Saturday, February 24, 2007

Braving Madison's blizzard to not see Geraldine Chaplin at UW Cinematheque

I've been waiting forever for this once-in-a-lifetime oportunity to see Geraldine Chaplin star in a rare print of this "chilling conundrum," a French pirate movie, made in 1976 by a founding member of the New Wave, Jacques Rivette -- or if not forever, at least since I saw the schedule for the spring film series at UW Cinematheque. So T and I were not about to let a little thing like what our hyperexcited TV weather droids called an "unprecedented" winter storm stop us. From the emailed program notes about the object of my desire:
Nor'west (Noroît) (France, 1976, 135 min., 35mm, color) Dir. Jacques Rivette. Writ. Eduardo de Gregorio, Marilù Parolini, Jacques Rivette. Cast Geraldine Chaplin, Bernadette Lafont, Kika Markham, Humbert Balsan.

Rivette’s puzzling foray into mythology and the pirate genre is a loose adaptation of Cyril Tourneur’s play The Revenger’s Tragedy. Chaplin stars as a grieving woman intent on avenging her brother’s death at the hands of a band of female pirates, lead by Lafont. “The strangest by far of Rivette’s films… days or weeks after you see this chilling conundrum of a movie, sounds and images may come back to haunt you” -- Jonathan Rosenbaum. Imported print! In French with English subtitles.

A founding member of the French New Wave and a former critic for Cahiers du Cinéma, Jacques Rivette has enjoyed an incredibly prolific career for over five decades, making thoroughly challenging, multilayered, and playful films that blur the lines between art and life, fantasy and reality, and liberty and suppression. Most of his films, however, have been largely unavailable to North American audiences – only two of his twenty-two features are in theatrical distribution in this country. The Cinematheque’s seven-film retrospective (culled from a complete retrospective organized by the Museum of the Moving Image) samples Rivette’s oeuvre from several different periods in the auteur’s career. All films are in French with English subtitles. Series cosponsored by the Center for European Studies.
Undeterred by the dire warnings, we drove downtown, had dinner at Porta Bella, and then trudged through several blocks of driving snow to Vilas Hall at the corner of Park and University. The fact that the stairs were drifted over and there was only one set of footprints other than ours, already filling in, did not seem to bode well. Nevertheless, we held on to the railing and stumbled upward, toward the film I was sure would be screening (T had been skeptical all along, but humored me).

The Cinematheque was a warm refuge from the winter furies outside. I love that place, one of Madison's secret treasures, which conducts free showings for students and general public alike -- first come, first served -- of films almost impossible to see elsewhere, since most are not in DVD. The rare prints come in from all over the world and are screened Friday and Saturday evenings during the fall and spring semesters, and on other special occasions as well. All in a gem of a thoughtfully designed theater, with state of the art projection systems for 35mm, 16mm and video transfer, with excellent seats and perfect sight lines from anyplace in the room.

But there was no audience, and no film. We were met at the door by UW Cinematheque Programmer Tom Yoshikami, who was profiled by Kristian Knutsen in The Daily Page last fall.
Considering the legacy of film screenings at the UW, particularly in terms of the film societies in the '60s and '70s and the experiences of people like David Zucker and Mike Wilmington, where does the Cinematheque fit into this history?
The Cinematheque absolutely comes from that film society tradition. Madison has always had a great film-going scene with adventurous audiences. Although film societies scene may not be as flourishing today as they once were (perhaps because of video and DVD), people still want to venture out and watch films with an audience.

And the Cinematheque is able to give them that experience of films that they often wouldn't be able to see any other place. In addition to showing films in their original format (which is often beautiful 35mm), we can offer our audience a collective experience that watching films at home just can't replicate.

The Cinematheque screens films from nearly every decade in the 20th Century. Where do you think film series and programs dedicated to preservation and the art form of the feature film fit as visual entertainment moves online?
Watching films over the internet will never replace watching 35mm prints in real theaters. Seeing films online or even projected on video can suggest what a certain film may look like, but there's just no comparison between even a beautifully produced DVD and a solid 35mm print.

There is, however, no question that the move towards video-on-demand and online film culture has affected film-going. On the one hand, as films are made increasingly available online, some people argue that there's no reason to go out to a theater to watch a film when one can see that same thing at home. On the other hand, as online film culture proliferates and as people become more knowledgeable about film, they learn that the movie they're watching on their computer might resemble what the filmmaker intended them to see, but is very different from watching a 35mm print of the same film.
Tom reluctantly informed us that the city of Madison had canceled public transportation because of the snow, the Cinematheque's projectionist was not there, and they had to cancel the showing. The print would be on its way to a showing in Seattle on Wednesday, but Tom said he would rebook it sometime this spring, perhaps at the end of the Rivette series. They had sent out an email notice about an hour earlier, which probably stopped some people. A few others showed at the door after us. Nobody seemed particularly surprised or upset about the cancellation -- except one man who did seem kind of pissed off, maybe because he had driven all the way from Milwaukee.

I took a few pictures, including some of Tom. He said he shared my dislike of flash (I propped my camera up on a ledge and used the self timer, which makes for nice steady time exposures with a point-and-shoot.) Then we thanked him and headed back out into the night.

There was nothing to be done except slog back out the way we came.

ATD reviewed 100 years from now

What with other reading, work, the weather, etc., I've been taking a break from Pynchon's intimidating Against the Day (I've always been terrible with huge books), but have been looking for a spark to get me started again. I figure this review from 100 years from now -- via Garth at The Millions -- should help. Some snippets:
The year is 2107. Thomas Pynchon is, not surprisingly, well-represented on bookshelves. Still in print, still read. Thanks in no small part to the late-period efflorescence of Mason & Dixon, (and of course the extraordinary seventh and eighth novels), the man is now recognized as one of the 20 or 30 Great American Voices: tough and tender, erudite and foolish, and oddly, it turns out, elegiac.


Ultimately, the inhabitants of the future will read Pynchon for the same reason people did back in 2007: because he does exactly what the hell it wants to. In this way, Against the Day is very much of a piece with his previous books. Though it may not be as structurally sound as Gravity's Rainbow, it is certainly as imaginative. And if it lacks some of the depth of Mason & Dixon's title characters, it builds on that book's ethical maturity, laying out a vision of right and wrong for the post-utopian age it turns out we're all living in. To tax Against the Day with plotlessness or bloat, as some reviewers apparently did once upon a time, is like berating an overstuffed couch for not being an Eames chair. To assess it as a failure is itself a failure. We may not reread Against the Day annually, or even read it twice, but no fan of Pynchon - and there are many of us, still - will regret a month spent in the company of this anarchic, capacious book.
Now I just have to find that spare month.

Build a better graph or diagram, and the world will beat a path to your door

”We’re all going to Hell." Posted by Jessica Hagy at Indexed

Jessica Hagy, an advertising copywriter in Columbus, Ohio started blogging last August by doing just one thing and doing it extremely well -- posting index card scans on her blog Indexed containing her witty, often philosophical musings expressed in visual form as Venn diagrams, x-y graphs, and other unprepossessing forms of graphic representation. Short, barbed titles like "We're all going to Hell" complete the elegantly spare postings. This particular take on the Seven Deadly Sins is one of my favorites, but Hagy is prolific, endlessly inventive and the cards are all amusing, and often thought-provoking. It's like something The Onion might have dreamed up, but the Onion didn't. She did.

Judging from Google and Technorati, her following began just a few months ago in the advertising and marketing nerdosphere and computer geekdom, but now she's everywhere. As of a moment ago, Indexed was ranked #375 at Technorati, with 2,057 blogs linking to her. Now she has 2,058. (In contrast, Althouse is ranked #807, with 1,429 blogs linking to her.)

As Emerson might have said if he lived today, "Build a better mousetrap, and you can forget about being part of the long tail."

Friday, February 23, 2007

Friday Snow Buddy Blogging

Madison's biggest snowstorm of the winter seems to be moving in, building gradually toward predicted blizzard conditions. After a hair-raising commute in the white, blinding darkness, it was great when my Snow Buddy came out to the car to shepherd me safely into the house.

Another one of those rambling posts that segues here and there and back to The New Yorker again

Book Soup, Los Angeles
Thanks to this link at The Elegant Variation, the marvelous LA-based litblog put out by self-proclaimed "contented defiler of prose" Mark Sarvas, I found this great post that provides an annotated reading list, with links, of all the fiction published by The New Yorker during one year (2005) in another estimable litblog, C. Max Magee's The Millions.
A Year in Reading: New Yorker Fiction 2005

My year in reading involved a couple dozen or so books, most of which I wrote about here, but it also involved, to a large extent, my favorite magazine, the New Yorker. I spent three or four out of every seven days this year reading that magazine. So, for my "Year in Reading" post, I thought I'd revisit all the time I spent reading the New Yorker this year, and in particular, the fiction. It turns out that nearly every one of the 52 stories that the New Yorker published this year is available online. I thought it might be fun to briefly revisit each story. It ended up taking quite a while, but it was rewarding to go back through all the stories. What you'll find below is more an exercise in listing and linking than any real attempt at summary, but hopefully some folks will enjoy having links to all of this year's stories on one page. I also wanted to highlight a couple of blogs that did a great job of reacting to New Yorker fiction this year - you'll find many links to them below - Both "Grendel" at Earthgoat and "SD Byrd" at Short Story Craft put together quality critiques of these stories. Now, without further ado, on to the fiction:

January 3, "I am a Novelist" (not available online) by Ryu Murakami: This story by the other Murakami is about a famous novelist who is being impersonated by a man who frequents a "club" of the type often described in Japanese stories. The impostor runs up a huge bar tab and gets one of the hostesses pregnant. Murakami is best-known for his novel, Coin Locker Babies. Links: I Read a Short Story Today

January 10, "Reading Lessons" by Edwidge Danticat: A Haitian immigrant elementary school teacher, a resident of Miami's Little Haiti, is asked by her boss - and lover, "Principal Boyfriend" - to tutor the illiterate mothers of two of her students. In 2004, Danticat received much praise for her novel, The Dew Breaker and this year she put out a young adult novel called Anacaona, Golden Flower.
Click at the link above for the entire post, complete with functioning links to most of the stories. Once I was in Max's place, I immediately felt at home, perhaps because his blog shares the shambling, scruffy bookishness of the LA bookstore where he used to work, Book Soup. (The West Hollywood bookstore, where I took this shot of the window on Christmas Eve, 2004, is an absolute treasure that reminds you of why independent bookstores are so vital to the literary well-being of a community.) How can you not love a guy who organizes his reading this way:
Part of the problem is how I read. I read fairly quickly, but I don't spend a lot of my day reading books. I spend a lot of time on this here computer, for one thing. Plus, every day I read the newspaper and every week I read the New Yorker from cover to cover. I'll probably read about 30 books this year, not a lot when you consider my TBR pile is more than 40 books tall. Though I'd love to be able to read two or three books a week, I don't really mind my slower pace. Still, I didn't like the idea of books staring at me year after year unread, so I created the reading queue.

As you can see if you check out the queue near the bottom of the right hand column, I alphabetize my TBR pile by author and then assign each book a number. When the time comes to pick my next book to read, I use a random number generator to decide for me. I know, it's impossibly nerdy, but I've decided I like handling my reading decisions this way.
"Goodbye, LA" is a lovely farewell to the city where he started to blog, the city he hated at first but came to love (while continuing to hate) after he got to know its surprisingly bookish heart.
So I said the hell with it and walked into a little bookstore on the Sunset Strip. Moments after I got the job I remembered (how had I forgotten?) how much I love books. And soon my hunger for words became insatiable, like that of a beggar who suddenly has daily access to feast worthy of a king. Soon I felt guilty. I had to share.

My friend Derek, always a step ahead, had begun blogging. I pronounced it to be silly and a huge waste of time and then promptly started my own blog. I realized after a month or so that it had to be about books and nothing else, since that's the only thing that really moved me at the time.

And plus, I had so much material: a constant torrent of new releases and a cadre of coworkers and customers with whom I discussed books eight hours a day. (This was when I discovered, by the way, that LA is an obsessively literary place, and it doesn't care if anyone knows it, so it doesn't bother to tell anyone.)
And because Michelle Huneven's Jamesland was one of my most enjoyable reads a few years back, I enjoyed his post about Huneven's visit to his book club at Book Soup, which was discussing the book.
... or those who read the book and wondered why, after Alice's first dream-like experience with the deer in her house, when she was trying to figure out if it had been real or not, she didn't look in her washing machine to see if the towels she used to clean up after it were there in the morning, that scene was in the original manuscript. She and her editor went back and forth trying to decide if she should leave it in or not, and then, months later, when the book came out, she had forgotten that they had removed the scene and was surprised to see it gone. ...
When we read a book we really enjoy, its structure and content often take on a certain inevitability, as if it had to be just this way. This was a nice example of how messy and contingent the process of putting a book together actually is.

If Democratic frontrunners can't stop the surge now, they're not likely to make it to the finish line in 2008

"The Petraeus plan will have U.S. forces deployed in Iraq for years to come. Does anybody running for president realize that?" is the subtitle of Michael Hirsh's story Newsweek story titled "In for the Long Hall."
The British are leaving, the Iraqis are failing and the Americans are staying—and we’re going to be there a lot longer than anyone in Washington is acknowledging right now. As Democrats and Republicans back home try to outdo each other with quick-fix plans for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and funds, what few people seem to have noticed is that Gen. David Petraeus’s new “surge” plan is committing U.S. troops, day by day, to a much deeper and longer-term role in policing Iraq than since the earliest days of the U.S. occupation. How long must we stay under the Petraeus plan? Perhaps 10 years. At least five. In any case, long after George W. Bush has returned to Crawford, Texas, for good.
Hirsh writes about how Petraeus is employing a classic counterinsurgency strategy as he puts troops in hundreds of mini-forts all over Baghdad and other cities. Counterinsurgency as in "winning hearts and minds" with overwhelming military force, deployed locally. Petraeus has given up on the Iraqis. The Americans are going to do it themselves. In other words, the mission is too important to let the Iraqis screw it up.
The U.S. Army has also stopped pretending that Iraqis—who have failed to build a credible government, military or police force on their own—are in the lead when it comes to kicking down doors and keeping the peace. And that means the future of Iraq depends on the long-term presence of U.S. forces in a way it did not just a few months ago. “We’re putting down roots,” says Philip Carter, a former U.S. Army captain who returned last summer from a year of policing and training in the hot zone around Baquba. “The Americans are no longer willing to accept failure in order to put Iraqis in the lead. You can’t let the mission fail just for the sake of diplomacy.”
(Emphasis added.) WTF? Josh Marshall comments:
Set aside whether the Petraeus plan is unlikely to succeed or virtually certain to fail. And set aside -- for the sake of clarifying a separate set of issues -- how many more US troops would die with this new approach. (With this sort of intensive involvement in securing Iraq, the answer has to be, a lot.) The question that we need to ask is whether it's worth trying to prevent the Iraqi civil war from running its course given our now depleted resources and how many other vital national interests are now imperiled by our continued presence in the country.

Central to the Republican line on Iraq and much more to the Democratic one than I think is sometimes realized, our whole vision is now governed by Iraq-myopia, the delusion that our national destiny is at stake in Iraq. But it's not. We've done horrible harm to ourselves and the Iraqis. It's a disaster, a catastrophe. But it's not everything. It's actually not even close to everything. And until we really get our collective heads around that fact I doubt we'll ever get ourselves free of this mess.
The Petraeus plan seems unlikely to work for many reasons: a) Not enough troops are available to implement it the way it should be implemented; b) U.S. casualties are sure to rise, and the American people are running out of patience; c) It will be very expensive to carry out for any length of time, and the money is bound to become harder to get. But the biggest reason I think it will fail is that the entire strategy is essentially a rural strategy -- Burma, Vietnam, etc. It's never worked in a primarily urban environment, where it might better be called the "sitting duck" strategy.

Be that as it may, the way we're headed is likely to prolong the war well into 2008, with the war only getting more bloody as the months go by. The main casualties will be the Iraqi people, as well as U.S. forces.

But the collateral damage is likely to extend to Democrats who have been trying to do business as usual in a time when business as usual has ceased to exist, still afraid to take meaningful action against a crazy, out-of-control policy. The American people have, in Marshall's phrase, gotten their "collective heads around the fact" that the war is a disaster and that we need to get out -- immediately. The major Democratic candidates have not. While Rome burns and the Senate does nothing, senators Clinton and Obama battle about David Geffen and the Lincoln bedroom. Not good. My guess is that the effect on their candidacies as this thing unfolds will be brutal.

There's only one Democrat who has shown he can think outside the box, who has consistently opposed the war, who has been a leader on other major issues, and who has the stature and experience for the presidency. You'll probably see him at the Academy Awards.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Fox barriers, for red foxes and faux FOX alike

A few weeks ago I was up late at night sort of half watching an old National Geographic special about how tough it is to be an animal in the Arctic winter -- the old " nature, red in tooth and claw" thing, made especially photogenic by the endless expanse of white stretching all the way to the faraway horizon. I'm not big on those shows, usually, but when the red fox wandered into the picture frame I couldn't help but watch. Especially when the little bundle of fur cocked its ears, leaped explosively as high as it could, its body stretched out toward the sky, then arching its back, jackknifing, and diving headfirst toward the deep snow, disappearing entirely into the whiteness. The fox emerged, listened, did the whole diving thing again. And again -- until finally it came up with something in its mouth, which was quickly dispatched. The announcer explained that the foxes listened for mice under the snow, located them by their sound, and then pounced in this peculiar manner. All in all, a tough way to prepare dinner, as the mouse usually got away. But the fox was a natural optimist and seemed prepared to cheerfully carry on as long as it took.

I thought this balletic mouse dive was just a strange ritual of the Arctic, but apparently it happens around here as well. I was driving to work this morning when one of the "Diaspora" hosts on WORT, our community radio station here in Madison, described observing a similar scene of a fox hunting in the snow near his home. The same athletic dive -- but with a new obstacle to frustrate the fox. After a mild thaw there had been a hard frost the night before, and the surface of the snow had frozen into a solid crust. Instead of diving into the snow, the fox crashed into the crust, making for one very puzzled fox and a mouse that got away.

A real fox is cute, but a faux FOX is not. Case in point being Fox News, the faux news network that is not a real news network but plays one on TV. Wouldn't it be great if there were a way to construct a fox barrier -- like the crust on the snow -- to keep it from completing its attack when it pounces?
Looks as if there is.

(Via Atrios)

In Haruki Murakami's world: Cooking spaghetti to live, living to cook spaghetti

Once you become aware of the figure of speech known as chiasmus and how it's used in The New Yorker, you start to see it everywhere -- including fiction in The New Yorker (emphasis added).
Like other writers of great ambition, Haruki Murakami has created his own distinctly identifiable world, an imaginary universe that can be found in even the smallest of his works. "The Year of Spaghetti," a short tale that originally appeared in The New Yorker a few years back, takes up a mere five pages in his latest story collection, but it is about as concise an introduction to Murakami's cosmos as one could wish. "In 1971 I cooked spaghetti to live, and lived to cook spaghetti," the anonymous narrator informs us. Those are the horizons of his existence. He doesn't seem to have a job or, for that matter, anything else to occupy him. We never learn how he pays for his pasta or comes up with the rent. If anything, he seems to be hiding from it all. "As a rule I cooked spaghetti, and ate it, alone. I was convinced that spaghetti was a dish best enjoyed alone. I can't really explain why I felt that way, but there it is."
This passage is from an excellent review of Murakami's new short story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, by Christian Caryl, the Tokyo Bureau Chief of Newsweek, in The New York Review of Books.

The Japanese novelist is wildly popular at home, but sells well in countries as diverse as the U.S., Russia and China, and he has been translated into 36 languages. Caryl looks to the weirdness of a globalized world for an explanation of Murakami's astonishing worldwide popularity.
Just like the odd events that overtake Murakami's lukewarm heroes, globalization is a process that is, by virtue of its ubiquitous complexity, at once mysterious and banal. Its outward forms (John Wayne and Colonel Sanders) can be enjoyed even as they displace native customs and habits of thought; when the Italians export spaghetti, they're exporting loneliness, too. Murakami's heroes, carting the baggage of their minor miracles, know the story. They've been to the outlet mall and survived to tell the tale.
You might call him the poet laureate of globalization and its discontents.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Eustace Tilley celebrates 82nd birthday

I've been dallying in the Rossosphere -- or should it be called tilleying? -- clicking from one New Yorker related thingie to another, giving my self-diagnosed attention deficit disorder absolutely free rein, skipping and skimming through the pages of the House that Ross Built and then surfing the net looking for blogs devoted to that same edifice.

It started with the arrival of the annual anniversary issue with the Eustace Tilley cover last week. I was also propelled by the buzz from the haiku summarizing New Yorker stories at Drunken Volcano. (Which TS also posted about in All Intensive Purposes, blockquoting some different haiku from the ones I selected, and concluding with a pretty neat one of his own, bemoaning the fact that the haiku blog seems to be on hiatus.)

Today's date is the cover date of the first issue of The New Yorker Harold Ross published in 1925, using Rea Irvin's Eustace Tilley on the cover. Every year, Irvin's original art appears on the cover of the anniversary issue, with a few exceptions, as noted by Barry Popik.
Who is Eustace Tilley? Well, he is the top-hatted twit, invariably described as a "Regency dandy," who appeared on the cover of the first issue of The New Yorker, dated February 21, 1925, appeared on the cover of every late-February "anniversary" issue from 1926 through 1993, and has appeared on anniversary covers intermittently since then, albeit sometimes as a burlesque of himself; the peerless underground cartoonist R. Crumb drew him as a pimply teen-ager in 1994, and the canine portraitist William Wegman rendered him as a fop dog in 2000.
Very Tina Brown, that Crumb cover -- and very David Remnick, that Wegman doggie cover. But mostly it's been all Eustace, all the time. I remember the Crumb cover, but I couldn't find it online. Ditto the Wegman. One gets the feeling the New Yorker's intellectual property lawyers have been sweeping up after the editors' flights of fancy. After all, the familiar visage of Eustace Tilley is a powerful branding statement, and you don't mess around with branding statements.

Eustace began as an affectionate, ironic swipe at the aspirations to urban sophistication shared by much of the New Yorker's intended audience. Over the years, the irony deepened as the depth of the magazine's journalism also increased. What would Ross have thought about the Seymour Hersh stories about Abu Ghraib and contingency planning to use tactical nukes in Iran that first broke in the New Yorker? And it's not as if he is the only tough and probing reporter writing for the magazine. For example, the anniversary issue featured Jane's Mayer's article "Whatever It Takes" on the impact of the "24" TV show's approach to torture on the U.S. military.
This past November, U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, flew to Southern California to meet with the creative team behind “24.” Finnegan, who was accompanied by three of the most experienced military and F.B.I. interrogators in the country, arrived on the set as the crew was filming. At first, Finnegan—wearing an immaculate Army uniform, his chest covered in ribbons and medals—aroused confusion: he was taken for an actor and was asked by someone what time his “call” was.

In fact, Finnegan and the others had come to voice their concern that the show’s central political premise—that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country’s security—was having a toxic effect. In their view, the show promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers. “I’d like them to stop,” Finnegan said of the show’s producers. “They should do a show where torture backfires.”
One person who wasn't too happy about the article was Rush Limbaugh, a friend of the show's producer interviewed by Mayer. Emily Gordon posts an excerpt from the transcript of Limbaugh's response on his show in Emdashes, one of the most comprehensive of the blogs devoted to the New Yorker and related topics (I borrowed the term "Rossosphere" from Emdashes).
It’s a story about torture in the TV show “24”. There are a whole bunch of different approaches that Jane Mayer takes, but basically she went out and she found people in the US military who are saying, “‘24’, stop the torture, because you’re making US soldiers think it’s okay to do!” I could not believe this when I read this stuff. As an aside, I told my friends at “24”, “Don’t do this. This is a woman that tried to destroy Clarence Thomas with Jill Abramson, who’s the DC bureau chief of the New York Times,” but it was too late.
Carolita Johnson is a dedicated New Yorker reader who posted "God Loves Those Beetles" in her blog Newyorkette in connection with Jonathan Rosen's recent story about Darwin's rival, Alfred Russel Wallace.
The best line in the whole magazine, and the most pertinent for me this week came from Jonathan Rosen’s critical piece, “Missing Link,” about the renewed interest in the story of Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s less lucky, less wiley (and, notably, less unwilling to endure the slings and arrows of a public unwilling to believe their uncle was a monkey) contemporary:

“(…) when a later British biologist, J. B. S. Haldane, was pressed by a clergyman on the nature of God, he reportedly said, “He has an inordinate fondness for beetles.’”
The reason the line was pertinent to her, she explains, is that she "recently had the opportunity to admire the evolutionary accomplishment of New York’s most common beetle: the German cockroach" up close and personal. Johnson is not only a reader and a blogger. She is an artist and a cartoonist, one of the younger generation of New Yorker cartoonists. In addition to her writing, she posts rejected cartoons on her blog, along with links to the published New Yorker cartoons at Cartoonbank, photographs and paintings, often works in progress.

And then there's I Hate the New Yorker, the first New Yorker blog I first visited -- in connection with this link-rich post about James Wolcott's takedown of New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik. It led to others.

In his prospectus for the magazine in 1925, Ross made a statement that inadvertently put Dubuque on the map.
Mary Regina Hayford loved her official designation: "The Little Old Lady from Dubuque." She spent 25 years dispelling the myth that Iowans are provincial and backward. The "Old Lady" term was created by Harold Ross, founder of The New Yorker magazine, who said in his 1925 prospectus for the publication that it would not be directed to "the little old lady in Dubuque" (although some sources say the word "old" was added later). In 1964, Dubuque leaders decided to capitalize on the sobriquet, holding a contest to find a real-life "Little Old Lady." At 60, the 5-foot-tall, 110-pound Hayford was given the title and began a whirlwind career.
Ross's attempted geographic exclusivity to the contrary, the New Yorker has always had readers west of the Hudson, some very far west indeed -- like journalism student John Bucher, who blogs at New Yorker Comment from faraway Vancouver. His "Dialing It Down" is a follow-up to the Gopnik/Wolcott flap that's a nice blend of dish and balance.

Finally, I would be remiss if I wrapped up this rambling, annotated list of free associations without mentioning Chiasmus at the New Yorker, by author and chiasmus expert Dr. Mardy Grothe, who sharpened my awareness of a rhetorical device I've encountered in the past but never knew the name of. Chiasmus is the reversal of the word order in two otherwise parallel constructions for impact or emphasis. One of Grothe's examples features a great name in New Yorker history.
One of my all-time favorite quotes--and one of the most popular in my personal collection of over 8,000 chiastic quotes--comes from a man who served as a staff writer at The New Yorker from 1935 to 1963. For decades, as America struggled through the Great Depression, the Great War, and the Cold War, literate people everywhere regarded A. J. Liebling as a gifted and prolific writer. This was a view he also shared. In fact, he once boasted:

"I can write better than
anybody who can write faster,
and I can write faster
than anybody who can write better."
Having begun with New Yorker haiku and concluded with chiasmus in the New Yorker, the question is, can a New Yorker haiku also contain a chiasmus? Let's see, maybe something about trying to bring the passion for the New Yorker under control...

New Yorker arrives:
If I don't consume it now,
It will consume me.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Are human beings just storage units for digital data that was archived by someone else a long time ago?

I used to wonder about the "junk DNA" on the human genome. What if it wasn't junk at all? What if it was data we just haven't been able to decode? What if somebody -- perhaps some beings advanced far beyond our comprehension, seemingly godlike in their powers -- stored it there eons ago, perhaps for humans to discover someday, once our scientific advances proved we were capable of processing what was stored there. Or not. In any event, as time went by and no message appeared, I lost interest in my little theory. Plus, biological storage of digital data seemed a needlessly roundabout approach. I forgot about it. Until I read this Science Daily story. (Hat tip to Coturnix.)
In a report scheduled for the April 9 issue of ACS' Biotechnology Progress, a bi-monthly journal, Masaru Tomita and colleagues in Japan point out that DNA has been attracting attention as perhaps the ultimate in permanent data storage.

Data encoded in an organism's DNA, and inherited by each new generation, could be safely archived for hundreds of thousands of years, the researchers state. In contrast, CD-ROMs, flash memory and hard disk drives can easily fall victim to accidents or natural disasters.

In their report, the researchers describe a method for copying and pasting data, encoded as artificial DNA, into the genome of Bacillus subtilis, (B. subtilis) a common soil bacterium, "thus acquiring versatile data storage and the robustness of data inheritance." The researchers demonstrated the method by using a strain of B. subtilis to store the message: "E=MC2 1905!" — Albert Einstein's famous 1905 energy-mass equivalence equation.
Granted, the researchers found a way to store digital data in bacteria. That's a far cry from the human genome. Still, the research is just in its infancy. Besides, what if our DNA was seeded with coded information by beings so advanced they saw the proto-humans they started out with as little more than bacteria themselves? I'm not going to lose a lot of sleep over this, but still... Just wondering, is all.

Hi, neighbor -- mind if I take your picture?

Image NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

As the most powerful telescope outside Earth orbit, HiRISE spends most of its working hours in orbit around Mars surveying the surface and sending back stunning high-res images. You can browse some of them at the HiRISE website. But sometimes scientists point the camera up instead of down -- as was the case with this stunning photo of Jupiter, as seen from Mars orbit, which they took in order to test the camera's controls .
This image of Jupiter and its major satellites (10 MB) was acquired to calibrate the pointing and color response of the camera. An oversight in planning this unusual observation put the focus mechanism in the wrong location, blurring the image. This does not detract from the calibration objectives, but makes the raw image less esthetic.

To compensate, the image has been "sharpened" on the ground by Dennis Gallagher, the HiRISE chief optical designer. With this sharpening, and because Mars is closer to Jupiter than Earth is, this image has comparable resolution as the Hubble Space Telescope's pictures of Jupiter.

The colors are not what is seen by the human eye because HiRISE is able to detect light with a slightly longer wavelength than we can (that is, the infrared).
Pretty cool photo -- especially for a grab shot with a camera that was not quite set right and that had to be "sharpened" electronically at home. Sounds familiar.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Madison winter walk on President's Day

"Who's the idiot who said we should spend the winter here?"

The sycamore tree on Arbor Drive tries to compete with the snow in whiteness but can't quite bring it off.

Picnic tables congregate to do some winter socializing. Party on, dudes!

Is Mother Nature an origami artist?

In Susan Orlean's New Yorker profile of Robert J. Lang, a physicist who left physics for origami, she writes about how the ancient art of paper folding has changed more in the last 20 years than in its entire history.
Then a few people around the globe had the idea that paper folding, besides being a pleasant diversion, might also have properties that could be analyzed and codified. Some started to study paper folding mathematically; others, including Lang, began devising mathematical tools to help with designing, all of which enabled the development of increasingly complex folding techniques. In 1970, no one could figure out how to make a credible-looking origami spider, but soon folders could make not just spiders but spiders of any species, with any length of leg, and cicadas with wings, and sawyer beetles with horns. For centuries, origami patterns had at most thirty steps; now they could have hundreds. And as origami became more complex it also became more practical. Scientists began applying these folding techniques to anything—medical, electrical, optical, or nanotechnical devices, and even to strands of DNA—that had a fixed size and shape but needed to be packed tightly and in an orderly way. By the end of the Bug Wars, origami had completely changed, and so had Robert Lang. In 2001, he left his job—he was then at the fibre-optics company JDS Uniphase, in San Jose—to fold paper full time.
Orlean's piece is fascinating but a bit hard to follow, because in typical New Yorker fashion, it's not meaningfully illustrated. Words alone don't do justice to Lang's original designs and the shapes they fold into.

That's why the Institute for Figuring's online exhibit, Mathematical Paper Folding Exhibit is a great place to visit in connection with the New Yorker article. You can actually see Lang's patterns and the paper creations they fold up into, like the paper lobster shown here. The site features features a number of examples of Lang's work, along with an in-depth interview by Margaret Wertheim.

There's a wonderful metaphorical resonance in the connection between these abstract, geometric patterns and the models of living things they generate, because it so beautifully symbolizes the way that Mother Nature uses intricate patterns of folding to structure the fundamental building blocks of life. We now know that proteins derive their properties as much from the way their molecules are folded as their actual chemical composition. The nature of protein folding is one of the things Wetheim discusses with Lang.
MW: One area in which I gather technical folding is proving useful is one of the major problems in biology. We know that with proteins often the most important thing about them is not the chemical composition, per se, but the shape they eventually fold up to.

RL: There’s both relevance and differences here, because paper folding is two-dimensional and a protein is roughly a one-dimensional shape, a linear chain with a bunch of joints in the chain. Protein folding is actually much more complicated than paper in that folds can happen only at certain angles and there are bits that stick together if you get them close. There are also other molecules jostling around that can knock the protein about as it’s folding. But the fundamental theory of folding is the same, and if you can develop general concepts that apply across dimensions—from one-dimensional to two-dimensional, and even higher-dimensional problems—then the results that you derive are going to be applicable to these very fundamental issues like protein folding and biological activity.
The site also has an extensive links section, including a link to Lang's very comprehensive website. Lang provides an extensive introduction to the technical aspects of origami, as well as a breathtaking portfolio of his work, including photos of a selection of his paper sculptures that have been cast in bronze.

If you're looking for more information, this post at weblog has a wealth of links in both the post and comments, along with instructions for making a little box out of Post-It Notes on your desk in about five minutes.