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Tom Mathy

September 8th, 2011 | File Under math, Nate | No comments yet

These were accumulated over the course of about two weeks sometime last year; I was posting a new one every workday to the Identi.ca microblog service (it’s like Twitter, but for much, much cooler people). But they’re a little hard to search for.

They vary a lot, obvious to obscure, basic-level to advanced. Your entertainment mileage may vary. No other commentary is forthcoming.

  • “That must be the slope,” Tom derived.
  • “Conic sections are my favorite thing in the world!” Tom hyperbolized.
  • “The sign just doesn’t matter,” Tom said absolutely.
  • “How good of you to include all of the elements not in this set,” complemented Tom.
  • “I thought I told you to find the vector product.” Tom said crossly.
  • “Well sure, everything’s a subset of itself” Tom said reflexively.
  • “I think I’ll graph the function over here,” Tom plotted.
  • “There’s nothing wrong with multiplying by the square root over itself,” Tom rationalized.
  • “Group theory is really something,” said Tom abstractly.
  • “None of the angles in this decagon are greater than 180 degrees!” Tom said with conviction.
  • “Multiplying by one gives me the number I started with,” Tom identified.
  • “Just for that, I’m going to swap your numerator and denominator,” Tom reciprocated.
  • “At times I like to pretend that I’m Rafael Bombelli,” Tom said with imagination.
  • “Evidently THAT angle is just 89 degrees,” Tom observed acutely.
  • “I don’t know how many roots there are and I don’t care to find out,” Tom said indiscriminately.

Woodrow

June 2nd, 2011 | File Under film | No comments yet

Despite the fact that I utterly failed to document my Hitchcock filmographical tour last year (I did indeed finish it, and it is really, really interesting to watch someone’s entire canon of work — you pick up on a lot more and more of the director’s actual touch comes through than when you just see two or three movies, where a single strong element (actor, plot device, scene) can take up more of it’s share than it really deserves), I’m doing another one.

Or maybe I am; I mentioned the concept to a friend (who shall remain nameless), and she suggested I do the same thing with Woody Allen. I’m really not a huge Woody Allen fan, but I’ve seen two or three that were good enough to watch, and the first couple were on Netflix’s “watch instant” at an opportune time, so I started in on it.

[editor's note: one of the lessons of the Hitchyear was to watch all of the movies in order; that way you get the more interesting fare (typically) as you progress along. if you pick and choose, then you inevitably end up with a stack of three silent movies that the director didn't write or care too much about ... all looming over your head on New Year's Eve.]

So I’ve done the first two: What’s Up Tiger Lily? and Take The Money And Run

What’s Up Tiger Lily? is, to say the least, and interesting concept: Allen bought the rights to a couple of cheapo, lightweight Japanese cop movies, and re-assembled a slapstick comedy out of the pieces (or some of the pieces, anyway), with a completely new audio soundtrack dubbed in (and dubbed in pretty well, too). Today that’s the kind of thing that you’d see Andy Samberg doing or some jerk on YouTube, except that they’d make it stupider. And this was forty years ago. But it’s funny. It’s not a classic, but it is interesting to notice that you can’t possibly unravel what you’ve seen and mentally re-assemble it into the Japanese original. It makes no sense at all. But maybe it didn’t in the first place. It’s also interesting that Allen appears in the movie, introducing it and answering “questions” like they do in Bravo and IFC navelgazery shows. Warren Beatty was probably really ticked.

Take The Money And Run is more of a straight-up comedy. It’s actually a faux-documentary, which I believe Allen has done many of, about an inept guy who somehow embarks on a low-rent life of crime … mostly robbing gumball machines and breaking out of prison. It’s funny, though it’s not quite coherent in a few places; there’s a lot of in-and-out-and-running-from-the-law. The funniest bits are individual scenes (such as two crews of bank robbers showing up to rob the same bank at the same time) which are just sort of linked together with narration. So there’s original material, but not a lot of polish.

According to The Wikipedia, there are 45 movies in the WA filmography (though I have to double-check; at least one of the early ones is a made-for-TV short, so they may not all be features or even available). Wonder how far I’ll get this time….

Flix

September 17th, 2010 | File Under fruitbats, TV | No comments yet

My prediction: there will never actually be an “Arrested Development” movie, but there will be a TV movie made about the making of the series. Starring Jerry O’Connell as “Jason Bateman,” Patrick Wilson as “Will Arnett,” Drea De Metteo as “Portia di Rossi,” Jesse Eisenburg as “Michael Cera,” Shawn Rabideau as “Tony Hale,” Katie Lowes as “Alia Shawkat,” Dr Phil as “Jeffrey Tambor,” Damon Lindeloff as “David Cross,” Mike Judge as “Ron Howard,” and Henry Winkler as “Mitchell Hurwitz.” Judge will direct.

Reflections on Watching The Postman a Good Decade Or So After Everyone Else Forgot It Existed

August 29th, 2010 | File Under west, wild | No comments yet

(Hey, I had laundry to take care of. Don’t judge me.)

1) Joe Santos needs to fire his agent. And if he’s smart, he’ll sign up with whoever represented that mule, because — and I’m not exaggerating — the mule had more and better lines. And it was a mule. A regular, run-of-the-mill mule, too, not even a talking mule.

2) When WW3 comes, stick as close to Tom Petty as you can get.

3) Any “general” who doesn’t recognize you — despite long, repeated, face-to-face conversations — just because you shaved off a week-old beard is probably not fit for command.

4) Joe Santos should probably also consider Ringo Starr’s publicists, if the mule’s people are not available. And Kevin Costner has the weirdest product-placement department ever.

5) Horses stand to lose a lot more comfort than people do in post-apocalyptic America. Tailors, fashion designers, and editorial cartoonists, on the other hand, are gonna love it.

6) Seriously — Tom Petty? Why, in all of the myriad of negative criticism of this movie (the justified and the over-the-top), had nobody ever stopped to harp on the fact that TOM PETTY is PLAYING HIMSELF in the movie. ? That’s right; HIMSELF: TOM PETTY. The _actual_ Tom Petty. I can’t see how you would be able to come up with any concern that trumps that. Tom Petty: post-apocalyptic celebrity mayor, on merit alone, should be the first and last issue raised in every paid movie reviewer’s comments.

7) If you’re playing “Dueling Shakespeare Quotes,” to the death, best stay out of the Comedies.

8) Movies that involve panoramic horse-riding montages while James Newton Howard music plays should be automatically edited for time when released for home viewing.

9) It’s easier to film post-calamity futures set in the Rocky Mountains, but the temptation to turn them into Westerns must be fiercely resisted. Seriously; I get that there was a nuclear war, but somehow it destroyed all automobiles … and not horses. It apparently also destroyed every form of transportation in between, plus wiped out all computers and electronics, yet it left wooden wagons okay and machine guns & ammo cheap and plentiful. Reality, though, is that even in the present, the Rocky Mountain states do have things like paved roads, so removing the electric grid will not instantaneously crank the clock backward to 1881. Besides, the Internet itself was designed from the ground up with the specific goal of surviving a nuclear war and remaining operational. I know it screws with storyboarding, but writers really need to take that into account.

10) It’s hard not to, but try not to consider together the fact that Tom Petty is not addressed directly by name as Tom Petty in dialogue, and the fact that Kevin Costner’s character (the titular “The Postman” himself) is never given a name either. Because that would suggest that Kevin Costner was, in fact, playing himself all along, which is a dystopian scenario indeed.

11) No one, past, present, or future, has ever looked intimidating while wearing a scarf.

Why You Should Own a Fruit Bat as a Pet

April 27th, 2010 | File Under fruitbats | No comments yet

(an essay)

1) Fruit bats are fuzzy like kittens. But THEY CAN FLY! Who wouldn’t want a flying kitten?

2) Fruit bats are nocturnal. That means they’re just waking up when you get home for the evening and the kids are done with their homework; no annoying fruit-bat-sitting during the day.

3) You don’t have to walk a fruit bat. They CAN FLY.

4) Fruit bats do not require buying special, fruit-bat-only food. “Ooh, look at me; I’m a dog, I only eat Dog Food. Go buy it for me.” I don’t think so. Fruit bats eat regular fruit, which you can buy at the grocery store. Just set out a bowl of apples or whatever is in season, and they’re happy. They probably eat table scraps as well.

5) Fruit bats might eat insect pests, such as mosquitoes, in a pinch. Other bats do, so they may experiment when given the chance. At the very least, insects are likely to be unable to distinguish between bat species, and will leave you alone.

6) Fruit bats do not require special housing, such as a “dog house” or “cat bed” or “bird cage.” Instead, they wrap themselves up with their own wings, even being so kind as to cover their eyes so they can sleep during the day. Storage is as simple as an umbrella or hat rack.

7) Fruit bats scare the living crap out of burglars. This one is self-explanatory.

8) Fruit bats make excellent Halloween companions. No “pet costumes” are required — let’s all face the facts, people who dress their pets up in Halloween costumes are one bad day away from complete psychosis.

9) Fruit bats are loyal. Since they’re completely undomesticated, they have no preconceived notions about human beings, so if you provide them with fruit (and/or table scraps), you’ve made a friend for life.

10) Fruit bats are much more fun at the Pet Park than dogs or cats. They can catch frisbees in mid-air, because THEY CAN FLY. Everyone will want to know where you got yours!

Why not order a fruit bat today?

Spectacled Flying Fox
( http://www.flickr.com/photos/shekgraham/127431519/ )

Instrumentalism

November 19th, 2009 | File Under music, Sound | No comments yet

You know that instrumental song that you hear everywhere, but you never hear the name of because … well, because it either has no words or the famous part of it has no words? Well that bugs me, so here for the sake of reference are those songs:

  • That mid-tempo groove track with the electric organ that you hear going to and from commercial on that late night talk show is “Green Onions” by Booker T. & the M.G.s.
  • That big band swing number that starts out with a drum solo is “Sing, Sing, Sing” by Louis Prima, the Benny Goodman recording.
  • The haunted house music is “Toccata and Fugue in D minor for Organ” by Bach.
  • The circus music is “Entrance of the Gladiators” by Julius Fučík.
  • The bagpipe song that isn’t “Amazing Grace” is “Scotland the Brave” and is traditional.
  • The “Kill Bill” tune is “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” by Tomoyasu Hotei.
  • The plate-spinning tune is “The Sabre Dance” by Aram Khachaturian.
  • The Elvis intro-music is “See See Rider” and is probably traditional.
  • The loud melodramatic music in the commercial for the lousy movie is “O Fortuna” by Carl Orff.
  • The gunslinger music cue is the main theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” by Ennio Morricone.
  • The twangy rock-a-billy song with the saxophone is “Rebel Rouser” by Duane Eddy.
  • The dramatic cue from the old suspense movie is one of several by Ronald Hanmer, most likely “Menace.”

Did I forget any? Describe it in the comments and I’ll add it to the list.

Spies Like Thus

September 6th, 2009 | File Under hitchcock | No comments yet

Three espionage-related titles from The Hitchcock Project: Foreign Correspondent, Torn Curtain, and Topaz.

Foreign Correspondent (1940) stars Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, and George Sanders (better known as Shere Khan). McCrea plays an American journalist dispatched to Britain to cover the final days before World War II inevitably starts in Europe, including a nonprofit peace activist group and the visit of a Dutch diplomat. The diplomat is apparently assassinated, but McCrea knows that the victim was in fact a doppleganger — the real diplomat is being held hostage while his captors try to extract secret terms of an international treaty from him.

The bulk of the movie is MacGuffin fare; the protagonist and his two British companions searching for one kidnapped person or another. What does stand out is the degree of humor — from the more seasoned fellow journalist who spends his time not drinking in bars, to McCrea’s complete inability to retain his hat, to the world’s worst bodyguard, to Sanders’ character’s lack of capital letters in his name. The ending was apparently quite dramatic at the time, involving an over-water plane crash. Plugged in after that is an open plea on the radio from McCrea’s character for America to join in the war effort — it feels very tacked-on, but I’m sure in 1940 it was quite a serious matter.

Day’s character is the stock part for the time period: dutiful daughter of the important man. Sanders is an atypically-helpful Bristish man (atypical considering that McCrea is American). There are some bold choices dramatically, like letting the audience know who the real bad guy is well before the end. There are also some questionable ones, like a car that allegedly disappears “into thin air” during a chase sequence, but could have been found in 30 seconds if anyone had bothered to actually look for it. Plus, like Torn Curtain below, for some reason people in some movies can’t spot close acquaintances and family members sitting ten feet away from them on airplanes. And it wasn’t the smoke.

On the whole, though, especially for the well-integrated humor, well worth watching.

Torn Curtain (1966) with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews is considerably less worth watching. Not that it didn’t have potential. The plot is interesting enough; Newman plays a US scientist who defects to East Germany to work on anti-missile defense systems for the Communists after the US government cancels his own research into the same technology. Except that that’s not actually what he’s doing; in reality he’s faked the defection to see if the German program hides the solution to his own roadblock. What makes the plot interesting is that Newman’s character has enlisted zero help from the CIA or anyone else for this venture; he’s just thought it up himself and gone for it, counting on East German sympathizers to help him back out once he’s learned what he wants to know.

Where Torn Curtain falters is in execution — the script (especially in the first half) has no flow and provides no insight into the characters — it’s more like a procedural; the soundtrack is light and peppy, which is totally at odds with the alleged suspense of the plot; and I hate to say it but the effects don’t work. Matte paintings, rear-projection screens, and sets that look as much like outdoor Berlin as the inside of a Taco Bell. The problems (according to DVD documentary sources) plagued the entire production, with numerous rewrites and disagreements … at one point, there was even serious talk of Julie Andrews having a musical number.

On the plus side, though, the last act picks up the pace considerably; Newman and Andrews manage to have a pretty good escape sequence, including the only time in film history when a bus ride provides any dramatic tension (yes, yes — I have seen Speed, and yes, that is a commentary on what I thought of Speed). An interesting DVD feature is the ability to watch most of the movie with the original Bernard Hermann score instead of the replacement ordered by Hitchcock after he and Hermann had a falling out. Hermann’s is the better; it hits moments on screen that make you wonder early on about the allegiances of the characters, and actually feels like a drama the entire way through. I don’t know what Hitchcock was thinking asking for it to be pepped up.

Topaz (1969) concerns US and French secret agents trying to uncover a ring of high-level double agents that has been feeding secrets to Cuba. In my opinion, it’s excellent; it got unfairly slammed at the box office when it came out, but if you look at why, it’s hard to sympathize. It has no big name stars, no hidden identities, and no chase sequences. It has dialogue. Entire scenes where the only way you can follow what is going on is by listening. Hard to believe, but that is enough to turn off most movie audiences (now and in 1969).

But it’s filled with interesting devices, such as a nearly silent scene where the daughter of a defector escapes a tail while browsing in a porcelain museum, two sequences where the French agent enlists local help to talk his way past Cuban security, and you have to observe the action without the benefit of hearing the dialog because it is behind glass, and one of the few times in movie history where a cartoonist saves the day (the only other one I can think of is Zodiac).

So yeah, Topaz isn’t a “suspense” film like Notorious or Dial M For Murder. Hitch deserves some credit for trying something different, and more for actually pulling it off. The production this most reminded me of is John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, because it is also about uncovering a double agent, but at a deeper level, too. Both films emphasize what espionage is really like — lying about who you are and what you do, tricking people into giving up information they want to keep secret, and never knowing which of the people around you you can trust. It doesn’t look like fun, does it? Jumping out of planes, racing speeding cars along the Riviera, scaling down the walls of hotels — that looks like fun … which is probably why the James Bond movies made a lot of money. And why they’re all individually forgettable.

Topaz isn’t as good as Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, but the latter is a seven-part miniseries, and it digs in deep to some real issues about giving up a little information to gain a little more information — and how the intelligence business is ultimately an untrustworthy house of cards because both sides are always willing to do just that. Topaz settles for less far-reaching fare, but it delivers a solid dose of intrigue and open questions in its own right. I’d recommend both, but within the Hitchcock canon, Topaz is definitely in the yes pile.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily

July 12th, 2009 | File Under hitchcock | No comments yet

I’m way overdue to post about the Hitchcock endeavor, but some progress has been made. Here’s what I’ve added so far: The Lady Vanishes, Saboteur, Lifeboat, and The Trouble With Harry. I know; that’s not very many. The problem is, I got distracted by watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents through Netflix’s Watch Instantly. There are 39 episodes per season; so far I’ve seen almost two complete seasons. It’s entertaining just for the intro/outros from Hitchcock.

But on with the show. I’m at least going to record capsule reviews. First up: Lifeboat (1943), starring some people you’ve never heard of and Hume Cronyn. The plot: the first few days of a random assortment of torpedoed survivors adrift in a lifeboat in the north Atlantic. Really good; if Film Critics hadn’t spent so much time talking about it, I might not even have noticed that the entire thing was set on a lifeboat, which is a “technical feat” that evidently impresses industry folk. Interesting that it was made during World War II; most of the time a war has to end before it’s reasonable subject material. That said, I do find some of the stock-character-types amusing. For one thing, the German is a true dyed-in-the-wool Nazi superiority believer, not merely a military man doing his service. Of course, that makes for better conflict. I did find the clashes between several of the American characters odd, since they were so split along “class” lines — rich industrialist, poor working stiff, poor simple farm lad, rich reporter. Wait; where did anybody ever get the idea that reporters are rich? Anyway, the film does have some really striking moments, including the first time everybody in the boat wakes up and they re-do the headcount.

Next, The Lady Vanishes (1938); also mid-WWII (at least for the Brits). A surprisingly long set-up at a hotel, followed by the actual plot on board the train. The premise of the story was also explored in an episode of ‘Presents, and perhaps more disturbingly. Nevertheless, the confinement to the train and the utter surreality of the predicament of everyone around you telling you you’re crazy makes for a good tale. If you’re the slightest bit paranoid, you’ll relate well. I do think it’s weird that during the course of the story, you see up close that several of the other train passengers are *not* part of any conspiracy to treat the heroine like she’s imagining things, but they do so anyway for their own reasons. Like a lot of really old Hitchcock movies, I wish it didn’t have to have such a neatly wrapped up happy ending, but the explanation of why the old lady disappears (and how) is at least interesting. I recommend watching it, then watching the ‘Presents episode, which is entitled “Into Thin Air.”

The Trouble With Harry (1955) is called a dark comedy, although it is really not dark in tone; it just involves a dead body — so unless you consider Weekend At Bernie’s “dark comedy” we need to concoct a new term. It’s actually very light, almost too light for me. I think certain kinds of comedy don’t age well — verbal humor does, visual humor sometimes does, sitcom humor does not. For instance, I have seen a couple of episodes of I Love Lucy, and wasn’t tempted to laugh even once. The Trouble With Harry is a lot closer to being funny, but months after watching it what I remember most is the dramatic stuff; along the way we learn more and more about the departed “stranger” Harry, which continually changes what we think of the living characters. It’s an interesting device, and an interesting way to tell a story. It’s just not a laugh riot.

Finally, Saboteur (1942) is a “chase” movie, much in the vein of North By Northwest or a modern “edge of your seat” thriller. But it’s not a bad one, despite the lack of explosions. What really sticks out to me is that Hitchcock knew how to get his protagonist in and out of really tight situations without resorting to cliches. No helicopters crash into fighter jets, but people have to use their wits to get out of trouble, such as being mistaken for one of the conspirators and driven directly to HQ in a car-full of *real* conspirators who will kill you if they catch on. If Michael Bay were making this movie, the only way to escape would be to disarm the guards, shoot everyone, then leap from the car as it goes off a bridge. You probably won’t be on the edge of your seat if you watch this today, but try and think how you would get out of the jams — neither the villains nor the heroes are idiots here, which is a lot more interesting to watch.

Without giving too much away, somebody sabotages a US factory during the war, and the more we learn about it, the more it seems to be evil Americans who hate America or democracy, or just want to push America into WW2 to profit from it or to clean up financially in the aftermath of the war, etc etc. If that sounds like a laundry list of all of the “conspiracy” plots you’ve seen stretched over action movie scripts since the Cold War — congratulations. It is. And it was all here in 1942. I haven’t watched 24 in years, but they’ve retreaded every single one of those conspiracies multiple times, and done it without a single one of those non-idiot heroes and villains. So check out Saboteur if you want to see where ideas come from….

Nate and The Fat Man

January 15th, 2009 | File Under hitchcock | No comments yet

For no reason whatsoever, last week I informally decided that one of my 2009 resolutions would be to watch all of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. Well, in truth it wasn’t for no reason — it was because I started watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents through Netflix’s Watch Instantly. For genuinely no reason, I am going to keep track of that process on this blog.

But before embarking on the journey, I decided to take stock of what the big man’s filmography actually was. And it’s not short. Here is the list:

  1. The Pleasure Garden
  2. The Lodger
  3. Downhill
  4. The Ring
  5. Easy Virtue
  6. The Farmer’s Wife
  7. Champagne
  8. The Manxman
  9. Blackmail
  10. Juno and the Paycock
  11. Murder!
  12. Elstree Calling
  13. The Skin Game
  14. Mary
  15. Number Seventeen
  16. Rich and Strange
  17. Waltzes from Vienna
  18. The Man Who Knew Too Much
  19. The 39 Steps
  20. Secret Agent
  21. Sabotage
  22. Young and Innocent
  23. The Lady Vanishes
  24. Jamaica Inn
  25. Rebecca
  26. Foreign Correspondent
  27. Mr & Mrs Smith
  28. Suspicion
  29. Saboteur
  30. Shadow of a Doubt
  31. Lifeboat
  32. Spellbound
  33. Notorious
  34. The Paradine Case
  35. Rope
  36. Under Capricorn
  37. Stage Fright
  38. Strangers on a Train
  39. I Confess
  40. Dial M for Murder
  41. Rear Window
  42. To Catch a Thief
  43. The Trouble with Harry
  44. The Man Who Knew Too Much (56)
  45. The Wrong Man
  46. Vertigo
  47. North by Northwest
  48. Pyscho
  49. The Birds
  50. Marnie
  51. Torn Curtain
  52. Topaz
  53. Frenzy
  54. Family Plot

Yikes. Just in case I run out of time — or motivation — I’ve marked the films I’ve already seen in italics (to the best of my current recollection), and will focus on the previously unseen ones to start with. If I make it through all of those, then I could tackle the repeats. And if I complete those, perhaps tackling every TV episode he directed (although he hosted every episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he only directed a few of them). And if I complete those, then I guess I’ll just watch the three or four early movies that are long out of print and believed lost entirely. I’ll let you know if I manage to pull that off.

Zillions

December 6th, 2007 | File Under eccentric billionaires, Nate | No comments yet

Question of the week: if one of your crackpot ideas suddenly takes off and you become an eccentric billionaire (and thus, unavoidably, eccentric billionaire adventurer), what obscure world record will you become obsessed with setting?

Because honestly, until I come up with a good one, I just can’t see the point in making all that money, and I for one am not going to do it.

So this is what happens

November 20th, 2007 | File Under Nate | No comments yet

… when you forget to look outside for a couple of days.

Tick Tock, Tick Tock

How time flies.  I count 14, so there is still considerably more to come.  And if you’re wondering about the inverted-T distortion, that’s the wire cage keeping out the varmints and neighborhood kids.  Early tomorrow morning I’ll remove the cage and shoot a few more, since the window is so short.

Then is the new Now

October 9th, 2007 | File Under Nate, retro, west, wild | Only one comment so far

or, “The Times, It Are A-Changin’”

Recently The New York Times flung open the vaults to its online article archive, permitting free access to non-advertising content as far back as 1851, complete with full-text search. Is that a valuable research tool, or an unparalleled means to waste time?

Guess that depends on how you look at it. For my part, I decided it would be interesting to look up some contemporary reporting on Wild West figures (that relates somewhat to my grad work on re-enacting).

So, for instance, you can read the very first mention of Billy the Kid, which covers his arrest in 1880. The NYT subsequently reported on his death in 1881.

If that seems like slim coverage of the most famous outlaw of the time period, he at least fared better than stagecoach robber Black Bart, who endured a longer and far more interesting career (1888). Even John Wesley Hardin warrants a more detailed “breaking news” account of his capture on board a train, the authorities having been tipped off in advance and cleared the car of bystanders.

Perhaps papers out west would have provided more in-depth coverage.

Like they gave to Butch Cassidy, whose career was covered considerably later, with more of a “follow along” feel. In 1899, the NYT reports on the first member of his gang being captured. In 1902, authorities claim they are closing in on the ringleader himself. To learn what happened next, of course, you’ll have to watch the movie.

But fame, we learn, is a two-way street. Jesse James’ first mention comes not through reportage on his actual crimes and escapes, but in the form of an 1875 letter to the editor, defending himself against the accusations of (presumably other) papers regarding his involvement in some particular escapade. So mistrustful is he of the papers that he demands they print his defense without editing for spelling and grammar. Though it’s not like he needed to tell us that.

Fame can also be fickle. Perhaps the most interesting public record is Wild Bill Hickok’s. First he is commended in 1867 for having done “good service for the Union in the war.” But the same year, he is also derided as “a gambling bummer of the low order.”

Things turn up in 1872, when he is made a Marshall, although it is not without criticism. “Violent disorders oftentimes require violent antidotes, and therefore was this man Wild BILL, chosen Marshal. He effected what a less desperate man could not, and that was an almost total cessation of street fights…”

A few months later, Hickok’s “tough love” approach to law enforcement makes for more positive news. ” .. the famous “Wild BILL” was prevailed on to take the post. This excellent person bears the reputation of never missing his man when he has leveled his fatal pistol, and of having by a judicious exercise of this engaging talent killed more men than any other on the Western frontier.”

We assume those “men” are all bad guys. Interestingly enough, the article doesn’t dwell on it but the language does seem to support Hickok’s reputation as a bit of a “slow draw artist” — not renowned for being the first to fire a shot when trouble bubbled up, but almost certain to be the last.

Alas, the career soon hit the skids yet again, and Hickok eventually moved to South Dakota to try and lose all of his money playing cards. By 1877, his death itself was not considered newsworthy by the NYT, but the execution of his killer was. From there it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to HBO series stardom.

There’s certain to be more such gems buried in the NYT archive, though if you try it for any length of time, you will get frustrated at its lack of flexibility. Like the lack of phrase searching. “Wild Bill” turns up all articles with both words independently, rather than the exact phrase. And from the looks of it, Congress during that time period had some pretty wild days and passed quite a few bills.

Nuestro Pueblo

September 22nd, 2007 | File Under art, retro | No comments yet

Since I’m on NewsVac duty this weekend (and no, that’s not a euphemism; that’s actually what it‘s called), I am going to be near a computer for a lot of time anyway, so I thought it a good opportunity to polish up some photos and make better use of Flickr.Watts Towers SR

Take Nuestro Pueblo, for example. That’s the official name of Watts Towers, which my brother Adam and I drove out to see when I was in Los Angeles last month.

It’s the single-handed work of Sabato Rodia; seventeen independent structures built out of steel and mortar, inlaid with mosaics made from tile, glass, ceramic pottery, stone, and all other manner of found objects — and carved, impressed, and everything else.

Rodia signed the pieces with an SR in numerous places, many (like the one at left) also sporting impressions of his tools.

He built the towers after work and on his days off, over an astounding thirty year timespan, starting in the 1920s.

Watts Towers skylineThe tallest of the towers reach about one hundred feet into the air, which is impressive for a structure built by hand no matter where you find it, but is even more unusual given that Rodia built the entire collection of spires, stairs, alcoves, and fountains in his own yard.

Somehow I suspect that you couldn’t get away with that today. At least, not any place I’ve lived.

Rodia gets a pass because he’s considered an “outsider” artist; mostly meaning that the didn’t market himself commercially (sure, I know people will disagree about the definition here, but that’s what it boils down to). Allegedly in the early Fifties when he decided the sculpture was completed, he deeded his property over to one of his neighbors and moved away, never to return.

Automatic for the artistWe headed out to Watts about 10:00am — which is quite a drive from West Hollywood on a weekday in a vehicle with no A/C — without real exact directions. Luckily, finding the site is not difficult, since Watts is still an almost entirely residential neighborhood with mostly single and two-story dwellings.

Unluckily, as with every place in the greater LA area, there is no place to park, so we stashed the car and walked a couple of blocks to the spires. There we discovered a full-fledged (if small) art museum, an outdoor amphitheater, and a uniformed police officer encouraging us to take the tour. We decided we didn’t have time (half an hour until the next tour, and another for the tour itself) and went self-educated.

Watts Towers doorwayThe downside here is that the sculpture is surrounded by a security fence only paying tour members are allowed inside. On the other hand, the sheer size of the installation makes it nearly impossible to photograph in its entirety from outside the fence — you have to come close to standing in other people’s yards — so being inside the fence would not have solved that problem.

In this case, I opted for a few “normal” shots of the tall spires that will have to be stitched together with Hugin, and then switched over to the Lensbaby to bring out the raw peculiarities of the site.

Supposedly they have concerts at Watts Towers a couple times each year; no idea if they feature “outsider” musicians.

All in all, easily one of the most unique* sites I’ve seen in California, even if it’s not on the star maps or bus tours. It’s hot and you have to walk. When you see it, it seems to have neither rhyme nor reason. If you don’t get that, I guess that makes you an insider artist.

Watts Towers inside

* – You heard me. It’s more unique than many of the other unique things in California. Some of them are very unique in their own way, just not as unique.

Wasteland

April 7th, 2007 | File Under Click | No comments yet

… or, Naught In My Back Yard. A few minutes ago:

hoth

Dust bowl ballads

March 6th, 2007 | File Under Click | 2 comments

The scene outside my front door last Saturday:

Better Red Than ... something

Last post

September 20th, 2006 | File Under Nate, Sound | 3 comments

Attention-grabbing headline, eh? I was going to title this There’s Lots of Room for You on the Bandwagon, but I couldn’t pass up the shock value.

Anywho, the fun-loving cobblers at Last.fm have finally released an audioscrobbler player that works on my operating system, so I decided to try it out.

In stark contrast to its disturbingly eschatological name, Last.fm is nothing more calamitous than a little computer program that watches what music you listen to and logs it remotely. That lets you do two things: browse the site’s recommendations based on what you listen to, and share your song info with others.

So if you want to know what I’ve been listening to, all you have to do is visit http://www.last.fm/user/n8willis/. Well, actually that’s just a summary page; recent tracks is the feature I was referring to.

There are plugins and whatnot to embed this info in WordPress, but I haven’t gotten around to them. And like every other “social computing” site to pop out of VC over the last couple of years, the Last.fm site is strewn deeply with buzzword compliance like groups and tags. They don’t add anything to the service, they just make you want to spend a few minutes at the automatic Web 2.0 BS Generator to unwind.

20 days, 17000 miles, 1243 photos

August 23rd, 2006 | File Under Nate | 4 comments

We’re all back in the republic now, if there was any doubt. To show for it I’ve got nearly eight gigabytes of photographs (raw). That’s going to take some time to sort through. I know, I know – everyone visits Prague Castle or some old river and thinks they’re the only one who turned a camera on it. So I promise not to go crazy. But I will try and sift through the damage and find things to show for those who want to see them. And in the process, hopefully get more familiar with Adobe Lightroom.

Wall Art

Kangaroo sausage

August 3rd, 2006 | File Under Nate | 2 comments

aka two things they don’t have in Vienna. I don’t know who’s responsible for the sausage misunderstanding; presumably Hormel or Kraft or someone of their ilk. But the Vienese are pretty up-front about the Kangaroo thing. I can’t imagine how it became a big deal, but it must have happened during the short-lived “Dundee” era as it was known here in the US.

Austria has a dearth of famous people these days — entire palaces and museums about empires we were never taught about in school in Temple Texas and Springfield Missouri. Then there’s a big gap. Apparently Ahnold is out of favor here at present, which leaves them with exactly one bragging point: Mozart (well, almost one). And boy do they crank it to eleven on the Mozart. The streets are teeming with hired hands dressed in Mozartlian finery hawking tickets and programs. Though only about one in six seems to go as far as the powdered wig — which I would consider far and away the high point of the get-up. A few sad sacks even hit the street in Court Casual — half costume, half comfort. That is, period jacket and puffy shirt … and jeans.  Where I come from, that’s glorified busking.
schonbrunn-g1.jpg

Up, up, and I used that one already

August 1st, 2006 | File Under Nate | No comments yet

In abour an hour, we’ll be leaving for Europe.  If you have no idea what I’m talking about, who “we” are, where in Europe we’re going, where Europe itself is, or even where we’re leaving from, stay tuned.  Today will likely be a long string of airport layovers, and if DFW is any indication, there will be rampant inspiration to find something to do from within your own carry-on luggage.

Better Ned than Red

June 24th, 2006 | File Under Nate, Sound | Only one comment so far

Last week I did something I hadn’t done in about a decade — listen to a new Ned’s Atomic Dustbin single.

See, the band split up in the mid-90s, due to record label trouble. And for a long time, there was nothing. Several band members started other projects, some just left music entirely. Then in 2000, they were invited to perform a set at a multi-band showcase show celebrating the birthday of the local club where they got their break.

They must have enjoyed it, because the following year they played a couple of other gigs. In fact, they were scheduled to play in New York on September 14th (or 15th?), 2001 — I was unable to travel up there to attend, but did persuade the then-local Alisa Cooper to purchase tickets. That show, of course, never happened, given what transpired a few days before the scheduled event. The Neds never returned to the US.

But they kept doing more and more regular shows — Christmas every year is a staple — while maintaining that they only wanted to remain event-centric, not “reunited.” But then they released a couple of live CDs, and a concert DVD, then last year, a couple of new songs began to appear in the setlists. Finally, a couple of weeks ago (on my birthday, no less) they released a new single. I preordered.

Reasons to like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin? Legion. For one thing, they straddle genres in some unique ways. I say it’s like punk music if it had been invented by youths non-angry and (lacking a more polite way to put it) non-stupid. Most non-fans remember them only as “the band with two bass players” — although that doesn’t really describe the sound. One plays rhythm lines, the other lead. Yeah. Lead on bass. Don’t think Primus; nothing like that. The chap’s name is Alex Griffin, and he plays the bass like a guitar — either the melody or a countermelody to the lead guitar. But unlike with two guitars playing lead, the bass and guitar lines are in different enough registers that they don’t step on each other (I’m not a musicologist, if you hadn’t guessed). It’s just different.

That and Jonn Penney, the vocalist, who is a reason unto himself. The most upbeat individual in the music biz. He’s clever, he uses wordplay, he writes introspective, optimisticly-melancholy lyrics, and no matter what he says, he wins you over. I’m serious; in the Ned’s hiatus he founded an indie record label and in a one-page interview about it, he had me excited about indie music and local artistry — through talking about Stourbridge England, and how positive he felt about its music scene. I’ve never been to Stourbridge.

The Neds today are a little different; two of the original five — though invited, and still apparently on good terms — are not playing with them, replaced instead by volunteers from Jonn’s other hiatus project, Groundswell UK (whose album and single are also worth hearing).

So, how’s this new single sound? It’s good. Hibernation; for the fans I’d say it falls into the Are You Normal? spectrum, but not exactly. Beyond that it’s catchy enough that it sticks in your head. It seems to be well-received, too — according to MySpace, Ned’s are (temporarily) the number-one merchandise-selling artist.

Lucky for us, the band’s Web site says they’ve now headed to the studio, recording more new material. Perhaps that means a full-length album. If so, whichever direction they take it, it’s always fun to see those first-time reviewers grapple for a new way to comment on the two bass players.