Saturday, January 16, 2010

The lengths to which the Photoshop jockeys at the FBI will go to keep us safe from terrorists

Talk about stranger than fiction. You couldn't make this stuff up if you tried. Turns out that the FBI's "computer age-progressed" digital image of Osama bin Laden that purports to show what he would look like today was only partly done by a computer and is only partly a picture of bin Laden. It's also partly a picture of a Spanish lawmaker.
The FBI said in a statement Saturday that it was aware of the similarities between their age-progressed image "and that of an existing photograph of a Spanish public official."

"The forensic artist was unable to find suitable features among the reference photographs and obtained those features, in part, from a photograph he found on the Internet," the statement sent to The Associated Press said.
Does this make you feel safer? Right, me neither. We should send Toto to FBI headquarters. Looks like they have some curtains for him to pull back.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Now I'm with Coco, although until recently I had almost completely stopped watching him

I'm with Coco. I started out a fan when his late night show originally started. He was smart, wacky and sometimes incredibly funny. Over the years, though, I grew disenchanted with his schtick. When NBC made its incredible blunder of moving Jay to prime time and Conan to the Tonight Show, I thought both men were miscast for their new demographics. I was upset with NBC, but also with Jay and Conan. Why did they acquiesce? Why didn't they at least try something new with their new shows? I wasn't surprised by their plummeting ratings. I couldn't stand to watch the train wreck. And besides, Letterman was on a roll.

And then everything changed. Jeff Zucker doubled down on his original mistake and created another nightmare at NBC (is this really impressing his new bosses at Comcast?) Soon Jay was being portrayed as the bad guy, and Conan as the victim -- partly because Jay played his cards ineptly and came off as a whiner and schemer, while Conan just had a field day. So, suddenly I was with Coco.

With a feeling of deja vu all over again. When had this happened to me before? Of course. Bill Clinton. I had high hopes for Clinton even though he wasn't my original choice. But from the euphoria of his election, it was one steady stream of disappointments -- the failure healthcare reform, the whole messy business of triangulation and his Oval Office escapades with Monica. Then the Republicans attacked and tried to impeach Clinton, turning his private moral failings into a constitutional crisis. Suddenly I was for Bill.

Just a sucker for underdogs, I guess.

Update: Just came across this terrific essay by Nathan Rabin of the Onion AV Club about why most professional comics despise Leno and quickly climbed aboard the "I'm with Coco" bandwagon. It wasn't always that way, and Rabin links to a video clip from a very different time back in the eighties when Leno was really funny, tight with David Letterman and a frequent guest on his show. The problems go back to Leno's taking over the Tonight Show and the compromises he made as a result.

Floating in the twilight winter haze like a mirage on the formerly marshy isthmus

Floating in the Winter Haze like a Mirage on the Formerly Marshy Isthmus
A reminder that the Madison isthmus was originally a marsh with a hill in the middle of it. (Years ago, I had an old landlord who remembered being a child when the current State Capitol was being built and playing among the granite slabs that were stored on a marshy site at Bassett and Dayton streets.) Most of of marshland has long since been drained. We now call what remains wetlands, mostly a fringe along some of Madison's lakeshore, and consider them a precious, fragile resource. (Photographed looking across a frozen Lake Mendota from the UW campus near Picnic Point.) View Large On Black

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Jeff Zucker = Ted Thompson? Jay Leno = Brett Favre? Conan O'Brien = Aaron Rodgers?

Transitions are tough, especially if you're talking about corporate CEOs or superstar athletes and entertainers. Succession planning is an oxymoron, because it seldom works the way it's supposed to. To begin with, there's human nature: The star may dream of retirement, but the closer it comes, the less it looks like a dream and more it looks like death. The action takes place backstage, but the various parties negotiate in the media via carefully planted leaks. It always backfires. The more everyone is caught in the media spotlight, the more everyone involved looks like a fool, a total jerk, or both. Meanwhile, competitors circle like sharks, ready to grab the wounded talent. Jeff Zucker, meet Ted Thompson.

Out here in Green Bay Packer land, there's a sense of déjà vu about the whole slow-motion train wreck. There is no right answer, no matter what you do. NBC wanted to give Conan O'Brien, their talented late-night backup QB, more playing time and keep him aboard. They also didn't want to lose their franchise superstar, Jay Leno. It was as if they didn't want Leno to play for the Vikings and maybe take them to the Super Bowl. In short, they did exactly what some applauded and some criticized the Packers for not doing.

And how did that work out for the Packers? They went with backup Rodgers, ditched superstar Favre, and guess what? The Packers are out of the playoffs, and Favre may yet take the Vikings to the Super Bowl (we'll have a better idea this weekend).

Sometimes you just can't win.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

How to end a sentence with five prepositions -- leave it to E. B. White

I've been enjoying dipping my toes in the Letters of E. B. White, Revised Edition. It's fascinating watching the evolution of books like "Stuart Little," "Charlotte's Web" and "Elements of Style" ("Strunk & White") in the letters of this much-loved and engaging American writer. His letters have the wit and grace and humanity of the long-time New Yorker writer, combined with the ease and playfulness of a natural-born letter writer. You can start on virtually any page and find a mini-essay that will knock your socks off.

There are some amusing letters to his "Elements of Style" editor at Macmillan, J. G. Case. They wrangled a bit, because White thought Case wanted him to soften up Strunk's words too much for modern audiences. White felt he had to draw the line.
I am used to being edited, I like being edited, and I have had the good luck and the pleasure of having been edited by some of the best of them, but I have never been edited for wind direction, and will not be now. Either Macmillan takes Strunk and me in our bare skins, or I want out. -- p. 416
Later, after the book's surprising success, White's playful side comes out in a very short letter to Case.
The next grammar book I bring out I want to tell how to end a sentence with five prepositions. A father of a little boy goes upstairs after supper to read to his son, but he brings the wrong book. The boy says, "What did you bring that book that I don't want to be read to out of up for?" -- p. 447
The book is a poignant reminder of what we may be losing in the analog to digital transition from dead tree books and letters to Kindles and e-mails. With a very useful index, the book is 713 pages long. And that's 713 pages that probably wouldn't be available to us, had White been writing in the age of e-mail.

Had he used e-mail, his letters would have been different and no doubt much more terse and businesslike. His style seemed to require the open space of a sheet of paper, some room on the page to roam about and play. Even if he had adapted to e-mail, most of his messages would probably have been lost. Few writers print out their e-mails, and if they select a few to save, their choices are probably different from what a future editor would select. And as for e-mails not saved on paper -- good luck.

It's a problem. Are you listening, Google? Meanwhile, we can escape from these worries to a more leisurely time when communication was less ephemeral, and the slower pace of conversation by mail allowed writers time to craft a nice turn of phrase rather than dashing off a few words on the keyboard and hitting send.

Reading Roger Ebert's tribute to James Joyce and John Huston on the anniversary of Joyce's death

James Joyce died on this date in 1941, which Rogert Ebert commemorates with a Twitter link to one of his reviews.
My Great Movie review of John Huston's "The Dead."
The perhaps unintentional double meaning of "great" is appropriate. It is a great movie and a great Ebert review. He rightly calls "The Dead" one of the greatest short stories in the language, and one that he long thought unfilmable. The story is about people's words and thoughts. It's about love and loss and death. Ebert reflects on the story's famous final paragraph.
In his final pages, Joyce enters the mind of Gabriel, who thinks about the dead boy, about his wife's first great love, about how he has never felt a love like that, about those who have died, and about how all the rest of us will die as well -- die, with our loves and lusts, our hopes and regrets, our plans and secrets, all dead.

Read with me James Joyce's last paragraph:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
"The Dead" was filmed early in 1987 by John Huston, who knew he was dying. The Academy Award-nominated screenplay was by his son Tony, who served as his father's assistant on the film, and his daughter Anjelica played a central role in the film. He died before the movie opened in December, and it became his cinematic epitaph. Ebert's review beautifully evokes what makes both the story and the film it inspired great, and he concludes with these elegiac lines:
Gabriel is the witness to it all. An early shot shows the back of his head, regarding everyone in the room. Later he will see his wife, finally, as the person she really is and always has been. And he will see himself, with his ambitions as a journalist, the bright light of his family, the pride of his aunts, as a paltry fellow resting on unworthy accomplishments. Did these thoughts go through John Huston's mind as he chose his last film and directed it? How could they not? And if all those sad things were true, then he could at least communicate them with grace and poetry, in a film as quiet and forgiving as the falling snow.
Read the entire review here.

Use your cellphone to text $10 to the American Red Cross for disaster relief in Haiti

Text Haiti Relief Contribution to the American Red Cross
I just sent a contribution to the American Red Cross for disaster relief in Haiti on my cellphone. It will take a lot more than this, but it's a start. And it's easy: You can text “HAITI” to 90999 to donate $10 to American Red Cross relief for Haiti. They send back a message asking you to confirm, and that's it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I read an obituary by a film critic once and it was kind of like watching a meme solidify

It seems like just yesterday, and, in fact, it was just yesterday -- Dave Kehr's NYT obituary about French New Wave director Eric Rohmer, one of my favorite filmmakers, who died Monday at the age of 89. His films were delicious -- nuanced, subtle, poetic and often talky, and some would say, self-consciously literary. Some people think that's a bad thing. I don't -- but each to their own.

Kehr's review was respectful and informative, but one part raised a question about the appropriateness of insider humor in an obituary. It can easily be misunderstood by readers who don't know much about the deceased. That seems to be what happened when Kerr couldn't resist drawing on his film buff movie lore for this passage.
His films are as much about what does not happen between his characters as what does, a tendency that enchanted critics as often as it drove audience members to distraction.

“I saw a Rohmer movie once,” observes Gene Hackman’s character in Arthur Penn’s “Night Moves” (1975). “It was kind of like watching paint dry.”
To people who don't know Rohmer's work, this seems to say that his films are dull and boring art house stuff. And because it's such a snappy line, it will probably be the only thing a lot of people remember from the obit. Seems unfortunate.

However, the line seems to be rapidly outgrowing its original reference. Repetition of the "Night Moves" line by Kehr and other film buffs has now launched a Twitter meme, and people are coming up with all sorts of parallel constructions about other directors. Jim Emerson gives these examples and more in his blog post (he also has film clip of Rohmer being asked about the "Night Moves" line in 1977):
"I saw a Sirk film once. It was kind of like watching paint cry." #nightmoves

I saw a Penn film once. It was kind of like watching Melanie Griffith dry. #nightmoves

I saw a Bay film once. It was kind of like watching CGI dry. #nightmoves
Everybody can play this game. Make up your own. It might help remove the unpleasant aftertaste of the quote by making it less about Rohmer and more about filmmaking in general.

If bloggers fail to credit media they're parasites, but when NPR does it they're journalists

I read a cool story in the NYT this morning. Written by Manny Fernandez and Michael S. Schmidt, it was one of those wonderful metro pieces about a colorful New York personality -- in this case, a legendary Brooklyn strongman who died when when a minivan hit him during his daily 5-mile walk. The twist was that Joe Rollino was 104 years old and healthy as a horse.
He was a legend within that small Coney Island society in which few New Yorkers would want to become known as legends: the men and women who swim in the Atlantic when it is at its harshest and coldest. On a 6-degree day in January 1974, Mr. Rollino and six other members of the Iceberg Athletic Club swam into the waters off Coney Island. The freezing Atlantic was like steel: It didn’t intimidate him.

“People told me he holds the record for swimming every day for eight years,” said Louis Scarcella, 59, a former homicide detective and a member of the city’s oldest winter swimming club, the Coney Island Polar Bear Club. “He was known as the Great Joe Rollino, and he was great. You knew he was great just by standing next to him. He just had that humble confidence and strength. It shined.”
There. See? I mentioned a story I liked and thought you might like to read. I credited the sources, quoted a "fair use" passage and linked to the original story so you could read the whole thing for yourself. That wasn't so hard.

Apparently for NPR it is. I was listening to "All Things Considered" this afternoon and heard the whole story all over again, with never a nod to the Times. Sure, NPR used their own words and did their own interview (though with the same former homicide detective quoted by the Times -- couldn't they even go into the hood and find someone on their own?) It would just seem common courtesy to acknowledge a nicely written and observed story, but apparently NPR disagrees.

You find a lot of this in the mainstream media, especially radio and TV but also print. And it's not hard to tell why the original source is often not credited. To do so would be to undermine the illusion of originality ("news") of the writer or producer. I'm not saying anybody is violating anybody's copyright. Just that they're being disingenuous at best.

Most conscientious bloggers are careful to credit stories and link to the originals. It gives the whole argument that bloggers are not doing real reporting and are just parasites living off the work of others a distinctly hypocritical quality. After all, many of the people making the accusation are doing the same or worse.

Monday, January 11, 2010

In wrecking its brands -- and its broadcast schedule -- NBC forgot what Carson always knew

By dragging out the agony, NBC's disassembly of its brands continues right on track to disaster. Both Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien are now so tarnished that trying to shove them both back into an abridged version of their original time slots isn't likely to work either. Talk about corporate floundering.

NBC got into trouble originally by forgetting what their great star Johnny Carson always knew -- The Tonight Show was about lulling an audience of sleepyheads off to sleep in a non-threatening and entertaining way. Or, as Billy Wilder put it in Kenneth Tynan's memorable 1978 profile of Johnny Carson for The New Yorker:
He enchants the invalids and the insomniacs as well as the people who have to get up at dawn. He is the Valium and the Nembutal of a nation.
Leno was no Johnny Carson, but he did a pretty good job of performing this important function. He was easy to fall asleep to. Which is why moving him up to prime time was so stupid. Who wants Valium in prime time?

Of course, there were plenty of other contributing factors to the fiasco: NBC's all too apparent greed and short-term thinking. Their total disregard of the needs to their affiliates, which came back to bit them. The fact that no major network had ever made a nightly talk show work in prime time. Etc., etc.

But it all began with the fact that a face we long associated with dozing off in bed was guaranteed to be an irrelevant snooze in prime time (and that Conan was too excitable and hyperkinetic for the Tonight Show slot). Couple that with NBC's refusal to invest any resources in at least trying to turn the Jay Leno show into a real prime time player, the move was guaranteed to turn out badly. As will the new move. Who wants to go to bed and watch two people associated with failure on such a massive scale?

Green as it is with its greywater system, the Sequoya library is not named after a tree

A reader of my last post wondered why the Sequoya Branch of the Madison Public Library is spelled Sequoya instead of sequoia. Good question, especially since I struggled for years to learn either spelling. It's one of those words that it's hard to spell phonetically. But with steady use of the library, I couldn't help but learn the spelling finally.

There's a simple answer: Sequoia and Sequoya are different words -- homophones -- that are misleadingly pronounced the same. As Ms. Wis./Each Little World noted in reply, sequoia is the name of a tree, better known as the Coast Redwood or California Redwood.

Green as it is with its greywater collection system, Sequoya is not named after a tree. It's named after the great Cherokee leader Sequoya who gave his people the tools for literacy.
Sequoyah (ᏍᏏᏉᏯ Ssiquoya, as he signed his name, or ᏎᏉᏯ Se-quo-ya, as his name is often spelled today in Cherokee) (circa 1767–1843), named in English George Gist or Guess, was a Cherokee silversmith who in 1821 completed his independent creation of a Cherokee syllabary, making reading and writing in Cherokee possible. This was only time in recorded history that a member of an illiterate people independently created an effective writing system.[1][4] After seeing its worth, the Cherokee Nation rapidly began to use his syllabary and officially adopted it in 1825. Their literacy rate rapidly surpassed that of surrounding European-American settlers.
Can't think of a better name for a library.

Love those self-service reserved book shelves at the Madison Public Library

Self Service Reserved Book Shelves at Madison Public Library (Sequoya)
I received an email telling me that another book from my Christmas wish list of reserved books -- Louisa Gilder's the "Age of Entanglement" -- was waiting for me at Sequoya. The Madison Public Library has long had a great reserved book system. Among other things, the system draws on the entire South Central Library System for books. As you can see, this volume came from Mt. Horeb.

It's now easier and more convenient than ever. You used to have to stand in line at the check-out counter and then wait while a librarian or assistant who probably had something better to do went through their shelved reserved books to come up with yours. No biggie, but it could take a bit of time. Now they're shelved in the open and you can check them out yourself at the self-service checkout. Since library records are confidential, the names of patrons are not on the books. You find your book by the little colored slips holding some of the initials of your first and last name and your middle initial. Seems a "good enough' approach to privacy.

I was in and out of Sequoya in just over one minute flat. Cool.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Roger Ebert's powerful, deeply moving reflections on what he's lost and what he's gained

Professional journalists who turn to blogging, as more and more are forced to do, often find it a rocky transition. Many never seem to get comfortable with the medium, especially its potential as a two-way channel communications channel with their readers.

Film critic Roger Ebert took to it like a fish to water in the aftermath of his disastrous series of surgeries that followed his diagnosis of metastatic salivary gland cancer. He survived the cancer but was left forever changed. He could no longer do his TV show but soon resumed a heavy schedule of reviewing.

But he had some other things on his mind that could not be captured in the movie review form, and he turned to blogging. Now he seems to be reinventing blogging as a powerful form for long-form personal essays. His most recent post, Nil by Mouth, is one of the most moving pieces of writing I've read in a long time.
I mentioned that I can no longer eat or drink. A reader wrote: "That sounds so sad. Do you miss it?" Not so much really. Not anymore. Understand that I was never told that after surgery I might lose the ability to eat, drink and speak. Eating and drinking were not mentioned, and it was said that after surgery I might actually be able to go back to work on television.
Without the slightest hint of whining or self-pity, Ebert answers his reader's question with a sort of postmodern Proustian evocation of food memories, beautifully written accounts of foods and tastes and beverages he can no longer experience except in memory.

Although he is now beset by a flood of memories, Ebert notes that food as such never was that important to him. What was important was the experience of dining, socializing and talking with a group of friends. Now his blog, which receives some of the most thoughtful comments in the blogosphere, to which he often personally replies, fills that role. For Roger Ebert, the idea of blogging as a great dinner table conversation is much more than a metaphor.
So that's what's sad about not eating. The loss of dining, not the loss of food. It may be personal, but for, unless I'm alone, it doesn't involve dinner if it doesn't involve talking. The food and drink I can do without easily. The jokes, gossip, laughs, arguments and shared memories I miss. Sentences beginning with the words, "Remember that time?" I ran in crowds where anyone was likely to break out in a poetry recitation at any time. Me too. But not me anymore. So yes, it's sad. Maybe that's why I enjoy this blog. You don't realize it, but we're at dinner right now.
Roger Ebert is a lifelong writer who began writing in grade school and just never stopped. Illness deprived him of much more than most of us could possibly bear to lose. But it did not take away his ability to write. Far from it. He explained in another remarkable blog post, I think I'm musing my mind," which is about his feeling that losing his ability to speak improved his writing.
Blind people develop a more acute sense of hearing. Deaf people can better notice events on the periphery, and comprehend the quick movements of lips and sign language. What about people who lose the ability to speak? We expand other ways of communicating.
Roger Ebert is on a roll. I can only salute him in awe and admiration.

Winter's golden glow is there if you know where to look

Winter's Golden Glow Is There If You Know Where to Find It
Thai Pavilion, Olbrich Botanical Gardens, Madison.

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