This is Water, David Foster WallaceJAN 16

This an excerpt of the excellent commencement speech David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005, set to video.

I've either heard or read this speech at least 8 or 9 times, and I still got sucked in to watching the entire video.

You can read the whole speech online and in book form or watch it on YouTube. (via kung fu grippe)

Hermione Granger and the Goddamn PatriarchyJAN 16

Along with imagining Mary Poppins as one of Doctor Who's Time Lords, one of my favorite literary alternate realities is imagining Hermione Granger as the main character of the Harry Potter books. In 2011, Sady Doyle wrote a review of the books as if Rowling had focused on Hermione.

In Hermione, Joanne Rowling undermines all of the cliches that we have come to expect in our mythic heroes. It's easy to imagine Hermione's origin story as some warmed-over Star Wars claptrap, with tragically missing parents and unsatisfying parental substitutes and a realization that she belongs to a hidden order, with wondrous (and unsettlingly genetic) gifts. But, no: Hermione's normal parents are her normal parents. She just so happens to be gifted. Being special, Rowling tells us, isn't about where you come from; it's about what you can do, if you put your mind to it. And what Hermione can do, when she puts her mind to it, is magic.

Ditto for the whole "Chosen One" thing. Look: I've enjoyed stories that relied on a "Chosen One" mythology to convince us that the hero is worth our time. I liked Buffy the Vampire Slayer as much as anyone. But it's hard to deny that "Chosen Ones" are lazy writing. Why is this person the hero? Because everyone says he's the hero. Why does everyone say he's the hero? Because everyone says so, shut up, there's magic.

And more recently, Daniel Dalton had a more overtly feminist and humorous take.

It was clear that she was the one who was protecting Harry and Ron, and this was never more evident than when she revealed she could control time.

She'd been using her Time-Turner to attend twice the number of classes, but she agreed to use it to help Harry save his godfather, even though it meant she'd never be able to use it again.

She'd given up her greatest power for her best friend, because helping people made her feel good.

And though she hoped he understood the sacrifice she was making by letting her education slide, she knew he didn't. Because men.

Over the past year or so, I've been rereading the books and rewatching the movies with my kids through the Hermione-as-hero lens. And I've noticed that even without altering the story as Doyle and Dalton do, Hermione is by far the smartest, most loyal, and bravest young witch or wizard at Hogwarts. Harry has his moments but the kid had a rough and abusive childhood and so his principal talent is getting angry and doing stupid impulsive shit. Mainly, he's manipulated by Voldemort and Dumbledore into doing exactly what they want him to do, and he plays the part splendidly. On the other hand, Hermione is an amazing witch and has a real choice as to how she wants to apply her considerable talents. And she chooses goodness, friendship, and doing the right thing over comfort, power, and even her own family, every time. (via @djacobs)

A map of physics, circa 1939JAN 16

Map Of Physics 1939

A map published by Bernard Porter in 1939 depicting physics as a landmass through which several rivers corresponding to the main branches (light, sound, heat, etc.) run and converge into one.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, now in book formJAN 15

Grand Budapest Hotel Book

As an addendum to his 2013 book, The Wes Anderson Collection, Matt Zoller Seitz has written a book on Anderson's latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel.

This supplementary, one-volume companion to The Wes Anderson Collection (Abrams 2013) is the only book to take readers behind the scenes of The Grand Budapest Hotel, with in-depth interviews between Anderson and cultural critic and New York Times bestselling author Matt Zoller Seitz. Anderson shares the story behind the film's conception, the wide variety of sources that inspired it -- from author Stefan Zweig to filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch to photochrom landscapes from turn-of-the-century Middle Europe -- personal anecdotes about the making of the film, and other reflections on his filmmaking process.

Here's an interview with Seitz on the book and Inhabiting Wes Anderson's Universe. This new book will look good next to The Wes Anderson Collection and The Making of Fantastic Mr Fox on my bookshelf.

Update: Martin Venezky is the designer of the book and has shared some spreads from the book. Looks gorgeous.

Genetic algorithm walkersJAN 15

Genetic Walker

This simulator evolves increasingly effective walking creatures through genetic algorithms. After each round, the winners are sent through to the next round and copied by the rest of the competitors, with mutations introduced. At first, the pace of improvement is swift -- two orders of magnitude within 100 generations -- but slows pretty dramatically after that. (via @nickrichter)

Dr. Strangelove's opening title sequenceJAN 15

The Art of the Title covers the opening title sequence to Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.

Notably, none of the aerial footage in the opening came from -- or was even made for -- Kubrick's film. The footage is all stock. Because it came from more than one stock reel, the sequence features multiple aircraft, including an angle from a KC-135 Stratotanker's refueling deck, which dates back to October 20, 1956 and came directly from the Boeing company. The sequence shows the KC-135 transferring its precious fluids to a B-52 Stratofortress, the colossal bomber featured later in the film. The phallic piece of machinery in the first shot, however, is not the refueling probe of a B-52 or of a KC-135, as one would assume, but possibly that of a Gloster Meteor jet fighter. Regardless, it is the first in a long line of sight gags and sex jokes sprinkled throughout the film.

Also included is a short interview with the title designer, Pablo Ferro.

A timeline of the abolition of slavery in the AmericasJAN 15

Here's a map showing when slavery was abolished in North and South America:

Slavery Abolition Map

Surprising, right? Along with Cuba, Brazil, and Puerto Rico, the United States was among the last nations in the Americas to abolish slavery. Americans like to think of ourselves as freedom-loving, progressive, and more "evolved" than other countries, particularly those in the "third world" (what a loaded term that is), but this map shows differently.

It's tempting to dismiss American attitudes toward slavery as something that happened long ago. Except for, you know, the whole Civil Rights Movement and the ongoing racism against African Americans in the US. And there are also many respects in which the US is currently less free, less progressive, and less evolved than some less industrialized nations, e.g. on things like gun control, murder rate, use of the death penalty, prison population, healthcare, and anti-science views (evolution, vaccines). So maybe the lag in abolishing slavery shouldn't be so surprising, particularly because it was so lucrative and the only thing Americans have historically cared more about than freedom is money. (via civil war memory)

The New Yorker's new TV showJAN 15

TV1 is the place to be. Amazon recently signed Woody Allen up to do a show. And today, The New Yorker debuts the first episode of their new show on Amazon: The New Yorker Presents, complete with a Alfred Hitchcock-esque silhouette on the title card to match the riff on the name of Hitch's 50s TV program.

America's most award-winning magazine comes to life in this new docu-series. Produced by Oscar & Emmy winner Alex Gibney, the pilot features a doc from Oscar winner Jonathan Demme based on Rachel Aviv's article "A Very Valuable Reputation," writer Ariel Levy interviewing artist Marina Abramovic, a sketch from Simon Rich and Alan Cumming, poetry read by Andrew Garfield, and cartoons by Emily Flake.

The first episode is free to watch for all. I watched the first five minutes and it's promising and pretty much what you would expect.

  1. Is this what we're going to call these things, television? How many people actually watch these Amazon shows on a television? Increasingly fewer and fewer, I'd guess.

David Ehrlich's top 25 films of 2014JAN 15

David Ehrlich returns with a video montage of his 25 favorite movies of 2014. (Here's his 2013 video.)

His top 5:

5. Gone Girl
4. Nymphomaniac
3. Under The Skin
2. Inherent Vice
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel

These year-end videos by Ehrlich are incredibly effective trailers for movies. Not just the individual films, but the whole idea of cinema itself. Having just watched this, I want to leave my office, head to the nearest theater and just watch movies all day.

8-bit Guardians of the GalaxyJAN 14

There a lots of videos of movies reimagined as 8-bit video games out there (Kill Bill, The Matrix, Pulp Fiction), but I'm posting the Guardians of the Galaxy one because of the excellent chiptune rendition of the Awesome Mix Vol. 1 soundtrack.

Hooked on a Feeling, beep beep doot doot... (via devour)

The US border is 100 miles wideJAN 14

Today I learned that the US government considers the US border as extending 100 miles into the country. This means that states like Maine, Michigan, and Florida are entirely within the border area and 2/3 of the US population lives within the border.

US 100 Mile Border

The problem with this, from the standpoint of the ACLU, is that Border Patrol agents have "certain extra-Constitutional powers" within this area and "routinely" overstep their bounds and violate the constitutional rights of innocent people.

See also 35 maps that explain how America is a nation of immigrants. (via @tcarmody)

Update: So, as you may know, I am not a Constitutional lawyer or even a regular lawyer. The ACLU presumably employs and/or utilizes experts on Constitutional and immigration law. But they have a viewpoint, right? They are interested in the civil liberties of individual Americans. Anyway, Scott Bomboy of the National Constitution Center (who is also not a lawyer), notes that the US has a couple of different ideas of what a border is and what can be done at or within each kind of border is slightly different.

Legally, the 100-mile-wide region is called the "extended border" of the U.S., as defined by Title 8 of the Federal Code of Regulations. There is also something called the "functional equivalent" border, which is the area around international airports in the interior region of the U.S.

The DHS ruling from last Friday said its "warrantless searches" applied to the U.S. "border and its functional equivalent," with no mention of the extended 100-mile border.

Two analysis papers from the Congressional Research Service from 2009 offer some legal insight into what tactics agents can follow within the 100-mile-wide extended border, and why the distinction between the extended border and the other two borders is important.

Searches within the 100-mile extended border zone, and outside of the immediate border-stop location, must meet three criteria: a person must have recently crossed a border; an agent should know that the object of a search hasn't changed; and that "reasonable suspicion" of a criminal activity must exist, says the CRS. (The service had done the legal analyses to prepare Congress members for legislation.)

"Although a search at the border's functional equivalent and an extended border search require similar elements, the extended border search entails a potentially greater intrusion on a legitimate expectation of privacy. Thus, an extended border search always requires a showing of 'reasonable suspicion' of criminal activity, while a search at the functional equivalent of the border may not require any degree of suspicion whatsoever," the CRS says.

In November of 2014, This American Life aired a piece on several people who record on video their interactions with Border Patrol agents at inland checkpoints.

So if you haven't spent much time in the Southwest, you might not know about this. But there are these Border Patrol checkpoints that are just like in the middle of highway interstates and other roads, not at the border, not even near the border. They're as far as 100 miles from the border.

There are dozens of these interior or inland checkpoints across the country. They're mostly in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. But now there are a couple in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Washington state. You know that you're approaching one of these checkpoints, because the speed limit will suddenly drop to 45 miles an hour and then 25. You'll slow down, and you stop, you see these orange cones coming up. And then often there's this big sort of tent-looking structure, like, right in the middle of the highway.

And then you stop, and you're right in the middle of the highway. And an agent in uniform, an armed agent walks up and asks you questions like, are you an American citizen? Sometimes he asks to look in your trunk. All this so they can catch undocumented immigrants and drug smugglers.

I've been through one of these checkpoints in VT, about 40-50 miles from the Canadian border, and hey, these checkpoints really make you feel like a criminal...like if you seem nervous they're going to pull you over and detain you because you seem like you've done something wrong. And that's what the ACLU is concerned about: Border Agents routinely treating law-abiding US citizens as criminals far from their true areas of jurisdiction. Again from This American Life, one guy got his car window broken at a checkpoint because he did not want to cooperate with the agents:

Violence like this doesn't happen a lot in these videos, but it does happen. Agents also broke the window of that pastor I mentioned earlier, Steven Anderson. They tased him and bloodied his face.

In Robert's case, he says the agents seized his cameras, put him in handcuffs, drove him far away to a holding cell, and detained him for hours. Then they drove them even farther away to El Cajon, California, let him out late at night at a bus station, and drove off.

You can watch the video here:

The glass is broken at ~11:00. (thx, @harryh & martha)

24 pieces of life advice from Werner HerzogJAN 14

Werner Herzog Bear

Paul Cronin's book of conversations with filmmaker Werner Herzog is called Werner Herzog - A Guide for the Perplexed. On the back cover of the book, Herzog offers a list of advice for filmmakers that doubles as general purpose life advice.

1. Always take the initiative.
2. There is nothing wrong with spending a night in jail if it means getting the shot you need.
3. Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey.
4. Never wallow in your troubles; despair must be kept private and brief.
5. Learn to live with your mistakes.
6. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern.
7. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it.
8. There is never an excuse not to finish a film.
9. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.
10. Thwart institutional cowardice.
11. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.
12. Take your fate into your own hands.
13. Learn to read the inner essence of a landscape.
14. Ignite the fire within and explore unknown territory.
15. Walk straight ahead, never detour.
16. Manoeuvre and mislead, but always deliver.
17. Don't be fearful of rejection.
18. Develop your own voice.
19. Day one is the point of no return.
20. A badge of honor is to fail a film theory class.
21. Chance is the lifeblood of cinema.
22. Guerrilla tactics are best.
23. Take revenge if need be.
24. Get used to the bear behind you.

I bet this is some of the stuff you learn at Herzog's Rogue Film School:

The Rogue Film School is not for the faint-hearted; it is for those who have travelled on foot, who have worked as bouncers in sex clubs or as wardens in a lunatic asylum, for those who are willing to learn about lockpicking or forging shooting permits in countries not favoring their projects. In short: for those who have a sense of poetry. For those who are pilgrims. For those who can tell a story to four year old children and hold their attention. For those who have a fire burning within. For those who have a dream.

Soderbergh's edit of 2001JAN 14

So. Steven Soderbergh has cut his own version of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like, !!!1

I haven't had a chance to watch this yet, so I don't know what's different about it aside from the shorter runtime of 1h50m. If someone watches it and wants to report in about the differences, let me know. Soderbergh also guessed that Kubrick would have liked shooting on digital:

let me also say i believe SK would have embraced the current crop of digital cameras, because from a visual standpoint, he was obsessed with two things: absolute fidelity to reality-based light sources, and image stabilization. regarding the former, the increased sensitivity without resolution loss allows us to really capture the world as it is, and regarding the latter, post-2001 SK generally shot matte perf film (normally reserved for effects shots, because of its added steadiness) all day, every day, something which digital capture makes moot. pile on things like never being distracted by weaving, splices, dirt, scratches, bad lab matches during changeovers, changeovers themselves, bad framing and focus exacerbated by projector vibration, and you can see why i think he might dig digital.

See also Soderbergh's B&W edit of Raiders of the Lost Ark. (via @fengypants)

Update: Reader and 2001 fan Dan Norquist watched Soderbergh's edit and reported back via email:

I love everything Soderbergh does and I love the fact that he cut this film. It's fun to see it in a more concise form. Really, there's no choppy edits or anything that doesn't make sense (except the whole movie of course!). I did miss some of my favorite parts. I love when the father is talking to his daughter on the video phone. Also, if you weren't around in 1968 it's really hard to describe how scary the Cold War was. There was always this thing hanging over our heads, that the Russians really had the means to destroy us with nuclear weapons. So you really need the full scene where the American meets the Russians (Soviets). The forced, unnatural politeness is so brilliant and helped to give the film context in its time.

All the important stuff is there -- the apes, the monolith, HAL turning evil, astronaut spinning away, the speeding light show (shortened?), old man pointing at space child -- and it's all recut by a master.

Finally, there is something about the full length of the original film that is part of its strength as a piece of art. There is no hurry, no cut to the chase. It's almost as if you have to go through the entire journey before you can earn the bubble baby at the end.

No surprise that he tightened it up into something less Kubrickian and more Soderberghish. Dan closed his email by saying he would recommend it to fans of the original. (thx, dan)

Update: I've seen some comments on Twitter and elsewhere about the legality of Soderbergh posting the 2001 and Raiders edits. The videos are hosted on Vimeo, but are private and can't be embedded on any site other than Soderbergh's. But any enterprising person can easily figure out how to download either video. The Raiders video has been up since September, which means either that Paramount doesn't care (most likely in my mind) or their lawyers somehow haven't caught wind of it, even though it was all over the internet a few months ago (less likely). We'll see if whoever owns the rights to 2001 (Time Warner?) feels similarly.

An interesting wrinkle here is that Soderbergh has been outspoken about copyright piracy and the Internet. From a 2009 NY Times article about a proposed French anti-piracy law:

In the United States, a Congressional committee this week began studying the issue. In a hearing Monday before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, Steven Soderbergh, the film director, cited the French initiative in asking lawmakers to deputize the American film industry to pursue copyright pirates.

Deputizing the film industry to police piracy sounds a little too much like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. I wonder if Soderbergh feels like these edits are legal to post publicly, if they are fair use for example. Or rather if he feels it's not but he can get away with it because he is who he is. (thx, @bc_butler)

Update: Soderbergh has removed his cut of 2001 from his site "AT THE REQUEST OF WARNER BROS. AND THE STANLEY KUBRICK ESTATE". So, that answers that question. (via @fengypants)

  1. I also found out that apparently I had jury duty last week on the same day in the same room as Soderbergh. Total embarrassing fanboy meltdown narrowly avoided.

On the importance of dinersJAN 14

At Serious Eats, Ed Levine writes about Why Diners Are More Important Than Ever. From his ten-point list of what defines a diner:

8. All-occasion places: Diners must rise to many occasions, from first dates to pre- or post-game celebrations by fans or teammates, to wallowing in solitary self-pity. Diners are the best restaurants for planning murders, stick-ups, or other nefarious enterprises.

Being an all-occasion place is not the only egalitarian thing about diners:

People talk about Starbucks reintroducing the notion of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the "third place" in American life: spaces where we gather besides home and work to form real, not virtual, communities. Starbucks and more high-minded cafes that followed in its wake have surely succeeded on this point, but long before 1971, when the first Starbucks opened in Pike Place Market in Seattle, diners were already serving that invaluable function for us, along with the corner tavern.

And that's why we need to cherish our local diners, whether it's a mom and pop or a Waffle House or a Greek coffee shop. They're some of the few cheap, all-inclusive places to eat and hang out and laugh and cry and stay viscerally connected with other folks.

And it warmed my heart to see Ed include Cup & Saucer and Eisenberg's on his list of notable NYC diners. An unusual thing I've noticed about Eisenberg's: instead of getting your check at the table, you just tell the cashier what you ordered on the way out and pay for it. Like on the honor system! Is there anywhere else in NYC that does this? I wonder what their loss rate is compared to the norm?

80s tech and Back to the FutureJAN 13

In his piece on Back to the Future trilogy, Tim Carmody focuses not on the 2015 future of the movies (hoverboards, self-drying jackets, Mr. Fusion) but on what the movies can tell us about technology in the 1980s. This riff on Back to the Future's cassette tape method of time travel is quite clever:

I sometimes call this "the cassette era," and sure enough, cassettes are everywhere. Marty has a Walkman, a camcorder, and an audition tape for his band; the Pinheads have recorded a demo even though they've never played in front of an audience.

As a material support for a medium, the cassette has certain advantages and disadvantages. It's more portable and sturdy than reels or records, and it requires less user interaction or expertise. It requires very fine interactions of miniaturized technology, both mechanical and electronic, in the form of transistors, reading heads, and so forth. Magnetic tape can actually record information as digital or analog, so it's curiously agnostic in that respect.

Cassettes can also be easily rewound or fast forward. It's easy to synchronize and dub the contents of one cassette onto another. And users can easily erase or rerecord information over the same tape.

This has clear implications for how we think - and especially, how our predecessors thirty years ago thought-about time travel. It is no accident that many important time travel films, including the Terminator franchise, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, and yes, the Back to the Future movies, appear at this time. In all three cases, time travel is accomplished with a technological mechanism that allows its users precise control of where they arrive in the timestream. (In earlier time travel stories, travellers slide down a river or awake from a dream, but in the 1980s, the H.G. Wells/Doctor Who conception of time travel through a technological device pretty definitively wins out.) And in all three cases, the goal of time travel is to save and/or rewrite events within a specific person's lifetime, without which a future timeline will cease to exist.

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