Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Farm Subsidies

I was going through newspapers that arrived while I was on vacation and came across this editorial on how dumb farm subsidies are. I really don't have anything to add here except that if somebody were serious about cleaning up the federal budget, getting rid of, or at least phasing out, farm subsidies should be a no-brainer. They're a needless use of taxpayer money for corporate welfare that unbalances the economy, contributes to global poverty, screws with the environment, worsens health, etc. Just let the market do its thing.

R.I.P., Michelangelo Antonioni

So now we learn that not one, but two of cinema's true greats died yesterday. It's difficult not to compare the two. Bergman's fame was more widespread and not without reason, but I think his skills as a dramatist were such that he would have been a success if he had stayed with the stage or come to prominence at any point in the twentieth century. Antonioni's strengths were more unique to film and the 1960s, and his movies are a bit harder to get into than Bergman's.

Nevertheless, I went on an Antonioni kick a decade or so ago and have seen seven* of his films, though only 1995's Beyond the Clouds was in a theater. After watching The Passenger, I jokingly referred to his pictures as "inaction movies," as he's constantly thwarting our expectations of a dramatic arc. But what is happening in his movies is that his struggles with modern life are being explored in ways that can't be spoken, conveyed through the composition, setting, and timing of his films, and through characters who often can't find the words to express their feelings, either. It's inherently difficult to write about a filmmaker whose movies are about lack of communication. Better just to watch them. Or take a trip out to Death Valley and feel it for yourself.*The seven are L'Avventura, L'Ecclise, Red Desert, Blow-Up, Zabriskie Point, The Passenger, and Beyond the Clouds.

UPDATE: Vic has written some more elaborate thoughts on Antonioni, too.

Monday, July 30, 2007

R.I.P., Ingmar Bergman

The great Swedish director died today at the age of 89. I rarely find myself in a Bergman mood, but I have watched four of his films*, and they're unassailably good. Bergman brought a real artist's hand to his movies and seemed like a grown-up in an industry full of little boys.

Victor Morton is a big Bergman fan, so I'm watching to see if Vic de-lurks on his own blog to write something about him. You can see what he wrote about Bergman's cinematographer Sven Nykvist here, and about Bergman vs. Hitchcock here.

UPDATE: Vic doesn't disappoint. He's written a meaty post on Bergman here.
*For the record, the four are The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Persona, and Autumn Sonata. All but the last one were on film, not video. Needless to say, I should really see more.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Who Needs the Kwik-E-Mart?

"I dooooooooo."

A few weeks ago I visited one of the 7-Elevens that have been transformed into Kwik-E-Marts to promote The Simpsons Movie, this one at Venice and Sepulveda in West L.A. Now that the movie's been released, I figured I'd better post the photos while the promo's still going (I don't know when it ends). There's also a location in Burbank, and there are ten other locations around North America. It was 1:30 A.M. and there was still a line to get in.
I haven't seen the movie yet; my wife and I are going to go once she's done with a presentation for school.

Friday, July 27, 2007

New Links!

If you look to the right and scroll down, you can see that I've revised my list of links. A few subtractions, more additions, and some other reorganization. I invite you to peruse them.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Food for Thought

This article (it's 7 pages long) by James Fallows in the Atlantic Monthly is almost a year old, but there's a lot of food for thought in it. It's an assessment of how the first five post-9/11 years have looked from al-Qaeda's perspective, based on interviews with a lot of people considered "experts" on the situation.

I don't know what an expert on the Global War on Terror is, but I know I'm not one, so I really can't say if the assessments in the article are true or not. But they make a fair amount of good sense to me. Basically what he says is that things haven't been going too well for al-Qaeda, but what has gone well for them has been due to America's mistakes.

There are a lot of other points in the article, too, both big and small, and it's worth reading. What I'm really not sold on, though, is the conclusion he makes in the last couple of pages, that the U.S. should basically "declare victory" on terrorism while still recognizing that it's out there. It has the distinct smell of "Mission Accomplished" to me, and, of course, if a big bomb were to explode the next day, well, how would that look? Also, of course, Osama bin Laden is still at large.

Come to think of it, though, what exactly is the exit strategy on the Global War on Terror? We've had enough trouble coming up with measurable objectives, much less meeting them, in Iraq. How do we declare that we're back in the pre-9/11 era and everybody can let their guard down again? I don't know if we ever can. But what can we do, and when?

One thing the article touches on is that there are the things we're doing that are making a difference --- like monitoring international bank transactions --- and there are things that are basically for show. Are both necessary? I've been flying a lot lately, and I have mixed feelings about the airport security. I've accidentally brought hair gel onto a plane, for example, and it wasn't detected. But it does seem like it would at least take some effort to bring weapons onto a plane; you can't just stroll on with a box cutter, the door to the cockpit is reinforced, and post-Flight 93 passengers aren't going to be so compliant with hijackers anymore.

Monday, July 16, 2007

"My oath, like your oath, is to uphold the Constitution."

From Matthew Yglesias, watch Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) deliver the smackdown on a Bush staffer. This kind of crap is emblematic of what's wrong with the Executive branch these days.

Update: Here's some context.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


1. The Philadelphia Phillies just lost their 10,000th game in franchise history, the first team to reach that dubious milestone. You can check out teams' all-time records here on the BaseballReference.com site. The Braves, who've been the best team in the National League over the past 15 years, are second on the all-time loss list with 9,681.

Although the New York Yankees, predictably enough, have the best overall winning percentage at .567, the American League has only been around since 1901, so the older National League franchises have played more games. The team with the most all-time wins, then, (10,151) is the Giants, who didn't add to their total this weekend, getting swept by the Dodgers at home as Barry Bonds went 0-for-12 in the series. The Cubs, who have been around since 1876 and were actually pretty good the first few decades of their existence, are second with 9,946.

Here's a trivia question for you, though: What's the only expansion franchise (i.e., one that came into existence sometime within the past 100 years) with an overall winning record? Nope, it's not any of the two-time World Series champion teams, the Mets, Blue Jays, or Marlins. It's the Arizona Diamondbacks, who hold a slim 777-774 margin after their loss today. The two others that are closest are the Houston Astros and the Toronto Blue Jays, who are 18 and 46 games, respectively, under .500 after play today.

The worst overall record for an existing franchise, of course, is held by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who've been awful since their inception. In their best season to date, they finished 3 games above last place, 21 games below .500.

Another neat thing about that page is that you can check out all the defunct franchises from the 1800s, like the Cleveland Spiders, Ward's Wonders of Brooklyn, the Worcester Ruby Legs, and the St. Paul Apostles, who lasted for all of 8 games in 1884.

2. The Baseball Crank ranks what he considers to be the most impressive records in baseball. It's a good list. On numerous occasions in the past I've seen lazy sportswriters talk about the "most unbreakable" records and then name things like Joe DiMaggio's hit streak or Ripken's consecutive games streak. Those are both difficult and impressive things to do, but there's no reason why somebody else couldn't do them again.

But there's no way anybody's going to beat Cy Young's 511 career wins, and his 749 career complete games are 631 more than the active leader, Roger Clemens, has. Nobody pitches as much as they did 100 years ago, and nobody gets even remotely close to completing as many games. It's just not going to happen. Nobody's going to beat Sam Crawford's career triples mark, either. I think Mr. Crank has a better idea by just throwing out the "most unbreakable" metric and going with "most impressive," instead.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Old Computers

Check out this 1982 Atlantic Monthly article about the wonders of owning a home computer.
...many people suspect that IBM will wage a counteroffensive with a DOS of its own.
His Processor Technology SOL-20 system, a computer I hadn't even heard of, had 48K of RAM and could use both upper- and lower-case letters, and cost about $4,000. The heavy-duty business machines had 64K of RAM. The weird Osborne, the first portable computer, weighed 23 pounds and had a monitor the size of a postcard. And it was a big seller.

Donna Bowman reminisced on the computers she's had a couple of Mondays ago, going back to a TRS-80. Our family got a TRS-80 Color Computer sometime around 1981 or 1982. It had a whopping 16K of RAM, and we never even graduated beyond cassettes and cartridges to a disk drive, but we did have the "Extended Color BASIC." We never got a real printer for it, though my dad did fiddle around with trying to convert an old teletype machine to a printer. Maybe it didn't do much by today's standards, but I played games more interesting than those on game machines of the time and learned how to program in BASIC, which was a lot of fun.

Sometime in junior high (Christmas 1985 or 1986) I got a Commodore 64 that was my machine until its disk drive finally conked out for good, sometime around my senior year of high school (1990-91), maybe in the summer before college. With the C64 I played a LOT of games (many of them cracked), did a lot of BBSing (local calls only), fiddled with BASIC while learning PASCAL at school, and wrote all my school papers, which I printed out on my "Near-Letter-Quality" dot-matrix printer. If I had a good old Atari joystick I'd get an emulator and play a lot of those games today, but without the joystick, it's not the same (this is the cue for me to Google "atari joystick usb").

Man, I haven't done any real (i.e., non-HTML) computer programming since learning C in college. I never even got to object-oriented programming. Seems like these days there are applications like Excel (actually, I use openoffice.org) that do most of the number-manipulating I'd be programming, if I were programming. But it seems like I'd find useful things to do if I relearned a programming language or two, though. What do people use these days to program web applications like, say, Marty O'Brien's county-counting site?

Friday, July 13, 2007

In the News

1. This is the feel-good armed robbery story of the year. I wish all violent conflicts could be resolved with wine and hugs.

2. Twenty years of NIMBYist political opposition to expanding the subway west along Wilshire Boulevard have faded away, but there still isn't any money for it, which is a shame, because of the various proposed rail lines in L.A., it's probably the segment that would do the most good. Even with the various planned expansions, though, we're decades away from the Metro Rail being really comprehensive.

3. This "inland port" idea, however, is one of the best ideas for reducing congestion I've seen in a while. There's no reason why so much non-local cargo should be on our highways instead of on rail lines while it's still in the urban core.

4. All the merits or demerits of "torture porn" aside, good call on Patt Morrison for exposing the Captivity marketing campaign's dishonest, alarmist, exploitative, and grossly misleading use of missing person statistics.

5. Brain researcher Drew Westen's research backs up what I've been saying about the Democrats for years --- they need candidates who will connect with voters' emotions, not the policy lecturers. Will they take his advice? Probably not, but we can hope.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Annoying Omission

This AP obituary of Lady Bird Johnson mentions how she got her nickname but fails to tell us that her real name was Claudia.

R.I.P., Mrs. Johnson.

UPDATE: They've corrected the article now.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Confusing ways to live your life

Wouldn't it be odd if your last name happened to be, say, Ford, and you wanted to open up an auto dealership, but you wanted to sell, say, Chevys instead of Fords? You could really confuse matters by naming your dealership "Ford Chevrolet."
"Hi, I'm looking for an F-150."
"Sorry, 'Ford' is just our name. Might I interest you in a Silverado?"
I suppose even if you decided to sell Fords instead, there'd be the confusion of everyone thinking you were with the Ford family that founded the company. It could be awfully confusing if you incorporated your dealership under the name "Ford Auto Company" when you had to do all of your dealings with the Ford Motor Company.

Gerald Ford was from Michigan; I wonder if when he was running for Congress he won (or lost) any votes depending on the voter's feelings about the Ford Motor Company. Maybe early in his career he had keep telling people "Hi, I'm Gerald Ford - no relation to Henry."

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Things We Love About America

If you check out Andrew Sullivan's blog today, he's been posting all sorts of things to love about America. He's up to Part XIX. Part V was that the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema was holding its own Transformers premiere with a real-live fire-breathing, car-eating Dinobot:
I hope that embedding worked.

UPDATE: Oops! Sorry, Howard Zinn says America is bad. Put away your flags and let Zinn be the wet blanket on your fireworks. Sigh. If anyone ever wonders why I reject an association with leftists, it's because they write stuff like that. News flash: America has done some bad stuff, unlike Norway, Costa Rica, and Switzerland, which are apparently pure as the driven snow.

In the News

1. If you scroll down to the third video clip here, you can see Telemundo's Mirthala Salinas deliver the news that L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is splitting up with his wife. What she neglected to mention to her viewers, though, was that she was the other woman in the relationship causing the breakup. D'oh!

2. Harlan J. Protass at Slate (man, what a name) notes that the logic the President used in commuting Libby's sentence is precisely the sort of logic his administration wants to deny judges who would consider the mitigating circumstances of a case when sentencing ordinary obstructors of justice who aren't the VP's buddy. It's also worth pointing out that Bush wasn't so much into his power to commute sentences when he was governor of Texas.

Architects are Delusional

Last week the L.A. Times had an article about the house Charles and Ray Eames built for themselves in 1949, the occasion for the article being a celebration of the house on what would have been Charles's 100th birthday. The house is Modernist with a capital M, a rectangular box built out of steel and glass. I've never seen it in person, but it looks pretty cool, with a big atrium in the living room, a great setting in Pacific Palisades, outer walls that look like Mondrian paintings, etc. And the Eameses certainly deserve major props for their influential office designs, Powers of Ten, the Mathematica exhibit, etc. I have no problem with celebrating the house or the Eameses.

But the article isn't just a celebration of the house, it has a thesis statement:
Their 1949 house is the blueprint for 21st century L.A. living.
Charles and Ray Eames' 1949 Pacific Palisades home... has profoundly influenced how Southern Californians nest, even to this day.
Right, because so many people in Southern California live in houses that look like this:
Uh, no, not really. OK, the high-ceilinged living room, that I can buy. Aside from that, though, the article --- and pretty much any architecture book you pick up and read --- ignores the fact that most members of the public looked at Modern architecture and said, "no thanks." You can trace the lineage of, say, the office buildings, museums, and prefab warehouses being built today to Modernism, but for living spaces, the general public has consistently looked back to traditional forms --- pitched roofs, articulated forms, ornament, surfaces that at least look like traditional building materials, etc. --- for decades now.

The dogma of Modernism, though, taught us that all that stuff was bad and that the wave of the future was going to be "efficient" geometric steel and glass forms. Adolf Loos proclaimed in 1930:
From a thirty year struggle I have emerged as victor: I have liberated humanity from superflous ornament. . . 'Ornament' was once an epithet for 'beautiful.' Today it is, thanks to my life's work, an epithet for 'inferior.'
How's that struggle going, Adolf?That's a shot I took of a new single-family house in Hemet while I was doing a land-use survey there a couple years ago. It's very typical of what gets built in Southern California these days. In terms of style, it reaches back to the Mission Revival of the 1920s exemplified in downtown Santa Barbara, which itself reached back to, of course, the missions and ranchos of the 1770s - 1860s or so. Of course, that house wasn't built with adobe and it doesn't have a courtyard; in terms of function and construction, you can draw a straight line from the early industrial towns of the mid-1800s to the kit homes popular at the turn of the 20th century to the postwar Levittown subdivisions, and then add 60 years of technological changes and consumer preferences.

Getting back to my first paragraph, I like Modernism, to a certain extent. I admire how the Modernists attempted to rewrite the rules of aesthetics. I think it's pretty remarkable that they managed to create beautiful buildings (as the Eames House is) under the new rules, especially considering that the old rules went back a couple of millenia. And in the broader sense, of course, there are many great Modernist paintings, novels, orchestral works, etc. But while I might admire some grand modernist steel-and-glass structure when I go downtown to visit a museum or need an airport terminal, by and large when people come home they want something welcoming, and ornament and a pitched roof is no sin.

As a side note, I remember several years ago my friend Mike Radford made a good observation. He noted that Modernist buildings may look good when they are new, but they don't weather well. It's true. Bare walls and geometric shapes are based on a stark, minimalist aesthetic. But when subjected to years of rain, dirt, sun damage, and other wear, the sharp corners and monochrome panels aren't sustained. A building made of wood or stone, though, isn't based on an aesthetic of "perfect" forms and blends in well with natural weathering.

Happy 4th of July!

I decided I couldn't stand to look at news about George Bush at the top of my blog any more, so I'm taking that down and replacing it with some random crap, starting with:

1. Two months ago (yes, this is really just an excuse to have something else at the top of my blog), Bill Simmons wrote:
In fact, here are 10 reasons I'm happy the Rocket signed with the Yankees.
We're coming closer and closer to my dream of Clemens' Hall of Fame plaque featuring a cap with a dollar sign on it. I feel as if that's a genuine possibility at this point.
2. Meanwhile, hey, it's Independence Day! Yay, America! Even with Bush as President, we're still the greatest country on Earth! Just don't let this happen to you:

I came across that burned-out fireworks stand in Costa Mesa on July 5, 2005, while I was going to Wienerschnitzel for lunch. Photos by me.
Side note: do confused Austrians ever walk up to a Wienerschnitzel looking for, you know, actual Wiener Schnitzel? You'd think they should put it on the menu just to avoid problems like that.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

"You must renounce terror"

Here's a fascinating article in The Guardian by a former Jihadist in Britain describing how he and his former pals would laugh when people blamed terrorism on foreign policy; he says the real issue is theological.