An Excerpt from "Habibi"
Published on September 21, 2011 by Sara Foss

The new graphic novel "Habibi," by Craig Thompson, has been getting a lot of attention. Set in a fictional Islamic fairytale landscape, it depicts the relationship between Dodola and Zam, two escaped child slaves. "Habibi" is 672 pages, but those seeking a taste of Thompson's work can visit Guernica.

The Red Sox Unravel
Published on September 21, 2011 by Sara Foss

Just checked the score, and the Orioles have taken a 6-4 lead. Why does this not surprise me? The Red Sox have dominated the Orioles in recent years, and now they're struggling to beat them in a must-win series. Anyway, I know I'm harping on the Red Sox, but I offer my thoughts on the state of the team (hint: It's not good) today over at the DG.

The Hold Steady does Huey Lewis
Published on September 20, 2011 by Sara Foss

What a strange idea. But oddly compelling.

Speaking to Rubes
Published on September 20, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at The Daily Howler, Bob Somerby often wonders who college professors aren't more actively involved in trying to educate the public about the important issues of the day. On Tuesday, he suggested that "it's easy to be disinformed because of the professors. Has any group failed you more reliably over the past several decades? As more and more parts of our public discourse have been seized by disinformation, you could always count on the professors to stay away from the field of battle. No explanation or clarification was likely to come from their refined aeries!"

Academia is one of those institutions that I have wildly mixed feelings about. On one hand, I usually like academics, because they tend to be smart and thoughtful. On the other hand, I'm frequently amazed at their tunnel vision - they really seem to think their doctoral research is important, an attitude often accompanied by a failure to understand or care about the problems concerning working class Americans.

Somerby points to a New Yorker article about New York Times columnist and prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, in which reporter Larissa McFarquhar describes how Krugman's academic friends tried to discourage him from writing for a newspaper, saying it was a waste of time. According to the article, "Krugman cared about his academic reputation more than anything else. If he started writing for a newspaper, would his colleagues think he’d become a pseudo-economist, a former economist, a vapid policy entrepreneur like Lester Thurow? Lester Thurow had become known in certain circles as Less Than Thorough. It was hard to imagine what mean nickname could be made out of Paul Krugman, but what if someone came up with one? Could he take it?" Somerby considers this a pretty interesting reaction from Krugman's fellow professors, and sarcastically asks, "Why would any Serious Person want to write a mere newspaper column? Why would any serious person want to speak to the rubes?"

I've run into this attitude more than once, particularly from writerly types. Journalism is hack work, newspaper writing isn't real writing, blah blah blah. Better to toil away in a creative writing master's program than go out and write something that tens of thousands of people, perhaps more, will read.

Of course, new Census data shows that the only people currently seeing wage gains are those with advanced degrees. Which might help explain academia's relative unconcern about wage stagnation and other issues affecting workers.

Philip's Bike Commute
Published on September 20, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at the Albany Business Review, my friend Philip has been blogging about bike commuting. In his most recent post, he profiles local bike commuter Tony Filette, who commutes to work an estimated 70 percent of the time.

Here's an excerpt:

"For 48-year-old Filette, the numbers say it all. He has been bike commuting from his home in Delmar to Colonie for 20-plus years. In the last three years, he has put more than 34,000 miles on the bike.

I’ve probably put 34,000 miles on my car in that same period.

I have people like Filette in mind when I say I’m no die-hard cyclist. Everyone I talk to seems impressed when I tell them that I’ve logged 2,000-plus miles this season. Filette does that in two months."

Another Netflix Viewpoint
Published on September 20, 2011 by Sara Foss

The Oatmeal weighs in with this funny comic.

Watching "Contagion"
Published on September 20, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I offer my thoughts on "Contagion," a film I had the privilege of watching with two friends who work and have worked in communicable disease prevention.

Here's an excerpt:

"'Contagion' is the realistic and suspenseful story of a global pandemic; though the film is filled with movie stars, the mystery virus is the main character, and director Steven Soderbergh charts its relentless and devastating path around the world. The movie opens on what a title card informs us is Day 2, and we’re introduced to Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), the businesswoman/adulteress who contracts the disease on a trip to Hong Kong. Beth dies in the film’s first few scenes, as does her young son, leaving her grieving husband (Matt Damon), who turns out to be immune, and teenage daughter to weather the plague together.

Soderbergh likes to tell globe-trotting stories from multiple points of view (he did this very well in his acclaimed 2000 film 'Traffic,' about the war on drugs), and in 'Contagion' he gives us a handful of storylines: Centers for Disease Control chief Laurence Fishburne and his efforts to protect the public and find a vaccine, crackpot blogger Jude Law and his conspiracy theories about pharmaceutical companies, Marion Cotillard’s World Health Organization epidemiologist, who is trying to determine why and how the pandemic started.

'Contagion' is fairly entertaining stuff, particularly if you like disaster movies, as I do. But I hasten to add that it’s a fairly low-key disaster movie, with Soderbergh taking a somewhat experimental approach to the genre. He limits what the audience sees to what his characters can see, and so scenes of panic and hysteria are relatively few. The characters spend most of their time holed up in offices and homes, which is why it’s a bit of a shock whenever they venture outside, and we’re treated to scenes of looting, rioting and mass food distribution and burials. TV news reports and radio broadcasts provide wider context — we learn that the president is sequestered away in an undisclosed location — but we seldom see the big events that are unfolding."

On Burning Man
Published on September 19, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at Slate, Seth Sevenson asks "Why would anyone go to Burning Man?"

This is not exactly one of the most urgent questions of our time, but it's something I've wondered about, especially after reading Charlie LeDuff's evisceration of the festival in his book "Us Guys."

LeDuff memorably wrote: "It is microwave-hot and people are stoned in the sun and in this false Mecca or Buddhist temple or Palace to the Absurd - I am not sure what I'm seeing. Is it a mirage? The only thing sure is that nothing really means anything. In the end, burn it. This is the mantra of the thing they call Burning Man. The philosophy is the emptiness of this generation we used to call X. Now we don't call ourselves anything. We meander through life without purpose, charting with a broken compass. It's all made up: our family, religion, tribe. Our answer is to build nonsense in a burning alkali flat just because we can. So much ingenuity my generation has, and no place to pput it. Life is a meaningless game. It is a mousetrap - a big, stupid, burning mousetrap."

LeDuff made Burning Man sound like an event to be avoided. How did Sevenson like it? Well, here's an excerpt:

"Out in the open desert, beyond the tents and cars, we encountered the most bizarre, most visually stimulating environment I've ever seen. A giant metal octopus rolling across the sand, with actual hot flames spewing out of its tentacles. A pirate ship blasting eardrum-crushing hip-hop music, with a slew of bare-chested women writhing atop its decks. A frigging full-scale Thunderdome, complete with shrieking spectators rattling in its rafters, and a pair of gladiators in animal costumes attacking each other with Nerf bats. Lasers careened across the sky. Choking dust storms howled into our eyes and noses. Everyone was in aviator goggles, and knee-high leather boots, and fur vests.

At a road-blocked intersection labeled 'Terminal City,' people started shouting at us with bullhorns. A half-naked woman demanded my identity papers. I stammered. 'We accept bribes,' she said with a wink. I gathered I was now supposed to engage in some sort of improvised scene—I should kiss her on the cheek, or recite a poem, or show her my wang. But I wasn't yet ready to be anything more than an observer."

OK, now Burning Man sounds vaguely appealing. But not quite appealing enough. I doubt I'll ever go.

Click here to read Sevenson's piece. And see pictures!


Our Long National Nightmare Resumes
Published on September 19, 2011 by Sara Foss

The Boston Red Sox are in the midst of an epic collapse - the sort of late-season meltdown that, should the team fail to make the playoffs, will long leave a bitter taste in the mouth.

Over at Yahoo MLB, Jeff Passan assigns blame for the collapse, and though he cites manager Terry Francona and many of the players - John Lackey and Carl Crawford are among his top targets - his biggest culprit is Theo Epstein.

He writes:

"Theo Epstein is facing criticism – all of it justified – for leaving his franchise shorthanded in the throes of a playoff race.

It is very simple: No team with the ability to spend $170 million on its payroll should be starting Kyle Weiland(notes) in September. Period. Weiland is the rookie starting the first game Monday against Baltimore. He has allowed 34 baserunners in 19 innings while striking out six. He may be good someday. He may see the criticism descending on him now and throw a gem. Just like good teams can lose, bad pitchers can win.

Weiland simply represents a systematic failure in what to this point has been a peerlessly managed team. Epstein has run the Red Sox with efficiency and intelligence during his nine seasons as general manager. Which makes this all the more distressing for diehards and pink-hats alike.

It’s easy to second-guess Epstein when Kevin Millwood(notes), who left the Red Sox’s Triple-A affiliate to sign with the Colorado Rockies the day Boston’s phenomenal stretch ended, has thrown well for a non-contender. Millwood wanted to pitch in the major leagues; Epstein never afforded him that opportunity."


Slow Food and Slowing Down
Published on September 19, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, my colleague Margaret Hartley writes about the Slow Food movement's $5 challenge, which asks people to prepare fresh meals that cost $5 or less per person, in her weekly column Greenpoint. 

Here's an excerpt:

"I’ve been thinking about the slow food movement, a grass-roots push back against our fast-food nation. It’s become a global movement, with a nonprofit association called Slow Food that boasts 100,000 members in 150 countries. Members, according to the Slow Food website, are committed to stemming 'the rise of fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.'

The movement began more than 20 years ago, a reaction to the homogenization of food, with the same fast food chains in every city the world over, and to the loss of local agriculture and regional food. The 'slow' also refers to how we eat, an attempt to recapture the disappearing habit of sitting down with friends and family to enjoy food and the fellowship that comes from eating together.

In our own home and gardens, slow food is a family tradition. We wait for vegetables to ripen, and where we live it’s a slow process. We watch the slow march of pumpkin vines across the garden, then out into the lawn or over the stone wall. We simmer tomatoes into salsa, sauces and paste, seek out wild apples to make into butters and wild grapes for jelly.

There’s nothing quick about how we do food. We plant it, we grow and harvest it, we cook and eat it — pies and soups and breads. We like to climb mountains to gather wild berries, then label the freezer bags so we can remember the day we picked them when we pull them out to make blueberry muffins on a blizzardy February morning. We tend to discuss the variety of squash or garlic when we sit down to a bowl of soup."

A Little Bit of Electronica
Published on September 19, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review last week's performance at EMPAC by Jon Hopkins and Four Tet. Electronic music is a fairly new genre for me, so the review is full of first impressions.

Here's an excerpt:

"Overall, I liked the show. The sets had some similarities, but also some differences: Hopkins seemed to enjoy slowing things down from time to time, creating sonic spaces for the audience to lose itself in, while Four Tet was a bit more conventional, seemingly more interested in getting the audience to dance. My friend Anna described Hopkins as unpredictable, which seems like a good word for him; I got the sense that he could have created some really incredible dance music, if he felt like it, but that he preferred defying expectations and taking his songs into more unusual and unexpected territory. His music was layered and dense, easy to bob your head to, but also quite beautiful. He spent most of the set turning knobs and occasionally flashing a grin to the audience, although he did sit and play the piano a couple times. I, for one, wish that he had done even more with the piano, because I loved the way Hopkins’ precise and elegant piano-playing contrasted with the electronic pulses and blips coming from the equipment on stage.

Four Tet’s set wasn’t as bold or experimental as Hopkins, but that was OK with me — after Hopkins’ somewhat contemplative set, I was ready for something a little bit more danceable and unabashedly fun. Four Tet provided this, and although he probably isn’t as creative a musician as Hopkins, he had a crowd-pleasing sensibility that I appreciated. My friend Bruce wondered why Hopkins and Four Tet didn’t do more with lights and video; both men used some video and lights, but Bruce wanted more. He also complained that the concert didn’t really move him to want to dance, which was what he expected. This caused me to propose that electronic music is different from dance music, and that sometimes the two overlap, but not always. In fact, both musicians, Hopkins especially, seemed more interested in providing a complete emotional experience than a dance party."

And here's a video of Jon Hopkins at The ICA in London:

A Newly Discovered Street Photographer
Published on September 18, 2011 by Sara Foss

A recent issue of Mother Jones (which I just finished reading) featured an interesting article on a nanny named Vivian Maier, who shot over 100,000 photographs of men, women and children in Chicago.

Maier never exhibited her work, which was discovered four years ago by a Chicago real estate developer who bought a box of negatives at an estate sale, "hoping it might hold some vintage photos of his neighborhood." Impressed by the quality of Maier's photography, the real estate developer began researching Maier and tryng to bring more attention to her work. Over at Mother Jones, there's an article about Maier and a gallery of her work that is well worth checking out.

The Netflix Price Hike Impact
Published on September 18, 2011 by Sara Foss

Back in August, I offered my thoughts on the Netflix price hike.

Basically, I didn't like it. I viewed it as an attempt to get customers to stream movies, rather than receive discs through the mail, and since I consider Netflix's streaming options somewhat lacking, I found this bothersome. Here's an excerpt of what I wrote at the time:

"I’ve streamed exactly one movie in my life: the 2008 Anna Faris comedy 'The House Bunny,' about a former Playboy bunny who moves into a nerdy sorority and helps the women who live there become cool and popular. I watched 'The House Bunny' while out on disability with a broken wrist. During this period, I was watching at least two movies a day, and one day I happened to find myself in an unusual predicament: I ran out of movies. Desperate, I decided to stream a film on my computer. But I was loathe to screen a good movie, because my computer screen was small, and lacking in the same visual clarity as my television. I figured a mediocre film like 'The House Bunny' would be the perfect thing for my laptop, and I was right.

You can obviously stream movies on your television, and I wouldn’t mind doing this, if Netflix’s streaming catalog was anywhere near as good as its DVD catalog. But it’s not. I currently have 495 movies in my Netflix queue, and only 169 of them are available for streaming. I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough. Also, I have quality concerns. As film critic Jim Emerson wrote (click here) in a post about the price increase, 'The more serious problem is that too many of the movies themselves (even the good ones) are being made available in lousy prints: not just shabby public-domain versions (the equivalent of the old 16 mm local TV station prints that used to circulate through low-end nontheatrical distributors), but films shown in the wrong aspect ratio (beware of anything with the Starz logo on it) or even obsolete pan-and-scan (shame on you, Warner Bros.) What good is streaming delivery if you have to watch a digital mastering job that looks like it was done in 1986?'

I can be a bit resistant to new technology, but I don’t see any reason to embrace streaming until more films become available for streaming, and the overall quality improves. Netflix can do whatever it wants, of course, and I see no reason to drop my account, because Netflix, for all its flaws, is still a very good, very efficient service. But there are other options for watching movies, and they’re worth exploring."

Apparently the Netflix price increase had an impact, causing the company's stock price to dip last week, and resulting in a mass exodus of subscribers. I'm not one of those subscribers - I watch a lot of movies, and Netflix remains one of the best options out there for a high-volume user like me. But I'm unusual. Most people don't watch as many movies as I do, and are just as happy to wander up to the local Red Box and grab a copy of "Hall Pass" as wait for the DVD to arrive in their mailbox. What Netflix did was give those people a reason to get their movies elsewhere, forgetting that what made the company successful in the first place was how well it catered to cinephiles and other hard-core movie watchers. In effect, Netflix made the mistake of abandoning its base and pissing off the rest of its customers in the process. Not a good move.


Closer Music
Published on September 18, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at the A.V. Club, Eric Freeman writes about the importance of music in baseball, particularly for closers. Since the only closer song I'm really familiar with is Jonathan Papelbon's use of the Dropkick Murphy's "I'm Shipping Up to Boston," which Freeman describes as pandering, I found this pretty interesting.

Here's an excerpt:

"Baseball players have a hard time expressing their personal style. Playing a sport with discrete events, prescribed paths of travel, and a set of unwritten rules that haven’t been updated in several decades, they have little room to color outside the lines. In most cases, hitches in pitching deliveries or bizarre batting approaches are drilled out of players at a young age. In contrast to sports like basketball, soccer, or football, there are few opportunities for the sort of open-field play that showcases peerless athleticism and unbridled creativity.

Because of these restrictions, players must take advantage of any opportunity afforded them to make a stylistic mark on the game. Somewhat bizarrely, one of the best ways to do this has nothing to do with the way the sport is played. Nearly every player in the majors is allowed to choose entrance music, whether it’s a short snippet before his first at-bat of the game or a longer entrance song before a pitcher comes into the game.

Closers need these songs more than anyone. Pitching just one inning to end the game, they rely on elements of intimidation that workhorse starters can’t sustain over six or seven innings. Closers are performers in the full sense of the word, and their entrance music is nearly as much a part of their personas as a filthy slider or 97-mph fastball. Yet few understand what makes a good entrance song. They have much to learn. Most of which, incidentally, can be found in the following guide."

The piece goes on to talk about AC/DC, Steel Dragon and more. Click here to read it.

An End to Escapades
Published on September 18, 2011 by Sara Foss

In my print column at the DG, I write about how a debilitating head cold (I still have it! It won't go away!) has brought an end to my recent round of escapades.

Here's an excerpt:

"I marveled at my full schedule. Every second of the day, it seemed, involved doing things with various sets of friends. 'I feel like I’m in college again,' I said.

And it was great.

I was having constant fun, I was surrounded by people I liked, our conversations were stimulating and funny, and the potential for adventure was unusually high. I felt energized, rather than exhausted; the world seemed full of opportunity and adventure. At the same time, I found myself wondering when all the activity would catch up with me. Sure, I felt good, but I couldn’t sustain the manic pace forever, could I?

The answer arrived on Monday evening, when I met my friend Kim for dinner.

'I have a sore throat,' I complained. 'I feel tired.'

The next morning I awoke to a terrible head cold.

Unable to breathe or function like a normal human being, I called in sick, and spent the day lying on the couch, doing nothing. I became depressed and listless; occasionally, I felt like crying. The cold also robbed me of my ability to sleep, and I became increasingly exhausted; every morning I awoke with the sheets tangled around me like a straightjacket, and a pile of tissues on the floor.

Plenty of other people have colds right now. Every time I talk to someone, they tell me that they have a cold, or that a loved one has a cold. Parents tell me that their kids always get sick at the start of school, while others describe what’s going around as a change-of-season cold. These are reasonable explanations, and yet I remain convinced that my cold is the direct consequence of acting like a college student.

'I just can’t party like it’s 1998 anymore,' I croaked to a friend."

I don't know why, but that last sentence makes me feel like listening to Prince.

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