are among the current ignominious Duke lacrosse team.) Fortunately after a couple of years in California I had forgotten that the letters "LAX" denoted something besides an airport.
A few weeks ago there was a request for a thread on the subject of essential '90s movies, along the lines of the music thread that ran in January. These threads are nicely self-sustaining so I decided to save it for the next time I was away from the blog for a few days. That time was five days ago, but I had assumed I would be able to turn my computer on. So instead I'm posting it now, since it's a good Friday thread and I'll be on a plane for much of the day.
Rules: Suggest movies from 1990-1999 that are essential in the sense of classic, influential, or just generally awesome. Obscure and idiosyncratic choices are encouraged. Also, pick the best overall movie from that decade, and we'll see if there's a concensus.
Here are some of my favorites to get you started (with my top pick in bold):
Here are the 10 "Best Picture" Oscar winners from the 90's:
Via Leiter Reports, a video of five cars creating a 55 mph rolling barrier on an Atlanta freeway. The blog post where I found the link was interested in implications for ethics, but I am more interested in the effect on traffic viewed as a fluid flow problem. Anyway, the students in the video are trying to make a point about how strict observance of speed limit laws would have undesirable consequences, but I'm pretty sure that in most states creating these kinds of barriers is itself illegal. (Not sure about Georgia in particular, so their claims that they are following the law may indeed be valid.)
By popular demand, Tyler Cowen has been blogging about the Great American Novel. I've long been convinced that the answer is Moby Dick, so I was pleased to see that Cowen chose an appropriate set of criteria:
So what qualities must The Great American Novel have?...
1. It must reward successive rereadings and get better each time.
2. It must be canonical and grip the imagination.
3. It must be linked to American history and letters in some essential way.
4. It must span the intellectual, the emotional, the religious, and the metaphysical.
5. It must be fun. You must be sad when the book is over, and wish it had been longer than it was.
6. It must be about a large white whale and have numerous Biblical allusions.
Cowen also suggests some runners-up and dark horse picks. I can see the argument for Huckleberry Finn, but even though I love Mark Twain I wasn't wild about that particular novel. Of Faulkner I have only read short stories, a gap I should remedy at some point.
My favorite piece of American literature from high school was Catch-22, but I can't argue for this as the Great American Novel. The much-loved Catcher in the Rye didn't do much for me; I suppose my teen angst was of a different character than Holden Caulfield's.
So what are your picks for the Great American Novel? What's your favorite "canonical" American novel? What did you read in high school that was the biggest waste of time? (My pick for the last question: The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver; not especially canonical, but nevertheless assigned by my hippie American Lit teacher.)
The Rolling Stones are really old.
Like PZ Myers, I read the Chronicles of Narnia at an age (I think I was eight) where I was too young to notice the Christian allegory. My ability to understand metaphor actually turned on fairly late; even in my senior year in high school I was unable to handle questions in English class that required sophisticated textual interpretation. Nonetheless, in retrospect it seems pretty obvious, once I am reminded of the details. I mean, the lion dies and gets resurrected? (Well, Lord of the Rings did that too, but supposedly Tolkein himself was unimpressed by Narnia's heavy-handedness.)
Anyway, at the time I read them I liked the books well enough, and they were probably the first fantasy novels I read, but I soon moved on to other authors and didn't really return to Narnia (and I remember basically nothing of the plot of any of the books). I think I made it through the entire series once, where by comparison I read Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series about 8,000 times. As children's fantasy goes, the latter series is far superior, with more interesting characters, wittier dialogue, and more emotional impact—scenes from that series are seared into my brain in ways that C.S. Lewis never accomplished. Wonder if that one had Christian subtext too, or if it was all Welsh folklore. But I digress.
Back to Narnia, my excitement about the movie has thus far been limited, but not due to the allegorical aspects. After all, Lord of the Rings had that, and I was still excited about the movies, because they were good stories. And one of the reasons a lot of people find Christianity appealing is that it draws from universal narratives about sacrifice and redemption, which are certainly appropriate for epic fantasy. No, what turns me off about Narnia is that I tend to be uninterested in stories in which the protagonists are children. Of course, that wasn't the case when I originally read the books, but maybe that's why I never returned to them as I became more interested in mature perspectives. Likewise, the Harry Potter series has become more interesting to me as the characters age (although I am still one book and two movies behind on that one). Speaking of which, another thing that worries me is that filming the Chronicles of Narnia right now is a transparent attempt to jump on the LotR/Harry Potter fantasy bandwagon, and while this doesn't mean the movie won't be good, it means the filmmakers have less motivation to do a good job if they think it's a sure thing commercially. (Remember that Fellowship of the Ring was a huge risk for New Line and Peter Jackson!)
All that said, I do have a certain curiosity about how the Narnia movie will handle the source material, so I'm likely to end up seeing it anyway.
This link is of course mean, cruel, and shallow, not to mention that it takes aim at some extremely easy targets. But when I was feeling frustrated by my experiment today, it's amazing how much my spirits were lifted by The First Annual MySpace Stupid Haircut Awards. (Via memepool.)
I hadn't been keeping up with David Brin's blog, but fortunately Brad Delong has, and linked to Brin's latest insight: we are living in a simulation, and the simulation is a certain person's Mary Sue fantasy:
How about this one? That we are all living inside someone else's Start Trek Holodeck dream. Is there any way we could test this hypothesis? A method that goes even deeper than cybernetics, neurophysiology or even physics?
Simply look around and see who has been impossibly fortunate, vastly out of all proportion to personal talent and competence, or even family privilege, or even any possible intervention by anomalous good luck!
I find McSweeney's to be hit-or-miss, but Giant Squid Takes Us Weekly to Task is one of the hits. (On a related note, I am finding it difficult to type "squid" without capitalizing all the letters.) (Via Pharyngula.)
Can we get the artist to do some condensed matter stuff? I'd love to see Cooper pairs, quasiparticles, and phonons...
HOMER: OK, don't panic -- remember the advice your father gave you on your wedding day.
[remembers Abe with hair and a tuxedo]
ABE: If you ever travel back in time, don't step on anything because even the tiniest change can alter the future in ways you can't imagine.
Via a comment on the Scary Go Round blog I learn that Hummer is using a Ratatat song in their commercials. I frantically google to find out which song, because I have two mix CDs in the queue, both of which contain a Ratatat song, and I don't really want people thinking about SUVs while they're listening.
The song turns out to be "Seventeen Years", which does not appear on either mix but is an excellent song nonetheless. It's nice to see the music I like getting exposure, but in a Hummer commercial? Ew. Seems to me that Ratatat parodies the Hummer aesthetic more than it complements it, to the extent that music without lyrics can parody anything.
It occurred to me, after writing the previous post, that most quotes incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain are less eloquent and not as funny as the stuff Twain actually wrote. That reminded me of the last time I posted a Twain quote, which began with "If science exterminates a disease which has been working for God, it is God that gets the credit, and all the pulpits break into grateful advertising-raptures and call attention to how good he is!" and continues on this subject.
This in turn reminded me of a Daily Show segment from last week in which Jon Stewart questions the application of the term "miracle" to the survival of the passengers in the Air France accident. It's one of the funniest Daily Show pieces I've seen—the clip is online here (the one called "It's a Miracle"). As a bonus, it contains Stewart's reaction to Bob Novak's on-air meltdown.
We may not have Mark Twain to comment on today's Gilded Age, but at least we've got Jon Stewart.
Finally, typical summer weather has arrived in Berkeley: 57°F and overcast. When I was in Italy I tried to explain this to the Europeans, and they didn't believe me—I did the conversion to Celsius in my head and they assured me I must have made a mistake.
I attempted to bolster my claim by bringing out the famous Mark Twain quote, "The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco." Later I found out that there's no source for this quote; he did write something along these lines, but about Paris:
...anywhere is better than Paris. Paris the cold, Paris the drizzly, Paris the rainy, Paris the damnable. More than a hundred years ago somebody asked Quin, "Did you ever see such a winter in all your life before?" "Yes," said he, "Last summer." I judge he spent his summer in Paris. Let us change the proverb; Let us say all bad Americans go to Paris when they die. No, let us not say it for this adds a new horror to Immortality.