29 November 2010

Next time, a different outcome

Rico says an older bronze Mercedes SUV with, unfortunately, blacked-out windows (including an apparently illegally blacked-out windshield) tried to run him over (probably through looking the wrong way while turning out of the Genuardi's parking lot) a couple of weeks ago, before he went to Massachusetts. As Rico had, unusually for him, gone out without a walking stick, he had nothing to retaliate with (and no gub, either, darn), and didn't want to chance an elbow on a side window. Rico was reduced to flipping off the driver and futilely screaming "fuck you!" at the (surprisingly) stopped vehicle.
Warning to the driver of the Mercedes: Rico says he will not make that mistake again...

Headline for the day

From the cover of the 6 September 2010 edition of Newsweek: "The Making of a Terrorist-Coddling, Warmongering, Wall-Street Loving, Socialistic, Godless, Muslim President (who isn't actually any of those things)", by Jonathan Alter

Rico says he's glad they had the little parenthetical caveat; he was wondering how anyone could be all of those things at the same time, much less get elected President...

Quote for the day

"Having something from Frieda is like having a sliver of the True Cross."
Salomon Grimberg, in The Frieda Fighters

Rico says that Frieda Kahlo was a hero of his then-wife, the artist, and he learned to appreciate her work.

Four years ago, near enough

Rico says that, almost to the hour, four years ago today he was coming out of the bathroom at Damon's to find Derrick standing in the hallway. Thus began his journey through six weeks in Jefferson Neuroscience Hospital where, with the prodding of his lady friend Chris, they saved his life, and then six weeks in Bryn Mawr Rehab, learning how to do everything again.
In the words of the old Grateful Dead song: "what a long, strange trip it's been".
Rico is also now officially four, in angioma years...

28 November 2010

Quote for the day

Rico says he could not agree more...
Life is trouble, only death is not.
To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.
Anthony Quinn as Zorba in Zorba the Greek

27 November 2010

Ranting about electronics

Rico says he's been wrestling with modems for several days, precipitated by his failing to write down the network password when he installed a new Cisco Wi-fi modem. This caused problems for other people (who shall remain nameless), and has yet to be resolved, which is why Rico is writing this on his trusty new iPad, rather than his desktop Mac.
Suffice it to say that Rico suspects a failure in the phone jack, which will be investigated and (hopefully) fixed shortly...

25 November 2010

Thanksgiving

Rico says he wishes everyone a happy Thanksgiving. The bird, alas, will not have a good day, but it's given it's best to make ours one.

24 November 2010

Sorting out

Rico says he spent the day sorting out from his recent trip to see his friend Kelley in Massachusetts, thus had no time for blogging.

23 November 2010

Google Apps: The Future or Yesterday’s War?

Edited by Jean-Louis Gassée
One must be at least a little skeptical of product reviews, and, even more so, product reviewers. They usually don’t spend their own money on the product and they’re under constant pressure to produce more newspaper columns, or blog post after blog post.

There are exceptions: I trust Consumer Reports (they buy the products they test); Walt Mossberg and David Pogue provide consistent, intelligent reviews. I don’t always agree with them, but I respect their intellect and ethics.
I’m not a “professional” reviewer; I buy the gadgets that I read about (just ask my wife, Brigitte, who claims there’s “one of each” in various rats nests around the house). And I don’t test them; instead, I do my best to use them in a real project.
This brings us to Google Apps.
For Google Apps, the real project was (and still is) a French newsletter and blog imaginatively named Note du Lundi. I buy a domain name and the paid-for Premiere version, the one where they answer your tech support questions. If you do it right— that is, if you buy your domain with your Google Checkout account and register it through godaddy.com— the process is easy, the domain registrar offers hosting services, and the on-phone tech support is competent and pleasant.
I fire up the Google Docs app that comes with my newly-purchased domain and start writing a newsletter article. Wanting to make a point by using a graphic, I drag and drop a picture from my Pictures folder. No dice. Instead of this:


I get this:


Google Docs knows where the image lives, and it also knows its type (PDF)— but it can’t insert it into the document I’m creating. An “antique” desktop word processor would have no trouble with the task.
I try another path: There’s an Insert Image icon in Docs that lets you browse to an image file on your hard drive. You click on the file and it’s uploaded to the Cloud and into your Docs repository. Good, this is clearly what I want. Point, click and …no joy. It won’t upload a PDF.
Still another way: Google Docs proudly claims it now accepts PDFs through the Upload menu. I upload my file and it dutifully appears in my collection of documents— I can see it, we’re almost there. I just have to copy and paste, right? Wrong. Yes, Google Docs accepts PDFs, but it doesn’t let you use them. They’re just stored and rendered (and poorly at that), but nothing more, no combining with other data.
I give up and use my old word processor to create a document like the one you’re reading now and, still hopeful, I copy and paste the content into an email message using the Gmail client in my Premier Google Apps suite. But the graphic doesn’t appear, its place is marked by a blank space. Strange…I know I was able to insert images through my free Gmail account but I can’t see how to do it in the Premiere $$uite.
Hours later, I remember the Labs setting in Gmail.
We’re dealing with yet another instance of the Third Lie of Computing: You Can Do It. (The first two are: It’s Compatible, and Chief, We’ll Be in Golden Master Tomorrow Night!). Indeed, It Can Be Done, but not by normal humans.
Try managing contacts in Gmail— a product launched in 2004— and compare the effort to the Contacts or Address Book facilities available in Microsoft Outlook and the Mac. Or direct the aforementioned normal human to the setting panels in Gmail.
Such experiments point us to a core limitation of Google’s culture: These guys are engineers; they’re very good engineers and have taken large-scale computing to new heights…but they think, emote, and react like engineers. When it comes to relating to non-techie customers…
It also points to a limitation of the Cloud: The pipes just aren’t big enough, yet.
Consider two other Google applications: Picasa and Sketchup. One is a very good photo editing app, the other is a CAD program, a neat 3D modeling tool. Are they implemented as Web apps? No; they run on the desktop. A Web app implementation would need too much bandwidth, too big a pipe between the local machine and the server farm in the Cloud. Desktop apps give better results, faster reactions to user input, because the processor and the data are tightly connected.
Someday, the progress in HTML implementations and better, thicker pipes might move the boundary between local and Cloud applications. But for the time being, conventional desktop “productivity” apps such as word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation programs have an advantage over their Cloud competitors.
Other Cloud services have more than sufficiently matured. Storing and synchronizing data in the Cloud—through Dropbox, SugarSync, Box.net, Mozy, Microsoft’s SkyDrive and Apple’s iDisk, Google’s own syncing and storage services—makes perfect sense. Prices range from $0 for 25GB at Microsoft, to $256 for 1TB at Google, and they’re dropping. The proliferation of mobile devices makes these services increasingly valuable, but they’re not necessarily a source of profits as storage and syncing are commoditized.
This got me thinking about product reviews and reviewers again…and testimonials as well.
I go to the oracle and ask for Google Apps testimonials. Google itself claims three million businesses as customers, and provides a suite of testimonials. I dig a little deeper and look for newspaper articles, magazine reviews, and blog entries that have visited the Google Apps user experience a few months after the glowing PR stories had been forgotten. Nothing much.
To the best of my knowledge, and I hope I’ll be proven wrong, none of the big guys, from The New York Times to the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, have done any serious on-the-ground, follow-up reporting. Nothing much is written about what real users actually say after months of using Google Apps. I found some rants here and there, a few politely skeptical comments on the NYT Bits blog (“A Long Road Ahead”) and in the Silicon Alley Insider in which we read that “most companies…never seriously considered using Google.”
Nonetheless, the Silicon Alley piece goes on to say that Microsoft should be in “Major Panic Mode”. The generally held view is that Google has aimed its Web Apps at Microsoft’s Golden Goose, the Windows + Office franchise. A glance at Microsoft’s 2010 Annual Report reveals how much of the company’s total operating income is provided by the historic duo: 102.7%! This doesn’t mean that all other MS divisions lose money—some, such as the Server and Tools unit, are quite healthy—but the Online Services business continues to lose billions.
Based on the reported size of Google’s Apps business (no more than $50M/year), on the current limitations of those apps, and on the lack of enthusiastic reports from the real field, I’m beginning to wonder: is Google fighting the wrong war? Google’s initial idea might have been to become Microsoft 2.0 by usurping the Windows + Office gold mine, but despite the abundant media coverage, the assault isn’t producing much in real business numbers.
In the meantime, while Google has been preoccupied with “killing” Microsoft, Facebook has grown to become the Internet’s most frequented site. With its 550 million users today, Facebook generates about 25% of all pageviews in the US and is well on its way to taking substantial advertising dollars from Google’s own money pump.
Things become interesting when we consider the increased level of cooperation between Facebook and Microsoft, and will become more interesting still as the war shifts to smartphones and to Facebook’s efforts to become the universal connector of people and businesses.
Rico says he used to work for Gassée at Apple; he knows.

Uncivil war for the day

Thr BBC's John Sudworth explains how the cross-border clash developed
South Korea says it has returned fire after North Korea fired dozens of artillery shells at one of its border islands, killing two marines. The South's military was placed on its highest non-wartime alert after the shells landed on Yeonpyeong island.
There is confusion about what triggered the shelling, with the North's military insisting it did not open fire first. Analysts say this is one of the most serious clashes since the Korean War ended without a peace treaty in 1953. There have been occasional cross-border incidents since, but the latest comes at a time of rising regional tension.
North Korea's reclusive leader Kim Jong-il is thought to be ill and trying to ensure the succession of his youngest son. On Saturday, it emerged that North Korea had also shown off to an American scientist what it claimed was a new uranium enrichment facility. The move prompted the US to rule out the resumption of six-party talks on nuclear disarmament that Pyongyang abandoned two years ago.
A spokesman for South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said North Korean shells had started falling in the waters off the island of Yeonpyeong at 1434 local time. At least fifty landed directly on the island, most hitting a South Korean military base there. The South's military immediately fired back some 80 shells in self-defence, Col Lee Bung-woo added. At least 16 South Korean marines and three civilians were injured in the clashes.

Analysis by Jonathan Marcus, BBC diplomatic correspondent:
Nobody needed any reminder of the volatility of the relations between North and South Korea, nor of the sensitivity of their disputed maritime border. In March, a South Korean warship was sunk by an explosion and an investigation indicated strongly that the North was responsible.
The shelling of Yeonpyeong fits into the same pattern. From the North Korean viewpoint, this is about establishing deterrence over the South and defending its interests. But it is also a wider demonstration to the world of the North's power and an indication of some kind of political transition.
What is going on in Pyongyang is impossible to say. Nonetheless, there are strong indications that Kim Jong-il has designated his son, Kim Jong-un as his successor. This opens up a period of uncertainty and unpredictability and this kind of incident is exactly what observers most feared.

A resident on the island told the AFP news agency that dozens of houses were damaged by the barrage, while television pictures showed plumes of smoke rising above the island.  "Houses and mountains are on fire and people are evacuating. You can't see very well because of plumes of smoke," a witness on the island told YTN television station. "People are frightened to death." Local government spokesman Yoon Kwan-seok said the shelling lasted for about an hour, and then stopped abruptly. "The whole of Yeonpyeong island was blacked out following the North Korean attacks," he was quoted as saying by the Yonhap news agency. "All of the island's 1,600-odd residents were evacuated to shelters."
The South Korean military has also deployed fighter jets to Yeonpyeong, which lies about 3km (1.8 miles) south of the disputed inter-Korean maritime border and 100km (60 miles) west of the Korean Peninsula. It said the "inhumane" attack on civilian areas violated the 1953 armistice halting the Korean War. Later, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak warned North Korea that his country would "sternly retaliate against any further provocations". "North Korea's shelling of Yeonpyeong island constitutes a clear armed provocation. Furthermore, its reckless shelling of civilian targets is unpardonable," his office said in a statement. "North Korean authorities must take responsibility."
But North Korea's supreme military command blamed South Korea for the incident. "The South Korean enemy, despite our repeated warnings, committed reckless military provocations of firing artillery shells into our maritime territory near Yeonpyeong island beginning 1300 (0400 GMT)," the state-run KCNA news agency quoted it as saying. The North would "continue to make merciless military attacks with no hesitation if the South Korean enemy dares to invade our sea territory by 0.001mm", it warned. "It is our military's traditional response to quell provocative actions with a merciless thunderbolt." It did not say whether North Korea suffered any casualties or damage.
A South Korean military official later told the Reuters news agency that it had been conducting regular military drills in the sea off Yeonpyeong before the incident, but that no fire was aimed towards North Korea. "We were conducting usual military drills and our test shots were aimed toward the west, not the north," he said.
There was condemnation of North Korea from the US, Russia, EU and the UK, although China - the North's main ally - refused to apportion blame. A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry said that both countries should "do more to contribute to peace. What's imperative now is to restart six-party talks as soon as possible," Hong Lei told a news conference in Beijing.
Japan's Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, said he had ordered ministers to prepare for any eventuality.
Many residents of Yeonpyeong fled the island by ferry after the bombardment "I ordered them to make preparations so that we can react firmly, should any unexpected event occur," he said after an emergency cabinet meeting in Tokyo. "I ordered them to do their utmost to gather information."
Russia's foreign minister warned of a colossal danger, and said those behind the attack carried a huge responsibility. The White House meanwhile called on North Korea to halt its "belligerent action".
The BBC's John Sudworth in Seoul says news of the incident has rattled international financial markets, with both the Korean won and Japanese yen falling.
The Bank of Korea said it would hold an emergency meeting to assess the possible market impact.
This western maritime border, also known as the Northern Limit Line, has been the scene of numerous clashes in the past. In March, a South Korean warship went down near the border with the loss of 46 lives. International investigators say a North Korean torpedo sank the ship, although Pyongyang has denied any role in the incident. Since then, relations between the two neighbours have remained tense.

21 November 2010

Civil War for the day

For what seems like forever, director Steven Spielberg has talked about wanting to do a biopic of Abraham Lincoln from a script by playwright Tony Kushner. But, for the past decade, Spielberg has instead focused on other projects, though Liam Neeson remained committed to playing our sixteenth president. When Neeson announced this summer that he was finally leaving the project, that seemed to be the end of it ever happening, but now the film is very much back on track, and Daniel Day-Lewis is going to play Lincoln.
The film, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals biography about Lincoln's battles with his White House Cabinet during the Civil War between 1861-1865, profiles the clashes brought about by the nation's turmoil. Reports have it that Spielberg will be shooting the film in the fall of next year.

Rico says he awaits this eagerly, and thinks Mr. Day-Lewis is an even better choice than Mr. Neeson...

20 November 2010

Better than feared

Rico says he and his friend Kelley went to see The Next Three Days. Rico liked it better, but it still had its flaws. (And what movie doesn't?) But it ain't Skyline, that's for sure. Four stars. (And the hope we can convince him to play Jack Hayes...

Old guy jokes

Rico says his father sends along these:
Two elderly ladies are sitting on the front porch in Bonita Springs, doing nothing.
One lady turns and asks: "Do you still get horny?"
The other replies: "Oh, sure I do."
The first old lady asks: "What do you do about it?"
The second old lady replies: "I suck a lifesaver."
After a few moments, the first old lady asks: "Who drives you to the beach?"

Three old ladies were sitting side by side in their retirement home in Fort Lauderdale, reminiscing. The first lady recalled shopping at the green grocers and demonstrated, with her hands, the length and thickness of a cucumber she could buy for a penny.
The second old lady nodded, adding that onions used to be much bigger and cheaper also, and demonstrated the size of two big onions she could buy for a penny a piece..
The third old lady remarked: I can't hear a word you're saying, but I remember the guy you're talking about."

A little old lady was sitting on a park bench in The Villages, a Florida adult community. A man walked over and sits down on the other end of the bench. After a few moments, the woman asks: "Are you a stranger here?"
He replies: "I lived here years ago."
"So, where were you all these years?:
"In prison."
"Why did they put you in prison?"
He looked at her and, very quietly, said: "I killed my wife."
"Oh!" said the woman. "So you're single?"

Two elderly people living in Fort Myers, he a widower and she a widow, had known each other for a number of years. One evening there was a community supper in the Clubhouse. The two were at the same table, across from one another. As the meal went on, he took a few admiring glances at her and finally gathered the courage to ask: "Will you marry me?"
After several seconds of careful consideration, she answered: "Yes, I will!"
The meal ended and, with a few more pleasant exchanges, they went to their respective rooms. Next morning, he was troubled: Did she say 'yes', or did she say 'no'? He couldn't remember. Try as he might, he just could not recall. Not even a faint memory. With some trepidation, he went to the telephone and called her.
First, he explained that he didn't remember as well as he used to. Then he reviewed the lovely evening past. As he gained a little more courage, he inquired: "When I asked if you would marry me, did you say 'yes' or did you say 'no'?"
He was delighted to hear her say: "Why, I said, 'Yes, yes, I will', and I meant it with all my heart." Then she continued: "And I am so glad that you called, because I couldn't remember who had asked me."

A man was telling his neighbor in Miami: "I just bought a new hearing aid. It cost me four thousand dollars, but it's state of the art. It's perfect."
"Really," answered the neighbor. "What kind is it?"
"Twelve thirty."

More light misogyny

Rico says his cousin Dickie emailed this one:
Dear Madam:
Thank you for your recent order from our sex toy shop. You asked for the large red vibrator, which you had seen on our wall display.
Please select another item.
That is our fire extinguisher.

Funny, if misogynistic

Rico says his friend Tex sends along this one:
I lost the trivia contest at the church social last night by one point. The last question was: "Where do most women have curly hair?" Apparently, the correct answer is Africa.
I’ve been asked to find another place to worship.

Not as funny if you're a terrorist

Rico says his cousin Dickie sends along this one:
The Israelis are developing an airport security device that eliminates any privacy concerns that come with full-body scanners at airports. It's a booth you can step into that does not x-ray you, but will detonate any explosive device you may have on you. They see this as a win-win for everyone, with none of this crap about racial profiling.
It also would eliminate the costs of a long and expensive trial. You're in the airport terminal and you hear a muffled explosion. Shortly thereafter, an announcement comes over the PA system: "Attention standby passengers, we now have a seat available on this flight..."
Hats off to the Israelis!



Not as funny if you're old like Rico

Rico says, courtesy of hus father, this old-age joke:
An 86-year-old man went to his doctor for his quarterly checkup. The doctor asked him how he was feeling, and the 86-year-old said: "Things are great, and I've never felt better. I now have a twenty-year-old bride who is pregnant with my child. So what do you think about that, Doc?"
The doctor considered his question for a minute and then began to tell a story: "I have an older friend, much like you. An avid hunter, he never misses a season. One day, he was setting off to go hunting but, in a bit of a hurry, he accidentally picked up his walking cane instead of his gun. As he neared a lake, he came across a very large beaver sitting at the water's edge. He realized he'd left his gun at home, and so he couldn't shoot the magnificent creature.
Out of habit he raised his cane, aimed it at the animal as if it were his favorite hunting rifle, and went 'bang, bang'. Miraculously, two shots rang out and the beaver fell over dead. Now, what do you think of that?' asked the doctor.
The 86-year-old said: "Logic would strongly suggest that somebody else pumped a couple of rounds into that beaver."
The doctor replied: "My point exactly."

19 November 2010

Chores done

Rico says he and his friend Kelley were able, finally, to finish a couple of important chores:
1. Installing the cat door and training (which only took one attempt) the cat, Fafhrd, to use it.
2. Finishing the drilling of a three-quarter-inch hole through the split trunk of the maple in the front yard (with video to corroborate Rico's alibi of being all the way across the yard from the dangerous activity being perpetrated by Kelley) and pulling the two pieces back together using a half-inch-diameter threaded rod with massive washers and a lock washer and nuts on both ends.
Rico says it's good to be handy, even second-hand...

On a brighter note...

Rico says that two old friends from his days at CMU, Jeff Elliott (Rico's off-campus roommate in his sophomore year, now living in the Philly area) and Shannon Matheny (the freshman-year roommate of Rico's friend Alan Brecher), have both surfaced this week. Amazing coincidence...

18 November 2010

A loss beyond words

Rico says he got an email yesterday from his cowboy-action-shooting friend Bill Calloway, known in CAS as Mild Bill, reporting the death (via motorcycle accident) of his 48-year-old son.
A phone call to provide what meagre consolation you can provide in such times was made; Bill sounded sad, of course, but recovering.
Some things cannot be imagined, and losing one's child surely qualifies.
Given Rico's near-brush with death four years ago, he can only imagine what his parents were going through at the time...

Up and at 'em

Rico says it's another bright sunny day in Massachusetts, so he and his friend Kelley will assay another attempt at drilling the split maple in the front yard. Rico will make a video of the project to prove to his concerned ladyfriend that he, at least, is not engaged in 'dangerous activities'.

17 November 2010

Another day of chores

Rico says that Fafhrd (Kelley's cat) got him up early. The day consisted of multiple construction projects around the house, which required numerous trips to various hardware stores, including several that had not had the drill bit extension we were able to find in Nantuckrt. Of course, when we had to go buy a bigger drill, the hardware store we went to had gotten in a shipment of extensions...

There and back in the same day

Rico says if he wasn't working on a Gates POS machine, he'd be able to easily paste in a Google map of Nantucket, where he and his friend Kelley spent a cold and drizzly day stomping around town, seeing old familiar (or not, as many of the stores have changed) places and eating a lot of chowder. The slower (and thus cheaper) ferry took two hours each way, so we got a chance to catch up on our sleep, until a herd of very loud Russians started arguing over a game of cards.
Home well after Rico's bedtime last night, however, but up early with the crepuscular cat this morning.
Chores to do today, but indoors, as it's still raining. Did find a drill bit extenstion (for a mere four bucks, too) on the island, so we will have to ask embarassing questions at the local hardware stores, who'd all denied ever seeing one.

16 November 2010

Traveling back in time

Rico says he and his friend Kelley are off for a day on The Gray Lady of the Sea, where he used to live, many years ago. More details later.

15 November 2010

Movie review of the day

Excoriate. Malign. Mock.
That would be Rico's reaction to Skyline, a recently released science-fiction (emphasis on the fiction) movie (made for an unbelievable ten million bucks (would that Rico had even a percent of that to make Zone of Fire) by Black Monday Film Services, Hydraulx, Rat Entertainment, and Relativity Media, and distributed by Rogue Entertainment) ostensibly about aliens descending upon Earth to, apparently, kill all humans and take their brains. (None of this is actually explained, you understand.)
Stupidly, we didn't read the review by some smart Israeli at imdb.com:
Went to see Skyline which premiered here last night. Worst sci-fi movie ever. Bad casting, bad acting, no plot, no ending, even bad CGI.
Don't go. Don't rent. Don't even download or copy.
Next time: wait for reviews, never get excited by trailers & cool posters again...
What you see in the trailers is the first few minutes of the movie. That's it. There is no more substance than that.
This review I am writing (which is forcing me to write a minimum of ten lines) has more content and thought than the movie script.
bad bad bad bad
Rico says he could not agree more. If there was any way, shy of a felony, to force the makers of this POS to cough up the money for three tickets and the snack bar for he and his friends (who vehemently concur), Rico says he'd do it...

14 November 2010

Good weather is a good thing

Having volunteered to help his friend Kelley make some tables for his potting operation, Rico says a few days of clear and (for November) warm weather has certainly made getting materials from Home Depot home and in the basement workshop easier and far more pleasant than it might have been if Winter had come early.
See, global warming ain't all bad, at least until the Antarctic Ice Sheet lets go...

13 November 2010

That would be Rico

There's a reason the title of the new Bruce Willis movie RED is in all caps; it's an acronym, not the color. It's also the latest of the new Hollywood penchant for putting old, retired actors (Ernest Borgnine, in this case) into vignette roles. (He's as good as ever, by the way.) The title refers to a designation for 'retired' CIA officers:
Retired, Extremely Dangerous.
(Rico says that, even without prior employment at the Agency, he gladly accepts the designation.)

The movie stars a panoply of actors: Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich, the ever-luscious Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Ernest Borgnine, Richard Dreyfus, and a host of lesser-knowns.
You gotta pay attention, though, because there are a lot of red (yes) herrings and plot devices, but it all comes to a rousing ending.
Rico gives it five stars.

11 November 2010

A Pittance of Time

In honor of Remembrance Day, as Veteran's Day used to be called. (And still is in England and Canada, where they yet wear red Flemish poppies to remember their terrible losses in the First War.)
But if you still don't get it after watching this, you're fucking hopeless...

09 November 2010

History for the day

Rico says another great commentator is back on-line: The War Nerd. Check him out here.

08 November 2010

Another great one gone

Janet Maslin has Jill Clayburgh's obituary in The New York Times:
In the most famous scene in Jill Clayburgh’s most influential movie, her character reacted to the news that her husband wanted to leave her. Ms. Clayburgh’s Erica responded with such naturalness, confusion and wounded pride that she captured the imagination of a generation.
“As Miss Clayburgh plays this scene,” Vincent Canby wrote about An Unmarried Woman in 1978, “one has a vision of all the immutable things that can be destroyed in less than a minute, from landscapes and ships and reputations to perfect marriages.” But she proved that a reputation could be made in less than a minute too.
Has any actor’s career ever been more powerfully affected by a prefix? It was the “un” in Unmarried that established Ms. Clayburgh’s creative power. Women’s roles had been changing irrevocably, and a new assertiveness was being established and understood. But the usual story lines of that era followed female characters’ quests for independence and authority. Heroines rebelled. They picked themselves up and moved out. They took action. They weren’t acted upon.
Their roles were often sharply defined, but Erica’s was not. Paul Mazursky, the writer and director, had a divorced friend who described herself as “an unmarried woman” on a mortgage application. Extrapolating from that, he envisioned the story of a Manhattan wife set adrift. But Ms. Clayburgh’s shaping of the character was utterly and unmistakably her own, just as surely as its impact on female movie audiences was universal. And the unaffected nature of the performance became its most distinctive feature. She didn’t have the tics of Diane Keaton, the steel of Jane Fonda, the feistiness of Sally Field, the uncanny adaptability of Meryl Streep. She simply had the gift of resembling a real person undergoing life-altering change. In her signature role, that was enough.
“Mr. Mazursky has written a marvelous role for the actress, so I suppose it’s not unfair of him to depend on her to carry the movie,” Mr. Canby wrote. Carry it she did.
Ms. Clayburgh, who died at her Connecticut home at 66 after living with chronic leukemia for 21 years, had been on stage and screen for a decade before giving this definitive performance. But she could be awkwardly miscast and at first often was. She was blond, willowy and beautiful, but she was about as much like Carole Lombard as James Brolin was like Clark Gable (Gable and Lombard, 1976). Without An Unmarried Woman she might never have found her niche.
But once she did, she began a streak. She went from playing an opera star in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1979 Luna, one of the most conversation-stopping films ever to open the New York Film Festival. She made widely seen comedies about smart, interesting women (Starting Over in 1979, It’s My Turn in 1980). She even turned up on the Supreme Court (First Monday in October in 1981), a likable presence even in highly unlikely circumstances. “The FBI is wrong in reporting to you that I have no children,” she had to tell cinematic senators in that film. “Ideas are my children, and I have hundreds of them.”
Then she and her husband, the playwright David Rabe, had real children, Lily and Michael. And although Ms. Clayburgh kept working, her public presence grew more intermittent, the available film roles more motherly or eccentric. (She appeared in the 2006 film version of Augusten Burroughs’s “Running With Scissors.”) She was so greatly missed that any major appearances were apt to be described as comebacks (two television series in the late ’90s, “Barefoot in the Park” on Broadway in 2006), but the roles that should have been welcoming hardly existed anymore. Only in life did anyone wonder what had become of all those Ericas 30 years later.
She remained elegant, lovely, and so recognizable that she became accustomed to being treated as an avatar. “My God, you’ve defined my entire life for me,” one weeping Unmarried Woman fan told her in 2002, and that experience was apparently not unusual for her. When she and Lily, an actress, roomed together in Manhattan in 2005 as both of them prepared for stage appearances, a writer for The New York Times visited the 61-year-old eternal heroine and still saw her unforgettable movie persona. “Jill Clayburgh appears to be living in an updated Jill Clayburgh vehicle,” Nancy Hass wrote. “Fluttery-yet-determined mom flees comfortable exurban married life to share tiny Manhattan apartment of headstrong, aspiring-actress daughter. Conflict, hilarity, and, of course, self-actualization ensue.” For Jill Clayburgh, in both her life and work, that’s just what happened.

When they arm them, Rico wants one

Peter Wayner has an article in The New York Times about home protection using robots:
When Robert Oschler, a programmer, leaves his home, he knows it is secure. And if he ever has cause for concern, he can open his laptop and survey the house through the eyes of his watchdogs.
“I don’t have any pets. I just have pet robots, and they’re pretty well behaved,” Mr. Oschler said. “Fortunately I’ve never logged in and seen a human face.” His robot, a modified version of the Rovio from WowWee, has a camera, microphone, and speakers atop a three-wheeled platform. From anywhere with a Net connection, he can send his robot zipping around the house, returning a video signal along the way. “As creepy as it sounds, you could even talk to the guy and say, ‘Get out of there. There’s nothing valuable. I’m calling the police,’ ” he said.
For all its power and ability, the Rovio is usually found in a store’s toy section for about $170. Other robots from toy makers, like Meccano, are there as well. Outfitting a house with a fleet of robot guards is no longer just for those with the wealth of Bond villains.
Home security is blossoming for toy makers who can match the technical power and flexibility of the computer industry with the mass-market prices that come from large production runs. Low prices are a trade-off, however, because many people find that the reliability of the lower-priced robots is adequate for home experimentation but far from ready for a task like guarding Fort Knox. “You should buy two,” said Mr. Oschler, who lives in South Florida.
The off-the-shelf unit is ready to explore after a simple installation involving the computer, but Mr. Oschler added a few enhancements to the software, which he distributes at robodance.com. His version improves the audio and video quality and offers more sophisticated programming options that create routines and paths for the robots to follow. Mr. Oschler has even wired his robot to a headset that picks up the subtle electrical activity produced by his brain. “When I tilt my head, the robot goes left. When you do that, it’s a Matrix-like moment,” he said proudly.
Other robot owners have modified their guard-bots, too. Peter Redmer, of Illinois, a online community manager at robocommunity.com, said his site gathered the collective wisdom of the toy robots. One hobbyist in China, Qiaosong Wang, posted pictures of his Rovio after he added a small fire extinguisher and software that can detect the shape of fire. “One of the goals is to create something that the consumer can enjoy without pricing it at $5,000 or $10,000 with military-grade technology,” Mr. Redmer said. Others have experimented with adding software for aiming the camera or enhancements like better lights for patrolling at night. Mr. Redmer said he was most interested lately in the Parrot AR.Drone, a flying robot priced at $300. “It flies. How much cooler does it get?” he asked.
Not all of the innovation is attached to something that moves. Several companies are matching sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms with video cameras. These systems monitor the video feed and sound alarms when objects of a certain shape appear.
I tried some software called Vitamin D that lets me watch my office. It raises flags (by beeping) whenever anyone walks in. It requires a computer and detects video signals from attached cameras. (A single-camera version is free, and the cost can rise to $199, at vitamindinc.com.)
Archerfish makes surveillance cameras with sophisticated filters for detecting and distinguishing people, vehicles and other random movement. The models, at myarcherfish.com, include either one or four cameras for $400 to $1,400.
I also spent some time with a Spykee, a robot made by the French company Meccano that sells toys in the United States under the brand name Erector. Several models of Spykee robots are at spykeeworld.com, for $110 to $300. The company, perhaps best known for its Erector sets, designed the Spykee as a kit that required some basic assembly. The essential gears and electronics come in a prebuilt base, and attaching the arms takes an hour or so. “It’s a toy, but many people use it as surveillance robot,” said Jennifer Briand, the product manager for Spykee. By aiming at children, Ms. Briand said, “We wanted a product that they could drive on their own like a spy, play jokes on their brothers and sisters, and protect their bedroom because at that age they don’t like their sister coming in.” Still, she said the use as a surveillance robot was a bit of a surprise. “At the beginning we thought that very young adults would be very interested in the product, but today we know that we have a lot of adults from 25 to 55 that like to play with Spykee. When you ask them what the favorite function is, they say they really like to drive it when they’re out of the home.”
She is right. It was fun to drive the robot throughout the first floor of my home, chasing the cats and seeing if anything was somehow different. And when I was done checking on the living room, it made sense to check on the kitchen. No one ever broke in, but the cats seemed to move around more.
While everything worked correctly, there were definite physical limits. The Spykee cannot go up or down stairs. Small bumps like the edge of a carpet do not cause trouble, but taller ones can be a brick wall. The engineering is quite good, but it’s not easy to trust it with serious responsibility. It can be difficult, for instance, to dock the device with the recharger. The wheel treads seemed to become uncalibrated and the robot would curve to one side.
Steering something only a foot tall takes some adjustment. I bumped my robot’s head on a low overhang because I overestimated the headroom, and it tipped over. I tried yelling for help remotely, but no one heard me. There was no choice but to wait until I got there to pick it up. My wife and I started dreaming up work for Spykee. When she suspected the cats were not using the litter box in the basement, the robot was sent below to watch. The battery ran out long before we spotted any wayward cat. The robot could also look for basement flooding after a big storm.
Many users are starting to use the word “telepresence” to describe controlling the robot remotely, a word that some videoconferencing companies use to describe high-resolution connections from well-lighted rooms. After looking at the image and driving around the real world, it is easy to start imagining that you are really there. My children, aged 10 and 7, loved driving the robot, and even started asking for the robot to meet them at the door after school. Now if only the robot could pay college tuition.

Backwards, as usual

Alissa Rubin has an article in The New York Times about divorce, the hard way, in Afghanistan:
Even the poorest families in Afghanistan have matches and cooking fuel. The combination usually sustains life. But it also can be the makings of a horrifying escape: from poverty, from forced marriages, from the abuse and despondency that can be the fate of Afghan women.
The night before she burned herself, Gul Zada took her children to her sister’s for a family party. All seemed well. Later it emerged that she had not brought a present, and a relative had chided her for it, said her son Juma Gul.
This small thing apparently broke her. Ms. Zada, who was 45, the mother of six children and who earned pitiably little cleaning houses, ended up with burns on nearly 60 percent of her body at the Herat burn hospital. Survival is difficult even at 40 percent.
“She was burned from head to toe,” her son remembers.
The hospital here is the only medical center in Afghanistan that specifically treats victims of burning, a common form of suicide in this region, partly because the tools to do it are so readily available. Through early October, 75 women arrived with burns — most self-inflicted, others only made to look that way. That is up nearly 30 percent from last year.
But the numbers say less than the stories of the patients.
It is shameful here to admit to troubles at home, and mental illness often goes undiagnosed or untreated. Ms. Zada, the hospital staff said, probably suffered from depression. The choices for Afghan women are extraordinarily restricted: Their family is their fate. There is little chance for education, little choice about whom a woman marries, no choice at all about her role in her own house. Her primary job is to serve her husband’s family. Outside that world, she is an outcast.
“If you run away from home, you may be raped or put in jail and then sent home and then what will happen to you?” asked Rachel Reid, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who tracks violence against women.
Returned runaways are often shot or stabbed in honor killings because the families fear they have spent time unchaperoned with a man. Women and girls are still stoned to death. Those who burn themselves but survive are often relegated to grinding Cinderella existences while their husbands marry other, untainted women.
“Violence in the lives of Afghanistan’s women comes from everywhere: from her father or brother, from her husband, from her father-in-law, from her mother-in-law and sister-in-law,” said Dr. Shafiqa Eanin, a plastic surgeon at the burn hospital, which usually has at least 10 female self-immolation cases at any one time.
The most sinister burn cases are actually homicides masquerading as suicides, said doctors, nurses, and human rights workers.
“We have two women here right now who were burned by their mothers-in-law and husbands,” said Dr. Arif Jalali, the hospital’s senior surgeon.
Doctors cited two recent cases where women were beaten by their husbands or in-laws, lost consciousness and awoke in the hospital to find themselves burned because they had been shoved in an oven or set on fire.
For a very few of the women who survive burnings, whether self-inflicted or done by relatives, the experience is a kind of Rubicon that helps them change their lives. Some work with lawyers who are recommended by the hospital and request a divorce. Most do not.
Engaged at 8 and married at 12, Farzana resorted to setting herself on fire when her father-in-law belittled her, saying she was not brave enough to do so. She was 17 and had endured years of beatings and abuse from her husband and his family.
Defiant and depressed, she went into the yard. She handed her husband their 9-month-old daughter so the baby would not see her mother burning. Then she poured cooking fuel on herself.
“I felt so sad and such pain in my heart and I felt very angry at my husband and my father- and mother-in-law, and then I took the matches and lit myself,” she said.
Farzana’s story is about desperation and the extremes that in-laws often inflict on their son’s wives. United Nations statistics indicate that at least 45 percent of Afghan women marry before they are 18; a large percentage before they are 16. Many girls are still given as payment for debts, which sentences them to a life of servitude and, almost always, abuse.
A bright child whose favorite subjects were Dari language and poetry, Farzana dreamed of becoming a teacher. But she had been promised in marriage to the son of the family that was providing a wife for her brother, and when she turned 12, her in-laws insisted it was time to marry. Her future husband had just turned 14.
“On the marriage day, he beat me when I woke up and shouted at me,” she said. “He was always favoring his mother and using bad words about me.”
The beatings went on for four years. Then Farzana’s brother took a second wife, an insult to Farzana’s in-laws. Her mistreatment worsened. They refused to allow her to see her mother, and her husband beat her more often.
“I thought of running away from that house, but then I thought: what will happen to the name of my family?” she said. “No one in our family has asked for divorce. So how can I be the first?”
Doctors and nurses say that especially in cases involving younger women, fury at their situation, a sense of being trapped, and a desire to shame their husbands into caring for them all come together.
This was true of Farzana. “The thing that forced me to set myself on fire was when my father-in-law said: ‘You are not able to set yourself on fire,’ ” she recalled.
But she did, and when the flames were out, 58 percent of her body was burnt. As a relative bundled her raw body into a car for the hospital, her husband whispered: “If anybody asks you, don’t tell them my name; don’t say I had anything to do with it.’”
After 57 days in the hospital and multiple skin grafts, she is home with her mother and torn between family traditions and an inchoate sense that a new way of thinking is needed.
Farzana’s daughter is being brought up by her husband’s family, and mother and daughter are not allowed to see each other. Despite that, she says that she cannot go back to her husband’s house. “Five years I spent in his house with those people,” she said. “My marriage was for other people. They should never have given me in a child marriage.”
Why do women burn themselves rather than choose another form of suicide? Poverty is one reason, said Dr. Jalali. Many women mistakenly think death will be instant. Halima, 20, a patient in the hospital in August, said she considered jumping from a roof but worried she would only break her leg. If she set herself on fire, she said, “It would all be over.”
Self-immolation is more common in Herat and western Afghanistan than other parts of the country. The area’s closeness to Iran may partly explain why; Iran shares in the culture of suicide by burning.
Unlike many women admitted to the burn hospital, Ms. Zada showed no outward signs of distress before she set herself on fire. Her life, though, was hard. Her husband is a sharecropper. She cleaned houses and at night stayed up to clean her own home — a nearly impossible task in the family’s squalid earthen and brick two-room house buffeted by the Herati winds that sweep in a layer of dust each time the door opens. To her family, she was a constant provider. “Before I thought of wanting something, she provided me with it,” said Juma Gul, 32, her eldest son, a laborer who earns about $140 a month. “She would embroider our clothes so that we wouldn’t feel we had less than other people.” As he spoke, his 10-year-old twin sisters sat near him holding hands and a picture of their mother.
In the hospital, Ms. Zada rallied at first, and Juma Gul was encouraged, unaware of how hard it is to survive such extensive burns. That is especially true in the developing world, said Dr. Robert Sheridan, chief of surgery at the Shriners Burn Hospital in Boston and a trauma surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital. The greatest risk is sepsis, a deadly infection that generally starts in the second week after a burn and is hard to stop, Dr. Sheridan said. Even badly burned and infected patients can speak almost up to the hour of their death, often giving families false hopes.
“She was getting better,” her son insisted. But infection had, in fact, set in, and the family did not have the money for powerful antibiotics that could give her whatever small chance there was to survive. Juma Gul eventually managed to beg and borrow the money, but not before the infection spread. Two weeks after his mother set herself on fire, he stood by her bed as she stopped breathing.
Rico says that these abused ladies have got it backwards: if they'd set their fathers and husbands on fire, instead of themselves, things might well change...

Movie review for the day

Some things don't age well, it seems, and this movie (actually 55 Days at Peking; not sure why the good cover is the Swedish one) is one of them. A ton of famous stars (Heston, Gardner, Niven, Andrews, etc.), incredible sets (recreating much of Boxer-era Peking), and Nicholas Ray (who also did Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause) directing, but wooden acting and a slow script.
Rico says he couldn't bring himself to watch much of it; a rare thing, for him.

History for the day

On 8 November 1960, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy defeated Vice President Richard M. Nixon for the presidency.

Civil War for the day

One of Mathew Brady's photographic units at Petersburg, Virginia in 1864.

07 November 2010

Taoism, still alive in China after all these years

Ian Johnson has an article in The New York Times about the Tao:
Yin Xinhui reached the peak of Mount Yi and surveyed the chaos. The 47-year-old Taoist abbess was on a sacred mission: to consecrate a newly rebuilt temple to one of her religion’s most important deities, the Jade Emperor. But there were as yet no stairs, just a muddy path up to the pavilion, which sat on a rock outcropping 3,400 feet above a valley. A team of workers was busy laying stone steps, while others planted sod, trees, and flowers. Inside the temple, a breeze blew through windows that were still without glass, while red paint flecked the stone floor.
“Tomorrow,” she said slowly, calculating the logistics. “They don’t have much ready. . . .” Fortunately, a dozen of her nuns had followed her up the path. Dressed in white tunics and black trousers, their hair in topknots, the nuns enthusiastically began unpacking everything they would need for the next day’s ceremony: fifteen sacred scriptures, three golden crowns, three bells, two cordless microphones, two lutes, a zither, a drum, a cymbal, and a sword. Soon the nuns were plucking and strumming with the confidence of veteran performers. Others set up the altar and hung their temple’s banner outside, announcing that for the next few days, Abbess Yin’s exacting religious standards would hold sway on this mountain.
The temple she was to consecrate was born of more worldly concerns. Mount Yi is in a poor part of China, and Communist Party officials had hit upon tourism as a way to move forward. They fenced in the main mountain, built a road to the summit and declared it a scenic park. But few tourists were willing to pay for a chance to hike up a rocky mountain. Enter religion. China is in the midst of a religious revival, and people will pay to visit holy sites. So the local government set out to rebuild the temple, which was wrecked by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, modestly rebuilt, then torn down when the park was first constructed. Officials commissioned a thirty-foot statue of the Jade Emperor, had it hauled to the peak and encased in the brilliant red pavilion. They then built a bell and a drum tower, as well as another set of halls devoted to minor deities.
All that was missing was a soul. For that, the temple had to be properly consecrated. The officials got in touch with Abbess Yin, widely regarded as a leading expert in Taoist ritual, and soon she was driving the 350 miles from her nunnery to Mount Yi.
As her rehearsals drew to a close, the abbess went over the next day’s schedule with a local official. All was in good shape, he said, except for one detail. Government officials were due to give speeches at 10:30 a.m. She would have to be finished by then, he said. “No,” she replied. “Then it won’t be authentic. It takes four hours.” Could she start earlier and wrap up by then? No, the sun won’t be in the right position, she replied. The official peered up from the schedule and took a good look at her; who was this?
Abbess Yin smiled good-naturedly. At a little over five feet tall, she was solidly built, with a full, smooth face tanned from spending much of her life outdoors in the mountains. Her dress was always the same plain blue robe, and she did not wear jewelry or display other signs of wealth. She shunned electronics; her temple did not have a phone or Internet access. But over the past twenty years she had accomplished a remarkable feat, rebuilding her own nunnery on one of Taoism’s most important mountains. Unlike the temple here on Mount Yi, and hundreds of others across China, she had rejected tourism as a way to pay for the reconstruction of her nunnery, relying instead on donors who were drawn to her aura of earnest religiosity. She knew the real value of an authentic consecration ceremony and wasn’t about to back down.
The official tried again, emphasizing the government’s own rituals: “But they have planned to be here at 10:30. The speeches last 45 minutes, and then they have lunch. It is a banquet. It cannot be changed.”
Rico says there's much more here.

Another great one, still with us

Rico says A.O. Scott has an article about one of his favorite actors in The New York Times:
“There's something I want to show you,” Eli Wallach says, ushering me into his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. On this occasion what he has in mind is a drawing by Al Hirschfeld, one of two that hang prominently in the front hall: “That’s Annie and me, on our fiftieth anniversary.” Anyone with a memory of New York theater extending back a few decades would surely recognize Hirschfeld’s affectionate likeness of Mr. Wallach and Anne Jackson, his frequent co-star and also his wife of 62 years. Never one to miss a cue, the real-life Ms. Jackson steps forward to accept a modest bouquet of purple irises, rewarding the bearer with kisses and a version of the incandescent smile so brilliantly captured and caricatured by Hirschfeld’s pen.
The Hirschfeld portrait is the evening’s featured artifact, but the walls and surfaces of the apartment are thick with mementos of one long marriage, two entwined careers, three children and countless enduring friendships. There are production stills and candid photographs from various movies and plays, in which one can spot Marilyn Monroe, Elia Kazan, Clint Eastwood, Truman Capote and others; pictures of and by the couples’ son, Peter, and their two daughters, Roberta and Katherine; a small painting by Clifford Odets; framed letters, awards and tributes; books by and about illustrious colleagues and old friends; snapshots of unusual trees near their East Hampton summer place. (Photography is one of Mr. Wallach’s longstanding hobbies; collecting clocks is another.) Somewhere in the midst of it all, space will have to be cleared for the honorary Academy Award that Eli Wallach will receive at a banquet in Los Angeles next Saturday, a few weeks before his 95th birthday.
That lifetime achievement Oscar caps an impressively productive year, with appearances in The Ghost Writer, directed by Roman Polanski, and in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. (Though not, as his updated entry in The Biographical Dictionary of Film has it, in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island.) Add to that a recent Emmy nomination for a role in Nurse Jackie,” and the journalistic excuse for a visit to the Wallach-Jackson household is clear enough. But some disclosure is in order here. It was not my professional credentials that got me in the door. This was not my first time seeing the Hirschfelds, or the photograph of Eli and Annie in Major Barbara from back in the 1940s, or the family albums and knickknacks. I have ridden the elevator in that prewar building more times than I can count, been a guest at some of the parties whose relics litter the end tables, and heard most of the stories that echo through the rooms and hallways. Including the one about how my parents exchanged their wedding vows in the living room.
So call it nepotism, if you want, but to me Mr. Wallach is Uncle Eli. He is, technically, my great-uncle: my grandfather, Sam Wallach, who died in 2001, was Eli’s older brother. They and their two sisters, Sylvia and Shirley, grew up above a candy shop on Union Street in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, the only Jewish family on a mostly Italian block. (Last time I checked, there was a pet food store at the old address.) It was Sam who sent Eli to the University of Texas, which his research showed had the cheapest tuition, and who encouraged his younger brother to pursue a master’s degree in education just in case the acting thing didn’t work out.
When it did, no one was prouder. Listening to Eli tell his favorite stories, mixed in with a few sturdy old jokes, is both a familiar pleasure and a somewhat uncanny experience, since though I have heard most of them before, I can never be sure if it was from Eli or Sam. Though there were obvious family resemblances, they were not likely to be mistaken for each other. “He’s the older brother, so how come I’m the bald one?” Eli used to say. But at least in memory I have a hard time telling their voices apart.
From whatever source, I grew up with stories about Uncle Eli: the little kid who was always getting into mischief; the Army medic who served in the European theater in World War Two; and, most of all, the star of stage and screen. The highlights of his early career, as a vital figure in the postwar blossoming of American theater, were always a particular source of family pride and can still raise goose bumps among aficionados with long memories. He was in the original stage productions of Teahouse of the August Moon and Mister Roberts, though not in the films they eventually became. Uncle Eli’s first film was Baby Doll, in 1956, directed by Elia Kazan from a script by Tennessee Williams, a movie that earned him a British Academy Award, a Golden Globe nomination, and that was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church.
That, and a remarkable run of movies from the early and mid-1960sL The Magnificent Seven, The Victors, The Misfits, and of course The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; all before my time, pieces of family legend that I would discover, on video or late-night television or in repertory houses, as I pursued my informal education in film history. But he has never slowed down, and over 54 years has amassed a filmography of more than ninety feature films, as well as scores of television appearances.
It was on the small screen that I learned to recognize him, and shout, “Hey, it’s Uncle Eli!” at the screen. (Though I did the same thing the first time I saw Mystic River, in which his single-scene cameo as a loquacious liquor store owner is uncredited.) My youthful Eli epiphany, after seeing him in a few plays that I didn’t understand at all, came when I saw him as Mr. Freeze, scheming against Burt Ward and Adam West on the old Batman television series. (I suppose it is my scholarly duty to note that Otto Preminger also played that role, and of course Arnold Schwarzenegger did too, but in my entirely dispassionate judgment they hardly measure up.)
Most of the villains Uncle Eli played were considerably more hot-blooded, like the bandit Calvera in The Magnificent Seven, shot dead in a scene that mortified his young son, Peter (“Dad, how could you not outdraw Yul Brynner?”) and that, at least according to Wallach lore, displeased his father, Abe, when it drew cheers from the audience.
What stands out now is the energy of the performance, the spark of playful delight that leavens the savagery and sadism of the character. I’m aware that my critical eye is shaded by personal affection, but it seems to me that what shines through Eli’s performances, however angry, treacherous or ugly the character, and he will always be The Ugly to spaghetti western fans, is the same gruff charm that I find in his company. The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences citation celebrates Eli as “the quintessential chameleon, effortlessly inhabiting a wide range of characters, while putting his inimitable stamp on every role.” This is true enough, but it is also boilerplate that could just as easily apply to, say, Karl Malden, his foil and co-star in Baby Doll, or any of a number of other Methodizers of their generation. With Eli there is an impish, sly quality, not a self-conscious winking, exactly, but a palpable relish at the sheer fun of acting. He has at times pushed this to the edge of hamminess, and at least once gone over it into something altogether glorious.
That was in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where, as Clint Eastwood’s partner and patsy, he turned himself into an exploded western archetype: a cartoon character, a soulful gunslinger, a holy fool and a character destined to be quoted for as long as people watch movies.
Like most people in their 90s, he tends to reminisce a lot, and to revisit certain themes and stories. If he drops a word or forgets a name or a title (“The picture I did in Cambodia, with Peter O’Toole...”) someone will fill in the blank (Lord Jim), either a visiting film critic or one of Eli’s children or, most often, Aunt Annie.
Wikipedia describes their marriage as “one of the longest and most successful in Hollywood history.” That may be faint praise, and “Hollywood” is not really Eli and Annie’s milieu. Their stars shone much brighter in New York, for one thing, where they have always lived and where, as a team, they starred in comedies like Luv and Twice Around the Park, both written by their friend Murray Schisgal. (Luv, directed by Mike Nichols, won a handful of Tonys and was made into a film starring other people.)
“I used to like to come into the room when Eli was being interviewed and say, ‘I have very sad news,’” Annie says as we sit down to dinner. “‘Our relationship is not going to work out. We’re finished.’” It is hard to imagine the last time a journalist fell for this, which only improves the joke. “You see that? She loves to tease me,” Eli says. “I was at the premiere of The Holiday, a movie I did with Kate Winslet,” he continues. “Surrounded by all these beautiful young women. And after they left, Annie comes up and says to me, ‘Honestly, I don’t know what they see in you.’ ”
She does, of course. More to the point, is that the Academy, which never gave Uncle Eli a nomination and which he never bothered to join, at last sees what so many of us have delighted in for so long. Uncle Eli himself is taking it in stride. One morning last month, shortly after our dinner, I went to visit him again. He greeted me with his usual complaint about The New York Times, which is that he can’t find the obituaries, which migrate from one section to another on different days. He had also just received news that his close friend, the playwright Joseph Stein, had died, and he paused to consider other recent losses, including Patricia Neal, at whose memorial he spoke this year. But he moved on briskly, with tales of Clint Eastwood and Marilyn Monroe and plugs for his 2004 memoir, The Good, the Bad and Me. (“The subtitle is In My Anecdotage,” he says. “Bill Clinton asked me if he could use it, and I said: ‘You sold two million copies of your book. How dare you try to steal my subtitle?’”)
And there was more to show, as well, including a passage from one of Tennessee Williams’s letters offering tribute to his loyal friends Eli and Annie, who had bolstered him against the occasional unkindness of critics (including those from The New York Times). “Eli,” Williams wrote, “has discovered the secret of pissing people off. He’s happy.”

Ludicrous headline for the day

The New York Times has an article by Steve Lohr entitled Apple and IBM aren't All That Different.
Rico says no, they're not; no more than Russia and Communist Russia, say, but we'll let Mr. Lohr explain:
Every once in while, there are symbolically intriguing historical moments in the corporate world, and one of them occurred last month. On 18 October, Apple and IBM reported their quarterly results, and Apple’s total profit surged past IBM’s.
The two companies have long been cast as polar opposites, even before Apple’s commercial during the 1984 Super Bowl that depicted a female rebel (Apple) striking a blow against a corporate Big Brother (IBM).
Today, Big Blue is seen as a machine. a company that caters to big corporate and government customers and is known for steady improvement and five-year profit plans. Indeed, IBM’s profit rose twelve percent for the third quarter, the 31st consecutive quarter that the company delivered higher earnings. Apple, by contrast, is seen as a consumer-product hit factory that is on a roll.
Yet IBM and Apple can be viewed as the yin and the yang of high-tech innovation, as two companies with more in common than is generally understood. There is a lot of eureka invention and deep science in IBM’s varied businesses, industry experts say. And Apple’s continuing success, they add, is explained in good part by its ability to make innovation a managed system, more machinelike.
IBM and Apple pursue different markets, but there is a similarity in their strategies, according to David B. Yoffie, a professor at the Harvard Business School. The big shift at IBM, he notes, came about fifteen years ago, when the company tilted increasingly toward technology services and software and relied less on hardware. (The change began under the former chief executive Louis V. Gerstner Jr. and accelerated under the current chief, Samuel J. Palmisano.) The goal, Mr. Yoffie adds, was to build a profitable business with a lot of recurring revenue, based on service contracts and software licenses, and to attract industry partners and software developers to use its technology.
Over the last ten years, Apple has embraced much of the same strategy: in broad strokes. The company’s partners and developers build on its iPhone and iTunes software and share with Apple their revenue for music and software applications sold on the iStore. These complementary offerings encourage more sales of Apple’s hardware, and have become money makers on their own.
“Each company has created an ecosystem of partners and developers around its core products,” Mr. Yoffie says. “And both depend on ongoing innovation.”
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, the company was saddled with inefficient manufacturing, loose cost controls, and bulging inventories. It lost more than $1 billion in fiscal 1997. In early 1998, Mr. Jobs recruited Timothy D. Cook, an operations expert, from Compaq, who had previously spent twelve years with IBM. Under Mr. Cook, now Apple’s chief operating officer, the company is a model of lean efficiency. It holds seven days’ worth of inventory, compared with an average of more than thirty for most technology companies, analysts say.
Companies typically try to manage payments so they collect cash from customers slightly before they have to pay suppliers, thus making money by investing the cash before payments are due. Apple collects its cash in 25 days, on average, and pays its suppliers in 85 days; an extraordinary, 60-day spread that generates an extra $1 billion in cash flow a year, estimates A. M. Sacconaghi Jr., an analyst at Bernstein Research. That achievement is made easier, Mr. Sacconaghi notes, because Apple makes its billions in profit from just a handful of products. But the scale at which it buys components for its hit products, like iPhones and iPods, gives the company Wal-Mart-style muscle with its suppliers.
Fostering consistent innovation, experts say, requires a balance of management systems and inspirational leadership. At Apple, the inspiration wellspring is the megawatt personality of its leader, Mr. Jobs, and its ability to make consumer products that delight millions of people.
At IBM, the inspiration engine is more subtle and conceptual. In late 2008, Mr. Palmisano and his team settled on a theme: the deployment of scientific research and technology to tackle big challenges for business and society in fields like energy, pollution, transportation, and health care. And the company has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its Smarter Planet advertising campaign.
“Sure, it’s marketing, but it’s also a big idea that explains the company’s mission to the world and to its employees,” says John Kao, an innovation consultant to governments and business.
A striking difference between the companies, experts say, is in their approach to research. IBM has laboratories around the world, spends $6 billion a year on research and development, and generates more patents a year than any other company. Five IBM scientists have won Nobel prizes; the company’s researchers attend scientific conferences, publish papers and have made fundamental advances in computing, materials science, and mathematics.
Apple, by contrast, focuses only on product innovation, not scientific invention. “Apple does research insofar as it advances their laser-focused product aspirations,” observes Michael Hawley, a computer scientist who worked for Mr. Jobs at NeXT, a pioneering but commercially unsuccessful computer company.
At Apple, the emphasis is not on the basic science of traditional research but on the “behavioral science” of the user experience, explained a former Apple manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he still had ties to the company. Apple has technical experts who constantly scout new commercial technologies, he said; they work with suppliers, often co-inventing down to the chip level. Then prototypes and initial products are produced, with constant refinements. They are shown not to focus groups or to other outsiders, but only to Mr. Jobs and his lieutenants. For example, three iPhone prototypes were completed over the course of a year. The first two were tossed out, the third passed muster, and the product shipped in June 2007, the former manager said. “That is the rocket science: the product,” he said.

History for the day

On 7 November 1917, Bolshevik forces in St. Petersburg, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, overthrew the provisional Russian government of Alexander Kerensky.

Civil War for the day

Union artillery.

06 November 2010

Work in progress

Rico says the Pope is finally getting around to consecrating La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's yet-unfinished masterpiece in Barcelona. No hurry; they've been working on it for 125 years, and it's not done yet…

History for the day

On 6 November 1860, former Illinois congressman Abraham Lincoln defeated three other candidates for the presidency of the United States.

Civil War for the day

Mathew Brady, creator of the photographs

05 November 2010

And they say the economy isn't doing well...

...for some people anyway.
The rich folks, of course, are doing just fine.
The current issue of Esquire has a slew of ads for watches.
Rico says he has a love of watches, and owns several (and uses none of them, relying on the far-more-accurate clock on his iPhone), but there are watches and then there are watches, like the Quenttin RG, available from Jacob & Co. for a mere $440,000.
You read that right: a half a million bucks for a fucking watch...
Sure, a nice watch ("18k rose gold case with a black rubber bracelet. Fixed 18k rose gold bezel. Skeletal dial with luminous hands and fixed hour markers hour markers. Vertical mechanical movement. Scratch resistant sapphire crystal. Case diameter: 56 mm x 47 mm. Case thickness: 21.5 mm. Water resistant at 30 meters/100 feet."), but it's just something you hang on your wrist and hope some stupid kid with a gub doesn't take it off you one night.
Don't worry; if they're still paying to advertise a half-million-dollar watch, it ain't 1929...

He's baaaack!

Adam Nagourney and Jennifer Medina have an article in The New York Times about the second coming of Jerry Brown:
Jerry Brown has seen this before: a budget in crisis, a Legislature divided, a state confronting the possibility that its glory days are behind it.
But as Mr. Brown— who, in 1974, was elected as the state’s youngest governor and on Tuesday was elected as its oldest— met with state lawmakers on Thursday to confront a potential $19 billion shortfall, he was looking at a vastly different world. Within the year, Mr. Brown may have to oversee another round of state layoffs and a battle over pension cuts with the unions that supported him.
In some ways, the governor-elect’s associates said, Mr. Brown— whose quirky and often edgy personality made him an object of national attention even before he ran for president three times— also has changed over the decades.
This time, Mr. Brown, 72, will not be serving under the shadow of his father, Pat, a former governor and a legendary force in California politics, who died in 1996. Many of Mr. Brown’s friends said they considered his excesses the first time he served as governor as an attempt to distinguish his career from his father’s.
His closest aide of thirty year ago— a bald Frenchman who wore a beret, and whose presence fed the zany image Mr. Brown fought to escape— has been replaced by Mr. Brown’s wife, Anne Gust, the former chief administrative officer of the Gap.
As much as an iconoclast as Mr. Brown is, he is a product of the political world, in contrast to the current governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who came from Hollywood and never seemed at ease with the glad-handing that is often necessary in state government.
“I have already spoken to him five times since his election,” John A. Perez, the Assembly speaker, said of Mr. Brown.
“After the current governor, they are going to find an old, steady, experienced hand good to work with,” said Charles T. Manatt, who served as both state and national Democratic leader while Mr. Brown was first governor. “He’s matured. He’s double the age that he was when he was first governor. He has a nice wife. He has settled down. He has changed.”
Mr. Brown, in an interview, said the situation he is facing now is much more dire than last time. “Not even close,” he said. “No comparison. The budget gap is enormous. Polarization is deep. The contradiction between what is wanted and what is funded is enormous.”
Mr. Schwarzenegger is handing Mr. Brown a big budget deficit, just as Mr. Brown handed his successor, George Deukmejian, a $1.5 billion budget shortfall when he left office in January 1983. “We’re facing a terrific deficit of maybe $20 billion,” said Darrell Steinberg, the Democratic leader of the State Senate and one of Mr. Brown’s new budget negotiating partners. “People have really lost confidence in the Legislature.”
Dealing with a budget deficit is more tangled in today’s California than it was thirty years ago. A series of voter initiatives, starting with Proposition 13, which limits property taxes and was passed in 1978, leaves the new governor far less flexibility in cutting programs or raising taxes and fees.
And the propositions keep coming. One that passed on Tuesday permits the Legislature to approve spending by a majority vote rather than two-thirds; a change that should help end the deadlocks that delayed the state budget by 100 days this summer. That said, a second proposition requires any increase in fees to be passed by a two-thirds majority in the Legislature; a similar mandate is already in place for taxes.
Voters also have imposed term limits on public officials, a move that has fundamentally changed the dynamics and motivations of the lawmakers with whom Mr. Brown is going to have to deal.
Mr. Brown’s biggest complication may be one he created for himself, in one of the few concrete pledges he made in defeating his Republican opponent, Meg Whitman: that he would not raise taxes without the approval of the voters. “To foreclose options by a blanket statement is not my preferred way of governing,” Speaker Perez said. “You just never know what you are going to need to do.”
But, after running a characteristically enigmatic campaign, Mr. Brown will take office wrapped in the kind of mystery that he has seemed to enjoy in a career that has kept friend and foe off balance.
On his campaign website, he said that he intended “to renegotiate current pension formulas. We should require employees to work longer and to a later age for full retirement benefits.” Yet it is a matter of conjecture here of how far he will go. Will he, for example, take advantage of being a Democrat who has natural union support and push for pension cuts?
“He may be a career politician, but nothing about him has ever been conventional,” said Christopher Lehane, a political consultant who has watched Mr. Brown for years. “If he is able to get through a lot of obstacles— and that is a big if— he could be the right person at this time, the sort of Nixon-goes-to-China way.”
Indeed, union leaders, who supported Mr. Brown and battled Mr. Schwarzenegger as he sought to cut pay and benefits, said they were hopeful that the new governor would look out for their interests. “I would hate to have to predict what he’s going to do; you just don’t know with Jerry,” said Rose Ann DeMoro, the leader of the state’s nursing union. “I think he is going to be looking at the pensions, but there’s nothing that indicates he’s going to gut them,” she said.
But Art Pulaski, the chief of the California Labor Federation, offered a gloomier assessment: “I don’t think he cares about re-election, so he’s not going to focus on keeping his constituencies happy, and that includes us.”

Sure, blame the Gurkhas

Zachary Roth has an article at Yahoo! News about the cholera outbreak in poor, beleagured Haiti:
An outbreak of cholera has killed at least 442 people in Haiti over the last few weeks. Some public health experts are asking whether UN peacekeepers are responsible.
Last week, hundreds of Haitians denounced the peacekeepers at a protest. They suspected that a Nepalese UN peacekeeping base, located on a tributary to the infected Arbonite River, could have been the source of the outbreak.
Some preliminary evidence supports that suspicion. The strain matches strains found in Southeast Asia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And Paul Farmer, an expert on poverty and medicine and the UN deputy special envoy to Haiti, told the Associated Press that authorities should investigate further. "Knowing where the point source is would seem to be a good enterprise in terms of public health."
John Mekalanos, a cholera expert at Harvard University, agreed, saying the evidence does suggest that Nepalese soldiers brought the disease to Haiti after an outbreak in Nepal. "The organism that is causing the disease is very uncharacteristic of Haiti and the Caribbean, and is quite characteristic of the region from where the soldiers in the base came," Mekalanos told the AP. "I don't see there is any way to avoid the conclusion that an unfortunate and presumably accidental introduction of the organism occurred."
But the CDC officials have said it's impossible to pinpoint the source more closely, and that doing so would distract from efforts to fight the outbreak.
A World Health Organization spokesman said finding the cause is "not important right now." Since 2004, about 12,000 UN peacekeepers have been stationed in Haiti to provide security. But some Haitians oppose their presence, and some leaders are seeking to capitalize on the cholera issue to stoke anti-UN sentiment. The cholera outbreak has led to the hospitalization of more than 6,742 Haitians with fever, diarrhea and vomiting.
Mekalanos suggested that political considerations are behind the unwillingness to get to the bottom of the issue. "I think that it is an attempt to maybe do the politically right thing and leave some agencies a way out of this embarrassment," he said. "But they should understand that... there is a bigger picture here." He added: "It's a threat to the whole region."

History for the day

On 5 November 1968, Republican Richard M. Nixon won the presidency, defeating both the Democrat, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, and third-party candidate George C. Wallace.

The Fifth of November

Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot...

04 November 2010

True slogan for the day

The greatest luxury in life is time. Savour every second.
From a Breitling ad

Special effects, one end or the other

video

Pissing down their leg, Apple style

Not that Apple would intentionally mimic Microsoft, of course, but you can't help but notice a certain similarity:

History for the day

On 4 November 2008, Barack Hussein Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States, the country's first black chief executive.

03 November 2010

Shoulda been a witch

The New York Times has a story by Sabrina Tavernise about Christine O'Donnell's defeat:
Nothing could save the Tea Party candidate here, Christine O’Donnell. Not her folksy appeal, not her headline-grabbing gaffes, not even, it turns out, her witchcraft. In the end, it was not close. Ms. O’Donnell trailed her Democratic challenger for the Senate, Chris Coons, 40 percent to 56 percent. The math had always been against her: more than half of registered voters here are Democrats.
Ms. O’Donnell was an insurgent in the true sense, with her candidacy rejected by many in her own party, and her concession speech, delivered in a carpeted ballroom at Dover Downs, a racetrack and casino complex in central Delaware, reflected that.
“Be encouraged— we have won!” she shouted to supporters, who cheered her over plates of pasta and salad. “The Delaware political system will never be the same. The Republican Party will never be the same.” It was Ms. O’Donnell’s third attempt to win a Senate seat, and her third loss, in five years. But this year’s race coincided with a rising wave of discontent among Republican-leaning voters, some of whom have joined activist political groups under the umbrella of the Tea Party.
She seemed to acknowledge that in her speech. “This campaign was about putting the political process back into your hands,” she said. “Our voices were heard, and we’re not going to be quiet now.”
Supporters cheered, shouting, “Christine, Christine, Christine!”
It was that newfound activism that Ms. O’Donnell tapped here in Delaware. “That girl’s gone all around the United States and she’s changed it,” said Dominic DiMaio, 68, a retired car dealership manager, who worked the phones for Ms. O’Donnell. “I think the whole ball game is changed now. You can be absolutely from nowhere and rise up.”
Though this race was never predicted to be close, it gained prominence, in part because of Ms. O’Donnell’s surprise win against a long-time Republican lawmaker in the primary, Representative Michael N. Castle, but also because of her outspokenness on topics like masturbation and evolution. She drew more national headlines by expressing surprise about the content of the First Amendment.
But these aspects of her persona seemed only to endear her more to her supporters. “She’s not arrogant,” said Carmen Gray, 65. “She’s got more spunk and savvy than the guy going to Washington.”
She aroused that sympathy everywhere she went. Voter after voter lined up to take photographs of themselves with Ms. O’Donnell at a polling station in Lewes, about forty miles south of Dover, late on Tuesday afternoon. She offers herself as an ordinary person without pretenses, something that struck a chord with voters here.
“You giving out hugs?” asked an elderly man in a windbreaker, embracing Ms. O’Donnell. “I’m a hugger.”
Another voter, Chris Slye, 25, a manager at a Fossil store in Lewes, simply stuttered. “I’m like, shaking now,” he said, using a piece of her campaign literature to fan himself.
It was as though Ms. O’Donnell had tapped into a basic need to be listened to, one that Republican voters in this Democratic-leaning state did not feel had been satisfied. “Everywhere she goes, she sucks the oxygen out of a room,” said one campaign worker, standing next to a supporter with a beagle dressed a Christine O’Donnell tee-shirt. She added, in a grateful tone: “She always remembers my name.”
 

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