I recently saw the new Woody Allen film “Midnight in Paris” against my better judgement and found it “enjoyable”, although it was not “good”.

[ASIDE: There are many things which I find enjoyable but not good (Zombie movies, Fritos, “Toddlers and Tiaras”) and there is a big gulf between the two. There are things which are objectively believed to be “good” which I do not enjoy (Bergman movies, “Exile on Main Street”, pomegranates) as well. Maybe it’s the American in us that believes whatever we “like” has to be “good”, but nothing could be further from the truth.]

After seeing “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”, “Whatever Works” and “Everyone Says I Love You”, I signed off on New Woody Allen Movies. They seem self-important, designed for the privileged class (which he used to take shots at) and his direction consistently seems to be “Okay [actor] do your best impression of me.” Casting choices give you the impression he picks female leads based on  who he would like to sleep with if given the chance (e.g. Mira Sorvino in “Mighty Aphrodite”) and he routinely makes women stupid, unfaithful, or just irritating. (Larry David’s romance with Evan Rachel Wood in “Whatever Works” was particularly gross, given Allen’s daughter-dating.) Worst of all, and least excusably of all, the movies haven’t been funny in a long time.

For these and other reasons, I swore them off. Until a recent trip to New York for a birthday party, where 41% of the people I met recommended “Midnight in Paris”. “No thanks, I’m out on Woody Allen,” says me. “No – this is different. It’s great. I swear,” says They. Fine, so I saw the movie back in Boston with my wife and some friends after drinking from a tower of beer at a nearby brewpub (this did not influence my enjoyment of the movie).

The film’s point, made using time-travel, is that romanticizing a previous time and place (in this case Paris in the 1920s) is great and all, but really, everyone romanticizes another time/place from where they live so let’s just enjoy the present. When I grew up in the late 80s/early 90s, it was the 60s/70s that were glorified, with “Magic Carpet Ride” used to sell MGD. Nowadays, I’d assume the phones and the internets probably prevent that sort of nostalgia – would you even want to live pre-internet?

Two big issues I have with the film: First, the Owen Wilson character is played to be some kind of bum in the face of his wealthy soon-to-be in-laws, but he’s a rich Hollywood screenwriter capable of buying in a beach house in Malibu. So it’s not just elitism, it’s the super-elite looking down on the merely elite. I am kind of a class-warrior, but in the face of such shitty economic times, anyone would agree it’s hard to get behind these characters. Is the target demographic for this film residing entirely on Martha’s Vineyard and in the Hamptons?

Second, the elitism is not just financial, it’s also educational. Owen Wilson’s trip into the past is a laundry list of intellectual reference points (Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Man Ray, etc etc) which you would only get if you took an unnecessary number of arts/literature classes like I did. Every time I whispered to my wife something like “Oh it’s Luis Bunuel! Our hero is leading him to conceive of plot for the film ‘The Discrete Charm of the Bourgoise‘!”, she asked me what the hell I was talking about. Those references give everyone over 60 with a liberal arts degree, especially film and lit majors, stifled laughs of recognition and validation, but make for a winking snoot-fest of a film.

My wife said “I don’t get it” when we walked out, and she had no reason to. She is not interested in surrealist film of the 60s (totally understandable) and when she asked Woody Allen to entertain her for 1.5 hours, he did his best to make inside jokes about how clever he was, rather than tell a “good” and “enjoyable” story with solid characters and some humor (see “Annie Hall”).

Thanks, but I’ll watch “Manhattan” again and pretend this and future Woody Allen movies don’t exist.

During a long-winded IM (they all are) I found myself explaining the appeal of Twitter to a friend who didn’t quite understand it. Being my friend, by definition, means he says and does absurd and hilarious things all the time, of which I’m absolutely confident I’m only hearing about 10-20% of it. Why miss out? So I underhandedly convinced him to use twitter and learned something about the limitations of search engines all at the same time.

Knowing he was competitive, I appealed to his sense of one-upsmanship and discussed a competition whereby he would have to post some minimum number of tweets anonymously, and see if I could figure out what his username was. The guidelines were that he had to post as himself, about things that occurred during his day, and about things which would be identifiable enough to locate him based on how well I knew him. The last part was the one I was most worried about (as I said, he is super competitive).

I had over a month to try to find my friends’ twitter account and I failed, but for an interesting reason. Search engines such as Google are designed to help you find *one* web page given the search terms you input. They are nearly useless in finding a collection of related pages (e.g. tweets) if you have a long list of possible content. For example, I know which teams he is a fan of, where he usually eats, where he lives, and some other personal particulars. If I search for Taco Bell, Michigan Basketball, falafel trucks, using these terms individually will give me too many responses to sift through, and collectively, they will not identify a single page – remember, each tweet is a separate page.

What would have been useful, but doesn’t exist, is a search engine wherein the input is a collection of search terms and the output is a collection of related pages, which would be useful if you were actually trying to discover new sites to read. Hypothetically, let’s say there are some fixed number of sites that I check on a regular basis, either in the browser or through an RSS reader. If there were another site out there which would be right up my alley, given my interests, there is no way I would be able to find it. Google Reader has a feature which may use some variation of this, where it may suggest newsfeeds you might like, although I can’t say it’s ever worked for me. It’s almost like we need a search engine version of the Netflix recommendation algorithm – Given a set of things I like or input, what other things are likely to be enjoyable to me?

Anyhow, his tweets are funny, I lost $1, and learned something about search engines. I will say his entries, collectively, give him away, there is no way I would have been able to find him.

Some months ago, I went to go see Chromeo play at the House of Blues and something disturbed me about the show. I like the albums – they’re fun, upbeat, and catchy. If you haven’t heard them, very very heavily influenced by mid-80s synth-pop electrofunk. [Aside: Daryl Hall does a video series where he plays with musicians on his upstate NY farm, posting them on a site called “Live from Daryl’s House”. The Chromeo episode is amazing, and the cover of “Family Man” is particularly noteworthy] But they’re really just a Nostalgia Band.

At the show, the warm-up music was all obscure synthesizer tunes and the crowd all largely dressed in some combination of 80s nostalgia and modern hipster. For the unaware, Chromeo is just two guys, guitar and keyboards, heavily leaning on the Talk Box (The tube which musicians stick in their mouth to create the roboty sound you associate with Peter Frampton, especially “Show Me the Way”, although the Dinosaur Jr. cover is probably better than the original). One guy is Jewish and the other is an Arab, so there’s a certain unity they project, and they’re both taking the 80s synthesizer influences and doing something somewhat new.

Anyhow, anyone who heard the concert would think they were an 80s cover band – it’s definitely a nostalgia act recreating the sound of a bygone era. I took the negative perspective of this and shared it with my friend. “But you like The Black Crowes, right? That’s just The Faces, except from Georgia not England,” he correctly observed. I had just seen The Crowes on their “farewell” tour at the same venue and I respectfully disagreed – I think they draw a lot more from gospel than the Faces did, but it’s a moot point -The Crowes belong in another era of 70s-style rock. Other bands have done some variation of the same trick, sometimes I appreciated it (Lenny Kravitz’ brilliant “Let Love Rule“, Ugly Duckling recreating 80s era hip hop, especially on “Taste the Secret“) and sometimes not (Drive By Truckers).

In the long view, I suppose all music is derived from somewhere, its just much more obvious in some cases than others, and the source material is almost always better.

Years ago, after a long night of acting like a 24 year-old in Chicago, I was tricked by a lawyer into helping our mutual friend move during the winter. While many hilarious things happened that weekend, I remember it most vividly as the first time I saw an igloo. A real igloo like in a cartoon.

It was in the tiny back yard of the walkup we were moving into, and it was the first thing we noticed when unloading the U-Haul. We stopped and stood around it asking each other questions. Who built it? Where did the idea come from? How did the roof work? Was it warm? Later, we would speculate on what our future wives would be like, as young men do, and hope we found partners who would be as interested in igloos as we were.

On 1/13/2011, a blizzard hit Boston and dropped almost a foot of snow on the ground. My office was closed for the day, giving me the first snow day I’d had in years. My friend Jim texted me to see if I had any good ideas for how to spend the day. “We’re building an igloo” I wrote back. And it began.

Without any research or preparation, we trudged out into the mushy gray urban snow and picked up some cardboard boxes from the local grocery store. We headed out to a nearby park and started construction without any real plan. I’d tried to build one years before and failed miserably (I blame the snow quality).

Laying the foundation

We cleared a ring in the park and began making bricks by packing snow into the cardboard boxes. We noticed each successive layer of bricks compacted the lower levels, turning them into a solid ice-like wall. During construction we bumped the walls several times, noticing the increasing toughness throughout the day. Working with freshly fallen snow was definitely a big help.

After setting the foundation down, most of the discussion was focused on the curvature of the wall and forming the roof,  the most difficult part of the construction. The roof was also the most popular topic of discussion for passers-by, who posed for pictures in front of it and told us how awesome it was. We also began building an archway entrance and planned on adding a keystone to hold the arch at about 4 feet off of the ground. This part did not work out well.

It turns out architects since the beginning of time had been using the concept of an inverted caternary arch (Wikipedia) in building construction. A caternary is basically a parabola-shape where the bricks all lean against one another and somehow the whole thing stays up. In an igloo, the bricks successively bend more and each ring holds up the one above it (in theory).

Walls beginning to curve in

We stacked successive bricks closer to the center and got the walls to bend somewhat. The right side curved too quickly and collapsed a few times in the process. After about 5 hours of work, we called it a night when we finally managed to close the archway and get a few more bricks onto the top layer. The roof ended up with a sizeable hole and we felt it was incomplete, but then again we were exhausted.

Roof viewed from below

After breaking for dinner, we returned to the site and found someone’s spraypainted graffiti tag inside. I would have preferred something more imaginative than random letters, but it gave the igloo some character.

Here are some pics of the final construction – it’s not bad for a first try and we definitely learned some ways we can improve the process. For one thing, we could have bought a contraption that helps build perfectly-sized bricks in half the time (link).

The front view

The side view

The final structure was not perfect (like this one) but we were pleased with the result. It was quiet and somewhat warm inside, but more importantly, it was fun to build. I hope it survives for a few days.

I am in India for a wedding, vacation, and visitation with many relatives (mine and the wife’s), proving to be fun, tiring, chaotic, colorful, and loud, which is to say a lot like India itself. Years ago I read “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found” by Sukhetu Mehta, a real-life account of someone born here and raised in the US who moves back to Mumbai as an adult (with wife/kids). The perspective provides a pretty interesting narrative for people unfamiliar with India, much less the absurdity that is Mumbai with the hypercrowding, traffic, gangsters, moviestars, and incredible (and recent and increasing) wealth disparity.

Amazingly, that picture of the city from a few years ago has only increased in all aspects. A huge housing boom is underway with new high-rise luxury developments dotting the landscape where slums used to be. Interestingly, private developers have taken to splitting parcels of land with the squatters – using half to build new mid-rise tenements (gifted to the former slum-dwellers) with standardized retail cubes on the ground level, and the other half for the glass-covered condos. It’s an interesting way to see how the private sector handles a problem when an incredibly bureaucratic government is busy handling other topics (or taking bribes). I’m suspicious of the concentration of low-income families in high-rise blocks – just this past month Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing projects were demolished, symbolizing what I took to be the final nail in the high-rise project coffin. It’ll be interesting to see how these projects end up in 10 years, both socially and from an investment perspective (looks a lot like housing growth in the early 2000s, so a bubble must be forming).

When I try to read about India, all I’ve found is a lot of excitement about BTO and globalization, which I’ve found myself tuning out. Like the “green revolution” the volume of reporting on a hot topic leads me to just forget about it. But visiting India reminds you of the rapid pace of change – neighborhoods I visited just last year are now completely different, redeveloped. The pace is hard to really imagine, and you can see oncoming catastrophe everywhere (overpopulation, too many cars for too few roads, broken anemic legal system, rampant corruption/bribery, etc) but somehow everything keeps churning forward. It’s fascinating to watch and I’m curious to see how it progresses in the future.

I am a driving commuter for the first time in my life. I drive 45 minutes each way to work (on a good day) and generally arrive at my destination in a less than positive mood as a result.

Specifically, one driving behavior  really gets to me. I interpret this particular phenomenon to be the leading indicator of total societal unraveling: the late cut-in. This is when there is a long lineup for an exit and some room in the passing lanes, which inevitably leads to someone zooming to the end, and cutting in in front of everyone who has sat waiting.

Americans are particularly loyal to the line-up – it’s sort of the basic unit of fairness. Abroad I’ve often found (especially Europe) people will step in front of you if they feel they are in a bigger rush than you, but in the US, we take the line pretty seriously.

So this morning on the ramp between two interstates, someone cut in late in the long, slow line. At this point, it doesn’t really bother me anymore since it happens so much, I just wait for the “thank you hand wave” which never comes (seems more frequent in the Midwest).

But then something miraculous happens: a cop is planted on the grass next to the ramp and immediately waves the guy to pull over while yelling at him. I was, to say the least, ecstatic. I actually rolled the window down and yelled “Go cops!” Sometimes, there is justice. Not that often, though, but just for today, and in this small way.

imageThe KLF are probably remembered as an early-90’s techno group that dressed in cult robes and did a duet with Tammy Wynette. They also were the #1 singles artist of 1991, adopted esoteric sci-fi novel philosophies, wrote an ironic book about how to have a #1 hit, defaced billboards, took out cryptic ads in music magazines, and videotaped themselves burning a million pounds sterling on a Scottish island. The KLF retired by performed at a music industry showcase concert which ended by fired machine-gun blanks into the unsuspecting audience (ok, over the audience) and left a dead sheep outside the door, after which they announced their retirement and deleted their entire back catalog. People don’t really understand what the hell they were about, but they were at least interesting.

You, on the other hand, are a coward who writes graffiti in bar bathrooms and have never accomplished anything. Please go back to scribbling fake website names with sharpies.

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I found this cool place in the North End of Boston where they basically will do whatever you want, sort of a storefront concierge. Cleaning your countertops is $2.

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Home of the original Jay Gatsby

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Is this face supposed to sell clothes?

This lady scares the crap out of me every time I pass by.