The Casual Blog

Category: movies

Breathing better, climate change changes, and the amazing Birdman

A lot of things that are good for us are kind of tough, at least initially. I’m thinking especially of avoiding junk food and exercising, which require an up-front investment of time and energy. So I was pleased to come upon a report of a good-for-you activity that’s free, easy, and immediately rewarding. According to the Wall Street Journal this week, deep, slow breathing can help with stress, migraines, and other disorders. This stimulates the vagus nerve and causes the release of acetylcholine, which slows down the digestive system and heart rate.

This beneficial effect was not completely surprising to me, as this is the kind of breathing we do in yoga, and it feels good. At our 6:00 a.m. yoga class last Tuesday, Suzanne was coaching us to breath in on a slow count of 4, pause, then breathe out to a count of 4, and pause again. I later tried this technique when I was having trouble sleeping, and whoosh, off I went to dreamland.

I’ve been taking particular note lately of how many of our most fervent beliefs are dubious, and how resistant many of those beliefs are to change. For example, no amount of evidence seems to shake the certainties of opponents of evolution (forty some percent of Americans). I was worried that this was where we were on global warming, as we head toward the precipice.

But this week there was some good news: more people are taking the view that we’ve got to get serious about climate change. This week a NY Times poll“found that 83 percent of Americans, including 61 percent of Republicans and 86 percent of independents, say that if nothing is done to reduce emissions, global warming will be a very or somewhat serious problem in the future.” Two-thirds said they’re more likely to vote for political candidates that support addressing global warming. Even Republicans are moving in the right direction: 48 percent of them went with the majority.

So the overwhelming majority of us agree that we’ve got to get to work on saving the planet. This is encouraging.

Still, what could explain the people who think we have a serious problem but will not support doing anything about it? Is it amoral cynicism and greed? Whatever it is, we need to make sure those people do not win.

We finally got out to see Birdman this week, and thought it was great. Michael Keaton plays Riggin Thomson, a former action movie star who’s gone downhill but has decided to take a big chance and direct and star in an angst-ridden play that’s opening on Broadway. Riggin seems to be going crazy, with bursts of despair and brilliance.

Is it a very dark comedy, or a surreal drama? It’s edgy and intense, and doesn’t fit neatly into any genre. It reminded me of the great movies of Bergman, Fellini, and Scorsese — psychological, visionary, and manic. A very interesting score (jazz drumming, Mahler), evocative photography, and very fine acting. It challenges us with ambiguities. It would like us to think.

I wish its gifted creators (including the remarkable Spanish director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) good luck at the Academy Awards (where it has 9 nominations), but I’m afraid that it will be too original and unsettling for the Academy. I note that when Sally and I went to see it at the multiplex last Thursday, we were the only ones in the theatre.

Re the pictures: Sally brought home some roses from Whole Foods and made a lovely arrangement. She’d discovered that though the cats like to eat certain flowers, and then throw up on the rugs, they were less drawn to this kind. I liked the light on Saturday morning.

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival — some highlights

14 04 05_7994_edited-1Kudos to the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival which ran from last Thursday through the weekend in Durham, NC. The Festival had five main screens on which it screened more than 100 films. There were lots of helpful volunteers, and things ran on time and from what I saw, mostly glitch free. Many shows were sold out, and the crowds were enthusiastic.

I like documentaries most when the makers are passionate about the subject but also trying to maintain their critical distance and integrity. Documentary filmmakers, like all of us, have their blind spots and biases. Objectivity is a fine ideal, but I don’t think it’s possible to tell a coherent story based on reality in any medium without filtering, editing, and reworking; reality is just too messy to present raw. And no doubt some filmmakers are consciously manipulative. But a lot of documentary people seem to work hard to be truthful.

This was, I think true of all five films we saw, which covered a lot of artistic, social, and political ground. Here’s the list, in the order we saw them.

1. Afternoon of a Faun: Taniquil Le Clerq, by Nancy Buirski, is about the famous ballerina with the NY City Ballet. She married George Ballanchine and at her artistic peak contracted polio and never danced, or walked, again. This will be of most interest to other balletomanes, but I very much enjoyed the archival footage of Le Clerq and other great dancers and the interviews with Ballanchine, Jerome Robbins, Jacques d’Amboise, and others.

2. Whitey: The United States v. James J. Bulger, by Joe Berlinger, was organized around the criminal trial in Boston last year of Whitey Bulger, the crime boss who controlled South Boston for decades and then eluded capture for 16 years. You may recall from press reports that the trial was somewhat bizarre, in that Bulger didn’t deny many of the criminal acts that the government was trying to prove, but used the trial to deny that he was a government informant (“rat”) – which wasn’t an issue in the trial.

Bulger’s point seemed to be that a lot of state and federal law enforcement officials were working for him, rather than the other way around. There was ample proof that at least a couple of FBI agents were thoroughtly corrupt. This wasn’t so surprising – one expects that every barrel will have a few bad apples, – but there were indications that the officials working with Bulger were numerous and included some in high places (like the U.S. Attorney’s office). This could explain how he was permitted to run his operation for decades, murdering numerous people and destroying the lives of many others, while Italian Mafia competitors were arrested and convicted. The story was complicated, but the over all impression was that the law enforcement system came off the rails, and may not yet be back on them. It was truly shocking.
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3. Freedom Summer, by Stanley Nelson, was about the struggle for Black voting rights in Mississippi, including the work by about a thousand mostly white college students who worked there in the summer of 1964. I knew these folks had been courageous and idealistic, but I hadn’t quite realized how harrowing things had been. The old guard racists were fire bombing and shooting at them, and killed three. The film was ultimately inspiring, reminding us that it may not be futile to work for political change in the face of difficult odds.

4. Ivory Tower, by Andrew Rossi, is about the structural problems of higher education in America, including dramatically risings costs, crushing student debt, deteriorating study habits, and confused mission (e.g. whether to get kids ready for the world of work, challenge them intellectually, or entertain them). I was particularly interested in the reporting new education models, incorporating MOOCs and hybrid approaches to teaching.

5. Rich Hill, by Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo, is an intimate look at the lives of three adolescent boys in a small Missouri town. The families were all working (at least at times) poor, and their situations were unsettled and frequently chaotic. With a lot of anger and despair, it was difficult to watch at times — almost too real, with no apparent good solutions.

In addition to the stimulating films, the food concession was good; I was very happy with my salad combo plate. There was an unfortunate postscript for me – I lost my iPad Air. I probably left it in the theatre on Saturday night. It has most of the books I’m reading on it, as well as many other things I care about. In short, it’s gotten to be more than just another computing device, but more like a little piece of me. I’m feeling a bit shaken to be missing it.
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A wintry mix, musical Mormons, and Wall Street wolves

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It started to snow and sleet in Raleigh around noon Wednesday, and Red Hat and many other businesses shut down that afternoon. There were many who got stuck on the road and lost power, but I was able to walk home, which was cozy and warm. The next morning Larisa couldn’t make it to our personal training session, so I worked out in the little gym on our building’s top floor. Just after sunrise, I got some pictures of clouds and ice.
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It was windy and cold, and the sidewalks were icy, when I walked to work on Thursday. The office was officially closed. It was pleasant to have some uninterrupted time to think, read, and write. I worked on an amicus brief for the Supreme Court concerning a complex legal and social problem, and felt the flow. I’d been scheduled to do a speaking engagement for the NC Bar on Thursday afternoon, but this was cancelled on account of weather, so I could make some good progress on the brief.
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On Friday we went to see the musical The Book of Mormon in Durham. Diane, my mother-in-law, generously treated us to the seats. I was glad to see the show, which had some good laughs. But the things I thought were good were mostly in the dialog and lyrics. The music was almost willfully unoriginal. At its best, it sounded like a really good commercial for a new Ford. But I will say the soaring anthem, I am a Mormon (and a Mormon just believes) is, however derivative, a truly clever, and sort of moving, hoot.

I expected to feel a little guilty for being complicit in making fun of a minority religion, especially when there are people who I really like and respect who subscribe to it. But the Mormons actually come off as mostly likeable, responsible, and with high ideals, and with the same problems as everybody else. Of course, the doctrine seems bizarre to non-believers. But a lot of the barbs could easily be read as aimed at religion in general.
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There was an interview with Leonardo DiCaprio in the Saturday NY Times about The Wolf of Wall Street, which we saw last weekend. While I didn’t think it was a movie for the ages, and did think it was too long, I also found myself thinking about it through the week which means it touched something.

The subject matter is the rise and fall of a penny stock boiler room fraudster, and the atmosphere is one of extreme excess – the biggest mansion, biggest yacht, most exotic cars, most beautiful prostitutes, and lots and lots of cocaine. LD is in almost every scene, and holds our interest, as a character with incredible drive and confidence, and an absolute indifference to the plight of the people he’s exploiting. He’s addicted, not only to drugs, but even more to money. He’s sick, but also recognizably human.

I suspected, and the interview tended to confirm, that Scorsese and DiCaprio viewed the penny stock king as emblematic of the more-difficult-to-dramatize Wall Street shenanigans of the mid-2000s leading up to the crash of 2008. Of course, pure stock fraud and financial engineering + speculation aren’t the same thing, but they both run on greed and require similar heedlessness and indifference to others.
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Picturing light snow, and thinking about privacy and our digital selves

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It snowed in Raleigh this week, which was kind of exciting and kind of annoying. I love the transformative quality of snow – all that clean white soft quietness. But moving about in a normal human way becomes difficult. When I tried to drive rear-wheel-drive Clara to work, we got stuck as soon as I cleared the door of the apartment building garage. Unable to get up the modest slope, we managed to back down to a lucky parking space, and I walked the mile or so into work – in 18 degree cold. Burrr!
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On the way, I used my new camera, a Nikon D7100 with a Nikkor 10-24mm lens, to get a few images of my snowy neighborhood. I forgot to adjust the ISO, which I’d previously set at 800, but it didn’t seem to cause noise problems. I’ve been reading a book titled Mastering the Nikon D7100, which sounds very boring, but doesn’t seem so at all – which suggests I’m becoming a photo nerd. Oh well. There really is a lot to learn about this camera, but it can do so much! It sounds a little weird, but I’m feeling warmly towards it – almost like a new friend.
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Speaking of digital devices and friends, there was a lively essay by Colin Koopman in the NY Times this week about why we’re struggling so to grasp the nature of the problem with the NSA’s increasing intrusiveness into our lives. Koopman proposes that we should start viewing ourselves more as data (“info persons”). It is, after all, the way we’re viewed by our internet service providers (Google, Bing, Facebook,LinkedIn, Twitter, Amazon, eBay, Opentable, Angry Birds, etc. etc.).

Koopman proposes a simple thought experiment: imagine what would happen if all our digital data, from social security numbers to credit card accounts, medical records, school records, bank records, insurance records, search queries, book preferences, food preferences, porn preferences, avatars, Instagrams, Tweats, and posts – suddenly disappeared. Try it.

When I did, my stomach did a quick shimmy and I felt a bit of vertigo.

His point, I think, is that we have trouble grasping the privacy issue posed by mass electronic surveillance, because we have trouble grasping how our digital technology has transformed us, changed what a human being is. Our digital selves are an increasingly integral part of the human fabric. Because we still don’t quite get how they relate to the pre-digital revolution part of our lives, we tend to not notice them or downplay their significance.

But advertisers and spys have realized that, from another point of view, the digital self is a high value target, enabling the intruder to predict with a high degree of accuracy what we will buy on Amazon and view of Netflix tonight and do with ourselves tomorrow. The new Age of Information is transforming commerce and law enforcement, but it we haven’t evolved political or legal tools to address it.

Our privacy is closely related to our dignity, and to community. We all have imperfections or oddities that we prefer to keep concealed. They may be physical flaws, financial limitations, unusual appetites, or unpopular ideas. Our ability to maintain self-respect and to live in cooperative groups depends on a tacit mutual agreement to respect boundaries for these differences, and to not insist that they be exposed.

We didn’t realize until recently that just by using the new normal tools of communication and commerce, we had opened the door on our private selves. Once we know that our health problems, financial problems, sexual proclivities, and other traits are within view of strangers, we feel diminished and alienated. This is why, even leaving aside the risk of tyranny, data privacy matters.

Speaking of technology and transformation, on Friday we had a nice dinner at Capital Club 16 (an eclectic and vegetarian-friendly place) and went over to Mission Valley to see Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix, the voice of Scarlett Johansson, and the wonderful Amy Adams. It’s about a new sort of digital assistant app that is so human that humans fall in love with it – and it with them.

The premise didn’t seem farfetched to me. I thought it was touching and unsettling, though kind of slow toward the end. The next day I was still thinking about the themes: how prone to loneliness we are, how desperate to connect, how ecstatic in love, how despondent in loss, how changeable, and also how resilient.
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My fabulous teachers (fitness, yoga, and music) and seeing Dallas Buyers’ Club

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Our geranium on the balcony is a true survivor! Here we are in mid-December, after several nights sub-freezing nights, and it still looks perky. Sally asked me to take a picture of this marvelous plant, and so I did — several in fact, but these are the best.
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Getting out of a rut and trying new things takes some energy and effort. It also really helps to have a good teacher. As I came into the home stretch of this week, it struck me that I’m fortunate to have found several such teachers, who’ve been helping me with fitness, yoga, and music.

First, there’s Larisa Lotz, who is my regular personal trainer each Thursday at 5:30 a.m. at Studio Revolution. I always look forward to it, because there’s an element of play and fun, but I also always find I’m barely able to make it through. This is not by accident, of course. Larisa has got my number, and knows about where my limits and weak points are. And she works on those weak points – which get stronger.

This week, as usual, she had some new activities and combinations. For core work, I had a side plank with the top leg pulling in and kicking out to the side, and a TRX suspended push up from the ground followed by drawing the legs in. She had me throwing a soft heavy medicine ball as high as possible, to work on “explosive energy,” which she said was a gap in most people’s fitness regimen.

We did some agility drills with quick stepping in various patterns through a rope ladder. We also did some sandbag work, including a fast intense series with dead lifts, cleans, squats, presses, and rows. And several other things. I took home several ideas for new things to work on.

On Friday morning I got to O2 Fitness at 5:35, and did some of Larisa’s hip and leg exercises and some more traditional upper body work – chin ups, dips, push ups, rows, and presses. Then I took my weekly RPM spinning class with Christy. This class involves dance club music of the throbbing, driving sort, which is not my favorite music, but it makes the hard biking in place in a dark room relatively fun. Our class on Friday involved more sprints than usual. I kept an eye on my heart rate monitor so as not to redline for too long. I topped out at 162 – high, but with all that effort, I was surprised it wasn’t a little higher.
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Later that day, at lunchtime, I shot over to Massage Wallah for some therepeutic massage work with Emily Alexander. My neck and shoulders were in need of special attention, so that’s what she worked on. This was my second session with Emily, and it was fairly intense, but good. Emily is not overly chatty, which I appreciate – it’s good to concentrate on the sensation. But I asked her about her story, and learned that she, like me, went to high school at the N.C. School of the Arts, and went on to film school at NYU and movie and TV work in Hollywood. We compared notes on digital cameras. My neck was much better afterwards, and I thought my shoulder was improved.

On Saturday morning I went to Yvonne Cropp‘s Juicy Flow yoga class at Blue Lotus. This is an hour-and-a-half class that combines traditional vinyasa work with kriya practice, which as presented by Yvonne involves three minute or so segments set to dance music with rhythmic movements working different muscle groups. It definitely gets the heart going. I ordinarily can figure out the exercise, but there is one I can’t: rolling backward, then forward and standing up without using the hands. Most of my fellow yogis were doing it, so it’s definitely possible. Another challenge for the future.

It was rainy on Saturday afternoon, which was good weather for a piano lesson with Olga Kleiankina. I played Debussy’s second Arabesque and the first movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto. As usual, Olga made me aware of some new dimensions of sound. We spent a long time working on the silences around the staccato notes in the Debussy. Along with a number of such tiny details, we worked on rhythm in connection with the larger structures.

For the Bach, she pointed out that one could never mistake Bach for Mozart, because Bach made much more use of interior parts of the measure for beginning and ending phrases – sort of like syncopation. She showed me how certain accents and timing tricks would bring the piece to life. Of course, knowing about it is one thing, and doing is another. It will take practice.

That evening Sally and I went out to Cary for dinner and a movie. When we go to the Regal at Crossroads, we like to eat at Tom Yum Thai, where the food is delicious and the service warm and friendly. They will take you at your word if you require things very spicy, and for me medium spicy is about right.

During dinner we talked about Dasani, the eleven-year-old homeless girl featured in a series of five articles in the Times this week. She’s a plucky, smart, athletic kid who faces very long odds at the bottom of the economic food chain. We got to know her large family, her teachers, and her homeless shelter in Brooklyn, where the conditions were dire. The series, by Andrea Elliott, is an extraordinary window into the world of poverty – well worth reading.

We saw Dallas Buyers Club, which concerns a macho Texas rodeo-type guy who gets AIDs in the 1980s and starts a business supplying unapproved AIDs drugs to the gay etc. demimonde. There are some colorful and funny characters, and a tour de force performance by Matthew McConaughey. He is almost unrecognizable, very gaunt, with a ton of grit and attitude. Of course, the subject is tragic. It reminded me of the first wave of the AIDs epidemic, and some of my own precious friends hid in death’s dateless night.

My quickie to Rio

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I had a short work trip to Rio this week – down by the red eye on Sunday night, and back by the red eye on Tuesday night. Though I wasn’t looking forward to the long (9.5 hours from Atlanta) flight, there were several good things.

1. Pre-check. I got pre-check status on another recent flight, and this time I happily concluded it was not purely by accident. Pre-check means you can keep your clothes on and keep your computers bagged when you do the security line. For me, it also meant a much shorter line. Should I feel guilty about being such a privileged character? Maybe, but I don’t.

2. Zone two. For some reason I had my priority boarding status seriously downgraded this year, and have been put in zone three (the last group) on several flights. I’m always pulling a roll aboard and toting a knapsack, which means I need a significant chunk of overhead storage space. Boarding with the last group means all overhead space may be gone. This makes me a little anxious and grumpy. Getting zone two means a positive attitude adjustment, and there was more than enough space for my bags. Whew!
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3. Use of electronic devices. Because of the recent FAA rule change, I didn’t have to turn off my tablet device and MP3 device when they shut the cabin doors or began the descent, and was able to use it throughout the flight. One of things I actually like about flying is the opportunity to do some reading and listen to music, but as more of my reading has migrated to the ebook format, the no-devices rule was a real inconvenience. So, one small step in the direction of rationality and happiness.

4. Delta’s Boeing 767-400. A handsome plane with four aisle seats per row and a reasonable amount of leg room, even in the prole seats. Delta communicated the regulation pre-flight data with a video that had some quirky understated humor. But they still include a careful explanation of how to fasten a seat belt. Really now, is there anyone who needs coaching on that?
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5. Zolpidem. I usually have trouble sleeping on planes, but 12.5 mg of generic Ambien really did the trick. I got a solid six hours. I considered getting one of those horseshoe-shaped pillows. I decided against it, based on the principle of when in doubt, leave it out (lighter is better when traveling). This was not a great call – I got some neck soreness from sitting-sleep. Next 9-hour-plus trip, I want that pillow.

6. Rio de Janeiro. After working late on Monday night, I finished with what had to be done early Tuesday afternoon, and got a quick tour of Rio. My guide was Mr. Fred, who didn’t speak much English, but was cheerful and a good driver. Highlights were the tram up to Sugarloaf mountain, the little train up to Cristo Redentor, and drive-bys of the big beaches, including Copacabana and Ipanema.
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Rio is a sexy city, with lots of curves and indentations, as well as many upthrusting hard places. There are spots where you can see at one time mountains, forests, cliffs, massive high rises, giant slums, beaches, boats, and ocean. It is spectacular.
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7. Girl with a Pearl Earring. I read most of Tracy Chevalier’s book on the plane, and liked it. I picked it up in preparation for a short trip to New York in significant part to see Vermeer’s famous painting of the same title. The book consists of a historically informed imaging of the possible backstory of the painting.

The girl narrates the story of going to work as a maid for the Vermeer household and becoming involved with the painter’s work. I learned some interesting things about eighteenth century Dutch domestic life and painting techniques, and also something about how to look at those remarkable paintings. I was surprised how involved I got with the girl, whose life was narrow in a way, but also rich in texture and feeling. Note, the movie of the book with Scarlett Johansson was enjoyable but no substitute for psychological subtlety of the book.
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My handstand near disaster, re-reading Shteyngart, and seeing Captain Phillips

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That’s the crane for the new Citrix office in the Raleigh warehouse district as viewed from our balcony on Saturday morning. Below is the new apartment building going up facing us from Boylan Avenue. It’s good to see construction all around. Things are happening!
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As was probably evident last week when I mentioned doing my first handstand, I was fairly proud to finally get it. From the first time I saw another boy in my neighborhood do one, a small part of me secretly yearned for this skill. Why? I’m not entirely sure. It’s different, and it’s good to be a little different. I like to turn things upside down and see how they look. I also like to dial in to another aspect of bodily control and strength. There’s also something bracing about facing down a bit of fear.

So I looked forward to mastering the handstand skill against a wall, and perhaps eventually unassisted. After my initial success, I did a few more over the weekend. On Monday morning I went up for a workout in the small gym on the top floor of our building. No one else was around. After a half hour on the elliptical machine, still breathing hard, I attempted another handstand. Something went wrong. My right shoulder gave way, and unable to lean quickly, I fell straight down. I tucked my chin and hit hard on my neck and shoulder.

It hurt a lot. I lay in a heap, and wondered if this was what a broken neck felt like. After a bit, I tried to wiggle my toes and fingers, and noted with relief that they seemed to be working. I rolled over and tested my neck, which throbbed, but could still move. I felt stunned, but more or less OK. I was sore for the rest of the week, and a bit shaken. I decided to give the healing process a few days before forging ahead with handstand work.

Super Sad, Funny Shteyngart

This week I finished re-reading Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel, by Gary Shteyngart. A couple of years ago I left my original copy in a hotel room with just 60 pages left, and found that I kept thinking about the world it created. After the mild disappointment of reading The Circle, I decided to download the ebook version of Super Sad, and realized this time around that it’s not only an entertaining read, but a feat of Nabakovian brilliance.

It’s hard to categorize. It’s set a bit in the future, like science fiction, but I wouldn’t call it science fiction, because the world and its technology are not very different from ours. It’s sort of a comedy, and at times hilarious, but also keenly observant, dark, and shocking. With an ease that conceals virtuosity, Shteyngart exposes a underside to our fun technology, and shows it transforming society in a way that not only seems believable, but prophetic. Keep in mind that it was published in 2010, before Occupy Wall Street and before the U.S. first threatened to default on its debt.

A quick note on the subject matter: Lennie is a 39-year-old nebbishy, smart guy who works for an outfit selling life extension services to super High Net Worth individuals. He falls in love with Eunice, a 25-year-old Korean-American who seems to spend most of her time surfing on GlobalTeens shopping sites on her apparat and obsessing over luxury brands like Juicy Pussy handbags and Onionskin jeans. They live in New York City, where there is extreme income inequality, with unemployed veterans of the war with Venezuela and other Low Net Worth individuals camped out in the parks opposing the one-party surveillance state, which is financially teetering and close to being taken over by China.

There are technologies that signal your credit score on surrounding Media Poles and also show your sexual desirability rank in any grouping (“RateMe Plus” technology). Along with new apps there’s new youth slang, which is marginally cruder than our youth slang. Recent college graduates are mostly unemployed and trying to get a job either in Media (a very long shot) or Retail (just a long shot).

Lennie is a bibliophile in world where books and reading are socially toxic. Cool people have mostly stopped reading, and paper books are considered bad-smelling. Colleges teach skimming in place of reading. At one point there’s a blackout, and Lennie and Eunice read some from Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being (as it happens, a favorite of mine, as it clearly is of Shteyngart’s). Eunice can’t at all follow the complex ideas, and even Lennie finds his ability to understand a literary text has grown dim.

A large part of the pleasure is not just the ideas or the plot, but the texture and quirky beauty of the language. Shteyngart is a writer’s writer. I’ll just add that the title will discourage some people who would enjoy the book, but it really is, in part, a love story, in the sense of dealing with human feelings, and with how those feelings are transformed by technology and social context. Obviously I loved it.

In a postscript that would have pleased Shteyngart, when I finished the Kindle version of the book on my iPad, my Twitter account appeared with a tweet that said, “I just finished reading Super Sad True Love Story.” I did not write those words, nor did I want to send such a tweet. And I didn’t. But I could imagine just pushing send, since the message was completely accurate, and something I wouldn’t mind sharing (though not on my professionally-oriented Twitter account). It gave me a slight chill. Is this the first bomb to fall in a new phase of post-literacy, where your machines not only correct your spelling and grammar but actually do your thinking and writing?

Captain Phillips

On Friday night we saw Captain Phillips, the new movie about Somali pirates taking a cargo ship with Tom Hanks. It was not what I expected, but much better. With remarkable directness and economy, it establishes the desperate and impoverished lives of the young men who become pirates, such that they can never be viewed as pure evil. Hanks has made a long career as a leading man who’s not particularly good-looking playing normal people confronted with outsize problems or puzzles (WWII, mental retardation, shipwreck, adolescence, etc.). Here, he does so again with seeming utter naturalness.

As the captain, Phillips seems a decent guy who doesn’t aspire to much more than doing a solid job transporting goods. But under attack, he turns out to have above-average grit and resourcefulness. Trying to manipulate the pirates, he seems like a bad liar, but good enough to fool these guys, who are not diabolically clever. But both the pirates and Phillips and his crew are by moments astonishingly courageous. This is an action movie with true feeling and heart, and also a lot of adrenaline.

My walk to work, seeing Before Midnight, and eating at Dos Taquitos

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Now that we’ve moved our offices into Red Hat Tower, I’m within walking distance of work. How sweet it is! Last week I went carless three times. If I focus on moving along, I can make it in seventeen minutes. On a warm, humid day, that leaves me in a bit of a lather. On Thursday, I went a little slower, and took some pictures with my trusty Canon point-and-shoot, which are above and below in the order they were taken.
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On Saturday we went to the Rialto to see Before Midnight. I loved the two predecessor pictures, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, both of which were romantic but also smart. Along with My Dinner with Andre, these movies prove that great conversations can be art. In both earlier movies, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy were astonishing in their seeming naturalness, and with great chemistry.

In the new movie, they return as the same characters, but middle-aged, and firmly a couple, with children of their own. Instead of gauzy romantic possibilities, they have frustrations and disappointments with life and each other, and anger. But they’re still talking. Boy can they talk! I really liked the movie.
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There’s a little conversational strand early in the film about the nature of the self that could have been inspired by The Self Illusion by Bruce Hood, which I’ve been re-reading. Hood works hard to deconstruct the conventional view of an unchanging self with conscious thought at the center. The characters briefly take notice of the force of this argument, but then do what we all usually do, which is plunge into a narrative.
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After the movie, we had dinner at Dos Taquitos on Glenwood. We’d tried to get in twice before, but both times the place was packed and the waits were long. The third time was a charm, although even at 9:00 we still had to wait half an hour. It was lively, with busy, colorful decor and lots of noise, and the food was just fine. I think the secret of their popularity is: it’s relatively inexpensive. And their margaritas have some kick.
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Is it 1984, with the NSA as Big Brother, or will Watson come to the rescue? Plus notes on a birthday, an anniversary, a soccer game, and an opera documentary

13 06 09_1924_edited-1What to make of the federal government’s massive program for gathering telephone and social media data? My first reaction was fear and horror. Is 1984 finally here? Is the Fourth Amendment a quaint artifact of a bygone era? Of course, we don’t actually know very much about the program, which is still classified. Is it like Big Brother, or more like the airport security services of the TSA, which inconvenience millions and accomplishes little?

As for the TSA, no doubt it’s supposed to make us feel more secure about flying, but for me the predominant emotion is frustration, with additional notes of anger and humiliation when my property and person are touched by uniformed strangers. And we’re afraid that if we complain, we may get put on the do not fly list and subjected to even more frustration and humiliation. Dear NSA analyst, if you’re reading this, I swear I’m not going to cause any mayhem – please please don’t put me on the do not fly list.

I’m kidding, of course (no I’m not – I want to stay off that list). I seriously doubt humans look at more than an infinitesimal fraction of this data, which is sufficiently massive as to defy all hope of human comprehension. It may be that this is why the program continues to exist: it’s become so big and complicated that no one can understand it. The computer doing the heavy lifting has almost certainly surpassed its minders in the complex skills at the core of this program. So who can reasonably make a judgment as to whether it’s a useful or safe project. The computer?

I realize this sounds a bit science fictiony, but if it isn’t already true, it probably will be soon. Remember, IBM’s Watson didn’t just win at Jeopardy, he or it trounced the strongest human players to ever have played the game. The Times reported this morning that the NSA and CIA have been testing Watson for intelligence purposes the last couple of years. He’s already way better at quickly analyzing massive amounts of data than any human ever will be, and he’s likely getting smarter and smarter.

In some ways this is comforting. I greatly doubt that Watson or his peers in artificial intelligence mean us any harm. Good AI is, at least so far, not complicated by the emotions that drive human behavior, including those that make us behave badly. Watson is not greedy, or prejudiced, or power mad. Once he gets this security thing well in hand, maybe he can take on more governmental responsibility. Could this be the way out of partisan gridlock? Watson for president?

Speaking of technological transformations, I recommend an essay in today’s NY Times by Jaron Lanier called Fixing the Digital Economy. Lanier is wrestling with an issue I’ve also written about: what happens to the economy (i.e. us) as human labor is increasingly replaced by robots and AI? He suggests that the source of both increasing decentralization of power and increasing disparities in wealth is computing power, and that the most powerful players are the ones with the most server power. I think he’s wrong to emphasize giant computers as primary sources of wealth, but he’s thrown out some provocative ideas. Here’s one: let’s revamp the economy so that those who take your digital data pay you for it. We could set up market in which Google, Facebook, the NSA and other data miners send out quarterly checks to all of us who provide the data.

Speaking of data and devices, Sally had a birthday this week, and I got her an iPad mini. She was thrilled! I got it at the Apple store at the Crabtree Valley Mall, which as usual was packed, and where I had a completely satisfactory buying experience. My salesman was knowledgeable and funny in a dry way. There are things to dislike about Apple as an organization, but they are really good at customer service. And their devices are designed with emphasis on a pleasant, intuitive human-machine interface, so non-specialists can enjoy them.

We also had our 31st anniversary this week, and celebrated with a fancy dinner at St. Jacques. The restaurant sits in a common strip mall, but inside it manages to convey the joie de vivre of fine French cuisine. I love that they have a special vegetarian menu. It took a little too long to get a visit from the sommelier, but eventually he gave us his full attention. A true and expressive Frenchman, he dissuaded us from getting the chardonnay that we additionally asked about, and with a dramatic explanation of the food flavors and wine flavors at issue persuaded us to try a sauvignon blanc. It worked beautifully. We savored every bite and sip.
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On Saturday night we went out to Cary to see a soccer game – the Carolina Railhawks played the Tampa Bay Rowdies. It was a clear, mild evening. We took along a couple of veggie subs at Jersey Mike’s, because last year we’d learned there wasn’t much in the way of healthful nourishment at the soccer stadium. But we were pleased to see they had improved their beer selection since last year. The field looked green and immaculate. We had good seats near centerfield on row G, and had a pleasant picnic there.
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The teams came into the game tied for the lead in the league and seemed well matched. I thought the Railhawks seemed sharper and less thuggish than last year. There were moments of skill and excitement, but no scoring until the 87th minute, when Tampa Bay took advantage of a defensive let down to put in a goal. When time expired there was an additional four minutes. During that time, the Railhawks proceeded to score, and then score again. We won!
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One of the Railhawks, Brian Ackley, is an old friend of Jocelyn’s going all the way back to middle school. We’d texted Jocelyn that we were going to the game, who’d texted Brian, and so he was prepared when we hailed him after the game and had a word. He’d played the last part of the game and had almost scored on a header. He’s a fine athlete and warm human being, and it was nice to see him.

Brian victorious (the Railhawk on the right)

Brian victorious (the Railhawk on the right)

When we got home, we watched a fine short documentary on HBO On Demand about Renee Fleming doing a master class for four aspiring young opera singers. The basic format, as with all master classes, is for a student to perform in front of other students and the master, and then receive criticism from the master. Here the students were all thrilled to have the opportunity to sing for Fleming, who is unquestionably one of our greatest singers. She was warm, generous, and a great listener. She gave some very specific advice on producing good vocal sounds, and spoke frankly about things like pre-concert nervousness. She gives a window into how difficult it is to be a great singer, but at the same time how wonderful.

Educational opportunities

Jocelyn doesn’t use the phone for talking too much anymore, at least to her dad, but she called this week to tell me she was admitted to the Columbia University publishing program. She was thrilled, relieved, and ready to start a new chapter: life in New York City. Her boss at the apres ski bar in Telluride agreed to buy her aging Nissan Altima, and she asked me to figure out the legalities. I said I’d be happy to do so.

Whatever doubts I may have about job prospects in the publishing business, I’m keeping to myself for the time being. It’s wonderful to see Jocelyn, so smart and talented, moving forward and exploring. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all go to New York and be students again?

As a matter of fact, one of the great things about my job is that I get to talk to and learn from really interesting and gifted people. This week I had lunch with Jamie Boyle, professor of law at Duke and one of the most clear-eyed scholars of intellectual property law. His last book, The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind, explains with clarity and force some of the enormous problems with our patent and copyright systems, including how IP law can hinder innovation and creativity. He really is a brilliant guy, and a delightful conversationalist.

We ate at the Washington Duke Inn, which has a cozy clubby feel, and talked about some of the usual things, like sports and food, but also about his leading role in producing the Hargreaves Commission report, which advocated an evidence-based approach to IP protection. We discussed the possibilities for patent reform in Congress and the courts. We also talked about some of the hyper conservative activity in the N.C. legislature, and the N.C. constitutional amendment against gay marriage. We agreed that this right-wing crowd has gone beyond being embarrassing and is hurting the reputation and economy of our state. I also got to see his new car, a sporty and beautiful Jaguar XK.

In other education news, the NY Times reported this week that EdX, the online education consortium, has developed software that automatically grades students’ essays. Its new software is, it says, not perfect but about as reliable as human graders, and gives almost instant feedback to the student. This could be a game changer in education at all levels, potentially helping students with instant feedback, and also potentially eliminating a lot of teaching jobs. Will the net of it be better education at lower cost? And/or will it be another nail in the coffin of the traditional university, without a satisfactory replacement on the horizon?

David Brooks wrote a good column this week about online education and the role of the university. He proposed regarding the mission of higher education as having a technical knowledge part and a practical part. Technical knowledge is about things like formulas and facts, and practical knowledge is about skills that can’t be written down and memorized. Online outfits like EdX and Coursera can cover the technical part, but at least so far aren’t as effective at the practical part. We seem to need human-to-human interaction to learn some things.

Three Sparrows and a Cup, by Byron Gin

Three Sparrows and a Cup, by Byron Gin

At any rate, the human touch is a pleasant thing. On Friday Sally and I went out to First Friday, downtown Raleigh’s monthly art and food celebration. We stopped in the Adam Cave Gallery, where we’d bought a painting some months back, and met the painter, Byron Gin. His current show, titled Aviary, continues the theme of the work we bought, with abstract elements, rough textures, and birds. Byron was a pleasant, soft-spoken guy, who seemed happy to discuss how he made his paintings. We remembered the painting we bought, and it was good to be able to tell him how it had brought as daily joy. Among other things, we learned that we shared an interest in bird feeders and photography.

For dinner, we tried without success to get into Bida Manda (wait time 1.75 hours), Centro (wait time 1.5 hours), and noted crammed dining rooms or lines out the door at Caffe Luna, Remedy Diner, and Sitti. It’s good to see our restaurants doing a brisk business, but when you’re hungry, you’re hungry. We finally got a table at Gravy, an Italian place, and had a pleasant meal including a Tuscan Chianti.

On Saturday, we went over to Durham to take in some of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. The festival is an annual event that this year featured more than 100 documentaries, 7 different screens, and hundreds of cinephiles, which we somehow had never managed to get to in years past. The afternoon was sunny, and there was a happy energy to the crowd, an eclectic mix that reminded me of Oberlin (where the film club screened classic films once a week) and upper west side New York. The films we saw were all sold out, as were several others we couldn’t get tickets for.

Our favorites were a double bill by featured film maker Jennifer Yu: The Guide and Breathing Lessons. The first was about a park in Mozambique and a young man whose big dream was to be a tour guide. It explored serious environmental issues with a light touch. It featured E.O. Wilson, who at 82 was still charmingly fascinated by ants and other small creatures. Breathing Lessons was about Mark O’Brien, a writer who was paralyzed by polio as a child and spent most of the rest of his life in an iron lung. He seemed very honest about living with an extreme disability. Yu was in attendance, and after each film answered questions from the audience. She seemed really smart and likeable.