Bill Murray On The Hardest Job In The World

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In his Charlie Rose interview last week, Bill Murray said the following while trying to describe his experiences on the set of George Clooney’s latest picture The Monuments Men-

“It’s fun to watch someone like John Goodman, who is such a natural actor, and yet it takes work… you know, people say: ‘He’s not acting, he’s just being himself’… Well, it’s hard to be yourself, it’s hard to be yourself, you know what I mean? It’s impossible, it’s the hardest job in the world.”

Five Years A Blog

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Five years, as of today… that’s how long I’ve been posting items of personal interest to this online scrapbook. I’ve been engaging in this exercise mostly just for myself and friends, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many posts have been of interest to total strangers. Google Analytics informs me that there have been, on a monthly average, around 266 page views by 154 unique visitors; hardly more than a blip in the universe of internet statistics, but enough to make me think that there is something here of value to someone other than myself. If you’re a returning visitor (around 20% of the total), odds are I know you from elsewhere, and I hope you’ll keep in touch by other means as well. If I don’t know you and you’ve stumbled upon something amusing or interesting here, I’m glad.

I know that the odds are against it, but I sometimes imagine that 10,000 years from now, an internet archeologist might dig up one of my fossilized posts, and it will help to confirm or disconfirm some obscure hypothesis about life at the start of the 21st century. We now leave digital traces of ourselves, much like cave dwellers left a few palm prints on the walls. Let’s hope that the walls of our digital caves turn out to be as solid as their stone ones.

Fun With Frax

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If you own an iPhone or an iPad and have ever had the urge to release your inner graphic artist… the one you’ve kept hidden since you were 5 years old and discovered you couldn’t draw worth s#*t… then you absolutely must shell out a whopping $2 and download a copy of Frax, the amazing little iOS app that allows you to create an infinite variety of fractal images using gestures, tilt, and a few simple controls. Once created, you can save your masterpieces to your photo library, or upload them to the Frax Cloud and have them rendered in ultra-high, poster-sized resolution.

Here’s an image I created in about five minutes, just trying to learn how to use the app (which has very helpful instructions embedded into it). To see what people who actually know what they’re doing with the app can come up with, check out the gallery at the Frax site.

First Try With Frax

“Her” and Him (Alan Watts, that is)

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I found “Her”, Spike Jonze’s new movie, somewhat difficult to sit through. It feels too long (so little happens), and it treads a very thin line between a psychologically rich character study and a Saturday Night Live parody of a cliché romance. Also, the overall look of the film is bland, as if it were covered with a gray-filter. It’s too dimly lit in many scenes. In fact, one key scene happens entirely in the dark, a stylistic choice I couldn’t help but see as a sign of Jonze’s embarrassment with the scene’s content. No doubt the somberness of much of the indoor photography is meant to underscore protagonist Theodore’s extremely introverted personality. But it’s overkill: Joaquin Phoenix’s spot-on Theodore needs no extra help.

Yet, despite these problems, “Her” is, to my mind, perhaps the most thought-provoking Hollywood film released this year, with the possible exception of 12 Years A Slave (which I blogged about here). I say this even though in most ways Her is the opposite of my favorite Jonze film, 2004’s Adaptation. That movie had an almost frenetic energy; it was saturated by the sub-tropical colors of South Florida, it had a very complex structure (thanks to screenwriter Charlie Kaufman), and it centered on two (or three?) eccentric protagonists, played with all the requisite bravado by Nicholas Cage and Chris Cooper. Her, on the other hand, just plods along, without much to look at (a Scarlett-Johansson-shaped video image of Samantha might have helped a lot in that respect), with the simplest possible structure, and only two substantial characters, one of which is invisible, the other of which is rarely expressive.

But what I like about “Her” is its heartfelt exploration of intimacy, an exploration that goes deeper than what is generally found in your standard relationship flick (which, I admit, is not saying much). The film raises the question of whether it would be possible to be really intimate with the user interface of an operating system (to get some sense of Johansson’s silicon-based Samantha, just imagine Apple’s SIRI on both intellectual- and emotional-IQ steroids). But the film is more centrally concerned about the loss of human intimacy in our ever more technologically-mediated world, and that is an even worthier subject. Samantha and Theodore’s dialog reminds us, somewhat poignantly, of what a genuinely intimate relationship at least sounds like – something that’s sorely lacking not only from most other films, but also from many lives. The only thing missing from Theodore and Samantha’s relationship (besides a body, of course) seems at first to be any element of danger. For surely nothing could be less dangerous than a relationship with an entity pre-programmed to satisfy one’s every need. Theodore apparently need not fear that Samantha will ever leave him like his ex-wife did, but there’s the rub: how could such an apparently “failsafe” relationship ever really be fulfilling?

It’s the particular way in which the film first raises and then answers (or subverts) that question that makes it worth watching, and helps to excuse its weaknesses. Here’s the trailer-

Near the end of the film there’s an important reference to Alan Watts, the mid-20th century intellectual, ex-theologician, and pre-New Age disseminator of Asian religious traditions and metaphysical views. For those unfamiliar with Watts’ work, the brief description of him given in the film might suffice for the script’s purposes (though I doubt it). But for those at least passingly familiar with his life and work, the reference will have all sorts of rich resonances, and suggest several different levels on which to interpret the ending. The most obvious level has to do with Watts’ charismatic charm, which seems to have been accompanied by a (no doubt philosophically motivated) lack of shame. The second, slightly less obvious level rides on Watts’ trenchant criticisms of Western Culture, which he viewed as both a cause and effect of its average member’s confusion and neurosis. His prescription was, quite simply, to become enlightened in the down-to-earth, Zen sense he himself clearly sought. Finally, a third level of interpretation rides on the similarity between Samantha and Theodore that Samantha at one point says comforts her. To jump aboard this train of thought, you need to focus on Watts’ thesis that reality is, ultimately, One (a “monistic” worldview that a Buddhist need not accept). To avoid falling into didactic mode, I’ll just add that these three levels of interpretation are, I think, complementary. They leave Theodore with much more to mull over beyond the picture’s ending than just the promises and pitfalls of romantic attachments. The only problem is that the reference to Watts and the relevance of his personality and worldview is such “inside baseball”, the resonances that finally sold me on the film will probably not occur to most of the film’s audience. I’m not sure that they even occurred to the filmmakers.

If you’ve never heard an Alan Watts talk, here’s a 10-minute audio excerpt I once used in an adult enrichment class that focused on his fusion of Eastern and Western perspectives. At one point he mentions “the ceramic myth” and “the fully automatic myth” – ideas he explains earlier in the talk. By the first he just means the monotheistic story that God created the universe (much as people create ceramics). By the second he’s referring to the Newtonian view of the universe as a dumb, fully automatic machine, devoid of consciousness. In this excerpt, the two main themes he riffed on throughout his career – the mental illness of Western culture, and the metaphysical monism (supported by ecology and post-Newtonian physics) that could be part of the cure – are on full display.

Much more Watts is available here. For my own previous posts on Watts, just search for his name using the Search box above.

Pannonica – Thelonius Monk

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I stumbled upon Thelonius Monk’s “Pannonica” leafing through an old collection of jazz standards about a year ago. I slowly sight-read through the 32-bar tune, finding the changes intriguing but mysterious, the often chromatic melody fluidly elegant. On paper, the composition is something of a conundrum; in the air, it is seriously playful. I was hooked immediately… but what did that strange title mean? Googling it revealed that ‘Pannonica’ – or ‘Nica’ for short – referred to the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, née Rothschild (1913-1988). She was a well-known jazz connoisseur, and the musicians she supported and promoted seemed genuinely to respect her. She gained some notoriety when Charlie Parker died of an overdose at her house in 1955, an incident depicted in Clint Eastwood’s 1988 film Bird (which I recommend). Monk lived at her house from 1970 until his death in 1982.

Nica and Monk in 1964, at the Five Spot in New York. Photo by Ben Martin/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Nica and Monk in 1964, at the Five Spot in New York. Photo by Ben Martin/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

For months I struggled to find a way of soloing gracefully through those seemingly disjointed changes, not to mention ways of comping that did the tune at least minimal justice on guitar. Of course I listened to Monk’s solo piano rendition, and realized instantly that trying to emulate that masterpiece would be hopeless. So here’s the best I could come up with, given limited time and resources-

Hannah Rothschild, Nica’s great-niece, recently wrote her biography (thanks for the tip, Berry). Here’s The Guardian’s review. It follows by a couple of years David Kastin’s well-regarded biography. I’ll probably read one of them eventually. But for now I think I’ll just continue to relate to her through Monk’s masterful musical portrait – he knew his subject so very well.

Sarah Jarosz On NPR

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Yet another reason to love NPR: their “Tiny Desk Concert” series, which provides talented young singer-songwriters like Sarah Jarosz with an intimate, non-commercial, high-quality venue. Here Jarosz performs three tunes from her latest album, Build Me Up From Bones, with fiddler Alex Hargreaves and cellist Nathaniel Smith. The album is beautifully produced, but I love these cut-down versions even more-

David Simon On The “Horror Show” That Is America

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I’m a big fan of David Simon’s classic HBO series, The Wire, as well as his more recent project, Treme. He’s a clear-eyed, street-smart social critic who understands the limits of both capitalism and Marxism, and consistently avoids viewing individuals or groups as exclusively victims or victimizers. If Simon has an ideological commitment, it is to try to safeguard the intrinsic value of human beings against the devaluation that usually occurs when capitalists and capitalist institutions regard them merely as costs. His thinking isn’t particularly subtle, but it is refreshingly direct and to the point. Here’s an excerpt from a column he recently published in the Guardian, which is worth reading in its entirety-

I’m utterly committed to the idea that capitalism has to be the way we generate mass wealth in the coming century. That argument’s over. But the idea that it’s not going to be married to a social compact, that how you distribute the benefits of capitalism isn’t going to include everyone in the society to a reasonable extent, that’s astonishing to me.

And so capitalism is about to seize defeat from the jaws of victory all by its own hand. That’s the astonishing end of this story, unless we reverse course. Unless we take into consideration, if not the remedies of Marx then the diagnosis, because he saw what would happen if capital triumphed unequivocally, if it got everything it wanted.

And one of the things that capital would want unequivocally and for certain is the diminishment of labour. They would want labour to be diminished because labour’s a cost. And if labour is diminished, let’s translate that: in human terms, it means human beings are worth less.

From this moment forward unless we reverse course, the average human being is worth less on planet Earth. Unless we take stock of the fact that maybe socialism and the socialist impulse has to be addressed again; it has to be married as it was married in the 1930s, the 1940s and even into the 1950s, to the engine that is capitalism.

Mistaking capitalism for a blueprint as to how to build a society strikes me as a really dangerous idea in a bad way. Capitalism is a remarkable engine again for producing wealth. It’s a great tool to have in your toolbox if you’re trying to build a society and have that society advance. You wouldn’t want to go forward at this point without it. But it’s not a blueprint for how to build the just society. There are other metrics besides that quarterly profit report.

The idea that the market will solve such things as environmental concerns, as our racial divides, as our class distinctions, our problems with educating and incorporating one generation of workers into the economy after the other when that economy is changing; the idea that the market is going to heed all of the human concerns and still maximise profit is juvenile. It’s a juvenile notion and it’s still being argued in my country passionately and we’re going down the tubes. And it terrifies me because I’m astonished at how comfortable we are in absolving ourselves of what is basically a moral choice. Are we all in this together or are we all not?

(Thanks Erik).

Wisconsin Underpays Its University Professors

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The Oshkosh Northwestern today published an informative article on the relatively meager wages Wisconsin pays its university professors. Of course, this is not news to those of us who work for the university, but since Gannett (the Oshkosh Northwestern’s owner) recently went to great pains to publish all UW employees’ salaries, it is somewhat gratifying to see them finally putting those figures into context.

The 11 smaller UW universities averaged $71,200 for a full professor. The UW study compared that average to 32 similar out-of-state schools, and the UW universities ranked 31st in that list. The UW average was 31 percent below the $93,100 median, larger than the 27 percent gap in 2011-12.

Data from the Chronicle of Higher Education paints an even bleaker picture. Compared to other master’s institutions nationwide, UW-Oshkosh’s full professors in 2012-13 were in the 15th percentile, UW-Green Bay was in the eighth percentile, and UW-Stevens Point in the seventh percentile. No category of professor ranked above the 40th percentile at the three schools.

It used to be that other forms of compensation (health care, pension benefits) helped to counterbalance the below-average salaries paid at UW campuses, and this could have been a decisive factor for new hires (such as myself) ten years ago. But Act 10, passed in 2010 by Governor Walker and the Republicans, changed that. Now the non-salary compensation, while still competitive, no longer makes up for the sub-standard salaries.

The article in the Northwestern makes many good points beyond these, and I recommend that you read it. It focuses largely on the danger of the system not being able to recruit the best new talent or retain the talent it recruited when the picture was not so bleak. I would emphasize as well a problem that will only get worse as the declines of the last five years continue to sink in: morale and motivation. The fact is, although they get paid on average only 73% of what they deserve (according to the “industry standard” outlined in the article), I know of not a single professor on my campus – UW Oshkosh – who puts in less than 100% effort at teaching their students – and, quite frankly, their students, many of whom are first-generation college students, need all of the dedication they can get from their professors. Does the Wisconsin government really think that, over time, the psychological effect of being undervalued by their employers will not cause a general decline in UW professors’ motivation… a decline that can’t help but diminish the quality of the education they provide to Wisconsin’s students?

Minnesota Versus Wisconsin (Redux)

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I recently noted that Minnesota, with its proactive implementation of the Affordable Care Act through its state-run exchange, enjoys significantly lower premiums for comparable insurance policies than Wisconsin, with its reluctant implementation of the Act through the federal exchange. Job recovery is yet another dimension of this Tale Of Two States, as Lawrence R. Jacobs noted in a recent New York Times Op-Ed-

A month after Mr. Walker’s inauguration in January 2011, he catapulted himself to the front ranks of national conservative leaders with attacks on the collective bargaining rights of Civil Service unions and sharp reductions in taxes and spending. Once Mr. Dayton teamed up with a Democratic Legislature in 2012, Minnesota adopted some of the most progressive policies in the country.

Minnesota raised taxes by $2.1 billion, the largest increase in recent state history. Democrats introduced the fourth highest income tax bracket in the country and targeted the top 1 percent of earners to pay 62 percent of the new taxes, according to the Department of Revenue.

Which side of the experiment — the new right or modern progressivism — has been most effective in increasing jobs and improving business opportunities, not to mention living conditions?

Obviously, firm answers will require more time and more data, but the first round of evidence gives the edge to Minnesota’s model of increased services, higher costs (mostly for the affluent) and reduced payments to entrenched interests like the insurers who cover the Medicaid population.

Three years into Mr. Walker’s term, Wisconsin lags behind Minnesota in job creation and economic growth. As a candidate, Mr. Walker promised to produce 250,000 private-sector jobs in his first term, but a year before the next election that number is less than 90,000. Wisconsin ranks 34th for job growth. Mr. Walker’s defenders blame the higher spending and taxes of his Democratic predecessor for these disappointments, but according to Forbes’s annual list of best states for business, Wisconsin continues to rank in the bottom half.

Along with California, Minnesota is the fifth fastest growing state economy, with private-sector job growth exceeding pre-recession levels. Forbes rates Minnesota as the eighth best state for business. Republicans deserve some of the credit, particularly for their commitment to education reform. They also argue that Minnesota’s new growth stems from the low taxes and reduced spending under Mr. Dayton’s Republican predecessor, Tim Pawlenty. But Minnesota’s job growth was subpar during Mr. Pawlenty’s eight-year tenure and recovered only under Mr. Dayton.

Republicans often argue, quite cogently, that the states should be the laboratories of democracy. Given these comparisons two such demographically and geographically similar states, progressive Democrats should certainly agree.

The Growing Social-Media-Corporate Complex

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When I visited Huffington Post today and saw this photo, I just wanted to leave a quick comment that hadn’t yet been left, namely to identify the beautiful setting as Kailua Beach on Oahu, one of my favorite beaches in the whole wide world. However, I then discovered that the Huffington Post no longer allows you to create an account just on it; instead, you have to log on via a social networking site. As my previous rants against Facebook make clear, I HATE SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES, not because they are social, and not because they involve networking, but because they invariably involve MARKETING. I don’t know about you (and don’t you appreciate that?), but I’d much rather have the NSA collect data on my every click around the web than have it done by some consortium of corporations whose only interest is to sell me products that I don’t want or need, and/or to sell information about me to other entities who might do whatever they like with it.

I searched to find other bloggers who might share my distaste for the growing social media complex, but (perhaps due to my impatience after spending several minutes trying to figure out a way around the HufPo requirement) all I found were pro-marketing sites whose authors view the growth as an opportunity rather than an annoyance or worse. In any case, if you haven’t considered the sheer size and interconnectedness of the social media marketing web, check out a larger, more readable version of Brian Solis and JESS3’s annual chart, which in miniature looks like this-

JESS3_BrianSolis_ConversationPrism4_Modified

UPDATE: Amusingly, as if to make my point, after tweeting a link to this post (Twitter is the one social networking site I’m on), I immediately received this marketing response on Twitter-

Making My Point

12 Years A Slave

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As I blogged almost a year ago, I didn’t much care for Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” (to put it mildly), the last mainstream movie that was ostensibly about slavery, but was really about Tarantino’s running out of inspiration. I knew that there was yet to be made a film worthy of the seriousness of the subject, and it has arrived: 12 Years A Slave. If this adaptation of Solomon Northup’s autobiographical novel doesn’t win Oscars – or at least nominations – for Director Steve McQueen, Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, Supporting Actress Lupita Nyong’o, and Producer Brad Pitt (for Best Picture), I’ll be, well… flabbergasted.

You really can’t understand contemporary conservative talk of secession, or of the South’s “rising again”, or the Tea Party’s reflexive rejection of all things Obama (policy disagreements aside), without understanding the history of the South, and you can’t understand the history of the South without coming to grips with 18th and 19th century slavery. The concrete reality of that slavery – much like the reality of the Holocaust – resists conceptualization, or adequate description in language. But its essence can at least be indicated by the artful telling of the stories of particular slaves (and slave-owners), and I’ve seen no better representation of such experiences in film.

I do have one minor quibble: as producer of the film, it was a bit self-serving of Brad Pitt to cast himself in one of the most pivotal (if brief) roles, and as one of the few admirable white characters. His appearance needlessly took me out of the movie, and his role certainly could have been just as well-handled by a less recognizable actor. But I’m willing to cut him some slack on this one, since just having his name on the posters will probably sell a significant number of seats, and he deserves a lot of credit for backing the film.

Anyway, if you can handle some rather intense scenes of cruelty and violence, I encourage you to see this movie, and to see it in the theatre for maximum effect.

More Competition + Less Regulation = Higher Prices

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At least when it comes to the insurance rates charged for comparable plans in Minnesota and Wisconsin under The Affordable Care Act, the conservative mantra that more competition plus less regulation is the way to lower health insurance prices is clearly false, according to an informative story published in the Oshkosh Northwestern yesterday (Sunday 11/10/2013).

When Minnesota state lawmaker Joe Atkins hunkered down to draft legislation outlining the way Minnesota would implement the Affordable Care Act, he had no idea the results would be so dramatic. The Gopher State is now enrolling individuals through its health-insurance exchange by the thousands and at health insurance premium rates that are among the lowest in the country. Next door in Wisconsin, the numbers of Obamacare enrollees have barely hit the hundreds and premium rates are between 25 and 35 percent higher than in Minnesota.

The reason for the large gap in rates is unclear but could be, in part, because of the more aggressive approach Minnesota has taken to implementing the law. The most obvious difference between the two states is their exchanges. Minnesota has its own online marketplace where residents and small businesses can shop for and buy insurance, while Wisconsin is relying on the federal government marketplace, which has been plagued with bugs and technical failures and doesn’t accommodate small businesses. If and when the Obama administration fixes that, the rate differentials will remain. And they are stark.

A 50-year-old Minnesotan who lives just south of the Twin Cities in Dakota County can buy a mid-level, silver plan for $241 a month. Just 20 miles away, across the state line in St. Croix County, the least expensive silver plan available to a 50-year-old Wisconsinite costs nearly three times that price — $622 a month.

Analysts say premiums are based on a number of factors, from health costs and demographics to market competitiveness. But when it comes to Wisconsin and Minnesota, none of those appears to account for such a wide disparity. The nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation found that health care costs in the two states are roughly the same. Per capita expenditures were $7,409 in Minnesota versus $7,233 in Wisconsin, according to the most recent data released in 2011 by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. And the costs have grown annually since 1991 at nearly the same rate — 6.7 percent in Wisconsin and 7 percent in Minnesota. As for competitiveness, only five insurers are offering plans on the Minnesota exchange. Wisconsin’s exchange has 13 carriers.

Cynthia Cox, a policy analyst at the Kaiser foundation, said regulation also plays a role in premium levels. In Minnesota, regulators forced insurers in several cases to resubmit lower rates because they questioned the justifications. In Wisconsin, regulators took a more hands-off approach and let all the rates go through as-is after reviewing carriers’ justifications.

“The fundamental difference between the two states, which are similar geographically and demographically and have very similar underlying medical costs, is that Minnesota has embraced the national health care reform law and is using the tools it provides to deliver more affordable health insurance, while the Walker administration has tried to undermine the law at every turn,” Citizen Action CEO Robert Kraig and researcher Kevin Kane wrote in a scathing op-ed recently published in The Capital Times of Madison.

Donald Fagen: Hell In A Handcart

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“Hell in a handcart”.

That’s where Donald Fagen, in unabashed curmudgeon mode, thinks we’re all headed, thanks to the ubiquitous social media that keeps kids – by whom he means anyone born after 1960 and raised by television – staring at the gadgets in their palms instead of relating to each other in person. Or at least that’s what he told Tom Ashbrook – who seems to be developing more of an appreciation for quality music lately – at the end of his recent On Point interview, in which he was selling his recently released memoir, “Eminent Hipsters“. You can listen to the interview on the podcast or here. The book is near the top of my someday-I’ll-have-the-time-to-read list.

And while we’re talking Steely Dan, here is some recent concert footage of the band playing that old chestnut, Do It Again, featuring Michael McDonald (!) singing all but the last verse, when Donald chimes in. Enjoy some of the best pop-rock-jazz-r&b ever conceived of in this or any other universe-

And to just for the hell of it, here’s a short documentary about the making of one of my favorite tunes off perhaps Steely Dan’s most exquisite album Aja: “Home At Last”.