Archive for the ‘‘Culture’’ Category


Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

Two things about Facebook’s massive faceplant:

1) Anyone could have seen this coming. The hype was so intense there was no way FB could live up to it. For a company not turning a profit, a $100 billion market cap was just absurd.

2) It’s just three days.

I’m always astonished by the manic pace of financial news. I think our economy would be a lot better off if we just ignored them and worked.

UK Linkorama

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012
  • The rise of resistant diseases is one of the biggest reasons I fear socialized medicine. Innovation is critical to the next century and I am afraid that price controls will kill it.
  • Amazing pictures of the Kowloon City.
  • This is why I read Joe Posnanski religiously. A post about nothing. And it’s beautiful.
  • I was going to write an article taking apart Buzz Blowhard Bissinger on the subject of college football. Now I don’t have to.
  • A study says women value sleep more than sex. This is unsurprising although the reasons are a bit different than what they think. It’s pure economics. For women, sex is available (mostly) when they want it so sleep takes priority. For men, you have to get it when you can, so everything else is secondary. I think Seinfeld did an episode on this, no?
  • Tuesday Linkorama

    Tuesday, May 1st, 2012
  • So my daughter has taken to watching My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic lately. I’m fine with it, since the show is a lot more sophisticated than the stuff she’s liked before. It’s also far less abrasive and ugly than most of the animation that dominates morning TV. Still, I do not understand the brony phenomenon. Really?
  • The best magazine articles ever?
  • The amazing thing about environmental fear-mongers it that they are never discredited by being totally and completely wrong. Thankfully, a handful will own up to it.
  • This story, about potentially innocent men not being informed about flaws in the evidence against them, is appalling and should be bigger. Where the anti-big-government types when it comes to getting innocent people out of jail?
  • The thing that strikes me about this photo essay about the poorest place in America is how relative poverty is. I’m not saying they are not poor or are facing few prospects. I am saying that if you saw the same thing in much of the world, you’d think you were looking at the richest part of the country.
  • Lonely Among Us

    Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

    I’m a little late on this, but the Atlantic ran a recent story arguing that all of our social networking is making us lonelier than ever. There are a few leaps of logic that are too much to me, such as the leadoff anecdote about the lonely death of Yvette Vickers. The author regards it as somehow horrifying that she died alone, unnoticed for six months and her only communications had been with old fans.

    Why is that a problematic anecdote? Because it’s not like people have never died alone before. What was unique about this case was not that a woman died alone and no one noticed for a while. She was childless, not religious and most of her friends were dead. What was unique was that she was not alone; that her contacts with distant fans, however superficial, at least brought her some flitting human contact.

    The article maintains an early balance, pointing out the social media mainly amplify our existing social structure and it does not appear that social media are causing the rise in loneliness. But then it goes off onto one of the most aggravating journalistic excess: the personal stream of consciousness. It mainly rehashes the same argument we have been hearing for years: social media create an artificial social image, social media are superficial, etc., etc.

    The problem is that the Facebook experience she describes is atypical. There are narcissistic people out there who have a zillion friends and carefully cultivate their image. But for almost all of us, it’s a way to stay in contact with people we actually know, to dump off a quick update in the busy world to let people know what’s going on. The typical user has about 130 friends, which is close to what our brains can deal with. And they know most of them pretty well.

    For many, social media are not a replacement for social contact but an intensifier of it. I mentioned last week how I used Facebook to alert everyone I knew to be gallbladder problem. In the process, I heard from several people about their own gallbladder surgeries. Maybe, in the pre-internet days, they would have called the hospital to talk to me. Maybe. But I doubt it.

    Facebook allows me to send pictures to my parents and keep them up to date on their granddaughter. The last time we were in Australia, it allowed my wife to meet up with a childhood friend for the first time in decades. I have had numerous good conversations start from, “Hey, I saw what you said on Facebook yesterday.”

    My political blogging fits the loneliness description more. But while it’s true that the blog and twitter feed don’t harvest close personal friends (and probably does feed some narcissism), it does give me an outlet for stuff I’d just be pacing the room and ranting about. It does, hopefully, give some of my readers something to talk about to their friends. And it allows my friends to choose whether they want to deal with my politics.

    Sullivan’s readers pushed back hard on this, pointing out actual research that shows that an internet user is less isolated than a non-internet user in the same circumstance. Think of how awful it would have been for Yvette Vickers without the fleeting contact of the internet.

    In the end, have heard this line of crap since the dawn of time. Every invention from the printing press to e-mail was supposed to make us a soulless society, to deprive us of real human contact. I’m sure, when man first painted figures on the walls of caves, some self-important dick was saying, “Well, this is all fine. But we’re becoming a soulless society. People don’t pantomime buffalo hunts anymore.”

    But it seems, as the article argues in its more sensible paragraphs, that this is something we have chosen: to have a world that is more connected than ever even as we get lonelier for various reasons that are probably completely unrelated to internet technology. The decline in families and tight-knit communities is a loss. But we are also in world where someone is seconds away from communicating their thoughts to millions, where friendships can be forged over almost anything and where one needs never lose contact with old friends. I too am concerned about the reconfiguring of our social model. But I’m unwilling to get hysterical about it.

    Humans are social animals, no matter what the misanthropy people might think. We will never move to a society where people prefer loneliness over companionship or machines over people (a few genetically self-correcting exceptions aside). I see the enthusiasm for social media as a response to loneliness, not a cause of it. And as such, it’s a good thing.

    Update: More from Althouse.

    The Shakespeare Project: Twelfth Night

    Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

    That’s more like it.

    Twelfth Night is why I started this project. I had never read it; never seen it. And it was a pure delight. As usual, the nobility in the play — the Duke, Olivia, Viola and Sebastian — are mainly background to the true comedy workings of the secondary characters. The interplay between Sir Andrew, Sir Toby, Maria, Fabian, Feste and Malvolio is the highlight of this frantic play. Their interactions, particularly in the cruel plank played on Malvolio, are hilarious. A good comedy needs a straight man but Twelfth Night features two: the vain Malvolio and the idiotic Sir Andrew, both of whom are played like fiddles for the amusement of Sir Toby.

    That’s not to give short shrift to the convoluted romance around Viola. The overbearing melodramatic proclamations of the Orsino and Olivia serve as a sharp contrast to the more practical behavior of the others. Today, the homoerotic aspects — Orsino in love with a boy and Olivia in love with a girl — would be played to the hilt. I’m not quite sure how it went in Shakespeare’s day, with Viola being played by a male actor (a boy pretending to be girl pretending to be a boy). But the plot is tighter than a drum, culminating in a head-spinning Act V when everything finally comes to fruition and then is resolved neatly.

    As I think about it, however, my favorite character has to be Feste, the Clown. He is the most intelligent and insightful person in the play, playing his role as a fool perfectly, moving the characters with subtlety and giving the last melancholy lines. He rapidly became one of my favorite Shakespeare creations.

    Next Up: The Winter’s Tale

    The Shakespeare Project: The Taming of the Shrew

    Thursday, April 12th, 2012

    Wikipedia has about 745 pages on this play attempting to divine its true origin, its possible version and its possible meaning. You will rarely see people bend themselves into such amazing shapes to try to somehow exonerate the writer of a piece of literature and claim that the words on the page either aren’t his or aren’t really what he meant. The discussions continually circulate back to he old, “oh, that’s satire” excuse, even though Shakespeare is not generally that subtle.

    But there’s a good reason for all this rigamarole: The Taming of the Shrew … well … isn’t good.

    Oh, it has some redeeming qualities. Kate starts out as a good character. Smashing the lute over Hortensio’s head made me laugh, even thought it happened off stage (in act, almost all of the really hilarious stuff, including the wedding, happens offstage). Her initial wordplay with Petruchio is so sharp that I hoped I would go on to read more, that this would be another Beatrice and Benedick. Alas, by the end of that very scene, she is already reduced to a passive complaint woman, not even objecting to being engaged.

    There is some fun dialogue when Lucentio and Hortensio are trying to woo Bianca. But that whole plot twists itself with the needless disguises, ultimately resolved in about two lines of dialogue. The character of Tranio is one of my favorites. He is probably the smartest man in the play. If there were any justice, he would have run off with Bianca.

    Really, the more I think about it, the more sympathetic I am to the notions that this was a rough early draft or something that Shakespeare rushed out on deadline. There are just so many missed opportunities, so many problems, so many plot holes that I can’t believe this is what he intended to write.

    Hence the contortions.

    Next Up: Twelfth Night

    Thursday Linkorama

    Thursday, March 8th, 2012
  • I agree that most of these words need to die. Mancave, especially.
  • God rest the real heroes of WW2.
  • Fricking Australia, man.
  • Fascinating, if somewhat tedious evolution of the Eroica symphony.
  • Why Putin won the election.
  • Amazing before and after photos from the collapse of communism. You will rarely see the failure of that economic “system” so well demonstrated.
  • A nice story about the newest woman to join Forbes list of billionaires.
  • The Shakespeare Project: As You Like It

    Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

    I would say that it was due to reading on a trans-pacific light. But this is the second time this play had failed to make much of an impression on me. This was the play I saw in the redwoods at Santa Cruz and I barely remember any of it (I only recognized it because the actor playing Jaques looked into his pants when discussing what the time was.)

    This just seems to be a play built from segments of other plays, notably the forest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The villain disappears almost immediately. The device of Rosalind’s disguise is a bit too clever. And most of the couples fail to make an impression.

    There are some amusing parts and Jaques’ “All the World is a stage” speech is justifiably famous. I found it amusing in performance. But I’m inclined to agree with the critics on this one that it lacks the depth of the best comedies.

    Next Up: The Taming of the Shrew

    Gold Coast Linkorama

    Monday, February 13th, 2012
  • A fascinating look at the ultra-orthodox hasidic sects springing up. I think there would be a lot more panic about this if they followed a different faith.
  • Only in Right-Wing World: a new study comes out with the best constraints yet on glacial melting. And it’s spun as being a huge blow against global warming theory because the melting is less than predicted.
  • Science fiction has ever imagined a universe as incredible as the real thing.
  • Oops. ESPN has some explaining to do.
  • Personally, I seriously doubt that concussions are going to end football. The article is full of weak arguments and assumptions. But I do think the issue of concussions and neurological damage is going to get bigger.
  • The Shakespeare Project: The Merchant of Venice

    Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

    If it weren’t for the ending, I would like this play a lot better. As it is, it has its moments of brilliance, particularly Portia’s ridiculing of her past suitors and Shylock’s famous speech. The romantic subplot is side-lined, generating little tension. The idea that no one thought to pick the lead casket strains credulity. And maybe it’s just me, but the sidekicks — who usually generate much of Shakespear’s humor — seem subdued. But, all in all, this is a typical entry into the cannon — quotable, fun and a fast read.

    Until, that is, Act IV.

    Maybe it’s because I’m Jewish but the ending of this play infuriates me. Shylock is deprived of a perfectly reasonable debt by a legal theory that wouldn’t water in a kangaroo court administered by someone who, technically speaking, has no legal authority. The logic used to defeat Shylock — that he could not get a pound of flesh without spilling blood — easily destroys Portia’s argument that he tried to kill a Venetian. A more typical twist of this would be to have Portia’s argument used to threaten the hero, then to have him rescued by a wiser ruling. But, of course, the entire court scene is a farce, degenerating quickly into an excuse to impoverish, humiliate and convert Shylock, a character I find unsympathetic and deserving of a comeuppance, but not one as arbitrary and total as the one he gets.

    That, of course, brings me to the big question about this play: is The Merchant of Venice anti-semitic? Well, there’s a good case to be made that it is. Jews and Judaism are denounced repeatedly. The hero of the play admits to abusing and spitting on Shylock. The happy ending has both Shylock and Jessica converting to Christianity and there is zero irony or ambivalence about it. To the extent that there is sympathy for Shylock — his famous speech — it still regards his religion as more of a tragic flaw. Othello the Moor’s religion was treated with more respect than this.

    Historically, the role was played was little sympathy until modern times. The fact that the role can be made sympathetic has less to do with any subconscious sympathy in the writer and more to do a key factor of Shakespeare’s enduring brilliance: the ability of the plays to resonate in any context or performance. The Taming of the Shrew still appeals when converted into a teen comedy; Macbeth is still compelling even, as my Twitter friends discussed, he’s a vet with PTSD; and Shylock can be made into a sympathetic character. This happens because Shakespeare spoke to deep needs, fears and emotions. This happens because all of his characters and plots are multi-layered. This happens because he was Shakespeare.

    (Defenders claim Shylock is vilified and humiliated more for his greed and usury than his religion. Apart from ignoring the plain text, this misses the context. Banking was synonymous with European Jews in the last millenium because Christians tought charging interest was sinful. Since Jews were going to hell anyway and were barred from most other professions, they naturally became bankers. And it wasn’t long before the caricature of the greedy Jew arose. So vilifying Shylock for usury and greed, in the Elizabethan Era, isn’t that far from vilifying him for his faith.)

    In the comments on one play, I noted arguments I had in college over Chaucer’s “Prioress’ Tale”. The Prioress’s Tale is clearly anti-semitic but my professor and my class bent over backward to pretend that it was really mocking anti-semitism. I countered that their desperation to prove Chaucer was free of or wasn’t exploiting any anti-semitic feeling was a form of modern chauvinism. Chaucer didn’t invent anti-semitism. He was a man of his time, born into a country that had expelled Jews and regarded them as intrinsically evil. Anti-semitism would be as natural for a man of 14th century England as racism was or a man of the 19th. His writing is just as brilliant if he were anti-semitic than if he weren’t. In fact, the Prioress’s tale is quite well-told, for being a blood libel story.

    Shakespeare didn’t invent anti-semitism and, to my knowledge, it doesn’t appear in any other works. And it’s likely that, like Chaucer, his use of a Jew as the villain more to do with is culture that any particular feeling of his. But the disdain for Jews and Judaism by the heroes of Merchant is unmistakable. Why should we refuse to accept that he might have accepted the same things about Jews that everyone else did?

    Frankly, the beliefs of artists don’t really bother me. There are many modern artists who embraced the murderous soul-crushing evil of communism. There are many who have embraced racism, anti-semitism, anti-Islamism, sexism and any other form of bigotry you care to nominate. We shouldn’t ignore the brilliant things they make when they are not irreparably tainted. Shakespeare is the greatest writer in history. Merchant of Venice is a great play. That Shakespeare might have bought into the common and official belief that Jews were evil does not change that.

    Next Up: As You Like It


    Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

    I’m sure wiser heads have commented on this, but I was struck by something while watching Tron: Legacy the other night: the growing influence of minimalism in American movie soundtracks.

    Let me back up a bit. In the early 90’s, I saw an outstanding documentary called The Thin Blue Line. Errol Morris, who is the film-maker Michael Moore wishes he were, made a compelling case that an innocent man was on death row — such a compelling case that he was released a year later.

    One of the great things about the film is the score, which was put together by minimalist composer Phillip Glass. At the time, I had no idea what minimalist music was. When I first heard the name, I assumed it was what it sounded like — an orchestra where the violin would play one note, the trumpet would play another and that would be it: a more upbeat version of Cage’s silence. But minimalism is more complex than that. And Glass’s score, with its emphasis on rhythm and harmony at the exclusion of melody, was perfect for the movie. It gave an unusual urgency to the narrative and the increasing complexity of the harmony emphasized the increasing complexity of the story you were required to believe to conclude that Randall Dale Adams was guilty.

    Glass did another score for The Hours which was very similar — his music all begins to sound alike after a while. But it also elevated that movie, especially the scene where Julianne Moore hallucinates that the room is flooding.

    So, back to Tron. Daft Punk’s score is very good and also very minimalist. It is built on a handful of leit motifs with lots of repetition, increasing complexity and changing emphasis. It gives the film almost all of its energy and drive. But Tron is not unique. Inception had a very minimalistic score. Doctor Who uses a fair amount of minimalism. Both Batman movies use a lot of minimalism. Hans Zimmer, in particular, has been driving the minimalist train for several years with dramatic success.

    So why is minimalism so big now? I think because it is well-suited to the kind of entertainment we’re seeing — fast-paced, quickly-edited, quick moving films that have little time for symphonic scores. They need a score that moves the movie, rather than emphasizes it. This is especially true of science fiction and fantasy films where a minimalist score can match the “techie” look and feel.

    That’s not to slam symphonic scores like those of John Williams, whose epic scores for the three Star Wars prequels were the best things about them. Howard Shore’s score for Lord of the Rings, with its strong Wagnerian influence, is wonderful. But the palette has now broadened to the point where a minimalist score can not only be acceptable, but one of the best scores of the year.

    We’re in a golden age of movie scores. If only the scripts could keep up.

    New Year Linkorama

    Thursday, January 5th, 2012
  • Charles Krauthammer has an unusually thoughtful and interesting article about extrasolar planets.
  • Mathematical Malpractice watch: the entertainment industry.
  • This is an incredibly sad story.
  • One cool art project.
  • Two cool art projects. Abby would love this one.
  • The Shakespeare Project: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

    Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

    “And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together now-a-days; the more the pity that some honest neighbors will not make them friends.” – Bottom

    What can I say about A Midsummer Night’s Dream that has not already been said? It is (so far) the best of the comedies. Some of the lesser comedies drag on a bit (at least on the page) and I have to will myself to finish. Every time I read Dream, I fly through it, delighted with everything I’m reading — every plot twist, every beautiful turn of phrase, every word. Not a character or scene is wasted. By the time I reach the end, I feel like I’ve rushed through the story.

    I did notice one thing this time around, something I’m noticing when I read plays that I read previously in high school or college: the characters with whom I identify the most has changed. The first time I read Dream, my favorite character was Puck. But this time, I found myself in far more sympathy with Bottom, the little man who so dreams of being big. The play at the end, which previously annoyed me, now seems almost poignant.

    (As an aside, the 1999 film version of this play is quite serviceable. Kevin Klein, Stanley Tucci and Michelle Pfeiffer all show a wonderful ease with the material, eschewing the usual overdramatic intonation that tends to characterize bad Shakespeare productions. It’s not great, but it’s very watchable.)

    Next Up: Merchant of Venice

    Christmas Eve Linkorama

    Saturday, December 24th, 2011
  • Utterly compelling pictures of Japan’s tsunami damage.
  • A fascinating art project with drowned statues.
  • Fascinating pictures of the Battle of the Bulge.
  • Hayek and Orwell: one of my favorite writers discussed another of my favorites.
  • Can men and women be friends? Yes, but. I do remember, when I was college age, how much women liked being friends with men who wanted them.