Outstreched arm

Monday, May 28, 2007

The excellent Perfect Thing

Nesweek technology writer Stephen Levy's The Perfect Thing is a compact but thorough tour of the history of Apple iPod, blended with an analysis of the cultural impact of the device and some guessing about the magic ingredients that made it the Walkman, Nike sneakers, and hula hoop of a generation.

Levy's written on the history of Apple before (Insanely Great), and he's a knowledgeable and well organized pop-historian, armed with numerous anecdotes and memorable quotes. The titles of his books should clue you in to his attitude toward Apple. While he adds a very brief disclaimer about iPod not being really "perfect", that's just semantics. He's impressed by the company and he truly loves his little white bundle of musical joy.

Which is fine with me, since I share his excitement about this new digital entertainment era the Babel-like construction of which we've been watching for the past few years. Dreams of this new technology are becoming mainstream market realities - it's a new world of content that's overwhelming, but channeled simply and with authority; ubiquitous, but special; personal, but shared. Those conflicting qualities always appear to have been best married by people in Cupertino. Whether that's just perception or the true state of affairs in 2007 becomes clearer when each new sub-field Apple involves iPod and iTunes in - audiobooks, podcasts, portable video, jewelry-like electronics - gets quickly associated with Apple in terms of both market share and meme share.

Levy's history of events leading up to the popularization of "MP3" and digital music is clear, and at times, surprising to those of us who haven't seen it on a timeline before (who would've thought that iPod and Windows XP were launched at virtually the same time, weeks after 9/11?) His attempts to explain the cultural and market phenomenon that is iPod are admittedly modest - at some point, the sheer quality and appeal of the darn thing have to be worked into the equation in a major way.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter is "Personal", wherein Levy rolls his eyes at the curmudgeonly cultural critics who bemoan the "iPod culture" with its de-socializing white headphones and darn kids who dare listen to their Wilcos and Bjorks and Fergies instead of suffering quietly the urban white noise of the subway, the bus station, or the walk to the grocery store. Levy almost comes across as a rebellious fighter for his right to party alone if he damn well feels like it. It's not the only point at which he sounds younger than he must be (how about informing the reader of an insane 1966 Batman-branded album by Sun Ra and The Blues Project?) but it's a good one to learn to like the guy's style. Right on, dude. Right on.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

I did not find "The Areas of My Expertise" funny

Possible hate bait: I did not find John Hodgman's book The Areas of My Expertise funny in the slightest. Trying too hard, gratingly quirky, lazy. Sorry.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

How not to bite your nails

If I've ever ridiculed or scolded you for smoking or succumbing to another such nasty habit, it's time for me to apologize; not for the ridicule and scorn - those were probably well deserved - but for the hypocrisy. My name is Neven Mrgan and I've been an avid nail-biter all my life.

I've heard many explanations for it, and even more cures, and nothing made sense or worked. Or, it all made some sense and worked somewhat; not enough to stop me from cracking and chewing off my nails into a rather unattractive display. I've tried making myself aware of when I do it and forcing myself not to give in, but it can be really hard. If you don't bite your nails and you never have, I understand why you don't understand. In my case, it has nothing to do with the oral fixation of it (I hate the taste and the feeling). It's related more to the upsetting, obsession-fueling sensation of feeling the unevenness, the sharpness, the pointy, out-standing quality of my fingernails. It drives me crazy, like a thousand tags sticking out of the back of my T-shirt.

It's not rational, at least not entirely - while the biting has made my nails rough, they're not horrendous or medically worrying, I hope. For whatever crazy reason, my brain is irritatingly irritated by these imperfections. Perhaps that's a cop-out; that "crazy reason" could be something deeper - something from my childhood, a deep personality flaw, yada yada yada. I don't know and I don't know how to find out.

What matters is that I've currently adopted a fairly simple and effective way of dealing with the symptom. I carry a small nail file, and when frustration with my nails rears its ugly head, I pull it out and file away whatever tiny hill or valley upset me so.

So far it's worked beautifully. If I catch myself idly gnawing on my fingers, I remember the nail file immediately because it does something I could never do before - it makes my nails smooth and unnoticeable in a matter of seconds. See, part of my problem before was that biting a nail to fix its flaws is... well, pick your analogy. ("Like going at a bike with a chain saw to fix a loose seat post"? "Saving an oversalted stew by putting an army boot in it"?)

So why on earth hadn't I thought of this before? I mean, most people file their nails regularly. The trouble with that is, I would never reach that point since by the time I was near a nail file, my nails would be stubby little things, immune to further filing. So the key to the Neven Method™ is to have your trusty nail file on you at all times. You know the desire to bite comes when it wants to. Now that I have reasonably presentable nails, perhaps I can figure out how to rid myself of that desire altogether.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Classic album: Betty Davis (self-titled)

You may have heard that Miles Davis, the king of cool, the daddy of kickass, was married to this aggressive, punky funk testicle-crusher during his most badass period (late 60s/early 70s). You may have also heard that she turned him on to the hard and acid rock of Hendrix and Santana. That's enough to make her an interesting character, but you may have also heard that she released albums of her own. Her self-titled debut is an energetic jam featuring a jaw-droppingly tight band (Sly & The Family Stone's drummer and bassist - need I say more?) and madly screaming soul vocals. If it sounds too grating and violently feminist to you, that's ok. She wouldn't have wanted it any other way. You can just shake and snap to the magnetic beats and riffs. It's dirty, mean funk, and it snaps and pops like Sly Stone's most drug-drenched tracks.

Book review: Kings of Infinite Space

There I was in the library, unable to think of a single book to waste a few sunny afternoons with. I remembered that NPR had just done a piece on books that flew under the radar, and the one closest to me was James Hynes' Kings of Infinite Space, described as "Stephen King doing satire" or some such thing. It's a wonderfully entertaining book, written so smoothly and with such an ear for suspense, you won't even notice that by its end, not much has been "revealed" beyond what you've already learned from, say, Office Space. No matter - it's great fun, and the comparison to King makes absolute sense in that Kings of Infinite Space almost demands to be made into a movie; too bad it would be a little redundant for Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright to take on it.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Killer of Sheep is, alas, no classic

I really don't want to be mean to Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep. I don't hold a grudge against the movie; it didn't upset or offend me. But even if the hype hadn't been so hyped, and even if the expectations hadn't been so high, the movie would've done the same to me: bored me to death.

It's a detached, semi-documentary depiction of life in the Watts in the late 70s. That's about all that's clear about it. It proceeds as a mix of student-film footage, complete with entire scenes set to soul and jazz standards, and very clumsily scripted, acted, and directed vignettes which aim to capture the lives of honest folk in an unfair world. The aim is sincere, but it misses the mark of realism - and most of the time, it misses the targeted emotional impact as well. The student-filminess brings that charming naiveté to many of the setups, and the grainy, muddy photography is often touching; however, it's just as often dull and needlessly opaque.

What all this reminded me of the most is Scorsese's Who's That Knocking At My Door, another amateurish film bursting with developing talent and riddled with cringing mistakes. Killer of Sheep is an important document, in many ways. But it's a sheep in a feature length's movie skin, and as such, it's barely competent, let alone impressive.

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