Most anyone who knows me knows that I have a terrible habit of beating to death most any keyboard I've ever owned. The one I got with this machine worked okay for a while, until its right Alt key died — and then the Esc key, and a slew of others went with it. The most recent one (a $20 piece of junk) died when the d key's sensor went offline. I finally admitted defeat, braved the snow, and headed over to Staples to pick up a Microsoft DMK 3000. They had apparently refreshed their stock of same, and now here I am clacking merrily away.
I give this one six months before I somehow trash it. The average lifespan of any keyboard under my sledgehammer fingers is never more than one year. A good thing keyboards are, by and large, cheap enough to replace on a regular basis. (To further compound the irony: the mouse I've been using has lasted for several years without a single problem, and I give it at least as much of a workout as the keyboards.)
I also grabbed something else nice: a little cloth-bound journal, 240 pages, just the right size to fit in a coat pocket. I haven't kept a diary on paper in some time and so I'm thinking about using that as a repository for all the things that aren't worth going on about in public. That and my handwriting has suffered badly from not getting a regular workout.
This seems to be something consistent amongst people who are forced to use computers regularly; my father used to have gorgeous engineer's handwriting, both script and print, but it degenerated into something of a scrawl over time. It's still better than the handwriting I've seen many other people sport, perhaps if only because he had the kind of rigorous old-world penmanship practice that has fallen badly out of fashion as of late.
One of my friends gave me a gift certificate to an excellent music store in town, and so on the way back I pulled into the nearby parking lot, skated over there and came back with two treasures: Miles Davis's Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, and my first mingering of Mingus, Mingus Ah Um. Black Saint and the Sinner Lady wasn't in stock, but the shopowner (a very vocal jazz fan) steered me towards this item as a first step.
On Christmas Day I gave a number of people phone calls, among them one of my best friends, and we ended up talking for upwards of two hours. One of the big subjects we circled back to again and again was writing, and I said something to the following effect: Between him, me, and at least two or three other people we constitute an informal “writer’s circle”.
I’d been in one such informal circle before, but it had fallen apart due to infighting: some of the people in it were shockingly immature, and too many arguments germinated which had nothing to do with writing. One good thing did come out of it on my end — my novel Another Worldly Device was kicked off during that period, but I felt dismal knowing there was no circle, as such, to read it and comment on it. Sending something to a whole bunch of individual people for feedback isn’t the same thing as having feedback in a forum where other people can comment and be heard by each other.
The circle I’ve found myself in now, for lack of a better word, consists of people whose directions and ambitions are highly dissimilar. I’m probably the most “professional” of the bunch, not just because I write for a living (although not fiction), but because I get turned to quite often for advice. I guess I must be doing something right. But I like the fact that the feedback is both to and from people who are not “professionals”.
There’s a couple of reasons for this. The first, and I’d be foolish if I denied it, is that I get a kick out of helping people with whatever experience I have to spare. It’s fun being a teacher. The second is something I have a hard time saying without sounding like I’m being facile: sometimes the company of folks who aren’t “professionals” is more stimulating, less weighted down with the baggage of expectations and performance on both sides. This doesn’t mean I’m going to turn down the company of pros if it’s offered, but sometimes I feel there is only so much those of us who have a claim to a degree of legitimacy as a Writer with the cap W can teach each other. (Good to be wrong about those things, though, when it does happen.)
One of the other writers in this circle is someone who writes if only as a poor substitute for the things he would really like to do that are more immersive — e.g., filmmaking. I empathize with him completely. Writing’s a really poor substitute for just being able to show people what you want them to see — but it also means you, and they, have to exercise the imagination that much more. The imagination also works like any other muscle: the more you work it, the more of it you have. On the plus side, filmmaking technology is cheaper and more readily available now than it has ever been — but requires exponentially more work to get good results from. If you want to write about the desert, you don’t actually have to be there to do it — although it doesn’t hurt to have been there at least once.
Time and again the two of us have some variant on the same discussion, where he makes it clear that writing for him is largely a provisional thing — something he’s going to do until some better way of putting across what he wants comes along. My take is a little more practical: he’s already quite good at it, and the odds of anything better coming along as a replacement are pretty slender. What other art form or medium can put you on another planet, let you hear another language, experience death and rebirth and everything in between, and requires nothing more than a decent amount of light and a few minutes of your time? And yet, I kind of like the idea that he’s uncomfortable about all this; it means he’s skeptical — about himself as well as the medium. It means he’s asking questions and not simply taking the results for granted. He may not think of himself as “a writer”, but he certainly thinks of himself as a storyteller.
Friends! Family! Feasting! Loot!
Plus, I got to play with my father-in-law's Canon digital SLR. Pictures from that to come!
Enjoyed an Eve Meal of the traditional spiral ham, potatoes and other goodies with Les Inlaws, and got to play with Dad-in-law's Canon Rebel. I think at this point I've shot more pictures with it than he has. Not that he minded. (I'll be uploading some of those later, after the main festivities are over.)
My first official day off! And as you can guess, I spent as much time doing as little as possible, barring some time with the in-laws to enjoy some belated birthday supper, cake 'n gifts (nice shirts, including a "47 Ronin" design that had my eyes popping). People say I don't look my age; I hope that keeps up.
Two book-related pieces in the Times caught my eye. One was about a local bookstore owner facing eviction, but he was able to soften the blow a bit by having a gallery exhibition of his paintings. The other deals with the curious things one finds between the pages of used books — everything from money and correspondence to food and dead insects. There's a part of me that would love to play a prank on someone I hate by sneaking into their house and placing slices of uncooked bacon in the fronts of their hardcovers.
I've found a few exceedingly curious things pressed into the pages of used books — newspaper clippings, stuff scribbled on hotel stationary from other countries, and a few dedications written on the endpapers that inspired endless curiosity about who the people had been on either side of that particular dedication. One in particular — which I don't feel comfortable quoting here in detail — inspired me to do a little detective work about who the people in question might have been. I never got an answer back from the people in question, but I hold out hope that they feel like their universe was a little less cold and distant.
I had a feeling this would happen at some point; I just didn't know when. But Criterion's gone and done it, bless their souls: they've remastered Kurosawa's Dodes'ka-den for DVD and will be bringing it out in March '09. Apparently they also have In the Realm of the Senses to be released at some point (based on some behind-the-scenes talk that was echoed on one of the Criterion discussion boards), but I wouldn't hold my breath for that one, even if the extant Fox Lorber DVD is a pitiful mess.
Yoshihiro Tatsumi, he of Push Man, etc., has a manga biography coming out called A Drifting Life (edited by Adrian Tomine, who also edited the other Drawn & Quarterly Tatsumi productions). I still have to do reviews of Abandon the Old in Tokyo and Good-Bye when time permits.
An interview with the director of the upcoming Geisha Vs. Ninjas. Come on — with a title like that, what's not to like? It doesn't hurt that he's worked on Death Trance and the soon-to-be-released-here One[e]Chanbara. No word on when G×N comes Stateside, though.
Ichi the Killer is to be one of the next Blu-ray releases from Tokyo Shock. I'm one of the few Miike fans who dislikes the film intensely; the man's a talented director, but I felt Ichi squandered his talents in the service of a story that wasn't anywhere nearly as smart or edgy as it thought it was.
Kar-Wai Wong's Ashes of Time Redux is getting a Blu-ray release, although I'm not sure if it's an all-region or Region B only encode. (The same company also appears to be releasing Chungking Express on BD, but you might as well go for the Criterion version if you're in the U.S.)
The third of the Shinobi no Mono films is also getting a domestic release. I've still to finish with the first two, sadly.
Fans of Kino's Journey will be heartened to know a full series box set is on the way.
The domestic Blu-ray for Akira, set for a March '09 release, is being solicited right now.
I lost a good part of the day moving stuff around — again — mostly to try and find out why some USB devices were working and others weren't. The whole thing involved excavating a sliding-drawer box from under some other things; it had been sitting underneath something else for so long the top of the box had squished down and made the drawer difficult to slide out. Small wonder I found something in it I hadn't seen in literally years: the Idea Diary.
The name should tell you what the book was about. I jotted down titles, story fragments, bits and pieces of things, and then put the book away and forgot about it for weeks on end. I'd then come back to it, glance over whatever caught my eye, and see what new trains of thought any of it inspired. One day I put it back in that drawer and forgot about it for a lot longer than I'd originally intended — and as a result it got buried, and I was preoccupied with other things anyway.
Now that the Idea Diary has resurfaced, two things struck me. The first was how the way I would wrestle with and debate the very things I'd write in it seems to be something that I've lost my touch for; getting back into the habit of doing that will probably be a huge help. The second is how many of the ideas that were a product of an earlier and less positive time just don't seem like anything I would want to bother with now. Maybe they seemed good at the time, when I was unintentionally pooh-poohing the idea of casting my net wide, when trying to shoot high just seemed like trouble.
The Idea Diary, by the way, is one gorgeous book: hand-stitched, bound in heavy boards, with creamy paper that takes pencil or pen beautifully. The mere act of writing in it is luxurious; it's as different, in the best ways, from typing this blog post as riding a bicycle differs from driving. You're forced to go that much more slowly, to plan your words and sentences in advance, to chew them over instead of simply stamp them out. Something we all need to learn to do, or re-learn. Me included.
I never thought much of Malcolm Gladwell, maybe because he reminded me entirely too much of Desmond Morris for his own good. Morris wrote The Naked Ape, in which he tried to use argument-by-analogy to draw rather shaky and tenuous connections between men in civilization and animals in general. Much of Morris's work was based on conceits about animals that were developed by observing them in captivity, which is a little like doing a general study of human child development and only using children born to parents in prison as the sample pool.
Gladwell's arguments are not much better: he creates a theory, and then uses singular examples as evidence for the theory, instead of looking at the evidence first. To wit: Blink, his book about the "science" of intuitive decision-making, which got savaged by Wesley Cecil in April 2006 Skeptical Inquirer. The opening anecdote for the book, about how an art expert saw in a second that a given piece of art was a fake after others had labored over it for long periods of time, doesn't even support his case.
Ditto Outliers, which used a similarly anecdotal approach, and suffered from the same flaws. The ideas expressed in each book are intriguing: Blink purports to deal with how people can make instant assessments of a situation, while Outliers tries to explain why certain people are successful and others are not — although the biggest wisdom you'll mine from the former is that some people are really good at making instant assessments of a situation (or not), and from the latter it's that some people are successful and others are not. In short, the books do not really explain anything, which not surprising given that they are mainly marketed to businessmen and not laypersons curious about science.
Outliers comes even closer to Morris's "man is an animal so why bother civilizing him" jungle turf.
The real question is, to what degree are we allowed to strive for things not immediately provided by our existing environment? That's a more nuanced question, and one that deserves a good book, but from what I've seen Malcolm Gladwell isn't going to be the one writing it.
New stuff! New stuff!
Oh, to be in L.A. right now. From AICN:
Longtime contributor Elston Gunn talks to organizers of Laemmle’s 70/70, which celebrates the Laemmle cinema chain’s 70th anniversary with 70mm screenings of a handful of geektastic classics. It runs Dec. 19-23 at the Royal: 11523 Santa Monica Blvd. in West Los Angeles.
Among the goodies planned are screenings of Tommy, Pink Floyd The Wall, The Abyss, Alien / Aliens, 2001 (!), and Star Trek II — all as fundraisers for local charities. The few movies I've seen in the theater in true wide-gauge 70mm (not Super 35) stood off the screen in the same way an HD monitor's images pop out at you where standard-def just sort of sits there. One such item was Lawrence of Arabia, fresh from its major restoration. Watching it on home video, as Ebert put it, was like peering at it through a mailslot.
Here's another book I missed talking about, but which I picked up cheap during a previous Book-Off visit: Batten (×天 / ばってん), a loopy Edo-era story about Tsubaki Seijuro ("Sei-san"). He's a tsukeuma, or debt collector for patrons of Yoshiwara, the red-light district. He dolls himself up in the wildest, flashiest courtesan's outfits he can find, follows his customers (read: victims) around and serenades them with the most annoying biwa playing imaginable. He's also an exceptionally skilled swordsman, and so he often uses his skills to help out folks who've fallen victim to the rich and powerful in some form. There's a bit more to the plot that I haven't fully deciphered yet — like a creepy young man, Fujimaru, who works in one of the girls' houses and is deeply protective of his sister (also an oiran).
Many people have asked me how hard it is to order stuff from the Japanese Amazon.com site. It's become much easier as of late, now that many of their prompts show up in English. But what's been traditionally much harder is ordering used items, since many sellers over there don't ship internationally.
I've compiled here a quick guide to finding items you like on Amazon.co.jp, and finding used copies that you can order typically at fairly hefty discounts. Be warned that discount / economy shipping to the U.S. from Japan can still run as much as $6-$10, but it's still better than the $18 or so that you might nominally be charged for expedited shipping.
I'll be updating this guide from time to time as need dictates.
You probably saw this coming, but what the heck — it's time for me to make a case for my own goodies as perfect gifts for that someone who has everything (or doesn't want anything, or... you get the idea).
Got a lover of Neil Gaiman-esque fantasy — or maybe a genuine Gaiman fan? Readers have compared Summerworld to his work, and I've even gotten a quiet endorsement from Diana Paxson about it (I'll need to get a pull quote from her for the next edition). If you're still dubious, check out the sample chapters and see for yourself.
Note: This may be the last year this particular edition is ever offered in any form. Sometime in 2009 it'll be discontinued completely and replaced with a barcoded edition that may have entirely different artwork.
And if you're looking for some hard-to-find musical oddities for that aural gourmand you know, check out my sale page of same!
This one's a sequel to yesterday's loot post. Turns out there were a few items I overlooked because they deserved more detailed commentary. Fans of untranslated manga, take heed.
Since when have I ever passed up an excuse to go into the city? Not in this lifetime, and probably not in the next one either. The excuse this time was a work meeting with some folks from Microsoft, but after that I made several stops along the way — some familiar haunts, and a one new one.
On the "new" side: Muji, the Japanese "no frills" store, something like a Nipponese version of Ikea. The store they'd opened near Times Square recently earned a story in the Times — especially since they're right around the corner from the offices of said paper — but this was the first time I stopped in. It won't be the last. The goodies on sale include everything from recycled paper products (with wonderful textures) to house 'n home implements of all kinds. I plan on coming back for some of those horribly comfortable polyurethane seat cushions.
Next stop: Kinokuniya, where I picked up the latest Monochrome Factor for a friend, and stumbled across a couple of other delights besides — among them, The Blue Wolf, a fictional history of Genghis Khan by none other than Yasushi Inoue. I'm planning to check that out in conjunction with Mongol and the Genghis Khan movie that FUNimation picked up recently, as a nice three-fer package of reviews. (No, I am not going to include The Conqueror. John Wayne as Genghis Khan? Get your heads out of your butts, people.)
From there, the other side of Bryant Park: Book-Off. I never leave there empty-handed, and this trip was no exception.
And to think those were all $3-$5 each.
Funny how within the week I come across two entirely separate pieces about nostalgia. The first was when Hayao Miyazaki gave a press conference and spoke intelligently, if ambivalently, about nostalgia for the past. The other was a Roger Cohen column in the Times where he talked about how the Paris he remembered from decades past is preserved in the essentially unchanged Havana of the present.
The Cohen column was wonderfully written, but I hated the fact that its moral geography seemed to consist of little more than "old = good, new = bad", with no room for graceful compromise between. Most of the comments on Roger's piece were downright hagiographic, but every now and then someone cut through and said something a little more acerbic, like the fellow who noted that it's always easy to feel nostalgic for the good old days when you don't have to actually live there.
I don't like the way a lot of New York City has been homogenized, either. I don't mind it being sanitized, but I do mind it being homogenized. The two aren't the same, and it doesn't help either old or new when they're conflated so freely.
Normally I don't go in for nostalgia, but I had an idea for an ongoing movie review series through 2009 that might work in that vein. The basic idea is something like Overlooked Movies of the '80s that Didn't Suck — hidden gems that got overshadowed by the porkbusters of the era.
Here's my tentative list:
Other possibilities include Cop (with James Woods), El Norte (especially when the Criterion version arrives!), Hollywood Shuffle, and maybe at least one Japanese production I haven't touched on yet in my existing reviews. Suggest something; I'm open-minded...
The Digital Bits has a Rumor Mill post about Blu-ray stuff due in the coming year. Stuff in itals is what I'm interested in.
... titles to watch out for in the next 12 months or so include Escape from New York, The Silence of the Lambs, a Star Trek "Kirk and Spock" box set (including films 1-6), six more catalog Bond titles (see Monday's Rumor Mill post), the theatrical versions of The Lord of the Rings films, possibly some or all of the Alien films, Sin City, Chinatown, Deep Impact, The Ten Commandments, Sunset Boulevard, Apocalypse Now, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Saturday Night Fever, Flashdance, The Elephant Man, Battlestar Galactica (the new series), possibly Titanic, Gigi, An American in Paris, Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai, Dr. Strangelove, Ghostbusters 1 & 2, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Matrix: 10th Anniversary, a more elaborate version of 300, the original King Kong, Rush Hour, Forbidden Planet, Grand Prix, Excalibur, The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Woodstock, North by Northwest, Ben-Hur, all the major theatrical releases for the next year and much, much more.
More. I like the sound of that.
On a side note, the Blu-ray of Immortal is a waste. It looks like an upsampled standard-def transfer, not true HD. Avoid it.
Tags: Blu-ray Disc
Over at the Times ArtsBeat blog I posted about Random House's staff-cutting and reorganization. The general take is that as long as the publishing industry keeps doing the same old outmoded things, it's going to continue being gobbled up alive, and vast swaths of the very things I love to read will vanish.
My own take: get rid of hardbacks. I know that they are a "prestige" item, and that many name authors demand a hardback printing as part of their contract, but they constitute one of the biggest money sinks right out of the gate. When a hardback printing of a book bombs, it takes a whole slew of other possible contenders with it no thanks to the amount of money needed to justify a single hardback title. It's also exorbitant from the POV of the buyer: $25-$40 for a single volume? Not when there's trade paperback editions that go from $8-$15.
So here's my x-point plan for reworking the publishing industry.
Additions welcome, but let's start with these.
Ebert goes to town on Ben Stein for the risible Expelled.
I used to like Ben Stein. After Expelled — for my money the worst "documentary" since those wretched "Prophecies of Nostradamus" scare reels in the 1970s — my respect for him reached subzero. Read the article and find out why, and check out this other exposé on the flick as well, which has some really wonderful rebuttals of the movie's claims under the title "Set Ben Straight."
Criterion has a post by none other than Donald Richie, wherein he compares the Toshiro Mifune up on the screen to the one he knew in real life. I also got a sense of some of the same things in the flawed but nevertheless absorbing joint biography The Emperor and the Wolf.
Okay, terrible post title, but try this on for size, from The Digital Bits:
... we've learned that the first wave of catalog titles by legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa has just been announced for release on Blu-ray Disc in Japan. Rashomon, Ran, Madadayo and The Quiet Duel are all expected on 2/6/09 in a box set from Jesnet. So how does this relate to Criterion? Well, Criterion owns the U.S. release rights to many of the Kurosawa films, and was involved in the new HD transfers. So it's likely that we'll start to see some of them released on Blu-ray by Criterion here in the States next year as well. Here's the page over at CD Japan where the titles are listed, though keep in mind that the Japanese discs will likely NOT have English subtitles (so you don't want to go importing them unless you're fluent with Japanese - just wait for the eventual U.S. releases).
I was stunned that Ran wasn't in the first wave of Criterion BD releases, but maybe only because they wanted to get that one absolutely immaculate.
This post at Slashdot comes with the following summary.
A 2006 paper by Matthew Salganik, Peter Dodds and Duncan Watts, about the patterns that users follow in choosing and recommending songs to each other on a music download site, may be the key to understanding the most effective form of "censorship" that still exists in mostly-free countries like the US It also explains why your great ideas haven't made you famous, while lower-wattage bulbs always seem to find a platform to spout off their ideas (and you can keep your smart remarks to yourself).
Read on for the rest of Bennett's take on why the effects of peer ratings on a music download site go a long way towards explaining how good ideas can effectively be "censored" even in a country with no formal political censorship.
Those scare quotes around "censored" and "censorship" provide a strong tipoff as to just how idiotic it is to take a word and denature its true meaning for the sake of a little inflammatory comparison. I am especially disgusted with the way the word censorship has been battered so far out of shape that it can now be fit into any hole that will receive a peg. In this case, it's comparing having your voice drowned out in a crowd with censorship, and I insist that the two are not remotely comparable in any real way.
Censorship — the real, odious variety — is when a government or authority expressly prohibits the dissemination or discussion of certain materials or topics, typically on the grounds that it will be injurious to public morals. Censorship is Naked Lunch or Ulysses or Fanny Hill — or The Salt of the Earth, for that matter — coming under fire for simply existing. Censorship is books being burned, typewriters smashed, journalists thrown in prison and people put to death for speaking out against immediate and terrible injustices. Censorship is not taking place when you are allowed to speak but others simply ignore you, maybe because you have nothing of value to say or because you are a lousy publicist.
The notion that a good idea will somehow automatically propagate itself to "the right people" on its own merit is a pernicious fiction. It takes hard work to make any good idea reach even sympathetic ears. Conflating this issue with censorship is like blaming oil dependency on a lack of bicycles.