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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Last minute Oscar predictions

Slumdog Millionaire (undeserved); Danny Boyle (for his worst film); Sean Penn (not Mickey Rourke); Kate Winslett (for past performances); Heath Ledger (so deserved); Viola Davis (so deserved); Wall-E (though not Pixar's best); Frost/Nixon (still gotta see it).

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Essential nerdiness

Ben and I were joking last week that Michael Lewis will always be a salesman--and it's totally great. It's his job to convince us of the story he's telling, the novelty of it, and we are ready to buy it. I've been anxiously awaiting the New Enthusiast's take on Lewis's NYT Magazine article on data-crunching in the NBA, which in its blog post form has a nifty intro about Charles Darwin:
Lewis has built a career investigating those people who, like Darwin, achieved some unlikely success by valuing what others ignore and ignoring what others value. It’s come to be known as the Moneyball approach, but it’s apparent in The New New Thing, The Blind Side, and his recent articles uncovering the origins of the financial crisis. Lewis typically writes really, really engrossing narratives that do a good job making you, the reader, interested in the nerds featured therein while still remaining faithful to the essential nerdiness that motivates their pursuits.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Murder she tote

Today on the train I saw a guy wearing an Iron Maiden T-shirt, an acid-washed jean waistcoat, and several medallions, including one that looked like a badminton racket. He was carrying a canvas bag that read: Murder She Tote. I have to have such a bag. But it's a mystery what all of it means! Click on the link and you get just the intro screen and the music I remember so well from my crime procedural youth. I've seen almost every episode of Murder, She Wrote, including the sad satire of the show that would signal her Thursday-night demise. In that episode Jessica Fletcher must solve a murder on the set of the hit show Buds (did not have to look that up!), about six young men and women who don't do anything useful such as solving crimes; they only drink coffee and whine about their relationships. If this is supposed to be a viral campaign, I'm feeling a little like Jessica Fletcher in 1996 here: where do these clues lead?

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Anonymous Anonymous on Mon Feb 23, 02:27:00 AM:
very interesting! what did this bag look like? my brother and i used to own and we put out a couple lines of bags. i am not sure who owns the domain name now though. :)
Blogger Alice on Mon Feb 23, 11:33:00 AM:
The logo from the bag is the same on the site, so it's probably one of the bags from those lines. It's a great idea!
Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Apr 09, 05:31:00 PM:
AAAAAAA!!! This line of bags just launched!! LOOK---they have them all for sale now!!!!
So excited...huge Fletcher Fan...
Anonymous Anonymous on Mon May 18, 11:22:00 AM:
You say The Fat Jew. He's all over E! these days as well as a member of rap group Team Facelift. And he and a partner created the tote bag line Murder She Tote.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The cure for crying

"Boys Don't Cry" was playing at Alice's Tea Cup yesterday afternoon when a little boy (two-ish?) seated the table next to me began sobbing. His dad picked him up and began singing the lyrics to him, and he kind of calmed down before the song was over.

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Blogger Brette on Mon Feb 16, 09:14:00 PM:
Those are three of my top five most favorite labels to a blog post.
Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Feb 18, 07:35:00 PM:
Blogger Sophia on Thu Feb 19, 11:44:00 AM:
Alice, it would be nice to see you in May as I will be in NYC for a visit. Maybe for some tea?
Blogger Alice on Mon Feb 23, 11:34:00 AM:
Dear Sophia,

I would love to see you when you come to New York in May. The e-mail link on the sidebar works off and on, so I hear, but you can find me at ab787 AT columbia SUFFIX edu otherwise.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Undying war on the very concept of 'literature'

I have very little memory of taking the English subject test GRE, other than that I walked out of it thinking, "Why were there five questions about Major Barbara?" Which there weren't, probably, but those kinds of things always feel like a conspiracy of things you don't know. I have a stronger memory of wearing fishnet stockings to the regular GRE test on Halloween, when I got only one math question wrong--the only time I've ever been "good" at math since I was twelve years old. I should be tawdry more often.

Every week, as our trivia team prepares for battle, we make plans about what to "study" for the next week. "You were in charge of mid-twentieth-century American poetry by men, right?" Brette asked one week. "Shit, I did mid-twentieth-century American poetry by women!" I joked. But who correctly identified a passage from Robert Lowell's "Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" that very evening?! And who boasted about it to seven different people, at least?! But who always mixes up her F. Scott Fitzgerald first and last novels, too?

Michael Bérubé is one of my favorite academic bloggers, and his discussions of the Sokal hoax and what it did and didn't mean for postmodern theory and science studies are excellent. They're collected in Rhetorical Occasions; What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? is also very interesting. I was particularly struck by this section of his article about retaking the GRE English subject test 25 years after going to graduate school:
But the "theory" questions were a joke, a very bad joke. Literally. The first question involving literary theory — 54 questions into a 230-question exam — asked students to identify parodies of Marxist, reader-response, and structuralist criticism. The Marxist parody was hideous: "Fulvia Morgana said that the function of criticism was to wage undying war on the very concept of 'literature' itself, which was nothing more than an instrument of bourgeois hegemony, a fetichistic [sic!] reification of so-called aesthetic values erected and maintained through an elitist education system in order to conceal the brutal facts of class oppression under industrial capitalism." My stars! Who knew that Fredric Jameson and Raymond Williams could be so reductive?

There were, in fact, very few "theory" questions — one involving Harold Bloom (the word "clinamen" was the giveaway), one involving the late Northrop Frye, and one basically asking you to identify the author of Writing Degree Zero (answer, Roland Barthes). And OK, maybe the one about female readers being asked to sympathize with stories of heroic men surrounded by scheming or trivial women was an "intro to feminist theory" question. But that's about it. Abysmal, really, if you're designing an exam that has anything to do with graduate study in English. Not that every student immerses herself in theory, of course; but most students, it's safe to say, will be expected to understand and respond to a "theoretical" argument — a real one, not a parody of one — at some point in their graduate studies.

I vaguely remember a similar situation when I took it--I seem to remember having to identify parodies of critical positions. Any other memories I have about the English subject test will really sounds like stunts out of a David Lodge novel, as Bérubé puts it: somehow I've never taken a Shakespeare class and have all sorts of weird gaps in Victorian novels and the Updike, Roth, Bellow books I'm supposed to have read. But as Bérubé notes, the Columbia English department doesn't require the GRE subject test and so however well or badly I did neither matters now nor mattered then.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What happens when I read about Danny Granger

There have only been a handful of University of New Mexico Lobos to play with some fame in the NBA. Michael Cooper from the 1980s Lakers and Luc Longley from the 1990s Bulls are two of them. Kenny Thomas played for UNM from 1995-99 and has had a journeyman's career in the NBA since then. The Albuquerque Journal sports section used to cherry-pick Thomas's stats from the previous night's NBA game and highlight them in their wire stories: the main sentence of the recap would be "Kenny Thomas scored eight points and had three rebounds" or something equally mediocre for a complacent forward. The first few times I read these recaps, I'd exclaim about how much of a difference Thomas must be making for the Rockets (now the Kings). Then I learned about this thing called "editing."

But Danny Granger is really good! Taken too late in the draft good. Best player on a bad team good. Here he is challenging LeBron last night. Still, I read the recaps of these Indiana games where Granger is the only one doing anything, and the first thought that comes to mind is, "I wonder if there's someone from Albuquerque minding the wire service at the Times?" (I don't know why this imaginary wire service condenser thinks the Lobos are the only game in town... a town far far away.)

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

You've been sentenced, James Wood

Several months ago, the following question showed up at trivia night: "Which vitriolic British critic coined the term 'hysterical realism' to describe the novels of Don DeLillo and Zadie Smith?" We got the right answer, James Wood, but I objected to "vitriolic" as not the first adjective I'd use to identify Wood. Since then, I've floated that adjective to various people, and some of them have agreed with the wording while others have come up with funnier answers. I laughed really hard at the final paragraph of this Colson Whitehead parody of Wood's How Fiction Works, but I won't lessen the effect by excerpting it here.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

When the weather is wrong

Count me and Stephen Fybish as the two readers who delight in NYT stories about weather. Jack Shafer and Timothy Noah disdains the weather feature as filler--which it is, no doubt--but I have to admit that every time I see a story about "ho-HO, how cold is it going to get?!", I rub my hands together with glee and say, "ho-HO, how cold is it going to get?!" (This is less the case when it's hot, although I still appreciate the stories.)

So I literally chuckled at this narrative of how the weather was reported wrong for Monday, February 2. It's very well done! If someone had a good time writing it, I had a great time reading it. The zippy lede:
Zip! Zip!


The nut graf which tells you that although you were not previously interested, you might have entertained a thought about it.
It was the anthem of the city on Monday, the sound of a million hands unzipping a million puffy coats, the bodies inside them breaking into a surprising sweat as temperatures crept well past the forecast high of 43 degrees, all the way to 52.

Clearly, the man on the street was not the only one asking what was going on. The warm day had meteorologists struggling to explain how, even with the help of sophisticated computer models, they got it so wrong.

So a problem has been constructed, and here's commentary on it:
Jay Searles, a meteorologist at Penn State University, took the time-honored route of blaming the computer.

“Every single model had cold air that’s over Pennsylvania, upstate New York and Canada,” he said. “You’re not supposed to have as much sun, either. You were supposed to have more cloud cover.”

He said the meteorologists “score” their forecasts, with penalty points for degrees of error. “When you blow it, you blow it big,” he said. “If we’re within a few degrees, that’s a good forecast. Two degrees, either side.”

So who was going to take the hit for the flubbed Monday forecast, off by 9 degrees? Not a computer program.

“That would be Andrew,” Mr. Searles said, and transferred the call.

The young meteorologist plays along and gives good quotes not-quite-castigating himself:
Andrew Ansorge, 24, a meteorologist for about one year at Penn State, was perhaps the person most disappointed with the sunny day.

“It looked like there’d be a lot more clouds,” he said on Monday afternoon. “I did have in the forecast ‘any early sunshine,’ but this is a little later than ‘early.’ ”

He looked back at the forecast he was so sure of on Sunday. “I went 43, so obviously that’s not something to be proud about,” he said. “It is a shock to me you are in the 50s.”

Was Mr. Ansorge facing a reprimand?

“Nothing like whip lashing or anything like that,” he said. “It’s just more of a learning experience. What went wrong?”

The rest of the story is pretty conventional: quotes from other meteorologists, someone remarking on the warmth, etc.
He was certainly not alone among his peers. His error is somewhat more permanent, in that his office’s forecasts are printed in newspapers, including The New York Times, every day. The National Weather Service got it wrong, too, but it updates its forecast all day and night.

As of 9:52 p.m. on Sunday, the National Weather Service forecast called for highs in the low 40s on Monday, and as late as 4:34 a.m. Monday, with a warm sunny dawn soon upon us, the forecast read, “Mid-40s.” It wasn’t until 11:38 a.m. that a forecaster, perhaps after stepping away from the computer and sticking his head outside, changed the forecast to “lower 50s.”

Ross Dickman, a meteorologist for the service, said a low pressure pattern in the Southeast stalled the arrival of cold air from the north. He said that it led to a margin of error that was higher than normal.

Outside, an overdressed New York citizenry toiled on. “I’m working with my jacket open because it’s too hot,” said Miguel Gonzales, a 60-year-old street sweeper on Park Avenue. “I thought it was definitely going to be colder today. I have two sweaters on.”

Deepa Das, 25, an analyst for a pharmaceutical company who was walking on 86th Street, skipped her usual cup of cocoa in lieu of a nice cold bottle of water. “I thought it was going to be like yesterday,” she said. “But I like this weather a lot.”

Mr. Dickman warned that the party was going to end soon, and that the cold front would, in fact, materialize on Tuesday. He was reminded that he was wrong before, so why should anyone listen to him now?

“Believe me, it’s going to be a lot colder tomorrow,” he said. “The pattern tomorrow is definitely different than the pattern today.”

Back to the star of the story:
Back at Penn State, Mr. Ansorge worried about his credibility with his audience.

“They’re trusting for an accurate forecast, and they didn’t get one today,” he said. “The repercussion for me is it’s kind of demoralizing. And humbling, too.”

Still, it could have been worse, with the 9-degree error in the other direction.

“I guess it’s better to be warm,” he said.

Mathew R. Warren contributed reporting.

(Really, this story took two people to report? Well, I loved it.)

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Sunday, February 01, 2009

Let the right one under water

A link to the ten greatest shots of the year (link from From part two, the notes on Let the Right One In are right on. The movie is a great twist on the vampire story as a bully story. The shot being described is absolutely extraordinary: I haven't ever seen anything like it. The audience didn't know whether to gasp or laugh. I gasped. I also totally love the last scene. Why is horror better under water--the ice-skating rink shot from The Dead Zone being another classic in this (icy) vein? Any other shots like it?

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Blogger Ben on Sun Feb 15, 02:13:00 PM:
in watcher in the woods, the camera looks up as if from the heroine's eyes as she nearly drowns, while a menacing woman you believe is a villain stands on the riverbank, poking her with a tree branch. the whole image is distorted by the refraction of the turbulent water. great shot.

as for let the right one in, the use of the vampire story to frame a story about bullying was very well done. but i would have liked to see the main character show more agency at the end. otherwise its hard to believe he will be able to help her as the previous guy did.