Friday, July 02, 2010

2010 "dark and stormy night" contest winner announced

The winner of the 2010 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (for bad opening sentences) is up on their website. There's no way within the constraints of fair use to quote something so short, so go to their website. Spoiler alert: It does involve a thirsty gerbil.

However, I can quote the sentence by the master who was widely hailed as the writer of the worst opening sentence in English fiction.
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
Edward George Bulwer-Lytton not only opened his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, with these immortal words but inspired renowned beagle writer Snoopy and the contest as well.

Just wondering: A question about the Roof Top Bar & Bistro for Sundance Madison

The question is not about the Negroni, the recipe for which the bartender had to Google on his iPhone. That was kinda cute -- miracle of the internet and all that. And it isn't about our OK but bland Caesar salads. We didn't go there for the ultimate gourmet experience, but to enjoy the sun, a drink and a light dinner before the show. Nothing wrong with that.

The question relates to something Raphael Kadushin also encountered and commented on in his Isthmus review this week.
Unfortunately, no one apparently was prepared for a sunny evening and a full house hoping to finish dinner before the early show of Sex and the City 2. A lot of them never made it. Most of the tables surrounding us on that first visit were waiting more than an hour for any plates of food at all, quite a few of them were vocally complaining, and the group of women seated next to us had to settle for their dinners packed in plastic carry-out containers.
By the time we went there recently, the service time had improved. Since we were at the bar tables, we had to order from the bar -- but it still took about half an hour from the time we got our drinks to the arrival of our salads. Our glasses had been drained, and we were starting to count the minutes until showtime instead of leisurely admiring the view of Hilldale Shopping Center cars, pedestrians and rooftops, as we had planned. My question is, why?

Sundance recently brought in Mark Shoup, the executive chef for Robert Redford's Zoom, Foundry Grill and Tree Room restaurants, to revamp the menu.
We're thrilled to bring A Taste of Sundance to the Sundance Cinemas in Madison open now, lasting until Labor Day. Mark Shoup, the Executive Chef for Robert Redford's Zoom, Foundry Grill and Tree Room restaurants has designed a special menu gleaned from all the restaurants. All summer our patrons will get a wonderful hint of what it would be like to visit and eat at the Sundance Resort in Utah.
That's all fine and dandy, but again, my question for Sundance is, why? I don't really want a "wonderful hint of what it would be be like to visit and eat at the Sundance Resort in Utah." The rooftops of Hilldale aren't the mountains of Utah -- or even the shores of Lake Mendota. The Roof Top Bar & Bistro is not your ultimate fine dining or scenic destination.

I'm going to a movie in a shopping center, for chrissake. At a theater that offers a premium movie-going experience at a premium price. If you're redesigning the menu, why not design it with that in mind? You know patrons don't have a lot of time. If they had more time, they'd be eating earlier and elsewhere. So wouldn't it make sense to design your menu and your operation for speedy and efficient service? What is it about "moviegoer" that you don't understand? Just wondering

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Nora Ephron has been reading Stieg Larsson

Nora Ephron calls her take on the Swedish author's series of books featuring Lisbeth Salander "The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut."
There was a tap at the door at five in the morning. She woke up. Shit. Now what? She’d fallen asleep with her Palm Tungsten T3 in her hand. It would take only a moment to smash it against the wall and shove the battery up the nose of whoever was out there annoying her. She went to the door.

“I know you’re home,” he said.

Kalle fucking Blomkvist.

She tried to remember whether she was speaking to him or not. Probably not. She tried to remember why. No one knew why. It was undoubtedly because she’d been in a bad mood at some point. Lisbeth Salander was entitled to her bad moods on account of her miserable childhood and her tiny breasts, but it was starting to become confusing just how much irritability could be blamed on your slight figure and an abusive father you had once deliberately set on fire and then years later split open the head of with an axe.

Salander opened the door a crack and spent several paragraphs trying to decide whether to let Blomkvist in. Many italic thoughts flew through her mind. Go away. Perhaps. So what. Etc.
There's more in the current New Yorker. It's pretty funny even if you haven't read the Millennium trilogy. If parody is the sincerest form of flattery, she must really like it.

"Moonrise" at the Alliant Energy Center

As the Moon Rose Over the Hill It Seemed So Close You Could Touch It
As the moon rose over the hill it seemed so close that you could touch it -- in an alternate universe where its surface turned out not to be not cratered, but rather folded in geometric, regularly spaced pleats instead.

View Large On Black

Monday, June 28, 2010

Checking out Pippi Longstocking from the Madison Public Library for the child in the family -- me

Checking Out Pippi Longstocking from the Madison Public Library
I became interested in Astrid Lindgren's children's classic, which I had never read, after reading the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson's powerful Millennium trilogy, because Larsson began by asking himself what Pippi Longstocking would be like if she grew up in today's world. (Short answer: She'd be locked up.) The long answer is a dark moral fable of amazing power. Lizbeth Salander is the most vividly imagined and engaging heroine the best seller list has seen in a long time. The trilogy is a mystery series that transcends mere genre. And it's impossible to put down.

Dropping Out for a Week to Read the 1,500-page Millenium TrilogyIt all goes back to Father's Day. I had asked for Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Instead, I received the entire Millennium trilogy -- thanks, M and T!

I started reading Sunday night and finished the first volume Monday night. I thought of taking a break Tuesday, but it didn't last long. I just couldn't stop. I read in the study, I read in the living room, I read while waiting in the car -- and I read in the park. By Friday night I was almost finished. I just left a few pages to finish Saturday.

In less than a week, I read 1,533 pages. Apparently the cognitive decline I thought I had suffered from spending too much time online was not as bad as I thought it was. I'm still reeling. More soon, when I've had a chance to digest it all.

Orange (juice) toast to Dutch World Cup team

Orange (Juice) Toast to the Netherlands in World Cup Play
A lot of sports action this morning, unusual for a Monday morning. Since the U.S. team did not advance in World Cup action, we figured we might as well root for the Netherlands, since we have friends there. We drank an orange juice toast to the team and watched them establish a 1-0 lead. Then we switched to Wimbledon, where we saw Serena Williams use her awesome, unreturnable serve to derail Maria Sharapova's title hopes (and avenge her loss to Sharapova in the 2004 finals). If Serena keeps serving that way, nobody, not even her older sister Venus, will be able to stop her.

The courage to say that you don't know

Excellent piece in Slate today by Ron Rosenbaum, An Agnostic Manifesto: At least we know what we don't know. It's a powerful defense of the "ism" that never gets any respect, looked down on by believers and atheists alike, as well as their modern, more muscular cousins, the Creationists and the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins. Rosenbaum calls for a new, less apologetic agnosticism.
Alas, agnostics still suffer from association with atheists by theists, and with theists by atheists. So let us be more precise about what agnostics are and aren't. They aren't disguised creationists. In fact, the term agnostic was coined in 1869 by one of Darwin's most fervent followers, Thomas Henry Huxley, famously known as "Darwin's bulldog" for his defense of evolutionary theory. Here's how he defined his agnosticism:
This principle may be stated in various ways but they all amount to this: that it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty.
Huxley originally defined his agnosticism against the claims of religion, but it also applies to the claims of science in its know-it-all mode. I should point out that I accept all that science has proven with evidence and falsifiable hypotheses but don't believe there is evidence or falsifiable certitude that science can prove or disprove everything. Agnosticism doesn't contend there are no certainties; it simply resists unwarranted untested or untestable certainties.

Agnosticism doesn't fear uncertainty. It doesn't cling like a child in the dark to the dogmas of orthodox religion or atheism. Agnosticism respects and celebrates uncertainty and has been doing so since before quantum physics revealed the uncertainty that lies at the very groundwork of being.
Check out the full article, written by a natural-born skeptic and contrarian.
Why has agnosticism fallen out of favor? New Atheism offers the glamour of fraudulent rebelliousness, while agnosticism has only the less eye-catching attractions of humility. The willingness to say "I don't know" is less attention-getting than "I know, I know. I know it all."

Humility in the face of mystery has been a recurrent theme of mine. I wrote most recently about the problem of consciousness and found myself allied with the agnostic group of philosophers known as the Mysterians, who argue that we are epistemically, flat-out unable to know the nature of consciousness while being within consciousness. I'm reluctant to call agnostics Mysterians, much as I like the proto-punk ballad "96 Tears" by ? and the Mysterians. But I do like that agnosticism, which in fact can be more combative than its image, does have a sort of punk, disruptive, troublemaker side.
I like Rosenbaum's phrase "humility in the face of mystery." I also think it points to another reason for the rise of the New Atheism that he doesn't mention.

Humility in the face of mystery pretty much describes the attitude of many scientists in an earlier era who patiently, skeptically pursued the scientific method. Not so much today, when cutting-edge science is a matter of high technology and big bucks. Tolerance of uncertainty doesn't help to nail down the big grants. Aggressive certainty does. After all, funding sources want to feel they're going to get something for their money. And since Creationism might have an effect on the politics of science funding, it's not surprising that many -- but certainly not all -- scientists feel obliged to join in the tribal response of the New Atheism. I suspect that many are closer to agnosticism in their personal beliefs, since its temperamentally closer to the scientific spirit than faith in any kind of certainty. But once they join the battle they don't want to lose credibility by sounding like wimps.

It's hard to stand up for ambiguity and uncertainty in the middle of a war. Especially a religious war. I admire Rosenbaum for trying.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cool front drives off Madison's hot muggy weather and storm clouds

Cool Front Drives off Madison's Hot Muggy Weather and Storm Clouds
It seems as if it's been going like on this forever -- nothing but unseasonably hot, muggy weather alternating with thunderstorms. More like July, and unusually rainy even for July. Day after day, we've been able to watch the brightly colored radar patches roll in from the Great Plains, vibrant yellow surrounding a core of angry red and the occasional nasty purple tied to possible tornado activity. Or we could just raise our eyes to the horizon and watch the ominous dark clouds move in.

It all blew away late this morning. A slight chance of scattered showers tonight, and then clear sailing -- sunny skies and mild temps --until next Sunday, according to the forecasts. Finally. At least the last few days of June will actually feel like June for a change.