Parallel lives

I recently watched a short documentary about Frank Sinatra. The film didn’t go into great detail — it mainly covered the dramatic outlines of his outsized life and career.

In a sense, Sinatra’s life was neatly divided into three acts. From the time he was started his singing career at 19, he quickly shot up through the ranks, becoming a superstar in a few short years.

Yet there was a hitch: It all came crashing down in his thirties, when his marriage to Ava Gardner fell apart just as his popularity and his career started to tank. In the sad second act, the once golden boy was now on the outside looking in.

But ever ambitious, Sinatra set about rebuilding his career. He created a third act for himself by systematically reinventing his legend, first as a serious actor in Hollywood movies, then as a wildly successful nightclub entertainer and entrepreneur.

But this was not at all the same Frank Sinatra. He was now older, heavier, more guarded, more in control. His focus this time was on building an unassailable power base, creating a fast empire under his command, and entering the corridors of power, from Hollywood to Las Vegas to Washington. He now demanded unquestioning loyalty from those around him, and could be ruthless when he sensed that loyalty wavering.

So here we have a man in three parts: The sweet gangly younth, fresh faced and honored as a wunderkind, then the exile to the wilderness, and finally the grizzled older warrior, powerful in his reach, dangerous when crossed. He is still charming, but now with an unmistakeable hint of menace just below the shiny surface.

One thing that strikes me about this narrative arc is how well it also describes the life story of Steve Jobs. Which makes me wonder, is this a common pattern?

Summer cold

Suddenly out of nowhere, on a beautiful warm New York day in June, I am felled by a summer cold. Just like that. I feel so oxymoronic.

It’s probably my body’s delayed reaction to my refusal to take things more slowly after the stress of international travel. A kind of biological work slowdown, the employee’s union of my system sending a stern warning to management about unfair conditions on the job.

In any case, war has clearly been declared, and that war is being fought with yours truly as the battle zone. No sense in fighting it. All I can do now is get plenty of sleep and drink plenty of water.

Which is probably what I should have done before I ever got this summer cold.

Go-to TV series

For the last two days I’ve been talking about go-to movies. I mean the kind of movie you enjoy so much that you have watched it over and over, to the point where you no longer have any idea how many times you have seen it.

TV series are different, because they are longer. In the U.S., a successful television series lasts about seven seasons — enough time for the network to accumulate enough episodes for syndication. After that the show lives on in a sort of perpetual twilight afterlife of reruns and rentals.

Which leads me to today’s topic.

I am now in my seventeenth year of watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That is, I have viewed the entire series, all seven seasons, twice through, and am now on my third time around.

So at the moment I am once again in season three — for the third time.

I suppose you could say that for me Buffy is a go-to TV series. At what point, I wonder, does that become true. Is it after the first time you’ve seen the entire series through, and are now jumping in for your second time around? Or do you need to be watching for at least the third time?

Cinematic fingerprints

Continuing the conversation from yesterday, I love the fact that people have such different go-to movies. The movies listed by others are all films that I’ve seen and greatly admire (except for the french ones, which I hadn’t heard of), but most of them I am not sure I could watch over and over again.

I would think nothing of watching Blade Runner or Casablanca or Mary Poppins on an endless loop, but I don’t think I would be able to sit through It’s a Mad Mad Mad World too many times in any given decade. Which is not at all to say that my tastes are in any sense correct — only that they are my tastes.

How much, I wonder, can each of us be identified with our taste in movies? For example, given a group of people you know, and their respective list of go-to movies, would you be able to match each person to their particular list?

Or to put it another way, do we each have our own unique set of cinematic fingerprints?

My go-to movies

As a medium, a movie is generally thought of as a one-time experience. We listen to favorite songs over and over, but most of us watch a typical film just once.

Which makes it all the more extraordinary when we encounter a film that cries out for repeat viewing. Each of us has our own particular list of what I call “go-to movies” — those films we would happily seen again, and again, at the drop of a hat.

There is a small list of movies that I have seen so many times that I have lost track of the number of times I’ve watched them. The following list is incomplete, but it is representative. Each time I see one of these films, I discover something new:

Annie Hall
Blade Runner
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Citizen Kane
Dr. Strangelove
Mary Poppins
Singin’ in the Rain
The Wizard of Oz

I suspect other people reading this have their own such list. Care to share?

Sad and horrified

I am saddened and horrified by the mass murder yesterday in Orlando. 49 innocent people dead, and 53 more wounded, because of something that is becoming frighteningly common in the U.S.: A madman bought a high powered military-style assault rifle and then used it.

I suppose I could use this space to talk about the NRA, but what would be the point? The horror of easy access to such high powered weaponry speaks for itself.

Yesterday was a terrible tragedy for those poor people and their families. My heart goes out to them.

And our continuing inability to have a sane conversation about these kinds of weapons is a terrible tragedy for our country.


I was attending a talk the other day, and at some point the speaker quoted Alfred Hitchcock:

“Drama is life with the dull bits taken out.”

I loved this quote, but was curious to understand the full context. So I went back to the original 1960 BBC interview. Excerpted from that interview, here is a fuller version of what he said:

“Life is more sensational. How does one describe drama? … Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.”

Hitchcock’s thought, as I had hoped, was more complex than the simple version one usually hears. Seeing the full interview now, I get the sense that Hitchcock wasn’t merely trying to present entertaining fantasies.

Rather, he was trying to create films that reflected essential truths about life. Of course, given the limitations of his chosen medium, he needed to reduce life to its poorer cousin — drama.

Programming in Arabic

At the Games for Change Europe conference this week here in Paris I learned that there are three things young kids in refugee camps say they are really excited about: (1) Learning English, (2) Making and sending videos on their mobile phones, and (3) Learning to program.

During a workshop at the conference, we talked about ways to make learning to program more accessible to those kids. Practically speaking, we figured it needs to be in on phones (which suggests using some sort of blocks language), and it needs to be in Arabic, since in the camps computers are scarce but SmartPhones are ubiquitous, and a lot more kids speak Arabic than English.

To get the conversation started, I sketched out a simple computer program, just to show the non-programmers in the room how simple programming can be. It’s a program that will be very familiar to some of you reading this blog.

The colleague I wrote about yesterday then translated it into Arabic. Here is what she came up with:

Other than the right-to-left ordering and the change in keywords, it’s very similar to the program I had sketched out. One thing she didn’t need to change was the use of Arabic numerals. 🙂

A good programmer who knows English but not Arabic should be able to figure out what this program computes. Can you?