Just one of the many interesting things about living in Manhattan is the way your life casually weaves in and out of the lives of various hyper-famous people who live here. Last Friday evening was the second occasion in recent times that I found myself in the same time and place as Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson – one of our more iconic local celebrity couples. The first time was several years ago while at dinner with my friend Idit in a Japanese restaurant on the Lower East sSde.

Lou Reed has a very unique voice. Even when he’s speaking at low volume, his powerful bass timbre has a way of cutting through the din of even a crowded Manhattan restaurant. It was fun to pinpoint the precise moment when the diners at each table realized that Lou and Laurie were in the house, sharing a quiet meal and a bottle of wine. This being New York, nobody looked at them or talked about them aloud. Instead, the transition in each case was from genuinely not knowing they were there to carefully pretending to not know they were there.

We New Yorkers are very protective of the privacy of our celebrities.

Pretty much the same thing happened this last Friday evening. Sophie and I were seeing the experimental play “London” at the Chelsea Art Museum. The play calls for the audience to follow the actors around on foot as they perform different parts of the drama in various galleries of the museum. Once again, it was fascinating to observe the exact moment when each theatre goer realized that the couple in our midst was Lou and Laurie. In every case that I observed, it took only a fraction of a second for the newly aware individual’s gaze and body language to adjust so as to resolutely avoid appearing aware of their presence.

By the end of the performance it was clear – if you were watching carefully – that pretty much everybody knew. But I don’t think I saw a single person actually look in their direction the entire evening. God, I love New Yorkers.

But it doesn’t always happen like that. Today I was speaking with my good friend Cynthia and she reminded me of the time we were watching “Babe, a Pig in the City” together at the $3 discount movie theatre (the film broke after 20 minutes and they couldn’t get it fixed, so I only ever saw the first 20 minutes of that movie. I guess that’s why it’s a $3 discount movie theatre).

Sitting in the seat next to us was the great independent film director John Sayles. We didn’t realize this until Cynthia accidentally spilled her bag of jumbo sized popcorn and it poured all over him. Mr. Sayles was quite gracious about it, and we ended up having a lovely conversation with him about the state of independent cinema, while we were waiting for the movie to start.

To this day, Cynthia still speaks of that day with a fond starry eyed look and a dreamy smile that borders on school-girl crush – the time she spilled popcorn all over John Sayles.

End of the line

Today, on Jan 20, 2009, a day long awaited by many, I am reminded of one of my favorite poems, from all the way across the sea and a time long ago. It seems that the British had no better luck with their Georges than we, in recent times, have had with our own.

The poem in question sums up, with eloquent brevity, the view of the English toward the entire unfortunate lineage:

George the First was always reckoned
Vile, but viler George the Second;
And what mortal ever heard
Any good of George the Third?
When from earth the Fourth descended,
God be praised, the Georges ended.

– Walter Savage Landor, 1775-1864.

Themes for today and tomorrow

It’s funny how your perspective gets warped when you work at a University and it’s that time of year – the big push before the big publication deadline for the big SIGGRAPH conference.

I came into the lab today already feeling a little punchy from the last few days of working nonstop on our paper submissions – all of which are due tomorrow, January 20. I could see right away that the grad students all had that same slightly dazed look – everyone is trying to get their paper out by 5pm tomorrow.

I ran into one of the grad students in the hall, and rather than ask him how his paper was going, which I was afraid might just make him more tense and nervous, I said “Happy Martin Luther King Day!” He smiled a big broad smile, and replied “And what are you doing to celebrate Martin Luther King Day today?”

Which kind of threw me back in the moment. With total honesty, I said “I’m trying to finish my SIGGRAPH paper.” He asked me why trying to finish a SIGGRAPH paper was celebrating Martin Luther King Day.

And that’s when I suddenly saw the connection. “Because,” I told him, “I have a dream!”

OK, so it may not be the right dream, but it sure helped lighten the mood.

The funny thing about this is that later in the day I was relating this conversation to another grad student, and he told me that he had told his wife earlier in the day that we really had a shot at getting this paper finished on time, in spite of all the work left to do.

Whereupon his wife had shouted out in support “Yes we can!”

Onions never cry

Last week I picked up The Onion and started to do the Sudoku puzzle. Within a few seconds I realized there was a problem: The middle square in the second-to-top row had to be a “1”, because of the positions of two of the printed “1”s. But that same square also had to be a “3”, because of the positions of two of the printed “3”s.

The puzzle wasn’t just unsolvable – it was obviously unsolvable, almost at a glance. I had never seen a broken Sudoku before. It’s one of those unexpected first-time experiences, like the first time you ever bit into a juicy red apple and realized that a worm had gotten there first.

I thought to myself “Well after all, The Onion is a parody newspaper. Maybe they thought it would be funny to print a parody Sudoku this week.” But that didn’t seem quite right. This puzzle wasn’t funny, it was just … broken.

For the last week I’ve been wondering how The Onion would handle this crisis, and what might show up in the place where they usually print puzzle answers from the previous week. Would they print an apology to their readers, perhaps a retraction of some sort, a plea from the editors for understanding, and a promise to do better in the future? I’m not suggesting that this is a major world crisis as earth-shaking as, say, an guy pretending to be the Mayor of Paris who emails a letter to The New York Times to trash Caroline Kennedy.

But still, something would have to go there, in place of the puzzle answer, yes?

Well, no. The Onion solved the problem in their inimitable flip-the-bird style. Apparently, as of this week, there is no Sudoku on The Onion puzzle page.

Vanished. As if it had never existed.




Update: My friend Charles just suggested that this may have been the plan all along. Perhaps The Onion deliberately published a broken Sudoku so that nobody would object when the feature was gone the following week. Hmmm, a puzzle of a different kind.

Don’t learn…

As thoughts drift to Washington D.C. this weekend, I’m reminded of a conversation I had there while attending a National Science Foundation meeting. This was shortly after the rather memorable episode in which the new Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings – after only two days on the job – issued a stern warning letter because an 11 year old girl named Emma interviewed for a public television show was naive enough to tell an animated character named Buster Bunny about “my mom and Gillian, who I love a lot.”

Silly sillly Emma. How could she not realize that the two grownups who had loved her and taken care of her all her life – including her own mommy – were part of an evil anti-American agenda? Even though this was just a passing remark made to an cartoon rabbit in a 30 minute TV special about making maple syrup and cheese in Vermont, the warning from the new Secretary of Education was enough to get the Public Broadcasting Service to pull the broadcast in most parts of the country.

Think how effective something like this is: Now Emma knows to be ashamed of who she is, of the people she loves, of her very life and those she holds most precious. In a way it was quite brilliant and bold for our Education Secretary (now in her last two days on the job) to use this little girl as a public example to hold up for shame and ridicule, as her very first official act. It sent a message to all little kids everywhere that they had better have the good sense to come from the right sort of family. And if they don’t, the little brats should be prepared for our government to turn them into figures of public shame in front of an entire nation.

I would be surprised if the incoming Arne Duncan will be able to come up with anything so splendidly dramatic right off the bat. You’ve got to hand it to Secretary Spellings – she set the bar very high indeed.

Anyway, back to my tale of visiting the NSF. At a reception before the meeting I got into a pleasant chat with two women. After a few minutes they mentioned that they both worked for the U.S. Department of Education. Ad libbing like a true New Yorker, I asked them how they liked the Secretary’s new education policy. “What policy?” they asked. “You know,” I continued, “Don’t learn, don’t teach.”

At which point they both got very frightened looks on their faces, peered around furtively to see whether anybody had witnessed them talking to me, and quickly excused themselves.

So much for New York humor…

Lady not in the dark

I just saw “Lady in the Dark”, the Moss Hart musical (with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Ira Gershwin). I’d been wanting to see it for the longest time. The basic premise – a woman who leads an emotionally repressed life, except in her dreams, where her alternate personality bursts out in splendidly over-the-top song and dance numbers – just seemed too wonderfully kooky to miss. Especially when Weill and Gershwin are providing the songs.

Alas, the socio-sexual dynamics of the film are now so outrageously dated that it’s actually difficult to watch. Sort of like trying to watch those old Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland films where they put on musical numbers in blackface. At some point your jaw just kind of hits the floor.

But there was one line that hasn’t aged at all. A throw-away quip tossed off by one of the supporting characters to explain why she doesn’t believe in psychotherapy:

“It would be awfully hard to convince me that the reason I don’t like artichokes is because my mother buttoned me up wrong when I was two.”

Now there’s a gal who could fit in just fine in any decade!

Give him the benefit of the doubt

I been seeing a lot of complaints about George W. Bush’s refusal to take any real responsibility for failures of his administration. But wouldn’t we all be disappointed if our outgoing commander in chief were to suddenly become apologetic and contrite about the mess his administration is leaving us with?

Think it through.

Suppose the man were to show some actual understanding of the sheer awfulness of what has been wrought by a long succession of unfortunate policy decisions over the last eight years: the vast number of civilian war deaths (mostly Iraqi), failures of financial regulation and the consequent economic meltdown, erosion of civil liberties and citizen’s rights, alienation and loss of allies around the world, degradation of the environment, failure to help our own citizens in times of natural disaster, and so much more.

Suppose he suddenly “got” it – and then decided to use these last interviews to admit his mistakes, to make absolution with the American people. How would that make you feel? I suspect it would feel us all feel pretty lousy.

For this would be a clear indication that he understands the failures of the past eight years. Which would imply that he was actually capable, somewhere along the line, of making better decisions, that he really could have done better, and that all of this was, after all, unnecessary.

Now that would be truly depressing.


    I had hardly begun – it began to be hard
    The bard in me tried, but such things try a bard
    For when all is reversed, then reversals are all
    And small thoughts at large, though largely thought small
    When forced to grow still, yet still grow in force
    Of course you may run, and they may run their course
    But I’ve learned to fear most what I’d most feared to learn:
    You can turn from the truth but the truth has its turn.



In the waiting room of a doctor’s office today I started reading a recent issue of Newsweek, and quickly remembered why I never read Newsweek. An article about a Chinese official who was fired for being unhelpful to victims of an earthquake in his district ended with the following paragraph:

“He wasn’t the only grassroots cadre punished for responding poorly. By June, 15 Sichuan officials had been fired and 13 others disciplined for “doing nothing” (another 50 who’d performed well were promoted). The swift punishments were a reminder of the Communist Party’s keen survival instincts – and of why it has managed to cling to power in China for nearly six decades.

Somehow I suspect that the reporter, Melinda Liu, did not originally end on this note, but rather that Newsweek’s editors realized that readers might somehow get confused by the facts into thinking the Chinese government was actually doing its job, in a way that was responsive to and respectful of its citizens.

Therefore they needed to end the article with a paragraph to remind otherwise impressionable readers that these Chinese are fiendish, dasterdly enemies, inhuman monsters who are only pretending to run a competent government.

Think for a moment how clever this is. Anything the Chinese government might do that is responsible, compassionate, helpful to or respectful of its own people can be used as a weapon of propaganda against it, a way of implying that this is merely a rogue government full of cackling fiends who are most likely rubbing their evil hands together in glee at how they’ve fooled everyone once again by actually being, um, er, competent.

Contrast this with us – the good guys, the actual representative democracy on the block. As our outgoing administration has reminded us, the proper way to show a people that they are free, that this is indeed their country, is by responding to natural disaster with utter incompetence and disdain, by appointing useless political hacks to key high level positions, by letting months go by without responding to disaster in a way that might indicate that your own citizens are entitled to respect, or even to basic services.

I’m not asking all that much here. When it comes to helping our own people, couldn’t we at least do as well as the bad guys?


“Anyone who claims that “24” has promoted torture should also acknowledge that with Dennis Haysbert it cast an African-American president seven years ago. If we’re going to take the blame for Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, I think we should at least get the credit for Obama. It’s the other side of the same coin.” – Howard Gordon, an executive producer of Fox Entertainment’s “24” (as reported in today’s NY Times)

WASHINGTON – Government officials have confirmed the first open and public exchange with an extraterrestrial entity. Sidney Greenblatt, special agent for the FBI’s exo-atmospheric investigations unit, has told this reporter that the visitors are real, they are here, and – after years of stealth observation of our planet from airborne saucer shaped vehicles – they are ready to go public.

“My counterpart in the alien Grobdarian government,” said Mr. Greenblatt, “is a nice fellow named Xlethku Znagflerp. Once you get past the odd fishlike smell and swaying eyestalks, he’s really rather charming.” Agent Greenblatt reports that the Grobdarians were quite excited to see their race represented on the popular TV show “24”, which has apparently become hugely popular back on their home world in Proxima Centauri.

“Mr. Znagflerp told us that Grobdarian viewers were quite pleased to see jack Bauer face off against alien creatures so remarkably like themselves in appearance,” relayed Mr. Greenblatt. “They realize that ’24’ has an unerring ability to predict the future – from our acceptance of the use of torture during interrogation of suspected terrorists to our election of the first U.S. president from a former slave race. Such prophetic ability is highly valued among their people.”

Mr. Greenblatt went on to explain that Grobdarians are by nature a peaceable race, which is why they were initially surprised to be portrayed on the show – in an episode cleverly titled “Illegal Aliens” – as bloodthirsty creatures bent upon the total annihilation of the human species. But they were swayed by the show’s great sense of realism and fine special effects, as well as Keifer Sutherland’s brilliant and nuanced performance, and have now enthusiastically embraced Jack Bauer as an honored enemy.

As this article goes to press, the Grobdarians, eager to play their part in this exciting drama, are hard at work perfecting a weapon that will reduce all carbon-based lifeforms on the planet earth to starch, a popular dessert food among their young. Mr. Znagflerp reports, according to agent Greenblatt, that the Grobdarians’ one regret is that the imminant cessation of all life on our planet will cause the cancellation of their favorite TV show.

And then they will no longer be able to tune in to “24” to find out what’s going to happen next.