January 2005

House of Flying Daggers

Saw House of Flying Daggers yesterday. Excellent. Beautiful cinematography, costumes, acrobatics and fighting, and all that. A multilayered plot that changes directions quickly and makes you think.

Like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (to which all big-budget martial-arts movies must be compared), at one level the story revolves around the conflict between desire and duty, but if that movie was wushu Jane Austen, this is wushu Shakespeare. In Crouching Tiger, duty won. In this movie, desire loses. The intricate way that the fates of the characters play out is like a blacksmith’s puzzle–you can tug on it a dozen different ways, but none of them seem to disentangle the pieces.

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Translate this!

Fellow translators of Japanese know that personal names are all but impossible to translate with certainty unless you can ask the person who owns the name how they prefer to have it romanized. When I’m translating a scientific paper (as I am now), the problem is acute, since there is usually a bibliography packed with Japanese names, but these names can often be tracked down, as the authors occasionally have their own web pages, or have been published before in English. So I spend a lot of time googling for their papers and their names.

One citation in my current job has eight names to track down. Ouch. I googled all the surnames together in the hopes that I’d find some bilingual reference with their names. I did not, but I did find a long listing of papers that included the one I’m looking at. Google helpfully offered to translate the page for me. The results for the names in question are interesting and amusing:

汐 promontory positive, increase mountain reason, Kazuhiro Yamamoto, Hiroshi Kondo 也, Doi 玲 child, Ono Megumi child and Ken under village, Ogasawara Masafumi

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All watched over by Elvii of loving grace

The Elvii look down benevolently

A friend who couldn’t make it to our wedding, Jen, sent Gwen and I the Elvis on the right. She had no way of knowing that I already had a remarkably similar Elvis that Jenny had picked up for me on a trip through the King’s hometown. Now I have two Elvii gazing down benevolently from atop my bookcase. The one from Jen is extra-special though:

Elvis statuette reverse

The motif on the collar is taken from our wedding invitation. Jen tells me that when she was painting this in her ceramics class, her classmates skeptically asked “are they really going to like that?” in a tone of voice that said “you’re crazy.” Jen enthusiastically reassured them “they’ll love it” and they just shook their heads as if to say “then they’re crazy too.”

Feh. We love it.

As an aside, the title of this post popped into my head after I put the second Elvis up. I knew the phrase “all watched over by machines of loving grace” from somewhere, but had no idea where it came from. A moment’s googling showed me it’s a poem by Richard Brautigan. What’s odd is that I’d never read the poem before, and still somehow knew the phrase.

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Getting with the program

Del.icio.us is a “social bookmarks manager,” or in plain English, a web page that lets you keep a list of interesting websites. What makes it interesting is that it lets you use tags to classify your links a rough-and-ready sort of way (this kind of undisciplined tagging is now sometimes called “folksonomy”), lets you see links from other people with the same tags (or any tags) and shows you how many other people link to a given URL.

I’ve been keeping a “hit and run” blog for some time, and this fulfills the same role for me as del.icio.us would, but I had been unwilling to switch over two del.icio.us for a couple of reasons: 1. The data doesn’t live on my machine; 2. It’s not easy to control the presentation–it is possible to republish your del.icio.us links on your own page, but you’re kind of stuck in terms of presentation. There are ways to get at the data programmatically, but that involves programming, and that means work, and I’m lazy.

But I finally decided to sit down and figure it out (as a way to avoid something even harder: my current translation job). Somebody has already provided a library of PHP tools for messing with del.icio.us, and I know just enough about PHP to get myself in trouble. Here’s what I did [caution: entering geek mode]

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The Aviator

Saw The Aviator last night. Very good. It kind of drops you in the middle of things without giving you much of a lead-in, which is unusual for a biopic, but the movie is already pretty long, and Scorcese probably felt that the parts of Hughes’ early life that he was omitting weren’t that interesting, and that the audience could fill in the blanks.

And there’s a lot of ground to cover. When people my age think of Howard Hughes, we probably think of him in his latter years, as a pathetic figure–I know I did. What I’ve always failed to appreciate is that he really was a larger-than-life character who also happened to be nuts. This movie brought that side of him into sharp focus and showed how he battled with his dementia. It’s easy to write off Leonardo DiCaprio as another pretty-boy actor, but he did a damn good job.

Cate Blanchett as Kate Hepburn was just uncanny–the movie is worth seeing for her performance alone. Hepburn was so distinctive in her mannerisms, speech, etc, that any imitation would easily slip into parody. Not here. Lots of other big or recognizable faces pop up throughout the film, too. What’s Willem Dafoe doing in such a tiny part?

The movie ends before Hughes did, and relies on our knowledge of his decline for some of its power. The movie sticks in my mind, making me think about the potential of a man like that, held back by madness that (at least at the time) could not really be addressed, and perhaps wouldn’t be when the sufferer is in a position of such authority.

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Shuffling along

Apple’s release of the iPod Shuffle created a lot of buzz, as would just about anything new from Apple. And it is interesting that Apple would take the interface they developed for the bigger iPods–which is one of the aspects of the iPod that really sets it apart–and rather than try to shrink it down to fit a smaller unit, simply discard it.

It’s interesting for reflecting the changing way we listen to music. It used to be that we listened to albums, sometimes with the liner notes laid out in front of us, and there were only about six tracks per side to remember before you had to flip the record. Some people would make mix-tapes, but that was fairly arduous. And of course there’s always been the radio. I get the impression (I can’t back this up) that more and more radio is talk, though, and the music programming that remains is increasingly narrow, with two conglomerates pushing uniform formats to radio stations all over the country, and very little variation within those formats. If you want to listen to something different now, you have to listen to something other than radio.

Apple was already partly responsible for changing the way we listen, thanks to iTunes and the iTunes music store. iTunes and programs like it make it trivially easy to rip your music to your hard drive and put together a mix CD, taking individual tracks out of the context of their original albums. Or listen to customized or randomized playlists at your computer (or on your iPod). And the iTunes music store (and other online music vendors) sell tracks individually, so you may never have the whole album to start with (and this has been a point of contention for some artists, who refuse to sell tracks individually). And of course there’s that whole P2P thing, not that I would know anything about that. The existence of collections like Massive Attack’s Singles 90/98, with four or five different mixes of a given song, mocks the idea of listening to an album straight through, and invites shuffling with unrelated tracks.

So I was initially dubious when I saw the iPod shuffle, sans display, but I realized that I already listen to a lot of music from my own collection without being able to identify what it is, so the lack of a screen might not be that big of a deal after all. Right now in my car, I have the CD changer loaded with 6 CDs filled with random stuff from my music collection. I suspect most runners, pedestrians, and people riding public transit or in cars don’t check the screens on existing MP3 players much. What is most interesting about the iPod shuffle is not that it innovates (deleting features isn’t exactly an innovation) but that it is the first to acknowledge reality.

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Movies movies movies

A little catching-up to do on the movieblogging.

Saw Ocean’s Twelve. Apart from the fact that this is indicative of the colossal lack of originality in Hollywood–a sequel to a remake of an original so awful it should never have been remembered by anyone–this was a fun, well-done movie, but not life-changing. Steven Soderbergh always does a good job, and this had good characters, a good story, good dialogue, and good cinematography. So, good but conventional.

Saw the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Very much enjoyed this. I’m always a fan of Bill Murray’s, and he seems to keep doing better as he gets older–though, as Gwen pointed out, it’s saddening to see Bill Murray portraying an old character, since we remember him when he was young, and it’s still a bit of a shock to see him looking old. Beyond that, though, the story goes in unintended directions, ties itself together surprisingly well, and has whimsy. It also has whimsy in things like the set design–there’s a wonderful cutaway shot of the Belafonte, Zissou’s ship, showing all the crew doing things in its various cabins. At first, this dollhouse view seems like some kind of trick of compositing, but later, when we actually see the crew moving from cabin to cabin to cabin in one long shot, it seems that the entire ship-set was constructed as one giant cutaway.

Finally, saw the Last Days of the San Jose (no IMDB listing at this time). Fascinating. In 1997, South Congress was a dicey part of Austin, and the San Jose was a seedy hotel, its rooms filled by long-term residents half a step away from homelessness, by hookers and johns, by kids who needed a place off the street to get high. Liz Lambert bought the place with a vision, not shared by many other people, of transforming the place into an upscale boutique hotel. She tried to get bank financing for the massive renovation, and in the meantime, documented the daily goings-on and lives of the people at the San Jose with an inexpensive handheld movie camera.

In fact, it took three years for her to get financing, so long-term customers became part of her life. There’s so much in this movie, and there’s so much surrounding it. The renovation of the San Jose was the front edge of a wave of gentrification in South Congress, and I can only imagine that Liz Lambert looks back on the trail she has blazed with mixed feelings: the renovation of the San Jose was a dream of hers, and clearly one she held onto tightly through what must have been three pretty tough years, but when it came true, she had to kick out these people who had become important to her. But beyond that, I imagine she looks across the street at what used to be “GUNS JUST GUNS,” beholds Factory People (a pretentious shop selling ugly, overpriced hipsterwear), and thinks “wait…this isn’t the South Congress I signed up for.”

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my cat, Squeaker

In 1997, Squeaker was a neighborhood cat that our predecessors at this address had looked after. When Jenny and I moved in, she was wary of us, but eventually started hanging around on the front porch pretty regularly. When we had our first freeze at this address, late in that year, we took Squeaker indoors. She never went outside again. One marriage ended and another begun, and she’s been with me for about seven years now.

A while back, I noticed something like a wart on top of Squeaker’s left hind foot. I asked the vet about it, and he said that as long as it wasn’t causing any trouble, we might as well leave it alone. Six months or so ago, the wart apparently got torn off, leaving an open sore. The vet said that surgery to close it was an option, but it would be difficult because there’s little room and no loose skin there, and we should try to keep it clean.

The sore got worse and worse, though, and something had to be done. So shortly before Christmas, we scheduled an appointment for Squeaker to go under the knife. In the end, the vet had to amputate two toes that had been overtaken by a tumor; when we got the biopsy back, it turned out the tumor was a carcinoma. The vet told me that either this was the primary site–in which case he probably got all of it–or it was a secondary site metastasized from somewhere else, and if so, that “somewhere else” was most likely the lungs. Squeaker was due to go back to the vet’s for a bandage change in a few days, and at the vet’s suggestion, I decided to have an X-ray taken then to see how her lungs looked.

In the meantime, I stewed in my own juices. Chemo and radiation therapy are not viable options for cats; if she did have lung cancer, the only treatment would be to remove a lobe of the lungs. This sounded like an awful lot to put an old cat through (not to mention a budget-buster). The other option would be palliative care.

I’ve been around a lot of pets in my life–through much of my childhood, my family had at least ten cats and two dogs at any given time. But I’ve never been in a position of making serious health decisions for another creature. It’s a hell of a thing. We take these animals into our lives, and part of the bargain is that we’ll take care of them. We’re responsible for them. But it’s hard to know what the right thing to do is, especially when they can’t tell you what’s wrong, they don’t understand what is happening to them, and none of the options sound very good. I can only imagine what parents go through with their kids.

As it turns out, Squeaker’s X-ray came out clear, so she dodged that bullet. I feel like I’ve dodged one too.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events

Saw Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Very good. The production design showed meticulous, fantastic visual imagination (as did the closing credits, which are worth sitting through)–I noticed an Escher lizard tesselation in the floor of the herpetophiliac Uncle Monty’s place, and the movie was chock full of this sort of thing. Jim Carrey was his usual elastic, hilarious self. Lots of bit parts by great actors. Emily Browning, who played one of the children, is going to be the Angelina Jolie of the next generation.

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