Friday, February 27, 2009

The Joys of Enlightened Nerdiness

Matt Yglesias ponders the true nature of Transformers (robots or vehicles or both?). My favorite comment:

Transformers are philosophically interesting because they complicate the classic Aristotelian distinction between form and matter, since their very nature is to change from one form into another. So we can’t say their form is either humanoid or as machine. As Aristotle would argue, their form consists in their activity, namely, tranformation. And their matter is organized around that principle. If Maximus Prime could no longer perform the act of transforming into a truck, or vice versa, he would no longer be a transformer. So, they’re neither one nor the other, intrinsically. They are, it goes without saying, more than meets the eye.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Is it me, or do the Republicans have a knack for burning out their rising stars? Sarah Palin imploded within a couple weeks, and after all the talk of Bobby Jindal being a 2012 contender, we get Kenneth from 30 Rock, an association that in the age of Facebook is not likely to go away easily. Are they really that bad at selling their ideas (in which case, their animosity towards Hollywood liberals is simply a manifestation of professional jealousy)? Or is the Republican party simply vacuous? Occam's Razor is having trouble paring this one down.

I mean, seriously. SNL's been lousy for years; the only reason their political material is funny now is they hardly have to try.

What's worse is that this Republican incompetence, mixed with insanity ('leave it up to the frozen markets!'), precludes the very necessary debate that needs to happen over the details of issues like the stimulus. Democrats are going to need a different perspective in untying this economic Gordian knot, but the Alexandrian solution is not constructive. It became a campaign debate cliche, but: hatchets and scalpels. Hatchets and scalpels.

Now here's a real a rebuttal:

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hate to Say I Told You So...

...and I can't anyway, so I won't.

Penn's win surprised the hell out me, not the least because he's won so many times already. My friend Jordan (whom I owe a beer) probably had it right: "In the eyes of the Academy, the gays are now placated." Especially after that speech! It made a nice counterpoint to Dustin Lance Black's speech, which was so very moving.

And yet I thought that since they rained on Rourke's parade they might do the same to Slumdog. But no. I am happy, though. I haven't seen Milk and can't judge it, but Slumdog was a great film, and Danny Boyle a great director.

Besides those two upsets (and Penelope Cruz, which I figured a toss-up), though, I ended up nailing most of the secondary categories outside of the wild guesses (short films and foreign film). "Jai Ho" won (I thought "O Saya" was much more emblematic of the film), and the only real surprise was sound mixing, which Slumdog got.

But that's neither here nor there; with 15 out of 24 guessed correctly, I tied at the Oscar party I was at for most guesses, and took home the Wall-E DVD! I got runner-up last year in a contest and won a mini-Oscar statuette, a Sasquatch Gang T-Shirt (which I sold to a co-worker for $15), and some Semi-Pro socks, so this is setting a good trend.

The Oscars

The Academy Awards have always been about politics and creating a narrative; The Departed was far from being the best picture of '06, but hey, Scorsese needed an Oscar. So here are my attempts to (second-)guess this year's winners.

Best Picture - The momentum is on Slumdog Millionaire's side, but I'm betting the farm (and a beer) on Milk. The 2005 snubbing of Brokeback Mountain was a minor scandal, and Hollywood is going to want to make amends with the gay community, who are especially wounded now after the passage of Proposition 8 (which might not have happened if this movie had come out before the election). This would be the third Best Picture in a row where the main character dies in the end, and maybe the Academy has learned its lesson about fighting a wave of goodwill and publicity, but in the end these things come down to internecine politics, and Milk is the safe choice. How far has America come when we can say that about a film depicting the rise and assassination of a gay icon?

Lead Actor - Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler - Because no one thought Mickey Rourke would be great again. This will be the climax of his comeback, with which the movie itself is inextricably linked.

Supporting Actor - Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight - Because he will never be great again (leaving aside the unfinished shooting of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus) Plus, he should have gotten it for Brokeback, and he really did do a damned terrifying Joker.

Lead Actress - Kate Winslet, The Reader - Because she's never won, despite multiple nominations, of which she will remind you, at length.

Supporting Actress - Not really sure what to make of this one, but Taraji P. Henson in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is one I've heard most about, so I'll chalk this up to quality, for once.

Animated Film - WALL-E. No animated movie has gotten this much love in a long time, and there's no reason for the Academy to differ.

From here it becomes more of a crapshoot, with biases towards films with a higher profile. I think Benjamin Button is going to take a lot of the technical categories for making Brad Pit old-young, and if they're going to upset the Slumdog momentum, they're going to probably do it by chipping some of the smaller awards away while still acknowledging its overall greatness. That way they can still make Milk look like a surprise upset at the end.

If Slumdog sweeps all of its early nominations, though, then like Return of the King it will have Best Picture in the bag (except ROTK was also political, since they waited until the Lord of the Rings trilogy was over before showering it with love).

Art Direction - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Cinematography - Slumdog Millionaire
Costume Design - The Duchess
Directing - Slumdog Millionaire
Documentary - Man on Wire (it pulls off the trick of making us feel good about the twin towers by telling the story of an equally marvelous feat)
Short Documentary - The Conscience of Nhem En
Editing - Slumdog Millionaire
Foreign Language - Waltz with Bashir (this had a pretty high profile in London, but like all the others on the list, I never heard about it here)
Makeup - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (a no-brainer, though it was nice to see Hellboy II included)
Original Score - Slumdog Millionaire (I hear Benjamin Button is most deserving, though)
Original Song -"O Saya" from Slumdog Millionaire
Animated Short - Lavatory - Lovestory
Live Action Short - New Boy"
Sound Editing - The Dark Knight (remember that frayed, one-note Joker theme?)
Sound Mixing - The Dark Knight
Visual Effects - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Adapted Screenplay - Slumdog Millionaire
Original screenplay - Milk

To those still paying attention....

It turns out I can link my Facebook photo albums so that non-users can view them. Behold!

Day 1 (Hotel Room)
Days 2 and 3 (Trafalgar Square)
Day 3 (St. Pauls, Fleet Street at night)
Day 5 (Imperial War Museum--brief, because my camera battery died)
Day 7, part 1 (Parliament, Westminster Abbey, etc.)
Day 7, part 2 (Buckingham Palace, etc.)
Day 8, part 1 (Oxford)

Those are all I have now. My computer has not cooperated with Facebook's photo uploading applet. I'm going to try to upload them from a fast computer in the near future. Check back soon!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

There and Back Again

Well, I made it back, and have largely managed to avoid jet-lag, mostly on account of the return being so screwy and drawn out.

We left Heathrow around noon and arrived at Chicago O'Hare around 3:30. I managed to catch a couple naps in the meantime, along with some reading and schoolwork. Unlike the initial plane ride, I brought my camera on board, and so I was able to take some great photos over British Columbia.

While walking around O'Hare I suddenly found my left ring finger was bleeding; the run-in with the bike the previous day had failed to shed any of the stuff, and so I was at a bit a loss.

We were scheduled to depart for Boise at 7:30, but the torrential rain that was pouring in Chicago delayed our flight by three hours. Most of us--our group was now four students and the three professors; the others remained in Europe to continue enjoying themselves--had been planning on staying up until we were to get home, around midnight, but the delay took most of the wind out of that idea, and I think all of us slept on that late flight.

I awoke hearing a distorted celestial voice talking about Salt Lake City and 6 in the morning and hoped it was a dream, but alas. Weather concerns forced us to detour and land in Salt Lake, where we would remain until the ticketing offices opened up the next morning.

My paternal grandparents live in Salt Lake, and so I considered getting a different ticket back so I could spend a day or so with them. It was too late to call them, but I had to know what the plan was by the time we talked to the ticket offices. So I waited until around 5:20, when we were close in line, to call. My grandfather, Opa, was already up, and we planned on having him come get me.

Then I called Mum, and she looked up the airline's flights and saw the only way to Boise was through Denver, at 4 in the afternoon. I thought I would stay in SLC for a few days and try for Tuesday.

Then I found out they had already set us up with a flight to Boise. No problem, I could get it changed.

Then the ticket guy said I would have to pay to get it changed, and they don't even go to Boise normally. So that was that.

We took off without incident, dealt with some turbulence, and landed. Professor Maughan gave me a ride back to the dorms. The trip was over

I miss London already. I'll be back, someday.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


I thought it might be worth mentioning I got hit by a bicyclist last night. I was making an ad hoc cross of the streets to get to Monument, I saw him out of the corner of my eye, and he was either closer or going faster than I thought he was. There was a yell, and he hit me (presumably) on my left side.

I got off with a couple bruises. He seemed to be okay, as was his laptop. He was none too happy about his bike, which he had gotten just the day before, whose front brake grip I messed up.

I'm essentially fine, just a little uncomfortable.

And with that, adieu!

One Day More

A full itinerary: the Natural History Museum, the Saatchi Gallery exhibition on Middle Eastern Art, and the Tate Britain's Altermodern, which posits a movement away from postmodernism. Hopefully another play tonight, too.

This will probably be my last entry written in London proper; I hope you all have enjoyed what I've had to offer. I'll be adding reflective entries and photos in subsequent days, so keep checking back.

Give me a couple days to sleep off the jetlag, though.

Lear's Shadow

Today is our last day before heading back to the states, so no pictures. In a few days I'll hopefully have the time and means for more content.

But: overall the Young Vic Lear was very good; there were some very questionable directorial decisions (Albany was terribly cast; the heath scene was only half-successful; Goneril does NOT need to be pregnant; the Edgar-Edmund duel sent mixed signals), but all of them are more than redeemed by Pete Postlethwaite as Lear, who is absolutely spell-binding (and a perfect gentleman too; he signed my sketchbook afterwards!). Gloucester and Edgar especially were able to work on that same level, which was especially critical for the Poor Tom scenes and the "trial" of Goneril and Regan, represented here by two potted cacti which Lear proceeds to rip apart with his bare hands when it comes time to "anatomize Regan."

The center of the play, in fact, is some of the most intense theatre I've experienced yet, with a triple-knockout succession of Poor Tom (with Lear and Edgar both operating on the same insane wavelength and the Fool seemingly aware that his own eccentricity has been far usurped), the trial, and the blinding of Gloucester, which was effectively, gruesomely done with an added nastiness as Regan, ever eager to outdo others in wickedness, starts gouging out the other eye and then proceeds to rip it out with her teeth and spit it out into a dirty basin downstage. The end of the play is nearly derailed by the awful Albany, but the core.... Wow.

Monday, February 9, 2009


A different sort of theatrical experience, Pete Postlethwaite as King Lear at the Young Vic.

Les Mis

Les Miserables is an anomaly of theatre. With over 20 years under its belt, it's the longest-running production in London. It's an unweildy beast of three hours, with an ensemble of 20 or 30 people, and massive production values. Just think of the chair Valjean breaks after Fantine's death. They would need one chair for every production, of which there are five or six a week. Multiply that by 56 or so, and multiply that by 20 (whatever the number is); that's a lot of money invested in just a chair. Think too of the dry cleaning bills for all the costumes, for whatever food they need onstage, and all the actors' salaries.

This is just to give some background to what is a very accomplished production that I watched on Saturday. The technical details--rotating floor, two huge setpieces that combine to form a scaffolding-set that later turns over to become the barricades--were dazzling, the performers all great (Eponine and Javert were my favorites), and the sleight of hand to keep it all moving without anyone noticing was flawless. It was all very impressive, and I am glad I went.

All the same, I thought the spectacle overwhelmed the story and the characters (which might not be all that deep to begin with; I haven't decided). This would make an amazing movie, and it's surprising that 20 years on there still has not been one made, but the elaborateness of it all on stage ends up feeling like less than the sum of its parts.

Also, whatever Victor Hugo's politics, the production is incredibly conservative. Its state of permanent existence puts the lie any talk of revolution, and thatand the tight choreography effectively choke off any sense of spontaneity. I almost hesitate to call it theatre, in that theatre is supposed to be an ephemeral event; part of the package--in addition to the details a particular night's show being one-of-a-kind, which is inherent and unshakeable-- is that eventually a show will close and will be gone forever. Les Mis is not like that at all. It's been here, and will seemingly always be here, for anyone who wants to see it or see it again. Immortality, whether in production or in real life, effectively robs all sense of urgency and weight.

I really did admire it, though, honest.

Back Attack

I've been in London for a couple days now, but because of sporadic internet access (and troublesome computers when I do have access), posting has been spare. But I'll try to give some quick updates.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Cathedral

For reasons unexplained, Canterbury Cathedral receives no state support (this is how it should be, but this is England: how does the seat of the state church not receive any subsidy?). I could have used Sean's resident card to get in for free, but I knew they needed the money and was glad to pay the 5 pounds 50 pence entry fee.

Friday was a good day to go, because they had decided to remove the chairs from the center and open the space up, to let others see what it would have been like hundreds of years ago, when it was used as an open market (what would Jesus have thought? I wondered). The interior was typically amazing.

This was a much better use of my money than Shakespeare's Birthplace, and I say that as a fire-breathing atheist and (now chastened) Shakespeare enthusiast.

Canterbury, continued

I spent most of Thursday just exploring the city, not with any real purpose. The day started with a traditional English breakfast at a local cafe, which was very good, very filling; I don't understand why English food gets the bad rap it does. After Morgan gave me a whirlwind tour of the city, I went with her to the University of Canterbury, which whatever the quality of education (and it sounds like they have some top-notch departments) has some incredibly ugly modernist buildings, as it was only built in the 70s. Apparently the architect's previous project had been a prison. The library is one of the better buildings.

The school is quite a distance away from Sean and Morgan's apartment, taking a good half hour to walk there, uphill. Compare this view from outside their door:

to this, from the entrance to the school.

After getting back I decided to do some walking around. I wanted to go to the ruins of St. Augustine's Abbey, but it was closed for some reason. So instead I decided to follow the city wall for awhile. I actually found a rock that had fallen out onto the ground and considered taking it as a souvenir, but then judged that to be rather touristy, and possibly illegal. It was next to a main traffic artery and so I didn't take my chances. I went along the outside up the northeast end, and eventually found myself back at the apartment. Just before that, I came across this house, which for obvious reasons is always being photographed:

After that I went back to the Dane John, a little park named presumably in reference to the city's 11th century viking conquerors. Among other landmarks it contains a monument to those who died in the Boer War of South Africa.

That night Morgan prepared for us a hardy meal, made all the more amazing by the fact that it was made up of leftovers.

Later that night I rode one of their bikes back up to the University to see Slumdog Millionaire, an amazing and even heartwarming movie which I highly recommend.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Taste of Canterbury

Outside the cathedral.

The cobblestone streets really can be that narrow.

How great would it have been to have been able to play on this as a child?

The greatest tree I've ever seen, as if from Sleepy Hollow or Pan's Labyrinth.

From outside Canterbury Castle. No idea as to its original use, probably had to do with pumping water.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here

The Stratford train station toilet is a foul space, with shreds of toilet paper unspooled and heaped upon the grimy floor, pleas for sex (or maybe just “cock”) with a phone number carved into the dispenser, an old-fashioned loo with a pull handle and an ominously suspended bowl, rude penises scrawled onto the door. You will never find a more wretched hive of (s)cummy viscera.

It was in this environment that I had to relieve myself, which I had made no easy task, the ski tights I had worn to keep me warm proving extremely cumbersome. In order to shit properly, I had to take off my coat and scarf, then remove my hat; this is because I had to take off my shirt and sweatshirt in order to unzip the jumpsuit to down below my waist, put the shirt and sweatshirt back on so I wouldn’t catch a chill, then tuck the sleeves of the jumpsuit into my lowered drawers, lest they mingle with the filth of the floor. My business done, I went to wash my hands and had to dry them on one of those strange dispensers that uses thin-but-actual towels that seemed to cycle back into the apparatus, which in this dungeon served to pervert cleanliness into an unhealthy pursuit. I resolved to wash my hands, for real, at the next sink to which I had access.

Thus finished, I picked up a map of Stratford and set out to find a place to stay. In my left hand was a bag of bread, over my shoulders a backpack packed with reading material, toiletries, sandals, a day’s change of clothes, and a blanket that would prove extremely useful. The only youth hostel in town was actually not in town but two miles out, near Warwick; it had a reputation for inconsistency—for one reviewer, the price of a room changed literally overnight. I wanted none of that and so resolved to find a place in town to make my base of operations as I fulfilled my pilgrimage. The first hotel I passed was a giant estate and had a gate that closed at 11 and a large yard in front of the building, which was enough to deter me from bothering with it. Up a side street were a couple bed-and-breakfast establishments, both booked up. I came across these within a five minute span, but it was already going on 2 o’ clock, and I needed to get settled in, away from the snow and cold. These were my overriding concerns as I entered the White Swan (the Swan of Avon! O, erudition! O, literary innuendo!) to find out their rates.

A normal room was #65, prohibitively expensive. I asked if they did student discounts, which they didn’t, not really, but they could make an exception for me. The young lady at the desk said she could knock off #10, and then another 10 by getting rid of breakfast. I had no idea of rates elsewhere—I still don’t, for that matter, because I will never, ever go to Stratford again, and if I do I should be put on the rack, hung, cut down before I die, made to see my stomach sliced open and my entrails removed and tossed on the fire, drawn and quartered, and my head put on a pike on the London Bridge to serve as a warning to others who would betray their better instincts—and since I had already haggled a discount I didn’t want to push my luck. So I signed off on my #45 room, room 1 (she took pity on me with my overstuffed backpack), and went up to deposit my stuff and get situated.

The room was relatively spacious and looked nice enough, with two beds, a view overlooking the center of town, a relatively large (after having spent ten days in the charming but cozy Berjaya Eden Park Inn, everything was relative) bathroom, and even a hallway with a dresser and closet to connect the two. There was a television, larger than we had had in the previous room, and the customary trouser press and tea set. I spread out the map to figure out what would be first on my itinerary, and unwrapped a sandwich I had filched from the breakfast buffet; it was while eating this that I recalled the scatological morass of the train station toilet and my resolution to give my hands a proper scrub. Eventually I settled on Shakespeare’s Birthplace. The capital ‘B’ is intentional, and emblematic of the Bardolatry that holds Stratford captive.

Catch Up

I'm now in Canterbury staying with some friends until the group reconvenes over the weekend, so things have stabilized. The money situation has been worked out, and though tonight was particularly insane, all is well.

Now that I'm not freaking out about money or where I'm going to be, and since I have free access to my friends' internet, I actually have time to write and document my experiences, so the next few installments will focus on the madness of the past couple days.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


I've got a phone card, I'm staying in London tonight at the hotel, and I'll take a bus to Canterbury tomorrow. Just need to book it.


I'm back in London, trying to figure out where to go next. I've got £30 in my pocket, $40 on my card. I may head straight for Canterbury, where I was planning on crashing at my friends' place anyway, or I may just wing it in London hostels. Portsmouth, for now, is out of the question.

I need to rendezvous with my professor and see about using his phone.

And to think I almost brought a credit card with me...

To Elaborate...

When I tried to pull £100 from an ATM last night, it wouldn't let me and I had to settle for $50. I thought I had already paid on the hotel (£45 marked down from £65, I know it's expensive, but the youth hostel is 2 miles out of town and I had a cumbersome load to carry and things to do and so I made a rash decision and it wasn't even that great of a hotel anyway the room was freezing), but it was actually being held until I checked out, which I did without incident. So I really have no idea how much money is on that card. I've saved all my receipts, though, and so I might have to go back and piece it all together. I should have enough cash on me to get back to London, but at this point I have no idea what I'm capable of doing, and I had been planning on going to Portsmouth and Canterbury.

When I told people I was going to play it by ear, this is NOT what I meant.

I had trouble with AAA's phone number at the London hotel. Here's hoping a payphone brings better results.


Mother, if you are reading this, will you kindly email me the four-digit number on the picture ID you used to purchase my travel card? I kind of need it in order to check my balance online. Or you could make a nice, big deposit so I am not trapped in Stratford.

This is terribly embarassing, prostrating myself over the interwebs like this, but I left my debit card back in London with the professors (for security, you see), and now I don't know my balance and I don't know how far I can even get right now.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A note

I made it to Stratford just fine. Visited Shakespeare's birthplace, was disappointed. More later. The only internet cafe in town is closing in 10 minutes, and I'm paying £1 for this. Bloody hell. But hey, I'm on my own in the U.K. Life is good. Now if only I knew the balance on my pre-pay card.......

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Greek Love

I spent this afternoon in the Ancient Greece and Rome sections of the British Museum (unfortunately, I don't have time to post pictures; trying to nail down my lodging for my sojourn to Stratford, you know).

A lot of people mock the British Museum for ostensibly being a collection of relics from other cultures that they had the good fortune to rape and pillage, but that's being unfair. In at least one case, the Parthenon, they were given explicit permission to remove materials, which had already been badly damaged and would have otherwise fallen into disrepair. While I understand various countries' desires to reclaim their culture and history, both sides need to be acknowledged.

It's like a custody battle, where Britain is the loving foster family, and Greece is the ex-druggie teenage mother who's sobered up and is asking for a second chance.