Monday, July 30, 2007

Some further notes from my life

One of my soccer teams played against a team of Mexicans wearing France jerseys last night. They kicked our asses. One of their forwards, who looked to be about 35 or so, had gelled his hair back, apparently just for the game.

The Taco Spot in Eagle Rock is a reasonably-priced, excellent mid-week dinner option (take-out or eat in) for those of you living in the Eagle Rock area. The people that appear to be the owners (because they're always there) are young and hip and friendly. They play good music. And the sauce tray is pretty good.

I still hate the L.A. Times. I will concede that it's a decent paper, but there is something deeply moronic about it. I think it has something to do with the irresponsible use of many mixed fonts on the front page, along with the goofy "catchy" blurbs combined with pictures in the top bar of the front page.

While we are on this topic, I like Jonathan Gold and all, and have visited many fine restaurants on his recommendation, but what is with the hyperventilating, breathless style, with its relentless reliance on hyperbole and exaggeration to create excitement? I feel that fellow Pulitzer winner, Dan Neil, who writes auto reviews for the L.A. Times, shares Gold's style: both writers try very very hard to create a sense of excitement in their writing through crazy similes, overheated description, and a general breathless "oh wow"-ness about everything. (Not to mention that Dan Neil wins best prize for columnist most likely to fail the Voight-Kampff test.) Then again, I might just be jealous.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Hits Keep Coming Late on a Saturday Night

What if, instead of "The Incredible Hulk", he were called "The Avocado Monster"?

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Octopus Grigori: Behind the Music

I've been keeping a journal more or less consistently for about fourteen years, filling pages with sloppy, self-pitying navel gazing since my sophomore year in college. There's some pretty sad bullshit in the ever-growing stack of journals I've been trundling around over the years. The following entry from Valentine's Day this year is pretty representative of the type of crap I've been reducing to writing since 1993 (I suspect the general themes will sound familiar to longtime Octopus readers):
I need to sleep. I need to finish all sorts of things. I need to do a ton of work. I don't have enough energy. I don't have enough time. Why aren't I more committed? Why am I so lazy? Why do I waste so much time? Can't I get anything done?

It's amazing how consistent my entries are over the years. I trundle along, bearing the same burden, through all my time. I'm always behind, always messing up, always too lazy and sloppy. Still, I ooze along, losing things, forgetting things, getting by.

I'm writing this now in bed, quickly and lazily, thinking about how this will look sloppy when I come across this entry weeks, months, or years later. In doing that, I am imagining how a later version of me, layered and modified by presently unknown experiences will view this, which is similar to imagining how someone else may view this. A journal [is] written for one's self, of course, for later versions of one's self, although the current self writing is always controlled by the imagined presence of future selves -- our own imagined audience of our self at a later date[;] in writing and addressing that future self, I am, to some degree, currently constructing that future self, and it is constituting me to some degree. It's a dialectic of fictional entities interacting and producing each other . . . . I bother to make this legible so that it may be read in the future. Still, I get pleasure from simply writing. . . .

Mr. Deep. That's what [Mrs. Octopus] just called me. Mr. Deep. . . . Now I need to go to sleep.
I'm sure I could find a nearly identical entry from ten years ago somewhere in my stack. Now I need to go to sleep.

Friday, July 27, 2007

MF Doom and Madlib: All Caps

One of the cooler hip hop videos I've ever seen.

On a different note, I played racquetball for the first time in my life tonight and I TOTALLY LOVED IT. I can't believe I haven't been playing racquetball all my life. What a great game. You lock yourself away in this white-walled room, sealed off from the rest of the world, and you run around hitting the ball as hard as you possibly can, sending it ricocheting off the side walls, the ceiling, the back wall. It was fantastic. On the other hand, playing racquetball feels distinctly middle-aged. And not very hip hop.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


Someday, I will take a week off from work and watch the entire Robotech series again.

Another Thursday in Paradise

A young woman sitting across the aisle from me on the 81 is holding an infant in her left hand and tickling her toddler daughter, who is lying across her lap, with her other hand. The toddler is giggling and smiling and babbling in Spanish with her eyes closed.

Right now the toddler is hanging her head upside down from the seat, waving her arms, and saying something like "MOMEE-AA! MOMMEEE-AA!". Sometimes, she says this as if she's gargling the word, with a lot of saliva bubbling over her vocal cords.

Among other things, today I had the idea to start a t-shirt company called "Lotusville". I realized this was a pretty bad idea soon after I thought of it.

Also, I learned today, reading silently on my computer screen a letter from Louis H. Mackey to the editor of the New York Review of Books from February 2, 1984, that the ancient Greeks always read aloud. Mackey's letter took issue with what the he perceived as John Searle's intolerant review of the work of Jonathan Culler and Jacques Derrida and charged Searle with, among other things, unfairly implying in his review that neither Culler nor Derrida were aware that the Greeks read aloud; the letter writer argued that it was "unthinkable" to believe Culler and Derrida could have been ignorant of this historical point since it was such a "commonplace". (The letter and Searle's reply are interesting and worth reading: you'll be transported back to your junior year English seminar.)

Now the toddler is saying something like "POPPEE-YAA! POPPPEEEE-YAAAA! POPP, POPP!"

It's amusing to think what the world would be like if everyone read aloud -- very aloud -- all the time: if, say, everyone on the bus were like the toddler across from me, yelling out their thoughts, everyone reciting loudly as they read El Diario, their horoscope, the sign for La Estrella Tacos on Figueroa outside the bus window, the names and phone numbers of people calling them on their cell phones, and me yelling out each word I type with my thumbs on this device. It would be like a Spike Lee movie. (Or is that Wes Anderson?)

It would be even more fun at work: people asking questions at depositions, people answering those questions, the stenographer repeating everything aloud as he typed, lawyers down the hall belting out passages from the decisions of the California Court of Appeals, as other lawyers bellowed out each word of the letters, memoranda, and briefs they were composing on their computers and with their pencils, reciting in their own voices the passages they were quoting from precedent, sometimes shrieking, sometimes growling, never silent.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sunday Night Blog

Brushing my teeth through the years, I have always been painfully conscious of the fact of my self-awareness. As you have probably heard before, tests suggest that dolphins are also self-aware:
To test for dolphin self-awareness, Diana Reiss of Columbia University and Lori Marino of Emory University exposed two bottlenose dolphins to reflective surfaces after marking the dolphins with black ink, applying a water-filled marker (sham-marking) or not marking them at all. The team predicted that if the dolphins which had prior experience with mirrors recognized their reflections, they would not show social responses; they would spend more time in front of the mirror when marked; and they would make their way over to the mirror more quickly to inspect themselves when marked or sham-marked. The experiments bore out all three predictions in both dolphin subjects. Moreover, the animals even selected the best reflective surface available to view their markings.
From Scientific American.

Also, our galaxy, the Milky Way, is scheduled to crash into another galaxy, the Andromeda galaxy, in about three billion years. Please make a note of it.

The Local Group of galaxies -- the group of galaxies that includes our galaxy, the Milky Way, and the Andromeda Galaxy, which we are going to crash into.

Eleven o'clock at night on a Sunday is a very sad time. Compared to other days, the darkness on Sundays is darker.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Words words words

We live in an amazing time.


Guaranteed to make you feel weird. Somewhat pre-SpongeBob.

Bird Brains

Alex the Grey Parrot, who can count, request things, and describe the differences between sets of objects. Bird intelligence is proving to be much more complex and deep than previously believed.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Spicy Lion-Eating, Chinese-Speaking, Chimp Brains

Recent studies suggest that native Chinese and English speakers, respectively, may process math problems in different areas of the brain
Researchers used brain imaging to see which parts of the brain were active while people did simple addition problems, such as 3 plus 4 equals 7. All participants were working with Arabic numerals which are used in both cultures.

Both groups engaged a portion of the brain called the inferior parietal cortex, which is involved in quantity representation and reading.

But native English speakers also showed activity in a language processing area of the brain, while native Chinese speakers used a brain region involved in the processing of visual information, according to the report in Tuesday's issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
From Livescience.

Also, to spark your imagination: "Found: the giant lion-eating chimps of the magic forest" (super-size chimps that kill and eat leopards and lions).

Finally, please have some respect for that bean and cheese burrito you consume this weekend: it's the product of thousands of years of culture and cultivation.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Back on the Bus: the Color Purple

Los Angeles was working its magic and pushing me into a serious and committed relationship with my car. I was busy at work and this was my continuing justification for saving 15 or 20 minutes on my commute, and not having to wake up earlier and trudge out to the bus stop on Colorado trailing my funereal litigation bag (back in New York we called them "elephant bags", which was somewhat more fanciful but equally depressing). I was acclimating; it was inevitable: the public transport riding habits I had picked up from my eight years or so in New York would inevitably wither away, and I would join my fellow middle-class Los Angelenos on the freeway, tucked safely inside my well-maintained, recently-washed car, listening to Ira Glass or the same four CDs over and over.

So I hadn't been on the bus for a while, but I'm back on the 81 tonight. The bus TV is showing Tavis Smiley, who's interviewing Quincy Jones. Tavis's set is very purple. Many things are purple in L.A. It must be our unofficial color, though there's no purple on the city's very rasta flag. Maybe the purple everywhere is inspired by the lovely jacaranda trees that line many of our streets, littering the ground with thousands of soft, sticky, purple petals.

Purple is a depressing color. I think studies have confirmed this. Purple, for me, does not produce a feeling of excitement or anticipation; rather, it tends to make me feel sort of contemplative and tired. And weak.

This is a particularly insipid post. I think I will now pull out my book, Death in the Afternoon, and read for the rest of the trip. Yes, I'll be that guy reading a Hemingway paperback on the bus: we must all play the parts we've been assigned.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Introspection Has Its Limits

You get to a point in your life eventually where you no longer feel like you have anything to say. Luckily, to aid those of us whose imaginations and will to express ourselves have dried up, there are popular science magazines.

The above video shows an orang-utan solving the problem of how to get a peanut out from the bottom of a long tube by using water as a tool:
When presented with a peanut floating deep down inside a transparent tube, the animals spat their drinking water into the tube to raise the treat to the top, where they could grab it. Researchers say that the study is novel because it shows the insightful use of a liquid tool by a non-human primate.
From The New Scientist. The study also confirmed that orang-utans really like peanuts. Seriously though, it appears that there is some evidence that orang-utans are more intelligent than chimps -- possibly the most intelligent animals on earth, just behind humans.

So I think it's time I just came out about it: I am actually an orang-utan.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Loathsome Thomas Friedman

Never trust blowhards with moustaches.

Let's do a flashback to our friend Tom in 2003: Hey, everybody, I've got a great idea! Let's invade Iraq!
The president's view is that in the absence of a U.N. endorsement, this war will become ''self-legitimating'' when the world sees most Iraqis greet U.S. troops as liberators. I think there is a good chance that will play out.
From March 19, 2003. Friedman had many weaselly qualifications, but his ultimate point throughout 2002 and 2003 remained the same (blow up Iraq).

But he's flexible. And he's always coming up with great new ideas. Here's his latest new idea: let's get the hell out of Iraq -- which (happy coincidence!) will leave us freer to blow up Iran!
But getting out [of Iraq] has at least four advantages. First, no more Americans will be dying while refereeing a civil war. Second, the fear of an all-out civil war, as we do prepare to leave, may be the last best hope for getting the Iraqis to reach an 11th-hour political agreement. Third, as the civil war in Iraq plays out, it could, painfully, force the realignment of communities on the ground that may create a more stable foundation upon which to build a federal settlement.

Fourth, we will restore our deterrence with Iran. Tehran will no longer be able to bleed us through its proxies in Iraq, and we will be much freer to hit Iran — should we ever need to — once we’re out.
From July 11, 2007. We should definitely listen to Friedman on Iraq and Iran, because, you know, he's always just so right about these things. And heck, if Iran doesn't work out, we can pull out of there and invade Pakistan in a few years after the crazies finally get Musharraf. Hooray!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Midsummer Night's Blog

Our house's back room, where I'm writing this from, is currently filled with the sound of crickets outside, the overhead fan, and the neighbor's sprinkler running outside. The stars above Eagle Rock are especially clear and bright tonight, and the air is cool: it's good sleeping weather.

A friend of mine who works at the U.N. called to say that he was going to transfer out to a field office in Sudan at the end of the summer. Juan Román Riquelme and Argentina beat Mexico in the semifinals of the Copa de America. Riquelme seems somehow old before his time. After some of his goals, he does the flying thing, but with his arms not out fully straight, not running, but kind of slowly trotting, and not smiling, but looking more tired than ecstatic. Maybe that's part of why they call him the "Lazy Magician". I have dozens of books on my bookshelf that I haven't read yet. Perhaps there will be some time when I have nothing to do but read. And play soccer. The grass in our backyard appears to be mostly dead. Grapes and figs grow wild back there. I have no idea where they came from.

The fears about the collapsing housing market drove down stocks yesterday, which in turn drove up demand for bonds, which drove down the yield on bonds, which weakened the prospects for the dollar, which in turn drove up the value of the euro, which should lead to more exports of U.S. goods to Europe and elsewhere. But stocks went back up today.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Invisible Cities

Another tactile model

In Hartford, on the sidewalk just outside the Old Statehouse in the center of the city, there is a small, black metal scale model of the city on a little platform. The model is not that large, but covers a few blocks with the major buildings of the city center. The model is open, and is apparently a tactile model meant to be touched: I believe it's intended for the blind. Once, on a lunch break several years ago, I stood by the model watching as a middle-aged blind man felt out the buildings and street plan of the city model with his hands. He appeared to be concentrating, trying to feel out an image of the city. I wondered what the size of the buildings were in his mind.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The View from the Tank: Transformers (2007)

None of us should be too surprised that this movie sucked. Let's face it: even the cartoon had a hard time holding together a good story. Mostly, we were psyched to see the new Transformers revealed so that we could hector our parents to race us to Kay-Bee or Toys R' Us to snap them up off the shelves. So Megatron transformed into a gun -- big deal? He was freaking cool, even though it made no sense that a gun would command a bunch of transforming jet fighters. Whatever. And the Autobots were good it seemed, in large part because they were earthbound and could not fly. This made them more, er, human, maybe.

I don't know. We need to admit that Transformers the cartoon was always pretty stupid. Perhaps stupid in a great, super, Japan will take over America with planes that transform -- halfway -- into robots 80's way, but still stupid. So it cannot have surprised anyone that when a poorly-drawn American cartoon created to sell Japanese toys manufactured by Hasbro was turned into a gigantic Hollywood summer blockbuster directed by the guy that did "Armageddon", we would have stupidity on a colossal, monumental scale. How monumental? Think thousands of frames of cutting-edge CGI to produce a few seconds of a Mountain Dew soda machine "transforming" into a vicious robot -- that level of stupidity.

Mostly Transformers is hilarious. The movie seems like it was written in Urdu, translated into Chinese, and then dubbed in English. The dialogue is fantastically, amazingly, Olympically bad. The actors are a few steps below the stars of "Saved by the Bell". The parts of the movie that look like car commercials and military recruitment ads are serviceable, because that is in fact what they are. Sure, the transforming stuff is probably cool, if you could tell what the hell was happening. The CGI-geniuses who put together the robots forgot to keep in mind the limitations of the human eye's ability to watch and process moving parts: ten thousand pieces moving in a millisecond may look super cool frame by painstaking frame in the Dreamworks office, but on the big screen in real time, it mostly looks like a lot of moving crap out of focus. But don't worry about all that. You'll come out of the movie ready to buy a Pontiac and join the Air Force. I feel like a real spoilsport saying this, but some things should be left as they were.

Bring on the Care Bears and Alf.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The View from the Tank: Ratatouille (2007)

[Spoilers Below]

Brad Bird and his relentless efforts to impose his ideology on America depress me. I should explain.

Long-time and weary readers of the Octopus may remember a review here from long-ago of Bird's The Incredibles. In that review, I was exercised about what I saw as the sinister anti-meritocratic bent of that movie:
Many reviews for The Incredibles have applauded the movie's message, which has been interpreted as a refreshing criticism of the tyranny of mediocrity that somehow holds back gifted individuals. I was somewhat confused reading the glowing endorsements of the movie's message . . . .

I thought the message of The Incredibles was deeply troubling. The family of superheroes in the movie, the Parrs, is naturally gifted with their superpowers. . . . As the mother tells the son, Dash, at one point: he's special, and he has special powers -- “it's in your blood” she tells him.

In contrast, the villain in the movie, Syndrome, is a normal, ungifted human who wanted to be Mr. Incredible's sidekick, but was rejected. The interesting aspect of Syndrome is that though he is a normal human, with no superpowers “in his blood,” through dint of his own inventiveness and labor, he creates tools and machines to give himself powers equal to the naturally gifted superheroes. . . . Syndrome, of course, is bested by the real superheroes in the end, and put in his place. He learns that he should never have tried to become more than what he was - he should have accepted his place in the natural order of things and simply watched the superheroes, wonderful by inheritance and luck, from the sidelines.
The Incredibles very explicitly sought to attack -- in the vehicle of an entertaining animation -- the idea that we can all be equal. The villain Syndrome's "evil" plan is to endow all humans with tools to give them superpowers: the terrible outcome -- from Bird's point of view -- is that when everyone is super, no one will be. God save us from such radical equality.

Ratatouille is, in some ways, the flip side of The Incredibles. One of the key themes of Ratatouille is that an artist, or genius can come from anywhere; as the late Chef Gustau says over and again in the movie, "Anyone can cook". Indeed, this is the title of Chef Gustau's best-selling book. However, the very point of the movie is to emphasize one reading of this motto over another: Anyone may be (by virtue of innate talent) a great cook -- however, we can not all become great cooks. In other words, as the food critic antagonist in the film Anton Ego sums up: "Not everyone can be a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

The hero of the movie is a rat named Remy, who is born with extraordinary gifts and culinary talent. He apparently needs little to no training. He does not simply follow recipes (which he learns to read, being a rat much more highly advanced than the other rats in his colony), but through his innate, untrained (and unearned) genius, simply improvises fantastic dishes. Remy's talent apparently comes from nowhere. His brother lacks any of Remy's natural gifts of acute smell and palate, and -- pointedly -- intelligence, and is perfectly satisfied to eat garbage as the other normal and ungifted rats do. Remy's father believes rats should stay in their place, and reminds Remy that "food is fuel" -- and nothing more. Remy is the diamond in the rough, the uber-rat surrounded by the horde that seek to pull him down (much like the superhero child in The Incredibles was not allowed to race against the other normal kids).

The flip side of Remy is Linguini, who is (unknown to him at the beginning of the film), the son of the famous Chef Gustau. However, Linguini has inherited no talent or genius for cooking from his father. Indeed, much unlike The Incredibles, the talent is not in his blood. With this character, Bird perhaps attempts to make his ideology somewhat more palatable through a modification; he is saying, in effect, "See, the point is not, as in The Incredibles, that the geniuses and most talented among us simply inherit their gifts." Yet, Bird's fetish for genius remains: Linguini is not a genius or super-talent though he is the son of Chef Gustau. He has no talent and is "hopeless". Remy has not inherited his genius from his family, but, nevertheless, he has genius -- untrained, unlearned, not worked at, simply there. Some people simply have it, some don't. This is, at bottom, the same inisidious message of The Incredibles, just with the particularly offensive (and absurd) "it runs in the blood" message inverted.

As in The Incredibles, Bird has it out for those who are not born geniuses or supertalents who attempt to work their way to greatness. He shows us the other cooks in Gustau's restaurant, who are all adequate enough, and work very hard, but will never achieve greatness because they lack the innate genius that Remy was simply born with. A clear example of this is Collette, the female cook (Janeane Garofalo) who tries to help Linguini learn to cook. Collette works very hard, works to hone her technique, and takes a disciplined approach to her work: she labors at cooking. Her downfall, of course, is that she is not an innate genius. She works to "follow the recipe", a mantra she tries to impose on Linguini (and Remy, who is hidden in Linguini's hat), but Remy, innate, natural genius, cannot be constrained by the rules and discipline of little people. As a born genius, he is beyond constraint, beyond rules. So, of course, Remy throws out the recipe, and creates, out of his pure genius, fantastic products. Collette worries about keeping a clean station, of using proper chopping technique, about the boring details of getting the proper produce; Remy simply works his magic.

It's hard to see how someone even moderately awake to the messages of Bird's movies cannot fail to walk out of the theater feeling dispirited -- unless that someone is a great, innate genius or talent. If you have not been gifted with innate talent at the thing you love (cooking, music, art, literature, sport), if you have not been born with greatness, then what is the point at trying? Why work hard to improve yourself? You're just another drone. Continue to eat garbage and stay with the herd. You are either born with it or not, right?

There's no getting around that the movie is beautifully, amazingly, rendered, the storytelling is great -- it is a superb movie; indeed, the movie, in a way, works to prove Bird's point: he is a genius, others are not. Should we be celebrating that? These are, at least technically, kids' movies. Is this the message we want kids to take home: struggling at math? Why work hard to get better? You're not a genius. Not great at tennis? Why work hard to catch up to the other kids? You're not a natural talent. This message, as I said, depresses me. But perhaps that's just because I am not a genius of any sort.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Una entrada nueva

Back in Santiago after several days on Easter Island. Today we went on a tour to Valparaiso and Viña del Mar that took forever. The tour guide was a nice, cheerful fellow from Uruguay full of disinformation. He denied that Pinochet had grown up in Valparaiso -- he did -- suggested that the lavender plants we were sniffing outside a winery were vanilla, and told us with absolute confidence that "Rapa Nui" meant "far away island" (it actually means "big oar") and that the mystery of how the moai, sometimes weighing up to 33 tons, were transported miles across the island had been easily solved: the moai were roundish, so they had been rolled like a rolling pin or a steamroller. None of the serious theories as to how the moai were moved has ever suggested this. But who knows?

One more day in Santiago, and then we head back to Los Angeles. Hopefully, our house has not been picked clean by burglars and the people at work have not yet assigned someone else to my office. I'm feeling that melancholy that comes at the end of an extended trip abroad.