May 29, 2009


Chip McGrath has pinpointed a big drawback with the Kindle:—
As you read along, there are very few cues to how near you are to the beginning, how far from the end. You’re always in the middle.
This is a pretty big drawback. You never know how far into a book you are? That's awful. 

May 28, 2009

To pee or not to pee

Here's a great idea: a website advising the public on the best time to go for a pee during a movie. Its called Runpee. As someone with a weak bladder and an unerring instinct for a dramatic lull, I was intrigued. For Star Trek they locate no fewer than six pee moments, which me as a little harsh. For Angels & Demons, RunPee advises a single dash at around the 70 minute mark when Hanks is in the archives and the power goes out. Amazingly, this is the only moment they recommend. One of the reliefs of that movie for me was I knew I could happily go anytime and not miss a thing. That said, I chose well and came back from the toilet to find Ewan McGregor a delivering a long speech about the unseen glories of the Catholic Church.

For Terminator Salvation, they advise two: one at the 50 minute mark, when Marcus cuts down the female pilot and another at around 75 minutes when he has almost had his leg blown off by a land mine and she helps him escape. Hard to disagree with those — there's a lot of agonised grimacing between the two of them which one takes to be evidence of a blooming romance — although Runpee also claim to have found two pee moments not only in the original Terminator but in Aliens. This is impossible: those movies are like bullets. Maybe that bit where Sarah Conner says, "I had a dream about dogs" but only in a real emergency.

If you want an overall rule of thumb: chose the 50 minute mark. You are, roughly, halfway through the movie. The first act is done. The action is beginning to let up. Maybe the director feels a theme coming on; the characters are gazing at one another, trying to figure they're all doing there and if there is a larger purpose to existence. The perfect time for a pee.

Terminator Cogitation

— "Why did he invent that frequency transmitter and then not use it?"
— "Lucky his heart was the right sort. Normally it takes much longer to find a donor."
— "They always end up in the furnace. You think they'd learn."
— "That was much worse than I thought it was going to be."

Some random comments on Terminator Salvation, made by me and my friend Scott, on the walk home.

May 27, 2009

Compassion is for losers

"Empathy triumphs over excellence." That was the headline of one of the articles announcing Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. "Empathy" was one of the qualities he said he was looking for, throwing everyone for a loop. There was a rash of learned articles about why empathy was a terrible thing in a judge, how it really meant activism, and so on. It was all very surreal. To my untrained eye they might as well have been headlined, "Compassion is For losers," or  "Goodness, go screw yourself". Personally, I like empathy and consider it a great quality in just about anybody. I liked bus conductors if they are empathic. I like policeman if they are empathic. I like scuba-diving teachers if they are empathic. It follows that I like supreme court justice possessed of the quality of empathy is a good thing. Obviously, it's not the only thing. I'd like them to have some legal training. I'd like it if they knew what a gavel is, and how and when to bang it. Imagine! And empathic too! Put it this way:  I tend to avoid people from whom the quality of empathy has been expunged. I wouldn't like an empathy-free bus conductor, for instance. Imagine the hit 'n' runs he'd get into, or the old ladies he'd get caught in his doors, all the prams he'd kick into the street. Same goes for judges. The article that ran under that headline "Empathy triumphs over excellence" was written by none other than John Yoo, the lawyer who told president Bush that it was okay to crush the testicles of a small child if he deemed it appropriate in the fight against terrorism. His answer, if memory sereves, was that it would depend on "why the president felt he needed to do that." A more empathic person might have inquired into the child's feelings on the matter. 

May 26, 2009

Up, Up, and Away

My review of Pixar's Up appears in The Daily Beast today. Cliff's Notes version: I liked it. 

May 25, 2009

No news is good news

This story, over at the Daily Dish, has me trying to work out why the biggest online news aggregator in America, The Drudge Report, is right-leaning. I don't mean the personal reasons why it's editor, Matt Drudge, leans to the right but why it might be that a news-website that leans to the right might be more successful than one that leans to the left.

It could just be that it is better, that Drudge has killer tabloid instincts, etc. But there's more to it than that, I think. Surveying a recent page of his, at random, I found stories about:—

— how Netanyahu is "defying" Obama
— Muslim riots in Athens
— a shoot out at a Sikh temple in Vienna
— a guy who mowed down a traffic cop
— another flu alert
— a NYPD forensics investigator stabbed to death in bed
— the Lars Vin Trier film Anti-Christ getting an award at Cannes
— British banks "revolting" against Obama's tax plan
— Iran wanting nukes

You get the picture: the world is a scary place. Muslims lurk around every corner. People are getting knifed in their beds. The French worship at the altar of the anti-christ. And our president is a wimp. Compare that to the leading liberal news aggregator, The Huffington Post, which today has stories about:

— Timothy Geithner disclaiming the accusation of "socialism"
— Colin Powell calling Rush Limbaugh "shrill"
— A woman in her fifties dying of swine flu
— the possibility of Afghanistan becoming second Iraq
— Bill Maher defending himself Sean Hannity
— Cannes gives top honors to film about Nazism
— An Iraqi interrogator calling Cheney on his facts

And so on. The only people dying of flu are old. The French know great filmmaking when they see it. America is not turning communist. The world is not such a scary place. The only scary thing about the world, in fact, is that it contains Republicans. The bulk of the left's stories involve defending themselves from the falsehoods and exaggerations coming from the right. One lights fires; the other puts them out. 

There's no question which world-view I find more helpful and yet the fact is: I read the Drudge Report way more than I read the Huffington Post. I'm tempted to explain that via an old debate that started up in England a few years back, when Martin Lewis, one of the BBC's blander anchors, complained that they reported too much bad news. His opinion was ridiculed by many senior journalists: what does he want? Stories about meals on wheels and puppy dogs? Most news, they pointed out, tends to be bad news by definition. I think much the same way about Drudge. Scary news is better than non-scary news. And the right has better scare stories than the left. Therefore, it makes sense that the biggest news aggregator in the country would be right-leaning. I'm none too certain about this theory but will continue to ponder the matter further.

May 24, 2009

The sidewalks of New York

Whenever someone asks you why I am in New York, tradition dictates that I reply with a sentence that uses the words "dream" or "opportunity". If pressed, I point to the fact that I was offered a job here, although the magazine I came out for is no longer in existence and the number of stamps in my passport tells you I was headed here long before that. America has been in my head for as long as I can remember. The simplest and most truthful answer to why I am here, in fact, is, "the sidewalks."

My vision of New York has always been bound up with its sidewalks. I can remember seeing Sesame Street when I was eight, or thereabouts, and being struck by them — big concrete walkways, the concrete a much lighter colour than it is in the UK, with the neatest of grooves separating each slab. They seemed so wide and inviting, big boulevards crying out for all manner of activity. The sidewalk, after all, is where most kids get to roam free. Roads are off limits: noisy dangerous places you cross with your mother attached to your elbow. And buildings are boring: the places the adults go to do their business. Which leaves, you, aged 8, with the sidewalk. That's your kingdom, as a kid. That's where you roam free.

We didn't have sidewalks in the UK; we had pavements, a very different thing, narrower, pinched walkways between roads and buildings which people funnelled down on their way to work. Ech. Some kids skateboarded on them, others rollerskated. I used to draw on them, using coloured chalks, outside my mother's shop in Brighton: pictures of Superman, mostly, and Batman, and Darth Vadar. I had a hat which passersby dropped money into, thus supplementing my pocket money so I could then go buy more Superman comics to study and transcribe. I used to get quite a lot of money, although once I was accosted by a crusty old man who told me it was "disgusting" that a child as young as I was was should be begging. I told him that I wasn't begging, I was drawing, but he didn't listen and staulked off.

What I really needed, of course, was a New York sidewalk. People draw on them all the time. They've got acres of room, plenty of admiring pedestrians and nobody calling them beggars. They're street artists. I'm no longer drawing, but sometimes, I'll be walking down one of the avenues, the sunlight will hit the sidewalk, dazzlingly, and I'll look about and think: this is the life. A nice, big, wide sidewalk. I could do anything.

May 21, 2009

Clues in search of a mystery

There's a moment near the beginning of the new Tom Hanks film, Angels and Demons, when Ewan McGregor, who plays a young priest, explains that he once joined the Swiss Gaurd and was trained to fly a helicopter. There's no reason for the speech except to set up the denoument in which McGregor leaps behind the controls of a helicopter and saves the day. The filmmakers were presumably worried that the sight of a priest piloting a copter might otherwise prove incongruous. What's incongruous to me is that they bothered at all. I mean what was it about that detail, in the blizzard of bullshit that is the rest of the movie, that cried out for their urgent attention? It's weird what some people get hung up on. Far more pressing to me, for instance, was how the clues to a current-day terrorist plot happen to be contained in a number of prominent Roman tourist sites dating back several centuries — St Peters, a Bernini sculpture, the manuscripts of Galilleo. Did the criminals nip back in time and plant the clues, just on the off chance that someone would want to solve the mystery, a few centuries later? Why would they do that? Wouldn't they want to get off scot-free? This movie is bonkers. I spent most of it staring at Tom Hanks hair, as I tend to do these days, impressed by his implants but certain they were beyond my price range. Why can Nick Cage not afford hair like that?

May 17, 2009

So what's he up to?

What would happen if the rule of law were to be suddenly admitted to Guantanamo? Most likely, the innocent would go free, some of the guilty would be prosecuted, but many would walk, irregardless of guilt or innocence, because the case against them was so tainted my the torture used to extract it. They might even have legal recourse to sue the people who had tortured them and the Bush officials who facilitated that torture. That will not happen of course. No sitting president can risk the possibility of freeing terrorists who later return to the battle field. Therefore, it follows, the rule of law can only be partially, or incrementally, applied. It's a little like like a drunk that is trying to get sober: sometimes, a drink is even necessary to stop someone dying of withdrawal. That's the best argument I can come up with as to why Obama has seen fit to re-instate, with modifications, the military tribunals established by Bush: the system set in place was so thoroughly corrupt, that to suddenly go cold turkey would most likely kill the patient.

I am going to have to take it on trust that were Obama to design the system himself, it would look nothing like Bush's. I am also going to assume that there exists a category of prisoner whom the government is 99% certain are dangerous terrorists, but against whom the case is so tainted that they cannot be let near a court. That puts me two assumptions away from being disappointed. It's uncomfortable.

May 16, 2009

America's Next Top Model: Season 12

I am proud of my abysmal record in picking the winners of America's Next Top Model. Season after season, my pick gets booted off by Tyra often for the very same reasons I liked them. Seeing as Tyra is a maniac, this feels like vindication. "She was too good for them," I think, as they skip gaily off the stage to better lives for themselves far away from the snarling bearpit that is the judging panel. But this season I excelled myself, picking Natalie and Fo as finalists, with Fo winning. Naturally, Natalie went out four weeks before the end, followed by Fo a week later (for her height!?). Feeling like I had done pretty well for myself, I decided to cave and meet the Tyra halfway. I would play by her rules, just to show that I really could pick the winners — I was just choosing not to. Out of the remaining three girls — Allison, Aminat and Teyona — I picked Aminat to win. She was the first to go out. Now it was down to two: I chose Allison. She lost to Teyona. That means I got three seperate chances to pick the winner, with increasingly favourable odds, and I got it wrong every time, right through to the end. Only the end of the compeititon — the sight of the winner, Teyona, standing there, weeping — stopped me from getting it wrong again.

This is disconcerting. All the time that I was picking the non-winner so consistently, I felt that I was, in essence picking the winners, but in reverse: you simply took the opposite girl to the one I chose and — presto — you had the winning girl. But Tyra has really screwed with my head this time. Even when I attempted that process of reverse-engineered selection, I still picked losers. This leave me with two options: either I am genuinely and randomly clueless, or Tyra really is, as I have long suspected, a cruel and wicked God, impenetrable to fumbling mortal minds.

Seriously, a New Deal

"More recent presidents have had trouble making their labels stick. Mr. Clinton called for a New Covenant in a series of speeches at Georgetown in 1991 as he ran for president, but pollsters turned thumbs down and he largely dropped it. George W. Bush championed an Ownership Society when he ran for re-election in 2004, but that also made little public impression.

Robert Dallek, a presidential historian, suspects Mr. Obama’s expression may suffer the same fate.“I’m not sure what it means,” Mr. Dallek said. “The successful slogans tied in a convincing way to current events. T.R.’s Square Deal, F.D.R.’ s New Deal, J.F.K.’s New Frontier and L.B.J.’s Great Society all resonated because they summed up what their presidents intended and what the public was eager for at the time. I guess you could say the same for the New Foundation, but foundation doesn’t strike me as a word people will comfortably take to.” — NYT
New foundations has problems: it's hard to imagine giving a building a new foundation. New foundation means new building. You can't just let it hang in the air while you slip in and replace only the bottom. It's like taking a card from the bottom of the deck, or removing a tablecloth while people are still eating.

Sugar on top

"You know you've arrived when, at the tender ages of 32 and 29, your films merit their own 'ism'" — from my interview with Ryan Fleck and Anna Bode, the directors of Sugar, in The Guardian

Those torture pics

Some of the photographs that Obama just suppressed have, nonetheless, come to light, courtesy of the Australian news channel SBS. Warning: the pic to the left is the least dismaying. Meanwhile, evidence continues to accumulate that Cheney ordered "enhanced interrogation techniques" to be used, not in order to stop further attacks, but in order to prove a non-existent link between Al Qeada and Iraq, as the pressure to justify the war reached its high-point. From McClatchy:
Interrogators at Guantanamo and other prison camps were ordered to find evidence of alleged cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein — despite CIA reports that there were only sporadic, insignificant contacts between the militant Islamic group and the secular Iraqi dictatorship.

During the same period, two alleged senior al Qaida operatives in CIA custody were waterboarded repeatedly — Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times and Khalid Sheik Mohammed at least 183 times.

A U.S. Army psychiatrist, Maj. Paul Burney, told the Army Inspector General's office in 2006 that during the same period, interrogators at Guantanamo were under pressure to produce evidence of al Qaida-Iraq ties, but were unable to do so.

"The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link . . . there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results," Burney said, according excerpts of an interview published in a declassified Senate Armed Services Committee report released on April 22.
Cheney is probably right to bet that popular opinion will come to his rescue all the time that torture is justified by the 'ticking-time' bomb scenario; but the possibility that he ordered it to prop up the teetering casus belli for the Iraq invasion will not, I believe, be looked on so kindly. Fighting terrorism is popular; the Iraq war is not.

May 15, 2009

Ol' blue eyes

Scorsese has announced plans for a Sinatra movie, prompting a flurry of speculation as to cenral casting. Nikki Finke has Johnny Depp as the front runner but he's too pensive-technical for my tastes. My wife just came up with the perfect suggestion: Daniel Craig. It gets better the more I think about it; just the right mixture of knuckled intensity and powder-blue smoulder power, plus he brings his own tux. And while we're at it, for Dean Martin: Michael Madsen. Ava Gardner: Ashley Judd.

May 14, 2009

Tick, tock...

The moment Nancy Pelosi swung into the frame as a possible target in the torture debate, I rejoiced; maybe with a Democrat as a target, the Republicans might have more of an incentive to put their shoulders to the wheel and — without knowing they were doing so —  ramp up the pressure for an investigation. Bingo: Today, Karl Rove calls her an "accomplice to torture." 

May 13, 2009

American facts

My novel appears to have found an American publisher so naturally I'm petrified. It has American characters, you see, and American settings and American pop culture references, the whole works. There's only one patch of Englishness in the whole thing and that's the hero. And while this was fine all the time it was only being published in London, where nobody really knows the names of the girls on America's Next Top Model or which team made it to the Superbowl in February of 2008 and whether they did so by means of a 28-yard touch-down, the chances that I have made some egregious error, and maybe even insulted my host country, have just increased exponentially. Obama is president — I got that much right.

One less for Cheney to worry about

"A former CIA high-value detainee, who provided bogus information that was cited by the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq war, has died in a Libyan prison, an apparent suicide, according to a Libyan newspaper.

Libi was captured fleeing Afghanistan in late 2001, and he vanished into the secret detention system run by the Bush administration. He became the unnamed source, according to Senate investigators, behind Bush administration claims in 2002 and 2003 that Iraq had provided training in chemical and biological weapons to al-Qaeda operatives. The claim was most famously delivered by then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in his address to the United Nations in February 2003.

Libi made up the story about Iraqi training after he was beaten and subjected to a "mock burial" by his Egyptian interrogators, who put him in a cramped box for 17 hours. Libi recanted the story after being returned to CIA custody in 2004.

"I would speculate that he was missing because he was such an embarrassment to the Bush administration," said Tom Malinowski, the head of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch. "He was Exhibit A in the narrative that tortured confessions contributed to the massive intelligence failure that preceded the Iraq war."

The Libyan newspaper Oed reported Sunday that Libi was found dead in his cell after killing himself, but added that friends of the 46-year-old former preacher, who ran a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, questioned the alleged cause of death" — Washington Post

One of the ironies of Cheney's position these days is that he is beholden to the opinion polls which he once affected to despise. From a legal standpoint he is probably guilty of war crimes. His one hope is that even if he is guilty, the American public are not in the mood to see him tried. And so he must double down, take to the airwaves, to acquit himself in the court of public opinion.

May 12, 2009

Good love in the house

Michael Steele's cringe-inducing co-option of black street slang has been a regular feature of this political semester. The other night, it met with a withering response from the only person on the planet with any authority to call him on it. "Where's Michael Steele?" asked Obama at the Washington Correspondent's dinner on Saturday night. "Michael Steele is in the house tonight. Or, as he would say, 'in the heezy.' Wassup? Where is Michael?" One of his better jokes, I thought. Until I heard Steele's response today: apparently Obama's shout-out constituted "good love between brothers." Incredible.

May 9, 2009

Live long and prosper

"I've met him twice. The first time was a couple years ago, very early on when he had just announced his candidacy. He was in Los Angeles, speaking at a luncheon we were invited to. There was a very small crowd - minuscule compared to the crowd that he gathered later - at a private home in Los Angeles. And we were standing on the back patio, waiting for him. And he came through the house, saw me and immediately put his hand up in the Vulcan gesture. He said, "They told me you were here." We had a wonderful brief conversation and I said, "It would be logical if you would become president." — Leonard Nimoy
Watching the new film I definitely felt a mind meld of sorts going on between Spock and Obama. He's mixed-race. He radiates skinny logician cool. He believes in the rule of law and follows a course of sober intergalactic diplomacy. Kirk, on the other hand, is played by Chris Pine as a scrappy hothead — a n'er-do well bar-brawler with a famous father, who finally follows his footsteps into the starfleet. Remind you of anyone? He even refuses to negotiate with terrorists — sorry Romulans — after the way they jerked his dad around.... More of my thoughts on the Star Trek reboot at the Daily Beast here.

Opening weekend guess: $75 million.

May 5, 2009

TPES round-up

My podcast about interviewing J G Ballard for The New Yorker here. My interview with Millicent Monks for The Guardian here. My book can be pre-ordered on Amazon here.
I'm currently laboring to finish a piece about John Cheever for Arete; someone remind me never to write a profile of a short story-writer ever again: all those stories, all those characters, each one demanding your utmost attention and most concentrated skills of precis. Next time could I please have a writer famous for a single, long masterpiece? A one-hit wonder like Kerouac, or Exley, please.

May 2, 2009

Casting Dick Cheney

Which movie bad guy is Dick Cheney? A debate has started up after Maureen Down reported that George Lucas rejected the analogy to Darth Vader: Cheney, Lucas said, is the wicked emperor who pulled the strings and turned his protégé to the dark side.
Lucas explained politely as I listened contritely. Anakin Skywalker is a promising young man who is turned to the dark side by an older politician and becomes Darth Vader. “George Bush is Darth Vader,” he said. “Cheney is the emperor.”
The New Yorker's George Packer objects:
Bush as Vader is ludicrous. The comparison betrays a failure on Lucas’s part to understand the resonance of his own characters, which explains a lot, especially about Episodes I & VI. Other than being the father of twins, Anakin Skywalker, born a slave, with extraordinary abilities (the “best pilot in the galaxy”), has almost nothing in common with Bush, born to privilege and not much of an advertisement for the notion of a natural aristocracy. Is Jenna going to be Luke and bring him back from the Dark Side? If we are going to play this game, Bush has more in common with Count Dooku, the Jedi dropout turned warmonger, or, better yet, Jar Jar Binks, who, after a buffoonish youth, improbably rises to a prominent political position and obliviously fronts for the soon-to-be emperor in getting the “Star Wars” equivalent of the Patriot Act passed. Of course, all this can be taken too far (Condoleezza Rice as Asajj Ventress), but one thing is clear: Donald Rumsfeld is Grand Moff Tarkin.
So who is Cheney? Andrew Sullivan has been running a tally of contenders: Dr Strangelove, Colonal Kurtz, Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. New York's David Edelstein suggests:
"Cheney is Palpatine with a soupçon of Sauron, a pinch of Voldemort, a dash of Mabuse, a jigger of Fu, with some Elmer Fudd and Richard Nixon folded in."
Lucas was right, I think: Cheney is Palpatine. A comparison to one character does not imply a corresponding comparison must exist for the entire cast or we would get nowhere. Which isn't to say that Lucas's films don't work as a broad allegory, mapping America's imperial leanings over the last few decades. In the first Star Wars, it was clear: the good guys were the rebels, mostly Americans but also inclusive of Wookies and droids, as befits a country built on its immigrants. They believed in Force that surrounds us all, binds us all together, and which was open to everyone, even a poor farmboy from Tatooine. The bad guys were the Europeans: they looked like Germans, sounded like Brits and disposed of their garbage like the French, which is to say: by means of hefty taxes and heavy centralised government.

By the second film and third films, this had begun to change: Luke was revealed as the Son of Darth Vadar and the brother of s princess. He was no farm boy. He had blue blood running in his veins. The saga took on a more dynastic, European tinge: the Force was no longer open to all but a matter of good breeding.* By the time of the prequels, this Europeanisation was complete, both in the film's gargantuan Renaissence-fair set designs and ceremonial deference towards titular privelage ("The count, your highness...."). Lucas was like one of those self-made American millionaires (Hearst, Hughes) who go shopping for a castle. The republic was shown voting in the tyrant who would centralise all executive power and turn it into an evil empire. "This is how liberty dies — to thunderous applause." Voila: the Florida recount.

*Talking of which Publius has a very good take on Republican fear-mongering re cloning.