21 July 2009

Capillary Calendar

I discovered a nice design blog the other day--Dezeen--featuring this calendar that uses capillary action and a bottle of ink that colors in the days as they pass. I'd like to have one of these on my wall.

While Dezeen features the usual array of bizarro modern design ideas, there is a healthy dose of wheat amongst the chaff. Happy threshing.

31 March 2009

All of your Snuggie questions answered at Gizmodo

If you haven't yet seen the hilarious mess that is the Snuggie, you are missing out. Jason Chen over at Gizmodo has posted an estimable review and comparison of the various monk-habit/Jedi knight/hospital gown products that seem to be designed for lounging in frigid climes. I'll leave it to the article (and its large and growing comments section) to answer the question "whatever happened to wearing a sweatshirt?"

(Be warned: as well as being an excellent technology blog, Gizmodo is dangerously addictive for the gadget-minded and if not used in moderation, becomes a humongous time-suck.)

(photo via Gizmodo)

24 March 2009

NOVA: Extreme Ice Survey

The first showing of the PBS NOVA episode "Extreme Ice" was tonight. I am not a scientist, a climatologist or political agitator but the show itself was compelling. James Balog is a photographer and scientist who photographed disappearing glaciers around the world for National Geographic (June 1997 cover story: The Big Thaw"). Since that time he has installed cameras in Alaska, Greenland, Iceland and the Rockies, each taking one time-lapse photograph per hour, every hour, over the course of years. The resulting footage is astonishing, documenting the retreat of glaciers that is claimed to be at eight times the normal historical rate. There are photos and video at Extreme Ice Survey's site. The entire program will be available at NOVA's site beginning March 25th.

(photo via PBS.org)

18 March 2009

A quick trip to the U.A.E.?

I know--all the cool people are in Austin, TX, for the South By Southwest Music Festival. But if you happen to be slumming in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, be sure to drop in on the Henri Cartier-Bresson show at the Emirates Palace. Bresson's photos The Europeans, 1929-1991 are on display through March 31.

If you are too, err...busy to make it over, there is an excellent collection over at Magnum Photo's site. Since Bresson was one of Magnum's founders you might expect them to have a stellar collection and the site doesn't disappoint. In addition to Bresson, you can find legends such as Robert Capa, Susan Meiselas and W. Eugene Smith. Magnum does have all the photos stamped with multiple watermarks, which lessons the enjoyment, but these are some of the best photo-journalists in history here, and there's no charge for checking out their portfolios.

If you're not already in Abu Dhabi, that is.

(photo: SPAIN. Valencia Province. Alicante. 1933.
Copyright Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos)

Literary March Madness: TMN's Tournament of Books

There's a book smackdown going on over at The Morning News, a site I keep going back to. In the Fifth Annual Tournament of Books, distinguished critics and authors are asked to compare and contrast two notable books from the past year and declare a winner. It makes for fun reading in itself, and may give the casual reader some bedside stand books to add to their list.

Some of the judges are more entertaining than others. In one bracket selection the late Roberto Bologno's acclaimed epic novel 2666 is pitted against Fae Myenne Ng's Steer Towards Rock:

He drives back up the court, the crashing of his mallet-like feet almost buried beneath the thunder of the crowd. The first book of 2666 involves obscure literary critics devoted to a mysterious, obscure German writer. He’s playing right to his crowd—all the obscure literary critics and wannabe obscure writers in the stands lunge to their feet—they’re eating it up! His victory seems absolutely assured!! Wait a second… he tries a single sentence that runs for six pages uninterrupted! But there’s no reason for it except to showcase his virility and bravado. Some of the crowd bellows ecstatically, but there are scattered groans and boos. 2666 is so distracted showing off that he drops the ball. He had it and he threw it away! Why, 2666, why??

There's a PDF bracket available, and the option to chime in yourself (titled "The Peanut Gallery"). All in all, a lot of fun and cheaper than Cliff's Notes. It's an easy way to brush up your water-cooler dialog arsenal.

17 March 2009

Library of Congress Photos at Flickr Commons

There's a gorgeous set of photo-lithographs over at the Library of Congress's photostram at Flickr Commons. Most of these were taken and published between the 1890s and 1910s.

The description at flickr:

Published primarily from the 1890s to 1910s, these prints were created by the Photoglob Company in Zürich, Switzerland, and the Detroit Publishing Company in Michigan. The richly colored images look like photographs but are actually ink-based photolithographs, usually 6.5 x 9 inches.

Like postcards, the photochroms feature subjects that appeal to travelers, including landscapes, architecture, street scenes, and daily life and culture. The prints were sold as souvenirs and often collected in albums or framed for display.

The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division assembled its collection from two sources that provided prints in mint condition. In 1985, the prints of Europe and the Middle East were purchased from the Galerie Muriset in Switzerland. In 2004, Howard L. Gottlieb generously donated the North American views.

Additional photochroms can be found in the online collections of the Zurich Central Library, www.zb.unizh.ch/ and other archives.

It doesn't sound particularly sexy, but the photos are incredible. If you are at all visually oriented, mosey on over to the collection and check it out. Bonus: images are copyright-free.

06 March 2009

"I Screwed Up" Take 2

You have to love politics. I guess. Thing is, it was supposed to be different this time--the O-man was supposed to have all of his bases covered. He knew how not to bait the Iranians, how to smooth ruffled diplomatic feathers, right? He has PEOPLE.

So, it actually brought a smile to my face to learn about the faux pas that has the British press in an uproar (well, as close as they get to one over there). Apparently, the Obamas' gifts to UK head cheese Gordon Brown were entirely inadequate. To put it in perspective, Brown's gifts were a pen holder carved from the wood of the sister ship of the Resolute. The famous oval office "Resolute Desk" was carved from the wood of the eponymous ship, an abandoned British vessel that was found by an American ship and returned to England. Queen Victoria commisioned the desk from a master Brit wood-smith and presented it as a gift to President Hayes in 1880. Brown also presented Obama with a first-edition of a seven-volume Winston Churchill biography. Entirely fitting gifts sure to win the heart of any sensible statesman who has probably spent too much at Levenger lately, anyway.

So, what to give in return? Let's see...how about a 25 DVD set of classic USA cultural imperialist movies? Yes, our diplomatically savvy leader had a special collection of Yankee cinema assembled by the American Film Institute. I won't go over the whole list but included were The Grapes of Wrath and Casablanca. Now, I'm no culture snob--I love cinema--but really...really? I have to think that the task of gift-buying was outsourced to some Congressional page or other (maybe it was a GOP dirty trick).

And I can't resist free-associating:

Original Brain-Storm (Gifts for G. Brown):
  • One-year Netflix subscription with deluxe package (monthly:4 packets Orville Reddenbacher microwave popcorn, Papa Murphy's pizza pack with 2 liters of Coke, cheezy bread, cinnamon bread).
  • 24: The Complete First, Second and Third Seasons (bonus Abu Ghraib special features edited out).
  • Guest-star for one year of The Hollywood Squares.
  • Two-year! subscriptions to: Reader's Digest, Sports Illustrated, Time, Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal.
  • A weekend at Disneyland for the whole family (airfare sadly not included).
  • 1-Month supply of Extenz, the simple pill that makes a man 'larger'.

You have to love politics.


Here's looking at you, kid.

04 March 2009

Long Day's Journey: David Foster Wallace piece in The New Yorker

If you page back through this blog you will find an entry on David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in September last year. You'll also notice it knocked me off the rails enough to stop blogging for awhile.

Now comes an article titled "The Unfinished" outlining Foster's career and his long battle with depression. It is a sad tale, but not a particularly surprising one. Still, it is compelling for a fan of Foster's work to get some more insight into not only his death, but his writing habits and career. There is also an excerpt from the manuscript Wallace was working on for years prior to his death, "The Pale King".

"The Unfinished" is long, as per TNY standards, but worth the reading. Wallace's battle with depression and his search for a solution are somewhat depressing in themselves--it is not as if those around him weren't aware of his condition. Indeed, his wife and family went to extraordinary lengths to monitor his psychic state.

It is only the more disappointing that Wallace seemed to have found a new style he thought may have been more honest.

The Pale King is to be published later this year.

03 March 2009

The Genius of Photography &c

A friend's Facebook upload of Dorothea Lange photos sent me to YT to browse around photography documentaries, whereby I stumbled on some of William Klein's stuff.

I have to admit to being a photography neophyte, so the recent BBC 4 series "The Genius of Photography" was revelatory. Though the US network Ovation chopped the show up into bits and pieces, some of the YT uploads appear to be more complete. Episode 4 was a favorite. Here's the first part:

The show introduced me to William Klein, Robert Frank and William Eggleston, for which I remain eternally grateful to the BBC and the producers of the series. While watching the Genius clips, I also ran across a William Klein vid that was quite good--Klein speaking about his work:

Lastly, I video montage of Robert Frank's photos (mixed with some photos taken of him). Set correctly to period tunes (Charlie Parker, I believe).

I'm waiting for the DVD of the Genius series to be released here. Until then the YT clips will have to suffice.

02 March 2009

Strangely compelling video

I don't normally steal stuff directly from BoingBoing, but this video is just too good to pass up. When I saw the time was over seven minutes I was sure I wouldn't watch it all the way through, but it has some of the linear storytelling of the best films sort of built-in. The Netflix preview would read: an American student in Japan gets the whacky idea of putting her video camera on a sushi conveyer belt. Various reactions from the diners make up the heart of the film. PG.

27 February 2009

Two reasons Calexico is my favorite band

I have to admit being a little worried when Calexico released Garden Ruin. Yes, I'm supposed to be open minded and allow artists to go their way, but GR just didn't hit me like any of the previous records did. A sigh of relief, then, when Carried to Dust was released last year. I hate the "return to form" tag as much as anyone, but it really is just a grand record.

Since is the first mention on surethings, I'll go ahead and post two iconic Calexico songs. The first song up is, for me, the embodiment of the band and its inimitable sound: Crystal Frontier. No other song so perfectly combines all of the elements: subject matter, sound and style, that make up the Calexico sound.

Secondly, The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Honestly, could anyone else pull this off? Je taime, baby!:

The band has many great songs, and there is a bunch of video over at YT. If I were to recommend a record I'd have to recommend at least 3-4: Hot Rail, the ep Even My Sure Things Fall Through, Feast of Wire and The Black Light. I also love their collaboration with Iron & Wine: In the Reins. Google, surf and enjoy.

Why We Buy 101: Creativity Magazine

I don't know the hierarchy of advertising journalism, but I'd think that Creativity would be near the top. A bewildering phantasmagoria of television commercials, photography, agency coverage and design ideas, Creativity is the anti-Adbusters.

Though much of the content is limited to subscribers of the print edition (at $99/yr), there are many options to receive content via email and feeds. It is a great site to keep tabs on what might soon be hurtling at you from your television screen, your computer, radio or magazine pages.

I've embedded this video from YouTube because the Creativity one becomes unavailable after one week (the Creativity resolution seems much better, though).

26 February 2009

Bogart That Blog: Noir of the Week

For anyone who ever took a college film course there is Noir of the Week, a blog dedicated entirely to films noirs, those dark and sometimes brutal films that date roughly from the 1930s to the 1950s. The blog is a great read and a great resource, obviously a labor of love.

It's a particular irony that noir, a largely American phenomenon, was not recognized by Americans as a trend or movement. It took a pair of Frenchmen to recognize and give a name to the violent, dark-themed films that were being churned out by the hundreds. The experts on Noir of the Week and its related forum Back Alley Noir will break it all down for you: the European origins, the periods (proto, classic, neo), but if I might offer a bit of amateur advice, just watch Double Indemnity first. If you don't like that flick, then most of the rest of it will probably not appeal.

There are also strong feelings about one of my favorite small films of recent years, the neo-noir Brick. Some of the Back Alley regulars think it is too schtickey to have high schoolers talking like characters from a 1930s gangster film, but I'm not a purist about too many things. Especially pop culture. Brick is clever, fast-paced, smart and just a lot of fun.

So, for a cool, slow Saturday, watch these two flicks back-to-back and get your inner Robert Mitchum (or Veronica Lake) on. You may need to take up cigarette smoking and bourbon drinking to fully engage.

25 February 2009

Geekasm-inducing Netbook: Dell Mini 9 running MacOSX

For those of us waiting for Apple to release a truly compact netbook, this is an unbelievably cool project courtesy of Gizmodo: a $400 Dell Mini 9 hacked into running Mac OSX with virtually no hardware/software/driver glitches.

I love my 12" G4 Powerbook but it is getting a bit long in the tooth, and the G4 chipset is being left behind by the newer Mac OS. And as sleek as the Air is, it is still too big. I suppose Apple feels you should be happy with the iPod Touch or the iPhone as web machines, but I don't relish blogging with them.

The Dell is almost perfect: small, quick and apparently totally compatible. Also, the 3G enabled version is available for net US$99 after a mail-in rebate, the catch being you have to subscribe to a 2-year, US$60/mo. wireless plan with ATT.

The only thing cooler would be a Sony Vaio P running OSX, but that is unlikely. Sony loads their 'books up with so much proprietary crap-ola (give up on the Memory Stick, for God's sake!) that is is difficult to hack.

Someday there will be a totally open netbook that will run whatever 'wares you decide to load. Until that day, this hack looks pretty, pretty ideal.

(photo via Gizmodo)

23 February 2009

Mark Ruwedel's Desolate Western Rails

I was very pleased to see photographer Mark Ruwedel's work highlighted over at The Morning News, a smart and pretty web mag. Ruwedel is a large-format photographer who spent 12 years traversing western North America's abandoned railway lines of the 19th and 20th centuries. There is a very nice gallery of large photos over at TMN, with a brief interview of Ruwedel by editor Rosencrans Baldwin.

The Yossi Milo Gallery in New York is hosting a solo exhibition of the project through March 7th, and the book Westward the Course of Empire was published last year.

There is also a sizable collection of photos at the Stephen Bulger Gallery, including some of Ruwedel's related project on abandoned western desert houses. If you've never lived in the western US, these photographs represent a more realistic impression of the landscape outside the cities than any others I've seen. Much has been written about the myth of "The West" as the land of sun, sand and new beginnings. Ruwedel's work, though, is more beautiful in its own desolate way: it speaks to the reality that remains when myths vanish.

(photo courtesy of TMN)

19 February 2009

The Hipster Must Die? Adbusters article generates 3000+ comments

I'm not an anarchist but I still like to read Adbusters, the sometimes frothing-at-the-mouth "anti-consumerist" magazine. It's good to keep an eye on the extreme ends of any debate, and Adbusters seems like the extreme left to me. I sympathize with some of the anti-consumer mentality but the occasional "death to the capitalists" rants send shivers up me timbers.

I didn't have the time or inclination to pore through the 3000+ comments on this article about the hipster-as-demise-of-the-counterculture, but I read a page or two. Basically the argument is that the self-absorbed, dance-club-frequenting, thrift-store-apparel-wearing cool kids should be fomenting some kind of social rebellion rather than pissing away their nights trying to get laid (or failing that, trying to get their pictures taken by "social bloggers"). Yawn. The comments were more amusing: one forwarded the economic thesis of the "productive" vs. the "consumer" hipster--the productive hipster buys his clothes from thrift stores, somehow subverting their original symbology. Imagine that! The consumers, of course, buy the same clothes from the consignment shops that the producers sold them to. I'll have to run that one by my micro-economist friend to see if it makes more sense to him than it did to me.

When I first ran across the magazine a couple of years ago on the newstands I was impressed by the graphic design and the thought-provoking and thought-out articles, but pieces like this are something of a letdown. Being so passionate that you are beyond hip or in denial of your desire to be hip seems to me the essence of one-upmans(hip).

18 February 2009

Flight 3400: A Few Good Links

There is an interesting Flash graphic over at the NYT. Kind of clunky but it gives you a visual on what happened. Also, over at Inquisitr there is a short piece on the Bombardier Q400 and landing gear problems that led to its being scrapped by Scandinavian Airlines. And finally (I'm not one of those airplane crash/conspiracy/pr0n freaks, honest!) a video of what looks to be one of the actual incidents the Scandinavian CEO was citing:

17 February 2009

Pulp Friction: Hard Case Crime's Retro Cover Art

When I was a kid I read whatever I could get my hands on, which meant trips to thrift stores. The books were dirt cheap and I could (and still can!) buy whatever I wanted. Of course, what I often wanted was gritty detective fiction written by Ross Thomas, Ross Macdonald, Mickey Spillane and a passel of others. Can't say for certain, but the lurid covers may have had something to do with the initial appeal...maybe?

Covers like this one (left) from the 1970s also had to be removed--surgically cut off and preserved for, uh, storage. If my parents had seen these covers it would have been bye bye, blackbird. As I often had my nose in a book, my parents either assumed I was reading something harmless or they got tired of asking.

The original covers from the pulp magazines of the 1920s-1950s were both tamer and more provocative. The art was painted by legends like Robert McGinnis and Frank R. Paul. Beautiful art of heaving bosoms and barely constrained/restrained flesh, but not the soft core photography of some 70s covers. The women-in-peril (and women-AS-peril) themes of these earlier incarnations seem both more subversive and more gothic--qualities I didn't recognize at the time. Today there are volumes of this art available and possibly university MFA programs. I'm not a student but I am a fan, though the covers still have to remain hidden--this time from the kids rather than the 'rents.

Niche publisher Hard Case Crime has made a mission of resurrecting the pulp covers of the earlier era--with a twist: their covers are original commissions, not reprints. Many of the books are also originals and you can view the covers and read sample chapters here. These days I am spending more time in the fictional worlds of Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami, but I am a member of Hard Case's book club--you should always feed your inner curious-eleven-year-old.

15 February 2009

Amazing TED demo: Siftables--mini interactive computer blocks

I have nowhere near the tech savvy to even ponder the implications of "Siftables", alphabet block-sized computers that can sense their relationship with each other. The demo shows the blocks used as math and paint tools, word games (a la Boggle), storytelling tools and music mixers. I've seen earlier videos from MIT's Media Lab but this latest iteration seems more advanced.

There's more info over at the Media Lab's website. You can learn more about fourth-year doctoral candidate David Merrill there, as well.

14 February 2009

TypeBound: Deconstructing the book

An interesting project/exhibit over at the University of Central Florida Art Gallery. Titled TypeBound, it is a deconstruction of the book as object, including everything from sculpture to typewriter art. The site has some irritatingly fast (and small) animated GIF displays but there is a catalog download link available to peruse at your leisure. There's also a Flickr gallery of the exhibit's opening.

It's only a matter of time before someone at Make does something more interesting with a Kindle.

Nikolas Muray Advertising Photo Set on Flickr

A 42-photo set of Nikolas Muray's advertising work has been uploaded as part of the George Eastman House's ongoing Flickr Commons project. Muray was a Hungarian immigrant who attended school in Budapest and in 1913, with war imminent, made his way to New York. He found work as a printer in Brooklyn and opened a home studio in Greenwhich Village.

He quickly made a name for himself as a portrait photographer and was soon taking celebrity photos for Harper's Bazaar, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and the New York Times. Later in his career Muray turned his hand to commercial ads, and it is these lusciously colorful photos that are on display at Flickr.

One of the juicy sidebars to Muray's life story: he was the lover of the inimitable Frida Kahlo for ten years (including during her marriage to Diego Rivera).

Whither the best weather?

I suppose a weather geek can spend all day on the multitudinous sites but a good snapshot is always available on Intellicast. Your local days are broken down into hourly chunks and there's plenty of geeky satellite and radar tools available.

Also intriguing is DryDay.com, which doesn't give you anything but a bar graph showing "risky" days (on which rain is more likely) and the eponymous dry days. This doesn't sound spectacular except that the forecasts are available for up to 18 months into the future--for a fee. (The 30-day forecast is free). Good for planning your snot-nosed brat's birthday party in those risky spring months.

13 February 2009

Hollis Can You Hear Me?: Bill Gibson's blog ramping up fiction entries

Any fan of what is sometimes called "speculative fiction" should check out the recent entries on William Gibson's blog. There are a growing number of snippets from what appears to be a novel in progress. The characters are from the fantastic novel Pattern Recognition, and some reference is made to the events in that book. It's possible these are just random sketches, of course, but in my book anything by Gibson is worth checking out.

WG has been an astute observer of our culture over the last 25 years, and the books keep getting better. As the future of Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive continues to morph into the present, he seems to be consistently a step or two ahead of things. His books are eerily prescient (and a lot more fun than Alvin Toffler).

09 February 2009

Officium: Morales, Gesualdo & The Tudors

Being both cheap and lazy has its drawbacks. For example, being too cheap to subscribe to premium cable channels means I am usually watching shows like Showtime's The Tudors when they hit DVD. Being too lazy to properly study, say, the history of Renaissance and Reformation era polyphony, means I tend to conflate these eras and their respective composers. Put the two together, like I did a few weeks ago, and you end up with gigantic, blood-spattered historical nightmare.

Cristobal de Morales is one of those composers you'll never have heard of if you don't listen to choral music. Even if you do, he's not the first one you're likely to hear. Someone like Tallis, Byrd or Palestrina is more likely, but Morales did write one piece that has earned him a bit more noteriety in recent years. The Hilliard Ensemble's mind-blowing recording of his Officium Defunctorum (ECM[21525]), in which the choral ensemble is accompanied by master jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek was a relative bestseller when it was released in 1994, and I picked it up due to both a budding love of choral music and the killer looking cover. The music really is fantastic, if you haven't heard it. It might be hard to imagine a choral group, their soaring harmonies rising up in the fantastic acoustic of an Austrian monastery, a gorgeous saxaphone now rising above them, now circling, now just echoing....For the purist it may come as an affront, but for a music lover it is pure joy.

Stay with me, now: because of the Morales disc, I began buying whatever ECM release looked vaguely interesting, and one of those happened to be another by the Hilliard Ensemble: Gesualdo's Tenebrae Responsories. Gesualdo is a more obscure composer than Morales, but his sordid life story makes for compelling, if gruesome reading. In short, he is most remembered for the murder of his wife and her lover, which couple he reportedly caught in flagrante delicto. He left their mutilated corpses on the steps of the palace and fled to Gesualdo, taking refuge from any possible retribution. The rest of the ugly story from Wikipedia:
Details on the murders are not lacking, because the depositions of witnesses to the magistrates have survived in full. While they disagree on some details, they agree on the principal points, and it is apparent that Gesualdo had help from his servants, who may have done most of the killing; however Gesualdo certainly stabbed Maria multiple times, shouting as he did, "she's not dead yet!" The Duke of Andria was found slaughtered by numerous deep sword wounds, as well as by a shot through the head; when he was found, he was dressed in women's clothing (specifically, Maria's night dress). His own clothing was found piled up by the bedside, unbloodied. One suggested explanation for this is that Gesualdo first murdered his wife, and after this turned his attentions to the Duke, forcing him to don his lover's clothing, most probably to humiliate him.

The murders were widely publicized, including in verse by poets such as Tasso and an entire flock of Neapolitan poets, eager to capitalize on the sensation; the salacious details of the murders were broadcast in print; but nothing was done to apprehend the Prince of Venosa. The police report [2] from the scene makes for shocking reading even after more than four hundred years.

Accounts on events after the murders differ. It was said that Gesualdo also murdered his second son by Maria, who was an infant, after looking into his eyes and doubting his paternity (according to contemporary sources he "swung the infant around in his cradle until the breath left his body"); another source indicates that he murdered his father-in-law as well, after the man had come seeking revenge. Gesualdo had employed a company of men-at-arms to ward off just such an event; however, new evidence from contemporary sources reveals that these were fictitious rumors.

Needless to say, the Hilliard Ensemble's recording is excellent. The all male group has an affinity for the music and the engineering is top-notch, but I have to admit that reading Gesualdo's history has colored my listening. It is hard to listen and not hear a tortured, fearful and possibly repentant genius at work. All of which made for watching the penultimate episode of The Tudors a peculiarly eerie experience. If you've watched the tense, bodice-ripping drama, you'll know that Season Two is the crescendo of Henry VIII's reign, and that episode in particular is a gory one in which many of the "conspirators" responsible for the bewitchment of the king with Anne Boleyn pay the ultimate price. Most were lucky to have been simply beheaded rather than boiled alive(!) Watching the heads roll with the story of Gesualdo in mind was worse that watching one of those back to back to back marathons of The First 48. The Tudors is engaging throughout the first two seasons, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the ultimate egocentric and the sensational Natalie Dormer as Anne. The rest of the cast is almost uniformly excellent. No, it's not perfectly historically accurate but it's close enough for government work.

My horror show experience of shouldn't put you off listening to any of this great music or, for that matter, watching the slick, sexy and undeniably fun television show. You should be able to find Seasons One and Two for a decent price. And if you hurry you'll be able to watch them all in time for Season Three, due on Showtime April 15th.

I'll be waiting for the DVD, though.

(from Amazon.com)

Season One:

Season Two:

06 February 2009

DVD: Jules, the Diva and me

I can't say that Diva (1982) introduced me to foreign film, but it sure seemed a revelation at the time. More than the stylish sets or the huge swaths of (French) blues and reds (now referenced as elements of the "cinema du look"), it was the sheer attitude of the venture that won my heart. Our hero Jules is a moped-riding postman with an opera fixation that is concentrated on an American soprano, Cynthia Hawkins (played by the real-life! soprano Wilhemina Wiggins Fernandez). He also has a seriously cool stereo system and recording gear that allow him to make a bootleg tape of the singer, who has a purist's view of music and the audience and refuses all attempts to record her.

This would be story enough for most small films today, but this is meant to be a thriller--based on the short novel of the same name--and there is a second plot involving record pirates, a prostitution/sex slavery ring, mobsters and corrupt cops. The bonus here is the incomparable couple Gorodish and Alba, he a chain smoking Zen philosopher, she a roller skating teenage shoplifter/model. They live in an open, industrial loft that is impossibly stylish and lead mysterious, impossibly swank lives.

I suppose it would be relatively easy to sum up the plot, but you can find that anywhere. You probably won't find much referencing the beautifully sung aria from La Wally that may make you love opera, the Gauloises smoke that flits through Gorodish's loft with a hint of blue, the giant jigsaw puzzle (which I've searched for for years), or the smooth-skinned, sly Alba--a girl any 19-year old could fall in love with. You can find film critics waxing snobbery about how the film looks dated because it has been so imitated.

Do yourself a favor and don't listen to them. Here is a snippet (note the mirror-shaded Taiwanese gangsters behind Jules!):

(credits via Wikipedia):

Directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix
Produced by Claudie Ossard
Irène Silberman
Serge Silberman
Written by Jean-Jacques Beineix
Jean Van Hamme
Based on the novel by Delacorta
Starring Frédéric Andréi
Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez
Richard Bohringer
Music by Vladimir Cosma
Cinematography Philippe Rousselot
Editing by Monique Prim
Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte
Distributed by United Artists
Release date(s) March 11, 1981
Running time 117 min (France)
123 min (United States)
Country France
Language French
Budget 7.5m ff

05 February 2009

Hot-Rod iPod Mod: Rapid Repair's 240gig Retrofit

If you're anything like me, poor bastard, your iPod was full after a few weeks. Diligently uploading about 10-15 percent of my pop/rock/country collection and a very puny portion of jazz and classical maxed out my 30-gig iPod video long ago. Anything added now requires removal of something else. Yes, there's probably a lot of junk on there, but removing it is a hassle I just don't want to deal with. This is the problem with technology in a gluttonous consumer culture--you can never keep up. Even my tower computer's hard drive is giving me ominous warnings about lack of disc space.

Financial realities being what they are, it's not likely I'll be able to splurge ($295) on Rapid Repair's solution to the iPod problem; and for me it would be a stopgap, anyway. Just eyeballing my music collection tells me I'd need maybe three of these 240 gb hard drives--and I'm obviously still buying the stuff. I'm also pondering re-ripping the whole mess at a higher bitrate, which uses up even more space but sounds better through my stereo. I suppose the ideal solution would be to have my entire library in lossless format stored on a personal satellite radio channel that is playable from a Nano-sized device. Is that asking too much?

For those who can afford it, this is the bestest, mostest upgrade available for now.

(photo via Wikimedia commons subject to GNU license)

02 February 2009

Waiting for Neko: A Mini-Documentary on YouTube

Fans of a certain kind of alternative music are waiting quietly for Neko Case's new disc Middle Cyclone, due on March 3, 2009. Case's powerful voice, distinctive songcraft and fine recordings stand out as among the best alternative/independent music of the decade.

While surfing around reading about Ms. Case in anticipation of the new record (and revisiting her 2001 EP Canadian Amp for review on the surethings music blog How to Hear), I ran across this video via Jon Rauhouse's site.

I've enjoyed watching Case mature into a full-fledged artist, though the transformation has been subtle. It would have been a challenge to improve on her second record, Furnace Room Lullaby (2000), but in the years since she has gone from strength to strength. The video should provide the uninitiated (under-rock-dwellers) with an idea of her particular charms. Those who know her well will get a sense of the maturity and artistic self possession she has cultivated over the years.

28 January 2009

Listening Diary: Discreet Music: Brian Eno (1975)

Amidst the sturm und drang that is my daily life, I have an end-of-the-day ritual that hasn't failed me. A hot cup of tea, a fine book and a copacetic bit of music. There are a lot of true believers out there who think that music must be consciously listened to AT ALL TIMES. But some good music is actually meant to be background noise.

Brian Eno is enough of a modern music legend that it is almost difficult to see around him. One can choose any number of legacies, starting with Roxy Music, the art rock band of which he was a member in the group's earliest days. You might consider his solo rock albums (Another Green World, Before and After Science, Here Come the Warm Jets, etc.) which are legendary in their own way. Or is he the David Bowie collaborator who helped forge the sound of the "Berlin Trilogy" of Low, Lodger and Heroes? Then you have the minor matter of his production and co-production credits for others, most notably U2 and Talking Heads, two of the most influential bands of the 1980s and 90s.

But I believe he will be remembered most for his contributions to ambient and generative music. Discreet Music is not Eno's first foray into the ambient sound, but it is a very early one, and it would help to plant the seed of generative music, which is software-generated from an assemblage of notes and phrases. In 1975 the tools were more limited, and Eno used synthesizers and tape delays to create a form of a generative system.

The title track is 30:35 minutes of two short phrases, with echoes and variations of the resulting theme that combine in myriad ways. If you are familiar with Eno's later ventures such as Music for Airports and On Land, you have the idea. It must sound a bit boring to the uninitiated, but for someone who listens to a great deal of music it acts almost as a sonic palate-cleanser. The three tracks that follow (and constituted Side 2 of the original LP) are variations on Pachelbel's Canon in D Major, which is now so ubiquitous as wedding march music. The pieces are played by a small ensemble who are each playing separate fragments and varying tempi or, more precisely, varying degrees of change of tempi. Again, if it all sounds very bland and watery to you, let me assure you the results are anything but--these are new ways of hearing a piece of music that has become commonplace through overexposure.

It was a novel concept to produce a record like this in 1975--a record the artist suggests "listening to... at comparatively low levels, even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility". (At the time I was probably stretching the upper decibel limits of my father's Kenwood receiver and Advent speakers with Blood on the Tracks and Born to Run.) The oft-repeated legend of its origins are contained in Eno's liner notes:

"In January this year I had an accident. I was not seriously hurt, but I was confined to bed in a stiff and static position. My friend Judy Nylon visited me and brought me a record of 18th century harp music. After she had gone, and with some considerable difficulty, I put on the record. Having laid down, I realized that the amplifier was set at an extremely low level, and that one channel of the stereo had failed completely. Since I hadn't the energy to get up and improve matters, the record played on almost inaudibly. This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music - as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience."

Maybe it's just me, but I don't think it likely that many recuperating rock musicians of the day would be even listening to 18th century harp music, let alone drawing inspiration from it. In Brian Eno's case, the inspiration resulted in one of the touchstones of ambient music.

Track listing via Wikipedia:

Side one

  1. "Discreet Music" – 30:35

Side two

Three Variations on the Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel

  1. "Fullness of Wind" – 9:57
  2. "French Catalogues" – 5:18
  3. "Brutal Ardour" – 8:17

27 January 2009

"I didn't know he was even sick": Updike, Angstrom and procrastination

I can't claim to be a big John Updike fan, I've only read a couple of his books, but I do feel somewhat perturbed to learn of his death today. For a California boy he represented the leather-patch-on-the-tweed-jacket kind of writer--the WASPy, New England fellow who snapped away on his Underwood and smoked unfiltered cigarettes. Anyone who made their living writing was, for me, someone to emulate. But all of the iconic imagery that surrounds writers pretty much blows away like so much fog (or cigarette smoke) as one gets older, and you are left with whatever you can glean from the work. This is as it should be, of course, if you've actually read some.

While I've read a few of Updike's novels and own some of the critical essays and poetry, the book that sticks most to my ribs is Rabbit, Run, which I read a few years back. In his introduction to the Everyman's Library collection of the four Rabbit Angstrom novels, Updike says the books became a sort of "running report on the state of my hero and his nation". I don't know about that, but I do remember loving the first one. Rabbit became a kind of touchstone for American men that find themselves battered and buffeted by modern life (read: most of us). And the approximate 10-year span in real and fictional time between the books appealed to the procrastinator in me: my plan was to read the books in the same time sequence--one every ten years. Checking the copyright page, however, I appear to be about four years overdue in reading the second book.

I'm also delinquent in reading the second book of Angstrom's literary descendant Frank Bascomb, hero of Richard Ford's The Sportswriter and Independence Day. I did enjoy Sportswriter finally, though Bascomb's wishy-washy, ambivalent moodiness nearly made me put the book down prematurely.

So now it will be back to the Everyman collection, after I've finished Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. Maybe Independence Day after that. You can only put things off for so long, you know: before you know your time will be up.

26 January 2009

Fetish: Stationery Products

There are people of a certain bent, and you will know if you are one. Do you linger around the few remaining stationery retailers or specialty paper shops? Do you spend inordinate amounts of time haunting the pen and pencil aisle at Target? Do you forage Goodwill and thrift stores for reams of vintage paper? If these behaviors sound familiar, you probably already know about the pen, pencil and notebook renaissance(s). All of these apply to yours truly, by the way, but I'm just not always able to follow through. Scrupulous journal-keeping is appealing in theory but difficult in practice.

As with so many other subcultures that formerly hid in the shadows, the paper people are crawling all over the interwebs. There are scads of sites and blogs devoted to the analog retro-lution, and of course some are better than others. One of the more dedicated notebook blogs is BlackCover, dedicated to finding the perfect little black book. A more eclectic approach is on display at Strikethru.net. The intrepid blogger there indulges in typecasts, pencasts, pen and typewriter reviews and musings on the vintage paper life. There is also a great collection of links in the sidebar. Moleskinerie is devoted to (what else) the ubiquitous Moleskine brand of journal. From what I can tell, the site was initially begun by an aficianado but has since been acquired by Moleskine, the brand (something for bloggers everywhere to aspire to, I guess). Notebookstories is a bit more homespun and personal, while
RhodiaDrive is dedicated to the Rhodia brand. There are dozens if not hundreds more. There are entire subcultures devoted to Moleskine and Rhodia "hacks" at places like Lifehack.org and 43folders. There's a dedicated flickr group, for God's sake!

You can sense a bit of a backlash in all of this, or perhaps just a nostalgia for handcraft. I recently ran across a book titled The Art of the Handwritten Note. For me, it is more along the lines of wishful thinking: when I'm rolled along to my grave it would be nice for some grieving relative to discover a cache of notebooks ala Emily Dickinson, full of unpublished masterpieces. Or I could just sell my blog.

(image of Guillermo delToro's notebook via blogs.sun.com or go to panslabyrinth.com)

25 January 2009

Good advice from a drug addict

I've been listening to Bill Evans a lot lately and am just beginning to poke around the video stuff on the web. Though an undisputed genius, Evans had serious drug dependency problems at different points in his career and left Earth at the age of 51. We are fortunate to have a large body of work (though some of the really juicy box sets are currently out of print and fetching enormous amounts of dough). I look forward to exploring more of Evans' work.

24 January 2009

Benjamin Busch on NPR

An interesting interview with Benjamin Busch on today's Weekend Edition Saturday. Scott Simon is his usual self when discussing "difficult" subjects (his hushed tone seems to imply--what, restrained, delicate disapproval? polite disdain?) but Busch is interesting and unapologetic, discussing life in combat with candor. He also provides a window on his upbringing and his father specifically (the novelist Frederick Busch--Benjamin has a lot to live up to, apparently). (Photo via weblo.com)