Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Cormac McCarthy is Mr. Hollywood

If you're like me and enjoy both Cormac McCarthy and the Coen Brothers, you might enjoy this interview featured in the upcoming edition of Time where these men talk about everything from the failed Coen adaptation "To The White Sea", to why Terrence Malick withdrew from Hollywood. It's short but interesting. McCarthy comes off as much less remote and reclusive than I thought he was. He even goes to see plays!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The 9/11 Conspiracy

As we've got a pretty interesting discussion going in the comments on the last post, I figured I'd bring it out into an actual post, and express my own opinion.

Let's start with this video I found through a Google search of "loose change, 9/11".

The two filmmakers who made the documentary "Loose Change" are at the forefront of the so-called "9/11 Truth Movement". They've made two editions of their film and are at work on a third which they're calling "The Final Cut". Recently I watched a documentary on one of the informational cable channels (A&E, Discover Channel, The History Channel, one of those), talking about the "myths" of 9/11. That documentary featured both the guys from "Loose Change", as well as the editors of Popular Mechanics, which so far, has been the only publication I know of that's taken a close hard look at the conspiracy theories that have grown in stature since September 11th, 2001. It is my opinion, having read the article, that Popular Mechanics debunks most, if not all, of the 9/11 conspiracy theories. And now, in this video, we have both the directors of "Loose Change" and the editors of Popular Mechanics at a very small table in a local library to talk about the various theories. It's 20 minutes, but if you have questions on either side of the issue, it's illuminating.

I think part of the reason people have a hard time believing there's an all-encompassing 9/11 theory is because the people that seek to disseminate those ideas (like the "Loose Change" guys) do stuff like this: when the host of the roundtable discussion brings up the American flight that crashed into the Pentagon, one of the directors talks about how no plane debris remained after the so-called crash. In their film the directors go through a whole thing about the melting points of various elements that comprised the plane, and how the melting point of jet fuel doesn't burn hot enough to "vaporize" a plane. The Popular Mechanics gamely talk about the experts they talked to (the "Loose Change" guys seemingly talked to no one), like crash experts, plane engineers, etc., and 100s of eyewitnesses who all backed up the idea that a plane crashed into the Pentagon, and no evidence of a missile.

Not liking the direction this conversation has taken, the directors of "Loose Change" say, "But nothing should have crashed into the Pentagon." And then he explains how Dick Cheney, in the bunker during the crisis, was told that the plane headed for Washington, that the plane that would eventually strike the Pentagon was "30 minutes away", then "20 minutes away" and Dick Cheney never issued a shoot down order. So it seems the directors of "Loose Change" have two, deeply held convictions: that no plane hit the Pentagon, and also that Cheney let a plane hit the Pentagon.

Oh, and one of the directors of "Loose Change" says this to the host before he begins to speak: "I'd just to like to thank you for the opportunity to take on the government's lies, and Popular Mechanics, which is a Hearst "Yellow Journalism" Publication's lies as well."

And this is not me going out like so many media outlets do, to fixate on the fringe-iest splinter of a given controversial group to paint the entire group in a negative way. These guys are at the heart of the "9/11 Truth" movement and, in my view, they are not credible. Popular Mechanics is part of the conspiracy too? The wacky science nerds who put a flying car on the cover every month? These guys are a mouthpiece for the murderers of 3000 people?

I am not in expert in any of the fields pertinent to discussing what did or did not happen on September 11th, 2001. So if I have two sets of guys saying two very different things, do I go with the guys in their mid-twenties who wear wrinkled shirts and no ties and laugh mockingly at their opponents and don't know which conspiracy theory they believe in, or the nerdy, soft-spoken, suitably-dressed journalists who are laying out, soberly, facts, and not insinuations and coincidences? It's not a hard call.

Most telling of all, I think, is that in that documentary on cable I watched, the "Loose Change" guys were interviewed while editing what must be the third and final version of their film. The biggest change from the second edition and the final edition, they said, is that the film has moved away from the theory they once held that the main towers were brought down by controlled demolition. They've conceded the evidence pointing towards that scenario is no longer persuasive to them and have shifted their attention towards the mystery surrounding the collapse of Building 7. On one hand, good for them for being brave enough to allow their minds to be changed publicly, on the other hand, before their change of heart, they had argued the towers had been brought down by controlled demolition so strenuously that it's not difficult for me to distrust their newfound passion for a Building 7 investigation. (BTW, the Popular Mechanics article addresses Building 7 quite well.)

Also, what does this new abandonment of the controlled demolition of the towers theory mean? Does it mean that the "Loose Change" guys, formerly Made It Happen On Purpose guys (MIHOPs) are now in the Let It Happen On Purpose camp, (or LIHOPs), and that the lease holder on the WTC complex merely took advantage of foreknowledge of the attack so that he could detonate WTC Building 7 and file a still more massive insurance claim? Does that mean that the lease holder of WTC was A-OK with the deaths of 3,000 innocent Americans just so he could make a massive windfall? Who in the government told him, and why didn't his informant do any thing to stop the attack?

In the comments, Heath wrote:

"The problem with these questions is that people, by and large, immediately seek a result from the questioning of evidence, instead of viewing them individually in and of themselves. In other words, for someone to say "Hey, there's something fishy behind that crash site for United 93," and the immediate response to be, "What do you think happened, then? You think Bush crashed those planes into the trade center buildings, crazy person?" is just wrong. If that was an acceptable response, then we'd never have gotten a shred of scientific evidence admitted into any journals, because the second someone in our world's history said, "Isn't it funny how the sun moves almost as a curve across the domed sky," then it would be acceptable for someone to come back with, "What? You think the earth isn't flat, heretic?" Instead of immediately moving toward a steadfast opinion based on a need for a result, such as finger pointing at Bush's Administration, you must admit the individual evidence surrounding these "conspiracies" is worth investigating to prove or disprove doubt. If science beckons to question, who are we to ignore?"

This, for me, is the central trouble conspiracy theorists have when talking to the uninitiated about the fishiness of 9/11. Science and the purported weirdness of crash sites are easy to talk about soberly in an attempt to answer the "What?" questions. However, the question of "How?" is hugely problematic to 9/11 Truth-ers because talking about the inhumanity required by a massive group of motivated people never really seems to come together. Yes, humanity's had many monsters -- but to make a Unified 9/11 Theory work, we'd have to have dozens, if not hundreds of monsters working in all levels of the US government, and that doesn't seem to jibe with anything anyone's ever heard before. When getting to the bottom of various conspiracy theories, it doesn't take but a few seconds of supposition to get into seriously bizarre territory ("And how were the passengers disposed of do you think?") that makes all but the most passionate theorists retreat back to the relative comfort of "What?" and "How?" But just because the scenarios the conspiracists' theories imply are wholly unconvincing is not the fault of the incredulous, but is something the theorists' should take ownership of. If it sounds so crazy to you that you don't like talking about it, imagine how it sounds to those who haven't been convinced.

Now it's true that refuting any assertion made by someone with a new idea speaks to a closed mind, as in your comparison to Galileo. But Galileo was able to put forward evidence. So far, on the 9/11 conspiracists' side, they have loads of supposition, oddness, coincidence and circumstantial evidence. On the side of people who've more or less accepted that 9/11 happened more or less how we've come to understand it did, we have scores of scientific experts, reams of video evidence, thousands of eyewitness accounts, and thousands of talented journalists who would kill their mother to break the story of a 9/11 conspiracy who've so far turned up nothing. For me, that puts the burden of proof on the conspiracy theorists and, so far, they haven't done much other than muddy the waters enough so that the truth is harder to see.

This episode of "This American Life" changed the way I thought about how conspiracy theorists in general think. On July 7, 2005, terrorists bombed the London underground at the King's Cross station. One of the woman who survived the attack began to blog about it. Before long a British-borne conspiracy theory grew up which offended the woman because they were refuting things she knew to be true having lived through the attack. She started to comment on their messageboards and before long, they were calling her a liar and an employee of MI5 whose job it was to make the conspiracy theorists seem less credible. All the people that were on-board who died? she asked. "Hollywood-style special effects," they said. And the people who survived and were genuinely panicked? she asked. "Actors," they said. It goes on. Absolutely worth a listen. The story begins 9 minutes through.

I bring that story up because in that piece, the men who believed in the conspiracy were not noble questioners, blazing a trail through a jungle of lies to the hidden city of Truth; they had already made up their minds that a vast conspiracy was at work that day and was still at work to cover it up. Kind of like that guy on the Bill Maher's show. If you didn't believe their stories outright, you were either a sheep or, possibly, a criminal; and if, at the very least, you didn't state your approval of a continued investigation, then you were also a sheep or a criminal. Open minds had long since closed, though I suspect for most of the conspiracists described in this story, they went into their theories with closed minds.

If a new piece of evidence came up that debunked some long-held "fact" about 9/11, or a new esteemed expert chimed in saying he was no longer convinced 9/11 happened as we've all been told, I like to think I'd listen carefully and come to an open-minded conclusion based on the new evidence. I'd pose this question to conspiracy theorists: what piece (or pieces) of evidence could possibly come to light that would settle your questions about 9/11? Or are there too many questions that could ever be answered?

I put some of the blame for the widening belief in a 9/11 conspiracy at the feet of Bush and Cheney. Cheney's obsession with expanding executive power has been done in secret and with a willful disregard for the rights of Congress and the American people to know what he's doing or why he's doing it. That engenders, and rightfully so, doubt and suspicion. During the 9/11 Commission investigation Bush wouldn't testify alone -- he had to testify with Cheney, like two criminals trying to keep their stories straight. But I think all the secrecy and obvious lies were not meant to cover up the crime of millennium, but to cover up Bush's gross incompetence on that day and all the days leading up to September 11th, 2001.

This is already way long-winded. I could attempt another 3 or 4 feet of verbiage to counter Paul's, but it takes me much longer to write as cogently as Paul does. Okay, that's it.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

"I'll Be There Tomorrow"

This guy, Alexander Roy, drove from New York to Los Angeles in 31 hours.

During the Oklahoma stretch of the run, Roy and his co-driver heard a cop reporting their crazy fast driving on their scanner.

"Roy said he heard it shortly after he and his co-driver, David Maher, had been exceeding 150 miles an hour. As Maher scanned the prairie through binoculars for a place to hide, the car’s radar detectors lighted up. They decided to exit the highway and feign a bathroom break while a support team in a Cessna overhead searched for the speed trap that would inevitably materialize.

Having temporarily escaped, Roy eased back onto the highway. As he approached two state police vehicles waiting on the median, he ducked to the right of a tractor-trailer in a move he called “the cross-country racer’s ideal police line-of-sight blocking position.”

The maneuver, he said, enabled him to break a 23-year-old illegal endurance-driving record by navigating from New York to Los Angeles in 31 hours 4 minutes. He said he recorded an average speed of 90.1 m.p.h. over a mapped route of 2,794 miles."

The very idea of doing this, leaving aside all questions about the out-and-out recklessness of the operation, and the putting of people's lives in danger, etc.,, is completely awesome. And, because I'm a dork, the top reason for doing something like this is just so that the following conversation would be possible:

Crazy Driver in NY: (casual) "I was thinking of coming out to Los Angeles. We could hang out."

Person in L.A. Completely Unaware They're About to Have Their Mind Blown: "Yeah, that'd be cool. You should do that."

CDinNY: (now deadly serious) "I'll be there tomorrow."

PinLACUTAHTMB: (sputtering) "Wh-what? Uh, ok. Do you need me to pick you up at LAX?"

CDinNY: "No. I'm driving."

PinLACUTAHTMB: (like Moe Szylak) "WHAAAAAAA?!!" (promptly has brain aneurysm)

Anyway, there's a lot of great details in the article about all the anti-speed-detection equipment these guys had on board, and all the prep-work the guy did to make the run in record time. It's worth a read.

Monday, October 15, 2007

More Thoughts on "Mind Freak"; Also: the Sweet Insanity That is the Georgia State Fair

Thought I'd throw in a little more about that spinning dancer illusion/mind test. Blogger Andrew Sullivan posted the test up on his blog (he was clockwise), and not long after, readers started writing in on ways to force the direction to change. Here's the link, but I'll just write what the reader wrote here:

"Stare at her left heel, the one that "hits" the "floor". Now look at the reflection of the foot as it hits the floor. "Make" it change direction. Imagine it goes counter clockwise. Soon it will. There is some kind of "jerk" in the image...when the loop starts again or maybe it is on purpose. That's where I can reverse it.

Now, while still concentrating on the "reflection" of her left heel, bring your focus out a bit until you see her leg swinging counter clockwise. If it is still going clockwise, look at only the reflection of her foot again. Keeping trying that until you get the leg swinging counter clockwise."

This method didn't really work for me, but when I opened the page again with the spinning woman on it, it was counter-clockwise for me, and, for a little while, impossible for me to force her to change direction. (The method that does seem to work, is to start typing into the URL bar above the dancer, anything will do just so long as your attention is fixated there, and as you're typing, the dancer will switch back and forth down in your peripheral vision. That works really well for me.)

By now, I don't know at all what this test proves, if anything at all. On the face of it, it purports to show once again how "creative" people are right-brain dominant and will see the woman turning clockwise, and how "logical, analytical" people are left-brain and will see a counter-clockwise direction to the spinning. But the results so far, sent in by the folks who read this blog, don't seem to neatly conform to this standard. For example, my wife, who's very strong analytically, saw the dancer spin only clockwise, and never once counter-clockwise. A lot of you who I know to be quite strong creatively, saw it switch back and forth without either direction emerging dominant. And now I'm seeing it counter-clockwise. Does that mean that I'm having a left brain day today? Doubtful I've ever had a left-brain day. So maybe it means this test says a lot less about us then the test's makers had hoped. Maybe.

In other news, I went to the Georgia State Fair yesterday. Good times. Here are some pitchers.

Just a wide shot of the fair. This was the section containing all the rides that I'd never ever go on. So, you know, kind of boring to me. But there's fair-food here too, so not a total waste of time.

There were quite a few canopies covering a phenomenon I'd never seen nor heard of before: extravagantly souped-up golf carts. This seems like a deeply redneck thing to build, buy or covet, but the fact is I would really love to drive and/or ride around in one of these things. The way these things have been supercharged, they seem like the safe alternative to ATVs. Then again, the taller and faster they get, the likelihood of toppling seems greater, no?

Here's another one. Check out the raised back seat. At a certain point, you do enough of this up-souping and they just become a Popemobile. And who wouldn't want to take the Popemobile for a spin?

This is me just prior to experiencing the taste explosion that is the Deep-Fried Twinkie. At first: not so much. It just tastes like fried dough, which is good, but nothing to write home about. But then comes the cream filling and this is what cinches the deal: the cream is still cold. The outside of the package being so hot, the still-cool center is a shock, but a glorious shock of delight at that!

Here are some people who have either a.) eaten nothing at the fair, or b.) want to bring what they've eaten quickly back up. I don't think even astronauts would ride this thing.

The words 'Pork' and 'Butt' together are disgusting enough, especially in that they are meant to describe a food item, but the fact that it's 'on a stick', makes it somehow seem palatable. Oh what sweet madness the State Fair!

This character seems to be the next evolution in sidewalk entertainment. First there were mimes and jugglers and caricature artists, then came the breakdancers, then the unconvincing statues that turn out to actually be people who move suddenly in order to scare small children, and in 2007 it is the 7-foot tall robot man with an outdated crew cut. While my father-in-law and I went to retrieve the car, my wife said she saw a child screaming for its life upon her first sighting of the metallic and oft-dancing robot freak, shouting, "I don't want to see the robot!" I think the true mark of a successful sidewalk novelty is whether or not they inspire a feeling of horror and/or loathing in small children. So this guy's got to be the next big thing. The person inside the suit is raised up on mega-platform shoes, and the flat-topped robot head is planted atop the person's actual head. The robot's elbows are actually the man-in-the-suit's arms. Pretty ingenious, and the effect is mesmerizing. It took me a minute to discern whether or not it was an actual robot. The second time we came across this guy, my wife and in-laws and I were all gawking appreciatively at him when the robot leaned down to my wife who was standing in front of me. It said in its synthesized robot-voice: "I don't want to alarm you, but although you're looking at a giant in front of you--" my wife started to laugh here, knowing where he was going with it, "--there is also one standing behind you." The crowd laughed with the synthetic freak at my own natural freakiness, suddenly the center of the group's attention. I saluted lamely to laughter. As the robot shifted his attention to another gape-mouthed child, he saw in his peripheral vision that I was leaving, turned and said, "Fe-fi-fo-fum, dude."

Anyway, don't be surprised if this thing appears on a promenade, boardwalk or Monster Truck rally near you.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

British Author Doris Lessing Reacts to Nobel Win

Her under-the-breath "Oh Christ" is worth checking out. For the cameras she's all world-weary and "seen it all before", sure, but once she goes inside I'm sure she does at least a tiny jig.

Friday, October 12, 2007

"Life of Pi" Illustrated; Gore Wins; Lessing Wins; Bloom Pooh-Poohs

If any of you have read Yann Martel's "Life of Pi", this might be of interest to you. My wife and I read/listened to this book on our drive cross-country back in 2005 and liked it generally (though I remember tiring pretty quickly of the cheerful, Indian-accented narrator who read the book. A little bit of him went a long way). Aside from some problems I had with its vaguely evangelical ambition, I thought it was well-written and made its points elegantly.

I just found out that the publisher of "The Life of Pi" has decided to put out an illustrated edition of Martel's novel.

I just ran across this link on a favorite blog of mine,, (which, by the way, is a great place to see what's going on in the world of illustration). The publisher of Martel's novel ran a contest to find the best illustrator for the assignment, and decided a Croatian artist named Tomislav Torjanac was the best guy for the job. Judging by the example above, it's hard to argue. If you click on the first link there, you can find out more about Torjanac's process, which is to sketch first, then paint, then photograph, and finally run that photograph through Photoshop where he adjusts it, sexies it up, and creates the final image. Anyway, I thought this image was striking and made me wish I were a painter.

The illustrated edition just came out Oct. 1st, and in it there are 30 (count 'em 30!) illustrations; might be a worthwhile purchase, or at least fun to flip through next time you find yourself in a Barnes or a Borders. I wish publishers would do this sort of thing more often.

In other news, some notable Nobels were handed out this week.

First, my man Al Gore split the Nobel Peace Prize with the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Will this award push Gore to a presidential run, as Christopher Hitchens hopes it will?

At this point, I'm not sure I even hope he will run anymore. The odds seem stacked against him. Aside from tens of millions of Democratic voters (and maybe some independents these days), no one seems to be poised to jump into the fray and fight with him. The so-called "liberal media" who unfairly trashed him in 2000 might cast a favorable eye on him this time around, or they might just decide to trash him again in '08; the Supreme Court helped Bush steal the Presidency from him -- in a close election, what's to stop the Republican machine (and an even more radically conservative court) from stealing a second election?; the right-wing press continues to trash him and the volume level will only increase if he does run as they try and tear him down, which would be demoralizing; and Hillary's so entrenched right now as the frontrunner, you'd have to have a keener understanding of on-the-ground Democratic politics than I do to see how it's possible to wrench the necessary number of donors and fundraisers and endorsers away from the Hillary juggernaut and over to Gore. And if he did decide to run, there would be the unseemly but inevitable attempt by the Clinton campaign to trash Gore with snide insinuations and whispering campaigns; and Hillary would have no choice but to publicly attempt to define Gore with soft but damning adjectives (witness what she's done with Obama, calling him "inexperienced" and "naive", apparently to great effect). And as the weeks drew down closer to nomination time, the knives would really come out. None of that would be fun to watch.

But if he does decide to run, I will, of course, support him. He would be the best candidate.

One further interesting observation Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo made after hearing the news of the Nobel: "You know, with Al Gore winning the Nobel Prize for his environmental activism, it really makes the Nader voters look prescient, doesn't it?" Word.

And finally, novelist Doris Lessing won the Nobel for Literature this year, which makes her the oldest recipient ever awarded the prize. In response Lessing said, "Oh, Christ. I couldn't care less." I guess you have to be 3 years shy of 90 years old to understand why that could be so. Anyway, no sooner than the award's announced than that fat old gasbag Harold Bloom, who always seems to be on-hand immediately whenever one of these prizes is handed out, called the award "pure political correctness". I haven't read Lessing, so I don't know if it is or not, but why is it Bloom can't wait a week before he rains on an old lady's parade? Even one she doesn't care about? Anyway, what an asshole.

Enjoy your weekends, folks.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Mind Freak

My mom sent this to me today.

When you click on the link, you'll see the woman in silhouette to the left, only she'll be in motion. But the direction in which she'll be turning (clockwise or counter-clockwise) will depend on which hemisphere of your brain is dominant.

I won't say in the post (though I will in the comments) which direction she turned for me, but I will say that when I'm watching it, I have a very hard time figuring how anyone could possibly see her spinning in the opposite direction.

A couple of hours ago, however, I did see her turning in the opposite direction, but just as soon as I'd perceived it, she started turning the way she always turns.

Anyway, pretty interesting.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

My Trip to Philadelphia (and also Scranton, but since there are no photos of Scranton, this post is mostly about Philadelphia)

My wife and I traveled to Philadelphia and Scranton over the weekend to attend a wedding for one of her college friends. Though I took my camera, I forgot it on Saturday (the day of the wedding), and so I have no pictures at all of the event. But here are a few of the ones I did take.

Shortly after arriving in Philadelphia, we drove our rental car (a Hyundai Santa Fe which, aside from its being a gas-guzzling SUV, was a pretty good drive) into the wilds of South Philly. Our destination: Geno's Steaks (pictured left). Geno's is world-famous. Whenever Presidential candidates come through Philadelphia, they're required to stop here, the nexus of cheesesteaks, for food and photos. John Kerry dropped by in 2004 and ordered himself a Geno's cheesesteak just as he was supposed to: with Cheese Whiz. If he hadn't done this, if he'd ordered a normal cheesesteak with Provolone, Philadelphians would have screamed "Phony!" and maybe, perhaps, voted for the other guy. Probably not, but why take chances.

Anyway, if you're like me, the idea of polluting a perfectly good cheesesteak with cheese whiz sounds like, well, like something Northerners would do. But as I wanted the authentic Philly cheesesteak experience, it had to be whiz. Cheese whiz slathered on thinly-sliced steak wasn't actually too bad, which may not be a surprise to those who know me and my penchant for Kraft Singles, which, like Cheese Whiz, is not in any way cheese. So here's a photo of me enjoying a whiz-laden cheesesteak.

Before I leave Geno's, let me tell you that never will you find a more blatantly right-wing eating establishment in this country. Remember "Freedom Fries"? Even though the French, to whom "Freedom Fries" were meant to offend, have gone and elected themselves an honest-to-God conservative as their president, and even though all but the nuttiest right-wingers gave up on the whole "Freedom Fries" shtick when they realized that the ratio of Frenchmen Offended to Themselves Made to Look Stupid was so skewed in the latter direction, "Freedom Fries" are still served at Geno's. You know how "Free Mumia" is a cause celeb for hippie left-wingers? Geno's has festooned their corner eatery with posters showing the cop whom Mumia is alleged to have killed. A sign next to the ordering window exhorts the would-be orderer to "Order in English". No "please" to clutter up an otherwise perfectly good sign. They even sell, for just $10, t-shirts that say, "Because I'm an American, I Order in English". (We bought one for my father-in-law; he'd heard about the t-shirt and the fracas over the previously mentioned sign before we departed for Philly). Over the outdoor sound system, martial, vaguely World War II-sounding music is piped. Beneath rows of framed photos of various celebrities who've taken a photo with the owner, is a long tackboard filled with patches from various law enforcement agencies; the implication being that if you're a beautiful enough person to don the uniform, no matter what that uniform might be, you're worthy of adulation, and the respect of Geno's. And, in keeping with their American conservative worldview, everyone there was generally unfriendly.

Anyway, I ordered the whole deal: cheesesteak with cheese whiz, freedom fries drenched with cheese whiz (also called "Cheese Fries"), and a Coke. Partly because I was very hungry and partly because everything I was consuming was so deliriously bad for me, the food tasted glorious. But even I couldn't eat those last fries swimming in Whiz at the bottom of the cup.

Then my wife and I walked across the street to Pat's, the other world-famous cheesesteak place.

Yes, Pat's. Also a must-stop cheesesteakery for all Presidential hopefuls campaigning in Philadelphia. And conveniently located adjacent to that other one! Anyway, my wife and I split a sandwich and a Pepsi at Pat's (pictured above along with a guy who looks like he's enjoyed many a cheesesteak), but instead of Whiz, we did the Provolone. Verdict: very good. My wife had opted for Provolone at Geno's, of which I'd had a bite, and of the two I thought Pat's was better. The bread was airier, the cheese meltier. When we returned with friends To Pat's on Sunday, I tried Pat's cheesesteak a la Whiz to taste-test the whole range of offerings from this cheese steak nexus of North America: again, Pat's Whiz-laden sandwich also better than Geno's. As my wife and I were eating, some other tourists were talking about possibly going over to Geno's and sample their wares. My wife told them we had just done that, which elicited smiles from all the other diners. One woman said, "I just sent my son over there for one." An older lady turned around and asked, "And which one did you prefer?" I told her that I thought Pat's was better. She nodded sagely: I'd chosen wisely. (Which I guess was an easy bet, seeing how she was eating at Pat's herself). Another guy about my age was smiling and nodding at me as I went on to say the cheese was "more melty" than at Geno's. He said he thought Pat's was better too. When my wife and I met up with some friends in Philly the day after the wedding, they, too thought Pat's was the better of the two places. So there it is: Pat's is better than Geno's. Everyone thinks so.

And, just for your edification, here's a photo of the cheese whiz stocked against the back wall at Pat's. This was taken on Friday afternoon. When we returned on Sunday afternoon, what seemed to be a whole new stack of Cheese Whiz cans had replaced these. My guess is Pat's and Geno's probably go through gallons of the stuff a day.

So then we drove to Scranton. We were on a tight schedule all weekend, but particularly on Friday because it takes about 2 hours to drive from Philadelphia to Scranton, and we had about 3 hours before we had to check in at the hotel, change, and then report to the wedding rehearsal at the church. So with bellies freshly loaded with both cheese and steak, we were on our way. Once you get out of the city, Pennsylvania's beautiful again. The leaves were all in the midst of their autumnal color change, so the scenery was pleasant. Too many frickin' tolls though.

Saturday: the wedding. It went fine. Open bar and decent hors d'oeuvre. The DJ was a jerk, but no wedding's perfect.

On Sunday, we checked out of the hotel and drove back to Philly. We stopped in at the Liberty Bell. (We neglected to take a photo of the Bell by itself, so here's one with me in it. Sorry.) What is there to say about the Liberty Bell? I read most of the accompanying text in the exhibit and I couldn't discern any real reason why the Liberty Bell had come to be a significant historical artifact, other than shameless dissemination of misinformation. It was built in Whitechapel, England (home of Jack the Ripper), for use in the Pennsylvania State House. The Bell called to order the First Continental Congress, which is, I think it's sole factual claim to fame. Over the years, people have believed that the Bell was rung on July 8th, 1776 to summon the citizens of Philadelphia for the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. (It did not.) Or that it was rung on July 4th, 1776 to proclaim the signing of the Declaration of Independence. (Again, it did not.) But because the Liberty Bell (so named in the mid 1800's by abolitionists) had become synonymous with the best intentions of the Founding Fathers, it's become a powerful symbol for the abstract concept of "liberty". Symbols in and of themselves are pretty dull, but now I can say I've seen it.

Outside the Liberty Bell exhibit, there was this demonstration against the genocide in Darfur. This guy (pictured above) was speaking to the crowd in a thick African accent. I'm not sure where he was from, but I might safely assume him to be Sudanese.

Here's a wide shot of the gathering. Not a massive rally by any stretch, just a chance for interested people to learn a little more about what's happening there. These photos were taken as we first passed by the area. On our way back, two bearded guys with guitars were singing under that white tent.

And this is Independence Hall. We had tickets for the 3 p.m. tour. After a short wait outside (back behind the building) about 60 of us trooped into a small room. In came a man with a ponytail wearing a US Parks Service uniform. As soon as he began to speak, I started to worry about the hearing loss I'd sustain from prolonged exposure to his voice. He spoke as though his sole interest was in being crystal clear to some hypothetical 90-year old legally deaf person sitting in the far corner of the room. Actually, my wife and I were sitting in the far corner of the room and his voice was so loud even back there that I couldn't think of anything else but what he was talk-yelling. The echo in the room only heightened the effect. Anyway, he gave us the rules for the tour and then a bit of history, and then led us into a courtroom where, among other things that happened, the royal emblem of the British Monarchy was taken down from its place above the head of the presiding judge and burned. After that, he took us into the next room.

In the room pictured to the left, the 13 delegations drafted first the Declaration of Independence, and then, after the Revolutionary War, the Constitution of the United States. The chair (behind the aforementioned talk-yeller standing in the mid-ground) was the actual chair George Washington sat in while presiding over the Constitutional Convention. It's one thing to see the Constitution and the Bill of Rights at the National Archives in D.C., it's quite another to be inside the room where those documents were argued over and finally drafted and signed. I wish I'd had more time to spend here.

Afterwards, our GPS led us to the Catholic elementary school my wife attended back when she lived on the Naval base in Philadelphia. This shot was taken from the parking lot behind the school. This parking lot was where the kids had recess. Yikes. The chain-link fencing around the school is a new development from the time my wife attended. We guessed it was to discourage graffiti artists from expressing themselves all over the school's walls. For me: kinda depressing.

Anyway, that was the trip.

Finally, (and unrelated-ly), here's a clip from writer George Saunders' appearance on "The Colbert Report". Firstly, I have a random observation of the clip: George has grown a lot of hair since his visit to the Letterman show. Anyway, though it's not as good as his appearance with Dave, (Colbert has to do his own comedy during the interview which can slow things down, get guests out of their flow, etc.), it's certainly worthwhile. In this clip, Saunders talks a little about the title essay from his new collection, "The Braindead Megaphone" (which is a great book, and I enthusiastically recommend it). Check it out.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Jon Stewart Has a Dick Moment, More "Mist", Lovecraft News, and Famous Authors Get Called Out

Anyone catch Chris Matthews on Jon Stewart's show last night? Here's a link to the clip. (and if that doesn't work, try another one from this page.)

Matthews was on to promote his new book, "Life is a Campaign", and, for the first time since I've been watching the show, Stewart laid into the author's book hard, arguing strenuously against the book's basic premise. When Matthews attempted to battle back with reasons why his book wasn't, in fact, an absolute waste of time to have written, Stewart laid into him all the harder, apparently willing to accept nothing less from Matthews than hearing him utter the words, "You're right. I'm going to ask the publisher to recall all copies and have them pulped."

Back when Stewart appeared on Crossfire and went after Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala with rhetorical guns o' blazin', (and essentially helped get the show canceled), part of me thought that Jon Stewart had, perhaps, gotten too big for his britches, had bought too deeply into his own press; but this part was overwhelmed by the other, larger part, that agreed with everything Stewart was saying, and enjoyed watching Tucker Carlson being called names to his face on live TV. But this Matthews thing seems totally different.

I don't believe Stewart believes Matthews is "hurting America" as he did with the Crossfire gang, only that Matthews' book is wrongheaded by taking something that is, in many ways, false and dishonest, namely a political campaign, and spinning it into a useful way to conduct one's life.

I think if Matthews knew he was going to get sandbagged on the show, he would have come prepared with some comebacks, of which I think there are many. Because he wasn't prepared for a Stewart attack, his defense of his own book consisted of little more than a couple half-hearted anecdotes and his usual foghorn guffaw. (And despite the cheery smile and laughter, you could tell Matthews was pissed throughout). Stewart's main point (if I may prattle on for a bit longer), seemed to be that campaigns are all "contrivances" and lies, and that his book was a "recipe for sadness". Matthews never had a good comeback for anything Stewart said.

But here's the thing: isn't much of one's life, particularly one's working life, a contrivance? And if so, doesn't it hold that a political campaign might be a good handbook for navigating the waters of all those hours spent in a world of "contrivance"?

Any poor bastard who has to work for a living has to lie and dissemble just to keep their job. If your boss is an idiot, or is doing something stupid, (which, for some people, is a daily fact of life), do you get all honest on them and say, "You're an idiot, boss. Here's what should happen." No, you either keep your mouth shut (as political candidates do when there's an issue that doesn't benefit them to speak on), or you couch it in diplomatic language designed to inform as much as possible without offending (as Hillary and others do when they refer to Republicans, many of whom voted for her husband's impeachment, as: "my friends from the other side of the aisle.") Isn't that contrivance? The majority of Americans are in jobs they don't really like, and working at them for 10-12 hours a day when they'd rather be doing anything else. If that's not a recipe for sadness, I don't know what is. So I think it's entirely plausible that the lessons of a well-run political campaign, cynical as they might be, might be of use when trying to make a living in a working world fueled almost entirely on bullshit.

So I guess the real question is this: what crawled up Stewart's ass last night? Was it really the book, or was it Matthews, or was Stewart just having a bad night? And why did he have to make me try and defend Chris Matthews' book?

Some other things:
1.) Check out this brief webisode from the making of "The Mist". This one's interesting because it shows off the very cool set of the web-choked pharmacy, which, as it is in the novella, is adjacent to the grocery store in which the bulk of the movie's set. And it also shows how the scene looks in the final movie. Pretty decent effects, I'd say. Also it's nice to watch Darabont dote on actress Frances Sternhagen, who's been a great character actor for a lot of years, and has a fun scene here.

2.) Also from, there's a report that after Guillermo Del Toro finishes "Hellboy 2", he's going to film one of my favorite H.P. Lovecraft stories, "The Mountains of Madness". No one of note has ever attempted to film Lovecraft, and though I didn't much like "Pan's Labyrinth", I think Guillermo's just the guy to do it. Like Peter Jackson and "Lord of the Rings", Guillermo's reverence for Lovecraft might translate into a unique horror film.

And 3.) Someone named Melvin Jules Bukiet wrote an essay taking to task a whole school of fiction he's calling the "Brooklyn Books of Wonder". Read it here. I have to admit that I take a bit of pleasure reading a takedown of Eggers, Lethem, Kunkel, Safran Foer, and Chabon, authors whom I all hate owing to their seemingly effortless writing ability. Some of Bukiet's punches land, but many only succeed in making the essayist seem a humorless curmudgeon who probably doesn't like much that's been written in the last 100 years. Though when he lambastes "The Lovely Bones" for being an "escape novel", it's hard not to take his point. [SPOILERS AHEAD!]:

"Generally speaking, the sex-murder of an adolescent offers little that’s good. But in The Lovely Bones, mom and pop hook up and so do Ray and Ruth, whose body Susie is allowed to occupy just long enough to have real, true, beautiful sex for once in her afterlife. “I had never been touched like this,” she tells us. “I had only been hurt by hands past all tenderness. But spreading out into my heaven after death had been a moonbeam that swirled and blinked on and off. . . . Inside my head I said the word gentle.” The book ends with a glow.

Every impulse in every sane reader must shriek No! at this pabulum. It’s not lovely that Susie’s been slaughtered, hacked, and dumped in a pit. It’s not lovely that icy Mr. Harvey gets his comeuppance by a conveniently dropped icicle as the pit containing Susie’s body parts is being drained, leading us to assume that her remains will be found and that she will finally get a lovely stone.

Nice thought if you can abide it. Unfortunately, it’s false to all human experience to find “growth” in tragedy. In fact, the dull truth is that pain is tautological. The only thing suffering teaches us is that we are capable of suffering."

I doubt this essay will be, in any way, a game changer for contemporary literature. This wide-ranging critique seems a bit like B.R. Myers' 2001 critique of authors like Cormac McCarthy, Dom DeLillo, Annie Proulx and others, for writing so-called "perfect" prose at the expense of all else. Myers called this style of writing "The Cult of the Sentence", and in the wake of that essay, absolutely no one's minds seem to have changed on any of those writers. I doubt being labeled a writer of "BBoWs" will do much to diminish sales for this new crop of talented, albeit occasionally precious, writers either.

Oh yes! Two friend-related links. Check out Brian O'Connell's new La-La Land-oriented podcast, and Monolith has revamped and restarted his blog, which sports an excellent title for a blog. Also he's been updating it like crazy. So, you know, check those out.

And that's it.