Sunday, January 31, 2010

Avatar

How about the next time around, James Cameron produce and direct, and someone else write the dialogue? One "saddle up" speech of Independence Day quality was enough for the world. If someone makes a bootleg of the movie by removing all the dialogue and leaving the score and visuals, that movie would be one of the best ever. Surely entertaining as is, however.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Portnoy and his Complaining

I just finished Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. It was brilliantly hilarious at times, but it didn't have a standard narrative plot structure building to any conflict/climax/resolution, and I felt the litany of fantasies and self-loathing got repetitive. (For some reason I've been thinking about plot structure lately; mostly after noticing that Charlie Wilson's War (the movie) didn't seem to have any convincing conflict, nor did Crazy Heart (speaking of which, the acting was good, but not as good as Coal Miner's Daughter, and it was entertaining, but not as entertaining as Walk the Line.))

Also, I finished second for the year in the male under 30 age group in PCTR's Grand Prix race series. I got a shirt and a coaster today. Now I'm up to 14 coasters, but still no mugs. Also no belt buckles. That needs to change.

On a positive note, I am two datasets richer than I was when I woke up Thursday morning, so I have this great "I might actually graduate" feeling.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

You'd Think I Was Obsessed With This

But I'm really not. I mean, I haven't even been running that much lately; I've been sick, it's been raining, and I've been listening to a lot of music (Thao with the Get Down Stay Down, Vampire Weekend, Them Crooked Vultures, and just last night I rediscovered my love for all things Elephant 6). But anyway, here's an NPR article about barefoot running, and here's what shoe company Brooks has to say.

Oregon voted to raise taxes to pay for stuff. What a novel idea.

Kasparov wrote a fascinating piece on man v. machine chess for NY Review of Books. It might be gated, or maybe it's just me. [thanks JS]

Oh, and I'm totally, totally disappointed politically lately, as Obama is apparently the Clinton-like centrist he promised he would be instead of, you know, remotely progressive, and interpreting one Senate loss by a poor candidate as anger over far-left policies instead of what I think it is: anger about Dems being a bunch of gutless wimps (who haven't taken on big banks or other lobbyists). If you've lived under a cave recently (but only a US cave, since that's where Hulu works), perhaps you can cheer yourself up by watching Conan's farewell speech. Classy.

Or just watch this 70-minute scathing critique of Phantom Menace.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

School, blech.

School starts in earnest tomorrow. That means two days a week I have to actually be ready to teach by 8:00 AM. I know, I know, normal people have to be at work that early all the time. But I think grad school more than makes up for the easy schedule with its crippling depression. Not that I've had to deal with that lately--had a pretty good last couple weeks hanging out with all sorts of friends. Also watched Gran Torino (A-), Brodre (Brothers) (B; Haven't seen the remake yet, most critics think the original is better. Great acting but low production value), Fantastic Mr. Fox (C; I don't like much Wes Anderson), Elephant Man (B+), The Road (C), On the Waterfront (A if you ignore the history/politics), Deathproof (A; just a great action movie), and Duplicity (C+ I can't believe they tried for any serious emotion in this movie, it could have been great if they just went for 100% Ocean's 11-style sexy wit), with one more on tap right now.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Indonesia: One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Lion Fish

I got home from Indonesia almost two weeks ago. I haven't go snowshoeing, nor have I really gotten any research done, but I have had a blast hanging out with friends I haven't seen in a long time pretty much every day since I got back. But apparently all the late nights took their toll on me and I have gnarly cold today, which explains why I'm not in the theater watching Avatar as we speak. I start teaching Wednesday at 8AM, so I've still got one day to get my act together.

Anyway, I went to Sumatra. I flew to Medan from Kuala Lumpur. I wasn't in Medan long, but it was a welcome break from KL, in that I could actually get back into residential neighborhoods and wander down random car-free alleys. Then I went to Berastagi, where I climbed two easy volcanoes and ate some great fruit and street food. Then I went to Katambe and hiked in Gunung Leuser National Park for a day. I was planning to do a longer hike, but I belatedly discovered that the ATM's in the nearest big town only took MasterCard and my bank card is on the Visa network, so I didn't have enough money for a guide. I was still interested in getting a guide for 2 days/1 night, but thankfully the guide I met was straightforward and told me he thought I'd have more fun going by myself if I really wanted to hike 5 km/hour and 50km/day. The Lonely Planet (which was very outdated but revised this month) said a guide was required, so I was glad to discover that wasn't the case. Anyway, I hiked around in the jungle myself, but didn't really enjoy it as much as Sierra granite--the views never change since you can't get above the canopy. There was a good hot spring, some monkeys, cool insects, and five leeches latched onto my legs.

Then I traveled to Banda Aceh, where my sister and her family and a friend ML live while working for NGO's. I attempted surfing for the first time ever and got thoroughly trashed in a ridiculously short period of time. Then we went to Pulau [island] Weh, where we celebrated the New Year, visited the land my brother-in-law hopes to use for a marine research center, and went snorkeling right off our bungalow's front porch several times a day. I didn't see any octopi or sea turtles, but there were a million fish, including five venomous but rarely fatal lion fish in one short swim. Back in Banda Aceh I had a great time discussing development, the environment, philosophy and everything under the sun with ML, my sister, brother-in-law, and their cool aid-worker friends. I did a little tsunami sightseeing, seeing the Turkish Red Crescent housing development at Lhok Nga, a fishing boat that came to rest on top of a house, and a 250,000 ton electricity-generating barge that was washed 4 km inland.

On the negative side, jungle trekking didn't really do it for me, the average Sumatran speaks less English than anywhere I've been before so it was kind of hard to accomplish anything specific, and given that, I kind of wanted to be able to find more hostels with hot Norwegian nursing students to talk to, or at least wished that I'd been traveling with a friend or something like that. The highlights were definitely family, friends, and snorkeling, and all in all it was a good trip.

Here are a few pictures. More are on my picasa page.
Locals at the top of the first volcano

Some of that constant jungle canopy

Real big bug

The beach

Family

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Book Review: Born to Run

I just finished reading Christopher McDougall's Born to Run: A hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. It's about an indigenous tribe in the remote Copper Canyon in Mexico, the members of which like to run a lot. A crazy American dude has lived there for years and got some of the cooler American runners to go down there for a race. There's also discussion of the proper motivation for running (joy not money), proper form (landing on your forefoot like you would barefoot, not your heel) and evolution (we evolved running down game that can't sweat as well as we can). That sounds like lots of tangents, but they fit together well.

I liked it a lot more than I expected. I didn't really like an appearance by the author on a morning news show in which he seemed like a big tool pushing his pseudo-spiritual BS about barefoot running, but the dude totally knows how to spin a yarn. And he actually knows his stuff when it comes to ultras--both who are the best runners young and old, and who among those are the best all-around human beings.

Yes, there is some bad science in the book, but it only really bothered me in one chapter. He cites several studies showing that fancy motion-control/cushion/stability/whatever running shoes don't help prevent injury, the stupidest of which was a study that asked all the competitors in a big race about injury history and how much they spend on shoes, and what do you know, people with more expensive shoes got more injuries! (Right now I am rolling my eyes, swearing a lot, and feeling very misanthropic just thinking about this.) Of course they did. But did the spendy shoes cause the injuries? You don't know that. Perhaps people with previous injuries were more willing to spend money on shoes; this study doesn't tell you jack sh--. Anyway.

So aside from that, the book was way less BS than I expected. It was just a great adventure story about people running long distances and living an adventurous, non-corporate, non-consumerist lifestyle for the right reason--because they love it. I recommend it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Kuala Lumpur

I briefly stopped over in Kuala Lumpur on my way to and from Sumatra. I wasn't all that impressed by the city, and unfortunately I didn't get to travel outside of it at all. I spent a couple days walking around Chinatown, the (small) old colonial area, Lake Gardens park, and the Brickfields area. The city is way more developed than I expected. Not that I want to hold it against other countries when they start to develop, but I think walking around outdoor markets with hundreds of individual stalls is fun, while walking around multi-story indoor air-conditioned malls is not. It seemed to me that Malaysia is at the stage of economic development where they are justifiably proud of becoming a New Asian Tiger or whatever, and the environment and aesthetics are temporarily (hopefully) relatively less important. I don't really know what I'm talking about, but that's how I felt--the sole downtown park felt abandoned, KFC, McDonalds and 7-11 were omnipresent, and being a pedestrian was putting your life on the line. On a good note, I thought the vast multi-culturalism was fantastic.

Here are a few pics. More are on my picasa page. More on Indonesia later.

evidence of a famous graffiti artist
chinatown market during the day when it's empty
Lake Gardens park
McDonald's tray liner. Enlarge it and read it. At first I thought this was the most horrible thing I'd ever read, but then I saw a ballpoint pen ad on TV that was basically the same. So maybe it's just that all their ads are like nationalist Ovaltine ads.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Graphic Novel Memoirs

David Small's Stitches is really weak compared to Craig Thompson's Blankets, although the depiction of the eponymous stitches (on page 190) is rather arresting and well done.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Living in a Yurt

Packrafters Erin and Hig were in the NYT last week.

Travel Reading

I returned yesterday from two weeks in Kuala Lumpur and Sumatra. Posts on that are coming. First, what I read while gone.

The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb, about the attempt by three runners to become the first four-minute miler. Recommended by my friend Nano, I very much enjoyed this. There's not much to it in any deep literary or philosophical sense, but that also means it doesn't try to do any of those things and fail at it; it just tells an entertaining and suspenseful story (even though you probably already know the ending.) There are a few years' worth of 4:00-4:05 of attempts by each of the runners, and nearly all are recounted in detail, which can get a little repetitive, but as soon as this happens, the barrier soon falls and a few of the best competitors have a final showdown.

I was happy to enjoy this; I've been underwhelmed by most running books I've come across (Ultramarathon man, What I Talk about when I Talk about Running, Once a Runner) so was happy to find something I like about what I love. I finally got my hands on the public library copy of Born to Run, so that's next. I expect to roll my eyes at a lot of pseudo-science BS, but maybe with low expectations I'll be pleasantly surprised.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabakov. Or rather, I tried to read this. Its' a fake introduction, a poem, and then commentary. I got through the intro and poem and a bit of the commentary, but I just didn't get it, so I swapped it out at a hostel. Maybe if I'd been reading it in the US with handy Internet access to look up stuff, I'd've been able to follow it, but oh well. Especially disappointing given that Lolita was such a gripping (if totally messed up and disturbing) read.

The Best American Essays 2007. I've never read any of the books in this or the similar companion series (Nonrequired Reading, Short Stories, Sports, Travel, Science and Nature), but I think I might make a habit of it. As for this specific year, remember when Bush was president and the US was routinely violating both our the Constitution and international law? Good times, huh? Brilliant essays about it by Mark Danner, George Gessert, and Elaine Scarry that will bring it all back, and convince you it really was that bad. In fact, it was worse than you knew. Also, cool essays on the environment, philanthropy, and people jumping out of burning buildings. I think the nature of these books is not that you read every piece in its entirety; I thought about 50% were brilliant, 25% were good, and 25% I started and ended up skimming.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. I ran out of material, so I had to find something in the Taipei airport. I finished this in just a few hours on the next leg of the flight and enjoyed it very much. The prose wasn't anything to write home about, but the story is both beautiful and devastating at times. I thought the narrator's repeated introspections were annoying, especially at the beginning, but by the end you've been made to think about forgiveness and how individuals and society should deal with their crimes.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Butte Super Cut-Off/Big Sky Variant

A couple from Scotland did a version of the Big Sky Alternate/Butte Super Cut-Off on the CDT and put up new maps for the southern half (which they did differently than I did) and a very handy overview map. Check it out.