Midnight in Paris at midnight in Paris

(Warning: may contain spoilers)

I’m writing this around midnight, in Paris. I just saw “Midnight in Paris”, and now, at midnight (in Paris) I have to say that “Midnight in Paris” is no midnight in Paris.

It was funny, and clever, and beautifully shot, and filled with little bits of historical asides and knowing inside references.

But I remember a time when Woody Allen lived in a better universe, where there existed other beings beside himself, a world inhabited by exciting characters, like Annie Hall, who could challenge and thrill us (and him) with their beautifully imperfect and achingly rendered humanity.

“Paris at Midnight” has none of this. It seems to be about a man engaged to a one dimensional cartoon character, who suddenly finds himself plunged into a world where all of his heroes have turned into one dimensional cartoon characters, where he meets a female version of himself who also turns out to be a cartoon character.

In the end he is saved (apparently) because he falls in love with a Barbie doll.

Woody used to be better than this.

Soup du jour

I was trying to explain some of the subtleties of New York culture to my Scottish friends today, and I found myself reminiscing about the old Empire Diner — a restaurant in Manhattan, now sadly closed, whose boldly retro decor, delightful drink menu and general sense of style quoted the old diners from the 1950s all with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

In particular I fondly recalled how the menu had a listing for “Soup of the Day” (for $3.00), as well as a listing for “Soup du Jour” (for $3.50). No matter which one you ordered, you would get exactly the same dish.

It was a fair exchange of value, in a typically New York way: The restaurant was quite happy to give you the option of ordering in french, and equally happy to charge you the extra 50 cents for the privilege of having done so.

Such problems

This evening, on a visit to some friends in Scotland, dinner table conversation turned to Prince William’s recent marriage (a popular subject here). I was told that a number of young women in the upper classes have been giving rather catty interviews to the Press, talking down Kate Middleton in a most undignified way. Clearly they were miffed that His Royal Highness had opted to marry a commoner, when there were so many eligible young ladies from titled families to choose from.

Next our conversation turned to his father, Prince Charles. I was told that many people in the U.K. have still not forgiven the Prince of Wales for marrying Diana, after it came out that he had actually been in love with Camilla Parker Bowles the whole time.

So here we have Prince Charles being criticized because he did not marry for love, and Prince William being criticized because he did. So no matter what you do when you’re a prince, it seems that people are going to get upset at you.

It must be tough being in line to the throne of England. I am so glad I don’t have such problems. 🙂

Making waves

Yesterday as part of a Kinect-based music project with some friends I started diving into the Java programming library that lets you directly create your own sounds, by building the signal yourself.

So I found myself really down in the wonderful low level playground where a little bit of computer programming lets me directly create vibrato (there are two kinds!), harmonics, pitch slide, echo, formants (for making vowel sounds) and all the other cool musical things our ears can hear.

This part is all just laying paint. The really interesting and fun part is when we start to make musical instruments out of all this, by using the Kinect to watch what your hands and fingers are doing, and try to create a really expressive and nicely controllable result.

We’ve already decided it’s not going to be all “waving your hands in the air”. Except for the Theremin, musical instruments usually involve touching something solid, and people are good at that. So in some ways it’s going to have things in common with the finger painting program I talked about recently.

Except of course that the thing we’ll be painting is music. 🙂

Michael Nesmith

I spent a significant amount of time this evening happily wandering the web learning about the completely fascinating life and career of Michael Nesmith.

It’s not a story that anybody would believe, if it didn’t happen to be true. From having a mom who invented “Liquid Paper” to the highly visible turn in a certain insanely iconic TV musical group, to writing songs so canonical they seem to have always existed (such as “Different Drum”), to effectively inventing what we now know as the television music video, to building a second career holding conferences in which world leaders are invited to solve global problems, this is a man who has written his own rules in a way that inspires us all.

In a way I love the fact that Mike Nesmith, for all his genius, is not a household word like Elvis, or Marilyn, or Sinatra. Nesmith is one of those figures you need to dig to find all about — some assembly is definitely required — which makes him more than a mere pop star, but rather a sort of stealth icon.

We need more of those. And in our better moments, we even deserve them.

Émile Zola

I am staying with good friends here in Paris on the Avenue Émile Zola in the 15th arrondissement. Over dinner the other evening with another friend, I remarked how odd it is, given that Zola was such a seminal literary figure, that in America he is hardly known. And for those few Americans who do recognize his name, most know him for only one phrase — “J’accuse…!”

“Yes,” Henri replied sardonically, “Zola is known as the frenchman who defended the Jew.” At which point I couldn’t resist pointing out that Dreyfus was not the only Jew defended by the french. “Who else?” Henri asked. I had my answer ready. “Why, Jerry Lewis and Woody Allen, of course.”

By an odd coincidence, this afternoon on the metro I overheard a family of Chinese tourists. The teenage daughter had spotted Zola’s name on some signage (“Avenue Émile Zola” is the name of a metro stop on the 10 line), and she was eager to show off her knowledge of french culture. “Émile Zola,” she explained to them, switching for effect from Mandarin into English, “was a journalist.”


Last night a friend turned me on to this astonishing recording. I had always assumed that the Eagles’ version of their song “Desperado” was definitive — the sine qua non of the idea of sad and beautiful “broken romance”.

But then, yesterday, my friend told me about Karen Carpenter’s version. Yes, I know — the Carpenters are not cool. According to the conventional pop-culture wisdom, there is no excuse for liking or appreciating them, blah, blah, blah.

But just listen to what Karen Carpenter does with this — the sadness, the sense of loss, the life never lived. If you can make it all the way through her rendition of this song without feeling the tragedy of missed connections, of life envisioned but somehow never realized, then there is something seriously wrong with you.


In yet another of those seemingly endless nature-versus-nurture discussions about “are boys and girls really inherently different, or do we just teach them to be?” my sister-in-law, who has the experience of having raised three boys, provided what may be definite evidence in the debate.

She told me that, having compared notes with her friends who raised girls, there is a very telling similarity, and an even more telling difference.

The similarity is that whether you walk into a bathroom shared by daughters or a bathroom shared by sons, you find the bathtub or shower overrun by a vast variety of shampoo bottles.

The difference is that in the girls’ bathroom all the shampoo bottles have shampoo in them. In the boy’s bathroom they are all empty.

Travel market

I often feel anxious when I need to book a flight in advance. What if it turns out I need to arrive a day earlier or a day later? Or I need change my return date by a day?

In the current system you have only two travel options: (1) Lock in a precise flight to get a discounted fare, or (2) pay the far greater full fare, for maximum flexibility. If you chose the first option and then change your flight, the change fee can be significant (generally around $150 in the US).

It seems to me that the needs of travelers would be far better served by reorganizing all of this into a “travel market”. An airline could provide a time window for travel. You are guaranteed a seat on your original flight, but you then have an option to change your travel date by a day or two.

The airline could set up a marketplace for seat-swapping, paying a modest rebate to flyers who are happy to switch to flights that are less full, while charging a most fee (eg: $10 for shifting by one day, $20 for shifting by two days) for flyers who wish to switch to fuller flights that have available seats. A web site could provide travelers with the updated cash “value” of any available flight, which could turn out to be either positive or negative, depending on how full each flight is.

An airline that offers this kind of inexpensive flexibility would be very popular — travelers could get the economy of booking in advance, without the anxiety of being locked in to a specific flight.

Two or more airlines could even cooperate to create a shared market, offering seat swaps between their respective flights, thereby better balancing the aggregate load.

Everybody wins.