Monday, December 10, 2007

Mafia, Inc.

I have some new responsibilities at Newsweek, and part of them entail developing web-only content to help build the site. My biggest foray to date just went online. It's a photo gallery about how organized crime both benefits from and is challenged by globalization - just like traditional businesses. It's tied to a story by Christian Caryl in this week's magazine, on the yakuza's "corporate restructuring."

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Santacon 2007

No one heeded my advice to come to Santacon this year, and even before the event was over, I was receiving regretful emails: "Just passed a horde of Santas...Looks like so much fun! So sad I didn't come." Well in this case I do not hate to say "I told you so," in fact I relish the opportunity. Although the altruist in me does hope your Saturday afternoon at The Container Store was an equally unique event.

Anyway, once again it was just Alisa and me, but we had a blast anyway. We met up with the group at Spring and Greenwich. At the bodega, a line of Santas snaked through the store, all waiting to buy beer or breakfast bagels. Later, a Santa confided to me that he had stolen a six-pack at that store. I chided him, "That's not in the Christmas spirit." He replied, "But it is in the spirit of Santarchy." And so it was.

We made our way east across Spring street to the E train.


We passed a Christmas tree lot, and Alisa and I gave candy canes to the little ones, who were very confused and possibly frightened by the sheer number of Santas, most of which already had a good buzz on. Their parents were good sports.

The train was, of course, crowded with Santas.


We got off at Times Square. Last year, Times Square was my favorite part. Five hundred Santas walking through the Tourist Mecca of the Western World is an awe-inducing spectacle. We stopped traffic, gave away candy, impressed Midwesterners with our sheer joie de vivre.

This time around, Alisa and I had gotten ahead of the main group, so it didn't have the same impact. But there were still choice moments like this one:


We paused at a bar called Connolly's. I believe it was chosen by the event's organizers merely because it was four stories and could host hundreds of drunken rabble-rousers. And a rabble we did rouse. Here's a shot of the street from my third-floor vantage point:


This is as good a point as anyway to show off some of the day's curiosities. Here's Alisa with a couple Alfs/Elves.


The guy pictured below was a Spanking Santa, who was giving random people wallops on the bottom.


But definitely the costume (contraption?) that received the most gawking was this bizarre cross between Santa's sleigh and an S&M film set gone horribly wrong:


Anyway, after Connolly's we walked across Midtown to Grand Central Terminal, which was by far the best stop of the trip. When Alisa and I first arrived, there was already a horde waiting for us:


But by the time we left, the place was simply Santa-ridden.


The many tourists that flock to Grand Central loved it. After all, we are a Seussian childhood fantasy come to life. Alisa and I had our pictures taken with a couple lovely women from South Carolina. They were very nice, even when I mistakenly placed Charlotte in their state and Alisa mistook them for Australians.

Afterwards, back on the subway...


...where we ran into Meredith, Josh's friend from Washington, DC. Which is doubly weird, because a) I hardly run into friends from New York on the street and b) I was wearing a Santa costume. But Meredith, too, loved our joie de vivre, and even tolerated the random Santa who was unabashedly hitting on her. (In the subway! In a Santa costume!)

We got off at Astor Place and made a ruckus. This taxi driver took note.


After getting some dumplings at The Dumpling Man on St. Mark's Place, which is my new favorite cheap food spot, we congregated in Tompkins Square Park. We noticed a parked Red Bull promo car nearby. Alisa and I were some of the first on the scene.


But then other Santas noticed the car and started piling in...


...until it was something of a free-for-all. Thinking this was great publicity, and very much in the nature of the Red Bull image, I said to one of the Red Bull girls, "You ought to get a promotion for this." "Or fired," she replied.


Last picture: Alisa with an unidentified Jewish character.


Afterwards, I played some drunken Buck Hunt at a nearby bar (I did horribly, except for the bonus round), and then got irrationally mad at Alisa for wanting to go home at four. Sorry about that.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

New Ms. Pac-Man High Score


I beat Brad. Finally. But handily.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Return to Innocence

Hello. How are you?

It's been a while, I know, and for that I'm sorry. Torres recently posted for the first time in eons/aeons/ions and threw her voice out into the echoing abyss: "Anyone still out there?" I won't ask the same because I won't like the response. I've always hated the sound of my own voice. But when/if I work for NPR or Marketplace or This American Life, I'll have to cope.

Last night, saw Southland Tales, which towards the end had this stunning fever dream of a scene where Sarah Michelle Gellar and her porn star friends dance in slo-mo on a stage in a zeppelin while Moby's "Memory Gospel" massages ear canals and an ice cream truck floats into the sky. It was a beautiful scene, but if you're getting excited for the movie don't, cause it sucked.

Elsewhere in life. I visited my brother in Middletown, CT but had no time for cemeteries, and the foliage was lackluster. He's threatening to drop out of school and my parents don't know what to say.

In Pennsylvania, Alisa and I met a superhero dog by the name of Brogan, an Aussie shepherd/lab mix. Tell him to "walk" and he'll take you on a 1.5-mile loop through the forest. Then I hit a few golf balls with a six-iron and Brodie took off like a flash of mottled black-and-brown.

Halloween was all about the dry ice.

I'm working through the first season of "The O.C." Don't judge me.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Joel Stein is Plagiarizing Me

Okay, the title's not really true, but there are some amazing similarities between Stein's recent piece in Time and my last feature in Stanford magazine. First of all, they're both about Brian Wansink and his work on the psychology of eating at Cornell University, and since mine came out about a month ago and Stein is a Stanford grad and probably gets the alumni magazine, it's reasonable to assume that my article influenced him, and may have even introduced him to Wansink and his research.

And then there are the little parallelisms in syntax and phrasing. I tell a story about Wansink deceiving theater-goers into eating stale popcorn, and then revealing the trick, and say, "And Wansink took delight in pointing this out to them." Stein tells how Wansink fooled professional bartenders trying to pour same-sized shots into different-sized glasses, and then surmises, "All of this delights Brian Wansink."

Me describing Wansink: "...with his high brow, rimless glasses and mischievous smirk, [he] looks a little like a high school chemistry teacher."

Stein describing Wansink: He "has all the nerdlike characteristics you'd expect from a mad professor."

Elsewhere, I note the charming congruence in the fact that his wife studied the culinary arts at France's Le Cordon Bleu; so does Joel.

Despite what you might think so far, I'm not mad. You've heard the old trope, imitation is the sincerest form of blah blah blah. And I know that Stein isn't a plagiarist - I've met him, he's a decent guy, and journalism is a giant echo chamber anyway - we all get our best ideas from things that other people have already written. So color me flattered. Nice piece, Joel. Now thank me by taking me to lunch.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Eat Me

A new article, this time in Stanford Magazine, about Brian Wansink's research on the psychology of eating. He's a fascinating man and passionate about his subject. Read the article to find out why we eat more M+M's when they're sorted by color, or get drunker faster with short, wide glasses.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Bigger is Better

It's no secret that I'm a fan of long titles in art. It's not the length in and of itself that is attractive to me, but the potential for a long title to transcend its being, its telos, and become something more. To become, in short, a story in itself.

Take this example, an upcoming movie with Benicio del Toro and Halle Berry called Things We Lost in the Fire. From what little I know about the film, I have no desire to see it; I've never liked Halle Berry much, and domestic turbulence is so played out (what can possibly transcend Little Children?). But the title is sublime. There is a story inherent in its six short words: a fire happens (metaphorically or not), things are lost, and someone survives to mourn those things. And it raises questions: What is the significance of these things? Why are we worried about things instead of people?

Also, just ordered a review copy of Denis Johnson's forthcoming novel, Tree of Smoke, which sounds incredible. Can't wait to tuck into it.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Obama Bandwagon

Is George Packer supporting Barack Obama? He doesn't come right out and say it in this post, but he sure comes close. He even calls him "JFK Jr." If Packer's on the Obama train, that puts me a step closer to buying a ticket.

Related: An acquaintance from Harvard Law claims that the Obama campaign sent the campus an email asking them to stop calling Obama a "rock star," as it taints his image. If so, I want to get my hands on that email.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

At the zoo

Exactly a week ago, I was at the Gramercy Rose Bar, a very fancy Ian Schrager lounge in the Gramercy Hotel. On one wall, a Julian Schnabel print. On another, a Damien Hirst mosaic comprised entirely of butterfly wings. Chattering scenesters shot pool and talked about each other from across the cavernous room. They sipped $18 cosmos; Brad and I stuck with $9 beers.

We sit down with friends of friends of friends, and I get to talking with this Texan banker at CSFB. He had long, slicked hair and a gradually ascending brow line - he could have been an oilman instead of a risk management specialist. At one point he says, "When I look at my grades from Texas A&M, I can't believe I am where I am now." (Presumably, I was meant to take this as a statement of good fortune - his grades were bad, his job is good. Not the other way around.) But the money quote came a bit later, when he eventually asked me what I did for a living.

"Wow!" He exclaimed after I answered. "A real live journalist!"

Saturday, August 11, 2007

A small update - finally

Phew! Is it over? Are the t's crossed, the i's dotted - has the fun been had? Have we trotted gaily through the night enough? Have we reached a high enough score on Erotic Photo Hunt?

It's been quite a week. Anthony V. and Josh S. were both in town, visiting. FZ was calling regularly, asking about the decline of war since 1991. An editor demanded a draft of my proto-cover story by Friday. Workdays were long, nights were well-hydrated.

On Wednesday, a smarmy bar manager quizzed us all on palindromes. A "water craft?" That's a kayak (thanks Anthony). An alien soy product? UFO tofu, to be sure. We scored perfectly, ran the tables. Then plummeted to the bottom of the ranks in subsequent rounds. A tiny Alpine country strong in the Winter Olympics? Damn you, Liechtenstein! A long chain of islands off southwest India? Maldives, my dive trips are going elsewhere.

On Thursday Josh and I visited his sister at the new New York Times building. Visiting the architectural manifestations of major media outlets, to me, is like Jacko at a preschool.


Here you can just make out the small ceramic rods that cover the exterior of the building and make it shimmer, according to Paul G'berger.


Josh at the strangely colored entrance. Josh called his sister then approached the security guard. "Um, I'm visiting my sister," he said. "Who's that?" "Gabrielle S.," Josh told him. "Oh yeah, and what'd she say?" "She said to come on up." "So be it then." Don't judge - security has a few kinks to work out.

Notice how level the blinds are in Gab's office? That's because they're computer-controlled to ascend and descend with the sun, always blocking the harshest light.

This doesn't have anything to do with the Times or our visit there, but I thought it was a great little graffito, and also something of a mantra for Anthony.

It was sad to see both Josh and Anthony go on Friday. I had to make my goodbyes separately, since Josh had a 3:00 bus and Anthony didn't wake up until 2:30.

As for work, in three busy days I wrote a five-page memo and a 2,500-w0rd draft of my article. God bless New York.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Murdoch Wins


The inevitable has happened. As I mentioned in a previous post, I'm not overly upset. He'll inject capital, and is probably smart enough not to mess (too much) with a good thing. I fear most for the Journal's China coverage, but there's no point in worrying now. Besides, I have a soft spot for the billionaire tyrant. His is such an epic personality. And he seems to be having fun.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Is Free Speech Bad For Us?

Last night I was reading last week's New Yorker article on the protests in Pakistan, where the military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, recently sacked the country's Chief Justice without cause. Thousands of lawyers, students, and other pro-democracy protesters took to the streets, and the judge was eventually reinstated.

At some point my mind wandered to issues of democracy and dictatorship more generally, and I had the startling thought that here in the U.S. - where the President has just fallen short of crowning himself, and declaring the world his fiefdom - perhaps some of deepest-held principles of our democracy have abetted the kings and king-makers.

Here's the radical thought: free speech anesthetizes our outrage. Our ability to say whatever we want, and to have a multitude of platforms in which to do it, has instilled in us a feeling of power. If only we pry deep enough, and shout loud enough, we will be heard! Our newspapers will uncover corruption, and the popular upswell against it will carry the traitors to justice. It's a romantic notion, and the cornerstone of the Bill of Rights.

Meanwhile, those that actually have power spend much effort carefully building an array of defenses. They've coddled their special interests and hidden behind a rabid, reactionary "base." They've hired sycophants and pocketed the right politicians.

So now, scream as we might, it does no good: The money still flows through the proper channels, the required votes in Congress are still there at roll call, and the President gets told he's doing a good job.

Case in point: Bush pardons Libby, a collective roar goes up, and a week later fades to nothing.

Contrast this to a place where free speech is not a given, a place like the Soviet Union or China or Pakistan (esp. pre-Musharraf Pakistan), so that when someone does vocalize his/her condemnation of power, at great personal danger, it ripples like a shockwave. An attack on authority still carries meaning. Here it's par for the course, and authority has learned to emasculate it.

Kishore Mahbubani said something similar in an essay. "The U.S. press has been second to none in exposing the follies of the U.S. government," he wrote. "But have all their exposures served as opiates, creating the illusion that something is being done when really nothing is being done?"

The alternative certainly isn't attractive - government repression is rarely fun. But it would be nice for words to mean something again.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Slouching Towards News Corp.

It looks like Murdoch is going to win his bid to take over the Wall Street Journal. I work in Midtown about a 10-minute walk from News Corp. HQ, and I can hear the cackles echoing up Broadway.

I've done a one-eighty on my Murdoch-buying-the-Journal position. At first I was gung ho, and thought he'd inject some much needed liquid funds into a paper that, in the last five years, has been forced to close foreign bureaus, sell divisions at a loss, and trim the physical size of the paper to save on pulp costs.


Plus, there's something heroic in the old wizard that appeals to me. He's like the empire-builders of old, ceaselessly acquisitive, natives (aka Journal employees) be damned. More directly, he's like the press barons of the late 1800s, who essentially controlled public opinion and used it to build castles and dynasties.

As much as I find the guy exciting, he's bad for journalism. The Times, the New Yorker, and the Journal all have written pieces that investigate Murdoch's use of his media empire to further his business concerns. The most damning allegations - and the biggest risk for a Murdoch-owned Journal - is that he censors criticism of the repressive Chinese Communist Party in order to keep his lucrative broadcasting licenses there. Don't expect to win any Pulitzers writing about Hu Jintao's love of gardening.

I've talked to a few Journal reporters about the impending takeover; they're remarkably blasé about it all. I guess I would be too. The alternatives, at this point, are gloomy. The most hoped-for wish at one point was for a rival suitor to come along, like Warren Buffett. But even a jolly round guy like Buffett would put business first and foremost, slashing costs and staff like Zell will probably do at Tribune. At the very least, Murdoch will throw so much money at the paper it'll think it's an expensive stripper.

The other alternative would be for things to go back the way they were before, the Bancrofts in charge and the stock price at a little over 50 percent of what it is today. Unfortunately, the Bancrofts were never the benign owners we like to think they were; they used their supervoting shares to ensure hefty dividends to keep their pleasant, patrician little lifestyle intact. Journalistic independence came at a cost. A great piece in the Columbia Journalism Review casts light on the Bancroft's cash machine, noting that with average yearly dividends of a dollar a share and 20 million shares between them, the 35 Bancrofts make a cool $571,000 a year each for doing nothing. (Following through on the math, at Murdoch's offer of $60 a share, the average Bancroft take-home will be $34 million.)

Murdoch put it best when he said that “a year ago, they made $81 million after tax and paid $80 million in dividends. You can’t grow a company that way.”

So while I'm no longer gung ho about a Murdoch takeover, unfortunately it may be the lesser of three evils.

Monday, July 16, 2007

I'd like to see the Geico guys fight a woolly mammoth

Just saw this trailer for 10,000 B.C., and even thought it's from the director of The Day After Tomorrow, arguably the most pungent piece of shit ever to be put on film, I am so psyched for cavemen that aren't ironically hip and schilling for insurance companies.

Also, saw the new Harry Potter movie tonight and was pleasantly surprised. I'm not a big fan of the celluloid versions (love the books, though), but this one and Azkaban make the grade.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

A new article

I have a new article in Newsweek, this time on the Darfur tragedy and some engineers/scientists that are putting their skills to use to make life a little more livable for the region's 2.2 million refugees.

A couple links for more information:

A 10-minute video on the life of refugees.

The website for the BDS project.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Stupid News

What's with news outlets not getting with the technological big picture? I went over to the Washington Post homepage today to look for that 20,000-word series on how evil Dick Cheney is. (Answer: Very Fucking Evil.) I used the WP's internal search and typed "dick cheney angler." (Angler is his Secret Service codename and the title of the series.) Surprise surprise, the series, which is probably the biggest and most important thing the Post will do all year, didn't show up in the first ten results. You get a lot of related blog posts, interview transcripts, and sidebars, but not the piece itself. I eventually went to Google and typed in the same thing. The first result was the one I was looking for.

I've complained, in private and on this blog, about the awfulness of Newsweek's website. News outlets everywhere are purposefully, almost willfully losing readers and site hits by employing sloppy user interface. How hard is it to get search, that most basic of web features, right?


Related: Check out this amazing video from the TED conference, which demonstrates new image management software. This is how we'll be reading newspapers online very soon, I predict. It'll probably take over interface in general. Couple that with iPhone touchscreen technology, and soon we'll have whole walls that are touch-sensitive computer screens. Rad!

Finally, my new time-waster at work is reading future obits. It's common practice in journalism to write obits ahead of time for notables that are likely to croak soon. We've already got ones in the system for Osama bin Laden and Fidel Castro. The one about Fidel is particularly interesting, since the writer goes so far as to predict the medium of announcement ("...we heard this morning from the state-run news service...").

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Fear and Loathing

Anyone else struck by the similarity between these two?



Both are dumb, rich white people who grossly abused their positions of privilege in our decadent society. When called to account for their crimes, both cried to higher authority: Paris, to her "Mommy!" and some public officials oiled by Hilton glitz and money, and Scooter, to his "Decider." Neither could stand a day in jail: Hilton used a few well-timed sobbing fits to weasel her way out of confinement after just two days, and Scooter got pardoned* just hours after a judge sentenced him to imminent incarceration.

Of all the many reasons I hate these two individuals, high among them is their cowardice. Hilton was sentenced to a posh cell block for celebrities, politicians, and cops (which cost the American taxpayers $1,100 a day for her confinement); she never even had a roommate. Libby would have certainly got a similar arrangement. And yet neither could stand a day behind bars, an experience that the less fortunate and less connected cannot buy or cry their way out of. Somebody take an x-ray folks. I suspect their backbones are gelatin, and their hearts a mass of puss**. The whole sorry ordeal leaves me with a bit of longing for this Dragon Lady:


*I know that his sentence was commuted, not pardoned, but there's virtually no difference. Sure, he's still required to pay a quarter million in fines, but I have no doubt that some influence-seeking fat cat Republican will pony up for the "Libby Legal Defense Fund." And pardoned sounds better.

**I also know that you can't see a heart - or puss - on an x-ray. Good God, leave me alone! Poetic fucking license, okay?

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Ratatouille

Last night Alisa and I saw Ratatouille. I had been talking about it all week, but wasn't feeling in the mood for a kids' flick around 10pm on a Saturday. Even so, A.O. Scott called it an "almost flawless piece of popular art," so I couldn't find a good reason not to go.


My expectations for the film - already preposterously high - were not just met, but exceeded. I have not been so thoroughly entertained by a film since at least last year's Brick, or more likely, 2004's Eternal Sunshine.

We got to the movie a half-hour early, and despite a packed 42nd St. theater, found incredible seats in the ideal row. That set the tone for me. I'm probably the most anxious moviegoer you know. If I don't arrive 45 mins. early for a new release, I'll be clawing the taxicab leather as we make our way uptown. So finding a perfect seat and not arriving preposterously early was a bit like getting an Indian Head penny with your change.

After Regal's totally obnoxious pre-show "entertainment," and a few relatively obnoxious previews (including one for a new Cuba Gooding Jr. movie about camp, which looks as bad as it sounds), Pixar treated us to a warm-up cartoon called "Lifted," about an alien studying for his body-snatching license. It was much less creepy - and much funnier - than it sounds.

As for Ratatouille itself, there's not much to say that Sr. Scott hasn't already covered. Dir. Brad Bird (also helmed the The Incredibles, which I now will rush to rent) made a film that is both completely adult and a complete joy to children at the same time. It's also relentlessly upbeat. You know how in the third act, the hero must fall to depths never before reached, linger there for a while, only to eventually resurface? The depths that Bird makes his hero, Remy, go through are neither so dark nor - more importantly - so annoying as those in other kids' cartoons.

Five stars, two thumbs up, etc., etc.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Now joining the music blog movement...

Here's the link to the song I mentioned yesterday. You know, the one about meadows and dresses and girls. At least in my mind that's what it's about.


Sun Kil Moon, "Carry Me Ohio"

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Sundress and a meadow


So I'm listening to this song by Sun Kil Moon (led by the former frontman of Red House Painters, Mark Kozelek), called "Carry Me Ohio," and decided it felt like being in a meadow on a spring day, watching a girl in a sundress twirling with her arms up towards the sky, wistful, waiting for something to change. And I decided my imagery (and the song) was nice enough to share with you.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Juxtapositions of Persons

What to say? I've been here, done that, reported this, catalogued that. A visit with the police, a lineup of unfamiliar faces, so the subway bandit remains at large. Learned that the Filipinos are into heroin, the Moroccans into cat, the latter being (apparently) a new hallucinogen. Saw dolphins surfing waves in North Carolina, tried to swim out to greet my flippered brethren, lost them amid the foamy breaks. At a beach bonfire, I got near-naked and posed with a shovel. (Check Facebook for evidence.) I helmed a sailboat, submarined the nose, almost flipped us ass-over-end. Played lots of frisbee and bought a yo-yo. Back home, I bought a desk, filled it with shaped wood pulp, a.k.a. books and magazines. The parents come on Saturday, so I need a room filled with the trappings of modern convenience to convince them that I'm living a real life.

A week away reawakened wanderlust, got a pining for Southeast Asia and/or Africa, but the latter is getting a bit cliche. Looking ahead to three months of intensive(?) work on Fareed's opus, we'll see how it goes.

Your lover,

Barrett

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Find me a safehouse

I just got a call from the police. They caught a suspect in the mugging/assault I witnessed. The detective is coming to pick me up at 4:30 to take me to Brooklyn and pick him out of a lineup.

I worry about my memory. I got a decent look at him, but that was a month ago now. I don't want to be responsible for sending the wrong person to prison, but I also don't want to let the police down - they've contributed an amazing amount of time and effort to catching this lowly perp, and I don't want to be the weak keystone that brings the arch down.

If I recognize the suspect, I'll be asked to testify. I've seen enough crime movies to know that my chances of soon thereafter being fitted for cement shoes is, oh, 80 percent.

Elsewhere, my sister, a star high school volleyball player and potential college recruit, tore her ACL and needs surgery. Kate H. was lovely enough to send me a long write-up on her experience with ACL surgery, which assuaged a lot of my parents' worries. If you have any words of wisdom that can illuminate the recovery process, and her prospects for future athletics, please let me know.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Ohmygodohmygodohmygod

Did I watch last night's MTV Movie Awards? Of course not! Did you? I didn't think so. And why would I, when all the best clips would be on Youtube the next day (i.e. today)?

The best clip of the evening - perhaps the best awards show clip ever - came when host Sarah Silverman made a scathing joke about Paris Hilton going to jail - while she was in the audience.

DUI fine: $1200.
Lawyers' fees: $95,000.
Paris' reaction shot: Priceless.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Flux

There is a lot of flux at work these days: people leaving, people coming, people terminated. Yesterday was the last day of a friend, Jack, who is responsible for, among other things, turning me on to Seize Sur Vingt shirts. (Fingers crossed: going to buy one today!) Before we went out for drinks, someone passed around a card to sign. Each time it went to a new person, that person sat and pondered the other messages for a while, thought about his own, then scribbled something witty or sweet. By the time this got around to the seventh or eighth person, it was a bit laborious. Someone summed up the situation:
"Never let a bunch of writers sign a card."
Villagers collecting scrap from a crashed spacecraft in Russia, surrounded by white butterflies. For 60 years of Magnum Photography, see here.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Articles and Gerbils

My latest article is up online. It's a Q&A with Craig Venter, who decoded the human genome and is now trying to create biofuels, and it accompanies this week's cover story on synthetic biology. Both are good reads, but don't take my word for it, I'm biased.

Also, I have a new favorite picture for you:

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Hops and Barley

My beer recommendation of the week: Blue Point Blueberry Ale. It is brewed with over a hundred pounds of blueberries, and it tastes accordingly: a rich, fruity taste that, unlike a lot of fruity beers, doesn't overpower. Very smooth. Now available in the New York area (try the Westside Market on 14th St. and 7th Ave. for a bottle of your own).

Thursday, May 17, 2007

From the Wax Poetic! Dept.

Latest gem from the New Yorker, in a Talk of the Town piece on the French elections:
The first round of the election had been a free-for-all, with a roster of candidates that included the leader of the Fishing, Hunting, Nature, and Traditions Party; a Communist postman of undisputed charm; and an anti-globalizing farmer whose mustache alone appeared to be the product of an agricultural subsidy.
Oh, to write like that!

Also, did anyone else notice Google's subtle switch to a new layout today?

Revolutionary method for predicting final Sopranos episodes

The Sopranos has defied expectations since its inception almost ten years ago, so my method for predicting what's to come hinges on the following:

Step 1. Predict the obvious.
Step 2. Invert the obvious.

Example:

Obvious: A.J., heartbroken and brooding over the evil of man, kills himself.
Inversion: A.J. kills Tony! Perhaps his depression causes him to dwell on the ugly brutality of his world, and when he discovers one of Tony's evil deeds (killing Chris, killing Adriana, etc.) he takes it upon himself to rid the world of his father's violence.

That would be rad.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Hallelujah! Falwell's dead!

Joyous news: Jerry Falwell shuffled off the mortal coil today! The old bigot supported segregation, apartheid, homophobia, Republicans, etc. After 9/11, he had this to say:
"I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'"



Rest in extreme disquiet, Falwell!



This is why I love New York

Because someone took the time to create a fully interactive map with every bar in New York City. Drag a neighborhood into the center of the map, and a sidebar tells you the most popular haunts and highest rated joints. Hover over a bar and you get a picture, address, stats, and review. And you can find out how far it is from the nearest subway stop. This is the best reason yet to get a Blackberry.

Monday, May 14, 2007

I Am Cattle

The world continues conspiring to make us cattle. Whole Foods at lunchtime has always felt like stockyards. In Union Square, shoppers with a handful items stand in one of five express lines. As cashiers become available, a clerk gives you a register number and points you in the right direction.

Now the whole process is automated. Available register numbers appear on an enormous, colorful LCD screen and drop into a row corresponding to the lane whose turn is next. Shoppers blithely follow the dictates of an automaton.

The Matrix and Arthur Clarke envisioned a future controlled by robots. I think they were a little optimistic. As services become more and more streamlined and electronic, wealth will be increasingly concentrated, until the whole world is ruled by one man sitting at an enormous switchboard, controlling every facet of our consumerist lives.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

In a day here I see more than in an entire life in suburbia

I woke up in upper-class Manhattan, took the train to the Brooklyn ghetto. Saw a robbery, met the police (who protected and served), who drove me through Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, where out of a thousand faces, one was white. I ended the day at a LCD Soundsystem concert, where out of a hundred faces, one was black.

We humans are too disparate to ever be integrated.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Observe the Footwear

A crime has no soundtrack. There is no crescendo of strings to announce the bad guy, no blare of horns as the strike comes. It happens much slower than expected. Time becomes viscous. But so do our reactions.

I boarded the Brooklyn-bound L train and sat next to the perpetrator, although at the time he had not yet become one. (At least in my frame of reference.) At one point, he eyed me intently, as I sat in a headphone bubble. I was being careless with my bag, letting it sit next to me, instead of around my neck like usual, and I got a little paranoid. But my liberal gut-reaction told me: Don't judge a book by its cover. Be tolerant, and all that.

Still, when he stood up at the Grand Ave. stop, and lingered by the doors, I took notice. But mine is a self-centered paranoia (as, I imagine, most are): I fleetingly worried that he would re-board, wait to observe my stop, mug or beat me on a darkened street.

Momentary pause for a description, as I later told the police: light-skinned black or Hispanic, older, in his forties, with a gut, maybe 200 pounds, and beady eyes overshadowed by a thick brow. A mouth full of jagged, askew teeth, although that came later. A bum or user, I figured. Brown striped shirt, jeans, some sort of cap on.

Now this is where time slows down, and where the menacing string section would usually make its debut. The doors are about to close. He grabs the purse of the Asian girl next to the exit. He pauses, because the doors are taking longer to close than expected. She starts to get up, to scream and cry out, and he bats at her once with the purse. This is when the reality of what's happening hits you. Before that, it could have been an exchange, a transaction - the ease with which he lifted her purse, her languid reaction, the mind's reluctance to believe in extraordinary events - all that makes a fog of confusion. But when he bats her, and slips through the doors, then it's real.

But not over. The doors shudder for a second, pause, and in that instance the girl grasps for her purse, from the inside of the train. With a flat palm, he strikes her in her face, and she falls back in the train. The doors close and he's on the platform, safe.

I hit the intercom, talked to the conductor for her, because her English was splotchy, and the train's only other passengers spoke mostly Spanish. At DeKalb, we exited, gave a report to the police. They drove us back to Grand, and we canvased the projects for a while, looking for the perp.

At the detectives' station in Crown Heights, which, remarkably, is responsible for all of Brooklyn, I looked through suspects in a computer program, re-told the story. It took hours. The detectives were amazingly nice, fetched me water, treated me with respect. Not that I didn't appreciate big-city police before, but I certainly do now.

After we finished up, two detectives drove me back. "Next time," - God forbid - "always look at the shoes. He'll change his upper wear, cut his hair, but nine times out of ten, he'll be wearing the same shoes."

Friday, May 11, 2007

Last Night, Or How to Derail a Bedtime

If your friend is bartending, you obviously go to her bar, even if it's past 11 on a school night - oops, work night - and even if your bed, inflatable mattress thought it may be, is looking mighty cozy. You obviously go to this bar, especially if has a name like The Duck, and especially if it's in an up-and-coming if slightly scary neighborhood dotted by low-income projects and recent crime scenes. And you obviously bring your roommates, plus the friend of theirs that they picked up from a Sean John modeling audition, who are all a little bleary-eyed from drinking all day.

So this is how you find yourself at a hipster bar in Bushwick with three male models. And after you introduce everyone to your bartender friend and her roommate, who's playing it coy in front of shag-worthy specimens, you obviously play board games. Connect Four to start, followed by a little Trivial Pursuit, which, when you think about the context, has a pretty accurate title. And, as the slim acute angle formed by the hands of the clock grows wider, you shimmy out of the bar, toward home. You also, of course, decide to spare your readers the continued use of the second person.

This is where it gets interesting. Since Sterling told Brad about the mugging he saw at 4am last Saturday/Sunday, an acute paranoia has affixed itself to Brad's psyche. You might think there'd be no one safer than a six-foot-five-inch former NCAA Division I water polo player. You might think that, I might think that, but Brad just can't convince himself. Which is why, after Brad agrees to walk his friend to the subway, and Sterling and I drop Shira at her front door, we decide to call Brad and, in as frightened tones as possible, warn him about the menacing group of scary young black kids we just saw headed his way.

So this is where 6'5" Brad, I shit you not, actually refuses to let his Brazilian model friend take the subway home to the Upper West Side, and makes him walk Brad home. We're still on the phone with him and tell Brad not to take a certain street - that's the street the youths are on! - and divert him to another street, one with many hiding places. When he catches a glimpse of us, crouched behind a car, he finally starts to suspect something, but is still unsure enough that he crosses the street. He calls out hopefully: "Come oooooon, guuuyys." His voice quivers a little. By the time we've all reached the apartment, Brad has convinced his friend to sleep over, primarily so that there's no chance of him going back out into the night.

Strangely, the story isn't over. Background: Sterling is impetuous; Brad and I collected a free Craigslist couch on Wednesday, but couldn't manage it up the stairs; the only other way of ingress is through our third-floor balcony sliding-glass window. Sterling proposes an idea: with four sets of muscles and a sadly unused coil of rope lying about, why not give it a shot now, at 2 in the morning and two or three drinks deep?

Five minutes later, we have the couch standing on one end, a shabby fiber rope slung around the other, and, best of all, an audience, Craig, jingle-writer for a pharmaceutical company and next-door neighbor, who's come out to his own third-floor balcony to cheer us on. The three male models hoist the rope, defying all stereotypes by showing complete lack of concern for bodily injury or chafed hands. I scramble over the railing to guide the couch around the ledges below us. Craig hollers at me: "Spider-Man!"

Later, inside, with cups of Colt 45 in hand and Craig over for a visit, we pose - no, model - for a celebratory photo.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Today's Thoughts

Whoever designs Haruki Murakami's book covers, especially the newest one, ought to be given a promotion.

The New Yorker has arrived a little late at the Banksy party, but Lauren Collins' article is decent (I'm halfway through) and has renewed my urge to be a subversive guerrilla artist.

Google getting into television ads = impending world domination?

Asked for a yes/no answer on whether they believe in evolution, three Republican candidates gave a hearty "Nein!"

By the way, I live in the ghetto. Sterling saw someone get mugged a block from our apartment last Saturday night at 4am. Welcome to pre-Giuliani New York!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A morning of great woe and gnashing of teeth

I moved this morning. Yesterday afternoon I booked a van to arrive at 9am, one of those man-with-a-van ads regularly posted to craigslist.com and on coffee shop bulletin boards around town. I got up at 8am, did my thing, called the van guy at a quarter till 9 to make sure everything was on track. No answer. No sweat, I thought.

Roughly 8 calls and 45 minutes later, still no van. I finally get a callback from van-man Joseph, who says he's running late, it's gonna take another 45 minutes at least. No apology even. Normally I'm a pretty understanding guy, but now I'm pissed.

So I call a car service, get an SUV to come. They're not really in the moving business, but the driver is an amiable Ecuadorean who agrees to help me out for a big tip. He helps me load, and we chat in Spanish on the way over to Scholes St., which he pronounced "Skoles."

After he drops me off, I take the first load up to the apartment. The place is still kind of a mess, with plaster on the floor and some spots that need to be re-painted, but that was to be expected -- the cleaning crew isn't arriving until this afternoon. Still, not a sight for sore eyes.

I drop my bags and head back out, only to find that the door had shut. And the knob was loose. I turned and turned, but the knob didn't engaged the latch. I was locked in my own fucking apartment.

I take a card out of my wallet, not a credit card, something that won't be missed if tragedy strikes again: my Stanford ID card. I tried to slip it through the gap between door and wall, to hook the latch and free myself. No dice. I realized no matter how long I kept trying to slide a piece of plastic through a door jamb from the wrong side, it wasn't going to work.

I look around the kitchen for a screwdriver, something, anything to pry open the lock mechanism. Nada. I have my cell phone, but everyone I know in the area is hours away, at school or work or on a plane. I go out to my third-floor balcony to see if I can climb down, throw myself into a garbage dumpster, or, barring any other ideas, hang myself from electrical wires.

Down below is the Super, Moses, who lived up to both his title and his name. After a little hollering, he delivered me unto the promised land of New York urban grit and grime, freed again from my insidious apartment.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Celebrex Good Times, Come On!

There is something haunting and slightly sinister about this Celebrex ad. At 2.5 minutes (eons longer than your average 30-second spot), it even attracted the attention of The New York Times. The voice is lulling and monotonic, like that of a too-perfect human replica, and the animation, spa-ready guitar music, and heavy acronym usage conspire to paralyze your consciousness. It's like joining a cult.

I'm moving again. Still within Williamsburg. Don't ask.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Logic of a Salesman

I'm most likely moving (again) into an apartment with a high school friend. I was with the sales agent this morning, viewing the place. I called Brad to let him know it looked fine to me; he said to make sure to get the third-floor apartment, even though I had been shown the second-floor one.

Me: "Yeah, I think we'd like to take the third-floor apartment."
Salesman: "Yeah? You sure? That's an extra two flights of stairs. Six flights instead of four."
Me: "I'm fine with that."
Salesman: "Okay. Have fun with those stairs."

I might have been more susceptible to his not-so-subtle pressure had Brad not warned me that he'd try to get rid of the second-floor apartment first, since they were priced the same even though the higher apartment is clearly more valuable.

That's my problem: I'm too trusting. If Brad hadn't warned me, I would have just thought the salesman was looking out for my well-being, trying to alert me to an issue I hadn't considered. But in reality, he was trying to dump a less attractive apartment, knowing it'd be easier to sell the other.

I learned something today: Don't trust a salesperson. Always look for the motivations behind their advice. An important lesson for a consumer society.

In other news, JP Smith has a blog. Visit it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A couple weeks ago I was talking with my boss, FZ, about, you know, geopolitics and stuff. I think at the moment we were harping on the extraordinary benefit of having the dollar as the world's reserve currency, and whether there's a way to quantify that benefit.

"What if instead of the dollar, people used the euro, or a basket of world currencies as the reserve?" he said. "On a flight recently I was sitting next to Lloyd Blankfein--"

"Wow, the CEO of Goldman Sachs," I said, my mind reeling. "Must have made for good conversation."

FZ smiled a little, humoring my naivete. "Yes, he's a friend of mine."

This got me thinking about the changing conception of friendship. I doubt, for instance, that FZ and Lloyd have one another over for ball games, to sip pinot and talk about currency baskets. I doubt their kids get together for play-dates. I doubt they vacation together. Do they talk about marital problems together, or how to convince their kids to do their homework?

The idea of friendship among the powerful elite must be astronomically different from what you and I consider it. I think friend comes to more closely mean "business acquaintance." I assume it's a byproduct of busyness, and the inability to connect on an emotional level much deeper than a few five-hour transatlantic flights would allow.

But now that I'm thinking about it, I guess it's not too different from the social life of an average office worker. I mean, if you work in an office, how many people do you hang out with outside of your cubicle walls? I know some offices are particularly young and cohesive, but for the most part I imagine you develop few emotional connections to the people you spend eight or more hours a day with. I thought journalism would be different, with late-night gab sessions about current affairs over brews at the local watering hole (am I trying to see how many cliches I can fit into a single sentence? Sadly, no. This is all unintentional), but I was wrong.

Monday, April 16, 2007

I'm very interested in the impact of the internet and Google on human memory. If we have all the world's information at our fingertips, does that mean it no longer needs to be in our brain grooves? If you see any research or writing related to this idea, let me know.

In Ithaca this weekend, Alisa and I saw two impressive waterfalls (Ithaca is Gorges!) and met a Frenchman that, over the course of a glass of wine or two, claimed to have the power of hypnosis and to be able to beat me up in a bar fight. We also ate a phenomenal strawberry salad.

Meanwhile, also at the dinnertime reception for Consumer Campers, Brian Wansink played the didjeridoo.


Also, if you want to see my most recent article in Newsweek, go here.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Songs That Make Me Happy

One of the early benefits of the Happiness Journal has been my realization of how much music can affect my mood. Virtually every time I feel exuberant, a particular song has been the immediate cue. Certainly there are important, underlying causes, be they chemical or sociological or what have you, but it's fascinating to know that music is the final switch that can turn on a spell of contentedness.

Here are my top happy-inducing songs of the last couple weeks:
The National, "Fake Empire"

Stars, "Ageless Beauty (the Most Serene Republic remix)"

LCD Soundsystem, "Someone Great"

Dianogah, "Indie Rock Spock Ears"

A couple of interesting and related points:
  • Unhappiness spells are rarely triggered by music. This isn't a finding from the last few weeks, because I've been pretty pleased with the world lately, but just thinking back on it, whenever I'm feeling down, it hasn't been triggered by music. In fact, usually during down periods I don't even feel like listening to music at all.
  • The effect of these songs are strong for a short while, ranging from a day to about a week, but they inevitably fade and become just another song. Even so, I'm excited about the idea of creating a Happy Mix, with all the happy-inducing songs of a certain period, to see the effect of listening to them all at once (albeit after the majority of their magic has worn off). Will it be a concentrated blast of sonic pleasure?
  • Since we're digitizing our world, the mathematical properties of every song (tempo, etc.) will one day be easily available in some giant, searchable database. (Think of the Music Genome Project.) And since my economics degree taught me (forced me?) to believe in the power of numbers and, especially, representative sampling, eventually I'll have a large enough sample of happy-inducing songs to hone in on the likely musical properties of other potentially happy-inducing songs. I guess it's the same idea as the one behind those new recommendation radio sites like Last.FM and Pandora, but with a more specific purpose.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The National

It's time once again to return to my occasional attempt to convert the world to National worship. The new album, "Boxer," is transcendent. There are very, very few bands that impress me album after album; most fade over time, a waning that is usually inversely correlated with popularity. Maybe the National just haven't reached the requisite level of popularity for them to start sucking. If that's why they keep getting better and better (or at least keep staying as good as they have been in the past--I doubt anything can surpass Alligator), I hope they stay penniless and dark. I hope lead vocalist Matt Berninger's girlfriends high-heel-stomp his hypertrophied heart.

One beautiful thing about the National is that they excel at producing the optimal number of love-at-first-sound songs, that draw you in on first listen, and songs that take a little more work, that reward repeated listening and eventually replace the love-at-first-sound songs that inevitably dull.

So anyway, listen to "Boxer," the new album*, and especially "Fake Empire," one of those love-at-first-sound songs that will leave your socks foot-less (i.e. after knocking you out of them).


In other news, congratulations to Cormac McCarthy on joining Oprah's Book Club! Has the club ever before included marauding cannibals, who keep their victims alive so they can keep legs and limbs fresh longer, and nuclear Armageddon?

Lastly, my old boss at the World Bank asked me to apply for an open position in DC. I'm considering it, but not sure whether I'm ready to uproot my life again so soon. I'm also not sure whether I want to work at the World Bank for the next two years. Oh, the choices! When will they stop? When I'm dead. Which is also when I'll sleep.

*The album's not out until May. Yes, I feel a little bad about pirating it, but note that I have already purchased tickets to an NYC show in May, might buy tickets to a second show, and will probably still buy the album when it comes out. So know that I've given them plenty of money.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Assholes

I'm watching the Jackass movie right now, and I am transfixed. I rarely laugh out-loud when watching movies by myself, but Jackass invariably does it. It reminds me of A.O. Scott's brilliant essay on boffo humor. I think it's partly so appealing because it's the shit you'd do if you were completely uninhibited by conscience, society, responsibility, and pain threshold.

Speaking of pain threshold, there's a new MTV show called Scarred. They've been playing commercials for it all night. In one, a skateboarder disconnects two of his fingers from his hand; the bones jut through his palm. Now, I'm media-savvy and mostly desensitized to visual imagery, but I have to cover my eyes during each advertisement now.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Miscellany

A quote I stole from Anjali:
"A certain man," said Rex, as he turned round the corner with Margot, "once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish -- but there was no diamond inside. That's what I like about coincidence."
A Sopranos-related link I stole from Joshua, with mention of a Sopranos-related philosophical work called "Bada-Being and Nothingness."

My new favorite blog, The Numbers Guy blog, by a guy that writes mainly about the misuse of numbers in the media, but also has some interesting thoughts on numbers in general, and the sense of legitimacy they provide. His columns are even better. Check out this one on whether the iPod's shuffle feature is truly random and this one on how economists would split a three-way cab ride.

On the personal side, I moved to where the Hasidim and hipsters are last weekend: Williamsburg. But in a twist, my high school water polo friend just arrived in town, and wants to find a place with me. Josh said, "When it rains, it pours," and I said that raining apartments would be painful.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Holy Wonder

I just got off the phone with my old boss at the World Bank, Gladys, who moved from Mexico City to Washington, DC last fall. We chatted about her acclimatization: learning to love celebrity news (Britney!), following the presidential rat race, getting a driver's license. We chatted about the provocation for her city switch, the rising crime in Mexico City. And we chatted about the holes in Wolfowitz's socks.

Monday, April 02, 2007

I'm rethinking the Happiness Journal. The provocation: laziness. There's just no way I'm going to keep a regular journal as detailed as the one I proposed a couple weeks ago. Besides, what I'm really interested in learning (at this point) is whether my state of happiness is cyclical, or highly influenced by some very basic and regular ritual, like sleeping or weather.

My new proposal is to make it a daily journal, with a simple quantification of happiness state (very low, low, neutral, high, very high; with corresponding numbers), duration, previous night's sleep, and a comments section, which would include anything pertinent, like a particular song's influence or a breakup or something like that. With the date, I can later go back and find historical information on weather, current affairs, etc.

Friday, March 30, 2007

World Press Photo Awards

A photo of an ex-Marine wounded in Iraq. The photo is titled "Wounded Marine Returns Home from Iraq to Marry." An introduction to the photo reads, "Look carefully. Pause. Think. Realize you are seeing something unique, something rare."

One of those instances when a photo is worth many more than a thousand words.

More World Press Photo award winners here.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

when i was growing up in my calm, cookie-cutter suburban town, i lived across the street from a kindly old couple that practiced the dark arts. they had a little garden and tended butter cups and primrose. they both had white hair. woody, the husband, drove a sit-down lawnmower across the grass every saturday morning. nana, his wife, baked us casseroles when our parents left town. at halloween she gave out toothbrushes and dimes. this was a clear sign of inner darkness. they also had a little white dog--another sign of damnation, as well as a forward indicator of manhattan fashion trends. at night, flashes of blue-white light emanated from the windows to the side of their front portico, and i knew that inside, they were boiling the flesh of newborns in newt oil.

then one got alzheimer's, and the other got senile, and they moved into a nursing home.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

I started a happiness journal today. It's something I've thought of doing for sometime now. The original idea was to include color-coded dots on calendar pages (red for sad, green for happy), with more dots meaning more intense emotion. The ultimate goal is to have a historical record of when I was happy, when I was sad, and to get an idea of whether these moods are cyclical, or are highly dependent on exterior events, or just totally random, or whatever.

Think of the main character in Pi. He was so certain that if he just had enough data, and massaged it in the right way, he could find patterns in anything: the stock market, the weather, the Bible. I guess it's the economist in me, always looking for a way to quantify the unquantifiable, in hopes that numbers reveal patterns and patterns yield control, or at least knowledge.

The idea has grown more expansive since the color-coded dot days. It's now a full-on journal, with highly detailed subcategories of all the variables that might affect happiness/sadness on a given day. The categories I've included in the first day's entry: weather, music, sleep, food, readings, external events (social life kind of stuff, as well as current affairs).

My problem, though, is that I don't want to keep this journal for nine months, realize I forgot some very important variable, and then have to throw away the first nine months of data. I'm trying to prevent that by posting my first day's journal here in full. I want your input. What am I missing? What other categories should be included on a regular basis?

Lastly, I'm creating a Lexicon of Happiness and Sadness. Early on, I realized that happy/sad is much too broad to be useful. Think of all the different types of happiness: contentedness, giddiness, optimism, etc. Actually, that's what I've got so far. For sadness, there's pessimism, dejection, bleakness, worthlessness. Are any of these categories superfluous/overlapping? What else should I include?

I eagerly await your input.

Happiness Journal

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Weather: A mid-March spring day. There's been a warmth trend for the past few days, but nothing higher than the fifties. Today it's almost seventy. A little humid and overcast in the morning, with pale light, but clearing to pleasant blue skies later in the day. Feels more like spring than any day since (strangely) January.

Music: A new song, downloaded last night from iTunes. "Indie Rock Spock Ears" by Dianogah. Comes to my consciousness courtesy of This American Life. It's been on repeat all morning. Simple guitar and bass, mostly. Calmly jubilant, with a slow-build crescendo.

Sleep: Took Nyquil last night around 11pm. Watched an episode of The Wire, downloaded music, then allowed myself to fall asleep a little past 1am. The alarm was set for 8:20am, but I reset it and snoozed until 8:35. Sleep quality was very good (thanks to Nyquil) -- can't remember waking at all.

Food: No breakfast at home. A coffee at Philip's and a slice of pumpkin nut bread. Burrito for late lunch around two. The night before, dinner of noodles and broth at Republic on Union Square. A glass and a half of sangria with dinner, followed by a Guinness.

Readings: Have been reading (and very much enjoying) Into the Wild for the last few days now. This morning, an article in American Scholar by a biophysicist (Robert Lanza) about consciousness, its limits, and the truth behind perceived reality.

External events: Last night, dinner with CR and IG at a terrible noodle house on Union Square. The food was good, but the drinks overpriced and small, and it was impossible to hear one another. CR and DB broke up. Drinks at a Joyce-approved Irish pub afterward. Bad interaction with roommate later at night, but I rubbed it off easily. Email from new roommate, so all is confirmed on that front. Stock market was down yesterday, and foreign markets closed down today. A red spot on my lower left eyelid, planting thoughts of malignancy in my mind.

Details: I've been extremely happy since around 11. The morning was contented enough, out of the house on time, at work a little early. But nothing too special. But I have this new song in my head (see above) and then read this scientific article on American Scholar, a biophysicist's treatise for including consciousness in any unified scientific theory. We, as scientific observers, as human beings, construct our own realities; the act of observing something changes that something. Quantum theory, philosophy, the cosmic coincidences that have lead to life. Article is here: http://www.theamericanscholar.org/sp07/newtheory-lanza.html.

The article left me with a deep feeling of contentment. I walked outside to get my burrito for lunch, and all seemed right with the world. On the way back from lunch, listening to Dianogah again, a sense of connection with others. Like people were a little bit friendlier than usual. My thought at the time: that since, according to Lanza, we're all interconnected but otherwise isolated realities, and since objective reality, whatever that is, may be much, much more expansive than what we perceive of it, and that we lack the tools to perceive more, perhaps it's possible to read one another's sense of wellbeing, and respond to it?

Contented feeling ebbed over the afternoon, but never left completely. Heading home, walking from the subway, a TAL story on mother's day at the women's prison hits my earphones, and a sense of melancholy happiness returns. A feeling whose aural equivalent might be, It's all bullshit, but we're all in it together.
A co-worker just stopped by my office to ask a technical question about her Ebay account.

Me: Sorry, I don't really know much about Ebay.
Her: But you're from California!

I struggle to see the logic here. It must be my faulty perception of reality. Or else New Yorkers think we Californians are all granola-crunching techno-wizards with dot-com billions and houses made of Redwood timber.

Unrelated: read my latest article.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Yes, yes, it's been a while since I've posted anything. Whatev. Like you care anyway.

But to make up for it, some gifts:

1. My beastly reporting on the Endangered Species Act.

2. Ira Glass talking about storytelling. If you don't know who Ira Glass is then a) you are like me circa January 2007 and b) visit the site for This American Life and start catching up.

3. This photo.

Friday, February 09, 2007

A new conversation

CR: Do you remember when I asked you to wash the bathroom mats two weeks ago?
Me: Yes.
CR: Have you?
Me: No. I haven't had to do my laundry yet.

This is a lie. I did my laundry last week. But I take my laundry out and didn't want scuzzy bath mats mixed in with my clothes, and I didn't have faith that the laundromat would separate them even if I asked.

CR: Well it should be easy to do.
Me: When are you doing yours?
CR: Maybe this week.
Me: If you do yours before mine, could you wash the bath mats?

A pause. Pauses are always bad.

CR: No.
Me: Why not.
CR: It's your responsibility.

My apartment is like boot camp.

Me: I feel like you're training me, or trying to at least.
CR: Name the last time I told you to do something.
Me: Last week when you told not to get so much water on the bath mats.

I wish there were a punch line, but it really just goes on like this for a while.

Monday, February 05, 2007

A Polish travel writer, speaking of his newspaper assignment to travel abroad for the first time, to India, in the mid-1950s, had this to say:
"My first reaction was astonishment. And, right after that, panic: I knew nothing about India. I feverishly searched my thoughts for some associations, images, names. Nothing. Zero."
This sentiment belongs to a different generation. I can imagine no person born after 1980 harboring such a blank slate for a place. Or, if some person did, and ever had any reason to become aware of that blankness, they would be quick to rush to the internet, or television, or video store, or maybe even a bookstore, to quickly acquaint themselves with the world's collective knowledge on the subject.

We are assailed by images. No unconquered frontiers exist. At the collective level this is certainly true, but even at the individual level it's becoming rarer. By the time we're 18 we've seen the deprivations of African poverty, newly minted Chinese millionaires, meth addicts in Peoria, tar oil fields in Alberta. We are Dresden under a fusillade of pixels and negatives.

I see two major problems with this. One is that the images that we see are highly crafted and stylized, and they almost never represent reality. They might represent some sliver of reality, but partial reality is just a style of equivocation. Secondly, new experiences can never really be new. A trip abroad will always be preconceived before its actual conception. Before traveling to India, I know exactly what to expect, or at least what I'm supposed to expect. Our ongoing experiences with new things are shaped and determined by prior exposure to them through images.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

I've been meaning to write another hilarious post about my roommate but thinking about death instead. In Iraq last week, an aid-worker named Andi was ambushed outside the office of a Sunni political party; she and three security guards were killed. She was the girlfriend of Mike Hastings, a Newsweek reporter who used to sit in the office next to me. He had planned to ask her to marry him on Valentine's Day.

I barely know Mike, and didn't know Andi at all. But still. It reminds me that behind every death toll figure in the newspaper there is a story like this one, Iraqi, American, or otherwise.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

There's a brilliant piece in The New Yorker this week about Azzam Al-Amriki, a.k.a. Azzam the American, a.k.a. Adam Gadahn. He's a homegrown terrorist, a U.S. national now leading Al Qaeda's media operations from somewhere in Waziristan, Pakistan. Al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, calls this American his "brother." He's the first citizen to be charged with treason in 50 years.

This alone is a fascinating premise, but what gives it added depth (for me, at least) is that Adam grew up in Orange and Riverside counties. He lived for a time at his grandparents' house in Santa Ana, only a few miles from Yorba Linda, where I've lived my entire life. He was friendly with radio DJs in Pomona, a dusty college town off the 57 freeway, about a 20 minute drive from Yorba Linda. Before that he lived on a farm in Riverside, where his family raised goats. He fell into the Orange County death metal scene, which he saw as a rebellion against the excess and superficiality of modern culture, converted to Islam at 17 (his father was half-Jewish but became a Christian mystic later in life), and then found Al Qaeda.

The shocking thing is that I'm not all that shocked. For any intelligent, lonely kid with tendencies toward extremism, Orange County is probably the place most likely to awaken them. Especially given the bizarre mix of tract-home SoCal suburbanism and rural homestead goat-farming that he was exposed to. A friend quoted his views on the Southern California sprawl:
"You know, this is crazy. We live out here in this area that's the end of the universe. Most of the people around me are brain-dead, nobody cares about anything that's going on, we're wrecking everything that's good, all the trees are disappearing, everything is being turned into suburbs. I feel like I'm the only one who notices this."
Although it's hard to admit, I find myself agreeing with an Al Qaeda operative.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

An Odoriferous Week

Yesterday all of midtown smelled like gas (the suspect, as usual, is Jersey). Today the elevator in my office smells like Play-Doh. I feel like the guy from "Perfume."

Anyway, I'm realizing that I've been remiss in talking about my crazy roommate on this blog. It'll be hard to catch everyone up, but let's start by saying that he's an OCD-level neatnik. He requested that after I take a shower I splash a cup of water down the tub to wash away any hair or "dead skin cells" that I might have left behind. We bleach the toilet every week, and I'm supposed to use a serving tray when eating food in my room.
There's another side to his craziness, what I've started to call Awkwardness Extreme (A.E.). It's hard to relay; our exchanges usually don't carry the punchiness of the "dead skin cells" comment. But last night there were a couple that I think will translate well to the page.

I get home at about 11:30pm, and he walks in literally 2 or 3 minutes later. In the transcription, CR stands for "Crazy Roommate" and "Me" stands for me.
Me: Hi.
CR: Hi. How are you?
Me: Good. How are you?
CR: Good. How are you?
Me: Uh, you just asked me that.
Now, this is a reasonable mistake. I've done it before. You get on a roll and just don't know when to stop. So I smile as I tell him that he just asked me that, in effect saying, "You just said something silly, and I recognize and embrace your silliness - let's laugh together." I'm giving him a way out. But his A.E. doesn't allow him to take it. He continues.
CR: I know. How are you?
Me: Uh, still good.
I'm still kind of smiling at this point, but the corners of my mouth have begun to drop. Then he just repeats the phrase over and over: "How are YOU? How ARE you? How are you, how are you, how are you?" By this point, I'm no longer smiling. I pour myself some water from the Brita filter and go to my room.


Our doors are next to each other, and if I'm not listening to music or changing I like to leave it open a crack. It's the socialite in me, I guess. I happened to be standing by my open door when he comes into his room. He pauses and turns to me.
CR: Have you ever been in a choral group?
Me: No. Have you?
I assume, naturally enough, that he has, because a) he's crazy and b) why else would he ask me? It's definitely possible that he's got some other peripheral connection to choral groups, or watched one perform recently, or is planning to go to a show, and that this, indeed, is the reason he's asking me. But no.
CR: No, I haven't.
(A pause.)
Me: Uh, so why the question?
CR: No reason.
Me: No reason? None at all?
CR: Just curious.
Me: Just sheer, random curiosity?
CR: Yep.
So either he's honest, and this rand-o question popped into his mind for no Godforsaken reason at all, or he's planning on taking me to an a cappella show for Valentine's Day. I'm so excited.