Saturday, December 24, 2005

Seasoned Greetings

Tonight we had Christmas Eve service at Montgomery Place. Laura Jean and I took part in a lightly staged reading of W. H. Auden's long Christmas Oratorio, "For The Time Being." We were the first two (of three) Wise Men, decked out in tweed jackets, repenting our "tall errors of imagination." The poem is a pretty interesting, modern re-dressing of the Christmas story, at times funny (as in this excerpt), at times political. It made me want to read through it again.

Anyway, this year is the first year I'll be away from Fresno for Christmas, which is a little bittersweet, but also makes me feel a little bit like a grown-up. Tomorrow we'll have our very own Christmas morning here in Chicago, go to church and then fly to Maryland to catch the tail-end of family dinner there. To all of you I'm not lucky enough to see in person for the holidays, I'd like to wish you each a joyous week. (I really don't want to rant about the so-called War on Christmas except to say: Wha-huh?). To those celebrating Christmas: Merry Christmas. To those celebrating Hanukkah: Happy Hanukkah. To those celebrating something else or nothing at all, best wishes and joy. In the new year, I hope we all may come to better appreciate the gifts of those who are different in various ways.

I'd also like to share my new favorite carol; it's a gorgeous song by Vienna Teng, and you should totally check out her music if you get a chance.

The Atheist Christmas Carol

It's the season of grace coming out of the void
Where a man is saved by a voice in the distance
It's the season of possible miracle cures
Where hope is currency and death is not the last unknown
Where time begins to fade
And age is welcome home

It's the season of eyes meeting over the noise
And holding fast with sharp realization
It's the season of cold making warmth a divine intervention
You are safe here you know now

Don't forget
Don't forget I love
I love
I love you

It's the season of scars and of wounds in the heart
Of feeling the full weight of our burdens
It's the season of bowing our heads in the wind
And knowing we are not alone in fear
Not alone in the dark

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Year-end Top 5 Lists

At times, it seems the primary skills I picked up in grad school are drinking beer and commenting on pop culture. In that vein, I'd like to offer my year-end "Top 5" lists for music, movies and books. In reading these lists you may notice that a great many of the titles mentioned were not, in fact, released this past year. Being perpetually behind the times, it seemed simpler to limit the results to stuff that I heard, saw or read in the past year, regardless of how old it is. For example, I haven't really seen any of the movies currently being offered up as Oscar bait and which are making the top 10 lists of all the real movie critics out there. Oh well -- this is just what I liked about the past year; feel free to comment and (dis)agree.

  1. Sleater-Kinney, The Woods: Loud. Louder than your boyfriend's rock 'n roll. And better. And they give a great live show, too.

  2. Kanye West, The College Dropout: This hip-hop is the new punk rock. The first track, "We Don't Care", is a completely joyous song about how much it sucks to be poor, and it gives a deserving middle-finger to every authority figure in range. I think maybe he had some other big hits also.

  3. The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema: Listen to this band if you like super-catchy, yet sophisticated, power-pop. Each song crams in more hooky melodies, hand-claps and "hey ya's" than your average hour of pop radio (and why aren't they on the radio? oh yeah, they're Canadian). And the song "Sing Me Spanish Techno" will totally suck your brain out.

  4. The Arcade Fire, Funeral: A cycle of songs about children living in a world without grown-ups. I definitely have days where I feel that way.

  5. M.I.A., Arular: She's an ex-pat Sri Lankan, and current Londoner. There's an entire globe's worth of musical traditions in here, yet it mainly sounds like music played on trashcan lids while dancing on top of a burning cop car. In other words, pretty awesome.
(Hon. Men.: the Shins, Spoon, Talib Kweli, Neko Case, the Flaming Lips, Cibo Matto)

  1. Batman Begins: I love action and comic book movies, but a lot of them are frankly kinda lousy. This one's not. Christian Bale makes a great Batman and Bruce Wayne, but the film's got an even better villian, exciting action sequences, and an actually compelling storyline.

  2. Code 46: I'm also a sucker for any kind of sci-fi (LJ still makes fun of me for liking A.I.), and I really fell in love with this movie. Or perhaps I just fell in love with Samantha Morton's character. Hmmm. Anyway, imagine Gattaca as a zero-budget romance and with better acting. And I love that they filmed modern-day Beijing and Dubai as stand-ins for the cities of the future.

  3. Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit: See here.

  4. Brokeback Mountain: OK, so this actually is oscar bait. I don't know if it's as groundbreaking a movie as the critics say; I suppose a movie about gay cowboys is always going to be shocking to some. I enjoyed it for the simple pleasures of unpretentious story-telling, backed up by great acting. Heath Ledger deserves every award he's going to win for this one.

  5. Gangs of New York: Finally got around to seeing this, and I actually liked it a lot. I was expecting a polite Merchant & Ivory period piece, but it's really more of an urban western with a story lifted from a fascinating bit of forgotten American history (the Civil War draft riots). They should've lost the Hollywood romance between Leo and Cam, and stuck with the tribal street warfare set to rock music. Daniel Day-Lewis tears it up (as usual).
(Hon. Men.: Bad Education, The Incredibles, Million Dollar Baby, Born Into Brothels, Velvet Goldmine, Hotel Rwanda, Harry Potter 4)

  1. Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A book to savor -- the anti-page-turner. This is the comprehensive tale of the rebirth of English magic, as related by the disreputable love child of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. It has footnotes better than a lot of fantasy stuff you pick up (no joke).

  2. Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: The story of a young Hmong girl with epilepsy and her encounters with the California medical system. The author tries her absolute hardest to be completely fair to the parents and the doctors and everyone involved, which just makes the tragedy of the story all the more wrenching. The most thought-provoking book on multi-cultural America I've read in a long time.

  3. Neil Gaiman, American Gods: The tale of a war between the old gods and the new gods of media and technology, as waged in the interstate truck-stops and tourist traps across the landscape of the Midwest.

  4. Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: A funny and charming novel about comic books, escape artists and the different ways people can come together as a family.

  5. Joe Sacco, Palestine: Joe Sacco spent a year living in the West Bank in the early 90's after the first Intifada. Here he downlinks his impressions, sketches, opinions, thoughts, and myriad interviews with Palestinians living under occupation. Just cuz its a comic book doesn't mean it can't be hard-hitting journalism too.
(Hon. Men.: J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince; Ruth Ozeki, My Year of Meats; Laura Kaplan, The Story of Jane; Karen Armstron, Islam: A Brief History)

Saturday, December 17, 2005


So I finally graduated, and they handed me the piece of paper without too much fuss. Sadly, my Mom, Dad and sister Jessica all missed the ceremony. They were due into town the night before, but the closing of Midway Airport following the runway accident caused their flight to be diverted to Hartford (yeah, the one in Connecticut). The next morning, they had to catch a flight with a transfer in Baltimore (yeah, the one in Maryland) just to get back to Chicago, and the flights kept getting delayed longer and longer. The finally showed up in Chicago, exhausted and frustrated, about an hour after the ceremony ended.

Happily, they made it to the after-party/reception and we got to take photos while I was still wearing the silly robes. Laura Jean, Amy, Judy and David (my family-in-law) were at the ceremony to represent, and we all rallied and had fun for the rest of the weekend.

Here's a blurry picture of the processional - I often think blurry photos are kinda cool.

Look! a gamma-ray burst! Yay for dress-up in silly robes!

Laura Jean's family also got to see her in action at her new church. She gets to dress-up in silly robes every week!

I think Laura Jean looks especially cute in this one.

My family is very cool. They were totally calm and collected under pressure and they dealt with a thoroughly lousy airline experience with grace and humor. Also, they handled the freezing Chicago winter pretty well. Here they're looking sharp in their new winter coats.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


In general, I like Maureen Dowd's columns, although at times she's what the Brits like to call "too clever by half." However, today's column got a laugh. She quotes Secretary of State Rice's recent comments defending extraordinary rendition of suspects to foreign countries to avoid laws that forbid us from torturing them on home soil.
"The United States government does not authorize or condone torture of detainees," she said.
and Dowd's response:
It all depends on what you mean by "authorize," "condone," "torture" and "detainees."
And if that's too much laughter for you, check out this article from the Washington Post, about the German national who was kidnapped and taken to a secret jail in Afghanistan and tortured for five months based on a "hunch" by a CIA agent that proved to be totally wrong. The really chilling part is when the CIA realized they got the wrong guy they seriously considered just dumping him somewhere and denying that it ever happened. Accountability please?

Monday, December 05, 2005

Wikipedia: Suck or Rule?

For those not in the know, is now officially the world's largest encyclopedia, offering nearly a million articles, all written and edited by volunteers. In fact, anyone (maybe you?) who happens to click onto their pages can edit or change them (without registering). This of course, has great potential to let blossom a million flowers of nerdiness, but it also crucially relies on the good faith (and competence) of the volunteer corps.

Recently they've decided to clamp down on unrestricted editing of articles, after a bio of John Seigenthaler (a former aide to Robert Kennedy) was edited to insinuate he might have been involved in the assassinations of both Kennedys. Oops. Mr. Seigenthaler was understandably upset and consequently ripped them a new one in a USA Today Op-Ed piece. Still, abuse like this seems difficult to control, given the nature of wikipedia. In my mind, the controversy is a another round in the struggle between free speech and (occasionally legitimate) state control over speech. No magic bullets here.

On the subject of wikipedia's general quality, one friend of mine likes to refer to the site as "decision making by a committee of twenty idiots". I don't quite agree: I like the fact that the site tends to have reasonably good articles on topics you can't get elsewhere. So it's not really a competition between "good" and "better", but rather between "good" and "nothing". The few times I've looked at subjects I do research on and know a fair bit about (gamma-ray bursts, HETE-2, astronomy) I've been pleasantly surprised at the level of detail. No obvious mistakes, good external links. Sure, some of the articles could be longer and more interesting, and there is a fair bit of stating the obvious, but for the most part way more informative than the string of generic news articles you would get from a google search. A good first start, which is what an encyclopedia should be.

Of course, gamma-ray astronomy is a fairly non-controversial backwater. I could easily put in a few hours of editing and improving the afore-mentioned pages (a better option than complaining about them) and be fairly certain that someone won't come along and undo everything. The same couldn't be said for articles on "aliens", "George W. Bush" or "Kennedy assassination", I guess.

So I'm curious. Do other people use wikipedia? Do you trust the stuff you find?

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Truth Is Out There

Turns out that the L'Enfant Plaza in DC (where conference I just attended was held) has a shiny glass pyramid that leads you to its underground entrance, just like the IM Pei pyramid at the Louvre. Of course, the Louvre entrance leads you to the finest art collection in the western world, while the L'Enfant entrance leads to a shopping mall. So it goes.

At any rate, it is clear that both pyramids mark sites of ancient power. The L'Enfant pyramid is actually the transmitting post for the gamma-rays that the alien Illuminati conspiracy uses to control the world governments, conveniently located in the heart of DC. Legend has it that the bones of the Messiah (a.k.a. Jean-Luc Picard) are buried beneath the pyramid's apex, and there have been reports of manifestations of great power from the pyramid.

Tellingly, when I snapped a photo of the Great Pyramid, I was accosted by a security guard who told me that photos of the plaza were not permitted unless I crossed to the other side (!) of the street. I'm probably violating some Homeland Security law by posting this photo, but the people need to know the truth!