25 May 2007

Dept. of Boredom and Desire

Once again, James Surowiecki is writing things I already knew but hadn't got around to saying. This week, in "Feature Presentation," he argues that we consumers habitually choose electronic devices that have many more features than we want or use, and that, after the blush of first contact, we grow bored with them. Our addling by gizmo he calls "feature creep," and he describes it this way:

"...fifty-button remote controls, digital cameras with hundreds of mysterious features and book-length manuals, and cars with dashboard systems worthy of the space shuttle. This spiral of complexity costs consumers time, but it also costs businesses money."

Side note, James: "Spiral," unless you're talking about footballs, confuses me. If your fortunes are spiralling, which way are they going? "Either way," says the OED:

spiral, v.
a. intr. To wind or move in a spiral manner; to form spiral curves.
b. To fly an aircraft in a spiral path. Also with down, downwards.
c. fig. To move rapidly in one direction (usu. upwards), in a manner considered to resemble a spiral; to increase or decrease in response to the same movement of another quantity or other quantities. Cf. sense 2d of the n. above.

I've got a Sony-Ericsson that cost me something like 400 bucks when I bought it in Taipei, three years ago. The only reason I got it was that the PVC-skirted saleswoman in the FarEasTone was keen to sell me one of their house-brand phones (the telecommunications equivalent of Safeway-brand corn flakes), and I was keen to show her I wasn't gullible. So I bought a 400-dollar phone.

Its features have come back to earth since, but at the time it was flash. I had Bluetooth, for sending anonymous messages to intriguing strangers (never happened); Internet at my thumbtips, for those formerly unproductive cab rides (never happened); and the ability to shoot videos. The latter was cool exactly three times: in Bangkok during Songkran, when I filmed some girls dancing on a loudspeaker; here, when I witnessed a "near plane crash" (YouTube commenters can be so cruel); and here, when comic-relief Taeho came to my ESL class with a fresh perm.

The picture is poor because the camera lens has been damaged in my pocket—three years' of rainwater, chewing-gum residue, key scratches, and coin thrashings. The phone now sits on my bedstand, uncharged and alone. I'm going through a Luddite phase.

Cell-phone designers, if you're listening: I'd like something indestructible, in brushed aluminum, with great reception. I'm tired of designed obsolescence and "#" buttons that stick. I don't need photographic capacity, video games, or DJ-mixing programs. Make it like a Zippo lighter—something that warms against my leg, something I can spin on a table.

17 May 2007

The story of my experiments with coolant

My sister gave me a 1986 Honda Civic. It overheats like a mofo. Today, trying to fix it, I scalded my hand with radiator fluid and dropped a pickle into the cooling fan.

Two days and $93.00 invested—still undriveable.

Dept. of Cloppier Times

In a Talk of the Town piece, you don't see the writer's name until the end, set discreetly behind an em dash. When an author's reputation succeeds him in this way, you can work up all sorts of funny feelings before you figure out who he is.
"Horsepresence took another hit last month, when the ancient Claremont Riding Academy, on West Eighty-ninth Street, closed its doors, reducing our equines to that redolent line of tourist-pullers on Central Park South. A few older city types (this writer among them) can remember cloppier times."
Horsepresence? Tourist-pullers? Cloppier times? Who the hell is this huckst—oh, Roger Angell. I guess that's okay.

Angell, who would be the weirdest and most affected 45-year-old in New York, turns 87 this year, as it turns out. That forgives him some anachronistic phrasings.

Plus, he's the stepson of a great writer. Until I read his intro to the new edition of the semi-sacred "Elements of Style" (and again thought, Who the hell?) I didn't realize that his mom, a New Yorker editor named Katherine Angell, married the "renowned essayist" E. B. White. And that sorts out his pedigree, sort of.

The only real measure of a writer is his writing, of course—the only reason Paul Theroux is still invited to dinner. Angell's prose is admirable, ambling, thick with detail—particularly his meditations on baseball. I remember warmly his tidy comment about the Red Sox after they'd won the pennant, and a longer piece, further back, about a statistics whiz who'd reformed the team's system of scouting.

Tell me this: How do you pronounce his last name? It's one of those ones I'm always afraid of saying wrong, like 'deluge.'

14 May 2007

Dept. of Things I'll Never Buy Again

Quick post, unrelated to The New Yorker, just to get it out of my system. This man—Jann Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone—is an appalling dork.

I was at the newsstand to pick up a copy of PrintEmdashes's day job—and, instead, something made me take the fortieth-anniversary RS to the counter. It was the shiny silver cover, I think, with the sticker advertising interviews with Bob Dylan, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Mick Jagger—interesting people I'm slightly too young to comprehend fully.

Wenner's lead interview with Bob Dylan—a Q&A, reprinted line for line—is a master stroke of shoddy, sappy journalism. It serves as a forum for the publishing icon, whom Salon calls "the star-fucker who traded up," to 1) coo over and scold Dylan, 2) speak nearly as much as him, and 3) induce the singer to speak about Wenner's contribution to the culture.

An excerpt:
Do you think it's gloomy on the horizon?
In what sense do you mean?
Bob, come on.
No, you come on. In what sense do you mean that? If you're talking about in a political sense...
In a general political, spiritual, historical sense. You're talking about the end of times on this record, you've got a very gloomy vision of the world, you're saying, "I'm facing the end of my life and looking at all this..."
Aren't we all always doing that?
No, some people are trying to avoid it. But I'm trying to interview you, and you're not being very helpful with this.
Jann, have I ever been helpful?
What can I do to get you to get you to take this seriously?
I'm taking it seriously.
You're not.
Of course I am. You're the one who's here to be celebrated. Forty years...forty years with a magazine that obviously now has intellectual recognition. [Gulp.—Ed.] Did you ever think that would happen when you started?
I was taking it seriously.
Look how far you've come. You're the one to be interviewed. I want to know just as much from you as you want to know from me.
* * *

It goes on for another two pages. He makes Dylan look like a mumbling old man, collecting pop tins on the beach. Seriously—do they not have editors? The Kwantlen College Beacon could have done better.

On the positive side, we now have something to say whenever anyone is giving us a hard time. Try it with me:

"Jann..." [Pause, purse lips, hold the 'n.'] "Have I ever been helpful?"

(Extra: Idolator pans the anniversary issue.)

04 May 2007

The way home

The path to the Student Union Building.

An oil spot in the sun.

An empty Friday 44.

03 May 2007

Hockey morning in Taipei

This is Dave Hartwell. He's on a 50cc scooter called a Sniper. The light is on, and the left-hand mirror is twisted. Behind him is the restaurant across from his Taipei apartment where you can get good peanut-sauce noodles.
“One of my favorite local dishes is huo tway dan,” Hartwell says, breaking into fluent Mandarin. “Mmmm, hao chr!” he laughs.

Then he translates: “Ham and egg sandwiches: good.”
Dave's not worried that the Vancouver Canucks will be eliminated from the NHL Playoffs tonight, in Game 5 against the Anaheim Ducks.

Okay, he's a little worried.

(Hartwell's profile at Canucks.com: "Cheers from Far Away.")

02 May 2007


David Belle, the protagonist of Alec Wilkinson's "No Obstacles," vaulting through London.

Below: the vertiginous, parkour-inspired opening chase of "Casino Royale," starring Belle's childhood friend, S├ębastien Foucan.

Go tell it on the mountain

Not sure why I chose that title: the song brings to mind my sister's squinted-up face at a Christmas party somewhere in East Vancouver, singing because the adults asked her to. It just came to me.

Good news: I've shifted the pile of schoolbooks on my floor—the ones I had to triple-jump through to get to bed. Twenty-one of them have to go back to the UBC library by June 15, and I can only find 18. The cleanup has excavated several magazines, most of them New Yorkers, all bent open to random pages.

Apparently, I dropped:
  • a Walrus in the middle of an article about an overcoat made of aluminum window screening;
  • a New Yorker in the middle of Denby's review of "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," a film I'd never heard of;
  • a New Yorker at the outset of one of those high-spirited Patricia Marx pieces ("Emotional Baggage") in which she prices everything;
  • and a New Yorker just at the end of that profile of Gordon Ramsay, the English chef who's sublimated his raised-on-a-council-estate class fury into truffle and morel preparations. (This one I remember; it's taken me three pre-sleep reads to this point.) What the hell is a morel?
I did read Adam Gopnik's gun-control screed this week, and, fan though I am, I did a thick swallow after his last line—something about how oh, the cell phones of the dead Virginia Tech students are ringing still. Brrr.

Also, Malcolm Gladwell on The Colbert Report: I wanted to listen to one man or the other, not both. Malcolm was a touch earnest, and Stephen kept cutting him off with ersatz jokes like "What, you need a degree for that? A piece of paper?" although he did get in a good bit about honorary degrees. I give it a six point seven.